Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Only a penny

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ONLY A PENNY.

 

 

When a wag won his bet that he would cry a trayful of sovereigns on London Bridge, and not sell one, the price he fixed was a penny. "Only a penny, ladies and gentlemen! real sovereigns, full weight! buy, buy! only a penny!" Had he offered them for twopence, he would have sold the lot. Depend upon it, he gained his wager not only because the proposal seemed at first ludicrous, not to say improbable, but because the price he asked was so familiar that it did not arrest attention. Certainly those vagabond merchants who take the penny as the unit of our coinage live somehow; but who ever saw them complete a bargain? There is a man near the corner of Great Portland Street, Oxford Street, who offers little Jacks-in-the-box, which jump out with a spring and squeak, at only a penny. I have passed him, I may say without any exaggeration, hundreds of times; he is always nipping the spring of the box-toy, and starting the little image, then shutting him down again, and thus giving him an intermittent view of society throughout the day; but I never saw him sell one. His cry is very melancholy and monotonous, as if he were sentenced to the work. Children sometimes put a drag on their nurses or mammas as they pass, and point imploringly at the temptation; but the merchant never meets their efforts with a step forward, a responsive gesture, or a change of tone. "O-o-o-nly a penny!" then a squeak from the toy; but, I repeat, I never saw him sell one, though I always look to see. I wonder how the people in the shop opposite to which he plants himself can bear the sound of his trade. The man who blows a whistle in a little cup of water, thereby making general imitations of a singing bird, might not be so wearisome—he is no worse than a canary—moreover, he is a pleasanter looking party to deal with, glances cheer in at the public over his little tin mug, and occasionally exchanges the exhibition of his instrument for verbal persuasion.

It is curious to see the interest taken in those dealers who propose wonderful scouring-drops, and exemplify their quality on the collar of some promiscuous boy, who puts on while the operation proceeds just that uncertain face which might precede an electric shock. A little spot is cleansed in the collar—a little clear space like that which the skating-club sweep in the snow—the experiment succeeds unequivocally; the effect is, as was previously assured, instantaneous; but no one buys; not that no one need—it would take a bucket of the magic mixture to scour the group—but they disperse, gratified and dirty. What an apt emblem we have here of the reception which much excellent advice meets with. An offender is exhibited, theoretically, and the panacea is applied; what was foul becomes fair under the wonder-working tongue of the performer. Will no one possess himself of the corrective? Not he; he sees the rascal cleansed, and departs.

There is one article sold cheap in the streets in which I could never bring myself to believe the public can he suddenly interested, or feel a noonday want for. I mean sponge. The seller here does not exhibit the detersive quality of his wares like the magic drop merchant, but he carries as many as possible in his hand till it looks like a swelled boxing glove. I once, however, saw a man on the point of buying a sponge at the Regent Circus.

The most successful of this class of traders are, perhaps, those who deal in pens. The merchant writes in a fine bold hand, at intervals; probably this is the secret of his business. That little boy who invests his penny is not the only one deceived by thinking the result is to be attributed to the pen instead of the hand which moves it. Poor little chap! your purchase will make nothing but blots in your uneducated fingers. However, the pen-seller acts like hundreds who appear to offer for sale what really cannot be sold—skill. Thus Rarey gulled the public when he charged ten guineas a course for teaching what none but such as himself could do.

There are intermittent phases of this penny commerce, as any one may see who observes how on any public occasion the number of merchants is multiplied tenfold. During the cattle show in Baker Street, whole groves of penny sticks line the streets about Portman Square. I have several times thought it would be a safe investment to buy them all, and make cent. per cent. of one's money. I am sure I should be charged elsewhere fourpence—or threepence at least—for such batons as come into the market only then and there.

One passing penny speculation must be always a losing one. I mean in forms of prayer on the occasion of a day of national thanksgiving or humiliation. After service, at least, they are a drug. But the vendors begin quite early in the morning, increasing in importunity as the day passes; when the church bells strike up they grow more eager still, and thrust their wares upon the intending worshipper with desperate energy, like hawkers of playbills at the very door of the theatre. I fancy the theology of these extemporised penny merchants must he sometimes at fault; and a man might find out too late that his want of success in selling his wares to a string of supposed churchgoers arose from his being deceived by the ecclesiastical outside of a building, which did not within recognise the authority of his Grace the Archbishop.

Imagine a poor costermonger who had tried in vain to force the productions of the Establishment on a congregation of unorthodox Dissenters, and sat down to his table that night loaded, not with supper but with stale forms of prayer!

By the way, talking of the suddenness with which small vendors can be found to undertake commercial exigencies, I cannot help stopping a minute to express my wonder at the promptitude with which links are produced in a fog. Every penniless urchin has a link. Did you ever see a link, except in use? Did you ever know of a shopkeeper who kept, exhibited, or advertised a link? Should you know where to buy one, if you were offered a thousand pounds for it, on condition of its being produced in a quarter of an hour? But let the fog be ever so sudden—let it be so thick as to make hurried visits to the link-warehouse, wherever it may be, impossible; yet the fact remains, mysterious—inexplicable;—you meet scores: perhaps, by some wise economy of nature, they come with the fog, and are to be picked up in the parks, like rocket-sticks, after an exhibition of fireworks.

Only a penny! but we may rise in the commercial circles, and notice how frequently this is the fixed price of nobler articles than whistles and bad pen-holders. Think of Rowland Hill. Only a penny! was a flash of inspiration to him, communicated not only to Britain, but to Europe—to the world. The penny postage immortalises the Victorian age of England. The success, however, l of this bold stroke has made the inventor exacting—labouring to expedite the delivery of these stamped letters, he has deceived not only himself, but the public, by trying to make them sort their correspondence before it comes into the hands of her Majesty's servants. Those two months to the letter-box are an imposition. Mark the hesitating manner of that servant-girl with a bundle of letters in one hand, an umbrella in the other, as she tries to discharge her mission conscientiously, and yet run home before she has got wet through. She has an idea, poor honest thing, that if she makes a mistake about "Inland, Colonial, Foreign, and London and twelve miles round," she may possibly lose her place. I was stopped the other day by an undecided messenger who shrank from dropping the entrusted letter into the wrong box.

"Please, sir," said she, imploringly, "this is for Bury."

It was raining fast. I need scarcely add that I set her right.

Before leaving this feature of penny commerce, I must express my regret at not having invented the little holes round the stamps. Was ever anything so successfully provoking? Some idle fellow hit upon it, I'll be bound, with his slippers on, sitting before the fire, when he ought to have been at work,--talking nonsense and pricking a bit of paper with a pin, and tearing it up. All at once the Goddess of Invention descends into his lazy brain, and he finds the mutilated scrap in his hand transformed into a cheque for nobody knows how many thousand pounds.

Perhaps the most irritating reflection connected with this discovery is that similar valuable wrinkles are still lying hid under your own eyes and nose. Depend upon it, my friend, there is some ridiculously obvious process even now floating about, like a butterfly, which will at last alight on the acquisitive hump of some lucky head. What is it? It? Nay, there is a whole flight of these enriching thoughts circling around that thick skull of yours, saving your presence. Can't you catch one? Can't you invent a shirt button now, which won't come off in the washing. and so nip in the bud some series of recriminations which none but Sir Cresswell Cresswell can at last sum up, and save innumerable bachelors from precipitate wedlock.

A large family of steamers on the river held to the charge of two-pence for a long time—the penny boats raced, and were voted dangerous by old maids; but the mighty principle is asserting itself now, and the navigation laws above bridge are fast yielding to the penny. Omnibuses have yielded only in part, but if we are ever to have street-railroads, and are to be hauled along by steam from our breakfast-table to the Bank, the fare will be only a penny, you may be sure of that; the same price will then express the value of conveyance by land as well as by water all over the empire of London. As it is, parliamentary trains—which impress the stamp of our constitution on the railway system—are run at a penny a mile, this last phrase carries me into literature. The penny-a-liner. We fancy him in a seedy garret—like Hogarth's distressed poet—spinning out his sentences with vulgar verbiage, in order that he may make the wherewithal to boil his hungry pot.

But the fact is—— There, now, that will do.

We may, however, notice that most remarkable feature of the literary world, penny papers. Here we may tread boldly—there is no question about their value; only a penny! with the programme of their contents printed on a limp sheet and kept steady on the ground by three or four stones, so that you can estimate the value of your penny-worth before you make up your mind to possess it. Besides the penny papers there is a marvellous issue of penny periodicals, with as much letter-press for your money as is contained in anything else, with the exception of advertisements.

The resuscitated order of shoeblacks too, adds another item to the catalogue of penny exchanges. I sometimes think those energetic little traders must keep a lump of paste-blacking in their months, as they produce so much of the polishing medium therefrom. I wish they would not point so perseveringly at one's boots when they are clean. To revert to an annual influx of country blood, I mean the visitors to the Baker Street Cattle Show, the shoeblacks go almost mad at the crowd of dirty highlows and bluchers which circulate about during that week. To them the sight must be quite as bewildering as the approach of unusually numerous shoals of herrings to the fisherman who has only one net—he cannot catch them all—they float by in provoking abundance.

Did you ever have your boots cleaned for a penny—the sensation at first is Very curious. Blacky pounces on the foot, and brushes your trousers first, scratching off the bigger splashes with his nails; it is like putting your toe in the way of a quarrelsome house-terrier, which makes ineffectual attempts to worry the intruder. The operation is always performed in a desperate hurry. Sometimes these brats add ingenious advertisements to their energy. I remember one who wore on his right foot a'ragged, muddy old boot, while his left was covered with another which was neat, whole, and polished.

Only a penny! I don't seem to have begun to think about it yet. I see penny tarts, buns, ices, rolls, trumpets, savings' banks, rules of prudential statistics, proverbs. I think of social economy and children's trinkets. The wealth of nations and the German bazaar—the inland revenue, penny gaffs, and the new coinage—the mind hurries on through crowds of thoughts all characterised by pence, and looks down vistas of reflection leading everywhere to the same coin, and ever returning the same answer to the inquirer, "Only a penny!"

We will take breath and linger for a minute by I some of the objects which we are tempted to pass L by so rapidly. Where shall we begin? Let us go i into that pastrycook's shop and look about us. Certainly we want a better class of refreshment rooms than those between a public-house and a confectioner's. It is expensive work to go into an inn, there is too the necessity of ordering this, and that at a coffee-shop. Thus ladies and poor gentry, especially country cousins, keep the pastry-cook on his legs—for there you can get your bun for a penny, and lunch on copper. There is no need to order anything, no bill is presented as you leave the establishment. You may look about you without being interrupted by a waiter, you are not expected to sit down. Indeed, to tell the truth, I for one never felt any inclination to do so there, at least not since the elastic digestive days of school-boyhood. There is nothing hearty in a pastrycook's, nothing but sweets. Biscuits are not luscious, certainly, but they are dry, chippy food alone. A man, I imagine, who lived on nothing but biscuits, would before long get so full of flour as to make it fly about when he clapped his hands, like dust from pipe clayed gloves. The worst of the matter is, that the penny sweets are more or Scent and taste ought not to be confounded. The nose and the month have their respective business to attend to; and though clean sweets are a natural gratification to the nostril and palate, which no one need be ashamed of. one does not like to smell with the tongue. Who would drink rosewater? Talking of the effect of sweets when applied to the wrong place, I remember once being summoned to a woman who had, so my informant said, poisoned herself in the porch. She lay on the ground, apparently in extremis, and muttered that she had taken oil of almonds; there was an empty bottle by her side. I smelt it, it was not that; so I handed her and the phial over to a couple of policemen, who in due time took her before a magistrate. It turned out that the poor creature had actually made an attempt on her own life, and for this purpose had asked for oil of almonds at a chemist's,—I think Bell's, in Oxford Street. He gave her almond oil, which had nearly the same effect; at least she thought so, as she lay sick and frightened in the porch. Conceive the sensation of swallowing a whole bottle of scented hair oil, slowly, out of a phial. Faugh! I confess I am reminded of this incident, however faintly, by some of the sensations at a pastrycook's.

Let us pass out. and follow that kindly aunt who has been stuffing those children ever so long with all manner of indiscreet penny abominations. They are going to the German Bazaar, where the stores of penny toys are to the occasional appearance of them in the streets, what the Arctic Regions are to the stray icebergs to be met with sometimes in the passage from England to America. Here a roaring trade in precious trumpery is driven throughout the holidays. There is nothing sold which will not break at once; the object of the manufacturer is to produce frailty and elaborate pretentious weakness. However, on this account, they are most valuable, as toys, especially when given. They cost nothing; excite gratitude and admiration, and then come to pieces before the possessor is satiated. But, methinks, the people who make these brittle fabrics must suffer morally. There is a saying some times heard from the lips of sly dishonest men, "Good work is bad for trade;" but all these poor foreigners who stick these toys together must take it as the very principle of their business.

You never wish for a strong toy. It would make a child rough and impetuous, for he must break it at last, if it won't come apart kindly. So the German artist strives to excel in failure, and lives by imperfection: but even with the intentional carelessness of his work, when you have to deduct the cost of carriage and profit made by the stall-keeper in London, it is wonderful how he can produce such articles as at last are sold for—only a penny!

Only a penny! is not this the increment of all wealth; does not the wisdom of our ancestors in this commercial land say, "Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves." Yes, it is the penny which both enriches and impoverishes. The merchant warehouses and banks are built with pence, the river and the docks are filled with them. Contempt for "only a penny" will beggar an heir of thousands, and has brought many to the court of bankruptcy or the poor house. This is the little leak which sucks away so mysteriously the ways and means in those households where there is never a spare shilling—where bills and wages are unpaid—though the income be never so good. Nobody can be in easy circumstances who despises the copper margin to his fortune. Let him look after that ring fence, and his estate will be safe; but treat that ill, let that get out of repair, and the poachers will soon have your gold and silver pheasants.

But if neglect of pence disorders the budget of the rich man, it beggars the poor. Small, careless, or selfish expenditure just marks the distinction between the respectable artisan and the pauper; small savings, on the other hand, make the respectable artisan independent of impoverishing sickness, loss of work or even age. Penny banks are found to be the best forms of provident institutions; they do not deter the small depositor so much as even savings banks. These last have much of the furniture of a large establishment,—clerks looking at you through rails, managers chatting over an inner fire, huge books, and altogether a mysterious repelling air of wealth.

The boy or man who has made up his mind to save pence, and has found an old teapot on the mantelshelf but an insecure custodian, would not like to pass on to the savings bank at one stride. No, the humbler office close by, with an easy, sympathising, domestic air about it, which takes a penny, indeed adopts the very name of this coin, that is the house for him to keep his account at—the best stepping stone to the larger establishments. These Penny Banks are spreading, and promise to supply the want which was felt of some net sufficiently fine to catch the smaller fry of would-be depositors, and thus encourage the first movement towards self-help and independence. H. J.