see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London
THERE was nothing to distinguish it from an ordinary barber's shop, into
which a man might, if he felt so disposed, step in for the purpose of being
shaved, or of having his hair brushed. It will be easily understood, then, that
I was not a little astonished, on pushing open the door and taking two downward
steps, to discover the proprietor, in his shirt sleeves and with a white bibbed
apron on, busy with the tools of his craft on a four-footed customer - a shaggy-
coated dog of the smallest size.
It was evident that the favoured animal had just been luxuriating in a warm bath. With tender solicitude the barber was rubbing him dry, and the atmosphere of the shop was laden with the fragrance of brown Windsor soap. The dog and the barber did not have it all to themselves, however. The operation in progress was watched, with moody interest, by an individual of not particularly prepossessing appearance - a seedy and threadbare man in shabby black, who looked like an out of work tailor or weaver. I thought, at the moment, that the pair gave a guilty start as I appeared before them, and I straight way came to the sagacious conclusion that, by chance, I had stumbled on a discovery similar to that which was revealed to a certain man who went down to Jericho. It was as clear a case as possible. The lanky man with the threadbare coat and the hungry visage, although possibly a tailor or a weaver by trade, had essayed to improve his fortune by dog-stealing. I knew that when a watch was stolen the thief's first business was to carry it to an obliging friend, who would erase such marks and numbers as might lead to its identification. There could be no question that the barber was a confederate of the dog-stealer, and that by a skilful use of the scissors - and, perhaps, of hair-dye also - was able so to alter an animal's appearance, that even its fond mistress would find it difficult to swear to it.
"If you will take a seat, sir, and amuse yourself with the newspaper for five minutes," remarked the barber, civilly, "I shall be at your service." It was a ticklish situation. There was once a barber, Sweeny Todd by name, if I rightly remember, who kept a shop in Fleet-street, ostensibly for cutting hair and mowing beards, but whose real business was the cutting of human throats. There was a trap-door in the floor of Sweeny's shop on which the victim's chair was placed, and, after he had been lathered, Mr. Todd would say, "Just tilt your head a little farther back, sir, so as I may get at the underneath part !" And then - slish! and in a jiffy the body was robbed, the bolt that held the trap withdrawn, a splash was heard in the turbulently flowing Fleet-ditch below, and a mop and a handful of clean sawdust made the shop clean and tidy for the next customer. Might not this be the fate in store for me, the villainous haircutter's suavity being merely a blind? I need not be shaved at all events; I would merely have my hair brushed and my whiskers trimmed. An assault with a pair of scissors might be painful; but it was hardly likely that the first snick would do my business, and in a tussle I felt pretty confident who would get the best of it. So I sat down and opened out the newspaper, before carelessly observing that I was in no hurry; at the same time resolved to diligently watch and listen.
Remarked the moody man to the barber:
"Are you sure that you wrenched all the soap out of his hair? cos if you haven't it will tell up in his weight, you know."
"He's as clean as a new pin," replied the barber, brushing away at the little animal's silky fleece. "You ought to be as proud of him as a mother is of her -- new-born babby. He's a beauty, there's no mistake about that."
"Ah! it's all very well for you that haven't got him on your mind," said the moody man, dejectedly; "he's too much of a beauty for me."
"How! too much?"
"Three ounces too much. I should be a happy man if it wasn't for that blessed three ounces. Hain't there no how that you could get it off of him?"
"Couldn't possibly be done," returned the barber, decidedly; "couldn't be done, Mr. Wix. Of the two he has been brought down too fine as it is. If you go tampering with him, as sure as eggs you'll undermine his constitootion."
"Well, it's a pretty state of things!" broke out the other, after a few seconds' silent pondering on the barber's last words; "'pon my soul it is a very pretty thing that a man is to have all the 'appiness haunted out of him just because a dawg - a dumb dawg, mind yer - can't be got to waste three ounces of his weight."
And he laughed a laugh which would have been hollow, but for the bitterness in it.
"Nature is nature, Mr. Wix," remarked the little barber, soothingly.
"A dumb dawg, mind yer!" Mr. Wix repeated, as though it would have been a considerable mitigation of the injury if the offending animal had been endowed with the gift of speech; "and yet by hook nor by crook can he be got to part with that confounded extra three ounces, which would make such a difference to me, and which he no more wants, sir, than the sea wants rain-water."
And throwing down sixpence, he wrapped the by this time finished animal in an old silk pocket-handkerchief, and, thrusting it in at the bosom of his waistcoat, stalked, muttering, out of the shop.
By this time it was evident to me that I had been too hasty. From some mysterious cause or other, the man appeared to regard the valuable little dog as an affliction rather than as a prize; which he certainly would not have done had he stolen it. And now that I came to observe the barber more attentively, lie was not in the least like the cross-eyed, goblin-visaged person Sweeny Todd was represented as being; on the contrary, he was rather a pleasant-looking little man.
"There goes a poor fellow to be pitied, sir," he remarked as the door closed on Mr. Wix's retreating form; "he'd got a large family too. I hope he won't be drove to drinking."
"What should drive him to drinking?" I asked.
"Disappointment, sir. Buying a goose warranted to lay golden eggs, which turn out to be only Brummagem gilt. That, in a manner of speaking, is his case, sir."
"But what's the matter with him?"
"Nothing the matter with him; it's the dog that's the cause - the innocent cause, I may say - of Mr. Wix's trouble. You see it is this way, sir. Mr. Wix - which he's a heasy-chair maker, and used to keep his dozen hands - is what we call a toy fancier: a fancier of toy dogs that is. There's lots of 'em about here, and their meeting-house of reg'ler show-nights, on Sunday evenings, is the Three Pigeons up the street. It is reckoned a kind of honour to be chairman of the room, because, you must know, that a man can only occupy that post by virtue of his owning the smallest and most elegant animal present. Now it has been the one object of Mr. Wix's life to get into that chair. They do say that he broke up a good home to raise enough to buy that handsome little Maltese you saw me tittywating just now, and he made sure of the seat this time. But he's got a rival. Mr. Mossul, the tripe-dresser up the street, he's a toy fancier too, and he has held the chair at the Pigeons for a year and more. He's a warm man, and not easy to turn when once he sets his mind on anything. Well, sir, at the last moment, when Mr. Wix thought that victory was sure - when he had ackshally made ready a bit of supper for the members in honour of the occasion, buying the tripe of Mossul himself and inviting him to peck a bit - at the very last moment, when everybody was congratulating Wix on his pluck and spirit,' Why,' says Mossul, with that aggrawating grin of his, 'if it was only a quarter of a pound or so lighter, it would be about the same weight as this new little thing of mine.' It was true too. Nobody knows what he gave for it - forty sovereigns I have heard - but he sent to Brussels for it on purpose, and there it was; and there Mossul was as firm fixed to the chair as ever. It was a severe blow for Mr. Wix; he hasn't been the same man since."
Further conversation put the little barber and myself on quite friendly terms. He confided to me that he too was a bit of a fancier, and owned a toy "Skye," for which he had refused its weight in half-crowns. "If you take an interest in such things, sir," said he, "why not look in at the Three Pigeons some Sunday evening? To-morrow there will be a good muster, and Mossul is almost sure to be there. You'll find us select, and in company with dogs that no gentleman need be ashamed of being seen with. We ain't in general free to strangers, but you may mention my name and you'll find it all right."
And so it came about, the following Sunday evening, just after the gas was lit, I whispered the name of my friendly barber to the young lady who officiated behind the bar of the Three Pigeons, and she affably directed me to the parlour - a low, long, ill-ventilated room, with a stronger flavour of dogs in the air than was quite agreeable to anyone unaddicted to canine worship. There was already a fair sprinkling of company present, mostly of the Mr. Wix type, shabby and threadbare, Sunday though it was; nevertheless serene content beamed in every countenance. It was announced in the independent cock of every man's hat or cap, in the way in which he smacked his lips after his beer, and more especially in the manner of his smoking his pipe. The man whose mind is ill at ease was never yet able to get out of a pipe-bowl all the enjoyment it is capable of yielding. Tobacco should be coaxed and humoured, not worried. The man of care snatches at his smoke in jerky puffs, and bites the sealing-wax; whereas the individual whose present happiness is complete, sucks tranquilly at his pipe-stem, and leisurely emits the cloudy result in one full volume. The company in the Three Pigeons' parlour did this to a man. They could afford to do it. What are broadcloth and clean linen to a man who has his "fancy?" Each man had the latter - not ignobly chained to the leg of a chair, or made to crouch under the table; but accommodated with some sort of fancy little rug or cushion to lie on, and space beside the pot or glass at its master's elbow. The bipeds were the masters, of course; but, undoubtedly, the dogs had the best of it in point of genteel and well-bred appearance. There was one man with the seams of his old black coat showing white, and his unmentionables patched with pieces of different material and complexion from the original; a man, moreover, whose great, hacked-about hands showed him to be a tremendously hard drudge at some kind of work; and his object of worship was a hairless little monstrosity in terrier shape, with a mere skeleton of a tail, and ribs that might be counted. Its collar was of red morocco, with silver ornamentation; and a slender silver chain was attached to it, terminating with a silver ring, which encircled the fourth finger of the man's horny hand like a wedding-ring. The terrier, I was told, was worth ten pounds. I don't believe that for any single article of its master's apparel an old-clothes man would have given tenpence. Another fancier's "toy" was reclining on a cosy cloth of quilted satin, trimmed with fur. Being afflicted with a cold in his head, this poor man was compelled to the frequent use of his pocket-handkerchief, which was unmistakably part of a duster of blue cotton check, and which he carried in his battered old hat.
There was not much conversation. When a new-comer arrived he briefly bade the company "Good evening, "and seated himself on his accustomed chair. Then, having given his order to the waiter, he produced from one pocket something tasty and comfortable for his "toy" to repose on, and from another pocket the toy itself; and having arranged the one on the other in a convenient position for contemplation, he lit his pipe, accommodated his elbows, and fell to smoking and blissful cogitation. The only man in the room who did not appear perfectly happy was Mr. Wix. He must have kept his magnificent little Maltese with great care since I last beheld it, for it was as silky and spick-and-span, as when it left the hands of the barber. But the old cloud was on Mr. Wix's brow; the soul of the fancier was crushed beneath the weight of that inexorable three ounces. "How are you, Mr. Wix?" somebody asked in tones of friendly condolence. "What's the use of aggravating a cove?" snapped Mr. Wix, fiercely. "Put yourself in my place, and ask yourself how you would be?"
There was a cheerful though subdued buzz of greeting, as Mr. Mossul came in. He was a mild-looking little man, smartly dressed, in a plum-coloured velveteen coat and a black velvet waistcoat, plentifully festooned with silver watch-chain; and he wore his highly-polished, curly-rimmed hat at an angle, denoting easy circumstances. But the most remarkable points about Mr. Mossul were his forehead and his hair. The former was protuberant, the latter of a rich tan-colour, and sleek and silky. It was parted down the middle, and looped under all round, so as to conceal his ears, and hide the division between his head and his coat-collar. It was impossible to gaze on Mr. Mossul without being immediately reminded of a King Charles's spaniel. Passing down the room, Mr. Mossul took his seat at the head of the centre table, and at once all eyes were turned on him in expectation. It was evident that he was ill at ease. He sat with his hand screening his eyes for a few moments, and presently, in a faint voice, requested William, the waiter, to bring him the least drop of neat brandy. Mr. Wix furtively glanced at him, his eyes kindling with malicious hope.
"Nothing wrong, Mr. Mossul, I hope ?" a friend inquired.
Mr. Mossul raised his head, with his face as white almost as a dinner-napkin.
"Jess has had a fit!" he said, in a hushed voice.
There was a murmur of consternation, and, to conceal his malignant emotion, Mr. Wix seized his pint pot and held it to his lips until it was empty.
"She had a fit as nigh two o'clock this morning as a toucher," continued the afflicted tripe-dresser; "and I don't believe that the missus and me had forty winks of sleep atween us arterwards. Foamed at the mouth, she did, and her hind legs twitched paralytic like. And, do you know, gentlemen, my missus, singular enough, had a dream -"
"Oh, blow about the dream; how about the dog? Is it dead? That's the point." It was Mr. Wix who spoke.
The tripe-dresser regarded him with a peculiar expression of countenance ere he replied.
"Goodness gracious forbid, sir. She is alive, and, I am happy to say, hearty again, and well as ever. If the attack has had any effect at all on her, it has made her half an ounce or so lighter; but that's nothing to fret about, as you'll agree, Mr. Wix."
And, in the nick of time, to corroborate his statement, Mr. Mossul's shop boy at that moment entered the parlour with Jess, the silken mite of a spaniel, in a choice little satin-lined basket, barking and frisky.
It was almost painful to watch the wicked hope fading out of Mr. Wix s eyes, to give place to the expression of sullen despair, that had so long resided in them. He endeavoured to rally and affect good humour, but it was a dismal failure, and after a while he pretended suddenly to recollect an appointment with a friend, and taking up his "toy," which was to him as the Old Man of the Sea to Sindbad, he gloomily took his departure.
All the Year Round, 1876