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The People of the Abyss eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 185 pages of information about The People of the Abyss.
on the hard bench, with neither pillow nor covering, nor with any one looking after it.  Next half-a-dozen men, sleeping bolt upright or leaning against one another in their sleep.  In one place a family group, a child asleep in its sleeping mother’s arms, and the husband (or male mate) clumsily mending a dilapidated shoe.  On another bench a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a knife, and another woman, with thread and needle, sewing up rents.  Adjoining, a man holding a sleeping woman in his arms.  Farther on, a man, his clothing caked with gutter mud, asleep, with head in the lap of a woman, not more than twenty-five years old, and also asleep.

It was this sleeping that puzzled me.  Why were nine out of ten of them asleep or trying to sleep?  But it was not till afterwards that I learned. It is a law of the powers that be that the homeless shall not sleep by night.  On the pavement, by the portico of Christ’s Church, where the stone pillars rise toward the sky in a stately row, were whole rows of men lying asleep or drowsing, and all too deep sunk in torpor to rouse or be made curious by our intrusion.

“A lung of London,” I said; “nay, an abscess, a great putrescent sore.”

“Oh, why did you bring me here?” demanded the burning young socialist, his delicate face white with sickness of soul and stomach sickness.

“Those women there,” said our guide, “will sell themselves for thru’pence, or tu’pence, or a loaf of stale bread.”

He said it with a cheerful sneer.

But what more he might have said I do not know, for the sick man cried,
“For heaven’s sake let us get out of this.”

CHAPTER VII—­A WINNER OF THE VICTORIA CROSS

I have found that it is not easy to get into the casual ward of the workhouse.  I have made two attempts now, and I shall shortly make a third.  The first time I started out at seven o’clock in the evening with four shillings in my pocket.  Herein I committed two errors.  In the first place, the applicant for admission to the casual ward must be destitute, and as he is subjected to a rigorous search, he must really be destitute; and fourpence, much less four shillings, is sufficient affluence to disqualify him.  In the second place, I made the mistake of tardiness.  Seven o’clock in the evening is too late in the day for a pauper to get a pauper’s bed.

For the benefit of gently nurtured and innocent folk, let me explain what a ward is.  It is a building where the homeless, bedless, penniless man, if he be lucky, may casually rest his weary bones, and then work like a navvy next day to pay for it.

My second attempt to break into the casual ward began more auspiciously.  I started in the middle of the afternoon, accompanied by the burning young socialist and another friend, and all I had in my pocket was thru’pence.  They piloted me to the Whitechapel Workhouse, at which I peered from around a friendly corner.  It was a few minutes past five in the afternoon but already a long and melancholy line was formed, which strung out around the corner of the building and out of sight.

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