Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Romance of a Shop-Window

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    A PAWNBROKER'S  shop-window has brought us up with a sudden pull on our morning perambulations, and fascinates us with its manifold contents. Where to begin our observations, that is the question. The embarras de richesses which has sprung from the embarrassments of poverty is so puzzling and perplexing, that it is next to impossible to make a choice. The window has a thousand voices waiting to speak - a thousand memorials which seem watching but to catch our eye to pour out the narrative of their sorrowful experience. These memorials are the hypothecated hostages left to guarantee the fulfilment of treaties which have all been violated, and abandoned to the uncompassionated destiny which avenges a forfeited pledge. Among them are the garments of both sexes and all ages, the personal trinkets and adornments of hopeful youth and fading age - books, the solace of the student and the companions of the solitary - musical instruments, the incentives to harmless mirth or delicious melancholy ; watches, clocks, gold chains, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, snuff-boxes, work-boxes, writing-desks, surgical implements, mathematical and scientific instruments, microscopes, telescopes, and stereoscopes; knives, forks, and spoons, and all the adjuncts of the dinner-table; and a thousand things besides, comprising everything "between a flatiron and a diamond ring," both inclusive ; not omitting an unassorted collection of workmen's tools condemned to rust for awhile in base inaction through the misfortunes or follies of the quondam owners.
The pawnbroker's shop is the deep sea in which all these mementoes and materials of former comfort and prosperity - the wrecks of foundered hopes - are swallowed up ; and the pawnbroker's shop-window shows them strewn together in disordered heaps, like the spoils of the tempest in some coral cave of ocean. In dim, yet dazzling confusion, the inharmonious collection floats before the vision, and will not be disembarrassed of the living forms and faces with which imagination connects each single item in the endless catalogue.
    Let us invite from the mass one or two forlorn specimens, and listen to their oracular voices. They will speak nothing but the truth now, though they may have helped to spread many a delusion in days that are gone. May we be the wiser for the revelations they impart.
    The first that comes forward to be heard is a neat and elegant little dress of lavender-coloured silk. We feel assured by its timid rustle that it was not long ago a wedding dress, and so it proves. "Ah!" it says mournfully, "I little thought that I should ever come to this - I, who came into the world with such mystery and secrecy, and was received with such wonder and admiration. At my birth, down in Daisydell, the best and prettiest faces blushed and smiled and when Patty put me on, and walked with Frank to the village church, the garden-flowers lay in my path, and roses, white and red, fell in showers upon every flounce. Then I rode in a carriage down to the sea-side, and for a whole week I walked on the sunny beach among the shells and sea-weed, and got a little sprinkled with the salt spray - only a little, nothing to hurt. Then I was shut up in a box in the dark, and when I saw the light again it was in this thirty London, and Patty's cheeks of rosy red were growing pale, and Frank was getting sallow and careworn. Once or twice I went to church on the Sunday, and once or twice to a walk in the park or out into the green lanes. Then I went into the box again for a long, long while, and when I saw the  [-333-] day once more, I felt Patty's warm tears falling upon me as she took me out. There was a baby lying in a little cradle, and Frank was sitting idle by a spark of fire, with his elbows on his knees, and looking sulky and miserable. Then I was laid upon the table, and tied up in a handkerchief with Frank's dress coat.
    "'The rent must be paid to-day, Frank,' said Patty; 'there is no other way ; will you take the things?'
    "Frank did not answer, but bit his lips and breathed heavily then he rose and put me under his arm, and went down-stairs into the street. He walked up and down for near an hour, and passed the pawnbroker's several times, looking over his shoulder at the door, but never entering. Then he welt home again, and threw the bundle on the table, and said he couldn't do it, and he wouldn't do it. So Patty, poor thing had to do it herself, and, answering not a word, she took me up and brought me here to the pawnbroker's, along with the coat, and took away a piece of gold and some silver instead. I have been squeezed up on a shelf here for more than a year, and I saw nothing of Patty all the time until yesterday, when she came by in a miserable old merino and garden bonnet that she had before she was married. She looked up and caught sight of me hanging here, and then, pressing her child to her breast, hurried away. Ah! I wish she was safe back again at Daisydell."
    The next monitor is an overcoat, of the paletot order, an article of good class, somewhat the worse for wear, yet still serviceable enough for a winter's campaign. "I belonged," he says, "a year ago, or thereabouts, to Ben Plumer, the law writer. Ben does not, as a rule, affect overcoats, having a knack of buttoning himself tight to the chin in his blue frock. He bought me when he happened to be flush of money, not exactly in a fit of extravagance, but rather as a kind of convenient investment. He apologised to his friend for the indulgence in such a luxury, by observing that as he  [-334-] found it impossible to keep any cash in his pocket, he had made up his mind to try the experiment on his back ; adding, that if he should happen to want a pound, it would only be to put me in, and have it. In three weeks he had occasion to put his hypothesis to the test, and found it in all respects sound. I have been put in and taken out five consecutive times during the six months that I had the honour of being the property of Mr. Plumer, who always entertained a grateful regard for my services, and considered me as a veritable friend in need. What induced him to abandon me at last is more than I can say. Here I am, however, after twelve months of durance vile. You may have me for one, seven, six - say one, five, and I don't think I shall be allowed to hang on hand. I'm worth all the money and really, if you are a buyer, you may go further and farr worse."
    Next comes a handsome gold watch and guard, by one of the famous London makers. This is what it says :- "I was bought in the Strand, two years ago, for thirty guineas, by a city gentleman who had just made a good speculation, and took a fancy for my handsome dial. He put me in his waistcoat pocket, and carried me home to Blackheath, where he lived in luxury, and denied himself nothing. His wife admired me exceedingly, and, lest I should be stolen, would have me secured by an additional guard of her own hair. I was the constant companion and faithful servant of Mr. Scrip for six months, when there came a sudden panic and revolution in the money-market, and I felt his heart beat tumultuously at a piece of news that came upon him unawares. Twenty times at least within the next hour he drew me from his pocket to mark the time, and I noticed that his jovial face had grown haggard and wan, and grew longer and longer with the passing moments. At four o'clock instead of going home as usual to dine with his family, he rushed madly to various quarters of the town in search of friends to save him from a default, which would be his ruin. His [-335-] success was but indifferent. When at length he reached home, there was a wretched domestic scene of anxiety and distress, embittered by mutual reproaches and outcries against extravagance on one side, and gambling speculation on the other. Next morning early, everything that was precious and portable in the house was collected together and borne off to be hedged before business hours. I saw the whole contents of the plate-chest, and all Mrs. Scrip's jewels and trinkets unpacked in the pawnbroker's private box, and exchanged for a roll of notes and a packet of duplicates. Last of all came my turn, I was pulled out of the warm pocket at exactly ten minutes to ten, and transferred to a private drawer, where I was suffered to tick my last tick, and have not been wound up again from that time to this. Whether Mr. Scrip maintained his standing by the sacrifices he made, I don't know but he never came back for me, and here I am to be sold for something over half price to anybody who wants to know to a nicety what o'clock it is.''
    Between a gentleman's gold watch and the worn and battered tool of an artisan, there is a wide chasm yet, nevertheless, the next monitor to be heard is a carpenter's jack-plane, in a state of palpable decadence. "A queer sort of life I've had of it," it begins, "and that's a fact. It is many years ago since I was bought in Newgate Street one morning by a very decent man, who put me into his basket and carried me off to the workshop. He used me well, and in return I did him justice for three years; but then I fell into the hands of Sam Suckle, who not only used me shamefully himself, but lent me right and left among a parcel of fellows, who knocked me about at such a rate that I lost half my value in no time. Sam was fonder of the ale-house than of the workshop, and going on from bad to worse, grew such a sot that he was banished from the workshop altogether. He now had to work on his own account ; but as he liked to drink on his own account much better, he was never out of the ale-house [-336-]  until all the money was out of his pocket. Of course I was soon pawned to buy beer but I had not been in limbo three days before Sam came, bringing my old companion, the handsaw, to take my place. I was released for three short days, and then, happening to want the saw once more, Sam popped me in again to release my old friend. The changes were rung in this way month after month, and every time I got out of durance I observed that Sam's nose grew more red and his garments more ragged, his language more offensive and his gait more staggering. The last time he pawned me I had a presentiment of what was to follow, and it was verified but too soon. Two days after came the hand-saw, as usual, but not to release me we were now companions in durance and a third was soon added to the party by Sam's stock and bits. This was followed by the remainder of his tools, which dribbled in, one at a time, down to the very gimlets and brad-awls. The glue-pot brought up the rear one Saturday night, and since then I have seen nothing of Sam, for the particulars of whose final career I must refer you to the workhouse, if you are curious about them.''
    A cabinet picture, about thirty inches by twenty-two, in a broad and brilliant frame of finished gilding and exquisite pattern, now claims to be heard. The rich hues of russet brown contrasting with the sparkling tints in the foreground; the delicious greens on the foliage, and the soft, delicate greys mingling with the light clouds in the distance, all combine to form an agreeable subject of contemplation, in which there is yet wanting something - some indefinable element of harmony which ought to be, but is not there. What has it got to say ? Listen: "I am an impostor," it says, "and a delusion ; there is not a particle of truth or candour in my composition ; I am a piece of embodied wickedness, and I am heartily ashamed of myself. I am forced to present myself to the public with a lie upon my face, and I am intrinsically a lie and nothing else. If you look at my lower left-hand [-337-] corner, you will see the name of W. Muller painted in legible characters. Now, I assure you, that artist never had anything to do with me - never in the whole course of his life so much as set eyes upon me. How could he ? I came into existence - an existence with which I am disgusted - two years after his death. I was painted - manufactured is the more appropriate term - by a drunken artist, who sold me for forty shillings to a dealer, who praised me so magniloquently to a wealthy patron, that he was enchanted to purchase me at ninety guineas. The moment I was hung in his gallery I was suspected to he an impostor by those who knew more thou my purchaser did of the essentials of art. The whispered suspicions reached his lordship's ears at last, and he, to set the matter at rest, sent me to a picture-sale, where I was knocked down for seven pounds ten, just thirty shillings more than the worth of my frame. Since then I have run a complete round among ignorant collectors, and brought a profit to some dozens of dealers. The last who had me in possession found me too well known in the market to be of further use, and he therefore brought me here and pledged me for a five-pound note, and left me to my fate. Don't have anything to do with me unless you wish to be cheated ; and if you would do me a kindness in return for my candour, turn my face to the wall."
    Here is a more serious claimant on our notice - a large family folio Bible, sheathed in a brown holland scabbard, lies in a corner. If it had a voice, it might speak something to the following effect:- " I came into the world nearly forty years ago, and nobody has read a couple of chapters in me yet. I belonged first to a country servant-maid, who took me in from the book-pedler, at sixpence a number, in blue covers, and was paying sixpences every Saturday, for over four years before she came to the end of the volume. She sent my numbers to be bound, when she was on the point of being married. When bound, I was put into a green-baize [-338-] cover, in which I lay for twenty years on a side-table in her cottage, in front of the tea-tray and under the knife-box, being only taken out now and then, that the children, when they grew big enough, might look at my pictures. I was called the Family Bible ; but I was never made the means of giving instruction to the family. Had the lessons of prudence which I inculcated been noted and studied, my owners world never have found it needful to part with me; for prosperity is the fruit of my counsel. I was left as an heir-loom to the eldest daughter, who married about ten years back, and with her husband removed to London, where they fell into deep distress. I was pawned to buy bread for a starving family. The pawnbroker would only advance twenty shillings upon my security, though I had cost between six and seven guineas in all."
    We have not time to spare just now to listen to further revelations. There is a diamond ring sparkling on a bed of white cotton, in a way that convinces us that its story is worth hearing; there is a collected edition of Schiller's works, and a corpulent German dictionary, ready to unbosom their reminiscences. In the shop is a cottage-piano, with a couple of rents in its damask-silk front - "poor dumb mouths," which could furnish us with a family history varied enough for a whole vokume ; and there are no end of mementoes of the poor man's lot, of his hard labour and struggles to get the materials and elements of comfort and respectability about him, and of the determined battles he fought and fought in vain, while forced by adversity to relinquish them one by one, that he might drive the gaunt wolf from the door, and feed his famishing little ones. All these we must leave to the imagination of the reader. Each one of itself might yield the groundwork of a romance, all the more touching and instructive in that the details are drawn from the realities of our social life.
    By the perusal of the pawnbroker's window, we may [-339-] derive a more intense conviction than we are accustomed to entertain of the fact, not pleasant to think of, that poverty, so far as that is identical with want of money, is by no means confined to the class whom we denominate "the poor."  Pawners, it would appear, abound in nearly all ranks of life. The owners of jewels and precious metals and articles of pure luxury impound them as readily, under the pressure of temporary emergencies, as the needy man does his clothes or his tools. The quantity and variety of articles yearly pledged and forfeited, which are of a description proving that they could not have belonged to the poorer classes, is enormous and we may learn from them how true it is that misfortunes and reverses track all grades of society.