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“Very well ; and is it not likewise true that in the life you are now leading, you are glad to sleep in any hole or corner, and have seldom or never enough to eat ?”
“'Tis so, mister ; but you forgets how orful all alike the days is. When you're out you might be hard up, but you never knows what's goin' to turn up one minit afore another ; when ye're in quod it's all marked out for yer, and nothing can't turn up, 'cept it might be punishment ;” adding proudly, “I'd rather have ’arf a bellyful ‘on the loose,' than roast meat and baked taters all day long in the steel (prison). ”
You can't break them in, these ragged young wild colts, by means of the system at present adopted. It is all very well while the gaoler has them under lock and key, and the stern eye of the taskmaster is on them. It is good for the fierce and lawless youngsters to be made to feel “how orful all alike the days is.” The next proper step to take would be to place them in a 'position in which they might learn how short and pleasant is a day passed honestly and industriously, and with profit alike to employer and employed. Instead of this, they are now and again caught and stalled, and groomed and fed for a season, and then cast out reckless and masterless, to be presently pursued and captured anew, as though they were creatures that afforded pleasant hunting, but belonged to a race likely to die out unless they were taken in hand occasionally, and fortified with a little blood and muscle.
These fledglings of the gaol-bird breed, like their elders, almost invariably find friends waiting for them outside the strong cage when the term of their incarceration expires—friends of about their own age, generally speaking, shoeless, ragged, faithful little wretches, who were, perhaps, the unlucky one's colleagues in the little transaction that ended so disastrously, but who were nimble enough to outrun the constable, and so make their escape. They have kept careful reckoning of when Jack's time would be up, and, breakfastless, they have made a barefooted pilgrimage from Whitechapel or Clerkenwell just to let young Jack see that they have not forgotten him, and show how much they sympathise with him in his misfortune. That, in their ignorance, is the view they take of the case ; whereas it is plain as a pikestaff to the beholder that Jack has had very much the best of it.
It is simply absurd to regard Jack as a young person who has suffered punishment. He has passed a wholesome and healthful month in the country. He has a clean skin, the natural covering of his head has been cured from its old resemblance to a cast-aside stable mop; his eyes have recovered from tḥat painful lacklustre which comes of looking so very far ahead for a dinner, that very frequently it is tea time and past before it is overtaken; and his cheeks have attained a little of the plumpness that in a boy of ten is as natural as the bloom on a cherry. “What cheer, Jack? Come along, old son; you'll soon get over it.” That's the mischief of it. He was fairly on his way towards getting over it ”— over the clean skin, and the satisfied eyes, and the peaceful hair—the moment he fell in with those kindhearted young ruffians, his friends, and they set their faces Whitechapelward. But that the chances are against young Jack's at present finding courage to repeat the exploit which snatched him during a blissful thirty days out of the kennel, one might feel almost tempted to the Christian act of walking before young Jack with one's silk handkerchief lapping a good hand's-grip out of the coat-tail pocket.
Gaol birds older than Jack do not flit from the precincts of the prison so readily. They too have their “ friends” waiting for them. Not a nice looking lot of people. Hulking heavy-jawed gentlemen, with a great deal of the lower part of the face hidden in the thick folds of a “ropper,” and with close-fitting caps and seafaring looking jackets, into the side pockets of which the hands are thrust deep as the wrists, as though in guard of the neat and elegantly finished tools of his trade—the "jemmy,” the skeleton keys, the life preserver. Individuals as different in appearance from the pickpocket as the cart horse and the saddle horse. The last mentioned as well as the individuals who are in the heavy line of business are here to greet their released friends. Lithe, shabby-genteel young fellows, restless of eye and with the threadbare black coat buttoned at the waist, as though at any moment the wearer might be called on to perform some prodigious feat of running. Women, too. There is unfortunate Mrs Maloney, whose lord and master six weeks since was condemned to imprisonment with hard labour for beating her face with his blacksmith's fists, and jumping on her till her staybusk was split into twenty splinters. Yes, here is Mrs Maloney to this day wearing surgical sticking-plaster across the bridge of her nose, and with her eye still bloodshot from the onslaught of the murderous fists, pacing too and fro with the step of a lover waiting for her sweetheart, and with sixpence clutched tight in her hand—an olive-branch that shall in good time bear fruit in the shape of a pot of beer-her token of good will and peace towards the released Maloney.
And there, over by the lamp-post, stands watchful, another woman, the silk velvet trimming on whose hat alone cost more than Mrs Maloney's entire rig out, from
her pattens to her bonnet, but who is not by a thousand times so worthy a soul. This is a she-devil, whose den, probably, is situated in one of these respectable streets that branch out of the Haymarket ; and her errand here this morning is to coax back to her clutches some poor wretch of a girl, whose felony, committed six months since, was every penny of it the hag's profit, and not the least her own. Here, opposite, and within fifty yards of the prison, they wait for the opening of the gate—not clustered together, but “ hanging about” separately or in couples. There is hardly one that is not “known to the police," but this meeting-place before the gaol would seem to be neutral ground, on which no man may raise his hand against his fellow.
And now you might know—even if you had not witnessed it—by the eager and incessant swinging to and fro of the doors of the Bull-in-the-Pound that those other doors have opened. Here they come, crowding in, not hilarious and boisterous with gladness, though there are a few cases of mutual delirious delight-including that of Mr and Mrs Maloney, and, strangely enough, of the bulky brute in the burglarious jacket; whose scowling eyes are moist as over and over again he shakes hands with a she gaol bird, a mere girl of nineteen or so—but as eager for drink as though deprivation of it was the very essence of the punishment the late prisoners had endured. A pot of beer for the men—a full quart with a foaming head, and for the women, gin. Gin for the burglar's betrothed,—she brought a good “tract” in her hand out of the prison with her, a parting gift of the hopeful chaplain, and now the quartern gin measure stands on it as it lies on the metal counter; gin for the virago who has just “served ” three months for a murderous assault committed while in a state of mad drunkenness; gin for the lost gaol bird that has been looked for by the old hag, who for her own part pledges her restored captive in a big glass of neat brandy, and wishes her “better luck next time.”
They do not stay long drinking at the bar of the Bull in the Pound; not one in half a dozen has the pot or glass replenished. The only remarkable part of the affair is that, almost without exception, discharged prisoners take to this “stirrup-cup” as a formality not to be set aside or dispensed with; as a sort of rebaptising, without which they would be ineligible to reenter the world whence they have so long been shut out. I am not disposed to assert that there is any great harm in the ceremony, or that there would be less crime in the land if the Bull in the Pound were turned into a sweetmeat shop; but certainly it is not gratifying to know that these birds of peculiar feather habitually refresh their wings in gin or beer before they take flight back to their old hunting-grounds.