Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

A Poor Stick

Mrs. Jennings (or Jinnins, as the neighbors would have it) ruled absolutely at home, when she took so much trouble as to do anything at all there — which was less often than might have been. As for Robert, her husband, he was a poor stick, said the neighbors. And yet he was a man with enough of hardihood to remain a non-unionist in the erectors’ shop at Maidment’s all the years of his service; no mean test of a man’s fortitude and resolution, as many suffered for independent opinion might testify. The truth was that Bob never grew out of his courtship-blindness. Mrs. Jennings governed as she pleased, stayed out or came home as she chose, and cooked a dinner or didn’t, as her inclination stood. Thus it was for ten years, during which time there were no children, and Bob bore all things uncomplaining; cooking his own dinner when he found none cooked, and sewing on his own buttons. Then of a sudden came children, till in three years there were three; and Bob Jennings had to nurse and to wash them as often as not.

Mrs. Jennings at this time was what is called rather a fine woman; a woman of large scale and full development, whose slatternly habit left her coarse black hair to tumble in snakelocks about her face and shoulders half the day; who, clad in half-hooked clothes, bore herself notoriously and unabashed in her fullness; and of whom ill things were said regarding the lodger. The gossips had their excuse. The lodger was an irregular young cabinet-maker, who lost quarters and halves and whole days; who had been seen abroad with his landlady, what time Bob Jennings was putting the children to bed at home; who on his frequent holidays brought in much beer, which he and the woman shared, while Bob was at work.

To carry the tale to Bob would have been a thankless errand, for he would have none of anybody’s sympathy, even in regard to miseries plain to his eye. But the thing got about in the workshop, and there his days were made bitter.

At home things grew worse. To return home at half past five, and find the children still undressed, screaming, hungry and dirty, was a matter of habit; to get them food, to wash them, to tend the cuts and bumps sustained through the day of neglect, before lighting a fire and getting tea for himself, were matters of daily duty. “Ah,” he said to his sister, who came at intervals to say plain things about Mrs. Jennings, “you shouldn’t go for to set a man agin ‘is wife, jin. Melier do’n’ like work, I know, but that’s nach’ral to ‘er. She ought to married a swell ‘stead o’ me; she might ‘a’ done easy if she liked, bein’ sich a fine gal; but she’s good-‘arted, is Melier; an’ she can’t ‘elp bein’ a bit thoughtless.” Whereat his sister called him a fool (it was her customary good-by at such times), and took herself off.

Bob Jennings’s intelligence was sufficient for his common needs, but it was never a vast intelligence. Now, under a daily burden of dull misery, it clouded and stooped. The base wit of the workshop he comprehended less, and realized more slowly, than before; and the gaffer cursed him a sleepy dolt.

Mrs. Jennings ceased from any pretense of housewifery, and would sometimes sit — perchance not quite sober — while Bob washed the children in the evening, opening her mouth only to express her contempt for him and his establishment, and to make him understand that she was sick of both. Once, exasperated by his quietness, she struck at him, and for a moment he was another man. “Don’t do that, Melier,” he said, “else I might forget myself.” His manner surprised his wife; and it was such that she never did do that again.

So was Bob Jennings, without a friend in the world, except his sister, who chid him, and the children, who squalled at him, when his wife vanished with the lodger, the clock, a shade of wax flowers, Bob’s best boots (which fitted the lodger), and his silver watch. Bob had returned, as usual, to the dirt and the children, and it was only when he struck a light that he found the clock was gone.

“Mummy tooked ve t’ock,” said Milly, the eldest child, who had followed him in from the door, and now gravely observed his movements. “She tooked ve t’ock an’ went ta-ta. An’ she tooked ve fyowers.”

Bob lighted the paraffine lamp with the green glass reservoir, and carried it and its evil smell about the house. Some things had been turned over and others had gone, plainly. All Melier’s clothes were gone. The lodger was not in, and under his bedroom window, where his box had stood, there was naught but an oblong patch of conspicuously clean wallpaper. In a muddle of doubt and perplexity, Bob found himself at the front door, staring up and down the street. Divers women neighbors stood at their doors, and eyed him curiously; for Mrs. Webster, moralist, opposite, had not watched the day’s proceedings (nor those of many other days) for nothing, nor had she kept her story to herself.

He turned back into the house, a vague notion of what had befallen percolating feebly through his bewilderment. “I dunno — I dunno,” he faltered, rubbing his ear. His mouth was dry, and he moved his lips uneasily, as he gazed with aimless looks about the walls and ceiling. Presently his eyes rested on the child, and “Milly,” he said, decisively, “come an ‘ave yer face washed.”

He put the children to bed early, and went out. In the morning, when his sister came, because she had heard the news in common with everybody else, he had not returned. Bob Jennings had never lost more than two quarters in his life, but he was not seen at the workshop all this day. His sister stayed in the house, and in the evening, at his regular homing-time, he appeared, haggard and dusty, and began his preparations for washing the children. When he was made to understand that they had been already attended to, he looked doubtful and troubled for a moment. Presently he said: “I ain’t found ‘er yet, Jin; I was in ‘opes she might ‘a’ bin back by this. I— I don’t expect she’ll be very long. She was alwis a bit larky, was Melier, but very good’arted.”

His sister had prepared a strenuous lecture on the theme of “I told you so”; but the man was so broken, so meek, and so plainly unhinged in his faculties, that she suppressed it. Instead, she gave him a comfortable talk, and made him promise in the end to sleep that night, and take up his customary work in the morning.

He did these things, and could have worked placidly enough had he but been alone; but the tale had reached the workshop, and there was no lack of brutish chaff to disorder him. This the decenter men would have no part in, and even protested against. But the ill-conditioned kept their way, till, at the cry of “Bell ohl” when all were starting for dinner, one of the worst shouted the cruelest gibe of all. Bob Jennings turned on him and knocked him over a scrap-heap.

A shout went up from the hurrying workmen, with a chorus of “Serve ye right,” and the fallen joker found himself awkwardly confronted by the shop bruiser. But Bob had turned to a corner, and buried his eyes in the bend of his arm, while his shoulders heaved and shook.

He slunk away home, and stayed there, walking restlessly to and fro, and often peeping down the street from the window. When, at twilight, his sister came again, he had become almost cheerful, and said with some briskness: “I’m agoin’ to meet ‘er, Jin, at seven. I know where she’ll be waitin’.”

He went upstairs, and after a little while came down again in his best black coat, carefully smoothing a tall hat of obsolete shape with his pocket-handkerchief. “I ain’t wore it for years,” he said. “I ought to ‘a’ wore it — it might ‘a’ pleased ‘er. She used to say she wouldn’t walk with me in no other — when I used to meet ‘er in the evenin’, at seven o’clock.” He brushed assiduously, and put the hat on. “I’d better ‘ave a shave round the corner as I go along,” he added, fingering his stubbly chin.

He received as one not comprehending his sister’s persuasion to remain at home; but when he went she followed at a little distance. After his penny shave he made for the main road, where company-keeping couples walked up and down all evening. He stopped at a church, and began pacing slowly to and fro before it, eagerly looking out each way as he went.

His sister watched him for nearly half an hour, and then went home. In two hours more she came back with her husband. Bob was still there, walking to and fro.

“‘Ullo, Bob,” said his brother-in-law; “come along home an’ get to bed, there’s a good chap. You’ll be awright in the mornin’.”

“She ain’t turned up,” Bob complained, “or else I’ve missed ‘er. This is the reg’lar place — where I alwis used to meet ‘er. But she’ll come to-morrer. She used to leave me in the lurch sometimes, bein’ nach’rally larky. But very good-‘arted, mindjer; very good-‘arted.”

She did not come the next evening, nor the next, nor the evening after, nor the one after that. But Bob Jennings, howbeit depressed and anxious, was always confident. “Somethink’s prevented ‘er tonight,” he would say; “but she’ll come tomorrer . . . I’ll buy a blue tie to-morrer — she used to like me in a blue tie. I won’t miss ‘er to-morrer. I’ll come a little earlier.”

So it went. The black coat grew ragged in the service, and hobbledehoys, finding him safe sport, smashed the tall hat, over his eyes time after time. He wept over the hat, and straightened it as best he might. Was she coming? Night after night, and night and night. But to-morrow . . .

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