The People of the Abyss, by Jack London

Chapter 7

A Winner of the Victoria Cross

I have found that it is not easy to get into the casual ward of the workhouse. I have made two attempts now, and I shall shortly make a third. The first time I started out at seven o’clock in the evening with four shillings in my pocket. Herein I committed two errors. In the first place, the applicant for admission to the casual ward must be destitute, and as he is subjected to a rigorous search, he must really be destitute; and fourpence, much less four shillings, is sufficient affluence to disqualify him. In the second place, I made the mistake of tardiness. Seven o’clock in the evening is too late in the day for a pauper to get a pauper’s bed.

For the benefit of gently nurtured and innocent folk, let me explain what a ward is. It is a building where the homeless, bedless, penniless man, if he be lucky, may casually rest his weary bones, and then work like a navvy next day to pay for it.

My second attempt to break into the casual ward began more auspiciously. I started in the middle of the afternoon, accompanied by the burning young socialist and another friend, and all I had in my pocket was thru’pence. They piloted me to the Whitechapel Workhouse, at which I peered from around a friendly corner. It was a few minutes past five in the afternoon but already a long and melancholy line was formed, which strung out around the corner of the building and out of sight.

It was a most woeful picture, men and women waiting in the cold grey end of the day for a pauper’s shelter from the night, and I confess it almost unnerved me. Like the boy before the dentist’s door, I suddenly discovered a multitude of reasons for being elsewhere. Some hints of the struggle going on within must have shown in my face, for one of my companions said, “Don’t funk; you can do it.”

Of course I could do it, but I became aware that even thru’pence in my pocket was too lordly a treasure for such a throng; and, in order that all invidious distinctions might be removed, I emptied out the coppers. Then I bade good-bye to my friends, and with my heart going pit-a-pat, slouched down the street and took my place at the end of the line. Woeful it looked, this line of poor folk tottering on the steep pitch to death; how woeful it was I did not dream.

Next to me stood a short, stout man. Hale and hearty, though aged, strong-featured, with the tough and leathery skin produced by long years of sunbeat and weatherbeat, his was the unmistakable sea face and eyes; and at once there came to me a bit of Kipling’s “Galley Slave”:—

“By the brand upon my shoulder, by the gall of clinging steel;

By the welt the whips have left me, by the scars that never heal;

By eyes grown old with staring through the sun-wash on the brine,

I am paid in full for service . . . ”

How correct I was in my surmise, and how peculiarly appropriate the verse was, you shall learn.

“I won’t stand it much longer, I won’t,” he was complaining to the man on the other side of him. “I’ll smash a windy, a big ’un, an’ get run in for fourteen days. Then I’ll have a good place to sleep, never fear, an’ better grub than you get here. Though I’d miss my bit of bacey”— this as an after-thought, and said regretfully and resignedly.

“I’ve been out two nights now,” he went on; “wet to the skin night before last, an’ I can’t stand it much longer. I’m gettin’ old, an’ some mornin’ they’ll pick me up dead.”

He whirled with fierce passion on me: “Don’t you ever let yourself grow old, lad. Die when you’re young, or you’ll come to this. I’m tellin’ you sure. Seven an’ eighty years am I, an’ served my country like a man. Three good-conduct stripes and the Victoria Cross, an’ this is what I get for it. I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead. Can’t come any too quick for me, I tell you.”

The moisture rushed into his eyes, but, before the other man could comfort him, he began to hum a lilting sea song as though there was no such thing as heartbreak in the world.

Given encouragement, this is the story he told while waiting in line at the workhouse after two nights of exposure in the streets.

As a boy he had enlisted in the British navy, and for two score years and more served faithfully and well. Names, dates, commanders, ports, ships, engagements, and battles, rolled from his lips in a steady stream, but it is beyond me to remember them all, for it is not quite in keeping to take notes at the poorhouse door. He had been through the “First War in China,” as he termed it; had enlisted with the East India Company and served ten years in India; was back in India again, in the English navy, at the time of the Mutiny; had served in the Burmese War and in the Crimea; and all this in addition to having fought and toiled for the English flag pretty well over the rest of the globe.

Then the thing happened. A little thing, it could only be traced back to first causes: perhaps the lieutenant’s breakfast had not agreed with him; or he had been up late the night before; or his debts were pressing; or the commander had spoken brusquely to him. The point is, that on this particular day the lieutenant was irritable. The sailor, with others, was “setting up” the fore rigging.

Now, mark you, the sailor had been over forty years in the navy, had three good-conduct stripes, and possessed the Victoria Cross for distinguished service in battle; so he could not have been such an altogether bad sort of a sailorman. The lieutenant was irritable; the lieutenant called him a name — well, not a nice sort of name. It referred to his mother. When I was a boy it was our boys’ code to fight like little demons should such an insult be given our mothers; and many men have died in my part of the world for calling other men this name.

However, the lieutenant called the sailor this name. At that moment it chanced the sailor had an iron lever or bar in his hands. He promptly struck the lieutenant over the head with it, knocking him out of the rigging and overboard.

And then, in the man’s own words: “I saw what I had done. I knew the Regulations, and I said to myself, ‘It’s all up with you, Jack, my boy; so here goes.’ An’ I jumped over after him, my mind made up to drown us both. An’ I’d ha’ done it, too, only the pinnace from the flagship was just comin’ alongside. Up we came to the top, me a hold of him an’ punchin’ him. This was what settled for me. If I hadn’t ben strikin’ him, I could have claimed that, seein’ what I had done, I jumped over to save him.”

Then came the court-martial, or whatever name a sea trial goes by. He recited his sentence, word for word, as though memorised and gone over in bitterness many times. And here it is, for the sake of discipline and respect to officers not always gentlemen, the punishment of a man who was guilty of manhood. To be reduced to the rank of ordinary seaman; to be debarred all prize-money due him; to forfeit all rights to pension; to resign the Victoria Cross; to be discharged from the navy with a good character (this being his first offence); to receive fifty lashes; and to serve two years in prison.

“I wish I had drowned that day, I wish to God I had,” he concluded, as the line moved up and we passed around the corner.

At last the door came in sight, through which the paupers were being admitted in bunches. And here I learned a surprising thing: this being Wednesday, none of us would be released till Friday morning. Furthermore, and oh, you tobacco users, take heed: we would not be permitted to take in any tobacco. This we would have to surrender as we entered. Sometimes, I was told, it was returned on leaving and sometimes it was destroyed.

The old man-of-war’s man gave me a lesson. Opening his pouch, he emptied the tobacco (a pitiful quantity) into a piece of paper. This, snugly and flatly wrapped, went down his sock inside his shoe. Down went my piece of tobacco inside my sock, for forty hours without tobacco is a hardship all tobacco users will understand.

Again and again the line moved up, and we were slowly but surely approaching the wicket. At the moment we happened to be standing on an iron grating, and a man appearing underneath, the old sailor called down to him —

“How many more do they want?”

“Twenty-four,” came the answer.

We looked ahead anxiously and counted. Thirty-four were ahead of us. Disappointment and consternation dawned upon the faces about me. It is not a nice thing, hungry and penniless, to face a sleepless night in the streets. But we hoped against hope, till, when ten stood outside the wicket, the porter turned us away.

“Full up,” was what he said, as he banged the door.

Like a flash, for all his eighty-seven years, the old sailor was speeding away on the desperate chance of finding shelter elsewhere. I stood and debated with two other men, wise in the knowledge of casual wards, as to where we should go. They decided on the Poplar Workhouse, three miles away, and we started off.

As we rounded the corner, one of them said, “I could a’ got in ’ere today. I come by at one o’clock, an’ the line was beginnin’ to form then — pets, that’s what they are. They let ’m in, the same ones, night upon night.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38