A Child of the Jago/Chapter 27

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Dicky grew slighter and lanker, dark about the eyes, and weaker. He was growing longitudinally, and that made his lateral wasting the quicker and the more apparent. A furtive, frighted look hung over his face, a fugitive air about his whole person. His mother's long face was longer than ever, and blacker under the eyes than Dicky's own, and her weak, open mouth, hung at the corners as that of a woman faint with weeping. Little Em's knees and elbows were knobs in the midst of limbs of unnatural length. Rarely could a meal be seen ahead; and when it came it made Dicky doubtful whether or not hunger were really caused by eating. But his chief distress was to see that little Em cried not like a child, but silently, as she strove to thread needles or to smear match-box labels. And when good fortune brought match-boxes, there was an undue loss on the twopence farthing in the matter of paste. The stuff was a foul mess, sour and faint, and it was kept in a broken tea-cup, near which Dicky had detected his sister sucking her fingers; for, in truth, little Em stole the paste.

On and off, by one way and another, Mrs. Perrott made enough to keep the rent paid with indifferent regularity, and sometimes there was a copper or so left over. She did fairly well, too, at the churches and prayer-meetings; people saw her condition, and now and again would give her something beyond the common dole; so that she learned the trick of looking more miserable than usual at such places.

The roof provided, Dicky felt that his was the task to find food. Alone, he might have rubbed along clear of starvation, but there were his mother and his sister. Lack of victuals shook his nerve and made him timid. Moreover, his terror grew greater than ever at the prospect of being caught in a theft. He lay awake at night and sweated to think of it. Who would bring in things from the outer world for mother and Em then? And the danger was worse than ever. He had felt the police-court birch, and it was bad, very bad. But he would take it every day, and take it almost without a tear, rather than the chance of a reformatory. Magistrates were unwilling to send boys to reformatories while both father and mother were at hand to control them, for that were relieving the parents of their natural responsibility; but in a case like Dicky's, a "schooling" was a very likely thing. So that Dicky, as he prowled, was torn between implacable need and the fear of being cut off from all chances of supplying it.

It was his rule never to come home without bringing something, were it no more than a mildewed crust. It was a resolve impossible to keep at times, but at those times it was two in the morning ere he would drag himself, pallid and faint, into the dark room where the others might be—probably were—lying awake and unfed. Rather than face such a homecoming he had sometimes ventured on a more difficult feat than stealing in the outer world: he had stolen in the Jago. Sam Cash, for instance, had lost a bloater.

Dicky never ate at Weech's now. Rarely, indeed, would he take payment in kind, unless it was for something of smaller value than the average of his poor pilferings; and then he carried the food home. But cheaper things could be bought elsewhere, so that more usually he insisted on money payments: to the grief of Mr. Weech, who set forth the odiousness of ingratitude at length; though his homilies had no sort of effect on Dicky's morals.

Father Sturt saw that Hannah Perrott gained no ground in her struggle, and urged her to apply for outdoor parish relief, promising to second her request with the guardians. But with an odd throwback to the respectability of her boiler-making ancestry, she disliked the notion of help from the parish, and preferred to remain as she was; for there, at least, her ingrained inertness seemed to side with some phantom of self-respect. To her present position she had subsided by almost imperceptible degrees, and she was scarce conscious of a change. But to parish relief there was a distinct and palpable step: a step that, on the whole, it seemed easier not to take. But it was with eagerness that she took a Maternity Society's letter, wherewith the vicar had provided himself on her behalf. For her time was drawing near.