Tales of Mean Streets
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"None o' yer shovin', young man," said Jerry severely. "None o' yer shovin', else I'll 'ave to punch you on the jore. You're a bleed'n' nice conspirator, you are. It's pretty plain we can't depend on you, an' you know wot that means, – eh? Doncher? You're one o' the sort as 'as to be suppressed, that's wot it means. 'Ere, 'ave a drink o' this 'ere beer, an' see if that can't put a little 'art in ye. You got to do it, so you may as well do it cheerful. Snorkey, give 'im a drink."
But the wretched revolutionary would not drink. He sank in a corner – the furthest from the table where Gunno Polson was packing his dreadful canister – a picture of stupefied affright.
Presently he thought of the bar – a mere yard of counter in an angle of the room, with a screen standing above it – and conceived a wild notion of escape by scrambling over. But scarce had he risen ere the watchful Jerry divined his purpose.
"'Old 'im, Snorkey," he said. "Keep 'im in the corner. An' if 'e won't drink that beer, pour it over 'is 'ead."
Snorkey obeyed gravely and conscientiously, and the bedraggled Sotcher, cowed from protest, whined and sobbed desolately.
When all was ready, Jerry Shand said: "I s'pose it's no good askin' you to do it willin', like a man?"
"O, let me go, I – I ain't well – s'elp me, I ain't. I – I might do it wrong – an' – an' – I'm a – a teacher – a speaker; not the active branch, s'elp me. Put it auf – for to-night – wait till to-morrer. I ain't well an' – an' you're very 'ard on me!"
"Desp'rit work, desp'rit ways," Jerry replied laconically. "You're be'avin' very suspicious, an' you're rebellin' agin the orders o' the group. There's only one physic for that, ain't there, in the rules? You're got to be suppressed. Question is 'ow. We'll 'ave to kill 'im quiet somehow," he proceeded, turning to the group. "Quiet an' quick. It's my belief 'e's spyin' for the p'lice, an' wants to git out to split on us. Question is 'ow to do for 'im?"
Sotcher rose, a staring spectre. He opened his mouth to call, but there came forth from it only a dry murmur. Hands were across his mouth at once, and he was forced back into the corner. One suggested a clasp-knife at the throat, another a stick in his neckerchief, twisted to throttling-point. But in the end it was settled that it would be simpler, and would better destroy all traces, to despatch him in the explosion – to tie him to the canister, in fact.
A convulsive movement under the men's hands decided them to throw more beer on Sotcher's face, for he seemed to be fainting. Then his pockets were invaded by Gunno Polson, who turned out each in succession. "You won't 'ave no use for money where you're goin'," he observed callously; "besides, it 'ud be blowed to bits an' no use to nobody. Look at the bloke at Greenwich, 'ow 'is things was blowed away. 'Ullo! 'ere's two 'arf-crowns an' some tanners. Seven an' thrippence altogether, with the browns. This is the bloke wot 'adn't got no funds.This'll be divided on free an' equal principles to 'elp pay for that beer you've wasted. 'Old up, ol' man! Think o' the glory. P'r'aps you're all right, but it's best to be on the safe side, an' dead blokes can't split to the coppers. An' you mustn't forget the glory. You 'ave to shed blood in a revolution, an' a few odd lives more or less don't matter – not a single damn. Keep your eye on the bleed'n' glory! They'll 'ave photos of you in the papers, all the broken bits in a 'eap, fac-similiar as found on the spot. Wot a comfort that'll be!"
But the doomed creature was oblivious – prostrate – a swooning heap. They ran a piece of clothes-line under his elbows, and pulled them together tight. They then hobbled his ankles, and took him among them through the alley and down the quiet street, singing and shouting their loudest as they went, in case he might sufficiently recover his powers to call for help. But he did not, and there in the shadow, at the foot of the great gasometer, they flung him down with a parting kick and a barbarous knock on the head, to keep him quiet for those few necessary moments. Then the murderous canister, bound with wire, was put in place; the extruding touch-paper was set going with a match; and the Red Cow Anarchists disappeared at a run, leaving their victim to his fate. Presently the policeman on that beat heard a sudden report from the neighborhood of the gas-works, and ran to see what it might mean.
The next morning Alfred Sotcher was charged at the Thames Police Court as a drunk and incapable. He had been found in a helpless state near the gas-works, and appeared to have been tied at the elbows and ankles by mischievous boys, who had also, it seemed, ignited a cracker near by where he lay. The divisional surgeon stated that he was called to the prisoner, and found him tearful and incoherent, and smelling strongly of drink. He complained of having been assaulted in a public-house, but could give no intelligible account of himself. A canister found by his side appeared to contain a mixture of sand and castor oil, but prisoner could not explain how it came there. The magistrate fined him five shillings, with the alternative of seven days, and as he had no money he was removed to the cells.
ON THE STAIRS
The house had been "genteel." When trade was prospering in the East End, and the ship-fitter or block-maker thought it no shame to live in the parish where his workshop lay, such a master had lived here. Now, it was a tall, solid, well-bricked, ugly house, grimy and paintless in the joinery, cracked and patched in the windows: where the front door stood open all day long; and the womankind sat on the steps, talking of sickness and deaths and the cost of things; and treacherous holes lurked in the carpet of road-soil on the stairs and in the passage. For when eight families live in a house, nobody buys a door-mat, and the street was one of those streets that are always muddy. It smelt, too, of many things, none of them pleasant (one was fried fish); but for all that it was not a slum.
Three flights up, a gaunt woman with bare forearms stayed on her way to listen at a door which, opening, let out a warm, fetid waft from a close sick-room. A bent and tottering old woman stood on the threshold, holding the door behind her.
"An' is 'e no better now, Mrs. Curtis?" the gaunt woman asked, with a nod at the opening.
The old woman shook her head, and pulled the door closer. Her jaw waggled loosely in her withered chaps: "Nor won't be; till 'e's gone." Then after a certain pause, "'E's goin'," she said.
"Don't doctor give no 'ope?"
"Lor' bless ye, I don't want to ast no doctors," Mrs. Curtis replied, with something not unlike a chuckle. "I've seed too many on 'em. The boy's a-goin', fast; I can see that. An' then" – she gave the handle another tug, and whispered – "he's been called." She nodded amain. "Three seprit knocks at the bed-head las' night; an' I know what that means!"
The gaunt woman raised her brows, and nodded. "Ah, well," she said, "we all on us comes to it some day, sooner or later. An' it's often a 'appy release."
The two looked into space beyond each other, the elder with a nod and a croak. Presently the other pursued, "'E's been a very good son, ain't 'e?"
"Ay, ay, well enough son to me," responded the old woman, a little peevishly; "an' I'll 'ave 'im put away decent, though there's on'y the Union for me after. I can do that, thank Gawd!" she added, meditatively, as chin on fist she stared into the thickening dark over the stairs.
"When I lost my pore 'usband," said the gaunt woman, with a certain brightening, "I give 'im a 'ansome funeral. 'E was a Oddfeller, an' I got twelve pound. I 'ad a oak caufin an' a open 'earse. There was a kerridge for the fam'ly an' one for 'is mates – two 'orses each, an' feathers, an' mutes; an' it went the furthest way round to the cimitry. 'Wotever 'appens, Mrs. Manders,' says the undertaker, 'you'll feel as you're treated 'im proper; nobody can't reproach you over that.' An' they couldn't. 'E was a good 'usband to me, an' I buried 'im respectable."
The gaunt woman exulted. The old, old story of Manders's funeral fell upon the other one's ears with a freshened interest, and she mumbled her gums ruminantly. "Bob'll 'ave a 'ansome buryin', too," she said. "I can make it up, with the insurance money, an' this, an' that. On'y I dunno about mutes. It's a expense."
In the East End, when a woman has not enough money to buy a thing much desired, she does not say so in plain words; she says the thing is an "expense," or a "great expense." It means the same thing, but it sounds better. Mrs. Curtis had reckoned her resources, and found that mutes would be an "expense." At a cheap funeral mutes cost half-a-sovereign and their liquor. Mrs. Manders said as much.
"Yus, yus, 'arf-a-sovereign," the old woman assented. Within, the sick man feebly beat the floor with a stick. "I'm a-comin'," she cried shrilly; "yus, 'arf-a-sovereign, but it's a lot, an' I don't see 'ow I'm to do it – not at present." She reached for the door-handle again, but stopped and added, by after-thought, "Unless I don't 'ave no plooms."
"It 'ud be a pity not to 'ave plooms. I 'ad – "
There were footsteps on the stairs: then a stumble and a testy word. Mrs. Curtis peered over into the gathering dark. "Is it the doctor, sir?" she asked. It was the doctor's assistant; and Mrs. Manders tramped up to the next landing as the door of the sick-room took him in.
For five minutes the stairs were darker than ever. Then the assistant, a very young man, came out again, followed by the old woman with a candle. Mrs. Manders listened in the upper dark. "He's sinking fast," said the assistant. "He must have a stimulant. Dr. Mansell ordered port wine. Where is it?" Mrs. Curtis mumbled dolorously. "I tell you he must have it," he averred with unprofessional emphasis (his qualification was only a month old). "The man can't take solid food, and his strength must be kept up somehow. Another day may make all the difference. Is it because you can't afford it?" "It's a expense – sich a expense, doctor," the old woman pleaded. "An' wot with 'arf-pints o' milk an' – " She grew inarticulate, and mumbled dismally.
"But he must have it, Mrs. Curtis, if it's your last shilling: it's the only way. If you mean you absolutely haven't the money – " And he paused a little awkwardly. He was not a wealthy young man – wealthy young men do not devil for East End doctors – but he was conscious of a certain haul of sixpences at nap the night before; and, being inexperienced, he did not foresee the career of persecution whereon he was entering at his own expense and of his own motion. He produced five shillings: "If you absolutely haven't the money, why – take this and get a bottle – good: not at a public-house. But mind, at once. He should have had it before."
It would have interested him, as a matter of coincidence, to know that his principal had been guilty of the selfsame indiscretion – even the amount was identical – on that landing the day before. But, as Mrs. Curtis said nothing of this, he floundered down the stair and out into the wetter mud, pondering whether or not the beloved son of a Congregational minister might take full credit for a deed of charity on the proceeds of sixpenny nap. But Mrs. Curtis puffed her wrinkles, and shook her head sagaciously as she carried in her candle. From the room came a clink as of money falling into a teapot. And Mrs. Manders went about her business.
The door was shut, and the stair a pit of blackness. Twice a lodger passed down, and up and down, and still it did not open. Men and women walked on the lower flights, and out at the door, and in again. From the street a shout or a snatch of laughter floated up the pit. On the pavement footsteps rang crisper and fewer, and from the bottom passage there were sounds of stagger and sprawl. A demented old clock buzzed divers hours at random, and was rebuked every twenty minutes by the regular tread of a policeman on his beat. Finally, somebody shut the street-door with a great bang, and the street was muffled. A key turned inside the door on the landing, but that was all. A feeble light shone for hours along the crack below, and then went out. The crazy old clock went buzzing on, but nothing left that room all night. Nothing that opened the door…
When next the key turned, it was to Mrs. Manders's knock, in the full morning; and soon the two women came out on the landing together, Mrs. Curtis with a shapeless clump of bonnet. "Ah, 'e's a lovely corpse," said Mrs. Manders. "Like wax. So was my 'usband."
"I must be stirrin'," croaked the old woman, "an' go about the insurance an' the measurin' an' that. There's lots to do."
"Ah, there is. 'Oo are you goin' to 'ave, – Wilkins? I 'ad Wilkins. Better than Kedge, I think: Kedge's mutes dresses rusty, an' their trousis is frayed. If you was thinkin' of 'avin' mutes – "
"Yus, yus," – with a palsied nodding, – "I'm a-goin' to 'ave mutes: I can do it respectable, thank Gawd!"
"And the plooms?"
"Ay, yus, and the plooms too. They ain't sich a great expense, after all."
Bill Napper was a heavy man of something between thirty-five and forty. His moleskin trousers were strapped below the knees, and he wore his coat loose on his back, with the sleeves tied across his chest. The casual observer set him down a navvy, but Mrs. Napper punctiliously made it known that he was "in the paving"; which meant that he was a pavior. He lived in Canning Town, and was on a footpath job at West Ham (Allen was the contractor) when he won and began to wear the nickname "Squire."
Daily at the stroke of twelve from the neighboring church, Bill Napper's mates let drop rammer, trowel, spade, and pick, and turned toward a row of basins, tied in blue-and-red handkerchiefs, and accompanied of divers tin cans with smoky bottoms. Bill himself looked toward the street corner for the punctual Polly bearing his own dinner fresh and hot; for home was not far, and Polly, being thirteen, had no school now.
One day Polly was nearly ten minutes late. Bill, at first impatient, grew savage, and thought wrathfully on the strap on its nail by the kitchen-dresser. But at the end of the ten minutes Polly came, bringing a letter as well as the basin-load of beef and cabbage. A young man had left it, she said, after asking many ill-mannered questions. The letter was addressed "W. Napper, Esq.," with a flourish; the words, "By hand," stood in the corner of the envelope; and on the flap at the back were the embossed characters "T. & N." These things Bill Napper noted several times over, as he turned the letter about in his hand.
"Seems to me you'll 'ave to open it after all," said one of Bill's mates; and he opened it, setting back his hat as a preparation to serious study. The letter was dated from Old Jewry, and ran thus: —
"Re B. Napper deceased
The dinner hour had gone by before the full inner meaning had been wrested from this letter. "B. Napper deceased" Bill accepted, with a little assistance, as an announcement of the death of his brother Ben, who had gone to Australia nearly twenty years ago, and had been forgotten. "Testamentary dispositions" nobody would tackle with confidence, although its distinct suggestion of biblical study was duly remarked. "Benefit" was right enough, and led one of the younger men, after some thought, to the opinion that Bill Napper's brother might have left him something: a theory instantly accepted as the most probable, although some thought it foolish of him not to leave it direct instead of authorizing the interference of a lawyer, who would want to do Bill out of it.
Bill Napper put up his tools and went home. There the missis put an end to doubt by repeating what the lawyer's clerk said: which was nothing more definite than that Bill had been "left a bit"; and the clerk only acknowledged so much when he had satisfied himself, by sinuous questionings, that he had found the real legatee. He further advised the bringing of certain evidence on the visit to the office. Thus it was plain that the Napper fortunes were in good case, for, as "a bit" means money all the world over, the thing was clearly no worthless keepsake.
On the afternoon of the next day, Bill Napper, in clean moleskins and black coat, made for Old Jewry. On mature consideration he had decided to go through it alone. There was not merely one lawyer, which would be bad enough, but two of them in a partnership; and to take the missis, whose intellects, being somewhat flighty, were quickly divertible by the palaver of which a lawyer was master, would be to distract and impede his own faculties. A male friend might not have been so bad, but Bill could not call to mind one quite cute enough to be of any use, and in any case such a friend would have to be paid for the loss of his day's work. Moreover, he might imagine himself to hold a sort of interest in the proceeds. So Bill Napper went alone.
Having waited the proper time without the bar in the clerk's office, he was shown into a room where a middle-aged man sat at a writing-table. There was no other lawyer to be seen. This was a stratagem for which Bill Napper was not prepared. He looked suspiciously about the room, but without discovering anything that looked like a hiding-place. Plainly there were two lawyers, because their names were on the door and on the letter itself; and the letter said we. Why one should hide it was hard to guess, unless it were to bear witness to some unguarded expression. Bill Napper resolved to speak little, and not loud.
The lawyer addressed him affably, inviting him to sit. Then he asked to see the papers that Bill had brought. These were an old testimonial reciting that Bill had been employed "with his brother Benjamin" as a boy in a brick-field, and had given satisfaction; a letter from a parish guardian, the son of an old employer of Bill's father, certifying that Bill was his father's son and his brother's brother; copies of the birth registry of both Bill and his brother, procured that morning; and a letter from Australia, the last word from Benjamin, dated eighteen years back. These Bill produced in succession, keeping a firm grip on each as he placed it beneath the lawyer's nose. The lawyer behaved somewhat testily under this restraint, but Bill knew better than to let the papers out of his possession, and would not be done.
When he had seen all, "Well, Mr. Napper," said the lawyer, rather snappishly (obviously he was balked), "these things seem all right, and with the inquiries I have already made I suppose I may proceed to pay you the money. It is a legacy of three hundred pounds. Your brother was married, and I believe his business and other property goes to his wife and children. The money is intact, the estate paying legacy duty and expenses. In cases of this sort there is sometimes an arrangement for the amount to be paid a little at a time as required; that, however, I judge, would not be an arrangement to please you. I hope, at any rate, you will be able to invest the money in a profitable way. I will draw a check."
Three hundred pounds was beyond Bill Napper's wildest dreams. But he would not be dazzled out of his caution. Presently the lawyer tore the check from the book, and pushed it across the table with another paper. He offered Bill a pen, pointing with his other hand at the bottom of the second paper, and saying, "This is the receipt. Sign just there, please."
Bill took up the check, but made no movement toward the pen. "Receipt?" he grunted softly; "receipt wot for? I ain't 'ad no money."
"There's the check in your hand – the same thing. It's an order to the bank to hand you the amount – the usual way of paying money in business affairs. If you would rather have the money paid here, I can send a clerk to the bank to get it. Give me the check."
But again Bill was not to be done. The lawyer, finding him sharper than he expected, now wanted to get this tricky piece of paper back. So Bill only grinned at him, keeping a good hold of the check. The lawyer lost his temper. "Why, damn it," he said, "you're a curious person to deal with. D'ye want the money and the check too?"
He rang a bell twice, and a clerk appeared. "Mr. Dixon," said the lawyer, "I have given this person a check for three hundred pounds. Just take him round to the bank, and get it cashed. Let him sign the receipt at the bank. I suppose," he added, turning to Bill, "that you won't object to giving a receipt when you get the money, eh?"
Bill Napper, conscious of his victory, expressed his willingness to do the proper thing at the proper time, and went out with the clerk. At the bank there was little difficulty, except at the clerk's advice to take the money chiefly in notes, which instantly confirmed Bill in a determination to accept nothing but gold. When all was done, and the three hundred sovereigns, carefully counted over for the third and fourth time, were stowed in small bags about his person, Bill, much relieved after his spell of watchfulness, insisted on standing the clerk a drink.
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