A COMEDY OF THE STREETS.
By Clarence Rook.
Very few people knew what really caused the crowd which collected so
suddenly one evening in front of a house in the neighbourhood of High
Street, Kensington—to be precise, in Lower Phillimore Place—and
practically blocked the traffic in that busy thoroughfare.
The crowd itself had no clear notion of the cause of its coming
together. For in order to produce a crowd it is by no means necessary
that the individuals who are to compose it should have any reason for
their assembling more definite than the fact that there is an assembly.
Primarily, however, it was Esther who was the cause of the crowd.
Esther, who you must know is my sister, had been growing quite
prosperous. After a year or so of hard and unremunerative work, Esther
had gained a position on the staff of a leading ladies' newspaper; and
thereafter, week by week, Esther produced pictures of attenuated ladies
with crooked forefingers, attired in the height of fashion, and
pretending that their waists did not hurt them the least bit.
So, finding herself with an assured income which, if not large, was
adequate to her modest needs, Esther determined to quit her dingy
lodgings in a Bloomsbury side-street and furnish a dwelling for
herself. In this project she was encouraged by her bosom friend Susie,
who, being a certificated nurse with a private practice, wanted a
comfortable home in the intervals between her cases, and was willing to
contribute some furniture and a share of the expenses.
After much search among the advertisements in the newspapers in the
Free Library, followed by hurried rushes on her bicycle to the
uttermost ends of London, Esther found a house in Lower Phillimore
Place of which two floors and the basement were to be let unfurnished.
It was precisely the sort of place the two girls wanted, and as the
rent was reasonable Esther at once arranged to take it. Esther was to
occupy the ground floor, the first floor would be reserved for Susie
whenever she required it; in the basement a respectable woman would
live, and cook, and sleep. Esther began to look about for the
It was only then that Esther suddenly bethought herself of the extreme
danger of sleeping—a solitary and unprotected woman—upon the
ground-floor of a London house. For an hour or so the difficulty seemed
insurmountable, and it appeared to Esther that she must cancel the
agreement. I suggested a dog. But, as Esther at once pointed out, a
determined and unscrupulous murderer would not hesitate to poison a
Then I proposed that a respectable married couple should be engaged.
Probably, in consideration of living rent free, the woman would do the
housework during the day, and the husband would kill murderers at
night. Esther considered a moment. The idea appealed to her.
"Why not a policeman and his wife?" said Esther.
With Esther to decide is to act. Within an hour she had laid her scheme
before the Inspector in charge at the Police Station by St. Mary
Abbott's, and enjoined upon him to search his division for a married
constable of lofty character who would like to live rent free in a dry
and roomy basement. Within twenty-four hours the constable was found.
Esther viewed him with approval, for he was large and serious; he had
the highest of characters, and had married a cook from De Vere Gardens
who had received a plated teapot from her late mistress as a mark of
esteem. They both assured Esther that they would do their best by her
and the other young lady, and an appointment was made for a view of the
house in Phillimore Place.
And so it came about that, one evening, just as dusk was falling,
Esther and Susie met the constable and his wife outside the house, and,
after greeting each other on the pavement, entered together. At that
moment an errand-boy was slowly propelling a carrier tricycle along by
the kerb. His day's deliveries were accomplished, and, as he looked
this way and that way with a mind receptive of stray impressions, his
eye fell upon Esther and her companions. He was immediately conscious
of something unusual.
There is nothing remarkable about a policeman in Kensington High
Street; but a policeman being conducted into a house by a young lady,
and closely followed by two other women, one of whom wears a nurse's
uniform, affords matter for conjecture. The errand-boy applied the
brake to his cycle, and came slowly to a standstill just below the
house, at which he looked thoughtfully. Esther with the constable and
the nurse and the constable's wife had disappeared through the front
door, and for a minute or so nothing more happened.
The boy, disappointed of his expected sensation, was just bending
forward to start his cycle again when he caught sight of an
acquaintance who was carrying a basket containing a dozen of stout. A
shrill whistle brought him to the side of the cycle.
"Wotcher!" he said.
"There's a copper gone in there," said the boy on the cycle, nodding
towards the house. "And a 'orspital nurse."
"'THERE'S A COPPER GONE IN THERE, AND A 'ORSPITAL
NURSE,' SAID THE BOY ON THE CYCLE."
The other boy regarded the house critically.
"Was there a accident?" he asked.
The boy on the cycle, having no more information to give, said nothing,
but nodded again towards the house. Someone within had struck a light,
and the constable could be plainly seen standing in the middle of the
empty ground-floor room.
A hansom driver, crawling from the westwards in the hope of picking up
a fare to the Strand, paused in the act of lighting his pipe and pulled
up just in front of the cycle. A servant girl who had been sent out to
post a letter noticed an errand boy set down his basket upon the ground
and balance himself upon the rim, whereby he was enabled to peer over
the top of the railings, and she stood still to watch him; while three
sandwich men mournfully advertising a concert at the Town Hall halted
in the roadway and looked with dull curiosity at the cabman, who had
hitched himself round on his seat, and with one leg swinging in mid-air
was wondering what he could charge for a really urgent case to St.
"What's matter?" asked a homeward-bound workman who was vaguely
conscious of an unusual obstruction, and found the railings a
"Ain't nothing the matter," said the boy on the basket, looking round.
"You tike that fice 'ome."
The workman, finding it easier to stand still by the railings than to
walk, remained where he was.
"I stops where I am," he murmured; "see what's matter. All kinds things
happen in mighty metrolo—metrolopus."
The old gentleman who takes the air every evening along a beat of a
hundred yards or so of pavement in Phillimore Place halted and looked
inquiringly at the boy on the basket, disgustedly at the workman
clinging to the railings. Then, over the shoulder of the workman the
old gentleman caught sight of the policeman, who was now standing in
full light back to the window; while Susie, bending down with
tape-measure to calculate the amount of carpet required, could be dimly
seen by those outside to be busied with something on the floor.
"Dear me!" said the old gentleman.
"There's—body in there," said the workman. "That's what 'tis. Body."
"Bless my soul!" said the old gentleman, looking round at the group of
people on the pavement. "Has there been a murder? Does anyone know?"
No one cared to admit that he did not know what he was looking at,
whereas any positive statement might be controverted by someone with
knowledge. So no one answered, but all stood watching.
By this time the pavement was pretty well blocked, and wayfarers had
either to take to the roadway or to join the knot of people collected
in front of the railings and waiting anxiously upon events.
"'HAS THERE BEEN A MURDER? DOES ANYONE KNOW?' SAID THE
Most of them chose the latter course, assuring each other that there
was really nothing to wait for.
"Oh, there's a 'orse down; let's go and look, Alf," said a young woman
to her husband, who was carrying something tasty for supper in a piece
"Oh, kem on," said Alf. "You're always wanting to 'ang about for
this, that, and the other."
"Well, I'm sure, Alf, it's little enough excitement I get, day in,
day out, and—oh, wait a minute; I needn't reely wash biby to-night."
"'Taint a 'orse," said a seedy-looking man, whose height gave him a
view over the heads of the crowd. "It's in that house, that's where it
"What is?" asked Alf, still incredulous.
"Oh, there's a pleeceman in there, Alf," said the young woman,
"Then there ain't much the matter," said Alf, his good temper restored
by the consciousness of a ready wit. "They're 'andy enough when they
ain't wanted to be, and when they are wanted——" He sought vainly
for a means of elaborating his joke. "Now then, where yer shovin'?"
"Shovin' yerself," was the reply; "don't other people want to see same
as what you do?"
"THE CROWD STRETCHED NEARLY ACROSS THE ROADWAY, IMPEDING
For the crowd had already begun to press behind, and, stretching nearly
across the roadway, was impeding the traffic. One omnibus, indeed,
which had stopped to set down a passenger, remained standing, and the
inside passengers had crowded out upon the roof to see what was the
matter. From the shops opposite came the assistants, and they stood in
the doorways, asking in vain for explanations, which no one could give.
Conjecture, however, was frequent; and a butcher's bookkeeper, being a
man of action, went off to rouse the nearest fire station.
In a minute more, the nucleus formed by one errand boy on a carrier
cycle had collected about it a solid mass, which completely stopped the
omnibuses and cabs, and gathered volume and consistency from every
wayfarer who came within its influence. Even the errand boy himself,
impressed with the seriousness of the situation, was convinced of the
nearness of tragedy, and was busily setting forth to those around him
what he had seen.
"Stand back, can't you?" cried an officious man upon the outskirts of
the crowd on the opposite pavement. "How ridiculously people do act in
an emergency! What's the use of crowding round?"
His neighbours looked resentfully at him.
"Stand back, can't you; stand back and give her air."
"Give 'oo air? You keep your'n on," said an on-looker, elbowing him
"Why, it's a girl, isn't it? At least, they told me so," said the
officious man. "Why do people push so? There's absolutely nothing to
get excited about."
"Girl, I dessay. But she's in that house over there."
"Most extraordinary thing," said a tradesman, who was standing in his
doorway. "That house is unoccupied. Been empty for three weeks or
"And they've only just found the poor girl inside," exclaimed the
officious man. "Well, of all the useless, incompetent people in the
world, I really do think the London police bear away the palm. And why
on earth don't they keep the crowd away? Where are the police? Here,
someone go and call a constable."
No one showed any desire to resign his point of view; and the cabs
going town-wards in a hurry turned down a side street to save time.
"'Ear that, Emmer?" said a woman in a shawl, who was standing in a
group of dishevelled companions. "The poor gal's been lyin' in that
empty 'ouse for three weeks; ain't it a shime?"
"Ah, it's jest like 'em," said another, vaguely.
"Well, I ain't what yer might call soft-'earted," said the first, "but
think of me
livin' 'andy all that time, and the pore girl——"
"Yes, you can lay and rot for all they care," said the other. "I
might die in me bed time and time again, and no one any the wiser. Not
but what I've got any right to becall you, Mrs. Robins. Think she's
"Dead? No. Can't you see the 'orspital nurse stoopin' down over 'er?
They wouldn't 'a 'ad a 'orspital nurse if she was dead."
Just then the door of the house opened, and the crowd swayed excitedly
as Susie appeared with the constable, and stood for a moment in
surprise on the top step.
"THE CROWD SWAYED EXCITEDLY AS SUSIE APPEARED WITH THE
"Where's the ambulance," cried the officious man. "Why don't they send
for the ambulance? What is the good of the police if they can't——"
"Now then, what's all this? Pass along, please, pass along."
Five or six policemen appeared simultaneously from different
"Over there, in that house. That's where it is," cried several voices.
"Stand back there! let the police through!" cried others.
The constables pushed their way through the throng to the point where
Susie and the policeman were standing, and the crowd stood in intense
silence while a hurried consultation took place. A moment or two later
Esther and Susie entered the hansom, which was still waiting in the
hope of a case for St. George's, and drove off through the passage
cleared by the police.
"Now then, pass along 'ere, pass along," said the police. "There
ain't nothing to look at 'ere."
"Well, but aren't you going to bring the girl out?" asked the officious
man of a constable.
"Pass along, if you please."
"What is the good of making such a mystery of it?" said the officious
man. "That's the way half the crimes go undetected. I daresay it's all
simple enough if the truth were known. I maintain the public has a
right to be taken into the confidence of the authorities."
"'Ushing of it up," said the woman in a shawl. "'Ushing of it up."
"And I dessay they're well paid to do it," said her companion.
"Well, that's another added to the unsolved mysteries of London," said
the respectable-looking working-man, addressing his neighbours, "but
it's another nail in the coffin of——"
"Now then, your supper's gettin' cold," said the constable.