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'What you fink of me bein' a tiger to a toff?' said young Alf, suddenly.
The idea was somewhat grotesque; and possibly my face betrayed me.
'I was. No kid,' said young Alf. 'Reg'lar smart young tiger I was, wiv buttons all down me front. See?'
It was one of those evenings on the edge of winter which makes you disbelieve in the English climate and dream of eternal autumn. We had gone down together to see a boxing-match in Lambeth, a match which was to be one of a series extensively advertised in the houses about the Walk. The pleasant room contained a notice in a prominent place over the mantelpiece. But circumstances had intervened. To put it plainly, the star of the evening had got into the usual difficulty, and was not allowed bail.
As the star was obscured, the minor lights scattered up and down the Walk, explaining how they would have fought and conquered had not fate snatched from them the opportunity; give them just half a chance and he would want a whole hospital to himself. Such were the boasts of the Walk. For the boxing saloon was closed for the evening, and 'Mugs' - by that name we knew the proprietor - was wandering among licensed premises, and becoming more obscene and less intelligible as the evening advanced.
Young Alf, disappointed of the fight, and solicitous for my entertainment, raked his memory for stories.
It appears that when young Alf had been associated with Jimmy for about a week, his mother bethought herself of her maternal responsibilities. As her son wore good clothes, never asked her for money, had no visible means of subsistence and kept irregular hours, it is probable that she had her suspicions. Anyhow, she insisted that young Alf should obtain honest employment. Now this, as young Alf had already pointed out to me, was not an easy thing to do, and when done was scarcely worth the trouble of doing.
However, with all his faults, - and by this time you will have gathered that our young friend is but an imperfect creature, - young Alf was always a good son to his mother. So, in deference to her wishes, he began the search. A butcher's boy, with whom he had a casual acquaintance, happened one day to mention that there was a vacancy in the household of a toff at Clapham Common. Young Alf determined to fill it.
With great care he composed a character of himself, which Jimmy copied out, being an excellent scholar. The character was so good that young Alf was engaged on the spot. His mother was much pleased; even Jimmy expressed approval of the new departure, and promised to come over one day and look young Alf up at Clapham Common.
So with a new name, a new address, and a new character, young Alf entered upon his new duties, which he discharged to the complete satisfaction of his employer.
A few days after the advent of young Alf a new servant arrived at the house on Clapham Common, a circumstance which gave a suggestion to young Alf. For the new servant came from the country, and was as green as the cabbages which grew in her mother's back garden.
Young All began tea-leafing.
Now by no stretch of language can tea-leafing be called class. But as a county cricketer, if he can get nothing better to do, will play tip-cat, so young Alf went in for tea leafing to fill up the time. His mistress made very nice milk scones. Tins of cocoa were easy of access. A packet of tea now and again would not be missed. These, with other odds and ends, did young Alf make up into parcels and convey to his mother. As I have said, he was always a good son. Let us remember that when we are inclined to condemn some of his practices.
It soon became evident that someone was laying fingers pretty freely on the domestic stores, and, of course, suspicion fell on the new servant. For young Alf had carefully refrained from tea-leafing until her coming. As he had foreseen, the servant was chucked her job; the mistress thinking that she gave the things to her sister, a big country girl who called about twice a week.
As young Alf told me of his spell of honest employment we were standing at the top of the Walk, where it bends round to meet the Lambeth Road. There is a shop at that point which always interests me. If I shut my eyes and think of something I do not want and could not in any probable circumstances want, and then open them on that shop window, I shall see the thing itself.
A silk hat of the later eighties? It is there. A Jumbo Entertainer's voice producer? It invites you. A bust of Wordsworth - engraved? You may have it at a sacrificial price. 'Law's Serious Call'? It stares you in the face, with 'The Young Criminal' as next-door neighbour. Racing calendars, too, seven years old, and looking their age, you may get; accordions, and briar-pipes, well-coloured, and marked at twopence. It would pay a discontented man to come to that corner - he could ride there from any reasonable part of London for threepence at the outside - and learn how many things he does not want. Where do these strange things come from? And have they any future? You would think that the silk hat of the later eighties would have had enough of life and be glad of oblivion.
I was interested in the shop; but courtesy demanded that I should attend to my entertainer.
'It was rather unfair to the servant, wasn't it?' I remarked.
Young Alf replied, in effect, that he could not afford to let such considerations influence his line of action.
'I got meself to fink about,' he said, using his customary formula. 'The slavey was awright,' he continued. I knowed that well enough. She never went sideways. But I 'ad to let 'er go cause I'd a bigger job in me eye than sneakin' the small fings. See? Jimmy come over one afternoon an' put 'is lamps over the show. I told 'im there was a good bit of stuff to be got an' Jimmy went away to fink of the best way to land it. But I fort I'd do somefink on me own. See? Look ere!'
Young Alf's face was a miracle of slyness as he touched my arm and drew my eyes to his own.
'I dropped nickin',' he said, 'knowin' I'd be rumbled if I went on when the servant got the chuck, an' I waited till me and the uvver new slavey that come was pretty fick. She took a wunnerftul fancy to me, that slavey did, an' when I pitched 'er a tale that my muvver was very poor an' ow she lived I didn't know, she was fair gone on the story. Tender-'earted gal she was, an' she fort a lot of me.
'Well, one day the master and the missus went off to Brighton for a short 'oliday, leavin' me an' the slavey to take care of the 'ouse. Soon as they'd gone I rang in my tale to the slavey 'ow my muvver was starvin' in a garret wivout anyfink to eat, an' she wrote out a order to the grocer that supplied the ouse, - butter an' eggs an' uvver fings that she fort would be good for my muvver. She said on the order that the fings were to be sent by the boy that'd wait. An' so I did wait, wiv the pony trap, an' soon as I got the parcels off I drives to my muvver's.
'But that wasn't the job I'd got me eye on; don't you go finkin' that. Fore the toff and 'is missus'd been away free days I rang in anuvver tale 'ow there was a lot of fings in the 'ouse that we could sell an' share the money between us. At first she wasn't game, finkin' we was sure to be rumbled. But I showed 'er the job was as easy as anyfink, an' I could do anyfink wiv that slavey, I could. So we went froo the drawers and broke open the boxes, an' got pretty nigh a cart-load of stuff, which I took an' planted wiv the fence that lived underneaf my muvver's.'
'And what happened,' I asked, 'when your master came back from Brighton?'
'Didn't wait to see,' he replied. 'Next day I saw the slavey off wiv her box from Clapham Junction, and paid 'er fare to 'er 'ome in the country. An' I never set eyes on 'er again, - nor the boss neither. I should say 'e was a bit of a 'ook isself, from the swag 'e 'ad about the 'ouse.'
I am bound to say that this seems to be the only evidence against the character of young Alf's late employer.
'The girl that got the sack for tea-leafin' that she never did, got a bit of 'er own back, I reckon,' continued young Alf, even if she didn't know it. The missus couldn't be orf finkin' when she found the tiger an' the new slavey'd slung wiv the lot.'
'And the new slavey had a little something on which to start life again,' I suggested.
Young Alf looked sideways at me, with a gleam of amusement in his eyes. His cheeks puffed out. He dropped the stump of his cigar and crushed it under his heel. 'She never fingered a bleed'n' farden,' he said.