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IN STRANGE COMPANY.
THREE OF TEN THOUSAND.
THE Angel at Islington, from which every minute almost through the livelong day omnibuses from all parts of London are setting down and taking up their loads of passengers, is a favourite hunting ground with the juvenile ragamuffin horde, who, for their sustenance, are driven to beg, or steal, or legitimately trade, as occasion
may serve. Day and night you may find them there2 paper boys, fusee boys, crossing-sweeper boys, and boys
out of number who are nothing in particular "at present," three-feet-high merchants, ruined through rash speculations, and “rubbing on" until a lucky windfall sends them a sixpence with which to go to market again ; dirty, houseless, poor little gutter prowlers, who ever keep a bright look-out, are never downhearted, live on from day to day, and at night find shelter for their capless, unkempt heads, God only knows how.
You may always find them there; and there they were as that miserable winter's day, last Thursday, was closing in with drizzling rain that was ten times colder than snow. There they were, and it came into my head quite suddenly that an hour might be worse spent than
in sampling the bulk and hearing from their own lips what were their present means and future prospects in that state of life to which hard fortune had doomed them.
As though divining my thoughts, at that moment there leaped out of the mud, right under my nose, one of exactly the sort on which my mind was dwelling-a poor shoeless shuffling little wretch, whose entire suit consisted of a pair of manly trousers ingeniously secured by a single brace over a dilapidated shirt of the Guernsey order, and whose stock-in-trade was five or six cakes of boot blacking, contained in a box slung round his neck.
The box had no lid, and the rain was so rapidly liquefying the paper-covered cakes, that the one he held out for me to buy drooped across his mite of a handdeadly white with cold where it was not black with grime—in a manner not calculated to tempt a person who was some miles distant from home, and who really was not urgently in need of blacking.
“Buy a a'porth,” pleaded the small boy, “here yer are, take three on 'em for a penny; that won't hurt yer!”
Great was the boy's amazement when I bade him go and wait a little while for me at the corner of the next street, and I would show him how he might earn a shilling easily.
My next capture was a fusee boy, a little youngerlooking than my blacking boy ; but I wanted still another, and presently I espied him, a red-haired boy, a sturdy broad-nosed freckled villain of eleven or so, who scorned trade, and was a lawless savage. When I set eyes on him he was in a fierce conflict with a boy older and bigger for possession of a crumpled-up paper of that evening's issue that some one had thrown from the roof of an omnibus. Encouraged by the cries of “Go it, Ginger !" yelled by his admiring friends, the red-haired boy presently finished his antagonist by scientifically butting him with his bullet head in the pit of the stomach, and bringing him to the ground; after which Ginger retired to the pavement, and, waving his captured prize most aggravatingly before the eyes of the vanquished, with calm precision executed a war dance.
A quarter of an hour later we four—the blacking boy, the cigar-light vendor, Mr. Ginger, and the reader's humble servant-were comfortably bestowed in the parlour of a little alehouse in the Pentonville Road, with bread and cheese before us, and a glorious fire burning in the grate, in the fender of which my thrifty blacking-boy laid out his little stock to dry.
Ginger's delight when the landlord brought in along with a big loaf the half of a huge Cheshire cheese, was a sight to behold ; his amazement when the landlord left the room, leaving the half cheese behind him, I will not attempt to describe.
"He's forgot it, ain't he?” he said, handling his knife as though sadly tempted to make the most of the innkeeper's mistake by slicing off a pound or so.
“No, he hasn't forgotten, my lad,” said I, “he'll fetch it away when we have done with it."
“When we have done with it! What, are we going to eat as much as we likes on it ?”.
Ginger lost not a moment more. Licking his lips as I cut him a liberal slice, he pounced on it and on a hunch of bread with a degree of voracity that spoke of long fasting
Ginger ate with his elbows on the table—nay, with both his arms and hands forming a jealous barrier round his food, just as the brown bear at the Zoological Gardens encircles with his paws the meal of biscuits the keeper throws to him in his den. As he munched each greedy mouthful, his fierce eyes marked the next in the crisp crust, in the luscious cheese that yielded but too faint a resistance to his grim semicircle of teeth. I can't say how much that half cheese weighed, probably thirty pounds, but it was evident that Ginger had promised himself that he would eat the whole of it, and the spasm of pain it caused him to see me help the other two was ludicrous to behold. The second, the third time, he thrust his plate for another helping, and still once again, and with a chuckle of triumph as the blacking-boy and the fusee-boy announced that they had had enough. The champing of his insatiable jaws was the only sound that was heard, while his mates sat silent and expectant of information as to what was the "job" I had spoken of. At last I ventured mildly to remark to Ginger,
“When you are quite full, my young friend— ” To which he promptly responded,
“All right, guvner, I ain't a greedy cove; I'll knock off now, if you like,” and bolting at a gulp about two square inches of cheese that remained on his plate, he announced himself at my service.
I explained briefly that, in the first place, I wished to know where was their home, and what their means of living; and I first addressed myself to the blacking-boy.
“I am nine and a half,” said he, “and I lives in Playhouse Yard, in Whitecross Street. It ain't a house, at least it ain't a house what you goes in-doors to, with tables and chairs and that, and a fire.”
“Ah, ah !” remarked Ginger ; “no, there ain't much room for furniture in Billy Taggs's house, but it's werry comfortable, and, wot's more, it's regler. It's a barrer.”