The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXI

John Crumb Falls into Trouble

It was on a Friday evening, an inauspicious Friday, that poor Ruby Ruggles had insisted on leaving the security of her Aunt Pipkin’s house with her aristocratic and vicious lover, in spite of the positive assurance made to her by Mrs Pipkin that if she went forth in such company she should not be allowed to return. ‘Of course you must let her in,’ Mrs Hurtle had said soon after the girl’s departure. Whereupon Mrs Pipkin had cried. She knew her own softness too well to suppose it to be possible that she could keep the girl out in the streets all night; but yet it was hard upon her, very hard, that she should be so troubled. ‘We usen’t to have our ways like that when I was young,’ she said, sobbing. What was to be the end of it? Was she to be forced by circumstances to keep the girl always there, let the girl’s conduct be what it might? Nevertheless she acknowledged that Ruby must be let in when she came back. Then, about nine o’clock, John Crumb came; and the latter part of the evening was more melancholy even than the first. It was impossible to conceal the truth from John Crumb. Mrs Hurtle saw the poor man and told the story in Mrs Pipkin’s presence.

‘She’s headstrong, Mr Crumb,’ said Mrs Hurtle.

‘She is that, ma’am. And it was along wi’ the baronite she went?’

‘It was so, Mr Crumb.’

‘Baro-nite! Well; — perhaps I shall catch him some of these days; — went to dinner wi’ him, did she? Didn’t she have no dinner here?’

Then Mrs Pipkin spoke up with a keen sense of offence. Ruby Ruggles had had as wholesome a dinner as any young woman in London — a bullock’s heart and potatoes — just as much as ever she had pleased to eat of it. Mrs Pipkin could tell Mr Crumb that there was ‘no starvation nor yet no stint in her house.’ John Crumb immediately produced a very thick and admirably useful blue cloth cloak, which he had brought up with him to London from Bungay, as a present to the woman who had been good to his Ruby. He assured her that he did not doubt that her victuals were good and plentiful, and went on to say that he had made bold to bring her a trifle out of respect. It was some little time before Mrs Pipkin would allow herself to be appeased; — but at last she permitted the garment to be placed on her shoulders. But it was done after a melancholy fashion. There was no smiling consciousness of the bestowal of joy on the countenance of the donor as he gave it, no exuberance of thanks from the recipient as she received it. Mrs Hurtle, standing by, declared it to be perfect; — but the occasion was one which admitted of no delight. ‘It’s very good of you, Mr Crumb, to think of an old woman like me — particularly when you’ve such a deal of trouble with a young un’.’

‘It’s like the smut in the wheat, Mrs Pipkin, or the d’sease in the ‘tatoes; — it has to be put up with, I suppose. Is she very partial, ma’am, to that young baronite?’ This question was asked of Mrs Hurtle.

‘Just a fancy for the time, Mr Crumb,’ said the lady.

‘They never thinks as how their fancies may wellnigh half kill a man!’ Then he was silent for a while, sitting back in his chair, not moving a limb, with his eyes fastened on Mrs Pipkin’s ceiling. Mrs Hurtle had some work in her hand, and sat watching him. The man was to her an extraordinary being — so constant, so slow, so unexpressive, so unlike her own countrymen — willing to endure so much, and at the same time so warm in his affections! ‘Sir Felix Carbury!’ he said. ‘I’ll Sir Felix him some of these days. If it was only dinner, wouldn’t she be back afore this, ma’am?’

‘I suppose they’ve gone to some place of amusement,’ said Mrs Hurtle.

‘Like enough,’ said John Crumb in a low voice.

‘She’s that mad after dancing as never was,’ said Mrs Pipkin.

‘And where is it as ’em dances?’ asked Crumb, getting up from his chair, and stretching himself. It was evident to both the ladies that he was beginning to think that he would follow Ruby to the music hall. Neither of them answered him, however, and then he sat down again. ‘Does ’em dance all night at them places, Mrs Pipkin?’

‘They do pretty nearly all that they oughtn’t to do,’ said Mrs Pipkin. John Crumb raised one of his fists, brought it down heavily on the palm of his other hand, and then sat silent for awhile.

‘I never knowed as she was fond o’ dancing,’ he said. ‘I’d a had dancing for her down at Bungay — just as ready as anything. D’ye think, ma’am, it’s the dancing she’s after, or the baro-nite?’ This was another appeal to Mrs Hurtle.

‘I suppose they go together,’ said the lady.

Then there was another long pause, at the end of which poor John Crumb burst out with some violence. ‘Domn him! Domn him! What ‘ad I ever dun to him? Nothing! Did I ever interfere wi’ him? Never! But I wull. I wull. I wouldn’t wonder but I’ll swing for this at Bury!’

‘Oh, Mr Crumb, don’t talk like that,’ said Mrs Pipkin.

‘Mr Crumb is a little disturbed, but he’ll get over it presently,’ said Mrs Hurtle.

‘She’s a nasty slut to go and treat a young man as she’s treating you,’ said Mrs Pipkin.

‘No, ma’am; — she ain’t nasty,’ said the lover. ‘But she’s crou’ll — horrid crou’ll. It’s no more use my going down about meal and pollard, nor business, and she up here with that baro-nite — no, no more nor nothin’! When I handles it I don’t know whether its middlings nor nothin’ else. If I was to twist his neck, ma’am, would you take it on yourself to say as I was wrong?’

‘I’d sooner hear that you had taken the girl away from him,’ said Mrs Hurtle.

‘I could pretty well eat him — that’s what I could. Half past eleven; is it? She must come some time, mustn’t she?’ Mrs Pipkin, who did not want to burn candles all night long, declared that she could give no assurance on that head. If Ruby did come, she should, on that night, be admitted. But Mrs Pipkin thought that it would be better to get up and let her in than to sit up for her. Poor Mr Crumb did not at once take the hint, and remained there for another half-hour, saying little, but waiting with the hope that Ruby might come. But when the clock struck twelve he was told that he must go. Then he slowly collected his limbs and dragged them out of the house.

‘That young man is a good fellow,’ said Mrs Hurtle as soon as the door was closed.

‘A deal too good for Ruby Ruggles,’ said Mrs Pipkin. ‘And he can maintain a wife. Mr Carbury says as he’s as well to do as any tradesman down in them parts.’

Mrs Hurtle disliked the name of Mr Carbury, and took this last statement as no evidence in John Crumb’s favour. ‘I don’t know that I think better of the man for having Mr Carbury’s friendship,’ she said.

‘Mr Carbury ain’t any way like his cousin, Mrs Hurtle.’

‘I don’t think much of any of the Carburys, Mrs Pipkin. It seems to me that everybody here is either too humble or too overbearing. Nobody seems content to stand firm on his own footing and interfere with nobody else.’ This was all Greek to poor Mrs Pipkin. ‘I suppose we may as well go to bed now. When that girl comes and knocks, of course we must let her in. If I hear her, I’ll go down and open the door for her.’

Mrs Pipkin made very many apologies to her lodger for the condition of her household. She would remain up herself to answer the door at the first sound, so that Mrs Hurtle should not be disturbed. She would do her best to prevent any further annoyance. She trusted Mrs Hurtle would see that she was endeavouring to do her duty by the naughty wicked girl. And then she came round to the point of her discourse. She hoped that Mrs Hurtle would not be induced to quit the rooms by these disagreeable occurrences. ‘I don’t mind saying it now, Mrs Hurtle, but your being here is ever so much to me. I ain’t nothing to depend on — only lodgers, and them as is any good is so hard to get!’ The poor woman hardly understood Mrs Hurtle, who, as a lodger, was certainly peculiar. She cared nothing for disturbances, and rather liked than otherwise the task of endeavouring to assist in the salvation of Ruby. Mrs Hurtle begged that Mrs Pipkin would go to bed. She would not be in the least annoyed by the knocking. Another half-hour had thus been passed by the two ladies in the parlour after Crumb’s departure. Then Mrs Hurtle took her candle and had ascended the stairs half way to her own sitting-room, when a loud double knock was heard. She immediately joined Mrs Pipkin in the passage. The door was opened, and there stood Ruby Ruggles, John Crumb, and two policemen! Ruby rushed in, and casting herself on to one of the stairs began to throw her hands about, and to howl piteously. ‘Laws a mercy; what is it?’ asked Mrs Pipkin.

‘He’s been and murdered him!’ screamed Ruby. ‘He has! He’s been and murdered him!’

‘This young woman is living here; — is she?’ asked one of the policemen.

‘She is living here,’ said Mrs Hurtle. But now we must go back to the adventures of John Crumb after he had left the house.

He had taken a bedroom at a small inn close to the Eastern Counties Railway Station which he was accustomed to frequent when business brought him up to London, and thither he proposed to himself to return. At one time there had come upon him an idea that he would endeavour to seek Ruby and his enemy among the dancing saloons of the metropolis; and he had asked a question with that view. But no answer had been given which seemed to aid him in his project, and his purpose had been abandoned as being too complex and requiring more intelligence than he gave himself credit for possessing. So he had turned down a street with which he was so far acquainted as to know that it would take him to the Islington Angel — where various roads meet, and whence he would know his way eastwards. He had just passed the Angel, and the end of Goswell Road, and was standing with his mouth open, looking about, trying to make certain of himself that he would not go wrong, thinking that he would ask a policeman whom he saw, and hesitating because he feared that the man would want to know his business. Then, of a sudden, he heard a woman scream, and knew that it was Ruby’s voice. The sound was very near him, but in the glimmer of the gaslight he could not quite see whence it came. He stood still, putting his hand up to scratch his head under his hat — trying to think what, in such an emergency, it would be well that he should do. Then he heard the voice distinctly, ‘I won’t; — I won’t,’ and after that a scream. Then there were further words. ‘It’s no good — I won’t.’ At last he was able to make up his mind. He rushed after the sound, and turning down a passage to the right which led back into Goswell Road, saw Ruby struggling in a man’s arms. She had left the dancing establishment with her lover; and when they had come to the turn of the passage, there had arisen a question as to her further destiny for the night. Ruby, though she well remembered Mrs Pipkin’s threats, was minded to try her chance at her aunt’s door. Sir Felix was of opinion that he could make a preferable arrangement for her; and as Ruby was not at once amenable to his arguments he had thought that a little gentle force might avail him. He had therefore dragged Ruby into the passage. The unfortunate one! That so ill a chance should have come upon him in the midst of his diversion! He had swallowed several tumblers of brandy and water, and was therefore brave with reference to that interference of the police, the fear of which might otherwise have induced him to relinquish his hold of Ruby’s arm when she first raised her voice. But what amount of brandy and water would have enabled him to persevere, could he have dreamed that John Crumb was near him? On a sudden he found a hand on his coat, and he was swung violently away, and brought with his back against the railings so forcibly as to have the breath almost knocked out of his body. But he could hear Ruby’s exclamation, ‘If it isn’t John Crumb!’ Then there came upon him a sense of coming destruction, as though the world for him were all over; and, collapsing throughout his limbs, he slunk down upon the ground.

‘Get up, you wiper,’ said John Crumb. But the baronet thought it better to cling to the ground. ‘You sholl get up,’ said John, taking him by the collar of his coat and lifting him. ‘Now, Ruby, he’s a-going to have it,’ said John. Whereupon Ruby screamed at the top of her voice, with a shriek very much louder than that which had at first attracted John Crumb’s notice.

‘Don’t hit a man when he’s down,’ said the baronet, pleading as though for his life.

‘I wunt,’ said John; —‘but I’ll hit a fellow when un’s up.’ Sir Felix was little more than a child in the man’s arms. John Crumb raised him, and catching him round the neck with his left arm — getting his head into chancery as we used to say when we fought at school — struck the poor wretch some half-dozen times violently in the face, not knowing or caring exactly where he hit him, but at every blow obliterating a feature. And he would have continued had not Ruby flown at him and rescued Sir Felix from his arms. ‘He’s about got enough of it,’ said John Crumb as he gave over his work. Then Sir Felix fell again to the ground, moaning fearfully. ‘I know’d he’d have to have it,’ said John Crumb.

Ruby’s screams of course brought the police, one arriving from each end of the passage on the scene of action at the same time. And now the cruellest thing of all was that Ruby in the complaints which she made to the policemen said not a word against Sir Felix, but was as bitter as she knew how to be in her denunciations of John Crumb. It was in vain that John endeavoured to make the man understand that the young woman had been crying out for protection when he had interfered. Ruby was very quick of speech and John Crumb was very slow. Ruby swore that nothing so horrible, so cruel, so bloodthirsty had ever been done before. Sir Felix himself when appealed to could say nothing. He could only moan and make futile efforts to wipe away the stream of blood from his face when the men stood him up leaning against the railings. And John, though he endeavoured to make the policemen comprehend the extent of the wickedness of the young baronet, would not say a word against Ruby. He was not even in the least angered by her denunciations of himself. As he himself said sometimes afterwards, he had ‘dropped into the baronite’ just in time, and, having been successful in this, felt no wrath against Ruby for having made such an operation necessary.

There was soon a third policeman on the spot, and a dozen other persons, cab-drivers, haunters of the street by night, and houseless wanderers, casuals who at this season of the year preferred the pavements to the poorhouse wards. They all took part against John Crumb. Why had the big man interfered between the young woman and her young man? Two or three of them wiped Sir Felix’s face, and dabbed his eyes, and proposed this and the other remedy. Some thought that he had better be taken straight to an hospital. One lady remarked that he was so mashed and mauled that she was sure he would never ‘come to’ again. A precocious youth remarked that he was ‘all one as a dead un’.’ A cabman observed that he had ‘‘ad it awful ‘eavy.’ To all these criticisms on his condition Sir Felix himself made no direct reply, but he intimated his desire to be carried away somewhere, though he did not much care whither.

At last the policemen among them decided upon a course of action. They had learned by the united testimony of Ruby and Crumb that Sir Felix was Sir Felix. He was to be carried in a cab by one constable to Bartholomew Hospital, who would then take his address so that he might be produced and bound over to prosecute. Ruby should be even conducted to the address she gave — not half a mile from the spot on which they now stood — and be left there or not according to the account which might be given of her. John Crumb must be undoubtedly locked up in the station-house. He was the offender; — for aught that any of them yet knew, the murderer. No one said a good word for him. He hardly said a good word for himself, and certainly made no objection to the treatment that had been proposed for him. But, no doubt, he was buoyed up inwardly by the conviction that he had thoroughly thrashed his enemy.

Thus it came to pass that the two policemen with John Crumb and Ruby came together to Mrs Pipkin’s door. Ruby was still loud with complaints against the ruffian who had beaten her lover — who, perhaps, had killed her loved one. She threatened the gallows, and handcuffs, and perpetual imprisonment, and an action for damages amidst her lamentations. But from Mrs Hurtle the policemen did manage to learn something of the truth. Oh yes; — the girl lived there and was — respectable. This man whom they had arrested was respectable also, and was the girl’s proper lover. The other man who had been beaten was undoubtedly the owner of a title; but he was not respectable, and was only the girl’s improper lover. And John Crumb’s name was given. ‘I’m John Crumb of Bungay,’ said he, ‘and I ain’t afeared of nothin’ nor nobody. And I ain’t a been a drinking; no, I ain’t. Mauled un’! In course I’ve mauled un’. And I meaned it. That ere young woman is engaged to be my wife.’

‘No, I ain’t,’ shouted Ruby.

‘But she is,’ persisted John Crumb.

‘Well then, I never will,’ rejoined Ruby.

John Crumb turned upon her a look of love, and put his hand on his heart. Whereupon the senior policeman said that he saw at a glance how it all was, but that Mr Crumb had better come along with him just for the present. To this arrangement the unfortunate hero from Bungay made not the slightest objection.

‘Miss Ruggles,’ said Mrs Hurtle, ‘if that young man doesn’t conquer you at last you can’t have a heart in your bosom.’

‘Indeed and I have then, and I don’t mean to give it him if it’s ever so. He’s been and killed Sir Felix.’ Mrs Hurtle in a whisper to Mrs Pipkin expressed a wicked wish that it might be so. After that the three women all went to bed.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43