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"PENNY PLAIN" AND FRIEND.
AMONG the gutter merchants of my district was a middle-aged
man, who dealt in cheap prints, and was known as "Penny Plain." He
made his Saturday night "pitch" in the High Street, in front of a
butcher's shop, the outside "Buy-buy" man of which might, in the slack
intervals of his own business, be often seen looking over the
print-seller's shoulder as kneeling down he displayed his wares. There was
nothing particularly striking in his appearance, and a casual observer would, in
all probability, have passed him by unnoticed, seeing that he was lacking in
those amusing characteristics which chiefly make it worth while - if it is worth
while at all - to become one of a gutter merchant's audience. But to one who
like myself was used to reading between the lines in such matters, his very
negative qualities made him an object of interest, and that on other grounds
beside those of mere contrast. As a gutter merchant he was evidently not native,
and to the manner born. He could not "patter;" his bearing, instead of
being swaggering and self-assured, was timid and retiring, and the few words in
which he recommended his goods to those whom the [-509-]
display of them drew round him, showed him to be a man of some education. He was
thin and rather frail of frame, his countenance had a careworn expression, and
altogether it would have been palpable at a glance; to one accustomed to judge
in such things, that he had come down in the world, and that his downward path
had been a very thorny one.
Without knowing him, or what his story might be, I pitied him, and one day when I was having some conversation with an old gutter merchant, who knew most of the others in the district, I asked,-
"Who is that picture-seller who pitches in front of S----'s shop?"
"Oh, yer means Penny Plain," answered the old fellow. "I dunno who he is, and I dunno any one as does, 'ceptin' it's Jim Burns, and if he knows he keeps it to hisself. They seem to be fast friends, and to understand each other, which it's rather a rum start, for you'd hardly think they'd make a pair, Penny being so quiet and back'ard, and Jim being all cheek and patter, and go-aheadness."
I made some commonplace remark about difference of disposition often being a ground of friendship, and then the subject dropped; and it was not until some three months afterwards that I again attempted to gratify my wish to learn something of the history of the poor print-seller. At that time I chanced to meet the Jim Burns mentioned above. He, too, was a gutter merchant, but he was also the manufacturer of the braces and belts [-510-] which constituted his selling stock in trade, and was moreover held to be one of the most knowing and well- to-do of the fraternity. He was about five or six and thirty years of age, smartly built, good-looking, and - according to his notions on the subject of dress - neatly attired in a tight-fitting suit, consisting of a hairy cap, sleeved waistcoat to match, arid woollen cord continuations. Meeting him reminded me of the other man, and after we had exchanged salutations, I said-
"Let me see, Jim, Penny Plain and you are very friendly, aren't you?"
"Yes," he answered; "in fact, we pretty well pal in together. We pitches next to each other, lodges in the same house, werry often takes our meals together, and talks over our good or bad luck, and things in general; and though I says it, as perhaps shouldn't - bein' one in the swim - neither on us would see the other want while we'd a copper in our pocket or a crust in the cupboard."
"I asked you," I said, "because I often notice him, and often wonder who he is, or what he has been; for it is easy to see he hasn't always been what he is now."
"Well, there's no tax on wondering in this free country," said Mr. Burns smilingly but drily.
"Nor on asking a question either," I retorted. "So is it a fair question to ask you what he has been, supposing you know?"
"Oh I know fast enough," he said, in a parenthetical tone, "but whether I should tell any one else is up another street. You don't need to be able to see through [-511-] a brick wall to tell as he's been misfort'nate, and has seen better days; and sich-like don't always care about them as they're a living among in wuss days knowing how them days come upon 'em - 'specially if like Poor Penny, they ain't hard-faced and don't-carish. If anybody else hereabout had asked me who he was, I would have told em, and in a very no-two-ways-about-it style, that it weren't a fair question. But sukumstances alter cases, as the sayin' is; you don't ask just for curiosity, or to blab it about."
He looked at me questioningly as he spoke, and responding to the look, I answered that I should certainly not blab about anything that was told to me in confidence, and that I had merely spoken from feeling a sympathetic interest in his friend.
"Well, that was what I thought," he said, "and so I don't think Penny would object to me telling yer about him. Yer see him and me is as good pals as we can be, but all the same he's been edicated and I ain't, and there's times, I know, when it would do him good - cheer him up, and open his heart a bit - if there was another edicated person he could speak to in a friendly way. So hoping that it may help to bring you together, and perhaps be the means of doing Penny a good turn, I'll tell you his story, and, mind you, I can warrant it gospel true, for I know the worst part on it on my own hook, independent of his telling me.
"I dessay from you having took stock of him, and seeing how shy I fought of speaking about him just now, [-512-] you'll have put it down as his is a case of character lost - and so it is. When I first know'd him he was a number of cuts above me in the world. He was a counter-clerk in a warehouse where most of the gutter men in my line used to buy their leathers from; and he was a bit of a favourite with us, for he was a pertic'lar quiet-going sort of a chap, and had always a friendly word or not for us, which was more than the rest of 'em had; for, like a good many other people, they seemed to think as how civility were too precious to be wasted on poor people, though there ain't a greater mistake out, for there's none as it'll go further with. But that ain't the pint jest now. One day I goes to the warehouse, and one of the other fellers coming to serve me, I asks, 'Where's -----?' naming Penny by his proper name, and meaning as how I'd rather be served by him.
"'Oh, he's got another place,' says the feller, with a snigger.
"'Oh,' says I, not tumbling to his meaning, 'well I hope it's a good one.'
"'Oh, a werry good one,' says he, sniggering again; ''tis one of them ere places where there are servants in livery to wait on you, and they are that fond of you that they won't let you out of their sight, and lock you up at night as carefully as if you were so much cash.'
"I tumbled to his meaning fast enough that time, and I felt as if I would have liked to have floored him for his sniggering; but I kept my temper and asked, 'What was he took for?' 'For doing a little bit o' [-513-] cooking on his own account,' says he; and then, seeing as how I didn't understand his lingo - any more than I dessay he'd have understood mine - he told me plain that he had been took on the charge of embezzling his employer's money to the tune of twenty pound odd. He was tried for it, and got six months, but, more's the pity for him, pore chap, it turned out to be a case of six months for life."
"Six months for life!" I echoed.
"Ah, I see, you don't tumble now," he said; "when yer says as a feller as had so many months or years for life, yer means that though his sentence is only for that length of time in prison it ruins him for life. There's many when they come out of prison for doing tune for a first offence finds friends - and God bless all such friends, say I - ready to take them by the hand, and give them another start in life, and they, making good use of the start, and letting what has passed be a caution to them, get on in the world again, and then the world forgets or forgives their slip, and they hold their head as high as any, which it's right that they should, when they've suffered for what they've done, and repented of it. But there's others that, though they both suffer and repent, the world don't forgive, or, at any rate, don't give another chance to. They either haven't got friends, or only sich fair-weather sort as'll cold shoulder a man that's been in trouble, and for a feller without friends, and without money, and wot is the blackest of all black marks, Jailbird agen his character, there's generally only two things [-514-] open - either to take to bad ways, or to come down and down as poor Penny as done."
"There's a good deal of truth in what you say, Burns," I remarked on his making a pause; "but people should remember all that when they are tempted to be dishonest."
"I know'd you'd say that," he answered, "and it's right enough as far as that goes. People should think of all that when they are tempted to be dishonest, as you say, and I dare say some on em does; only they think at the same time that they are too clever to be found out, and them's the sort as mostly goes to the bad altogether when they once make a start, for yer worst of rogues is the one that fancies hisself, and as thinks it's the being found out in it, and not the roguery itself, as is the thing to be ashamed on. But there's others as don't think of consekenses at the time, cos their mind is that full of what's druv em to it that it ain't got room for anything else, and so it was with Penny. I don't say that such shouldn't be punished, but I do say that when a man that's gone wrong once chooses to come down as Penny's done, rather than go wrong again, he has good in him, arter all, let who will think what they will on him. But there, I'm a argufying and preaching - I suppose it's the way with us fellers as are always pattering - instead of getting along with my story. However, here goes for a straight run now. It was about four years arter I'd heared on Penny - though, in course, he worn't Penny then - getting into trouble, when one night, when [-515-] I was on a rather favourite gutter pitch in another district, I see a lot of the fellers a-chaffing and bustling a new-corner as had come to try his luck with a little tray of stationery. He was a quiet, timid, broken-down looking chap; and seeing that they were getting, as I considered, too rough with him, I interfered, and took him to stand beside me; and when I got a fair look at him, his face struck me directly as being one I ought to know. I couldn't recollect it, though, and so arter a while I asks him, 'Haven't I seen you somewhere before?' and he answered me in a shamefaced way, and in a voice hardly above a whisper, 'I believe you have; I used to be in ------'s warehouse, and I think you were one of the men that used to come there for leathers.' 'Right you are,' I said; 'you're Mr. -----, and sorry I am to see you like this; and werry sorry I wos when I heard of yer getting into trouble.' I could see his heart was full at the mention of what was past, and so, to turn it of, I asked 'What was the other fellers on to you about just now?' 'To pay a footing,' he answered me; they tell me it is the rule for new-comers to do so, and I would pay if I had it; but I do assure you I stand here penniless, homeless, and friendless. Since my first wrong-doing I have tried very hard to earn a honest living, but everything has gone against me; and if this last humble attempt fail me, as far more promising-looking things have done, I cannot see that there is aught else for me - God help me! - but to lie down and die!'"
"He was certainly to be pitied, then, whatever his [-516-] past faults might have been," I said, as the brace-seller again came to a pause in his story.
"You'd a said so if you'd a seen him that there night," remarked Mr. Burns emphatically. "I'm a telling you what he said to me all straight for'ard, but he had to tell it to me a few words at a time between the spells of me pattering or serving a customer; and his voice was that chokey and heart-broken, and he looked so ill, and humble, and hungry, that I couldn't help feeling cut up when I thought of how he had come down from the smart young feller he was when I first know'd him. But of course the cheer-up style was the one to speak to him in. poor chap, and so that was the style I put on with him. 'Well, the luck has been agen yer in the fight,' I says, there's no denying that, but, arter all, you mustn't think too much of a knock-down blow or two - mustn't be too down-hearted, ye know, as the song says:-
"There's many a dark and cloudy morning
Turns out to be a sunshiny day."
"Hope on, hope ever," that's the motter to take, and it'll help yer along wonderfully. Going down Luck Lane is heart-breaking work, we know. It's a hard road, and though there's so many always a travellin' it, a lonely un too, for them as you meet going up it take the other side and pass yer in the don't-know-yer, touch-me-not style, and them as yer overtake have generally as much trouble of their own as takes up all their time and attention - though for all that they're more likely than the up-[-517-]passengers to give you a lift if they see you reg'lar dead beat. "But, arter all, what of all that?" ses you to yerself, "it ain't a laughing road certainly, but cryin' won't mend it; I've surwived all the roughen of the journey so far, and as judging by the look of things I can't get much furder down, I must be near the up turning. "' This seemed to put him in heart a bit, for brightening up he says, 'Well, my lane has been a long one, and a thorny one, but it looks as if I had come to a turn in it when I unexpectedly meet so kind a friend-in-need as you.'
"'Well, in course, I hope our meeting may be a good sign,' ses I, 'but as to the rest it ain't worth mentioning, it's more a case of bein willin' to help you than bein' able; but I know by your style when you was in the warehouse as how you'd be one to help a feller over a stile if it was in your power, and if I can help you over this 'ere stile in your lane, as we may say, I will. I'll make it all right with the other chaps about the footing. They're a roughish lot, and a good many on 'em is too fond on the drink to be very particular as to how they get it; but take em all through, they ain't a really bad lot, and they know too well what it is to be poor themselves to be down on another for being poor. They know I'm square, and when I tell em as it's not won't but can't with you, they'll be all right; and as to lying down to die, you mustn't think of anything of that kind if you don't happen to sell to-night, or for that part of it if you do - for you must keep your stock money together. You shall come home with me, it ain't much that's in my power, but I can [-518-] give you shelter, and share a crust with you for a week or two till you have time to turn yourself round.' He wasn't for coming, but I meant what I said and made him, and having him with me I was able to put him up to the wrinkles of the trade. It was me as put him up to starting with the prints, which there is a living - such as it is - to be got out of them, while there ain't out of stationery."
"And why not out of stationery in particular?" I asked, prompted to put the question from the decisive tone in which he made his concluding observation.
"Why!" he exclaimed, as if surprised to find that I should consider it necessary to ask such a question. "Well, I'll tell you. Writing paper has come to be that cheap that those as has anything like regular use for it generally keeps a stock on hand and buys in the regular shops. Them as are so poor that they'd buy it in ha'porths or pen'orths-street quantities - are the sort as has very little writing to do, and what little they do have mostly turns up unexpected. Then when they've got their letter to write, or to get wrote for them, they can pop out to the nearest hucksters, and get the ha'porth of paper that's enough to serve their turn. So it's come about that stationery is about done up as a street-selling trade. Besides, us gutter-men are down on it. We earns our livin', workin' a good deal harder for it than most people would think, and the stationery has been took hold of by the cadgers and the sneakingest sort on 'em; the sort as gets into yer house as if they'd come on some [-519-] particular business, pitches yer a long yarn (which it's lies from beginning to end - just so much patter, as yer may say) about their being highly respectable people, but mis-fortunate through ill health, or being security for a friend, or summat of that sort. Them and their wife (or their sick husband if it's a woman as is performing) and their dear children are starving, and though at one time they had never thought they could come to anything like this, and are that ashamed that they scarcely know how to look at you, they must do something - and all of a sudden they whip out a little packet of stationery or a few boxes of matches and ask you to buy; though it's give that they mean; and many do give, being surprised."
Mr. Burns gave this explanation with a heartiness of contempt that was wholesome, though somewhat laughable to witness. After waiting a minute for him to cool down I asked,-
"Who are the people now that buy prints from such dealers as your friend Penny?"
"Oh, different sorts, about as many sorts of people as there are sorts of picters, in fact it's a kind of give and take atween 'em, for the picters sort out the people as the people sort out the picters. 'The Sailor Boy's Farewell,' and 'The Soldier's Return,' and sich-like draw the old folk, cos, yer see, there's some on 'em as has sons sailorin' or soldierin', and they're good customers too for 'The Wreck of the So-and-So,' or the 'Battle of So-and- So,' or the 'Launch of the Life-Boat.' The young [-520-] married people they go in for 'The Angel's Whisper,' 'Gone,' - the picter of the young mother standing beside the empty cradle, and any others with mothers and babies, babies .being most run upon. The go-to-meetingers are the best customers for Scripture pieces, though others buy em; portraits sells to all sorts, and so do landscapes pretty well, the highest coloured uns going the best, being wanted to warm up the walls. The sporting ones 'The Champion Sculler,' 'The Winner of the Derby,' and the like, they goes to young fellers; and the 'Characters' - though they've nearly died out now, and no partic'lar bad job - are took up by boys and girls as is stage struck, and fancy it 'ud be fine to be the character."
"You mean the little prints of 'Mr. Jones as the Pirate Chief;' 'Miss Smith as the Pirate's Bride,' and that sort of thing?" I said questioningly.
"Yes, them's 'um; they were pretty well a business in themselves at one time. You got an umbrella, opened it, turned it upside down, put yer stock in it, and let yer buyers pick 'em out all at the same price, a penny plain and twopence coloured. It was over them that Penny got his name; they were rather a go when he first took to the business, but after a little while he gave 'em up of his own accord, cos he come to think as how they did harm to the youngsters. He was right, too, yer picters, and yer books - and specially yer books - about yer Pirates of the Deep, and Jack Sheppards, and Dashing Highwaymen, and sich like, do a wonderful lot of harm. They're the right out ruination of scores of boys, makin' [-521-] good uns - or what might be good uns - bad, and bad uns worse. If I had a boy and was to catch him a reading of any sich stuff I'd give him sich a quiltin' as I'd lay odds 'ud make him fight shy of dashing highwaymen; it would be doing him a kindness, though in course he wouldn't think so. Sich reading is at the bottom of many a case of snatching and till robbery. Bless yer, the young roughs and snatchers swear by 'em."
"But there are not many of that sort who can read?" I said.
"There ain't; more's the pity - in a general way, I mean, and not as to these ere books - but here and there is one as can read, and the others get him to read out to 'em. Many a time I have seen a dozen or more on 'em, all ears, round one as was readin', just like a schools as yer may say, but a lot more attentive than they would be in any school, and yer may take my word for it they don't hear about a lot of high-flyin' robbers, as is always livin' in clover and doing the grand, and never been took, without its telling a tale on 'em. I'm no scolard myself. I can hardly tell a big B from a barn door, as the sayen is, and I wouldn't be such a fool as to set up to talk about books in a general way; but, for all that, I've nous enough to know that them as writes sich books must know fast enough what harm they are likely to do, and I tell yer candid, it wouldn't be good for their 'ealth if I had the settlin' of accounts with em. I'd 'Life on the Road' 'em! I'd give him a turn of life on the mill; that's what 'ud suit their complaint, and it's [-522-] what they've brought many a youngster to. Them's my sentiments on that point, that's the figger I reckon such books - and them as write 'em - up at; and I'll back it to be a-correct figger too, one as no feller can take change out of, let him count as he likes, or argufy, or twist as he will."
Penny's friend speaks with a warmth that, in his concluding sentences, rises to something very like a challenge, and so I answer that I am not in the least disposed to dispute the accuracy of his reckoning up; that, on the contrary, I fully agree with him as to the evil wrought by the kind of works of which he speaks; but on the other hand, I add, he should remember that much good results from the reading of good books.
"In course there does," answered Mr. Burns heartily. "I ain't one of the sort as cries down learning cos I ain't got any myself, or as says readin' is no use cos I happen to see as a feller as can read is no better off than me as can't. Penny, he's a great hand for reading when he can pick up a book cheap, which he can do nows and thens, and I goes him shares in some on 'em, for you see he reads out to me, and many a pleasant hour we've had in that way, which was a treat I never had till we come together. I should say there wasn't many bits of the Bible we hadn't had over, and some on 'em a good many times; and we've been right through 'Captain Cook's Voyages,' and the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' and a 'History of England,' and some others as I don't remember the names on just at the minute, and now we're [-523-] a-going through the 'Life of Columbus.' Talk of yer 'Rovers of the Deep!' If boys must read about Rovers, that's the sort for 'em, not yer thievin', murderin', skull-and-cross-bones sort, which I suppose there ain't gone in real life now; and which I tell yer plain again, there shouldn't be sham ones in books for boys to read about if I had my way."
"Then I wish you had your way," I said, smiling; "but in the meantime we're wandering away from your friend - what more of him?"
"Well, not much more," answered Burns, "at least, not for me to tell. That was how we came to pal in together, and arter we were pals he told me how he was druv to go wrong over his master's money; but that part of the story I'll leave him to tell you hisself - that is if he likes to tell it. Anyways, I would like you to drop in on him flows and thens. You see, he don't take up with the other gutter men - not from bein' proud, but from bein' backward, and feelin' broke down - and so he's a sort of lonely, and, as I said afore, I know he'd be pleased to have a bit of talk with an edicated person.
"Very well, then," I said, "I shall give him a call some day when I am in his neighbourhood."
Some five or six weeks had elapsed, however, without me having made the promised visit, when one morning as I was passing into the district dispensary, I met the brace-seller coming out of it with a bottle of medicine in his hand.
"Morning, sir," he said, stopping me, and without [-524-] giving me time to return his salutation he went on, "yer ain't dropped in at our crib yet."
I thought I detected a tone of reproach in his voice, and so I answered apologetically-
"Well, I haven't, though after your kind invitation I ought to have done so. The fact is, I have not chanced to be down your way, and there being no special reason."
"Well, there's a bit of a special reason, as you may call it, now," interrupted Burns; "poor Penny he's on his back with the ague, and he's werry dull and down in the mouth, and 11 stand all the cheering up he can get."
"I'll come at once," I said, " I'm only going in here, and then I'll follow you down."
"That's yer sort, sir!" he exclaimed. "I'll go on ahead and tell him."
Half an hour later I was in the room which served as the joint home of the two gutter merchants. It was a small room and a poor one, but had still a better air than many such rooms that I was in the habit of going into. It was cleaner and fresher, and was by comparison tolerably well furnished. There were only two chairs in the room, but they were complete as to their spars and legs, and moreover gave evidence of the habitual expenditure upon them of a little furniture polish and "elbow grease." The little deal table had not got the "rickets," and was well scrubbed, and the walls were enlivened by a number of pictures that had at various times been selected from Penny's stock, and cheaply framed. A couple of chair bedsteads completed the [-525-] furnishing of the room, and on one of these the sick printseller was lying, while in the other, done up in its chair form, his friend and nurse sat beside him. He had been prepared for my coming, and quietly answered my inquiries as to the state of his health. It was easy to perceive that he was ill in mind as well as body; was anxious, and nervous, and overwrought; and I was therefore pleased to see, when I came to read to him, that he was gradually soothed - that he understood and felt the comfort and consolation of the words of love and promise.
"Ah, that's better!" exclaimed Burns, patting him gently on the shoulder; "when I see the cloud a-lifting off yer face I don't mind. You hear again now, 'Yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.' Here it's read to you, and you've read it to me many a time, and yet you don't act up to it, but go getting down-hearted and worrying yourself about what yer to do. There ain't no occasion for it; there's always corn in Egypt, and while I've got a loaf you've got bread."
"You are very kind, Jim," the other said in a low but earnest tone.
"Not at all, old chap," answered Jim, "I'm only a doing for you what I know you'd do for me, if it was t'other way about, and what it's only right either of us should do for the other. Ours is a give-and-take palship. Ain't you read to me, and give me all sorts of good advice, and ain't you been such a chum to me as has [-526-] made me care more to stay at home - when not out on business - than to go spending best part of my time and money in public-houses, as I used to do afore we corned to pal together? It's on'y like live and let live atween you and me;" and here Mr. Burns suddenly broke out with a snatch of a song, which he afterwards explained to me was a very popular one among poor people, and the words of which ran -
May to live and let live be the end of our being,
Man to his fellow should ever be kind;
All men are equal before the All-Seeing,
And nature is weak and fortune is blind.
"To even a foe in
distress be a brother,
For oh it is sweet to forget and forgive;
Do good when you can, be kind to each other,
For nature's best law is to live and let live."
There was a sincerity and heartiness in
Burns's attempts to console his friend which were not to be resisted, and we
soon had Penny in a much more cheerful frame of mind than he had been in when I
arrived. There is no need to record here our further conversation until it
reached the point at which Burns led up to its inducing his friend to tell what
of his life's story Jim himself had left untold.
"I do not tell it," the printseller began, "to justify my act, for it is not to be justified, nor even to excuse myself, though I can honestly say that I believe if I heard it of another I should think it had something of excuse for him in it. I tell it rather as a proof that out of evil only [-527-] evil can come. My parents were small shopkeepers in a quiet country town, and they educated me fairly well for their rank in life. I was sent regularly to day and Sunday school, and chapel, and was well cared for, and had a good example set me at home. When I was about fourteen I went into an office, but as by the time I was one-and-twenty my wages were only a pound a week, and I couldn't get a better place in my native town, I resolved to go to London to seek my fortune, as the phrase runs, but, as you know, I found not my fortune but my fall; and yet I came much better provided than many who have made their fortune are said to have been. I didn't come on a hay-cart with only half-a-crown in my pocket, or anything of that sort; I was in my degree well supplied with clothes, money, and letters of introduction and recommendation, and before a week had gone by I had got a situation in the warehouse where Jim here first knew me, starting with sixty pounds a year and board and lodging. I stood what are usually considered the temptations of London unscathed. I was a teetotaller, never went to places of amusement, spent best part of my Sundays at a place of worship, and most of my evenings out at a literary institution. I was almost alone among my fellows in leading so regular a life, and I prided myself upon it in self-righteousness of spirit; but the time of my humbling was at hand. At the chapel I went to I used to see a mother and daughter who had every appearance of having seen better days. The mother looked very frail and careworn, and the daughter, too, was delicate, but she was very [-528-] pretty, and, in a word, I fell in love with her. I obtained an introduction to them, but it was some time before they would let me accompany them home; when they did, I found that they were entirely dependent upon their own exertions, and earned a living - if a living if could be called - as needlewomen."
"Yer may well say, 'if living it may be called!'" broke in Jim Burns.
"The mother," Burns went on, addressing me, "was a shirt hand, working for a sweater - you know pretty well what that is - and the daughter she was a 'hand' at a West-end milliner's; and we pretty well know what that is. A shilling a day and a tea - and, generally speaking, not even a good tea, but stale bread-and-scrape and washy tea-for working pretty nigh all the hours that God sends, and that in a room where the hands are packed that close as the air they breathe is poisonous. It's a life as very few years of will make a girl an old woman in constitution afore she's a young un in years, and as goes a long step towards accounting for so many on 'em a-going the bad road they do;* [* The kind-hearted though rather hot-headed gutter merchant was referring to a time anterior to the passing of the Workshop Act. But that act, though it has undoubtedly lessened the evil of long hours among dressmakers' and milliners' hands, has not eradicated it. In the press of the London season, employers will still keep their hands at work for sixteen or eighteen hours at a stretch, "chancing it" as to being "dropped on" or informed against. The chances are probably fully fifty to one in their favour, while if they do go against them, the fine - for a first offence, at least, would [-529-] probably not amount to a tithe of the profit realised on the orders got through by keeping the hands the extra hours.] but there, I'm a-blocking the way [-529-] with my pattering, so 'go on with yer barrow,' as we say in the streets."
"Well, without wishing to blame any one in saying it," Penny resumed, "I must say that their lot was a very hard one. They had to work killingly - long hours to earn a very poor living indeed, and any one could see at a glance that it was breaking down their health. In the winter after I made their acquaintance the mother died, and grief for this loss helped to further break down the daughter's already delicate health. In the following summer I could see that the work of the busy season was killing her inch by inch; and, hoping and meaning to save her from such a life of cruel toil, and to give her something like a comfortable home, I urged her to marry me without further delay - and she did, poor girl, unhappily for herself."
He had evidently spoken throughout under a strong effort of self-restraint, but at this point his voice failed him, whereupon Jim Burns struck in, -
"Don't you take on, matey; you meant well, and though I never know'd your wife, I'll be bound to say she didn't blame you or think hardly of you."
"No, poor child - for I always think of her as the little more than child she was when I first knew her - she didn't reproach me," answered the other sadly; "but that was her goodness, not my deserving. She was [-530-] more inclined to accuse herself than me, and the sorrow that hastened her end was for me, not herself; and I know that she died blessing me."
Again his voice was choked by emotion; and seeing this, Burns gently said-
"There now, I see you're cut up, and I don't wonder at it, and I'd think less of yer, if it wasn't so. But don't you distress yourself, I'll tell the rest, eh?"
The other nodded, and thus commissioned, Jim took up the discourse in his own style.
"There ain't much more to tell, sir," he began; "and I dessay you could make a good broad guess as to what it comes to. What Penny's wife had gone through in the needle-driving line afore she was his wife had done for her what it does for hundreds and hundreds - thrown her into consumption. I ain't one as goes to the length of saying that ladies wouldn't care if they did actually know that hands were worked to death; but it's a pity they can't see the bloom of a poor girl's life on their bonnets as well as the bloom of the artificial flowers, which the life bloom is very often there, as yer may say like, for in course I only mean so to speak. Well, the wife was ill, and getting worse, and my pal here wasn't the one to see any one he loved suffering without getting what help he could for them. So he called in a doctor, and the doctor he ordered all sorts of things that cost money; and, to make short of a long story, he got reg'lar in a corner for cash at a time when things was ordered for his wife as only cash could get, and losing his head, [-531-] as you may say. with his troubles, he took his master's money, and in such a random style, that two or three days arter he was found out, and, as I told you afore, he got six months. It was a life sentence for him and a death-blow for the pretty, delicate young wife. When he come out she was in her quiet grave, free from all trouble, and he was alone in the world, a broken man. Them as had know'd him cold-shouldered him, cos the jail-stain was on him; and so he came down in the world till he was as low as I told you he was when I met him again. We've been pals ever since - and it's a goodish few years now - and a kinder-hearted pal there couldn't be. There's on'y me among them as knows him now, as is aware of who and what he has been, and whoever else might be down on him if they knew as much, I am proud to take his hand - as I do now, and with a warm heart, though I say it - and call him friend; and, meanin' no offence, I wouldn't give much for the man that, knowing what he has gone through, wouldn't take his hand."
"I am not that man," I said; "I shall be very happy to take either his hand or yours; for, meaning no flattery - as you meant no offence - you are a real good fellow."
"Well, as to that," answered Burns, "I suppose I'm not as good a feller as you would like to see me, or as my mate here has tried to make of me; but, for all that, I do hope that I have got the heart that can feel for another, and I try to act up to the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves."
After a little further discourse of a more general [-532-] character, I left the two friends, Burns being evidently delighted to find his comrade and me getting on nicely together, and to see the printseller, as he expressed it, "coming out of his shell," by conversing with me freely and confidently. In the course of a week or two the printseller recovered his health, and returned to his humble business; and from that time I was pretty regular in my visits to him and his friend. When I had known the latter a little more than a year, I had an opportunity of recommending a man as an assistant store-clerk in a large manufactory, and I spoke to him about it. But, while thanking me even with tears in his eyes, he declined my offer to try and obtain the situation for him. It would be like starting life afresh again, he said, and though I might think him weak for saying so, he felt unequal to the task of taking up a new occupation, forming new habits, and severing old ties. Moreover, be continued, he had come to realise in a very practical and literal manner that
"Man wants but little here below,
Nor wants that little long."
In his present humble calling he could earn enough to provide himself with what he had now come to regard as a sufficiency of food and clothing, and the true and tried friendship and companionship of Jim Burns was a great stay to him. If poor and content was rich enough, he was rich enough in this world's goods, and could as well in his present position as any other so live, as with [-533-] God's help to fit himself for the other and better world beyond.
So the two strangely-thrown-together gutter merchants remained united, and though by no means a solitary instance in my experience, they were a striking one of brotherly love abounding among the poor and needy.