THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE GUTTER
I SUPPOSE it is because nature dazzles us with such an exuberance of wealth overhead that there is so little time to look for her wind-falls. Some day, perhaps, people will grow tired of star-gazing and will turn their eyes to the Gutter; then they will find the Gutter-babies, and many wonderful things.
A little way out on the map of life, every pilgrim from his own mountain of myrrh must make his venture; some of us have a natural tendency to the Gutter. It is much better than going to the wall. No psychologist could possibly find a more convenient observatory, for nowhere else is human correspondence so abruptly gracious and intimate. Here the dirtiest and most diminutive of Gutter-atoms crawl safely through the elementary stages of infancy into precocious adolescence, far from the battle of hoofs and wheels and the congested struggle of the highway. For the Gutter is the nursery of the poor.
Here, too, are foreigners among the natives, stars who have dropped out of an unknown and uncharted meridian, with queer and often pathetic biographies of their own, which they will tell, but not at all times or to all inquirers.
Once I met a youthful philosopher in the flattest pose possible to rotund humanity, with pink heels kicking at vacuum, and a cunning nose leveled to the grating of a drain.
It was my Johnny.
‘Do you like smelling drains, Johnny?’
He lifted a somewhat apoplectic countenance to explain. ‘It ain’t the bloomin’ drain what matters, it’s what comes out of its bloody inside! Once my Rosie, her finded a fadger here.’ Johnny smiled a great, blissful, expectant smile. ‘I’m lookin’ for a dear little shiner!’ he said.
‘We will play that game together, Johnny.’
So we did, he and I, and never got tired of it.
I was walking with a very small person; she was dressed in a tumbled cotton frock and a sunbonnet with one string. Otherwise she was quite curiously unlike the local lady. As we proceeded, the small person became confidential. Her name was Blanche, and Johnny claimed her as a relative because she was brought up by his aunt, who took Gutter-babies to mind, and she called Johnny’s twin cousins, Alf and Earn, her brothers. But many streets and many gutters divided them from Special Johnny, and if it had not been for the call of the blood it is doubtful if the authorities would even have permitted them to play together. For the twins’ dad was a gentleman all the week, and the little boys had their hair curled and wore velveteen on Sundays. The steps into society are frequently quite as abrupt in the Gutter-world, but Blanchie was the secret of this family’s success.
She was a Gutter-baby Wonder.
All day long she said her lessons and sucked sweets surreptitiously in the big school of the Gutter-babies, ate a scrappy fish dinner on her way out to play, just like the normal Gutter-baby, and romped and fought and wept through Gutter-life, the merriest and most mischievous of the little wild people, the spoiled darling of our set.
This was the Blanchie that we knew best, a wistful, precocious, sharp-witted creature, with whom, always and everywhere, flowed the warm and glowing atmosphere of the Guardian Spirit, called out of his art heaven to mind this wayward nursling of Genius through her extraordinary and very earthly career.
But when her playmates were cuddled together dreaming, with their restless limbs and chattering tongues as still as they ever are (for every real Gutter-baby tosses and moans in his sleep), while Johnny lay on his back snoring, and the twins slept sweetly in pink flannelette, with their golden hair securely fastened up in pins, — all night long before two ‘houses’ a very absurdly rosy and professionally-smiling Blanchie, in a short skirt, tripped about on the points of satin slippers, singing loudly through her nose, as she held sway over a troupe of over-grown and clumsy fairies in an obscurely suburban music-hall. The presence of the Guardian, paling and sick at this sordid insult to his art, yet more brilliant than the blinding limelight, wrapped itself about her innocence, so that the cold world, which shuts its heart against Gutter-babies, found a tender thought for the art-nursling, and someone would remember his own spoiled darling asleep on a soft pillow, and someone else would offer to see her safely across the road to the station. A tiny fist it was that he held, gripping fast a bulky treasure tucked away inside a cotton glove — the three pennies for her return fare to Shepherd’s Bush.
But the small person was talking to me.
‘I shan’t do no acting when I’m big, you know, there won’t be time.’
I wondered why, and was presently informed with due solemnity.
“I ’m a scholar; I’m sharp at my lessons; they think they learned me to read at schule, but they never. I knew my letters off the ’busses before I could walk.’
I dropped the foolish air of patronage which one sometimes assumes for the benefit of Gutter-babies who require cultivating, and became respectful.
‘Then I suppose you intend to be a teacher?’
‘No, I’ll have a schule; I’ll be guvness! ’
Presently she asked me cheerfully, ‘Whatever did you take up with me for?’
I told her as well as I could, and then made an attempt to reply to a volley of questions.
‘It’s good to ask ’em, ain’t it?’
I assented agreeably, supposing it to be at least the best way to learn the answer, anyway.
‘Some don’t seem to think so, but I reckons you can find out a lot this way, if you don’t ask silly ones and put people off you.’
One great fear haunts and threatens the ‘scholar’s’ brilliant future. It is that the terrible medical certificate may stop her‘schulin’.’ It does happen sometimes to ‘awful sharp kids.’ Some day I suppose the art-nursling will arrive at independence and will go away with her books, shaking off the foster family (who will then cease to appear in velveteen on Sundays), and leaving behind her a little pair of worn-out dancing shoes with blunted toes.
Earn was not really a disagreeable little boy, in spite of his unfortunate weakness for curls and velveteen. He had a magnificent gift of lying, and a clinging affection for the environment of Johnny. At times it seemed as if he might be quite one of us some day. His mother was very proud of having reared him from seven months, and to this interesting fact in his early history she attributed all his many failings and eccentricities. After administering a vigorous chastisement she would console herself with the reflection, ‘There, what can you expect of a sevenmonths’?’
She sent him to me the other day, seriously alarmed at his powers of mendacity, which were indeed remarkable, even for a Gutter-baby.
‘The lying little ’ound,’ she introduced him. ‘I’m sure me and his dad no one can’t say as ’ow we don’t keep our children respectable, and I doos ’is ’air up every night, I do, and where he learns it I can’t think. It all comes of takin’ other people’s to mind. They ain’t like yer own. But there,’she finished, with a shrewd wink at me over the golden head of the weeping Earn, ‘what can you expect?’
We heard her patiently, but when she had gone we sat far into the teahour together, his soft confiding voice charming away the twilight. Both of us quite forgot why he had come, forgot that he was a mean little snob who told lies, a gutter weakling with tangled curls and — the Gutter-babies’ chief abhorrence — spotless linen! There narrow firelit walls, the hard edges of our little world, surrendered to a fairy kingdom of limitless dimensions. Spell-bound we followed the thread of his expert imagination through a narrative, which, if slightly incoherent and vaguely suggestive, was yet sufficiently graceful not to shame the great Grimms themselves.
Then a sudden hesitation, with no hope of continuation in our next, and no persuasion could drag from the orator anything but the most trivial conversation. It was the only glimpse I had into that vivid and fertile mental atmosphere. For the sickly, freakish energy of the ‘seven-months’ was easily exhausted, and his time with us was brief. But a few days after our interview he was observed playing with some other children at a school-treat on the shore at Bognor. A basket with the usual Gutter-baby treasures — broken crockery, presents for loved ones at home, and the diminishing store of sticky pennies — slipped into the waves splashing stormily at high tide in a strong breeze.
The small group stared dismally at the tragedy, but the little despised boy, in his absurd tunic, with his damp curls tortured by the wind, singing to a trail of seaweed, all by himself, in his dreamy and vacant way, suddenly became the hero of the occasion, and waded out waist-deep among the breakers to recover the precious articles.
His dripping and triumphant return, as he handed the wreckage to its weeping owner, was greeted by an indignant welcome from the presiding sister, in whose judgment the drenched and forlorn condition of his little person was the most serious dilemma.
It was not worth the risk of being washed out to sea, or the chance of rheumatic fever, or the spoiling of his velveteens.
If his mother had been there she would certainly have added, ‘There, what can you expect of a sevenmonths’? ’
But we knew better.
‘I was playing it was a baby,’ whispered Earn. ‘I heard it cry.’
And what is to come of it all? Will the authorities be equal to the educational problem? Or must philosopher, scholar, romanticist, smother in the Gutter that gave them birth?
THE DEVELOPMENT OF JOHNNY
At this time the whole planet seemed set in its place among the worlds and fitted up for one great purpose — the making of my Johnny. This small life seemed to have become a centre of crystallization in the world of matter, hungrily assimilating its environment in the effort to focus its own character. Johnny’s development was a procession of transitory moods, up-hill and down, through rain and sunshine. He was very good, and the magnetic touch of his friendly little hand in mine, and the infectious music of his merry laugh, could lift one in a golden moment to the third heaven; but the descent was as certain as sudden, and behold! there was not one virtue in him. A torrent of filthy and abusive eloquence, a genius for inventive lies, a furious and bitterly resentful temper, were all components of the remarkable spirit-demon which at times possessed him, and kept the scale of my Johnny’s soul-development well in the balance of retrogression. The bright moments of his baby life, which grew briefer, although ever more precious, as his little body waxed stronger, were the lurid signals of some terrific and explosive exhibition.
He could sit patiently dreaming in the pauper pew on Sunday evenings, with visionary eyes wandering among the flowers and the altar-lights; he would even sing a hymn, sometimes, in a soft and gentle treble, when the tune caught, his ear, and the words found some responsive nucleus in the ideation centres of his clouded brain. But the halo would not fit the appalling revelation of Monday morning.
‘Johnny must n’t go ter meetin’ any more,’ he decided at last. ‘Teacher sez yer sh’d jes see ’ow orful ’e is next dy!’ .
He never had any apology for these occasions. ‘Oi jis goes mad an’ as the ’eadache somethink crool!’ he would say.
Several stormy years of our friendship were slipping by amid mirth and tears, and still the index of Johnny’s mind read reversion to type, — Johnny was not a gentleman.
One had started out. as the pioneer of his education with such grand and heroic ideas, under a sky of starry promise. He was to exist in spite of his environment, not in any sort of correspondence with it. He was to be a gentleman of the slums, a Gutter-boy in rags, with the motto ‘ noblesse oblige ’ written all over his young heart.
And here we were left without any ennobling result from our foolish aspirations, with the problem of human reconstruction still staring at us. One had fallen so low as to tolerate the thought of starting with the conversion of the external, in the dim hope of persuading one’s self that beauty of form is the expression of progress.
‘Johnny, if I make you look like a gentleman, could you possibly pretend to be one?’
The proposal was very acceptable to Johnny.
Was there ever a great personality which did not love to pose? Man is fickle even to the ego that he adores, and loves to turn his back on it at times till its crying need recalls him.
A little money and a pawn-shop did the rest, and my Johnny resuscitated the age of the dandies. He went into the dim recess behind the rows of swinging garments — a picturesque, ruddy-cheeked Gutter-baby, happy and eager, a bit cleaner than usual. He came out a wretched little snob, with his head riveted in a wide collar, his feet moving heavily in stiff hob-nailed instruments of torture, and an orangestriped cap on the most hairy point of his skull.
‘Will I do? Please, I’ve come!’ he said with a horrible leer. At least the spectacle of his vanity justified the expenditure. He tweaked and twisted his small body into extraordinary contortions, to view as much of it as possible from every conceivable angle; he strolled proudly about with his elbows out; he twirled an imaginary cane, and buttoned and unbuttoned his coat a dozen times a minute.
‘Ain’t it all roight!’ he appealed to me at intervals, and never knew he was breaking my heart.
How could I take him home to his mother like this and hear her say, ‘Well, ’ee do look a treat!’
On the way we were mercifully relieved of one article: a yellow cat was soliloquizing loudly on somebody’s roof as we passed, and Johnny, yielding to the only natural impulse, sent the orange-streaked cap flying into a tree, where it stuck forlornly for many days, until every trace of the gaudy ornamentation had disappeared. A little farther on, his collar burst as he was stooping over a puddle to catch a glimpse of his own loveliness. Already he began to look a little more like himself.
For many hours he walked sedately about, the cynosure of every eye, but it was a difficult part for him to keep up. Toward evening I lost sight of him, and went out later in search of him, to know the latest development. The sky was alive with stars, set like jewels in a velvet pall, and the moonlight poured down on a scene that does not know the meaning of the hush of night. Like eerie shadows, a group of grimy imps, half-clad, and wild with the joy of their play, were darting here and there in the distance, and one, grimier and more ragged than the rest, came to me in a torn shirt, with one trouser-leg ripped up, carrying his boots in his hand.
‘I’ve jes tiked me gentleman-clothes off fer er little rest!’ he explained apologetically.
Three days later, there was nothing left of the masquerade but a little gray bundle in the pawn-shop, and a crumpled ticket safely stowed away in the heel of a forsaken stocking.
The boots, it is true, lingered for a little while longer, but at last they, too, went home, and I forgot to miss them till one day a few pence in a hot little hand raised in my mind a cruel suspicion that my Johnny was not a man to be trusted.
‘Johnny,’ I cried, thrilled with horror, ‘where did you get that money from ? ’
He amused himself for some time playing with my worst fears and exciting me beyond endurance.
At first he almost confessed that he had ‘pinched’ it, but he could n’t remember where. Then he declared he had ‘earned it honest,’ and told a long confused story about it, full of incident; but he could n’t quite finish it, and the pennies had still to be accounted for. At last, having reduced me to a fever of misery, he said condescendingly, ‘Cum out of it, thin, oi’ll show yer!’
We walked on in silence till our pilgrimage ended abruptly at the corner of the street. There, under three dusty golden balls, swung sadly a little pair of lonely boots.
Johnny pointed to them solemnly, and there was a convincing ring of proprietorship in his voice, — ‘Thim’s mine!’
It was the end of a tremendous failure, and the experience had been a sharp lesson in the methods of evolution. But as I looked into his big impudent eyes and answered the wide smile of self-satisfaction that I found there, I felt just a little less despondent than usual about the development of my Johnny.
To him it had been all a very good joke, and he could afford to be kind.
‘Oi wus only ’avin a game with yer! ’ he said, and encircled me with loving arms, rubbing a little rough head tenderly against my hand. ‘ But were n’t it a bloody shame ter worrit yer, though? ’
THE GUTTER PARSON
Sometimes, and especially at certain seasons of the year, or when the family fortunes seem to encourage self-advertisement and ceremonial, it happens even among the pagan Gutter-folk that the young people are seized with the desire to have a show. Then there is a tremendous gathering of the Gutter, and a rainbow shower of confetti round the church, and presently a blushing, shame-faced boy in a miserably new outfit, and a bold-eyed gorgeous bride, with, perhaps, even in her escort one or two Gutter-babies, oddly disguised in feathers and ribbons.
Easter morning is a favorite occasion for this sort of pantomime, and is of course exceptionally inconvenient to the ecclesiastical authorities.
Our ‘Loo’ was going to marry Bill Smith like this.
It seemed to Loo that morning that the Easter sun shone as if it ‘never ’ad before.’ She and her sisters had been up all night, stitching beads into a pattern on her satin train, but in spite of this she was as fresh as a peach now. The vigorous youth of the Gutter only collapses under the severe and prolonged strain of matrimonial experience and the keeping of the home together, and struggles with fierce contempt against the shock of circumstances and the crushing brutality of over-work and irregular hours.
Although Loo had been reared on bread and dripping and weak tea-dust, with one magnificent dinner, once a week, on Sunday, Bill was justified this morning in his boastful pride of her brilliant muscular beauty. But in less than two years, the memory of this vision of splendid humanity will be over. Loo will be wondering what there is to live for, long before then; she will be a wasptongued, ill-tempered gossip, looking out at Gutter-garten with haggard, disappointed eyes, a gaunt and weary woman, with her girlhood crushed under the flood of pain and misery which Bill’s wife must meet.
The outlook of the young people was not so surprisingly hopeful. There was just enough to eat at home, as indeed there always had been, but Bill had unfortunately managed to lose his work a few days before the wedding.
However, it was unlucky to put things off, and besides Loo had a tremendous bet that she would have her first baby before she was eighteen, and the months were slipping by.
And so it was to be pulled off.
Loudly the Gutter cheered for our Loo, as in her amazing splendor, with but a poor attempt at concealing her embarrassment and self-consciousness, she sauntered into church, smirking and miserable, on the arm of her stepfather; and they were both trying hard to feel as if they were quite accustomed to their eccentric performance. Loo leaned heavily on her gallant protector. He had often made her feel in the way at home, had brutally kicked her out even, more than once, but they were friends now, and he was pleased and proud of her this day. For it is human to feel conscious of some appreciation for what we are in the act of giving away.
We were all waiting, — Loo triumphant, dignified, and brazen, her family coy and facetious; the dense cloud of witnesses that had flowed in from the Gutter gaping, irreverent, and hypercritical; and the Gutter Parson, nursing his disapprobation in preoccupied silence, so quiet and watchful that no one caught the warning of the coming storm.
Why did they wait so long?
Loo looked away anxiously down the church, across that tossing sea of dark faces, and she did not find her Bill. For a brief moment the loyal heart of this Gutter bride was strangely troubled.
‘I do feel hupset!’ she confided to her first maid of honor. Was this, perhaps, some humorous act on the part of the jocose Bill? For the Gutter jest is sometimes pitilessly cruel and drastic. She could almost see him in the imagery of her tortured mind, boasting to his pals at the Blue Star, with shrieking mirth, of this most drastic and colossal ‘sell’ that he had so skillfully organized.
But a slight commotion at the door of the church abruptly terminated these unhappy flights of meditation.
Here at last was her Bill, with disheveled locks and crumpled collar, shoved along between a winking and amused escort, — her Bill not quite himself!
Still, he had come; he had not failed her, and Loo’s anxiety was completely removed.
‘Thank Gawd, ’ere ’ee is, if ’ee ’as ’ad a drop!’
The ceremony began and they stood together; Bill’s knees were shaking and his eyes vacant, yet all might have gone smoothly but for the uninvited presence of Special Johnny among the chosen guests. It had been impossible for some time past to ignore the persistent interference of Johnny, who had managed to reserve for himself a conspicuous seat in the near proximity of the interesting pair. The ceaseless hum and commotion within the sacred building was punctuated by the patient perseverance of Johnny’s mother as she vainly strove to control his movements.
‘B’ave yerself, can’t yer, yer little devil? Wait till I get yer ’ome!’
But threats were idle words to Special Johnny, and his audacity increased, until in a wild moment of sudden temptation, he dug Bill violently in the ribs, and that unfortunate person, being in no condition to receive such advances, released his self-control in a tremendous guffaw that burst from him in a thunder of merriment, and died in a terrified whine amid the shocked silence of the suddenly subdued Gutter. It was then that the Gutter parson took a definite action.
Perhaps it would be worth while to look at the Gutter Parson for a minute while he is here, though we must often meet him in the Gutter, in his shabby cassock and his ‘funny little ’at’!
Here is a curious phenomenon of nature, — a gentleman and a scholar, who for some reason or other has chosen to associate himself with the pain and poverty, the reeking squalor, the sin and devilry of the Gutter. It almost persuades the Man in the Gutter to believe sometimes in the genuineness of his attitude. Though, of course, he does try to kid them now and then! There was Johnny’s mother, for instance, who asked for milk when the baby was choking with the whooping-cough last winter, and the Gutter Parson just looked at her and said, —
‘My good woman, am I a cow?’
‘Of course ’ee were n’t no cow, but babies want milk, and wot are parsons paid fer!’
For the Man in the Gutter is conscious only of a body that gets hungry and hurts, and a soul that is capable of bitter hatred and the sting of fear.
Yet the Gutter Parson can hold his own with the heart of the Gutter. I have seen him in the suffocating atmosphere of the Mission hall, through the thick clouds of foul tobacco-smoke, perched on his little platform before a wild mass of the darkest humanity of London, gathered together by the bribery of a ‘pipe and a bellyful,’ a small and not imposing figure, with a curly head and a boyish smile that the years had never been able to steal from us, an unconscious and magnificent display of leadership, as with one weak hand lifted from time to time against that vast and powerful throng he controlled and restrained and silenced their fierce emotions at his will.
The Gutter Parson is dead. We killed him in his own Gutter with our importunity and our hopelessness and our peculiar ingratitude. But we could not bury him.
Last Good Friday, old widow Judy, reputed by an ancient tradition of the Gutter-babies to be a spy in the pay of the police, heard the thin treble of a familiar hymn-tune through the confused tumult of the holiday-making street, and rose up in her warm corner of the Blue Star, where she sat with her pipe and glass sheltering from the east wind, and picking up scraps of gossip. Straining her own drunken voice to that faint echo, she began a dizzy perilous dance which landed her out into the Gutter, with her mocking words and her evil, mocking gestures, just as the procession from the Mission headed by the great crucifix, in the hard strong hands of a huge navvy in corduroys, with the dust and odor of his labor still upon him, came round the corner.
A few holiday-makers stopped to laugh, a small acolyte put out his arm to push her aside. But between Judy and that stalwart crucifer swept some swift and silent warning. Suddenly flinging up her hands, with a loud, unearthly yell, the old creature fell forward, her face livid in the waving torch-light as the procession filed solemnly past her.
‘Oh, my Gawd,’she moaned, ‘did yer see ’im there plain as daylight? And me drunk agin!’
And now before his ungentle discipline this wedding party crept silently away in their shame and confusion, leaving behind them a sensation of strange calm and stillness.
Outside, every one took a different view of things; the sun was still warm and bright, and Bill revived a little in the fresh air. No one felt inclined to be really serious or miserable, so they decided to continue the festivities as if there had been no interrupting catastrophe in the programme.
Later on, when Bill and Loo were visited in their new home, they had agreed not to ‘ bother about no parsons now.’
That night, behind the warm light in the window of his snug den, the Gutter Parson had company, and entertained Special Johnny.
‘I ’ll play yer buttons!’ said his small guest, when they had cleared the supper.
He produced a handful, and the game began.
‘That’s a two-er, and that’s a threeer, and this ’ere’s a tenner!’ he said, laying it down with due respect, and watching it with loving eyes.
The game continued with furious excitement and deadly seriousness. Suddenly there was a fierce exclamation from Johnny, and a small fist, surprised the Gutter Parson’s left eyebrow.
‘Oo-er! yer bloody cheat!’ said Johnny. ‘What, did n’t yer lick yer bleedin’ thumb twice? Now say yer did n’t, ye swindlin’ liar!’
This is the most quarrelsome and wrangling game that the Gutter-babies play, and they fight bitterly over it, but no one but the Gutter Parson would lick his finger more than once in picking up the buttons. At ten o’clock, when Johnny stood on the door-step, with red cheeks, and twisting his cap in his hands, he said, —
‘It were little Johnny spoiled that show this mornin’.’
Nobody else would have thought it quite in proportion to play buttons all the evening with a juvenile lunatic for the purpose of obtaining this minute and obvious information.
But herein lay at once the foolishness and the genius of our Gutter Parson.