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I like to think that, whatever the spiritual
issue of it, the attempt cannot fail to do material
good all round. Each gets his dinner by it ; the
catechumen, in the coarser kind of fried fish and
soused gherkin ; the institution that has him in
hand, in choicer fare for the secretaries and
missioners of its staff. A worthy man of my
acquaintance, in that other life I have just left,
reared a family in much comfort and respecta-
bility on his persistent endeavours to bring light
into the mind of the Parsees of the Port of
London. He was in no hurry about it ; they
were in no hurry. He acknowledged subscrip-

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No. 5 John Street

tions and prepared letters for the post all day ;
stuck his last stamp on his last envelope at
4 P.M. ; then, snatching up a pound of salmon,
or other delicacy of the season, from an osier bag
beneath his desk, hurried off to have it dressed
for six o'clock dinner at his villa in the suburbs.
So far as I could ascertain, there had been an
unbroken regularity in his movements for at
least five-and-twenty years. The hansom never
failed to be at the door to take him to the
station ; the family waved welcome from the
lawn as he hove in sight with the provender,
at the close of his well-spent day.

A Scripture reader of the Establishment
regularly visits my neighbour the astronomer.
This inmate, known only to our other neighbour
on the floor as * Holy Joe,' is the model, poor
man, of the fashionable disquisitions on virtue
below stairs. He is pious ; he is disinterested ;
he has an almost slavish respect for his betters,
and a profound sense of the original sin of his
own class. He has cut down his human nature
to its irreducible minimum of aspiration and of
claim. For all his long tale of years, he has
been the spirit that denies the good in itself
He has taken a hard gospel of his own birth-
badge of unworthiness in perfect faith. He is
a member of our national Church, and he has
walked by its law, as laid down from the pulpit
to those who sit in the free seats. He has lived
a life of industry, honesty, temperance, and self-
control, according to the rules. His one prin-

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No. 5 John Street

ciple of conduct is to do without ; and in this
respect he could give points in a match with a
Stoic sage or a boor of provincial France. He
saves on the earnings of a Hindoo ryot. His
touchstone of lawful pleasure is that it shall be
without cost. He never goes to the fair. He
picks up his daily paper from the gutter, and he
likes his very Bible the better because it is to be
had for nothing. He would be worth his weight
in gold on some public platforms whereon I have
sat. A wise Legislature, or, for that matter, a
wise Church, would endow him as an object
lesson in the efficacy of those counsels of per-
fection addressed to his class. He should be the
show fakir of the meetings of the Thrift Society.
There would be only one objection — the public
display of his misery of moroseness might have
no other effect than the exposition of the drunken
helot. All that the company would have before
them would be a broken man, bent with spiritual
privations even more than with age and want,
and a missing link between the sick and solitary
ape and the most piteous developments of anti-
social humanity.

These are but our spiritual agencies, and not
all of them. The grey robes of the Catholic
sisters brush the hem of the garment of the
ministrants of other faiths, as they meet in silent
avoidance of other contact on the stairs. These
again are brushed by the skirts of the Red
Women who glide from floor to floor to distribute
leaflets of convocation to fiery meetings against

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No. 5 John Street

Throne and Altar, and sometimes to supple-
ment the appeal by the charm of polished
manners, and the witchery of smiles. One of
these is just now struggling for the possession
of the virgin soil of Tilda's nature, in competi-
tion with the Watercress and Flower Girls'
Mission, and with the High Church militant
curate, who hopes to black Low Covey's eye.
Tilda's preference, I think, is for the last. She
is understood to regret the social conventions
that prevent her from putting on the gloves
with this champion and taking her chance of
conversion in the good old-fashioned way.

Law and administration have their claims on
our attention, and are as busy with us as the rest.
Now it is the coroner's officer who has come to
verify a rumour of mysterious death. Then it
is a sanitary inspector who is on the track of a
prohibited smell, haply one emanating from an
infectious corpse, kept 'for company,' when it
ought instantly to be put underground. We
side with the corpse. Where so many smells
are lawful, why this rage of persecution against
one ? Such, I think, is the public opinion of
No. 5. We take the part of our malignant
odours, and baffle the agent of authority, as such,
to the best of our power.

The factory inspector has an eye upon I key of
the first floor. But, then, I key has an eye upon
him, and wonderful are his shifts and resources
and his precautions against visits of surprise. At
a moment's notice, he seems able to make the

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No. 5 John Street

plant of his fetid industry vanish as by a touch
of harlequin's wand. While his wife detains the
inspector in parley in the front room, the back is
swiftly transformed into the likeness of a shep-
herd's cot, wherein there is no guile. The toil-
ing infants under age are found at the game of
loto ; the Galician becomes a friend who has just
dropped in for a cigar.

When these embodied worries pass, haply
the School Board officer takes their place, and
prowls among the children at their play to find
one who is not on the books. The children get
their first lessons in lying in their endeavours to
baffle him and his colleagues in authority. They
scent an inquisitor from afar. They are, accord-
ingly, in great demand for purposes of deception
and sordid intrigue. Their air of candour is, as
the bloom on their cheeks, beyond all resources
of art known to their elders. They earn half-
pence by well-told 'bangers.' They are sent out
to lie to the grocer. They are kept in to lie to
the tallyman. When they lie on their own
accord, they are punished with stripes, to make
them understand that deception is sometimes a
breach of faith.

Then we are occasionally raked fore and aft
by the summoning officer for offences committed
in our pursuit of the street trades, or for threaten-
ing language used on our landings, in the war of
floor with floor. And in the wake of the sum-
moning officer lurks often the sinister figure of
the detective in his uniform of pea-jacket and



No. 5 John Street

billycock hat. His coming sends a thrill through
the community ; and you may know, at a glance,
all who have reason to fear him by the swift
flight of the scouts to the several rooms. He
usually moves as straight to his quarry as a
falcon ; and plucking one from our midst, sails off
with him into the void of Law and Order beyond
our ken.

The depleted brood resist but rarely, for to
them the ' tec ' is fate. Their professional
standing may be known by their degrees of
resignation. The amateur of crime has a ten-
dency to waste breath in protest, expostulation,
and denial. With those in the business, never a
needless word is spoken on either side. The
thief- catcher announces his errand; the thief
prepares for instant departure ; and if required,
stretches out his wrists for the handcuffs, and
even helps his captor to adjust them. On the
captor's side, there is a disposition to oblige him
in small matters when he thus keeps a civil
tongue in his head. He is allowed to take his
overcoat, wherewith to supplement the scanty
allowance of bedding in his cell, and to furnish
himself with a few other articles that may tend to
promote his comfort during the period of pre-
ventive detention. They lie ready to hand, for
he lives as one who may be summoned to a
journey to a far country at any time. He moves
into gaol with his little belongings as an old
traveller moves into his hotel. If, by rare
chance, he is in a chatty frame of mind, he may

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No. 5 John Street

venture on some indifferent remark, such as, * It s
a bit chilly o' nights now.' The detective rarely
fails to give him a courteous, though a brief
reply. On both sides they know that the con-
viction is entirely an affair of the science of proof
If the proof is adequate, the arrest will hold
good ; if not, the captive will be at liberty again
in a few days. The deadly calm of it all is
rather sickening, when you see it for the first
time.

The basements are the detective's favourite
hunting ground, though sometimes his discreet
presence may be encountered on the upper stairs.
The thief is the common object of his search, but
on rare and stimulating occasions he has been
known to come to us for a murderer. This
renders us sleepless for a night, and famous for
a day. Within Low Covey's recollection, our
building has been twice pictured in the evening
papers, once with himself smoking at the window
of his room.

The authorities struggle not only with us, but
for us. They are divided against themselves in
the conflict of jurisdictions, and there is some-
times good sport in playing them off one against
another. Their suspicion of us is tempered in
its effects by their mutual jealousies. Thanks to
these, you may sometimes escape them altogether,
while you leave them to fight out a question of
boundary in overlapping areas.

The sum of it all is that beneath this storm-
tossed sea of agencies — legal, religious, moral,

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No. 5 John Street

material, and social, we lead a quiet life wherein
no single soul need be balked of its desires for
beer, for skittles, or the rest. Not one of these
powers has us fairly in its grip. We are as our
masters ; we take ourselves with a liberal allow-
ance ; and, by mere force of imperious need, we
always contrive to give the Devil his due.
Memorandum for the Report : —

' In some instances, sir, I fancy we are the necessary
implication of the pride of life in our betters. We stew
in our degrading poverty, and in the vices which it
breeds, that the others may have a cool time, as well as
a merry one. No. 5 John Street is a sort of domestic
office of the pleasaunces of Mayfair. Olympus itself
(of which, no doubt, your Excellency has heard) has, I
daresay, its back premises. If we knew all, we might
find that its joys involved much drudgery for some
bestial corps of slaves. All these braveries of superior
persons walking clean-footed on the asphodel, and sip-
ping nectar from cups of gold, must lay heavy work
on serving men and scullions somewhere in the rear-
ward part. Behind all earthly pomp, and dignity, and
ease, and godlikeness, as we know, there is ever the
toil-worn drudge. Why not so up there ? We are
lamentably ignorant of the social economy of Paradise.
The Burial Service, quoting Holy Writ, gives us a dis-
creet, though tardy, hint of it in telling us that one star
differeth from another star. I suspect the continued
existence of a band of angels who unwillingly bear the
motto, " Ich dien." Might not this throw new light on
the story of the late revolt in heaven ? Was it mere
pride and envy of unattainable superiority, or was it
not rather a rising of the drudges ? I very much doubt
whether an eminent poet gives the dog's story quite
fairly to the dog.'

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No. 5 John Street



Mem. — Cut out as too fanciful, and work in
something about the following from to-day's
Morning Post : —

' The state train of the Empress Dowager of Russia
is the most splendid thing of its kind ever constructed.
Its decorations and furniture are of surpassing magnifi-
cence. The drawing-room is furnished in rose-coloured
satin, and all the fittings are of silver. The bedroom
is equally sumptuous. The train includes a spacious
kitchen, and it consists of ten huge carriages, all com-
municating, and all lighted by electricity.'



8i



IX

Tilda's tea-party. It has been a charming thing
to look forward to. In my eagerness for it, I am
ready long before the hour, and I sit at my
window counting the strokes of the clock.

I am not without occupation. There is always
something to see, or to hear, in this wonderful
house.

This time it is a wrano-Hno- discussion in the
backyard between '48 and a tailor on the pre-
mises, who, in public life, it appears, is the ninth
of a Conservative working-man. The fraction is
suspected of having money in the bank, and is
not unwilling to bear the imputation. Their
skirmish of to-day is but the friendly snarl of two
curs, who fought a pitched battle yesterday, and
will figfht another to-morrow. Their contests
take place in Hyde Park, where both hold high
rank among the dialecticians of the Marble Arch.
Their minor encounters are but the discussions
of home life. The champion who thinks he had
the best of it in the last bout is usually the first
to appear.

In this instance it was '48. He first drew a
chair outside his shed in the yard, as though to
enjoy the afternoon breeze, and he sat for a while

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No. 5 John Street

surveying the upper windows, not unlike a street
performer waiting for an audience He was pre-
sently joined by the tailor, one of the conventional
stamp, small, and almost as fleshless as an
anatomical preparation. Their meeting did not
preclude the civilities of ordinary social inter-
course. They greeted each other with courtesy
by 'passing the time of day.'

The affectation on both sides is that they meet
by accident. Yet they as deliberately meet by
appointment as pugilists who have come out to
struggle for a belt. The house knows it, and
watches them from its back windows, which, for
the occasion, form seats at the ring side. The
tailor carries his banner in the shape of a Con-
servative paper, which points the moral in
support of Throne and Altar. '48 bears a copy
of a Red Republican news sheet, written, set up,
printed, published, and sold by himself — a marvel
of one-man power in an enterprise which is
usually supposed to exemplify the division of
labour carried to its farthest range.

This journal, if I may be pardoned the
digression, has no circulation, yet it supports '48,
as he supports it. It is bought as a curiosity at
public meetings, and usually by persons who
have in view an inexpensive donation to the
British Museum. Many who purchase it make
the transaction an excuse for offering the pro-
prietor an alms. It has every note of singularity.
It is printed on paper of the texture commonly
used for posters, and of the hue of anaemic blood,

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No. 5 John Street

Its orthography is that of the first standard ;
its syntax aspires to the perfect freedom of
the Anarchical ideal. It is set up from a com-
posite fount suggestive of the clearance of a
jobbing printer's dustbin, and containing so
undue a proportion of capitals that they some-
times have to take service out of their turn at
the end of a word. It might appear to have a
large staff, for no two of its articles are signed by
the same name. ' Brutus ' writes the leader ;
* George Washington ' supplies the reports of
meetings ; ' William Tell ' gives reminiscences of
the Chartist rising ; and ' Cromwell ' acts as agent
for advertisements. To the initiated, however,
these are but so many incarnations of one com-
manding personality. When '48 has written the
entire number, he sets it up. When he has set
it up, he carries it to a hand-printing press, which
Gutenberg would have considered crude. When
the press happens to be in a good humour, he
obtains a copy by the ordinary method. When
it does not, he is still at no loss, for he lays the
formes on the table, and prints each sheet by
pressure of the hand. Earlier difficulties of this
sort were met by the co-operation of his wife,
now deceased. This devoted woman sat on the
formes, and obtained the desired result by the
impact of a mass of corpulency estimated at
fourteen stone. Her death is said to have been
accelerated by a sudden demand for an entire
edition of a hundred and seventy copies descrip-
tive of a riot in Hvde Park. These earlier

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No. 5 John Street

issues are valued by collectors for the extreme
sharpness of the impression.

The combatants, being now in presence, offer
the salute.

' Nice day,' says '48, as the challenger.

' Very,' returns his antagonist. ' We could do
with a little rain, though, for the growin' crops.'

'48's next observation is more to the purpose
of the meeting —

* It won't make no difference to the pore, crops
or no crops, and none to your friends neither.
The R'yal Famerly can always fall back on jam
tarts.'

' And your side won't be much wuss off,' retorts
the tailor with spirit. ' I 'm told there 's plenty
of nourishment in beer.'

' Then I should advise you to treat yourself to
a pint now and then.'

The occupants of the window seats wink at
each other. The battle is joined.

* Do you happen to know the amount of the
drink bill o' this country ? ' asks the tailor.

' No, I don't know, and I don't care.'

' I thought so ; that 's your ignorance. Why,
it 'ud keep fifty Royal Families fifty times over.'

' One 's enough for me. Let 's see — 'ow many
million is it a year ? '

' About half as much as the salaries of the paid
Legislater o' the United States, I fancy ; but I
'aven't exactly worked it out.'

' Bloodsuckers!' ('48) — which means first blood
for the tailor.

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No. 5 John Street

But the clock strikes, and I fly downstairs to
the more congenial society of the fair.

My arrival completes the tea-party, though it
still leaves us a little out of balance as between
Mammy, Tilda, and Nance, on the one hand, and
on the other Covey and myself.

Tilda is attired with distinction. Her skirt is
of magenta cashmere, her bodice of a deep-
blue cotton, dotted with stars, which suggests
distant and hopeless imitation on the part of
the firmament. She wears a brooch of Ger-
man silver, and shoes with pointed toes. Her
handkerchief perfumes the whole room with
lavender — a circumstance to which Covey's
frequent ' Num! num ! num ! ' calls embarrassing
attention.

The meal is of the solid variety — ham sand-
wiches, each nearly an inch thick, bread and jam,
cakes made in the form of hearts, and a formid-
able kind of bun which here circulates under the
name of buster. It is spread in Tilda's room,
which looks very neat for the occasion. Unhap-
pily, the room commands the yard in which the
champions hold their tourney ; and as the window
is open, it is difficult to remain wholly indifferent
to the fortunes of the fight. I speak for myself.
The ladies and Covey do not appear to pay the
slightest attention to the matter. They are as
sound-proof as those who have lived long in the
society of infants, or of the insane. While Tilda,
therefore, is urging polite inquiries as to my ' new
billet,' the voice that really addresses the mind

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No. 5 John Street

as well as the sense is '48's from the yard. It is
toned for contemptuous mimicry.

' The R'yal dinner-party included Lord Buzfuz,
'is Grace the Duke of Fathead, and the Right
Reverend the Lord Bishop o' Lawn Sleeves.
Fust course — Thin soup — match-gal's tears.
Second course — Gudgeon a la Conservative work-
ing-man. Third course — Baked proletarian 'art
stuffed with soft sawder. The band played
durin' dinner — likewise at the expense of the
workin' man.'

The Tailor. * Yes, it 's almost as good as that
feed at Delmoniker's in America, where all the
peaches was wrapped up in hundred-dollar bills.'

• I don't take no stock in America,' cries '48 in
a fury.

' I thought you was a Republican.*

' I 'm a Social Democratic Federation, that 's
what I am, and a Anarshist after that.'

' Come in, old fool,' says a soft voice from the
interior of the shed ; but, for once, the champion
pays no heed.

• • • • •

The tea proceeds with much dignity — with too
much, perhaps, for I am free to confess that I am
still at a loss to find small talk for Tilda, as I was
at our first interview. I seem to dread the mis-
adventure of some compliment that may rouse
her ire. My part in the entertainment, therefore,
is little more than that of a listener. To fill the
void, Nance is called upon to oblige with a song.
She is shy, and she shows a disposition to hide

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No. 5 John Street

behind her hostess. But the Amazon, cruel to
be kind, brings her forward with a stern ' Pipe
up, yer blessid little fool.' It has the desired
effect. Nance, after giving a touch to her pale
auburn hair, veils her blue eyes with lids which,
I should say, shut out but little of the light, and
begins a sort of didactic dirge in three verses,
with a recurrent line of * Farewell, father and
mother, I 'm despised for being pore.' It finds
great favour with the company. The poet has
evidently performed his essential function, by giv-
ing a personal expression to a general experience.
The singer is supposed to be an outcast from an
opulent home, and her wail suggests those rigours
of the struggle for existence which all here have
felt. The earliest and the latest poetry meet on
a common giound of moral purpose. Hesiod
might have been librettist of this lay. The true
stability of the world is to be known by the tastes
and customs of its common folk. At the close
there is a tremor in the voice of Nance ; there is a
tear in Mammy's eye.

It is not a very auspicious opening, and Low
Covey restores the tone of the company by a
selection of bird calls. But, before beginning
them, he takes the wise precaution of closing the
window. It is a marvellous performance, more
especially as it has an air of mystery. The notes
come from a corner, in which the artist has
placed himself with his back to the light. In an
instant the room is filled with the music of the
woods. One bird after another salutes its mate

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No. 5 John Street

In tones high, and clear, and piercing, or tremu-
lous with the passion of summer nights. It is
thrilling and poetical beyond measure. It is also
diverting, in the extraordinary contrast between
the broad-backed ruffian, and the feathered light-
ness and beauty of the bird he feigns.

•Cleverest bird-call in London, bar none,'
whispers Mammy to me, as the applause subsides.
* If he was more genteel-like to look at, he might
make a fortune at the music 'alls. But there, you
can't get him into a black coat. He splits it, if
it's anything of a fit. And, some days, there
ain't a note in 'im.'

She speaks half in pity, half in admiration, as
though the Divine finger had been laid on Covey,
and had oppressed him with its weight. It is
the attitude of all simple natures and simple
races towards genius, or the gift. They reverence
the burden ; they pity the bearer. See a naked
dervish in the East haranguing a crowd that bates
no jot of veneration for him, though it regards
clothing as almost a religious rite. He is not to
be judged by their law ; he has been ' touched.'

Dragons watched the dell in which Confucius
was born. A whole aviary, no doubt, trilled over
the barn wherein, as I should judge, the eyes of
Low Covey first opened on the light. In such
exceptional cases, mere human obligations fall
into the background. The free things of nature
have the prior claim.

• • • • •

The yard is still insistently intrusive — to me,

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No. 5 John Street

at least ; for, unfortunately, the window has been
opened once more. In spite of every effort to
listen to none but my hostess and her friends, I
cannot help hearing this from '48 —

* Do you know what you ought to be ? You
ought to be flunkey to a barrel of oysters. Do
you know what that is ? I '11 tell yen I knowed
a rich man once as made a god of his stummick,
like they all do. He used to employ a feller to
amuse his oysters on their way up to town, so as
to keep 'em in good sperrits. He fancied they
lost flavour when they was dull. The chap had
to whistle tunes to 'em all the way from Whit-
stable. That 's the sort o' berth for you. You 'd
earn more by it than by stitchin' on a shopboard.'

• • • . .

But I shut my eyes ; and this, somehow, helps
me with the other organs. Luckily, Tilda and
Covey are engaged in animated conversation in a
corner.

* You did manage them bird-calls to rights.
'Ow did yer pick 'em up ? '

' When I was out on tramp, summer time.
Lord love yer ! lay down in a wood, an' light yer
pipe, and it comes to yer from every tree. The


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