Copyright
Richard Whiteing.

No. 5 John street online

. (page 13 of 21)
Online LibraryRichard WhiteingNo. 5 John street → online text (page 13 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


holding of horses, or the running of messages, to
the tripping up of a drunken navvy at large, and
rendering him destitute of the means of further

219



No. 5 John Street

riot by a swift visitation of his pockets. Brute
as he is, he is, as yet, no coward. He has the
saving tenderness for weak things of the mere
outlaw stage of depravity. He would not hurt a
worm, but he would certainly regard the navvy
as fair game. He will settle down occasionally,
as we have seen, to regular labour, but he is quite
orthodox in his view of that state as the primeval
curse. He is ever haunted by the ungenerous
suspicion that when working for fixed wages he is
being * had.' Heseems a product of generations
of inbreeding in nomad idleness. I am not ac-
quainted with the family history, but I strongly sus-
pect that his progenitors were a little overwrought
while helping to create our national industries.
One would incline to the belief that, after some
centuries of profitless discomfort, they suddenly
struck work for ever under the Tudor kings, and
fell into the habit of passing their Mondays with
Mrs. Elinore Rummyng. This hypothesis would
account for the fact that their descendant now
claims a perpetual endowment of idleness, like
the progeny of other founders.

'The fact is, myte,' he says, in a burst of con-
fidence, * I was born tired, an' I don't seem ible
to settle down to this 'ere ring-yer-in in the
mornin', an' ring-yer-out at night. The way
that gal Nance kin do it is a puffeck caution to
me. I bin doin' very well since I see you
raound the Northern cirkit with a show. Might
ha' bin doin' well still, but the gaff was blowed
by a set o' fools. I was one o' these yere wild

220



No. 5 John Street

men, yer know, jest kaught on the coast of Afriky.
'* Walk up, walk up ! " That was the patter —
d' ye foller me ? Lor' ! I know it by 'art. " He
don't speak no language, gentlemen, known in
these parts. His food is carrion. His garmints
is put on for decency, but he goes nakid in the
savij state. If I was allowed to take 'is clothes
off, you 'd see he was tattooed from head to foot
with bear 'unts and the signs o' the Zodiac. He
was a Prince in 'is own country ; and we 'ad
almost to exterminate his devotid followers with
the Maxim gun afore we could git him aboard the
man -o'- war. He has had to be kep' in a cage
ever since. Don't be frightened when you sees
him rattlin' his chains. To prevent accidents, the
attendint will stand by with a drawn sword. He
is partic'larly ferocious at feedin' time, an' he is
jest goin' to 'ave a meal."

' It was good bizness, and when the show was
shut, I washes off the burnt cork, and sits down
to my toke and pipe. But one day, an' a Monday
too, when the coin was rollin' in, up comes half-a-
dozen long-faced coves in black, with a sort of " I-
forbid-the- banns " look all over 'em, an' holds up
their 'ands. " What 's up now ? " says my myte,
as was standin' guard over me with the cutlash —
" We represents the Musselbry branch o' the
Slav'ry Sersiety," says a sort of Amen-curler, as
was at the 'ead on 'em; "an' we demand the
immedjut release of this onhappy bein' under the
laws of Briton." We was crabbed. There was
my chains a clankin' ; and if we 'd said they was

221



No. 5 John Street

took off at night along with the burnt cork, the
mugs might ha' wrecked the show. So Bill tips
me the wink to pretend not to tumble to their
lingo ; and when the turn was over, tells 'em
they must settle the matter with the native.

' " Where does the onhappy bein' come from?"
asks one on 'em.

' " Coast o' Afriky," says William.

'"Which coast?"

' " 'Ow should I know ? Arst 'im yerself."

' ** Can he speak Arrybic ? " says one on 'em,
jabberin' something to me ; but I only shakes my
'ead.

'"Try 'im in Sueely," says another. More
gibberish. Then they changed the bowlin' agin,
an' slings a lot more on it, for all the world like
small shot. It was gettin' okkard, for the gong
was beatin' outside for another turn. "Look here,"
I says, takin' off my chains, and squarin' up to
the interpriter, " what d' ye mean by trying to
prevent a man from earnin' a honest livin'?
Cheese it, an' slide." But they blowed the gaff
as soon 's they went outside. The manigement
had to put up a stuffed mermaid next mornin',
an' I got the shove.'



222



XXII

This new berth is better than the old one. The
other was a mere firm. We are going to be a
Union — ' The Rubber Union of Great Britain and
the Colonies.' Some of the biggest people are
in it — such is the rumour of the factory— and their
names are shortly to be disclosed. As a mere
expectation, I assure you, it is advancement in
the scale of being, and it makes me proud of
my place at the gate. We soothe the bed of
pain with surgical sheetings ; we keep beauty
dry-shod ; we clothe the flying wheel with silence
and with ease ; we are the gentler restraints of
machinery. Moreover, we stand between the
virtuous man and the rain of heaven for the
whole area of the British Isles. At any rate, we
hope to do so. Our Directorate— as yet but a
dark horse — want to buy up all the Rubber in-
terests, and to concentrate them in a great trust.
When that is done, try, if you can, to get so
much as an indiarubber balloon, or an india-
rubber nightingale, in the Lowther Arcade, with-
out our special leave.

We own a town within a town. First comes
London, and then come we — a sort of Imperial

223



No. 5 John Street

city within its own walls. We were once a
suburb, and looked from our battlements upon
green fields. But the town has gradually grown
up to us, and about us, as it does to graveyards,
and now we make the atmosphere for a whole
postal district peopled as thickly to the acre as
the blackest square on Mr. Booth's maps. For,
to tell the truth, as to odours, our offence is some-
what rank, and what we may happen to lack in
ozone we make up for in the vapour of naphtha.
The naphtha begins a quarter of a mile away
from my gate, and within that range the hardiest
flowers have a desperate struggle for existence.
There is not a flea in the factory — I say it with
pride. The mephitic air grows thicker as you
near the buildings, and within them it is a vapour
that leaves no cranny unvisited as it mounts
story by story to the roof. On the topmost
floor we have another and a special infusion of
carbon bi-sulphide, which is given off by the
processes that involve some danger to life. As
the whole combination rises to the sky, it is
enough to make the angels hold their noses ; and
it must cause frequent false alarms there in its
persistent suggestion of a leakage in the roof of
hell.

I stand all day at the gate, and pass
the hundreds in to their daily toil — girls and
women, boys and men. The great factory
absorbs them, and they move to their appointed
places like seamen taking their stations for
battle.

224



No. 5 John Street

Our marvels of applied science begin on the
ground floor. Here we cleanse the raw rubber,
and dissolve it with naphtha, until it becomes a
paste from which we make our miracle pie. This
is the origin of our all-pervading smell. But you
get used to naphtha, as you get used to eau-de-
cologne, and I have known what it is to miss it
when taking a walk in the green fields. In
another part of the establishment we spread the
paste with exquisite uniformity over the delicate
stuffs that form the basis of the fabric. After the
spreading comes the drying. The coated tissues
pass over a heated table, and there you are for
that part of the miracle. Then it goes to another
department. We have already waterproofed our
material in the piece ; we have now to waterproof
it in the joints of the made-up article. So we
paint the seams of our garments, pouches, and
what not, with a solution of naphtha and rubber,
and roll and press them so closely and so evenly,
that no kind of moisture however penetrating —
not even a tear from Pity's eye — could find its
way through. This department, for purposes of
sensational effect, is our great scene. Hundreds
of girls and women — little Nance among them —
stand in the vast room, each with paint-box of
solution, and brush in hand, and lay on the live-
long day. This is one way ; but there are others.
In one of them we smear with carbon bi-sulphide,
and dry the fabric by hanging it up, instead of
passing it over the heated plate. To see this
you must mount to the uppermost story, where
p 225



No. 5 John Street

the men in charge lie at full length along the
roof beams to spread the sheets for the drying,
like so many sailors stretched along the yards.
In regard to their general atmosphere, all these
busy little creatures are, as it were, the fauna of a
naphtha world. It is, in this limited sense, a spirit
world, a world of organisms that live, and
move, and have their being in a medium
which is not atmospheric air, and in a tempera-
ture which is that of the vestibule of a Turkish
bath. It is a great thing to have these wonders
revealed to you without the intervention of the
microscope.

As porter I have no little trouble with the girls.
They are as irregular in attendance as ladies of
the ballet in the season of pantomime. I am
indebted for this comparison to a friend who
keeps the door at Drury Lane. At one moment,
he says, you have your entire court of fairyland
up to the strength ; the next, a whole battalion
of twinkling feet may be decimated by a dinner
party at Richmond ; and a dozen telegrams an-
nouncing- sudden illness indicate the neighbour-
hood of the ' Star and Garter ' as the seat of the
outbreak. The comparison does not hold good
in every point. Our girls seldom make default
in that way.

There is something in the thought that when
our great combine is organised I shall be porter
of the largest establishment of its kind in the
world. For the moment the scheme is suspended.
There is no business of the larger sort to be done

226



No. 5 John Street

at this time of festival ; but the factory is as hard
at it as ever. The demand for waterproofs has
been unprecedentedly large. Who would be
balked of a Jubilee procession by the mischance
of a rainy day ?



227



XXIII

Great Tilda! She is such a change from the
daughters of my parish. She might be scheduled
as big, strong, fierce, cheeky, defiant, untameable,
godless, a mighty woman of her hands. The others,
bless them, are all so very much 'just so.' They
will one day bring their males up to their own
high level ; but meanwhile perfection palls. It is
odiously ungrateful, but there seems no ' bite ' in
their pretty ways, their soft voices, their allusive
turns of phrase. One gets all of a twitter with
it, and feels clean outclassed in a set of proprie-
ties in which there is no chance of taking the lead.
Man can never be but as the shadow to the sub-
stance in this line, and a shadow with a sense of
self-respect is piteous beyond compare. It is no
better when they condescend to one's own level
in the coarser arts. Their slang is baby talk.
Their calculated impertinence is not the real
article. Their double-breasted waistcoats and
sporting ties are but a weariness of the flesh for
them, and of the spirit for the beholder. Their
gaiters lack conviction. In their attempts to talk
Tattersall's or the Stock Exchange, they cannot
be said to play the game.

But this hen of the walk of our slum is really

228



No. 5 John Street

herself in all her effects. Her bad English is
straight from the turbid well. Her manner is no
garment ; it is her very skin. From her cradle,
if she ever had one, she has faced the world, and
fought her way in it to such poor place as she
holds. Who can jaw a copper like Tilda, or
Carney a Covent Garden salesman out of a
bargain, or take the size out of a chaffing swell ?
She is not in the least aware of her perfections in
this kind. They are but parts of her day's work.
To have failed in them would have been simply
to go under in the fierce mellay, whereof the
prizes are a bite, a sup, and a lodging most days
of the year, and a feather for Bank holidays.

I have just this hold on her interest — mystery.
She has deigned to express her belief that there
is a blessid something about me which she can't
make out. Once, to my inexpressible joy, she
went so far as to affirm her conviction that I was
a 'fake.' It might have been offensive in ordi-
nary circumstances, but it showed that I was in
her thoughts. She has questioned me as to what
I am, where I came from, how I came to be here.
Only those who are aware of our well-bred in-
difference, in John Street, to matters that * ain't
no business' of ours can rightly estimate the
compliment. She is prepared, I think, to accept
confidences which show that I was once a shop-
walker, and fell through ' lap,' for which read
' liquor,' or through love. With the spirit of
divination, which is the glory of her sex, she has
discovered that in better days I wore cuffs to my

229



No. 5 John Street

shirt. The appellation of 'The Toff,' which she
has given me, is hardly in keeping with my pre-
sent style, and for this reason I am sometimes
inclined to think it means more than meets the eye.
It would be easy to argue falsely from appear-
ances, and to conclude from her frequent pur-
chases of wedding rings that her sole concern is
the felicity of the married state. It is nothing of
the sort. She puts her savings into these articles,
that is all, and she carries them, for safe keeping,
strung on a ribbon round her neck, and hidden
by her dress. Being unmarried, she cannot, of
course, wear them on her finger. As worn by the
matrons of her class, they erroneously suggest
polyandry carried to the excess of a master-
passion. They are simply stored wealth. The
wedding ring marks the nearest approach to par
value in purchase. But little of its cost is wasted
on manufacture ; it is a band of precious metal
sold by weight. It will pawn for wellnigh that
weiofht in o;old. Nothing: is easier in emergrencies
than to detach a ring from the chaplet and turn
it into something like its original equivalent in
coin of the realm. This is Tilda's effective sub-
stitute for the Post Office Savings Bank, an insti-
tution to which she objects, for two reasons. One
of them is that her scholarship does not enable
her to master the forms of entry ; the other, that
she dislikes the ' 'aughty and overbearin' ways '
— so she is pleased to express it — of the ' young
cats' at the counter, through whose hands they
have to pass.

230



No. 5 John Street

She keeps company with Covey, but it is well
understood in John Street that keeping company
pledges the parties to nothing on either side. It
is a mere trial for the larger venture of an engage-
ment. It is done according to the rules of our
local code of etiquette. To this I can testify. By
a happy chance during my late sojourn, I espied
them one Saturday afternoon from the shade of
a furze bush at Hampstead, observing but not
observed. Tilda was in her second best. Covey
was smartened up. They did not walk together ;
the swain kept some few yards in advance. It is
our accepted order of procession for occasions of
this sort. It preserves the sense of independence,
and tends to confirm the promenade in its char-
acter of a non-committal stroll. To walk side by
side might imply a settled thing. The man went
first as though in accordance with some surviving
idea of leadership in the chase that still admitted
the possibility of a sudden lion in the Vale of
Health. The woman seemed to watch the slender
baggage of the tribe. They were still within
speaking distance, and the scout delivered epi-
grams over his shoulder, while the rear ' chi-hiked'
to call his attention to objects of interest within
her ken. But they spoke rarely. Their sense of
companionship was chiefly visual ; and when they
felt the need of closer communication, it found its
satisfaction in horseplay. The damsel, who, I
cannot deny, gave Covey some encouragement,
now and again stole up to him on tiptoe, struck
him coquettishly with her fist, and then ran away.

231



No. 5 John Street

He gave chase, overtook her, and thumped her
with judgment and discernment in his turn, to the
accompaniment of her shrieks of defiance and
alarm. Theseus and his Hippolyta, I imagine,
courted in this fashion. I am full sure they found
no sufficient relief to their feelings in pulling the
petals of a rose. I followed the elementary love
chase with unspeakable interest, until I saw it
end at ' The Spaniards ' over a tankard of ale.

My appellation of ' The Toff,' I believe, is, in
one point of view, Tilda's tribute to my aristo-
cracy of intellect. I have lately essayed, though
with diffidence, to do something for the improve-
ment of her mind. By infinite cunning and
address, I have obtained permission to walk out
with her — always without prejudice to Covey's
claims. As it rests with me to choose the venue,
I artfully select the public collections and other
elevating institutions of that kind. We have
visited the National Gallery — for the first time in
Tilda's life. She proposed that we should take
nuts with us, but I discouraged it; though I after-
wards caught her nibbling crumbs of cake from
her pocket, as though to fill a void of interest in
the School of Urbino. She was greatly impressed
by the beauty of the staircase, and by the decora-
tion of the rooms, and her first exclamation was,
' O mother, don't the paint make you feel good ! '
I took this to be her untutored tribute to the
way in which the rich glowing colours, in their
entirety, were harmonised by the suffusion of soft
light from the roof Nor was she insensible to

232



No. 5 John Street

the beauties of the collection in detail. Her test
in art of all kinds, I find, is literal truth — veri-
similitude of imitation. She lingered long before
a fruit-and-flower piece, and observed with satis-
faction that there were no grapes of that quality
in the street trade, and that to get them you
must go .to the West End shops. She judged
the most spiritual compositions from this point of
view, and by the simple rule of fixing her atten-
tion on the one accessory she did understand,
and asking herself, or me, if it looked like Nature.
Where the picture failed in this, martyrs aspired
to heaven and angels sang them into glory in
vain. For this reason she was about to reject
the entire school of Florence as unworthy of
attention until she caught sight of a shepherd in
Botticelli's 'Nativity,' whose nose is twisted on one
side in the ardour of an angel's congratulatory
embrace. 'It's the gristly part as gives,' she
remarked simply ; ' I 've seen 'em go jest like
that.' She praised this part of the composition,
but she objected to the parting of the ass's mane
as 'too O.K. for a moke.' Having caught this
critical chill, I am afraid she missed the effect of
the rapture of joy which pervades the entire
work. The school of Venice was scarcely more
fortunate in her esteem, owing to an oversight
of the painter of ' The Family of Darius,' which
led her to condemn one of his accessory figures
as * not much of a monkey.' In contemplating
the artless simplicity of pose, or the oddity of
costume, in some of the earlier works, she with

233



No. 5 John Street

difficulty resisted a temptation to open mockery.
She pronounced the Ulysses of Pinturicchio a
' cure ' ; and at sight of the Jan Arnolfini and
his lady, she frankly gave way, taunted the
male figure on the shape of his hat, and indulged
in a fit of laughter which drew upon us a severe
glance of the attendant. A neighbouring Venus
and Adonis seemed to excite her indignation,
and she turned from it, muttering that the painter
'ought to have had a month.' My look of dis-
appointment seemed to strike her with remorse
for a certain want of gratitude on her part. She
sought to right herself, therefore, by remarks of
an appreciative nature, by which I was infinitely
touched. If they were not very much to the pur-
pose, they were certainly well meant. Thus, in
Bellini's * St. Jerome in his Study,' she commended
the extremely lifelike drawing of the shoes ; and
her entirely favourable verdict on the immortal
' Virgin and Child ' of the Florentine master was,
' He do seem to enjoy hisself, no kid ! ' — in un-
mistakable reference to the energy of the infant
in the act of nutrition.

But she atoned for all these mistakes by her
behaviour before the great Pieta of Francia. She
paid an unforced tribute of awe to its majesty of
sorrow by standing perfectly still before it for
five minutes, without either eating a sweetmeat
or speaking a word.

She lingered for some time, too, before the
'Annunciation' of Filippo Lippi, but it was for
another reason. The angel, she said, was 'the

234



No. 5 John Street

very picture of Nance.' She seemed conscience-
struck by the reflection that she was enjoying
herself when she ought to have been taking that
' pore httle dear ' out for a drive on a 'bus, to cure
her of a persistent sick headache with which she
had been troubled of late. This thought seemed
to haunt and worry her — very much to her
honour it seemed to me — until I set her mind at
rest by promising to take them both to Hamp-
stead on the following Sunday.

I was less fortunate in contributing to either
her pleasure or her edification by a visit to a
Monday Popular Concert. In treating her, at
some personal sacrifice, to the shilling seats, I
acted on the accepted principle that the people
have only to hear good music to love it. She
listened to several masterpieces, but without the
expected result. In the Beethoven Quartette,
No. 5, for instance, I could perceive that she
made most determined efforts to ' catch the tune,'
at first by swaying her head to and fro, and then,
as she seemed to feel the prize in her grasp, by
a slight, yet distinctly audible, movement of the
feet. These, however, presently ceased, and
their silence was eloquent of her disappointment.
Some fragment of what she sought seemed to
come to her for a moment in the last variation.
But with the concluding bars it eluded her once
more, and the magnificent composition was scarcely
finished, when she rose angrily from her seat,
and with the expression, ' Let 's chuck it ; they
must think us mugs,' hastily left the building.

235



No. 5 John Street

She was crimson, both with wrath and with
shame, when we gained the street, and I thought
I had never seen her more charming ; but I
feigned to be unaware of her distress. Her
repentance — manifestly for her want of breeding,
though not a word on the subject was said on
either side — was most touching. She offered,
with downcast eyes, to treat me to the neigh-
bouring music hall at her own expense, no
doubt as a sort of indemnity for my cash out of
pocket by Beethoven's failure to please. I found
an excuse for declining, and we walked home
together in great amity. On our way through
the Circus, she showed me her place of business
on the steps of the fountain, and asked me to
call at any time I might happen to pass. Alto-
gether, it was a great step gained.

We were entirely successful with a series of
half-hours with the best authors, which I organ-
ised for her benefit at home. Warned by experi-
ence, I gave up my first thought of beginning
with a selection from Browning's Paracelsus, and
I led her straight into the rose-garden of The
Arabian Nights. She was particularly anxious
at the outset to have her doubts as to the
author's good faith cleared up. She could stand
a lie, she was pleased to say, as well as anybody ;
but she added, somewhat illogically, that she
didn't like the feller as told it to pretend it was
the truth. I assured her that she was quite
warranted in saying that she didn't believe ' a
blessed word of it,' and, with this, she settled

236



No, 5 John Street

down to the enjoyment of that exquisite book.
Her remarks showed much natural penetration.
They sometimes threw a Hght on the present
condition of Asia Minor — not to say on the
whole Eastern Question — as when she ventured
the opinion that the people didn't 'seem to do
much work out there.' A scene of cruelty and
ferocity drew from her the observation that ' they
don't call 'em Turks for nothin',' in which, how-
ever, it was impossible to suspect her of plagi-
arism. Oddly enough, the scenes of luxury and
splendour seemed sometimes to have a moral
effect on her. For this reason, the following


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryRichard WhiteingNo. 5 John street → online text (page 13 of 21)