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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter I. Grif Relates Some of His Experiences

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Chapter I. Grif Relates Some of His Experiences.

In one of the most thickly-populated parts of Melbourne city, where poverty and vice struggle for breathing-space, and where narrow lanes and filthy thoroughfares jostle each other, savagely, there stands, surrounded by a hundred miserable hovels, a gloomy house, which might be likened to a sullen tyrant, frowning down a crowd of abject, poverty-stricken slaves. From its appearance, it might have been built a century ago: decay and rottenness were apparent from roof to base: but in reality, it was barely a dozen years old. It had lived a wicked and depraved life had this house, which might account for its premature decay. It looked like a hoary old sinner, and in every wrinkle of its weatherboard casing was hidden a story which would make respectability shudder. There are, in every large city, dilapidated or decayed houses of this description, which we avoid, and pass by quickly, as we do drunken men in the streets.

In one of the apartments of this house, on a dismally wet night, were two inmates, crouched before a fire as miserable as the night. Down the rickety chimney page 2 the wind whistled as if in mockery, and the rain-drops fell upon the embers, hissing damp misery into the eyes of the two human beings, who sat before the fire, bearing their burden quietly, if not patiently.

They were a strange couple. The one, a fair young girl, with a face so mild and sweet, that the beholder, looking upon it when in repose, felt gladdened by the sight. A sweet, fair young face; a face to love. A look of sadness was in her dark brown eyes, and on the fringes, which half veiled their beauty, were traces of tears. The other, a stunted, ragged boy; with pockmarked face; with bold and brazen eyes; with a vicious smile too often playing about his lips. His hand was supporting his cheek; hers was lying idly upon her knee. The fitful glare of the scanty fire threw light upon both: and to look upon the one, so small and white, with the blue veins so delicately traced; and upon the other, so rough and horny, with every sinew speaking of muscular strength; made one wonder by what mystery of life the two had come into companionship. That the present was no chance meeting, and that there existed a freemasonry between them, were proven by his sidling close to her, and peering up at her face for a few moments, in silence. That he met with no responsive look evidently troubled him, as was shewn by the unquiet glances he threw at her, furtively. He shifted himself uneasily upon his seat, and presently asked,

“Wot are yer thinkin' of, Ally?”

“I am thinking of my life,” she answered, dreamily, without raising her eyes; “I am trying to see the end of it.”

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“Wot's the use of botherin'?” the boy exclaimed. “Thinkin' won't alter it.”

“So it seems,” she said, sadly; “my head aches with the whirl.”

“You oughtn't to be un'appy, Ally,” the boy said; “You're wery good-looking and wery young.”

“Yes, I am very young,” she sighed. “How old are you, Grif?”

“Blest if I know,” Grif replied, with a grin. “I aint agoin' to bother. I'm old enough, I am!”

“Do you remember your father, Grif?” she asked.

“Don't I?” responded Grif. “He wos a rum un, he wos. Usen't he to wollop us, neither!”

And, lost in the recollection, Grif rubbed his back, sympathetically.

“And your mother?” asked the girl.

“Never seed her,” he replied, shortly.

And thereafter they fell into silence for a while. But the boy's memory had been stirred by her questions, and he presently spoke again:

“You see, Ally,” he said; “father wos a old ‘and, and a horfle bad un he wos. He wos worse nor me—oh, ever so much; but then of course,” he added, apologetically, “he was a sight older, and he used to lush—my eye! he could lush, could father! Well, wen he wos pretty well screwed, he used to lay into us, Dick and me, and kick us out of the 'ouse. Then Dick and me used to fight, for Dick wanted to lay in to me too, and I wosn't goin' to stand that. We never got nothin' to eat unless we took it. And one day I wos trotted up afore the beak, for takin' a pie out of a confetchoner's. They didn't get the pie, page 4 though; I eat that. The beak he guv me a week for that pie, and wosn't I precious pleased at it! I wos sorry when they turned me out, for all that week I got enough to eat and drink. I arksed the cove to let me stop in another week, so that I might be reformed, as the beak sed, but he only larfed at me, and turned me out. Wen I got home, father, he ses, ‘Where 'ave you bin, Grif?’ And I tells him, I've bin to quod. ‘Wot for?’ he arks. ‘For taking a pie,’ I ses. Blest if I didn't get the worst wollopin' I ever 'ad! ‘You've bin and disgraced yer family,’ he sed; ‘git out of my sight, you warmint; I wos never in quod for stealin' a pie!’ And with that he shies a bottle at my 'ed. I caught it, but there was nothin' in it! I wos wery savage for that wollopin'! Wot's disgrace to one's family, thinks I, wen a cove wants grub! I was awful 'ungry, as well as savage; so I makes for the confetchoner's, and takes another pie. I bolted the pie quick, for I knew they would be down on me; and I was trotted up afore the beak agin, and he guv me a month. Wosn't I jolly glad! Wen I cum out of quod, father had cut off to the diggins; and as I wanted to git into quod agin, I went to the confetchoner's, and took another pie. The beak, wosn't he flabbergasted! ‘Wot!’ he ses, ‘'ave you bin and stole another pie!’ and then he looks so puzzled that I couldn't help larfin'. ‘Wot do you go and do it for?’ ses he. ‘Cos I'm 'ungry, your Washup,’ ses I. I was five times in quod for takin' pies out of that confetchoner's shop. Next time I was nabbed, though. The missus of the shop, she knew I wos jist cum out of quod, so she 'ides herself behind the door; and wen I bolts in to git page 5 my pie, she cums out quick, and ketches ‘old of me by the scruff. “You little warmint,’ she ses; ‘you sha'n't wear my life out in this 'ere way; 'ere's a pie for you:’ and she 'olds out a big un. Well, you see, I wos puzzled. ‘If I take yer pie, missus,’ I ses, 'will you let me sleep under the counter? ‘Wot do yer mean?’ she ses. Then I tells her that it's no use her givin' me a pie, for I 'adn't no place to sleep in; and that she'd better let me take one and give me in charge, for then I should 'ave a blanket at the lock-up. She wosn't a bad un, by no manner of means. ‘'Ere, my pore boy,’ she ses; ‘’ere's a pie, and 'ere's a shillin'. Don't steal no more pies, or you'll break my 'art. You shall 'ave a shillin' a-week if you'll promise not to worry me, and wenever you want a pie I'll giv you one if you arks for it.’ I don't arks her often,” said Grif; “wen I'm wery 'ungry I go to the shop. She's a good old sort, she is; and I gets my shillin' a-week reglar.”

“And have you not heard of your father since he went away?” asked the girl.

“No; 'cept that I wos told permiskusly that he wos cuttin' some rum capers up the country. They do say he wos a bushranger, but I aint agoin' to bother. I wos brought up wery queer, I wos; not like other coves. Father he never giv us no eddication; p'raps he didn't 'ave none to give. But he might have giv us grub when we wanted it.”

“Yours is a hard life, Grif,” the girl said, pityingly.

“Yes, it is 'ard,” the boy assented; “precious 'ard, specially wen a cove can't get enough to eat. But I s'pose its all right. Wot's the use of botherin'? I page 6 wonder,” he continued, musingly, “where the rich coves gets all their money from? If I wos a swell, and 'ad lots of tin, I'd give a pore chap like me a bob now and then. But they're horfle stingy, Ally, is the swells; they don't giv nothin' away for nothin'. Wen I was in quod, a preacher chap comes and preaches to me. He sets 'isself down upon the bench, and reads somethin' out of a book—a bible, you know—and arfter he'd preached for 'arf a hour, he ses, ‘Wot do yer think of that, 'nighted boy?’ ‘It's wery good,’ I ses; ‘but I can't eat it.’ ‘Put yer trust above,’ he ses. ‘But s'pose all the grub is down 'ere,’ ses I; ‘I can't go up there and fetch it.’ Then he groans, and tells me a story about a hinfant who was found in the bullrushes, arfter it 'ad bin deserted, and I ups and tells him that I've been deserted, and wy don't somebody come and take me out of the bullrushes! Wosn't he puzzled, neither.” Grif chuckled, and then encouraged by his companion's silence, he resumed—

“He cum agin, did the preacher cove, afore I was let out, and he preaches a preach about charity. ‘Don't you steal no more,’ he ses, ‘or yer sole 'll go to morchal perdition. Men is charitable and good; jist you try 'em, and give up your evil corses.’ So wen I gets out of quod, ses I to myself, I'll jist try if the preacher cove is right. I waited till I was 'ungry, and couldn't get nothin' to eat, without stealin' it. I could 'ave took a trotter, for the trotter man was a drinkin' at a bar, and his barsket wos on a bench; but I wouldn't. No; I goes straight to the swell streets, and there I sees the swells a walkin' up and down, and liftin' their 'ats, and smilin' at the gals. I didn't 'ave courage at first to speak to 'em, but wen page 7 I did, send I may live! they started back as if I wos a mad dawg. You be awf, they ses, or you'll be guv in charge. Wot could a poor beggar like me do, arfter that? I dodged about, wery sorry I didn't take that trotter, wen who should I see cumin' along but the preacher chap. ‘'Ere's a slant!’ ses I to myself. He 'ad a lady on 'is arm, and they both looked wery grand. But wen I went up to him he starts back too, and ses, ‘Begawn, young repererbate!’ Wen I heerd that, I sed, Charity be blowed! and I goes and finds out the trotter-man, and takes two trotters, and no one knows nothin' about it.”

Before he had finished his story, the girl's thoughts had wandered again. A heavy step in the adjoining apartment roused her.

“Who is that?” she asked.

“That's Jim Pizey's foot,” replied the boy; “they're up to some deep game, they are. They wos at it last night.”

“Did you hear them talking about it, Grif?” she asked, earnestly.

“I did and I didn't,” Grif replied. “I wos arf asleep, while they wos whisperin'. It's somethin' precious deep and dangerous, I know that; for Jim Pizey he ses, ‘We can all make our fortunes, mates, in three months, if we're game. It'll be a jolly life, and I know all the moves,’ ses he. Then I falls off in a doze, and presently I 'ears 'em talkin' agin, betweenwhiles, like. Jim Pizey he does most of the jaw. ‘We can stick up the escort in the Black Forest,’ he ses, ‘and we don't want to do nothin' more, all our lives.’ He's a rum un is Jim, and he never page 8 ses nothin' unless he means it. But I say, Ally,” the boy said, suddenly, “you won't peach, will you? I should git my neck broke if they wos to know that I blabbed.”

“Don't fear me, Grif,” said the girl. “Who were there?”

“There wos Jim Pizey, and Ned Rutt, and Black Sam, and the Tenderhearted Oysterman, and”——but here Grif stopped, suddenly.

“Who else, Grif?” asked the girl, laying her hand upon his arm.

“I was considerin', Ally,” the boy replied, casting a furtive look at her white face, “if there wos anybody else. I wos arf asleep, you know.”

“Was my—my husband there, Grif?” she inquired, in a voice of pain.

“Yes, he wos there,” the boy returned, reluctantly. I say, Ally, wy don't yer cut away from 'im? What do you stop 'ere for?”

“Hush!” she said. “Was he speaking with them about this?”

“No, he wos wery quiet. They wos a tryin' to persuade him to join 'em; but he wouldn't agree. They giv him lots of lush, too, and you know, Ally, he can”——but Grif pulled himself up short, dismayed and remorseful, for his companion had broken into a passionate fit of weeping.

“I didn't mean to do it, Ally,” he said, sorrowfully. “Don't take on so. I'll never say it agin. I'm a hignorant beast, that's wot I am!” he exclaimed, digging his knuckles into his eyes. “I'm always a puttin' my foot in it.”

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“Never mind, Grif,” said the girl, sobbing. “Go on. Tell me all you heard. I must know. Oh, my heart! my heart!” and her tears fell thick and fast upon his hand.

He waited until she had somewhat recovered herself, and then proceeded very slowly.

“They wos a tryin' to persuade 'im to join 'em. They tried all sorts of dodges, but they wos all no go. The Tenderhearted Oysterman, he ses, he's a soft-hearted cove, and wouldn't 'urt a fly, and if he thort there wos any wiolence agoin' to be done, he wouldn't be the man to 'ave a 'and in it. But they couldn't get him to say Yes; and at last Jim Pizey he gets up in a horfle scot, and he ses, 'Look 'ere, mate, we've bin and let you in this 'ere scheme, and we arn't agoin' to 'ave it blown upon. You make up yer mind wery soon to jine us, or it'll be worse for you’.”

“And my husband”——

“I didn't 'ear nothin' more. I fell right off asleep, and when I woke up they wos gone.”

“Grif,” said the girl, “he must not join in this plot. I must keep him from crime. He has been unfortunate—led away by bad companions.”

“Yes,” put in Grif, “we're a precious bad lot, we are.”

“But his heart is good, Grif,” she continued.

“Wot does he mean by treatin' you like this, then?” interrupted Grif, indignantly. “You've got no business 'ere, you 'avent. You ought to 'ave a 'ouse of yer own, you ought.”

“I can't explain; you would not understand,” she page 10 said. “Enough that he is my husband; it is sufficient that my lot is linked with his; it is sufficient that, through poverty and disgrace, I must be by his side. I can never desert him while I have life. God grant that I may save him yet!”

The boy was hushed into silence by her solemn earnestness.

“He is weak, Grif, and we are poor. It was otherwise once. Those who should assist us will not do so, unless I break the holiest tie—and so we must suffer together.”

“I don't see why you should suffer,” said Grif, doggedly; “you don't deserve to suffer, you don't.”

“Did you ever have a friend, my poor Grif,” the girl said, “whom you loved, and for whose sake you would have sacrificed even the little sweets of life you have enjoyed?”

Grif considered a moment, and then shook his head.

“Yet it is so with me,” she continued; “I love him, and would give up all my hopes to keep him good. Yes, I love him” if I were parted from him, my life would be a living funeral.”

“I had a dawg once,” Grif said, musingly; “he wosn't much to look at, but he was wery fond of me. Rough was 'is name. Lord! the games we used to 'ave together, me and Rough! He was a teazer, he wos. Poor old Rough! One day a cove was agoin' to make a rush at me, and Rough he pounces in, and nips a piece out of the carf of 'is leg. It was the Tenderhearted Oysterman who wanted to maul me. Wosn't he savage, and didn't he squeal! I was lyin' asleep in. a barrel, page 11 that night, wen I wos woke up with a scratchin'. Wen I crawled out, there was poor Rough a dyin'. He'd been pizened out of spite by the Tenderhearted Oysterman. Rough, he shoves 'is nose into my 'and, and he stretches 'isself out. It was rainin' 'ard, and I was shiverin' cold, but wen I was certain Rough was dead, I took 'im up in my arms, and carried 'im to a churchyard, and berried 'im. Then I ses, good bye, Rough——i can't 'elp it, Ally,” the boy said, bursting into a fit of tears, “he wos a wery good friend to me, wos Rough, though he wos only a dawg.”

The girl laid her hand upon Grif's head, and looked pityingly at him. As their eyes met, a tender expression stole into his face, and rested there.

“I'm wery sorry for you, Ally,” he said. “I wish I could do somethin' to make you 'appy. It doesn't much matter for a poor beggar like me. We wos always a bad lot, wos father, and Dick, and me. But you—look 'ere, Ally!” he exclaimed, energetically. “If ever you want me to do anythin'—never mind wot it is, so long as I know I'm a doin' of it for you; I'll do it, true and faithful, I will, so 'elp me”——Her hand upon his lips checked the oath he was about to utter. He seized the hand, and placed it over his eyes, and leant his cheek against it, as if it brought balm and comfort to him; as indeed it did. “You b'lieve me, Ally, don't you?” he continued. “I don't want you to say nothin' more than if ever I can do somethin' for you, you'll let me do it.”

“I will, Grif, and I do believe you,” she replied. “God help me, my poor boy, you are my only friend.”

“That's it!” he exclaimed, triumphantly. “That's wot I am, till I die!”