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Trailing Clouds of Glory
From heaven young Alf came to Irish Court; but at the first rumour of his
advent, his father went for a soldier, and so disappears at once and completely
from this chronicle. For young Alf never set eyes on his father's chivvy.
His recollections of childhood are, as is natural, scrappy; here a blank, there a vivid patch of remembrance. But in the course of various talks he has supplied enough scattered memories to give a fair notion of his earliest outlook upon life. The flagstones of Irish Court, and the proximity of Patrick Hooligan, these are the impressions that remain with him. Cabbage stalks, potato peelings, even derelict shoes that will no longer go up the spout are to be found on the flagstones of Irish Court; and with these the untrammelled infant can do marvellous things. Young Alf cannot remember ever possessing a toy; but he never felt the want of one. He dealt from infancy in realities.
He retains, too, the impression of a single room, with a bed in the corner. In another corner was a heap of clothes - at night. In the day-time, his mother earned her living by selling second-hand clothes from a hand-barrow in the Walk. To young Alf, Lambeth Walk was the great world, full of possibilities of pleasure and profit. Marvellous finds could be made in the mysterious region under the rows of barrows in the Walk. Expeditions in search of hidden treasure were organized, and brought to successful issue, more particularly in the direction of the sweetstuff barrow, where brandy-balls might be expected to drop, as it were, from heaven. There was no lack of companionship, for children of all ages are plentiful in the Walk, and all are friends or enemies. Now and then, if he was in luck, he could see Patrick Hooligan come down the court and go into his kip, as a king enters his palace.
On the whole, his childhood must be regarded as a very happy one; his mother was kind to him, and he did pretty much as he pleased, until the School Board officer roped him in, and he had to go to school. Here, of course, he received precisely the same education that five out of six English boys receive. He can read, write a good hand, is thoroughly proficient in mental arithmetic, and retains enough of Biblical learning to quote the parable of the man who fell among thieves.
At twelve years of age he had finished his schooldays. And now his real education was to begin. The problem of life faced him, for round about Lambeth Walk maturity flowers early, and by the time you are twelve years old you must prove your title to existence by fair means or foul. There is little temptation to do it by fair means. This I learned when I met young Alf, one evening in the autumn, in a pleasant room behind the bar of a public-house, which does a genuine trade with the frequenters of the Walk. Strictly speaking, it is not in the Walk. It is quite an ordinary-looking public-house. Anyone may enter. But if you go to the counter, nod to the can - which is the local term for the barman - and make a certain commonplace remark, the can will jerk his head towards a door in the far corner of the bar. This you will push open; and, turning sharp to the right, you will take the second on the left, and find yourself in the pleasant room.
There is really nothing extraordinary about the room. In the midst a table, polished, but showing the stains of glasses; comfortable arm-chairs; on the mantelpiece, spills for such as prefer them; on the table, boxes of matches, two carafes of water, and some sporting-papers; on the walls, advertisements of the 'Canterbury' Music Hall, a sheet containing the portraits of heroes of the prize-ring, photographs of Sir Henry Irving, Miss Marie Lloyd, the late Lord Beaconsfield, and certain ladies who are performing nightly at some place of entertainment in the neighbourhood. Lift the red blind which covers the window and you will look upon a frequented thoroughfare; if you look for more than five minutes, a policeman will walk by and wrinkle his brows at your face. But public feeling inside the room is against the lifting of the blind.
Nor is the company, to outward view, more extraordinary than the room. It consists entirely of men, all of them decently dressed, most of them wearing collars, and some of them in long coats with wonderful buttons, and a way about them that enforces the respect of the can who brings in their drinks. The talk, too, is quite ordinary, playing around the race-course, the drama, and the sex, with a very occasional reference to politics and the police reports. Differing, you will perceive, in no way from the conversation of the average club smoking-room.
There is, however, this difference - that if you should tell a story in which you yourself figured as a successful card-sharper - well, that story would be a great success, supposing you told it well. There is not a man there who would not respect you the more, if he knew you were a burglar in good practice, or a pick-pocket with a large connection; not a man who would not take your part against the police, if you found yourself in a tight corner.
There is, you may think, something melodramatic about that password to the can, the passage behind the bar, the red blind that is not lifted. In reality the whole thing is commonplace - indeed, rather sordid. The point is this: that someone in that assemblage of ordinary men may let fall an indiscreet word which should not be carried into the street, along which a policeman passes at intervals of a few minutes, and a split at intervals which are irregular. This was the room to which I found my way one evening in the autumn, guided by the admonitions of young Alf. He was awaiting me. Otherwise the room was untenanted, save by a man with a grey beard, who sipped his glass in a corner. And it was here that I caught some of those flashes of memory which I try to reflect.
We were seated, more or less comfortably. For young Alf does not sit easily in an easy-chair, but leans forward, alert and ready to run, dodge, dive and come safely to his desired kip.
'No, I didn't go to no reg'lar work when I'd done my schooling,' said young Alf. 'You see, I was well in the thick of where the lads carry on the biz; nor I didn't see no great catch in any sort of job that I was likely to get 'old of. It come much more easy and natural to take on the light- fingered game, an' there was more to be made at it. See? An' when I'd got meself mixed up wiv the young part of the gang, it wasn't much good me goin' lookin' for work wiv a crac'ter that wasn't long enough to light a pipe wiv. Sims to me what you start on you've got to go froo wiv. First fing ever I nicked was pigeons - an' rabbits. Down Irish Court stewed pigeons an' rabbits is a bit of awright. There wasn't anyfink that my muvver liked better. Dogs, too-'
'But you didn't eat dogs?' I said.
'No, we didn't eat 'em. But if you can pick up a stray dog, there's generally a bit of a reward 'anging to it.'
I suggested that there were scarcely enough stray dogs about to bring in an appreciable income.
'Oh, they'll stray awright,' said young Alf, 'even if you 'ave to pull their bleed'n 'eads 'arf off.'
It was at about this period of his life that young Alf removed from Irish Court and took up his residence over a shop - to all appearances belonging to a watchmaker - in one of the streets that cut Lambeth Walk; and here his education began to move rapidly forward.
'Me an' my muvver,' he said, 'was livin' wiv a down an' accerabat that used to give performances in some of the smaller 'alls round abart. He was a fair treat, that accerabat was. Stand on his 'ead, an' tie 'isself up in knots until you'd fink he crack 'isself. He could bend right back till you could see his dial stickin' out 'tween his legs. There wasn't 'ardly anyfink he couldn't do, not in that way. Bit of a 'ook, too, 'e was.
'Well, one evenin' 'e was sittin' on the bed, mendin' his shoes, an' I was over by the windy. Presently 'e says to me: "Look 'ere, young Alf, you see if you can walk across to me quiet as you can."
'So I started, walkin' as quiet as I knew how, but I couldn't 'elp makin' the floor creak, 'cause the board was all loose.
'The accerabat jumps up and catches me a clip over the jaw.
'"Now then," 'e says, "you start again. An' every time you make a board creak, I'll clip yer." See?
'I went on practisin' that game for some time, and the accerabat showed me 'ow to nip across a floor wivout making a sound. An' it wasn't long, neither, 'fore I could step so as you couldn't 'ear nuffink. That's the first fing you have to learn, an' it ain't so bloomin' easy, neither. Taught me a lot of fings, the accerabat did. There was a old tin trunk standin' over side of the bed; and when I'd learnt to get across the floor awright, 'e took me on to openin' the tin trunk wivout makin' any noise. That's abart the most difficult job you 'ave to work - if you're in a strange 'ouse, I mean, and don't want to wake anybody up. If you can open a tin trunk quite quiet you can do almost anyfink in that line.'
'Did the acrobat go in for burglary, then?' I asked, as young Alf relapsed into a meditative silence.
Presently he looked up, and puffed out the lower portion of his cheeks three times, thereby indicating an amusing recollection.
'What'd you fink of me in a Eton suit, an' a black bowler 'at, and a nice white collar when I was a nipper, eh?'
The picture seemed an interesting one, and I said as much.
'One night I was messin' about in the Walk,' said young Alf, 'and my muvver comes along and catches me by the frottle, an' says, "You come along 'ome; you're wanted." So I went along wiv 'er, an' when we got to our kip there was the accerabat an' anuvver bloke, a pal of his, what I hadn't seen afore. The uvver bloke 'ad a black bag wiv 'im, and, soon as he sees me, he opens the bag an' brings out a nice suit of clothes. "You jest get into them togs," says the accerabat, "and look slippy about it." Course I tumbled at once that there was a bit of work on and, and I got into the togs wivout arstin' any questions. Reg'lar little toff I looked, wiv me clean collar and me black jacket, and me grey trowsies.' Young Alf leaned back in his chair, grasped the arms with dingy fingers, and puffed his pallid cheeks in joy at the recollection.
'Well, when I'd got me togs on,' continued young Alf, 'out we goes, me an' the accerabat an' 'is pal, me walkin' behind and carryin' the little bag, an' the uvver two in front. Course if anyone wanted to know anyfink, I was to swank as I hadn't got anyfink to do wiv the uvver two. See?
'Time we got down to Kennington Park Road it was gettin' pretty late, wiv scarcely any people about. The accerabat an' his pal stopped outside a big boot-shop, an' the accerabat took my little bag, and, the uvver bloke says, "Now then, young un, up you goes." An' wiv that he give me a shove up, and fore you could turn round I was froo the fanlight and down on the uvver side. Course I was quiet as a mouse, an' when I found nobody'd 'eard anyfink, I jest sat down and waited till the uvver bloke outside give me the wheeze he was ready. See?'
'Then, how did you know what to do?' I asked.
'Anybody'd know that,' replied young Alf. 'Soon as I 'eard the whistle outside, I goes over the bolts - free bolts there was - and turns the key, an' lets in the accerabat an' 'is pal. The uvver bloke 'ands me my bag, an' there was me walkin' carm and peaceful back to me kip in me nice Eton suit, an' me black bowler, an' me grey trowsies, carryin' the little bag in me 'and.'
'But why the little bag?' I asked.
'Didn't I tell you?' said young Alf; 'there was a surplus in the little bag.'
'What you wear in church. So, if a cop wanted to know what I was after I'd say I was a choir-boy bin practisin' carols. Then 'e'd open my little bag an' find a surplus there. An' that'd bear me out. See? It was the accerabat's pal what gives me the togs an' the surplus. Smart 'e was - very smart - in a small way, but no class. Arrever, I did my little bit of biz that time awright.'
Young Alf crossed his legs and sat back in his chair, with the air of a young man who has at least one memory which he can contemplate with satisfaction. He would have a small ginger-beer - nothing stronger - and a cigar. And thus stimulated, he dug again into the past, and told me more concerning the days when he was scrapping in the Walk, nicking pigeons for his mother's supper, and jumping fanlights for the barren glory of wearing an Eton suit from ten o'clock to midnight or thereabouts. Occupations creditable enough to a boy of twelve, but certainly not class, and to be referred to only as Lord Tenterden referred to the barber's shop.
The watchmaker in the shop below the room in which young Alf kipped with his mother and the acrobat was, as you will have guessed, not an ordinary watchmaker. In his leisure hours young Alf would hang about the shop, with an eye on the labours of his landlord. Having a turn for mechanics, and possessing a pair of hooks that were lithe and sensitive, he amused himself by performing some of the simpler operations connected with the repairing of watches, and soon picked up a certain acquaintance with the craft. Before long he noticed that the watchmaker had a surprising number of watches to repair. It struck him too that each watch-owner appeared to be dissatisfied with the case enclosing his ticker, for his landlord always began his task by transferring the works from one gold case to another. From this young Alf drew his inferences. He concluded that those watches were not the lawful property of the sellers, nor of the watchmaker, who gave a ridiculously small price for them. In short, he decided that his landlord was a fence; and subsequent happenings confirmed his judgement. And one day young Alf slipped hall-a-dozen gold watch-cases into his jacket pocket. Of course they were missed. But as young Alf had foreseen, the watchmaker dared not place the matter in the hands of the police, though he made no secret of the direction of his suspicions. Moreover, young Alf, finding a certain difficulty in the disposal of his goods, finally brought them boldly to his landlord and demanded a price for them. He obtained it, on the understanding that if he should pick up any more articles of value in a similarly accidental way his landlord should have the refusal of their purchase. Thus young Alf established his first confidential relations with a fence.
But young Alf was anxious to gain some official recognition. At present he was technically only a fanlight-jumper, who gave promise of being handy with his hooks in the way of nicking and scrapping. That does not satisfy the ambition of a boy who is within sight of his thirteenth birthday. Such a boy, with the proper spirit in him, wants to get into a gang. For this merit is the sole qualification.
'Course I wanted to get into a gang,' said young Alf, swallowing half a bottle of ginger-beer at a gulp. He never sips, but throws, as it were, his drink down his throat. 'But you can't get into a gang wivout you've done somefink big. It's like this. See? S'pose one boy goes an' kicks in a door. Then he tells the uvver boys, and shows 'em the door. Then they got to go an' kick in anuvver door, else they're no class. An' course the boy what done somefink big, what the uvver boys couldn't follow up - well, 'e's class. See? An' cept you've done somefink class, you can't get took into a gang. I told you about the accerabat that me an' my muvver was livin' wiv? Well, there was a Institute down off the Old Kent Road, where there was a entertainment one night - sort of 'sault-of-arms mostly, an' the accerabat was givin' a performance there. So 'e says, "Come along wiv me and look after the props." So course I went, an' got behind the stage. Well, there was a lot of gents takin' part, an' they'd took off their togs and 'ung 'em all round the dressing-room. Now's my time, I finks. An' soon as the accerabat'd got into 'is props, an was on the stage for his performance, I slips froo to the dressing-room and goes froo all the pockets what I could finger. What wiv one fing an' anuvver, I managed to nick a matter of ten pounds or so. Then I nipped off and planted the stuff where it couldn't come to no 'arm, and couldn't 'urt nobody, an' fore the second part of the performance was started, there was me, 'anging about premiskus at the back of the 'all. I got back jest in time to hear the chairman give out that there was thieves about, an' advisin' the audience to look after their pockets. When the gents had gone to take off their athaletic dress, they'd found that someone 'ad been looking after their prop'ty more careful than what they had. Course I wasn't suspected, me 'anging about all the time where everybody could see me. See? An' wivout a penny in me pocket. See?
So when the performance was over, an' we were goin' along to our lap, I told the accerabat 'ow I'd done a bit of biz on me own, cause I couldn't keep it to meself. An' 'e says: "Got the stuff on yer, ye young devil?" 'e says. "What d' you fink?" I says. "I planted it." Then the accerabat wanted to know where I'd planted it, an' I says it's likely I'd tell him, bein' me own stuff. See? An' wiv that he was comin' for me frottle; but I ducked under 'is arm an' scooted, nor I didn't go 'ome that night, nor yet for two nights arter. Two days I laid low, and then I went an' lifted the stuff where I'd planted it. Finks 'e was goin' to 'andle the stuff that b'longed to me. Likely!' Young Alf shot the remainder of the ginger-beer down his throat.
'Not 'im,' he said, as he put down his glass, and threw back his head, taking a long whiff of his cigar.
'Actors is pretty fly gen'rally,' he continued presently, 'but they get made a mark of now an' then, specially when they're new to the biz. You show 'em the way to the stage door. See? It's always in a dark alley or a side street wiv no light. Then you walk right in; don't 'ang about; an' everybody'll fink you belong to the place. An' if you keep your eyes skinned, the place'll belong to you. Won't take you free minutes nor more to run froo the dressing-rooms. Why, you can 'urry past the bloke at the door jest as if you was late for your performance, and get froo all alone. There's lots of women prigs that works that line, goin' froo the rooms where the lady artists change. An' they can make a tidy bit out of it, wiv no error.'
Young Alf puffed even more vigorously at his cigar.
But dishonest endeavour is never utterly wasted, and the exploit at the School of Arms, admirably executed as it was, proved to be a turning-point in young Alf's career. The incident should be a lesson to young men starting in life, that the smallest opportunity is too good to be neglected, and that the decision of a moment may lead to an assured position among their fellows.
For, as appears from young Alf's narrative, the rumour ran round the Walk that young Alf had done something class on his own, and, as you may well believe, young Alf was not inclined to minimize his merits. One boy whispered to another, and in no long time this ten pounds was multiplied by ten. Probably there were sceptics who doubted young Alf's capacity; others, too, who thought that so young a nipper should not be thrust into premature prominence. But when young Alf, having lifted his stuff and invested it carefully, appeared in the Walk with a brown coat, and the usual trimmings of buttons, a bowler hat, and a pair of trousers cut very saucy, well, there was nothing more to be said.
Young Alf was, in a sense, class. He had proved himself a boy of enterprise, able to conceive and execute a successful plan; a boy, too, who knew how to spend money as well as how to acquire it. For he and the other boys went on the razzle down the Walk, and his ten pounds was beginning to look very small indeed. Nevertheless, it was no longer necessary to kick in doors in order to earn respect.
You never know what the smallest job, well executed, may prelude. This little exploit, which to young Alf's mature judgement is scarcely worth consideration, was one of the turning-points of his career, and led to what we may call his first regular employment.
For some time young Alf had been aware of the eye of Billy the Snide upon him; and it was no small thing to attract the attention of Billy the Snide, who was in a big line and able to give a lift to an older hand than young Alf. Once or twice Billy the Snide had gone out of his way to kick young Alf off the pavement in the Walk, which encouraged young Alf to hope for better things. His exploit was by this time getting talked about; for no one had least doubt as to the fate of that missing money, except the police, who are sticklers for evidence.
It was in the Kennington Road that Billy the Snide stepped into young Alf's life, and gave him the promotion he had earned.
One afternoon he was walking down the Kennington Road, clad in his new coat; in his mouth a cigar. For he had still nearly a sovereign left from his haul at the School of Arms, and could afford his little comforts. He was much pleased with himself, for he had just bought a new cap which had taken his fancy, and bought it cheap. It had lain in the shilling heap outside the shop, but a shilling seemed an excessive price when sixpence was enough. So he had shifted it from the shilling basket to the sixpenny basket while making his selection, and sprung a tanner. He looks back with a certain pride on the transaction, for it was the last occasion on which he found it necessary to pay cash for an article of dress.
He was in excellent spirits as he walked the Kennington Road, clad in his new overcoat and newer cap, and encountered Billy the Snide.
Now, Billy the Snide was a leader of men, and looked up to by such as young Alf.
He has described to me the meeting more than once, conscious that it marked a crisis in his life.
The interview was short, the details are few and simple, but pregnant with fate.
Billy the Snide did not lack young Alf off the pavement, as was his custom, and that in itself was significant.
''Old 'on,' said Billy, as young Alf was about to pass him respectfully.
Young Alf halted.
It was as though the Lord Chancellor should stop a rising junior in the Strand, and ask him if he had a moment to spare.
'Bit slippy wiv yer 'ooks, I'm given to unnerstand,' remarked Billy the Snide, looking critically over young Alf.
'They're me own 'ooks, so far's I'm told,' retorted young Alf, almost blushing at the compliment. 'Feel like it.'
Billy the Snide spat reflectively at a passing hansom, and, satisfied that he had hit the mark, turned again to young Alf.
'Like to work long 'er me?' said Billy the Snide, being a man of few words, and those words to the point.
Like to work along of him! Who wouldn't? Would a briefless barrister like to devil for an Attorney-General? Who wouldn't chuck fanlight-jumping, and pigeon- nicking, and aimless scrapping in the side streets off the Walk, in order to work with Billy the Snide.
Young Alf's cigar was extinguished in his joy, but Billy the Snide gave him another; and that evening he walked home to his lap through the stars.
Billy the Snide has come to grief since then, and now his number is up. But he gave young Alf a good start, and when all is said and done they had a stirring week together, of which he promised to tell me on the following evening.