It was in these streets that I first met that giant of letters, Mr. W. G. Waters, better known to the newspaper public as "Spring Onions," but unfortunately I did not meet him in his gay days, but in his second period, his regeneracy. He was introduced to me as a fearsome rival in the subtle art of Poesy. I stood him a cup of cocoa—for you know, if you read your newspaper, that Spring was a teetotaller. He signed the pledge, at the request of Sir John Dickinson, then magistrate at Thames Police Court, in 1898, and it was his proud boast that he had kept it ever since. He was then seventy-nine. His father died of drink at thirty-seven, and Dean Farrar once told Spring that his case was excusable, since it was hereditary. But, although Spring went to prison at the age of thirteen for drunkenness, and has "been in" thirty-nine times, he didn't die at thirty-seven. I wonder what the moral is? His happiest days, he assured me, were spent in old Clerkenwell Prison, now Clerkenwell Post Office, and on one occasion, as he was the only prisoner who could read, he was permitted to entertain his companions by extracts from Good Words, without much effect, he added, as most of them are in and out even now. One important factor in the making of his grand resolution was that a girl he knew in Stepney, who was so far gone that even the Court missionary had given her up, came to him one Christmastime. She was in the depths of misery and hunger.
"Spring," she said, "give me a job!"
So Spring gave her the job of cleaning out his one room, for which she was to receive half a crown. She obeyed him; and when he returned, and looked under the floor where he stored his savings from the sale of his poems (nearly seven pounds) they also had been cleaned.
That settled it. Spring decided to cut all his acquaintances, but he could only do that successfully by some very public step. So he went to Sir John Dickinson and signed the pledge in his presence. Said he—
"And now, I find that after fifteen years of teetotalism, I write better poetry. Every time I feel I want a drink, I say to myself: 'Spring—sit down and write a poem!'"
He was then messenger at Thames Police Court, enjoying the friendship and interest of all. He read me about a dozen of his lighter lyrics. Here is one of the finer gems:—
How many a poet would like to have Letters from royalty—prince, king, and queen; But, like some insignificant ocean wave, They are passed over, mayhap never seen. But when I myself address good Royals, And send them verses from my fertile brain, See how they thank me very much for my flowing strain!
In proof of which he would dig out letters from King Edward, Queen Alexandra, and Queen Mary.
One of these days I am going to do a book about those London characters without reference to whom our daily newspapers are incomplete. I mean people like the late lamented Craig, the poet of the Oval Cricket Ground, Captain Hunnable, of Ilford, Mr. Algernon Ashton, Spiv. Bagster, of Westminster, that gay farceur, "D. S. Windell," Stewart Gray, the Nature enthusiast. But first and foremost must come—Spring Onions.
On the southern side of the quarter is Sidney Street, of sinister memory. You remember the siege of Sidney Street? A great time for Little Russia. You may remember how the police surrounded that little Fort Chabrol. You may remember how the deadly aim of Peter the Painter and his fellow-conspirators got home on the force again and again. You remember how the police, in their helplessness against such fatalistic defiance of their authority, appealed to Government, and how Government sent down a detachment of the Irish Guards. There was a real Cabinet Minister in it, too; he came down in his motor-car to superintend manoeuvres and compliment gallant officers on their strategy. And yet, in that great contest of four men versus the Rest of England, it was the Rest of England that went down; for Fort Chabrol stood its ground and quietly laughed. They were never beaten, they never surrendered. When they had had enough, they just burnt the house over themselves, and ... hara-kiri.... Of course, it was all very wicked; it is impossible to justify them in any way. In Bayswater and all other haunts of unbridled chastity they were tortured, burnt alive, stewed in oil, and submitted to every conceivable penalty for their saucy effrontery. Yet, somehow, there was a touch about it, this spectacle of four men defying the law and order of the greatest country in the world, which thrilled every man with any devil in him. Peter the Painter is a hero to this day.
* * * * *
I had known the quarter for many years before it interested me. It was not until I was prowling around on a Fleet Street assignment that I learnt to hate it. A murder had been committed over a cafe in Lupin Street: a popular murder, fruity, cleverly done, and with a sex interest. Of course every newspaper and agency developed a virtuous anxiety to track the culprit, and all resources were directed to that end. Journalism is perhaps the only profession in which so fine a public spirit may be found. So it was that the North Country paper of which I was a hanger-on flung every available man into the fighting line, and the editor told me that I might, in place of the casual paragraphs for the London Letter, do something good on the Vassiloff murder.
It was a night of cold rain, and the pavements were dashed with smears of light from the shop windows. Through the streaming streets my hansom leaped; and as I looked from the window, and noted the despondent biliousness of Bethnal Green, I realized that the grass withereth, the flower fadeth.
I dismissed the cab at Brick Lane, and, continuing the tradition which had been instilled into me by my predecessor on the London Letter, I turned into one of the hostelries and had a vodka to keep the cold out. Little Russia was shutting up. The old shawled women, who sit at every corner with huge baskets of black bread and sweet cakes, were departing beneath umbrellas. The stalls of Osborn Street, usually dressed with foreign-looking confectionery, were also retiring. Indeed, everybody seemed to be slinking away, and as I sipped my vodka, and felt it burn me with raw fire, I cursed news editors and all publics which desired to read about murders. I was perfectly sure that I shouldn't do the least good; so I had another, and gazed through the kaleidoscopic window, rushing with rain, at the cheerful world that held me.
Oh, so sad it is, this quarter! By day the streets are a depression, with their frowzy doss-houses and their vapour-baths. Grey and sickly is the light. Grey and sickly, too, are the leering shops, and grey and sickly are the people and the children. Everything has followed the grass and the flower. Childhood has no place; for above the roofs you may see the sharp points of a Council School. Such games as happen are played but listlessly, and each little face is smirched. The gaunt warehouses hardly support their lopping heads, and the low, beetling, gabled houses of the alleys seem for ever to brood on nights of bitter adventure. Fit objects for contempt by day they may be, but when night creeps upon London, the hideous darkness that can almost be touched, then their faces become very powers of terror, and the cautious soul, wandered from the comfort of the main streets, walks and walks in a frenzy, seeking outlet and finding none. Sometimes a hoarse laugh will break sharp on his ear. Then he runs.
Well, I finished my second, and then sauntered out. As I was passing a cruel-looking passage, a gang of lads and girls stepped forward. One of the girls looked at me. Her face had the melancholy of Russia, but her voice was as the voice of Cockaigne. For she spoke and said—
"Funny-looking little guy, ain't you?"
I suppose I was. So I smiled and said that we were as God made us.
I said I felt sure I should do no good on the Vassiloff murder. I didn't. For just then the other four marched ahead, crying, "Come on!" And, surprised, yet knowing of no good reason for being surprised, I felt the girl's arm slip into mine, and we joined the main column.
That is one of London's greatest charms: it is always ready to toss you little encounters of this sort, if you are out for them.
Across the road we went, through mire and puddle, and down a long, winding court. At about midway our friends disappeared, and, suddenly drawn to the right, I was pushed from behind up a steep, fusty stair. Then I knew where we were going. We were going to the tenements where most of the Russians meet of an evening. The atmosphere in these places is a little more cheerful than that of the cafes—if you can imagine a Russian ever rising to cheerfulness. Most of the girls lodge over the milliners' shops, and thither their friends resort. Every establishment here has a piano, for music, with them, is a sombre passion rather than a diversion. You will not hear comic opera, but if you want to climb the lost heights of melody, stand in Bell Yard, and listen to a piano, lost in the high glooms, wailing the heart of Chopin or Rubinstein or Glazounoff through the fingers of pale, moist girls, while the ghost of Peter the Painter parades the naphthaed highways.
At the top of the stair I was pushed into a dark, fusty room, and guided to a low, fusty sofa or bed. Then some one struck a match, and a lamp was lit and set on the mantelshelf. It flung a soft, caressing radiance on its shabby home, and on its mistress, and on the other girls and boys. The boys were tough youngsters of the district, evidently very much at home, smoking Russian cigarettes and settling themselves on the bed in a manner that seemed curiously continental in Cockney toughs. I doubt if you would have admired the girls at that moment.
The girl who had collared me disappeared for a moment, and then brought a tray of Russian tea. "Help 'selves, boys!" We did so, and, watching the others, I discovered that it was the correct thing to lemon the ladies' tea for them and stir it well and light their cigarettes.
The room, on which the wallpaper hung in dank strips, contained a full-sized bed and a chair bedstead, a washstand, a samovar, a pot-pourri of a carpet, and certain mysteries of feminine toilet. A rickety three-legged table stood by the window, and Katarina's robes hung in a dainty riot of frill and colour behind the door, which only shut when you thrust a peg of wood through a wired catch.
One of the girls went to the piano and began to play. You would not understand, I suppose, the intellectual emotion of the situation. It is more than curious to sit in these rooms, in the filthiest spot in London, and listen to Mozskowsky, Tchaikowsky, and Sibelius, played by a factory girl. It is ... something indefinable. I had visited similar places in Stepney before, but then I had not had a couple of vodkas, and I had not been taken in tow by an unknown gang. They play and play, while tea and cigarettes, and sometimes vodka or whisky go round; and as the room gets warmer, so does one's sense of smell get sharper; so do the pale faces get moister; and so does one long more and more for a breath of cold air from the Ural Mountains. The best you can do is to ascend to the flat roof, and take a deep breath of Spitalfields ozone. Then back to the room for more tea and more music.
Sanya played.... Despite the unventilated room, the greasy appointments, and other details that would have turned the stomach of Kensington, that girl at the piano, playing, as no one would have dreamed she could play, the finer intensities of Wieniawski and Moussorgsky, shook all sense of responsibility from me. The burdens of life vanished. News editors and their assignments be damned. Enjoy yourself, was what the cold, insidious music said.
Devilish little fingers they were, Sanya's. Her technique was not perhaps all that it might have been; she might not have won the Gold Medal of our white-shirted academies, but she had enough temperament to make half a dozen Steinway Hall virtuosi. From valse to nocturne, from sonata to prelude, her fancy ran. With crashing chords she dropped from "L'Automne Bacchanale" to the Nocturne in E flat; scarcely murmured of that, then tripped elvishly into Moszkowsky's Waltz, and from that she dropped to a song of Tchaikowsky, almost heartbreaking in its childish beauty, and then to the austere music of the second act of "Tristan." Mazurka, polonaise, and nocturne wailed in the stuffy chamber; her little hands lit up the enchanted gloom of the place with bright thrills.
But suddenly there came a whisper of soft feet on the landing, and a secret tap at the door. Some one opened it, and slipped out. One heard the lazy hum of voices in busy conversation. Then silence; and some one entered the room and shut the door. One of the boys asked casually, "What's up?" His question was not answered, but the girl who had gone to the door snapped something in a sharp tone which might have been either Russian or Yiddish. The other girls sat up and spat angry phrases about. I called to one of the boys—"What's the joke? Anything wrong?" and received reply—
"Owshdiknow? Ain't a ruddy Russian, am I?"
The girl at the door spoke in a hoarse whisper: "'Ere—you better go—you first?"
"Whaffor?" asked the boys.
"'Cos I say so."
Again there came a stealthy tap at the door, again the whispering of slippered feet. More words were exchanged. Then Sanya grabbed the boys by arms, and they and the girls disappeared.
I was alone.
I got up, and moved to the door. I heard nothing. I stood by the window, my thoughts dancing a ragtime. I wondered what to do, and how, and whether. I wondered what was up exactly. I wondered ... well, I just wondered. My thoughts got into a tangle, sank, and swam, and sank again. Then there was a sudden struggle and spurt from the lamp, and it went black out. From a room across the landing a clock ticked menacingly. I saw, by the thin light from the window, the smoke of a discarded cigarette curling up and up to the ceiling like a snake.
I went again to the door, peered down the steep stair and over the crazy balustrade. Nobody was about; no voices. I slipped swiftly down the five flights, met nobody. I stood in the slobbered vestibule. From afar I heard the sluck of the waters against the staples of the wharves, and the wicked hoot of the tugs.
It was then that a sudden nameless fear seized me; it was that simple terror that comes from nothing but ourselves. I am not usually afraid of any man or thing. I am normally nervous, and there are three or four things that have the power to terrify me. But I am not, I think, afraid. At that moment, however, I was afraid of everything: of the room I had left, of the house, of the people, of the inviting lights of the warehouses and the threatening shoals of the alleys.
I stood a moment longer. Then I raced into Brick Lane, and out into the brilliance of Commercial Street.
A SCANDINAVIAN NIGHT
He was a bad, glad sailor-man, Tan-ta-ta-ran-tan-tare-o! You never could find a haler man, Tan-ta-ta-ran-tan-tare! All human wickedness he knew. From Millwall Docks to Pi-chi-lu; He loved all things that make us gay, He'd spit his juice ten yards away, And roundly he'd declare—oh! "It isn't so much that I want the beer As the bloody good company, Whow! Bloody good company!"
He loved all creatures—black, brown, white, Tan-ta-ta-ran-tan-tare-o! And never a word he'd speak in spite, Tan-ta-ta-ran-tan-tare! He knew that we were mortal men Who sinned and laughed and sinned again; And never a cruel thing he'd do At Millwall Docks or Pi-chi-lu; If you were down he'd make you gay: He'd spit his juice ten yards away, And roundly he'd declare—oh! "It isn't so much that I want yer beer As yer bloody good company, Whow! Bloody good company!"
A SCANDINAVIAN NIGHT
One night, when I was ten years old, I was taken by a boy who was old enough to have known better into the ashy darkness of Shadwell and St. George's. Along that perilous mile we slipped, with drumming hearts. Then a warm window greeted us ... voices ... gruff feet ... bits of strange song ... and then an open door and a sharp slab of mellow light. With a sense of high adventure we peeped in. Some one beckoned. We entered. The room was sawdusted as to the floor, littered with wooden tables and benches. All was sloppy with rings and pools of spent cocoa. The air was a conflict: the frivolous odour of fried sausage coyly flirted with the solemn smell of dead smoke, and between them they bore a bastard perfume of stale grease. Coffee-urns screamed and belched. Cakes made the counter gay.
We stood for a moment, gazing, wondering. Then the blond-bearded giant who had beckoned repeated his invitation; indeed, he reached a huge arm, seized me, and set me on his knee. I lost all sense of ownership of my face in the tangles of his beard. He hiccuped. He coughed. He rattled. He sneezed. His forearms and fingers flew, as though repelling multitudinous attacks. His face curled, and crinkled, and slipped, and jumped suddenly straight again, and then vanished in infinite corrugations. He seemed to be in the agony of a lost soul which seeks to cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff.... Arms and lips lashed the air about them, and at last the very lines of his body seemed expressive of the state of a man who has explained himself forty-five times, and is then politely asked to explain himself. For half an hour, I suppose, I sat on his knee while he sneezed and roared and played games with his vocal cords.
It was not until next morning that I learnt that he had been speaking Norwegian and trying to ask me to have a cake. When I knew that I had been in the lair of the Scandinavian seamen, I thrilled. When I learnt that I had lost a cake, I felt sad.
It is a curious quarter, this Shadwell and St. George's: a street of mission-halls for foreign sailors and of temperance restaurants, such as that described, mostly for the Scandinavians, though there are many shops catering for them still farther East. Sometimes you may hear a long, savage roar, but there is no cause for alarm. It is only that the great Mr. Jamrach, London's leading dealer in wild animals, has his menagerie in this street.
The shop-fronts are lettered in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Strange provisions are found in the "general" shops, and quaintly carved goods and long wooden pipes in other windows. Marine stores jostle one another, shoulder to shoulder, and there is a rich smell of tar, bilge-water, and the hold of a cargo tramp. Almost you expect to hear the rattle of the windlass, as you stand in the badly lighted establishment of Johann Dvensk, surrounded by ropes, old ship's iron, bloodthirsty blades, canvas, blocks, and pulleys. Something in this narrow space seizes you, and you feel that you must "Luff her!" or "Starrrrrb'd yer Helllllllm!" or "Ease 'er!" or "Man the tops'l!" or whatever they do and say on Scandinavian boats. You may see these boats in the Pool any night; timber boats they are, for the most part; squat, low-lying affairs, but curiously picturesque when massed close with other shipping, steam or sail. One of our London songsters has recorded that "there's always something doing by the seaside"; and that is equally true of down Thames-side. London River is always alive with beauty, splendid with stress and the sweat of human hands. There is something infinitely saddening in watching the casual, business-like departure of one of these big boats. As she swings away and drops downstream, her crew, idling, lean over the side, and spit, smoking their long Swedish pipes, and looking curiously unearthly as the dock lights fall, now on one, now on the other. I always want to plunge into the water and follow them through that infinitude of travel which is suggested by the dim outline of Greenwich.
The lamps in Shadwell High Street and what was once Ratcliff Highway are few and very pale; and each one, welcome as it is, flings shapes of fear across your path as you leave its radius and step into darkness more utter. The quality of the darkness is nasty. That is the only word for it. It is indefinite, leering. It says nothing to you. It is reticent with the reticence of Evil. It is not black and frightful, like the darkness of Hoxton or Spitalfields. It is not pleasant, like the darkness of Chinatown. It is not matey, like the darkness of Hackney Marshes. It is ... nasty. At every ten paces there is the black mouth of an alley with just space enough for the passage of one person. Within the jaws of each alley is a lounging figure—man, woman, or child, Londoner or foreigner, you cannot discern. But it is there, silent, watchful, expectant. And if you choose to venture, you may examine more closely. You may note that the faces that peer at you are faces such as one only sees elsewhere in the picture of Felicien Rops. Sometimes it is a curl-sweet little girl who greets you with a smile strangely cold. Sometimes the mouth of the alley will appear to open and will spit at you, apparently by chance. If it hits you, the alley swears at you: a deep, frightfully foreign oath. Sudden doors flap, and gusts of brutal jollity sweep up the street.
In the old days, Shadwell embraced the Oriental quarter, and times, in the 'seventies, long before I was thought of, seem to have been really frolicsome, or so I gather from James Greenwood. The chief inhabitants of to-day are those little girls just mentioned. Walk here at any time of the day or night, and you will find in every doorway and at those corners which are illuminated, clusters of little girls, all of the same age, all of the same height, their glances knowing so much more than their little fresh lips imply. They seem all to be born at that age, and they never grow up. For every boy and woman that you pass in that dusty mile you will find dozens of pale little girls. There is a reason for this local product, about which I have written more seriously elsewhere, and if you saunter here, beware of sympathy with crying children. I could tell things; curious things. But if I did you would not believe them, and if you believed them you would be sick.
I have mentioned the peculiar darkness. It is provocative and insistent. It possesses you. For you know that in this street, or rather, back of it, there are the homes of the worst vices of the seagoing foreigner. It is the haunt of the dissolute and the indigent; not only of the normal brute, but also of the satyr. You know that behind those heights of houses, stretching over the street with dumb, blank faces, there are strangely lighted rooms, where unpleasant rites are celebrated.
I can never understand why artists and moralists paint Temptation invariably in gaudy scarlet and jewels, tinted cheeks, and laughing hair. If she were always like that, morality would be gloriously triumphant; for she would attract nobody. The true Temptation of this world and flesh wears grey rags, dishevelled hair, and an ashen cheek. Any expert will prove that. I can never believe that any one would be lured to destruction by those birds of paradise whom one has met in the stuffy, over-gilded, and, happily, abortive night-clubs and cabarets. If a consensus were taken, I think it would be found that wickedness gaily apparelled is seldom successful. It is the subtle and the sinister, the dark and half-known, that make the big appeal. Lace and scent and champagne and the shaded glamour of Western establishments leave most men cold, I know. But dirt and gloom and secrecy.... We needs must love the lowest when we see it.
As far back as I can remember the Eastern parishes have been, to me, the home of Romance. My romance was not in the things of glitter and chocolate-box gaiety, but rather in the dolours and silences of the East. Long before I had adventured there, its very street names—Whitechapel High Street, Ratcliff Highway, Folly Wall, Stepney Causeway, Pennyfields—had thrilled me as I believe other children thrill to the names of The Arabian Nights.
That is why I come sometimes to Shadwell, and sit in its tiny beershops, and listen to the roaring of Jamrach's lions, and talk with the blond fellows whose conversation is mostly limited to the universalities of intercourse. I was there on one occasion, in one of the houses which are, in the majority of cases, only licensed for beer, and I made the acquaintance of a quite excellent fellow, and spent the whole evening with him. He talked Swedish, I talked English; and we understood one another perfectly. We did a "pub-crawl" in Commercial Road and East India Dock Road, and finished up at the Queen's Theatre in Poplar High Street. A jolly evening ended, much too early for me, at one o'clock in the morning, when he insisted on entering a lodging-house in Gill Street because he was sure that it was his. I tried to make him understand, by diagrams on the pavement, that he was some half-mile from St. George's. But no; he loomed above me, in his blond strength, and when he tried to follow the diagram, he toppled over. I spent five minutes in lifting six foot three and about twelve stone of Swedish manhood to its feet.
He looked solemn, and insisted: "I ban gude Swede."
I told him again that he must not enter the lodging-house, but must let me see him safe to his right quarters. But he thrust me aside: "I ban gude Swede!" he said, resentfully this time, with hauteur. I pulled his coat-tails, and tried to lead him back to Shadwell; but it was useless.
"I ban gude Swede!"
There I left him, trying to climb the six steps leading to the lodging-house entrance. I looked back at the corner. He turned, to wave his hand in valediction, and, floating across the night, came a proud declaration—
"I ban gude Swede!"
This is one of the few occasions when I have been gay in Shadwell. Mostly you cannot be gay; the place simply won't let you be gay. You cannot laugh there spontaneously. You may hear bursts of filthy laughter from this or that low-lit window; but it is not spontaneous. You only laugh like that when you have nine or ten inside you. The spirit of the place does not, in the ordinary way, move you to cheer. Its mist, and its dust-heaps, and its coal-wharves, and the reek of the river sink into you, and disturb your peace of mind.
Most holy night descends never upon Shadwell. The night life of any dockside is as vociferant as the day. They slumber not, nor sleep in this region. They bathe not, neither do they swim; and Cerberus in all his hideousness was not arrayed like some of these. If you want to make your child good by terror, show him a picture of a Swede or a Malay, pickled in brown sweat after a stoking-up job.
Of course, the seamen of St. George's do not view it from this angle. Shadwell is only fearful and gloomy to those who have fearful and gloomy minds. Seamen haven't. They have only fearful and gloomy habits. Probably, when the evening has lit the world to slow beauty, and a quart or so has stung your skin to a galloping sense of life, Shadwell High Street and its grey girls are a garden of pure pleasure. I shouldn't wonder.
There are those among them who love Shadwell. A hefty seafaring Dane whom I once met told me he loved the times when his boat brought him to London—by which, of course, he meant Shadwell. He liked the life and the people and the beer. And, indeed, for those who do love any part of London, it is all-sufficient. I suppose there are a few people living here who long to escape from it when the calendar calls Spring; to kiss their faces to the grass; to lose their tired souls in tangles of green shade. But they are hardly to be met with. Those rather futile fields and songs of birds and bud-spangled trees are all very well, if you have the narrow mind of the Nature-lover; but how much sweeter are the things of the hands, the darling friendliness of the streets! The maidenly month of April makes little difference to us here. We know, by the calendar and by our physical selves, that it is the season of song and quickening blood. Beyond London, amid the spray of orchard foam, bird and bee may make their carnival; lusty spring may rustle in the hedgerows; golden-tasselled summer may move along the shadow-fretted meadows; but what does it say to us? Nothing.... Here we still gamble, and worship the robustious things that come our way, and wait to find a boat. We have no seasons. We have no means of marking the delicate pomp of the year's procession. We have not even the divisions of day and night, for, as I have said, boats must sail at all hours of the day and night, and their swarthy crews are ever about. In Shadwell we have only more seamen or less seamen. Summer is a spell of stickiness and Winter a time of fog. Season of flower and awakening be blowed! I'll have the same again!
This is a book of adventures in and about London: not a sociological pamphlet; but I do seriously feel that if I am writing on the subject at all, I may as well write the complete truth. I have heard, often, in this macabre street, the most piercing of all sounds that the London night can hold: a child's scream. The sound of a voice in pain or terror is horrible enough anywhere at night; it is twenty times worse in this district, when the voice is a child's. I want, very badly, to tell the story I refrained from telling. I want to tell it because it is true, because it ought to be told, and because it might shake you into some kind of action, which newspaper reports would never do. Yet I know perfectly well that if I did tell it, this book would be condemned as unclean, and I as a pornographist, if not something worse. So let our fatuous charity-mongers continue to supply Flannel Underclothing for the Daughters of Christian Stevedores; let them continue to provide Good Wholesome Meals for the Wifes of God-Fearing Draymen, and let them connive by silence at those other unspeakable things.
The University men and the excellent virgins who carry out this kind of patronage might do well to drop it for a while, and tell the plain truth about the things which they must see in the course of their labours. If you stand in Leicester Square, in the gayest quarter of the gayest city in the world, after nightfall, indeed, long after theatres, bars, and music-halls are closed, and their saucy lights extinguished, you will see, on the south side, a single lamp glowing through the green of the branches. That lamp is shining the whole night through. The door that it lights is never closed day or night; it dare not close. Through the leafy gloom of the Square it shines—a watchful eye regarding the foulest blot on the civilization of England. It is the lamp of the office of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This Society keeps five hundred workers incessantly busy, day and night, preventing cruelty to little English children. Go in, and listen to some of the stories that the inspectors can tell you. They can tell you of appalling sufferings inflicted on children, of bruised bodies and lacerated limbs and poisoned minds, not only in the submerged quarters but in comfortable houses by English people of education and position. Buy a few numbers of the Society's official organ, The Child's Guardian, and read of the hundreds of cases which they attack every month, and of the bestialities to which children are submitted, and you will then see that light as the beacon-light of England's disgrace. I once showed it to a Spanish friend, and he looked at me with polite disgust. "And your countrymen, my friend," he said, "speak of the Spaniards as cruel. Your countrymen, who gather themselves in dozens, protected by horses and dogs, to hunt a timid fox, call us cruel because we fight the bull—because our toreadors risk their lives every moment that they are in the ring, fighting a savage, maddened animal five times larger and stronger than themselves. You call us cruel—you, who have to found a Society in order to stop cruelty to your little children. My friend, there is no society like that in Spain, for no society like that is necessary. The most depraved Spaniard, town or countryman, would never dream of raising his hand against a child. And your countrymen, in face of that building, which is open day and night, and supports a staff of five hundred, call the Spaniards cruel! My friend, yours surely must be the cruellest people on earth."
And I had no answer for him, because I knew. I knew what Mr. Robert Parr had told me: and I knew why little girls of twelve and thirteen are about the dripping mouths of the Shadwell alleys at all queer hours. You will understand why some men, fathers of little girls, suddenly have money for beer when a foreign boat is berthed. You will appreciate what it is that twists its atmosphere into something anomalous. You remember the gracious or jolly fellows you have met, the sweet, rich sea-chanties you have heard; and then you remember other things, and the people suddenly seem monstrous, the spirit of the place bites deep, and the dreadful laughter of it shocks.
A SUNDAY NIGHT
There is a noise of winkles on the air, Muffins and winkles rattle down the road, The sluggish road, whose hundred houses stare One on another in after-dinner gloom. "Peace, perfect Peace!" wails an accordion, "Ginger, you're barmy!" snarls a gramophone.
A most unhappy place, this leafless Grove In the near suburbs; not a place for tears Nor for light laughter, for all life is chilled With the unpurposed toil of many years. But once—ah, once!—the accordion's wheezy strains Led my poor heart to April-smelling lanes.
A SUNDAY NIGHT
There is something almost freakish in the thoughtful calm of the London Sunday. During the night the town seems to have cleaned and preened itself, and the creamy, shadow-fretted streets of the Sabbath belong more to some Southern region than to Battersea or Barnsbury. The very houses have a detached, folded manner, like volumes of abstruse theological tracts. From every church tower sparks of sound leap out on the expectant air, mingling and clashing with a thousand others; and the purple spires fling themselves to heaven with the joy of a perfect thought. In the streets there is an atmosphere of best clothes and best manners. There is a flutter of bright frocks. Father, in his black coat and silk hat, walks seriously, as befits one with responsibilities, what time mother at home is preparing the feast. The children, poor darlings, do not skip or jump or laugh. They walk sedately, in their starchy attire, holding father's arm and trying to realize that it really is Sunday, and therefore very sinful to fling oneself about. The people taking their appetite stroll before midday dinner look all so sleek and complacent that one would like to borrow money from them. The 'buses rumble with a cheeriness that belongs not to weekdays; their handrails gleam with a new brightness, and the High Street, with shops shuttered and barred, bears not the faintest resemblance to the High Street you know so well, even as policemen, with helmets and tunics, look surprisingly unlike human beings. The water-carts seem to work with cleaner, lighter water, and as the sun catches the sprayed stream it whips it into a thousand drops of white fire. It is Sunday. The roads are blazing with white ribbons under the noon sun. A stillness broods over all, a stillness only accentuated by the brazen voice of the Salvation Army band and the miserable music of winkles rattling on dinner-plates. The colours of the little girls' dresses slash the grey backgrounds of the pavement with rich streaks. Spears of sunshine, darting through the sparse plane-trees, play all about them, and ring them with radiance; and they look so fresh and happy that you want to kiss them. It is Sunday.
Yes, it is Sunday, and you will realize that as the day wears on. These pleasant people are walking about the streets for a very definite reason. What is that? It is that there is nothing else to do. That is the tragedy of the London Sunday; there is nothing else to do. Why does the submerged man get drunk on Sunday? There is nothing else to do. Why does the horse-faced lady, with nice clothes, go to church on Sunday? There is nothing else to do. Why do people overeat themselves on Sunday? There is nothing else to do. Why do parents make themselves stiff and uncomfortable in new clothes, and why do they get irritable and smack their children if they rouse them from their after-dinner sleep? Because there is nothing else to do. Why does the young clerk hang around the West End bars, and get into trouble with doubtful ladies? Because there is nothing else to do.
And in the evening you feel this more terribly. If it is summer, you may listen to blatant bands in our very urban parks, which have been thoughtfully and artistically "arranged" by stout gentlemen on the London County Council, whose motto seems to be: "Let's have something we all know!" or you may go for a 'bus-ride to Richmond, Hampton Court, St. Albans, or Uxbridge, or Epping Forest. If you want to know, merely for information, to what depths London can sink in the way of amusing itself on Sundays, then I recommend the bands in the parks. Otherwise there is something to be said for the 'bus-ride. You cannot enjoy yourself in London on the Lord's Day, but you can take London with you into some lonely spot and there re-create it. Jump on the Chingford 'bus any Sunday evening, and let yourself go with the crowd. Out in the glades of the Forest things are happening. The dappled shades of the wood flash with colour and noise, and, if you are human, you will soon have succumbed to the contagion of the carnival. Voices of all varieties, shrill, hoarse, and rich, rise in the heavy August air, outside "The Jolly Wagoners," and the jingle of glasses and the popping of corks compete with the professional hilarity of the vendors of novelties. Here and there bunches of confetti shoot up, whirling and glimmering; elsewhere a group of girls execute the cake-walk or the can-can, their van sustaining fusillade after fusillade of the forbidden squirters, their rear echoing to "chi-ikes," catcalls, and other appreciations, until an approaching motor-'bus scatters them in squealing confusion. By the bridge, the blithe, well-bitten Bacchanalians offer to fight one another, and then decide to kiss. The babble of talk and laughter becomes a fury; the radiant maidens and the bold boys become the eternal tragedy. Sometimes there is a dance, and the empurpled girls are "taken round" by their masterful squires, the steps of the dance involving much swirling of green, violet, pink, and azure petticoats.
But afar in the Forest there is Sabbath peace, the sound of far bells, the cry of the thrush, the holy pattering of leaves. The beeches, meeting aloft and entwining, fling the light and the spirit of the cathedral to the mossy floors. Here is purity and humanity. The air beats freshly on the face. Away in the soft blue distance is a shadowy suggestion of rolling country, the near fields shimmering under the sweet, hot sky of twilight, and the distant uplands telling of calm and deep peace in other places. Truly a court of love, and truly loved by those who, for an hour or so, dwell in it. Tread lightly, you that pass. It may move you to mirth, but there is nothing mirthful here; only the eternal sorrow and the eternal joy. Perchance you do not make love in this way; but love is love.... Under every brooding oak recline the rapt couples, snatching their moments in this velvety green. Drowsy fragrance is everywhere. The quiet breeze disorders stray ringlets, and sometimes light laughter is carried sleepily to sleepy ears. Love, says an old Malayan chanty which I learned at West India Dock—Love is kind to the least of men. God will it so!
But if it be winter, then the Londoner is badly hit on Sundays. The cafes and bars are miserable, deserted by their habitues and full only of stragglers from the lost parts, who have wandered here unknowingly. The waiters are off their form. They know their Sunday evening clientele and they despise it; it is not the real thing. The band is off its form. The kitchen is off its form. It is Sunday.
There are no shows of any kind, unless it be some "private performance" of the Stage Society, for which tickets have to be purchased in the week. Certainly there are, in some of the West End and most of the suburban halls, the concerts of the National Sunday League, but the orchestras and the singers are really not of a kind to attract the musical temperament. The orchestras play those hackneyed bits of Wagner and Tchaikowsky and Rossini of which all the world must be everlastingly sick, and the singers sing those tiresome songs which so satisfy the musical taste of Bayswater—baritone songs about the Army and the Navy and their rollicking ways, and about old English country life; tenor songs about Grey Eyes and Roses and Waiting and Parting and Coming Back; soprano songs about Calling and Wondering and Last Night's Dance and Remembering and Forgetting—foolish words, foolish melodies, and clumsy orchestration. But they seem to please the well-dressed crowd that comes to listen to them, so I suppose it is justified. I suppose it really interprets their attitude toward human passion. I don't know.... Anyway, it is sorry stuff.
If you don't go to these shows, then there is nothing to do but walk about. I think the most pathetic sight to be seen in London is the Strand on a Sunday night. The whole place is shut up, almost one might say, hermetically sealed, except that Mooney's and Ward's and Romano's are open. Along its splendid length parade crowds and crowds of Jew couples and other wanderers from the far regions. They look lost. They look like a Cup Tie crowd from the North. They don't walk; they drift. They look helpless; they have an air expressive of: "Well, what the devil shall we do now?" I have a grim notion that members of the London County Council, observing them—if, that is, members of the London County Council ever do penance by walking down the Strand on Sunday—take to themselves unction. "Ah!" they gurgle in their hearts, "ah!—beautiful. Nice, orderly crowd; all walking about nice and orderly; enjoying themselves in the right way. Ah! Yes. We like to see the people enjoy themselves."
And, in their Christian way, they pat themselves on the back (if not too stout) and go home to their cigars and liqueurs and whatever else they may want in the way of worldly indulgence. It is Sunday.
Some years ago there was a delightful song that devastated New York. It was a patriotic song, and it was called: "The sun is always shining on Broadway." At the time, I translated this into English, for rendering at a private show, the refrain being that the sun is always shining in the Strand. So it is. Dull as the day may be elsewhere, there is always light of some kind in the Strand. It is the gayest, most Londonish street in London. It is jammed with Life, for it is the High Street of the world. Men of every country and clime have walked down the Strand. Whatever is to be found in other streets in other parts of the world is to be found in the Strand. It is the homeliest, mateyest street in the world. Let's all go down it!
But not—not, my dears, on Sundays. For a wise County Council has decreed that whatsoever things are gay, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are human and lovely—these things shall not be thought upon on Sundays.
* * * * *
The English Sunday at home is in many cases even worse than the Sunday out. Of course it has considerably improved since the hideous eighties, but there are still survivals of the old Sabbath, not so much among the mass of the people as among the wealthy. The new kindly Sabbath has arisen with the new attitude of children towards parents. The children of the L300-a-year parents are possessed of a natural pluck which is lacking in the children of the L3,000-a-year. They know what they want and they usually see that they get it.
Among the kindlier folk, in the suburbs, Sunday is the only day when Father is really at home with the children, and it is made the most of. It is the children's day. Morning, afternoon, and evening are given up to them. In the summer there is the great treat of tea in the garden. In the winter tea is taken in the room that is sometimes called the "drawing-room" by Mother and the "reception-room" by the house-agent; and there are all manner of delicate cakes and, perhaps, muffins, which the youngsters are allowed to toast themselves.
After tea, Father romps with them, or reads to them from one of their own books or magazines; or perhaps they roast chestnuts on the hearth, or sing or recite to the "company." Too, they are allowed to sit up an hour or so later, and in this last hour every kind of pagan amusement is set going for their delight, so that they tumble at last to bed flushed with laughter, and longing for the six days to pass so that Sunday shall come again.
That is one domestic Sunday. But there are others. I like to think that there are only about three others, but unfortunately I know that there are over two thousand Sundays just like the one which I describe below.
Here Father and Mother are very successful, so successful that they live in a big house near Queen's Gate, and keep five servants as well as a motor-car. Sunday is a little different here from week-days, in that the children are allowed to spend the day outside the nursery, with their parents. They go to church in the morning with Mother and Father. They dine at midday with Mother and Father. In the afternoon they go to The Children's Service. They have tea in the drawing-room with Mother and Father. Father and Mother are Calvinists.
In the evening, Father and Mother sit, one on either side of the hearth; Father reading a weekly religious paper devoted to the creed of Calvin; Mother reading another religious paper devoted to the creed of Calvin. Throughout the day the children are never allowed to sing or hum any tune that may be called profane. They are never allowed to hop, skip, or jump. They are told that Jesus will not be pleased with them if they do. They are not allowed to read secular books or look at pagan pictures. In the afternoon, they are given Dore's Bible and an illustrated "Paradise Lost" or "Pilgrim's Progress." In the evening, after tea (which carries with it one piece of seed-cake as a special treat), they are seated, with injunctions to silence, at the table, away from the fire, and set to finding Bible texts from one given keyword. The one who finds most texts gets a cake to go to bed with; the other gets nothing.
So Ethel and Johnnie are at work, from six in the evening until nine o'clock, scratching through a small-type Bible for flavourless aphorisms. Ethel is set to find six texts, and finds four of them, when she perceives something funny in one of them. She shows it to Johnnie, and they both giggle. Father looks up severely, and warns her. Then Johnnie, not to be outdone, remembers something he has heard about at school, and hunts through the Book of Kings to find it. He finds it. It is funnier still; and he shows it to Ethel. She giggles again. Father looks up reprovingly at her. She tries to maintain composure of face, but just then Johnnie pinches her knee, so that she squeals with long-pent-up laughter.
Father and Mother get up. Her Bible is taken from her. Her pencil and paper are taken from her. She is made to stand on the hearthrug, with her hands behind her, while Mother and Father lecture her on Blasphemy. The bell is then rung, and Nurse is sent for. She is handed over to Nurse, with pitiless instructions. Nurse then takes her to her room, where she is undressed, put to bed, and severely slapped.
It is Sunday.... Over her little bed is a text in letters of flame: "Thou God seest me!" After burning with indignation and humiliation for some time, she falls at last to sleep, with an unspoken prayer of thanksgiving to her Heavenly Father that to-morrow is Monday.
TWO IN A TAXI
From Gloucester Square to Golder's Green, We flash through misty fields of light. Oh, many lovely things are seen From Gloucester Square to Golder's Green! We reign together, king and queen, Over the lilied London night. From Gloucester Square to Golder's Green, We flash through misty fields of light.
So, driver, drive your taxi well To Golder's Green from Gloucester Square. This dreaming night may cast a spell; So, driver, drive your taxi well. I have a wondrous tale to tell: Immortal Love is now your fare! So, driver, drive your taxi well To Golder's Green from Gloucester Square!
I originally planned this chapter to cover A German Night amid the two German colonies of Great Charlotte Street and Highbury; but I have a notion that the public has read all that it wants to read about Germans in London. Anyway, neither spot is lovable. I have never been able to determine whether the Germans went to Highbury and the Fitzroy regions because they found their atmosphere ready-made, or whether the districts have acquired their atmosphere from the German settlers. Certainly they have everything that is most Germanically oppressive: mist, large women, lager and leberwurst, and a moral atmosphere of the week before last that conveys to the mind the physical sensations of undigested cold sausage. So I was leaving Great Charlotte Street, and its Kaiser, its kolossal and its kultur, to hop on the first motor-'bus that passed, and let it take me where it would—a favourite trick of mine—when I ran into Georgie.
I have mentioned Georgie before. Georgie is one of London's echoes—one of those sturdy Bohemians who stopped living when Sala died. If you frequent the Strand or Fleet Street or Oxford Street you probably know him by sight. He is short. He wears a frock-coat, buttoned at the waist and soup-splashed at the lapels. His boots are battered, his trousers threadbare. He carries jaunty eye-glasses, a jaunty silk hat, and shaves once a week. He walks with both hands in trousers pockets and feet out-splayed. The poor laddie is sadly outmoded, but he doesn't know it. He still lunches on a glass of stout and biscuit-and-cheese at "The Bun Shop" in the Strand. He stills drinks whisky at ten o'clock in the morning. He still clings to the drama of the sixties, and he still addresses every one as Laddie or My Dear.
He hailed me in Oxford Street, and cried: "Where now, laddie, where now?"
"I don't know," I said. "Anywhere."
"Then I'll come with you."
So we wandered. It was half-past seven. The night was purple, and through a gracious mist the lights glittered with subdued brilliance. London was in song. Cabs and 'buses and the evening crowd made its music. I heard it calling me. So did Georgie. With tacit sympathy we linked arms and strolled westwards, and dropped in at one of the big bars, and talked.
We talked of the old days—before I was born. Georgie told me of the crowd that decorated the place in the nineties: that company of feverish, foolish verbal confectioners who set themselves Byronically to ruin their healths and to write self-pitiful songs about the ruins. Half a dozen elegant Sadies and Mamies were at the American end of the bar, with their escorts, drinking Horse's Necks, Maiden's Prayers, Mother's Milks, Manhattans, and Scotch Highballs. Elsewhere the Cockney revellers were drinking their eternal whisky-and-sodas or beers, and their salutations led Georgie to a disquisition on the changing toasts of the last twenty years. To-day it is something short and sharp: either "Hooray!" or "Here's fun!" or "Cheero!" or a non-committal "Wow-wow!" Ten years back it was: "Well, Laddie, here's doing it again!" or "Good health, old boy, and may we get all we ask for!" And ten years before that it was something even more grandiloquent.
From drink we drifted to talking about food; and I have already told you how wide is Georgie's knowledge of the business of feeding in London. We both hate the dreary, many-dished dinners of the hotels, and we both love the cosy little chop-houses, of which a few only now remain: one or two in Fleet Street, and perhaps half a dozen in the little alleys off Cornhill and Lombard Street. I agree, too, with Georgie in deploring the passing of the public-house mid-day ordinary. From his recollections, I learn that the sixties and seventies were the halcyon days for feeding—indeed, the only time when Londoners really lived; and an elderly uncle of mine, who, at that time, went everywhere and knew everybody in the true hard-up Bohemia, tells me that there were then twenty or thirty taverns within fifty yards of Ludgate Circus, where the shilling ordinary was a feast for an Emperor, and whose interiors answered to that enthusiastic description of Disraeli's in Coningsby—perhaps the finest eulogy of the English inn ever written.
Unhappily, they are gone to make way for garish, reeking hotels and restaurants for which one has to dress. Those that remain are mere drinking-places; you can, if you wish, get a dusty sandwich, but the barmaid regards you as an idiot if you ask for one. But there are exceptions.
"The Cock," immortalized by Tennyson, is one of the few survivals of the simple, and its waiters are among the best in London. As a rule, the English waiter is bad and the foreign waiter is good. But when you get a good English waiter you get the very best waiter in the world. There is Albert—no end of a good fellow. He shares with all English waiters a fine disregard for form; yet he has that indefinable majesty which no Continental has ever yet assimilated; and he has, too, a nice sense of the needs of those who work in Fleet Street. You can go to Albert (that isn't his true name) and say—
"Albert, I haven't much money to-day. What's good and what do I get most of for tenpence?" Or "Albert—I've had a cheque to-day. What's best—and damn the expense?" And Albert advises you in each emergency, and whether you tip him twopence or a shilling you receive the same polite "Much obliged, sir!"
Georgie and I began to remember feeds we had had in London—real feeds, I mean; not "dinners," but the kind of food you yearn for when you are hungry, and have, perhaps, only eleven pennies in your pocket. At these times you are not interested in Rumpelmayer's for tea, or Romano's for lunch, or the Savoy for dinner. Nix. It's Lockhart's, The A B C., cook-shops, coffee-stalls, cab-shelters, and the hundred other what-not feeding-bins of London. I talked of the Welsh rarebits at "The Old Bell," the theatrical house in Wellington Street, and of the Friday night tripe-and-onion suppers at "The Plough," Clapham. Georgie thought that his fourpenny feed in the cab-shelter at Duncannon Street was an easy first, until I asked him if he knew the eating-houses of the South London Road, and his hard face cracked to a smile. I was telling him how, when I first had a definite commission from a tremendous editor, I had touched a friend for two shillings, and, walking home, had stopped in the London Road and had ordered dishes which were billed on the menu as Pudding, boiled and cauli. FOLLOW Golden Roll; and this, capped by a pint of hot tea, for sevenpence, when he burst into my words with—
"The South London Road, laddie? You ask me if I know the South London Road? Come again, boy, come again; I don't get you." He lay back in his chair, and recited, with a half-smile: "The—South—London—Road! God, what sights for the hungry! Let's see—how do they go? Good Pull Up For Carmen on the right. Far Famed Eel Pie and Tripe House opposite. Palace Restaurant, Noted For Sausages, next. Then The Poor Man's Friend. Then Bingo's Fish Bar. Coffee Caravanserai farther up. And—Lord!—S. P. and O. everywhere for threepence-halfpenny. What a sight, boy! Ever walked down it at the end of a day without a meal and without a penny? I should say so. And nearly flung bricks through the windows—what? Sausages swimming in bubbling gravy. Or tucked in, all snug and comfy, with a blanket of mashed. Tomatoes frying themselves, and whining for the fun of it. Onions singing. Saveloys entrenched in pease-pudding. Jellied eels and stewed tripe and eel-pies at twopence, threepence, and sixpence. Irish stew at sevenpence on the Come-Again style—as many follows as you want for the same money. Do I know the South London Road? Does a duck know the water?"
We talked of other streets in London which are filled with shop-windows glamorous of prospect for the gourmet; and not only for the gourmet, but for all simple-minded folk. Georgie talked of the toy-shops of Holborn. He made gestures expressive of paradisiacal delight. He is one of the few people I know who can sympathize with my own childishness. He never snubs my enthusiasms or my discoveries. Other friends sit heavily upon me when I display emotion over things like shops, taxicabs, dinners, drinks, railway journeys, music-halls, and cry, "Tommy—for the Lord's sake, shut up!" But Georgie understands. He understands why I cackle with delight when the new Stores Catalogue arrives. (By the way, if ever I made a list of the Hundred Best Books, number one would be an Illustrated Stores Catalogue. What a wonderful bedside book it is! There is surely nothing so provocative to the sluggish imagination. Open it where you will, it fires an unending train of dreams. It is so full of thousands of things which you simply must have and for which you have no use at all, that you finally put it down and write a philosophic essay on The Vanity of Human Wishes, and thereby earn three guineas. Personally, I have found over a dozen short-story plots in the pages of the Civil Service Stores List.)
When we tired of talking, Georgie inquired what we should do now. I put it: suppose we took a stroll along Bankside to London Bridge, and turned off to Bermondsey to take a taste of the dolours of the Irish colony, and then follow the river to Cherry Gardens and cross to Wapping by the Rotherhithe Tunnel; but he said No, and gave as his reason that the little girls of the Irish and foreign quarters were too distractingly lovely for him, as he is one of those unfortunates who want every pretty thing they see and are miserable for a week if they can't get it. His idea was to run over to Homerton. Did I know old Jumbo? Fat old Jumbo. Jumbo, who kept Jumbo's, under the arches, where you got cut from the joint, two veg., buggy-bolster, and cheese-roll. I did. So to Jumbo's we went by the Stoke Newington 'bus, whose conductor shouted imperatively throughout the journey: "Aw fez pliz!" though we were the only passengers; and on the way I made a little, soft song, the burden of which was: "I do love my table d'hote, but O you Good Pull Up For Carmen!"
Jumbo received us with that slow good-humour which has made his business what it is. He and his assistant, Dusty, a youngster of sixty-two who cuts about like a newsboy, have worked together for so many years that Dusty frequently tells his chief not to be such a Censored fool. Jumbo's joints are good, and so are his steak-toad, sprouts, and baked, but his steak-and-kidney puddings at fourpence are better. I had one of these, garnished with "boiled and tops." Georgie had "leg, well done, chips, and batter." I never knew a man who could do the commonplace with so much natural dignity. He gave his order with the air of a viveur planning a ten-course arrangement at Claridge's. He shouted for a half-of-bitter with the solemnity of one who commands that two bottles of dry Monopole be put on the ice. He is, too, the only man I know who salutes his food. I have been at dinners in Wesleyan quarters like St. John's Wood where heads of families have mumbled what they call Grace or "asking a blessing"; but I have seen nothing so simply beautiful as George's obeisance to his filled plate. He bows to Irish stew as others dip to the altar.
While Dusty stalked a clean fork through a forest of dirty ones, Georgie fired at him questions in which I had no part. Did Dusty remember the show at Willie's about—how many was it?—twenty years ago? What a NIGHT! Did he remember how Phil May had squirted the syphon down poor old Pitcher's neck? And Clarence ... Clarence was fairly all out that night—what? And next morning—when they met Jimmy coming down the steps of the Garrick Club—what?
To all of which Dusty replied: "Ah, yes, sir. I should say so. That's the idea, sir. Those was the days!" Then the dinner came along, and we started on it. I prefer to be attended by Jumbo. Dusty's service of steak-pudding is rather in the nature of a spar. Jumbo, on the other hand, places your plate before you with the air of one doing something sacramental.
While we ate we looked out on the sad lights of Homerton, and the shadowy arches and cringing houses. A queer place, whose flavour I have never rightly been able to catch. It is nondescript, but full of suggestion. Some day, probably, its message will burst upon me, and I expect it will be something quite obvious. The shadow of history hangs over it all. Six hundred years ago, in the velvet dusk of a summer night, Sir John Froissart galloped this way, by plaguey bad roads, and he beguiled the tedium of his journey by making an excellent new pastourelle. But you will hear no echo of this delicious song to-day: that lies buried for ever in the yellow mists of the MS. Room at the British Museum. Motor-'buses will snatch you from St. James's Palace, dash you through the City, and land you, within twenty minutes, breathless and bewildered, in the very spot where Sir John climbed from his steed. There is little now that is naughty and light-hearted. There is much that is sombrely wicked, and there are numbers of unsweetened ladies attached to the churches; and if it should chance to be one of your bad days, you may hear, as you stand musing upon the fringe of the Downs, in place of Sir John's insouciant numbers, "Mein liebe Schwann ..." and other trifles rendered by gramophone at an opposite villa. But if ever it had any charms, they are gone. We may read in our histories that about these parts kings and princes, soldiers and wits, counselled, carolled, and caroused: but you would never think it. Too soon, I fancy, the music and the wine were done, the last word said, and the guests sent their several ways into the night. For nothing remains—nothing of that atmosphere which grows around every spot where people have loved, and suffered, and hated, and died; only Jumbo and a nameless spirit remain.
It is one of the few places in town where the street-merchant survives in all his glory. Everywhere in London, of course, we have the coffee-stall, the cockle, whelk, and escallop stall, the oyster bar (8d. per doz.), the baked potato and chestnut man, and (an innovation of 1914) the man in the white dress with a portable tin, selling pommes frites in grease-proof bags at a penny a time. But in Homerton, in addition to these, you have the man with the white-metal stand, selling a saveloy and a dab of pease-pudding for a penny, or boiled pig's trotters, or many kinds of heavy, hot cakes.
After our orgy, we bought a sweet cake, and Georgie took me to what looked like a dirty little beerhouse that hid itself under one of the passages that lead to the perilous Marshes of Hackney. We slipped into a little bar with room for about four persons, and Georgie swung to the counter, peremptorily smashed a glass on it, and demanded: "Crumdy munt—two!" I was expecting a new drink, but the barman seemed to understand, for he brought us two tiny glasses of green liqueur, looked at Georgie, casually, then again, sharply, and said, in mild surprise, "God ... it's old Georgie!" and then went to attend the four-ale bar. When he came back we exchanged courtesies, and bought, for ourselves and for him, some of the sixpenny cigars of the house. We lingered over our drink in silence, and, for a time, nothing could be heard except the crackling of the saltpetre in the Sunday-Afternoon Splendidos. Then Georgie inquired what was doing at my end, and told me of what he was writing and of how he was amusing himself, and I told him equally interesting things.
* * * * *
It was half-past eight before Georgie and I were tired of Homerton; and he then demanded what we should do now. I said: Return; and it was carried. We went westwards, and called at Rule's for a chat with Harry, and then dropped in at The Alhambra, just in time to catch Phyllis Monkman at her Peruvian Pom-Pom dance in a costume that is surely one of the inspirations of modern ballet. We remained only long enough to pay homage to the young danseuse, and then drifted to those parts of the Square where, from evening until midnight, the beasts of pleasure pace their cells. I have often remarked to various people on the dearth of decent music in our lounges and cafes. I once discussed the matter with the chef d'orchestre of the Cafe de l'Europe, but he confessed his inability to reform matters. Why can't we have one place in London where one can get drinks, or coffee if desired, and listen to really good music? There is a mass of the best work that is suitable for quartet or quintet, or has been adapted for small orchestra; why is it never heard? Mr. Jacobs says that Londoners don't want it. I don't believe him. "If I play," he says, "anything of Mozart or Bach or Handel or Ravel or Chopin, they are impatient. They talk—ever so loud. And when it is finished, they rush up and say: 'Play "Hitchy Koo."' 'Play "The Girl in the Taxi."'" But I believe there is really a big public for a fully licensed cafe with a good band which shall have a definite programme of the best music every evening, and stick to that programme regardless of "special requests."
At the cafe where Georgie and I were lounging, the band was kept hard at work by these Requests. They were "La Boheme" selection, "That Midnight Choo-choo," "Tipperary," "Tales of Hoffman" Barcarolle, "All Aboard for Dixie," "In my Harem," and "The Ragtime Navvy." At the first bars of the Navvy we drifted out, and fell into the arms of The Tattoo Artist, who was taking an evening off.
The tattoo artist is a person of some consequence. He has a knowledge of London that makes most Londoners sick, and his acquaintance with queer and casual characters is illimitable. He was swollen with good food and drink, and as he extended a strong right arm to greet us, he positively shed a lustre of success and power. The state of business in all trades and professions may be heartbreakingly bad, but there is one profession in which there are no bad seasons—one that will survive and flourish until the world ceases to play the quaint comedy of love. All the world loves a lover, and none more so than the tattoo artist, or, to give him his professional name, Professor Sylvanus Ruffino, the world's champion, whose studio is in Commercial Road. When a young man of that district has been bitten by the serpent of love, what does he do? He goes to Sylvanus, and has the name of the lady, garnished with a heart or a floral cupid, engraved on his hands, arms, or chest. His "studio" is a tiny shop, with a gaudy chintz curtain for door, the window decorated with prints of the tattooed bodies of his clients. Elsewhere about the exterior are coloured designs of Chinese dragons, floral emblems, cupids, anchors, flags, and other devices with which your skin may be beautified at trifling cost—anything from sixpence to five shillings.
The professor works every evening from seven to ten o'clock, in his shirt-sleeves. In the corner of the studio is the operating-table, littered with small basins of liquid inks of various hues, and a sterilizing-vessel, which receives the electric needle after each client has been punctured. Winter, he tells me, contradicting the poet, is his best time. He finds that in Shadwell and the neighbourhood the young man's fancy turns more definitely to love in the dark evenings than in the spring. As soon as October sets in his studio is crowded with boys who desire the imprinting of beautiful names on their thick skins. He calculates that he must have tattooed the legend "Mizpah" some eight thousand times since he started in the business. Girls, too, sometimes visit him, and demonstrate their love for their boy in a chosen masculine way.
To-night he had snatched a few hours in the West, and was just returning home. It being then well past twelve, we sauntered a little way with him, and called at a coffee-stall for a cup of the leathery tea which is the speciality of the London coffee-stall. Most stalls have their "regulars," especially those that are so fortunate as to pitch near a Works of any kind. The stall we visited was on the outskirts of Soho, and near a large colour-printing house which was then working day and night. I wonder, by the way, why printers always drink tea and stout in preference to other beverages. I wonder, too, why policemen prefer hard-boiled eggs above all other food.
It is a curious crowd that gathers about the stalls. In the course of a night you may meet there every type of Londoner. You may meet policemen, chauffeurs, printers, toughs, the boy and girl who have been to a gallery and want to finish the night in proper style, and—the cadgers. At about the middle of the night there is a curious break in the company: the tone changes. Up to four o'clock it's the stay-up-all-nights; after that hour it's the get-up-earlys. One minute there would be a would-be viveur, in sleek dress clothes; then along comes a cadger; then along comes a warrior from the battlefield. Then, with drowsy clatter, up comes a gang of roadmen, scavengers, railway workers, and so on. A little later comes the cheerful one who has made a night of it, and, somehow, managed to elude the police. He takes a cup of strong tea, demonstrates the graceful dancing of Mr. Malcolm Scott, and smashes two cups in doing it. Then up comes the sport, with a cert. for the big race to-day. Then up comes six o'clock, and the keeper packs up, and shoves his stall to its yard.
After a long exchange of reminiscences, we parted with the tattoo artist, and I walked home with Georgie, the outmoded, who lives in Vauxhall Bridge Road. I have often told him that the stiff, crinoline atmosphere of the place is the right touch for him, but he does not understand. It is a poor faded thing, this district; not glamorously old; just ridiculously out of fashion. Shops and houses are all echoes of the terrible seventies, and you seem to hear the painful wheezing of a barrel-organ, to catch a glimpse of side-whiskers and bustles, and to be encompassed by all the little shamefaced emotions of that period which died so long ago and only haunt us now in this street and in the provinces.
There, on the steps of one of the silly little houses, I parted from Georgie and this book.