A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

30

Josh Perrott earned his marks, and in less than four years from his conviction he came away from Portland. It was a mere matter of hours ere his arrival in London, when Dicky, hands in pockets, strolled along Old Jago Street, and by the ‘Posties’ to High Street.

Dicky was almost at his seventeenth birthday. He had grown his utmost, and stood five feet two. He wore a cap with a cloth peak and ear-laps tied at the top with strings, slap-up kicksies, cut saucy, and a bob-tail coat of the out-and-out description: though all these glories were torn and shabby, and had been bought second-hand. He was safe from any risk of the reformatory now, being well over the age; and he had had the luck never to have been taken by the police since his father’s lagging — though there were escapes too narrow to be thought about with comfort. It was a matter for wonderment, and he spoke of it with pride. Here he was, a man of long experience, and near seventeen years old, yet he had never been in prison. Few, very few of such an age could say that.

Sometimes he saw his old enemy, the hunchback, who worked at a shoemaker’s, but he saw him with unconcern. He cared nothing for tale-bearing now. The memory of old injuries had dulled, and, after all, this was a merely inconsiderable hunchback, whom it were beneath his dignity to regard with anything but tolerant indifference. Bob Roper steered clear at such encounters, and showed his teeth like a cat, and looked back malevolently. It didn’t matter.

Dicky was not married, either in the simple Jago fashion or in church. There was little difference, as a matter of fact, so far as facility went. There was a church in Bethnal Green where you might be married for sevenpence if you were fourteen years old, and no questions asked — or at any rate they were questions answers whereunto were easy to invent. You just came in, drunk if possible, with a batch of some scores, and rowdied about the church with your hat on, and the curate worked off the crowd at one go, calling the names one after another. You sang, or you shouted, or you drank out of a bottle, or you flung a prayer-book at a friend, as the fancy took you; and the whole thing was not a bad joke for the money, though after all sevenpence is half-a-gallon, and not to be wasted. But Dicky had had enough to do to look after his mother and Em and little Josh — as Hannah Perrott had called the baby. Dicky, indeed, had a family already. More: the Jago girls affected him with an odd feeling of repulsion. Not of themselves, perhaps, though they were squalid drabs long ere they were ripe for the sevenpenny church: but by comparison with the clean, remote shop-girls who were visible through the broad windows in the outer streets.

Dicky intended the day to be a holiday. He was not going ‘out,’ as the word went, for ill-luck had a way of coming on notable days like this, and he might easily chance to ‘fall’ before his father got home. He was almost too big now for carrying bags at Liverpool Street, because small boys looked cheaper than large ones — not that there was anything especially large about Dicky, beyond his height of five feet two; and at the moment he could think of nothing else that might turn a copper. He stood irresolute on the High Street footway, and as he stood, Kiddo Cook hove in sight, dragging a barrow-load of carrots and cabbages. Kiddo had not yet compassed the stall with the rain-proof awning. But it was almost in sight, for the barrow could scarce hold all that he could sell; and there was a joke abroad that he was to be married in Father Sturt’s church: some facetiously suggesting that Mother Gapp would prove a good investment commercially, while others maintained the greater eligibility of old Poll Rann.

”Tcheer, Dicky!’ said Kiddo, pulling up and wiping his cap-lining with a red cotton handkerchief. ‘Ol’ man out to-day, ain’t ’e?’

‘Yus,’ Dicky answered. ”Spect ’im up to-night.’

Kiddo nodded, and wiped his face. ”Spose the mob’ll git up a break for ’im,’ he said; ‘but ’e’ll ’ave a bit o’ gilt from stir as well, won’t ’e? So ’e’ll be awright.’ And Kiddo stuffed his handkerchief into his trousers pocket, pulled his cap tight, and bent to his barrow-handles.

Dicky turned idly to the left, and slouched to the corner of Meakin Street. There he loafed for a little while, and then went as aimlessly up the turning. Meakin Street was much as ever. There were still the chandlers’ shops, where tea and sugar were sold by the farthingsworth, and the barber’s where hair was fashionably cut for three half-pence: though Jago hair was commonly cut in another place and received little more attention. There was still Walker’s cook-shop, foggy with steam, its windows all a-trickle, and there was the Original Slap-up Tog Emporium, with its kicksies and its benjamins cut saucy as ever, and its double fakements still artful. At the ‘dispensary’ there was another young student, but his advice and medicine were sixpence, just as his remote predecessor’s had been for little Looey, long forgotten. And farther down on the opposite side, Mr Aaron Weech’s coffee-shop, with its Sunday-school festival bills, maintained its general Band-of-Hope air, and displayed its shrivelled bloaters, its doubtful cake, and its pallid scones in an odour of respectability and stale pickles. Dicky glanced in as he came by the door, and met the anxious eye of Mr Weech, whom he had not seen for a fortnight. For Dicky was no boy now, but knew enough to sell at Cohen’s or elsewhere whenever possible, and to care not a rap for Mr Weech.

As that tradesman saw Dicky, he burst into an eager smile, and came forward. ‘Good mornin’ — er —’ with a quick glance —‘Mr Perrott! Good mornin’! You’re quite a stranger, reely!’

Mister Perrott! Mr Weech was very polite. Dicky stopped, and grunted a cautious salutation.

‘Do come in, Mr Perrott. Wy, is the good noos right wot I ’ear, about yer father a-comin’ ’ome from — from the country?’

Dicky confirmed the news.

‘Well I am glad t’ ’ear that now.’ Mr Weech grinned exceedingly, though there was something lacking in his delight. ‘But there, wot’ll you ’ave, Mr Perrott? Say anythink in the ’ole shop and welcome! It’s sich an ’appy occasion, Mr Perrott, I couldn’t think o’ chargin’ you a ’apeny. ’Ave a rasher, now, do. There’s one on at this very moment. Sairer! ain’t that rasher done yut?’

Dicky did not understand this liberality, but he had long since adopted the policy of taking all he could get. So he sat at a table, and Mr Weech sat opposite.

‘Jist like ole times, ain’t it?’ said Mr Weech. ‘An’ that reminds me I owe you a shillin’. It’s that pair o’ noo boots you chucked over the back fence a fortnight ago. W’en I come to look at ’em, they was better’n wot I thought, an’ so I says to meself, “This won’t do,” says I. “On’y ninepence for a pair o’ boots like them ain’t fair,” I says, “an’ I’d rayther be at a lawss on ’em than not be fair. Fair’s fair, as the apostle David says in the Proverbs, an’ them boots is worth very near one-an’-nine. So I’ll give Mr Perrott another shillin’,” I says, “the very next time I see ’im.” An’ there it is.’

He put the shilling on the table, and Dicky pocketed it, nothing loth. The thing might be hard to understand, but that concerned him not. There was the shilling. Likewise, there was the bacon, and the coffee that went with it, and Dicky went at them with a will, recking nothing of why they were there, and nothing of any matter which might make the giver anxious in the prospect of an early meeting with Josh.

‘Ah,’ Mr Weech went on, ‘it’ll be quite a pleasure to see yer father agin, that it will. Wot a blessed release! “Free from the lor O ’appy condition,” as the ’ymn says. I ’ope ’e’ll be well an’ ’arty. An’ if —if there should be anythink in the way of a friendly lead or a subscription or wot not, I ’ope — remember this, Mr Perrott, won’tcher? — I ’ope you’ll let me ’ave a chance to put down somethink good. Not as I can reely afford it, ye know, Mr Perrott — trade’s very pore, an’ it’s sich a neighb’r’ood! — but I’ll do it for yer father — yus, if it’s me last copper. Ye won’t forgit that, will ye? An’ if ’e’d like any little relish w’en ’e comes ’ome — sich as a ’addick or a bit o’ ’am — wy, I’ll wrop it up an’ send it.’

This was all very handsome, and Dicky wished some notion of the sort had occurred to Mr Weech on a few of the dinnerless days of the past four years. But he went away wondering if it might not be well to regard Mr Weech with caution for a while. For there must be a reason for all this generosity.

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