Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

A Conversion

There are some poor criminals that never have a chance; circumstances are against them from the first, as they protest, with tears, to sympathetic mission-readers. Circumstances had always been against Scuddy Lond, the gun. The word gun, it may be explained, is a friendly synonym for thief.

His first name was properly James, but that had been long forgotten. “Scuddy” meant nothing in particular, was derived from nothing, and was not, apparently, the invention of any distinct person. Still, it was commonly his only name, and most of his acquaintances had also nicknames of similarly vague origin. Scuddy was a man of fine feelings, capable of a most creditable hour of raptuous misery after hearing, perhaps at a singsong, “Put Me in My Little Bed,” or any other ditty that was rank enough in sentiment; wherefore the mission-readers never really despaired of him. He was a small, shabby man of twenty-six, but looking younger; with a runaway chin, a sharp, yellow face, and tremulously sly eyes; with but faint traces of hair on his face, he had a great deal of it, straight and ragged and dirty, on his head.

Scuddy Lond’s misfortunes began early. Temptation had prevailed against him when he was at school; but that was nothing. He became errand boy in a grocer’s shop, and complications with the till brought him, a howling penitent, to the police court. Here, while his mother hid her head in the waiting-room, he set forth the villainy of older boys who had prompted him to sin, and got away with no worse than a lecture on the evils of bad company. So that a philanthropist found him a better situation at a distance, where the evil influence could no longer move him. Here he stayed a good while — longer than some who had been there before him, but who had to leave because of vanishing postal orders. Nevertheless, the postal orders still went, and in the end he confessed to another magistrate, and fervently promised to lead a better life if his false start were only forgiven. Betting, he protested, was this time the author of his fall; and as that pernicious institution was clearly to blame for the unhappy young man’s ruin, the lamenting magistrate let him off with a simple month in consideration of his misfortune and the intercession of his employer, who had never heard of the grocer and his till.

After his month Scuddy went regularly into business as a lob-crawler; that is to say, he returned to his first love, the till — not narrowly to any individual till, but broadmindedly to the till as a general institution, to be approached in unattended shops by stealthy groveling on the belly. This he did until he perceived the greater security and comfort of waiting without while a small boy did the actual work within. From this, and with this, he ventured on peter-claiming — laying hands nonchalantly on unconsidered parcels and bags at railway stations, until a day when, bearing a fat portmanteau, he ran against its owner by the door of a refreshment bar. This time the responsibility lay with drink. Strong drink, he declared, with deep emotion, had been his ruin; he dated his downfall from the day when a false friend persuaded him to take a social glass; he would still have been an honest, upright, self-respecting young man but for the cursed drink. From that moment he would never touch it more. The case was met with three months with hard labor, and for all that Scuddy Lond had so clearly pointed out the culpability of drink, he had to do the drag himself. But the mission-readers were comforted; for clearly there was hope for one whose eyes were so fully opened to the causes of his degradation.

After the drag, Scuddy for long made a comfortable living, free from injurious overwork, in the several branches of lob-crawling and peter-claiming, with an occasional deviation into parlor-jumping. It is true that this last did sometimes involve unpleasant exertion when the window was high and the boy heavy to bunk up; and it was necessary, at times, to run. But Scuddy was out of work, and hunger drove him to anything, so long as it was light and not too risky. And it is marvelous to reflect how much may be picked up in the streets and at the side-doors of London and the suburbs without danger or vulgar violence. And so Scuddy’s life went on, with occasional misfortunes in the way of a moon, or another drag, or perhaps a sixer. And the mission-readers never despaired, because the real cause was always hunger or thirst, or betting, or a sudden temptation, or something quite exceptional — never anything like real, hardened, unblushing wickedness; and the man himself was always truly penitent. He made such touching references to his innocent childhood, and was so grateful for good advice or anything else you might give him.

One bold attempt Scuddy made to realize his desire for better things. He resolved to depart from his evil ways and become a nark — a copper’s nark — which is a police spy, or informer. The work was not hard, there was no imprisonment, and he would make amends for the past. But hardly had he begun his narking, when some of the Kate Street mob dropped on him in Brick Lane, and bashed him full sore. This would never do; so once more implacable circumstance drove him to his old courses. And there was this added discomfort: that no boy would parlor-jump nor dip the lob for him. Indeed, they bawled aloud, ‘Yah, Scuddy Lond the copper’s nark!’

So that the hand of all Flower and Dean Street was against him. Scuddy grew very sad.

These and other matters were heavy upon his heart on an evening when, with nothing in his pockets but a piece of coal that he carried for luck, he turned aimlessly up Baker’s Row. Things were very bad; it was as though the whole world knew him — and watched. Shop-keepers stood frowningly at their doors. People sat defiantly on piles of luggage at the railway stations, and there was never a peter to touch for. All the areas were empty, and there were no side-doors left unguarded, where, failing the more-desirable wedge, one might claim a pair or two of daisies put out for cleaning. All the hundred trifling things that commonly come freely to hand in a mile or two of streets were somehow swept out of the world’s economy, and Scuddy tramped into Baker’s Row in melting mood. Why were things so hard for some and so easy for others? It was not as though he were to blame — he, a man of feeling and sentiment. Why were others living comfortable lives unvexed of any dread of the police? And apart from that, why did other gonophs get lucky touches for half a century of quids at a time, while he! . . . But there, the world was one brutal oppression and he was its most pitiable victim; and he slunk along, dank with the pathos of things.

At a corner a group was standing about a woman, whose voice was uplifted to a man’s accompaniment on a stand-accordion. Scuddy listened. She sung, with a harsh tremble:

“— An’ sang a song of ‘ome, sweet ‘ome,

The song that reached my ‘art.

‘Ome, ‘ome, sweet, sweet ‘ome,

She sang the song of ‘ome, sweet ‘ome,

The song that reached my ‘art.”

Here, indeed, was something in tune with Scuddy’s fine feelings. He looked up. From the darkening sky the evening star winked through the smoke from a factory chimney. From a-near came an exquisite scent of saveloys. Plaintive influences all. He tried to think of ‘ome himself — of ‘ome strictly in the abstract, so that it might reach his ‘art. He stood for some minutes torpid and mindless, oozing with sentiment, till the song ended, and he went on. Fine feelings — fine!

He crossed the road, and took a turning. A lame old woman sat in a recess selling trotters, where a dark passage led back to a mission-hall. About the opening a man hovered — fervent, watchful — and darted forth on passers-by. He laid his hand on Scuddy’s shoulder, and said: “My dear friend, will you come in an’ ‘ear the word of the Lord Jesus Christ?”

Scuddy turned; the sound of a harmonium and many strenuous voices came faintly down the passage. It was his mood. Why not give his fine feelings another little run? He would; he would go in.

“Trotters!” quavered the lame old woman, looking up wistfully. “Two a penny! Two a penny!” But no; he went up the passage, and she turned patiently to her board.

Along the passage the singing grew louder, and burst on his ears unchecked as he pushed open the door at the end:

“—‘oosoever will, ‘oosoever will,

Send the proclamation over vale an’ ‘ill;

’Tis a lovin’ Father calls the wand’rer ‘ome,

‘Oosoever will may come!”

A man by the door knew him at once for a stranger, and found him a seat. The hymn went quavering to an end, and the preacher in charge, a small, bright-eyed man with rebellious hair and a surprisingly deep voice, announced that Brother Spyers would offer a prayer.

The man prayed with his every faculty. He was a sturdy, red-necked artisan, great of hand and wiry of beard — a smith, perhaps, or a bricklayer. He spread his arms wide, and his head thrown back, brought forth, with passion and pain, his fervid, disordered sentences. As he went on, his throat swelled and convulsed in desperate knots, and the sweat hung thick on his face. He called for grace, that every unsaved soul there might come to the fold and believe that night. Or if not all, then some — even a few. That at least one, only one, poor soul might be plucked as a brand from the burning. And as he flung together, with clumsy travail, his endless, formless, unconsidered vehemences of uttermost cockney, the man stood transfigured, admirable.

From here and there came deep amens. Then more, with gasps, groans and sobs. Scuddy Lond, carried away luxuriously on a tide of grievous sensation, groaned with the others. The prayer ended in a chorus of ejaculations. Then there was a hymn. Somebody stuffed an open hymn-book into Scuddy’s hand, but he scarce saw it. Abandoning himself to the mesmeric influence of the many who were singing about him be plunged and reveled in a debauch of emotion. He heard, he even joined in; but understood nothing, for his feelings filled him to overflowing.

“I ‘ave a robe; ’tis resplendent in w’iteness,

Awaitin’ in glory my wonderin’ view.

Oh, w’en I receive it, all shinin’ in brightness,

Dear friend, could I see you receivin’ one too!

For you I am prayin’! For you I am prayin’!

For you I am prayin’, I’m prayin’ for you.”

The hymn ceased; all sat down, and the preacher began his discourse — quietly at first, and then, though in a different way, with all the choking fervor of the man who had prayed. For the preacher was fluent as well as zealous, and his words, except when emotion stayed them, poured in a torrent. He preached faith — salvation in faith — declaiming, beseeching, commanding. “Come — come! Now is the appointed time! Only believe — only come! Only — only come!” To impassioned, broken entreaty he added sudden command and the menace of eternity, but broke away pitifully again in urgent pleadings, pantings, gasps; pointing above, spreading his arms abroad, stretching them forth imploringly. Come, only come!

Sobs broke out in more than one place. A woman bowed her head and rocked, while her shoulders shook again. Brother Spyers’ face was alight with joy. A tremor, a throe of the senses, ran through the assembly as through a single body.

The preacher, nearing his peroration, rose to a last frenzy of adjuration. Then, ending in a steadier key, he summoned any stand forth which had found grace that night.

His bright, strenuous eyes were on the sobbers, charging them, drawing them. First rose the woman who had bowed her head. Her face uncovered but distorted and twitching, still weeping, but rapt and unashamed, she tottered out between the seats, and sunk at last on the vacant form in front. Next a child, a little maid of ten, lank-legged and outgrown of her short skirts, her eyes squeezed down on a tight knot of pocket-handkerchief, crying wildly, broken-heartedly, sobbed and blundered over seatcorners and toes, and sat down forlorn and solitary at the other end of the form. And after her came Scuddy Lond.

Why, he knew not — nor cared. In the full enjoyment of a surfeit of indefinite emotion, tearful, rapturous, he had accepted the command put on him by the preacher, and he had come forth, walking on clouds, regenerate, compact of fine feelings. There was a short prayer of thanks, and then a final hymn:

“Ring the bells of ‘eaven, there is joy today,

For a soul returnin’ from the wild!”

Scuddy felt a curious equable lightness of spirits — a serene cheerfulness. His emotional organism was spent, and in its place was a numb calm, pleasant enough.

“— Gloryl glory! ‘ow the angels sing —

Glory! glory ‘ow the loud ‘arps ring!

’Tis the ransomed army, like a mighty sea,

Pealin’ forth the anthem of the free!”

The service ended. The congregation trooped forth into the evening; but Scuddy sat where he was, for the preacher wanted a few words with his converts ere he would let them go. He shook hands with Scuddy Lond, and spoke with grave, smiling confidence about his soul. Brother Spyers also shook hands with him and bespoke his return on Sunday.

In the cool air of the empty passage, Scuddy’s ordinary faculties began to assert themselves; still in an atmosphere of calm cheer. Fine feelings — fine. And as he turned the piece of coal in his pocket, he reflected that, after all, the day had not been altogether unlucky — not in every sense a blank. Emerging into the street, he saw that the lame old woman, who was almost alone in view, had risen on her crutch and turned her back to roll her white cloth over her remaining trotters. On the ledge behind stood her little pile of coppers, just reckoned. Scuddy Lond’s practiced eye took the case in a flash. With two long tip-toed steps he reached the coppers, lifted them silently, and hurried away up the street. He did not run, for the woman was lame and had not heard him. No; decidedly the day had not been blank. For here was a hot supper.

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