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Balchin himself in the shop. As for me, I was accommodated with a seat in the private parlour, where, through an opening in the wire blind, I was enabled to see the whole shop, and the boxes, with their occupants.
There were not many of the latter, however, at starting; and the business done with them was, as a rule, the reverse of pleasant to an eye-witness. Occasionally the door of a box would be opened, and would shut again with an independent kind of bang, heralding the arrival of a customer whose husband had made a good week, got his wages early, received perhaps a handsome Christmas-box over and above, and who had proudly come to “take out” to the extent of thirty shillings or so, including “ earrings, 45.,” and “copper kettle, 5s." They were takers out most of these early birds; but now and then, entering at a door that made no bang at all, and approaching the counter with a manner in painful contrast to that of the redeemer of the copper kettle would come an unfortunate with whom times were so desperately hard that the only way left for tiding over Christmas was a resort to the pawnshop.
Nor was it the act of pawning at such a time, so much as the articles they brought to pawn, that excited one's commiseration for them. There was one man, a dreadfully pale and thin poor fellow, who produced from his pockets and his hat, and laid on the counter, three common little pictures in their shabby frames, a crockery figure of Garibaldi, and two other chimney ornaments of a similar kind. “ Eighteenpence,” suggested the pale man, in a mild tone. “Can't take 'em in,” remarked the matter-of-fact Joseph, ficking Garibaldi's head with his finger and thumb, evidently suspecting that he was cracked.
“What's the use of bringing such rubbish here?"
“Couldn't you make 'em half-couldn't you say ninepence?” urged the pale man, with a dismal alteration in his voice,“ only ninepence, come !" But Joseph was a young fellow who had served an apprenticeship to pawnbroking, and, as a matter of business, his heart was steeled against the appeals of the poverty-stricken.
“I couldn't make 'em fourpence. I wouldn't give house-room to such trumpery," he lightly replied, pushing the “trumpery” back in a heap, and giving his attention to the next customer.
“God forbid, my lad, that you should ever need a shilling as sorely as I do this night!” said the pale man, in a shaky voice; then he gathered up the chimneyornaments and the paltry little pictures and took his departure, to find, I hope, better luck elsewhere. I wouldn't have been Joseph, and had those bitter words addressed to me for all the money in Mr Balchin's till. But Joseph was used to this sort of thing. Scarcely had the pale man gone when a poor woman came in with a cotton gown to pawn. She had an old shawl wrapped about her, and as she reached over to place the bundle on the counter, I saw that her arm was naked to the shoulder. Joseph narrowly examined the gown about the body part.
“You have been washing it in a hurry, haven't you?” he remarked ; "it's hardly dry yet.”
" It was on my back two hours ago," replied the woman,“ and it was either take it off and bring it here, or let the young 'uns go without a bit of grub tomorrow."
“ It's a confounded nuisance, you know,” remarked Joseph, folding up the gown.
"Ah! well, never mind; p'raps I ought to thank God that I've got a gown to pawn," said the poor soul.
"I meant it was a nuisance that it is damp,” remarked Joseph the unsentimental ; “the blessed things go mildewed, and so we lose by 'em ;” and then, with professional dexterity, he made the gown into a roll not larger than a German sausage, pinned a ticket to it, threw it under the counter, and airily pitched two separate shillings towards the gownless woman, who hurried off to make the most of them, I suppose, in the shape of the "bit of grub” for the next day, which was Christmas.
There were a good many others who responded to Joseph's repeated “Anyone want to leave?" but, except the two cases I have described, and two others, there was nothing remarkable about them. One of those last mentioned was that of a woman smelling horribly of rum, who came staggering in with two pairs of tiny boots—the mud still wet upon them—to pawn, and who, I was glad to see, was promptly ejected from the premises, muddy boots and all, by Mr Balchin himself. The other case was that of an old woman who was in the singular dilemma of wishing to pawn her wedding ring, worn almost as thin as a thread, but who could not get it over her bony old knuckle. Her “old man” was coming out of the hospital that night, she said, having lain there ten weeks with a broken leg ; there was nothing at home to eat; and she had turned the matter over “in her conscience” whether it was more wicked to take off her ring and pawn it-having nothing else in the world left to pawn-or to keep it on and let her “old man” go without a bit of dinner on Christmas for the first time in their married lives.
The worst of it was that, having decided which was the lesser wickedness, she couldn't get the ring off. Joseph tried, but also failed, and, after his customary practical manner, expressed an opinion that it would have to be buried with her. “But if it was 'off, what could you lend me on it ?” the poor woman asked. Joseph turned about the bony old finger, and finally said that he could go as high as two shillings. I must confess that I had my doubts about the old woman. It seemed so very like an artful Christmas Eve tale got up to impose on Mr Balchin, or on some kindly-disposed customer who might happen to be in the shop at the time. I did the good old soul injustice, however. In less than a quarter of an hour she was back again, looking triumphant-although her finger was bound up in a bit of rag—and laid the ring on the counter. It is not too often that I give away half-crowns, goodness knows, and Mr Balchin, to whom appeal was made on the matter, was seriously opposed to such an unbusinesslike interference; while as for Joseph, his sense of the ludicrous was so immensely tickled, that he could scarcely hold a pen steady enough to make out tickets for ten minutes afterwards. But he was not called on to make out one for that brave old woman.
As the evening advanced, business grew brisker and brisker. Mr Balchin had now divested himself of his coat, and his two young men had followed his example. The doors of the various compartments no longer by their banging announced the entrance of some fresh customer, for the crowd in every case extended through the doorway, and out into the passage beyond. There were six boxes, and at least five-and-twenty persons in each. The cry was no longer, “Who wants to leave ?” -the time for “ leaving” had passed, and redemption alone was the order of the night.
Mr Balchin was right in his prognostication that he should have a hot night of it. It was hot, literally as well as figuratively, and the atmosphere was rendered none the more pleasant by the strong flavour of spirituous liquors with which it was impregnated. It was a marvel how the pawnbroker and his assistants preserved their equanimity. Nine out of every ten men, women, and children were clamouring to be served, bewailing the length of time they had been already obliged to wait, pushing and jostling and mercilessly elbowing each other in the narrow spaces to get closer to the counter, and throwing out their arms, every fist grasping one, two, or half a dozen “ tickets," while all in the same breath called out for Joseph and Charles.
The wonder was that these two enduring mortals were not distracted and rendered incapable of any manner of business. It was easy enough to see how the least hitch in the methodical manner in which the pledges were delivered would lead to inextricable confusion. Had Mr Balchin or either of his young men been taken suddenly unwell, or had one or other of the active youths who officiated in the mysterious upper chambers through which the convenient“ spout” penetrated struck work, and at that time quitted his employment without notice, it is impossible to say what the result would have been. Even as it was, the women in the background did not scruple to launch withering sarcasms at both Joseph and Charles for their alleged want of alacrity, at the same time suggesting many ingenious—and, in some instances, painful-devices for prevailing on them to move a little quicker. Some, on the other hand, tried soft persuasion, and even wheedling—calling on the young men as good souls, as dears, and even as “ ducks,” to take the tickets from their outstretched hands. But Joseph and Charles were as proof against blandishment as the flat-irons they from time to time