Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXV - Imaginative Matthey

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ONE day when I called upon Mr Jones I found him examining a boxful of still semi-torpid tortoises which he had just bought. It looked a queer consignment, and I expressed my doubts as to its proving a profitable speculation.
    'Never fear, sir,' said Mr Jones. 'Have you any idea, sir, o' ow many o' them queer critturs git sold in London every year? I'll be bound you hain't. Well, it's a good bit nigher twenty thousand than ten, and I hain't got more than five dozen. I'll keep a dozen to sell over the counter, and the rest I've got for a friend o' mine as sells 'em in the street. He'll take 'em of me a dozen at a time as he can work 'em off.'
    'Why doesn't he buy them where you do, and so save your profit?'
    'Bless you, sir, I don't screw a profit out of him. Matthey's a friend of mine, and so I try to 'commodate [-295-] him a bit. I buy the things of a Jew in the Minories. He gits em sent him by his brother as lives in Marocky. They don't cost much for carriage nor for keep, becos they're sound asleep, you see, and so they come as ballast. Well, if Matthey was to go to Cohen for a dozen, he'd charge him, say, five bob; but me buyin' alf a gross or so at a time, Cohen 'ill let me 'ave 'em for a trifle less, and then I let Matthey 'ave 'em, as he wants 'em, at cost price.'
    'And how do they sell retail?'
    'Well, for those I sells myself I gits prices accordin' to my customer, and the looks an' liveliness o' the queer critturs. At the best o' times they ain't never overburdened with spirits. The chaps in the streets, I s'pose, gits from a tanner to a bob a-piece - may'ap alf-a-bull for a whopper. There was one chap, I know - anyways he said so - got that for a dead 'un, becos it was a big 'un. He gammoned the party that bought it into believin' that the longer a tortus was in comin' to life agin, the longer it 'ud live, an' the livelier it 'ud be, when it did come to life agin.'
    'I hope that wasn't your friend.'
    'No, that worn't Matthey. He'd be above cheatin' like that. Ketch him sellin' a dead thing for a live un! and yet I never come acrost a chap with sich a imagination.'
    'Why, you see, sir, when he's yarnin', you can't believe more than about 'alf o' what he says, and you're puzzled which 'alf to choose. Still, it's interestin' conversation - like a child's story-book, you understand. There ain't no 'arm in Matthey's make-ups, and he tells 'em so nateral [-296-] that it seems as if there must be truth in 'em some'ow. He goes shell-sellin', too - ever so far into the country, and nice yarns, I'll be bound to say, he spins the yokels about his shells. He's a merry-'earted, amusin' feller, is Matthey.'
    'But, Mr Jones, according to your own account, does not your merry-hearted, amusing friend - tell lies?'
    'Oh, sir, you don't understand me. Matthey don't tell mean lies. When he says he'll do a thing, he does it, and so on. He'll git them tortuses on tick, and the money 'ill be as safe as if it was in my till. But he's as good-natur'd a chap as I know, an' he was born with a imagination, an' so he can't 'elp spinnin' folks yarns, you see.'
    'What does he spin them about?'
    'He'll look up at the clouds, an' see all kind o' things in 'em as I can't - he'd make up a 'ist'ry about the coal-scuttle and the fender and the fire-irons. He can't 'elp it, sir. Matthey's lies ain't like other folks', if you must call em lies. He don't lie to better hisself. He's a deal too soft-'earted for that. He's often let in - leastways he lets hisself be let in - for though he do spin yarns, he can see through 'em sharp enough. But he's soft-'earted.'
    'And so he's taken advantage of, I suppose.'
    'Yes, and he gits laughed at when his back's turned. Folks says that his garret's to let empty, but he's got a precious sight more sense in his 'ead than they'd have if they was to live to be Methusilies. It ain't the 'ead, it's the art that's soft in Matthey. But Matthey ain't a cheat - only when he cheats hisself. He don't gammon his customers to get 'em to buy of him. I'll be bound to say that he often takes less than another man would, but [-297-] it's his good natur' that makes him give the yarns in, you see. The folks that buys of 'im pays no more than if they'd bought from a chap as 'adn't got a imagination, and yet they thinks a deal more of their penn'orth.'
    'But, Mr Jones-'
    'I won't say it's exactly right - still I can't see that it does much 'arm. When a chap advertises a thing that ain't worth a penny as if it was worth a crown, and gits a crown for it, that's cheatin', and no mistake about it. But if a chap don't want to git more than a penny for what other folks sell for a penny, and yet has got the knack of makin' them as buys of him think that it's worth a precious sight more than a crown when they've bought it for a penny - I s'pose that's cheatin' too, but it's a very diff'rent kind o' cheatin' to my thinkin'. He's only took their penny, and yet he's made 'em a present of all their fine fancies. Don't he seem a kind o' vlantrofist?'
    'But, after all, he only makes people happy by making them believe what isn't fact.'
    'Well, sir, and - bar sacred matters that don't depend upon your fancy - ain't a good part of what's called 'appiness made up of fancyin' things diff'rent from what they are? You ain't a bumptious man, sir - quite the contrary - sometimes I wish you would crow and strut a bit; and yet I'll be bound to say that even you fancy your neighbours think a deal more of you than they do, sir. Perhaps, you wouldn't like to hear all that is said about you - no great 'arm, but still not exactly the kind o' thing a man likes to hear said of hisself. I ain't goin' to tell you, sir, what it is, I'll leave you to be 'appy in your fancy o' your-[-298-]self. And Matthey gives people that couldn't make up fancies - I don't mean about theirselves - most on us can do that - but about other things; Matthey gives 'em pretty fancies about the things he sells 'em. I let you keep your pretty opinion, and he gives 'em pretty opinions - that's all the difference, and it ain't much - 'cep' that he's cleverer than me. He makes up pretty fancies, and I've let out what I oughtn't to let out, if I wanted to do what I said.'
    Mr Jones's casuistry, I certainly could not help thinking, had been by no means complimentary to myself. I was foolish enough to be ruffled. Your defence of your merry-hearted, amusing, mendacious friend, Mr Jones,' I remarked, with would-be satirical hauteur, 'simply amounts to this - that if he tells clever positive lies, you try to tell negative lies, but are too clumsy to tell them adroitly. If you told them ever so cleverly, would your doing wrong, Mr Jones, necessarily be a justification of other people's wrong-doing in the same way?'
    'Don't you cut, up rough, sir,' cried astonished Mr Jones, struggling hard to smother a grin. 'I like to see you standing up for yourself a bit, and yet some'ows I don't. I meant no 'arm, and won't say any more about the man - 'cep this, that I don't believe he means no 'arm neither, and that you wouldn't think so neither, sir - not if you knew him.'
    Just then Matthey happened to come in to inquire about his tortoises. I felt a little prejudiced against him, but his genial face soon dispersed the prejudice as the sun scatters the mist that vainly strives to dim it. He was a [-299-] brown, black-haired, sailor-like, middle-aged man, with a set of white teeth that seemed to shed sunlight when he smiled - and that was every other minute.[-294-]
'Here's a gen'leman I've been tellin' about ye, Matthey,' said Mr Jones. 'He's a queer likin' for good-for-nothin', idle fellers like you. There, you go into my parlour, and give an account of yourself and don't give no more scope to your imagination than you can 'elp, Matthey.'
    Matthey grinned back at his friend as he stepped after me into Rus in Urbe, where he gave me willingly enough a full and particular account of his life and adventures. I have no reason to doubt that the substance of it was true, and as to the 'embroidery,' I began to lapse into Mr Jones's latitudinarian and exceptionally charitable mode of viewing it, when I found that Matthey only employed it for the amusement of his hearer or the exaltation of somebody else - never to puff or in any way benefit himself.
    'I don't know what countryman I am, sir,' said Mat they, still smiling; 'a penn'orth of all sorts, as the boys say, I fancy. At any rate, I've been all over the world, and every place has seemed as strange or as little strange as another. Perhaps I feel most at home when I'm at sea. I was born at sea, I've been told, but who my mother or my father was I've no more notion than you can have, sir - except that I guess my mother must have been a Catholic, because this belonged to her.'
    He showed me a common, coarsely-carved little crucifix, and said that he had worn it as long as he could remember.
    [-300-] Are you a Roman Catholic?' I asked. 
    'No, sir, - I'm a penn'orth of all sorts. But I'm not a heathen. I like to say my prayers, but it ain't much odds to me where I say 'em. God's the Father of everybody, I like to think, so orphans have plenty of brothers and sisters, after all, and I like to say my prayers along with my brothers and sisters wherever I find 'em at it.'
    'But how can you have any definite religion if one kind of worship is just the same to you as another?'
    'I didn't say that I had any - what did you call it, sir? - definite religion. I've read a little bit - not much - but enough to know that there's all kinds of religions in the world, and that those who believe in one of them ain't very polite, for the most part, to them who believe in the others. But I haven't head enough to puzzle out who's right and who's wrong in the things they wrangle about, and so I agree with 'em all round where they agree - and that's in worshipping God.'
    'But how do you worship Him?'
    'Why, sir, I thank Him for bringing me into a world that's so full of wonders and goodness. And I ask Him to keep me from doing what's bad. And when I've misbehaved myself I can't be happy till I've asked Him to forgive me, and promised to try hard not to do so again.'
    Professional feeling prompted me to continue to urge that Matthey - who was so outrageously catholic as not even to be a Dissenter - must be in a very unsatisfactory condition. But conscience whispered to me - ' "Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven "-are youu half, or a quarter, as child-[-301-]like in your conceptions of your relation to your Heavenly Father as Matthey is?' That whisper changed the confident sermon I was prepared to utter into the following remark,- 
    'But you have said nothing about Jesus Christ, Matthew?'
    'I've worn him as long as I can remember, sir,' said Matthey, producing his crucifix.
    'Ah, but that is only superstitious reverence, Matthew.'
    'Whatever it is, sir, I can't see the harm of it. This bit o' bone has often made me think about Jesus when it was a comfort to me to have Him to think of; and it's the only kind of evidence like that I ever had a mother. That's another reason why I like it. The woman that brought me up told me that she'd heard say that my mother put it round my neck when she was dyin', and though the good old woman wasn't a Catholic, she always made me wear it as a sort of charm, and so I got used to wear it, and after all it has been a sort o' charm. A thing that makes you think of Jesus and your mother at the same time, in a ship's fo'c's'le or when you're ashore with your wages burning a hole in your pocket, can't be such a bad thing for a young chap, sir.'
    To hear Matthey's talk, however, one might have imagined that he had very rarely come in contact with any one likely to do him harm. The people of almost perfect excellence, of both sexes and all ages, whom he had encountered all over the world, he gratefully commemorated' in a catalogue of almost wearisome length. If I felt somewhat sceptical as to the possibility of any   [-302-] man's having met with so many models of behaviour, however wide his wanderings might have been, I could not doubt, nevertheless, that Matthey must be a sweet-blooded fellow, or he would not have fancied that he had met with them. Our estimate of the objective of all kinds is dyed in the colours of our subjectivity.

'The eye sees all around in gloom or glow,
Hues of its own, fresh borrowed from the heart.'

    The kindness of the old woman just mentioned Matthey was constantly commemorating; but he said nothing of his kindness to her.
    Putting together what he told me, and what Mr Jones had gathered from other sources of his history, I learnt that Matthey had been born on board a vessel bound from Bahia to London; that his mother had died and been buried at sea about three weeks before the vessel was moored in the Import oblong of the West India Docks; that a sailor whose Christian name was Matthew had been very kind to the orphaned child of the poor 'furrin woman,' and that he was washed off the bowsprit whilst stowing the jib as the ship was coming up Channel; that the young wife of this Matthew had come to the docks to look after her husband, and finding herself a childless widow, had taken possession of the seaborn child to whom her husband had been kind, and who had no one else to claim him; that she had given him her husband's name, and brought him up as if he had been her own child; and that in return Matthey had behaved like a son to her, and when she grew too feeble to work,   [-303-] had supported her entirely out of his wages and earnings. A year or two before her death he had given up the sea in order that he might be oftener with her, and taken to the calling he was following when I made his acquaintance; 'and since the poor old lady's been gone,' said Mr Jones, 'Matthey ain't a penny-piece the richer. He's got used to live on a little, he says, whatever he arns. Money ain't no use to him, he says. A precious little I fancy it is he lives on sometimes. He doesn't do badly I've heard from them he buys his shells of, and he's as safe as the Bank to trust. He'll pay every penny he owes first thing, so it's easy for him to git credit now. But if he didn't 'ave to git credit he'd do better, and he might easy do without it, if he didn't give an' lend - same thing where Matthey's concemned - sich a sight away. It's all right that he should have been kind to the old gal as was so kind to him; though from what I can make out, she wasn't quite the angel Matthey makes out, and I'll be bound to say he never cost her much - he's sich a smart, self-reliant chap, for all his imagination, that I'll be bound to say he arned his livin' pretty nigh as soon as he could run alone.'
    'Isn't that a little bit of imagination on your part?' I asked with a smile.
    'Well, p'r'aps tis, sir,' answered Mr Jones, laughing back; 'though you know I ain't given to that kind of thing. It's a queer thing, is a imagination. Matthey's fair puzzles me. He'd 'ave more money if he 'adn't got it, but then I doubt whether he'd be 'alf as 'appy. I know some of the folks that 'as got 'old of him now, an' I   [-304-] can pretty well guess what the t'others is like. A nice lot they are -and a sharp chap like Matthey must see it for hisself when his imagination ain't turned full on. But Matthey won't 'ear a word agin 'em. Bless you, he gets a'most angry when I tries to warn him like. "What's the good of your trying to spoil my notions of folk?" he says. "I ain't goin' to let 'em be spoilt. Where's the good of it? Who'd be the better for it?" he says; an' I'm 'alf inclined to think Matthey's right. Any'ow he's al'ays so cheery that I orfen wish I could borrer his eyes, or his way o' lookin' at things, or whatever it is. But it's too late in life for me to begin to grow a imagination. I expect it's a thing, too, that can't exactly be growed - it must spring up in ye nateral like at the beginning like the primroses.'
    'It's never too late to begin to cultivate one part of Matthey's "imagination " - the charity that suffereth long and is kind, and thinketh no evil.'
    'That's true sir, and I try 'ard to do my best that way - though bad's the best, I'll own, for I'm a cross-grained old hunks, I know. But still, if you'll excuse me, sir, I don't think you're speakin' quite to your text. When you can't 'elp seein' that a feller's a rogue, where's the charity to him or anybody else in makin' believe that you don't? If somebody don't call him by his right name, he may cheat hisself at last in a diff'rent way to Matthey's, who's as modest a man as I know, and git to fancy that he's a honest man, or else that everybody is rogues, and so it don't matter. You may look over the wrong he's done you - though that's 'ard, an' I can't feel some'ow   [-305-] that it's quite right so far as him and you are concerned, when you've done nothing to provoke it from him - but if you let him off when he hurts you, ain't you encouragin' him to go on hurtin' other people - and is that charity, I ask you again, sir, either to him or the t'others? But there, we're gittin' into a argeyment, and that's what you and me don't like to 'ave together, do we, sir?'
    Mr Jones's face reflected the smile with which I greeted this reminder of old times.
    'I know what you mean, sir,' he said. You think I like to 'ave it all my own way - but I ain't so bad as that now, thank God. I should be in a poor way, if I was - I know that every day of my life. You leave me to think it out. I was talkin' about imagination, an' Matthey's seems to make him see everything and everybody through stained glass like. As I said before, that's a puzzle to me. Mayhap he wouldn't like the things 'alf so well if he saw them as they is, as they seems to folks that 'asn't got a imagination; but that puzzles me agin. He believes in what he sees as much as me in what I sees - and he ain't a fool. Who's to decide what's what? Imagination seems a nice kind o' thing to 'ave, if you want to be cosy, but who's right - the chaps as 'ave a imagination, or the chaps as asn't?'
    'The Noes would have it - if you could put it to the vote, Mr Jones. But I don't think they would be right, though I don't profess to have more of an "imagination" than you do. People of "imagination," as you call them, I think, don't see through stained glass, but through lenses. They don't see what isn't in the things they look   [-306-] at, but more of what is in them than people who have no imagination do; and then fortunately they can't keep in what they see, but somehow are forced to tell other people what they've seen, and have the knack of making other people like you and me see partly as they see. I dare say they have a little bit of conceited pleasure in being able to see what other people can't, and yet being able to make the others see it, after a fashion, when they have seen it; but I don't think that counts for much with them. They talk, and paint, and write, and sing, just because they must, and feel grateful to God because they must; and you and I and thousands of other people who have eyes to see and ears to hear, though we mayn't have much of an "imagination," ought to be very grateful to those who have, and more especially grateful to the God who has given it to them, and so given it at fresh secondhand to us.'
    'Seems to me, sir, that you've got some kind of a imagination yourself;' was Mr Jones's not altogether complimentary comment on my outburst of aesthetical commonplaces. Having been prepared for Matthey's 'imagination,' I was not astonished to find his account of the voyages he had made and the places he had visited very different from the bald chronicles of their adventures one generally gets from sailors. A dry geographical primer is more interesting, contains more local colour, than most sailors' accounts of 'foreign parts.' Matthey, on the other hand, had discovered wonders everywhere. Perhaps he had invented some of the marvels he related; but if so, his good faith in relating them was plainly un-[-307-]impeachable. If he had not seen the things of which he told, he had fancied that he did see them at the time, or come to fancy afterwards that he had seen them. Of course, he had seen the sea-serpent. 'We were coming from Australia round the Horn, and the sun - such a sun as you get in winter in those latitudes - and the moon and the stars were all in the sky at the same time. The sun soon went down, and the moon came out pretty brightish, and there on the weather-bow I saw the serpent as plain as I see you, sir, wriggling along towards us. As near as I could guess, it was about ninety fathom long - a dark, slimy thing, with a great spot o' light here and there all about it, as if it had got eyes on its back and its belly from head to tail. But if they were eyes, it didn't make much use of them. Every time its head came up above a wave - it was shaggy just like a lion's - it moved about this side and that, as you've seen a caterpillar do, and then down on the ship it steered again. I was terribly scared; for if the sea-serpent once gets hold of a ship, it climbs up the mast, crunching all the spars, and then down it drags you. But after all the serpent missed its distance, and went by a cable length astern of us. I could see it wriggling in a rage, and trying to "bout ship" and come after us; but there was too much of a sea on to let it.'
    I ventured to inquire whether the so-called serpent might not possibly have been a huge mass of floating seaweed.
    'Sea-weed, sir!' answered Matthey. 'I ought to know sea-weed - been at sea all my life almost. No, sir: that [-308-] was a sea-serpent, and very serious, I can assure you, I felt till I'd watched it out of sight rising and falling in the moonlight, as it slanted off s'uth'ards on that cold, lonely sea.'
    If all Matthey's fancies had been of this fashion, Mr Jones would have had small reason for thinking 'a imagination' a cosy thing to possess; but Matthey had seen far pleasanter visions, and dreamt far more agreeable dreams. Shells were his favourite subjects. He made up all kinds of quaint individual biographies about their vanished owners. From a boy he had been a collector of shells, selling them to the dealers' buyers who board homeward-bound vessels.
    'When a shell's a curiosity, they can get pounds and pounds for it, though it mayn't be as big as a bean, and so they keep a sharp look-out. Off Deal sometimes their men will come aboard, and they send men out all over the world after shells. The common sorts they buy by the hundred weight. There's a good market at home, and foreigners come over to England to buy, and then go back and hawk them just as I do. A shell's always a beauty. When it was let, it brightened up the sea; and when it's empty, it's bought for fancy work, or to put on the mantel-piece, or on your door-steps, or a window- ledge, or in a grotto, or a rockery, or round your garden, and so on. When I see those conchs in the gardens out round by London, half choked with dust when a bitter east wind is blowing, I can't help pitying them. It's a queer change from the places I've seen them lying in abroad. And yet I like to see a shell in a house or a   [-309-] garden. It's like getting a whiff of the sea. Country people are very fond of shells. I mostly buy the common sorts that I can sell for a penny each, and work down, say as far as Devizes, in and out among the villages, and so on, both sides of the road. Some of the folks that buy of me you might think hadn't a penny to spare in the world; but they'll buy a shell or two, and put them up to their ears - the old men as pleased as the youngsters - to hear the sea moaning inside. That's a strange sound to hear where nobody but yourself has ever seen the sea, and the people and the cattle and the crops and everything seem nodding off to sleep. But the country people brighten up when I tell them where I've been, and What I've seen, and all I know about the shells, and so on. Often they'll make me stop and have a bit of something to eat and drink.'
    'Do you tell them about the sea-serpent, Matthew?'
    'Yes, sir,' he answered, with a smile; 'and they believe me. Living in the open air, I fancy, gives a man more faith. Country folks and sailors, I've noticed, are readier to believe in God's wonders than town's folk are. The smoke and the brick seem to choke and cramp their belief in anything they haven't seen for themselves.'