Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXXIV - 'Ketch 'Em Alive, Oh!'

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A LITTLE way ahead of me one summer evening I noticed a pale sickly lad of ten or eleven languidly swinging himself along upon a crutch, whilst a sturdy, chubby, curly-headed little fellow, a year or two younger, trotted by his side. They had not gone far before a lounging hobbydehoy brutally knocked up the cripple's crutch, and the poor little fellow fell violently on his face. My fingers itched to box the young coward's ears, but before I could get to him, the chubby little boy, whose curly head scarcely came above the scoundrel's waistband, had rushed in at him, and was punishing every reachable portion of his frame with fist and foot most strenuously. The bully looked half scared, but still he could have crushed his young antagonist by merely falling on him, and, therefore, I fear the cripple's plucky little champion would have come off second best in the long run, had it not [-41-] been for my presence on the scene. Availing himself of that as an excuse for turning tail before so diminutive an opponent, the hobbydehoy took to his heels; turning back, when he had got to a safe distance, to shake his fist at Curly Head and shout, 'I'll pay yer when I ketches yer. I'll wring yer neck, yer young warmin; and won't I give Dot-and-go-one a hidin'?'
    Curly Head was white with rage and quivering with indignation. 'Don't blubber, Jack,' he said half crossly, half pityingly to the cripple - 'don't let that cur see he's hurt ye. He's my brother, sir,' Curly Head explained to me, 'and he's lame and weak, and so that willin is allus a-persecutin' him, when I ain't by to take his part.'
    Poor Jack's nose was bleeding, and he had been altogether so much shaken by his fall that I thought it well to walk back with the boys to their home, close by, from which they had started for an evening stroll. We entered a ground-floor room in a house in a blind alley. At the doors of most of the houses, slovenly men in shirt-sleeves, and sluttish women who looked half-undressed, were lolling and squatting-some smoking, others panting as if the foully sultry air half-stifled them. But in this room a mangle was rumbling backwards and forwards. The perspiring woman who was turning it rested on the handle as we went in. 'Why, my Jack,' she cried, 'what's up? Sam' - turning reproachfully to Curly Head - 'I thought you'd ha' took better care of your brother, or I wouldn't ha' let him go out with you.'
    Poor little Sam seemed to feel this reproach very keenly: But I explained that he was not in the slightest [-420-] degree to blame for what had happened to his invalid elder brother, and trumpeted his prowess in avenging his brother's wrongs. Jack was as eager as I was to free Sam from blame. The mother put the door-key down Jack's back to stop the bleeding at the nose, and then, having felt him all over to make sure that no bones were broken, opened a cupboard, out of which rolled the boys' bundle of bedding; arranged it, with Sam's help, in a corner, and bade Jack lie down and rest upon it. By the time she went back to her mangle we were all on very friendly terms with one another. Conversation, however, is carried on with difficulty in a room in which a mangle is rumbling, and, therefore, I soon took my departure. It was hastened by a hint which the good woman gave that the boys had better undress and go to bed :- Jack'll feel easier with his clothes off and you've got to be up early to-morrow, Ketch-'em-alive!'
    Little Sam grinned, and began to unbutton his waistcoat, but stopped suddenly, in perplexity as to whether it would be 'behaving proper' to undress before a parson - especially a parson who had found no fault with him for fighting.
    An evening or two afterwards I called to inquire after Jack. As I sat chatting with him and his mother, Sam came in - looking a very queer little figure. He was sunburnt as red as a brick, and his peakless cap was tiaraed with a yellow fly-paper thickly studded with flies.
    'Sold 'em all, mother,' he shouted-
        ' "Ketch 'em alive, the nasty flies,
            Don't let 'em bite poor baby's eyes."
[-421-]  And now I must be off to get some more. I'll soon be back, Jack. There's the money, mother. Ketch 'em alive, oh!'
    He rattled a heap of coppers out of his trousers-pockets on to the table, asked his mother for silver to purchase his next day's stock, and went off whistling to get it.
    'I'm sure he didn't see you, sir,' apologized his mother, fearful that I should feel hurt at not having been noticed by so influential a member of the family as Sam. 'He's a dear good boy,' she added, as she counted out the coppers. 'Miles he must ha' walked - his little legs must be fit to drop off. Seven dozen he's sold. If he could sell 'em like that every day, me and you could do, couldn't us, Jack? I wish you could go out, too, Jack, and so do you, don't you, Jack? And there's only a penny he's spent on hisself, if he's spent that. He must be half famished. Git his supper out, Jack, and run round and buy a saveloy, there's a good boy - Sam likes a relish.'
    Jack instantly hopped off, and the good woman, delighted with her younger son's earnings, again broke forth in praises of him. 'A dear good boy he is. Every penny he arns he brings me. It's a pity there isn't flies all the year round, though they is such a bother. The papers - leastways when they first comes up - pays better than shoe-blackin', and they're respectabler than tumblin'. But Sam'll do that when he can't git anythink else to do-  and uncommon well he does it. You'd die of laughin' to see him go along on his toes and 'ands, 'eels hover 'ead, jest as if he vas a vheel. And he can walk about on his 'ands with his legs a-danglin' down - all kind o' thinx that boy [-422-] can do. It's a blessin' to 'ave a son like him. Anythink he can do, he will do, and do it well, too. I wish Jack was like him, but that ain't poor Jack's fault, and two brothers fonder o' one another you won't see, go where you will, - no, not if they was young princes in golden palaces. Jack'll do anythink he can, poor boy, and, bein' the eldest, it must be 'ard for him not to do 'alf a quarter as well as Sam. But he never shows it, and poor Jack didn't ought to neither. Sam looks arter him like a father - a deal kinder than his own father were. My poor usband - he's been at rest this four year, thank God - used to whop poor Jack, though he were a cripple. It's made me so savage that, God forgive me, I've sent the flat-iron flyin' at his 'ead, and I shouldn't ha' much cared then if it had settled him, though I feel lonesome without him now. But it were a cryin' shame, worn't it, sir, though he is dead, poor man? You should ha' seen my little Sam. He worn't much more than a babby then, but he'd clinch his little fists and polish off his daddy in a surprisin' manner for a.child o' his years. My old man would laugh, but I do believe he got afraid to lift his hand agin Jack when Sam were by. And to see that boy now when Jack's bad. He always works as 'ard as ever he can, but then you'd say he worked 'arder than ever he could, to git back to Jack, and he'll sit by him for the hour together and play marbles on the bed-clothes. We're talkin' about Sam,' said the woman, as Jack hopped in with the saveloy. 'Ain't he a good boy, Jack?'
    'Who says he ain't?' answered Jack, glancing fiercely at me, as if he meant to fling his crutch at my head, if he [-423-] found that I had been maligning his brother's character.
    Presently Sam came back with his bundle of fly-papers. He was shy at first when he saw me, and was very hungry moreover. He ate his supper in silence, but when that was over, he soon recovered his tongue, and began to tell us of his adventures. He had started in the early morning for Finchley, and then worked back into the City by way of Fortis Green, Muswell Hill, Crouch End, Hornsey Rise, Holloway, Canonbury, and the New North Road. 'I wished you was with me, Jack,' I heard him say to his brother. 'They was cuttin' the 'ay out by 'Ighgit. I sold six to them as was cuttin' it, to take 'ome, but one chap put his down, sticky side up'ards, and when he went to look for it he couldn't see it for the flies. So I give him another for nuffink, becos he'd give me a bit o' bacon and a sup o' beer. They was restin' 'avin' their dinners, so I stopped an' 'ad a rest too, and see, Jack, what I've brought ye - I got 'em whilst I was waitin'.'
    Out of his cap and his jacket pocket Sam produced a pile of crushed grass, weeds, white clover, groundsel, sorrel, hemlock-blossom, and plantain-spires. It was a queer-looking posy, but Jack hung delighted over it, arranging it as artistically as he could. Crushed though it was, the sweet scent of the dewy, sunny country still lingered upon it, and common though the leaves and flowers were, they were precious to poor Jack, whose infirmity had prevented him from ever reaching a meadow. All his little life long he had been cooped up in brick and mortar. Grimy Goodman's Fields were the only fields he knew, and the garden in Trinity Square the biggest [-424-] spread of verdure he had ever seen. Sam had also brought home a plump little red field-mouse from the hayfield. 'I was layin' down,' he said, and I see somefink cuttin' along as if it was a bit o' brick runnin', so I grabbed at it, and it felt soft, but I'd precious 'ard work to ketch it, it wriggled in and out so, and there it was a kind o' mouse. I 'ope I 'aven't squashed him. I knew you'd like to see him, Jack.' Sam put his hand into his shirt-bosom, and pulled out poor rumpled, almost asphyxiated little mousie. He looked at first very much as if he lard been 'squashed,' but gradually recovered breath and spirits, and trailing his stumpy little tail, scuttled across the table right into the hands of delighted Jack. The mother was by no means so delighted. 'What ever did you go for to bring that nasty thing home for, Sam?' she querulously inquired. 'Hain't we got enough o' them beastly rats and mice without your bringin' more on 'em to eat us up ?- What ever are you a-strokin' him for, as if he was a Christian, Jack?' she added sharply. 'Turn him out into the lane this minute, and don't be sich a babby. I do wonder you and Sam hain't more sense.'
    But Sam, who had brought home mousie in the verified expectation that his stay-at-home brother would be pleased to make a pet of such a curiosity, pointed out loftily, if not very learnedly, the differences between town and country mice, and saddled himself with the responsibility of procuring provender for the captive. Sam's notions of what the mouse would 'like to eat' were vague, but he arranged matters to his own satisfaction by stating that he could always go once a week, at any rate, and get a lot o' [-425-] stuff out of an 'edge.' Accordingly Jack was allowed to retain his pet, and when I left, the two boys were very busy making a home for mousie out of an old cigar-box that had somehow found its way into their rank-tobacco-smoking alley. The flies were very numerous that summer, and Sam got rid of his papers very readily. He never remembered such a time, he said, with a grave air of old experience - his acquaintance with the 'ketch-'em-alive, oh' business dating only from the previous summer.
    'Sam's goin' ahead, sir,' said his pleased mother on another evening when I looked in. 'He's got quite a connection now. Some of his customers say they do believe the papers only draws the flies. Any'ow they ketches 'em, and the people goes on buyin' the papers. Hup 'Ighgit way, more partic'lar, there's a regular run on 'em. And that Sam is sich a boy. A dear good boy he is. What do you think he's been and gone and done now, sir? He's been talkin' so about the medders hup 'Ighgit way that poor Jack fair pined to git a sight on 'em. Afore to-day he's never been out o' London, poor boy. And what do you think that Sam o' mine went and did? There s a man that lives down Crown Yard as keeps a furnitur' wan, and Sam found out that he were a goin' on a job somevheres hup by the Harchway Tavern, and so Sam got him to give both of 'em a lift so far as that, and then Sam was to take Jack into the medders, and leave him there whilst he went about sellin' his ketch-'em-alives, and come for him and pay his bus back to the Bank, as if he was a gen'leman, and Jack was to wait for him there, [-426-] and they'd come home together. I wish they was in. They'll both be dead-tired, poor boys.'
    They certainly did look tired when they came in a few minutes afterwards. Even the walk from the Bank was a pull upon Jack's strength, and although little Sam had got the lift to Highgate, he had been on his legs nearly all day.
    But two happier boys I never saw. Jack had been  holiday-making from early morning in a world that was so new to him that he could hardly believe in its reality. By that time the grass must have been dried up and the hedges dusty, but 'Oh! mother, everything's green and clean in the country,' was Jack's ecstatic summary of his experiences.
    Sam was as pleased, because he had not only done well in his business, but also been able to stand treat to his sick brother. Perhaps Sam showed a little half jealous, half supercilious superiority, when Jack talked of the country as if somehow he understood it better, could get more pleasurable meaning out of it, though he had been only one day in it, than experienced Sam. To keep up his reputation for experience, Sam would ever and anon interject the name of a road, &c., into Jack's descriptions of the places he had visited- 'Them's St John's Willas' - ' 'Ornsey Lane they calls that' - and so on. But although Sam was better up than his brother in topographical nomenclature, he seemed quite astounded that Jack had noticed so many things that he had not noticed. 'One 'ud think you'd heyes at the back o' yer 'ead, Jack - but then it's all new to you, an' I'm glad you [-427-] liked it,' said experienced and, on the whole, delighted little Sam.
    Hot summer weather extended late into the autumn that year. Sam sold so many 'ketch-'em-alives,' that he began to wonder what his mother could do with 'all the money' he brought home. Jack had more than one other country trip out of it, and then - frost setting in suddenly, Jack being laid up for the winter, .and both Sam and his mother suddenly sinking from full work into slack - their united 'all' very soon looked very little. The change made the poor woman peevish. Sam's lean days had swallowed up his fat days out of her memory. She no longer sang his praises, and although she never ceased to pity poor Jack, her pity took a form that was very unpleasant to both boys. She was fond of saying before me, when they were both present, that it was a thousand pities Jack hadn't the use of his limbs - he'd be a good, industr'ous boy, instid o' livin' on his mother, doin' nothin'; which there is a hexcuse for him, poor feller, becos he can't do a mortial think, 'owever he might wish it.'
    Jack did not like to be reminded in this way of his infirmity, but he felt more on account of the injustice done to willing little Sam - a good deal more than Sam felt for himself. Of course, when he had been out in the cold streets all day trying hard to earn a few pence, he thought it too bad that he should be snubbed for having brought home so few, and that he should be scowled at as a robber of his struggling mother and sick brother if he had ventured to invest in a ha'p'orth' of 'baked [-428-]  plum' or 'currant roley-poley' for his own out-of-doors consumption; but Sam bore the snubbing and the scowling very philosophically. He knew that Jack did not think him lazy or selfish, and went on being thoughtfully kind to Jack, and waiting patiently until his mother should be in a better temper. He would fire up sometimes at her constant harping on the brother's involuntary uselessness, but he never gave her back an angry word - I cannot say quite so much about looks - in return for her constant nagging at what she made out to be his wilful lack of work.
    Altogether I came to entertain a great respect for little 'Ketch-'em-alive-oh,' as I had got into the habit of calling Sam. The title from my lips at first not only amused him but gratified him; but I ceased to use it when I found that it slightly annoyed him even from me, as reminding him of the time when his mother had made so much of him because there were so many flies to catch alive. My respect for the little fellow was not in the slightest degree lessened because he could not help sometimes showing by his looks that his sense of justice had been wounded. I have small respect for people who are always talking about their rights and righteousness-small belief in the rights and righteousness of which they prate; but I do not think that little Sam sinned grievously against the law of Christian charity in not being able always to prevent his eyes from saying that his mother did him wrong.