It was a most woeful picture, men and women waiting in the cold grey end of the day for a pauper’s shelter from the night, and I confess it almost unnerved me. Like the boy before the dentist’s door, I suddenly discovered a multitude of reasons for being elsewhere. Some hints of the struggle going on within must have shown in my face, for one of my companions said, “Don’t funk; you can do it.”
Of course I could do it, but I became aware that even thru’pence in my pocket was too lordly a treasure for such a throng; and, in order that all invidious distinctions might be removed, I emptied out the coppers. Then I bade good-bye to my friends, and with my heart going pit-a-pat, slouched down the street and took my place at the end of the line. Woeful it looked, this line of poor folk tottering on the steep pitch to death; how woeful it was I did not dream.
Next to me stood a short, stout man. Hale and hearty, though aged, strong-featured, with the tough and leathery skin produced by long years of sunbeat and weatherbeat, his was the unmistakable sea face and eyes; and at once there came to me a bit of Kipling’s “Galley Slave":-
“By the brand upon my shoulder,
by the gall of clinging steel;
By the welt the whips have left me, by the scars that never heal;
By eyes grown old with staring through the sun-wash on the brine,
I am paid in full for service . . . "
How correct I was in my surmise, and how peculiarly appropriate the verse was, you shall learn.
“I won’t stand it much longer, I won’t,” he was complaining to the man on the other side of him. “I’ll smash a windy, a big ‘un, an’ get run in for fourteen days. Then I’ll have a good place to sleep, never fear, an’ better grub than you get here. Though I’d miss my bit of bacey”—this as an after-thought, and said regretfully and resignedly.
“I’ve been out two nights now,” he went on; “wet to the skin night before last, an’ I can’t stand it much longer. I’m gettin’ old, an’ some mornin’ they’ll pick me up dead.”
He whirled with fierce passion on me: “Don’t you ever let yourself grow old, lad. Die when you’re young, or you’ll come to this. I’m tellin’ you sure. Seven an’ eighty years am I, an’ served my country like a man. Three good-conduct stripes and the Victoria Cross, an’ this is what I get for it. I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead. Can’t come any too quick for me, I tell you.”
The moisture rushed into his eyes, but, before the other man could comfort him, he began to hum a lilting sea song as though there was no such thing as heartbreak in the world.
Given encouragement, this is the story he told while waiting in line at the workhouse after two nights of exposure in the streets.