Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

The Red Cow Group

The Red Cow Anarchist Group no longer exists. Its leading spirit appears no more among his devoted comrades, and without him they are ineffectual.

He was but a young man, this leading spirit (his name, by the bye, was Sotcher) but of his commanding influence among the older but unlettered men about him, read and judge. For themselves, they had long been plunged in a beery apathy, neither regarding nor caring for the fearful iniquities of the social system that oppressed them. A Red Cow group they had always been, before the coming of Sotcher to make anarchists of them, foregathering in a remote compartment of the Red Cow bar reached by a side door in an alley; a compartment uninvaded and almost undiscovered by any but themselves, where night after night they drank their beer and smoked their pipes, sunk in a stagnant ignorance of their manifold wrongs. During the day Old Baker remained to garrison the stronghold. He was a long-bankrupt tradesman, with invisible resources and no occupation but this, and no known lodging but the Red Cow snuggery. There he remained all day and every day, “holding the fort,” as he put it, with his nose, a fiery signal of possession, never two feet from the rim of his pot; while Jerry Shand was carrying heavy loads in Columbia Market; while Gunno Polson was running for a bookmaker in Fleet Street; while Snorkey was wherever his instinct took him, doing whatever paid best, and keeping out of trouble as long as he could; and while the rest of the group — two or three — picked a living out of the London heap in ways and places unspecified. But at evening, they joined Old Baker, and they filled their snuggery.

Their talk was rarely of politics, and never of “social problems”; present and immediate facts filled their whole field of contemplation. Their accounts were kept, and their references to pecuniary matters were always stated, in terms of liquid measure. Thus, fourpence was never spoken of in the common way; it was a quart, and a quart was the monetary standard of the community. Even as twopence was a pint, and eightpence was half a gallon.

It was Snorkey who discovered Sotcher, and it was with Snorkey that that revolutionary appeared before the Red Cow group with his message of enlightenment. Snorkey (who was christened something else that nobody knew or cared about) had a trick of getting into extraordinary and unheard of places in his daily quest of quarts, and he had met Sotcher in a loft at the top of a house in Berners Street, Shadwell. It was a loft where the elect of anarchism congregated nightly, and where everybody lectured all the others. Sotcher was a very young anarchist, restless by reason of not being sufficiently listened to, and glad to find outsiders to instruct and to impress with a full sense of his somber, mystic dare-devilry. Therefore he came to the Red Cow with Snorkey, to spread (as he said) the light.

He was not received with enthusiasm, perhaps because of a certain unlaundered aspect of person remarkable even to them of the Red Cow group. Grease was his chief exterior characteristic, and his thick hair, turning up over his collar, seemed to have lain for long unharried of brush or comb. His face was a sebaceous trickle of long features, and on his hands there was a murky deposit that looked like scales. He wore, in all weathers, a long black coat with a rectangular rent in the skirt, and his throat he clipped in a brown neckerchief that on a time had been of the right anarchist red. But no want of welcome could abash him. Here, indeed, he had an audience, an audience that did not lecture on its own account, a crude audience that might taken him at his own valuation. So he gave it to that crude audience hot and strong. They (and he) were the salt of the earth, bullied, plundered and abused. Down with everything that wasn’t down already. And so forth and so on.

His lectures were continued. Every night it was the same as every other, and each several chapter of his discourse was a repetition of the one before. Slowly the Red Cow group came round. Plainly other people were better off than they; and certainly each man found it hard to believe that anybody else was more deserving than himself.

“Wy are we pore?” asked Sotcher, leaning forward and jerking his extended palm from one to another, as though attempting a hasty collection. “I ask you straight, wy are we pore? Why is it, my frien’s, that awften and awften you find you ain’t got a penny in yer pocket, not for to git a crust o’ bread or ‘alf a pint o’ reasonable refreshment? ‘Ow is it that ‘appens? Agin I ask, ‘ow?”

Snorkey, with a feeling that an answer was expected from somebody, presently murmured, “No mugs,” which encouraged Gunno Polson to suggest. “Backers all stonybroke.” Jerry Shand said nothing, but reflected on the occasional result of a day on the loose. Old Baker neither spoke nor thought.

“I’ll tell you, me frien’s. It’s ‘cos o’ the rotten state o’ s’ciety. Wy d’you allow the lazy, idle, dirty, do-nothing upper classes, as they call ‘emselves, to reap all the benefits o’ your toil wile you slave an’ slave to keep ’em in lukshry an’ starve yerselves? Wy don’t you go an’ take your shares o’ the wealth lyin’ round you?”

There was another pause. Gunno Polson looked at his friends one after another, spat emphatically, and said “Coppers.”

“Becos o’ the bruite force as the privileged classes is ‘edged theirselves in with, that’s all. Becos o’ the paid myrmidons armed an’ kep’ to make slaves o’ the people. Becos o’ the magistrates an’ p’lice. Then wy not git rid o’ the magistrates an’ p’lice? They’re no good, are they? ‘Oo wants ’em, I ask? ‘Oo?”

“They are a noosance,” admitted Snorkey, who had done a little time himself. He was a mere groundling, and persisted in regarding the proceedings as simple conversation, instead of as an oration with pauses at the proper places.

“Nobody wants ’em — nobody as is any good. Then don’t ‘ave ’em, me frien’s — don’t ‘ave ’em! It all rests with you. Don’t ‘ave no magistrates, nor p’lice, nor gover’ment, nor parliament, nor monarchy, nor county council, nor nothink. Make a clean sweep of ’em. Blow ’em up. Then you’ll ‘ave yer rights. The time’s comin’, I tell you. It’s comin’, take my word for it. Now you toil an’ slave; then everybody’ll ‘ave to work, wether ‘e likes it or not, and two hours work a day’ll be all you’ll ‘ave to do.”

Old Baker looked a little alarmed, and for a moment paused in his smoking.

“Two hours a day at most, that’s all; an’ all yer wants provided for, free an’ liberal.” Some of the group gave a lickerish look across the bar. “No a’thority, no gover’ment, no privilege, an’ nothink to interfere. Free contrack between man an’ man, subjict to free revision an’ change.”

“Wot’s that?” demanded Jerry Shand, who was the slowest convert.

“Wy, that,” Sotcher explained, “means that everybody can make wot arrangements with ‘is feller-men ‘e likes for to carry on the business of life, but nothink can’t bind you. You chuck over the arrangement if it suits best.”

“Ah,” said Gunno Polson musingly, rotating his pot horizontally before him to stir the beer; “that ‘ud be ‘andy sometimes. They call it welshin’ now.”

The light spread fast and free, and in a few nights the Red Cow group was a very promising little bed of anarchy. Sotcher was at pains to have it reported at two places west of Tottenham Court Road and at another in Dean Street, Soho, that at last a comrade had secured an excellent footing with a party of the proletariat of East London, hitherto looked on as hopeless material. More: that an early manifestation of activity might be expected in that quarter. Such activity had been held advisable of late, in view of certain extraditions.

And Sotcher’s discourse at the Red Cow turned, lightly and easily, toward the question of explosives. Anybody could make them, he explained; nothing simpler, with care. And here he posed at large in the character of mysterious desperado, the wonder and admiration of all the Red Cow group. They should buy nitric acid, he said, of the strongest sort, and twice as much sulphuric acid. The shops where they sold photographic materials were best and cheapest for these things, and no questions were asked. They should mix the acids, and then add gently, drop by drop, the best glycerine, taking care to keep everything cool. After which the whole lot must be poured into water, to stand for an hour. Then a thick, yellowish, oily stuff would be found to have sunk to the bottom, which must be passed through several pails of water to be cleaned; and there it was, a terrible explosive. You handled it with care, and poured it on brick-dust or dry sand, or anything of that sort that would soak it up, and then it could be used with safety to the operator.

The group listened with rapt attention, more than one pot stopping half-way on its passage mouthward. Then Jerry Shand wanted to know if Sotcher had ever blown up anything or anybody himself.

The missionary admitted that that glory had not been his. “I’m one o’ the teachers, me frien’s — one o’ the pioneers that goes to show the way for the active workers like you. I on’y come to explain the principles an’ set you in the right road to the social revolution, so as you may get yer rights at last. It’s for you to act.”

Then he explained that action might be taken in two ways; either individually or by mutual aid in the group. Individual work was much to be preferred, being safer; but a particular undertaking often necessitated cooperation. But that was for the workers to settle as the occasion arose. However, one thing must be remembered. If the group operated, each man must be watchful of the rest; there must be no half measures, no timorousness; any comrade wavering, temporizing, or behaving in any way suspiciously, must be straightway suppressed. There must be no mistake about that. It was desperate and glorious work, and there must be desperate and rapid methods both of striking and guarding. These things he made clear in his best conspirator’s manner, with nods and scowls and a shaken forefinger, as of one accustomed to oversetting empires.

The men of the Red Cow group looked at each other, and spat thoughtfully. Then a comrade asked what had better be blown up first. Sotcher’s opinion was that there was most glory in blowing up people, in a crowd or at a theater. But a building was safer, as there was more chance of getting away. Of buildings, a public office was probably to be preferred — something in Whitehall, say. Or a bank — nobody seemed to have tried a bank; he offered the suggestion now. Of course there were not many public buildings in the East End, but possibly the group would like to act in their own neighborhood: it would be a novelty, and would attract notice; the question was one for their own decision, independent freedom of judgment being the right thing in these matters. There were churches, of course, and the factories of the bloated capitalist. Particularly, he might suggest the gas-works close by. There was a large gas meter abutting on the street, and probably an explosion there would prove tremendously effective, putting the lights out everywhere, and attracting great attention in the papers. That was glory.

Jerry Shand hazarded a remark about the lives of the men in the gas-works; but Satcher explained that that was a trivial matter. Revolutions were never accomplished without bloodshed, and a few casual lives were not to be weighed in the balance against the glorious consummation of the social upheaval. He repeated his contention, when some weaker comrade spoke of the chance of danger to the operator, and repeated it with a proper scorn of the soft-handed pusillanimity that shrunk from danger to life and limb in the cause. Look at the glory, and consider the hundred-fold vengeance on the enemy in the day to come! The martyr’s crown was his who should die at the post of duty.

His eloquence prevailed; there were murmurs no more. “‘Ere, tell us the name of the stuff agin,” broke out Gunno Polson, resolutely, feeling for a pencil and paper. “Blimy, I’ll make some tomorrer.”

He wrote down the name of the ingredients with much spelling. “Thick, yuller, oily stuff, ain’t it, wot you make?” he asked.

“Yus — an’ keep it cool.”

The group broke up, stern and resolute, and Sotcher strode to his home exultant, a man of power.

For the next night or two the enthusiasm at the Red Cow was unbounded. There was no longer any questioning of principles or action — every man was an eager anarchist — strong and devoted in the cause. The little chemical experiment was going on well, Gunno Polson reported, with confident nods and winks. Sotcher repeated his discourse, as a matter of routine, to maintain the general ardor, which had, however, to endure a temporary checks as the result of a delicate inquiry of Snorkey’s, as to what funds might be expected from headquarters. For there were no funds, said Sotcher, somewhat surprised at the question.

“Wot?” demanded Jerry Shand, opening his mouth and putting down his pipe; “taint’ we goin’ to get nothink for all this?”

They would get the glory, Sotcher assured him, and the consciousness of striking a mighty blow at this, and that, and the other; but that was all. And instantly the faces of the group grew long.

“But,” said Old Baker, “I thought all you blokes always got somethink from the — the committee?”

There was no committee, and no funds; there was nothing but glory, and victory, and triumph, and the social revolution, and things of that kind. For a little, the comrades looked at one another awkwardly, but they soon regained their cheerfulness, with zeal no whit abated. The sitting closed with promises of an early gathering for the next night.

But when the next night came Sotcher was later than usual. “‘Ullo,” shouted Gunno Polson, as he entered, “’ere you are at last. We’ve ‘ad to do important business without you. See,” he added in a lower tone, “’ere’s the stuff!” And he produced an old physic-bottle nearly full of a thick, yellowish fluid.

Sotcher started back half a pace, and slightly paled. “Don’t shake it,” he whispered hoarsely. “Don’t shake it, for Gawd’s sake! . . . Wot — wotjer bring it ’ere for, like that? It’s — it’s awful stuff, blimy.” He looked uneasily about the group, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “I— I thought you’d git the job over soon as the stuff was ready. . . . ‘Ere, my Gawd!” he squeaked under his breath, “don’t put it down ‘ard on the table like that. It’s sich — sich awful stuff.” He wiped his forehead again, and, still standing, glanced once more apprehensively round the circle of impassive faces. Then after a pause, he asked, with an effort: “Wot — wotjer goin’ to do now?”

“Blow up the bleed’n’ gas-works, o’ course,” answered Gunno Polson, complacently. “‘Ere’s a pen’orth o’ silver sand, an’ a ‘bacca canister, an’ some wire, an’ a big cracker with a long touch-paper, so as to stick out o’ the canister-lid. That ought to set it auf, oughtn’t it? ‘Ere, you pour the stuff over the sand, doncher?” And he pulled out the cork and made ready to mix.

“‘Old on —‘old on — don’t! Wait a bit, for Gawd’s sake!” cried Sotcher, in a sweat of terror. “You — you dunno wot awful stuff it is — s’elp me, you don’t. You — you’ll blow us all up if you don’t keep it still. Y— you’ll want some — other things. I’ll go an’—”

But Jerry Shand stood grimly against the door. “This ’ere conspiracy’ll ‘ave to be gawn through proper,” he said. “We can’t ‘ave no waverers nor blokes wot want to clear out in the middle of it, and p’r’aps to go an’ tell the p’lice. Them sort we ‘as to suppress, see? There’s all the stuff there, me lad, an’ you know it. Wot’s more, it’s you as is got to put it up agin the gas-works an’ set it auf.”

The hapless Sotcher turned a yellower pallor and asked faintly: “Me? Wy me?”

“All done reg’lar and proper,” Jerry replied, “‘fore you come. We voted it — by ballot, all square. If you’d ‘a’ come earlier you’d ‘a’ ‘ad a vote yerself.”

Sotcher pushed at Jerry’s shoulder desperately. “I won’t, I won’t!” he gasped. “Lemme go — it ain’t fair — I wasn’t ’ere — lemme go!”

“None o’ yer shovin, young man,” said Jerry, severely. “None o’ yer shovin’, else I’ll ‘ave to punch you on the jore. You’re a bleed’n’ nice conspirator, you are. It’s pretty plain we can’t depend on you, an’ you know wot that means — eh? Doncher? You’re one o’ the sort as to be suppressed, that’s wot it means. ‘Ere, ‘ave a drink o’ this ’ere beer, an’ see if that can’t put a little ‘art in ye. You got to do it, so you may as well do it cheerful. Snorkey, give ’im a drink.”

But the wretched revolutionary would not drink. He sunk in a corner — the furthest from the table where Gunno Polson was packing his dreadful canister — a picture of stupefied affright.

Presently he thought of the bar — a mere yard of counter in an angle of the room, with a screen standing above it — and conceived a wild notion of escape by scrambling over. But scarce had he risen ere the watchful Jerry divined his purpose.

“‘Old ’im, Snorkey,” he said. “Keep ’im in the corner. An’ if ‘e won’t drink that beer, pour it over ‘is ‘ead.”

Snorkey obeyed gravely and conscientiously, and the bedraggled Sotcher, cowed from protest, whined and sobbed desolately.

When all was ready, Jerry Shand said: “I s’pose it’s no good askin’ you to do it willin’, like a man?”

“Oh, let me go. I— I ain’t well — s’elp Me, I ain’t. I— I might do it wrong — an’— an’— I’m a — a teacher — a speaker; not the active branch, se’lp me. Put it auf — for to-night — wait till to-morrer. I ain’t well an’— an’ you’re very ‘ard on me!”

“Desp’rit work, desp’rit ways,” Jerry replied, laconically. “You’re be’avin’ very suspicious, an’ you’re rebellin’ agin the orders o’ the group. There’s only one physic for that, ain’t there, in the rules? You’re got to be suppressed. Question is ‘ow. We’ll ‘ave to kill ’im quiet somehow,” he proceeded, turning to the group. “Quiet an’ quick. It’s my belief ‘e’s spyin’ for the p’lice, an’ want to git out to split on us. Question is ‘ow to do for ’im?”

Sotcher rose, a staring specter. He opened his mouth to call, but there came forth from it only a dry murmur. Hands were across his mouth at once, and he was forced back into the corner. One suggested a clasp-knife at the throat, another a stick in his neckerchief, twisted to throttling-point. But in the end it was settled that it would be simpler, and would better destroy all traces, to dispatch him in the explosion — to tie him to the canister, in fact.

A convulsive moment under the men’s hands decided them to throw more beer on Sotcher’s face, for he seemed to be fainting. Then his pockets were invaded by Gunno Polson, who turned out each in succession. “You won’t ‘ave no use for money where you’re goin’,” he observed, callously; “besides, it ‘ud be blowed to bits an’ no use to nobody. Look at the bloke at Greenwich, ‘ow ‘is things was blowed away. ‘Ullo! ’ere’s two ‘arfcrowns an’ some tanners. Seven an’thrippence altogether, with the browns. This is the bloke wot ‘adn’t got no funds. This’ll be divided on free an’ equal principles to ‘elp pay for that beer you’re wasted. ‘Old up, ol’ man! Think o’ the glory. P’r’aps you’re all right, but it’s best to be on the safe side, an’ dead blokes can’t split to the coppers. An’ you mustn’t forget the glory. You ‘ave to shed blood in a revolution, an’ a few odd lives more or less don’t matter — not a single damn. Keep your eye on the bleed’n’ glory! They’ll ‘ave photos of you in the papers, all the broken bits in a ‘eap, fac-similar as found on the spot. Wot a comfort that’ll be!”

But the doomed creature was oblivious — Prostrate — a swooning heap. They ran a piece of clothes-lines under his elbows, and pulled them together tight. They then hobbled his ankles, and took him among them through the alley down the quiet street, singing and shouting their loudest as they went, in case he might sufficiently recover his powers to call for help. But he did not, and there in the shadow, at the foot of the great gasometer, they flung him down with a parting kick and a barbarous knock on the head, to keep him quiet for those few necessary moments. Then the murderous canister, bound with wire, was put in place; the extruding touch-paper was set going with a match; and the Red Cow Anarchists disappeared at a run, leaving their victim to his fate. Presently the policeman on that beat heard a sudden report from the neighborhood of the gas-works, and ran to see what it might mean.

The next morning Alfred Sotcher was charged at the Thames Police Court as a drunk and incapable. He had been found in a helpless state near the gas-works, and appeared to have been tied at the elbows and ankles by mischievous boys, who had also, it seemed, ignited a cracker nearby where he lay. The divisional surgeon stated that he was called to the prisoner, and found him tearful and incoherent, and smelling strongly of drink. He complained of having been assaulted in a public-house, but could give no intelligible account of himself. A canister found by his side appeared to contain a mixture of sand and castor oil, but prisoner could not explain how it came there. The magistrate fined him five shillings, with the alternative of seven days, and as he had no money he was removed to the cells.

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