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Chapter 23

THE PAWNBROKER'S SHOP

Of the numerous receptacles for misery and distress with which the
streets of London unhappily abound, there are, perhaps, none which
present such striking scenes as the pawnbrokers' shops. The very
nature and description of these places occasions their being but
little known, except to the unfortunate beings whose profligacy or
misfortune drives them to seek the temporary relief they offer.
The subject may appear, at first sight, to be anything but an
inviting one, but we venture on it nevertheless, in the hope that,
as far as the limits of our present paper are concerned, it will
present nothing to disgust even the most fastidious reader.

There are some pawnbrokers' shops of a very superior description.
There are grades in pawning as in everything else, and distinctions
must be observed even in poverty. The aristocratic Spanish cloak
and the plebeian calico shirt, the silver fork and the flat iron,
the muslin cravat and the Belcher neckerchief, would but ill assort
together; so, the better sort of pawnbroker calls himself a silver-
smith, and decorates his shop with handsome trinkets and expensive
jewellery, while the more humble money-lender boldly advertises his
calling, and invites observation. It is with pawnbrokers' shops of
the latter class, that we have to do. We have selected one for our
purpose, and will endeavour to describe it.

The pawnbroker's shop is situated near Drury-Lane, at the corner of
a court, which affords a side entrance for the accommodation of
such customers as may be desirous of avoiding the observation of
the passers-by, or the chance of recognition in the public street.
It is a low, dirty-looking, dusty shop, the door of which stands
always doubtfully, a little way open: half inviting, half
repelling the hesitating visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated,
examines one of the old garnet brooches in the window for a minute
or two with affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a
purchase; and then looking cautiously round to ascertain that no
one watches him, hastily slinks in: the door closing of itself
after him, to just its former width. The shop front and the
window-frames bear evident marks of having been once painted; but,
what the colour was originally, or at what date it was probably
laid on, are at this remote period questions which may be asked,
but cannot be answered. Tradition states that the transparency in
the front door, which displays at night three red balls on a blue
ground, once bore also, inscribed in graceful waves, the words
'Money advanced on plate, jewels, wearing apparel, and every
description of property,' but a few illegible hieroglyphics are all
that now remain to attest the fact. The plate and jewels would
seem to have disappeared, together with the announcement, for the
articles of stock, which are displayed in some profusion in the
window, do not include any very valuable luxuries of either kind.
A few old china cups; some modern vases, adorned with paltry
paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish guitars;
or a party of boors carousing: each boor with one leg painfully
elevated in the air, by way of expressing his perfect freedom and
gaiety; several sets of chessmen, two or three flutes, a few
fiddles, a round-eyed portrait staring in astonishment from a very
dark ground; some gaudily-bound prayer-books and testaments, two
rows of silver watches quite as clumsy and almost as large as
Ferguson's first; numerous old-fashioned table and tea spoons,
displayed, fan-like, in half-dozens; strings of coral with great
broad gilt snaps; cards of rings and brooches, fastened and
labelled separately, like the insects in the British Museum; cheap
silver penholders and snuff-boxes, with a masonic star, complete
the jewellery department; while five or six beds in smeary clouded
ticks, strings of blankets and sheets, silk and cotton
handkerchiefs, and wearing apparel of every description, form the
more useful, though even less ornamental, part, of the articles
exposed for sale. An extensive collection of planes, chisels,
saws, and other carpenters' tools, which have been pledged, and
never redeemed, form the foreground of the picture; while the large
frames full of ticketed bundles, which are dimly seen through the
dirty casement up-stairs--the squalid neighbourhood--the adjoining
houses, straggling, shrunken, and rotten, with one or two filthy,
unwholesome-looking heads thrust out of every window, and old red
pans and stunted plants exposed on the tottering parapets, to the
manifest hazard of the heads of the passers-by--the noisy men
loitering under the archway at the corner of the court, or about
the gin-shop next door--and their wives patiently standing on the
curb-stone, with large baskets of cheap vegetables slung round them
for sale, are its immediate auxiliaries.

If the outside of the pawnbroker's shop be calculated to attract
the attention, or excite the interest, of the speculative
pedestrian, its interior cannot fail to produce the same effect in
an increased degree. The front door, which we have before noticed,
opens into the common shop, which is the resort of all those
customers whose habitual acquaintance with such scenes renders them
indifferent to the observation of their companions in poverty. The
side door opens into a small passage from which some half-dozen
doors (which may be secured on the inside by bolts) open into a
corresponding number of little dens, or closets, which face the
counter. Here, the more timid or respectable portion of the crowd
shroud themselves from the notice of the remainder, and patiently
wait until the gentleman behind the counter, with the curly black
hair, diamond ring, and double silver watch-guard, shall feel
disposed to favour them with his notice--a consummation which
depends considerably on the temper of the aforesaid gentleman for
the time being.

At the present moment, this elegantly-attired individual is in the
act of entering the duplicate he has just made out, in a thick
book: a process from which he is diverted occasionally, by a
conversation he is carrying on with another young man similarly
employed at a little distance from him, whose allusions to 'that
last bottle of soda-water last night,' and 'how regularly round my
hat he felt himself when the young 'ooman gave 'em in charge,'
would appear to refer to the consequences of some stolen joviality
of the preceding evening. The customers generally, however, seem
unable to participate in the amusement derivable from this source,
for an old sallow-looking woman, who has been leaning with both
arms on the counter with a small bundle before her, for half an
hour previously, suddenly interrupts the conversation by addressing
the jewelled shopman--'Now, Mr. Henry, do make haste, there's a
good soul, for my two grandchildren's locked up at home, and I'm
afeer'd of the fire.' The shopman slightly raises his head, with
an air of deep abstraction, and resumes his entry with as much
deliberation as if he were engraving. 'You're in a hurry, Mrs.
Tatham, this ev'nin', an't you?' is the only notice he deigns to
take, after the lapse of five minutes or so. 'Yes, I am indeed,
Mr. Henry; now, do serve me next, there's a good creetur. I
wouldn't worry you, only it's all along o' them botherin'
children.' 'What have you got here?' inquires the shopman,
unpinning the bundle--'old concern, I suppose--pair o' stays and a
petticut. You must look up somethin' else, old 'ooman; I can't
lend you anything more upon them; they're completely worn out by
this time, if it's only by putting in, and taking out again, three
times a week.' 'Oh! you're a rum un, you are,' replies the old
woman, laughing extremely, as in duty bound; 'I wish I'd got the
gift of the gab like you; see if I'd be up the spout so often then!
No, no; it an't the petticut; it's a child's frock and a beautiful
silk ankecher, as belongs to my husband. He gave four shillin' for
it, the werry same blessed day as he broke his arm.'--'What do you
want upon these?' inquires Mr. Henry, slightly glancing at the
articles, which in all probability are old acquaintances. 'What do
you want upon these?'--'Eighteenpence.'--'Lend you ninepence.'--
'Oh, make it a shillin'; there's a dear--do now?'--'Not another
farden.'--'Well, I suppose I must take it.' The duplicate is made
out, one ticket pinned on the parcel, the other given to the old
woman; the parcel is flung carelessly down into a corner, and some
other customer prefers his claim to be served without further
delay.

The choice falls on an unshaven, dirty, sottish-looking fellow,
whose tarnished paper-cap, stuck negligently over one eye,
communicates an additionally repulsive expression to his very
uninviting countenance. He was enjoying a little relaxation from
his sedentary pursuits a quarter of an hour ago, in kicking his
wife up the court. He has come to redeem some tools:- probably to
complete a job with, on account of which he has already received
some money, if his inflamed countenance and drunken staggers may be
taken as evidence of the fact. Having waited some little time, he
makes his presence known by venting his ill-humour on a ragged
urchin, who, being unable to bring his face on a level with the
counter by any other process, has employed himself in climbing up,
and then hooking himself on with his elbows--an uneasy perch, from
which he has fallen at intervals, generally alighting on the toes
of the person in his immediate vicinity. In the present case, the
unfortunate little wretch has received a cuff which sends him
reeling to this door; and the donor of the blow is immediately the
object of general indignation.

'What do you strike the boy for, you brute?' exclaims a slipshod
woman, with two flat irons in a little basket. 'Do you think he's
your wife, you willin?' 'Go and hang yourself!' replies the
gentleman addressed, with a drunken look of savage stupidity,
aiming at the same time a blow at the woman which fortunately
misses its object. 'Go and hang yourself; and wait till I come and
cut you down.'--'Cut you down,' rejoins the woman, 'I wish I had
the cutting of you up, you wagabond! (loud.) Oh! you precious
wagabond! (rather louder.) Where's your wife, you willin? (louder
still; women of this class are always sympathetic, and work
themselves into a tremendous passion on the shortest notice.) Your
poor dear wife as you uses worser nor a dog--strike a woman--you a
man! (very shrill;) I wish I had you--I'd murder you, I would, if I
died for it!'--'Now be civil,' retorts the man fiercely. 'Be
civil, you wiper!' ejaculates the woman contemptuously. 'An't it
shocking?' she continues, turning round, and appealing to an old
woman who is peeping out of one of the little closets we have
before described, and who has not the slightest objection to join
in the attack, possessing, as she does, the comfortable conviction
that she is bolted in. 'Ain't it shocking, ma'am? (Dreadful! says
the old woman in a parenthesis, not exactly knowing what the
question refers to.) He's got a wife, ma'am, as takes in mangling,
and is as 'dustrious and hard-working a young 'ooman as can be,
(very fast) as lives in the back parlour of our 'ous, which my
husband and me lives in the front one (with great rapidity)--and we
hears him a beaten' on her sometimes when he comes home drunk, the
whole night through, and not only a beaten' her, but beaten' his
own child too, to make her more miserable--ugh, you beast! and she,
poor creater, won't swear the peace agin him, nor do nothin',
because she likes the wretch arter all--worse luck!' Here, as the
woman has completely run herself out of breath, the pawnbroker
himself, who has just appeared behind the counter in a gray
dressing-gown, embraces the favourable opportunity of putting in a
word:- 'Now I won't have none of this sort of thing on my
premises!' he interposes with an air of authority. 'Mrs. Mackin,
keep yourself to yourself, or you don't get fourpence for a flat
iron here; and Jinkins, you leave your ticket here till you're
sober, and send your wife for them two planes, for I won't have you
in my shop at no price; so make yourself scarce, before I make you
scarcer.'

This eloquent address produces anything but the effect desired; the
women rail in concert; the man hits about him in all directions,
and is in the act of establishing an indisputable claim to
gratuitous lodgings for the night, when the entrance of his wife, a
wretched, worn-out woman, apparently in the last stage of
consumption, whose face bears evident marks of recent ill-usage,
and whose strength seems hardly equal to the burden--light enough,
God knows!--of the thin, sickly child she carries in her arms,
turns his cowardly rage in a safer direction. 'Come home, dear,'
cries the miserable creature, in an imploring tone; 'DO come home,
there's a good fellow, and go to bed.'--'Go home yourself,' rejoins
the furious ruffian. 'Do come home quietly,' repeats the wife,
bursting into tears. 'Go home yourself,' retorts the husband
again, enforcing his argument by a blow which sends the poor
creature flying out of the shop. Her 'natural protector' follows
her up the court, alternately venting his rage in accelerating her
progress, and in knocking the little scanty blue bonnet of the
unfortunate child over its still more scanty and faded-looking
face.

In the last box, which is situated in the darkest and most obscure
corner of the shop, considerably removed from either of the gas-
lights, are a young delicate girl of about twenty, and an elderly
female, evidently her mother from the resemblance between them, who
stand at some distance back, as if to avoid the observation even of
the shopman. It is not their first visit to a pawnbroker's shop,
for they answer without a moment's hesitation the usual questions,
put in a rather respectful manner, and in a much lower tone than
usual, of 'What name shall I say?--Your own property, of course?--
Where do you live?--Housekeeper or lodger?' They bargain, too, for
a higher loan than the shopman is at first inclined to offer, which
a perfect stranger would be little disposed to do; and the elder
female urges her daughter on, in scarcely audible whispers, to
exert her utmost powers of persuasion to obtain an advance of the
sum, and expatiate on the value of the articles they have brought
to raise a present supply upon. They are a small gold chain and a
'Forget me not' ring: the girl's property, for they are both too
small for the mother; given her in better times; prized, perhaps,
once, for the giver's sake, but parted with now without a struggle;
for want has hardened the mother, and her example has hardened the
girl, and the prospect of receiving money, coupled with a
recollection of the misery they have both endured from the want of
it--the coldness of old friends--the stern refusal of some, and the
still more galling compassion of others--appears to have
obliterated the consciousness of self-humiliation, which the idea
of their present situation would once have aroused.

In the next box, is a young female, whose attire, miserably poor,
but extremely gaudy, wretchedly cold, but extravagantly fine, too
plainly bespeaks her station. The rich satin gown with its faded
trimmings, the worn-out thin shoes, and pink silk stockings, the
summer bonnet in winter, and the sunken face, where a daub of rouge
only serves as an index to the ravages of squandered health never
to be regained, and lost happiness never to be restored, and where
the practised smile is a wretched mockery of the misery of the
heart, cannot be mistaken. There is something in the glimpse she
has just caught of her young neighbour, and in the sight of the
little trinkets she has offered in pawn, that seems to have
awakened in this woman's mind some slumbering recollection, and to
have changed, for an instant, her whole demeanour. Her first hasty
impulse was to bend forward as if to scan more minutely the
appearance of her half-concealed companions; her next, on seeing
them involuntarily shrink from her, to retreat to the back of the
box, cover her face with her hands, and burst into tears.

There are strange chords in the human heart, which will lie dormant
through years of depravity and wickedness, but which will vibrate
at last to some slight circumstance apparently trivial in itself,
but connected by some undefined and indistinct association, with
past days that can never be recalled, and with bitter recollections
from which the most degraded creature in existence cannot escape.

There has been another spectator, in the person of a woman in the
common shop; the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting,
and slovenly. Her curiosity was at first attracted by the little
she could see of the group; then her attention. The half-
intoxicated leer changed to an expression of something like
interest, and a feeling similar to that we have described, appeared
for a moment, and only a moment, to extend itself even to her
bosom.

Who shall say how soon these women may change places? The last has
but two more stages--the hospital and the grave. How many females
situated as her two companions are, and as she may have been once,
have terminated the same wretched course, in the same wretched
manner! One is already tracing her footsteps with frightful
rapidity. How soon may the other follow her example! How many
have done the same!

Charles Dickens