The surprising narration of Robert Holt.
"No room!—Full up!"
He banged the door in my face.
That was the final blow.
To have tramped about all day looking for work; to have begged even for a job which would give me money enough to buy a little food; and to have tramped and to have begged in vain—that was bad. But, sick at heart, depressed in mind and in body, exhausted by hunger and fatigue, to have been compelled to pocket any little pride I might have left, and solicit, as the penniless, homeless tramp which indeed I was, a night's lodging in the casual ward—and to solicit it in vain!—that was worse. Much worse. About as bad as bad could be.
I stared, stupidly, at the door which had just been banged in my face. I could scarcely believe that the thing was possible. I had hardly expected to figure as a tramp; but, supposing it conceivable that I could become a tramp, that I should be refused admission to that abode of all ignominy, the tramp's ward, was to have attained a depth of misery of which never even in nightmares I had dreamed.
As I stood wondering what I should do, a man slouched towards me out of the shadow of the wall.
"Won't 'e let yer in?"
"He says it's full."
"Says it's full, does 'e? That's the lay at Fulham—they always says it's full. They wants to keep the number down."
I looked at the man askance. His head hung forward; his hands were in his trouser pockets; his clothes were rags; his tone was husky.
"Do you mean that they say it's full when it isn't—that they won't let me in although there's room?"
"That's it—bloke's a-kiddin' yer."
"But, if there's room, aren't they bound to let me in?"
"Course they are—and, blimey, if I was you I'd make 'em. Blimey I would!"
He broke into a volley of execrations.
"But what am I to do?"
"Why, give 'em another rouser—let 'em know as you won't be kidded!"
I hesitated; then, acting on his suggestion, for the second time I rang the bell. The door was flung wide open, and the grizzled pauper, who had previously responded to my summons, stood in the open doorway. Had he been the Chairman of the Board of Guardians himself he could not have addressed me with greater scorn.
"What, here again! What's your little game? Think I've nothing better to do than to wait upon the likes of you?"
"I want to be admitted."
"Then you won't be admitted!"
"I want to see someone in authority."
"Ain't yer seein' someone in authority?"
"I want to see someone besides you—I want to see the master."
"Then you won't see the master!"
He moved the door swiftly to; but, prepared for such a manoeuvre, I thrust my foot sufficiently inside to prevent his shutting it. I continued to address him.
"Are you sure that the ward is full?"
"Full two hours ago!"
"But what am I to do?"
"I don't know what you're to do!"
"Which is the next nearest workhouse?"
Suddenly opening the door, as he answered me, putting out his arm he thrust me backwards. Before I could recover the door was closed. The man in rags had continued a grim spectator of the scene. Now he spoke.
"Nice bloke, ain't he?"
"He's only one of the paupers—has he any right to act as one of the officials?"
"I tell yer some of them paupers is wuss than the orficers—a long sight wuss! They thinks they owns the 'ouses, blimey they do. Oh it's a ——— fine world, this is!"
He paused. I hesitated. For some time there had been a suspicion of rain in the air. Now it was commencing to fall in a fine but soaking drizzle. It only needed that to fill my cup to overflowing. My companion was regarding me with a sort of sullen curiosity.
"Ain't you got no money?"
"Not a farthing."
"Done much of this sort of thing?"
"It's the first time I've been to a casual ward—and it doesn't seem as if I'm going to get in now."
"I thought you looked as if you was a bit fresh.—What are yer goin' to do?"
"How far is it to Kensington?"
"Work'us?—about three mile;—but, if I was you, I'd try St. George's."
"In the Fulham Road. Kensington's only a small place, they do you well there, and it's always full as soon as the door's opened;—you'd 'ave more chawnce at St. George's."
He was silent. I turned his words over in my mind, feeling as little disposed to try the one place as the other. Presently he began again.
"I've travelled from Reading this ——— day, I 'ave—tramped every ——— foot!—and all the way as I come along, I'll 'ave a shakedown at 'Ammersmith, I says—and now I'm as fur off from it as ever! This is a ——— fine country, this is—I wish every ——— soul in it was swept into the ——— sea, blimey I do! But I ain't goin' to go no further—I'll 'ave a bed in 'Ammersmith or I'll know the reason why."
"How are you going to manage it—have you got any money?"
"Got any money?—My crikey!—I look as though I 'ad—I sound as though I 'ad too! I ain't 'ad no brads, 'cept now and then a brown, this larst six months."
"How are you going to get a bed then?"
" 'Ow am I going to?—why, like this way." He picked up two stones, one in either hand. The one in his left he flung at the glass which was over the door of the casual ward. It crashed through it, and through the lamp beyond. "That's 'ow I'm goin' to get a bed."
The door was hastily opened. The grizzled pauper reappeared. He shouted, as he peered at us in the darkness,
"Who done that?"
"I done it, guvnor—and, if you like, you can see me do the other. It might do your eyesight good."
Before the grizzled pauper could interfere, he had hurled the stone in his right hand through another pane. I felt that it was time for me to go. He was earning a night's rest at a price which, even in my extremity, I was not disposed to pay.
When I left two or three other persons had appeared upon the scene, and the man in rags was addressing them with a degree of frankness, which, in that direction, left little to be desired. I slunk away unnoticed. But had not gone far before I had almost decided that I might as well have thrown in my fortune with the bolder wretch, and smashed a window too. Indeed, more than once my feet faltered, as I all but returned to do the feat which I had left undone.
A more miserable night for an out-of-door excursion I could hardly have chosen. The rain was like a mist, and was not only drenching me to the skin, but it was rendering it difficult to see more than a little distance in any direction. The neighbourhood was badly lighted. It was one in which I was a stranger. I had come to Hammersmith as a last resource. It had seemed to me that I had tried to find some occupation which would enable me to keep body and soul together in every other part of London, and that now only Hammersmith was left. And, at Hammersmith, even the workhouse would have none of me!
Retreating from the inhospitable portal of the casual ward, I had taken the first turning to the left—and, at the moment, had been glad to take it. In the darkness and the rain, the locality which I was entering appeared unfinished. I seemed to be leaving civilisation behind me. The path was unpaved; the road rough and uneven, as if it had never been properly made. Houses were few and far between. Those which I did encounter, seemed, in the imperfect light, amid the general desolation, to be cottages which were crumbling to decay.
Exactly where I was I could not tell. I had a faint notion that, if I only kept on long enough, I should strike some part of Walham Green. How long I should have to keep on I could only guess. Not a creature seemed to be about of whom I could make inquiries. It was as if I was in a land of desolation.
I suppose it was between eleven o'clock and midnight. I had not given up my quest for work till all the shops were closed—and in Hammersmith, that night, at any rate, they were not early closers. Then I had lounged about dispiritedly, wondering what was the next thing I could do. It was only because I feared that if I attempted to spend the night in the open air, without food, when the morning came I should be broken up, and fit for nothing, that I sought a night's free board and lodging. It was really hunger which drove me to the workhouse door. That was Wednesday. Since the Sunday night preceding nothing had passed my lips save water from the public fountains—with the exception of a crust of bread which a man had given me whom I had found crouching at the root of a tree in Holland Park. For three days I had been fasting—practically all the time upon my feet. It seemed to me that if I had to go hungry till the morning I should collapse—there would be an end. Yet, in that strange and inhospitable place, where was I to get food at that time of night, and how?
I do not know how far I went. Every yard I covered, my feet dragged more. I was dead beat, inside and out. I had neither strength nor courage left. And within there was that frightful craving, which was as though it shrieked aloud. I leant against some palings, dazed and giddy. If only death had come upon me quickly, painlessly, how true a friend I should have thought it! It was the agony of dying inch by inch which was so hard to bear.
It was some minutes before I could collect myself sufficiently to withdraw from the support of the railings, and to start afresh. I stumbled blindly over the uneven road. Once, like a drunken man, I lurched forward, and fell upon my knees. Such was my backboneless state that for some seconds I remained where I was, half disposed to let things slide, accept the good the gods had sent me, and make a night of it just there. A long night, I fancy, it would have been, stretching from time unto eternity.
Having regained my feet, I had gone perhaps another couple of hundred yards along the road—Heaven knows that it seemed to me just then a couple of miles!—when there came over me again that overpowering giddiness which, I take it, was born of my agony of hunger. I staggered, helplessly, against a low wall which, just there, was at the side of the path. Without it I should have fallen in a heap. The attack appeared to last for hours; I suppose it was only seconds; and, when I came to myself, it was as though I had been aroused from a swoon of sleep—aroused, to an extremity of pain. I exclaimed aloud,
"For a loaf of bread what wouldn't I do!"
I looked about me, in a kind of frenzy. As I did so I for the first time became conscious that behind me was a house. It was not a large one. It was one of those so-called villas which are springing up in multitudes all round London, and which are let at rentals of from twenty-five to forty pounds a year. It was detached. So far as I could see, in the imperfect light, there was not another building within twenty or thirty yards of either side of it. It was in two storeys. There were three windows in the upper storey. Behind each the blinds were closely drawn. The hall door was on my right. It was approached by a little wooden gate.
The house itself was so close to the public road that by leaning over the wall I could have touched either of the windows on the lower floor. There were two of them. One of them was a bow window. The bow window was open. The bottom centre sash was raised about six inches.