Court Royal/Chapter I

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter I. A Little Devil



At the top or at the bottom? At which shall we begin?Sediment to-day is scum to-morrow. That which is on the surface sinks. Therefore, does it matter? The universe is in revolution, so is the social order. We will begin at the bottom, as most philosophical. Only the builders of Lagado began their edifices at the apex. The Barbican is the oldest portion of ancient Plymouth. It consists of a collection of crazy houses built along the quay of Sutton Pool, which was the ancient port of Plymouth. The houses are tall, with slated fronts and bow windows, much out of the perpendicular, of various dates. In these houses dwelt the old merchants of Plymouth, who equipped vessels against the Spaniards and carried Tavistock friezes to all the ports of Europe. From Sutton Pool Drake sailed against the Armada. The grand merchant-houses have become the habitations of dealers in marine stores, drinking-shops, and eating-houses.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

The houses on the Barbican are so crowded that they are devoid of back yards, and when the inhabitants have a washing they thrust their garments from their windows on poles to dry in the sea-breeze and the sun. Some ingenious dwellers in these old houses contrive a system of rigging between their poles whereby a much larger wash can be exposed. On every day that lends itself to drying, the Barbican flutters its flags and streamers. The flags vary in shape, more than in colour, and most of all in their heraldic achievements. Some are ‘enhanced’ with flaunches, others with bendlets, frets, bordures, even with bars sinister. Certain bifurcated pennons show a leaning towards ‘escutcheoning.’ The banners are for the most part white, tawny as old Tiber, or Isabelle. Some few are azure of a deep and dingy blue. From one window a circular mass of drapery, gules, bulges in the wind. It is the petticoat of the lady of the ham and sausage shop.

One corner house, standing between two thoroughfares, never displayed its bunting. Apparently, no washing was ever done in it. Over the door of this house hung three golden balls, and in scaling paint over the window was inscribed the name—‘Lazarus.’

The Barbican is not a savoury place. Here the fish are unladen and sold, and here the little fish that fall out of the baskets get trampled out of shape, and rot in the mire.

When the tide is out, the ooze in Sutton Pool sends up its complement of effluvium. Providentially, the sea-tangles, hanging from the wharf in fringes of dull green, exhale chlorine, and the sea-breeze brings in ozone, to disinfect and disperse the pestilential odours.

The Barbican is a busy place all day, and late into the night; but at noon, for an hour, it drops into quiet. Then all the sound that habitually pervades it is sucked in at the doors of the taverns and eating-houses, and fills them to repletion.

It was precisely at this hour, one hot day in early June, that the stillness of the Barbican quay was broken by piercing and protracted shrieks.

Two persons and a cat alone occupied the wharf at that time: the one was the pier-guard, who was then lounging on the wall looking seaward; the other was an old woman sitting under a large umbrella with her back to sun and sea, fast asleep before the table of gingerbeer-bottles of which she disposed. The cat took no notice of the screams, nor did the old woman, who only woke when the quay became repeopled and business looked alive. The guard turned leisurely round, drew his hands out of his pockets, walked to the steps by which passengers disembarked from the Oreston steamer, descended them, cast off a boat, and, stepping in, shouted, ‘Hold hard, you little devil!’

Some faces, attracted by the cries, appeared at the windows, but the view was obscured by fluttering drapery. The lady over the ham and sausage shop, Thresher by name, saw what was the matter; her visual ray was not cut off by the washing. She shouted some practical advice, then turned and scolded her husband, who lay on the bed with his boots upon the pillow, reading a Radical paper. After that she drew on a jacket and descended to the quay.

Some men, moreover, who had finished their dinner, issued from the eating-houses to ascertain what was the matter, and those who had not done bolted the rest of their food, fearful of being too late for an accident, yet unwilling to leave unconsumed good victuals for which they had paid.

The screams became louder, shriller. Then they were interrupted for a minute, again to ring forth as loudly as before.

The cries issued from the lungs of a child—a girl—of twelve, who was in the arms of a wretched-looking woman. They were near the edge of the quay when the screams began. The woman was attempting to fling herself and the child into the water. The girl had her arms about an old cannon, planted in the granite coping as a hold for hawsers, and clung to it desperately. Finally, the superior strength of the woman prevailed, and she precipitated herself and the child over the edge into the Pool. Then, for a moment, the cries were silenced, for a moment only, while the child was under water. Both rose to the surface, covered with mud, near a chain. In a moment, the child saw her opportunity, grasped the chain, and crawled up it, with the water streaming from her, looking like a drowning rat, and again she shrieked as loud as her lungs would allow.

In a moment, also, the pierkeeper was at hand in the boat. He lifted the woman out of the water, and then laid hold of the child. The latter, unable at first to distinguish that the hands grasping her were not those of her mother, and that the object for which she was grasped was not to drown her, clung frantically to the chain, and yelled with such force and penetration in the tones, that the guard lost patience, and said angrily, ‘Let go, you squalling cat, will you?’

Instantly the child relaxed her hold, and allowed herself to be lifted into the boat. She knew, by the voice, that she was in the hands of a man, come to save her. When she was in the boat, she dipped her palms in the water, and washed the mud from her eyes and mouth and nose. After that she set herself to clean the face of her mother with the skirt of her frock.

‘What is the meaning of this?’ said the man.

‘I wouldn’t be drownded,’ answered the child. ‘I told mother as much, but her paid no heed to what I said.’

‘Now then, missus,’ said he, addressing the woman with rough kindness, ‘what did you do it for?’

The poor creature made no reply. She sat, cuddled into a heap in the bottom, hugging her knees, with the water pouring off her. Her head was bowed on her bosom.

‘Did y’ hear, now?’ shouted the child, raising the sodden hair off the mother’s ear. ‘The gemman asked you a civil question, and you must answer him civil too. He asked you what made you do it.’

‘I am wretched,’ she replied in a faint voice; ‘my husband is dead. We have been starving. I can find no situation because of Joanna, and get no work. I did not know what to do with myself and her, and as us couldn’t find a situation on earth, I thought we’d go and get one in heaven.’

‘But I wouldn’t,’ put in the girl, emphatically, looking the boatman level in the eyes. ‘I told mother plain I was not agreeable. I don’t want to go to heaven—and,’ with a stamp on the bottom of the boat, ‘I won’t go.’

‘You’ve a will of your own, apparently,’ said the man, smiling.

‘I don’t choose to be drownded,’ answered the girl. Then she thrust her wet and dirty hair out of her face, and tried to knot it behind her head, ‘and I don’t choose as mother shall be, neither.’

‘I’ll tell you what, ma’am,’ said the pierkeeper; ‘two good things have combined for the saving of you to-day. First comes I. I was on the spot handy. Secondly, the tide was running out and leaving the Pool dry; so there was no depth available for drowning purposes.’ The boat touched the steps. ‘Up with you, both,’ he said, ‘and mind, no more of these games.’

The wretched woman obeyed meekly. The child strode up the stone stairs full of confidence, saying, but hardly in a tone of apology, ‘You know, mother, I was not agreeable.’

The woman staggered after her daughter to the pier, and then stood there helpless, dazed, looking about her without light in her eyes.

The water ran off her and formed a pond at her feet; the slime was smeared over her hair and face and hands. Her soaked garments clung to her, revealing at once how few and thin they were.

By this time several persons had assembled. They surrounded the little group and eyed them curiously. These were mostly men, still chewing the remains of their dinner or picking their teeth. Mrs. Thresher, from the ham-shop, was there in a black body over a red petticoat, very short, exposing dirty stockings and slippers down at heel.

Questions showered on the poor creature, which she did not answer, perhaps did not catch. She clutched her child’s hand convulsively, and with disengaged hand wiped the water from her eyes.

‘Now look you here,’ said the pier-guard, ‘you oughtn’t to have done it, or if you did ought to do it, you ought to have done it in a less dirty place. Sutton Pool is not a palatable place in which to end existence. Wait till the tide is out, and have a look for yourself. I reckon further acquaintance won’t make you more friendly. It will rinse all taste of felo-de-se out of your mouth. Dead cats, rotten cabbage, decayed potatoes, cracked cloam (crockery), old tobacco-pipes, kettles and pans full of holes, boots bursted, and soleless shoes, scatted (broken) bottles, anything, everything that goes to make filth is chucked in there, and rots away into black paste which is proper consolidated smeech (smell). I reckon that Sutton Pool bottom is made of the dirtiest dregs of civilisation. That is what we’ve hauled you and your brat out of. If you’ve any sense of decency in you, keep out of Sutton Pool. The blue sea is a different crib altogether.’

‘I won’t be drownded neither in the blue sea, nor in Sutton Pool, nor in a pickling-tub,’ said the child resolutely; ‘I’m damned if I be.’

The circle of lookers-on burst out laughing.

‘Oh, you wicked child!’ exclaimed Mrs. Thresher, of the ham-shop. ‘Where do you expect to go, using them swearing words?’

‘Father said it when he meant a thing—much,’ answered the child.

‘Your father smoked, I reckon.’

‘Yes, he did.’

‘But you don’t see ladies smoke.’


‘Well,’ said Mrs. Thresher, ‘pipes and cusses are nat’ral in a man’s mouth, but natur’ herself protests when you see either in the mouth of a woman.’

‘Did you hear how the little creature squealed?’ asked the pierkeeper.

‘Her cries drew me from my dinner, and lost me the picking of my rabbit-bones,’ said one of the men.

‘I’d have had another glass of ale,’ said a second, ‘but I thought two foreigners was lighting and sticking knives into each other. I wouldn’t ha’ missed that. I was always a bit of a sportsman since I was a boy.’

‘I cried,’ said the girl, ‘because I would not let mother drown me.’

‘And cry tha’ did, by jiggers!’ exclaimed a skipper, a large man from Yorkshire. ‘I was down in my cabin when tha’ piped.’

‘Look here,’ said the pier-guard; ‘if us stand here in a knot, the police will be suspecting something and turn their beaks this way. Then they’ll have this unfortunate female up before the magistrates on the double charge of felo-de-se and felo-de-child, and transport her for it to Dartmoor. So let us be moving. Now then, ma’am!’—he spoke to the woman, planting himself before her, legs apart, and his hands on his hips—‘if you will pass your word that you won’t play no more of these pranks, I’ll let you go; if not, I’ll tow you into custody myself.’

‘No, sir, I won’t do it no more,’ said the miserable creature.

‘Her sha’n’t!’ protested the child.

‘What is to be done with them?’ asked the pierman. ‘They are both wet to the marrow of their bones.’

No one was prepared with an answer. One man, suspecting a subscription, tailed away.

‘You must go home and have a change,’ said the pierman kindly. ‘And let me counsel a drop of hot grog. It will drive the chill out of you and the squealer.’

‘I have no home—I have no change! I have nowhere and nothing,’ answered the woman mournfully.

‘There is that blessed institootion, the Work’us, always open,’ said one man in a tone of sarcasm.

‘I’d rather drown than go there,’ answered she; ‘there they’d take my Joanna from me.’

A grunt of assent.

‘Her’s got the proper principles of a Christian,’ said the woman in the red petticoat. ‘I’d go into Sutton Pool myself rather than into the House. I reckon in the matter of dirt they’re about equal, only in the House it’s moral, and in the Pool its physical.’

‘Sither, lass,’ said the skipper, in strong Yorkshire accent, ‘how didst’a come here? Tell us all aboot it.’

‘My husband died,’ she answered timidly; ‘I sold everything I had, bit by bit, till all was gone. I couldn’t pay my rent, and I couldn’t buy no food. I went from place to place after work, but I could get none. No one would give me a situation till I got rid of the child. All were in one song—“Send her to the Union.” I couldn’t do that; so I thought we’d both go to heaven together.’

‘Have you no change of clothes anywhere?’ asked Mrs. Thresher; ‘because, if you have, you may change in my room, and I’ll turn my old man out while you do it.’

‘I’ve naught but what I stand up in,’ said the poor creature, ‘nor has Joanna, neither.’

‘Now, then, my lads,’ said the pierman, casting his eye round, ‘I propose we raise a few shillings among us to rig out the pair afresh.’

‘I reckon Mr. Lazarus can fit them out,’ said one of the by-standers.

‘O’ course he can,’ said the skipper; ‘but he’ll not do’t wi’out brass. Here’s half-a-crown to start wi’. Who’ll give something upon that? Here’s my cap as collecting-box.’

‘It’ll come expensive,’ remarked a bargeman in sepulchral tones; ‘I know what the rig-out of my missus costs me.’

‘A gown can be had secondhand for a trifle.’

‘A gown ain’t all,’ said the bargeman mysteriously.

‘What else, then?’

‘What else? Why, there’s stays,’ growled the bargeman. ‘Them figures—new—seven and eightpence three-farthings!’

‘Then there’s a petticoat,’ suggested a pilot, timidly; ‘if you doubt my word look around at all the fluttering bunting. Women must wear them things somehow, and they don’t use ’em as caps.’

A petticoat!’ exclaimed the north-country skipper. ‘Every respectable lass has two—one coloured, t’other white.’

‘Must the little maid have stays, too?’ asked the pierkeeper.

‘All females has stays,’ answered the bargeman. ‘Girls has ’em without bones. The bones come later in life.’

‘What more?’ asked the skipper.

A dead silence. The men were thinking and looking inquiringly at the dripping woman, who was too bewildered to reply.

‘Where is Mrs. Thresher? her can tell us,’ said the pilot.

But Mrs. Thresher was gone to her room to turn her old man out of it and prepare for the contingency of receiving the poor woman into it.

Still silence. The men’s brows were wrinkled with hard thought. It was broken by the rumbling bass of the bargeman. ‘Dress-improver!’

‘Must the little maid have one?’

‘Of course. All females have dress-improvers,’ said the bargeman, putting and swelling with consciousness of superior knowledge. ‘Four-and-ten is about the figure.’

‘That makes five articles apiece, mates,’ said the pierkeeper, checking them off on his fingers: ‘thumb for gown, fore and middle fingers stand for petticoats, the last but one for stays, and the little chap is dress-improver. Now, then, mates, see what we can raise among us for the poor creatures.’

The party moved along the quay towards the pawnshop, the Yorkshire skipper revolving, cap in hand, among the members.

‘I’ve been considering,’ said he, after a while, ‘as how I might find the lass a berth aboard my vessel if she could get shut (rid) of the bairn. We could do wi’ a woman to cook and wash for us; and shoo might addle (earn) a few shillings that road. What do you think o’ that, mates? And what dost’ a say to it thysel’, lass?’

The dazed woman looked at the Yorkshireman without understanding his proposal. He repeated it in more intelligible form; then she comprehended it, and her wan face lighted up, only to dull again.

‘May I take my Joanna?’

‘That’s the scratch,’ said the skipper. ‘Shoo’s wick as a scoprill (lively as a teetotum), and I’d be glad if I could; but we can’t find room for little bairns.’

The pilot explained: ‘Can’t find room on board for little maidens.’

‘What is to become of my Joanna?’ asked the bewildered woman, looking with blank eyes about her.

The man with a vein of sarcasm in him, who had before suggested the Union, threw out another suggestion, likewise ironical. ‘As you’re about to get clothes of Mr. Lazarus, perhaps you can pawn the child to him, and raise a few shillings on her!’

The suggestion elicited a general laugh. The woman, however, took it seriously, and walked towards the pawnbroker’s shop, drawing the child along with her.

‘Here is t’brass a’ve gotten together for thee,’ said the skipper, pouring the coin from his cap into her hand. ‘Take it, and get the ten articles thyself.’

Then he signed to the others to withdraw, and they, with great delicacy, did so, whilst the woman entered the pawnbroker’s shop.

‘Mates,’ said the skipper, ‘leave the lass to do the shopping alone. It’s more decent. She’ll get the ten articles. Trust a woman to bargain. And whilst shoo’s aboot it we’ll put heads together and consider what is to be done wi’ the little bairn.’

‘Did you hear her scream?’ asked the pilot.

‘Her ’d do as a syren (steam whistle) to an ironclad, and rouse the Three Towns (Plymouth, Stonehouse, and Devonport) when coming into harbour.’

‘Scream!’ exclaimed another man, ‘I should like to know what man or woman but the old lady under the umbrella by the ginger-beer could fail to hear her. Mark my words! That little maid ain’t born to be drowned. How her worked her way up the chain out o’ the slime! Well,’ sententiously, ‘there be other chains than that in this world; and may she work herself up the next she catches as well as she went up that!’