Monday, 7 September 2009

Miss Bliss and the Navvies

I'm fortunate that Miss Bliss jotted down experiences in her journal also. Of Mr Bliss the mesmerist we shall hear more on another occasion.

Tuesday 17th November 1891

Today, I must remark on the most singular encounter. Every Tuesday at eight o'clock precisely I leave Brambles* for my weekly interview with Mr Hornbill, the mesmerist*. This week I was thirty minutes later than on other Tuesdays due to pressing wild flowers for Mrs Valentine whose fingers are no longer up to it. Poor Mrs Valentine, Dr. Sloane says her heart is weak and she may not see out this winter. Still, the flowers give her great comfort and as the Lord is my witness I shall not desert my duties.

To the matter at hand: Workmen are digging up the paving outside my front gate and they are most ungodly in their ways. Espying through the net curtains at the window, appreciating their use in not revealing the viewer to those outside I noted the following.

Two roughly attired men began to erect a tent at approximately ten past seven. It was a small tent, in which they placed a brazier*, a chair and a couple of rough canvas bags. These "navvies", I think this is the current expression, had been pushing a wooden barrow containing heavy objects, large shafted items, such as spades and picks.

The taller and younger of the two chaps was shortly thereafter levering the large granite slabs outside my residence with much gusto. Ere long they were both digging the earth beneath, for why, I knew not.

As the hour of eight approached my concern grew. The problem that exercised my conscience was that the ever-expanding hole now prevented me from leaving the garden via the front gate.

As is my nature when faced with adversity, I was not to be defeated, tying fast my bonnet and securing my muff* I confronted the two "roughs" my back straight, head high. "Miss Bliss," I said to myself, "you will have your way, or else the King be a beggar."

As I approached the gate, my resolve began to falter.

"Fork me!" said the dark young man, his accent was thick and Irish. "Oirish," my dear father used to say. Oh, how I would laugh as he would talk like this and walk bandy-legged, doffing his cap, at the ladies who attended Mama's Bridge Club of a Friday evening. I was unaware that they had a fork, but disregarded his strange request for fear of breaching etiquette.

"Are you aware," I enquired "that you are blocking the entrance to my property?" The men had ceased from their labour and were presently smoking cigarettes. The Irishman held up a yellow packet saying, "Care for one yourself, Miss?" He raised one eyebrow in a casual manner that, upon sight of this, took me back to fevered memories of the caddish Arthur Gable in the summerhouse, before he migrated to the New World.

"I had rather not," I replied "it is not becoming of a lady." They were both standing in the hole and gazing up at me. It was obvious that they had not come across one of my mettle before. "Could you form a path with planking, that I may cross?" I persisted.

"Upyer arris!" The shorter of the two gentlemen retorted. It was obvious from his dialect that he was probably from the over-crowded tenements of East London. Here in High Barmstead, fourteen miles from the capital he was foreign, a cockney!

"Being short of planking, you may have a problem there, your highness!" Dark and muscular, the younger of the two men teased.

"There is no need to be facetious!"

"I be merely remarking at your current station..."

"Or sarcastic!"

"...With regard to the hole."

"Oh, I see." Despite stubbornly resisting his humour I could not prevent my lips from turning up slightly at the corners. "What, sir, would you suggest I do. I have an appointment not one hundred yards from here barely three minutes from now."

"This cavity here, 'tis only four feet deep, I am a strong man and would gladly take thee over this short gap here." The suggestion was most improper and I told him as much.

"Not if I live to be a hundred!" "Oirish" turned his back and re-commenced digging the black earth. It was no good, what could I do? Mr Hornbill expected me any minute; we were to discuss my wallflower tendencies. "Very well," I relented but you must be quick about it!" The short one, I feel sure, muttered something about dogs and rabbits, as I was grasped firmly about my lower waist. I must note, however, that my mode of transportation was thoughtful enough to wipe his hands on his waistcoat immediately prior to this.

During my conveyance I determined to maintain a straight back and not lie across his shoulder. This appeared to amuse the rascal as he accompanied the cockney chap in singing an old music-hall song* about saving money or half-pence, some such coinage anyway.

It can have only taken a mere few seconds to get across the gap, but frequently I imagined his calloused hands intruding upon my liberty. That this was not the case is no doubt due to good fortune and the number of concerned bystanders that had gathered.

So, journal, there we have it, a passing encounter of a singular nature.

"Brambles" is the name of Miss Bliss' residence.
"mesmerist" - a mesmerist was similar to a hypnotist and was an early pre-cursor to the psychologist.
"Brazier" - A brazier is a container for fire, generally taking the form of an upright standing or hanging metal bowl or box. Used for holding burning coal as well as fires, a brazier allows for a source of light, heat, or cooking. (Wikipedia)
"Navvies" - Navvy is a shorter form of navigational engineer (USA) or navigator (UK) and is particularly applied to describe the manual labourers working on major civil engineering projects. The term was coined in the late 18th century in Britain when numerous canals were being built, which were also sometimes known as "navigations". Canal navvies typically worked with shovels, pickaxes and barrows. (Wikipedia)
"muff" - Wikipedia states that this word may refer to:- Muff (handwarmer), a fashion accessory, usually of fur, for keeping the hands warm Earmuffs, a device for protecting the ears Big Muff, a famous distortion box Melbourne Underground Film Festival Muff, County Donegal, Ireland Muff (genitals), the external genital organs of the female Muff (hair), hair in the frontal genital area Muff (chicken), a mutation found in chickens Muff (American football), the dropping or mishandling of a loose ball
"song" - Although I was not present, I would hazard a guess that the song was "Keep yer 'and on yer Ha'penny", a popular music hall song that euphemistically has more sexual connotations regarding females and chastity.

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