Dorothea Slade.

Gutter-babies online

. (page 7 of 14)
Online LibraryDorothea SladeGutter-babies → online text (page 7 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Meanwhile I hung myself out of the window
and watched the busy traffic of the Gutter-

Opposite me, like a great hive, was a three-
storeyed building secreting in its self-contained
capacity six little overpopulated two-roomed

A dull, prosaic Gutter Castle it appeared,
high and straight, with two windows and a
little one on each storey, varied on the
ground floor by a heavy door flung wide with



invitation, disclosing a splash of red tiles
and an oak staircase within. In its crude
innocence of romance and suggestion it was
loyally typical of the superficial semblance
of commonplace monotony which shelters
from publicity the tragic heart of Gutter-
garten. And yet that Gutter Castle door, as
it swings backwards and forwards in the sun-
shine, is scratched all over with many of the
great names of Guttergarten, and up and
down those steep and narrow stairs the Gut-
ter Parson has hunted many priceless souls.
There sometime the famous Twins had ar-
rived, in the days before Prosperity had driven
the family into another atmosphere. There,
too, behind the top window left, the death-
less tragedy of the two Lizzies was being
dragged out. And there in the son-in-law's
home the Ghastly Playmate had celebrated
his mysteries and the Grandmother had been
carried out.

Within that grim Gutter Castle even now
women hugged dreadful secrets, and from it
men went out into the night for strange
crimes. There had wandered, prying, many


The Crown of Thorns

an inquisitive little soul to be hurried into the
pain and punishment, the uttermost woe of
Gutter Birth.

; All round about within its shadow small
shops have been ruined and hastily vacated
and picturesque hovels picked to pieces,
giving up their dry bones and leaving Gutter-
babies and rats homeless.

But the Gutter Castle remains, stern
against the caprice of progress and decay,
and guards in secret its tender memories of
human tears and wreckage.

Presently the elder Lizzie threw up her
window and hung three parts of her anatomy
outside it. It was between school-hours, and
the children of all the homes in the street
seemed to be tossing buttons and quarrelling
with each other below.

"Bring yerself in before I kills yer!" she
called to the bootless Teddy, who was occupied
in playing prisoners, and was at that moment
in the act of being strapped down, and hoisted
insecurely upon a miniature ambulance.

Suddenly, catching my wandering eye, she
sustained an obvious shock.



"My! Miss, yer fair frit me!" she observed.
"But they may as well 'ave a dinner whiles
they can get it, there won't be any for none
of us next week!"

In the road between us a woman stopped,
open-mouthed and greedily intelligent.

"Ain't yer man finishin' up on Saturday,
Mrs. Sly?" she shouted up at us. But only
the silence of Lizzie's sarcasm floated down
to her from the upper world.

It was Mrs. Kirby, with a dull afternoon
before her at the laundry: it would have been
greatly cheered by that little gleaning of
gossip about the elder Lizzie, and the prospect
of passing it on to her mates, but she went
away disappointed.

" Nosey old Parker, ain't 'er now? " shouted
Lizzie to her retreating back; "I guess my
children '11 'ave new clothes, boots, and all
afore yours then, you cat! Calls 'erself a

Below, Teddy had taken up the defence of
the family honour, and was viciously tor-
menting the confused Kirby.

"Old Sally Witch, Old Sally Witch!" he

The Crown of Thorns

shrieked after her, in tones of meaningless
and piercing monotony.

On the ground floor, Mrs. Jones, with her
nerves harassed and unstrung in the supreme
effort of feeding her numerous consumptive
family, who were even more "finnicky" and
"nice" over their scanty fare than usual,
became suddenly exasperated.

With heated countenance and bare red
arms, she rushed out upon the surprised
Teddy in his valiant enterprise, and smacked
his face for him. "Yer owdacious little
'ound," she cried between her blows; "stop
yer mouth with one of them!"

But Teddy's disfigured mouth was not to
be permanently so subdued; squeals of pain
and indignation soon drew forth the elder
Lizzie's energetic head again upon the scene,
and huge consternation seized us all. For the
utterly Unforgivable, the Gutter Impossi-
ble had happened, and we were petrified.
Mrs. Jones had "paid" another woman's
Gutter-baby. Within the withered bosom of
the elder Lizzie, which had never at any time
been able substantially to satisfy one of her


wailing babies, Primitive Idea was struggling
but feebly. Lizzie's Man was at home swear-
ing, the soup began to smell burnt, and the
younger Lizzie had not yet come in. But
Gutter Maternity had been outraged, the
situation screamed for the fury of righteous
violence, and the elder Lizzie bravely rose for
the cause, and worked up her feeble constitu-
tion to meet the demand.

From that upper window she gave us an
adequately disgusting exhibition of feminine
ferocity. She spat and swore and stormed
herself into exhaustion. "Not that 'e don't
deserve it," she finished, "that I won't deny,
but 'oo touches any child of mine does it over
my dead body!"

Teddy had begun to see humour in his
mother's eloquence.

"Votes for women!" he said, winking dis-
loyally in my direction.

For Mrs. Jones there was no way out ex-
cept by denial.

"Yer lyin' devil, ooer! yer miserable little
'ound! yer wicked cat, yer, sayin* as 'ow I
touched yer dirty face! I would n't soil one


The Crown of Thorns

of me fingers with 'im, Mrs. Sly! Of course,
if yer goin' ter listen ter wot 'e ses, I may as
well as go hin-side! The lyin' brat. Only
fancy! sayin' as 'ow I soiled me finger on 'im,
the wicked cat!"

"Oh, well, Mrs. Jones," said the elder
Lizzie, who had accomplished her duty, and
was over- weary already of the argument, and
anxious to be pacified, "if yer did n't 'it 'im,
there's no more ter be said, but next time 'e
don't b'ave isself, me and 'is dadda prefers
ter 'it 'im ourselves, Mrs. Jones!"

The tremendous episode was closed, but
as Mrs. Jones swept past Teddy into retire-
ment, she waved a threatening fist in his

"I'll knock the bloomin' 'ead off of you!"
she promised him.

The screams of Teddy, after he had arrived
at the top floor, told us that he was already
being "lawfully paid" for making a disturb-
ance. By this time Blanchie's eager legs were
bearing the dinners round the corner.

"Pork, Miss. 'As there been a row?" she
asked, as she dished up. We began to eat.


"Sad news I 'card, Miss; Johnny's comin' in
presently ter tell you all about it like, so don't
be knowing; I said as 'ow I would n't tell yer;
but Bess she's been told not ter come to
school, and she's no mother, and 'er daft and
all, shame I calls it, don't you, Miss?
Ain't this pork er treat?"

Johnny came in a little later with his dread-
ful news. There was no doubt about it. Our
Bess had been condemned. "Governess"
wept, and Johnny and Company were rude
about it, and the rest of us fussed and ap-
pealed to authorities and aggravated speeches
and Committee meetings. But it was no use
at all. London had spoken, our Bess was
ineducable, she was not anybody's affair.
There was a lethal chamber for little impos-
sible dogs ; perhaps some day . . . ? But (of
course it was a pity) no place could be found
in the whole scheme of Guttergarten for the
super-special Gutter-baby.

We made such a fuss that at last we roused
the Gutter Parson, who did not generally
distinguish much between common Gutter-
garten babies and Specials.

The Crown of Thorns

"You see they all have souls, have n't they,

He came to see the super-special Gutter-
baby with a handful of sticky sweets and a
queer little fur animal, which he called a
"Billy Possum," sticking out of his pocket.
Bess understood his attentions perfectly well.
Here at last was a human being who talked
her language. She sucked the sweets and
rolled on the floor with the "Billy Possum"
and chattered inarticulately to the Guest.
Afterwards we all wanted to know the Gutter
Parson's opinion of the case of the super-
special Gutter-baby.

"Well, dear," he began, smoothing out his
cassock, and lighting his pipe for a chat, " the
visit, I think, was a great success, on the

But had he nothing to contribute to the
enormous variety of opinion and suggestion
that had gathered round the complex prob-
lem of our Bess?

Surely he had some hint of an idea to give
us in this complicated crisis?

"Well, dear," he ventured at last, after


much persuasion, " I certainly think it is very
awkward that the little one has no mother."

It seemed an obvious conclusion to have
arrived at after all our fuss and energy, and
he himself seemed innocently pleased with
it. It is little to be wondered at that, just
then, we were really disappointed in our Gut-
ter Parson.

But he was always so immensely practical
in his conclusions. He went on just telling us
all what a pity it was that our Bess had no
mother, until at last he found someone with a
little money who agreed with him. I do not
suppose that the Gutter Parson has solved
the riddle of the super-special Gutter-babies,
but there is at least one little home now in
Guttergarten where they can find a nursery
for their temporary needs, until their glorious
destiny unfolds itself to them. For, as the
Gutter Parson says, "We may hope great
things for them in the Future, since we are
not all privileged to wear the Thorns here!"


" At Home " in Gutter gar ten

PLEASE, Miss, would it suit yer fer
me ter come up just now?"
It was the voice of the Twins' Mo-
ther, who stood in the sunshine under my
window and sought admittance.

I pushed a friendly head out over the win-
dow ledge, and shouted down an invitation.
But my visitor had already been engaged in
conversation by the Strange Person next
door, and so, having a few minutes at least
to wait, I turned my attention upon the Gut-
ter Castle opposite. There in the top storey
I noticed the enquiring nose of the elder
Lizzie thrust between the lace curtains, and
below in the yard I observed Teddy warning
the alarmed Alfie of his Mother's proximity,
and helping him to climb into the giant dust-
bin, where he crushed down the lid upon his
yellow head.

But there was a pause in the animated


volley of questions from the next-door win-
dow, and once again the voice of the Twins'
Mother addressed me,

"Did yer shout, Miss?"

I had seen a barrel-organ, wheeling round
the corner at the top of the street, and as it
set up its merry tune and gathered the
Gutter-babies quickly into an admiring ring,
I began to speculate upon the mental agony
of Alfie in his insanitary prison-house.

" Did yer cry, Miss? " called the voice from
below again, anxious for admittance.

"Oh, yes, come up, please, Mrs. Ball!"

And she came, panting heavily up the nar-
row stairs. She sat down nervously on the
extreme edge of the wooden chair, which I
was careful to wipe for her with the true
hospitality and courtesy of the Gutter Host-
ess, and looked round her curiously. What
the good lady saw appeared in some mysteri-
ous way to discomfort her exceedingly, for
she became gradually less and less at her ease
and more and more reserved about the real
object of her visit.

The Twins' Mother was obviously far too

" At Home " in Guttergarten

respectable to be a real friend to us, and I
watched her growing embarrassment with
honest concern as she sat before me, preten-
tious and self-conscious and a little too vul-
garly fat.

"Ain't it a warm dy?" she began, after an
awkward pause, during which we had both of
us searched our vocabulary wildly for some-
thing appropriate and worthy of the tremen-
dous occasion. It was a relief to have found
a topic, and we both clung to it with mutual

" Yer feels it, I sh'd think, don't yer, Miss?
I can't abear these 'ere mucky little flats
meself . I 'm sure I Ve often said to Blanchie
as 'ow I don't know as 'ow you can stop in
the street for a 'our, and I tells Alfie if I
catches 'e a-playin' 'ere, I '11 give 'e somethink,
and 'is father, too!"

Her attention was fortunately quite en-
tirely occupied by the uncongenial circum-
stances in which she found herself now un-
pleasantly fixed. But outside, in the asphalt
court of the Gutter Castle, a miserable little
figure had just emerged cautiously from its



hiding-place, and stood like a forlorn and
hunted little rabbit while Teddy busily
picked a large portion of the contents of the
giant dust-bin out of its fluffy hair. In "Our
Set" we had often despised Alfie and longed
to get at his effeminate taste with a pair of
scissors, but just now I felt in my heart only
the tenderest pity for him, which increased
as his mother continued to protract her visit.

And still I remained in complete ignorance
as to what I owed the pleasure of her com-

At last the Twins' Mother, with a severe
rheumatic twinge, rose from her chair and
prepared to make her departure. That great
psychological moment had at last arrived for
which we had been working up our emotions
during the whole of the constrained interview.
Mrs. Ball must now speak and I must hear.
Beads of perspiration gathered among the
worried lines on her brow; she fidgetted nerv-
ously with her satin bonnet-strings, and at
last began :

"Seein' as 'ow you 'pears to 'ave took er
fancy to our Blanchie, Miss, me and Mr.


" At Home " in Guttergarten

Ball was a-thinkin* together as 'ow it might
be just as well if you 'ad 'er altogether. The
father 'e don't py nothink fer 'er now, come
this two year, and we was thinkin' as 'ow you
might make a little out of 'er; she do earn,
but not near so much now as she should, and
it don't py us to 'ave 'er, not by no means.
She won't turn out no credit neither; she's
got a bad mother to 'er and all, and me and
Mr. Ball, of course, as you'll understand,
Miss, we 'as ter think of our connection!"

It was out at last, and, after all, just then
it did not seem such a tremendous proposi-
tion. Beneath the gross impertinence of the
scheme there lurked probably some generous
and affectionate ambition for the Art-nurs-
ling, who must always have been an impossi-
ble duckling in the baby farm of the Twins'
Mother. But it was the aggressive pathos of
the situation that really conquered and be-
wildered me.

In Guttergarten there is a certain preten-
tious portion of the lower middle class which
besieges one's sympathy and literally clam-
ours for consideration. There are tremendous



odds against one in dealing with a person so
intensely and extravagantly pathetic as Mrs.
Ball. One never dares to pity the tragic
figure of the homeless Gutter hero, who in
spite of his rags and poverty yet manages to
preserve in every crisis the gracious and
almost condescending dignity of the splendid
appeal of Guttergarten. I am persuaded that
it was the pathetic respectability of Mrs. Ball
that overcame me.

The patient struggles of Ragged Molly the
Poetess, the confessions of Special Johnny,
the fateful career of the two Lizzies in the
Gutter Castle, could not have moved me so
completely as this episode with the Twins'
Mother. A long experience has taught me
to look out over the writhing anguished pic-
ture of Guttergarten with cold eyes and cyn-
ical unconcern, but Mrs. Ball with a headache
or an unprofitable nurse child was completely
disarming. It is most unfair to the British
Public that they should be exposed to the
inconvenient attacks of such incurably pa-
thetic maniacs.

I even found myself hanging out of the

At Home " in Guttergarten

window again, to supervise her safe retreat
as far as the corner, so thoroughly were my
deepest sympathies aroused. I had vague
fears that one of those heavy milk drays, with
their clanging cargo of empty cans, might
swing round the corner, as they often do, and
interrupt her homeward journey.

It was with an exquisite sense of comfort
that I saw her at last, in spite of her pathetic
breeding, turn in at the "Blue Star." As I
hung there above the eternal Game of Gut-
tergarten, the Strange Woman next door
stuck out a head.

"EveninY' she said, and I politely re-
peated the word after her. I knew that she
was a Strange Woman. I knew also that she
would make suspicious and enterprising little
dives into the Psychic Me, to search there for
any kinship with her own Strange Sisterhood.
And yet I hung on there, like a huge human
porcupine covered with self-righteous bris-
tles, where her poor soul might sting and flay

"Ain't this er Nole ter live in, darlin' ?"
she began.



I explained cautiously, with due consider-
ation of the shock which I might be inflicting,
that it was my unswerving loyalty and devo-
tion to the "Nole" which held me glued and
fascinated in the deep of it.

"Well, I suppose yer keeps yerself ter yer-
self, anyways, don't cher?"

Below us Blanchie, with a new air of home-
liness, was playing Johnny "up the line" on
my doorstep.

"Ain't yer respectable, then?" went on
the Strange One.

I indignantly denied the abominable

"I'm comin* in ter call on yer, me dear,"
announced the Strange Woman, and with-
drew her head.

I sent Blanchie on an errand, and waited
nervously. Up my stairs came the heavy
uncertain tread of the Stranger, and ceased
suddenly. In the silence that followed I
heard a shuddering sob, and looking out
observed the situation.

On the wall over the tiny twisting staircase
hung a cheap Crucifix, and below, reeling


The Strange Woman lurched against the bannisters 1

" At Home " in Guttergarten

against the painted banisters, scarcely sober,
lurched the Strange Woman with her tears.
And even as I watched and wondered what it
meant, she drew herself together and crept
away into a more familiar atmosphere with
shaking shoulders, and Heaven only knows
what misery in her heart.


The Elder Lizzie

SCABBY 'ead, yer lousy !"
" I ain't; lousy yerself."
"Git out of it!"

" I '11 gob in yer eye take that! "
Over the way, in the asphalt court of the
Gutter Castle, two of the little wild people
were quarrelling on the new green seats
which the London County Council have
this summer generously placed at their dis-

I was in time to see Blanchie carry out her
unpleasant threat very efficaciously. But I
had by this time suffered some sharp experi-
ences in the rearing of Gutter-babies, and this
one should know what was best for herself.
I did not, therefore, interfere in their little
differences. It was certainly not my fault that
Blanchie had left off her stockings temporar-
ily and was wearing a rusty jersey over her
scrappy petticoats. The pose of her slim

1 66

The Elder Lizzie

bare ankles, and the naughty mischief in her
face veiled under a web of tangled black hair,
innocent just now of curls and ribbons, was
still oddly suggestive of the Music Halls.
And yet one felt that the Art Angel might
have wisely withdrawn into his Heaven while
the Nursling was in the safe-keeping of Special

She had been minding the elder Lizzie's
baby for a penny this afternoon, and during
the whole of that fierce dialogue had held it
clasped tenderly in her thin arms against her
narrow childish bosom, and hushed its bitter
weeping with frequent pseudo-maternal
caresses. The elder Lizzie was exceptionally
busy. It was her turn in the wash-house, and
from time to time I caught a glimpse of her
worried figure flitting through the yard, often
loaded with the eccentric fuel of rotten boots
and miscellaneous de'bris with which she kept
the copper at boiling-point, and filled the air
of Guttergarten with suffocating odours. A
thunder-storm was riding up over the dark-
ened sky. There had always been trouble in
the air when the elder Lizzie washed. It was,



indeed, a part of the tragedy of her life that
she never had a day for drying. She was talk-
ing about it even now, in that saddened and
yet aggressive voice which had so often and
so insistently told us the weary story of a
Gutter-mother's grief.

There was much matter for gossip to-day,
too. It was holiday time and there had been
quite a small commotion round the Gutter
Castle over the removal of Teddy to the
Fever Hospital. Teddy had not behaved very
well himself, and there had been some diffi-
culty in persuading him to go quietly.

He did n't feel the fever, and the sore
throat, he told us, would not be near so bad
if he could stay at home. Blanchie's heart
had been wrung by the scene, and for many
days after she clung to the painfully exciting
memory of it, and hugged her woe as only a
Gutter-woman-baby can.

But at the time she had been able to com-
fort the afflicted Teddy upon his outward-
bound journey. She had raced up the street
after the departing hero, and screamed into
his hungering ears the last cheering message

1 68

The Elder Lizzie

of the Gutter, "They sends yer 'ome ter
peel now!"

And even at this moment Johnny was being
told, out there in the Gutter Castle play-
ground, that he was not near such a fine fel-
low as Teddy. And somewhere in a little
white bed in a big ward, a red-eyed homesick
young exile was weeping bitterly for the
Yesterday of a Gutter-baby's life.

And yet another voice, the voice which had
called "Rabbits, cheap and beautiful rab-
bits, from a shillin'!" through Guttergarten
for many a year was silenced to-day. Old
Hawkins had set out from the Gutter Castle
this morning, with his white head bent a
little lower than usual, perhaps, and without
the usual invitation to us concerning his

"I can't py no rent wot I ain't got!" he
told the two Lizzies; and the rest of his sor-
rows had been crushed out under the motor
'bus where he had forced a refuge for himself,
and a way out of Guttergarten.

But was that all?

This morning as the Gutter Parson came


back this way from Mass, a swarm of Gutter-
babies hailed the appearance of his tall black
figure amongst them with ecstasy. The long
string of the laundry girls called merrily to
him over their pert shoulders, "Mornin*,
Uncle!" Johnny wheeled his wooden box-
cart over his toes without any apologies, and
Blanchie was clinging to his hand in preco-
cious flirtation.

Yet it was here, in the very heart of us,
that the Gutter Parson was really most him-
self. He stood there amongst us, in every
thought and fibre of his Self-life so infinitely
removed from the earth-bound game of
Guttergarten as it rolled below his feet. We
were crude and vulgar and primitive, we were
stubborn and strangely disobedient children;
we hugged the Anti-Christ in the immoral
secret of our homes, and our playground was
the haunt of devils; and yet he knew that,
Pagans as we were, within the sympathy and
influence of his consecrated personality, we
were really his to charm, his to be called out
one by one, and acknowledged individually,
as our human need of him arose.


The Elder Lizzie

He might of course have chosen a very
different career. And yet I do not believe, in
spite of our singular want of recognition, that
his deepest gifts were really ever wasted here,
or thrown away upon the children of the
Gutter, as they played with their mud-pies
far below the shadow of his lofty ideals. We
should have missed something if he had been
less of a Visionary. We should most certainly
have known if he had been a little less of a

And this morning, as he played a little
while in the sunshine of Guttergarten, out of
the Gutter Castle had come to him suddenly,
with his ashen face covered in trembling
hands, a dreadful Child of the Gutter with a
shadow on his brow.

It was the boy-husband who had occupied
the next-door flat to the Lizzies. He had had
a small disturbance with his wife the night
before, and he had only given her one under
the chin to go on with, for cheeking him about
his slack work. He had never been able to
stop her jaw when she once started, but this
time she did not answer back. She would



never answer back any more. And yet he
knew that white and ghastly head that he
had silenced would chatter to him in his
prison cell, would mouth and grimace at
him in the supreme moment of disgrace,

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryDorothea SladeGutter-babies → online text (page 7 of 14)