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

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15-A TROUBLED SOUL

The story of these next two chapters will be only interesting to those who care to trace the story of a pitiful and troubled soul, who was never a great heroine or saint, and was at one time, as she said herself, a very great sinner. She won one victory, and that a terribly hard one, but it meant by no means the renewal of the whole nature as it means to some. And indeed it was a poor little nature from first to last, resentful, suspicious, selfish, ill-tempered, though with a code of duty and with ideals and perceptions beyond the average of her class. She was capable of devoted affection and gratitude, but except here and there she did not lavish them where they were peculiarly due, but indeed caused much suffering to those most closely dependent on her. She showed endurance and heroism; but never unselfishness and generosity. And there was no triumphant end. Mind and soul grew gradually more clouded and confused, until it passed away out of the hands of those who had loved her but failed to help her far into the land where there are no shadows, and where the dealing is all-wise.

She was, when the story begins, a neat and pretty little woman of about forty-five, by name Mrs. Ballard, small-featured and intelligent-looking, with bright eyes and a sensitive, almost querulous mouth, but a very attractive smile that shone out quickly at a joke that she appreciated. Her hair was crimped in the fashion of days a little gone by; her dress was the pink of neatness and quietness.
And the home was beautifully kept. Only a pound a week came in, and yet they paid 8s. 6d. rent; the children were in burial clubs, the boy in a benefit club too, the husband in two benefit clubs. The four children were well cared for; the eldest girl, then fourteen, was a specially pretty, intelligent child, the boy of twelve was doing well at school, and of the two little girls, one was a delicate child of nine, who could not speak plainly, and the other seven years old, clever and taking with big, innocent eyes.

Their manners, schooled by their mother, were wonderfully good. They were frank and not forward, ready to be amused, and ready to talk, and yet very sensitive to any shade of approval or disapproval. On the social side they were like "a family out of a book." Every one of them except the delicate child had a gift of the gab, and to hear the youngest repeat the last Scripture lesson on Adam and Eve, or give her account of the school-treat, was as entertaining as could be.

Their father was a most steady, excellent man, also gifted intellectually as far as conversation went, though his manners and refinement were not equal to his wife's. He was a milkman, a teetotaller for years; he had a small face rather overgrown with black stubby hair. He was devoted to his children and the children to him; and an excellent husband up to his lights.

But here lay the sore point of the home. She was never the wife to him she ought to have been. She did her duty by the home and by him as far as material comfort and care were concerned; but more out of self-respect than affection.

The secret, learnt long afterwards, was that she had married him caring for another man. It was a complicated story, difficult to unravel, but the very ring she was wedded with was the gift of the other man.

So she was always captious towards him, and wayward with him. She did not believe in his good intentions; she often made his life bitter by innuendo, and sharpness, and small defiance; though in all ordinary ways she was a good and attentive wife. He was very genuinely fond of her.

To her eldest girl also, who was very like her father and devoted to him, she was never as just or kind as she ought to have been. Doubtless now and then his want of refinement tried her. Once when he was discussing before me an offer he had had from the "lady" who owned the business in which he was employed, he spoke of her as "the old girl." His wife I could see had been already disturbed by his appearance; his hair was on end, he was in his shirtsleeves, and his hands and arms were greasy, and his boots very dirty; he had just come off his round; but when he used the expression above referred to, she up and spoke to him: "Robert, what are you thinking of? Don't you speak like that before a lady." He only looked up and grinned, a little ashamed. "Oh, well," he said, "I didn't mean any harm. She understands; you needn't carry on." The "She" was another shock. The eldest and youngest girls were listening to every word, the younger between her father's knees, and both smiled a little. They were very quick to see the humour of events.
The life of the family was prone to squalls owing to their tempers, especially to the mother's, though they were fond of each other, and excellent company when things were smooth. The boy Jack was the only serene tempered one; and as he was very jocose and fond of teasing, he did not always promote the family harmony.(1) Yet, taken all in all, their home relations were at this time as peaceful and more affectionate than the average, and they ranked high for every other virtue.

Her little economies were wonderful. She was very reticent about them until she knew one well, and then she took pleasure in recounting them.
"Did you notice the little jacket Annie (the eldest girl) had on on Sunday? What do you think I paid for that? Thrippence."
She enjoyed one's wonder for a moment; for the jacket was a particularly nice tidy checked cloth with velvet collar and cuffs.
"I went into the market," she said, "to a auction, and there was a old ulster going. I'd felt it and looked at it and seen it was good, and I got it for thrippence. It was filthy" – she made a face of loathing – "but I washed it six times till it smelt as sweet as sweet. Then I cut it short; the hem and cuffs was all ragged and I'd a bit of velvet off my old Sunday bonnet, and I steamed it and cut out a collar and cuffs, and put on the brass buttons from her old jacket, and there it was."

Her care did not only extend to clothes; even her husband's substantial coat, which she patched and turned, and re-fronted, and re-buttonholed, did not end her enthusiasm. She had a biscuit tin full of cobblers' tools, and mended the boots of the family.
But she was not absorbed in family cares. Her mind was too keen for that. She had never learnt to read–a great grief to her. She had learnt to trace her own name, and that was all she could do. But she would make the children repeat their lessons to her, and would listen thirstily to information of any kind.

She had been a woman with little knowledge of religion until about a year before this time. She told me how the change had come about. She had been in poor health and had felt vague longings for comfort and help. "And one day," she said, "a Sunday evening me and Annie was walking by a church, and we stood still and watched the people go in. And it made me feel all queer, I can't tell you how, standing there and looking at them, and I said to Annie, ‘Oh, dear, if only somebody would ask me to go in.' And just that very minute as I was saying it, there come a touch on my shoulder, and I looked round all of a jump, and it was a lady stood there, and she smiled very pleasant and said, ‘Won't you and your little girl come into church with me?' Wasn't it a strange thing? I don't know if she heard; but I don't think she did–for I said it to Annie, quite low I said it."

The longings awakened were not transient. She heard a sermon on Confirmation, and went and gave in her name. Annie used to attend the classes with her in order to take notes of what was said. There were questions to which the candidates had to write answers, and Annie used to write her mother's for her, at her dictation. She became a Communicant, and then she and Annie together attended a class for young girls from fifteen to twenty; and it was a touching sight to see her listening.

"I think it's knowing I can't read for myself makes me feel as if I couldn't miss a word," she said. "There! When Mr. Reed gets up to read in church I fix my eyes on him as if I'd eat him up, I'm so afraid of missing what he reads out. I can't always understand it all you know, but I do listen."

She did listen, and to a great extent did her best to live conformably.

One might well have looked upon them as a family established in all good ways, and safe in their respectability.

But changes come with a terrible quickness, and from quarters where one has not looked for them. A better knowledge would have led no doubt to a gradual perception of the change, perhaps even to expectation of it. The story can only be told here from an outsider's point of view. The gradual change could only be described by those closest to her.

An enemy was upon her; one of the most insidious and widespread evils that haunt our nation.

All appeared to be going well until about two years after her confirmation. Then a most unexplained blight seemed to be falling on the family, all of whom I knew by this time very well indeed. Mrs. Ballard herself was ailing, thin and miserable. They left their house because she did not think it healthy, and they moved about from one set of rooms to another, always paying their rent, but contrary to their former habits, always in a dreadful muddle.

She seemed distressed at it herself; explained it by saying she hadn't had time and strength to keep things straight. Their changes of abode were due, so she said, once to the undesirableness of their neighbours; once to the smokiness of the rooms. Their weekly income would not bear the expense of the moves, and they had to borrow, but they paid back the borrowed money with absolute regularity. There was nothing tangible to find fault with.

Ballard himself looked harrassed and worried; said he was troubled about her, she didn't seem like herself. One day the children were sent back from school because their pinafores were dirty. Mrs. Ballard fretted and cried herself ill over it; she said it was such a disgrace.

A great worldly change came to them. They had a most advantageous offer of the milk business in which he had been a hired man, and they took it, and moved into the small shop and the rooms above.

Absence made it difficult to see them often, but Annie's letters became more and more dreary. "Mother has been so ill that I have had the shop to attend to all by myself, but mother is downstairs this morning so I have a few minutes to spare. It is so miserable all day of a Sunday now there is no class. Mother has been so ill, she has had to keep her bed, but she is a little better as she is able to come downstairs," and over and over again – "Mother is not much better and father seems awfully worried."

Then round through many hands and very vaguely came the report that Mrs. Ballard had lately taken to drinking. It seemed almost impossible at first to credit it. Then it came at first hand from a next door neighbour, a school-mistress, a quiet, good, benevolent woman. She said it was now a patent fact to the neighbourhood. Mrs. Ballard even at times went out to drink with other women at the public close by.

The only thing was to approach her straight. She failed on one appointment, and sent to say she was too poorly. The next day she came punctual to the moment, and sat looking white and ill, her eyes cast down, but as neatly clad as ever, her hair crimped, her bonnet neatly tied back, her black gloves well mended. She talked in a faint voice, but like herself, though there was an odd dazed look about her.

I told her quite plainly what I had heard.

She sat silent for a minute and trembled from head to foot. Then she raised her eyes, looked straight at me and said, "Yes, it's quite true. I have took to it," and then she added,

"But you don't know what for, nor how I have been drove to it. Now you know what I've done, I'll tell you why."

And in a quiet matter-of-fact way, she told me the most horrible story of ill-usage from her husband and her eldest girl.

"Annie holds my hands," she said, "while he beats me. They've made me so black and blue, I've hardly been able to move in the morning. He's struck me with the poker; he's nearly killed me. You don't know; you believe he's good to me; but isn't that enough to make me drink? Why I dread his coming off his rounds, for I know he'll be on me as soon as he's in, and Annie's just as bad, and stronger than me. And she won't do a thing I tell her; she'll sit by the fire in the morning folding her arms and look and laugh at me; and if I tell her to go about and do her work, she'll only sauce me, and when her father comes in and I tell him, he upholds her in all, and gives me a blow very likely too. The little ones and Jack are all sorry for me. I've seen em sit by crying while their father and Annie use me like that. That's why I drink, and now you know it."

And then she went on to express the darkest suspicions.

The account was as sickening as it was incredible; knowing what one did of them all. And yet she sat there and said it quietly without asseveration or excitement. There was no sign of drink about her.

And yet if these could be true, the utter childish frankness of Annie's black eyes was a mere mark of brutality, and his rough honesty a take-in.(2)

"But what made him ill-use you at first?"

"I don't know," she said; "but it's that makes me drink."

"Did he ever treat you so before you took to drink?"

Her expression wavered a little. "That's why I took to drink," she said again.

Then she agreed to come again next morning for another talk.

The best plan was to catch Ballard on his rounds; one did not know how a message to him to ask him to come might affect either him or his wife, and there was no chance of seeing him in peace at home.

The first sight of him as he stood by his small hand-cart in the road was enough to show that he had been through deep waters. There was a look, not of the brutality she spoke of, but a haggard stamp of misery and anxiety on his face; his eyes were sunk and wretched.
He told a very different story, speaking of her with pity, as well as with loathing of the terrible habit, and of the misery it had been to him lately.

"She's scarcely without it a hour in the day," he said. "She's not been what you may call solid sober for the last month. She'll kill herself if she goes on in this way. Then perhaps she'll take a turn, and she'll wake up in her senses and send for me and tell me how sorry she is, and how she'll never do it again, crying and carrying on. I believed her the first time or two; but it wasn't of no use. And the last time she was like that, was ten days ago. Oh, it was all what she'd done for herself and us; and would I forgive her? Last time I said to her, ‘Well, you talk nice enough now but I know too well what you'll do, and you're a bringing of us and yourself to such a pass that if you do take to it again, why take to it and have done with it. You ain't a strong woman, and another bout or two'll do it; and that ud be the best place for you perhaps.' Perhaps it warn't right of me to speak like that, too severe, but I done it for her good. It makes you sick to see her." The tears were in his eyes, and his face all contorted with emotion, and it was a moment or two before he could go on. "And she's so dangerous when she's like that. She's like a madwoman. The children durstn't go near her. There I've found them times and times waiting about in the cold or rain outside the shop. ‘Why didn't you go in?' ‘We was afraid to; mother's so —
"Why me and Annie's been forced to hold her to get away the poker, or whatever it may be, from her times and times. She'll pick up anything and lay about her. And I've had to hold her by the wrists till my strength's near given way, she's struggled so. She's struggled till she bruised and hurt herself with me holding her. She don't know what she's doing. She wouldn't do it if she knew; and in the morning she'll wake up, and won't believe what she's done when we tell her. One night she did frighten me. I was just a dozing off and she was laying quiet enough, when she give a laugh like. ‘Do you want to know what I've got awaiting for you here?' she says, and then she pulls her hand out of the bed clothes, and she'd got a carving knife. It made my blood turn cold. But in the morning she didn't remember nothing about it.

"You see she can get plenty o'money over the counter, I can't help that; and she's companions that bring it her. She took to it when her health was so low, and it's in the family. I don't believe anything ll bring her round. I've tried encouraging her; I've promised her this and that, but it's all no use. The girl tries to watch her. ‘Don't you mind about the work,' I've told her; ‘but watch your mother, and if she tries to bolt, call me.' But she gets angry with the girl, and then the shop-bell rings and while Annie's a-serving them her mother'll be off by the side door. I don't know what to do, I'm so worried. I've got the fear on me all the time I'm out what she may be doing. I'm never at peace till I get home; and yet I feel at times I can't put foot in the shop for what I may see. She's losing us everything; the custom's going down; and the children's that ragged and dirty, I'm ashamed. So's she when she's right. I do the best I can for'em but I can't do like a mother. I bought em two little frocks only last week, they was going so untidy. Annie's a good girl, she does the best she can. But there! Well, it's a hell!" His hand that clenched the rail of the cart was trembling.

It was evident which spoke the truth when Mrs. Ballard came next day. She had not touched drink in the interval, and all the delusions it aroused in her brain were subsiding. She spoke not one word of her husband's ill-treatment of her, and in answer to a question she allowed,

"He was always very good to me before I began to drink."

She seemed penitent–very penitent; after a while overwhelmed with shame. And then she signed the following paper:
"I promise, with God's help, to keep from drink for the coming week."

She signed it with trembling fingers, tracing her name slowly, the only words she could write, and then she cried as if her heart would break.

That day week the promise was to be renewed for a fortnight. Constant visits found her sober, quiet, and very penitent and anxious to do well. Ballard looked brighter, and on the day when she was to sign again, a very comfortable little party was gathered in the tiny back parlour.

He sat on a stool by the fire, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his hand, smiling at her.

"That's the right sort o' thing" he said, when the paper was unfolded.

"Ah, you're pleased, ain't you?" said Mrs. Ballard, smiling across at him; she was much agitated pleasurably. "What do you think he's give me for keeping right–a new bonnet–didn't you? I'll fetch it and show it you."

And the new bonnet was fetched and unfolded. Even at that moment Mrs. Ballard's delight at a neat article overcame for a moment the greater sense of its symbolism. "It's got a neat crown, ain't it?" she said, holding it on her hand. "And the velvet's put on very nice." Then she put it away, and applied herself to signing her name, and she cried a little.

The choruses of Temperance songs, so unmeaning, so unpoetical as they sound in a bright well-conducted schoolroom, came back to one with force. It seemed as if it would no longer be ridiculous to sing, "Father has signed the pledge tonight, and we're all happy and gay."

That was Saturday. The next day she came to class with Annie in her new bonnet, looking her old self again. And through the next week all seemed to be going well. She said she had not once felt the craving after drink.

On the Sunday afternoon Annie alone was in her place, with a thunder-cloud on her brow. She said she believed her mother was coming, and, ten minutes late, Mrs. Ballard came up the narrow paved way with a hurried step, and went to her chair agitated. She never raised her eyes through the afternoon; and stayed when the others went.

"I must tell you," she said, "I've done it again. I've given way. There, don't look at me like that; I knew you would. But I've done it; I've broke my promise. Annie's so angry she wouldn't come to class with me. She went without me, and I didn't mean to come, but then I felt I must come and tell you."

Her hands were nervously catching at the fringe of her cloak.

"It was last night," she said,"One of them women near came into the shop. I was feeling so bad; all sinking and I couldn't eat not even that beef-tea you told me nor anything. And she says, ‘You do look sinking; you'll kill yourself this rate' and she brought it out, the bottle, from under her shawl. ‘You take a drop,' she said, ‘you'll kill yourself breaking it all off sudden like this.' I knew you told me it wasn't so; but when I saw it I couldn't help it–I broke my promise."

"He's so angry with me," she went on, "I tried to keep quiet so he shouldn't see, but he knew."

After talk with her and him, it was arranged that she should go, taking the delicate child with her, to a Convalescent Home for six weeks; the authorities hearing all about her, she paying half the cost. Then she might try again. But she gave a most solemn promise that if she broke down again she would go into an Inebriate Home for six months at least. The binding force to her of a promise seemed wonderful through the days to come. One little thought how it would be needed to stand. If one had feared enough, one perhaps would not have had enough faith in it. Her husband believed this was the only plan. The drinking had been so constant, the temptations round so terrible.

She had to buy herself an outfit, and was to come and show it to me the evening before she left. She came; she seemed very much over-tired, but there was no sign to show that she had again been drinking. Next day we were to meet and drive to the station together. She was there with the child and her bundle ready.

But as we drove to the station, the fact became only too evident. She was as she had been in her first interview, not drunk, but not "solid sober." She did not try to deny it.

"Yes, I have," she said. "I've done it again. I can't keep from it at home. Don't keep me back, let me go to that Convalescent Home, and I will keep from it there. Don't take away that chance. Do let me go." And she pleaded so eagerly that it seemed best to let her go; the authorities knew her circumstances; an arrangement was made, it seemed the best thing to do. And again she promised most solemnly that she would go to an Inebriate Home if she failed again.

But the next thing that was heard was a telegram from the Convalescent Home to the husband, to say that she had arrived there drunk and quarrelsome, and had insisted on going home again.

He was so angry and sick at heart, that when he went to meet her, he only took the child silently from her and left her to follow. She was insolent now.

"Ah, you thought you'd got rid of me, didn't you?" she said, taunting him as she walked behind him. "You thought wrong–Here I am–Oh yes, here I am." All this in a loud tone that attracted the attention of the passers-by. This from a woman who in her right senses was almost morbidly quiet and modest, and easily annoyed and frightened by a rude stare or word.

Two days passed before anything could be done. She drank on openly, evading him when he tried to watch her; rushing out at the side door, and sitting drinking in the public with worthless women.

Coming up on the third day, with a promise from an Inebriate Home to take her in, I found him standing in the shop, the picture of haggard misery.

"She's gone on worse than ever," he said. "It'll kill me if this goes on. Last night some one come in, and said I must fetch her if I didn't want to find her in the lock-up. There she was brawling among them women; she wouldn't move nor be quiet. A nice way for a man to find his wife, ain't it? She'd have carried on with me; but I let her know who was master and brought her home. She is quieter this morning, crying and going on, but she ain't sober. She's there in the parlour, and a terrible sight too. She wouldn't stay upstairs."
It was a terrible sight. There she lay anyhow on the shabby sofa; dressed in a dirty draggled ulster, her torn stockings and boots hanging down helplessly. Her face was dirty and smeared with tears, her hair lustreless and hanging over it. Her eyes red and swollen, her mouth ceaselessly moving and twitching, and her hands clenched. She was moaning and crying. "Oh, there you are, are you," she said, "Ah! go away, go away; I've done for myself now. I'm past forgiveness now; let me go to hell. You can't keep me from it. I might have got better, but I can't now. I can't be forgiven. My sin's too black for that. Go away, don't come."

Her eldest girl was standing by; and if ever shocked loathing was written on a young face it was on hers. My only hope seemed to be to speak decidedly.

"Mrs. Ballard, stop talking and listen to me. You have failed; you've given way again. Now you must keep your promise. I shall come back in half an hour, and then I must find you tidy and clean, and your things put together, and I shall take you to the Home I spoke of.

You will stay there till you have got rid of this horrible habit, and learnt to be a respectable woman again."

She sat quiet and listened."Oh, must I go," she said, "I know I promised, but won't you let me off this once? Won't you give me another chance?"

"No, it's not possible. You must keep your promise. Now go upstairs at once, and Annie will help you."

She pleaded once more for another chance, and then she gave way, got up, and went slowly upstairs.

In half an hour she was ready; tidy and clean, and able to stand up and speak properly. She begged once more for another chance; but accepted a refusal submissively and came. Her husband and Annie watched her with white set faces. The little ones cried.
Throughout the drive she was quiet, not crying and not talking. We had to go first to the doctor's to get her medical certificate of freedom from infection signed; and while waiting she sat quiet with her eyes cast down.

"Did you tell him where I was going?" she said.

"Yes, I had to."

She said no more. She was equally silent when the Home was reached; and there she was left.

"I'll stay, and do my best. Good bye!" were her last words.

It was only the beginning of troubles. There was desire in her, and there was hope. But the desire for better things must be backed by the desire for the discipline that alone will bring them–or the fight fails.

For the first week she would not settle. Then she seemed fairly happy and comfortable. But at the end of the month there came suddenly a message to say she was behaving badly, and must be dismissed at once.

And she was perfectly obdurate–wild and excited. She would not stay another day; and there followed all sorts of accusations against the place.

"It ain't I want to drink," she said; "but I'll kill myself if I stay here. I've learnt my lesson; I'll never touch it again. I'll never touch it. I can keep straight now. But I must go. I can't help my promise; you don't know what the place is like. I'll not lose sight of you; I'll come home now in my cap as I am."

She grew wilder as she talked. Finally she grovelled on her knees by her bedside. "I'll kill myself if I don't go," she said. "I'll strangle myself with my handkerchief. I'll kill myself. I must go." She was weeping and shaking all over.

It was hopeless to combat it; especially as the head of the Home said that, unless she became quiet and peaceable, they could not for the sake of the other inmates keep her. Her husband was sent for, and she went home with him, very angry, taunting and mocking him.
His intense surprise at the sight of her the next day is difficult to describe, and was enough to make one hope against hope. She had put the house into beautiful order; she herself was dressed neatly, and had a self-possessed, quiet manner, with even dignity about it.

"I can't expect you to trust me," she said. "I know that. I can only earn your trust by keeping from it, and that's what I shall do. I've had my lesson now–and I'll keep from it."

There was no bravado about it–no asseveration; she merely stated quietly her intention to keep straight, and neither resented doubts nor claimed trust. She was so confident of herself that she said:

"I'll promise you may do whatever you like with me if I break down again, and I'll keep my word."

Of course, the one hope if she broke down again was to get her into an Inebriate Home certified under the Act; that is, a Home the inmates of which have signed away their liberty for a year before a magistrate, and are therefore legally bound to stay. Imprisonment is the punishment (of course practically never resorted to) for running away before the year is out. These homes are few and expensive, but in her case it would be possible to arrange the matter.

When this was put before her, she assented. "Yes, I'll do that if I break down again."

For ten days all went well. She came to church and class, controlled her temper at home, and did well in every way, and spent her time in getting the clothes of the family into order.

Then, again, came a message from the husband that she had given way.

Degradation had wrapped her again. The change from a self-respecting, quiet woman to a poor, nervous, miserable creature, who could not meet one's eye, was indescribable. She cowered and looked every way.

"This was how it was," she said, "You let me tell you. Jack had spilt the milk at the station, spilt it over the platform and I was vexed. I fretted and cried myself ill over it; and I felt all so weak–and then I give way. But you won't make me go away to the Home, will you? You'll give me another chance."

But again she submitted to the decision that she must go.

It was obvious that during the few days that must elapse before she could be sent she wanted careful watching. And a good old woman undertook to go there every day and see to her. But she gave her the slip one afternoon and rushed out and drank herself into a state from which it would take days to recover. Still she was sensible enough to hold to her promise, and it was arranged that she should go with her husband and this woman to the police-court to sign before a magistrate, and go that day.

But the following note came from the husband:

"After all when we got to the court Mrs. Ballard would not go and she made a shocking disturbance in the court and the magistrate sent a policeman out to say if she was going to sign she was to do it at once or else go away; but if you will be so kind as to grant me an interview this evening I will explain things to you. I do not know whatever to do for I am almost beside myself."

But after she got home, she was sorry; and sent to say she had not known what she was doing, and would attend the police-court again, and would sign and go quietly away.

And this, to our intense astonishment, she did next day. Her husband took her by train, and left her safely at the Home. She seemed quiet enough, but she did not cry when he left her. She said she knew she had done for herself; she meant to stay her year, but she did not suppose she should live so long.

He came back, poor man, more at ease and relieved than he had been for a year.

At first the accounts were as satisfactory as we had expected. She could not write herself, but got others to write for her. She was to do kitchen-maid's work, and was taken at reduced terms, to which her husband paid his contribution.

But gradually the accounts grew worse. She was obstinate; she refused to work, was very passionate, spent half the morning lying on her bed. Finally came the worst account of all, that the day before, after a fit of passion, her room had been found empty, with her cap and apron thrown on the bed. They had feared suicide, and had searched the grounds and pond for the poor woman, but finally she had appeared at the gate with a policeman, whom she had fetched from the town near, saying she was being ill-treated.

It was only with great difficulty that the authorities of the Home were prevailed on to keep her. The prospect at the end of the year seemed very black; though her wild fits alternated with fits of penitence, when she said she saw how bad she had been, and would do better.

Then, about two months later, came an excellent report of her. She was trying to control herself, was amenable to reason, and was altogether a different woman. Her religion seemed to have come back to her; she went to church, and loved to go. And the improvement was steadily maintained, until the day came when she was to come back. Her tenderness for her home seemed to have revived; she sent little presents, and very touching, loving messages, especially to her boy.

Her husband had hoped to be able to move, and perhaps to go into the country, so that she might be more out of reach of temptation. But he could not manage it, and, after all, the friends who kept her straight were near her old home.

What a coming home it was. Her husband went by rail to fetch her, and brought her home. The children were there, half shy, half glad. She kissed them without demonstration, and they said nothing, only kissed her very warmly. She said once that evening: "I'm going to do different now. I'm glad I'm back. I'm going to do very different. I can see what I've done."

The eldest girl was to leave the next day, and go to a Training Home. She was a thoroughly good girl, but her mother and she had never got on very well; and both were not needed in the shop, and plenty of work and responsibility were as likely to help Mrs. Ballard as anything. Her near departure made her mother affectionate to her; she gave her some caps and aprons of her own, and took her herself next day to the Training Home. It helped her self respect much to be as kindly and politely treated as she was there, so soon after her homecoming, and to consulted about Annie as if she were the best of mothers.

Her old, quiet manner came back again. She resumed her good habits, tidied the children, got up early, went to class and church. She joined the Phoenix Society, and her old talent for description came out in her account of it.

"When you go into the room," she said, "You've got to raise your hand like this, and salute the officers–secretary and that ." She raised a straight red hand like a pump-handle. "Ain't that funny?"–and her face beamed with pleasure–"And don't they look out sharp on you. They keep popping into the shop, and if I'm not there, they'll ask the children, ‘Where's your mother?' I like that. I like them to come in any time, then they can see I'm all right. You do that, too. I want you to come popping in any time, and never tell me when you're coming, and then you can see I'm right. I don't ever meant to touch it again; but I'd like you to do that."

Several weeks after her homecoming, there came a terrible period of depression. She had not till then felt the craving; but now it came upon her fearfully. Day after day she said, "I'm keeping right, but I feel so low. I'm crying from day to night."

But one Sunday afternoon, going to see her, I met her with one of the children, and she beamed up at me with a radiance in her face.
"I've got something to tell you," she said; "it'll please you very much. Yesterday evening, about nine o'clock, you've no idea how bad I felt. It was dark and cold, and I'd been crying the best part of the afternoon because I felt so miserable; and I was lying on the sofa, my head was so bad, in the parlour; and it was all dirty, I hadn't had strength to clean it up. And the fire was burnt out nearly, and the candle burning with a long wick, you know how, and I hadn't spirit to get up and snuff it. And Ballard was a-sitting opposite in his chair. He'd got his pipe in his mouth, and he was all as dirty and untidy as could be, his hair a-sticking up, you know how, and his hands all greasy, and his shirt sleeves up. How he can abear to sit so I can't think. And then he'd gone to sleep, and his head was all hanging over the side, and his pipe in his mouth, half slipping out, and I thought every minute it ud tumble on the floor, and it kept me on the jump. The children was in bed, and Jack was at the rag-shop next door with the boy there. I knew how he'd come back. And then it come on me as if I must get something to drink, and thought how easy I could slip out by the side door without him noticing me and get it; and how I didn't mean to take too much; and you'd never know I'd broke my promise. But I don't think now I could have kept it from you. And then it come over me all at once how wicked I was, and I slipped upstairs and knelt down by my bed and prayed and prayed; and then it got cold, and I got into bed and lay there crying and crying till I suppose I dropped to sleep. And when I woke this morning it was six o'clock and the sun a-shining; and as I lay there, I felt so happy I didn't know what to do; and I've felt so happy since, and I know I shall."

And so for weeks she did. It had been a decisive victory, and the craving did not return.

But how all would have gone, no one can tell–for a merciful hand put an end to the strife.

One day I found her, though cheerful in her mind, with an expression of suffering on her face.

"Well, I suppose I must tell you," she said, "though I didn't mean to."

And she told me of a lump in her breast which had first begun when she was in the Home, and had been giving her worse and worse pain through these months.

The doctor saw it, said it was a large cancerous tumour, must have been causing her acute pain, and must be operated on. He was very angry with her for concealing it.

She took all quietly, without any sign of fear.

"I'd been such a worry to everyone," she said, "that I thought I'd keep this to myself if I could." And she made all arrangements for going into the hospital, with as much attention to every little point as was her wont.

It was a sad little party that last afternoon. The poor frightened girl who had been fetched from the Training Home at a moment's notice, was helping to put up her mother's things with trembling hands, speaking sharply to the two children out of a burdened heart, as they loitered about looking lost and unhappy. The poor boy Jack was crying, with huge sobs, making no attempt at concealment. Ballard himself was sitting rubbing his hand through his hair, hardly keeping from tears himself.

She alone was quiet and composed. She announced almost with triumph,

"I'd like to tell you what I've done," she said. "I've bathed myself, and I've put on clean things. One of them chemises as I made at the Home, and clean stockings and all. I don't know when they'll want me to go under it; but I'm ready. Perhaps they'll want to bath me again–they're so particular–but I'm clean and tidy."

Then came a few days of waiting in the hospital for the operation. She was very peaceful and quiet during these days. The relief from the struggle to abstain from drink, to get about and to do her work, was intense. Her mind was full of happy images and thoughts, and she had her Bible read to her, and began to try to spell it out. She faced death and was not afraid of it.

Her behaviour was very good. She was subdued and quiet and helpful. She was a good deal impressed by her own excellences it must be allowed, and by the shortcomings of other patients. The Sunday before the operation she went to Holy Communion along with Annie. She was very affectionate and gentle that day to her.

The operation was successfully performed, and Mrs. Ballard bore the suffering that followed bravely. During this time she talked freely and very touchingly of past days.

"To think of me and what I've done," she said. "How I could have been like that. What I used to do. There! slipping out by the side door, me, a female"–last graphic symbolic touch–"with my boots unbuttoned."
Yet she never really believed, in spite of assertions that silenced her, that her husband might not have brought her round by encouragement and gentle means. The truth was that when she was drunk delusion altogether took hold of her, and she never knew of her own violence. It seemed to have set a barrier between her and them that was never wholly removed.

One day only she was chilly and displeased. She told the sister of the ward of her past life and discovered that she had already been told. The explanation that it was necessary to prevent alcohol being given her did not satisfy her at first.

"I didn't think you'd go and tell everybody about me," she said. "It's bad enough without that."

It took a day or two to pacify the resentful nature. But she understood at last that at least the motive had not been unkindly.
Then she went down for change to a Convalescent Home–the same from which she had returned drunk before. She was thoroughly pleased to go there that she might show them how different she was.

Her only fear was that on the way down someone might have a flask with them and offer her something, for she was very faint and ill.
"But they didn't, and I wouldn't if they had," she said triumphantly.

At first all went well with her, and she gained strength and health. But after a while pains came in her back and head, and it was evident that the former enemy was upon her again.

She came back to London to an Incurable Home, for she was not fit to go to her own home; she needed too much nursing. But the old waywardness was not gone. The morning after she arrived there she grew restless and anxious about home, and insisted with tears that she must go back. A letter came from the poor distracted husband.

"She said she felt so unsettled as if there was something going wrong at home so she said I might as well tell her everything because she could guess how things were, and when I had told her she said her mind was rest but she felt sure there was something wrong and she said she knows that you will be muched grieved but she could not help for she could not rest I cannot tell you how I feel myself at the present moment I wish I could I will tell you more when I see you."

But only two days after came the following letter:

"She wants to see you so very much, she wants to tell you how very sorry she is to think she lift the Home and came home as she did but she says she felt sure there was something wrong at home but she says she will tell you all when she sees you (for she says that however much we try to do our best for her we cannot do the same as they did and so she finds herself grandantly getting worse) but as soon as we told her how things were she said she could rest but while she was away she felt sure there was something was going wrong she hopes you will forgive her for nobody can not feel more grieved than she does she seems very bad tonight she feels sure you will forgive her acting so very foolish as she has done."

She was moved into a cancer hospital, and there grew rapidly worse. After a little while her mind clouded, she grew queer and fractious. She was always taking offence. One day she would say, "Oh, so and so hasn't been to see me; they've got tired of me." And then after their visit, "Oh, it was wrong of me to speak so–they wasn't tired of me after all."

One day she was so gloomy and angry that she would hardly speak to me.

"I don't want to see you. I don't want you," she said. Next day she was a little better and clearer, and when I saw her again she cried and begged my pardon.

"Oh, how I've repented saying them words," she said. "I've thought you'd never come again because I said them. I've laid and watched the door for you to come in till my eyes was near blinded with watching for you."
Her mind grew more and more clouded, and it was a sad trouble to her husband and children, whose affection grew more faithful as the end drew near. Annie's letters give the best idea of it.

"She can scarce move a lime. Yesterday when I went she could hardly speak and when she did you could scarce hear her she said ‘I mustn't be surprised if I didn't see her alive any more' so I said ‘you must think that you must try to be brave as you have been all along' so she say ‘No we won't think about it and when it happens it will be who had thought it' she seem dreadfully dosy and then I would sit quiet because I thought she might perhaps go to sleep and all at once she would say ‘havnt you got anything to tell me' and then when I would start talking to her she would say ‘Oh do be quiet and leave of worrying me' so that I did not know what to do to please her best she seemed very bad indeed and she says she ‘cant last much longer for she knows how she feels better than the doctors or we do.'"

And again:

"I have been to see mother this evening and father is going tomorrow morning to see her and then the nurse is going to give him a pass so that we can go in when we like the nurse told me this evening that she cannot last much longer. Mother didn't know me part of the time but she did just as I was saying good bye she told me to ‘tell Aunt to ask a question' and she said ‘she wished she could go to bed' and all sorts of strange things like that she has almost lost her speech and the nurse says she has only partly spoken since Sunday. Father is dreadfully worried and upset I do not know how to cheer him up and he hasn't eat hardly anything I do not know what to do for the best."

The end was very near. Annie and her husband had been watching by her all night, and in the morning about six o'clock she stirred and half spoke, and died. The long fight was over, and the poor soul at peace.

"She looks very pleasant as she lays, but one can see she has suffered a good deal by the look of her mouth, poor dear."

They laid her poor body to rest in one of the great London cemeteries in a numbered grave. The poor husband sorrowed for her as if she had been the best of wives.

"I myself feel very worried and downhearted, but of course I must expect that it is only natural I should but at times I feel more depressed than others today I haven't felt as if I could possibly work but of course I must try and shake that sort of feeling off or else I do not know how we shall get on."

So her story ends; a story full of failures, full of imperfections–the story of one who had climbed such a little way up the steep ascent to heaven.

One wonders how many of the nameless mounds round her hold all that is left to us of lives like hers.

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NOTES:

1. One wonders if this "Jack" is the same milkboy she calls "Joe" in ch. 9, "Social Gifts," four years later?

2. It would appear that Mrs. B. here suggested an incestuous relationship between her husband and Annie. Nellie's hint here, expressed with all delicacy, demonstrates that she, unlike most young Victorian women, was by this time well able to understand the sexual nuances of the darkest sort, and respond to them with an unflappable and caring common sense