The Frobishers/Chapter 24
A fortnight after Christmas, one evening Joan was alone in No. 16—that is to say, her sister was out—when a heavy rap sounded at the entrance, and on the door being opened a coarse man with bloated face and watery eyes rolled in.
Joan retreated, and stood in the doorway of her little parlour, supposing the man to be some sot who had mistaken his way, and that she might meet with difficulty in getting rid of him. But he saluted by jerking his chin to one side and closing one eye, and said—
"Beg parding, but this is No. 16?"
"And you're Joan Frobisher?"
"Also the same. What is there that you want of me?"
"Well, not so much I—that is—but the bairn. My lad, Tom, is ailing, and in bed, and nowt'll do with him but you must come and see him."
"Tom—what, Tom Treddlehoyle?"
"The same. He says you know all about 'im, and he leaves me no peace but I must come and tell you. Sez I to he, 'Torn, shoo won't come to sic a place as ourn!' but he sez, sez 'e, 'Cut along, old dad, and try 'er. I knows 'er, and you don't.' Well, I've come, and thou must please thysen—take or leave as thou likest. But he's bad—dreadful bad."
Tom is ill?"
"Ay, he is so. Coughs, and don't allow his poor old dad enj'y 'is nat'ral rest."
"I will go with you, most certainly, and at once, if you will show me the way."
"Thanky, lass. I'll go afore. I'm Mister Treddlehoyle, as corned from Bairnsley in Yorkshire, originally. But I've been here most o' my time, bad luck to it. There ain't no money to be addled here."
"How long has Tom been ill?"
"Off an' on sin' Christmas. I thort at fust he were 'oarse wi' roarin' 'Christians awake! salute the 'appy morn.' But he's gone wusser and wusser."
"I am ready to attend you at once."
At the time the man was not tipsy, but he was soaked with drink, so that at such seasons as he was not intoxicated he remained in a sodden condition of half stupefaction. He had lost all firmness of flesh. His walk was a roll, and elasticity had deserted his joints.
He wheezed and laboured along beside Joan, and became confidential. He had been an admirable husband, but had lost his wife, and was a most indulgent father. He entered into, and enlarged on, his wife's funeral, the amount of cake, cheese, and ale that had been consumed at it, and the undertaker's charges.
"But," said he, with an oath, "I didn't begrudge 'er not one shilling. I've a good 'eart. It's in the right place. If only my stomick was as sound as my 'cart, I'd get along grandly. But there's my weak point, and it wants a lot of stayin' up to keep together."
The distance was inconsiderable. Mr. Treddlehoyle lived down an alley leading to a disused marlpit, into which rubbish was shot to fill it up, amidst which rubbish the children of the alley played all day, turning it over in quest of small treasures. The locality was a backwater of bad life. It was inhabited mostly by Irish, and only by men and women of the lowest character, either such as had sunk through misconduct, or such as had never striven to rise out of their native mire.
The houses were of the meanest description, and in every stage of neglect and decrepitude. They had broken windows and battered doors, bulging walls and sinking roofs. The pavement was corroded into hollows, in which filth settled, and in which infants dabbled. It was an alley comparatively still by day but a scene of witches' orgies each night, culminating in a climax of riot on the Saturday. The hour was not so late as Joan entered it that high revelry had begun. One flaring gas light illumined the place; soiled rays from lamps struggled through windowpanes that were never cleaned.
The man led through an open doorway up a broken set of steps. Below, women screeched and poured forth volleys of abuse at their children, who retorted in shrieks. That human beings should endure life in such a place, and in such conditions, was to Joan amazing. Yet probably to most of the occupants of these tenements, life, as they knew it, was not without its pleasures, and life of a higher and more refined type would be incomprehensible and intolerable.
A Londoner looks on a little country village slumbering among woods and wolds and says, "Good heavens! a winter—a life—in such a place would be incredibly dull, would not, in fact, be worth living." And yet the villagers find it by no means dull, and in a thousand ways enjoyable. We can none of us understand the delights of life on any other level than our own, or in any other situation than that in which we taste them.
As Joan mounted, a woman burst from a room on the ground floor, and another pursued her, attempting to strike her with a hot flat-iron.
"They're washing," explained Mr. Treddlehoyle, turning on the stairs. "Catch 'er a crack in the jaw, Biddy Malone!" called he to one of the women below; then with an oath, "Tap her claret for her, Betsy O'Flanagan!' Next, to Joan, "There's a fine lot of entertainment to be got when the women are washing, and it don't cost nothing. There's the beauty!"
On reaching the first landing, to which Joan hurried in horror and disgust, Mr. Treddlehoyle opened a crazy door, and led into a room, the ceiling of which had in places fallen, exposing the laths, but in others had brought the laths down with it, leaving a black void.
A benzoline lamp stood on a box, and by its light Joan saw a bed, or apology for a bed, near the chimney-stack that rose through the room, without, however, having a fireplace in it.
The atmosphere of the house and room, notwithstanding abundant facilities for ventilation, was sickening, foul with the accumulated odours engendered by dirty humanity, and not at all sweetened by the exhalations of the washtubs below.
"Hah, guv'ner, I sed it! I knowed she'd come," exclaimed a husky voice from a heap of dirty and ragged blankets on the bed.
Joan took the lamp, went up to the speaker, and raising it above her head, looked down on him.
She saw little Tom, his cheeks flaming and his eyes as sparks of fire. The attempt to speak brought on a fit of coughing.
At once she took his hand. It was like a hot coal. She laid her palm on his brow and found that it was burning.
"He is in high fever," she said. "My dear little Tom, how came this about? Have you not had your new boots?"
"Nay," said he; "the dad has drunk 'em away. He was too sharp for me. One night 'e watched me till I fell asleep, and then 'e sloped wi' my yaller boy that the gent gave me. It's been melted into gin and swallered by now."
"Hold thy gab, lad! It's nay such thing. Thou'st lost it out of thy pocket."
"I have not, daddy. Thou'st been on the booze ever since thou took it."
"Never mind about the fate of the yellow boy," said Joan, who dreaded an altercation between the fevered child and the maudlin father. She turned to Mr. Treddlehoyle and inquired whether he had sent for a doctor.
"A doctor! Not I. What's the good of a doctor? If the bairn's constitution will pull him through, no doctor is needed."
"But one ought to be called in."
"Who's to pay?"
"What is your employment?"
"I'm a thrower."
"Then I know exactly what your pay is—and out of it you can perfectly afford to have the assistance of a medical man."
"I've got no money," said the man, sitting down on his own bed, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and stretching his legs stiffly in front of him. "Doctors! nay, lass, I've no confidence in them."
"Mr. Treddlehoyle," said Joan, "the child will slip through your fingers before you are aware. He has very little constitution. He has never been given sufficient food. He is stunted, starved, neglected, and now is suffering from inflammation of the lungs."
"Oh," the maudlin wretch began to whine, "Tom! you ain't goin' to leave yer old dad, as loves yer, my pearl! the apple of my eye, and the core of my 'eart. I can't bear to be left alone. I never touched a drop o' liquor till arter my wife died, and then 'twas sorrer as shattered my nerves and upset my pore stumick. And whatever shall I do if I lose you? More by tokens," he said, and turned his pockets inside out. "How am I to bury yer respectable, and not got a penny? I'd be ashamed not to do it 'andsome."
Joan took a stool and seated herself by the bed, looking at the boy, whose lustrous eyes were fixed on her. His dirty hot face was seamed with tears. But he responded to her look with a smile.
As she studied him, it was to her as though she saw a little dainty skiff, that had left its builder's hands trim and beautiful, launched on a foul canal, where it had drifted, been buffeted against snags, bruised, stove in, and had grounded, and was sinking in the fetid slime. Or as a poor little fledgling that had fallen from its nest, was draggled, deserted, broken, crying for parental care that was denied it, and for suitable food that was beyond its reach. Or as a pale wild flower that had just opened, and was succumbing, storm-beaten, soiled, and eaten by worms.
"Is there no one to attend on him?" asked Joan of the father. "He must not be left."
"Oh, he's attended to now and then. I've asked some of the ladies below to keep an eye on him."
"Them!" in a tone of horror.
"Who else can I get?"
Again he was silent.
"He must have constant watching, and feeding every hour," said Joan.
The man rose and stumbled to the door and down the stairs. Below he fell to talking about his boy and his needs with the women engaged in washing.
Joan took the lad's hot hand. So ill, so neglected—there was little chance for him.
A chasm was in the ceiling overhead, and down streamed a current of icy air on the sickbed.
In such a place, could the child live?
There is something infinitely solemn in sitting looking on a face, and feeling that the spirit behind will soon pass away into the mystery beyond, and see what is hidden to living eyes.
"Tom," said Joan gravely, "do you know about God?"
"Just enough to swear by," he replied.
"Tom, can you pray?"
"I can cuss. That's about the beginnin' and the end of my devotional exercises—as the Methody sez."
Then the child fell to coughing.
From below surged up the roar of Mr. Treddlehoyle's voice in angry altercation, broken by the shrill treble of a woman in quarrelsome response, resenting some suggestion made by him. Then, neither being able to convince the other by argument, both burst forth in a storm of mutual vociferous recrimination charged with oaths and blasphemies.
Joan started up.
"Tom, I cannot, I will not leave you here," she exclaimed, with heaving bosom. "Will you let me take and nurse you? My dear, dear little boy."
He rose and threw his arms round her neck, laid his hot head on her bosom, and burst into tears.
Then she gathered the soiled blanket and wrapped it about him, and, huddled thus, she lifted the little fellow in her arms and staggered across the creaking floor.
At the door she met Mr. Treddlehoyle.
"What are you doing with my kid?" he asked.
"I intend to carry him home. I will take sole charge of him; it is his only—only chance."
"You cannot carry him," said the father. "I will do that. Give me the lad."
The stout man lightly, easily bore the burden that would have been too great for Joan.
Presently the imp thrust part of his face out of the muffling blanket, and said, "Dad! She kissed me. I axed 'er for a kiss once and she deniged it. But she gave me one now unaxed. Crikey! We're marchin' along."