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Waifs And Strays
by [?]

When I talked [1] of the hopeless poor and of degraded men, I had in my mind only the feeble or detestable adults who degrade our civilisation; but I have by no means forgotten the unhappy little souls who develop into wastrels unless they are taken away from hideous surroundings which cramp vitality, destroy all childish happiness, and turn into brutes poor young creatures who bear the human image. Lately I heard one or two little stories which are amongst the most pathetic that ever came before me in the course of some small experience of life among the forsaken classes–or rather let me say, the classes that used to be forsaken. These little stories have prompted me to endeavour to deal carefully with a matter which has cost me many sad thoughts.

Footnote: [1] Essay “The Hopless Poor”.

A stray child was rescued from the streets by a society which is extending its operations very rapidly, and the little creature was placed as a boarder with a cottager in the country. To the utter amazement of the good rustic folk, their queer little guest showed complete ignorance of the commonest plants and animals; she had never seen any pretty thing, and she was quite used to being hungry and to satisfying her appetite with scraps of garbage. When she first saw a daisy on the green, she gazed longingly, and then asked plaintively, “Please, might I touch that?” When she was told that she might pluck a few daisies she was much delighted. After her first experiences in the botanising line she formally asked permission to pluck many wild flowers; but she always seemed to have a dread of transgressing against some dim law which had been hitherto represented to her mind by the man in blue who used to watch over her miserable alley. Before she became accustomed to receiving food at regular intervals, she fairly touched the hearts of her foster-parents by one queer request. The housewife was washing some Brussels sprouts, when the little stray said timidly, “Please, may I eat a bit of that stalk?” Of course the stringy mass was uneatable; but it turned out that the forlorn child had been very glad to worry at the stalks from the gutter as a dog does at an unclean bone. Another little girl was taken from the den which she knew as home, after her parents had been sent to prison for treating her with unspeakable cruelty. The matron of the country home found that the child’s body was scarred from neck to ankle in a fashion which no lapse of years could efface. The explanation of the disfigurement was very simple. “If I didn’t bring in any money mother beat me first; and then, when father came in drunk, she tied my hands behind my back and told him to give me the buckle. Then they strapped me on the bed and fastened my feet, and he whacked me with the buckle-end of his strap.” It sounds very horrible, does it not? Nevertheless, the facts remain that the wretched parents were caught in the act and convicted, and that the child must carry her scars to her grave. No one who has not seen these lost children can form an idea of their darkness and helplessness of mind. We all know the story of the South Sea islanders, who said, “What a big pig!” when they first saw a horse; one little London savage quite equalled this by remarking, “What a little cow!” when she saw a tiny Maltese terrier brought by a lady missionary. The child had some vague conception regarding a cow; but, like others of her class, her notions of size, form, and colour, were quite cloudy. Another of these city phenomena did not know how to blow out a candle; and in many cases it is most difficult to persuade those newly reclaimed to go to bed without keeping their boots on. We cannot call such beings barbarians, because “barbarian” implies something wild, strong, and even noble; yet, to our shame, we must call them savages, and we must own that they are born and bred within easy gunshot distance of our centres of culture, enlightenment, and luxury. They swarm, do these children of suffering: and easy-going people have no idea of the density of the savagery amid which such scions of our noble English race are reared. A gentleman once offered sixpence to a little girl who appeared before him dressed in a single garment which seemed to have been roughly made from some sort of sacking. He expected to see her snatch at the coin with all the eagerness of the ordinary hardy street-arab; but she showed her jagged brown teeth, and said huskily, “No! Big money!” A lady, divining with the rapid feminine instinct what was meant by the enigmatic muttering, explained, “She does not know the sixpence. She has had coppers to spend before.” And so it turned out to be.