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Chapter 37 WHAT REDBURN SAW IN LAUNCELOTT'S-HEY

  • 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?