The Edbury spike did not differ much from the one at Romton. The worst feature was that all tobacco was confiscated at the gate, and we were warned that any man caught smoking would be turned out at once. Under the Vagrancy Act tramps can be prosecuted for smoking in the spike—in fact, they can be prosecuted for almost anything; but the authorities generally save the trouble of a prosecution by turning disobedient men out of doors. There was no work to do, and the cells were fairly comfortable. We slept two in a cell, ‘one up, one down’—that is, one on a wooden shelf and one on the floor, with straw palliasses and plenty of blankets, dirty but not verminous. The food was the same as at Romton, except that we had tea instead of cocoa. One could get extra tea in the morning, as the Tramp Major was selling it at a halfpenny a mug, illicitly no doubt. We were each given a hunk of bread and cheese to take away for our midday meal.
When we got into London we had eight hours to kill before the lodging-houses opened. It is curious how one does not notice things. I had been in London innumerable times, and yet till that day I had never noticed one of the worst things about London—the fact that it costs money even to sit down. In Paris, if you had no money and could not find a public bench, you would sit on the pavement. Heaven knows what sitting on the pavement would lead to in London—prison, probably. By four we had stood five hours, and our feet seemed red-hot from the hardness of the stones. We were hungry, having eaten our ration as soon as we left the spike, and I was out of tobacco—it mattered less to Paddy, who picked up cigarette ends. We tried two churches and found them locked. Then we tried a public library, but there were no seats in it. As a last hope Paddy suggested trying a Rowton House; by the rules they would not let us in before seven, but we might slip in unnoticed. We walked up to the magnificent doorway (the Rowton Houses really are magnificent) and very casually, trying to look like regular lodgers, began to stroll in. Instantly a man lounging in the doorway, a sharp-faced fellow, evidently in some position of authority, barred the way.
‘You men sleep ’ere last night?’
‘Then — off.’
We obeyed, and stood two more hours on the street corner. It was unpleasant, but it taught me not to use the expression ‘street corner loafer’, so I gained something from it.
At six we went to a Salvation Army shelter. We could not book beds till eight and it was not certain that there would be any vacant, but an official, who called us ‘Brother’, let us in on the condition that we paid for two cups of tea. The main hall of the shelter was a great white-washed barn of a place, oppressively clean and bare, with no fires. Two hundred decentish, rather subdued-looking people were sitting packed on long wooden benches. One or two officers in uniform prowled up and down. On the wall were pictures of General Booth, and notices prohibiting cooking, drinking, spitting, swearing, quarrelling, and gambling. As a specimen of these notices, here is one that I copied word for word:
Any man found gambling or playing cards will be expelled and will not be admitted under any circumstances.
A reward will be given for information leading to the discovery of such persons.
The officers in charge appeal to all lodgers to assist them in keeping this hostel free from the DETESTABLE EVIL OF GAMBLING.
‘Gambling or playing cards’ is a delightful phrase. To my eye these Salvation Army shelters, though clean, are far drearier than the worst of the common lodging-houses. There is such a hopelessness about some of the people there—decent, broken-down types who have pawned their collars but are still trying for office jobs. Coming to a Salvation Army shelter, where it is at least clean, is their last clutch at respectability. At the next table to me were two foreigners, dressed in rags but manifestly gentlemen. They were playing chess verbally, not even writing down the moves. One of them was blind, and I heard them say that they had been saving up for a long time to buy a board, price half a crown, but could never manage it. Here and there were clerks out of work, pallid and moody. Among a group of them a tall, thin, deadly pale young man was talking excitedly. He thumped his fist on the table and boasted in a strange, feverish style. When the officers were out of hearing he broke out into startling blasphemies:
‘I tell you what, boys, I’m going to get that job tomorrow. I’m not one of your bloody down-on-the-knee brigade; I can look after myself. Look at that—notice there! “The Lord will provide!” A bloody lot He’s ever provided me with. You don’t catch me trusting to the — Lord. You leave it to me, boys. I’m going to get that job,’ etc. etc.
I watched him, struck by the wild, agitated way in which he talked; he seemed hysterical, or perhaps a little drunk. An hour later I went into a small room, apart from the main hall, which was intended for reading. It had no books or papers in it, so few of the lodgers went there. As I opened the door I saw the young clerk in there all alone; he was on his knees, praying. Before I shut the door again I had time to see his face, and it looked agonized. Quite suddenly I realized, from the expression of his face, that he was starving.
The charge for beds was eightpence. Paddy and I had fivepence left, and we spent it at the ‘bar’, where food was cheap, though not so cheap as in some common lodging-houses. The tea appeared to be made with tea dust, which I fancy had been given to the Salvation Army in charity, though they sold it at threehalfpence a cup. It was foul stuff. At ten o’clock an officer marched round the hall blowing a whistle. Immediately everyone stood up.
‘What’s this for?’ I said to Paddy, astonished.
‘Dat means you has to go off to bed. An’ you has to look sharp about it, too.’
Obediently as sheep, the whole two hundred men trooped off to bed, under the command of the officers.
The dormitory was a great attic like a barrack room, with sixty or seventy beds in it. They were clean and tolerably comfortable, but very narrow and very close together, so that one breathed straight into one’s neighbour’s face. Two officers slept in the room, to see that there was no smoking and no talking after lights-out. Paddy and I had scarcely a wink of sleep, for there was a man near us who had some nervous trouble, shellshock perhaps, which made him cry out ‘Pip!’ at irregular intervals. It was a loud, startling noise, something like the toot of a small motor-horn. You never knew when it was coming, and it was a sure preventer of sleep. It appeared that Pip, as the others called him, slept regularly in the shelter, and he must have kept ten pr twenty people awake every night. He was an example of the kind of thing that prevents one from ever getting enough sleep when men are herded as they are in these lodging-houses.
At seven another whistle blew, and the officers went round shaking those who did not get up at once. Since then I have slept in a number of Salvation Army shelters, and found that, though the different houses vary a little, this semi-military discipline is the same in all of them. They are certainly cheap, but they are too like workhouses for my taste. In some of them there is even a compulsory religious service once or twice a week, which the lodgers must attend or leave the house. The fact is that the Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body that they cannot even run a lodging-house without making it stink of charity.
At ten I went to B.’s office and asked him to lend me a pound. He gave me two pounds and told me to come again when necessary, so that Paddy and I were free of money troubles for a week at least. We loitered the day in Trafalgar Square, looking for a friend of Paddy’s who never turned up, and at night went to a lodging-house in a back alley near the Strand. The charge was elevenpence, but it was a dark, evil-smelling place, and a notorious haunt of the ‘nancy boys’. Downstairs, in the murky kitchen, three ambiguous-looking youths in smartish blue suits were sitting on a bench apart, ignored by the other lodgers. I suppose they were ‘nancy boys’. They looked the same type as the apache boys one sees in Paris, except that they wore no side-whiskers. In front of the fire a fully dressed man and a stark-naked man were bargaining. They were newspaper sellers. The dressed man was selling his clothes to the naked man. He said:
‘’Ere y’are, the best rig-out you ever ’ad. A tosheroon [half a crown] for the coat, two ’ogs for the trousers, one and a tanner for the boots, and a ’og for the cap and scarf. That’s seven bob.’
‘You got a ’ope! I’ll give yer one and a tanner for the coat, a ’og for the trousers, and two ’ogs for the rest. That’s four and a tanner.’
‘Take the ’ole lot for five and a tanner, chum.’
‘Right y’are, off with ’em. I got to get out to sell my late edition.’
The clothed man stripped, and in three minutes their positions were reversed; the naked man dressed, and the other kilted with a sheet of the Daily Mail.
The dormitory was dark and close, with fifteen beds in it. There was a horrible hot reek of urine, so beastly that at first one tried to breathe in small, shallow puffs, not filling one’s lungs to the bottom. As I lay down in bed a man loomed out of the darkness, leant over me and began babbling in an educated, half-drunken voice:
‘An old public schoolboy, what? [He had heard me say something to Paddy.] Don’t meet many of the old school here. I am an old Etonian. You know—twenty years hence this weather and all that.’ He began to quaver out the Eton boating-song, not untunefully:
Jolly boating weather,|
And a hay harvest—
‘Stop that — noise!’ shouted several lodgers.
‘Low types,’ said the old Etonian, ‘very low types. Funny sort of place for you and me, eh? Do you know what my friends say to me? They say, “M—, you are past redemption.” Quite true, I am past redemption. I’ve come down in the world; not like these —s here, who couldn’t come down if they tried. We chaps who have come down ought to hang together a bit. Youth will be still in our faces—you know. May I offer you a drink?’
He produced a bottle of cherry brandy, and at the same moment lost his balance and fell heavily across my legs. Paddy, who was undressing, pulled him upright.
‘Get back to yer bed, you silly ole —!’
The old Etonian walked unsteadily to his bed and crawled under the sheets with all his clothes on, even his boots. Several times in the night I heard him murmuring, ‘M—, you are past redemption,’ as though the phrase appealed to him. In the morning he was lying asleep fully dressed, with the bottle clasped in his arms. He was a man of about fifty, with a refined, worn face, and, curiously enough, quite fashionably dressed. It was queer to see his good patent-leather shoes sticking out of that filthy bed. It occurred to me, too, that the cherry brandy must have cost the equivalent of a fortnight’s lodging, so he could not have been seriously hard up. Perhaps he frequented common lodging-houses in search of the ‘nancy boys’.
The beds were not more than two feet apart. About midnight I woke up to find that the man next to me was trying to steal the money from beneath my pillow. He was pretending to be asleep while he did it, sliding his hand under the pillow as gently as a rat. In the morning I saw that he was a hunchback, with long, apelike arms. I told Paddy about the attempted theft. He laughed and said:
‘Christ! You got to get used to dat. Dese lodgin’ houses is full o’ thieves. In some houses dere’s nothin’ safe but to sleep wid all yer clo’es on. I seen ’em steal a wooden leg off a cripple before now. Once I see a man—fourteen-stone man he was—come into a lodgin’-house wid four pound ten. He puts it under his mattress. “Now,” he says, “any — dat touches dat money does it over my body,” he says. But dey done him all de same. In de mornin’ he woke up on de floor. Four fellers had took his mattress by de corners an’ lifted him off as light as a feather. He never saw his four pound ten again.’