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RAGS AND BONES.
IN the East End there is a cemetery bounded, as
the geography books say, on the north by a work-house, by more masonry and brick
and mortar on the east and west, and by a railway on the south. Trains are
always panting or screaming past it - the shadows of their trucks, vans,
carriages, engines and smoke and vapour flitting silently over the green mounds.
The Cemetery is so near to the line that conversations take place between
workmen lounging on the viaduct-parapet and any acquaintances they may have
discovered wandering amongst the tombs. Traffic rumbles, hammers rattle around
the graves. The grass between them bristles with requests to visitors not to
walk upon it, and notifications that five pounds is the fine for plucking
flowers; whilst the walls are speckled with handbills announcing that some
flower-plucker, who had not five pounds, has got seven days. There is a
startling On est defendu on the notice-board at the entrance: to wit,
that "fives" must not be played within the cemetery. The same board
announces, in somewhat tout-like business phrase, that an " eligible
portion" of the ground has been reserved for Dissenters.
Such a situation and such notifications might [-66-] seem to deprive this little cemetery of all the poetry of a "God's acre." Nevertheless, when I last wandered in it on a still October day, the pleasantly warm sunshine made pensive by a slight autumnal haze, there could not have been greater peace within the graveyard's walls if it had been planted in the midst of far-stretching · "empty harvest fields," or in the green heart of a park, with elm boughs rustling, and sleek rooks cawing tranquilly, around the island of the dead.
"Unheard in summer's flaring ray,
Pour forth thy notes, sweet singer,
Wooing the stillness of the autumn day;
Bid it a moment linger,
Too soon from winter's scowling eye.
"The blackbird's song at even-tide,
And hers who gay ascends,
Filling the heavens far and wide,
Are sweet; but none so blends
With calm decay, and peace divine.
That Herrick-like little gem "by a
friend," trembling, like a dew-drop on an autumn leaf, on Keble's autumnal
hymn for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, said or sung itself over to me as I
wandered in that little cemetery, watching a robin flitting from tomb to tomb,
and listening to its clear little song, and the mellow tolling of the chapel
bell, whilst the yellow leaves fell slowly to the ground, and the holly-hocks
and dahlias and nasturtiums, clustered round the [-67-] little lodge, basked, as
if half asleep, in the sunshine.
Pale-faced little boys and girls were planting shrubs on stoneless graves - fathers', mothers', sisters', brothers'. At the head of one little grave stood a roughly home-made glazed black frame, containing the cheap photograph of an ugly little boy, and his written epitaph, with this for its motto:-
"A. mother's fondest care on earth
Is gone to share an angel's birth.
He had not been ugly in her eyes. Near the workhouse wall stood a headstone with this for its sole inscription:-
"The weary are at rest.
Of another weary one laid to sleep there, in a nameless tomb, I have to tell. Not far off there is what was once a common. That word is linked with rural associations of broom and fern, furze and wild-flowers, donkeys and geese, and ducks paddling in sedgy ponds, gipsies' cart-tilts set up as tents, guarded by morose mongrel dogs, and sly-faced, swarthy, black- eyed women and children, whilst, in the distance, skim-milk-eyed bumpkins play at quoits or cricket in tightly-laced boots, rusty buskins, corduroy breeches and tucked-up smock-frocks.
How different is this common! A dirty canal, that looks like some rotting reptile, stagnates hard by. In still open ground, where [-68-] grass once grew, carpets are beaten with monotonous thud, thud, thud, and stifling clouds of dust. Other parts of the common are turned into brickfields; a chaos of breeze-heaps, piles of red and white bricks, jumbles of spoilt bricks, unfragrant fires, swamps, puddles, ungroomed horses, wearily grinding round and round, and rough-spoken men and boys who seem autochthones, so closely does the colour of their dress and flesh resemble that of the soil on and in which they work. A half-starved looking modern district church eyes disconsolately a pawn of cheap and nasty new houses; some with their windows broken and their door-handles wrenched off, even before they have been tenanted; whilst others of the same class are springing up fungus-like between the bristling scaffold poles. The older houses and hovels have the look of blue-moulded nuts with nothing but dust inside. Four huge gas-meters, rising above the slovenly mess always to be found in the yards of gas-works, add to the amenity of the scene, and filth-furred manure and blood-works pollute the air with stenches only comparable to the combined malodours of a main-sewer's out-fall and a score or two of neighbouring chimneys on fire at once.
In this dreary wilderness there existed for a time a man who made his "living" out of the rags, bones, and other so-called "rubbish" he picked up. He looked quite a decrepit old man, [-69-] but in reality he had not reached his seventieth year. It was a weary while, though, since anyone had wished him many happy returns of his birthday, and during the latter half of his life such a wish would have been a bitter mockery. Bad luck, including ill-health, had bent his back and broken his spirit. Those who cast blame on Fate, Emerson calls "vicious," and yet, being, in his own phrase, "of different opinions at different hours," he also says, "We must reckon success a constitutional trait." A good many people who have only themselves to blame for their misery rail at Fortune, but Circumstance is not always a "right fool's word."
"Ah, yes: poor Jack!" I have heard one man say of another. "He's a good fellow, and a brilliant fellow; but it isn't your brilliant men, it's the plodders that get on in the world." But then, although no one could accuse Tom of brilliancy, and he was a pattern plodder, he had not got on in the world any better than poor Jack.
I am not aware that the man of whom I have to tell had been brilliant, but he had been well-behaved - a respectable (in the proper sense) member of the middle-class - and it was deplorable to witness the abject poverty to which he was reduced.
When very hard up, he fed on scraps picked from the ground-dirty bits that cats and dogs, sparrows and pecking poultry, had disdained to [-70-] touch. When he could not afford to pay rent, lie "squatted" in any corner, with some kind of cover to it, he could find. To make a few pence in the day he had to make long rounds, poking, like some obscene beast or bird of prey on the verge of starvation, in every heap of rubbish he came across, and every dust-hole he could get at. His clothing was not much better than a scarecrow's. He had given up all hope of rising above his wretched condition. It was as much as he could do to keep body and soul together. Sound sleep after his wearying, stooping rambles, was his great luxury in life. Perhaps he had a vague hope of enjoying a sounder sleep some day, but it was little time he had to think about the future. It was a pity-moving sight to see him limping home to his temporary lair - and, perhaps, even more pity-moving to see him setting out on his rounds. He was as bent and tottering when be started as when he came back from his beggarly-paying toil, and the sunlit freshness of the morning, in which so many were awaking to enjoyment, or the hope of it, seemed specially to flout his rags.
He was not a man who spoke much at a time, but if he could have been prevailed upon to give his autobiography continuously, it would have run somewhat thus
"Yes, mine is a hard life. My clothes show that, and my shoes [-they were very much like [-71-] shabby ancient sandals-]; but then it is the only thing that I can take to. I'm not strong enough for what they call hard work, though mine is heavy enough. I suppose I shall have to go into the workhouse at last, if I don't die first, - and I can't say I should be sorry if I did. At any rate, I want to keep out of that as long as I can. I don't know that there's any institution would help a man like me; if there was, I think I'd rather be as I am. I earn my own living, such as it is, and so long as I do that, and behave myself, no one has a right to order me about. No doubt, it would be comfortable to have a warm soft bed, and good food and fire and clothes certain, but I think I'd rather be as I am. I should feel cooped up and shy-like. I've got used to wandering about and being by myself. Often, except just when I'm selling my find, there don't a word pass between me and anybody else for days, I may say weeks together. Nobody is in a hurry to make friends with me, you may be sure; and I like to keep myself to myself. No; I never get teased,- at least only now and then, by those lubberly boys that would tease anything that couldn't help itself and they thought hadn't got anyone to stand up for it. People for the most part just take no notice of me, no more than if I was a ghost they didn't see.
The poor fellow had to be out in ghostly hours sometimes.
[-72-] "Yes, in the small hours I turn out in summer, as soon as I can see anything in my way lying about. Sometimes it's fine, sometimes 'tisn't. When there's rain, it's next to no use getting rags, for it isn't often I've conveniences for washing and drying 'em. There is many a dog-kennel better than my lodgings; I don't mean grand places for hounds, but just common kennels. And sometimes I'm worse off than the dogs - I've got no straw. It's nipping in winter, especially when you've got no fire, to turn in with nothing to lie on, and nothing to cover you.
"Miles I walk - out and round back. Sometimes I stick to one round for a good bit. Other times, if I don't have luck, or there's another in my line that interferes with me, I try a new round. Yes, I come back to the old one at times, to see if it's better to work; and if it is, I stick to it again till luck changes. No, we don't fight about our rounds; our fighting days are pretty well over before we take to bone-grubbing. We haven't got much to say to one another; we've to look to ourselves in the way of business. It's little enough we can get at the best, and what would be the good of letting another man go shares, by telling him where you've done a bit better than ordinary? Oh, about other things - what have we got to talk about? We ain't lively company; we've got no funny tales to tell. We know well enough [-73-] we're all pretty much of a muchness. We hain't had luck in life, and don't expect it; and we don't read the papers,- can' t afford 'em, and don't want to. It's nothing to us who's King or Queen, any more than it is to the black beetles, or who's been a-murdering another party. It's sometimes poor neighbourhoods and sometimes rich I poke about in. In the way of food, the rich are the best. It's shameful the waste there is among servants. They'll throw away what a poor man would think a Lord Mayor's feast, if he could get it clean; good bread and meat, and cheese, and potatoes, and legs of poultry, and that like. When I was a respectable man, it would have turned my stomach to think of making a meal off the dirty things - for all my cleaning - I've eaten; but sometimes, if it hadn't been for the dirt, the things have been real good food. It's shameful, such waste is; and those who do it, mostlike, are those who were brought up hardest. They don't know what to do with themselves when they're turned into a place where they can eat as much as ever they like. Bless you, they never think of saving their master's pocket; they think it's genteel to throw his good grub away, as if it was not good enough for such fine ladies.
"But it isn't so very often I come across anything good to eat when I've washed it. Rags and bones and metal, - that's what I go [-74-] out for. Now and again I find a halfpenny, or a penny, that's been dropped; or maybe, but that isn't nigh so often, -and neither very often, - a little bit of silver; a three-penny bit, or a Joey. Yes, I've found sixpences, but I never found a shilling. Once I found a half-crown. I'd been out beyond Upper Clapton, and, as I was working round by the Seven Sisters' Road, I booked out of the ditch what I thought at first was a bit of sacking, but it turned out to be the rotten half of a tweed waistcoat, and there was a hole in the lining of the pocket, so the half-crown had slipped through and slid down to the corner. That's the greatest bit of luck I ever had in the way of money finding.
"Metal's what pays best, if it's any weight; but a few rusty old nails in laths is about the best I ever come across. No; they don't cheat us at the shops, so far as I know. They weigh fair, to the best of my knowledge. It would be a shame to cheat us, when we've to go so far to find so little, and get such a little a pound for it, after all. There's the sorting as well as the finding. When I was respectable I used to look down on rags and bones, and them that dealt in 'em; but rags and bones are my living now, and if I'd got a marine store I should think myself a gentleman.
"I've been grubbing for many a year now. I hain't got strength for anything else. Once or twice I've been hopping, down by the Farleighs. [-75-] A chap made up a party, and took us down. There's money to be made at the picking; and the country air was pleasant to me, for I was country-bred. But nobody will take me now: I'm so ailing. Last time I was down in Kent I fell sick, just when I was picking up a bit of health and strength, and thought I was going to put a little money into my pocket. I'd to tramp back to London, and how I got back I don't know. Sometimes I'd to beg: I couldn't work, and I wasn't much in the way of finding anything, except, maybe, a cast horse-shoe, even if there had been any place always handy to sell at. Often I thought I should die in a ditch. So I'd to beg, - and, except starve, there's nothing goes worse against my grain. When I got back to the Borough I was pretty nigh dead beat. Somehow I turned into the market. It was afternoon, and no business doing, but the salesmen were sitting making up their accounts, with lots of baskets, full and empty, piled up round 'em. One of 'em looked up sharp, and said, cross-like, 'What are you prowling about here for?'
"So I just told him how it was with me, and when he'd given me another look, says he, 'Poor devil!' and he gave me a tanner, and that set me up again in London.
"Here I've been ever since. I've been ailing many a time since,- I'm always ailing, or I shouldn't be what I am,- but never so bad as [-76-] I was down in Kent, and coming back. My ailments just keep me fit for nothing but bone-grubbing, instead of finishing me off. I've no great wish to live, you may be sure, so long as my death came natural-like. I can't say I should like to die downright of starvation, though I've often been nigh it. If it came all of a sudden it might be different, but I know too well what the leadings up to it are like to wish to die that way.
"Yes, Sundays as well as week-days I'm out grubbing. I can't go to church, and what would be the good of my sitting moping at home? God wont be hard on me, to my thinking, when my time comes at last, because I tried to earn an honest penny on Sunday, instead of going on the parish, or letting myself be starved.
"I was a respectable tradesman once. I'd a nice little shop down at --- in Bedfordshire. Yes, most like there are people there still that knew me, and if they spoke the truth, they wouldn't give me a bad word. I don't suppose they'd wish to do, but I can't expect 'em to help me, - that's quite a different thing. What am I to them?
"I'd a large family and the doctor always in the house, and somehow, though I stuck to it early and late, my business didn't answer. I had to give up at last. My poor wife was dead then, and all my children except two, - [-77-] my eldest boy that had taken to the sea, and my youngest but one little girl. She was my pet like, for I'd no one else left at home to be fond of. I can't say what has become of Sam. After his second voyage, if he ever came home again, be never made himself known to us. Most like he was drowned, for he was a good, kind-hearted boy, not likely to cut his own folks because they were in trouble.
"When I failed my poor wife's father took my little Polly. He wasn't a rich man and he was a hard man, - very hard on me because of my bad luck,- but he was fond, in his way, of my little Polly; and so I thought it better to leave her with him, instead of dragging her up to London to rough it along with me.
"He never wrote to me, and she couldn't. When I'd got a berth of some kind I went down to --- to look after my little girl. But her grandfather had left the town and taken her with him, and all I could hear of them was that they had gone to Cheadle; and when I wrote to the address that was given me there, my letter came back to me through the Dead Letter Office, with ever so many try-that and try-thises and not-known-heres, and ever since then Polly's been lost to me. Perhaps she's alive, but to me she's as much swallowed up in the sea like, wherever she be, as her brother is.
"I didn't keep that berth long, my health [-78-] was so bad. I'd to pawn myself almost bare to keep myself alive. This and that I tried, but it was no good. A poor man that's always ailing can't get on in the world, he's sure to get trodden down. Down I came to grubbing; and a bone-grubber I shall be till they rattle my bones over the stones. There's only one on earth that would go to my funeral as a mourner, and that's my Polly, - that is, if she's alive. Very like, though, she's forgotten all about me."
By a strange coincidence,- I was going to write, or rather have written, but such cases are common enough,- Polly had been living for several years not very far from her father. On leaving Cheadle her grandfather had moved to Stockport, and thence to Liverpool, where he died, and she had to go into service. The family by whom she was engaged moved south to Poplar, and there she married a man engaged in a ship-yard. By what was a strange coincidence she and her father did meet shortly before his death. It was not a "romantic" meeting. Yards were being closed, and shipwrights and their labourers paid off by the hundred in Poplar. Polly's husband had been out of work for a month. The fair-haired, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked little maiden of the old man's memory had become a pale, pinched, peevish mother of many hungry children.
She could not profess any great delight at [-79-] discovering a father in the condition of an ailing old gatherer of rags and bones. Perhaps she thought that one of her many troubles was off her mind when he died.
However, she followed his coffin, as sole mourner, to its grave in the little cemetery I have spoken of, one of many unmarked graves. There, his bag and stick laid by for ever, may the old man rest in peace.
A great sameness seems to characterize the lives of these
poor spiritless pariahs.
On a bright spring day I was strolling in the Holloway Road, about noon. The lilacs and laburnums in front of Loraine Place were out in coolly fragrant milk-white and pale purple, and dangling links of gold, and the imperial purple of the flowering flag flaunted in front gardens. Seated in the shade of the little trees, upon the narrow ledge of the palisaded dwarf walls, panting pedestrians mopped their perspiring brows, and fanned themselves with their hats; cabmen from the neighbouring sunny stand lounged chaffing, drinking porter out of the pewter, and snoring, curled up in apparently dislocated discomfort; and "members of the building trades," in dusty flannel and splashed duck, munched the midday meal they had extracted from their crumpled tins, smoked short black pipes, or cracked jokes [-80-] amongst themselves, quite distinct from the cabmen's impartially distributed facetiae.
It was the fresh kind of day - delightful in itself, and full of promise of a long series of still brighter days to come - that makes a vagrant like myself long to walk on and on through London's "nation" of houses, out into the sweet country that on many sides begirdles that smudged mass of masonry, until nightfall; and at the same time makes it pleasant for him to see those whose lot is daily manual toil enjoying a parenthesis of rest. There was a holiday feeling in the air; drudgery seemed an anachronism. And whilst I thought so, my eyes fell on one of the dreariest drudges they ever beheld.
He was an old, fleshless, bent, battered man, limping on both feet, feebly fingering his eyebrows and his grey stubbly chin, and peering right and left, purblind, with (if I may perpetrate an oxymoron) a sluggish restlessness. His hat was of straw - dunghill straw it looked like, and very probably a pig had bitten out from its back brim the wide mouthful which, conspicuous through absence, gave it the look of a barber's brass basin in the last stage of verdigris, or rather black oxide. The old man wore no shirt-at any rate, he showed none.
It seems heartless to go on making an inventory of the poor old creature's rags; but it will not hurt him, poor old boy, and I want to give an idea by grouping particulars - there are few [-81-] people I have found who can or will image particulars out of generalities - of the way in which, in the "richest city in the world," in what is called its "era of prodigal luxury," some Londoners are still clad - of the often suicide-suggesting modes (any one who can make the barest "decent" livelihood is apt to think) in which they live, and move, and have their being : going to their bed, or their no-bed, with a measure of contentment, if they have had enough coarse food to enable them to drag through another dismal day of sordid misery. I thank God that they can get any contentment out of the cag-mag to which the maggots have first helped themselves; especially do I thank God that the poor creatures can go to sleep, and have no troubling dreams. But are such lives, lives that ought to be, must be, led? I cannot believe it. We shoot old horses when they have become a weariness to themselves. If we cannot help our pariahs, it would be a kindness, I think, to kill them off - to hand them over, in that way, to the tender mercies of the all-seeing One in whom we are so fond of bidding them to trust. But the pariah first selected for this euthanasia might probably object, otherwise he would have previously "his own quietus ta'en," and the benevolent murderer would be strung up between the gloomy walls of a gaol, with a black flag flapping over him.
[-82-] "It's a' a moodle," as Stephen Black pool said. There are hosts of people in England wanting to be "kind." If money, freely given, and forced by law to be given, for their benefit, could only be sensibly slumped and administered, English paupers would have a balance in their favour. If the resources of this by no means "played-out" old land of ours were only developed by capital with courage enough to forego a dividend for a year or two, capital would recoup itself with. fair profit, and England would not have to figure as a breeder of "paupers" in the eyes of the United States, Australia, and other British colonies. I have lived in colonies, and have been galled by the way in which the prosperous sons of English paupers sneer at England's chronic poverty. Our street Arabs have been metamorphosed into first-rate men-of-war's men, and there is still plenty of similar raw material which might be manipulated into makers of fresh national property for ex-ragged-school boys to defend.
"But this is a digression. People of the stamp of the old man I have begun to describe are infinitesimally utilisable - if national credit is to be got out of them. It is something however, to be proud of, in the midst of our pity for them, that they retain a sufficient love of independence to make them prefer their miserable earnings to alms.
[-83-] The old man I saw at the corner of Camden Road wore what, after scrutiny, I discovered to be the remnants of a dress-coat - the blue, gilt-buttoned, velvet-collared swallow tail which was fashionable in the days of my youth, a handsome quasi-naval costume which has more recently made a fruitless attempt to re-establish itself in favour. One of the back buttons - which we retain with comical conservatism, though now we wear no sword-belts - still stuck to the old coat. That enabled me, in anatomical phrase, to "reconstruct" the garment in imagination. Wear, tear, patches, grease, and weather-stains had done their worst to disguise its identity. Loss of both tails had turned it into a spencer. The bit of let-in coarse cloth that filled the place of the vanished velvet collar was grey with grease. The breast was held together by a trellis-work of knotted string. A bishop's apron of foul sackcloth, marked with almost obliterated initials, was girt about the old man's loins.
Beneath that apron drooped the raggedly vandyked legs of a pair of corduroy trousers, a world too wide for the stick-like human legs that showed half a foot of bruised filthy skin and bone between them and the burst blucher and loose sodden carpet slipper, sandalled with twine, in which the limping feet shuffled along. A half-full bag of canvas, cobbled with puckered clouts, was thrown over the [-84-] old man's shoulder, and he carried in one hand an old, rusty iron spud-leaning on it as he walked, to ease his corns or blistered toes and heels.
The cabmen joked him as be passed. One asked "'ow many quid" he had picked up; another begged to be remembered in his will. He took no notice, but trudged round the corner like a lame somnambulist. There was, however, some speculation even in his bleared eyes; he poked in the gutter with his spud, and fished. up a drenched and draggled something, which he slipped into his bag. He looked so weary and woebegone, that if I had been the good Haroun Alraschid, I should not have asked the Charity Organisation Society to investigate his case. Not being Haroun Alraschid, I had to content myself with following the poor old fellow, whose uninterestingness had interested me. At any rate I could give him a pint of beer, if his tottering strength failed him before he reached his goal. He crossed for the Caledonian Road. The urchin sweeping the crossing spattered the old man with his broom, but still he gave no heed. To teach the young imp manners, I took a penny from my pocket, showed it to him (it was a bright new penny), and then returned it to my waistcoat, telling him that he might have had it if he had been better-behaved. I fear, however, that my ethical lecture was thrown away. [-85-] The young varlet bade me "be blowed," and threatened, from a safe distance, to "sarve me the same, if I didn't cut away arter my dad."
Wearily the old man trudged on, prodding here and there with his rusty spud. He turned into the Cattle Market, and pounced upon a cast horse-shoe. Friction had made it shine like silver, but friction had also made it so thin - such a mere scale of metal - that it was strange to note the anxious eagerness with. which he dropped it into his bag. He groped his way into York Road, and into a street leading out of it. Here he found and probed a heap of builders' rubbish-brickbats, broken laths, scraps and damaged sheets of wall-paper, and so on. His professional "take" seemed to amount to a few nails, and the bone of a shoulder of mutton. Hungrily he eyed the dusty blade, but there was no meat on it, and it was transferred into the bag ungnawed. A minute afterwards, however, he turned up a big bit of cheese, or rather cheese-rind. It was almost black with dirt, but the foul dust seemed a mere condiment to him, as he worked his way back into the Caledonian Road by the Brewery, munching his dinner-trove.
Re stopped to shift his bag from one shoulder to the other in front of the Model Prison, and I could not help thinking how much better he would have fared - dietically - if he had taken to burglary instead of bone-grubbing. Thence [-86-] he slunk his way, by side streets, across Offord Road, Barnsbury Road, Liverpool Rood, Upper Street Islington,. and Essex Road, into the New North Road - a drearily drab district to cross. "When was Islington 'merry'?"the crosser is likely to ask. But there was no abject poverty in the line the old man took; and discovering no subjects for his spud, he limped on as if he thought the flat rows of houses, and struggling shops might scout him as a disreputable character.
He gave me the notion of a being whose sole peace in life was to be where no human eye could light upon him. He - electing to keep as long as he could the wretched life on earth which was his lot - must go out bone-grubbing; but even his dull face showed, or seemed to my fancy to show, that, his dreary "daily darg" got through, he wanted to hide in a hole. The wonder to me was that the hole he desired was not one in the canal he crossed by the Rosemary Branch - or a pauper suicide's parish grave.
He doubled in Hoxton, as if aware that someone was dogging him. Accordingly, I fell back, and watched him from a greater distance. Presently he crossed Hackney Road, and turned by the church into the street which leads to brawling Brick Lane. Out of that he turned into a long, narrow, dingy street, looking very much like a canal run dry, almost every [-87-] tenement in which was a common lodging- house. Young thieves, in billycock hats and shabby black coatees, clustered at the doorways, smoking, "larking," whistling, and telegraphing my appearance to comrades further on. Bulldog-jowled roughs, with their hands in their pockets of their greasy, dusty corduroys, and some with their heads in the laps of bold-faced young women, sprawled right across the narrow pavement. They tried to trip the old man up, hailed him as "Cross-bones," and bade him make haste back to his grave. They did not withdraw their legs for me to pass - I had to step over them, and perhaps they might have tried to trip me up also, had not two policemen entered the otherwise lawless lane. Some lads who had been tossing in a court, almost hidden by crossing lines of clothes that dripped water nearly as dark as that in the gutter, scattered on the constables' approach. The old man turned into the court, and disappeared in the doorway of a shored-up hovel, with unpainted boards nailed over its windows.
"Lost anything, sir?" asked one of the constables.
"Your way, p'r'aps," supplemented the other. They looked amused when I told them that all I wanted was to see in what kind of place the old man I had been following lived.
"That's soon done, answered the first. "Just [-88-] shove the door open, and walk in. The place is as free to you as it is to him. He don't pay no rent. It'd be a shame if he had to, poor old chap, for the old house'll soon be down about his ears. I'd button my coat over my watch, sir, if I was you. They're a queer lot that lives hereabouts. Don't do to put temptation in their way."
The queer lot, who had seen me talking to the policemen, eyed me with sullen curiosity, from windows and doorways and entries, as I walked down the court, but they made no attempt to molest me. From the remarks I overheard, I gathered that opinion was divided as to whether I was "summun from the surweyor's," or "summun sent by Guvvurmint."
"Mind your 'ead, sir," said an exceptionally polite matron, looking out of a first-floor window in the next-door house, and feeling the rags hung out to dry on a cat's-cradle of knotted cord stretched across the court, with one above and another beneath it, as I ducked under the "flying buttress" of timber, clamped with rusty iron hoop, which almost blocked the old man's front door.
The lock was gone - the place where it had been looking like an empty eye-socket - and the bolts and one hinge had also found their way to the dealers in old metal. On its remaining hinge the door drooped sprawlingly, like a broken wing. The dingy plaster of the little [-89-] passage was burst in and out, with snapped laths and hairy mortar bulging from the gaps. Through chinks in the boards nailed across the window, a little dreary light dribbled into the front ground-floor room, but the rooms behind were quite blinded. Only the stumps of the banisters were left, and so many of the stairs had rotted, or been wrenched out for firewood, that in ascending them one had to take long strides, as when mounting the steps of a ruined belfry.
There was light enough in the first-floor rooms to show them plainly. They were frightfully, disgustingly filthy. A stale scent of fried fish lingered, still distinguishable above the general loathsome fustiness, in the front room; there were ashes in its rusty grate, and herring-heads and tails on its cracked hearth.
The floor of the back room was black with damp-sodden by the rain and snow and hail, that had beaten in for many a year through the paneless frame. The front-room window was plugged pretty plentifully with rubbish, to keep out the wet and wind; but dirt-clogged, serrated fringes were all that was left of glass in the frame of this. A shingle beach of stones and brickbats, littered upon the rotten floor, showed that the window was a favourite target. Half a brick whizzed into the room while I was in it, and looking out I found that it was com-[-90-]manded from a bummocky little patch of waste ground, from which old bricks still cropped.
It was strange to see even that little bit of waste, so closely on every other side did wretched, grimy, blear-eyed old houses crowd in upon the square yard of ground at the back, almost filled by the leaky water-butt, with a dusty green scum floating on its villanous stagnant ink. Dust and damp seemed to be contending for the mastery over, or rather to have formed an alliance to blot from the earth, the miserable tenement which Cross-bones had made his home. In that back room there was a corner cupboard, the door of which had disappeared - the triangular shelves were turning to touchwood, and buttoned with those little yellow fungi which remind one so unpleasantly of decay, and the walls were weeping slimy tears.
I groped my way up to the second floor. The back room, except that it was smaller, was much such another as the one beneath. In the front room I found Cross-bones, on all-fours, sorting out the orts of his morning's find, which he had shaken from his bag upon the floor. His back was towards me; he had not heard my step; before I spoke to him I had time to take in the sad little picture which he and his surroundings made.
Up there, even there, the spring sun shone in brightly, gilding his thin grey hairs, which [-91-] might have been cleaner, lie had taken off his scare-crow hat, and was using it as a receptacle for the metallic portion of his spoil.
There was literally no "furniture" in the room, except a little earthenware ink-bottle, corded with varicose yellow veins of thinly guttered grease, and a scanty bundle of some kind of bedding huddled under an old horse-cloth in a corner.
It was such a bare, dreary, dirty hole, that the sunlight seemed not to enliven, but to flout it. Half of the window was shut, and was so bleared with dust and smut and rain - smudged together like the smears on the face of a blubbering child - that it was more effectively blinded than if it had been curtained with brown holland. The other half swayed backwards and forwards in the breeze. lit was soft, and its journey over acres of grimy roofs had not quite robbed it of the sweetness it had gathered in its previous wanderings over fresh country fields; but it, and the patch of blue sky that the swaying window gave a glimpse of, and the pert plump sparrows chirping on the sooty parapet, all seemed, like the sunshine, to flout the poor old human scare-crow who was sorting his miserable goods upon his knees.
He did not start when he heard my voice; he did not seem to have energy enough left in him to start; but he looked round with a dull stare of apprehension, and recommencing the [-92-] feeble fingering of his eyebrows, said deprecatingly- "I ain't doing no harm. What's up?" When I had reassured him - at last convinced him that I was no detective who had been dogging him, to apprehend him on some dreadfully false charge (I found that, as I had guessed, he had noticed me following him, and doubled to avoid me), we got into talk. His mode of speech was peculiar. It was often ungrammatical and "cockney," though he did not drop his "h's," but still it sometimes sounded as if he had once associated with people of a higher social grade than street folk.
What he told me about himself was given in no consecutive narrative, but in reply to questions.
"If it's no offence, I s'pose I needn't say where I was born. There can't be many, I should say, as belonged to me livin' there now - none, p'r'aps, for I've been a weary while in London. Still, there might be, and they wouldn't like to know I was brought to this. No, nor I shouldn't like 'em to know it neither. I've got that bit o' pride left in me. What I used to be can't matter much to you. I was never what you might call rich; but I'd as comfortable a little home as a man need wish to have - once. And I'd friends, and I'd a family. Children and wife both was very fond of me-yes they was. And I lost it all. Twasn't my fault. I [-93-] wasn't born to be lucky, only jest at startin'. No, my wife didn't die. Yes, she must he dead by this time, I should say - but twasn't that. We won't talk no more about her. Twas she as did it. And yet I was a good husband. And she was a good wife - once - poor gal, I won't deny that. If them as comes interferin' between such as her and me was to have their necks' wrung - but, there, I won't talk no more about her. After that everything went wrong. Well, yes, I won't deny it, I did take to drink, now and again. How was I to help it? My life had been none so pleasant that I wanted to he always thinkin' about it. And the children were taken from me. They were taught to look down on me, they were, sir. They'd never ha' done it of their own accord, poor dears The two littlest died, and I wasn't let in to see them. They were fond of me anyhow. They loved me better than they did their mother, though they were only bit o' babies. I don t know what's become o' the rest. Their little uns might have little uns by this time - if they didn't die afore they were married. Good job if they did. If I'd never married - leastways as I did marry - I might ha' been mayor, perhaps, by this time.
"It's a poor look-out, marryin' is - to them as hasn't luck. Courtin' and makin' yourself agreeable jest to get made a fool of! Twasn't my fault, and yet they all looked down on me. [-94-] I hadn't a friend left. I couldn't stand it long. I'd been respected once. Yes, I had, sir, though you mayn't think, it. I couldn't stand bein' looked down en by everybody; I'd that bit o' pride left. And not a soul that cared twopence for me. I cut. Not that there was anybody as wanted to stop me. I got a kind o' clerk's place on a wharf at first. I was good at figurin' - once- and I'd my own money to figure. But I couldn't keep the berth. My luck was against me. Well, yes, I did drink - at times; I won't deny it. How was I to help it? I'd drink now - only I can't. Oh, yes, I'd touch the drink fast enough - only I've got no money to buy it. It's the only comfort left me.
"All sorts o' things I turned my hand to - when I'd the chance. I never wanted to be beholden to nobody. But I'd my bad luck tied round my neck. I never could git on at anything-for long. Sure as ever I began to fancy I was goin' to git a bit more money at anything, I lost it. It's no good fightin' agin your luck. There's some as couldn't help having everything to their hearts' content if they was to try ever so, and there's some as'll be poor beggars all their life, whatever they may do. Tain't my fault. I never did anybody harm. It's my luck. When your luck once changes, it's all up.
"I didn't start bad. I'd a good business, and I was liked by everybody pretty well- once; and now this is what I've come to. [-95-] There ain't a man, or a woman, or a child in the whole world that would care a fig if I was to die to-morrow. It's all right, I s'pose. That's how things was meant to be. Anyhow, that's how it is. I was made to be thought little on - pushed about and chaffed by fellers that ain't half a quarter as respectable as I was - once. And them that ought to know better are every bit as bad.
"T'other day I was comin' along the Liverpool Road. There was a chap shovellin' up the slush into a mud-cart, and he sent a shovelful pretty nigh all over me. Him and his mate bust out laughin'. 'Hope I haven't spoilt your clothes, governor,' he says. And a young chap that fancied himself a swell was goin' by, and says he, 'There's no fear of that,' and bust out, laughin' too, and so did the gal he was walkin' with. How would they have looked if the mud had gone over their fine things? A big butcher chap sung out shame, and told me to punch the scavenger's head, but he was jokin' of me just the same. It's all luck. There's folks as can take care o' theirselves, and so they don't git meddled with. And there's old chaps like me as was made to have mud thrown over 'em, and git laughed at into the bargain. It's all right, I don't doubt. Anyhow, that's how it is, and I can't alter it.
"No, I don't know that I've any particular wish to be dead. If things is so here, things [-96-] may be jest the same there, for what I know, so what would be the good o' dying? I should like to be sure I should have enough to eat, and git a drop o' drink now and then. That's what I should like to be sure on. Oh, yes, I used to go to church-once. Yes, the parsons used to talk like that you're sayin'. I ain't one of His works, I s'pose. Anyhow, the tender mercies ain't come my way. No, I never had no luck in my findin' neither. There's some pick up pocket-books and shilin's. Leastways, so they say. But that ain't my luck. If I find a bit o' clean rag - and that ain't often - I think myself well off. Rusty iron nails is what comes my way, though t'other chaps gits pewter and such.
"There's a chap goes out Hackney way, round where the new houses are. He's always safe of his meat. He climbs over a garden-wall, and works a dust-bin before the folks are up. Mutton-chops with only a bit out of 'em, and a turkey-leg he's found in there. It's the servants that is so wasteful, goin' about dressed up like ladies of a Sunday, and flingin' away their turkey-legs, and their old fathers and mothers at home never tastin' butcher's meat, 'cept what is given to them at Christmas. I s'pose it's all right, but it do seem hard that strong lazy young gals like them should be turnin' up their noses at good food, and old chaps like me, that was respectable once, can't [-97-] git a crust. It's all luck. A bit o' dry bread s about the most I ever got out of a dust-heap, and glad enough I've been to git it.
"Round about Holloway and Hornsey, where the building's going on, I'm working now. Hundreds and hundreds of houses they've got there, where there was only green fields when I came up to London, and still they keep on building, smarter and smarter. There's some folks can git on in the world. I've to git up before the swells go to bed, for I ain't nimble on my feet, and it's a long way I have to go to git to my work, and then it's a long way I've to go about before I can pick up enough to keep soul and body together.
"I don't know what I should do if I hadn't found out this place, for I couldn't raise the money for a bed at a lodging-house. There's others that comes and sleeps down below, hut they never interfere with me.
"No, sir, I'm tellin' you the blessed truth. There isn't a soul in the wide world that cares a snap o' the finger for me - 'cept it's the sparrers there, when I've got a crumb to give 'em."
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