A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

33

Hannah Perrott did her best to keep Josh from going out that night. She did not explain her objections, because she did not know precisely what they were, though they were in some sort prompted by his manner; and it was solely because of her constitutional inability to urge them with any persistence that she escaped forcible retort. For Josh was in a savage and self-centred mood.

‘Wy, wot’s up?’ asked Bill Rann, when they met, looking doubtfully in his pal’s face. ‘You ain’t bin boozin’, ’ave ye?’

Josh repelled the question with a snarl. ‘No I ain’t,’ he said. ‘Got the tools?’ There was a thickness in his voice, with a wildness in his eye, that might well explain his partner’s doubt.

‘Yus. Come under the light. I couldn’t git no twirls, an’ we sha’n’t want ’em. ’Ere’s a screwdriver, an’ two gimlets, an’ a knife for the winderketch, an’ a little james, an’ a neddy —’

‘A neddy!’ Josh cut in, scornfully pointing his thumb at the instrument, which some call life-preserver. ‘A neddy for Weech! G-r-r-r! I might take a neddy to a man!’

‘That’s awright,’ Bill replied. ‘But it ’ud frighten ’im pretty well, wouldn’t it? Look ’ere. S’pose we can’t find the oof. W’y shouldn’t we wake up Mr Weech very quiet an’ respeckful, an’ ask ’im t’ ’elp us? ’E’s all alone, an’ I’m sure ’e’ll be glad to ‘blige, w’en ’e sees this ’ere neddy, without waitin’ for a tap. W’y, blimy, I b’lieve ’e’d be afraid to sing out any’ow, for fear o’ bringin’ in the coppers to find all the stuff ’e’s bought on the crook! It’s all done, once we’re inside!’

It was near midnight, and Bill Rann had observed Weech putting up his shutters at eleven. So the two Jagos walked slowly along Meakin Street, on the side opposite Weech’s, with sharp eyes for the windows.

All was quiet; there was no visible light — none from the skylight over the shop door, none from the window above, none from the garret window above that. They passed on, crossed the road, strolled back, and listened at the door; there was no sound from within. The clock in a distant steeple struck twelve, and was joined at the fourth stroke by the loud bell of St Leonards, hard by; and ere the last mild note had sounded from the farthest clock in the awakened chorus, Josh Perrott and Bill Rann had taken the next turning, and were pushing their way to the alleys behind Weech’s.

Foul rat-runs, these alleys, not to be traversed by a stranger. Josh and Bill plunged into one narrow archway after another, each of which might have been the private passage of a house, and came at last, stealthy and unseen, into the muddy yard.

Weech’s back-fence was before them, and black house-backs crowded them round. There were but one or two lights in the windows, and those windows were shut and curtained. The rear of Weech’s house was black and silent as the front. They peered over the fence. The yard was pitch-dark, but faint angular tokens here and there told of heaped boxes and lumber. ‘We won’t tip ’im the whistle this time,’ whispered Bill Rann, with a smothered chuckle. ‘Over!’

He bent his knee, and Josh straddled from it over the rickety fence with quiet care, and lowered himself gingerly on the other side. ‘Clear ’ere,’ he whispered. ‘Come on.’ Since Bill’s display of the tools Josh had scarce spoken a word. Bill wondered at his taciturnity, but respected it as a business-like quality in the circumstances.

It was but a matter of four or five yards to the wash-house window, but they bent and felt their way. Josh took up an old lemonade-case as he went, and planted it on the ground below the window, stretching his hand for the knife as he did so. And now he took command and foremost place.

It was an old shoemaker’s knife, with too long a handle; for there was a skew-joint in the sash, and the knife would not bend. Presently Bill Rann, below, could see that Josh was cutting away the putty from the pane, and in five minutes the pane itself was put into his hand. He stooped, and laid it noiselessly on the soft ground.

Josh turned the catch and lifted the sash. There was some noise, but not much, as he pushed the frame up evenly, with a thumb at each side. They waited; but it was quite still, and Josh, sitting on the sill, manoeuvred his legs, one at a time, through the narrow opening. Then, turning over, he let himself down, and beckoned Bill Rann to follow.

Bill Rann had a small tin box, with an inch of candle on the inside of one end, so that when the wick was lit the contrivance made a simple but an effective lantern, the light whereof shone in front alone, and could be extinguished at a puff. Now a match was struck, and a quick view taken of the wash-house.

There was not much about; only cracked and greasy plates, jars, tins, pots and pans, and in a corner a miscellaneous heap, plainly cheap pilferings, covered with a bit of old carpet. The air was offensive with the characteristic smell of Weech’s — the smell of stale pickles.

‘There ain’t nothin’ to waste time over ’ere,’ said Josh, aloud. ‘Come on!’

‘Shut up, you damn fool!’ exclaimed Bill Rann, in a whisper. ‘D’jer want to wake ’im?’

‘Umph! Why not?’ was the reply, still aloud. Bill began to feel that his pal was really drunk. But, silent once more, Josh applied himself to the door of the inner room. It was crank and old, worn and battered at the edges. Josh forced the wedge end of the jemmy through the jamb, splintering the perished wood of the frame, and, with a push, forced the striking-box of the lock off its screws. There was still a bolt at the top; that at the bottom had lost its catch — but this gave as little trouble as the lock. Bill Rann strained the door open from below, the jemmy entered readily, and in a few seconds the top bolt was in like case with the bottom.

They entered the room behind the shop, and it was innocent and disappointing. A loo table, four horse-hair-covered chairs, a mirror, three coloured wall-texts, two china figures and a cheap walnut sideboard — that was all. The slow step of a policeman without stopped, with a push at the shop-door, to test its fastenings, and then went on; and stronger than ever was the smell of stale pickles.

To try the shop would be mere waste of time. Weech’s pocket was the till, and there could be no other prize. A door at the side of the room, latched simply, gave on the stairs. ‘Take auf yer boots,’ Bill whispered, unlacing his own, and slinging them across his shoulder by the tied laces.

But Josh would not, and he said so, with an oath. Bill could not understand him. Could it be drink? Bill wished him a mile away. ‘Awright,’ he whispered, ‘you set down ’ere w’ile I slip upstairs an’ take a peep. I bet the stuffs in the garret. Best on’y one goes, quiet.’

Josh sat, and Bill, taking his lantern, crept up the stairs noiselessly, save for one creak. He gained the stair-head, listened a moment, tip-toed along the small landing, and was half-way up the steep and narrow garret-stairs, when he heard a sound, and stopped. Somebody was on the lower flight.

There was a heavy tread, with the kick of a boot against stair or skirting-board; and then came noisy steps along the landing. Josh was coming up in his boots! Bill Rann was at his wits’ end. He backed down the garret-stairs, and met Josh at the foot. ‘Are ye balmy?’ he hissed fiercely, catching Josh by the collar and pulling him into the turn of the stairs. ‘D’ye want another five stretch?’

A loud creak and a soft thump sounded from behind the door at the other end of the landing; and then a match was struck. ‘Keep back on the stairs,’ Bill whispered. ’E’s ’eard you.’ Josh sat on a stair, perfectly still, with his legs drawn up out of sight from the door. Bill blew out his light. He would not venture open intimidation of Weech now, with Josh half muzzy, lest some burst of lunacy brought in the police.

A soft treading of bare feet, the squeak of a door-handle, a light on the landing, and Aaron Weech stood at his open door in his shirt, candle in hand, his hair rumpled, his head aside, his mouth a little open, his unconscious gaze upward; listening intently. He took a slight step forward. And then Bill Rann’s heart turned over and over.

For Josh Perrott sprang from the stair, and, his shoulders humped and his face thrust out, walked deliberately across the landing. Weech turned his head quickly; his chin fell on his chest as by jaw-break; there were but dots amid the white of his eyes; his head lay slowly back, as the candle tilted and shot its grease on the floor. The door swung wider as his shoulder struck it, and he screamed, like a rabbit that sees a stoat. Then, with a wrench, he turned, letting drop the candle, and ran shrieking to the window, flung it open, and yelled into the black street. ‘Elp! ’Elp! P’lice! Murder! Murder! Murder! Murder!

‘Run, Josh — run, ye blasted fool!’ roared Bill Rann, bounding across the landing, and snatching at his arm.

‘Go on — go on! I’m comin’!’ Josh answered without turning his head. And Bill took the bottom flight at a jump. The candle flared as it lay on the floor, and spread a greasy pool about it.

Murder! Murder! Mu-r-r —

Josh had the man by the shoulder, swung him back from the window, gripped his throat, and dragged him across the carpet as he might drag a cat, while Weech’s arms waved uselessly, and his feet feebly sought a hold on the floor.

‘Now!’ cried Josh Perrott, glaring on the writhen face below his own, and raising his case-knife in the manner of a cleaver, ‘sing a hymn! Sing the hymn as’ll do ye most good! You’ll cheat me when ye can, an’ when ye can’t you’ll put me five year in stir, eh? Sing a hymn, ye snivellin’ nark!’

From the street there came the noise of many hurrying feet and of a scattered shouting. Josh Perrott made an offer at slashing the slaty face, checked his arm, and went on.

‘You’ll put down somethin’ ’an’some at my break, will ye? An’ you’ll starve my wife an’ kids all to bones an’ teeth four year! Sing a hymn, ye cur!’

He made another feint at slashing. Men were beating thunderously at the shop door, and there were shrill whistles.

‘Won’t sing yer hymn? There ain’t much time! My boy was goin’ straight, an’ earnin’ wages: someone got ’im chucked. A man ’as time to think things out, in stir! Sing, ye son of a cow! Sing! Sing!’

Twice the knife hacked the livid face. But the third hack was below the chin; and the face fell back.

The bubbling Thing dropped in a heap, and put out the flaring candle. Without, the shouts gathered to a roar, and the door shook under heavy blows. ‘Open — open the door!’ cried a deep voice.

He looked from the open window. There was a scrambling crowd, and more people were running in. Windows gaped, and thrust out noisy heads. The flash of a bull’s-eye dazzled him, and he staggered back. ‘Perrott! Perrott!’ came a shout. He had but glanced out, but he was recognised.

He threw down his knife, and made for the landing, slipping on the wet floor and stumbling against the Heap. There were shouts from behind the house now; they were few, but they were close. He dashed up the narrow stairs, floundered through the back garret, over bags and boxes and heaps of mingled commodities, and threw up the sash. Men were stumbling invisibly in the dark yard below. He got upon the sill, swung round by the dormer-frame, and went, hands and knees, along the roof. Yells and loud whistles rose clamant in the air, and his own name was shouted to and fro. Then the blows on the shop-door ceased with a splintering crash, and there was a trampling of feet on floor-boards.

The roofs were irregular in shape and height, and his progress was slow. He aimed at reaching the roof of Father Sturt’s old club building, still empty. He had had this in mind from the moment he climbed from the garret-window; for in the work of setting the drains in order an iron ventilating pipe had been carried up from the stable-yard to well above the roof. It was a stout pipe, close by the wall, to which it was clamped with iron attachments. Four years had passed since he had seen it, and he trusted to luck to find it still standing, for it seemed his only chance. Down below people scampered and shouted. Crowds had sprung out of the dark night as by magic; and the police — they must have been lying in wait in scores. It seemed a mere matter of seconds since he had scaled the back fence; and now people were tearing about the house behind him, and shouting out of windows to those below. He hoped that the iron pipe might not be gone.

Good — it was there. He peered from the parapet down into the stable-yard, and the place seemed empty. He gripped the pipe with hands and knees, and descended.

The alley had no back way: he must take his chance in Meakin Street. He peeped. At the street end there was a dark obstruction, set with spots of light: a row of police. That way was shut; he must try the Jago — Luck Row was almost opposite, and no Jago would betray him. The hunters were already on the roofs. Men shouted up to them from the street, and kept pace with them, coming nearer. He took a breath and dashed across, knocking a man over at the corner.

Up Luck Row, into Old Jago Street he ran, past his own home, and across to a black doorway, just as Father Sturt, roused by the persistent din, opened his window. The passage was empty, and for an instant he paused, breathless. But there were howls without, and the pelting of many feet. The man knocked over at the corner had given the alarm, and the hunt was up.

Into the back-yard and over the fence; through another passage into New Jago Street; with a notion to gain the courts by Honey Lane and so away. But he was thinking of the Jago as it had been — he had forgotten the demolishment. As he neared Jago Row the place of it lay suddenly before him — an open waste of eighty yards square, skirted by the straight streets and the yellow barracks, with the Board School standing dark among them. And along the straight streets more men were rushing, and more police. They were new-comers: why not venture over? He rubbed his cheek, for something like a film of gum clung to it. Then he remembered, and peered closely at his hands. Blood, sticking and drying and peeling; blood on hands and face, blood on clothes, without a doubt. To go abroad thus were to court arrest, were he known or not. It must be got off; but how? To go home was to give himself up. The police were there long since — they swarmed the Jago through. Some half-dismantled houses stood at hand, and he made for the nearest.

There were cellars under these houses, reached from the back-yards. Many a Jago had been born, had lived, and had died in such a place. A cellar would hide him for an hour, while he groped himself clean as he might. Broken brickwork littered the space that had been the back-yard. Feeling in the dark for the steps, which stood in a little pit, his foot turned on a stone, and he pitched headlong.

The cellar itself was littered with rubbish, and he lay among it a little while, breathless and bruised. When he tried to rise, he found his ankle useless. It was the old sprain, got at Mother Gapp’s before his lagging, and ever ready to assert itself. He sat among the brickbats to pull off the boot — that was foul and sticky too — and he rubbed the ankle. He had been a fool to think of the cellar: why not any corner among the walls above? He had given way to the mere panic instinct to burrow, to hide himself in a hole, and he had chosen one wherefrom there was no second way of escape — none at all but by the steps he had fallen in at. Far better to have struck out boldly across the streets by Columbia Market to the canal: who could have seen the smears in the darkness? And in the canal he might have washed the lot away, secure from observation, under a bridge. The thing might be possible, even now, if he could stand the pain. But no, the foot was useless when he tried it. He was trapped like a rat. He rubbed and kneaded the ankle diligently, and managed to draw the boot on. But stand on both legs he could not. He might have crawled up the steps on hands and knees, but what was the use of that? So he sat, and waited.

Knots of men went hurrying by, and he caught snatches of their talk. There had been a murder — a man was murdered in his bed — it was a woman — a man had murdered his wife — there were two murders — three — the tale went every way, but it was always Murder, Murder, Murder. Everybody was saying Murder: till in the passing footsteps, in the vague shouts in the distance, and presently in the mere black about him he heard the word still — Murder, Murder, Murder. He fell to contrasting the whispered fancy with the real screams in that bedroom. He wondered what Bill Rann thought of it all, and what had become of the james and the gimlets. He pictured the crowd in Old Jago Street, pushing into his room, talking about him, telling the news. He wondered if Hannah had been asleep when they came, and what she said when they told her. And more people hurried past the ruined house, all talking Murder, Murder, still Murder.

The foot was horribly painful. Was it swelling? Yes, he thought it was; he rubbed it again. What would Dicky do? If only Dicky knew where he was! That might help. There was a new burst of shouts in the distance. What was that? Perhaps they had caught Bill Rann; but that was unlikely. They knew nothing of Bill — they had seen but one man. Perhaps they were carrying away the Heap on a shutter: that would be no nice job, especially down the steep stairs. There had been very little in the wash-house, and nothing in the next room; the garrets were pretty full of odd things, but no doubt the money was in the bedroom. The smell of stale pickles was very strong.

So his thoughts chased one another — eager, trivial, crowded — till his head ached with their splitting haste. To take heed for the future, to plan escape, to design expedients — these were merely impossible, sitting there inactive in the dark. He thought of the pipe he had slid down, what it cost, why they put it there, who the man was that he ran against at Luck Row, whether or not he hurt him, what the police would do with the bloaters and cake and bacon at the shop, and — again — of the smell of stale pickles.

Father Sturt was up and dressed, standing guard on the landing outside the Perrotts’ door. The stairs were full of Jagos — mostly women — constantly joined by new-comers, all anxious to batter the door and belabour the hidden family with noisy sympathy and sedulous inquiries: all, that is, except the oldest Mrs Walsh in the Jago, who, possessed by an unshakable conviction that Josh’s wife must have ‘druv ’im to it,’ had come in a shawl and a petticoat to give Hannah a piece of her mind. But all were driven back and sent grumbling away, by Father Sturt.

Every passage from the Jago was held by the police, and a search from house to house was begun. With clear consciences the Jagos all could deny any knowledge of Josh Perrott’s whereabouts; but a clear conscience was little valued in those parts, and one after another affirmed point blank that the man seen at the window was not Perrott at all, but a stranger who lived a long way off. This, of course, less by way of favouring the fugitive than of baffling the police: the Jago’s first duty. But the police knew the worth of such talk, and the search went on.

Thus it came to pass that in the grey of the morning a party in New Jago Street, after telling each other that the ruins must be carefully examined, climbed among the rubbish, and were startled by a voice from underground.

‘Awright,’ cried Josh Perrott in the cellar. ‘I’m done; it’s a cop. Come an’ ’elp me out o’ this ’ole.’

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