TSW Chapter 4.2

 

Child of the Slums

Excerpt from “The Lamplighter” 1854

By Maria Cummins

 

     It was growing dark in the city. Out in the open country it would be light for half-an-hour or more, but in the streets it was already dusk. Upon the wooden doorstep of a low-roofed, dark, and unwholesome looking house, sat a little girl, earnestly gazing up the street. The house-door behind her was close to the side-walk, and the step on which she sat was so low that her little unshod feet rested on the cold bricks. It was a chilly evening in November, and a light fall of snow had made the narrow streets and dark lanes dirtier and more cheerless than ever.

     Many people were passing, but no one noticed the little girl, for no one in the whole world cared for her. She was clad in the poorest of garments, her hair was long, thick, and uncombed, and her complexion was sallow, and her whole appearance was unhealthy. She had fine dark eyes, but so large did they seem, in contrast to her thin, puny face, that they increased its peculiarity without increasing its beauty. Had she had a mother (which, alas! she had not), those friendly eyes would have found something in her to praise. But the poor little thing was told, a dozen times a-day, that she was the worst-looking child in the world, and the worst-behaved. No one loved her, and she loved no one, no one tried to make her happy, or cared whether she was so. She was but eight years old, and alone in the world.

     She loved to watch for the coming of the old man who lit the streetlamp on front of the house where she lived, to see his bright torch flicker in the wind, and then when he so quickly ran up his ladder, lit the lamp, and made the place cheerful, a glean of joy was shed on a little desolate heart, to which gladness was a stranger, and though he had never seemed to see, and had never spoken to her, she felt, as she watched for the old lamplighter, as if he were a friend.

     “Gerty,” exclaimed a harsh voice within, “have you been for the milk?”

     The child made no answer, but gliding off the doorstep, ran quickly round the corner of the house, and hid a little out of sight. “What’s become of that child?” said the woman who spoke, and who now showed herself at the door.

     A boy who was passing, and had seen Gerty run, and who looked upon her as a spirit of evil, laughed aloud, pointed to the corner which concealed her, and walking off with his head over his shoulder, to see what would happen next, said to himself, “She’ll catch it!”

     Gerty was dragged from her hiding-place, and with one blow for her ugliness and another for her impudence (for she was making faces at Nan Grant), was dispatched down a neighborhood alley for the milk.

     She ran fast, fearing the lamplighter would come and go in her absence, and was rejoiced on her return, to catch a sight of him just going up his ladder. §he stood at the foot of it, and was so engaged in watching the bright flame, that she did not observe the descent of the man, and, as she has directly in his way, he struck against her, and she fell upon the pavement. “Hello, my little one!”exclaimed he, “How’s this?” as he stooped to lift her up. She was on her feet in an instant, for she was used to hard knocks, and did not mind a few bruises. But the milk was all spilt.

     “Well, now, I declare!” said the man, “That’s too bad, -- what’ll mamy say?” and looking into Gerty’s face, he exclaimed, “My, what an odd-face child! -- looks like a witch!” Then seeing that she looked sadly at the spilt milk, he kindly said, “She won’t be hard on such a mite as you are, will she? Cheer up, my ducky! Never mind if she does scold you a little, I’ll bring you something tomorrow that you’ll like, you’re such a lonely looking thing. And if the old woman makes a row, tell her I did it -- but didn’t I hurt you? What are you doing with my ladder?”

     “I was seeing you light the lamp,” said Gerty, “and I ain’t hurt a bit, but I wish I hadn’t spilt the milk.”

     Just then Nan Grant came to the door, saw what had happened, and pulled the child into the house, amidst blows and profane, brutal language. The lamplighter tried to appease her, but she shut the door in his face. Gerty was scolded, beaten, deprived of her usual crust for her supper, and shut up in her dark attic for the night. Poor little child! Her mother had died in Nan Grant’s house five years before, and she had been tolerated there since, not so much because when Ben Grant went to sea he bade his wife to keep the child until his return -- he had been gone so long that no one thought he would ever come back -- but because Nan had reasons of her own for doing so, and, though she considered Gerty a dead weight upon her hands she did not care to excite inquiries by trying to dispose of her elsewhere.

     When Gerty found herself looked up for the night in the great dark garret -- Gerty feared and hated the dark -- she stood for a minute perfectly still, then suddenly began to stamp and scream, tried to beat the door open, and shouted, “I hate you, Nan Grant! Old Nan Grant, I hate you!” But nobody came near her, and she grew more quiet, lay down on her miserable bed, covered her face with her little thin hands, and sobbed as if her heart would break. She wept until she was exhausted, and then gradually she became still. By-and-by she took her hands from her face, clasped them together convulsively, and looked up at a little glazed window near the bed. It was but three panes of glass unevenly stuck together. There was no moon, but as Gerty looked up, she saw shining upon her one bright star. She thought she had never seen anything half so beautiful. She had often been out of doors when the sky was full of stars, and had not noticed them much, but this one, all alone, so large, so bright, and yet so soft and-pleasant-looking, seemed to speak to her, to say, “Gerty! Gerty! Poor little Gerty!” She thought it seemed like a kind face, such as she had a long time ago seen, or dreamt about. Suddenly she asked herself, “Who is it? Somebody lit it! Some good person, I know. Oh, how could he get up so high?” And Gerty fell asleep, wondering who lit the star.

     Poor little, untaught, benighted soul! Who shall enlighten thee? Thou art God’s child, little one! Christ died for thee. Will he not send man or angel to light up the darkness within, to kindle a light that shall never go out, the light that shall shine through all eternity!

     Gerty awoke the next morning, not as children wake who are roused by merry voices, or by a parent’s kiss, who have kind hands to help them dress, and knowing that a nice breakfast awaits them, but she heard harsh voices below, Nan’s son and two or three boarders had come in to breakfast, and Gerty’s only chance of obtaining any share of the meal was to be on the spot when they finished, to take that portion of what remained which Nan might shove towards her. So she crept downstairs, waited a little till they had all gone out, and then she slid into the room. She met with a rough greeting from Nan, who told her she had better drop that ugly, sour look, eat some breakfast, if she wanted it, but keep out of her way, and not come near the fire, where she was at work, or she’d get another dressing, worse than she had last night. Gerty had not looked for any other treatment, she was not disappointed, but, glad of the miserable food left for her on the table, she swallowed it eagerly, and she took her little old hood, threw on a ragged shawl, which had belonged to her mother, and ran out of the house.

     Back of Nan Grant’s house was a large wood and coal-yard and beyond that a wharf, and the thick, muddy water of a dock. Gerty might have found many playmates in this place. She sometimes did mingle with the boys and girls, ragged like herself, who played in the yard, but not often -- there was a league against her among the children of the place. Poor, ragged, and miserably cared for, as they were, they knew that Gerty was more neglected and abused. They had often seen her beaten, and daily heard her called an ugly, wicked child, told that she belonged to nobody, and had no business in anyone’s house. Thus they felt their advantage, and scorned the little outcast. Perhaps this would not have been the case if Gerty mingled freely with them, and tried to be on friendly terms, but, while mother had lived, she did her best to keep her little girl away from the rude herd. Perhaps that habit of avoidance, but still more a something the child’s nature, kept her from joining in their rough sports, after mother’s death had left her to do as she liked. She seldom had any intercourse with them. Nor did they abuse her except in words, for, singly, they dared not cope with her -- spirited, sudden, and violent, she had made herself feared as well as disliked. Once a band of them had united to vex her, but, Nan Grant, coming up just when one of the girls was throwing the shoes, which she had pulled from Gerty’s feet, into the dock, had given girl a sound whipping, and put them all to flight. Gerty had not had a pair of shoes since, but Nan Grant, for once, had done her a good service and the children now left her in peace.

     It was a sunshiny, though a cold day, when Gerty sought shelter in wood-yard. There was an immense pile of timber in one corner of the yard, almost out of sight of any of the houses. Of different lengths, the planks formed, on one side, a series of irregular steps. Near the top was a little sheltered recess, overhung by some long planks, and forming a miniature shed, protected by the wood on all sides but one, and from that looking out upon the water.

     This was Gerty’s haven of rest, and the only place from which she was never expelled. Here, during the long summer days, the little lonesome child sat brooding over her griefs, her wrongs, and her ugliness, sometimes weeping for hours. Now and then she would get a little more cheerful, and enjoy watching the sailors as they laboured on board their vessels, or rowed to and fro in little boats. The warm sunshine was so pleasant, and the men’s voices so lively, that the poor little thing sometimes forgot her woes.

     But summer was gone, and the schooner and the sailors were gone too. The weather was cold, and for a few days had been so stormy, that Gerty had to stay in the house. Now, however, she made the best of her way to her little hiding-place, and, to her joy, the sunshine had dried up the boards, so that they felt warm to her bare feet, and was still shining so bright and pleasant, that Gerty forgot Nan Grant, forgot how cold she had been, and how much she dreaded the long winter. Her thoughts rambled about sometimes, but, at last, fixed upon the kind look and voice of the old lamplighter, and then, for the first time since the promise was made, it came into her mind that he had engaged to bring her something the next time he came. She could not believe he would remember it, but still he might -- he seemed to be so sorry for her fall.

     What would he bring? Would it be something to eat. Oh, if it were only some shoes! Perhaps he did not notice that she had none.

     Gerty resolved to go for her milk in season to be back before it was time to light the lamp, so that nothing should prevent her seeing him. The day seemed very long, but darkness came at last, and with it came True -- or rather Truman Flint, for that was the lamplighter’s name, Gerty was on the spot, though she took good care to elude Nan Grant’s observation.

     True was late about his work that night, and in a great hurry. He had only time to speak a few words to Gerty, but they were words coming straight from a good and honest heart. He put his great, smutty hand on her head in the kindest way, told her how sorry he was that she’ got hurt, and said, “It was a plaguy shame she should have been whipped, too, and all for a spill o’ milk, that was a misfortin’, and no crime.”

     “But here,” added he, diving into one of his huge pockets, “here’s the critter I promised you. Take good care on’t, don’t ‘buss it, and I’m thinking if it’s like the mother I’ve got at home, ‘twon’t be a little ye’ll be likin’ it, ‘fore you’re done. Good-bye, my little gal.” and he shouldered his ladder and went off, leaving in Gerty’s hands a little grey-and-white kitten.

     Gerty was so taken by surprise on finding in her arms a live kitten, something so different from what she had anticipated, that she stood irresolute, what to do with it. There were a many cats, of all sizes and colors, inhabitants of the neighboring houses and yards, frightened-looking-creatures, which, like Gerty herself, ran about, and hid themselves among the wood and coal, seeming to feel, as she did, great doubts about their having a right to be anywhere. Gerty had often felt a sympathy for them, but never thought of trying to catch one, and carry it home, for she knew that food and shelter were grudgingly accorded to herself, and would not be extended to her pets. Her first thought, therefore, was to throw the kitten down, and let it run away. But while she was hesitating, the little animal pleaded for itself in a way she could not resist. Frightened by its long journey in True Flint’s pocket, it crept from Gerty’s arms up to her neck, clung there, and, with feeble cries, seemed to ask her to take care of it. Its eloquence prevailed over all fear of Nan Grant’s anger. She hugged pussy to her bosom, and resolved to love and feed it, and keep it out of Nan’s sight.

     How much she came in time to love that little kitten no words can tell. Her little, fierce, untamed, impetuous nature had hitherto expressed itself only in angry passion, sullen obstinacy, and hatred. But there were in her soul fountains of warm affection, a depth of tenderness never yet called out, and a warmth and devotion of nature that wanted only an object upon which to expend themselves.

     So she poured out such a wealth of love on the poor kitten as only such a desolate little heart had to spare. She loved the kitten all the more for the care she was obliged to take of it, and the trouble it gave her. She kept it, as much as possible, out among the boards, in her favorite haunts. She found an old hat, in which she placed her hood, to make a bed for pussy. She carried it a part of her scanty meals, she braved for it what she would not have done for herself -- for almost every day she abstracted from the kettle, when she returned with the milk for Nan Grant, enough for pussy’s supper, at the risk of being discovered and punished, the only risk or harm the poor ignorant child knew or thought of, in connection with the theft, for her ideas of abstract right and wrong were utterly undeveloped. So she would play with her kitten for hours among the boards, talk to it, and tell it how much she loved it. But in the very cold days she was puzzled to know how to keep herself warm out of doors, and the risk of bringing the kitten into the house was great. She would then hide it in her bosom, and run with it into her little garret. Once or twice, when she had been off her guard, her little playful pet had escaped from her, and scampered through the lower rooms and passage. Once Nan drove it out with a broom, but there cats and kittens were not so uncommon as to excite inquiry.

     How was it that Gerty had leisure to spend all her time at play? Most children of the poorer class learn to be useful while they are young, Nan Grant had no babies, and being a very active woman, with but a poor opinion of children’s services, she never tried to find employment for Gerty, much better satisfied for her to keep out of her sight, so that, except for her daily errand for the milk, Gerty was always idle -- a fruitful source of unhappiness and discontent.

     Nan was a Scotchwoman, not young, and with a temper which, never good, became worse as she grew older. She had seen life’s roughest side, and had always been a hard-working woman. Her husband was a carpenter, but she made his house so uncomfortable, that for years he had followed the sea. She took in washing, and had a few boarders, by which she earned what might have been an ample support for herself, had it not been for her son, a disorderly young man, spoilt in early life by his mother’s management, and who, though a skillful workman, squandered his own and a large part of his mother’s earnings. Nan had reason for keeping Gerty, though they were not so strong as to prevent her often being inclined to get rid of the encumbrance.

     Gerty had had her kitten about a month, when she took a violent cold from exposure to damp and rain, and Nan, fearing she would have trouble with her, if she became seriously ill, bade her stay in the house and keep in the warm room. Gerty’s cough was fearful, and she would have sat by the fire all day, had it not been for her anxiety about the kitten. Toward night the men were heard coming in to supper. Just as they entered the door of the room where Nan and Gerty were, one of them stumbled over the kitten, which had shyly come in with them.

     “Cracky? What’s this here?” said the man whom they called Jemmy, “A cat, I vow! Why, Nan, I thought you hated cats!”

     “Well, ‘tan’t none o’ mine, drive it out.“ said Nan.

     Jemmy tried to do so, but puss, making a circuit round his legs, sprang forward into the arms of Gerty.

     “Whose kitten’s that, Gerty?” said Nan.

     “Mine!” said Gerty, bravely.

     “Well, how long have you kept cats?” asked Nan. “Speak! How came you by this?”

     Gerty was afraid of the men. She did not like to confess to when she was indebted for the kitten, she knew it would only make matters worse, for Nan had never forgiven True Flint’s rough expostulation against her cruelty in beating the child for spilling the milk, and Gerty could not think of any other source to which she could ascribe the kitten’s presence, or she would not have hesitated to tell a falsehood, for her limited education had not taught her a love or habit of truth where a lie would better serve her turn, and save her from punishment. She was silent, and burst into tears.

     “Come,” said Jemmy, “give us some supper, Nan, and let the gal alone.” Nan complied, ominously muttering, however.

     The supper just finished, an organ-grinder began to play at the door. The men stepped out to join the crowd, who were watching the motions of the monkey that danced to the music. Gerty ran to the window to look out. Delighted with the gambols of the creature, she gazed until the man and the monkey moved off -- so intently, that she did not miss the kitten which had crept down from her arms, and, springing upon the table, began to devour the remnants of the repast. The organ-grinder was not out of sight when Gerty saw the old lamplighter coming up the street. She resolved to watch him light his lamp, when she was startled by a sharp and angry exclamation from Nan, and turned just in time to see her snatch her darling kitten from the table. Gerty sprang to the rescue, jumped to a chair, and caught Nan by the arm, but she firmly pushed her back, and threw the kitten half across the room. Gerty heard a sudden splash and a piercing cry. Nan had flung the poor creature into a large vessel of steaming hot water. The poor animal writhed an instant, and then died in torture.

     Gerty’s anger was roused. Without hesitation, she lifted a stick of wood, and violently flung it at Nan, and it struck the woman on the head. The blood started from the wound, but Nan hardly felt the blow, so greatly was she excited against the child. She sprang upon her, caught her by the shoulder, and opening the house-door, thrust her out. “Ye’ll never darken my doors again, yer imp of wickedness!” said she, leaving the child alone in the cold night.

     When Gerty was angry, she always cried aloud -- uttering a Succession of piercing shrieks, until she sometimes quite exhausted her strength. When she found herself in the street she commenced screaming -- not from fear of being turned away from her only home, and left alone at nightfall to wander about the city, and perhaps freeze before morning -- she did not think of herself for a moment. Horror and grief at the dreadful fate of the only thing she loved in the world entirely filled her little soul. So she crouched down against the side of the house, her face hid in her hands, unconscious of the noise she was making. Suddenly she found herself placed on Truemen Flint’s ladder, which leaned against the lamp-post, True held her high enough to bring her face opposite his, and see his old acquaintance and asked her what was the matter.

     But Gerty could only gasp and say, “Oh, my kitten! My kitten!”

     “What: the kitten I gave you? Wall, have you lost it? Don’t cry! There – don’t cry!”

     Oh, no! Not lost! Oh, poor kitty!” and Gerty cried louder and coughed so dreadfully, that True was frightened for the child, Making every effort to soothe her, he told her she would catch her death of cold, and she must go in the house.

     “Oh, she won’t let me in!” said Gerty. “And I wouldn’t go if she would.”

     “Who won’t let you in -- your mother?”

     “No! Nan Grant.”

     “who’s Nan Grant?”

     “She’s a horrid, wicked woman, that drowned my kitten in bilin’water.”

     “But where’s your mother?”

     “I ha’n’t got none.”

     “Who do you belong to, you poor little thing?”

     “Nobody, and I’ve no business anywhere!”

     “With whom do you live, and who takes care of you?”

     “Oh, I lived with Nan Grunt, but I hate her. I threw a stick of wood at her head, and I wish I had killed her!”

     “Hush! Hush! You mustn’t say that! I’ll go and speak to her.”

     True moved to the door, trying to draw Gerty in, but she resisted so forcibly that he left her outside, and walking into the room, where Nan was binding up her head with a handkerchief, told her she had better call her little girl in, for she would freeze to death out there.

     “She’s no child of mine,” said Nan, “she’s the worst little creature that ever lived, it’s a wonder I have kept her so long, and now I hope I’ll never lay eyes on her again -- and what’s more l don’t mean to. She ought to be hung for breaking my head! I believe she’s got an ill spirit in her!”

     “But what’ll become of her?” said True. “It’s a fearful cold night, How’d you feel, marm, if she was found to-morrow morning all friz up on your doorstep?”

     “How’d I feel? – That’s your business, is it? S’posen you take care on her yourself, Yer make a mighty deal o’ fuss about the brat. Carry her home, and try how yer like her. Yer’ve been here a talkin’ to me about her once afore, and I won’t hear a word more. Let other folks see to her, I say I’ve had more’n my share, and as to her freezin’, or dyin’ anyhow, I’ll risk her. Them children that comes into the world nobody knows how, don’t go out of it in a hurry. She’s the city’s property -- let ‘em look out for her, and you’d better go, and not meddle with what don’t consarn you.”

     True did not wait to hear more. He was not used to an angry woman, who was the most formidable thing to him in the world’ Nan’s flashing eyes and menacing attitude warned him of the coming tempest, and he hastened away. Gerty had ceased crying when he came out, and looked into his face with the greatest interest.

     “Well,” said he, “she says you shan’t come back.”

     “Oh, I’m so glad!” said Gerty.

     “Bot where’ll you go to?”

     “I don’t know! P’raps I’ll-go with you, and see you light the lamps.”

     “But where’ll you sleep tonight?”

     “I don’t know where, I haven’t got any home. I’ll sleep out where I can see the stars. But it’ll be cold, won’t it?”

     “My goodness! You’ll freeze to death, child.”

     “Well, what’ll become of me then?”

     “The Lord only knows!”

     True looked at Gerty in perfect wonder. He could not leave her there on such a cold night, but he hardly knew what he could do with her at home, for he lived alone, and was poor. But another violent coughing decided him to share with her his shelter, fire, and food, for one night, at least. “Come,” said he, “with me.” and Gerty ran along by his side, never asking wither.

     True had a dozen lamps to light before his round was finished. Gerty watched him light each with as keen an interest as if that were the only object for which she was in his company, and it was only after they had walked on for some distance without stopping, that she inquired where they were going.

     “Going home.” said True.

     “Am I going to your home?” said Gerty.

     “Yes,” said True, “and here it is.”

     He opened a little gate leading into a small yard, which stretched along the whole length of a two-storied house. True lived in the back part of it, and both went in. Gerty was trembling with the cold, her little bare feet were quite blue with walking on the pavements. There was a stove in the room, but no fire in it. True immediately disposed of his ladder, torch etc. in an ajoining shed, and bringing in a handful of wood, he lit a fire. Drawing an old wooden settle up to the fire, he threw his great-coat over it, and lifting little Gerty up, he placed her gently on the seat. He then prepared supper, for True was an old bachelor, and did everything for himself. He made tea, then, mixing a great mugfull for Gerty, with plenty of sugar and all his milk, he brought a loaf of bread, cut her a large slice and pressed her to eat and drink as much as she could, for he concluded from her looks, that she had not been well fed, and so much pleased did he feel in her enjoyment of the best meal she had ever had, that he forgot to partake of it himself, but sat watching her with a tenderness which proved that he was a friend to everybody, even to the most forlorn little girl in the world.

     Trueman Flint was born in New Hampshire, but, when fifteen years old, being left an orphan, he had made his way to Boston, where he supported himself by whatever employment he could obtain, having been a newspaper-carrier, a cab-driver, a porter, a wood-cutter, indeed, a jack-at-all-trades, and so honest, capable, and good-tempered had he always shown himself, that he everywhere won a good name, and had sometimes continued for years in the same employ. Previous to his entering upon the service in which we find him, he had been a porter in a large store, owned by a wealthy and generous merchant, being one day engaged in moving some casks, he was severely injured by one of them falling upon his chest. For a long time no hope was entertained of his recovery, and when he began to mend, his health returned so gradually that it was a year before he was able to be at work again. This sickness swallowed up the savings of years, but his late employer never allowed him to want for any comforts, provided an excellent physician, and saw he was well taken care of.

     But True had never been the same man since. He rose from his sick-bed, debilitated and apparently ten years older, and his strength so much enfeebled, that he was only fit for some comparatively light employment. It was then that his kind master obtained for him the situation of lamplighter, and he frequently earned considerable sums by sawing wood, shoveling snow, and other jobs. He was now between fifty and sixty year old, a stoutly-built man, with features cut in one of nature’s rough molds, but expressive of much good nature. He was naturally reserved, lived much by himself, was little known, and had only one crony, the sexton of a neighboring church.

     But we left Gerty finishing her supper, and now she is stretched upon the wide settle, sound asleep, covered up with a warm blanket and her head resting on a pillow. True sits beside her, her little, thin hand lies in his great palm -- occasionally he draws the blanket closer about her. She breathes hard, suddenly she gives a nervous start, then speaks quickly, her dreams are evidently troubled. True listens intently to her words, as she exclaims eagerly? “Oh, don’t! Don’t drown my kitty!” and then, again, in a voice of fear, “Oh, she’ll catch met she’ll catch me!” once more, and now her tones are touchingly plaintive and earnest --.

     “Dear, dear good old maul let me stay with you, do let me stay!”

     Tears are in Trueman Flint’s eyes, he lays his great head on the pillow and draws Gerty’s little face close to his, at the same time smoothing her long uncombed hair with his hand. He, too, is thinking aloud -- what does he say? “Catch you! -- No, she shan’t! Stay with me! -- so you shall, I promise you, poor little birdie! All alone in this big world -- and so am I, Please God, we’ll bide together.”

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
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