Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XIX - Banjo and his Sister

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THACKERAY makes one of his characters say, 'What a master  - nay, destroyer  - of the affections want is!' There is truth in this. It would be ridiculous to pretend that poverty does not often breed in a family a gross, grasping selfishness which makes the poverty still more ghastly. But if this is, perhaps, the rule, there are noble and numerous exceptions to it. In the present and the following chapter, I will give two of the many that have fallen under my own notice.
    The street Ethiopian serenader is not, I fear, generally speaking, a very estimable character. He has taken to his peculiar calling, as a rule, because he hates work, and likes a vagabond life, coupled with chances of drink. There are times, no doubt, in which he makes more than he could have got from his previous employment, when he has been a working man of any kind; but there are [-211-] often also times in which he makes a good deal less than he might have got if he had stuck heartily to work. It is the beery Bohemianism of his peripatetic profession which attracts him. The street Ethiopian serenader of whom I am about to write was in some respects not much better than the majority of his brethren; but he had a genuine love for a sick sister - a love which manifested itself in self-denial for her sake.
    I made my acquaintance with him thus.
    I was visiting a sick parishioner in a quiet side-street, when a company of serenaders - then more novel than they are now - accompanied by a noisy crowd, came and struck up an air, with a tumultuous vocal and instrumental chorus, under the very window of the invalid. They seemed to have selected their stand because they had seen the window-blind drawn down. The poor young fellow I was visiting - the only son of a respectable widow in straitened circumstances - had been just dropping off to sleep when the vile din of cracked tenor, bull-like bass, idiotic 'Yah, yah, yah,' scraped fiddle, thumped tambourine, tortured concertina, twanged banjo, and clattering bones began; but the noise instantly brought him back to his former state of tossing unrest. His mother gave her little maid a penny, and bade her give it to the men, and bid them go away, because there was some one ill in the house. The only result of this mission, however, was an outburst of choral confusion worse confounded; and, therefore, I went out to see what I could do. 'Bones,' half-drunk and very impudent, made himself the spokesman of the company. He rattled his bones in my face, [-212-] and said that if Englishmen did do the niggers, they wasn't niggers to be druv away by anybody, when they was earnin' a honest livin'. They'd a right to play in the Queen's highway, and play they would, if they wasn't paid for goin'. If folks was ill, they wasn't to stop them, unless they paid accordin'. Give em a bob, and they'd go then.
    'Very well, then,' I said 'I shall go for a policeman.'
    'Don't you wish you may get him?' retorted the bibulous Bones - 
    "Go away, go away," says the shabby-genteel;
        "Go away, go away," says he;
    "He's too much of a scurf to give us a bob,
        But he'll bring, if he can, a bob-bee."
    Now then, boys, go on with the consort.'
    But Banjo refused to join in. 'You shut up, Bones,' he cried. 'The gentleman spoke civil enough to you; and if there's anybody ill in there, it's a jolly shame to keep 'em awake with our row.'
    Tambourine, Fiddle, and Concertina, who were going to follow Bones's lead, looked half ashamed when Banjo spoke up in this way, and the company took their departure: Bones stopping at the corner of the street to clatter his bones once more, and give me a Parthian shot in the shape of a 'yah-yah-YAH' of profoundly contemptuous disgust.
    Shortly afterwards I met Banjo in his white hat, exaggerated shirt collar, and absurd dress-coat, walking along by himself, with his instrument under his arm. He [-213-] was shaking himself as if all his bones were out of joint, rolling his eyes, and baring his teeth, as if he were chewing the cud of most rollickingly facetious fancy, mincing as if the ground were not good enough for him to tread on, and yet hurrying as if a crowded opera-house were impatiently waiting for his appearance. But when I spoke to him - to thank him for his backing - he instantly dropped his professional manner. 'It was a shame, sir,' he said; 'but then Simpson was half slewed - he was sewn up before we got home that night. I know what illness is. I've got a sick sister at home. Religion ain't much in my line, but I know it when I see it, and a real down-right religious gal she is, and no mistake. If you could give a look in now and then, sir, it would be a real kindness to the poor dear gal. There she lies all day without a soul to speak to. I'm out all day, and when I'm in, I haven't the knack of talkin' about the things she'd like to hear about. I'm not a hypocrite, sir - that I can say of myself - but really I've felt as if I should like to sham pious, if I only knew how, to please that poor gal. Though it wouldn't be no good after all. When anybody's the real thing themselves, it's easy for 'em to spot them as isn't, however hard they may sham. But if you'll call flow and then to see my poor sister, sir, you'll do her a real kindness, and though I ain't in the religious line myself, I shall be very grateful to you, sir. No. 17, Bertha Street, three-pair back, is where we live. Good-mornin' to ye, sir, and thank ye, sir.'
    A minute afterwards Banjo had resumed his consequentially-comic look and dislocated gait, but as I watched [-214-] him careering along the street, escorted by an ever-growing crowd of widely-grinning youngsters, I could not help feeling a kind of respect for the kind-hearted, black-faced buffoon.
    I paid my first visit to 'No. 17, Bertha Street, three-pair back,' pretty early in the morning, in the hope of being able to see Banjo as well as his sister. I was just in time to have a word with him. No answer being given when I knocked at the door of the three-pair back, I opened it and walked into a very scantily-furnished chamber. One side was curtained off with sacking. This rough curtain was lifted, and I saw Banjo in professional costume stooping down to kiss a poor pinched girl who lay on a low bed within, before he went out to his professional labours for the day. 'I'm glad you've come, sir-I said you would,' was his remark when he looked round. 'Nance, this is the clergyman I was telling you about. Come inside, sir - wait a bit, I'll get you a chair. What was chairs made for but to be sat upon? And we've got two, hain't we, Nance? so there's a choice. This un, though, has got a bit of the bottom out, so you shall have the one I'm keeping for Nance when she gets up to make my breakfast the week after next. There, sir, sit ye down, and talk away, and thank ye, sir. Good-bye, old gal, I'm off now - I shan't be late. Good-mornin', sir, and thank ye, sir.'
    So speaking, he cocked his white hat still more on one side, and stalked sprawlingly to the door, strumming on his banjo. He turned round to give his poor sister a goodbye grin, which had a great deal of love in it, then made [-215-] us both a very low, mock-reverential bow, and softly closed the door after him. The poor girl had smiled faintly at her brother's antics, and reflected with interest his look of love.
    'A kind-hearted fellow your brother seems to be,' I said to her.
    'That he is, sir,' she answered eagerly. 'A better brother never breathed. There ain't many brothers that would burden themselves with a poor helpless thing like me.'
    'Have you been long an invalid?'
    Going on for four year I've been here now, and instead of getting tired of me, he's almost kinder to me Than he was when I first come.'
    'I suppose he makes a good deal of money?'
    'Yes, sir, sometimes he may make a tidyish bit, but then most men wouldn't think it was enough to divide between two; and sometimes it's very little indeed he gets. Much or little, however, he will make me take what I want, however he's off himself. And he don't sit moping as if he was making a martyr of himself, but seems merriest, I think, when he's worst off. Of course, he does that to cheer me up.'
    'You must be very lonely here by yourself?'
    'Not so very, for Tom makes me keep a bird - here he is by the bed - though the seed comes to more than he can well afford in hard times. But he says I want a companion, and a dear little chap Dick is. Tom puts the cage by the bed before he goes out, so that I can get at it, and when I open the door, Dick ill hop out and light on my head, [-216-] and then he'll fly about the room, and then he'll fly back and perch on the cage, and sing as if he'd burst himself.'
    'It is astonishing how much cheerfulness one of these little mites can throw round one.'
    'Yes; and how wise Dick is! As soon as he sees that I want to go to sleep, he's as mum as a mouse. He's a fond little chap - he nestles up to me like a child. But he's twice as fond of Tom as he is of me. Rare games they'll have when Tom comes home. Dick maybe's been moping, but he brightens up as soon as he hears Tom's step, and hops away to hide. "Tweet, tweet," he says, for all the world like a child crying "Whoop," and then there's a hunt and a chase, and when Tom's penned Dick up in a corner, he'll ruffle up his feathers and make believe to bite him, and then he'll hop on his shoulder, and walk up his fingers like a ladder, and let Tom balance him on the top of a stick, and swing in Tom's handkerchief just like a child. Him and Tom have whistling matches - Tom's a very pretty whistler. Yes, sir, Dick certainly is a great amusement to me, and a real beauty he is, when his ash-coloured tail feathers is out. He's a Belgian - Tom gave five shillings for him. He's been moulting lately, but you can see the grey tail-feathers just sprouting like out of the gold.'
    The poor girl, who was suffering from incurable spinal complaint, seemed as if she could never weary of talking of her brother. And when flowers is in, Tom's pretty sure to bring me a bunch of some sort. He's very free with his money - twopence he'll give for a chameleon - [-217-] them red and white waxy flowers like roses, with the glossy green leaves. I'd rather have a penny bunch of vi'lets, because the smell of them puts me in mind of old times.'
    You were not always in London then?'
    'No, we was bred in the country, and when we used to go picking vi'lets, we didn't think we should ever be living together in smoky London. But what should I do without Tom, now, sir? They couldn't do me any good in the hospital where I went, and I should have had to be sent to the workhouse, if Tom hadn't taken me. He would have me. We was always from children very fond of each other, and it was partly because Tom was in London that I came up from the country and took a place here. I was afraid that he was getting a bit wild, and thought that, perhaps, I might do him a bit of good. But there you see, sir, God has so ordered it that it's Tom that takes care of me, poor dear boy.'
    'What part of the country do you come from?'
    'Burnham Market in Norfolk, sir. There's ever so many Burnhams about there - one of them where the great Lord Nelson was born - but it's a very sleepy part of the country, except when the gentlemen are out with their dogs and their guns. You can hear the turnips growing down there, is a saying. So it's no wonder a high-spirited lad like Tom should want to see a little more life. So up he came to London, and got a porter's place, and I wish he'd stuck to it, poor fellow. But he'd a good voice, and was always fond of fun and company, and those nigger singers began to go about, and he fell in [-218-] with those he's with, and joined 'em. That was before I came to live with him. I wish he'd some other line of life, poor boy. It exposes him to a deal of temptation in the way of drink - not that he often comes home the worse for it, and when he does he never says a cross word to me, but just goes to bed quiet, as if he was ashamed of himself.'
    'But he would not have to be ashamed of himself, if - '
    'That's true, sir, but he's such a dear, kind brother I can't bear to say anything against him. And then, you know, sir, he's got into a way of making a joke of everything, and when I want to speak serious to him, he tries to put me off with something funny. I don't find fault with his spirits, poor boy - they're often a comfort to me. Jokes are very good things in their way, but there's a many things you don't like to hear joked about.'
    'Very true; life is too serious to be only laughed at - this life and the one to come.'
    'Anyhow, I don't feel much inclined to laugh when I lie awake at night, and hear the church clocks chime the quarters and strike the hours for four or five hours at a stretch.'
    'Does Tom ever sing to you?'
    'Some of the songs he have to sing seem downright silly to me - he don't sing 'em at home now, because he knows they vex me. It don't seem a life worthy of a man to go about singing such stuff.'
    'Those who give money to hear them are as much to blame.'
    [-219-] 'But some of the sentimental songs, as he calls #em, are very pretty. I like to hear them. There's "Mary Blane," and "Lucy Neal," and "Ben Bolt," too, I like, though the young woman it's about, as was always weeping with delight when you gave her a smile and trembling through fear at your frown, couldn't have been a comfortable party to live with, I should say.'
    'No; I think not.'
    'There's another about somebody sitting by the river and weeping all the day. The tune's very pretty, but I don't hold with so much crying, no more than I do with laughing always.'
    #One can't help crying sometimes, but we must learn to bear what God has thought fit to send upon us - crying over it all day long won't do any good to any one.'
    'But Tom's a dear good fellow, and of a Sunday night he'll sing me the Evening Hymn, and he can chant "I will arise and go unto my Father" beautiful. That do make me cry - if he only meant what he was sayin', poor fellow! And he'll always read the Bible to me when my eyes are tired, though he don't seem to care for it as I should like to see him.'
    After a pause, she added, anxiously: 'I hope you don't think, sir, that I'm finding fault with Tom. I should be an ungrateful wretch if I did. It's just because I'm so fond of him that I can't help grieving to see that he don't care about the things that give me my comfort. Kind as he is, what should I do lying here, if I couldn't trust in God and hope to meet my blessed Saviour in heaven?'
   [-220-] It must be very solemn to lie all alone, and hear the noise outside that you have no share in.'
    'I wouldn't care if I could but see my poor Tom setting his face Zionward. I could then say, "Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace " - though it would be a sore trial to part from him, and I do believe he'd fret for me, trouble as I am to him.'
    'He doesn't seem to think anything a trouble that he can do for you.'
    'No, no. Last thing at night he comes to tuck me in, and put my orange handy for me, and if he hears me moaning in the night, he's up to see what he can do. I can't help moaning sometimes when I fancy he's asleep - it seems to let a little bit of the pain out. And then in the morning he lights the fire, and gets my breakfast for me, and puts my Bible, and the bird, and everything else I want handy before he goes out.'
    'But does no one else come to attend you?'
    'Oh yes, he pays a woman down below to cook me a bit of dinner, and get my tea for me. Sometimes, perhaps, he don't come home quite as soon as lie might at night, but that ain't to be wondered at. I'm sure I shouldn't grudge him a bit of pleasure, poor fellow, if I wasn't afraid it was doing him harm. And often he do come home as soon as ever he's knocked off singing, and do all he can to 'liven me up.'
    'I hope he does not leave you alone on Sunday.'
    'It ain't often that he does, and when I've got him that's my nicest day. He's quieter then, specially in the evening, and sometimes he'll let me talk to him a bit. When you're [-221-] without company all the week, it's a real treat to have your own brother with you all day Sunday - and then he's so kind and handy in his ways - no woman can beat him at cooking or at nursing either. Often I want him to go to church, but he says, "No, if I go out, I shan't go to church - so I had better stop where I am, Nance." So I've to quiet my conscience with that, and I'm afraid I'm too ready, because it's so nice to have Tom at home.'