[back to main menu for this book]
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING.
I miss Ragged Jack from his customary crossing - I interview his deputy - Jack at last turns up - The other job he'd been engaged on - The "'a'porths of winegar" - "I bin a-overeating myself" - Jack's trials and tribulations - He is exasperated to reveal family secrets - Jack's persecution by the friendly visitors - Is guilty of the dreadful crime of making his parents out to be liars-'' I'd rather sweep a crossing from here to Jericho."
THERE is a crossing in a thoroughfare in the Islington
district, the proprietary rights of which are vested in a small Ragged Jack,
whose artistic skill with his broom, combined with his constant industry and
perseverance, have, I have no doubt, gained for him the commendation and
encouragement of many who, like myself, are accustomed to pass that way. I had
him in my mind on the morning of Boxing Day, and, as I approached the scene of
his labours, was prepared to present him on that special occasion with a small
silver token of my esteem instead of the customary "copper."
But to my disappointment the crossing was unswept, and he was not there. He was absent still when I returned that way some hours afterwards. Next morning a path across the miry road was swept as usual, but the boy with the broom was a stranger. I had heard of individuals in this line of business who are in the habit of working up a trade, just as speculative shopkeepers do, and who, having acquired a connection, sell the goodwill for a handsome sum of money, and start again on the same lines in some other part of the town. Aware of the regular boy's smartness and talent, I should not have been surprised if some such arrangement accounted for the change.
But it was not so. The lad at present in command of the broom, as he himself informed me, was merely keeping the crossing going for "Old Ben" - the venerable individual in question must have been verging on eleven years old, if he was a day - so that no one else might take possession. He also told me that he did not belong to that side of the water, but to the other, and, things being slack, be had agreed as a particular favour to look after the crossing during Ben's absence. Was he [-133-] ill, then? I inquired. The strange boy grinned as he replied in a mysterious manner, that he only wished he had half of his friend's complaint; he could do jolly well with half of it, and could make precious good shift even with a quarter. No, Ben wasn't ill. He was looking after another job that paid him better, and would most likely be back at the end of the week. Feeling curious on the subject, I asked as to the nature of the remunerative job Ben was temporarily engaged on; but on that point the substitute was reticent, and not wishing to incite him to betray the confidence of his friend, I did not press the matter.
I found that he had spoken the truth in one respect at least. On the following Friday morning Ben was back at his post, but he was an altered boy, though not as regards his clothes, for he was just as ragged as ever. His hair was perhaps sleeker, and his naked feet cleaner than ordinary, but his manner had undergone a singular change. Instead of being bright and brisk, he was dull and lumpish. He seemed to have grown fuller in the face, his eyes lacked lustre, his movements were sluggish, and he handled his birch-broom as languidly as though it was too much for his declining strength. He was altogether so unlike his usual self, that having presented him with the promised six-pence - which he received with a sickly smile and in a dejected kind of way - I, after passing on a few yards, came to a standstill, wondering what was the matter with him. Something serious, evidently. It was at a time of the day when his crossing was not much in demand, and presently I observed him leaning heavily on his broom-handle, and with his head bowed, as though he was really ill. He kept in this position for a minute or two, and then, with a shake of his head that seemed to indicate that, come what might, he could not stand it any longer, he tucked his broom under his arm, and took his way down an adjoining street, and there sat down on a doorstep.
By this time I had no doubt but that he was unwell, and approaching him I inquired what ailed him. He was breathing hard, and appeared too ill to make reply. It was a wet and miserable day, and I thought it not impossible that the poor little fellow might be suffering from faintness for want of food.
"The best thing you can do," said I, giving him another six-pence, "is to go and get yourself a nice basin of hot soup."
[-134-] But the suggestion seemed to affect him strangely. He visibly shuddered as he gasped reproachfully,
"Oh, don't, mister, please. You means it as a kindness, o' course, but please don't."
"But, you foolish fellow," I persisted, "if you are cold and faint, as you appear to be, a basin of nice soup would be just the thing to do you good."
But the repetition of my unkind suggestion seemed to goad him to desperation, he rose from the step so full of emotion that his powers of utterance were for the moment paralysed, and crossed over to the other side of the street, where there was an oilshop. What his purpose was I had not the least idea, but be presently reappeared, looking decidedly better and brighter for having executed it.
"S'cuse me," he remarked apologetically, "I didn't mean to give no offence, but a 'a'porth of winegar was what I wanted. I shall be all right now. It's the on'y thing that does me good when" - and the vinegar causing him an inner painful spasm, he paused for a moment - "when I've been overdoing of it."
"Overdoing what?" I asked him.
"Eatin'," he replied, wheezingly. "It hain't no fault of mine, mister," he hastened to add, as he observed my look of surprise "I wouldn't overdo it if I wasn't forced to, you may lay a wager. It makes a feller feel too miserable. It's a jolly shame to force a feller to it, that's what I say."
"If you mean that it is a shame to force any one to eat more than is good for him against his inclination, I don't understand you," said I, "the thing being impossible."
"Ho! is it, though?" returned the eleven-year-old martyr ruefully; "p'r'aps, if you had a old man what wore a waist-strap, and a old woman always recommending you a taste of it, you mightn't think so. Talk about a merry Christmas " he continued, tears of bitterness dimming his dull eyes "I'd rather it be November all the year round for all the merriness I get out of it. I got it wuss than ever yesterday because I said I'd split on 'em," he presently added, with moody recklessness. "I'll do it, too. I don't care. I hain't a-goin' to bust myself to keep their game going."
"And what is their game?"
"Cadging, that s what it is. And serve 'em right if I do [-135-] tell of 'em. Why don't they let me keep on with my crossing, and give me wittles that agrees with me, 'stead of making me go to feeds that them they cadges from gives 'em tickets for? I wouldn't mind if it was only for once or twice, mister," he went on, being seemingly resolved to confide to me the whole of his grievance against his unnatural parents; "but a cove can't be always at it. It's them lady and gentlemen charitable wisitors that does it. The street where we live has got a regler name for being more hard up than any other, and any number of these wisitors come down there with tickets and things to give away at Christmas-time, and my old man, who don't never do any work, he's wisited more'n any of 'em, cause of his having only one leg and one arm. Don't he make the most of 'em, neither There's my two young brothers and sisters besides me, and they give it out - mother and father do, I mean - that all the whole family has got to live on is what I pick up on my crossin', and so the wisitors are good-natured to me accordin'. 'Here s a shilling,' ses they, 'and a order for half 'undred of coals, and here's a ticket for the feast what s going to take place to-morrow at the school-room for the deserving little lad what sweeps the crossin'.' So they ye been going on ever since Christmas Eve," continued the injured boy, savagely; "and who could stand it, I d like to know, unless he was made of inger-rubber?"
And, without solicitation or pressing on my part, he forthwith gave me to understand that his parents wecre professional cadgers, and that his father - to use the boy's simple though expressive language - worked the dodge single-handed. Being deprived of one arm and one leg through a scaffold accident while he was following the occupation of a bricklayer's labourer, he assumed the character of a shipwrecked sailor, and sang in the streets the harrowing story of his having had his precious limbs bitten off through falling overboard in the sharky waters of the Indian Ocean. His mother, he informed me, took a turn out now and then when things were bad, with her two younger children, but generally she stayed at home, keeping the place clean for the reception of charitable visitors, accounting always for her crippled husband's absence from home by his being "gone to the hospital to get his stumps dressed." As for my informant, their eldest son, Benjamin, he, as a rule, had [-136-] his crossing to attend to, and it was only at particular times that he was withdrawn from it to engage in something that directly or indirectly promised to be more profitable.
"It's all very well for them," remarked the suffering crossing-sweeper boy, "but I'd a precious sight rather be always out with my broom. It's ready money, 'cept at soup-time, which is the worst time for father and mother and me as well. What do I mean by soup-time? Why, when winter sets in and the public kitchens open and the subscribers to 'em gets their stock of soup-tickets to give away. It's all soup then for about a fortnight. You might swim in it if you had the fancy," he continued, the remembrance costing him a bilious shudder. "I've heard my father cuss and swear more because of them soup-tickets than about anything. I've knowed him come home after six or seven hours in the mud and rain with his crutch, with a whole handful of soup-tickets he'd had given him, and p'r'aps not more than eightpence or ninepence in money, and very likely there s been to our house three or four charitable wisitors, and they as all left tickets for soup and for nothing else, and then I've come home, and I've been 'souped' too, and got 'arf a pocket-full of em, and only a few a'pence besides. It's hard lines when it comes to that, you know."
"But it is very good soup," I remarked.
"It's very good, but when you come to have it, like I've had it, more'n a week at a time," returned the cadger's little son, "for breakfast, dinner, and tea, and the same, like it or lump it, for supper, it's rayther too much of a good thing. The worst of it is you can't sell the tickets, like you can the sort that you can change for coals or for bread. There's such a glut of 'em that everybody turns up their noses at 'em."
"But I'd rather soup-time than Christmas-time. It's the solid wittles that beats you," he presently continued, with a wistful glance towards the shop where he had refreshed himself with vinegar. "It's the solid wittles that beats you - the rich roast beef and the pudden!" And he shook his head in a way I hope an English boy's head was never before shaken at mention of the two stable dishes of Christmas cheer.
"But you weren't of that opinion before, as you say, you over-did it," I remarked ; "you must have had a severe turn, I am afraid."
[-137-] "I'll tell you about it, sir," he replied, " and then you can judge for yourself, and likewise if I ain't gone through enough to make me feel aggrawated. I begun before Christmas Day. It was a kind of tea meeting. A wisitor at our house left a ticket for a Christmas Eve treat, on the Saturday evening. There was plenty of cake, both plum and seedy, and bread and jam, with oranges and nuts to follow; and before we came away nearly every boy had a invitation to go to the same place and have his Christmas dinner, and of course I went. Being fresh at it, I give it my mind and didn't count the number of servings I had, which I ought to have done when I knowed that the next day, which was Boxing Day, there was the regler annual feed at the missionary's hall, and me and my two young brothers had had tickets for it more'n a week before. But I hain't a chap to shy at good wittles when I have a chance of getting at 'em, and I managed the two jobs in what you might call a comfortable sort of a manner, but feeling as though just at present I didn't want any more of it. But when I got home I found that them blessed charitable wisitors had been again. Mother and father had been out to sell some bread and coal-tickets they d had give 'em, and they d been having a drain or two and were lively. 'Ben, my boy,' father say's, 'there's roast beef and plum pudden up at the iron chapel to-morrow, and it'll be something in our way as well as yourn if you go and do your duty by it.'
"Well, I d rather not have gone if I might have done as I liked about it; but I didn't mind stretching a p'int to be obliging, so I went and did it. The worst of it was that the party - the wisitor, I mean - who had give my mother my dinner ticket was there, and I was spoke of and pointed out as the boy what tried to keep his crippled father and all the family on his birch-broom, but that, owing to my being unfortunate, we had had nothing but crusts and cold taters for dinner on Christmas Day, which was the gammon my old lady had pitched em. So, out of kindness towards me, they kept filling up my plate, and I couldn't do anything else than go on emptying it as long as they was looking at me.
"But it was a tough job, I can tell you, mister. I felt that blowed out afterwards, that I wouldn't have cared if I hadn't been asked to have another bit of meat for a week after, and I [-138-] was glad to get home to sit down quiet, as I thought. But it wasn't my luck to be let off so easy. When I got up to our room there was another precious charitable wisitor - a regler one she was - and as good as half a crown a week to us all through the winter weather. She was on to me, a-patting me on the head, as soon as I got into the room. 'Your parents have been telling me,' she ses, 'what a poor Christmas-time you ye been having, and how that you've all had hardly anything to eat. Never mind, my boy, you shall make up for it to-morrow - I m going to have twenty boys at my place to dinner, and you shall come.' I felt that choked that I in blessed if I could do anything but stare at her.
"'Why don't you thank the kind lady, Benny, dear?' ses father.
"'Poor little feller,' says mother, 'it's his feelin's! His 'art's too full for him to find words to express his gratitood.'
"But they sung another tune as soon as the lady was gone. Without saying a word, father takes off his waist-strap, and lays on to me. 'There, my lad,' he ses when he'd done,'p'r'aps that'll teach you not to stand garspin like a over-fed pig when you've been described as not having had a bit of dinner for a week.' Mother was as bad, and when father had done she took a turn at me for making 'em look like a pair of liars, she said. But how was I to know the tale they had been pitching before I came home? It was no good my going to the dinner to-morrow, I told 'em; I couldn't eat a bit, if I did go, without doing myself a injury.
"'I'll see about that, my lad,' she says; "I'm going there to help wash up, and I'll keep my eye on you, and if you don't eat up everything that's set before you, you look out for squalls when you come home. What you've had to-night is only a tickling to the walloping you'll get if you dare to sulk with your wittles to-morrow.'
"Well, of course I didn't dare," continued the crossing-sweeping boy, with a sigh that denoted the heaviness of his heart; "I wouldn't ha' cared so much if it had been a change, but it was fat roast beef and plum pudden again - winding up with mince pies!" And for a few moments the harrowing remembrance so overcame him that he had to turn away to hide his emotion. "I meant pocketing mine, but I didn't have the [-139-] chance. There was one of the gentlemen wisitors who was up to his games to keep us cheerful like, and ses he when the pies - whackers they was, too - was all served in our plates,
"'Now, boys, for a race,' he ses. 'Here's a two-shilling piece,' he ses, for the boy who is the first to eat up his pie.' Well, sir, believe me or believe me not, I'd ha' give twice as much money, if I'd had it by me, to have been let off; and if my 'ard 'arted old woman had been like any other boy's mother, she'd ha' give a kind nod back to the look I give her. She had been helpin' serve at a side table, and keeping her eye on me all the time ; but as my eyes met hern, she smiled playful like, and waved a duster she had in her hand to make believe how 'fectionate she felt to'ords me; but nobody but me knowed,' continued Ben, sorrowfully, 'what that smile of hers meant, and that she was holding a end of the duster in her fist just like father holds his waist-strap when he means letting me have it most unmerciful. I knew what I should get if I didn't have a good try for this two-shilling piece. So I tried, and won it. And rather than have such another week of it," he exclaimed, with an emphatic wag of his head, as he paused for a moment at a corner of a street that led to where his cruel parents resided, "I d rather sweep a crossing from here to Jericho."