Court Royal/Chapter III

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When the mother was gone, with dry and decent garments, and the drumming and roaring at the cellar door had ceased, Mr. Lazarus went to the coalhole and unlocked it.

Then Joanna walked forth. She had gone in wet; she emerged caked in coal-dust, black as a sweep. Clothing, hands, face, hair, were all black. Nothing was clean about her but the white of her eyes, her red lips and shining teeth.

Mr. Lazarus held the door and stood back. He expected her to fly forth, snapping and snarling like a spiteful dog. He feared for his shins, and therefore held a stick for protection. But Joanna came forth composedly, without a word.

‘I must confess,’ said the pawnbroker, reassured, ‘you do look like a little devil. I don’t think you could come it more natural, got up for the occasion with theatrical properties.’

‘I am not a little devil,’ said the girl, standing in the midst of the kitchen, and looking at Mr. Lazarus. ‘I am a girl; I am not bad, I am good; I am gold, not brass; I am not idle, I work hard; I rise early; I break nothing; I knit; I sew; I cook; I scream. Where is my mother? Is she gone?’

‘Gone, gone right away on end. She has pawned you to me for seven years; raised ten shillings on you—more than you are worth, if coined.’

‘I am worth more than ten shillings; I am worth ten pounds.’

‘You understand you can’t go to mother; you are pawned. If your mother does not come back in seven years, then you fall to me altogether as my own. Do you understand?’

‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Mother has pawned everything else she had down to me. Now is my turn. I will stay.’

‘Your number is six hundred and seventeen. Look in my ledger; there you are till cancelled. Why did you scream so horribly?’

‘Because I wanted to be with mother.’

‘And now you are content to remain with me?’

‘I am pawned; I can’t help myself. Mother has raised the money on me. I must stay till she returns with the ticket and the half-sovereign.’

‘And the interest—the interest at ten per cent.,’ insisted Mr. Lazarus.

‘I know nothing about that,’ said the girl. ‘I will stay till mother brings the money. I cannot help myself.’

‘Come along, you squalling cockatoo,’ said the pawnbroker; ‘I will show you over the place, and tell you what your work will be. This is the kitchen.’

‘And that is your nose. I have eyes. You wouldn’t make me believe this a parlour if you swore to it.’

‘You are a queer imp.’

‘I am good,’ said the girl. ‘I will cook the dinner, and then you will say the same.’

‘No waste of coals here,’ observed Lazarus gravely. ‘To think of the profligate waste among the rich! The tons of coal they burn; nothing to show for it but smoke and ashes! I never turned a penny by coals in all my life, never.’

‘I have,’ said Joanna.

‘I shall be glad to hear how you managed that.’

‘It was this way. We’d a little garden ran down to the water, where the coal-barges went by. I corked an empty soda-water bottle and hung it to the branch of an apple-tree. When the bargemen went by they couldn’t hold off having a shy at the bottle, and they shied lumps of coal. I went out every day with a shovel. We kept the kitchen fire with that bottle, and the beauty was she never broke. Couldn’t, you understand, because her swung when hit.’

Lazarus looked at the child with admiration. ‘Beautiful! upon my word, beautiful! You are a genius, Six hundred and seventeen. Follow me.’

He led her into the shop. ‘There,’ he said, ‘you sleep under the counter. There are blankets about to make a bed of. Only mind everything goes back into place in the morning; nothing torn and no tickets off.’

‘I understand.’

‘Look at me. You see I hold a stick that I’ve been whittling. Not out of ornament, I tell you, but for use. Now rack your brains for a reason.’

‘To lick me with,’ said the girl.

‘Hit it, Six hundred and seventeen. If you tear, break, or waste anything, this stick will be a paintbrush to your back, making you like an ancient Briton, blue and yellow. Now look at this stick. You don’t suppose I whittle and shape it for such as you; you ain’t worth the exertion.’

‘You thought me worth ten bob, or you wouldn’t have given it,’ said the child.

‘You worth ten shillings!’ sneered the Jew; ‘not a bit. Your mother gave her gold ring as well; that was worth six.’

‘Well, then, I’m valued at four.’

‘Four! You’re worth nothing. I reckoned on your clothes and boots.’

‘My boots are scat at the sides, and wore out at the soles. They are fit for nothing but making soup. My clothes are that dirty with mud and coals that they’ll never wash clean again.’

‘What! given to argufying, are you?’ exclaimed the pawnbroker. ‘No more of that with me. Hook up the steps if you please, you blackbeetle. I must find you a change somehow.’

He made her ascend a set of dark steps into an upper story. There they went through three rooms, full as they could hold of various goods, old furniture, clocks, china, mattresses, looking-glasses, military accoutrements, uniforms, muffs, jackets, gowns, nautical instruments, books, tools.

‘There,’ said he, pointing about him with his stick, ‘you see all these garments. This is the uniform of a general, that of an admiral. Here are sable and sealskin jackets, rabbitskin ermine opera cloaks, silk dresses for servant-maids, and cotton prints for ladies, linen jackets of dockmen, worsted jerseys of sailors. These must all be hung on yokes. They accumulate. Unless exposed they don’t attract attention. I fashion the yokes and pegs on which they hang. That is what I was whittling at. I always have one in hand. I have one great enemy with which to battle. These clothes don’t eat, but they get eaten. The moth is my enemy. I said he was a great one, but really he’s a very little one. Bless me! what valuable time is wasted at whack, whack, whack! with a bamboo to drive the moth out of the cloth and fur. I’ve tried camphor; I’ve tried bitter apple; I’ve tried pepper. Nothing answers but the bamboo. Now you know what will be one of your regular duties—duties! pleasures, exercises. You will have to beat the clothes every day for a couple of hours. If after this I find a moth I’ll beat you, whack, whack, whack, with the bamboo, till I’ve beat the laziness out of you. You are intelligent. You can understand plain English, I suppose?’

Joanna nodded.

‘You will have to work hard in this house,’ said Mr. Lazarus further. He had beaten a carpet to illustrate his meaning, and raised a cloud of dust that made him cough. ‘No idleness is tolerated here. No spare hours are given during which you may slip into mischief. Not much food to fire the blood and make you want it. You will rise at five and get me a cup of coffee. No lighting of fires, mind. The coffee is made in an Etna. Then you beat the clothes in the back yard till the shop opens. About noon the fire is kindled and dinner is cooked for me. You can eat what I leave. There is often gravy in which to sop bread. Gravy is nourishing. I don’t consume it all myself. I am not greedy. Children only are greedy. In the afternoon you mind the shop, and mend what clothes are torn. About five o’clock I shall want a cup of tea. I take bread and cheese for supper at nine. My teeth are bad. I don’t eat the crusts and rinds; you may have them, and be grateful. There are many poor children with less. I had forgotten. You must have a change of clothes.’ He looked carefully about among the female garments. ‘There,’ said he, ‘I don’t think I could dispose of these traps; they are much worn. I bought ’em cheap; came off a girl as died of scarlet fever. Look sharp; go behind a heap of furniture, off with your wet and coaly rags, and tumble into these beauties. Then, if you like, you may wash your face and hands at the pump. Water costs no money. I allow no soap.’

Joanna did not take many minutes in changing. She went into the back yard—this house had one—and soused her head and arms well. Then she returned with the utmost promptitude to her master.

‘I couldn’t find a comb,’ she said, ‘so I used a broken kitchen fork.’

‘That’s right,’ answered the Jew approvingly; ‘never ask for two things where one will suffice.’

Mr. Lazarus relaxed into amiability. He was pleased with the ready instinct of the child to meet his views,

‘Let me tell you,’ he said, ‘when you’ve been a good girl, and worked hard and eaten next to nothing, I’ll allow you, as a treat, to put on the general’s uniform, sword, epaulette, and all; or the admiral’s, with his cocked hat; or my lady’s silk and ermine, bare arms and low body. It will be as good as going to the play, and it will air the suits also, and prevent them getting mouldy.’

Joanna clapped her hands and laughed.

‘There is one thing further,’ said Lazarus. ‘You’ll have to go to bed in the dark, winter and summer. I never allow waste of candle. Who knows? you might take to reading in bed—under the counter—and set everything in a blaze. Why, bless me! if this establishment caught, the fire would run through it. Nothing in the world would arrest the flames. Now you may go down stairs. No—stay. There is one point more to particularise. I spend a penny every week in getting shaved, and fourpence a quarter in having my hair cut. That amounts to five-and-fourpence in the twelvemonth—clear waste, nothing to show for it. You will have to learn to shave me and cut my hair. Here is an old muff that the moth has played the mischief with. I don’t think it will sell. Practise on that. Lather it first, and then work along it gently with a razor. You’ll soon get into the way, and save me five-and-four per annum. Only—mind! Don’t waste the soap!’

* * * * * * *

In all the many years that Emmanuel Lazarus had done business he had never made so good a bargain as when he took Joanna in pawn. Ten shillings! She was worth to him over ten pounds a year, that is two thousand per cent. interest. He soon discovered her worth, and congratulated himself on having secured her.

Joanna worked from grey dawn to late at night harder than any day-labourer. She slept under the counter, and slept so lightly that at the least alarm of burglars she woke and screamed loud enough to scare away the rogues, arouse the neighbours, and collect the police.

She dusted the weevils out of their lurking-places; not a grub could conceal itself under the felling; the bamboo reduced it to pulp. Not a moth could spread wing; it was clapped to dust between her palms. Wherever, in cloth, dress, or fur cloak, she spied a rent, her dexterous needle mended it so neatly that it remained unperceived by purchasers. She never forgot to lock the doors, bar and bell the windows, at night. Her clothing cost nothing, and was always neat, so well was it washed, so neatly was it mended, darned and patched. As she was denied coals, she washed the house linen and her own garments in cold water.

When winter set in, Joanna found means of economising that had not entered the brain of Lazarus. Charitable people had instituted a soup-kitchen. The girl had gone thither with her mother in their abject poverty. She went there now clothed in rags, and brought away sufficient nourishing broth to form the staple of her own and her master’s dinner. Some potatoes and bread completed the meal. No one supposed that the wretched girl with worn face and appealing eyes was the maid-of-all-work to the rich Jew pawnbroker and money-lender of the Barbican.

Joanna had dark hair and large shining dark eyes too big for her face; the face was thin and sharp, but well cut. She was but twelve years old, therefore only a child; but the face was full of precocious shrewdness. The eyes twinkled, gleamed, flashed. Wonderful eyes, knowing eyes, without softness in them; eyes that saw everything, measured and valued everything, that went into those she encountered and found out their weakness. Her face was without colour, but the skin was clear and transparent.

‘Who and what are you, my child?’ asked a charitable woman once at the soup-kitchen.

‘I’m a pawn—Six hundred and seventeen!’ she replied, and disappeared.