Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.
Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.
Scrooge and the Phantom came into the presence of this man, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. But she had scarcely entered, when another woman, similarly laden, came in too; and she was closely followed by a man in faded black, who was no less startled by the sight of them, than they had been upon the recognition of each other. After a short period of blank astonishment, in which the old man with the pipe had joined them, they all three burst into a laugh.
`Let the charwoman alone to be the first!' cried she who had entered first. `Let the laundress alone to be the second; and let the undertaker's man alone to be the third! Look here, old Joe, here's a chance. If we haven't all three met here without meaning it.'
`You couldn't have met in a better place,' said old Joe, removing his pipe from his mouth. `Come into the parlour. You were made free of it long ago, you know; and the other two an't strangers. Stop till I shut the door of the shop. Ah! How it skreeks. There an't such a rusty bit of metal in the place as its own hinges, I believe; and I'm sure there's no such old bones here, as mine. Ha, ha! We're all suitable to our calling, we're well matched. Come into the parlour. Come into the parlour.'
The parlour was the space behind the screen of rags. The old man raked the fire together with an old stair-rod, and having trimmed his smoky lamp (for it was night), with the stem of his pipe, put it in his mouth again.
While he did this, the woman who had already spoken threw her bundle on the floor, and sat down in a flaunting manner on a stool; crossing her elbows on her knees, and looking with a bold defiance at the other two.
`What odds then? What odds, Mrs Dilber?' said the woman. `Every person has a right to take care of themselves. He always did.'
`That's true, indeed,' said the laundress. `No man more so.'
`Why then, don't stand staring as if you was afraid, woman; who's the wiser? We're not going to pick holes in each other's coats, I suppose!'
`No, indeed!' said Mrs Dilber and the man together. `We should hope not.'
`Very well, then!' cried the woman. `That's enough. Who's the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose!'
`No, indeed,' said Mrs Dilber, laughing.
`If he wanted to keep them after he was dead, a wicked old screw,' pursued the woman, `why wasn't he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.'
`It's the truest word that ever was spoke,' said Mrs Dilber. `It's a judgment on him!'
`I wish it was a little heavier judgment,' replied the woman; `and it should have been, you may depend upon it, if I could have laid my hands on anything else. Open that bundle, old Joe, and let me know the value of it. Speak out plain. I'm not afraid to be the first, nor afraid for them to see it! We know pretty well that we were helping ourselves, before we met here, I believe. It's no sin. Open the bundle, Joe.'
But the gallantry of her friends would not allow of this; and the man in faded black, mounting the breach first, produced his plunder.