“Nor I,” agreed the Carpenter, and they fell to discussing belly delights and the fine dishes their respective wives had cooked in the old days.
“I’ve gone three days and never broke my fast,” said the Carter.
“And I, five,” his companion added, turning gloomy with the memory of it. “Five days once, with nothing on my stomach but a bit of orange peel, an’ outraged nature wouldn’t stand it, sir, an’ I near died. Sometimes, walkin’ the streets at night, I’ve ben that desperate I’ve made up my mind to win the horse or lose the saddle. You know what I mean, sir—to commit some big robbery. But when mornin’ come, there was I, too weak from ‘unger an’ cold to ’arm a mouse.”
As their poor vitals warmed to the food, they began to expand and wax boastful, and to talk politics. I can only say that they talked politics as well as the average middle-class man, and a great deal better than some of the middle-class men I have heard. What surprised me was the hold they had on the world, its geography and peoples, and on recent and contemporaneous history. As I say, they were not fools, these two men. They were merely old, and their children had undutifully failed to grow up and give them a place by the fire.
One last incident, as I bade them good-bye on the corner, happy with a couple of shillings in their pockets and the certain prospect of a bed for the night. Lighting a cigarette, I was about to throw away the burning match when the Carter reached for it. I proffered him the box, but he said, “Never mind, won’t waste it, sir.” And while he lighted the cigarette I had given him, the Carpenter hurried with the filling of his pipe in order to have a go at the same match.
“It’s wrong to waste,” said he.
“Yes,” I said, but I was thinking of the wash-board ribs over which I had run my hand.
First of all, I must beg forgiveness of my body for the vileness through which I have dragged it, and forgiveness of my stomach for the vileness which I have thrust into it. I have been to the spike, and slept in the spike, and eaten in the spike; also, I have run away from the spike.
After my two unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the Whitechapel casual ward, I started early, and joined the desolate line before three o’clock in the afternoon. They did not “let in” till six, but at that early hour I was number twenty, while the news had gone forth that only twenty-two were to be admitted. By four o’clock there were thirty-four in line, the last ten hanging on in the slender hope of getting in by some kind of a miracle. Many more came, looked at the line, and went away, wise to the bitter fact that the spike would be “full up.”