The walls of the big bedroom were adorned with florid texts, tastefully framed. It was a room of many beds, each enclosed in a cubicle. The beds were hard, covered with coarse sheets. If I were a Fallen Brother, I hardly think they would have tempted me from a life of ease. And there were RULES.... Oh, how I loathe RULES! I loathed them as a child at school. I loathed drill, and I loathed compulsory games, and I loathed all laws that were made without purpose. There were long printed lists of Rules in this place, framed, and hung in each room. You can never believe how many things a Fallen Sister may not do. Certain rules are, of course, essential; but the pedagogic mind, once started on law-making, can never stop; and it is usually the pedagogic type of mind, with the lust for correction, that goes in for Charity. Why may not the girls talk in certain rooms? Why may they not read anything but the books provided? Why may they not talk in bed? Why must they fold their bed-clothes in such-and-such an exact way? Why must they not descend from the bed-room as and when they are dressed? Why must they let the Superior read their letters? And why, oh, why are these places run by white-faced men and elderly, hard women?
I have written, I fear, rather flippantly on this topic; but that is only because I dare not trust myself to be serious. I realize as much as any one that the life is a shameful life, and all that sort of thing; but I boil with indignation at the hundred shamefulnesses which these charity-mongers heap upon defenceless girls who, in a weak moment, have sought their protection. If you know anything about the matter, you will know that these girls have in their little souls an almost savage flame of self-respect which burns with splendour before the bleak, miserable flame of Organized Charity. If I spoke my mind on the subject, this page would blaze with fury ... and you would smile.
* * * * *
But amid all this welter of misdirected endeavour, there is just one organized charity for which I should like to say a word; and that is The Salvation Army. I do not refer to its religious activities so much as to its social work as represented in the excellent Shelters which have been opened in various districts. There is one in Whitechapel Road, which is the identical building where General Booth first started a small weekly mission service which was afterwards known all over the world as The Salvation Army. There is one in Hoxton. There is one—a large one—in Blackfriars Road. And there are others wherever they may be most needed.
The doors open at five o'clock every evening. The Shelter, mark you, is not precisely a Charity. The men have to pay. Here is shown the excellent understanding of the psychology of the people which the University Socialist misses. You cannot get hold of people by offering them something for nothing; but you can get hold of them by tens of thousands by offering them something good at a low price. For a halfpenny the Salvation Army offers them tea, coffee, cocoa, or soup, with bread-and-butter, cake, or pudding. All this food is cooked and prepared at the Islington headquarters, and the great furnaces in the kitchens of the Shelters are roaring night and day for the purpose of warming-up the food, heating the Shelter, and serving the drying-rooms, where the men can hang their wet clothes.
A spotlessly clean bed is offered for threepence a night, which includes use of bathroom, lavatory, and washhouse. The washhouse is in very great demand on wet nights by those who have been working out of doors, and by those who wish to wash their underclothes, etc.
In addition to this, the men have the service of the Army orderlies, in attention at table and in "calling" in the morning. The staff is at work all night, either attending new-comers or going round with the various "calls," which, as some of the guests are market porters, are for unearthly hours, such as half-past three or four o'clock. The Shelters are patronized by many "regulars"—flower-sellers, pedlars, Covent Garden or Billingsgate odd men, etc.—who lodge with them by the week, sometimes by the year. Lights are officially out at half-past nine, but of course the orderly is on duty at the door until eight o'clock the following morning, and no stranger who wants food and bed is refused. He is asked for the threepence and for the halfpenny for his food, but if he cannot produce these he has but to ask for the Brigadier, and, if he is a genuine case, he is at once taken in.
Every Saturday night at half-past eleven certain of the orderlies, supplied with tickets, go out, and to any hungry, homeless wanderer they give a ticket with directions to the Shelter. These Saturday night tickets entitle him, if he chooses to accept them, to bath, breakfast, bed, and the Sunday service.
Further, the Shelter acts as employment agency, and, once having found their man, the first step towards helping him is to awaken in him the latent sense of responsibility. The quickest way is to find him work, and this they do; and once their efforts show results, they never lose sight of him.
Many heartbreaking cases go by the orderly's box at the door, and I would like to set some of those young Oxford philanthropists who write pamphlets or articles in The New Age on social subjects by the door for a night. I think they would learn a lot of things they never knew before. Often, at two or three o'clock in the morning, the scouts will bring in a bundle of rain-sodden rags that hardly looks as if it could ever have been a man. How can you deal scientifically or religiously with that?
You can't. But the rank and file of The Salvation Army, with its almost uncanny knowledge of men, has found a better, happier way. I have spent many nights in various of their Shelters, and I should like to put on record the fine spirit which I have found prevailing there. It is a spirit of camaraderie. In other charitable institutions you will find timidity, the cowed manner, sometimes symptoms of actual fear. But never at the Salvation Army. There every new-comer is a pal, until he is proved to be unworthy of that name. There is no suspicion, no underhanded questioning, no brow-beating: things which I have never found absent from any other organized charity.
The Salvation Army method is food, warmth, mateyness; and their answer to their critics, and their reward, is the sturdy, respectable artisan who comes along a few months later to shake hands with them and give his own services in helping them in their work.
* * * * *
Far away West, through the exultant glamour of theatre and restaurant London, through the solid, melancholic greys of Bayswater, you find a little warm corner called Shepherd's Bush. You find also Notting Dale, where the bad burglars live, but we will talk of that in another chapter. Back of Shepherd's Bush is a glorious slum, madly lit, uncouth, and entirely wonderful.
To Shepherd's Bush I went one evening. I went to fairyland. I went to tell stories and to lead music-hall choruses. No; not at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, but at a dirty little corrugated hall in a locked byway. Some time ago, the usual charitably minded person, finding time hang heavy on her hands, or having some private grief which she desired to forget in bustle and activity, started a movement for giving children happy evenings. I have not been to one of the centres, and I am sure I should not like to go. I dislike seeing children disciplined in their play. Children do not need to be taught to play. Games which are not spontaneous are as much a task as enforced lessons. I have been a child myself. The people who run charities, I think, never have been.... However....
This Shepherd's Bush enterprise was an entirely private affair. The idea was based on the original inception, and much improved. At these organized meetings the children are forced to go through antics which, three hundred years ago, were a perfectly natural expression of the joy of life. These antics were called morris dances; they were mad, vulgar, joyous abandonment to the mood of the moment; just as the dances performed by little gutter-arabs and factory-girls around street organs are an abandonment to the mood of to-day's moment. But the elderly spinsters have found that what was vulgar three hundred years ago is artistic to-day; or if it isn't they will make it so. Why on earth a child should have to dance round a maypole just because children danced round a maypole centuries ago, I cannot understand. To-day, the morris dance is completely self-conscious, stiff, and ugly. The self-developed dance of the little girl at the organ is a thing of beauty, because it is a quite definite expression of something which the child feels; it follows no convention, it changes measure at fancy, it regards nothing but its own rapture.... The morris dance isn't.
So, at the hall to which I went, the children were allowed to play exactly as and when they liked. Any child could come from anywhere, and bring other children. There was a piano, and some one was always in attendance to play whatever might be required by the children. If they wanted "The Cubanola Glide," or "Down in Jungle-Town," or "In the Shadows," they got it, or anything else they might choose. Toys of all kinds were on hand—dolls, engines, railways, dolls'-houses, little cooking-stoves, brick puzzles, regiments of soldiers, picture-books, and, indeed, everything that a child could think of.
When I arrived I tripped over the threshold of the narrow entrance, and fell into a warmly lighted room, where the meetings of some local Committee were usually held. All chairs had been cleared to the wall, and the large central space was littered with troops of glad girls and toddlers from the stark streets around. Instead of teaching the children to play, the management here set the children to play by themselves and set elder children to attend them. Great was the fun. Great was the noise. On a little dais at the end, coffee and sweet cakes were going, but there was no rush. When the kiddies wanted a cake they went up and asked for it; but for the most part they were immersed in that subdued, serious excitement which means that games are really being enjoyed. All of the attendants were girls of 12 or 13, of that sweet age between childhood and flapperhood, when girls are at their loveliest, with short frocks that dance at every delicate step, and with unconcealed glories of hair golden or dusky; all morning light and melody and fearlessness, not yet realizing that they are women. Many of them, shabby and underfed as they were, were really lovely girls, their beauty shining through their rags with an almost religious radiance, as to move you to prayer and tears. Their gentle ways with the baby-children were a joy to watch. One group was working a model railway. In another a little twelve-year-old girl was nursing two tinies, and had a cluster of others at her feet while she read "Jack and the Beanstalk" from a luridly illustrated rag-book. Another little girl was figuring certain steps of a dance of her own invention, each step being gravely followed by two youngsters who could scarcely walk.
Then the wonderful woman—a local woman, she bought a small shop years ago, and now owns a blazing rank of Stores—who financed the play-room went to the piano, crashed a few chords, and instantly every head, golden or brown or dark, was lifted to us. My hostess said something—a word of invitation—and, as though it were a signal, the crowd leaped up, and rushed, tumbled, or toddled toward us.
"What about a song?" cried the lady.
"Ooo-er ... rather!"
"What'll we have, then?"
The shrill babel half-stunned me. No two called for the same thing. If my hearing were correct, they wanted every popular song of the last ten years. However, we compromised, for a start, on "Jungle-Town," and, though I felt extremely nervous of such an audience, I gave it them, and then invited them for the second chorus.
What a chorus! Even the babies, who knew nothing of the words and could not have spoken them if they had, seemed to know the tune, and they let it out in every possible key. That song went with a bang, and I had no rest for at least half an hour. We managed to get them to write their favourites on slips of paper, and I took them in rotation, the symphony being in every case interrupted by long-drawn groans from the disappointed ones, and shrieks of glee from those who had chosen it. "On the Mississippi" was the winner of the evening; it was encored five times; and a hot second was "I do Kinder Feel I'm in Love."
When their demands had been exhausted I had a rest, and some coffee, while Iris, a wicked little girl of eleven, told the story of Joan of Arc. Other girls followed her, each telling her own pet story. Their skill in this direction was a thing to marvel at. The audience was a joy, with half-raised heads, wide eyes, open mouths, every nerve of them hanging on the reciter's words. Indeed, I, too, found that one of the tale-tellers had "got" me with her story of Andersen's "Little Match Girl."
On their asking another song, I told them the "creepy-creepy" story of Mark Twain's—the one about "Who's got my Golden Arm," where, if you have worked it up properly, you get a shriek of horror on the last word. I got it. A shriek of horror? It nearly pierced the drums of the ear. Then they all huddled together in a big bunch, each embracing the other, and begged me to tell it again; so, while they clung tightly together for safety, I told it again, but instead of a shriek I got a hysterical laugh which lasted for nearly a minute before they disentangled themselves. Then I gave them Charles Pond's recital about the dog-hospital, and the famous "Cohen at the Telephone."
At half-past nine they were collected into bunches, and dispatched home under the guidance of the bigger girls. They paused at the door to scream messages to me, to chant bits of the choruses we had sung, to dance with loud, defiant feet on the hollow floor, and one little girl gave me a pearl button from her pinafore as a keepsake, and hoped I would come again. Then she kissed me Good-Night, and ran off amid jeers from the boys.
At ten o'clock I helped my hostess in the clearing away of the cakes and coffee-cups, and, half an hour later we were out in the clamorous wilds of Shepherd's Bush.
A FRENCH NIGHT
OLD COMPTON STREET
OLD COMPTON STREET
Through London rain her people flow, And Pleasure trafficks to and fro. A gemmy splendour fills the town, And robes her in a spangled gown Through which no sorry wound may show.
But with the dusk my fancies go To that grey street I used to know, Where Love once brought his heavy crown Through London rain!
And ever, when the day is low, And stealthy clouds the night forethrow, I quest these ways of dear renown, And pray, while Hope in tears I drown, That once again her face may glow, Through London rain!
A FRENCH NIGHT
OLD COMPTON STREET
Step aside from the jostle and clamour of Oxford Street into Soho Square, and you are back in the eighteenth century and as lonely as a good man in Chicago. Cross the Square, cut through Greek Street or Dean Street, and you are in—Paris, amid the clang, the gesture, and the alert nonchalance of metropolitan France.
Soho—magic syllables! For when the respectable Londoner wants to feel devilish he goes to Soho, where every street is a song. He walks through Old Compton Street, and, instinctively, he swaggers; he is abroad; he is a dog. He comes up from Surbiton or Norwood or Golder's Green, and he dines cheaply at one of the hundred little restaurants, and returns home with the air and the sensation of one who has travelled, and has peeped into places that are not ... Quite ... you know.
Soho exists only to feed the drab suburban population of London on the spree. That artificial atmosphere of Montmartre, those little touches of a false Bohemia are all cunningly spread from the brains of the restaurateurs as a net to catch the young bank clerk and the young Fabian girl. Indeed, one establishment has overplayed the game to the extent of renaming itself "The Bohemia." The result is that one dare not go there for fear of dining amid the minor clergy and the Fabians and the girl-typists. It is a little pitiable to make a tour of the cafes and watch the Londoner trying to be Bohemian. There has been, of course, for the last few years, a growing disregard, among all classes, for the heavier conventionalities; but this determined Bohemianism is a mistake. The Englishman can no more be trifling and light-hearted in the Gallic manner than a Polar bear can dance the maxixe bresilienne in the jungle. If you have ever visited those melancholy places, the night clubs and cabarets, which had a boom a year or two ago, you will appreciate the immense effort that devilry demands from him. Those places were the last word in dullness. I have been at Hampstead tea-parties which gave you a little more of the joy of living. I have watched the nuts and the girls, and what have I seen? Boredom. Heavy eyes, nodding heads, a worn-out face, saying with determination, "I WILL be gay!" Perhaps you have seen the pictures of those luxuriously upholstered and appointed establishments: music, gaiety, sparkle, fine dresses, costume songs, tangos, smart conversation and faces, and all the rest of it. But the real thing.... Imagine a lot of dishevelled girls pouring into a stuffy room after the theatre, looking already fatigued, but bracing themselves to dance and eat and drink and talk until—as I have seen them—they fall asleep over the tables, and hate the boy who brought them there.
Practically the sole purpose of the place was to fill some one's pockets, for, as the patrons were playing at being frightful dogs, the management knew that they could do as they liked with the tariff. The boys wouldn't go to night-clubs if they were not spendthrifts. Result: whisky-and-soda, seven-and-sixpence; cup of coffee, half a crown. And nobody ever had the pluck to ask for change out of a sovereign.
Now, I love my Cockneys, heart and soul. And, just because I love them so much, I do wish to goodness they wouldn't be Bohemian; I do wish to goodness they would keep out of Soho cafes. They only come in quest of a Bohemianism which isn't there. They can get much better food at home, or they can afford to get a really good meal at an English hotel. I wish they would leave Soho alone for the people like myself who feed there because it is cheap, and because the waiters will give us credit.
"Garcong," cried the diner whose food was underdone, "these sausages ne sont pas fait!"
If the Cockney goes on like this, he will spoil Soho, and he will lose his own delightful individuality and idiosyncrasy.
But, apart from the invasion of Soho by the girl-clerk and the book-keeper, one cannot but love it. I love it because, in my early days of scant feeding, it was the one spot in London where I could gorge to repletion for a shilling. There was a little place in Wardour Street, the Franco-Suisse—it is still there—whose shilling table d'hote was a marvel: And I always had my bob's worth, I can assure you; for those were the days when one went hungry all day in order to buy concert tickets. Indeed, there were occasions when the breadbasket was removed from my table, so savage was the raid I made upon it.
There, one night a week, we feasted gloriously. We revelled. We read the Gaulois and Gil Blas and papers of a friskier tone. There still exists a Servian cafe where all manner of inflammatory organs of Nihilism may be read, and where heavy-bearded men—Anarchists, you hope, but piano-builders, you fear—would sit for three hours over their dinner Talking, Talking, TALKING. Then for another hour they would play backgammon, and at last roll out, blasphemously, to the darkened street, and so Home to those mysterious lodgings about Broad Street and Pulteney Street.
How the kitchens manage to do those shilling table d'hotes is a mystery which I have never solved, though I have visited "below" on one or two occasions and talked with the chefs. There are about a dozen cafes now which, for the Homeric shilling, give you four courses, bread ad lib, and coffee to follow. And it is good; it is a refection for the gods—certain selected gods.
You stroll into the little gaslit room (enamelled in white and decorated with tables set in the simplest fashion, yet clean and sufficient) as though you are dropping in at the Savoy or Dieudonne's. It is rhomboidal in shape, with many angles, as though perspective had suddenly gone mad. Each table is set with a spoon, a knife, a fork, a serviette, a basket of French bread, and a jar of French mustard. If you are in spendthrift mood, you may send the boy for a bottle of vin ordinaire, which costs tenpence; on more sober occasions you send him for beer.
There is no menu on the table; the waiter or, more usually, in these smaller places, the waitress explains things to you as you go along. Each course carries two dishes, au choix. There are no hors d'oeuvres; you dash gaily into the soup. The tureen is brought to the table, and you have as many goes as you please. Hot water, flavoured with potato and garnished with a yard of bread, makes an excellent lining for a hollow stomach. This is followed by omelette or fish. Of the two evils you choose the less, and cry "Omelette!" When the omelette is thrown in front of you it at once makes its presence felt. It recalls Bill Nye's beautiful story about an introspective egg laid by a morbid hen. However, if you smother the omelette in salt, red pepper, and mustard, you will be able to deal with it. I fear I cannot say as much for the fish. Then follows the inevitable chicken and salad, or perhaps Vienna steak, or vol-au-vent. The next item is Camembert or fruit, and coffee concludes the display.
Dining in these places is not a matter of subdued murmurs, of conversation in dulcet tones, or soft strains from the band. Rather you seem to dine in a menagerie. It is a bombardment more than a meal. The air buckles and cracks with noise. The first outbreak of hostilities comes from the counter at the entry of the first guest. The moment he is seated the waitress screams, "Un potage—un!" The large Monsieur, the proprietor, at the counter, bellows down the tube, "Un POTAGE—Un!" Away in subterranean regions an ear catches it, and a distant voice chants "Potage!" And then from the far reaches of the kitchen you hear a smothered tenor, as coming from the throat of one drowned in the soup-kettle, "P o t a g e!" As the customers crowd in the din increases. Everywhere there is noise; as a result the customers must shout their conversation. As the volume of conversation increases the counter, finding itself hard-pressed, brings up its heavy artillery.
"Vol-au-vent!" sings the waitress. "Vol-au-vent!" chants the counter in a bass as heavy and with as wide a range as Chaliapine's. "VOL-AU-VENT!" roars the kitchen with the despair of tears in the voice; and "V o l-a u-v e n t!" wails the lost soul beyond the Styx. By half-past seven it is no longer a restaurant; it is no longer a dinner that is being served. It is a grand opera that is in progress. The vocalists, "finding" themselves towards the end of the first act, warm up to the second, and each develops an individuality. I have often let my Vienna steak get cold while listening and trying to distinguish between the kitchen lift-man and the cook. Lift-man is usually a light and agreeable baritone, while the cook has mostly a falsetto, with a really exciting register. This grand opera idea affects, in turn, the waitresses. To the first-comers they are casual and chatty; but towards seven o'clock there is a subtle change. They become tragic. They are as the children of destiny. There is that Italianate sob in the voice as they demand Poulet roti au salade! as who should cry, "Ah, fors e lui!" or "In questa tomba...." They do not serve you. They assault you with soup or omelette. They make a grand pass above your head, and fling knife and fork before you. They collide with themselves and each other, and there are recriminations and reprisals. They quarrel, apparently, to the death, while M'sieu and Madame look on, passive spectators of the eternal drama. The air boils. The blood of the diners begins to boil, too, for they wave napkins and sticks of bread, and they bellow and scream defiance at one another. They draw the attention of the waitress to the fact that there is no salt on the table; what they seem to be telling her is that the destinies of France are in the balance, the enemy is at the gates, and that she must deliver herself as hostage or suffer dreadful deaths. Everything, in fact, boils, except the soup and the coffee; and at last, glad to escape, you toss your shilling on the table and tumble out, followed by a yearning cry of "Une salade—une!"
Even then your entertainment has not ceased with the passing of the shilling. For there are now numerous coffee-bars in Old Compton Street where for a penny you may lounge at the counter and get an excellent cup of black coffee, and listen to the electric piano, splurging its cheap gaiety on the night, or to the newsmen yelling "Journaux de Paris!" or "Derniere Heure!" There are "The Chat Noir," "The Cafe Leon," and "The Cafe Bar Conte"; also there is "The Suisse," where you may get "rekerky" liqueurs at threepence a time, and there is a Japanese cafe in Edward Street.
Of course there are numbers of places in Soho where you may dine more lavishly and expensively, and where you will find a band and a careful wine-list, such as Maxim's, The Coventry, The Florence, and Kettner's. Here you do not escape for a shilling, or anything like it. Maxim's does an excellent half-crown dinner, and so, too, does The Rendezvous. The others range from three shillings to five shillings; and as the price of the meal increases so do the prices on the wine-lists increase, though you drink the same wine in each establishment.
The atmosphere of the cheaper places is, however, distinctly more companionable than that of these others. In the latter you have Surbiton and Streatham, anxious to display its small stock of evening frocks and dress suits; very proper, very conscious of itself, very proud of having broken away from parental tradition. But in the smaller places, which are supported by a regular clientele of the French clerks, workmen, and warehouse porters who are employed in and about Oxford Street, the sense of camaraderie and naturalness is very strong. These people are not doing anything extraordinary. They are just having dinner, and they are gay and insouciant about it, as they are about everything except frivolity. It is not exciting for them to dine on five courses instead of on roast mutton and vegetables and milk-pudding. It is a common-place. For that is the curious thing about the foreigner: wherever he wanders he takes his country with him. Englishmen get into queer corners of the world, and adapt themselves to local customs, fit themselves into local landscapes. Not so the Continental. Let him go to London, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and he will take France, or Germany, or Italy, or Russia with him. Here in this little square mile of London is France: French shops, French comestibles, French papers, French books, French pictures, French hardware, and French restaurants and manners. In old Compton Street he is as much in France as if he were in the rue Chaussee d'Antin. I met some time since a grey little Frenchman who is first fiddle at a hall near Piccadilly Circus. He has never been out of France. Years and years ago he came from Paris, and went to friends in Wardour Street. There he worked for some time in a French music warehouse; and, when that failed, he was taken on in a small theatre near Shaftesbury Avenue. Thence, at fifty-two, he drifted into this music-hall orchestra, of which he is now leader. Yet during the whole time he has been with us he has never visited London. His London life has been limited to that square mile of short, brisk streets, Soho. If he crossed Piccadilly Circus, he would be lost, poor dear!
"Ah!" he sighs. "France ... yes ... Paris. Yes." For he lives only in dreams of the real Paris. He hopes soon to return there. He hoped soon to return there thirty years ago. He hates his work. He does not want to play the music of London, but the music of Paris. If he must play in London, he would choose to play in Covent Garden orchestra, where his fancy would have full freedom. When he says Music, he means Massenet, Gounod, Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo. He plays Wagner with but little interest. He plays Viennese opera with a positive snort. Ragtime—well, I do not think he is conscious of playing it; he fiddles mechanically for that. But when, by a rare chance, the bill contains an excerpt from Pagliacci, La Boheme, or Butterfly, then he lives. He cares nothing for the twilight muse of your intellectual moderns—Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Scriabine, and such. For him music is melody, melody, melody—laughter, quick tears, and the graceful surface of things; movement and festal colour.
He seldom rises before noon—unless rehearsals compel—and then, after a coffee, he wanders forth, smoking the cigarette of Algeria, and humming, always humming, the music that is being hummed in Paris. He is picturesque, in his own way—shabby, but artistically shabby. At one o'clock you will see him in "The Dieppe," taking their shilling table d'hote dejeuner, with a half-bottle of vin ordinaire; and he will sit over the coffee perhaps until three o'clock, murmuring the luscious, facile phrases of Massenet.
His great friend is the Irishman who plays the drum, for they have this in common: they are both exiles. They are both "saving up" to return home. They have both been "saving up" for the last twenty years. In each case there is a girl.... Or there was a girl twenty years ago. She is waiting for them—one in Paris, and the other in Wicklow. At least, so they believe. Sometimes, though, I think they must doubt; for I have met them together in the Hotel Suisse putting absinthes away carelessly, hopelessly; and a man does not play with absinthe when a girl is waiting for him.
AN ITALIAN NIGHT
Deep in the town of window smiles— You shall not find it, though you seek; But over many bricky miles It draws me through the wearing week. Its panes are dim, its curtains grey, It shows no heartsome shine at dusk; For gas is dear, and factory pay Makes small display: On the small wage she earns she dare not be too gay!
A loud saloon flings golden light Athwart the wet and greasy way, Where, every happy Sunday night, We meet in mood of holiday. She wears a dress of claret glow That's thinly frothed with bead and lace. She buys this lace in Jasmine Row, A spot, you know, Where luxuries of lace for a mere nothing go.
I love the shops that flare and lurk In the big street whose lamps are gems, For there she stops when off to work To covet silks and diadems. At evenings, too, the organ plays "My Hero" or in "Dixie Land"; And in the odoured purple haze, Where naphthas blaze, The grubby little girls the dust of dancing raise.
AN ITALIAN NIGHT
For some obscure reason Saffron Hill is always associated in the public mind with Little Italy. Why, I do not know. It isn't and never was Italian. There is not a trace of anything the least Italian about it. There isn't a shop or a home in the whole length of it. It is just a segment of the City, E.C.—a straggling street of flat-faced warehouses and printing-works; high, impassive walls; gaunt, sombre, and dumb; not one sound or spark of life to be heard or seen anywhere. Yet that is what the unknowing think of when they think of the Italian quarter.
The true, warm heart of Italy in London is Eyre Street Hill, which slips shyly out of one of the romantic streets of London—Clerkenwell Road. There is something very taking about Clerkenwell Road, something snug and cheering. It is full, clustering, and alive. Here is the Italian Church. Here is St. John's Gate, where Goldsmith and Isaac Walton and a host of other delightful fellows lived. This gatehouse is now all that remains of the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem around which the little village of Clerkenwell developed. Very near, too, are Cloth Fair, Bartholomew's Close, Smithfield, and a hundred other echoes of past times. And here—most exciting of all—the redoubtable Mr. Heinz (famous for his 57 Varieties) has his warehouse.
There is a waywardness about Clerkenwell Road. It never seems quite to know where it shall go. It drifts, winds, rises, drops, debouches. You climb its length, and, at the top, you see a wide open space, which is Mount Pleasant, and you think you have reached its end; but you haven't. There is much more to come. It doesn't stop until it reaches Gray's Inn Road, and then it stops sharply, unexpectedly. But the romance of the place lies not only in its past; there is an immediate romance, for which you must turn into its byways. Here live all those bronzed street-merchants who carry delightful things to our doors—ice-cream, roast chestnuts, roast potatoes, chopped wood, and salt. In unsuspected warehouses here you may purchase wonderful toys that you never saw in any other shops. You may buy a barrow and a stove and a complete apparatus for roasting potatoes and chestnuts, including a natty little poker for raking out the cinders. You may buy a gaudily decorated barrow and freezing-plant for the manufacture and sale of ice-cream. Or—and as soon as I have the money this is what I am going to buy in Clerkenwell—you may buy a real street organ—a hundred of them, if you wish. While the main road and the side streets on the south are given up to the watch and clock-makers, the opposite side-streets are Italian soil. Here are large warehouses where the poor Italian may hire an organ for the day, or week, or month. A rehearsal at one of these show-rooms is a deafening affair; it is just like Naples on a Sunday morning. As the organs come over from Italy, they are "tried out," and any flaws are immediately detected by the expert ear. In the same way, a prospective hirer always tries his instrument before concluding the deal, running through the tunes to be sure that they are fairly up-to-date. When you get, say, six clients all rehearsing their organs at once in a small show-room....
This organ industry, by the way, is a very big thing; and the dealers make much more by hire than by sale. Sometimes a padrone, who has done very well, will buy an organ; later, he may buy another organ, and perhaps another. Then, with three organs, he sits down, and sends other men out with them. Street organs, under our fatherly County Council, are forbidden on Sundays; nevertheless, Sunday being the only day when millions of people have any chance of recreation, many organs go out. Whither do they go? East, my dears. There, in any ramshackle hall, or fit-up arch-way, or disused stables, the boys and girls, out for fun, may dance the golden hours away throughout Sunday afternoon and evening. Often the organs are hired for Eastern weddings and christenings and other ceremonials, and, by setting the musician to work, say, in the back parlour, the boys and girls can fling their little feet about the garden without interference from any one of the hundred authorities who have us at their mercy.
It is because of the organs, I think, that I chiefly loved Clerkenwell. Organs have been part of my life ever since I was old enough to sit up and take notice. Try to think of London without organs. Have they not added incalculably to the store of human happiness, and helped many thousands over the waste patches of the week? They have; and I heap smouldering curses upon the bland imbeciles of Bayswater who, some time ago, formed themselves into a society for, I think they called it, The Abatement of Street Noises, and stuck their loathly notices in squares and public streets forbidding street organs to practise there. Let house-agents take note that I and a dozen of my friends will never, never, never take a house in any area where organs or street vendors or street cries are prohibited. They are part of the very soul of London. Kill them, and you kill something lovely and desirable, without which the world will be the sadder. That any one should have the impudence to ask for money for the carrying out of such a project is merely another proof of the disease of the age. They might as well form a society and appeal for funds for suppressing children from laughing or playing in the streets. They might as well form a society for the strangulation of all babies. They might as well.... But if I go on like this, I shall get angry. Thank Heaven, organs are not yet suppressed, though, after the curtailing of licensed hours, anything is possible. In that event, it really looks as if America were the only country in which to live, unless one could find some soft island in the Pacific, where one could do just as one jolly well pleased.
Let's all go down Eyre Street Hill, for there, you know, organs are still gurgling, and there are lazy laughter and spaghetti and dolce far niente, and cigarettes are six a penny. There are little restaurants here hardly bigger than a couple of telephone boxes. They contain but two tables, and some wooden benches, but about a dozen gloriously savage boys from Palermo and Naples are noisily supping after their day's tramp round London with whatever industry they affect. They have olive skins, black curly hair, flashing eyes, and fingers that dance with gemmy rings. A new-comer arrives, unhooking from his shoulders the wooden tray which holds the group of statuettes that he has been hawking round Streatham and Norwood. He salutes them in mellifluous tones, and sits down. He orders nothing; but a heaped-up dish of macaroni is put before him, and he attacks it with fork and finger. There are few women to be seen, but those few are gaudily arrayed in coloured handkerchiefs, their mournful eyes and purring voices touching the stern night to beauty. Of children there are dozens: furious boys and chattering girls. All the little girls, from four to fourteen, wear socks, and the narrow roadway flashes with the whirling of little white legs, so that the pedestrian must dodge his way along as one dancing a schottische. A few public-houses shed their dusty radiance, but these, too, are little better than dolls' houses. I have never seen village beer-shops so small. They are really about the size of the front room of a labourer's cottage, divided into two—Public Bar and Private Bar.
Such is the High Street of Italy, where one feeds. Most of the Italians, however, live in one of those huge blocks of tenements of which there are, I should think, a dozen in Clerkenwell. They seem to centre about the sounding viaducts that leap over Rosebery Avenue. Upon a time the place had a reputation for lawlessness, but that is now gone, with most of the colour of things. Occasionally there is an affray with knives, but it is always among themselves: a sort of vendetta; and nobody interferes so long as they refrain from bloodshed or from annoying peaceable people. The services in the Italian Church are very picturesque, and so, too, are their ceremonies at Christmas-time; while the procession of the children at First Communion is a thing of beauty. The little girls and boys walk together, the boys in black, the girls in white, with white wreaths gleaming in their dark curls. At Christmas-time there are great feasts, and every Italian baker and restaurant-keeper stocks his trays with Panetonnes, a kind of small loaf or bun, covered with sugar, which are distributed among the little ones of the Church.
An old friend of mine, named Luigi, who once kept a tiny wine-shop, lives in a little dirty room in Rosoman Street, and I sometimes spend an evening with him. But not in summer. I adjure you—do not visit an impoverished Italian who lives in one room in Clerkenwell, in the summer; unless, of course, you are a sanitary inspector. He is an entertaining old fellow, and speaks a delicious Italian-Cocknese, which no amount of trickery could render on the printed page. When I go, I usually take him a flask of Chianti and some Italian cigars, for which he very nearly kisses me.
But Luigi has a story. You will see that at once if you scan his face. There is something behind him—something he would like to forget. It happened about ten years ago, and I witnessed it. Ten years ago, Luigi did something—an act at once heroic, tragic, and idiotic. This was the way of it.
It was an April night, and we were lounging at that corner which was once called Poverty Point; the corner where Leather Lane crashes into Clerkenwell Road, and where, of a summer night, gather the splendid sons of Italy to discuss, to grin, to fight, and to invent new oaths. On this corner, moreover, they pivot in times of danger, and, once they can make the mazy circle of which it is the edge, safety from the pursuer is theirs. The place was alive with evening gladness. In the half-darkness, indolent groups lounged or strolled, filling their lungs with the heavily garlicked air of the place.
Then an organ pulled up at the public-house which smiles goldenly upon Mount Pleasant, and music broke upon us. Instantly, with the precision of a harlequinade, a stream of giggling girls poured from Eyre Street Hill and Back Hill. With the commencement of a rag-tag dance, the Point was whipped to frivolous life. The loungers grunted, and moved up to see. Clusters of children, little angels with dark eyes and language sufficiently seasoned to melt a glacier, slipped up from nowhere, and, one by one, the girls among them slid into the dance. One of them had a beribboned tambourine. Two others wanted it, and would snatch it away. Its owner said they were—something they could not possibly have been.
Stabs of light from the tenements pierced the dusk high and low. The night shone with recent rain, and in a shifting haze of grey and rose the dancers sank and glided, until the public-house lamp was turned on and a cornet joined the organ. In the warm yellow light, the revels broke bounds, and, to the hysterical appeal of "Hiawatha," the Point became a Babel.... When most of the dancers had danced themselves to exhaustion, two of the smaller maidens stood out and essayed a kind of can-can.
The crowd swooped in. It crowded with appreciation as they introduced all the piquant possibilities of the dance. It babbled its merriment at seeing little faces, which should show only the revel of April, bearing all the ravage of Autumn.
Comments and exhortations, spiced to taste, flew about the Point, ricochetted, and returned in boomerang fashion to their authors, who repolished them and shot them forth again. Heads bobbed back, forth, and up in the effort to see. In a prestissimo fire of joy, the novel exercise reached its finale, when ...
"Hi-hi! He. Eeeee!" As though by signal, the whole Point was suddenly aspurt with spears of flame, leaping, meeting, and crossing. We looked round. The dance stopped, the organ gurgled away to rubbish, the crowd took open order, and stared at the narrow alley of Back Hill. Blankets of smoke moved from its mouth, pushing their suffocating way up the street. Twenty people hurt themselves in shrieking orders. Women screamed and ran. From an open window a tongue of flame was thrust derisively; it tickled a man's neck, and he swore. Then a lone woman had the sense to scream something intelligible.
We all ran. English, Italian, and profane clashed together. Three small boys strangled each other in a race for the fire-bell. In Back Hill, men, women, and children were hustling themselves through the ground-floor window of the doomed house. Thick, languid flames blocked the doorway, swaying idly, ready to fasten their fangs in anything that approached. Furniture crashed and bounded to the pavement. Mattresses were flung out to receive the indecent figures of their owners. The crowd swelled feverishly. Women screamed.
Gradually the crackle of burning wood and the ripple of falling glass gained voice above the outcry of the crowd. A shout of fear and admiration surged up, as a spout of flame darted through the roof, and quivered proudly to the sky. Luigi threw back his sweeping felt hat, loosened his yellow neckcloth, tightened his scarlet waistband. "It is bad," he said. "It is a fire."
I said "Yes," having nothing else to say. A few Cockneys inquired resentfully why somebody didn't do something. Then the word went round that all were out but one. A woman was left at the top. A sick hush fell. Away in the upper regions a voice was wailing. The women turned pale, and one or two edged away. The men whistled silently, and looked serious. They had the air of waiting for something. It came. Luigi moved swiftly away from me, fought a way through the crowd, and stood by the door, his melodious head lashed by the fringe of the flames.
"I go up," he said operatically.
A dozen men dashed from him, crying things. "Wet blanket, there. Quick! Here's a bloke going up. Italiano's going up!"
At the back of the crowd, where I stood, a few fools cheered. They were English. "'Ray! 'Ray! 'Ray! Good iron! 'E's gotter nerve, 'e 'as. Wouldn't athought it o' them Italians."
The Italians were silent. From the house came long screams, terrible to hear in the London twilight. A Sicilian said something in his own language which cannot be set down; the proprietor of the Ristorante del Commercio also grew profane. The children stared and giggled, wonderingly. Blankets and buckets of water were conjured from some obscure place of succour. In half a minute the blankets were soaked, and Luigi was ready.
A wispy man in a dented bowler danced with excitement. "Oh, he's gotter nerve, if yeh like. Going to risk his life, he is. Going to risk his blasted life." Fresh and keener screams went down the golden stairway. Luigi flung the wet folds about him, vaulted the low sill, and then the wild light danced evilly about him. Outside, we watched and waited. A lurid silence settled, and the far cries of one of the late dancers who was receiving correction for dancing indecent dances seemed entirely to fill space. The atmosphere was, as it were, about to crack and buckle, and I was feeling that Luigi was a heroic fool, when a passing navvy, not susceptible to influences, saved the situation by bursting into song:—
"You're here and I'm here, So what do we care?"
The wispy man looked round, reprovingly. "Easy on, there!" he implored.
"Well ... chep's risking his life."
"Well ... 'at don't make no difference. Be 'appy while yeh can, I say."
"No, but ... chep's risking his life."
"Yew maide me love yew, I didn't wanter do it!"
"Risking his life, and all!"
Then the climax was reached. A scream sounded from above, then silence, then a confused rush of feet. The figure of Luigi filled the opening of the low window, and those nearest surged in to help and see. He was dragged through, head first, and set on his feet. The fire-engine raved and jangled in Clerkenwell Road, but there was no way for it. The firemen tried to clear the crowd, but it would not be denied its sight of the hero. It struggled in to admire. It roared and yelled in one and a hundred voices. The cafe proprietor gestured magnificently. Regard the hero! How he was brave! The wispy man nearly had a fit. He skipped. Risked his life, and all. For a blasted stranger.
Luigi dropped the bundle gently from his arms, and stood over it, a little bewildered at his reception. The firemen fought furiously, and at last they cleared a passage for their plant. Then, as they cleared, the wispy man danced again, and seemed likely to die. He sprang forward and capered before Luigi. I tried to get through to help Luigi out, but I was wedged like a fishbone in the throat of the gang.
It was then that horrid screams came again from the house, winding off in ragged ends. The wispy, man spluttered.
"Yeh damn fool! Look what yeh brought down. Look at it. Yeh damn fool!"
Luigi looked still bewildered, and now I fought with sharp elbows, and managed to get to the front rank. The man's shaking finger pointed at Luigi's feet. "D'you know what you done, Italiano? You made a mistake. A blasted mistake. Aw ... yeh damn fool!"
I looked too. There was no woman at Luigi's feet. There was a bundle of sheets, blanket, and carpet. A scream came from the house. Every window filled with flame. The roof fell inwards with a crash and a rain of sparks.
Clerkenwell has never forgiven Luigi. Luigi has never forgiven himself.
A BASHER'S NIGHT
Rank odours ride on every breeze; Skyward a hundred towers loom; And factories throb and workshops wheeze, And children pine in secret gloom. To squabbling birds the roofs declaim Their little tale of misery; And, smiling over murk and shame, A wild rose blows by Bermondsey.
Where every traffic-thridden street Is ribboned o'er with shade and shine, And webbed with wire and choked with heat; Where smokes with fouler smokes entwine; And where, at evening, darkling lanes Fume with a sickly ribaldry— Above the squalors and the pains, A wild rose blows by Bermondsey.
Somewhere beneath a nest of tiles My little garret window squats, Staring across the cruel miles, And wondering of kindlier spots. An organ, just across the way, Sobs out its ragtime melody; But in my heart it seems to play: A wild rose blows by Bermondsey!
And dreams of happy morning hills And woodlands laced with greenest boughs Are mine to-day amid the ills Of Tooley Street and wharfside sloughs, Though Cherry Gardens reek and roar, And engines gasp their horrid glee; I mark their ugliness no more: A wild rose blows by Bermondsey.
A BASHER'S NIGHT
Hoxton is not merely virile; it is virulent. Life here hammers in the blood with something of the insistence of ragtime. The people—men, women, and children—are alive, spitefully alive. You feel that they are ready to do you damage, with or without reason. Here are antagonism and desire, stripped for battle. Little children, of three years old, have the spirit in them; for they lean from tenement landings that jut over the street, and, with becoming seriousness, spit upon the passing pedestrians, every hit scoring two to the marksman.
The colour of Hoxton Street is a tremendous purple. It springs upon you, as you turn from Old Street, and envelops you. There are high, black tenement houses. There are low cottages and fumbling passages. There are mellow fried-fish shops at every few yards. There are dirty beer-houses and a few public-houses. There are numerous cast-off clothing salons. And there are screeching Cockney women, raw and raffish, brutalized children, and men who would survive in the fiercest jungle. Also there is the Britannia Theatre and Hotel. The old Brit.! It stands, with Sadler's Wells and the Surrey, as one of the oldest homes of fustian drama. Sadler's Wells is now a picture palace, and the Surrey is a two-house Variety show. The old Brit. held out longest, but even that is going now. Its annual pantomime was one of the events of the London Season for the good Bohemian. Then all the Gallery First Nighters boys and girls would go down on the last night, which was Benefit Night for Mrs. Sara Lane, the proprietress. Not only were bouquets handed up, but the audience showered upon her tributes in more homely and substantial form. Here was a fine outlet for the originality of the crowd, and among the things that were passed over the orchestra-rails or lowered from boxes and circles were chests of drawers, pairs of corsets, stockings, pillow-cases, washhand jugs and basins, hip-baths, old boots, mince-pies, Christmas puddings, bottles of beer, and various items of lumber and rubbish which aroused healthy and Homeric laughter at the moment, but which, set down in print at a time when Falstaffian humour has departed from us, may arouse nothing but a curled lip and a rebuke. But it really was funny to see the stage littered with these tributes, which, as I say, included objects which are never exhibited in the light of day to a mixed company.
But the cream of Hoxton is its yobs. It is the toughest street in London. I don't mean that it is dangerous. But if you want danger, you have only to ask for it, and it is yours. It will not be offered you anywhere in London, but if you do ask for it, Hoxton is the one place where there is "no waiting," as the barbers say. The old Shoreditch Nile is near at hand, and you know what that was in the old days. Well, Hoxton to-day does its best to maintain the tradition of "The Nile."
Now once upon a time there was a baby-journalist named Simple Simon. He went down to Hoxton one evening, after dinner. It had been the good old English dinner of Simpson's, preceded by two vermuths, accompanied by a pint of claret, and covered in the retreat by four maraschinos. It was a picturesque night. A clammy fog blanketed the whole world. It swirled and swirled. Hoxton Street was a glorious dream, as enticingly indefinite as an opium-sleep. Simple Simon had an appointment here. The boys were to be out that night. Jimmie Flanagan, their leader, had passed the word to Simon that something would be doing, something worth being in. For that night was to witness the complete and enthusiastic bashing of Henry Wiggin, the copper's nark, the most loathed and spurned of all creeping things that creep upon the earth.
Simon walked like a lamb into the arms of trouble. He strolled along the main street, peering every yard of his way through the writhing gloom. Nobody was about. He reached Bell Yard, and turned into it. Then he heard something. Something that brought him to a sharp halt. Before he saw or heard anything more definite, he felt that he was surrounded. To place direction of sound was impossible. He heard, from every side, like the whisper of a load of dead leaves, the rush of rubber shoes. With some agility he leaped to what he thought was the clear side, only to take a tight arm like a rope across his chest and another about his knees.
"There's one fer yew, 'Enry!" cried a spirited voice as a spirited palm smote him on the nose.
"Hi! Hi! Easy!" Simon appealed. "I ain't 'Enry, dammit! You're bashing me—me—Simon!" He swore rather finely; but the fog, the general confusion, and, above all, the enthusiasm of bashing rendered identification by voice impracticable. Indeed, if any heard it, it had no effect; for, so they had some one to bash, they would bash. It didn't matter to them, just so it was a bash. Flanagan heard it quite clearly, but he knew the madness of attempting to stop eleven burly Hoxton yobs once they were well in....
"I'm not 'Enry. I ain't the nark!" But he was turned face downward, and his mouth was over a gully-hole, so that his protests scared only the rats in the sewer. He set his teeth, and writhed and jerked and swung, and for some seconds no bashing could proceed, for he was of the stuff of which swordsmen are made—small, lithe, and light: useless in a stand-up fight with fists, but good for anything in a scrum. When, however, as at present, eleven happy lads were seeking each a grip on his person, it became difficult to defeat their purpose. But at last, as he was about to make a final wrench at the expense of his coat, the metal tips on his boots undid him. He dug his heels backward to get a purchase, he struck the slippery surface of the kerb instead of the yielding wood of the roadway, and in a moment he was down beyond all struggle. A foot landed feelingly against his ribs, another took him on the face; and for all that they were rubbered they stung horribly. Then, with two pairs of feet on his stomach, and two on his legs, he heard that wild whisper that may unnerve the stoutest—
"Orf wi' yer belts, boys!"
The bashing of the nark was about to begin. There was a quick jingle as many leather belts were loosed, followed by a whistle, and—zpt! he received the accolade of narkhood. Again and again they came, and they stung and bit, and he could not move. They spat all about him. He swore crudely but sincerely, and if oaths have any potency his tormentors should have withered where they stood. Two and three at a time they came, for there were eleven of them—Flanagan having discreetly retired—and all were anxious to christen their nice new belts on the body of the hated nark; and they did so zealously, while Simon could only lie still and swear and pray for a happy moment that should free one of his hands....
He knew it was a mistake, and he kept his temper so far as possible. But human nature came out with the weals and bruises. He didn't want to do the dirty on them, he didn't want to take extreme steps, but dammit, this was the frozen limit. He knew that when their mistake was pointed out they would offer lavish apologies and pots of four-'arf, but the flesh is only the flesh.
"Turn the blanker over!"
In that moment, as he was lifted round, his left hand was freed. In a flash it fumbled at his breast. Twisting his head aside, he got something between his teeth, and through the fetid fog went the shiver and whine of the Metropolitan Police Call. Three times he blew, with the correct inflection.
At the first call he was dropped like a hot coal. From other worlds came an answering call. He blew again. Then, like thin jets of water, whistles spurted from every direction. He heard the sound of scuttering feet as his enemies withdrew. He heard the sound of scuttering feet as they closed in again. But he was not waiting for trouble. He pulled his burning self together, and ran for the lights that stammered through the gloom at the Britannia. He whistled as he ran. Curses followed him.
At the Britannia he collided with a slow constable. He flung a story at him. The constable inspected him, and took notes. The lurking passages began to brighten with life, and where, a moment ago, was sick torpidity was now movement, clamour. Distant whistles still cried. The place tingled with nervous life.
Some cried "Whassup?" and some cried "Stanback, cancher!" They stared, bobbed, inquired, conjectured. The women were voluble. The men spat. A forest of faces grew up about Simple Simon. A hurricane of hands broke about his head. The constable took notes and whistled. A humorist appeared.
"'Ullo, 'ullo, 'ullo! Back water there, some of yer. Stop yer shoving. Ain't nobody bin asking for me? Stop the fight. I forbid the bangs!"
But he was not popular. They jostled him.
"'Ere," cried some one, "let some one else have a see, Fatty! Other people wanter have a see, don't they?"
"Stanback—stanback! Why cancher stanback!"
Fatty inquired if Someone wanted a smash over the snitch. Because, if so....
A woman held that Simple Simon had a rummy hat on. There were pauses, while the crowd waited and shuffled its feet, as between the acts.
Fatty asked why some one didn't do something. Alwis the way, though—them police. Stanback—git back on your mat, Toby.
And then ... and then the swelling, clamorous, complaining crowd swooped in on itself with a sudden undeniable movement. Its centre flattened, wavered, broke, and the impelling force was brought face to face with Simple Simon and the constable. It was Flanagan and the boys.
Three pairs of arms collared the constable low. Simple Simon felt a jerk on his arm that nearly pulled it from its socket, and a crackling like sandpaper at his ear. "Bolt for it!"
And he would have done so, but at that moment the answering whistles leaped to a sharper volume, and through the distorting fog came antic shapes of blue, helmeted. The lights of the Britannia rose up. Panic smote the crowd, and for a moment there was a fury of feet.
Women screamed. Others cried for help. Some one cried, "Hot stuff, boys—let 'em 'ave it where it 'urts most!"
Fatty cried: "Git orf my foot! If I find the blank blank blank what trod on my blank 'and, I'll——!"
"Look out, boys! Truncheons are out!"
They ran, slipped, fell, rolled. A cold voice from a remote window, remarked, above the din, that whatever he'd done he'd got a rummy hat on. A young girl was pinioned against the wall by a struggling mass for whom there was no way. There was in the air an imminence of incident, acid and barbed. The girl screamed. She implored. Then, with a frantic movement, her free hand flew to her hat. She withdrew something horrid, and brought it down, horridly, three times. Three shrieks flitted from her corner like sparks from a funnel. But her passage was cleared.
Then some important fool pulled the fire-alarm.
"Stanback, Stinkpot, cancher? Gawd, if I cop that young 'un wi' the bashed 'elmet, I'll learn him hell!"
"If I cop 'old of the blanker what trod on my 'and, I'll——!"
"No, but—'e 'ad a rummy 'at on. 'E 'ad."
Away distant, one heard the brazen voice of the fire-engine, clanging danger through the yellow maze of Hoxton streets. There was the jangle of harness and bells; the clop-clop of hoofs, rising to a clatter. There was the scamper of a thousand feet as the engine swung into the street with the lordliest flourish and address. Close behind it a long, lean red thing swayed to and fro, like some ancient dragon seeking its supper.
"Whichway, whichway, whichway?" it roared.
"Ever bin had?" cried the humorist. "There ain't no pleading fire! This is a picnic, this is. 'Ave a banana?"
"WhichWAY?" screamed the engine. "Don't no one know which way?"
The humorist answered them by a gesture known in polite circles as a "raspberry." Then a constable, with fierce face, battered helmet, and torn tunic, and with an arm-lock on a perfectly innocent non-combatant, flung commands in rapid gusts—
"This way, Fire. King's name. Out hoses!"
The fog rolled and rolled. The Britannia gleamed on the scene with almost tragic solemnity. Agonized shapes rushed hither and thither. Women screamed. Then a rich Irish voice sang loud above all: "Weeny, boys!"
As the firemen leaped from their perches on the engine to out hoses, so, mysteriously, did the combat cease. Constables found themselves, in a moment, wrestling with thick fog and nothing more. The boys were gone. Only women screamed.
Some one said: "If I cop a hold of the blankety blank blanker what trod on my blanking 'and, I'll just about——!"
On the word "Weeny" Simple Simon was once again jerked by the arm, and hustled furiously down passages, round corners, and through alleyways, finally to be flung into the misty radiance of Shoreditch High Street, with the terse farewell: "Now run—for the love of glory, run!"
But he didn't. He stood still against a friendly wall, and suffered. He straightened his dress. He touched sore places with a tender solicitude. His head was racking. All his limbs ached and burned. He desired nothing but the cold sheets of his bed and a bottle of embrocation. He swore at the fog, with a fine relish for the colour of sounds. He swore at things that were in no way responsible for his misfortune. Somewhere, he conjectured, in warmth and safety, Henry Wiggin, the copper's nark, was perfectly enjoying his supper of fried fish and 'taters and stout.
And then, over the sad, yellow night, faint and sweet and far away, as the memory of childhood, came a still small voice—
"No, but 'e 'ad a rummy 'at on, eh?"
A DOWN-STREAM NIGHT
WEST INDIA DOCK ROAD
Black man—white man—brown man—yellow man— All the lousy Orient loafing on the quay: Hindoo, Dago, Jap, Malay, and Chinaman Dipping into London from the great green sea!
Black man—white man—brown man—yellow man— Pennyfields and Poplar and Chinatown for me! Stately-moving cut-throats and many-coloured mysteries, Never were such lusty things for London lads to see!
On the evil twilight—rose and star and silver— Steals a song that long ago in Singapore they sang: Fragrant of spices, of incense and opium, Cinnamon and aconite, the betel and the bhang.
Three miles straight lies lily-clad Belgravia, Thin-lipped ladies and padded men and pale. But here are turbaned princes and velvet-glancing gentlemen, Tom-tom and sharp knife and salt-caked sail.
Then get you down to Limehouse, by riggings, wharf, and smoke-stack, Glamour, dirt, and perfume, and dusky men and gold; For down in lurking Limehouse there's the blue moon of the Orient— Lamps for young Aladdins, and bowies for the bold!
A DOWN-STREAM NIGHT
Tide was at flood, and below Limehouse Hole the waters thrashed the wharves with malice. The hour was late, but life ran high in those parts. Against the savage purple of the night a few wisps of rigging and some gruff funnels stood up in East and West India Docks.
Sheer above the walls of East India Dock rose the deck of the Cawdor Castle, as splendidly correct as a cathedral. The leaping lines of her seemed lost in the high skies, and she stood out sharply, almost ecstatically. Against such superb forces of man, the forces of Nature seemed dwarfed. It was a lyric in steel and iron. Men hurried from the landing-stage, up the plank, vanishing into the sly glooms of the huge port-holes. Chains rang and rattled. Lascars of every kind flashed here and there: Arabs, Chinkies, Japs, Malays, East Indians. Talk in every lingo was on the air. Some hurried from the dock, making for a lodging-house or for The Asiatics' Home. Some hurried into the dock, with that impassive swiftness which gives no impression of haste, but rather carries a touch of extreme languor. An old cargo tramp lay in a far berth, and one caught the sound of rushing blocks, and a monotonous voice wailing the Malayan chanty: "Love is kind to the least of men, EEEE-ah, EEEE-ah!" Boats were loading up. Others were unloading. Over all was the glare of arclights, and the flutter of honeyed tongues.
A few tugs were moored at the landing-stages. One or two men hung about them, smoking, spitting. The anger of the Blackwall streets came to them in throbbing blasts, for it was Saturday night, and closing time. Over the great plain of London went up a great cry. Outside the doors of every hostelry, in Piccadilly and Bermondsey, in Blackwall and Oxford Street, were gathered bundles of hilarity, lingering near the scenes of their recent splendours. A thousand sounds, now of revelry, now of complaint, disturbed the brooding calm of the sky. A thousand impromptu concerts were given, and a thousand insults grew precociously to blows. A thousand old friendships were shattered, and a thousand new vows of eternal comradeship and blood-brotherhood were registered. A thousand wives were waiting, sullen and heavy-eyed, for a thousand jovial or brutal mates; and a thousand beds received their occupants in full harness, booted and hatted, as though the enemy were at the gates. Everywhere strains of liquor-music surged up for the next thirty minutes, finally to die away piecemeal as different roads received different revellers.
In the hot, bilious dark of Blackwall, the tug swayed and jerked, and the voices of the men seemed almost to shatter the night. But high above them was the dirty main street, and there "The Galloping Horses" flared and fluttered and roared. There seemed to be trouble.... One heard a querulous voice: "I said TIME, din' I?" And another: "Well, let 'im prove it. Let 'im 'it me, that's all!" From the tug you could see the dust of the street rise in answering clouds to the assaults of many feet. Then, quite suddenly, the wide swing-doors of the bar flapped back. A golden gleam burst on the night and seemed to vomit a slithering mass of men which writhed and rolled like an octopus. Then you heard the collapsible gates run to their sockets with a glad clang, and the gas was switched off.
The fester of noise widened and widened, and at last burst into twenty minute pieces. And now a large voice commanded the silence of the night, and cried upon London: "What I said is what I say now: that fan-tan is fan-tan. And blasted miracles is blasted miracles."
I stood on the tug, with some of the boys, and in silence we watched the drama that was about to unfold itself. I had tramped there, unthinkingly, up the thunderous length of Rotherhithe Tunnel and down East India Dock Road and had fallen in with Chuck Lightfoot and some of his waterside cronies. We were lounging on the tug, so far as I remember, because we were lounging on the tug. For no other reason.
After the outcry of the Great Voice, there was a short silence. It was broken by a woman, who cried: "Ar-ferr!"
"You go on 'ome!" cried Arfer.
The woman replied that bad-word husbands who stayed out so bad-wordily late ought to be bad-wordily bad-worded. The next moment Arfer had gone down to a blow from the Great Voice.
Things began to happen. There was a loud scratch as a hundred feet scuttered backward. The victim sprang up. For a moment astonishment seemed to hold him, as he bleared; then he seemed about to burst with wrath; then he became a cold sportsman. The lady screamed for aid. He spat on his hands. He hitched his trousers. Hands down, chin protruded, he advanced on his opponent with the slow, insidious movement of the street fighter. The other man dashed in, beat him off with the left, and followed it with three to the face with the right. He pressed his man. He ducked a lumbering right swing, and sent a one-two to the body. The lady had lashed herself to a whirlwind of profanity. She spat words at the crowd, and oaths fell like toads from her lips. We below heard the crowd and the lady; but we saw only the principals of the combat until ... until the lady, disregarding the ethics of the game, flew in with screwed face, caught the coming arm of the big man, and pinioned it beneath her own.
"'Elp, 'elp, some of yeh!" she cried. Her husband fastened on to his enemy, tore at his collar with wild fingers, opened his mouth, and tried to bite. The big man struggled with both. The bulky form of the lady was swung back and forth by his cunning arm; and one heard the crowd stand by, press in, rush back, in rhythm to the movements of the battlers. A moment later the lady was down and out. A sudden blow at the breast from the great elbow. I heard her fall.... I heard the gasp of the crowd.
Here and there the blank street was suddenly struck to life. Warm blinds began to wink. One heard the creak of opening windows, and voices: "Why doncher separate 'em? Why cancher shut that plurry row?" With the new light one saw the crowd against a ground of chocolate hue. Here and there a cigarette picked out a face, glowing like an evil eye. All else was dank darkness.
Round and round the combatants went. Two well-set youngsters made a dash upon them, only to be swung from their feet into the crowd. They kicked, twisted, jerked, panted, now staggered a few paces, now stood still, straining silently. Now they were down, now up. Another woman's voice wailed across the unhappy water in the mournful accent of Belfast: "Fr-r-rank, Fr-rank, where arrre ye? Oh, Fr-rank, Fr-rank—ye br-reak me hear-r-t!"
Then Chuck Lightfoot, known also as The Panther, The Croucher, and The Prize Packet, shifted from my side. I looked at him. "Fed up on this, I am. Wait here." He vaulted from the deck of the tug to the landing-stage, strode up the gang-plank, and was lost in the long shaft of darkness.
From above one heard a noise—a nasty noise: the sound of a man's head being banged on the pavement. Frank's wife screamed: "Separate 'em! He's killin' 'im! Why don't some one do somethin'?"
Another woman cried: "I'll be sick. Stop 'em! I daresn't look."
Then everything stopped. We heard a low hum, swelling swiftly to a definite cry. The word "dead—dead—dead" flitted from mouth to mouth. Some turned away. Others approached as near as they dared, retreating fearfully when a push from behind drove them forward....
But nobody was dead. Into the centre light had dashed Chuck Lightfoot. Chuck Lightfoot was a pugilistic manager. He was a lot of other things besides. He was the straightest boy I have ever met in that line. He had every high animal quality that a man should have. And he had a cold nerve that made men twice his size afraid of him.
The fight was stopped. Two blows from Chuck had stopped it. The crowd gathered round and gave first aid to both combatants, while Chuck faced them, and waited for assaults. We climbed up and stood with him, but nothing happened. Tragedy is so often imminent in this region, and so often trickles away to rubbish. The crowd was vociferous and gestic. It swooped about us, and inquired, conjectured, disapproved, condemned.
Then came several blue helmets and swift dispersal.
The affair was over.
AN ART NIGHT
A LONDON MOMENT
Often have I, in my desolate years, Flogged a jaded heart in loud saloons; Often have I fled myself with tears, Wandering under pallid, passionate moons.
Often have I slunk through pleasured rites, Lonely in the tumult of decay; Often marked the hectic London nights Flowing from the violet-lidded day.
Yet, because of you, the world has been Kindlier. Oh, little heart-o'-rose, I have glimpsed a beauty seldom seen In this labyrinthine mist of woes.
Beauty smiles at me from common things, All the way from Fleet Street to the Strand; Even in the song the barmaid sings I have found a fresh enchanted land.
Pass me by, you little vagrant joy. Brush me from your delicate mimic world. Nothing of you now can e'er annoy, Since your beauty has my heart empearled.
Pass me by; and only let me say: Glad I am for pain of loving you, Glad—for, in the tumult of decay, Life is nobler than I ever knew.
AN ART NIGHT
"The choicest bit of London!" That is William Dean Howells' impression of Chelsea. And, if you would perceive rightly the soul of Chelsea, you must view it through the pearl-grey haze of just such a temperament as that of the suave American novelist. If you have not that temperament, then Chelsea is not for you; try Hampstead or Streatham or Bayswater.
Of all suburbs it is the most subtle. It has more soul in one short street than you will find in the whole mass of Oxford Street and Piccadilly. There is something curiously feminine and intoxicating in the quality of its charm, something that evokes the silver-pensive mood. One visions it as a graceful spinster—watered silks, ruffles, corkscrew curls, you know, with lily fingers caressing the keys of her harpsichord. Pass down Cheyne Walk at whatever time you will, and you are never alone; little companies of delicate fancy join you at every step. The gasworks may gloom at you from the far side. The L.C.C. cars may hum and clang. But fancy sweeps them away. It is like sitting amid the barbarities of a Hyde Park drawing-room, in the emerald dusk, listening to the pathetic wheezing of a musical-box, ridiculously sweet:—
Oh, don't you remember the days when we roamed, Sweet Phillis, by lane and by lea?
Whatever you want in Chelsea—that you will find, assuming, of course, the possession of the Chelsea temperament. Whistler discovered her silvern beauty when he first saw her reclining by the river, beautifying that which beautifies her. All about Chelsea the colours seem to chime with their backgrounds as though they loved them; and when the lamps are lighted, flinging soft shadows on sixteenth and seventeenth-century gables and doorways and passages, then she becomes a place of wonder, a Bagdad, a treasure-ground for the artist.
And the artists have discovered her. Chelsea has much to show. Hampstead, Kensington, Mayfair—these be rich in gilt-trapping names, but no part of England can produce such a shining array of names, whose greatness owes nothing to time, place, or social circumstance: the names of those whose greatness is of the soul, and who have shaken the world with the beauty they have revealed to us. But Art has now taken possession of her, and it is as the studio of the artist that Chelsea is known to-day. Step this way, if you please. We draw the curtain. Vie de Boheme! But not, mark you, the vie de Boheme of Murger. True, Rodolphe and Marcel are here, and Mimi and Musette. But the studio is not the squalid garret that we know. We have changed all that. Rodolphe writes light verse for the "largest circulations." Mimi draws fashion plates, and dresses like the Duchess of the novelettes. Marcel—well, Marcel of Chelsea may be poor, but his is only a relative poverty. He is poor in so far as he dines for two shillings instead of five. The Marcel of to-day who is accustomed to skipping a meal by stress of circumstances doesn't live in Chelsea. He simply couldn't do it; look at the rents. He lives in Walworth Road or Kentish Town. No; there is a vie de Boheme at Chelsea, but it is a Bohemia of coffee liqueurs and Turkish cigarettes.
The beginnings of the delectable suburb are obscure. It seems to have assumed importance on the day when Henry VIII "acquired" its manor, which led to the building of numerous sycophantic houses. The Duchess of Monmouth had a residence here, with the delightful John Gay as secretary. Can one imagine a modern Duchess with a modern poet as secretary? The same house was later occupied by the gouty dyspeptic Smollett, who wrote all his books at the top of his bad temper. Then came—but one could fill an entire volume with nothing but a list of the goodly fellowship of Chelsea.
The book about Chelsea has yet to be written. Such a book should disclose to us the soul of the place, with its eternal youth and eternal antiquity. It should introduce us to its charming ghosts—it is difficult to name one disagreeable person in this pageant; even the cantankerous Smollett was soothed when he came under its spell. It should enable us to touch finger-tips, perhaps make closer acquaintance, with Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Hans Holbein, Thomas Shadwell (forgotten laureate), Carlyle, Whistler, Edwin Abbey, George Meredith, Swinburne, Holman Hunt, William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, Oscar and Willie Wilde, Count d'Orsay, George Eliot, and a host of lesser but equally adorable personalities whose names must come "among those present." It should show us its famous places. It should afford us peep-holes into the studios of famous artists—Augustus John's studio is a revelation in careful disarrangement; it should take us round a "Show Sunday"; it should reconstruct the naive gaieties of Cremorne; and, finally, it should recreate and illumine all the large, forgotten moments in the lives of those apostles of beauty whose ruminations and dreams the soul of Chelsea has fused with more of herself than men may know; ending, perhaps, with a disquisition on the effects of environment on the labours of genius.
Such a book must be done by a stranger, an observer, one with a gracious pen, a delicate, entirely human mind. There is one man above all who is divinely appointed for the task.
Please, Mr. W. D. Howells, will you write it for us?
* * * * *
I was strolling in philosophic mood down the never-ending King's Road, one November night, debating whether I should drop in at the Chelsea Palace, or have just one more at the "Bells," when I ran into the R.B.A. He is a large man, and running into him rather upsets one's train of thought. When I had smoothed my nose and dusted my trousers, I said: "Well, what about it?" He said: "Well, what about it?"
So we turned into the "Six Bells," the evening haunt of every good artist. He said he hadn't much money, so what about it? We decided on a Guinness to begin with, and then he ordered some Welsh Rarebits, while I inspected the walls of the saloon, which are decorated with nothing but originals, many of them bearing resounding names. In the billiard-room he introduced me to Augustus John and three other famous men who might not like it known that they drink beer in public-houses. When the Welsh Rarebits were announced, we went upstairs to the cosy dining-room and feasted gorgeously, watching, from the window, the many-coloured life of Chelsea....
When every scrap of food on our plates was gone, we had another Guinness, and I went back to his studio, a beautiful room with oak panelling and electric light, which he rented from a travelling pal for the ridiculous sum of three shillings a week. It stood next to the reconstructed Crosby Hall, and looked out on a wide prospect of sloping roofs, peppered with a sharp light.
He sat down and showed me his day's work. He showed me etchings, oils, pastels. He told me stories. He showed me caricatures of the famous people with whom he had bohemed. Then, at about ten o'clock, he said it was rather dull; and what about it? He knew a place, quite near, where some of the boys were sure to be; what about it?
So we descended the lone staircase, and came out to the windy embankment, where self-important little tugs were raking the water with the beams of their headlights. Thence we made many turnings, and stopped at a house near the Models' Club. At this club, which was formed only in 1913, the artists may go at any time to secure a model—which is a distinct boon. The old way was for the model to call on the artist, the result being that the unfortunate man was pestered with dozens of girls for whom he had no use, while the one model he really wanted never appeared. The club combines the advantages of club, employment bureau, and hotel. There is no smoking-room; every room is a smoking-room, for there are two things which are essential to the comfort of the girl-model, and they are cigarettes and sweets. These are their only indulgences, for, obviously, if you are depending for your livelihood on your personal figure, self-denial and an abstemious life are compulsory.
If you want to know what is doing in the art world, who is painting what, and why, then get yourself invited to tea—China tea only. The gathering is picturesque, for the model has, of course, the knack of the effective pose, not only professionally but socially. It is a beautiful club, and it is one more answer to the eternal question Why Girls Don't Marry. With a Models' Club, the Four Arts Club, the Mary Curzon Hotel, and the Lyceum Club, why on earth should they?
The R.B.A. pulled up short and said there we were, and what about it? We knocked at the door, and were admitted by an anarchist. At least, I think he was an anarchist, because he was just like the pictures. I have met only eighteen real anarchists, two of whom had thrown a bomb; but I could never really believe in them; they wore morning coats and bowler hats and were clean-shaven.
"Where are they?" asked the R.B.A.
"They're awa' oopstairs, laddie," said the anarchist. "Taak heed ye dinna stoomble; the carrrpet's a wee bit loose."
We crossed the tiny hall and ascended the shabby stairs. From an open door trickled the tones of a cheap piano and the mellow, philosophic chant of the 'cello. They were playing Elgar's "Salut d'Amour." The room was dark save for one candle at the piano and the dancing firelight. In the dusk it looked like Balestieri's picture of "Beethoven" which adorns every suburban drawing-room with a leaning towards the Artistic. People were sprawled here and there, but to distinguish them was impossible. I fell over some one's foot, and a light treble gurgled at me, "Sorry, old boy!" I caught a whisk of curls as the thin gleam of the candle fell that way. The R.B.A. crossed the room as one who was familiar with its topography, and settled himself in a far chair. The anarchist took my arm, and said:—
"Do ye sit down whurr ye can, laddie. And ye'll ha' a drink?"
I fell over some more feet and collapsed on a low settee. I found myself by the side of a lady in solemn crimson. Her raven hair was hanging down her back. Her arms were bare. She smoked a Virginia cigarette vindictively. Sometimes she leaned forward, addressed the piano, and said: "Shut that row, Mollie, can't you. We want to talk."
The anarchist brought me a Scotch-and-soda, and then she became aware of my presence. She looked at me; she looked at the drink. She said to the anarchist: "Where's mine?" He said: "What is it?" "Crem-dermont!" she snapped.
Out of the smoky glooms of the room came light laughter and merry voices. One saw dimly, as in a dream, graceful forms reclining gracefully, attended by carelessly dressed but distinguished young men. Some of these raised their voices, and one heard the self-proud accent of Oxford. The music stopped, and the girls sprawled themselves more and more negligently, nestling to the rough coats of the boys. The haze of smoke thickened. I prepared for a boring evening.
One of the Oxford boys said he knew an awfully good story, but it was rather risky, you know. I pricked up my ears. Did we know the story—story about a fellah—fellah who had an aunt, you know? And fellah's aunt was most frightfully keen on dogs and all that, you know.... After three minutes of it I lost interest in the story. It concerned Old George and Herbert and young Helen, and various other people who seemed familiar to everybody but myself.
I never heard the finish of it. I became rather interested in a scene near the window, where a boy of about my own age was furiously kissing a girl somewhat younger. Then the lady at my side stretched a long arm towards me, and languished, and making the best of a bad job, I languished, too. When the funny story and the fellah's aunt had been disposed of, some one else went to the piano and played Debussy, and the anarchist brought me another drink; and the whole thing was such painfully manufactured Bohemianism that it made me a little tired. The room, the appointments, the absence of light, Debussy, the drinks, and the girls' costumes were so obviously part of an elaborate make-up, an arrangement of life. The only spontaneous note was that which was being struck near the window. I decided to slip away, and fell down the ragged stairs into Chelsea, and looked upon the shadow-fretted streets, where the arc-lamps, falling through the trees, dappled the pavements with light.
The skies were dashed with stars and a sick moon. It was trying to snow. I tripped down the steps from the door, and ran lightly into a girl who stood at the gate, looking up at the room I had just left. The cheek that was turned toward me was clumsily daubed with carmine and rouge. Snowflakes fell dejectedly about her narrow shoulders. She just glanced at me, and then back at the window. I looked up, too. The piano was at it again, and some one was singing. The thread of light just showed you the crimson curtains and the heavy oak beams. The pianist broke into Delilah's song, and the voice swam after it. It was a clear, warm voice, typical of the fifth-rate concert platform. But the girl, her face uplifted, dropped her lips in a half-whispered exclamation of wonder, "Cuh!" I should have said that she was, for the first time, touching finger-tips with beauty. It moved her as something comic should have done. Her face lit to a smile, and then a chuckle of delight ran from her.
The voice was doing its best. It sank to despair, it leaped to lyric passion, it caressed a low note of ecstatic pain, and then, like a dew-delighted bird, it fled up and hovered on a timid note of appeal. The girl giggled. As the voice died on a long, soft note, she laughed aloud, and swallowed. She looked around and caught my eye. It seemed that she had something about which she must talk.
... "Not bad, eh?" she said.
"No," I answered. "Not so dusty."
"Makes you feel ... kind of rummy, you know, don't it? Wonder what it feels like to sing like that, eh? Makes me ... sort of ... 'fyou understand ... funny like. Makes me want to...."
From the window came one of the Oxford voices. "No EARTHLY, dear old girl. You'll never sing. Your values, you know, and all that are...."
A RUSSIAN NIGHT
SPITALFIELDS AND STEPNEY
Beyond the pleading lip, the reaching hand, Laughter and tear; Beyond the grief that none would understand; Beyond all fear. Dreams ended, beauty broken, Deeds done, and last words spoken, Quiet she lies.
Far, far from our delirious dark and light, She finds her sleep. No more the noisy silences of night Shall hear her weep. The blossomed boughs break over Her holy breast to cover From any eyes. Till the stark dawn shall drink the latest star, So let her be. O Love and Beauty! She has wandered far And now comes home to thee.
A RUSSIAN NIGHT
SPITALFIELDS AND STEPNEY
The Russian quarter always saddens me. For one thing, it has associations which scratch my heart regularly every month when my affairs take me into those parts. Forgetting is the most wearisome of all pains to which we humans are subject; and for some of us there is so much to forget. For some of us there is Beatrice to forget, and Dora, and Christina, and the devastating loveliness of Isabel. For another thing, its atmosphere is so depressingly Slavonic. It is as dismal and as overdone as Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C sharp minor. How shall I give you the sharp flavour of it, or catch the temper of its streets?
It seems impossible that one should ensnare its elusive spirit. Words may come, but they are words, hard and stiff-necked and pedestrian. One needs symbols and butterflies.
* * * * *
Beauty is a strange bird. Hither and thither she flies, and settles where she will; and men will say that she is found here and there—sometimes in Perugia, sometimes in Mayfair, sometimes in the Himalaya. I have known men who found her in the dark melancholy of Little Russia, and I can understand them. For beauty appears, too, in various guise; and some men adore her in silks and some in rags. There are girls in this quarter who will smite the heart out of you, whose beauty will cry itself into your very blood. White's Row and the fastnesses of Stepney do not produce many choice blooms; there are no lilies in these gardens of weeds. The girls are not romantic to regard or to talk with. They are not even clean. The secrets of their toilet are not known to me, but I doubt if soap and water ever appear in large quantities. And yet.... They walk or lounge, languorous and heavy-lidded, yet with a curious suggestion of smouldering fire in their drowsy gaze. Rich, olive-skinned faces they have, and hair either gloomy or brassy, and caressing voices with the lisp of Bethnal Green. You may see them about the streets which they have made their own, carrying loads of as enchanting curls as Murger's Mimi.
But don't run away with the idea that they are wistful, or luscious, or romantic; they are not. Go and mix with them if you nurse that illusion. Wistfulness and romance are in the atmosphere, but the people are practical ... more practical and much less romantic than Mr. John Jenkinson of Golder's Green.
You may meet them in the restaurants of Little Montagu Street, Osborn Street, and the byways off Brick Lane. The girls are mostly cigarette-makers, employed at one of the innumerable tobacco factories in the district. Cigarette-maker recalls "Carmen" and Marion Crawford's story; but here are only the squalid and the beastly. Brick Lane and the immediate neighbourhood hold many factories, each with a fine odour—bed-flock, fur, human hair, and the slaughter-house. Mingle these with sheep-skins warm from the carcass, and the decaying refuse in every gutter, and you will understand why I always smoke cigars in Spitalfields. In these cafes I have met on occasion those seriocomics, Louise Michel, Emma Goldmann, and Chicago May. Beilis, the hero of the blood-ritual trial, was here some months ago; and Enrico Malatesta has visited, too. Among the men—fuzzy-bearded, shifty-eyed fellows—there are those who have been to Siberia and back. But do not ask them about Siberia, nor question how they got back. There are some things too disgusting even to talk about. Siberia is not exciting; it is filthy. But you may sit among them, the men and the dark, gazelle-eyed girls; and you may take caviare, tea-and-lemon, and black bread; and conversation will bring you a proffered cigarette.