The following is the first of James Easson’s short stories published in the ‘People’s Journal’. Easson—or ‘the people’s poet’ as he was posthumously dubbed by a reader—wrote many short stories, sketches, essays and poems from 1858 until his death in 1865. In many ways Easson was the sort of contributor that the ‘Journal’ was founded for. He was a painter decorator from Dundee who found an audience in the paper and was loved by its readers. He died in the Royal Lunatic Asylum in Dundee after three weeks of paralysis aged just 31, his only living relative being his Grandmother Betty Easson. Readers donated money to pay for his burial and the support of Betty when his death was announced. His stone can still be visited in Dundee’s Eastern Necropolis and the inscription reads; ‘Erected by the Proprietors of “The People’s Journal” in Memory of a Working Man who had Rare Literary Gifts and Whose Writings are his Best Memorial’. For a full collection of his work and a short biography, see ‘The Life and Works of James Easson; The Dundee People’s Poet’ by Anthony Faulks (Dundee, 2016).
One fine morning during the past summer, and at an unusually early hour, the mansion of a rich East India Captain, situate in one of the fashionable crescents of Edinburgh, was thrown into great confusion, and its inmates into great distress, for a lamentable—a very lamentable—occurrence had just taken place. Was it the death of the master of the house, who had been found dead in his bed? No. Neither had the Captain’s niece eloped in the night, nor any other calamity of any such sort, but it was Pompey—her little lap-dog, Pompey—he had refused to east his breakfast, which to serve up was the special duty of the tall footman, John. Oh, poor dear little creature, Pompey—the dear, dear little dog—the fine little pet; so the crusty old Captain’s niece was half beside herself to think that her sleek little doggie, Pompey, had not taken his usual meat—the poor little creature!
John, the tall footman, was in agonies; the cook was in a stew last she might be blamed doing the poor little doggie’s chicken over brown. The fat house-maid sat in the drawing room sofa, wringing her hands—the butler vainly tried to pour oil on the troubled waters of their feelings by assuring them in a whisper that Pompey was over-fed, and that it was only a slight colic. But all this would not do: they ran up stairs and down stairs—to the kitchen and back to the servant’s hall—asking and answering questions as to the state of the poor little Pompey, who lay before the fire in the latter place like a big fat sheep, scarcely able to move from excess of fat and want of exercise.
Never, never had the dear little pet refused his breakfast before (such was the wail of the house-maid)—the most regular dog in his habits, and so sensible too! He was so fond—so very fond—of the Captain too; he lay at his bed-room door all night and whined, just like a little baby, when the gruff old man gave him a kick that sent him spinning over the stair-rail. Oh, deary, deary—and he would not eat! Oh, could not that cook prepare a sweet little sauce for the dear animal’s chicken? if not, what was she good for? What a state of mind the kind-hearted Miss Catherine must be in, when she should come down to the drawing room and have him brought up to her on the rug! The soft-hearted house-maid was all but crying at the bare reflection of that trying scene.
Miss Catherine, the Captain’s niece, had been crying all the morning in her bed; but she could not think of rising to see, in person, the infirmities of her favourite lap-dog. She had one of the servants constantly coming with reports upon his progress towards restoration. At one time she had to tell that his hind leg moved slightly, and that he had attempted feebly to wag his dear little tail. At another time he had winked his one eye, and the other had opened just so little, and then closed again. Oh, but she was sure, quite sure, that he was getting round fast; but if it were not impertinent in her—only a poor servant girl—she would say that the captain had injured the poor little doggie’s head on the preceding day, when he lent it such a rap on the skull with his walking cane. “What! my uncle strike Pompey? My kind old uncle hit my dear, little doggie? Impossible!” And Miss Catherine flung her over upon the soft couch and cried, and sobbed, and sobbed again.
That morning Miss Catherine had a crow to pull with her old and indulgent uncle. She had never heard of such barbarity in her life. Somebody at once hinted that, while making his fortune in India, he had been engaged in the terrible slave trade. To be sure, she never believed it; how could she? He had been to her always the best of uncles—he maintained her—he housed her—he kept he in pocket-money—and so it became her to give the lie to all evil reports such as that. But to strike Pompey!—to hit the dear little manie!—fearful! She called the servant back, and cross-questioned her again, and again, as to the particular time and place of this unheard-of assault. The poor girl stammered and stuttered, and finally hoped that she would not suffer her name to be heard in the affair, as it of a certainty would cost her her place. But Miss Catherine’s blood was up, and she would there and then charge her uncle with the cruelty, and reproach him to his face, if he pleaded guilty to the charge—be the consequences what they might. If this were found out to be a trumpery fib, she, the servant, might be off about her business for a good-for-nothing lying slut.
Presto! Miss Catherine was out of bed in a jiffey. Hand over those loose clothes, and those morning slippers, and bind up her back hair with a ribbon; one would soon see who would dare, friend or no friend, to hit her Pompey “a rap on the skull.” Off flew the night-gown, on went her clothes, and down to the drawing-room she ran like a beautiful fury. The footman was despatched to tell the Captain that his niece awaited his pleasure in the drawing-room with great impatience.
“Oh dear, oh dear! what’s the meaning of all this fuss, I do wonder, hey?” This was the Captain, who hurried on his clothes as quickly as his gout would let him, and hastened down the stairs to where his excited niece was waiting, stamping her little foot on the carpet with rage, and ever and anon stooping to fondle her dear distressed Pompey, who lay extended on the hearth-rug, turning up his eye-balls like a dying calf.
“Catherine, Catherine,” began the Captain.
“Don’t call me that name, uncle,” interrupted his niece, “you’ve killed Pompey! my sweet, kind, dear darling Pompey!”
“What?” roared the Captain.
Miss Catherine returned no answer, but sobbed in her own lap.
“The devil!” cried the Captain, taken all aback by this unwonted behaviour, “what does this all mean?”
“Oh, it was cruel of you, uncle—cruel,” again sobbed Miss Catherine. The Captain only stared.
Suddenly she dried up her tears, and rising, confronted her uncle.
“Did not you hit my poor Pompey a rap with your walking-cane yesterday?” she asked.
“No—yes—no—that is—of course I didn’t; why should I hit Pompey with my walking-cane? I did give him just the slightest tap for getting among my feet as I walked in the gardens there opposite; but I assure you, my dear niece,—”
“Oh, you base, slanderous woman,” cried Miss Catherine, turning full round upon the trembling servant girl, “You infamous gossip—you worthless trull—you—you—”
“What, what! did she dare to charge me with hitting Pompey? Ten thousand de—; but no—I won’t swear—get out—get out of this house you—you shameless—you—”
The poor servant girl was ordered to pack up forthwith and leave the house. She did so; and like another Jane Shore, went forth to the world without a character, and without a friend.
Pompey—the poor little Pompey, was next to be looked to. The captain, who voted this scene the greatest bore he had ever seen, went up again to his bed, leaving his niece to cuddle her dog, and make moan for its severe visitations. She found out, however, that the poor discarded girl’s story was too true; for in caressing its sleek hear, she found a wide gash, apparently made by the blow of some such instrument as a cane; and felt at first that she should convict her uncle of the cowardly act. But she reflected that she was living on his bounty, and that should she lose his favour, he might send her off to some boarding school, where crabbed teachers and short rations would soon help to put down her overweening and domineering pride.
But what of the poor servant girl? She vainly sought a new place. Oh, the poor girl had no character—no references. Then what could she do? She was an orphan, and a stranger in a land! Ah, what could she do—what could she do—she could only sit down and cry at a doorstep, and cry till her eyes were red.
The door of the house where she resided opened, and the mistress approached and kindly questioned her as to what ailed her? She recounted the story of Pompey’s breakfast, The woman seemed to sympathize with her, and invited her in. She kept a lodging-house, she said, for young ladies, who had come to Edinburgh to finish their education. If the poor girl pleased she might get a place in her house as a laundry maid, and she, the mistress, would send a porter to the captain’s cellar of her luggage.
Oh! happy were the bright tears that rained down the cheek of that forlorn one! Could she refuse such kindness? No. Then the mistress said that she might go into her room and refresh herself with a little tea. This was a crowning kindness! She fell on the woman’s neck, and wept anew.
Hours flew by, her luggage had come, but she was not told to begin to work. This was strange. She was on the eve of asking for something to do, when the gong sounded through the building for dinner. She was asked to sit down in the spacious dining-room, and dine with the young ladies! This was strange too. “But,” said the mistress, “we all dine to-together[sic]—its all the more comfortable—and,” she added, “the more the merrier, you know?”
There was wine at dessert—that, thought the poor and now astonished girl, is strange too! The young ladies were no teetotalers[sic] either; they drank copiously, and their talk grew fast and free. One glass they forced her to drink—she did drink, albeit, some suspicions were thickening in her mind as to the sort of house she had got into. She did not think long, anyhow; her eyes grew heavy—she felt sleepy—and sleep she did—just as a latch-key rattled in the front door, and a number of military officers, all half obfuscated, staggered along the lobby, and into there room where they were dining.
Her sleep lasted but for a moment; for they began roughly to handle her. Terror brought her to herself, and suddenly pushing them all aside, she rushed out from the room, and gaining the street door, flew along—she knew not whether nor to whom.
Running thus furiously along the half-deserted squares, she soon caught the attention of a policeman, who stopped her in full flight, and to him she told her story. To the office she went in company with the officer; and a warrant being granted for removing her luggage from the house so nearly fatal to her, she was allowed to retire to a place of safety, there to sleep off the effects of the soporific drug which the vile inmates of that den had plied her withal.
The magistrate, touched with her story, made inquiries at the house of the captain, whose niece, glad of the chance to atone for her rash and cruel treatment of the poor friendless creature, told the truth, and a new and comfortable situation was obtained for her. But here is one of the causes of that deep and dark stream of female degradation which floods the streets of Edinburgh—poor, helpless, homeless wanderers—orphans are thus thoughtlessly ousted into the highways, and upon the tender mercies of the world; for if it had not been for the merest chance, who will say that the number of fallen girls had not been augmented by one by the simple circumstance attending the story of Pompey’s Breakfast.