A Child of the Jago/Chapter 9

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Dicky came moodily back from his dinner at Mr. Weech's, plunged in mystified computation: starting with a debt of twopence, he had paid Mr. Weech an excellent clock—a luxurious article in Dicky's eyes—had eaten a bloater, and had emerged from the transaction owing threepence half-penny. Of what such a clock cost he had no notion, though he felt it must be some inconceivable sum. As Mr. Weech put it the adjustment of accounts would seem to be quite correct; but the broad fact that all had ended in increasing his debt by three half-pence, remained and perplexed him. He remembered having seen such clocks in a shop in Norton Folgate. To ask the price, in person, were but to be chased out of the shop; but they were probably ticketed, and perhaps he might ask some bystander to read the ticket. This brought the reflection that, after all, reading was a useful accomplishment on occasion; though a matter of too much time and trouble to be worth while. Dicky had never been to school; for the Elementary Education Act ran in the Jago no more than any other Act of Parliament. There was a Board School, truly, away out of the Jago bounds, by the corner of Honey Lane, where children might go free, and where some few Jago children did go now and again, when boots were to be given away, or when tickets were to be had, for tea, or soup, or the like. But most parents were of Josh Perrott's opinion—that school-going was a practice best never begun; for then the child was never heard of, and there was no chance of inquiries or such trouble—not that any such inquiries were common in the Jago, or led to anything.

Meantime Dicky, minded to know if his adventure had made any stir in the house, carried his way deviously towards home. Working through the parts beyond Jago Row, he fetched 'round into Honey Lane, so coming at New Jago Street from the farther side. Choosing one of the houses whose backs gave on Jago Court, he slipped through the passage, and so, by the back-yard, crawled through the broken fence into the court. Left and right were the fronts of houses, four a side. Before him, to the right of the narrow archway leading to Old Jago Street, was the window of his own home. He gained the back-yard quietly, and at the kitchen door met Tommy Rann.

"Come on," called Tommy. "'Ere's a barney! They're a-pitchin' into them noo 'uns—Roperses. Roperses sez Fisherses is sneaked their things. They are a-gittin' of it!"

From the stairs, indeed, came shouts and curses, bumps and sobs and cries. The first landing and half the stairs were full of people, men and women, Ranns and Learys together. When Ranns joined Learys it was an ill omen for them they marched against; and never were they so ready and auxious to combine as after a fight between themselves, were but some common object of attack available. Here it was. Here were these pestilent outsiders, the Ropers, assailing the reputation of the neighbourhood by complaining of being robbed. As though their mere presence in the Jago, with their furniture and their superiority, were not obnoxious enough: they must turn about and call their neighbours thieves. They had been tolerated too long already. They should now be given something for themselves, and have some of their exasperating respectability knocked off: and if, in the confusion, their portable articles of furniture and bed-clothing found their way into more deserving hands—why, serve them right.

The requisite volleys of preliminary abuse having been discharged, more active operations began under cover of fresh volleys. Dicky, with Tommy Rann behind him, struggled up the stairs among legs and skirts, and saw that the Ropers, the man flushed, but the woman paler than ever, were striving to shut their door. Within, the hunchback and the baby cried, and without, those on the landing, skidding the door with their feet, pushed inward, and now began to strike and maul. Somebody seized the man's wrist, and Nora Walsh got the woman by the hair and dragged her head down. In a peep through the scuffle Dicky saw her face, ashen and sweat-beaded, in the jamb of the door, and saw Nora Walsh's red fist beat into it twice. Then somebody came striding up the stairs, and Dicky was pushed further back. Over the shoulders of those about him, Dicky saw a tall hat, and then the head beneath it. It was the stranger he had seen in Edge Lane—the parson; active and resolute.

Nora Walsh he took by the shoulders and flung back among the others, and, as he turned on him, the man who held Roper's wrist released it and backed off.

"What is this?" demanded the new-comer, stern and hard of face. "What is all this?" He bent his frown on one and another about him, and as he did it, some shrank uneasily, and on the faces of others fell the blank lack of expression that was wont to meet police enquiry in the Jago. Dicky looked to see this man beaten down, kicked and stripped. But a well-dressed stranger was so new a thing in the Jago, this one had dropped among them so suddenly, and had withal so bold a confidence, that the Jagos stood irresolute. A toff was not a person to be attacked without due consideration. After such a person there were apt to be inquiries, with money to back them, and vengeance sharp and certain: the thing, indeed, was commonly thought too risky. And this man, so unflinchingly confident, must needs have reason for it. He might have the police at instant call—they might be back in the Jago at the moment. And he flung them back, commanded them, cowed them with his hard, intelligent eyes, like a tamer among beasts.

"Understand this, now," he went on, with a sharp tap of his stick on the floor. "This is a sort of thing I will not tolerate in my parish—in this parish; nor in any other place where I may meet it. Go away, and try to be ashamed of yourselves—go. Go, all of you, I say, to your own homes; I shall come there and talk to you again soon. Go along, Sam Cash—you've a broken head already, I see. Take it away; I shall come and see you too."

Those on the stairs had melted away like punished school-children. Most of the others, after a moment of averted face and muttered justification one to another, were dragging their feet, each with a hang-dog pretence of sauntering airily off from some sight no longer interesting. Sam Cash, who had already seen the stranger in the street, and was thus perhaps a trifle less startled than the others at his advent, stood, however, with some assumption of virtuous impudence, till amazed by sudden address in his own name; whereat, clean discomfited, he ignominiously turned tail and sneaked downstairs in meaner case than the rest. How should this strange parson know him, and know his name? Plainly he must be connected with the police. He had brought out the name as pat as you please. So argued Sam Cash with his fellows in the outer street: never recalling that Jerry Gullen had called aloud to him by name, when first he observed the parson in the street; had called to him, indeed, to haste to the bashing of the Ropers; and thus had first given the stranger notice of the proceeding. But it was the way of the Jago that its mean cunning saw a mystery and a terror where simple intelligence saw there was none.

As the crowd began to break up, Dicky pushed his own door a little open behind him and there stood on his own ground as the others cleared off; and the hunchback ventured a peep from behind his swooning mother.

"There y' are, that's 'im!" he shouted, pointing at Dicky. "'E begun it! 'E took the clock!"

Dicky instantly dropped behind his door and shut it fast.

The invaders had all gone—the Fishers had made upstairs in the beginning—before the parson turned and entered the Ropers' room. In five minutes he emerged and strode upstairs; whence he returned after a still shorter interval, herding before him Old Fisher and Bob Fisher's missis, sulky and reluctant, carrying tools.

And thus it was that the Reverend Henry Sturt first addressed his parishioners. The parish, besides the Jago, comprised Meakin Street and some way beyond; and it was to this less savage district that his predecessor had confined his attention. Preaching every Sunday in a stable, in an alley behind a disused shop, and distributing loaves and sixpences to the old women who attended regularly on that account. For to go into the Jago were for him mere wasted effort. And so, indeed, the matter had been since the parish came into being.