THE COFFEE-STALL AND ITS KEEPER.
a screened and secluded corner of one of the many railway-bridges which span the streets of London there could be seen, a few years ago, from five o’clock every morning until half-past eight, a tidily set out coffee-stall, consisting of a trestle and board, upon which stood two large tin cans with a small fire of charcoal burning under each, so as to keep the coffee boiling during the early hours of the morning when the work-people were thronging into the city on their way to6 their daily toil. The coffee-stall was a favorite one, for besides being under shelter, which was of great consequence upon rainy mornings, it was also in so private a niche that the customers taking their out-of-door breakfast were not too much exposed to notice; and, moreover, the coffee-stall keeper was a quiet man, who cared only to serve the busy workmen without hindering them by any gossip. He was a tall, spare, elderly man, with a singularly solemn face and a manner which was grave and secret. Nobody knew either his name or dwelling-place; unless it might be the policeman who strode past the coffee-stall every half-hour and nodded familiarly to the solemn man behind it. There were very few who cared to make any inquiries about him; but those who did could only discover that7 he kept the furniture of his stall at a neighboring coffee-house, whither he wheeled his trestle and board and crockery every day not later than half-past eight in the morning; after which he was wont to glide away with a soft footstep and a mysterious and fugitive air, with many backward and sidelong glances, as if he dreaded observation, until he was lost among the crowds which thronged the streets. No one had ever had the persevering curiosity to track him all the way to his house, or to find out his other means of gaining a livelihood; but in general his stall was surrounded by customers, whom he served with silent seriousness, and who did not grudge to pay him his charge for the refreshing coffee he supplied to them.
For several years the crowd of work-people8 had paused by the coffee-stall under the railway-arch, when one morning, in a partial lull of his business, the owner became suddenly aware of a pair of very bright dark eyes being fastened upon him and the slices of bread and butter on his board, with a gaze as hungry as that of a mouse which has been driven by famine into a trap. A thin and meagre face belonged to the eyes, which was half hidden by a mass of matted hair hanging over the forehead and down the neck—the only covering which the head or neck had; for a tattered frock, scarcely fastened together with broken strings, was slipping down over the shivering shoulders of the little girl. Stooping down to a basket behind his stall, he caught sight of two bare little feet curling up from the damp pavement, as the child lifted up first9 one and then other and laid them one over another to gain a momentary feeling of warmth. Whoever the wretched child was, she did not speak; only at every steaming cupful which he poured out of his can her dark eyes gleamed hungrily, and he could hear her smack her thin lips as if in fancy she was tasting the warm and fragrant coffee.
“Oh, come now,” he said at last, when only one boy was left taking his breakfast leisurely, and he leaned over his stall to speak in a low and quiet tone, “why don’t you go away, little girl? Come, come; you’re staying too long, you know.”
“I’m just going, sir,” she answered, shrugging her small shoulders to draw her frock up higher about her neck; “only it’s raining cats and dogs outside; and mother’s been away all night,10 and she took the key with her; and it’s so nice to smell the coffee; and the police has left off worriting me while I’ve been here. He thinks I’m a customer taking my breakfast.” And the child laughed a shrill laugh of mockery at herself and the policeman.
“You’ve had no breakfast, I suppose,” said the coffee-stall keeper, in the same low and confidential voice, and leaning over his stall till his face nearly touched the thin, sharp features of the child.
“No,” she replied, coolly, “and I shall want my dinner dreadful bad afore I get it, I know. You don’t often feel dreadful hungry, do you, sir? I’m not griped yet, you know; but afore I taste my dinner it’ll be pretty bad, I tell you. Ah! very bad indeed!”
She turned away with a knowing nod,11 as much as to say she had one experience in life to which he was quite a stranger; but before she had gone half a dozen steps she heard the quiet voice calling to her in rather louder tones, and in an instant she was back at the stall.
“Slip in here,” said the owner, in a cautious whisper; “here’s a little coffee left and a few crusts. There. You must never come again, you know. I never give to beggars; and if you’d begged I’d have called the police. There; put your poor feet towards the fire. Now, aren’t you comfortable?”
The child looked up with a face of intense satisfaction. She was seated upon an empty basket, with her feet near the pan of charcoal, and a cup of steaming coffee on her lap; but her mouth was too full for her to reply except by a very deep nod, which expressed unbounded12 delight. The man was busy for a while packing up his crockery; but every now and then he stopped to look down upon her, and to shake his head.
“What’s your name?” he asked, at length; “but there, never mind! I don’t care what it is. What’s your name to do with me, I wonder?”
“It’s Jessica,” said the girl: “but mother and every body calls me Jess. You’d be tired of being called Jess, if you were me. It’s Jess here, and Jess there: and every body wanting me to go errands. And they think nothing of giving me smacks, and kicks, and pinches. Look here!”
Whether her arms were black and blue from the cold or from ill-usage he could not tell; but he shook his head again seriously and the child felt encouraged to go on.
“Yes,” said the coffee-stall keeper very softly; and looking round to see if there were any other ragged children within sight, “if you’ll promise not to come again for a whole week, and not to tell any body else, you may come once more. I’ll give you one other treat. But you must be off now.”
“I’m off, sir,” she said, sharply; “but if you’ve a errand I could go on I’d do it all right, I would. Let me carry some of your things.”
“No, no,” cried the man; “you run away, like a good girl; and, mind! I’m not to see you again for a whole week.”
“All right,” answered Jess, setting14 off down the rainy street at a quick run, as if to show her willing agreement to the bargain; while the coffee-stall keeper, with many a cautious glance around him, removed his stock in trade to the coffee-house near at hand, and was seen no more for the rest of the day in the neighborhood of the railway-bridge.
Categories: English Literature