A Poor Stick, by Arthur Morrison
By Arthur Morrison
(Tales of Mean Streets, London: Methuen and Co., 1894) Published by
permission of Methuen and Co.
Mrs. Jennings (or Jinnins, as the neighbours would have it) ruled
absolutely at home, when she took so much trouble as to do anything at
all there—which was less often than might have been. As for Robert her
husband, he was a poor stick, said the neighbours. And yet he was a man
with enough of hardihood to remain a non-unionist in the erectors' shop
at Maidment's all the years of his service; no mean test of a man's
fortitude and resolution, as many a sufferer for independent opinion
might testify. The truth was that Bob never grew out of his
courtship-blindness. Mrs. Jennings governed as she pleased, stayed out
or came home as she chose, and cooked a dinner or didn't, as her
inclination stood. Thus it was for ten years, during which time there
were no children, and Bob bore all things uncomplaining: cooking his own
dinner when he found none cooked, and sewing on his own buttons. Then of
a sudden came children, till in three years there were three; and Bob
Jennings had to nurse and to wash them as often as not.
Mrs. Jennings at this time was what is called rather a fine woman: a
woman of large scale and full development; whose slatternly habit left
her coarse black hair to tumble in snake-locks about her face and
shoulders half the day; who, clad in half-hooked clothes, bore herself
notoriously and unabashed in her fullness; and of whom ill things were
said regarding the lodger. The gossips had their excuse. The lodger was
an irregular young cabinet-maker, who lost quarters and halves and whole
days; who had been seen abroad with his landlady, what time Bob Jennings
was putting the children to bed at home; who on his frequent holidays
brought in much beer, which he and the woman shared, while Bob was at
work. To carry the tale to Bob would have been a thankless errand, for
he would have none of anybody's sympathy, even in regard to miseries
plain to his eye. But the thing got about in the workshop, and there
his days were made bitter.
At home things grew worse. To return at half-past five, and find the
children still undressed, screaming, hungry and dirty, was a matter of
habit: to get them food, to wash them, to tend the cuts and bumps
sustained through the day of neglect, before lighting a fire and getting
tea for himself, were matters of daily duty. 'Ah,' he said to his
sister, who came at intervals to say plain things about Mrs. Jennings,
'you shouldn't go for to set a man agin 'is wife, Jin. Melier do'n' like
work, I know, but that's nach'ral to 'er. She ought to married a swell
'stead o' me; she might 'a' done easy if she liked, bein' sich a fine
gal; but she's good-'arted, is Melier; an' she can't 'elp bein' a bit
thoughtless.' Whereat his sister called him a fool (it was her customary
goodbye at such times), and took herself off.
Bob Jennings's intelligence was sufficient for his common needs, but it
was never a vast intelligence. Now, under a daily burden of dull misery,
it clouded and stooped. The base wit of the workshop he comprehended
less, and realized more slowly, than before; and the gaffer cursed him
for a sleepy dolt.
Mrs. Jennings ceased from any pretence of housewifery, and would
sometimes sit—perchance not quite sober—while Bob washed the children
in the evening, opening her mouth only to express her contempt for him
and his establishment, and to make him understand that she was sick of
both. Once, exasperated by his quietness, she struck at him, and for a
moment he was another man. 'Don't do that, Melier,' he said, 'else I
might forget myself.' His manner surprised his wife: and it was such
that she never did do that again.
So was Bob Jennings: without a friend in the world, except his sister,
who chid him, and the children, who squalled at him: when his wife
vanished with the lodger, the clock, a shade of wax flowers, Bob's best
boots (which fitted the lodger), and his silver watch. Bob had returned,
as usual, to the dirt and the children, and it was only when he struck a
light that he found the clock was gone.
'Mummy tooked ve t'ock,' said Milly, the eldest child, who had followed
him in from the door, and now gravely observed his movements. 'She
tooked ve t'ock an' went ta-ta. An' she tooked ve fyowers.'
Bob lit the paraffin lamp with the green glass reservoir, and carried
it and its evil smell about the house. Some things had been turned over
and others had gone, plainly. All Melier's clothes were gone. The lodger
was not in, and under his bedroom window, where his box had stood, there
was naught but an oblong patch of conspicuously clean wallpaper. In a
muddle of doubt and perplexity, Bob found himself at the front door,
staring up and down the street. Divers women-neighbours stood at their
doors, and eyed him curiously; for Mrs. Webster, moralist, opposite, had
not watched the day's proceedings (nor those of many other days) for
nothing, nor had she kept her story to herself.
He turned back into the house, a vague notion of what had befallen
percolating feebly through his bewilderment. 'I dunno—I dunno,' he
faltered, rubbing his ear. His mouth was dry, and he moved his lips
uneasily, as he gazed with aimless looks about the walls and ceiling.
Presently his eyes rested on the child, and 'Milly,' he said decisively,
'come an 'ave yer face washed.'
He put the children to bed early, and went out. In the morning, when his
sister came, because she had heard the news in common with everybody
else, he had not returned. Bob Jennings had never lost more than two
quarters in his life, but he was not seen at the workshop all this day.
His sister stayed in the house, and in the evening, at his regular
homing-time, he appeared, haggard and dusty, and began his preparations
for washing the children. When he was made to understand that they had
been already attended to, he looked doubtful and troubled for a moment.
Presently he said: 'I ain't found 'er yet, Jin; I was in 'opes she might
'a' bin back by this. I—I don't expect she'll be very long. She was
alwis a bit larky, was Melier; but very good-'arted.'
His sister had prepared a strenuous lecture on the theme of 'I told you
so'; but the man was so broken, so meek, and so plainly unhinged in his
faculties, that she suppressed it. Instead, she gave him comfortable
talk, and made him promise in the end to sleep that night, and take up
his customary work in the morning.
He did these things, and could have worked placidly enough had he but
been alone; but the tale had reached the workshop, and there was no lack
of brutish chaff to disorder him. This the decenter men would have no
part in, and even protested against. But the ill-conditioned kept their
way, till, at the cry of 'Bell O!' when all were starting for dinner,
one of the worst shouted the cruellest gibe of all. Bob Jennings turned
on him and knocked him over a scrap-heap.
A shout went up from the hurrying workmen, with a chorus of 'Serve ye
right,' and the fallen joker found himself awkwardly confronted by the
shop bruiser. But Bob had turned to a corner, and buried his eyes in the
bend of his arm, while his shoulders heaved and shook.
He slunk away home, and stayed there: walking restlessly to and fro, and
often peeping down the street from the window. When, at twilight, his
sister came again, he had become almost cheerful, and said with some
briskness: 'I'm agoin' to meet 'er, Jin, at seven. I know where she'll
He went upstairs, and after a little while came down again in his best
black coat, carefully smoothing a tall hat of obsolete shape with his
pocket-handkerchief. 'I ain't wore it for years,' he said. 'I ought to
'a' wore it—it might 'a' pleased 'er. She used to say she wouldn't walk
with me in no other—when I used to meet 'er in the evenin', at seven
o'clock.' He brushed assiduously, and put the hat on. 'I'd better 'ave
a shave round the corner as I go along,' he added, fingering his stubbly
He received as one not comprehending his sister's persuasion to remain
at home; but when he went she followed at a little distance. After his
penny shave he made for the main road, where company-keeping couples
walked up and down all evening. He stopped at a church, and began pacing
slowly to and fro before it, eagerly looking out each way as he went.
His sister watched him for nearly half an hour, and then went home. In
two hours more she came back with her husband. Bob was still there,
walking to and fro.
''Ullo, Bob,' said his brother-in-law; 'come along 'ome an' get to bed,
there's a good chap. You'll be awright in the mornin'.'
'She ain't turned up,' Bob complained, 'or else I've missed 'er. This
is the reg'lar place—where I alwis used to meet 'er. But she'll come
tomorrer. She used to leave me in the lurch sometimes, bein' nach'rally
larky. But very good-'arted, mindjer; very good-'arted.'
She did not come the next evening, nor the next, nor the evening after,
nor the one after that. But Bob Jennings, howbeit depressed and anxious,
was always confident. 'Somethink's prevented 'er tonight,' he would say,
'but she'll come tomorrer…. I'll buy a blue tie tomorrer—she used to
like me in a blue tie. I won't miss 'er tomorrer. I'll come a little
So it went. The black coat grew ragged in the service, and hobbledehoys,
finding him safe sport, smashed the tall hat over his eyes time after
time. He wept over the hat, and straightened it as best he might. Was
she coming? Night after night, and night and night. But tomorrow….