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CHAPTER VIII

In which I take lodgings in a barrel and find that I have invaded a home; learn something about crime; and forget that I was to share in nefarious profits.

IT was a cold wet evening in the beginning of winter and the rain struck chilly through my thin clothes as I walked, wondering where I could find shelter. Probably in America a homeless, hungry child of eleven would find friends, but in London I was only one of thousands as wretched as I. Such poverty is so common there that people are accustomed to it and pass by with their minds full of their own concerns.

I wandered aimlessly about for a long time, watching the gas lamps flare feebly, one by one, and make long, glimmering marks on the wet pavements. I could not whistle any more, there was such an ache in my throat at the thought of my mother, and I was so miserable and forlorn. At last I found an overturned barrel with a little damp straw in it in an alley, and I curled up in it and lay there hearing the raindrops muffled, hollow, beating above me.

After a while I must have fallen into a dose, for I was awakened by something crawling into the barrel. I thought it was a dog and put out my hand, half afraid and half glad of the company. It was another boy.

"Hello, 'ere!" he said. "Wot are you up to? This 'ere is my 'ome!"

"I don't care, I'm here and I'm going to stay here," I said. "Say what you like about that!"

"Ho, you are, are you? I'll punch your bloomin' 'ead off first!" he answered.

"I won't go, not for twenty punchings," I said doggedly. There was not room to fight in the barrel and I was sure he could not get me out, because I knew by the feel of his wet shoulder in the dark that he was smaller than I.

" 'Ere's a pretty go, a man carn't 'ave 'is own 'ome!" he said bitterly, after we had sat breathing hard for a minute. "Wot's yer name?"

I told him who I was and how I had come there and promised to leave in the morning. He was much interested in hearing that I had a mother and asked what she was like, assuming at once a condescending air. He had never had a mother, he said importantly; he knew his way about, he did.

"You can stye 'ere if you like," he said grandly. "'Ave you 'ad grub?"

I told him no, that I had not been able to find anything to eat.

"Hi know, the cats get to it first," he said. "But hi 'ave my wye, hi 'ave. 'Ere's 'arf a bun for yer." He put into my hand a damp bit of bread and I ate it gratefully while he talked. His name was Snooper, he said, and he could show me about how to snatch purses and dodge the bobbies and have larks.

At last we went to sleep, curled in the damp straw, with an understanding that the next day we should forage together for purses. Next morning I was awakened by a terrific noise, and crawling from the barrel found Snooper standing outside kicking it. He was a wizened, small child, not more than nine years old, wearing a ragged coat too small for him and a man's trousers torn off at the knee. He wore his cap on one side with a jaunty air and whistled, his hands in the rents in his coat.

We started off together to Covent Garden market, where he said we would find good pickings, and seeing the knowing cock of his eye and his gay manner, I too managed to whistle and walk with a swagger, though my heart was still heavy with missing my mother, and I was very hungry. It was early when we came to the market, but the place was crowded with farmers' wagons and horses and costers' carts. We wandered about and Snooper, with great enterprise, filled the front of his blouse with raw eggs, which we ate in a near-by alley. When we returned to the market it was beginning to fill with purchasers. Snooper, with his finger at his nose and a cock of his eye, pointed out one of them, a fat woman in black, carrying a big market basket on her arm and clutching a fat leather purse.

"When I glom the leather you hupset the heggs at 'er feet," he said to me in a hoarse whisper, and we edged closer to her through the crowd. She was standing before a vegetable stand with a bunch of herbs in her hand arguing with the farmer.

"Thrippence," said the farmer firmly. "Tuppence ha'penny; not a farthing more," she said. "It's robbery, that's wot it is." We edged closer.

"Worth fourpence by rights," said the farmer. "Take 'em for thrippence or leave 'em."

"Tuppence ha'penny," she insisted. "They're stale. Tuppence ha' ow!" Snooper had snatched her purse.

With a yell she leaped after him, stumbled and fell in the crate of eggs. The farmer, rushing from behind his stand, overturned the pumpkins, which bounced among the crowd. There was great uproar. I fled.

Diving under wagons and dodging among the horses and people, I had gone half-way down the big market when I encountered a perspiring, swearing farmer, who was trying to unload his wagon and hold his horse at the same time. The beast was plunging and rearing.

"Hi, lad!" the farmer called to me. "Want a ha'penny? 'Old 'is bloomin' 'ead for me and I'll gi' you one."

I gladly seized the halter, and a few minutes later I had the halfpenny and a carrot as well. I liked the market, with all its noise and bustle and the excitement of seeing new things, and while I wandered through the crowd munching my carrot I decided to stay there. Snooper had said he would wait for me at the barrel and divide the contents of the purse, but among all the interesting sights and sounds of the market I forgot that, and although I looked for him several days later, I never saw him again.

Before noon I had earned another ha'penny and an apple, only partly spoiled. I had not eaten an apple since the old days when I was very little and mother used to bring home treats to Sidney and me. The loneliness of my mother still lay at the bottom of my heart like a dull ache, and I determined to take the apple to her. The parish doctor who had taken her away had said I might be able to see her at the hospital that afternoon.

I held the apple carefully all the long way through the London streets to the hospital. It was a big bare place, with very busy people coming and going, and for a long time I could not get any one to tell me where my mother was. At last a woman all in black, with a wide, flaring white cap on her head, took my hand and led me past a great many beds with moaning people in them to the one where my mother lay.

They had cut away all her beautiful hair, and her small bare head looked strange upon the pillow. Her eyes were wide open and bright, but they frightened me, and though she was talking rapidly to herself, she did not say a word to me when I stood beside her and showed her the apple.

"Mother, mother, see, I've brought you something," I said, but she only turned her head restlessly on the pillow.

"One more. Are the bottonholes finished? Nine more to make the dozen, and then a dozen more, and that's a half-crown, and thread costs so much," she went on to herself.

"What's the matter with my mother? Why don't she speak to me?" I asked the woman in the white cap.

"It's the fever she's out of her head, poor thing," the woman said.

"Won't she ever be able to speak to me?" I asked her, and something in the way she shook her head and said she didn't know made me cold all over. Then she led me out again and I went back to Covent Garden market.


Covent Garden on Market Day

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