In which Charles Dickens replaces William Gibson as the City Poet Laureate; or more to the point: when it becomes clear that Dickens’ Victorian underworld, not Raymond Chandler’s noir LA, is the cyberpunk nazz.
Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs, of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who purchase them from pick-pockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them.
Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself: the emporium of petty larceny: visited at early morning, and setting-in of dusk, by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back-parlours, and who go as strangely as they come. Here, the clothesman, the shoe-vamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods, as sign-boards to the petty thief; here, stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.
It was into this place that the Jew turned. He was well known to the sallow denizens of the lane; for such of them as were on the look-out to buy or sell, nodded, familiarly, as he passed along. He replied to their salutations in the same way; but bestowed no closer recognition until he reached the further end of the alley; when he stopped, to address a salesman of small stature, who had squeezed as much of his person into a child’s chair as the chair would hold, and was smoking a pipe at his warehouse door.
‘Why, the sight of you, Mr. Fagin, would cure the hoptalymy!’ said this respectable trader, in acknowledgment of the Jew’s inquiry after his health.
‘The neighbourhood was a little too hot, Lively,’ said Fagin, elevating his eyebrows, and crossing his hands upon his shoulders.
‘Well, I’ve heerd that complaint of it, once or twice before,’ replied the trader; ‘but it soon cools down again; don’t you find it so?’
Fagin nodded in the affirmative. Pointing in the direction of Saffron Hill, he inquired whether any one was up yonder to-night.
‘At the Cripples?’ inquired the man.
The Jew nodded.
‘Let me see,’ pursued the merchant, reflecting.
‘Yes, there’s some half-dozen of ’em gone in, that I knows. I don’t think your friend’s there.’
‘Sikes is not, I suppose?’ inquired the Jew, with a disappointed countenance.
‘Non istwentus, as the lawyers say,’ replied the little man, shaking his head, and looking amazingly sly. ‘Have you got anything in my line to-night?’
‘Nothing to-night,’ said the Jew, turning away.
‘Are you going up to the Cripples, Fagin?’ cried the little man, calling after him. ‘Stop! I don’t mind if I have a drop there with you!’
But as the Jew, looking back, waved his hand to intimate that he preferred being alone…
The Three Cripples, or rather the Cripples; which was the sign by which the establishment was familiarly known to its patrons: was the public-house in which Mr. Sikes and his dog have already figured. Merely making a sign to a man at the bar, Fagin walked straight upstairs, and opening the door of a room, and softly insinuating himself into the chamber, looked anxiously about: shading his eyes with his hand, as if in search of some particular person.
The room was illuminated by two gas-lights; the glare of which was prevented by the barred shutters, and closely-drawn curtains of faded red, from being visible outside. The ceiling was blackened, to prevent its colour from being injured by the flaring of the lamps; and the place was so full of dense tobacco smoke, that at first it was scarcely possible to discern anything more. By degrees, however, as some of it cleared away through the open door, an assemblage of heads, as confused as the noises that greeted the ear, might be made out; and as the eye grew more accustomed to the scene, the spectator gradually became aware of the presence of a numerous company, male and female, crowded round a long table: at the upper end of which, sat a chairman with a hammer of office in his hand; while a professional gentleman with a bluish nose, and his face tied up for the benefit of a toothache, presided at a jingling piano in a remote corner.
As Fagin stepped softly in, the professional gentleman, running over the keys by way of prelude, occasioned a general cry of order for a song; which having subsided, a young lady proceeded to entertain the company with a ballad in four verses, between each of which the accompanyist played the melody all through, as loud as he could. When this was over, the chairman gave a sentiment, after which, the professional gentleman on the chairman’s right and left volunteered a duet, and sang it, with great applause.
It was curious to observe some faces which stood out prominently from among the group. There was the chairman himself, (the landlord of the house,) a coarse, rough, heavy built fellow, who, while the songs were proceeding, rolled his eyes hither and thither, and, seeming to give himself up to joviality, had an eye for everything that was done, and an ear for everything that was said–and sharp ones, too. Near him were the singers: receiving, with professional indifference, the compliments of the company, and applying themselves, in turn, to a dozen proffered glasses of spirits and water, tendered by their more boisterous admirers; whose countenances, expressive of almost every vice in almost every grade, irresistibly attracted the attention, by their very repulsiveness. Cunning, ferocity, and drunkeness in all its stages, were there, in their strongest aspect; and women…presenting but one lonesome blank of profligacy and crime; some mere girls, others but young women, and none past the prime of life; formed the darkest and saddest portion of this dreary picture.
—Ch. 26, pgs. 235-237, Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens