Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Detestable Boots (A Temperance Story)

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"AND this is our museum," remarked the good-natured inspector in charge, and, so saying, he selected a key from the bunch and unlocked a door that ranged with the cell-doors, and looked like one of them. The interior disclosed showed the cupboard to be of considerable capacity. Affixed to the walls were shelves and books, on and about which were bestowed as miscellaneous a lot of goods as one can well imagine. "This is where we keep our waifs and strays," said Mr. Inspector; "we have a clear-out every three months, and judging from our stock, I should think the time can't be far off." Articles of wearing apparel chiefly were the waifs and strays in question. There were women's shawls and mantles, in many cases torn and ruined in the brawl that possibly cost the late proprietress her liberty, and with the mud baked hard and dry on them ; there were bonnets and hats with falls and feathers attached, and parasols more or less sound and fashion able. There was an elaborately "worked" petticoat once white, which Mr. Inspector informed me one of his men had strangely enough discovered suspended across the rail of a street lamp-post. Of male attire, the collection was scarcely as large and various, and was, indeed, mainly confined to hats and coats, and travelling wraps and shawls. But beside these, there was an extensive assortment of baskets and carpet and leather [-187-] bags and walking-sticks, and umbrellas, besides several just such bundles as a thief might drop in the heat of the chase, glad enough to escape on such easy terms. But what chiefly attracted my attention was a pair of great clumsy boots, such as a navvy wears, but utterly worn out, with heels aslant and with holes fretted in their upper parts, blue as bilberries with mildew, against which the russet rust of the battered nail heads showed to advantage.
    "These articles look as though they had lain here considerably longer than three months," I remarked to Mr. Inspector.
    "Ay, indeed, it must be nigher fifteen months than three since they were last thrown in here," he replied, taking up one of the ancient ankle-jacks by its mouldy tongue, and regarding it with evident interest.
    "Why were they not turned out at the last clearing ?"
    Mr. Inspector smiled. "They are uncommon boots - privileged boots, sir," said he. "I much question if the price of the handsomest pair of Wellingtons that ever were made would buy these old jacks out of the hands of the man who sets such store by them."
    "I should like to be informed in what respect they are valuable," I remarked.
    "Take them in your hands, sir, and see if you can find out for yourself."
    But I could make nothing of them except that they were worn out quite, fit only to be thrown on a dunghill.
    "Then I will explain to you in what the essence of their value consists, sir," said Mr. Inspector. "They were once the property of a murderer."
    "Of a murderer!"
    "Of the man who was hanged at ---- for the murder of his grandfather," continued Mr. Inspector, stooping to recover the boot that in my momentary horror I had dropped. "You recollect the case, sir, I dare say. About as cruel a murder as ever was done, I think that was. All through drink."
    [-188-] "But why are they the more valuable for the reason you assign? The wax-work people in Baker Street might be excused for taking that view, but really -"
    "If you will come and sit by the fire I'll tell you how they came to be accounted worth preserving," Mr. Inspector obligingly remarked.
    "As perhaps you may recollect," he began, "the poor wretch I allude to was apprehended hereabouts, though the murder was done far down in the country; and the way in which he came to leave his boots here was simply this. From the time of his committing the crime till he made his way to London he got no rest, but tramped on and on, day and night, more miles than I should like to say, speaking from memory. He tramped until his feet were blistered and swollen, and when he came into the office - into this office -one night between eleven and twelve, saying to me, 'Is this a place where a murderer may give himself up for punishment?' he was barefoot, and carried his boots-these boots - slung by their thongs at the end of the stick with his little bundle.
    "But it isn't about him that I have anything to tell. All I need say is that his feet being too bad to admit of his being able to get his heavy old boots on them, an easier pair were found for him, and I believe he was hanged in them. Anyhow, his old ones were left here, and thrown into that cupboard.
    "Well, there they lay for over two months. And now I must tell you that two years ago the most troublesome customer this not over-polished or genteel neighbourhood furnished us was a drunken farrier - a middle-aged man, a big, broad-chested fellow, who could drink a pailful of beer, as the saying is. When he chose to work, there was no one of his craft more clever and dexterous, so that any time in three days he could earn as much as a plodding man could earn in a week. The consequence was that lie never worked more than these three days, and gave up the rest of his time to drinking and bragging of his ability.
    [-189-] "You would never have guessed that he earned good wages, judging from his appearance. Nothing but rags covered him, and he had never a pair of decent shoes to his feet, so that when he went to work his master was obliged to place him at the back of the shop for shame's sake. Saturday was his grand day, and almost certain as the night came lie would be brought here to lodge, drunk and incapable for anything but holloaing and swearing. His wife, Sunday after Sunday - a decent little woman enough - used to bring him a bit of dinner, and we used to let them sit together while he ate it in his cell, thinking that it might make him feel his degradation, and tend to his mending.
    "But it was all of no use; there seemed no more chance of mending him than there is of making a rotten apple sound. He grew worse and worse. One Monday morning, in the depth of winter, just as they were turning him out (we never took him before the magistrates, if we could avoid it), I noticed that he was without the tattered old shoes he generally wore so I bethought me of the old ankle-jacks lying idle in the cupboard, and, calling him, got them out.
    "'See if you can squeeze your feet into these,' I said. 'If you don't sell them for gin, they may carry you along for a month or so.'
    "'No fear; cuss the gin!' he replied, as he squatted down on that stool there to pull the boots on.
    "'I tell you what it is, Bill Herd,' I says to him; 'if you don't alter your course these boots will last quite long enough to carry you to a madhouse; or, worse still, perhaps, to the place where they left their last owner.'
    "'And where might that be?' he asked. He had got one boot on, and the other was in his hand.
    "'At the gallows. They are Thomas Patten's old boots. You know the man I mean?'
    "My dear sir, it was a sight to see him then, I assure you. He started up with a yell, and held out the foot with the boot [-190-]  on it as though something within it was stinging him and causing him frightful pain, while his staring eyes were bloodshot, and his limbs trembled as though shaken by palsy. Then he commenced tearing at the laces without saying a word, and got the boot off, and standing with his naked feet on the cold stones, he seemed changed from a drunken brute to a sober man.
    "'I'd rather walk my bones bare than wear 'em,' said he; 'I'm bad enough, the Lord knows-no better than a brute beast ; but I ain't glad as yet to wear a murderer's boots. Thanky for the lesson, however. My feet shall have a scrubbing to-day if they never did before.'
    "Well, the story served to amuse us awhile, and the boots were flung back into the cupboard again. We made no doubt that the 'lesson' he had received would wash out with the first quart of beer he drank, and that as usual we should have to provide him lodgings on Saturday night. When we found that he did not trouble us, we set it down in our minds that he was ill - that he had drank himself down to a bed of sickness at last. Two, three weeks passed, and then one day, when I was sitting here all alone, Bill Herd made his appearance. For the moment I did not observe that he was unaccompanied.
    "'Here again, then?' said I, reaching up for the charge book; and then I noticed that he was not only alone, but that he was perfectly sober, and much better dressed than I had hitherto seen him.
    "'What do you want? Who brought you here?' I asked him.
    "'Nobody, master,' he replied. 'I haven't been drunk- haven't touched so much as a pint of beer or a glass of gin since you last saw me. It is because I fear that I am just on the brink of breaking out again that I have ventured here to ask of you a favour.'
    [-191-] "'What is it?'
    "'I want you to give me or sell me the boots that belonged to - to - never mind who - you know, sir.'
    "'What! Pattens' boots! Surely you don't mean those?'
    "'No others, sir. It isn't because I haven't got a pair (and as he spoke he held up one of a very good pair), but because I feel like fading out of my fright, and want another dose to hold me quiet.'
    "'You may have them, and welcome, Bill,' said I, and I couldn't forbear laughing at the recollection; 'you stripped 'em off pretty quick the last time you had them on; however, you shall have them if you fancy them.'
    "'There you're wrong, sir,' he replied, with an earnestness that was startling. 'It is no fancy. It is because I hate 'em, that I want 'em, and, what is more, I want 'em to wear. Nothing weaker than them is strong enough to hold me back from the drink. Good resolutions won't do it - all that my wife can beg and pray is not equal to it. I've kept off it for three weeks now, but you don't know what I've suffered. It is worse than hungering for bread is thirsting for gin when once you let it get tight hold on you. It haunts you. It peeps out at you in brimming measures and in tempting wide-mouthed glasses from the dark corners of the workshop. I sweat of it the harder I work, and its trickling down my face drives me mad almost. I go to bed o' nights only to dream of it. For the Lord's sake let me have the boots. I shall never be able to make a strong stand against the temptation until I have 'em on.'"
    "Of course, you had no hesitation in giving him what he desired after such an appeal?" I remarked.
    "Of course; I got them out for him at once. 'There you are, my lad,' said I ; 'if they only do you half as much good as you imagine, they would be cheap at a hundred pounds.'
    "So he took them, thanking me heartily, and away he went. No one knew of the farrier's strange fancy but myself, and I re-[-192-]solved to say nothing about it. 'If I'm not mistaken,' I thought to myself; 'the whole town will hear of it soon enough'; for after lie was gone it occurred to me, and caused me no little uneasinesss, that unhinged as the man's mind evidently was, this wearing of the murderer' boots would provide the finishing stroke, and presently we should hear of drunken Bill Herd as an inmate of a lunatic asylum.
    "But I am glad to tell you that I was mistaken - altogether mistaken. His hunger for drink was so violent, and his dread of its effects so torturing that the remedy he chose against it proved not a bit too strong. Feeling uneasy, I kept my eye on him and saw that he stuck to his purpose manfully. I met him as though by accident the very next day as he was returning from work, and he touched his cap cheerfully, at the same time glancing down at his feet, which were encased in  the boots. I saw him many a day after that, through six months, till one Monday morning, a healthy-hooking and respectable man, he made his appearance here with a parcel in his hand.
    "'I thought that I should find you alone, sir,' said he. 'I hoped so. I've brought back the boots. I can do without 'em at last, I do hope and believe.' And then he went on to tell me of the struggles he had endured, and in which, aided by the doughty boots, he had contrived to come off victorious. 'Once,' said he, 'that was three weeks after you were so kind as to let me have 'em - I had worn them every day, and felt so strong in my mind that I thought I would give my feet a holiday, so I brushed my other boots and put them on and went off to work. But somehow I couldn't settle down to the tools. As I stooped to the shoeing the boots that I had so nearly shipped in seemed to mock me and to say, "You'll be at it again before nightfall." And so I believe that I should, had I not, as it were, taken the devil that was tempting me neck and crop and bundled him out. I didn't hesitate a minute, but putting my tools aside, I ran home every step and got into my [-193-] ugly make-sure boots again. But that's a long time ago, and I think that I'm all right now.'
    "'Don't make too sure, Bill,' said I.
    "'I don't mean to, sir, else I should have burnt my makesures or thrown 'em away; as it is, I bring 'em back for you to mind for me, if you will be so kind. At the same time hoping and praying that I may never want 'em'
    "And I don't suppose that he ever will," remarked Mr. Inspector, in conclusion, "for it's over a year ago since he pulled them off, and now he is a rising man, with a farriery of his own."