On Sundays, of course, only the rags of everyday are seen, for then the work of the week begins again. At about the time of our Easter the Feast of the Passover is celebrated. Then, if you walk down Middlesex Street any Sunday morning you will notice an activity even more feverish than that which it mostly presents. Jews of every nationality flock to it; and for the week preceding this Feast the stall-holders do tremendous business, not, as is customary, with the Gentiles, but among their own people. The Feast of the Passover is one of the oldest and quaintest religious ceremonies of the oldest religion in the world. Fasting and feasting intermingle with observances. Spring-cleaning is general at this season, for all things must be kosher-al-pesach, or clean and pure. At the cafes you will find a special kosher bar, whereon are wines and spirits in brand new decanters, glasses freshly bought and cleansed, and a virgin cloth surmounting the whole. The domestic and hardware shops are busy, for the home must be replenished with chaste vessels—pots and pans and all utensils are bought with reckless disregard of expense. Milk may not be bought from the milkman's cans. Each house fetches its own from the shops, in new, clean jugs, which are, of course, kosher; and nothing is eaten but unleavened bread.
When the fast is over, begins the feast, and the cafes and the family dining-rooms are full. Down a side street stand straggling armies of ragged, unkempt Jews—men, women, and children. These are the destitutes. For them the season brings no rejoicing. Therefore their compatriots come forward, and at the office of the Jewish Board of Guardians they assemble to distribute supplies of grocery, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and so forth. Country or sex matters not; all Jews must rejoice, and, when necessary, must be supplied with the means of rejoicing. So here are gathered all the wandering Jews without substance. Later, after the fine feed which is provided for them, there are services in the synagogue. The men and women, in strict isolation, are a drama in themselves. Men with long beards and sad, shifty faces; men with grey beards, keen eyes, and intellectual profile; men with curly hair and Italian features; and women with dark, shining hair and flashing eyes—men, women, and children of every country and clime, rich and poor, are gathered there to worship after the forms of the saddest of all faiths.
The Ghetto is full of life every evening, for then the workshops and factories and warehouses are closed, and the handsome youth of Whitechapel is free to amuse itself. Most of the girls work at the millinery establishments, and most of the boys at the wholesale drapery houses. The High Street is one of the most picturesque main streets of London. The little low butchers' shops, fronted by raucous stalls, the gabled houses, and the flat-faced hotels, are some of the loveliest bits of eighteenth-century domestic architecture remaining in London. And the crowd! It sweeps you from your feet; it catches you up, drags you, drops you, jostles you; and you don't mind in the least. They are all so gay, and they look upon you with such haunting glances that it is impossible to be cross with them. If you leave the London Docks, and crawl up the dismal serenity of Cable Street, the High Street seems to snatch you. You catch the mood of the moment; you dance with the hour. There is noise and the flare of naphtha. There are opulent glooms. The regiment of lame stalls is packed so closely, shoulder to shoulder, that if one gave an inch the whole line would fall. Meat, greengrocery, Brummagem jewellery for the rich beauty of Rhoda, shell-fish, confectionery, old magazines, pirated music, haberdashery, "throw-out" (or Sudden Death) cigars—all these glories are waiting to seize your pennies. Slippery slices of fish sprawl dolefully on the slabs. The complexion of the meat-shops, under the yellow light, is rich and strange. But there is very little shouting; the shopkeepers make no attempt to entice you. There are the goods: have 'em if you like; if not, leave 'em.
If you are hungry, and really want something to eat, I suggest your going to one of the restaurants or hotels, and trying their table d'hote. They run usually to six or seven courses, two of which will satisfy any reasonable hunger. Yet I have seen frail young girls tackle the complete menu, and come up fresh and smiling at the end. Of course, women are, as a rule, much heavier eaters than men, but these delicate, pallid girls of the Ghetto set you marvelling. I have occasionally joined a party, and delightful table companions they were. For they can talk; they have, if not humour, at any rate a very mordant wit, as all melancholy peoples have; and they languish in the most delicately captivating way.
On my first experience, we started the meal with Solomon Grundy—pickled herring. Then followed a thick soup, in which were little threads of a paste made from eggs and flour and little balls of unleavened dough. Then came a kind of pea-soup, and here a little lady of the party ordered unfermented Muscat wine. The good Jew may not touch shell-fish or any fish without scales, so we were next served with fried soles and fried plaice, of which Rachel took both, following, apparently, the custom of the country. Although the menu consists of seven courses, each item contains two, and sometimes three or four, dishes; and the correct diner tastes every one. Roast veal, served in the form of stew, followed, and then came roast fowl and tongue. There were also salads, and sauerkraut, and then a pease-pudding, and then almond-pudding, and then staffen, and then ... I loosened a button, and gazed upon Rachel in wonder. She was still eating bread.
It is well to be careful, before visiting any of the Ghetto cafes, to acquaint yourself with rules and ceremonies. Otherwise you may unintentionally give offence and make yourself several kinds of idiot. I have never at any period of my London life been favoured with a guiding hand. Wherever I went, whatever I did, I was alone. That is really the only way to see things, and certainly the only way to learn things. If I wanted to penetrate the inmost mysteries of Hoxton, I went to Hoxton, and blundered into private places and to any holy of holies that looked interesting. Sometimes nothing happened. Sometimes I got what I asked for. When at seventeen I wanted to find out if the Empire Promenade was really anything like the Empire Promenade, I went to the Empire Promenade. Of course, I made mistakes and muddled through. I made mistakes in the Ghetto. I was the bright boy who went to a shabby little cafe in Osborn Street, and asked for smoked beef, roll and butter, and coffee. The expression on that waiter's face haunts me whenever I feel bad and small. He did not order me out of the restaurant. He did not assault me. He looked at me, and I grieved to see his dear grey eyes ... so sad. He said: "Pardon, but this is a kosher cafe. I am not a Jew myself, but how can I serve what you order? Tell me—how can I do it? What?"
I said: "I beg your pardon, too. I don't understand. Tell me more."
He said: "Would you marry your aunt? No. Neither may a Jewish restaurant serve milk, or its derivatives, such as, so to speak, butter, cheese, and so forth, on the same table with flesh. You ask for meat and bread and butter. You must have bread with your meat. If you have coffee, sir, you will have it BLACK."
I said: "It is my fault. No offence intended. I didn't know. Once again, I have made an ass of myself. Had I better not go?"
He said, swiftly: "No, don't go, sir. Oh, don't go. Listen: have the smoked beef, with a roll. Follow with prunes or kugel. And if you want a drink with your meal, instead of afterwards, have tea-and-lemon in place of black coffee."
And so, out of that brutal mistake, I made yet another London friend, of whom I have, roughly, about two thousand five hundred scattered over the four-mile radius.
A HAPPY NIGHT
SURBITON AND BATTERSEA
A SUBURBAN NIGHT
Oh, sweetly sad and sadly sweet, That rain-pearled night at Highbury! The picture-theatre, off the street, That housed us from the lisping sleet, Is a white grave of dreams for me.
Though smile and talk were all our part, Sorrow lay prone upon your heart That never again our lips might meet, And never so softly fall the sleet In gay-lamped, lyric Highbury. Love made your lily face to shine, But oh, your cheek was salt to mine, As we walked home from Highbury.
O starry street of shop and show, And was it thus long years ago? Was the full tale but waste and woe, And Love but doom in Highbury, My dusty, dreaming Highbury?
A HAPPY NIGHT
SURBITON AND BATTERSEA
When I received the invitation to the whist-drive at Surbiton my first thought was, "Not likely!" I had visions of a boring evening: I knew Surbiton. I knew its elegances and petty refinements. I knew its pathetic apings of Curzon Street and Grosvenor Square. I knew its extremely dull smartness of speech and behaviour. I foresaw that I should enjoy myself as much as I did at the Y.M.C.A. concert where everybody sang refined songs and stopped the star from going on because he was about to sing the "Hymn to Venus," which was regarded as "a little amorous." The self-conscious waywardness, the deliberate Bohemianism of Surbiton, I said to myself, is not for me. I shall either overplay it or underplay it. Certainly I shall give offence if I am my normal self. For the Bohemianism of Surbiton, I continued, has very strict rules which nobody in Bohemia ever heard of, and you cannot be a Surbiton Bohemian until you have mastered those rules and learned how gracefully to transgress them. If I throw bread pellets at the girls, they will call me unmannerly. If I don't they will call me stiff. You may have noticed that those pseudo-intellectuals who like to think themselves Bohemian are always terrified when they are brought up against anything that really is unconventional. On the other hand, your true Bohemian is disgusted if anybody describes him by that word; if there is one word that he detests more than Belgravia, it is Bohemia. No, I shall certainly not go.
Surbiton ... Surbiton. I repeated the name aloud, tasting its flavour. It has always had to me something brackish, something that fills my mind with grey pain and makes me yearn for my old toys. It is curious how the places and streets of London assume a character from one's own moods. All the big roads have a very sharp character of their own. If all other indications were lacking, one might know at once whether the place were Edgware Road or Old Ford Road, simply by the sounds and by the sweep of it. Pull down every house and shop, and still Oxford Street could never pass itself off as Barking Road. But they have, too, a message for you. I still believe that a black dog is waiting to maul me in Stepney Causeway. I still dance with delight down Holborn. Peckham Road still speaks to me of love. And Maida Vale always means music for me, music all the way. I had my first fright in Stepney Causeway. I first walked down Holborn when I had had a streak of luck. I first knew Peckham Road when first I loved. And I first made acquaintance with Maida Vale and its daintily naughty flats at the idiotic age of seventeen, when I was writing verses for composers at five shillings a time. They all lived in Maida Vale, and I spent many evenings in the music-rooms of those worn-out or budding composers and singers who, with the Jews, have made this district their own; so that Maida Vale smells always to me of violets and apple-blossom: it speaks April and May. The deep blue of its night skies is spangled with dancing stars. The very sweep and sway of the road to Kilburn and Cricklewood is an ecstasy, and the windows of the many mansions seem to shine from heaven, so aloof are they.
Surbiton, I repeated. I shall certainly not go. I know it too well. Surbiton is one of those comfortable, solid places, and I loathe comfortable places. I always go to Hastings and avoid St. Leonards. I always go to Margate and fly from Eastbourne. I always go to Southend and give Knocke-sur-Mer a miss. I like Clacton. I detest Cromer. I love Camden Town. I hate Surbiton. Surbiton is very much like Hampstead, except that, while Hampstead is horrible for 362 days of the year, there are three days in the year when it is inhabitable. On Bank Holidays the simple-minded minor poet like myself can live in it. I was there one August Bank Holiday, and, flushed and fatigued with the full-blooded frolic, I had turned aside to "cool dahn" in Heath Street, when I ran against some highly respectable and intelligent friends.
"What!" they said. "You here to-day? Ah! observing, I suppose? Getting copy? Or perhaps as a literary man you come here for Keats ... Coleridge ... and all that?"
"No," I answered. "I come here for boatswings. I come here to throw sticks at coconuts. I come here to buy ticklers to tickle the girls with. I come here for halfpenny skips. I come here for donkey rides. I do not come for Keats. I do not care a damn for Coleridge. I do not come to gloat about Turner or Constable or anybody else who lived at Hampstead a hundred years ago. I come here to enjoy myself—for roundabouts, cockles and whelks, steam-organs—which, after all, are the same thing as Keats or Coleridge. They're Life."
Wherefore I felt determined that I could not and would not go to a whist-drive at Surbiton, when I could get the real thing in Upper Street, Islington.
Then Georgie called for me at the office, and we went out to lunch. Georgie had sold a picture. He had five pounds in his pocket. We went to Maxim's and had lunch. Georgie insisted on sparkling Moselle, and we had two bottles, and three rounds of Cointreau triple sec. By that time it was too late to think of going back to work, so I took Georgie to tea at a literary club, and we talked. I then discovered in a panic that it was half-past six. The whist-drive was at eight, and I had yet to dine and get down to Surbiton. Georgie, by that subtle magnetism which he possesses, had drawn a bunch of the boys about him, and had induced them to make a night of it with him; so we went to Simpson's to eat, and I left them at the table, very merry, and departed to Waterloo. Somewhere, between lunch and dinner, I had unconsciously decided, you see, that I would go to Surbiton. I can't remember just when the change in my attitude took place; but there it was. I went to Surbiton, feeling quite good and almost in love with Surbiton.
The whist-drive was to be held in the local hall, and when I arrived cabs and motors were forming a queue. Each cab vomited some dainty arrangement in lace or black cloth. Everybody was "dressed." (I think I said that it was Surbiton.) Everybody was on best behaviour. Remembering the gang at Simpson's, I felt rather a scab, but a glance in the mirror of the dressing-room reassured me. I recollected some beautiful words of Mr. Mark Sheridan's, "If I'm not clever, thank God, I'm clean." The other fellows in the dressing-room were things of beauty. Their public-school accent, with its vile mispronunciation of the English tongue, would have carried them into the inner circles of any European chancellery. I never heard anything so supernally affecting. I have heard many of our greatest actors and singers, but I have never heard so much music put into simple words, as, "I say, you fellers!"
Everybody was decent. Everybody, you felt sure, could be trusted to do the decent thing, to do whatever was "done," and to leave undone those things that were not "done," and, generally, to be a very decent sort. Their features were clean and firm; they were well-tended. Their minds were clean. They talked clean; and, if they did not display any marked signs of intelligence or imagination, if they had not the largeness of personality for the noble and big things of life, you felt that at least they had not the bent for doing anything dirty. Altogether, a nice set, as insipid people mostly are: what are known in certain circles as Gentlemen.
The girls.... Well, they, too, were a decent sort. Not so decent as the boys, of course, because they were girls. They scanned one another a little too closely. They were too obviously anxious to please. They were too obviously out for the evening. Those who were of the at-home type simpered. They talked in italics. The outdoor type walked like horses. They looked unpleasant, too. I wonder why "Madge" or "Felice" or "Ermyntrude," or some other writer of toilet columns in the ladies' papers, doesn't tell her outdoor girl readers how hideous they look in evening frocks. Why don't they urge them not to uncover themselves? For the outdoor girl has large hands and large arms, both of a beefy red. She has a face and neck tanned by sun and wind, and her ensemble, in a frock cut to the very edge of decency, shows you red hands and forearms, with a sharp dividing line where the white upper arm begins, and a raw face and neck, with the same definite line marking the beginning of white bosom and shoulders. The effect is ridiculous. It is also repulsive. I think they ought to know about it.
The hall was tastefully decorated with white flowers and palms. There was a supper-room, which looked good. The prizes, arranged on a table by the platform, were elegant, well chosen, and of some value. I started at a table with an elderly matron, a very self-conscious Fabian girl, and a rather bored-looking man of middle age, who seemed to be bursting to talk—which is the deadliest of sins at a Surbiton whist-drive. The whist that I play is the very worst whist that has ever been seen. I told my partner so, and she said, "Oh, really!" and asked me if I had had any tennis yet. Then some one begged us to be seated, and, with much arrangements of silks and laces and wraps, we sat down and began to play whist. As I moved from table to table I made no fresh partners. They were differently dressed, but otherwise there was no distinction. They were a very decent sort....
After many hours we stopped playing whist, and broke up for chewing and chatting. The bored-looking man of middle age picked me up, and we took two stray girls in tow for wine and sandwiches. The manners at the supper-crush were elegance itself. The girls smoked cigarettes just a little too defiantly, but they were quite well-bred about it. A lot of well-bred witticisms floated around, with cool laughter and pretty smiles. A knot of girls with two boys talked somewhat decryingly of Shaw and Strindberg; and one caught stray straws of talk about Masefield, Beecham opera, Scriabine, Marinetti, Augustus John. Two girls were giving a concert at the Steinway next week. Others were aiming at the Academy. Another had had a story accepted by the English Review. They were a very decent sort.
The bored man plucked at my arm and suggested that we get rid of the girls, and go across to "The Railway" and have one. We did. In the lounge of "The Railway" he told me the one about the lady and taxi. It was very good, but extremely ill-bred. He was a prominent local doctor, so I told him the one about the medical man on the panel, and about the Bishop who put gin in his whisky. Then he told me another ... and another. He remembered the old days at the London.... He said he had had to go to this show because his boy and girl were there. Cards bored him to death, but he liked to be matey with the youngsters. Suppose we had just one more?
We had just one more. From across the way came, very sweet and faint, the sound of laughter and young voices. Some one had started a piano, and the Ballade in A Minor was wandering over Surbiton. I looked into my brandy-glass, and, as I am very young, I rather wanted to cry. I don't know why. It was just the mood ... the soft night, Surbiton, young boys and girls, Chopin, Martell.... I said I had to catch an immediate train to Waterloo, and I drank up and bolted.
* * * * *
The other Saturday morning I met a friend at the Bedford Street Bodega. He said, "Laddie, doing anything to-night?" I said, "No; what's on?"
He said: "Like to help your old uncle?"
I said: "Stand on me."
"Well, it's a little charity show. A Social at Battersea Town Hall. Some local club or tennis-party or some jolly old thing of that sort. All receipts to the local hospital. All the gang are going to do something—kind of informal, you know. I'm the Star. Yes, laddie, I have at last a shop, for one night only. My fee—seven-and-sixpence and tram-fares. All other services gratuitous. No platform. No auditorium. Just a little old sit-round, drinking limp coffee and eating anaemic pastry, and listening. Come?"
I said I would, and we adventured along the dreary Wandsworth Road, down the evil-smelling Lavender Hill, into the strenuous endeavour of Clapham Junction. It was gay with lights and shoppers and parading monkeys. Above us hung a pallid, frosty sky. No stars; no moon; but down in the streets, warmth and cheer and companionship. We called at the blazing, bustling "Falcon," which is much more like a railway-junction than the station itself, and did ourselves a little bit of good, as my professional friend put it. Then we mounted to the gas-lit room where the fun was to take place. We wandered down long, stark passages, seeking our door. We heard voices, but we saw no door.
"Harold," said some one, "sometimes wish you wasn't quite such a fool."
"What's the matter now, Freddie?" asked A Voice.
"Why, you know very well it's ten to eight, and you ain't even pulled the piano out."
"Gaw! Lucky you reminded me. Come on, old chew-the-fat, give us a hand with the musical-box."
There were noises "off," from which it seemed that some one had put something on top of something else. There were noises of some one hitting a piece of wood with another piece of wood.
Then "Damn!" cried A Voice. "Steady on my feet, can't yeh? Bit more to the right. Whoa! Up your end a bit. 'At's it. When was she tuned last? Give us a scale."
Some one flourished, and then a bright door opened, and two young men in shirt-sleeves with tousled brows, appeared.
"Laddie," cried my friend, dramatically, "is this the apartment for the Young People's Society In Connection With The Falcon Road Miss——?"
"That's us!" cried, I imagine, Freddie.
"Then I am Victor Maulever."
"Oh, step inside, won't you. Bit early, I'm 'fraid. Mr. Diplock ain't here yet. But come in. We got a fire going, and it's sort of turning chilly out, eh?"
We stepped in, and Freddie introduced us. "Harold—this is Mr. Maulever, the actor. Mr. Maulever, may I introduce our sec't'ry, Mr. Worple—Mr. Harold Worple, I should say."
Mr. Worple came forward and shook hands. "'Scuse my shirt-sleeves, won't you, sir?"
"Certainly, laddie, cer-tain-ly," said Victor, with that empressement which has earned him so many drinks in Maiden Lane. "Cer-tain-ly. And how are you?"
"Nicely, thanks," said Harold. "How's 'self?"
"So-so, just so-so. Now just tell me about your little affair, so I can get 'em fixed good and plenty before I start. What d'you think'll go best; you know 'em better than I do? Shakespeare—what? Bransby Williams? 'Dream of Eugene Aram'? 'Kissing Cup's Race'? Imitations of Robey, Formby, Chirgwin—what?"
Harold pondered a moment. Then he had an inspiration. "Sort 'em up if I was you, sir. Sort 'em up. Then ev'body'll get something they like, see?"
We entered the clubroom where the Social was to be held—a large, lofty room, genial, clean, and well-lighted, The floor was bare, but a red rug before the leaping fire gave a touch of cosiness. Small tables were scattered everywhere; draughts here, dominoes there, chess elsewhere, cards in other places. Chairs were distributed with a studied air of casual disorder. Newspapers littered a side-bench. The grand piano, by Cadenza of The Emporium, stood diagonally across the left centre, and on it lay the violin-case of Freddie, who told us, with modesty, that he "scraped nows and thens." Along the length of the farther wall stood a large, white-robed table, heaped with coffee-urns, sandwiches, buns, cakes, biscuits, bananas, and other delicacies. All these arrangements were the joint work of Freddie and Harold. At five minutes to eight the company arrived. At first it trickled in by stray couples, but later it swelled to a generous flood, each couple nodding in acknowledgment of the deprecatory greetings of the stewards: "Here we are again, what-oh?" and, in more professional tones: "Gentlemen's Room to the Right, Ladies' Room to the Left!" Victor and myself stood by the fire, Victor receiving bashful but definitely admiring glances from the girls, for he is of the old school, and looks more like Sir Henry Irving even than Mr. H. B. Irving, except that he does not limp. For the first few minutes the atmosphere was cold. The boys obviously wanted to talk to Victor, but they seemed all too shy; so I gave Victor the tip, and with his exquisite courtesy he moved over to a group of the boys and the girls and, with a bow, asked a girl with a baby face, that burnt delightfully red under his attention, if he might take a seat on that settee. In just a minute and a half the thaw set in, and he had the company about him bubbling with laughter and excited comment. As other groups came in from the dressing-rooms they made at once for the centre of attraction, and soon Victor was the centre of a crowd that buzzed about him like bees about a flower, seeking the honey of laughter. I doubt if he was ever so much on the "spot" before. I could see him revelling in it. I could see him telling Rule's about it. But in the middle of his best story, Freddie bustled up.
"Oh, 'scuse me, sir, but I forgot to tell you before. I said sort 'em up, but ... you might just be careful, 'cos the Vicar's dropping in during the evening. I'll give you the word when he's here, so's you'll be sure to hand 'em something quiet. It's all right until he comes. Just give 'em anything you like."
And Victor waved a faded hand, and said, "Righto, laddie, righto. I get you," and turned again to the blushing little girl, who certainly seemed now to be Quite The Lady in her manner of receiving his attentions. Under his expansive mood everybody seen knew everybody else, and all traces of stiffness vanished. The company was a little mixed, and it was inevitable that there should be demarcations of border, breed, and birth. Some were shop-assistants, some were mechanics, some were clerks, some were even Civil Servants; and as all were Christians they were naturally hesitant about loving one another. But Victor broke down all barriers by his large humanity and universal appeal.
Suddenly, there was a hammering on the floor, and a voice called, "Attention, please!" And then—"Duet for violin and piano: Miss Olive Craven and Mr. Fred Parslow."
We broke into little groups, and settled ourselves. Then came a crash of chords from the piano, and a prolonged reiteration of the A while Freddie tuned. They set to work. I heard the opening bars, and I held my breath in dismay. They were going to play a Tchaikowsky Concerto. But the dismay was premature. They played; both of them. I do not know whether Freddie was engaged to Olive, but there was a marvellous sympathy uniting them; and, though little technical flaws appeared here and there, the beauty of the work was brought right out. Freddie and Olive were musicians. It was a delicious quarter of an hour. They got a big handful of applause, and then Freddie asked: "Ready, sir?" and Victor said he was, and Freddie said, "What is it?" and conveyed the answer to the portly old fellow who seemed to be president. After a minute or so, during which the girls chattered and giggled and compared ribbons and flounces, he called again for silence, and a tremendous outburst of clapping and stamping followed his announcement: "Mr. Victor Maulever, the famous West End actor, will recite 'Who'll have a Blood Orange?'"
Victor made good with his first three sentences. In the language of his profession, he got 'em with both hands. They rose at him. He had 'em stung to death. He did what he liked with 'em. The girls giggled and kicked little feet. They shamelessly broke into his periods with "Isn't he IT?" and he had to wait while the laughs went round.
When he had finished he got such a hand as I'm sure he never had in the whole of his stage career. They wouldn't let him sit down. They would give him no rest; he must go straight on and give more. So he gave them two more, including his impressions of George Robey, G. P. Huntley, Joe Elvin, R. G. Knowles, and Wilkie Bard singing "Little Grey Home in the West."
Then the President appealed to the audience to let poor Mr. Maulever have a rest and a little refreshment; and at once the girls rushed to the table and fought with one another for sandwiches and coffee and cakes with which they might minister to the exhausted Thespian. The boys did not get savage about this; they seemed to share in the fun, and when new girl-arrivals came in, they were solemnly introduced to the star. "Oh, Mr. Maulever, may I introduce my friend, Miss Redgrove?" Miss Redgrove smiled becomingly, and Victor rose, bowed, extended his graceful hand, and said: "Delighted, Miss Redgrove!" and Miss Redgrove said: "Pleased to meet you!" And in reply to Victor's inquiry: "I hope you're well?" she said that she mustn't grumble.
A few of the girls wore evening frocks; others, with more limited means, contented themselves with Sunday frocks or delicately coloured robes that had been manoeuvred into something that showed enough white neck and bosom to be at once alluring and decorous. There was nothing of the plain or the dowdy. They were all out for enjoyment, and they meant to make the best of everything, themselves included. Frills and fluffiness were the order. They were all darlings.
A gentle raillery was the note of intercourse between girls and boys. One of the little girls, a typist, I gathered, in a mercantile office, whispered to her boy that Victor was A Love, and added that she always did like men best when they were old and had grey hair. They were so ... kind of ... if he knew what she meant. She said she would most likely fall in love with a grey-haired man, and her boy said: "Yes, of course you would." Whereupon she told him not to be so sarcastic.
The attitude of gentlemen to ladies was also delightful. Some of the gentlemen were guilty of bad manners, in the Surbiton sense of the word. That is to say, they did not all do what was "done," and they very frequently did things that were not "done" by Good People. But everything they did was inspired by a consideration for the comfort of others. They committed gaucheries, but the fount thereof was kindliness.
The conversation was varied. Some talked frocks, some music, some picture-palaces, some odds-and-ends. Those who affected theatres stuck firmly to Victor, and lured him on to talk about the idols of the stage. The dear boy might have told them things ... he might have disillusioned their golden heads about certain actor-managers of whom he has had intimate experience; but he didn't, and I rather liked him for it. While more recitations and more music went round, he told them heroic stories about their heroes. He told them strange stories and beautiful stories and funny stories; but never, never disparaging stories. One saw their faces glow with wonder. Then the time came for him to work again. He certainly earned that seven-and-six. This time the Vicar was there, so he handed them "The Dream of Eugene Aram."
Again he got 'em. The girls shivered and moved nearer to their boys. He got his horror in voice and face and gesture and pauses. There was perfect silence while he did it. There was perfect silence for some seconds afterwards. Then came a rain of clapping, and the Vicar walked across to him and shook him by the hand, showering warm compliments upon him, and trusting that he would be kind enough to come again.
Then, while we drank coffee and handed cakes to the girls, the reverend gentleman stood on the rug before the fire and gave us an informal address. It was all very bright and homely, and the merry twinkle in the old man's eye when he saw the cluster of girls about Victor told us that he was very much alive to this world.
At half-past ten the meeting broke up, with a final effort by Victor in two of Albert Chevalier's songs. The girls pelted to the dressing-rooms and returned, robed for the street and radiant, and all anxious to shake hands and bid farewell to the Star. They literally danced round him, and fought to shake hands with him, and the boys fought with them. Then, when all had saluted him, each boy appropriated a girl. Those who were known tucked arms in arms and marched off. Those who were strangers approached deferentially, and said: "You got a friend, miss? If not ... m'I see you home?" and were at once elected.
Victor and the Vicar and the President and myself remained behind till the last, while Freddie and Harold "cleared up the mess," as they said. Then Victor winked at the two boys, and lured them to the passage. "Well, boys," he said, jingling his three half-crowns which had just been paid him, "what about it? A short one at 'The Falcon'—what?"
They really blushed. The honour was too much. "Oh—really—well—very kind of you, Mr. Maulever, I'm sure." They stammered through their hot smiles, but they came along, and after the short one at "The Falcon" they lingered a moment. They appeared nervous. It seemed that they had something on their minds. Harold looked at Freddie and Freddie looked at Harold, and Freddie said emphatically, "You." So Harold, very rapidly, turned and said—
"I was going t'say, Mr. Maulever—I mean, would you—ah—might I ask if you and your friend'd have another—with us?" He was obviously glad to get it over.
Victor smiled. "Well, laddie, it's a cold night. Dammit, we will have another."
So we did. As a matter of fact, we had three others; and in the loud passage of "The Falcon" we parted with the lads, who wrung Victor's hand, and said he'd given them a delightful evening, and they hoped he'd recite for their next Social, adding that he was a real sport.
I saw Victor to his 'bus, and as he leaped aboard he said he had enjoyed himself. He turned half-way up the stairs to cry his customary valediction.
"Si longtemps, old kiddo. Cling good and tight to the water-wagon!"
A WORKER'S NIGHT
THE ISLE OF DOGS
THE WORK CHILD
Fair flakes of wilding rose Entwine for Seventeen, With lovely leaves of violet That dares not live till fields forget The grey that drest their green with snows, And grow from grey to green.
And when the wreath is twining, Oh, prithee, have a care! Weave in no bloom of subtle smell; The simple ones she loves too well. Let violets on her neck lie shining, Wild rose in her hair.
And bring her rose-winged fancies, From shadowy shoals of dream, To clothe her in the wistful hour, When girlhood steals from bud to flower. Bring her the tunes of elfin dances, Bring her the faery Gleam!
At the world's gate she stands, Silent and very still; And lone as that one star that lights The delicate dusk of April nights. Oh, let love bind her holy hands, And fetter her from ill!
Her tumbled tresses cling Adown her like a veil. And cheeks and curls as sweetly chime As verses with a rounding rhyme. Surely there is not anything So valiant and so frail.
In faith and without fear, She brings to a rude throng, At war with beauty and with truth, The wonder of her blossomy youth. And faith shall wither to a sneer, And need shall silence song.
Her soul is a soft flame, Set in a world of grey. Help her, O Life, to keep its shrine That her white window's vigilant sign May pierce the tangled mists of shame, Where we have lost our way!
So linger at this day, My little maid serene! Or, since the dancing feet must go, Take Childhood with you still, and so Live in a year-worn world, but stay For ever Seventeen!
A WORKER'S NIGHT
THE ISLE OF DOGS
I am not of those who share the prevailing opinions of the Isle of Dogs: I do not see it as a haunt of greyness and distress. To the informed mind it is full and passionate. Every one of its streets is a sharp-flavoured adventure. Where others find insipidity I find salt and fire. Its shapes and sounds and silences and colours have allured me from first acquaintance. For here, remember, are the Millwall Docks, and here, too, is Cubitt Town.... Of course, like all adorable things, it has faults. I am ready to confess that the cheap mind, which finds Beauty only in that loathly quality called Refinement, will suffer many pains by a sojourn in its byways. It will fill them with ashen despair. In the old jolly days it was filthy; it was full of perils, smelly, insanitary, crumbling; but at least one could live in it. To-day it has been taken in hand by those remote Authorities who make life miserable for us. It is reasonably clean; it is secure; the tumbling cottages have been razed, and artisans' dwellings have arisen in their stead. Its high-ways—Glengall Road, East Ferry Road, Manchester Road—are but rows of uniform cottages, with pathetically small front gardens and frowzy "backs," which, throughout the week, flap dismally with the most intimate items of their households' underwear. Its horizon is a few grotto-like dust-shoots, decorated with old bottles and condensed-milk tins.
It is, I admit, the ugly step-child of parishes; but, then, I love all ugly step-children. It is gauche and ridiculous. It sprawls. It is permanently overhung with mist. It has all the virtues of the London County Council, and it is very nearly uninhabitable. Very nearly uninhabitable ... but not quite.
For here are many thousands of homes, and where a thousand homes are gathered together there shall you find prayer and beauty. Yes, my genteel lambs of Kensington, in this region of ashpits and waterways and broken ships and dry canals are girls and garlands and all the old lovely things that help the human heart to float and flow along its winding courses. If you inform the palate of the mind by flavours, then life in Queen's Gate must be a round of labour and lassitude, and, from the rich faces that pass you in the Isle of Dogs, you know that it must always be the time of roses there. Stand by the crazy bridge at the gates of West India Dock, at six o'clock, when, through the lilac dusks, comes that flock of chattering magpies—the little work-girls—and see if I am not right.
And the colour.... There is nothing in the world like it for depth and glamour. I know no evenings so tender as those that gather about the Island: at once heartsome and subdued. The colour of street and sky and water, sprinkled with a million timid stars, is an ecstasy. You cannot name it. You see it first as blue, then as purple, then lilac, rose, silver. The clouds that flank the high-shouldered buildings and chimneys share in these subtle changes, and shift and shift from definite hues to some haunting scheme that was never seen in any colourman's catalogue.
On the night when I took Georgie round the Island a hard, clear frost was abroad. The skies glittered with steady stars. The streets seemed strangely wide and frank, clear-cut, and definite. A fat-faced moon lighted them. The waters were swift and limpid, flecked with bold light. The gay public-house at the Dock gates shone sharp, like a cut gem. Georgie had never toured the Island before, and he enjoyed it thoroughly. As we stood on the shuddering bridge the clear night spread such a stillness over the place that you could almost hear a goods train shunt; and we stood there watching the berthing of a big P. & O. for many pensive minutes.
By the way, you ought to know Georgie; he is a London character. Perhaps you do, for he has thousands of acquaintances. He knows all that there is to know about London—or, at least, the real London, by which phrase I exclude the foreign quarters and the Isle of Dogs. These he does not regard as part of London. His acquaintance among waiters alone is a matter for wonder. At odd times you may meet him in a bar with a stranger, an impressive-looking personage who, you conjecture, is an attache of a foreign Embassy. But no; you do him an injustice; he is greater than that. Georgie introduces you with a histrionic flourish—
"This is Mr. Burke—young Tommy Burke. This is Carlo, of Romano's." Or, "This is young Tommy. This is Frank from the Cornhill Chop House," or Henry from Simpson's, or Enrico from Frascati's, or Jules from Maxim's.
I believe that Georgie knows more about food and feeding than any man in London. I don't mean that he could seriously compete with Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham Davis. He couldn't draw up a little dinner for you at the Ritz or Claridge's or Dieudonne's. But, then, here again he shows his prejudices; for he doesn't regard a dinner at the Ritz or Claridge's as anything to do with eating. His is the quieter sphere; but he has made it his own. There is something uncanny about his knowledge in this direction. He knows where you can get a meal at two o'clock in the morning, and he can tell you exactly what you will get. He can tell you in an instant what is the prime dish at any obscure little eating-house and the precise moment at which it is on the table. He knows the best house for cabbage, and the house to be avoided if you are thinking of potatoes. He knows where to go for sausage and mashed, and he can reel off a number of places which must be avoided when their haricot mutton is on. He knows when the boiled beef is most a la mode at Wilkinson's, when the pudding at the "Cheshire Cheese" is just so, and when the undercut at Simpson's is most to be desired. You meet him, say, on Tuesday, and, in course of conversation, you wonder where to lunch. "Tuesday," he will murmur, "Tuesday. What d'you fancy? It's fowl-and-bacon day at 'The Mitre.' That's always good. Or it's stewed-steak day at 'The Old Bull,' near the Bank; beautiful steak; done to a turn at one-fifteen. Or it's curry day at the Oriental place in Holborn, if you like curries. Or it's chop toad-in-the-hole day at Salter's; ready at two o'clock. The one in Strand's the best. But don't go sharp at two. Wait till about two-twenty. The batter ain't quite what it should be at two sharp; but just after that it's perfect. Perfect, my boy!"
We crossed the bridge to a running accompaniment from Georgie about the times he had had in the old days before I was born or thought of—he is always flinging this in my face. Motor-'buses were roaring through the long, empty streets, carrying loads of labourers from the docks to their northern homes, or work-girls from the northern factories to their homes in the Island. The little, softly lighted toy and sweetstuff shops gleamed upon us out of the greyness, and the tins of hot saveloys and baked apples, which the hawkers were offering, smelt appetizing. From tiny stalls outside the sweetstuff shops you may still purchase those luscious delicacies of your childhood which seem to have disappeared from every other quarter of London. I mean the toffee-apple about which, if you remember, Vesta Victoria used to sing so alluringly.
I have two friends residing here—one at Folly Wall and one in Havana Street. I decided that we would call on the latter, so Georgie stopped at "The Regent," and took in a bottle of Red Seal for my friend and a little drop of port for the missus—"just by way," as he explained, "of being matey." My friend, a gateman at one of the dock stations, had just gone home, and was sitting down to his tea. There is no doubt that the housewives of the Island know how to prepare their old men's tea. In nearly every house in this district you will find, at about six or seven o'clock, in the living-room of the establishment, a good old hot stew going, or tripe and onions, or fish and potatoes, or a meat-pudding; and this, washed down with a pint of tea, is good enough hunting for any human. Old Johnnie comes from the docks in his dirty working clothes; but before ever he ventures to sit down to table he goes into the scullery, strips, and has what he calls a "slosh down," afterwards reappearing in a clean print shirt and serge trousers. Then, in this comfortable attire, he attacks whatever the missus has got for him, and studies the evening paper, to ascertain, firstly, what the political (i.e. labour) situation is, and, secondly, what's good for to-morrow's big race; for Johnnie, quite innocently, likes to have a shilling on all the classics—the Lincoln, the Cambridgeshire, the Caesarewitch, the Gold Cup, City and Sub., the Oaks and the Derby, and so on.
After his meal he shaves and puts on a collar. Sometimes he will take the missus to the pictures, or, if it is Saturday, he will go marketing with her in Poplar, or in the summer for a moonlight sail on the Thames steamers. Other nights he attends his slate club, or his union, or drops in at one or other of the cheery bars on the Island, to meet his pals and talk shop. The Isle of Dogs, I may tell you, is a happy hunting-ground for all those unhappy creatures who can find no congenial society in their own circles: I mean superior Socialists, Christian workers, Oxford and Cambridge settlement workers, and the immature intellectuals. There are literally dozens and dozens of churches and chapels on the Island, and dozens of halls and meeting-places where lectures are given. The former do not capture Johnnie, but the latter do, and he will often wash and brush up of an evening to hear some young boy from Oxford deliver a thoroughly uninformed exposition of Karl Marx or Nietzsche. The Island is particularly happy in being so frequently patronized by those half-baked ladies and gentlemen, the Fabians, who have all the vices of the middle classes, and—what is more terrible—all the virtues of the middle classes.
The majority of Socialists, if you observe, are young people of the well-to-do middle classes. They embrace the blue-serge god, not from any conviction, not from any sense of comradeship with their overworked and underpaid fellows, but because Socialism gives them an excuse for escape from their petty home life and pettier etiquettes. As Socialists they can have a good time, they can go where they choose, do as they choose, and come home at what hour they choose without fearing the wrath of that curious figure whom they name The Pater. They have merely to explain that they are Socialists, and their set say, "Oh ... Socialists ... yes, of course." Socialism opens to them the golden gates of that Paradise, Bohemia. The freedom of the city is thus presented to them; and they have found it so convenient and so inexpensive that they have adopted Socialism in their thousands. But observe them in the company of the horny-handed, the roughshod, and the ill-spoken; they are either ill at ease or frankly patronizing. They are Bohemians among aristocrats and aristocrats among Bohemians.
Johnnie is just beginning to be noted at their meetings as a debater of some importance. In fact, after the lecture, he will rise and deliver questions so shrewd and penetrating that the young folk of Sidcup and Blackheath and Hampstead have found it a saving to their personal dignity to give him a seat on the platform, where, of course, he is not only rendered harmless to them but is an encouragement to other sons of the soil in the audience.
It is in the region of the Island that most of the battles take place between organized labour and the apostles of free labour. Let there be any industrial trouble of any kind, and down upon the district swoop dozens of fussy futilitarians, to argue, exhort, bully, and agitate generally. Fabians, Social Democrats, Clarionettes, Syndicalists, Extremists, Arbitrators, Union leaders, Christian Care Committees—gaily they trip along and take charge of the hapless workers, until the poor fellows or girls are hustled this way and that, driven, coerced, commanded, and counter-commanded till, in desperation, they take refuge, one and all, in the nearest bar. Then the Fabians, the Social Democrats, the Clarionettes, the Syndicalists, the Extremists, the Arbitrators, and the Union leaders return to Blackheath and Sidcup and Bedford Park, crying that it is useless to attempt to help the poor; they won't be helped: they are hopeless dipsomaniacs.
Here were organized those Unemployed marches which made our streets so cheery a few years ago. I once joined Johnnie on a tramp with one of these regiments, and it was the most spiritless march I have ever been in. The men didn't want to march. It was the Social Service darlings who wanted to form them into a pretty procession, and lead them all round London as actual proof of the Good that was being done among the Right People. We started at nine o'clock on a typically London morning. The day was neither cold nor warm, neither light nor dark. The sky was an even stretch of watery grey, and the faces that passed us were not kindly. Mostly they suggested impaired digestions or guilty consciences. We had a guard of honour of about ten hefty constables, and for us, as for the great ones of the town, the traffic was held up that we might pass. Among the crowd our appointed petitioners, with labelled collecting-boxes, worked with subdued zeal, and above the rumble of the 'buses and the honk-honk of motors and the frivolous tinkle of hansoms rose their harsh, insistent rattle. Now and again a gust of wind would send a dozen separate swirls of dust into our eyes. People stared at us much as one stares at an Edgware Road penny-museum show. We were not men. We were a procession of the Unemployed: An Event. We were a jolly lot. Most of us stared at the ground or the next man's back; only a few gazed defiantly around. None talked. Possibly a few were thinking, and if any of them were imaginative, that slow shuffle might have suggested a funeral march of hopes and fears. There was a stillness about it that was unpleasant; a certain sickness in the air. I think the crowd must have wondered what we were going to do next. You may punch an Englishman's nose, and heal the affront with apologies and a drink. You may call him a liar, and smooth over the incident by the same means. You may take bread out of his mouth, and still he may be pacified. But when you touch his home and the bread of the missus and the kids, you are touching something sacred and thereby inviting disaster; and I think the crowd was anticipating some concerted assault. As a matter of fact, we were the tamest lot of protesters you ever saw. I don't think any of us realized that he had anything sacred.
As we reached Piccadilly Circus the watery grey suddenly split, and through the ragged hole the sun began to peer: a pale sun that might have been out all night. It streamed weakly upon us, showing up our dismal clothes, glancing off the polished rails of the motor-'buses and the sleek surfaces of the hansoms. But it gave us no heart. Our escorts deigned us an occasional glance, but they had a soft job; we were not gnashing our teeth or singing the "Marseillaise" or "The Red Flag." People stared ... and stared. The long black snake of our procession threaded disconsolately into Knightsbridge. Hardly a word or a sign of interest escaped us. On the whole four hours' march there was but one laugh. That came from a fellow on the near side, who thought he'd found a cigar by the kerb, and fell and hurt his knee in the effort to secure his treasure—a discoloured chip of wood. Curiously enough, we didn't laugh. It was he who saw the fine comedy of the incident.
We debouched into Church Street, so to Notting Hill, and up the wretched Bayswater Road to Oxford Street. The sun was then—at one o'clock—shining with a rich splendour. The roadway blazed. Under the shop-blinds, which drooped forward like heavy lids over the tired eyes of the windows, little crowds from Streatham and Kentish Town were shopping. They stared at us. Through the frippery of this market-place we reached the homelier atmosphere of Holborn. The rattle of our boxes' had grown apace, and we made small bets among ourselves as to what the total takings would be. I was thankful when the march or solemn walk was ended. For days afterwards my ears rang with the incessant clat-clat-clatter of those boxes, and for days afterwards I was haunted by those faces that stared at us, and then turned to stare at us, and then called other faces to stare at us. Nobody in the whole march troubled us. Nobody cursed us; nobody had a kind word for us. They just gave us their pennies, because we had been "got up" for that procession by those dear, hard-working friends of theirs. On our return, and after the very thin croute-au-pot that was served out to us, we were addressed on the subject of our discontents. I forget what they were, if, indeed, I ever knew, for I had joined the march only as Johnnie's guest.
Whether Johnnie really knows or cares anything about economics I cannot say. I only know that I don't like him in that part. I like him best sitting round his open kitchen-range, piled with coke, or sitting in the four-ale bar of "The Griffin." For what he does know a tremendous lot about is human nature; only he does not know that he knows it. His knowledge drops out of him, casually, in side remarks. At his post on the docks he observes not only white human nature but black and yellow and brown, and he knows how to deal with it all. He can calm a squabble among Asiatics of varying colour and creed, when everybody else is helpless; not by strength of arm or position or character, but simply because he appreciates the subtle differences of human natures, and because he understands the needs and troubles of the occasion.
"Yes," he has said to me sometimes, on my asking whether he didn't find his night-watch rather lonely—"yes, I suppose some chaps would find it lonely. But not me. If you're a philosopher, you ain't ever lonely. Another thing—there's too much to do, old son. Night-watchman at a docks ain't the same thing as night-watchman at the road-up. Notterbitterfit. Thieves, my boy. Wouldn't think they'd venture into a place the size of ours, perhaps? Don't they, though? And, my word, if I catch 'em at it! Not big burglars, of course, but the small pilfering lot. Get in during the day they do, and hide behind bales and in odd corners. Then they come out when it's dark and nose around, and their little fingers, in spite of their Catechism, start right away at picking and stealing.... Funny lot, these jolly Lascars. If I was manager of a music-hall and I wanted a real good star turn—something fresh—I'd stand at my gate and bag the crew of a Dai Nippon, just as they come off, and then bung 'em on just as they are, and let 'em sing and dance just as they do when they've drawn their pay. That'd be a turn, old son. I bet that'd be a goer. Something your West End public ain't ever seen; something that'd knock spots off 'em and make their little fleshes creep. Of course it looks fiercer'n it really is. All that there chanting and chucking knives about is only, as you might say, ceremonial. But if they happen to come off at two o'clock of a foggy winter morning—my word, it don't do to be caught bending then! But lucky for me I know most of 'em. And they know me. And even if they're away for three months on end, next time they're back at West India they bring some little 'love gift' for the bloke at the gate—that's me. Often I've had to patch 'em up at odd times, after they've had a thick night with the boys and have to join their boats. Sometimes one of 'em tumbles into the dock half an hour before she sails, with a smashed lip and that kind of air about him that tells you he can see a dock jam full of shipping and is trying to sort 'em out and find his little show. Of course, as a watchman and a man, I kind of sympathize. We've all done it one time or another. I remember one night ..."
And when Johnnie remembers, that is the time to drink up and have another, for once he starts yarning he is not easily stopped. Wonderful anecdotes he has to relate, too; not perhaps brilliant stories, or even stories with a point of any kind, but stories brimful of atmosphere, stories salt of the sea or scented with exotic bloom. They begin, perhaps, "Once, off Rangoon," or "I remember, a big night in Honolulu," or Mauritius, or Malabar, or Trinidad. Before the warning voice cries, "Time, gentermen!" you have circled the globe a dozen times under the spell of Johnnie's rememberings.
You may catch him any night of the week, and find him ready to yarn, save on Saturdays. Saturday night is always dedicated to the missus and to shopping in Poplar or Blackwall. Shopping on Saturday nights in these districts is no mere domestic function: it is a festival, an event. Johnnie washes and puts on his second-best suit, and then he and the missus depart from the Island, he bearing a large straw marketing bag, she carrying a string-bag and one of those natty stout-paper bags given away by greengrocers and milliners. As soon as the 'bus has tossed them into Salmon Lane, off Commercial Road, they begin to revel.
Salmon Lane on a Saturday night is very much like any other shopping centre in the more humane quarters of London. Shops and stalls blaze and roar with endeavour. The shops, by reason of their more respectable standing, affect to despise stalls, but when it comes to competition it is usually stalls first and shops hanging round the gate. The place reeks of naphtha, human flesh, bad language, and good-nature. Newly-killed rabbits, with their interiors shamelessly displayed, suspend themselves around the stalls while their proprietors work joyfully with a chopper and a lean-bladed knife. Your earnest shopper is never abroad before nine o'clock in the evening, and many of them have to await the still riper hours when Bill shall have yielded up his wages. Old ladies of the locality are here in plenty, doubtfully fingering the pieces of meat which smother the slabs of the butchers' shops. Little Elsie is here, too, buying for a family of motherless brothers and sisters with the few shillings which Dad has doled out. Who knows so well as Little Elsie the exact spending value of twopence-halfpenny? Observe her as she lays in her Sunday gorge. Two penn'orth of "pieces" from the butcher's to begin with (for twopence you get a bagful of oddments of meat, trimmings from various joints, good nourishing bones, bits of suet, and, if the assistant thinks you have nice eyes, he will throw in some skirt). Then to the large greengrocer's shop for a penn'orth of "specks" (spotted or otherwise damaged fruit, and vegetables of every kind). Of this three penn'orth the most valuable item is the bones, for these, with a bit of carrot and potato and onion, will make a pot of soup sufficient in itself to feed the kiddies for two days. Then, at the baker's, you get a market basket full of stale bread for twopence, and, seeing it's for Sunday, you spend another penny and get five stale cakes. At the grocer's, two ounces of tea, two ounces of margarine, and a penn'orth of scraps from the bacon counter for Dad's breakfast. And there you have a refection for the gods.
Observe also the pale young man who lodges in some remote garret by Limehouse Hole. He has but a room, and his landlady declines the responsibility of "doing" for him. He must, therefore, do his own shopping, and he does it about as badly as it can be done. His demeanour suggests a babe among wolves, innocence menaced by the wiles of Babylon; and sometimes motherly old dears audibly express pity at his helplessness, which flusters him still more, so that he leaves his change on the counter.
The road is a black gorge, rent with dancing flame. The public-house lamps flare with a jovial welcome for the jaded shopper, and every moment its doors flap open, and fling their fire of joy on the already overcharged air. Between the stalls parade the youth and beauty, making appointments for the second house at the Poplar Hippodrome, or assignations for Sunday evening.
As the stalls clear out the stock so grows the vociferousness of their proprietors, and soon the ear becomes deadened by the striving rush of sound. Every stall and shop has its wide-mouthed laureate, singing its present glories and adding lustre to its latest triumphs.
"I'll take any price yeh like, price yeh like! Comerlong, comerlong, Ma! This is the shop that does the biz. Buy-buy-buy-uy!"
"Walk up, ladies, don't be shy. Look at these legs. Look at 'em. Don't keep looking at 'em, though. Buy 'em. Buy 'em. Sooner you buy 'em sooner I can get 'ome and 'ave my little bath. Come along, ladies; it's a dirty night, but thank God I got good lodgings, and I hope you got the same. Buy-buy-buy!"
"'Ere's yer lovely bernanas. Fourer penny. Pick 'em out where yeh like!"
In one ear a butcher yells a madrigal concerning his little shoulders. In the other a fruit merchant demands to know whether, in all your nacheral, you ever see anything like his melons. Then a yard or so behind you an organ and cornet take up their stand and add "Tipperary" to the swelling symphony. But human ears can receive so much, and only so much, sound; and clapping your hands over your ears, you seek the chaste seclusion, for a few minutes, of the saloon of "The Black Boy," or one of the many fried-fish bars of the Lane.
Still later in the evening the noise increases, for then the stalls are anxious to clear out their stock at any old price. The wise wife—and Johnnie's missus is one—waits until this hour before making her large purchases. For now excellent joints and rabbits and other trifles are put up for auction. The laureates are wonderful fellows, many of them, I imagine, decayed music-hall men. A good man in this line makes a very decent thing out of it. The usual remuneration is about eight or ten shillings for the night and whatever beer they want. And if you are shouting for nearly six hours in the heavy-laden air of Salmon Lane, you want plenty of beer and you earn all you get. They have a spontaneous wit about them that only the Cockney possesses. Try to take a rise out of one of them, and you will be sadly plucked. Theirs is Falstaffian humour—large and clustering: no fine strokes, but huge, rich-coloured sweeps. It is useless to attempt subtleties in the roar of a Saturday night. What you have to aim at is the obvious—but with a twist; something that will go home at once; something that can be yelled or, if the spirit moves you, sung. It is, in a word, the humour of the Crowd.
At about eleven o'clock, the laureate, duly refreshed, will mount on the outside counter, where he can easily reach the rows of joints. Around him gathers the crowd of housewives, ready for the auction. He takes the first—a hefty leg of mutton.
"Nah then!" he cries challengingly, "nah then! Just stop shooting yer marth at the OOlans for a bit, and look at this 'ere bit o' meat. Meat was what I said," with a withering glance at the rival establishment across the Lane, where another laureate is addressing another crowd. "Meat, mother, meat. If yer don't want Meat, then it ain't no use comin' 'ere. If yer wants a cut orf an animal what come from Orstralia or Noo Zealand, then it ain't no use comin' 'ere. Over the road's where they got them. They got joints over there what come from the Anty-Podeys, and they ain't paid their boat-passage yet. No, my gels, this what I got 'ere is Meat. None of your carvings orf a cow what looks like a fiddlecase on trestles. You—sir—just cast yer eye over that. Carry that 'ome to the missus, and she'll let yer stay out till a quarter to ten, and yeh'll never find a button orf yer weskit long as yeh live. That's the sort o' meat to turn the kiddies into sojers and sailors. Nah then—what say to six-and-a-arf?"
He fondles the joint much as one would a babe in long clothes, dandling it, patting it, stroking it, exhibiting it, while the price comes steadily down from six-and-a-half to six, five, four-and-a-half, and finally is knocked down at four. Often a prime-looking joint will go as low as twopence a pound, and the smaller stuff is practically given away when half-past twelve is striking.
It is the same with the other shops—greengrocery, fish, and fruit. All is, so far as possible, cleared out before closing time, and only enough is held in reserve to supply that large army of Sunday morning shoppers who are unable to shop on Saturday night owing to Bill's festivities.
* * * * *
That is one worker's night. But there are others. There are those workers whose nights are not domestic, and who live in the common lodging-houses and shelters which are to be found in every district in London. There are two off Mayfair. There are any number round Belgravia. Seven Dials, of course, is full of them, for there lodge the Covent Garden porters and other early birds. In these houses you will find members of all-night trades that you have probably never thought of before. I met in a Blackwall Salvation Army Shelter a man who looks out from a high tower, somewhere down the Thames, all night. He starts at ten o'clock at night, and comes off at six, when he goes home to his lodging-house to bed. I have never yet been able to glean from him whose tower it is he looks out from, or what he looks out for. Then there are those exciting people, the scavengers, who clean our streets while we sleep, with hose-pipe and cart-brush; the printers, who run off our newspapers; the sewer-men, who do dirty work underground; railwaymen, night-porters, and gentlemen whose occupation is not mentioned among the discreet.
The Salvation Army Shelters are very popular among the lodging-house patrons, for you get good value there for very little money, and, by paying weekly, instead of nightly, you get reductions and a better-appointed dormitory. I know many street hawkers who have lived for years at one Shelter, and would not think of using a common lodging-house. The most popular quarter for this latter class of house is Duval Street, Spitalfields. At one time the reputation of this street was most noisome; indeed, it was officially known as the worst street in London. It holds a record for suicides, and, I imagine, for murders. It was associated in some way with that elusive personality, Jack the Ripper; and the shadow of that association has hung over it for ever, blighting it in every possible way. To-day it is but a very narrow, dirty, ill-lit street of common lodging-houses within the meaning of the Act, and, though it is by no means so gay and devilish as it is supposed to have been of old, they do say that the police still descend first on Duval Street in cases of local murder where the culprit has, as the newspapers say, made good his escape. I do not recommend it as a pleasure-jaunt for ladies or for the funny and fastidious folk of Bayswater. They would suffer terribly, I fear. The talk of the people would lash them like whips; the laughter would sear like hot irons. The noises bursting through the gratings from the underground cellars would be like a chastisement on the naked flesh, and shame and smarting and fear would grip them. The glances of the men would sting like scorpions. The glances of the women would bite like fangs. For these reasons, while I do not recommend it, I think a visit would do them good; it would purify their spotty little minds with pity and terror. For I think Duval Street stands easily first as one of the affrighting streets of London. There is not the least danger or disorder; but the tradition has given it an atmosphere of these things. Here are gathered all the most unhappy wrecks of London—victims and apostles of vice and crime. The tramps doss here: men who have walked from the marches of Wales or from the Tweed border, begging their food by the way. Their clothes hang from them. Their flesh is often caked with dirt. They do not smell sweet. Their manners are crude: I think they must all have studied Guides to Good Society. They spit when and where they will. Some of them writhe in a manner so suggestive as to give you the itch. This writhe is known as the Spitalfields Crawl. There is a story of a constable who was on night duty near the doors of one of the doss establishments, when a local doctor passed him. "Say," said the doctor, with a chuckle, "you're standing rather close, aren't you? Want to take something away with you?" "Not exactly that, sir; but it's lonely round here for the night stretch, and, somehow, it's kind of company if I can feel the little beggars dropping on my helmet."
In this street you are on the very edge of the civilized world. All are outcasts, even among their own kind. All are ready to die, and too sick even to go to the trouble of doing it. They have no hope, and, therefore, they have no fear. They are just down and out. All the ugly misery of all the ages is collected here in essence, and from it the atmosphere is charged; an atmosphere more horrible than any that I know: worse than that of Chinatown, worse than that of Shadwell. These are merely insidious and menacing, but Duval Street is painful.
It was here that I had the nearest approach to an adventure that I have ever had in London. I was sitting in the common kitchen of one of the houses which was conspicuously labelled on its outer white-washed lamp—
GOOD BEDS FOR MEN ONLY FOURPENCE
The notice, however, was but the usual farcical compliance with the law which nobody regards and which nobody executes. Women were there in plenty—mostly old, unkempt women, wearing but a bodice and skirt and boots. The kitchen was a bare, blue-washed apartment, the floor sanded, with a long wooden table and two or three wooden forms. A generous fire roared up a wide chimney. The air was thick with fumes of pipes that had been replenished with "old soldiers" from West End gutters. Suddenly a girl came in with an old man. I looked at her with some interest because she was young, with copper-coloured hair that strayed about her face with all the profusion of an autumn sunset. She was the only youthful thing in the place, bar myself. I looked at her with rather excited interest because she was very drunk. She called the old man Dad. A few of the men greeted him. One or two nodded to the girl. "'Lo, Luba. Bin on the randy?" The women looked at her, not curiously, or with compassion or disgust, but cursorily. I fancied, from certain incipient movements, that she was about to be violently bilious; but she wasn't. We were sitting in silence when she came in. The silence continued. Nobody moved, nobody offered to make way. Dad swore at a huge scrofulous tramp, and kneed him a little aside from the fire. The tramp slipped from the edge of the form, but made no rebuke. Dad sat down and left Luba to herself. She swayed perilously for a moment, and then flopped weakly to the form on which I sat. The man I was with leaned across me.
"'Ad a rough time in the box, Luba?"
Luba nodded feebly. Her mouth sagged open; her eyes drooped; her head rolled.
"I 'eard abaht it," he went on. "Hunky Bottles see a Star wi' your pickcher in. And the old man's questions. Put you through it, din' 'e?"
Again Luba nodded. The next moment she seemed to repent the nod, for she flared up and snapped: "Oh, shut up, for Christ's sake, cancher? Give any one the fair pip, you do. Ain't I answered enough damsilly questions from ev'body without you? Oo's got a fag?"
I had, so I gave her one. She fumbled with it, trying to light it with a match held about three inches from it. Finally, I lit it for her, and she seemed to see me for the first time. She looked at me, at once shiftily and sharply. Her eyes narrowed. Suspicion leaped into her face, and she seemed to shrink into herself like a tortoise into its shell. "Oo's 'e?" she demanded of my mate.
"'E's all right. Oner the boys. Chuck knows 'im."
Then the match burnt her fingers, and she swore weak explosive oaths, filthier than any I have heard from a bookmaker. She lisped, and there was a suggestion in her accent of East Prussia or Western Russia. Her face was permanently reddened by alcohol. The skin was coarse, almost scaly, and her whole person sagged abominably. She wore no corsets, but her green frock was of an artful shade to match her brassy hair. Her hat was new and jaunty and challenging.
"Tell you what," she said, turning from me, and seeming to wake up; "tell you what I'd like to do to that old counsel. I'd like to——" And here she poured forth a string of suggestions so disgusting that I cannot even convey them by euphemism. Her mouth was a sewer. The air about us stunk with her talk. When she had finished, my mate again leaned across me, and asked in a hollow whisper, like the friction of sand-paper—
"'Ere—Luba—tell us. Why d'you go back on Billie, eh?"
Luba made an expressive gesture with her fingers in his face, and that was the only answer he received; for she suddenly noticed me again, and, without another word, she dipped her hand to her bosom and pulled out a naked knife of the bowie pattern and twisted it under my nose. With the nervous instinct of the moment, I dodged back; but it followed me.
"No monkey-tricks with me, dear! See? Else you'll know what. See?"
I was turning to my friend, in an appeal for intervention, when, quite as suddenly as the knife was drawn, it disappeared, for Luba overbalanced because of the gin that was in her, and slipped from the form. Between us, we picked her up, replaced her, and tucked the knife into its sheath. Whereupon she at once got up, and said she was off. For some reason she went through an obscure ritual of solemnly pulling my ear and slapping my face. Then she slithered across the room, fell up the stair into the passage, and disappeared into the caverns of gloom beyond the door. When she had gone, some one said, "Daddy—Luba's gone!"
Daddy leaped from the form, snarled something inarticulate, fell up the same stair, and went babbling and yelling after Luba. Some one came and shoved a fuzzy head through the door, asking lazily, "Whassup?" "Luba's gone." "Oh!"
I wondered vaguely if it was a nightmare; if I had gone mad; or if other people had gone mad. I don't know now what it all meant. I only know that the girl was the Crown's principal witness in a now notorious murder case. My ear still burns.
A CHARITABLE NIGHT
EAST, WEST, NORTH, SOUTH
From jail he sought her, and he found A darkened house, a darkened street, A shrilly sky that screamed of sleet, And from The Lane quick gusts of sound.
He mocked at life that men call sweet. He went and wiped it out in beer— "Well, dammit, why should I stick here, By a dark house in a dark street?"
For he and his but serve defeat; For kings they gather gems and gold, And life for them, when all is told, Is a dark house in a dark street.
A CHARITABLE NIGHT
EAST, WEST, NORTH, SOUTH
Charity ... the most nauseous of the virtues, the practice of which degrades both giver and receiver. The practice of Charity brings you into the limelight; it elevates you to friendship with the Almighty; you feel that you are a colleague of the Saviour. It springs from Pity, the most unclean of all human emotions. It is not akin to love; it is akin to contempt. To be pitied is to be in the last stages of spiritual degradation. You cannot pity anything on your own level, for Pity implies an assumption of superiority. You cannot be pitied by your friends and equals, only by your self-elected superiors. Let us see Pity at work in London....
As I lounged some miles east of Aldgate Pump, an old song of love and lovers and human kindliness was softly ringing in my head, and it still haunted me as I slid like a phantom into that low-lit causeway that slinks from a crashing road to the dark wastes of waters beyond. At the far end a brutal black building broke the sky-line. A few windows were thinly lit by gas. I climbed the stone steps, hollowed by many feet, and stood in the entrance-hall.
Then, as it seemed from far away, I heard an insistent murmur, like the breaking of distant surf. I gazed around and speculated. In the bare brick wall was a narrow, high door. With the instinct of the journalist, I opened it. The puzzle was explained. It was the Dining Hall of the Metropolitan Orphanage, and the children were at their seven o'clock supper. From the cathedral-like calm of the vestibule, I passed into an atmosphere billowing with the flutter of some five hundred small tongues. Under the pendant circles of gas-jets were ranged twelve long, narrow tables packed with children talking and eating with no sense of any speed-limit. On the one side were boys in cruelly ugly brown suits, and on the other side, little girls from seven to fifteen in frocks of some dark material with a thin froth of lace at neck and wrists and coarse, clean pinafores. Each table was attended by a matron, who served out the dry bread and hot milk to the prefects, who carried the basins up and down the tables as deftly as Mr. Paul Cinquevalli. Everywhere was a prospect of raw faces and figures, which Charity had deliberately made as uncomely as possible by clownish garb and simple toilet. The children ate hungrily, and the place was full of the spirit of childhood, an adulterated spirit. The noise leaped and swelled on all sides in an exultant joy of itself, but if here and there a jet of jolly laughter shot from the stream, there were glances from the matrons.
The hall was one of wide spaces, pierced at intervals by the mouths of bleak, stark corridors. The air of it was limp and heavy with the smell of food. Polished beams ran below the roof, pretending to uphold it, and massive columns of painted stone flung themselves aggressively here and there, and thought they were supporting a small gallery. Outside a full moon shone, but it filtered through the cheap, half-toned glass of the windows with a quality of pale lilac. Here and there a window of stained glass stabbed the brick wall with passionate colour. The moral atmosphere suggested nut-foods and proteid values.
At half-past seven a sharp bell rang, and with much rumbling and manoeuvring of forms, the children stood stiffly up, faced round, and, as a shabby piano tinkled a melody, they sang grace, somewhat in this fashion:—
To Go doo give sus dailyb read Dour thankful song we raise-se, Sand prayth at he who send susf ood, Dwillf ill lour reart swithp raise, Zaaaamen.
Then a wave of young faces rolled upward to the balcony, where stood a grey-headed, grey-bearded, spectacled figure. It was one of the honorary managers. The children stood to attention like birds before a snake. One almost expected to hear them sing "God bless the squire and his relations...." The Gentleman was well-tailored, and apart from his habiliments there was, in every line of his figure, that which suggested solidity, responsibility, and the substantial virtues. I have seen him at Committee meetings of various charitable enterprises; himself, duplicated again and again. One charitable worker is always exactly like the other, allowing for differences of sex. They are of one type, with one manner, and—I feel sure—with one idea. I am certain that were you to ask twenty members of a Charity committee for opinions on aviation, Swedenborgism, the Royal Academy, and Little Tich, each would express the same views in the same words and with the same gestures.
This gentleman was of the City class; he carried an air of sleekness. Clearly he was a worthy citizen, a man who had Got On, and had now abandoned himself to this most odious of vices. And there he stood, in a lilac light, splashed with voluptuous crimsons and purples, dispensing Charity to the little ones before him whose souls were of hills and the sea. He began to address them. It appeared that the Orphanage had received, that very morning, forty more children; and he wished to observe how unnecessary it was for him to say with what pleasure this had been done. Many thousands of children now holding exalted positions in banks and the Civil Service could look to him as to their father, in the eighty or more years of the School's life, and he was proud to feel that his efforts were producing such Fine Healthy Young Citizens. The children knew—did they not?—that they had a Good Home, with loving guardians who would give them the most careful training suited to their position in life. They were clothed, maintained, and drilled, as concerned their bodies; and, as concerned their souls, they had the habits of Industry and Frugality inculcated into them, and they were guided in the paths of Religion and Virtue. They had good plain food, suited to their position in life, and healthy exercise in the way of Manly Sports and Ladylike Recreations. He quoted texts from the Scriptures, about the sight of the Widow touching those chords which vibrate sympathetically in all of us, and a lot of stuff about a Cup of Cold Water and These Little Ones. He exuded self-content.
He went on to remark that the hazardous occupations of Modern Industry had, by their many mischances, stripped innumerable families of their heads, and reduced them to a condition of the most deplorable. He desired to remind them that the class to which they belonged was not the Very Poor of the gutters, but the Respectable Poor who would not stoop to receive the aid doled out by the State. No; they were not Gutter Children, but, at the same time, the training they received was not such as to create any distaste among them for the humblest employments of Honest Industry, suitable to their position in life. He redeemed the objects interested in his exertions from the immoralities of the Very Poor, while teaching them to respect their virtues, and to do their duty in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call them.
(The little objects seemed to appreciate this, for they applauded with some spirit, on prompting from the matrons.)
He went on to suggest, with stodgy jocularity, that among them was possibly a Prime Minister of 1955—think of Pitt—and perhaps a Lord Kitchener. He spoke in terms of the richest enthusiasm of the fostering of the Manly Qualities and the military drill—such a Fine Thing for the Lads; and he urged them to figure to themselves that, even if they did not rise to great heights, they might still achieve greatness by doing their duty at office desk, or in factory, loom, or farmyard, and so adding to the lustre of their Native Land—a land, he would say, in which they had so great a part.
(Here the children cheered, seemingly with no intent of irony.) He added that, in his opinion, kind hearts were, if he might so put it, more than coronets.
The Gentleman smiled amiably. He nourished no tiny doubt that he was doing the right thing. He believed that Christ would be pleased with him for turning out boys and girls of fourteen, half-educated, mentally and socially, to spend their lives in dingy offices in dingy alleys of the City. There was no humbug here; impossible for a moment to doubt his sincerity. He had a childlike faith in his Great Work. He was, as he annually insisted, with painful poverty of epithet, engaged in Philanthropic Work, alleviating the Distresses of the Respectable Poor and ameliorating Social Conditions Generally. So he trained his children until he trained them into desk or farm machines; trained them so that their souls were starved, driven in on themselves, and there stifled, and at last eaten away by the canker of their murky routine.
I looked at those children as they stood before me. I looked at their bright, clear faces, their eyes wonder-wide, their clean brows alert for knowledge, hungry for life and its beauty. Despite their hideous clothes, they were the poetry of the world: all that is young and fresh and lovely. Then I thought of them five years hence, their minds larded with a Sound Commercial Education, tramping the streets of the City from nine o'clock in the morning until six o'clock in the evening, living in an atmosphere of intellectual vacuity, their ardent temperaments fled, their souls no longer desiring beauty. I felt a little sick.
But The Gentleman.... The Gentleman stood there in a lilac light, and took unction unto himself. He smiled benignly, a smile of sincere pleasure. Then he called the children to attention while he read to them a prayer of St. Chrysostom, which he thought most suitable to their position in life. A ring of gas-jets above his head hovered like an aureole.
* * * * *
I do wish that something could somehow be done to restrain the Benevolent. We are so fond, as a nation, of patronizing that if we have nothing immediately at hand to patronize, we must needs go out into the highways and hedges and bring in anything we can find, any old thing, so long as we can patronize it. I have often thought of starting a League (I believe it would be immensely popular) for The Suppression of Social Service. The fussy, incompetent men and women who thrust themselves forward for that work are usually the last people who should rightly meddle with it. They either perform it from a sense of duty, or what they themselves call The Social Conscience (the most nauseous kind of benevolence), or they play with it because it is Something To Do. Always their work is discounted by personal vanity. I like the Fabians: they are funny without being vulgar. But these Social Servants and their Crusades for Pure and Holy Living Among Work-Girls are merely fatuous and vulgar when they are not deliberately insulting. Can you conceive a more bitter mind than that which calls a girl of the streets a Fallen Sister? Yet that is what these people have done; they have labelled a house with the device of The Midnight Crusade for the Reclamation of our Fallen Sisters; and they expect self-respecting girls of that profession to enter it....
I once attended one of these shows in a North London slum. The people responsible for it have the impudence to send women-scouts to the West End thoroughfares at eleven o'clock every night, there to interfere with these girls, to thrust their attentions upon them, and, if possible, lure them away to a service of song—Brief, Bright, and Brotherly. It was a bitter place in a narrow street. The street was gay and loud with humanity, only at its centre was a dark and forbidding door, reticent and inhuman. There was no sign of good-fellowship here; no warm touch of the flesh. It was as brutal as justice; it seemed to have builded itself on that most horrible of all texts: "Be just before you are generous."
I went in at an early hour, about half-past ten, and only two victims had been secured. The place stunk of The Church Times and practical Christianity. In the main room was a thin fire, as skimpy as though it had been lit by a spinster, as, I suppose, it had. There was a bare deal table. The seating accommodation was cane chairs, which I hate; they always remind me of the Band of Hope classes I was compelled to attend as a child. They suggest something stale and cheesy, something as squalid as the charity they serve. On a corner table was a battered urn and a number of earthenware cups, with many plates of thick, greasy bread-and-butter; just the right fare to offer a girl who has put away several benedictines and brandies. The room chilled me. Place, people, appointments, even the name—Midnight Crusade for the Reclamation of our Fallen Sisters—smacked of everything that is most ugly. Smugness and super-piety were in the place. The women—I mean, ladies—who manage the place, were the kind of women I have seen at the Palace when Gaby is on. (For you will note that Gaby does not attract the men; it is not they who pack the Palace nightly to see her powder her legs and bosom. They may be there, but most of them are at the bar. If you look at the circle and stalls, they are full of elderly, hard women, with dominant eyebrows, leering through the undressing process, and moistening their lips as Gaby appears in her semi-nakedness.)