Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - "Deputy" at Pugmaster's

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PUGMASTER'S Lodging House is one of a row that skulks in a blind alley between Bishopsgate Street and Whitechapel. There used to be a double row in the alley; but a few years since Metropolitan Improvements assaulted the shameful "no thoroughfare" with a vigour that threatened the entire annihilation of Pugmaster and all his crew. Having succeeded in demolishing one side of the way, Metropolitan Improvement faltered in its virtuous intention, let the cleared site on a building lease, backed out of the alley with its implements of demolition, and has not been heard of since. The building erected on the reclaimed ground is a metal warehouse - a store on an extensive scale for all manner of castings in brass and copper of a handy and portable description. It is well known that "metal" of all kinds has an irresistible attraction for thieves and vagabonds of the type common to Pugmaster's Alley. A few pounds' weight of it are easily stowed away, and, as a rule, there are difficulties in identifying it.
    Then, again, whatever may be its character or quality, it is "worth its weight ;" and, despite all laws and Acts of Parliament to the contrary, any quantity of it, from half a pound to half a hundredweight, may be turned into ready money in the twinkling of a marine-store dealer's scale-beam. The metal warehouse stands with its back to the alley; and the only outlet or look-out [-201-] into it from the blank brick wall is a sort of half-door, half-window, at which, occasionally, goods are delivered. It is an ordinary window, secured - as may plainly be seen from the outside - only with an ordinary catch. The opening is not more than eight feet from the ground, and it might safely be wagered that any night there might be found in Pugmaster's Alley twenty active young fellows both able and willing to make an entry by that window in as little time as it takes to count ten. Nor is it any secret to that twenty - nay, to the fifty times twenty that nightly find harbourage in the alley, one and all of whom are afflicted with a hankering after metal - that, entrance to the warehouse once gained, the plunder of valves, taps, hinges, and fine compact, weighty caps for axletrees, would be almost inexhaustible. Yet for six years has that metal warehouse remained as safe from molestation as though a troop of soldiery, similar to that which guards the Bank of England nightly passed its threshold.
    Why was this ? I put the question to the person I deemed best able to answer; and he responded with a grin and a chuckle that seemed to make even his wooden leg quiver. We were in the warehouse in which was the window overlooking Pugmaster's Alley. Peering cautiously to make sure that he was not overheard, he replied,
    "It's the rummiest thing you ever heard tell of. I don't know who put the rumour about, but I'll swear I didn't. They've got hold of it somehow that I sleeps on a bench under this winder, and that I never lays down without having my poleaxe just handy, and that I have swore a oath to chop down the first one that tries at that winder. I've swore to give 'em no warning, but to wait till whichever of 'em it is raises the sash and [-202-] puts in his head and shoulders, to chop him down like a bullock."
    This was Giles, the sole after-dark resident and custodian of the warehouse - a sinister-looking, broad-shouldered, squat-built old gentleman, who had seen much naval service in his earlier days, and who, though he has enjoyed a pension for at least twenty years past, is still as tough as rhinoceros hide.
    "Then there is no truth in the rumour ?" said I;  but at that moment there appeared in the passage of Pugmaster's lodging house - it was not more than half a dozen yards across the alley, and our window was open - a villanous figure of a man with soldering-irons sticking out of the pocket of his greasy, ragged jacket, as though to give colour to his pretence of being a brazier. Mr Giles nudged me, and looking another way, remarked solemnly, as though in continuation of our conversation- "I'd split his skull just like a sheep's head is split, if I had to stand my trial for it." I was quite aware that the remark was intended for the edification of the brazier, but if he heard it it had no great effect on him. He merely scowled and snorted; but that may have been his ordinary morning salutation to a world that could not appreciate his honest efforts.
    This same old Giles the watchman had first excited my curiosity respecting Pugmaster's. The street-door of Pugmaster's was never shut. It was the only means of lighting the dingy kitchen at the end of the passage by day, and at night it stood wide open for the accommodation of lodgers. It was held back by a large stone, the face of which was rubbed smooth and polished by the friction of trousers' legs and of female skirts. On this stone did Pugmaster's Deputy sit of evenings before the [-203-] press of business began, and smoke his short pipe, and talk with Mr Giles, who, after the warehouse was closed, frequently sat at his window and smoked his pipe.
    Sometimes the watchman would so far unbend as to read the murders out of the weekly newspaper to the attentive young man sitting on the stone in the opposite passage, and who, I really believe, setting aside the pole-axe, entertained great respect and admiration for Mr Giles. "Any time when you would like to go over Pugmaster's, say the word, sir, and I'll go with you," Mr Giles, on more than one occasion, had been good enough to remark; and on the day I called on him, prepared to take him at his word, I found him quite ready.
    We discovered the "Deputy" - a slim young man, of not prepossessing appearance-taking his breakfast in the kitchen. He was airily attired in a very dirty shirt and a pair of greasy black trousers, secured at the waist with a leather strap, and worn without braces. His hair was long and lank, and so bountifully oiled as to defeat the young man's intention to "curl it under," after the approved "Newgate knocker" fashion ; but he had not washed his face, and his hands were almost as grimy as his turned-back shirt-sleeves. He was luxuriating in a breakfast, the chief ingredients of which were toast- which he spread with dripping contained in a gallipot -  and red herrings. He had an abundant supply of smoking hot coffee in a vessel of zinc with a wooden handle, like a washing bowl. His greeting was affable, though somewhat striking in its terms.
    "Morning, Mr Giles," said he. " Ow do you find yourself this mornin', sir?"
    I expected to see my friend resent the sanguinary imputation; but since he merely made cheery response that he was "bobbish," I set it down in my own mind [-204-] that Mr Giles accepted the ugly prefix to his name as referring rather to the mystic poleaxe than to himself.
    "We think of going over the house, if you've got no objection," said Mr Giles.
    "You're welcome. We're registered, don't you know?" replied the Deputy, with a glance in my direction.
    But Mr Giles whispered him, and at once set his mind at ease. Too much so, because he made himself suddenly and demonstratively friendly.
    " Ow are yer?" said he; and before I could object, he caught my hand in the dirty paw with which he had just spread a round of toast, and shook it as though he had known me for years.
    "You was pretty full last night," remarked Mr Giles; "I see em comin' in pretty thick after twelve."
    "I didn't see no light in your winder."
    "That says nothing," returned Mr Giles, vaguely hinting poleaxe. "I lays awake hours in the dark sometimes, with my eye at that there bottom pane. Anybody at home?"
    "On'y the Bedrid," replied the Deputy.
    " Course; he's always at home," responded Mr Giles, lightly; "it would be rather a mirricle to ketch him out."
    "You won't ave a drop of coffee?" asked the hospitable Deputy, holding the washing bowl towards us with a persuasive smile; "it's werry good.''
    But Mr Giles had recently breakfasted, and I don't care much for coffee myself; so we started at once for upstairs.
    "We has women as well as men," said the Deputy, when we reached the first landing of what hundreds of years ago had been a handsome, roomy mansion; "but we're werry strict. Lor' bless you, they know better than to carry on here. We floors 'em out; and a male [-205-] ketched coming down, or a female ketched going up, after they've been quartered, gets their travelling ticket, whatever the hour might be."
    All this, rendered into English by Mr Giles, meant that males and females seeking lodgings at Pugmaster's were lodged on separate floors, and that any attempt to evade the decent rule was punished by instant expulsion from the premises.
    The first floor, which was devoted to married couples, was the first we entered. I am not thoroughly acquainted with the Lodging-House Act, but I believe one of its provisions is that there shall be no more than one bed and bedstead in each room set apart for the use of the married, and that each room shall afford a certain quantity of pure air adjudged to be sufficient for healthful respiration. I don't say that this salutary law was absolutely set at defiance at Pugmaster's, but most decidedly Pugmaster had ventured as near the edge of infraction as he possibly could without toppling over. The apartment was about forty feet long and twenty wide ; and the whole space was divided into strips, each barely large enough to contain a bedstead, the partitioning being a mere flimsy screen of half-inch deal not more than seven feet high, with a gap at bottom between it and the floor wide enough for any human creature of moderate bulk to crawl through. I pointed this out to the Deputy, and his reply was that "that was 'ow it was rigistered."
    "And how about the air?" said I.
    "What air?" returned the Deputy.
    "As to the quantity; you are particular on that score, of course?"
    "Get out," said Mr Deputy, grinning; "what the ell's their hair to do with us?"
    [-206-] Then, a light suddenly dawning on him, he continued,
    "Oh, the rigistered air, you mean. Oh, it's all right enough there's nothink here but wot's rigistered."
    "But it doesn't seem to me that there can be sufficient air in this place for so many lodgers, when the beds are full."
    "Ay, but look on the quality on it," returned the Deputy, pointing to an open window that overlooked a wretched tree, naked and in the last stage of consumption; and as he spoke he inhaled a heavy mouthful, and slapped his chest as though he liked the flavour, admired it for its density, and regarded it as a sort of over-proof spirit that might be diluted tremendously and still retain strength enough for ordinary purposes.
    "We charges a tanner a pair - for married 'uns, that is," said Mr Deputy, " and fourpence for single 'uns."
    "But suppose a married couple have children?"
    "Then they pays for 'em, of course. Dash it all!" said the Deputy, " the omblibusts does that."
    "But little children - mere infants, I allude to."
    "They all counts," returned Deputy; "they ain't got no call to bring 'em to 'blige us; we don't want 'em."
    I inquired of Deputy if the bedsteads were always in the state in which they now appeared - with a thick coating of grease and dirt all over the head-board - and if what I saw was about the average cleanliness of the sheets ; to which he replied, with much satisfaction, that what I saw was the average condition of things "as nigh as a toucher," and that everything was duly "rigistered."
    When I entered the married folks' dormitory, I looked anxiously about me for a personage whose existence had been but vaguely hinted by Mr Deputy at the commencement of our interview, when he spoke of "only the Bedrid." We had by this time ascended the next [-207-] flight of stairs, and I was about to ask further concerning the mysterious Bedrid, when Deputy opened a door, and at the same time gave me a clue. In size the apartment was similar to the one below, but there were no partitions, and a long range of bedsteads, each about the width of an ordinary hearthrug, extended the length of the side walls. I don't think that the windows had been opened as yet, and the air of the place was misty having in it, among other things, a flavour of rum. In a few moments my eyes grew used to the mist, and then I could make out that one of the bedsteads in a distant corner was occupied. There was an upraised arm, a hand grasping a bottle, and making with it signs of beckoning. Mr Deputy hurried forward, and we followed.
    "'Ow are yer, old cock ?" the Deputy inquired cordially; to which the "old cock" - of whom nothing was visible but the arm and hand, the bottle, a green woollen nightcap, and a pair of bloodshot eyes peering over the edge of the frowsy coverlet-replied hoarsely that he was "on the werge of sinking, and would the Deputy be good enough to procure him a quarten of rum."
    "Why, 'tain't time," said the Deputy, cheerily; "it's bare eleven by the church clock."
    "The church clock's a liar," returned the fierce old cock, uncovering his hideous unshaven muzzle to give more distinct utterance to the accusation; "you go and do what you're asked ; that's a good lad."
    Then, for the first time observing Mr Giles and myself, he looked scared, and mutely appealed to the Deputy for an explanation. Being assured that it was all right, his apprehensions subsided. After a few moments' reflection, he thrust under the bed-clothes [-208-] the hand that had just grasped the rum-bottle, and, after a little delay, hauled up what evidently was the end of a trouser brace - "in case of fire," he whispered, hoarsely, at the same time wagging his ugly head vigorously in support of his assertion. "It 'ud be a horful thing to be burned in the bed, so I sleeps in 'em." On which Mr Giles winked at the Deputy, who gravely chafed his nose with the rum-bottle ; and both said it was the best thing he could do. As the Deputy was anxious to fetch the rum, we could stay with the Bedrid no longer; but the Deputy kindly enlightened me.
    "He's the best customer we've got," said he ; "he's been where you see him now laying these months and months. He's got a parrylatic stroke through saying 'Lord, strike me a cripple,' so they tell. He's a wonder at livin'. 'Cept bread, rum and saveloys is his wittles. He drinks rum all day long, and he has reg'ler two saveloys for his supper. Got money? I should rayther think that he had. Where? Why, in his trowsis pockets, to be sure. Didn't he show you the braces of 'em? Well, he always wears 'em - never had 'em off once since I've knowed him. Course it's all gammon about wearing 'em in bed in case of fire; it's cos he's afraid of trusting anybody with his money. Where does he get it from? Ah! that's what I should like to know. There's a old woman - his sister, he says she is - comes to see him once a fortnight; and p'raps she brings him it. Lor' bless you, he pays like a prince. When they're reg'ler, as many of 'em are wot lodges here, we chucks in Sundays; but he won't have it; he makes me the 'lowance of it, and many a sixpence as well. Well, d'ye see, I nusses him; he's helpless as a young 'un, and I fetches him his rum and that. How much? Why, about a pint and a quarten a day; and there he lays, singing to [-209-] hisself mostly, but sometime swearing awful, and layin' awake all night for fear that any of em should get up to their tricks with his trowsis."
    There was a good deal to be seen at Pugmaster's after this, but I could not banish the rum-swigging, saveloy-devouring, bedridden, frightful old savage from my mind. There was an opportunity for doing so, however; for, quitting the chamber of horrors I have mentioned, Mr Deputy opened the door of a room between the foul bedrooms, from which there instantly issued the loveliest odours of violets and other sweet-scented spring flowers that ever greeted human nostrils.
    "That's a freshener, ain't it?" exclaimed the Deputy. "They're tiresome young beggars; but we always get this treat this time o' year."
    "Who are the tiresome young beggars?" I inquired.
    "The flower-selling gals," returned Mr Deputy. "Them's their stocks;" and as he spoke, he pointed to a great pile of flower-laden baskets, by the side of what seemed to be a heap of tramps' cast-off rags. Violets were there, lilies of the valley, wall-flowers, primroses, and dainty sprigs deftly got up as buttonholers. "They are obliged to be up very early to get 'em at Covent Garden, so they comes back and turns in again till it's time to ketch the swells as buys 'em."
    It was nice to smell the sweet flowers in that pestiferous hole of Pugmaster's; but what about the villanous odours of fever and pestilence with which the innocent buds and blooms might become impregnated during their sojourn of several hours between the bedrooms of a common lodging-house? Who would suspect deadly malaria lurking in the blushing leaves of the dainty spring rosebud held so gratefully to the face of beauty? This subject provided me with. food for reflec-[-210-]tion long after I had parted from Mr Deputy and wooden-legged Giles; but the object that clung to my memory, and haunted it, was the hideous old bedridden man of money, who passed months abed in his trousers, living on raw rum and saveloys.