Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - A Fallen Star

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ALTHOUGH in and about the great city, things, marvellous and previously unheard of, are continually happening, it cannot be regarded but as an uncommon circumstance when a viscountess is discovered seated on a beer barrel before the bar of a low pothouse in Leather Lane, partaking of a baked potato, hot from the can of a peripatetic vendor of that nourishing vegetable.
    If, however, one may credit the evidence of his own eyes, and rely on the testimony of witnesses who could have no object in imposture, I myself can vouch for this strange happening. It was not altogether an unexpected discovery. A gentleman with whom I am acquainted, and whose charitable mission it is to look after the spiritual welfare of the heathen court and alley dwellers of one of the worst parts of the metropolis, so long ago as four or five years, imparted to me the interesting fact that he reckoned, amongst his flock of black sheep, one whose fleece, in bygone times, was, at least from a worldly aspect, the finest and snowiest imaginable. Just as an ancient silver spoon, blackened and battered out of all shape, might be discovered amongst the coarse dross and dregs of a marine-store shop, so was the individual in question revealed to my friend during his explorations in slums and out-of-the-way places. She was the associate of drovers, sweeps, and costermongers, male and female, and lived and lodged with them, [-41-] "And yet," said my friend, "from her own statements, as well as from such inquiries as I have had opportunities of making, she was once in the enjoyment of a title of rank, and moved in the most fashionable society; her beauty being no less notorious than its baneful influence on the large number of high-bred nobles who, dazzled and betrayed by it, had fallen wing-singed and crippled for life."
    This, however, was a very long time ago; so long, indeed, that George the Fourth was then king. Since, however, it is not impossible that there may be certain persons who would be rendered uneasy were they made aware that this one brilliant star, now fallen so low, is still in the land of the living, it may be as well to call her Lady Blank. She is a stickIer still for the old title. She is proud of it. When she is getting drunk - a habit to which I am sorry to have to state she is by no means uncommonly addicted - she is frequently seen to raise her gin glass, and to mutter something about "dear old times;" and when, with perseverance worthy of a better cause, she has succeeded in reducing herself to a condition of perfect intoxication, she imperiously resents all undue familiarity on the part of the squalid crew ordinarily her bosom friends and cronies, and will reply to no question unless she is addressed as "your ladyship." As I was informed before I had the felicity of being introduced to her ladyship in person, her intimates, indeed all who know her, have the most perfect belief in her pretensions, and drink good luck to Lady Blank in simple sincerity. When her funds are gone they will lend their aristocratic acquaintance a few halfpence to "keep the game alive," relying on the sufficient security of her word of honour for repayment. Occasionally, at extremely hard-up times, they oblige her ladyship by carrying her boots or her shawl to the pawnbroker's; and probably when that obliging tradesman, in faithful pursuit of his profession inquiries "What name?" that of Lady Blank is given and duly inscribed on the ticket.
    [-42-] This much, and more that need not be repeated, I knew beforehand. Likewise that her ladyship's passion for strong waters had been the cause of her face being as well known almost, to more than one metropolitan magistrate, as that of his own clerk. It was only recently, however, that fortune favoured me with an opportunity of contemplating this poor old mud-foundered wreck of ancient gentility. As before mentioned, it was in Leather Lane, High Holborn; and the first intimation I received of the presence of her ladyship was as follows. A man at the drinking bar was in conversation with a vendor of baked potatoes, which he carried in a can, slung on his arm:-
    "I want a halfpenny off you, governor," remarked the baked potato man civilly.
    "Wot for?" was the response; "I ain't had no tater."
    "No; but she has." And the potato man jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate whom he meant.
    "Oh, that's it! Now I tell you what it is, my fine feller," returned the other man with a scowl; "for 'arf a pin I'd let you go on wantin' that a'penny. Who are you calling 'she?' Hain't she got a handle to her name?"
    "Well, well; you know who I mean. Her ladyship; will that do for you ?"
    "That's better," replied the man at once mollified. "Did you pick her out a mealy one?"
    "She picked it out for herself;" said the potato dealer; "let her ladyship alone for that She ain't to be put off with a waxy 'un, or a watery one either, I can tell you."
    "I shouldn't think you'd try it on with her - a woman who used to ride in her own carriage, with flunkies behind her; and the fat o' the land to be had for the asking." And as he spoke he glanced in my direction in a manner which betokened that his observation was intended for my ears rather than for those of the baked potato merchant. I comprehended the position [-43-] of affairs instantly. "Her ladyship" alluded to could be no other than the celebrated Lady Blank, concerning whom my friend the missionary had long ago spoken with me. It was an opportunity not to be neglected. In ten minutes afterwards the man and myself were on conversational terms, and had drunk to each other's health, and to that of her ladyship.
    "No; I don't in the least wonder at your doubting it," he remarked, wagging his head with admiration, if not with tenderness, as he regarded the remarkable looking old female of whom we were speaking. "You wouldn't think it to look at her - nobody would. Certainly, I am bound to admit that there isn't much of it shining on the surface of her now; but there was a time - it's a precious long while ago - but there was a time, sir, when that old party was a dasher of the first water. None of your French paste and cheap plated goods, but solid gold and diamonds. It isn't easy to believe it, sir, as you say, but it's true, for all that."
    Certainly it was not easy to believe the man's assertion, although it was evident from his earnest manner that to the best of his knowledge he was speaking only what was true. As she sat there on a beer barrel in front of that dirty gin shop bar, it was difficult to associate her present or any previous portion of her existence with water of the first, or, indeed, of any other quality. She wore no bonnet or any other kind of head covering, excepting a few spare wisps of iron-grey hair which had escaped from the almost toothless comb perched all aslant on the summit of her cranium, as though the liquor that the woman was imbibing had got not only into her head but into the comb as well. Her dark eyes were bleared and bloodshot, and blinked with tipsy satisfaction on the partly empty measure of rum which stood on the metal counter before her.
    She must have been a tall woman before age had bowed her shoulders, the broad bones of which were painfully indicated through the ragged flimsy shawl pinned tightly across her [-44-] chest, as though to conceal some deficiency of bodice or stays beneath. She appeared to be little else besides bones and rags. In the intervals of sipping her rum she was engaged in making her supper off the baked potato; and as she screwed up her old mouth to blow the smoking vegetable, it really seemed as though her jaws must fall asunder. Her hands were of the colour of the baked potato skin, and were fleshless almost as those of an Egyptian mummy. She sat on the tub with a squareness which suggested that her legs were attached to her body as are the legs of a cheap wooden doll; and the scantiness of her bedraggled skirts betrayed the bagginess of the stockings which hung about her shrunk old shins.
    It was by no means easy to guess her age. She must have been at least sixty-five. Probably she was seventy-five: probably eighty-five. I put the question to my friend, who exhibited great gratification at the interest with which I regarded his protégé.
"How old is she, governor ?" he repeated. "Lord only knows. I never trouble myself about that. It's the quality I look at."
    "And you think that the quality for which you admire her does not diminish with age ?"
    "Well, if you ask my private opinion," he replied, buttonholing me, that he might convey it in the lowest of whispers, "I shouldn't like her to hear it, because it might make her vain, and lead her to take advantage. But I think that the older one of her kind gets she gets the more preciouser."
    "Becomes a greater novelty, eh ?"
    "No, I don't mean that; new things is novel. I mean to say that she gets rarer - better worth keeping by you. Like a old guinea or a painted picter. Lord bless you, it wouldn't make no difference in my treatment of her if she was as old as Methusalem."
    "She's your wife, I suppose ?"
   [-45-] "My what ?"
    "Your wife."
    My friend was incautiously drinking at the moment, and he was taken with so violent a fit of suppressed laughter that his liquor went "the wrong way;" and for a time he appeared to be in danger of death from suffocation.
    "Not she," he replied at length. "You don't know her, or you wouldn't ask such a question. She's miles too stuck up, even if I wished it, which I don't. No, she's a fancy of mine - a kind o' curiosity; and I looks after her, that's all."
    I was unable to make out with entire satisfaction who and what was the gentleman who, at this stage of her decline from former greatness, Lady Blank deigned to honour with her particular acquaintance. My hints on this head elicited the shy rejoinder that he was a "dealer;" and certainly there was an air about him which savoured of old furniture, house clearings, and other things brokerish; which symptoms, however, were directly at variance with the tight-fitting corduroy trousers and red ochre stained jacket, which bespoke him a drover. But again, to this last view there was contradiction in his cap, which was a close-fitting, smooth-napped article, such as is seldom seen on any human head excepting that of the British costermonger.
    Lady Blank's tastes must certainly have deteriorated along with her falling away from her ancient tip-top associations. The individual who at present honoured her with his protection was not what would generally be regarded as a prepossessing person. His hair was cropped close, his nose much flatter on his face than noses usually are, while his massive chin and lower jaw were blue with a rare strength of bristly growth lurking beneath the skin. His only redeeming features were his eyes, which were merry and twinkling, especially when he turned them in Lady B.'s direction; there could be no doubt that his admiration for the old woman was sincere. It was he [-46-] who had replenished her measure of rum. It was he who had paid for her baked potato. He did not appear anxious to press either his company or his conversation on her; and as the degraded old creature munched and mowed, and soaked a piece of her potato which was underdone, in the rum glass, Mr. Dealer evinced the unspeakable satisfaction the spectacle afforded him by the blandest of smiles; at the same time tenderly caressing with the tip of his forefinger a bald expanse behind his ear.
    "Pon my soul," remarked the dealer, after a prolonged fit of contemplation, "when I think about it, it takes me all my time to believe in the realness of it all."
    "You have no doubt of it, however ?"
    "How can I have? If she was always drunk, as she is now, it might be that I was took in; but it's very different from that. I've heard her pedigree over and over again, as I've been a sittin' peaceful, blowing my bacca with her by the fire side."
    "And when she has been quite sober?"
    "When there hasn't been so much as a half-quartern amiss with her, sir. I've heard her tell that same story twenty times if once, and she never deviates so much as a single sinnable in telling it. She's as much Lady B., wot's left of her, as she was when out-and-out swells ruined themselves a buying diamonds for her; and she thought no more of being waited on by lords and dukes than I do of a game at skittles. Why, dools have been fought about her!"
    "Duels ?"
    "I've had it from her own lips. At least, there was one dool fought, and all because one chap trod on her broidered skirt at a ball, and sort of sneered when he was asked to 'pologize; so the nobleman she was a dancing along with called out the other, and they went and settled it on Wormwood Scrubbs. That's the party, sir - she what's now a sitting on that beer barrel, that Lord T. once gave four hundred guineas for a [-47-] saddle-horse for. Them there old fingers of hers, which are glad now to hold on to a baked tatur, one time o' day blazed with diamond rings that cost over a thousand."
    "They were whiter then than they are at the present time," I ventured to remark.
    "White as milk, sir; I'll go bail for it," replied Mr. Dealer, enthusiastically. "Lord, what a beauty she must ha' been! And a lady, too - a real harristocracy lady, you must understand. Opera box, whacking great mansion up steps, and flunkies to hold her umbrella over her when it was raining, and she was stepping from her mansion to her carriage. That's her on the tub. I drove her down to Barnet last fair time in a donkey barrow belonging to a friend of mine."
    "And how do you agree together ?"
    "Oh, we rubs along pretty well, mostly," he replied, gallantly kissing his hand to Lady Blank, who at that moment was holding up the upturned rum measure as a sign that she would regard it as a favour if he would yet once again pay for its refilling. "Sometimes she cuts up rough, though," he continued in a lower voice; "its nat'rally to be expected, considering her breed, that she should; but I ain't always in the humour to make that allowance. When she gets audacious drunk and rides the high horse, why then, of course, I have to put on the kicking strap."
    "Of course," I remarked, "you merely take it for granted that she was at one time the beauty you would make her out to be."
    "How d'ye mean ?"
    "You have no proof of it; it is only what she tells you."
    "There you're wrong, governor," replied Mr. Dealer, his confidence warming. "I've seen what she was in them days with my own eyes."
    "You? Why you are not more than fifty, while she -"
    "I don't mean to say that I've seen her living figure when she was a splendid swell, but I have seen her likeness painted [-48-] on a egg-shaped bit of ivory. It's no more like her now than a golden necklace is like a halter."
    "I should like to see it."
    "Werry likely; so should I," replied Mr. Dealer, laconically.
    "What has become of it, then ?"
    "It's a deuce of a time since I saw it, but I recollect it well enough," he continued, not heeding my question. "The pictur of quite a young girl, with a low-neck frock, and a regler all a-blowin' and a-growin' kind of bust, plump as cauliflowers, and with a heart-shaped thing hanging round her neck, made out of precious stones, and fastened by a gold chain. It was no wonder the degree to which the nobs and swells of them times courted her. Such ringletty hair, such eyes, and the white teeth a showing between the lips, just open a little, and looking as temptin' as - as a hiester (by which I suppose he meant oyster). It must ha' cost a heap of money. It's as cracked and yellow as a old pie-dish now. It used to have a gold rim, but she didn't set any store by that, and so she took it off and sold it. But she wouldn't part with the painted pictur: there, I don't believe," continued Mr. Dealer, solemnly, "that she would make away with that cracked old portrait if she was dying for a drop of rum, and what she could get for it would save her."
    "But what has become of it? Does she wear it ?"
    "She used to," he replied, whispering, lest the dreadful old creature on the tub might overhear him, "but she don't now. She's too much afeard of losing it."
    The tipsy comb that up to this time had been holding on by a single tooth atop of her head had now fallen down; and with her thin grey hair all loose and dabbling in the spilt rum on the counter, Lady Blank, despairing of more rum at Mr. Dealer's expense, just at present, was indulging in a refreshing nap with her head resting on her folded arms.
    "Yes; she used to wear it always," the man continued, [-49-] "with a hole bored in the edge of it, and a bit of string round her neck, and hid down her bosom; but since I accidentally biled it she hides it away somewheres at home."
    "Since you did what with it ?"
    "Biled it, sir. It was quite a accident, though at the time she didn't believe it was. I'll tell you how it happened. We had a old iron kettle what was only fit to keep odds and ends in, because the spout was knocked off. We didn't have no other kettle, so we used to bile the water for breakfast and tea in a saucepan. Well, one day when she had been sent to quod for her old game, I thought that I'd surprise her when she came home by having a bit of a treat ready for her. She is werry partial to a stewed cow's heel, on account of her teeth being bad; and that's what I got her. Well, the saucepan being engaged in cooking it, and water being wanted for a cup of tea, I thought that I'd make shift with the old iron kettle with the spout off, that I told you about just now. So I took, as I thought, all the rubbish out of it, and put some water in it and set it on the fire to bile, and laid the plates and the cups and saucers all ready, when in she came, sniffin' what was cooking and breaking into words of gratitude, because I hadn't forgot her. But all on a sudden she spies the old kettle steamin' away on the hob, and then she alters her tune in a manner that surprised me, I can tell you. She squeals out and makes a sudden dash at the fireplace, like a scalded cat. Next minute, in a manner of speaking, she was a scalded cat; for before you could count six she had whipped off the lid, and, bilin' hot as the water was, she plunges her hand into it, and after scraping about for a time she fishes up the blessed portrait. It had laid flat at the bottom, d'ye see, when I hooked out the other bits of rubbish, and I had overlooked it. 'Course, there was a end to the 'armony," said Mr. Dealer, bringing his narrative to an abrupt conclusion.
    "What did she say about it ?" I asked.
    [-50-] "What didn't she say?" grinned Mr. Dealer. "She carried on at me at such an orful rate that anybody would have thought that it was a young un' of hers I had biled by accident, instead of that ivory thing. It isn't often that I wallops her ladyship, but I certinly did on that occasion; I couldn't help it."
    "And the miniature ?"
    "That was the last time I ever saw it. She's took better care of it ever since. She's got it safe enough, I'll bet - up the chimney, or in a crack under the floor boards, or somewheres."
    "But what makes you think that she still has it hoarded away ?"
    Mr. Dealer directed a cautious glance towards Lady Blank, and, finding that she was still asleep, he turned, with an air of relief, to continue the conversation.
    "Do I look like a superstitious kind of a man ?" he asked, mysteriously.
    I readily answered that he certainly did not.
    "I'm glad of that," said he, "because if I did, I should look like what I ain't; which isn't pleasant. No; I ain't superstitious, but I've got my ideas; and what d'ye think they are?"
    I assured him that I had not the remotest notion.
    "I've got the idea," said he, bringing his mouth so close to my ear that he might easily have bitten it, "that there's dollartery in that there likeness business."
    "What's dollartery?" I was fain to inquire, after a few moments of vain surmise.
    "Dear, oh dear! fancy you being so ignorant!" returned Mr. Dealer, pityingly. "Dollartery is worshipping hidols. It's my belief that the Duchess makes a hidol of that little ivory painting. I shouldn't be a bit surprised," he continued, "to find out that when she's all alone in that room, she locks the door and forrages out that blessed pictur, and reglar worships it, [-51-] just like them foreign heathens do to idols; there ain't nothing in the world she thinks so much of. I don't believe that, put all together, the scores and scores of times she's been run in for the two D's" (drunk and disorderly, as he afterwards was kind enough to interpret) "that she has suffered half as much as she would if any one was to take that little pictur away from her."
    "You are sure that it is a likeness of her ?" I remarked.
    "Quite," returned Mr. Dealer, confidently.
    "Why so?"
    "Because she says so, and she never tells lies. That's the beauty of her," he continued, in tones of admiration. "It's the only beauty she's got left, you'll say; but I'll answer for her having that one, at all events - that and being game."
    "How do you mean?"
    "Plucky; ready; show her breed and spirit: that's what takes my fancy. It don't matter what it is - birds, animals, anything what's been cultiwated and got their best p'ints brought out. It's blood, you know, that's what it is."
    "Then you think that if it wasn't for superior breeding, Lady Blank would never have been the remarkable old person she is now?"
    "If she hadn't been real lady bred, sir," returned Mr. Dealer, speaking in the tone of an authority, "if she hadn't ha' started with the real stuff in her veins, she'd have knocked under years ago. She'd have gone 'slommicking,' as we say, and she wouldn't have been any curiosity at all. Now she is a curiosity, and I'm proud of her."
    "I hope that she appreciates your high opinion."
    "That don't matter a button; it's what I think of her. Her opinion of me! You should hear it sometimes!" said Mr. Dealer, good-humouredly. "Why, if ever a woman - of the common sort, you understand - was to call me only half the names she calls me, I should turn rusty; but I admire it in [-52-] her. You see, mister, it's no small thing for a humble, and in a manner of speakin' a common cove like me, to have one of your high-bred 'uns all to himself; like he might have a tip-top strain of goldfinch or canary, or something not easy to match in the way of a tarrier or a spannel. A man naturally takes a pride in such things, especially when he's got a fancy that way. I have. There's nothing like blood, in my opinion. You get it in horses, and it lasts 'em until they come down to a night cab, and haven't got a leg to stand on or an eye to see out of; and you gets it in dogs, and it lasts 'em while they've got a tooth in their head; and you get it in women. She - Lady Blank, I mean - hasn't got a tooth in her head; but you should see her sometimes when I stir her up, by way of amusement, and chaff her about them old times. My eyes ! she's as fierce as a kangaroo then."
    At this point of our conversation, Mr. Dealer's quick ear informed him that Lady Blank was roused from her slumber; and, looking in that direction, there she was, off the barrel and on her feet, beckoning him to come to her.
    "She's making signs that she wants to speak to me," said he; "come along, and we'll have a chat with her."
    But he was mistaken in supposing that Lady Blank was sociably inclined. As we approached her, she was evidently endeavouring to conceal something under a corner of her shawl from the keen eyes of Mr. Dealer, as she fixed her eyes on him in a half-frightened, half-defiant manner.
    "What's the mischief now, duchess ?" said he cheerfully:
    "Nothing that concerns a low beast such as you are," her ladyship replied, hugging the corner of her shawl and shrinking away from him.
    Mr. Dealer, however, was not at all offended by the ungracious rejoinder to his civil observation. On the contrary, he winked at me an unmistakable injunction to remember what he had said about pluck, and blood, and breeding.
    [-53-] "Draw it mild, my beauty," he remarked; "if there isn't anything the matter with you, your safest place will be on that tub you've just got off of. Allow me, Lady Blank."
    By "allowing him" he meant permitting him to lift her up on to the beer barrel again, and as he did so, he discovered the cause of her ladyship's embarrassment. She was without her shoes.
    "Oh, that's what's the matter," said he, with no abatement of his good humour; "you know we can't allow that, duchess, we've got too much respect for your precious health. Drop 'em now, that's a good creature, and put 'em on this minnit, or I shall be obliged to make it warm for you."
    And as he spoke he gave the corner of the shawl a tug, and down dropped her ladyship's muddy boots, which were there concealed.
    "She wanted to leave 'em over the bar for a quartern of rum, but I wouldn't take 'em of her," remarked the spruce barmaid coming forward, her ire excited less, I am afraid, by the proffered pawn than by the fact of her ladyship having by accident left some of the skin of her baked potato in the rum measure. "She's a disgrace to her sex! she's worse than the pigs in the street !" said the barmaid.
    It was evident that Mr. Dealer had spoken only the truth when he asserted that this wretched old wreck of a fine lady was still game. Hearing the barmaid's uncomplimentary insinuation, she straightened her back with such suddenness, that one might almost have imagined that he heard the bones click in their sockets, and her bleared eyes blazed up fiercely as she turned on her defamer. It was a fortunate thing for the young lady that Mr. Dealer had disarmed the "duchess" of her boots; had he not done so, of a certainty they would have been launched at the barmaid's head. He nudged in; and whispered rapidly:-
    "Now you can see her breed. That's blood, that is! Only [-54-] look at her! Why she looks the gal behind the bar down as mere trash, old as she is. It's something, you know, for a chap like me to own a woman like that!"
    He, nevertheless, deemed it prudent to interpose, with a view to mitigating her ladyship's wrath; and this was easily effected by his volunteering once more to replenish the rum measure. Having done which, he commenced to put her boots on as she sat. Unfortunately, however, he could not resist the opportunity the act afforded of saying a smart thing at her ladyship's expense.
    "Here's a pair of trotter cases for feet that once upon a time would turn up their toes at anything but white satin shoes," he remarked, exhibiting one of the muddy old boots with a grin. "That's right enough old lady, isn't it?"
    But the old lady was still smarting under the barmaid's unkind remarks, and fired up once more as Mr. Dealer addressed her.
    "I wish," said she, passionately, as she clenched both her bony fists and shook them at him, "I wish that I had worn out my feet with the last pair of satin shoes I ever cast off. I wish I had worn my soul and heart out rather than have lived to sink to the level of a coarse, low-lived cur like you !"
    But Mr. Dealer took it all in good part; he was not at all offended. On the contrary, as her ladyship continued to launch at him the most bitter invective, his countenance assumed quite a gratified and delighted expression.
    "What did I tell you," he whispered to me behind his hand. "Ain't she a star? I've never before had women of this sort to deal with; but I've had game fowl, and I've had dawgs, and it's the same with 'em all, if they comes of the right stock. Why I recollect, a bit ago, having a tarrier dog what got old and disagreeable, and was turned out on that account from a swell house in Belgravy. Well, he come into my hands, and nat'rally I put him on paunch, like the rest. Would he eat it ? [-55-] Not he. He had been used to his chicken, and his mutton chops, and his 'ashes: and he turned up his nose at anything commoner. It was no use coaxing him; the more we persewered, the more he showed his teeth; till one day, having severely bit the boy what was trying to tempt him to pick a bit off the skewer, he curled hisself up in a fur corner of the kennel, and that was the last that was ever seen of him alive. I had him stuffed though."
    And as with these words he brought the touching narrative to a conclusion, he pensively regarded her draggle-tailed ladyship on the tub, as though strange speculations were flitting through his mind. Finally, however, he shook his head with a regretful sigh. Suddenly, altering his mind respecting her ladyship's boots, he cast off the one he had already adjusted, and put them both in the pocket of his jacket.
    "When once she sets her mind on doing a thing, she'll do it, if she can anyhow manage it, especially when she's put out, as she is now," he remarked to me confidentially. "If I was to turn my back on her for only ten minutes she'd conwert 'em into rum, so I think I'd better see her safe home."
    Then, turning to the shameful old person on the beer barrel, he said cheerfully:-
    "Drink up your liquor and hop down, old beauty; you've had as much for one night as is good for your health."
    And, understanding from his tone of voice, or, which is more probable, the peculiar glance that accompanied the observation, that Mr. Dealer was no longer in a mood to be trifled with, the "old beauty" got down as requested, and followed him out of the door, her stockinged feet squelching in the mire, with much more docility than would have been displayed by the high-bred "tarrier" dog, with the story of whose. heroic demise Mr. Dealer had just before made me acquainted.