My earliest distinct remembrances are of a mean and common home in London, in which I lived with my parents and a servant named Fortress. She was a young woman, her age being twenty-four or five, but her manners were as sedate as those of a matron who had a distaste for frivolity and tittle-tattle. She performed her duties quietly and in silence, and seldom spoke unless she were first addressed. She did not take the trouble to render herself agreeable to me, or to win my affection. This was entirely to my liking, as I was of a retired habit of mind and disposition. It was not unusual for weeks to pass without our exchanging a word.
We were surrounded by squalid thoroughfares, the residents in which were persons occupying the lowest stations of life, human bees whose hives were not over stocked with honey, being indeed, I have no doubt, frequently bare of it. This was not the result of indolence, for they toiled early and late. I saw, and observed. Sometimes I wondered, sometimes I despised, and I always shrank from close contact with these sordid conditions of existence. If I had possessed a store of pocket-money it is not unlikely that a portion of it would have been expended in charity, but I will not affirm that I should have been impelled to liberality by motives of benevolence. We were, however, very poor, and my father seldom gave me a penny. I did not complain; I had no wants which money could gratify. I did not consort with other children; I did not play or associate with them; when they made advances towards me I declined to receive them, and I held myself entirely aloof from their pleasures and occupations. In this respect I instinctively followed the fashion of our home and the example of my parents. They had no friends or intimate acquaintances. During the years we lived thus poorly and meanly, not a man, woman, or child ever entered our doors to partake of our hospitality, or to impart what would possibly have been a healthy variety to our days.
Our dwelling consisted of two rooms at the top of a small house. They were attics; in one my mother and Mrs. Fortress slept; in the other my father and I. The bed he and I occupied was shut up during the day, and made an impotent pretence of being a chest of drawers. This room was our living room, and we took our meals in it.
In speaking of our servant as Mrs. Fortress I do not intend to convey that she was a married woman. My impression was that she was single, and I should have scouted the idea of her having a sweetheart; but my parents always spoke of and to her as Mrs. Fortress.
From the window of our living-room I could see, at an angle, a bit of the River Thames. The prospect was gloomy and miserable. There was no touch of gaiety in the sluggish panorama of the life on the water. The men on the barges, working with machine-like movement against the tide, were begrimed and joyless; the people on the penny steamers seemed bent on anything but pleasure; the boys who played about the stranded boats when the tide was low were elfish and mischievous. The land life was in keeping. The backs of other poor houses were scarcely a handshake off. On a sill here and there were a few drooping flowers, typical of the residents in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood. Sometimes as I gazed upon these signs an odd impression stole upon me that we had not always lived in this mean condition. I saw dimly the outlines of a beautiful house, with gardens round it, of horses my parents used to ride, of carriages in which we drove, of many servants to wait upon us. But it was more like a dream than reality, and I made no reference to it in my parents’ hearing, and did not ask them whether my fancies had any substantial foundation.
When I say that a cloud rested upon us, I mean the figure of speech to bear no partial application. It was dark and palpable; it entered into our lives; it shadowed all our days. On more than one occasion I noticed my parents gazing apprehensively at me, and then piteously at each other; and upon their discovering that I was observing them they would force a smile to their lips, and assume a gaiety in which, young as I was, I detected a false ring. My mother did not always take her meals with us; my father and I frequently sat at the table alone.
“Your mother is not well enough to join us,” he would sometimes say to me. If he saw me gazing on the vacant chair.
There were occasions when he and I would go into the country, and I do not remember that my mother ever accompanied us. There would be no preliminary preparation for these trips, nor was it customary for my father to say to me on the morning or the evening before these departures, “We are going into the country to-morrow, Gabriel.” We always seemed to be suddenly called away, and our return was also sudden and, to me, unexpected. These holidays would, in the ordinary course of things, have been joyfully hailed by most poor lads. Not so by me. They were most melancholy affairs, and I was glad to get back from them. My father appeared to be suffering from greater anxiety in the country than in London. The excuse for these sudden departures was that my mother was ill, and needed quiet. We stopped at poor inns, and had no money to spend in junketings.
“I would like to take you to such or such a place,” my father would say, “but I cannot afford it.”
“It does not matter, father,” I would answer. “I should be happy if I only had my books about me.”
It was the being separated from my little library that made the country so irksome to me. I was passionately fond of reading, and my store of literature consisted of books which had belonged to my father, and had been well thumbed by him. They were mine; he had given them to me on my birthday. Of their nature it is sufficient to say here that they were mostly classics, and that among them were very few of a light character.
One morning a ray of light shone through the dark spaces of our lives.
We were sitting at breakfast in our lodgings in London when Mrs. Fortress brought in a letter for my father. It was an unusual event, and my father turned it over leisurely in his hand, and examined the writing on the envelope before he opened it. But his manner changed when he read the letter; he was greatly agitated, and my mother asked anxiously:
“Have you bad news?”
“No,” he replied, “good.”
He was silent for a few moments, and his next words were:
“Mildred, can you bear a shock?”
“Yes,” said my mother, “as the news is good.”
“We are rich once more,” my father said, and then exclaimed, as he gazed around upon the mean walls of our apartment, “Thank God!”
A relative of ours had died in a distant land, and had left his fortune to my father. My father had had no expectations from him, and had, indeed, almost forgotten his existence. The greater was our surprise at this sudden change in our circumstances.
Although there were formalities to be gone through before my father came into possession of the large legacy, and although seven or eight weeks elapsed before we removed from our poor lodgings, the change from poverty to riches was almost immediately apparent. My father presented me with a purse containing money. I do not remember how much, but there were sovereigns in it.
I was not proud; I was not elated. The prospect of living in a better place, with better surroundings, was agreeable to me, but it did not excite me. With my purse in my pocket I went to a shop in which second-hand books were sold, and among them some I desired to possess. I bought what I wished, and carried them away with me. On my way home I noticed a little girl sitting on a doorstep, and there was a wan look in her pale face which attracted me. By her side was a crutch. As I stood looking at her for a moment, the string with which my books were tied became undone, the paper in which they were wrapped burst, and the books fell to the ground. I stooped to pick them up, but the books, being loose and of different sizes, were cumbersome to hold, and I called to the girl that I would give her a shilling if she helped me.
“A shilling!” she exclaimed, and rose upon her feet, but immediately sank to the ground, with a cry of pain.
“What is the matter with you?” I asked. “I haven’t hurt you, have I?”
She pointed to her crutch. Thinking that she wished me to hand it to her, I lifted it from the ground, and found that it was broken.
“You are lame,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, looking at me admiringly from her crouching position; the twitch in her leg had caused her but momentary suffering, “I can’t stand without my crutch, and it’s broke.”
“But you tried to stand when I called to you.”
“Oh, yes; you said you’d give me a shilling, and I didn’t think of my leg.”
Much virtue in a shilling, thought I, to cause one to forget such an affliction.
“I wouldn’t mind buying you a crutch,” I said, “if I knew where they were sold.”
“There’s a shop in the next street,” said the girl, “where the master’s got the feller one to this. It’s a rag and bone shop, and he’ll sell it cheap.”
“I’ll show you the shop, young sir, if you like,” said a voice at my elbow.
The tone and the manner of speech were refined, and it surprised me, therefore, when I turned, to behold a figure strangely at variance with this refinement. The man was in rags, and the drunkard’s stamp was on his features, but in his kind eyes shone a sadly humorous light. Moreover, he spoke as a gentleman would have spoken.
I accepted his offer to show me the rag and bone shop, and we walked side by side, conversing. To be exact, I should say that he talked and I listened, for he used twenty words to one of mine. This kind of social intercourse was rare in my experiences, and it proved interesting, by reason of my chance companion being an exception to the people who lived in the neighbourhood. Few as were the words I uttered, they, and the books I carried under my arm, served to unlock his tongue, and he regaled me with snatches of personal history. He was familiar with the books I had purchased, and expressed approval of my selection. He had, indeed, been born a gentleman, and had received a liberal education.
“Which has served to convince me,” he observed, “that if it is in the nature of a man to swim with the current into which he has drifted or been driven, swim with it he must, wheresoever it may lead him.”
“There is the power of resistance,” I said.
“There is nothing of the sort,” was his comment, “unless it is agreeable to the man to exercise it. We are but straws. It is fortunate that life is short, and that happiness does not consist in wearing a jewelled crown. Young sir, how came you to live in these parts?”
“I do not know,” I replied. “My parents live here.”
“But you are not poor.”
By this time I had bought the odd crutch, and my companion had seen the gold in my purse when I paid for it.
“We have been,” I said, “but are so no longer.”
“Shade of Pluto!” he cried. “If I could but say as much! So, being suddenly made rich, you open your heart to pity’s call?” I shook my head in doubt, and he touched the crutch. “Don’t you think this a fine thing to do?”
“I am not sure,” I said.
“Excellent!” he exclaimed. “Praise me not for my virtues; blame me not for my vices. That morality, in respect to the average man, is a knife that cuts both ways. To sinners like myself it is more comforting than otherwise.”
He puzzled me, and I told him so, but he made a pretence of disbelieving me, and said,
“There are depths in you, young sir. You may live to discover that you are in the wrong century.”
That I did not clearly understand him did not render his conversation less interesting. I gave the girl the crutch and a shilling, and left her and the man together.
I record this incident because it is the only one I remember during the time we lived in that poor neighbourhood in which strangers played a part. So far as my outer life was concerned, it was utterly devoid of colour.
Categories: English Literature