George Fenn.

Friends I Have Made





Chapter Three.
My little hero

It was not long after that Madame Grainger gave up business on account of her ill-health, and the kindness she had rendered to me I was able to return, nursing her constantly, till one sad day when I found myself alone a very dear friend had passed away, almost her last coherent words being an assurance that I was beyond want; and so I afterwards found when her solicitors told me that she had left me all of which she died possessed.

It was some time before I could realise the fact that I possessed an independence; and at times I hesitated as to whether I should not refuse to accept what was to me a fortune, but a little consideration showed me how I could be, as it were, the steward of that which I held in trust, and there were plenty of ways in which I might dispense help to those around.

One of my first friends who seemed to ask was little Bill, a boy I used to meet in my visits to the solicitors in the City. He was a diminutive, sharp-faced boy, carrying a bit of stick covered with india-rubber rings, which, in a shrill, piping voice, he called at a penny a dozen.

I knew Bill, not personally, but well; and for quite two years we had often encountered, and sometimes done a little business together. For Bill had not always sold india-rubber rings, but was engaged in a good many commercial transactions in our big city, while trying very hard to solve that most difficult of problems: Given a mouth: how to fill it. It was Bill who used to shriek after me, Box o lyats, and would not believe that I never smoked and had no use for the cascarilla scented vesuvians. It was Bill who used to make me nervous to see him in front of the Mansion House at three oclock of an afternoon, paddling barefooted in and out of coach, carriage, cab, and bus, like a muddy imp; now under a wheel almost, now amongst the horses legs, now nearly run over, and taking it as a matter of course; but ever fearless and busy, darting in and out to vend the newspapers beneath his arm.

Up on bus steps, beside Hansoms, splashed, earnest, and busy, it was Bill that was eagerly seeking to earn the universal penny that foundation of fortunes. It was Bill that set up an opposition box, and shrieked, Clean yer boots, sir. Hey, ear yer are, sir, till the competition and ferocity of the brigade proved too much for him. It was Bill who used to run about with three oranges in his hand till they were sold for a penny. In short, it was Bill, who puzzled me to count up the sum of his commercial transactions, or the many phases in which he had presented himself to my notice.

Yes, we were old friends, Bill and I, and to do him justice, I never saw the boy idle. An old-fashioned boy was he quite a man in his way. Used to knocking about, and being knocked about in the streets, his experience of London life was something startling. Living so much in the mud and amongst the dregs of our busy city, he always reminded me of an eel, and well he acted up to his part little, lissome, and quick, he would wind in and out of a crowd, no matter how dense, and somehow or another Bill grew to be one of the common objects of the shore of that busy sea of life London.

A quiet, earnest, pale face, sharp, dark eyes, and an old, careworn look, that seemed to whisper of the pinchings of hunger, while yes, there certainly was more dirt than looked good for him.

I had dealt with little Bill several times before we became intimate enough for questioning, but at last, after a purchase, I asked him where he lived.

Down by Brick Lane, mum, and mother does mangling.

Three brothers and two sisters, and theyre all younger nor me. Im the only one as goes out to work.

And what does your father do? I asked.

Father, mum? Ah, hes dead, mum. Fell off a scaffle, and they took him to the osspital, where mother and me used to go to see him till one day, when I had to take mother back, for she said she was blind, and held her head down and kept her hands over her face till I got her home, when she did nothing but cry for three days. It was then as mother got the mangle, and Tommy and Sam helps turn, only theyre such little chaps, and dont do much good. I always turns when I gets home o nights, and have had my tea, and thats after Ive done selling the papers.

Ive got my living for three years now, and never makes less than sixpence a day, and sometimes Ive cleared a shilling; and mother says its so useful, for the tothers eat so much bread that a quartern loafs gone directly. But mother says she reckons that what I bring home always pays the rent and keeps me which helps, you know.

And this was all said with such a quiet ease, free from want or desire to show up the family troubles to a stranger: though being perhaps something more, almost one of a familiar face, Bill did not scruple to talk of the family affairs and his own prospects.

Im going to have a barrer some day, when I gets big enough to manage one. Thats a fine trade, you know; selling all them beautiful fruits round about the Change waiting and stopping when you gets a chance, for the pleece wont let you stay anywhere. Theres Harry Sanders makes ever so much, only hes a big married man, wife and two little uns and a dawg. Sometimes its pineapples his barrers full off, then its cherries, or plums, or peaches, or apples, or pears; at early times, strawberries or sparrowgrass, and all done up nicely in baskets or bundles, so as the big City gents will buy them to take home down in the country. But mother says I must wait ever so long yet, cos Im so little for my age.

Might I come and see you, Bill? I asked.

You can cum if you like mum, only our room aint werry comfortable, and the mangle skreeks so, whilst the two littlest often cries a deal, and makes a noise because Sally dont mind em well. How old is she? Oh, Sallys six, only she aint a useful gal, and always was fond of slipping out and playing in the court with the other gals and boys, as always comes up to play because theres no carts and busses coming by. Youll come some day, then, mum? Dont you go when I aint at home. Good-bye, mum. Dont want another indy-rubber ring, do you?

Another day and I was looking out near the Mansion House for my little hero, when my heart sank at the sight of a gathering crowd, generally a danger signal, in that busy way.

Whats the matter, my man?

Matter? Why its a wonder it dont happen five hundred times a day. Thats what it is a runnin, an a dodgin, an a bobbin about in amongst the osses feet, and a gettin runned over, as a matter o course, at last.

Yes, at last, as I found on elbowing my way through the gaping crowd, feasting their eyes upon the sight of a little muddied bundle of clothes, above which appeared a little, old-looking, scared, quivering, and pain-wrung countenance, while two muddy hands tightly clutched a dirty parcel of evening papers to his breast.

He aint much hurt, bless you, said a policeman. Youre all right, aint yer, old man? Now then, try and get on yer legs.

The little muddy object stared wildly round at the many faces, and his lips moved, but no sound came; while as the policeman tried to lift him up, a low, sobbing, heart-wrung cry came from the poor childs breast, and drew a compassionate murmur from the crowd.

Its them Hansoms, you see, said a man beside me; they cuts along full roosh; and one of em caught the poor little chap, threw him down, and the wheel went right over him.

Well, where does it hurt, eh? said the policeman, not unkindly.

The dim eyes were turned up to the speaker; the papers clutched tightly to the muddy breast; the poor childs lip quivered for a moment, and then Nature was kind to the little sufferer, and he fainted.

Fetch a cab, I said, kneeling down beside the little fellow, and gently touching the leg which showed the mark of the cab wheel.

Is it broke, mum? said the policeman.

I nodded; the cab came up; and there, with the little fellow supported between us, the policeman and I were rumbling over the stones, and on our way to Guys Hospital. But it is no such easy task to make your way amidst the dense throng of vehicles crowding the bridge, and some time elapsed time enough for the poor boy to revive a bit, and look about him in a confused, half-stunned way, as if not able to realise his position. At last he spoke:

I hadnt sold arf of em, he cried, looking at his dirty newspapers, and no one wont buy em, now; when the mental pain proved harder to bear than the bodily, and the boy began to cry.

There, dont do that, said the policeman; that wont do no good. But here we are.

Does it hurt you much, Bill? I said gently, and the boy looked wonderingly at me, as if asking how I knew his name.

Not so werry much, he said, with the bottom lip still quivering; but mother will be in such a way. Dont let them hurt me any more.

Bore it like a hero he did, and then I left him bright and cheerful, asking a nurse how long it would be before he could run again and sell his papers, while to me he said: Tell her it aint bad, mum please, and that she aint to cry much, and as soon as I get better Ill sell twice as many papers to makeup for it; and youll give her that sixpence I took out of my trousers, and I think I must have lost a penny when I got knock knock

The quivering of the lip began once more, for the recollection of the accident was too strong for the little fellows fortitude, and soon after I was once more amongst the hurrying footsteps on my way to execute my sorrowful commission by Brick Lane.

A thickly-inhabited part thickly inhabited by our poorer brethren, by disease engendering smells, by fogs, by smoke, by misery and wretchedness unutterable. Dirty butchers shops, dirty bakers shops, open shops where wretched vegetables are vended, shops for sheeps heads and faggots, tripe and sausage shops, brokers so replete with dirty, time-worn furniture that chairs and tables and stump bedsteads are belched forth upon the narrow pave. Here was a chair with a crick in its back, there a lame table; higher up a cracked looking-glass, while lower down was a wash-tub and four rusty flat-irons. Great Eastern carts and waggons were blocking the way, and now and then side streets revealed the busy mysteries of the goods department. Now I put my foot into an old iron tray full of rusty keys. Extricating myself, I kicked against some jangling iron work, and then hurried on past the shop where the best price was given for old bones; and now I came to a small red board, hung by a string to the bolt of a parlour window-shutter. There was a painting in yellow upon the board a painting of a very gouty-legged, heavy-bodied mangle; while beneath it was the legend:

Mangling Done Here.

At the door a bottomless chair was laid sideways to restrain the inquiring dispositions of a treacly-faced child, playing with an old brass candlestick, which it ever and anon sucked with great apparent relish; while upon my knocking loudly, the child howled furiously until a woman, with crimply white hands and steaming, soap-suddy arms, made her appearance.

Does Mrs Perks reside here? I said.

Oh, bother; no, she dont, was the answer; and then I stood alone.

I was wrong, for I had evidently hit upon a rival establishment where mangling was done; but a little more searching brought me to where I could hear the creaking and groaning of the stone-burdened machine as it slowly rolled backwards and forwards in sight of the passer-by, and I soon had a pale face, clean-looking window sobbing bitterly as I told of the mishap.

But youre not deceiving of me; hes not worse than you say? Oh, my poor, poor boy!

There was the mother spoke in those last words the mothers heart asserting itself, and showing that the love of the poorest and most uneducated is, after all, but the same as may be found amongst the greatest of our land.

You see, he is so good, and old, and kind, and earns so much, that since my poor husband died hes been such a stay. And now for him, too, to be in a osspital it does seem so hard! I cant help taking on a bit, about it; for he never seemed like other boys, playing and liking to run about the streets; for all he thinks about is to earn money and bring it home. Once he brought me five shillings and three-pence halfpenny in one week, as much as I can make myself some times with the mangle; and then, poor boy, hed pull off his jacket and wet soppy boots, and turn away at that handle, after tramping about through the cold muddy streets all day. Hes never tired, he says, and he lights my bit of fire of a morning, and helps wash his brothers, and now oh! what shall I do?

But the thought of her boys suffering made the poor woman dry her eyes, and by the time she was composed we were back again in the street where Guys Hospital stands, and then, after muttering a hope that Sammy would mind his brother Pete didnt set his pinafore a fire, the mother entered the building, and we parted.

And hows the leg, Bill? I asked him some time later.

Amost well, mum, ony I cant get it quite straight yet, being a bit drawn; but it never hurts now.

Down by Brick Lane still?

No, maam; mother lives close by Camberwell, in one o them streets out o Walworth Road, and does clear starching now; and as soon as the leg gets quite well Im a-going to have a barrer.

But his ambition was never gratified, for soon after the little hero was in a respectable situation and doing well.

Chapter Four.
A Morning with Misery

I give these as so many random recollections of my life or narratives related to me from time to time, and I have, as being more in keeping with the mood in which they are written, naturally given prominence to those which lean towards the sad and pathetic side of life. My dealings with little Bill encouraged me to visit here and there in the poorer portions of London, at first in fear and trembling, for the rougher men that hung about the entrances to the courts and often blocked the way inspired me with horror and dread, but somehow before long I found that I had become known, and I and my basket were welcome visitors in many a dark home, and at last I had no hesitation in penetrating the worst portions of that doleful district, back of Drury Lane and the portion swept away to make room for the Courts of Justice.

I remember well one morning that I had with misery in its haunts and my search for a house of whose occupants I had been told. I had been considering for some few minutes rather at fault, when I came upon a group of boys engaged in a game of buttons upon the pavement, and my inquiring for Burts Buildings created quite a little scene of excitement.

Burts Buildings, maam? said one, as all rose to stare at me. Its first turning to the left after you gets down Poppers Court.

No taint now, cried another, you let me tell the lady. Its the first turning to the left past old Blackes where the lamp hangs as Jim Pikehurst broke; and then you goes

No you dont maam, its up this way, maam. He means Burts Court, where theyre pulling down. Ill show you maam.

But are you sure you know? I said.

No, maam, cried half-a-dozen in chorus, he dont know, maam, not a bit.

Here there was a threatening gesture from my would be guide, and a defiant war-whoop in reply, but uttered in retreat, and the next minute I was standing amongst the rags of one of the inns of court, in company with a little sallow skinned boy about ten, dressed in a great deal of trousers and very little shirt. The weather being warm, this completed his costume, if I except the dirt with which he was largely decorated.

In company with a similarly costumed boy of his own age, he was now making a light repast off a piece of black, gristly stuff which they called fungus; but whose odour announced it to be the composition of glue and treacle used by printers for their ink-rollers. My boy that is to say, the one who became my guide was at the same time forming designs upon the broken pavement by placing one of his bare feet in the black gutter, full of unutterable abominations, and then printing the foot heel, sole, and toes upon various dry spots. Now he would contract his toes, now expand them, and then seem to derive much pleasure from making the foul black mud of the gutter ooze up between them in little gushes which met and formed a dirty stream upon his instep.

Whose house did I want? Well, I only wanted leading to the place itself; and after divers wanderings in and out, I stood in Burts Buildings, and looked about, with more than one curious pair of eyes watching me. On my right were a couple of uninhabited tenements tenements untenable the grating in front rusty and worn, the walls foul with mud, every window that could be reached by stick or stone broken, every available ledge loaded with an assortment of stones, bones, cabbage-stumps, oyster shells mingled with those of the cockle, periwinkle, and whelk; while the remaining eight or nine houses in the court were at first sight in the same predicament, though the second glance told that all their windows were not broken, while further inspection showed that attempts had been made in a variety of ways to repair the breaches made by time and the smaller builders of the place. Paper seemed much in favour in some sashes; wood and pieces of slate in others; one gashly breach was stopped by an old rusty tea tray, which well covered four broken squares; while rags, straw, and a variety of articles which would have required analysation to catalogue, displayed themselves obtrusively at every turn.

By slow degrees little signs showed that, although the inhabitants presented themselves but little, yet there were dwellers here. At one window a bright red and yellow tulip grew in an old black teapot, whose nose and handle evidently helped to form the rubbish heap down one of the gratings. At another window there was a small bird-cage such a small cage for the restless linnet within, which breasted the wires incessantly, ever twittering and bringing thoughts of far-off blue-arched campaigns, where the trees were delicate with their bright golden green, and the emerald turf was spangled with the flowers of spring. Again, at another window, two or three articles of washed clothing had been hung out to dry, and secured by shutting the window down upon them. While the next instant came a whoop and a yell, and a troop of children swept back into the before silent court, from which they had evidently been drawn by some foreign attraction. The babies were there, tied in the customary drabby, washed-out shawl, swaying in the most top-heavy manner. The mothers were there now, at door and window, to shriek out warning or threat; while now appeared the first male inhabitant in the shape of a closely-cropped man, with a bull head and a black pipe, a villainous countenance, and a little dog which he nursed as he looked out of one of the windows, and stopped at intervals to spit upon one particular broken slab in the court below.

This heres Burts Buildings, said my guide; who then spun the penny I gave him into the air, caught at it, struck it upon the edge, when down it fell, and rolled to the grating of an empty house and was gone; but hardly quicker than the little boy had leaped forward and thrown himself down upon his face, to peer between the rusty bars.

Who could have resisted the dismay and misery of that boys face as he raised it to mine? or have failed to enjoy the sudden change to hope and delight as the hand which went to a pocket placed another coin in his hand, to send him turning the wheel along the court till he had disappeared; while half a score of the young builders formed themselves into a committee of inspection, and wedged their noses down between the bars in their endeavour to catch a glimpse of the lost coin.

And now I was at Burts Buildings, for what had I come, but to see misery; and I saw her, gaunt, and foul, and wan, looking at me from every landing as I slowly ascended step by step the creaking old stairs, which threatened to give way once and for all beneath my weight, as they hung to the wall, while the balustrade seemed to have disappeared a bit at a time for firewood. I saw misery looking out at me from the dark eyes of a woman, who coughed painfully at intervals, as she told me of how she found bread for herself and three children.

It came hard on me, you see, maam, when my poor master died. We were out of the country, and come up here for work, and very good work he got till the accident that laid him up for six weeks. Out-patient of the hospital he was, and they were very kind to him; and though he never took regularly to his bed, he seemed to dwindle away, and he was took. Dont think me hard-hearted because I dont cry about it, maam; Ive cried till the tears seem as if they would not come any more, and what one has to do for a bit of bread is so trying at times that one has no time to be fretting.





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