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Slum Life in Edinburgh
Chapter VII. The Homeless


It was a bitterly cold Saturday night in March. The east wind was whistling down the deserted streets, making the chimney pots creak and sway, and the lamp-lights hiss and flicker. The only policeman on the street had stepped aside for a moment into an archway to take refuge from a more than usually angry blast that came shrieking along the causeway. Bending our bodies as we faced the onrush, we pulled our mufflers further over our chins, and thrust our hands deep into our pockets.

A night piercingly cold indeed, that caused us to shrink and shiver, and ^think of blazing fires and cosy beds, though wc had but newly risen from specially substantial supper, and were heavily coated.

One o’clock boomed sullenly from a church steeple as we passed under the shadow of the building, and warned us to quicken our steps in the direction our business of exploration led us.

“For the love o’ God gie me a fill o’ baccy,” said a hoarse, harsh voice, as we turned the corner of the church ; and, stepping aside, we saw a woman sitting in a corner of a doorway. The person who had thus addressed us was a thinly-clothed woman of barely middle-age. Her face was thin and bruised, and bore traces of recent bleeding; she was without hat or jacket; her thread-bare close-fitting dress showed a bony, meagre figure. With one arm she held a sleeping boy to her breast, and with her disengaged hand carefully shielded from the wind a short clay pipe, which she was smoking with eagerness.

“Just one fill,” she repeated, in a pleading tone, as we approached her. The excessive solicitude of her manner aroused our curiosity, and as the business that had brought us out that night was the search for such homeless ones as she, wc opened a conversation with her. She said she had led a wandering life since she had been deserted by the father of her child. By begging and an occasional spell of work she sometimes earned enough to pay for a bed in a common lodging-house, but it was by no means a rare thing for her to pass the night in all weathers, sleeping in stairs, passages, or cellars. When we came up she was turning over in her mind the various places where she could huddle up for the night. As she spoke, she smoked with intense relish ; her pipe seemed to be a luxury that she laid extraordinary value upon. Poor wretch! it was her only solace, and her thanks were profuse when we gave her enough tobacco to serve for several “tills.”

“Would she go to a lodging-house if we paid for her?” we asked. The alacrity with which she rose when this proposal was made was sufficient answer; so we made our way to the nearest lodging. At the first place we came to we had the door slammed in our faces; the strong-lunged female who answered to our rapping would not let “that woman” in, for reasons which she did not vouchsafe to us. No amount of argument from us, delivered through the keyhole, could move the porteress one whit from her resolution, and we were compelled to conduct the shivering outcast to another lodging-house. This had a reputation as frightful as its interior was filthy and gloomy, but at such a late hour we could not pick and choose, and, in truth, our companion gave unmistakable indications that wherever she put up for the night the company would not be worse than herself.

While we were arranging for two nights’ lodging, wc had time to look round the kitchen and note the appearance of the den and its occupants. It was nothing better than a foul, tumble-down cellar. On benches at the fire, though it was now nearing two o’clock in the morning, three or four men and a young woman were sitting, talking and smoking, the woman taking turn about with a dirty “cutty” with a man who sat with his arm round her waist. In the middle of the floor a half-intoxicated man was exchanging obscene jests with an unwholesome female, whose bunch of keys suspended at the waist marked her as the housekeeper. It was a scene that one reads of in stories of low life, and, ignorantly, pooh-poohs as grossly exaggerated.

In this congenial company we left the woman whom we had picked up in the street, carrying with us her thanks for having provided her with a shelter for the night. Certainly we wished wc could have seen her in a better place; but whatever the character of the dwelling, it was a registered lodging-house.

We have described this case in detail because it is a typical one. There are scores, probably hundreds of women in Edinburgh who drag out an existence in this way; homeless and hopeless, begging and sinning their way through life, ready for nameless deeds of degradation if only they can thereby earn a meal, a dram, or a bed. They beg in the streets by day, and if unsuccessful can do nought but haunt the streets for worse purposes at night; and when midnight is long past, and all chances of earning a dishonest penny are gone, they creep into a stair and sleep fitfully till the return of day, which, alas ! brings with it but another round of hunger and shame.

People in comfortable circumstances are, we believe, under the impression that “sleeping out” is almost a thing of the past, or at all events is practised only in such places as the East end of London, reports of whose squalid misery periodically startle the world. This is quite an erroneous impression. We have no means of obtaining exact statistics, but make bold to say that the people in Edinburgh who frequently or habitually pass the night in stairs and other convenient places may be numbered by hundreds.

The Grassmarket and the streets in its neighbourhood seem to be the favourite haunts of those social pariahs. A great many of the stairs in those localities arc built of stone two or three flats up, but the steps and passages above that are made of wood, and arc thus warmer and more comfortable for sleeping purposes. It is to those long, dark, narrow passages that the “dead-broke” slumniitc repairs at night. Usually he loafs about the streets till long after midnight in the hope that something will turn up, and with the object, also, of escaping the police, who make their first round at such obscure retreats about that hour. If a policeman pounces upon one of those wretches asleep lie routs him out and bids him “move on;” though to what spot lie can move where lie will be secure from disturbance neither he nor the policeman knows. We have discovered sleepers-out who have taken up their quarters in a condemned dwelling—such refuges arc eagerly sought after by that class—and having fastened the door from the inside, could not be persuaded to open it again, so convinced were they that we were their natural enemies, the police, come to turn them out.

It is not in every large town that polite society objects to the houseless beggar passing the night in its passages and stair-foots. We can speak at least of Dublin, where such a restriction docs not appear to be enforced. At midnight in the Irish capital any one walking through the principal thoroughfares will be surprised to see recumbent figures at the base of the O’Connell statue which were not visible in the daytime, and at every sheltered corner, where the architectural features of the building afford a convenient recess—notably at the Bank — mysterious, unshapely bundles which, on examination, prove to be houseless vagabonds courting “sweet sleep” under the open sky. But in Edinburgh, as we have shown, it is different; and the homeless must creep away out of reach of the policeman’s bull’s-eye to pass the night undisturbed.

When exploring the slums one wet and stormy night, we climbed a high tenement in the Cowgate and began to grope and stumble about in the maze of lobbies that honeycomb those crowded dwellings. We had quite lost ourselves in the twistings and turnings of one of the narrow passages, and were striking matches in order more readily to find our way out, when wc saw huddled up in a sort of recess off the main passage into which two or three doors opened, what appeared to be one or more figures evidently asleep. A closer examination showed us a man and a woman —the latter having an infant wrapped close to her breast in a ragged and dirty shawl. It was a pitiful sight. The man looked so like death in sleep that we thought at first we had chanced upon a more tragic scene than we anticipated.

His almost fleshless bones, his pale, yellow skin, and his hanging jaw were startling in their counterfeit presentment of death. lie had propped himself against the wall, and in this position lie partly supported his wife, whose rain-soaked garments made her shiver as she lay asleep.

A slight shake woke the man from his slumbers, and when he had recovered from his surprise, lie was easily induced to tell his story. He was a labourer, but for some time back, owing to bad health, lie had worked only intermittently. They had gradually sold all their belongings, and for a year past had lived chiefly in lodging-houses when they were able to pay their way. Often, however, they had no money, and were compelled to spend the night outside.

Our conversation soon woke the woman, whose worn face assumed a look of eager inquiry, while her fingers worked nervously to fasten the shawl more closely round her child. It was a marvel that the infant lived. It was thin and shrivelled, and the tiny pinched face told more forcibly than words how it must have shared the privations of its parents. We asked the man if the morrow might chance to brighten his prospects, but he answered in a listless way that he could not tell; he hoped it would. He put his arm round his wife, and let her rest her head upon his shoulder, and became in a moment apparently quite oblivious of our presence.

Such a woeful group they made. They looked as if death would have been a welcome relief from their misery, and certainly the world seemed to have no joys for them. Still it was touching to sec how they clung together in their extremity. Starving and homeless, with rags for their covering, this miserable pair were not to be separated, and even in their utter destitution they seemed to find some solace in each other’s company, and in their mutual affection.

Many children and young people of both sexes {ire to be found sleeping out at night. They are reduced to this extremity by the desertion or cruelty of their parents. To escape the fury of a drunken father or mother the bairns will flee from the house, and, not daring to return till the brute is sober, sleep wherever they can find a corner to crouch in. A lad whom we met in the Cowgate about two o’clock one winter morning, told us that he rarely slept at home on Saturday nights, for “money being rough” then, drunkenness was the order of the day, and his father was like a devil when he had been “smelling the cork.” So he made it a point to avoid the house every Saturday night, and sleep in a stair or an unoccupied house. If he had time and was not too tired, lie would walk out to Corstorphine and sleep in a hay-stack, returning home on Sunday afternoon, by which time the evil spirit would have departed from his father.

Again, when a child does not make enough money at business on the street to satisfy the harpies at home, it fears to face them, and prefers to sleep out in company with others in a like position. Thus they are often met with lying in dark corners huddled together for warmth. We were informed by a woman who lived in one of the tenements much frequented by sleepers-out, that one night when the snow was on the ground, and the weather was bitterly cold, ten boys passed the night in the lobby outside her door. It goes without saying that exposure of this kind accounts for much of the enormous mortality among our slum children ; the mystery is how any of the poor little things can suffer such hardships and live. Their survival is a sad illustration of the tenacity of human life.

We once had a curious adventure when on the out-look for homeless children. While exploring the intricacies of a long and narrow alley, we descended a short flight of steps so slippery and uneven that a footing was only obtained with difficulty. It was a dreadful night of rain, and we were in such a sloppy and sodden condition that we almost began to wish we were snugly tucked up in bed; but having started on our expedition, Aye determined to go through with it.

We were in a narrow, muddy passage, which seemed half open and half covered. Another flight of steps took us quite into subterranean regions, where, in a passage dark as pitch, several cellar doors were indistinctly visible by a feeble light coming from Ave knew not whither. Thinking we heard voices, we crept stealthily along to where the passage took a sharp turn, and there discovered the origin of the flickering light.

Through the gaping hinge of a half-open rickety door we saw three ragged lads, about fifteen or sixteen years of age, squatting on the floor and engrossed in a game of cards, which they played by the light of a candle stump. So eager were they in their play they were not aware of our approach, which, of course, had not been altogether unattended by noise, and surprised at the extraordinary sight, Ave remained in a sense spellbound, watching the progress of the game. From the remarks dropped we could gather that the game was being played for turns at the pipe, the winner receiving the pipe and pulling at it until the next game was decided, when he would either retain it or hand it to one of his companions. But a muttered curse now and again escaping from the lips of the youthful players showed how earnest and deep was their interest.

One of the lads had his face turned full towards us, and the candle being fixed to a stone immediately in front of him, lighted up his features, so that we could scan them carefully. The rain, which had soaked his tattered cap and run down his face in black streams, had not improved his appearance, but such a pair of sharp, bright, eager, roguish eyes, as every second glanced along his cards and flashed a look upon his comrades as they followed up his play, it would be difficult to match. The lads—dirty, ragged, and wet—seemed for the time quite regardless of their miserable plight, for only the direst need could have compelled them to spend such a night in such a hole. They seemed, indeed, to be trying to forget their discomforts in play. A shuffle of the cards gave breathing space for a minute, and the pipe was then passed round, the smoker evidently relinquishing

it with as much regret as the other received it with joy. We whispered to each other to enter suddenly and observe the effect, but before any such intention could be carried out, a careless movement warned the little gamesters of our presence. In an instant all was darkness. We had stupidly enough, perhaps, but as a precautionary measure, extinguished our light, and there was some time lost before we got a match struck. When at last our candle burned up the light revealed an empty cellar.

The lads were gone. They must have contrived to pass us, as there was no other way of exit, and they had not left even so much as the candle end behind them. They had feared, no doubt, that we were the police, or at least unfriendly visitors, and the instant they heard the noise, extinguished the light, seized the cards and crept, glided, crawled—melted ‘away, in fact, it seemed to us, so quickly and silently was their exit performed. We examined the cellar. It was nothing but a low dark dungeon apparently unused except by outcasts as a sleeping place.

There are hopelessly degraded beings so enslaved by the drink crave that, rather than not indulge the passion, they will spend their last farthing on liquor, though they know that passing the night out of doors will be the penalty. And this they do not on an occasion only, but habitually. An experience with one of those pitiable creatures will for ever haunt our memory.

Groans, mingled with short sharp sounds like the barking of a dog, attracted our attention as wc were wandering among some untenanted hovels, which had to all appearance been given up wholly to the rats. Following the sound, we came upon a scene which beggars all description. Lying on her back, with her head upon a heap of rubbish, was a woman of loathsome appearance. Her garments were tattered, filthy rags, her hair was like a wild beast’s mane, and foam was gathered on her lips. She groaned and barked, and gnashed her teeth, and rolled from side to side as if in torture. With the stench of the filthy den there mingled another odour that served as an explanation of the scene. On the floor was an empty bottle ; it smelt of methylated spirits.

“Dynamite,” the name by which that nauseous liquid is known in the language of the slums, is drunk when dearer and more palatable liquors cannot be got, and by those persons whose palates have become so depraved by spirit-drinking that even whisky is not strong enough for their taste; they must have something that grips the gullet in going clown. The drinking of dynamite is frightfully prevalent among the lowest orders in Edinburgh; indeed it may now be classed as one of their favourite beverages, and the ravages that it makes upon their physical wellbeing must be very great. But home, health, life itself are held at light value by the man or woman dragged along iu the clutch of the spirit-demon.

Another incident and we have done with this section of our theme. It has been said that the weariest and most loathsome life that age, pain, or penury could lay on nature would be a paradise to what we fear of death: but there are cases, pitiful, pitiful cases recorded in Edinburgh, where death has been robbed of all its terrors by the horrors of life.

The same night on which we saw the dynamite-drugged woman, we came across a young woman crouching under the shadow of an archway. Her pinched and worn cheek was pressed against the cold stone wail, and when we stopped to speak to her we met with a hard, relentless gaze. It was only after a little kindness had been shown her that her stony coldness gave way, and she spoke to us in a hopeless, heartless fashion.

In a few words she gave us her whole story. She was homeless and friendless. She had had a husband and child, but the one had deserted her and the other was dead. For some months she had had a wretched existence, and had it not been for thoughts of her mother she would have killed herself ere now. She had had very little to eat, and she had fainted so often recently that she thought she would soon die. She wished she could die that night, she was so weary, and cold, and tired of living. Though her face was thin and haggard, it was easy to sec that it had once been handsome, and was yet by no means coarse. When we began to show some interest in her she almost smiled, and said it did not matter now, it would only be for a little while longer. We gave what we could—she was so listless she hardly seemed to notice the gift—and at her earnest desire left her, warning her that she would probably be disturbed by the policeman on his rounds. “Oh, no,” she replied, as her face brightened up for an instant. She had seen him and begged him to let her remain; he had done so, and given her a portion of his supper; he was kind and would not touch her.

Invoking a blessing on the head of the generous night-watchman, and leaving the worn figure on the steps, we turned and went our way; for we felt ourselves powerless to give further assistance in such a mournful case.


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