Arthur Morrison.

Tales of Mean Streets



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Burge himself was wet to the skin. He made Joey lie down, and told him to sleep; but a coughing fit prevented that. "It was them 'cordions woke me," he explained when it was over.

So the night put on the shuddering gray of the fore-dawn. And the two tramps left their perch, and betook them, shivering and stamping, to the road.

That morning Joey had short fits of dizziness and faintness. "It's my spring broke," he would say after such an attack. "Bloomin' little tin key put out o' toon." And once he added, "I'm up to one toon, though, now: this 'ere bloomin' Dead March."

Just at the outskirts of a town, where he stopped to cough over a gate, a stout old lady, walking out with a shaggy little dog, gave him a shilling. Dave Burge picked it up as it dropped from his incapable hand, and "Joey, 'ere's a bob," he said; "a lady give it you. You come an' git a drop o' beer."

They carried a twopenny loaf into the tap-room of a small tavern, and Dave had mild ale himself, but saw that Joey was served with stout with a penn'orth of gin in it. Soon the gin and stout reached Joey's head, and drew it to the table. And he slept, leaving the rest of the shilling where it lay.

Dave arose, and stuffed the last of the twopenny loaf into his pocket. He took a piece of chalk from the bagatelle board in the corner, and wrote this on the table: – "dr. sir. for god sake take him to the work House."

Then he gathered up the coppers where they lay, and stepped quietly into the street.

TO BOW BRIDGE

The eleven-five tram-car from Stratford started for Bow a trifle before its time. The conductor knew what he might escape by stealing a march on the closing public-houses; as also what was in store for all the conductors in his wake, till there were no more revellers left to swarm the cars. For it was Saturday night, and many a week's wages were a-knocking down; and the publicans this side of Bow Bridge shut their doors at eleven under Act of Parliament, whereas beyond the Bridge, which is the county of London, the law gives them another hour, and a man may drink many pots therein. And for this, at eleven every Saturday, there is a great rush westward, a vast migration over Lea, from all the length of High Street. From the nearer parts they walk, or do their best to walk; but from further Stratford, by the Town Hall, the Church, and the Martyrs' Memorial, they crowd the cars. For one thing, it is a long half-mile, and the week's work is over. Also, the car being swamped, it is odds that a man shall save his fare, since no conductor may fight his way a quarter through his passengers before Bow Bridge, where the vehicle is emptied at a rush. And that means yet another half-pint.

So the eleven-five car started sooner than it might have done. As it was spattering with rain, I boarded it, sharing the conductor's forlorn hope, but taking care to sit at the extreme fore-end inside. In the broad street the market clamored and flared, its lights and shadows flickering and fading about the long churchyard and the steeple in the midst thereof; and toward the distant lights, the shining road sparkled in long reaches, like a blackguard river.

A gap fell here and there among the lights where a publican put his gas out; and at these points the crowds thickened. A quiet mechanic came in, and sat near a decent woman with children, a bundle, a basket, and a cabbage. Thirty yards on the car rumbled, and suddenly its hinder end was taken in a mass of people – howling, struggling, and blaspheming – who stormed and wrangled in at the door and up the stairs. There were lads and men whooping and flushed, there were girls and women screaming choruses; and in a moment the seats were packed, knees were taken, and there was not an inch of standing room. The conductor cried, "All full!" and tugged at his bell-strap, whereunto many were hanging by the hand; but he was swept from his feet, and made to push hard for his own place. And there was no more foothold on the back platform nor the front, nor any vacant step upon the stairway; and the roof was thronged; and the rest of the crowd was fain to waylay the next car.

This one moved off slowly, with shrieks and howls that were racking to the wits. From divers quarters of the roof came a bumping thunder as of cellar-flapping clogs. Profanity was sluiced down, as it were by pailfuls, from above, and was swilled back as it were in pailfuls from below. Blowses in feathered bonnets bawled hilarious obscenity at the jiggers. A little maid with a market-basket, hustled and jostled and elbowed at the far end, listened eagerly and laughed when she could understand; and the quiet mechanic, whose knees had been invaded by an unsteady young woman in a crushed hat, tried to look pleased. My own knees were saved from capture by the near neighborhood of an enormous female, seated partly on the seat and partly on myself, snorting and gulping with sleep, her head upon the next man's shoulder. (To offer your seat to a standing woman would, as beseems a foreign antic, have been visited by the ribaldry of the whole crowd.) In the midst of the riot the decent woman sat silent and indifferent, her children on and about her knees. Further along, two women ate fish with their fingers and discoursed personalities in voices which ran strident through the uproar, as the odor of their snack asserted itself in the general fetor. And opposite the decent woman there sat a bonnetless drab, who said nothing, but looked at the decent woman's children as a shoeless brat looks at the dolls in a toyshop window.

"So I ses to 'er, I ses" – this from the snacksters – "I'm a respectable married woman, I ses. More'n you can say, you barefaced hussey, I ses – " Then a shower of curses, a shout, and a roar of laughter; and the conductor, making slow and laborious progress with the fares nearest him, turned his head. A man had jumped upon the footboard and a passenger's toes. A scuffle and a fight, and both had rolled off into the mire, and got left behind. "Ain't they fond o' one another?" cried a girl. "They're a-goin' for a walk together;" and there was a guffaw. "The silly bleeders'll be too late for the pubs," said a male voice; and there was another, for the general understanding was touched.

Then – an effect of sympathy, perhaps – a scuffle broke out on the roof. But this disturbed not the insides. The conductor went on his plaguy task: to save time, he passed over the one or two that, asked now or not, seemed likely to pay at the journey's end. The snacking women resumed their talk, the choristers their singing; the rumble of the wheels was lost in a babel of vacant ribaldry; the enormous woman choked and gasped and snuggled lower down upon her neighbor's shoulder; and the shabby strumpet looked at the children.

A man by the door vomited his liquor: whereat was more hilarity, and his neighbors, with many yaups, shoved further up the middle. But one of the little ones, standing before her mother, was pushed almost to falling; and the harlot, seeing her chance, snatched the child upon her knee. The child looked up, something in wonder, and smiled; and the woman leered as honestly as she might, saying a hoarse word or two.

Presently the conflict overhead, waxing and waning to an accompaniment of angry shouts, afforded another brief diversion to those within, and something persuaded the standing passengers to shove toward the door. The child had fallen asleep in the street-walker's arms. "Jinny!" cried the mother, reaching forth and shaking her. "Jinny! wake up now – you mustn't go to sleep." And she pulled the little thing from her perch to where she had been standing.

The bonnetless creature bent forward, and, in her curious voice (like that of one sick with shouting), "She can set on my knee, m'm, if she likes," she said; "she's tired."

The mother busied herself with a jerky adjustment of the child's hat and shawl. "She mustn't go to sleep," was all she said, sharply, and without looking up.

The hoarse woman bent further forward, with a propitiatory grin. "'Ow old is she?.. I'd like to – give 'er a penny."

The mother answered nothing; but drew the child close by the side of her knee, where a younger one was sitting, and looked steadily through the fore windows.

The hoarse woman sat back, unquestioning and unresentful, and turned her eyes upon them that were crowding over the conductor; for the car was rising over Bow Bridge. Front and back they surged down from the roof, and the insides made for the door as one man. The big woman's neighbor rose, and let her fall over on the seat, whence, awaking with a loud grunt and an incoherent curse, she rolled after the rest. The conductor, clamant and bedevilled, was caught between the two pell-mells, and, demanding fares and gripping his satchel, was carried over the footboard in the rush. The stramash overhead came tangled and swearing down the stairs, gaining volume and force in random punches as it came; and the crowd on the pavement streamed vocally toward a brightness at the bridge foot – the lights of the Bombay Grab.

The woman with the children waited till the footboard was clear, and then, carrying one child and leading another (her marketings attached about her by indeterminate means), she set the two youngsters on the pavement, leaving the third on the step of the car. The harlot, lingering, lifted the child again – lifted her rather high – and set her on the path with the others. Then she walked away toward the Bombay Grab. A man in a blue serge suit was footing it down the turning between the public-house and the bridge with drunken swiftness and an intermittent stagger; and, tightening her shawl, she went in chase.

The quiet mechanic stood and stretched himself, and took a corner seat near the door; and the tram-car, quiet and vacant, bumped on westward.

THAT BRUTE SIMMONS

Simmons's infamous behavior toward his wife is still matter for profound wonderment among the neighbors. The other women had all along regarded him as a model husband, and certainly Mrs. Simmons was a most conscientious wife. She toiled and slaved for that man, as any woman in the whole street would have maintained, far more than any husband had a right to expect. And now this was what she got for it. Perhaps he had suddenly gone mad.

Before she married Simmons, Mrs. Simmons had been the widowed Mrs. Ford. Ford had got a berth as donkeyman on a tramp steamer, and that steamer had gone down with all hands off the Cape: a judgment, the widow woman feared, for long years of contumacy which had culminated in the wickedness of taking to the sea, and taking to it as a donkeyman – an immeasurable fall for a capable engine-fitter. Twelve years as Mrs. Ford had left her still childless, and childless she remained as Mrs. Simmons.

As for Simmons, he, it was held, was fortunate in that capable wife. He was a moderately good carpenter and joiner, but no man of the world, and he wanted one. Nobody could tell what might not have happened to Tommy Simmons if there had been no Mrs. Simmons to take care of him. He was a meek and quiet man, with a boyish face and sparse, limp whiskers. He had no vices (even his pipe departed him after his marriage), and Mrs. Simmons had engrafted on him divers exotic virtues. He went solemnly to chapel every Sunday, under a tall hat, and put a penny – one returned to him for the purpose out of his week's wages – in the plate. Then, Mrs. Simmons overseeing, he took off his best clothes and brushed them with solicitude and pains. On Saturday afternoons he cleaned the knives, the forks, the boots, the kettles, and the windows, patiently and conscientiously. On Tuesday evenings he took the clothes to the mangling. And on Saturday nights he attended Mrs. Simmons in her marketing, to carry the parcels.

Mrs. Simmons's own virtues were native and numerous. She was a wonderful manager. Every penny of Tommy's thirty-six or thirty-eight shillings a week was bestowed to the greatest advantage, and Tommy never ventured to guess how much of it she saved. Her cleanliness in housewifery was distracting to behold. She met Simmons at the front door whenever he came home, and then and there he changed his boots for slippers, balancing himself painfully on alternate feet on the cold flags. This was because she scrubbed the passage and doorstep turn about with the wife of the downstairs family, and because the stair-carpet was her own. She vigilantly supervised her husband all through the process of "cleaning himself" after work, so as to come between her walls and the possibility of random splashes; and if, in spite of her diligence, a spot remained to tell the tale, she was at pains to impress the fact on Simmons's memory, and to set forth at length all the circumstances of his ungrateful selfishness. In the beginning she had always escorted him to the ready-made clothes shop, and had selected and paid for his clothes: for the reason that men are such perfect fools, and shopkeepers do as they like with them. But she presently improved on that. She found a man selling cheap remnants at a street corner, and straightway she conceived the idea of making Simmons's clothes herself. Decision was one of her virtues, and a suit of uproarious check tweeds was begun that afternoon from the pattern furnished by an old one. More: it was finished by Sunday; when Simmons, overcome by astonishment at the feat, was indued in it, and pushed off to chapel ere he could recover his senses. The things were not altogether comfortable, he found: the trousers clung tight against his shins, but hung loose behind his heels; and when he sat, it was on a wilderness of hard folds and seams. Also his waistcoat collar tickled his nape, but his coat collar went straining across from shoulder to shoulder; while the main garment bagged generously below his waist. Use made a habit of his discomfort, but it never reconciled him to the chaff of his shopmates; for as Mrs. Simmons elaborated successive suits, each one modelled on the last, the primal accidents of her design developed into principles, and grew even bolder and more hideously pronounced. It was vain for Simmons to hint – as hint he did – that he shouldn't like her to overwork herself, tailoring being bad for the eyes, and there was a new tailor's in the Mile End Road, very cheap, where… "Ho yus," she retorted, "you're very consid'rit I dessay sittin' there actin' a livin' lie before your own wife Thomas Simmons as though I couldn't see through you like a book. A lot you care about overworkin' me as long as your turn's served throwin' away money like dirt in the street on a lot o' swindlin' tailors an' me workin' an' slavin' 'ere to save a 'apenny an' this is my return for it any one 'ud think you could pick up money in the 'orseroad an' I b'lieve I'd be thought better of if I laid in bed all day like some would that I do." So that Thomas Simmons avoided the subject, nor even murmured when she resolved to cut his hair.

So his placid fortune endured for years. Then there came a golden summer evening when Mrs. Simmons betook herself with a basket to do some small shopping, and Simmons was left at home. He washed and put away the tea-things, and then he fell to meditating on a new pair of trousers, finished that day and hanging behind the parlor door. There they hung, in all their decent innocence of shape in the seat, and they were shorter of leg, longer of waist, and wilder of pattern than he had ever worn before. And as he looked on them the small devil of Original Sin awoke and clamored in his breast. He was ashamed of it, of course, for well he knew the gratitude he owed his wife for those same trousers, among other blessings. Still, there the small devil was, and the small devil was fertile in base suggestions, and could not be kept from hinting at the new crop of workshop gibes that would spring at Tommy's first public appearance in such things.

"Pitch 'em in the dustbin!" said the small devil at last; "it's all they're fit for."

Simmons turned away in sheer horror of his wicked self, and for a moment thought of washing the tea-things over again by way of discipline. Then he made for the back room, but saw from the landing that the front door was standing open, probably by the fault of the child downstairs. Now a front door standing open was a thing that Mrs. Simmons would not abide: it looked low. So Simmons went down, that she might not be wroth with him for the thing when she came back; and, as he shut the door, he looked forth into the street.

A man was loitering on the pavement, and prying curiously about the door. His face was tanned, his hands were deep in the pockets of his unbraced blue trousers, and well back on his head he wore the high-crowned peaked cap topped with a knob of wool, which is affected by Jack ashore about the docks. He lurched a step nearer to the door, and "Mrs. Ford ain't in, is she?" he said.

Simmons stared at him for a matter of five seconds, and then said, "Eh?"

"Mrs. Ford as was, then – Simmons now, ain't it?"

He said this with a furtive leer that Simmons neither liked nor understood.

"No," said Simmons, "she ain't in now."

"You ain't her 'usband, are ye?"

"Yus."

The man took his pipe from his mouth, and grinned silently and long. "Blimy," he said at length, "you look the sort o' bloke she'd like," – and with that he grinned again. Then, seeing that Simmons made ready to shut the door, he put a foot on the sill and a hand against the panel. "Don't be in a 'urry, matey," he said, "I come 'ere t'ave a little talk with you, man to man, d'ye see?" And he frowned fiercely.

Tommy Simmons felt uncomfortable, but the door would not shut, so he parleyed. "Wotjer want?" he asked. "I dunno you."

"Then, if you'll excuse the liberty, I'll interdooce meself, in a manner of speaking." He touched his cap with a bob of mock humility. "I'm Bob Ford," he said, "come back out o' kingdom-come, so to say. Me as went down with the Mooltan– safe dead five year gone. I come to see my wife."

During this speech Thomas Simmons's jaw was dropping lower and lower. At the end of it he poked his fingers up through his hair, looked down at the mat, then up at the fanlight, then out into the street, then hard at his visitor. But he found nothing to say.

"Come to see my wife," the man repeated. "So now we can talk it over – as man to man."

Simmons slowly shut his mouth, and led the way upstairs mechanically, his fingers still in his hair. A sense of the state of affairs sank gradually into his brain, and the small devil woke again. Suppose this man was Ford? Suppose he did claim his wife? Would it be a knock-down blow? Would it hit him out? – or not? He thought of the trousers, the tea-things, the mangling, the knives, the kettles, and the windows; and he thought of them in the way of a backslider.

On the landing Ford clutched at his arm, and asked in a hoarse whisper: "'Ow long 'fore she's back?"

"'Bout a hour, I expect," Simmons replied, having first of all repeated the question in his own mind. And then he opened the parlor door.

"Ah," said Ford, looking about him, "you've bin pretty comf'table. Them chairs an' things" – jerking his pipe toward them – "was hers – mine that is to say, speaking straight, and man to man." He sat down, puffing meditatively at his pipe, and presently: "Well," he continued, "'ere I am agin, ol' Bob Ford dead an' done for – gawn down in the Mooltan. On'y I ain't done for, see?" – and he pointed the stem of his pipe at Simmons's waistcoat, – "I ain't done for, 'cause why? Cons'kence o' bein' picked up by a ol' German sailin'-'utch an' took to 'Frisco 'fore the mast. I've 'ad a few years o' knockin' about since then, an' now" – looking hard at Simmons – "I've come back to see my wife."

"She – she don't like smoke in 'ere," said Simmons, as it were at random.

"No, I bet she don't," Ford answered, taking his pipe from his mouth, and holding it low in his hand. "I know 'Anner. 'Ow d'you find 'er? Do she make ye clean the winders?"

"Well," Simmons admitted uneasily, "I – I do 'elp 'er sometimes, o' course."

"Ah! An' the knives too, I bet, an' the bloomin' kittles. I know. Wy" – he rose and bent to look behind Simmons's head – "s'elp me, I b'lieve she cuts yer 'air! Well, I'm damned! Jes' wot she would do, too."

He inspected the blushing Simmons from divers points of vantage. Then he lifted a leg of the trousers hanging behind the door. "I'd bet a trifle," he said, "she made these 'ere trucks. Nobody else 'ud do 'em like that. Damme – they're wuss'n wot you're got on."

The small devil began to have the argument all its own way. If this man took his wife back perhaps he'd have to wear those trousers.

"Ah!" Ford pursued, "she ain't got no milder. An' my davy, wot a jore!"

Simmons began to feel that this was no longer his business. Plainly, 'Anner was this other man's wife, and he was bound in honor to acknowledge the fact. The small devil put it to him as a matter of duty.

"Well," said Ford suddenly, "time's short an' this ain't business. I won't be 'ard on you, matey. I ought prop'ly to stand on my rights, but seein' as you're a well-meanin' young man, so to speak, an' all settled an' a-livin' 'ere quiet an' matrimonual, I'll" – this with a burst of generosity – "damme, yus, I'll compound the felony, an' take me 'ook. Come, I'll name a figure, as man to man, fust an' last, no less an' no more. Five pound does it."



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