Low-Life Deeps/Chapter 17

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Low-Life Deeps by James Greenwood
Chapter 17: A Night with "Old Tom"

MY knowledge of Old Tom is not of long standing. Indeed, for reasons which will presently appear, it may be as well for me at once to state that I have no desire that our acquaintance should ripen into friendship or even familiarity. Insinuating ways has ancient Thomas, and he is eagerly hailed and heartily welcomed as the boon companion and bosom comforter of an extraordinarily large circle of admirers, but, having obtained an insight into his manner of dealing with those who confide in him, I feel no scruples in declaring, that brief as was our intimacy, it was quite long enough for me, and further that I shall not hesitate to give him the cold shoulder should chance ever again bring us together.

For a considerable time I knew Tom only by name, though it was no secret to me that he was aged. Perhaps it was his candour in this respect which first induced me to feel an interest in him scarcely warranted by his ungenteel manner of existence. He resided at a public-house, not a quiet hotel or even a well-conducted tavern, but a gin-palace in one of the most squalid and densely populated parts of London, and doing a business aptly described by the "trade" term roaring. He appeared to take a vulgar delight in letting everybody know that he lived there. In each of the great plate-glass windows appeared a placard, on which, in foot long letters, was printed the words Old Tom. When the said placard grew fly-spotted and dirty, it was replaced by another spick and span new, so that it was evident that he was a permanent tenant. He was not the landlord of the "Jolly Sandboys" however. The proprietor of the roaring gin-palace was T. Whiffler. "T. Whiffler licensed to deal in beer and spirits to be drunk on the premises," was to be found for the seeking in the attenuated characters prescribed by the law over the principal doorway.

"T. Whiffler's noted stores," shone resplendently in green and gold, on each of the gorgeous pendant out-side lamps. Who then was Old Tom, and what was the nature of his connection with T. Whiffler of the "Jolly Sandboys," that he could claim to flaunt his name so obtrusively? I often wondered, and probably should have gone on wondering until this day, but for the following occurrence.

Happening just lately, to be in the neighbourhood of the "Sandboys," my eyes involuntarily sought Old Thomas's sign - but it had vanished. In place of it there appeared the elaborately coloured figure of a ferocious, sleek, and well-fed domestic grimalkin, mounted on a barrel, and spitting so spitefully that his rearmost grinders were plainly visible. The back of the animal was arched, its tail bushy, and one of its paws raised in the act of scratching, revealed a row of bare talons sharp as needle points. On the barrel on which puss was perched was inscribed "Whiffler's matchless Old Tom, the best gin in London." In an instant the scales fell from my eyes - the cat was out. Thomas the elder was not, as I had supposed, a fellow creature - he was not a human being at all. Old Tom was merely the cognomen of an animal, which on account of its fiery nature and the sharp and lasting effects of its teeth and claws on all who dared to venture on a bout with it, had been selected as being aptly emblematic of the potent liquid called gin. The fact, however, of Old Tom existing not in the flesh, but only in the spirit, was evidently " all as one" with its host of admirers. Even while I stood for a few moments contemplating the savage creature on the tub, and marvelling at the boldness of distillers and publicans who could venture so frankly to declare the nature of the wares in which they dealt, there approached the portals of the "Jolly Sandboys," two women, each with a marketing basket on her arm.

"Well, what do you say?" one remarked, "shall we wet t'other eye?"

"Right you are," returned her companion, "but, good luck to ye; Annie, let it be Old Tom; don't let us mix it," and straight-way in they went.

There came along within half-a-minute two other women and a man, the dirtiness of whose attire betokened the drudgery to which they were doomed that they might earn a living.

"Old Tom, of course," said the man pausing at the threshold.

"Yes, that's the ticket," replied one of the women, and the three customers, like the two that preceded them vanished from sight.

It was on a Saturday, and as the doors or jaws of the "Sandboys," kept ajar by a spring and a strap, oscillated waggishly, after having swallowed the last catch, there occurred to me the following arithmetical riddle - if at noon five customers enter a public-house in the course of fifty seconds, how many will follow suit, in the same time, when the gas is ablaze and the regular evening tide of trade sets fairly in? Clearly it was a calculation from which Old Tom could not be excluded. So much would depend on the popularity of that subtle seducer. According to Mr. Whiffler, his Old Tom was a spirit possessing very uncommon and superior powers of attraction, and able on that account to draw the public much more effectually than a spirit of weaker capacity and influence. The only satisfactory way of arriving at anything like a correct solution of the problem would be to test it by the light of personal experience, so there and then I resolved that it should be done, that I would return to the "Jolly Sandboys" as soon after dark that Saturday night as might be convenient.

Five hours afterwards I was again an occupant of the "private compartment." Had Old Tom been a saint and martyr, and this his shrine, the motley crowd that clustered round the highly polished metal counter could not have exhibited more desperate anxiety and eagerness to do him honour. It was, however, evident at a glance, that the majority were not pilgrims from afar; indeed, as regards the female portion, the fact of their being, for the most part, without either bonnet or shawl, favoured the assumption that they were residents of the immediate locality. As for the men, they were, with few exceptions, of the labouring class, individuals whose attire was of the flannel or fustian order, and branded from boots to neckerchief with the various "trade marks which unmistakably denoted their occupation. The lime-splashed plasterer, the engineer smeared with lathe-oil and iron filings, the navvy with his clay smirched cap and smock, and almost enough of mother earth encumbering his mighty ankle-jacks to entitle him to a county vote as a landowner, the shoemaker with his blunt black finger nails, and his scrubby beard, and that roseate tinge of nose, popularly, though erroneously ascribed to an insatiable thirst for alchoholic pottage, and really, if the word of many doughty men of leather may be taken, the result of constant stooping over their work and consequent attacks of determination of blood to the head; these and a dozen others-not forgetting that most pitiable object of all the poor neighbourhoods, London journeyman baker.

I am not disposed to go the length of altogether denying the possibility, but certainly my opportunities of observation on the evening in question coupled with previous experience warrant me in gravely doubting whether it is in the nature of a journeyman baker - an old "night-hand" - to get drunk as do other men. He does not appear to be a creature of flesh and blood. He seems as though he was stuffed with flour, which silts through the pores of his skin as mankind in general exude perspiration-provoking the absurd fancy that if you were to hang up and beat a baker as a carpet is beaten the ultimate result, when the floury clouds had cleared away, would appear in the shape of a shrivelled epidermis, empty, save for a few bones, brittle and broken, and of the consistence of a Captain's biscuit. There were two of the unfortunate workmen in question drinking at the bar of the Jolly Sandboys. That they had but just left work was evident from the mealiness of their jackets and their slow, dull eyes, aching for want of sleep. They were elderly men both, and their faces were well lined with age, and having to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow in a floury atmosphere, had imparted to their countenances the strange appearance of being made up of irregular bits neatly fitted together like the pieces of a child's puzzle. The two melancholy old bakers did not drink in company with the other drinkers, but worshipped Old Tom with the haggard and almost hopeless aspect of men who were aware that it was as idle to expect a kindling of their depressed spirits by means of swallowing gin as to endeavour to ignite damp wood with a single lucifer match. All round about them the jolly tipplers lit up anew every time they added fresh fuel to the already brisk conflagration within them, but the pair of drouthy old bakers did not mellow in the least, even when, between them they had emptied three quartern measures. It was like throwing glasses of water on a sand heap the gin they swallowed, and there appeared not the least indication of their "clay" being a bit moister at the conclusion than at the commencement of their endeavours. Goodness knows what they were there at all for. Not for the sake of jolly companionship certainly, for to my knowledge not one glass of the dozen or so they shared was emptied with "A good health to you," or even the briefer and commoner "Here's luck." If they had a sorrow to drown their labour was evidently in vain. They might as well have tried to drown a taxable puppy by throwing cups of water over him. Their sorrow, if they had one, was not to be stifled in gin; it was rather as though every mouthful of the hot liquid swallowed down upon it scalded it and made it wriggle anew. The more they drank the more abject they looked. Of course I could not keep them in sight the whole time, still I can answer for it that they never once laughed or smiled even with any degree of heartiness. Had they done so I could scarcely have missed the fact. The dough plastering which filled up their wrinkles must inevitably have become fractured in the process, whereas, to the very last it remained intact. They were not even stimulated to animated conversation. All through the hour they remained there, they stood leaning over a beer barrel, and talking in husky whispers. But once they spoke aloud, and that was when the third measure had been drained dry.

Said one old baker to the other, "That's a bad kind of pimple you've got aside o' your nose,"

"Ha!" replied his friend, "he get's bigger, I think," and he chafed the affliction ruefully with the length of his floury forefinger.

"Erysipelas I shouldn't wonder," remarked the first speaker, whereon they both sighed heavily, and with a gloomy glance around them took their departure.

Not that the instances furnished by the two absorbent bakers were the only ones which, during that instructive evening with Old Tom, came under my notice of the individuals of the gin drinking order, who, with all the willingness in the world to drink, were denied the blissful consummation of drunkenness. This would appear to be an affliction peculiar to persistent imbibers of a distillation of the juniper berry. In all the indictments which have been laid against John Barleycorn, it has never yet been said of him, by his worst enemy, that he turned traitor against those who put their trust in him. Whatever his "colours" may be - brown, black, or golden, he is staunch to them - the same yesterday, to-day, to-morrow. As much certainly cannot be said for Old Tom. Like the creature from which he derives his name, he is treacherous, and apt, not unfrequently, to take a malicious delight in leaving his friends in the lurch when they are most in need of him, and one can scarcely imagine a more melancholy spectacle than is presented by the poor wretch who for years has been devoted body and soul to the quartern measure, and who before now has been known to make sacrifice to it even to the extent of pawning or selling the boots off his feet, and the shirt off his back - and who discovers that his favourite liquor will no longer yield him the wished-for solace, but turns as it were to water the instant it has passed his yearning gullet. It is as useless endeavouring to arrive at the desired end by the old means, as it is to spur a dead horse. He has cut himself adrift from all those ties by which mankind in general secure that happiness, and trusted to a gin-cask to keep him afloat on his sea of selfish and sensual enjoyment until life's voyage comes to an end, and all suddenly, he discovers that the sea is dead and stagnant on which his raft, rotten and rudderless, must abide, until by natural decay it falls to pieces and is engulfed with himself in the black depths.

Such instances may be rare but not extremely so, because, unless I am mistaken during the time I spent at Old Tom's palace, at least three or four looked in there. The members of the outcast tribe in question may be easily distinguished from bar frequenters of the sociable order, not on account of their rags or their general appearance of being poverty-stricken. On the contrary the miserable ones who are afflicted with this insatiable gin-hunger, seem as a rule to have been persons in a respectable condition of life, and still cling tenaciously to their shabby remnants of decent attire. If of the male sex the lank, shambling figure is tightly buttoned in the seedy black coat, as high as the throat, which is encircled by what was once a genteel "stock " and a frayed old shirt collar; the hat is of the tall kind and albeit bald of "nap," and battered, is sleek, and shining with an unnatural lustre. If a woman, a veil is invariably worn with the bonnet, and dilapidated kid gloves cover the hands which usually are encumbered with some sort of reticule and what was once a parasol, the object apparently being a daring attempt to impose on the credulous that she is a person whose sensitiveness suffers exceedingly from being compelled to the act of entering a vulgar common public-house, but who really had no choice between doing so and sinking in the street from sheer exhaustion. Male or female, however, the subterfuge is equally transparent, and the object the same - the stealthy, oft-repeated "dram" in the vain hope to quench the impotent thirst for gin which consumes them. It is not for such as these that the gas and glitter, the plate-glass and the flashy emblazonment of ceilings and panels has attractions. They know nothing of the delights of the "social glass." The only place where they would pledge "the cup of friendship" - if they owned such an article representing value - would be at the pawnbrokers. To linger over their libations is to them a tantalization - a weariness and a waste of time. If they could anyhow contrive it, they would get drunk at a leap as it were, and have done with it. They are shy as well as solitary drinkers, and would gladly eschew all such flaring and uproarious "publics" as the "Sandboys," but unfortunately if one wants Old Tom in all his fiery strength, it is here he must be sought. It is curious to watch the accomplished dram drinker's peculiar method of procedure. Urgent as is his want, of all drinkers who approach the metal counter he is least demonstrative. He will flit in, usually behind some other customer who has pushed open the door, and his quick eyes detecting the thinnest part of the crowd, there he edges his way. He has the money all ready in his hand, and catching the barmaid's eye he ejaculates as hurriedly as though he had not a moment to spare, "Glass of Old Tom." In seven seconds the liquor is drawn, the vessel raised to his pale lean jaws, and with a sudden gulp, such as ordinarily attends the swallowing of a pill, it is gone. Three pence disposed of as rapidly as a conjurer could twitch a halfpenny from his hand up into his sleeve, and with what profit to the investor? Mighty little to judge from his appearance. There is so little to feel grateful for that he does not even lick his dry lips, nor does the merest twinkle in his leaden eyes denote that he has obtained what he bargained for. He feels no thrilling of his nerves, no gush of warmth in his veins, - he is as horribly sober as ever, and mean, miserable, despairing wretch that he is, with one quick glance of malignant envy on the mirthful beer-drinking crew about him, he vanishes stealthily as he came, to make a "call" at the next of Old Tom's renowned abiding places, and the next, and still the next; as long as he has threepence left or the "houses" remain open. Then, his aim still unattained, he will slink home to that terrible bed, and troubled and dream-haunted, and filled with heat which yields no warmth to his shaking limbs, lay and quake until morning.