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no use in blinking the fact now that it grew so near, there was to be downright comic singing.
They pricked up their ears in the space before the platform as soon as the sober harmonium, under the fingers of a blind player, gave notice that, contrary to its custom, it was about to be hilarious. With a keen remembrance of last year's treat, the sightless orbs that faced about in the front row of the gallery quivered and twitched, which was the best they could do towards twinkling. But they were not to remain up in the gallery—they were to come down and sit all together, as they did last year; and this they did, laughing and chatting as they made room for each other, and thawing out of their mistrust and timidity in a wonderful way.
Now that their faces were turned upwards, and the gaslight shone down on them, you could see how awfully blind some of them were ; and I verily believe that what was once their eyes would have looked less appalling had not their faces been puckered in smiles. It was so grimly suggestive of death in the midst of life. And there they were, many rows deep, and all with their eyes towards the harmonium, for all the world as though they could see. And I may here remark that several of the blind men and women wore spectacles, not, of course, that they derived the smallest personal benefit from their use, but purely out of tender regard for the sensitive feelings of beholders.
A blind man played the harmonium, and a blind man who was now growing towards middle age, and who had lost his eyes when he was two months old, in a voice mellow and jovial, started the concert with “ 'Tis forty years, my old friend John,” in the chorus to which all joined with heartiness, and as though it were an uncommon treat to hear their own voices mingling har
moniously with other voices. After that a blind female singer favoured the audience with “Beloved Star," singing the song with much sweetness. Then followed other songs, including one about the “Merry sunshine ;" and it is a remarkable fact that the majority of the ditties sung bore reference to pleasant sights rather than sounds.
There were some funny songs too, all about courtship and sweethearting (all sung by blind singers), and a “ laughing song," the chorus to which was nothing but “Ha! ha! ha!” and it was really comforting to find, now that they were stirred to it, that they could laugh as heartily without eyes as with—a fact that previously I certainly should have been disposed to dispute. It was all right now as regards sociability, and I have no doubt that the laughing song did it. When it becomes a trial of good humour, even between blind men, who shall laugh the longest and the loudest, there seems nothing for the vanquished to do but clap hands with the victor, and hail him as a pleasant neighbour. They were getting so well along one with the other under the influence of comic and sentimental song, that I was profane enough to wish that I might order in just enough of steaming punch to serve out to all who liked it--one, only one, comfortable tumbler, with new long clay pipes and Bristol bird's-eye (not by way of mending matters
—they required no mending, as every one of the two hundred was ready to attest), when, shortly after nine o'clock, they took their departure, each one receiving a new shilling as he or she passed out.
AT SUPPER WITH A HUNDRED THIEVES.
SUPPER follows naturally on tea, and I may here relate my experiences of strange company, derived from my having on one occasion “fallen among thieves.”
The invitation ticket was neither elaborate nor imposing. It merely set forth, on three inches by one and a half of modest pasteboard, that on Monday, the 30th of January, at six o'clock in the evening, “ Ned Wright” would give a supper to boys who had been convicted of felony.
Honest boys were ineligible. A sort of committee of investigation was instituted some days before, and each case was inquired into, so as to make quite sure that the applicant for a ticket was a genuine black sheep, and not a lamb in wolf's clothing. How necessary it was to take this precaution was proved by more than one barefaced fraud that was attempted. Hale's Street, Deptford, was to be the scene of the banquet, and that neighbourhood abounds with squalor and poverty, which may account for the many ingenious devices resorted to by really honest lads to pass themselves for the sake of a meal of soup and bread, as convicted thieves. One lad had been at the pains to get himself “coached” in the most elaborate manner. He laid claim to have “served” both in Maidstone gaol and the prison at Wandsworth, knew the names of the governors and of the chief warders, the peculiarities of the work, and the food, and all the rest of it. Even Mr Edward Wright, despite his practical experience, was nearly taken in by the honest
little villain, but on cross-examination a slip of the tongue betrayed him, and he slunk away shamefaced, and let us hope not with a stern determination to make his claims beyond dispute by the time the next felon's supper was announced.
Having been assured that the guests invited to the supper were to be bona fide thieves, I must confess that I went prepared to face some sort of danger. Just imagine, a hundred of the professed “ dangerous class," the young of the tribe, to be sure, but none the less to be dreaded on that account. Five score of budding burglars! A hundred robbers in training, and with not even that care for their own safety that might be naturally expected in ruffians of experience. In the midst of them, with a decent hat on one's head, a coat worth a pound on one's back, and possible. shillings in one's pocket, and no police to protect you! Terrible, indeed, was the picture the excited imagination conjured upmarvellously flat, and poor, and commonplace was the reality.
Let the reader imagine a barn-like building with whitened walls, and rows of forms—schoolboys' desks— with nothing as yet more promising in view in the way of supper than several pyramids of enormous white basins at the further end, and a heap of tin spoons piled on a table. A few ladies and gentlemen—a dozen, may be—are talking here and there, quite free and fearlessly, while by twos and threes some small boys make their appearance and take their seats in front.
They make their appearance to the number of thirty, perhaps, and there is nothing either striking or picturesque about them; they are merely poor half-starved little wretches of the gutter, ranging in age from nine to thirteen. They are not in the least abashed. They talk and laugh, and criticise the ladies and gentlemen, and make jocular remarks concerning the spoons and basins.
“When do you expect the thieves ? ” I venture to enquire.
"These are thieves," is the answer. “You see the little ones are bolder than the big ones, and come earlier so as to get front seats and the first of the
It was so hard to believe that I got into conversation with the children, and sure enough my informant was right. There was not one of them that had not "done his bit,” as they said, and more than one had tasted prison fare and picked prison oakum on three distinct occasions. They did not evince the least shame in making confession—they seemed proud of it, rather ; and one young gentleman, aged eleven, who, with a haughty twist of his side locks, announced that he had been “in” five times, was at once set down by a friend, who told him that he needn't make such a jaw about it, and to bear in mind that they wasn't all convictions, but two was “marnders” (remands), and that he was both times discharged at the second hearing. One little boy told me how that he had “done three months at Maidstone” for nailin' two glasses of sweetstuff out of a shop, and had treated his companions to a peep-show with the proceeds, and was vilely betrayed by one whom he had declined to treat, and was arrested with his eye at the peep-hole, and in the midst of his enjoyment of the thrilling spectacle of the murder of Mr. O'Conner by the Mannings.
After a little while other thieves arrived, and the room began to fill—older lads these last arrivals—some of them seventeen and eighteen, I dare say, but