Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

In Business

There was a great effervescence of rumor in Cubitt Town when Ted Munsey, came into money. Ted Munsey, commonly alluded to as Mrs. Munsey’s ‘usband, Was a molder with a regular job at Moffatt’s; a large, quiet man of forty-five, the uncomplaining appurtenance of his wife. This was fitting, for she had married beneath her, her father having been a dock timekeeper.

To come into money is an unusual feat in Cubitt Town; a feat, nevertheless, continually contemplated among possibilities by all Cubitt Towners, who find nothing else in the Sunday paper so refreshing as the paragraphs headed “Windfall for a Cabman” and “A Fortune for a Pauper,” and who cut them out to pin over the mantel-piece. The handsome coloring of such paragraphs was responsible for many bold flights of fancy in regard to Ted Munsey’s fortune, Cubitt Town, left to itself, being sterile soil for the imagination. Some said that the Munseys had come in for chests packed with bank-notes, on the decease of one of Mrs. Munsey’s relations, of whom she was wont to hint. Others put it at a street full of houses, as being the higher ideal of wealth. A few, more romantically given, imagined vaguely of ancestral lands and halls, which Mrs. Munsey and her forebears had been “done out of” for many years by the lawyers. All which Mrs. Munsey, in her hour of triumph, was at little pains to discount, although, in simple fact, the fortune was no more than a legacy of a hundred pounds from Ted’s uncle, who had kept a public-house in Deptford.

Of the hundred pounds Mrs. Munsey took immediate custody. There was no guessing what would have become of it in Ted’s hands; probably it would have been, in chief part, irrecoverably lent; certainly it would have gone and left Ted a molder at Moffat’s, as before. With Mrs. Munsey there was neither hesitation nor difficulty. The obvious use of a hundred pounds was to put its possessors into business — which meant a shop; to elevate them socially at a single bound beyond the many grades lying between the molder and the small tradesman. Wherefore the Munseys straightway went into business. Being equally ignorant of every sort of shopkeeping, they were free to choose the sort they pleased; and thus it was that Mrs. Munsey decided upon drapery and haberdashery, Ted’s contribution to the discussion being limited to a mild hint of green-grocery and coals, instantly suppressed as low. Nothing could be more genteel than drapery, and it would suit the girls. General chandlery, sweetstuff, oil and firewood — all these were low, comparatively. Drapery it was, and quickly; for Mrs. Munsey was not wont to shilly-shally. An empty shop was found in Bromley, was rented, and was stocked as far as possible. Tickets were hung upon everything, bearing a very large main figure with a very small three farthings beside it, and the thing was done. The stain of molding was washed from the scutcheon; the descent thereunto from dock timekeeping was redeemed fivefold; the dock timekeeping itself was left far below, with carpentering, shipwrighting, and engine-fitting. The Munseys were in business.

Ted Munsey stood about helplessly and stared, irksomely striving not to put his hands in his pockets, which were low; any lapse being instantly detected by Mrs. Munsey, who rushed from all sorts of unexpected places and corrected the fault vigorously.

“I didn’t go for to do it, Marier,” he explained, penitently. “It’s ‘abit. I’ll get out of it soon. It don’t look well, I know, in a business, but it do seem a comfort, somehow.”

“Oh, you an’ your comfort! A lot you study my comfort, Hedward!”— for he was Ted no more —“a-toilin’ an’ a-moilin’ with everything to think of myself, while you look on with your ‘ands in your pockets. Do try an’ not look like a stuck ninny, do!” And Hedward, whose every attempt at help or suggestion had been severely repulsed, slouched uneasily at the door, and strove to look as businesslike as possible.

“There you go again, stickin’ in the door-way and starin’ up an’ down the street, as though there was no business doin’.” There was none, but that might not be confessed. “D’y’ expect people to come in with you a-fillin’ up the door? Do come in, do! You’d be better out o’ the shop altogether.”

Hedward thought so too, but said nothing. He had been invested with his Sunday clothes of lustrous black, and brought into the shop to give such impression of a shop-walker as he might. He stood uneasily on alternate feet, and stared at the ceiling, the floor, or the space before him, with an unhappy sense of being on show and not knowing what was expected of him. He moved his hands purposelessly, and knocked things down with his elbows; he rubbed his hair all up behind, and furtively wiped the resulting oil from his hand on his trousers, never looking in the least degree like a shop-walker.

The first customer was a very small child who came for a ha’porth of pins, and on whom Hedward gazed with much interest and respect, while Mrs. Munsey handed over the purchase, abating not a jot of his appreciation when the child returned, later, to explain that what she really wanted was sewing cotton. Other customers were disappointingly few. Several old neighbors came in from curiosity, to talk and buy nothing. One woman, who looked at many things without buying, was discovered after her departure to have stolen a pair of stockings, and Hedward was duly abused for not keeping a sharp lookout while his wife’s back was turned. Finally, the shutters went up on a day’s takings of three and sevenpence farthing, including a most dubious threepenny bit. But then, as Mrs. Munsey said, when you are in business you must expect trade to vary; and of course there would be more customers when the shop got known, although Hedward certainly might have taken the trouble to find one in a busier thoroughfare. Hedward, whose opinion in that matter, as in others, had never been asked, retired to the back-yard to smoke a pipe — a thing he had been pining for all day; but was quickly recalled (the pipe being a clay) upon Mrs. Munsey’s discovery that the act could be observed from a neighbor’s window. He was continually bringing the family into disgrace, and Mrs. Munsey despaired aloud over him far into the night.

The days came and went, and trade varied, as a fact, very little indeed. Between three and sevenpence farthing and nothing the scope for fluctuation is small, and for some time the first day’s record was never exceeded. But on the fifth day a customer bought nearly seven shillings’ worth all at once. Her husband had that day returned from sea with money, and she, after months of stint, indulged in an orgy of haberdashery at the nearest shop. Mrs. Munsey was reassured. Trade was increasing; perhaps an assistant would be needed soon, in addition to the two girls.

Only the younger of the girls, by the bye, had as yet taken any active interest in the business, Emma, the elder, spending much of her time in a bedroom, making herself unpresentable by inordinate blubbering. This was because of Mrs. Munsey’s prohibition of more company-keeping with Jack Page. Jack was a plumber, just out of his time — rather a catch for a molder’s daughter, but impossible, of course, for the daughter of people in business, as Emma should have had the proper feeling to see for herself. This Emma had not; she wallowed in a luxury of woe, exacerbated on occasions to poignancy by the scoldings and sometimes by the thumpings of her mar, and neglected even the select weekly quadrille class, membership whereof was part of the novel splendor.

But there was never again a seven-shilling customer. The state of trade perplexed Mrs. Munsey beyond telling. Being in business, one must, by the circumstance, have a genteel competence; this was an elementary axiom in Cubitt Town. But where was the money? What was the difference between this and other shops? Was a screw loose anywhere? In that case it certainly could not be her fault; wherefore she nagged Hedward.

One day a polite young man called in a large pony-trap and explained the whole mystery. Nobody could reasonably expect to succeed in a business of this sort who did not keep a good stock of the fancy aprons and lace bows made by the firm he was charged to represent. Of course, he knew what business was, and that cash was not always free, but that need never hinder transactions with him.

Three months’ credit was the regular thing with any respectable, well-established business concern, and in three months one would certainly sell all the fancy aprons and lace bows of this especial kind and price that one had room for. And he need scarcely remind a lady of Mrs. Munsey’s business experience that fancy aprons and lace bows — of the right sort — were by far the most profitable goods known to the trade. Everybody knew that. Should they say a gross of each, just to go on with? No? Well, then half a gross. These prices were cut so near that it really did not pay to split the gross, but this time, to secure a good customer, he would stretch a point. Mrs. Munsey was enlightened. Plainly the secret of success in business was to buy advantageously, in the way the polite young man suggested, sell at a good price, and live on the profits, merely paying over the remainder at the end of three months. Nothing could be simpler. So she began the system forthwith. Other polite young men called, and further certain profits were arranged for on similar terms.

The weak spot in the plan was the absence of any binding arrangement with the general public; and this was not long in discovering itself. Nobody came to buy the fancy aprons and the lace bows, tempting as they might seem. Moreover, after they had hung a week or more, Alice reported that a large shop in the Commercial Road was offering, by retail, aprons and bows of precisely the same sort at a less price than the polite young man had charged for a wholesale purchase. Mrs. Munsey grew desperate, and Hedward’s life became a horror unto him. He was set to stand at the door with a fancy apron in one hand and a lace bow in the other, and capture customers as they passed — a function wherein he achieved detestable failure, alarming passing women (who considered him dangerously drunk) as greatly as his situation distressed himself.

Mrs. Munsey grew more desperate, and drove Hedward to the rear of the house with bitter reviling. Money must be got out of the stock somehow. That a shop could in any circumstances be unremunerative puzzled as much as it dismayed her. The goods were marked down to low prices — often lower than cost. Still Mrs. Munsey had the abiding conviction that the affair must pay, as others did, if only she might hold out long enough. Hedward’s suggestion that he should return to the molding, coming and going as little in sight as possible, she repelled savagely. “A nice notion you’ve got o’ keepin’ up a proper position. You ain’t content with disgracin’ me and yourself too, playin’ the fool in the shop till trade’s ruined an’ nobody won’t come near the place — an’ I don’t wonder at it . . . You’re a nice sort of ‘usband, I must say. What are you goin’ to do now, with the business in this pretty mess, an’ your wife an’ children ready to starve? What are you goin’ to do? Where are you goin’ to turn? That’s what I want to know.”

“Well, I’m a-thinkin’ it out, Marier, in a legal point. Pr’aps, you know, my dear —”

“Oh, don’t dear me. I ‘ate a fool.”

Marked as low as they might be, none of the aprons nor the bows nor the towels nor the stockings nor any other of the goods were bought — never a thing beyond a ha’porth of thread or a farthing bodkin. Rent had to be paid, and even food cost money. There was a flavor of blank disappointment about Saturday — the pay day of less anxious times, and quarter-day, when all these polite young men would demand the money that was not — that day was coming, black and soon. Mrs. Munsey grew more desperate than ever, sharp of feature, and aged. Alone, she would probably have wept. Having Hedward at hand, she poured forth her bitterness of spirit upon him, till at last he was nagged out of his normal stolidity, and there came upon his face the look of a bullock that is harried on all hands through unfamiliar streets.

On a night when, from sheer weariness of soul, she fell from clatter toward sleep, of a sudden Hedward spoke. “Marier —” he said.

“Well

“You ain’t give me a kiss lately. Kiss me now.”

“Don’t be a fool. I’m sick an’ tired. Go to sleep, if you can sleep, with everything —”

“Kiss me, I tell you!” He had never commanded like that before. She marveled, feared a little, and obeyed.

In the morning, when she awoke, he had already gone downstairs. This was as usual. When she followed, however, he was not to be found in the house. The shop shutters had been taken down, and the windows carefully cleaned, although it was not the regular window-cleaning day; but the door was shut. On the sitting-room table were two papers, one within the other. The first was written with many faults and smudges, and this was how it ran:

“the deed and testiment of Ed. Munsey this is to cirtiffy that i make over all my propperty to my beloved wife stock bisness and furnitur so help me god all detts i keep to pay myself and my wife is not ansrable for them and certiffy that IOU Minchin and co 9 pounds 4s. 7 1/2d. Jones and son 6 pound 13s. 2d. and settrer all other detts me and not my wife IOU

“Ed Munsey”

The other was a letter:

“my dear wife i have done this legle dockerment after thinking it out it will make you alrite having all made over and me still oawe the detts not you as you can pull round the bisness as you said with time and if you do not see me again will you pay the detts when it is pull round as we have been allways honnest and straght i should wish for Emma to keep co with John Page if can be mannaged he might be shop walker and you will soon all be rich swels i know so no more from yours affec husband Ed Munsey

“love to Emma and Alice this one must be burnt keep the other”

Near the papers lay Ted Munsey’s large silver watch and chain, the silver ring that he used to fasten his best tie, three keys, and a few coppers. Upstairs the girls began to move about. Mrs. Munsey sat with her frightened face on the table.

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