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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter VI. Grif is Set up in Life as a Moral Shoeblack

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Chapter VI. Grif is Set up in Life as a Moral Shoeblack.

Grif, although but a poor and humble member of the human family, was as gregariously inclined as the rest of his species, and loved, when opportunity offered, to associate with his fellows. The circumstance of birth had placed him upon the lowest rung of the social ladder, and being grovelling by nature, he had no thought of striving upwards, and was always prowling about, like a hungry dog searching for a bone. Being gregariously inclined, he was to be depended upon as an item in a mob. The object of a gathering of people was not a thing to be considered—politics, religion, amusement, were all one to him. If he but chanced to come across a throng, he added one more to the number, from sheer force of habit. Thus, he was a passive auditor of street preachers of every denomination, and, being in the habit of standing quite still, with his hands in his pockets, and his mouth open, he grew to be looked upon as a godsend by the orators, who spoke at him, and scoffed at him, and humbled him, and hurled anathemas upon his head, as representing a class entirely devoid of godliness. They twisted his moral nature, and picked at it, and pulled it to pieces, and grew eloquent upon it. They said—Look at his rags, look at his dirt, look at the ignorance written in his countenance. They told him to repent if e wished to be saved from damnation; and they prayed for him, and wept for him so earnestly, that sometimes he experienced page 62 a dull wonder that the earth did not open and swallow him, he felt so utterly and thoroughly bad. And yet, with an unconscious exercise of philosophy, he bore his lot uncomplainingly, and walked in the gutter (not feeling himself good enough to indulge in the pavement) without a murmur. Grif did not object to gutters; he had formed their acquaintance in his earliest infancy, and time and association; had almost endeared them to him. Everything in the world is comparative; pleasure, pain, success, disappointment, act in different ways upon different people: the effect depends upon constitution and education. So dirt and cleanliness are differently regarded by different classes of society. To a well-regulated mind the spectacle of Grif walking in a narrow street, and picking his steps carefully along the gutter, would have caused a sensation of wondering disgust; and a pair of well-polished wellington boots might naturally have objected to come into contact with the dirty broken bluchers in which Grif's feet slipped-slopped constantly. But, in the eyes of Grif, dirty boots were no disgrace; he felt not the shame of them. From the moment he came into possession of a second-hand pair (he had never known the respectable bliss of a new tight-fitting boot, pressing on corn or bunion), they were dragged down to his own level, and forfeited their position in society. They may have been occasionally scraped, but they were never polished; and so they lost their respectability, and became depraved and degraded, and their seams and sole were eaten into with mud and dirt, until they gave up the ghost in the boot world, and trod the earth no more.

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Grif's mind was disturbed, as might be gathered from his mutterings. “I dessay she's right,” he muttered; “it's wrong to steal, she ses; but wot's a cove to do? Git a sitiwation. That's all wery good, but who'd 'ave me?” and he looked down upon his boots, not with disgust, but with distrust, and stepped out of the gutter on to the pavement. “I don't want to steal; I only wants my grub and a blanket. If any swell 'd give 'em to me, it 'd be all right. But where's the swell? Where am I to find 'im? She ses I might git a billet as a errand boy. I wonder if any of the shops 'd 'ave me! I'll try at all ewents. I promised 'er I would, and I ain't agoin' to deceive 'er!”

But Grif was not to be successful. He walked into scores of shops and places of business with the timid yet half defiant inquiry, “Do yer want a errand boy?” and was sometimes roughly, sometimes ignominiously, turned out. He was not a savoury-looking boy, and did not bear upon his outward appearance any recommendation to the situation he was soliciting. His boots were muddy, his clothes were ragged, his skin was dirty, his hair was matted. He did not add another word to the query, “Do yer want a errand boy?” and he did not at all take it in bad part that he was treated with contumely. Indeed, if such a state of mind can be conceived, he was absolutely exultant at each rebuff. “I told 'er so,” he would mutter to himself, triumphantly; “who'd 'ave anythin' to do with a beggar like me? But I promised 'er I'd try, and I ain't agoin' to deceive her.” Once or twice he was surlily spoken to by the policemen. Readers who page 64 are not acquainted with colonial life, must not suppose that the police, or that other “institutions,” differ in any essential in the colonies from those of other older countries. The colonies are certainly new, but they do not commence their career at the year One, but at the year Eighteen Hundred and Odd. There is just about the same comparative amount of vice and virtue, goodness and wickedness, ruffianism and kind-heartedness, as is to be met with in any other part of the world. Those who say otherwise, and cause others to think otherwise, are in the wrong. There are in the colonies just as much unkindness and uncharitableness, just as much charity and benevolence, just as much ignorance, just as much noble-mindedness, as can be found amongst masses of human creatures anywhere. It is true that men get into false positions oftener than in the old country, but that is scarcely to be wondered at. Those readers will therefore please not to wonder that Grif should be looked upon in precisely the same light as he would be looked upon if he was prowling about London streets. To the Melbourne constable, he was just what a ragged pilfering boy would be to a London constable. It did not much affect him. He was accustomed to be buffeted, and cuffed, and maltreated. The world had given him nothing but hard knocks since his birth, and he took them without murmuring. He grinned and dodged about when the conservators of public peace spoke harshly to him. But he had a promise to perform; and he had resolved to perform it conscientiously. So it happened that he stood at the door of the great place of business of Mr. Zachariah Blemish, with the intention of asking for page 65 the situation of an errand boy. The green baize folding doors somewhat daunted him; but, hesitating for one moment only, he pushed them open and entered. It chanced that, exactly upon his entrance, Zachariah Blemish came out of his own particular private room for the purpose of putting a question to one of his clerks, and that the great Blemish and the small Grif stood face to face. It was a marvellous contrast. The great Blemish, clean and polished, smooth-shaved and glossy; the small Grif, dirty and ragged, with the incipient stubble of manhood upon his chin and cheeks. For Nature is impartial in her supply of beard and whiskers. Money will not buy them, nor will grease produce them, though it be puffed and perfumed. The rich great Blemish, then, looked down upon the poor little Grif. For a moment, the great man's breath was taken away at the sight. In his counting-house, sanctified by the visits of Members of Parliament, of Ministers, and of merchants of the highest standing; in sight of his books, wherein were entered records of transactions amounting to thousands of pounds; the appearance of a ragged boy, and such a ragged boy, was, to speak of it in the mildest terms, an anomaly.

“What do you do here?” asked Blemish.

“Do yer want a errand boy?” asked Grif, in return.

“A what?” enquired Blemish, sharply.

“A errand boy,” replied Grif, calmly.

At this juncture, a policeman, who had watched Grif enter the office, and who was sycophantishly disposed to protect the interests of wealth and position, popped his head in at the door, and touching his hat, begged Mr. page 66 Blemish's pardon, but the boy was a thief, and he thought he was up to no good.

“Umph!” said Mr. Blemish. “He looks like it. But thank you, policeman,” this with a stately affability; “I do not think you will be wanted.”

Whereupon the policeman touched his hat again, and vanished.

“Come this way,” said Mr. Blemish to Grif, who, considerably astonished that he had not been given into custody, followed the great man into his private room. There he found himself in the presence of two other gentlemen, Mr. Mathew Nuttall, and Mr. David Dibbs.

“Now then,” said Mr. Blemish, when Grif had disposed himself before the great merchant like a criminal; “what do you mean by coming into my place of business?”

“I wants a sitiwation as a errand boy,” replied Grif.

“The policeman says you are a thief,” interrogated Mr. Blemish; “what do you say to that?”

“Nothin',” replied Grif, shortly.

“You are a thief, then?”

“When I can't get nothin' to eat for nothin', I takes it,” returned Grif, uncompromisingly; “I ain't a-goin' to starve.”

“Starve!” exclaimed Mr. Blemish, lifting up his hands in pious wonderment. “Starve! In this land of plenty!”

“It ain't a land of plent to me; I wish it wos.”

“Really,” observed Mr. Blemish, to surrounding space, “the unblushing manner in which such ragamuffins as this gives the lie to political economists, is positively frightful. Do you believe in statistics, boy?”

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“I don't believe in nothin',” said Grif.

“Did you expect a situation here?” inquired Mr. Blemish, looking down upon the lad, as if wondering what business he had in the world.


“Why did you come then?”

“I promised 'er to try, though I told 'er it wosn't no use.”

“Who is ‘her?’” inquired one of the gentlemen.

Grif gave a great start at the voice, and threw a sudden sharp look at the questioner's face.

“Who is ‘her’?” repeated the gentleman.

“She's a lady, that's wot she is.”

“Upon my word,” remarked Mr. Blemish, blandly, “I did not know that vagabonds like you associated with ladies. This boy is evidently an original.”

“Don't you call no names,” said Grif. “If you don't want a errand boy, say so, and send me away.”

“Better and better,” observed Mr. Blemish, composedly. “Now, this is something in my way, although I am not aware that I have met with such a character before to-day. Why did you start when this gentleman spoke to you?”

“I thort I knew 'is woice,” returned Grif.

“And do you know it? Have you had the pleasure of this gentleman's acquaintance?” this said so pleasantly that both the gentlemen smiled.

“Never seed the genelmen afore, as I knows on,” said Grif, evasively.

“What do you do for a living?” asked Mr. Blemish.

“Nothin' particerler.”

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“And you find it very hard work, I have no doubt,” observed the gentleman who had spoken before.

“Yes, I do; wery 'ard, “replied Grif, literally, with another sharp look at the speaker; and then, with sudden exasperation, he exclaimed, “Wot's the use of badgerin' me? You ain't agoin' to do nothin' for me. Why don't you let me go?”

“Come,” said Mr. David Dibbs, who had, up to this time, taken no part in the dialogue, “I tell you what it is, young feller. You keep a civil tonguo in your head, or I'll commit you on the spot. I'm a magistrate, that's what I am, and I'll give you a month as sure as eggs is eggs, if you don't mind what you're up to.”

“I don't care!” responded Grif, recklessly; “I ain't agoin' to be badgered.”

“You don't care!” exclaimed Mr. David Dibbs, turning as red as a turkey-cock. “Send for the policeman, Blemish. I'll have him put in gaol, and flogged! Is a magistrate to be sauced in this here way?”

“Nay, nay, Mr Dibbs,” said Mr. Blemish, soothingly; “you have every right to be angry, but let me deal with the boy, I beg. Now, suppose,” he said, addressing Grif, impressively, “suppose I were to take it into my head (I haven't any such idea, mind you) to give you a situation as errand boy, what remuneration would you require in return?”

“Wot wot?” asked Grif?

“What remuneration—what salary—how much a week would you expect?”

“I don't expect nothin' a week,” answered Grif; “I page 69 only wants my grub and a blanket. But if yer ain't got no sich idea, wot's the good of keeping me 'ere?”

“Of course you know nothing of religion?”

“I've been preached to,” responded Grif, “till I'm sick of it.”

“This boy interests me,” remarked Mr. Blemish, speaking to society in general; “I should like to make an experiment with him. Who knows but that we might save his soul!”

“You can't do that,” said Grif, moodily.

“Can't save your soul!”

“No; preacher chap sed it 'd go to morchel perdition; and I s'pose he knows.”

Mr. Blemish raised his eyes to the ceiling, and an expression of sublime pity stole over his countenance. Grif edged closer to the door, as if anxious to be dismissed.

“This is a spectacle for humanity,” said Mr. Blemish, waving his hands to the walls, as if inviting the attention of the world to his remarks. “This is a new specimen of the species, Man. Shall we let it go, or shall we reform it? What is our duty? It has eyes, it has speech, it has hands, and it walks like a biped. I am amazed!”

“What are you amazed at?” inquired Mr. David Dibbs. “I've seen hundreds of boys like this here one—he ain't any different to the rest. They're a bad, wicious lot.”

Grif assented to the last remark by a nod.

“You may have seen hundreds of boys like this one, but I do not think—I really do not think—that I have page 70 ever seen one so bad. But our duty is clear. Listen to me”—this to Grif, with a forefinger warningly held up; “I am going to give you a chance of reforming.”

“All right; I'm agreeable,” said Grif, in a tone that betokened utter indifference of the matter.

“In my capacity as President of the Moral Boot Blacking Boys' Reformatory, I will provide you with a boot stand, a set of brushes, and a pot of the best blacking. You can polish boots.”

“I've only got to rub at 'em, I s'pose,” said Grif, wishing his own feet, with their dirty bluchers, would fly off his legs.

“You can take up your stand at once. What do you say? Are you willing to be honest?”

“I'm willin' enough,” replied Grif; “I only wants my grub and a blanket. It don't matter to me how I gets 'em, so long as I do get 'em.”

“Very well,” and Mr. Blemish touched the bell, which on the instant brought a clerk, to whom he gave instructions. “Go with this young man, and he will provide you with everything that is necessary, and come to-night to the meeting of the Moral Boot Blacking Boys' Reformatory. Do you know why it is called the Moral Boot Blacking Boys' Reformatory?”


“Because all the boys are moral. If they are not moral when they are admitted, they are made moral. So mind that you're moral. The more moral you are, the better you will get on.”

“I'll be wery moral, I will,” promised Grif.

“Now you can go; I shall keep my eye on you, and page 71 watch how you conduct yourself;” and then Mr. Blemish straightened himself, and swelled and puffed, as who should say, “I have done a noble and a moral action, and now I can transact my business with an easy conscience.”

Grif, finding himself set up in life as a moral shoeblack, felt uncomfortably strange as he stood behind his stand in one of the Melbourne streets. He had been provided with a set of brushes, and a pot of the best blacking, and the look with which he surveyed his stock-in-trade was a very puzzled one. For an hour no customer came. Thinking that the state of his own boots was not a recommendation to business, he set to work brushing and polishing them up. It is amazing what a difference a well-polished pair of boots makes in one's appearance. As he surveyed his shining leathers, Grif felt that an important change had taken place in his prospects. He was already a respectable member of society. But still no customer came. He was a shrewd lad, and, thinking to tempt the passers-by, he took off his boots, and placed them upon his stand, and courted custom with bare feet. In vain. Most of those who passed took no heed of him; a few looked at him, and smiled—some in pity, some in derision. It was like standing in the pillory. He turned hot and cold, and flushed and paled, by turns. In truth, it was no enviable task for Grif, who had been a Bedouin of the bye-ways all his life, to stand stock-still, as if proclaiming that he was ashamed of his past life, and begged to be admitted into the ranks of honest respectability. Besides, he was hungry, and gnawing sensations within made him restless page 72 and unhappy. But Grif behaved bravely. He did not flinch from his post. Presently an incident occurred. Two men, whom he recognised at once as Jim Pizey and the Tenderhearted Oysterman, stopped before him.

“May I be poisoned,” said Jim to his companion, surveying Grif with a scornful look; “if the young prigain't turned respectable.”

Grif was so indignant at the imputation that he was about to deny it, when Jim Pizey spoke again.

“And how much, sir,” he asked, “would you charge to clean my boots?”


“And my mate's?”


“Strike me dumb!” exclaimed the Tenderhearted Oysterman, as if possessed with a sudden idea. “Will you take sixpence for cleaning the two pair?”

Grif, wishing to begin business, said, “Yes.”

“Well, fire away, then,” said the Tenderhearted Oysterman, putting up his foot; “and shine 'em up well, or we'll give you in charge for keeping a bootstand under false pretences.”

Thus exhorted, Grif brushed and spat, and spat and brushed, until the men could look down and see their villainous faces reflected in their boots. The job being done—

“Strike me deaf!” exclaimed the Tenderhearted Oys-Oysterman, feeling in his pockets. “I haven't got a mag about me. Ask me for the tanner the next time you see me,”

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“Jist you stump up now!” cried Grif, almost crying with vexation, “or it'll be worse for yer.”

“Strike me blind!” exclaimed the Tenderhearted Oysterman. “If the young prigain't getting bumptious.”

Here he gave the stand a kick, and sent the blackingbottle, the brushes, and Grif's boots, rolling in the gutter, and, while Grif was busy picking them up, the two worthies slunk off, laughing.

This was not an encouraging beginning, and dark doubts entered Grif's mind as to whether he really had made a change for the better.

“Wot's the use of bein' moral,” he grumbled, as he re-arranged his stand, “if this is the way I'm served? I'm precious 'ungry. I wish I was near the confechoner's. I'd go and arks for a pie. But I'll see it out. I promised Ally I would, and I will. Hallo! what do you want?”

This was addressed to a boy, if possible dirtier and more ragged than Grif himself. Indeed, dirt and this boy had become so inseparable that he was known by the simple but expressive name of Dirty Bob. Now, Dirty Bob had seen Grif take up his stand, and had disdainfully watched him wait for customers. In Dirty Bob's eyes, Grif was a renegade, a sneak, for setting up as a shoeblack. And he determined to show his disdain in his own particular way. He possessed only one sixpence in the world, but this he resolved to spend luxuriously.

“Oh, it's you, Dirty Bob, is it?” said Grif.

“Yes, it's me,” responded Dirty Bob, loftily.

“Wot do yer want?” asked Grif.

“Wot do I want?” echoed Dirty Bob. “Wy, you're a bootblack, ain't yer?”

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” Yes,” replied Grif, with dignity. “I'm a moral shoeblack now.”

“Ho! crikey!” exclaimed Dirty Bob. “Wot do yer call yerself?”

“I'm a moral shoeblack,” repeated Grif, feeling some what shamefaced.

“Ere's a go!” cried Dirty Bob. “A moral shoeblack, are yer? Well, then, clean my boots, and mind yer clean 'em morally; “and he flopped upon the stand a foot encased in a boot in the very last stage of decay.

In Grif's eyes, this was a humiliation, and he felt half inclined to pitch into Dirty Bob; but the thought that by so doing he might injure his character as a moral shoeblack, restrained him.

“Now then,” exclaimed Dirty Bob; “wot are yer waitin' for? Clean my boots, d'yer 'ear! Wot are yer blockin' up the street for if yer won't clean a genelman's boots when yer told?”

“Where's yer tanner?” asked Grif, gloomily.

“'Ere it is,” replied Dirty Bob, producing it. “It's a good un. It's the only one I got, but I'm goin' to spend it 'spectably and genteely. Brush away.”

After a little uncomfortable communing, Grif spat upon his brush, and commenced to rub, submitting silently to the scornful observations of Dirty Bob.

“I say, sir,” observed Dirty Bob (and be it here remarked that the “sir” was a nettle which stung Grif sharply); “I say, sir, do yer want a 'prentice?”

“I don't want none of yer cheek,” said Grif, rubbing so smartly that he almost rubbed off the upper leather; “that's what I don't want. So yer'd better 'old yer jaw.”

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“I beg yer pardon, sir,” said Dirty Bob, meekly. “I forgot that I wos speakin' to one of the Hupper Class. And ho! sir!” he exclaimed, in a tone of anguish. “Don't tell the perlice, or they'd put me in quod for cheekin' a moral shoeblack.”

“There; yer boots are done,” ejaculated the disgusted Grif; “where's the tanner?”

“Don't yer think, sir,” said Dirty Bob, surveying his boots, “that one on 'em is a little more polished than t'other. Would you please make 'em even, and give this cove another rub?”

Grif commenced again rubbing, viciously.

“Ho! don't rub so 'ard, sir!” exclaimed Dirty Bob.

“I was brought up wery tender, I wos, and I've got a wopping corn on my big toe. Thankey, sir. 'Ere's the tanner, and wen ye're Lord Mayor, don't forget Dirty Bob!”

And he walked off, whistling. It was late in the day now, so Grif shouldered his stand, and walked away. His heart was not very light, for the first sixpence he had honestly earned in his life had been earned with a sense of bitter humiliation.