Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - A "Round" with a Tally-man

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MR. M'ROOSTER may feel slightly vexed with me for what he may regard as an unscrupulous advantage taken of information imparted to some extent in confidence. Mature reflection will, however - or, at least, I hope so - convince the enterprising tradesman in question that, so far from being injured by the publicity which is here given to his friendly communications, he may be greatly benefited thereby.
    His object in advertising in the newspapers that his business was in the market could only have been to draw the attention of all whom it might concern to the fact. For obvious reasons, the terms of his notification were brief. Advertising is expensive. All that Mr. M'Rooster made known was that, for reasons which could be satisfactorily explained, he was desirous of disposing of the extremely profitable and rapidly-increasing credit drapery business of which for many years past he had been the proprietor. "The essential features of this snug concern," so read the advertisement, "are such that they need only be made known at once to secure a purchaser. To a man of moderate capital and of energetic and active habits the realization of a fortune in a few years is certain. There are at present over seven hundred customers on the books, many of ten and fifteen years' standing, and well secured by being employed in respectable firms. Weekly collections guaranteed to be over sixty pounds. Terms and full particulars can be obtained on appli-[-258-]cation to -----," &c. Now, it is not unreasonable to assume that, could Mr. M'Rooster have done so without any additional expense, he would gladly have printed the said "full particulars" with the other matter, and so, without further trouble have secured that energetic and active customer he had in his mind's eye. It is to be hoped, if the "snug concern" is still in the market, that the following account of it - which shall cost Mr. M'Rooster not one shilling - may lead to its speedy disposal.
    Doubtless to my peculiarly energetic aspect was due the frank and cordial reception accorded me by Mr. M'Rooster when I called on him to keep the appointment previously arranged. I was a few minutes late, and my friend was standing at the door of his abode, evidently looking out for me. I was glad of this. Had I seen Mr. M'Rooster's house, and not Mr. M'Rooster, it is not impossible that my first impressions would have done him injustice. A man who has more than seven hundred customers on his books, and whose takings exceed sixty pounds a week, usually makes more show of worldly prosperity than is compatible with an abode in a side street in the vicinity of Lambeth-walk, and bounded on either hand by a chandler's shop and a greengrocer's. No shop, no display of that enormous stock of stuffs and calicoes for which it was the delight of Mr. M'Rooster to give those who dealt with him credit - no sign, indeed, of his being engaged in a business of any description, excepting a wire blind in the parlour window, on which, in faded letters, appeared the words, "M'Rooster; Credit Draper."
    But there was that in Mr. M'Rooster's appearance which was calculated to convince the most sceptical of the truth of his statements. It was evident at a glance that he was born to the credit business; if he had embarked in the ready-money drapery trade, he would probably have sunk in the course of a few months to a condition of commercial idiocy, and pined to death as men are said to starve who are confined for any length of time to a diet of plain bread. He was every inch a tallyrnan - [-259-] tall and slim, with a genteel figure, but a keen-looking blade, with painfully sharp cheekbones and cold, quick eyes for calculation, and a nose which seemed to have enlarged under severe pressure of mental arithmetic, and to have morbidly assumed the shape of an unfinished number 6; but, withal, he was undoubtedly a man who, amongst a certain class of the more impressionable sex, would be voted a "fascinater." He seemed to have the power at pleasure of making that shrewd, pocket- picking expression retreat out of his eyes, just as a cat's claws retreat, leaving them simply nice eyes with an engaging twinkle in them. There was fascination, too, in the silken sheen of his scented but carefully combed sandy whiskers, in his wide mouthful of white teeth, and even in the curly brim of his glossy hat. But, of course, it was not his purpose to waste his wiles on me. It was understood that I should first glance at the "stock," and then accompany him on his round.
    "Come in!" said my obliging friend briskly. "I drive round to-day, because I have got some heavyish things to deliver; besides, it will be more convenient for you, since you wish to see as much as possible in one turn."
    "Is it an extensive round that you make to-day?"
    "Pretty fair. I reckon to make nearly three hundred calls, which doesn't mean three hundred houses, bear in mind. It's where you get three or four customers in the same house that you do good and easy business. School business we call it, and it's the best of all, as you'll find if you mean to go into it."
    "How is it the best of all?"  I asked.
    "In this way," returned Mr. M'Rooster, promptly - and as he did so making sixteen of his nose by laying his long forefinger close alongside it - "It's quite a family party, d'ye see, these first, second, and third floor lodgers; and the men very likely work all in the same shop. Well, they don't mind obliging each other; Joe and Bob will be security for your little account for Bill, and Bill and Bob will do the same for Joe, and so on all [-260-] round. It don't seem that such a mutual give-and-take can affect them more than the giving of two sixpences for a shilling; but see where it lands you! It makes your money as right as the Bank. They look each other up on collecting days as sharply as though they were paid for it - not out of fear that you may be let in the hole, but that they may. But that's only one of a whole bagful of tricks I can put you up to if we come to terms.
    I was by no means awe-stricken by the dimensions of Mr. M'Rooster's "warehouse." It was the front room upstairs, and though the shelves with which the walls were lined were closely stocked with calicoes and women's dress stuffs, and shawls and mantles, and boots and shoes, and with all manner of ready-made articles of wearing attire, while piles of carpets and rugs extended from the floor to the ceiling, still it appeared but a small stock on which to rely for the demands of seven hundred customers. I remarked on this to Mr. M'Rooster.
    "That's one of the beauties of the business," replied he, cheerfully; "it's all in a nutshell. You don't require an extensive - that is to say, a various stock. When you've once got 'em they are glad to take what you offer 'em. I don't stand any nonsense with my customers about fashions, and colours, and patterns: 'There's the best I can do for you, take it or leave it;' and when, in a manner of speaking, they're standing still for a gown or a coat to put on, and they are depending on me for it, why they're bound to take what's offered to em. You see, it simplifies the whole business, and makes one's buyings, as well as one's sellings, so much easier."
    "And as regards the quality of the goods ?"
    "Well, that's a question more easily asked than answered," returned Mr. M'Rooster, "though it comes as easy work as putting on an old glove when once you are fairly in the groove. It's this way, as a rule, however. Your small goods, such as stockings, and boots, and shoes, and stay, and stuff for men's shirts, and your calicoes, are bound to be of tidy quality. It's [-261-] wise I think to stretch a point, and let them be of real good material, for it is this class of goods that have got to stand hard wear, and are, so to speak, in hand, and under the eye. Now, it's different with the large goods - the goods which run into money - silk, or expensive stuff for gowns and mantles and shawls. Black suits for men, again, you can stick it on in them things deep as you like almost."
    "But are they not in hand and under the eye as well as goods of the other sort ?"
    "Certainly not," rejoined Mr. M'Rooster, smiling at my ignorance; "three-parts of the time they are lying at the pawnbroker's. You may rely on that. I should say now," continued Mr. M'Rooster, with the air of a man who had long studied the matter, and knew all about it, "that in nine cases out often those who get their best clothes on tally carry them to the pawn-shop. It stands to sense that they should do so. They're hand-to-mouth people, every one of them, and after a week or two they're sure to be hard up for the week's instalment: then what's more proper than that the article that has got 'em into the fix should be used to get 'em out of it; it comes as natural as basting a joint with its own fat."
    "You being the joint," I remarked facetiously.
    "And have an aversion to being done too brown," said Mr. M'Rooster; at which we winked at each other and laughed, like the two knowing dogs we were.
    "But it's a fact, though," he presently resumed, gravely. "It is the commonest thing in the world to hear one say, 'Well, to be sure, M'Rooster does charge a high figure, but what he sells is of the very best, and lasts for ever almost;' and well it may, when the coat or the best gown, or whatever it may be, is lying in the pawnbroker's drawers fromĚ Monday morning until Saturday night every week of the year. But it's a pleasant delusion, and hurts nobody."
    Mr. M'Rooster'S "trap" was a sort of long-bodied phae-[-262-]ton, and as at this moment his boy looked in to say that it was at the door and all ready, we bestirred ourselves for starting.
    "This South London beat is the heaviest I have," my friend remarked, as he took a stout memorandum-book and a portable ink-holder from a desk; "I've got over seventeen hundred pounds on it."
    "And what do you calculate on collecting to-day out of that sum?"
    "Well, according to Cocker, I ought to get a twentieth part of the whole," said Mr. M'Rooster, pleasantly. "The system is a shilling in the pound weekly payment; but, as I needn't tell you, it doesn't average sixpence. I shouldn't wish it to. If they were able to pay regular, you would lose your hold on 'em in a very short time."
    The way we took, the boy driving, was towards Kennington, and our first halt was at the commencement of a long street, on either side of the way of which were decent-looking six-roomed houses.
    "This isn't a bad bit," remarked Mr. M'Rooster. "They are nearly all -----'s men, the great engineers, who live in this street."
    "But I should have thought that such men earned good wages?"
    "So they do-first-class; seven and eight shillings a day, and never out of work. I've got customers amongst this lot who owe me as much as twenty pounds. They will dress, no matter what it costs; they don't mind."
    We left the trap at the corner, and presently Mr. M'Rooster knocked at a door. Had he been the family doctor, he couldn't have walked up the passage and opened the parlour door with less ceremony.
    "Mother in ?"
    "Mother's upstairs, sir," said the little girl.
    [-263-] "Then tell her to come downstairs," returned the tallymam with an air of severity; "she didn't pay last week."
    The little girl went away, and soon returned with a dogs-eared receipt book and four shillings. The book was of the penny memorandum kind, and contained perhaps twelve leaves, and Mr. M'Rooster invited my attention to the fact that every leaf excepting the last one was filled with receipts for weekly payments, ranging from three shillings to seven.
    "You tell your mother from me," said Mr. M'Rooster, "that I shall expect six shillings next week, and that I shan't take less." And he ungraciously signed for the four shillings, and we departed. The next four calls brought us in fourteen shillings, and then my companion beckoned the trap down the street to a house where there were some goods to deliver. It was the most slatternly abode we had yet called at, with half-dressed, untidy-haired children in the passage, and peeping down from between the banisters; there was also a powerful odour of rum when the parlour door was opened.
    "Risky lot this," whispered Mr. M'Rooster - "four-year-old customers, but obliged to get your money as you can catch it. Stick it on according, of course."
    And then in came the female head of the household, and, the balance of eleven shillings due on the last tally debt of ten pounds odd having been duly paid, the big brown paper parcel the boy had brought in was unstrung, and its contents discussed. No wonder that Mr. M'Rooster valued his business so highly. Had we been in the remotest colony in the Brazils, he could scarcely have demanded a higher price for what he had to dispose of. I do not lay claim to a profound knowledge of the value of drapery goods, but cannot think that I am wrong in deeming tenpence halfpenny a yard an exorbitant price for ordinary calico, and that five and ninepence a yard was not cheap for French merino, albeit it was of double width and war ranted a last colour, and that a pair of black cloth trousers and [-264-] a waistcoat to match, fit for a working man's Sunday wear, might be obtained for a trifle less than two pounds eleven and sixpence. The gem of the purchase, however, was a black silk mantle, trimmed very elaborately, for which Mr. M'Rooster demanded the modest figure of three pounds seventeen. But it did not seem to matter much what the price of the article was; the customer's main desire appeared to be to renew an account that should be in amount at least equal to the last she had liquidated; and I was even yet more surprised when I presently discovered that the woman was perfectly aware that she was being scandalously overcharged. "I shall want you to make me out two bills as usual, Mr. M'Rooster," said she.
    "Very good, ma'am," he replied, as though such matters were quite in the ordinary way of his business.
    "You see," said the customer, turning to me as though she had remarked the surprise depicted on my countenance, "my husband is such a close-fisted man that if he was made aware that these few things cost nearly eleven pounds he would storm the house down, and it is only by making him believe that the tally goods are as cheap as may be bought for ready money, that he will let me run up a bill at all. Not that it makes any difference to him, for of course it all comes out of my housekeeping money. This silk mantle, now, he would think dear if he thought it cost more than a pound."
    "Oh, come, come, ma'am," remarked Mr. M'Rooster, pleasantly, "you won't make us believe that he is such an ignoramus as that. I shall set down the mantle at twenty-five shillings, anyhow, in the bill that's for him."
    And in "the bill" that was for the husband the account was. similarly falsified in every particular, the trousers and waistcoat appearing as having cost one pound twelve and sixpence, the French merino three-and-six a yard, &c. - the total, instead of eleven pounds, being a little over six. I could not help remarking to my ingenious companion when we had quitted the [-265-] house that I thought the little game I had just seen played a somewhat dangerous one.
    "For whom?" he asked, in some surprise.
    "For you."
    "For me! Why, it's as common a game as marbles," returned Mr. M'Rooster, with a laugh; "we couldn't do without it."
    "But," said I, "supposing that the woman should turn round and declare that the bill for the lesser amount is the correct one, and decline to pay you any more."
    "Well, of course, it can't be said to be impossible," he replied pleasantly, "but it's highly improbable. Lord help you, it's as good as a ten-pound security to go halves with her or any other woman in a secret that's hid from the husband. She dare not let the cat out of the bag, my dear sir. The men don't half like chaps like me" (and then he fondly caressed one of his whiskers) "calling at the house when they are away from it, and if it came out that there had been any mixing up between us and agreeing together to humbug the husband - whew! No, no, it wouldn't answer her purpose. It's a perfectly safe card to play, take my word for it. Besides, we all do it more or less. It don't do to be squeamish in these times."
    I must confess that I had it in my mind to take leave of Mr. M'Rooster on the spot, but his last words fortified me, and I resolved, for the sake of the knowledge to be gained, to tolerate his edifying companionship a little longer. It was not long ere I made the discovery that his system of business comprehended a series of dodges quite as objectionable and as dirty as that which had caused my first qualms. His "instalments" he would have, by hook or by crook, wherever it was possible. I found that in many instances he had knowingly accepted, to the original agreement to pay so much a week, the wife's forged signature of her husband's name, and in more than one case, by bullying and threatening the terrified woman [-266-] that he would send his lad to where the husband worked there and then, and tell him all about it, induced her to go and borrow the required money of a neighbour. But a much commoner dodge was for him, when the money was forthcomiug reluctantly, to say,- "Look here, now, I don't want to be hard on you. You can't spare the three shillings, I can see. Give me one for my trouble of calling, and see what you can do for me next week," and the temptation was often too great to be resisted, and Mr. M'Rooster walked off with the shilling, giving no receipt for it.
    "Cheese-parings," the enterprising tallyman called these, and by the time his day's work was done he must have had quite a waistcoat-pocketful of them.
    It was marvellous, considering how little of his business was of a simple, straightforward character, what a tremendous amount of it he contrived to get through between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon. To be sure, he had a few extra good customers, who paid him as much as ten and fifteen shillings by way of instalments, but I had no idea of what was the fact, that, cheeseparings included, Mr. M'Rooster had in the course of the day extracted from the three hundred and seventeen customers on his South London beat the considerable sum of thirty-three pounds.