A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

3

There was nobody in chase; but Dicky Perrott, excited by his novel exploit, ran hard: forgetting the lesson first learnt by every child of the Jago, to avoid, as far as may be, suspicious flight in open streets. He burst into the Old Jago from the Jago Row corner, by Meakin Street; and still he ran. A small boy a trifle bigger than himself made a sharp punch at him as he passed, but he took no heed. The hulking group at the corner of Old Jago Street, ever observant of weaklings with plunder, saw him, and one tried to catch his arm, but he had the wit to dodge. Past the Jago Court passage he scudded, in at the familiar doorway, and up the stairs. A pale hunchbacked child, clean and wistful, descended, and him Dicky flung aside and half downstairs with ‘Git out, ’ump!’

Josh Perrott sat on the bed, eating fried fish from an oily paper; for it was tea-time. He was a man of thirty-two, of middle height and stoutly built, with a hard, leathery face as of one much older. The hair about his mouth seemed always three days old — never much less nor much more. He was a plasterer — had, at least, so described himself at police-courts. But it was long since he had plastered, though he still walked abroad splashed and speckled, as though from an eruption of inherent plaster. In moments of pride he declared himself the only member of his family who had ever learned a trade, and worked at it. It was a long relinquished habit, but while it lasted he had married a decent boiler-maker’s daughter, who had known nothing of the Jago till these latter days. One other boast Josh Perrott had: that nothing but shot or pointed steel could hurt him. And this, too, was near being a true boast; as he had proved in more than one fight in the local arena — which was Jago Court. Now he sat peaceably on the edge of the bed, and plucked with his fingers at the oily fish, while his wife grubbed hopelessly about the cupboard shelves for the screw of paper which was the sugar-basin.

Dicky entered at a burst. ‘Mother — father — look! I done a click! I got a clock — a red ’un!’

Josh Perrott stopped, jaw and hand, with a pinch of fish poised in air. The woman turned, and her chin fell. ‘O, Dicky, Dicky,’ she cried, in real distress, ‘you’re a awful low, wicked boy. My Gawd, Josh, ’e —’e’ll grow up bad: I said so.’

Josh Perrott bolted the pinch of fish, and sucked his fingers as he sprang to the door. After a quick glance down the stairs he shut it, and turned to Dicky. ‘Where d’je get that, ye young devel?’ he asked, and snatched the watch.

‘Claimed it auf a ol’ bloke w’en ’e was drinkin’ ’is tea,’ Dicky replied, with sparkling eyes. ‘Let’s ’ave a look at it, father.’

‘Did ’e run after ye?’

‘No — didn’t know nuffin’ about it. I cut ’is bit o’ ribbin with my knife.’ Dicky held up a treasured relic of blade and handle, found in a gutter. ‘Ain’ cher goin’ to let’s ’ave a look at it?’

Josh Perrott looked doubtfully toward his wife: the children were chiefly her concern. Of her sentiments there could be no mistake. He slipped the watch into his own pocket, and caught Dicky by the collar.

‘I’ll give you somethink, you dam young thief,’ he exclaimed, slipping off his belt. ‘You’d like to have us all in stir for a year or two, I s’pose; goin’ thievin’ watches like a growed-up man.’ And he plied the belt savagely, while Dicky, amazed, breathless and choking, spun about him with piteous squeals, and the baby woke and puled in feeble sympathy.

There was a rip, and the collar began to leave the old jacket. Feeling this, Josh Perrott released it, and with a quick drive of the fist in the neck sent Dicky staggering across the room. Dicky caught at the bed frame, and limped out to the landing, sobbing grievously in the bend of his sleeve.

It was more than his mother had intended, but she knew better than to attempt interference. Now that he was gone, she said, with some hesitation: ‘’Adn’t you better take it out at once, Josh?’

‘Yus, I’m goin’,’ Josh replied, turning the watch in his hand. ‘It’s a good ’un — a topper.’

‘You — you won’t let Weech ’ave it, will ye, Josh? ’E—’e never gives much.’

‘No bloomin’ fear. I’m goin’ up ‘Oxton with this ’ere.’

Dicky sobbed his way down the stairs and through the passage to the back. In the yard he looked for Tommy Rann, to sympathise. But Tommy was not, and Dicky paused in his grief to reflect that perhaps, indeed, in the light of calm reason, he would rather cast the story of the watch in a more heroic mould, for Tommy’s benefit, than was compatible with tears and a belted back. So he turned and squeezed through a hole in the broken fence, sobbing again, in search of the friend that shared his inmost sorrows.

The belting was bad — very bad. There was broken skin on his shins where the strap had curled round, and there was a little sticky blood under the shirt half way up his back: to say nothing of bruises. But it was the hopeless injustice of things that shook him to the soul. Wholly unaided, he had done, with neatness and credit, a click that anybody in the Jago would have been proud of. Overjoyed, he had hastened to receive the commendations of his father and mother, and to place the prize in their hands, freely and generously, though perhaps with some hope of hot supper by way of celebration. And his reward was this. Why? He could understand nothing: could but feel the wrong that broke his heart. And so, sobbing, he crawled through two fences to weep on the shaggy neck of Jerry Gullen’s canary.

Jerry Gullen’s canary was no bird, but a donkey: employed by Jerry Gullen in his occasional intervals of sobriety to drag a cranky shallow, sometimes stored with glass bottles, rags, and hearth-stone: sometimes with firewood manufactured from a convenient hoarding, or from the joinery of an empty house: sometimes with empty sacks covering miscellaneous property suddenly acquired and not for general inspection. His vacations, many and long, Jerry Gullen’s canary spent, forgotten and unfed, in Jerry Gullen’s back-yard: gnawing desperately at fences, and harrowing the neighbourhood with his bray. Thus the nickname, facetiously applied by Kiddo Cook in celebration of his piteous song, grew into use; and ‘Canary’ would call the creature’s attention as readily as a mouthful of imprecations.

Jerry Gullen’s canary was gnawing, gnawing, with a sound as of a crooked centre-bit. Everywhere about the foul yard, ten or twelve feet square, wood was rounded and splintered and bitten white, and as the donkey turned his heavy head, a drip of blood from his gums made a disc on the stones. A twitch of the ears welcomed Dicky, grief-stricken as he was; for it was commonly thus that he bethought him of solace in Jerry Gullen’s back-yard. And so Dicky, his arms about the mangy neck, told the tale of his wrongs till consolation came in composition of the heroic narrative designed for Tommy Rann.

‘O, Canary, it is a blasted shame!’

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