Orphan Boy

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IV (11) | Start of Chapter

Mrs. Arthur said, "I have one case to place before you, and will leave all the rest to your own discretion. I have fed a little boy, once a day, whose parents and brothers and sisters are dead, with the exception of one little sister. The boy is seven years old, the sister five.

They were told they must make application to the poor-house, at Castlebar, which was ten Irish miles away. One cold rainy day in November, this boy took his little sister by the hand, and faint with hunger, set off for Castlebar. And now, reader, if you will, follow these little bare-footed, bare-headed Connaught orphans through a muddy road of ten miles, in a rainy day, without food, and see them at the workhouse, late at night. The doors are closed—at last, they succeed in being heard. The girl is received, the boy sent away—no room for him—he made his way back to Newport the next morning, and had lived by crawling into any place he could at night, and once a day called at the door of my friend who fed him.

He soon came a fine-looking boy, with unusually matured judgment. The servant was paid for taking him into an outhouse and scrubbing him thoroughly, &c. A nice black suit of clothes was found in the American box, with a cap suited to his head; and when he was suitably prepared by the servant, the clothes were put on. He had not, probably, been washed for six months, and his clothes were indescribable; his skin, which had been kept from wind and sun, by the coat which had so long been gathering, was white, and so changed was he wholly and entirely, that I paused to look at him; and tied about his neck a pretty silk handkerchief, to finish the whole. "What do you say now, my boy; I shall burn your old clothes, and you never shall see them again?" A moment's hesitation—he looked up, I supposed to thank me, when to my surprise, he burst into an agony of loud weeping. "What can be the matter?" He answered, "Now I shall sure die with the hunger; if they see me with nice clothes on, they will say I tell lies, that I have a mother that minds me; and lady, you won't burn them old clothes," (turning about to gather them up); and if I had not sternly commanded him to drop them, he would have clasped them close, as his best and dearest friends. In truth, this was a new development of mind I had never seen before, clinging with a firm grasp to a bundle of filthy, forbidding garments, as the only craft by which to save his life; choosing uncleanliness to decency, at an age too when all the young emotions of pride generally spring up in fondness for new and pretty garments. The silk handkerchief seemed almost to frighten him. Was it the principle of association, which older people experience when they cling to objects which have been their companions in trial, or those places where they have seen their dearest comforts depart? He would not have consented to have left those old clothes behind, but by a promise which he could hardly believe; that he should be fed every day through the winter. He was taken immediately to a school, where the children were fed once a day, and instructed for a penny a week; this penny, the teacher said, should not be exacted, as he had been clothed by me. I saw the boy through the winter, three months after his clothes were tidy and had not been torn, and he was improving.

His fears respecting the "hungry" were not groundless, no stranger would have believed that he needed charity, when decently clad.

From Newport I went to Achill Sound. Here was enough to excite the pity and energy of all such as possessed them. This wild dreary sea-coast at any time presents little except its salubrity of air, and grandeur of storms and tempests, tempered with the beauty of its varied clouds, when lighted by the sun, to make it the most inviting spot. But now the work of death was going on; and, notwithstanding the exertions of Mr. Savage, with the aid of the Central Committee in Dublin, and government relief beside, at times it seemed to mock all effort. Mr. Savage seemed to be in the position of the "ass colt" in scripture, "tied where two ways meet." He had the island of Achill on one side across the Sound, and a vast bog and mountainous waste on the other, with scarcely an inhabitant for many a mile, (but the colony of Mr. Nangle,) which could subsist only but by charity. The groups which surrounded the house, from the dawn of day till dark, called forth the incessant labors of many hands, both male and female, to appease the pitiful requests multiplying around them. Oh! the scenes of that dreadful winter! Who shall depict them, and who that saw them can ever forget? I have looked out at the door of that house, and seen from three to five, six, and seven hundred hovering about the windows and in the corners, not one woman or child having a shoe upon their feet, or a covering upon the head, with ghastly, yes, ghostly countenances of hunger and despair, that mock all description. One fact among the many is recorded, which transpired a few weeks before related to me by Mrs. Savage, which had novelties peculiar to itself:—