A Child of the Jago/Chapter 26

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It was Father Sturt's practice to visit every family in his parish in regular order. But small as the parish was—insignificant, indeed, in mere area—its population exceeded eight thousand: so that the round was one of many months, for visiting was one among innumerable duties. But Josh Perrott's lagging secured his family a special call. Not that the circumstances were in any way novel or at all uncommon; nor even that the vicar had any hope of being able to help. He was but the one man who could swim in a howling sea of human wreckage. In the Jago, wives like Hannah Perrott, temporarily widowed by the absence of husbands 'in the country,' were to be counted in scores, and most were in worse case than she, in the matter of dependent children. Father Sturt's house list revealed the fact that in Old Jago Street alone, near seventy of the males were at that moment on ticket-of-leave.

In the Perrott case, indeed, the sufferers were fortunate, as things went. Mrs. Perrott had but herself and the child of two to keep, for Dicky could do something, whether good or bad, for himself. The vicar might try to get regular work for Dicky, but it would be a vain toil, for he must tell an employer what he knew of Dicky's past and of that other situation. He could but give the woman the best counsel at his command, and do what he might to quicken any latent spark of energy. So he did his best, and that was all. The struggle lay with Hannah Perrott.

She had been left before, and more than once; but then the periods had been shorter, and, as a matter of fact, things had fallen out so well, that scarce more than a meal here and there had had to be missed, though, when they came, the meals were apt to be but of crusts. And now there was more trouble ahead; for though she began her lonely time with but one small child on hand, she knew that ere long there would be two.

Of course, she had worked before; not only when Josh had been "in" but at other times, to add to the family resources. She was a clumsy needlewoman: else she might hope to earn some ninepence or a shilling a day at making shirts, by keeping well to the needle for sixteen hours out of the twenty-four; and from the whole sum there would be no deductions except for needles and cotton, and what the frugal employer might choose to subtract for work to which he could devise an objection. But, as it was, she must do her best to get some sack-making. They paid one and sevenpence a hundred for sacks. With speed and long hours she could make a hundred in four days. Rush bag-making would bring even more, and would be desirable, considering the three-and-sixpence a week for rent, which, with the payments for other rooms, made the rent of the crazy den in Old Jago Street about equal, space for space, to that of a house in Onslow Square. Then there was a more lucrative employment still, but one to be looked for at intervals only; one not to be counted on at all, in fact, for it was a prize and many sought after it. This was the making of match-boxes. For making one hundred and forty-four outside cases with paper label and sandpaper, and the same number of trays to slide into them—a gross of complete boxes, or two hundred and eighty-eight pieces in all—one got twopence farthing; indeed, for a special size one even got a farthing a gross more; and all the wood and labels and the sandpaper were provided free: so that the fortunate operative lost nothing out of the twopence farthing but the cost of the paste, and the string for tying up the boxes into regular numbered batches, and the time employed in fetching the work and taking it back again. And if seven gross were to be got, and could be done in a day—and it was really not very difficult for the skillful hand who kept at work long enough—the day's income was one and threepence three farthings, less expenses: still better that than the shirts. But the work was hard to get. As the public-spirited manufacturers complained: people would buy Swedish matches, whereas if people would support home industries and buy no matches but theirs they would be able to order many twopence-farthings worth of boxes more.

There might be collateral sources of income, but these were doubtful and irregular. Probably Dicky would bring in a few coppers now and again. Then judicious attendance at churches, chapels and prayer-meetings beyond the Jago borders was rewarded by coal tickets, boots and the like. It was necessary to know just where and when to go and what to say, else the sole result might be loss of time. There was a church in Bethnal Green, for instance, which it would be foolish to enter before the end of the Litany, for then you were in good time to get your half-quarter hundredweight of coals; but at other places they might object to so late an appearance. Above all, one must know the ropes. There were several women in the Jago who made almost a living in this way alone. They were experts; they knew every fund, every meeting-house, all the comings and goings of the gullible; insomuch that they would take black umbrage at any unexpected difficulty in getting what they demanded. "Wy," one would say, "I 'ad to pitch sich a bleed'n' 'oly tale I earned it twice over." But these were the proficient, and proficiency in the trade was an outcome of long experience working on a foundation of natural gifts; and Hannah Perrott could never hope to be among them.

Turning these things in her mind, she addressed herself to her struggle. She managed to get some sacks, but for a week or two she could make nothing like twenty-five a day, though Dicky helped. Her fingers got raw; but she managed to complete a hundred within the first week. They might have been better done, as the employer said when he saw them. But she got her full one and sevenpence. She pawned her boots for fourpence, and wore two old odd ones of Josh's; and she got twopence on a petticoat. Dicky also helped a little; and at the end of a fortnight there came a godsend in the shape of material for matchboxes. Mrs. Perrott was slow with them at first; but Dicky was quick, and even little Em began to learn to spread paste.