“I wish I had drowned that day, I wish to God I had,” he concluded, as the line moved up and we passed around the corner.
At last the door came in sight, through which the paupers were being admitted in bunches. And here I learned a surprising thing: this being Wednesday, none of us would be released till Friday morning. Furthermore, and oh, you tobacco users, take heed: we would not be permitted to take in any tobacco. This we would have to surrender as we entered. Sometimes, I was told, it was returned on leaving and sometimes it was destroyed.
The old man-of-war’s man gave me a lesson. Opening his pouch, he emptied the tobacco (a pitiful quantity) into a piece of paper. This, snugly and flatly wrapped, went down his sock inside his shoe. Down went my piece of tobacco inside my sock, for forty hours without tobacco is a hardship all tobacco users will understand.
Again and again the line moved up, and we were slowly but surely approaching the wicket. At the moment we happened to be standing on an iron grating, and a man appearing underneath, the old sailor called down to him,—
“How many more do they want?”
“Twenty-four,” came the answer.
We looked ahead anxiously and counted. Thirty-four were ahead of us. Disappointment and consternation dawned upon the faces about me. It is not a nice thing, hungry and penniless, to face a sleepless night in the streets. But we hoped against hope, till, when ten stood outside the wicket, the porter turned us away.
“Full up,” was what he said, as he banged the door.
Like a flash, for all his eighty-seven years, the old sailor was speeding away on the desperate chance of finding shelter elsewhere. I stood and debated with two other men, wise in the knowledge of casual wards, as to where we should go. They decided on the Poplar Workhouse, three miles away, and we started off.
As we rounded the corner, one of them said, “I could a’ got in ’ere to-day. I come by at one o’clock, an’ the line was beginnin’ to form then—pets, that’s what they are. They let ’m in, the same ones, night upon night.”
The Carter, with his clean-cut face, chin beard, and shaved upper lip, I should have taken in the United States for anything from a master workman to a well-to-do farmer. The Carpenter—well, I should have taken him for a carpenter. He looked it, lean and wiry, with shrewd, observant eyes, and hands that had grown twisted to the handles of tools through forty-seven years’ work at the trade. The chief difficulty with these men was that they were old, and that their children, instead of growing up to take care of them, had died. Their years had told on them, and they had been forced out of the whirl of industry by the younger and stronger competitors who had taken their places.