A Child of the Jago/Chapter 14

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On an autumn day, four years after his first coming to the Jago, the Reverend Henry Sturt left a solicitor's office in Cheapside, and walked eastward with something more of hope and triumph in him than he had felt since the Jago fell to his charge. For the ground was bought whereon should be built a church and buildings accessory, and he felt, not that he was like to see any great result from his struggle, but that perhaps he might pursue it better armed and with less of grim despair than had been his portion hitherto.

It had taken him four years to gather the money for the site, and some of it he was paying from his own pocket. He was unmarried, and had therefore no reason to save. Still, he must be careful, for the sake of the parish: the church must be built, and some of the money would probably be wanted for that. Moreover, there were other calls. The benefice brought a trifle less than £200 a year, and out of that, so far as it would go, he paid (with some small outside help) £130 for rent of the temporary church and the adjacent rooms; the organist's salary; the rates and the gas-bills; the cost of cleaning, care, and repair; the sums needed for such relief as was impossible to be withheld; and a thousand small things beside, while the Jagos speculated wildly among themselves as to the vast sums he must make by his job. For what toff would come and live in the Jago except for a consideration of solid gain? What other possible motive could there be, indeed?

Still, he had an influence among them such as they had never known before. For one thing, they feared in him what they took for a sort of supernatural insight. The mean cunning of the Jago, subtle as it was, and baffling to most strangers, foundered miserably before his relentless intelligence; and crafty rogues—'wide as Broad Street,' as their proverb went—at first sulked, faltered and prevaricated transparently, but soon gave up all hope of effort to deceive him. Thus he was respected. Once he had made it plain that he was no common milch-cow in the matter of gratuities—to be bamboozled for shillings, cajoled for coals, and bullied for blankets—then there became apparent in him qualities of charity and loving-kindness, well-judged and governed, that awoke in places a regard that was in a way akin to affection. And the familiar habit of the Jago slowly grew to call him Father Sturt.

Father Sturt was not to be overreached: that was the axiom gloomily accepted by all in the Jago who lived by what they accounted their wits. You could not juggle shillings and clothing (convertible into shillings) out of Father Sturt by the easy fee-faw-fum of repentance and salvation that served with so many. There were many of the Jagos (mightily despised by some of the sturdier ruffians) who sallied forth from time to time into neighbouring regions in pursuit of the profitable sentimentalist: discovering him—black-coated, earnest, green—sometimes a preacher, sometimes a layman, sometimes one having authority on the committee of a charitable institution; dabbling in the East End on his own account, administering relief for a mission, disbursing a Mansion House Fund. He was of two chief kinds; the Merely Soft,—the 'man of wool' as the Jago word went,—for whom any tale was good enough, delivered with the proper wistful misery: and the Gullible-Cocksure, confident in a blind experience, who was quite as easy to tap, when approached with a becoming circumspection. A rough and ready method, which served well in most cases with both sorts, was a profession of sudden religious awakening. For this, one offered an aspect either of serene happiness or of maniacal exaltation, according to the customer's taste. A better way, but one demanding greater subtlety, was the assumption of the part of Earnest Inquirer, hesitating on the brink of Salvation. For the attitude was capable of indefinite prolongation, and was ever productive of the boots, the coats, and the half-crowns used to coax weak brethren into the fold. But with Father Sturt, such trouble was worse than useless; it was, indeed, but to invite a humiliating snub. Thus, when Fluffy Pike first came to Father Sturt with the intelligence that he had at last found Grace, the Father asked if he had found it in a certain hamper—a hamper hooked that morning from a railway van, and if it were of a quality likely to inspire an act of restoration to the goods office. Nothing was to be done with a man of this disgustingly practical turn of mind, and the Jagos soon ceased from trying.

Father Sturt had made more of the stable than the make-shift church he had found. He had organized a club in a stable adjoining, and he lived in the rooms over the shut-up shop. In the club he gathered the men of the Jago indiscriminately, with the sole condition of good behaviour on the premises. And there they smoked, jumped, swung on horizontal bars, boxed, played at cards and bagatelle, free from interference save when interference became necessary. For the women there were sewing-meetings and singing. And all governed with an invisible discipline, which, being brought to action, was found to be of iron.

Now there was ground on which might be built a worthier church; and Father Sturt had in mind a church which should have by its side a cleanly lodging-house, a night-shelter, a club, baths and wash-houses. And at a stroke he would establish this habitation and wipe out the blackest spot in the Jago. For the new site comprised the whole of Jago Court and the houses that masked it in Old Jago Street.

This was a dream of the future—perhaps of the immediate future, if a certain new millionaire could only be interested in the undertaking—but of the future, certainly. The money for the site alone had been hard enough to gather. In the first place the East London Elevation Mission and Pansophical Institute was asking very diligently for funds—and was getting them. It was to that, indeed, that people turned by habit when minded to invest in the amelioration of the East End. Then about this time there had arisen a sudden quacksalver, a Panjandrum of philanthropy, a mummer of the market-place, who undertook for a fixed sum, to abolish poverty and sin together; and many, pleased with the new gaudery, poured out before him the money that had gone to maintain hospitals and to feed proved charities. So that gifts were scarce and hard to come by—indeed, were apt to be thought unnecessary, for was not misery to be destroyed out of hand? Moreover, Father Sturt wanted not for enemies among the Sentimental-Cocksure. He was callous and cynical in the face of the succulent penitence of Fluffy Pike and his kind. He preferred the frank rogue before the calculating snivelmonger. He had a club at which boxing was allowed and dominoes—flat ungodliness. He shook hands familiarly every day with the lowest characters: his tastes were vulgar and brutal. And the company at his club was really dreadful. These things the Cocksure said, with shaking of heads; and these they took care should be known among such as might give Father Sturt money. Father Sturt!—the name itself was sheer papistry. And many comforted themselves by writing him anonymous letters, displaying hell before his eyes, and dealing him vivid damnation.

So Father Sturt tramped back to the Jago, and to the strain and struggle that ceased not for one moment of his life, though it left never a mark of success behind it. For the Jago was much as ever. Were the lump once leavened by the advent of any denizen a little less base than the rest, were a native once ridiculed and persuaded into a spell of work and clean living, then must Father Sturt hasten to drive him from the Jago ere its influence suck him under forever; leaving for his own community none but the entirely vicious. And among these he spent his life: preaching little, in the common sense, for that were but idle vanity in this place; but working, alleviating, growing into the Jago life, flinging scorn and ridicule on evil things, grateful for tiny negative successes—for keeping a few from ill-behaviour but for an hour; conscious that wherever he was not, iniquity flourished unreproved; and oppressed by the remembrance that albeit the Jago death-rate ruled full four times that of all London beyond, still the Jago rats bred and bred their kind unhindered, multiplying apace and infecting the world.

In Luck Row he came on Josh Perrott, making for home with something under the skirt of his coat.

"How d'ye do, Josh?" said Father Sturt, clapping a hand on Josh's shoulder, and offering it as Josh turned about.

Josh, with a shifting of the object under his coat, hastened to tap his cap-peak with his forefinger before shaking hands. He grinned broadly, and looked this way and that, with mingled gratification and embarrassment, as was the Jago way in such circumstances. Because one could never tell whether Father Sturt would exchange a merely friendly sentence or two, or, with concealed knowledge, put some disastrous question about a watch, or a purse, or a breastpin, or what not.

"Very well, thanks. Father," answered Josh, and grinned amiably at the wall beyond the vicar's elbow.

"And what have you been doing just lately?"

"Oo—odd jobs, Father." Always the answer, all over the Jago.

"Not quite such odd jobs as usual, I hope. Josh, eh?" Father Sturt smiled, and twitched Josh playfully by the button-hole as one might treat a child. "I once heard of a very odd job in the Kingsland Road that got a fine young man six months' holiday. Eh, Josh?"

Josh Perrott wriggled and grinned sheepishly; tried to frown, failed, and grinned again. He had only been out a few weeks from that six moon. Presently he said: "Awright, Father; you do rub it into a bloke, no mistake."

The grin persisted as he looked first at the wall, then at the pavement, then down the street, but never in the parson's face.

"Ah, there's a deal of good in a blister, sometimes, isn't there. Josh? What's that I see—a clock? Not another odd job, eh?"

It was, indeed, a small nickel-plated American clock which Josh had under his coat, and which he now partly uncovered with positive protests. "No, s 'elp me, Father, it's all straight—all fair trade. Father—jist a swop for somethink else, on me solemn davy. That 's wot it is. Father—straight!"

"Well, I'm glad you thought to get it. Josh," Father Sturt pursued, still twitching the button-hole. "You never have been a punctual churchgoer, you know, Josh, and I'm glad you've made arrangements to improve. You'll have no excuse now, you know, and I shall expect you on Sunday morning—promptly. Don't forget: I shall be looking for you." And Father Sturt shook hands again, and passed on, leaving Josh Perrott still grinning dubiously, and striving to assimilate the invitation to church.

The clock was indeed an exchange, though not altogether an innocent one: the facts being these. Early that morning Josh had found himself scrambling hastily along a turning out of Brick Lane, accompanied by a parcel of nine or ten pounds of tobacco, and extremely conscious of the hasty scrambling of several other people round the corner. Some of these people turned that corner before Josh reached the next, so that his course was observed, and it became politic to get rid of his parcel before a possible heading off in Meakin Street. There was one place where this might be done, and that was at Weech's. A muddy yard, one of a tangle of such places behind Meakin Street, abutted on Weech's back-fence; and it was no uncommon thing for a Jago on the crook, hard pressed, to pitch his plunder over the fence, double out into the crowd, and call on Mr. Aaron Weech for the purchase-money as soon as opportunity served. The manœuvre was a simple one, facilitated by the plan of the courts; but it was only adopted in extreme cases, because Mr. Aaron Weech was at best but a mean paymaster, and with so much of the upper hand in the bargain as these circumstances conferred, was apt to be meaner than ever. But this case seemed to call for the stratagem, and Josh made for the muddy yard, dropped the parcel over the fence, with a loud whistle, and backed off by the side passage in the regular way.

When he called on Mr. Aaron Weech a few hours later, that talented tradesman, with liberal gestures, told out shillings singly in his hand, pausing after each as though that were the last. But Josh held his hand persistently open till Mr. Weech having released the fifth shilling, stopped altogether, scandalized at such rapacity. But still Josh was not satisfied, and as he was not quite so easy a customer to manage as the boys who commonly fenced at the shop, Mr. Weech compromised, in the end, by throwing in a cheap clock. It had been in hand for a long time; and Josh was fain to take it, since he could get no more. And thus it was that Dicky, coming in at about five o'clock, was astonished to see on the mantelpiece, amid the greasy ruins of many candle-ends, the clock that had belonged to the Ropers four years before.