Court Royal/Chapter IV

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter IV. Joanna's School

Seven months after Joanna had been left in pawn with Mr. Lazarus, the Yorkshire skipper was again in Plymouth with a load of coals from Goole. He came to the shop to see the girl, and tell her about her mother. Captain Hull—that was his name—had bad news to communicate. Mrs. Rosevere had probably caught cold from her immersion, when she tried to drown herself, and on her voyage northward had been taken ill. On reaching Goole, she was carried on shore and sent to the nearest hospital, where she had been pronounced ill with rheumatic fever.

After that Mr. Hull had been to Belgium for iron. There had been a strike at Middlesborough, and the furnaces had been let out, and the ironmasters had executed their contracts by purchasing their iron at Verviers. When next Captain Hull came to Goole and inquired after the woman, he learned that she had been discharged, but whither she had gone, and what was her present address, he was unable to ascertain. Joanna was much troubled. She had a tender spot in her heart. She was passionately devoted to her mother. Not a line had reached her from Mrs. Rosevere. Whether she were alive or dead she could not tell. She cried bitterly at night under the counter, and could not sleep for sobs. But she did not allow the skipper to see her tears. She shook and turned white when he told his tale, and then fled to the kitchen to conceal her emotion.

‘Ah!’ said the pawnbroker, when she had disappeared, ‘this is my fate. I advanced ten shillings on the child, and now she is thrown on my hands. This is the second time this sort of thing has occurred—before it was white mice.’

‘What about the white mice?’

‘I advanced money on a couple of white mice to a school-boy, and was not repaid. I had to feed those mice for weeks, and they cost me a fortune. I put them in the window, but, though it brought all the Barbican children to the glass, there came no buyer. At last I was forced to drown them, to be rid of the daily burden of their maintenance. The law won’t let me deal like that with children. I’ll never advance money on live animals again—never. I’ve been bitten twice, once by the mice, now by the girl. Ten shillings! I gave a half-sovereign in gold. I shall never see the colour of the coin again.’

‘Now, Mr. Lazarus, speak nobut the truth. You gave ne’er a penny in cash. It was all took out in clothes.’

‘Was it? Dear me, I had forgot. Well, it does not matter. I made a bad bargain. The creature eats with a voracity perfectly appalling. Did you ever see a cow or a horse in a meadow, how it goes on, never stopping? It is just the same with this child. The cost of her food is frightful, the cost of her clothes sickening. She outgrows her dresses as fast as they are fitted on her. Why did I take her? Why was I such a fool? This is what comes of having a feeling heart. Take her away, Mr. Hull, take her away, chuck her as ballast into the bilge-water in your hold. I’ve had her seven months, now it is your turn.’

‘I—I!’ stammered the good-natured skipper, ‘I am nae responsible for t’ little lass.’

‘You are. You sent her here. You persuaded the mother to put her with me, and offered her a place in your vessel. As you took the mother, you’re part bound for the child. Now I’ve had enough of her gorging herself on butcher’s meat, and swilling bottled ale, and burning candles at both ends, and flaunting in silks and satins.’

‘None so much o’ t’ latter, I take it, Mr. Lazarus.’

‘Only on Sundays, I allow. But, consider, Mr. Hull, a child can neither be clothed in nor on nothing. You, by the cut of you, I take to be a married man, and know what the cost of dressing children comes to.’

‘This is but one bairn.’

‘I know that; but this child is a girl, and girls cost more in clothes than boys.’

‘Shoo works for you.’

‘Works! Not she—loiters about the Barbican playing with the boys and girls at hopscotch and prisoners’ base. Works! I’ve paid for her schooling.’

‘Does she go to t’ National school?’

‘National school!’ jeered the Jew. ‘A first-rate private school. She is slow at learning. I wish I could extract from her sufficient work to pay for her schooling. Take her away. I’ll turn her out of doors if you don’t. Not under half-a-sovereign would I consent to retain her.’

Mr. Hull considered for a while, then thrust his hand into his pocket and drew forth some money. ‘If this be but a matter o’ brass,’ he said, ‘take it. But I tell thee, I don’t acknowledge the responsibility.’

‘Very well,’ said the Jew, ‘I’ve a feeling heart, and I accept the trifle. It don’t cover her breakages. I had as beautiful a pair of Oriental jars as you might wish to see. They were worth fifty pounds. The child knocked one over with a broom. What did she have a broom in her hand for? Cobwebs! Cobwebs don’t hurt. Spiders break no china. Brooms does. Now there is but one jar remaining, and that is worth seven-and-six, because the pair is broken. That is a loss to a poor man. Take seven-and-six from fifty pounds, and it leaves forty-nine pounds twelve and six. You wouldn’t like to lose forty-nine pounds twelve and six of a morning, would you, Mr. Hull? You see what sacrifices one makes through having a feeling heart. Mr. Hull, I’ll take the money, and set it off against the breakages: you contribute ten shillings and I forty-nine pounds twelve and six.’

Mr. Hull grew red, and fumbled in his pocket. ‘Dang it!’ said he, ‘here’s another half-sovereign.’

‘Thank you, captain, thank you. You understand, it don’t release her from pawn. The mother pawned her, and has the ticket.’

‘Oh, I don’t want t’ bairn out. Keep her till her mother redeems her. I’m a’most feared though t’ old lass is dead. Shoo were but a weakly creetur’ at best.’

‘I’ll keep her till then,’ said Lazarus, and added to himself, ‘I wouldn’t do without her for five-and-twenty pounds.’

As Mr. Lazarus said, Joanna was at school, and the school was the private establishment of Mr. Lazarus, in which he was head and second master and usher rolled into one, and in which she was the only scholar. Consequently on her was concentrated the full teaching power of the academy. She knew her letters and could sum when she came there, but her knowledge of men and the world was rudimentary. This was the speciality of Mr. Lazarus’s teaching. Under his tuition she rapidly acquired an insight into the shady ways of the world and acquaintance with the skeletons in the cupboards of a good many houses in Plymouth.

Joanna also gained insight into her master’s business, and unfolded a remarkable aptitude for it. The business was one that ramified in all directions, a fungous, cancerous growth with fibres extracting nutriment from every social bed.

Mr. Lazarus visited extravagant ladies at their homes, and lent them money on their diamonds. He gave out coppers on the flat-irons of drunken washerwomen. He took the gold repeaters of officers and the tools of artisans. He lent money on bills of sale, notes of hand, and post-obits. He was yielding about renewals.

The house was crowded from garret to cellar with articles of every description on which money had been advanced, or which had been seized in default of payment. A retentive memory was in demand to recollect where anything was, when wanted by a depositor, who came, money in hand, to release it; to know what pledges had lapsed, and when, without hunting them out of the ledger.

Dealers of various kinds visited Mr. Lazarus: slop-shop men to purchase a lot of secondhand clothing, curiosity dealers to overhaul his china and engravings, jewellers for his watches and rings and bracelets, furniture-makers to buy up cracked mahogany-veneered chests of drawers for conversion into Florentine antiques by coating them with Dutch marquetry.

Thus the goods in Mr. Lazarus’s establishment went into circulation. Old things went and new came. But there always remained some deposit which no tide swept away, and which lay as a burden on the Jew’s mind. The articles occupied space and were unsaleable. Joanna applied her mind to the solution of this difficulty, and showed a rare sagacity in converting them into usable, and therefore saleable goods, and thus launching them.

As Joanna grew up, and grew into the business, she exhibited a rare talent in negotiating with both sellers and purchasers. She did not become the right hand of Lazarus, only because he had no right hand. Even he, with his long experience, was unable to surpass her in disparagement of articles offered, in shaming a poor pledger into yielding them for a trifle. The expressions she threw into her face, the scorn that quivered in her finger-tips, the keenness of eyesight that overlooked no defect, cowed the spirit of the pledger, and took the value out of the piece of goods before a word was spoken. On the other hand, in treating with dealers, her genius was equally conspicuous. She praised the articles, dexterously disguised their defects, flattered and cajoled the purchasers, and sent them away to find that they had been overreached. But what delighted Joanna especially was to have to do with an amateur antiquary or china fancier: then she became simplicity itself, profoundly ignorant of the real value of rare articles, and she sent the greenhorns off deluding themselves that they had secured treasures ‘in a poky out-of-the-way odds-and-ends shop,’ when they had paid heavy gold for utter rubbish.

Joanna, as has been said, developed admirable skill in turning unsaleable goods into articles of commerce. We give one instance. Mr. Lazarus was unable to resist the temptation of purchasing, at a low figure, a large number of scarlet uniforms slightly damaged and discoloured. No one would buy the red-cloth jackets. Joanna unpicked them, sent them into the dye-vat, and with a pair of scissors and a needle and black thread converted them into fashionable short coats. The breast of one made the tail of another.

The demand for Mr. Lazarus’s Rinking, Lorne, and Brighton suits, at a price with which the ready-made dealers could not compete, soon exceeded the supply.

When one of H.M.’s vessels was put in commission the mess was furnished with new linen, plate, china, glass. When discharged—sometimes at the end of a few months—everything was sold off at miserably low prices. Mr. Lazarus was a large and constant purchaser at these sales. Sometimes he took the entire lot in a lump, by negotiation, without auction. Then he and Joanna went over all the acquisitions with care. The markings were removed from the linen. If the tablecloths were much cut, they were converted into napkins; if slightly injured, Joanna darned and disguised the cuts. The plate was subjected to much polishing, till it bore the appearance of new, or was redipped and sold as new—possibly to the same vessel when recommissioned. The glass was sorted into complete lots; the knives and china found their way among the poor.

In their views of life Joanna and her master agreed perfectly; but then Joanna’s mind had been formed by Mr. Lazarus, and she drank in his doctrines as freely as he let her drink water.

Mr. Lazarus was a conscientious man in a way. He instructed Joanna in morals. He taught her that great sin would lie at her door if she acted towards himself dishonestly, and untruthfully and wastefully.

They had ample opportunity for exchanging ideas whilst feather-picking.

The pawnbroker received many pillows and bed-tyes as pledges. When he did so he slit them at a seam, put in his hand and extracted feathers; from a pillow he withdrew one handful, from a bed four. In their place he put hay, so as not to alter their weight. Then Joanna sewed up the seams so neatly that it could not be told they had been opened; and the feathers were stored in chests to be sold at tenpence per pound. Whilst thus engaged Joanna and her master discussed the world, the profligacy of the rich, the meanness of the poor, the greed of rival pawnbrokers, the universal corruption of men and morals.

What was the world coming to, when debtors bolted to America, and when those on whose furniture Mr. Lazarus had made advances ‘flitted’ by moonlight, leaving him out of pocket, without power of recovery? What was the world coming to, when the police poked their noses into his shop, and found there stolen goods, which they carried off, in spite of his having paid hard cash for them, or were extortionate in their demand for palm-greasing, to overlook the purchases? What was the world coming to, when charitable institutions were allowed to come to the aid of the distressed—clothing-clubs, coal-clubs, savings’ banks—and hold them back from flying to their proper refuge, the Golden Balls? What was the world coming to, when the Jews were becoming so numerous and so unscrupulous as to interfere with one another’s business? And what was the world coming to, when Gentiles were becoming a match for Jews in plucking the geese, and shearing the silly sheep, that asked to be plucked and shorn?

Thus Joanna grew up under this schooling, and the teaching became the grain of her mind. There was natural aptitude to receive it, but the aptitude was that of an active, eager, intelligent mind, ready to assimilate any instruction given it, with daily opportunity for testing and exercising it.

She was entirely without sympathy with her fellows. She looked upon men as the prey on which the clever lived; they were fair game when brought within reach through necessity or imbecility. Of human nature she had a low opinion, but she was brought into contact with no noble specimens.

Lazarus was without tenderness towards her; she grew up with no one to love, no one to love her, consequently there was no sympathy, pity, softness about her. The one leading motive of Lazarus’s life seemed to be Individualism. He thought, worked only for himself. He concerned himself about no one; he was indifferent to the sufferings of mankind. His code of ethics was based on self. That was right which did him good, that was wrong which did him harm. He insisted to Joanna that the secret of success lay in rigidly attending to self-interest; that the failures of men were due to their yielding to their good-nature, to their vibration between self-interest and the care for others.

Thus passed several years. Joanna grew in stature, and her mind accommodated itself to what was exacted of it. She became indispensable to her master, but he was too shrewd to let her see how highly he appreciated her. No further news reached the Barbican about her mother. The skipper no more returned to Plymouth.

Still Joanna clung to the belief that her mother lived, and would return and redeem her before the lapse of the seven years.