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Now everyone who is anyone wants to get their hands on Dodger - 5

^ The hero of the hour meets his damsel in distress again, but wins a kiss from a very enthusiastic lady

  SOLOMON WAS STILL at work at his little lathe when Dodger came up the stairs. It was always strange to watch Sol working; it was as if he had disappeared. Oh yes, he was there, but mostly his brain was lodged in his fingertips, paying no attention to anything other than what he was very carefully doing until it seemed all part of some kind of natural process, as gentle as grass growing. Dodger envied him that peacefulness, but it wouldn’t suit him, he was sure.
Sol’s choice of clobber wouldn’t suit him either, oh no. When he went to the synagogue the old boy wore baggy pantaloons and a ragged gabardine coat, summer and winter; and when safely back in his lair in the attic, even longer pantaloons from who knew where, with a vest which – give him his due – was generally always as white as could be achieved. On his feet he chose to wear some very carefully embroidered slippers acquired in foreign parts where Solomon had some time or another apparently lived and, possibly, from which he had escaped with his life. Then, of course, there was his apron, with a very big pocket in the front so that any small fiddly and expensive items that rolled off the workbench would be caught in it.
There was an appetizing smell coming from the cauldron on the stove – Mrs Quickly’s mutton being put to good use – that automatically made Dodger lick his lips. Dodger never knew how Solomon managed it; the old man could make a delicious dinner out of half a brick and a lump of wood. When he’d asked him one day, Solomon had replied, ‘Mmm, I suppose it was all that wandering in the wilderness; it makes you do the best you can with what you’ve got.’
Dodger lay awake on his mattress for most of the night, and lying awake was very easy to do; often there were fights back down in the yards when the blokes came home, and then the screaming babies and terrible rows – the whole cacophony that was the lullaby of Seven Dials. Happy families, he thought. Are there any? And over and above the streets there were the bells, clanging out all over the city.
Dodger stared at the ceiling, thinking about the coach. Messy Bessie probably wasn’t going to be any more help, and so it seemed to Dodger that the only way to find out more was to continue to ask questions, in the hope of coming to the attention of the aforesaid people who didn’t like questions being asked, and especially didn’t like questions being answered. He bet they would know a thing or two.
Where to start, where to start? A squeaky wheel, and a nobby coach. Did it have a crest on it? Maybe one with eagles? Perhaps the girl would remember more if he saw her again . . .?
Well, he thought, Mister Mayhew wants to see me and so does his wife, and perhaps a smart young man could smarten himself up and try to put some kind of shine on his boots and wash his face before going to see them, in the hope that a good lad might at least come out of the meeting with something more than a cup of tea, perhaps something to eat. And who knows; possibly, if he was very good and very respectful, he would be allowed to see the girl with the wonderful golden hair again.
Because you cannot switch cunning off when you want to, Dodger’s own cunning treacherously prompted him: maybe they will give you some money as well, for being a good boy. Because he thought he knew the kind of people that Mister and Mrs Mayhew were; amazingly, every now and again you came across nobby folks who actually cared about the street people and were slightly guilty about them. If you were poor, and perhaps took the trouble to scrub up as best you could, and had no shame at all and could also spin a hard luck story as well as Dodger could – though, frankly, he didn’t really need to make one up, since his life, as he had very nearly truthfully described to Charlie, had included big dollops of hard luck anyway – why, then they would practically kiss you, because it made them feel better.
Lying there in the darkness and thinking about the girl, Dodger felt somewhat ashamed to be thinking only of what he could make out of it, for surely saving the girl was in itself a kind of reward, but he was only a little bit ashamed, because you had to live, didn’t you?
Uncomfortable, he turned over and thought about Charlie, who seemed to think that Dodger was some kind of a pirate king, and when you thought about it, Charlie was playing a little game of his own. Every lad wants to be thought of as a wide boy, a geezer, right? Dodger thought. ’Cos it makes you feel big. For Charlie, words were a kind of complicated game and it might not be a game Dodger knew well, but it was still a game – and he, Dodger, was pretty good at the game of surviving.
Staring up at nothing, he thought about Grandad, dying with a smile on his face in the sewers and in all that the sewers contained. It would be a long time before he ever went into the Maelstrom again. Rats were small, but there were a lot of them, and more and more when the news got around. He would leave a week or two at least before he would return to the place where the old man had died. Died, he reminded himself, where he wanted to be.
Then there was Stumpy, who’d had two legs until a cannonball hit him when he was fighting somewhere in Spain.
And here he was, and suddenly now Charlie’s words were clinging to him, changing his world – a world where one moment you are happily on the tosh, then quick as a wink coppers might call you a hero and you are wandering around in nobby houses. Not the person you had been when you woke up. It was like some great big spring was tugging at him – and maybe, perhaps sooner rather than later, a boy has to decide what kind of man he is going to be. Is he going to be a player, or a playing piece . . .?
In the gloom, Dodger smiled and went to sleep, dreaming of golden hair.
In the morning, as clean as he could be, he headed to the house of Mister Mayhew. By daylight, the man’s house looked pretty good; not a palace, but the place of somebody who had enough money to be called a gentleman. The whole street looked like that, smart, ordered and clean. There was even a policeman patrolling it, and much to Dodger’s surprise the policeman gave him a little salute as they passed. It wasn’t anything much, just a flick of the fingers, but up until now a policeman in a place like this would have told him to go somewhere else sharpish. Emboldened, Dodger remembered the way that Charlie talked, and saluted the constable back, saying, ‘Good morning, Officer, what a fine day it is to be sure.’
Nothing happened! The copper strolled slowly past him and that was that. Blimey! In a hopeful mood, Dodger found the house. He had learned at an early age how to hang about the back doors of houses on the swell streets, and also – and this was important – to get known as a spritely lad. He had realized that if you were an urchin, then it might help to treat it as a vocation and get really good at it; if you wanted to be a successful urchin you needed to study how to urch. It was as simple as that. And if you are going to urch, then you had to be something like an actor. You had to know how to be chatty to everybody – the butlers and the cooks; the housemaids; even the coachmen – and in short become the cheerful chappie, always a card, known to everybody. It was an act and he was the star. It wasn’t a path to fame and fortune, but it certainly wasn’t the road to Tyburn Tree and the long drop. No, safety lay in having one talent that you can call your own, and his lay in being Dodger, Dodger to the hilt. So now he walked round to the back door, hoping he might perhaps run into Mrs Quickly the cook again and come away once more with a pie or another piece of mutton.
The door was opened by a maid, who said, ‘Yes, sir?’
Dodger straightened himself up and said, ‘I’m here to see Mister Mayhew. I believe he is expecting me, my name is Dodger.’
No sooner had he said this than there was a clang from somewhere beyond, and the maid panicked a little, as maids do (especially when they met Dodger’s cheerful grin), but she visibly relaxed as she was replaced by Dodger’s old friend Mrs Quickly, who looked him up and down critically and said, ‘My word, ain’t you the toff and no mistake! Pray excuse me if I do not curtsey, on account of me being all but up to my armpits in giblets.’
A moment later the cook came back to the door again, this time unencumbered by the bits of the insides of animals. She shooed away the maid, saying, ‘Me and Mister Dodger is going to have a little chat, so go and see to the pig knuckles, girl.’ Then she gave Dodger a hug involving a certain amount of giblet, wiped him down and said, ‘You are a hero of the hour, my little pumpkin, yes indeed, they were talking about it at breakfast! It seems that you, you little scallywag, single-handedly stopped that Morning Chronicle being overrun by robbers last night!’ She gave Dodger a saucy smile, and said, ‘Well, I thought to myself, if that is the selfsame young man I met the other day, then the only way he would stop anything being stolen would be to put his hands behind his back. But now it appears that you fought a battle with some robbers and chased them to kingdom come, so they say. Just fancy that! Next thing you know they will be asking you to be the Lord Mayor. If that is so I would like you to take me as your Lady Mayoress – don’t worry, I’ve been married lots of times and know how it is done.’ She laughed again at his expression and, more soberly, said, ‘Well done, lad. We’ll get the girl to take you upstairs to the family, and you be sure to come down here again when you go, because I might have a little bundle of food for you.’
Dodger followed the maid up a flight of stone stairs to a door, to the magic green baize door between the people who clean the floors and those people who walk on the floors – the upstairs and the downstairs of the world. Actually, what he found was a kind of pandemonium, with a husband and wife as unwilling referees in a dispute between two boys over who had broken whose toy soldier.
Mister Mayhew grabbed him and nodded to his wife, who could only smile frantically at Dodger from the middle of this tiny war as he was hurried into her husband’s study. Henry Mayhew pushed him onto a uncomfortable chair and sat down opposite him, saying immediately, ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance again, young man, especially in the light of your intervention yesterday evening, of which Charlie has informed me.’ He paused. ‘You are a most interesting young man. May I ask a . . . few personal questions?’ His hand reached for a notebook and pencil as he spoke.
Dodger was not used to this sort of thing: people who wanted to ask him personal questions such as, ‘Where were you on the night of the sixteenth?’ normally damn well asked them without permission, and also expected them to be answered with equal speed. He managed to say, ‘I don’t mind, sir. That is, if they ain’t too personal.’ He stared around the room while the man laughed, and he thought: How can one man own this much paper? Books and piles of paper were on every flat surface, including the floor – everywhere on the floor, but neatly on the floor.
Now Mister Mayhew said, ‘I imagine, sir, that you were not actually christened? I find the idea unlikely. Mister Dodger is a name you . . . came by?’
Dodger settled for a variant on honesty. After all, he’d been through all of this with Charlie, and so what he delivered was a slightly abbreviated version of ‘the Dodger story’, because you never told anyone everything. ‘No, sir, was a foundling, sir, got called Dodger in the orphanage because I move fast, sir.’
Mister Mayhew opened the notebook, which Dodger looked at with suspicion. The pencil was poised over the paper, ready to pounce, so he said, ‘No offence meant, it makes me come over all wobbly if things gets writ down, and I stops talking.’ He was already scouting the room for other exits.
However, much to his surprise, Mister Mayhew said, ‘Young man, I do apologize for not asking your permission. Of course I will not make further notes without asking you. You see, I write things down for my job, or perhaps I should say my vocation. It is a matter of research – a project on which I have been engaged for some time now. I and my colleagues hope to make the government see how terrible conditions are in this city; it is, indeed, the richest and most powerful city in the world, and yet the conditions here for many may not be far removed from those in Calcutta.’ He noted that there was no change in Dodger’s expression and said, ‘Is it possible, young man, that you do not know where Calcutta is?’
Dodger stared for a moment at the pencil. Oh well, there was no hope for it. ‘That’s right, sir,’ he said. ‘Do not have a clue, sorry, sir.’
‘Mister Dodger, the fault is not yours. Indeed,’ Mister Mayhew continued, as if talking to himself, ‘ignorance, poor health and lack of suitable nutrition and potable water see to it that the situation gets ever worse. So I simply ask people for a few details about their life, and indeed their earnings, for the government cannot fail to respond to a careful accumulation of evidence! Curiously, the upper classes, while generally very gracious in the amount of money that they give to churches, foundations and other great works, tend not to look too hard below them, apart from occasionally making soup for the deserving.’
The thought of food once again got Dodger’s stomach rumbling. It must have grumbled enough for Mister Mayhew to hear, because the man was suddenly flustered and said, ‘Oh my dear sir, you will be very hungry, of course; I anticipated this, so I will ring the bell and get the maid to bring you some bacon and an egg or two. We are not rich, but thankfully we are not poor. It must be said that everybody has a different calculus on this matter, however, because I have met people who I would have thought were amongst the most extreme of the poor, who nevertheless protest that they are jogging along nicely, whilst on the other hand I have known men who live in very large houses on really good incomes to consider themselves one step away from debtors’ prison!’ He smiled at Dodger as he rang the bell, and said, ‘How about you, Mister Dodger, who I believe is a tosher as well as dabbling in other lines of ad hoc business when the opportunity arises? Do you consider yourself rich, or poor?’
Dodger knew a trick question when he saw one. Mister Mayhew, he considered, was probably not as darkly sharp about the world as Charlie was but it wouldn’t pay to underestimate him; and therefore he took refuge in the last resort, which was honesty. He said, ‘I reckon me and Sol aren’t really the poor, sir. You know, we’re doing a bit of this and a bit of that and we do pretty well, I think, compared to many, yes.’
This seemed to pass muster, and Mister Mayhew looked pleased. He glanced at his notebook and said, ‘Sol being the gentleman of the Jewish persuasion with whom Charlie tells me you share lodgings?’
‘Oh, I don’t think he needed any persuading, sir. I think he was born Jewish. At least, that’s what he says.’
Dodger wondered why Mister Mayhew laughed, and he wondered too how it was that Charlie knew enough to tell the man where he lived when Dodger himself couldn’t seem to remember telling him. But that didn’t really matter, because he could hear the sound of the servant just outside the door, and the rattling of a tray. A rattling like that meant that it was heavy – always a good thing. And, as it turned out, it was. Mister Mayhew said that he had already had breakfast, so Dodger tucked in to bacon and eggs at considerable speed.
‘Charlie has high hopes of you, as you know,’ said Mister Mayhew, ‘and I must confess my admiration of the fact that you have put yourself out for our young lady, especially as, I understand, you had never met before. I will take you to see her shortly. She seems to understand English, although I fear that her mind has been disturbed by the nature of her ordeal and she seems unable to give an account of the dark events which appear to have befallen her.’
Most unusually for Dodger, he looked at the food in front of him without instantly finishing it up, and instead said, ‘She was very scared. She’s been married to a cove who treated her rotten and that’s a fact. And . . .’ Dodger was about to say more, but hesitated. He thought: She’s hurt, yes; she’s frightened, yes; but I don’t reckon she’s lost her mind. I reckon she’s biding her time until she finds out who her friends are. And if I was her, badly beaten though she be, I reckon that I would find it in myself to appear a little worse off than I was; it’s the rule of the streets. Keep some things to yourself.
Dodger felt the man still watching him, and sure enough, Mister Mayhew said, ‘So if you don’t mind . . . where were you born, Mister Dodger?’
He had to wait until Dodger had finished the plateful of food and licked the knife on both sides. Then Dodger said, ‘Bow, sir, though don’t know for sure.’
‘Would you mind telling me about your upbringing . . . how you came to be a tosher?’
Dodger shrugged. ‘Was a mudlark for a while first, ’cos, well, that’s the kind of stuff you like as a kid – it sort of comes natural, if you know what I mean, mucking about in the river mud picking up bits of coal and suchlike. Not bad in the summer, bloody awful in the winter, but if you are smart you can find a place to sleep and earn yourself a meal. I done a bit of time as a chimney sweep’s lad, like I told Charlie, but then one day I began toshing, and never looked back, sir. Took to it like a pig to a muck heap, which is pretty much the same. Never found a tosheroon yet, but I hope to do so before I die.’
He laughed and decided to give the very serious-looking man something to think about, and so he added, ‘Of course I found practically everything else, sir – everything what folk throw away, or lose, or don’t care about. It’s amazing what you can find down there, especially under the teaching hospitals, oh my word yes! I can walk from one side of London to another underground, come up anywhere I like, and I’ll tell you, sir, you won’t believe me sometimes, sir, beautiful so it is! It’s like walking through old houses sometimes, the slopes of the stairs and stuff growing on the walls – the Grotto, Windy Corner, the Queen’s Bedroom, the Chamber of Whispers and all the other places we toshers know like the backs of our hands, sir, once we’ve washed them, of course. When the evening light strikes and comes off the river, it looks like a paradise, sir. I can’t expect you to believe it, but so it does.’
Dodger paused and considered what he had just said, common sense meaning that he wouldn’t tell a man with a poised pencil about stealing things and being a snakesman and a thief; that sort of revelation was fine for someone like Charlie, but for the likes of Mister Mayhew it seemed more sensible to put a shine on things.
‘One time I even found an old bedstead down there. And it’s amazing how the light finds a way in,’ he finished, and smiled at Mister Mayhew, who was looking at him with an expression halfway between shock and puzzlement, with perhaps a tiny bit of admiration.
Now the man said, ‘One last thing, Mister Dodger. Would you mind telling me how much you glean from your labours as a tosher?’
Dodger had pretty much expected something like this. He instinctively halved the amount of his earnings, saying, ‘Well, there’s good days and there’s bad days, sir, but I reckon I might earn as much as a chimney sweep, with every now and again a little windfall.’
‘And are you happy in your occupation?’
‘Oh yes, sir. I go where I please, I ain’t answerable to anybody, and every day is a sort of adventure, sir, if you get my meaning.’ And in order to boost his bona fides as an upstanding young gentleman he added, ‘Of course, sometimes I find something down there that someone has lost, and it does my heart good to give it back to them.’ Well, it was technically true, he thought to himself, even if a few shillings did come into the picture.
After a while the man cleared his throat and said, ‘Mister Dodger, thank you for that insight. I see that you have finished your breakfast to the extent that the plate positively shines, and now perhaps it is time to let you meet our guest again. Have you ever had such a thing as a bath? I must say that, considering your calling, you look reasonably clean.’
Dodger smirked at this. ‘That’s because of Solomon, sir, the cove what I live with. He is a devil for dirt, sir, on account of being one of the chosen people. And yes, there is a bath in the back room, sir – one of those little ones you stand in, kind of like washing yourself down with a rag, sir, and soap too, my oath, yes. I heard someone say cleanliness is next to godliness, but I reckon Sol reckons that cleanliness gives godliness a run for its money.’
Mister Mayhew was staring at Dodger like a man who has found a sixpence in a handful of farthings. Now he said, ‘You amaze me, Mister Dodger; you appear to be a brand plucking himself from the burning. Please do follow me.’
A minute later Dodger was ushered into the rather dark maids’ room upstairs. The golden-haired girl was sitting upright on one of the beds, like somebody who has just got up; and the room was suddenly bright from the girl’s smile, at least in the depths of Dodger, whose heart, somewhat corroded, was beating fast.
Mister Mayhew said, ‘Here is the young lady, whom I’m glad to say is making progress.’ He gestured to the other person in the room. ‘This, of course, is my wife Jane, whom I believe you met earlier but have not been introduced to as yet. My dear, this is Mister Dodger, the saviour of damsels in distress, as I believe you know.’
Dodger wasn’t sometimes certain that he understood what Mister Mayhew was saying, but he thought it would be sensible to point out, just in case there would be trouble later, ‘There was only one damsel in distress, sir – if the damsel means a lady, of course. But just one, sir.’
Mrs Mayhew – who had been sitting beside the girl, a soup bowl and spoon in her hand – stood up and held out her hand. ‘One damsel in distress, indeed, Mister Dodger. How foolish of my husband to believe that there might be more than one.’ She smiled, and so did her husband, and Dodger wondered if he had missed some kind of joke, but Mrs Mayhew hadn’t finished yet.
Dodger knew about families, and husbands and wives; often, wives helped their menfolk who sold stuff on the streets like baked potatoes and sandwiches – although baked potatoes were always a treat – and whole families worked at the game. Dodger, who had the eye for this sort of thing, watched the families and watched their faces and watched how they spoke to one another, and sometimes it seemed to him that although the man was the master, which was of course only right and proper, if you watched and listened you would see that their marriage was like a barge on the river, with the wife being the wind that told the captain which way the barge would sail. Mrs Mayhew, if not being the wind, certainly knew when to apply the right puff.
The couple smiled at one another, and Mrs Mayhew said sadly, ‘I’m afraid that the dreadful beating this young lady had – and I suspect had not endured for the first time – has in some way tangled her wits, so unfortunately I cannot introduce you properly. “Simplicity” will suffice for a name, a good Christian name, until we know more. And the name belonged to an old friend of mine, and so I am fond of it. She is quite young and one must hope that she will heal rapidly. At the moment, however, I keep the curtains mostly closed to keep out as much as possible of the noise of carriages in the streets – they appear to make Simplicity fearful. However, I’m glad to see that her physical faculties seem to be coming back slowly and the bruises are fading. Unfortunately I am led to believe that her life in recent times has not been . . . pleasant, although there are signs that at one time it may have been rather more . . . agreeable. After all, surely somebody must have cared for her to give her that wonderful ring she wears.’
Dodger didn’t need to know the precise code that passed between Mister Mayhew and his wife, but he could see that much of it consisted of meaningful looks from one to the other, and one of the messages was: Better not to talk about a valuable ring in front of this lad.
He said, ‘She gets worried when she hears carriages, does she? What about other street noises, like horses or honey wagons1 – they tend to rumble a lot?’
Mrs Mayhew said, ‘You are a very astute young man.’
Dodger blushed, and said, ‘I’m sorry, missus, but my best trousers are in the wash.’
Without any change of expression, Mrs Mayhew said, ‘No, Mister Dodger, I meant that you are very quick to understand things, and you are a man of the world, or should I say London, which is practically the same thing. I know that Mister Dickens is optimistic that you may be able to help us solve this little mystery.’ She exchanged another glance with her husband and said, ‘I assume you know that there was another most unpleasant aspect to this whole Satanic business.’ She hesitated, as if trying to move unpleasant thoughts in her mind, then said, ‘I believe you are aware that the young lady was . . . she was . . . she lost . . .’ Mrs Mayhew rushed out in embarrassed confusion, leaving the room suddenly silent.
Dodger glanced at Simplicity, and then said to Mister Mayhew, ‘Sir, if you do not object, I would very much like to talk to Simplicity alone. Possibly I can also help her eat her soup. I have a feeling she might be capable of talking a little to me again.’
‘Well, it would be unseemly to leave a young lady alone in a bedroom in your company.’
‘Yes, sir, and it’s unseemly to beat a lady half to death and try to drown her, but that wasn’t me, sir. So I think, sir, in the privacy of this house, you might allow the rule to be a little more . . . human?’
There was the sound of Mrs Mayhew hovering on the landing and Henry Mayhew, suddenly bewildered, stirred and said, ‘I will leave the door open, sir. If Miss Simplicity agrees.’
His words were instantly followed from the bed with the unmistakable tones of Simplicity, saying, ‘Please, sir, I would very much like to have a Christian word with my saviour.’
True to his word, Mister Mayhew did leave the door slightly ajar and so, awkwardly for once, Dodger sat down on the chair that Henry Mayhew’s wife had vacated and smiled nervously at Simplicity, who returned it with considerable interest. Then he picked up the soup spoon and handed it to her, saying, ‘What is it that you would like to happen next?’
Her smile broadening, Simplicity very gently took the spoon, put it to her mouth and drank the soup. Speaking quietly, she said, ‘I would like to say that I want to go home, but I have no home now. And I have to know who I can trust. Can I trust you, Dodger? I think I might be able to trust a man who has fought valiantly for a woman he doesn’t even know.’
Dodger tried to look as though this was all in a day’s work. ‘You know, I’m quite sure you can trust Mister and Mrs Mayhew,’ he said.
But much to his surprise, she said, ‘No, I’m not sure. Mister Mayhew would prefer that you and I were not talking, Dodger. He seems to think that you would take some kind of advantage of me and I believe the word for that is’ – she hesitated for a moment – ‘is incongruous! You saved me, you fought for me, and now you are going to do me harm? They are good people, no doubt, but good people, for example, might think that they should deliver me to the agents of my husband because I am his wife. People can be very exact about that sort of thing. And no doubt a man would turn up with something very official and signed with a very impressive seal, and they would obey the law. A law which would see me taken away from the country where my mother was born and back to a husband who is embarrassed by me and does not dare defy his father.’
Her voice grew stronger and stronger as she spoke but, Dodger suddenly realized, she was also sounding more and more like a street girl – someone who knew how to play a game. The slight Germanic accent had gone and the vowels of England were in her tone, and she was doing what every smart person did, which was to never tell anybody anything that they didn’t need to know.
But he could not place her accent. He knew about other languages, but as a decent Londoner he vaguely disapproved of them, knowing full well that anyone who wasn’t English was obviously an enemy sooner or later. You couldn’t hang around the docks without picking up, if not the languages, at least the sounds the languages made, and so if you listened carefully a Dutchman spoke differently from a German, and you could always tell a Swede, of course, and the Finns yawned at you when they were speaking to you. He was pin-sharp on telling one language from another, but had never bothered to learn any of them – though by the time he was twelve he knew the words that meant ‘Where are the naughty ladies to be found?’ in a variety of languages, including Chinese and several African ones. Every wharf rat knew those; and the naughty ladies might give you a farthing for setting a gentleman’s footsteps in the right direction. As he grew older he realized that some people would say that was, in fact, the wrong direction; there were two ways of looking at the world, but only one when you are starving.
There were sounds of stirring on the landing and he immediately stood up, spry as a guardsman and practically saluted a very surprised Mister Mayhew and his wife.
‘Well, sir, madam, I’ve had a nice little chat with the girl. As you say, she seems frightened by the sound of coaches. Perhaps if I could take her out for some air, she could see that the coaches which pass your house are just ordinary coaches . . .? And so, if you don’t mind, could I take her out for a walk?’
This caused such a silence that he realized this was probably not a sensible idea. As he thought this, he suddenly also thought, I’m talking to this gent like I’m his equal! It’s amazing how a shonky suit and a plate of bacon and eggs can make a man feel set up! But I’m still the lad who got up this morning as a tosher, and they’re still the gent and his missus who got up in this big house, so I need to be careful, else they’ll suddenly decide I’m a tosher again and chuck me out. He added to himself, though, in a voice that seemed quite daring, ‘I don’t have no master, nobody can give me orders, I ain’t wanted by the peelers and I ain’t never done nothing to be ashamed of. I ain’t got as much as them, oh my, not by a long chalk, but I am no worse than they are.’
Mrs Mayhew hesitated, and then said, very carefully, ‘Well, I am quite certain that sooner or later Simplicity must get out in the fresh air, so perhaps that could be arranged, Mister Dodger. But I am sure you will understand that it could only take place in the presence of a chaperone. You must see that leaving her just with a young man – however valiant he may be – is something that would be very much frowned upon in polite circles. We must be adamant in this respect, although, of course, I believe that your intentions are entirely innocent.’
Mister Mayhew looked as embarrassed as his wife, and Dodger, still trusting his luck, in his most ingratiating voice, said, ‘Well, dear Mrs Mayhew, I can promise you that there will not be any hanky-panky, because I do not know what panky is and I’ve never had a hanky. Only a wipe.’
For a moment her steely glare melted again and Mrs Mayhew said, ‘You are a very forward young man, Mister Dodger.’
‘I certainly hope so, Mrs Mayhew; indeed sometimes I think I am being pulled forward through no fault of my own. However, Mrs Mayhew, I am sure you will agree with me that being forward is better by far than being backward. And I believe I care for Miss Simplicity. I was thinking too that we all want to find the coves who beat her up, so if I walked about with her in the town she might see or hear something that could give me a clue. I know that the carriage she escaped from made a noise that I, for one, haven’t heard on a carriage wheel. So what I say is: Find the carriage, find a clue.’
Mister Mayhew looked at his wife and said, ‘You are commendably eloquent, Mister Dodger, but we – that is, my wife and myself – feel there could be other aspects to this situation.’
Dodger straightened up. ‘Yes, sir, I fear there may be, and I rather think so does Charlie. I don’t know what an eloquent is, but I do know London, sir, every dirty inch and where it’s safe to go and where it’s not safe to go. Everybody knows Dodger, sir, and Dodger knows everybody. So Dodger will find out what you want me to find out.’
‘Yes, Mister Dodger,’ Mrs Mayhew said. ‘I’m quite certain that is true, but my husband and I feel that we stand in loco parentis to this young lady, who appears to have no one else to care for her, and so the social niceties must be observed.’
Dodger, who didn’t know what a loco parentis was, shrugged and said, ‘Right you are, missus, but I will be passing this way again tomorrow just after lunch.’ He added, raising his voice a little, ‘In case anyone should change their mind.’
Mister Mayhew caught up with him just as he reached the kitchen and said, ‘My wife is a little highly strung right now, if you know what I mean.’
All that Dodger could find to say was, ‘No, I don’t,’ and like two gentlemen they left it at that, and he shook hands with Mister Mayhew and hurried through the kitchen door, his head still reeling with the way they seemed to let him speak out. Wait till he told Sol!
The cook did not look surprised when he came into the kitchen. She said, ‘Well, my lad, ain’t you the rising star, hob nobbing with your elders and betters! Good for you! I reckon what I see in front of me now is not just another tosher but a smart young man for whom the world is an opportunity.’ She handed him a greasy package, saying, ‘Money is tight here these days – things are a bit worrying all round, and of course you won’t know it but we got rid of the second maid. If things get any worse, I reckon Mrs Sharples will be next, no loss, and then I suspect that it will be me, although I can’t see my lady working down here. But I done you a package of leftovers – some cold potatoes and carrots, and a nice piece of pork.’
Dodger took the package, and said, ‘Thank you very much. I’m very grateful to you.’
This caused Mrs Quickly to throw her arms open in an attempt to cuddle him. ‘Spoken like a true gentleman. I couldn’t possibly expect a little kiss . . .?’ she asked hopefully.
And so Dodger kissed the cook – a rather pneumatic lady who kissed at some length – and when he was allowed to break free, she said, ‘When you rise up high, remember them as live lowly.’
1 Around about the time of Dodger, most sewerage in London went into septic tanks, or cesspits. The tanks were emptied out and the contents taken away by honey wagons.

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