Menu Close


A Guardian of the Poor

By Baron T. Russell


BORLASE AND COMPANY did not aspire, like certain other
drapers in the Southern Suburbs, to be universal providers.
Neither did they seek, otherwise than passively, to rival these
powerful neighbours in the esteem of villadom and the superior
order of suburban society. The wares that changed hands across
Borlase’s many counters were modestly content to assimilate, at a
respectful interval, those examples of last year’s mode which found
their way to the more ambitious emporia, where they were
exhibited to the wives and daughters of retired tradesmen and
head-clerks, as Parisian innovations, almost sinfully novel. The
raw material of feminine adornment was what Borlase and Company
dealt in, uncostly chiffons and faced ribbons, which with the Penny
Dressmaker and the Amateur Bonnet Journal to aid, produced under
deft hands a sort of jerry-built finery, whose characteristic a
sensitive instinct might divine, in a sympathetic glance, from the
“groves” of dingy two-storeyed houses, which sent forth their
hundreds a-Saturday’s to Borlase’s shop. The possibilities latent
in shoddy (or débris of old cloth) and of cotton warps in a fabric
guaranteed “all wool,” and so demonstrated to unconfiding


                        206 A Guardian of the Poor

customers, on a triumphant withdrawal of weft by Mr. Borlase,
had been deeply explored by the mercers who supplied him ;
for the acts of Parliament which forbid adulteration do not
apply to wares otherwise than edible, and the later statute against
fraudulent misdescription is beneficently evasible, as having no
particular officer to set it in motion. Thus, “full-fashioned”
stockings, owing their form to judicious blocking after manufac-
ture, and double-width calicoes at four pence three farthings,
which yield on agitation a rich dressing of clay-like powder,
are quite securely vendible, without danger to the repute of the
retailer as a pillar of society and a local vestryman.

Since you cannot be a vestryman and a guardian of the poor,
even in the suburbs, for nothing, it is to be gathered that Mr.
Borlase—the sole constituent of Borlase and Company—went not
unrewarded, even in this world s corruptible profit, for the benefits
which he bestowed on society. It was his pride to be referred to
as the cheapest draper in the neighbourhood. You could purchase
at his shop, on astonishingly economical terms, goods which only
a very acute and highly trained perception could distinguish at
sight from others, which, in less favoured markets, were priced at
twice those rates, an advantage secured by the frequent confer-
ences of Borlase and Company with hungry looking German
wholesalers in Jewin Street and other recondite thoroughfares of
the E.C. district.

The purchasing capacity in the individual, among Mr. Borlase’s
clientage, being small, it follows that the number of his trans-
actions, to be lucrative, must be also large. Hence the sixty-odd
“young people” (“who,” as a local paper worded it “constituted
the personnel of Messrs. Borlase and Co’s staff”) had all their work
cut out for them on a Saturday night. But practice, and the
consciousness that lapse or error entailed fines not conveniently


                        By T. Baron Russell 207

spared from scanty wages, soon taught new-comers the art of
managing two customers at a time, and four on Saturday. Thus
the crowded shop full of buyers was kept pretty constantly on the
move, even at the busiest of times. Lest any should go empty
away, Borlase and Company in person—pompous, full-fed, and
evaporating venality at every pore—mingled with his patrons near
the exit ; and woe to the shop girl who had failed to cajole her
customer ! This duty of shop-walking Mr. Borlase divided at
busy times with a lean man, grey-headed and stooping at the
shoulders, who rubbed lank hands together when addressed by a
customer (he never ventured to accost one, in the Borlasian
manner) and was summoned quickly from counter to counter to
“sign.” From Monday to Friday he docketed invoices, checked
sales-books, and drudged through the other routine of account-
keeping, day by day ; on Saturday, from two o’clock onward, he
relieved his proprietor of the duty of initialling bills, so that the
latter might stand guard at the door. He picked up the arrears of
his afternoon work after the shop closed at eleven-thirty.

Alone, of all Borlase and Company’s people, he slept at home,
living at a house in Denmark Street, near the back of the shop.
He had grown to the lean, grey pantaloon he was, in Borlase and
Company’s service, and rising to a proud stipend of two pounds a
week, had taken to his arms the faded little wife who had waited
for him. His position was deemed one of the plums of the

On an afternoon, early in January, the eyes of this John Hunt
strayed often to the clock. Not that he longed for tea-time : had
it not been Saturday he might have wished for five o’clock to come
round, but on Saturdays he was not allowed to go home, but shared
the bounty of Borlase and Company with the twenty-four young
men and twenty-nine ” young persons ” of the counters. He

The Yellow Book—Vol. IX. M


                        208 A Guardian of the Poor

knew very well that to-day there could be no hurried home-going ;
and however he might weary to assure himself that all was well in
the shabby little six-roomed house, where the shabby little wife
was moving about her work, not quite so actively as usual, he must
await, with what patience he might, the end of the day’s work.
And having an occasion for anxiety, he found the hours, busy as
they were, long in passing. There was a little more work during
the half hour which the assistants divided among them, in thirds,
for tea. Customers were many, and with the best will in the
world to keep them in hand, the men and girls had to bear
frequent complaints from impatient buyers, and Hunt, hurrying at
the call of ” sign” he had no other name in the shop was
summoned hither and thither to stay the departure of patrons who
“really couldn’t wait about any longer.” To suffer a customer to
go away unsupplied was the cardinal sin at Borlase’s : “getting
the swop” the young people called it. The rule of the place
required that, on this emergency threatening, Mr. Borlase, or the
temporary shop walker, must be called in. Three “swops”
involved ” the sack ” ; every one knew that : and it is wonderful
what patience that knowledge imparted to the assistants at the
various counters.

The grand rush of the week, however, came after tea on
Saturday evening, when the shop grew hot and gassy even in
January, and a vague odour of damp umbrellas pervaded every-
thing. Customers waited, row upon row. It was not easy to
move among them : and to keep them good humoured required
endless resource and tact. The day’s meridian was at nine o’clock.
After that, the tide of purchasers would slacken, by degrees, until
closing time. The night was inclement, but as the critical
opportunity of Sunday morning chapel would soon be at hand, the
rain could not keep folk at home. On one side of the door, the


                        By T. Baron Russell 209

shop-window was dull with drops. By some oversight, the grating
overhead had not been opened on this side to let the steam out.
Every one in the shop was damp, cross, and sticky at the fingers.

A stout inhabitant entered at ten, and spent a happy hour in-
specting the entire stock of bonnet ribbons. She decided a dozen
times on this or that : a dozen times she altered her mind, at the
reflection that each colour of the solar spectrum failed to suit “her
style.” No, nothing would do. She must go somewhere else,
that was all ; if the young lady hadn’t got what she wanted, it
was no use of the young lady for to try for to put her off with
something else. It was all very well, she added, to say they had
shown her everything. If it was too much trouble to get it down
(here the rotund lady raised her voice), why, better say so at

“Sign ! ” said the shop girl, wearily.

” What is it, Miss ? “

“Lady wishes for a dark ‘eliotrope ribbon, shot with cerise.”
(Such atrocities were common at Borlase’s.)

” Well, haven’t you shown the lady—? “

“We haven’t the width.” Hunt vainly endeavoured to still
the rising storm : the customer was inexorable. No, she would
go ; it was quite plain they didn’t mean to serve her ; she had
been kept waiting—”

“Very sorry we cannot suit you, Madam, now ; but we shall
be having some new ribbons in on Monday.” The outraged
dame departed.

At the door she encountered the swift eye of Borlase and Com-
pany, which at once detected something wrong. No, she was
not suited. Mr. Borlase was quite sure if— No, they had
admitted they hadn t got it ; it was no good wasting any more of
her time. She would just be off.


                        210 A Guardian of the Poor

“May I ask who said that we were out of stock?” Mr. Borlase
asked. The tone was suave, but the look dangerous.

“The young person at the counter said so; so did that shabby-
looking man that signs the bills,” he was answered. Mr. Borlase
looked more dangerous still.

By this time the shutters were being put up by the junior
assistants, the collars of their black coats turned up to keep off a
little of the fine rain. Only the side door remained open, and a
man stood by it to let the customers out, one by one. Hunt had
slipped off to his desk and was already rapidly adding up counter-
foils, before the lights were put out in the shop. Mr. Borlase
rolled pompously into the little office about this time, and began
to pay the staff, who were waiting, in a long queue to file past
him. He recited in the tone of a patron the pay of each assistant,
as he shoved it through the little cash window, distracting Hunt’s
calculations horribly.

The latter was working rapidly. It was not easy to keep his
mind on the figures. He was tired and anxious ; as the time for
going home came nearer, he grew even excited. Finally, the last
book was made up, and the grand total, verified by comparison
with the till, happily “came out” right. Mr. Borlase, who had
lit a cigar, laid it cautiously down, and checked the money. Then
he gave Hunt his forty shillings, and the drudge, buttoning up his
shabby frockcoat, prepared to go. This operation attracting Mr.
Borlase s attention, recalled the words of the angry customer. He
called Hunt back and surveyed him coldly. The coat was faded
and shiny. It dragged in creases at the buttonholes, and the
buttons showed an edge of metal, where the cloth covering had
worn out. The braid down the front was threadbare, and showed
grey in places. Certainly his shop-walker was inexcusably shabby.

“How is it that your coat is so unsightly, Hunt?” Mr. Borlase


                        By T. Baron Russell 211

at length demanded, querulously. “It’s a disgrace to my estab-
lishment, and customers remark upon it. Just look to it that you
make yourself presentable. I can t have a scarecrow walking my
shop ; it reflects upon me—upon me, mind you !”

” Hunt murmured something to the effect that the coat certainly
was rather old ; but his master interrupted him impatiently.
“Old,” he said ; “of course it’s old—much too old. If you can’t
dress yourself properly, I shall find some one who can. And,
Hunt,” he added, reminiscently, “another thing. I’ve once or
twice noticed on week-days that you smell of tobacco—shag
tobacco. That’s another thing I must have mended. I can’t
have my customers disgusted by your filthy habits. Look to that
also ;” and he turned away, leaving Hunt to shuffle off homeward
under an inefficient umbrella.


Hunt paused on the doorstep of the little house in Denmark
Street, and looked up, anxiously, at the first-floor window. All
dark—and, so far, so good. He opened the door noiselessly with
a latch-key and listened. Everything was quiet. The little wife
had gone to bed then, and he made his way on tiptoe to the
kitchen, lit a paraffin lamp, spread the discreditable coat wide open
on two nails, that it might dry, and put on his slippers. A scratch-
ing at the back door, mingled with faint whines, made him step
quickly across the kitchen, to admit a mongrel fox-terrier.
” What, Joey ! ” he cried, in the high-pitched voice which some
men use to dogs and children—”What, Joey ! What the little
bow-wow—didn’t they let you in ? ” He sat down as the animal
frisked around him, jumping at last into his lap, to lick his face,


                        212 A Guardian of the Poor

and nuzzle its cold nose against his neck, while he pulled its ears
caressingly and tried to look into the eager, welcoming eyes. To
a man humbled, lonely, and as yet childless, the demonstrative
admiration of the dog was precious: this one living thing, and the
tired woman upstairs, looked up to him, and he could not spare
even the dog’s homage.

Presently he turned to the deal table—spotless, and scrubbed
until the harder fibres of the wood stood out in ridges where the
softer parts had worn away. On one corner a piece of coarse
tablecloth, oft darned, had been spread and turned over, to cover
something that lay under it. He turned it back and began to eat
his supper of bread and cheese, cutting off snips of rind to throw
to the dog, sitting alert on its haunches with anticipatory wags.
Supper finished, Hunt took his money, in a dirty canvas bag, from
his pocket, and laid it out on the table. Seven shillings for the
rent, three shillings to complete the guinea that was hoarding for
a certain other purpose ; that left thirty shillings. Two shillings
for his own pocket ; eighteen shillings, Mary’s housekeeping
money ; two shillings for the old mother who lived down in
Camberwell, to be near the workhouse, whence came a small
weekly relief that helped to keep her. Eight shillings over : John
thought he knew of a shop where a second-hand frockcoat (his
strict official costume as shop-walker) was offered for ten shillings,
but might be compassed, with discretion, for eight. He gathered
up the money, and looked wistfully at the tin tobacco-box on the
dresser shelf.

No ; it was empty, he remembered. He had not been able to
save the threepence halfpenny this week. Still—there might be
a few grains of dust in it. He took down a blackened clay pipe,
ran his little finger round the bowl, and shook the box tentatively.
Something rustled within ; he put his thumb nail to the lid. Half


                        By T. Baron Russell 213

an ounce of shag screwed up in paper ! So the little wife had
thought of him, and prepared this surprise. Dear girl. The old
man’s eyes moistened he—was an old man, though only forty by
the calendar—as he unwrapped the tobacco, carefully shaking
particles of the dust from folds in the paper, and filled himself
half a pipe. Then he smoked, fingering the dog’s ears reflectively
and mentally adding up afresh his scanty moneys. Certainly it
was good that he should be able to put by the three shillings this
Saturday : that guinea might be wanted, any day ; and after that
there would be at least half-a-crown a week, and beer-money,
needed for the charwoman who was to “do for” the missus and
give an eye to the house, presently.


When he blew out the lamp, and crept, slippers in hand,
upstairs, he was shivering a little. He stood a moment out-
side the bedroom door and lit a match for the candle, to avoid
disturbing the sleeping wife. He undressed very quietly ; but
the woman moved at some slight sound, and sat up at once on
seeing him, smiling, and holding out her arms. He put them
down very gently.

“Careful, dearie,” he said ; ” careful, you know,” and took her
head in his arm. ” How have you been ?”

” Oh, very bobbish. So you found the bit o’ smoke ?”—his
breath being her informant.

“Yes, dear. But you oughtn’t to scrape—”

She put her hand over his mouth. “Hush,” she said, ” you old
stupid. I couldn’t let you go without the only little bit of
comfort. But look here,” she added gravely; “look what’s come.”


                        214 A Guardian of the Poor

She drew a folded buff paper from under the pillow. She had
brought it upstairs in her hand, that the sight of it might not vex
him before supper. It was a printed circular from the local
police station, remarking that Mr. Hunt had taken out a license
to keep one dog the year before, but had not renewed it this year
at its expiration. If Mr. Hunt had now ceased to keep one dog,
the circular politely concluded, this notice might be disregarded.

He looked blank. Seven-and-sixpence for Joey. The little
doggy never appeared in the light of an extravagance except at
license-time ; he was an economical quadruped, subsisting on the
scraps, and such treasure-trove as he could pick up in the gutter.
But the notice meant good-bye to the frock-coat, for the present
week at least ; and Hunt knew that it might be long enough
before he had eight shillings in his pocket again.

He brightened up, however, before the little woman had time
to remark his depression.

” All right,” he said, cheerfully, ” I’ve got seven-and-six over,
old girl. I’ll go round to the post office and get the license, first
thing on Monday morning.”

“You’d better let me get it ; you ll be late if you go yourself.
I can just as well pop round, in the morning.”

“Oh, I don t like you to go out any more than you re obliged
to. I ll start a little earlier. I dare say Miss King’11 be in the

The idea of discarding the dog never for an instant occurred
to either.

In the morning—Sunday—John slipped early out of bed, lit
the fire below stairs, and was at his wife’s beside with a cup
of tea when she awoke. In the meantime, he had been to a near
chemist’s, where a painted tin plate proclaimed that medicines
could be obtained on the Sabbath by ringing the bell, and pro-


                        By T. Baron Russell 215

cured a pennyworth of ammonia—he called it “ahmonia”—from
the grumbling apprentice. Then, laying the despised coat on the
kitchen table, he had carefully brushed it, rubbed the pungent
fluid into the cloth with a rag, and brushed yet again. After-
wards, using the handle of a pen, he inked the thread-bare places
and the frayed buttonholes, spread the condemned garment on a
clothes-line that the smell of the ammonia might evaporate, and
stretched the sleeves and pulled the lappels, as well as he could,
into better shape. This had been, in its time, a Sunday coat,
purchased not secondhand but new, in some moment of temporary
prosperity, though he had been obliged to depose it to every day
wear long since, and had never replaced it. This half hour’s work
would give it a fresh lease of life, he reflected, as he stepped back
to contemplate the effect—if only the buttons didn’t happen to
catch Borlaseand Company’s eye. And later on, he would manage
to get another.


Monday morning was a slack time at Borlase’s—a time devoted
to putting in order stock which had been disturbed on Saturday
night, and which was allowed, perforce, to be put away hurriedly
in the hey-day of harvest. Ribbons had to be re-rolled in their
paper interlining, and neatly secured with tiny pins. Calicoes
had to be refolded in tighter bales : hat trimmings and artificial
flowers to be dusted with a sort of overgrown paint-brush, and
laid carefully in their shiny black boxes. A general overhauling of
wares, in short, had to be done, in the intervals of serving a few
early callers, until, after dinner, the ladies of the suburb began to
arrive, and the shop to assume its afternoon bustle. John checked
invoices, entered up the bought ledger, and verified the charges of


                        216 A Guardian of the Poor

city warehousemen for goods newly delivered, crossing the narrow
deep shop to reach the warehouse behind in search of various
consignments, which needed to be “passed” as correct and
entered in the stock book, before being placed on the shelves for
sale. Mr. Borlase was “signing” in the shop, as usual:
this duty only devolved upon Hunt on the busy night of the
seventh day.

Presently he detected an error in a piece of dress stuff, and
drew his principal, by the eye, into the corner where it lay.

“Schweitzer and Brunn invoice this as three dozen and five,”
he said, ” It’s marked five dozen and three on the cover.”

“Well, which is it?”

“Five three, I should think, sir. The mistake’s more likely
to be in the bill than in the goods.”

“Well, take it out and measure it, can’t you.”

“Very good, sir,” Hunt replied. As he shuffled off, Mr.
Borlase eyed his round shoulders and shining elbows with disappro-
bation. In the afternoon light, Hunt looked shabbier than ever.
Customers would get the idea that he was underpaid. This must
be looked to.

In a little while Hunt sought the master’s eye again. ” It’s
five dozen and three, right enough,” he said: “five three, good
measure. Will you have it cut, or send for a corrected in-

Mr. Borlase glared. “You’ve nothing to do with the measure,”
he said, sharply: “what’s it to do with you? All you’ve got to do
is to see that it holds three dozen and five: stop there. I can’t
keep my books and Schweitzer’s too. Mark it ‘query over’ in
the Stock Book. Haven’t you got enough to fill your time with-
out wasting it on other people’s blunders as well as your own?”

“And, Hunt,” he added, sternly, ” what about that coat of


                        By T. Baron Russell 217

yours? I told you on Saturday it wouldn t do. Why haven’t you
come in a better one ?”

“I haven’t got a better one, sir,” Hunt faltered.

“You—haven’t—got—a better one, sir,” Borlase replied mock-
ing him. “Then why the devil haven’t you bought yourself a
better one, sir?”

Hunt answered that there hadn’t been time: and besides, he
had not the money.

“You haven’t the money? What do you mean by ‘you haven’t
the money?’ Weren’t you paid on Saturday? ‘Yes you know’—
but yes, you don’t know”—the temper of Borlase and Company
rose, or was affected to rise, higher: “But yes, you don’t know,”
said the outraged draper, “that you disgrace my shop.”

” I’m very sorry, sir: I shall try what I can do next Saturday:
but I have a good many expenses just now ; and I’ve had the dog
license to pay this morning, and my wife ”

” Dog license? What do you want with dog licenses? What
do you want with dogs? Put the brute in a bucket of water—
that’s the way to pay dog licenses ! Why—the coat’s absolutely
falling to pieces: look at the braid, look at the elbows.” Mr.
Borlase in his wrath, seized one of the lappels in his finger, and
gave it a pull. The worn braid, accustomed to more tender usage,
yielded and ripped a foot or more down the front, showing the
frayed edges beneath.

The situation was plainly impossible. On the one hand, Hunt
could not be made to buy himself new clothes if he had no money.
On the other, he was as plainly an eyesore in the present coat—
and Mr. Borlase had by his own act destroyed it. He was a man
of quick decisions. “Come with me,” he said. ” Mr. Peters!
Take the floor please,” and he pushed Hunt by the elbow to the
staircase which led to the upper storeys.


                        218 A Guardian of the Poor

The first floor was occupied by Mr. Borlase and his family.
At the end of a corridor was a wide hanging-cupboard, with slid-
ing doors. Searching in this, Mr. Borlase found a long-discarded
frock-coat of his own. “Put that on,” he said sternly. “And
don’t let me see you disgracing my shop any more. How many
men do you think would take the coat off their own backs to
clothe you?”

Hunt broke into thanks: it is likely that this simple fellow was
actually grateful for the thing thus flung to him. He walked
homeward buoyantly at tea time, full of excitement and eager to
show this great acquisition to Mary.

But something chilled him as he opened the door. Mary would
have been in the passage at the first sound of his latch-key, ordin-
arily. The place was empty, now, and a strange hat hung on a
walking-stick leaning against the casing of the parlour door.

So the hour had come, and the guinea was wanted already! He
ran hurriedly upstairs to the bedroom. The doctor pushed him
from the door, and came out on the landing with him. “You can’t
come in, just yet,” he said.

“When was she ‘taken’?” John asked.

“About two o’clock, I understand. The woman happened to
be with her, and has just fetched me.”

“How long—”

“Oh, an hour more yet I expect. All very nicely: no cause
for alarm. Just keep quiet, and don’t disturb her, there’s a good
fellow: it’s all you can do.”

He pushed the reluctant John to the stair-head and re-entered
the bedroom with a quick movement. Hunt crept downstairs,
and choked over his tea: then rushed back to the shop. He had
brought the old coat on his arm, and laid it carefully over the stair-
railing. It could still be mended, and would do for house wear.


                        By T. Baron Russell 219

He made several mistakes that night: but as this concerned
only himself (who had to ferret out and rectify them) it had no
other effect than to keep him a little later than nine o’clock before
he could leave. He ran home, and arrived panting. The frowsy
charwoman met him in the passage.

“There, it’s a good job you’ve come,” she said. ” She s been a-
askin’ for you. It’s a boy. You can come up and speak to her,
a minute, but you mustn’t stop long. She’s got to have her sleep.
Then you can go and get me my beer. There isn’t a drop in the

Mary only lifted her eyes when he pressed his lips to her damp
brow. She did not speak.

“Let me see him,” he whispered.

She turned back a corner of the quilt, where a shapeless face,
inconceivably small, inconceivably red, lay on her arms. John
stooped and kissed the scant, silky, black hair. The child threw
up a tiny open hand, seizing the finger with which he touched it.
A great emotion mastered and silenced him, and he stooped to kiss
the baby finger-nails. Mary smiled again and closed her eyes.


Hunt fared irregularly during the next few days. His work, as
it happened, was rather heavy— heavier than usual—and the acci-
dent saved him some anxious thoughts, for full hours are short
hours. Every now and then, though, as he moved on some errand
of his labour, came a new experience—the joy of sudden recollec-
tion. There was a baby! The remembrance gave him a fresh
thrill of happiness each time that it recurred. An hour, each
night, he sat alone with his wife in the bed-room, gazing silently


                        220 A Guardian of the Poor

at the little head, just hidden by the flannel it was wrapped in.
They dared not speak, lest the child should rouse— and indeed,
Mary was hardly strong enough to talk yet, though she described
herself, in a whisper, as “getting on famous.”

The charwoman departed early in each evening, now, and John
slept, secretly, on the landing, that he might hear his wife’s call, if
she should need him in the night. He was supposed to lie on a
couch in that mathematical-looking parlour, the use of which was
so rigidly confined to Sunday afternoons: but this was a myth,
loyally concealed by the charwoman, who was spared the trouble
of a bed-making by the inscrutable whim of her patient’s husband.
He caught a severe cold in the process, which was not surprising.

Mary’s progress did not satisfy the doctor. Ten days showed
little or no recovery of strength. He ordered beef tea, and John
provided it. But no success attended this time-honoured prescrip-
tion. Possibly it was not skillfully prepared: anyway the patient
grew worse. On Wednesday at dinner time, John found the
doctor waiting for him. “I don’t like the looks of your wife, Mr.
Hunt,” he said, bluntly. ” She isn’t picking up as fast as we
should wish. I should like her to have some beef essence—a
small quantity, every two hours.”

“What, Liebig ? ” asked John.

“No, no, not Liebig : essence, not extract. It is a kind of
jelly. You get it at the chemists : lot of nourishment in a small
space—very easily assimilated, you know.”

John didn’t know, but he neglected his dinner and hurried to
the drug stores. “Fifteen pence,” said the man at the counter ;
and John’s heart sank at the smallness of the tin that was handed
him. On his return he met the landlord, demanding the rent.
Three more visits to the chemists, at one and threepence, left him,
by Thursday night, with an empty pocket ; and there was only


                         By T. Baron Russell 221

enough food in the house for the charwoman’s meals next day.
At noon on Friday he found the doctor in the house again.

“She has had no beef to-day I find,” said the man of science in
reply to John’s interrogative look. “And she is sinking, besides.
She must have a teaspoonful of brandy every two hours, as well as
the essence: if you can, give her a few grapes.” He hurried off
before John could recover his self-possession: for many shilling
visits must be comprised in a day, by the small general practitioner
who would make a living in Camberwell.

John sat down on the stairs in blank misery. He had not a
farthing ; and Mary was upstairs— perhaps—perhaps dying! He
leaned on the wall for support being weak with hunger himself—
and his hat fell off. This reminded him that he was sitting on his
coat tails, which would be creased, and he rose, unsteadily. The
coat ! It was his only removable asset ; and Mary was dying.
They had never used the pawnshop ; but the coat had been a good
one, and would certainly fetch a loan—half a sovereign, perhaps,
thought the inexperienced John. He went into the kitchen, took
down his old coat from its nail, and with needle and cotton hastily
repaired the torn binding. Then he ran to the pawnbrokers,
whence he emerged, after an interval rich in contumely, with three
shillings (less a penny for the ticket) extracted with difficulty from
the scornful Hebrew in the little box. But two and elevenpence
produced two tins of beef, half a quartern of brandy, and a half-
penny roll ; the situation, for the moment, was saved.

He was late at the shop and was rebuked for it. Mr. Borlase
had been awaiting him, having an official appointment to keep.
He had to meet his fellow Guardians and the Watch Committee.

                                                Mrs. Hunt

                        222 A Guardian of the Poor


Mrs. Hunt had rallied a little by night fall, and was reported
“decidedly better” by the doctor next morning. John began to
be more hopeful ; and he had breakfasted, also, the charwoman
having brought in a loaf.

After dinner-time John took up his duties (this being Saturday)
as shop walker, privately resolving to make the most of tea at
Borlase’s. Presently the customary rush of business set in, absorb-
ing all his attention. He did not see that Mr. Borlasewas eyeing
him with a puzzled air, as if he missed something. He did not
see either that the fat woman who had gone empty away a fort-
night since, entered the shop, and that the sight of her woke up a
sudden recollection in his proprietor, who looked over her substan-
tial shoulders at John with a highly unfriendly eye.


A few hours later, he was at home, in the bare kitchen—his
chin resting on one hand and his vacant glance fixed on the
window opposite.

He had sat there an hour—his mind blank, save for the one dull
impression of misery. The detail of his trouble was absent from
his thoughts: only the dull, aching consequence of it remained.

Mr. Borlase has paid the assistants as usual, checked the cash
and received the accounts in silence. But when the shop was
empty and dark he had turned upon Hunt in fury.

“What the devil do you mean, by turning up on a Saturday
again, in those scarecrow clothes?” he had asked. “Eh? What


                        By T. Baron Russell 223

the hell do you mean by it? Didn’t I take my coat off my own
back to give you, eh? And you, you ungrateful hound, you come
to me that figure, to disgrace me! What do you mean by it?
Where’s my coat?”

“I’m very sorry, sir, I shall have it—”

” Where’s my coat, I ask you? “

“If you’ll let me explain, sir, I— you see my wife—”

” Where’s my coat?”

” I was about to explain, sir. I—”

“Where’s my coat?”

” I—I ve put it away sir: I have pledged it.”

Mr. Borlase staggered.

“You pledged it! You pledged my coat! You—”

” My wife was dying, sir: and I had to get ”

“You pledged my coat! The coat I gave you ! . . . Not a
word! Not a word! You have stolen my coat. That is what
it amounts to. I’ve a great mind to give you into custody. It’s
a gross breach of confidence. A great many men would have
given you into custody before this. Well, well ! So it has come
to this ! Very well, Mr. Blasted Hunt. You have pawned my
property ; well, this is the end. You can take a week’s notice,
and go: go, you THIEF!” It was with difficulty that the
angry Borlase abstained from physical assault.

Hunt had slunk away, the disgraceful epithet burning in his
ears. But the scene, that he had lived over again and again in
the interval, was almost forgotten now. In a week he would be
out of work. In a week, Mary must starve ; this was the one
dull agony that obscured all other consciousness. A leaking
gutter-spout outside dripped—dop—dop—dop—on the stones ;
the recurrent sound impressed itself dully on his brain. Even the
questions : “How can I tell her? How long can I keep it from

The Yellow Book—Vol. IX. N


                        224 A Guardian of the Poor

her?” had passed away. His mind was empty of thought—it
could only ache.

The dog crept up to him and licked his hand. He started up.
Yes! In two weeks’ time they would be parted ; they would
have to go into the workhouse.

And Mr. Borlase was a Guardian of the Poor.

MLA citation:

Russell, T. Baron. “A Guardian of the Poor.” The Yellow Book, vol. 9, April 1896, pp. 205-224. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.