A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

23

For more than a week Josh Perrott could not walk about. And it was a bad week. For some little while his luck had been but poor, and now he found himself laid up with a total reserve fund of fourteenpence. A coat was pawned with old Poll Rann (who kept a leaving shop in a first floor back in Jago Row) for ninepence. Then Josh swore at Dicky for not being still at Grinder’s, and told him to turn out and bring home some money. Dicky had risen almost too sore and stiff to stand, on the morning after the fight at the Feathers, and he was little better now. But he had to go, and he went, though he well knew that a click was out of the question, for his joints almost refused to bend. But he found that the fat’s a-running boys were contemplating business, and he scouted for them with such success as to bring home sevenpence in the evening. Then Kiddo Cook, who had left Mother Gapp’s with a double armful on the night of the sing-song, found himself rich enough, being a bachelor, to lend Josh eighteenpence. And a shawl of Hannah Perrott’s was pawned. That, though, was redeemed the next day, together with the coat. For Dicky brought home a golden sovereign.

It had been an easy click — scarce a click at all, perhaps, strictly speaking. Dicky had tramped into the city, and had found a crowd outside St Paul’s — a well-dressed crowd, not being moved on: for something was going forward in the cathedral. He recognised one of the High Mob, a pogue-hunter — that is a pickpocket who deals in purses. Dicky watched this man’s movements, by way of education; for he was an eminent practitioner, and worked alone, with no assistant to cover him. Dicky saw him in the thick of the crowd, standing beside and behind one lady after another; but it was only when his elbow bent to slip something into his own pocket that Dicky knew he had ‘touched.’ Presently he moved to another part of the crowd, where mostly men were standing, and there he stealthily let drop a crumpled newspaper, and straightway left the crowd. He had ‘worked’ it as much as he judged safe. Dicky wriggled toward the crumpled paper, slipped it under his jacket, and cleared away also. He knew that there was something in the paper beside news: that, in fact, there were purses in it — purses emptied and shed as soon as might be, because nobody can swear to money, but strange purses lead to destruction. Dicky recked little of this danger, but made his best pace to a recess in a back street, there to examine his pogues; for though the uxter was gone from them, they might yet bring a few coppers from Mr Weech, if they were of good quality. They were a fairly sound lot. One had a large clasp that looked like silver, and another was quite new, and Dicky was observing with satisfaction the shop-shininess of the lining, when he perceived a cunning pocket at the back, lying flat against the main integument — and in it was a sovereign! He gulped at the sight. Clearly the pogue-hunter, emptying the pogues in his pocket by sense of touch, had missed the flat pocket. Dicky was not yet able to run with freedom, but he never ceased from trotting till he reached his own staircase in Old Jago Street. And so the eight or nine days passed, and Josh went out into the Jago with no more than a tenderness about his ankle.

Now, he much desired a good click; so he went across High Street Shoreditch, to Kingsland Railway Station and bought a ticket for Canonbury.

Luck was against him, it was plain. He tramped the northern suburbs from three o’clock till dark, but touched for nothing. He spent money, indeed, for he feared to overwork his ankle, and for that reason rested in divers public-houses. He peeped in at the gates of quiet gardens, in the hope of garden-hose left unwatched, or tennis-rackets lying in a handy summer-house. But he saw none. He pried about the doors of private stable-yards, in case of absent grooms and unprotected bunches of harness; but in vain. He inspected quiet areas and kitchen entrances in search of unguarded spoons — even descended into one area, where he had to make an awkward excuse about buying old bottles, in consequence of meeting the cook at the door. He tramped one quiet road after another on the look out for a dead ’un — a house furnished, but untenanted. But there was never a dead ’un, it seemed, in all the northern district. So he grew tired and short-tempered, and cursed himself for that he had not driven off with a baker’s horse and cart that had tempted him early in the afternoon.

It grew twilight, and then dark. Josh sat in a public-house, and took a long rest and some bread and cheese. It would never do to go home without touching, and for some time he considered possibilities with regard to a handful of silver money, kept in a glass on a shelf behind the bar. But it was out of reach, and there were too many people in the place for any attempt by climbing on the counter. Josh grew savage and soured. Plastering itself was not such troublesome work; and at least the pay was certain. It was little short of ten o’clock when he left the public-house and turned back toward Canonbury. He would have something on the way, he resolved, and he would catch the first train home. He would have to knock somebody over in a dark street, that was all. It was nothing new, but he would rather have made his click another way this time, because his tender ankle might keep him slow, or even give way altogether; and to be caught in a robbery with violence might easily mean something more than mere imprisonment; it might mean a dose of the ‘cat’: and the cat was a thing the thought or the mention whereof sent shudders through the Old Jago.

But no: nobody worth knocking down came his way. Truly luck was out to-night. There was a spot by the long garden wall of a corner house that would have suited admirably, and as Josh lingered there, and looked about him, his eye fell on a ladder, reared nearly upright against the back wall of that same corner house, and lashed at the roof. It passed by the side of the second floor window, whereof the top sash was a little open. That would do. It was not his usual line of work, but it looked very promising.

He stuck his stick under his waistcoat by way of the collar, and climbed the wall with gingerly care, giving his sound foot all the hard work. The ladder offered no difficulty, but the bottom sash of the window was stiff, and he cracked a pane of glass in pushing at the frame with his stick. The sash lifted, however, in the end, and he climbed into the dark room, being much impeded by the dressing-table. All was quiet in the house, and the ticking of a watch on the dressing-table was distinct in the ear. Josh felt for it and found it, with a chain hanging from the bow.

The house was uncommonly quiet. Could it possibly be a dead ’un after all? Josh felt that he ought to have inspected the front windows before climbing the wall, but the excitement of the long-delayed chance had ruined his discretion. At any rate he would reconnoitre. The door was ajar and the landing was dark.

Down in the drawing-room a gross, pimply man, in shirt-sleeves and socks, sat up on the sofa at the sound of an opened window higher in the house. He took a drink from the glass by his side, and listened. Then he rose and went softly upstairs.

Josh Perrott came out on the landing. It was a long landing, with a staircase at the end, illuminated from somewhere below: so that it was not a case of a dead ’un after all. He tip-toed along to take a look down the stairs, nevertheless. Then he was conscious of a loud breathing, as of an over-gorged cow, and up behind the stair-rails rose a fat head, followed by a fat trunk, between white shirt-sleeves.

Josh sank into the shadow. The man had no light, but discover him he must, sooner or later, for the landing was narrow. Better sooner, and suddenly. As the man’s foot was on the topmost stair, Josh sprang at him with a straight left-hander that took him on the broad chin, and sent him downstairs in a heap, with a crash and a roar. Josh darted back to the room he had just left, scrambled through the window, and slid down the ladder, as he had slid down many another when he was a plasterer’s boy. He checked himself short of the bottom, sprang at the wall-coping, flung himself over, and ran up the dark by-street, with the sound of muffled roars and screams faint in his ears.

He ran a street or two, taking every corner as he came to it, and then fell into a walk. In his flight he had not spared his ankle, and now it was painful. Moreover, he had left his stick behind him, in the bedroom. But he was in Highbury, and Canonbury Road Station was less than half a mile away. He grinned silently as he went, for there was something in the aspect of the overfed householder, and in the manner of his downfall, that gave the adventure a comic flavour. He took a peep at his spoil as he passed under a street lamp, for all watches and chains are the same in the dark, and the thing might be a mere Waterbury on a steel guard. But no: both were gold, and heavy: a red clock and slang if ever there was one. And so Josh Perrott hobbled and chuckled his way home.

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