The People of the Abyss, by Jack London

Chapter 1

The Descent

“But you can’t do it, you know,” friends said, to whom I applied for assistance in the matter of sinking myself down into the East End of London. “You had better see the police for a guide,” they added, on second thought, painfully endeavouring to adjust themselves to the psychological processes of a madman who had come to them with better credentials than brains.

“But I don’t want to see the police,” I protested. “What I wish to do is to go down into the East End and see things for myself. I wish to know how those people are living there, and why they are living there, and what they are living for. In short, I am going to live there myself.”

“You don’t want to live down there!” everybody said, with disapprobation writ large upon their faces. “Why, it is said there are places where a man’s life isn’t worth tu’pence.”

“The very places I wish to see,” I broke in.

“But you can’t, you know,” was the unfailing rejoinder.

“Which is not what I came to see you about,” I answered brusquely, somewhat nettled by their incomprehension. “I am a stranger here, and I want you to tell me what you know of the East End, in order that I may have something to start on.”

“But we know nothing of the East End. It is over there, somewhere.” And they waved their hands vaguely in the direction where the sun on rare occasions may be seen to rise.

“Then I shall go to Cook’s,” I announced.

“Oh yes,” they said, with relief. “Cook’s will be sure to know.”

But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, path-finders and trail-clearers, living sign-posts to all the world, and bestowers of first aid to bewildered travellers — unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could you send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Thibet, but to the East End of London, barely a stone’s throw distant from Ludgate Circus, you know not the way!

“You can’t do it, you know,” said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cook’s Cheapside branch. “It is so — hem — so unusual.”

“Consult the police,” he concluded authoritatively, when I had persisted. “We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.”

“Never mind that,” I interposed, to save myself from being swept out of the office by his flood of negations. “Here’s something you can do for me. I wish you to understand in advance what I intend doing, so that in case of trouble you may be able to identify me.”

“Ah, I see! should you be murdered, we would be in position to identify the corpse.”

He said it so cheerfully and cold-bloodedly that on the instant I saw my stark and mutilated cadaver stretched upon a slab where cool waters trickle ceaselessly, and him I saw bending over and sadly and patiently identifying it as the body of the insane American who would see the East End.

“No, no,” I answered; “merely to identify me in case I get into a scrape with the ‘bobbies.’” This last I said with a thrill; truly, I was gripping hold of the vernacular.

“That,” he said, “is a matter for the consideration of the Chief Office.”

“It is so unprecedented, you know,” he added apologetically.

The man at the Chief Office hemmed and hawed. “We make it a rule,” he explained, “to give no information concerning our clients.”

“But in this case,” I urged, “it is the client who requests you to give the information concerning himself.”

Again he hemmed and hawed.

“Of course,” I hastily anticipated, “I know it is unprecedented, but —”

“As I was about to remark,” he went on steadily, “it is unprecedented, and I don’t think we can do anything for you.”

However, I departed with the address of a detective who lived in the East End, and took my way to the American consul-general. And here, at last, I found a man with whom I could “do business.” There was no hemming and hawing, no lifted brows, open incredulity, or blank amazement. In one minute I explained myself and my project, which he accepted as a matter of course. In the second minute he asked my age, height, and weight, and looked me over. And in the third minute, as we shook hands at parting, he said: “All right, Jack. I’ll remember you and keep track.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Having burnt my ships behind me, I was now free to plunge into that human wilderness of which nobody seemed to know anything. But at once I encountered a new difficulty in the shape of my cabby, a grey-whiskered and eminently decorous personage who had imperturbably driven me for several hours about the “City.”

“Drive me down to the East End,” I ordered, taking my seat.

“Where, sir?” he demanded with frank surprise.

“To the East End, anywhere. Go on.”

The hansom pursued an aimless way for several minutes, then came to a puzzled stop. The aperture above my head was uncovered, and the cabman peered down perplexedly at me.

“I say,” he said, “wot plyce yer wanter go?”

“East End,” I repeated. “Nowhere in particular. Just drive me around anywhere.”

“But wot’s the haddress, sir?”

“See here!” I thundered. “Drive me down to the East End, and at once!”

It was evident that he did not understand, but he withdrew his head, and grumblingly started his horse.

Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes’ walk from almost any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one unending slum. The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot.

Not a hansom did I meet with in all my drive, while mine was like an apparition from another and better world, the way the children ran after it and alongside. And as far as I could see were the solid walls of brick, the slimy pavements, and the screaming streets; and for the first time in my life the fear of the crowd smote me. It was like the fear of the sea; and the miserable multitudes, street upon street, seemed so many waves of a vast and malodorous sea, lapping about me and threatening to well up and over me.

“Stepney, sir; Stepney Station,” the cabby called down.

I looked about. It was really a railroad station, and he had driven desperately to it as the one familiar spot he had ever heard of in all that wilderness.

“Well,” I said.

He spluttered unintelligibly, shook his head, and looked very miserable. “I’m a strynger ’ere,” he managed to articulate. “An’ if yer don’t want Stepney Station, I’m blessed if I know wotcher do want.”

“I’ll tell you what I want,” I said. “You drive along and keep your eye out for a shop where old clothes are sold. Now, when you see such a shop, drive right on till you turn the corner, then stop and let me out.”

I could see that he was growing dubious of his fare, but not long afterwards he pulled up to the curb and informed me that an old-clothes shop was to be found a bit of the way back.

“Won’tcher py me?” he pleaded. “There’s seven an’ six owin’ me.”

“Yes,” I laughed, “and it would be the last I’d see of you.”

“Lord lumme, but it’ll be the last I see of you if yer don’t py me,” he retorted.

But a crowd of ragged onlookers had already gathered around the cab, and I laughed again and walked back to the old-clothes shop.

Here the chief difficulty was in making the shopman understand that I really and truly wanted old clothes. But after fruitless attempts to press upon me new and impossible coats and trousers, he began to bring to light heaps of old ones, looking mysterious the while and hinting darkly. This he did with the palpable intention of letting me know that he had “piped my lay,” in order to bulldose me, through fear of exposure, into paying heavily for my purchases. A man in trouble, or a high-class criminal from across the water, was what he took my measure for — in either case, a person anxious to avoid the police.

But I disputed with him over the outrageous difference between prices and values, till I quite disabused him of the notion, and he settled down to drive a hard bargain with a hard customer. In the end I selected a pair of stout though well-worn trousers, a frayed jacket with one remaining button, a pair of brogans which had plainly seen service where coal was shovelled, a thin leather belt, and a very dirty cloth cap. My underclothing and socks, however, were new and warm, but of the sort that any American waif, down in his luck, could acquire in the ordinary course of events.

“I must sy yer a sharp ’un,” he said, with counterfeit admiration, as I handed over the ten shillings finally agreed upon for the outfit. “Blimey, if you ain’t ben up an’ down Petticut Lane afore now. Yer trouseys is wuth five bob to hany man, an’ a docker ’ud give two an’ six for the shoes, to sy nothin’ of the coat an’ cap an’ new stoker’s singlet an’ hother things.”

“How much will you give me for them?” I demanded suddenly. “I paid you ten bob for the lot, and I’ll sell them back to you, right now, for eight! Come, it’s a go!”

But he grinned and shook his head, and though I had made a good bargain, I was unpleasantly aware that he had made a better one.

I found the cabby and a policeman with their heads together, but the latter, after looking me over sharply, and particularly scrutinizing the bundle under my arm, turned away and left the cabby to wax mutinous by himself. And not a step would he budge till I paid him the seven shillings and sixpence owing him. Whereupon he was willing to drive me to the ends of the earth, apologising profusely for his insistence, and explaining that one ran across queer customers in London Town.

But he drove me only to Highbury Vale, in North London, where my luggage was waiting for me. Here, next day, I took off my shoes (not without regret for their lightness and comfort), and my soft, grey travelling suit, and, in fact, all my clothing; and proceeded to array myself in the clothes of the other and unimaginable men, who must have been indeed unfortunate to have had to part with such rags for the pitiable sums obtainable from a dealer.

Inside my stoker’s singlet, in the armpit, I sewed a gold sovereign (an emergency sum certainly of modest proportions); and inside my stoker’s singlet I put myself. And then I sat down and moralised upon the fair years and fat, which had made my skin soft and brought the nerves close to the surface; for the singlet was rough and raspy as a hair shirt, and I am confident that the most rigorous of ascetics suffer no more than I did in the ensuing twenty-four hours.

The remainder of my costume was fairly easy to put on, though the brogans, or brogues, were quite a problem. As stiff and hard as if made of wood, it was only after a prolonged pounding of the uppers with my fists that I was able to get my feet into them at all. Then, with a few shillings, a knife, a handkerchief, and some brown papers and flake tobacco stowed away in my pockets, I thumped down the stairs and said good-bye to my foreboding friends. As I paused out of the door, the “help,” a comely middle-aged woman, could not conquer a grin that twisted her lips and separated them till the throat, out of involuntary sympathy, made the uncouth animal noises we are wont to designate as “laughter.”

No sooner was I out on the streets than I was impressed by the difference in status effected by my clothes. All servility vanished from the demeanour of the common people with whom I came in contact. Presto! in the twinkling of an eye, so to say, I had become one of them. My frayed and out-at-elbows jacket was the badge and advertisement of my class, which was their class. It made me of like kind, and in place of the fawning and too respectful attention I had hitherto received, I now shared with them a comradeship. The man in corduroy and dirty neckerchief no longer addressed me as “sir” or “governor.” It was “mate” now — and a fine and hearty word, with a tingle to it, and a warmth and gladness, which the other term does not possess. Governor! It smacks of mastery, and power, and high authority — the tribute of the man who is under to the man on top, delivered in the hope that he will let up a bit and ease his weight, which is another way of saying that it is an appeal for alms.

This brings me to a delight I experienced in my rags and tatters which is denied the average American abroad. The European traveller from the States, who is not a Croesus, speedily finds himself reduced to a chronic state of self-conscious sordidness by the hordes of cringing robbers who clutter his steps from dawn till dark, and deplete his pocket-book in a way that puts compound interest to the blush.

In my rags and tatters I escaped the pestilence of tipping, and encountered men on a basis of equality. Nay, before the day was out I turned the tables, and said, most gratefully, “Thank you, sir,” to a gentleman whose horse I held, and who dropped a penny into my eager palm.

Other changes I discovered were wrought in my condition by my new garb. In crossing crowded thoroughfares I found I had to be, if anything, more lively in avoiding vehicles, and it was strikingly impressed upon me that my life had cheapened in direct ratio with my clothes. When before I inquired the way of a policeman, I was usually asked, “Bus or ’ansom, sir?” But now the query became, “Walk or ride?” Also, at the railway stations, a third-class ticket was now shoved out to me as a matter of course.

But there was compensation for it all. For the first time I met the English lower classes face to face, and knew them for what they were. When loungers and workmen, at street corners and in public-houses, talked with me, they talked as one man to another, and they talked as natural men should talk, without the least idea of getting anything out of me for what they talked or the way they talked.

And when at last I made into the East End, I was gratified to find that the fear of the crowd no longer haunted me. I had become a part of it. The vast and malodorous sea had welled up and over me, or I had slipped gently into it, and there was nothing fearsome about it — with the one exception of the stoker’s singlet.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38