Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - X - A Bird-Catcher's Autobiography

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MR JONES was as temperate as poor St John was prone to drink. Although the proprietor still showed crustiness at times, I liked to look in at the bird-shop every now and then. There was an honest crispness in Mr Jones's talk that acted on me like a wholesome tonic. 'Much good his fine friends an' learnin' did him, after all,' said Mr Jones one day, when we had been talking of St John's death. 'But he's dead, poor beggar, and only a cowardly sneak would fling mud at a dead man. You may depend upon it that gal's hair he'd got was to blame - but he should have been a man and got over it. That's what I had to do.'
    There was something very piquant in the idea of Mr Jones's having had a 'love affair,' and I wiled him into an autobiography. 'It's the gal, I know, you want to hear about,' he said with a knowing wink. 'But I ain't a-goin' [-89-] to say how I was a fool, without showin' how I come to be one. I'll begin at the beginning, if that's what you're drivin' at.
    'This shop belonged to my uncle-mother's brother - afore I got it. I suppose it was hangin' about here, when I was quite a little un, that first gave me a taste for birds. Uncle didn't mind my comin', though he wouldn't speak to mother. She hadn't pleased him by her marriage - father was a nightman, and, what's worse, he was a drunken scamp. He used to thrash poor mother, and blacken her poor eyes. No, I don't suppose she was a beauty, because folks used to say I was the picture of her, but she was beautiful to me because she was al'ays so fond of me, an' I used to want to grow big enough to hit father back so as to hurt him. Little as I was, I'd pitch into him. sometimes he'd laugh, and say, "Jack's a chip o' the old block ;" an' sometimes he'd fetch me a awful clout, or give me a kick with his great heavy boots that pretty nigh broke my bones. That was accordin' to the mood he was in an' the drink he'd had. When he was very good-tempered, he'd take me to the public with him, an' make me tipsy for a lark. Yes, beer, and gin, too, he used to give me. "Now then, Jack, open your tatur-trap an' have some Jacky," he'd say, an' the other men would laugh when they see me reelin' about. Once there was a man, though, that knocked the glass out of father's hand when he was giving me the gin. "If you're a beast," says the man, "don't make that poor little kid one." He an' father had a fight then, an' the t'other man licked. After that father could never get me into a public - I'd cut away [-90-] like a scalded cat when he wanted to get hold of me. I'd never really liked the burnin' stuff, for it used to make me sick, but you see, I'd thought it game to drink it - as if I was a man like till the chap that said I shouldn't have it gave father a hidin'. I'm thankful to say I've never touched spirits since, an' it ain't often that I take a glass o' beer. Not that there's any harm in that, if people would only take it in moderation, an' could get it genuine, instead of soakin' theirselves wi' gallons o' doctored stuff. When I was seven or eight, as I reckon, poor mother died; an' a week or two after that father ran away. When I got back in the evening to the room we had, "Dad's cut his stick, Jack," the other folks said, "you'd best go to your rich uncle." Sure enough father was oft; and everything in the room he'd taken. There was only the dust left like there is in a holler nut. When I got to the shop here, uncle was puttin' up his shutters. He was very grumpy at first, an' said it wasn't his business to keep other men's kids. But at last he said I might come in for the night, an' he'd see what was to be done about me in the mornin'. However, I stayed on with him after that for two years an' more. He pretty well made me earn my grub an' my clothes, an' neither was first-rate. However, he taught me to read an' to write, an' to cipher a bit, an' ever so many years after he left me his business, because he hadn't nobody else to leave it to; so I won't say anythin' aginst him.'
    'Well, to be honest, Mr Jones, I don't see that you have much reason to.'
    'P'r'aps not, sir, but, as you may suppose, there wasn't [-91-] much love lost between us. He was al'ays snappish with me. So I took to the birds an' things, an' made friends o' them. You can't get on; I fancy, without some- thin' to be fond on. Uncle had a natural history book or two, an' I read 'em on the sly, an' that made me fonder than ever o' the birds, an' o' the country too, though I'd never seen any - not real country, I mean. When the ketchers came to sell their birds to uncle, I al'ays got a talk with them if I could, an' I thought there couldn't be a pleasanter life than theirs was. There was one young feller who didn't go in so much for birds as for the nestes, an he got hedgehogs, an' ferns, an' primrose roots, an such things at odd times. He mostly sold for hisself in the streets, but now an' then he'd bring things to the shops. Well, this young feller said I might come with him for a day, if I could get leave. I knew twas no use askin' leave, so I took it. I undid the back-door, an' climbed over the back-wall, where the young feller was waitin' for me. Grimes Street wasn't built in then as it is now. We'd to start a good bit before the sun was up. The streets were so quiet they seemed quite strange. It made you jump like to hear a church clock strike, an' then we got out on the country roads, an' the sun come up, an' the birds began to sing - the larks was singin' afore he come up - an' there was nothin' but hedges, an' trees, an' fields - I'd never felt half so jolly.'
    'Which way were you going?'
    'We got down somewhere out by Ongar, an' had a snack an' a snooze on a old haystack, an' then we worked across country. We turned up all the quiet little lanes [-92-] that seemed to lead to nowhere, and scrambled through hedges, an' climbed up trees, and cut across medders. I could scarce believe I was the same lad I was the day afore. I felt just as if I'd died, an' woke up in heaven, or fairyland, or somewhere. The country was so fresh and clean, an' the dew-drops was on the spiders' webs, and there was no end o' wild-flowers everywhere. People talk as if Essex wasn't much, but I never saw such a sight o' wild-flowers in any other county I've worked, an' I've worked 'em all round London. Everythin' was so quiet, too, except the birds an' the insects, an' the wind a-rustlin' in the leaves. You could hear a cart a mile off. We got a lot o' nestes - leastways, my pal did, for I wasn't much hand at findin' 'em then. We couldn't take home half we come across. We got a cuckoo's egg, I remember - but we got all kinds o' eggs, of all sorts, an' sizes, an' colours. I was new to the work then, an' they were as good to me as guineas in a purse when I see the smooth, spotted things snugglin' in the moss. We had a bit o' bread an' cheese for dinner in a old churchyard with fields all round, an' the old church seemed made o' nestes. There was ivy all over it that was capital to hold by, an' we got out on the top o' the tower, for the door was ajar, an' so we went in. The pews were all whitewashed, I remember, an' the air inside seemed as if it was dead like. In that old church we got owls' eggs an' martins', an' jays', an jackdaws', an' starlingses'. An' we climbed up the elms in the churchyard, an' got some rooks' eggs. We came so sudden upon a clutch o' pa'tridge-eggs in some young corn that I smashed three [-93-] on 'em. I can remember it just as if it was yesterday. Of course, I was goin' to grab 'em at once, but my mate said, 'See, if there isn't a keeper a-lookin',' an' then he whipped 'em up. Them as I sell 'em to won't ax me how I come by #em,' says he, 'an' you shall go halves.' That made me understand that it was somehow stealin', but I couldn't make out why we hadn't as much right to take them as the t'others, an' I can't make it out yet.'
    'But it was poaching.'
    'I don't care what ye call it - wild birds' eggs is wild birds' eggs. It's diff'rent no doubt with pheasants when a man breeds 'em an' feeds 'em just like fowls, an' they're almost as tame to be shot, but I can't make out how pa'tridges in a field can be any man's property any more than the larks t'other side o' the furrow. I got a fine weltin' from uncle when I got back the day after for leavin' the door unlocked an' him to do everythin', but that didn't keep me from slippin' out agin. The young feller I went with used to give me some o what be got for what we took, and, of course, I had no objection, but it wasn't that that made me go. I liked the free life, an' gettin' to see the birds an' that in their own homes. When I'd seen 'em there, it was twice as nice to read about 'em.'
    'But you couldn't find birds' nests all the year round.'
    'That's a fact I'm fully aware on, sir. Besides birdnestin', I used to go rushin' an' root-gatherin', an' Christmasin', an' ketchin' hedgehogs and squirrels, an' snails an' frogs for the birds an' the Frenchfolk, an' snakes, an [-94-] effets, an' all kinds o' things, with that young feller. Sometimes one o' the birdketchers would take me out with him. At last uncle got tired o' weltin' me, and o' me too. You're no good to me, Jack,' says he, 'an' I don't think you'll ever do any good for yourself. I'd ha' brought you up respectable if you'd ha' let me, though my sister was a fool to marry that blackguard father o' yours, but you wouldn't let me. So now, as you've made up your mind to be a wagabone, I'll have nothin' more to do with you, 'cept to start you with a bird-net, an' buy your birds, when you've any worth buyin', just as I would of any other feller.' He did give me a decent net that he'd bought second-hand, and a real capital call-bird out of his shop, and a stuffed bird or two like them I've got on the twigs there, for decoys, an' a trifle o' tin, and then he called me a ungrateful young scamp because I looked so jolly. I felt set up, you see, an' all the time I was at it I managed to make a livin' out o' the bird-ketchin,' more or less, though sometimes it was a good bit less than more, though that wasn't often.'
    'How do you catch the birds, Mr Jones?'
    'Why, at odd times I'd go out at night with a mate or two an' ketch with a net an' a lantern. You beat the hedges, you see, and then the birds fly at the lantern like moths to a candle, an' you fold the net over 'em. But I used to like nettin' by day best, all by myself. I caught more, an' they was all my own, an' then I wasn't bothered with other people's talk. I'd buy a book from time to time, an' I read a deal in those days, an' had time to think o' what I read, an' the things about me, an' other things, too. Some-[-95-]times I wished I couldn't think - it bothered me, when I might ha' been so jolly else, lyin' on the hot grass, with everythin' so sweet about me. At times though I wouldn't bother myself; but just enjoy myself doin' nothin' except smoke my pipe, whilst I was waitin' for the birds to light. I'd look at the blue sky an' the green trees, as they call 'em, though when you're used to look at trees, lots of 'em ain't green, but all kind o' colours that wouldn't be believed if they was put in a pictur'. Cowper says- 
        "No tree in all the grove but has its charms,
        Though each its hue peculiar;"
an' then agin- 
        "The sycamore, capricious in attire,
        Now green, now tawny, and, ere autumn yet
        Have changed the woods, in scarlet honours bright."'
    'You seem to be fond of Cowper?'
    'Yes, I was very fond o' Cowper in those days - not o' the preachy bits, but the bits about the country. I don't like the preachy bits  -they sound so narrer like for a man as must ha' loved natur' as he did - any journeyman parson could ha' done that kind o' thing as well, it seems to me.'
    'Don't be rude, Mr Jones, and don't run down your favourite poet because you don't like parsons. Cowper helped you to enjoy the country.'
    'Yes, I used to enjoy myself in those days when I didn't bother myself wi' thinkin'. I've read o' somebody that could tell what tree each was by the sound the wind made in the leaves. I can't quite believe that, but it's [-96-] wonderful what a variety there is in the wind - on a summer day, too, when it seems half asleep. An' then there was the corn a-springin', an' the wood-pigeons cooin' as if they was gettin' their little uns off to sleep, an' the cows standin' up to their knees in the ponds, or up to their bellies in the grass that looked coolin'er than the muddy ponds, an' watchin' me through the hedges wi' their great brown eyes, as if they couldn't just make me out, but it wasn't worth botherin' their heads much about such as me. Did you ever notice the way cows look at you, sir - as if you was a bad riddle? There's other things does the same, an' yet we talk about bein' lords o' the creation an' all that. I should like to hear the opinions o' what we call the "inferior animals " about us - it wouldn't be very flatterin', I expect. Why, there was I, couldn't ketch the little birds, without gettin' little birds to help me. It seems mean somehow, don't it, sir? Sometimes I'd turn over an' try to get a half a foot or so of grass off by heart - every blade an' flower an' leaf an' everythin'. You do that, sir, an' then you try another an' see the diff'rences, an' then you remember what lots o' diff'rences there is in one acre o' turf; and what millions o' diff'rences there must be in the world, let alone the stars, an' you won't think much o' your knowledge, however wise you'd fancied yourself afore. You'd feel as if you'd got a knock on the head that had made you stupid like, an' it wasn't much use learnin' anythin' when there's such a lot behind that you can't learn. When I reads in the papers about the "deplorable ignorance of thousands even in this enlightened age," I can't help thinkin' that the paper chaps [-97-] are givin' theirselves airs about precious little. Their knowledge will never get 'em down and worry 'em, I reckon. They've got their books to run to, when they don't know about a thing; but that ain't knowledge, to my thinkin', an' if they'd got in their heads everythin' that was ever writ in a book since the world was, they'd ha' got hold o' a pack o' lies, I guess, an' if it was all true, it 'ud be nothin' to what hadn't been writ about. But it was other kinds o' things that used to bother me, as well as things o' that kind - what I read in the Bible, an' heard now an' then at church, and so on. One Sunday mornin' when I was goin' out ketchin', I come across a man who was givin' tracks to them he met, and puttin' 'em down here an' there wi' stones on 'em.'
    'Wasn't he better employed than you were?'
    'No, sir, I don't believe he was, and so I tell you plainly. I could ketch, but he couldn't. He didn't give any to them as were anyways well-dressed, though they weren't going to church any more than those he did give 'em to. That seemed comical - as if a man would be sure to go to heaven if he'd got a good coat. That kind o' thing ain't good policy. "You are afraid to interfere wi' them as are well off, but you fancy you may lecture me - I mayn't take my liberty because I ain't respectable" - that's how a poor man thinks. I read the track I got when I was lyin' watchin' for the birds. I could hear some church bells ever so far off, an', thinks I, "now I'll have my sermon." I needn't tell you, sir, that I don't believe that we oughtn't to do any work on Sundays because the Jews didn't use to do any work on Saturdays, [-98-] but I do think it would be a good thing if we could get a rest once a week, an' time to think about somethin' besides grub an' money.'
    'And yet you keep your shop open on Sundays.'
    'Yes, I know I keep my shop open a-Sundays, but sometimes I wish I didn't. I don't profess to be more consistent in some things than them that call theirselves Christians. Well, but about this track. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" was at the head of it, and it made out that heaven was like a go-to-meetin' Sunday, and that those who didn't keep Sunday like the go-to-meetin'ers would be damned for a certainty. I'd felt I might ha' been doin' better than ketchin' birds on Sunday, but talk like that wasn't likely to do me any good. "If that's heaven," I said, "I'd rather not go there." Besides, the track made God out to be as savage as a beadle that takes a pleasure in wallopin' naughty boys; an' that seemed downright blasphemy to me - I'd got a better notion o' God than that out o' the quiet fields, I thought, though I had sometimes ketched birds in 'em a-Sundays. I couldn't ha' said "Our Father" agin, if God was such as that. I used to say that for a prayer in those days, and, though I don't say it now, I try to feel it, an' leave Him to provide for me without my dictatin' to Him. So I tore the track up an' sent it flyin', an' the bits scared away as fine a pull o' birds as I ever see. I couldn't help laughin' when I thought how the very folks that would ha' blamed me for bird-ketchin' on Sunday would ha' said that that was a judgment on me for tearin' up the track. I often got into such a tangle in my thinkin' [-99-] that I was downright glad I'd to work for my livin'. I might doubt sometimes whether such as me was much worth keepin' alive, but still I didn't feel inclined to starve, so there was somethin' I couldn't make a question about. "You look to your net, I'd say, when I'd been moonin', "or things will be very taper." '
    'But you seem to have done well?'
    'Yes, I made a very fairish livin'. I sold to uncle, an' to the shops Spitalfields way, an' round about the Dials, an' sometimes I sold on my own account. I got orders, an' trained magpies an' such at home, an' made a very good thing of it. When I grew to be a young man, I'd two decent rooms; one for me, an' one for the birds. I'd begun to get some decent sticks, too, for - now I'm comin' to it - I'd been fool enough to fall in love. There was a very good-lookin' gal - a market-gardener's daughter  - that I'd often seen when I was out Hounslow way. She was a touch above me then, of course, but I licked a tramp that was rude to her, an' so I got to speak to her, an after that she shammed to be very fond of me. She was the kind o' gal that liked to be admired all round. She wouldn't have minded the tramp kissin' her, I do believe, if he hadn't been quite so rough. That's the sex all over, sir - there isn't much to choose between 'em. I found out afterwards that she'd had no end o' sweethearts, but, of course, I didn't know that then. She'd talk to me quite kind when I went down when I'd spruced myself up, an' she led me on to believe that she'd have me after a bit, if I could get ever such a mite of a shop. She was uncommon fond of me, she said, but "bird-ketcher's wife" [-100-] didn't sound respectable. That's the sex all over, too - they may talk about lovin' on ye, but they look precious sharp after bein' respectable an' havin' somethin' to keep it up on, too. It's all bosh the stuff they talk in tales an' poetry about gals breakin' their hearts for poor young men, an' being fonder than ever o' their husbands when they've come to grief. I don't believe a word of it. If a man's gettin' on in the world, an' his wife's got spend-in' money, she'll make a deal of him; but when he ain't gettin' on, won't she nag him! I'm precious glad now I was never married - to be vallied just accordin' to what was outside of me. An' that's woman's love.'
    'Foul calumny, Mr Jones. A sensible man like you ought to be ashamed to talk such rubbish.'
    'Of course, you won't believe it - or you'll sham not to. It's part o' your trade to make out that women are all angels. Anyhow, that ain't my opinion. Men ain't much to boast of; but they ain't half as selfish as women. But I was fool enough to be dreadful cut up when I went down to tell Fanny that I saw my way to a little shop, an' then to hear that she'd married the new butcher. You see, she'd led me on to believe that she was almost as fond of me as I was of her, an' I'd been workin' double tides to get some kind of a home for her, an' I was all alone in the world, 'cept for uncle, an' he didn't count, an' I'd been thinkin' that it would be nice to have some one that was my own, an' that liked to be. However, it was all for the best. The chap she married was better-lookin' than me, I suppose, though that ain't sayin' much; an' he was more [-101-] respectable then, though Fanny would be glad enough to be my wife now, I'll go bail, for they soon made a smash of it. After that disapp'intment I grew fonder than ever o my own company. At first I was out of heart, an' thought I'd let things go with a run. But that seemed silly to me then, an' it seems a deal sillier now. A man must be a poor sort that knocks off work because he can't get a gal to have him - it's just like a babby settin' down to cry because it can't catch a butterfly. An' yet it ain't pleasant to find out that fallin' in love's all a humbug, too - that them you fancied wasn't worth it, an', whether they was worth or not, that you can forget all about 'em after a bit, though you thought you was goin' to love 'em for ever, as you might about a dinner you couldn't get years an years ago. It makes you more an' more inclined to doubt about everythin', an' I didn't want any teachin' o' that sort. However, I took all the more to my books, an the birds, an' the country, after Fanny had jilted me; though it was a goodish bit before I went Hounslow way agin. Where we'd used to meet mostly was at the bottom of her father's garden, where there was cabbages an' such like growin' between the apple-trees. I'd pretty well got over the business by next spring, but when I went down an see the trees in blossom, an' her not waitin' for me under 'em, it all come back upon me for a minute as bad as at first. You wouldn't ha' thought that such a old bear as me could ever ha' felt like that, would you, sir? It makes me laugh to think of it now.'
    'I am only sorry that you did not fall in with a more faith-[-102-]ful sweetheart. You would be happier, and you would certainly speak more politely of women, if you had a good wife of your own now.'
    'Well, as I was sayin', I went back to the bird-ketchin', an' I should ha' been at it now, if uncle hadn't died, an' left me his lease an' his stock. The fust week I was a shopkeeper the change carried me through, but before the second week was out I was downright pinin' for a free life agin. As soon as I'd got the shutters up on the Sunday afternoon, I was off into the country, an' it seemed to say, "Oh, here you are agin, old feller! Where have you been this long while?" I was so pleased to smell the fresh scents agin, that I stayed out till it was time for me to get back to take the shutters down on Monday. And since then, when I could get any one as I could trust to mind the shop, I've often taken the nets an' gone out for a day's ketchin' a-week-days. It was more of a treat, an' yet, after all, it wasn't as nice as it used to be, if you can understand that, sir. I seemed to be only makin' believe to be free, for I couldn't help thinkin' o' the shop every now an' then-it was like a bird flutterin' about with a string tied to its leg. You'd ha' thought that a chap that had led my life would ha' been glad to have a good home to go to; but it wasn't so with me. I used to feel dumpish when I got back. I never felt reg'lar at home here till I got Black Pete. The neighbours didn't take to me, an' I didn't take to them. I lived like a sulky bear in a holler tree, except that the birds an' that wasn't afraid o' me. Poor old Pete! He's the best o' company. He understands all that I wants him to understand, an' he [-103-] does all I wants him to do as if he liked it, an' he never bothers me with any jaw. Sometimes when I want to be quiet, an' the little feller, as is only nateral, don't, I half wish that me an' Pete had the house to ourselves agin. An' yet he's a dear bright little feller, is Fred. Now I've got used to him, I couldn't get on without him. There's another thing, too. Though I don't think much o' women, there was somethin' in that poor young mother o' his, when I see her lyin' dead, that seemed out o' the common - somethin' so pure like in her face, an' as if all her life she'd been thinkin' of others instead of herself; poor young thing. ? It's pleasant to fancy that, after such a life as she had, I can make her a bit happy by takin' care of her boy. I ain't superstitious, an' yet I often feel as if she was in the room a-watchin' of him. I've often felt it when I've gone to have a look at him in his little bed, afore I turn in. It don't scare me a bit - except to make me anxiouser to do right by the little feller. It wouldn't, not if she was to show herself. To have such a ghost as her in the house would be a holy kind o' hauntin'. Not that I believe in ghostes-but then you can't help havin' your fancies; and when they're pleasant, and don't do you no harm, why shouldn't ye?'