Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

On the Stairs

The house had been “genteel.” When trade was prospering in the East End, and the shipfitter or block-maker thought it a shame to live in the parish where his workshop lay, such a master had lived here. Now, it was a tall, solid, well-bricked, ugly house, grimy and paintless in the journey, cracked and patched in the windows; where the front door stood open all day long, and the womankind sat on the steps, talking of sickness and deaths and the cost of things; and treacherous holes lurked in the carpet of road-soil on the stairs and in the passage. For when eight families live in a house, nobody buys a door-mat, and the secret was one of those streets that are always muddy. It smelled, too, of many things, none of them pleasant (one was fried fish); but for all that it was not a slum.

Three flights up, a gaunt woman with bare forearms stayed on her way to listen at a door which, opened, let out a warm, fetid waft from a close sick-room. A bent and tottering old woman stood on the threshold, holding the door behind her.

“An’ is ‘e no better now, Mrs. Curtis?” the gaunt woman asked, with a nod at the opening.

The old woman shook her head, and pulled the door closer. Her jaw waggled loosely in her withered chaps: “Nor won’t be, till ‘e’s gone.” Then after a certain pause: “‘E’s goin’,” she said.

“Don’t doctor give no ‘ope?”

“Lor’ bless ye, I don’t want to ast no doctors,” Mrs. Curtis replied, with something not unlike a chuckle. “I’ve seed too many on ’em. The boy’s a-goin’ fast; I can see that. An’ then”— she gave the handle another tug, and whispered —“he’s been called.” She nodded again. “Three seprit knocks at the bed-head lasnight; an’ I know what that means!”

The gaunt woman raised her brows, and nodded. “Ah, well,” she said, “we all on us comes to it some day, sooner or later. An’ it’s often a ‘appy release.”

The two looked into space beyond each other, the elder with a nod and a croak. Presently the other pursued: “‘E’s been a very good son, ain’t he?”

“Ay, ay — well enough son to me,” responded the old woman, a little peevishly; “an’ I’ll ‘ave ’im put away decent, though there’s on’y the Union for me after. I can do that, thank Gawd!” she added, meditatively, as, chin on fist, she stared into the thickening dark over the stairs.

“When I lost my pore ‘usband,” said the gaunt woman, with a certain brightening, “I give ’im a ‘andsome funeral. ‘E was a Odd Feller, an’ I got twelve pound. I ‘ad a oak caufin an’ a open ‘earse. There was kerridge for the fam’ly an’ one for ‘is mates — two ‘orses each, an’ feathers, an’ mutes; an’ it went the furthest way round to the cimitry. ‘Wotever ‘appens, Mrs. Manders,’ says the undertaker, ‘you’ll feel as you’re treated ’im proper; nobody can’t reproach you over that.’ An’ they couldn’t. ‘E was a good ‘usband to me, an’ I buried ’im respectable.”

The gaunt woman exulted. The old, old story of Mander’s funeral fell upon the other one’s ears with a freshened interest, and she mumbled her gums ruminantly. “Bob’ll ‘ave a ‘ansome buryin’ too,” she said. “I can make it up, with the insurance money, an’ this, an’ that. On’y I dunno about mutes. It’s a expense.”

In the East End, when a woman has not enough money to buy a thing much desired, she does not say so in plain words; she says the thing is an “expense,” or a “great expense.” It means the same thing, but it sounds better. Mrs. Curtis had reckoned her resources, and found that mutes would be an “expense.” At a cheap funeral mutes cost half a sovereign and their liquor. Mrs. Manders said as much.

“Yus, yus, ‘arf a sovereign,” the old woman assented. Within, the sick man feebly beat the floor with a stick. “I’m a-comin’,” she cried, shrilly; “yus, ‘arf a sovereign, but it’s a lot, an’ I don’t see ‘ow I’m to do it — not at present.” She reached for the door-handle again, but stopped and added, by after-thought: “Unless I don’t ‘ave no plooms.”

“It ‘ud be a pity not to ‘ave plooms. I ‘ad —”

There were footsteps on the stairs; then a stumble and a testy word. Mrs. Curtis peered over into the gathering dark. “Is it the doctor, sir?” she asked. It was the doctor’s assistant; and Mrs. Manders tramped up to the next landing as the door of the sick-room took him in.

For five minutes the stairs were darker than ever. Then the assistant, a very young man, came out again, followed by the old woman with a candle. Mrs. Manders listened in the upper dark. “He’s sinking fast,” said the assistant. “He must have a stimulant. Doctor Mansell ordered port wine. Where is it?” Mrs. Curtis mumbled dolorously. “I tell you he must have it,” he averred with unprofessional emphasis (his qualification was only a month old). “The man can’t take solid food, and his strength must be kept up somehow. Another day may make all the difference. It is because you can’t afford it?”

“It’s a expense — sich a expense, doctor,” the old woman pleaded. “An’ wot with ‘arf-pints o’ milk an’—” She grew inarticulate, and mumbled dismally.

“But he must have it, Mrs. Curtis, if it’s your last shilling; it’s the only way. If you mean you absolutely haven’t the money —” And he paused a little awkwardly. He was not a wealthy young man — wealthy young men do not devil for East End doctors — but he was conscious of a certain haul of sixpences at nap the night before; and, being inexperienced, he did not foresee the career of persecution whereon he was entering at his own expense and of his own motion. He produced five shillings: “If you absolutely haven’t the money, why — take this and get a bottle — good. Not at a public-house. But mind, at once. He should have had it before.”

It would have interested him, as a matter of coincidence, to know that his principal had been guilty of the self-same indiscretion — even the amount was identical — on that landing the day before. But, as Mrs. Curtis said nothing of this, he floundered down the stair and out into the wetter mud, pondering whether or not the beloved son of a Congregational minister might take full credit for a deed of charity on the proceeds of sixpenny nap. But Mrs. Curtis puffed her wrinkles, and shook her head sagaciously as she carried in her candle. From the room came a clink as of money falling into a teapot. And Mrs. Manders went about her business.

The door was shut, and the stair a pit of blackness. Twice a lodger passed down, and up and down, and still it did not open. Men and women walked on the lower flights, and out at the door, and in again. From the street a shout or a snatch of laughter floated up the pit. On the pavement footsteps rang crisper and fewer, and from the bottom passage there were sounds of stagger and sprawl. A demented old clock buzzed divers hours at random, and was rebuked every twenty minutes by the regular tread of a policeman on his beat. Finally, somebody shut the street-door with a great bang, and the street was muffled. A key turned inside the door on the landing, but that was all. A feeble light shone for hours along the crack below, and then went out. The crazy old clock went buzzing on, but nothing left that room all night. Nothing that opened the door . . .

When next the key turned, it was to Mrs. Manders’s knock, in the full morning; and soon the two women came out on the landing together, Mrs. Curtis with a shapeless clump of bonnet. “Ah, ‘e’s a lovely corpse,” said Mrs. Manders. “Like wax. So was my ‘usband.”

“I must be stirrin’,” croaked the old woman, “an’ go about the insurance an’ the measurin’ an’ that. There’s lot to do.”

“Ah, there is. ‘Oo are you goin’ to ‘ave — Wilkins? I ‘ad Wilkins. Better than Kedge, I think; Kedge’s mutes dresses rusty, an’ their trousis is frayed. If you was thinkin’ of ‘avin’ mutes —”

“Yus, yus”— with a palsied nodding —“I’m a-goin’ to ‘ave mutes; I can do it respectable, thank Gawd!”

“And the plooms?”

“Ay, yus, and the plooms too. They ain’t sich a great expense, after all.”

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