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been at his post thirty-six hours unceasingly; nor did he speak of it as a something that might possibly astonish his hearers, or as being at all remarkable. “It is not exhausting work,” said John Jones, the banksman, “but it is work that requires watchfulness and wakefulness," and when one comes to understand that it is the banksman who controls the engineer having charge of the sole means by which the sinkers in the “ black damp” shaft might be raised or lowered, one does not feel disposed to controvert John Jones's last assertion. However, he declared that, although he had been on duty rather more than what a London bricklayer would call three days and a half, full time, he was both watchful and wakeful. The Government inspector, who was present, gave his opinion that not any of the colliery rules had been infringed, although at the same time he expressed his coincidence with the view taken by the coroner, that no man should be allowed to remain at his post so long a time as thirty-six hours; and so, with a verdict of “ Accidental Death,” the matter terminated.
A PAWNBROKER'S CHRISTMAS EVE.
MR BALCHIN's neighbourhood is not exactly povertystricken—that is to say, it is not hopelessly and helplessly paralysed in the miry ways of squalor, with its arms and hands so long stretched out imploring charity, that those useful members have stiffened in that humiliating position, and are no more available for honest labour, or anything but begging. As all well know, there are neighbourhoods so unfortunately circumstanced; but Mr Balchin's is not one of them. His neighbourhood is poor enough, in all conscience; but its poverty is of the toilsome, drudging, honest sort.
It is a mixed population amongst which Mr Balchin is fixed, consisting chiefly of working jewellers and tailors, artificial florists, and makers of fancy goods, who as a rule work at home, and whose means of existence are at best precarious. This being the case, it is not surprising that Mr Balchin does a brisk stroke of business in the pawnbroking line. He is so good as to lend money on their clothing, their household goods, and their tools. It is on pledges of the last-mentioned sort that Mr Balchin's knowledge of the condition of those about him is mainly founded. Part of his business is to study these matters; as, for instance, he informs me, the greater part of his customers are “regulars ”-that is to say, those who, as a rule, redeem on Saturday night, out of the week's earnings, all that
they have been compelled to pawn since the preceding Monday.
It is chiefly the Sunday clothing that is thus temporarily mortgaged ; and I have a respectable tradesman's word that in “no end of cases" the money advanced is more than equal to the value of the pledges deposited. “It is easily enough explained,” said Mr Balchin. “Say a suit is brought to us, and, it being worth the money, we lend 155. on it—as it's used only once a week, its value does not very rapidly depreciate, and we go on lending 155. on its being brought to us punctually every Monday morning, while those who bring it depend on the sum of 15s., as though it was money earned. Very likely it's all laid out beforehand for rent and one thing and another, and they need every sixpence of it. It is a terrible blow to them when, in right down self-defence, we are obliged to cut down the advance from 15s. to 12s. I assure you, my dear sir, we dare not do it suddenly. We are obliged to break it to them gently; to point out to them the increasing greasiness of the coat collar and the fraying of the trouser legs, and to impress on them to prepare for a reduction in the amount next week, or, at the very farthest, the week following that.
"Perhaps," continued Mr Balchin, whose chokeful warehouses I was inspecting with him as he talked, “I may have, at the present time, twelve or fourteen hundred pounds invested in such goods. It is all right when they take 'em out on Saturday and bring 'em back on Monday; but if anything happens, and they are not able to redeem, where am I? There is one thing, I always know when there is a screw getting loose, and that is when the regular pledges show uneasiness in flowing out, and tools begin to flow in. It's a
fatal sign, that is. First come those tools of the finer kind which at a push may be spared ; and if the pawning stops at them, there may be a chance of the hard time tiding over ; but if in a week or so the coarse tools come in, then I know that there's a dead block, and that the Sunday suits are likely to lie in limbo for a considerable time, even if they are ever redeemed at all. I know as well as possible how matters stand with 'em. You come to me and ask, “How's the artificial flower trade in your neighbourhood ?' 'How's the fancy box business ?' or 'How are things going in the tailoring way?” I turn over the leaves of my pledge-book for a few weeks past, and am able to tell you exactly.
On this sure foundation of knowledge did Mr Balchin make the gratifying statement that it is many a year, taking the season of Christmas, since poor hard-working people were so easily circumstanced. “I don't know," said he,“ to what to attribute it; possibly it is the continuance of mild weather, but it is a positive fact that my books are within twenty pounds as clear of tools as they were in July.”
“And have you found a corresponding diminution in the number of your regular' weekly pledges?" I asked.
“No," returned Mr Balchin, in a comfortable tone of satisfaction; "they never diminish, no matter what amount of prosperity there is. They get into the habit of coming here, you see; and habits are not easily cured when they grow on one. We are very full just now, but I reckon on having a grand clear out before we put up the shop shutters to-night. It is not often that I am mistaken, and I have a fancy that we shall have as hot a Christmas Eve delivery as we have had ever since I have been established,”
I was very glad to hear this; in the first place, because there could be no doubt that a “hot delivery” of pledged goods by poor folk on a Christmas Eve was comfortably indicative of warmly-clad shoulders on the morrow—to say nothing of the fair presumption that hot and jolly Christmas dinners would be more than usually prevalent; and in the second place, because, having promised myself the interesting sight of a Christmas Eve redemption, and arranged accordingly with Mr Balchin, it was fortunate that the occasion promised to be of an exceptional sort.
At an early hour in the evening—as soon as it was dusk, in fact—the decks were cleared for the coming contest. In the warehouses on the floors above the shop there must have been thousands of bundles of all sorts and sizes, closely wedged into square wooden receptacles that covered the walls from floor to ceiling on every side, and in racks that extended across and across the rooms, with alleys no more than two feet wide between. Each bundle had its ticket hanging out, like a tale-telling tongue, revealing what was inside, together with particulars of the month and the day it was brought to pawn, who pawned it, and what was lent on it.
There were three of these floors, and the “spout” from the shop penetrated to the topmost. On every floor was a sharp and active youth, whose business it was to discover and send “down the spout” the ransomed bundles; and, besides, there was another, Beadle by name, a morose and moody boy, whose department was the cellar, and who was looked down upon by the young gentlemen of the spout as one of mean position, whose familiar advances it was the proper thing to discourage. Besides these junior assistants there were the two young men, Joseph and Charles, besides Mr