Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - At Flyfaker's Hotel

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The delights of Epsom-Lodgings to let  -What to eat, drink, and avoid  - The sheep's-head boy - The characters assembled in the hotel coffee room - Ethiopians at their toilet - The "Punch's nose," man - The man's nose punched-' 'Whose got any moosic?"-  The boy fiddler and his little sister - "Come and make love alonger me" - A floorer and the brutal bruiser frustrated - The fiddling boy's narrative - The last I saw of the bruisers.

IT is a mistake to suppose that only those who are prepared to pay an exorbitant price for sleeping accommodation at Epsom can sojourn there during the race week.
    There may be no second-class convenience of the kind, but there is a third-class as there is a first. There are "lodgings to let," even for the herd of ragged and unwashed camp-followers - the tag-rag and bobtail of the multitude who, bent on pleasure or business, or both combined, seek the racecourse. Mean little cottages are to be found, rural and pleasant enough to look on at ordinary times, but which, come the day of the great event, are turned into common lodging-houses for the scum and dregs of the race visitors, and for the time being they will bear comparison with the vilest slums of Mint Street or Seven Dials.
    Van-loads of the cheapest and coarsest food are conveyed thither from London, to be retailed at a price to suit the means of those who at best can hope to reap a rich harvest of halfpence only. It need not be said that the catering is of the roughest, if the readiest, character. The savoury viands for which the hungry customers come eagerly clamouring are not. set out in tempting array, neither are such meal-time accessories as plates and tablecloths, or knives and forks, deemed necessary. Loaves of bread, cut into slices three inches thick, are stacked in the passage; there are mounds of fried fish piled up in the parlour, and a reserve of cold boiled bacon and sausages and saveloys stored pell-mell in the washhouse, ready at hand when the raid on the first supply has exhausted it.
    The sleeping arrangements, if they deserve to be so called, are on a par with the feeding. The Lodging-house Act is set at nought, and the individual who fastidiously insisted on the exact [-54-] number of cubic feet of dormitorial breathing-space declared by his Parliamentary guardians to be his right would soon be sent packing. The rule appears to be that when an apartment, facetiously called a bed-room, will hold no more, it is full, and not before.
    Any person suitably attired may walk in and out without question or challenge. It was growing towards nine o'clock in the evening when I availed myself of the privilege, and, following a lodger who evidently was familiar with the ways of the house, I entered a back parlour, or kitchen as it should perhaps be called -it was certainly not more than fifteen feet square- and by the light of a glaring and evil-smelling paraffin lamp that swung from the ceiling was enabled to make observation of the company assembled. I counted sixteen individuals, male and female. The majority were young men and mere lads, but there were a few old men and three middle-aged women - brazen wretches of the lowest type - and one little girl of thirteen or thereabout, modest and timid-looking. but whose presence did not in the least check the free flow of foul language from the mouths of the three women.
    The young girl's dress, though threadbare and shabby, was decent and respectable compared with the shameful she-creatures with whom she evidently had no acquaintance. She sat apart from the others with a lad, a little older than herself, and seemingly her brother, and the pair were glancing uneasily about them, and whispering together in a way that betokened that something was wrong with them. All the furniture the room contained was a few forms and some rough boards arranged on trestles, which formed a long narrow table for the common use. Some of the lodgers were seated thereat, eating their humble supper; others were smoking and drinking; while a few, dead beat with the long tramp that had brought them there, were squatted on the floor, with their backs to the wall and their heads sunk on their breasts, fast asleep - so fast that though those who were rushing about the room and stumbling over their sprawling feet unceremoniously kicked them aside, it did not appear to have the least disturbing effect on them.
    A boy, who was the bearer of half a baked sheep's head and a lump of bread, came into the room in a hurry, and, blundering against the extended legs of one of the heavy sleepers, was [-55-] shot, supper and all, at me as I sat on the corner of a form smoking my pipe.
    "Twasn't no fault of mine, guv'ner," he remarked apologetically, and giving the offending legs a vicious kick. "Just as though the silly beggars couldn't lay close alongside the wall if they must begin their fourpenn'orth" [the price of the lodging was fourpence] "while others is getting their wittles."
    "Why don't they go to bed, if they mean to lodge here?" I remarked.
    The young fellow looked as if he did not understand me.
    "How do you mean, go to bed?" said he.
    "I mean," said I, "that, since they are so very tired, they'd better be off to bed than lying about down here."
    It was fortunate, since it was my intention to stay where I was for an hour or so, that I did not betray my ignorance of the peculiar economy of the establishment to a more elderly person, who might have suspected the motive of my being there at all. Clutching the jawbone of his sheep's head in his dirty fist, and worrying the meat off it as a dog would, the boy grinned at me as though I had given utterance to something immensely funny, and replied, with his mouth full,
    "Oh, yes; they'd be more comfortable in their private bedrooms, wouldn't they, mister? S'pose you ring for the gal to bring 'em the candle and the warmin'-pan, and show em upstairs ?"
    But I did not catch his meaning as yet.
    "Downstairs or up, it wouldn't matter, I suppose."
    My perfect seriousness led him to suppose that I had been imposed upon. His grin changed to a loud laugh.
    "Why, you don't mean to say that you ye been kidded to expect a bed for your fourpence," said he; "a regler turn-in, I mean, with sheets and that?"
    "Why not?"
    "Well, I wish you might get it," returned the youth, much amused. "You've come to the wrong shop for beds, guv'ner. You won't get 'em here, at Flyfaker's 'Otel. Taint to be expected for the money at race-time."
    "Where do the lodgers sleep, then?"
    "Why, they sleep in this room here. Bimeby, when it is late, and them that ain't going to lodge here are turned out, [-56-] some will pig together atop of the tables, and the rest will lay underneath it, or huddle up against the wall."
    "Wouldn't they be as well off if they made their way up the hill and passed the night under some hedge or bush?"
    "Well, they might think so," said the youth, with a knowing wink, "and they might find a bush and go to sleep under it, thinking so; but it's longer odds than you'll get on a rank outsider that they wouldn't find themselves as well off when they woke in the morning. There's a lot up there as 'ud have your boots off let alone your bundle, if they caught you with your eyes shut. If it wasn't for that I'd lay that many a hundred as pay their ha'pence for a lodging down here in the town would toddle up the hill instead if they had the legs left to do it. Don't you see, mister," he continued, with an elderly air, and evidently compassionating my ignorance, "they don't pay so much for the sake of the house shelter as that their bits of sticks may be safe."
    "And do you think they are safe here?"
    "When the street door is locked and the landlord is a-laying down in the passage minding it, not without. Do I see anybody here that would be likely to help himself if he found a chance? Well, if it comes to that, I 'spect all of 'em would - that s only nat'ral," returned my frank young friend, with a candour that had a flavour of fellow-feeling in it; "but there's a wusser or two among 'em. You see them two there," said he, lowering his voice, sitting on t'other end of the table and eating fried fish and bread. "That s their mittens they ye got tied up in that hankercher. They re fighting coves. Two of the right sort, they are. They d prig the plate off their mother's coffin if they could sell it for the price of a pot of beer."
    "Will they sleep here with the rest?"
    "Course they will, if they don't go out and get drunk, and come back and kick up a row till morning. Don't them that sleep here have anything to cover over 'em, or a pillow to lay their heads on? They don't want any other pillow but their bundle. They tie one end of the hankercher wot it's wrapped in round their wrist, and they rest their head on it, and it s pretty safe then. They lay warm enough without rugs or blankets."
    Warm enough! The only ventilation the room possessed was provided by an old-fashioned narrow-waisted chimney and [-57-] a window about a yard square, and only one-half of this was movable. It was raised now to its full height, and the door was open as well, but the place was stiflingly full of evil odours - the fumes of fried fish combining with the reek from the flaming oil lamp and the smoke of rank tobacco from foul pipes poisoned every waft of air the instant it came in. I found myself shutting my lips close and breathing short through my nostrils to mitigate the sensation of nausea that was well nigh overpowering. What the atmosphere would be like when the door and probably the window as well were closed for the night it required a more vivid imagination than mine to realize.
    Maybe, however, if my own mind had been occupied, as was evidently the case with many of those present, with anxious speculation as to the sort of luck to-morrow would bring them, I should not have noticed such trifles. The majority of those who were not eating were busy in some way or other preparing for the part they meant to play on the racecourse. In one corner were seated on a form three young fellows, recognized by my experienced informant as "niggers." But just now they were distinguished by none of that boisterous hilarity and rollicking fun for which the negro, mock or real, is celebrated. On the contrary, they were about as wretched-looking a trio as ever were met on tramp or elsewhere. Haggard and hungry-looking, with not a single article of raiment amongst them (they carried their Ethiopian costumes, with the banjo and fiddle, in a corn-sack) that was not in rags or patched, an uninitiated person, standing at a distance and observing them, would not have guessed in a hundred tries what it was they were doing. Two were sitting astride a form, and the third was on his knees in his shirt-sleeves without his cap, and with only the worn-through soles of his old boots exposed, holding a small hand-lamp, to the flame of which one of the others held some substance for a few seconds, and then, having with the utmost gravity smeared his chin, his forehead, and the side of his nose, submitted the work to the criticism of his companions, who in turn held up the lamp and earnestly examined the last smirch made, and took counsel together respecting it.
    It was such an odd-looking performance that I was induced to inquire of my young friend as to its meaning. It was simple enough. The nigger three had had the misfortune to lose their [-58-] stock of prepared burnt cork on the road, and were compelled to provide themselves with a fresh supply, and they were at present engaged in testing which of the bungs they had hastily collected was best fitted for their purpose.
    There was another man, a blear-eyed, bent old fellow, with a fringe of white hair hedging his bald head, who had a parcel of Punch's noses and spectacles tied in a handkerchief, and they seemed somehow to have sustained damage. The wires of the spectacles required to be straightened and set right, and as he remedied the defects with a solemn and anxious visage, fitting the Punch's nose to his own, and shaking his venerable head to make sure that it would not easily fall off, he presented a picture that in any company different from this would have caused roars of laughter. As it was, nobody took any more notice of him than if he had been engaged in the most ordinary occupation, nor he of them, though moving about in the crowded space they pushed against and elbowed him as he sat against the wall, and more than once jostled off the monstrous artificial nasal organ while he was in the act of considering whether it would pass muster.
    Nearly every one seemed to have some little job or other that was necessary to be done at this almost last moment for the business of to-morrow; even one of the two villanous-looking "bruisers" had. They were of the very lowest of the "rough" type-broken-nosed, besotted, pimple-visaged, and unwholesome-looking fellows, whose foul and blasphemous language seemed to pollute the pestilent air of the place more than anything else that contributed thereto. One of them, in the intervals of cramming his capacious mouth with bread and fish (the massive champing of his ponderous jaws was curiously suggestive of a steam-hammer of the "crocodile-jaw" pattern I once saw at Wolverhampton), used a needle and thread to mend a rent in a filthy old boxing-glove, which he presently put on, and being in a playful mood, desirous perhaps of testing the glove's fitness for use, he glanced around for an appropriate object. Unfortunately, the old gentleman before alluded to had at that moment carefully adjusted a pair of spectacles with a huge carbuncled nose attached over his own organ of smell. The temptation was too much for the manly bruiser. With a sudden lunge that sent the poor old fellow spinning, the Punch's pasteboard nose [-59-] was squelched flat to his face, the wire of the broken spectacles inflicting an ugly scratch on his forehead. The unlucky victim of this pretty bit of horse-play turned about furiously, and with his fists pluckily clenched; the bruiser, however, confronted him in a threatening attitude, and with a grin of such brutal purpose on his ugly face that the old man wisely refrained from an encounter.
    But the larkish spirit now raised in the bosoms of the pair of ruffians required further food for its amusement. I think I have already mentioned that, besides three women, there was a little girl present. Her brother was with her, a little lad of fifteen, perhaps, she being possibly two years younger. Compared with the rest of the company they were decently dressed, and the boy had a fiddle in a black holland bag. They kept together, and sat as far apart from the others as was practicable. The boy especially seemed to be miserably conscious that he had made a mistake in bringing his young sister to such a place, and at every fresh outbreak of blackguardism and obscenity on the part of the ruffian fighting-men he seemed to be nearly goaded to the desperate extreme of going away with her, late though it was, and with small prospect of being able to find another lodging in or near the town.
    "Who's got any music?" presently exclaimed the dirty scoundrel who had been mending the boxing-glove; "----  me, let's have a bloomin' lark! Let s have a tune and a song. Who s got any bloomin' music?"
    The boy, who had his fiddle in a bag, was in the act of placing it behind him, so that the ruffian might not see it; but he was not successful, and next instant it was being snatched out of his hand. The boy held on to the bag, but the bully was not to be balked.
    "I'll smash the bloomin' thing into little bits if you don't let go your hold," he growled viciously; "my pal can play on it."
    "Let me play you a tune, then," said the frightened lad, rightly conjecturing that the other would not in the least scruple to smash the instrument if he was denied.
    "All right, then. Play us something juicy," exclaimed the ruffian.
    The young fiddler, with his little sister white and frightened sitting close at his side, took the fiddle from the bag, and was [-60-] tuning it when the second boxer, who was perhaps more repulsive-looking than his companion, suddenly made a snatching grip at the young girl's shoulder, and drew her towards the form on which he was sitting. The child shrunk away from him and clung closer to her brother.
    "What do you want to scrouge so close to him, my popsey-wopsey?" said the more than half-drunken brute. "You want somebody to make love to, you do. So do I. Come and make love along o' me, while your brother plays the moosic to us."
    At this exquisite pleasantry the three wretches of women set up an approving guffaw and clapped their hands, but the poor little child cried omit so pitifully that her brother dropped his fiddle, and with a face whiter even than hers sprang to her assistance.
    "Let her alone, you coward," he exclaimed, attempting in vain to drag her from the muscular blackguard's grasp. "Let her alone, I tell you, or it will be the worse for you." And in endeavouring to force away the other's arm, which was round his sister's waist, the already ragged sleeve was further torn.
    "You'll get a dab on the jaw, if you don't mind," the ruffian growled at the boy. "Wot odds is it to you? She s a-goin' to sit on my knee; ain't you, my little dear? And you re a-goin' to be my young woman, spite of all he ses."
    And then, finding that she still cried out and struggled, with his puffed face and his bloodshot eyes aglow with excitement, he continued,
    "It's no good your squealing. You re goin' to be kissed, I tell yer."
    And, lifting her towards him, he forced her face to his, and kissed her again and again, the company generally, and the three odious women in particular, laughing at the fun. But the brutal bully was not to have it all his own way.
    "Now, sit quiet on my knee, and be a good gal," he remarked. But scarcely were the words out of his mouth than the girl's brother flew at him, and dealt him, full in the face, a blow in which all his boyish strength seemed concentrated. No doubt it was the suddenness of the assault more than its force that made it so successful. In an instant the fighting- man's legs were seen in the air, and then he vanished bodily on the other side of the form. Before he could scramble to his [-61-] feet, and give effect to his horrible threats, the boy, catching up his fiddle and taking his sister by the hand, hurried with her from the room, and so into the street beyond. The furious bruiser, mouthing and glaring, was making after them, when some one, entering at the door, remarked,
    "You keep it going pretty loud here, with a couple of policemen foxing about just outside." Hearing which the valiant bruiser's thirst for vengeance suddenly cooled, and he returned to his seat again.
    In the general confusion I slipped out unobserved, and luckily taking the direction the boy and girl had taken, came on them hard by the clock tower, whither they had run until breathlessly brought to a standstill. The girl was still trembling and crying, and her brother was doing his best to comfort her. I saw that he recognized me as one he had left in the room, and as I approached them he caught his sister by the arm, and was for making off again.
    "You need not be afraid of me," I remarked. "I was glad to see you escape as you did, and as you deserved to. You are not well used to this sort of thing, it seems to me?"
    "You are right there, sir," the boy answered quickly: "it was a foolish thing to come at all, but I did it for the best. Don't cry any more, Carry ; we're all right now."
    "It was a foolish thing, anyhow, to take your sister in such a place."
    "But how did I know? I'd never been at Epsom before, and we got down here late in the afternoon, and seeing lodgings to let wrote up, I asked there because it looked like a cheap place, and there was nobody there then but the people of the house. So I paid the eightpence - every penny we had - to secure it. I've made a nice mess of it," he added, with a rueful sigh.
    "You came here hoping to earn a little money by playing your fiddle on the racecourse to-morrow, I suppose? But why bring your sister with you?"
    " Because she can sing. I'll tell you the truth of it, sir. It is a hard-up time with us at home. Father out o' work, and mother been ill for this ever so long-ever since she was took with rheumatic fever before Christmas. And the doctor he says that what'll do her good is change of air now that the warm [-62-] weather's come, and we thought to get together the bit of money to manage it. It's nothing new to me to play the fiddle in the street. I've done it of evenings round the public houses, not being able to get anything else to do, a long while. It s better than nothing at home, where there's no one else earning anything; but my young sister has never been out singing. What mostly put it into our heads to come here and have a try at it was the knowing a young man and woman who came down last Derby playing and singing, and they made over two pounds in the three days."
    "Father don't know anything about me coming," sobbed the rash young fiddler's sister.
    "Much he'd a cared if he had known," said the boy, in a tone that seemed to tell that the father was not a parent to be proud of.
    "Well, the question is," said I, "what are you both going to do now?"
    "Ah! that is the question," and he looked forlornly at his sister and up and down the dark street. "We should be all right if we could only get over to-night. I should like to try our luck now we re down here."
    It was a difficult matter to decide how to help them. To have started them home there and then would have best pleased me; but that, of course, was impracticable.
    "I will assist you on one condition," said I; "and that is that whatever luck you may have to-morrow, you will not stay here another night, but take the train and go straight home."
    To this proposition he eagerly assented, and shortly afterwards they bade me good night at the door of the decent house where I had procured them a lodging. I may further add that next day I again saw them, though they did not see me. They were in the midst of the crowd, and the young girl having a sweet voice, and her brother being a tolerably good player, a refreshing shower of halfpence and small silver rewarded their efforts.
    I likewise came on the pair of ruffianly boxers who had driven the venturesome small musicians from Flyfaker's Hotel. Fortunately, it was at a considerable distance from where they were playing. Surrounded by an appreciative audience, they were cheerfully punching away at each other, with their repulsive faces puffier than when I last beheld them, and more hideous to behold for being blood-smeared. I was glad at the same [-63-] time to notice that they were already - it was early n the afternoon - almost too intoxicated to stand on their legs, and so there were grounds for hoping that before the race company cleared off they would be able neither to see nor go, and so the brother and sister might get safe away to the station without encountering them.