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Young Alf was late for his appointment.
We had arranged to meet on the Embankment in the neighbourhood of Cleopatra's
Needle, at eleven; and the quarter past had just boomed from Westminster. It was
a clear night, with a full moon shining and turning the Thames into a fairy
river spanned by bridges of gossamer. Have you never seen Charing Cross railway
bridge by moonlight? As I came up in the train I encountered a party of people
who were going out to see the illuminations, for it was the Prince of Wales'
birthday. Why do people not go out in parties to lean over the parapet of the
Embankment and watch the Thames by moonlight? The river always has its
fascination. On a dark night, when the drizzle drenches to the skin, and the
Embankment is empty of its customary tenants, the river is mysterious, and a
little bit awful. Awful, because you can see nothing of it. Only an occasional
flicker of light through the rain. You hear the pull of engines, which cross the
sky and now and then stop to whistle impatiently. Now and again the throb of a
passing tug, which, unseen, steals out of hearing. Below you, the lap of the
water against the concrete - the wash from the stern of the tug. You lean over,
and look into blackness. You think of despairing women who cast themselves over
bridges into the outstretched arms of death. A boat creeps into hearing; there
are pauses between the strokes, as though the rower were given to meditation.
The river-police. Yes; it is the Styx, and here is Charon.
But this evening it was fairyland. The tide was at the full, and the moonlight transfigured the sordid details of the Surrey side. Fairyland in front, as you leaned over the parapet and watched the silver path of the moon upon the river break into ten million diamonds as the tug crossed it. But turn, and you are facing the Inferno.
In the distance, somewhere, someone is playing a tune on a penny whistle:
' Oh! Come all ye Faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!'
An enterprising musician, with a sense of the fitness of things; for we are near the season of Advent, when our mood demands that hymn. Here comes one of them, too. Neither joyful nor triumphant, but shuffling along upon a leg that is manifestly inadequate to its task. He stops now and then; and then he comes on. You could have told him, having walked along from Charing Cross. The seats are full. He must be new to misery if he expects to find an empty seat on the Embankment after eleven at night, and not a cold night. Why, already there are some, less lucky than the rest, sleeping on the pavement, their backs propped against the parapet.
He passes on, and I see no more of him. No doubt there is plenty of room in Trafalgar Square, or if that by any chance is full, Hyde Park is a spacious bedroom.
Save for an occasional cab the Embankment is very quiet. Now and then an arm is flung, or a dim form shifts with a grunt into an easier position. But, on the whole, it is an abode of silence. Early rising is the rule among those who sleep on the Embankment, and that renders it advisable to go to sleep as early as possible. The lap-lap of the river against the Embankment wall was a sort of lullaby.
And here is young Alf, coming noiselessly along from the direction of the Temple Station. His walk is quite unmistakable, - a slouch that is in no way akin to feebleness. We exchange greetings; Young Alf's mode of greeting does not extend beyond an announcement of his own presence. And I at once noticed a tinge of depression in his aspect.
Young Alf is never merry; as you have already heard, he is not addicted to laughter; nor can I conceive him uplifting his voice in song. On the other hand, he is by no means melancholic. His temperament is equable, and he accepts good and evil fortune as coming from the same unknown source over which he, personally, has no control. Hitherto I had not seen him elated, nor had I seen him cast down. But this evening there was certainly a note of depression in his voice as well as in his deportment.
We leaned over the parapet in silence for a few moments. Then young Alf said:
'They bin tryin' to get old o' me.'
'Who?' I inquired.
'The Awmy,' he replied.
'A very good thing, too,' I said. 'Why don't you enlist? It's a fine healthy life.'
'I dessay,' said young Alf; 'there's more'n one of my pals gone for a sojer. On'y I didn't mean that. I meant the Salvation Awmy. See? They bin tryin' to get old o' me.'
'Bin into the place where I kip last free nights, the bloke 'as. Wants me to join the Awmy! "Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus." You know what they say. Got a light? I eggspect they want to carry me round, - sort o' show-like - converted 'Ooligan - eh?'
Young Alf lighted the stump of a cigarette with the match I gave him.
'Well, anyway,' I said, 'I expect they would put you in the way of earning an honest living.'
Young Alf shrugged his shoulders contemptuously.
'That's all very well for some,' he said. 'But it good enough for a boy that's up to is graft. Not be a long chalk.'
There was silence for a few moments, while young Alf puffed at his cigarette. Then he dropped it in the shadow over the parapet, and I heard the ghost of a fizz in the water below.
'There's plenty of dust-'ole lurchers that make out they're class,' he continued, 'an' never did nufflnk long as they lived to show 'eart. And I dessay they might be got round easy for a pork pie or a night's doss. But they ain't the boys that work the biz down the Walk; don't you make no meestike. The boy that done a bit o' class don't want for somefink to fill 'is mouf wiv. 'Course, if it's a evenin's beano, wiv a supper frown into the show - why, I've bin meself, jest as a bit of old swank. But you don't ketch me takin' on the sort o' job the Awmy puts in yer way. Bit o' food an' a night's doss, an' work and for it too.'
Young Alf spat viciously into the Thames.
'They don't give yer a chawnce,' he said, gloomily.
'But,' I objected, 'I'm always hearing of Associations, and Societies, and Leagues, and so on, which aim at raising the - I mean they aim at giving you a chance. Why, there are young men who come from Oxford and Cambridge and live in settlements in the lowest quarters of London in order to - well - in order to give you a-'
'I know all about that,' said young Alf. 'There's toffs come down Lambef way, an' I've showed 'em round. One night two of 'em come an' arst me an' Maggots to show 'em round. Show 'em everyfink, they said. One of 'em was a orfer.'
'A - what?'
'Orfer, wrote about fings in the papers.'
'Ah, of course.'
'So me an' Maggots walked round wiv 'em, an' showed 'em where the fences lived, an' one or two uvver fings, you unnerstand. An' then they wanted to see some more, wanted to see where I kipped, if you please. So I fort it was time to pull down their ear. Wasn't likely we'd get much if we waited till the show was over. See? So I says there was a doss close by, an' what was they goin' to spring. Well, we couldn't pull down their ear for more'n 'arf a dollar. An' soon as we got that we nipped on to a tram and left 'em. No. They 'adn't seen nuffmnk. What you fink?'
'Well, I expect they were rather disappointed,' I said.
'Fort they was goin' to see 'orrors,' continued young Alf, 'an' they didn't see nuffink. I know that sort. Come down jest as if they was goin' to look at a lot o' wild beasties. I sin 'em, too, when a lot o' prisoners was bein' took from one jug to anuvver. Starin' at 'em, - somefink cruel. I bin there meself. Why can't they take the prisoners early in the mornin' when there ain't no one about; or else late at night when no one can't see 'em? Eh? They don't give us a chawnce. Not a 'arf chawnce.'
Young Alf's eyes gleamed rather savagely, and he spoke as though he meant what he was saying. I seemed to have struck a deeper layer of his nature.
'What'd be the good o' me tryin' to go straight?' asked young Alf. 'Fink they'd let me? not them.'
Young Alf leaned over the parapet, and picked viciously at the stonework.
The half-hour boomed out from Westminster, and I turned in the direction of the sound. The electric light was gleaming from the summit of the clock-tower, indicating that our law-makers were still at work.
'Now, I wonder what the devil they're talking about,' I said.
'Eh?' said young Alf, looking round at me suspiciously.
'In the House - the House of Commons,' I said. 'That's the House of Commons, where they make the laws under which you and I live.'
'Needn't tell me that,' said young Alf; 'I sin it often enough.'
'But, Alf, don't you realize?' I said; for the absurdity things in general had caught hold upon me, and I was myself absurd. 'Don't you realize that that electric light blazes over seven hundred men, who are pledged to make this country a pleasant place for you and me to dwell in? Don't you realize that men have been sitting for hundreds of years in that place, trying to make us honest and respectable? Don't you realize that the very object of British Constitution, from the ballot-box up to the light on the top of the clock-tower, is to make the world comfortable for everyone who leads an honest life. And young Alf, why aren't you honest?'
Young Alf shifted round and faced me. What's the use o' talkin'?' he said.
'It's a big place,' I continued, looking up the river at the Houses of Parliament, with their rows of lighted windows and the little button of electric light on top. 'Inside, seven hundred of the finest men in Great Britain. Behind them, the civil service, the police, and the British Army and Navy - all bent on making you a good boy. It's long odds, young Alf Then there's the Church, too; with the archbishops and the clergy of the diocese, curates, and all; to say nothing of ministers of all denominations, district visitors and philanthropists. Vestries, too, and Parish Councils, and - Lord, yes! - the London County Council. The Lord Chamberlain and the Censor of Plays as well; the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, and the Common Coundillors, and the Judges of first instance, and the Judges of- Good gracious me! young Alf! All this mass of authority against nine stone something of lawlessness. You can't fight it, young Alf. Parliament, police, Judges, Army, Navy, and Reserve Forces, with Her Majesty the Queen at the summit, - you had better step over to the other side and shout with the bigger crowd, young Alf.'
'What's the use o' talkin'?' said young Alf again. I looked around at him. His teeth were set hard.
'Doesn't that impress you?' I asked, nodding in the direction of our Legislature.
He stared moodily at it for a few moments.
#What I can't make out is what they call pol'tics,' he said. 'First it's one side, an' then it's the uvver side; an' when all's said an' done, where's the good of it, eh? Why, when there's a 'lection on, there's toffs an' ladies down our way, fick as beetles. Fair worry Jimmy off 'is rocker, they do, wantin' 'im to vote. An' when the 'lection's over an' one side or the uvver's got in over there, why, nuffink comes of it. There's 'nough cops an' splits in Lunnun to eat up the 'Ooligans for their breakfast. Don't you tell me. Parlymint ain't no bleed'n' good.'
'It can put you in gaol, Alf,' I said.
'It's put me gaol more n once,' said young Alf. 'An' fat lot o' good it done me.'
I found it difficult to base an argument in favour of the prison system on the case of young Alf himself; so I said nothing.
'Strikes me,' continued young Alf, 'I'd like to get up a pawty of me own down our way, an' go to Parlymint meself. I could put 'em up to a quiff or two, wiv no error.'
I asked young Alf what steps he would take to reform the criminal classes, if he were elected to Parliament and attained a position of authority. And Young Alf's views, which must be regarded in one sense at least, as the views of an expert, appeared to me very interesting.
You must catch the criminal young, he maintains; in fact, before he has become a criminal. Take him as soon as he begins associating with those who are known to be going sideways, lift him clean out of his surroundings, and teach him a trade. Make him a sailor, a soldier, teach him carpentry, bricklaying, anything that will give him regular employment and regular pay. But do this before he has had time to taste the sweets of irregular employment and indefinite reward.
Above all, do not send him to gaol.
Do not send him to gaol, even though you catch him rifling your safe in the small hours.
Young Alf does not believe in the efficacy of prison treatment for juvenile offenders.
Certainly, the young Hooligan who has never been in gaol is rather inclined to shrink from the experience. The punishment is still an unknown quantity, and the mystery engenders terror. But after a term of imprisonment, when the gaol is no longer a mystery, and the boy has found that he is subjected to no personal violence, has enough to eat without the necessity of stealing or working for it, and has to endure no particular inconvenience beyond conforming to certain simple rules, - then the gaol loses its terrors, and he is willing to face it again if the need arises. He looks forward to doing a bit of time as the young gentleman in the drapery emporium looks forward to stocktaking, - a nuisance, but all in the day's work, and with a bit of a beano when it is over.
It might be imagined that the mere disgrace of being handcuffed, placed in the dock, sentenced in full view of the public, and carted off in a prison van to do time at Wandsworth, would appeal to the youngster who was hesitating between taking a situation as an errand boy at three and sixpence a week, and working - we will say - with such as Jimmy, - between going straight and going sideways. There are strata in society in which people fight shy of the man who is known to have been convicted of felony and paid the usual penalty. But in the class of which young Alf was speaking this feeling does not exist at all. The boy who has done time is not disgraced in his own circle. On the contrary, he is a bit of a hero in his small way. It is not necessary to get lagged - if you are known to have shown heart. But if you have been lagged, sent to the stir, and done time, - well - that is pretty good proof that you are class.
That is why young Alf, though proud of the fact that he has never done a stretch for burglary, is not by any means sorry to have spent some two years of his short life behind the bars. He is thereby put above suspicion.
Young Alf, then, would not send the youthful malefactor to prison. He would catch him, at the first sign of stumbling, and send him to a reformatory school, there to learn some honest trade that will hereafter keep him in comfort and out of mischief. He holds that if Parliament went the right way to work, a good many of the youngsters who are getting into the ranks of the Hooligans might be pointed for the straight and narrow way.
It would be an odd experiment, I reflected, as I looked from young Alf to the Mother of Parliaments, to organize a Select Committee, with young Alf as chairman, charged to find the best means of reforming the Hooligan. Not so absurd, after all. For young Alf knows as much about the question as most people.
The light on the clock-tower was extinguished. 'There!' I said. The sitting is over. I wonder what they have been doing tonight.'
'Oh, Parlymint's no good,' said young Alf. 'That's what Jimmy's always said. You got to look after yerself. No one else won't. They don't give us a chawnce.'
In the distance a violin squeaked 'The Mistletoe Bough.' The penny whistle still persevered with 'O come, all ye Faithful!' though from the sound I gathered that it had moved on to the next licensed premises.
'You get pinched, an' you do yer bit o' time, an' you come out, an' you get pinched again; that's what it is. Same ole game. Gimme a chawnce. I'd talk to 'em. Fings I could tell 'em. Don't you talk to me 'bout pol'tics. Finkin' about themselves all the time; That's what they're doin'. See?'
'Then, what is your feeling about going to gaol?' I asked. Don't you mind it?'
Young Alf considered a bit.
Then he confessed that, on the whole, he didn't. Prison life he did not regard as at all unendurable. When you have taken the plunge it doesn't really hurt. Sometimes you come across a warder who is a bit of a hot 'un, and then you suffer for it. But, taking one thing with another, you might be in a worse place than Wandsworth gaol, - or even Wormwood Scrubs; a good deal depends upon the warder. No; on the whole, you don't mind doing time, providing you have done it before, - and not too many times. When you've got a lot of previous convictions against you, and done several stretches, and are getting on in life, you know that the next sentence will probably see you into your grave. Then you decide that it is more profitable to swing than to do another stretch, and you buy a revolver, load it, and on occasion use it.
That was Jimmy's situation just before he succeeded in amassing sufficient capital to start as a respectable fence.
'But is that game worth the candle?' I asked. 'Why not turn it up and live an honest life. That's just what gaol is meant for, - to persuade you that it's more comfortable to go straight than sideways.'
'It's no good when you once got lagged,' said young Alf. 'They don't give you a chawnce again. What you fink a boy's goin' to do when he comes out. Eh? You fink they give 'im a job? Not them.'
'But what about this prison-gate mission?' I said. 'I always understood that when a prisoner came out of gaol, he was met at the gates, taken to have breakfast, and offered a chance of living an honest life.'
Then young Alf gave his opinion of the prison home which well-meaning philanthropists offer to the discharged prisoner. I fancy he was prejudiced, and I will not set forth his criticism in detail. But, in effect, his opinion was that there is not enough difference between the prison and the home outside the gates to induce a boy to choose the certainty of the latter rather than the chance of the former. Moreover, if you are not a skilled workman at some trade other than house-breaking or pocket-picking, you won't get wages enough to live on. If you are a skilled workman, you will get less than the ordinary rate of wages, because you are only taken on as a favour, being a discharged prisoner. Oh, no! Politics don't give you a chance.
'But there's always some pals to meet you when you done your time,' continued young Alf. You come out in the mornin', feelin' as if all the world was against you, an' there's free or four pals waitin' wiv a word o' welcome. Makes you feel you've got some frens left. See? An' then you 'ear what's bin goin' on, an' if anyfink big's comin' off. See? It's the symperfy.'
Young Alf's hands were dug deep into his pockets, and his shoulders were hunched about his ears.
'There's always pals to meet you,' he said. An' they show more symperfy than a toff gives to is daughter what's got led crooked.'
The Embankment was quite silent, now that a cab had clattered past and disappeared by the Temple Station.
'But solitary confinement-' I suggested. 'Isn't that rather unpleasant? Doesn't that frighten the prisoner?'
'Sends some of em dotty,' replied young Alf. 'But I don't mind it meself. If you in the crib-crackin' line it gives you a chawnce of finkin' out some job you can put your 'and to when you come out. You got time enough to fink, wiv no error.'
'But do you mean to tell me that it's impossible to get an honest job when you've come out of gaol?' I asked.
'Can't be done,' said young Alf. 'There's lots o' men gone in for crackin' cribs jest cause they couldn't seport their famblies. Don't you b'lieve it?'
I didn't - quite.
'Look 'ere, I'll tell yer,' said young Alf. 'I 'ad a honest job once.'
'When you were tiger to a toff?' I said.
'No, not then. It was a real honest job, strite. I 'ad a place at a general store, - coals an' grocery, and fings like that; an' fore long I 'ad the management of the ole show; I was as careful of every penny of me master's money as I was of me own, an' took a dam sight more care of it than what 'e did. An' then one day there comes a split pokin' 'is nose into the show. Sin me drivin' round wiv the pony cart. See? An' 'e tells my master that I done time. Then what appened?'
' 'Course I got the push.'
'That was hard lines.'
'Got a bit o' me own back, though.'
'How was that?'
'I see what was comin'. An' when I took the pony on me rounds, I taught 'im not to let anybody drive 'im but me. See? I can always get along wiv anyfink in the shape of a 'awse; an' fore I'd done wiv that pony 'e'd do anyfink I told 'im to. An' no one else couldn't 'andle 'im. I reckon they 'ad a fair ole time wiv that pony when I got the push. 'Arf killed the master, I unnerstand.'
Young Alf thought he must be going.
'Supposing someone were to offer you a job,' I said.
'I bin finkin',' said young Alf. 'If I could get a job as watchman.'
The idea seems ludicrous enough.
'Look 'ere,' he said. 'You know them spy-'oles they 'ave in shops - an' places - so's the copper can look in, eh? well, they ain't no good. 'Cause, if I'm workin' a shop like that, I've got me pal outside, an' when the cop comes along I get the wheeze, an' lay down unnerneath the spy-'ole, so's the cop can't see me. What they want's a man that'll setup all night an' keep a eye on the place. Don't you fink so? You fink I could get a job as watchman?'
It seemed doubtful.
And yet if I were quite sure that young Alf were on my side, I would ask no better guardian against burglars.
Young Alf watched me narrowly.
'That want's a bit o' c'rac'ter, I s'pose,' he said.
'I'm afraid it does, Alf,' I replied.