January 1, 1887
It was the coldest Christmas on record. Everybody said so, as they hurried along blowing their fingers, and trying to infuse some little warmth into their almost benumbed extremities. Everybody said so – the old, with whitened locks and palsied limb; the young, with bounding gaiety, swift step, and bright eyes; the rich, clad in sables; the poor, with flying rags, evading the clutches of the nervous hand to draw them closer round the perished frame. It was as cold as Charity, and this greatest of Christmas virtues has proverbially an icy reputation,
Everybody who thought so included little Phil Locksley, as he took up his position near the Pier Head to prosecute his evening occupation as a newsboy. Crying out “’Cho, ‘Spress, Football Field,” was a feature peculiar to all newsboys in the Liverpool streets, but with Phil the cry was an achievement, a triumph. None could cry out as Phil could, none so attract attention, none (when the attention was attracted) so unfortunate in his profession. He called, but there were few to buy. The cry attracted the look of the pedestrian, and that was all, like the Levite of old he generally passed by on the other side.
There might have been something repellent, repulsive, even frightening about the lad. Yes, even frightening, save and except the fact that he was such a little slight bit of a thing, liable almost to be blown away by a good strong guest from the mouth of the Mersey. A long pinched face, lantern jaws, such a forehead, broad and prominent, and eyes – like tea saucers somebody said, only tea saucers never had such expression, such a world of wonder and inquiry, such a story of romance as was half revealed in the depths of those big lustrous eyes; tea saucers, said I, no not even a willow pattern plate could unfold such a legend as seemed buried in those speaking orbs. That was all there was about him – a pair of eyes. As for his head – prominent temples, standing out like lobes above his eyes – phrenologist would call it “a remarkable development,” sneerers “hydrocephalus.”
Such was Phil, little, unfortunate, wondering Phil. He wondered about everything. The Pier Head, and the docks down away yonder, the hundreds of craft that thronged the river, from the tiny cob to the Atlantic liner; the hurrying passengers, the porters with their leviathan loads of luggage, the fashionable belle leading or being led by a dog and a string, the emigrants with tear-stained faces, kissing loved ones as they left the land they had lived in for other lands, perhaps kinder than old over-stocked England had been – everything and everybody that came within Phil’s ken, aye, down to the policeman, big and burly, who would persist in making him move on, Phil wondered at. He wondered especially at kindness; those were rare. Blows and kicks and cuffs were more commonplace, there were the exception that proved the rule in his wondering, he never wondered at ill-usage. Sometimes he wondered how the great fine folk who passed him in the Pier Head lived when they were at home, what feasts they had, especially at Christmas Time, when, as he had heard somewhere, all the boards at rich men’s table groaned with innumerable dainties. For his own part he tried to change his thought-current when it got into this groove. He had studied and, as usual, wondered at all the rare delicacies in the shop windows of Lord Street and Bold Street, at the wonderous mechanism displayed even in fruit crystallisation, sweets bespangled with silver, and other marvels till his mouth watered again. Once, indeed, a passer by, struck with the boy’s eager eerie look, gave him six-pense. Phil looked at the coin and then at the giver, hs tongue refused to move, till the man, catching sight of those eyes, beat a retreat murmuring “Daft!”
As for Phil the six-pense came to him as a boon and a blessing. “That’s for Jack,” he muttered. Jack was dearly loved by Phil, and every stray copper, and extra slice of luck in the shape of a three-penny piece went for Jack. Jack was a linnet. Months ago Phil picked him up cheap, for a few coppers, and saving up his pence for a cage for his pet he at last managed to house him comfortably, and one of his life’s objects was to let Jack have, what he seldom had himself, a good time of it now and always. There never was such a linnet, Phil thought. Its note was perfection, though to some ears it might have some of the “chevy-chevy” of the common house sparrow. To Phil its note was sweeter than canary’s song, a purer and more delicious warble than was ever heard from nightingale’s grove. Jack was the quintessence of excellence in feathered songsters, his little fluttering, twittering frame might have been to Phil, like a political body of old, a cabinet of all the virtues.
Jack was an acrobat. Phil had spent hours teaching him tricks. Of course, the hop from the bottom of the cage on to the perch, the jump down again on the other side, the quick movement round, and the duck underneath the perch to escape knocking the top of his head off, all came natural to Jack. But he had higher accomplishments. By time and practice Phil had tamed Jack, and had induced him to hop out of his cage, to perch on to his finger, to hop from trhe table to his hand, to nestle on his shoulder, and perform a variety of antics peculiar to a linnet with quick intelligence and cultured taste. Phil was as dearly loved by Jack as Jack by Phil. His entry was welcomed by a quick fusillade of joyful chirrupings, and though it did not run up the gamut of canary warblings, well, a linnet’s throat is neither a pianoforte keyboard nor a tonic sol fa scale.
Phil was thinking of Jack this frosty Christmas night, and hoping for the time when he should have sold his last paper and could run home to his pet. But business was slack, the news in the papers was tame, and the public, even those who were not alarmed at his phantom face, didn’t bite at the intelligence offered. At last he gave it up in despair, and was limping slowly homewards. He was passing a darkened entry, when something impelled him to stop. He didn’t know why, he didn’t even this time wonder why. But he stopped. Voices were heard, three men’s voices were discussing a scheme, which Phil’s intelligence could make out was one of robbery. He listened eagerly. Yes, ut was to “crack” a merchant’s warehouse. He caught the address; he cherished on his mental tablets the gentleman’s private residence – New Brighton, and the almost involuntarily he uttered a groan.
It was heard. The men rushed out and caught him. “You infernal young imp,” muttered one, as he seized him by the neck and tightened his grasp on his throat. A low gurgling sound issued from the boy’s lips, and his face blackened.
“Don’t kill the cub,” said another voice, and then, as the sound of approaching footsteps were heard, the lad was thrown heavily into the entry and the men decamped.
Phil scrambled to his feet with difficulty and passed his hand over his massive temples, from which he felt something trickling. He removed his hand, it was covered with blood. He neither shrieked not fainted, he only wondered. He hastily staunched the wound with a piece of his torn attire, and then he recalled his scattered thoughts. “Robbery, ‘New Brighton,’” it all came back to him. His mind was made up. He resolved to “peach,” that was the word the men used as they threw him down. He ran to the Pier Head, and looked out for the “Crocus,” or “Violet,” or “Primrose,” which should take him to the residence of the merchant then men named. Joy! The “Crocus” was in sight, and he was aboard her, almost the first passenger. Oh, how slow the boat moved! The yellow sands of New Brighton were not visible in the darkness, but he knew his was as he watched the receding lights of Liverpool, and passed the different land and water marks which were as familiar to this Mersey born boy as street corners to an inland city gamin.
Ah, at last, the “Crocus” grounds in the river, the gangway is lowered, and Phil is on the stage as early as he was on the boat. The address is quickly found, and with a tremulous and hasty hand Phil rings the bell. His story is told speedily as though he was afraid he should forget it before he had time to deliver it. The merchant is incredulous, but decides to act upon the information, and dismissed Phil with a reward.
The lad hastened home, and Jack gave him as hearty welcome with his little piping throat as ever was accorded by an intelligent and grateful linnet. But the night had been too much for Phil. The blow on the temple was a serious one. His hydrocephalus-looking cranium might have had something to do with it, but the lad sickened.
“’Cho,” “’Spress,” – “Great Capture of Burglars in Liverpool,” were cried by other voices than that of poor Phil, but he heard them, and felt that though no one thought he was of any good in this world, yet he might be favourably remembered by one or two at least, when he was gone.
The end came quickly. The little frame shrunk into nothingness; the head seemed to grow even bigger, the eyes more lustrous.
As the New Year’s morning broke the suffering little heart ceased to beat. Little Phil’s spirit went out with the tide!
“Drat the bird, what’s to do with him?” said an impatient voice. The linnet was certainly unduly lively, or excited, or something which no one could have understood except Phil himself, and he lay there deaf even to the “chirp,” “chirp,” of his favourite. Jack hopped violently about the cage, spread his wings and dashed them against the bars as though to burst his bounds, the irksomeness of which had never been felt till now.
“What’s the matter with him?” again said the speaker, and took down the cage from its elevated position. The bird, brought nearer to the body of his master, perked up its head impatiently, whistled as though in agony – a sharp piercing cry, almost human in its earnestness – hopped spasmodically on to its perch, and fell to the bottom of the cage!
The poor little fluttering feathered breast was still! Jack was dead!
“Gyp” in the Football Field.
(Source: Cumberland & Westmorland Herald: January 1, 1887)