In going to our boardinghouse, the sign of the Baltimore Clipper, I generally passed through a narrow street called ‘Launcelott’s-Hey,’ lined with dingy, prisonlike cotton warehouses. In this street, or rather alley, you seldom see any one but a truck man, or some solitary old warehouse keeper, haunting his smoky den like a ghost.
Once, passing through this place, I heard a feeble wail, which seemed to come out of the earth. It was but a strip of crooked sidewalk where I stood; the dingy wall was on every side, converting the midday into twilight, and not a soul was in sight. I started, and could almost have run, when I heard that dismal sound. It seemed the low, hopeless, endless wail of someone forever lost. At last I advanced to an opening which communicated downward with deep tiers of cellars beneath a crumbling old warehouse; and there, some 15 feet below the walk, crouching in nameless squalor, with her head bowed over, was the figure of what had been a woman. Her blue arms folded to her livid bosom two shrunked things like children, that leaned toward her, one on each side. At first, I knew not whether they were alive or dead. They made no sign; they did not move or stir; but from the vault came that soul-sickening wail.
I made a noise with my foot, which, in the silence, echoed far and near; but there was no response. Louder still; when one of the children lifted its head, and cast upward a faint glance; then closed its eyes, and lay motionless. The woman also, now gazed up, and perceived me; but let fall her eye again. They were dumb and next to dead with want. How they had crawled into that den, I could not tell; but there they had crawled to die. Ant that moment I never thought of relieving them; for death was so stamped into their glazed and unimploring eyes, that I almost regarded them already as no more. I stood looking down on them, while my whole soul swelled within me; and I asked myself, What right had anybody in the wide world to smile and be glad, when sights like this were to be seen? It was enough to turn the heart to gall; and make a man hater of a Howard. For who were these ghosts that I saw? Were they not human beings? a woman with two girls? with eyes, and lips, and ears like any queen? with hearts which, though they did not bound with blood, yet beat with a dull, dead ache that was their life?
At last, I walked on toward an open lot in the alley hoping to meet there some ragged old women, whom I had daily noticed groping amid foul rubbish for little particles of dirty cotton, which they washed out and sold for a trifle.
I found them; and accosting one, I asked if she knew of the persons I had just left. She replied, that she did not; nor did she want to. I then asked another, a miserable, toothless old woman, with a tattered strip of coarse baling stuff round her body. Looking at me for an instant, she resumed her raking in the rubbish, and said that she knew who it was that I spoke of; but that she had no time to attend to beggars and their brats. Accosting still another, who seemed to know my errand, I asked if there was no place to which the woman could be taken. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘to the churchyard.’ I said she was alive, and not dead.
‘Then she’ll never die,’ was the rejoinder. ‘She’s been down there these three days, with nothing to eat – that I know of myself.’
‘She desarves it,’ said an old hag, who was just placing on her crooked shoulders her bag of pickings, and who was turning to totter off, ‘that Betsy Jennings desarves it – was she ever married? Tell me that.’
Leaving Launcelott’s-Hey, I turned into a more frequented street; and soon meeting a policeman, told him of the condition of the woman and the girls.
‘It’s none of my business, Jack,’ said he. ‘I don’t belong to that street.’
‘Who does then?’
‘I don’t know. But what business is it of yours? Are you not a Yankee?’
‘Yes,’ said I, ‘ but come, I will help you remove that woman, if you say so.’
‘There, now, Jack, go on board your ship, and stick to it; and leave these matters to the town.’
I accosted two more policemen, but with no better success; they would not even go with me to the place. The truth was, it was out of the way, in a silent, secluded spot; and the misery of the three outcasts, hiding away in the ground, did not obtrude upon anyone.
Returning to them, I again stamped to attract their attention; but this time, none of the three looked up, or even stirred. While I yet stood irresolute, a voice called to me from a high, iron-shuttered window in a loft over the way; and asked what I was about. I beckoned to the man, a sort of porter, to come down, which he did; when I pointed down into the vault.
‘Well,’ said he, ‘what of it?’
‘Can’t we get them out?’ said I. ‘Haven’t you some place in your warehouse where you can put them? Have you nothing for them to eat?’
‘You’re crazy, boy,’ said he; ‘Do you suppose, that Parkins and Wood would want their warehouse turned into a hospital?’
I then went to my boardinghouse, and told Handsome Mary of what I had seen; asking her if she could not do something to get the woman and girls removed; or if she could not do that, let me have some food for them. But though a kind person in the main, Mary replied that she gave away enough to beggars in her own street (which was true enough) without looking after the whole neighborhood.
Going into the kitchen, I accosted the cook, a little shriveled-up old Welshwoman, with a saucy tongue, whom the sailors called Brandy-Nan ; and begged her to give me some cold victuals, if she had nothing better, to take to the vault. But she broke out into a storm of swearing at the miserable occupants of the vault, and refused. I then stepped into the room where our dinner was being spread; and waiting till the girl had gone out, I snatched some bread and cheese from a stand, and thrusting it into the bosom of my frock, left the house. Hurrying to the lane, I dropped the food down into the vault. One of the girls caught at it convulsively, but fell back, apparently fainting; the sister pushed the other’s arm aside, and took the bread in her hand; but with a weak and uncertain grasp like an infant’s. She placed it to her mouth; but letting it fall again, murmured faintly something like ‘water.’ The woman did not stir; her head was bowed over, just as I had seen her.
Seeing how it was, I ran down toward the docks to a mean little sailor tavern, and begged for a pitcher; but the cross old man who kept it refused, unless I would pay for it. But I had no money. So as my boardinghouse was some way off, and it would be lost time to run to the ship for the big iron pot; under the impulse of the moment I hurried to one of the Boodle Hydrants, which I remembered having seen running near the scene of the still smoldering fire in an old rag house; and taking off a new tarpaulin hat, which had been loaned me that day, filled it with water.
With this, I returned to Launcelott’s-Hey; and with considerable difficulty, like getting down into a well, I contrived to descend with it into the vault; where there was hardly space enough for me to stand. The two girls drank out of the hat together; looking up at me with an unalterable, idiotic expression, that almost made me faint. The woman spoke not a word, and did not stir. While the girls were breaking and eating the bread, I tried to lift the woman’s head; but, feeble as she was, she seemed bent upon holding it down. Observing her arms still clasped upon her bosom, and that something seemed hiddenunder the rags there, a thought crossed my mind, which impelled me forcibly to withdraw her hands for a moment; when I caught a glimpse of a meager little babe, the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor; but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead some hours.
The woman refusing to speak, eat, or drink, I asked one of the girls who they were, and where they lived; but she only stared vacantly, muttering something that could not be understood.
The air of the place was now getting too much for me; but I stood deliberating a moment, whether it was possible for me to drag them out of the vault. But if I did, what then? They would only perish in the street, and here they were at least protected from the rain; and more than that, might die in seclusion.
I crawled up into the street, and looking down upon them again, almost repented that I had brought them any food; for it would only tend to prolong their misery, without hope of any permanent relief; for die they must very soon; they were too far gone for any medicine to help them. I hardly know whether I ought to confess another thing that occured to me as I stood there; but it was this – I felt an almost irresistable impulse to do them the last mercy, of in some way putting an end to their horrible lives; and I should almost have done so, I think, had I not been deterred by thoughts of the law. For I knew well that the law, which would let them perish themselves without giving them one cup of water, would spend a thousand pounds, if necessary, in convicting him who should so much as offer to relieve them from their miserable existance.
The next day, and the next, I passed the vault three times, and still met the same sight. The girls leaning up against the woman on each side, and the woman with her arms still folded around the babe, and her head bowed. The first evening I did not see the bread that I dropped down in the morning; but the second evening, the bread I had dropped that morning remained untouched. On the third morning the smell that came from the vault was such, that I accosted the same policeman I had accosted before, who was patrolling the same street, and told him that the persons I had spoken to him about were dead, and he had better have them removed. He looked as if he did not believe me, and added, that it was not his street.
When I arrived at the docks on my way to the ship, I entered the guardhouse within the walls, and asked for one of the captains, to whom I told the story; but, from what he said, was left to infer that the Dock Police was distinct from that of the town, and this was not the right place to lodge my information.
I could do no more that morning, being obliged to repair the ship; but at twelve o’clock, when I went to dinner, I hurried into Launcelott’s-Hey, when I found that the vault was empty. In place of the woman and children, a heap of quicklime was glistening.
I could not learn who had taken them away, or whither they had gone; but my prayer was answered – they were dead, departed, and at peace.
But again I looked into the vault, and in fancy beheld the pale, shrunken forms still crouching there. Ah! What are our creeds, and how do we hope to be saved? Tell me, oh Bible, that story of Lazarus again, that I may find comfort in my heart for the poor and forlorn. Surrounded as we are by the wants of fellow men, and yet given to follow our own pleasures, regardless of their pains, are we not like people sitting up with a corpse, and making merry in the house of the dead?