They looked me over with frank curiosity, as though I were some sort of a strange animal, and then ignored me utterly for the rest of my wait. Then Johnny Upright himself arrived, and I was summoned upstairs to confer with him.
The People of the Abyss
“Speak loud,” he interrupted my opening words. “I’ve got a bad cold, and I can’t hear well.”
Shades of Old Sleuth and Sherlock Holmes! I wondered as to where the assistant was located whose duty it was to take down whatever information I might loudly vouchsafe. And to this day, much as I have seen of Johnny Upright and much as I have puzzled over the incident, I have never been quite able to make up my mind as to whether or not he had a cold, or had an assistant planted in the other room. But of one thing I am sure: though I gave Johnny Upright the facts concerning myself and project, he withheld judgment till next day, when I dodged into his street conventionally garbed and in a hansom. Then his greeting was cordial enough, and I went down into the dining-room to join the family at tea.
“We are humble here,” he said, “not given to the flesh, and you must take us for what we are, in our humble way.”
The girls were flushed and embarrassed at greeting me, while he did not make it any the easier for them.
“Ha! ha!” he roared heartily, slapping the table with his open hand till the dishes rang. “The girls thought yesterday you had come to ask for a piece of bread! Ha! ha! ho! ho! ho!”
This they indignantly denied, with snapping eyes and guilty red cheeks, as though it were an essential of true refinement to be able to discern under his rags a man who had no need to go ragged.
And then, while I ate bread and marmalade, proceeded a play at cross purposes, the daughters deeming it an insult to me that I should have been mistaken for a beggar, and the father considering it as the highest compliment to my cleverness to succeed in being so mistaken. All of which I enjoyed, and the bread, the marmalade, and the tea, till the time came for Johnny Upright to find me a lodging, which he did, not half-a-dozen doors away, in his own respectable and opulent street, in a house as like to his own as a pea to its mate.
CHAPTER III – MY LODGING AND SOME OTHERS
From an East London standpoint, the room I rented for six shillings, or a dollar and a half, per week, was a most comfortable affair. From the American standpoint, on the other hand, it was rudely furnished, uncomfortable, and small. By the time I had added an ordinary typewriter table to its scanty furnishing, I was hard put to turn around; at the best, I managed to navigate it by a sort of vermicular progression requiring great dexterity and presence of mind.
Having settled myself, or my property rather, I put on my knockabout clothes and went out for a walk. Lodgings being fresh in my mind, I began to look them up, bearing in mind the hypothesis that I was a poor young man with a wife and large family.
My first discovery was that empty houses were few and far between – so far between, in fact, that though I walked miles in irregular circles over a large area, I still remained between. Not one empty house could I find – a conclusive proof that the district was “saturated.”
It being plain that as a poor young man with a family I could rent no houses at all in this most undesirable region, I next looked for rooms, unfurnished rooms, in which I could store my wife and babies and chattels. There were not many, but I found them, usually in the singular, for one appears to be considered sufficient for a poor man’s family in which to cook and eat and sleep. When I asked for two rooms, the sublettees looked at me very much in the manner, I imagine, that a certain personage looked at Oliver Twist when he asked for more.
Not only was one room deemed sufficient for a poor man and his family, but I learned that many families, occupying single rooms, had so much space to spare as to be able to take in a lodger or two. When such rooms can be rented for from three to six shillings per week, it is a fair conclusion that a lodger with references should obtain floor space for, say, from eightpence to a shilling. He may even be able to board with the sublettees for a few shillings more. This, however, I failed to inquire into – a reprehensible error on my part, considering that I was working on the basis of a hypothetical family.
Not only did the houses I investigated have no bath-tubs, but I learned that there were no bath-tubs in all the thousands of houses I had seen. Under the circumstances, with my wife and babies and a couple of lodgers suffering from the too great spaciousness of one room, taking a bath in a tin wash-basin would be an unfeasible undertaking. But, it seems, the compensation comes in with the saving of soap, so all’s well, and God’s still in heaven.
However, I rented no rooms, but returned to my own Johnny Upright’s street. What with my wife, and babies, and lodgers, and the various cubby-holes into which I had fitted them, my mind’s eye had become narrow-angled, and I could not quite take in all of my own room at once. The immensity of it was awe-inspiring. Could this be the room I had rented for six shillings a week? Impossible! But my landlady, knocking at the door to learn if I were comfortable, dispelled my doubts.
“Oh yes, sir,” she said, in reply to a question. “This street is the very last. All the other streets were like this eight or ten years ago, and all the people were very respectable. But the others have driven our kind out. Those in this street are the only ones left. It’s shocking, sir!”
And then she explained the process of saturation, by which the rental value of a neighbourhood went up, while its tone went down.
“You see, sir, our kind are not used to crowding in the way the others do. We need more room. The others, the foreigners and lower-class people, can get five and six families into this house, where we only get one. So they can pay more rent for the house than we can afford. It is shocking, sir; and just to think, only a few years ago all this neighbourhood was just as nice as it could be.”
I looked at her. Here was a woman, of the finest grade of the English working-class, with numerous evidences of refinement, being slowly engulfed by that noisome and rotten tide of humanity which the powers that be are pouring eastward out of London Town. Bank, factory, hotel, and office building must go up, and the city poor folk are a nomadic breed; so they migrate eastward, wave upon wave, saturating and degrading neighbourhood by neighbourhood, driving the better class of workers before them to pioneer, on the rim of the city, or dragging them down, if not in the first generation, surely in the second and third.
It is only a question of months when Johnny Upright’s street must go. He realises it himself.
“In a couple of years,” he says, “my lease expires. My landlord is one of our kind. He has not put up the rent on any of his houses here, and this has enabled us to stay. But any day he may sell, or any day he may die, which is the same thing so far as we are concerned. The house is bought by a money breeder, who builds a sweat shop on the patch of ground at the rear where my grapevine is, adds to the house, and rents it a room to a family. There you are, and Johnny Upright’s gone!”
And truly I saw Johnny Upright, and his good wife and fair daughters, and frowzy slavey, like so many ghosts flitting eastward through the gloom, the monster city roaring at their heels.
But Johnny Upright is not alone in his flitting. Far, far out, on the fringe of the city, live the small business men, little managers, and successful clerks. They dwell in cottages and semi-detached villas, with bits of flower garden, and elbow room, and breathing space. They inflate themselves with pride, and throw out their chests when they contemplate the Abyss from which they have escaped, and they thank God that they are not as other men. And lo! down upon them comes Johnny Upright and the monster city at his heels. Tenements spring up like magic, gardens are built upon, villas are divided and subdivided into many dwellings, and the black night of London settles down in a greasy pall.
CHAPTER IV – A MAN AND THE ABYSS
“I say, can you let a lodging?”
These words I discharged carelessly over my shoulder at a stout and elderly woman, of whose fare I was partaking in a greasy coffee-house down near the Pool and not very far from Limehouse.
“Oh yus,” she answered shortly, my appearance possibly not approximating the standard of affluence required by her house.
I said no more, consuming my rasher of bacon and pint of sickly tea in silence. Nor did she take further interest in me till I came to pay my reckoning (fourpence), when I pulled all of ten shillings out of my pocket. The expected result was produced.
“Yus, sir,” she at once volunteered; “I ’ave nice lodgin’s you’d likely tyke a fancy to. Back from a voyage, sir?”
“How much for a room?” I inquired, ignoring her curiosity.
She looked me up and down with frank surprise. “I don’t let rooms, not to my reg’lar lodgers, much less casuals.”
“Then I’ll have to look along a bit,” I said, with marked disappointment.
But the sight of my ten shillings had made her keen. “I can let you have a nice bed in with two hother men,” she urged. “Good, respectable men, an’ steady.”
“But I don’t want to sleep with two other men,” I objected.
“You don’t ’ave to. There’s three beds in the room, an’ hit’s not a very small room.”
“How much?” I demanded.
“’Arf a crown a week, two an’ six, to a regular lodger. You’ll fancy the men, I’m sure. One works in the ware’ouse, an’ ’e’s been with me two years now. An’ the hother’s bin with me six – six years, sir, an’ two months comin’ nex’ Saturday. ’E’s a scene-shifter,” she went on. “A steady, respectable man, never missin’ a night’s work in the time ’e’s bin with me. An’ ’e likes the ’ouse; ’e says as it’s the best ’e can do in the w’y of lodgin’s. I board ’im, an’ the hother lodgers too.”
“I suppose he’s saving money right along,” I insinuated innocently.
“Bless you, no! Nor can ’e do as well helsewhere with ’is money.”
And I thought of my own spacious West, with room under its sky and unlimited air for a thousand Londons; and here was this man, a steady and reliable man, never missing a night’s work, frugal and honest, lodging in one room with two other men, paying two dollars and a half per month for it, and out of his experience adjudging it to be the best he could do! And here was I, on the strength of the ten shillings in my pocket, able to enter in with my rags and take up my bed with him. The human soul is a lonely thing, but it must be very lonely sometimes when there are three beds to a room, and casuals with ten shillings are admitted.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Thirteen years, sir; an’ don’t you think you’ll fancy the lodgin’?”
The while she talked she was shuffling ponderously about the small kitchen in which she cooked the food for her lodgers who were also boarders. When I first entered, she had been hard at work, nor had she let up once throughout the conversation. Undoubtedly she was a busy woman. “Up at half-past five,” “to bed the last thing at night,” “workin’ fit ter drop,” thirteen years of it, and for reward, grey hairs, frowzy clothes, stooped shoulders, slatternly figure, unending toil in a foul and noisome coffee-house that faced on an alley ten feet between the walls, and a waterside environment that was ugly and sickening, to say the least.
“You’ll be hin hagain to ’ave a look?” she questioned wistfully, as I went out of the door.
And as I turned and looked at her, I realized to the full the deeper truth underlying that very wise old maxim: “Virtue is its own reward.”
I went back to her. “Have you ever taken a vacation?” I asked.
“A trip to the country for a couple of days, fresh air, a day off, you know, a rest.”
“Lor’ lumme!” she laughed, for the first time stopping from her work. “A vycytion, eh? for the likes o’ me? Just fancy, now! – Mind yer feet!” – this last sharply, and to me, as I stumbled over the rotten threshold.