Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

All that Messuage

I.

“All that messuage dwelling-house and premises now standing on part of the said parcel of ground” was the phrase in the assignment of lease, although it only meant No. 27 Mulberry Street, Old Ford, containing five rooms and a wash-house, and sharing a dirty front wall with the rest of the street on the same side. The phrase was a very fine one, and, with others more intricate, lent not a little to the triumph and the perplexity the transaction filled old Jack Randall withal. The business was a conjunction of purchase and mortgage, whereby old Jack Randall, having thirty pounds of his own, had, after half an hour of helpless stupefaction in a solicitor’s office in Cornhill, bought a house for two hundred and twenty pounds, and paid ten pounds for stamps and lawyer’s fees. The remaining two hundred pounds had been furnished by the Indubitable Perpetual Building Society, on the security of a mortgage; and the loan, with its interest, was to be repaid in monthly installments of two pounds and fourpence during twelve years. Thus old Jack Randall designed to provide for the wants and infirmities of age; and the outright purchase, he argued, was a thing of mighty easy accomplishment. For the house let at nine shillings a week, which was twenty-three pounds eight shillings a year; and the mortgage installments, with the ground rent of three pounds a year, only came to twenty-seven pounds four, leaving a difference of three pounds sixteen, which would be more than covered by a saving of eighteenpence a week; certainly not a difficult saving for a man with a regular job and no young family, who had put by thirty pounds in little more than three years. Thus on many evenings old Jack Randall and his wife would figure out the thing, wholly forgetting rates and taxes and repairs.

Old Jack stood on the pavement of Cornhill, and stared at the traffic. When he remembered that Mrs. Randall was by his side, he said: “Well, mother, we done it;” and his wife replied: “Yus, fa’, you’re a lan’lord now.” Hereat he chuckled, and began to walk eastward. For to be a landlord is the ultimate dignity. There is no trouble, no anxiety in the world if you are a landlord; and there is no work. You just walk round on Monday mornings (or maybe you even drive in a trap), and you collect your rents — eight and six, or nine shillings, or ten shillings, as the case may be. And there you are! It is better than shopkeeping, because the money comes by itself; and it is infinitely more genteel. Also, it is better than having money in a bank and drawing interest; because the house can not run away as is the manner of directors, nor dissolve into nothingness as is the way of banks. And here was he, Jack Randall, walking down Leadenhall Street a landlord. He mounted a tram-car at Aldgate, and all things were real.

ii.

Old Jack had always been old Jack since at fourteen young Jack had come ‘prentice in the same engine-turner’s shop. Young Jack was a married man himself now, at another shop; and old Jack was near fifty, and had set himself toward thrift. All along Whitechapel Road, Mile End Road, and Bow Road he considered the shops and houses from the tramroof, madly estimating rents and values. Near Bow Road end he and his wife alighted, and went inspecting No. 27 Mulberry Street once more. Old Jack remarked that the scraper was of a different shape from that he had carried in his mind since their last examination; and he mentioned it to Mrs. Randall, who considered the scraper of fact rather, better than the scraper of memory. They walked to and fro several times, judging the door and three windows from each side of the street, and in the end they knocked, with a purpose of reporting the completed purchase. But the tenant’s wife, peeping from behind a blind, and seeing only the people who had already come spying about the house some two or three times, retired to the back and went on with her weekly washing.

They waited a little, repeated the knock, and then went away. The whole day was “off,” and a stroll in the Tower Hamlets Cemetery was decided on. Victoria Park was as near, but was not in the direction of home. Moreover, there was less interest for Mrs. Randall in Victoria Park, because there were no funerals. In the cemetery, Mrs. Randall solaced herself and old Jack with the more sentimental among the inscriptions. In the poor part, whose miscellaneous graves are marked by mounds alone, they stopped to look at a very cheap funeral.

“Lor’, Jack,” Mrs. Randall said under her breath with a nudge, “wot a common caufin! Why, the body’s very nigh a-droppin’ through the bottom!” The thin under-board had, in fact, a bulge. “Pore chap! ain’t it shockin’!”

The ignominy of a funeral with no feathers was a thing accepted of course, but the horror of a cheap coffin they had never realized till now. They turned away. In the main path they met the turgid funeral of a Bow Road bookmaker. After the dozen mourning coaches there were cabs and pony traps, and behind these came a fag-end of carts and donkeybarrows. Ahead of all was the glazed hearse, with attendants in weepers, and by it, full of the pride of artistry, walked the undertaker himself.

“Now that,” said old Jack, “is somethin’ like a caufin.” (It was heavy and polished and beset with bright fittings.)

“Ah,” sighed his missis, “ain’t it lovely!”

The hearse drew up at the chapel door, where the undertaker turned to the right-about and placidly surveyed the movements of his forces. Mrs. Randall murmured again: “Lovely — lovely”; and kept her eyes on the coffin. Then she edged gently up to the undertaker, and whispered: “What would that kind o’ caufin be called, mister?”

The undertaker looked at her from the sides of his eyes and answered briskly: “Two-inch polished oak solid extry brass fittin’s.” Mrs. Randall returned to old Jack’s side and repeated the words. “That must cost a lot,” she said. “What a thing, though, to be certain you won’t be buried in a trumpery box like that other! Ah, it’s well to be rich.”

Old Jack gazed on the coffin, and thought. Surely a landlord, if anybody, was entitled to indulge in an expensive coffin? All day he had nursed a fancy that some small indulgence, something a little heavier than usual in the matter of expense, would be proper to celebrate the occasion. But he reflected that his savings were gone and his pockets no fuller than had always been their Wednesday wont; though, of course, in that matter the future would be different. The bearers carried the coffin into the chapel, and Mrs. Randall turned away among the graves. Old Jack put his hands in his pockets, and, looking at the ground, said: “That was a nobby caufin, mother, wasn’t it?” Whereunto Mrs. Randall murmured: “Lovely-lovely!” yet again.

Old Jack walked a little further and asked: “Two-inch polished oak, ‘e said, didn’t ‘e?”

“Solid, an’ extry brass fittin’s; beautiful!”

“I’ll remember it. That’s what you shall ‘ave if it ‘appens you go fust. There!” And old Jack sat on the guardchain of a flowery grave with the air of one giving a handsome order.

“Me? Git out! Look at the expense.”

“Matter o’ circumstances. Look at Jenkins’s gardens. Jenkins was a bench-‘and at the Limited; got ‘is ‘ouses one under another through building s’ieties. That there caufin ‘ud be none too dear for ’im. We’re beginnin; an’ I promise you that same, if you’d like it.”

“Like iti” the missis ejaculated. “Course I should. Wouldn’t you?”

“Wy, yus. Any one ‘ud prefer somethin ‘a bit nobby, an’ thick.”

And the missis reciprocated old Jack’s promise, in case he died first — if a two-inch polished oak solid could be got for everything she had to offer. And, tea-time approaching, they made, well pleased, for home.

iii.

In two days old Jack was known as a landlord all about. On the third day, which was Saturday, young Jack called to borrow half a sovereign, but succeeded only to the extent of five shillings; work was slack with him, and three days of it was all he had had that week. This had happened before, and he had got on as best he could; but now, with a father buying house property, it was absurd to economize for lack of half a sovereign. When he brought the five shillings home, his wife asked why he had not thrown them at his father’s head; a course of procedure which, young Jack confessed, had never occurred to his mind. “Stingy old ‘unks!” she scolded. “A-goin’ about buyin’ ‘ouses, an’ won’t lend ‘is own son ten shillin’s! Much good may all ‘is money do ’im with ‘is ‘ateful mean ways!” This was the beginning of old Jack’s estrangement from his relatives. For young Jack’s missis expressed her opinion in other places, and young Jack was soon ready to share it, rigidly abstaining from another attempt at a loan, though he never repaid the five shillings.

In the course of the succeeding week two of his shopmates took old Jack aside at different times to explain that the loan of a pound or two would make the greatest imaginable difference to the whole course of their future lives, while the temporary absence of the money would be imperceptible to a capitalist like himself. When he roundly declared that he had as few loose sovereigns as themselves, he was set down an uncommon liar as well as a wretched old miser. This was the beginning of old Jack’s unpopularity in the workshop.

iv.

He took a half day off to receive the first week’s rent in state, and Mrs. Randall went with him. He showed his written authority from the last landlord, and the tenant’s wife paid over the sum of nine shillings, giving him at the same time the rent-book to sign and a slip of written paper. This last was a week’s notice to terminate the tenancy.

“We’re very well satisfied with the ’ouse,” the tenant’s wife said (she was a painfully clean, angular woman, with a notable flavor of yellow soap and scrubbing-brush about her), “but my ‘usband finds it too far to get to an’ from Albert Docks mornin’ and night. So we’re goin’ to West ‘Am.” And she politely ejected her visitors by opening the door and crowding them through it.

The want of a tenant was a contingency that old Jack had never contemplated. As long as it lasted it would necessitate the setting by of ten and sixpense a week for the building society payments and the ground-rent. This was serious; it meant knocking off some of the butcher’s meat, all the beer and tobacco, and perhaps a little firing. Old Jack resolved to waste no more half days in collecting, but to send his missis. On the following Monday, therefore, while the tenant’s wife kept a sharp eye on the man who was piling a greengrocer’s van with chairs and tables, Mrs. Randall fixed a “To Let” bill in the front window. In the leaves of the rent-book she found another thing of chagrin; to wit, a notice demanding payment of poor, highway, and general rates to the amount of one pound eighteen and sevenpence. Now, no thought of rates and taxes had ever vexed the soul of old Jack. Of course, he might have known that his own landlord paid the rates for his house; but, indeed, he had never once thought of the thing, being content with faithfully paying the rent, and troubling no more about it. That night was one of dismal wakefulness for old Jack and his missis. If he had understood the transaction at the lawyer’s office, he would have known that a large proportion of the sum due had been allowed him in the firm adjustment of payment to the day; and if he had known something of the ways of rate-collecting, he would have understood that payment was not expected for at least a month. As it was, the glories of lease-possession grew dim in his eyes, and a landlord seemed a poor creature, spending his substance to keep roofs over the heads of strangers.

V.

On Wednesday afternoon a man called about taking the house, and returned in the evening, when old Jack was home. He was a large-featured, quick-eyed man, with a loud, harsh voice and a self-assertive manner. Quickly old Jack recognized him as a speaker he had heard at certain street-corners; a man who was secretary, or delegate, or that sort of thing, to something that old Jack had forgotten.

He began with the announcement: “I am Joe Parsons,” delivered with a stare for emphasis, and followed by a pause to permit assimilation.

Old Jack had some recollection of the name, but it was indefinite. He wondered whether or not he should address the man as “sir,” considering the street speeches, and the evident importance of the name. But then, after all, he was a landlord himself. So he only said, “Yus?”

“I am Joe Parsons,” the man repeated; “and I’m looking for a ’ouse.”

There was another pause, which lasted till old Jack felt obliged to say something. So he said, “Yus?” again.

“I’m looking for a ’ouse,” the man repeated, “and if we can arrange things satisfactory, I might take yours.”

Mr. Joe Parsons was far above haggling about the rent, but he had certain ideas as to painting and repairs that looked expensive. In the end old Jack promised the paint a touchup, privily resolving to do the work himself in his evenings. And on the whole, Mr. Joe Parsons was wonderfully easy to come to terms with, considering his eminent public character. And anything in the nature of a reference in his case would have been absurd. As himself observed, his name was enough for that.

vi.

Old Jack did the painting, and the new tenant took possession. When Mrs. Randall called for the first week, a draggle-tailed little woman with a black eye meekly informed her that Mr. Parsons was not at home, and had left no money nor any message as to the rent. This was awkward, because the first building society installment would be due before next rent day — to say nothing of the rates. But it would never do to offend Mr. Parsons. So the money was scraped together by heroic means (the missis produced an unsuspected twelve and sixpence from a gallipot on the kitchen dresser), and the first installment was paid.

Mrs. Randall called twice at Mulberry Street next rent-day, but nobody answered her knocks. Old Jack, possessed by a misty notion, born of use, that rent was constitutionally demandable only on Monday morning, called no more for a week. But on Thursday evening a stout little stranger, with a bald head which he wiped continually, came to the Randalls to ask if the tenant of No. 27 Mulberry Street was Mr. Joe Parsons. Assured that it was, he nodded, said “Thanks! that’s all,” wiped his head again, and started to go. Then he paused, and “Pay his rent regular?” he asked. Old Jack hesitated. “Ah, thought so,” said the little stranger. “He’s a wrong ’un. I’ve got a bit o’ paper for ’im.” And he clapped on his hat with the handkerchief in it and vanished.

vii.

Old Jack felt unhappy, for a landlord. He and the missis reproached themselves for not asking the little stranger certain questions; but he had gone. Next Monday morning old Jack took another half day, and went to Mulberry Street himself. From appearances, he assured himself that a belief, entertained by his missis, that the upper part of his house was being sublet, was well-founded. He watched awhile from a corner, until a dirty child kicked at the door, and it was opened. Then he went across and found the draggle-tailed woman who had answered Mrs. Randall before, in every respect the same to look at, except that not one eye was black, but two. Old Jack, with some abruptness, demanded his rent of her, addressing her as Mrs. Parsons. Without disclaiming the name, she pleaded with meek uneasiness that Mr. Parsons really wasn’t at home, and she didn’t know when to expect him. At last, finding this ineffectual, she produced four and sixpence begging him with increasing agitation to take that on account and call again.

Old Jack took the money, and called again at seven. Custom or law or what not, he would wait for no Monday morning now. The door was open, and a group of listening children stood about it. From within came a noise of knocks and thuds and curses — sometimes a gurgle. Old Jack asked a small boy, whose position in the passage betokened residence, what was going forward. “It’sthe man down-stairs,” said the boy, “a-givin’ of it to ‘is wife for payin’ away the lodgers’ rent.”

At this moment Mr. Joe Parsons appeared in the passage. The children, who had once or twice commented in shouts, dispersed. “I’ve come for my rent,” said old Jack.

Mr. Joe Parsons saw no retreat. So he said, “Rent? Ain’t you ‘ad it? I don’t bother about things in the ’ouse. Come again when my wife’s in.”

“She is in,” rejoined old Jack, “an’ you’ve been a-landin’ of ‘er for payin’ me what little she ‘as. Come, you pay me what you owe me, and take a week’s notice now. I want my house kep’ respectable.”

Mr. Joe Parsons had no other shift. “You be damned,” he said. “Git out!”

“What?” gasped old Jack — for to tell a landlord to get out of his own house! . . . “What?”

“Why, git out. Y’ought to know better than comin’ ’ere askin’ for money you ain’t earnt.”

“Ain’t earnt? What d’ye mean?”

“What I say. Y’aint earnt it. It’s you blasted lan’lords as sucks the blood o’ the workers. You go an’ work for your money.”

Old Jack was confounded. “Why — what — how d’ye think I can pay the rates, an’ everythink?”

“I don’t care. You’ll ‘ave to pay ’em, an’ I wish they was ‘igher. They ought to be the same as the rent, an’ that ‘ud do away with fellers like you. Go on; you do your damndest an’ get your rent best way you can.”

“But what about upstairs? You’re lettin’ it out an’ takin’ the rent there. I—”

“That’s none o’ your business. Git out, will ye?” They had gradually worked over the doorstep, and Randall was on the pavement. “I sha’n’t pay, an’ I sha’n’t go, an’ ye can do what ye like; so it’s no good your stoppin’— unless you want to fight. Eh — do ye?” And Mr. Parsons put a foot over the threshold.

Old Jack had not fought for many years. It was low. For a landlord outside his own house it was, indeed, disgraceful. But it was quite dark now, and there was scarcely a soul in the street. Perhaps nobody would know, and this man deserved something for himself. He looked up the street again, and then, “Well, I ain’t so young as I was,” he said, “but I won’t disappoint ye. Come on.”

Mr. Joe Parsons stepped within and slammed the door.

viii.

Old Jack went home less happy than ever. He had no notion what to do. Difficulties of private life were often discussed and argued out in the workshop, but there he had become too unpopular to ask for anything in the nature of sympathy or advice. Not only would he lend no money, but he refused to stand treat on rent days. Also, there was a collection on behalf of men on strike at another factory, to which he gave nothing; and he had expressed the strongest disapproval of an extension of that strike, and his own intention to continue working if it happened. For what would become of all his plans and his savings if his wages ceased? Wherefore there was no other man in the shop so unpopular as old Jack, and in a workshop unpopularity is a bad thing.

He called on a professional rent-receiver and seller-up. This man knew Mr. Joe Parsons very well. He never had furniture upon which a profitable distress might be levied. But if he took lodgers, and they were quiet people, something might be got out of them — if the job were made worth while. But this was not at all what old Jack wanted.

Soon after it occurred to him to ask advice of the secretary of the building society. This was a superficial young man, and auctioneer’s clerk until evening, who had no disposition to trouble himself about matters outside his duties. Still, he went so far as to assure old Jack that turning out a tenant who meant to stay was not a simple job. If you didn’t mind losing the rent it might be done by watching until the house was left ungarrisoned, getting in, putting the furniture into the street, and keeping the tenant out. With this forlorn hope old Jack began to spend his leisure about Mulberry Street; ineffectually, for Mrs. Parsons never came out while he was there. Once he saw the man, and offered to forgive him the rent if he would leave, a proposal which Mr. Parsons received with ostentatious merriment. At this old Jack’s patience gave out, and he punched his tenant on the ear. Whereat the latter, suddenly whitening in the face, said something about the police, and walked away at a good pace.

ix.

The strike extended, as it was expected and designed to do. The men at old Jack’s factory were ordered out, and came, excepting only old Jack himself. He was desperate. Since he had ventured on that cursed investment everything had gone wrong; but he would not lose his savings if mere personal risk would preserve them. Moreover, a man of fifty is not readily re-employed, once out; and as the firm was quite ready to keep one hand on to oil and see that things were in order, old Jack stayed, making his comings and going late to dodge the pickets, and approaching subtly by a railway arch stable and a lane thereunto. It was not as yet a very great strike, and with care these things could be done. Still, he was sighted and chased twice, and he knew that if the strike lasted, and feeling grew hotter, he would be attacked in his own house. If only he could hold on through the strike, and by hook or crook keep the outgoings paid, he would attend to Mr. Parsons afterward.

X.

One Saturday afternoon, as Mrs. Randall was buying greens and potatoes, old Jack, waiting without, strolled toward a crowd standing about a speaker. A near approach discovered the speaker to be Mr. Joe Parsons, who was saying:

“— strike-pay is little enough at the time, of course, but don’t forget what it will lead to! An’ strike-pay does very well, my frien’s, when the party knows ‘ow to lay it out, an’ don’t go passin’ it on to the lan’lord. Don’t give it away. When the lan’lord comes o’ Monday mornin’, tell him (polite as you like) that there’s nothink for ’im till there’s more for you. Let the lan’lord earn ‘is money, like me an’ you. Let the lan’lords pay a bit toward this ’ere strike as well as the other blaggards, the imployers. Lan’lords git quite enough out o’ you, my feller-workers, when —”

“They don’t git much out o’ you!” shouted old Jack in his wrath; and then felt sorry he had spoken. For everybody looked at him, and he knew some of the faces.

“Ho!” rejoined the speaker mincingly. “There’s a gent there as seems to want to address this ’ere meetin’. P’r’aps you’ll ‘ave the kindness to step up ’ere, my friend, an’ say wot you got to say plain.” And he looked full at old Jack, pointing with his finger.

Old Jack fidgeted, wishing himself out of it. “You pay me what you owe me,” he growled, sulkily.

“As this ’ere individual, after intruding ‘isself on this peaceful meetin’, ain’t got anythink to say for ‘isself,” pursued Mr. Joe Parsons, “I’ll explain things for ’im. That’s my lan’lord, that is; look at ’im! ‘E comes ‘angin’ round my door waitin’ for a chance to turn my pore wife an’ children out o’ ’ouse and ‘ome. ‘E follers me in the street an’ tries to intimidate me. ‘E comes ’ere, my feller-workers, as a spy, an’ to try an’ poison your minds agin me as devotes my ‘ole life to your int’rests. That’s the sort o’ man, that’s the sort o’ lan’lord ‘e is. But ‘e’s somethink more than a greedy, thievin’, overfed lan’lord, my frien’s, an’ I’ll tell you wot. ‘E’s a dirty, crawlin’ blackleg; that wot else ‘e is. ‘E’s the on’y man as wouldn’t come out o’ Maidment’s; an’ ‘e’s workin’ there now, skulkin’ in and out in the dark — a dirty rat! Now you all know very well I won’t ‘ave nothink to do with any violence or intimidation. It’s agin my principles, although I know there’s very often great temptation, an’ it’s impossible to identify in a crowd, an’ safe to be very little evidence. But this I will say, that when a dirty low rat, not content with fattenin’ on starvin’ tenants, goes an’ takes the bread out o’ ‘is fellermen’s mouths, like that bleedin’ blackleg — blackleg! — blackleg —!”

Old Jack was down. A dozen heavy boots were at work about his head and belly. In from the edge of the crowd a woman tore her way, shedding potatoes as she ran, and screaming, threw herself upon the man on the ground, and shared the kicks. Over the shoulders of the kickers whirled the buckle-end of a belt. “One for the old cow!” said a voice.

xi.

When a man is lying helpless on his back, with nothing in hand, he pays nothing off a building society mortgage, because, as his wife pawns the goods of the house, the resulting money goes for necessaries. To such a man the society shows no useless grace, especially when the secretary has a friend always ready to take over a forfeited house at forced sale price. So the lease of No. 27 vanished, and old Jack’s savings with it.

And one day, some months later, old Jack, supported by the missis and a stick, took his way across the work-house forecourt. There was a door some twenty yards from that directly before them, and two men came out of it, carrying a laden coffin of plain deal.

“Look there, Jack,” the missis said, as she checked her step; “what a common caufin!” And indeed there was a distinct bulge in the bottom.

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