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Title: Mere Details Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200831h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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WHEN Reuben Tomfit drifted casually into the great colony up there at the head of the watershed behind Prestyn, in search of work, Gipsy rose to him at once and attached him to his own gang of navvies. The little man with the ear-rings, with that fine eye of his for dramatic possibilities, could see in his new hand a human document of the most fascinating kind. Beyond all question there was a story lurking behind the man with the ridiculous name, and all Gipsy's instincts were aroused. He could see in Tomfit not merely a muscular Christian, with a fine capacity for sound, honest work, but also one who is unmistakably a gentleman with a history. Like all his class, Gipsy had an unerring eye for what he called a "toff," and beyond question Tomfit was one of these. Not even his shaggy suit and the absence of a collar could disguise the fact, and it was plain from the way he carried himself that he had done nothing to be ashamed of. He was a young man with a clear-cut, weary face, a clean blue eye, and as fine a set of muscles as Gipsy had ever seen. He spoke, too, in a lazy, languid way, and his capacity for taking chaff touched on the fringe of genius. He could fight, too, as Gipsy had seen on more than one occasion, and after that the Settlement began to take him for granted.
But not so Gipsy. His literary curiosity impelled him to lay hands upon the sealed book. For here was the hero of one of Gipsy's most sentimental dramas. Here was the unhappy victim of cross-eyed fortune, driven from his ancestral home to fight the battle of life and hack his way back to prosperity. If the Settlement had been a gold mine instead of the centre of a gigantic water system, then Gipsy would have seen his way more clearly. As it was, the little man could not make up his mind how to tap the golden stream and lead his hero back to happiness and the arms of the inevitable beautiful heroine who was doubtless lingering somewhere there in the misty and illusive background.
Gipsy's efforts, however, were not wasted, for something like a friendship sprang up between the two men, and the native dramatist was proud of it. He inveigled Tomfit into one or two of his poaching excursions, and actually learned something new in the way of "dapping" for trout from his mysterious friend. It was quite plain that Tomfit was a fine all-round sportsman, and Gipsy respected him accordingly. He was proud to be seen about with this man, and flattered by the curiosity of his mates, who, naturally enough, wanted to know something of the antecedents of the new-comer. The temptation was too great to be resisted, and there came a time one evening, in the canteen, when the floodgates of Gipsy's eloquence fell, and he spoke. The fact that Tomfit never came near the canteen was all in the romancer's favour.
"O' course, it's all in confidence between me an' you, blokes," Gipsy said. "But I don't mind tellin' yer as the cove wot calls 'isself Tomfit, and comes 'ere earnin' 'is bread by the sweat o' that marble brow of 'is is Lord Algy Fitzlangham. 'E is called that because, yer see, 'e 'appens to be the second son of a certain earl whose name I ain't at liberty to mention."
Somebody in the background laughed, and a snigger went round the little circle of smokers. It was felt that Gipsy was in his very best form to-night. He smiled loftily.
"O' course," he said, " if yer thinks I'm a bloomin' liar, then, there ain't no more to be said."
"Go on, Gipsy," the chorus said soothingly.
"Right O," Gipsy resumed. "Seein' that I 'ad it from the bloke's own lips, I don't care whether yer believe me or not. Perhaps yer will say presently as 'e ain't a toff."
"Any fool could see that," a listener muttered.
"Very well, then. Anybody else got anything to say? Anybody anxious to collect a thick ear? No? Well, it's like this. The earl wot I was talkin' about, 'e's got two sons. 'E's a old cove, with one foot in the grave. 'E and 'is ancestors afore 'im, they've lived in the old castle for about a thousand years. They was rich at one time, but for a long time they've been so poor that they're 'ard put to it sometimes to keep them retainers of theirs in food. Pretty near 'ad to sell all the family plate wot they've been feeding off for generations. An' the estates are all mortgaged to a chap in London wot's a miser—you know the sort o' cully I mean."
"Like a chap in a play I once saw," someone interrupted. "Jew, 'e was—name o' Fagin, I think."
"It's a pleasure to 'ave a listener like you, Ginger," Gipsy said. "Well, this money-lending cove, 'e's got 'is 'ooks on the family estates, and 'is lordship 'e don't know wot to do. Then from Australia comes a niece, one o' them tall, dark, handsome gels with 'air like the raven's wing, an' she ups and tells the old man as she's the daughter of a brother of 'is wot went out yonder years ago, in consequence of some little unpleasantness with the police, and that now 'e's dead, and she's worth 'bout two millions o' money."
"An' the old lord 'e collars 'er for 'is daughter," Ginger suggested, stimulated by Gipsy's praise.
"You've got an intelligent grip, Ginger," Gipsy said patronisingly, "but you ain't quite right. You ain't quite enough up in the ways o' the aristocracy. Yer see, it was the eldest son as the old geeser wanted the girl for. You see, as 'e was heir to the estates, 'e 'ad to marry money. It didn't matter nothing 'bout the second son—by which I mean my pal, o' course—because 'e could go off cattle-sticking or pig-shooting, same as younger sons always does in the plays. So it all looked very gay, an' as if the money-lending bloke in London 'ud be done out o' the estates, after all. But it seems as the gel Ermyntrood didn't cotton to the eldest son at all. You see, 'e was a bit of a mug in 'is way, short-sighted and wore glasses, and never couldn't eat anything without dinner pills. Sort of bloke as couldn't fish or shoot, and wanted to go into Parliament—well, 'e weren't no good. O' course, this 'ere Ermyntrood she wasn't going to look at a cove like that when there was a real flyer like Lord Algernon sittin' up an' takin' notice. So these two they gits off shootin' and fishin' together, and, before they knows where they were, they was over 'ead and ears in love with one another, an' the eldest son—why, he weren't even in the bettin'! There weren't a footman on the premises who'd 'ave backed 'im for 'arf-a-crown!"
Gipsy paused to inhale his tobacco. He had his audience in the hollow of his hand now, and their rapt silence was soothing.
"Well, the old josser 'e finds out all about it, o' course, and a nice old temper 'e was in, too. So 'e takes Lord Algy on one side after dinner, when they was a-drinkin' o' their beer, same as you chaps an' me might be doin' 'ere, an' 'e speaks 'is mind free. 'E says if Lord Algernon don't 'op it, then all the props is knocked away an' the cuttin's full o' water. If Ermyntrood don't marry the eldest son, then the family estates are up the spout, an' no mistake. 'E rings the bell for another bottle o' beer, an' works on the young man's pride. O' course, 'e sees the force o' the argument, and, for the sake of 'is ancestors, makes up 'is mind to do a guy and leave Ermyntrood to think as 'e'd only been 'avin a bit o' fun with 'er all the time. If 'e does this, o' course she'll marry the eldest son, an'—well, there you are. And that's just wot 'e up and done."
"Some fools never know their luck," Ginger observed.
"Can't yer see as it was a sacrifice?" Gipsy asked him indignantly. "Can't yer see this is the way that proper toffs always behaves? You'd 'ave drunk the old man's beer an' told 'im to go and put 'is 'ead in a bag, you would!"
"That's right, mate," Ginger said promptly.
Gipsy was properly indignant. He had a good many sarcastic things to say touching the benighted ignorance of the class of man who knows nothing of the traditions and axioms of the British aristocracy as portrayed in the society novel. He was wrapped up in his subject, and unfolded his tale as if it had come hot from the lips of the unhappy Lord Algernon, and was being translated by a dramatist bubbling over with sympathy.
"'E's no mug," Gipsy conclu-ded. "He's a 'ero an' a martyr, an' I'm proud o' the fact as 'e 'as taken me into 'is confidence. An' as to 'is pluck—why, there's more'n one 'ere in the canteen wot's felt it!"
There was no gainsaying this, and further criticism of the mysterious Lord Algernon was suspended. It was a day or two later that the pluck in question was put to another test. Shortly before the dinner-hour was finished, and the whistles began to hoot hoarsely up and down the green slopes of the valley, a whisper ran from lip to lip, and the gangs of men came to their feet as if some hidden force was dragging at them.
In that zone of danger, embracing over ten thousand able-bodied men engaged in the titanic struggle against the forces of Nature, there were always perils, and one of them had dropped like a bolt from the blue now. Further up the valley was a long adit cut into the hillside, and intended later on to carry off a big volume of superfluous water in times of flood. A powerful stream across the adit, some fifty yards from the mouth, had given way before an unexpected landslide. In other words, at the top of the adit over thirty men had been cut off by that fall of earth, and the only way to reach them lay along a huge drain, which was now full of water. To dig down to those men meant the best part of a week's work, with every resource the engineers could employ. There was one forlorn hope, and that was to find someone strong enough and expert enough to dive along that black yawning drain and reach the prisoners the other end. Whoever undertook that ghastly peril, and succeeded, could convey enough dynamite about his person to blow out the end of the adit and thus free a body of men who otherwise would be doomed to a painful and lingering death.
The chance was a desperate and slender one, for the odds were long against any swimmer diving so far along that forbidding drain. There were scores of men—hundreds of them—there who would have faced an open peril without a moment's hesitation. But, for the most part, they hung back now, until the man called Tomfit pushed his way forward and surveyed that dark mouth critically as he finished his cigarette.
"I'll have a shot," he drawled. "Put up the stuff for me in a water-tight box, so that I can carry it round my neck. Get a move on, some of you! The more I look at it, the less I like it. Now, don't be all day!"
Quite leisurely he stripped himself, with the exception of his underclothing, and stood there waiting for the charge to be made ready. A moment later, and another semi-nude figure stood by his side. Gipsy grinned amiably.
"Two 'eads is better than one, mate," he said. "You go first, and I'll foller. Get going."
Tomfit waited for no more. He bent himself back like a strong, white bow, then plunged headlong into the inky water. He was followed a moment later by Gipsy, and then began a battle of pluck and sinew, of agony and endurance, on the one side, and the sullen force of Nature on the other. It was only a matter, perhaps, of a minute and a half, as time went, but to those two white heroes forcing their way in the pitch darkness it seemed more like hours. They did not know—they could not tell—what distance they had to go except by guess. Gipsy's head was reeling, his lungs were strained to the bursting-point; but still he struggled on and on, occasionally touching the heels of the man before him. Then Tomfit went down, and, with an inward snarl, Gipsy grabbed for him and turned over on his back, dragging a dead weight that seemed to be the last word of a tragedy. And then Gipsy realised that his head was out of that murderous flood, and the breath of life streaming through his quivering nostrils. It was a fine thing finely done, and the little man was feeling giddy at the contemplation of it. But Tomfit lay there, white and stark, with red froth at the corners of his lips.
A dozen men, lamp in hand, came eagerly forward, but there was no time for an explanation. Tomfit was huddled up in garments hastily stripped from the other men, and a flask forced between his teeth. He was coming back to life now, but obviously was hurt, as the crimson stain on his head proved. Then Gipsy detailed his plan. There was some risk here again, but they were all ready to take it.
Half an hour later the rescued navvies emerged from the dust and darkness into the light of day, and four of them carried the injured man between them. It was no far cry to Gipsy's hut, and there they laid him out for the inspection of the doctor.
"He'll be all right here for the present," he said. "I don't think there is anything very much the matter. I'll come round later in the afternoon, and, if he is no better, then we will get him along as far as the infirmary."
But the doctor did not come back, for the simple reason that there was another nasty business in connection with the falling of a crane higher up the valley, that kept all the medical men available going for some little time, so that perforce Gipsy had to act the part of nurse the rest of the day and through the night. When morning came, Tomlit was sensible and clear again, and Gipsy did not enlighten him as to the information he had vouchsafed during his temporary delirium. On the second day the patient was so much better that Gipsy found himself justified in leaving him to the care of a neighbour's wife. He was going away for a short time on business, he said, and would not be back before the end of the week. As a matter of fact, the drama was developing splendidly, and Gipsy was seeing his way to the creation of a part for himself such as he had previously only dreamt of. Therefore he made a painstaking toilet, he dressed himself in his best suit of pilot cloth, and set out over the hills to walk to the neighbouring town of Prestyn.
On the following Saturday afternoon a magnificent specimen of a car wended its way along the rough road leading to the head of the valley. It was all a-glitter with green varnish and plated lamps and fittings, and as the chauffeur picked his way daintily along, hundreds of astonished eyes became aware of the fact that the little figure with the dark eyes and earrings lounging back in the corner of the car against those luxurious cushions was none other than the man known to local fame as Gipsy. This was astounding enough in itself, but, even as it was, the dramatic possibilities of the situation were by no means exhausted. In the other corner of the car a woman was seated. She was wonderfully fair, hair glittering in the sunshine like spun gold, and eyes of tender blue turned upon Gipsy with a smile of the most friendly interest. She was a rare and dainty vision, clad in some wonderful confection of silk and muslin; the exquisite features were shaded by a large hat, the plumes of which filled every woman looking on with awe and admiration. It was, perhaps, the proudest moment of Gipsy's life, though he did not show it. He waved a condescending hand to a group of his mates, amongst whom was the sceptical Ginger, who gazed upon the unwonted spectacle with something like veneration.
"Strike me! Ain't 'e a little marvel?" he said. "Always up to some of 'is games. Tell yer wot it is, mates, wot 'e was telling us the other night abaht this 'ere Tomfit was gospel. And we was thinking as 'e was a-lying all the time!"
"So 'e were," a listener said. "Didn't 'e tell we as Lidy Ermyntrood was dark—didn't 'e say so—and abaht 'er 'air being like raven's wings? Get on! It's only one of 'is games. The lidy's come to see the boss, and she give Gipsy a lift. An' 'im pretendin' as it's Lidy Ermyntrood!"
"They've gone into 'is 'ut," Ginger said impressively.
This point being conceded in Ginger's favour, the spectators reluctantly went back to work, hoping to hear the end of this remarkable story later on.
Inside the hut, the man called Tomfit lay propped up by a couple of pillows, and looked wearily through the open door into the sunny valley beyond. Then he suddenly sat up in bed and listened like a dog might who hears the first sound of a long-absent master's voice. A shadow fell across the sunshine, and a slender, dainty figure came into the hut, as if she had brought that sunshine with her. She knelt down beside the bed and reached her arms round the neck of the man who was lying there. The blue eyes were full of tears.
"Oh, Phil," she whispered, "how could you? How could you be so dreadfully unkind? You must have known I never meant a word I said. No, don't go away!"
The last words were flung somewhat imperiously over the girl's shoulder towards Gipsy, who was silently stealing out of the hut. He flattered himself that he knew exactly what the dramatic conventions called for in a delicate situation like this. But, on the other hand, he was a man and a dramatist, and did not in the least want to go. Still—
"Can't be done, miss," he said. "In all the best plays wot I ever see, especially in the last act, the 'ero an' 'eroine they 'as the stage to theirselves."
"Oh, you funny little man." The girl laughed through her tears. "Can't you see I don't want you to go? I might never have seen my husband again, if you had not been so kind and sensible. Now, you just sit there and listen to all I have to say. And you pay attention too, Phil. Oh, I'm not angry—I'm far too happy for that—and I dare say you want to know how I found my way here, and how our friend Gipsy discovered me."
"Go on," Tomfit murmured. "I suppose I shall realise everything presently. So you mean to say that Gipsy came all the way down to Devonshire to find you? But I'd no idea that he was aware of your existence. Come, Gispy, old man, how did you find out that my name was Philip Trefusis, and that I had a wife living at Edenhurst, in Devonshire?"
"You let it out the night you got that knock on the 'ead," Gipsy explained. "You was delirious most of the time—told me all sorts of things, you did. Took me for the missus, I expect. You was acting a part—acting it bloomin' well, too. Then I noticed something was wrong, and there'd been some misunderstanding between two lovin' 'earts, so I takes the liberty of 'avin' a squint of that little pocket-book o' yourn. Then I'd got it all proper. There was a play already written! Lor bless yer, guv'nor, I 'adn't the 'eart to leave it unfinished! So I just says nothin' to you, an' off I 'ops into Devonshire, to 'ave it all out with the missus. An' fair and proud she was when I told 'er 'ow you got that crack on yer 'ead. It ain't every woman as can say she's spliced to a real 'ero."
"I've been a fool, Phil," the girl said, "a romantic little idiot. I married you because I loved you, and for no other reason. Then I must go reading some ridiculous book about big, silent men who do things and become Prime Ministers, and all that sort of nonsense; and, because you laughed at me, I was donkey enough to say that you married me for my money, and that you couldn't earn your own living if you wanted. And one word led to another. And then I told you that if you could keep yourself for six months without any help—"
"And I was ass enough to accept the challenge," Trefusis groaned. "So I came down here weeks ago, and I have been navvying ever since. Mind you, I don't think it has done me any harm. I have been a selfish beggar and inclined to take too much for granted. But the money never made any difference, Stella. You know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do," the girl whispered. "I knew it all the time. And now, if our friend Gipsy—"
It was a good fortnight later before the Settlement heard anything further from the main actor in this remarkable episode in Gipsy's career. For one thing, the born playwright had been away. Certain overtures towards advancement in life had been made to him by his new-found friends, but these he had rejected, for the present at any rate. The Settlement was too teeming with life and dramatic possibilities for that.
He dropped into the canteen one evening, and a respectful silence followed his coming—indeed, the silence was so flattering that Gipsy began to speak without any pressure.
"Now, I dare say you coves would like to know all about it," he said. "Well, this 'ere Tomfit—wot 'is real name is Philip Trefusis, Esquire, of Edenhurst, Devonshire—"
"'Ere, what price Lord Algernon?" Ginger asked.
"—An' 'is wife Stella," Gipsy went on.
"Oo put the kybosh on Lady Ermyntrood?" asked Ginger sternly. "An' wot price the bloomin' lord, eh?"
"And the gal with the raven 'air," another intruder ventured—"the gal from Australia with all the posh?"
"Lor, yer make me tired!" Gipsy said. "Presently you'll all be on yer knees to me, howlin' fer mercy an' broken-'earted because I won't take a sup from any of your pots. Now, it's like this—Philip Trefusis, Esquire, is married to a gel wot 'as tons of the stuff. She's as romantic as she's pretty. An' you blokes know how pretty she is, because you've seen 'er. Well, she can't be content with a 'usband as loves 'er, but she must try an' make 'im go into Parliament, an' so on. Then one word leads to another, an' she accooses 'im of marryin' 'er for 'er money, an' nothin' else. Then she up an' says as 'e's a rotter, an' couldn't do a day's work to save 'is life. 'Oh, that's the game, is it?' says 'e. So 'e slings 'is 'ook an' comes down 'ere, and works amongst us anonomous. Of course, 'e told me all about it, we bein' pals; but I didn't rightly know 'is proper name till 'e gets that crack on the 'ead, an' then I goes through 'is private papers. Then I 'ops off to Devonshire an' puts it all right with the missus. Back she comes 'ere with me, an' there was a reconciliation as ud 'ave made the fortune of the best writer as ever turned out a play for the Surrey Theatre. An' there was all sorts o' nice things said about Gipsy, an', if I likes, I can go down to Devonshire and 'ang my 'at up in the marble 'alls whenever I've a mind. An' that, mates, is about all I'm goin' ter tell yer."
"It's a good story," Ginger said thoughtfully, "but I'm sorry we ain't goin' to 'ear no more abaht Lidy Ermyntrood an' the old earl wot lived in that castle for a thousand years, an' give me black 'air in preference to fair 'air any time. Not as that Mrs. Trefusis wasn't a nice little party. I'm not sayin' anythink against 'er, mind; but if you'd a-told us the truth in the first case, we'd 'ave been saved a deal o' disappointment."
"Oh, sit on 'is 'ead!" Gipsy cried. "Don't you know as blokes wot write plays as is based on real life 'as to disguise their characters. Never 'eard tell of the law o' libel? Don't know wot libel is? Ginger, from my 'eart I pities yer ! Wot I 'eard was told me under the violet seal o' secrecy. Perhaps yer don't know what that means?"
Ginger sorrowfully admitted that he did not.
"It's a pledge," Gipsy went on. "Though wot violet's got to do with it, I don't know. Still, there yer are. I 'ad to make Mrs. Trefusis into Lidy Ermyntrood, and I 'ad to change the colour of 'er 'air. And my friend Trefusis naturally 'e grows into Lord Algernon. And 'ow could I tell you common chaps, sittin' round 'ere swiggin' beer, all abaht a private quarrel between a swell young chap an' 'is missus? Wot you coves lack is delicacy o' feelin'! An' now I've given you a lesson, p'r'aps you'll lay it to 'eart."
"You're right, Gipsy, old man," Ginger said generously. "As a gentleman, you couldn't 'ave be'aved any other way."
"Wot yer all goin' ter 'ave?" Gipsy said, with the air of a conqueror. "I'm payin' this time,"
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