A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

17

There was much talk of Father Sturt’s announcement. Many held it a shame that so much money, destined for the benefit of the Jago, should be spent in bricks and mortar, instead of being distributed among themselves. They fell to calculating the price of the land and houses, and to working it out laboriously in the denomination of pots and gallons. More: it was felt to be a grave social danger that Jago Court should be extinguished. What would become of the Jago without Jago Court? Where would Sunday morning be spent? Where would the fights come off, and where was so convenient a place for pitch and toss? But mainly they feared the police. Jago Court was an unfailing sanctuary, a city of refuge ever ready, ever secure. There were times when two or three of the police, hot in the chase, would burst into the Jago at the heels of a flying marauder. Then the runaway would make straight for the archway, and, once he was in Jago Court, danger was over. For he had only to run into one of the ever-open doors at right or left, and out into back-yards and other houses; or, better, to scramble over the low fence opposite, through the back door before him, and so into New Jago Street. Beyond the archway the police could not venture, except in large companies. A young constable who tried it once, getting ahead of two companions in his ardour, was laid low as he emerged from the passage, by a fire-grate adroitly let drop from an upper window.

The blotting out of such a godsend of a place as this would be a calamity. The Jago would never be the same again. As it was, the Old Jago was a very convenient, comfortable sort of place, they argued. They could not imagine themselves living anywhere else. But assuredly it would be the Jago no longer without Jago Court. And this thing was to be done, too, with money got together for their benefit! The sole explanation the Jago could supply was the one that at last, with arithmetical variations, prevailed. The landlords were to be paid a sum (varying in Jago estimation from a hundred pounds to a hundred thousand) for the houses and the ground, and of this they were secretly to return to Father Sturt a certain share (generally agreed on as half), as his private fee for bringing about so desirable a transaction. Looked at from all points, this appeared to be the most plausible explanation: for no other could reasonably account for Father Sturt’s activity. No wonder he could afford to reduce some of the rents! Was he not already receiving princely wages (variously supposed to be something from ten pounds to thirty pounds a week) from the Government, for preaching every Sunday?

Still the rents were to be reduced: that was the immediate consideration, and nothing but an immediate consideration carried weight in the Jago, where a shilling to-day was to be preferred to a constant income beginning in a month’s time. The first effect of the announcement was a rush of applications for rooms in the doomed houses, each applicant demanding to be accommodated by the eviction of somebody already established, but now disinterestedly discovered to be a bad tenant. They were all disappointed, but the residents had better luck than they had hoped. For the unexpected happened, and the money for a part of the new buildings was suddenly guaranteed. Wherefore Father Sturt, knowing that many would be hard put to it to find shelter when the houses came down, and guessing that rents would rise with the demand, determined to ask none for the little while the tenements endured. Scarce had he made his decision known ere he regretted it, popular as it was. For he reflected that the money saved would merely melt, and that at the inevitable turning out, not a soul would be the better off for the relief, but, indeed, might find it harder than ever to pay rent after the temporary easement. It would have been better rigidly to exact the rent, and return it in lump to each tenant as he left. The sum would have been an inducement to leave peaceably — a matter in which trouble was to be expected. But then, what did any windfall of shillings bring in the Jago? What but a drunk? This was one of Father Sturt’s thousand perplexities, and he could but hope that, perhaps, he had done right after all.

The old buildings were sold, as they stood, to the house-wreckers, and on the house-wreckers devolved the work of getting the lodgers out. For weeks the day was deferred, but it drew very near at last, and a tall hoarding was put up. Next morning it had vanished; but there was a loud crackling where the Jagos boiled their pots; Dicky Perrott and Tommy Rann had a bonfire in Edge Lane; and Jerry Gullen’s canary sweated abroad before a heavy load of cheap firewood.

Then Josh Perrott and Billy Leary, his old enemy, were appointed joint guardians of the new hoarding, each to get half-a-crown on every morning when the fence was found intact. And in the end there came eviction day, and once more the police held the Jago in force, escorting gangs of men with tumbrils.

As for the Perrotts, they could easily find another room, at the high rent always charged for the privilege of residence in the Jago. To have remained in one room four or five years, and to have paid rent with indifferent good regularity was a feat sufficiently rare to be notorious, and to cause way to be made for them wherever a room was falling vacant, or could be emptied. They went no farther than across the way, to a room wherein a widow had died over her sack-making two days before, and had sat on the floor with her head between her knees for hours, while her children, not understanding, cried that they were hungry. These children were now gone to the workhouse: more fortunate than the many they left behind. And the room was a very fair one, ten feet square or so.

The rest of the tenants thought not at all of new quarters, and did nothing to find them, till they found themselves and their belongings roofless in Old Jago Street. Then with one accord they demanded lodgings of the vicar. Most of them had never inhabited any rooms so long as they had these which they must now leave — having been ejected again and again because of unpaid rent. Nevertheless, they clamoured for redress as they might have clamoured had they never changed dwellings in their lives.

Nobody resisted the police; for there were too many of them. Moreover, Father Sturt was there, and few had hardihood for any but their best behaviour in his presence. Still, there were disputes among the Jagos themselves, that sometimes came very near to fights. Ginger Stagg’s missis professed to recognise a long-lost property in a tin kettle brought into the outer air among the belongings of Mrs Walsh. The miscellaneous rags and sticks that were Cocko Harnwell’s household goods got mingled in the roadway with those appertaining to the Fishers; and their assortment without a turn of family combat was a task which tried the vicar’s influence to the utmost. Mrs Rafferty, too, was suspected of undue pride in a cranky deal wash-stand, and thereby of a disposition to sneer at the humbler turn-out of the Regans from the next floor: giving occasion for a shrill and animated row.

The weather was dry, fortunately, and the evicted squatted in the roadway, by their heaps, or on them, squabbling and lamenting. Ginger Stagg, having covered certain crockery with the old family mattress, forgetfully sat on it, and came upon Father Sturt with an indignant demand for compensation.

Father Sturt’s efforts to stimulate a search for new lodgings met with small success at first. It was felt that, no doubt, there were lodgings to be had, but they would be open to the fatal objection of costing something; and the Jago temperament could neither endure nor understand payment for what had once been given for nothing. Father Sturt, the Jagos argued, had given them free quarters for so long. Then why should he stop now? If they cleared out in order to make room for his new church, in common fairness he should find them similar lodging on the same terms. So they sat and waited for him to do it.

At length the vicar set to work with them in good earnest, carried away with him a family or two at a time, and inducted them to rooms of his own finding. And hereat others, learning that in these cases rent in advance was exacted, bestirred themselves: reflecting that if rent must be paid they might as well choose their own rooms as take those that Father Sturt might find. Of course the thing was not done without payments from the vicar’s pocket. Some were wholly destitute; others could not muster enough to pay that advance of rent which alone could open a Jago tenancy. Distinguishing the genuine impecuniosity from the merely professed, with the insight that was now a sixth sense with him, Father Sturt helped sparingly and in secret; for a precedent of almsgiving was an evil thing in the Jago, confirming the shiftlessness which was already a piece of Jago nature, and setting up long affliction for the almsgiver. Enough of such precedents existed; and the inevitable additions thereto were a work of anxious responsibility and jealous care.

So the bivouac in Old Jago Street melted away. For one thing, there were those among the dispossessed who would not waste time in unproductive inactivity just then; for war had arisen with Dove Lane, and spoils were going. Dove Lane was no very reputable place, but it was not like the Jago. In the phrase of the district, the Dove Laners were pretty thick, but the Jagos were thick as glue. There were many market-porters among the Dove Laners, and at this, their prosperous season, they and their friends resorted to a shop in Meakin Street, kept by an ’ikey’ tailor, there to buy the original out-and-out downy benjamins, or the celebrated bang-up kicksies, cut saucy, with artful buttons and a double fakement down the sides. And hereabout they were apt to be set upon by Jagos; overthrown by superior numbers; bashed; and cleaned out. Or, if the purchases had been made, they were flimped of their kicksies, benjies or daisies, as the case might be. So that a fight with Dove Lane might be an affair of some occasional profit; and it became no loyal Jago to idle in the stronghold.

Father Sturt’s task was nearly over, when, returning to Old Jago Street, he saw Dicky Perrott sitting by a still-remaining heap — a heap small and poor even among those others. The Perrotts had been decorously settled in their new home since early morning; but here was Dicky, guarding a heap with a baby on it, and absorbed in the weaving of rush bags.

‘That’s right, Dicky my boy,’ said Father Sturt in the approving voice that a Jago would do almost anything — except turn honest — to hear. And Dicky, startled, looked up, flushed and happy, over his shoulder.

‘Rush bags, eh?’ the vicar went on, stooping and handing Dicky another rush from the heap. ‘And whose are they?’

The bags, the rushes, the heap, and the baby belonged to Mrs Bates, the widow, who was now in search of a new room. Dicky had often watched the weaving of fishmongers’ frails, and, since it was work in which he had had no opportunity of indulging, it naturally struck him as a fascinating pastime. So that he was delighted by the chance which he had taken, and Mrs Bates, for her part, was not sorry to find somebody to mind her property. Moreover, by hard work and the skill begot of much practice, she was able to earn a sum of some three farthings an hour at the rush bags: a profit which her cupidity made her reluctant to lose, for even half an hour. And thus to have Dicky carry on the business — and in his enthusiasm he did it very well — was a further consideration.

Father Sturt chatted with Dicky till the boy could scarce plait for very pride. Would not Dicky like to work regularly every day, asked Father Sturt, and earn wages? Dicky could see no graceful answer but the affirmative; and in sober earnest he thought he would. Father Sturt took hold of Dicky’s vanity. Was he not capable of something better than other Jago boys? Why should he not earn regular wages, and live comfortably, well fed and clothed, with no fear of the police, and no shame for what he did? He might do it, when others could not. They were not clever enough. They called themselves ‘clever’ and ‘wide;’ ‘but,’ said Father Sturt, ‘is there one of them that can deceive me?’ And Dicky knew there was not one. Most did no work, the vicar’s argument went on, because they had neither the pluck to try nor the intelligence to accomplish. Else why did they live the wretched Jago life instead of take the pleasanter time of the decent labourer?

Dicky, already zealous at work as exampled in rush bag-making, listened with wistful pride. Yes, if he could, he would work and take his place over the envious heads of his Jago friends. But how? Nobody would employ a boy living in the Jago. That was notorious. The address was a topsy-turvy testimonial for miles round.

All the same when Mrs Bates at last took away her belongings, Dicky ran off in delighted amaze to tell his mother and Em that he was going to tea at Father Sturt’s rooms.

And the wreckers tore down the foul old houses, laying bare the secret dens of a century of infamy; lifting out the wide sashes of the old ‘weavers’ windows’— the one good feature in the structures; letting light and air at last into the subterraneous basements where men and women had swarmed, and bred, and died, like wolves in their lairs; and emerging from clouds of choking dust, each man a colony of vermin. But there were rooms which the wreckers — no jack-a-dandies neither — flatly refused to enter; and nothing would make them but much coaxing, the promise of extra pay, and the certainty of much immediate beer.

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