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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Of Joe Vance’s Father

By William De Morgan (1839–1917)

From ‘Joseph Vance’, Chapter I.

MY Father and Mother never could come to a clear understanding about what had disagreed with my Father the day he lost his situation at Fothergill’s.

My Father thought it was the sausage and mashed potatoes he had for lunch at the Rose and Crown, at fourpence, and as much mustard and pepper as you liked. My Mother thought it was the beer.

There was something to be said for my Mother’s view, on the score of quantity.

“Everything,” she said, “I bring to figures, and my Aunt Elizabeth Hannah taught me to it.” And sure enough figures did show that my Father, who had a shilling and threepence in his pocket when he left home at six-thirty in the morning, must have spent eightpence on beer, or lost some of it. Because, if we allow a penny for the ’bus, and twopence for a ’arf an ounce of barker which he bought (I do not like to give his exact words) at a tobacconist’s with a hæmorrhage on his way home, there’s the price of two quarts of four ale left, put it how you may. “And your Father always had a weak head,” said my Mother in after years, in the many times over she told me the story.

Anyhow, something must have disagreed with him, or he wouldn’t have called Mr. Wotherspoon, the head clerk at Fothergill’s, an old herring-gut when he told him to put his trolley somewhere else, and not leave it stood in the orfice door.

“Of course it wasn’t a civil remark, in the manner of speaking,” said my Mother, “but your Father, my dear, was that simple and honorable himself he never had a suspicion of guile. And well did Mr. Wotherspoon deserve the epithet if my belief is true (and I shall hold it to my dying day) that the old man only simulated deafness all those years to one day catch your Father out. For I need ’ardly say to you, my dear, that the remark was a outside remark, as the sayin’ is, and not intended to reach its audience.”

If my recollection of my Father’s conversation isn’t colored by subsequent experience of hoarse men in taprooms, resembling his personal friends at this date in their accent and the bias of their philosophy, Mr. Wotherspoon must have taken a good deal of unnecessary trouble to procure a conviction. Indeed, I remember my Mother saying once that the strength of language was proverbial, and that Vance was no exception to the rule, and not to be expected. My Mother’s way of putting things may have been inconsequent, but then, one never had the slightest doubt of what she meant.

Anyhow, my Father’s outside remarks frequently reached their audience, and laid him open to martyrdom in the cause of free speech many times before the incident recorded—my Mother’s version of which was probably authentic; although she must have had some of it on hearsay.

“I decline to repeat his language,” said Mr. Wotherspoon to Mr. Fothergill, “but it was not respectful, and I should say he deserved the sack.”

“Give him his screw and put on another warehouseman,” said Mr. Fothergill. So my Father had to accept the sack on the Saturday following.

I was a small boy of seven at this time, but I must have been observant, from the vividness of my recollection of the events of that Saturday afternoon. My young mind, catching its impressions from my Mother’s way of looking at the situation, and supported by the cheerfulness (which may have been partly artificial) with which my Father accepted the sack, drew the inference that my Father had dismissed Fothergill’s, and was now open to all kinds of preferment which his late employer’s malice had hitherto prevented reaching him. This colored our conversation as we walked along the main road towards London after the family dinner. I accompanied him on the pretext that I was competent and willing to prevent his taking more than a pint at the Roebuck.

“Could you lick three men?” I said, breaking silence disconnectedly.

“Could I lick free men?” repeated my Father after me. “In course I could! Who’s to prevent me, young ’un, hay?”

I was silent and counted sixteen paving stones before I returned to the charge. I couldn’t count seventeen as it was a sudden introduction of a new metre, so to speak, into the counting. So I resumed my enquiries.

“Could you lick three men if two of ’em was policemen?”

“That’s accordin’ to who the other might be,” said my Father after reflection, which convinced my simplicity that he was replying in good faith.

“Could you lick three men if one of them was Mr. Fothergill and two of ’em was p’licemen?” This was a home-thrust, and my Father’s prompt counter-stroke showed that he appreciated the connection with the recent conversation at dinner.

“If one of ’em was Mr. Fothergill I could lick six, and if two of ’em was Mr. Fothergill and Mr. Wotherspoon I could lick twelve.”

I accepted this as meaning that the intense insignificance of the two would act as a drawback on the effectiveness of the police force; and I believe now that my Father intended this, and did not refer to any stimulus to his prowess which the sight of his recent employers might occasion. But I felt explanation was necessary, and sought for it in my Father’s remarks at dinner.

“Is that because you expected a beggar to be an angel?” was my next question. For my Father had stopped my Mother in some too lenient view of Mr. Wotherspoon’s conduct with “An old herring-gut like that has no call to expect a poor beggar to be an angel,” and this had been a little beyond my comprehension.

“What’s the young nipper a-driving at?” said my parent. “I tell you what, young man, if young beginners are going to ask questions as if they was blooming grandmothers, we shall never get to this here public house.”

“This one ain’t the Roebuck,” said I, as my Father pushed me through a swing door into a sound of bad men and a smell of worse beer.

“No, it ain’t, and I ain’t a-going to it. If I goes to the Roebuck I ain’t at liberty, accordin’ to my ideas of honor, to take more than a pint. I want p’r’aps a pint and a ’arf, and I comes in here. Quart o’four ale, Miss!”

The equivocation did not seem wrong to my infant mind; in fact, it impressed me as doing my Father credit, and made me resolve to try to be equally honorable. But the ordering of the quart brought a doubt into my face, to which my father yielded an explanation.

“’Arf a pint for the young nipper, and three ’arf-pints for daddy—that’s the ’rithmetic! What the nipper don’t drink of his ’arf-pint, I drinks for his sake—so he mayn’t get drunk, which at seven is vice.”

The nipper didn’t drink much of the half-pint, fortunately for him, and his Father performed the act of altruism imposed on him. Having done so, his attention appeared to be attracted by something inside the pewter.

“Strike me blind,” said he, “if there ain’t a bloody little hinseck at the bottom of the pot!”

There was, apparently, and he fell out with a heeltap of beer on the metal counter, out of my sight.

“Pick me up, Daddy,” said I. “For to see the hinseck,” I added by way of explanation. I can remember now exactly how my Father’s hand felt as he grasped me by the trousers and lifted me up, and the sound of his question. “What do young sucking bantams want with insects?”

“He’ll be for crockin’ him,” said a Sweep with inflamed eyelids. “Crock him, yoong ’un, with your finger nail.”

But my Father, who was getting towards the quarrelsome stage of beer, interposed upon the suggestion, not from any humanitarian motives, but in order to contradict the Sweep.

“This here hinseck,” he said, “come out of my beer, wot I paid for square. Consequent this here hinseck I account as my hinseck—and this here son of mine has been too well educated, though young, to presoom to crock this here hinseck unless I give leave.—Hay, young ’un? Or for that matter,” added my parent with a sudden aggressive enlargement of his claim—“anyone else.”

“Anyone else, wot?” said the Sweep.

My Father, instead of answering, addressed himself over the bar to the young lady thereof, as an umpire secure from intimidation behind a fortress of brass and pewter.

“I ask you, Miss,” said he, “have I said or have I not said clear and plain, that I regard this here hinseck as belonging? And have I said or have I not said, equally clear and plain, that if any man (or for that matter any other) was to presoom to crock this hinseck on this here counter, I would fetch him a smack over the mouth?”

The young woman was filling one pot alternately at two taps and had taken too little from tap number one. So she had to exercise great discretion in stopping tap number two at the right moment. When she had done this, she referred again to number one, and it being an easy task to merely fill up to the brim, she took the opportunity to reply to my Father.

“Can’t say I heard any such expression. Fourpence,” the last word referring to the transaction in hand.

“Anyhow you put it,” said the Sweep, “I’d crock him myself for a farden.”

And without waiting for any security of payment, he did it straightway, over my shoulder.

I glanced around to see the effect of the smack. It had followed the provocation so quickly that the Sweep’s hand was not back in time to stop it.

“All outside. Nothing in here. Nor yet in the street.” Thus far the lady of the beer-handles—I was close to her; so I heard her voice above the tumult of awakened partisanship which filled the bar the moment after the smack. I heard that, and I noted with some disappointment that the smack had not been over the Sweep’s mouth. It was the first time I had ever had a doubt of my Father’s infallibility.

“Right you are, Miss.” “Git ’em outside.” “Git ’em round the Rents and down the lane.” “Git ’em round the bark o’ Chepstow’s, and across.” “Git ’em along the Gas-gardens—land to let on building lease—that’ll do, shove along—land to let on building lease. If a copper don’t spot you, you’ll ’ave it quiet enough for ’arf an hour. Git your man out; we’ll git ours.”

“Don’t let the child go after them,” said the bar lady.—But the child had slipped down off the bar, and the only person left to stop him was too drunk to take instructions—had he not been so, he would have been sober enough to follow the rabble. The child was outside the swing door just in time to see the tail of the crowd turn a corner and disappear. But he could have followed even guided only by the scattered pursuing units that came from far behind him, endowed with a mysterious knowledge (acquired Heaven knows how) that there was a fight, and that it would be to be found (if not too late) acrost the Gas-gardens on some land with a board up—and that you were on no account to turn round by the eel shop, but follow on. This came hoarsely from one swift of foot as he passed a man with a wooden leg, who said sadly, “T’other side Chepstow’s. It’ll be done afore I ever gets there.” He added that he was by nature unfortunate, and was always a-missing of everything.

“So I just gives in, I does,” said he. “What’s the young beggar roaring about? ‘It’s moy Father!—It’s moy Father!’ What’s your Father?”

“It’s his Father what’s a-goin’ to fight,” struck in another runner, speaking rapidly. “He’s a-goin’ for to fight Mr. Gunn, the buttin’ Sweep, down the Rents and beyont the Piannerforty works, and you better look sharp if you want for to see anythink.”

How on earth these particulars had been acquired I cannot imagine, but they revived the failing energies of the wooden leg in a miraculous way. The owner forgot my howls in his intensified interest, and resolving to “try it on anyhow,” stumped away.

I followed on as fast as my small legs would carry me, but concealing my despair—for a laundress had shown a disposition towards commiseration and I didn’t want to be stopped by benevolence or any other motive. The stragglers got fewer and farther between till they were revived by the new event of a police-constable, to whom particulars appeared to be needless, as he merely said, “Shut up, all on yer!” in reply to volunteer information. This last group vanished round a corner, and I panted after it. But I was getting frightened of what I might see when I arrived. I believe that had my Father really “landed” on the Sweep’s mouth I should have gone on confident. But my faith had been shaken, and I went slower, wiping my eyes and recovering my breath.

I saw nothing of the fight. I was only in time to see, across the canal as I stood near the wooden foot-bridge, a returning crowd and a group it left behind. The crowd was returning as a cortège of certain Policemen, who had come mysteriously from the four quarters of heaven, and were conducting a black object, which I could see from the raised platform of the bridge was the Sweep who had crocked the insect. I looked for my Father in vain. Then my eyes went across to the group across the water, and in the middle of it distinguished a motionless figure on the ground, and I knew it was my Father.

I had before me a plain issue of Duty, to be done or left undone; and I should be glad to think that in after life I had always shown the resolution that I, a midget between seven and eight, showed on this occasion. I never hesitated a moment. The Sweep had killed my Father, and I could hear his bellowings of triumph as he came along, the centre of an admiring audience conducted by two Policemen. I cannot repeat them in full, but they recorded his conviction that the method he had employed (I heard what it was later) was the correct way to do the dags of such a one as his late opponent. The terms he applied to him could only be reported if it were certain that their meaning to my readers would be as obscure as they then were to me. They did not seem to me to make the fact that he had killed my Father (as I thought) any the worse. All that was left was to look for a missile. I saw one with a fragment of “Bass’s Bitter” label left on it, lying against a dead cat by the pathway, a horrible jagged piece of glass. And in the middle of my recollection of that unwholesome dream, I see that jagged piece of glass and that cat’s head, and the string tight round his throat that had strangled it, as clear as I saw it then. There was a round side to it to hold it by, so I was able to close my hand well on it. On came the Sweep and the Policemen’s hats (they wore hats in those days), and the admiring throng. On they came to the bridge, and the tramp on the mud changed resonantly to tramp on the planks.

“I could larn you two bloody orficers a lesson sim’lar to that other … if I chose to, but——”

But no one ever knew the reason of Mr. Gunn’s forbearance; for his last word merged into a hideous yell as the jagged bottle-end pierced his eye. It was by the merest chance that I hit him. Of course I had aimed, but what is the aim of a child of seven? Anyhow, it went to the right place—and the howls and curses of its human target bore witness to its arrival.

I had been concealed behind a scrap of fence at the bridge end when I made my shot. But so had two other boys—barefooted street Arabs of the sort the Board-Schools have cleared away. And these boys seeing instantly that my crime would be ascribed to them as universal culprits, scapegoats of humanity, exclaimed to each other in the same breath, “Make yer ’ooks, Matey!”—and bolted one to the left and one to the right, but keeping within whistling and yelling distance. An amiable young Policeman followed at a walk, on a line of pursuit bisecting the angles of the two lines of flight. He caught neither of the fugitives of course, but he rejoined the procession at the nearest doctor’s shop, having slipped round by another road to avoid humiliation; and Mr. Gunn was taken in for provisional treatment at the expense of the authorities.

I was convinced my Father was killed, and too terrified to wait and see the second procession that I knew must cross the bridge later on; besides, there was Mother! So I left the crowd gazing blankly at two bottles of “show color,” and one leech, in the shop window; and set out for home, too heartbroken and scared even to feel the satisfaction of revenge.

Halfway I met two Policemen bearing a stretcher. I knew what was coming back on that stretcher. I had no need of the information volunteered by another boy, rather older than I.

“Don’t you know what that is, you little hass?” said he, seeing my gaze fixed on it. “That there’s the stretcher fur to put the beggar on what’s dead. Straight out flat! Then he’ll have a funeral, he will—corpses, ’earses, plooms, mutes!”—And he began a sort of pantomime of solemn obsequies; but as perhaps he felt the cast was insufficient, gave it up and danced.

The whole thing was getting more and more of a nightmare and I was consciously becoming incapable of finding my way home. I began calling aloud for my Father to come and help me even while I knew what had happened, and that he could not. Then I heard a stumping on the pavement behind me, and recognized it as the wooden leg of an hour ago. I felt that its owner was almost an old friend, especially when he too recognized me.

“Who’s this here little chap a-hollering for his Father? He’s number two, this is—No—he ain’t,—by gum! It’s the very same over again,” and then his voice changed as he added: “Look here, old man, I’ll give you a lift. Wipe your eyes. Where do you want to go to?”

“Stallwood’s Cottages, No. 13. It’s the only house, please, that hasn’t no name on the door, and it’s next door to the laundry.”

“There ain’t no such place,” struck in the boy who had called me a little ass, and who I really believe was a fiend in human form. “Don’t you believe him. He’s a-kidding of yer.”

But the wooden-legged man seemed to be endowed with insight into character; for, merely remarking that he would half murder the speaker if he ever laid hands upon him, he swung me on his shoulder and stumped on. The fiend, however, having acquired a sort of footing in the affair, didn’t mean to be left behind, and pursued us as close as he dared.

“’Arf murder me if yer like—I give leave! You may ’ole murder me too if yer like, if yer ever find such a s’elp-me-Goard place——”

And more to the same effect. But even the attempt to throw the statement into the form of an affidavit did not influence the wooden leg, which went steadily on, growing less and less perceptible to my failing senses, until at last it became a mere rhythmic accompaniment to a dream that I forgot as I woke to find myself deposited on the pavement, and the voice of my bearer saying: “Right you are, old chap! No name on the door, and next door to the laundry. You git along in sharp and go to bed.”

And then in answer to my unspoken question (for the words wouldn’t come), he added: “Never you fret your kidneys about your Father! He ain’t dead! Trust him!—he’ll live to be concerned in many quarts yet. Good-bye!”

And he whistled ‘Lucy Neal’ and stumped off.

I did not share his confidence about my Father, but he had cheered me up. Had he been altogether fallible, he would have fallen a victim to the misstatements of the funeral boy. And him he had simply flouted! So I collected my courage, and jumped up to the bell-handle,—which was a pull-down one, or I couldn’t have rung it,—I heard voices inside, and my Mother came to the door.

“Bless my soul, it’s Joe without his Father again! Joseph, you let your Father go to the Roebuck! Where is he now?”

I was far more afraid of telling the awful truth to my Mother than I had been of anything else on that dreadful afternoon, so I resolved to give details later on. I had just enough voice in me for my Mother, stooping down to my level, to hear me exonerate the Roebuck, which I could do truthfully.

“Then if your Father didn’t go to the Roebuck what for are you crying? Where did you leave him?”

I affirmed, truthfully, that I saw him last a-going away with several men towards the canal. I added, untruthfully, that I had losted my way, and the boys told me wrong. I thought my Mother was going to slap me. It would have made my mind happier if she had. But she only said, “Dearie me, whoever would be a woman! You come along and get to bed and go to sleep at once, and no nonsense.” I was very soon wiping my eyes on a small dirty nightshirt, and contributing an occasional sob to the conversation that went on in the next room. I had declined supper, not so much because I did not want it, as to get out of sight and cry in the dark. I should now wonder more at myself for this, if I had not behaved in the same way fifty times since; indeed, the sorrow’s crown of sorrows has always been to me not what the poet sings, but the communication of bad news to happy unsuspicion. I always feel as I then felt; as if it was my fault and I was responsible!

“What’s the matter with the child?” Thus the conversation ran on between my Mother and her neighbor, Mrs. Packles, from Packles’s laundry next door, who had come in to tea and gossip.

“It’s to be hoped nothing’s the matter ser’ous, Mrs. Vance.”

“Law, Mrs. Packles, Ma’am,” said my Mother, “if I was to worrit every time Vance comes home late, there’d never be an end. Your petticoat is a-scorching.”

“It ain’t my best. If you was to spare me the toasting fork, now your piece is browned, I wouldn’t spoil the knife-end in the fire over mine. Being likewise the butter knife.”

“I was looking for it.” And my Mother began to butter her piece (as I could hear by the scraping), but she stopped uneasily and came into the bedroom and looked at me. I pretended to be asleep. She kissed me, making matters ten times worse; and I suffered pangs of conscience, but kept my counsel. She returned to the toast, and resumed the conversation.

“It’s your dress scorching now, Mrs. Packles—do’ee double it back like I do mine.”

I heard Mrs. P. accept the suggestion.

“Vance is that particular about bloaters that I was thinking we might wait till he comes? Tea-time,—he said. One bloater kept back to be done later, has a feeling of discomfort when you come in and other folks has finished. Don’t you think so, Ma’am?”

There was the slightest shade of asperity in the question, and I read in it that Mrs. Packles had looked unsympathetic. She also said something, but I failed to catch it, owing to Mrs. P. having a defect in her speech. Like Timour, she had only one tooth above and one below; but then they didn’t extend all along the gum, like his. However, she had the reputation of being a Tartar, and Mr. Packles used to confirm this report in public—perhaps I should say in publics. What Mrs. Packles had said evidently reflected on my Father.

“No, Ma’am,” said my Mother. “On the contrary, Vance is by nature a sober man—not like neighbors of his I could name whose habits are proverbial, as the sayin’ is. In some cases, as you know, Ma’am, the smell of beer is transparent, and in such, credit is given undeserved. In others, secrecy throws a veil, even I am told in high places, and none suspect. But Vance was ever that open nature! However, we will put the bloaters on the trivet if you say the word.”

Mrs. Packles couldn’t say the word for the reason I have mentioned, nor any word distinctly. But I understood that she waived defense of Packles against my Mother’s insinuation, in consideration of the bloaters. Also that, to avoid the quicksands the conversation had so narrowly escaped, she passed in review the condiments or accompaniments to bloaters sanctioned by judges. I heard my Mother’s answer:—

“Accordin’ to me, Mrs. Packles, and I am not sing’lar, gin on no account! Coffee also, though no objection can be raised, if popular in quarters, is, to my thinking, contrary to bloaters. Now to ’ot tea and buttered toast, there can be no exception.”

I felt that I was an exception. And how I repented my rash renunciation of supper while under excitement! I was getting very hungry, and there was no prospect of relief till breakfast, unless I cut into the conversation and risked further catechism about my afternoon. So I lay still and sucked my nightgown, of which I can distinctly recollect the flavor to this day. I only wish it had been an accompaniment of bloaters and hot tea and toast. Taken alone, nightgown juice is not nutritious.

Mrs. Packles murmured assent, and was about to enlarge on the gratifying topic when she was interrupted by a footstep outside.

“It’s at your house,” said my Mother; “somebody is ringing the laundry bell.” And Mrs. P. went out to investigate. A distant colloquy followed, between a man’s voice and Mrs. Packles’s substitute for one; but nothing audible to me, until my Mother’s sudden—“Well, now!”—following on something she heard and I did not. The teacup she put down suddenly spilled and clicked on the saucer, but she disregarded it and went straight out after Mrs. Packles. Before the door had time to slam, I caught the words—“Are you Mrs. Vance?”—and recognized the step of a Policeman on the garden path. Then followed narrative of an unexcited sort from the Policeman, sobs and exclamations from my Mother, and sympathy from Mrs. Packles, who I felt sure was endeavoring to claim a fulfillment of prophecy recently and clearly made by herself.

“Oh, Joey, Joey, Joey!” cried my Mother, “go to bed again this minute. Your Father’s in the Hospital, and I must go to him.”

I had got out of bed and was standing in the doorway of the bedroom. As I find that I have in memory a picture of a small boy crying, with a very rough head, as well as of a large Policeman dripping (for it was raining hard) and my Mother pulling a hurried shawl on, and Mrs. Packles exhibiting sympathy, with the slightest flavor of triumph, I am inclined to think that the fifty-odd years that have passed since then have made me mix what I actually do recollect with what my Mother told me many times later. Otherwise how do I seem to myself to see, from the front room, that small boy standing in the doorway rubbing his grubby little face with his nightgown?

Perhaps I went back to bed; perhaps I didn’t! Anyhow, my next clear memory is of sitting by the fire with Mrs. Packles, and of great satisfaction from fresh hot toast, which Mrs. Packles (who remained behind by request) intentionally made the vehicle of much less butter than she took herself.

I don’t think she suspected me of having any story to tell beyond what she had already heard—or she would certainly have pumped me for it, instead of making the conversation turn on the moral improvement of little boys. I was much too frightened to tell anything, even if I had not been too sleepy and greedy at the same moment. I wasn’t hypocrite enough at that early age to pretend I wanted to know what the Policeman had said. Or possibly I mistrusted my powers of playing out the part, if I embarked on enquiry from Mrs. Packles. Besides—it didn’t matter! I knew what the Policeman had said a great deal better than I knew what Mrs. Packles was saying about (1) the necessity for the young to curb their inherent vices, or there was no knowing, (2) the accumulation of misfortunes all but herself were free from, but that she had to put up with, (3) her patience and fortitude under disaster, and (4) her power of anticipating events and no attention paid, not if she talked herself ’oarse!

Perhaps if I could have kept awake I should have known what it was to hear Mrs. Packles under a further drawback from hoarseness. But sleep overcame me, and I remember no more.