The Upright Man

24 May

The populous port of Londville possesses a richly colorful underworld. This criminal class has developed a unique vocabulary of cant words. About a century ago, this secret language became the center of interest for a philologist named Nue Tamin. His voluntary submersion below the level of normal society proved to be more of an adventure than he had foreseen or prepared himself for.

Down the cobbled streets and alleyways of the East End wandered the long, narrow figure of Nue till he located the stalling ken of Jox Atant, the well-known staller fence or receleur to whom the scholar had been referred by mutual acquaintances. This merchant in stolen goods lived in a large stone residence with a huge warehouse attached behind it. The criminal middleman was the best possible source of needed information, Nue had been told. He was now to test that proposition against the reality.

Jox, answering the front door himself, was a short middle-aged man with black hair streaked with white. His raven eyes took immediate measure of the stranger never seen before.

“You must be the lingo researcher from Londville University,” creaked his voice.

“Yes,” answered the visitor, offering his right hand. “My name is Nue Tamin.”

The fence gave it a limp squeeze, then led his guest into the dark central corridor of the residence. A variety of strange antiques cluttered the long hallway. At the far end, Atant guided Nue into a brightly lantern-lit library.

Once the two were seated opposite each other across a vervain desk, the fence began.

“I do not know how I can be of assistance to you, my good man. But in the cause of increasing human knowledge, it seems my duty to help you all that I can.”

“Thank you,” replied Nue with a subtle smile. “My first step must be the making of a canters’ dictionary, describing the secret vocabulary of East End thieves and outlaws.”

“How do I fit into your enterprise, my friend?” sharply inquired Atant.

“First, allow me to assure you that I am no police agent or snitch of any sort. My interest is purely one of the science of language called philology. Nothing more than that.”

“I harbor no doubts or suspicions,” said the staller. “As long as we use no specific names, I am willing to speak freely for the sake of this study of yours.”

“My lips shall be sealed by a solemn pledge of confidentiality,” promised Nue. “Nothing you relate to me shall be used beyond research purposes.”

The fence gazed fixedly into the Cimmerian blue eyes of the academic.

“Do you know what I was before entering this type of commerce? A jarkman. Do you have any notion what that includes?”

“No,” mutely confessed Tamin.

“I was a counterfeiter, producing false licenses and certificates, mostly for impersonators, swindlers, and beggars. My wide network of acquaintance suggested I go into my present business, in which I have prospered magnificently.”

“Will you help me make a list of the underworld categories you deal with?”

“Certainly,” nodded Jox, “and we shall begin this very evening, my friend.”

Nue Tamin returned home that night with his pocket notebook full of descriptions of pads and prigs who supplied Jox Atant as their “lock”. The location where a fence keeps his goods is a “plant”, the scholar had discovered.

A “kencracker” was a housebreaker, a “jumper” a thief who enters through a window, a “rusher” knocks on the door and runs in, an “angler” uses a stick with a hook at the end to rob shop windows and grates.

Nue was amazed by the appellations new to him he had recorded during the first session. A “glazier” breaks window displays. A “fire prigger” robs by pretending to remove an owner’s possessions from a burning building. A “fam lay” occurs when a thief enters the shop of a goldsmith, claims to be shopping for a wedding ring, and palms himself a few.

“Blue pigeons” were specialists who knew how to steal the lead from the roofs of churches.”Bufe nabbers” stole expensive dogs. A “sneaking budge” slips into houses at night to take clothing. In the “dobin rig” women disguised as servants stole ribbands from haberdashers. “Lumpers” are stevedores hired to unload ships who help themselves to cargo goods. “Rum bubbers” take silver tankards from taverns. “Lully priggers” snatch linen from clotheslines.

The scholar fell asleep at his desk over his definitions of the “faggers” and “little snakesmen”, the little boys trained to enter houses through sinkholes and windows to open them to gangs of thieves.

When Nue awoke, morning light was streaming into his flat.He went to the door to pick up his copy of the news gazette. One article on the first page immediately focused his mind.

“Merchant brutally killed in East End home,” said the heading.

His first thought was a correct one: the victim had to be Jox Atant.

Nue walked back to where he had been the previous evening, uncertain what he meant to do there. He was unable to stay away. Some unseen magnet seemed to be drawing him to its center.

The gazette had said little beyond describing the crime as horrendously violent. Wounds of extreme bloodiness had been given to the businessman before he expired. An unusual act of atrocity had occurred.

A large camion with two dray nags in front stood before the residence. A pair of husky men were bringing heavy objects out of the building and depositing them onto the vehicle.

What is going on at the crime scene? he asked himself, deciding to approach and pose some questions. The man he addressed was a bulky giant with curly blond hair.

“Are you removing the inventory of the owner who was murdered?” asked Nue.

The stranger’s topaz eyes examined him with care and audacity.

“You must be the one who was here to see Jox last night. That could mean that you were the last person to see him alive. Did he give any sign of fearing danger?”

“No,” replied Nue, staring intently into the face of the man in charge of the transportation of the fence’s supply of goods.

All at once, the large man offered his right hand to the scholar.

“Let me introduce myself. I am Eneo Leal, close associate of the late lock who was killed last night. The police have been warned not to return or interfere with our taking of what Jox has stored up in the building.”

Nue introduced himself, describing what his purpose had been the previous evening.

“Did he tell you anything about the Gormagons?”

“No, there was no mention of that term. It is, in fact, unfamiliar to me.”

All at once, Leal placed a hand on the other’s elbow.

“Let us go into the house,” he proposed. “We can sit down and converse in he parlor.”

The pair sat opposite each other on antique sofa chairs covered with purple silk.

“As everyone knows, there are various coveys that operate in the different regions and sections of Londville. This has been so as far back as anyone’s memory goes. Here in the East End, the covey in charge is the one that I head. But there are continual conflicts with neighbors.

“To the south of us, in the area called Bathside, the main force is the covey that has the name of the Gormagons. They are a rough, tough outfit determined to expand their territory, and my group stands in their way. There was an attempt to recruit Jox away from his alliance with us, but he refused all tempting offers made to him.

“I understand his killing as vengeance for his loyalty to us, and a waning of what can be expected in the future from these Gormagons.”

Nue looked at him with an expression of astonishment.

“I did not know anything of this,” he admitted. “But since it is impossible for Mr. Atant to help me any longer, could I beg you for assistance as a research source?”

“You wish me to reveal the operation of my covey to you?”

“Yes,” answered Nue, attempting a weak smile.

The underworld chieftain gave a laugh. “Very well, let us begin.”

In the days that followed, the philologist picked up a lot of information in his sessions with Leal. The head of the East End covey was called Arch Rogue, Dimber Damber, or the Upright Man.

Nue visited the headquarters from which Eneo trained and sent out his crew of beggars, what was called his Stop Hole Abbey. From this location, the “carriers” and “cruisers” went forth to locate likely targets for theft and burglary. “Glimmerers” roamed the streets, claiming losses to fire. “Flying porters” approached victims of robbery, claiming they could recover their goods for a fee. Playing the “fawney rig”, a pair drop a brass ring on a street, claim to find it, then sell it to a simpleton for ten times its value. “Dudders” and “duffers” travel the countryside, offering what they say are smuggled goods but are old and damaged wares. A “dommerer” begs with a sign claiming he is deaf and dumb or that the pirates cut off his tongue. A “whip jack” shouts out that he is a shipwrecked sailor just ashore. One claiming he is a farmer ruined by flood or hurricane is called a “sky farmer”. The beggar who poses as a genteel victim is a “mumper”. An “Abram man” or “mad Tom” acts in an insane manner. Th “blind harper” plays a fiddle and pretends to be sightless. “Boung nippers” are simple cut-purses. The “cloak twitchers” of the covey lurked in dark alleys to snatch overclothes and coats.

Nue was introduced to a champion pickpocket called a “knuckle” or an “autem diver” who plied his trade in churches. He learned that the highest order of “foists” and “divers” were also called “sharks”. A “wiper drawer” told him that he only stole handkerchiefs. The pair called a “bulk and file” operated as a team, the former jostling the victim while the latter takes his purse, or “files the oly.” One who steals a watch is “filing a loge.”

One day, Eneo revealed the origin of the name of the Gormagon covey.

“It was an ancient monster with six eyes and three mouths,” he murmured. “Some say that it had four arms and eight legs and often carried a woman on its back.”

“Why do those people use it as their symbol, then?” inquired the researcher.

The Upright Man grinned. “It was easy for such a creature to dominate the streets,” he said with a laugh.

It was an “eriff”, an apprentice pickpocket, who accosted Nue on an East End street and informed him of the murder of Eneo Leal.

“He was horribly slaughtered and cut up in the lig he slept on. His very own kip!” shouted the student diver.

Completely shaken, Nue hurried to the “abbey” to pick up information. No one of the covey could provide him more. The police had come, looked about, and taken away the dead body.

“Who will now become the Arch Rogue?” asked Nue of those still congregated there. No reply came from anyone. No robber, thief, pickpocket, or beggar broke the silence. The eyes of the group centered on the stranger who had recently come among them. Their faces sent him a message without a word from any tongue.

You are the one who must lead us and take revenge for what happened to our Dimber Damber.

Nue attempted to provide them some excuse.

“I have no experience. My knowledge of your crafts is incomplete. I may make mistakes.”

The looks at him became more intense and forceful.

What was he to do? What right had he to refuse to serve their cause?

“Very well,” he relented. “But I shall need the assistance of everyone in the covey.”

Many voices promised him help and advice. The prevailing gloom disappeared. The following day a team of beggars and pickpockets moved his belongings to the gang’s abbey house.

The change-over was swift and smooth. After several weeks, Nue settled comfortably into his new post, one he could never before have imagined himself occupying. From philologer to covey headman! The inconceivable had happened to him.

But there is an ominous peril hanging over me, Nue told himself at scattered moments. What the Gormagons did to Jox Atant and to Eneo Leal was something that threatened the new leader.

His mind began to speculate about strategems that might be applied in defense. Asking many questions, he found out about some of the clever schemes used by them in theft and fraud.

“Rufflers” were beggars pretending to be maimed soldiers or sailors. “Pinchers” offered to make change for passersby, but managed to shortchange the foolish. “Buffers” stole horses and dogs, then skinned them. “Tatsmen” gambled with “uphills” or false dice. A “smudge” would steal into a house, lie all day under the bed, then open the doors for his confederates at night.

Sly “reader merchants” crowded into banks in fine dress to take pocketbooks from those receiving dividends that day. “Queer plungers” drove into the river to be rescued and taken to humane stations where they proceeded to rob. “Stock jobbers” gambled on the fluctuations of public funds without buying or owning any, operating in the alley behind the real exchange.

How was he going to deal with such cunning canters?

Sensing that Gormagon eyes watched him in the streets, Nue began to go out at night, and through murky back-alleys. Then, an idea suddenly struck him. He called a meeting of his closest, most trusted associates and presented a plan to them. Work on it began immediately. In the alley behind the covey’s abbey, a large pit was dug, then covered with a collapsible canvass. This was to be an entrapping trepan meant to ensnare the foe.

In the evenings, Nue would go out onto the small back veranda of the building, waiting for the expected attack to commence.

The crepuscule of twilight long past, the alley seemed to be caligilously opaque, without light of any sort whatever. No noise came through, though movement was obviously occurring.

Sitting on the stoop of the porch, Nue could sense what was about to happen out here.

Any crew would be made up of the best canting operatives among the Gormagons. He wondered whether they would be amenable to what he planned to propose when they were captured. But first there had to happen the actual ensnarement of these enemies.

His eyes could not make out anything but a beam in front of them, yet he knew what was there.

The crashing sound of the trepan falling indicated in a second that the climax had arrived. A team of expectantly waiting nyppers ran out of the back door of the abbey. They carried hand lanterns and quickly made out the situation.

“Only one prisoner is in the net!” yelled out one of the crew.

“Take hold of the cull,” answered Nue, “and bring him into the cellar for questioning.”

This is my great opportunity, he told himself, if the prisoner turns out the right individual.

As the captured attacker was picked up and carried into the structure, one of the canters came over to Nue and whispered to him.

“I think that this one is the Upright Man who rules over the Gormagons, sir.”

Tamin said nothing, but smiled in the now lighted darkness.

Yes, here was an important event, if matters turned out as he wished them to. For he now aimed at an important victory of a political kind tonight.

His ambitions had now soared to previously unimaginable altitudes.

He now dreamed of great combinations. First, the coveys of East End and Bathside. Then, an increasing fraction of Londville.

Never before had there been an Upright Man with the reach and power that he dreamed of acquiring for himself.

Was all of this in my unconscious mind when I first came here to study the cant speech of the underworld? the scholar asked himself as he headed for the cellar.


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