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

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MY friend's house is on the Surrey side of the river, and is one of a long row in a wide thoroughfare extending from the Blackfriars Road to the foot of the bridge at Westminster. Although somewhat faded, it is still a very respectable thoroughfare, but the neighbourhood behind the tall houses on either side of the way is about as wretched a one as may well be imagined. It consists for the most part of low streets, and narrow courts and alleys, which, though not absolutely "blind," might almost as well be so for all the intelligence of the outer world that is obtainable by means of the scowling little arched entrances that are to be found in the locality.
    It is a grubby neighbourhood, and in summer time not particularly sweet smelling. In one respect, however, its "drainage" may be said to be perfect - the respect which applies to the flushing and clearing out of the pockets of such of the inhabitants, by far the majority, who give their minds to the imbibition of gin and beer. The handsome pumping stations at Barking Creek are scarcely less imposing than the magnificent ginshops to be found between Windmill-street and Body's Bridge, nor are the inflow (of profit) and the outflow (of intoxicating liquor) less brisk because the business done is strictly confined to the "low level." My friend's house has broad steps leading up to it, with an old-fashioned portico before the door, and, it having somehow become known that he is an easy going kind [-278 -] of householder, the said steps are not unfrequently resorted to in foul weather by the poor little slipshod, ragged-frocked children of the back settlements, whose parents are out at work, or engaged at something or other by which a little money may be made, and who, knowing how prone little children are to get into mischief when left in a house by themselves, provide against the danger by turning them all into the street and taking the key of the street-door with them.
    A year ago and a day over, three of these poor things sat on my friend's doorstep, or, rather, on his very doorsill; for it was growing dark, and they were glad of the friendly shelter of the portico, out of the way of the wintry wind and the spiteful sleet that in the open highway was driving everything before it. There were two small girls and a still smaller boy, a mite of seven years or so old, more ragged than a Shetland colt, and with his small blue toes unprotected, save by a substantial casing of mud - a sickly big-headed little boy with a white face, as was shown here and there at spots from which the dirt had by accident been brushed away.
    "Don't go to sleep, Billy," remarked one of the girls - they had Billy between them for the sake of warmth - "Mother'll be home in about an hour, and then I reckon we'll get some tea and a warm;" and then, turning to her female companion, she continued,-
    "It'll be an hour and more before your old woman comes home from cheering; let's play at something to keep up our sperits - let's play at 'On'y suppose.'"
    "Ah! let's play at that," exclaimed Billy of the big head; suddenly rising - my friend was no further off than the keyhole on the other side of the door, so he heard all that was said quite distinctly- "I can play at that. I'll tell you about a 'On'y suppose.' I've been a thinkin' about it when Sal thought I was agoin' to sleep."
    But his sister, which was Sal, took him up with cruel abruptness.
[-279-] "Oh, we don't want to hear your on'y supposins," said she. "Your'n is all about wittles."
    And then, in a mollifying tone, she continued, evidently conscious that she had hurt Billy's feelings,
    "Arter tea we'll have your 'On'y supposin',' Bill. You tell 'em very beautiful, Billy dear, but the joyment of 'em is spilte when they are told on a empty stomach. Blest if I can stand 'em at them times, and that's the truth. You tell us one, Emma. Tell us one about queens and dimons, and lords and ladies goin' to be married in golden carriages; that'll be best."
    But Billy turned sulky, and maliciously threatened that unless they agreed to listen to his "On'y supposin'," he would forthwith kick up a row on my friend's steps, and get them all turned off; on which they at once came to terms with him.
    "Then 'on'y suppose,'" began Billy, firing away at once, "on'y suppose that it's to-morrer, which it's Christmas Day. And on'y suppose that me and you, Emm, and Sal is playin' out in the street, jolly miserable cos we ain't got no dinner, and we agree to go and have a smell at the areas" - "There, I knowed it would be wittles," remarked his sister Sal, experiencing her empty stomach's first twinges - "to go and have a smell at the areas," continued Billy, with an aggravating smack of his lips, "at the houses where the people live what are always baking and biling such lovely grub. Well, and we went; well, and on'y suppose that as we was a-standin' at the railin's and a-sniffin' and a-sniffin', and getting the smell of the stuffin' and the cracklin' on the legs of pork and the sossages just abustin' in the fryin' pan (Sal relieved her agonised feelings by a suppressed groan), just when we was gettin' these lovely smells well up our noses, on'y suppose that the door opens - the street door - and there's a servant a-standin', and she says, 'You're got to come in here, all three of you;' and she looks [-280-] so jolly kind that we knows she ain't making game, so in we goes - me and you, Sal, and Emm - and we goes into the parlour, where there's oh! such a toastin' fire, and where the table has got a table cloth on it and ever so many dishes - little 'uns and big 'uns" - under pretence of adjusting her bonnet, Sal stuffs a bit of hair into the ear that is next to the torturer - "and all of the dishes has got kivers on em, like what you see in the winder of the cook-shop in the Cut. And then on'y suppose that there are cheers - three of 'em - to sit on, and the lady comes in, and she says, 'You're all three of you going to have as much as ever you can tuck into.'"
    "Draw it mild, come, Billy; I can't stand too much of it," in a warning voice from Sal; but Billy was reckless.
    "'You're going to have as much as ever you know how to tuck into,' she ses, and then she lifts off the kivers; and first there's baked beef, all smoking hot, fat roast beef, with a bit of holly stuck in it because it's Christmas, and a regler high tide of gravy in the dish" - Billy's waterside experiences must have furnished this simile - "rich gravy, with a spoon in it, and bits of brown. And in another dish all hot, and, some broke and some not, and all crisp and mealy, there was the taters what the beef was baked over. And on'y suppose that we got a helpin' of that-a regler piled-up plateful swimmin' in gravy, and -"
    "And then we come away, Billy," observed Sal, persuasively; "that's a good boy, and then we come away."
    "No we don't," returned Billy, doggedly; "on'y suppose that when we had as much beef as ever we could eat, we saw another kiver lifted off, and there was puddin' - a whackin' all. hot Christmas pudding, as big - ah ! pretty nigh as big as that woman's umbreller, and we all had as much as we could eat of that. And then another kiver was took off and there was goose, roast goose, stuffed full of sage and onions, and on'y suppose -"
    [-281-] But the endurance of his afflicted sister was not equal to roast goose following on as much as she could eat of plum pudding. Starting up, she gave her brother a vicious shake, and exclaiming, "On'y suppose you come along home and let's have no more of it," without further parley walked off with the young romancer in custody.
    Our scheme for a Christmas party of a perfectly new and novel kind was founded on my friend's narration of the fate of luckless Billy and his "On'y supposing." It was agreed that on Christmas morning we should set forth and select each three juvenile guests, and bring them home and set them down with a hearty invitation to partake of the good things spread before them to the extreme of their ability. "We won't," said my cunning friend - he is a terribly artful fellow when he likes - "we won't say a word about the story telling after dinner, but that, of course, is to be the prime part of the business." I hoped that it might so turn out, but having had already some experience of such matters, in my secret mind I doubted it. There could, however, be no doubt as to the primeness of one feature of the programme, in the ordering of which, when Christmas-eve came, we both took great interest. Ten pounds of sirloin of beef, ingredients for a plum pudding-not so large as an umbrella, but at least approaching the dimensions of a lady's modern sunshade - mince pies, nuts and oranges, and a liberal allowance of elder wine, were confided to my friend's housekeeper, with an intimation that on the morrow we dined at one o'clock sharp.
    At twelve o'clock on Christmas morning, having seen the beef and pudding in the cook's hands, we parted at my friend's doorsteps, and went our separate ways, each pledged to return in less than an hour with three eligible guests. I observed that, with his accustomed artfulness, my friend chose the way which he had seen that renowned story-teller Billy take, in company with his sister, with the vague hope, I have no doubt, of secur-[-282-]ing that accomplished young gentleman, and thus, single-handed as it were, throwing completely into the shade any trio of youthful romancers I might chance to fall in with.
    My way lay in the direction of the New Cut and the streets which tended Lambeth-walkward. In such a locality it was by no means a difficult matter, at such a time, to discover ragged little boys - many more than enough - who were in want of a dinner. Had I but made my purpose publicly known, I should, in a very few minutes, have found myself surrounded by as many small folk as flocked together at the seductive strains of the Pied Piper of Hamlin; but I wished my selections to do me credit, and cast about me cautiously.
    My first catch was a girl - not a beggar-girl, or an idle little gutter-prowler - but a mite of a child with the anxious and careworn face of a middle-aged woman, who was desperately bent on turning an honest penny by the sale of hard-working cobblers. At ordinary times the hard-working cobbler is a toy much in favour with the children of the lower order, on account, it may be assumed, of its being a plaything which, while it affords amusement, inculcates habits of industry. It is a jointed toy, and represents a mender of old shoes, who, when a string concealed at the back of his body is sharply pulled, commences to work his arms to and fro in the act of sewing on a shoe-sole with such hearty will and with such praiseworthy determination to accomplish his job in a manner to give satisfaction to his customer, that every time he tugs a stitch tight the strain on his physical powers is such as to cause his movable eyes to squint in the most frightful way. The girl had, as far as one might judge, about two dozen cobblers in the little rush basket slung on her arm; but though she pulled at the string of the one she carried in her hand with such desperate jerks that the hardworking cobbler's eyes were set squinting at the rate at least of sixty times a minute, and at the same time kept up the cry, "Here's the 'ard-workin' cobbler for a a penny; who'll have [-283-] two 'ard-working cobblers for a penny?" no one was tempted to become a purchaser. The crowd was a holiday crowd, and had - thank Heaven! - something more pleasant to give their minds to than hard-working cobblers. As I paused to observe her, her delight at the prospect of having a customer at last caused her to skip out of the gutter and on to the pavement with such a sudden and spasmodic action of her limbs that I should not have been surprised if her eyes had squinted as did the industrious cordwainer's.
    "On'y a ha'penny, sir! I ain't took on'y threeha'pence, and I've been here since ten."
    "I wonder that you have taken so much," I replied. "Could'nt you have managed to bring out something to sell that was a little more seasonable?"
    "Yes,! said she; "but father can't make nothin' else. You can't make what you likes, - don't you know? - when you are layin' on your back in bed - nobody can't."
    "But is your father compelled to lie on his back in bed ?"
    "He ain't got no legs to getup with," replied the mite, dolefully; "leastways, not reg'ler legs."
    "Wooden ones?" I suggested.
    "No, sir, pair-o'-lysed 'uns," she responded, in all sincerity; "his back's agoin' too, the doctor ses; and when it creeps right up to the top of his back he won't live no longer."
    Her small voice quivered with emotion, and, as some relief to her feelings, she gave a tug at the cobbler's string that bade fair to make his squinting eyes start out of his wooden head.
    "Now," said I, "supposing - only supposing that somebody was to offer to take all your stock of cobblers off your hands at the full price? - and, besides that," I continued, checking midway her gasp of joyful amazement, "that the same somebody should take you home with him and give you a beautiful dinner of roast beef and plum pudding?"
    But this latter part of the supposition seemed to her to be so [-284-] monstrously improbable that she lost all faith in the first part; and her heart, a moment before in her mouth, as the saying is, sank within her as heavy as lead.
    "Ah," she remarked, in an altered voice, as she stepped back into the gutter, "and s'pose pigs was able to fly? Won't you buy a penny cobbler after all?"
    So I cut the matter short by telling her to come along with me; and, having seen her safely housed at my friend's abode, I had to hurry off to find two other Christmas guests, for I had no more than a quarter of an hour left to do it in.
    My next catch was not so satisfactory as my first - a crossing sweeping boy, with nothing remarkable about him except that he had festooned his muddy old broom with holly, and earnestly pleaded for a copper, "for the sake of Merry Christmas." But whatever of poetry there may have been in his appeal to those who availed themselves of his industry, he proved to be an alarmingly matter-of-fact boy when I began to reveal my intentions to him. My proposition that he should come home with me and dine he received as coolly as though we were intimate friends, and had known each other for years.  All right; he'd come-what was up? In a tone that was intended to convey some amount of rebuke, I briefly explained, but he was not in the least impressed, though rendered for the moment suspicious.
    "Do it mean 'ims and trying to convert a feller?" he inquired; "or is it only a lark? Not that I care, mind yer," he hastened to add; "I'd as lief go in for one as the other. I can make myself comfortable anywheres. Just stay a minute while I goes and plants my broom - I dessay you won't care about me taking it with me - and then we'll make a start."
    I was so conscious that I had made a mistake that I really believe, if it had not been Christmas morning, I should have been guilty of the meanness of retreating as soon as my free-and-easy young friend had turned his back, and so avoided his [-285-] further acquaintance. I was glad, however, that I did not; for after being absent for five or six minutes, he made his appearance accompanied by another boy - a lanky boy, ragged, wan-faced, and hungry-eyed, who had one leg shorter than the other, and walked, or rather hopped, with a crutch. The friendly young crossing-sweeper left the other boy, and by a wink bespoke my private ear.
    "Talk about boys wantin' a dinner, now," he whispered; "here's one, if you like. I don't believe that Joe - that's what his name is, Joe the Whistler - I don't believe that Joe has had any dinner worth speaking of since he came out of the 'orspidal."
    "And how long since is that? and what took him to the hospital ?" I asked.
    "How long ago? Six months and more. What took him there? Bein' run over took him there. Got his leg broke - wuss, too, got his woice broke - his whistling woice, I mean. That's how Joe used to get his livin', whistling tunes about the streets, and naturally when he come out of the 'orspidal with his crutch he went at it agin. But he couldn't do it. Summnat had gone wrong with his bellus. I s'pose he tries at it still, cos he's got nothing else to fall back on, but things is bad with him - drefful bad."
    Poor Joe the Whistler stood leaning on his crutch at a respectful distance while, with rapid utterance, his friend (of whom I began to form a better opinion) urged his claims on my charitable consideration. I need not say that I readily admitted them, and the next minute I was steering for my friend's abode with my prizes in tow.
    He was home before I was - had been home, he triumphantly informed me, twenty minutes and more, which was easily accounted for. With his usual impulsiveness and lack of discrimination he had (but not, as he afterwards confessed, until he had wasted nearly half an hour in a vain search for the redoubtable [-286-] Billy) fixed on the first three likely-looking objects that presented themselves. His catch consisted of two juvenile carol-singers, ragged and deplorable looking enough, in all conscience, if that was to be regarded as a recommendation, and one other boy, concerning whom I had misgivings as soon as I was made acquainted with the particulars of his capture. My friend had detected him gazing longingly in at the window of a cook-shop, and after apparently painful deliberation, the boy was seen to hurry into the shop, and presently emerge with a penn'orth of baked pudding on a cabbage leaf.
    "Poor little chap!" remarked my tender-hearted acquaintance; "just imagine a boy - a hearty boy, such as he evidently is - being reduced to such straits as that on a Christmas morning."
    "Did you experience much difficulty in persuading him to accompany you ?" I asked.
    "Not the least; he came along as cheerful and thankful as possible."
    But scarcely had my friend uttered the word when there came a banging knock at the outer door, a gruff voice was heard inquiring if there was a boy there, and the young gentleman of whom we were discoursing was observed to turn pale. We found the owner of the gruff voice on the mat in the hall, a muscular man, and evidently in the navigating line of business, red and wrathful, and fierce in his demand to be informed what we meant by kidnapping his son. My friend soothingly explained the facts of the case. I could not help thinking that the indignation with which the lad's father listened to the explanation was not unmixed with admiration.
    "The hungry young warmint," said he, "why, he knows that there's as fine a stuffed bullock's heart as ever was baked over a dish of taters as'll be ready at ha'-past one o'clock. But I never see such a buster of a boy to eat. If he hadn't been bowled out, he would have finished his feed here, and then [-287-] come home and polished off his share of heart and taters as though he hadn't tasted a bit since his breakfast. I knows him."
    And after further pacification by an offering of rum, the father took his departure, having a tight hold of the greedy boy's collar.
    So it came about that our dinner party was reduced to five, and I must say for it that, as a dinner party, it was an unqualifled success. Thanks in no small degree to Master Piper, the crossing-sweeper. Piper's self-possession never for a moment forsook him; while poor Joe the Whistler was in an agony of bashfulness, and could only be persuaded to take a chair at the table when it had been clearly demonstrated to him how impossible it would be for him to enjoy his food with a crutch under one arm, a knife and fork in his hands, and standing on one leg all the time. The small retailer of hard-working cobblers - who had washed her face and made her hair tidy since I last saw her - was amazed and speechless before the glories of the table, and even the two carol-singing boys (who, as will presently appear, were a sad disappointment) were as yet pale and nervous. Piper made himself as much at home as though he was at least a younger brother of the host. I believe that he would have carved the beef had he met with the slightest encouragement in that direction. He did volunteer to pour out the beer, and more than once gallantly assisted the only lady at table to gravy. Piper freely criticised the quality of the beef, and inquired how much a pound we might have given for it, and when he was informed whistled incredulously, and expressed his opinion that if we had gone over to the dead meat market we might have saved at least fifteen pence on the joint. His example, after the first serving or so, gave courage to the others, and by the pudding time we were all as jolly as sand-boys. I don't believe that ever a pudding was so severely punished by five small assailants. As for Joe the Whistle; kept in countenance by the encouraging winks of Piper, it was [-288-] quite delightful to see him "come up smiling" for a fourth slice, and at present none the worse for the contest.
    The two carol-boys were quiet munchers, and, as they emptied their repeatedly-filled plates, nudged each other, and whispered under their breath, and grinned as though they could see in the whole business a joke that was not apparent to anyone else present. They proved themselves ungrateful rascals, for no sooner had they partaken of everything that was to be had, including a large-sized glass of hot elder wine, than they rose and said that they must be going.
    "But we are not going to break up just yet," said our host; "we are going now to sit round the fire and have a song or two - you are just the fellows to sing a song, you know - and some of us, I dare say, can tell a story."
    But the carol-singing boys rejected the genial proposal with rude contempt. It wasn't likely, the older one said, with a laugh; they had something better to do with their time. They had been asked to dinner, and they had had their dinner, and that was enough. It was all very well for them that could afford it to waste their time, but they couldn't, and so they didn't mean to stop any longer. Of course, there was no use in arguing the matter with two such mean rascals, and so my friend, with a severe though somewhat chapfallen countenance, handed them their bundle of carols, which for security had been taken downstairs, and let them out. They went laughing down the steps, and added insult to injury by at once making for the road, and, almost under our very windows, struck up "God bless you, merry gentlemen," their voices quavering and their teeth chattering as though they had not tasted food since the day before.
    Now our party was reduced to three, and we brewed a little more hot elder wine, and stirred the fire, and drew our chairs closer, while my friend directed at me a glance that expressed, "We shall be all right after all, you will find." But I regret to state [-289-] that his expectations were hardly realised. Would somebody sing a song? Yes; the hard-working cobbler girl would. But she was unfortunate in her selection. With her shrill small voice she began the melancholy ballad known as "Dear father, come home;" but she had scarcely got through the second verse when, as it seemed, the repetition of the words "dear father" called to her imagination (heightened, probably, by the elder wine), such a picture of the hapless cripple, her own parent, lying abed with a pair of legs that were of no use to him, that she broke down and sobbed so dismally that even Piper was affected, and it appeared nothing short of gross cruelty to urge her to continue.
    To enliven the spirits of the company generally, Piper volunteered to give us "something lively;" but here we were again unfortunate, Mr. Piper having a particularly loud voice, and his ideas of "liveliness" being such as might provoke adverse criticism on the part of the neighbours. He was cut as short as politeness would permit, and Joe the Whistler was appealed to. Joe declared that he couldn't sing.
    "Then tell us a story," suggested my friend eagerly, hope reviving in his bosom.
    Joe evidently had been thinking about it, for without the least hesitation he made a launch: "There was once upon a time a plum puddin';" but then he came to as dead a stop as though a piece of the subject of his narrative had stuck in his throat.
    "Well, go on," said my friend, encouragingly.
    "There was once a plum puddin'; -" and Joe mused for several minutes, and then, taking the cue, continued: "And it was a reg'ler whacker - another pause - "One of the whackingest plum-puddin's it was that ever was biled in a sarsepan, and -"
     "Get on, Joe."
    "And one of the most reg'ler--"
    [-290-] Here Joe made another halt, and of such long duration that my friend once more exclaimed, "Get on, Joe."
    On which Joe gave such a sudden start that there could be no doubt that he had been disturbed from the commencement of a sweet sleep.
    We all started up laughing, and shortly afterwards, presenting Mr. Piper and Joe the Whistler with a shilling each, and the little girl who dealt in hardworking cobblers with a new half crown, over and above the purchase-money of her stock, bad them good-bye at the door, and sent them away rejoicing.