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CHAPTER XIII JONATHAN PINCHBECK, THE SLUM AUTOLYCUS
It was application time in a London police-court. All sorts of people, with all sorts of difficulties, had stepped, one after another, into the witness-box, and had put all sorts of questions to the patient magistrate. They had gone away more or less satisfied with the various answers the experience of the magistrate suggested, when, last of all, there stepped in front of him a quaint-looking elderly man. Below the average size, with a body somewhat bent, grey hair, and a bristly white moustache, together with a complexion of almost terra-cotta hue, he was bound to attract attention. When looked at more closely, other characteristics could be noted: his lips were full and tremulous, his eyes were strained, and there was a look of pathetic expectancy over his face.

He handed a paper to the magistrate, and said: "Read that, your Worship." His Worship read it. It was an order from the relieving officer to the manager of the "stone-yard" for Jonathan Pinchbeck to be given two days' work. "Jonathan Pinchbeck! is that your name?" said the [Pg 223]magistrate, looking at the quaint old man. "Yes, that's me." "Well, what do you want? Why don't you go and do the work?" "Well, your Worship, it is like this: I have been to the stone-yard, and they have got no work to give me." "Well," said the magistrate, "I am sure that I have no stones for you to break." "But I don't want you to give me work! I ask you for a summons against the Vestry for four shillings," he said. "Surely they are bound to find me work or give me the money. I am out of work, and my wife is ill."

The magistrate told him that the matter could not be decided in a police-court, and that he had better go to the County Court. Very dejectedly the old man stepped down, and silently left the court. I followed him, and had some conversation with him. He was a dock-labourer, but had grown old, and could no longer "jostle," push, and fight for a job at the dock gates, for younger men with broader shoulders stepped up before him. He gave me his address, so in the afternoon of the same day I went to Mandeville Street, Clapton Park. The landlady told me that Pinchbeck was not at home, but that he occupied with his wife one room "first-floor front," and that his wife was an invalid.

I was about to leave when a husky voice from the first-floor front, the door of which was evidently open, called out: "Is it a gentleman to see Jonathan? Tell him to come up." I went up. I shall not forget going up, for I found myself in the queerest place I had visited. I was in Wonderland. The owner of the voice that called me up, Mrs. Pinchbeck, sat before me—huge, massive, and[Pg 224] palpitating. She was twenty stone in weight, but ill and suffering. Asthma, dropsy, and heart disease had nearly done their work. It was a stifling day in July, and she drew breath with difficulty.

She sat on a very strongly-made wooden chair, and did not attempt to rise when I entered the room. The chair in which she was sitting was painted vermilion red, and studded with bright brass nails. Every chair in the room—of which there were four—the strong kitchen table, the strong wooden fender, and the powerful bedstead, were all vermilion red, embellished with brass nails. One directing mind had constructed the lot. When my surprise was lessened, I sat down on a red chair beside the poor woman, and entered into conversation. Her replies to my questions came with difficulty, but, despite her illness, I noticed that she was proud of her quaint husband, and especially proud of the furniture he had made for her, for the household goods were his workmanship.

"He had only a saw, a hammer, and some sandpaper," she said, nodding at the furniture, "and he made the lot."

They were well-built, and calculated to bear even Mrs. Pinchbeck. "Vermilion red was his favourite colour," she said, "and he thought the bright yellow of the nails livened them up. They had been made a good many years, but he sometimes gave them a fresh coat of paint."

Pinchbeck and she had been married many years; they had no children. They lived by themselves, and he was a very good husband. But[Pg 225] there were other wonders in the room beside the poor woman and the brilliant furniture, and they soon claimed attention.

In front of me stood a monumental cross some feet in height, and made apparently of brown marble. The cross stood on three foundation steps of brown marble, and at intervals round the body of the cross were bands of yellow ribbon.

She saw me looking at it. "That's all tobacco," she said; "it is made of cigar-ends." There was a descriptive paper attached to the cross. "Jonathan collected the cigar-ends, and he made them into that monument, and he made the calculations in his head, and I wrote them down," she said, referring to the paper. "He walked more than ninety thousand miles to collect the cigar-ends," she said. I asked permission to read the descriptive paper attached, and after permission—for I saw the whole thing was sacred to the suffering woman—I detached it. I was lost in interest as I read the paper, which was well written, and contained some curious calculations. I found on inquiry that Jonathan could neither read nor write, but he could, as she said, "calculate in his own head."

The document consisted of a double sheet of foolscap, which was covered on the four pages with writing and figures in a woman's hand. Briefly it told of the great deeds of Jonathan, who, as I have previously said, was a dock-labourer. He had lived in Clapton Park for more than thirty years, and he had walked every day to and from the East London Docks, a five-mile tramp every morning, and a return journey at night of equal[Pg 226] length. Hundreds of times his journey had been fruitless, so far as getting a day's work was concerned; but, like an industrious bee, Jonathan returned home every night laden with what to him was sweeter than honey—cigar-ends that he had gathered from the pavements, gutters, and streets he traversed and searched during his daily ten-mile tramp. They lay before me, converted into a massive monumental cross, erected upon three great slabs of similar material. On each side of it stood a smaller cross, as if it were to show off the dimensions of the great cross. The paper stated that the whole of the cigar-ends collected weighed one hundredweight and three-quarters. It also told how far the cigars would have reached had they been placed end to end; one cigar was reckoned at three inches, four to a foot, twelve to a yard, and seven thousand and forty to a mile. The paper also told how much they cost at twopence each, how long they took to smoke at one half-hour each, also how much duty the Government had received on each at four shillings per pound. Thirty years of interminable tramping, with his eyes on the ground like a sleuth-hound, had Jonathan done. Hour after hour he had sat in his little home contemplating his collection, and making his mental calculations while his wife wrote them down, and then in its glory arose his great monument.

Handing the paper to Mrs. Pinchbeck, I proceeded to examine the cross. I felt it, and found it hard, solid, firm, and every edge square and sharp. I wondered how he had converted such unlikely materials as cigar-ends into such a solid piece of[Pg 227] work. The poor woman told me that from all the cigar-ends he brought home he trimmed off the burnt ends, and carefully placed them in a dry place; then he made a great wooden frame, screwed together, the inside of which represented the cross. In this frame he arranged end-ways layer after layer of his cigar-ends, pressing them and even hammering them in; now and again he had poured in also a solution of treacle and water, placing more cigar-ends until it was pressed and hammered full. Then it was left for months to slowly dry. It was a proud day for the couple when the wooden frame was removed, and the great triumph of Jonathan's life stood before them.

But the tobacco cross did not by any means exhaust the wonders of the room. All round strange things were hanging from the ceiling, threaded on a string like girls thread beads and boys thread horse-chestnuts—rough, flat-looking things, about the size of a plate and of a dirty brown colour. "Whatever have you got there, hanging from the ceiling?" I said. The answer came in a hoarse whisper: "Tops and bottoms." Tops and bottoms! tops and bottoms! I looked at them, and cudgelled my brains to find out what tops and bottoms were. I had to give it up, and the hoarse whisper came again: "Tops and bottoms." There the "tops" hung like a collection of Indian scalps, and there hung the "bottoms" like a collection of burned pancakes. On examining one string of them, I found attached the inevitable paper, on which was written "1856."

"Oh," I said, "these are the tops and bottoms[Pg 228] of your bread. Why did you cut your bread in that way?" "It was Jonathan's fancy," she said. It might have been her husband's idea, but she had entered heartily into it, for she had saved the crusts from all their loaves; she had written the papers and particulars that were attached to them, and she was proud of the old crusts, some of which dated from the time of the Crimean War. I was prepared for other strange whims after my experience with the vermilion furniture, the tobacco cross, and the "tops and bottoms," and it was well that I was, for other revelations awaited me. I found a great bundle of sugar papers—coarse, heavy papers, some blue, others grey—neatly folded, tied together, and tabulated. These were the wrappers that had contained all the sugar the worthy couple had bought during their married life. A document attached gave particulars of their weight, told also of how much they had been defrauded by the purchase of paper and not sugar, told the price of sugar in various years, and the variations of their losses. Next to these stood a pile of tea-wrappers, tabulated and ticketed in exactly the same manner. Mr. and Mrs. Pinchbeck had evidently a just cause of complaint against the grocers.

I cannot possibly reveal the whole contents of the room. Had a local auctioneer been called in to make a correct inventory, he would surely have fled in despair. Every available square inch of the room was fully occupied with strange objects. In one corner was a pile of nails—cut nails and wrought nails, French nails and old "tenpenny" nails, barndoor nails and dainty wire [Pg 229]nails—collected from the streets during Jonathan's long life. They told the industrial history of those years, and spoke eloquently of the improvement that had taken place even in nail-making. They told, too, of the poor home-workers of Cradley Heath, and of the women and children who had made them. Beside the nails was a heap of screws—poor old blunted rusty things, made years before Mr. Chamberlain introduced his improved pointed screws, lying mingled with the Screws of present use, bright, slender, and genteel. Here was a heap of shoe-tips, some of which had done duty forty years ago in protecting the heels and toes of cumbrous boots that had stumbled and resounded on the cobble-stone streets of those days. They, too, had a tale to tell, for Blakey's protectors lay there mingled with old, heavy, rusty tips that had protected "wooden shoon" in the days of long ago.

Decidedly, Jonathan was a modern Autolycus, a "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles." He had almost established a corner in hairpins. There they were, six hundred thousand of them, neatly arranged in starch boxes, nicely oiled to prevent rust, box after box of them, every box weighed and counted, the whole lot weighing, so the descriptive paper says, two and a half hundredweight: hairpins from St. James's and Piccadilly—for Jonathan, when work was scarce, had on special occasions searched with magnetic eye the El Dorado of the West—hairpins from the narrow streets of the East; hairpins from suburban thoroughfares; hairpins from the pavements of the City; old, massive hairpins that would[Pg 230] almost have tethered a goat; demure, slender hairpins that would nestle snugly in the hair, and adapt themselves comfortably to the head; hairpins plain and hairpins corrugated—there they lay.

I was lost in wonder and imagination, and forgot the nasty cigar-ends in picturing to myself the world of beauty that had worn and the delicate hands that had adjusted those hairpins. But the hairpins were not alone in their glory. Hatpins claimed attention, too. Cruel, fiendish things they looked, as they lay closely packed in several boxes, with their beaded ends and sharp, elongated points. I turned quickly from these, for I knew only too well the fresh terror they added to life—especially to a policeman's life. So I proceeded to examine the next department—"babies' comforters"—with mingled feelings: two large boxes full of them, horrible things!—ivory rings, bone rings, rubber rings, and vulcanite rings, with their suction tubes attached, made to deceive infant life, and to enable English babies to feed on air. Some day a similar collection may form a valuable addition to a museum, illustrating the fraud practised on babies in the twentieth century.

I forgot the presence of poor asthmatical Mrs. Pinchbeck on her red chair, for the shelves that were fixed on the walls attracted me. These were heavily laden with glass jars and bottles of various sizes containing specimens of bread, sugar, tea, coffee, butter, and cheese of varying dates. "Bread, 1856, 10d. per loaf, Crimean War." "Tea, 1856, 4s. 6d. per pound." "Sugar[Pg 231] (brown), 1856, 6d. per pound." So ran some of the descriptions that were attached to the various jars. But I had to leave the examination of these till another time, when still more wonders were revealed, of which I must tell you later.

Bidding Mrs. Pinchbeck "Good-afternoon," and promising her another visit, I left her, for other suffering and troubled folk needed me. Alas! that was the only time I saw the poor woman, for not much longer was she able to rise from her bed, and in a few weeks there was a strange funeral, at which Jonathan was chief mourner, and he was left alone and friendless.

Hard times followed; old age crept on. Failing health and lack of nourishment combined to make Jonathan of less value in the labour market, so by-and-by he faced starvation. But by no means did he give up collecting; his useless stores grew and grew until he had no longer room to store them. Then he sold his pile of nails for a few shillings; his screws and tips followed suit, and some of the fruits of his industry vanished.

Sad to relate, a worse fate befell his cigar-ends, and the great triumph of his life—his "monumental cross"—brought a second great sorrow into the poor fellow's life. It occurred to him that he might obtain money by exhibiting his work, so he hired a barrow, and, packing his crosses on it, went into the streets to attract attention and collect coppers. He secured plenty of attention, especially from boys, who made a "mark" of the old man; ribald youth scoffed at him; policemen moved him on—but the other "coppers" came not to him. The barrow cost[Pg 232] one shilling per week. A crisis had arrived; he must sell his tobacco. At eleven o'clock one night I found him at my front door. There stood the barrow and the tobacco. He wanted my advice about selling it. It was the only thing to do. He had received notice to leave his room, and must look for a smaller home at a less rental. The next day slowly and reluctantly Jonathan pushed his barrow to Shoreditch. He had found a wholesale tobacconist who might buy his tobacco at a price. "Bring it in," he said, "and I will look at it." Jonathan took it in. Jonathan was taken in, too. "Leave it here till to-morrow, and I will decide," said the merchant. It was left, and Jonathan pushed an empty barrow on the return journey. His room seemed empty that night; his wife was dead, and n............
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