Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - V - Rus in Urbe

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V.

RUS IN URBE.

IN spite of the fragrance of Mr Jones's flowers, the foetor of his ferrets, &c., was too powerful to permit his 'Russian Herby,' as he called it, to be considered, by persons  possessed of normal noses, a very enjoyable retirement and, since bursts of song were very rare amongst his birds, the chirping, clucking, cackling, croaking, snarling, growling that were the dominant tones of his menagerie made the notion of sermon-writing in his back parlour a very funnily 'fond imagination.' Nevertheless, I often found my way thither. I was interested in little Fred at starting, and I became interested in Black Pete, the deaf and dumb man Friday whom the East End Robinson Crusoe had saved from starvation and broken into his uses. I became still more interested in the Crusoe. Being invariably stopped whenever I attempted a defence of the 'way of thinking' which he rather flouted with sly digs [-37-] and back-hand blows than directly assaulted, I desisted from all attempts to get up an 'argeyment,' and soon found that I had all the better chance of occasionally bringing in my modes of thought without contradiction, in a similar parenthetical manner.
    Mr Jones's dislike of an argument is not uncommon, I have found, amongst those who hold analogous views; but I have learned not to attribute it, as I am afraid a good many of us do, to conscious insincerity of professed belief.
    Amongst his neighbours, Mr Jones - originally, perhaps, of not the blandest of tempers - had hardened into what I found him. He was not uniformly gracious when I called. Sometimes I was not allowed to enter the 'Russian Herby,' but when I did find admittance there, he was courteous enough. To little Fred and Black Pete, so far as I could see and hear, he was always kind; and so he was to his live stock. Of some of his birds and beasts he made such pets that, keen after money though he was, he could be barely civil to customers who took a fancy to them. Others he would not have parted with on any consideration. These he called his lords, because they were raised to the upper house - another name he gave his parlour; those left in the shop being his commons. It was a curious sight to come upon the whole queer Happy Family (for Black Pete took his meals with his master) taking their tea together in the grove of ferns, fuchsias, geraniums, stocks, mignonettes, musks, balsams, creeping Jennys, and spider-plants, with here and there a tall arum hanging its glossy flag over the [-38-] jungle like a banana, and lighting up the green gloom with its alabaster lamp-like blossom. The old man generally read at tea-time; and, whilst he read, two or three tame canaries would flutter about amongst the plants, and then perch themselves on his head or his shoulders, sway on his paper, alight on his book, and crane over, looking as wise as if they could read print upside down, clatter about on the tea-tray, and peck at his knuckles and the sugar-basin, hiding behind it like children playing at 'whoop' when he chanced to look up. Meanwhile a tame rat sat at his foot, drumming or nibbling at the boot to attract his attention, and then squatting on its haunches to beg. The old man's human protégés, the golden-haired, fair- skinned little-boy, and the grizzly-woolled negro, were not so familiar with their patron, but they were equally fond of him.
    Black Pete had been for years with his master, and yet he still looked at him with eyes that caressed him like a dog's. This poor fellow, Mr Jones had found wandering in the East India Road, hungry and almost naked, followed by a crowd of boys who were teasing him with the cruel gusto which I am afraid not poor boys alone are apt to feel when they have got hold of any creature larger than themselves that they can torment with perfect impunity. The bird-seller took the negro home, and he had lived with him ever since. Black Pete, as his master named him, had never been taught to 'talk on his fingers,' and from the signs he made, it was only possible to guess at his previous history. By means of signs, however, he and his master were soon able to communicate sufficiently [-39-] for their needs, and the negro became a very handy help to his benefactor. Mr Jones did not for a moment profess to have been actuated solely by philanthropy in housing the black, and I credited him with all the more benevolence because he made no fuss about it. The bird-seller to the last did not give up the hope of teaching Pete to speak articulately. He had taught starlings to talk, he said, and it was hard if he could not teach a man.
    At odd leisure times he and Pete used to make mouths at each other with a patient persistency that was comicopathetic, but though Pete did his best to imitate the twitchings of his teacher's lips, no sound came from his, and he moved about almost the only silent member of that noisy household.
    He never cared to go far beyond the threshold of the shop, on his own account, owing to his dread of the street-boys; but he would venture out to take little Fred for a walk, and sometimes carry him for miles. Within doors he let Fred do as he liked with him, grinning at all the child's little tyrannies as if they had been most condescending favours. If Fred had been a princeling, instead of an orphan fed by charity, he could not have had a more obsequious attendant. The tall, black, dumb man trotted after the little fellow like a huge Newfoundland dog, as he made the rounds - delighted as if he had been in a fairy palace - of the shop, the parlour, the kitchen, the cellar, the yard, the bed-rooms, the dark loft where the pigeons were bred, and the grimy roof with the black 'dormer' on it, and the smoky scarlet runners 'growing' in cracked, oblong, wooden boxes in the roof-gutter: every [-40-] part of the house made more or less delicious to a child's taste by the presence of animals of some kind.
    When Fred was taken ill, Black Pete for once turned mutinous. He could be got to do nothing, night or day, but wait on and watch over his little pet. He would not leave the child's bedside, except to get something he saw, or was made to believe, that the child wanted.
    When the boy recovered sufficiently to come downstairs again, Pete still kept close to him, until he was quite well. He nursed him on his knee, he walked about with him in his arms, he brought him shells off the mantel-shelf, he hoisted him on his shoulder that he might be able to look into the cages at which he pointed, and into the eyes of 'Spring' - the first of a set of old-fashioned engravings, 'The Four Seasons,' which adorned the walls of Russian Herby. Spring had a hooped petticoat and a tiny straw hat, but there was something about the mouth which was a little like poor Emily Smithers, and so, perhaps, poor little Fred liked to look at it because it dimly reminded him of his dead mother. But Pete probably only thought that Fred was very fond of pictures of beautiful ladies. He slipped out mysteriously one evening. He slipped back as mysteriously, and busied himself in the kitchen for an hour or two. He was pasting into a rough album he had made of folded and cut newspaper a large assortment of glaringly coloured prints of female theatrical characters and a few faded engravings of female faces which, by dint of much pointing and the expenditure of all his pocket money, he had procured, as Mr Jones heard afterwards, at a shop about [-41-] a mile off. That was a long way for Pete to venture by himself, but his wish to gratify Fred made the poor dumb negro brave. He was rewarded for his trouble and his risk. I chanced to look into the back parlour next day a few minutes after the album had been produced. Fred sat upon Pete's knee as the black turned over the leaves, and it was hard to say which had the happier face. Curiously enough, the first engraving which Pete had pasted in was one of the virgin mother nursing the infant Jesus.
    When Fred quite recovered, he still made so much of Black Pete, that Mr Jones grew rather jealous. Both of his protégés, he thought, had deposed him from the first place in their hearts.
    'Kids are queer 'uns, ain't they, sir?' he said to me one day. 'You'd ha' thought, from the way the little chap took on when his mother died, that he'd never ha' got over it, but cut away to the churchyard after her with the tears on his cheeks. I'm a grumpy old fellow, I know; but I can understand feelings, if I can't feel 'em. That's a beautiful bit in the Bible about Jacob - "But he refused to be comforted, an' he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mournin'." That sounds nateral. I can fancy that when them you're really fond of is gone, you feel angry that anybody should think you'll ever stop cryin'. But, you see, he got over it - an' that's nateral too. But there Fred was, as if he'd melt like salt when his poor ma died, an' then he took up with the span'els, an' was quite content, an' then he took up wi' me, an' now he's took up wi' Black Pete, an' none of us can [-42-] be a bit like what that poor young mother of his was. I don't say it ain't rightly ordered that things should be so; but still it do seem hard, even to a old bear like me, that folks should be so soon forgotten by them as they cared most for.'