A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

18

Mr Grinder kept a shop in the Bethnal Green Road. It was announced in brilliant lettering as an ‘oil, colour and Italian warehouse,’ and there, in addition to the oil and the colour, and whatever of Italian there might have been, he sold pots, pans, kettles, brooms, shovels, mops, lamps, nails, and treacle. It was a shop ever too tight for its stock, which burst forth at every available opening, and heaped so high on the paving that the window was half buried in a bank of shining tin. Father Sturt was one of the best customers: the oil, candles and utensils needed for church and club all coming from Mr Grinder’s. Mr Grinder was losing his shop-boy, who had found a better situation; and Father Sturt determined that, could but the oil-man be persuaded, Dicky Perrott should be the new boy. Mr Grinder was persuaded. Chiefly perhaps, because the vicar undertook to make good the loss, should the experiment end in theft; partly because it was policy to oblige a good customer; and partly, indeed, because Mr Grinder was willing to give such a boy a chance in life, for he was no bad fellow, as oil-and-colourmen go, and had been an errand boy himself.

So that there came a Monday morning when Dicky, his clothes as well mended as might be (for Hannah Perrott, no more than another Jago, could disobey Father Sturt), and a cut-down apron of his mother’s tied before him, stood by Mr Grinder’s bank of pots and kettles, in an eager agony to sell something, and near blind with the pride of the thing. He had been waiting at the shop-door long ere Mr Grinder was out of bed; and now, set to guard the outside stock — a duty not to be neglected in that neighbourhood — he brushed a tin pot here and there with his sleeve, and longed for some Jago friend to pass and view him in his new greatness. The goods he watched over were an unfailing source of interest; and he learned by much repetition the prices of all the saucepans, painted in blue distemper on the tin, and ranging from eightpence-halfpenny, on the big pots in the bottom row, to three-halfpence on the very little ones at the top. And there were long ranks of little paraffin lamps at a penny — the sort that had set fire to a garret in Half Jago Street a month since, and burnt old Mother Leary to a greasy cinder. With a smaller array of a superior quality at fourpence-halfpenny — just like the one that had burst at Jerry Gullen’s, and burnt the bed. While over his head swung doormats at one-and-eightpence, with penny mousetraps dangling from their corners.

When he grew more accustomed to his circumstances, he bethought him to collect a little dirt, and rub it down the front of his apron, to give himself a well-worked and business-like appearance; and he greatly impeded women who looked at the saucepans and the mousetraps, ere they entered the shop, by his anxiety to cut them off from Mr Grinder and serve them himself. He remembered the boy at the toy-shop in Bishopsgate Street, years ago, who had chased him through Spitalfields; and he wished that some lurching youngster would snatch a mousetrap, that he might make a chase himself.

At Mr Grinder’s every call Dicky was prompt and willing; for every new duty was a fresh delight, and the whole day a prolonged game of real shopkeeping. And at his tea — he was to have tea each day in addition to three and sixpence every Saturday — he took scarce five minutes. There was a trolley — just such a thing as porters used at railway stations, but smaller — which was his own particular implement, his own to pack parcels on for delivery to such few customers as did not carry away their own purchases: and to acquire the dexterous management of this trolley was a pure joy. He bolted his tea to start the sooner on a trolley-journey to a public-house two hundred yards away.

His enthusiasm for work as an amusement cooled in a day or two, but all his pride in it remained. The fight with Dove Lane waxed amain, but Dicky would not be tempted into more than a distant interest in it. In his day-dreams he saw himself a tradesman, with a shop of his own and the name ‘R. Perrott,’ with a gold flourish, over the door. He would employ a boy himself then; and there would be a parlour, with stuff-bottomed chairs and a shade of flowers, and Em grown up and playing on the piano. Truly Father Sturt was right: the hooks were fools, and the straight game was the better.

Bobby Roper, the hunchback, went past the shop once, and saw him. Dicky, minding his new dignity, ignored his enemy, and for the first time for a year and more, allowed him to pass without either taunt or blow. The other, astonished at Dicky’s new occupation, came back and back again, staring, from a safe distance, at Dicky and the shop. Dicky, on his part, took no more notice than to assume an ostentatious vigilance: so that the hunchback, baring his teeth in a snigger of malice, at last turned on his heel and rolled off.

Twice Kiddo Cook passed, but made no sign of recognition beyond a wink; and Dicky felt grateful for Kiddo’s obvious fear of compromising him. Once old Beveridge came by, striding rapidly, his tatters flying, and the legend ‘Hard Up’ chalked on his hat, as was his manner in his town rambles. He stopped abruptly at sight of Dicky, stooped, and said:—‘Dicky Perrott? Hum — hum — hey?’ Then he hurried on, doubtless conceiving just such a fear as Kiddo Cook’s. As for Tommy Rann, his affections were alienated by Dicky’s outset refusal to secrete treacle in a tin mug for a midnight carouse; and he did not show himself. So matters went for near a week.

But Mr Weech missed Dicky sadly. It was rare for a day to pass without a visit from Dicky, and Dicky had a way of bringing good things. Mr Weech would not have sold Dicky’s custom for ten shillings a week. So that when Mr Weech inquired, and found that Dicky was at work in an oil-shop, he was naturally annoyed. Moreover, if Dicky Perrott got into that way of life, he would have no fear for himself, and might get talking inconveniently among his new friends about the business affairs of Mr Aaron Weech. And at this reflection that philanthropist grew thoughtful.

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