Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXXI - 'The Square Dollywoman'

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IN one of the parishes in which I have served, in order to raise a sum of money for parochial purposes, the incumbent, a brother curate, and myself resolved to become systematically sturdy beggars - to divide the parish into three districts, take one each, and make a personal appeal to every householder therein whom we could suppose to have any money, much or little, to spare for charitable purposes.
    It was in this way I became acquainted with Mrs Phipps, who kept the rag-and-bottle and 'dolly' shop in Blackberry Lane. That has a very rural sound, and once upon a time, I suppose, the dark, dirty, built-in thoroughfare so called was a grassy, briar-dotted, bee and butterfly-haunted country lane, winding between meadows fragrant with May and cows' breath; but anything less country-like than Blackberry Lane is now, and long has been, it would [-382-]  be hard to fancy. And Mrs Phipps's shop is, perhaps, the most unrural feature even where there are so many of them. A rusty gibbet projects from the lintel of the shop-door, and from the end of the gibbet dangles a grinning, goggle-eyed wooden negress, with cataleptic arms and legs, and arrayed in a flaring-bordered night-cap and gown of what was once perhaps white calico. The panes of the shop-window are blinded with bills, announcing by bloated red and black figures in their centre, the prices per lb. which the proprietress gives for the very miscellaneous articles in which she deals. These bills are bossed with a coloured cartoon depicting a happy family beaming with delight around a vast, holly-sprigged Christmas pudding, which, the accompanying letter-press informs the passer-by, Materfamilias has procured for her ecstatically astonished husband and little ones simply by selling at this 'emporium' what she once threw away as rubbish. Against one of the door-posts leans, pasted on a board, what looks like a Royal proclamation. It is headed V.R., with the Royal arms sprawling between the Royal initials. But on examination V. R. turns out to be an integral portion of another of Mrs Phipps's advertisements, which must thus be read :-  'Ve are giving' so and so for such and such. The inside of the shop is a filthy chaos. There is not a single clean thing in it. The few visible portions of the floor, walls, ceiling, &c., are, perhaps, even dirtier than the piled, leaning, and hanging wares, almost literally of all sorts, by which the greater portion of their superficies is hidden. The air is foul with the scent of musty, fusty rags, bedding, and [-382-]  wearing apparel, mildewed boots and shoes, horse collars and traces, rancid kitchen stuff, perspiring candle-ends, putrescent bones, and a mouldy et-cetera of seemingly utterly used-up 'trash.' Heaps and boxfuls and trayfuls of old metal block the way; fragments of crumpled sheet-lead, short lengths of twisted leaden pipe, pewter measures and trenchers and basins, lidless tin kettles, a battered zinc-pail, copper nails, a crushed copper carboy, brass name-plates, bell-pulls, beer-taps and water-taps, leprous with verdigris, and steel and iron chisels, saws, hammer-heads, locks, keys, bolts, one-legged tongs, pokers with the bottom off; horse-shoes, donkey-shoes, chain-links, segments of cog-wheels, screws, nails, scraps of hoop, &c., &c., so rusty and dusty that you cannot help fancying they must have lain for a hundred years at the bottom of the sea, and then for another century, undisturbed, in Mrs Phipps's shop. They are so rusty that it is hard to believe that any sound metal can be left within the scabby flakes of corrosion that crumble into red powder at the slightest touch.
    Glass is supposed to be transparent, or at least translucent, but Mrs Phipps's glass can claim neither attribute: bulbous druggists' bottles, with gilt cabalistic characters almost obliterated, and void of the coloured water that once made them look so gay; graduated medicine-bottles, physic-phials, with their labels half scratched off; or still pasted round their waists, or sloping in a very crumpled condition from their necks; wine bottles, beer bottles, pickle jars; long-necked scent-bottles, with specks of gilding still clinging to their cut bodies; square-built scent-bottles, [-383-] with Jean Maria Farina's sprawling signature still dimly discernible upon them. That is a curious signature to see in Mrs Phipps's shop - except that its stenches rival those of Cologne. To match the empty druggists' bottles, there is a little colony of empty, banded, white druggists' jars, scrolled with 'Leeches,' 'Tamarinds,' &c. To match the pewter pots, there is a beer-engine, minus one handle, and the china encasements of two of the others. But 'matching' is not, by any means, the strong point in Mrs Phipps's stock. A conscientious inventory-maker for it could very seldom lighten his labour by dittoes. Almost smothered in a drift of ropes' ends, stands an old-fashioned chest of drawers, with the veneer chipped off at the corners, and tags of frayed string doing duty for the long-vanished brass handles. All the drawers are crammed with property of the most bewildering variety and infinitesimal value. On the top of the chest of drawers lies an anatomized iron bedstead, and on that lies a bridgeless, stringless, bowless violin; and beside the fiddle stands a domed canary cage, whose brass wires doubtless once gleamed dazzlingly, but now are as thickly furred with black dirt as if it had been hanging for months in an ever-smoking chimney. Mrs Phipps also occasionally deals in a small way in books, pictures, and engravings. It must be very occasionally, or else she must get rid of her new purchases very expeditiously. So long as I have known her shop, it has displayed the same brown-measled engraving of Napoleon crossing the Alps, at full gallop, over snow which ever-accumulating grime has turned into soot ; the same frameless oil paintings of semi-obliterated Nobodies [-384-]  and Nowheres; the same little piles of unreadable books in blue boards, with curly-edged leaves clotted together with smoky dust. It is not a pleasant task to inspect Mrs Phipps's little literary stock. When you open the books, and then shut them with a clap to free them of their dust, it flies out in such a cloud that you are half choked; and as you turn the faded, freckled pages that seem at first to have as much life of any kind in them as a yellow mouldering shroud, you find that they have life in them - of a disagreeably crawling kind that makes you drop the volume as you might drop a hot cinder you had unwittingly taken up.
    After all, I have only hinted at the 'infinite variety' of Mrs Phipps's wares. Malodorous dirt is the one characteristic common to them all; and Mrs Phipps seemed to me a fit dealer in such wares when I crossed her threshold. She, too, was very dirty. There was a look of cunning also on her fat face that prejudiced me against her. I made up my mind that she had grown fat on the bargains she had screwed out of the poorest of the poor. There was a self-hugging defiance of all considerations that did not affect herself in the way in which she tightened the embrace in which her fat arms held her feather-bed bust, that made it plain I should not get a farthing out of her.
    So I thought - but I felt very much ashamed of myself when I had explained my business to Mrs Phipps. She asked sharp questions - so sharp as to imply, or rather to indicate sans phrase, that, at starting, it was an open question with her whether I was or was not 'cadging,' under false pretences, for my own benefit. Her nearest [-385-]  approach to an apology for such an imputation was not very complimentary: 'I'm not blamin' ye, sir. If you can git the money out o'them as are flats enough to give it, why shouldn't ye? Parsons must live, and they've got families to keep like other folks, and most o' the parsons about 'ere, they say, is as poor as church mice. I'm not blamin' ye, sir. It's a shame you should be druv to it - that's all I say. Sich as you does all the work, an' them as does nothin' gits the pay - gits made deacons, an' harch-deacons, an' all kind o' harches. Harches! what right's any parson to be called a harch? There ain't one o' them could build a bridge, I'll go bail. I'm not blamin' ye, sir. I pity you poor parsons about 'ere - that's what I say. Why, I s'pose you how, sir - may go on slavin' and cadgin' all your born days, and never git made even so much as a deacon of - let alone the harches.'
    I thought it would merely puzzle, and, possibly, still further prejudice, Mrs Phipps if I informed her that, at any rate, I could claim priest's orders; and so I went on with my work of explanation. When at last she was satisfied that I was, bona fide, collecting money for the benefit of her poor neighbours, her contribution to the parochial fund was, in proportion to her means, one of the most liberal we obtained.
    After that first interview, brief in spite of the cross-questionings with which she had protracted it, I got to know a good deal more about Mrs Phipps. I found that she was called in the neighbourhood the 'square dolly-woman.' Round would have been a far more appropriate adjective so far as figure went, I thought; and one day [-386-]  I asked Mrs Phipps how she had obtained her curious title.
    'Why, you see, sir, I keeps a dolly - lends money to poor folks on things they couldn't pop at the reg'lar pawns, an' I tries not to be quite so 'ard on 'em as some of the dollies is, and I'm freer-'anded in buyin'. So that's why they calls me square, I s'pose. I've to keep my eyes open though, both with them I lends to and them I buys of; or they wouldn't hact on the square with me. I've got a name for good natur', and they'd take adwantage of it, if I'd let 'em. I don't mind doin' a kind haction now an' then, but I won't be done. If it's kindness, it's kindness; and if it's business, it's business. I won't be diddled out o' the credit o' doin' a kind haction, an' made to believe I'm only a-doin' business. When they tries that game on with me, my back's soon up, I can tell ye, sir. Fust time you come to see me, sir, thinks I to myself; "If the poor gen'leman would only humble hisself to ask me straightforward, I'd give him, willin', what I could for hisself; but if he's too proud to take it that way, I ain't a-goin' to let him think he's gammoned me into believin' it's for the p'rish'ners." That's why I was so short with ye, at fust, sir, till I'd made out the rights of what you'd come about.'
    'What kind of things do the poor people pledge?'
    'Oh, all sorts - some as I could 'ardly git back the money I lent on 'em for - and that's where they tries to do me.'
    'And what do you charge?'
    'Why, at most of the dolly shops, sir, they charge jist the same whether a thing's in a week or whether it's in a [-387-] day - twopence on the shillin' - that's the charge. But that seems a hawful lot for the poor critturs to pay; so I'll only charge a 'a'penny, say, if the thing's taken out next day, and a penny if it's out by the middle of the week, and so on. It's puzzlin' work makin' reductions when it's only a penny or so you've lent. A ha'penny on the twopence is what the other dollies charge, whether it's for a week or for a day; but if they're people I know, I'll only charge a farden, up to fourpence, and sometimes I won't charge nothin', when they pays back within the week-that's accordin' to circumstances, of course. When folks are honest to my knowledge, and 'ard up and no mistake about it, it would go agin my conscience not to let 'em 'ave a few coppers now and then's long as they don't want to cheat me. If they'll leave what's worth the money they want, I'll let honest folks have it, though that ain't the way of the trade, for you may 'ave a thing as was jist worth the money 'anging on and till it ain't worth 'alf, let alone the interest. And sometimes I'll lend, when I know the poor critturs can't spare what they've brought even for a day, without takin' the thing in - rugs and sich, when it's bitter cold.* [* 'And if the man be poor, thou shalt not sleep with his pledge in any case thou shalt deliver him the pledge again when the sun goeth down, that he may sleep in his own raiment, and bless thee.' (Deut. xxiv. 12, 13.)] But they mustn't try to do me - make out that things I couldn't make no money out of is worth ten times as much as they want on 'em. Soon's ever I see they wants to do me, my back's up. "There," says I, and I gives 'em back their trumpery, "we won't 'ave  [-388-]  no words. You can walk, soon's ever you please." And they do walk pretty brisk, but, bless you, some on 'em will try on the same game agin till I git right out o' patience with 'em. My temper's short, and I don't see why they should want to do me jest becos I've got more pity for 'em than most has.'
    'What are the sums you generally lend?'
    'Oh, twopences, and threepences, and fourpences, and sixpences, and so on up to a shillin'. Tain't often that I go beyond the bob. Sometimes it's 'alf-a-crown, but that's seldom. Seven and sixpence is the most I ever lent to any one at one time, and that was only once in my life.'
    'But I suppose you have been asked for more?'
    'Well, sir, you see the things that is mostly left with me is sich common stuff that the most 'owdacious of them as wants to borrer on 'em wouldn't think of arskin' anythin' like that. And yet I have been arsked for out-of- the-way lots, too. Look at this flute now.'
    She opened a drawer in the counter and took out of it a faded green-baize flute-case, and out of that the joints of a German flute, which when put together looked so very poor an instrument that I wondered any one should have thought it worth while to provide it with a case.
    'Look at that now. I don't know whether you're a judge of sich things, but I've shown it to them as is, or shams to be, and they say it 'ud be dear at any money. And that's about my own opinion, though it wouldn't do for me to say so to everybody, if I ever want to sell it, which I don't mean to yet.'
    [-389-] 'I suppose there's some history connected with the flute that has interested you.'
    'Yes, there is, sir - though it's precious little I know about it. Though if you come to that, everything that's brought to me has a 'ist'ry as you call it, that must be hinterestin' to somebody. But about this flute. I was settin' in the shop as I might be now, when in there comes a tall, thin chap that didn't look jest the sort I'm used to. He was seedy enough, poor feller, but still there was a look about him that made me think he'd been used to somethin' a bit better sometime or other. He was dressed in black - coat an' trousers both - leastways they had been black when his hair was. His hair and his clothes looked as if they'd grown grey together. Well, sir, he pulls this baize thing out of his pocket as carefully as if it was the preciousest thing in the world, and looks over his shoulder, and then he puts it down on the counter without ever sayin' a word. I'd begun to pity the man, but then I thought it was plate he'd been a-priggin'. "No, no, my man," says I, "this ain't your shop. I ain't a fence, and if you don't slope precious quick, I'll send for the pollis to sarve you out for your imperence in bringin' a bad name on me, which I've never desarved none." He looks up astonished like, and then he puts his flute together, and give it me, and says, "Will you lend me a pound on this, ma'am?" I looks at it, and then I looks at him, and says I, I says, "I'd see you furder fust. Why, man, it's cracked, and you must be cracked, too, to think of sich a thing." I couldn't elp pityin' him agin - he looked so wexed - for the flute like he seemed to care more than he [-390-] did for hisself. It was easy to see that he valued it at no end o' price, some reason or other, and forgot, poor crittur, that it worn't the same to everybody else it were to him. "My good man," says I, "if you want to make money out of your flute, you'd better sell it. I'll buy it if you're anyways reasonable, but you must put a price upon it. I can't be buyer and seller both. "No, ma'am," says he, "I can't sell it," and then he goes on moonin' to hisself - "all gone, all gone but that - nothing left they ever saw but that. I can't sell my last thing that ever had sunshine on it." I thought the poor man was wandering; so to bring him to hisself, I says, "Why, there's the sun a-shinin' on your coat now, sir. If you won't name a price, I'll bid 'alf-a-crown for your flute, though, mind you, 'alf o' that is only out o' charity." "I thank you, ma'am," says he, civil and yet proud like, "but I did not ask for charity. I cannot sell my flute. Will you lend me," he goes on, droppin' humble agin, "sixpence on it ?" "That I will,2 says I, "or a shillin', if you like." "No, ma'am," says he, "I fear that would not be fair to you. I forgot that the flute could not be to you what it is to me. I shall be able to pay sixpence sooner than I could pay a shilling, and so I shall get my flute back the sooner. He give a little smile when he said that, but if he'd made a joke, I couldn't see it, poor feller. Then he unscrewed his flute, and put the j'ints back into the green case, lingerin' over 'em jest as if they was his babbies he was buryin'. "You will please to take great care of this, ma'am, and not let any one tamper with it," says he when he give it me, as solemn as if he was trustin' me with a fortun'. [-391-] Thinks I, "Who'd want to, and if they did, what 'ud it matter?" But I says to him, as grave as I could, "All right, sir - I'll look after that." But that poor gen'leman, he looked so down in the mouth when he went out o' the door, that I couldn't 'elp callin' after him, "Hi, stop a bit, sir, - you can take your flute, and I'll trust to your word to pay me." I'm sure he heared me, for he give a twitch in his shoulders, as if he was a-comin' back, but he made believe not to hear me, and went on, and I've never seed him since. That's more than three years ago, but even if I could git a customer for his flute - and at any rate, I could git more than a tanner for it - I wouldn't sell it. I'll keep it 's long as I can, to give the poor gen'leman a chance of gittin' it agin, if he does come back - he seemed so cut up at partin' with it. If that's all the 'appiness he's got in the world, it would be a 'ard thing to rob him of it.'