Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Dining with Duke Humphrey

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Mr. Crackling is visited by a queer customer - "I want a dinner just as though it was cut at our own table at home" - The boy with the bread and cheese - Jimmy and his mother - Jimmy blabs a tremendous secret respecting his grandfather - His consternation when I follow him home - His father the out-o'-work grocer's assistant - The latter explains his amiable imposture - The artful performance with which the old gentleman was deluded - A real Christmas after all.

IT was now nearly two o'clock, and no one else had paused to look hungrily in at Mr. Crackling's window for at least ten minutes, when there appeared at the street side of the sash a woman, whose behaviour was such that we did not quite know what to make of it. She was very poorly clad, but as clean and tidy as could be, and there was nothing in the expression of her face, as she stood wistfully regarding the smoking ribs of beef, to denote that she was one of the hungry and penniless class. On the contrary, it was with a cheery, though a puzzled look, that she scanned the good things in the window, meanwhile hugging something beneath her threadbare shawl as though, as it seemed to me, her difficulty was rather that she could not decide what to purchase. Mr. Crackling looked at his wife, and asked with his eyes, "Shall I beckon her in?" But that good lady shook her head dubiously, and as she did so the woman outside went away.
    "She s off," remarked Mr. Crackling in a dissatisfied tone. "I'm half afraid we didn't do right in letting her go, missus."
    "Well, goodness me, she didn't look very sorrowful, now, did she?" his wife replied; when just at the moment the woman returned and entered the shop, at the same time producing the "something" that was hidden beneath her shawl, and which proved to be a large dinner-plate.
    "I want you," said she, pleasantly, as she laid a shilling on the counter, "to do me a favour, if you will be so kind. I want a dinner for a person who, though not exactly ill, is an invalid, so I should like it cut very nice, please."
    The cookshop proprietor, treating her as an ordinary customer, clapped a weight on the scales, and inquired which joint she would have a cut from.
    "Oh, I don't exactly mean that," she replied; "I want a dinner - a 'serving,' if you can understand it better that way. Roast beef, with a bit of horse-radish and baked potato, and a bit of cabbage, and a nice piece of plum pudding - a shilling's - worth altogether. But I want it all to look just as it would if it was served from our own dinner-table at home."
    There was nothing remarkable in any one making a purchase such as she proposed, but her earnest manner as she requested that it might be made to look "just as if it was served from our own dinner-table" was striking. The matter, however, would no doubt have passed without attracting special attention had it not happened, just as Mr. Crackling had filled the plate to the customer's evident satisfaction, that there suddenly appeared in the doorway a pale-faced and lean little boy of eight or nine years old, perhaps, attired in a much-patched clean white pinafore, and with a ragged red comforter wisped round his throat. He carried in his arms two loaves of the half-quartern size, surmounted with a piece of Dutch cheese that weighed half a pound maybe.
    "Have you got it, mother?" he eagerly asked; "have you got grandfather's dinner?"
    Then he paused for several seconds, with his lips screwed up to the shape of an "O", as Mr. Crackling liberally endowed the tempting plateful with gravy, and presently ejaculated,
    "Don't it smell proper? I wish ourn smelt like it, don't you, mother?" And as he spoke he cast such a rueful glance at the cold slab of cheese that crowned the dry bread in his arms, there could be little doubt as to the "ourn" he alluded to.
    The poor woman looked distressed and embarrassed, and something very like two tears mounted in a moment to her eyes. But she made believe to treat the matter lightly.
    "We shan't starve, Jimmy," said she, "while we can get good bread and cheese for dinner; we'll all have beef and pudding when father's ship comes home." And carefully covering the hot dinner she had bought into a corner of her shawl, they hurried off together.
    Here was mystery. What kind of a family could it be all the members of which dined off bread and cheese on Christmas Day excepting one, the grandfather, who was privileged to regale on seasonable cheer? Who was father, whose ship "Brighter [-183-] Times" was at present so hopelessly distant from home that it was necessary to observe such rigid economy in the victualling department pending her arrival with a full freight? The friend who was with us I knew was fidgetty to do some one a good turn - might not here be an opportunity? As his eye met mine I saw that pretty much the same speculation was running in his mind, and with a mutual nod we agreed to try it, anyhow So telling Mr. Crackling that we should probably be back again in a short time, we set out after Jimmy and his mother.
    We saw them turn into a narrow street, and arrived at the entrance to it in time to see them go into one of the small houses about half-way down. My impatient friend was for following there and then, but it was a delicate matter, and required some deliberation. So, having made sure which house it was, we took a few minutes' turn round the houses, to invent and arrange an excuse for our visit. But somehow we could not hit on one that was in the least plausible or to our liking and while we were still debating the matter over, who should we spy, running up the street with a small jug in his hand, and evidently bound for the public house at the farther corner but the boy in the pinafore and the red comforter, and at once resolved to interrogate him for our enlightenment. We came on him just as he was emerging from the door of the tavern with half a pint of beer.
    "Hallo, Jimmy!" exclaimed my waggish friend, affecting old acquaintanceship and familiarity with the boy's family affairs. "How's grandfather? and how did you enjoy the roast beef and plum pudding you had for dinner?"
    Jimmy stood regarding us with a puzzled and suspicious expression of countenance, but evidently. he did not remember to have seen us before. It seemed plain, however, that we had touched on a subject that was occasioning him some perturbation at the moment when we accosted him. Great as may have been his reverence for his venerable relative, it was not sufficient to prevent his envying him his good fortune in the matter of Christmas dinner.
    "What, do you mean that there beef and pudden that mother bought at the cookshop?" he inquired.
    Being answered in the affirmative, he shook his head dismally.
    [-184-] "We never had none of that," said he; "that was for grandfather. He s a-eatin' of it now. We've got on'y bread and cheese."
    It was unmistakably a satisfaction to unbosom himself of his grievance, though it was but to strangers, from whom he could expect but little sympathy. Yet he continued, with a rebellious determination to extend his confidence, "Bread and cheese is all that we've got - father and mother and all us children - and grandfather is upstairs eatin' hisen all by hisself."
    But the moodiness cleared from his countenance, as he almost immediately added, "But that ain't the lark of it, though."
    We gave him to understand that we were glad to hear that there was a "lark of it," and inquired what was the nature of it.
    "Grandfather thinks," returned Jimmy with a grin, and as though about to relate the best joke that ever was told, "that we 'ave got the same dinner as 'e 'as, and father 'e's been a-sharpin' the knives and rattlin' the plates so that he might hear it all, and go on thinkin' so. This 'ere arf-pint of fourp'ny is for grandfather as well," the boy continued, ready to laugh aloud at the fun of the thing. "Mother'll take it up to 'im, and pour it out of the big jug just as though it was is share left out of a pint and a 'arf."
    "Then your fatlter and mother won't have any beer?"
   "Not a blessed drop," said Jimmy. "Isn't it a lark? Wouldn't grandfather go on if 'e knew how we was cheating 'im?"
    "But supposing he was to come downstairs unexpectedly and find out all about it?"
    "He can't; e's bedrid in both his legs," replied the boy, giggling with glee, as though this, the climax, was the story's funniest part; "'e couldn't do more'n knock with 'is stick if the 'ouse was afire."
    And then with a nod for each of us, and a knowing look as though he meant us to understand that "mum" was the word, and on no account were we to reveal a single syllable of what he had confided to us, to make up for lost time he ran off as fast as his diminutive legs could carry him.
    It was Jimmy himself who, a minute or two afterwards, opened the door in response to our modest application of the knocker at the house we had seen him enter. He turned red [-185-] and then white, and was evidently overwhelmed with confusion and dismay as he beheld us. The surprise of his parents, and of his brothers and sisters, at the unexpected appearance of visitors, was too great for them to notice these evidences of Jimmy's guilt. Two steps over the threshold, and we were in the midst of the family, the door opening at once into the scantily furnished little parlour, at a round table in the centre of which sat father and mother and five small boys and girls (exclusive of a few-months'-old baby the mother was nursing), and each of them had before them a ration of bread and cheese A half-consumed ration was on the table in front of a vacant stool, and was doubtless the property of the penitent traitor who had betrayed the family secret, and who, remaining behind us when he opened the door, jerked continuously and stealthily at the skirt of my coat, in dumb entreaty for us not to make known the particulars of our recent meeting.
    We hastened to calm his alarms by apologizing to his parents for our unwarranted intrusion, and for winch we professed no other justification or excuse than that, happening to accost the intelligent little lad who had fetched the beer, we were so pleased with his civil and respectful way of replying that we had intended to give him half a crown by way of a Christmas-box, but that he had hurried away so quickly we had no time to carry out the intention, and so we had taken the liberty to follow him home.
    It was my companion who made this not altogether disingenuous little speech, at the same time producing a half-crown and pressing it on the bewildered Jimmy's acceptance.
    "And if you will pardon the freedom of my so doing," he continued, addressing the father, "I should esteem it a privilege to be permitted to make each of his brothers and sisters a small present as well. I am afraid they must find their dinner of bread and cheese on a day like this -!"
    It was one of those inconvenient and awkwardly constructed little dwellings where the upper rooms are reached by a flight of stairs opening from the lower apartment, and with a door for shutting the said stairs off. The door at the moment happened to be ajar, and from the sudden way in which Jimmy's parent jumped up and closed it, and set his back against it, one might have supposed that instead of explaining a benevolent design, [-186-] my friend had announced himself an officer of the law whose business it was to arrest some person in the chamber above and convey him straight to a debtors' prison.
    "I m afraid you've done it," he exclaimed, in an agitated voice, which, however, was raised not much above a whisper. "It's lucky my wife's father s a little hard of hearing, but I wouldn't have had him hear what you said for as many half- crowns as there are days in the week."
    And he opened the door a little way, and applied his ear at the crevice. Nothing, however, was to be heard, as we listened in breathless silence, but a shaky old voice contentedly humming some kind of tune; and with the great relief he felt depicted on his face, he gently closed the door again, and latched it, and returned to his bread and cheese. Never dreaming that we were already in possession of a clue to these extraordinary proceedings, he remarked, still speaking in a low tone of voice,
    "You'll excuse my rudeness in interrupting you in what you was saying, sir, but I had my reasons for it. Being gentlemen and strangers, it isn't very likely you'd care to hear 'em; but you may take my word for it, there are reasons, and good 'uns."
    Jimmy's small brothers and sisters had by this time been enriched to the extent of a shilling each, and the same amount of bounty having been bestowed even on the baby, its mother was moved to friendliness towards us, and remarked,
    "Well, there's one thing, father, if the gentlemen did care to hear your reasons and you told 'em, they are not such as you need be ashamed of."
    " Well, it isn't worth mentioning at all if it comes to that, the little man remarked, with a bit of a laugh. "It is more a joke, in a manner of speaking, than anything else. It is in this way, you see, sir. My wife's father e livesh along with us, and so he shall do as long as I've got a meal to share along with him."
    "You re a noble fellow, and the sentiment does you honour," remarked my companion.
    "Not in the least, sir, thanky. I don't deserve the compliment, and I am not going to accept of it," said Jimmy's father. "It is the old gentleman's due, and the least I can do for him. The times I've been bowled over in business, and the times while he had the money to do it with he has set me on my legs again, you'd hardly believe if I told you. I m a grocer by [-187-] trade, but somehow I've always been unfortunate. It's years now since I was a master, and a good long time since I had a regular shop as shopman. You see, grocers don't care about employing middle-aged hands," continued the bald-headed little man, with a sigh; "naturally they prefer shopmen that are sharp and smartly dressed, and always ready with a pleasant word for a customer, consequently I'm glad to take an odd job wherever I can get one. I haven't been very lucky lately, but at Christmas-time there is a good chance for a grocer's counter- man, and I hoped to get a week's work at least. But I was disappointed here, and I was disappointed there, till at last I was thankful to get a Christmas Eve and a Christmas morning's job at a shop in Lambeth Walk. Precious thankful I was, because the fact is we were so hard pushed that the old gentleman's Christmas dinner depended on it, and you never knew a man, sir, who thought more about Christmas. When he had his family about him it was his delight to make a spread that the Lord Mayor of London himself would hardly have turned up his nose at had he been obliged to sit down to it, and he still thinks a lot about it now he's lost the use of his legs, and we re all poor together. He d break his heart, poor old chap, if he was aware that we were 'dining with Duke Humphrey,' as they say, and didn't have anything better than bread amid cheese. So, you see, we're obliged to putt a bit of a trick on him. We did it last year, and we did it again this. We got him a nice dinner - he's got an amazing appetite for his age - of roast beef and plum pudding from the cookshop, and we make pretend that we've all got the same. It's a bit of fun for us, you see, to keep up the joke," continued the kindhearted poor fellow - it may have been that a morsel of crust went the "wrong way," occasioning the wry face that Jimmy at this moment made - "we keep it up all the time he's eating his dinner, making a rattle with the plates and knives, and asking aloud if this one will take a bit more brown, or t'other one another spoonful of gravy. Now you understand, sir, the reason why I was so anxious to shut the door when you began to make mention of our having bread and cheese for dinner."
    "Of course, we understand," remarked my companion, who, I may remark, is as kind-hearted a creature as ever lived, "and, as I said before, you are a good fellow. And now," he con-[-188-]tinued, nudging me, and all of a sudden assuming the manner of a man in a mighty hurry, "now I think we will bid you good day."
    "I shouldn't have stood so long," I remarked when we were in the street, "if I had known you wished to come away."
    "I was anxious to get away," he replied, "before Mr. Crackling closed his premises and sold out his stock. It is half-past two o'clock now. We shall have to be quick."
    It did not take us five minutes to get back to the cookshop, and my good friend fairly clapped his hands with delight when, just as we entered, the cook brought up from the kitchen uncut, and smoking hot, another Christmas pudding. The remainder of the ribs of beef was still in capital cut, and smoking hot too (there must have been seven or eight pounds of it).
    "Don't cut another morsel of it," my friend exclaimed, "I want it all, and that pudding as well, with as big a dishful of baked potatoes as you can supply. And I want you to clap it all on a tray, and be good enough to allow your young man to carry it all round to 15 ---- Street."
    My friend very cheerfully paid for this unexpected Christmas dinner for the out-of-work grocer's shopman, and before we left Mr. Crackling's we saw the waiter fairly started with his load, and there being an end to the matter, as far as we were concerned, I must leave what afterwards happened to the reader's imagination.