Screeving.—An old song.—Mr. Ford’s client.—The penny gaff.—Jan runs away.
There was a large crowd, but large crowds gather quickly in London from small causes. It was in an out-of-the-way spot too, and the police had not yet tried to disperse it.
The crowd was gathered round a street-artist who was “screeving,” or drawing pictures on the pavement in colored chalks. A good many men have followed the trade in London with some success, but this artist was a wan, meagre-looking child. It was Jan. He drew with extraordinary rapidity; not with the rapidity of slovenliness, but with the rapidity of a genius in the choice of what Ruskin calls “fateful lines.” At his back stood the hunchback, who “pattered” in description of the drawings as glibly as he used to “puff” his own wares as a Cheap Jack.
“Cats on the roof of a ’ouse. Look at ’em, ladies and gentlemen; and from their harched backs to their tails and whiskers, and the moon a-shining in the sky, you’ll say they’re as natteral as life. Bo-serve the fierceness in the eye of that black Tom. The one that’s a-coming round the chimney-pot is a Sandy; yellow ochre in the body, and the markings in red. There isn’t a harpist living could do ’em better, though I says it that’s the lad’s father.”
The cats were very popular, and so were the Prize Pig, Playful Porkers, Sow and her Little Ones, as exhibited by the Cheap Jack. But the prime favorite was “The Faithful Friend,” consisting of sketches of Rufus in various attitudes, including a last sleep on the grave of a supposititious master, which Jan drew with a heart that ached as if it must break.
It was growing dark, but the exhibition had been so successful that day, and the crowd was still so large, that the hunchback was loath to desist. At a sign from him, Jan put his colored chalks into a little pouch in front of him, and drew in powerful chiaroscuro with soft black chalk and whitening. These sketches were visible for some time, and the interest of the crowd did not abate.
Suddenly a flush came over Jan’s wan cheeks. A baker who had paused for a moment to look, and then passed on, was singing as he went, and the song and the man’s accent were both familiar to Jan.
“The swallow twitters
on the barn,
The rook is cawing on the tree,
And in the wood the ring-dove coos” —
“What’s your name, boy?”
The peremptory tone of the question turned Jan’s attention from the song, which died away down the street, and looking up he met a pair of eyes as black as his own, and Mr. Ford’s client repeated his question. On seeing that a “swell” had paused to look, the Cheap Jack hurried to Jan’s side, and was in time to answer.
“John Smith’s his name, sir. He’s slow of speech, my lord, though very quick with his pencil. There’s not many artists can beat him, though I says it that shouldn’t, being his father.”