A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

11

Josh Perrott reached home late for tea but in good humour. He had spent most of the day at the Bag of Nails, dancing attendance on the High Mobsmen. Those of the High Mob were the flourishing practitioners in burglary, the mag, the mace, and the broads, with an outer fringe of such dippers — such pick-pockets — as could dress well, welshers, and snides-men. These, the grandees of rascality, lived in places far from the Jago, and some drove in gigs and pony traps. But they found the Bag of Nails a convenient and secluded exchange and house of call, and there they met, made appointments, designed villainies, and tossed for sovereigns: deeply reverenced by the admiring Jagos, among whom no ambition flourished but this — to become also of these resplendent ones. It was of these that old Beveridge had spoken one day to Dicky, in language the child but half understood. The old man sat on a curb in view of the Bag of Nails, and smoked a blackened bit of clay pipe. He hauled Dicky to his side, and, pointing with his pipe, said:—‘See that man with the furs?’

‘What?’ Dicky replied. ‘Mean ’im in the ice-cream coat, smokin’ a cigar? Yus.’

‘And the other with the brimmy tall hat, and the red face, and the umbrella?’

‘Yus.’

‘What are they?’

”Igh mob. ‘Ooks. Toffs.’

‘Right. Now, Dicky Perrott, you Jago whelp, look at them — look hard. Some day, if you’re clever — cleverer than anyone in the Jago now — if you’re only scoundrel enough, and brazen enough, and lucky enough — one of a thousand — maybe you’ll be like them: bursting with high living, drunk when you like, red and pimply. There it is — that’s your aim in life — there’s your pattern. Learn to read and write, learn all you can, learn cunning, spare nobody and stop at nothing, and perhaps —’ he waved his hand toward the Bag of Nails. ‘It’s the best the world has for you, for the Jago’s got you, and that’s the only way out, except gaol and the gallows. So do your devilmost, or God help you, Dicky Perrott — though he wont: for the Jago’s got you!’

Old Beveridge had eccentric talk and manners, and the Jago regarded him as a trifle ‘balmy,’ though anything but a fool. So that Dicky troubled little to sift the meaning of what he said.

Josh Perrott’s mission among the High Mob had been to discover some Mobsman who might be disposed to back him in the fight with Billy Leary. For though a private feud was the first cause of the turn-up, still business must never be neglected, and a feud or anything else that could produce money must be made to produce it, and when a fight of exceptional merit is placed before spectators, it is but fair that they should pay for their diversion.

But few High Mobsmen were at the Bag of Nails that day. Sunday was the day of the chief gatherings of the High Mob: Sunday the market-day, so to speak, of the Jago, when such rent as was due weekly was paid (most of the Jago rents were paid daily and nightly) and other accounts were settled or fought out. Moreover, the High Mob were perhaps a trifle shy of the Jago at the time of a faction fight; and one was but just over, and that cut short at a third of the usual span of days. So that Josh waited long and touted vainly, till a patron arrived who knew him of old; who had employed him, indeed, as ‘minder’— which means a protector or a bully, as you please to regard it — on a racecourse adventure involving bodily risk. On this occasion Josh had earned his wages with hard knocks given and taken, and his employer had conceived a high and thankful opinion of his capacity. Wherefore he listened now to the tale of the coming fight, and agreed to provide something in the way of stakes, and to put something on for Josh himself: looking for his own profit to the bets he might make at favourable odds with his friends. For Billy Leary was notorious as being near prime ruffian of the Jago, while Josh’s reputation was neither so evil nor so wide. And so it was settled, and Josh came pleased to his tea; for assuredly Billy Leary would have no difficulty in finding another notable of the High Mob to cover the stakes.

Dicky was at home, sitting by Looey on the bed; and when he called his father it seemed pretty plain to Josh that the baby was out of sorts. ‘She’s rum about the eyes,’ he said to his wife. ‘Blimy if she don’t look as though she was goin’ to squint.’

Josh was never particularly solicitous as to the children, but he saw that they were fed and clothed — perhaps by mere force of the habit of his more reputable days of plastering. He had brought home tripe, rolled in paper, and stuffed into his coat pocket, to make a supper on the strength of the day’s stroke of business. When this tripe was boiled, he and Dicky essayed to drive morsels into Looey’s mouth, and to wash them down with beer; but to no end but choking rejection. Whereat Josh decided that she must go to the dispensary in the morning. And in the morning he took her, with Dicky at his heels; for not only did his wife still nurse her neck, but in truth she feared to venture abroad.

The dispensary was no charitable institution, but a shop so labelled in Meakin Street, one of half a dozen such kept by a medical man who lived away from them, and bothered himself as little about them as was consistent with banking the takings and signing the death-certificates. A needy young student, whose sole qualification was cheapness, was set to do the business of each place, and the uniform price for advice and medicine was sixpence. But there was a deal of professional character in the blackened and gilt lettered front windows, and the sixpences came by hundreds. For hospital letters but rarely came Meakin Street way. Such as did were mostly in the hands of tradesmen, who subscribed for the purpose of getting them, and gave them to their best customers, as was proper and business-like. And so the dispensary flourished, and the needy young student grew shifty and callous, and no doubt there were occasional faith-cures. Indeed, cures of simple science were not at all impossible. For there was always a good supply of two drugs in the place — Turkey rhubarb and sulphuric acid: both very useful, both very cheap, and both going very far in varied preparation, properly handled. An ounce or two of sulphuric acid, for instance, costing something fractional, dilutes with water into many gallons of physic. Excellent medicines they made too, and balanced each other very well by reason of their opposite effects. But indeed they were not all, for sometimes there were two or three other drugs in hand, interfering, perhaps troublesomely, with the simple division of therapeutics into the two provinces of rhubarb and sulphuric acid.

Business was brisk at the dispensary: several were waiting, and medicine and advice were going at the rate of two minutes for sixpence. Looey’s case was not so clear as most of the others: she could not describe its symptoms succinctly, as ‘a pain here,’ or ‘a tight feeling there.’ She did but lie heavily, staring blankly upward (she did not mind the light now), with the little cast in her eyes, and repeat her odd little wail; and Dicky and his father could tell very little. The young student had a passing thought that he might have known a trifle more of the matter if he had had time to turn up Ross on nerve and brain troubles — were such a proceeding consistent with the dignity of the dispensary; but straightway assigning the case to the rhubarb province, made up a powder, ordered Josh to keep the baby quiet, and pitched his sixpence among the others, well within the two minutes.

And faith in the dispensary was strengthened, for indeed Looey seemed a little better after the powder; and she was fed with spoonfuls of a fluid bought at a chandler’s shop, and called milk.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11