When the story starts, they are living in poverty in dingy lodgings in London with their loyal servant, an ex-soldier called Lazarus. Marco has made friends with a street boy nicknamed ‘The Rat’. The Rat is the leader of a group of street boys who wear ragged clothes, go barefoot, and do not go to school. One evening, The Rat comes to the lodgings and says that his father has died in a drunken fit. Marco and his father welcome him, and The Rat clearly wants to stay with them.
... Loristan did not turn and walk away. He looked deep into the lad’s eyes as if he were searching to find some certainty. Then he said in a low voice, ‘You know how poor I am’ ... ‘I am so poor that I am not sure that I can give you enough dry bread to eat – always. Marco and Lazarus and I are often hungry. Sometimes you might have nothing to sleep on but the floor. But I can find a place for you if I take you with me,’ said Loristan. ‘Do you know what I mean by a place?’Later in the story, Marco’s father has left the lodgings and the landlady, Mrs Beedle, is worried about whether they can pay the rent.
‘Yes, I do,’ answered The Rat. ‘It’s what I’ve never had before – sir.’
‘That’s just what I want to find out about,’ put in [Mrs Beedle]. ‘When is he [Marco’s father] coming back?’After finding out that they have enough money to cover the rent for one, possibly two more weeks if they are very frugal:
‘I do not know,’ answered Marco.
‘That’s it,’ said Mrs Beedle. ‘You’re old enough to know that two big lads and a fellow like that can’t have food and lodgin’s for nothing ... Your father’s out of sight. He,’ jerking her head towards Lazarus, ‘paid me for last week. How do I know he will pay me for this week!’
‘The money is ready,’ roared Lazarus.
‘Is there so little money left?’ said Marco. ‘We have always had very little. When we had less than usual, we lived in poorer places and were hungry if it was necessary. We know how to go hungry. One does not die of it.’
The big eyes under Lazarus’s beetling brows filled with tears.
‘No, sir,’ he said, ‘one does not die of hunger. But the insult – the insult! That is unendurable.’
‘Never mind,’ said Marco. ‘Never mind. We will go away the day we can pay no more.’In the pre-Welfare State world, people’s minds were constantly preoccupied with the urgent need for money to buy food, pay the rent, and support their families; and for work as a way of obtaining money. Therefore people wanted to do what other people wanted, in order to be paid for it. As a result, the motivation to ‘get at’ other people, by making them do things for themselves, was suppressed.
‘I can go out and sell newspapers,’ said The Rat’s sharp voice. ‘I’ve done it before. Crutches help you to sell them. The platform would sell ’em faster still. I’ll go out on the platform.’
‘I can sell newspapers, too,’ said Marco.
Lazarus uttered an exclamation like a groan.
‘Sir,’ he cried, ‘no, no! Am I not here to go out and look for work? I can carry loads. I can run errands.’
‘We will all three begin to see what we can do,’ Marco said.
People had been selected, for centuries if not millennia, by being able to do better than other people in these circumstances.
Once there is a Welfare State, which removes the threat of starvation, people start to interact with one another on quite different terms, and this affects everything that goes on, not only the attitude to working – such as people’s levels of politeness and honesty.
* Illustration taken from the US 1915 edition, published by The Century Company, New York.
I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.