Divers Vanities - Arthur Morrison - ebook

Divers Vanities ebook

Arthur Morrison



Arthur Morrison, who was English novelist, short story writer and journalist, wrote pioneering realistic narratives about working-class life in London’s East End. He is also celebrated for his exciting mystery stories, featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, who served as a natural successor to Sherlock Holmes. This comprehensive book presents Morrison’s collection of short stories. The collection includes: „Chance of the Game”, „Spotto’s Reclamation”, „A „Dead ’Un”, „The Disorder of the Bath”, „His Talk of Bricks”, „Teacher and Taught”, „A Blot on St. Basil”, „The Torn Heart” and others. Each story features a fascinating look at life in the 20th century, and even includes some action along the way.

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Frères humains qui après nous vivez, N’ayez les coeurs contre nous endurcis, Car, si pitié de nous pauvres avez, Dieu en aura plus tôt de vous mercis. –Villon.


THE truly great man of business has no business hours. To lose an opportunity is no less than a crime, and an opportunity which displays itself in a time and place of relaxation is none the less an opportunity. It was for this reason that Spotto Bird found himself running his best in Bow Road.

Spotto Bird was not at all the sort of practitioner to use the Bow Road in the ordinary way of business; even as he ran in the dark streets, with more pressing matters to occupy his mind, he was conscious of some added shade of apprehension from the possibility, not merely of being caught, but of being caught working in the East End. But the clock was a red ‘un, and the opportunity undoubted; to be pinched in the Bow Road merely might well imply loss of caste in the mob, but nobody need be ashamed to be pinched anywhere for a gold watch, after all. Not that Spotto had the smallest intention of being pinched at all if his legs could save him.

As a rule he went West for purposes of business, and worked alone, like the superior high mobsman that he was. Theft from the person is a poor trade for the ordinary ill-dressed thief. It needs a scramble of three to get a watch, which will never bring them a sovereign, no matter how much it may have cost the loser in the game, and probably will bring no more than a few shillings. But a high mobsman like Spotto Bird, well dressed and presentable, who can work the West End and get a watch or a pin or the like by his sole skill, without vulgar violence, does better: his profits are undivided, and his prices are higher.

But now the occasion was exceptional. The end of an evening’s relaxation at the Eastern Empire Music Hall found Spotto, near midnight, strolling along Bow Road. Something had been happening at the Bromley Vestry Hall, and a small crowd of most respectable elderly gentlemen–guardians, well-to-do tradesmen, or what not–was emerging from the doors and spreading across the pavement. In the midst of this little press Spotto Bird found himself squeezed against a most rotund white waistcoat, in such wise that a thick gold watch-chain positively scarified his knuckles. From such a situation there could be but one issue. It was not a time for finesse; Spotto Bird hooked his fingers about the chain, tore away the lot, and drove out of the crowd with a burst.

He made across the broad road with a string of elderly gentlemen after him, and two policemen at the end of the string; for it chanced that the police-station was actually next door. He struck for the nearest turning, but was almost headed off. For a group of men on the other side of the way saw the chase start, and broke into a run. They missed him by a bare yard, and Spotto Bird turned into the dark by-street clear in front, but hard pressed.

It was a quiet street in ordinary, lined with decent small houses. Now it was empty and dark ahead, but loud with shouts and the beating of feet behind the runaway. Spotto Bird dropped the watch into his trousers pocket, and spread his legs for the best they could do. He led down the middle of the roadway, partly because it was less hard and noisy than the pavement, and partly because there was thus more room to dodge any attempt to intercept him. Here he gained, and at the nearest corner there was a dear twenty yards behind him. Beyond this turning he went so well that he reached the next–which was very near–ere the head of the chase had well regained sight of him. Down this new street he ran alone, his eyes wide open for the next turn, or for some likely refuge or dodging-place; for the chase was too fast to last.

Among the houses on the left he saw a dark arch–doubtless the entrance to some lane or alley. He snatched at a lamp-post, swung round it, and darted into the archway. Within he found a paved yard, lighted by a dim light at the far end; and he saw at a glance that here was the end of his run. For this was a yard of old almshouses, and there was no way out but by the arch he had come in at.

The crowd was yelping at the street corner, and nearing the arch with every yelp. There was nothing for it but to lie low and let it rush past–if it would. Spotto Bird turned and sprang for the nearest doorway, with a design to stand up close in the shadow in case the hunt turned into the yard. There was a little pent-roof over the door, and two brick steps at its foot. Stumbling on the steps, he reached to feel the dark door, and pitched forward with his hands on the mat; for indeed the door was wide open.

It seemed a stroke of luck, if only nobody had heard. He crept into the entry, rose gingerly to his feet on the mat, and listened. The shouts and the pelt of feet came up the street, and the clamour burst with a sudden distinctness through the archway.

“Ere! In ‘ere!” came a few voices. And while some of the trampling went on up the street, part turned aside at the gate. Spotto silently pushed-to the door before him within two inches of the jamb, and peeped through the two inches.

Two or three of the pursuers appeared at the yard entrance and peered about them.

“Nobody ‘ere,” said one. “No,” said another, “it’s only the alms ‘ouses; ‘e wouldn’t go there.” And they turned to rejoin the scurry.

It was a long, straggling crowd that still passed shouting up the street, as though all Bow had turned out to the hunt. Probably the old gentlemen from the Vestry Hall were toiling at the tail, and as they could most readily recognise the fugitive it seemed well to keep back still a little longer. Spotto pulled the door wide, and as he did it a loud clang resounded from overhead. His start was merely momentary, however, for the stroke was followed by another and another, and he realised that somewhere in the dark above the almshouses a church clock was striking twelve. In some odd way it turned his thoughts toward the house he stood in. For the first time he peered backward along the tiny passage. It had seemed black enough from without, but now he could see that it bent by the stairs, and that the door of the back room, feebly lighted by a candle, stood open. He took a noiseless step or two down the passage, and saw that the candle stood on a deal table, in company with a little loaf or cake and a glass of beer. The room was quiet and tenantless; probably the resident was gossiping in another of the cottages. The beer looked very clear and pleasant, and a hard run, with the police close behind, induces a peculiar dryness of the throat and tongue–a different and a worse dryness than that derived from a plain run with no police. Spotto Bird walked in and reached for the beer.

As he did so the little cake caught his eye. It was a pallid, doughy lump, with two sprawling capital letters impressed or scratched on its upper side–M. H. It seemed so odd that he paused with the glass in one hand and lifted the cake with the other. There were no more marks on it, and it was a dead, leaden mass, which nobody would dream of eating, Spotto judged, as he turned it over, at less than five shillings a bite. He put it down, and took the beer at a gulp. That was better.

He turned, with the glass still in his hand, and almost choked the beer up. For as he faced the door he saw that he was not alone–that he was trapped.

A girl emerged from behind the door, gazing straight in his face, and pushing to the door as she came.

“Oh then,” said the girl, “it’s–it’s–there! it’s true after all!” Her pale face was radiant, and slit; met him fearlessly, her hands stretched a little before her. “It is true!”

“Oh yes,” replied Spotto Bird vaguely, “it’s quite true, o’ course!” The shock was sudden, but presence of mind was a habit of his trade.

“Don’t talk loud, or you’ll wake mother. We mustn’t wake mother, you know.”

Spotto Bird was relieved, though more than a little puzzled. In the first place he had never seen a girl exactly like this. She was pale beyond his experience, with a pallor that seemed unhealthy enough, though it was scarce the pallor of sickness. Moreover, she regarded him with an intensity of interest–even delighted interest–that he could not at all understand.

“No,” he mumbled: “we mustn’t wake mother, o’ course;” and he furtively returned the glass to its place on the table.

“You must come and see her another day,” said the girl. “I’ll let you know when. When I’ve broke it to her a little, you know.”

“All right–I’ll be sure to come,” replied Spotto, edging toward the door. “I’ll bear it in mind, particular.”

She laid a hand on his arm. “You needn’t run away,” she said, with a sudden archness. “Why, I don’t even know your name yet!”

Spotto was well resolved that she should not learn it. “Jenkins,” he replied glibly–“W. Jenkins.”

“Is it Wilfred?” she asked eagerly. “I do love Wilfred!”

Spotto made it Wilfred readily, and shuffled a foot. But now this strange young person had put a hand on each of his arms, and stood between him and the door.

“Do tell me now, Wilfred,” she said: “did you know you was coming here when you came out? Did you come all of your own accord or as if you were–a–sort of drove, you know?”

“Well, yes, I was sort of drove,” Spotto admitted candidly, wondering desperately what it all meant.

“You felt a sort of awful great influence that you couldn’t stand up against–that drew you along?”

“Well, yes; there was a good deal of that in it too, no doubt.”

“And you didn’t ever see me before, not in all your life, did you?”

“Well, no–not to say see you, exactly; not what you might call see you.”

“Oh, isn’t it wonderful?”

“Reg’lar knock-out, I call it,” agreed Spotto fervently, with another uneasy glance at the door.

“I was frightened at first–quite awful frightened. That’s why I hid behind the door. And when I heard you comin’ in, ever so softly, I was ready to faint. You see, I didn’t know whether it might be really you, alive, or your ghost walking while you was asleep.”

(“Mad,” thought Spotto Bird. “Off her blooming onion. But all right–quite friendly.”)

“But o’ course when I see you really alive, and turning the cake and drinking the beer, just like they always do–why, I didn’t mind so much.”

“That’s all right,” he answered. “I’m glad you didn’t mind my ‘avin’ the beer.”

“Why, o’ course not. That’s what I put it there for. They always do, you know.”

“Oh yes,” he assented hastily; “they always do, o’ course.”

“And it isn’t Midsummer Eve, after all. And old Mrs. Crick was so positive it was, too!”

(Now the day just over was October the thirty-first. Quite plainly the girl was balmy–balmy on the crumpet)

“Was she, though?” Spotto answered aloud. “Silly old geezer! I’ll–I’ll just go and tell ‘er she was wrong.” And he made a more determined move toward the door.

But the pallid girl gripped him tighter, and pressed him back. “Why, she’s in bed long ago,” she said; I “you might know she would be. And so you know her, do you?”

Spotto was cautious. “Well, only in a sort o’ way,” he said. “Not what you might call know her–not intimate.”

“I thought not, else I must ha’ seen you in the yard. I’m always lookin’ out o’ window when mother’s asleep, if I ain’t readin’. Did you ever hear Mrs. Crick talking about this?”


“Why, this, you know,”–with a nod at the table. “She see her own husband that way, over fifty years ago, when it was all trees and green fields round here. On Midsummer Eve, she says; but Mrs. Nye says it ought to be twelve o’clock of All Hallows’, and so it is, you see. I tried Midsummer Eve, and hid there behind the door till past three in the mornin’, and daylight, with the front door wide open, and nobody came at all. I had to shut the door then, o’ course, else somebody would ha’ seen it open.”

“Ah–jesso,” Spotto assented. A dim light was beginning to break on him. He remembered to have heard of some such thing as this years ago. Didn’t the women call it the “dumb-cake” or something of the sort?

“I was afraid perhaps it wasn’t true after all,” the girl went on. “But I said nothing to nobody, and I tried again to-night, as Mrs. Nye said it ought to be; and now I know it is true–true as gospel. I did it just as Mrs. Nye said–made the dough of plain flour seven nights before, unknown to anybody, and kept it under my pillow. And to-night I marked it with the first letters of my name, baked it, and put out the cloth and the candle and the glass of beer, and opened the doors and waited. And when the clock struck twelve in you came; and you lifted the cake in your hand and turned it, and you drank the beer just the proper way!”

“So I did,” agreed Spotto Bird. The thing was clear enough now. This extraordinary girl looked on him as her future husband, brought to her by this old woman’s spell. Spotto Bird sadly wanted to laugh aloud. He had his own superstitions, like most of them that get a living “on the cross.” A lucky penny, or a piece of coal in the pocket, or ceasing “the game” for the day on meeting a squinting man–these things were reasonable enough; but as to this!...The whole adventure touched his sense of the comic, and he longed to get outside and laugh.

“So I did,” he said. “But I’d better not stop now. Your mother’ll be comin’ down.”

“Oh no–she can’t,” the girl explained. “She’s bed-rid–been bed-rid thirteen years. That’s why I never go out, nor see anybody except Mrs. Nye and Mrs. Crick and the other old ladies in the yard. Mother won’t even let me out of the house, and Mrs. Nye gets the things in for us. I ain’t even got a proper hat! And I haven’t been past the arch since I was twelve years old.”

“No?” replied Spotto wonderingly. “Why not?”

“Mother won’t let me. Says we’ll go out together when she’s better. She never will be better, but we mustn’t tell her so. If she loses sight of me for five minutes she almost has a fit. She hasn’t anybody else in the world but me, you see, so I must do what I can. But I get very down sometimes, except for reading. Do you read Home Slop?”

Spotto Bird admitted that he didn’t.

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