The dead-house reminds me of other sad things; for in the vicinity of th_ocks are many very painful sights.
In going to our boarding-house, the sign of the Baltimore Clipper, I generall_assed through a narrow street called "Launcelott's-Hey," lined with dingy,
prison-like cotton warehouses. In this street, or rather alley, you seldom se_ny one but a truck-man, or some solitary old warehouse-keeper, haunting hi_moky den like a ghost.
Once, passing through this place, I heard a feeble wail, which seemed to com_ut of the earth. It was but a strip of crooked side-walk where I stood; th_ingy wall was on every side, converting the mid-day into twilight; and not _oul was in sight. I started, and could almost have run, when I heard tha_ismal sound. It seemed the low, hopeless, endless wail of some one foreve_ost. At last I advanced to an opening which communicated downward with dee_iers of cellars beneath a crumbling old warehouse; and there, some fiftee_eet 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 livi_osom two shrunken things like children, that leaned toward her, one on eac_ide. 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; bu_here 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. Th_oman also, now gazed up, and perceived me; but let fall her eye again. The_ere dumb and next to dead with want. How they had crawled into that den, _ould not tell; but there they had crawled to die. At that moment I neve_hought of relieving them; for death was so stamped in their glazed an_nimploring eyes, that I almost regarded them as already no more. I stoo_ooking down on them, while my whole soul swelled within me; and I aske_yself, What right had any body in the wide world to smile and be glad, whe_ights like this were to be seen? It was enough to turn the heart to gall; an_ake a man-hater of a Howard. For who were these ghosts that I saw? Were the_ot human beings? A woman and two girls? With eyes, and lips, and ears lik_ny queen? with hearts which, though they did not bound with blood, yet bea_ith a dull, dead ache that was their life.
At last, I walked on toward an open lot in the alley, hoping to meet ther_ome ragged old women, whom I had daily noticed groping amid foul rubbish fo_ittle 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 jus_eft. She replied, that she did not; nor did she want to. I then aske_nother, a miserable, toothless old woman, with a tattered strip of coars_aling stuff round her body. Looking at me for an instant, she resumed he_aking in the rubbish, and said that she knew who it was that I spoke of; bu_hat she had no time to attend to beggars and their brats. Accosting stil_nother, who seemed to know my errand, I asked if there was no place to whic_he woman could be taken. "Yes," she replied, "to the church-yard." I said sh_as alive, and not dead.
"Then she'll never die," was the rejoinder. "She's been down there these thre_ays, with nothing to eat;—that I know myself."
"She desarves it," said an old hag, who was just placing on her crooke_houlders her bag of pickings, and who was turning to totter off, "that Bets_ennings desarves it—was she ever married? tell me that."
Leaving Launcelott's-Hey, I turned into a more frequented street; and soo_eeting 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 thes_atters to the town."
I accosted two more policemen, but with no better success; they would not eve_o 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 th_round, did not obtrude upon any one.
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, _oice 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 com_own, 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 warehous_here you can put them? have you nothing for them to eat?"
"You're crazy, boy," said he; "do you suppose, that Parkins and Wood wan_heir warehouse turned into a hospital?"
I then went to my boarding-house, 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 kin_erson in the main, Mary replied that she gave away enough to beggars in he_wn street (which was true enough) without looking after the whol_eighborhood.
Going into the kitchen, I accosted the cook, a little shriveled-up ol_elshwoman, with a saucy tongue, whom the sailors called _Brandy-Nan;_ an_egged her to give me some cold victuals, if she had nothing better, to tak_o the vault. But she broke out in a storm of swearing at the miserabl_ccupants of the vault, and refused. I then stepped into the room where ou_inner was being spread; and waiting till the girl had gone out, I snatche_ome bread and cheese from a stand, and thrusting it into the bosom of m_rock, left the house. Hurrying to the lane, I dropped the food down into th_ault. One of the girls caught at it convulsively, but fell back, apparentl_ainting; the sister pushed the other's arm aside, and took the bread in he_and; but with a weak uncertain grasp like an infant's. She placed it to he_outh; but letting it fall again, murmuring faintly something like "water."
The woman did not stir; her head was bowed over, just as I had first 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 _ould pay for it. But I had no money. So as my boarding-house was some wa_ff, and it would be lost time to run to the ship for my big iron pot; unde_he impulse of the moment, I hurried to one of the Boodle Hydrants, which _emembered having seen running near the scene of a still smoldering fire in a_ld rag house; and taking off a new tarpaulin hat, which had been loaned m_hat 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 left to let me stand. The two girls dran_ut of the hat together; looking up at me with an unalterable, idioti_xpression, that almost made me faint. The woman spoke not a word, and did no_tir. While the girls were breaking and eating the bread, I tried to lift th_oman'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 seeme_idden under the rags there, a thought crossed my mind, which impelled m_orcibly to withdraw her hands for a moment; when I caught a glimpse of _eager little babe—the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. It_ace was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor; but the closed eyes looke_ike 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 the_ere, and where they lived; but she only stared vacantly, muttering somethin_hat could not be understood.
The air of the place was now getting too much for me; but I stood deliberatin_ moment, whether it was possible for me to drag them out of the vault. But i_ did, what then? They would only perish in the street, and here they were a_east protected from the rain; and more than that, might die in seclusion.
I crawled up into the street, and looking down upon them again, almos_epented that I had brought them any food; for it would only tend to prolon_heir misery, without hope of any permanent relief: for die they must ver_oon; they were too far gone for any medicine to help them. I hardly kno_hether I ought to confess another thing that occurred to me as I stood there;
but it was this-I felt an almost irresistible impulse to do them the las_ercy, of in some way putting an end to their horrible lives; and I shoul_lmost have done so, I think, had I not been deterred by thoughts of the law.
For I well knew that the law, which would let them perish of themselve_ithout giving them one cup of water, would spend a thousand pounds, i_ecessary, in convicting him who should so much as offer to relieve them fro_heir miserable existence.
The next day, and the next, I passed the vault three times, and still met th_ame sight. The girls leaning up against the woman on each side, and the woma_ith her arms still folding the babe, and her head bowed. The first evening _id not see the bread that I had dropped down in the morning; but the secon_vening, the bread I had dropped that morning remained untouched. On the thir_orning the smell that came from the vault was such, that I accosted the sam_oliceman I had accosted before, who was patrolling the same street, and tol_im that the persons I had spoken to him about were dead, and he had bette_ave them removed. He looked as if he did not believe me, and added, that i_as not his street.
When I arrived at the docks on my way to the ship, I entered the guard-hous_ithin the walls, and asked for one of the captains, to whom I told the story;
but, from what he said, was led to infer that the Dock Police was distinc_rom that of the town, and this was not the right place to lodge m_nformation.
I could do no more that morning, being obliged to repair to the ship; but a_welve o'clock, when I went to dinner, I hurried into Launcelott's-Hey, when _ound that the vault was empty. In place of the women and children, a heap o_uick-lime was glistening.
I could not learn who had taken them away, or whither they had gone; but m_rayer was answered—they were dead, departed, and at peace.
But again I looked down into the vault, and in fancy beheld the pale, shrunke_orms still crouching there. Ah! what are our creeds, and how do we hope to b_aved? Tell me, oh Bible, that story of Lazarus again, that I may find comfor_n my heart for the poor and forlorn. Surrounded as we are by the wants an_oes of our fellowmen, and yet given to follow our own pleasures, regardles_f their pains, are we not like people sitting up with a corpse, and makin_erry in the house of the dead?