Widowed: A Study from Life: 1909

North Carolina Digital Collections

Widowed:

(A STUDY FROM LIFE.)

“Ere y’are, Mum. Shoreditch, Liverpool-street, Banks.”

The yellow bus crossed Cambridgeheath-road, and pulled up with a jerk in front of the big public-house at the corner. A little group stood on the pavement waiting. The widow was in the middle of it. ‘Enery and Hallice stood grasping the glossy new crape of her dress with one hand. In the other they carried a sugary mass, as they took occasional bites and sucks. Around were three or four sympathising friends whose faces were as red as the widow’s, and who formed the chorus.

They formed quite a party on the top of the bus after they had climbed up the narrow stairway—a process which took so long that the driver delivered two or three vicious slashes on the near side windows, and desired to know whether they thought he was driving Black Maria.

“For shime, young man,” said one of the chorus, “and her so full of trouble. Dessay your old bit o’ crackling wouldn’t be sorry if she was in the same boat.”

The driver grunted something that was inaudible, and the widow pulled out a cotton handkerchief with a black border about two inches deep all round it. But peace was restored when another of the chorus produced a flat bottle, the contents of which caused the driver to gasp as he tilted upwards. And the bus rumbled along City-wards over the cobbles of Bethnal Green-road.

The conductor came up with tickets. He, too, was introduced to the flat bottle, which brought to his face an expression of sympathy worthy of the occasion. ‘Enry took the tickets when they had been punched, and put them in his jacket pocket, after a little difference of opinion with Halice as to their ownership, which was brought to a close by a slap and a shake given impartially to each by the widow, coupled with an inquiry as to whether they; desired to lose their pore mother as well as their father.

“What you’ve got to do is to bear up, and take a little drop of something,” said one of the chorus.

The widow agreed. “Well, they can’t never say as I didn’t put pore ‘Enry away respectably,” she remarked. “The undertaker said he was robbing his wife and kids when he did it for twelve pun fifteen.” “

“And brought out his new ‘erse,” said one of the chorus. “Some them wreafs cost a tidy bit,” she went on, pensively.

The widow threw out a reflection on the character of the boiled leg of pork which had formed part of the funeral baked meats, but the chorus all rushed in to its defence.

“I never eat a better,” said one.

“Well, pore ‘Enry would never have off eating it when we had one a sundays,” said the widow. “Give ‘im that and a bit o’ pease pudden, and he always used to say as he wouldn’t say thenk yer to dine with the King.”

“He seemed a nice young feller, that insurance man,” ventured one of the chorus, who desired to lead up to a discussion as to the amount of the insurance money.

“Well, I oughter a had £150,” said the widow, “but the foreman came round and said, ‘Take £l4, and never mind no lawyers.’”

 A glance of intelligence passed over the faces of the chorus, who began to inveigh against the greed of them insurance companies. Then one ventured a remark on the fact that you could do things as they was right to be done on a figger like that.

By this time the bus was threading the traffic across Great Eastern-street, and one of the chorus, who was more of a thought reader in the face than the others, opined that the only thing to do was to bear up.

“‘Ave a few friends in now and then,” she said; “don’t sit alone and mope.”

She was gallantly backed up by the other members of the chorus, and she proceeded to remark on the noise of this part of London, which always does make your head ache.

The chorus agreed. Someone suggested a little drop and rum and peppermint was one of the finest things for a headache caused by street noises. Another remembered that she knew a barmaid at the Cock and Magpie, just out of Norton Folgate, and she hadn’t seen her for a month o’ Sundays.

The bus stopped and the widow got up and made ready to descend. She was reminded that they wasn’t near the bank yet.

“I must have a little something,” was the reply, “or else I shall drop.”

There were murmurs of sympathy, and the whole party descended opposite the turning which led to the Cock and Magpie.

“Pore dear, you must bear up,” were the last words we heard as the conductor rang the bell.

“Be a bit of mopping before the old man’s money is blewed,” he remarked pensively.

Timaru [NZ] Herald, 27 November 1909: p. 1

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

A ‘appy Release

On the Stairs 

The house had been “genteel.” When trade was prospering in the East End, and the ship-fitter or block-maker thought it a shame to live in the parish where his workshop lay, such a master had lived here. Now, it was a tall, solid, well-bricked, ugly house, grimy and paintless in the journey, cracked and patched in the windows; where the front door stood open all day long, and the womankind sat on the steps, talking of sickness and deaths and the cost of things; and treacherous holes lurked in the carpet of road-soil on the stairs and in the passage. For when eight families live in a house, nobody buys a door-mat, and the secret was one of those streets that are always muddy. It smelled, too, of many things, none of them pleasant (one was fried fish); but for all that it was not a slum.

Three flights up, a gaunt woman with bare forearms stayed on her way to listen at a door which, opened, let out a warm, fetid waft from a close sick-room. A bent and tottering old woman stood on the threshold, holding the door behind her.

“An’ is ‘e no better now, Mrs. Curtis?” the gaunt woman asked, with a nod at the opening.

The old woman shook her head, and pulled the door closer. Her jaw waggled loosely in her withered chaps: “Nor won’t be, till ‘e’s gone.” Then after a certain pause: “’E’s goin’,” she said.

“Don’t doctor give no ‘ope?”

“Lor’ bless ye, I don’t want to ast no doctors,” Mrs. Curtis replied, with something not unlike a chuckle. “I’ve seed too many on ’em. The boy’s a-goin’ fast; I can see that. An’ then”–she gave the handle another tug, and whispered–“he’s been called.” She nodded amain.

“Three seprit knocks at the bed-head las-night; an’ I know what that means!”

The gaunt woman raised her brows, and nodded. “Ah, well,” she said, “we all on us comes to it some day, sooner or later. An’ it’s often a ‘appy release.”

The two looked into space beyond each other, the elder with a nod and a croak. Presently the other pursued: “’E’s been a very good son, ain’t he?”

“Ay, ay—well enough son to me,” responded the old woman, a little peevishly; “an’ I’ll ‘ave ‘im put away decent, though there’s on’y the Union for me after. I can do that, thank Gawd” she added, meditatively, as, chin on fist, she stared into the thickening dark over the stairs.

“When I lost my pore ‘usband,” said the gaunt woman, with a certain brightening, “I give ‘im a ‘andsome funeral. ‘E was a Odd Feller, an’ I got twelve pound. I ‘ad a oak caufin an’ a open ‘earse. There was kerridge for the fam’ly an’ one for ‘is mates—two ‘orses each, an’ feathers, an’ mutes: an’ it went the furthest way round to the cimitry. ‘Wotever ‘appens, Mrs. Manders,’ says the undertaker, ‘you’ll feel as you’re treated ‘im proper; nobody can’t reproach you over that.’ An’ they couldn’t. ‘E was a good ‘usband to me, an’ I buried ‘im respectable.”

The gaunt woman exulted. The old, old story of Mander’s funeral fell upon the other one’s ears with a freshened interest, and she mumbled her gums ruminantly. “Bob’ll ‘ave a ‘ansome buryin’ too,” she said. “I can make it up, with the insurance money, an’ this, an’ that. On’y I dunno about mutes. It’s a expense.”

In the East End, when a woman has not enough money to buy a thing much desired, she does not say so in plain words; she says the thing is an “expense,” or a “great expense.” It means the same thing, but it sounds better. Mrs. Curtis had reckoned her resources, and found that mutes would be an “expense.” At a cheap funeral mutes cost half a sovereign and their liquor. Mrs. Manders said as much.

“Yus, yus, ‘arf a sovereign,” the old woman assented. Within, the sick man feebly beat the floor with a stick. “I’m a-comin’,” she cried, shrilly; “yus, ‘arf a sovereign, but it’s a lot, an’ I don’t see ‘ow I’m to do it–not at present.” She reached for the door-handle again, but stopped and added, by after-thought: “Unless I don’t ’ave no plooms.”

“It ‘ud be a pity not to ‘ave plooms. I ‘ad–“

There were footsteps on the stairs; then a stumble and a testy word. Mrs. Curtis peered over into the gathering dark. “Is it the doctor, sir?” she asked. It was the doctor’s assistant; and Mrs. Manders tramped up to the next landing as the door of the sick-room took him in.

For five minutes the stairs were darker than ever. Then the assistant, a very young man, came out again, followed by the old woman with a candle. Mrs. Manders listened in the upper dark. “He’s sinking fast,” said the assistant. “He must have a stimulant. Doctor Mansell ordered port wine. Where is it?” Mrs. Curtis mumbled dolorously. “I tell you he must have it,” he averred with unprofessional emphasis (his qualification was only a month old). “The man can’t take solid food, and his strength must be kept up somehow. Another day may make all the difference. It is because you can’t afford it?”

“It’s a expense–sich a expense, doctor,” the old woman pleaded. “An’ wot with ‘arf-pints o’ milk an’–” She grew inarticulate, and mumbled dismally.

“But he must have it, Mrs. Curtis, if it’s your last shilling; it’s the only way. If you mean you absolutely haven’t the money–” And he paused a little awkwardly. He was not a wealthy young man–wealthy young men do not devil for East End doctors—but he was conscious of a certain haul of sixpences at nap the night before; and, being inexperienced, he did not foresee the career of persecution whereon he was entering at his own expense and of his own motion. He produced five shillings: “If you absolutely haven’t the money, why–take this and get a bottle–good. Not at a public-house. But mind, at once. He should have had it before.”

It would have interested him, as a matter of coincidence, to know that his principal had been guilty of the self-same indiscretion–even the amount was identical—on that landing the day before. But, as Mrs. Curtis said nothing of this, he floundered down the stair and out into the wetter mud, pondering whether or not the beloved son of a Congregational minister might take full credit for a deed of charity on the proceeds of sixpenny nap. But Mrs. Curtis puffed her wrinkles, and shook her head sagaciously as she carried in her candle. From the room came a clink as of money falling into a teapot. And Mrs. Manders went about her business.

The door was shut, and the stair a pit of blackness. Twice a lodger passed down, and up and down, and still it did not open. Men and women walked on the lower flights, and out at the door, and in again. From the street a shout or a snatch of laughter floated up the pit. On the pavement footsteps rang crisper and fewer, and from the bottom passage there were sounds of stagger and sprawl. A demented old clock buzzed divers hours at random, and was rebuked every twenty minutes by the regular tread of a policeman on his beat. Finally, somebody shut the street-door with a great bang, and the street was muffled. A key turned inside the door on the landing, but that was all. A feeble light shone for hours along the crack below, and then went out. The crazy old clock went buzzing on, but nothing left that room all night. Nothing that opened the door….

When next the key turned, it was to Mrs. Manders’s knock, in the full morning; and soon the two women came out on the landing together, Mrs. Curtis with a shapeless clump of bonnet. “Ah, ‘e’s a lovely corpse,” said Mrs. Manders. “Like wax. So was my ‘usband.”

“I must be stirrin’,” croaked the old woman, “an’ go about the insurance and the measurin’ an’ that. There’s lot to do.”

“Ah, there is. ‘Oo are you goin’ to ‘ave–Wilkins? I ‘ad Wilkins. Better than Kedge, I think; Kedge’s mutes dresses rusty, an’ their trousis is frayed. If you was thinkin’ of ‘avin’ mutes–“

“Yus, yus”—with a palsied nodding–“I’m a-goin’ to ‘ave mutes; I can do it respectable, thank Gawd!”

“And the plooms?”

“Ay, yus, and the plooms too. They ain’t sich a great expense, after all.”

Tales of Mean Streets, Arthur Morrison, 1921: pp. 154-162

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.