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ON first going into my district, a friend, who was kindly
doing what he could to "put me into the ways of the neighbourhood, strongly
recommended me to make the acquaintance of one of its notabilities known as
"But who is the Rasper ?" I asked.
"Well, that might be a difficult question to answer fully," replied my friend; "but whatever else he may be, he is a man who, as he would say, can put you up to a good many 'wrinkles' concerning those you will be going among. He is a rough sort of customer, but tolerably educated, shrewd and observant, and with a knowledge of the poor of the district such as is possessed by no other man, not even excepting the relieving officer."
"And how may he obtain this special knowledge?" I asked.
"As owner of the largest tenement street in the district, and rent collector to several others," was the answer.
"Oh, I see," I said, "and it is as a landlord that he is a Rasper?"
[-398-] "Yes, he has that reputation," answered my friend, "but I don't think he is so black as he is painted. The fact is, he is, or at any rate attempts to be, a reformer, and, as is generally the case with reformers, he comes in for a good deal of obloquy, especially as he is disposed to be rather high-handed in carrying out his reforms."
"What is his particular line of reform?" was my next question.
"Well, the general reform of his tenants," was the reply, "He tries to make them more orderly and cleanly and less drunken, and he certainly has effected considerable improvement among them."
A little further conversation convinced me that the Rasper would be a valuable ally, and I therefore resolved to act upon my friend's advice, and seek his acquaintance. Before doing so, however, I thought I would feel my way concerning him among the poor themselves, and. accordingly one day when I was talking to an old odd-job labourer, who had lived many years in the district, I asked,-
"Do you know the Rasper?"
"Do I know the Rasper!" he exclaimed; "which I should rather think I did! There ain't many hereabout that don't know him, and what's more, there ain't many hereabout as he don't know."
"What sort of a man is he?"
"Well, there's them as say he's a bad sort, but I should only call him a werry rum sort," answered the old man, "one of the you-never-know-how-to-have'em sort. In a [-399-] general way, he's the sort of feller as people say would make beef-tea out of paving-stones, or skin a flea for the hide and fat, and yet he'll often do a good turn for those as he's lost money by. I have known him to put his hand in his pocket to help others, to a tune that would have made some of those who set up for being extra-generous churchwardens open their eyes. He's a feller as has got on in the world. I can remember him well enough when he wasn't the Rasper; cos why, because he hadn't any houses of his own to be a Rasper over, and no one would a trusted him to collect a week's rent for them, for at that time he'd a precious soon melted it in drink."
"Then he must be a reformed character?" I said.
"Conwerted, as they call 'em," said the old labourer. "Not as he sets up as the conwerted this or that, and goes a-preaching; but, all the same, he is conwerted from what he was, and a werry good thing it's been for him every way - there ain't no better thing for any one than being conwerted, if there ain't no sham about it."
"But what was he before his conversion?" I asked, seeing that my informant showed a tendency to wander from the point in hand.
"Well, sir, meaning no harm to him, and at the same time not to put too fine a point upon it, he was half travelling chair-caner, half broken-down fighting man, and all lushington - drunken, you know. He got into some trouble over a drinking bout, and swore off the drink, and from going to teetotal meetin's, he got going [-400-] to chapel meetin's, and prayer meetin's, and the like, and so things went on till he was conwerted."
From this man and others I heard sufficient of the Rasper's ways and appearance to be able to recognise him, when at a later date I one day met him in the street. He looked a man of about fifty, was of middle stature, squarely and strongly built, with grizzled hair worn rather long, piercing grey eyes, regular features, set, however, in a hard and austere expression, while the whole countenance was overspread with a cadaverous hue which was partly natural, partly resulting from a bluish-black tinge arising from constant shaving. He was clad in a suit of dark grey tweed, that, in addition to being well worn, was plentifully besplashed with whitewash and mortar, and this latter circumstance, combined with his having some planed boards under his arm, and a rule sticking from his coat pocket, sufficiently indicated that he was in the habit of working at the repairs of his own houses.
"Looking them up then ?" he said, after we had exchanged "good days."
"Yes," I answered briefly.
"Ah, well, more power to you; but it's stony ground here, eh?"
"I am afraid it is rather," I answered.
"I know it is," he said, "but you mustn't be discouraged. It is a good fight, and you mustn't be as the children of Ephraim in it."
I did not at the moment catch his allusion, and seeing this he quoted, "'The children of Ephraim, being [-401-] armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle,' - Psalms the seventy-eighth, and ninth verse."
"I should certainly not turn back," I said; "and indeed I have good hope of being able to make progress in my work - only you see, I added, "I know very little of the people here yet."
"And I know a great deal of them," he said, with a certain grim significance.
"In that case, then, I would like to have the advantage of a little talk with you," I said, boldly striking in for my desired opportunity of becoming better acquainted with him.
"Well, if I was given to palaver," he answered, "I might say that I didn't see what advantage you could gain from a talk with a humble individual like me, but I'm not one of that sort, I'm more the other way. I'm upright and down straight, say what I mean, and don't pretend to be more humble than I am. A talk with me will be an advantage to you. You're a young hand hereabout, and I'm an old un. I've lived in the thick of those you'll mostly be working among, and I've pretty good eyes and ears, and have kept 'em pretty well open. It's very well to pity the poor, and, mind you, I can pity 'em; ay, even when I know that about em as gives me the right to blame as well as pity, but at the same time it don't do to be all pity, and what's more important still, it don't do to be all belief - you'll know that, I suppose?"
I knew, I said, "that it was unhappily a fact that you [-402-] could not always rely upon the truthfulness of the tales of distress told to you by the poor.
"Not always!" he said, with a slight laugh; "seldom, I should say; it's more a question of how many grains of salt you are to take em with than of salt or no salt. Meaning no disrespect to you, there are plenty of 'em hereabout that would buy and sell you any morning; but you ask any of 'em whether they think they could get round me. Why, bless you, sir, I know most of 'em as well as they know themselves, - better, you may say, sometimes ; for I know what they are when they don't know themselves - when they are in drink, which is as often as they can get the chance with a good many of 'em; I could sort 'em out into lots for you, pretty much as a fruiterer might fruits. The poor as their poverty is their misfortune, and the poor as their poverty is their fault; the lazy poor, and the hard-working poor; the drunken poor, and the sober poor; the honest poor, and the dishonest; the canting poor, and the straight-for'ard poor; the poor as as always been poor, and the poor as have seen better days; and the poor - if you can understand me - as ain't really poor, though they look so. If I couldn't put you up to a thing or two to help you with your work, it would be a pity; and I'm quite willing to do so, just because I should like to help you with your work; so give me a call whenever you like."
I would take an early opportunity of doing so, I said; and then parted with him for the time being, feeling that I had come across a character.
The streets for which the Rasper was collector were of [-403-] course situated in the "low," quarter, and in fact made up a considerable proportion of that quarter. In some of them the dangerous classes were mingled with the merely poor, while the poor, as might be gathered from the above-quoted remarks of the Rasper, were a very "mixed" lot. In all of them there was terrible overcrowding, and the diseases more particularly incidental to overcrowding were at all times rife in them. Outwardly they looked dirty and dismal; there was often street rows in them; and altogether they were the kind of streets that, generally speaking, are avoided by all save their inhabitants, and those whom unavoidable business engagements took into them. The Rasper lived in the particular street that was his own property; residing in a corner house, larger than the others, and having in the rear a yard of considerable dimensions, in which was stored building materials. That a man who, there was no doubt, could well afford to live in a better neighbourhood, should voluntarily take up his residence in such a street, was to many a matter of surprise; but what others thought a piece of eccentricity or mere miserliness on the part of the Rasper, was really a wise proceeding, from a business point of view, as his success in the management of the property was in great measure attributable to his living on the spot. The front room of the ground floor of his house was fitted up as a sort of office, and it was in this apartment that I found him on making my promised call one evening some three weeks after the date of my first meeting him.
[-404-] "You've looked me up, then," he said, placing a chair for me on one side of a small office table, and seating himself at the opposite side.
"Yes," I said; and then there was a short silence, which was broken by his saying, in a meditative tone, -
"It's been in any mind, sir, since I saw you last, that you would think, from what I said then, that I was very hard; that, instead of wishing to help you in your work, I was trying to stand between you and the poor by making out that they were bad and undeserving. I know," he went on, stopping me by a gesture as I was about to speak, "that many do think me hard, and perhaps I am; and yet, goodness knows, I shouldn't be, and don't mean to be. If I was wilfully hard on the poor, or even on the wicked, I would be as bad as the servant in the parable, who, when his master had forgiven him his debt, went and took his fellow-servant by the throat, saying, 'Pay me that thou owest.' A heavy debt of sin has been forgiven me. I have been as wicked in my day, I dare say, as any in this neighbourhood; and that I am not so now is God's special grace, not my special deserving. But then, sir, you remember that there is the other parable of the wheat and the tares, and if in this case I point out to you the tares, as we may call 'em, it is no to advise you to pass them by without trying to change their nature, but only that you may not be taken at a disadvantage. It may sound hard to say it, but it is true - only too true-that among the people of quarters like [-405-] this there are a lot of drunken, lazy, canting ones, who are always on the look-out for charity. Their first idea, on getting wind of any one like yourself is - tickets. Bread tickets, coal tickets, clothing tickets, tea-party tickets, blanket tickets, or any other ticket they can lay hold of. All is fish that comes to their net; and they will tell any lies, or profess themselves anything, to net any fish, however small. Now, it is some of them that I would warn you against; and I think it right to stand in their way: it is really doing them good, if you look at it judgmatically, and, what's of more consequence, it is doing a service to those who are really needful and deserving, and who, not being so forward as the others, are very often not found out till it is too late - till the black gang, as I call 'em, have devoured all that there is to give."
"Unfortunately your picture of the state of things is too true," I said.
"I've no doubt you have had experience of it," he said; "but just let me give you an illustration of it in my own line. A man, with a wife and three children, rents a room from me, paying two shillings a week for it. He could have a little second room for another shilling a week, but he won't take it; and so they all pig together in the single apartment, eating, sleeping, and living in it. That, of course, could be very hard lines on them if it was a case of sheer necessity, but it isn't; it's a case of drink before everything. That fellow can earn as much as eight or ten shillings a day, 'lumping.' I don't say [-406-] he can do it every day, but he wouldn't if he could; for when he has a chance for a regular spell for a week or two, he won't take it; three days at a stretch is the most he'll work; he wants the rest of the week for drinking, and if at times, when he really can't get 'lumping' work, and he and his family are at starvation point, you were to offer him ordinary labouring at three shillings a day, he'd only swear at you. I've tried him. Well, this fellow gets three or four weeks behind with his rent. I go down to the house, march into the room, and find the wife and children there, dirty, and in rags, looking more than half-starved, and without a mouthful of food in the house. 'I've come for my rent,' is my salute, 'and I mean to have it.' 'I haven't got it,' she says; 'I can assure you that the children and I have scarcely had bit or sup in our lips these three days past.' 'I dare say not,' I answer, 'all the more shame to that precious husband of yours; it's a scandal that he should be allowed to starve you as he does; I shall have to put the relieving officer on to him, if you don't; however, that isn't the thing just now, I want my rent.' 'Well, but you can't get blood from a stone,' she whimpers. 'Oh yes, I can out of some stones,' I answer; 'when I get hold of the sort of stone that can bleed freely for drink, I'll make them bleed for rent, or I'll crush them. Just you tell your stone of a husband that if some of the arrears aren't paid off by to-morrow night, and all of 'em within a week, I'll seize what traps you have got, though they are only fit for firewood, and turn you out; and tell him, too, that [-407-] whether he pays the rent or not, I'll put those on to him that will lay him by the heels, if he doesn't look better after these children.'
"Now, any outsider hearing this," the Rasper went on, "would say how hard I was; and the insiders would of course cry ditto to any extent; but the one party would speak without knowing, and the other without caring, what the circumstances of the case were. To my own thinking I acted not only justly, but wisely. I knew that the fellow had spent five or six shillings in the public-house the night before, and that there was two or three weeks' work for him at good pay if he liked to stick to it, instead of only going for one half of the week just to earn enough to go on the drink for the other half; and so I put the screw on-tight. The result was, I got my rent. He knew that if I turned him out for not paying rent he would have a bad chance of getting in anywhere else hereabout; for it is reckoned that if I can't make people pay no one else can. However, that is neither here nor there just now. Another of my tenants is a widow, who supported herself and a little girl by needlework, and her rent got into arrear about the same time. Knowing she was a decent body, I let it run about six weeks before I called, and then I found her unable to work, through having got her right hand poisoned, and she and he child in a state of dire distress. She burst out crying when she saw me; but I soon put her mind at ease as to the rent, and - well, I took care that she didn't at any rate want for bread till she was able to work again, and when [-408-] she was able, I let her start unburdened to the extent of drawing my pen through her arrears of rent."
"That was very good of you," I said.
"It is very good of you to say so," he said; "but I didn't mention it in the way of sounding my own praise; what I wanted to lead up to is this, that if I wasn't hard with the likes of the fellow I spoke of first, I shouldn't have it in my power to be easy with the like of the poor widow. Not to be hard with such as him comes to pretty much like robbing such as her. That's the line you should go on in your work, so far as any giving or recommending for gifts is concerned. You wouldn't get at people as easily as if you gave tickets freely and no questions asked, and you wouldn't hear so many professions of repentance, or get so much eye and lip service, but you would do more and better real work for all that. There is nothing stands more in the way of spreading religious feeling and knowledge among the very poor, and the classes whom we may call our home heathens, than the fact that they see that the canters amongst them get the lion's share of the charity that is generally associated, directly or indirectly, with religious visiting. It not merely stands in the way, it gives rise to a feeling of bitterness against religion, as you would know if you could hear the remarks about it that I do. To you it may seem a very worldly sort of thing to say, but a visitor to get along well with such people as the bulk of my tenants ought to strike them 'as a knowing customer,' one who, as they would say, knows the ropes, can 'spot' [-409-] a canter at sight, and show generally that it is difficult to 'have' him."
I could quite understand that, I said; and, for my own part, would be disposed to go more or less upon the principle of being, as he put it, "hard" - not unmercifully, but judiciously, hard - with any who I had reason to suppose were undeserving.
"Well, the more you go upon it the better," he said somewhat grimly; and then, by way of carrying on the conversation, I asked,-
"How long may you have lived in this district?"
"All my life here and hereabout," he answered. "I was born and brought up in the district, scamped about it when I was a scamp, and continued to live in it after I was, through God's goodness, brought to be something better than a scamp. My father was a respectable mechanic in the neighbourhood. He gave me a good education for one in our rank of life, and would have given me a good trade, and made a man of me if I would have let him. But I went other ways than those he wanted to lead me in. I chose bad company, and was soon as bad as the worst of them, and took a pride in being so, though it caused my poor father to hang his head among his shopmates and neighbours, and made my mother grey-haired before her time; but, thank the Lord - and there is nothing in all his goodness to me that I am more truly thankful for - they were both spared long enough to see me another and a better man than the one that had caused them such grief. When I was about thirty years [-410-] of age - and that is something like twenty years ago now, for I went to the bad when I was a mere boy, and as a blackguard was old at thirty-one of my companions in evil was killed on the spot in a drunken brawl, and his death was to be the means destined to bring me to a new life. I saw him half an hour after he was dead, and as I looked upon him I felt for the first time what a lost sinner I was. It rushed upon me all in an instant, and I can assure you I feared and trembled. There lay his body, I thought, to myself, but where was his soul, struck down unprepared as he had been? Such as he had been I was, and his case might have been mine, for I had been in scores of such brawls. I shuddered at the thought; I scarcely know how I got home; but when, at last, I found myself alone in the miserable garret which was my lodging at that time, I locked myself in, and, falling on my knees, prayed as fervently, I should think, as any alarmed sinner could pray; and thankful indeed I was then to think that when a boy I had been taught to pray. The prayer - the Lord's Prayer - came back to me as freshly as in my school days; and, oh I how I did pray, 'Deliver me from evil! Deliver me from evil!' and, all praise be to Him that can deliver from evil, I found my Saviour, and I was delivered."
He had spoken with a fervour that at this point left him breathless, but, presently recovering himself, he went on in a calmer tone.
"Of course, there was a bit of a tussle over breaking with my companions. They jeered, as I dare say I [-411-] should have done before grace was given to me; but I didn't mind that. I held fast to that which was good myself and, what was more, I tried to induce them to seek that which is good too; and I'm only sorry to say that I tried in vain-that they would not turn from their wickedness and live. Up to that time I had been making a sort of pretence of working as a travelling chair-caner, but now, I determined to look out for some steady work, and the first job I got was to help in the repair of some houses in a neighbouring street, and that gave me a start as a builder's labourer. Well, one winter, when trade was slack and I was out of work, I met the man who had given me my first job, and asked him if he couldn't give me something to do about his houses. He was afraid he would soon have to be looking for something to do for himself he answered, and then, seeming to be downhearted and glad of any one to tell his troubles to, he went on to say that he had put all his savings into the purchase of those houses, not knowing at that time how very bad a neighbourhood it was - that he could get scarcely any rent out of the tenants, and was pretty near ruined.
"'I would get rent out of 'em if they were my houses,' I said.
"'How would you do it?' he asked.
"'Well. I would get it any way,' I said; and, to make short of this part of the story, the end of it was, he gave me the job to collect his rents, and I did it in such a style that after giving me a stiff commission he had as much again for himself as he had been able to get before."
[-412-] "And what was the secret of your success?" I asked.
"There warn't much secret about it; I knew most of the tenants and their ways and means. Where it was a case of could pay but wouldn't, I brought their nose to the grindstone with a firm hand; in most such cases it was only a matter of doing with less drink, and I used to think, 'The less drink you have, my beauties, the better for you; so here goes for a good tight turn of the screw on you.' I would go to them and say, 'Now, look here, it's no use you trying to play off any of your hankey-pankey tricks on me. I know my way about as well as you do. You work at such a thing, and earn so much, or can earn it if you like to work regularly; and you can pay your rent, and you must, and no mistake about it.' Knowing my customers well, I could generally tell when there would be an attempt to shoot the moon, as they say; and I used to be on the look-out for it, and in most cases managed to stop it. If they did succeed in running the blockade with me, I could generally find them out and make it warm for them; in short, one way and another, I made not paying so unpleasant to such gentry that they used to pay as being the less of two evils. Other landlords, hearing of my success, gave me their collecting to do, and the more I had the easier it was to do in proportion, for then the cut-and-run sort often found it a case of out of the frying-pan into the fire, giving me the slip in one place only to find themselves under me in another, for you see people of this class must move in a very limited circle. This street that I live in was the [-413-] worst paying one in all the neighbourhood. The fact was the roughs had stormed the garrison, and not only wouldn't pay rent, but were given to knocking about those who went to ask them for it, and to pretty well tearing the houses to pieces. So bad was the property that some of the owners of it actually kept out of the way altogether, to avoid having to pay rates on it. I knew that most of them would be only too glad to get rid of it at any price, and as it struck me I could manage it, I went in for buying it up by degrees after my collecting business had grown to be large enough to enable me to save money out of it. When I did get hold of the property, my first step towards reclaiming it was to come to live in it - sort of carrying the war into the enemies' country, you know."
"It must have been a rather unpleasant position for you at first?" I said.
"It was - very unpleasant," he answered emphatically, "and the gang did all they could to make my quarters 'hot' for me; but I stood my ground, and drove them out in the long-run, for my main object with them was not to make them pay, but to get rid of them. Before I had been there a week, I found one gentleman walking off with a grate on his shoulder to sell it for old iron. I followed him, collared him myself, and stuck to him till I found a policeman, when I gave him into custody, and got him a month's imprisonment. I prosecuted others for performances of the same kind, and what with this, and their knowing that I knew from of old the games [-414-] that many of them were up to, they were led to make discretion the better part of valour, and beat a retreat. They are a queer enough lot that live in the street now, but they are a highly desirable class compared with those I found in it when I first came. Though strangers don't think so, any stranger might pass through the street without any danger of being robbed, and with very little of being molested except by a little slanging. There are idlers and drunkards among them, and a few who have made acquaintance with the inside of a prison; but there are no professional criminals, and there are some really good, and a many really harmless, people among them, for though, mind you, I would warn you against the bad, I am far from saying that they are all bad."
"What are your tenants for the most part?" I asked.
"All sorts of things," he answered. " Dock labourers of the 'chance' order, costers, hawkers, odd-job men, firewood-choppers, tinkers, umbrella-menders, rag and bone collectors, needlewomen, washerwomen, market-garden women, beggars of both sexes, gutter-merchants of both sexes, street-singers of both sexes, street musicians, street quacks, and such oddities as a broken-down - very much broken-down -doctor, a reputed miser, and a woman with a craze to the effect that the lawyers - no particular lawyers, but lawyers in general - are wrongfully keeping her out of a large estate."
"A doctor living in this street!" I exclaimed, in surprise.
[-415-] "Yes," he answered, "a regularly trained, diploma'd doctor, and a clever one too, I have heard other doctors say - one that might have been keeping his carriage but for the drink, which has dragged him down in the world, and will hasten him out of it. I let him have a garret at a shilling a week, and am pretty easy with him as to whether or not he pays up, easier than I should be, perhaps, seeing that it is himself that is to blame for the position he is in; but the fact is, drink is so completely the master of him, that putting the screw on him wouldn't make him any better; he'd go without shelter if he had to do, but he wouldn't go without the drink. Before I let him have the room, such as it is, he had to sleep out - under arches, in yards, or waggons, or wherever else he could get, when he couldn't muster up the threepence to pay for a lodging-house bed."
"And how does such a man contrive to muster up money at all?" I asked.
"Well, other doctors who have post mortem examinations to make sometimes employ him to help them, and pay him a few shillings; and he picks up a sixpence or a shilling now and again among the neighbours for prescribing for them or their children, and with that and spunging about public-houses, he manages to support his miserable existence."
Here I may be permitted to go a little out of course to state that, later in my acquaintance with the Rasper, I was taken by him - in the course of a round for the purpose of visiting people I had not been able to get at by [-416-] my own unaided efforts-to see this unhappy victim of the accursed thing - strong drink. Unless a backless chair, a couple of public-house cans, and a small pile of rags and shavings that served as a bed, could be called furniture, his wretched little garret was literally without furniture of any kind; and, though it was a bitterly cold December day, the grate was fireless, and red with rust from being unused. His clothes were woefully dirty and ragged, and hung about his gaunt and wasted frame in most scarecrow-like fashion. His hair, beard, and whiskers were worn long and unkempt, so that but little of his features was distinctly visible ; but from that little you could see how sadly drink-besodden they were. No flush of shame could have made itself perceptible through the deep and permanent drink flush, but the downcast eyes, and a slight trembling of the lip, told that he felt his degradation.
"You see why I don't offer you seats," he said, glancing round the apartment, "but either of you are welcome to the chair," he added, rising with a tottering step.
"No, no, you sit down; we're better able to stand than you are," said the Rasper, laying his hand on his shoulder.
"The time has been when I could have received you differently," said the other.
"Well, it is your own fault that you can't receive us differently now," said the Rasper bluntly, and yet not unkindly.
"So much the worse for me!" exclaimed the other [-417-] vehemently. "Ask yourself what must be the feelings of a man who knows that it is his own fault that he is such a thing as I am. You mustn't think, because I don't speak of it to those I herd with, and who would only make sport of it, that I don't know what a fool and slave I have been. I've drank away everything else, but I can't drink away that knowledge, though I try. It is the thought that it is my own fault that I am what I am, that more often than anything else drives me to try to drown thought altogether, but I can't, at least not fo. long."
"Well, I suppose your sin, like most others, carries its own punishment with it," said the Rasper, but rather in a soothing than a reproachful tone. "If it wasn't so, you see we should never think of shaking them off. You should make up your mind, with God's help, to cast out the devil that possesses you; it is never too late to mend, you know."
"I tried to cast it out when it was weaker than now, and I was stronger, and I failed," said the other, with a mournful shake of the head; and then, overcome by the bitter thoughts conjured up by the conversation, he suddenly hid his face in his hands, and swaying about in his seat, passionately moaned, "It is too late! - too late!- too late!"
There is no need to dwell at greater length upon so painful a scene. It seemed as if it were indeed too late for him to free himself from the baneful influence that had so wrecked his career and wasted his life. He would [-418-] listen to no suggestion about getting him into any institution where drink could have been withheld from him. Any money given to him was sure to be spent in drink, and food or clothing as surely bartered for drink. Even when I first saw him, it was evident that his shattered constitution could not stand the strain of such a life as his for very long, and some two years later the end came. I was absent from the immediate neighbourhood at that time, but I had the satisfaction of hearing from the Rasper and others who were with him when he knew that the great change was impending, that -
"Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving of it."
For some weeks before his death he was not able to obtain drink, for though some of his drinking associates would, acting upon their idea of friendship, have taken drink to him, his better friends prevented them from doing so. This, though it could not then restore him to health or strength, had the effect of clearing and calming his mind. He spoke resignedly - and even with a sense of relief - of his death as "a happy release" to himself. He prayed that the misuse of the talents entrusted to him by the heavenly Master might be forgiven him, and passed away at last buoyed by the belief that the salvation that had been extended even to the thief on the cross, would not be withheld from him.
After my first call upon the Rasper, it so chanced that I did not see anything of him for about six weeks, but at [-419-] the end of that time I sought him out again, as I was desirous of consulting him respecting the case of a family which had been represented to me, and certainly had every appearance of being, a very distressing one, but about which I had my doubts.
On coming to the Rasper's dwelling on this occasion, I found him standing on his doorstep, "taking stock" of a scene which, though not particularly striking in itself, had nevertheless a special interest for one who, like myself was anxious to learn as much as possible of the ideas and habits of the class of people forming the Rasper's tenants. At the top of the street there was - I might almost say as a matter of course - a large corner public-house, one front of which was in the road from which the street branched, the other in the street itself. Outside the door of the latter front a couple of shabby-genteel ballad singers had made a "pitch." One of them carried the songs which they had for sale, the other, with a concertina, acted as accompanyist; and at the feet of the latter sat, gravely looking up in his face, a dog, which travelled their round with them. They had "drawn" the street. Immediately in front of them stood young Dick Mason, commonly known as "Topper," from his being a leader, or top hand, among the boys of the street. He lived with his widowed mother, but was, to a great extent, upon "his own hook" as a hawker. Having returned from his morning round with hearthstone, he was now free till the afternoon, when he would be off again with shrimps. He was a sturdy, [-420-] bright-eyed, self-assured little fellow, and you could see that his little sister, who stands beside him, looks up to him as a protector with full confidence.
Behind these two stood a stout, rather jolly-looking middle-aged woman, the door-key in her one hand, and her disengaged arm stuck akimbo. This was "Mother" Richards, the keeper of the "general" shop in the street. She did a good copper trade, that is to say, a trade in which any single order rarely came to the amount of a silver coin, being for the most part farthing, halfpenny, and penny orders. Farthing candles, farthing's-worth of pins, thread, tape, salt, pepper, sugar, toffee; halfpenny bundles of wood, pen'orths of coal, tea, coffee, butter, halfpenny "hunks" of bread, and pen'orths of cheese, the larger orders being generally half-ounces of tobacco and quartern loaves. But though her transactions over-counter are small, they are many, and the profits on them high, so that she is one of the most well-to-do inhabitants of the street. Over her counter is a cardboard sign in the shape of a clock-dial, but having round it instead of figures the legend " No Tick." To the "No Tick" system she sternly adhered; but though on no account will she grant credit, she will sometimes give freely to those who cannot afford to buy. On many a hungry but unhalfpennied youngster has she charitably bestowed a "hunk," and to many a sick and destitute neighbour has she taken an ounce of her best tea when going to see them, completing the gift, when necessary, by a bundle of wood and a pen'orth of coal wherewith to boil the kettle.
[-421-] Next to Mother Richards stood Bess Gardiner, an old lady who hawks the wire sieves which her son makes, and who is now listening to the singing with marked earnestness. Taking her stand behind the singers, so that the crowing of her child may not unduly disturb the performance, is Mrs. Simpson, wife of a fish-hawker living in the street. She is a rather thriftless, characterless body in a general way, but honourably distinguished among her neighbours as being a specially loving mother. In all else she is the most submissive of wives, but in respect to her children it is known that she will fearlessly beard even her husband, as, for instance, when against his opinion on the point she insisted, at the cost of more than one "good hiding," on sending her children to school. In the rear of Mother Richards, a number of the male loafers of the street had taken their position, and with hands in pocket and pipe in mouth, were quietly listening. Beyond them, and with a considerable space intervening, the crowd was of a merely general order, consisting chiefly of passers-by drawn from the road, and seemingly not caring about venturing too far down the street. The performers were singing their last song when I had come in sight of them, and when it was finished, and the audience were dispersing, the concertina player sauntered down to where we were standing, and touched his hat to the Rasper, who, with a cheery "Here you are!" gave him a threepenny piece.
"Do you patronise that sort of thing?" I asked, when the man was out of earshot.
[-422-] "Well, not in a general way," he answered; "but I make an exception in favour of Sentimental Dawson and Pal; they are honest, decent-living fellows, and work hard in their way, and, though you might scarcely think it, I believe they do some little good in the street. They always sing sentimental songs, and it is wonderful how such songs 'fetch' the likes of the people hereabout. I could see that old Bess Gardiner's heart was full when they were singing the 'Mariner's Grave' just now, and I can tell you why - two of her sons were lost at sea. I have seen more than one rough customer among the women with the tears in their eyes when Dawson has been singing 'The Little One that Died;' and 'Tinker' Crockford, who used to be about as great a drunkard as you would come across in a day's march, and is now a steady fellow, has told rue himself that it was hearing Dawson sing 'Father, come Home,' that caused him to swear off the drink. Human nature is a curious thing, sir, after all; so curious that the worst of us may chance to be made better even by such a trifling thing as hearing a song at a street corner - but there, you were saying you wanted to ask me about some one."
" Oh yes, about the W----'s," I said.
"Oh, the W----'s, eh! Come along in !" he exclaimed, leading the way into his room, and taking down a couple of books. "The W----'s - back room, ground floor, number 26, isn't it?" he went on, opening one of the books, and motioning me to be seated.
I nodded assent, and then he asked,- [-423-] "Did you see W---- himself?"
Again I nodded, whereupon the Rasper, smiling, observed,
"And I suppose he told you that he and his blessed 'eavenly wife and children were starving; that they hadn't a blessed 'eavenly bit to put in their blessed 'eavenly mouths, or hardly a blessed 'eavenly rag to cover them, and that he had tramped the boots off his blessed 'eavenly feet looking for work - that was his style, wasn't it, eh?"
"Yes, that was about his style," I said; "and it was his overdone style that had made me suspicious, though the family really appeared to be in the deepest distress."
"Well, as far as the wife and children are concerned, it would scarcely be possible to represent them as being in greater distress than they are," said the Rasper, "but it is solely through him that they are so, and he would stand in the way of any assistance doing them good. If you gave them money, you would find him spending it in the public-house five minutes afterwards, and if you gave them clothes he would have them off their backs and in the pawn-shop within the hour. The only way in which you could benefit them would be by taking them to the nearest baker's, or cook-shop, and giving them a good feed, and that he wouldn't let you do. I've tried him myself, but he wouldn't have it, and thinking it might be only me that he objected to, I got others that he could have no possible ill-will against, to try it, but with the same result. However, he has had about rope enough [-424-] now; you leave him to me, and I'll fix him over those children if he does not watch it; in fact, I would have tried it on before now, only I was afraid of making bad worse for the children. He's worse than a boldly bad fellow, he is such a hypocrite. You know what a mild butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth style he spoke to you in, and now look here."
He opened the second book, which I then saw was a volume of newspaper scraps, and after a little turning over of the leaves, went on,-
"These are a few of Mr. W----'s appearances in the police-court - once drunk and incapable, twice drunk and disorderly, once assaulting a woman in the street, and once - a month ago - for a public-house row, arising out of his having taken some one else's drink. You take to reading the local police news, you'll find you'll get some very useful information out of it. Of course, it does not follow that because a person has been in the police-court one year they may not be deserving of help and sympathy the next; but, for all that, you take my advice: keep yourself well posted up in the police news, and you'll find it throw some curious light on tales that will be told to you."
After some further talk, it was agreed that I should leave the dealing with W---- in the hands of the Rasper; and then, his two books furnishing him, so to speak, with texts, he told me some strange and interesting stories concerning his tenants. Some of them were such stories as that of W----, but others, I was pleased to find, were [-425-] stories of suffering and privation bravely borne, of unostentatious but noble and self-sacrificing acts of neighbourly love and charity, and hard lives of poverty made light by strong unswerving Christian faith and hope.
That there was hardness in the nature of the Rasper might be true, but underlying that hardness was much of real goodness, and taking him for all in all, even as I have been imperfectly able to place him before them, I think my readers will readily understand that in the Rasper I found, as I had been told I should, a valuable and trustworthy ally.