To him who had during that last week fathomed the abysses of Manchester, the " unfathomable abyss" of London was hardly more black. It might be supposed that the city of Manchester was as good as another in which to be destitute; poverty in modern streets is a mean and dirty business at its best as at its worst. But in London a staggering part is played on a great stage haunted with great presences. There is a literary grandiloquence about the capital's rags that Manchester's do not own: for the time it takes for the fraying of a pair of cuffs, we may suppose, this glamour has effect. It was something to tread the pavements of Oxford Street, something to despair, if despair one must, where Chatterton despaired ; fitting, in a poetic sense, as Francis had discovered when he wrote " In no Strange Land," to have your Christ walking on the dark waters of the Thames, and to rear your Jacob's ladder from Charing Cross.
But if there is a ghostly companionship in the capital, it was mightily empty of the real solace of friendly presences. "The only fostering soil for genius" Lamb called the Metropolis. But Francis did not so regard it. The writing of the first poems and prose, the whole acceptance of a vocation, were undertaken in complete isolation. It was a hard soil, bare as the pavement. There were no allurements of companionship, no excitements or encouragements of example and emulation. He knew no laughing bookseller in St. Martin's Court. A poet, he knew no poet, save a formidable uncle, in the flesh ; no writer, save the reputed " noted authors " whom he came to serve with slippers at a shop in Panton Street. Without friends or courage, Francis found no better job than that of a " collector" of books. Thus his first efforts for a livelihood in London were made with a sackful of literature upon his shoulders, the day's " orders " of a general bookseller. His journeys would be laborious and slowly accomplished, and his turn in all probability the last served at the wholesale counters where he called out the list. Unlike his fellow-collectors, he would have an additional stock in his private pocket-his own library-and his interest would be in this rather than in the bundle on his back; he might bend under works on cookery, sport, Methodism, and social reform, but Blake and Aeschylus would buoy him up.
That he found no work commensurate with his attainments is but another item in the whole sequence of circumstances that liken his case to de Quincey's. De Quincey tells of difficulties imagined and real that kept him from applying to the friends of his father for assistance. Another mode of livelihood, " that of turning any talents or knowledge that I might possess to a lucrative use-I now feel half inclined to join my reader in wondering why I overlooked it. As a corrector of Greek proofs (if in no other way), I might surely have gained enough for my slender wants. . . . But why talk of my qualifications ? Qualified or not, where could I obtain such an office ? For it must not be forgotten that even a diabolic appointment requires interest. Towards that I must first of all have an introduction to some respectable publisher ; and this I had no means of obtaining. To say the truth, however, it had never once occurred to me to think of literary labours as a source of profit." With arguments as lengthy as those, Francis would often expound excellent reasons for not doing that which it had never occurred to him to undertake. The truth was that he came to London that he might exist and no more.
A desire of observing the town was de Quincey's excuse for his wanderings over London. Francis made no such plea, but wandered the same gait. Market-place and an occasional theatre ; door-step consolation and porch shelter; the absorption in the things of the spirit and the stifling of the interruptions of material things with opium ; the momentary fears of bodily privation, succumbing to fortunate forgetfulness and numbness, the intellectual realisation of the awfulness of their surroundings tempered by physical indifference ; and the admixture with this same physical indifference of an extreme bodily frailty and susceptibility to suffering-all the contradictions found in the one man are confirmed in the other. That each was befriended by an unfortunate girl of the streets was a continuation of the duality of contradictions. Two outcast women were to these two outcast men the sole ambassadors of the world's gentleness and generosity. More of Francis's "brave, sad, lovingest, tender thing " will be set down on a later page.
He was quick to lose his " book-collecting," slow to find other work. He liked the Guildhall Library better than "situations," and while he had seven shillings a week from home, he managed to be there a good deal. He spoke of having clung to outward respectability, and told that on the streets rags are no necessary accompaniment to destitution. But his rags came quickly enough ; within a few weeks he was below the standards set by the employers of casual labour. He now began to learn something of his companions, of their slang, of their ways and means. It was not always amongst the lowest grades of the poor that he met the people he could most dislike. He notes that the street-outcast is generally opposed to Atheism ; that he is often nameless, often kind, always honest with his fellows (" only once did any one try to cheat me"). Generosity he noticed particularly in the readiness of beggars to pay each other's lodgings. Once a policeman aided him, but that aid was unexpected and unrepeated. Of the men he met at common lodging-houses, or in whose company he slept in archways, or with whom he entered into partnership in the business of fetching cabs or selling matches, he names but very few : " The actor, poor Kelsall, 'Newcastle,'" is one entry in a note-book. The murderer towhom he makes several allusions,he disguises under the initials D. I. From one friend he had practical lessons in the arts of confinement, so that he could say to his editor in later years, when a review-book was lost: " You can either let me replace it, or put me in gaol. I know how to pick oakum." But there were some companions to disgust him : "Their conversation is impossible of report. If you want to know it (and you are every way a gainer by not knowing it, while you lose what can never be regained by knowing it) go to Rabelais and his like, where you will find a very faint image of it. Nearer you may get by reading 'Westminster Drolleries ' and other eighteenth century collections of swine-trough hoggery. For naked bestiality you must go to the modern bUehumaine." He learnt enough of their slang to be amused at the unreality of language put into the mouths of the thieves of fiction; and in any case the foulness of the real thing is irreproducible. He learned, too, of the workhouse, of homes of refuge; that prison is held to be no disgrace; and above all, as month succeeded month, that death is surprisingly slow on a shilling a day.