Lambeth Women Speak (originally Streets and Lanes of the City) by Nellie Benson, 1890

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6-KEEPING COMPANY–THE DARKER SIDE

Sometimes it is nobody's fault when things go wrong. There was a rough and honest girl living opposite the volunteer's young lady, whose young man was a sailor. He made more than one voyage, and she was uniformly faithful and glad to greet him when he came home.

Then he went away to China and was to be absent two years, and before going he said he knew she'd be faithful to him, and he never had thought of anybody else, and didn't think she would either, and she said no, she'd never thought of such a thing as "turning him up," and she never would.

So he went; and she wrote laboriously to him every week, for she certainly was, as her family were, the soul of faithfulness and honesty. The family made friends everywhere by virtue of their sterling qualities. A typical instance of this occurred once when three of them had gone to stay in the country for a week, but at the end of the week wanted to stay on. So they asked the woman they lodged with if she would trust them, and they would pay her after they got home. She consented without hesitating, as anyone would be inclined to do who knew the Carters. When they got back they sent her the money and a shilling over, and a set of mustard spoons as a tribute of gratitude.

There was never a family who passed more satisfactorily the ordeal of examination by the Charity Organization Society, when Mrs. Carter was ill and needed change.

There never was a family on better terms with their neighbours–good and bad. When Mrs. Carter came back from a country holiday, the whole court turned out to greet her, and to exclaim, "Well, Mrs. Carter, you are red in the face, aren't yer?" "Well, my gracious, I shouldn't ardly ave known yer; you've grown so stout." There was never ill word spoken of them.

Ellen waited and wrote faithfully. On Sunday afternoons she would not even go out, but sat at home. Imagine therefore how she was cut to the heart when a letter came with the most pathetic appeal to her not to give him up: he had not had one word from her. It was a letter to harrow anyone to the heart. For he sent her a pressed flower and photograph of himself dressed like a Chinaman under a paper umbrella; and he said how two of his mates who'd had young ladies at home had each of them been turned up by his girl, and how he (Ellen's intended) had told them he was sure his girl would never turn him up, and how was it she didn't write. And then he ended, "It's only two years to wait, and I'm ready to wait that faithful for you, and, Ellen, can't you wait it for me?"

Ellen was a girl who was both plump and florid. After that letter she fretted till she grew pale and thin; and had to take her dresses in quite a large piece. But at last happiness was restored to her. She heard that her letters had begun to reach him, and that he was comforted.

Sometimes a courtship begun most happily has an unexpected, unhappy ending.

Such was the case in a rather strange way with a girl, by name Emily Miller. Emily at the age of seventeen began to keep company with a most "desirable" young man–a schoolteacher, who on Sundays wore stuck-up collars and beautiful ties, and sometimes handed round the plate in church.

He was rather above her in station; but still Emily was a clever girl and very good company; and it was an edifying sight to see the two walking through the churchyard side by side, he tall and slim–he was over six feet high–and she with the peculiar trimness and smartness that a London girl knows how to impart cheap attire. Both were communicants; he was a Sunday School teacher, and she was soon to be one.

So matters went on for six months or more, but after a while Emily began to look harassed and worried. She was a girl from whom it was a laborious task to get confidences: not that she was unwilling to give them; she would come for an interview with that express purpose, but when she came this kind of colloquy would ensue:

"Well, how's all going with you?"

"Pretty well." Emily begins to colour slightly.

"Everything really all right?"

Silence on Emily's part.

"Is it, Emily?"

Silence. Emily grows redder.

"Is anything wrong?"

Silence.

"Oh, well, never mind. You know I never want to know anything you'd rather not tell me! We'll talk about other things."

Emily moves on her chair, and then says very low,

"I do want to tell you."

"Then do tell me."

Silence.

"Don't be afraid, my dear; tell me."

Dead silence.

"You are sure you want to? Perhaps after all you would rather not."

"I do want to tell you–very much."

"Then can't you tell me now?"

Silence.

"Would you rather write a letter and tell me so?"

Emily was a very good letter writer.

"No; I'd rather say it."

Then the same round was gone through again. At last Emily got it out by fragments.

"For one thing, things ain't right at home. Mother and father hasn't been on the best of terms, and when I hear them having a few words it makes me feel as though I could go out and never go home anymore; and there's something else too."

But what that something else was could not be discovered then. Next day came a letter. "There is something I feell as though I want to tell you, and yet I caun't for one thing I do not like going to ____ Church for that young man I used to go out with. I am really afraid to go down by the church at night in case he was to spring out on me, for he told me something that set me against him. Wherever I go he seems to be, for sometimes when I go out in the morning he is outside of my house, and I feell as though I can't speak to me [him], and it seems as though all the things come on top of each other, for what of him and others I feell as though I don't know whate to do with myself; but it is of no use of woorying about it, although I caun't help it. I do not go out with him now to till you the truth, I am afraid of him I do not think he is quite right. I got quite afraid of him but it seems as though weather I go he seems to be, and he got playing about once or twice and I did not like it."

Further inquiry showed that the young man had been dismissed from the school for bullying the little boys, but he had always been thought rather a "soft" and a coward; that one did not know where he was living; that his strange and bad talk had frightened and disgusted her so that she had refused to go out with him; but now he followed her up to work, and in the evening waited for her there and walked home behind her.

"And close to our house, miss, there's that bit of dark street, you know it; the lamps don't show any light down it, and there's always a lot of rough girls and young men standing about there. I don't like going through it. And one evening I was going home–there's another young girl where I work goes home with me nearly all the way–and I'd said good-night to her and turned down there, when he–" the poor child began to shake all over and sob–"he–jumped out upon me there–right upon me. I screamed out loud and tried to get away, and he struck me; and the girls only laughed–and then screamed–and a man came out–and then he ran away–and now I am afraid every night he'll do it again."

"But my dear, you ought to be protected of course. Why didn't you tell your mother?"

Emily was crying too much to speak. At last she said, "I daren't tell mother; she'd say it was my fault. I dread going home at night now, for when I get in they seem to begin on me, and she and father'd say it was my fault," and she cried so much that no more could be done than to see her safely home.

Next day came a pathetic note.

"Do not tell anybody two much about what I told you about what he said to me when he sprang out on me when I was going home. I think he might write and my mother or father might open the letter, and I wouldant have mother or father know for anything. I don't know what they would think of me. I am sure I should of told mother only I now they would always be telling me of it when their was any words at home, and I should feel it more then. I must tell you I don't feel so bad now I have told you; I have wanting to tell you, but I have not liked to. Do not mind the writing as I wrote it in bed."

Of course the matter was looked to. Emily was sent away for a fortnight's change, and the young man watched, and after a while he left the neighborhood.

He had only given her two presents in the course of their acquaintance–a pair of gloves and a Bible. The gloves were worn out and could not be returned; Emily sent back the Bible. She wrote, "I have done as you said and I feell happier. I feell very lonely now."

Would there were no blacker stories! Rosie Lander was a girl with a great deal of presence about her. Black-haired, with keen eyes that had a veiled, mocking look about them. One could never forget that she was in the room. When she desired it she could be the centre of whatever was going on; though sometimes it would please her to be completely silent for hours together. Dumb Crambo can hardly be said to afford an adequate field for the display of dramatic powers, but Rosie's acting was surprising. She had also an illimitable power of keeping her countenance; and was witty. She made great friendships and fierce enmities. She had, if one may use the vague phrase, "animal magnetism" about her. She was not pretty, nor had she marked features, but she was more striking looking than many prettier girls, and in a pink print at 1–3/4d. the yard, would look far the best dressed person in the room.

She had come of a very satisfactory family, well dressed and well educated, and she had lived at home till she was sixteen, petted and spoilt by her father. Then both her parents died within a few months of each other. The younger children went into orphanages; and Rosie and a sister two years older took a dreary back room in a monotonous street of South London, and supported themselves by "business."

The sister was a specially nice girl, affectionate and upright, and anxious to do her duty by the others. She kept up a close correspondence with the younger children, and spent pence she could ill spare in sending them stamps, and cakes, and pots of jam, and going to see them.

But the change of life had a very different effect on Rosie. No doubt it was most trying for a girl who had been used to petting, and to a pleasant home where everything was done for her, and to a good many treats and outings, to be exiled to this dismal back room and forced to scrape along on hardly-earned money. The window only looked on a blank prospect of roofs and chimneys. The room was tiny and not over clean. Often the two girls would oversleep themselves and have to hurry off to work, and then return late in the evening after a hard day and a long tramp home to find the bed unmade, the fire unlit, the room chilly and untidy; and would hardly have spirits to get supper for themselves.

It was not so dreary for the elder sister, for she was engaged to a most eligible young man in the Post Office, and he would call in to see her and take her to see his friends. She used to ask Rosie to go with them, but three in such circumstances is not company, and Rosie got into the habit of walking out a good deal in the evenings, and she began to pick up acquaintances among not very desirable young men at the place where she worked.

Presently her sister found this out and spoke to her, and Rosie resented it very much. Her sister's fiancé also discovered it, and also spoke to Rosie. And Rosie was rude to him. Her sharpness of tongue made her utterances wounding. Naturally relations between the sisters began to be strained.

Then the sister was married, and Rosie departed to lodge in a family which was by no means an edifying one for a young girl. The father was an honest man, but his wife, Mrs. Thomas, was a strange mixture of religious emotion and carelessness; and the young men lodgers were of an undesirable character. Rosie's friend in the family was the eldest girl–a girl with much good in her–who herself afterwards had a strange sad history. Mrs. Thomas talked a great deal about how she would indeed try to be a mother to the motherless, with tears of genuine emotion in her eyes, and then she both spoilt and neglected Rosie.

Rumours began to be more generally rife about her. Her manner grew almost insolent, and she was not ashamed of being seen acting rowdily by those whose good opinion she had hitherto courted. For example, she went out for the day with the Bible-class, which she attended regularly, left them and was found in a flower-show, held close by, being photographed with two young soldiers whom she had never seen before. And expostulations were met on Rosie's part by utter silence and a disengaged composure of manner.
Her work was very slack; and an attempt was made to get her to emigrate to some very nice cousins of hers in South Australia. She was a strong girl and full of go; and the idea seemed to attract her. Quite suddenly she changed her mind and refused to go. Things looked black.

But an unexpected turn came. She struck up a violent friendship with one of the very nicest girls at the place where she worked, and she left Mrs. Thomas, and went to lodge with her at her home. Amelia Hodge was a thorough good girl and had a good home. She was hardly as "genteel" as Rosie, but her bosom friend, Mabel, who lived two doors off, was very genteel indeed. Mabel was an only child; a very pretty girl, and a good one; and I need mention no more than the fact that they had a piano, and a stair-carpet, to show what desirable acquaintances Rosie was making. Mabel was very musical; she could play and sing, and Rosie and Amelia had useful voices. So they spent their evenings together, singing and talking, and went to church on Sundays. The affection of the trio was so great, that they called each other sisters.

But there was a young man also lodging at Mrs. Hodge's with whom Rosie took up. There was nothing to be heard against his character, but certainly acquaintance with him, or through him with others, began to influence Rosie. She began to stay out late at night; and to be very saucy if she was spoken to. She put gaudy feathers into her hat. She bought herself a white muslin skirt with a yellow plush top, and quarrelled with Mabel. She went further and quarrelled with Amelia.

At last a crisis came. She did not come home one night till nearly one o'clock. Mrs. Hodge had been sitting up waiting. She was ill, and harassed, and very anxious about Rosie; and when she heard her knock and let her in, she began a fierce remonstrance. Rosie heard her out, and then said, "You hold your jaw, Mrs. Hodge, I pay for my keep, and I've a right to do as I like. What's it to you?"
Mrs. Hodge grew excited and lost her head. "Don't you give me any more of your sauce," she said, "There, I've done for you like a mother, and kept you when work was slack, and you behaving like this, coming at this hour. I've a good mind to turn you out."
"I'll save you the trouble, Mrs. Hodge," said Rosie, "for I'm not going to stop. You give me my things now, and I'll go."

Mrs. Hodge declared she should do nothing of the kind.

"Then I'll bring them as'll make you," said Rosie, as she turned round and went away.

In the morning she appeared again with a policeman. This breach of hospitality was too outrageous; Mrs. Hodge let her in speechlessly. She collected her goods and departed.

After she had gone, Mrs. Hodge going to her room to erase every trace of her, found the following letter–given in extenso:

"Dearest Bill,
Just a few lines to say I am quite well and hope you are the same. I hope you arrived there safe and sound not cracked. I don't know what sort of weather your having, but it is something splendid here the wind is rather high but that's no matter. I was rather tired on Friday after the pleasant evening I had the night before. Mrs. Hodge thanks you very much, and said she enjoyed herself very much indeed. Isn't Mr. Hodge getting a gay young spark he went himself on Saturday night and left Mrs. Hodge at home all by herself. Amelia went out with a young friend of her's, and I went out with Mr. and Mrs. Palliser, and spent a very pleasant evening. I was telling Mrs. Hodge about what I said outside the place where the priests wear white aprons you remember don't you about not going in if one didn't come. Dear Bill, Mr. Jones went off in quite a good temper shows he don't often go away like that or else I shouldn't notice it. But I quite forgot for the minute, you said in the Canterbury I see too much. I don't know whether you meant it or not, all the same if you did my lamps are my own. x. Saucey Somebody ask me if I kissed you 3 times in one place I'll leave you to guess what for. I said you wouldn't like me to as I don't think your fond of it enough he said I was joking as he knew better than that, so he know's something at least he thinks he does. Mrs. Palliser is a little better to-day, so she as done without you going to see her you known what I mean it sounded rather saucey on your part me being so innocent. I didn't know what you meant you may be sure I didn't if you went by the answers I give you. Believe it if you like. Dear Bill, your Mother as been here kicking up a Devil of a row of course she was Drunk. Mrs. Hodge said shall she give her them Socks as she keep's on asking for them, she went to get her money to-day and she said she came over so excited that a policeman had to take her over the road, she is a bright star for anyone to have for a mother. I pity anybody with such especially anybody I care for. Dear Bill, what do you think of the policeman I told you about the one I was talking up the area to one night just as I got outside the warehouse. I saw him knocked down by an horse and taken to the hospital poor fellow, I pity him, but I can't cry now I'll cry another day. Dear Bill, when I whispered to you in the Canterbury I said don't go and dream about Tilly again and think she is kissing you or else I shall give you What for. I had a fine dream about you I'll tell you about it when I see you again and when I get in the middle of it I shan't finish telling you as I think it is rather to strong. Mr. Hodge said will you get him 2 or 3 hard cakes of the very best tobacco. Dear Bill, just to oblige kindly excuse this awful untidy letter it is rather a dry one, but I can't help it as they keep on telling me Dinner's ready. Dear Bill, let me know if you will be up on Sunday. Mr. and Mrs. Palliser send there best respects to you. Dear Bill, I don't think I have any more time to say any more so I will enclose my letter with my Best wishes to you.
I remain with fondest Love,
From Rosie – x x x x
P.S. Gives Amelia's love to Frank, and she hope's he'll keep is word and she wishes he was at home to take her to the Crystal Palace."

It is difficult for a different class to know exactly how bad such a letter is. Mrs. Hodge's disgust and wrath knew no bounds.
"I wouldn't have kept her another day in my house," she said. "To think a young girl like that could write such a thing. How does it come here? Why, because he was so disgusted with it that he sent it back. Well, I hadn't any idea what that girl was like. And me been so good to her. Why, to show you how thoughtful I've been and kind to her, I broke an umbrella only last week over my own daughter's back, because I said she shouldn't speak so unkind to an orphan. Well, my eyes are opened. I see the sort she is. And where she's gone to nobody knows."

But Rosie had been more prudent than anyone expected her to be after such an "upset." She went straight back to Mrs. Thomas's, where she had lodged before, and told her own story with moderate accuracy. Only accounting for her having been out so late at night by a series of remarkable accidents.

Mrs. Thomas received her with open arms, chiefly out of a sort of washy good nature in which she abounded; not out of a realisation of the girl's need and danger, and certainly not out of desire for gain, for taking bad weeks with good, Rosie certainly must have cost her more than the money she received from her.

"Well, yes, pore girl, I told her while there was a crust among us she should share it," she said, looking out of the window with moist eyes. "Of course, I don't excuse her altogether. Stay out late at night she certainly did while she was here, but I think that woman [she meant Mrs. Hodge] can't have had a mother's heart towards her. Rosie told me how she always done all she could of the washing for her, and yet how short she'd be. And to let a girl like that turn away from your door in the middle of the night. Well, we mustn't blame others, must we? We've all got our faults; but Rosie's welcome to stay here, and so I've told her."

For a while things went quietly. Rosie would not hear a word as to her own conduct; she was the most well conducted of womankind, according to her own account. After a few weeks a sentence in Mrs. Thomas's letter told the old tale:

"What I say to you is between ourselves, but there is a young man, and he has not got a good influence over her, but if you write to her do not take any notice of what I have said, but you can ask her for yourself."

This was a new young man. He was the son of a respectable chimney-sweep living near, and was reported to be a good workman. Rosie said she had known him a long time. But she herself looked less and less satisfactory. She was hardly ever in till twelve at night.
A fresh turn came. Work was slack, and Rosie left it, and took a place as "general" to a Frenchwoman living in a tiny flat in the west of London. For a while her mistress's broken English, and the queer dishes she made up out of vegetables, took Rosie's fancy, and she seemed to have settled. Then she went to see her married sister, and played with the baby and gave general satisfaction.

Then suddenly came a reverse again, as the following letter from her married sister will show:

"I am glad you saw Rosie, as I have not seen her for some weeks; it is entirely her own fault, she is as welcome here as anybody; but she came to me one evening when she was at her place, and brought me her washing; it was about 8 o'clock one Thursday night, and I had done my own, and baby was very troublesome. I said I could not do it; I had enough to do to think of my own duties, and to see after the other three without being bothered with her [Rosie]; that was all I said; she turned round, and as she went out of the door never said good-bye or kissed baby, but said she should never come here again, and if I wanted to see her I should have to go there. She knows I would do anything for her, but she is so bouncable when she comes here I cannot make her out. I am willing to be friends with her, but if she never came here I shall never go and see her, because it is her fault, and I don't deserve to be treated like it. I am sure I am always thinking about her, and wishing she would come, for it would be company for us both. Mrs. Thomas came here once or twice, and got talking about her to me, which I am sure I did not much approve of as she is my own sister, and I don't like to hear it."
Then, at last, came the crash. Rosie left her place. She went to her sister's to tea, left her things there, and said she would call for them. She did not come for days. The sister went round frightened to Mrs. Thomas's; they had not seen her except once in the street with the young man, Tom Burn.

The only chance to hear of her was at his mother's; and there, indeed, there was much to be heard.

"You've come about that girl," she said. "I wish she'd never darkened these doors. Why, if it weren't for her, my boy'd have been living respectable with me and his father now. She've led him away. Ah, I've told him my mind; I've told him as he must never show his face at home again–a son o' mine to come to that. She's done it, with her talk and her scheming. He was as nice and honest a young feller as you ever see, and now she's ruined him." And then followed a blacker tale than Rosie's friends have ever quite believed. "Where is he now? You can hear of him where he works. I've wished him dead before me sooner than this should have happened."

After a while they were found–living in apparent comfort; both going out to work every day. Rosie said they were married, but she refused to say where; she was polite and unmoved. Her sister when she heard of it was in such distress that she made herself ill. She "fretted so after Rosie."

Then Rosie and Bill left the room where they were living, and were lost sight of. After about a year came the good news that they were married, and were doing well.

That year had been a terrible one to both of them. They had been almost at the point of starvation, and Rosie had fallen ill and nearly died. She had been frightened; they both had felt vaguely that this was a judgment on them. And then they had resolved to be married, and so bit by bit had fought their way back to respectability and comfort. Now they are doing well. Rosie has a younger brother living with her. She is not much softened to outer appearances by her troubles; but she has evidently made up her mind to be respectable, as she had before made it up the other way. And she has plenty of force to carry out her resolves.

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