Arthur Morrison.

Tales of Mean Streets



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The weak spot in the plan was the absence of any binding arrangement with the general public; and this was not long in discovering itself. Nobody came to buy the fancy aprons and the lace bows, tempting as they might seem. Moreover, after they had hung a week or more, Alice reported that a large shop in the Commercial Road was offering, by retail, aprons and bows of precisely the same sort at a less price than the polite young man had charged for a wholesale purchase. Mrs. Munsey grew desperate, and Hedward's life became a horror unto him. He was set to stand at the door with a fancy apron in one hand and a lace bow in the other, and capture customers as they passed: a function wherein he achieved detestable failure; alarming passing women (who considered him dangerously drunk) as greatly as his situation distressed himself.

Mrs. Munsey grew more desperate, and drove Hedward to the rear of the house, with bitter revilings. Money must be got out of the stock somehow. That a shop could in any circumstances be unremunerative puzzled as much as it dismayed her. The goods were marked down to low prices – often lower than cost. Still Mrs. Munsey had the abiding conviction that the affair must pay, as others did, if only she might hold out long enough. Hedward's suggestion that he should return to the moulding, coming and going as little in sight as possible, she repelled savagely. "A nice notion you've got o' keepin' up a proper position. You ain't content with disgracin' me and yourself too, playin' the fool in the shop till trade's ruined an' nobody won't come near the place – an' I don't wonder at it… You're a nice sort of 'usband, I must say. What are you goin' to do now, with the business in this pretty mess, an' your wife an' children ready to starve? What are you goin' to do? Where are you goin' to turn? That's what I want to know."

"Well, I'm a-thinkin' it out, Marier, in a legal point. P'r'aps, you know, my dear – "

"Oh, don't dear me! I 'ate a fool."

Marked as low as they might be, none of the aprons nor the bows nor the towels nor the stockings nor any other of the goods were bought – never a thing beyond a ha'porth of thread or a farthing bodkin. Rent had to be paid, and even food cost money. There was a flavor of blank disappointment about Saturday – the pay day of less anxious times; and quarter day, when all these polite young men would demand the money that was not – that day was coming, black and soon. Mrs. Munsey grew more desperate than ever, sharp of feature, and aged. Alone, she would probably have wept. Having Hedward at hand, she poured forth her bitterness of spirit upon him; till at last he was nagged out of his normal stolidity, and there came upon his face the look of a bullock that is harried on all hands through unfamiliar streets.

On a night when, from sheer weariness of soul, she fell from clatter toward sleep, of a sudden Hedward spoke. "Marier – " he said.

"Well?"

"You ain't give me a kiss lately.

Kiss me now."

"Don't be a fool. I'm sick an' tired. Go to sleep, if you can sleep, with everything – "

"Kiss me, I tell you!" He had never commanded like that before. She marvelled, feared a little, and obeyed.

In the morning, when she awoke, he had already gone downstairs. This was as usual. When she followed, however, he was not to be found in the house. The shop shutters had been taken down, and the windows carefully cleaned, although it was not the regular window-cleaning day; but the door was shut. On the sitting-room table were two papers, one within the other. The first was written with many faults and smudges, and this was how it ran: —

"the deed and testiment of Ed. Munsey this is to cirtiffy that i make over all my property to my belovd wife stock bisness and furnitur so help me god all detts i keep to pay myself and my wife is not ansrable for them and certiffy that I O U Minchin and co 9 pound 4/7? Jones and son 6 pound 13/2 and settrer all other detts me and not my wife I O U

Ed. Munsey"

The other was a letter: —

"my dear wife i have done this legle dockerment after thinking it out it will make you alrite having all made over and me still oawe the detts not you as you can pull round the bisness as you said with time and if you do not see me again will you pay the detts when it is pull round as we have been allways honnest and straght i should wish for Emma to keep co with Jhon Page if can be mannaged he might be shop walker and you will soon all be rich swels i know so no more from yours affec husband

Ed. Munsey

"love to Emma and Alice this one must be burnt keep the other"

Near the papers lay Ted Munsey's large silver watch and chain, the silver ring that he used to fasten his best tie, three keys, and a few coppers. Upstairs the girls began to move about. Mrs. Munsey sat with her frightened face on the table.

THE RED COW GROUP

The Red Cow Anarchist Group no longer exists. Its leading spirit appears no more among his devoted comrades, and without him they are ineffectual.

He was but a young man, this leading spirit, (his name, by the bye, was Sotcher,) but of his commanding influence among the older but unlettered men about him, read and judge. For themselves, they had long been plunged in a beery apathy, neither regarding nor caring for the fearful iniquities of the social system that oppressed them. A Red Cow group they had always been, before the coming of Sotcher to make Anarchists of them: forgathering in a remote compartment of the Red Cow bar, reached by a side door in an alley; a compartment uninvaded and almost undiscovered by any but themselves, where night after night they drank their beer and smoked their pipes, sunk in a stagnant ignorance of their manifold wrongs. During the day Old Baker remained to garrison the stronghold. He was a long-bankrupt tradesman, with invisible resources and no occupation but this, and no known lodging but the Red Cow snuggery. There he remained all day and every day, "holding the fort," as he put it: with his nose, a fiery signal of possession, never two feet from the rim of his pot; while Jerry Shand was carrying heavy loads in Columbia Market; while Gunno Polson was running for a book-maker in Fleet Street; while Snorkey was wherever his instinct took him, doing whatever paid best, and keeping out of trouble as long as he could; and while the rest of the group – two or three – picked a living out of the London heap in ways and places unspecified. But at evening they joined Old Baker, and they filled their snuggery.

Their talk was rarely of politics, and never of "social problems": present and immediate facts filled their whole field of contemplation. Their accounts were kept, and their references to pecuniary matters were always stated, in terms of liquid measure. Thus, fourpence was never spoken of in the common way: it was a quart, and a quart was the monetary standard of the community. Even as twopence was a pint, and eightpence was half-a-gallon.

It was Snorkey who discovered Sotcher, and it was with Snorkey that that revolutionary appeared before the Red Cow group with his message of enlightenment. Snorkey (who was christened something else that nobody knew or cared about) had a trick of getting into extraordinary and unheard-of places in his daily quest of quarts, and he had met Sotcher in a loft at the top of a house in Berners Street, Shadwell. It was a loft where the elect of Anarchism congregated nightly, and where everybody lectured all the others. Sotcher was a very young Anarchist, restless by reason of not being sufficiently listened to, and glad to find outsiders to instruct and to impress with a full sense of his sombre, mystic dare-devilry. Therefore he came to the Red Cow with Snorkey, to spread (as he said) the light.

He was not received with enthusiasm, perhaps because of a certain unlaundered aspect of person remarkable even to them of the Red Cow group. Grease was his chief exterior characteristic, and his thick hair, turning up over his collar, seemed to have lain for long unharried of brush or comb. His face was a sebaceous trickle of long features, and on his hands there was a murky deposit that looked like scales. He wore, in all weathers, a long black coat with a rectangular rent in the skirt, and his throat he clipped in a brown neckerchief that on a time had been of the right Anarchist red. But no want of welcome could abash him. Here, indeed, he had an audience, an audience that did not lecture on its own account, a crude audience that might take him at his own valuation. So he gave it to that crude audience, hot and strong. They (and he) were the salt of the earth, bullied, plundered and abused. Down with everything that wasn't down already. And so forth and so on.

His lectures were continued. Every night it was the same as every other, and each several chapter of his discourse was a repetition of the one before. Slowly the Red Cow group came around. Plainly other people were better off than they; and certainly each man found it hard to believe that anybody else was more deserving than himself.

"Wy are we pore?" asked Sotcher, leaning forward and jerking his extended palm from one to another, as though attempting a hasty collection. "I ask you straight, wy are we pore? Why is it, my frien's, that awften and awften you find you ain't got a penny in yer pocket, not for to git a crust o' bread or 'alf a pint o' reasonable refreshment? 'Ow is it that 'appens? Agin I ask, 'ow?"

Snorkey, with a feeling that an answer was expected from somebody, presently murmured, "No mugs," which encouraged Gunno Polson to suggest, "Backers all stony-broke." Jerry Shand said nothing, but reflected on the occasional result of a day on the loose. Old Baker neither spoke nor thought.

"I'll tell you, me frien's. It's 'cos o' the rotten state o' s'ciety. Wy d'you allow the lazy, idle, dirty, do-nothing upper classes, as they call 'emselves, to reap all the benefits o' your toil wile you slave an' slave to keep 'em in lukshry an' starve yerselves? Wy don't you go an' take your shares o' the wealth lyin' round you?"

There was another pause. Gunno Polson looked at his friends one after another, spat emphatically, and said, "Coppers."

"Becos o' the brute force as the privileged classes is 'edged theirselves in with, that's all. Becos o' the paid myrmidons armed an' kep' to make slaves o' the people. Becos o' the magistrates an' p'lice. Then wy not git rid o' the magistrates an' p'lice? They're no good, are they? 'Oo wants 'em, I ask? 'Oo?"

"They are a noosance," admitted Snorkey, who had done a little time himself. He was a mere groundling, and persisted in regarding the proceedings as simple conversation, instead of as an oration with pauses at the proper places.

"Nobody wants 'em – nobody as is any good. Then don't 'ave 'em, me frien's – don't 'ave 'em! It all rests with you. Don't 'ave no magistrates nor p'lice, nor gover'ment, nor parliament, nor monarchy, nor county council, nor nothink. Make a clean sweep of 'em. Blow 'em up. Then you'll 'ave yer rights. The time's comin', I tell you. It's comin', take my word for it. Now you toil an' slave; then everybody'll 'ave to work w'ether 'e likes it or not, and two hours work a day'll be all you'll 'ave to do."

Old Baker looked a little alarmed, and for a moment paused in his smoking.

"Two hours a day at most, that's all; an' all yer wants provided for, free an' liberal." Some of the group gave a lickerish look across the bar. "No a'thority, no gover'ment, no privilege, an' nothink to interfere. Free contrack between man an' man, subjick to free revision an' change."

"Wot's that?" demanded Jerry Shand, who was the slowest convert.

"Wy, that," Sotcher explained, "means that everybody can make wot arrangements with 'is feller-men 'e likes for to carry on the business of life, but nothink can't bind you. You chuck over the arrangement if it suits best."

"Ah," said Gunno Polson musingly, rotating his pot horizontally before him to stir the beer; "that 'ud be 'andy sometimes. They call it welshin' now."

The light spread fast and free, and in a few nights the Red Cow group was a very promising little bed of Anarchy. Sotcher was at pains to have it reported at two places west of Tottenham Court Road and at another in Dean Street, Soho, that at last a comrade had secured an excellent footing with a party of the proletariat of East London, hitherto looked on as hopeless material. More: that an early manifestation of activity might be expected in that quarter. Such activity had been held advisable of late, in view of certain extraditions.

And Sotcher's discourse at the Red Cow turned, lightly and easily, toward the question of explosives. Anybody could make them, he explained; nothing simpler, with care. And here he posed at large in the character of mysterious desperado, the wonder and admiration of all the Red Cow group. They should buy nitric acid, he said, of the strongest sort, and twice as much sulphuric acid. The shops where they sold photographic materials were best and cheapest for these things, and no questions were asked. They should mix the acids, and then add gently, drop by drop, the best glycerine, taking care to keep everything cool. After which the whole lot must be poured into water, to stand for an hour. Then a thick, yellowish, oily stuff would be found to have sunk to the bottom, which must be passed through several pails of water to be cleansed: and there it was, a terrible explosive. You handled it with care and poured it on brick-dust or dry sand, or anything of that sort that would soak it up, and then it could be used with safety to the operator.

The group listened with rapt attention, more than one pot stopping half-way on its passage mouthwards. Then Jerry Shand wanted to know if Sotcher had ever blown up anything or anybody himself.

The missionary admitted that that glory had not been his. "I'm one o' the teachers, me frien's – one o' the pioneers that goes to show the way for the active workers like you. I on'y come to explain the principles an' set you in the right road to the social revolution, so as you may get yer rights at last. It's for you to act."

Then he explained that action might be taken in two ways: either individually or by mutual aid in the group. Individual work was much to be preferred, being safer; but a particular undertaking often necessitated co-operation. But that was for the workers to settle as the occasion arose. However, one thing must be remembered. If the group operated, each man must be watchful of the rest; there must be no half measures, no timorousness; any comrade wavering, temporizing, or behaving in any way suspiciously, must be straightway suppressed. There must be no mistake about that. It was desperate and glorious work, and there must be desperate and rapid methods both of striking and guarding. These things he made clear in his best conspirator's manner: with nods and scowls and a shaken forefinger, as of one accustomed to oversetting empires.

The men of the Red Cow group looked at each other, and spat thoughtfully. Then a comrade asked what had better be blown up first. Sotcher's opinion was that there was most glory in blowing up people, in a crowd or at a theatre. But a building was safer, as there was more chance of getting away. Of buildings, a public office was probably to be preferred – something in Whitehall, say. Or a bank – nobody seemed to have tried a bank: he offered the suggestion now. Of course there were not many public buildings in the East End, but possibly the group would like to act in their own neighborhood: it would be a novelty, and would attract notice; the question was one for their own decision, independent freedom of judgment being the right thing in these matters. There were churches, of course, and the factories of the bloated capitalist. Particularly, he might suggest the gas-works close by. There was a large gasometer abutting on the street, and probably an explosion there would prove tremendously effective, putting the lights out everywhere, and attracting great attention in the papers. That was glory.

Jerry Shand hazarded a remark about the lives of the men in the gas-works; but Sotcher explained that that was a trivial matter. Revolutions were never accomplished without bloodshed, and a few casual lives were not to be weighed in the balance against the glorious consummation of the social upheaval. He repeated his contention, when some weaker comrade spoke of the chance of danger to the operator, and repeated it with a proper scorn of the soft-handed pusillanimity that shrank from danger to life and limb in the cause. Look at the glory, and consider the hundred-fold vengeance on the enemy in the day to come! The martyr's crown was his who should die at the post of duty.

His eloquence prevailed: there were murmurs no more. "'Ere, tell us the name of the stuff agin," broke out Gunno Polson, resolutely, feeling for a pencil and paper. "Blimy, I'll make some to-morrer."

He wrote down the name of the ingredients with much spelling. "Thick, yuller, oily stuff, ain't it, wot you make?" he asked.

"Yus – an' keep it cool."

The group broke up, stern and resolute, and Sotcher strode to his home exultant, a man of power.

For the next night or two the enthusiasm at the Red Cow was unbounded. There was no longer any questioning of principles or action – every man was an eager Anarchist – strong and devoted in the cause. The little chemical experiment was going on well, Gunno Polson reported, with confident nods and winks. Sotcher repeated his discourse, as a matter of routine, to maintain the general ardor, which had, however, to endure a temporary check as the result of a delicate inquiry of Snorkey's, as to what funds might be expected from head-quarters. For there were no funds, said Sotcher, somewhat surprised at the question.

"Wot?" demanded Jerry Shand, opening his mouth and putting down his pipe: "ain't we goin' to get nothink for all this?"

They would get the glory, Sotcher assured him, and the consciousness of striking a mighty blow at this, and that, and the other; but that was all. And instantly the faces of the group grew long.

"But," said Old Baker, "I thought all you blokes always got somethink from the – the committee?"

There was no committee, and no funds: there was nothing but glory, and victory, and triumph, and the social revolution, and things of that kind. For a little, the comrades looked at each other awkwardly, but they soon regained their cheerfulness, with zeal no whit abated. The sitting closed with promises of an early gathering for the next night.

But when the next night came Sotcher was later than usual. "Ullo," shouted Gunno Polson, as he entered, "'ere you are at last. We've 'ad to do important business without you. See," he added in a lower tone, "'ere's the stuff!" And he produced an old physic-bottle nearly full of a thick, yellowish fluid.

Sotcher started back half a pace, and slightly paled. "Don't shake it," he whispered hoarsely. "Don't shake it, for Gawd's sake!.. Wot – wotjer bring it 'ere for, like that? It's – it's awful stuff, blimy." He looked uneasily about the group, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "I – I thought you'd git the job over soon as the stuff was ready… 'Ere, my Gawd!" he squeaked under his breath, "don't put it down 'ard on the table like that. It's sich – sich awful stuff." He wiped his forehead again, and, still standing, glanced once more apprehensively round the circle of impassive faces. Then after a pause, he asked, with an effort, "Wot – wotjer goin' to do now?"

"Blow up the bleed'n' gas-works, o' course," answered Gunno Polson complacently. "'Ere's a penn'orth o' silver sand, an' a 'bacca canister, an' some wire, an' a big cracker with a long touch-paper, so as to stick out o' the canister-lid. That ought to set it auf, oughtn't it? 'Ere, you pour the stuff over the sand, doncher?" And he pulled out the cork and made ready to mix.

"'Old on – 'old on – don't! Wait a bit, for Gawd's sake!" cried Sotcher, in a sweat of terror. "You – you dunno wot awful stuff it is – s'elp me, you don't! You – you'll blow us all up if you don't keep it still. Y – you'll want some – other things. I'll go an' – "

But Jerry Shand stood grimly against the door. "This 'ere conspiracy'll 'ave to be gawn through proper," he said. "We can't 'ave no waverers nor blokes wot want to clear out in the middle of it, and p'r'aps go an' tell the p'lice. Them sort we 'as to suppress, see? There's all the stuff there, me lad, an' you know it. Wot's more, it's you as is got to put it up agin the gas-works an' set it auf."

The hapless Sotcher turned a yellower pallor and asked faintly, "Me? Wy me?"

"All done reg'lar and proper," Jerry replied, "'fore you come. We voted it – by ballot, all square. If you'd 'a' come earlier you'd 'a' 'ad a vote yerself."

Sotcher pushed at Jerry's shoulder despairingly. "I won't, I won't!" he gasped. "Lemme go – it ain't fair – I wasn't 'ere – lemme go!"



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