Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Episodes in an Obscure Life, by Richard Rowe, 1871 - XXII - Mr. Jones's Friend

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IN spite of the dislike which Mr Jones had professed for 'big lads,' he did not withdraw his favour from Fred when the boy ceased  to be a curly-headed little pet. He put him to school, and openly intimated his intention of making him his heir. The boy would have liked to be brought up to the bird-business; but against this Mr Jones set his face. The old man had got it into his head that the dead young mother would have liked something better for her son, and so declared that Master Fred should have a 'purfession.'
    'Not but what I think folks are fools,' said Mr Jones, 'when they've got nothing else to give 'em, to make genteel beggars of their sons, by bringin' 'em up to a purfession, instead o' givin' 'em a good trade they could make a comfortable livin' at. But when I've paid for his schooling, there'll be a tidyish bit left for Fred - so he's different; [-245-] and, besides, he's an uncommon smart young chap. His schoolmaster says so, and I can see it myself. He'll make somethin' out, I think, if he turns doctor or lawyer, or a architec' or a engineer, or anythin' o' that sort. Anyhow, I've got a notion that it'll please his poor young mother, and so that's how I mean it to be, sir.'
    After the change in the bird-seller's character which followed poor Pete's death, the old man ceased from his constant open railings at women; but a grudge against the sex and other repressed churlishness still lingered in his heart. The theatre, in my opinion, is the only exhibitor of genuine sudden transformation-scenes. At any rate, although Mr Jones's disposition had wonderfully mellowed, it was apt to become clouded by the crust it had thrown off; if he were not, so to speak, very carefully decanted.
    Fred's dead mother was still the only woman, outside the Bible, of whom Mr Jones spoke in terms of praise; and no woman had been allowed to take the place Black Pete had held so long. The old man continued to employ a male factotum. I should rather say that he had a numerous series of such servitors. Notwithstanding the softening of his heart to his fellow-creatures in general, he did not get on nearly so well with the concrete white humanity that could answer him back, as he had got on with the dumb black, to whom his slightest look was lovingly-accepted law.
    'I can't tell you how I miss poor Pete,' the old man often said to me. 'Fred's a good boy; but, of course, when he's got a 'oliday, it's nateral that he should care [-246-] more for his mates' company than he do for mine. If it wasn't for my birds and things, I might almost as well be alone in the world.'
    I reminded him of that best of all company which we have only to remember to obtain.
    'Yes, sir, that's true, and, when I do think of it, I git more comfort from it than I deserve, for not thinkin' of it orfner. But then you see, sir, you can't help wantin' somebody of your own sort to care a bit about you. Taint many I want; and jest becos I've had so few as I could call friends anyways, it do seem hard that now there's none that cares a fig about me. If I was to be layin' dead in my bed to-morrer mornin' at breakfast time, who'd miss me, 'cept my tame rat, cos he couldn't git his toast ? - an' the birds and things, when twas their turn to git their feed?'
    'Don't you think I should miss you?'
    'Well, maybe, you might happen to think of me some day, and git a bit of a turn when you called and found the old chap was gone; but I ain't fool enough to think you'd cry your eyes out after me.'
    'And there's Fred, too, isn't there?'
    'Yes, I don't say that Fred ain't a good boy. He's a very good boy, and nobody can't say to the opposite. I'll do my best to bring him up as his mother would ha' liked, and he shall have my money when I die. I'm findin' no fault with him - I've got no fault to find. Didn't I say that it was on'y nateral that a young lad shouldn't care to stick at 'ome with a sulky old feller like me? But that don't make it none the less lonely.'
    [-247-] I was grieved to find my friend relapsing, in any degree, into his old morbid state of mind. His second state, so far as his own feeling of it was concerned, was likely to be worse than the first. Then, at any rate, he had a shell of misanthropy to protect him from prods and pinches; but now he had cast that shell. What I feared was that he would soon form another. I called more frequently than my wont to do my little best to retard that formation. One summer evening when I called, I was greatly relieved, since I was greeted with a hearty laugh.
    'Well, sir,' said Mr Jones, you think me a old growler; but I've come across an old feller that beats me 'oller- would ha' beat me in my growlin'est days. It's queer what a likin' I've taken to that old chap, though we're mostly at it, 'ammer and tongs, all the time we're together. He's a cute old boy in his talk; but there ain't a thing that's right, 'cept his way o' thinkin' o' things, accordin' to him, and his way o' thinkin' is that everything you see or hear of is bad, and a-gettin' worse, and I can't stand that, though, you know, sir, I don't approve o' argeyment.'
    Mr Jones was putting up his shutters, rather earlier than usual. As soon as he had finished, he went on, 'I was goin' round to see old Snap. Perkins is his right name, but Snap's a name he's got, I s'pose, becos he's al'ays a-snappin'. He goes on against parsons, and women, too, a deal worse than ever I did; but it might do both on ye good to come acrost one another.'
    When Mr Jones had informed poor Pete's latest successor that he was going out, and had put on his hat, I [-248-] accompanied him to Mr Perkins's. On the way I was informed that Mr Perkins was a dealer in 'waste,' i.e. all kinds of printed and MS. paper destined to wrap up cheese, butter, candles, bacon, &c. &c.
    He lived on the ground-floor of a shabby little house in a shabby little street, using the 'parlour' for his bed and living-room, and a back room which opened into it by one door for his warehouse. The passage-door of this back-room was screwed up. No answer being given to his knock at the parlour-door, Mr Jones opened it and walked in, motioning to me to follow him. The back- room door was open, and through the doorway we saw a hump-backed old man in dusty shirt-sleeves, with a pipe in his mouth, fumbling about in a mist of tobacco-smoke and a chaos of obsolete stationery. Some of the piles of papers reached to the ceiling. A deep drift of all kinds lay upon the floor; it crackled like frozen snow as the old man moved about in his slippers. Books without bindings were littered over it; bundles of blue-books and ottoman- like piles of newspapers rose above it.
    'Evenin', Perkins,' said Mr Jones, 'I've brought a clergyman to see you.'
    'Then you may take him away again,' was the polite reply. 'I've nothing to give, and if I had, I wouldn't.'
    'But he's come to give you something, Snap. I told him you was sadly in want of some good advice.'
    'Like your impudence, then - (to me) when I'm in want of a parson's advice, sir, I'll send out and order it, but I don't think I should send to you, if I ever did want any[-249-]thing in your line - and that ain't likely to happen whilst I've got my senses.'
    'Come, Snap,' said Mr Jones, chuckling over his success in drawing his new acquaintance out, 'you mustn't be rude, Snap. Mr B- is a great friend of mine.'
    'That don't say much in his favour.'
    'Doesn't it, Snap? Why, you're a great friend of mine too.'
    'Am I? I wasn't aware of it.'
    The old waste-dealer began to look so vicious, in spite of his having had the best in this passage of words, that I thought it advisable to put an end to the old men's chaffing. I apologized to Mr Perkins for my intrusion, and asked permission to enter his store to get a nearer view of his curious stock.
    'Yes, you may come in,' he growled. 'There's nothing to steal that you could make any use of - except some old sermons ; and I'll sell them to you, if you like, at three-halfpence a pound, because they're a bit mouldy. There's some divinity books, but they've got the backs off. I'll let you have them at trade price. I wouldn't charge a parson more than I would a porkman - why should I? Yes, 1 would, though - if that's what you've come for, if you think you're going to get bargains, I ain't your man - you go and buy fair of the second-hand book-shops. I ain't going to undersell 'em. There's some Greek and Latin books, and French, and that, but p'r'aps you can't read 'em, though you are a parson. I know 'em when I see 'em, and it's as likely as not that's about all [-250-] you'd know about 'em. Yes, you may come in if you like.'
    It was rather difficult to keep one's temper in conversation with Mr Perkins, but, at the same time, it would have been very absurd to seem ruffled by old Snap - on whose Englishman's castle, after all, I had intruded. Mr Jones, who had been amused at first, had become indignant at his new crony's gratuitous insolence, since he had been my introducer, and was going to take up conversational cudgels in my defence; but I managed to quiet him.
    'Come in, if you're coming - the both of ye,' old Snap very snappishly exclaimed. 'Stop a bit, can't ye?' he still more snappishly added, when we were about to accept his invitation. 'If there's nothing for you to steal, there's things you can spoil with your muddy boots. Jones needn't look as if he'd bite my head off - I didn't ask either of you to come interrupting me in what I was about, you'll please to remember.'
    With legs and arms, whilst he thus spoke, he ploughed and splashed a cutting through the paper-drift for us to walk in. 'There's a seat for you,' he said to Jones, pointing to one newspaper-ottoman, 'and you can sit down there, sir - if I must call you sir,' he said to me, pointing to another. Snap seated himself on a pile of blue-books, and took rapid puffs at his pipe, as if anxious to compose himself. His shrewd bright glancing eyes, coupled with his unfortunate deformity, gave him a ludicrous resemblance to a grotesque caricature of a squirrel smoking, with its bushy tail showing over its shoulders.
    [-251-] 'And now what is it you've come for?' Mr Perkins inquired abruptly.
    Picking up a copy with the covers off which lay upon the ground, I asked him if many Bibles were offered him for sale.
    'Lots,' he answered. 'Them and Testaments, and Prayer-Books, and Hymn-books, are about the commonest things I get. Shows how the people value them. I've read that they used to have to keep the Bible chained to the desk in churches, that the folks mightn't prig it. That seems a queer way of showing you're fond o' the Bible-prigging. Anyhow, Bibles weren't sold for waste in them days. But nowadays, when you can get a Bible for next to nothing, folks think no more of 'em than they do of a pin. There's sure to be a pin lying about somewhere handy, and so there is a Bible.'
    'Well, Snap, ain't that all the better? You can't have too much of a good thing,' remarked Mr Jones.
    'That's begging the question, Jones, if you can understand what I mean. I didn't say that I thought the Bible a good thing, or that I didn't. But good or bad, what I mean to say is, that it would be thought a deal more on if it wasn't so common. A herring to my taste is every bit as nice as salmon - what's the reason salmon costs such a sight more? Because it ain't so common.'
    'Well, sunlight's common, if salmon ain't; and don't we value that? My birds do, I know.'
    'I'm not aware that sunlight is so very common in this part of the world, except now and then for a spell, and then folks get not to think about it, and [-252-] where there's always sunshine, I've heard, the folks get tired of it.'
    I asked Mr Perkins what other books found their way to his warehouse. 'Oh,' he answered, 'there's all sorts, as I was telling you - more than you could read. Reams of printed stuff I've bought that nobody ever read except the printers and the feller that wrote it. Whole lots of poetry that could never get even a binding on it. Why will people keep on writing poetry? What's the good of it? It don't tell you anything. And if there was any good in it, wasn't there enough of it in the world ever so long ago to satisfy even them that like it? You may choke a dog with pudding. My place I know is sometimes half choked with poetry books and play books. When I go to clear out a place, and see there's poetry in the lot, I tell the folks they ought to let me have it a halfpenny a pound cheaper than the rest, because rhymes is such a drug. Of course, that's my joke, because the paper the poetry's printed on is about the best I get. It's mostly thick and looks extra clean because it hasn't been read, and such a precious little bit of print goes to the page. It makes me think of them dumpy wax candles with the mites of wicks - only there's no light to be got out of the poetry, you see.'
    'But don't you read any of the books you git hold of; Snap?' said Mr Jones. 'I thought you was a sensibler sort of a man.'
    'What you thought wouldn't make much difference, one way or the other, Jones. I shouldn't have much [-253-] sense if I took to reading them poetry books, and what I'd got would be gone long before I'd finished. Yes, I do read some of the books - doctor's books and such. There's nicish reading in them. I like travels, too, a bit, and now and then I get hold of an interesting Life, but mostly they're about people that nobody ever knew anything about till they was dead, and then somebody makes 'em out to be the wonderfullest people that ever lived.'
    'Do you like history, Mr Perkins?' I inquired.
    'No, I don't; though it's often I've to buy a Goldsmith. I bought a big hist'ry book once - Rollin, or some such name - it was called - and I thought I'd read it through before I sold it. But it was so precious dry I was choked off before I got to the end of the first vol. What do I care about what people did ever so long ago? None of 'em ever left me any money.'
    'If we did not know what some one did ever so long ago, it would be a poor look-out for you and me and everybody, Mr Perkins. You will find that you have had a legacy left you, if you will but read His will.'
    'What d'ye mean?'
    I picked up one of the coverless New Testaments.
    'Oh, it's preaching you're after. You can keep that for Jones; he likes it, or shams to. I was talking about hist'ry. Who's to know that it ain't all a make-up? I'd almost as lief read one of them trashy novels. They do beat me. Why don't government take up the chaps that writes 'em? If a cove's paid for telling a pack of lies in a court, he's took up when he's found out; but a feller's [-254-] paid to tell a pack of lies in a book, and puts his name to 'em, as proud as a peacock.'
    'You don't think much of authors, do you, Snap?' said grinning Mr Jones.
    'Authors! They're a precious lot. I knew one once. He was writing a story for the Firefly, and gave himself the airs of a toxicated cockrobin. He was going to be famous, he said, and fame brings fortune, the young donkey used to tell me. He wouldn't have his hair cut, because he'd seen pictures of chaps in his line with a lot of hair - p'r'aps they couldn't pay the barber. But the Firefly stopped before it was half a year old, and he never got a penny for his rubbishing story. Lots of periodicals like that I've bought, and great bundles of half-crown ones too, that are going on still. If the chaps that write in them, and the newspaper fellers, too, and the rest of them authors, could see themselves when I've got hold of 'em, p'r'aps they wouldn't be quite so bumptious. I sell 'em into captivity, and they're usefuller then than they ever were before. One of 'em wraps up a penn'orth of sugar- stick, or half a ounce of shag; and another a bit of liver, or a pound of eights, or something of that sort. I oughtn't to grumble at authors, they're a good help to me. The worst book that ever was writ is worth twopence a pound to me.'
    Low as was Mr Perkins's estimate of literature, he still, like literature-loving Elia, made biblia abiblia distinctions. Under the quoted head he included Parliamentary Papers, missionary notices, and reports of all kinds. 'Oh, I don't count these books,' he growled, kicking the pile of blue-[-255-]books on which he sat, when I had made some inquiry about them. 'Presented to both Houses of Parliament, by command of Her Majesty - I wonder if Parliament says Thankee! Who reads 'em? But we've got to pay for the printing. I'd sooner read Rollin than them. It's like eating sawdust and putty. And yet, if you'll believe me, I once found a fairy story in a blue-book. If I'd found a fairy in it I couldn't have been startleder.'
    Although the cynical conceit of the old man had amused me, I had been for some time anxious to give our conversation a more 'edifying' turn, and fancied that his last remark afforded me an opportunity.
    'You see, Mr Perkins,' I said, 'it is possible even for you to form a false estimate of things. You thought, from ignorance, that nothing in a blue-book could possibly interest you. I fear that from an infinitely more deplorable ignorance, you have formed a similar opinion in reference to an infinitely more important book - one that you buy and sell for waste-paper, but never read for your soul's good.'
    I had made a false move, and old Snap was instantly down upon me.
    'Who said the fairy-story pleased me? I thought it silly nonsense. And who are you, to talk about my deplorable ignorance? I expect I make pretty nigh as much a week as you do - more, p'r'ps, when trade is brisk. And I work for my living, and use my wits. You change places with me, and see if you'd make as much as I do. Now I could do your work to-morrow, if I could only put on a solemn face. I could read the prayers, and I've got a lot of old [-256-] sermons. I ain't sure though that I could poke myself into places where I wasn't asked, and talk as if I was a saint, and know all the time I wasn't.' Here he paused, but before I could say anything he went on again:-
    'I may have my own opinions, but they ain't any concern of yours; and yours ain't any concern of mine, I'd have you know. It's a free country, they say. I don't know so much about that, but, at any rate, men as thinks for themselves, and tries hard to earn a honest living, ain't going to have opinions poked down their throats like pills, by lazy parsons. You ain't a priest. There's some sense in them Roman fellers riding the high horse, because they believe, or make believe to believe, that they've got hold of what's the Truth, and no mistake about it; but you English parsons talk about the right of private judgment, and I'm a-going to exercise it.'
    The old man was so wrathful in his rudeness, that I thought any argumentative reply just then would be merely adding fuel to flames.
    'I am afraid, Mr Perkins,' I said, that I have intruded on you when you were busy. May I call again when you have more leisure, and hear something more about your trade?'
    Mr Jones, however, struck in, in a very different key.
    'You ought to be ashamed of yourself; Snap. But that's always the way with you. Git you up in a corner, and you fly at a body as wicious as a rat. The fact is, Snap, you're afraid of argeyment, and when anybody begins it when you're in your own house, you bully, be-[-257-]cause it is your own house. It ain't such a palace that it's a punishment to be druv out of it.'
    It was rather droll to hear this speech from the whilom argeyment-shying Mr Jones; but it took instant effect upon Mr Perkins.
    'I ain't driving anybody out of my house,' he said. 'I didn't ask you to come, nor your parson either, but you're both of ye welcome to stay as long as you like. I ain't put in any corner, so far as I see.'
    'Ah, now you're quieting down  -I've got a tame rat at home, you know, Snap,' said mischievous Mr Jones.
    'Youre a rat yourself;' was old Snap's spiteful retort. 'You didn't use to be a saint, I've heard, but now you want to creep up the parson's sleeve.'
    To put a stop once more to the old men's sparring, I thought the most sensible thing for us to do would be to retire; but Mr Jones would not consent to this.
    'Don't you go, sir,' he said; 'if you do, Snap will brag for a week that he druv me and the parson away because we couldn't answer him. Don't you stir, sir.'
    'But suppose I say you shall go,' growled Mr Perkins. 'I pay my own rent, and so I've a right to my own rooms, and I owe no rent, and so if you was bum-bailiffs, I could order you off.'
    'Of course, Mr Perkins,' I put in, 'we've no right to stay, if you wish us to go; but I should like to part good friends, and I want to hear a little more about your business, if you've no objection.'
    'Well, you know how to behave yourself better than Jones - though that ain't saying much. I've no ob-[-258-]jection to your staying a bit longer - you ain't so much in the way; for I've nothing particular to do to-night. What is it more you want to hear?'
    'I think you said something about the stories that might be made out of the lawyers' briefs you buy - I suppose you fall in with other papers that have histories in them.'
    'Yes, some comical hist'ries I've come across in my time, but then the people are all dead years ago, or gone across the sea nobody knows where, and so it don't matter who reads about them. Old account books I buy, and they tell tales. Ladies, nor gentlemen either, wouldn't like everybody to know the things they get booked to them. And what good have they done them at last? They're rotting in their graves, with the worms crawling in and out of their eye-holes, for all the stuff they bought to make fools think them pretty. The bad debts, too, I've found out! What I've give for the books is all the money that was ever got out of a good many of the accounts in 'em. I'm fond of reading them account-books, though it did all happen so long ago. It's improving reading - it opens a man's eyes. Though to be sure, a man must be a born fool himself if the light of natur' didn't teach him that most folks is either rogues or fools, and the rest of 'em a little of both.'
    'Some folks, p'r'aps, is a good bit of both, Snap,' was Mr Jones's satirical comment.
    'Well, you ought to know about that, Jones,' was Mr Perkins's courteous retort.
    'Anyhow,' rejoined Mr Jones, 'I don't believe in that [-259-] kind of talk now. When I hear a man makin' out that everybody else is a rogue or a fool, my belief is that he's measuring his neighbours' corn with his own two bushels.'
    'I wasn't talking to you, Jones -  I was talking to the parson. Speak when you're spoken to. Jones may say what he likes, but if there's no rogues nor fools in the world, who writes the letters I get hold of sometimes, and who reads 'em? Now here's a comical collection'
    So Speaking, he took up a packet of lankily oblong epistles of the pre-penny postage time - many of them densely crossed. Some of them were splashed with sealingwax 'kisses.'
    'If there'd been more of 'em,' he said, as he scornfully turned the letters over with his pipe-stem, 'I'd have had the seals off before I bought them, for the wax weighs heavier than the paper, I should say; but they was only thrown in just to make up a lot I bought at a lawyer's. I suppose it was some breach of promise case. There's letters from the silly young girl, and from the chap that was spooney on her. He was tremendous spooney at first, but he gets sharp enough when he's had his will, and the silly young woman keeps on writing to him as if there wasn't such another lover in the world. "Only put a little more love into your letters," says she. "I know it is in your heart, and it is such a comfort to me, Arnold, to get kind words from you - the only kind words I care about now - for I am very lonely, and should be very sad if I did not look forward to our living together soon, oh, so happily! Be sure I will never injure you with your parents, my precious pet, but they don't see [-260-] your letters, so please make them more as you used to talk, my own sweet Arnold.'  My precious pet - my own sweet Arnold - and yet Jones says there ain't rogues and fools in the world. There's letters from the silly young woman's mother, and the chap's parents and relations, and all sorts of people. It's a queer kettle o' fish to be all put together in one bundle. I should like to know what the girl thinks of her chap now - if they're both of 'em alive. If she's got good damages - and she'd a right to 'em, I suppose - I'll be bound she didn't break her heart about her sweet Arnold. It's humbug all through, is life, whatever Jones may say - sometimes you humbugs, and sometimes you're humbugged.'
    'And you think God created us for that?'
    'I said nothing about being created, or what we was created for, what I say is that everything's humbug, more or less, and if it wasn't not exactly comfortable to think of what may happen to you when you tumble into the next world, if there is one, I often feel so sick of this that I should be glad to be out of it.'
    'Well, if there ain't a next world, Snap,' moralized Mr Jones, 'I don't see that dying would do you much good. If you was just nothing at all, how could you tell that you was better off? And if there is a next world, according to your way of talking, you don't seem by any means sure that you'd get the good part of it, though you are too good for this world. It's bosh growling at the world your way. You try to make it a bit better instead of growling at it. There's plenty of room for improvement in it, I don't deny; but it's my belief Snap, if you was to [-261-] try to do some of the improvement, you'd find you'd such a lot to do in your own self that you'd begin to doubt whether you was quite a proper judge about other folk's badness. Put that in your pipe, old boy, and smoke it. Good-night, Snap; we'll he going now, sir, if it's convenient.'
    So saying Mr Jones put on his hat and walked out of the room, and when I had bidden Mr Perkins good evening, I followed.
    'I think I've given Snap a pill,' said Mr Jones when we got into the street, 'and I 'ope it'll do him good You'll excuse me, sir, but you're a bit too mealy-mouthed with such as him. I know you was with me. Such chaps want to have the conceit knocked out of 'em. If you're civil to 'em, they think it's becos they're so mighty clever that you're afraid to tackle 'em. You should let 'em see that other folks don't think they've half a quarter of the sense they're so proud on.'