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LONDON'S UNDERWORLD (chapter5)

2006-09-08 20:58

    CHAPTER V

    FURNISHED APARTMENTS

    What fell power decreed that certain streets in London should be devoted to the purpose of providing "furnished apartments" for the submerged I do not know. But I do know that some streets are entirely devoted to this purpose, and that a considerable amount of money is made out of such houses.

    I ask my readers to accompany me for a visit to one of these streets, and make some acquaintance with the houses, the furniture and the inhabitants.

    The particular streets we select run at a right-angle from a main thoroughfare, a railway divides them from a beautiful park, and on this railway City merchants pass daily to and from their suburban homes.

    I question whether in the whole of London more misery, vice and poverty can be found located in one limited area than in the streets we are about to visit. I know them, and I have every reason for knowing them. We make our visit in summer time, when poverty is supposed to be less acute. As we enter the street we notice at once that a commodious public-house stands and thrives at the entrance. We also notice that there are in the street several "general" shops, where tea and margarine, firewood, pickles, paraffin oil and cheese, boiled ham and vinegar, corned beef and Spanish onions, bread and matches are to be obtained.

    We stand in the middle of the roadway, in the midst of dirt and refuse, and look up and down the street. Innumerable children are playing in the gutter or on the pavements, and the whole place teems with life. We observe that the houses are all alike, the shops excepted. They stand three-storey high; there are nine rooms in each house. We look in vain for bright windows and for clean and decent curtains.

    Every room seems occupied, for there is no card in any window announcing "furnished apartments." The street is too well known to require advertisement, consequently the "furnished apartments" are seldom without tenants.

    The street is a cave of Adullam to which submerged married couples resort when their own homes, happy or otherwise, are broken up.

    We notice that it is many days since the doors and window-frames of the different houses made acquaintance with the painter. We notice that all doors stand open, for it is nobody's business to answer a knock, friendly or otherwise. We look in the various doorways and see in each case the same sort of staircase and the same unclean desolation.

    Who would believe that Adullam Street is a veritable Tom Tiddler's Ground? Would any one believe that a colony of the submerged could prove a source of wealth?

    Let us count the houses on both sides of the street. Forty-five houses! Leave out the two "general" shops, the greengrocer's and the "off licence"; leave out also the one where the agent and collector lives, that leaves us forty-one houses of nine rooms let out as furnished apartments.

    If let to married couples that means a population of seven hundred and thirty-eight, if all the rooms are occupied, and supposing that no couple occupies more than one room. As for the children——but we dare not think of them——we realise the advantage of the open street of which we freely grant them the freehold. But we make the acquaintance of a tenant and ask some questions. We find that she has two children, that they have but one furnished room, for which they pay seven shillings and sixpence weekly in advance! Always in advance!

    She further tells us that their room is one of the best and largest; it faces the street, and is on the first floor. She says that some rooms are let at six shillings, others at six shillings and sixpence, and some at seven shillings. We ask her why she lives in Adullam Street, and she tells us that her own furniture was obtained on the "hire system," and when it was seized they came to Adullam Street, and they do not know how they are to get out of it.

    That sets us thinking and calculating; three hundred and sixty- nine rooms, rent always payable in advance—— from the submerged, too!-average six shillings and sixpence per week per room, why, that is L per week, or L, annually from forty-one houses, if they are regularly occupied. Truly furnished apartments specially provided for the submerged are extra specially adapted to the purpose of keeping them submerged.

    As no deputy disputes our entrance, we enter and proceed to gain some knowledge of the tenants, and take some stock of their rooms and furniture.

    The rooms are simply but by no means sweetly furnished! Here is an inventory and a mental picture of one room. A commodious bed with dirty appointments that makes us shudder! A dirty table on which are some odds and ends of unclean crockery, a couple of cheap Windsor chairs, a forbidding-looking chest of drawers, a rusty frying-pan, a tin kettle, a teapot and a common quart jug. He would be a bold man that bid ten shillings for the lot, unless he bought them as a going concern. A cheap and nasty paper covers the wall, excepting where pieces have been torn away, and the broken walls are made of lath and plaster, to provide splendid cover for innumerable insects which remain in undisputed possession.

    One floor much resembles another, but the basement and the top storey rooms are the worst of all. We look through the window of a second floor back room, and see the out premises, but one look is sufficient.

    We want to know something of the tenants, so we enter into conversation with them, and find them by no means reserved.

    Room . Husband and wife about thirty-five years of age, no children; husband has been ill for some months, during which the rent got behind. When he was taken to the infirmary they lost their home altogether; she did washing and charing for a time, but ultimately got into the "House."

    When her husband got better, and was discharged from the infirmary, his old mates collected ten shillings for him, he took the room in which they now lived, and of course she joined him.

    How did they live? Well, it was hardly living; her husband looked round every day and managed to "pick up something," and she got a day or two days' work every week——their rent was always paid in advance. What happened when her husband did not "pick up something" she did not say, but semi-starvation seemed the only alternative.

    No. . Husband, wife and a girl of seven engaged in making coarse paper flowers of lurid hue. They had been in that room for six months; they sold the paper flowers in the streets, but being summer time they did not sell many. At Christmas time people bought them for decorations; sometimes people gave the girl coppers, but did not take the flowers from her. The police watched them very closely, as they required a licence for selling, and if they took the girl out in the wet or dark the police charged them.

    It was very difficult to live at all, owing to police interference. The girl did not go to school, but they had been warned that she must go; they did not know what they should do when she could not help them.

    Room . A strong man about thirty, his wife and two young children. The remains of a meal upon the table, a jug of beer and a smell of tobacco. The man looks at us, and a flash of recognition is exchanged. He had been released from prison at . that morning after serving a sentence of nine months for shop robbery.

    We asked how much gratuity he had earned. Eight shillings, he told us. His wife and children had met him at the prison gate; they had come straight to that room, for which the wife had previously arranged; they had paid a week in advance. "What was he going to do?" "He did not know!" He did not appear to care, but he supposed he "must look round, he would get the rent somehow." We felt that he spoke the truth, and that he would "get the rent somehow" till the police again prevented him.

    We know that prison will again welcome him, and that the workhouse gates will open to receive his wife and children, the number of which will increase during his next detention in prison.

    Room . Two females under thirty. No signs of occupation; they are not communicative, neither are they rude, so we learn nothing from them except that they were not Londoners.

    Room . A family group, father, mother and four children; they had come to Adullam Street because they had been ejected from their own home. Their goods and chattels had been put on the street pavement, whence the parish had removed them to the dust destructor, probably the best thing to do with them.

    The family were all unhealthy and unclean. The parents did not seem to have either strength, grit or intelligence to fit them for any useful life. But they could creep forth and beg, the woman could stand in the gutter with a little bit of mortality wrapped in her old shawl, for tender-hearted passers-by to see its wizened face, and the father could stand not far away from her with a few bootlaces or matches exposed, as if for sale. They managed to live somehow.

    Room . An elderly couple who had possessed no home of their own for years past, but who know London well, for the furnished lodgings of the east, west, north and south are familiar to them.

    He sells groundsel, she sells water-cress, at least they tell us so, and point to baskets as evidence. But we know that groundsel business of old. We have seen him standing in a busy thoroughfare with his pennyworth of groundsel, and we know that though he receives many pennies his stock remains intact, and we know also that pennyworths of water-cress in the dirty hands of an old woman serve only the same purpose.

    Room . Here we find a younger but not more hopeful couple; she is fairly well dressed, and he is rather flashy. They have both food and drink. We know that when the shades of night fall she will be perambulating the streets, and he like a beast of prey will be watching not far away. So we might go through the whole of the colony. There is a strange assortment of humanity in Adullam Street. Vice and misery, suffering and poverty, idleness and dishonesty, feeble-mindedness and idiocy are all blended, but no set-off in virtue and industry is to be found.

    The strong rogue lives next to the weak and the unfortunate, the hardened old sinner next door to some who are beginning to qualify for a like old age. The place is coated with dirt and permeated with sickening odours. And to Adullam Street come young couples who have decided to unite their lives and fortunes without any marriage ceremony; for in Adullam Street such unions abound.

    Young fellows of nineteen earning as much as twelve shillings a week couple with girls of less age earning ten shillings weekly. It looks so easy to live on twenty-two shillings a week and no furniture to buy, and no parson to pay.

    So a cheap ring is slipped on, and hand in hand the doomed couple go to Adullam Street, which receives them with open arms, and hugs them so long as six shillings and sixpence weekly is forthcoming in advance. Their progress is very rapid; when the first child arrives, the woman's earnings cease, and Adullam Street knows them no more.

    Ticket-of-leave men, ex-convicts, heroes of many convictions, come to Adullam Street and bring their female counterparts with them. They flourish for a time, and then the sudden but not unexpected disappearance of the male leads to the disappearance of the female. She returns to her former life; Adullam Street is but an incident in her life.

    So there is a continual procession through Adullam Street; very little good enters it, and it is certain that less good passes out.

    Where do its temporary inhabitants go? To prisons, to workhouses, to hospitals, to common lodging-houses, to shelters, to the Embankment and to death.

    Although those who seek sanctuary in Adullam Street are already inhabitants of the underworld, a brief sojourn in it dooms them to lower depths. I suppose there must be places of temporary residence for the sort of people that inhabit it, for they must have shelter somewhere. But I commend this kind of property to the searching eyes of the local authorities and the police.

    But furnished apartments can tell another tale when they are not situated in Adullam Street. For sometimes a struggling widow, or wife with a sick husband, or a young married couple seek to let furnished apartments as a legitimate means of income. When they do so, let them beware of the underworld folk who happen to be better clothed and more specious than their fellows, or they will bitterly rue it.

    Very little payment will they get. Couples apparently married and apparently respectable, but who are neither, are common enough, who are continually on the look-out for fresh places of abode, where they may continue their depredation.

    They are ready enough with a deposit, but that is all the money they mean to part with, and that has probably been raised by robbing their last landlady. They can give references if required, and show receipts, too, from their last lodgings, for they carry rent-books made out by themselves and fully paid up for the purpose. They are adepts at obtaining entrance, and, once in, they remain till they have secured another place and marked another prey.

    Meanwhile their poor victims suffer in kind and money, and are brought nearer destitution. I have frequently known a week's rent paid with the part proceeds of articles stolen from either the furnished apartments, or some other part of the house just entered.

    I could tell some sad stories of suffering and distress brought to struggling and decent people by these pests, of whom a great number are known to the police.

    And so the merry game goes on, for while vampires are sucking the impure blood of the wretched dwellers in Adullam Street lodgings, the dwellers in Adullam Street in their turn prey on the community at large.

    Meanwhile the honest and unfortunate poor can scarcely find cover, and when they do, why, then their thin blood is drained, for they have to pay exorbitantly.

    It is apparently easy to transmute wretched humanity into gold. But who is going to call order out of this horrid chaos? No one, I am thinking, for no one seems to dare attempt in any thorough way to solve the question of housing the very poor, and that question lies at the root of this matter.

    Let any one attempt it, and a thousand formidable vested interests rise up and confront him, against which he will dash himself in vain. As to housing the inhabitants of the underworld at a reasonable rental, no one seems to have entertained the idea.

    Lease holders and sub-lease holders, landlords and ground landlords, corporations and churches, philanthropists and clergymen have all got vested interests in house property where wretchedness and dirt are conspicuous. "But," said a notable clergyman in regard to some horrid slum, "I cannot help it, I have only a life-interest in it," as if, forsooth, he could have more; did he wish to carry his interests beyond the grave? would give life-interest in rotten house property short shrift by burning the festering places. But such places are not burned, though sometimes they are closed by the order of the local authorities. But oftener still they are purchased by local authorities at great public cost, or by philanthropic trusts. Then the human rabbits are driven from their warrens to burrow elsewhere and so leave room for respectability.

    Better-looking and brighter buildings are erected where suites of rooms are to let at very high prices. Then a tax is placed upon children, and a premium is offered to sterility. Glowing accounts appear in the Press, and royalty goes to inspect the new gold mine! We rub our hands with complacent satisfaction and say, "Ah! at last something is being done for housing the very poor!" But what of the rabbits! have they ascended to the seventh heaven of the new paradise? Not a bit; they cannot offer the required credentials, or pay the exorbitant rent! not for them seven flights of stone stairs night and morning; it is so much easier for rabbits to burrow underground, or live in the open. So away they scuttle! Some to dustheaps, some back to Adullam Street, some to nomadic life. But most of them to other warrens, to share quarters with other rabbits till those warrens in their turn are converted into "dwellings," when again they must needs scuttle and burrow elsewhere.

    Can it be wondered at that these people are dirty and idle; and that many of them ultimately prefer the settled conditions of prison or workhouse life, or take to vagrancy?

    I cannot find a royal specific for this evil; humanity will, under any conditions, have its problems and difficulties. Vagrants have always existed, and probably will continue to exist while the human race endures. But we need not manufacture them! Human rookeries and rabbit warrens must go; England, little England, cannot afford them, and ought not to tolerate them. But before we dispossess the rooks and the rabbits, let us see to it that, somewhere and somehow, cleaner nests and sweeter holes are provided for them. The more I think upon this question the more I am convinced that it is the great question of the day, and upon its solution the future of our country depends.

    See what is happening! Thousands of children born to this kind of humanity become chargeable to the guardians or find entrance to the many children's homes organised by philanthropy. One course is taken the bright and healthy, the sound in body and mind, are emigrated; but the smitten, the afflicted, the feeble and the worthless are kept at home to go through the same life, to endure the same conditions as their parents, and in their turn to produce a progeny that will burrow in warrens or scuttle out of them even as their parents did before them.

    But the feebler the life, the greater the progeny; this we cannot escape, for Nature will take care of herself. We, may drive out the rabbits, we may imprison and punish them, we may compel them to live in Adullam Street or in lazar houses, we may harry them and drive them hither and thither, we may give them doles of food on the Embankment or elsewhere. We may give them chopping wood for a day, we may lodge them for a time in labour homes; all this we may do, but we cannot uplift them by these methods. We cannot exterminate them. But by ignoring them we certainly give them an easy chance of multiplying to such a degree that they will constitute a national danger.

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