Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

Squire Napper

I.

Bill Napper was a heavy man of something between thirty-five and forty. His moleskin trousers were strapped below the knees, and he wore his coat loose on his back, with the sleeves tied across his chest. The casual observer set him down a navvy, but Mrs. Napper punctiliously made it known that he was “in the paving;” which meant that he was a paver. He lived in Canning Town, and was on a foot-path job at West Ham (Allen was the contractor) when he won and began to wear the nickname “Squire.”

Daily at the stroke of twelve from the neighboring church, Bill Napper’s mates let drop rammer, trowel, spade, and pick, and turned toward a row of basins, tied in blue-and-red handkerchiefs, and accompanied of divers tin cans with smoky bottoms. Bill himself looked toward the street corner for the punctual Polly bearing his own dinner fresh and hot; for home was not far, and Polly, being thirteen, had no school now.

One day Polly was nearly ten minutes late. Bill, at first impatient, grew savage, and thought wrathfully on the strap on its nail by the kitchen dresser. But at the end of the ten minutes Polly came, bringing a letter as well as the basin-load of beef and cabbage. A young man had left it, she said, after asking many ill-mannered questions. The letter was addressed “W. Napper, Esq.,” with a flourish; the words, “By hand,” stood in the corner of the envelope, and on the flap at the back were the embossed characters “T. & N.” These things Bill Napper noted several times over, as he turned the letter about in his hand.

“Seems to me you’ll ‘ave to open it after all,” said one of Bill’s mates; and he opened it, setting back his hat as a preparation to serious study. The letter was dated from Old jewry, and ran thus:

“re” B. Napper, deceased.

“Dear Sir — We have a communication in this matter from our correspondents at Sydney, New South Wales, in respect to testamentary dispositions under which you benefit. We shall be obliged if you can make it convenient to call at this office any day except Saturday between two and four.

“Your obedient servants,

“Tims & Norton.”

The dinner hour had gone by before the full inner meaning had been wrested from this letter. “B. Napper, deceased,” Bill accepted, with a little assistance, as an announcement of the death of his brother Ben, who had gone to Australia nearly twenty years ago, and had been forgotten. “Testamentary dispositions” nobody would tackle with confidence, although its distinct suggestion of biblical study was duly remarked. “Benefit” was right enough, and led one of the younger men; after some thought, to the opinion that Bill Napper’s brother might have left him something; a theory instantly accepted as the most probable, although some thought it foolish of him not to leave it direct instead of authorizing the interference of a lawyer, who would want to do Bill out of it.

Bill Napper put up his tools, and went home. There the missis put an end to doubt by repeating what the lawyer’s clerk said, which was nothing more definite than that Bill had been “left a bit”; and the clerk only acknowledged so much when he had satisfied himself, by sinuous questionings, that he had found the real legatee. He further advised the bringing of certain evidence on the visit to the office. Thus it was plain that the Napper fortunes were in good case, for, as “a bit” means money all the world over, the thing was clearly no worthless keepsake.

ii.

ON the afternoon of the next day, Bill Napper, in clean moleskins and black coat, made for Old Jewry. On mature consideration he had decided to go through it alone. There was not merely one lawyer, which would be bad enough, but two of them in a partnership; and to take the missis, whose intellects, being somewhat flighty, were quickly divertible by the palaver of which a lawyer was master, would be to distract and impede his own faculties. A male friend might not have been so bad, but Bill could not call to mind one quite cute enough to be of any use, and in any case such a friend would have to be paid for the loss of his day’s work. Moreover, he might imagine himself to hold a sort of interest in the proceeds. So Bill Napper went alone.

Having waited the proper time without the bar in the clerk’s office, he was shown into a room where a middle-aged man sat at a writing-table. There was no other lawyer to be seen. This was a stratagem for which Bill Napper was not prepared. He looked suspiciously about the room, but without discovering anything that looked like a hiding-place. Plainly there were two lawyers, because their names were on the door and on the letter itself; and the letter said we. Why one should hide it was hard to guess, unless it were to bear witness to some unguarded expression. Bill Napper resolved to speak little, and not loud.

The lawyer addressed him affably, inviting him to sit. Then he asked to see the papers that Bill had brought. These were an old testimonial reciting that Bill had been employed “with his brother Benjamin” as a boy in a brick-field, and had given satisfaction; a letter from a parish guardian, the son of an old employer of Bill’s father, certifying that Bill was his father’s son and his brother’s brother; copies of the birth registry of both Bill and his brother procured that morning; and a letter from Australia, the last word from Benjamin, dated eighteen years back. These Bill produced in succession, keeping a firm grip on each as he placed it beneath the lawyer’s nose. The lawyer behaved somewhat testily under this restraint, but Bill knew better than to let the papers out of his possession, and would not be done.

When he had seen all —“Well, Mr. Napper,” said the lawyer, rather snappishly (obviously he was balked), “these things seem all right, and with the inquiries I have already made, I suppose I may proceed to pay you the money. It is a legacy of three hundred pounds. Your brother was married, and I believe his business and other property goes to his wife and children. The money is intact, the estate paying legacy duty and expenses. In cases of this sort there is sometimes an arrangement for the amount to be paid a little at a time as required; that, however, I judge, would not be an arrangement to please you. I hope, at any rate, you will be able to invest the money in a profitable way. I will draw a check.”

Three hundred pounds was beyond Bill Napper’s wildest dreams. But he would not be dazzled out of his caution. Presently the lawyer tore the check from the book and pushed It across the table with another paper. He offered Bill a pen, pointing with his other hand at the bottom of the second paper, and saying: “This is the receipt. Sign just there, please.”

Bill took up the check, but made no movement toward the pen. “Receipt?” he grunted, softly; “receipt wot for? I ain’t ‘ad no money.”

“There’s the check in your hand — the same thing. It’s an order to the bank to hand you the amount — the usual way of paying money in business affairs. If you would rather have the money paid here, I can send a clerk to the bank to get it. Give me the check.”

But again Bill was not to be done. The lawyer, finding him sharper than he expected, now wanted to get this tricky piece of paper back. So Bill only grinned at him, keeping a good hold of the check. The lawyer lost his temper. “Why, damn it,” he said, “you’re a curious person to deal with. D’ye want the money and the check too?”

He rang a bell twice, and a clerk appeared. “Mr. Dixon,” said the lawyer, “I have given this person a check for three hundred pounds. Just take him round to the bank, and get it cashed. Let him sign the receipt at the bank. I suppose,” he added, turning to Bill, “that you won’t object to giving a receipt when you get the money, eh?”

Bill Napper, conscious of his victory, expressed his willingness to do the proper thing at the proper time, and went out with the clerk. At the bank there was little difficulty, except at the clerk’s advice to take the money chiefly in notes, which instantly confirmed Bill in a determination to accept nothing but gold. When all was done, and three hundred sovereigns, carefully counted over for the third and fourth time, were stowed in small bags about his person, Bill, much relieved after his spell of watchfulness, insisted on standing the clerk a drink.

“Ah,” he said, “all you city lawyers an’ clurks are pretty bleed’n’ sharp, I know, but you ain’t done me, an’ I don’t bear no malice. ‘Ave wot you like —‘ave wine or a six o’ Irish — I ain’t goin’ to be stingy. I’m goin’ to do it open an’ free, I am, an’ set a example to men o’ property.”

iii.

Bill Napper went home in a hansom, ordering a barrel of beer on the way. One of the chief comforts of affluence is that you may have beer in by the barrel; for then Sundays and closing times vex not, and you have but to reach the length of your arm for another pot whenever moved thereunto. Nobody in Canning Town had beer by the barrel except the tradesmen, and for that Bill had long envied the man who kept shop. And now, at his first opportunity, he bought a barrel of thirty-six gallons.

Once home with the news, and Canning Town was ablaze. Bill Napper had came in for three thousand, thirty thousand, three hundred thousand — any number of thousands that were within the compass of the gossip’s command of enumeration. Bill Napper was called “W. Napper, Esq.”— he was to be knighted — he was a long-lost baronet — anything. Bill Napper came home in a hansom — a brougham-state coach.

Mrs. Napper went that very evening to the Grove at Stratford to buy silk and satin, green, red and yellow — cutting her neighbors dead, right and left. And by the next morning tradesmen had sent circulars and samples of goods. Mrs. Napper was for taking a proper position in society, and a house in a fashionable part — Barking Road, for instance, or even East India Road, Poplar; but Bill would have none of such foolishness. He wasn’t proud, and Canning Town was quite good enough for him. This much, though, he conceded: that the family should take a whole house of five rooms in the next street, instead of the two rooms and a cellule upstairs now rented.

That morning Bill lighted his pipe, stuck his hands in his pockets, and strolled as far as his job. “Wayo, squire,” shouted one of the men as he approached. “‘Ere comes the bleed’n’ toff,” remarked another.

“‘Tcheer, ‘tcheer, mates,” Bill responded, calmly complacent. “I’m a-goin to wet it.” And all the fourteen men left their paving for the beer-house close by. The foreman made some demur, but was helpless, and ended by coming himself. “Now then, gaffer,” said Bill, “none o’ your sulks. No one ain’t a-goin’ to stand out of a drink o’ mine — unless ‘e wants to fight. As for the job — damn the job! I’d buy up fifty jobs like that ’ere and not stop for the change. You send the guv’nor to me if ‘e says anythink; unnerstand? You send ’im to me.” And he laid hands on the foreman, who was not a big man, and hauled him after the others.

They wetted it for two or three hours, from many part pots. Then there appeared between the swing doors the wrathful face of the guv’nor.

The gov’nor’s position was difficult. He was only a small master, and but a few years back had been a working mason. This deserted job was his first for the parish, and by contract he was bound to end it quickly under penalty. Moreover, he much desired something on account that week, and must stand well with the vestry. On the other hand, this was a time of strikes, and the air was electrical. Several large and successful movements had quickened a spirit of restlessness in the neighborhood, and no master was sure of his men. Some slight was fancied, something was not done as it should have been done from the point of view of the workshop, and there was a strike, picketing, and bashing. Now, the worst thing that could have happened to the guv’nor at this moment was one of those tiny unrecorded strikes that were bursting out weekly and daily about him, with the picketing of his two or three jobs. Furious, therefore, as he was, he dared not discharge every man on the spot. So he stood in the door, and said: “Look here, I won’t stand this sort of thing — it’s a damn robbery. I’ll —”

“That’s all right, ol’ cock,” roared Bill Napper, reaching toward the guv’nor. “You come an’ ‘ave a tiddley. I’m a bleed’n’ millionaire meself now, but I ain’t proud. What, you won’t?”— for the guv’nor, unenthusiastic, remained at the door. “You’re a sulky old bleeder. These ’ere friends o’ mine are ‘avin’ ‘arf a day auf at my expense; unnerstand? My expense. I’m a-payin’ for their time, if you dock ’em; an’ I can give you a bob, me fine feller, if you’r ‘ard up. See?”

The guv’nor addressed himself to the foreman. “What’s the meaning o’ this, Walker?” he said. “What game d’ye call it?”

Bill Napper, whom a succession of pots had made uproarious, slapped the foreman violently on the shoulder. “This ’ere’s the gaffer,” he shouted. “‘E’s all right. ‘E come ’ere ‘cos ‘e couldn’t ‘elp isself. I made ’im come, forcible. Don’t you bear no spite agin the gaffer, d’y’ear? ‘E’s my mate, is the gaffer; an’ I could buy you up, forty times, s’elp me — but I ain’t proud. An’ you’re a bleed’n’ gaw-blimy slackbacked . . .!”

“Well,” said the guv’nor to the assembled company, but still ignoring Bill, “don’t you think there’s been about enough of this?”

A few of the men glanced at one another, and one or two rose. “Awright, guv’nor,” said one, “we’re auf,” and two more echoed, “Awright, guv’nor,” and began to move away.

“Ah!” said Bill Napper, with disgust, as he turned to finish his pot, “you’re a blasted nigger-driver, you are. An’ a sulky beast,” he added as he set the pot down. “Never mind,” he pursued, “I’m awright, an’ I ain’t a ‘arf-paid kerbwacker no more, under you!”

“You was a damn sight better kerbwhacker than you are a millionaire,” the guv’nor retorted, feeling safer now that his men were getting back to work.

“None o’ your lip,” replied Bill, rising and reaching for a pipe-spill; “none o’ your lip, you work’us stone-breaker.” Then, turning with a sudden access of fury, “I’ll knock yer face off, blimy!” he shouted, and raised his fist.

“Now, then, none o’ that here, please,” cried the landlord from behind the bar; unto whom Bill Napper, with all his wonted obedience in that quarter, answered only, “All right, guv’nor,” and subsided.

Left alone, he soon followed the master-paver and his men through the swing doors, and so went home. In his own street, observing two small boys in the prelusory stages of a fight, he put up sixpence by way of stakes, and supervised the battle from the seat afforded by a convenient window-sill. After that he bought a morning paper, and lay upon his bed to read it, with a pipe and a jug; for he was beginning a life of leisure and comfort, wherein every day should be a superior Sunday.

iv.

Thus far the outward and visible signs of Napper wealth were these: the separate house; the barrel of beer; a piano — not bought as a musical instrument, but as one of the visible signs; a daily paper, also primarily a sign; the bonnets and dresses of the missis; and the perpetual possession of Bill Napper by a varying degree of fuddlement. An inward and dissembled sign was a regiment, continually re-enforced, of mostly empty bottles, in a cupboard kept sacred by the missis. And the faculties of that good lady herself experienced a fluctuating confusion from causes not always made plain to Bill; for the money was kept in the bedroom chest of drawers, and it was easy to lay hands on a half sovereign as required without unnecessary disturbance.

Now and again Bill Napper would discuss the abstract question of entering upon some investment or business pursuit. Land had its advantages — great advantages; and he had been told that it was very cheap just now, in some places. Houses were good, too, and a suitable possession for a man of consideration. Not so desirable on the whole, however, as land. You bought your land and — well, there it was, and you could take things easily. But with houses there was rent to collect, and repairs to see to and so forth. It was a vastly paying thing for any man with capital to be a merchant; but there was work even in that, and you had to be perpetually on guard against sharp chaps in the city. A public-house, suggested by one of his old mates on the occasion of wetting it, was out of the question. There was tick, and long hours, and a sharp lookout, and all kinds of troubles, which a man with money would be a fool to encounter. Altogether, perhaps, land seemed to be the thing; although there was no need to bother now, and plenty of time to turn things over, even if the matter were worth pondering at all, when it was so easy for a man to live on his means. After all, to take your boots off, and lie on the bed with a pipe and a pot and paper was very comfortable, and you could always stroll out and meet a mate, or bring him in when so disposed.

Of a evening the Albert Music Hall was close at hand, and the Queen’s not very far away. And on Sundays and Saturday afternoons Bill would often take a turn down by the dock gates, or even in Victoria Park, or Mile End Waste, where there were speakers of all sorts. At the dock gates it was mostly labor and anarchy, but at the other places there was a fine variety; you could always be sure of a few minutes of teetotalism, evangelism, atheism, republicanism, salvationism, socialism, anti-vaccinationism, and social purity, with now and again some Mormonism or another curious exotic. Most of the speakers denounced something, and if the denunciations of one speaker were not sufficiently picturesque and lively, you passed on to the next. Indeed you might always judge afar off where the best denouncing was going on, by the size of the crowds, at least until the hat went round.

It was at Mile End Waste that a good notion occurred to Bill Napper. He had always vastly admired the denunciations of one speaker — a little man, shabbier, if anything, than most of the others, and surpassingly tempestuous of antic. He was an unattached orator, not confining himself to any particular creed, but denouncing whatever seemed advisable, considering the audience and circumstances. He was always denouncing something somewhere, and was ever in a crisis that demanded the circulation of a hat. Bill esteemed this speaker for his versatility as well as for the freshness of his abuse, and Bill’s sudden notion was to engage him for private address.

The orator did not take kindly to the proposal at first, strongly suspecting something in the nature of “guy” or “kid”; but a serious assurance of a shilling for an occasional hour and the payment of one in advance brought him over. After this Squire Napper never troubled to go to Mile End Waste. He sat at ease in his parlor, with his pot on the piano, while the orator, with another pot on the mantel-piece, stood up and denounced to order. “Tip us the Teetotal an’ Down-with-the-Public-‘Ouse,” Bill would request, and the orator (his name was Minns) would oblige in that line till most of the strong phrases had run out, and had begun to recur. Then Bill would say, “Now come the Rights o’ Labor caper.” Whereupon Minns would take a pull at the pot, and proceed to denounce capital, Bill Napper applauding or groaning at the pauses provided for those purposes. And so on with whatever subjects appealed to the patron’s fancy. It was a fancy that sometimes put the orator’s invention to grievous straits; but for Bill the whole performance was peculiarly privileged and dignified. For to have an orator gesticulating and speechifying all to one’s self, on one’s own order and choice of subject, is a thing not given to all men.

One day Minns turned up (not having been invited) with a friend. Bill did not take to the friend. He was a lank-jawed man with a shifty eye, who smiled as he spoke, and showed a top row of irregular and dirty teeth. This friend, Minns explained, was a journalist — a writer of newspapers; and between them they had an idea, which idea the friend set forth. Everybody, he said, who knew the history of Mr. Napper admired his sturdy independence and democratic simplicity. He was of the people and not ashamed of it. (“Well, no, I ain’t proud,” Bill interjected, wondering what was coming.) With all the advantages of wealth, he preferred to remain one of the people, living among them plainly, conforming to their simple habits, and sympathizing with their sorrows. (“This chap,” thought Bill, “wants to be took on to hold forth turn about with the other, and he’s showing his capers; but I ain’t on it.”) It was the knowledge of these things, so greatly to Mr. Napper’s honor, that had induced Minns and Minns’s friend to place before him a means by which he might do the cause of toiling humanity a very great service. A new weekly paper was wanted — wanted very badly; a paper that should rear its head on behalf of the down-trodden toilers, and make its mighty voice heard with dread by the bloated circles of class and privilege. That paper would prove a marvelously paying investment to its proprietor, bringing him enormous profits every week. He would have a vast fortune in that paper alone, besides the glory and satisfaction of striking the great blow that should pave the way to the emancipation of the masses and the destruction of the vile system of society whose whole and sole effect was the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the grasping few. Being professionally disengaged at present, he (the speaker), in conjunction with his friend Minns, had decided to give Mr. Napper the opportunity of becoming its proprietor.

Bill was more than surprised; he was also a little bewildered. “What,” he said, after two draws of his pipe, “d’ye mean you want me to go in the printin’ line?”

That was not at all necessary. The printing would be done by contract. Mr. Napper would only have to find the money. The paper, with a couple of thousand pounds behind it — or even one thousand (Minns’s friend read a difficulty in Bill’s face)— would be established forever. Even five hundred would do, and many successful papers had been floated with no more than a couple of hundred or so. Suppose they said just a couple of hundred to go on with, till the paper found its legs and began to pay? How would that do?

Bill Napper smoked a dozen whiffs. Then he said: “An’ what should I ‘ave to do with the two ‘undred pound? Buy anythink?”

Not directly that, the promoters explained. It would finance the thing-just finance it.

“‘Ood ‘ave the money, then?”

That was perfectly simple. It would simply be handed over to Minns and his friend, and they would attend to all the details.

Bill Napper continued to smoke. Then, beginning with a slight chuckle at the back of his throat, he said: “We’n I got my money, I went to a lawyer’s for it. There was two lawyers — one layin’ low. There was two fust-rate lawyers an’ a lot o’ clurks — city clurks — an’ a bank an’all. An’ they couldn’t ‘ave me, not for a single farden — not a farden, try an’ fiddle as they would . . . Well, arter that, it ain’t much good you a-tryin’ it on, is it?” And he chuckled again, louder.

Minns was indignant, and Minns’s friend was deeply hurt. Both protested. Bill Napper laughed aloud. “Awright, you’ll do,” he said; “you’ll do. My ‘abits may be simple, but they ain’t as simple as all that. Ha! ha! ‘Ere, ‘ave a drink — you ain’t done no ‘arm, an’ I ain’t spiteful. Ha, ha!”

It was on an evening a fortnight after this that, as Bill Napper lay, very full of beer and rather sleepy, on the bed — the rest of his household being out-of-doors — a ladder was quietly planted against the outer wall from the back-yard. Bill heard nothing until the window, already a little open, was slowly pushed up, and from the twilight outside a head and an arm plunged into the thicker darkness of the room, and a hand went feeling along the edge of the chest of drawers by the window. Bill rolled over on the bed, and reached from the floor one of a pair of heavy iron-set boots. Taking the toe in his right hand, and grasping the footrail of the bedstead with his left, he raised himself on his knees, and brought the boot-heel down heavily on the intruding head. There was a gasp, and the first breath of a yell, and head, arm, shoulders, and body vanished with a bump and a rattle. Bill Napper let the boot fall, dropped back on the bed, and took no further heed.

Neither Minns nor his friend ever came back again, but for some time after, at Victoria Park, Minns, inciting an outraged populace to rise and sweep police and army from the earth, was able to point to an honorable scar on his own forehead, the proof and sign of a police bludgeoning at Tower Hill — or Trafalgar Square.

V.

Things went placidly on for near ten months. Many barrels of beer had come in full and been sent empty away. Also the missis had got a gold watch and divers new bonnets and gowns, some by gift from Bill, some by applying privily to the drawer. Her private collection of bottles, too, had been cleared out twice, and was respectable for the third time. Everybody was not friendly with her, and one bonnet had been torn off her head by a neighbor who disliked her airs.

So it stood when, on a certain morning, Bill, being, minded to go out, found but two shillings in his pocket. He called upstairs to the missis, as was his custom in such a pass, asking her to fetch a sovereign or two when she came down; and, as she was long in coming, he went up himself. The missis left the room hurriedly, and Bill, after raking out every corner of the drawer (which he himself had not opened for some time) saw not a single coin. The missis had no better explanation than that there must have been thieves in the house some time lately — a suggestion deprived of some value by the subsequent protest that Bill couldn’t expect money to last forever, and that he had had the last three days ago. In the end there was a vehement row, and the missis was severely thumped.

The thumping over, Bill Napper conceived a great idea. Perhaps after all the lawyers had done him by understating the amount his brother had left. It might well have been five hundred pounds — a thousand pounds — anything. Probably it was, and the lawyers had had the difference. Plainly, three hundred pounds was a suspiciously small sum to inherit from a well-to-do-brother. He would go to the lawyers and demand the rest of his money. He would not reveal his purpose till he saw the lawyers face to face, and then he would make his demand suddenly, so that surprise and consternation should overwhelm and betray them. He would give them to understand that he had complete evidence of the whole swindle. In any case, he could lose nothing. He went, after carefully preparing his part, and was turned out by a policeman.

“After that,” mused Squire Napper, going home, “I suppose I’d better see about getting a job at Allen’s again. He can’t but make me gaffer, considering I’ve been a man of property.”

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