Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 21 - "The Wuss'Alf of a Pair o'Scissors"

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XXI.

"THE WUSS 'ALF OF A PAIR O'SCISSORS"

"AND ever, as he slowly cleaves the air," writes Herr Teufelsdröckh of the old-clothes-man, "sounds forth his deep fateful note, as if through a trumpet he were proclaiming, [-295-] 'Ghosts of life, come to judgment!'" I used to be reminded of that description by the gloomy "Any humberrellers to mend?" of an old man I occasionally came across some months back; or rather his cry was more like the "Bring out your dead!" of the Great Plague time.
    The poor old fellow had really the most despairingly dreary voice I ever heard. On week-days he went about with his old wife mending umbrellas and recaning chairs. On Sunday afternoons, during the season, I have beard him croaking, in lonely lugubriousness, "Straw-er-ber-ries ! fine straw-er-ber-ries! Hautboys! Fine straw-er-ber-ries!" I wonder that his dismal drawl did not scare off customers. I know it always gave me the fancy that his fruit must have fattened upon graves, and would taste like weeping clay-clods rather than the summer dainty. There was an utter incongruity between my poor old umbrella-mender and his blushing, sweet-juiced, summer Sunday wares. The dull medlar would have been in far better keeping.
    Both he and his wife were "miserably poor"  - a lean, pale couple, whose life seemed as thin, washed-out, and dingy as their clothes. The only thing bright about them was the mutual love which had lived on through long years of common care and want - of the sordid  kind, which, is too apt to make the linked [-296-] sufferers snappishly selfish, instead of knitting their hearts more closely together. It was pretty to see the way in which they literally bore one another's burdens; and each strove to secure for the other the least draughty place, when they sat out on the pavement in the cold wind, plying their craft. The last time I saw the old man was on a Bank Holiday. Holiday-makers were flocking out of the City, on foot, on horseback, on velocipedes, and in vehicles of all kinds. Almost all were in what the Scotch call a "raised" state from animal or alcoholic spirits. One old dame had succumbed very early in the day to an excess of the latter, and sat on the ground at a corner, smiling with blank blandness at a crowd of grinning small boys, ever and anon dispersed.
    Two constables, who had just been sent for to aid in conveying her to the station-house, came down the hill, snarling at one another like coupled hounds, and closely followed by a kite-tail of mannikins in billycock hats, intensely enjoying their wrangle. 
    The London policeman is always least amiable on a public holiday, and no wonder. It may be sport to others, but it means extra bother to him.
    No more force than was necessary was used in lifting the old woman from the ground; but, of course, the on-looking crowd yah-yahed and [-297-] shouted "Shame!" One of the most energetic shouters was my normally depressed old umbrella-mender. When he had relieved his feelings he once more shut himself up, so to speak, and trudged on as if there were no object left him in the world - as if it did not matter whether he turned to the right or to the left, went on, turned back, or stood stock- still. Out of curiosity I followed him.
    Death and disease keep no bank or any other holidays; their work is never done. Through the crowd of merry-makers a. hearse and- a string of mourning coaches slowly threaded their way, the white and black of the attendants' trappings showing that some child or young person was being borne upon this general holiday to enduring rest (why do we dress up men like magpies to express our grief in such a case?). And two depressed paupers were plodding along with one of those inexpressibly depressing hand-ambulances - wheeled coffins, whose every creak says "Memento mori, and be quick about it" in which poor people are carried to small-pox and fever hospitals.
    Walking like something galvanized, the old man dragged his legs on into the City, thronged with Londoners hurrying to railway stations, and with country folk come up to see the sights of "the great metropolis" - joskins no longer distinguishable as formerly by rusticity [-298-] of attire and gullibility of temperament, but by caricature of fashionable costume, and an obstinate determination not to believe anything told them by a cockney. Tobacconists', confectioners', American drink shops, public-houses, proffering iced claret-cup, brandy-and-seltzer, brandy-and-soda, lemonade-and-sherry, and so on, were open; street-sellers hawked little sheaves of lavender in blossom, withering roses pillowed on faded moss, riding-switches, umbrellas (some, perhaps, of the old man's mending), "penny guards for sovereign hats," plums, pineapples, cocoa-nuts, panoramic views, cigar-lights; and little boys and girls, outside the main thoroughfares, persistently stuck to passers-by, holding out oyster-shells in their grubby paws, and whining, "Please to remember the grotter - on'y once a 'ear, sir." They did not appeal to the old umbrella-mender. On he drifted, with eyes which had no speculation in them, through the holiday traffic, which gave the City streets a very different aspect from the look they wear either on Sunday or on an ordinary week-day. . A wagon, high-piled with wool-bales, a dray grinding past with jangling iron rods, were objects that attracted attention.
   
A good many people seemed to have selected the day for their family flitting to the seaside. Cabs swayed beneath pyramids of luggage, and the old man was nearly run over by a private [-299-] omnibus, crammed inside with olive-branches and nursemaids, and crowned with boxes, a bassinette, and a perambulator. He was tossed like a chip on the flood of life that poured past the metal-shuttered insurance-offices and banks in Moorgate-street and Princes-street, and Mammon's sealed sepulchre - the silent Bank. The clock of St. Margaret's protruded over what was almost a solitude, and the old man turned into Lothbury - I suppose, to be out of the bustle. When be stopped for a minute at the mouth of bushed Tokenhouse-yard, I could have fancied him one of Defoe's people flitting about, half demented through scare, in the p1ague-stricken city. Throgmorton-street was noiseless as a dry watercourse; a footfall could be heard in Bartholomew-lane, and Capel-court was like a catacomb. A few telegraph-boys hopping about like sparrows, and a little girl knocking half-hopelessly at the door of a shuttered shop, were the only persons besides the old man and myself in Threadneedle-Street, and asphalted Broad-street slanted off like a lonely frozen river. No medalled, bushy-bearded commissionaires, with empty sleeves, stood waiting on the Exchange flags. Good Mr. Peabody, left all to himself, did not appear to relish his sedet aeternumque sedebit post - looked as if lie would like to put on a hat, and get up and seek some company. Her Majesty, seen through the bars of the Exchange gates, [-300-] seemed to be presiding over a muster of voiceless, invisible ghost-merchants. If the Exchange had been open, it would have been just the place for my poor old man to spend his Bank Holiday in, in company with the seedy, sad, weary people who mope upon the seats of the arcades for hours, silent and inscrutable. On he mooned through the warren of courts and alleys which lie between Cornhill and Lombard-street. He might have murdered me there, or I him, in broad daylight, without witnesses. 
    An old gentleman, posting letters at the Lombard-street office, started when he heard our footsteps-
         "Like a guilty thing surprised."
    There was life again in King William-street; the Monument cage was black with visitors - huddled and restless as caged rats; musty and mouldy tramps, looking quite contented with their misery, snuggled and snored as usual in the recesses on London Bridge; trains thundered across the railway bridges; hut the river had a strangely restful look, and leaning his arms on the parapet, the old man stopped to rest. Some of the steamers alongside the wharfs were gently smoking, like simmering kettles, but there was no hubbub on deck or quay. On one lonely wharf I saw a little girl, in yellow seaside costume, trundling about a sack-barrow. Crowded river-steamers, flying [-301-] the red ensign, churned their way past a little fleet of deserted straw-barges, but no black lighters lumbered sideways up-stream, like wounded whales.
    The old man went down the steps into Lower Thames-street, perennially perfumed with a stale fishy and fruity odour. Here a little waterside work was still going on. Out of a dark alley a line of porters, with diamond-branded oblong deal boxes on their backs, trotted across the road into Botolph-lane, whence descended a return gang of porters who had discharged their loads; looking, with their knots still on their flushed brows, like clowns weary of grinning through horse-collars. In moist Billngsgate, though the fish-shops were closed, a few stall-sellers were vaunting the excellence of their shrimps, but costermongers snored tranquilly in their barrows outside; and the smeared Coal Exchange opposite - which surely ought to have been built of Galway marble father than white stone-looked as if it might have had any number of the newspapers' "torpid toads" shut up in it for generations. The greasily-dingy swing doors of the Custom House, with their "in" and "out" friction-polished brasses, were openable, but no swingers seemed to be going out or in. A sergeant in the Guards went by, escorting his little girl, in her clean summer Sunday best,; to see, with other holiday-makers, the [-302-] wonders of the fortress of which, no doubt, the little maid believed him to be the chief guardian. It was pleasant to see how proudly she hung upon his hand, how proudly he looked down on her, and how heartily the fatherly, smiling comrades, with whom he stopped to talk, spoke to both.
    It never rains but it pours. Just afterwards the drearily-lonely old man, wandering like a cloud, passed another proud military sire - an artilleryman in uniform, carrying his baby in its christening cloak; the old women he met grinning grandmotherly approval. "He's proud to do it," said one beaming old lady. "But just see what a touzlin' the dear man is a-givin' the pore little dear," cried another. On went the old umbrella-mender, heeding nothing, past the closing great gates of a dock and railway depot; a squat, dingy tenement, by bill announcing that it "wanted hands for poor work!" - with sewing-machines within click-clicking in dreary incessancy; sugar-works, exhaling a nauseous, warm, half-treacly, half-sanguineous scent; and a cork manufactory, with a man, sulky at having to work on Bank Holiday, perfunctorily handling a heap of the clean-furrowed bark piled on the pavement in front.
    I could see by this time that the old man's wanderings were aimless. He spoke to nobody, took notice of nothing. Still, as I had begun [-303-] to follow him, I thought I might as well continue to watch the strange way in which he kept Bank Holiday. Munching a crust which he took out of his trouser-pocket, he crossed the road in Whitechapel and turned into Petticoat-lane. Two barefooted little fellows were running a race in the generally crowded lane; another little boy was flying a kite. By Artillery-laue the old man mooned on into Bishopsgate-street, and then mooned out of it again into Houndsditch, which had an even more Sabbatic look than it wears on Saturday. Both Jew and Gentile shops were closed.
    Although I have said that there was no method in the old man's wanderings, he seemed to turn by preference into quiet places. In Houndsditch there were only a few "o' clo'" men and women dribbling into Phil's Buildings, and a deliquescent man trundling towards them a truck laden with bagfuls of fusty garments, on which was perched like an organ-grinder's monkey, his black-haired, black-eyed, white-toothed, lemon-skinned, merrily grinning little son. In one of the narrow streets near Duke's Place, a wagon, with a name chalked, instead of painted upon it, was being eased of its high-piled load of cocoa-nuts by two surly youths, who pelted the old man with husk as he passed the loft into which the nuts were being pitched like bricks. He did not take the slightest notice, but trudged on into Mark Lane, where [-304-] it was easy to fancy that one heard mice nibbling the split grain in the closed Corn Market. Thence he doubled into Leadenhall Market, a silent solitude of alley after alley of close-shuttered stalls, save when a mob of hobbledehoy roughs rushed in for unchecked horse-play, and woke the echoes with their hideous yells.
    Crossing the City he struck into London Wall. Its tall warehouses were all hushed. The hooks and balls of their crane-chains dangled otiosely in the air. Masonry can mesmerise, and a feeling of incipient coma came over me as I halted behind the old man in the front of Sion College. That dim-red old building, with its built-up windows, seemed sound asleep. Upon the other side of the road was the sunnily silent old graveyard, with its seventeenth century tablets, and its hoary fragment of Roman Wall. The blazing geraniums in the modern flower-beds, which have taken the place of the old graves, seemed the only things awake. I began to feel as dreamy as the old man, as I followed him through the streets and lanes which lie between London Wall and Cheapside, passing only a constable doing his beat by standing stiff as an obelisk at the intersection of four empty thoroughfares, and a maid-servant with a perambulator and three children leisurely strolling along the middle of Wood Street.
    There were sight-seers in St. Paul's Church-[-305-]yard, but many-posted Paternoster Row, like Tokenhouse Yard, was silent and shut up as if in plague time. Whimsically heightening the resemblance, an. upper window suddenly opened, a man in a white apron looked out, and a street-seller pitched him up a papered pint of shrimps. At a corner a little farther on sat a fruit-seller, nodding over his basket. Nobody seemed to be passing, or likely to pass him. I could not help thinking of the reduced gentlewoman, turned muffin-seller, who whispered, "I hope nobody hears me," after each tinkle of her bell. Round about Paternoster Row there are old-fashioned public-houses that seem to have, run into corners to hide. They had shut up-quite early in the afternoon - when the old man slunk round to them, looking as if he would have liked half a pint of beer, if he could have got it where there was no other customer.
    Through the raw-beefy Smithfield mart for raw beef, with its gilt-banded and buttoned beadle, wandering like a gay ghost between avenues of tenantless stalls-through Lincoln's Inn, where a knot of flushed barristers chatted with lay friends in the cloisters, jerking up their black gowns, and disclosing their grey nether garments as if they were still me-ludding - and the Temple, apparently given up to two very diminutive clerkkins splashing one another in Pump Court, the old man trudged on to the College of Arms, looking out, like the old [-306-] churches which the new street has exposed to the sunlight, as uncomfortably as a blinking owl on the new buildings, and hummocky wastes of dingy building ground and hoardings round about. I had grown tired of following him by that time, but before I left him I spoke to him.
    This was the explanation he gave me of his wanderings:-
    "Why, yer see, my old 'ooman is gone. Dead and buried she've been this three weeks. And so I thought I'd take 'oliday to-day as there worn't nought to be done in my line. I couldn't bide still at 'ome wi'out my pore ole missis. I'm lost like now I've lost she. I fare jest as if I was the wuss 'alf of a pair o' scissors."

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