A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

13

Ten days after his first tour of the Old Jago, the Reverend Henry Sturt first preached in the parish church made of a stable, in an alley behind Meakin Street, but few yards away, though beyond sight and sound of the Jago. There, that Sunday morning was a morning of importance, a time of excitement, for the fight between Billy Leary and Josh Perrott was to come off in Jago Court. The assurance that there was money in the thing was a sovereign liniment for Billy Leary’s bruises — for they were but bruises — and he hastened to come by that money, lest it melt by caprice of the backers, or the backers themselves fall at unlucky odds with the police. He made little of Josh Perrott, his hardness and known fighting power notwithstanding. For was there not full a stone and a half between their weights? and had Billy not four or five inches the better in height and a commensurate advantage in reach? And Billy Leary’s own hardness and fighting power were well proved enough.

It was past eleven o’clock. The weekly rents — for the week forthcoming — had been extracted, or partly extracted, or scuffled over. Old Poll Rann, who had made money in sixty-five years of stall-farming and iniquity, had made the rounds of the six houses she rented, to turn out the tenants of the night who were disposed to linger. Many had already stripped themselves to their rags at pitch-and-toss in Jago Court; and the game still went busily on in the crowded area and in overflow groups in Old Jago Street; and men found themselves deprived, not merely of the money for that day’s food and that night’s lodging, but even of the last few pence set by to back a horse for Tuesday’s race. A little-regarded fight or two went on here and there as usual, and on kerbs and doorsteps sat women, hideous at all ages, filling the air with the rhetoric of the Jago.

Presently down from Edge Lane and the ‘Posties’ came the High Mobsmen, swaggering in check suits and billycocks, gold chains and lumpy rings: stared at, envied, and here and there pointed out by name or exploit. ‘Him as done the sparks in from Regent Street for nine centuries o’ quids’; ‘Him as done five stretch for a snide bank bill an’ they never found the oof’; ‘Him as maced the bookies in France an’ shot the nark in the boat’; and so forth. And the High Mob being come, the fight was due.

Of course, a fight merely as a fight was no great matter of interest: the thing was too common. But there was money on this; and again, it was no common thing to find Billy Leary defied, still less to find him challenged. Moreover, the thing had a Rann and Leary complexion, and it arose out of the battle of less than a fortnight back. So that Josh Perrott did not lack for partisans, though not a Rann believed he could stand long before Billy Leary Billy’s cause, too, had lost some popularity because it had been reported that Sally Green, in hospital, had talked of ‘summonsing’ Norah Walsh in the matter of her mangled face: a scandalous device to overreach, a piece of foul practice repugnant to all proper feeling; more especially for such a distinguished Jago as Sally Green — so well able to take care of herself. But all this was nothing as affecting the odds. They ruled at three to one on Billy Leary, with few takers, and went to four to one before the fight began.

Josh Perrott had been strictly sober for a full week. And the family had lived better, for he had brought meat home each day. Now he sat indifferently at the window of his room, and looked out at the crowd in Jago Court till such time as he might be wanted. He had not been out of the room that morning: he was saving his energy for Billy Leary.

As for Dicky, he had scarce slept for excitement. For days he had enjoyed consideration among his fellows on account of this fight. Now he shook and quivered, and nothing relieved his agitation but violent exertion. So he rushed downstairs a hundred times to see if the High Mob were coming, and back to report that they were not. At last he saw their overbearing checks, and tore upstairs, face before knees, with ”Ere they are, father! ’Ere they are! They’re comin’ down the street, father!’ and danced frenzied about the room and the landing.

Presently Jerry Gullen and Kiddo Cook came, as seconds, to take Josh out, and then Dicky quieted a little externally, though he was bursting at the chest and throat, and his chin jolted his teeth together uncontrollably. Josh dragged off his spotted coat and waistcoat and flung them on the bed, and then was helped out of his ill-mended blue shirt. He gave a hitch to his trousers-band, tightened his belt, and was ready.

‘Ta-ta, ol’ gal,’ he said to his wife, with a grin; ‘back agin soon.’

‘With a bob or two for ye,’ added Kiddo Cook, grinning likewise.

Hannah Perrott sat pale and wistful, with the baby on her knees. Through the morning she had sat so, wretched and helpless, sometimes putting her face in her hands, sometimes breaking out hopelessly:—‘Don’t, Josh, don’t — good Gawd, Josh, I wish you wouldn’t!’ or ‘Josh, Josh, I wish I was dead!’ Josh had fought before, it was true, and more than once, but then she had learned of the matter afterward. This preparation and long waiting were another thing. Once she had even exclaimed that she would go with him — though she meant nothing.

Now, as Josh went out at the door, she bent over Looey and hid her face again. ‘Good luck, father,’ called Dicky, ‘go it!’ Though the words would hardly pass his throat, and he struggled to believe that he had no fear for his father.

No sooner was the door shut than he rushed to the window, though Josh could not appear in Jago Court for three or four minutes yet. The sash-line was broken, and the window had been propped open with a stick. In his excitement Dicky dislodged the stick, and the sash came down on his head, but he scarce felt the blow, and readjusted the stick with trembling hands, regardless of the bruise rising under his hair.

‘Aincher goin’ to look, mother?’ he asked. ‘Wontcher ’old up Looey?’

But his mother would not look. As for Looey, she looked at nothing. She had been taken to the dispensary once again, and now lay drowsy and dull, with little more movement than a general shudder and a twitching of the face at long intervals. The little face itself was thinner and older than ever: horribly flea-bitten still, but bloodlessly pale. Mrs Perrott had begun to think Looey was ailing for something; thought it might be measles or whooping-cough coming, and complained that children were a continual worry.

Dicky hung head and shoulders out of the window, clinging to the broken sill and scraping feverishly at the wall with his toes. Jago Court was fuller than ever. The tossing went on, though now with more haste, that most might be made of the remaining time. A scuffle still persisted in one corner. Some stood to gaze at the High Mob, who, to the number of eight or ten, stood in an exalted group over against the back fences of New Jago Street; but the thickest knot was about Cocko Harnwell’s doorstep, whereon sat Billy Leary, his head just visible through the press about him, waiting to keep his appointment.

Then a close group appeared at the archway, and pushed into the crowd, which made way at its touch, the disturbed tossers pocketing their coppers, but the others busily persisting, with no more than a glance aside between the spins. Josh Perrott’s cropped head and bare shoulders marked the centre of the group, and as it came, another group moved out from Cocko Harnwell’s doorstep, with Billy Leary’s tall bulk shining pink and hairy in its midst.

”E’s in the court, mother,’ called Dicky, scraping faster with his toes.

The High Mobsmen moved up toward the middle of the court, and some from the two groups spread and pushed back the crowd. Still half a dozen couples, remote by the walls, tossed and tossed faster than ever, moving this way and that as the crowd pressed.

Now there was an irregular space of bare cobble stones and house refuse, five or six yards across, in the middle of Jago Court, and all round it the shouting crowd was packed tight, those at the back standing on sills and hanging to fences. Every window was a clump of heads, and women yelled savagely or cheerily down and across. The two groups were merged in the press at each side of the space, Billy Leary and Josh Perrott in front of each, with his seconds.

‘Naa then, any more ‘fore they begin?’ bawled a High Mobsman, turning about among his fellows. ‘Three to one on the big ’un — three to one! ’Ere, I’ll give fours — four to one on Leary! Fourer one! Fourer one!’

But they shook their heads; they would wait a little. Leary and Perrott stepped out. The last of the tossers stuffed away his coppers, and sought for a hold on the fence.

‘They’re a-sparrin’, mother!’ cried Dicky, pale and staring, elbows and legs a-work, till he was like to pitch out of window. From his mother there but jerked a whimpering sob, which he did not hear.

The sparring was not long. There was little of subtlety in the milling of the Jago: mostly no more than a rough application of the main hits and guards, with much rushing and ruffianing. What there was of condition in the two men was Josh’s: smaller and shorter, he had a certain hard brownness of hide that Leary, in his heavy opulence of flesh, lacked; and there was a horny quality in his face and hands that reminded the company of his boast of invulnerability to anything milder than steel. Also his breadth of chest was great. Nevertheless all odds seemed against him, by reason of Billy Leary’s size, reach, and fighting record.

The men rushed together, and Josh was forced back by weight. Leary’s great fists, left and right, shot into his face with smacking reports, but left no mark on the leathery skin, and Josh, fighting for the body, drove his knuckles into the other’s ribs with a force that jerked a thick grunt from Billy’s lips at each blow.

There was a roar of shouts. ‘Go it, father! Fa — ther! Fa — ther!’ Dicky screamed from the window, till his voice broke in his throat and he coughed himself livid. The men were at holds, and swaying this way and that over the uneven stones. Blood ran copiously from Billy Leary’s nose over his mouth and chin, and, as they turned, Dicky saw his father spit away a tooth over Leary’s shoulder. They clipped and hauled to and fro, each striving to break the other’s foothold. Then Perrott stumbled at a hole, lost his feet, and went down, with Leary on top.

Cheers and yells rent the air, as each man was taken to his own side by his seconds. Dicky let go the sill and turned to his mother, wild of eye, breathless with broken chatter.

‘Father ’it ’im on the nose, mother, like that —’is ribs is goin’ black where father pasted ’em —’e was out o’ breath fust — there’ blood all over ’is face, mother — father would ’a’ chucked ’im over if ’e ’adn’t tumbled in a ’ole — father ’it ’im twice on the jore —’e — O!’

Dicky was back again on the sill, kicking and shouting, for time was called, and the two men rushed again into a tangled knot. But the close strife was short. Josh had but closed to spoil his man’s wind, and, leaving his head to take care of itself, stayed till he had driven left and right on the mark, and then got back. Leary came after him, gasping and blowing already, and Josh feinted a lead and avoided, bringing Leary round on his heel and off again in chase. Once more Josh met him, drove at his ribs, and got away out of reach. Leary’s wind was going fast, and his partisans howled savagely at Josh — perceiving his tactics — taunting him with running away, daring him to stand and fight. ‘I’ll take that four to one,’ called a High Mobsman to him who had offered the odds in the beginning. ‘I’ll stand a quid on Perrott!’

‘Not with me you won’t,’ the other answered. ‘Evens, if you like.’

‘Right. Done at evens, a quid.’

Perrott, stung at length by the shouts from Leary’s corner, turned on Billy and met him at full dash. He was himself puffing by this, though much less than his adversary, and, at the cost of a heavy blow (which he took on his forehead), he visited Billy’s ribs once more.

Both men were grunting and gasping now, and the sound of blows was as of the confused beating of carpets. Dicky, who had been afflicted to heart-burst by his father’s dodging and running, which he mistook for simple flight, now broke into excited speech once more:—

‘Father’s ’it ’im on the jore ag’in —’is eye’s a-bungin’ up —Go it, father, bash ’i-i-i-m! Father’s landin’ ’im —’e —’

Hannah Perrott crept to the window and looked. She saw the foul Jago mob, swaying and bellowing about the shifting edge of an open patch, in the midst whereof her husband and Billy Leary, bruised, bloody and gasping, fought and battered infuriately; and she crept back to the bed and bent her face on Looey’s unclean little frock; till a fit of tense shuddering took the child, and the mother looked up again.

Without, the round ended. For a full minute the men took and gave knock for knock, and then Leary, wincing from another body-blow, swung his right desperately on Perrott’s ear, and knocked him over.

Exulting shouts rose from the Leary faction, and the blow struck Dicky’s heart still. But Josh was up almost before Kiddo Cook reached him, and Dicky saw a wide grin on his face as he came to his corner. The leathery toughness of the man, and the advantage it gave him, now grew apparent. He had endured to the full as much and as hard punching as had his foe — even more, and harder; once he had fallen on the broken cobble-stones with all Leary’s weight on him; and once he had been knocked down on them. But, except for the sweat that ran over his face and down his back, and for a missing front tooth and the lip it had cut, he showed little sign of the struggle; while Leary’s left eye was a mere slit in a black wen, his nose was a beaten mass, which had ensanguined him (and indeed Josh) from crown to waist, and his chest and flanks were a mottle of bruises.

‘Father’s awright, mother — I see ’im laughin’! And ’e’s smashed Leary’s nose all over ’is face!’

Up again they sprang for the next round, Perrott active and daring, Leary cautious and a trifle stiff. Josh rushed in and struck at the tender ribs once more, took two blows callously on his head, and sent his left at the nose, with a smack as of a flail on water. With that Leary rushed like a bull, and Josh was driven and battered back, for the moment without response. But he ducked, and slipped away, and came again, fresh and vicious. And now it was seen that Perrott’s toughness of hand was lasting. Leary’s knuckles were raw, cut, and flayed, and took little good by the shock when they met the other’s stubborn muzzle; while Josh still flung in his corneous fists, hard and lasting as a bag of bullets.

But suddenly, stooping to reach the mark once more, Josh’s foot turned on a projecting stone, and he floundered forward into Billy’s arms. Like a flash his neck was clipped in the big man’s left arm: Josh Perrott was in chancery. Quick and hard Leary pounded the imprisoned head, while Jerry Gullen and Kiddo Cook danced distracted and dismayed, and the crowd whooped and yelled.

Dicky hung delirious over the sill, and shrieked he knew not what. He saw his father fighting hard at the back and ribs with both hands, and Leary hammering his face in a way to make pulp of an ordinary mazzard. Then suddenly Josh Perrott’s right hand shot up from behind, over Leary’s shoulder, and gripped him at the chin. Slowly, with tightened muscles, he forced his man back over his bent knee, Leary clinging and swaying, but impotent to struggle. Then, with an extra wrench from Josh, up came Leary’s feet from the ground, higher, higher, till suddenly Josh flung him heavily over, heels up, and dropped on him with all his weight.

The Ranns roared again. Josh was up in a moment, sitting on Kiddo Cook’s knee, and taking a drink from a bottle. Billy Leary lay like a man fallen from a house-top. His seconds turned him on his back, and dragged him to his corner. There he lay limp and senseless, and there was a cut at the back of his head.

The High Mobsman who held the watch waited for half a minute and then called ‘Time!’ Josh Perrott stood up, but Billy Leary was knocked out of knowledge, and heard not. He was beaten.

Josh Perrott was involved in a howling, dancing crowd, and was pushed, grinning, this way and that, slapped on the back, and offered drinks. In the outskirts the tossers, inveterate, pulled out their pence and resumed their game.

Dicky spun about, laughing, flushed, and elated, and as soon as the door was distinct to his dazzled sight, he ran off downstairs. His mother, relieved and even pleased, speculated as to what money the thing might bring. She put the baby on the bed, and looked from the window.

Josh, in the crowd, shouted and beckoned her, pointing and tapping his bare shoulder. He wanted his clothes. She gathered together the shirt, the coat, and the waistcoat, and hurried downstairs. Looey could come to no harm lying on the bed for a few minutes. And, indeed, Hannah Perrott felt that she would be a person of distinction in the crowd, and was not sorry to have an excuse for going out.

‘Three cheers for the missis!’ sang out Kiddo Cook as she came through the press. ‘I said ’e’d ’ave a bob or two for you, didn’t I?’ Josh Perrott, indeed, was rich — a capitalist of five pounds. For a sovereign a side had been put up, and his backer had put on a sovereign for him at three to one. So that now it became him to stand beer to many sympathisers. Also, he felt that the missis should have some part in the celebration, for was it not her injury that he had avenged on Sally Green’s brother? So Hannah Perrott, pleased though timorous, was hauled away with the rest to Mother Gapp’s.

Here she sat by Josh’s side for an hour. Once or twice she thought of Looey, but with native inertness she let the thought slip. Perhaps Dicky would be back, and at any rate it was hard if she must not take half an hour’s relaxation once in a way. At last came Dicky, urgent perplexity in his face, looking in at the door. Josh, minded to be generous all round, felt for a penny.

‘Mother,’ said Dicky, plucking at her arm, ‘Pigeony Poll’s at ’ome, nussin’ Looey; she told me to tell you to come at once.’

Pigeony Poll? What right had she in the room? The ghost of Hannah Perrott’s respectability rose in resentment. She supposed she must go. She arose, mystified, and went, with Dicky at her skirts.

Pigeony Poll sat by the window with the baby in her arms, and pale misgiving in her dull face. ‘I— I come in, Mrs Perrott, mum,’ she said, with a hush in her thick voice, ‘I come in ‘cos I see you goin’ out, an’ I thought the baby’d be alone. She — she’s ’ad a sort o’ fit — all stiff an’ blue in the face and grindin’ ’er little mouth. She’s left auf now — but I— I dunno what to make of ’er. She’s so — so —’

Hannah Perrott stared blankly, and lifted the child, whose arm dropped and hung. The wizen age had gone from Looey’s face, and the lids were down on the strained eyes; her pale lips lay eased of the old pinching — even parted in a smile. For she looked in the face of the Angel that plays with the dead children.

Hannah Perrott’s chin fell. ‘Lor’,’ she said bemusedly, and sat on the bed.

An odd croaking noise broke in jerks from Pigeony Poll as she crept from the room, with her face bowed in the bend of her arm, like a weeping schoolboy. Dicky stared, confounded. . . . Josh came and gazed stupidly, with his mouth open, walking tip-toe. But at a word from Kiddo Cook, who came in his tracks, he snatched the little body and clattered off to the dispensary, to knock up the young student.

The rumour went in the Jago that Josh Perrott was in double luck. For here was insurance money without a doubt. But in truth that was a thing the Perrotts had neglected.

Hannah Perrott felt a listless relief; Josh felt nothing in particular, except that there was no other thing to be done, and that Mother Gapp’s would be a cheerful place to finish the day in, and keep up the missis’s pecker.

So that eight o’clock that evening at Perrotts’ witnessed a darkening room wherein an inconsiderable little corpse lay on a bed; while a small ragamuffin spread upon it with outstretched arms, exhausted with sobbing, a soak of muddy tears:—‘O Looey, Looey! Can’t you ’ear? Won’t you never come to me no more?’

And the Reverend Henry Sturt, walking from church through Luck Row toward his lodgings in Kingsland Road, heard shouts and riot behind the grimy panes of Mother Gapp’s, and in the midst the roar of many voices joined in the Jago chant:—

Six bloomin’ long months in a prison,

Six more bloomin’ months I must stay,
For meetin’ a bloke in our alley,
An’ takin’ ’is uxter away!

Toora-li — toora-li — looral,

Toora-li — toora-li — lay,
A-coshin’ a bloke in our alley,
An’ takin’ ’is uxter away!

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