London, January, 1889
One might well wonder why a young lady of gentle breeding would go out under such circumstances.
I myself did not fully understand why I felt compelled to wander the night.
I am perhaps a bit of a monomaniac, driven always to quest, venture, search, seek, find.
Find out, find things, find people - tonight, anyone who might need help to survive.
Into my habit, as well as the heavy wool mantle I wore over it, I had sewn many deep pockets, stocked with items I might need: candle stubs and wooden matches, shillings and pence, warm knitted socks and caps and mittens, apples, biscuits, a flask of brandy.
I carried a homemade blanket over one arm. In the other hand I lifted the lantern.
Wearing black fur-lined gloves, I held my light high and began to search the back ways and by-ways, alert for any hint of danger, any sounds of angry altercation, or screaming, or footsteps behind me.
I listened also for the sound of anyone crying.
And before very long, I heard it.
A low, dull sort of sobbing.
Reflexive, as if the person had given up, weeping only to breathe.
Guided by that lament - for my lantern showed me only a few paces of street-stone underfoot before all vanished into sooty fog - I found an old woman crouched in a doorway, trying to warm herself in a shawl that only covered her head and shoulders.
As I approached, as she heard my footsteps, she tried to muffle her weeping with her hands, afraid - but then she sobbed aloud again, this time in relief, recognising me.
Many such folk knew me by now.
"Sister," she whispered, "Sister of the Streets."
One thin arm faltered towards me.
Mutely, for the Sister never spoke or made a sound, I swept down on her like - like a big skinny black hen on a chick, I suppose, wrapping her in the blanket I had brought along.
A crude thing: I made my blankets out of hunks of old cloth sewn together, because any coverings of better quality would have been stolen from those who needed them most.
This woman's face, lifted to the lantern light, was perhaps not elderly after all, only harrowed by hardship, her scrawny body stunted by rickets and hunger.
Was she a widow or a spinster, turned away from a common lodging-house for lack of eight-pence, or had she been driven into the night by a husband's drunken blows?
Knowing that I would never know, I slipped thick, knitted stockings over her bare feet, then brought out of one of my pockets an item I had, I believe, invented.
A sizable tin tightly stuffed to the brim with wadded paper, into which I had poured paraffin, was what I set down on the ground next to the woman.
Lighting a wooden match, I laid it atop this odd sort of portable fire on the ground, where it started to burn, flaring like an overlarge candle, putting off a great deal of heat.
It would only last an hour or so, but long enough for her to warm herself.
And hidden enough, I hoped, so that it would not attract any unwelcome company to her.
I gave her an apple, some biscuits, and a meat pie that had come from a baker, not a street vendor, and therefore might be made of good wholesome meat not intermixed with dog or cat.
"Thank you so much, Sister."
The woman could not seem to stop weeping, but she would, I thought, after I went away.
Quickly I slipped her a few shillings, money enough to buy her food and lodging for several days, but not so much that she was likely to be killed for it.
Then, standing back, I turned away, hoping she understood that there was nothing more I could do for her.
"Sister of the Streets, God bless you!" she called after me.
Her gratitude made me feel like a fraud, a farce, unworthy, for there were many, too many like her, and I could never possibly find them all.
Striding on my way, I myself shivered with cold.
And with fear.
Tipsy singing and drunken yells floated faintly to my ears from the next street.
A public house, still open?
I wondered how this was allowed.
Surely the authorities would have done something.
Two Days Later
The famous 'pea-soup' fog of London was so thick this night that my own lantern seemed to float like a ghost at the end of my arm, lost in nearly palpable murk.
On nights like this, or even in daytime when the air turned to yellow-brown smut-broth, cabdrivers needed to lead their horses on foot, and watermen sometimes stepped off the docks along the Thames and were drowned.
Hearkening constantly for any hint of danger, I walked on, not searching for unfortunates tonight, but instead making for a destination; I could stand my own apprehension only just so long.
But at the same time I told myself that many more Londoners died of sheer breathing than ever died of crime.
It could not possibly be healthful to inhale air that made one's eyes and nostrils run black.
I could bear it; I had been raised in the clean air of the country.
But what of those who had been born to breathe soot, to live and die on these grimy streets?
London's poor, I had noted, grew stunted and died soon. One could hardly begrudge them their gin.
Well-laden with my usual supplies, I hurried towards the workhouse, where the poorest of the poor, destitute old women called 'dosses', spent their days and nights on the stone steps.
By longtime custom, they were allowed this small mercy, instead of being knocked about by the police as was the lot of ordinary beggars.
Rounding the corner of the workhouse, I halted a moment, astonished.
Instead of the expected shadows, I saw upon the workhouse steps a metal washtub in which a considerable blaze merrily burned.
There would be no need for me to light one of my tin-and-paraffin devices tonight.
And instead of seeing shivering old women huddled together beneath the blankets I had given them, I saw them gathered around the fire, their gaunt faces grinning.
And with them, a man.