Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   IN one shape or another almost every department of public business has produced its Judas anxious to betray the trust of his employers, and to "reveal". such of the arts and mysteries of his profession as, by hook or by crook, he has become acquainted with. Thus we have had "Secrets of My Office," " Revelations of a Police Detective," "Tellings of a Telegraph Clerk," " Diary of a Physician," &c.; but at present the town has not been favoured by the " Peepings," or "Pennings," or " Peachings" of a postman. We have "rhyming postmen," whose poetic flights are bounded only by a handrail, and whose style is powerful, as might be expected in those who so constantly "indulge" in the double-rap-turous. But for a postman-a town postman-to become merely a poet is a wretched waste of opportunity. It may be very well for petty, unliveried, suburban carriers, with long, straggling beats, to rhyme on their letter-packets, and so beguile the time as they trudge along; to sing-
   " A letter I've got for Sarah Jane,
   Who housemaid is at the end of the lane,
   Where the flower-pots stand on the sill in a row.
   And the hollyhocks and the sweetwilliams blow."
   Another I've got for the person who dwells
   At the shop round the corner, and bacon he sells.
   The seal he will break, and read it, I ween,
   By the gas-jet just over the sausage machine."

   But although this ringing of his mental mettle may pleasantly tickle the ears of the underpaid peripatetic, it will draw no money into his purse. It is not enough in these sensational times merely to edify the public--it must be startled; and difficult indeed would it be to suggest a more decided startler than " The Peachings of a Postman." Really, when one thinks on the enormous sale of that book; when one, in fancy, reads the advertisement in the morning papers, " Notice ! Ninth edition of Peachings just out " and dwells on the fat checks arriving almost daily from his publisher, it is a temptation to persuade some friend in the G.P.O. to procure you a beat suitable for your purpose, and " go in" for book-building in the regular way, just as a man makes a trip to the Amazon or to Central Africa.
   For my part, I should prefer a beat that was not too respectable; and for the very obvious reason that, in highly respectable neighbourhoods the houses are furnished with letter-boxes, and I should have no opportunity, except now and then by a glimpse of an anxious face lurking behind the window-curtain, of making myself acquainted with the recipients of the momentous billets. If I might have my choice, I would choose a quiet, six-roomed-house beat at Kensington or Camden Town; and I should not care to make more than one round a day-the first round, at eight a.m. As far as the purposes of my book were concerned, it would be a mere waste of shoe-leather to undertake more than that single delivery. My gathering would consist entirely of the secrets of the special epistles of social life, and for these there is but one post-the eight a.m. post; nor is it at all surprising that it should be so. Take love-letters, for instance. Calf-lovers may look on all hours of the day as fit for the exchange of epistolary bleatings, and, possibly, it is as easy to "boo " passionately all over four sides of note-paper immediately after breakfast, and when the knife-grinder, and the chair-mender, and the cauliflower-vender are abroad, or even on a sultry afternoon and after a hearty dinner, as at any other time. Easier, perhaps. But your earnest lover never takes pen in hand till the evening. Sitting in his cell, amidst perfect stillness, he forges love-shafts of so exquisite a sort that the mere rattling of a window-shutter breaking in on their incompleteness would shatter them at once. His delight is to hear the lips of his pen kissing the dainty sheet, to catch its little rustling whispers as it spells out the loving words. This, if he is making love. He, however, may be breaking it instead. Well, quiet and seclusion are equally essential to his purpose. His malice is as exacting as hottest love, and it gives him joy to hear the tiny, black, wriggling snakes hiss as his pen gives them birth, and at every hatching-each one more deadly than the preceding-the monster pauses to grin and rub his hands, thinking how they will sting. No other hand but the writer's must consign such precious concoctions to the letter-box; indeed, if the eight a.m. postman is to deliver the adders, out he must go, letting himself out and in again with his latch-key, for both his landlady and Jemima have been a-bed this hour and more. It may be objected that in outward appearance the honey-pot would be exactly like the adder's nest, and I should not know one from the other. Maybe; but, as I before observed, I should not attempt to glean knowledge of the affairs of my customers by consulting their written names and addresses merely. I should look out for the face at the window or at the door, and make note of such trifles as trembling hands and wan cheeks, and eyes eloquent of joyful content or sad foreboding; for be sure the adders are expected, and Miss Alicom Payne is as certain of her honey-pot as she is that there will be marmalade on the breakfast-table.
   The night being so far advanced, Piercy Beamisher's missive to Miss Payne does not fall into an empty letterbox. Other evening scribes have already made their deposits, and higgledy-piggledy lie invitations, accepta-letters; and, as it happens, that addressed to Miss Payne falls plump atop of a shabby flimsy envelope, with the postage-stamp stuck at the bottom left-hand corner, and the superscription ill spelt and villanously askew. It is addressed to " Shandy Gaff, Esq.," and is the sort of letter that any one, let alone an experienced town postman, may see through with half an eye.
   "My dear Shandy," writes Sarah Brown, "for dear indeed you are though not mine in the holy service of matrimony but which to make use of your own darling words doesn't make any odds in the eye of Him that sees all I couldn't but rite though against your wishes and to the house which you will say is madness and no wonder for so I am dear though far be the thoughts of blaming you. But what could I do with my close gone and not one farthing for the rares of the nuss who has brought him back poor little boy plump and beautyful as he was but now a complete Skelington through the feeding bottle and me with only power to set and cry to hear his wining through drying it away to go to service as you asked my love Her bringing him back made a row at the loging where I am likewise in rears and called such horrible names as would make your art ake to ear I pray to God that missus may not take this in and time the postin so that if possible it may come up with the shavin water I thought you was ill not having been able to ketch you going in nor coming out for over a week till this morning when seein you quite unexpected turn the wrong way from what you used caused the explanashun. It is all through not seeing you so long dear that I rite and only but for the poor little fellow I would brave it and rather die a 100 times So no more at present from yours for ever and ever, SARAH BRowN."
   But the perusal of Sarah's letter opens my eyes to the difficulties of my position. My manhood chafes at my scarlet collar, and my impulse is to thwart the rascally Shandy by delaying the delivery of the note for just one little hour, when it will be handed to the traitor at the breakfast-table, and in the presence of the outraged Mrs. Gaff. "Yours for ever and ever," indeed! poor wretch. If you could only see the supreme smirk of contempt that for an instant distorts the handsome face of the poor little Skelington's father, as he arrives at this part of your message, you would be not a little dismayed for your future.
   And what about your future, Shandy Gaff, Esq., and clerk at a Thames-street drysaltery, at a salary of a hundred and twenty pounds per annum ? Beware that you do not treat miserable Sarah's pledges of eternal devotion too lightly. Recollect that there are two-nay three-to the bargain: herself, yourself, and the Skelington. Yours "for ever and ever" she may not be; but who says that you shall not be hers? You may shake her off-that you are bound to do if she will not fall away quietly; but if you only shake her into the kennel, where her love for you will rot and turn to pestilence, you may thereby be brought to death as surely as though she had clung to you during the shaking-off process-clung to you till she had strangled you. Consider her appeal before you crunch it up and wedge it between the bars into the fire with the toe of your boot. If, however, the poor scrawl is already consigned to the flames, at least spare a minute to watching its ashes. If you bring your mind's eye well forward you may make out some queer shapes. You may make out a draggle-tail, drunken drab, lying wait of evenings within a score yards of the threshold of your innocent house-a hiccupping, loud-mouthed woman, who is for ever demanding a shilling. If she makes her demands with nothing worse than sulky insolence you are lucky, because at times she is tearful, and so full of gin and gratitude as to be uncertain of her standing, and insists on clutching you by the arm- and resting her blowsy bonnet on your shoulder. "Don't push me off," she says; "don't, my love, do such a cruel thing. I know my touch is worse than mire to you; but I'm still faithful and will be, s'help me God ! till I die. I haven't come for your money, dear Shandy-only to tell you how true I feel towards you. Kiss me, Shandy, my dear." Do what ? Kiss her-the hideous thing! Well, there's no help for it, dear Mr. Gaff. To get rid of her, you must either kiss her or call a policeman; and the latter you dare not to. One such evening a policeman came without calling. "Come, cut that! " said he to Draggletail.
   "If you don't leave go the genelman and be off I'll put you where I shall find you in the morning." "What do you mean, you beast? " asked Draggletail fiercely. "He's my husband; ask him if he is not ? " "Yes, yes; that's all right, policeman," said you, and at the same time winked sheepishly at the man in blue and sneakingly proffered him a shilling, which he took without so much as thanking, and walked off with the air of a knowing man of business.
   All this you may make out, gay, young Mr. Gaff, in the tinder of Sarah Brown's consuming letter. Nor is this all; the chimney draught carries away the front wall of tinder, and you get a further insight into futurity. There he is-a sallow, bony youth, with plenty of neck-handkerchief and no shirt collar, and with his greasy-cuffed coat buttoned tight at the breast, and with the stump of a dirty pipe protruding from his waistcoat pocket. This is the Skelington. He used to be very shy and respectful when he wore pinafores, and waited for you at a convenient corner in Thames-street, with a note from Draggletail; but since he has come into a tailcoat and a pipe, and is, to use his own powerful expression "on his own hands," his tone has altered considerably. Hear his voice in the crepitation of the paper embers.
   "Didn't see me! cert'ny not! I'm too low and hard-up to see, I am. More fool me, not to show myself up and make myself seen !"
   "What is it you want, William? Here on Tuesday evening, and now again ? "
   "What do I warnt? What do you think I warnt? Thunderin well you knows I warnt everythink. Gallus nice father you are to bring me and mother to this ere, and then chuck it in my teeth. I warnt wittles. I don't warnt kid gloves and meerschaumes, like some puppies as I know do, and have no more right, nor yet as much as I have."
   "Then, why don't you work for what you want, sir ?"
   "Why don't I work ? Cos I aint got nobody to shove me forward like some puppies that I know, and who I'm the elder of. That's why I don't work. You wouldn't begrudge them a shilling to buy a bit of grub with if they come and asked you. I aint a fool, don't you know? and, what's more, I aint going-"
   What the Skelington was not going to do must be guessed, for at that very moment a puff of air carried the tinder up the chimney. Why didn't it blow up the chimney before? There would have been a little remaining space to have discussed other sorts of letters than this of Mr. Gaff's.