Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XV - The Father of the Stairs

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BETWEEN two towering piles of gloomy warehouses a dirty, narrow alley leads down to Pelican Stairs, so called from the crazy publie-house whose bow windows overlook the river hard by. At low water a narrow causeway can be seen at the foot of the stairs, rising out of the steaming mud like the backbone of some monstrous buried skeleton. At the stair-foot, or along the causeway, watermen's wherries are clustered. A boat or two, on their sides, or bottom upwards, lie in the tiny square which forms the head of the stairs; and watermen are always lounging there with their hands in their pockets, looking with sullen discontent at the splashing steamers which have almost supplanted the wherry. When I first knew Pelican Stairs, however, one of those constrained loungers was a most cheerfully contented old fellow.
    Having occasion to cross to the Surrey side, I turned [-156-] down Pelican Lane for the purpose of taking a boat. For a wonder, none of the loungers on the stairs saw me until I came out into the little square, and I was able to take in the picture it presented without disturbance. A hale, grey-haired, venerable-looking old man, with a wooden leg, was seated, bareheaded, on a low mooring-post. His right arm was raised, and he was addressing a little congregation of watermen and mudlarks. The mudlarks came up in relays from the slush in which they paddled with their trousers rolled up to their hips. Whilst they listened, they tried to roll their trousers higher and tighter, and then in a minute or two away they went again. But though the boys grinned, they seemed to like the old man for talking to them; and he appeared to be a favourite also with the saturnine men who stood around him.
    As soon as I was seen, the little congregation broke up, and made a rush towards me. If I could have chosen a waterman, I should have selected the wooden-legged one; but no choice was allowed me. I was taken possession of, and somehow hustled into a boat, and, it was not until we were a couple of boat's lengths from the stairs that I could ask any questions about the old man. 'Peter Smith is his name, sir,' answered my boatman. He's Father of the Stairs now Old Booty is dead. An out-an'- outer Old Booty were - out-an'-out bad, I mean. Peter ain't like that. Peter the Parson we calls him, becos he's got a way o' holdin' forth to us, ye see. An' what Peter says ain't bad. We should have ne'er a parson if it wasn't for Peter. The boys, too, likes his yarns about Labridory an' them parts he see when he was abroad. He was [-157-] 'prenticed to his own father at them wery stairs we've left, but when his time was out Peter ran wild a bit, they say, and went abroad. But he see or heared summut when he were abroad that made a saint on 'im, an' he lost his leg besides, an' so back he come to London, an' he's been agittin' his livin' ever since at them wery identical stairs - sich a livin' as them teakittles will let a waterman am nowadays.'
    My boatman spoke with additional bitterness, because just then we were washed by the swell of one steamer, and he had to unship an oar to avoid running foul of another. During the rest of his pull he had nothing more to tell me about the Father of the Stairs; he was almost too grumpy to give me the old man's address when I stepped out on the stairs at the other side. He did give it to me, however, and a few days afterwards, at an hour when he was likely to be at home, I started to find out Peter.
    A great part of the East End of London - notwithstanding its griminess - is very modern. Acre after acre might be cleared of the cheaply-built, dearly-rented hovels with which they are encumbered without doing violence to 'historical associations.' But here and there, in the midst of this flimsy modern masonry you come upon a bit of substantial old building. The lane in which Peter Smith lived was one of these old places. A dead dock-wall formed its 'prospect' in front and at one end; at the other brawled the bustle and the brutality of an East End river-side thoroughfare; but the lane was not a short-cut to anywhere, and so its quiet was almost [-158-] startling. The old one-storied red brick cottages, with half their room wasted in their unused roofs, their whites doorsteps beneath their leaden-painted doors, their leaden-painted square shutters, fastened back from their leaden lattices with bulky wooden buttons, and their eaves-cornice of projecting brick-ends; looked almost as dreamy as a row of country almshouses; and the tenants, for the most part, were as neat and as quiet as their tenements. I found Peter and his wife sitting over their little fire. 'Well, this is a plasure,' said Peter. 'I haven't had a clergyman, not to speak to, for I can't tell ye how long, sir.'
    'It ain't that we wants anything, you'll please to understand, sir,' the old lady explained. 'We has our ups an' our downs like other folks, but we manage to get along without being beholden to anybody, thank God. When we can't get what we want, why we just go without till we can - so that matter's soon settled. It ain't anything of that, you see, sir, but Peter's a likin' for everything that's good, and goes to church as reg'lar as the bells rings out - an' I go with him when my rheumatiz will let me - an' so it do seem hard that a parson can't drop in now and then to see how we're a gettin' on when we re adoin' our best to encourage 'em. Not as I likes parsons that walks into poor folk's houses as if they belonged to 'em, but them as knocks, an' axes after you as if you were a friend like.'
    'Well, this gen'leman knocked, Esther,' said Peter.
    'I'm not a-denyin' of it, Peter,' answered the testy old [-159-]  lady. I'm findin' no fault with the gen'leman. P'r'aps he might ha' come to see us a bit sooner, but no doubt there was others more important, though you do go to church so reg'lar, Peter an' that's more than ye can say of a good many in this parish.'
    With Mrs as well as Mr Peter Smith, however, I soon got on very excellent terms. It would have been a treat to visit them if only because they were not, like so many with whom I came in contact, very little if at all worse off constantly whining for pecuniary assistance, or fiercely grumbling at not getting it. The old couple, as the old lady had said, had, no doubt, their times of hardship, but it was not so hard as to prevent them from preserving the feeling of independence which gave them honest pride and pleasure. They welcomed my visits because they liked to hear talk about the other world to which they were both fast, although quietly, drifting, and also because they liked to have a friend to gossip with about their past and present in this world. Long as their lives had been, it was only during two or three years before the married portion of them began that they had been, in any storytelling sense, eventful. But it was very pretty to notice how the mutual affection which had ruffled the course of those two or three years had lasted beyond the term of a 'golden wedding.' Although the old lady was somewhat irritable, she was never out of temper with Peter, and he looked at her wrinkled face as fondly as when, without a wrinkle on it, it blushed under his first kiss. Throughout their married life they had sought the peace [-160-] with God which passeth understanding-and when wife and husband both sincerely seek that, their home-harmony is almost certain.
    And now for the history of those two or three eventful years. 
    Esther was the daughter of a boat-builder, sufficiently flourishing to think that a young waterman was no match for his only child. But Esther was of a different opinion. In the last year of Peter's apprenticeship he and she had fallen in love with each other. 'He was a fine young feller then,' the old lady remarked, 'an' everybody 'cept father said we was made for each other. Mother would ha' liked to see me take up with some one that was better off; but she wouldn't ha' had a word to say against Peter if father hadn't set her agin' him.' When Peter was out of his apprenticeship, he wanted Esther to marry him without her parents' consent, but this she steadily refused to do. 'You're young, and I'm younger, and we can wait, Peter,' she said. 'You needn't be afeared as I shall marry anybody else. But I was afeared, you see, sir,' Peter told me. 'When her father's got money to give her, a pretty young gal can't be sure who she'll be forced to marry, and, mayhap, I thought, Esther don't know her own mind, and she'll get tired of waitin' for a poor chap like me - though watermen made a deal more then - shillin's where they take pennies now. I knew nought about religion in them days. As things went then, I s'pose I was looked on as a steadyish young feller. But what I cared about was to get my own way. When I'd set my heart on a thing, I got savage if I was [-161-] thwarted. So when Esther wouldn't marry me slick off the reel I broke out. I'd been carryin' on at the Pelican one day, and was a sheet or two in the wind, when I got out at the top of the lane. There I met Esther. She looked first as if she couldn't believe her eyes, and then she looked angry, and then as if she was fit to cry. "Peter," says she,. "you're shamin' yourself, and you're shamin' me - you'll kill me if you go on this way. Mother told me you was, but I said it was a lie."  "It's your fault," says I. "You marry me right off, and I'll never go inside the Pelican again." Drinkin's bad enough now in these parts, but it was worse then-only Esther's father, don't you see, was a water-drinker, and he'd brought her up to believe - and very proper, too - that a man as got drunk was worse than a beast. "I'd never marry a drunkard, Peter," says she, "not if I loved him ever so, an' there wasn't another man in the whole world. Oh, Peter!" says she, bursting out cryin', "you're goin' the right way to work to keep father from ever lettin' me have you." Now you see, sir, I wasn't drunk - I was never really given that way. I could understand well enough all my poor Esther said. But I'd drunk enough to make me feel extra savage, because I could understand it all, and couldn't deny there was some reason in it, when I'd been wantin' to think that I was all in the right, and her all in the wrong. So off I bounced in a fury. "Good-evenin', miss," says I. "I wonder you ain't ashamed to stand talkin' to a low feller like me." And back I went to the Pelican. There was a man there I'd been drinkin' with as belonged to a brigantine down at Deptford goin' out [-162-] to the Labrador fishin'. He'd been wantin' me to go with him; so back I went to say I'd go.'
    'Ay, Peter,' interjected Mrs Smith, 'and I went home, and ran up into my bed-room, and cried my eyes out. A nice scoldin' I got when I went down to supper. 'Cept what I'd learnt, or what was in the book, I didn't know much about prayers in them days, sir, but I made up a prayer for him out of my own head that night - that I did, Peter.'
    'And God heared it, my old gal,' answered Peter, 'an' changed my heart, and brought me back safe and sound, 'cept for the leg I'd left behind me. An' that were a mercy, too, when ye come to think on it, 'cos it made me think littler of myself. "The pride of a man is his strength," an' I'd lost a bit o' mine - an' it's wonderful how well I've got on without it. You didn't think worse of me; did ye, old gal, when I come hoppin' up to ye like a sparrer?'
    'I was sorry for ye, Peter, an' that I won't deny. Legs is a conwenience for all parties. But a woman as is a woman, and is in love, ain't a-goin' to say she ain't because her young man has had a leg took off. Why, sir, I've heared of a ossifer as come back to Harwich from the Penins'lar with both his legs and both his arms cut off. When he got to his lady's house, he didn't know how to knock, or how to pull the bell, but she was a-look-in' out for him over the winder-blind. As soon as she'd run out and opened the front door, "Good-bye, Fanny," says he. "I wanted to see you once more, but this is all that's left of me, and, of course, I can't expect a fine [-163-] young woman like you to take that." But up she caught him, and kissed him like a babby. "You lost 'em fightin' for me and for my country, Fred," says she, "an' I'll have you as long as there's enough left on ye to see." Jest think o' that, sir! An' was I goin' to give up my Peter, as I loved so true, because he'd only lost one leg ? - an' that partly because I'd angered him, an' poor father wasn't willin' to let him have me when he could ha' kep' me respectable - an' that he's al'ays done, thank God, though he have only got one leg.'
    'Well, yes, sir, I do remember that time well,' said Peter, when I asked him about his Labrador adventures. 'You see it was the only furrin woyage I ever took, an' twas then I got my compass - you know what I mean, sir - the compass that's got the needle that points to heaven, sir. Why only a Sunday or two ago you was talkin' about it, sir; but if you'll not be offended, sir, you haven't azakly the notion of what a ship's compass is like. It ain't like them little toy-things where you can see the needle a-swingin' about and a-staggerin' as if it was drunk - the card moves about in the ship's compass - so when the skipper sings out, "How's her head, Tom?" you can tell in a moment, you see, sir. Now with them little land things, if you twist round the card at the bottom you can make the needle point Due South, and all manner o' ways, an' that ain't much of a guide - 'cept that you're sure that the needle must point to the north, whatever letter's under - though you can't be sure of that nayther with them things. They made me think of the flighty folks that set up to know what's right of them-[-164-]selves. P'r'aps they're right - p'r'aps they isn't. Give me the old mariner's compass - and here I've got it,' added Peter, bringing down his brown hand on a canvas-covered, brass-clasped Bible.
    'This was give me,' he went on, 'by a mate o' mine aboard that brigantine. Sam Woods was his name, and Porkypine was hers - Porkypine of the Port o' London. I used to laugh at Sam at first, when I see him readin' of it, an' sayin' his prayers afore he turned in. But when we got into a jam o' ice, Sam was the coolest chap aboard. There was the ice growlin' away like thunder, and us tumblin' over the side to smash a way for her, and I was precious skeared, but Sam worn't. Now, you know, sir, when two men's together, an' one on 'em takes a funk, an' t'other don't, the one that does funk - though he don't like to have to own it - can't help respectin' the t'other that don't. I dessay I could have licked Sam if it had come to a fight, but that didn't make me feel any braver. "Sam," says I, when the wind had gone down, an' the ice was only snorin' like, "you've been the woyage afore - when are we to get out of this?" "Soon," says he, "please God  - there's the fog risin' yonder, an' that means clear water." He was right, sir - the skipper made sail for the fog, an' we got through, an' we got out of the fog, too, into fine clear weather. Sam was a scholar. Says he, when we were talkin' about it, "Peter, there's mysteries over a man's life as well as the sea - but you trust in God an' go up to 'em, an' you'll come out in somethin' better." I couldn't make out what he meant then, but I've a guess [-165-] now. There was ice all along the shore when we sighted it, but I was glad enough to see land of any sort. We run into a bit of a cove, and it was queer to be able to take a walk. There was nothin' but ice an' snow to walk on, but still you could stretch your legs, and all of a sudden the snow melted away, an' we got ready for the cod that was comin' as soon as the ice was gone. They catch 'em with the net there, an' prod 'em out ashore with a big kind o' skewer. They hook 'em, too, though, an' bait with caplin. There's lots of fish - salmon, an' mackerel, an' herrin', an' all sorts - on them wild shores, that frown as if they didn't want nobody to come near 'em - dog in the manger like. The curin' work ain't nice, an' there's a lot of drinkin', an' after what Esther said to me I was sick of drinkin' when I come to myself. Still I won t deny that, if I'd had a easier mind, I could have enjoyed myself out there. Besides the fishin', there was birds to shoot an' bears, an' seals, an' deers, an' wolves, an' foxes, an porkypines, an' hares, an' beavers, an' all sort o' animals the ladies here gets their snuffs an' tippets made on sables an' such. Some of the foxes is blue, an' some on 'em is white. We used to get jolly good feeds off the ducks, an' the snow-birds, an' the porkypines, too. I was in Labrador a bit, and got to know the ways o' the place. How do you think, sir, they find out which way the wind is a-goin' to blow? They hang up a wolf's head, an' which way that points, they say the wind ill come. It's whites that do that, an' there's somethin' in it, because the wolf when it's alive al'ays hunts to wind'ard. They're very frightened o' makin' bears angry - both whites and blacks [-166-] - they think there's a deal of knowingness, like witches, in 'em. They're a queer lot, them Esqueemaws, but the whites' - most on em's Irish - weren't much wiser in my time. There was missionaries - More-ravy-uns they called 'em, summut like our Ranters, I guess - an' I've heared that they do good, an' are very quiet little men, though they do give 'em that name; but they weren't in the parts where I was. There was no parson, an' no lawyer, an' no doctor there. Everybody did as he liked, and got well the best way he could. Fortunately there weren't many as fell ill, or turned rusty, 'cept when they'd had too much rum. It's the climate, I s'pose. Fortunately, too, there was one doctor handy when I broke my leg in three places. I was out on the ice lookin' for seals, an' I slipped right into one o' their blowin'-holes. Some Esqueemaws pulled me out, an' this doctor - he worn't a doctor then, but a kind o' supercargo of a schooner, but he'd got his tools with him - he had me carried back to the hut I was livin' in, an' there he cut off my leg because he couldn't set it, and looked after me as well as he could, good man. Sam Woods had gone back to the London river in the Porkypine but he'd talked to me afore he went, an' he'd left me this here Bible, an' told me what I was to read in it; an' I read what he told me, sir, an' at first I was awful skeared, as I lay there in those outlandish parts all alone upon my back. The doctor was a kind gentleman - a very kind gentleman, but he didn't know nought about such things as that. "Keep your pluck up, old boy," he used to say as he come in, and at first it was very cheery to see him. He came into the dark fishy place like a [-167-] breath of fresh air an' a blink o' sunlight. But when he'd gone, I got mopish again - thinkin' about my poor Esther here, an' what was to come of me in this world an' the next. All of a sudden, though, I woke out of a beautiful dream about Jesus - shoutin' so that some of my mates run in to see what was up, "Go and sin no more. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved;" an' them's the two texts I've tried to keep in mind ever since, an' a deal o' comfort they've brought to me, and others, too, I hope. The doctor rigged me out with some kind of a jury-leg, an' took me on to Newfoundland in his schooner, an' then got me sent on to London. When I got home, poor Esther's father and mother was both dead, an' the old man hadn't cut up as rich as was expected, an' she were livin' with her aunt. But it worn't none the less kind of her to take up again with a wooden-legged chap like me, an' come an' nurse my poor dear mother, an' then my poor old father. I went back to the Stairs, an' made a livin', an' we were wery happy - an' we've kep' so, hain't we, Esther? Esther had the root o' the matter in her long afore I had, sir, an' now Christ's the comfort both on us clings to. You'd be astonished, too, sir, if you was to see how some o' them swearin' mates o' mine an' larkin' young rascals at the Stairs quiets down when you speaks to them, kind but serious, about Jesus. They calls me the Father o' the Stairs, becos I'm the oldest skuller there, and really they behaves accordin'.'