English Literature » Jerome K. Jerome » The Uses and Abuses of Joseph

The Uses and Abuses of Joseph by

“It is just the same with what you may call the human joints,” observed Henry. He was in one of his philosophic moods that evening. “It all depends upon the cooking. I never see a youngster hanging up in the refrigerator, as one may put it, but I says to myself: ‘Now I wonder what the cook is going to make of you! Will you be minced and devilled and fricasseed till you are all sauce and no meat? Will you be hammered tender and grilled over a slow fire till you are a blessing to mankind? Or will you be spoilt in the boiling, and come out a stringy rag, an immediate curse, and a permanent injury to those who have got to swallow you?’

“There was a youngster I knew in my old coffee-shop days,” continued Henry, “that in the end came to be eaten by cannibals. At least, so the newspapers said. Speaking for myself, I never believed the report: he wasn’t that sort. If anybody was eaten, it was more likely the cannibal. But that is neither here nor there. What I am thinking of is what happened before he and the cannibals ever got nigh to one another. He was fourteen when I first set eyes on him–Mile End fourteen, that is; which is the same, I take it, as City eighteen and West End five-and-twenty–and he was smart for his age into the bargain: a trifle too smart as a matter of fact. He always came into the shop at the same time–half-past two; he always sat in the seat next the window; and three days out of six, he would order the same dinner: a fourpenny beef-steak pudding–we called it beef-steak, and, for all practical purposes, it was beef-steak–a penny plate of potatoes, and a penny slice of roly-poly pudding–‘chest expander’ was the name our customers gave it–to follow. That showed sense, I always thought, that dinner alone; a more satisfying menu, at the price, I defy any human being to work out. He always had a book with him, and he generally read during his meal; which is not a bad plan if you don’t want to think too much about what you are eating. There was a seedy chap, I remember, used to dine at a cheap restaurant where I once served, just off the Euston Road. He would stick a book up in front of him–Eppy something or other–and read the whole time. Our four-course shilling table d’hote with Eppy, he would say, was a banquet fit for a prince; without Eppy he was of opinion that a policeman wouldn’t touch it. But he was one of those men that report things for the newspapers, and was given to exaggeration.

“A coffee-shop becomes a bit of a desert towards three o’clock; and, after a while, young Tidelman, for that was his name, got to putting down his book and chatting to me. His father was dead; which, judging from what he told me about the old man, must have been a bit of luck for everybody; and his mother, it turned out, had come from my own village in Suffolk; and that constituted a sort of bond between us, seeing I had known all her people pretty intimately. He was earning good money at a dairy, where his work was scouring milk-cans; and his Christian name–which was the only thing Christian about him, and that, somehow or another, didn’t seem to fit him–was Joseph.

“One afternoon he came into the shop looking as if he had lost a shilling and found sixpence, as the saying is; and instead of drinking water as usual, sent the girl out for a pint of ale. The moment it came he drank off half of it at a gulp, and then sat staring out of the window.

“‘What’s up?’ I says. ‘Got the shove?’

“‘Yes,’ he answers; ‘but, as it happens, it’s a shove up. I’ve been taken off the yard and put on the walk, with a rise of two bob a week.’ Then he took another pull at the beer and looked more savage than ever.

“‘Well,’ I says, ‘that ain’t the sort of thing to be humpy about.’

“‘Yes it is,’ he snaps back; ‘it means that if I don’t take precious good care I’ll drift into being a blooming milkman, spending my life yelling “Milk ahoi!” and spooning smutty-faced servant-gals across area railings.’

“‘Oh!’ I says, ‘and what may you prefer to spoon–duchesses?’

“‘Yes,’ he answers sulky-like; ‘duchesses are right enough–some of ’em.’

“‘So are servant-gals,’ I says, ‘some of ’em. Your hat’s feeling a bit small for you this morning, ain’t it?’

“‘Hat’s all right,’ says he; ‘it’s the world as I’m complaining of–beastly place; there’s nothing to do in it.’

“‘Oh!’ I says; ‘some of us find there’s a bit too much.’ I’d been up since five that morning myself; and his own work, which was scouring milk- cans for twelve hours a day, didn’t strike me as suggesting a life of leisured ease.

“‘I don’t mean that,’ he says. ‘I mean things worth doing.’

“‘Well, what do you want to do,’ I says, ‘that this world ain’t big enough for?’

“‘It ain’t the size of it,’ he says; ‘it’s the dulness of it. Things used to be different in the old days.’

“‘How do you know?’ I says.

“‘You can read about it,’ he answers.

“‘Oh,’ I says, ‘and what do they know about it–these gents that sit down and write about it for their living! You show me a book cracking up the old times, writ by a chap as lived in ’em, and I’ll believe you. Till then I’ll stick to my opinion that the old days were much the same as these days, and maybe a trifle worse.’

“‘From a Sunday School point of view, perhaps yes,’ says he; ‘but there’s no gainsaying–‘

“‘No what?’ I says.

“‘No gainsaying,’ repeats he; ‘it’s a common word in literatoor.’

“‘Maybe,’ says I, ‘but this happens to be “The Blue Posts Coffee House,” established in the year 1863. We will use modern English here, if you don’t mind.’ One had to take him down like that at times. He was the sort of boy as would talk poetry to you if you weren’t firm with him.

“‘Well then, there’s no denying the fact,’ says he, ‘if you prefer it that way, that in the old days there was more opportunity for adventure.’

“‘What about Australia?’ says I.

“‘Australia!’ retorts he; ‘what would I do there? Be a shepherd, like you see in the picture, wear ribbons, and play the flute?’

“‘There’s not much of that sort of shepherding over there,’ says I, ‘unless I’ve been deceived; but if Australia ain’t sufficiently uncivilised for you, what about Africa?’

“‘What’s the good of Africa?’ replies he; ‘you don’t read advertisements in the “Clerkenwell News”: “Young men wanted as explorers.” I’d drift into a barber’s shop at Cape Town more likely than anything else.’

“‘What about the gold diggings?’ I suggests. I like to see a youngster with the spirit of adventure in him. It shows grit as a rule.

“‘Played out,’ says he. ‘You are employed by a company, wages ten dollars a week, and a pension for your old age. Everything’s played out,’ he continues. ‘Men ain’t wanted nowadays. There’s only room for clerks, and intelligent artisans, and shopboys.’

“‘Go for a soldier,’ says I; ‘there’s excitement for you.’

“‘That would have been all right,’ says he, ‘in the days when there was real fighting.’

“‘There’s a good bit of it going about nowadays,’ I says. ‘We are generally at it, on and off, between shouting about the blessings of peace.’

“‘Not the sort of fighting I mean,’ replies he; ‘I want to do something myself, not be one of a row.’

“‘Well,’ I says, ‘I give you up. You’ve dropped into the wrong world it seems to me. We don’t seem able to cater for you here.’

“‘I’ve come a bit too late,’ he answers; ‘that’s the mistake I’ve made. Two hundred years ago there were lots of things a fellow might have done.’

“‘Yes, I know what’s in your mind,’ I says: ‘pirates.’

“‘Yes, pirates would be all right,’ says he; ‘they got plenty of sea-air and exercise, and didn’t need to join a blooming funeral club.’

“‘You’ve got ideas above your station,’ I says. ‘You work hard, and one day you’ll have a milk-shop of your own, and be walking out with a pretty housemaid on your arm, feeling as if you were the Prince of Wales himself.’

“‘Stow it!’ he says; ‘it makes me shiver for fear it might come true. I’m not cut out for a respectable cove, and I won’t be one neither, if I can help it!’

“‘What do you mean to be, then?’ I says; ‘we’ve all got to be something, until we’re stiff ‘uns.’

“‘Well,’ he says, quite cool-like, ‘I think I shall be a burglar.’

“I dropped into the seat opposite and stared at him. If any other lad had said it I should have known it was only foolishness, but he was just the sort to mean it.

“‘It’s the only calling I can think of,’ says he, ‘that has got any element of excitement left in it.’

“‘You call seven years at Portland “excitement,” do you?’ says I, thinking of the argument most likely to tell upon him.

“‘What’s the difference,’ answers he, ‘between Portland and the ordinary labouring man’s life, except that at Portland you never need fear being out of work?’ He was a rare one to argue. ‘Besides,’ says he, ‘it’s only the fools as gets copped. Look at that diamond robbery in Bond Street, two years ago. Fifty thousand pounds’ worth of jewels stolen, and never a clue to this day! Look at the Dublin Bank robbery,’ says he, his eyes all alight, and his face flushed like a girl’s. ‘Three thousand pounds in golden sovereigns walked away with in broad daylight, and never so much as the flick of a coat-tail seen. Those are the sort of men I’m thinking of, not the bricklayer out of work, who smashes a window and gets ten years for breaking open a cheesemonger’s till with nine and fourpence ha’penny in it.’

“‘Yes,’ says I, ‘and are you forgetting the chap who was nabbed at Birmingham only last week? He wasn’t exactly an amatoor. How long do think he’ll get?’

“‘A man like that deserves what he gets,’ answers he; ‘couldn’t hit a police-man at six yards.’

“‘You bloodthirsty young scoundrel,’ I says; ‘do you mean you wouldn’t stick at murder?’

“‘It’s all in the game,’ says he, not in the least put out. ‘I take my risks, he takes his. It’s no more murder than soldiering is.’

“‘It’s taking a human creature’s life,’ I says.

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘what of it? There’s plenty more where he comes from.’

“I tried reasoning with him from time to time, but he wasn’t a sort of boy to be moved from a purpose. His mother was the only argument that had any weight with him. I believe so long as she had lived he would have kept straight; that was the only soft spot in him. But unfortunately she died a couple of years later, and then I lost sight of Joe altogether. I made enquiries, but no one could tell me anything. He had just disappeared, that’s all.

“One afternoon, four years later, I was sitting in the coffee-room of a City restaurant where I was working, reading the account of a clever robbery committed the day before. The thief, described as a well-dressed young man of gentlemanly appearance, wearing a short black beard and moustache, had walked into a branch of the London and Westminster Bank during the dinner-hour, when only the manager and one clerk were there. He had gone straight through to the manager’s room at the back of the bank, taken the key from the inside of the door, and before the man could get round his desk had locked him in. The clerk, with a knife to his throat, had then been persuaded to empty all the loose cash in the bank, amounting in gold and notes to nearly five hundred pounds, into a bag which the thief had thoughtfully brought with him. After which, both of them–for the thief seems to have been of a sociable disposition–got into a cab which was waiting outside, and drove away. They drove straight to the City: the clerk, with a knife pricking the back of his neck all the time, finding it, no doubt, a tiresome ride. In the middle of Threadneedle Street, the gentlemanly young man suddenly stopped the cab and got out, leaving the clerk to pay the cabman.

“Somehow or other, the story brought back Joseph to my mind. I seemed to see him as that well-dressed gentlemanly young man; and, raising my eyes from the paper, there he stood before me. He had scarcely changed at all since I last saw him, except that he had grown better looking, and seemed more cheerful. He nodded to me as though we had parted the day before, and ordered a chop and a small hock. I spread a fresh serviette for him, and asked him if he cared to see the paper.

“‘Anything interesting in it, Henry?’ says he.

“‘Rather a daring robbery committed on the Westminster Bank yesterday,’ I answers.

“‘Oh, ah! I did see something about that,’ says he.

“‘The thief was described as a well-dressed young man of gentlemanly appearance, wearing a black beard and moustache,’ says I.

“He laughs pleasantly.

“‘That will make it awkward for nice young men with black beards and moustaches,’ says he.

“‘Yes,’ I says. ‘Fortunately for you and me, we’re clean shaved.’

“I felt as certain he was the man as though I’d seen him do it.

“He gives me a sharp glance, but I was busy with the cruets, and he had to make what he chose out of it.

“‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘as you say, it was a daring robbery. But the man seems to have got away all right.’

“I could see he was dying to talk to somebody about it.

“‘He’s all right to-day,’ says I; ‘but the police ain’t the fools they’re reckoned. I’ve noticed they generally get there in the end.’

“‘There’s some very intelligent men among them,’ says he: ‘no question of it. I shouldn’t be surprised if they had a clue!’

“‘No,’ I says, ‘no more should I; though no doubt he’s telling himself there never was such a clever thief.’

“‘Well, we shall see,’ says he.

“‘That’s about it,’ says I.

“We talked a bit about old acquaintances and other things, and then, having finished, he handed me a sovereign and rose to go.

“‘Wait a minute,’ I says, ‘your bill comes to three-and-eight. Say fourpence for the waiter; that leaves sixteen shillings change, which I’ll ask you to put in your pocket.’

“‘As you will,’ he says, laughing, though I could see he didn’t like it.

“‘And one other thing,’ says I. ‘We’ve been sort of pals, and it’s not my business to talk unless I’m spoken to. But I’m a married man,’ I says, ‘and I don’t consider you the sort worth getting into trouble for. If I never see you, I know nothing about you. Understand?’

“He took my tip, and I didn’t see him again at that restaurant. I kept my eye on the paper, but the Westminster Bank thief was never discovered, and success, no doubt, gave him confidence. Anyhow, I read of two or three burglaries that winter which I unhesitatingly put down to Mr. Joseph–I suppose there’s style in housebreaking, as in other things–and early the next spring an exciting bit of business occurred, which I knew to be his work by the description of the man.

“He had broken into a big country house during the servants’ supper-hour, and had stuffed his pockets with jewels. One of the guests, a young officer, coming upstairs, interrupted him just as he had finished. Joseph threatened the man with his revolver; but this time it was not a nervous young clerk he had to deal with. The man sprang at him, and a desperate struggle followed, with the result that in the end the officer was left with a bullet in his leg, while Joseph jumped clean through the window, and fell thirty feet. Cut and bleeding, if not broken, he would never have got away but that, fortunately for him, a tradesman’s cart happened to be standing at the servants’ entrance. Joe was in it, and off like a flash of greased lightning. How he managed to escape, with all the country in an uproar, I can’t tell you; but he did it. The horse and cart, when found sixteen miles off, were neither worth much.

“That, it seems, sobered him down for a bit, and nobody heard any more of him till nine months later, when he walked into the Monico, where I was then working, and held out his hand to me as bold as brass.

“‘It’s all right,’ says he, ‘it’s the hand of an honest man.’

“‘It’s come into your possession very recently then,’ says I.

“He was dressed in a black frock-coat and wore whiskers. If I hadn’t known him, I should have put him down for a parson out of work.

“He laughs. ‘I’ll tell you all about it,’ he says.

“‘Not here,’ I answers, ‘because I’m too busy; but if you like to meet me this evening, and you’re talking straight–‘

“‘Straight as a bullet,’ says he. ‘Come and have a bit of dinner with me at the Craven; it’s quiet there, and we can talk. I’ve been looking for you for the last week.’

“Well, I met him; and he told me. It was the old story: a gal was at the bottom of it. He had broken into a small house at Hampstead. He was on the floor, packing up the silver, when the door opens, and he sees a gal standing there. She held a candle in one hand and a revolver in the other.

“‘Put your hands up above your head,’ says she.

“‘I looked at the revolver,’ said Joe, telling me; ‘it was about eighteen inches off my nose; and then I looked at the gal. There’s lots of ’em will threaten to blow your brains out for you, but you’ve only got to look at ’em to know they won’t.

“‘They are thinking of the coroner’s inquest, and wondering how the judge will sum up. She met my eyes, and I held up my hands. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have been here.

“‘Now you go in front,’ says she to Joe, and he went. She laid her candle down in the hall and unbolted the front door.

“‘What are you going to do?’ says Joe, ‘call the police? Because if so, my dear, I’ll take my chance of that revolver being loaded and of your pulling the trigger in time. It will be a more dignified ending.’

“‘No,’ says she, ‘I had a brother that got seven years for forgery. I don’t want to think of another face like his when he came out. I’m going to see you outside my master’s house, and that’s all I care about.’

“She went down the garden-path with him, and opened the gate.

“‘You turn round,’ says she, ‘before you reach the bottom of the lane and I give the alarm.’ And Joe went straight, and didn’t look behind him.

“Well, it was a rum beginning to a courtship, but the end was rummer. The girl was willing to marry him if he would turn honest. Joe wanted to turn honest, but didn’t know how.

“‘It’s no use fixing me down, my dear, to any quiet, respectable calling,’ says Joe to the gal, ‘because, even if the police would let me alone, I wouldn’t be able to stop there. I’d break out, sooner or later, try as I might.’

“The girl went to her master, who seems to have been an odd sort of a cove, and told him the whole story. The old gent said he’d see Joe, and Joe called on him.

“‘What’s your religion?’ says the old gent to Joe.

“‘I’m not particular, sir; I’ll leave it to you,’ says Joe.

“‘Good!’ says the old gent. ‘You’re no fanatic. What are your principles?’

“At first Joe didn’t think he’d got any, but, the old gent leading, he found to his surprise as he had.

“‘I believe,’ says Joe, ‘in doing a job thoroughly.’

“‘What your hand finds to do, you believe in doing with all your might, eh?’ says the old gent.

“‘That’s it, sir,’ says Joe. ‘That’s what I’ve always tried to do.’

“‘Anything else?’ asks the old gent.

“‘Yes; stick to your pals,’ said Joe.

“‘Through thick and thin,’ suggests the old gent.

“‘To the blooming end,’ agrees Joe.

“‘That’s right,’ says the old gent. ‘Faithful unto death. And you really want to turn over a new leaf–to put your wits and your energy and your courage to good use instead of bad?’

“‘That’s the idea,’ says Joe.

“The old gent murmurs something to himself about a stone which the builders wouldn’t have at any price; and then he turns and puts it straight:

“‘If you undertake the work,’ says he, ‘you’ll go through with it without faltering–you’ll devote your life to it?’

“‘If I undertake the job, I’ll do that,’ says Joe. ‘What may it be?’

“‘To go to Africa,’ says the old gent, ‘as a missionary.’

“Joe sits down and stares at the old gent, and the old gent looks him back.

“‘It’s a dangerous station,’ says the old gent. ‘Two of our people have lost their lives there. It wants a man there–a man who will do something besides preach, who will save these poor people we have gathered together there from being scattered and lost, who will be their champion, their protector, their friend.’

“In the end, Joe took on the job, and went out with his wife. A better missionary that Society never had and never wanted. I read one of his early reports home; and if the others were anything like it his life must have been exciting enough, even for him. His station was a small island of civilisation, as one may say, in the middle of a sea of savages. Before he had been there a month the place had been attacked twice. On the first occasion Joe’s ‘flock’ had crowded into the Mission House, and commenced to pray, that having been the plan of defence adopted by his predecessor. Joe cut the prayer short, and preached to them from the text, ‘Heaven helps them as helps themselves’; after which he proceeded to deal out axes and old rifles. In his report he mentioned that he had taken a hand himself, merely as an example to the flock; I bet he had never enjoyed an evening more in all his life. The second fight began, as usual, round the Mission, but seems to have ended two miles off. In less than six months he had rebuilt the school-house, organised a police force, converted all that was left of one tribe, and started a tin church. He added (but I don’t think they read that part of his report aloud) that law and order was going to be respected, and life and property secure in his district so long as he had a bullet left.

“Later on the Society sent him still further inland, to open up a fresh station; and there it was that, according to the newspapers, the cannibals got hold of him and ate him. As I said, personally I don’t believe it. One of these days he’ll turn up, sound and whole; he is that sort.”

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