[-back to main for this book-]
IT chanced that a friend of mine (some years ago just settled
in London) who had been mooning about on pilgrimage to places of Literary
interest, having rambled through the Temple, crossed the street and turned into
Serle's Place, Shire Lane of old. As he stood there looking at the site of the
Devil Tavern and thinking of Ben Jonson; at Temple Bar, and thinking of Dr.
Johnson and Goldsmith, [-220-] traitors' heads and
the ghosts of old bankers' clerks flitting amongst dusty ledgers containing the
accounts of Messrs. Child's dead and buried customers; as he was calling to
mind, moreover, that in the alley in which he stood,-soon to be swept away to
furnish an infinitesimal portion of the site for the huge new Palace of Justice,
- the Tatlers' Club met at the "Trumpet," and the Kit-cat Club at a
mutton-pie shop,- whilst he was thus tranquilly thinking of the past, his
thoughts were abruptly brought back to the present by a tug at his coat-tail.
He turned and found that a youngster,-clad in a ragged shirt, so black and greasy that it seemed to be made of lamp-cloths, and a pair of man's fustian breeches braced up to the armpits with twine, and tattered into vandykes at the knees,- had just drawn his silk handkerchief out of his pocket, and was scurrying off with it like a fox with a fowl in his mouth.
My friend, X - let us call him, pursued. In Carey Street the young thief doubled and plunged into the recently evacuated thickly-built town of tenements which have been swept away to make room for the new Courts of Justice. The place looked then like a city shattered by a siege and afterwards depopulated by pestilence. Almost all the visible window-frames were smashed; from some frames the glass had entirely vanished.
[-221-] The boy ran through passages wriggling like worms, and so narrow that his pursuer could almost touch the bulging houses on both sides. On sped the lad between rows of broken, dusty, chalk-marked shutters, holed with stars and hearts, and blistered doors secured with rusty bars and padlocks; along colonnades of timber as black as bog oak with the ingrained, greasy dirt of many a generation, and under arches threatening to smother him with a fall of green slimy plaster and blue-moulded laths, and the tottering tops of Tudor houses projecting story over story like inverted flights of stairs. If X- had had eyes for anything but his quarry, he would have seen, too, Stuart houses and Georgian houses, with grimy flutings, cherubs' cheeks, grapes and vine-leaves on their door- posts and lintels, and weeds growing on their flat, lead-covered pent-houses. But X-'s chief concern just then was not to lose his breath, or sight of the young rascal ahead, as he dodged in and out of alleys that ran into one another like rat-runs or rabbit-burrows. Past flights of worn stone steps, notched at their edges as caterpillars scallop cabbage-leaves, leading up into little quadrangles of dimly red old houses, with little black metal plates, duskily white-lettered "Courts of Judicature Act" nailed outside, and a litter of yellow papers and faded red tape within, the boy ran on. Into once-thronged Hemlock Court and Chair Court and [-222-] Newcastle Court, into which in its brawling days policemen even in couples scarcely liked to venture, X- pursued him, without seeing any other living creature,-man woman, or child. Past dead-rat-like shut-up, beetle-browed public-houses, in which in days gone by many a villany had been perpetrated or schemed; past gloomy gulfs of dirt, dusty, smoky brick and mortar, and rusty gas and water pipes, in which men in dirty shirts and frocks were plying the pick on roofless walls that still towered, looking drearily uncomfortable, with bed-room grates not yet wrenched out of them, and dank paper fluttering in. the air or falling in fragments like rain-rotted leaves, the zigzag, circular chase went on.
"You can't get out this way," cried a shawl- hooded old Irishwoman, when the boy was about to corner himself in a cul de sac, at the bottom of which stood a grim old pile, doubtless appropriated by some squatter, announcing itself, by means of a roughly painted board over its almost paintless door, to be "The Model Lodging House."
Turning on his heel as on a pivot the boy rushed from this caravanserai in the core of the wilderness to its fringes, where a few small shop-keepers still lingered, whilst their next-door neighbours were packing up and going away. From a depopulated poor neighbourhood the boy, with X- still after him, darted [-223-] into a densely populated one: houses crammed from cellar floor to roof ,- floor damp with fetid slime, roof that let in the snow and the rain. Dirty, pale children hopped and squatted about the narrow thoroughfares like a plague of Egyptian frogs. Dirty, pale, squalidly clad, or rather half-clad, women were drudging, idling, gossiping, wrangling, drinking gin. Some who had begun to drink, that they might forget their hopeless misery, the fire-water had so maddened that they were fighting like fiends, or vomiting foul language that even fiends might have been ashamed of. A good many of the men seemed to have had all the pith taken out of them; others, brawny enough, looked as if they used their strength to no good end.
If the lad met with some obstacles here in his flight, X- met with more in his pursuit. Perhaps all the people he ran up against did not get into his way of malice prepense, but they did not try to get out of it; and hulking young roughs, lounging on the pavement, certainly seemed to extend rather than to retract their sprawled-out legs as X- rushed by them. He managed, however, to keep the urchin still in view, until he dived into a marine-stores shop at a corner; a shop that had two doors,-one opening on the alley which ran at right angles to the lane from which he entered. In the shop X- pounced upon him, and seized his pocket handkerchief.
[-224-] "Don't let him have it, Sanders," cried the boy to the keeper of the shop; meanwhile trying to retain his hold upon his prize, and kicking lustily at his captor's shins with his one boot. " Tain't his: I found it."
"Now don't you be sarcy, young un," the man answered, "or the gen'leman will give ye in charge. I s'spose, sir, you won't take the trouble, as you've got yer handkerchief back. What we does when we ketches 'em priggin' is to give 'em a towellin' and then send 'em about their business. It saves time an' trouble, an' they cares more for it than they does for a wiggin' from the beak."
Whereupon the young monkey was off again like a hare.
"Not much chance of my giving that youngster in custody, or 'towelling' him either," said panting X-.
"No, sir," answered Sanders, with a grin. "The wonder to me is how you came to ketch him at all. Them boys dodges like a cracker, and wriggles, like a eel. Anyhow, I don't think you could ketch him now. You seem quite blown.: better sit down, sir, till you have got your wind agin, if you don't mind a bit of dirt."
When X- had had his rest, he followed a man who had been bargaining with Sanders for some second-hand locks out of the shop, and asked him if be knew anything of the little thief.
[-225-] "Well, yes, I do," the man answered; "but you don't want to lock him up, do yer, sir? It's more his mother's fault than his. The Limb we call him, - I don't know what's his right name. He's bad enough as he is, but it'd do him more harm than good, to my mind, sendin' of him to prison. There's the makin's of a fine lad in him, though you mightn't think it; but he'll be downright ruined if he's let to run wild much longer. His mother don't care nought about him, 'cept when he brings her money for the things he's prigged or what he's begged. That's how he has to get his livin', poor little chap, an' it's a poor livin' at the best, as you may see. Best part o' what he makes she takes, an' if he don't get anythink, why then he may go without for what she cares.
"My missis gives the poor little chap a bit o' bread now and agin, but we can't do much. for him that way, for we've young uns of our own; and I say a word to him sometimes when I sees him at his games, and he don't cheek me as he would most folk; but, br bless ye, it goes in at one ear and out at t'other, an' no wonder. Besides what's the good o' jawin' him when you can't put him in the way o' betterin' his self?"
My friend X- was a young man of vaguely philanthropic tastes and tendencies. He felt well disposed to his fellow-creatures at large, [-226-] and had sometimes wished that he could be of some good to somebody in particular. He had not been as yet, but he thought that he might be of some use to the Limb if he could only get hold of him,- that, at any rate, trying to benefit him could not do either the Limb or himself any harm; and he told the man what he was thinking about.
"Well, if them's your wishes, sir," said the man, "I should say it's what the parsons call a prowidence as the poor young warmint tried to prig your wipe. Yes, I could get him to come to me fast enough: I've on'y got to promise him somethink to eat. But he'd he pretty sure to try to bolt as soon as ever he saw you, and if you did get him away through me, his wixen of a mother would be ollus at me. But who cares? I'm a parient myself, a different sort o' parient from she, though I say it as oughtn't, and it'd be a shame, that it would, to let the poor little un go to the bad when there's a chance for him. I'm a poor man, but I'm a honest British tradesman,- John Rusden is my name, sir, - and I'm not goin' to be afeared of a drunken old beggar woman.
"Tell'ee what I'll do, sir. I'm safe to see the young un some time or other to-day, and I'll tell him to come round to my place for some grub between eleven and twelve tomorrer mornin', say,- if that'll be conwenient to you, sir,- and then you can try your 'and [-227-] on him. Come along, and I'll show you my place."
As they went, X- asked John what his trade was.
"Ne'er a one in particular," he answered, with a laugh. "I'm a Jack-o'-all-trades, sir, and master o' none. I turn my hand to anythink I've a chance of. Jest now I'm a box-maker. I got a lot o' wood cheap, an' the fittin's I can git reas'nable at second-hand, an' when I've scoured 'em an' hiled 'em they look as good as new. I know a man that'll take as many boxes as I can make jest now, so I'm in luck. Here's my 'ouse, sir. Well, then, tomorrer mornin' between eleven an' twelve: you'll know your way ?"
When X- reached John Rusden's next morning he found the Jack-of-all-trades busy planing in a tiny built-in back yard very much like the bottom of a dry well.
"He ain't come yet, sir," said John. "My missis has gone to look him up. I fancy he must have seen us talkin' together, an' so he smells a rat. But my missis is safe to bring 'im. She's set her mind on the poor little beggar's not losin' a chance when it's offered him, an' he ain't a mite afeared o' her, - can't see why he should be o' me. I don't like to keep you out here in the cold,- work keeps me warm, but you'll be half-starved. If you don't mind a lot o' noisy young uns, [-228-] will you step indoors and sit down, an' I'll make up the fire? The young uns is ollus a lettin' of it out. But don't you show till the missis have got the boy inside, or he'll bolt sure as a gun."
X- having elected to remain in the yard, John, as he worked, told his visitor what he knew of the Limb's family history.
"The mother's been livin' about here a goodish while. He don't know who his father was, p'r'aps she don't neither. The father couldn't ha' been much loss if he was like the mother. The sooner you lost both such parients the better, I should say. But if he was a out-an'-outer like that old wixen, the boy's a puzzle to me; for, as I was saying to you, he's got the makin's of a fine lad in him, and surely he got his good from somebody, and there aint a mite o' good in his mother. Mother Brimstone they call her, partly becos she goes out shammin' to sell matches, but most becos she's sich a fury of a temper. Though who's to say? P'r'aps she was a good woman once. Trouble changes people queerly, an' then if they fly to drink to forget it they might as well hang theirselves outright and ha' done with it. Them as was the best before is the wussest arterwards. Anyhow Mother Brimstone's a drunken old thief now. Sometimes I think she's too old to be the boy's mother, but then when women takes to drink it's unpossible to say [-229-] what age they is. It spoils their looks. Fine young women I've seen ruinated that way. Women is so proud of their good looks, whether they've got 'em or not,-some as has least on 'em is the proudest,- that it beats me, it do, how they can take to Jacky. I know a young 'oman - she's quite a young 'oman still - that looked like arose when she fust come from the country, an' look at her now,- what's she like? More like a old cabbage-stalk in the gutter, an' that's where she'll come to. Tain't London air, but London gin as has done it. She's a brute of a husband, to be sure, poor gal, who whops her, - whops her now for gittin' lushier than hisself; but Mother B rimstone haint 'ad that excuse, I should say. My belief is she ollus was a wixen, an' if she ever 'ad a husband, good or bad, she druv him from her by her tantrums. She ain't a 'woman likely to fly to gin becos her husband walloped her. She'd drink the gin fust and give him her ten commandments arterwards, when she'd aggerawated him to try it on. If it worn't that the boy somehow seems fond of the old witch, I couldn't believe nohow that he was her son. It don't seem natural,- do it, sir ?- that you should love an old wixen as don't do nuffink for ye, an' never gives ye nuffink, and 'ould let ye starve for what she cared, if you didn't bring her nuffink; but if it aint natur' as makes the boy stick by old Mother [-230-] Brimstone, I'm fair beat to make out what it is. He might cut away from her easy, but, you see, he don't, an' I'm afeared we shall have some trouble to get him away from her,- he'll bother, I mean, let alone her. She'll give it me hot, I know, but I'll risk that. She'll make out that she was the fondest mother as ever was, an' kick an' spit an' scratch to prove it, an' yet she used to drub him horful. The neighbours had to hinterfere, or she'd ha' beat the life out of his poor little bones. She don't whop him now, 'cept when she's wery far gone: he 'on't stand it. He don't kick her as he do other folk when they lay a hand on him: you've seen him kick and felt him, too, haven't ye, sir? He jest gives her a shove back, an' 'ooks it. He used to stand still to be welted when he was littler, but natur don't require ye to let folk pitch into you for nuffink, mother or no mother. A nice mother! makin' that poor little feller lie, an' beg, an' steal for her, as she do: a good example she sets him. I've heared her a-whinin' when I've come acrost her out sellin' her laces an' matches an' that, - sometimes the old humbug sells tracks,- about her bein' a poor lone widdy, as had seen better days; an' at fust I could scarce believe my eyes as it was the same old wixen I'd heared cursin' and swearin' an hour or two afore. Once I heared her comin' the religious dodge over two old ladies she'd cornered in Lincoln's [-231-] Inn Fields. Good old souls they looked, as if they was country ladies jest come up to town to see their lawyer. Well, sir, Mother Brimstone did the pious patter as well as any parson, - a deal faster than some o' them can manage it, an' she didn't hum and hah neither. I declare to you it made me sick to hear that old wretch rattling out the sacred names as she did. And she gammoned the old ladies,-half made them cry,-an' they gave her some money afore I could get up and start her.
"'Poor thing, poor thing,' I heard one on 'em say: 'see how she's hurrying home to her starving children!'
"Mother Brimstone sartinly did slope pretty quick when she caught sight o' me."
But here one of John's little girls rushed into the yard, exclaiming,-
"Father, father, mother's come home with the Limb, and he's a-kickin' like anythink!"
The boy, who had got a glimpse of X- in the back yard, fancied that he was betrayed into the hands of his enemies, and when John and X- entered the room, was butting like a ram at Mrs. Rusden, who had planted herself with her back to the front door to prevent his escape, and lashing out mercilessly at her elms.
"You ungrateful young warmint," exclaimed John, seizing the little rascal by the nape of the neck and lifting him into a chair as if he [-232-] had been a cat. "Who wants to harm ye, you young fool? Here's my missis as lost her mornin' runnin' about to hunt ye up to git a good meal an' a good friend, an' that's the way you behave to them as would be your benefactors. You disarve a good drubbin', you do. Hows'ever, as I promised ye the grub, you shall have it. Git the plate out of the cupboard, children."
The Limb, who was ravenously hungry, at once fell to worrying the food like a wild beast. Hunger appeased, he glanced round furtively, as if meditating a bolt; but planting himself between his guest and the door, John thus went on:-
"Now this kind gen'leman, instid o' whoppin' ye, or havin' you locked up for steelin' his han'kercher, was a-goin' to put ye in the way o' gittin' plenty o' good food and drink honest,- not like you live now, half-starved, an' havin' to sneak about like a, rat, an' cut away when you see a pleeceman comin',- an' warm clothes to wear, an' a warm bed to lay in. And now, like a young fool, you've been an' gone an' thrown your chance o' betterin' yourself away, behavin' that fashion. Downright sorry an' ashamed I am as I stuck up to the gen'leman for ye. When you've finished your grub you can walk, an' you needn't show your face 'ere agin. It'll be no good your comin' whimperin' when you want a bit o' bread.
[-233-] The artful John had achieved a triumph, - he had made the Limb anxious to stay and hear more of these good things that might have been his if he had behaved better. He began to wish he had. He looked at X- as if he thought he must be rather soft, but this very reflection almost dissipated any lingering dread he might have had of him. At last he said, "What is't as the gen'leman wants me to do?"
"Well, the first thing," answered X-. "would be for you to go to a bath, and get your hair cut, and put on some new clothes I'll give you. And then I'll take you to the place where I live. You'll have plenty to eat by a good fire in the kitchen, and a snug little room and a nice warm bed down there."
"But what'll there be for me to do?" asked the Limb.
"Not much at first," replied X. "I want to put you in the way of learning to do something for yourself. I can get you into a day-school not far off, and then, out of school, when you've learnt your lessons and had your meals, you can do little odd jobs for me."
"But won't there be no money? Shan't I am nuffink?" asked the Limb.
"Well," replied X-, half offended, half amused, "I hope you will be able to earn a good bit of money one of these fine days, and make a good use of it. But just at starting, [-234-] you see, I shall have to pay for your schooling and your keep and your clothes, and what you can do for me at present won't come to much; but if you behave yourself I'll allow you a little pocket-money."
"Well, I don't mind tryin' on it for a bit," condescendingly remarked the Limb.
X- left money for his outfit with the Rusdens, and in the evening John brought him round to X-.'s chambers in the Adelphi, clad, kempt, and clean.
When. X- had first propounded his project of housing the boy to the plump housekeeper of the pile of chambers in which he occupied a second-floor set, she had flatly refused to receive "a little thief of a beggar boy" as a lodger in her basement story: she knew the landlord wouldn't approve of it, she said. The terms which X- offered, however, mastered her scruples, aided, it may without lack of charity be supposed, by some such train of thought as this: "Mr. X- will have to pay the gal an' me jest the same, but the boy'll be able to run his arrands, clean his boots, an' that, an' I'll make him useful in other ways. I shan't have to pay him wages, I shall be paid for keepin' of him, and yet he'll be a sort o' nother servant for me."
When X- rang the bell for someone to conduct his prot?g? to the lower regions, the housekeeper answered the summons in person [-235-] instead of by proxy. Her new inmate was introduced to her as Timothy Clement, Timothy, because Tim rhymes with Limb, and Clement, because this singular specimen of a young Christian Englishman had been captured almost within the shadow of St. Clement Danes,- and he looked so well in his unwonted cleanliness and new clothes that he seemed at once to win her favour. Very likely she set him to knife-cleaning as soon as she got him downstairs, but if she did or if she did not, she was sure to give him a good supper. She did not seem to think that those under her control might possibly not be much fonder of hard work than she was herself, but she did credit them with sympathy in her love of good living, and gave it to them to the best of her ability.
Tim got on pretty well with the housekeeper and her slavey, and began to look less like a wild animal just caught when his patron spoke to him. In the beginning of the next week after that in which he had netted him, X- took Tim to the school he had selected for him, and left him there, with strict injunctions not to loiter in the streets on his way back to dinner.
The boy now for the first time felt painfully the restraints of the civilizing process to which he was being subjected. The alphabet seemed to him a stupid mystery not worth the [-236-] trouble of conquering. When the boys made fun of his ignorance, he punched their heads; when the schoolmaster boxed his ears for making a disturbance Tim kicked his shins, and his one old boot having been replaced by two new ones, he inflicted far severer punishment than he received. The schoolmaster then gave him a downright flogging, and when it was over sentenced him to solitary confinement on the dunces' form, on which he stood a sore and sullen little mule, trying to keep in the sobs which shook his tough little frame, and turning into pulp once more, with tears he could not suppress, the page which he was stubbornly determined not to master.
What right had that long chap to pitch into him? Wouldn't he serve him out if he ever caught him outside and there was a brickbat handy, and an archway to throw it from? What business had anyone to keep him shut up there? He hadn't been prigging anything. He could hear the rumbling of the streets, and longed for Arab liberty once more. Good food and clothes and shelter were all very well, but they would be dearly bought if he was to be cooped up in that dull place day after day, with that long chap to drub him worse than ever mammy did.
The school-room door opened. Outside was sunlit frost and the sound of cheerful bustle. Tim made a dash for liberty, capless and with [-237-] spelling-book in hand. The schoolmaster darted towards the door to cut him off, but received the spelling-book full in his face. Into the open air rushed Tim, and sped along the pavement far faster than any lamplighter, and after him the schoolmaster, also bareheaded, went full pelt.
But in such a race the schoolmaster was soon nowhere, notwithstanding his superior length of leg. Tim dodged and doubled as long as his pursuer kept his wind, and when he began to pant, darted down a court, where he was lost to view.
About one X- rang his bell and inquired whether Timothy had come back from school.
"No, sir," answered the greasy-lipped little slavey, who had been interrupted in the enjoyment of a favourite meal, and being a kindhearted lass was sorry that her new companion should not have shared her enjoyment. "No, sir, he ain't come in yet; and misses said she couldn't have the dinner kep' waitin' for nobody, an' so we're a-havin' of it; an' I told him it was to be roast beef, an' Yorkshire pudden, an' taturs an Brussels sprouts, an' it 'on't be nigh so nice when the gravy's cold."
When two had come and Tim had not, X- went to the school to make inquiries. Having heard the schoolmaster's sullenly indignant account of Tim's iniquities, X- started for John Rusden's, but he could tell nothing of the boy.
[-238-] "Mother Brimstone was here last night," said John. "She flew at my wife, an' would ha' scratched her eyes out if I hadn't a-held her arms. It was as much as I could do to hold her at fust. She bit an' scratched like a cat, an' kicked wuss than the Limb. An' then, when the stren'th the drink had giv her was worked off, she laid down. on the floor an' hollered. We'd a crowd round the door. She swore she'd 'ave the br of us, - fust it was our blood. We'd kidnapped her dear child, an' she'd give us in charge that wery night, she would. I got tired of her row at last. She'd woke up the little uns, an' it ain't pleasant to have a mad-drunk old beggar woman wrigglin' and screechin' in your ouse, an' a lot o' idle folk as might ha' found summut better to do starin' in an' grinnin'. So says I at last, You'll give us in charge, will ye, mother? Well, then, I'll go an' get a pleeceman for you to go and give us in charge to.' So I put on my hat, but, bless ye, before I could git to the door she was off like a shot. Mother Brimstone, don't like the pollis no more than the devil do holy water."
[--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.--]