Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

Without Visible Means

All East London idled, or walked in a procession, or waylaid and bashed, or cried in an empty kitchen; for it was the autumn of the great strikes. One army of men, having been prepared, was ordered to strike — and struck. Other smaller armies of men, with no preparation, were ordered to strike to express sympathy — and struck. Other armies still were ordered to strike because it was the fashion — and struck. Then many hands were discharged because the strikes in other trades left them no work. Many others came from other parts in regiments to work, but remained to loaf in gangs — taught by the example of earlier regiments, which, the situation being explained (an expression devised to include mobbings and kickings and flingings into docks), had returned whence they came. So that East London was very noisy and largely hungry; and the rest of the world looked on with interest, making earnest suggestions, and comprehending nothing. Lots of strikers, having no strike pay and finding little nourishment in processions, started off to walk to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool or Newcastle, where work might be got. Along the Great North Road such men might be seen in silent companies of a dozen or twenty, now and again singly or in couples. At the tail of one such gang, which gathered in the Burdett Road and found its way into the Enfield Road by way of Victoria Park, Clapton, and Stamford Hill, walked a little group of three: a voluble young man of thirty, a stolid workman rather older, and a pale, anxious little fellow, with a nasty spasmic cough and a canvas bag of tools.

The little crowd straggled over the footpath and the road, few of its members speaking, most of them keeping to their places and themselves. As yet there was nothing of the tramp in the aspect of these mechanics. With their washed faces and well-mended clothes they might have been taken for a jury coming from a local inquest. As the streets got broken and detached, with patches of field between, they began to look about them. One young fellow in front (with no family to think of), who looked upon the enterprise as an amusing sort of tour, and had even brought an accordion, began to rebel against the general depression, and attempted a joke about going to the Alexandra Palace. But in the rear, the little man with the canvas bag, putting his hand abstractedly into his pocket, suddenly stared and stopped. He drew out the hand, and saw in it three shillings.

“S’elp me!” he said, “the missis is done that — shoved it in unbeknown when I come away. An’ she’s on’y got a bob for ‘erself an’ the kids.” He broke into a sweat of uneasiness. “I’ll ‘ave to send it back at the next post-office, that’s all.”

“Send it back? Not you!” Thus with deep scorn the voluble young man at his side. “She’ll be all right, you lay your life. A woman allus knows ‘ow to look after ‘erself. You’ll bleed’n’ soon want it, an’ bad. You do as I tell you, Joey; stick to it. That’s right, Dave, ain’t it?”

“Matter o’ fancy,” replied the stolid man. “My missis cleared my pockets out ‘fore I got away. Shouldn’t wonder at bein’ sent after for leavin’ ‘er chargeable if I don’t soon send some more. Women’s different.”

The march continued, and grew dustier. The cheerful pilgrim in front produced his accordion. At Palmer’s Green four went straight ahead to try for work at the Enfield Arms Factory. The others, knowing the thing hopeless, turned off to the left for Potter’s Bar.

After a long silence: “Which’ll be nearest, Dave,” asked little Joey Clayton, “Newcastle or Middlesborough?”

“Middlesborough,” said Dave; “I done it afore.”

“Trampin’ ain’t so rough on a man, is it, after all?” asked Joey, wistfully. “You done all right, didn’t you?”

“Got through. All depends, though it’s rough enough. Matter o’ luck. I ‘ad the bad weather.”

“If I don’t get a good easy job where we’re goin’,” remarked the voluble young man, “I’ll ‘ave a strike there too.”

“‘Ave a strike there?” exclaimed Joey.

“‘Ow? Who’d call ’em out?”

“Wy, I would. I think I’m equal to doin’ it, ain’t I? An’ when workin’-men stand idle an’ ‘ungry in the midst o’ the wealth an’ the lukshry an’ the igstravagance they’ve produced with the sweat of their brow, why, then, feller-workmen, it’s time to act. It’s time to bring the nigger-drivin’ bloated capitalists to their knees.”

“‘Ear, ‘ear!” applauded Joey Clayton; tamely, perhaps, for the words were not new. “Good on yer, Newman!” Newman had a habit of practicing this sort of thing in snatches whenever he saw the chance. He had learned the trick in a debating society; and Joey Clayton was always an applausive audience. There was a pause, the accordion started another tune, and Newman tried a different passage of his harangue.

“In the shop they call me Skulky Newman. Why? ‘Cos I skulk, o’ course” (”‘Ear, ‘ear!” dreamily — from Dave this time). “I ain’t ashamed of it, my friends. I’m a miker out an’ out, an’ I ‘ope I shall always remain a miker. The less a worker does the more ‘as to be imployed, don’t they? An’ the more the toilers wrings out o’ the capitalists, don’t they? Very well then, I mike, an’ I do it as a sacred dooty.”

“You’ll ‘ave all the mikin’ you want for a week or two,” said Dave Burge, placidly. “Stow it.”

At Potter’s Bar the party halted and sat under a hedge to eat hunks of bread and cheese (or hunks of bread and nothing else) and to drink cold tea out of cans. Skulky Newman, who had brought nothing, stood in with his two friends.

As they started anew and turned into the Great North Road he said, stretching himself and looking slyly at Joey Clayton: “If I’d got a bob or two I’d stand you two blokes a pint apiece.”

Joey looked troubled. “Well, as you ain’t, I suppose I ought to,” he said, uneasily, turning toward the little inn hard by. “Dave,” he cried to Burge, who was walking on, “won’t you ‘ave a drink?” And, “Well, if you are goin’ to do the toff, I ain’t proud,” was the slow reply.

Afterward, Joey was inclined to stop at the post-office to send away at least two shillings. But Newman wouldn’t. He enlarged on the improvidence of putting out of reach that which might be required on an emergency; he repeated his axiom as to a woman’s knack of keeping alive in spite of all things, and Joey determined not to send — for a day or so at any rate.

The road got looser and dustier; the symptoms of the tramp came out stronger and stronger on the gang. The accordion struck up from time to time, but ceased toward the end of the afternoon. The player wearied, and some of the older men, soon tired of walking, were worried by the noise. Joey Clayton, whose cough was aggravated by the dust, was especially tortured, after every fit, to hear the thing drawling and whooping the tune it had drawled and whooped a dozen times before; but he said nothing, scarce knowing what annoyed him.

At Hatfield Station two of the foremost picked up a few coppers by helping with a heavy trap-load of luggage. Up Digswell Hill the party tailed out lengthily, and Newman, who had been letting off a set speech, was fain to save his wind. The night came, clear to see and sweet to smell. Between Welwyn and Codicote the company broke up to roost in such barns as they might possess; all but the master of the accordion, who had stayed at a little public-house at Welwyn, with the notion of earning a pot of beer and a stable-corner (or better) by a tune in the tap-room. Dave Burge lighted on a lone shed of thatched hurdles with loose hay in it, and Newman straightway curled in the snuggest corner on most of the hay. Dave Burge pulled some from under him, and, having helped Joey Clayton to build a nest in the best place left, was soon snoring. But Joey lay awake all night, and sat up and coughed and turned restlessly, being unused to the circumstances and apprehensive of those months in jail, which (it is well known) are rancorously dealt forth among all them that sleep in barns.

Luck provided a breakfast next morning at Codicote; for three bicyclists, going north, stood cold beef and bread round at The Anchor. The man with the accordion caught up. He had made his lodging and breakfast and eightpence. This had determined him to stay at Hitchin, and work it for at least a day, and then to diverge into the towns and let the rest go their way. So beyond Hitchin there was no music.

Joey Clayton soon fell slow. Newman had his idea; and the three were left behind, and Joey staggered after his mates with difficulty. He lacked sleep, and he lacked stamina. Dave Burge took the canvas bag, and there were many rests, when Newman, expressing a resolve to stick by his fellow-man through thick and thin, hinted at drinks. Dave Burge made twopence at Henlow level crossing by holding an unsteady horse while a train passed. Joey saw little of the rest of the day; the road was yellow and dazzling, his cough tore him, and things were red sometimes and sometimes blue. He walked without knowing it, now helped, now lurching on alone. The others of the party were far ahead and forgotten. There was talk of a windmill ahead, where there would be rest; and the three men camped in an old boat-house by the river just outside Biggleswade. Joey, sleeping as he tottered, fell in a heap and lay without moving from sunset to broad morning.

When he woke Dave Burge was sitting at the door, but Newman was gone. Also there was no sign of the canvas bag.

“No use lookin’,” said Dave; “‘e’s done it.”

“Eh?”

“Skulky’s ‘opped the twig an’ sneaked your tools. Gawd knows where ‘e is by now.”

“No!” the little man gasped, sitting up in a pale, sweat . . . “Not sneaked ’em . . . is ‘e? . . . S’elp me! there’s a set o’ callipers worth fifteen bob in that bag . . . ‘E ain’t gawn . . .?”

Dave Burge nodded inexorably.

“Best feel in your pockets,” he said, “p’r’aps ‘e’s bin there.”

He had. The little man broke down. “I was a-goin’ to send ‘ome that two bob — s’elp me, I was! . . . An’ what can I do without my tools? If I’d got no job I could ‘a pawned ’em — an’ then I’d ‘a sent ‘ome the money — s’elp me, I would . . .! Oh, it’s crool!”

The walking, with the long sleep after it, had left him sore and stiff, and Dave had work to put him on the road again. He had forgotten yesterday afternoon, and asked, at first, for the others. They tramped in silence for a few miles, when Joey suddenly flung himself upon a tussock by the wayside.

“Why won’t nobody let me live?” he sniveled. “I’m a ‘armless bloke enough. I worked at Ritterson’s, man and boy, very nigh twenty year. When they come an’ ordered us out, I come out with the others, peaceful enough; I didn’t want to chuck it up, Gawd knows, but I come out promp’ when they told me. And when I found another job on the Island, four big blokes set about me an’ ‘arf killed me. I didn’t know the place was blocked. And when two o’ the blokes was took up, they said I’d get strike-pay again if I didn’t identify ’em; so I didn’t. But they never give me no strike-pay — they laughed an’ chucked me out. An’ now I’m a-starvin’ on the ‘igh road. An’ Skulky . . . blimy . . . ‘e’s done me too!”

There were days wherein Joey learned to cat a swede pulled from behind a wagon, and to feel thankful for an early turnip; might have learned, too, just what tramping means in many ways to a man unskilled both in begging and in theft, but was never equal to it. He coughed, and worse, holding to posts and gates, and often spitting blood. He had little to say, but trudged mechanically, taking note of nothing.

Once, as though aroused from a reverie, he asked: “Wasn’t there some others?”

“Others?” said Dave, for a moment taken aback. “Oh, yes, there was some others. They’re gone on ahead, y’know.”

Joey tramped for half a mile in silence. Then he said: “Expect they’re ‘avin’ a rough time too.”

“Ah, very like,” said Dave.

For a space Joey was silent, save for the cough. Then he went on: “Comes o’ not bringing ‘cordions with ’em. Every one ought to take a ‘cordion what goes trampin.’ I knew a man once that went trampin’, an’ ‘e took a ‘cordion. He done all right. It ain’t so rough for them as plays on the ‘cordion.” And Dave Burge rubbed his cap about his head and stared, but answered nothing.

It was a bad day. Crusts were begged at cottages. Every rise and every turn, the eternal yellow road lay stretch on stretch before them, flouting their unrest. Joey, now unimpressionable, endured more placidly than even Dave Burge. Late in the afternoon, “No,” he said, “it ain’t so rough for them as plays the ‘cordion. They ‘as the best of it . . . S’elp me,” he added, suddenly, “we’re all ‘cordions!” He sniggered thoughtfully, and then burst into a cough that left him panting. “We’re nothin’ but a bloomin’ lot o’ ‘cordions ourselves,” he went on, having got his breath, “an’ they play any toon they like on us; and that’s ‘ow they make their livin’. S’elp me, Dave, we’re all ‘cordions.” And he laughed.

“Um — yus,” the other man grunted. And he looked curiously at his mate; for he had never heard that sort of laugh before.

But Joey fondled the conceit, and returned to it from time to time; now aloud, now to himself. “All ‘cordions; playin’ any toon as it’s ordered, blimy . . . Are we ‘cordions? I don’t b’lieve we’re as much as that — no, s’elp me! We’re on’y the footlin’ little keys; shoved about to soot the toon. Little tin keys, blimy — footlin’ little keys. I’ve bin played on plenty, I ‘ave.”

Dave Burge listened with alarm, and tried to talk of other things. But Joey rarely heard him. “I’ve bin played on plenty, I ‘ave,” he persisted. “I was played on once by a pal, and my spring broke.”

At nightfall there was mote bad luck. They were driven from a likely barn by a leather-gaitered man with a dog, and for some distance no dormitory could be found. Then it was a cut haystack, with a nest near the top and steps to reach it.

In the night Burge was wakened by a clammy hand upon his face. There was a thick mist.

“It’s you, Dave, ain’t it?” Clayton was saying. “Good Gawd! I thought I’d lawst you. What’s all this ’ere — not the water, is it? — not the dock? I’m soppin’ wet.”

Burge himself was wet to the skin. He made Joey lie down, and told him to sleep; but a coughing fit prevented that. “It was them ‘cordions woke me,” he explained when it was over.

So the night put on the shuddering gray of the fore-dawn. And the two tramps left their perch, and betook them, shivering and stamping, to the road.

That morning Joey had short fits of dizziness and faintness.

“It’s my spring broke,” he would say after such an attack. “Bloomin’ little tin key put out o’ toon.” And once he added, “I’m up to one toon, though, now: this ’ere bloomin’ Dead March.”

Just at the outskirts of a town, where he stopped to cough over a gate, a stout old lady, walking out with a shaggy little dog, gave him a shilling. Dave Burge picked it up as it dropped from his incapable hand, and “Joey, ’ere’s a bob,” he said, “a lady give it you. You come an’ git a drop o’ beer.”

They carried a twopenny loaf into the tap-room of a small tavern, and Dave had mild ale himself, but saw that Joey was served with stout with a penn’orth of gin in it. Soon the gin and stout reached Joey’s head, and drew it to the table. And he slept, leaving the rest of the shilling where it lay.

Dave arose, and stuffed the last of the twopenny loaf into his pocket. He took a piece of chalk from the bagatelle board in the corner, and wrote this on the table: “dr. sir, for god sake take him to the work House.”

Then he gathered up the coppers where they lay, and stepped quietly into the street.

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