A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

28

Josh Perrott well understood the advantage of good prison-behaviour, and after six months in his Chelmsford cell he had earned the right to a visit from friends. But none came. He had scarcely expected that anybody would, and asked for the order merely on the general principle that a man should take all he can get, useful or not. For there would have been a five shilling fare to pay for each visitor from London, and Hannah Perrott could as easily have paid five pounds. And indeed she had other things to think of.

Kiddo Cook had been less observed of late in the Jago. In simple fact he was at work. He found that a steady week of porterage at Spitalfields Market would bring him sixteen shillings and perhaps a little more; and he had taken Father Sturt’s encouragement to try another week, and a week after that. Father Sturt too, had cunningly stimulated Kiddo’s ambitions: till he cherished aspirations to a fruit and vegetable stall, with a proper tarpaulin cover for bad weather; though he cherished them in secret, confident that they were of his own independent conception. Perhaps the Perrotts saw as much of Kiddo as did anybody at this time. For Kiddo, seeing how it went with them (though indeed it went as badly with others too) built up laboriously a solemn and most circumstantial Lie. There was a friend of his, a perfect gentleman, who used a beer-shop by Spitalfields Market, and who had just started an extensive and complicated business in the general provision line. He sold all sorts of fruit and vegetables fresh, and all sorts of meat, carrots, cabbages, saveloys, fried fish and pease-pudding cooked. His motto was:—‘Everything of the best.’ But he had the misfortune to be quite unable himself to judge whether his goods were really of the best or not, in consequence of an injury to his palate, arising from a blow on the mouth with a quart pot, inflicted in the heat of discussion by a wealthy acquaintance. So that he, being a perfect gentleman, had requested Kiddo Cook, out of the friendship he bore him, to drop in occasionally and test his samples. ‘Take a good big whack, you know,’ said he, ‘and get the advice of a friend or two, if you ain’t sure.’ So Kiddo would take frequent and handsome whacks accordingly, to the perfect gentleman’s delight; and, not quite knowing what to do with all the whacks, or being desirous of an independent opinion on them (there was some confusion between these two motives) he would bring Mrs Perrott samples, from time to time, and hope it wouldn’t inconvenience her. It never did.

It was late in the dusk of a rainy day that Kiddo Cook stumped into Old Jago Street with an apple in his pocket for Em. It was not much, but money was a little short, and at any rate the child would be pleased. As he climbed the stairs he grew conscious of sounds of anguish, muffled by the Perrotts’ door. There might have been sobs, and there seemed to be groans; certainly little Em was crying, though but faintly, and something — perhaps boot-heels — scraped on the boards. Kiddo hesitated a little, and then knocked softly. The knock was unnoticed, so in the end he pushed the door open.

The day had been a bad one with the Perrotts. Dicky had gone out early, and had not returned. His mother had tramped unfed to the sackmakers, but there was no work to be got. She tried the rush bag people, with a like result. Nor was any matchbox material being given out. An unregarded turnip had rolled from a shop into the gutter, and she had seized it stealthily. It was not in nature to take it home whole, and once a corner was cleared, she dragged herself Jago-ward, gnawing the root furtively as she went. And so she joined Em at home late in the afternoon.

Kiddo pushed the door open and went in. At his second step he stood staring, and his chin dropped. ‘Good Gawd!’ said Kiddo Cook.

He cleared the stairs in three jumps. He stood but an instant on the flags before the house, with a quick glance each way, and then dashed off through the mud.

Pigeony Poll was erratic in residence, but just now she had a room by the roof of a house in Jago Row, and up the stairs of this house Kiddo ran, calling her by name.

‘Go over to Perrotts’, quick!’ he shouted from the landing below as Poll appeared at her door. ‘Run, for Gawd’s sake, or the woman’ll croak! I’m auf to Father’s.’ And he rushed away to the vicar’s lodgings.

Father Sturt emerged at a run, and made for a surgeon’s in Shoreditch High Street. And when the surgeon reached Hannah Perrott he found her stretched on her ragged bed, tended, with anxious clumsiness, by Pigeony Poll; while little Em, tearful and abashed, sat in a corner and nibbled a bit of turnip.

Hannah Perrott had anticipated the operation of the Maternity Society letter, and another child of the Jago had come unconsenting into its black inheritance.

Father Sturt met the surgeon as he came away in the later evening, and asked if all were well. The surgeon shrugged his shoulders. ‘People would call it so,’ he said. ‘The boy’s alive, and so is the mother. But you and I may say the truth. You know the Jago far better than I. Is there a child in all this place that wouldn’t be better dead — still better unborn? But does a day pass without bringing you just such a parishioner? Here lies the Jago, a nest of rats, breeding, breeding, as only rats can; and we say it is well. On high moral grounds we uphold the right of rats to multiply their thousands. Sometimes we catch a rat. And we keep it a little while, nourish it carefully, and put it back into the nest to propagate its kind.’

Father Sturt walked a little way in silence. Then he said:—‘You are right, of course. But who’ll listen, if you shout it from the housetops? I might try to proclaim it myself, if I had time and energy to waste. But I have none — I must work, and so must you. The burden grows day by day, as you say. The thing’s hopeless, perhaps, but that is not for me to discuss. I have my duty.’

The surgeon was a young man, but Shoreditch had helped him over most of his enthusiasms. ‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘quite right. People are so very genteel, aren’t they?’ He laughed, as at a droll remembrance. ‘But, hang it all, men like ourselves needn’t talk as though the world was built of hardbake. It’s a mighty relief to speak truth with a man who knows — a man not rotted through with sentiment. Think how few men we trust with the power to give a fellow creature a year in gaol, and how carefully we pick them! Even damnation is out of fashion, I believe, among theologians. But any noxious wretch may damn human souls to the Jago, one after another, year in year out, and we respect his right: his sacred right.’

At the ‘Posties’ the two men separated. The rain, which had abated for a space, came up on a driving wind, and whipped Dicky Perrott home to meet his new brother.

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