A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

6

In the morning the police still held the Jago. Their presence embarrassed many, but none more than Dicky Perrott, who would always take a turning, or walk the other way, at sight of a policeman. Dicky got out of Old Jago Street early, and betook him to Meakin Street, where there were chandlers’ shops with sugar in their windows, and cook-shops with pudding. He designed working through by these to Shoreditch High Street, there to crown his solace by contemplation of the cake-shop. But, as he neared Weech’s coffee-shop, scarce half through Meakin Street, there stood Weech himself at the door, grinning and nodding affably, and beckoning him. He was a pleasant man, this Mr Aaron Weech, who sang hymns aloud in the back parlour, and hummed the tunes in the shop: a prosperous, white-aproned, whiskered, half-bald, smirking tradesman, who bent and spoke amiably to boys, looking sharply in their eyes, but talked to a man mostly with his gaze on the man’s waistcoat.

Indeed, there seemed to be something about Mr Aaron Weech especially attractive to youth. Nearly all his customers were boys and girls, though not boys and girls who looked likely to pay a great deal in the way of refreshment, much as they took. But he was ever indulgent, and at all times accessible to his young clients. Even on Sunday (though, of course, his shutters were kept rigidly up on the Day of Rest) a particular tap would bring him hot-foot to the door: not to sell coffee, for Mr Weech was no Sabbath-breaker.

Now he stood at his door, and invited Dicky with nods and becks. Dicky, all wondering, and alert to dodge in case the thing were a mere device to bring him within striking distance, went.

‘W’y Dicky Perrott,’ quoth Mr Weech in a tone of genial surprise, ‘I b’lieve you could drink a cup o’ cawfy!’

Dicky, wondering how Mr Weech had learnt his name, believed he could.

‘An’ eat a slice o’ cake too, I’ll be bound,’ Mr Weech added.

Dicky’s glance leapt. Yes, he could eat a slice of cake too.

‘Ah, I knew it,’ said Mr Weech, triumphantly; ‘I can always tell.’ He rubbed Dicky’s cap about his head, and drew him into the shop, at this hour bare of customers. At the innermost compartment they stopped, and Mr Weech, with a gentle pressure on the shoulders, seated Dicky at the table.

He brought the coffee, and not a single slice of cake, but two. True, it was not cake of Elevation Mission quality, nor was it so good as that shown at the shop in High Street: it was of a browner, dumpier, harder nature, and the currants were gritty and few. But cake it was, and to consider it critically were unworthy. Dicky bolted it with less comfort than he might, for Mr Weech watched him keenly across the table. And, indeed, from some queer cause, he felt an odd impulse to cry. It was the first time that he had ever been given anything, kindly and ungrudgingly.

He swallowed the last crumb, washed it down with the dregs of his cup, and looked sheepishly across at Mr Weech.

‘Goes down awright, don’t it?’ that benefactor remarked. ‘Ah, I like to see you enjoyin’ of yerself. I’m very fond o’ you young ’uns: ‘specially clever ’uns like you.’

Dicky had never been called clever before, so far as he could recollect, and he wondered at it now. Mr Weech, leaning back, contemplated him smilingly for some seconds, and then proceeded. ‘Yus,’ he said, ‘you’re the sort o’ boy as can ’ave cawfy and cake w’enever you want it, you are.’

Dicky wondered more, and his face said as much. ‘You know,’ Mr Weech pursued, winking again, grinning and nodding. ‘That was a fine watch you found the other day. Y’ought to ’a’ brought it to me.’

Dicky was alarmed. How did Mr Weech learn about the watch? Perhaps he was a friend of the funny old man who lost it. Dicky half rose, but his affable patron leaned across and pushed him back on the seat. ‘You needn’t be frightened,’ he said. ‘I ain’t goin’ to say nothink to nobody. But I know all about it, mind, an’ I could if I liked. You found the watch, an’ it was a red ’un, on a bit o’ ribbin. Well, then you went and took it ’ome, like a little fool. Wot does yer father do? W’y ’e ups an’ lathers you with ’is belt, an’ ’e keeps the watch ’isself. That’s all you git for yer pains. See — I know all about it.’ And Mr Weech gazed on Dicky Perrott with a fixed grin.

”Oo toldjer?’ Dicky managed to ask at last.

‘Ah!’— this with a great emphasis and a tapping of the forefinger beside the nose —‘I don’t want much tellin’: it ain’t much as goes on ’ereabout I don’t know of. Never mind ’ow. P’raps I got a little bird as w’ispers — p’raps I do it some other way. Any’ow I know. It ain’t no good any boy tryin’ to do somethink unbeknownst to me, mindjer.’

Mr Weech’s head lay aside, his grin widened, his glance was sidelong, his forefinger pointed from his temple over Dicky’s head, and altogether he looked so very knowing that Dicky shuffled in his seat. By what mysterious means was this new-found friend so well informed? The doubt troubled him, for Dicky knew nothing of Mr Aaron Weech’s conversation, an hour before, with Tommy Rann.

‘But it’s awright, bless yer,’ Mr Weech went on presently. ‘Nobody’s none the wuss for me knowin’ about ’em. . . . Well, we was a-talkin’ about the watch, wasn’t we? All you got after sich a lot o’ trouble was a woppin’ with a belt. That was too bad.’ Mr Weech’s voice was piteous and sympathetic. ‘After you a-findin’ sich a nice watch — a red ’un an’ all! — you gits nothink for yerself but a beltin’. Never mind, you’ll do better next time — I’ll take care o’ that. I don’t like to see a clever boy put upon. You go an’ find another, or somethink else — anythink good — an’ then you bring it ’ere.’

Mr Weech’s friendly sympathy extinguished Dicky’s doubt. ‘I didn’t find it,’ he said, shy but proud. ‘It was a click — I sneaked it.’

‘Eh?’ ejaculated Mr Weech, a sudden picture of blank incomprehension. ‘Eh? What? Click? Wot’s a click? Sneaked? Wot’s that? I dunno nothink about no talk o’ that sort, an’ I don’t want to. It’s my belief it means somethink wrong — but I dunno, an’ I don’t want to. ‘Ear that? Eh? Don’t let me ’ave no more o’ that, or you’d better not come near me agin. If you find somethink, awright: you come to me an’ I’ll give ye somethink for it, if it’s any good. It ain’t no business of anybody’s where you find it, o’ course, an’ I don’t want to know. But clicks and sneaks — them’s Greek to me, an’ I don’t want to learn ’em. Unnerstand that? Nice talk to respectable people, with yer clicks an’ sneaks!’

Dicky blushed a little, and felt very guilty without in the least understanding the offence. But Mr Weech’s virtuous indignation subsided as quickly as it had arisen, and he went on as amiably as ever.

‘When you find anythink,’ he said, ‘jist like you found that watch, don’t tell nobody, an’ don’t let nobody see it. Bring it ’ere quiet, when there ain’t any p’liceman in the street, an’ come right through to the back o’ the shop, an’ say, “I come to clean the knives.” Unnerstand? “I come to clean the knives.” There ain’t no knives to clean — it’s on’y a way o’ tellin’ me you got somethink without other people knowin’. An’ then I’ll give you somethink for it — money p’raps, or p’raps cake or wot not. Don’t forgit. “I come to clean the knives.” See?’

Yes, Dicky understood perfectly; and Dicky saw a new world of dazzling delights. Cake — limitless cake, coffee, and the like whenever he might feel moved thereunto; but more than all, money — actual money. Good broad pennies, perhaps whole shillings — perhaps even more still: money to buy bullock’s liver for dinner, or tripe, or what you fancied: saveloys, baked potatoes from the can on cold nights, a little cart to wheel Looey in, a boat from a toy-shop with sails!

‘There’s no end o’ things to be found all over the place, an’ a sharp boy like you can find ’em every day. If you don’t find ’em, someone else will; there’s plenty on ’em about on the look-out, an’ you got jist as much right as them. On’y mind!’— Mr Weech was suddenly stern and serious, and his forefinger was raised impressively —‘you know you can’t do anythink without I know, an’ if you say a word — if you say a word,’ his fist came on the table with a bang, ‘somethink ‘ll happen to you. Somethink bad.’

Mr Weech rose, and was pleasant again, though business-like. ‘Now, you just go an’ find somethink,’ he said. ‘Look sharp about it, an’ don’t go an’ git in trouble. The cawfy’s a penny, an’ the cake’s a penny — ought prop’ly to be twopence, but say a penny this time. That’s twopence you owe me, an’ you better bring somethink an’ pay it off quick. So go along.’

This was an unforeseen tag to the entertainment. For the first time in his life Dicky was in debt. It was a little disappointing to find the coffee and cake no gift after all: though, indeed, it now seemed foolish to have supposed they were; for in Dicky Perrott’s world people did not give things away — that were the act of a fool. Thus Dicky, with his hands in his broken pockets, and thought in his small face, whereon still stood the muddy streaks of yesterday’s tears, trudged out of Mr Aaron Weech’s shop-door, and along Meakin Street.

Now he was beginning the world seriously, and must face the fact. Truly the world had been serious enough for him hitherto, but that he knew not. Now he was of an age when most boys were thieving for themselves, and he owed money like a man. True it was, as Mr Weech had said, that everybody — the whole Jago — was on the look-out for himself. Plainly he must take his share, lest it fall to others. As to the old gentleman’s watch, he had but been beforehand. Through foolish ingenuousness he had lost it, and his father had got it, who could so much more easily steal one for himself; for he was a strong man, and had but to knock over another man at any night-time. Nobody should hear of future clicks but Mr Weech. Each for himself? Come, he must open his eyes.

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