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Chapter 3

SHOPS AND THEIR TENANTS

What inexhaustible food for speculation, do the streets of London
afford! We never were able to agree with Sterne in pitying the man
who could travel from Dan to Beersheba, and say that all was
barren; we have not the slightest commiseration for the man who can
take up his hat and stick, and walk from Covent-garden to St.
Paul's Churchyard, and back into the bargain, without deriving some
amusement--we had almost said instruction--from his perambulation.
And yet there are such beings: we meet them every day. Large
black stocks and light waistcoats, jet canes and discontented
countenances, are the characteristics of the race; other people
brush quickly by you, steadily plodding on to business, or
cheerfully running after pleasure. These men linger listlessly
past, looking as happy and animated as a policeman on duty.
Nothing seems to make an impression on their minds: nothing short
of being knocked down by a porter, or run over by a cab, will
disturb their equanimity. You will meet them on a fine day in any
of the leading thoroughfares: peep through the window of a west-
end cigar shop in the evening, if you can manage to get a glimpse
between the blue curtains which intercept the vulgar gaze, and you
see them in their only enjoyment of existence. There they are
lounging about, on round tubs and pipe boxes, in all the dignity of
whiskers, and gilt watch-guards; whispering soft nothings to the
young lady in amber, with the large ear-rings, who, as she sits
behind the counter in a blaze of adoration and gas-light, is the
admiration of all the female servants in the neighbourhood, and the
envy of every milliner's apprentice within two miles round.

One of our principal amusements is to watch the gradual progress--
the rise or fall--of particular shops. We have formed an intimate
acquaintance with several, in different parts of town, and are
perfectly acquainted with their whole history. We could name off-
hand, twenty at least, which we are quite sure have paid no taxes
for the last six years. They are never inhabited for more than two
months consecutively, and, we verily believe, have witnessed every
retail trade in the directory.

There is one, whose history is a sample of the rest, in whose fate
we have taken especial interest, having had the pleasure of knowing
it ever since it has been a shop. It is on the Surrey side of the
water--a little distance beyond the Marsh-gate. It was originally
a substantial, good-looking private house enough; the landlord got
into difficulties, the house got into Chancery, the tenant went
away, and the house went to ruin. At this period our acquaintance
with it commenced; the paint was all worn off; the windows were
broken, the area was green with neglect and the overflowings of the
water-butt; the butt itself was without a lid, and the street-door
was the very picture of misery. The chief pastime of the children
in the vicinity had been to assemble in a body on the steps, and to
take it in turn to knock loud double knocks at the door, to the
great satisfaction of the neighbours generally, and especially of
the nervous old lady next door but one. Numerous complaints were
made, and several small basins of water discharged over the
offenders, but without effect. In this state of things, the
marine-store dealer at the corner of the street, in the most
obliging manner took the knocker off, and sold it: and the
unfortunate house looked more wretched than ever.

We deserted our friend for a few weeks. What was our surprise, on
our return, to find no trace of its existence! In its place was a
handsome shop, fast approaching to a state of completion, and on
the shutters were large bills, informing the public that it would
shortly be opened with 'an extensive stock of linen-drapery and
haberdashery.' It opened in due course; there was the name of the
proprietor 'and Co.' in gilt letters, almost too dazzling to look
at. Such ribbons and shawls! and two such elegant young men behind
the counter, each in a clean collar and white neckcloth, like the
lover in a farce. As to the proprietor, he did nothing but walk up
and down the shop, and hand seats to the ladies, and hold important
conversations with the handsomest of the young men, who was
shrewdly suspected by the neighbours to be the 'Co.' We saw all
this with sorrow; we felt a fatal presentiment that the shop was
doomed--and so it was. Its decay was slow, but sure. Tickets
gradually appeared in the windows; then rolls of flannel, with
labels on them, were stuck outside the door; then a bill was pasted
on the street-door, intimating that the first floor was to let
unfurnished; then one of the young men disappeared altogether, and
the other took to a black neckerchief, and the proprietor took to
drinking. The shop became dirty, broken panes of glass remained
unmended, and the stock disappeared piecemeal. At last the
company's man came to cut off the water, and then the linen-draper
cut off himself, leaving the landlord his compliments and the key.

The next occupant was a fancy stationer. The shop was more
modestly painted than before, still it was neat; but somehow we
always thought, as we passed, that it looked like a poor and
struggling concern. We wished the man well, but we trembled for
his success. He was a widower evidently, and had employment
elsewhere, for he passed us every morning on his road to the city.
The business was carried on by his eldest daughter. Poor girl! she
needed no assistance. We occasionally caught a glimpse of two or
three children, in mourning like herself, as they sat in the little
parlour behind the shop; and we never passed at night without
seeing the eldest girl at work, either for them, or in making some
elegant little trifle for sale. We often thought, as her pale face
looked more sad and pensive in the dim candle-light, that if those
thoughtless females who interfere with the miserable market of poor
creatures such as these, knew but one-half of the misery they
suffer, and the bitter privations they endure, in their honourable
attempts to earn a scanty subsistence, they would, perhaps, resign
even opportunities for the gratification of vanity, and an immodest
love of self-display, rather than drive them to a last dreadful
resource, which it would shock the delicate feelings of these
CHARITABLE ladies to hear named.

But we are forgetting the shop. Well, we continued to watch it,
and every day showed too clearly the increasing poverty of its
inmates. The children were clean, it is true, but their clothes
were threadbare and shabby; no tenant had been procured for the
upper part of the house, from the letting of which, a portion of
the means of paying the rent was to have been derived, and a slow,
wasting consumption prevented the eldest girl from continuing her
exertions. Quarter-day arrived. The landlord had suffered from
the extravagance of his last tenant, and he had no compassion for
the struggles of his successor; he put in an execution. As we
passed one morning, the broker's men were removing the little
furniture there was in the house, and a newly-posted bill informed
us it was again 'To Let.' What became of the last tenant we never
could learn; we believe the girl is past all suffering, and beyond
all sorrow. God help her! We hope she is.

We were somewhat curious to ascertain what would be the next stage-
-for that the place had no chance of succeeding now, was perfectly
clear. The bill was soon taken down, and some alterations were
being made in the interior of the shop. We were in a fever of
expectation; we exhausted conjecture--we imagined all possible
trades, none of which were perfectly reconcilable with our idea of
the gradual decay of the tenement. It opened, and we wondered why
we had not guessed at the real state of the case before. The shop-
-not a large one at the best of times--had been converted into two:
one was a bonnet-shape maker's, the other was opened by a
tobacconist, who also dealt in walking-sticks and Sunday
newspapers; the two were separated by a thin partition, covered
with tawdry striped paper.

The tobacconist remained in possession longer than any tenant
within our recollection. He was a red-faced, impudent, good-for-
nothing dog, evidently accustomed to take things as they came, and
to make the best of a bad job. He sold as many cigars as he could,
and smoked the rest. He occupied the shop as long as he could make
peace with the landlord, and when he could no longer live in quiet,
he very coolly locked the door, and bolted himself. From this
period, the two little dens have undergone innumerable changes.
The tobacconist was succeeded by a theatrical hair-dresser, who
ornamented the window with a great variety of 'characters,' and
terrific combats. The bonnet-shape maker gave place to a
greengrocer, and the histrionic barber was succeeded, in his turn,
by a tailor. So numerous have been the changes, that we have of
late done little more than mark the peculiar but certain
indications of a house being poorly inhabited. It has been
progressing by almost imperceptible degrees. The occupiers of the
shops have gradually given up room after room, until they have only
reserved the little parlour for themselves. First there appeared a
brass plate on the private door, with 'Ladies' School' legibly
engraved thereon; shortly afterwards we observed a second brass
plate, then a bell, and then another bell.

When we paused in front of our old friend, and observed these signs
of poverty, which are not to be mistaken, we thought as we turned
away, that the house had attained its lowest pitch of degradation.
We were wrong. When we last passed it, a 'dairy' was established
in the area, and a party of melancholy-looking fowls were amusing
themselves by running in at the front door, and out at the back
one.

Charles Dickens