A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

21

He handed his father the seven shillings, and received a furious belting for losing his situation. He cried quietly, but it was not because of the strap. All he feared now was to meet Father Sturt. He had rather fifty beltings than Father Sturt’s reproaches; and, having disgraced himself with Mr Grinder in some mysterious way which it was beyond his capacity to understand, what but reproaches could he expect from the vicar? The whole world was against him. As for himself, he was hopeless: plainly he must have some incomprehensible defect of nature, since he offended, do as he might, and could neither understand nor redeem his fault. He wondered if it had been so with little Neddy Wright, who had found the world too ruthless for him at ten; and had tied a brick to his neck, as he had seen done with needless dogs, and let himself timidly down into the canal at Haggerstone Bridge.

So he shuffled through Jago Row, when a hand came on his shoulder and a hoarse voice said:—‘Wot’s the matter, Dicky?’

He turned, and saw the mild, coarse face of Pigeony Poll, the jaw whereof was labouring on something tough and sticky. Poll pulled from her pocket a glutinous paper, clinging about a cohesive lump of broken toffee — the one luxury of her moneyed times. ”Ave a bit,’ she said. ‘Wot’s the matter?’

But Dicky thrust the hand away and fled, for he feared another burst of tears. His eyes were bad enough as it was, and he longed to hide himself in some hole.

He turned into New Jago Street. Hither it was that Jerry Gullen had betaken himself with his family and the Canary, after the great eviction. Dicky slackened his pace, loitered at Jerry’s doorway, and presently found himself in the common passage. It was long since he had had a private interview with Jerry Gullen’s canary: for, indeed, he was thirteen — he was no longer a child, in fact! — and it was not well that he should indulge in such foolish weakness. Nevertheless he went as far as the back door. There stood the old donkey, mangy and infirm as ever, but apparently no nearer the end. The wood of the fence was bitten in places, but it was not as yet gnawed to the general whiteness and roundness of that in Canary’s old abode. Canary, indeed, was fortunate to-day, for at the sound of Dicky’s step he lifted his nose from a small heap of straw, dust, and mouldy hay, swept into a corner. Dicky stepped into the yard, and put his hand on Canary’s neck; presently he glanced guiltily at the windows above. Nobody was looking. And in five minutes Dicky, aged as he was, had told Canary his troubles, while new tears wetted the ragged crest and dropped into the dusty straw.

Now his grief lost some of its edge. Ashamed as he was, he had a shapeless, unapprehended notion that Canary was the sole creature alive that could understand and feel with him. And Canary poked his nose under the old jacket and sniffed in sympathy, as the broken lining tickled him. Dicky’s intellectuals began to arrange themselves. Plainly, Mr Weech’s philosophy was right after all. He was of the Jago, and he must prey on the outer world, as all the Jago did; not stray foolishly off the regular track in chase of visions, and fall headlong. Father Sturt was a creature of another mould. Who was he, Dicky Perrott, that he should break away from the Jago habit, and strain after another nature? What could come of it but defeat and bitterness? As old Beveridge had said, the Jago had got him. Why should he fight against the inevitable, and bruise himself? The ways out of the Jago old Beveridge had told him, years ago. Gaol, the gallows and the High Mob. There was his chance, his aspiration, his goal: the High Mob. To dream of oil-shops or regular wages was foolishness. His bed was made in the Jago, and he must lie on it. His hope in life, if he might have a hope at all, was to be of the High Mob. Spare nobody, stop at nothing, do his devilmost: old Beveridge had said that years ago. The task was before him, and he must not balk at it. As for gaol and the gallows, well! There they were, and he could not help it; ill ways out of the Jago, both, but still — ways out.

He rubbed his face carefully with his sleeve, put away his foolish ambitions, and went forth with a brave heart: to accomplish his destiny for well or ill — a Jago rat. To do his devilmost. But to avoid Father Sturt.

Out he went into Shoreditch High Street, and there he prowled the evening away; there and in Norton Folgate. But he touched for nothing — nothing at all. He feared lest his week’s honesty had damaged his training. Even an apple on a stall he failed at, and had to run. And then he turned into Bethnal Green Road.

But here a thought checked him suddenly. What of Mr Grinder? He had threatened to have Dicky locked up if he came near the shop again. But a child of the Jago knew too much to be frightened by such a threat as that. He went on. He felt interested to see how his late employer was getting along without him, and who was minding the goods outside the shop. Probably there was nobody: and this gave Dicky an idea.

He had forgotten his smudgy apron, folded and tucked away in the lining of his jacket. Now he pulled it out, and fastened it before him once more. He knew Mr Grinder’s habits in the shop, and if he could seize a fitting opportunity he might be able, attired in his apron, to pick up or reach down any article that struck his fancy, fearless of interference from passers-by; for he would seem to be still shop-boy.

With that he hastened, for it was near closing time at Grinder’s. He took the opposite side of the road, the better to observe unseen in the darkness. But Mr Grinder had already begun to carry things in from the pavement. As Dicky looked he came out with a long pole wherewith he unhooked from above a clattering cluster of pails and watering pots, and a bunch of doormats. The doormats he let fall on the flags, while he carried in the pots and pails. Dicky knew that these pots and pails were kept at night in a shed behind the house; so he scuttled across the road, opening the blade of his old knife as he ran. He cut the string that held the mats together, selected a thick one, rolled it under his arm, and edged off into the shadow. Then he ran quietly across to the nearest turning.

Presently Mr Grinder came out, hooked his finger in the string among the mats, and pulled up nothing. He stooped, and saw that the string was cut. He looked about him suspiciously, flung the mats over, and counted them. Then he stood erect; stared up the street, down the street, and across the road, with his mouth open; and made short rushes left and right into the gloom. Then he returned to the mats and scratched his head. Finally, he gave another glance about the street, picked up the mats in his arms and carried them in, counting them as he went. And, the mats bestowed, whenever he came forth for a fresh armful of saucepans, he stood and gazed doubtfully, now this way, now that, about the Bethnal Green Road.

Mr Aaron Weech was pushing his last shutter into its place when ‘Clean the knives,’ said Dicky Perrott, in perfunctory repetition of the old formula.

Mr Weech seemed taken aback. ‘Wot, that?’ he asked, doubtfully, pointing at the doormat. Then, after a sharp look about the almost deserted street, he ran to Jago Row corner, twenty yards away, and looked down there. Nobody was hiding, and he came back. He led the way into the shop, and closed the door. Then, looking keenly in Dicky’s face, he suddenly asked — ”Oo toldjer to bring that ’ere?’

‘Told me?’ Dicky answered sullenly. ‘Nobody told me. Don’cher want it?’

”Ow much did ’e tell ye t’ask for it?’

‘Tell me? ’Oo?’

You know. ’Ow much didjer say ’e said?’

Dicky was mystified. ‘Dunno wotcher mean,’ he replied.

Mr Weech suddenly broke into a loud laugh, but kept his keen look on the boy’s face nevertheless. ‘Ah, it’s a good joke, Dicky, ain’t it?’ he said, and laughed again. ‘But you can’t ’ave me, ye know! Mr Grinder’s a old friend o’ mine, an’ I know ’is little larks. Wot did ’e tell ye to do if I wouldn’t ’ave that doormat?’

‘Tell me?’ asked Dicky, plainly more mystified than ever. ‘Wy ’e never told me nothink. ’E gimme the sack this afternoon, an’ chucked me out.’

‘Then wotcher got yer apron on now for?’

‘Oh,’ said Dicky, looking down at it, ‘I jist put it on agin — o’ purpose.’ And he glanced at the mat.

Mr Weech understood, and grinned — a genuine grin this time. ‘That’s right Dicky,’ he said, ‘never let yer wits go a-ramblin’. A sharp boy like you’s a lot too good for a shop-boy, slavin’ away from mornin’ till night, an’ treated ungrateful. Wot did ’e sack ye for?’

‘I dunno. Took a fit in ’is ’ead, I s’pose. Wotcher goin’ to gimme for this mat? It’s a two an’ three mat.’

‘Want somethink to eat, doncher?’ suggested Mr Weech, glancing at a heap of stale cake.

‘No I don’t,’ Dicky answered, with sulky resolution. ‘I want money.’

‘Awright,’ said Mr Weech, resignedly. ‘You ain’t ’ad much to eat an’ drink ’ere for a long time, though. But I’ll do the ’an’some, seein’ you’re bin treated ungrateful by Grinder. ’Ere’s twopence.’

But Dicky held to the mat. ‘Twopence ain’t enough,’ he said. ‘I want fourpence.’ He meant to spare nobody — not even Mr Weech.

‘Wot? Fourpence?’ gasped Mr Weech indignantly. ‘Wy, you’re mad. Take it away.’

Dicky rolled the mat under his arm and turned to the door.

”Ere,’ said Mr Weech, seeing him going, ‘I’ll make it thrippence, seein’ you’re bin treated so bad. Thrippence —and a slice o’ cake,’ he added, perceiving that Dicky did not hesitate.

‘I don’t want no cake,’ Dicky answered doggedly. ‘I want fourpence, an’ I won’t take no less.’

The good Weech was unwilling that Dicky should find another market after all, so he submitted to the extortion. ‘Ah well,’ he said, with a sigh, pulling out the extra coppers, ‘jist for this once, then. You’ll ave to make it up next time. Mindjer, it’s on’y ‘cos I’m sorry for ye bein’ treated ungrateful. Don’t you go an’ treat me ungrateful, now.’

Dicky pocketed his pence and made for home, while Mr Weech, chuckling gently at his morning prophecy of a doormat for fourpence, carried the plunder to the room reserved for new and unused stock; promising himself, however, a peep at Grinder’s shop in the morning, to make quite sure that Dicky had really left.

So ended Dicky’s dealings with the house of Grinder. When Father Sturt next saw the oil-man, and inquired of Dicky’s progress, he was met with solemn congratulations that no larcenies were to pay for. Mr Grinder’s sagacity, it seemed, had enabled him to detect and crush at the outset Dicky’s plans for selling stock wholesale on his own account. Out of consideration for the vicar’s recommendation he had refrained from handing the boy over to the police, but had paid him a week in advance and dismissed him. Father Sturt insisted on repaying the money, and went his way with a heavy heart. For if this were what came of the promising among his flock, what of the others? For some while he saw nothing of Dicky; and the incident fell back among a crowd of others in his remembrance: for Dicky was but one among thousands, and the disappointment was but one of many hundreds.

Lying awake that night, but with closed eyes, Dicky heard his mother, talking with his father, suggest that perhaps an enemy had earwigged Grinder, and told him a tale that had brought about Dicky’s dismissal: somebody, perhaps, who wanted the situation for somebody else. Josh Perrott did no more than grunt at the guess, but it gave a new light to Dicky. Clearly that would account for Grinder’s change. But who could the mischief-maker be?

The little clock on the mantel-piece ticked away busily in the silence, and Dicky instantly thought of the hunchback. He it must have been, without a doubt. Who else? Was he not hanging about the shop, staring and sneering, but a day or two back? And was it not he who had pursued him with malice on every occasion, in school and out? Had not Bobby Roper this very trick of lying tales? Where was the gratuitous injury in all these four years that had not been Bobby Roper’s work? Dicky trembled with rage as he lay, and he resolved on condign revenge. The war with Dove Lane was over for the time being, but that made it easier for him to catch his enemy.

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