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compromised the matter by smoking long pipes and drinking gin and water or the best ale. There were the liquor vessels and the spilled liquor on the table, and the pile of mourning hats, with the weepers attached, forming a pyramid in the centre; there, too, were the mourners, seduced by the undertakers' respectable example and by the repeated assurance that it was absolutely necessary to let the horses be baited ; and the submissive folks were ordering just one drop more, until the room was foul with tobacco smoke and the fume of spirits, and the men were growing mooney-eyed and the women maudlin.
By which signs the watchful funeral performers knew the horses must have finished their bait, and rang the bell-on behalf of the person present responsible for the funeral expenses—to inquire what their men at the bar had had to drink, and, in fact, what it came to altogether? It was no business of mine what the sum total was; but that the imbibers at the bar had their fair share in it was guaranteed by the fact, that several of them were so audaciously fortified as to start for the homeward journey, on the hearses as well as the black coaches, still smoking their short pipes.
A COW-CROSS TEA-PARTY.
It had been agreed by the benevolent promoters of the gathering that the invitation should be by tickets judiciously distributed, and that the scene of the feast should be the Mission Hall in White Horse-yard, Smithfield.
The invited guests numbered over two hundred. To the uninitiated it may appear strange that a mere “tea” should possess attractions sufficient to call together so considerable a contingent of the rough-and-ready brotherhood of costermongers. As a rule, public teagivings are by no means heavy affairs. The cups are filled and emptied as a mere social formality, and there is scarcely any consumption of solids worth mentioning.
This, however, is in polite society, of whose usages the British costermonger is as ignorant as he could wish to be. With him a “tea” is a chief meal. His breakfast is a hasty affair, despatched in these winter morning hours before daylight, at a coffee-stall at Billingsgate or Farringdon Market. When he has bought his goods and drawn them home—at nine or ten o'clock, maybehe will refresh on “a crust and a half-pint,” but after that the course of business knows no break until dusk, when,“ between the lights,” he snatches half-an-hour or so, and feeds as heavily as his means will allow, ere, with recruited strength, he sallies forth again to dispose, by naphtha-light, of the remains of his yet unsold stock. It is seldom, however, that an opportunity occurs for his indulging in what, in his rude though expressive language, he calls a “reg'ler buster.” The regular burster
so, and feeds on the lights,” he sono break unti
is a luxury reserved for special occasions, such as that here described ; and it was necessary to make preparations accordingly.
Attached to the snug little hall in White Horsealley, there is an ante-room; and here it was that, hours before the appointed tea-time, those who had undertaken the formidable task of cutting bread and butter were hard at it. There was a stack of loaves reminding one of those stacks of granite cubes one sees piled for road paving, and a mighty mound of butter. Besides which, there were in tall baskets of half-bushel capacity some hundred of "chunks" of seed and currant cake. It appears that it is just possible to make a rough calculation as to the quantity of solid food that will be required on such occasions.
It has been ascertained, by careful observation, that when the costermonger grows aged, and is incapacitated by failing teeth, or some other physical infirmity, he can seldom, within the limits of an ordinary tea-time, manage to stow away more than six, or at the outside eight, slices. The middle-aged and robust make easy work of a dozen : the main difficulty rests with the long-legged, lean-flanked, growing young coster, whose appetite is continually keen as a razor edge. It is impossible to arrange with any certainty and prepare against this individual's raid on the bread-and-butter plate. There is nothing for it but to make a time bargain with him. It has been observed that, when at comfortable full swing, when he is not overcrowded, and it is not necessary for him to waste precious moments in blowing his hot tea, he is fairly equal to the task of disposing of a substantial slice in two minutes. He can keep on at this pace without faltering for a considerable period— how long, he himself confessedly does not know, since he never yet enjoyed the felicity of assisting at a teaparty that was sufficiently protracted to enable him to settle the question.
However, half-an-hour is reckoned to be a fair teatime, which would give the growing young costermonger fifteen slices. Taking the average, it may be set down at ten for each of the two hundred, or two thousand slices in all—thick slices, bear in mind : anything under an inch thick would be regarded with contempt by the bony young barrowman, and perhaps with an uncomfortable suspicion that you have designs to inveigle him into the detestable ways of gentility. He calls it “toffishness." He is peculiar in his views in this respect. Tall hats are toffish in Costerdom: so are starched shirtcollars; and as for gloves, sooner than wear a pair a costermonger would be seen carrying an umbrella. To affect thin bread and butter is undoubtedly “toffish,” and is eschewed accordingly.
The evening was miserably wet, and I began, as six o'clock drew near, to be apprehensive lest on that account there should be a falling-off in the number of expected guests. But I did them injustice. There is not wanting among these honest poor fellows a spirit of gratitude towards those who compassionate their grievances, and they take a pride in “keeping their word.” Ill clad, most of them, with not a few who imprinted on the boards fantastic muddy shapes that were like anything but such as a sound shoe makes, they came trooping in at the appointed time, as bright and jolly-looking as possible-healthy-looking, too, which was even more surprising. A little while before, there had been made from the tall roof of the Mission House a display of lime - light, which threw its dazzling, unearthly glare through the darkness on the surrounding courts and alleys with an effect that was appalling. Between the Sessions House and the New Meat Market may be reckoned a score or so of such hideous “no thoroughfares” as are to be met with in no other part of London. Maybe there are many who, passing along Turnmill Street, towards the Metropolitan Railway Station, have ventured to peep into the two-feet-wide entrances to nests of squalor; but such a glimpse gives them no more idea of a Cow-cross alley's hidden mysteries than is to be gleaned of the wonders of the ocean by the contemplation of a bag of Mr Tidman's sea-salt.
The sun, even, knows very little about the matter, for its rays can penetrate only to a little distance between these black crevices, flanked on either side by tall, time-wrecked, crazy houses, each with its ten, twelve, or fourteen rooms—for the cellars count as such—and each of these again in its turn an abode for a family. It was startling to see the fashion in which the inexorable lime-light ripped away the dense alley mist that clung like a sable cloak about these horrible habitations, and exposed them. You could see through the uncurtained windows sheer into scores of rooms, plainly as you can into a dingy corner when a bull's-eye light is flashed upon the spot; the walls bare and smokebegrimed, the floor naked, except for the sack or strip of old carpet before the fenderless fire-place, round about which the squalid family huddled. You could see, as plainly as though you were within three yards of them, what were the rags they wore, and how insufficient they were to cover the poor little bodies of the children. You could make out, too, quite distinctly, what a dreadful contrivance a Cow-cross alley bedstead is in many cases, and picture to your mind what a terrible hardship you would find it to have to lie on such