Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - IV - Mr. Jones

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NO doctor had attended the poor creature. At the inquest the coroner severely censured the landlady for not sending for one.
    'Sich is the hingratitude o' human natur, sir,' remarked the woman, indignantly, when we met outside; an' me as give the young person a cup o' tea the last Saturday as ever was. I 'on't grudge it 'er, though, pore dear. Arter all, she did die as pleasant as a party could, consid'rin' the succumstinces.'
    There is something so awful in the thought of a human being 'starved to death' in the midst of millions of fellow creatures in the richest city in the world, that juries shrink from returning that literal verdict. In this case there was the usual periphrasis about some itis or other, 'accelerated by insufficient nourishment.' There could be small doubt, however, that the poor young thing had been literally starved to death on that bright day when even the dingy [-27-] street-markets looked like overflowing horns of plenty, as the golden sunlight fell on their stalls high-heaped with summer produce. Little else was elicited in reference to her at the inquest. That her name was Emily Smithers, that she appeared to have 'known better days,' and to have been deserted by her husband, and that for three or four years she had 'supported' herself and her little Fred by sempstress-work, shoe-binding, and the other precarious shifts to which women 'brought up to nothing' have to resort when they find themselves friendless and moneyless in London, and have discovered that their poor, mediocre little playing, singing, painting, &c., which once secured them so many compliments, are absolutely worthless as bread winners. That was what the non-medical evidence came to.
    Little Fred would have fallen to the care of the parish, had not one of the jurors put in a claim for him. This was an old man of the name of Jones, dusty and dried up as a withered walnut. His face was thatched with a yellowish red wig, whose eaves came down almost to his eyebrows. He was the only juryman of whom I knew anything; and what I knew had not prepossessed me in his favour. He sold birds, &c., and I had bought my hedgehog of him, and had had to pay, as I thought, a very exorbitant price for it. The questions be asked and the remarks he made at the inquest, moreover, had increased my prejudice against him. I thought him a hard, grasping little man, with about as much milk of human kindness in him as the wrinkled walnut he so much resembled had juice. To Mr Jones, however, the parish [-28-] authorities willingly gave up little Fred, then between four and five. But this willingness did not reassure me. Of course, they were glad to ease the rates anyhow, I reasoned.
    I determined to make inquiries about this Mr Jones. When I made them of Mrs Wilson, she answered:-
    'The bird-shop man in Grimes Street, sir, do you mean, where you bought that nasty thing that's al'ays gettin' into the children's beds, if you'll hexcuse me, sir? He ain't a sociable kind o' man, but his bark's a deal wuss than his bite, I've heard say. He's 'ard at a bargain; but, law, if you're soft enough to give people what they hask, what's to become on yer in London? But Mr Jones ain't a bad man, sir. He's done a many kind things to my knowledge; an' if he's took the little boy, he'll hact fair by 'im; an' it ain't a bad thing for the little chap, for Jones as got money in the bank, though he do hook sich an old guy. I wonder 'is birds ain't afeard on 'im; ain't he like a scarecrow? But we mustn't go by folkses' looks, as you were a-sayin' last Sunday, sir, but judge righteous judgment; an' I think Jones ain't a bad man, though nobody can say he is a beauty, an' he is al'ays a-runnin' on agin women. That's because he couldn't git any one to 'ave 'im, I expect. Any'ow, he hain't got chick nor child 'cept them he's got in his shop. If he takes to the little boy, he'll do well by 'im, you may depend on that, sir.'
    A day or two after this conversation I turned into Grimes Street to see how little Fred was getting on. I found him, dressed in a neat though coarse tunic of black [-29-] stuff, sitting in a great cage outside the shop, and playing happily with two little black-and-tan spaniels that were the other occupants of the barred cage or kennel. Besides the dogs, a couple of dirty, depressed swans in a packing-case, were exposed for sale outside, a coop or two of poultry, some white and grey and purple and cinnamon-coloured pigeons, a blackbird in a wicker-cage, a hutchful of white and sandy rabbits, and a bowl of gold and silver fish, whose flashing sides contrasted queerly with the dull brass trellis-work that covered the globe's mouth. A chained cockatoo moped on its perch in the doorway, putting up its sulphur-hued, serrated crest angrily when I went by. The shop-windows and the shop-walls were lined with little cages in which larks, linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, bullfinches, greenfinches, thrushes, canaries, redpoles, and blackcaps were singing, twittering, and springing and dropping from perch to perch. On the counter there was a trayful of still, semi-torpid tortoises; above the parlour-door a squirrel on the treadmill; and here and there a cage of rats or pink-eyed ferrets; a parrot or two, three or four starlings, a magpie, whose once glossy black and white were as rusty as a ship's paint after a long voyage; half-a-dozen guinea-pigs, a fox, a brace of dozing old owls and four young owls huddling together, and looking sleepier and sulkier even than their elders, were other members of the menagerie more empty cages and bundles of wool and artificial moss drooped from the ceiling; and Mr Jones was mixing German paste in his shirt-sleeves.
    'Servant, sir.
    [-30-]  "Will you walk into my parlour?"
                    Said the spider to the fly.
                The the prettiest little parlour
                    That ever you did spy,'"
was his eccentric greeting, as he motioned me into a little room behind the shop, almost choked with ferns and flowers and birds and beasts, living and stuffed.
    In a cramped little backyard, on which the window gave, there were more birds and beasts; three or four sluttish ducks, that were clipping their bills into a shallow dish of water in the middle of the yard, looking especially melancholy prisoners.
    'You was at the inquest, I remember,' he went on, when we had seated ourselves. 'Come to look after the boy, I suppose? He'll do, poor little chap - he's jolly enough now - p'r'aps you saw him as you come by. I thought he'd cry his eyes out, though, at the funeral. I got him rigged somehow, and took him. Though what rubbish that black is, sir, if what you preach is true.'
    'I am very glad to hear you come to church.' 
    'I don't come to church, sir, and I'm not ashamed to tell you so; but I expect I know more about those kind of things than a good many of them as do go to church. If you think your friends has gone to glory, why should you go on as if God had robbed you ? And if you don't think your friends has gone to glory, what's the good of makin' yourself more dumpish than ever with those gloomy things, and pulling down your blinds, and that? Not but what three parts of it is all humbug. People are proud of their new black togs, and nicely they run [-31-] into debt to get 'em. More fools they - widows and such - when they want every penny they can scrape together to keep 'em. They're half afraid that the neighbours should think they weren't fond o' their dear departed. It diverts their thoughts, though, all that funeral fuss - and it keeps the undertakers goin' ; so p'r'aps there's some good in it. Anyhow, I must be fool enough to put  a band on my hat and buy a black suit ready-made to go to that poor young thing's buryin'. I got some black togs run up for the kid, too - what he's got on is only for him to knock about in. I don't think much o' women as a rule, but it was cuttin' somehow to see that poor young creature round the corner, when we went to view the body ; and to hear that poor little feller a-tellin' his little story. How the poor little chap did blubber - for  all he's gammocking now. I thought I should ha' blubbered too. I don't like big lads - they're almost as bad as women; but I do like little kids. When I was puttin' that there little Fred in along wi' the dogs to please him, I had a comical thought. He looked so pretty, I wondered the angels - if there is angels - didn't ketch little boys an' gals an' keep 'em as we keep goldfinches.'
    'But what do you think of doing with the boy?'
    'Oh, I haven't bothered my head about that yet. I'll send him to school by-and-by, but just now I let him amuse hisself, and he amuses me, for it was lonesome sometimes not to have a soul to speak to when the shop was shut except the birds and things and my old Black Pete, and he's deaf and dumb.'
    'Black Pete who is he?'
    [-32-]  'He's my man of all work, sir - an old bachelor like myself - and we get on together famous. I wouldn't have a woman in the house, not if you paid me, much less pay 'em wages. I never buy a talkin' parrot if I can help it - they're so much like women, for ever pratin' about what they don't understand, an' then puttin' their heads a-one side as if they was thinkin' "ain't it wonderful such a handsome thing as me can talk so sensible?" Pete and Fred have taken to each other (but Fred likes me best), and we shall manage famous now - ain't this a pretty place, sir?'
    'I certainly didn't expect to find such a place here.'
    'It don't seem like London, do it, with the flowers a-blowin' an' the birds a-singin' ? I was al'ays fond o' the country - I used to go out bird-ketchin' afore I got this shop, and every Sunday afternoon, when I've put up the shutters, I go out for a tramp somewheres.'
    'You do keep open in the morning, then?'
    'Yes, because then's when I get most customers.'
    'But you'll let the boy go to church? I am sure his mother would wish it.'
    'All right, sir, and to Sunday-school, too, in the mornin', since, p'r'aps, as you say, his poor mother would ha' wished it; but I can't have him stived up on the hot afternoons. That seems to me to be a queer way to try to make youngsters like religion - settin' 'em tasks on the day o' rest, an' keepin' 'em frizzlin' in a chokin' schoolroom like sassengers in a fryin'-pan. Though I make my livin' by birds, I don't like to see the little beggars - them as has known what liberty is - cooped up on such a day [-33-] as this. If I could afford it, I'd let 'em all out - 'cept the foreign birds, and the canaries, and the mules, and the t'others I've bred.'
    'By all means let the little fellow have as much fresh air as you can give him, but you must remember that his heart and his mind want fresh air as well as his lungs. He is a solemn charge - all the more, rather than the less, because you have taken it on yourself. You mustn't neglect him, Mr Jones.'
    'You needn't be afraid that I shall corrupt the boy's morals, sir. I don't drink, and I don't swear, and if my notions about some things ain't like yours, I shan't talk about 'em to the boy till he's old enough to judge for hisself. You teach him what you like on Sunday mornin's, and I'll take him for a country walk the rest o' the day, and tell him what I know about what he sees. That can't do no hurt. If the same God made the world and the Bible, one on 'em can't make you think less o' the other, to my thinkin'. I do believe that God made a good bit o' the world, but I seem to myself, when I think about it, to be a queer bit o' work to be turned out by Him as made the stars. But there's worse puzzles in the Bible. You read the Sermon on the Mount, and then you read one o' them cursin' Psalms. I've read that them as wrote the Bible was only God's pens. So I could understand that there should be a difference in the writin' - a quill pen don't write like a steel pen-but the meanin' ought to be more alike, to my thinkin'.'
    'But, Mr Jones, let me —"
    'No, sir, we won't get into a argeyment, if you please. [-34-] There's no good in argeyment - it gets your blood up like boxin'. All that you want to do is to floor the t'other feller, an' in argeyment there's nothin' to keep you from hittin' below the belt, an' kickin' him when he's down. I look about me, and I read, and I think, and p'r'aps I shall find out the rights o' things some day; p'r'aps I shan't; p'r'aps there is no rights o' things, and one man s notion is as good as another's, because none on 'em is any good - just his fancy. Anyhow, argeyment never did me any good. A man don't like to have to knock under. Why, even when I've been readin' a book, that can't crow over you, and I've come across somethin' that didn't suit my notions, and yet, just at the time, I couldn't think how I'd answer what it said, if it was a man talkin' to me, I've sent the book flyin'. You've got your ways o' thinkin, sir, and I've got mine; and we'll keep 'em, till we can get better. Argeyment won't do no good. We should be just where we was before, and worse friends, perhaps. It ain't often I let out what I think. Most of the people I've to do with don't think any more about such things than them parrots, and such as fancy they do know some thin' would scream and answer like them parrots. I don't say you are such as that, sir, but I know all you've got to say, and that you must say it because you're a parson, just as you'd have to cry, "Dust, hoy!" if you was a dustman.'
    'That's rather hard, Mr Jones; but, as a means of getting to understand each other better, I will let you have your say to-day.'
    'Why, ain't it fair that I should say what I've got to say, [-35-] without hearin' what you've got to answer? It's what you parsons do every Sunday, and now, perhaps, you can understand a bit how savage that makes them as thinks for theirselves. No, sir, as I said afore, we'll have no argeyment. I never asked you to make my acquaintance, but if you like to come here now and then to look after the boy, you're welcome; and if you please to have a chat with me, you're welcome; but what's the good o' argeyment? It's only confusin' to the faculties. Now, sir, sometimes when I'm smokin' in here, all by myself, without any one to throw me off the track with their but-thises an' but-thats, it's surprisin' how clear I seem to see things. If you'd like to make up your sermons here now and then, you're welcome. I can lend you a Bible and a Prayer-book, too. Though I don't believe all that's in 'em, I'm very fond o' readin' both. If you're countrybred, the flowers and the birds will cheer you up a bit when your stomach's turned by what you'll see, and hear, and smell in the holes you'll have to go into, if you try to do your duty.'