Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - The Expectant

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WHEN a boy I was sent to school in a country village in one of the midland counties. Midvale lay on a gentle slope at the foot of a lofty hill, round which the turnpike-road wound scientifically to diminish the steepness of the declivity ; and the London coach, as it smoked along the white road regularly at half-past four o'clock, with one wheel dragged, might be tracked for two good miles before it crossed the bridge over the brook below and disappeared from sight. We generally rushed out of the afternoon-school as the twanging horn of the guard woke up our quiet one street; and a fortunate fellow I always thought was Griffith Maclean, our only day-boarder, who on such occasions would often chase the flying mail, and seizing the hand of the guard, an old servant of his uncle's, mount on the roof, and ride as far as he chose, for the mere trouble of walking back again. Our school consisted of between twenty and thirty boys, under the care of a master who knew little and taught still less for having three sermons to preach every Sunday, besides two on week-days, he had but little leisure to spare for the duties of the school ; and the only usher he could afford to keep was a needy hardworking lad, whose poverty and time-worn habiliments deprived him of any moral control over the boys. This state of things, coupled with the nervous and irascible temper of the pedagogue, naturally produced a good deal of delinquency, which was duly scored off on the backs of the offenders every morning before breakfast. Thus, what we [-196-] wanted in tuition was made up in flogging ; and if the master was rarely in the school, he made amends for his absence by a vigorous use of his prerogative while he was there. Griffith Maclean, who was never present on these occasions, coming only at nine o'clock, was yet our common benefactor. One by one he had taken all our jackets to a cobbling tailor in the village, and got them for a trifling cost so well lined with old remnants of a kind of felt or serge, for the manufacture of which the place was famous, that we could afford to stand up without wincing, and even to laugh through our wry faces under the matutinal ceremony of caning. Further, Griffith was the sole means of communication with the shopkeepers, and bought our cakes, fruit, and playthings, when we had money to spend, and would generally contrive to convey a hunch of bread and cheese from home to any starving victim who was condemned to fasting for his transgressions. In return for all this sympathy, we could do no less than relieve Griffith, as far as possible, from the trouble and bother, as he called it, of study. We worked his sums regularly for days beforehand, translated his Latin, and read over his lessons with our fingers as he stood up to repeat them before the master.
    Griffith's mother was the daughter of a gentleman residing in the neighbourhood of Midvale. Fifteen years ago she had eloped with a young Irish officer - an unprincipled fortune-hunter - who, finding himself mistaken in his venture, the offended father having refused any portion - had at first neglected and finally deserted his wife, who had returned home with Griffith, her only child, to seek a reconciliation with her parents. This had never been cordially granted. The old man had other children who had not disobeyed him, and to them, at his death, he bequeathed the built of his property, allotting to Griffith's mother only a life-interest in a small estate which brought her something less [-197-] than a hundred pounds a year. But the family were wealthy, and the fond mother hoped, indeed fully expected, that they would make a gentlemanly provision for her only child. In this expectation Griffith was nurtured and bred and being reminded every day that he was born a gentleman, grew up with the notion that application and labour of any sort were unbecoming the character he would have to sustain. He was a boy of average natural abilities, and with industry might have cultivated them to advantage but industry was a plebeian virtue, which his silly mother altogether dis-countenanced, and withstood the attempts, not very vigorous, of the schoolmaster to enforce. Thus he was never punished, seldom reproved and the fact that he was the sole individual so privileged in a school where both reproof and punishment were so plentiful, could not fail of impressing him with a great idea of his own importance. Schoolboys are fond of speculating on their future prospects, and of dilating on the fancied pleasures of manhood and independence, and the delights of some particular trade or profession upon which they have set their hearts - the farm, the forge, the loom, the counter, the press, the desk - have as eager partisans among the knucklers at taw as among older children ; and while crouching round the dim spark of fire on a wet winter day, we were wont to chalk out for ourselves a future course of life when released from the drudgery, as we thought it, of school. Some declared for building, carpentering, farming, milling, or cattle-breeding ; some were panting for life in the great city; some longed for the sea and travel to foreign countries ; and some for a quiet life at home, amid rural sports and the old family faces. Above all Griffith Maclean towered in unapproachable greatness. "I shall be a gentleman," said he, " if I don't have a commission in the army - which I am not sure I should like, because it's a bore to be ordered off where you don t want to go - I shall have an official situation under [-198-] government, with next to nothing to do but to see life and to enjoy myself." Poor Griffith!
    Time wore on. One fine morning I was packed, along with a couple of boxes, on the top of the London coach ; and before forty-eight hours had elapsed, found myself bound apprentice to a hard-working master and a laborious profession in the heart of London. Seven years I served and wrought in acquiring the art and mystery, as my indentures termed it, of my trade. Seven times in the course of this period it was my pleasant privilege to visit Midvale, where some of my relations dwelt, and at each visit I renewed the intimacy with my old schoolfellow Griffith. He was qualifying himself for the life of a gentleman by leading one of idleness ; and I envied him not a little his proficiency in the use of the angle and the gun, and the opportunity he occasionally enjoyed of following the hounds upon a borrowed horse. At my last visit, at the end of my term of apprenticeship, I felt rather hurt at the cold reception his mother gave me, and at the very haughty, off-hand bearing of Griffith himself; and I resolved to be as independent as he, by giving him an opportunity of dropping the acquaintance if he chose. I understood, however, that both he and his mother were still feeding upon expectation, and that they hoped everything from General -----, to whom application had been made on Griffith's behalf, as the son of an officer, and that they confidently expected a cadetship that would open up the road to promotion and fortune. The wished-for appointment did not arrive. Poor Griffith's father had died without leaving that reputation behind him which might have paved the way for his son's advancement, and the application was not complied with. This was a mortifying blow to the mother, whose pride it painfully crushed. Griffith, now of age, proposed that they should remove to London, where, living in the very source and centre of official appointments, they might bring their [-199-] influence to bear upon any suitable berth that might be vacant. They accordingly left Midvale and came to town, where they lived in complete retirement upon a very limited income. I met Griffith accidentally, after he had been in London about a year. He shook me heartily by the hand, was in high spirits, and informed me that he had at length secured the promise of an appointment to a situation in S----- House, in case T----- , the sitting member, should be again returned for the county. His mother had three tenants, each with a vote, at her command and he was going clown to Midvale, as the election was shortly coming off, and would bag a hundred votes at least, he felt sure, before polling-day. I could not help thinking, as he rattled away, that this was just the one thing he was fit for. With much of the air, gait, and manners of a gentleman, he combined a perfection in the details of fiddle-faddle and small-talk rarely to be met with ; and from having no independent opinion of his own upon any subject whatever, was so much the better qualified to secure the voices of those who had. He went down to Midvale, canvassed the whole district with astonishing success, and had the honour of dining with his patron, the triumphant candidate, at the conclusion of the poll. On his return to town, in the overflowings of his joy, he wrote a note to me expressive of his improved prospects, and glorying in the certainty of at length obtaining an official appointment. I was very glad to hear the good news, but still more surprised at the terms in which it was conveyed : the little that Griffith had learned at school he had almost contrived to lose altogether in the eight or nine years that had elapsed since he had left it. He seemed to ignore the very existence of such contrivances as syntax and orthography and I really had grave doubts as to whether he was competent to undertake even an official situation in S----- House.
    These doubts were not immediately resolved. Members [-200-] of parliament, secure in their seats, are not precisely so anxious to perform as they sometimes are ready to promise when their seats seem sliding from under them. It was very nearly two years before Griffith received any fruit from his electioneering labours, during which time be had been leading a life of lounging, do-nothing, dreamy, semi-consciousness, occasionally varied by a suddenly conceived and indignant remonstrance, hurled in foolscap at the head of the defalcating member for the county. During all this time fortune used him but scurvily : his mother's tenants at Midvale clamoured for a reduction of rent ; one decamped without payment of arrears ; repairs were necessary, and had to be done and paid for. These drawbacks reduced the small income upon which they lived, and sensibly affected the outward man of the gentlemanly Griffith : he began to look seedy, and occasionally borrowed a few shillings of me when we casually met, which he forgot to pay. I must do him the credit to say that he never avoided me on account of these trifling debts, but with an innate frankness, characteristic of his boyhood, continued his friendship and his confidences. At length the happy day arrived. He received his appointment, bearing the remuneration of 200 a year, which he devoutly believed was to lead to something in infinitely greater, and called on me on his way to the office where he was to be installed and indoctrinated into his function.
    The grand object of her life - the settlement of her son - thus accomplished, the mother returned to Midvale, where she shortly after died, in the full conviction that Griffith was on the road to preferment and fortune. The little estate, upon the proceeds of which she had frugally maintained herself and son, passed at her death into the hands of one of her brothers, none of whom took any further notice of Griffith, who had mortally offended them by his instrumentality in returning the old member for the county, whom it was  [-201-] their endeavour to unseat. There is a mystery connected with Griffith's tenure of office which I could never succeed in fathoming. He held it but for six months, when, probably not being competent to keep it, he sold it to an advertising applicant, who offered a douceur of 300 for such a berth. How the transfer was arranged I cannot tell, not knowing the recondite formula in use upon these occasions. Suffice it to say that Griffith had his 300, paid his little debts, renewed his wardrobe and his expectations, and began to cast about for a new patron. He was now a gentleman about town, and exceedingly well he both looked and acted the character ; he had prudence enough to do it upon an economical scale, and, though living upon his capital, doled it out with a sparing hand. As long as his money lasted he did very well ; but before the end of the third year the bloom of his gentility had worn off, arid it was plain that he was painfully economising the remnant of his funds.
    About this time I happened to remove to a different quarter of the metropolis, and lost sight of him for more than a year. One morning, expecting a letter of some importance, I waited for the postman before walking to business. What was my astonishment on responding personally to his convulsive "b'bang," to recognise under the gold-banded hat and red-collared coat of that peripatetic official the gentlemanly figure and features of my old school-fellow Griffith Maclean!
    "What, Griff!" I exclaimed, " is it possible - can this be you?"
    "Well," said he, " I am inclined to think it is. You see old fellow, a man must do something or starve. This is all I could get out of that shabby fellow T-----, and I should not have got this had I not well worried him. He knows I have no longer a vote for the county. However, I shan't wear this livery long there are good berths enough in the post-office. If they don't pretty soon give me something  [-202-] fit for a gentleman to do, I shall take myself off as soon as anything better offers. But, by George there is not much time allowed for talking I must be off - farewell!"
    Soon after this meeting the fourpenny deliveries commenced ; and these were before long followed by the establishment of the universal Penny-post. This was too much for Griffith. He swore he was walked off his legs ; that people did nothing upon earth but write letters ; that he was jaded to death by lugging them about ; that he had no intention of walking into his coffin for the charge of one penny and, finally, that he would have no more of it. Accordingly he made application for promotion on the strength of his recommendation, was refused as a matter of course, and vacated his post for the pleasure of a week's rest, which he declared was more than it was honestly worth.
    By this time destiny had made me a housekeeper in "merry Islington;" and poor Griff, now reduced to his shifts, waited on me one morning with a document to which he wanted my signature, the object of which was to get him into the police force. Though doubting his perseverance in anything, I could not but comply with his desire, especially as many of my neighbours had done the same. The paper testified only as to character and as Gruff was sobriety itself, and as it would have required considerable ingenuity to fasten any vice upon him, I might have been hardly justifled in refusing. I represented to him as I wrote my name, that should he be successful he would really have an opportunity of rising by perseverance in good conduct to an upper grade. "Of course," said he, "that is my object it would never do for a gentleman to sit down contented as a policeman. I intend to rise from the ranks, and I trust you will live to see me one day at the head of the force."
    He succeeded in his application and not long after signing his paper I saw him indued with the long coat, oil-cape, and glazed hat of the brotherhood, marching off in Indian  [-203-] file for night-duty to his beat in the H----- Road. Whether the night air disagreed with his stomach, or whether his previous duty as a postman had made him doubly drowsy, I cannot say, but he was found by the inspector on going his rounds in a position too near the horizontal for the regulations of the force, and suspended, after repeated transgression, for sleeping upon a bench under a covered doorway while a robbery was going on in the neighbourhood. He soon found that the profession was not at all adapted to his habits, and had not power enough over them to subdue them to his vocation. He lingered on for a few weeks under the suspicious eye of authority, and at length took the advice of the inspector, and withdrew from the force.
    He did not make his appearance before me as I expected and I lost sight of him for a long while. What new shifts and contrivances he had recourse to - what various phases of poverty and deprivation he became acquainted with during the two years that he was absent from my sight, are secrets which no man can fathom. I was standing at the foot of Blackfriar's Bridge one morning, waiting for a clear passage to cross the road, and began mechanically reading a printed board, offering to all the sons of Adam - whom, for the especial profit of the slopsellers, Heaven sends naked into the world - garments of the choicest breechcloth for next to nothnig, and had just mastered the whole of the large printed lie, when my eye fell full upon the bearer of the board, whose haggard but still gentlemanly face revealed to me the lineaments of my old friend Griff. He laughed in spite of his rags as our eyes met, and seized my proffered hand.
    "And what,'' said I, not daring to be silent, "do they pay you for this?"
    "Six shillings a week,'' said Griff, "and that's better than nothing."
    "Six shillings and your board, of course?"
    "Yes, this board," (tapping the placarded timber) "and  [-204-]  a confounded heavy board it is. Sometimes when the wind takes it, though, I'm thinking it will fly away with me into the river, heavy as it is."
    "And do you stand here all day ?"
    No, not when it rains : the wet spoils the print, and we have orders to run under cover. After one o'clock I walk about with it wherever I like, and stretch my legs a bit. There's no great hardship in it if the pay was better."
    I left my old playmate better resigned to his lowly lot than I thought to have found him. It was clear that he had at length found a function for which he was at least qualified ;  that he knew the fact ; and that the knowledge imparted some small spice of satisfaction to his mind. I  am happy to have to state that this was the deepest depth to which he has fallen. He has never been a sandwich - I am sure indeed he would never have borne it. With his heavy board mounted on a stout staff, he could imagine himself, as no doubt he often did, a standard-bearer on the battle-field, determined to defend his colours with his last breath ; and his tall, gentlemanly, and somewhat officer-like figure, might well suggest the comparison to a casual spectator. But to encase his genteel proportions in a surtout of papered planks, or hang over his shoulders a huge wooden extinguisher labelled with coloured stripes - it would never have done : it would have blotted out the gentleman, and therefore have worn away the heart of one whose shapely gentility was all that was left to him.
    One might have thought, after all the vicissitudes he had passed through, that the soul of Griffith Maclean was dead to the voice of ambition. Not so, however. On the first establishment of the street orderlies, that chord in his nature spontaneously vibrated once again. If he could only get an appointment it would be a rise in the social scale - leading by degrees -  who can tell ? - to the resumption of his original status, or even something beyond . . . . I hear a gentle  [-205-] knock, a modest, low-toned single dab, at the street-door as I am sitting down to supper on my return home after the fatigues of business. Betty is in no hurry to go to the door, as she is poaching a couple of eggs, and prides herself upon performing that delicate operation in irreproachable style. "Squilsh!" they go one after another into the saucepan - I hear it as plainly as though I were in the kitchen. Now the plates clatter ; the tray is loading and now the eggs are walking up stairs, steaming under Betty's face, when "dab " again - a thought, only a thought louder than before - at the street-door. The spirit of patience is outside and now Betty runs with an apology for keeping him waiting. "Here's a man wants to speak to master ; says he'll wait if you are engaged, sir he aint in no hurry.'' " Show him in;" and in walks Griff, again armed with a document - a petition for employment as a street-orderly, with testimonials of good character, honesty, and all that. Of course I again append my signature, without any allusion to the police force. I wish him all success, and have a long talk over past fun and follies, and present hopes and future prospects, and the philosophy of poverty and the deceitfulness of wealth. We part at midnight, and Griff next day gets the desiderated appointment.
    It is raining hard while I write, and by the same token I know that at this precise moment Griff in his glazed hat, and short blouse, and ponderous mud-shoes, is clearing a channel for the diluted muck of C---- Street, City, and directing the black, oozy current by the shortest cut to the open grating connected with the common sewer. I am as sure as though I were superintending the operation that he handles his peculiar instrument - a sort of hybrid between a hoe and a rake - with the grace and air of a. gentleman - a grace and an air proclaiming to the world that though in the profession, whatever it may be called, which he has assumed, he is not of it, and vindicating the workmanship of  [-206-] nature, who, whatever circumstances may have compelled him to become, cast him in the mould of a gentleman. It is said that in London every man finds his level. Whether Griffith Maclean, after all his vicissitudes, has found his, I do not pretend to say. Happily for him, he thinks that fortune has done her worst, and that he is bound to rise on her revolving wheel as high at least as he has fallen low. May the hope stick by him, and give birth to energies productive of its realisation!