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THE road from my district to the cemetery, in the
"third-class ground" of which most of my poor are laid to their rest
when freed from the sorrow and strife of life, lies for a considerable distance
through a highly genteel suburb. A. little while back the inhabitants of
this genteel quarter were no doubt considerably astonished, if not scandalised,
by the sight of a funeral cortege, of which it was my lot to form a part.
The funeral proper, speaking from a strictly "undertaking" point of
view, was quite correct - genteel even. An open hearse, a gorgeous pall, a
flower-bedecked coffin, and three "well-appointed" mourning coaches;
but succeeding these came cabs, coal waggons, firewood vans, pony traps, and even donkey-drawn
costers' "shallows," while behind the conveyances came
a long array of mourners afoot.
None of these latter had on the customary suits of solemn black. Some few among them wore bands of crape upon their sleeves - old "rusty" crape, evidently "raked up" for the occasion. Apart from this they were in their everyday garments, cheap slop clothing, ill-fitting, much worn, and variedly labour-stained. For these mourners were of the poorest of the poor, and, generally speaking, were possessed only of the clothes they "stood up in." With [-194-] them, therefore, "the trappings and the suits of woe" were conspicuous by their absence. As they marched along with solemn step and slow, they would no doubt have appeared to a casual observer a motley crew. But their saddened faces and reverential bearing marked them as true mourners. And they had reason to mourn.
The departed mortal whom they were following to his last resting-place had been a man who, in his degree, had ever considered the poor alike in word and deed. Numbers of those who were now attending his funeral had received valuable aid or counsel from him in his lifetime, and all had known and respected him. For them a great man had fallen in Israel. Like most of our local notables, he was best known by a sobriquet, being popularly spoken of as "All Hot!" - the title having reference to his trade cry, when in his earlier days he had followed the calling of a street-corner baked-potato seller.
When I first came to make his acquaintance, however, Mr. P----- had risen to a considerably higher business level. He was the proprietor and manager of a large, well-built, well-found night coffee-stall, while by day his wife carried on a retail coal and firewood trade upon a rather extensive scale, their dwelling-house being attached to the yard. My introduction to him was upon an occasion somewhat memorable to me - that of my first Arab hunt. I need scarcely say that the Arabs here in question were not Arabs of the desert, but of a worse place - Arabs of the London slums. Magistrates' orders under the Industrial Schools Act had been made against two boys living in my district, who had been shown to be [-195-] "beyond control." Whether there had been any genuine endeavour to exercise control upon the part of the parents concerned was a very open question. At any rate, it was so evident that they were more than merely willing to be "rid" of the children, that instead of remanding the latter to the workhouse during the time that the formalities incidental to "naming a school" were being got through, the magistrate allowed them to leave the court with their parents. It was assumed that the boys would be only too readily given up when they were demanded, and in respect to the parents the assumption was quite justifiable.
But whatever may have been the desire of the parents in the matter, the boys objected to being "put away," and they showed their objection in very practical fashion. When they were being taken to the police-court to be given over to the industrial school officer, they "slipped their jackets," leaving them in the hands of the parents, and bolted. From that time they had been "wanted" by the police, but had managed to evade capture.
The homes they had run away from were in a very poor neighbourhood, in which women as well as men went out to work, so that numbers of the houses were left unguarded during the day. Taking advantage of their detailed knowledge upon this head, the young runaways made their way into sundry of the dwellings and stole food. This proceeding upon their part aroused very angry feelings against them on the part of the sufferers, and there was a general threatening to "knock corners off them" if they should be caught. But presently indignation gave way to compassion. It was [-196-] winter time, and hard weather, and the youngsters were sleeping out. After a time, forced into the open by hunger, as it was easy to surmise, they had been occasionally seen prowling about the streets literally seeking in the gutter for what they might devour. Some who knew them had got near enough to them to observe that they were in a pitiable condition - dirty, ragged, shoeless, and footsore; shivering with cold, gaunt from hunger - altogether "broke" and miserable.
More than one attempt was made to lay hold of them, not now with any view to chastising them for raiding for food, but to aid and comfort them, to redeem them so far as might be from the wretchedness into which they had fallen. But they had fled from the faces of their friends, as they had from the supposed enemies who had wished to put them away. The matter having been repeatedly mentioned to me, I at length took upon myself to put it to those concerned that surely these suffering, misguided little waifs might be secured if a really earnest attempt to that end were made.
"Do you know the boys by sight - well enough to swear to them, you know?" I was asked. I understood the drift of the question, and promptly replied that I did know them by sight, quite well enough to be able to unhesitatingly identify them.
"That is all very well so far," was next remarked, but was I "good" to go out with the officers to identify them ? This was evidently intended to be a "settler" for me; but I calmly replied that I was quite "good," that I was anxious to do anything in my power to aid in getting the poor boys under care and shelter.
[-197-] "Well, you see," said the official, after a pause, and speaking in a somewhat apologetical tone, "the warrant-officer has never seen either of these young shavers. Then the life they have been leading will have altered their appearance, and there are plenty other such customers about, so that a mistake might easily be made. Nowadays it don't do to be arresting wrong parties, even young gutter-snipes; there is always some one to take up a thing of that kind, and make it warm for the authorities."
"I would take all the responsibility of the identification upon myself," I answered.
"That is all right so far," the official repeated, resuming his "making difficulties" tone; "but you know we can't go trying the needle in the haystack business. Have you any idea where they are to be dropped on?"
Having had previous experience of official ways, I had come prepared for this interrogation, and answered that I had more than a mere idea upon that point. I had made inquiries, and had learned from a trustworthy source that the boys who were wanted were in the habit of sleeping in one or another of a certain range of arches.
"It will be a night job, then," said the official, "and we may as well try to pull it off to-night; I'll have a warrant-officer here to meet you at twelve o'clock. It would be waste of time to start earlier," he went on. "In the sort of dovecote you are going to flutter the birds go to roost late. Small blame to them either, poor things," he concluded, his voice softening; "man, woman, or child, they must be dreadfully dead-beat to be able to sleep in a railway arch in winter weather. All the same, [-198-] it is wonderful how soundly outdoor dossers will sleep. They are gene rally curled up like dogs, and some of them you have to fairly unroll and shake up before you can waken them. It was a sort of job I never cared for myself, though I have had a number of them in my time - however, I wish you success in yours."
At midnight I duly met the warrant-officer who had been told off for the particular "job" in which I was to assist. A good deal of his work lay in my district, so that I had a nodding acquaintance with him, and knew that be bore the reputation of being not only "an active and intelligent officer," but a kindly man, one who, when need was, could be resolute in the execution of his office. but was never harsh.
It was December, and on leaving the police station I would have hurried forward, but the officer, holding hack and looking at his watch, remarked, "We are full early yet; if we begin the hunt before the youngsters have turned in, some of' the others will slip off and give them the hint, and we shall miss them."
"I am in your hands as to the hunt," I said; "I was only thinking of keeping myself warm."
"Well, yes," agreed my companion ; "it certainly is not a night to linger by the way; suppose we walk as far as 'All Hot's' stall, and have a cup of something warm before starting work. We shall be all the better for a cup of hot coffee in any case, and besides, it is on the cards that we might get some useful information at the stall. The old fellow's customers are a wonderfully mixed lot. I have often seen them driving up in cabs, and they run from belated swells down to the poorest of [-199-] the poor. Ay the very poorest of the poor," he added, after a thoughtful pause. "Many a starving creature has he given a meal to 'free gratis for nothing,' as the saying is, and he don't always stop at that. To my personal knowledge there is more than one woman who has owed to him the helping hand that has raised her out of the deeps. There is his shanty," he suddenly concluded, nodding towards a point of light that at the instant became visible a little distance off.
We soon reached the stall, and were for the moment the only customers at it. The proprietor promptly came forward to wait upon us. He had a fur travelling-cap tied down over his ears and a large "muffler" wrapped round his neck, so that there was not much of his face to be seen. So far as I could make out at a glance it was the face of a man about sixty, rugged and wrinkled, but pleasant to look upon by reason of the kindly expression beaming from the soft bright grey eyes.
"Out on business, I suppose?" queried the old man, speaking to my companion, as he placed our cups of coffee before us.
"Well, yes, in a mild way," the officer answered; "we are after a couple of youngsters who are wanted for an industrial school. Their names are B---- and S-----, and we are told they sleep in the railway arches. Do you happen to know anything of them?"
"No," was the answer given after a reflective pause; "some of the arches 'dossers' do give me a call occasionally, but I don't remember any two boys among them lately. Here is a young fellow coming who might be able to tell you something," he added a moment later.
[-200-] "You had better get more into the shadow. If he spots you before he has called for anything, he may 'step it.'"
We moved a little aside, and presently there came to the counter of the stall a gaunt, white-faced, miserably-clad youth of about eighteen, who was tightly hugging himself in a not very successful attempt to keep from shivering.
"'Arf a mahogany juice and a pair of doorsteps," he called out, at the same time throwing down a shilling with quite a flourish.
While this order - which on being interpreted I found meant half-a-pint of coffee and two thick slices of bread and butter - was being executed the new-comer caught sight of my companion, and made a move as though he would have snatched up his shilling and fled.
"You needn't go away on my account," quickly but quietly put in time officer; "there's nothing against you that I know of.
"No, nor as nobody else knows of," answered the other, recovering himself; "poverty is a great ill-convenience, but it ain't no crime."
"That is true if it is not new," assented the officer, smiling; "however, you seem to be in luck to-night," and as he spoke he glanced significantly at the shilling.
At this moment the refreshments were handed up, and the youth paused to gulp down part of the coffee and devour one of the slices of bread before answering -
"That there shilling was fair and square come by, and it was a bit of luck, and came just in the nick of time. I had been about all day, and hadn't picked up a bronze or a morsel of anything to eat. I had give it up for a [-201-] bad job, and was on my way back to find a 'bunk' for the night, when I sees a cab with luggage a-top, and thinks I'll have a last try here. So I starts on the run after it and followed it a good 'arf mile. When it pulled up I was so dead beat and out o' breath that I was hardly any use with the luggage, and they had to bring a servant out to help. I only expected to get a copper or two, if anything, but the passenger was a lady, and one of the sort - God bless her - as 'as 'arts that can feel for another; she looks at me and sees how broke and starved I was, and she opened her purse and put a shilling in my hand, and did it in a way too as was worth more than the money. So having got the ready, I am going to treat myself to a 'bust' and a bed."
Suiting the action to the word, he drank off the rest of the coffee and disposed of the remaining slice of bread. "Act the first," he exclainmed when he had done so, then, turning to "All Hot," added, "Repeat the dose, governor, and let me have a 'ard-biled egg as well this journey."
While this second helping was being prepared my companion "came to business."
"You sleep in the railway arches sometimes," he said to the young fellow, not questioningly, but as mentioning a fact within his own knowledge.
"Well, yes, a good many more times than I like," answered the other, with a grin.
"Do you know two boys named B----- and S-----?" the officer asked.
"B----- and S-----?" the other repeated slowly, and then, his face brightening. he exclaimed, "Oh, you mean 'Fatty' and his pal?"
[-202-] "I believe one of' the boys was known as 'Fatty,'" I whispered to the officer, who immediately nodded affirmatively to our vagrant friend.
"Wanted, to be sent to a school, ain't they?" the latter went on volubly; "don't know what is good for 'em; only wish I had had the chance when I was their age. They will need corning up when they do get 'em to the school. There ain't much 'fatty' about either of them now, I can tell you; the framework is pretty nigh all that is left of 'em. If some one don't pick 'em up soon it will be a case of send for the coroner. It is doing 'em a good turn to put you on to 'em. They do sleep in the arches, and for choice in the arch that old F------ puts his coke-waggons up in - there are some old sacks there. But of course in that sort of lodgings it's a case of first come first served, and take or keep who can. Some one may have been before 'em, or some one may have kicked 'em out. If they ain't in that arch, though, they'll be in some of the others; the arches is their 'lurk,' you'll find 'em fast enough."
"And if you do lay hold of them," said the coffee-stall keeper, as we were turning away, "bring them along here and I'll give them a feed; from what our friend in luck here says, that will be a ·job that will require doing judgmatically."
As a matter of fact, the boys of whom we were in pursuit had on this particular night been forestalled in the occupancy of their favourite arch. Our search for them was long and painful - exceedingly painful in the sense that the forlorn, man-forsaken creatures whom we disturbed as we went from arch to arch were heartrending [-203-] spectacles to look upon. There is neither space nor need here, however, to dwell upon this point in detail. It is sufficient to say that we found and carried away the boys. Almost literally carried them away, for they were so weak from starvation that they could scarcely walk. Seeing this, we remembered "All Hot's" invitation, and made for his stall.
"Here we are," said the warrant-officer; "here's your chance to give them the feed you promised; they'll make a hole in your larder, I expect; they look in rare trim for eating."
"I don't know so much about that," said the old stall-keeper, eyeing the youngsters critically and pityingly, as he motioned them to a sheltered seat beside his stove. "I only hope they ain't over-trained, as you may say, got past the eating point, you know, as those who have been starved long and slow often enough do, as far as a question of rough feeding goes anyway. They look wolfish to others, and they think themselves that if they could get a chance at food they could eat any quantity and almost anything, but after a mouthful or two they find they can't. Many a well-meaning person does an injustice through not considering this. A child - or for the matter of that, a man or woman - tells them it is starving, and they give it a dish of cold potatoes or the heel of a loaf, and because the child gives in after a bite or two they say, 'Here is imposition for on ; this is the sort of thing that hardens the heart and stays the hand of those who would be charitable.' As a matter of fact it requires as much art to feed a starved child as it does to feed a gormandising man or woman."
[-204-] While he had been "laying down the law" on this point he had taken out of a locker and opened a tin of some concentrated soup.
"We must touch the harp lightly, at first at any rate," he went on, as he poured the soup into a saucepan and placed it on the fire; "a spoonful or two of this will be about the best thing to start with, then a cup of cocoa with a light-boiled egg. If they can manage that, they will do, and you may let 'em loose at a rough filling of bread and butter, and finish off with a bit of cake, for all boys have a sweet tooth. And mind you," he added, turning to the boys and waving the spoon with which he had been stirring the soup, by way of giving emphasis to his speech, "gently does the trick; them as eats slowest will eat the most in the long run, so 'Steady all' is the word, or I shall have to put a stopper on."
As he said so it was done. Under his judicious and watchful handling the young starvelings accomplished quite a champion performance in the way of a meal. When they had eaten until they could eat no more he presented each of them with a great "hunk" of cake to carry away, and with a parting benediction sent them on their road, if not exactly rejoicing, relatively like giants refreshed, warmed, rested, invigorated.
This feeding of the hungry was but a small incident in itself, but it was characteristic of the man. On the strength of this introduction I cultivated the acquaintance of "All Hot," and found it not only pleasant but profitable. His knowledge of the poor, and of their ways and woes and wants, was as extensive as his goodwill towards them was great. It was a knowledge gained of experi-[-205-]ence, the exceptional experience of a keen and kindly observer, who for years had been habitually abroad by night, and had seen more than most other men of the great city's "children of the night," its fallen, or friendless, or homeless outcasts.
Much of the old man's unostentatious good work had been done among this class, but it had been by no means confined to them. For a considerable distance around his nightly "pitch" it was known that the food at his stall was "fresh and fresh" each night. This trade custom upon his part brought its own reward in the shape of a large circle of customers, but it also left him with a considerable remainder of provisions on hand each morning. These he disposed of in characteristic fashion at his home. The food was done up in "penny lots," which were generally spoken of as "All Hot's Prize Packets," for in relation to the quantity and quality of the goods constituting a "lot" the price was a mere nominal one, even when it was paid. In many instances the lots were given without money and without price.
All the old man's customers in this connection were of the honest, struggling, poor class. If they came to him penniless he knew that it was a case of must with them, that their poverty and not their will consented, and none who came to him were allowed to go empty away so long as his supplies held out. And where in such cases there was special sorrow or distress, further help would be promptly forthcoming. In such matters the shrewd old stall-keeper could act for himself with confidence. Years before I came to know him the "besters," the professional charity-hunters, that is, bad given up "trying [-206-] it on" with him. They knew that, as he was wont to put it himself, he could "read them off at sight." But even the "besters" had no ill word for him. They, as well as others, spoke of him in all sincerity as "a real good sort," and they respected the penetration and knowledge of character that had always enabled him to hold his own against their tribe.
Of the good deeds of this humble and little-known helper and worker among the poor there is not room to speak here, nor would he have had them spoken of. He never wearied in well-doing, was ever ready to give of his substance or service according to his means and strength, and had he cared for reward, he had it in that the poor called him blessed. When, well stricken in years, he passed away, the poor of the district in which he had lived and worked mourned his loss with a true and unselfish grief. After their own fashion they sought to do, as best they might, honour to his memory. Hence the semi-public character they gave to his funeral, and their tearfully-spoken epitaph around his grave that he was indeed a friend to the poor.