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"COUGH NO MORE."
SOME of my readers will perhaps remember that in the the
winter of 1866-7, one of the chief "sensations" of the day was
"the Distress in the East," the East of our own great "city of
extremities." With its docks, warehouses, and manufactories, it is rich as
a store-house, but as regards its inhabitants, it is essentially a poor quarter.
The distress ordinarily characteristic of the East of London, would seem
terrible in almost any other place; but there it is chronic, is mostly hidden
from the outside world, and has come to be regarded as pretty much a thing of
course even by the sufferers - so that in ordinary times little is heard of the
distress in the East, except in local circles. But the particular winter to
which I refer was, owing to special causes, a time of special distress- of
distress that was truly appalling, alike from its extent, its bitterness, and
the consequences that might have ensued from it. Under the outburst of the
joint-stock mania, the ship-building trade of the Thames rose to an unparalleled
state of briskness. Great yards were opened all along the banks, and tens of
thousands of "hands" were attracted to the district by high rates of
wages. For [-303-] a little while all went on
gloriously, but soon the trade began to fall off, and by the end of 1866 it had
utterly collapsed. Many of the mechanics were able to follow the departed trade
to the Tyne and the Clyde, but some of them, and thousands of unskilled
labourers, were left to starve, as "the unemployed." To add to their
misery came the terribly severe weather of the opening months of 1867.
The gaunt army of the unemployed took to meeting in their thousands, to parading the streets, to muttering ominously, and finally in some parts to bread-rioting.
The distress in the East thus became known to the general public, and its appalling nature and extent more or less fully realised; and, this being the case, it is scarcely necessary to add that the stream of charity was freely turned upon the stricken district.
It has been necessary to say so much regarding "the distress in the East," in order to make clear the bearing of what is to follow.
Mine was one of the distressed districts, and having shared in the suffering, participated in the charitable help when it came; and I was one of the almoners entrusted with the distribution of the funds subscribed by the public. Though this duty had its pleasant features, it was upon the whole a hard one to discharge satisfactorily. In mine, as in all poor London districts, there was a charity-hunting set, who though, generally speaking, poor enough, were so through their own idle or dissipated habits. They were the least deserving of all the poor, but being [-304-] also the most mendacious and shameless, they generally managed to secure a good share of whatever charity might be given in the district.
When the funds for the relief of this special distress came in, the charity-hunters rushed to the front, and numbers of others who had never before sought charity, and who, though suffering more or less directly from the collapse of the ship-building trade, were really not in want of it, now also boldly attempted to obtain a share. Under these circumstances it was necessary for the distributors of the funds to act with the greatest caution. It being pretty generally known how I stood in the matter, I was frequently stopped in the street by people anxious to press their claims. They were mostly persons I did not know; but one day to my surprise, and I must add to my indignation, I was stopped by a man who, in the popular phrase, I knew (by sight and reputation) much better than I respected. His name was Jack H----, but he was usually spoken of as "Ginghams," or "The Slogger;" the first nickname having reference to the fact of his gaining a livelihood by selling second-hand umbrellas about the streets; the other to his having in his younger days been a pugilist of some local note. He was now about five-and-forty, stood six feet, was largely built, and with coarse red hair, high cheek-bones, small sunken eyes, a broken nose, and a face deeply pitted with the smallpox. Wearing a great hairy cap on his head, he certainly looked a rather fearsome customer as he approached me with a short black pipe in his mouth.
[-305-] "Day, guv'nor," he said gruffly, and jerking out his words as though he were forcing himself to speak.
I returned his good day, and I suppose that either my tone or looks expressed the astonishment which I felt at his addressing me, for in the same gruff tone he went on-
"I see you're took aback at me a-speaking to you; but I don't mind that; I knew you would be, for I ain't none of yer creepin' or cantin' sort. If I'm a rough customer, I'm open, and I don't care for nobody as don't care for me, and never asts nobody for nothink 'cepting it's a glass of beer of a pal when I'm hard up, which I'm always good to stand a glass if a mate asts me, if I've got the browns and he hasn't; howsumever, that's neither here nor there, and ain't what I want to speak to you about."
"What do you want to speak to me about?" I asked rather curtly.
"Well, that's straight hittin' anyhow," he said, " but I ain't got anything to say against it, so here goes to come to the point." He paused for a moment, as if to arrange his thoughts, and then abruptly exclaimed, "Look here, guv'nor, ain't you one on 'em as has got the givin' of the tickets for this 'ere relief fund, as they calls it?"
"I am," I answered with an emphasis, about the meaning of which I intended there should be no mistake. He understood me, and answered-
"Oh, I take, guv'nor, you've got the tickets, and you've got sense enough not to give any on 'em to the likes o' me. That's about the state o' the poll, eh? Well, you needn't alarm yourself," he continued, without [-306-] giving me time to make any reply, "I ain't going to ask you for a ticket for myself, not but what I could do with it, for I'm hard up enough, goodness knows, and not but what I'm as deserving of one as some as has had them, though it's me as says it, and whatever you may think about it. You've been done more'n once, to my certain knowledge, not as that is anything agen you. From all as I've heer'd you know your way about in these things as well as most, still you are only one agen hundreds, and it ain't in natur to suppose you could spot every dodger as tried to come the old soldier over you. I've seen more'n one loaf of your giving melted - swop'd for drink, yer know - directly it come to hand, and charity money spent in ways as would a-made you open your eyes wider than you did when I stopped you - and you opened 'em pretty wide then."
"Have you come to tell me of any who have been abusing the charity?" I asked.
"No," he answered. "Not but what it would serve them right to expose them; but anything in the way of informing would go agen the grain with me."
"What do you want then?" I questioned.
"Well, look here, guv'nor, to give it you straight, I want you to do a good turn; I want you to lend a helping hand to old Jimmy Parker. You may lay your life on it you couldn't give to one as stands more in need of it. He's in awfully low water; reg'lar broke down altogether; bad health, no trade doing, no money to the good, clothes up the spout - pawned, yer know - neither bit [-307-] nor sup in his cupboard, and not so much as a handful of firin' to keep his old bones warm. He bears it patient; but I tell you it would drive most men to do summat wrong."
"But who is Jimmy Parker?" I asked.
"Not know old Jimmy!" he exclaimed ; "why I thought as everybody knew him - 'Cough-no-more-gentleman,' as they calls him."
By that sobriquet I did know him. He was a quiet, respectable-looking old fellow, who, with a tea-tray hung before him to hold his stock, went about selling what he called "The celebrated medicated cough lozenges," and by way of a trade-cry he was constantly calling out, "Cough no more, gentlemen, cough no more," and by this phrase applied to himself as a nickname he was popularly known in the neighbourhood.
I explained to the Slogger that I knew whom he meant, adding that the relief fund was a special one, intended chiefly to help those who had been brought to distress by the closing of the shipyards.
"Well, that needn't stand in the way of your giving Jimmy a lift, if so be as you're minded to. It's true, he didn't actually work in the yards, but all the same, it's their shutting up as has shut him up. The men and boys - and especially the boys - from the yards kept him going. Of course, the lozengers weren't quite the cure-alls that he made them out to be when he was pattering about them, still I believe there was good in 'em for any one as had only a bit of a common cold, and anyhow they [-308-] were nice tasting, so that they suited any one with a sweet tooth. I've known the old chap to take five shillings at a workshop gate when the hands were leaving off, and take another ten shillings in the streets the same night. But of course all that's altered now; what workmen are left hereabout haven't money to buy bread for their families, leave alone lozengers; and so the likes of old Jimmy suffers as well as yer reg'lar tradesmen."
This was a kind of plea that had been admitted as entitling some small shopkeepers to participate in the benefits of the relief fund, and might therefore have been allowed on behalf of Cough-no-more, but knowing him to be an old inhabitant of the district, I asked -
"Won't the parish relieve him?"
"Well, I dare say they would," answered the Slogger promptly; "in fact, as far as that goes, I suppose they'd be bound too; but then, you see, 'circumstances alter cases,' as the sayin' is. Old Jimmy is dreadfully poor, but at the same time he is dreadfully independent as to asking for charity. Perhaps he oughtn't to be, but he is, and sometimes yer must take things as you find 'em, right or wrong. He's been persuaded to try the parish, but he won't: he's one of the sort as would sooner lie down and die than beg - or steal, as I tell you many a feller would if they were as hard druv as he is. Though I wouldn't bear it as quietly as he does, I respects him for it, and that's why I spoke to you. I thought how as if you would drop in as if it was promiscuous-like, you might help him without hurtin' his feelin's. Yer ought'r, [-309-] guv'nor, for he's a downright good old cove, though I say it, as ain't much of a judge of them things. He ain't much of a go-to-meetinger; but for all that, he's always the man to say the thing he thinks is right without fear or favour, and to do a kind or neighbourly act if it's an his power. Many a time he's called me to order for swearin', and things of that sort, when he didn't know but what he would get a clip under the ear for his pains; but many a time too he's shared his meal with me, when I've been cleaned out, and that when none of my reg'lar pals had thought enough to ask me whether I'd a mouth on me or not. I thinks of that sort of thing, rough as I am; and though he bears everything patient, just readin' of his Bible and sayin' how as it's the Lord's will, and the like, I won't see him starve, I'll help him if I go to the mill for it - on'y I thought as how I would ast you first."
While the Slogger had been speaking, I had been thinking; and, coming to the conclusion that if what he had told me was true, Jimmy Parker's was a really deserving case, I asked -
"Where does the man live?"
"Number 4, F-----'s Rents," was the ready answer.
"Very well, then," I said. " I'll make some inquiries, and if the result is satisfactory, I'll call."
"But, look here, guv'nor, just another minute!" exclaimed the Slogger as I was turning away: "I don't want to say anything agen you making inquiries, that's on'y right, and yer bis'ness, for, as I said, yer can't [-310-] always be supposed to tell who is tryin' to come the old soldier over you and who isn't; on'y don't yer see, guv'nor, with old Jimmy it'll be a case of 'Live old horse, and you'll get grass,' as the saying is."
He paused for a moment, looking me hard in the face, as if anxious to judge from my countenance whether or not I understood what he was driving at. I believed that I did. My impression was that he wanted me to advance a loaf on account, so to speak, and I was about to volunteer to do so, when, to my surprise, he went on-
"I'll tell you what I'll do, if you like; I'm dead cleaned out o' money just now, but I dare say I can muster up something or other as I can raise a shilling on, and I'll do it, and give it to the old man to keep him a-going while you are a-making your inquiries, if you'll pay it me back if you find it's all right as I've been sayin'. In fact, as I see nothing else for it, I shall do that whether you promise to pay me agen or not - on'y, as I tell yer, I've got no money, and I hardly know where the next is to come from. Poor folks hereabouts can't go in much for umbrellas nowadays, there ain't a great many of my class of customers got any clothes left as they're afraid o' the rain spilin', as the pawnbrokers will tell you. What do you say? Do you think it's a lair offer?"
"If all that you have been saying is correct," I answered, "it is a generous offer."
"Oh, that's neither here nor there," he said, in an offhand tone, and then in a more earnest manner he added, [-311-] "If you do call, guv'nor, will you call promiscuous, just as if you were on a round, and spotted him by chance."
"Oh, yes," I said, " I'll manage that if I find all else right;" and then I left the Slogger, and certainly entertained a much more favourable opinion of him at parting than I did on our meeting.
Later in the day I called upon the relieving-officer of the district, and asked him-
"Do you know anything of one Jimmy Parker?"
"What! of Gutter Merchants' Buildings?"
"No, of 4, F------'s Rents," I answered.
"Well, that is Gutter Merchants' Buildings," said he. "Of those who know it at all you'll hear a score call it by that name for one that will speak of it as F-------'s Rents."
"But why, in the name of all that's curious, is it so called?" I asked.
"Well, simply because it is principally inhabited by gutter merchants," answered the relieving officer, smiling at my evident surprise.
"And whatever are gutter merchants?" I asked again; "rag-pickers?"
"Oh, dear, no," answered the officer, the smile on his face broadening; "they are nothing very grand, certainly, but still they would tell you that they are several cuts above rag-pickers. Who christened them gutter merchants, I don't know, but they are the street sellers of the 'any-article-on-the-board-for-a-penny' class; the [-312-] men who sell the 'strong leather laces,' the twelve rows of pins for a penny, and the like."
"Ah, now I see!" I said; "and I suppose their title will be founded upon the fact of their taking up their stand in the gutters."
"Yes, I expect that's the idea," said the officer. "They are a decent, struggling class as a rule, and in their way work very hard to earn a poor living; and old Jimmy is one of the most respectable of them; I believe he is a quiet, sober, God-fearing old man."
This was satisfactory; and, having inquired the exact locality of Gutter Merchants' Buildings, I set out to make my promised call on old Cough-no-more.
The Buildings consisted of a court of twelve houses, and, like a number of similar courts in the district, was let out in floors and rooms by the superior landlord. It was, consequently, densely inhabited, averaging quite three families per house. Knowing nothing of the place, you might have gone into it without noticing anything particular about it; but, aware that it was Gutter Merchants' Buildings, you were at once struck with sundry characteristic indications of the special class dwelling in it. Some of the gutter merchants manufactured as well as sold their articles, and from their homes proceeded peculiar sounds and smells, the odour of glue, paint, and varnish largely predominating in the latter; for with these three things manufacturing gutter merchants cover a multitude of sins in the way of "scamped" workmanship. In other homes, surplus, or for the time being [-313-] unsaleable stock, was turned into account for purposes of domestic ornament or utility. In one window there was a profuse display of coloured-bead baskets, in no less than three houses ornamental stove-papers were serving as window-blinds; while a number of children running about the court were amusing themselves with some damaged specimens of the paste-board noses, horse-hair moustaches, and paper plumes, for which gutter merchants find a sale among the outdoor holiday- makers in the Easter and Whitsuntide weeks.
It was Thursday afternoon when I made this first visit to the place, and, as I afterwards learned, that was a time when gutter merchants are, as a rule, at home.
"You see, sir," said the man who first enlightened me upon this point, "our customers ain't got much to spend, and towards the end of the week the generality of them haven't got even a penny to spare for odds and ends, which our goods mostly is. Friday used to be a dead day with us as well as Thursday, but now that many masters pay on that day, it's generally a pretty good evening for us, though Saturdays and Mondays is when we make our harvest, such as it is. On Tuesdays you may pick up a few stray pence, and on Wednesdays you go out because you haven't much else to do, and only hoping, not expecting, to turn in a little; and, as the Scripture says, blessed are them as expects nothink, for very often nothink is what you gets. On Thursdays plenty of them as walks about in the evening having a shop-window fuddle, as they calls it, would come and [-314-] listen to you 'pattering,' just to while away time, but they ain't got no money to buy with, so you may as well save your shoe leather and breath, and stay at home pottering about among yer stock, and making ready for the busier nights."
This position of affairs, in relation to the gutter trade, accounted for my finding most of the merchants idling at home. In the first house - I dropped in at several houses in order that my visit to Cough-no-more might, in the phrase of the Slogger, appear "promiscuous-like" - I found the gentleman who dealt exclusively in what he termed the "six article lot;" the six articles in question being- the broad belcher ring, the chased keeper-ring, the solid wedding ring, the Chinese puzzle, the Indian scent-satchel, and the sheet of songs-all for a penny. In the same house resided the vendor and (self-alleged) inventor of "the everlasting crystal cement, for china, glass, crockery, and wood, guaranteed to restore broken articles to more than their original strength, and sold at a penny a packet, each packet containing enough to repair twenty dozen articles." In the next house were the "pattering" vendors of "the magic plate-polish for silvering brass and copper goods," "the grease and stain removing, gloss-restoring soap tablets," and "the penny pocket camera-obscura, or private detector, by means of which you can see any one approaching from behind, and look nine ways at once." In other houses were dealers in similar odd wares, as well as a number of those who dealt in such ordinary goods as toasting-forks, salt, [-315-] and soap-boxes, toys, dog-collars, boot-laces, and braces. Gutter merchants generally bear the reputation of being "cheeky," and given to chaff; but this idea respecting them is founded upon their professional manner, which, undoubtedly, does savour largely of both cheek and chaff; those two things being the chief elements of that "patter" upon which gutter merchants mainly rely for "pushing trade." Those of them who deal in the more out-of-the-way kind of articles will tell you that, without patter, they might as well shut-up shop, their customers being, as a rule, people who come to hear, and remain to buy. But though loud, slangy, and self-assured professionally, they are civil and quiet in private life, and are, upon the whole, an industrious and sober class. Such, at least, was my experience among the representative division of them resident in my district; an experience gathered not only from this first visit, but from many subsequent visits made in better times, when there could be no possible grounds for suspecting that any special "'umbleness" or civility of manner was put on, with a view to obtaining relief tickets. I found that I knew most of them by sight, and in the same way most of them appeared to know me, as they received me with familiar "good days," and "how do's, sir," and, without inquiring my business, proceeded to remark, in a very significant manner, upon the exceptional badness of the times, and the "blessed thing that this relief fund was to poor folks," though only in two instances did they directly ask if there "was any chance of a ticket."
[-316-] I made my round in such a manner that Number 4 was the last house but one in the Buildings at which I had to call. Cough-no-more, I had ascertained, occupied a back apartment on the second floor, and going straight to this room I knocked at the door, and was answered by a cry of "Come in," uttered in a tone in which it was easy to detect the effects of physical weakness. Obeying the call, I turned the handle and stepped into the apartment, which, together with its tenant, presented a woefully poverty-stricken appearance. A chair bedstead, on which-in its chair form - he was seated, crouching over a miserable fire in the bottom of the grate, was literally the only article of furniture in the room, unless indeed an old paper-covered trunk, and a battered and blackened beer-can, which had evidently done heavy service as a kettle and general cooking utensil, could be considered furniture. The man himself was without a coat, and the clothes he had on were anything but seasonable, for they were thin and much worn, and altogether a great deal more suitable for midsummer wear than for the bitterly cold weather that prevailed at the time. So much I took in at a glance while his back was towards me, for it was not until he heard the sound of my voice greeting him with a "good day," that he turned round. Then he started to his feet with all the suddenness of surprise, and stammered out-
"I really beg your pardon, sir, for not rising to open the door; I thought it was the Slogger or some of the other people in the house. Will you be seated, sir," he [-317-] went on, speaking in a calmer tone, and pushing the chair a little way back from the fenderless hearthstone as he spoke; "you see I have only the one chair to offer you."
"No, no," I said, replying to his offer, and at the same time advancing and pushing the chair to its former position, for I could see that he was so weak as not to be able to move it without considerable effort; "sit down again yourself; don't let me disturb you, I can see you are ill."
"Well, I am certainly not well, sir," he said; "and to tell you the truth, I feel all of a shiver now; so if you don't object, I think I will try and keep the fire warm again," and smiling feebly, he sank into the chair, and, leaning forward, crouched over the bit of fire so closely that his knees and hands were almost touching the bars. He presented a sad picture. It was hard to imagine such a man out of a sick-bed; the hand of death seemed visibly upon him. His frame was worn and attenuated. His face was pinched and drawn and colourless, save for a bright feverish red spot on either cheek bone, and the dry hard brightness of the deeply sunken eyes was also of an unmistakably feverish character. He drew his breath in long shivering sighs, and-bitter irony on the name by which he was popularly known - he was tormented by a racking cough. When he had recovered from a fit of coughing that attacked him just as he had resumed his seat, I commenced a conversation by observing that I had been "doing a round of the Buildings in connection with the relief fund."
[-318-] "Well, there are some in the Buildings that stand much in need of relief," he said, "and from no fault of their own. Of course, none of us here are shipbuilders, but as we were dependent upon those that were, it comes to much the same thing. Their living was our loaf, and they've been taken away together. Those in the Buildings who have children dependent upon them have been sorely tried of late. The cry of the children must be a terrible thing when it's for bread and you haven't the bread to give, and don't know where to get it, as has been the case with some here."
"Well, the position of those with families must naturally be the worst," I said; "but still, those without families would have their share of the general suffering."
"Yes, that is so," he said; "and every heart feels its own sorrow; but for all that the bodily sufferings of a lone person can hardly be as bad as the agony of mind of those having helpless beings looking up to them. In all the trouble with which it has pleased the Lord to afflict me of late, it has been a consolation to me that I have had no aged father or mother or young child depending upon me for bread. If I cannot suffer and be strong, I can, when I look around me, at least suffer and be resigned - even thankful."
There was nothing whining or affected in his tone or manner; he seemed to speak out of a gentle, thoughtful nature, and was evidently a man of some education, and, upon the whole, decidedly superior to the general run of gutter merchants. I was already satisfied that his was a [-319-] case well deserving of relief but the points I have just mentioned giving rise to a special feeling of interest, I continued the conversation by observing -
"I take it that it is a matter of fact, that your business was ruined by the closing of the shipyards, and the consequent distress among the working population."
"Well, yes, I think I may fairly say that," he answered. "The workpeople, and even their little children, were very kind in supporting me. Many a time I know they went out of their way a little to spend their coppers with old Cough, as they called me, for they could see that I hadn't the same energy in pushing myself forward as some others had. But when the yards were closed, and I had to go further afield where I wasn't known, and numbers of other men were established - for even the street trade, poor as it is, is overstocked - I could scarcely do anything at all, some days not taking a penny, and this and the extra walking and exposure to the cold laid me up, and extinguished my trade altogether for the time being."
"And how did you manage then?" I asked.
"I can scarcely tell you," he answered; "as the poor do, I suppose; and if you asked any of them how they managed to pull through a spell of hard times, you'd find they hardly knew, they would just tell you that they had rubbed along somehow. Either in reliance upon Providence, or in despair, they come to act upon the principle that sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. They get over each day as best they can, striving to take no [-320-] thought for the morrow, and to forget the hardships of the day when it is passed - and so it has been with me. I had saved a little money, and when that was gone I parted with spare clothes and furniture, and when they were gone and things were getting to the worst Providence still provided a way. I have experienced the truth of Solomon's saying, that 'Better is a neighbour that is near than a brother that is far off.' I have a brother who, though certainly not rich, might, I thought, have assisted me a little, but though he gave me plenty of pity - on paper - he sent me no help, and I might have starved outright had it not been for the kindness of a neighbour that very few would be inclined to give credit for having anything of the Good Samaritan in him. Though only a street man like myself and with his trade pretty near extinguished, he has shared with me what he had, down to his last slice of bread, and it is to him that I am indebted for the bit of fire I am sitting beside, and for the only food I have had for the last two days."
I had no doubt as to who the good Samaritan was, but to be assured I asked the question, and after a moment's hesitation, Cough-no-more answered that it was Jack H-----, the man who Dutch-auctioned second-hand umbrellas at the corner of S---- Street, and who was best known as the Slogger.
Having answered my question, he proceeded to narrate a number of circumstances that went to prove that the Slogger had extended his neighbourly help with a degree of delicacy which even less than the kindness would, in [-321-] a general way, have been expected in one of his rough exterior and manner.
"Could not you have tried some other means of getting a living?" I asked, when Cough-no-more had concluded, "you appear to have had a fair education."
"I thought of that, sir, "he said sadly, "but I couldn't see my way. I found everything full-handed, and plenty of better educated men than myself - not to speak of their being younger and abler-looking in vain for employment. Moreover, to tell you the truth, I don't think - for I may confess it now that I am old and broken - I ever had it in me to get on in the world. My mother was left a poor widow when I was four years old, and she strove very hard in order to give me what was for our rank of life a good education, fondly believing that by so doing she was fitting me to succeed in life. But, though I picked up my learning fast enough, I suppose I was lacking in the energy or tact, or whatever else may be the special quality that is required for worldly success. My mother kept a little sweet-stuff shop, and on Saturday nights used to go out with a tray. Just at the time I left school, she was laid up with the rheumatics, and as after two or three months' trying I couldn't get a situation, and with that and my mother's illness things were going badly at home, it was agreed that I must take out the tray, and do what I could in the shop till something better should turn up. Nothing better, however, did offer. Time went on, I grew too big for an office or errand boy, I could find no employment as a clerk. and [-322-] I did not look strong enough to get work at labouring. When I was about nineteen my mother died, and selling off the shop, to get the means of burying her decently, I was left to my own resources - my tray and about ten shillingsworth of stock. I took to going out every night, and so managed to make a humble living. When I had been trading on my own account for a few years, some of the more enterprising street sweet-sellers introduced cough lozenges, and following their lead I made them, and after some debate with my conscience as to whether it was honest to use it, adopted my trade cry of 'Cough- no-more.' That trade has failed me for the present, but I'm afraid it is too late in the day for me to think of trying anything else. But I don't complain, sir, I always think that God is very good to us all in the nature He gives us. If He did not grant me the talents to make my way in the world, He bestowed upon me a humble and contented mind. Upon the whole, I dare say I have been as happy as the generality of better-off people, and till now - and I am forty-five years of age - I have never known what it was to go short of the actual necessaries of life."
Such was the story of the life of the poor and afflicted gutter merchant, and it was told with such gentleness and simplicity, with such thankfulness for what his humble mind sincerely regarded as past mercies, and such fortitude and resignation in respect to his present heavy trials, as to be deeply affecting. I had some further conversation with him touching on more spiritual matters, [-323-] and I promised some day soon to return and read a chapter with him; having already placed the means for material relief at his disposal.
As I got to the bottom of the stairs, on leaving Cough- no-more's apartment, I was greeted with a gruff "Hi, guv'nor!" and looking round I beheld the Slogger, beckoning me to enter the front room on the ground floor. Obeying his signal, I found him there, in company with two other gutter merchants, one a dealer in glass sugar-crushers (three a penny) and solid glass pens (a penny each); the other a vendor of furniture polish and wood-staining liquids. The latter looked, and soon showed himself to be, a character. He had his hair twisted into a long "aggrawater" curl on either cheek, his "cheese-cutter" cap was stuck on one side of his head, his pipe knowingly stuck in his mouth, and everything about him cried aloud of his being a wonderfully conceited and self-satisfied personage; but it was also easy to see that, unlike many conceited individuals, he was a good-natured fellow.
"Two mates o' mine," said the Slogger, by way of introduction. "I've been telling 'em I'd spoke to you about old Cough. Did yer work it promiscuous-like?"
"Oh yes," I answered.
"Ah, well, that's so far so good," said the gutter merchant of the "aggrawater" curls, promptly taking up the conversation. "Life's a up and down business, and though when you are regular in the downs yer can't help yerself and must 'knuckle down,' yer still don't like to [-324-] see as how people is lookin' on yer as 'a hobject of charity,' as they calls it. Them's my own feelin's, and I respects them in others. I've been very low in the downs a good many times, and though I felt pretty nigh desperate at times, I always pulled through without havin' to ask for charity, or layin' my hand upon so much as the vally of a pin's-head belongin' to any one else. As the song says,-
'In the days when I was hard up, I wanted food and fire,
And used to fasten on my clothes with little bits of wire;
I was ragged, cold, and hungry, and couldn't raise a meal,
But I always beat the devil down when he tempted me to steal.
Hard up! hard up I I never shall forget
The days when I was hard up,-but we may be happy yet. '"
He sang this verse of doggerel with evident relish, and on concluding, was about to go on talking, when the Slogger interrupted.
"Hold hard, Charley!" he exclaimed, with good-humoured imperiousness; and then, turning to me, he added laughingly, "Charley Jackson is his name, but we call him 'Jawing' Jackson, he's such a one to talk."
"Well, you've pulled me up short this time anyway," said the other, adopting his companion's good-humoured tone, "so fire away."
"I only want to ask the gentleman whether he didn't find that what I had told him was right."
"Quite right," I answered.
"Oh, there's no mistake about it. Poor old Cough-no-more is the genuine article," put in Jackson.
[-325-] "Well, guv'nor, if yer satisfied that I wasn't coming the old soldier, yer knows the bargain," said the Slogger sheepishly. "I don't exactly like to bring it up, on'y as I told yer in the morning, I'm cleaned out just now. I had to send my coat to a leaving-shop to raise a shilling for the old man; and though I don't set up for bein' a tender chicken, still it ain't the sort of weather to be without a coat."
"And especially when yer innards ain't well lined," added Jackson.
"You have fulfilled your part of the bargain manfully," I said, "and here is your shilling;" and as I handed him the coin, I added a remark to the effect "that his kindness to his sick friend did him great credit."
"Which I'm glad to hear you say so, sir," exclaimed the man who had hitherto remained silent. "Slogger is a rough un to look at, but he has the heart that can feel for another."
"Oh, that's neither here nor there," said the Slogger, actually blushing; "it's a case of give and take between old Cough and me - he's shared with me many a time."
"Well, yes," said Jackson; "he is a good old sort. He's different from a good many as are free in giving advice without being ast - he'll give something else beside where need is, and he has the means. But bless you, sir," he went on, "though many people thinks as how us gutter merchants are a sharking, cheating, don't-carish lot, we're a pretty good sort, though I say it as shouldn't; it would be a bad job for us if we weren't, for ours is a [-326-] very hand-to-mouth life. I ought to know. I've been at it ever since I can remember, and there are very few regularly in the trade that I ain't acquainted with. I've stuck to the furniture polish lately, but I'm an 'all-round' man. I've had a turn at almost anything you can name that's been sold in the street, from pins to paintings, or boot-laces to clocks. I've been at the quacking too, from infallible remedies for the toothache and certain cures for warts at a penny, up to bottles of 'Take-and-Live' at half-a-crown a bottle-two-and-five a bottle being profit, the cost of the glass given in. I've been that I could put my hand in my pocket and pull out a handful of sovereigns, and I've been as I've had to borrow a penny to get a penn'orth of bread to break a two days' fast. I'm a good deal nearer to the last state than the first at present, for, as you know, times are hard and money scarce. But still here I am alive and kickin' and 'opin' to see better times again, and a sayin' to myself; as I always has done when I've been in the downs, 'Charley, my boy, keep on never-heedin', it's all in a lifetime.' When it has been in my power to give help I have never refused it to a friend in distress, and when I've been in distress I've always found help; so, as I was saying, we gutter merchants ain't a bad sort."
"Oh, you call yourselves gutter merchants, then," was my only comment on Jawing Jackson's speech.
"I should think we did, rayther!" he exclaimed. "It ain't a very grand name, and I believe it was first put on us by shopkeepers as wanted to snuff us out; but, bless [-327-] yer, we turns it to account, makes it roll in the coppers, sand give the shopkeepers a back-hander. We'll suppose, for instance, that I'm putting up some penny lot - we'll say 'the diamond razor paste.' Well, I begins my patter, 'Gentlemen, allow me to call your attention to an article, etcettra, etcettra;' and then I goes on to say that the chief ingredient in the paste is diamond dust; that there is enough in each box to last a man a lifetime, and that selling it at a penny a box is like giving it away for nothing with a trifle in for taking it off my hands. Then comes in the gutter merchant bit. 'But,' says I, speaking to the crowd I have drawn around me, you know- 'you'll say he's only a gutter merchant. Well, so I am, and that is just the reason why I can offer you articles at about the twentieth of the price you would have to pay for 'em elsewhere. I don't want you to pay for flash shop fronts, or a lot of touch-me-not counter skippers. No! I only want you to pay for the goods, which, because I am only a gutter merchant, I can offer to you at prices such as you never heard of before, and as the alarming sacrifices of the shops would be a daylight robbery in comparison with.'
"That's the sort of thing that goes down with our customers. The argument about the shop-fronts and swell countermen touches 'em, and they say to themselves, 'Well, there's somethink in what he says,' and then one of 'em buys, and as one fool makes many the pennies comes showerin' in. Not, mind you, that people are always foolish for dealing with us, for though the diamond [-328-] paste, and other things of that kind that we offer for sale, are 'duffin'' articles, many of the lots we sell are genuine bargains; are things that were never made to be sold at anything like such low prices as we run them off at. All sorts of odd, and job, and clearance lots, and new inventions as have missed making a hit, find their way to us street folks. There was those little patent lead-pencil sharpeners, as when they first came out sold in the West-end shops at half-a-crown each; well, they didn't take, and before they had been out a twelvemonth I was selling grosses on em at a penny each; and the same with the patent needle-threaders, as were a shilling each in the shops when they first came out. I've sold good photographs of eminent personages - surpulus stock copies, you know - at three a penny; I've sold children's picture-books at a penny that had been sold at a shilling in the ordinary way of trade, and I've sold children's toys, boys caps, men's braces, carpenters' pencils, and workmen's rules equally cheap. The jewelry and small wares intended for the street trade are of course only made to sell, but altogether we offer as many good bargains as bad ones. A person as keeps their eyes open and senses about 'em, and takes patter for what it is worth, may lay out their penny with us to good advantage - and as to the rest, yer knows the sayin', 'Fools and their money's soon parted,' and we may as well have a share of the fools' pence as any one else; we only take em in for pennies, others as would count themselves a lot more respectable than us, go in for their shillings and pounds."
[-329-] I was both interested and amused, and I must add enlightened by Jackson's discourse, and on his pausing at this point I made a remark to that effect, adding -
"However, I suppose yours is like most other trades, you must be brought up to it, to be acquainted with the ins and outs of it."
"Well, as to that," answered Jackson, "there are a good many in it that are brought down to it; you may take my word for it there is many a genuine case of 'seen-better-days' among the gutter merchants. I could point you out a dozen as have been tradesmen in a good way of business, and a couple that have been men of independent means. Some have come down through their misfortunes, and others through their faults, but at any rate there they are a 'pattering' in the gutter like the rest of us, to earn a crust."
Throughout his discourse Jawing Jackson had been smoking, but having now finished his pipe, he knocked the ashes out of it, and rose from his seat, and taking this as a signal that the meeting was at an end, I took my leave of the three gutter merchants, and went on my way from the Buildings, a wiser man than I had entered it, and entertaining a much higher opinion than I had previously done of gutter merchants in general and the Slogger in particular. Nor had I subsequently any occasion to modify this better opinion, since as a class I always found them civil, kindly, hard-working, and frugal.
As poor old Cough-no-more's health had been much [-330-] broken for more than a year previously, this exceptionally trying winter might have carried him off under any circumstances. But however that may be, he did not survive it. I saw him frequently, read with him, and prayed with him, and for my visits he was really grateful. I cannot but believe that his influence on the rough people round him was for their good. From the time I first saw him he wanted for nothing that was really needful, but he gradually sank, and one morning about two months later, quietly and painlessly passed away. I chanced to be present when his friends assembled to take their last look at his remains ere the lid of the coffin was screwed down, and I shall not readily forget the scene that I witnessed on that occasion. In one sense it was a gratifying scene; for it served to show that, amid all their poverty and ignorance, the gutter merchants had some thought of and hope for, the better world to come. Conspicuous among the little knot of mourners were the Slogger and Jawing Jackson, and it was curious to note how sorrow and the solemn presence of death had for the moment changed the natures of the men. Jawing Jackson stood silent while the Slogger gave vent to his grief with a depth of feeling in his tone that made his homely language eloquent. Lightly touching the forehead of his dead friend with his lips, he exclaimed, "Good-bye, old mate! bye old Cough! good-bye for ever in this world. But I do believe you've gone to a better world, and may we all live so as when we die we may meet you again."
[-331-] I murmured an Amen; and, with one voice and one impulse, all in the room fervently echoed it; and then I spoke to them a few sentences, as simply as I could, of Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life, to which they listened quietly, and with reverent attention.