[... back to menu for this book]
On Pitching a Tale
'Anybody ever arst you what I am?' said young Alf suddenly, as
we walked in the Westminster Bridge Road. ''Cause you know what to say if
'I should say you were a friend of mine,' I replied.
'That wouldn't do,' replied young Alf. 'I shouldn't be 'arf seprized if a split that'd seen me wiv you come to you an' arst after my occupation. 'Awse-plaiter. That's what you say. I'm a 'awse-plaiter - see? You bear me out?'
I undertook to remember.
Whereupon young Alf proceeded to moralize and to point his moral with a tale.
'You got to 'ave your tale ready,' he said. 'You're awright if you pitch your tale wivout 'esitating, an' your tale's as good as anybody else's, specially if you ring it in first an' get somebody to bear you out. That's right, ain't it?'
It seemed right. But I did not wish to interrupt the current of his reflections. So I remained silent.
'Don't you believe it?' said young Alf, with a sharp look round at me. 'Then I'll eggsplain my meanin'. What I mean is, you got to 'ave your tale ready fore you start on your job, else when you get pinched what are you goin' to say? Eh?
'Well, when I went wiv Jimmy reg'lar I didn't live wiv my muvver no more. I went an' kipped wiv a pal. Be'ind the kip there was a bit o' yard, wiv a wall that run along at the back of all the 'ouses in the row. One night I'd 'eard about a bit o' stuff I fort I could put me 'ooks on in a 'ouse 'bout six doors up. So when the street was quiet an' the blokes in the kip was mostly asleep, out I nipped an' got on to the wall an' crawled along to the 'ouse I'd marked, wivout makin' any noise. But jest as I was lookin' for me drop into the yard somefink catched old of me leg, an' there was a copper that'd crep up in 'is silent shoes. He pulled me down off the wall, an' 'e says:
' "Now then, what's the little game, eh?" 'e says.
I was fair knocked. Cause you understand, I 'adn't got tue tale ready to pitch. See? So I made out as if I was cryin', so's to get time to fink. An' then the slop 'e shook me shoulder an' says:
"Now then, what were you doin' on that 'ere wall?"
'Be that time I'd fort of me tale, so I gives over cryin', and I says:
' "Please, mister p'liceman," I says, "don't you go an' let on to my faver."
' "Your faver," 'e says. "Who's your faver, an' where is 'e?"
' "In there," I says, pointing to free houses furver up the row. ' "E's waitin' up for me, an' if he sees me comin' in at the front 'e'd lam me someflnk cruel. I know faver," I says.
' "Well, you come along 'er me an' we'll find 'im," says the cop. "I'm not satisfied wiv your explanation," he says.
So we went round to the front, an' the cop kep 'is 'and on my shoulder, an' knocked at the door. A old man wiv whiskers come an' opened it.
' "Ello," he says, "what's wrong now."
' "Look ere, faver," I chips in; "this yer cop's pinched me cause I was comin' in the back way, fear you'd lam me. You won't lam me, will yer? I wasn't on'y 'avin' a lark."
The old 'un 'e put his lamps over me. "This your boy?" says the cop.
' "Jest you lemme get at 'im," says the old 'un. "I'll wail his young skin proper. You lemme get at 'im, that's all."
"Then that's awright," says the cop. "Want's lookin' after, 'e does. You lay it on fick."
"Fick's the word," says the old 'un. An' then off goes the copper. Got out o' that awright, didn't I?'
Young Alf's face assumed a look of preternatural cunning.
'But,' I objected, that wasn't your father, was it? I thought you told me -'
'What do you fink?' said young Alf. 'Never ardlly spoke to 'im in me life. On'y he kep' the 'ouse where one or two of my pals kipped, 'mong 'em bein' Maggots. An' I knowed 'e was strite. See? 'E tumbled soon as I called 'im faver. What?'
We walked on for some moments in silence as we crossed the Lambeth Road and turned into the Walk.
'See what I mean 'bout havin' your tale ready?' said young Alf, presently. 'There was anuvver time, when I took Kate wiv me to the Derby in a little cart, an' me lookin' like a toff, wiv no error.'
Young Alf wagged his head at the memory of the drive, and clicked his tongue, as though the pony were still under his hands.
'Kate?' I said, 'I don't think I've heard anything about Kate.'
'Oh, there was more besides Alice,' said young Alf, smoothing out his neckerchief. 'I always kep two or free gals hangin' about. 'Obby of mine, I s'pose.'
We were within hail of the pleasant room, of which you have heard, and I proposed a visit, wishing to hear something more concerning the art of pitching a tale. Young Alf was willing, and we entered.
Three men, who I imagine would be described on the charge-sheet as commission agents, were sitting and talking quietly at the other end of the room.
Young Alf and I sat apart from them, young Alf giving a swift nod as he dropped into his chair. As usual he took ginger-beer.
It appears that young Alf had struck a streak of luck in the spring of which he spoke. He had got a nice little lot out of a house over at Clapham, which Jimmy had reconnoitred for him. His entrance was effected without difficulty, at about one in the morning. But on the hall table, over which the gas-lamp was burning dimly, he found a note from the lady of the house to its master, stating that she was tired of waiting up and had gone to bed. So young Alf, ascending to the drawing-room upon the first-floor, hid himself in the dark, under the sofa, where he abode until the master of the house returned, extinguished the gas, and mounted to his room, which was on the same floor as the room in which young Alf lay concealed.
Young Alf was delighted to hear the lady of the house begin lecturing her husband on the evil of late hours and bad company, for, though still young in years, he knew that when a capable and energetic woman is rebuking her husband the husband has no leisure to think of anything else.
'First of all,' said young Alf, as he told me the story, 'the old boy took 'is gruelling wivout a murmur; but after a bit 'e put in a word on 'is own, or 'e tried to. Didn't make no 'eadway, though, 'cause more 'e said, more she went on twice as fick wiv 'er ole mag.
'It was jest a bit a' lucky for me, them goin' on like that, 'cause it give me a chance of runnin' froo the rooms, knowin' all the time that the boss'd got 'is ands full of more'n 'e could andle. So I got froo the job carm an' easy in me mind, an' that's somefink to say thanky for when you're in a strange 'ouse. More'n that, I fort when I'd done that I might as well 'ave somefink downstairs after waitin' unner the sofy, while the boss was gettin' his tongue-pie upstairs. See? So I creeps down to the kitchen and does myself proper wiv corned beef an' pickles. An' all the time I could hear the ole geezer upstairs layin' it on to 'er ole man fick as she knew 'ow. Well, all said an' done, I got away wiv about forty pounds worf of cash and jool'ry.'
But this was not the end of young Alf's luck. Most of his exploits were carefully planned, and carried out with due regard to established rules. But now and then a sudden thought, an inspiration, as it were, came to him; and an inspiration is often more profitable than a carefully-devised plan.
This particular inspiration came one Sunday afternoon, when young Alf and two pals were loafing in a populous North London street. It was closing time; and young Alf, being off his accustomed beat, was keeping a sharper lookout than usual for promises of future gain. He was not thinking in the least, so he assured me, of the public-house he was passing when the inspiration came. But he noticed that the barman was just about to close the door; and, glancing past the barman, young Alf's quick eye caught the glitter of several nice little heaps of coin on one of those tell-tale arrangements that many publicans used before the introduction of the present automatic typewriter-phonograph register.
Now, many boys would have passed on unnoticing. Young Alf's pals passed on. The boy who notices succeeds. Young Alf notices everything that takes place within three hundred and sixty degrees of his line of sight.
Not only does young Alf notice; he reflects. On this occasion he reflected upon the streets he had passed through, the probable size of the public-house, and its situation relative to other streets. He inferred back premises. The inference led him to the further conclusion that a good stroke of business might be brought off.
He slipped away from his companions and retraced his steps, turning into a side street. Here he struck the back premises, entered boldly, noting the lay of the rooms and the passages as he proceeded, and meeting nobody, concealed himself in the room behind the bar. The bar was clear, and there was a hurrying and scurrying for dinner. After waiting for a quarter of an hour or so, young Alf concluded that the household would be well engaged at the dinner-table. It took him but few seconds to scoop up the morning's takings, which were conveniently placed in heaps, after which he quietly drew the bolts and emerged by the front door. Young Alf thought that this public-house must be doing a good trade, and could well spare the twenty pounds in gold and silver which he removed. He only regretted that the difficulty of suitable transport compelled him to leave the copper behind.
It is young Alf's habit, when he has brought off a job of this kind successfully, to revisit the scene of action at an early date. This is not a weakness, such as impels a murderer to return to the place where his crime was committed. It is rather an instance of his careful regard for details, which has secured for him an immunity from arrest beyond the usual lot of his kind. He wishes to assure himself that he has not incurred suspicion, so that he may walk the street at ease and sleep peacefully at night. Even in so small a matter as that of the centre-bit which he nicked in the Walk while inspecting other articles which he did not require, he did not neglect this precaution. Requiring a centre-bit for the ordinary purposes of burglary, he slipped the implement under his coat while the shopman's back was turned, and then remarking that he had not found what he required, departed; then, having planted the centre-bit, he strolled back and, as though still hesitating over a purchase, ascertained that the centre-bit had been missed. That done, he put the incident behind him. So, on the morning following the incident at the public-house, young Alf made his way to North London, and sauntering into the bar, spoke affably with the landlady. In the course of conversation he advised her to keep an eye on suspicious characters, since he had heard that several public-house robberies had been committed in the district. The landlady thanked him, but said that his advice came a day too late. Then she told him what had happened on the previous day - at least, some of it. And young Alf, remarking that you wouldn't think such a lot of money would be kept in the bar at one time, left for Lambeth with a peaceful mind. The landlady had no idea who had stolen the money, or how it had been stolen.
The twenty pounds belonged to young Alf, and there was no cause for further anxiety about it.
Though not invariably just, as we have seen in the case of the slavey whom he defrauded of her share in the swag from the Clapham Common house, young Alf was not infrequently generous. Wherefore, a considerable proportion of the brass he had pinched at the public in North London, as well as of the proceeds of his little haul, of which you read earlier in this chapter, went in standing treat to pals. At that time a favourite meeting-place was in the bar of a public-house off the Westminster Bridge Road, and here many convivial evenings were spent, young Alf putting up the ready to the admiration of his friends and the satisfaction of the landlord. Even the landlord, a genial soul, and a lover of good company, was induced to lower his own liquor at young Alf's expense.
It was during one of these evenings that young Alf, always chivalrous, reflected that Kate should share in his good fortune. To me Kate is little but a name. She was, I understand, one of the smartest fillies in the Walk; also she was engaged, when not otherwise employed, in the manufacture of card-board boxes. This was some time ago. What she is doing now I cannot say.
Young Alf recounted this incident in his career, in order to illustrate his thesis that if you want to go sideways you have got to have your tale ready to pitch. And he told it thus, sipping his ginger-beer at intervals, while the men at the other end of the room continued their conversation, with an occasional glance towards us:
'Well, the landlord had a smart stepper an' a cart, an' one evening I finks to meself it'd be a bit of awright if I took Kate down to the Derby wiv a bit o' class. See? There was the pony eatin' 'is ead off in the stable be'ind, an there was the cart ready an' waitin'. Now, what did I tell you? Didn't I say if you wants a fing you got to go and take it? That's what I done.'
'But how did you do it?' I asked.
Young Alf set down his glass and thrust forth his lips contemptuously.
'Went an' took it. Didn't I tell you? Early next morning, fore anyone was about, there was me in the stable at the back of the pub 'arnessing the nag. I got away awright wivout anyone seeing me; wouldn't 'ave worried me off me rocker if they 'ad. 'Cause I'd got me tale ready to pitch.'
'What was the tale?' I asked.
''Arf a mo,' said young Alf. 'I'm comin' to that. Well, Kate was waitin' for me where I'd told 'er, an' in ardly no time I was on the road wiv the smartest little filly in the Walk by me side. Goin' fine, we was.'
Young Alf cocked his head, clicked his tongue, and assumed the attitude of one who sits behind a spirited animal and enjoys it. The men at the other end of the room ceased their conversation, and turned to listen to young Alf's narrative.
'Passed everyfink that was goin' down to the Derby, we did. An' Kate larfin' fit to bust 'erself. Gawblimey! fair old beano it was, wiv no error.'
Young Alt suddenly dropped the attitude of one who drives, and I inferred disaster - rightly.
'About 'arf way to Epsom,' he continued, 'I'd slackened the pace a bit as we come to a stiff bit of hill, an' I got the awfice from a toff that was drivin' 'ard that I was wanted be'ind. Course I tumbled at once that the bung'd put the splits on me. What do you fink I did?'
'A scoot,' I suggested. 'Whipped up the pony, outdistanced the detectives, sold the pony and trap at Epsom, put the money on the winners, came back by special train, and married Kate. Eh?'
Young Alf's face denoted scorn.
'Not me,' he said. 'I see I was rumbled, in a manner of speakin.' I'd got a little bit up me sleeve, arrever. See? So, soon as I got the wheeze, I whips the pony round, and trots carm an' peaceful back along the road. Nor I 'adn't got more'n fair started 'fore a couple of splits that I knew come up in a dog-cart. One of 'em caught the pony by the 'ead, an' the uvver nabbed me by the collar. "What you doin' of?" I says, angry-like. An wiv that I got the bracelets on, an' there was me bein' drove back 'ome in the dogcart; while the uvver split took Kate be'ind the pony. Cryin', Kate was. She didn't know 'ow I'd got the turn-out; an' it fair knocked 'er, me bein' pinched like that.'
'Well, there was no getting out of it that time, was there?' I said, as young Alf paused and looked across towards the men at the other end of the room, who were obviously interested in the story.
'Talk sense,' said young Alf, as one of the men laughed - the man in the brown coat and the red silk muffler. 'Didn't I tell you I'd got me tale ready to pitch? Why, I was larfin' and talkin' wiv the split all the way back to the pub.
' "Awright, cocky," 'e says, "you'll get your show temorrer."
'Knowed me, 'e did, well as 'e knowed 'is own muvver.
'What's more, I got me show. See?'
Young Alf's mouth and eyes assumed an extraordinary angle.
The man in the brown coat stuck out his legs and leaned back in his chair, contemplating the ceiling, and showing an under-chin that was blue.
'Well, when we got back to the pub I'd got a pretty good chance of spendin' my Derby day wivin four narrer walls,' continued young Alf, whose mouth was working with excitement. 'An', sure nough, they caged me for the night. On'y they let Kate go.'
The man in the brown coat and the red muffler was nodding at the ceiling; the other two were leaning forward, listening.
'Next mornin',' continued young Alf, there was me up 'fore the beak answerin' a charge of stealin' a 'awse an' trap. 'Ealfy, eh? Specially when the bung come up, an' the splits come up, an' all of 'em put in a peg for me well as they knew 'ow. So when they'd said all they could fink of, the beak turns to me where I stood, you unnerstand, an' 'e arsts me it I wanted to arst any questions. Course I wanted to arst any questions. That was me chance. See?'
Young Alf finished his ginger-beer at a gulp, and dashed down the glass upon the table.
' "Yes, your worsh'p," I says, quite pelite, "I should like to arst the prosecutor whether he was sober the night fore I took the trap."
The bung didn't say nuffink, an' the beak 'e looked at 'im an says my question over again.
' "I arst," I goes on, "I arst the prosecutor if 'e wasn't so drunk the night 'fore I took the trap, that 'e didn't know what 'e said nor what 'e didn't say."
'You should a' seen the bung when I put that question to 'im.
'Then the beak says! "The prisoner arsts if you was intoxicated on the previous evenin'. Was that so?"
'An' then I chips in: "Why, he told me, your worship," I says, " 'e told me I was welcome to the trap to go for a drive down the road to the Derby, as 'tween frens," I says; "told me so that very night in 'is own bar."
'Wiv that the beak put 'is lamps over the bung, an' says, solemn as you please, "Was you intoxicated?"
'That fetched the bung, you unnerstand; cause there was people in court that'd sin 'im on 'is back time after time froo drink.
'"I must admit I was somewhat overcome," says the bung, lookin' sheepish.
' "Do you remember," the beak goes on, "do you remember everyfink as took place on the night in question, an' more partickerly the time when the prisoner says you promised 'im the loan of your 'awse an' trap?"
'Then the bung 'ad to own up.
' "I can't swear that I'm clear as to everyfink," 'e says. "Fact is," says the beak, "you don't seem to know what 'appened, an', bein' a doubt in the matter, it's my duty to discharge the prisoner."
'So I got off. An' ow did I get off? Jest cause I'd got me tale ready to pitch. I know'd all the time they couldn't prove anyfink against me. Not them.'
'But was the landlord drunk?' I asked.
' 'Ewas one of them blokes,' said young Alf, 'that can't never be certain wevver they was drunk last night or wevver they wasn't. See? There's lots like that. An' that's what made me fink of me tale.'
'Then the tale wasn't true?'
Young Alf picked up his glass, which was empty, and looked at it.
'I've 'ad a few turns in the dock,' he said; 'an' I fink it's time the pris'ner as a chance of puttin' in 'is bit o' lyin'. Anyfink worse than the perj'ry that goes on in courts - well, strike me, it'd be a tough and that'd come up to the form that some of the beaks pass for Gawd's truth.'
The man in the brown coat dropped his eyes from the ceiling, disclosing a rather pleasant face - fat, with a snub nose and a stubbly moustache.
'Sin Jawge litely?' he asked suddenly.
'George? George oo?' said young Alf.
'Jawge o' Mitcham,' said the man in the brown coat.
'Oh, im,' said young Alf. 'No, nor don't want to it.'
' 'Aven't bin lookin' for 'im, I reckon,' said the man in the brown coat. ' 'e bin lookin' for you?'
'Shut yer 'ead,' said young Alf, modestly.
But I could see that his modesty was only assumed.
'I should like to hear about George,' I said.
Young Alf would have another ginger-beer. And he told me of George, while the man in the brown coat stirred something hot in his tumbler, and followed the story with nods and winks, as one who anticipated its points, but enjoyed them as they came.