Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - The Betting Baker

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 I AM painfully conscious that, to all intents and purposes, I have "missed" a Derby. Not that I was absent from the great Epsom festival. I should much doubt if there were more than a very few individuals who passed a greater number of hours at the scene of the big race, or who, for that matter, were favoured with more excellent opportunities for enjoying the day's carnival thoroughly and completely. One of the treats I endeavour never to miss is on "Derby" morning to mount the hill which leads up to the breezy plain, while the earliest columns of smoke are lazily rising from above the roof of the Grand Stand, giving notice that the slaves of the kitchen which exists at the heart and foundation of the vast building in question have relit the fires, in order that they may renew their tremendous task of boiling, roasting, and stewing literally for the million; and while the fierce watch-dogs who keep watch and guard over the valuables contained within the colony of canvas houses on the hill are still tethered to the stakes beside the door, where they have all through the night been on duty; and while the footsore tramp as yet measures· his dead length along the grass, with his old cap all twinkling with dew, as it lies just as it has slipped off his restless head, and with whole droves of little shiny backed ground-beetles curiously exploring his tattered exterior, and losing themselves in his tangled forest of hair.
    [-239-] Soon after five, I was astir and abroad, and it was not until after the great event of the day had been decided that I for the last time descended the hill, and, seeking my peaceful abode, vacated my walking boots in favour of more comfortable slippers; and yet I again repeat that, as regards the programme as set forth on the "card," I know but little more than the individual who did not stir out of his house at Pimlico or Peckham-Rye from morning until night. If I endeavour to recall any particular feature of the day's proceedings, or try to bring to mind any remarkable or peculiar circumstance connected with the sports, there rises before my mind's eyes a figure blotting out everything else. Neither an enormous nor a formidable figure, nor, excepting for its ghastly pallor, one very shocking to contemplate.
    It is the figure of a baker - unmistakably a baker, though he appears abroad at an hour when all well-advised and business-minding bakers are hard at it in the depths of the bakehouse, and though his clothes have nothing of bakerish slovenliness about them and are quite free from dough stains. But he has the pale face of the maker of bread, and that spasmodic action of the nose as though he wanted to sneeze and couldn't, which I have no doubt is a habit contracted by the hard-worked operative in his constant endeavour to keep the fine flour-dust from entering his nostrils. Moreover, the baker is a tender-footed man, and walks with a bent knee and a half-shuffling gait, as though he were picking his steps over hot bricks. It was by these various signs that I recognised the person in question as being what he afterwards confessed to, before even I spoke to him. The way home for journeymen bakers who have been out at work all night is not commonly up Epsom-hill, however, and it was in this direction my baker was proceeding at the same time as myself. He was seemingly deeply engaged in the perusal of a sporting newspaper, as he walked, but when I came up with him he inquired of me, with [-240-] startling abruptness, what time it was. I consulted my watch, and replied that it wanted a quarter to six.
    "Nonsense," he said, with disagreeable sharpness; "you're too slow. I wouldn't carry a watch at all if it was of no use but to deceive people. You ought to know better."
    His tone was so uncivil that I made no reply, but walked on. Before I had gone fifty yards, however, he keeping close behind me, Epsom Church chimed the hour I had told him. He muttered some inaudible words, and then, breaking into an odd kind of laugh, exclaimed,
    "I beg your pardon; you were right, I find. It is not your watch that is slow; it is the morning. Infernally slow. It seems to me as though it was nearly a week since daybreak. How do you find it ?"
    It was evident that he was desirous of engaging in conversation, and, as we were going the same road and walking at the same pace, I had no objection.
    "I hav'n't noticed that it is different from other mornings," I remarked; "besides, I was asleep at daybreak."
    "I wasn't," he replied emphatically.
    "Indeed; how was that ?"
    "Cursed if I know," said the baker (it will appear presently that he really was a person who followed this calling). "I'm hanged if I rightly know when I was asleep last - all sound and regularly asleep, I mean. Sometimes I think that my sleep has gone mad, it plays me such confounded tricks. I'm often afraid to shut my eyes and trust myself with it."
    I noticed now more particularly how anxious and haggard he looked, and thought to myself "I should be sorry to be in your frame of mind, my friend."
    Presently he abruptly asked, "what time is the race run?"
    "The first race, do you mean ?" I asked.
    "The first race be hanged," was his impatient rejoinder; "the race, what time is that run ?"
[-241-] "About three o'clock, I believe."
    He had his sporting newspaper rolled up in his hand like a truncheon, and he looked so vindictive that for a moment I thought he meant to make a blow at me with it.
    "Upon my soul," said he, "you take it cool! About three o'clock! Something between five minutes past three and five minutes to four, I suppose. What do you care?"
    "You've just hit it," said I. "I don't care a farthing. They may, for all the personal interest I feel in the matter, postpone the big race till five or six o'clock, if it suits them. I have no objection if they decide not to have it run until to-morrow, even."
    He looked evilly at me, and laughed his brief ugly laugh again.
    "You'll say next that you don't care which horse comes in first when the race is run," said he.
    "It would be scarcely so true if I said that," I replied lightly, "for though I know nothing of racehorses or their merits, and never bet so much as a pound in all my life, I have a fancy that a certain horse will win the Derby this year, and though his doing so will not make a penny difference one way or the other to me, I should like to hear that it had won."
    My companion's interest in the conversation instantly increased.
    "How did you get your fancy ?" said he, "somebody gave you the tip."
    "Did you dream it - work it out in figures? Hang it, you know, there must be some groundwork for a man's fancying a thing !"
    "There is none in my case, I assure you; it is absurd to say so, of course, when I cannot give any reason for it, but I think Atlantic will win."
    That moment I would have given something considerable to [-242-] have been able to recall my rash words, their effect on the man was so remarkable. His white haggard face became in an instant flushed and animated, and his dull eyes, that just now were expressive of nothing but aching for sleep, suddenly lit up brightly.
    "Give me your hand!" he exclaimed, at the same time extending his own, with every finger of it twitching with excitement, "I'm as glad to have met you, 'pon my soul, I am, as though I had picked up a ten pun' note. Lord bless you, you are a trump, you are - have a drain of brandy on the strength of it."
    And, still retaining my right hand in his, he made a plunge with his left at his coat-tail pocket, and withdrew therefrom a bottle half-filled with the liquor in question.
    "Don't say no," said he, wringing my hand, and speaking with tears in his eyes, "take a pull at it, sir-a hearty pull, and I only wish it may do you as much good as your words have done me."
    I was curious to learn more than I at present knew of my strange acquaintance, and, to humour him, took a sip at his brandy bottle; and no sooner were his hands released of it than, as though he were suddenly seized with the malady he had said afflicted his sleep, he burst into laughter loud and long, and, flinging his sporting newspaper down upon the grass, executed a diabolical dance upon it, and winding up by kicking it to the roadside and into the ditch, stamping his foot on it there with a vengeance that sent the black water squelching above the knees of his light-coloured trousers. I gave him back his brandy bottle, and, wishing long life to me he gulped down at least half-a-pint of its contents. Then he took my arm, and became confidential.
    "You've told me something," said he, "or rather I might say you have prophesied something for me, and now I'll tell you something. I think that Atlantic will win the Derby. It [-243-] isn't any what I may call supernatural fancy of mine, like it seems to be of yours, but I come at it weeks ago by plainly figuring it out. I was at Newmarket, and I saw the horse win the Two Thousand. I saw how he won it, and on the spot - leastways when I went to have a refresher at the Black Bear - I said to myself; 'Charley Watson' - that's my name, and I'm a master baker by trade" - I knew that he was a baker - "with a good business at Rotherhithe - 'Charley Watson,' I said to  myself, now's your chance! Hit or miss, Charley, go in for that horse for the Derby, and you'll never be sorry.' 'It's the right string, Charley' -something seemed to whisper in my ear - 'pull it;' and I have pulled it," continued the sporting baker - bringing his hot, brandified breath within an inch of my ear to whisper it - "I have pulled that string to an extent that nobody dreams of, not even my wife, though she does keep the books, and in general settles with the miller herself. She don't know how I have been pulling the string, and she shan't know till I've landed my winnings, and then I'll astonish her. D'ye understand ?"
    I replied that I understood very well what a pleasant thing it was to win a lot of money, "But at the same time," said I, "on the other hand -"
    But he impatiently interrupted me.
    "There is no other hand," he exclaimed; "I was not quite certain of it before, and the fact is - this is quite between friends, of course - I had begun to get a little funky over it, and, on the extreme quiet, d'ye understand, raked up a bit more money - just a forty or fifty to hedge a little. I'm jolly glad that I didn't do it before I met you, and so I tell you, and here's jolly good luck to you," and the elated sporting baker took another taste out of the brandy bottle.
    "But what difference will it make to you now that you have met with me?" 1 asked him - not, I confess, without a vague feeling of alarm.
    [-244-] "What difference!" he repeated, "why, this difference; I shall now put every shilling - every penny I have got - on Atlantic. Shouldn't I be a fool for flying in the face of my luck, if I did anything else? Why, man alive, it's all as plain to me as the pointing of a finger-post. Listen, now! I am not a knowing man as regards turf matters - not a very knowing man, perhaps I should have said. Indeed, somehow, Lord knows how, I got it into my head that there's nothing can beat this horse for the Derby. I've got the idea so firm in my mind that it don't matter to me what bad rumours there are about this horse. 'All right,' says I to myself, 'run him down as much as you like. I don't care; it will only make him come all the cheaper to me;' and I stick to him until the ugly stories that get put about begin to shake even my opinion, and I make up my mind, though loth to do it, to back water a little. Well, I come down here to do it, and then what happens? Why, just as though it was ordained, in a manner of speaking, that I shouldn't be spoilt of my chance, I fall in with you. Just at the nick of time I fall in with a gentleman I had no more idea of meeting than the Emperor of Turkey, and you reveal to me that something - you don't know what - tells you that Atlantic will win."
    I attempted to say a word, but he would not hear it.
    "Oh, it is a fact, you know," he continued, "you mightn't have meant to do it, but you did do it, and you'll excuse me if I keep you to it. I am not a superstitious man, but I am not such a fool as to miss a tip because it happens to come mysteriously."
    It was in vain that I indignantly repudiated any capacity or intention of giving him a "tip;" the more I protested the more he exulted and rubbed his hands, evidently believing that I had inadvertently "let the cat out," and now was sorry for it. The least I could do was to make him promise that he would not put that fifty pounds he had with him, and which he confessed [-245-] to having so much difficulty in scraping together, all in one lump on Atlantic.
    "All right," said he, grinning, "I'll take your tip in that, too; I'll put it in small sums on all the races before the big one, and by that time, I feel sure of it, my fifty will be turned into two hundred at least, and I'll put all that on our fancy at ten to one, and there'll be another cool two thousand, out of which, mark me, I won't forget you, if you'll be good enough to look me up before the day is out."
    I bade the desperate baker good morning when we arrived at the Downs, and was heartily glad to he rid of him. But, do all I could, I could not dismiss him from my mind. Maybe it was no fault of mine that in his infatuation for betting he had chosen to mistake me for a person possessing the gift of divination. Still, there was no getting over the fact that I had foolishly revealed to him what my fancy was, and I could have no doubt that it was his crack-brained intention to act up to the letter of his expressed determination. The reflection made me miserable till breakfast-time, and afterwards, as I rode up the hill again. One thing I had quite made up my mind to, however. I would have nothing more, under any circumstances, to do with the baker. It was very unlikely, in so great a crowd, that I should be able to find him, even if I tried, but of course I should not try, and, whatever the unhappy man's fate might be, I should be unaware of it.
    But, alas! there were two to that bargain. The detestable baker was not to be denied. Despite my determination, I found myself on the heights of the Stand, furtively searching for a man with a light drab coat and hat, and with a gold horseshoe on a blue satin neck-scarf; in the crowd below, and was by-and-by successful. I don't know whether he was as diligently seeking me, but at all events our eyes met - the first race was over - and there he was, making the most extravagant demonstrations of delight, waving his hat, kissing his hand to [-246-] me, and rapidly holding up and lowering and holding up again all his fingers and his thumbs three successive times, to make me understand, as I interpreted the movement, that he had already increased his store by thirty pounds. I nodded back with as indifferent an air as I could assume, and certainly experienced some relief of mind. But, do as I would, when my curious glance returned to the spot, there was the lucky baker, in such a perspiration of delight, that when he took off his hat to wave it to me I could see that his hair was dabbed close to his forehead and temples like sticking plaster. Again he made arithmetical signs with his digits, but I would not gratify him by looking. I almost began to wish that I was the baker, and to wonder if men ever really were racing prophets without knowing it.
    And now the interval before the big race was nearly over, and once more I had the baker before me. His perspiration had evaporated, and he was in a dry white heat now; but that he considered he was about to be eminently successful in his speculations was unmistakable by the waving of his hat and the glitter of his eyes. This time he once more began to show me on his fingers what he had already won, but his patience failed him, and with a yelling laugh he commenced revolving his doubled fists rapidly over each other as the only way that occurred to him of adequately expressing the round sum he had netted. He did this, and then he gallantly waved his white hat once more, and made with his outstretched hands motions of swimming, and hurried away, by which I think he ingeniously intended to convey to me that he was now going in for the great Atlantic plunge.
    I believe that he made it. He had declared such to be his intention, and everything had favoured his intention. Nay, why should not I at once say that I know he made the plunge, for whose face was that but the wretched baker's, white as bleached flax, stark stricken, as with staring eyes and mouth [-247-] agape, he makes out the numbers on the winning board, by which it appears that our mutual fancy was no better than third. I was afraid to catch his eye now, and peeped down at him from behind a corner pillar. This time he did not revolve his fists playfully. He carried them tight clenched and straight at his sides, and so he backed out of the crowd, still staring at the treacherous number board, and I saw him no more.