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Chapter 12

THE PRISONERS' VAN

We were passing the corner of Bow-street, on our return from a
lounging excursion the other afternoon, when a crowd, assembled
round the door of the Police-office, attracted our attention. We
turned up the street accordingly. There were thirty or forty
people, standing on the pavement and half across the road; and a
few stragglers were patiently stationed on the opposite side of the
way--all evidently waiting in expectation of some arrival. We
waited too, a few minutes, but nothing occurred; so, we turned
round to an unshorn, sallow-looking cobbler, who was standing next
us with his hands under the bib of his apron, and put the usual
question of 'What's the matter?' The cobbler eyed us from head to
foot, with superlative contempt, and laconically replied 'Nuffin.'

Now, we were perfectly aware that if two men stop in the street to
look at any given object, or even to gaze in the air, two hundred
men will be assembled in no time; but, as we knew very well that no
crowd of people could by possibility remain in a street for five
minutes without getting up a little amusement among themselves,
unless they had some absorbing object in view, the natural inquiry
next in order was, 'What are all these people waiting here for?'--
'Her Majesty's carriage,' replied the cobbler. This was still more
extraordinary. We could not imagine what earthly business Her
Majesty's carriage could have at the Public Office, Bow-street. We
were beginning to ruminate on the possible causes of such an
uncommon appearance, when a general exclamation from all the boys
in the crowd of 'Here's the wan!' caused us to raise our heads, and
look up the street.

The covered vehicle, in which prisoners are conveyed from the
police-offices to the different prisons, was coming along at full
speed. It then occurred to us, for the first time, that Her
Majesty's carriage was merely another name for the prisoners' van,
conferred upon it, not only by reason of the superior gentility of
the term, but because the aforesaid van is maintained at Her
Majesty's expense: having been originally started for the
exclusive accommodation of ladies and gentlemen under the necessity
of visiting the various houses of call known by the general
denomination of 'Her Majesty's Gaols.'

The van drew up at the office-door, and the people thronged round
the steps, just leaving a little alley for the prisoners to pass
through. Our friend the cobbler, and the other stragglers, crossed
over, and we followed their example. The driver, and another man
who had been seated by his side in front of the vehicle,
dismounted, and were admitted into the office. The office-door was
closed after them, and the crowd were on the tiptoe of expectation.

After a few minutes' delay, the door again opened, and the two
first prisoners appeared. They were a couple of girls, of whom the
elder--could not be more than sixteen, and the younger of whom had
certainly not attained her fourteenth year. That they were
sisters, was evident, from the resemblance which still subsisted
between them, though two additional years of depravity had fixed
their brand upon the elder girl's features, as legibly as if a red-
hot iron had seared them. They were both gaudily dressed, the
younger one especially; and, although there was a strong similarity
between them in both respects, which was rendered the more obvious
by their being handcuffed together, it is impossible to conceive a
greater contrast than the demeanour of the two presented. The
younger girl was weeping bitterly--not for display, or in the hope
of producing effect, but for very shame: her face was buried in
her handkerchief: and her whole manner was but too expressive of
bitter and unavailing sorrow.

'How long are you for, Emily?' screamed a red-faced woman in the
crowd. 'Six weeks and labour,' replied the elder girl with a
flaunting laugh; 'and that's better than the stone jug anyhow; the
mill's a deal better than the Sessions, and here's Bella a-going
too for the first time. Hold up your head, you chicken,' she
continued, boisterously tearing the other girl's handkerchief away;
'Hold up your head, and show 'em your face. I an't jealous, but
I'm blessed if I an't game!'--'That's right, old gal,' exclaimed a
man in a paper cap, who, in common with the greater part of the
crowd, had been inexpressibly delighted with this little incident.-
-'Right!' replied the girl; 'ah, to be sure; what's the odds, eh?'-
-'Come! In with you,' interrupted the driver. 'Don't you be in a
hurry, coachman,' replied the girl, 'and recollect I want to be set
down in Cold Bath Fields--large house with a high garden-wall in
front; you can't mistake it. Hallo. Bella, where are you going
to--you'll pull my precious arm off?' This was addressed to the
younger girl, who, in her anxiety to hide herself in the caravan,
had ascended the steps first, and forgotten the strain upon the
handcuff. 'Come down, and let's show you the way.' And after
jerking the miserable girl down with a force which made her stagger
on the pavement, she got into the vehicle, and was followed by her
wretched companion.

These two girls had been thrown upon London streets, their vices
and debauchery, by a sordid and rapacious mother. What the younger
girl was then, the elder had been once; and what the elder then
was, the younger must soon become. A melancholy prospect, but how
surely to be realised; a tragic drama, but how often acted! Turn
to the prisons and police offices of London--nay, look into the
very streets themselves. These things pass before our eyes, day
after day, and hour after hour--they have become such matters of
course, that they are utterly disregarded. The progress of these
girls in crime will be as rapid as the flight of a pestilence,
resembling it too in its baneful influence and wide-spreading
infection. Step by step, how many wretched females, within the
sphere of every man's observation, have become involved in a career
of vice, frightful to contemplate; hopeless at its commencement,
loathsome and repulsive in its course; friendless, forlorn, and
unpitied, at its miserable conclusion!

There were other prisoners--boys of ten, as hardened in vice as men
of fifty--a houseless vagrant, going joyfully to prison as a place
of food and shelter, handcuffed to a man whose prospects were
ruined, character lost, and family rendered destitute, by his first
offence. Our curiosity, however, was satisfied. The first group
had left an impression on our mind we would gladly have avoided,
and would willingly have effaced.

The crowd dispersed; the vehicle rolled away with its load of guilt
and misfortune; and we saw no more of the Prisoners' Van.

Charles Dickens