Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 24 - Boys

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CHAPTER XXIV.

BOYS.

"I ONLY know two sorts of boys - mealy boys and beef-faced boys!" said Mr. Grimwig when Mr. Brownlow was vaunting the excellence of young Oliver Twist. But then it must be recollected that Mr. Grimwig was an old bachelor, and hated children. Two sorts of boys! I know twenty-two hundred sorts! First of all there is your "regular boy," who goes to a public school and is now at home for the holidays. He is about twelve years old, stout and firmly-built, ruddy-faced and curly-haired ; he wears trousers of what is known as "Oxford mixture," a species of stuff apparently specially manufactured for the use of boys, as it is never shown to you by your tailor when you attain to manhood. These trousers are short in the legs and white at the knees they are smeared in the region of the pockets with reminiscences of bygone toffee; they bulge out with concealed peg-tops, tennis-balls, and half-munched apples, and on the hips the pocket-flaps make two large "dog's-ears." The waistcoat was originally black, but is now of a grayish hue, from the immense quantity of powdered slate-pencil that has been spilt over it, and a stick of this valuable commodity is always protruding from the pocket, either through the legitimate opening, or through a hole made by its own sharp point. Across the waistcoat, too, runs a straight white line, [-257-] the result of perpetual rubbings against the desk while undergoing the necessary initiation into the mystery of pot-hooks and hangers. The contents of the waistcoat-pockets are most probably half a peg-top, known in scholastic language as "bacon," the aforenamed slate-pencil, a favourite "alley" and a couple of "taws," a penny, half a stick of particoloured nastiness known as "Boney's ribs," and popularly supposed to be a portion of the anatomy of the late prisoner of St. Helena, and a small piece of wood sharpened at both ends and called a "cat." The first idea suggested by the jacket is that of universal shininess - the collar, the cuffs, the front-flaps by the buttons, are greased and polishled to a pitch of intensity ; under the left arm is a large excrescence caused by the handkerchief of the owner, a small brass cannon, a long piece of whipcord with a button at the end, and a Jew's-harp; all which are stuffed into the jacket, together with the boy's greatest treasure, a fat buck-handled knife, which, besides the large and small blades, contains a corkscrew, a saw, and an instrument for picking obtrusive stones out of horses' feet - all most useful articles to a young gentleman pursuing his education at a classical school. The socks of the regular boy, at least as much as can be seen of them between the trouser and the boot, are generally dirty the boot is of the Blucher pattern, laceless, but with the flaps cleverly connected by means of a portion of the peg-top's whipcord. I am sorry to say that your regular boy is not good at hands - these members being generally black and grimy, with dubby, bitten nails, and tasteful decorations of cuts and warts; neither are his ears or neck worthy of close observation. His language is peculiarly his own - he never has heard it until he goes to school, he never hears it (but from his own children perhaps) after he is grown up. Do you recollect, reader, any of that wonderful tongue, and the impressions and ideas connected with it? Do you recollect the different sorts of marbles [-258-] called "alleys, taws, and clayeys;" the mysteries of that pastime with the wonderful name "High-cock-a-lorum, jig, jig, jig;" the stinging cuts of the tennis-ball inflicted at "egg-hat;" the extraordinary game of "duck," which hadn't the slightest connection with any feathered fowl, but was played with large flint-stones ; the peculiarities of "tit, tat, to;" the desperate struggles to obtain a straight line of "oughts and crosses"? Do you recollect what you used to eat in those days? Toffee, hardbake, all-sorts, small rum and gin bottles, sugar pipes and cigars, sugar mutton-chops and various other joints elegantly painted and gilt, Bath buns by the dozen, acidulated drops by the ounce, cocoa-nuts, medlars, unripe fruit of all kinds, and a delicious preparation of frizzled quill-pen which was known as "roast beef !" As these recollections rise up before me, I no longer wonder at the fortunes achieved by Professor Holloway, Dr. De Jongh, and the venerable Jacob Townsend. Bad, however, as they may be, they do no harm to the regular boy, who has the digestion of an ostrich and the constitution of a horse, and whose severest ailments are cured by a little salts and senna. The regular boy loves all outdoor sports, dotes on the pantomime, and looks forward to the day when he shall attain maturity in order that he may be a clown. He loves his father and mother, and especially his sisters ; his brothers he both likes and licks; grand'pa is "a jolly old brick," and grand'ma an "old trump;" but he doesn't get on well with his maiden aunts, and their portraits,, adorned with impossible noses, wild heads of hair, and fierce moustaches, are to be found on the backs of slates and on the palings of the neighbourhood generally. Of his schoolmaster he always retains a disagreeable impression, and the schoolmaster does his best to keep it up, never believing that any of his pupils are anything but boys, even though they have great strapping children of their own standing by their side. His mechanical genius is [-259-] seldom very great - his powers of destructiveness being generally in the ascendant, and with the afore-named knife he inscribes his name in letters varying from an inch to a foot on all practicable places. He is not a great reader - the Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and Peter Parley, constituting his library. His weakness is smoking. From the first time that he has enjoyed a penny Pickwick and a dreadful bilious attack simultaneously, he considers himself a man, and he runs the risk of imposition, cane, and birch, to spend half an hour on a windy afternoon behind a dreary old haystack, inhaling a nasty preparation of treacle and cabbage-leaves. Finally, the regular boy is universally knowing, but ever thirsting for information of a peculiar kind, generous, brave, predatory, averse to classic learning, idle, strong, and healthy. In these last particulars, and indeed in all others, he differs essentially from the boy who is brought up at home, or at a private tutor's, and who, in fact, is never a "boy," but always a "young gentleman." He is always ailing; in the winter he wears clogs and a comforter - sometimes, indeed, a boa, to the intense delight of the ruder youths, who assault him in the streets, and call after him by the opprobrious epithet of "Miss." He is a puny, wizen-faced, melancholy youth, but intensely gentlemanly withal. He wears gloves and Wellington boots, and mittens in winter, and takes lozenges, not as other boys do, as sweetmeats and condiments, but to do good to his chest. He never plays at any rough games ; he never soils his fingers or his linen ; he never shouts, or screams, or fights. He gets cuffed, and kicked, and chaffed by all public school-boys, and retaliates not. He is good at draughts, understands the mysteries of backgammon, and when you are dining with his family, delights them by the clever way in which he puzzles you by astute arithmetical questions culled from the Key to Walkinghame's Tutor's Asssitant. He is the boy who, in younger days, repeats " My name is [-260-] Norval," standing on a chair; and who, when he arrives at man's estate, is pronounced to be an "agreeable rattle," and so clever in acting charades and private theatricals. He is partial to Evenings at Home, but abjures Robinson Crusoe as "a book that could not possibly be founded on fact." He is the admiration of his sisters, who think him so gentlemanly and amusing, who superintend the curling of his hair, and who work him fragile braces and useless slippers. He is generally the son of a rich man, and accordingly is made much of by his private tutor, who excuses his late arrival at the scholastic parlour, who asks tenderly after his father's health, and kotous to him as only struggling tutors can. In after life he is to society what Martin Tupper and Coventry Patmore are to literature - he is a chip in the porridge of the world, harmless, inoffensive, self-satisfied, and utterly useless.
    The Street Boy-the Ishmael of modern times, his hand being against every man, and every man's hand being against, and whenever there is an opportunity upon, him. He is a bully and a tyrant, and the terror of London generally ; the terror of old ladies, whom he hates with an instinctive hatred, to whose pursuit he calls forth tribes of his own class, to whom he discloses the advent of the apocryphal "mad bull," whose legs he pinches, uttering at the same time the simulated yelpings of the maddened dog. He is hated by foreign gentlemen of fantastic appearance, ridiculing them in the public streets, calling attention to the length of their beard or the curious cut of their hats and garments, and addressing them with the mystic words "Shallabala" and "Mossoo," which he believes to be the staple idiom of their language. He is hated by omnibus conductors, whose attention he calls by loud cries of "Hi!" and to whom, on their looking round, he addresses the friendly "sight;" by gaping, mooning old gentlemen, to whom he points out imaginary balloons ; by watchmakers [-261-] and corkcutters, who practise their occupation in the windows of their shops, and who are driven mad by the rapid pantomime with which he imitates their movements, and by his repeated endeavours to startle them so that their fingers may stiffer from their inattention. He is hated by poulterers, before whose shops he appears unceasingly, handling hares and rabbits, and crying "Mie-aw" and "Poor puss;" by policemen for his unremitting inquiries after the health of their inspectors, and his ardent pursuit of knowledge in the matter of the theft of the rabbit-pie by the lame and the blind, and by all mendicants but he is respected by the proprietors of Punch, by ballad-singers, and by the itinerant vendors of articles, to all of whom he is an early and a constant audience; and without his lending himself to be operated upon, how could the man who removes the stains from our clothes hope to prosper?
    Music may be said to have charms to soothe the savage street-boy, or rather to render him tolerably quiet for the space of a few minutes, and he will listen with complaisance even to the most cholera-producing organ. The Ethiopians are his great delight; he likes their shirts and collars, and the patterns of their trousers, and he more especially delights in the leader of the band, with the tow wig and the leaden spectacles. He himself is generally musical, and accompanies his songs with obligatos on two bits of slate or a Jew's-harp, or, worse than all, an old Lowther Arcade accordion. Where he picks up the tunes that he sings is a wonder - he knows them and whistles them long before they are upon the organs and it is from his répertoire that the burlesque writer selects those airs which he knows will be most popular and most appreciated parodics. His Terpsichorean exercises are generally confined to the wondrous double-shuffle, and to scraps of wild and weird-like dances performed round the objects of his attack. He is generally engaged in some profession - perhaps in the green-[-262-]grocery line, when he encases his head in the empty basket as he returns from his errands, wearing the handle as a chinstrap, and decking his person with an old sack; or he may be a butcher, in which case he furtively adorns his hair with suet, and wears long and pointed curls, known among the female servants in his neighbourhood as " Bill's aggerawaters." Or he may be a printer, black-faced and papercapped, sitting at dead of night in the outer chamber of the grinding newspaper-writer, and never thoroughly awake. He may be a fishmonger, with a garment of flannel which is contrived to pay a double debt, serving him at once for apron and pocket-handkerchief; or a poulterer, or a grocer; but whatever his occupation, he holds firm to one grand purpose, and never allows his pleasure to be at all interfered with by his business. Walking leisurely along with his oilskin-covered basket, filled with medicines, on the immediate receipt of which depends perhaps life and death, he will stop and enjoy the humours of Punch, or run half a mile in the opposite direction after a fire-engine, or be beguiled by a cry of "Stop thief!" Of course, on his return home, he will tell a lie to screen himself, and he summarily kicked and cuffed indeed, looking at the wonderful life led by the street-boy-his exposure to cold, hunger, and misery; his want of education and lack of kind treatment - we must not wonder at his growing into the lounging, ill-conditioned, ignorant, hardened cub, which, in nine out of ten cases, he becomes.