Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 8. Sickness

This chapter has only the object of touching very slightly on one or two of the sides of this terrible and insoluble problem­the sickness of the poor. It partakes of all the complications of cause and effect that work also among the wealthy, the unwise marriage, the self-indulgent life, the ignorant and careless care of children, the sudden accident. And beyond and above this comes in the stress of poverty, the necessity to work through illness and health, the insufficient nourishment, the absence of alleviations, and the impossibility of obtaining the only effective cure.

And so result cramped lives which while they move our pity move our honour too; and helpless, burdensome lives, and marred careers. Of those that are the result of vice or neglect we will not speak. Of the other it will not be amiss to say a word or two.
There are the sickly lives that waver on from year to year.

Such was the life of a little fellow aged sixteen, though he looked not more than nine or ten. His sister had dropped him on the stairs, and the result was a bent spine, and twisty limbs, and constant abscesses, that were a fearful drag on his strength.

It was strange to think of a human life so fettered. For months he spent his time between his little chair-bed, where he lay drawn up in a constrained position, and the high guard of the fire in the same little dark room, on which he leant upon his elbows; he could neither sit nor lie, but there he would half-lean, half-crouch, for hours together, looking into the ashes with a white face, peculiarly sweet in its expression. He never complained or spoke of pain; he could even dress his own sores. There he stood day after day, the widest prospect before him being a big back-yard with two dirty fowls in it who ran about and cackled.

Sometimes his old grandmother, who cherished a peculiar affection for him, an old woman not unlike him in face, with large pretty eyes behind her glasses, who was bent almost double by the weight of years, would hobble down the little alley where he lived, a five minutes' walk that took her half an hour, on purpose to see Bobby. Then she would sit the other side of the fire, panting from her walk, and looking at him.

"Well, Bobby, my dear, how are you?" she said.

"I'm all right, granny," was his answer; never varied, always smiling.

He could neither read nor write, and was not strong enough to learn. No hospitals could do anything for him, and he could not bear to leave his mother. The only place he ever cared to go to was to a farmer's down in the country, when he was better in the summer; there would spend six weeks contentedly, though at the end he always wanted to come home. Now and then on his birthday, or on her birthday, he would go to tea with his granny. His nerves must have been tried by the noisy children at home; a sensitive frown would now and then flit across his large, smooth forehead if the baby cried loudly, or the children romped about more than usual.

Death came to him very quietly. He grew gradually worse in the country, and wanted to go home. Then he grew more and more feeble. He spent weeks crouched in bed, never complaining, but daily growing whiter and thinner. And one morning they found him lying in an easier position than ever before--dead.

But perhaps the suffering of inability is still more keenly felt when the life has been a full and vigorous one.

What could be a sadder case than that of a girl who had been an active housemaid of excellent character, when there came upon her an internal disease which meant periodic attacks of disabling pain and weakness, and permanent inability to do active work?

When the first attack came on, before she knew what it meant, she was wonderfully plucky, antedated her recovery, and looked forward to getting back to work. But when the doctor told her the state of the case, her spirit was broken. He added with a cruel kindness, "I don't mean it'll be fatal; and if you were a lady and could take your ease, and drive about in a carriage, you'd live an easy life enough."

But what was the case? Her father, crippled with gout, had done no work for three years, her mother maintained them by a small shop of live animals; there were little children still at school. She was past the age to go into business. She gave way to a burst of despair.

"I don't know what I was made for," she said, "It's neither for use nor ornament."

Such poor souls often feel miserable. What one of them, a girl of sixteen, once put in words:

"I have been very poorly since I saw you last. I have tried to look on the bright side, but there does not seem any bright side."

What can we, the well-to-do, say to this mass of suffering not brought on by vice, not of a nature to be provided against?

Such are the comfortless troubles of the needy: and such the deep sighing that has to be stilled by endurance, not by hope.

Again, the helplessness of the unskilled at the presence of sickness is unspeakably pathetic. The well-off are equally helpless often, but then they are not called on to be helpful.

One of the saddest sights that could be seen was of a household where the father fell ill. The mother was dead, and the eldest girl of nineteen had shop, house, children, and father on her hands. He would not have a nurse of any kind, and lay upstairs in an advanced stage of consumption, going without many things that he might not give trouble.

And the poor girl sent him up heaped platefuls that he could not eat; when he said he fancied anything she got him enough of it to have sickened the appetite of a healthy man. His birthday came round, and she bought him a little globe of goldfish out of her own money; it amused him for a day, and then the goldfish took to pulling each other to pieces, and had to be separated­and then they all died. She would ask him what he liked, and when it came, and she cooked it hurriedly and took it upstairs and found that the caprice of sickness had already made him feel it was the last thing he could touch, she would take it downstairs again , and sit down and cry at the failure of her efforts.

Night after night she would wake up and creep down to look at him and see if he wanted anything.

And one of the saddest sides of it was that, though in his heart he appreciated her efforts, yet the irritability and misery he suffered under made him very sharp to her. She bore it with the utmost patience, never answered him again; but all the time took it terribly to heart.

"I don't know how to please him," she said. "If I go up it's only, 'There, you've just woke me out of the first bit of sleep I've had today.'

And if I don't go it's 'No, I won't have anything now; if you'd been here half an hour ago, I might have fancied something; but you were thinking about something different, weren't you?'"

And yet she was doing her very best with all her might. The house was a wretched place during that illness; the cousin, a young man who lived with them and worked under her father, took to drinking and neglected the business; the children went untidy and uncared for. She herself had neither time to rest nor to get any change.

It was a mercy to all when death put an end to the pitiful story, with a swifter hand than had been dreamt of.

Or again, the mother of a household is struck with fever. She is taken to the fever hospital, leaving behind her a little baby of a few weeks old. There is no sister nor elder daughter to take charge of the child. The father is at hard work on small pay.

So the baby is left to the sole charge of a boy of nine years old­a very good boy indeed. And he wishes to do his duty by the baby, but neither knows how or when to feed it, or what to feed it with. Having vainly tried to administer food several times, he adopts a new plan.

He waits till the baby cries, and then while its mouth is open crams in a plug of bread. Between whiles he walks about with it in his arms wrapped up in an old shawl.

Mercifully a friend rescued the baby when it had reached a condition of torpor, and slowly, under care more skilled though not more loving than its brother's, it won its way back to life.

But is there ever a region of life where the tragic and the comic are not woven closely together? And was there ever anything more amusing and peculiar than the theoretical aspect of illness among those who have never studied the subject except by the light of nature? Theories thus formed are firmly adhered to, because since reason did not create them neither can reason, nor any number of reasons, destroy them.

And besides this, the theories are delivered in such mystic terms, and rest on such wide and inscrutable premises, that it is difficult for reason to find a .

"Did you notice Mrs. Simpson having breakings out all over her face just after her husband had met with that accident? Ah!"--tremendous air of mystery comes on--"Now I should say that the reason of that was that the shock,"--this with immense gusto and very slow--"had turned all the blood in her body to water."

Closely allied to the theory of this phenomenon of "the blood having turned" is one well-known to these sages. It gives one a new light on the structure of the human body to hear when the poor patient is suffering agonies after eating mushrooms: "Ah! The pains is because them mushrooms have got to the narrer part of the stomach."

Nothing is obscure to these wiseacres. They know the cause of every malady. A boy in the early stages of jaundice goes through the ordinary sad experience of that very depressing ailment. It is not the natural course of things to the old lady in charge. No; he ate an apple for supper. "I blame the apple."

At times the application of such theories does mischief. As in the early stages of typhoid fever, when bacon is administered, that it may grease the throat. But as a rule they remain rather an intellectual satisfaction to the initiated than a principle of action.

Another article of belief of this class is that one hearsay story repeated at third or fourth hand is far more valuable as a practical guide than the clearest exposition of physiological facts and the remedies consequently necessary. Never mind what is done successfully in hundreds of such cases if it "warn't so with Mrs. Jones who lives in Farleigh Road."

Of course such stories are as useful on the right side as on the wrong side; and it might even be a difficult point of casuistry as to whether a practitioner at his wits' end would not be justified in inventing a fictitious Mrs. Smith who lived in the neighbourhood and suffered precisely in the same way as the Mrs. Jenkins under question, and found complete relief from the remedies which Mrs. Jenkins is averse to using.

For example, Mrs. Baring suffered from holes in the legs, poor soul, for which a cure could never be found. She was inclining to use the quack cures that often kill, but luckily Miss Rickett happened to call upon her.

"Miss Rickett's been here," she said. "She was dreadfly worried to see how bad I was--dreadfly. But she says to me, 'Whatever you do, Mrs. Baring,' she says, 'don't you go and heal them up by the advertisement. I had a lady friend once,' she says, 'as suffered from oles in the legs just like yours. She ealed em up with the advertisement and it flew up the body. She was dead in a fortnight.'"

One could leave Mrs. Baring with a free and happy heart, knowing that at least the advertisement would not be responsible for her death.

But the originality of theory leads often to an equal originality of description, which at times is a real solace. The following is a good instance:

"I have never been well not for long together. I have a sinking feeling as though it seems at times as if i was a losing my self; the dockters say that it is weekness, but I don't know what it is, and my head, it seems as though it open and shut. But I think it is getting better; when I go to work I seem better, but it makes me bad. I often wonder weather I shall see you any more."

There is one great and stock consolation which is administered wholesale. Wherein its comfort lies is not so easy to say. But doctors seem to have learnt its use. Patients come back beaming with relief and say, "He told me I needn't be frightened for it (swelled face, pain, sores, cough, anything) was only the constitootion."

And how can one wish to destroy such a merciful and innocent allayer of anxiety?

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