9 December 1888
HOW A MAN CAME NEAR TO LOSING HIS LIFE IN WHITECHAPEL.
Barbarism in the East End of London - On the Thames After Dark.
London, November 25. (Special Correspondent.)
That mysterious journalistophile, known in contemporaneous romance as "the Whitechapel fiend," has recently brought into renewed popularity among sensation hunters, the district of London known somewhat indefinitely as "the East End." Whitechapel stood in peril of oblivion; the literary man had cast his reporterial eyes, apparently, once and for all upon the gilded nest, where, though it is true that many sons risen in the morning of life in the east end, have set in jeweled splendor. Whitechapel is as much a traveler's name, and nothing else, as Timbuctoo, Palmyra, or Atlantis. Now, however, the picturesque and imposing word murder and outrage have attracted the attention of the world - and of its wives and daughters - to this unsavory locality, and a complete literature of the district has been the result.
The story I am about to tell, dramatic as its incidents are, does not, I regret to say, abounding what the English newsboy calls "the 'orrid details," but it serves to show that the present series of crimes that are electrifying the world only stand out from a long calendar of such, on account of the devilish ingenuity of their perpetrator.
There may be among my readers, English and American, a few who have had the curiosity to go through experiences which have led to events such as I am about to relate, but the number will be few, for it is only one of many hundreds of Englishmen even who ever brave the dangers of the remote east end of London.
At the time of which my story speaks George R. Sims had not brought "slumming" into fashion; he had not by his intimate acquaintance with the lower forms of life in London excited the interest in the east end which was aroused a few years ago in the drawing rooms of the west - in a word, as I say, "slumming" had not "come into fashion." The fact that it had not done so was perhaps the main inducement to me to become an inveterate "slummer," and, arrayed in the oldest and most terrible of clothes and fortified with a carefully concealed revolver of somewhat heavy caliber, and about five shillings as a rule in my pockets in sixpence and coppers, I commenced a series of voyages of exploration in the east end, where the dregs of the population assemble and pickpockets congregate.
If you take the white omnibus which passes the American exchange at Charing Cross and cling to it until it reaches the end of its allotted route, it will take you along the busy Strand and literary Fleet street, up classic Ludgate hill, past St. Pauls, past the bank and by Corn hill to London bridge, and there descending, you will set your face eastwards, and passing the Monument and Tower, you will reach narrow and treacherous paths, ways that are dark and streets not always too clean, and you will find places with names like Wapping Old Stairs, Shadwell, Ratcliff Highway and Tiger Bay; places where a decent coat would be the oriflamme of attack, and where they would sell your hair if they could get a penny a pound for it.
Across the river lies Rotherhithe, pretty, fresh and smiling in the noonday sun, looking as if it had suddenly been evolved out of the inner consciousness of some seventeenth or eighteenth century artist; rows of little whitewashed houses with bright pebbled walks, leading from the rustic portico to the brilliantly green painted gate, where sweet peas straggle untidily at their own sweet will, and pots of gilly flowers mingle their heavy sensuous perfume with the tarry and fishlike smells which announce the trade of the inhabitants.
It is here that Walter Besant has laid the scene of the Captain's Room, and a more beautiful and interesting spot it would be difficult to find; but scarcely anybody ever goes there, because Rotherhithe is, or was, almost impossible to get at.
It was something of a romance that awoke in me an ambition to explore Rotherhithe. I had been in the habit of haunting Ratcliff Highway in the character of a defaulting bank clerk, and had fraternized with my companion outcasts, on the strength of a certain skill in amateur legerdemain, which enabled me to amuse the occupants of barrooms, whilst I listened to their talk, with a few simple tricks performed with some pennies, a handkerchief, and a pack of cards.
I had been thus engaged one night, and was sitting at a dirty table conversing with two of the lowest specimens of the population, when suddenly, above the roar of the market outside, there rose from the mews, at the back of the public house we had selected as a resting place, a piercing shriek - the cry of a woman - and of a young woman in mortal terror. Following the scream rang forth the cry:
"Oh, God, help!"
"Boys!" I exclaimed, jumping up, with a tightened , sickening sensation at my throat, "here's some fun. Don't let's miss it! Come and rescue the gal."
"Go an' do it yerself!" answered the apparently elder of the blackguards, and before he had finished his reply I was out in the back yard.
A scoundrel who may have been a sailor, but who was more probably a dock loafer, had evidently seized a girl, whose outline I could barely distinguish in the darkness as she passed the narrow passage that led from the street to the back of the house, had dragged her into the yard for purposes of robbery, or even worse. Such little things as this are of too ordinary occurrence in Ratcliffe highway to excite any remark from the passers by.
The assailant had flung his victim to the ground, and crouching over her was not aware of my approach from behind. I did not dare to shoot for fear of arousing the neighborhood - a pistol shot would undoubtedly summon a policeman (though little short of it would - in Ratcliffe highway), and my identity would be revealed - so I struck the cowardly ruffian a stunning blow with a Smith & Wesson butt, on the back of the head. He rolled over without a groan - I think his skull was smashed.
Without bestowing upon him another look I turned my attention to the girl. She had fainted, but was apparently at that moment recovering consciousness.
The moon that was full that night ran out from behind a bank of clouds, and shone on as fair a face as ever I saw. The hair that framed it was of a rich, ruddy gold, and had escaped from its confinement as the girl's bonnet had fallen off; the eyes that opened and looked at me were large and soft, and appeared a deep violet in the gloom; an exquisite little mouth opened as I bent over her, apparently to cry out once more, when I whispered:
"Be quiet; you are safe! Don't utter a word - I'll see you safely where you want to go. There's the man who seized you - let's get out of here."
Casting a frightened glance at the motionless figure by her side, the girl rose and coming close to me she said in a low tone: "For God's sake, don't you hurt me too. You look like a swell - don't let any of these beasts touch me."
I reassured her to the best of my ability as I led her down the passage to the street, and the next moment we were striding rapidly eastward along the highway.
"Where are we going to?" I asked after we had put a hundred yards between us and the scene of her late encounter.
"To Wapping Old Stairs," she answered. "I live across the river at Rotherhithe. I've never been over here before, but my uncle was taken ill tonight and I came over to find a doctor who saw after him when he was bad once before. I found that he'd gone away from the old address, and I was hurrying home when that brute seized me as I passed the entry to that passage."
"But, my child," said I, "you can't go back to Rotherhithe at this time of the night. How a beautiful thing like you ever got here safely at all I can't make out. Here, you're safe with me anyhow - I'll take you back to Rotherhithe."
The girl drew closer to me and looked up into my face.
"Ah!" said she. "I thought you was a swell. Thank you kindly - I shan't be afraid if you come with me."
And so, arm in arm, we reached Wapping Old Stairs, she chattering about herself all the way.
She was 17, but looked 20; she had lived all her life, she said, as long as she could remember, with her uncle.
We reached the ferry landing and found the ferryman making his last round trip for the night.
"Last trip over," shouted the ferryman. I looked from him to the girl - she laid her hands on my arm and looked up into my face.
"Won't you come and see uncle," she repeated, "you'll be able to get a ferryman to scull you across - there's always lots of 'em about, looking for corpses," she explained.
I shuddered a little, but I couldn't resist her appeal. I went with her to her uncle's cottage.
We found the old man sleeping peacefully. From her description of his illness, I concluded that he had been suffering from an unwonted combination of anno domini and alcohol. We decided that it was best not to waken him, and after remaining for a few minutes in conversation with this Rotherhithe Venus I rose to take my departure.
She accompanied me to the gate. As I held out my hand to say "goodnight" she put up her lips, saying:
"Aren't you going to kiss me?" There was not a shade of coquetry in her voice now; she was merely making a simple inquiry.
"You'll come over again and see me, won't you?" she said, as at last I announced my intention of really going away.
"Certainly I will," was my answer, as I held her hand over the garden gate, "as soon as I can; good night."
And retracing my steps along the way by which we had come, I reached the ferry stairs. It was a long while now, since the ferry had made its last trip, so after looking around disconsolately for a few minutes, I hailed what I think was the most repulsive looking specimen of humanity that I ever saw in my life, and, after some haggling, agreed that he should row me over to Wapping in his dilapidated old wherry for the sum of sixpence.
You, oh, my gentle readers, who have never crossed the Thames lower, perhaps, than Vauxhall, or the Houses of Parliament, will, perhaps, think it is nothing to make this crossing of the river from Rotherhithe to Wapping, but allow me to tell you that though I have walked the streets of Scutari and the blind alleys of Galata, the passages of remoter Paris and the deserted piazza of Rome at all hours of the night, I would infinitely rather patronize all these localities, dressed from head to foot in the gold embroidered gown of a Chinese mandarin with a sapphire button on the top of my head, than be rowed across the Thames at dead of night "below bridges."
You shoot out from the stairs where you have stepped into your boat between the black undefined masses of shipping and from beneath the overhanging attics of the lower riverside tenements, and, excepting for the dreadful, lonely "lap, lap, lap" of the water, and the greasy dip, dip, dip of the dilapidated oars, everything is in profound silence.
The greasy stream runs past the boat silently and swiftly, and brave man though you may be, you dare not trail your fingers in the water, and you shudder involuntarily as you turn your eyes from every dark mass which floats past the boat.
On the occasion of which I am speaking, we had got about three quarters of the way over, when, in the brilliant moonlight, an idea suddenly seemed to strike my wherryman; possibly the light shining on my face made it look more than ordinarily pale, and he thought I was frightened; anyhow he said:
"Here, you swell, pay me my fare."
I asked him what he meant. He replied:
"I mean that I am going to be paid before you get out of this boat."
I was wrapped up in a large and rather shabby cloak as I sat in the stern of the boat, my arms crossed upon my knees, and thus we sat looking at one another, while, concealed by the folds of my cloak, my right hand sought out the revolver which lay upon my left hip. I said to him:
"I shall pay you when I get out and not a moment before." And he said to me:
"I know this, that unless you pay me half a sovereign right this minute, you will never get out of this boat at all, and then what?"
"And then this," I said. "Now, look here, you be reasonable; I've told you that I am a broken down sport, and that I haven't got any money at all; I've only about 3 shillings in the world, and you won't be such a brute as to take it away from me."
"Won't I though?" he said. And then another thought seemed to strike him, and he added, "Is that all the money you have got on you?" And I said, "Yes."
A hideous grin displayed two broken ranks of blackened teeth, and with a chuckle more awful than anything I ever heard before or since, intensified as it was by the surroundings, he said:
"Very well, then; there is 3 shillings that you have got, and 5 that I shall get for taking your body to the river police, that will make 8."
"Good God!" I exclaimed, "what do you mean?"
"Why, this here," said he. "I am going to chuck you out of this boat, and I am going to see that you drown, and then I shall get 5 shillings for recovering your body and taking it to the [police station. Don't you see?"
I don't think I was ever in such a frightful situation in my life; but I knew perfectly well that if I were to shoot the man there and then I should probably fall into worse hands when I landed, heaven knows where, on the other side, so I said to him:
"Now, see here; supposing I lied to you, and that I have got a watch on that is worth some money, and that I would give you that, how long will it take you to reach the other side?"
By this time the moon had hidden herself behind a cloud, and the gloom was profound. He said:
"About a minute and a half."
"Very well, then, " said I, "if you throw me overboard I shall swim ashore and then you will lose me."
"Oh, no," said he, "will you? You could no more get through the barges and shipping alone than you could get to heaven without I sent you there." (Heaven was not the word he used.)
All this time, my brain was working pretty actively, and I said to him:
"Now, see, here is another scheme. Admitting that you will get 5 shillings for my dead body, you would get a sovereign for saving me alive, according to the rules of the river police; now, if you throw me overboard (as I see, by your size, you are quite capable of doing) you shall jump over also and save me, and I will give you my word of honor - stake my dying oath - that I won't say you threw me overboard, only save me and put me safely into a police station."
"That would be very well," said he, "and you speak fairly enough, but I can't swim a stroke."
"Can't you," said I, "then by God! pull to save your life."
I had my hand on my revolver all this time, and drawing it suddenly, I fired two bullets through the bottom of the boat. The water began to gush in, and the wherryman, seeing possible escape for me and certain death before him, turned the boat's nose to the shore, and in less than two minutes we were safely on dry land with nearly a foot of water in the boat.
Arrived at the other side he disappeared and as good luck would have it, at the top of the street in which I had been deposited I found a stray policeman walking his solitary round. He told me where I was and how to get back to London bridge.
I did not go to Rotherhithe again, according to my promises; in fact, I have never been there at all since, and I think I am safe in saying that I never shall.
As for the fair one with the golden locks who led me into the scrape, I have never heard of her or seen her since. I wonder what was her name.
EDWARD HERON ALLEN.