The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 15.

A Woman of the People.

Bourke Street is a more crowded thoroughfare than Collins Street, especially at night. The theatres that it contains are in themselves sufficient for the gathering of a considerable crowd. It is a grimy crowd for the most part. Round the doors of the hotels a number of ragged and shabby-looking individuals collect, waiting till some kind friend shall invite them to step inside. Further on a knot of horsey-looking men are to be seen standing under the Opera House verandah giving and taking odds about the Melbourne Cup, or some other meeting. Here and there are ragged street Arabs, selling matches and newspapers; and against the verandah post, in the full blaze of the electric light, leans a weary, draggled-looking woman, one arm clasping a baby to her breast, and the other holding a pile of newspapers, while she drones out in a hoarse voice, “‘ERALD, third ’dition, one penny!” until the ear wearies of the constant repetition. Cabs rattle incessantly along the street; here, a fast-looking hansom, with a rakish horse, bearing some gilded youth to his Club — there, a dingy-looking vehicle, drawn by a lank quadruped, which staggers blindly down the street. Alternating with these, carriages dash along with their well-groomed horses, and within, the vision of bright eyes, white dresses, and the sparkle of diamonds. Then, further up, just on the verge of the pavement, three violins and a harp are playing a German waltz to an admiring crowd of attentive spectators. If there is one thing which the Melbourne folk love more than another, it is music. Their fondness for it is only equalled by their admiration for horse-racing. Any street band which plays at all decently, may be sure of a good audience, and a substantial remuneration for their performance. Some writer has described Melbourne, as Glasgow with the sky of Alexandria; and certainly the beautiful climate of Australia, so Italian in its brightness, must have a great effect on the nature of such an adaptable race as the Anglo-Saxon. In spite of the dismal prognostications of Marcus Clarke regarding the future Australian, whom he describes as being “a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship,” it is more likely that he will be a cultured, indolent individual, with an intense appreciation of the arts and sciences, and a dislike to hard work and utilitarian principles. Climatic influence should be taken into account with regard to the future Australian, and our posterity will no more resemble us than the luxurious Venetians resembled their hardy forefathers, who first started to build on those lonely sandy islands of the Adriatic.

This was the conclusion at which Mr. Calton arrived as, he followed his guide through the crowded streets, and saw with what deep interest the crowd listened to the rhythmic strains of Strauss and the sparkling melodies of Offenbach. The brilliantly-lit street, with the never-ceasing stream of people pouring along; the shrill cries of the street Arabs, the rattle of vehicles, and the fitful strains of music, all made up a scene which fascinated him, and he could have gone on wandering all night, watching the myriad phases of human character constantly passing before his eyes. But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the thoroughfare, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas-lamps, and the few ragged-looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left. Turning off Little Bourke Street, the detective led the way down a dark lane. It was as hot as a furnace from the accumulated heat of the day. To look up at the clear starlit sky was to experience a sensation of delicious coolness.

“Keep close to me,” whispered Kilsip, touching the barrister on the arm; “we may meet some nasty customers about here.”

It was not quite dark, for the atmosphere had that luminous kind of haze so observable in Australian twilights, and this weird light was just sufficient to make the darkness visible. Kilsip and the barrister kept for safety in the middle of the alley, so that no one could spring upon them unaware, and they could see sometimes on the one side, a man cowering back into the black shadow, or on the other, a woman with disordered hair and bare bosom, leaning out of a window trying to get a breath of fresh air. There were also some children playing in the dried-up gutter, and their shrill young voices came echoing strangely through the gloom, mingling with a bacchanalian sort of song, sung by a man, as he slouched along unsteadily over the rough stones. Now and then a mild-looking string of Chinamen stole along, clad in their dull-hued blue blouses, either chattering shrilly, like a lot of parrots, or moving silently down the alley with a stolid Oriental apathy on their yellow faces. Here and there came a stream of warm light through an open door, and within, the Mongolians were gathered round the gambling-tables, playing fan-tan, or leaving the seductions of their favourite pastime, to glide soft-footed to the many cook-shops, where enticing-looking fowls and turkeys already cooked were awaiting purchasers. Kilsip turning to the left, led the barrister down another and still narrower lane, the darkness and gloom of which made the lawyer shudder, as he wondered how human beings could live in such murky places.

At last, to Calton’s relief, for he felt somewhat bewildered by the darkness and narrowness of the lanes through which he had been taken, the detective stopped before a door, which he opened, and stepping inside, beckoned to the barrister to follow. Calton did so, and found himself in a low, dark, ill-smelling passage. At the end a faint light glimmered. Kilsip caught his companion by the arm and guided him carefully along the passage. There was much need of this caution, for Calton could feel that the rotten boards were full of holes, into which one or the other of his feet kept slipping from time to time, while he could hear the rats squeaking and scampering away on all sides. Just as they got to the end of this tunnel, for it could be called nothing else, the light suddenly went out, and they were left in complete darkness.

“Light that,” cried the detective in a peremptory tone of voice. “What do you mean by dowsing the glim?”

Thieves’ argot was, evidently, well understood here, for there was a shuffle in the dark, a muttered voice, and someone lit a candle. Calton saw that the light was held by an elfish-looking child. Tangled masses of black hair hung over her scowling white face. As she crouched down on the floor against the damp wall she looked up defiantly yet fearfully at the detective.

“Where’s Mother Guttersnipe?” asked Kilsip, touching her with his foot.

She seemed to resent the indignity, and rose quickly to her feet.

“Upstairs,” she replied, jerking her head in the direction of the right wall.

Following her direction, Calton — his eyes now somewhat accustomed to the gloom — could discern a gaping black chasm, which he presumed was the stair alluded to.

“Yer won’t get much out of ’er to-night; she’s a-going to start ’er booze, she is.”

“Never mind what she’s doing or about to do,” said Kilsip, sharply, “take me to her at once.”

The girl looked him sullenly up and down, then she led the way into the black chasm and up the stairs. They were so shaky as to make Calton fear they might give way. As they toiled slowly up the broken steps he held tightly to his companion’s arm. At last they stopped at a door through the cracks of which a faint glimmer of light was to be seen. Here the girl gave a shrill whistle, and the door opened. Still preceded by their elfish guide, Calton and the detective stepped through the doorway. A curious scene was before them. A small square room, with a low roof, from which the paper mildewed and torn hung in shreds; on the left hand, at the far end, was a kind of low stretcher, upon which a woman, almost naked, lay, amid a heap of greasy clothes. She appeared to be ill, for she kept tossing her head from side to side restlessly, and every now and then sang snatches of song in a cracked voice. In the centre of the room was a rough deal table, upon which stood a guttering tallow candle, which but faintly illuminated the scene, and a half empty rectangular bottle of Schnapps, with a broken cup beside it. In front of these signs of festivity sat an old woman with a pack of cards spread out before her, and from which she had evidently been telling the fortune of a villainous-looking young man who had opened the door, and who stood looking at the detective with no very friendly expression of countenance. He wore a greasy brown velvet coat, much patched, and a black wide-awake hat, pulled down over his eyes. From his expression — so scowling and vindictive was it — the barrister judged his ultimate destiny to lie between Pentridge and the gallows.

As they entered, the fortune-teller raised her head, and, shading her eyes with one skinny hand, looked curiously at the new comers. Calton thought he had never seen such a repulsive-looking old crone; and, in truth, her ugliness was, in its very grotesqueness well worthy the pencil of a Dore. Her face was seamed and lined with innumerable wrinkles, clearly defined by the dirt which was in them; bushy grey eyebrows, drawn frowningly over two piercing black eyes, whose light was undimmed by age; a hook nose, like the beak of a bird of prey, and a thin-lipped mouth devoid of teeth. Her hair was very luxurious and almost white, and was tied up in a great bunch by a greasy bit of black ribbon. As to her chin, Calton, when he saw it wagging to and fro, involuntarily quoted Macbeth’s lines —

“Ye should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That ye are so.”

She was no bad representative of the weird sisters.

As they entered she eyed them viciously, demanding,

“What the blazes they wanted.”

“Want your booze,” cried the child, with an elfish laugh, as she shook back her tangled hair.

“Get out, you whelp,” croaked the old hag, shaking one skinny fist at her, “or I’ll tear yer ’eart out.”

“Yes, she can go.” said Kilsip, nodding to the girl, “and you can clear, too,” he added, sharply, turning to the young man, who stood still holding the door open.

At first he seemed inclined to dispute the detective’s order, but ultimately obeyed him, muttering, as he went out, something about “the blooming cheek of showin’ swells cove’s cribs.” The child followed him out, her exit being accelerated by Mother Guttersnipe, who, with a rapidity only attained by long practice, seized the shoe from one of her feet, and flung it at the head of the rapidly retreating girl.

“Wait till I ketches yer, Lizer,” she shrieked, with a volley of oaths, “I’ll break yer ’ead for ye!”

Lizer responded with a shrill laugh of disdain, and vanished through the shaky door, which she closed after her.

When she had disappeared Mother Guttersnipe took a drink from the broken cup, and, gathering all her greasy cards together in a business-like way, looked insinuatingly at Calton, with a suggestive leer.

“It’s the future ye want unveiled, dearie?” she croaked, rapidly shuffling the cards; “an’ old mother ’ull tell — ”

“No she won’t,” interrupted the detective, sharply. “I’ve come on business.”

The old woman started at this, and looked keenly at him from under her bushy eyebrows.

“What ’av the boys been up to now?” she asked, harshly. “There ain’t no swag ’ere this time.”

Just then the sick woman, who had been restlessly tossing on the bed, commenced singing a snatch of the quaint old ballad of “Barbara Allen” —

“Oh, mither, mither, mak’ my bed, An’ mak’ it saft an’ narrow; Since my true love died for me to-day I’ll die for him to-morrow.”

“Shut up, cuss you!” yelled Mother Guttersnipe, viciously, “or I’ll knock yer bloomin’ ’ead orf,” and she seized the square bottle as if to carry out her threat; but, altering her mind, she poured some of its contents into the cup, and drank it off with avidity.

“The woman seems ill,” said Calton, casting a shuddering glance at the stretcher.

“So she are,” growled Mother Guttersnipe, angrily. “She ought to be in Yarrer Bend, she ought, instead of stoppin’ ’ere an’ singin’ them beastly things, which makes my blood run cold. Just ’ear ’er,” she said, viciously, as the sick woman broke out once more —

“Oh, little did my mither think, When first she cradled me, I’d die sa far away fra home, Upon the gallows tree.”

“Yah!” said the old woman, hastily, drinking some more gin out of the cup. “She’s allays a-talkin’ of dyin’ an’ gallers, as if they were nice things to jawr about.”

“Who was that woman who died here three or four weeks ago?” asked Kilsip, sharply.

“‘Ow should I know?” retorted Mother Guttersnipe, sullenly. “I didn’t kill ’er, did I? It were the brandy she drank; she was allays drinkin’, cuss her.”

“Do you remember the night she died?”

“No, I don’t,” answered the beldame, frankly. “I were drunk — blind, bloomin’, blazin’ drunk — s’elp me.”

“You’re always drunk,” said Kilsip.

“What if I am?” snarled the woman, seizing her bottle. “You don’t pay fur it. Yes, I’m drunk. I’m allays drunk. I was drunk last night, an’ the night before, an’ I’m a-goin’ to git drunk to-night” — with an impressive look at the bottle — “an’ to-morrow night, an’ I’ll keep it up till I’m rottin’ in the grave.”

Calton shuddered, so full of hatred and suppressed malignity was her voice, but the detective merely shrugged his shoulders.

“More fool you,” he said, briefly. “Come now, on the night the ‘Queen,’ as you call her, died, there was a gentleman came to see her?”

“So she said,” retorted Mother Guttersnipe; “but, lor, I dunno anythin’, I were drunk.”

“Who said — the ‘Queen?’”

“No, my gran’darter, Sal. The ‘Queen,’ sent ’er to fetch the toff to see ’er cut ’er lucky. Wanted ’im to look at ’is work, I s’pose, cuss ’im; and Sal prigged some paper from my box,” she shrieked, indignantly; “prigged it w’en I were too drunk to stop ’er?”

The detective glanced at Calton, who nodded to him with a gratified expression on his face. They were right as to the paper having been stolen from the Villa at Toorak.

“You did not see the gentleman who came?” said Kilsip, turning again to the old hag.

“Not I, cuss you,” she retorted, politely. “‘E came about ’arf-past one in the morning, an’ you don’t expects we can stop up all night, do ye?”

“Half-past one o’clock,” repeated Calton, quickly. “The very time. Is this true?”

“Wish I may die if it ain’t,” said Mother Guttersnipe, graciously. “My gran’darter Sal kin tell ye.”

“Where is she?” asked Kilsip, sharply.

At this the old woman threw back her head, and howled dismay.

“She’s ’ooked it,” she wailed, drumming on the ground with her feet. “Gon’ an’ left ’er pore old gran’ an’ joined the Army, cuss ’em, a-comin’ round an’ a-spilin’ business.”

Here the woman on the bed broke out again —

“Since the flowers o’ the forest are a’ wed awa.”

“‘Old yer jawr,” yelled Mother Guttersnipe, rising, and making a dart at the bed. “I’ll choke the life out ye, s’elp me. D’y want me to murder ye, singin’ ’em funeral things?”

Meanwhile the detective was talking rapidly to Mr. Calton.

“The only person who can prove Mr. Fitzgerald was here between one and two o’clock,” he said, quickly, “is Sal Rawlins, as everyone else seems to have been drunk or asleep. As she has joined the Salvation Army, I’ll go to the barracks the first thing in the morning and look for her.”

“I hope you’ll find her,” answered Calton, drawing a long breath. “A man’s life hangs on her evidence.”

They turned to go, Calton having first given Mother Guttersnipe some loose silver, which she seized on with an avaricious clutch.

“You’ll drink it, I suppose?” said the barrister, shrinking back from her.

“Werry likely,” retorted the hag, with a repulsive grin, tying the money up in a piece of her dress, which she tore off for the purpose. “I’m a forting to the public-’ouse, I am, an’ it’s the on’y pleasure I ’ave in my life, cuss it.”

The sight of money had a genial effect on her nature, for she held the candle at the head of the stairs, as they went down, so that they should not break their heads. As they arrived safely, they saw the light vanish, and heard the sick woman singing, “The Last Rose of Summer.”

The street door was open, and, after groping their way along the dark passage, with its pitfalls, they found themselves in the open street.

“Thank heaven,” said Calton, taking off his hat, and drawing a long breath. “Thank heaven we are safely out of that den!”

“At all events, our journey has not been wasted,” said the detective, as they walked along. “We’ve found out where Mr. Fitzgerald was on the night of the murder, so he will be safe.”

“That depends upon Sal Rawlins,” answered Calton, gravely; “but come, let us have a glass of brandy, for I feel quite ill after my experience of low life.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/fergus/h93my/chapter15.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42