Tales of Mean Streets
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His mother, whose back had been turned, hastened across the room, hand to breast (it had got to be her habit). "What is it, Billy?" she said. "Not that: there's nothing there. I'll get anything you want, Billy." And she made a nervous catch at the screw of paper. But Billy fended her off, and tore the package open. It was money, arranged in little columns of farthings, halfpence, and threepenny pieces, with a few sixpences, a shilling or two, and a single half-sovereign. "O," said Billy, "this is the game, is it? – 'idin' money in the mangle! Got any more?" And he hastily turned the brickbats.
"No, Billy, don't take that – don't!" implored his mother. "There'll be some money for them things when they go 'ome – 'ave that. I'm savin' it, Billy, for something partic'ler: s'elp me Gawd, I am, Billy."
"Yus," replied Billy, raking diligently among the clinkers, "savin' it for a good ol' booze. An' now you won't 'ave one. Bleedin' nice thing, 'idin' money away from yer own son!"
"It ain't for that, Billy – s'elp me, it ain't; it's case anythink 'appens to me. On'y to put me away decent, Billy, that's all. We never know, an' you'll be glad of it t'elp bury me if I should go any time – "
"I'll be glad of it now," answered Billy, who had it in his pocket; "an' I've got it. You ain't a dyin' sort, you ain't; an' if you was, the parish 'ud soon tuck you up. P'raps you'll be straighter about money after this."
"Let me 'ave some, then, – you can't want it all. Give me some, an' then 'ave the money for the things. There's ten dozen and seven, and you can take 'em yerself if ye like."
"Wot – in this 'ere rain? Not me! I bet I'd 'ave the money if I wanted it without that. 'Ere – change these 'ere fardens at the draper's wen you go out: there's two bob's worth an' a penn'orth; I don't want to bust my pockets wi' them."
While they spoke Lizer had come in from the back room. But she said nothing: she rather busied herself with a child she had in her arms. When Billy's mother, despondent and tearful, had tramped out into the rain with a pile of clothes in an oilcloth wrapper, she said sulkily, without looking up, "You might 'a' let 'er kep' that; you git all you want."
At another time this remonstrance would have provoked active hostilities; but now, with the money about him, Billy was complacently disposed. "You shutcher 'ead," he said, "I got this, any'ow. She can make it up out o' my rent if she likes." This last remark was a joke, and he chuckled as he made it. For Billy's rent was a simple fiction, devised, on the suggestion of a smart canvasser, to give him a parliamentary vote.
That night Billy and Lizer slept, as usual, in the bed in the back room, where the two younger children also were. Billy's mother made a bedstead nightly with three chairs and an old trunk in the front room by the mangle, and the eldest child lay in a floor-bed near her. Early in the morning Lizer awoke at a sudden outcry of the little creature.He clawed at the handle till he opened the door, and came staggering and tumbling into the room with screams of terror. "Wring 'is blasted neck," his father grunted sleepily. "Wot's the kid 'owlin' for?"
"I's 'f'aid o' g'anny – I's 'f'aid o' g'anny!" was all the child could say; and when he had said it, he fell to screaming once more.
Lizer rose and went to the next room; and straightway came a scream from her also. "O – O – Billy! Billy! O my Gawd! Billy, come 'ere!"
And Billy, fully startled, followed in Lizer's wake. He blundered in, rubbing his eyes, and saw.
Stark on her back in the huddled bed of old wrappers and shawls lay his mother. The outline of her poor face – strained in an upward stare of painful surprise – stood sharp and meagre against the black of the grate beyond. But the muddy old skin was white, and looked cleaner than its wont, and many of the wrinkles were gone.
Billy Chope, half-way across the floor, recoiled from the corpse, and glared at it pallidly from the doorway.
"Good Gawd!" he croaked faintly, "is she dead?"
Seized by a fit of shuddering breaths, Lizer sank on the floor, and, with her head across the body, presently broke into a storm of hysterical blubbering, while Billy, white and dazed, dressed hurriedly and got out of the house. He was at home as little as might be until the coroner's officer carried away the body two days later. When he came for his meals, he sat doubtful and querulous in the matter of the front room door's being shut. The dead once clear away, however, he resumed his faculties, and clearly saw that here was a bad change for the worse. There was the mangle, but who was to work it? If Lizer did, there would be no more charing jobs – a clear loss of one-third of his income. And it was not at all certain that the people who had given their mangling to his mother would give it to Lizer. Indeed, it was pretty sure that many would not, because mangling is a thing given by preference to widows, and many widows of the neighborhood were perpetually competing for it. Widows, moreover, had the first call in most odd jobs whereunto Lizer might turn her hand: an injustice whereon Billy meditated with bitterness.
The inquest was formal and unremarked, the medical officer having no difficulty in certifying a natural death from heart disease. The bright idea of a collection among the jury, which Billy communicated, with pitiful representations, to the coroner's officer, was brutally swept aside by that functionary, made cunning by much experience. So the inquest brought him nought save disappointment and a sense of injury…
The mangling orders fell away as suddenly and completely as he had feared: they were duly absorbed among the local widows. Neglect the children as Lizer might, she could no longer leave them as she had done. Things, then, were bad with Billy, and neither threats nor thumps could evoke a shilling now.
It was more than Billy could bear: so that, "'Ere," he said one night, "I've 'ad enough o' this. You go and get some money; go on."
"Go an' git it?" replied Lizer. "O yus. That's easy, ain't it? 'Go an' git it,' says you. 'Ow?"
"Any'ow – I don't care. Go on."
"Wy," replied Lizer, looking up with wide eyes, "d'ye think I can go an' pick it up in the street?"
"Course you can. Plenty others does, don't they?"
"Gawd, Billy … wot d'ye mean?"
"Wot I say; plenty others does it. Go on – you ain't so bleed'n' innocent as all that. Go an' see Sam Cardew. Go on – 'ook it."
Lizer, who had been kneeling at the child's floor-bed, rose to her feet, pale-faced and bright of eye.
"Stow kiddin', Billy," she said. "You don't mean that. I'll go round to the fact'ry in the mornin': p'raps they'll take me on temp'ry."
"Damn the fact'ry."
He pushed her into the passage. "Go on – you git me some money, if ye don't want yer bleed'n' 'ead knocked auf."
There was a scuffle in the dark passage, with certain blows, a few broken words, and a sob. Then the door slammed, and Lizer Chope was in the windy street.
WITHOUT VISIBLE MEANS
All East London idled, or walked in a procession, or waylaid and bashed, or cried in an empty kitchen: for it was the autumn of the Great Strikes. One army of men, having been prepared, was ordered to strike – and struck. Other smaller armies of men, with no preparation, were ordered to strike to express sympathy – and struck. Other armies still were ordered to strike because it was the fashion – and struck. Then many hands were discharged because the strikes in other trades left them no work. Many others came from other parts in regiments to work, but remained to loaf in gangs: taught by the example of earlier regiments, which, the situation being explained (an expression devised to include mobbings and kickings and flingings into docks), had returned whence they came. So that East London was very noisy and largely hungry; and the rest of the world looked on with intense interest, making earnest suggestions, and comprehending nothing. Lots of strikers, having no strike pay and finding little nourishment in processions, started off to walk to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, or Newcastle, where work might be got. Along the Great North Road such men might be seen in silent companies of a dozen or twenty, now and again singly or in couples. At the tail of one such gang, which gathered in the Burdett Road and found its way into the Enfield Road by way of Victoria Park, Clapton, and Stamford Hill, walked a little group of three: a voluble young man of thirty, a stolid workman rather older, and a pale, anxious little fellow, with a nasty spasmic cough and a canvas bag of tools.
The little crowd straggled over the footpath and the road, few of its members speaking, most of them keeping to their places and themselves. As yet there was nothing of the tramp in the aspect of these mechanics. With their washed faces and well-mended clothes they might have been taken for a jury coming from a local inquest. As the streets got broken and detached, with patches of field between, they began to look about them. One young fellow in front (with no family to think of), who looked upon the enterprise as an amusing sort of tour, and had even brought an accordion, began to rebel against the general depression, and attempted a joke about going to the Alexandra Palace. But in the rear, the little man with the canvas bag, putting his hand abstractedly into his pocket, suddenly stared and stopped. He drew out the hand, and saw in it three shillings.
"S'elp me," he said, "the missis is done that – shoved it in unbeknown when I come away! An' she's on'y got a bob for 'erself an' the kids." He broke into a sweat of uneasiness. "I'll 'ave to send it back at the next post-office, that's all."
"Send it back? not you!" Thus with deep scorn the voluble young man at his side. "She'll be all right, you lay your life. A woman allus knows 'ow to look after 'erself. You'll bleed'n' soon want it, an' bad. You do as I tell you, Joey: stick to it. That's right, Dave, ain't it?"
"Matter o' fancy," replied the stolid man. "My missis cleared my pockets out 'fore I got away. Shouldn't wonder at bein' sent after for leavin' 'er chargeable if I don't soon send some more. Women's different."
The march continued, and grew dustier. The cheerful pilgrim in front produced his accordion. At Palmer's Green four went straight ahead to try for work at the Enfield Arms Factory. The others, knowing the thing hopeless, turned off to the left for Potter's Bar.
After a long silence, "Which 'll be nearest, Dave," asked little Joey Clayton, "Newcastle or Middlesborough?"
"Middlesborough," said Dave; "I done it afore."
"Trampin' ain't so rough on a man, is it, after all?" asked Joey wistfully. "You done all right, didn't you?"
"Got through. All depends, though it's rough enough. Matter o' luck. I'ad the bad weather."
"If I don't get a good easy job where we're goin'," remarked the voluble young man, "I'll 'ave a strike there too."
"'Ave a strike there?" exclaimed Joey. "'Ow? Who'd call 'em out?"
"Wy, I would. I think I'm equal to doin' it, ain't I? An' when workin' men stand idle an' 'ungry in the midst o' the wealth an' the lukshry an' the igstravagance they've produced with the sweat of their brow, why, then, feller-workmen, it's time to act. It's time to bring the nigger-drivin' bloated capitalists to their knees."
"'Ear, 'ear," applauded Joey Clayton; tamely, perhaps, for the words were not new. "Good on yer, Newman!" Newman had a habit of practising this sort of thing in snatches whenever he saw the chance. He had learnt the trick in a debating society; and Joey Clayton was always an applausive audience. There was a pause, the accordion started another tune, and Newman tried a different passage of his harangue.
"In the shop they call me Skulky Newman. Why? 'Cos I skulk, o' course" ("'Ear, 'ear," dreamily – from Dave this time). "I ain't ashamed of it, my friends. I'm a miker out an' out, an' I 'ope I shall always remain a miker. The less a worker does the more 'as to be imployed, don't they? An' the more the toilers wrings out o' the capitalists, don't they? Very well then, I mike, an' I do it as a sacred dooty."
"You'll 'ave all the mikin' you want for a week or two," said Dave Burge placidly. "Stow it."
At Potter's Bar the party halted and sat under a hedge to eat hunks of bread and cheese (or hunks of bread and nothing else) and to drink cold tea out of cans. Skulky Newman, who had brought nothing, stood in with his two friends. As they started anew and turned into the Great North Road he said, stretching himself and looking slyly at Joey Clayton, "If I'd got a bob or two I'd stand you two blokes a pint apiece."
Joey looked troubled. "Well, as you ain't, I suppose I ought to," he said uneasily, turning toward the little inn hard by. "Dave," he cried to Burge, who was walking on, "won't you 'ave a drink?" And, "Well, if you are goin' to do the toff, I ain't proud," was the slow reply.
Afterward Joey was inclined to stop at the post-office to send away at least two shillings. But Newman wouldn't. He enlarged on the improvidence of putting out of reach that which might be required on an emergency, he repeated his axiom as to a woman's knack of keeping alive in spite of all things: and Joey determined not to send – for a day or so at any rate.
The road got looser and dustier; the symptoms of the tramp came out stronger and stronger on the gang. The accordion struck up from time to time, but ceased toward the end of the afternoon. The player wearied, and some of the older men, soon tired of walking, were worried by the noise. Joey Clayton, whose cough was aggravated by the dust, was especially tortured, after every fit, to hear the thing drawling and whooping the tune it had drawled and whooped a dozen times before; but he said nothing, scarce knowing what annoyed him.
At Hatfield Station two of the foremost picked up a few coppers by helping with a heavy trap-load of luggage. Up Digswell Hill the party tailed out lengthily, and Newman, who had been letting off a set speech, was fain to save his wind. The night came, clear to see and sweet to smell. Between Welwyn and Codicote the company broke up to roost in such barns as they might possess: all but the master of the accordion, who had stayed at a little public-house at Welwyn, with the notion of earning a pot of beer and a stable-corner (or better) by a tune in the tap-room. Dave Burge lighted on a lone shed of thatched hurdles with loose hay in it, and Newman straightway curled in the snuggest corner on most of the hay. Dave Burge pulled some from under him, and, having helped Joey Clayton to build a nest in the best place left, was soon snoring. But Joey lay awake all night, and sat up and coughed and turned restlessly, being unused to the circumstances and apprehensive of those months in jail which (it is well known) are rancorously dealt forth among all them that sleep in barns.
Luck provided a breakfast next morning at Codicote: for three bicyclists, going north, stood cold beef and bread round at The Anchor. The man with the accordion caught up. He had made his lodging and breakfast and eightpence: this had determined him to stay at Hitchin, and work it for at least a day, and then to diverge into the towns and let the rest go their way. So beyond Hitchin there was no music.
Joey Clayton soon fell slow. Newman had his idea; and the three were left behind, and Joey staggered after his mates with difficulty. He lacked sleep, and he lacked stamina. Dave Burge took the canvas bag, and there were many rests: when Newman, expressing a resolve to stick by his fellow-man through thick and thin, hinted at drinks. Dave Burge made twopence at Henlow level crossing by holding an unsteady horse while a train passed. Joey saw little of the rest of the day; the road was yellow and dazzling, his cough tore him, and things were red sometimes and sometimes blue. He walked without knowing it, now helped, now lurching on alone. The others of the party were far ahead and forgotten. There was talk of a windmill ahead, where there would be rest; and the three men camped in an old boathouse by the river just outside Biggleswade. Joey, sleeping as he tottered, fell in a heap and lay without moving from sunset to broad morning.
When he woke Dave Burge was sitting at the door, but Newman was gone. Also, there was no sign of the canvas bag.
"No use lookin'," said Dave; "'e's done it."
"Skulky's 'opped the twig an' sneaked your tools. Gawd knows where 'e is by now."
"No – " the little man gasped, sitting up in a pale sweat… "Not sneaked 'em … is 'e?.. S'elp me, there's a set o' callipers worth fifteen bob in that bag … 'e ain't gawn …?"
Dave Burge nodded inexorably.
"Best feel in your pockets," he said, "p'raps 'e's bin there."
He had. The little man broke down. "I was a-goin' to send 'ome that two bob – s'elp me, I was… An' what can I do without my tools? If I'd got no job I could 'a pawned 'em – an' then I'd 'a sent 'ome the money – s'elp me I would… O, it's crool!"
The walking, with the long sleep after it, had left him sore and stiff, and Dave had work to put him on the road again. He had forgotten yesterday afternoon, and asked, at first, for the others. They tramped in silence for a few miles: when Joey suddenly flung himself upon a tussock by the wayside.
"Why won't nobody let me live?" he snivelled. "I'm a 'armless bloke enough. I worked at Ritterson's, man and boy, very nigh twenty year. When they come an' ordered us out, I come out with the others, peaceful enough; I didn't want to chuck it up, Gawd knows, but I come out promp' when they told me. And when I found another job on the Island, four big blokes set about me an' 'arf killed me. I didn't know the place was blocked. And when two o' the blokes was took up, they said I'd get strike-pay again if I didn't identify 'em; so I didn't. But they never give me no strike-pay – they laughed an' chucked me out. An' now I'm a-starvin' on the 'igh road. An' Skulky … blimy … 'e's done me too!"
There were days wherein Joey learned to eat a swede pulled from behind a wagon, and to feel thankful for an early turnip; might have learned, too, just what tramping means in many ways to a man unskilled both in begging and in theft, but was never equal to it. He coughed – and worse: holding to posts and gates, and often spitting blood. He had little to say, but trudged mechanically, taking note of nothing.
Once, as though aroused from a reverie, he asked, "Wasn't there some others?"
"Others?" said Dave, for a moment taken aback. "O, yes, there was some others. They're gone on ahead, y'know."
Joey tramped for half a mile in silence. Then he said, "Expect they're 'avin' a rough time too."
"Ah – very like," said Dave.
For a space Joey was silent, save for the cough. Then he went on: "Comes o' not bringing 'cordions with 'em. Every one ought to take a 'cordion what goes trampin'. I knew a man once that went trampin', an' 'e took a 'cordion. He done all right. It ain't so rough for them as plays on the 'cordion." And Dave Burge rubbed his cap about his head and stared; but answered nothing.
It was a bad day. Crusts were begged at cottages. Every rise and every turn, the eternal yellow road lay stretch on stretch before them, flouting their unrest. Joey, now unimpressionable, endured more placidly than even Dave Burge. Late in the afternoon, "No," he said, "it ain't so rough for them as plays the 'cordion. They 'as the best of it… S'elp me," he added suddenly, "we're all 'cordions!" He sniggered thoughtfully, and then burst into a cough that left him panting. "We're nothin' but a bloomin' lot o' 'cordions ourselves," he went on, having got his breath, "an' they play any toon they like on us; an' that's 'ow they make their livin'. S'elp me, Dave, we're all 'cordions." And he laughed.
"Um – yus," the other man grunted. And he looked curiously at his mate; for he had never heard that sort of laugh before.
But Joey fondled the conceit, and returned to it from time to time; now aloud, now to himself. "All 'cordions: playin' any toon as is ordered, blimy… Are we 'cordions? I don't b'lieve we're as much as that … no, s'elp me. We're on'y the footlin' little keys; shoved about to soot the toon… Little tin keys, blimy … footlin' little keys… I've bin played on plenty, I 'ave…"
Dave Burge listened with alarm, and tried to talk of other things. But Joey rarely heard him. "I've bin played on plenty, I 'ave," he persisted. "I was played on once by a pal: an' my spring broke."
At nightfall there was more bad luck. They were driven from a likely barn by a leather-gaitered man with a dog, and for some distance no dormitory could be found. Then it was a cut haystack, with a nest near the top and steps to reach it.
In the night Burge was wakened by a clammy hand upon his face. There was a thick mist.
"It's you, Dave, ain't it?" Clayton was saying. "Good Gawd, I thought I'd lawst you. What's all this 'ere – not the water is it? – not the dock? I'm soppin' wet."
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