Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

Chapter xxiii

The Pawnbroker’s Shop

Of the numerous receptacles for misery and distress with which the streets of London unhappily abound, there are, perhaps, none which present such striking scenes as the pawnbrokers’ shops. The very nature and description of these places occasions their being but little known, except to the unfortunate beings whose profligacy or misfortune drives them to seek the temporary relief they offer. The subject may appear, at first sight, to be anything but an inviting one, but we venture on it nevertheless, in the hope that, as far as the limits of our present paper are concerned, it will present nothing to disgust even the most fastidious reader.

There are some pawnbrokers’ shops of a very superior description. There are grades in pawning as in everything else, and distinctions must be observed even in poverty. The aristocratic Spanish cloak and the plebeian calico shirt, the silver fork and the flat iron, the muslin cravat and the Belcher neckerchief, would but ill assort together; so, the better sort of pawnbroker calls himself a silver-smith, and decorates his shop with handsome trinkets and expensive jewellery, while the more humble money-lender boldly advertises his calling, and invites observation. It is with pawnbrokers’ shops of the latter class, that we have to do. We have selected one for our purpose, and will endeavour to describe it.

The pawnbroker’s shop is situated near Drury–Lane, at the corner of a court, which affords a side entrance for the accommodation of such customers as may be desirous of avoiding the observation of the passers-by, or the chance of recognition in the public street. It is a low, dirty-looking, dusty shop, the door of which stands always doubtfully, a little way open: half inviting, half repelling the hesitating visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated, examines one of the old garnet brooches in the window for a minute or two with affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a purchase; and then looking cautiously round to ascertain that no one watches him, hastily slinks in: the door closing of itself after him, to just its former width. The shop front and the window-frames bear evident marks of having been once painted; but, what the colour was originally, or at what date it was probably laid on, are at this remote period questions which may be asked, but cannot be answered. Tradition states that the transparency in the front door, which displays at night three red balls on a blue ground, once bore also, inscribed in graceful waves, the words ‘Money advanced on plate, jewels, wearing apparel, and every description of property,’ but a few illegible hieroglyphics are all that now remain to attest the fact. The plate and jewels would seem to have disappeared, together with the announcement, for the articles of stock, which are displayed in some profusion in the window, do not include any very valuable luxuries of either kind. A few old china cups; some modern vases, adorned with paltry paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish guitars; or a party of boors carousing: each boor with one leg painfully elevated in the air, by way of expressing his perfect freedom and gaiety; several sets of chessmen, two or three flutes, a few fiddles, a round-eyed portrait staring in astonishment from a very dark ground; some gaudily-bound prayer-books and testaments, two rows of silver watches quite as clumsy and almost as large as Ferguson’s first; numerous old-fashioned table and tea spoons, displayed, fan-like, in half-dozens; strings of coral with great broad gilt snaps; cards of rings and brooches, fastened and labelled separately, like the insects in the British Museum; cheap silver penholders and snuff-boxes, with a masonic star, complete the jewellery department; while five or six beds in smeary clouded ticks, strings of blankets and sheets, silk and cotton handkerchiefs, and wearing apparel of every description, form the more useful, though even less ornamental, part, of the articles exposed for sale. An extensive collection of planes, chisels, saws, and other carpenters’ tools, which have been pledged, and never redeemed, form the foreground of the picture; while the large frames full of ticketed bundles, which are dimly seen through the dirty casement up-stairs — the squalid neighbourhood — the adjoining houses, straggling, shrunken, and rotten, with one or two filthy, unwholesome-looking heads thrust out of every window, and old red pans and stunted plants exposed on the tottering parapets, to the manifest hazard of the heads of the passers-by — the noisy men loitering under the archway at the corner of the court, or about the gin-shop next door — and their wives patiently standing on the curb-stone, with large baskets of cheap vegetables slung round them for sale, are its immediate auxiliaries.

If the outside of the pawnbroker’s shop be calculated to attract the attention, or excite the interest, of the speculative pedestrian, its interior cannot fail to produce the same effect in an increased degree. The front door, which we have before noticed, opens into the common shop, which is the resort of all those customers whose habitual acquaintance with such scenes renders them indifferent to the observation of their companions in poverty. The side door opens into a small passage from which some half-dozen doors (which may be secured on the inside by bolts) open into a corresponding number of little dens, or closets, which face the counter. Here, the more timid or respectable portion of the crowd shroud themselves from the notice of the remainder, and patiently wait until the gentleman behind the counter, with the curly black hair, diamond ring, and double silver watch-guard, shall feel disposed to favour them with his notice — a consummation which depends considerably on the temper of the aforesaid gentleman for the time being.

At the present moment, this elegantly-attired individual is in the act of entering the duplicate he has just made out, in a thick book: a process from which he is diverted occasionally, by a conversation he is carrying on with another young man similarly employed at a little distance from him, whose allusions to ‘that last bottle of soda-water last night,’ and ‘how regularly round my hat he felt himself when the young ’ooman gave ’em in charge,’ would appear to refer to the consequences of some stolen joviality of the preceding evening. The customers generally, however, seem unable to participate in the amusement derivable from this source, for an old sallow-looking woman, who has been leaning with both arms on the counter with a small bundle before her, for half an hour previously, suddenly interrupts the conversation by addressing the jewelled shopman — ‘Now, Mr. Henry, do make haste, there’s a good soul, for my two grandchildren’s locked up at home, and I’m afeer’d of the fire.’ The shopman slightly raises his head, with an air of deep abstraction, and resumes his entry with as much deliberation as if he were engraving. ‘You’re in a hurry, Mrs. Tatham, this ev’nin’, an’t you?’ is the only notice he deigns to take, after the lapse of five minutes or so. ‘Yes, I am indeed, Mr. Henry; now, do serve me next, there’s a good creetur. I wouldn’t worry you, only it’s all along o’ them botherin’ children.’ ‘What have you got here?’ inquires the shopman, unpinning the bundle — ‘old concern, I suppose — pair o’ stays and a petticut. You must look up somethin’ else, old ’ooman; I can’t lend you anything more upon them; they’re completely worn out by this time, if it’s only by putting in, and taking out again, three times a week.’ ‘Oh! you’re a rum un, you are,’ replies the old woman, laughing extremely, as in duty bound; ‘I wish I’d got the gift of the gab like you; see if I’d be up the spout so often then! No, no; it an’t the petticut; it’s a child’s frock and a beautiful silk ankecher, as belongs to my husband. He gave four shillin’ for it, the werry same blessed day as he broke his arm.’ — ‘What do you want upon these?’ inquires Mr. Henry, slightly glancing at the articles, which in all probability are old acquaintances. ‘What do you want upon these?’ — ‘Eighteenpence.’ — ‘Lend you ninepence.’ — ‘Oh, make it a shillin’; there’s a dear — do now?’ — ‘Not another farden.’ — ‘Well, I suppose I must take it.’ The duplicate is made out, one ticket pinned on the parcel, the other given to the old woman; the parcel is flung carelessly down into a corner, and some other customer prefers his claim to be served without further delay.

The choice falls on an unshaven, dirty, sottish-looking fellow, whose tarnished paper-cap, stuck negligently over one eye, communicates an additionally repulsive expression to his very uninviting countenance. He was enjoying a little relaxation from his sedentary pursuits a quarter of an hour ago, in kicking his wife up the court. He has come to redeem some tools:– probably to complete a job with, on account of which he has already received some money, if his inflamed countenance and drunken staggers may be taken as evidence of the fact. Having waited some little time, he makes his presence known by venting his ill-humour on a ragged urchin, who, being unable to bring his face on a level with the counter by any other process, has employed himself in climbing up, and then hooking himself on with his elbows — an uneasy perch, from which he has fallen at intervals, generally alighting on the toes of the person in his immediate vicinity. In the present case, the unfortunate little wretch has received a cuff which sends him reeling to this door; and the donor of the blow is immediately the object of general indignation.

‘What do you strike the boy for, you brute?’ exclaims a slipshod woman, with two flat irons in a little basket. ‘Do you think he’s your wife, you willin?’ ‘Go and hang yourself!’ replies the gentleman addressed, with a drunken look of savage stupidity, aiming at the same time a blow at the woman which fortunately misses its object. ‘Go and hang yourself; and wait till I come and cut you down.’ — ‘Cut you down,’ rejoins the woman, ‘I wish I had the cutting of you up, you wagabond! (loud.) Oh! you precious wagabond! (rather louder.) Where’s your wife, you willin? (louder still; women of this class are always sympathetic, and work themselves into a tremendous passion on the shortest notice.) Your poor dear wife as you uses worser nor a dog — strike a woman — you a man! (very shrill;) I wish I had you — I’d murder you, I would, if I died for it!’ — ‘Now be civil,’ retorts the man fiercely. ‘Be civil, you wiper!’ ejaculates the woman contemptuously. ‘An’t it shocking?’ she continues, turning round, and appealing to an old woman who is peeping out of one of the little closets we have before described, and who has not the slightest objection to join in the attack, possessing, as she does, the comfortable conviction that she is bolted in. ‘Ain’t it shocking, ma’am? (Dreadful! says the old woman in a parenthesis, not exactly knowing what the question refers to.) He’s got a wife, ma’am, as takes in mangling, and is as ‘dustrious and hard-working a young ’ooman as can be, (very fast) as lives in the back parlour of our ’ous, which my husband and me lives in the front one (with great rapidity) — and we hears him a beaten’ on her sometimes when he comes home drunk, the whole night through, and not only a beaten’ her, but beaten’ his own child too, to make her more miserable — ugh, you beast! and she, poor creater, won’t swear the peace agin him, nor do nothin’, because she likes the wretch arter all — worse luck!’ Here, as the woman has completely run herself out of breath, the pawnbroker himself, who has just appeared behind the counter in a gray dressing-gown, embraces the favourable opportunity of putting in a word:–‘Now I won’t have none of this sort of thing on my premises!’ he interposes with an air of authority. ‘Mrs. Mackin, keep yourself to yourself, or you don’t get fourpence for a flat iron here; and Jinkins, you leave your ticket here till you’re sober, and send your wife for them two planes, for I won’t have you in my shop at no price; so make yourself scarce, before I make you scarcer.’

This eloquent address produces anything but the effect desired; the women rail in concert; the man hits about him in all directions, and is in the act of establishing an indisputable claim to gratuitous lodgings for the night, when the entrance of his wife, a wretched, worn-out woman, apparently in the last stage of consumption, whose face bears evident marks of recent ill-usage, and whose strength seems hardly equal to the burden — light enough, God knows! — of the thin, sickly child she carries in her arms, turns his cowardly rage in a safer direction. ‘Come home, dear,’ cries the miserable creature, in an imploring tone; ‘DO come home, there’s a good fellow, and go to bed.’ — ‘Go home yourself,’ rejoins the furious ruffian. ‘Do come home quietly,’ repeats the wife, bursting into tears. ‘Go home yourself,’ retorts the husband again, enforcing his argument by a blow which sends the poor creature flying out of the shop. Her ‘natural protector’ follows her up the court, alternately venting his rage in accelerating her progress, and in knocking the little scanty blue bonnet of the unfortunate child over its still more scanty and faded-looking face.

In the last box, which is situated in the darkest and most obscure corner of the shop, considerably removed from either of the gas-lights, are a young delicate girl of about twenty, and an elderly female, evidently her mother from the resemblance between them, who stand at some distance back, as if to avoid the observation even of the shopman. It is not their first visit to a pawnbroker’s shop, for they answer without a moment’s hesitation the usual questions, put in a rather respectful manner, and in a much lower tone than usual, of ‘What name shall I say? — Your own property, of course? — Where do you live? — Housekeeper or lodger?’ They bargain, too, for a higher loan than the shopman is at first inclined to offer, which a perfect stranger would be little disposed to do; and the elder female urges her daughter on, in scarcely audible whispers, to exert her utmost powers of persuasion to obtain an advance of the sum, and expatiate on the value of the articles they have brought to raise a present supply upon. They are a small gold chain and a ‘Forget me not’ ring: the girl’s property, for they are both too small for the mother; given her in better times; prized, perhaps, once, for the giver’s sake, but parted with now without a struggle; for want has hardened the mother, and her example has hardened the girl, and the prospect of receiving money, coupled with a recollection of the misery they have both endured from the want of it — the coldness of old friends — the stern refusal of some, and the still more galling compassion of others — appears to have obliterated the consciousness of self-humiliation, which the idea of their present situation would once have aroused.

In the next box, is a young female, whose attire, miserably poor, but extremely gaudy, wretchedly cold, but extravagantly fine, too plainly bespeaks her station. The rich satin gown with its faded trimmings, the worn-out thin shoes, and pink silk stockings, the summer bonnet in winter, and the sunken face, where a daub of rouge only serves as an index to the ravages of squandered health never to be regained, and lost happiness never to be restored, and where the practised smile is a wretched mockery of the misery of the heart, cannot be mistaken. There is something in the glimpse she has just caught of her young neighbour, and in the sight of the little trinkets she has offered in pawn, that seems to have awakened in this woman’s mind some slumbering recollection, and to have changed, for an instant, her whole demeanour. Her first hasty impulse was to bend forward as if to scan more minutely the appearance of her half-concealed companions; her next, on seeing them involuntarily shrink from her, to retreat to the back of the box, cover her face with her hands, and burst into tears.

There are strange chords in the human heart, which will lie dormant through years of depravity and wickedness, but which will vibrate at last to some slight circumstance apparently trivial in itself, but connected by some undefined and indistinct association, with past days that can never be recalled, and with bitter recollections from which the most degraded creature in existence cannot escape.

There has been another spectator, in the person of a woman in the common shop; the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting, and slovenly. Her curiosity was at first attracted by the little she could see of the group; then her attention. The half-intoxicated leer changed to an expression of something like interest, and a feeling similar to that we have described, appeared for a moment, and only a moment, to extend itself even to her bosom.

Who shall say how soon these women may change places? The last has but two more stages — the hospital and the grave. How many females situated as her two companions are, and as she may have been once, have terminated the same wretched course, in the same wretched manner! One is already tracing her footsteps with frightful rapidity. How soon may the other follow her example! How many have done the same!

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30