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Title: Billy's Xmas
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1203221.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2012
Date most recently updated: August 2012

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Billy's Xmas
Author: Fred M. White

*

Published in the Chronicle, Adelaide, S.A., Saturday 11 December, 1915.

*

Billy Higgs stood listening there, the fighting light in his eyes
filling them with little red and orange specks. He clenched a lean, and
skinny fist, and shook it threateningly in the direction of the floor.
The boards were worn and rotten, and the snarling voice going on with
grinding monotony floated up to Billy's ears. Outside in the snowy court
a barrel organ droned monotonously; and yet, despite the cold and slush,
the ragged children danced to the music, for even down there, in that
poor, poverty-stricken district, the spirit of Christmas had penetrated,
and the pinched, white faces were wreathed with smiles. It was cold and
chilly to the bone up there, but Billy was not thinking of that just
now. He was wondering vaguely what sort of a Christmas he was likely to
get, and if there was any way of helping the man downstairs.

Now, Billy Higgs was young and tough and a little worldly, but at the
same time he had an artistic soul hidden away in that frail, underfed
body of his. Billy read a great deal of fiction. He knew vaguely that
Christmas passed for a happy time, though one of these had never come
his way, and he was wondering if this might prove an exception to the
rule, and incidentally how much longer John Kenyon was going to stand
it. There would be a tragedy some day, of course. Old Timothy Clark
would be found murdered in his bed one of these fine times, and John
Kenyon would be hanged. For Clark was Kenyon's employer--a cold,
hard-fisted skinflint of a man who sneered at everything but money, and
grudged the two days' holiday at Christmas as if they had been something
taken from his pocket. And there he was down below, girding Kenyon as
usual, and driving his unhappy clerk to the verge of madness. And Billy
knew a good deal of the art of nagging, for his mother had been a past
mistress of that particular form of torture, and Billy had seen his
father writhe and twist under it till--well, there had come an end of it
at last, and it had all happened as quickly as a flashlight picture. And
Billy's mother lay dead on the floor, and the big, silent man had walked
to the police-station and surrendered.

All this had happened five years ago, and in consequence, Billy was
still something of a celebrity in the neighborhood. He knew what it was
to lack a meal. He was grudgingly grateful to old Timothy Clark for the
garret he occupied over the office and the six shillings paid him weekly
for doing the errands and the old miser's frugal housekeeping. Time was
when Clark had done a flourishing business as a shipping agent, but that
was a thing of the past, and he was hard put to it to find occupation
for his clerk, John Kenyon, to whom he paid a pound a week and treated
as if he was the veriest mongrel that ever scavenged for a living in the
docks. Why did Kenyon put up with it?

He was a fine figure of a man, an athlete to his finger tips, with some
of the sweet fragrance of the country still clinging to him. He had a
handsome, pleasant face, and a clear blue eye which would have spoken
for his honesty anywhere. And yet here he was, week in and week out, the
bond slave of that miserable old miser, a victim to hate and malignity
never excelled by the villain of those lurid novelettes on which Billy
Higgs spent too many of his precious pennies. Doubtless there must be a
vengeance somewhere. Surely time must come when this good-looking slave
would be released from his bondage. And Billy had been wondering lately
if mayhap he might not have been selected by the gods as the chosen
instrument.

For he knew a good bit, did Billy. He knew, for instance, that some
years before Kenyon had married Clark's niece. He knew that this had
given mortal offence to the old man, for it had deprived him of an
excellent servant and a housekeeper to whom he paid nothing. It had been
a stolen marriage, and yet within a few weeks Kenyon was down there at
Wapping acting as Clark's factotum, and apparently bought body and soul
for twenty shillings weekly, and this in the face of the fact that Clark
openly said that all his money would go to charity.

"Lor', listen to 'im," Billy muttered. "There will be murder done down
there some day, sure as fate. Got an 'old over 'im, 'e 'ave. Forged
papers or somethink. I knows. Locked away in that ole desk of 'is. Jest
like a story in that 'Britannia' series. And 'ere's me creepin' abaht
the 'ouse and watchin' the ole geyser, and 'im none the wiser. 'Ere's
the chance for an 'ero. And dash me if I don't do it. Give 'im a 'appy
Christmas, per'aps, an' me sittin' at the table along of 'em drinkin' of
sherry wine. Lor', I could write one o' them stories meself, if I 'ad
the eddication. Come along then."

Billy's thoughtful, somewhat truculent expression softened wonderfully
as he knelt upon the floor. From his pursed lips came a low whistle, and
immediately a tiny brown object crept into the middle of the room. From
one of his pockets Billy produced a pinch of crumbs, and the mouse came
and took the food boldly from his hand. He fondled the small rodent
tenderly, speaking to it as if it had been human and capable of
understanding every word that he said. Then he flicked his fingers, and
the mouse was gone.

"Now I'm goin' to be very busy," the boy declared.

Down below the snarling grinding voice had ceased. In the court urchins
shrilly cried aloud for the miscreant who had stolen the baby's milk. By
this Billy knew that Clark had gone out and that the juvenile population
was ragging him according to their wont.

Not for nothing had he been a close student of the blood-and-thunder
school of detective fiction. And, remember, he knew a good deal, did
William. And he was fond of this man, and, perhaps, fonder still of the
pretty, kind-hearted woman, now Kenyon's wife, who had been the first
person in his drab life to treat him as a human being. Ah, well, he was
going to pay that debt now. And, perhaps, afterwards they would take him
away to their house in the country, and send him to school. Bill had
been in the country once on a day's outing with the slum children, and
he dreamt of it still. He advanced boldly to the man leaning over the
desk.

"Guv'nor," he said--"guv'nor, you're in trouble."

"That's very clever of you, Bill," Kenyon, said bitterly.

"Oh, no, it ain't," the boy went on. "You are in the power of yonder
scoundrel. 'E's got an 'old over yer. Two innocent lives are embittered
by that wicked wretch. If you could put yer 'ead on the forged document
all would be well. You could defy the miscreant to do his worst, you
could laugh in his beard."

"He hasn't got a beard," Kenyon said wearily. "It's quite evident to me
that you're reading too many of those trashy novelettes. I know you mean
well, William, but you cannot possibly help me. I must go my own way,
and put up with the consequences. What's that you say? Oh, yes, if you
want to know, he has got a hold ever me. Most people guess that, I
suppose."

"Now, look 'ere," Billy said soothingly. "I've been thinking. What you
wants is a proper sort of Christmas. It's getting pretty close now, but
there's plenty of time, if you only does as I tells yer. If you really
wants to give old Timothy the push----"

"No man would serve Timothy Clark who had the strength to break stones.
It's very odd I should be talking to you like this. But you can't do
anything. So long as the family skeleton remains, it is my duty to
shield it from the public eye."

"No, it ain't," Bill insisted. "Once aboard the lugger--I mean, if we
could get hold of the forged papers, why, we've got that ole blighter in
a tight place, and don't you forget it."

"So you are sure there are papers?" Kenyon asked.

"Of course I am, guv'nor. And, what's more, they're in yonder desk. You
have only got ter say the word----"

"No, no," Kenyon said, hastily. "I'm no thief."

"Once an 'ero always an 'ero," Bill said, complacently. "I knew you
wouldn't do it when I made the suggestion. But that's the place where
the papers are, all right. How do I know? I keep my eyes open of course.
Don't I live in the place, and don't I keep a sharp watch on the old
man? If yer cast yer innercent eye up yer will see an 'ole in the
ceiling--made that mysel', I did. Many a night 'ave I watched the
perisher countin' his money and his notes and chuckling to 'isself, like
one o' them ghouls you reads abaht. I could take you at this very moment
to the 'oard where the treasure is 'idden. But I ain't no thief neither,
guv'nor. I tell you as 'ow I'm what my favorite writer calls the Chosen
Instrument. But I'm gettin' a bit off the map, I am. Every night the ole
man does the same thing. He always winds up the same way. When 'e's put
his money away 'e opens the desk yonder and takes aht two or three
pipers wot's fastened together by a helastic band. There ain't more than
enough, to make 'arf a dozen spills, and yet he chuckles over them, and
laughs like a Chinese idol. Then, arter 'e's cursed you a bit, 'e goes
and actually kisses them pipers afore 'e puts 'em back agin. Lor bless
yer, I've seen 'im do it a score of times. And there the papers is
shoved away in that desk at the present moment."

Kenyon half-rose from his seat, then dropped back with a groan.
Salvation might be to his hand, but it could not come to him in that
way. And Clark would be merciless, as he knew full well.

"Yer feelin's does yer credit," Bill said, patronisingly. "All the sime,
yer kin leave it to me. You 'av a bit on Bill 'Iggs. I've thought aht a
way. There's not one of them writin' blokes ever copped such a winner.
Now, to-morrow is Saturday. You goes off at one o'clock and don't come
back till Monday mornin'. The ole man 'e goes off on Saturday, and 'e
don't come back till Monday mornin' neither. Where 'e goes to, Heaven
knows. Perhaps 'e's got someone else under 'is thumb; but that don't
matter. When you turn up on Monday mornin' give 'im the sack. Say you
ain't comin' any more. Tell 'im to go to Jericho. And if he cuts up
rough, ask 'im to produce the pipers. 'E won't be able to produce--why?--they won't be there."

Billy's voice had sunk to an excited whisper. He shrewdly read the doubt
which was passing in Kenyon's mind.

"Not 'arf," he went on, eagerly. "I ain't goin' to touch the desk. I
won't lay a finger on it except to--but that's my business. When the ole
man comes to open the desk them pipers won't be there. You can gamble on
that, guv'nor; but, of course, if you're afraid----"

"A desperate man is afraid of nothing, Billy," Kenyon said. "In any
case, I cant be worse off than I am already."

Billy smiled the smile of conscious victory. "That's all right," he
said. "Don't you worry. Jest defy 'im and leave the rest to me. And now
let us dissemble."

       *       *       *       *       *

Billy Higgs was busy in what he called, in his expansive moments, the
outer office. He was making a pretence of dusting, but as a matter of
fact he was straining his ears so as not to lose a word of the
conversation that was going on between Kenyon and his employer. This was
not a difficult matter, and Billy grinned expectantly as he heard
Clark's snarling voice rising higher and higher. It was as if that
dreadful old man grudged Kenyon his Sunday respite, and was now making
up for lost time. Would Kenyon be able to rise to the occasion? Billy
had his doubts. He had been Clark's bond-slave so long that possibly all
the steel had been hammered out of him. It began to look like it, and
Billy's anger rose accordingly. The snarling voice droned in and then
snapped suddenly.

"Enough!" Kenyon cried. "Another word and I will strangle you! For the
last ten minutes you have been taking your life in your hands. I have
finished, you miserable miser! If I grasped you by that skinny throat of
yours and squeezed the life out of you, I should be doing humanity a
service. And heaven knows how near I have been to it many a time. But I
have finished. When I leave this office I turn my back upon it for ever.
I have finished my term of penal servitude, and from this moment I am
free."

Clark broke into a cackle of laughter. His evil face, lined and scored
with avarice and greed, lighted up in triumph.

"So you begin to feel the lash," he sneered. "I knew I would make you
squeal at last. I have been waiting years for this. Waiting to see the
galled jade wince. You want to skin me, do you? You want to creep up
behind me and batter my brains out? Your fingers itch to be at me, do
they? Ah, this is a moment worth living for! I owe you and that rascally
brother of yours a heavy debt, which I mean to pay to the last farthing.
You have been long in the breaking but I have broken you now. I love my
money but I love my vengeance more. Your brother robbed me of all those
thousands and as if that was not enough, you come along and take my
niece away. But I knew how to strike. I could hit your brother through
that invalid wife of his. I could strike a blow at her which would send
her to her grave. Every time that man hears the postman at the door,
every time a stranger calls, he knows all the agony of exposure and
punishment. He knows that I may change my mind at any time and send him
to gaol. There's a revenge for you! To save your brother I made a
compact with you. So long as you come here to be my slave and tool I
hold my hand, and this is the way I punish you because you took that
girl away, and so it will go on till I reach the grave. Sit down you
rascal, and go on with your work. And let me thank you for your handsome
Christmas box. Christmas indeed!"

Billy Higgs drank all this in greedily. As a connoisseur of rascally
heroics Clark's effort commanded his entire approval. This was exactly
what he had hoped for, and, so far, none of the necessary ingredients
of the drama had been wanting.

"I think not," Kenyon said quietly. He had himself perfectly in hand
now. "The thing is finished. You cannot harm me; and so far as my
brother is concerned, you may do your worst. I have yet to learn that
those incriminating documents are still in existence. If they are, I
shall be very glad to see them."

"Oh, you doubt me, do you?" Clark cried. "You want me to fetch the
papers from the bank and show them to you. And then you can take them
from me by force and destroy them."

"You know that I shall do nothing of the sort. You know perfectly well
that you could place them in my hands with every confidence."

"Yes, I know that," Clark admitted, grudgingly. "You were always a
quixotic fool. So you think those papers do not exist? You are mistaken,
for they do. And, what's more, they are in this very room. In that
ship's box yonder. I keep nothing else there. When I am alone at night I
gloat over them. Oh, I am a cunning villain, Kenyon. You little dreamt
that the papers were under your very eyes all this time. By heavens, I
will show them to you. And if, after you have seen them, you still defy
me----"

Clark's voice trailed off into a hoarse whisper. He took a quaint old
key from his waistcoat pocket, and fitted it to the lock of the box. It
was something complicated in the way of a lock, and only an expert could
have picked it. With the same leering grin upon his face, Clark threw up
the lid of the box, and beckoned Kenyon to his side. Then his face
changed to a dull red, and from thence to sickly yellow as he saw that
the desk was empty. There was nothing inside but a handful of tiny blue
shreds, fine as chaff, littered about on the dusty bottom of the box.

"What demon's work is this?" Clark screamed. "How did you manage it? Oh,
you infernal thief, you----"

He staggered to a chair, breathless and incapable of speech. In the
outer office Billy Higgs rocked to and fro with silent laughter. Amongst
all the heroes of his favorites there had never been one who had brought
off a coup half so dazzling as this. He waited anxiously for the next
movement in the drama. No further sound came from the inner office.
Clark sat there utterly beaten, trembling like one in the presence of
some nameless danger. There was no more to be said, no more to be done.
Then the door of the office shut with a sullen bang, and Kenyon
appeared. He held out his hand to Billy without a word, then pressed a
sovereign and a visiting-card into Billy's grimy fist.

"You are a wonderful boy," he whispered. "Come to this address on
Christmas morning, and tell me all about it. I am not coming back; I
have finished here. You had better wait for an hour or so, for I have a
strong suspicion that that wretched old man would be all the better for
seeing a doctor."

Billy nodded with an air of importance. It was only fair to him that he
should be left in charge of the situation. "That's all right, guv'nor,"
he said. "I told you as 'ow William would pull you through, and 'e's
done it. So long."

       *       *       *       *       *

Billy sat in the seat of honor on Mrs. Kenyon's right hand. Never in his
life before had he sat down in a perfectly appointed dining-room, at a
table covered with a white cloth, a table gay with flowers, and bright
with silver and glass; but, all the same, he regarded this as his due,
and he sat there with the smiling air of a conqueror. He had partaken
of turkey and plum-pudding, and drank some wonderful stuff, which he
knew by instinct to be champagne. There was a gaudy cap from a cracker
on the back of his head; but that in no way detracted from the solemnity
of the occasion. Billy had learnt several things in the last half-hour.
He knew, for instance, that this fascinating old house was Kenyon's own
property, and that he was to regard it as his home for the future. And
he was not going to Wapping any more--he was going to school.

"I have told you these things because you are more or less one of the
family," Kenyon said. "I am not going to dwell upon the moral side of
our recent drama, though I suppose it is possible to argue that all is
fair in love and war. Two years ago this property was left to me, but I
never dared to make the fact known so long as I was under the thumb of
that old scoundrel. But he is dead now. If he had known that I had money
he would have blackmailed me of the last penny I had. This is why I went
on drudging daily at Wapping in the hope that some time fortune would
look my way. I never thought that fortune would come disguised as my
friend Mr. William Higgs. Who could have possibly dreamt----"

"Oh, do stop Jack," Kitty Kenyon said. "I am dying to hear how the thing
was done. Please go on, Billy."

Very slowly, and with much dignity Billy produced a little box from his
pocket. As he opened the lid a tiny brown mouse came out and nestled in
the hollow of his hand.

"There's the little 'ero," he said. "Found 'im in my bedroom months ago
and tamed 'im so 'e'd come and eat aht o' me 'and. Lived in a little
box, 'e did, the sime box I kept me books in. You remember the day as I
was knocked dahn by that motor-bus? Forty-eight hours in 'orspital that
cost me. When I comes aht I recollect little Joe 'ere, and 'im all that
toime withaht any grub. And blowed if 'e 'adn't eaten 'arf a novelette
and tore the rest to pieces no bigger than a pin's 'ead. And that's wot
give me the idea. I knowed all abaht them incriminatin' pipers and 'ow I
could save my friend Mr. Kenyon if I could get rid o' them. Then I tikes
Joe and shoves 'im through the little 'ole in the box and dabs a bit o'
clay over it. That were Saturday. Monday mornin' I gets Joe back again,
and--well, bloomm' simple after all, wasn't it!"


THE END.


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