Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXVI - Dan the Dredger

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XXVI.

DAN THE DREDGER.

HOWEVER correct Mr Jones's opinion may have been of a good many of the people who availed themselves of Matthey's kindness, it was certainly wrong in reference to Matthey's landlord, Dredger Dan. Dan was in want of help sometimes, and then did not disdain to accept it from his good-natured lodger but Dan was an independent little fellow in his way, and made a point of paying back any help he got as soon and as fully as he could. A very worthy little man was Dan, hard-working, temperate, honest except in a point or two in which his moral sense had been warped by the traditions of his calling; God-fearing and God-loving, too, in a genuine, although not always a very enlightened manner. A short, brown, shrivelled, silent little man, in antique, many-patched garments, making little fuss about his duty to his neighbour, but trying hard to do it, according to his lights, as well as earn [-311-] a living for himself; that is the best general description I can give of Dan. His employment was of a kind that might have been supposed full of startling incidents, and in the course of my talks with him I found that he had had adventures, but I was obliged to pull the incidents out of him, one after another, by main force, as it were. A long life of which the greater part had been spent in solitary toil - by night as well as day - a kind of toil which encouraged reticence, and in meditations on weather, tides, eddies, dead water, and holes and chinks in the river's bottom, had not qualified Dan to shine in conversation.
    Of course, it was Matthey who introduced me to his landlord. Matthey had a very neat, snug little room in Dan's not very neat, snug little house. Dan's old wife had a small brood of orphan grandchildren to look after - the children of their eldest son. All their children were dead, and they had no one else to help them in looking after these youngsters. Nobody, but Matthey, that is, who would often lend the old woman a sailor's handy hand, when he happened to be at home - would help her in cooking, washing, carpentering, clothes-mending, nursing. Matthey could manage the children far better than poor old Mrs Dan. She tried to do her duty by them, but she was too old to have the charge of a swarm of noisy children. Almost the only luxury in which she indulged was a short afternoon nap, and even this she could not enjoy unmolested. The poor old body never had a smile or a kind word for the children, and attended to their wants in a feebly-hustling, querulous [-312-] fashion that won her neither love nor respect. They gave both willingly enough to cheery Matthey, who told them such capital stories, kept them in sweeties, did all kinds of things for them, and yet maintained discipline too. To be allowed to cluster in his little room, and hear his tales, was their greatest treat. Matthey would sometimes collect them there, when he would very well have liked to have his room to himself, simply that the poor old grandmother might get a little peace. At other times he would invite the old woman up to have a good cup of tea with him in cleanliness and quiet.
    The old woman liked the neatness and tranquillity of Matthey's room, and yet she would make them a ground of grumbling against her lodger-host. 'Ah, Matthey,' she would say, 'it's easy to see that you ain't a married man - you carries your family under your hat. Or if you are a father, you've desarted your own flesh and blood, and I don't like to think you'd be so unnateral. Look at me. There's you, a great strong man, without chick or child to plague ye, and a poor old woman like me must have the life worried out of her by all them kids. And they ain't my flesh and blood neither - not regular - if you come to that. Their father was my son, poor boy, a deal finer chap than any o' them will ever be. But, I never said his wife was my daughter. I never give my consent to it. We'd words about it, me and my young Dan had. And there, as if that worn't enough-to take my boy from me-that poor stuck-up, washed-out wife of his must go and have no end of children jest as if she was as strong as a horse. And then when poor Dan  [-313-] died, she must go and die too, to git rid of the trouble of 'em, and leave 'em all for me and my old man to look after. God knows we've often had trouble enough to keep ourselves, and now when we're gittin' old and things is at the hardest, we must have that stuck-up thing's brats poked on us. If they weren't Dan's too, they should walk pretty quick. But I ain't like some folks - I can't deny my own flesh and blood, and spend all on myself. Jest see how nice you've got things about you, Matthey, and then look at the muddle my place is al'ays in.'
    In spite of the assistance which good-natured Matthey gave her now and then, Mrs Dan's part of the house certainly did present a very striking contrast to her lodger's. He had been in the navy as well as the merchant service, and so, in addition to the handiness which almost all sailors have, he had the smart, brisk, cleanly tidiness which is generally the distinguishing characteristic of the man-of-war's man. Add to his sailor's handiness and neatness his natural love of beauty, and it may be supposed that he had made a very cosy cabin for himself. He had caulked the deck, as he phrased it  - i.e. filled up the cracks and gaping seams in and between the floor-planks and the holes where knots' had tumbled out - and kept his deck so assiduously 'holystoned' that the once black, uneven, pitted, and wrinkled boards were almost as smooth as a plate, and if they had not been brought back to whiteness, at any rate they were lighter than the yellow soap which had assisted the holystone in their purification. Rows of milk-white lockers of Matthey's own construction ran round the walls, which  [-314-] Matthey, again, had papered with a pretty pattern, and dotted with prints that had taken his fancy, and for which he had made the frames. His little window-seat was full of pretty flowers. From his well-whitened ceiling hung a cage tenanted by a merrily carolling mule between the goldfinch and canary. At night-time a hammock hung from it also, tenanted by the peacefully snoring Matthey; but by day it was deposited, neatly packed and corded, in 'hammock-nettings' of home manufacture fastened just below the window-seat. Over the mantel-shelf was Matthey's shaving-glass framed in triple rows of small white cowries. (Shaving has so gone out now amongst all classes of Englishmen, both landsmen and seamen- though, by-the-by, my friend was not an Englishman by blood - that I may mention the fact of my having seen Matthey shave before that little glass, and the way in which he used to do it. Old habit still told on him. He straddled his legs and swayed backwards and forwards, raised his razor with slow, and made it do its mowing with swift, caution, as if he were still anxious to preserve his centre of gravity, and save his chin and cheeks, and possibly his nose, from gashes, on board a pitching or rolling vessel.) On his mantel-shelf stood a stuffed, green, red, and purple king parrot, a polished tortoise-shell, and sundry sea-shells, pink and white, leopard-spotted, cloud-mottled, prismatically pearly, curiously whorled, fantastically spined and knobbed univalves and bivalves. On little green-corded book-shelves of home make, though the wood was Bermudian cedar, Matthey's little library was arranged: a Bible, a two- [-315-] volume Encyclopaedia in boards, a Bailey's Dictionary in gravy-coloured binding, a few odd volumes of Natural History, and one or two old-fashioned poetry-books.
    In Matthey's snug little cabin one evening I found his landlord smoking with him. 'This is Dan, sir,' said Matthey. The dredger got up, took his pipe out of his mouth, gave a nod, put his pipe into his mouth again, uncomfortably in the centre of his pursed lips, whence it hung like the trunk of an elephant, said never a word, gave no pull at his pipe, and so stood staring, with his hands in his pockets, until Matthey made him take his seat again, and bade him smoke in a more Christian- like -i.e. corner-of-the-mouth-fashion. Matthey tried hard to drag the dredger into the conversation that followed. The old man was evidently gratified by the attention, but at first responded merely by a pull at his pipe, a nod, and then a puff from his pipe. The nod having to express negation, qualification, and all kinds of things, besides affirmation, and Dan's set face, even when upraised to pull at his pipe, affording no context to judge from, this mode of conveying thought became bewildering; but at last Dan advanced to a pull, a nod, a puff, and a monosyllable. Eventually he advanced to a pull, a nod, a puff, and two, three, four, five, even half a dozen words together. We became very good friends, and often foregathered afterwards, but very little beyond the six word limit of consecutive utterance could I ever get him. I should add, however, that, as our intimacy ripened, the pull, the nod, and the puff, although very nearly as frequent as formerly, no longer merely finished off utter-[-316-]ances which were concisely complete, but curiously broke into asthmatic fragments more lengthy deliverances. A man's biography, I think, is almost always best given in his own words. Every student of character can form his own opinion then, and is not obliged to adopt another observer's cut and dried estimate, without materials affording a chance of rectifying, curtailing, expanding, or possibly even point-blank contradicting it. From every biography in which the subject is not allowed to speak largely of and for himself, one learns far more of the mental and moral make of the biographer than of the biographee. Where that plan, however, is adopted, you get to know at first hand what the man fancied himself, at any rate, or wished others to fancy him. You become intimate with him - very speedily get up to his tricks of manner. You can form your own judgment as to whether he is telling more or less than the truth, or the flat opposite of it, unjustly denouncing himself, absurdly extolling himself, or fishingly depreciating himself with the vanity, rather than the pride which apes humility.
    Omitting, therefore, - except where they would not obviously suggest themselves, - the questions by which I elicited my information, I will compress into a single narrative, in Dan's own manner, an outline of what I learned in many interviews, of the dredger's history. My truncated full-stop is intended to represent the pull, nod, and puff with which Dan commenced and punctuated his discourse.
    '. . . Born . . . And bred . . . Father before me His father before him . . . Rare games . . . Old  [-317-] times . . . No docks . . . Ships a-layin' in the river . . .  Smugglin' . . . Smugglin' now . . . Cigars . . . 'Baccy . . . Furrin' steamers . . . Nothin' to speak on though . . . Old times was the smugglin' times . . . Wrong? . . . Don't know . . . Never heared it. . . .  Wouldn't do wrong . . . No, not for no money . . . . Cribbin' coals is wrong . . . That's wrong, if you like  . . . Out o' lighters . . . At night . . . Nobody aboard . . .  Some dredgers doos it . . . That's stealin' . . .  That, I'll own . . . Yes, we dredges for coal . . . When they's at the bottom . . . That's different . . . Anybody can see that . . Barge is sunk . . . It's a Godsend . . . Swarm to it . . . News spreads . . . 'Bove bridge men comes down . . . Woolwich men comes . . . Barking . . All parts . . Work night and day . . . 'Taint much we gets . . . After all . . . Specially in summer . . . Folks don't care for fires . . . So much . . . Then . . .   Sixpence a bushel . . . . .  Say . . . Winter's better Coals is dearer . . . Weather's wuss . . . More barges capsizes . . . Shillin' a bushel then . . . And we've arned it . . . Look how we fag . . . Old times was the times . . . Yes, if you did honest . . . Smugglin' and findin's together . . . You're the fust that ever told me smugglin' worn't honest . . . Matthey's a goodish chap . . I don't doubt . .. I never axed him . . . Don't expect he'd say so . . . He's been a seafarin' man . . Understands all about sich things . . . '
    'Well, putting together all their earnings, what do you think the dredgers in old times used to get?'
    '. . . As much. . . In a day. . . And less than  [-318-] that . . . Orfen . . . As we gets . . . In a month . . . It's starvation . . .  Nowadays . . . No, I don't grumble . . . Bones is scarce . . . Metal's scarce . . Everything's scarce . . River's fair empty . . . Nowadays  . . But God's good . . . He lets folks . . . Drownd theirselves . . . In the summer . . . A copse is a real . . . Godsend then . . There's the reward . . . And the . . . Inquest money . . . '
    'Have you found many corpses?'
    '. . .  In my . . . Time, sir. . . A few . . . Last was a poor gal's . . . Shouldn't say . . . She'd ever been pretty . . . Jumped off London Bridge . . . Inquest at Dock Head . . . Nobody owned her . . . 'Tworn't likely. . . Got my inquest money . . . No reward . . . Worn't worth it . . . Who cared for her? . . . Yes, God might . . .  He's good . . . Them He's made . . . Ain't much like Him . . . Most on 'em . . . '
    'Do, do - did you ever hear of a case, I mean - do, do, do, dredgers ever rifle the corpses they find?'
    '. . .  Rob, you mean. . . . I s'pose. . . You can't rob the dead . . . No, I never heared of a case . . . Don't we bring 'em ashore. . .  With their purses . . . And watches . . . And all that? . . . Ketch me takin' . . . Anything . . . From a copse . . . His friends would know him by . . . Ain't it likely their purses is empty  . . . Before they'd jump overboard? . . . And if they isn't . . . Who's to say . . What's become of the tin? . . . Robbery . . . You can't rob a copse . . . You've fished up . . . Out of the mud . . . I ain't a robber   . . . I can say my commandments . . . Thou shalt not  [-319-] steal . . . I say my prayers. . . And I do my duty as far as I can . . Ain't it God's orders? . . . Am I a-goin' to run agin Him? . . . He's good . . . I know . . .  Whoever ain't . . . Yes, and I know about Jesus Christ . . . Worn't he a poor man's friend? . . If I'd been a robber . . . I shouldn't ha' slaved . . . All my life . . . As I've done . . . To arn a honest crust  . . .  For them as belongs to me . . . 's well as myself . Out at two . . .  In the mornin' . . . I am . . . Orfen . . . Lonely? . . . Might be to you . . . I've my work to do . . . I'm up to plazes .  . . Some ain't . . . There ain't many older than me . . . On the river now  . . .  One mornin' . . I fished up . . . A ring . . . And a 'alf-crown . . . And a silver teaspoon . . . All in one mornin' . . Ring worn't much count . . . But if I'd been a lay-a-bed . . I shouldn't ha' got 'em . . . 'Taint once in ten years now . . I get such luck . . . God was wery good . . He's for ever doin' somethin'  . . .  Himself . . . And so I s'pose . . . He likes to help them . . . As is willin' . . . To help theirselves . . . .  Yes, I do pray to Him . . . When I'm out . . . In the dark . . . For luck . . . 'Taint for that only . . .  I like to feel right with Him . . .  specially . . . . When I've a copse . . . In tow . . . They pull queer somehow . . . At the line . . . Yes, you can see the lights . . Ashore . . . And the ships' lights . . . When taint' too foggy. . . But I'll own. . . . . I do feel a bit lonely . . As you call it . . . Then . . . No, I ain't used to it yet . . . Copses is common . . .  But taint one man, you see . .  . Gets all the copses. . .   [-320-] No sich luck . . . Still 'tis good o' God . To diwide 'em . . . Among us . . . As He doos . . And send one . . . Sometimes  . . . To ye . . . Jest when you hain't a bit o' bread . In the house . . . God's good . . . All round . . . If folks 'ud only . . . See it  . . .  He won't let a chap drownd hisself. . . Or get drownded . . . Without makin' him. . . Do good to somebody. . . . If you're only lucky enough . . . To fish the copse up . . .  Yes, pretty nigh all my life . . . I've been a-dredgin' . . . On the London river . . . When I was a bit of a boy . . . Mother's brother took me . . Hysterin' and that . . . He was a Bricklesea man . . . Bricklesea, you know, sir . . . Mouth o' Colchester river . . . But I came back, and went out with father . . . And when he died . . . I had his boat . . . Till I could buy a new un . . . Taint many new uns I've had . . . Since . . . But what I've got . . . I expect . . . Will last me out . . . And then they can do what they like with her . . . She'll be as tired o' dredgin' most like . . . As I am . . . My old gal will be gone . . . Most like . . . Before me. . . There's the kids, but they must shift for theirselves . . .  Some on 'em would have to do it now . . . If their father was alive . . . Me and my old gal ... Has done our best by 'em . . . And when we can't do no more  . . . We must leave 'em to God to look after . . . He's good . . . And He's willin' enough . . . Don't He say so? I goes to church . . . When I can spare time . . . Matthey don't. . Though he's more time than me... But Matthey's al'ays willin' . . . To read me a chapter  . . . When I wants it . . . Matthey's a better scholar  [-321-] than me . . . Though he hain't so much notion . . . Of religion . . . But take him through . . . Matthey ain't such a bad sort . . And God's good . . . To the wust o' men . . . I orfen tells Matthey that . . . To hearten him up . . . To do what's proper.'