The shop in Harbour Lane had been a greengrocer’s, a barber’s, a fried-fishmonger’s, and a tripe-seller’s. But chiefly it had been shut up, as it was now. Nobody had ever come into it with much money, it is true, but all had gone out of it with less than they brought. It was said, indeed, that the greengrocer had gone out with nothing but the clothes he wore; but as he went no farther than the end of the street, where he drowned himself from a swing bridge, he needed no more, nor even so much. Mr. Dunkin, the landlord, had bought the place at a low price, as was his way in buying things; but he got very little out of his investment, which was not his way at all. It was a novelty that surprised and irritated Mr. Dunkin. He was a substantial tradesman, who had long relinquished counter work, for there were a dozen assistants in the two departments of his chief shop, eight for grocery and butter, and four for oil and saucepans, paint and mousetraps; and there were half a dozen branches, some in the one trade and some in the other, scattered about in as many neighbouring parishes. He was a large man, of vast p. 76sympathy. The tone of his voice, the grasp of his wide, pulpy hand, told of infinite tenderness toward the sorrows and sins of the world. Even in the early days when he had but one shop (a little one) and no shopman, he would weigh out a pound of treacle with so melting a benignity that the treacle seemed balm of Gilead, and a bounteous gift at the price. He would drive a bargain in a voice of yearning beneficence that left the other party ashamed of his own self-seeking, as well as something the poorer by the deal. It was a voice wherein a purr had a large part—a purr that was hoarse yet soothing, and eloquent of compassion; so that no man was so happy but a talk with Mr. Dunkin would persuade him that the lot was hard indeed, that entitled him to such a wealth of sympathy. It was a wealth that Mr. Dunkin squandered with no restraint but this, that it carried no other sort of wealth with it.
On the whole, Nan May had counted herself fortunate in falling in with Mr. Dunkin. For when, in his fatherly solicitude, he discovered that she had a little money in hand, he undertook to supply her with stock, and to give her certain hints in the mystery of chandlery. He, also, felt no cause for complaint: for he had hoped for a tenant merely, and here was tenant and customer in one. More, she was a widow, knowing nothing of trade, so that it might be possible to sell her what others would not buy, at a little extra profit. As to p. 77rent, moreover, he was doing well. For on the day the deposit was paid, Mrs. May had found little choice among vacant shops, and this was in a situation to suit her plans as to Johnny and his trade; and as she was tired and nervous, full of plain anxiety, sympathetic Mr. Dunkin saw his chance of trying for an extra shilling a week, and got it. And Nan May was left to pay for what painting and cleaning the place might need. It needed a good deal, as Mr. Dunkin had ruefully observed two days before, in expectation of a decorator’s bill if ever a tenant came.
And now Nan May addressed herself to the work. First, the house must be cleaned; the paint could be considered after. She had swept one room into a habitable state on her last day in town, and here her little store of furniture was stacked. Then, her sleeves and her skirt turned back, and a duster over her head, she assailed walls and ceilings with a broom, and after these the floors. So far Johnny helped, but when scrubbing began he hindered. So it was that for a day or so, until it was time for him to help with the windows, he had leisure wherein to make himself acquainted with the neighbourhood.
It was a neighbourhood with a flavour distinct from that of the districts about it. There the flat rows of six-roomed cottages, characterless all, stretched p. 78everywhere, rank behind rank, in masses unbroken except by the busier thoroughfares of shops. Here each little house asserted its individuality by diversity of paint as much as by diversity of shape. It was, indeed, the last stronghold of the shipwrights and mast-makers, fallen from their high estate since the invasion of iron ships and northern competition. In fact, Shipwrights’ Row was the name of a short rank of cottages close by, with gardens in front, each with its mast and flag complete. In other places, where the back-yards were very small, the flagstaff and stays were apt to take to their use the whole space: the pole rising from the exact centre, and a stay taking its purchase from each extreme corner, so that anybody essaying a circuit must perform it with many sudden obeisances. The little streets had an air of cleanliness all their own, largely due to the fresh paint that embellished whatsoever there was an excuse for painting. Many front-doors were reached by two stone steps, always well whitened; and whether there were steps or not, the flagstones before each threshold were distinguished by a whited semicircle five feet in diameter. Noting this curious fact as he tramped along one such street, Johnny was startled by an angry voice close at his elbow, a voice so very sudden and irate that he jumped aside ere he looked for the source. A red-faced woman knelt within a door.
“Idle young faggit!” she said. “Stompin’ yer muddy p. 79boots all over my clean step!” And she made so vigorous a grasp at a broom that Johnny went five yards at a gallop.
Now truly there was no step of any sort to the house. And Johnny had but crossed the semicircle because he conceived the footpath to be public property, and because it was narrow. But he learnt, afterwards, that the semicircle was a sacred institution of the place, in as high regard among the women as its fellow-fetish, the flagstaff, was among the men; also that none but grown people—and those of low habits or in drink—dared trespass on it; and that it was always called “the step.” He learnt much, too, in the matter of paint. Every male inhabitant of Harbour Lane, Shipwrights’ Row, and the neighbouring streets, carried, in his leisure moments, a pipe, a pot of paint, and a brush. He puffed comfortably at the pipe, and stumped about his back (or front) garden with the paint-pot in one hand and the brush in the other, “touching-up” whatever paint would stick to. Rails, posts, water-butts, dustbins, clothes-posts, all were treated, not because they needed it (for they were scarce dry from the last coat), but because there was the paint, and there was the brush, and there was the leisure; and this was the only way to use all three. So that most things about the gardens took an interesting variety of tints in the run of the year, since it was rarely the case that the same p. 80colour was used twice in succession. When all wooden surfaces were covered, it was customary to take a turn at window-sills, rain-water pipes, and the stones or oyster-shells that bordered the little flower-beds; and when nothing else was left, then the paint-pot and the brush and the pipe were conveyed to the front, and the front-door, which had been green, became royal blue, or flaming salmon; as did the railings, if there were any, and the window-frames. Two things alone were not subject to such changes of complexion: the flagstaff and the brick pavings. For it was a law immutable that the flagstaffs should be speckless white, and the bricks a cheerful vermilion; this last a colour frequently renewed, because of nailed boots, but done in good oil paint, because of wet weather. Everything else took the range of the rainbow, and something beyond; so that it was possible, in those houses where two families lived, to tell at a glance whether the upstairs family were on terms of intimacy or merely of distant civility with the downstairs, by the colours, uniform or diverse, of the sills and the model fences that guarded the flower-pots on them. For the token and sign of friendship in Harbour Lane was the loan or the exchange of paint. It was the proper method of breaking the ice between new acquaintances, and was recognised as such by general sanction. The greeting, “Bit o’ blue paint any use to ye?” and the offer of the pot across the p. 81back fence, were the Harbour Lane equivalents of a call and cards; and the newcomer made early haste with an offer of yellow or green paint in return. Indeed, it was in this way that the paint arrived which afterwards made Nan May’s little shop a bedazzlement to the wayfarer, and furnished Johnny with the first painting job he ever grew tired of. But newcomers were rare in the neighbourhood, for it was a colony apart, with independent manners and habits of thought. True, it had its own divisions and differences: as, for instance, on the question whether or not the association of the paint-pot and brush with the Sunday paper were sinful; but these divisions were purely internal, and nothing was heard of them beyond the boundaries.
But paint was something more than a recreation and an instrument of social amenity. It furnished the colony with an equivalent of high finance, wherein all the operations proper to Money and Credit (as spelt with capital initials) were reflected in Paint. For it was a permanent condition of life in Harbour Lane and thereabouts, that everybody owed everybody else some amount of Paint, and was owed Paint, in his turn, by others. So that a complicated system of exchange prevailed, in which verbal bills and cheques were drawn. As thus, to make a simple case:
“’Ullo, Bill, what about that pot o’ paint?”
p. 82“Well, I was goin’ to bring it round to-night.”
“All right. But don’t bring it to me—take it to George. Ye see, I owe Jim a bit o’ paint, an’ ’e owes Joe a bit, an’ Joe owes George a bit. So that’ll make it right all round. Don’t forget!”
With many such arrangements synchronising, crossing and mixing with each other, and made intricate by differing degrees and manners of debit and credit between Bill and George and Jim and Joe, the unlikely subject of Paint became involved in a mathematical web of exceeding interest, a small image of the Money Market, a sort of chaos by double entry wherein few operators were able to strike a balance at a moment, and most were vaguely uncertain whether their accounts inclined toward an affluence of Paint or toward sheer bankruptcy. An exciting result attained without the aid of capital, and with no serious hurt to anybody.
But these were things that Johnny learned in the succeeding weeks. In his walks while his mother scrubbed floors at home, he observed one or two matters. As to costume, he perceived that the men wore blue dungaree jackets with large bone buttons, and outside these, now that it was winter, short pilot coats of dark blue stuff, thick and stiff, like a board. The trousers were moleskins, perhaps once white, all stained with very shiny black patches, and all of one cut, which placed the seat (very baggy) a few inches above the p. 83bend of the knee; and there was a peaked cap, of the same shiny black all over that distinguished parts of the trousers. He also saw that whereas yesterday the backyards were brisk with fluttering linen, to-day they held scarce any. For yesterday was Monday, and it was matter of pride among the energetic housewives of the place to get washing done at the beginning of the week. For a woman fell in her neighbours’ respect the later in the week her washing day came.
So Johnny explored the streets with wide eyes and a full heart. For here was London, where they made great things—ships and engines. There were places he fancied he recognised—great blank walls with masts behind them. But now the masts seemed fewer and shorter than in the old days: as in truth they were, for now more of the ships were steamships, filling greater space for half the show of mast. Then in other places he came on basins filled with none but sailing-ships, and here the masts were as tall and fine as ever, stayed with much cordage, and had their yards slung at a gallant slope, like the sword on Sir Walter Raleigh’s hip. And at Blackwall Stairs, looking across the river, stood an old, old house that Johnny stared at for minutes together: a month or two later he heard the tradition that Sir Walter Raleigh himself had lived there. It was first of a row of old waterside buildings, the newest of which had looked across, and almost fallen into, the p. 84river, when King George’s ships had anchored off Blackwall—and King Charles’s for that matter. There, too, stood the Artichoke Tavern, clean and white and wooden, a heap of gables and windows all out of perpendicular: a house widest and biggest everywhere at the top, and smallest at the ground floor; a house that seemed ready to topple into the river at a push, so far did its walls and galleries overhang the water, and so slender were the piles that supported them. Here, in the square space on the quay, brown men in blue jerseys sold bloaters by the score, stringing them through the gills with tarry yarn; and half the brown men wore earrings. Below, on the foreshore, lay many boats, and children ran among them, or raked for river-mussels among the stones.