A Melodrama—The Union
By T. Baron Russell
Is it not almost unprintable ? To give to it anything of actuality
one would have—no, not to invent, but to suppress. As a
bit of life it was too impossably dramatic, too fictional, too much—
what can one say ?—too much like a story in a Christmas number,
and a story constructed in the worst style, at that.
Yet, it happened ! and the Organist is my witness. She had
taken me to see the Workhouse Chapel : incidentally, to hear h
er play (for which purpose one would go much further than to this
chapel), little purposing, as you may believe, to give me sheer
Surrey melodrama thrown in. The beadle admitted us by a little
door, cut in the black painted wooden gates. He admitted us with
a smile. A Union Beadle can smile on occasion, and I was to
find soon that the coming of the Organist was the signal for many
smiles in this “Union.” One or two inmates were waiting in the
paved courtyard. They all smiled, too, at sight of the Organist,
and hovered forward to greet her. One man had a crutch, and
walked with difficulty, but he shuffled quickly over the flag-
stones, and followed us with the others into the chapel, where a
good number were already waiting—just so many vacant-looking,
tired old faces, that brightened up and became animated, covetous
of an individual recognition, when the Organist passed through to
The most devout of the intending worshippers was a woman of,
perhaps, no more than fifty, who alone took no heed, kneeling
already with a rapt, ecstatic gaze that made her face almost
“eerie.” She was, I learned, hopelessly imbecile, and had to be
led into and out of church, the only incident of her life. An
appalling amount of tribulation seemed to be collected here and
personified in these old women. One felt a more instinctive
sympathy somehow for them than for the men, poor fellows.
Even a couple of younger women, who carried a baby apiece, did
not convey the same aching sense of desolation as these shrivelled,
wrinkling old crones, in their hideous round bonnets and grey
The chapel was a gaunt structure, devoid of adornment ; but
some one had put a few yellow daisies in a tumbler on the close
stove—cold now, and shining with blacklead. On the mean font,
placed in emblematic neighbourhood to the doorway, stood a small
crockery jug. “A christening afterwards,” the Organist whispered
to me, in explanation.
She took her seat. The organ, unscreened, stood in a corner,
facing the congregation. An old, grey man, in spectacles, sat at
the side, leaning on the bellows handle, ready to perform his duty
when the Organist should give the sign.
She pulled out a few stops and uncovered the single manual.
The paupers moved in their seats, leaning forward, anticipant. It
was easy to gather that the air was a familiar one. At the first
notes, nods and smiles of delighted recognition were exchanged.
The unmusical mind only takes kindly to tunes that it knows.
Not a pauper moved until the last note had sounded and died away.
Then they leaned back, settling in their places with a wriggle of
gratification, to wait, fidgeting, for Evensong to begin.
The stroke of half-past six brought the surpliced chaplain, brisk
and businesslike. The Organist played him in with slow, droning
chords, dying away in muffled pedal notes as he kneeled awhile in
his place. It was his only deliberate act, almost, through the service.
The congregation shuffled hurriedly to its feet when he rose to
gabble the exhortation. One of the babies—the subjects of the
anticipated sacrament—woke up and had to be hushed after the
fashion of babes at an age when, even for the infant pauper, food
is easy to come by.
Evensong was briskly performed. Then the clergyman made
his way to the font, emptied into it what may have been half a
pint of water from the little crockery jug, and began to read the
Order for the Publick Baptism of Infants. ” Have these children
been already baptized, or no ?”
The mothers stood up, nervous and inaudible, the only sponsors.
In the more essential parts they had to be prompted individually
by the chaplain in a stage-whisper : “Say ‘I renounce them all'”
—”Say ‘All this I steadfastly believe.'” One of them was a
sullen woman, well over thirty, with a brutish face and disappearing
chin ; the other, a light-haired, rosy-cheeked girl, who hung her
head and cried quietly all through the ceremony. Neither wore
a wedding-ring. In the brisk time set by the clergyman, the
ordeal was soon over, and the congregation—the women, old and
young, intensely interested in the babies—rose to sing the
baptismal hymn :
“In token that thou shall not fear
Christ crucified to own,
We print the Cross upon thee here,
And stamp thee His alone.”
There was an incongruity, an insincerity, in the ceremonial
thus hurriedly bustled through, as though even the Sacrament
must be brief for a workhouse brat. I do not say that it was done
brutally or with indifference; but there was something perfunctory
and unreal about it. I think we were all glad when it was over,
and the awakened babies were being hustled off to sleep again in
the usual manner. There had been an impersonal unreality in
the whole service. These tired old women, chanting the canticles
—it was wonderful, at their average age, how well the Organist
had got them to sing—seemed to find nothing of promise, no hint
of comfort even in the Psalms or the sublime Magnificat. But at
least they were not indifferent to the music. That was personal;
that “belonged” to them. There was no “playing-out” in the
closing voluntary : the whole congregation sat it through, mothers
and all, and beamed gratefully on the kind face of the Organist,
their friend, when at last she closed the instrument and passed
through the waiting people to the door.
As we crossed the courtyard, the Organist delaying to speak to
one here and one there—she appeared to know every one by name
and history—we became aware of a disturbance in the gateway.
A young fellow, dressed like a sailor, had his foot inside the little
door in the gate and was endeavouring to push past the beadle.
“I tell you it ain’t visiting time,” said that functionary, sourly.
“You can see ‘er at the proper time : you can’t see ‘er when it
isn’t the proper time. I told you that before, and it’s no good
your making a disturbance, because you can’t go in.”
“What is it?” I was asking the Organist—she seemed to under-
stand so instinctively everything here, in this somewhat unknown
territory, that I did not doubt her perfect familiarity with this
kind of dispute—when there was a cry behind me, and the fair-
haired mother, her child still in her arms, rushed past us like a
whirlwind, pushed aside the outraged beadle, and fell, in a heap,
baby and all, into the arms of the sailor.
What followed, happened in an instant. There was no pause,
no further altercation with the door-keeper, who would probably
have demurred to the whole highly irregular proceeding. The
sailor gathered up the woman in his arms, lifted her impetuously
over the step into the street and banged the little door behind
them. A little assemblage of paupers had crowded into the covered
passage to witness this drama ; and then, in a flash, it was over,
the door closed, and the beadle—he was a small lean man, in a
jacket, nothing like the conventional Bumble—was left gasping
* * * * *
We overtook the couple—the trio, to be more exact—at the
corner of the street. The sailor was carrying the baby now, and
the woman was fastening her bodice. The red sunset rays
glinted on her hair and made it brightly golden ; a shower was
drying up, and the air was clear and fresh-smelling. The lime-
blossom on a tree that overhung a garden fence—for we are rural,
here in the Southern Suburb—was giving off the beginning of its
evening fragrance. The street was deserted and quite silent. A
scrap of talk floated to us down the hill from the man and woman
“Only landed this morning,” the man was saying. “Couldn’t
get no news of you off the old people ; they wouldn’t tell me
nothing, and I bin lookin’ everywheres for you, all day. Then I
met yer sister, and she—told me ; and I come round in a rush
to fetch yer out. They didn’t want to let me in—ah! I’d ‘ave
showed what for, in about another minute—and then I see yer
comin’ !” The baby began to cry feebly. The man hushed it
awkwardly, stopping in his walk to do so. He would not give it
up to the girl though ; and she hung on his arm looking up into
his face, transfigured, unrecognisable ; then they passed out of our
The Organist laid her hand upon my arm, her eyes glistening.
“We may as well go home, I think, mayn’t we ?” she said.
It was nearly a month later, when I found a letter from the
Organist on my breakfast table.
“If you could take me to the parish church on Saturday
morning—yes, I mean Saturday, not Sunday—” she wrote, “I
could show you the finish of an affair that I think you are inter-
I wondered, vaguely, what the “affair” was, and, having been a
little late in presenting myself, did not succeed, in a hurried walk to
the church, in eliciting an explanation of the summons. “Make
haste, and you will see,” said the Organist ; and she would tell
me no more.
We found the church almost empty, save for a little group,
facing an ascetic-looking young priest in the chancel.
“Well, what is it, then ?” I whispered. The Organist
answered me by a motion of the head altarwards, and I recognised
my friend the sailor, looking very uncomfortable in a stiff suit
of tweeds. Then the words which the priest was reciting gave
me a last clue to the situation.
“Into which holy estate these two persons present come now
to be joined. Therefore if any man can show any just cause, why
they may not lawfully be joined together, let him NOW speak,
or else hereafter for ever hold his peace !” We were witnessing
that service of the Church which, as a cynic remarked, “begins
with ‘Dearly Beloved,’ and ends with ‘amazement.'”
A pew, half way down the aisle, gave us decent shelter, within
earshot, and we paid attention to this reticent, informal, solem-
nisation of matrimony. There were no bridesmaids, as you may
suppose—no groomsman—only a perfunctory pew-opener as
witness, and an awkward youth in a large jacket, who officiated,
blushing profusely, as “father,” giving ” this woman to this man.”
He may have been hair a year her senior. The girl’s parents,
apparently, had not yet forgiven her. At length, duly united,
the couple followed the clergyman bashfully into the vestry, with
their witnesses. The baby, apparently, had been placed in some
safe keeping, as an unsuitable attendant at this ceremonial. We
viewed the departure of the group, the ring proudly displayed on
the girl s ungloved hand ; and my companion (whom I began to
suspect of having abetted in this dénouement] had a word to say to
the clergyman. Then, as we passed out of the gates, I asked her,
“Well ! How in the world did you follow them up ?”
“Oh, nothing easier,” she replied. “I had a notion of what
would happen, and of course I knew the girl’s name through
the Union people, so that there was no difficulty in finding out
from Mr. Noster (that is the curate, who has just married them)
when the banns were put up.
“I thought,” she added, with her delightful smile, “that you
would be glad to see the end of it !”
And I was glad : but really it is hardly printable ; it is too
improbable, too melodramatic.
Russell, T. Baron. “A Melodrama -The Union.” The Yellow Book, vol. 13, April 1897, pp. 205-211. 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. https://1890s.ca/YBV13_russell_melodrama/