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Outside Glimpses of English Poverty


Becoming an inhabitant of a great English town, I often turned aside from
the prosperous thoroughfares (where the edifices, the shops, and the
bustling crowd differed not so much from scenes with which I was familiar
in my own country), and went designedly astray among precincts that
reminded me of some of Dickens's grimiest pages. There I caught glimpses
of a people and a mode of life that were comparatively new to my
observation, a sort of sombre phantasmagoric spectacle, exceedingly
undelightful to behold, yet involving a singular interest and even
fascination in its ugliness.

Dirt, one would fancy, is plenty enough all over the world, being the
symbolic accompaniment of the foul incrustation which began to settle
over and bedim all earthly things as soon as Eve had bitten the apple;
ever since which hapless epoch, her daughters have chiefly been engaged
in a desperate and unavailing struggle to get rid of it. But the dirt of
a poverty-stricken English street is a monstrosity unknown on our side of
the Atlantic. It reigns supreme within its own limits, and is
inconceivable everywhere beyond them. We enjoy the great advantage, that
the brightness and dryness of our atmosphere keep everything clean that
the sun shines upon, converting the larger portion of our impurities into
transitory dust which the next wind can sweep away, in contrast with the
damp, adhesive grime that incorporates itself with all surfaces (unless
continually and painfully cleansed) in the chill moisture of the English
air. Then the all-pervading smoke of the city, abundantly intermingled
with the sable snow-flakes of bituminous coal, hovering overhead,
descending, and alighting on pavements and rich architectural fronts, on
the snowy muslin of the ladies, and the gentlemen's starched collars and
shirt-bosoms, invests even the better streets in a half-mourning garb.
It is beyond the resources of Wealth to keep the smut away from its
premises or its own fingers' ends; and as for Poverty, it surrenders
itself to the dark influence without a struggle. Along with disastrous
circumstances, pinching need, adversity so lengthened out as to
constitute the rule of life, there comes a certain chill depression of
the spirits which seems especially to shudder at cold water. In view of
so wretched a state of things, we accept the ancient Deluge not merely as
an insulated phenomenon, but as a periodical necessity, and acknowledge
that nothing less than such a general washing-day could suffice to
cleanse the slovenly old world of its moral and material dirt.

Gin-shops, or what the English call spirit-vaults, are numerous in the
vicinity of these poor streets, and are set off with the magnificence of
gilded door-posts, tarnished by contact with the unclean customers who
haunt there. Ragged children come thither with old shaving-mugs, or
broken-nosed teapots, or ally such makeshift receptacle, to get a little
poison or madness for their parents, who deserve no better requital at
their hands for having engendered them. Inconceivably sluttish women
enter at noonday and stand at the counter among boon-companions of both
sexes, stirring up misery and jollity in a bumper together, and quaffing
off the mixture with a relish. As for the men, they lounge there
continually, drinking till they are drunken,--drinking as long as they
have a half-penny left, and then, as it seemed to me, waiting for a
sixpenny miracle to be wrought in their pockets so as to enable them to
be drunken again. Most of these establishments have a significant
advertisement of "Beds," doubtless for the accommodation of their
customers in the interval between one intoxication and the next. I never
could find it in my heart, however, utterly to condemn these sad
revellers, and should certainly wait till I had some better consolation
to offer before depriving them of their dram of gin, though death itself
were in the glass; for methought their poor souls needed such fiery
stimulant to lift them a little way out of the smothering squalor of both
their outward and interior life, giving them glimpses and suggestions,
even if bewildering ones, of a spiritual existence that limited their
present misery. The temperance-reformers unquestionably derive their
commission from the Divine Beneficence, but have never been taken fully
into its counsels. All may not be lost, though those good men fail.

Pawnbrokers' establishments, distinguished by the mystic symbol of the
three golden balls, were conveniently accessible; though what personal
property these wretched people could possess, capable of being estimated
in silver or copper, so as to afford a basis for a loan, was a problem
that still perplexes me. Old clothesmen, likewise, dwelt hard by, and
hung out ancient garments to dangle in the wind. There were butchers'
shops, too, of a class adapted to the neighborhood, presenting no such
generously fattened carcasses as Englishmen love to gaze at in the
market, no stupendous halves of mighty beeves, no dead hogs or muttons
ornamented with carved bas-reliefs of fat on their ribs and shoulders, in
a peculiarly British style of art,--not these, but bits and gobbets of
lean meat, selvages snipt off from steaks, tough and stringy morsels,
bare bones smitten away from joints by the cleaver, tripe, liver,
bullocks' feet, or whatever else was cheapest and divisible into the
smallest lots. I am afraid that even such delicacies came to many of
their tables hardly oftener than Christmas. In the windows of other
little shops you saw half a dozen wizened herrings, some eggs in a
basket, looking so dingily antique that your imagination smelt them,
fly-speckled biscuits, segments of a hungry cheese, pipes and papers of
tobacco. Now and then a sturdy milk-woman passed by with a wooden yoke
over her shoulders, supporting a pail on either side, filled with a
whitish fluid, the composition of which was water and chalk and the milk
of a sickly cow, who gave the best she had, poor thing! but could
scarcely make it rich or wholesome, spending her life in some close
city-nook and pasturing on strange food. I have seen, once or twice, a
donkey coming into one of these streets with panniers full of vegetables,
and departing with a return cargo of what looked like rubbish and
street-sweepings. No other commerce seemed to exist, except, possibly, a
girl might offer you a pair of stockings or a worked collar, or a man
whisper something mysterious about wonderfully cheap cigars. And yet I
remember seeing female hucksters in those regions, with their wares on
the edge of the sidewalk and their own seats right in the carriage-way,
pretending to sell half-decayed oranges and apples, toffy, Ormskirk
cakes, combs, and cheap jewelry, the coarsest kind of crockery, and
little plates of oysters,--knitting patiently all day long, and removing
their undiminished stock in trade at nightfall. All indispensable
importations from other quarters of the town were on a remarkably
diminutive scale: for example, the wealthier inhabitants purchased their
coal by the wheelbarrow-load, and the poorer ones by the peck-measure.
It was a curious and melancholy spectacle, when an overladen coal-cart
happened to pass through the street and drop a handful or two of its
burden in the mud, to see half a dozen women and children scrambling for
the treasure-trove, like a flock of hens and chickens gobbling up some
spilt corn. In this connection I may as well mention a commodity of
boiled snails (for such they appeared to me, though probably a marine
production) which used to be peddled from door to door, piping hot, as an
article of cheap nutriment.

The population of these dismal abodes appeared to consider the sidewalks
and middle of the street as their common hall. In a drama of low life,
the unity of place might be arranged rigidly according to the classic
rule, and the street be the one locality in which every scene and
incident should occur. Courtship, quarrels, plot and counterplot,
conspiracies for robbery and murder, family difficulties or agreements,--
all such matters, I doubt not, are constantly discussed or transacted in
this sky-roofed saloon, so regally hung with its sombre canopy of
coal-smoke. Whatever the disadvantages of the English climate, the only
comfortable or wholesome part of life, for the city poor, must be spent
in the open air. The stifled and squalid rooms where they lie down at
night, whole families and neighborhoods together, or sulkily elbow one
another in the daytime, when a settled rain drives them within doors, are
worse horrors than it is worth while (without a practical object in view)
to admit into one's imagination. No wonder that they creep forth from
the foul mystery of their interiors, stumble down from their garrets, or
scramble up out of their cellars, on the upper step of which you may see
the grimy housewife, before the shower is ended, letting the raindrops
gutter down her visage; while her children (an impish progeny of
cavernous recesses below the common sphere of humanity) swarm into the
daylight and attain all that they know of personal purification in the
nearest mud-puddle. It might almost make a man doubt the existence of
his own soul, to observe how Nature has flung these little wretches into
the street and left them there, so evidently regarding them as nothing
worth, and how all mankind acquiesce in the great mother's estimate of
her offspring. For, if they are to have no immortality, what superior
claim can I assert for mine? And how difficult to believe that anything
so precious as a germ of immortal growth can have been buried under this
dirt-heap, plunged into this cesspool of misery and vice! As often as I
beheld the scene, it affected me with surprise and loathsome interest,
much resembling, though in a far intenser degree, the feeling with which,
when a boy, I used to turn over a plank or an old log that had long lain
on the damp ground, and found a vivacious multitude of unclean and
devilish-looking insects scampering to and fro beneath it. Without an
infinite faith, there seemed as much prospect of a blessed futurity for
those hideous hugs and many-footed worms as for these brethren of our
humanity and co-heirs of all our heavenly inheritance. Ah, what a
mystery! Slowly, slowly, as after groping at the bottom of a deep,
noisome, stagnant pool, my hope struggles upward to the surface, bearing
the half-drowned body of a child along with it, and heaving it aloft for
its life, and my own life, and all our lives. Unless these slime-clogged
nostrils can be made capable of inhaling celestial air, I know not how
the purest and most intellectual of us can reasonably expect ever to
taste a breath of it. The whole question of eternity is staked there.
If a single one of those helpless little ones be lost, the world is lost!

The women and children greatly preponderate in such places; the men
probably wandering abroad in quest of that daily miracle, a dinner and a
drink, or perhaps slumbering in the daylight that they may the better
follow out their cat-like rambles through the dark. Here are women with
young figures, but old, wrinkled, yellow faces, fanned and blear-eyed
with the smoke which they cannot spare from their scanty fires,--it being
too precious for its warmth to be swallowed by the chimney. Some of them
sit on the doorsteps, nursing their unwashed babies at bosoms which we
will glance aside from, for the sake of our mothers and all womanhood,
because the fairest spectacle is here the foulest. Yet motherhood, in
these dark abodes, is strangely identical with what we have all known it
to be in the happiest homes. Nothing, as I remember, smote me with more
grief and pity (all the more poignant because perplexingly entangled with
an inclination to smile) than to hear a gaunt and ragged mother priding
herself on the pretty ways of her ragged and skinny infant, just as a
young matron might, when she invites her lady friends to admire her
plump, white-robed darling in the nursery. Indeed, no womanly
characteristic seemed to have altogether perished out of these poor
souls. It was the very same creature whose tender torments make the
rapture of our young days, whom we love, cherish, and protect, and rely
upon in life and death, and whom we delight to see beautify her beauty
with rich robes and set it off with jewels, though now fantastically
masquerading in a garb of tatters, wholly unfit for her to handle. I
recognized her, over and over again, in the groups round a doorstep or in
the descent of a cellar, chatting with prodigious earnestness about
intangible trifles, laughing for a little jest, sympathizing at almost
the same instant with one neighbor's sunshine and another's shadow, wise,
simple, sly, and patient, yet easily perturbed, and breaking into small
feminine ebullitions of spite, wrath, and jealousy, tornadoes of a
moment, such as vary the social atmosphere of her silken-skirted sisters,
though smothered into propriety by dint of a well-bred habit. Not that
there was an absolute deficiency of good-breeding, even here. It often
surprised me to witness a courtesy and deference among these ragged
folks, which, having seen it, I did not thoroughly believe in, wondering
whence it should have come. I am persuaded, however, that there were
laws of intercourse which they never violated,--a code of the cellar, the
garret, the common staircase, the doorstep, and the pavement, which
perhaps had as deep a foundation in natural fitness as the code of the
drawing-room.

Yet again I doubt whether I may not have been uttering folly in the last
two sentences, when I reflect how rude and rough these specimens of
feminine character generally were. They had a readiness with their hands
that reminded me of Molly Seagrim and other heroines in Fielding's
novels. For example, I have seen a woman meet a man in the street, and,
for no reason perceptible to me, suddenly clutch him by the hair and cuff
his ears,--an infliction which he bore with exemplary patience, only
snatching the very earliest opportunity to take to his heels. Where a
sharp tongue will not serve the purpose, they trust to the sharpness of
their finger-nails, or incarnate a whole vocabulary of vituperative words
in a resounding slap, or the downright blow of a doubled fist. All
English people, I imagine, are influenced in a far greater degree than
ourselves by this simple and honest tendency, in cases of disagreement,
to batter one another's persons; and whoever has seen a crowd of English
ladies (for instance, at the door of the Sistine Chapel, in Holy Week)
will be satisfied that their belligerent propensities are kept in
abeyance only by a merciless rigor on the part of society. It requires a
vast deal of refinement to spiritualize their large physical endowments.
Such being the case with the delicate ornaments of the drawing-room, it
is the less to be wondered at that women who live mostly in the open air,
amid the coarsest kind of companionship and occupation, should carry on
the intercourse of life with a freedom unknown to any class of American
females, though still, I am resolved to think, compatible with a generous
breadth of natural propriety. It shocked me, at first, to see them (of
all ages, even elderly, as well as infants that could just toddle across
the street alone) going about in the mud and mire, or through the dusky
snow and slosh of a severe week in winter, with petticoats high uplifted
above bare, red feet and legs; but I was comforted by observing that both
shoes and stockings generally reappeared with better weather, having been
thriftily kept out of the damp for the convenience of dry feet within
doors. Their hardihood was wonderful, and their strength greater than
could have been expected from such spare diet as they probably lived
upon. I have seen them carrying on their heads great burdens under which
they walked as freely as if they were fashionable bonnets; or sometimes
the burden was huge enough almost to cover the whole person, looked at
from behind,--as in Tuscan villages you may see the girls coming in from
the country with great bundles of green twigs upon their backs, so that
they resemble locomotive masses of verdure and fragrance. But these poor
English women seemed to be laden with rubbish, incongruous and
indescribable, such as bones and rags, the sweepings of the house and of
the street, a merchandise gathered up from what poverty itself had thrown
away, a heap of filthy stuff analogous to Christian's bundle of sin.

Sometimes, though very seldom, I detected a certain gracefulness among
the younger women that was altogether new to my observation. It was a
charm proper to the lowest class. One girl I particularly remember, in a
garb none of the cleanest and nowise smart, and herself exceedingly
coarse in all respects, but yet endowed with a sort of witchery, a native
charm, a robe of simple beauty and suitable behavior that she was born in
and had never been tempted to throw off, because she had really nothing
else to put on. Eve herself could not have been more natural. Nothing
was affected, nothing imitated; no proper grace was vulgarized by an
effort to assume the manners or adornments of another sphere. This kind
of beauty, arrayed in a fitness of its own, is probably vanishing out of
the world, and will certainly never be found in America, where all the
girls, whether daughters of the upper-tendon, the mediocrity, the
cottage, or the kennel, aim at one standard of dress and deportment,
seldom accomplishing a perfectly triumphant hit or an utterly absurd
failure. Those words, "genteel" and "ladylike," are terrible ones and do
us infinite mischief, but it is because (at least, I hope so) we are in a
transition state, and shall emerge into a higher mode of simplicity than
has ever been known to past ages.

In such disastrous circumstances as I have been attempting to describe,
it was beautiful to observe what a mysterious efficacy still asserted
itself in character. A woman, evidently poor as the poorest of her
neighbors, would be knitting or sewing on the doorstep, just as fifty
other women were; but round about her skirts (though wofully patched)
you would be sensible of a certain sphere of decency, which, it seemed to
me, could not have been kept more impregnable in the cosiest little
sitting-room, where the tea-kettle on the hob was humming its good old
song of domestic peace. Maidenhood had a similar power. The evil habit
that grows upon us in this harsh world makes me faithless to my own
better perceptions; and yet I have seen girls in these wretched streets,
on whose virgin purity, judging merely from their impression on my
instincts as they passed by, I should have deemed it safe, at the moment,
to stake my life. The next moment, however, as the surrounding flood of
moral uncleanness surged over their footsteps, I would not have staked a
spike of thistle-down on the same wager. Yet the miracle was within the
scope of Providence, which is equally wise and equally beneficent (even
to those poor girls, though I acknowledge the fact without the remotest
comprehension of the mode of it), whether they were pure or what we
fellow-sinners call vile. Unless your faith be deep-rooted and of most
vigorous growth, it is the safer way not to turn aside into this region
so suggestive of miserable doubt. It was a place "with dreadful faces
thronged," wrinkled and grim with vice and wretchedness; and, thinking
over the line of Milton here quoted, I come to the conclusion that those
ugly lineaments which startled Adam and Eve, as they looked backward to
the closed gate of Paradise, were no fiends from the pit, but the more
terrible foreshadowings of what so many of their descendants were to be.
God help them, and us likewise, their brethren and sisters! Let me add,
that, forlorn, ragged, careworn, hopeless, dirty, haggard, hungry, as
they were, the most pitiful thing of all was to see the sort of patience
with which they accepted their lot, as if they had been born into the
world for that and nothing else. Even the little children had this
characteristic in as perfect development as their grandmothers.

The children, in truth, were the ill-omened blossoms from which another
harvest of precisely such dark fruitage as I saw ripened around me was to
be produced. Of course you would imagine these to be lumps of crude
iniquity, tiny vessels as full as they could hold of naughtiness; nor can
I say a great deal to the contrary. Small proof of parental discipline
could I discern, save when a mother (drunken, I sincerely hope) snatched
her own imp out of a group of pale, half-naked, humor-eaten abortions
that were playing and squabbling together in the mud, turned up its
tatters, brought down her heavy hand on its poor little tenderest part,
and let it go again with a shake. If the child knew what the punishment
was for, it was wiser than I pretend to be. It yelled, and went back to
its playmates in the mud. Yet let me bear testimony to what was
beautiful, and more touching than anything that I ever witnessed in the
intercourse of happier children. I allude to the superintendence which
some of these small people (too small, one would think, to be sent into
the street alone, had there been any other nursery for them) exercised
over still smaller ones. Whence they derived such a sense of duty,
unless immediately from God, I cannot tell; but it was wonderful to
observe the expression of responsibility in their deportment, the anxious
fidelity with which they discharged their unfit office, the tender
patience with which they linked their less pliable impulses to the
wayward footsteps of an infant, and let it guide them whithersoever it
liked. In the hollow-cheeked, large-eyed girl of ten, whom I saw giving
a cheerless oversight to her baby-brother, I did not so much marvel at
it. She had merely come a little earlier than usual to the perception of
what was to be her business in life. But I admired the sickly-looking
little boy, who did violence to his boyish nature by making himself the
servant of his little sister,--she too small to walk, and he too small to
take her in his arms,--and therefore working a kind of miracle to
transport her from one dirt-heap to another. Beholding such works of
love and duty, I took heart again, and deemed it not so impossible, after
all, for these neglected children to find a path through the squalor and
evil of their circumstances up to the gate of heaven. Perhaps there was
this latent good in all of them, though generally they looked brutish,
and dull even in their sports; there was little mirth among them, nor
even a fully awakened spirit of blackguardism. Yet sometimes, again, I
saw, with surprise and a sense as if I had been asleep and dreaming, the
bright, intelligent, merry face of a child whose dark eyes gleamed with
vivacious expression through the dirt that incrusted its skin, like
sunshine struggling through a very dusty window-pane.

In these streets the belted and blue-coated policeman appears seldom in
comparison with the frequency of his occurrence in more reputable
thoroughfares. I used to think that the inhabitants would have ample
time to murder one another, or any stranger, like myself, who might
violate the filthy sanctities of the place; before the law could bring up
its lumbering assistance. Nevertheless, there is a supervision; nor does
the watchfulness of authority permit the populace to be tempted to any
outbreak. Once, in a time of dearth I noticed a ballad-singer going
through the street hoarsely chanting some discordant strain in a
provincial dialect, of which I could only make out that it addressed the
sensibilities of the auditors on the score of starvation; but by his side
stalked the policeman, offering no interference, but watchful to hear
what this rough minstrel said or sang, and silence him, if his effusion
threatened to prove too soul-stirring. In my judgment, however, there is
little or no danger of that kind: they starve patiently, sicken
patiently, die patiently, not through resignation, but a diseased
flaccidity of hope. If ever they should do mischief to those above them,
it will probably be by the communication of some destructive pestilence;
for, so the medical men affirm, they suffer all the ordinary diseases
with a degree of virulence elsewhere unknown, and keep among themselves
traditionary plagues that have long ceased to afflict more fortunate
societies. Charity herself gathers her robe about her to avoid their
contact. It would be a dire revenge, indeed, if they were to prove their
claims to be reckoned of one blood and nature with the noblest and
wealthiest by compelling them to inhale death through the diffusion of
their own poverty-poisoned atmosphere.

A true Englishman is a kind man at heart, but has an unconquerable
dislike to poverty and beggary. Beggars have heretofore been so strange
to an American that he is apt to become their prey, being recognized
through his national peculiarities, and beset by them in the streets.
The English smile at him, and say that there are ample public
arrangements for every pauper's possible need, that street-charity
promotes idleness and vice, and that yonder personification of misery on
the pavement will lay up a good day's profit, besides supping more
luxuriously than the dupe who gives him a shilling. By and by the
stranger adopts their theory and begins to practise upon it, much to his
own temporary freedom from annoyance, but not entirely without moral
detriment or sometimes a too late contrition. Years afterwards, it may
be, his memory is still haunted by some vindictive wretch whose cheeks
were pale and hunger-pinched, whose rags fluttered in the east-wind,
whose right arm was paralyzed and his left leg shrivelled into a mere
nerveless stick, but whom he passed by remorselessly because an
Englishman chose to say that the fellow's misery looked too perfect, was
too artistically got up, to be genuine. Even allowing this to be true
(as, a hundred chances to one, it was), it would still have been a clear
case of economy to buy him off with a little loose silver, so that his
lamentable figure should not limp at the heels of your conscience all
over the world. To own the truth, I provided myself with several such
imaginary persecutors in England, and recruited their number with at
least one sickly-looking wretch whose acquaintance I first made at
Assisi, in Italy, and, taking a dislike to something sinister in his
aspect, permitted him to beg early and late, and all day long, without
getting a single baiocco. At my latest glimpse of him, the villain
avenged himself, not by a volley of horrible curses, as any other Italian
beggar would, but by taking an expression so grief-stricken, want-wrung,
hopeless, and withal resigned, that I could paint his lifelike portrait
at this moment. Were I to go over the same ground again, I would listen
to no man's theories, but buy the little luxury of beneficence at a cheap
rate, instead of doing myself a moral mischief by exuding a stony
incrustation over whatever natural sensibility I might possess.

On the other hand, there were some mendicants whose utmost efforts I even
now felicitate myself on having withstood. Such was a phenomenon
abridged of his lower half, who beset me for two or three years together,
and, in spite of his deficiency of locomotive members, had some
supernatural method of transporting himself (simultaneously, I believe)
to all quarters of the city. He wore a sailor's jacket (possibly,
because skirts would have been a superfluity to his figure), and had a
remarkably broad-shouldered and muscular frame, surmounted by a large,
fresh-colored face, which was full of power and intelligence. His dress
and linen were the perfection of neatness. Once a day, at least,
wherever I went, I suddenly became aware of this trunk of a man on the
path before me, resting on his base, and looking as if he had just
sprouted out of the pavement, and would sink into it again and reappear
at some other spot the instant you left him behind. The expression of
his eye was perfectly respectful, but terribly fixed, holding your own as
by fascination, never once winking, never wavering from its point-blank
gaze right into your face, till you were completely beyond the range of
his battery of one immense rifled cannon. This was his mode of
soliciting alms; and he reminded me of the old beggar who appealed so
touchingly to the charitable sympathies of Gil Blas, taking aim at him
from the roadside with a long-barrelled musket. The intentness and
directness of his silent appeal, his close and unrelenting attack upon
your individuality, respectful as it seemed, was the very flower of
insolence; or, if yon give it a possibly truer interpretation, it was the
tyrannical effort of a man endowed with great natural force of character
to constrain your reluctant will to his purpose. Apparently, he had
staked his salvation upon the ultimate success of a daily struggle
between himself and me, the triumph of which would compel me to become a
tributary to the hat that lay on the pavement beside him. Man or fiend,
however, there was a stubbornness in his intended victim which this
massive fragment of a mighty personality had not altogether reckoned
upon, and by its aid I was enabled to pass him at my customary pace
hundreds of times over, quietly meeting his terribly respectful eye, and
allowing him the fair chance which I felt to be his due, to subjugate me,
if he really had the strength for it. He never succeeded, but, on the
other hand, never gave up the contest; and should I ever walk those
streets again, I am certain that the truncated tyrant will sprout up
through the pavement and look me fixedly in the eye, and perhaps get the
victory.

I should think all the more highly of myself, if I had shown equal
heroism in resisting another class of beggarly depredators, who
assailed me on my weaker side and won an easy spoil. Such was the
sanctimonious clergyman, with his white cravat, who visited me with a
subscription-paper, which he himself had drawn up, in a case of
heart-rending distress;--the respectable and ruined tradesman, going from
door to door, shy and silent in his own person, but accompanied by a
sympathizing friend, who bore testimony to his integrity, and stated the
unavoidable misfortunes that had crushed him down;--or the delicate and
prettily dressed lady, who had been bred in affluence, but was suddenly
thrown upon the perilous charities of the world by the death of an
indulgent, but secretly insolvent father, or the commercial catastrophe
and simultaneous suicide of the best of husbands; or the gifted, but
unsuccessful author, appealing to my fraternal sympathies, generously
rejoicing in some small prosperities which he was kind enough to term my
own triumphs in the field of letters, and claiming to have largely
contributed to them by his unbought notices in the public journals.
England is full of such people, and a hundred other varieties of
peripatetic tricksters, higher than these, and lower, who act their parts
tolerably well, but seldom with an absolutely illusive effect. I knew at
once, raw Yankee as I was, that they were humbugs, almost without an
exception,--rats that nibble at the honest bread and cheese of the
community, and grow fat by their petty pilferings, yet often gave them
what they asked, and privately owned myself a simpleton. There is a
decorum which restrains you (unless you happen to be a police-constable)
from breaking through a crust of plausible respectability, even when you
are certain that there is a knave beneath it.

After making myself as familiar as I decently could with the poor
streets, I became curious to see what kind of a home was provided for the
inhabitants at the public expense, fearing that it must needs be a most
comfortless one, or else their choice (if choice it were) of so miserable
a life outside was truly difficult to account for. Accordingly, I
visited a great almshouse, and was glad to observe how unexceptionably
all the parts of the establishment were carried on, and what an orderly
life, full-fed, sufficiently reposeful, and undisturbed by the arbitrary
exercise of authority, seemed to be led there. Possibly, indeed, it was
that very orderliness, and the cruel necessity of being neat and clean,
and even the comfort resulting from these and other Christian-like
restraints and regulations, that constituted the principal grievance on
the part of the poor, shiftless inmates, accustomed to a lifelong luxury
of dirt and harum-scarumness. The wild life of the streets has perhaps
as unforgetable a charm, to those who have once thoroughly imbibed it, as
the life of the forest or the prairie. But I conceive rather that there
must be insuperable difficulties, for the majority of the poor, in the
way of getting admittance to the almshouse, than that a merely aesthetic
preference for the street would incline the pauper-class to fare scantily
and precariously, and expose their raggedness to the rain and snow, when
such a hospitable door stood wide open for their entrance. It might be
that the roughest and darkest side of the matter was not shown me, there
being persons of eminent station and of both sexes in the party which I
accompanied; and, of course, a properly trained public functionary would
have deemed it a monstrous rudeness, as well as a great shame, to exhibit
anything to people of rank that might too painfully shock their
sensibilities.

The women's ward was the portion of the establishment which we especially
examined. It could not be questioned that they were treated with
kindness as well as care. No doubt, as has been already suggested, some
of them felt the irksomeness of submission to general rules of orderly
behavior, after being accustomed to that perfect freedom from the minor
proprieties, at least, which is one of the compensations of absolutely
hopeless poverty, or of any circumstances that set us fairly below the
decencies of life. I asked the governor of the house whether he met with
any difficulty in keeping peace and order among his inmates; and he
informed me that his troubles among the women were incomparably greater
than with the men. They were freakish, and apt to be quarrelsome,
inclined to plague and pester one another in ways that it was impossible
to lay hold of, and to thwart his own authority by the like intangible
methods. He said this with the utmost good-nature, and quite won my
regard by so placidly resigning himself to the inevitable necessity of
letting the women throw dust into his eyes. They certainly looked
peaceable and sisterly enough, as I saw them, though still it might be
faintly perceptible that some of them were consciously playing their
parts before the governor and his distinguished visitors.

This governor seemed to me a man thoroughly fit for his position. An
American, in an office of similar responsibility, would doubtless be a
much superior person, better educated, possessing a far wider range of
thought, more naturally acute, with a quicker tact of external
observation and a readier faculty of dealing with difficult cases. The
women would not succeed in throwing half so much dust into his eyes.
Moreover, his black coat, and thin, sallow visage, would make him look
like a scholar, and his manners would indefinitely approximate to those
of a gentleman. But I cannot help questioning, whether, on the whole,
these higher endowments would produce decidedly better results. The
Englishman was thoroughly plebeian both in aspect and behavior, a bluff,
ruddy-faced, hearty, kindly, yeoman-like personage, with no refinement
whatever, nor any superfluous sensibility, but gifted with a native
wholesomeness of character which must have been a very beneficial element
in the atmosphere of the almshouse. He spoke to his pauper family in
loud, good-humored, cheerful tones, and treated them with a healthy
freedom that probably caused the forlorn wretches to feel as if they were
free and healthy likewise. If he had understood them a little better, he
would not have treated them half so wisely. We are apt to make sickly
people more morbid, and unfortunate people more miserable, by endeavoring
to adapt our deportment to their especial and individual needs. They
eagerly accept our well-meant efforts; but it is like returning their own
sick breath back upon themselves, to be breathed over and over again,
intensifying the inward mischief at every repetition. The sympathy that
would really do them good is of a kind that recognizes their sound and
healthy parts, and ignores the part affected by disease, which will
thrive under the eye of a too close observer like a poisonous weed in the
sunshine. My good friend the governor had no tendencies in the latter
direction, and abundance of them in the former, and was consequently as
wholesome and invigorating as the west-wind with a little spice of the
north in it, brightening the dreary visages that encountered us as if he
had carried a sunbeam in his hand. He expressed himself by his whole
being and personality, and by works more than words, and had the not
unusual English merit of knowing what to do much better than how to talk
about it.

The women, I imagine, must have felt one imperfection in their state,
however comfortable otherwise. They were forbidden, or, at all events,
lacked the means, to follow out their natural instinct of adorning
themselves; all were dressed in one homely uniform of blue-checked gowns,
with such caps upon their heads as English servants wear. Generally,
too, they had one dowdy English aspect, and a vulgar type of features so
nearly alike that they seemed literally to constitute a sisterhood. We
have few of these absolutely unilluminated faces among our native
American population, individuals of whom must be singularly unfortunate,
if, mixing as we do, no drop of gentle blood has contributed to refine
the turbid element, no gleam of hereditary intelligence has lighted up
the stolid eyes, which their forefathers brought, from the Old Country.
Even in this English almshouse, however, there was at least one person
who claimed to be intimately connected with rank and wealth. The
governor, after suggesting that this person would probably be gratified
by our visit, ushered us into a small parlor, which was furnished a
little more like a room in a private dwelling than others that we
entered, and had a row of religious books and fashionable novels on the
mantel-piece. An old lady sat at a bright coal-fire, reading a romance,
and rose to receive us with a certain pomp of manner and elaborate
display of ceremonious courtesy, which, in spite of myself, made me
inwardly question the genuineness of her aristocratic pretensions. But,
at any rate, she looked like a respectable old soul, and was evidently
gladdened to the very core of her frost-bitten heart by the awful
punctiliousness with which she responded to her gracious and hospitable,
though unfamiliar welcome. After a little polite conversation, we
retired; and the governor, with a lowered voice and an air of deference,
told us that she had been a lady of quality, and had ridden in her own
equipage, not many years before, and now lived in continual expectation
that some of her rich relatives would drive up in their carriages to take
her away. Meanwhile, he added, she was treated with great respect by her
fellow-paupers. I could not help thinking, from a few criticisable
peculiarities in her talk and manner, that there might have been a
mistake on the governor's part, and perhaps a venial exaggeration on the
old lady's, concerning her former position in society; but what struck me
was the forcible instance of that most prevalent of English vanities, the
pretension to aristocratic connection, on one side, and the submission
and reverence with which it was accepted by the governor and his
household, on the other. Among ourselves, I think, when wealth and
eminent position have taken their departure, they seldom leave a pallid
ghost behind them,--or, if it sometimes stalks abroad, few recognize it.

We went into several other rooms, at the doors of which, pausing on the
outside, we could hear the volubility, and sometimes the wrangling, of
the female inhabitants within, but invariably found silence and peace,
when we stepped over the threshold. The women were grouped together in
their sitting-rooms, sometimes three or four, sometimes a larger number,
classified by their spontaneous affinities, I suppose, and all busied, so
far as I can remember, with the one occupation of knitting coarse yarn
stockings. Hardly any of them, I am sorry to say, had a brisk or
cheerful air, though it often stirred them up to a momentary vivacity to
be accosted by the governor, and they seemed to like being noticed,
however slightly, by the visitors. The happiest person whom I saw there
(and, running hastily through my experiences, I hardly recollect to have
seen a happier one in my life, if you take a careless flow of spirits
as happiness) was an old woman that lay in bed among ten or twelve
heavy-looking females, who plied their knitting-work round about her.
She laughed, when we entered, and immediately began to talk to us, in a
thin, little, spirited quaver, claiming to be more than a century old;
and the governor (in whatever way he happened to be cognizant of the
fact) confirmed her age to be a hundred and four. Her jauntiness and
cackling merriment were really wonderful. It was as if she had got
through with all her actual business in life two or three generations
ago, and now, freed from every responsibility for herself or others, had
only to keep up a mirthful state of mind till the short time, or long
time (and, happy as she was, she appeared not to care whether it were
long or short), before Death, who had misplaced her name in his list,
might remember to take her away. She had gone quite round the circle of
human existence, and come back to the play-ground again. And so she had
grown to be a kind of miraculous old pet, the plaything of people seventy
or eighty years younger than herself, who talked and laughed with her as
if she were a child, finding great delight in her wayward and strangely
playful responses, into some of which she cunningly conveyed a gibe that
caused their ears to tingle a little. She had done getting out of bed in
this world, and lay there to be waited upon like a queen or a baby.

In the same room sat a pauper who had once been an actress of
considerable repute, but was compelled to give up her profession by a
softening of the brain. The disease seemed to have stolen the continuity
out of her life, and disturbed an healthy relationship between the
thoughts within her and the world without. On our first entrance, she
looked cheerfully at us, and showed herself ready to engage in
conversation; but suddenly, while we were talking with the century-old
crone, the poor actress began to weep, contorting her face with
extravagant stage-grimaces, and wringing her hands for some inscrutable
sorrow. It might have been a reminiscence of actual calamity in her past
life, or, quite as probably, it was but a dramatic woe, beneath which she
had staggered and shrieked and wrung her hands with hundreds of
repetitions in the sight of crowded theatres, and been as often comforted
by thunders of applause. But my idea of the mystery was, that she had a
sense of wrong in seeing the aged woman (whose empty vivacity was like
the rattling of dry peas in a bladder) chosen as the central object of
interest to the visitors, while she herself, who had agitated thousands
of hearts with a breath, sat starving for the admiration that was her
natural food. I appeal to the whole society of artists of the Beautiful
and the Imaginative,--poets, romancers, painters, sculptors, actors,--
whether or no this is a grief that may be felt even amid the torpor of a
dissolving brain!

We looked into a good many sleeping-chambers, where were rows of beds,
mostly calculated for two occupants, and provided with sheets and
pillow-cases that resembled sackcloth. It appeared to me that the sense
of beauty was insufficiently regarded in all the arrangements of the
almshouse; a little cheap luxury for the eye, at least, might do the poor
folks a substantial good. But, at all events, there was the beauty of
perfect neatness and orderliness, which, being heretofore known to few of
them, was perhaps as much as they could well digest in the remnant of
their lives. We were invited into the laundry, where a great washing and
drying were in process, the whole atmosphere being hot and vaporous with
the steam of wet garments and bedclothes. This atmosphere was the
pauper-life of the past week or fortnight resolved into a gaseous state,
and breathing it, however fastidiously, we were forced to inhale the
strange element into our inmost being. Had the Queen been there, I know
not how she could have escaped the necessity. What an intimate
brotherhood is this in which we dwell, do what we may to put an
artificial remoteness between the high creature and the low one! A poor
man's breath, borne on the vehicle of tobacco-smoke, floats into a
palace-window and reaches the nostrils of a monarch. It is but an
example, obvious to the sense, of the innumerable and secret channels by
which, at every moment of our lives, the flow and reflux of a common
humanity pervade us all. How superficial are the niceties of such as
pretend to keep aloof! Let the whole world be cleansed, or not a man or
woman of us all can be clean.

By and by we came to the ward where the children were kept, on entering
which, we saw, in the first place, several unlovely and unwholesome
little people lazily playing together in a court-yard. And here a
singular incommodity befell one member of our party. Among the children
was a wretched, pale, half-torpid little thing (about six years old,
perhaps,--but I know not whether a girl or a boy), with a humor in its
eyes and face, which the governor said was the scurvy, and which appeared
to bedim its powers of vision, so that it toddled about gropingly, as if
in quest of it did not precisely know what. This child--this sickly,
wretched, humor-eaten infant, the offspring of unspeakable sin and
sorrow, whom it must have required several generations of guilty
progenitors to render so pitiable an object as we beheld it--immediately
took an unaccountable fancy to the gentleman just hinted at. It prowled
about him like a pet kitten, rubbing against his legs, following
everywhere at his heels, pulling at his coat-tails, and, at last,
exerting all the speed that its poor limbs were capable of, got directly
before him and held forth its arms, mutely insisting on being taken up.
It said not a word, being perhaps under-witted and incapable of prattle.
But it smiled up in his face,--a sort of woful gleam was that smile,
through the sickly blotches that covered its features,--and found means
to express such a perfect confidence that it was going to be fondled and
made much of, that there was no possibility in a human heart of balking
its expectation. It was as if God had promised the poor child this favor
on behalf of that individual, and he was bound to fulfil the contract, or
else no longer call himself a man among men. Nevertheless, it could be
no easy thing for him to do, he being a person burdened with more than an
Englishman's customary reserve, shy of actual contact with human beings,
afflicted with a peculiar distaste for whatever was ugly, and,
furthermore, accustomed to that habit of observation from an insulated
stand-point which is said (but, I hope, erroneously) to have the tendency
of putting ice into the blood.

So I watched the struggle in his mind with a good deal of interest, and
am seriously of opinion that he did an heroic act, and effected more than
he dreamed of towards his final salvation, when he took up the loathsome
child and caressed it as tenderly as if he had been its father. To be
sure, we all smiled at him, at the time, but doubtless would have acted
pretty much the same in a similar stress of circumstances. The child, at
any rate, appeared to be satisfied with his behavior; for when he had
held it a considerable time, and set it down, it still favored him with
its company, keeping fast hold of his forefinger till we reached the
confines of the place. And on our return through the court-yard, after
visiting another part of the establishment, here again was this same
little Wretchedness waiting for its victim, with a smile of joyful, and
yet dull recognition about its scabby mouth and in its rheumy eyes. No
doubt, the child's mission in reference to our friend was to remind him
that he was responsible, in his degree, for all the sufferings and
misdemeanors of the world in which he lived, and was not entitled to look
upon a particle of its dark calamity as if it were none of his concern:
the offspring of a brother's iniquity being his own blood-relation, and
the guilt, likewise, a burden on him, unless he expiated it by better
deeds.

All the children in this ward seemed to be invalids, and, going up
stairs, we found more of them in the same or a worse condition than the
little creature just described, with their mothers (or more probably
other women, for the infants were mostly foundlings) in attendance as
nurses. The matron of the ward, a middle-aged woman, remarkably kind and
motherly in aspect, was walking to and fro across the chamber--on that
weary journey in which careful mothers and nurses travel so continually
and so far, and gain never a step of progress--with an unquiet baby in
her arms. She assured us that she enjoyed her occupation, being
exceedingly fond of children; and, in fact, the absence of timidity in
all the little people was a sufficient proof that they could have had no
experience of harsh treatment, though, on the other hand, none of them
appeared to be attracted to one individual more than another. In this
point they differed widely from the poor child below stairs. They seemed
to recognize a universal motherhood in womankind, and cared not which
individual might be the mother of the moment. I found their tameness as
shocking as did Alexander Selkirk that of the brute subjects of his else
solitary kingdom. It was a sort of tame familiarity, a perfect
indifference to the approach of strangers, such as I never noticed in
other children. I accounted for it partly by their nerveless, unstrung
state of body, incapable of the quick thrills of delight and fear which
play upon the lively harp-strings of a healthy child's nature, and partly
by their woful lack of acquaintance with a private home, and their being
therefore destitute of the sweet home-bred shyness, which is like the
sanctity of heaven about a mother-petted child. Their condition was like
that of chickens hatched in an oven, and growing up without the especial
guardianship of a matron hen: both the chicken and the child, methinks,
must needs want something that is essential to their respective
characters.

In this chamber (which was spacious, containing a large number of beds)
there was a clear fire burning on the hearth, as in all the other
occupied rooms; and directly in front of the blaze sat a woman holding a
baby, which, beyond all reach of comparison, was the most horrible object
that ever afflicted my sight. Days afterwards--nay, even now, when I
bring it up vividly before my mind's eye--it seemed to lie upon the floor
of my heart, polluting my moral being with the sense of something
grievously amiss in the entire conditions of humanity. The holiest man
could not be otherwise than full of wickedness, the chastest virgin
seemed impure, in a world where such a babe was possible. The governor
whispered me, apart, that, like nearly all the rest of them, it was the
child of unhealthy parents. Ah, yes! There was the mischief. This
spectral infant, a hideous mockery of the visible link which Love creates
between man and woman, was born of disease and sin. Diseased Sin was its
father, and Sinful Disease its mother, and their offspring lay in the
woman's arms like a nursing Pestilence, which, could it live and grow up,
would make the world a more accursed abode than ever heretofore. Thank
Heaven, it could not live! This baby, if we must give it that sweet
name, seemed to be three or four months old, but, being such an unthrifty
changeling, might have been considerably older. It was all covered with
blotches, and preternaturally dark and discolored; it was withered away,
quite shrunken and fleshless; it breathed only amid pantings and
gaspings, and moaned painfully at every gasp. The only comfort in
reference to it was the evident impossibility of its surviving to draw
many more of those miserable, moaning breaths; and it would have been
infinitely less heart-depressing to see it die, right before my eyes,
than to depart and carry it alive in my remembrance, still suffering the
incalculable torture of its little life. I can by no means express how
horrible this infant was, neither ought I to attempt it. And yet I must
add one final touch. Young as the poor little creature was, its pain and
misery had endowed it with a premature intelligence, insomuch that its
eyes seemed to stare at the bystanders out of their sunken sockets
knowingly and appealingly, as if summoning us one and all to witness the
deadly wrong of its existence. At least, I so interpreted its look, when
it positively met and responded to my own awe-stricken gaze, and
therefore I lay the case, as far as I am able, before mankind, on whom
God has imposed the necessity to suffer in soul and body till this dark
and dreadful wrong be righted.

Thence we went to the school-rooms, which were underneath the chapel.
The pupils, like the children whom we had just seen, were, in large
proportion, foundlings. Almost without exception, they looked sickly,
with marks of eruptive trouble in their doltish faces, and a general
tendency to diseases of the eye. Moreover, the poor little wretches
appeared to be uneasy within their skins, and screwed themselves about on
the benches in a disagreeably suggestive way, as if they had inherited
the evil habits of their parents as an innermost garment of the same
texture and material as the shirt of Nessus, and must wear it with
unspeakable discomfort as long as they lived. I saw only a single child
that looked healthy; and on my pointing him out, the governor informed me
that this little boy, the sole exception to the miserable aspect of his
school-fellows, was not a foundling, nor properly a work-house child,
being born of respectable parentage, and his father one of the officers
of the institution. As for the remainder,--the hundred pale abortions to
be counted against one rosy-cheeked boy,--what shall we say or do?
Depressed by the sight of so much misery, and uninventive of remedies for
the evils that force themselves on my perception, I can do little more
than recur to the idea already hinted at in the early part of this
article, regarding the speedy necessity of a new deluge. So far as these
children are concerned, at any rate, it would be a blessing to the human
race, which they will contribute to enervate and corrupt,--a greater
blessing to themselves, who inherit no patrimony but disease and vice,
and in whose souls, if there be a spark of God's life, this seems the
only possible mode of keeping it aglow,--if every one of them could be
drowned to-night, by their best friends, instead of being put tenderly to
bed. This heroic method of treating human maladies, moral and material,
is certainly beyond the scope of man's discretionary rights, and probably
will not be adopted by Divine Providence until the opportunity of milder
reformation shall have been offered us again and again, through a series
of future ages.

It may be fair to acknowledge that the humane and excellent governor, as
well as other persons better acquainted with the subject than myself,
took a less gloomy view of it, though still so dark a one as to involve
scanty consolation. They remarked that individuals of the male sex,
picked up in the streets and nurtured in the workhouse, sometimes succeed
tolerably well in life, because they are taught trades before being
turned into the world, and, by dint of immaculate behavior and good luck,
are not, unlikely to get employment and earn a livelihood. The case is
different with the girls. They can only go to service, and are
invariably rejected by families of respectability on account of their
origin, and for the better reason of their unfitness to fill
satisfactorily even the meanest situations in a well-ordered English
household. Their resource is to take service with people only a step or
two above the poorest class, with whom they fare scantily, endure harsh
treatment, lead shifting and precarious lives, and finally drop into the
slough of evil, through which, in their best estate, they do but pick
their slimy way on stepping-stones.

From the schools we went to the bake-house, and the brew-house (for such
cruelty is not harbored in the heart of a true Englishman as to deny a
pauper his daily allowance of beer), and through the kitchens, where we
beheld an immense pot over the fire, surging and walloping with some kind
of a savory stew that filled it up to its brim. We also visited a
tailor's shop, and a shoemaker's shop, in both of which a number of mien,
and pale, diminutive apprentices, were at work, diligently enough, though
seemingly with small heart in the business. Finally, the governor
ushered us into a shed, inside of which was piled up an immense quantity
of new coffins. They were of the plainest description, made of pine
boards, probably of American growth, not very nicely smoothed by the
plane, neither painted nor stained with black, but provided with a loop
of rope at either end for the convenience of lifting the rude box and its
inmate into the cart that shall carry them to the burial-ground. There,
in holes ten feet deep, the paupers are buried one above another,
mingling their relics indistinguishably. In another world may they
resume their individuality, and find it a happier one than here!

As we departed, a character came under our notice which I have met with
in all almshouses, whether of the city or village, or in England or
America. It was the familiar simpleton, who shuffled across the
court-yard, clattering his wooden-soled shoes, to greet us with a howl or
a laugh, I hardly know which, holding out his hand for a penny, and
chuckling grossly when it was given him. All under-witted persons, so
far as my experience goes, have this craving for copper coin, and appear
to estimate its value by a miraculous instinct, which is one of the
earliest gleams of human intelligence while the nobler faculties are yet
in abeyance. There may come a time, even in this world, when we shall
all understand that our tendency to the individual appropriation of gold
and broad acres, fine houses, and such good and beautiful things as are
equally enjoyable by a multitude, is but a trait of imperfectly developed
intelligence, like the simpleton's cupidity of a penny. When that day
dawns,--and probably not till then,--I imagine that there will be no more
poor streets nor need of almshouses.

I was once present at the wedding of some poor English people, and was
deeply impressed by the spectacle, though by no means with such proud and
delightful emotions as seem to have affected all England on the recent
occasion of the marriage of its Prince. It was in the Cathedral at
Manchester, a particularly black and grim old structure, into which I had
stepped to examine some ancient and curious wood-carvings within the
choir. The woman in attendance greeted me with a smile (which always
glimmers forth on the feminine visage, I know not why, when a wedding is
in question), and asked me to take a seat in the nave till some poor
parties were married, it being the Easter holidays, and a good time for
them to marry, because no fees would be demanded by the clergyman. I sat
down accordingly, and soon the parson and his clerk appeared at the
altar, and a considerable crowd of people made their entrance at a
side-door, and ranged themselves in a long, huddled line across the
chancel. They were my acquaintances of the poor streets, or persons
in a precisely similar condition of life, and were now come to their
marriage-ceremony in just such garbs as I had always seen them wear: the
men in their loafers' coats, out at elbows, or their laborers' jackets,
defaced with grimy toil; the women drawing their shabby shawls tighter
about their shoulders, to hide the raggedness beneath; all of them
unbrushed, unshaven, unwashed, uncombed, and wrinkled with penury and
care; nothing virgin-like in the brides, nor hopeful or energetic in the
bridegrooms;--they were, in short, the mere rags and tatters of the human
race, whom some east-wind of evil omen, howling along the streets, had
chanced to sweep together into an unfragrant heap. Each and all of them,
conscious of his or her individual misery, had blundered into the strange
miscalculation of supposing that they could lessen the sum of it by
multiplying it into the misery of another person. All the couples (and
it was difficult, in such a confused crowd, to compute exactly their
number) stood up at once, and had execution done upon them in the lump,
the clergyman addressing only small parts of the service to each
individual pair, but so managing the larger portion as to include the
whole company without the trouble of repetition. By this compendious
contrivance, one would apprehend, he came dangerously near making every
man and woman the husband or wife of every other; nor, perhaps, would he
have perpetrated much additional mischief by the mistake; but, after
receiving a benediction in common, they assorted themselves in their own
fashion, as they only knew how, and departed to the garrets, or the
cellars, or the unsheltered street-corners, where their honeymoon and
subsequent lives were to be spent. The parson smiled decorously, the
clerk and the sexton grinned broadly, the female attendant tittered
almost aloud, and even the married parties seemed to see something
exceedingly funny in the affair; but for my part, though generally apt
enough to be tickled by a joke, I laid it away in my memory as one of the
saddest sights I ever looked upon.

Not very long afterwards, I happened to be passing the same venerable
Cathedral, and heard a clang of joyful bells, and beheld a bridal party
coming down the steps towards a carriage and four horses, with a portly
coachman and two postilions, that waited at the gate. One parson and one
service had amalgamated the wretchedness of a score of paupers; a Bishop
and three or four clergymen had combined their spiritual might to forge
the golden links of this other marriage-bond. The bridegroom's mien had
a sort of careless and kindly English pride; the bride floated along in
her white drapery, a creature, so nice and delicate that it was a luxury
to see her, and a pity that her silk slippers should touch anything so
grimy as the old stones of the churchyard avenue. The crowd of ragged
people, who always cluster to witness what they may of an aristocratic
wedding, broke into audible admiration of the bride's beauty and the
bridegroom's manliness, and uttered prayers and ejaculations (possibly
paid for in alms) for the happiness of both. If the most favorable of
earthly conditions could make them happy, they had every prospect of it.
They were going to live on their abundance in one of those stately and
delightful English homes, such as no other people ever created or
inherited, a hall set far and safe within its own private grounds, and
surrounded with venerable trees, shaven lawns, rich shrubbery, and
trimmest pathways, the whole so artfully contrived and tended that summer
rendered it a paradise, and even winter would hardly disrobe it of its
beauty; and all this fair property seemed more exclusively and
inalienably their own, because of its descent through many forefathers,
each of whom had added an improvement or a charm, and thus transmitted it
with a stronger stamp of rightful possession to his heir. And is it
possible, after all, that there may be a flaw in the title-deeds? Is, or
is not, the system wrong that gives one married pair so immense a
superfluity of luxurious home, and shuts out a million others from any
home whatever? One day or another, safe as they deem themselves, and
safe as the hereditary temper of the people really tends to make them,
the gentlemen of England will be compelled to face this question.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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