Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 10 - At a Coffee-Stall

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ON a foggy or a frosty night a London coffee-stall is a pleasant thing for the eye to fall upon. It looks like a little bit of Home come out of doors to comfort the cheerless and the cold. Perhaps it may be somewhat tantalizing to those who cannot purchase of its wares, but even they can linger in its warmth; and those who are hurrying or drifting through the blinded, shuttered streets in the small hours, not caring to eat or drink, get a notion of company from the coffee-stall as they go by, which they do not find in the solitary, suspicious policeman, flashing his bull's-eye into dark entries, trying windows and rattling door-handles, or in the long lines of dimly-gleaming lamps, and abbreviated ranks of the night cabs. Most canvas tenements have an unpleasantly temporary look about them, - are disagreeably suggestive of vagrancy. The gipsy, the Arab, the soldier, the gold-digger, all strike their tents, and wander on -  who knows whither? The covered coffee-stall, on the contrary, has, as I have said, a look of home. We know that although its glow may vanish in the garish light, of day, it will re-appear next night in the same place, like a night-blowing cereus to shed [-160-] its perfume. Brightly gleam or cosily twinkle the lamps of the coffee-stall. The round eyes of its cans have no angry heat, but warm welcome in their red glow, which surrounds them with a ring of light, pleasantly reflected in broken radiations from their polished silver-like tin, their burnished gold-like brass. How fragrant is the aroma of the coffee, although it may not have come from Mocha. Tea and cocoa may also be obtained at the coffee-stall, but the beverage from which it derives its name is the specialty which deservedly gives it its fame.
    Let those who will talk of chicory, - to many palates a pleasant, and by them demanded adulteration, - and of chicory itself adulterated with turnips, carrots, and Venetian-red, - of horse-beans, burnt crusts, and so on and so on: those who have drunk coffee-stall coffee when cold and weary, or simply feverishly thirsty, will declare that it has a flavour peculiarly its own, - and not mean this altogether as a left-handed compliment. It warms the cockles of the heart, and makes the footsore one inclined to leap like the kids of the dervish who was - well, perhaps, not its discoverer. 
    What a dairy-like whiteness - at any rate by  night - the earthenware of the coffee-stall displays. How, I might go on to say, how richly oleaginous is its cake, how piquantly salt its bread and butter, how delicately cut its sand-[-161-]wiches, how full-flavoured its eggs, however fresh its watercress,- were it not for a fear that I might be supposed to have some covert meaning of satire; whereas I sincerely wish to glorify the hot, brown, cheering beverage, and warm, redly-golden, cosy look of a night coffee-stall.
    All coffee-stalls have more or less of this cosy look, but I am referring particularly to the night stalls more or less screened from the wandering night wind.
    I have in my mind's eye one, tented with tarpaulin and presided over by a bronzed motherly-faced woman in a man's great-coat, at which I had a cup some years ago. I had taken it into my head to walk from Greenwich to London by night. The public-houses were closed, and so Deptford Broadway was almost empty and quiet. Here and there gas or a candle still burned in an upper window, but for the most part the walls were blank. The dingy buildings in dark Mill Lane were more thickly blotched with bilious light, - a drunken wrangle going on inside one of its low lodging-houses profaned the stillness of the night, which has a sanctity about it even in the vilest neighbourhoods, - and a little knot of the lane's unsavoury denizens lounged at its malodorous mouth. Both the railway stations at New Cross were closed; the semaphores drooped their arms as if weary with a long day's work, and the lamps looking down on the far-stretch-[-162-]ing lines of untraversed rails seemed to blink sulkily, as if angry at being compelled still to keep awake for nothing.
    The New Cross gates (there was a turnpike then) stretched, white in the lamplight, across the Queen's and Old Kent Roads; the tollhouse - the body between those out-spread wings -was so sound asleep that it seemed strange it had not tucked its chimney under one of them. Beside the palings of Hatcham Park lurked a rough, but as he saw a policeman on the other side of the way made manifest by the gaslight gleaming on his metal hat-crown (this walk was taken in the days, or rather nights, before our constables were helmeted like ancient Romans), the rough preserved a statuesque quiescence.
    The dim roadside villas and dull roadside terraces no other thing expressed than long disquiet merged in rest. Where a doctor's red lamp broke the uniformity of the shadowy lines of brick and mortar, it had no expectation in it of possible pulls at the night bell, but seemed to be as firmly convinced that its master would be allowed to snore out the night undisturbed as if' it had been put up expressly as. a danger-signal to warn patients off. The Surrey Canal may call itself Grand, but that night it looked very much like a torpid slug. A little way beyond the canal bridge I overtook a very early market waggon grinding up to [-163-] town with a high-piled load of cabbages, its drowsy driver, perched upon the shaft, nodding as if bent on. immolating himself, like a Juggernaut victim, beneath the near fore-wheel, and the o1d-fashioned lanterns that had lighted the wain through country lanes still dangling, with unextinguished candles, from its rimy tarpaulin.
    A little farther on I came upon, two constables conducting an "overtaken" brother of the force to the station-house, or peradventure to private repose. "A fellow-feeling makes one wondrous kind:" there was no need to entreat them to 
    "Take him up tenderly,
        Lift him with care.
    As I passed St. George's Church a number of church clocks were striking the hour, one after another, as if actuated by only an approximate consensus of opinion. Last of all St. Paul's boomed out the time in tones that said, "Now it is two o'clock." In that small hour "ayont the twal," I stopped to take my cup of coffee at the stall of which I have spoken. Homely though it was, it was prominently picturesque in itself and vaguely picturesq,ue in its surroundings.
    Not far off, lighted windows in two great hospitals told of wakeful sickness and watching care. Hard by, a minster-like church indistinctly raised its pinnacled tower. On both [-164-] sides rose many-floored warehouses, solider blocks of blackness in the general gloom. At the foot of the granite steps lapped the dimly dark, secret-holding river, flecked with trembling and broken lines of light from ship and shore. Over the great bridge, so thronged by day, dribbled in thin intermittent threads the tide of traffic which never entirely ceases there, from year's end to year's end.
    Inside the coffee-stall, screen, on the pavement, lay what I thought at first was a bundle of mildewed rags. I was wondering why the stall-keeper should choose such an unappetizing settee, as I supposed the bundle to be, when I found that it was a girl curled up very much like a cat. The lamp shone down full upon her face, but she slept on as if she meant never to wake again.
    "I do believe," the stall-keeper explained, "the poor gal wouldn't ha' lived till mornin' if I hadn't a-given her a cup o' cawfee and sumthink to eat with it, - like a wild beast she eat. And then she begged so hard I'd let her come inside and lay down, that I couldn't say her nay, though it's a hill-conwenience; and what good will it be to her, when I've got to go away and leave her a-layin' there? She don't look as if she'd wake afore: in her grave she couldn't sleep no sounder."
    It was temporary heaven, rather, that the wretched girl had found. Friendless, famished, [-165-] fagged out, frozen, homeless, she had met with one who had given her food, drink, and rest in shelter from the cold. No wonder she slept soundly. It was hard to refrain from wishing that she might never wake again, but cease to live, as she lay on the earth that had been so cruel a step-mother to her, with a heart softened by the first act of kindness she had received, no doubt, for many a day.
    The two or three homeless people who were outside worshippers of the stall's fires were tattered and torn, but their dress was whole and clean in comparison with this poor girl's. I can only liken it, so far as colour and cleanliness are concerned, to the heaps of mud we see scraped up by the roadside: it was as full of holes as a net, but many of its meshes were loose strips of ravelled stuff. One foot, shod with dirt as with a sandal-sole, peeped from beneath her dress, and most likely the other had not shoe or stocking either. She had on some kind of little shawl, or rather neckerchief, originally, perhaps, like those worn by milk-women, in which she hunched up her shoulders and folded her hands; but she did not seem to have any under-clothing,- at least what looked like dirty flesh showed here and there as faintly lighter streaks and blotches through the gashes in her gown. Perhaps, however, the most pitiable part of her attire was her bonnet. It had been of the tawdry "fine" kind, and the [-166-] wire stalks and a few of the flabby, washed-out, and then dirt-engrained calico petals of its artificial flowers were entangled in her touzled hair. Whether her face had ever been pretty I cannot say, it was so disguised in dirt and disfigured by disease. I could not have guessed her age within four or five years, but the stall- keeper declared that she could not be sixteen.
    It was easy enough, however, to guess her history. Perhaps she was left an orphan, and had taken to the gutter as naturally as a duckling takes to the pond; perhaps she was sent into the streets by her parents to beg or steal, under pretence of selling; perhaps, unable any longer to endure the barbarous tyranny of some Mrs. Brownrigg, she rushed into the streets from a slavey's life. At any rate she found her way into a low lodging-house, where all the little modesty she had left was laughed out of her, and she was ruined whilst yet a mere child. Thenceforth her life became a round of theft, precocious gin-drinking, frequent hunger, and the most squalid form of vice, the beggarly wages of which the lad who claimed her, like a Kafir, as his slave to work for him, appropriated, and to escape from the loathsome consequences of which she would commit some desperate act, and rejoice to find herself in prison. This is plain speech, but it is necessary to speak plainly when the life of the poor wretch I saw lying under the coffee-stall tarpaulin is typical [-167-] of the lot - of scores, - perhaps I should be nearer the truth if I said hundreds, - of young girls in London.
    Shortly after I stopped at the coffee-stall another man stopped there, whose arrival almost made me start. "Here, also, hast thou found me: have I found thee, my inscrutable?" I said within myself.
    This was a man whom by some strange chance I had come across frequently in all kinds of places,- north, south, east, and west. In the same day I have met him in West Strand and Hackney Wick, in the Caledonian Road and by the Elephant and Castle, and in more sundered places. After our meeting at the coffee-stall I often met him in this puzzling way. I have not seen him for two or three years, and I miss him. Of course there is nothing wonderful in a man's being in very different parts of London on the same day, but there is something strange in another man, time after time, encountering him in them. A superstitious feeling sometimes came over me when I once more met this mysterious stranger.
    "Have I ever, perhaps in some previous state of being," I have been half-inclined to ask myself, "murdered anybody, and is this his avenging wraith pursuing me?"
    "Can I," at other times I have thought, "in any other way have unconsciously rendered myself criminally amenable to the laws of my [-168-] country? Am I a false coiner or something of that kind, without knowing it, and is this a detective dogging my steps?"
    He was a tall man, with broad, high shoulders curving inwards with· a stoop,-a man of large frame but scarcely any flesh. His head was disproportionately small, the skin of his face drawn tightly over his rather prominent cheekbones and small eagle's-beak-like nose. His eyes, too, were as those of an eagle,- an eagle tamed, instead of being rendered savage by hunger; but there was a touching kind of simple amiability playing about the almost childlike little mouth which contrasted so strangely with his gaunt pinched cheeks. He always wore the same threadbare black suit, the frock-coat buttoned well up to the chin; as ,if to hide the lack, or the lack of cleanliness, of linen. The nearest guess I could make at his character had been that he was a political refugee. I was not, therefore, surprised when he raised his limp-brimmed hat, and said in a slightly foreign accent, "If you please, coffee, madame."
    He drank off his hot mugful at a draught, handed back his mug with a "Tank you, madame," once more raised his hat, and recommenced his Wandering Jew, Ancient Mariner-like roamings, Boroughwards.
    "He's been by here afore like that," said the stall-keeper. "He's some kind o' furriner, [-169-] wery down on his luck, I should say, pore gen'leman. Why pore furriners should swarm over to Lon'on as they do fair beats me. Hain't we got pore enough of our own?"
    Just as I was about to leave the stall a brawny Briton, sulky from the effects of overnight beer, roughly thrust aside the stall's hangers-on, and gave orders with a liberality towards himself which must have made those he had shouldered away feel doubly miserable. He was clad in bone-buttoned corduroy, and had a warm comforter round his neck. I suppose he was some market underling. He growled, with his mouth full, at his hard fate in being compelled to get up so early.
    I crossed the bridge and struck through the City, sealed and silent as a sepulchre,- the fabulously wealthy City, left to the charge of a few policemen, private watchmen, and more jovial, sailor-like, cheerily "Good night, sir! Good morning, you mean," answering firemen.
    As I listened to the clocks chiming the quarters, the old churches seemed to be talking amongst themselves, now that they had a chance in the hush of hearing one another's. voices, over the strange disparities of fortune that are huddled together in the densely populated province of brick and mortar, stone and stucco, in the core of which they are planted.

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