I get into very doubtful company—i am tempted, and, like a true son of adam, i fall.
The reader must have observed that, under the tuition of Anderson, I promised to follow the right path, and, provided his good offices were not interfered with, there appeared little doubt but that such would be the case. But I was little aware, nor was he, that the humble profession which I had chosen for myself was beset with danger, and that the majority of those with whom I was associating were the most likely of all others to lead me into evil. Why I had not hitherto been tempted can only be ascribed to my tender years. In fact, I had not been considered strong enough, or of an age to be useful to them, but now that I was more than thirteen years old—being, moreover, very tall and strong for my age—the hour of temptation arrived; and fortunate was it for me that, previous to this epoch, I had been taken under the protection of Peter Anderson.
I have said in a former chapter that I was a regular mudlarker. So I was, as far as the ostensible occupation of those who are so denominated went; to wit, "picking up pieces of old rope, wood, etc." But the mudlarkers, properly speaking, at that time composed a very extensive body on the river, and were a more humble portion of the numerous river depredators, of which I may hereafter speak. A mudlarker was a man who had an old boat, generally sold by some merchant vessel, furnished with an iron bar full of hooks, which was lowered down by a rope to catch pieces of cordage, oakum, canvas or other articles, which might fall overboard from the numerous vessels in the river; these were sold to the marine stores, such as were kept by old Nanny. But, as I observed, this was the ostensible mode of livelihood; they had other resources, to which I shall presently refer. An old man of the name of Jones, who resided at Greenwich, was one of these mudlarkers by profession. He was a surly old fellow, his sharp nose and chin nearly meeting, and he usually went by the name of Old Grumble. I had occasionally assisted him with his boat, but without receiving money, or indeed thanks, for my pains, but for this I cared little. He was a very old man, and when he came on shore and went up to old Nanny with the few things he had collected during the day, I almost wondered how he could manage to subsist, and thought myself infinitely better off than he was.
One evening he said to me, "Jack, I'm going up the river, I wish you'd come in the boat and help me, and if I make anything I will give you something for your trouble, but if I don't you can't expect it."
As he was very infirm I went with him, more out of charity than with any hopes of profit. We pulled with the tide till we arrived a little above Deptford, where several ships were lying, and he went close to one and lowered down his grapnels. He dragged for a short time.
"Just you make a little further off, old fellow," cried the mate of the vessel.
"Won't allow a poor old man to earn a few pence, I suppose," replied Old Grumble, hauling up his grapnel and directing me to pull under the bows, where he dropped it down again. I now perceived, as I thought, some signs passing between him and one of the men in the head; but if so, they were soon over, and Old Grumble continued his avocation till the sun set.
"How long do you intend to remain here?" inquired I.
"Oh, not much longer, but I must wait a bit."
At last it was quite dark, and then Grumble pulled up his grapnel and dropped down nearer to the cutwater of the vessel. I soon distinguished a tinkling, as it were, of metal; and Old Grumble, holding up his hands, received some sheets of copper, which were lowered down by a rope-yarn. As soon as they were quietly landed in the stern of the boat, down came a bag, which he cast off and laid beside the copper. I was all astonishment, but still more so when a large bag of something weighing very heavy was lowered down by a rope after the small bag. A low whistle was then given, and the words "Monday night" pronounced in a whisper. Grumble whistled in return, and then, hauling up the grapnel, he told me to put out the oars and pull, while he took his grapnel on board. We then pulled down the river again, for the tide had turned, and as soon as we were clear of the shipping I began to interrogate him.
"Who gave you all these things?"
"Who? Why, that man."
"But what did he give them you for?"
"Why, out of charity, to be sure! But I can't talk now, I've no breath to spare. Let's pull ashore, and then I'll talk to you."
As we pulled down I observed that a lighter had broken adrift from her moorings, and was sweeping down the river with the ebb tide.
"There's a lighter adrift," said I.
"Yes," replied Grumble. "I'm too old for that work now; time was. There'll be pretty pickings as soon as she gets down a little lower. The Light Horsemen have cut her adrift."
"Light Horsemen! Who are they?"
"Bah! you know nothing. I tell ye again, I haven't no breath to spare; I can't pull and talk too."
I was convinced in my own mind that Old Grumble had not obtained the articles in the boat by fair means, and, annoyed that I should have been made a participator in any dishonest dealings, I was resolved to question him closely as soon as we landed. There was no one at the steps, and when we beached the boat I asked him whether he was going to take the things up to old Nanny's.
"Old Nanny! no. She's no fence now; she used to be a good one, but she was overhauled once or twice, and nearly sent on the other side of the water, and, since that, she's satisfied with little articles, sure profit and no risk."
"What do you mean by a fence?" inquired I.
"Why, don't you know that yet, boy? Well, a fence is one who receives things that are brought for sale, and never asks no questions."
"Well, but if these things were given you out of charity, as you say, why should you want to take them up to a fence, as you call it?"
"I tell you what, Jack, I can't be answering all these questions here, where there may be twenty pair of ears a-listening."
"Well, and if they do listen, what is the harm, if we are doing what is right?"
"It won't do to argufy here, I tell you. In my opinion, a poor man who works hard to get some victuals to keep body and soul together is doing what is right."
"Yes, if he works at an honest livelihood."
"Don't talk so loud about honesty; the very word is enough to make people suspect something not right. I'll tell you all when you come up to my house; for you see, Jack, you must help me to carry these things up. D'ye think you can manage this bag of pease? Let's try." Between us we contrived to get the bag, which weighed about half a hundredweight, on my back, and I walked off with it, Grumble following me with the copper and the other small bag, which I afterward found contained copper nails. When we arrived at his dwelling, which was as dilapidated and miserable as old Nanny's, he took out his key and fumbled a long while at the lock; at last he opened it. "You had better stay till I get a light," said he. In a minute he came with one to the door, and told me to follow him. I went in, put down the bag, and, some grains falling out, I took them up.
"Why, this is coffee, Grumble!"
"Well, pease is our name for coffee, sand for sugar, and vinegar for rum, when we get any."
"Well, but, Grumble, I wish to know how you came by these things?"
"I'll tell you, Jack, if you ask everybody how they come by things, you will have enough to do; but the fact is, the man wants me to sell them for him."
"Why, you said he gave them to you out of charity!"
"Oh, that was only because I couldn't spare breath to tell you all about it."
"But why should he lower them down in the dark, if they are his own property?"
"Jack, I don't ask whose property it is; all I know is that I come by it honestly. I don't steal it, and I can't prove that the man does. Why, Jack, if one is to be so nice as that, you can't go into a grocer's shop to buy sugar, or coffee, or pepper, or indeed into almost any shop, if you first want to know whether the people have come by the goods honestly before you buy of them."
"Still, it is so plain that the man must have stolen them."
"Suppose it is; how are so many poor people to find their livelihood and support their families, if they refuse to get a shilling or two when it is offered? If we were only to live upon what we get honestly, why, we should starve; the rich take good care of that by grinding us down so close. Why, Jack, how many thousands get their living on this river! and do you think they could all get their living honestly, as you call it? No; we all plunder one another in this world. You asked me who were Light Horsemen?—that's a name for one set of people who live by plunder. That lighter will have a good slice of her cargo out to-night; for those who cut her adrift know what's on board of her. Then we have the Heavy Horsemen—they do their work in the daytime, when they go on board as lumpers to clear the ships. And then we've the Coopers and Bumboat men, and the Ratcatchers and the Scuffle Hunters, and the River Pirates; and, last of all, we have the Mudlarkers: all different professions, Jack; never interfering with each other, and all living by their wits. I'm too old now; I was a flash pirate once, but I'm now nearly eighty, and am only fit for a mudlarker."
"But," exclaimed I, with astonishment, "are they not discovered and punished?"
"That's very seldom, Jack; for you see we have receivers all down the river; some of them great men, and dining with the mayor and common council; others in a small way—all sorts, Jack: and then we have what we call Jew Carts, always ready to take goods inland, where they will not be looked after. Old Nanny was a receiver and fence in a large way once."
"Then the only honest people on the river are the watermen."
Here old Grumble chuckled. "Why, Jack, they be the worst of all, for they be both receivers and thieves. Do you think the watermen live by their fares? If you do, just wait on the steps one night, and you'll find that their night work is worth more than the day work is. We all must live, Jack; and now I've shown you a way by which you can earn more money in a night than you can in a fortnight by asking for halfpence. Here's five shillings for you, my boy; and when I want you again I'll let you know."
Alas! the five shillings, so easily and so unexpectedly earned, did, for the time, satisfy all my scruples: so easily are we bribed into what is wrong. I wished Old Grumble a good-night and left him. As I returned home, I thought of what he had said about night work, and, instead of making my way to Fisher's Alley, I returned to the landing-steps, resolving to watch for a time and see what occurred.
I thought of what had passed. I was not satisfied with myself. I thought of what Anderson would say, and I felt that I had done wrong. And then I attempted to exculpate myself. I could not prove that the things were stolen. I did not go with any intent to help in such a business. Old Grumble had only paid me for my work; but then, why did he pay me so much money? My conscience told me that it was because the dealings were unfair. I could not persuade myself that I was right. I looked up at the heavens—for it was a clear night, and there was a very bright star just above me; and as I looked at it it appeared as if it were an eye beaming down upon me, and piercing into my breast. I turned away from it, and then looked at it again—still it had the same appearance. I thought it was the eye of God—I trembled, and I resolved to reveal the whole to Anderson the next day, when I heard the sound of oars. I looked in the direction, and perceived a wherry with two men pulling in. I was down on the steps, under the shadow of the wall, and they did not see me. They landed, and handed out of the wherry three large and full canvas bags. "It's more than we can carry," said the voice of a waterman I well knew; "we must leave one in the boat; and be quick, for they are on our scent. Hollo! who's that? what are you doing here? Poor Jack, I declare."
"Well, mayn't I have a little night work as well as you?"
"Oh! you've come to that, have you?" replied he. "Well, as you're waiting for something else, I suppose you could not help us with one of these bags?"
"Yes, I can," replied I, forgetting all my resolutions; "put it on my back, if it's not too heavy."
"No, no; you're stout enough to carry it. I say, Jack, can you tell us, does old Nanny fence again, or has she given it up?"
"I believe she does not," replied I.
"Well," said he, "just put the question to her to-morrow morning, for she used to be a good 'un; now follow us."
I walked after them with my load until we came to a by-street; at the shutters of a shop they rapped three times on the iron bar outside which fixed them up; the door was opened, and we put the bags down in the passage, walked out again without a word, and the door was immediately closed.
"Well, Jack," said the waterman, "I suppose we must tip handsome for the first time: here's ten shillings for you, and we'll let you know when we want you to be on the lookout for us."
Ten shillings! and five before—fifteen shillings! I felt as I were a rich man; all scruples of conscience were, for the time, driven away. I hurried home rattling the silver in my pocket, and opening the door softly, I crept to bed. Did I say my prayers that night? No!!