Lady Noggs, Peeress/Chapter 10
THE PERILS OF PHILANTHROPY
WHEN Sue and the Lady Noggs reached London, they were some little time learning the road to that vague land known to Sue as Out-Poplar-Way. At last having learned it, they went in a cab to Fenchurch Street; and the bluff and hearty cabman, moved by the youth and innocence of his fares, bluffly and heartily took from the Lady Noggs two shillings more than his due.
From Fenchurch Street a slow and steady train carried them with evident reluctance and every possible stoppage to Poplar. In the grime of that thriving suburb Sue was at home, and took the post of leader. Uncomfortable, and full of questions, the Lady Noggs followed her down long mean street after long mean street. She wanted to collect all the hungry, ragged children she met; but Sue promised her hungrier and raggeder children, if she would wait. At last she brought her round the back of a timber-yard into one of those striking and admirable monuments of twentieth-century civilization, a warren of the submerged. It was a row of four eighteenth-century houses of a fair size but dilapidated condition, of paneless, rag-stuffed windows, crooked gables, tottering chimney-stacks, and bulging or sinking roofs full of holes; the very profitable property of a well-known sporting haberdasher whose yacht is the last cry of nautical luxury. A din of harsh, high-pitched voices came from the paneless windows and open doors through the heavy, malodorous air which no breeze seemed to have stirred for weeks; and in the gutter or the deep dust of the roadway, sat or played listlessly in the heat, a score of the children the Lady Noggs had come to see, gaunt, dirty, ragged little savages.
The Lady Noggs and Sue were dressed in plain holland frocks and sailor hats, but at once the children gathered round them ciying to one another, half curious, half hostile. Untorn clothes, clean faces, and kempt hair were rarities unlikely to escape notice in Druggers' Rents.
The Lady Noggs looked round at the gaunt little faces, in a horror at a reality so much worse than her imaginations, pulled herself together, and said to a little girl of about her own age, who was carrying a frail scrap of a baby with large eyes in a tiny white face, "Would you like a meal?"
"Garn!" said the little girl distrustfully.
"It's strite," said Sue, in the children's own tongue. "She's not a-gittin' at yer. She's goin' ter treat yer."
A shrill clamour of extreme excitement rose from the children; they pressed forward urging their claims, or fawning on the Lady Noggs with the professional beggar whine.
"But can I feed them all?" said the Lady Noggs.
Sue nodded: "You can pay for more than them," she said.
A big Irish girl strolled lazily up from the nearest doorway, and said, "Fwhat is ut?"
A dozen excited children told her of the Lady Noggs's offer. She lost her laziness and said, "Begorra, but ut's a meal they want!" And with the national aptitude for organization, she took the matter in hand.
She marshalled the children into a column, started them out of the Rents, and brought up the rear with Sue and the Lady Noggs. As they went the Lady Noggs explained to her the purpose of her journey to this lost land; and when the girl understood, she said, "Is ut knocking about and starvation ye want to see?" and called back child after child from the column, saying to one, "Allus, me darlint, show the lit tle lady the bruishze on y'r leg ye got from y'r dad Sathurday noight;" to another, "Tommy, me man, where's them wales ye got from y'r grandmother lasth toime she was in the drink?" to a third, "Jimmy, y'r ribs are asier t' count than most, give the little lady a look at them." The children, who called the girl Norry, did her bidding with alacrity; the clothes of the mites were of no wholeness to prevent the display of their scars; and the Lady Noggs, sickened by the sights, had lost all pleasure in her benevolence long before they had turned into the inconceivably dirty little eating-house which was their goal, and the children were clamouring at the noxious-looking old woman who kept it, for food. The Lady Noggs gave Norry her purse, and she displayed a sovereign from it. By the sight of it the old woman was affected to a briskness beyond her years; and plate after plate was loaded with food and set on the filthy tables to which the knives and forks, black from point to handle, were strongly chained.
The dish of the day was that eighteenth-century delicacy, beef a-la-mode procured to all seeming from the stables of a neighbouring tramway terminus; evil-looking chunks of it flanked by doubtful potatoes and besmeared with a thick mahogany-coloured grease filled the plates. Tears of joy filled the eyes of some of the children at the sight of this good cheer; and all of them fell on it with a savage gusto, their eyes glistening, their mouths watering, silent, absorbed in a luxurious delight.
But when the Lady Noggs saw ravenous little babies getting a share from the plates of those who carried them, she cried out against it: "They must have milk!" she said. "They must have milk!"
At such lavishness a kind of stupefaction fell on some of the little girls: they paused in their eating for as long as ten seconds to stare at her with unbelieving eyes. But Norry rose to the occasion: she said to a lanky, ferret-faced youth, who had been sitting at a table when they came in, "Go to Mother Butterick's, an' bring eighteen-pennorth of the best, an' see it is the best, will yer?"
She spoke as one used to command, and the youth shambled out. He did not come back; but presently a stout, red-faced woman came to the door with a milk can. Norry sniffed it distrustfully, passed it, and paid her. Then each babe was provided with a dirty cup full of its natural food; and the feast resumed its way.
The children ate and ate; their faces flushed, and their eyes grew drowsy. At last one by one they began to lay down their knives and forks with heavy sighs; and no loud encouragement from Norry could urge them to further efforts. The elders sat still and silent; the babies fell asleep; and the little toddlers had laid their heads on the table and slept, too. Norry paid the bill, and by dint of firmness got them out of the eating-house. They stood in the street, a sleepy band; she extracted three thin, sleepy cheers for the little lady from them, and started them off to their dismal homes. Then she said to the Lady Noggs, "Here's y'r purrse, me darlint; there's twelve bob left in ut; an' God bless y'r pretty face and koind harrt."
The Lady Noggs shook her head, and said, "No: you keep it, and buy them some more food to-morrow. And, oh! Do give the babies milk! I'll send you some more sometimes out of my pocket-money, you know. Where shall I send it to you?"
"Shure, y're a little angel! Sind it to Miss Norry Murphy, Druggers' Rents Poplar. And fwhat's yor name, me little darlint?"
The Lady Noggs hesitated: some curious shame at the contrast between their lots restrained her from giving it: it did not seem a name to be uttered outside that eating-house; she said hastily, "You can call me Noggs. They call me Noggs at home."
"And a blessed name ut is!" said Norry.
"There isn't anything else I can do, is there? Now, I mean," said the Lady Noggs anxiously.
"Sorra wan; but maybe you'll be coming to see us agin?"
"I'll try; but I mayn't be allowed."
"Well, here's yor purrse, me darlint. I'll do as ye wish wiv the twelve bob. Take the fifth torning on the lift, an' you'll come to the station. I musth be after thim childer, or they'll be slaping in the middle av the road. Good-boye, an' God bless ye!"
She kissed them, and hurried off; they waved their hands to her when she looked over her shoulder, till she passed out of sight. Then they turned, and set out for the station. The Lady Noggs walked in silence for fifty yards; then she said, "Oh, those poor children! You were quite right, Sue."
There was a sudden rush from an alley they were passing; and five Hooligans dashed out upon them, led by the lanky, ferret-faced youth who had gone from the eating-house to order the milk. In a twinkling the Lady Noggs's purse had been torn from her pocket and the gold bangles from her wrists; two of the boys had her by the arms, and were hurrying her down the alley, two others were dealing in like manner with Sue. The children were the captives of those romantic but blackguardly products of the Board School and the Penny Dreadful, the Poplar Claud Duvals, a band of vicious louts who terrorized the less policed streets of that thriving suburb.
As they hurried them along, their captors with horrible threats bade them hold their tongues; and the Lady Noggs was too dazed by the suddenness of the events to resist, even had she been less firmly gripped. The Poplar Claud Duvals were bragging to one another ferociously of the swiftness of their deadly swoop, like boys at play; and she gathered from their talk that they were going to hold her and Sue to ransom. She was beginning to understand that they were in a perilous plight, when they came out of the further end of the alley into a street even meaner than the one they had left, and almost ran into a very large red-bearded, red-headed sailor.
"Sailor! Sailor! Help us! We're being carried a—" shrieked the Lady Noggs; and a blow on the mouth cut her short.
The sailor seemed a man of alertness, for on the instant his heavy stick whacked down on the youth who had struck her, and laid him low; and before the Poplar Claud Duvals realized what was happening, he had another by the throat with his left hand and his stick was playing about the heads of the other three. In less than twenty seconds two of them were yelling with anguish; and the scattered wits of the third were only collected by the teeth of the Lady Noggs, turned to a little wild cat by the blow on her mouth, meeting in the hand which held her. He raised his yell in unison; and the three of them bolted down the street. The sailor banged the head of his captive against the wall with a cheery whooping, and despatched him after his friends with a kick of singular propulsion. Then he turned to the children, and said, "This ain't no neighbourhood for us, kiddies!" tucked his stick under his arm; caught either by the hand; and rushed them up the alley.
They came into the street of the eating-house; hurried down it, up a turning to the left, and came to a sudden breathless stop before an other very large sailor coming down it.
"Hullo, Albert! Starting a family?" said the other large sailor.
The rescuer made no answer; he wiped his brow with a handkerchief of intensest brilliance, and burst into a stentorian bellow of,
"In Burdo Town! In Burdo Town!
We laid 'em out! We knocked 'em down!
Frenchies, Da-agos, whi-ite an brown!
We la-id 'em out in Burdo Town!"
At the end of this pæan he burst into a huge Homeric laughter, and told of his battle with the five Hooligans. Then he turned to the Lady Noggs, and asked her where her mammy lived.
"I haven't got one," said the Lady Noggs. "I want to get to the Duchess of Huddersfield's in Berkeley Square. I'm Lady Felicia Grandison; and I came down to this beastly hole to find out whether poor children are starved and knocked about! I know all about it now; and I want to get home!" She spoke fiercely, for she was still raging at the blow.
"So you shall, my lass! So you shall!" said Albeit; and he stooped and wiped her bleeding lip with the handkerchief of intensest brilliance. Then he straightened himself, and said, "Jerry, what ho! This is a little ladyship what I've rescooed. We must make an effort, my lad, an' take 'er 'ome befittinglike—in a 'ansom."
"P'raps 'er little ladyship 'ud like a drink—a glass of red port wine," said Jerry rising to the proper height.
"No, thank you," said the Lady Noggs. "I only want to get to my aunt's."
"I wonder at you, Jerry!" said Albert in sad reproach. "Where's your tone? Pubs ain't for the likes of them! Come along your ladyship; an' we'll find a cab."
As they sought one the Lady Noggs related to the sympathetic and charmed mariners the story of her errand to Druggers' Rents, and of her capture. When they at last found a hansom, Albert took the Lady Noggs on his knee, and Jerry took Sue on his. They talked with great friendliness as they drove mile after mile through that dismal quarter towards civilization; but slowly Albert grew more and more silent and absorbed: he seemed to have a weight on his mind. Suddenly, in Fleet Street, he brightened, and said, "This is 'ow it ought to ha' run, Jerry,
"In Poplar Town! In Poplar Town!
I laid 'em out! I knocked 'em down!
Fi-ive to one I di-id 'em brown!
I la-id 'em out in Po-oplar Town!"
He produced this new version of his pæan in the same terrific bellow; and the passing throng paused at the rush of sound to stare open-mouthed at the cab. "You be a wonner, Albert!" said Jerry with convinced admiration.
And the Lady Noggs said with equal admiration, "You have a splendid voice."
"It ain't every one," said Albert with thoughtful gratification, "as is praised by a lady of title, 'owever young."
He was so proud of this child of his imagination that he sang it again in the Strand, in the Haymarket, in Piccadilly, and Berkeley Square was echoing the strain when the cab stopped before Hartlepool House. They got out; and suddenly the size of the house filled the sailors with a bashful confusion. After an incoherent farewell they were tumbling over one another back into the cab, when the Lady Noggs took command: "Come out!" she said sternly. "You've got to come and see my aunt, and be thanked properly!' And she caught Albert by the arm, disregarded his protest, and pulled him up the steps. Sue and Jerry followed.
"The butler will pay the cab," she said; and rang the bell.
"Tell Wilkins to pay the cab," she said to the astonished footman; and led the reluctant Albert past him; opened the door of the dining-room, and brought him in. Half her family were seated round the table, drinking their coffee after lunch and smoking, while they debated further measures for her recovery, and awaited news from Scotland Yard and the police stations of Poplar.
"How do you do, aunt?" said the Lady Noggs, running to the duchess and kissing her.
"This is Albert and Jerry. Albert is awfully brave! He fought five Hooligans except one which I bit, and rescued us, or I don't know what we should have done! They had taken us captives, you know, and were going to keep us! And he has a splendid voice: you should hear him sing! Mr. Albert, Mr. Jerry, the Duchess of Huddersfield."
Her family, though greatly relieved by her unexpected arrival in its midst, was taken aback. It could never grow used, though it enjoyed plentiful opportunities, to her habit of suddenly dumping perfect strangers into its bosom, and it gazed at the gallant mariners with some discomfort, showing a distressing lack of presence of mind at being suddenly confronted with them. For their part, the gallant mariners showed not a whit less discomfort.
The duchess was the first to recover, and she greeted the little party. Then the duke and some of his guests recovered enough to pour a flood of questions on the Lady Noggs. The only result was a general incoherence. Then the butler was summoned, and the duchess bade him take Albert and Jerry to the servants' hall and feast them; and also make haste to send a wire to the Poplar police, informing them of the return of the Lady Noggs, and bidding them inform the Prime Minister, Miss Caldecott, Mr. Borrodaile, and the other searchers who had gone to the far East to hunt for her, and were wandering feverishly about Poplar.
The Lady Noggs said that she and Sue were very hungry. The servants were ordered to bring them lunch; and they ate it to an accompaniment of scores of questions which drew from the Lady Noggs a fairly coherent account of their adventures. When she had gratified their curiosity she began to dilate at length on the children of Druggers' Rents. She painted a picture of their scars, hunger, and rags, which pierced in the most unpleasant fashion the comfort in which her hearers were lapped.
When she had done the duke said with natural heat, "Look here, Noggs; you've no business to go to such places—no business at all! It must stop! It's not only the Hooligans, but such places are hot-beds of disease. You might catch any fever there!"
I didn't want to go!" cried the Lady Noggs. But Billy and uncle, and both those two stupid politicians said that Sue was wrong—that children weren't really treated like that—and I had to go and see for myself. And Sue was quite right, just as I thought. You belong to the House of Lords; why don't you see after the poor children?"
The Duke said, "Ah—hum!" and became discreetly silent.
The Lady Noggs went on to give a description of Albert's pæan, which she plainly regarded as one of the supreme efforts of modern poetic genius. There was no one in that exalted assembly capable of criticising her pronouncement.
After they had finished their lunch the two sailors were summoned to the dining-room. They were thanked by the duke, and handsomely rewarded; but the Lady Noggs pressed Albert to sing in vain: he seemed the unresisting prey of an invincible shyness.