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THE NEVER SILENT HIGHWAY
It has grown so dark that the few gas-lamps scarcely serve to guide me through the narrow streets and square tanks of wretched hovels which seem to be huddled together behind the railway arches. I am in some danger of treading on the women and children who crouch at the doorways, or stand talking listlessly at the street corners, as though they were waiting for something which would never come. Imperfect as the light is, however, I find myself wondering what could have been the condition of these places before the gas-pipes were laid there, when the stranger who wandered out of his way must have been at the mercy of any half dozen ruffians who might make a simultaneous rush from the narrow courts which even now are scarcely to be distinguished from the entries of the adjacent houses.
In the broad thoroughfare of Leman Street, I discover that a sultry breeze is sweeping the dust before it, and the night's traffic has set in, comprising such of the neighbouring population as are bound for their evening's amusement to Whitechapel. From the open windows in the first story of a brilliantly lighted tavern, there come sounds of such revelry as belongs to a harmonic meeting; and by a perusal of a bill in the window, over which I can see a select party who have begun the evening, and are at high words already, I learn that the renowned Mr. Somebody has, by the kind permission of Mr. Somebody Else, [-101-] consented to delight the world in this locality with his celebrated "buffo" songs; I am informed also that a Master Jackman, known as the Little Wonder, will appear in his unsurpassed performance on a whole orchestra of instruments, while some other "artistes," whose names are a guarantee for the arduous efforts of the spirited proprietor, will on this particular evening interpret not only Shakespeare and the musical glasses, but both English and Italian opera, to say nothing of melodrama, as exhibited in that soul-stirring ballad "The Forsaken Gipsey." By a footnote with three stars at the bottom of the bill, I discover that amateurs are respectfully invited to join in the harmony of the evening; and as the talented Mrs. Materboy, and the equally distinguished artiste Miss Flora McIvor are to preside in turns at the pianoforte, there is good reason for believing that such a host of talent has seldom been secured in the locality.
They are hard at it already, as the sudden rat-tat of the chairman's hammer, and his emphatic demand for order while Mr. Somebody obliges with a song, abundantly testify. There is a good deal of Mr. Somebody's song, and more of pianoforte accompaniment, and still more of general harmonic chorus, which has a tendency to get out of time, and is only brought up sharp by the rat-tat of the hammer again; but it is only when one of the amateurs presently consents to oblige amidst a great rattling of glasses and thumping of pint pots, that the chorus develops its full perfections; the company evidently regarding the singer as one of themselves, and being determined to support her (for it is a lady) with the united strength of some forty pairs of lungs, more or less powerful, and with a knowledge of the tune, which at once marks it as a popular favorite.
[-102-] Out here in the roadway another singer is ineffectually endeavouring to attract the attention of the passengers by an operatic air; but she has slunk to the opposite side of the street, where the houses are darker, and a few small shopkeepers are just visible behind their counters. As she trills "Sweet speeryit, he-ear my per-ayer," in a thin weak voice, it is evident that she once, at all events, had some musical taste, and even now her notes are so sweet and clear that they are heard above all the riot of the harmonic meeting which booms harshly from those open windows. There is something so melancholy in her wailing song, and her thin stooping figure, with its scanty weedy drapery, that I turn away, and find that I have been unconscious of the advancing tramp of feet through a paved yard close by.
The house before the railings of which I am standing reminds me of a doctor's which has been transformed into a dispensary, for its dark green door bears a neat brass plate, and, though the windows on each side are furnished with iron bars, they seem to indicate the bare consulting rooms with which I am familiar in connection with many public medical charities.
Turning round to look at them, however, I see that the railings of the area are furnished with a board on which several bills give a still sterner reality to the place. One of them is a smaller edition of the poster under the railway arch, offering a reward for the apprehension of a murderer, while the rest contain particulars of robberies, and detailed descriptions of the bodies of persons found drowned. There is something inexpressibly grim and repulsive in these forms, where the particulars of height, colour of hair, "marks, if any," and "how dressed," are all filled in with such accuracy as the first [-103-] inspection of the body will permit; but I am disturbed in my contemplation of them by the tramping I have just heard, and the steady egress of a line of policemen filing off for night duty. The place is, in fact, no other than the Leman Street Police Station, and, as I have to make a call there, I proceed up the paved passage, and into a square yard at the end, where some children are playing near the stone steps which lead to the office;- a large square hall, with a desk in the centre; an oval space, enclosed with strong iron railings, and furnished with an iron wicket to admit newly charged prisoners; and a narrow, hot, slip of a room, from which the officer on duty (generally an inspector) looks out from a glass partition, and, after hearing the accusations, enters the cases in the charge sheet. The oval iron fold (which is a necessary provision for the black sheep of this district) is at present occupied by a man who, beyond a cap, a shirt, and a pair of trowsers, is free from any personal effects, except a dirty bag which lies just outside. He has been charged with breaking a window at a public-house, in consequence (as he alleges) of some water having been thrown upon him as he stood outside the door engaged in settling an old standing quarrel with somebody not present.
This is verified by a voluntary and respectable witness, who, as a matter of justice, thinks it well to state that he saw the water thrown; but whose sense of equity will not permit him to sustain the inconvenience of appearing before the magistrate in the morning on behalf of the prisoner. The prisoner, who, to tell the truth, has an honest, poor, but self-assertive and, at the same time, indifferent manner, is candour itself.
He gets his living by picking up rags and rubbish in the street. He works when he can find work. There's [-104-] nothing in the bag; oh! the officer can look at it, he ain't got nothing upon him, all he had being the scrap of rusty iron, which the policeman who took the charge is now holding in his hand.
He sleeps where he can. Where did he sleep last night? Why, at Mile End workus, which is his parish, and where they take him in when he can't sleep nowhere else. Oh, he's poor, he knows that. He can read and write a little. Yes, he did crack the window; he don't wasn't to tell no lie about it. Broke it becos they throw'd water out upon him. Worth seven or eight shillins, is it? Well, there's One above as knows all, and it'll come down upon the person who wants to lock him up.
The person who makes the charge is certainly not a prepossessing person, and insists on leaving him there, so he is removed, apparently not much to his dissatisfaction, to a cell, where he hopes they won't leave him long before he has something to eat. I learn that he will have something before morning, a little bread and butter and some coffee, and I am as glad to know this, as I am to observe with what patient forbearance, and, except when either the prisoner or the accuser departs from the question, with what a very quiet manner the inspector in charge conducts the short examination. Going round to visit the cells presently, I see a man sitting in one of them, with the same stolid stare, and the same dogged maintenance of one position as I have noticed in other prisoners at other places. The new arrival asks for some water, and is supplied with a tin full, and though the bench on which he lies is hard, and the wooden block which forms the pillow uninviting, the cell itself is clean and well ventilated, as, indeed, it need be, since before morning it may receive four or five other inmates. Some [-105-] of them are coming in even while I turn to look at the handcuffs and the cutlasses hanging over the chimneypiece in the office. There is a good deal of bleeding in this new party, but that is a common occurrence at Leman Street, where it often happens that policemen, accusers, and prisoners, are all more or less wounded; for the knife and the bludgeon are institutions of St. George's-in-the-East, and the police station on these occasions is like a butcher's shambles.
The prisoner on this occasion is a slouching ill-conditioned fellow, in tight corduroys, and a loose linen jacket, made like that of a stableman, and the prosecutor is a voluble woman, with a loud high voice, a defiant breathless manner, and disordered hair.
What's he been doing? why, he has knocked her down; he knows what he "done" to her.
Well, what has he done?
Why, he knocked her down in the street, and stole the shawl off her back, and went and pawned it.
Does she live with him?
Yes, she does, or leastways she did; but she's been away from him now for this five months; only he thinks he can come whenever he likes and knock her about, and take away anything that she's earned; he thinks he can, he's done it three or four times; but now he shall see whether he's to give her a black eye and knock her down and steal her shawl.
Did he buy the shawl for her?
No; her husband bought it;- a man that's dead and rotten in his grave.
Then she's a widow?
Yes, she is.
And she has been living with this man?
[-106-] She has so; more fool she.
What has become of the shawl?
Why he went right off and pawned it for six shillings, and a little girl brought her the ticket; a little thing five year old brought it just as she come out, for she'd caught sight of him and run after him.
Did she mean to lock him up?
She did so, there was no mistake about it.
She had better make up her mind about that, because it often happened that people came there and made it all up afterwards, and gave the police a great deal of trouble for nothing.
Well all she wanted was her shawl, and she had the ticket.
What did the prisoner do for his living?
Why he stole, she believed. Ah, he might look at her, but she wasn't going to be afraid of him again, nor yet to be knocked down at his pleasure, and have all her goods took away. She worked hard, as the police knew; they might see her working outside her door early and late.
Why, at the mat making; and she lived near the green-yard.
During this time the prisoner stood with a hang-dog look upon his lowering face, which he attempted now and then to force into an expression of deprecation as though he were really shocked at the depravity of the witness.
What is he?
Why, he works at what he can get to do.
What has he had to do lately?
He's been working as a stevedore, and lodging at a common lodging-house.
Did he live with this woman?
[-107-] He used to, but he left her months ago, and hasn't seen much of her lately. Not a word she says about him is true.
On being asked whether she intends to leave him there, she has evidently begun to relent; but on his injudiciously calling her a liar, she retorts upon him that he knows he is a thief; and asks what he did to the black man, the sailor that he robbed last Thursday, coupling the question with the information that a member of the detective force knows all about him, and is looking after him.
Under these circumstances the inspector makes known his intention of keeping the prisoner till that detective comes in, for he is expected presently; and the woman, who is evidently relenting, again goes out into the yard and pants and snuffs the air as much like some wild animal which has recovered from the excitement of the chase as anything I ever saw. In two or three hours' time it is quite likely that she will decline to press the charge, and they perhaps will go away together to drink or quarrel, or to drink and separate, until he shall have made up his mind to commit some fresh outrage. There I leave him, however, shut up in the oval iron pen sullenly awaiting the arrival of the detective, and only now and then attracting the notice of the officer in charge, who will have to sit there in that close room beneath the flaring gas all night long, with, perhaps, a few minutes' rest in the large-cushioned windsor chair, but with a ready eye and a quick appreciation of those who come and go or come and stay, while he questions, reprimands, exhorts, denies, threatens, or even encourages, as the nature of each ease demands. He is a quiet, serious-looking officer, too, with a steady compactness which seems to me to be both his mental and physical qualification; but he is well acquainted with [-108-] those who are the principal customers at this station, and his quiet, subdued, even voice rises sometimes to a very demonstrative tone, and his cool gray eye somewhat changes in expression when either prisoner or accuser become mischievous, or evidently desire to pervert the ends of justice. For twenty-four hours will he himself be imprisoned in this close stifled room, except for such time as he will go his nightly round and visit the constables in his district, to which journey he refers as he bids me goodnight, and hints at the probability of my "coming across him" somewhere towards eleven or twelve o'clock.
The clock is now striking ten, and as I turn out of the main thoroughfare I find that Jack, for whom so many evil disposed people are waiting, is all alive; as much alive, that is, as he can be in smoke-dimmed public-houses, the heated atmosphere of rooms with sanded floors, and a crowd of people perspiring under the flare of hissing gas. At the great music-hall round here, near Wellclose Square, he is in great force, and a score of flashily-dressed women, hard of feature and unflinching of eye, are waiting about the lobby at the top of the stairs. Strange as it may seem, however, I find myself making comparisons in their favour between these Polls and Nancys and Sues of Wapping and Ratcliffe, and their wretched sisterhood at the night haunts of the western end of London. They are mostly distinguished by less sickly looks, and by an absence of that horrible attempt to assume a languid and fascinating manner which in the harlots of the Haymarket alternates with the lowest degradation of language and the most offensive suggestion of immorality. There is, perhaps, more of the brute about some of these girls, but they are so much the better for it, as the brute is better than the utterly perverted and listlessly abandoned human being. I notice few such wheedling [-109-] tones and shameful seductions as anybody may witness in the streets and public places west of Temple Bar, and what there is of coarseness, is, I cannot help thinking, more endurable than these. One other peculiarity I observe, which in a faithful description should scarcely be unmentioned. Many of these women seem to be waiting for certain rough-looking fellows of whom they take undisputed possession, and those best acquainted with the habits of these "unfortunates" know very well that the sailor coming home after a long voyage will often return very faithfully to that partner of his dissipation, who has established a property in him, and who will remain with him sometimes even after "his money is all spent." Just now the gallery is tolerably full, and the tobacco smoke almost obscures the stage where the usual music-hall entertainment is in progress, and the two niggers who have danced a "break down," and mutually played on each other's violins in all sorts of grotesque attitudes, give way to that inevitable comic singer, who, in a melancholy burlesque of fashionable attire, endeavours, for the five thousandth time, to infuse a little sprightliness into a performance of which it is difficult to say whether he or the audience are the most weary. The "respectable people" who occupy the lower part of the hall, from which the disreputable portion of the upstairs company is excluded, sit there silently smoking, or eating and drinking, and seem to have a notion that they are enjoying it; but upstairs Jack sits, for the most part, in a not very lively condition, and his more or less fair companions pay but little heed to what is going on beyond the occasional humming of the tune which is being played, and which they have heard over and over again, these many nights. Some of their number, too, are continually passing in and [-110-] out and joining the party in the lobby, where, when their conversation becomes too loud, it is immediately hushed by a tall, muscular, quick-eyed watchful attendant who stands near the door without a coat, and in a remarkably clean shirt, evidently ready to take action for the immediate represssion of any improper conduct, or undue disturbance. I am bound to say that the women on the stairs are ready to make way for anybody going in and out, and that, beyond their ordinary bold and half-defiant, though often wistful looks, there is nothing in their manner to which the visitor need take objection.
I had noticed in turning the street corner into the short avenue where this Music Hall is open, that the people hereabout, that is to say, the dealers in fried and shell fish, the fruiterers, the pie-shop keepers, and the shifting loungers around doors and at street corners, all regarded me as a comparative stranger to the locality, and that although in most places I could contrive to pass without special notice, there was first a lull in their conversation and afterwards a sudden and unnatural resumption of loud talking as I went by. I lose the sense of this however as I turn into the public house to whose open doors I am attracted by the sounds of a howling fiddle, an insane cornet, and a melancholy mad clarionet; for the landlord is evidently at ease with regard to his company and stands outside the bar cooling himself with his white apron tucked up round his waist. He is a German, as many of his neighbours are, a man with a fair, pale, pink face, and a quiet, respectable manner, which I am tolerably sure is not assumed, for it must be remembered that taverns and places of recreation must be kept open for the inhabitants of St. George's, whether the saint be of he East, or of Hanover Square; and although the company [-111-] here is neither select nor particular, the crowd of dancers whose feet I can hear shuffling in the room up the flight of stairs at the end of the passage, are just now perhaps less viciously employed than it is their habit to be during any hour of the day or night while they can keep their eyes open. The landlord makes no reference whatever to his customers: either I have come there to see them, in which case there they are without any necessary introduction, or I desire to join in the evening's amusements, and nothing should be more likely. He is a slow, low-voiced man with a rather weary vacuous expression, but as he leans his elbow on the leaden counter it is evident that he possesses great personal strength, and I think that expression of face would change if one of those loose-jacketed countrymen of his from the sugar bakery hard by, should happen to threaten, or to show even the handle of the knife that is hidden under his jacket. But there is little fear of this, for both landlord and landlady (she is a delicate-looking woman, with the traces of late hours, and gaslight, and a close neighbourhood painfully obvious in her thin face, and the dark rims under her eyes) are respectable civil people, with whom nobody but a madman would desire to pick a quarrel, and as some of the girls, flushed by a violent polka, or dishevelled by a rapid "deux temps" bring their partners down to drink in the cooler area of the bar, they speak less noisily and are served, with few words on either side.
There is but little to be seen of Jack here, however; when he is seen at all, he is sitting in a dull and listless fashion, at the tables which are placed round the room where the dancing is going on. It is a long apartment, with a sanded floor, furnished with a few common benches and painted deal tables, and lighted with the jets of gas [-112-] that roar and whistle from the commonest of burners suspended from the ceiling. On a small platform, at the upper end of the room, where the wall has once been papered with a dim suggestion of landscape scenery, now nearly obliterated by the dust and friction of the backs of the orchestra, the three instruments before alluded to wheeze and blare and shriek out a tune, to which a number of girls dance in the absence of more than two or three male partners. The few men who stand up are evidently foreigners (the German sugar bakers before mentioned), who solace themselves for long and exhausting labour in the neighbouring refineries by an evening's amusement, which has all the worst, and none of the best elements, of their native bier-garten. Only one sailor is joining actively in the festivities, and he is an American; but Jack is more or less represented by two or three blue guernseyed half-washed individuals, who are all leaning on the tables smoking, are all progressing in the various stages of intoxication, and who all regard the gyrations of the rest of the company with a dull stolid stare, which expresses neither surprise nor amusement, nor any interest whatever that I can discover; the same expression, but with an evil influence in it, with which the same men when sober, will lean upon a railing or a stone post or a pier, and look out at the sea, moving only to spit, or to change their pipes to the other sides of their months. The more drunk they become, the more stolid becomes this look, the more stony grow their eyes, the more like hard mahogany their faces, until, at last, they are either led half helplessly away, or roused by a word into a furiously quarrelsome temper, in which it is great good fortune if blows and stabs are not exchanged amidst a clamour of shrieking women; a rush of [-113-] men to separate the combatants, and a sudden darkness caused by the opportune turning out of the gas.
As a general rule, I find that, while he is here, Jack objects to be spoken to, and replies only by a careless stare or a gruff monosyllable or two, which are generally less complimentary than otherwise. It would be difficult to discover whether he considers, as the Turks do, that the women should dance for his amusement; but of one thing I am assured, that when a sailor does dance, he likes it for dancing's sake, almost irrespective of who may be his partner, so long as she is a proficient in the figure; and I have heard a lively enthusiastic steward, after a hornpipe at sea, declare that he'd "rather dance opposite their cook" (who had been, nobody knows how long, about the West India islands), "than with any young woman that ever put on a pair of pumps."
Jack's indifference on the present occasion can scarcely be caused by a scarcity of showy and high-actioned partners either, the most conspicuous being a dark-eyed, olive-cheeked, Jewish-looking sylph, dressed in moonlight satin, which has a remarkable effect in contrast with the place, and with one of her companions at this moment descending for refreshment to the bar, in white muslin with scarlet flowers and trimmings. Most of these girls are well dressed, many of them with the low-necked garments of fashionable life, and an exaggeration of those wreaths and ornaments which are most conspicuous in other ballrooms. Beyond a somewhat liberal display of shiny boots, morocco slippers, and pink, white, or open-work stockings, there is at this moment little in their manner which differs from that of the pupils in a dancing academy; and as some of the girls dancing together are certainly not more than sixteen years of age, and are evidently of the Israelitish [-114-] race, the comparison is all the more obvious. The majority of the company here consists of foreigners, principally of Germans, and Jack is quite in the minority in favour of the sugar bakers, some of whom have just come in from a great factory in an adjoining street, where a number of men sleep on the premises in rooms in which the accommodation has some resemblance to that of a rabbit-burrow. I am surprised by the silence of the company, by the set, almost gloomy faces of the girls, and especially of the younger girls who sit on the forms watching the dancing while they await their turn; this peculiarity, and the flashy splendor of some of their dresses (which must, I think, be referable to their Jewish connections in the wardrobe business), make a singular impression on me, since the whole scene is wonderfully unsuggestive either of low reckless riot, of careless dissipation, or, indeed, of amusement in any shape. I have seldom witnessed more gloomy reserve and apparant seriousness at the most fashionable thé dansante where quadrilles were the order of the evening; and though in the Redowa the two white-jacketed Germans jump their partners high into the air at the last note of every figure, not the ghost of a smile flickers on those set and lowering faces which look on, as at some customary but wholly enforced ceremonial observance.
This is the first of the saloons to which I enter, and numbers two, three, and four, are precisely similar, except that they fall by regular gradations to shabbier dresses, dingier and smaller rooms, and in one instance to a drooping company of only six persons, who are wearily waiting for an accession to their numbers and filling up the time by a casual figure or two of any dance which the band may think it worth while to play. Numbers five and six, however, are full to overflowing, and there is a greater [-115-] briskness on the part of the company, as liquors go pretty freely up and down the stairs under the superintendence of a couple of athletic potmen and a young woman in a limp white dress. Jack is here in greater force, but has retired, as is his wont, to two or three dim tables near the orchestra, where I can hear him growling monosyllabically. Here too I recognise my dishevelled and one-shoeless acquaintance of Tower Hill, whose eyes have lost their stony stare, by an attempt to combine with it a vague expression of reckless gaiety, little according with features fixed in the immobility of alcoholic drunkenness.
Whether he has a faint impression that we have met before I cannot divine; but with an ineffectual attempt to look at me without being drawn to the contemplation of a gaslight overhead, he asks me what I am going to stand, and at the same time volunteers "the damnedest hiding that I ever had in my life," whereupon - seeing that he is already compelled to lean against a wall in order to keep upright - I take no notice of him, but thread my way through the perspiring crowd, and go out in a gust of tobacco smoke settling towards the door. In a dozen rooms at the ends of passages on the ground floors, or up short flights of stairs, the same characteristics present themselves - women, more or less gaudily dressed, dancing, mostly with other women for a partner; men sitting, almost sullenly, at the tables for the women to join them when the dance is over; a repetition of the same band, the same orchestra,- sometimes with a "set scene" or two, which gives it the appearance of a magnified toy-stage- the same sanded-floor, the same flaring gas. The one exception in my visits of to-night is an ordinary tap-room, where, before the fire in the wide range and in the small clear space in the centre, not occupied by tables and settles, half a dozen [-116-] women are dancing to the sound of a fiddle hidden in the corner behind the door. There is but one man present besides myself and the musician, and I can scarcely help thinking that the dancers are enjoying their amusements more than any of those whom I have just left. At all events they are quiet enough, and, just stopping for a moment to look inquiringly as I enter, resume their amusement without any remark. They are all meanly, but cleanly, dressed in well-washed cotton prints, and I am convinced that, if they are waiting for Jack, they will do him less harm than some of the bedizened syrens who are just beginning to make themselves heard a few doors off, under the combined effects of a heated atmosphere and some of the most horribly adulterated spirits which were ever used without the word "poison" on a printed label outside the vessels which hold them. The quality of these fiery drinks is so thoroughly indicated even by their odour, which pervades the place, that I find myself considering how small a quantity of gritty brown brandy, scalding gin, or raw fiery rum, it would take to reduce a stranger to ungovernable insanity, supposing the dose to be repeated nightly in such a temperature as that in which I have been standing. I have no time for speculation, however, for Jack has suddenly woke up, or, having been awakened by his partners, is intent on some other place of amusement, to which he and his party are bound with the view, as I hear him say, of making a "finish of it where there isn't such a (sanguinary) row." As he surges out at the door, surrounded by some of the sylphs in muslins or silks which look less clean and brilliant away from the ballroom gas, I am carried out with him, and stand to give precedence to the party as it goes gruffly and shrilly swearing and laughing up "the Highway." Up "the "[-117-] Highway" I go myself, and find it in full swing; not that it is a merry, or a jolly, or a contented, or a generally thriving Highway by any means. It is a mad, besotted, miserable, sullen, suspicions, quarrelsome, poverty-stricken, immoral, shambling Highway, for the most part,- its voyagers taking beacon-lights for harbours of refuge, and, when they are not pirates themselves, running into a flotilla of treacherous piratical junks lying hidden everywhere along the coasts, and some of which come boldly out to take their prey in tow under cover of a false signal. Wherever sharks may be waiting for him, however, Jack is still in the same dull, half-besotted mood, at most of the places where I meet with him in this neighbourhood, although the Highway is obviously his own peculiar locality. At some of the dancing saloons here he joins in the festivity, as it were under a kind of protest, but he is certainly less sullen and indifferent, as being on his own ground, and not liable to disadvantage. He is in force at the place where the orchestra is also a stage, on which a young lady in short muslin petticoats performs a ballet by herself, or with a little girl of some seven years old, dressed like a marine-store fairy, in the intervals of selling seed-biscuits and heart-cakes to the company. He particularly affects the long reeking room where there is such a very brisk bar trade down stairs, and that little black-eyed child, with her beautiful, but thin, dark, sharply-cut face and jetty hair, trips down the room in her little white skirts and pink kid slippers after the dance upon the stage, where her father is now waiting to sing a sentimental ballad, and her mother is putting on the rouge behind a screen.
The face of the singer, with its shadow of blue closely shaved beard, and the yellow-greenish marks round the [-118-] dark eyes, is bloated and coarsened; but even as the first notes of the song are sounding on the worn piano, the eyes themselves follow this little slight form with an expression not, I think, altogether free from anxious fear. Good Heaven! what a place it is for a child; and yet the tiny feet tread confidently amidst these bold; brazen, shrill women, and their rough hoarse companions, the set smile on the thin lips, and the unflinching look of the large black eyes, where the shadow of the same dark circle rests even thus early, prove that she has learned to look upon this scene as one of nightly experience. Eight years old at most, unless late hours and spirits and water have stunted the proportions of twelve or thirteen to those of childhood. But the little spare figure is so lithe and active - the keen face, with its painfully mature features, has in it also such a baby wistfulness and confidence undergoing the set expression - that, remembering the thousand nurseries where children of her age are innocently asleep, and the thousand happy homes of which we people of England so justly boast as the high distinction of our land, it seems to be a shame, and almost a curse, that this little creature (not of our race, I think, in this instance, but of an older and once a prouder people) should help to earn her own daily bread and her nightly rest in such a place.
It is now nearly eleven o'clock, and her labours are not yet over; though she is not alone in this, for around all the great theatres in London, in travelling shows and circuses throughout the country, and in saloons and taverns in every part of this great city, scores of children are reared from their earliest infancy to a similar life; mere babes learn to speculate on the results of the "lucky pitch" of a travelling booth in some market town; and innocents, who elsewhere would be in the nurses' arms, have their limbs [-119-] trained to contortion, and are sent into a sawdust ring to practise dislocation for a living. In another room a roupy tenor, in a very full dress costume, is singing that celebrated nautical favorite "The Storm;" but though he declares, with a feeble assumption of vigorous expression, that our "de-woted bark lay, all next day, in the Bay of Biscay O!" she might be lying in Ratcliff Highway, and nobody would listen to him. I never made one of such an indifferent audience in my life, except on the few occasions when I have mingled in very fashionable society indeed; and I am not at all surprised that the singer should audibly instruct the orchestra to pitch the key a third lower, for such an inattentive assembly is scarcely worth howling at.
The truth is that the confused murmur of voices, the gradual falling off of the less assiduous dancers, their sudden assumption of seats beside the men, who till now have only favoured them with an occasional remark (often an expletive) as they passed, and the instinctive relaxation of exertions on the part of the potmen and waiters who bring in the liquors, all indicate that the evening's amusements here are drawing to a close. At "Paddy's Goose," a well-known tavern, the original sign of which is supposed to be a swan, but with its present distinctive appellation derived from the legendary mistake of an inquiring Irishman, whose studies in ornithology had been somewhat neglected-at this prosperous place of entertainment the company is at its liveliest, and, as I enter, a young woman, who is just coming away, is generously offering her bouquet to all those amongst the male portion of the assembly who are willing to inhale its fragrance. As it suddenly occurs to me, however, that bouquets are not amongst the usual accompaniments of the fair frequenters of Paddy's Goose, I gracefully decline these delicate attentions, and by this [-120-] prudent reserve avoid the plentiful distribution of pepper with which the blooms have been seasoned. I can see, however, that some others have been less fortunate; and a young sailor, a mere boy, with tumbled hair, and an open innocent expression on his round fair face, looks at me with comical appreciation as his eyes stream with tears, and his nostrils burn and quiver under the recent infliction. In another moment, however, I see a girl, of about his own age, quietly go to his side and take tacit possession of him, at the same time assuming a combined air of command and protection. Poor fellow, he is beginning to learn a lesson in a very bad school, and with a teacher who may be as unfortunate as himself.
They keep comparatively early hours in the Highway, so far as their public festivities are concerned, and it is doubtful whether the licensed victualling or unlincensed drinking interests of the neighbourhood will be very seriously affected by the new act for the early closing of such places of entertainment. Up to the last minute of business, however, they drive a brisk trade, which ends with a crowd struggling, leaning, standing, and sustaining every attitude but that of sitting, at the bar. At present that last minute is comparatively remote; and though the dancing has began to flag, the drinking has recommenced with a vigour which seems to indicate a determination on the part of the company to make the most of the next half hour. In fact, there is very little going on except drinking, for the few dingy shops for the sale of vegetables and butcher's meat and salted fish, which are common to the neighbourhood, seem just now to have little custom- as little custom, indeed, as those other shops where,- in the utter improbability of finding anybody at this time of night to buy dilapidated furniture or strange [-121-] odds and ends of second-hand apparel, the proprietors sit at the doors in some of their least rickety chairs, and, perhaps, wait for another sort of business, wherein these lurking youths who pervade the corners of bye streets, or may be seen now and then walking with wellassumed indifference wherever a small crowd may be expected to bear a part.
A sudden shouting, a rush of people into a public-house, the swinging doors of which are almost forced from their hinges by an equal number of people trying to get out. A confused jargon, composed of several languages, above all which sounds the high metallic notes of the Irish tongue, and I find myself in the midst of one of the least reputable mobs of which it has ever been my lot to form a member. What was the origin of the quarrel, and how it has led to a fierce fight amongst half a dozen people, nobody seems to know; but in another minute there is fighting in front of the bar, and presently fighting behind the bar, for one of the party has made an onslaught upon the landlord, and is trying to get over the beer-engine, a project which is defeated by the sudden appearance of the landlord's assistant, an active young German, who is presently striking out in the midst of a desperate attack, from which he emerges into the street, dragging the first aggressor with him, and altogether triumphant, but without his shirt, which has been torn off his back.
There is a lull for a moment, and the owner of the Irish voice, who has been using a whole dictionary of epithets to an exasperating foreigner, who replies by saying "Piff, piff," and waving his forefinger contemptuously, suddenly emerges, and proves to be a cleanly dressed portly woman, a little disordered as to her hair, but otherwise mightily unconcerned, and only pleasantly [-122-] excited. To me, as to one of the soberest of the party, and therefore most likely to sympathise with her wrongs, she begins to detail how that "it was wid the copper-stick, and she wid the blessed infant in her arrums too; the mercy that the creature wasn't killed, and she not able to offer the laste resistance." Congratulating her on having got away without being much hurt, she presents the crown of her head for my inspection, with a smile so humorous that I am utterly surprised to see the blood oozing from an ugly cut, and advise her to get away at once, which she with another smile and a nod complies with, especially as the momentary flame of wrath is flickering out, and the people are beginning to disperse. During all this time, however, I have been conscious of the operations of some of the lean, shabby, short-haired, slinking youths before referred to, who were down upon the crowd; a little flock of jail-birds, intent on obtaining a few stray crumbs even from the pockets of the poor women, round whose shabby gowns I notice their lithe fingers playing as though they were performing on the keys of some strange instrument. I see nobody whom it would seem to be worth their while to rob, although there are one or two sailors inside the house; but the London thief knows no pity in the way of his profession, and would filch the last penny from the pocket of the poorest woman seeking where to spend it for her morrow's dinner, or would snatch the halfpenny from a starving child looking hungrily into a cook's shop window. As the people begin to disperse, these youths vanish, having, I am pleased to think, been singularly unsuccessful. A small knot of them rejoin each other presently, however, on the cellar-flap of a little dark beer-shop opposite, and keep an apparently careless but deeply interested eye upon the crowd, which [-123-] has not yet separated. As they stand there I see another careless figure,- a man wearing a billycock hat, and with the fag end of a cigar in his mouth, and a short piece of a rattan cane swinging in his hand. He is their Nemesis, and, carelessly as they have seemed to eye the crowd, just so indifferently has he been watching them.
Before the warning whistle of the sharpest of the party can serve them, he is across the road in their very midst, and dealing smart cuts to two or three of their number, who dart away each with a stinging souvenir, but, except in one instance, without a word or a cry. The truth is that this lounging observer is a detective officer, known, it would seem, to every man, woman, and child, in .that neighbourhood, and with a power of "dropping on" anybody who "is wanted," which keeps these desperadoes pretty effectually in check. It is evident that the Highway and all the terrible neighbourhood around it is now under a control which may be far from the best influence that might be brought to bear upon it, but which is very effectual in preventing the sort of impunity which a few weeks of unrestricted licence or admitted terror would render this a worse district than the old Alsatia, or even the foul tangle of streets where the London ruffian once held authority at defiance in the neighbourhood of Lincoln's Inn.
The police are not "out of the way" here, at all events; and, though their presence is not too apparent, they can easily be summoned, and the sound of their rattles will bring speedy aid from their comrades.
There is a danger apart from thieves and bullies and the whole tribe of land and water rats, however, and that danger is at my elbow now; for the fight has broken out afresh, and in place of the high tones and broken exclamations [-124-] of a wordy quarrel, the voices of the men sound low and guttural. There is a stamping of feet, a scuffling rush, from which the first idle spectators escape to the outer edge of the crowd; long knives are coming from the waistbands of German workmen, or are being unslung from the piece of lanyard which holds them round the bodies of foreign sailors. A police officer has been seen to enter the house some time ago, and as the crowd chokes up the door those outside know that he may have been struck down by a quart pot, stabbed in the back, or felled with an iron shot slung in a silk handkerchief, a conveniently murderous weapon once greatly affected in the Highway. The detective is joined by another acute-looking young man in a peaked cap, who is, I am surprised to learn, on the same duty in the force, and we go back together, ready, but, as far as I am concerned, by no means eager, for a sudden rush to the rescue. I hope it is no confession of cowardice to say that I experience no little relief when I see the crowd open and the first policeman emerge unhurt, while the knives are huddled away again, and the young German, who has put on another shirt, comes outside to cool himself informing us, with wonder depicted on his face, that, "By Gott, they tried to hit our old man, tried to strike him, to strike him!-our old man they did, by Gott; and we wasn't goin' to haf dat."
The Highway is growing lively by this time, for the saloons are about to close for the night, and Jack, having had as much to drink as he can walk under, and being more or less (generally very much less) sober, is escorted by his fair companions to the various "lodgings" where he is waited for in the immediate vicinity.
Mostly without bonnets, and generally with no headcovering at all, except in adverse weather, when they wear [-125-] a shawl drawn up in the Irish fashion, these flushed, gaudy women, with their garish shreds of ribbon or artificial flowers, present a strange spectacle in the squalid streets as they pass along in separate groups, shouting hoarsely to such of their companions as they recognise, or shrieking the vilest expletives to be found in their vocabulary, under the frenzy of gin and water on the brain. It is terrible to stand and watch them as they pass, to hear their language, and to think of the lives they lead. It is strange to note how they seem to have cast from them, at this period of the night, any remnant of that seductive manner by which it might be supposed they influence their rough paramours.
In truth, they are often the louder, the coarser, the more vituperative of the two, and Jack's occasional rough oath and brutal manner is utterly cowed and overborne by the shrill torrent of imperative profanity with which he is treated by the syrens who drive rather than lure him to his ruin.
And yet these wretched women - mere girls some of them - steeped in infamy, and sometimes in crime, when others of their sex are ignorant of the ordinary ways of the world outside the playground walls, racked by disease, and going fast to the grave, where they will be taken in a nameless coffin from the dead-house of the union-these women who seem so reckless, and never, if they can avoid it, allow a sober interval to break the fiery monotony of the hell within them, are the slaves of other women older than themselves.
That slinking beldame, with her loose dress only just hanging from her bloated body, is shuffling across the road for her night's supply of liquor before the taverns are closed; and, stopping for a moment to whisper to one of the knot of bullies who are the accursed henchmen of the stew [-126-] by which she lives, turns her bloodshot eye with a devilish leer upon the party just entering her doorway. The gaudy dress, the tawdry finery, the scanty meal, the solace of the drugged dram, which for a time banishes memory and burns up remorse-these are hers to give; and the miserable victims of her greed may die or not for aught she cares, unless they are profitable chattels, to be used in the hideous trade she lives by. I say to myself that these things are horrible, for I am conscious at the moment of a most horrible phase of them. Just out of the glare of the light made by a newly opened greengrocer's, where the vegetables are piled in trucks upon the roadway, I see four figures passing beneath the shadow of the houses; two of them are women, sallow, hollow-eyed, slipshod, and with the traces of disease and want in their bent heads and the wretched rags that cover them; between them walks a big, loose-jointed negro - some ship's cook it may be, or a sailor from some distant port - his black face set in a drunken, idiotic grin, which seems to me to have a half-consciousness of shame and hesitation in it too. Behind them walks another being - a woman surely, but so far away from all ordinary associations of womanhood that she seems rather to represent one of the weird fancies of the earlier poets, and might be one of Spenser's hags or either of the witches from Macbeth, coming here to find her foulest charms for a new hell-broth. There is old age in her shuffling gait and bent form - old age in the trembling, skinny hand, with which she points this unfortunate child of Ham the way that he is undoubtedly going - old age in the reedy screech with which she jeers and laughs, and urges him forward, lest even he should suddenly be smitten with horror, and wake too soon from the cursed spell that is upon him.
[-127-] "Old Peg could tell you some queer stories if you could get hold of her and stand a drain, and give her a bit of tobacco; at least, she could if you could only get her in the humour, for she must be near eighty, and has lived here for years."
"What was she?"
"What was she! Why, a prostitute- one of the regular Polls; nobody knows what she hasn't been."
"What does she do now, then?"
"What does she do! Well, that ain't easy to tell - do anything, if it's only bad enough. What do they all do! Look there."
I am looking there, and I see the like of Old Peg as she goes on her way, still with a close resemblance to the witch who seems to have left the affairs of Macbeth in order to marshal sea-cook Othello out of the glare and bustle of the Highway.
I do not care to follow, though I am in reality bound for the same locality, for I have a few more places to visit, a few more streets to pass through, before I reach a neighbouring locality which has also earned an evil reputation.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.- ]