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Instantly the voice of every blackguard in the room was raised against the decent ones. They were accused of loathsome afflictions, stigmatized “as fighting men out of work” (which must be something very humiliating, I suppose), and invited to "a round” by boys young enough to be their grandsons. For several minutes there was such a storm of oaths, threats, and taunts, such a deluge of foul words raged in the room, — that I could not help thinking of the fate of Sodom; as, indeed, I did several times during the night. Little by little the riot died out, without any the slightest interference on the part of the officers.
Soon afterwards the ruffian majority was strengthened by the arrival of a lanky boy of about fifteen, who evidently recognized many acquaintances, and was recognized by them as “Kay,” or perhaps I should write it “K.” He was a very remarkable-looking lad, and his appearance pleased me much. Short as his hair was cropped, it still looked soft and silky; he had large blue eyes, set wide apart, and a mouth that would have been faultless but for its great width ; and his voice was as soft and sweet as any woman's. Lightly as a woman, too, he picked his way over the stones towards the place where the beds lay, carefully hugging his cap beneath his arm.
“What cheer, Kay ?” “Out again, then, old son!” “What yer got in yer cap, Kay ? ” cried his friends ; to which the sweet voice replied, “Who'll give me a part of his doss (bed)? --- my — eyes and limbs if I ain't perishin’! Who 'll let me turn in with him for half my toke (bread) ?” I feared how it would be! The hungry young fellow who had so readily availed himself of half my“ toke" snapped at Kay's offer, and after a little rearrangement and bed-making, four young fellows instead of three reposed upon the hay-bags at my head.
“ You was too late for skilley, Kay. There's skilley now, nights as well as mornin's.”
“Don't you tell no bleeding lies,” Kay answered, incredulously.
“Blind me, it's true. Ain't it, Punch ? "
“Right you are !” said Punch, "and spoons to eat it with, that's more! There used to be spoons at all the houses, one time. Poplar used to have 'em; but one at a time they was all nicked, don't you know.” (“Nicked” means “ stolen,” obviously.)
“Well, I don't want no skilley, leastways, not tonight,” said Kay. “I've had some rum. Two glasses of it; and a blow out of puddin', — regler Christmas plum-puddin'. You don't know the cove as give it me, but, thinks I this mornin' when I come out, blessed if I don't go and see my old chum. Lords.ruth! he was struck! «Come along,' he ses, ‘I saved you some puddin' from Christmas. “Whereabouts is it?' I ses. “In that box under my bed,' he ses, and he forks it out. That's the sort of pal to have! And he stood a quarten, and half a ounce of hard-up (tobacco). That was n't all, neither; when I come away, ses he, How about your breakfus ?' 'O, I shall do,' ses I. “You take some of my bread and butter,' he ses, and he cuts me off four chunks buttered thick. I eat two on ’em comin' along."
“What's in your cap, Kay ? ” repeated the devourer of “ toke.”
“Them other two slices,” said Kay; generously adding, “There, share 'em amongst yer, and somebody give us a whiff of 'bacca.”
Kay showed himself a pleasant companion, — what in a higher grade of society is called “quite an acquisition.” He told stories of thieves and thieving, and of a certain “silver cup” he had been “put up to,” and that he meant to nick it afore the end of the week, if he got seven stretch (? seven years) for it. The cup was worth ten quid (? pounds), and he knew where to melt it within ten minutes of nicking it. He made this statement without any moderation of his sweet voice; and the others received it as serious fact. Nor was there any affectation of secrecy in another gentleman, who announced, with great applause, that he had stolen a towel from the bathroom ; “ And s' help me, it's as good as new; never been washed mor 'n once!”
“Tell us a “rummy'story, Kay,” said somebody; and Kay did. He told stories of so “rummy” a character that the decent men at the farther end of the room (some of whom had their own little boys sleeping with them) must have lain in a sweat of horror as they listened. Indeed, when Kay broke into a “rummy" song with a roaring chorus, one of the decent men rose in his bed and swore that he would smash Kay's head if he did n't desist. But Kay sang on till he and his admirers were tired of the entertainment. “Now,” said he, “ let's have a swearing club! you 'll all be in it?”
The principle of this game seemed to rest on the impossibility of either of the young gentlemen making half a dozen observations without introducing a blasphemous or obscene word; and either the basis is a very sound one, or for the sake of keeping the “club” alive the members purposely made slips. The penalty for“ swearing” was a punch on any part of the body, except a few which the club rules protected. The game was highly successful. Warming with the sport, and indifferent to punches, the members vied with each other in audacity; and in a few minutes Bedlam in its prime could scarcely have produced such a spectacle as was to be seen on the beds behind me. One rule of the club was that any word to be found in the Bible might be used with impunity, and if one member “punched” another for using such a word, the error was to be visited upon him with a double punching all round. This naturally led to much argument; for in vindicating the Bible as his authority, a member became sometimes so much heated as to launch into a flood of “real swearing,” which brought the fists of the club upon his naked carcass as quick as hail.
These and other pastimes beguiled the time until, to my delight, the church chimes audibly tolled twelve. After this the noise gradually subsided, and it seemed as though everybody was going to sleep at last. I should have mentioned that during the story-telling and songsinging a few “casuals” had dropped in, but they were not habitués, and cuddled down with their rugs over their heads without a word to any one.
In a little while all was quiet, save for the flapping of the canvas curtain in the night breeze, the snoring, and the horrible, indescribable sound of impatient hands scratching skins that itch. There was another sound of very frequent occurrence, and that was the clanking of the tin pannikin against the water-pail. Whether it is in the nature of workhouse bread or skilley to provoke thirst is more than my limited experience entitles me to say, but it may be truthfully asserted that once at least in the course of five minutes might be heard a rustling of straw, pattering of feet, and then the noise of water dipping, and then was to be seen at the pail the figure of a man (sometimes stark naked) gulping down the icy water as he stood upon the icy stones.
And here I may remark that I can furnish no solution to this mystery of the shirt. I only know that some of my comrades were provided with a shirt, and that to some the luxury was denied. I may say this, however, that none of the little boys were allowed one.
Nearly one o'clock. Still quiet and no fresh arrival for an hour or more. Then suddenly a loud noise of hobnailed boots kicked at a wooden gate, and soon after a tramping of feet and a rapping at Daddy's door, which, it will be remembered, was only separated from our bedroom by an open paved court.
“Hallo!” cried Daddy.
“Here's some more of 'em for you, — ten of 'em!” answered the porter, whose voice I recognized at once.
“They 'll have to find beds, then,” Daddy grumbled, as he opened his door. “I don't believe there are four beds empty. They must sleep double, or something."
This was terrible news for me. Bad enough, in all conscience, was it to lie as I was lying ; but the prospect of sharing my straw with some dirty scoundrel of the Kay breed was altogether unendurable. Perhaps, however, they were not dirty scoundrels, but peaceable and decent men, like those in the farther corner.