In the Gutter-Garten


IN the whole world there is nowhere such an oppression and desperation of loneliness as within that atmosphere of human estrangement which is known behind the cold shoulder of Guttergarten.

Here in my own Gutter home, in the very heart of familiar associations, I have been so suddenly and bitterly alone!

For I suppose the Gutter will never quite forget, or allow us entirely to ignore, the fact that we were born into a world outside Gutter-garten, and can never really share fully the sweet communion of the Children of the Kingdom.

In the old days of many mistakes and gauche offenses in Gutter-garten, I remember being once overtaken by this same isolation in the middle of a Christmas supper-party.

We had gathered about the long white table, laden with candles and flowers and the inevitable gaudy profusion of bilious cakes. Lizzie and Topsy were there side by side, dressed exactly alike, in purple plush bodices, and with a crimson rose poised delicately on the frizzled head of each.

Johnny had brought the boy who blows the organ at the Mission to protect him from the deadly enemy of Gutter loneliness, and Blanchie had looked in for a few minutes on her way to a professional turn at a public-house concert in the neighborhood. She was resplendent in all the cheap magnificence of her frilled skirts and slim pink-stockinged legs, with thin cheeks painted to a hot flush which the stare of coarse criticism and drunken admiration had long ago ceased to kindle there. Her dancing eyes were alive with mischievous invitation, and her pert profile tossed self-conscious smiles at us over an impudently-tilted shoulder.

‘Ain’t ’er lovely!’ whispered the enchanted company; and the organblower was feeling ‘sweet on her,’ and fast losing control of his ardent boyish heart.

His name was Laughing Alf, because he had never yet been seen with a straight face. He had an amazing and profound devotion to his sacred vocation, and blew the organ as tenderly as his own mother rocked her baby’s cradle, but he could not help smiling over it all the time.

‘I wish you would not let your face slip so frequently!’ the Gutter Parson had once peevishly remarked, when the broad enjoyment upon the organblower’s honest face had more than usually irritated him during the office hymn.

But in spite of this reproof, which Laughing Alf took bitterly to heart, his face continued to slip in the accustomed way, and his nickname stuck to him through the years.

On the other side of the table, stormclouds were gathering. The Younger Lizzie was forgetting herself. Her temper was slowly rising and nobody knew exactly why.

‘Wotcher grinnin’ at, yer fule?’ she suddenly inquired sharply of the laughing Alf, whose shy grimaces above his plate of Christmas pudding had fixed their wandering attention in her direction.

‘It don’t matter which ways yer looks at ’im, ’e’s always laughin’. If ’e were to drop dead afore our very eyes ’e’d still be laughin’ all the time we was layin’ of ’e out!’ Topsy observed irritably, with a glance at her pal’s wrathful profile.

Special Johnny’s puzzled countenance rose suddenly round and greedy from the over-loaded plate which had, till this point, entirely absorbed his attention. He had recognized the fact that Laughing Alf, for whose introduction to the company and subsequent behavior he was painfully responsible, had become the centre of an atmospheric disturbance.

He plunged furiously with a cruel thin elbow at the ribs of his disorderly protege. ‘I’ll stick me bleedin’ fork in yer silly old eye in a minute,’ he warned him, while the nervous Alf smiled blandly on.

On the other side of the narrow strip of white table the Younger Lizzie had abandoned herself completely to an acute attack of the Gutter sulks. Her dark face rose above the bright flowers and trembling candle-flames, set in rigid frowns, and her black eyes flashed wild and narrow under her lowered brows.

There was an uncomfortable sense of coming disaster in the air, and the pudding cooled untasted, while we awaited the warning of the inevitable explosion.

Lizzie, wrapped in her sulks, refused speech, but the others began to chatter foolishly.

‘I can make people cry,’ bragged the Art Nursling. ‘It’s a much finer thing to do than making them laugh. There ain’t a dry eye in the ’ouse when I’m singing “ Mother’s little blue-eyed boy” ! ’

‘Yer clever if yer can make Laughin’ Alf cry, then! ’ snapped Topsy, who was upset in her friend’s confusion. ‘’E’s got no feelin’s at all in ’im! ’E ’as n’t.’

At this point an expert hostess might have done much to remedy the situation, but over me had swept suddenly that fiercely annihilating wave of Gutter loneliness, and I was floundering helplessly in an outside atmosphere, somewhere far away, behind the shrug and the frown of Gutter-garten.

In another moment Blanchie would have taken on a bet to subdue the persistent merriment of Alf with the cunning of her arts. But loud knocks below announced the arrival of those who were to take her from us to charm another audience.

‘It’s my dadda! I ain’t goin’ with ’im!’ she protested firmly; and we waited for the usual scene as she tripped away defiantly to greet him with cheerful opposition.

‘It don’t suit me to come just now! Shan’t dance and sing till I chooses any’ow, even if yer do make me! And if yer ’its me, yer’ll only black me eye, or spoil me new dress! Leave me be, I tells yer!’

There was only a very brief discussion over the matter. A man’s harsh laugh and a little frightened squeal of pain, and we knew that Blanchie had been reduced to submission.

‘ Whacky-whack! ’ said Special Johnny with solemn intelligence; and we heard the catch in the proud little voice that called bravely up the stairs,—

‘Toodle-oo, girls, I’m out of this scene!’

With the Art Nursling’s departure had evaporated every faint ray of sunshine and hopeful suggestion from the gloomy atmosphere of that table where I was a stranger among my own guests.

‘Ain’t ’er come over red in the mug!’ remarked Johnny clumsily as his observant eyes fell before the frowning gaze of Lizzie. It was always the part of Special Johnny to pounce upon the psychological moment, and hasten the crisis in any complication of Gutter affairs. Once again in the long history of our correspondence he had come to the rescue. For Lizzie’s sulking fit broke into a hot burst of passion and drove her out wrathfully from us.

Topsy rose in dignity to hasten to her aid with consolation, while the bitter cloud of Gutter loneliness lifted slowly, and the warm heart of Guttergarten smiled out at me in sympathy once more, between the nervous excitement of Alf’s hysterics and the healthy greed of Special Johnny’s insatiable appetite, as he made a careful tour of the neglected plates, and gathered up with a patient sticky finger every unappreciated luxury.

‘ Serve ’er glad,’ he declared, amid the difficulties of an over-crowded mouth; ‘next time there’s a party, there won’t be no party, little Johnny come by ’isself. ’Er ain’t got no call to show off all those hairs afore company!’

But it was a useful lesson, without which the educational system of Gutter-garten would have been quite incomplete. For never since have I lightly undertaken the perilous function of a Gutter hostess, and I am never likely to forget the awful significance, the freezing horror, of the Frown of Gutter-garten.

There are some mornings when Gutter-garten gets up in a bad temper, and gives no reason at all for the phenomenon of its gray and sullen face. Yesterday, perhaps, the Gutter Parson on his long round of sick calls may have been greeted deferentially, and with most amazing cheerfulness, by every visible member of his straying flock.

‘Mornin’, uncle,’ squealed the factory girls, with merry courtesy; the old women blessed him with profound devotion, and the Gutter-babies called loudly to one another of his arrival among them, and swarmed round him in a little body-guard till he reached his destination.

‘What number did yer say, mister? Twenty-two? ’Ere ’t is, two knocks and a walk in. ’Er died this mornin’, father. She’s a beautiful corpse.’

And then they waited for him till his ghastly visit was ended, and he was ready to be escorted somewhere else.

But to-morrow, perhaps, it may be very different. The strings of factory girls will only stare rudely, and collapse in hysterical amusement after he has passed.

‘Good morning! — A fine day!’ he will remark to the very same weary old women as they stare drearily out of their tired eyes at him without pleasure, and without welcome.

“Ere’s father!’ the Gutter-babies will soon herald him, but with a curious subtle note of malice and distrust in their shrill threatening voices. And it will be quite representative of the extraordinary attitude of ibis new phase of Gutter-garten if Special Johnny suddenly springs up in the way with his little fists menacingly doubled, saying, 舒

‘I’ll knock the bleedin’ ’ead off of you! ’

I have been a long time among the Gutter-dwellers, and I have seen Guttergarten turn its face from me many times, but I have never been told the reason of this change of heart, or known why such a bitterness of punishment was inflicted upon me.


‘Scabby ’ead, yer lousy!’
‘I ain’t. — Lousy yerself.’
‘Git out of it!’
‘I’ll gob in yer eye — take that!’

Over the way, in the asphalt court of the Gutter-castle, two of the little wild people were quarreling on the new green seats which the London County Council has this summer generously placed at their disposal.

I was in time to see Blanchie carry out her unpleasant threat very efficaciously. But I had by this time suffered some sharp experiences in the rearing of Gutter-babies, and this one should know what was best for herself. I did not, therefore, interfere in their little differences. It was certainly not my fault that Blanchie had left off her stockings temporarily, and was wearing a rusty jersey over her scrappy petticoats. The pose of her slim bare ankles, and the naughty mischief in her face, veiled under a web of tangled black hair, innocent just now of curls and ribbons, was still oddly suggestive of the music halls. And yet one felt that the Art Angel might have wisely withdrawn into his heaven while the Nursling was in the safe keeping of Special Johnny.

She had been minding the Elder Lizzie’s baby for a penny this afternoon, and during the whole of that fierce dialogue had held it clasped tenderly in her thin arms against her narrow, childish bosom, and hushed its bitter weeping with frequent pseudo-maternal caresses. The Elder Lizzie was exceptionally busy. It was her turn in the wash-house, and now and then I caught a glimpse of her worried figure flitting through the yard, often loaded with the eccentric fuel of rotten boots and miscellaneous débriswith which she kept the copper at boiling-point, and filled the air of Gutter-garten with suffocating odors.

A thunder-storm was riding up over the darkened sky. There had always been trouble in the air when the Elder Lizzie washed. It was, indeed, a part of the tragedy of her life that she never had a day for drying. She was talking about it even now, in that saddened and yet aggressive voice which had so often and so insistently told us the weary story of a Gutter-mother’s grief.

There was much matter for gossip to-day, too. It was holiday-time, and there had been quite a small commotion round the Gutter-castle over the removal of Teddie to the fever hospital. Teddie had not behaved very well himself, and there had been some difficulty in persuading him to go quietly.

He did n’t feel the fever; and the sore throat, he told us, would not be near so bad if he could stay at home. Blanchie’s heart had been wrung by the scene, and for many days after, she clung to the painfully exciting memory of it, and hugged her woe as only a Gutter-woman-baby can.

But at the time she had been able to comfort the afflicted Teddie upon his outward-bound journey. She had raced up the street after the departing hero, and screamed into his hungering ears the last cheering message of the Gutter: ‘They sends yer ’ome ter peel now! ’

This morning as the Gutter Parson came back this way from mass, a swarm of Gutter-babies hailed the appearance of his tall black figure among them with ecstasy. The long string of the laundry girls called merrily to him over their pert shoulders, ‘Mornin’, uncle!’ Johnny wheeled his wooden box-cart over his toes without any apologies, and Blanchie was clinging to his hand in precocious flirtation.

Yet it was here, in the very heart of us, that the Gutter Parson was really most himself. He stood there amongst us, in every thought and fibre of him so infinitely removed from the earthbound game of Gutter-garten, as it rolled below his feet. We were crude and vulgar and primitive, we were stubborn andstrangely-disobedient children. We hugged the anti-Christ in the immoral secret of our homes, and our playground was the haunt of devils, and yet he knew that, pagans as we were, within the sympathy and influence of his consecrated personality we were really his to charm, his to be called out one by one, and acknowledged individually, as our human need of him arose.

He might, of course, have chosen a very different career. And yet I do not believe, in spite of our singular want of recognition, that his deepest gifts were really ever wasted here, or thrown away upon the children of the Gutter, as they played with their mud-pies far below the shadow of his lofty ideals. Wc should have missed something if he had been less of a visionary. We should most certainly have known if he had been a little less of a man.

And this morning, as he played a little while in the sunshine of Guttergarten, out of the Gutter-castle had come to him suddenly, with his ashen face covered in trembling hands, a dreadful child of the Gutter with a shadow on his brow.

It was the boy-husband who had occupied the next-door flat to the Lizzies. He had had a small disturbance with his wife the night before, and he had only given her one under the chin to go on with, for cheeking him about his slack work. He had never been able to stop her jaw when she once started, but this time she did not answer back. She would never answer back any more. And yet he knew that that white and ghastly head that he had silenced would chatter to him in his prison cell, would mouth and grimace at him in the supreme moment of disgrace, and go down laughing with him into hell itself.

They fetched him away in the afternoon, and he made only a very poor fight of it. In a corner of the deserted home which had been so abruptly broken up a baby cried for him. In the street, Gutter-garten booed and spat its contempt after him. But the murderer’s hand still tingled with a friendly grip, and he knew that the Gutter Parson would come to him.

All this had happened, and yet the Elder Lizzie was still fully occupied in her own narrow round of self, and its small and confined activities. She was still able to concentrate all the energies of her petty, domesticated intellect upon that threatening storm as it hovered in ill-omened menace over her day’s labor.

It was not the fault, but the great misfortune, indeed, it was the whole tragedy of the Elder Lizzie that Gutter-garten was a desert that would not blossom for her.

The thunder was driving Blanchie in to tea, and I could see that she was intending to offer hospitality to the baby and to Johnny also.

‘Come in,’ I could hear her saying, ‘and we’ll play mothers and fathers with the baby.’

We had tea, and Blanchie presided over the feast, cutting huge slices for Johnny and nursing the Elder Lizzie’s baby. Afterwards they carried out their plan, and played ‘ fathers and mothers ’ in a little furnished room which they had made for themselves under the table. Blanchie washed pockethandkerchiefs, and the baby cried a good deal, and Johnny went out to look for work and came back again without any luck.

‘We’ll ’ave a row next,’ suggested Blanchie. ‘Miss, ’old the byby; we’re goin’ to ’ave a lovely row.’

They had their row. Johnny went under the table and began to break up the home, flinging bits of the furniture out of the little windows, which had been carefully arranged in brown paper, and tastefully decorated with muslin curtains by Blanchie’s domesticated genius. Johnny’s language, while he faithfully executed his part of the play, was too realistic to be recorded here.

Meanwhile Blanchie walked up and down outside wringing her hands.

‘ O, Johnny, do be quiet! ’ she wailed. ‘Oh, just ’ark to ’im! There won’t be a stick left!’

In the middle of the tragic scene the Elder Lizzie arrived, and demanded her baby.

‘We can’t play fathers and mothers without a baby,’ said Blanchie. ‘Can’t yer leave ’im a bit longer? I won’t charge yer nothink hextra.’

It was just what one might have expected of Lizzie, that she should not understand in the least why they could not go on with their ‘bleedin’ nonsense without her baby.’

No wonder that the Elder Lizzie had never been a happy woman. I began dimly to guess at the secret tragedy of that lonely heart. Blanchie was inclined to take the abrupt interference in her domestic play quite seriously, but Johnny was ready with other suggestions.

‘Never mind! Let’s ’ave a trunk murder,’ he ventured. ‘And I’ll be the little ’ound wot smelled out yer corpse! ’

As I left them so, — fully absorbed in the intense seriousness of their play, — I found myself wondering sadly how long it would be before they, too, would lose, in the deadening reality of Gutter domesticity, the capacity to think and care.


Behind the top windows of the Gutter-castle the wreck of the Elder Lizzie’s little home had begun.

‘Oh, my Gordon!’ shrieked Johnny suddenly. ‘’Ere, miss, come and look at this horful show-up!’

The Elder Lizzie was being unceremoniously dragged out of the Blue Star, through a gaping and astonished crowd.

‘Yer bleedin’ starver!’ she defended herself. ‘You ought to ’ave a wife, you ought! Oos money do I treat meself with? Oo keeps your ’ome for you, tell me that, I say, yer bleedin’ starver!’

He did not tell her, but he hit her mouth to stop the flow of abuse, and she gave him a black eye.

And that was the beginning of the collapse of the Elder Lizzie’s patience. For this crisis she had worked so bravely day and night at the laundry, and dragged the children’s earnings from them to keep his home safe, while he hung about Gutter-garten with his hands in his pockets and a pipe in his mouth. She had often wondered how he had got the money for his tobacco. It did not come from her — not much!

As she hurried homeward now with her little ones clinging to her skirt in frightened sympathy, the heart of the Elder Lizzie was filled with bitterness and hatred. She sat down in the grandmother’s empty chair, struggling to command her dizzy senses, and wiping the blood from her wounded face. He was her man, and she had kept him all these years; she did not turn against him because he had hit her. She liked a man of spirit ; but now he had shown he was a man, he should keep himself.

Of course she knew he had a fancy for her not to gossip in the Blue Star with Topsy’s mother, and he had said if he caught them at it, he would knock their two heads together until he had split every ounce of brain in each of them.

It was her being out at tea-time that had done it. A man wants his tea when he comes in, and it ought to be ready for him even if he has only been walking round the houses with his pipe, while mother has been sweated out at the wash-house all the afternoon. But this was the last of it. He had gone out; when he came back he should have a surprise. She remembered with a mocking smile that it was his birthday on Monday. Well, she did not suppose she would ever remember his birthday again, but this once she would give him another surprise to mark the day. She would send him a summons for his birthday. But there was a great deal to do. It was no time for sitting in the grandmother’s chair and nursing her troubles. The children must help her. She flung up the window and shouted for Teddie.

‘Come in at once, yer wicked boy, or I ’ll knock yer ’ead off. Yer won’t want to run the streets to-morrow, I s’pose, when yer’ve got no ’ome!’

And then began the destruction of the Elder Lizzie’s home. There was not a great deal of it to break up, much less than there used to be.

It had been a hard winter, very hard indeed, inside the Gutter-castle. They made you pay your rent there, and if there was no money coming, one had to make it on the home. Most of the bits went to the pawn-shop on a borrowed barrow now, and the rest was soon disposed of in other ways.

Johnny and Teddie rather enjoyed the proceedings; every Gutter-baby loves moving day, and neither of them had the least idea that they were taking part in the tragedy of the Elder Lizzie.

At last everything was done. The little home behind the top windows of the Gutter-castle had been utterly devastated. The cold bare rooms, with their blackened ceilings and untidy walls, were forlornly suggestive of desertion. They might have said many things to the wild misery of Lizzie’s heart, if she had cared. In that corner she had rocked her first baby, and talked of love. Here she had washed and mended and scolded and suffered for the twenty years of her married life. Storms had swept over the little home she had defended so bravely, but they had passed as suddenly as they came. But now the sun would shine no more there.

This was the tragedy of Lizzie, that she had lost her home. And now she must go before he came back. He would kill her if he found her there, and she must get her summons out first. Down the stairs she came, and the children must not follow.

‘I’m goin’ away to the sea-side,’ she told them. She had lied to her own Gutter-babies.

‘Could she be a woman!’ Johnny sneered, when it was all over.

Lizzie went out from the Guttercastle, but she did not go far. She must be where she could carry out her poor little vicious plans. She must be, too, where she could see her own little ones crying for bread and running the streets barefoot.

The Elder Lizzie must be mad!

She went to a furnished room in the next street and hid herself there. The family of the Elder Lizzie did not suffer any serious privation after all. Perhaps she had known they would be all right. Topsy’s mother took in the little boys and the new baby, and Lizzie went to the free shelter for a night or two till things came straight again. Billy found a shake-down for himself with a pal, and Teddie persuaded Johnny to befriend him.

Only the Starver sat alone among the shadows in his empty home, and wondered what the devil was the matter.

Presently he, too, went out to find his mates in the Blue Star.

The birthday came, and Lizzie got her summons out, but it did not surprise the Starver.

Nobody could find the Starver; he had disappeared; the bare rooms in the top of the Gutter-castle were as empty as when the Elder Lizzie had left them. Everybody wanted to know what the devil had become of the Starver. But only the devil knew.

At last some one volunteered to tell Lizzie of the Starver’s disappearance. Lizzie was disappointed. After all, her little birthday surprise had been a failure. But she would find him; she would hunt him to the end of the earth; she would drag the canals, and dive into t he deep places of Gutter-garten for the missing body of the Starver.

But she knew where he was. He had got pinched on Saturday night in his cups, and this time there had been no Elder Lizzie to bail him out. But upon investigation Lizzie’s theory collapsed. The Starver was not in the lock-up.

The Elder Lizzie went on going to the laundry and paying for her furnished room, while other people minded the Starver’s children for her, and we all lived breathlessly under the shadow of this tremendous mystery. But at last the end came.

It was the Saturday after the disappearance of the Starver. He had been away a week, when Johnny bounced in in a state of wild excitement.

‘I’ve seed ’im!' he screamed. ‘I’ll take me dyin’ oath on it!’

The Starver had come home at last. He carried a bag of tools with him, and he was up there in the Gutter-castle, collecting his scattered family. Lizzie stood out in Gutter-garten and watched the gathering of the home circle. Could the Starver really have found work? Of course she had never meant to take the matter to court. It was only her little birthday surprise for him. Would he ask her to come back? She wondered! She knew what a lot of washing there must be by this time. Why, his poor socks must be fair walked through if he had been on tramp. Presently the window flew up, and the Starver looked out. He seemed to look very peeky, she thought, but there! work had never agreed with him.

‘Liz,’ he said, ‘ain’t yer comin’ up?’

He must be clean daft to think she would go back to him like that. If he went down on his hands and knees he could n’t expect more.

‘Tom,’ she said, ‘I never meant to take that to court, but you’ve seen the last of me. Mind you’re good to the kids, Tom, when I’m gone, and don’t forget to give Nannie ’er cough mixture. Maybe you’ll find me in the canal, but there’s plenty of chaps ’ud be glad to ’ave me work for ’em as I’ve worked for you, and the children knows as ’ow I ’ave.’

The Starver’s face, as it hung out of the window, became troubled.

‘Ain’t yer comin’ up, Liz?’ he persisted gently.

‘Me comin’ up, Tom? Not me. I can’t do it no more, Tom. I’m fair broke, I am, Tom. If yer went down on yer bended knees yer could n’t ask no more!’

For the whole afternoon it seemed as if this dialogue would continue. But I was not anxious about Lizzie. I knew that curiosity and wounded pride would certainly carry the day, and land her safely once again in the bosom of her abandoned family.

That the Starver should have found work after all these years was an unfathomable mystery; that the Starver should have become independent was the sting of cruelty.

‘Ain’t yer comin’ up, Liz?’ went on the gruff voice, kindly.

‘Wots ’ome without a mother?’ suggested Johnny at her elbow.

‘Yer don’t want yer wife now yer can keep yerself, I s’pose? ’Ow did yer find work?’

‘I ain’t found no work, Liz! Oo says I got any work?’

‘ Why, wot you got in yer bloody bag, then? Ain’t they tools in there?’

‘They ain’t no tools, Liz. I’ve been down in the country, along of my mother, wot I ain’t seen this ten year. Tramped it all the way, I did, and I brought back a few apples for the kids. Ain’t yer comin’ up, Liz?’

The Elder Lizzie mounted the stairs of the Gutter-castle with a bursting heart and brimming eyes.

‘ I ’ve got me week’s money for the dinner to-morrer, Tom,’ she said.

And then began the laborious collection of the new home of the Lizzies.