An Outcast/Chapter XXXVIII
On taking leave of her father, Maria, her heart overburdened with grief, and her mind abstracted, turned towards the Battery, and continued, slowly and sadly, until she found herself seated beneath a tree, looking out upon the calm bay. Here, scarce conscious of those who were observing her in their sallies, she mused until dusky evening, when the air seemed hushed, and the busy hum of day was dying away in the distance. The dark woodland on the opposite bank gave a bold border to the soft picture; the ships rode sluggishly upon the polished waters; the negro's touching song echoed and re-echoed along the shore; and the boatman's chorus broke upon the stilly air in strains so dulcet. And as the mellow shadows of night stole over the scene—as the heavens looked down in all their sereneness, and the stars shone out, and twinkled, and laughed, and danced upon the blue waters, and coquetted with the moonbeams—for the moon was up, and shedding a halo of mystic light over the scene—making night merry, nature seemed speaking to Maria in words of condolence. Her heart was touched, her spirits gained strength, her soul seemed in a loftier and purer atmosphere.
"Poor, but virtuous—virtue ennobles the poor. Once gone, the world never gives it back!" she muses, and is awakened from her reverie by a sweet, sympathizing voice, whispering in her ear. "Woman! you are in trouble,—linger no longer here, or you will fall into the hands of your enemies." She looks up, and there stands at her side a young female, whose beauty the angels might envy. The figure came upon her so suddenly that she hesitates for a reply to the admonition.
"Take this, it will do something toward relieving your wants (do not open it now), and with this (she places a stiletto in her hand) you can strike down the one who attempts your virtue. Nay, remember that while you cling to that, you are safe—lose it, and you are gone forever. Your troubles will soon end; mine are for a life-time. Yours find a relaxation in your innocence; mine is seared into my heart with my own shame. It is guilt—shame! that infuses into the heart that poison, for which years of rectitude afford no antidote. Go quickly—get from this lone place! You are richer than me." She slips something into Maria's hand, and suddenly disappears.
Maria rises from her seat, intending to follow the stranger, but she is out of sight. Who can this mysterious messenger, this beautiful stranger be? Maria muses. A thought flashes across her mind; it is she who sought our house at midnight, when my father revealed her dark future! "Yes," she says to herself, "it is the same lovely face; how oft it has flitted in my fancy!"
She reaches her home only to find its doors closed against her. A ruthless landlord has taken her all, and forced her into the street.
You may shut out the sterner sex without involving character or inviting insult; but with woman the case is very different. However pure her character, to turn her into the street, is to subject her to a stigma, if not to fasten upon her a disgrace. You may paint, in your imagination, the picture of a woman in distress, but you can know little of the heart-achings of the sufferer. The surface only reflects the faint gleams, standing out here and there like the lesser objects upon a dark canvas.
Maria turns reluctantly from that home of so many happy associations, to wander about the streets and by-ways of the city. The houses of the rich seem frowning upon her; her timid nature tells her they have no doors open to her. The haunts of the poor, at this moment, infuse a sanguine joyousness into her soul. How glad would she be, if they did but open to her. Is not the Allwise, through the beauties of His works, holding her up, while man only is struggling to pull her down?
And while Maria wanders homeless about the streets of Charleston, we must beg you, gentle reader, to accompany us into one of the great thoroughfares of London, where is being enacted a scene appertaining to this history.
It is well-nigh midnight, the hour when young London is most astir in his favorite haunts; when ragged and well-starved flower-girls, issuing from no one knows where, beset your path through Trafalgar and Liecester squares, and pierce your heart with their pleadings; when the Casinoes of the Haymarket and Picadilly are vomiting into the streets their frail but richly-dressed women; when gaudy supper-rooms, reeking of lobster and bad liquor, are made noisy with the demands of their flauntily-dressed customers; when little girls of thirteen are dodging in and out of mysterious courts and passages leading to and from Liecester square; when wily cabmen, ranged around the "great globe," importune you for a last fare; and when the aristocratic swell, with hectic face and maudlin laugh, saunters from his club-room to seek excitement in the revels at Vauxhall.
A brown mist hangs over the dull area of Trafalgar square. The bells of old St. Martin's church have chimed merrily out their last night peal; the sharp voice of the omnibus conductor no longer offends the ear; the tiny little fountains have ceased to give out their green water; and the lights of the Union Club on one side, and Morley's hotel on the other, throw pale shadows into the open square.
The solitary figure of a man, dressed in the garb of a gentleman, is seen sauntering past Northumberland house, then up the east side of the square. Now he halts at the corner of old St. Martin's church, turns and contemplates the scene before him. On his right is that squatty mass of freestone and smoke, Englishmen exultingly call the Royal Academy, but which Frenchmen affect contempt for, and uninitiated Americans mistake for a tomb. An equestrian statue of one of the Georges rises at the east corner; Morley's Hotel, where Americans get poor fare and enormous charges, with the privilege of fancying themselves quite as good as the queen, on the left; the dead walls of Northumberland House, with their prisonlike aspect, and the mounted lion, his tail high in air, and quite as rigid as the Duke's dignity, in front; the opening that terminates the Strand, and gives place to Parliament street, at the head of which an equestrian statue of Charles the First, much admired by Englishmen, stands, his back on Westminster; the dingy shops of Spring Garden, and the Union Club to the right; and, towering high over all, Nelson's Column, the statue looking as if it had turned its back in pity on the little fountains, to look with contempt, first upon the bronze face of the unfortunate Charles, then upon Parliament, whose parsimony in withholding justice from his daughter, he would rebuke—and the picture is complete.
The stranger turns, walks slowly past the steps of St. Martin's church, crosses to the opposite side of the street, and enters a narrow, wet, and dimly-lighted court, on the left. Having passed up a few paces, he finds himself hemmed in between the dead walls of St. Martin's "Work-house" on one side, and the Royal Academy on the other. He hesitates between fear and curiosity. The dull, sombre aspect of the court is indeed enough to excite the fears of the timid; but curiosity being the stronger impulse, he proceeds, resolved to explore it—to see whence it leads.
A short turn to the right, and he has reached the front wall of the Queen's Barracks, on his left, and the entrance to the "Work-house," on his right; the one overlooking the other, and separated by a narrow street. Leave men are seen reluctantly returning in at the night-gate; the dull tramp of the sentinel within sounds ominously on the still air; and the chilly atmosphere steals into the system. Again the stranger pauses, as if questioning the safety of his position. Suddenly a low moan grates upon his ear, he starts back, then listens. Again it rises, in a sad wail, and pierces his very heart. His first thought is, that some tortured mortal is bemoaning his bruises in a cell of the "Work-house," which he mistakes for a prison. But his eyes fall to the ground, and his apprehensions are dispelled.
The doors of the "Work-house" are fast closed; but there, huddled along the cold pavement, and lying crouched upon its doorsteps, in heaps that resemble the gatherings of a rag-seller, are four-and-thirty shivering, famishing, and homeless human beings— (mostly young girls and aged women), who have sought at this "institution of charity" shelter for the night, and bread to appease their hunger. Alas! its ruthless keepers have refused them bread, shut them into the street, and left them in rags scarce sufficient to cover their nakedness, to sleep upon the cold stones, a mute but terrible rebuke to those hearts that bleed over the sorrows of Africa, but have no blood to give out when the object of pity is a poor, heart-sick girl, forced to make the cold pavement her bed. The stranger shudders. "Are these heaps of human beings?" he questions within himself, doubting the reality before him. As if counting and hesitating what course to pursue for their relief, he paces up and down the grotesque mass, touching one, and gazing upon the haggard features of another, who looks up to see what it is that disturbs her. Again the low moan breaks on his ear, as the sentinel cries the first hour of morning. The figure of a female, her head resting on one of the steps, moves, a trembling hand steals from under her shawl, makes an effort to reach her head, and falls numb at her side. "Her hand is cold—her breathing like one in death—oh! God!—how terrible—what, what am I to do?" he says, taking the sufferer's hand in his own. Now he rubs it, now raises her head, makes an effort to wake a few of the miserable sleepers, and calls aloud for help. "Help! help! help!" he shouts, and the shout re-echoes through the air and along the hollow court. "A woman is dying,—dying here on the cold stones—with no one to raise a hand for her!" He seizes the exhausted woman in his arms, and with herculean strength rushes up the narrow street, in the hope of finding relief at the Gin Palace he sees at its head, in a blaze of light. But the body is seized with spasms, an hollow, hysteric wail follows, his strength gives way under the burden, and he sets the sufferer down in the shadow of a gas light. Her dress, although worn threadbare, still bears evidence of having belonged to one who has enjoyed comfort, and, perhaps, luxury. Indeed, there is something about the woman which bespeaks her not of the class generally found sleeping on the steps of St. Martin's Work-house.
"What's here to do?" gruffly inquires a policeman, coming up with an air of indifference. The stranger says the woman is dying. The policeman stoops down, lays his hand upon her temples, then mechanically feels her arms and hands.
"And I—must die—die—die in the street," whispers the woman, her head falling carelessly from the policeman's hand, in which it had rested.
"Got her a bit below, at the Work'ouse door, among them wot sleeps there, eh?"
The stranger says he did.
"A common enough thing," pursues the policeman; "this a bad lot. Anyhow, we must give her a tow to the station." He rubs his hands, and prepares to raise her from the ground.
"Hold! hold," interrupts the other, "she will die ere you get her there."
"Die,—ah! yes, yes," whispers the woman. The mention of death seems to have wrung like poison into her very soul. "Don't—don't move me—the spell is almost broken. Oh! how can I die here, a wretch. Yes, I am going now—let me rest, rest, rest," the moaning supplicant mutters in a guttural voice, grasps spasmodically at the policeman's hand, heaves a deep sigh, and sets her eyes fixedly upon the stranger. She seems recognizing in his features something that gives her strength.
"There—there—there!" she continues, incoherently, as a fit of hysterics seize upon her; "you, you, you, have—yes, you have come at the last hour, when my sufferings close. I see devils all about me—haunting me—torturing my very soul—burning me up! See them! see them!—here they come—tearing, worrying me—in a cloud of flame!" She clutches with her hands, her countenance fills with despair, and her body writhes in agony.
"Bring brandy! warm,—stimulant! anything to give her strength! Quick! quick!—go fetch it, or she is gone!" stammers out the stranger.
In another minute she calms away, and sinks exhausted upon the pavement. Policeman shakes his head, and says, "It 'ont do no good—she's done for."
The light of the "Trumpeter's Arms" still blazes into the street, while a few greasy ale-bibbers sit moody about the tap-room.
The two men raise the exhausted woman from the ground and carry her to the door. Mine host of the Trumpeter's Arms shrugs his shoulders and says, "She can't come in here." He fears she will damage the respectability of his house. "The Work-house is the place for her," he continues, gruffly.
A sight at the stranger's well-filled purse, however, and a few shillings slipped into the host's hand, secures his generosity and the woman's admittance. "Indeed," says the host, bowing most servilely, "gentlemen, the whole Trumpeter's Arms is at your service." The woman is carried into a lonely, little back room, and laid upon a cot, which, with two wooden chairs, constitutes its furniture. And while the policeman goes in search of medical aid, the host of the Trumpeter's bestirs himself right manfully in the forthcoming of a stimulant. The stranger, meanwhile, lends himself to the care of the forlorn sufferer with the gentleness of a woman. He smoothes her pillow, arranges her dress tenderly, and administers the stimulant with a hand accustomed to the sick.
A few minutes pass, and the woman seems to revive and brighten up. Mine host has set a light on the chair, at the side of the cot, and left her alone with the stranger. Slowly she opens her eyes, and with increasing anxiety sets them full upon him. Their recognition is mutual. "Madame Flamingo!" ejaculates the man, grasping her hand.
"Tom Swiggs!" exclaims the woman, burying her face for a second, then pressing his hand to her lips, and kissing it with the fondness of a child, as her eyes swim in tears. "How strange to find you thus—" continues Tom, for truly it is he who sits by the forlorn woman.
"More strange," mutters the woman, shaking her head sorrowfully, "that I should be brought to this terrible end. I am dying—I cannot last long—the fever has left me only to die a neglected wretch. Hear me—hear me, while I tell you the tale of my troubles, that others may take warning. And may God give me strength. And you—if I have wronged you, forgive me—it is all I can ask in this world." Here Tom administers another draught of warm brandy and water, the influence of which is soon perceptible in the regaining strength of the patient.
- An institution for the relief of the destitute.
- This sight may be seen at any time.