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tion of dirty rags, loll out of the patched and plastered holes in the wall that serve as windows, and exchange with their opposite neighbours compliments or blasphemous abuse; or, shaking their bony fists, shriek down threats and curses on the juvenile members of their kind, who roll in the gutter and bite and scratch each other for possession of decayed oranges and apples that the resident costers throw out in the process of sorting.
Rough and coarse as he is, the costermonger is to be easily distinguished from his dishonest neighbour. There is an ease, a freedom of action about him that distinguishes him at home not less than abroad. His language is not choice, he is not scrupulously clean and tidy, occasionally he gets drunk; but in nine cases out of ten he remains to the end nothing more than a poor ignorant hard-working fellow, always open to act on the most liberal interpretation of that convenient phrase, “trick of the trade," but, apart from this, absolutely honest—which is as much, and perhaps, considering his surroundings and how hard a thing at times it is to resist temptation, rather more than might reasonably be expected of him.
“But,” the reader may say, " there is at least this consolation in so wretched a neighbourhood, where all are so deeply plunged in poverty—there can be but very little drunkenness. Intoxicating liquors are expensive luxuries.”
Very expensive. A “quartern ” of gin costs exactly as much as four pounds of bread. Nevertheless, within a circle of a furlong of the Mission House, the enormous number of eighty-three public-houses thrive and grow fat. It is computed that the same amount of space affords homes and haunts and hiding and abiding places for rather over twenty thousand canting beggars, thieves, tramps, costermongers, small shopkeepers, everybody; and one may easily imagine the influence of such a prodigious outpouring of rum, and gin, and whisky on such an inflammable mass. It was in the midst of this sink of vice and drunkenness, and of every conceivable iniquity, that, eight years since, one man, single-handed and almost unaided, dared to set up his tiny tent and commence a crusade of reformation. That man was Mr J. Orsman, and there he is still, encouraged by his successes, and patiently plodding, working at his business in business hours, but giving to the good cause, without fee or reward, his spare hours, Sunday and week-day.
“If you would like to drop in and see us on Tuesday,” said my indefatigable friend, “we have a bread and meat supper. It is an annual affair. Our guests are the beggars and tramps from the lodging-houses all round about. It isn't much—merely a little compliment in recognition of their good nature in allowing me to enter their kitchens, and say a few good words to those who choose to listen. I have the privilege of entering several of these places now, and I am glad to say that the owners rather encourage it than otherwise."
· Accordingly, on Tuesday evening, I went and found the expectant company assembled. The place was very full. Below there is sitting accommodation for between two and three hundred, and above there is a gallery in which perhaps two hundred more might be seated. Upstairs was fair enough as regards the dress and general appearance of the company, but below, in the pit as it were, it was anything but a pretty show. The seats were crammed, and, such is the amount of respect which the superintendent has won for himself amongst even these, the very dregs of humanity, that the behaviour of the “supper party” was simply all that could be desired.
But the faces! It was impossible to look on them without considering the question, How can such as these be good ? Of how many generations of neglect, of vice, and unavoidable grovelling at the foot of the social ladder, is this the result? At a glance it was evident that there had been no attempt amongst the members of the supper party to get themselves up for the occasion. The perfect understanding that existed between themselves and their entertainer rendered such a display of talent sheer waste of time.
They came "just as they were,” though, if the reader infers from that phrase that they appeared in the Mission Hall just as they appear in public, he mistakes my meaning. They attended without their“ business” masks. No face was puckered in pretended hunger pains, no eye rolled in unutterable misery, no jaws chattered an indication of a frozen interior. There was no whining, no make-believe, no humbug. I don't say that they were all beggars—probably not more than a third of them were—but what one in vain looked for was the “jolly beggar,” the oft-quoted and steadfastlybelieved-in personage who scorns work because he can "make" in a day three times the wages of an honest mechanic by the simple process of “cadging."
Is it a simple process? The evidence before me shewed exactly the contrary. Such of the motley company who graced the seats below, and who were beggars, were beggars in earnest-men and women who were old hands and experienced at the trade. How came it, then, that they were so desperately hard up and miserable, so dull-eyed and spiritless, so unmistakably hard-set in hopeless, helpless, conscious degradation ? Where were the big wallets of broken victuals with which, according to popular belief, the London beggar, after his day's prowling, invariably wends his way home, cursing it for its bulk and weight, and scornfully flinging it aside as soon as he reaches his familiar boozing ken? Where were the pampered ruffians in rags, to whom the sleek landlord of the public house he honoured with his patronage, cringed so servilely while he took his orders for immediate brandy and water and goose with apple sauce to be cooked as speedily as possible for supper ?
We read about such things, about cadgers' halls, and the desperate orgies to be witnessed in beggars' “kitchens." I am sure that I don't know where to find any such place at the present day. Judging from the appearance and behaviour of the bread and meat supper party, even the recollection of such splendid times must have faded from the memories of beggars of the present generation. Each and every one of the ragged, squalid, terribly dirty creatures before me — not the dirt of labour, but a smoky, ingrain grime, resembling the tarnish on neglected brass or copper—had come away from the great fire that invariably is kept burning in the common lodging-house kitchen, and had made a journey, long or short, through the snow and the biting wind, in order to secure a meal of bread and meat.
Nor was that all. If there is anything more than another detestable to this sort of people, it is being talked to “ for their good.” It is no more than natural. They are so constantly in the habit of talking to other people for their own individual good, so distorting facts, and making the very utmost of the slenderest material to win the sympathy of their victims, that they get to regard every kind of exhortation and persuasion as cant, and themselves as too knowing to be taken in by it. Yet, lured by the prospect of a pound of bread and half a pound of cold meat, here they sat from eight o'clock till ten, without coughing, or shifting in their seats, or shuffling their feet, or in any other way betraying the yearning that all the time was gnawing them. It quite upsets one's preconceived ideas about the sort of life the professional London beggar leads, raising the suspicion that this much-abused fraternity, like honester folk, are liable to “hard up" seasons, and that occasionally the members of it are really the famished, shivering wretches they appear.
Not that a single penny of mine should ever be bestowed on a bread and meat supper for beggars by trade. They are in constant employment, such as it is, and should learn to provide against the growing wisdom of the age, and the machinations of their natural enemies, the police and the Mendicity Society. But, as before mentioned, the guests at Mr Orsman's, supper were only some of them beggars. Very many were poor wretches driven by hard necessity to seek temporary refuge at a tramps' lodging house, to whom a meal of half a pound of wholesome meat, with bread, was a feast indeed. And I dare say that there were several who were of a worse class, the cultivation of whose good-will was more a matter of prudence than charity with the far-seeing missionary. Until you feel strong enough to take an obstreperous bull by the horns, it may be judicious to give him a handful of fodder for his amusement, so that he may not dispute your peaceful path.
Next day I was present at a “spread” at the Mission Hall of a much more gratifying description. Next day was Wednesday, and for a very long time past, on this day, the good missionary among the savage tribes of St Luke's has somehow contrived to raise from the charit