I first met Jack Burridge nearly ten years ago on a certain North-country race-course.
The saddling bell had just rung for the chief event of the day. I was sauntering along with my hands in my pockets, more interested in the crowd than in the race, when a sporting friend, crossing on his way to the paddock, seized me by the arm and whispered hoarsely in my ear:—
“Put your shirt on Mrs. Waller.”
“Put my -?” I began.
“Put your shirt on Mrs. Waller,” he repeated still more impressively, and disappeared in the throng.
I stared after him in blank amazement. Why should I put my shirt on Mrs. Waller? Even if it would fit a lady. And how about myself?
I was passing the grand stand, and, glancing up, I saw “Mrs. Waller, twelve to one,” chalked on a bookmaker’s board. Then it dawned upon me that “Mrs. Waller” was a horse, and, thinking further upon the matter, I evolved the idea that my friend’s advice, expressed in more becoming language, was “Back ‘Mrs. Waller’ for as much as you can possibly afford.”
“Thank you,” I said to myself, “I have backed cast-iron certainties before. Next time I bet upon a horse I shall make the selection by shutting my eyes and putting a pin through the card.”
But the seed had taken root. My friend’s words surged in my brain. The birds passing overhead twittered, “Put your shirt on ‘Mrs. Waller.’”
I reasoned with myself. I reminded myself of my few former ventures. But the craving to put, if not my shirt, at all events half a sovereign on “Mrs. Waller” only grew the stronger the more strongly I battled against it. I felt that if “Mrs. Waller” won and I had nothing on her, I should reproach myself to my dying day.
I was on the other side of the course. There was no time to get back to the enclosure. The horses were already forming for the start. A few yards off, under a white umbrella, an outside bookmaker was shouting his final prices in stentorian tones. He was a big, genial-looking man, with an honest red face.
“What price ‘Mrs. Waller’?” I asked him.
“Fourteen to one,” he answered, “and good luck to you.”
I handed him half a sovereign, and he wrote me out a ticket. I crammed it into my waistcoat pocket, and hurried off to see the race. To my intense astonishment “Mrs. Waller” won. The novel sensation of having backed the winner so excited me that I forgot all about my money, and it was not until a good hour afterwards that I recollected my bet.
Then I started off to search for the man under the white umbrella. I went to where I thought I had left him, but no white umbrella could I find.
Consoling myself with the reflection that my loss served me right for having been fool enough to trust an outside “bookie,” I turned on my heel and began to make my way back to my seat. Suddenly a voice hailed me:—
“Here you are, sir. It’s Jack Burridge you want. Over here, sir.”
I looked round, and there was Jack Burridge at my elbow.
“I saw you looking about, sir,” he said, “but I could not make you hear. You was looking the wrong side of the tent.”
It was pleasant to find that his honest face had not belied him.
“It is very good of you,” I said; “I had given up all hopes of seeing you. Or,” I added with a smile, “my seven pounds.”
“Seven pun’ ten,” he corrected me; “you’re forgetting your own thin ’un.”
He handed me the money and went back to his stand.
On my way into the town I came across him again. A small crowd was collected, thoughtfully watching a tramp knocking about a miserable-looking woman.
Jack, pushing to the front, took in the scene and took off his coat in the same instant.
“Now then, my fine old English gentleman,” he sang out, “come and have a try at me for a change.”
The tramp was a burly ruffian, and I have seen better boxers than Jack. He got himself a black eye, and a nasty cut over the lip, before he hardly knew where he was. But in spite of that—and a good deal more—he stuck to his man and finished him.
At the end, as he helped his adversary up, I heard him say to the fellow in a kindly whisper:—
“You’re too good a sort, you know, to whollop a woman. Why, you very near give me a licking. You must have forgot yourself, matey.”
The fellow interested me. I waited and walked on with him. He told me about his home in London, at Mile End—about his old father and mother, his little brothers and sisters—and what he was saving up to do for them. Kindliness oozed from every pore in his skin.
Many that we met knew him, and all, when they saw his round, red face, smiled unconsciously. At the corner of the High Street a pale-faced little drudge of a girl passed us, saying as she slipped by “Good-evening, Mr. Burridge.”
He made a dart and caught her by the shoulder.
“And how is father?” he asked.
“Oh, if you please, Mr. Burridge, he is out again. All the mills is closed,” answered the child.
“She don’t get no better, sir.”
“And who’s keeping you all?”
“Oh, if you please, sir, Jimmy’s earning something now,” replied the mite.
He took a couple of sovereigns from his waistcoat pocket, and closed the child’s hand upon them.
“That’s all right, my lass, that’s all right,” he said, stopping her stammering thanks. “You write to me if things don’t get better. You know where to find Jack Burridge.”
Strolling about the streets in the evening, I happened to pass the inn where he was staying. The parlour window was open, and out into the misty night his deep, cheery voice, trolling forth an old-fashioned drinking song, came rolling like a wind, cleansing the corners of one’s heart with its breezy humanness. He was sitting at the head of the table surrounded by a crowd of jovial cronies. I lingered for a while watching the scene. It made the world appear a less sombre dwelling-place than I had sometimes pictured it.
I determined, on my return to London, to look him up, and accordingly one evening started to find the little by-street off the Mile End Road in which he lived. As I turned the corner he drove up in his dog-cart; it was a smart turn-out. On the seat beside him sat a neat, withered little old woman, whom he introduced to me as his mother.
“I tell ’im it’s a fine gell as ’e oughter ’ave up ’ere aside ’im,” said the old lady, preparing to dismount, “an old woman like me takes all the paint off the show.”
“Get along with yer,” he replied laughingly, jumping down and handing the reins to the lad who had been waiting, “you could give some of the young uns points yet, mother. I allus promised the old lady as she should ride behind her own ’oss one day,” he continued, turning to me, “didn’t I, mother?”
“Ay, ay,” replied the old soul, as she hobbled nimbly up the steps, “ye’re a good son, Jack, ye’re a good son.”
He led the way into the parlour. As he entered every face lightened up with pleasure, a harmony of joyous welcome greeted him. The old hard world had been shut out with the slam of the front door. I seemed to have wandered into Dickensland. The red-faced man with the small twinkling eyes and the lungs of leather loomed before me, a large, fat household fairy. From his capacious pockets came forth tobacco for the old father; a huge bunch of hot-house grapes for a neighbour’s sickly child, who was stopping with them; a book of Henty’s—beloved of boys—for a noisy youngster who called him “uncle”; a bottle of port wine for a wan, elderly woman with a swollen face—his widowed sister-in-law, as I subsequently learned; sweets enough for the baby (whose baby I don’t know) to make it sick for a week; and a roll of music for his youngest sister.
“We’re a-going to make a lady of her,” he said, drawing the child’s shy face against his gaudy waistcoat, and running his coarse hand through her pretty curls; “and she shall marry a jockey when she grows up.”
After supper he brewed some excellent whisky punch, and insisted upon the old lady joining us, which she eventually did with much coughing and protestation; but I noticed that she finished the tumblerful. For the children he concocted a marvellous mixture, which he called an “eye-composer,” the chief ingredients being hot lemonade, ginger wine, sugar, oranges, and raspberry vinegar. It had the desired effect.
I stayed till late, listening to his inexhaustible fund of stories. Over most of them he laughed with us himself—a great gusty laugh that made the cheap glass ornaments upon the mantelpiece to tremble; but now and then a recollection came to him that spread a sudden gravity across his jovial face, bringing a curious quaver into his deep voice.
Their tongues a little loosened by the punch, the old folks would have sung his praises to the verge of tediousness had he not almost sternly interrupted them.
“Shut up, mother,” he cried at last, quite gruffly, “what I does I does to please myself. I likes to see people comfortable about me. If they wasn’t, it’s me as would be more upset than them.”
I did not see him again for nearly two years. Then one October evening, strolling about the East End, I met him coming out of a little Chapel in the Burdett Road. He was so changed that I should not have known him had not I overheard a woman as she passed him say, “Good-evening, Mr. Burridge.”
A pair of bushy side-whiskers had given to his red face an aggressively respectable appearance. He was dressed in an ill-fitting suit of black, and carried an umbrella in one hand and a book in the other.
In some mysterious way he managed to look both thinner and shorter than my recollection of him. Altogether, he suggested to me the idea that he himself—the real man—had by some means or other been extracted, leaving only his shrunken husk behind. The genial juices of humanity had been squeezed out of him.
“Not Jack Burridge!” I exclaimed, confronting him in astonishment.
His little eyes wandered shiftily up and down the street. “No, sir,” he replied (his tones had lost their windy boisterousness—a hard, metallic voice spoke to me), “not the one as you used to know, praise be the Lord.”
“And have you given up the old business?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, “that’s all over; I’ve been a vile sinner in my time, God forgive me for it. But, thank Heaven, I have repented in time.”
“Come and have a drink,” I said, slipping my arm through his, “and tell me all about it.”
He disengaged himself from me, firmly but gently. “You mean well, sir,” he said, “but I have given up the drink.”
Evidently he would have been rid of me, but a literary man, scenting material for his stockpot, is not easily shaken off. I asked after the old folks, and if they were still stopping with him.
“Yes,” he said, “for the present. Of course, a man can’t be expected to keep people for ever; so many mouths to fill is hard work these times, and everybody sponges on a man just because he’s good-natured.”
“And how are you getting on?” I asked.
“Tolerably well, thank you, sir. The Lord provides for His servants,” he replied with a smug smile. “I have got a little shop now in the Commercial Road.”
“Whereabouts?” I persisted. “I would like to call and see you.”
He gave me the address reluctantly, and said he would esteem it a great pleasure if I would honour him by a visit, which was a palpable lie.
The following afternoon I went. I found the place to be a pawnbroker’s shop, and from all appearances he must have been doing a very brisk business. He was out himself attending a temperance committee, but his old father was behind the counter, and asked me inside. Though it was a chilly day there was no fire in the parlour, and the two old folks sat one each side of the empty hearth, silent and sad. They seemed little more pleased to see me than their son, but after a while Mrs. Burridge’s natural garrulity asserted itself, and we fell into chat.
I asked what had become of his sister-in-law, the lady with the swollen face.
“I couldn’t rightly tell you, sir,” answered the old lady, “she ain’t livin’ with us now. You see, sir,” she continued, “John’s got different notions to what ’e used to ’ave. ’E don’t cotten much to them as ain’t found grace, and poor Jane never did ’ave much religion!”
“And the little one?” I inquired. “The one with the curls?”
“What, Bessie, sir?” said the old lady. “Oh, she’s out at service, sir; John don’t think it good for young folks to be idle.”
“Your son seems to have changed a good deal, Mrs. Burridge,” I remarked.
“Ay, sir,” she assented, “you may well say that. It nearly broke my ’art at fust; everythin’ so different to what it ’ad been. Not as I’d stand in the boy’s light. If our being a bit uncomfortable like in this world is a-going to do ’im any good in the next me and father ain’t the ones to begrudge it, are we, old man?”
The “old man” concurred grumpily.
“Was it a sudden conversion?” I asked. “How did it come about?”
“It was a young woman as started ’im off,” explained the old lady. “She come round to our place one day a-collectin’ for somethin’ or other, and Jack, in ’is free-’anded way, ’e give ’er a five-pun’ note. Next week she come agen for somethin’ else, and stopped and talked to ’im about ’is soul in the passage. She told ’im as ’e was a-goin’ straight to ’ell, and that ’e oughter give up the bookmakin’ and settle down to a respec’ble, God-fearin’ business. At fust ’e only laughed, but she lammed in tracts at ’im full of the most awful language; and one day she fetched ’im round to one of them revivalist chaps, as fair settled ’im.
“’E ain’t never been his old self since then. ’E give up the bettin’ and bought this ’ere, though what’s the difference blessed if I can see. It makes my ’eart ache, it do, to ’ear my Jack a-beatin’ down the poor people—and it ain’t like ’im. It went agen ’is grain at fust, I could see; but they told him as ’ow it was folks’s own fault that they was poor, and as ’ow it was the will of God, because they was a drinkin’, improvident lot.
“Then they made ’im sign the pledge. ’E’d allus been used to ’is glass, Jack ’ad, and I think as knockin’ it off ’ave soured ’im a bit—seems as if all the sperit ’ad gone out of ’im—and of course me and father ’ave ’ad to give up our little drop too. Then they told ’im as ’e must give up smokin’- that was another way of goin’ straight to ’ell—and that ain’t made ’im any the more cheerful like, and father misses ’is little bit—don’t ye, father?”
“Ay,” answered the old fellow savagely; “can’t say I thinks much of these ’ere folks as is going to heaven; blowed if I don’t think they’ll be a chirpier lot in t’other place.”
An angry discussion in the shop interrupted us. Jack had returned, and was threatening an excited woman with the police. It seemed she had miscalculated the date, and had come a day too late with her interest.
Having got rid of her, he came into the parlour with the watch in his hand.
“It’s providential she was late,” he said, looking at it; “it’s worth ten times what I lent on it.”
He packed his father back into the shop, and his mother down into the kitchen to get his tea, and for a while we sat together talking.
I found his conversation a strange mixture of self-laudation, showing through a flimsy veil of self-disparagement, and of satisfaction at the conviction that he was “saved,” combined with equally evident satisfaction that most other people weren’t—somewhat trying, however; and, remembering an appointment, rose to go.
He made no effort to stay me, but I could see that he was bursting to tell me something. At last, taking a religious paper from his pocket, and pointing to a column, he blurted out:
“You don’t take any interest in the Lord’s vineyard, I suppose, sir?”
I glanced at the part of the paper indicated. It announced a new mission to the Chinese, and heading the subscription list stood the name, “Mr. John Burridge, one hundred guineas.”
“You subscribe largely, Mr. Burridge,” I said, handing him back the paper.
He rubbed his big hands together. “The Lord will repay a hundredfold,” he answered.
“In which case it’s just as well to have a note of the advance down in black and white, eh?” I added.
His little eyes looked sharply at me; but he made no reply, and, shaking hands, I left him.