Low-Life Deeps/Chapter 3
IT was not in furtherance of any preconceived plan that midnight found me on Waterloo Bridge, or that I might set at rest any speculations previously formed on the subject of suicide by drowning from this the scene of so many terrible leaps in the dark. It was not that it had occurred to me that the Bridge of Sighs offered a fair post of observation to any one who felt curious in the matter, for gaining information as to the growth and development of self-murder madness when it took this direction - to learn how many "unfortunates" there were who came to the centre parapet of the grey bridge to brood on the terrible intent, perhaps in the hope that opportunity for its consummation would suffice to dispel the lingering love of life and the horror of death that hitherto had held them back. I had, I say, no inclination to speculate on how many had repented of their rash design as soon as they had paid the halfpenny, and the click of the turnstile intimated that now the way was clear; how many came hurrying in the dark and in frantic haste to find wholesome sedatives for their disordered brain in a contemplation of the black and awful depth, and in the bleak wind that blew off the icy water. I had not sought the bridge of Waterloo for any such study. Had such been my intent, I should probably have selected a finer night; for, even in early summer, the arches of granite that span the river Thames do not present the most desirable promenade after the churches have chimed twelve, and there is a north-east wind blowing, with a rain which is none the less spiteful because it is small.
I was a passenger on the bridge in question, and at the time stated, simply because, in the course of common events, it happened so, and I don't suppose that I should have paused between the boundary turnstiles, only that I came on a policeman in altercation with a woman, who, it appeared, had made herself as comfortable as circumstances would permit, and with the intention of passing the night huddled up in a corner of one of the stone recess seats. She was an elderly female, and very drunk, which may have accounted for the unreasonableness of her argument. In the first place, she fiercely resented the officer's interference at all, and, with an outburst of virtuous indignation that rendered her almost unintelligible, wished to be informed what that functionary took her for? Perhaps it was too bad of the policeman to hazard the opinion that she was "what he called a 'nonderscrip,'" and fortunate for him that the appalling imputation reduced her to a condition of speechlessness, from which she emerged several seconds afterwards in a flood of tears.
She would not move off the wet stones, in which her skirts were dabbling. She "had paid her ha'penny," and that, she maintained, entitled her to the use of Waterloo Bridge during her pleasure. But the policeman, who was good-natured and forbearing, could not be brought to take this view of the matter.
"That's a stale story," said he; "if I was to let it pass with everybody who pitches it to me, the seats would be like a common lodging-house. You're a foot passenger, not a lodger, don't you know? and your ha'porth is to go over, not to lie down; and if you don't go over one side or the t'other, I shall be obliged to walk with you a little further than may be agreeable." After which unmistakable hint, in the most friendly manner, he threw the light of his "bull's-eye" on her, stood her upright, put straight her bonnet, which was flat as a pancake in consequence of her having made a pillow of it, and turned her face to the Surrey side, towards which she went staggering, still bewailing that she should have lived all these years, and reared eleven children, the ugliest one of which was a beauty compared with the policeman, and after all to be compared to a "nonderscrip."
"You are not troubled with many such customers as that, I hope, policeman?" I remarked.
"A dozen of 'em in a night, sometimes," he replied; and immediately added, "but they are of a mild sort compared with some we have to deal with. No fear of a man going to sleep on this beat, I can assure you, sir."
"Of what sort are the very bad?" I asked.
"Oh, all manner, chiefly the women going home to the Blackfriars side after it has got too late for them to stay out any longer. There's a lot of trouble with them poor devils very often."
"Tipsy, I suppose?"
"No, not so much that, as down on their luck as a rule," replied the friendly policeman, with a shrug of his broad shoulders; "and when it's that way with 'em, they somehow seemed to find the bridge an awkward bit to get over."
"How an awkward bit?"
"Well; I ain't equal to explainin' it; but it's a dark and solitary bit after the gas of the public-houses and that, and it strikes 'em as such, I suppose, and sets 'em thinking of the lots that have made a jump of it when they got as far as the middle arch, and then they get the 'blues,' and there's no doing anything with 'em. It would do good to some of them fast young fellows who go in for 'seeing life,' as they call it, if they could see some of them miserable gals shivering home over the bridge here, in the dark and rain, sometimes at one or two in the morning."
I expressed to the worthy constable my opinion that there could be no doubt of it; at the same time resolving that I would wait a little on the bridge in order to see for myself what were the kind of customers that passed the toll-man's wicket at the small hours of morning.
It was then nearly one o'clock, and nothing particularly worth mentioning occurred for nearly an hour, except the amazing number of wretched girls and women who came hurrying from the Strand side of the bridge, and, with an aspect exactly as opposite to "gay" as black is to white, making haste, through the rain which had saturated their flimsy skirts and covered the pavement with a thick paste of mud, cruelly cold to ill-shod feet, towards the miserable "lodgings" in the poorer neighbourhoods of Lambeth and Blackfriars which were dignified with the name of home. The only ones of the shocking sisterhood who evinced any signs even of cheerfulness were those - and they were the majority - who were the worse for drink; and they might always be known from the rest, though their step was steady as the best, by their singing, which, perhaps, was by way of keeping their courage up, as small boys in dark places take to whistling. But there were many, and amongst them the youngest, who looked so wretchedly wet, cold, and utterly comfortless, that it would have been a mercy rather than a sin to have conferred a glass of brandy on them.
"Give me a penny, the Lord will be good to you," said one of these poor little mortals, whose thin shawl clung wet to her narrow shoulders. "You wouldn't think twice about it if you knew how perishing cold I was."
"But what can you buy for a penny, and at this time, that will warm you?"
"I can get a penn'orth of coffee at the stall on the other side, and a warm at the fire; that'll be better than nothing, before I go home."
"And is it true that you can get a cup of coffee and a seat by the fire for a penny?"
"It would be a bad job for a good many like me if they couldn't. He's as good as a father to us, that old coffee man," and the wretched child - for really she was little better - laughed at her small joke, till she set herself coughing in a manner that would have been unbearably painful to hear, but that there might be heard in it a grim promise that the downward steep on which she had set her young feet would be but a brief one.
Having furnished her with the price of the coffee, I thought it might be worth the few minutes' walk to see if the fatherly stallkeeper had any but an imaginary existence. She was truthful in this instance, however. There was the stall - a snug little cabin of a place, of boards and canvas, with the cheerful glow of a charcoal fire within, and there, too, was the individual who had been so gratefully alluded to, dispensing the smoking beverage and bread and butter to seven or eight female outcast wretches who huddled together in the friendly shelter, two or three being seated on a form dozing by the fire, at the heat of which their drenched clothes steamed, and by the light of which might be observed the ghastly contrast between their pinched and haggard faces - pale except for the paint patches that glared like plague spots and their wretched finery, the drooping feathers and festoons of rainbow ribbon with which their hats were trimmed.
By the time I again reached Waterloo Bridge it was past two, and either the policeman had gone off duty or had given up as hopeless the endeavour to convince certain people that payment of a halfpenny did not confer on them the right to use any one of the stone seats as a couch. They must have some such notion, or why do they pay their money when they must be so deplorably short of it, and when there are "free seats" on all the other bridges excepting Vauxhall? Of course, it cannot be that the stones of the Waterloo recesses are softer than other stones. It must be done purely for the sake of the seclusion and quiet that, as a lodging, are afforded by Waterloo Bridge as compared with London and Blackfriars - though, indeed, it is hard to understand how a human being reduced to such a deplorable strait can for a moment hesitate between the open air and the cold stones, and a refuge in a. workhouse.
Here they were, however - in one recess a woman and a child of five or six years huddled up in a shapeless bundle or rags, the only sign of humanity about it being two small feet. In the next recess there was a drunken man, a drover I think, fast asleep on his back, and with his mouth open, while his hat, which had rolled off was in the safe keeping of his dog, who lay with his body curled about it. In another recess, however, there was life that was not of the still kind. There sat two women, one young and well but flashily dressed, the other a miserable shabby woman of middle age, with an old black stuff cloak on; and with the two was an individual of the male sex, whose appearance it is not easy to describe. If the reader can imagine a man whose visage was a blending of the characteristics that distinguish the dog-stealer, the area sneak, and the fighting man, he may form some idea of the cadaverous, vicious-looking individual in question. The place was so still that there was no necessity to cross the road to hear what was going on.
"It's all nonsense what she says about not going back, you know," said the shabby woman; "she'll have to do it. I ain't going to get into a row on her account."
"Lor! you needn't fret about that," growled the cadaverous gentleman, with a growl that sounded like a preliminary to a bite, "she'll come to her senses when she's had her temper out a bit, and had a cooler. She'll find it hot for herself if she doesn't. She's a pretty one to cut the high caper - without a rag to call her own."
This last sneer at her poverty stung the showily-dressed young woman over whose fine mantle and bonnet the shabby woman had solicitously cast a corner of her frowzy old cloak to protect them from the rain, and provoked her to immediate and fierce reply.
"Curse you both!" she exclaimed, starting up from the shabby woman's protecting wing. (" Dear me! she'll get her clothes drenched!" cried this worthy person, wringing her dirty hands in despair.) "Curse you both!" exclaimed the girl, "and who was it that robbed me of my good clothes? Who cheated and plundered me but you, you thief" - (this to the cadaverous gentleman) - "and the set over there, till I hadn't a skirt to call my own."
"Never mind who cheated you; that's nothing to do with them clothes what's only lent you," growled the bully. "If yer don't know how to behave in 'em, come on home and get out of 'em. It isn't likely that this woman who is sent with you to look after you is going back to tell 'em that you're slipped off;" and then, for the first time perceiving me, the villain nudged the shabby woman, and again addressing the girl, in a softer voice, remarked that it was no good her sitting there "ketchin cold," and that they might just as well walk as they talked; on which the trio moved off towards the Surrey side; the young woman still persisting that she wouldn't go back - she would sooner be dead and buried.
"That's the way with them marms; they gets a silk gownd on, and then a Duchess ain't good enough to be their sister. Serve her right, whatever she gets." It was a female voice that gave utterance to these generous sentiments - a ragged wretch, starved-looking, and with the bones showing sharp under her white skin, but who somehow had contrived to get so intoxicated that she had to hold on by the stone-work for support.
"Do you know her?" I asked.
"Not her, I don't; but I know the set," returned the scarecrow, spitefully. "She's a dress-woman, that's what she is."
"Ah! one of them that they tog out so that they may show off at their best and make the most of their faces. But they can't trust 'em," pursued the awful creature, venturing to take the steadying grasp from the stone coping that she might clap both her skinny hands in gleeful malice, "they can't trust em, you heard that. They never trust 'em further than they can see 'em. You might tell that by the shadder."
"By the what?"
"The shadder. That was the shadder, that woman that was with her. They call 'em that because they sticks so close to 'em, and never leave the track of 'em, not for a minute. They're no more their own mistresses than galley-slaves are; and serve 'em right."
"And who was the man?" I asked. But, however much the creature of rags and gin lacked sympathy for the wretched victim of the "shadder," she had no good word for the male ruffian.
"He! he hasn't got a name," she replied scornfully. "That has "- and she spurned some mud before her with her broken old shoe - "but he hasn't. He's worse than a dog, for dogs don't eat each other. He'd steal his mother's crutches if she was a cripple, and get drunk with the money he sold them for, and go home and beat her."
So saying, the shameful creature staggered away, and as by this time morning was breaking, and it seemed to me unlikely that the toll-gate man would have many customers more interesting than those I had already made acquaintance with, I too passed out at the turnstile.