George Fenn.

Friends I Have Made





I lay back, thinking and telling myself I was very savage with him for deceiving me, and that I wouldnt have him and his mother laying plots together against me, and that I wouldnt stand by and see him make a fool of himself with the first pretty girl he sets eyes on, when he might marry Maria Turner, the engineers daughter, and have a nice bit of money with her, to put into the business, and then be my partner.

No, I says; if you plot together, Ill plot all alone, and then I pretended to wake up, took no notice, and had my supper.

I kept rather gruff the next morning, and made myself very busy about the place, and I dare say I spoke more sharply than usual, but the wife and Luke were as quiet as could be; and about twelve I went out, with a little oil-can and two or three tools in my pocket.

It was not far to Bennetts Place, and on getting to the right house I asked for Mrs Murray, and was directed to the second-floor, where, as I reached the door, I could hear the clicking of my sewing machine, and whoever was there was so busy over it that she did not hear me knock; so I opened the door softly, and looked in upon as sad a scene as I shall ever, I dare say, see.

There in the bare room sat, asleep in her chair, the widow lady who came about the machine, and I could see that in her face which told plainly enough that the pain and suffering she must have been going through for years would soon be over; and, situated as she was, it gave me a kind of turn.

Its no business of yours, I said to myself roughly; and I turned then to look at who it was bending over my machine.

I could see no face, only a slight figure in rusty black; and a pair of busy white hands were trying very hard to govern the thing, and to learn how to use it well.

So thats the gal, is it? I said to myself. Ah! Luke, my boy, youve got to the silly calf age, and I dare say

I got no farther, for at that moment the girl started, and turned upon me a timid, wondering face, that made my heart give a queer throb, and I couldnt take my eyes off her.

Hush! she said softly, holding up her hand; and I saw it was as thin and transparent as if she had been ill.

My names Smith, I said, taking out a screwdriver. My machine: how does it go? Thought Id come and see.

Her face lit up in a moment, and she came forward eagerly.

Im so glad youve come, she said, I cant quite manage this.

She pointed to the thread regulator, and the next minute I was showing her that it was too tight, and somehow, in a gentle timid way, the little witch quite got over me, and I stopped there two hours helping her, till her eyes sparkled with delight, as she found out how easily she could now make the needle dart in and out of some hard material.

Do you think you can do it now? I said.

Oh, yes, I think so; I am so glad you came.

So am I, says I gruffly; it will make it all the easier for you to earn the money, and pay for it.

And I will work so hard, she said earnestly.

That you will, my dear, I says in spite of myself, for I felt sure it wasnt me speaking, but something in me.

She been ill long? I said, nodding towards her mother.

Months, she said, with the tears starting in her pretty eyes; but, she added brightly, I shall have enough with this to get her good medicines and things she can fancy; and as I looked at her, something in me said

God bless you, my dear! I hope you will; and the next minute I was going downstairs, calling myself an old fool.

They thought I didnt know at home, but I did. There was the wife going over and over again to Bennetts Place; and all sorts of little nice things were made and taken there. I often used to see them talking about it, but I took no notice; and that artful scoundrel, my boy Luke, used to pay the half-crown every week out of his own pocket, after pretending to go and fetch it from the widows.

And all the time I told myself I didnt like it, for I could see that Luke was changed, and always thinking of that girl a girl not half good enough for him. I remembered being poor myself, and I hated poverty, and I used to speak harshly to Luke and the wife, and feel very bitter.

At last came an afternoon when I knew there was something wrong. The wife had gone out directly after dinner, saying she was going to see a sick woman I knew who it was, bless you! and Luke was fidgeting about, not himself; and at last he took his hat and went out.

They might have confided in me, I said bitterly, but all the time I knew that I wouldnt let them. Theyll be spending money throwing it away. I know theyve spent pounds on them already.

At last I got in such a way that I called down our foreman, left him in charge, and took my hat and went after them.

Everything was very quiet in Bennetts Place, for a couple of dirty dejected-looking women, one of whom was in arrears to me, had sent the children that played in the court right away because of the noise, and were keeping guard so that they should not come back.

I went up the stairs softly, and all was very still, only as I got nearer to the room I could hear a bitter wailing cry, and then I opened the door gently and went in.

Luke was there, standing with his head bent by the sewing machine; the wife sat in a chair, and on her knees, with her face buried in the wifes lap, was the poor girl, crying as if her little heart would break; while on the bed, with all the look of pain gone out of her face, lay the widow gone to meet her husband where pain and sorrow are no more.

I couldnt see very plainly, for there was a mist-like before my eyes; but I know Luke flushed up as he took a step forward, as if to protect the girl, and the wife looked at me in a frightened way.

But there was no need, for something that wasnt me spoke, and that in a very gentle way, as I stepped forward, raised the girl up, and kissed her pretty face before laying her little helpless head upon my shoulder, and smoothing her soft brown hair.

Mother, says that something from within me, I think theres room in the nest at home for this poor, forsaken little bird. Luke, my boy, will you go and fetch a cab? Mother will see to what wants doing here.

My boy gave a sob as he caught my hand in his, and the next moment he did what he had not done for years kissed me on the cheek before running out of the room, leaving me with my darling nestling in my breast.

I said my darling, for she has been the sunshine of our home ever since a pale, wintry sunshine while the sorrow was fresh, but spring and summer now.

Why, bless her! look at her. Ive felt ashamed sometimes to think that she, a lady by birth, should come down to such a life, making me well, no, its us now, for Lukes partner no end of money by her clever ways. But shes happy, thinking her husband that is to be the finest fellow under the sun; and let me tell you theres many a gentleman not so well off as my boy will be, even if the money has all come out of a queer trade.

Chapter Six.
A Bird in a Cage

My visits to Burts Buildings resulted in others to the neighbourhood where I made the acquaintance of Uncle Bill, as he was generally called by the swarming children about the place; not from any relationship, in fact for no reason at all that I could discover. One woman said it was because he was lame; another thought he was like an uncle, but all the same the little man often met me on my rounds, at first to look at me very dubiously, but ever after to pull his pipe out of his mouth, tap the bowl upon the pavement and thrust it into his pocket, out of compliment to me as a lady who might not like smoke.

Taint in a womans natur, mum, to like smoke, he said, when I hinted that he need not put out his pipe, and no matter when we met I always received from him this bit of politeness.

Rumour reached me one morning, after a short visit to the country, that a dilapidated tenement or two, in this deplorable neighbourhood had fallen down, and on making my way to the place, the first person I encountered was Uncle Bill, pipe in mouth, and with a half-quartern loaf in one hand, and a rasher of bacon in the other.

Before I could say a word the badly wrapped up rasher was thrust into his coat pocket, the pipe extinguished, and thrust in after it, and a smile and nod of recognition were awarded to me.

Houses falling, mum? Oh! yes, its as fact as fact. Come down without a moments warning, afore you knowd where you were, I can tell you. I had a narrow escape.

What, were you there?

To be sure I was. Where should I be if I warnt at home. It was at my old house. Im in here, now, he continued, pointing.

There was the house up, as may be, lars night, and then, in the morning, it was a tumble-down heap o smash, with broken bedsteads, and chairs, and chesties of drawers, and all sorts, tumbled together into a mash, with bricks and mortar, and laths and plaster, and beams. Its a mussy as no more wasnt killed; for there was, counting myself, four-and-twenty people as lived in that house, and many had to run out for their lives. People think that houses will stand for ever; and when a house aint fit for nothing else but pulling down, some one buys the lease, puts a little whitewash on, and then lets all the rooms out at four or five shillings a week to poor people, while the old house groans and grumbles, and shakes on its pins awful. To-night, perhaps, Braggs, the cobbler in the back room, will have a row with his wife, and theyll be tearing about till the place shivers again. Night afore, perhaps it was Dennis Murphy and his missus getting a bit excited over a quartern of gin, and then they must get dancing up in their attic till other peoples heads get plastered with hits o whitewash as falls off the ceilings only taint whitewash now, because its turned tother colour. Then the old house begins to show its sore places, and you can see an elbow shoving out here, and a crack there; first-floor winder sills down on one side, and Mrs Tibbs out of the second-floor back, when she pays her rent, tells the landlord as her door sticks so that she cant open and shet it; and then, as soon as Mrs Sykes in the second-floor front knows as her neighbour has spoken, she tells the landlord as her window wont move. Then the first-floors say as theres a crack across their ceiling, and black dust falls out inter the bread and butter. And then what dyer think the landlord does eh? Get it all seen to, and shored up, and so on eh? Youd think so, now, wouldnt you? But he dont; for Ill tell you what he does he swears, thats what he does, and says as soon as ever people will pay up their rent and make all square, hell do the house up.

Thats a thing as he can promise safe enough, for theres no fear of that coming to pass; for theyre all more or less behind, bless you, and he holds em as tight as wax. Tell you what it is, he says, one day, them as dont like the place had better leave it, and if I have any more complaints Ill raise the rent.

That was a quieter directly, you see; for they were all more or less in his power from being behindhand. Houses and lodgings for poor people are dreadful scarce in London, and landlords and tenants knows it; and folks will put up with anything sooner than have to move. And thats just how it was in this house people grumbled and bore it; till one morning down it came with a rush, and three or four were killed dead, and ever so many cut up all sorts of ways. But, there, that aint nothing new, bless you. We are used to that sort of thing in these courts.

It was about seven oclock in the morning, I should say, and fortunately some had got up and gone to work; but working at home on the piece, I wasnt so particular to half an hour; but I was lying there thinking of rousing out, when all at once I heard a sharp, loud crack, and then another and another, followed by a curious rushing noise, and by a shriek or two. For a moment or two I thought it was thunder, and I lay quite still; then came a rattling down of rubbish, and I saw the end wall of my room seem to bulge gently out, when there was a fierce rumbling crash, and I was hanging to a broken beam sticking out of the wall, clinging to it with bleeding hands, ready to drop each moment on to the jagged pile of ruins underneath me a good thirty feet, and from which now came slowly up a thick cloud of dust, and from out of it every now and then a shriek or a groan.

I dare say, you know, at another time I could have hung there some minutes, but now a terrible sort of fear came over me which made me weak; and after looking about as well as I could for help, to see nothing but the dust rising from the heap under me, as I hung over the gap where the house had stood a few minutes before after looking round once or twice, I seemed to shudder like, and then down I went crash on to the ruins, to be one of the first picked up.

I lay there, though, for some time, waiting for help; nobody daring to come, till one man crept through the window of the next house on to the heap of rubbish, though he had to dart back once or twice; for now one of the joists left sticking in the wall up above would fall, then a few tiles and some bricks that had been lingering in their places for a few minutes, came down to make matters worse. The end of one joist caught me right on the side of the head, and sent what little sense there was left in flying out; and the next time I opened my eyes it was in the hospital, with some one doing something to my head, and me feeling sick, and dull, and sleepy as could be.

But it was a terrible sight to see: first one and then another poor bruised and cut creature dragged out of the ruins as fast as they could clear away the rubbish; and there were the poor things half naked, and with the few bits of furniture belonging to them all in one ruinous smash. I did not see it, you know, but plenty of the neighbours did; and I could find you a dozen ready to go over the whole story again and again, up to the finding of Mrs Molloy and her little gal, her as lives now with her father, top of Number 16 pretty little gal she is, and so much like her mother as was killed. They tell me the people on both sides came suddenly out of their houses, as if it was an earthquake; and, you know, really an earthquake would not be much worse so far as one house was concerned. You wouldnt think it, though, but I saved all my birds as was left hanging against the walls.

Everybody was very sorry, of course, as soon as it was known; and the papers wrote about it, and people talked of it, and then there were a few pounds put together for the benefit of the sufferers; but you know what a sight of pounds it would take to make it all right for that poor little gal up there as lost her mother. Poor little thing, she dont feel the loss much; but its a sad job for her.

Hark! dont you hear? Thats her bird. Its ony a finch, but he whistles well, and it pleases her. I give it her, you know; and when her fathers out I goes up and feeds it, and gives it water, because shes too little to do it. She calls me Uncle Bill, and I like to hear her; for, you see, being a cripple, I aint like other men, and somehow or other I always was fond of little children.

Well, then, if you dont mind, I dont; so come along, and then praps we can see her.

Up flight after flight of groaning stairs, to a landing spun across and across with a string web, upon whose intricacies scraps of white rag took the place of flies; and now came the twittering of many birds, and the restless tap, tap, scraping noise of sharp beaks upon wire and perch. My lame guide opened the attic door, after muttering a warning about my head; and there I stood on the top floor of the house in one of those rooms where fancy brought up visions of stern-faced old Huguenot silk weavers bending over their looms, and sending backwards and forwards the busy shuttle, as bright warp crossed the glistening woof.

But there was no loom here, only the long range of lead casement along one side of the room, filtering the rays of light as they entered dyed of a smoky hue rays of light, though, so joyous that the dozens of little prisoners ranged about the room grew excited, and fluttered, and sang and twittered loudly.

My guide smiled proudly as I walked from cage to cage, and then, evidently with a thought for the bare shelf in the open cupboard, threw off his coat, unfastened his vest, loosened his collar, and then placed a circlet of greasy old black ribbon round his not too tidy black hair, as he seated himself upon his bench and dived into the mysteries of boot-closing.

I can talk too, you know, he said; thats the best of my trade. Nice birds some of them, aint they? Seems a shame to keep em behind wires; but then we all have to work behind wires, more or less, for other folkss pleasure. They sings we works; dont you see?

But I had finished my inspection of mealy linnets and goldfinches, pegging finches and larks; and had taken in at a glance the one bare room, with its whitewashed walls, decorated here with pictures cut from the Illustrated London News and Punch, and there with glass Florence flasks filled with chintz flowers and salt, potichomanie fashion, as performed by our grandmothers; the rusty, broken-barred grate, with its heaped-up ashes; and the general untidiness of the bachelor place, made worse by the plentiful sprinkling of tobacco d?bris and the many broken craters in which the weed had been consumed. I had seen all I could in a hasty glance, and was now looking out of the open window at another bird in a cage; for at the casement opposite, her little bright eyes glittering through a tangle of long brown hair, was the child of whom Uncle Bill had spoken. Her red lips were apart, and as I looked she shouted in across the court to the lame boot-closer, in a gleeful, childish treble; while he turned his sallow face to me with a smile of gratified pride upon it that told oh! how plainly of the true heart, unspoiled by the misery of a London court.

Thats her, he said and his voice seemed to jar discordantly, sounding of the streets, streety; while the proud look upon his face had in it a tinge of the something greater as planted in all hearts by a great Hand thats her. She stands at that window for hours while Im at work; and I sing to her, as she claps her hands; and, you know, her father leaves her locked up there like that for long enough while he goes out, and I know the little thing would be hungry if but she aint, you know. (Nods many here.) I wish hed let me have her altogether; for hes a bad sort, is her father, and it worries me as to whats to become of the little thing. Im not much account, you see, myself; but, being such a pretty little thing, I should like to see her taken care of, and one darent hardly speak to the child when hes at home, and he wont hardly let any of the women in the house go near his room at all.

No, I say dont you go near the window, or youll frighten her away.

I kept back in the room so as to look on unseen, and then started forward; for the bright look of pleasure upon the childs face turned to one of pain, as a rough hand seized her by the shoulder, drew her back, and then the window was dragged in, and fastened so sharply that one of the little panes was jarred out, and fell tinkling far below into the court.

My next glance was at Uncle Bill, who was bending over his work with set teeth, and the sweat standing in drops upon his grimy forehead.

There, dont speak to me, he said, huskily. Im a bit put out now; hook it, and see me agen some other time, please.

I could hear the birds twittering as I went down from landing to landing, meeting no unkindly looks; but, like Uncle Bill, one could not help feeling a bit put out concerning the future of the little bird I saw in its cage.





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