Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Tramp to the "Derby"

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IT had struck eight, and daylight was waning, when I, not altogether an inexperienced tramp, buttoned my rough coat of long service, and pulling my cap well over my ears-for the night was chilly-lit my pipe, and struck into the road. There was no lack of company - Epsom bound. There came along the road, with their face Epsomward, men in twos and threes, with bulky bundles enveloped in coloured pocket handkerchiefs, out of holes in which protruded tiny legs and arms; but they might trudge on for me.
    It was all very fine their hopeful way of stepping out, and their cheerful talk, and the prodigal way in which they puffed at clean short pipes, filled and lit at the public-house where a few minutes since they had halted to have just one last half pint a-piece, before they settled down to their night's tramp. It was all very well at present, but it wouldn't last. They were "little doll" men; poor deluded wretches, three of thrice as many hundred who, quite new to the Epsom game, had "heard" that little dolls were the best "spec" out. They were to be bought at Houndsditch at the rate of twopence a dozen, and had been known to realise as much as a shilling for six, from merry gents in drags and open barouches, who wore them with their indecent legs stuck all round their white hats or in the buttonholes of their coats. Why, at that rate, eighteen penn'orth of stock might be the means of putting eight [-247-] or ten shillings in their pockets even after they had paid the eighteenpence railway fare for riding home. Truly, it "might" be the means; but assuredly it will not be. You will find out your mistake, men of the indecent dolls, before you reach Wimbledon Common. You will be dismayed to overtake and be overtaken by troops of deluded ones, who each carry a bird's-eye bundle, and each believe that he is one of the sagacious few who are alive to the "doll trick." Dismallest of mistakes! By this time tomorrow tiny dolls will be as dead a drug in the market as the beaten favourite, and scores of disappointed would-be vendors may be found in Epsom town willing to sell you as many little dolls for the price of a few mouthfuls of bread as there are sticks of firewood in a halfpenny bundle, and who will not be able to effect one single sale even at that rate. Then they will fag back to London about Thursday noon, hungry and footsore, still hugging the detested and undiminished bundle, out of the holes in which the little dolls kick their impudent heels as though in mockery and derision.
    Here, next in the march, is a troop of ragged, shoeless, boot-cleaning boys, balancing their black-box and brushes on their heads. Then a truck load of ginger beer, hauled along by two sweating fellows, one pushing and one pulling, and both panting with fatigue and heat, although there is yet at least fifteen miles of hilly road before them. Here comes a barrow loaded with pieces of fried fish, two hundred weight or so, covered over with a tarpaulin, and, after being dragged through the dust all night, it will be vended on the Downs tomorrow under the blazing sun.
    Following the fried-fish barrow are two organ-men; two of the detested race of grinders, straight from [-248-] Saffron Hill, with their instruments of torture burdening their broad backs, and Epsom bound by token of their trousers being turned up at the boots to secure the cherished corduroy against chafing in the dust, and by their organs being temporarily divested of their handles. What on earth can have put it into the heads of these two benighted Italians that they will be welcome, or even tolerated, on Epsom Downs to-morrow; or that they will have a chance of picking up money enough to compensate them for all their toil and tramping. But one of the most inexplicable peculiarities of the organ- grinding animal is that he is altogether unconscious that he is a nuisance. He believes in his music, and regards it as a pleasure as well as a business, and I have no doubt carries it home and grinds operatic and music-hall melodies to solace his family on days when he has had bad luck, and there is no supper. I have a right to assume this to be the case, for once when I attended a select concert and ball held in the aristocratic region of Back Hill, near Liquorpond Street, and to which no one but grinders and their particular friends were admitted, to my great astonishment the musicians of the evening were two organ-men, perched on a tub, in a corner of the room, who, skipping the, inappropriate tunes, ground out waltzes, and jigs to the heart's content of all assembled.
    Four children-three girls and a boy-. with a few dozen boxes of fusees tucked under their rags, run alongside five brutes in human form, with broken noses and puffy eyes, one of whom carries a bag, in which are the tools of their craft-the boxing gloves with which, between the races, they will demonstrate the noble art of self-defence.
    Here comes a man bearing a pail, along with two [-249-] others, who apparently carry nothing at all, and yet that they are Epsom bound is evident from the fact that one has an old woollen comforter round his throat as a precaution against night air; while the other has the sole of his boots tied to the upper leather with a bit of string, and both have walking-sticks. What on earth can three men be going to do at Epsom with only one pail between them? Clearly it is time, too, I was on the tramp. Travellers on the road soon make acquaintance. What was my lay? It was the man that had his boot tied up with string who asked this, and thereby gave me an opportunity of establishing a chumship.
    "What's my lay? I'll bet you a pot of beer you don't guess it in three times."
    "Done," said the man with the crippled Blucher; "you're a 'pus palmer.'" It was my design to plead guilty to the first "lay" I was accused of, but, as I had not the least notion what a "pus palmer" might be, and I should surely lay myself open to ignominious detection as an impostor if I was pressed on the subject, I declined the mysterious impeachment.
    "Then you're a bettin'-list cove; holds the humberreller, or something in that line."
    There was less danger here. I knew what a betting- list was, and any "cove" might hold an umbrella; so I was fain to admit that I had lost, and at the very next public-house we came to we drank luck to each other over a pot of beer-nay, two pots-and, replenishing our pipes, took to the road again.
    To my disappointment, however, I presently found that the mystery of the pail was a very shallow one. Indeed, it was no mystery at all; it was simply a delusion. The victim of the washhouse utensil-in which, [-250-] by the bye, were bestowed some slices of bread and butter, wrapped in a clean cloth-furnished him, as he confided to me, by his old woman to help him on the road, had been told or had read of splendid strokes of business done by enterprising individuals possessed of a pail on Derby day at Epsom.
    "They'd give anything for a pail of water for their horses sometimes," said he; "it's more precious than champagne up in that dry part when the sun's blazing down. I've heerd tell of as much as a guinea being give for a pail of water for their horses by gents wot's won and are gush of money; half-a-crown for a pailful of water is quite common." And he hitched up the vessel at his back with a wink of confidence; and I feel sure that if any one there and then had offered him a contract to supply water all day to-morrow on Epsom Downs at the rate of eighteenpence a pailful he would have indignantly spurned the idea.
    There was no chance, however, of his obtaining such a bid from either of his present companions - assuredly not from the one on my right, an old man who walked with a limp, and whose hands were gnarled and knotted and of the colour of cobbler's wax, and who wore about his throat the old woollen comforter before-mentioned. When the pail-bearer talked so bravely, the old man nudged me and gave me a side glance, in which was expressed much pity for the deluded one, accompanied, however, by a warning shake of the head, adjuring me not on any account to speak my mind, and so blight the poor fellow's innocent expectations.
    "And why didn't you bring a pail ?" I asked of the old man, wondering what he had brought, and curious to ascertain.
    "Because I couldn't see after two things at the same [-251-] time," replied the old fellow cheerily: "my game's 'string.'"
    He looked, albeit his woeful shabbiness, such an inoffensive old man that I could not for a moment suspect him of designs that were very iniquitous; yet I must confess that for the time his answer made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. The only games of "string" I had ever heard of were those connected with old Bailey gallows exhibitions and Thuggism.
    "String!" I repeated, with an uncomfortable feeling that the ignorance I was exhibiting was altogether unworthy of an "umbrella cove." "How do you work it ?"
    "What's easier?" returned the mild old gentleman, withdrawing from his coat-tail pocket as he spoke a bunch of tangled string and piece of cord, and a harness maker's awl: "it don't want much working; half way up the hill is the place to be on the look-out, just by that steep bit where the elder trees grow; that's the bit that tells on the weak part of a harness. Snap goes a saddle-girth or a breeching, and then there's a crowd, and it's 'Who's got a bit of string?' Why, I've got a bit of string, and I've got a awl; and there you are in two two's, as right as though nothing had happened, and I've earned, perhaps, a shilling. Ah!" continued the ancient harness-mender, with a hopeful wag of his head, "I've seen and talked with a man who once got a sovereign for one of his old braces on that very spot." Hearing this the tramp with the pail nudged me with his elbow, and raised his eyebrows in commiseration for a man who was so weak as to pursue shadows, and who undoubtedly would discover his mistake before he was many hours older.
    Instructive as were these revelations, it would be [-252-] mere affectation to pretend that they had an enlivening effect on my spirits. I can say the same for our friend with the tied-up Blucher boot, who audibly growled an opinion that the two old gentlemen were a couple of unheavenly old muffs, and that it was sickening to hear 'em. He was a tall, straight-backed young fellow of five and twenty or thereabouts, and he puffed spitefully at his short pipe as he slouched along with his hands in his dilapidated trousers pockets, while a dare-devil and defiant scowl added to the repulsive expression of his evil-looking face. At present he had not opened his mouth except to swear concerning a "raw" on his foot, and to spit, and so we trudged on until it grew so dark that we could barely see the dust in the road.
    "We shall have a dry walk, after all," remarked the old gentleman, whose game was string, "and I was afeard for it this morning."
    "Ah! we shall have a dry walk, please God," returned the tramp with the pail. But this was more than the young fellow with the "raw" could stand.
    "Please the devil," he ejaculated, taking the short pipe from his mouth to say so, with such fierce energy that the red-hot ashes in it were scattered in the road. "I've happened on nice company, I have! What do you say, Humbereller?"
    Thus appealed to, I replied that I had not said anything.
    "Then I'll have a say," he exclaimed savagely; "I'll say as I said before, please the devil. I'd please him fast enough if he'd only give me the chance. On'y let him give me the chance that I'm lookin' for - that rattling good chance that ud make my fortune and the fortune of ten others, if they would on'y trust me. Three years ago I come down this road, not with a raw [-253-] on my foot and without a mag in my pocket, but in a drag that I paid a hundred and twenty quid for, coin down, and as good a bit of horseflesh as ever wore silver harness. I did ; I come down with the best, and with them as wouldn't let me brush their coats now if I asked em for the job ; and yet, lookee here! if I could only find that rattling chance I am speaking of, I might be up in my drag again, with swell togs and a veil to my white hat, and my hamper with the swell grub and the champagne, and all the jolly kit. It's true, if I could only find the rattling chance, mind you! Please the devil, it may turn up some day."
    I was conscious from his manner of pressing against me, that the sanguine person who hoped to make his fortune out of a pail of water was shrinking away from the young man, who, having concluded his fierce address, was snorting and spitting at a terrific rate. Being farthest from him, the meek old harness-maker ventured on a remark,
    "Are you going to Epsom now to see if you can find the chance you are speaking of?"
    "I ain't such an infernal fool," returned our alarming friend with a laugh. "I should no more think of looking for it to-morrow than I should think of goin' a nestin' after a bird that I saw flying away with a bit of hay in its beak. The nest would have to be built and the eggs laid before you might think of hatching. Golden eggs and diamond chicks, yah! talk to me about your bits of string, and your pails, and your betting-list fakements. I feel like a wulture keeping company along with tomtits when I think on it."
    We were so unworthy of his companionship that, with a snort of contempt, he stalked ahead of us, and we thought-the man with the pail whispered that it was a [-254-] precious good job, too-that he was bent on seeking more congenial company; but he walked by himself for no more' than a hundred yards or so, and then he halted until we came up.
"You ain't a fool, betting-list cove," he exclaimed, fiercely, addressing me; "you couldn't follow your little game if you was. Come and walk this side." I humbly did as requested.
    "I say," said he - we were out of earshot of the other two - "I say, you're a wide-awake cove, I should reckon, by the cut of your jib. What did you make out of what I was saying just now?"
    "Nothing at all," I replied ; which was strictly true.
    "You didn't get a hint out of it ?"
    "Not in the least." He laughed and hugged himself in his tattered old reefing-jacket.
    "And yet you're a bettin'-list cove - a cove that must be acquainted with half a dozen of them that are of just the kidney I should like to get hold of. The very thought of it is enough to make a fellow cut his throat."
    His sudden despondency was such that, in sheer compassion, I produced from my pocket a glass bottle, with about half a pint of good French brandy in it.
    "Take a sip at this," I said. Without so much as "Thanky," he took it., and drawing the cork out with his teeth, smelt at the bottle's contents. In about five seconds the half-pint was reduced to a tablespoonful, which he handed back to me. I can't say how it happened; perhaps he hadn't tasted solid food for several hours; and this, coupled with the fact that he had taken two deep draughts out of two pots of beer a short time before, may have accounted for it; but so it came about that he said not a word for at least ten minutes after he had swigged my brandy, and [-255-] when he did speak it was in the tone of a man who was drunk.
    "Give us your hand," said he. "Now, say that you'll get me the job if you like the plan, and it ever comes to being a job, and I'll tell you something." I declined to bind myself on the terms suggested, and told him he could please himself about telling me his secrets.
    "But you won't blab?"
    "No; I won't blab."
    "Very well. Lookee here: I'm a man that's willin' to do my twelvemonths' hard labour for a thousand pounds." He brought his brandied breath close to my ear as he disclosed this astounding fact in a whisper, and squeezed my hand which lie still held in his, as though to check any exclamation of amazement I might be betrayed into making.
    "And d'ye know what I'm willin' to do twelve-months' hard labour for?" he continued presently. I did not.
    "I'm ready and willin' to do it for the sum named - made right and tight for me when I come out, mind yer, and no gammon - for shootin' a horse. Lookee here!" We had loitered so that the two old tramps with the pail and the string at this moment came up with us, but a volley of oaths from my confidential friend drove them to the other side of the road..
    "Lookee here," he continued, when they were far enough off: "I've reckoned it up, and its as easy as can be. Let somebody take me in hand - bettin' coves with money, I mean. If one ain't enough, let three or four of 'em go in Co. and do it. Let em take me in hand and arrange, and then go and lay any amount - it don't matter how much - hundreds of thousands if they like - agin the horse that's the favourite, and I'll be there [-256-] on the race-day and on the spot, and I'll put a bullet behind the favourite's ear and drop him as he runs. I'm a dead shot, and I could do it as easy as kiss my hand, with either rifle or pistol; and I'm ready to do it on them there terms, and do my twelvemonths' hard labour for it."
    He brought his confidential communication to an abrupt conclusion, and for a few moments the nature of it so amazed me that we tramped on a bit in silence.
    "Well," said he presently, and with his voice growing huskier, "what do you say?"   
    "Ill consider over it," I answered, scarcely knowing what to say.
    "Come and consider over it now, then," he rejoined, spying a green bank by the roadside, and making a tipsy clutch at me, partly to save himself from stumbling and partly to drag me to the bank. "Come and sit down along o me and we'll consider it out, and arrange it afore we go another step."
    But I avoided his grasp, and he staggered to the bank by himself, and, trying to sit down on it, tilted over, and lay on his back. I did not help him up, although he swore in a variety of oaths, how he would serve me if I did not. I had had enough of him, and, leaving him howling, tramped on to overtake my comrades of the pail and string.
    I have already taken note of a certain barrow-load of fried fish, covered over with a tarpaulin, which two industrious fellows were hauling along, pushing, and pulling, and finding it terribly hard work. Likewise mention has been made of a gang of five young gentlemen, professional boxers, who were bound for Epsom, carrying with them the tools of their craft. In a secluded spot we found that the former had suffered considerably [-257-] at the hands of the latter. According to the almost tearful account of the poor fishmongers, the five gallant members of the P. R., sniffing the fried fish, it would seem, and on that account bent on picking a quarrel, had insisted on the already over-taxed barrow-men adding to their load the sack in which the boxing-gloves, &c., were stored.
    This unreasonable request was not unnaturally objected to, on which, as punishment for their insolence, two of the P. R. gentry punched the heads of the fish-men, while the other three whipped off the tarpaulin and possessed themselves each of as much as he could carry in his arms, and decamped with it to a neighbouring field; and there the villains, all five of them, sat perched on a rail like carrion crows, yelling laughter and oaths, and ravenously devouring their plunder. But there was no help for it, Of course there were no policemen about, and there could be no doubt that the five young gentlemen would keep their word as regards the smashing and gouging that should be visited on any one who dared approach them. My comrade, the valiant old harness-maker, proffered his willingness to "make one" to do it, and I hope that the umbrella cove was not such a coward but that he would have made another; other passing tramps, however, had their own business to mind, and there was nothing left but to advise the fishmongers to push on, and avoid another visit from the robbers. And so they took our advice, and we kept them company, assisting them with an occasional push up, till, at about a quarter to one in the morning, Epsom town was reached.
    Epsom town, but not the end of the tramp's weary journeying. Tramps whose destination is the racecourse may not tarry in Epsom town even for a few [-258-] hours' rest. To be sure, there may be reason in this arrangement. Epsom town is not responsible for Epsom race-course, and it would be somewhat hard if the peace-loving inhabitants were doomed once a year to be neighbourly for three or four days with the squalor and dregs of metropolitan society. It would by no means add to the value of house property there were it understood that, in the springtime of every year, just when the fruit and flower gardens attached to the villas were at their gayest and sweetest, there was a possibility of their being taken possession of, and mayhap stripped and trampled over by a ruthless crew from the vilest slums of London. Still it does seem cruelly hard that, having so far completed their pilgrimage, these poor wretches, with twenty miles of travel-stain scored on them, with their tired feet feeling like lead, and their eyes almost as heavy for want of sleep, should be allowed no halt at Epsom. They must "move on." They must retreat or advance, for the town, which is most vigilantly officered by police, will allow them no alternative.
    Rather early on the morrow - on Derby morning, that is to say - curious to discover how my two old gentlemen had fared, I mounted the hill of chalk, and approached the Downs and the Grand Stand, from the summit of which there mingled with the mist much smoke from chimney-pots, showing that, down in the depths of the enormous kitchen, quarters of lamb by the score, and chickens and ducklings by the hundred, and giant joints of beef were still revolving on the spits in preparation for the demands of the hungry host who would, in a few hours, clamour for sustenance. Fires were burning in other places; but they were of a much humbler sort - those that crackled under the slung [-259-] pots of the gipsies; and naked swarms of the juvenile members of the tribe, having crawled out of the filthy canvas lairs in which they roost, crouched round about them eager for the time of kettle-boiling and breakfast.
    But of those who had lodged on the Downs through the preceding night all were not early risers. There were scores - hundreds, I may say, and still be fairly within the mark - who seemed to have arrived so far in the dark; and, casting hopelessly about for anything in the shape of shelter, just dropped down as does a sheep or a cow-with this difference, that the cow or the sheep does compose itself for rest decently, while the worn- out tramp does not. But it is only the adult males, the young tramps and the old tramps, who lie about so. There are scores of women cadgers and fusee sellers but they huddle together against the wooden walls of the tall Grand Stand, that in a few hours will bloom like a prodigious bouquet and flash in the sun, all so rich and gay, as though there were no such things as poverty and rags and hunger in the world. They cluster together, those wretched women some with, babes at their breasts, and others with' children of tender years gathering in under their old shawls and draggletail gowns, in some such manner as a hen gathers her chicks, but far less effectually and warmly ; and here they will remain, like paupers gathered about the doors of a workhouse casual ward, until such time as the business of the day begins to stir, and the active police, who have lodged at the Grand Stand, and who have breakfasted, and are smart and fresh and fit for duty, bid them "clear out," and they are absorbed in the gathering crowd.
    At present, however, - half-past six A.M. - there is no crowd, nor any sign of one. There is business doing, [-260-] however. The proprietors of the countless booths that are ranged in rows on both sides of the race-course are up and busy, though as yet they do not deem it worth their while to throw open their canvas doors and expose the tempting wealth of eatables within. This is sufficient precaution by day, but at night-time stronger protective measures have to be adopted. There is not a refreshment-booth keeper on Epsom Downs that is not provided with firearms; and any thief who should thrust his curious head in after the proprietor was supposed to have retired for the night would, in all probability, find it promptly and solidly rapped by some sturdy watchman who keeps guard just within the flimsy rag that serves as a door. But booth robberies on the Downs are seldom heard of. It is not as though the hundreds of poverty-stricken and famished ones who are spread about the neighbourhood were alert and lively. By the time they tramp from London and mount the hill, they are so utterly done up, that not even the sharp spur of hunger is sufficient to goad them to petty larceny for the stomach's sake.
    I looked about in vain for some time for my comrades of the road, the hero of the pail, and he who had come to Epsom to fish for fortune with no more promising bait than a bunch of bits of string and a bradawl. At last I found the latter. Decent old fellow that he was, he had had no breakfast, and was without even a penny to buy him a cup of coffee; but when I discovered him he was in the hands of the travelling barber, who had him between his knees on the grass already lathered for shaving. The charge was three halfpence, and this was the exact sum, with not a farthing over, that the stout- hearted old chap possessed: but he let it go without a pang, in order that he might appear respectable at that [-261-] lucky spot on the slant of the hill, where, on a memorable occasion, the man had sold one of his old braces for a guinea, to patch up a broken-down harness. I made inquiries for the man with the pail, and was informed by the other old fellow, as he wiped his clean shaven jaws, and winked at me over the edge of the towel, that it had turned out just as he expected it would - he had ascertained that there were dozens of men with pails besides himself already on the spot, and that he had discreetly parted with the vessel in which he had placed such trust, for the sum of tenpence, and was at that moment tramping back to London.