a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Fiddle o' Dreams and More Author: Arthur Morrison * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1403441h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jan 2015 Most recent update: Feb 2016 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
[* Not included in this book *]
IN 1933 Hutchinson & Co., London, collected 15 short stories by Arthur Morrison that had previously appeared in magazines and other periodicals and published them under the title Fiddle o' Dreams and More. Print copies of this book are extremely rare. At the time of writing (February 2016) only one was being offered for sale at AbeBooks.com—at just over US$ 820.
The present (2nd) PGA edition of Fiddle o' Dreams and More was compiled, for the most part, from the original magazine versions of the stories and includes all of the accompanying illustrations. Three stories were unavailable when the first PGA edition of this book was prepared—"Fiddle o' Dreams," "The Four-Wont Way" and "A Return to the Fancy." Thanks for making the first two available for inclusion in this new edition go to Alan John, who donated digital copies of the original versions. As a result, the collection is now complete, except for "A Return to the Fancy," which made its first appearance in the British monthly The Magpie in August 1912.
If you have a copy of "A Return to Fancy" that you would like to share with other readers, please contact Project Gutenberg Australia or Roy Glashan's Library, and we will include them in the next edition of this e-book. —RG
THERE is a bow-window in the parlour of the Padfield Arms which gives a view of the village street on one hand and of the open road and the fields on the other. Either way offers an attractive walk to an idle man, and I stood in the window in the mood that induces such a man to toss up for it. But a man may be even too idle to toss up, and it struck me to leave the decision to two unconscious arbitrators: Dan'l Robgent, who, with his stick and his rheumatics, was approaching from the village street, and an unknown bicyclist who was coming up the road from Codham, with many swerves and wobbles, occasioned by desperate twisting of the neck and staring at the sky. Dan'l was close, the bicyclist was comparatively far. Which would pass the window first? With a brisk pedestrian and a cyclist intent on his journey, a dead-heat would seem likely; but Dan'l's rheumatics and the cyclist's interest in the heavens introduced factors of uncertainty and gave the chance a sporting interest.
Dan'l Robgent paused and rubbed his toe tenderly with his stick—he was losing ground; but after that slight refreshment he came on with quite a spurt, and the cyclist brought down his gaze and made a wild swerve to save his balance.
In the end victory lay with the unwitting Dan'l by the mere distance of the window from the inn-door; for there the two met, and the bicyclist dismounted to ask Dan'l some question which was ungraciously received.
"No," I heard Dan'l say, very severely, "I hain't seen no hairyplane, so there!"
The bicyclist grinned.
"All right," he answered. "Keep your hair on, oad 'un! I didn't mean oad Taff-Pilcher's!"
And with that he turned to his machine and drifted up the village street.
There were military manoeuvres in this part of Essex, and a rumour had been heard that aeroplanes were to fly. So that I wondered at Dan'l's indignation as he came stumping into the parlour, grumbling vaguely. I ventured a question.
"That young monkey comes from Codham," said Dan'l Robgent, "an' when a Codham man talks about hairyplanes to a Padfield man it means impidence. Speeches o' chaff, I s'pose they call it; but I call it impidence, to a man oad enough to be his father."
I put my stick in a corner and sat down. Dan'l Robgent sat down, too, and in response to my well-understood signal a mug was planted under his nose ere he was fully settled. He received the mug with a well-bred affectation of surprise, as usual, and wished me excellent health.
"Well," I said, "and who is old Taff-Pilcher?"
"Mr. Taff-Pilcher, sir," said Dan'l, with grave reproof, "is Parlyment candidate for this 'ere division, and a very nice genelman. Them chaps at Codham don't 'preciate him Codham not bein' in this votin' division though only three mile off. Mr. Taff-Pilcher looks arter our interests, as is proper, not the Codham people's; and it's my belief he'll be member after next election, he's made hisself that popular. And when he is we shall be all right—them as votes for Mr. Taff-Pilcher, anyway. We shall all get summat for our votes, we shall; we sha'n't be wheedled out of 'em for nothink like as what we've bin ever since I had a vote."
"How much are you to get?" I asked.
"'Tain't legal for a genelman to mention the 'zact amount, no more than it's legal for a genelman to pay it hisself. He's a lawyer, is Mr. Taff-Pilcher, and he knows the law thorough. I've heard my oad father say in his time, when the law was different, the price o' votes dropped from a sovereign to five shillun paid down afore you went in; then it got to half a crown an' less; an' then nothin' at all. Shameful it was—and has been all my time. But Mr. Taff-Pilcher's a free-hearted genelman, and he's goin' to see things put right again; an' as he won't be payin' hisself he ain't under no temptation to keep it low. And there's goin' to be ashfelt in Padfield street, and 'lectric light and ping-pong in the workus."
"But what about his aeroplane?"
"Well, 'twasn't 'zactly his, so to speak but one as he wasn't able to send. You see he's always been special kind and attentive has Mr. Taff-Pilcher. It was only a accident that he didn't get the Lord Mayor o' Lunnon hisself down to give away the school prizes an' he's the very best cricket umpire we ever had on the field here, an' football, too. Fine he is, straight and fair allus, with just a leetle leanin' towards Padfield, when it ain't too noticeable. That's what I like to see—a perfeck fair umpire as won't give it agin his own side if he can help it. That's the sort we want."
"And Codham doesn't?" I interjected for the rivalry of Padfield and Codham was intense in cricket and football as in everything else.
"They're jealous; Codhamites allus are. I dunno what they expect; if they'd got any sense o' fairness they'd see that their votes ain't no good to him. But it was about the hairyplane I was tellin' you. It was in the annual sports—you know what a time we have here at Padfield sports every year. There ain't nothin' like it for miles round, and ain't been since they stopped Codham Fair. Well, it's wonnerful how Mr. Taff-Pilcher went into them sports. We made him judge, o' course, seein' how good he was as umpire an' it paid us. And he helped us wonnerful other ways, too. He didn't pay for no prizes, you understand, nor subscribe nothin' 'cos that's all agin his principles. He's very partic'lar about his principles, is Mr. Taff-Pilcher, an' the one we found out about first was that it's wrong for him to pay out anything in this 'ere constitooency, bein' a sort o' bribery as he couldn't stoop to. But lor', you'd never ha' minded if you'd seen him givin' the prizes away after the sports; you'd ha' believed he'd give the whole lot out of his own pocket, the handsome way he did it and the generous way he talked. And it was just the same all through; nobody ever knew before what unimportant sort o' people the squire and the passon was till they see Mr. Taff-Pilcher a-puttin' of 'em in the shade at the sports.
"He stuck to his principles about not subscribin' money, but nobody could call him mean when it was give out he was goin' to send a hairyplane. Everybody knowed what a expensive thing a hairyplane was, and them chaps as go up in 'em allus charge about a thousand pound a time. He made a little speech about it afore the sports began. He said we was livin' in stirrin' times, and the march o' progress was astonishin' to be'old. He told us that man, not content with sailin' the stormy deep and travellin' on the firmer terra cotta, had now took to hisself wings to cleave the infinite expense. He said that he was proud and happy to say that a hairyplane was on its way to the spot he loved dearest on earth (meanin' Padfield) at about a hundred an' fifty mile an hour and conskently might be expected any time in the arternoon, bein' driv by a most noted flyin' genelman o' the name o' Walker. If Mr. Walker successfully braved the perils of the windy element, he said, in his journey from Lunnon, we should hev the glory and delight o' seein' him come a-swoopin' down in graceful circles like a heagle or a harchangel on to Padfield. It 'ud be agin his principles he said, to say anythink about the tremenjus expense o' givin' us sich a treat as that, but he hoped we wouldn't forget it. And then we cheered terrific, and the sports began.
"All Padfield and half Codham must ha' gone to bed with stiff necks that night, and I wonder most o' the necks wasn't broke afore they got home. Half the things in the refreshment tent was ate by boys while the chaps in charge was starin' up lookin' for the hairyplane. Them as tried to look for the hairyplane and see the races too got it worst, and you'd think they ought to ha' broke their necks unanimous. Mr. Taff-Pilcher, he was very eager about it, too, as you'd expect; but he didn't let it prevent him bein' faithful to Padfield as judge o' the sports. O' course a judge can't do very much for his pals, even in a country sports where things ain't done particular; but what any judge could do Mr. Taff-Pilcher did, and did wonnerful neat, too. In the final o' the hundred yards' race, when young Bill Parker was comin' up neck and neck with a Codham chap, Bill bein' on the side nearest the judge, it was beautiful to see how he changed the tape from his left to his right hand, just casual like, as he turned round to speak to a committee-man, and just brought it up agin Bill Parker's chest by about six inches. It was one o' the good-naturedest things I ever see done. And he was just as thoughtful all through. I could see it, havin' been in it all when I wasa young man, and knowed the comfort of havin' a friendly judge when you're a-takin' off for the long jump, or got a little dab o' cobbler's wax in the spoon in the egg-and-spoon race. But the Codham chaps took it downright spiteful.
"The arternoon went on and most o' the sports was over, one after another, and everybody sick and giddy a-starin' at the sky, when there come a telegram for Mr. Taff-Pilcher. It come jist as the sack race was finishin' and there was nothin' more left but the tug-o'-war between Padfield an' Codham. That was allus last, an' a most howlin' outrageous tussle it's allus been, 'cos whichever side wins crows over the other for the rest o' the year.
"Well, the telegram come, an' Mr. Taff-Pilcher, he read it, an' took off his hat an' wiped his head and showed the telegram to the committee, an' their faces went as long as fourpenny kites. Everybody saw as something was up, an' some said the hairyplane man was killed for certain, an' what a pity it didn't happen where we could all see it. And then Mr. Taff-Pilcher got on a chair an' called all the crowd round him an' made another speech. He said it grieved him to the 'art to have to announce that he had just received a telegram from Mr. Walker, saying that his sky-hooks had give way and jammed his wind-sifter, so that he wouldn't be able to get as far as Padfield. Nothin' as could have occurred could ha' grieved him wuss, unless it was that a accident might ha' happened to Mr. Walker instead of his sky-hooks an' his wind-sifter. He need hardly say how 'art-broke he was to see us all disappointed, an' he hoped, at any rate, we wouldn't blame him as was so devoted to our interests. He could only say that after his first pang o' grief at seein' us disappointed his next feelin' was one of 'artfelt thankfulness that Mr. Walker was safe, an' he was sure them was our sentiments' too.
"You never heard sich a shindy o' cheerin' as we give Mr. Taff-Pilcher arter that speech; we cheered him louder than we'd ha' cheered the hairyplane itself if it had ha' come, an' he was a greater favourite than ever—twice as popular as if it had come. But them Codham chaps was nasty about it, o' course. Sniffed an' snarled an' sneered, they did, an' said there was no flies on oad Taff-Pilcher, an' a sixpenny telegram came a mighty deal cheaper than a hairyplane. Fair sickenin' to hear 'em, it was; you wouldn't believe people could be so ungrateful.
"It made the Padfield chaps pretty wild, an' they went at the tug-o'-war that savage that they pulled the Codham team over right bang-off the first pull, as soon as Mr. Taff-Pilcher give the word, an' the crowd cheered louder 'n ever. Then they crossed over for the second pull, but this time the Codham chaps was all ready, an' wouldn't be done on the rush. It was a long pull an' a tough pull, and it went agin Padfield. That made things ekal, an' the crowd went half frantic when they crossed again for the last pull. This time Mr. Taff-Pilcher quite see what a lot depended on him, and he started 'em very slow and impartial. He had all sorts of a long trouble in gettin' the red rag on the rope 'zactly over the mark, an' then when he give warnin' to take a strain it got off again an' he had to begin afresh; an' so on for a minute or two, till at last Jim Bartrip, the biggest chap on the Codham side, he slipped up, an' 'Pull!' bawls Mr. Taff-Pilcher at the top of his voice, jist in the nick o' time. Lor'! Them Codham chaps jist come over hand over hand like a row o' sacks, Jim Bartrip a-blowin' an' a-cussin' an' a-scufflin' to get his feet under him, an' everybody on the field howlin' an' dancin' like mad.
"Well, there's no satisfyin' some people. The row them Codham chaps made over losin' that tug-o'-war was positive disgraceful, an' there might almost ha' been a fight if most o' the crowd hadn't been Padfield people. Codham chaps was allus bad losers. They even tried booin' Mr. Taff-Pilcher when he give away the prizes, but that only made the cheers twice as loud, an' at last he was chaired off the field an' all the way to the station. It was the greatest day ever he had in Padfield, an' if the election had been the day after he'd ha' been our member now.
"Well, the prize for the tug-o'-war was a side o' bacon, an' the team was eight. Bedlow, the landlord here, was one o' the team, an' late in the evenin' they brought the side o' bacon here to divide; and with that came trouble. There hadn't never been a side o' bacon given for a prize before, an' it never struck nobody there'd be any difficulty in cuttin' it in eight parts—an' p'r'aps there mightn't ha' been if they hadn't called in Huxon, the butcher, to advise. But Huxon was that professional an' scientific there was no doin' anythink with him. It was agin all the rules, it seemed, to divide a side o' bacon into eight parts. You could divide it into three parts, or five parts, or nine or thirteen; but anythin' else 'ud be unconstitootional. An' what was more, all them parts was different sizes. It was no good argufyin' with Huxon; no amount o' argufyin' 'ud bring Huxon to go agin the principles of a lifetime.
"'There's fore-end, middle, an' gammon,' he said, obstinit as pig itself. 'Or there's hock, an' collar, an' two streakies, an' back, an' ribs, an' loin, an' flank, an' gammon, an' corner. An' you can cut your collar in two, an' your loin in two, an' your back in two, an' your streaky in three. An' that's the way pigs is made, an' pigs is bacon, an' you can't cut 'em different, whichever way you go, nohow an' notsoever!'
"Not only was there no argufyin' with Huxon, but he got that excited what between sports day an' laws o' the trade an' wettin' the occasion that presently there was no shuttin' him up, and at closin' time he had to be shoved out forcible, an' went off up the street, shoutin', 'There's hock, an' collar, an' two streakies, an' back, an' ribs, an' loin, an' flank, an' gammon,' an' all the rest of it at the top of his voice.
"So Bedlow shut the door an' told the rest o' the team they was there as his friends till the pint was settled, for the sake o' the licence. And they put the side o' bacon on the table an' sat all round it for about two hours, plannin' out the cuts, till it turned out as nobody particular wanted the hock an' the whole team was in competition for the gammon. That made a wuss confusion than ever, an' in the middle of it there came a loud tap at the winder, an' everybody jumped. Bedlow jumped highest, 'cos of his licence though he made sure the p'liceman must be in bed long ago. But when they shoved up the winder there was a chap standin' outside all muffled up in jerseys an' sweaters an' sich with his head all tied up in ear-flaps an' what-not, an' a big pair o' glass goggles all over his face.
"'Come and hold my hairyplane,' says the chap. 'It's in a field along here, an' the wind's gettin' up!'
"'What?' says Bedlow.
"'Didn't expect me, I s'pose,' says the chap. 'I'm late, that's all. I ought to ha' been here this afternoon, but my sky-hooks give way and jammed my wind-sifter. My name's Walker.'
"Them eight big chaps was that amazed you might ha' blown 'em all over with a pea-shooter.
"'We—we thought you wasn't comin',' says Bedlow.
"'Oh, I allus turn up, sooner or later,' says the chap. 'I don't stop as long as I can get my engine to go an' my sky-hooks to hold firm. The repairs kep' me hours an' hours. But can you chaps pull—hard?'
"'Rather!' says Bedlow.
"'Quite sure?' says Mr. Walker.
"'Well, we won the tug-o'-war today, anyhow,' says Bedlow.
"'That's your sort,' says Mr. Walker. Come along quick, 'fore the hairyplane gets damaged. I've got my mechanic with me, but it wants all the lot of us to hold it down safe.'
"They all went bundlin' out in the dark, an' he took 'em along the road to Wicks's little three-cornered meddy with the oad stack in it Half-way they met another muffled-up chap with goggles.
"'Here, Jones,' says Mr. Walker, 'you ought to ha' kep' with the hairyplane. Is she all right?'
"'Yes, sir,' says the man—'all right as yet. But she lifts awful with every puff o' wind, an' she'll want a lot o' holding.'
"'All right, Jones, we'll hold it,' says Mr. Walker. 'Look here, four of you come with me, and the other four go with my man round to the other side o' the field.'
"So they split out, an' each party went along the outside o' the hedge, till Mr. Walker gropes about an' finds a rope.
"'Here y'are,' he says. 'Stop on this side o' the hedge an' catch hold o' this. Get behind each other an' take a good hold—you'll have some hard pullin' presently. But don't pull till I give you the word. I'm goin' over with my man to see the tackle's all right.'
"With that he climbs over the hedge an' disappears in the dark. Presently they could hear him a-shoutin' to his man an' callin' out orders, an' after a little he comes back to his side o' the hedge an' calls out, 'All ready, Jones?'
"'Yes, sir,' sings out Jones, over at the other side o' the field. 'I'll cast off as soon as they pull.'
"'Right,' says Mr. Walker. 'All you chaps ready, both sides? Pull!'
"With that they pulled like all possessed, Mr. Walker steadying the rope on his side o' the hedge an' encouragin' 'em.
"'That's right,' he said, 'keep a steady draw on her. She's pullin' now, ain't she?'
"'Aye, that she is,' says Bedlow, hangin' on for all he was worth. 'I shouldn't ha' thought there could be sich a wind a night like this.'
"'Oh, any sort of a little breeze is terrific, once it gets under a hairyplane,' says Mr. Walker. 'All right, steady; don't jerk. Just a steady, even pull's what's wanted. This hairyplane o' mine's worth thousands, and I wouldn't have it damaged on any account. Hang on tight; the insurance company pays big salvage for a job like this.'
"'H-how much?' says Bedlow, gaspin' an' pullin'.
"'Seven an' three-quarters per cent.,' says Mr. Walker. 'You can work it all out while you're pullin'. There's eight of you. Divide seven an' three quarters by eight, an' that'll give you each man's percentage. Steady on! Keep pullin', an' don't slide into the ditch. You're doin' splendid. I don't wonder you won the tug-o'-war today. I'd like to have a team o' chaps like you pullin' for me always.'
"It was past one in the mornin' when they came out, an' Mr. Walker kep' on encouragin' em' an' workin' out percentages till it was very near two and they was half dead. Then he said:—
"'Keep steady, and I'll go and see how she's gettin' on. P'r'aps me an' my man can hang the sky-hooks on the safety-valve an' give you a bit of a rest. But don't stop pullin' till I tell you.'
"He called out to Jones an' went off to meet him. Bedlow and the other chaps hung on somehow an' waited, but they heard no more of him. After a bit Bedlow sings out:—
"'Mr. Walker! Mr. Walker!'
"Not a word of answer did they get, but presently the voice of Sam Gill from the other side o' the field callin' out most pathetic:—
"'Mr. Walker! We can't stick this here much longer!'
"And Bedlow cries out again:—
"'Mr. Walker! Flesh an' blood can't stand this no more. Is them sky-hooks hung on the safety-valve? Can't we take a rest?'
"Then they heard Sam Gill again complainin' most molloncholy in the distance, an' presently says Bill Wood behind Bedlow:—
"'This here hairyplane's easin' up. It don't pull half as hard as it did. P'r'aps the sky-hooks is hung on the safety-valve.'
"And once more they heard Sam Gill across the field:—
"'D'ye hear, Mr. Walker? We're a-goin' to let go!'
"With that the rope went all slack, an' they stood up and shouted across the hedge to Sam Gill. It was just beginning to get a little grey in the sky, and things wasn't so pitch dark.
"'I can't see no hairyplane,' says Bill Wood.
"'I can't see nothin' at all,' says Bedlow.
"An' they couldn't. 'Cause why? There was nothin' there. There was no hairyplane an' no Mr. Walker, an' no Jones. Nothing but a precious long rope with half o' the Padfield tug-o'-war team at each end of it!
"They got over the hedge an' met in the middle o' the field, and then they all got a presentiment at once.
"'Them Codham chaps!' says four of 'em, and 'That side o' bacon!' says all eight. And with that they runned headlong. But it were too late. There was the gas still aburnin' an' the winder an' the door open, but the side o' bacon were gone, an' nobody in Padfield ever see it again. And it was only when he went to draw some water in the mornin' that Bedlow found out that that there precious long rope they'd all a-been pullin' on was the rope out of his own well.
"There's been more'n one fight since then when Codham chaps ha' called out: 'Mr. Walker! Can't we have a rest?' on market-days or what-not. An' there was one in the bar o' this very house when Jim Bartrip, the big chap as slipped in the Codham team, came in an' told Huxon that if he didn't know how to divide a side o' bacon into eight fair parts he could teach him, havin' seen it done quite lately.
"'How?' asks Huxon, very disputatious.
"'Cut it all up in rashers an' count 'em out, you silly chump,' says Jim Bartrip.
"And arter all the aggeravation what I've been tellin' you, I should think you'd see why a Padfield man don't want no Codham chap to ask him about hairyplanes."
IKEY COHEN'S spieler was reached through the mosat innocent door in the world—a door that in the evening, when it was chiefly used, you would swear must be either that of the sponge-merchant's on one side or the slop-tailor's on the other. As a matter of fact, each of these establishments had its door at the end farthest from this, the portal that separated the two, and admitted the frequenters of Ikey Cohen's spieler to the room, mysteriously placed somewhere behind, where they lost their money at faro and chemin de fer.
From the main Whitechapel High Street you turned into a street of new warehouses and shops, which had been a notorious slum a few years ago, and in the first turning to the right you found the door of Ikey Cohen's spieler. It was the most expressionless and respectable-looking door in the street, with the button of an electric bell let so unobtrusively into the shadowy part of the frame that in the dusk you would overlook it if you were not in the habit of using it. And, indeed, if you were not in the habit, you wasted your time at this door, unless you went with a recognizable customer of the place. For every presser of that button was carefully "piped" from the skylight, and his admission or exclusion depended on the observation so made.
This was in the evening; for Ikey Cohen's spieler was kept for the accommodation of gamblers of small amounts, who worked during the day to earn them; and although gamblers came who never worked during the day or at any other time, they were not sufficiently profitable to cause the table to open in daylight.
Just such a customer it was who swaggered up the street at nine of a fine night when the sponge-merchant's had been long shut and the slop-tailor's already had half the shutters in their places. Naty Green wore his bowler hat very close over his right eye; his Newmarket coat flung wide in the breeze, and his tie, albeit a trifle dirty, flamed with all the colore that could be got for a shilling in Whitechapel High Street.
Naty Green stopped at the respectable door and pressed the button. The door opened quietly and quickly closed behind him. A thick-set, close-cropped man in rubber-soled canvas shoes was dimly visible.
"Moey Marks here?" asked Naty Green.
Naty Green swore a long and ready sentence. "I want to pop a bit down," he grumbled. "You'll have to put it on for me."
"You get somebody else," replied the thick-set man. "You know the guv'nor don't like me playin'."
"Somebody else? Where's somebody else as won't stick to the lot if he plays the stakes, just as much as Moey Marks hisself? An' what could I say, with him there? Be a pal. You're the only straight bloke in the shop, s'elp me."
"An' if I have to nip off to the door while the stakes is down an' some one snorks 'em, 'ow's that?"
"I'll take my chance. Here y' are—'alf a james, a bob a time. Put 'em where you like—I shan't grumble."
The thick-set man hesitated, with a frown on his none too pleasing face. "You know the guv'nor don't like me cuttin' in, 'avin' to see to things an' all," he grumbled, reluctantly extending his hand; "an' you'll lose it, like the rest, if you keep on long enough."
"That's my lookout. Wait a bit. I'll go in first."
The meaning of this conversation would have been clear enough to any eavesdropper from the faro-den beyond the passage. It was simply that Naty Green had "sold himself" to Moey Marks, and for that reason dared not gamble in his presence. It was a common enough procedure when a punter was totally cleared out. A night or two back, Naty Green, having put his last sixpence on the wrong card, had withdrawn from the table, with a long, complicated, and dazzling succession of curses, concluding with an offer to sell himself for a sovereign. Moey Marks, flush at the moment, and a man of enterprise, confident in Naty Green's inability to keep any money he might possess off a gaming-table, took the offer on the spot and paid the money; and now, by the terms implied in the bargain, whenever Moey Marks might observe Naty Green gambling, it was his privilege to seize his winnings as often as they might turn up.
It was an interesting invention, and the only righteous force that operated in Ikey Cohen's spieler. It led to dodgings and lurkings and watchings and scoutings, but it did keep a gambler's money in his pocket sometimes when no other earthly invention would have done so.
So Naty Green walked into Ikey Cohen's spieler, and presently Bill Hooker, door-keeper and retired pugilist, followed through the long passage and past the two doors which it was his duty to bar in case of a raid.
Now, Bill Hooker was no beauty. Thick of neck and shoulder, bullet-headed and beetle-browed naturally, his earlier trade had marked him with no improvements. Seen in profile, his nose descended perpendicularly from his forehead as far as an unimportant tip, and seen from the front it spread away indefinitely into his cheek-bones. His ears, thickened and thickened again by many grievous punches, had long years ago grown tired of recovering their natural proportions, and now remained thick for the rest of Bill Hooker's life; and an odd scar or two seamed the leathery hide of his face. On the whole, he looked a sad ruffian; and yet in the crowd of faces that night to be seen in Ikey Cohen's spieler, Bill Hooker's offered something like a pleasant relief. Among the rest were no broken noses, thick ears, or bullet heads, but the sleekest head in the crowded room had about it something of repulsion of which Bill Hooker's was innocent.
The table stood a yard from the wall, with his back against which sat the banker, imperturbable, dexterous, Semitic, curled like an Assyrian bull. Packed in a bent and climbing heap about the three other sides of the table, the players swarmed like bees on a bush, reaching on tiptoe to play their stakes, clamorous in Yiddish, blasphemous in English of strange accent. Behind them stood a fringe of less active gamblers, peeping and craning and disputing among themselves; and beyond them wandered others, strays from the swarm, stumped to the last brad, or sold to some watchful speculator. No silent losers were there; English was the prevailing tongue, but English of a quality difficult to match. Any person who has been privileged to indulge the sense of hearing in the silver ring at Alexandra Park races may suppose that the resources of unprintable language have been fully disclosed to him; but five minutes of Ikey Cohen's spieler would have taught him his error. The simplest sentence grew into a laborious rigmarole, so qualified, punctuated, and embellished as to burst the bonds of syntax and leave its purport buried and bemuddled; so that for a stranger it was needful to skip over the miry flood and pick up a word here and there to piece out the meaning.
To one side of the room stood the bar, just now little patronized. It consisted of two trestles and a board top, standing before a tenth-hand hanging book-shelf, stocked with bottles and glasses. Between the trestles and the liquor stood "the guv'nor"—not Ikey Cohen, however. That speculator reaped the profits from afar, and "the guv'nor" was his nominee, whose business it was to manage the place and bear the brunt of a possible police-raid in the character of proprietor. This man, like Bill Hooker, was a Christian; from which circumstance, and the other that no flies were reputed to abide on Ikey Cohen, the philosopher may draw whatever conclusions he pleases.
For some little while Bill Hooker travelled to and fro from the street door, admitting another gambler and a few more, and rarely letting one out. Meantime the game went steadily on, and the banker wasted not a second of time; for he was a man of business, and he sat in his place on a contract to play Ikey Cohen a fixed sum per hour.
One man, seated close in by the table, clamored above all the din at each turn, losing heavily, turn after turn. He cursed in succession the cards, the game, and himself, and, least reasonably but most angrily, the man who last had cut the cards. He was the worst sort of gambler, and paid the banker well, though his noise was a nuisance. A dozen times he swore to stop after the next turn, and as often he went on, plunging and cursing, and coming near to foaming at the mouth. At last, choking with curses, he turned on his neighbor, who had last cut the cards, and insensately struck at him.
"Now, then, there! Now, then!" roared the manager, with a quick glance at Bill Hooker.
Instantly Bill was in the thick of the crowd and took the fellow by the shoulder. The dealer, who had never looked up, went steadily on, made the pack and shuffled it and put it out to cut.
"All right, all right," gasped the offender, cringing and abashed. "I beg pardon—I vashn't myself—I—"
"All right, let 'im stop," said the dealer, who wanted the rest of the man's money. And Bill, who well enough understood his job, contented himself with a growl or two, standing handy at the man's back.
Here he was well placed to gamble for Naty Green, and presently he began. Five times in succession he put a shilling on the wrong square; but the sixth shilling came back and brought another with it. Then he tried again, and lost. Then he won two shillings in succession; and so, in the course of twenty minutes of varying chance, he ended at the climax of a most unusual run of luck with a net gain of six shillings.
He slipped the money into his pocket, and, with a parting admonition to the bad loser over whom he had been keeping guard, he elbowed out of the crowd, to the speechless disgust of Naty Green, who—like the gambler he was—wanted to see the luck followed up till it vanished.
Bill ignored him, however, and as Moey Marks was still in the room Naty dared not murmur. He glared covertly at the door-keeper, anxious to signal him to resume; but Bill had unwrapped from a parcel in a corner a glass jar of cheap jelly, and was absorbed in the task of scraping away every scrap of the paper label.
Presently a gamester from the inner ring got up and straggled out of the crowd, and Moey Marks took his place, vanishing from outer view. At about the same time Bill Hooker, having scraped the jelly-jar to his satisfaction, made application behind the bar and thence extracted a penny bottle of ink and a pen. Also, from an inner pocket, he brought, with much care, two sheets of notepaper carefully wrapped up.
"Here y' are," said Bill Hooker quietly to Naty Green. "One good turn deserves another. You can do different handwritin's, can't you?"
"Why?" asked Naty Green, with something of a start. For, in fact, a certain exploit in his previous career made the question a tactless one.
"Come on," proceeded Bill, pulling the cork from the ink-bottle. "Write on this 'ere paper: With Lady Walker's compliments. Write it in a woman's hand."
"What's the ramp?" queried Naty, still doubtful. "Do I stand in?"
"'Tain't a ramp," replied Bill. "It's—it's just for my old woman what's ill; just a jolly—bit of a lark. Come on."
Naty Green took the pen and wrote as requested, angularly, with many long tails and flourishes.
"Fair knockout," commented Bill admiringly, taking up the paper by a corner. "Now write on the other one. Write: With Lord Walker's compliments. Write it like a toff."
"This to guy your old woman, too?" asked Naty. "'Ow many more?"
"No more. That's it—toppin'!" He took the second paper gingerly, and put it beside the first to dry. "'Ere—ketch 'old o' your money," he proceeded. "Moey Marks is deep in the push—sixteen bob."
"No," dissented Naty, stepping back and dropping his voice. "Go an' get me a bit more."
"What you'd like me to do is go an' lose the lot," replied Bill. "I know your sort. 'Ere—you ketch old, an' ketch 'old quick 'fore they see you. It ain't often anybody takes anythin' away from 'ere, except the banker—you ought to know that."
"Go on—be a pal. You stopped just when you was winnin'."
"That's the difference 'tween me an' you. You don't stop till you ain't got no more to lose. You done me a little turn, an' I got a bit for you. I ain't goin' to 'elp you lose it. For the last time, ketch 'old—else I'll drop it on the floor."
Naty, grumbling, and glancing swiftly over his shoulder, took the money with a covert grab and resumed his prowlings in the fringe of the crowd round the table.
And so in time the game flagged, as it did indeed at some time or other every night, even in Ikey Cohen's spieler. The dealer stopped as soon as the number of punters fell below the paying point, and chemin de fer began in the common routine, with sixpence a coup for Ikey Cohen. Chemin de fer "gets the money quicker," as some gamblers will say, and loses it quicker, as others experience. And it always finished the evening's sport at Ikey Cohen's spieler.
THE door between the sponge-dealer's and the slop-tailor's closed behind him, and Bill Hooker, with his parcel under his arm, set off for home. It was not a long walk. He emerged into the street of new shops and warehouses which had lately been a slum, and turned away from the direction of Whitechapel High Street. A hundred yards farther, and he turned to traverse a short street of older and grimier shops, now fast closed; and off this was the street in which the emoluments of Ikey Cohen's spieler permitted him the tenancy of two second-floor back rooms.
The house was high and black among others a little smaller and of the same blackness. The door opened to his latch-key and revealed a gulf of a greater blackness still. Through this he groped with no hesitation, and up the creaking staircase to the second landing. Here no key was needed; but be turned the door-handle with care, for the sake of the sleeper within.
The room was poor and untidy, but clean; and it was lighted by a candle near the fireplace. He shut the door, again with care, lifted the candle, and went tiptoe toward a small bed in the farther corner.
A girl of twelve lay there asleep. Even thus she had the odd, motherly, responsible look so often to be noticed in girl-children of her age in poor parts of London, but its tenseness was gone, and did no more than qualify the ordinary placid, unseeing wonder that belongs to a sleeping child's face. Bill Hooker took the candle away and entered the inner room.
Here was a larger bed, and on it, propped to near a sitting pose, was a puffy, blue-lipped woman, slack-faced and sallow. Her heavy lids lifted as the door opened, and she spoke peevishly.
"Late again, William," she said. "They keep shockin' late hours in the West End."
"Yes," he answered; "awful. An' no 'buses runnin' at this time. But it can't be 'elped."
"No," replied the woman. "I ain't complainin'—I'm too thankful to know you got a place so respectable. It's always bin such a worry to me all along, bein' so low. You mustn't lose it, whatever 'appens."
"Right, old gal—it ain't likely." He bent his bullet head and kissed the blue lips. "Bin all right?" he proceeded. "'Ere, you must 'ave yer dose."
He turned to the mantelpiece and measured the digitalis which, quieting the diseased heart and abating the dropsy, was all that kept her alive.
She took it and let her head fall back again. "I 'ad a bad flutter about 'leven o'clock," she said. "Polly was abed, an' I couldn't call 'er. Is Lady Walker better?"
"Yus," replied Bill. "She's gettin' on fust-rate. Took a 'and o' cards to-night with a lot o' the other toffs. She gimme another jar o' jelly for you—the sort what she makes herself; an' she wrote a note with it this time, feelin' so much better." And with that he produced the carefully scraped jar and Naty Green's exercise in feminine writing.
The lined and discolored face lighted up with joy. "Well, that is kind, ain't it, William?" she said. "It's 'er bein' bad, too, as makes 'er feel for me like this. I'll try and write to 'er to-morrow if I can. I ain't wrote anything for ever so long."
Bill was fiddling with the residue of his parcel. "An' 'ere's a bottle o' port wine 'is Lordship sent," he said. "'E wrote 'is compliments, too."
"Ain't it beautiful of 'im?" cried the poor creature on the bed. "What it is to be a real gentleman! Bill—William—I do 'ope you'll do all you can to please 'im, an' keep the job. It ain't what you been used to, an' you must be careful."
"Right oh, 'Liza, old gal—I'm careful. 'Ave a drop o' wine now, an' get to sleep again."
"Sit on the bed Bill—William. I'll kiss you again, William. I want to tell you—you've bin a good 'usband to me, an' I never kep' nothing from you. But forgive me—I doubted you in my own mind once or twice about this job at Lord Walker's. I thought you might 'a' bin makin' it up to please me, me bein' that worried about anythink low. But I know it's right now, an' I oughtn't to 'a' mistrusted you before—I ain't quite right sometimes, I think, what with one thing an' another to worry."
"That's all right, old gal," responded Bill, staring very hard at the candlestick. "Don't you worry. 'Ave a drop o' port wine."
"Put it in that tea-cup, an' you 'ave some, too. You 'ad to leave the porterin' at the market, so's to look after me all day, but, you see, it's turned out for the best. Porterin' was low to what this is. It used to worry me—Mother havin' bin in the dressmakin' and Father 'andin' the plate at chapel o' Sunday 'fore he died. So I don't grudge bein' bad, if it's made us more respectable. We never 'ad no quarrels, William, 'cept over that, you an' me. You was in steady work when we was fust married, an' it was only you goin' in trainin' again that upset me. We never quarrelled, only over that."
"All right, 'Liza,—never mind all that. We was glad o' what I won that time, but it's all over—'t ain't likely any one's goin' to back me nowadays. Ketch 'old o' the cup, an' I'll get ready to turn in."
She took the cup, and sipped with relish. "It's lovely, William," she said. "Taste it."
It had cost Bill a hardly-spared half-crown at a Shoreditch grocer's; so he sipped with discretion, for the bottle must be made to last.
"Nobby," he commented, returning the cup. "It's just the same as what they drink with their supper every night, at Lord Walker's; an' often 'is Lordship says, after supper, 'Wrop up a bottle, William, for me to take to the theayter.'"
"Lor', now—but there, expense don't matter to them, I s'pose. An' what did he say when he give you this B—William?"
"Oh, nothing much," said Bill. "Just what any ord'nary chap 'ud say. It was when her ladyship wrote the compliments, a-settin' up on the sofa where she'd bin layin'. 'Damme, Mariar,' says 'is Lordship—"
"Mariar," repeated the innocent Bill—"that's 'er pet name."
"But you said 'damme,'" replied the amazed invalid. "He don't talk low, do he?"
"Why, no," admitted Bill awkwardly; "not in general. 'E'd bin havin' some o' the port wine, you see. 'E said, 'I'll write some compliments, too,' 'e said, 'an' send a bottle o' that port wine. I 'ope it'll do 'er good,' 'e said, 'an' I'm sorry she's so bad.'"
Bill looked a little anxiously at his wife, for he never felt sure of himself in these excursions into romance. But she was only surprised, after all.
"I shouldn't ha' thought 'e 'd talk to a lady like that," she said; "but I s'pose they ain't so partic'lar just among 'emselves. But they're very kind, an' I do 'ope you'll keep the place, although they only called it temp'ry to begin with. If I was well enough to move, we'd go an' live nearer, in a more respectable place."
Bill breathed more freely, and trusted his invention no further, but prepared to take his rest in the jumbled bed that lay on the floor by the aide of his wife's. The chief perplexity of his life was to maintain as best he could the broken-winded fiction that he had achieved the situation of supernumerary butler for evening duty at a house in the West End. His work at Spitalfields Market had ended when the doctor told him that his wife must no longer be left alone during the day. Polly must keep to school, or the "chunk" would be calling, with threats of a summons. So of necessity Bill Hooker must stay within during the day, to nurse his wife and measure her several doses of the physic that kept her alive, and to take his share—the child took the rest—of the household work; and only at night, when Polly stood guard, could he leave the place. So that it seemed something vastly like a gift of providence when he got his job at Ikey Cohen's spieler.
He had slid into his deception almost unconsciously, never at first dreaming of the mountain of fiction into which it had since grown. His wife had aspirations of gentility to him incomprehensible but no doubt quite proper, and he humored them. The office of butler's help in the West End sounded much better than that of guard and bully at a Whitechapel den, and so the deception began, with the invalid's joyful concurrence. To her it represented a rise in the world, and she so brightened in its contemplation that Bill was tempted to elaborate and embellish and so run into danger, for he was a simple and unpractised liar. Even the name Walker he had used as a sort of compromise with his natural tendency toward honesty, for among his acquaintance it was the badge and ensign of gammon, and he experienced an odd relief of conscience in its use.
And so Bill Hooker laid his battered head to rest and slept. And, the morning being come, be rose and busied himself in the rooms with Polly till school-time, and after that alone. He washed cups and saucers, and he washed his wife's face. He watered the scarlet runners on strings that climbed from the box on the sill of the window by her bed, and he wiped over most things in the place with a duster, beginning with the three little memorial cards in sixpenny frames that hung in remembrance of the three boy-babies that 'Liza had failed to rear. And so the day went its common round, and 'Liza tried to write to Lady Walker, and didn't do it very well and decided to try again to-morrow.
That night Bill Hooker was home much earlier than usual. Lord and Lady Walker had gone out, and the butler had given him leave, it seemed; and perhaps he might not be wanted for a night or two. But out in Spitalfields and Whitechapel, where 'Liza could not hear, they said that Ikey Cohen's spieler had been raided at last, and most of those found there had been taken. Bill Hooker's agility had saved him for the moment, it seemed; but he must have been spotted; and it was said he had spilt a policeman.
Thus it came to pass on the morning following that a police-sergeant with an urgent message for William Hooker walked in at the front door of the house—it was mostly open in the day-time—and made his way to the second floor. Polly was at school, and the sergeant, with the easy familiarity of the police in these parts, finding nobody in the first room, walked across and looked in at the second.
Bill's back was turned as he stood washing saucers. The sudden apparition of the sergeant, with his familiar, business-like nod, struck the woman like a blow of ice. What was this—this? She gave a cry that brought Bill round with a start. The sergeant nodded again, very knowingly. "'Mornin', Hooker!" he said.
Bill's thought was for his wife, staring and pallid. "All right, old gal," he said hurriedly. "I know—it's nothing!" And he pushed the sergeant forcibly into the outer room.
"Don't you know better 'n that?" he hissed fiercely. "She's rotten in the heart—dyin'! Say it's a jury—wanted on a jury, curse you! Say it's a jury!" And he dragged him back to where the woman, staring still and sitting erect, was now croaking faintly, "Bill! Bill! What is it, Bill?"
"Nothin', old gal, nothin'! They want me on a jury, that's all."
And the sergeant, abashed and disordered, confirmed him. "It's for a jury, mum," he said. "I've come to see if Mr. Hooker can serve on a jury. Very sorry to disturb you, but there was nobody out there, and I didn't know you was ill. It's just a jury—only a jury."
The woman gave a long sigh, staring still. "Hold me, Bill! Hold me!" she said faintly, sinking back into his arms. "Hold me tight, Bill! Don't let me go! Go on the jury, Bill—it's very respectable, on a jury—you've never been—hold me tight—don't leave me! An' I ain't written to Lady Walker—hold me, Bill. Don't let me—Ah—!"
The sergeant walked softly out. And Bill held her, and held her; but not even Bill's arms could hold her tight enough now.
THE thatched cottage made a fantastic interruption in the midst of the drab street. You came upon it after traversing many lengths of just such street, all laid out in parallel blocks, all of one pattern, and all labelled on the name-plates at the corners, not streets, but roads. The streets had been built just long enough ago to have grown grimy rather than raw; and the grime had fallen on houses and tenants alike. Perhaps it was rather that as the houses had grown smokier the tenants had changed for the worse, and less cleanly successors had come to match the houses and to deepen the grime.
Iron palings, miles of them, of the same pattern every one, enclosed small and barren forecourts before all the houses in the neighbourhood, save only for this one thatched cottage. Here was a break of low white wooden fence, kicked and despitefully used externally, and enclosing the dusty remains of a quickset hedge. Within the hedge flowers were visible in the summer days and were stolen in the summer nights; stocks and wallflowers and lady's-purse and candytuft, as they had grown year by year beyond memory when there was no grime in this part, and the hedge had bordered Bell Brook Lane. Now Bell Brook Lane, straightened and prisoned in brick, was called Cobden Road, and the brook was usefully carried through a sewer.
Even on the thatched cottage some trace of grime had fallen, though it had been stoutly resisted for many years; and the thatch was a little less tidy than it used to be when the tenant kept it in repair with his own hands, and showed a pride in the band of fancy thatching that spanned the roof half way between ridge and eaves. For the tenant, who was landlord too, had grown old among his wallflowers and behind his crooked little casements--old and lonely. Through all the years while the fields were green about him he and his wife had kept their habitation gay with flowers and clean with fresh paint; and still the same when the noise and stink of London had begun to creep into this corner of Essex. The tide of brick and grime had washed nearer and nearer, pushing a scum of brickbats and cankered meadows before it; but Golden Lea and his wife had stood their ground and kept their place as it had always been kept. The cottage had been his father's before him, as also had his trade as wheelwright. But with the nearing of the town the trade had withered, and the boys had gone abroad. As for the old people, though the trade was gone, something was left to live on, and they entrenched themselves in their cottage and its garden; and the hamlet and its fields and hedges shrivelled about them.
The smoke and the blight came on inexorably and lapped them in. The hedges were torn from the sides of Bell Brook Lane, and the trees were cut down. For a while--a short while--there was a smell of lime and a dust of lime and brick, and there was no venturing forth after dark for fear of stumbling among heaps and poles, and falling into holes; and then the line of lime and bricks and blighted fields swept on to the country beyond them, and they lived in another world.
Anxious little men opened new little shops, and shut them soon and vanished. Bigger shops were built in the main road, half a mile off, and the main road itself was torn up and laid with tramlines, and set with iron posts and wires under which electric cars roared and clanged. In a place where Golden Lea as a boy had found a wheatear's nest in a rabbit-hole, a soap-works rose, with tall chimneys and a choking stink. And the tide of streets was carried so far beyond Cobden Road that there was no finding a patch of turf, even at the end of a long walk. The drab street was everywhere; and at the street-corners mean-faced men preached lies, envy and malice.
Golden Lea and his wife grew white and bent, the woman sooner than the man. Still he tended his garden bravely, and painted the fence more frequently, as it needed. But she turned her face inward, away from the streets. If she looked out of the window it was from the back, where some part of the old church could be seen, standing its ground still like the cottage. And it was so the old woman sat, looking through that window, when it came to pass that Golden Lea, for the first time in his life, spoke to her and got no answer.
"Jenny," said the old man, "the lavender is dead." And then again he said "Jenny!"
But she had answered another and a silent call.
AND now it was that the cottage lost its brightness, and the thatch grew less tidy; for now the old man's face was averted in its turn. The hedge straggled and withered, and the vine that for years had ceased to bear fell away from the wall. London sparrows were free of the rotted and broken bee-skeps at the far end of the dank garden, and Golden Lea was so little seen that it seemed reasonable among the neighbours, when they had time to think of anything but their own concerns, to call him the old miser.
So things were in the drab and smoky street on a day when out in green Essex, miles away, the cuckoo was calling and the white was breaking on the thorn. Here the day might have been of any season, save for the hint now and then, of a patch of blue in the grey sky. And here came, wandering up the street from nowhere, a fiddler, strange and gaunt.
Scant but long and curly grey locks straggled over his humped coat-collar, from under the brim of a high-crowned hat. His threadbare and skimpy coat hid nothing of the crank boniness of his frame, and the dust of country roads was thick on his boots and trousers. Black and piercing eyes, eyes that seemed younger than the strange great-boned face they were set in, peered over high cheekbones, and from the sides of a great hooked nose. High-shouldered and shambling, he came up the street, gazing right and left on the grim little houses that were so much alike, till he came to the thatched cottage. Here he stopped, regarding the cottage with much attention. Then he advanced to the low white gate and put his fiddle under his chin.
His great knotted fingers spread wide over the neck and fingerboard, so that the fiddle under his long, whimsical face seemed grotesquely small. But when he drew his bow across the strings, all the breath of that poor street was hushed at the sound.
To the ears of Golden Lea in his cottage came a voice from a lost world. The fiddler played The wind that shakes the barley; but only once had the old man heard it so played before; so that it grew upon him that this was a poignant dream, and he sat motionless lest he should disturb it. Sweet and clear and blithe ran the air, till the old man thrilled to an agony of fear that the dream must break; when with a turn and a long, swinging note the fiddle suddenly dropped into To-morrow shall be my dancing day.
Surely no dream, this. The fiddle laughed and turned and lilted and sang like a human thing. This the old man had heard, too; but it was fifty years ago--more. Yet the wizard music so reached his soul that he heard the very words again, the words forgotten a lifetime back :
To-morrow shall be my dancing day,
I would my true love may so chance
To hear me sing from far away
To call my true lore to my dance.
Sing O! my love O!
My love, my love, my love!
And this hare I done for my true love!
He rose and looked from the window, and there stood the strange fiddler, his long, knotted fingers spidering over his instrument, and his black, piercing eyes fixed on Golden Lea's. As their gaze met the voice of the fiddle rose merrier still, and the old man turned, unresisting to the command of its call, and came into the garden.
Then the frolic music sank and changed, and sweeter and clearer than all came a strain of so plaintive a sadness that the old man paused on his way, and a poor needlewoman in an upper room nearby bent her head on her work and wept. This melody the old man knew also, and though he could not have told when last he heard it, the fiddle sang clear as words:
O the trees are growing high, and the leaves are long and
The time is past and gone, my dear, that you and I have seen!
He came forward to the gate with his eyes on the strange fiddler, who let his bow sink and draw off the strings till you could not guess when the music ceased. And the fiddler looked down on the old man with so odd a regard that he might have been a father indulgent of his child's whims, or a kind friend healing another's infirmities, or merely an elf at a prank.
"Surely," said the old man, "surely it was you who played the fiddle at my wedding."
"Do you remember me, then?" The fiddler's voice was clear as a note of his fiddle, but low and far, like a bell in the distance.
"Remember?" the old man replied. "When I hear your fiddle I can remember more than ever I knew. That was many years ago; you must be a very old man."
"I am old--much older than you think. But do I seem to grow older?"
"Not a day--not a day; and that was more than fifty years ago. It is hard to believe my senses; when I first heard you I thought I was dreaming."
"And when are you dreaming?" asked the strange fiddler. "And when not? Do you know? What have you been dreaming all these years? What are you dreaming now?"
"I don't think I am dreaming now," said the old man.
"No--and why should you? More than two thousand vears ago a man in China dreamed he was a butterfly. He fluttered from flower to flower, intent only on the concerns of a butterfly, lost to all sense of the concerns of a man. Suddenly he awoke, and found himself a man. But he said: 'Am I a man who dreamed himself a butterfly, or am I a butterfly who is now dreaming itself a man?' He was very wise, but he could not answer that question."
"Bless me," said the old man, "you say strange things. But I should like to hear your fiddle again."
"And so you shall," the fiddler replied. "You shall hear it, but not now. I do not like these streets, and I hardly know why I came. You shall hear my fiddle in your dream--your other dream."
"I cannot understand you," said the old man, looking very earnestly into the fiddler's face; "and yet I cannot believe you would laugh at me. Who are you? Did I ever know your name?"
"No, you never knew my name, and if I told you it would only puzzle you more. I am a butterfly--or a man--blown in from the fields and lost in these streets. I am going back to the lanes and the meadows; but you shall hear my fiddle again, in the other dream--the dream that is coming!"
He turned and was gone; and the old man, full of wonder and strange new hopes, went back to the cottage. For nothing on earth now seemed more desirable than to hear that fiddle again. He remained restless and longing, and found himself listening intently to every sound from without. More than once he looked out of the window through which he had first seen the fiddler; but there stood the mere white gate, and beyond it, across the street, nothing but the poor little grimy houses that were all alike.
And so the night fell, but brought him little rest. Unlike his habit, he lay wakeful, listening. He strove to put aside the fancy and compose himself to sleep; but the longing was beyond his command, and still he listened. The hours were long, and soon, he judged, it must be morning. Presently, indeed, it grew lighter about him; and with that he had his wish, for in the distance he could hear the fiddle.
Instantly he rose, and dressed with such speed that he was at the latch of the door ere the fiddler had reached the garden gate. The morning was gay and sunny, and as he came into the garden Golden Lea saw that the lavender was alive, and opening its little buds to scent the early air. The nests were awake, thrushes sang loud and clear, and the old man was at the garden gate in time to meet the fiddler in Bell Brook Lane. For the dream of drab streets was gone, and Bell Brook Lane was green and winding, and a hundred thousand dewdrops gemmed the hedges and the gardens.
The fiddler seemed to carry a touch more of the fantastic in his guise, though it was hard to say wherein it lay; and he regarded the old man with that same kindly but inscrutable eye. He played now an air that had no name in the old man's mind, but had all the joy of all the merry music he had ever heard, and more. Sometimes he caught an echo of a tune he had known as a boy, now one, and now another; and it was always as though this was the true tune, the real tune, and all those tunes of old days had been mere uncouth efforts to recall some part of it.
Side by side they walked up the lane, the fiddler playing unceasingly, his head aside and his eyes watching the old man with that intent look that was very kuid, but seemed only half serious. The old man had no choice but to walk with him, because of his eyes and because of his music; though he would joyfully have walked in any case, for the trees stirred and whispered in the day's first breeze, and there had been no such morning since he was a boy, and scarcely then. The wild roses scented the hedges, and daisies peeped in the grass, and bluebells overhung them. Larks sang aloft, and the Bell Brook ran merrily by the lane-side, and plashed over at the bank and across the path where the stepping-stones were. And the song of the lark in the sky, and of the thrush on the bough, the sound of the brook and the stir of the trees, were all so strangely a part of the fiddler's music that it seemed that he touched the chords of all the wo!Id.
They came out on the great white road that led abroad to so manv other fields and lanes, and streams and towns, and in the end to the sea. But thev turned neither right nor left, but crossed to a rising meadow. Well the old man knew it, for this was the way to the mill. Up the slope they went together, and the country opened out about them as they rose, gay with many-coloured fields, and set with a score of hamlets, and bounded beyond all by the silver of the wide river. As they neared the top the prospect broadened, and the wind was all the sweeter for the height, as it swept up from all Essex, green with meadows and bushed with trees that were pierced with here and there a steeple.
And now they reached the mill, busy thus early, with its sails lifting and lifting; and the old man looked up at it as he would have looked in the face of some old and steadfast friend. But it was on the miller's house that he turned his eyes with the more eager gaze. There was the window, with the climbing rose about it, and the casement ajar. He lifted his arms toward it, and his soul rose in rapture within him at the hope of what he might see there. "Jenny!" he cried; and again he cried " Jenny!"
But now the fiddler spoke at last, in the voice that was like a distant bell.
"Not yet," he said. "You shall sec--you shall see; but not yet."
The music fell very soft, and the fiddler spoke again :
"Rest," he said; " you must rest. Sleep now. Soon I will wake you again.'*
He let his bow sink and sink and draw off from the strings till there was no telling when the music ceased. But as it died away, so the sunlight died with it, and the birds sang no more. The old man turned from the fiddler, but could see nothing.
The blue sky was gone, and it was very dark. Surely he was in his bed. He rose, opened the window, and looked out. The night was dark and windy, and whether they were trees or houses about him he could not be sure. But in the sound of the wind about and above the cottage, he caught some echo of the fiddlers music.
AND so in his dreams the old man touched his boyhood again, with all the memories of age; and the fiddler who plays to the chosen played by his side. The people of the street saw him no more, for his face was turned inward, and he grudged the time given to the dream of lonely old age. It grew to be his habit to draw his chair so that he might sit and look through the window where you saw the old church, as his wife had done. And here he slept and waked, but as the days went by he slept more and more, and more and more he walked with the fiddler and heard the music in Bell Brook Lane.
The charwoman who came daily regarded him with great doubt, and shook her head much among the neighbours. For he would wake and ask anxiously :
"Mrs. Finch, did you hear a fiddle?"
"Why, no," she would say. "I've heard no fiddle."
"Are you sure?" he would reply with earnestness. "See if there is a fiddler at the gate."
"Why, no," she would repeat; " nothing of the sort. There's nobody at the gate."
"Ah well," he would say, after a pause, "be sure to tell me if you hear a fiddle."
But one day the poor needlewoman who lived in an upper room nearby, heard again the fiddle that she had heard once before. The tune ran and trilled and turned merrily, and at first it seemed like The wind that shakes the barley, and then like Over the kills and far away. She ran to the window, though she could see nothing. But the music drew nearer, and sometimes it was like one joyful tune and sometimes like another, but always finer than them all. And then it was The trees are growing high; but with no sadness now, and full of glad solace, so that the poor needlewoman smiled to hear it. For the music was so gay that it gave sweet promise and a new meaning to the words it carried to her heart:
"O the trees are growing high, and the leaves are long and
The time is past and gone, my dear, that you and I have seen!"
And now it reached even the ears of Mrs. Finch; and she ran to the old man's room, where he sat before the window that looked on to the old church.
"Mr. Lea!" she cried. "There's a fiddle!"
But she got no answer.
THE man of middle age is stricken with a sense of odd surprise when he hears the sixties of the nineteenth century spoken of as years of a picturesque and romantic past; when he sees the costumes of those days worn at fancy-dress balls, and the brocades sought as examples of bygone art. But the error is his own. Let him consider the days of even a decade later in contrast with the present time, and he will perceive that in daily habit and environment the seventies of that century are as far from us as the beginning of any earlier century from its end.
If you care to rake the newspaper files of the early half of those seventies, you will come on the report of the trial, at the Old Bailey, of James Renton for the murder of Solomon Creech, a tallyman; but it is a dull and commonplace report, not worth the dust of the hunt. The tallyman had wound Renton's wife into his net of debt, where a hundred more were tied already, behind her husband's back; and, confronted at last with the news in the shape of a hopeless judgment summons, the infuriated Renton had turned on the tallyman with what chanced to be in his hand—a shovel—and beat him about the head with it. The verdict was "Guilty," and the sentence that which the law provides.
So there came a certain Monday morning when a little crowd gathered on the pavement opposite Newgate jail to watch for the rise of the black flag. Another crowd, rather larger, stood by the rails of St. Sepulchre's churchyard, with a backing of boys clinging to the rails themselves; for it was not so long since the last of the public executions, and popular interest in the hangman and his doings persisted. Still, it was not a murder of great popular repute, or the numbers would have been greater.
A tallyman could expect little tenderness from such as stood in this crowd; and such languid sympathy as was going was on the side of the murderer. "Sarve 'im right—comin' carneyin' round a man's wife an' gettin' 'im in debt," was the average sentiment, expressed in slight variants of that formula. But a pieman and a hot-pea dealer from Smithfield market, being in trade themselves, maintained that he—the murderer being now understood—had no right to kill the man, all the same: and it was generally admitted, on reflection, that there was something in that, too; and, this equilibrium of opinion being established, the bell of St. Sepulchre's broke in with its ominous toll.
People began to watch the church clock, and the few who had watches pulled them out. James Renton's life was counted out in minutes: fifteen, ten, five, four; then three, two, and one. The crowd was very quiet, and looked no longer at the clock, but at the flagstaff opposite. The halyard was seen to shake clear, and one or two of the older men, with the habit of public executions—one was the pieman—took off their hats; and with that the black flag broke out and rose, and James Renton's last debt was paid. A curious sound, something of a loud murmur, but not unlike a cough, broke the silence, and a few boys shouted; and then parts of the crowd scattered, but slowly at first. A knot of women, voluble, with willing shudders, straggled into the nearest public-house to remedy the "turn" they had endured; the idle stood and stared at the black flag till the bell had ceased tolling, and afterward; and the rest drifted off a few at a time.
Small trace of James Renton was left on the face of London, save in a little house of a row in a suburb; a row with little yards behind and long gardens in front, bright with hollyhocks and scarlet runners. One garden only looked neglected, as in fact it was; for it had lain untouched since James Renton was taken away from it; and the curtains of the little house were drawn close.
In a grimy printer's shop in Seven Dials a ragged chanter-cove, who reminded the shopman that a man was being hanged that morning, was told that no more last dying confessions would be printed, except possibly in some case of unusual popular excitement. "No good now," said the shopman. "Look at all them left-overs from the last—dead loss they are. You can 'ave'em at yer own price, an' cut off the tops if you like."
But the speculation did not attract the chanter, so that even his commemoration was denied to James Renton; and the chanter's voice was presently to be heard singing "Sweet Belle Mahone" in Castle Street.
Over Newgate prison the black flag fluttered its hour, and came down almost unnoticed. The traffic in the Old Bailey grew thicker, and wagons clustered about the carriers' yards. The streets were filled with the day's business, and the thought that a man had been hanged that morning was wiped from the passer's mind. A person familiar with the routine might have noticed the coroner's jury as it filtered in, and, later straggled away; but, as a fact, nobody did notice, except perchance a loafing errand-boy.
The jury had been gone an hour or nearly when a solitary man slipped quietly away from the same door—more quietly and unobtrusively than the jury's meekest member. Small, mild, and insignificant in the scurry of the roaring street clad in rusty black, with an ill-kept tall hat on his head and a carpet bag in his hand, he passed on his way, the unnoticed picture of dismal commonplace. Yet here was the angel of death as it had met the bodily eye of many men; and James Renton not four hours ago.
A small mongrel dog that had been running about uneasily among the legs of the people at the court-house and in the street came after the man at a bolt, caught him short of the corner of Ludgate Hill, and pawed joyfully at his legs and his carpet bag. The man stopped, surprised, and glanced furtively up the street behind him. Then he gave the dog a word and a rub of the head and went on, with the dog now trotting at his heels.
Across Ludgate Hill, down to the Circus and up Fleet Street, the hangman went unobserved and unobservant, till, a little way beyond Bonverie Street, he turned through the doorway of a public-house and made for the innermost snuggery at the back. He carefully held the door to admit the dog, and was greeted by three customers already seated near the bar.
These three presented a great contrast in appearance and manner with the hangman. They were well dressed in their different ways, and clearly were of a class little to be suspected of personal acquaintance with him. But they had their own contrasts, also, though all three were young men. One, quiet in dress and manner, with a keen and inquiring eye, would have seemed well in place in any chambers of the adjoining Temple or in one of the larger number of clubs in Pall Mall. The second, of about the same age, might also have been seen in the Temple, but would have been less conspicuous in a rat-pit. He wore a short drab overcoat, bound in very wide and shiny braid, a plaid tie, and a horse-shoe pin a little short of natural size, and a harassing check suit was visible beneath the coat. The third was a very young man, obviously under the tutelage of him of the plaid tie, and anxious to see life in a modest copy of his mentor's apparel.
"Ha! Old cockalorum at last," said the man of the plaid tie. "We'd begun to think the jury 'd done the right thing after all and made it 'Wilful Murder' against you, and you'd gone and tied yourself up, as was right and proper. What's the gargle? The usual, or something short this time?"
The hangman stopped, looked thoughtfully at the bar and then quickly back to the speaker. "Thankee, Mr. Crick," he said, "I think I will 'ave somethin' short this time. Mild an' bitter's my 'abit, as you know, but this time—rum cold."
"Done with you." said Mr. Crick, lugging out a large cigar-case; "and a smoke? No? Rather have your pipe? Very well. Warren?" The quiet young man lifted the cigar already in his hand. "No? Then you, Mellor. Don't all insult 'em."
The callow youth, smiling rather uneasily, took a very black and deadly cigar, and lit, it resolutely.
"This is my friend Mellor," proceeded the loquacious Crick, with a wave of his hand between the two. "Take a good look and tell us how much rope you'd give him. He's got the measure of all his friends, you know," he went on, with a wink and a jerk of the band toward the hangman, "and I was quite flattered when I knew I should get a foot more drop than Warren. Hullo, whose dog? Yours?"
"Why, no, sir," answered the man in black patting the dog, "not my own; b'longs to a friend. 'E followed me—'e 'a done it afore, though not as far from 'ome as this. Animals takes to me, in a way; cats do. The cat in Newgate's a great pal o' mine."
"He's scarcely a pal to be proud of," Crick observed, with a critical eye to the mongrel's lack of points. "Pure pedigree tripehound, with a doormat cross, I'd guess. Well, and where's your news? You've hit somebody under the ear with a piece of string this morning, they tell me, and we've come to hear about it—Mellor especially. Did he take it game?"
"Oh, pretty well, as you might say, sir—pretty well. Nothin' to grumble about, considerin'."
The dashing Mellor, with a somewhat glary eye, inwardly much concerned with the black cigar, was helping himself through with cold brandy. "Say anythin' to you?" he managed to ask with some appearance of interest.
"You don't 'appen to 'a' known 'im, sir, I s'pose?" asked the hangman, turning to Mellor quickly.
"Know him? No—of course not; didn't know him," replied the gallant youth, coughing at a gulp of brandy and regarding the cigar with growing apprehension.
"Ah, well, there wasn't much about 'im," commented the hangman, with an odd air of relief. "Nobody don't seem to 'a' took much interest in 'im, else there'd 'a' been two or three more o' you gents 'ere to see me. Now, the day when I 'tended to Cracknell for the Mile End case, the bar was pretty-nigh full. 'E was a rum 'un, was Cracknell. I told you about 'im afore, but this genelman ain't 'eard. Cracknell was a man very much o' your size an' appearance, sir," he went on, turning again to the now thoroughly unhappy Mellor. "When I comes up to 'im with the straps, as it might be to you, 'Oh,' says 'e, 'you're the bloke, are you?' he says. 'Why,' says he, 'I'd make a better 'angman out o' putty.' he says; an' then—beg pardon, Mr. Crick, the genelman don't seem very well."
The completely disorganized Mellor, as pallid a figure as ever stood before the man in black, gulped behind his hand, and murmured: "Bit off color; eggs for breakfast; always disagree; think I'll go outside."
"That so?" queried Crick, taking his friend by the arm. "Come along, then—a whiff of fresh air in the Temple. That'll put it right." And the hangman watched the aspiring youth go much as he had often seen a white-livered patient going, supported by a turnkey.
"Young gent tried hisself a bit too high with that cigar, I think," he commented, turning to Warren. "I didn't say nothin' to offend Mr. Crick, did I, Mr. Warren?"
"Why, no," replied the quiet young man. "What makes you think so?"
"Well, I was a bit close about this mornin's job, an' I meant to be. I've got to be careful about that—an' there was that noo young gent, too. I didn't know 'im so well, you see. I should be very sorry to offend genelmen as take an interest in me, but I've a very nice little 'ouse just now, with a garden, an' I don't want to 'ave to move. I'm partial to gardenin', you see, sir, and particular interested in clove-pinks; an' the ground suits clove-pinks wonderful. I 'ave to be very careful, comin' an' goin'; and, if you'll allow me, sir, you're about the only genelmen I know as I'd let into the secret. Most of 'em's all right, I know, but they talk an' go on, and—well, any accident might let it out. I've 'ad to move once, because of a pliceman's wife lettin' on, an' I don't want to move again; besides the garden, the part suits the missis, an' my darter's goin' out teachin' the pianner, an' we're settled very comfortable and friendly with the neighbors—under a special name, of courss. That 'a the great advantage of private executions, you see. Now, everybody knew Calcraft, through bein' seen always in the public jobs. 'E 'ad no peace of 'is life—always movin'. I've known 'im 'ooted in the street. I could never 'a' stood it, bein' a man as must 'ave peace an' quiet. It 'ud 'a' broke my 'art. So I've been very worried over this mornin's job, for that reason. It 'a a little awk'ard."
"What? This man Renton?"
The mild little man nodded, and pushed his glass across the bar. "You see," he explained, "he was the man next door."
"What? Your next-door neighbor?"
The man in black nodded again, thoughtfully. Warren sat up and stared at him, with a faint whistle.
"That's 'is dawg," observed the hangman, with a third nod toward the animal, which pricked an ear and wagged its tail as it caught his eye.
"'E's a knowin' dawg—knowin', ain't ye, Billy?" Billy rose and planted his forefeet on the hangman's leg. "A rare un for findin' 'is way about. 'E's often 'ad a run out with me—ain't ye, Billy? 'E come up to the Old Bailey for the trial—follered Renton's missis. And he follered her again each time when she went to see Renton after the sentence, with the kids. There was no keepin' 'im indoors. I reckon he pretty well figured it out to hisself that that was where the guv'nor was, although he couldn't get in. And so it seems he's been goin' up there since, on his own, and to-day he spotted me comin' away, an' was after me like a shot. Felt a bit lonely, did ye, old chap? Ah, you're a knowin' card, Billy, but you don't know all of it, do ye? Or you mightn't be sich a pal. 'Ere, give 'im a biscuit."
The hangman rose, shifted his carpet bag against the side of the bar, and tapped with a coin for the biscuit.
"So you see," he resumed. "I've been a-thinkin' about it ever since the trial. I didn't want to 'ave to move, you see. I'd been great pals with Jimmy Renton—he grew clove-pinks that beat anythink I ever see—and it was on his account I 'ad rum to-day instead o' beer; I felt I ought to celebrate it a little, you see. Well, yes, sir, you're very good. I will 'ave just one more. Best respects. Yes; I felt a bit sentimental about Jimmy Renton, bein' a pal. His clove-pinks was best part o' two inches across. I never could find out where he got his roots. He used to say 'e'd give me cuttin's, but I never could grow 'em like his. He must 'a' took 'em off his worst plants."
Warren had been staring blankly at the other's face all through these remarks. Now, after a pause, he spoke. "My eyes, man!" he said. "What a situation! Do you mean to say that the poor wretch never suspected who you were till—"
"Not till I come to 'im this mornin' with the straps, sir; no. I'd been thinkin' about it for a week before. I'd been wonderin' if they'd mind my askin' him where he got them roots. I thought he wouldn't mind tellin' me then. But they're very particular now, all of 'em, Guv'nor and sheriffs and all, and they might 'a' said something about it. But, Lor'! I never got a chance. Jimmy went on like Bedlam, the moment he see me. 'Beck!' he screams out—Beck's my private name, sir. You won't mention it, will you?"
"Of course not. Go on."
"'Beck!' he screams out, as if I was a ghost. 'You're not Beck?' And he went back three steps as though I'd pushed him. 'Good-mornin,' I says, friendly as I could. 'No ill-feelin', I 'ope?' and puts out my hand. But he stares all round at 'em wild, and he says, 'Who's this man?' he says. 'Ain't it Beck?' And they all crowded in an' began to ask questions; so I told 'em. The sheriff went white as paper and begun talkin' to the Guv'nor. But the Guv'nor says to me, 'Come, you must do your duty' 'Yes, sir,' says I; 'that's what I've come for. Here's the straps.' But poor old Jimmy, he was quite broke up. 'You never told me, Beck!' he says. And then, 'Don't do it, Beck!' he says, 'don't do it!' while I was strappin' his arms.
"I made it as quick a job as I could, and the warders hurried him off, smart. It ain't very far, but all the way he was callin' out, 'Don't do it. Beck! Don't do it!' while the chaplain was readin' the service."
"Ugh!" ejaculated Warren, with a shudder. "Poor, poor devil!"
"I did my best for 'im," said the little man in black. "I never spoilt a job yet, but I took double care this time, knowin' who it was for. I 'tended to the machine a quarter of an hour sooner, so as to get more time, and I went all over everythink a dozen times with a oil-can, and worked the drop till it went with a touch. There wasn't a thing I could think of I didn't do, and I got it over as neat and quick as any job I ever did. I couldn't do less, could I?"
"And now will you go home and face the man's wife?"
"Well, I dunno about facia' her. She ain't been showin' much, and I expected she'd 'a' cleared out afore now; but she ain't. We'll be neighborly, o' course; anyhow, the missis will."
"And what if that woman finds out who you are?"
"Well, I 'ope not. You see, we don't want to move. My missis is a bit uneasy about it; 'as been all along."
Warren looked thoughtfully in the hangman's face for a few seconds. Then he said, "Of course the family's hard up?"
"I'd say as 'ard up as never was."
"Well, look here, I'm not a rich man; but as far as a sovereign goes—" and he extended the coin.
The man in black drew back a little. "I'd rather you give it 'em yourself, sir," he said.
"Well, I dunno, sir; p'r'aps there's more'n one reason. One thing, though; the missis is sometimes a leetle curious about my pockets when I'm asleep; and she don't always understand explanations. Look here—I tell you what."
He rapped on the counter and demanded pen, ink, and an envelope. Then, with some labor, he inscribed an address on the envelope. "Put a post-office order in that, sir," he said, "and post it. And I'm trustin' your honor about the address."
The door of the inner bar was thrust open, and a large female face appeared, under a flowery bonnet. It bent a frown on the man in black, jerked backward with commanding significance, and vanished.
"That's the missis," said the hangman, reaching for his bag. "I said she was uneasy about this job. She wants to know. She don't want to move, either. Good-mornin', sir, and thankee."
Warren waited a second and then followed him out. He looked up Fleet Street and there saw the receding back view of a small man in seedy black, in the custody of a gigantic woman in a Paisley shawl, with a ragged dog trotting contentedly behind.
"Good Lord!" ejaculated Mr. Warren.
MORE than once already I have said that Snorkey Timms was not a person of any constitutional honesty, except in an oblique and cranky way toward such of his intimates as trusted the honour he never claimed to possess. Perhaps his chief personal characteristic was a dislike of the particular form of violence called work; and no argument could change his views.
It ain't that I've never tried work, he said, sucking with much enjoyment at his pipe, just filled from my pouch—his taste in tobacco was almost his only creditable characteristic—you mustn't suppose that. I've tried it right enough, though not often, bein' only 'uman, as you might say. It may pay some, but I don't seem to be that sort. Born different, I s'pose. Why, the hardest work I ever did—my word, it was a drive, too!—I lost money over—lost it. An' after workin' like two 'orses all night, too! Fair makes me shudder when I remember it.
Somebody had been a-preachin' about honesty to me I s'pose, like what you do sometimes. So I took on a job as a book-maker's minder—you know what that is, o' course. You just 'ang about your bloke's pitch on the course, an' if anybody gets makin' a dispute with him, or claimin' what your bloke don't mean to pay, or what not, why you just give 'im a push in the fore. O' course, you get it back sometimes, but that's what you're paid for. Choppy Byles was my bloke—he was a nut, and no mistake. There wasn't nothing that Choppy Byles wasn't up to. He was up to such a lot o' things that he kep' two minders reg'lar—and he wanted 'em, too, I can tell ye. We could 'a' done with a few more to 'elp us most times, could me and Jerry Stagg, the other minder. Both of us had either one eye or the other black, permanent, while the flat-racin' season was on; an' once we went 'ome from Alexander's Park with about three-quarters of a weskit between us an' nothing else on us but bruises. But Choppy Byles, he was all right, and a mile away 'fore the row got into its swing; he 'ad quite a payin' afternoon.
Chipstead Spring Meeting and Felby races is within a few days of each other, and not more'n twenty mile apart—as o' course you know, like any other educated feller. About 'alf-way between them two towns is a little place called Nuthatch, and the year I'm a-speakin' of Mr. Choppy Byles and us two, Jerry Stagg and me, we stayed at Nuthatch over the day or two between the two meetin's; I dunno why, unless there was somebody in London as Choppy Byles didn't want to see afore he'd made a bit at Felby.
Me and Jerry Stagg, we thought we was in for a nice little day or two's holiday in the country. But Mr. Choppy Byles didn't take no holidays—he was out for business all the time. He'd race two earwigs over a cabbage-leaf and bet pennies on it with the green-grocer's boy, rather than miss a chance. And as luck would have it, we found the people at Nuthatch quite a sportin' lot; in fact, we didn't give 'em full credit till we come away; and then we was ready to swear they 'atched 'arder nuts at Nuthatch than any place forty times its size.
It was a rest-an'-be-thankful sort o' place to look at, though, and as comfortable and cosy a pub to stay at as ever I see. It 'ud convert any teetotaller to look at it, would the Fox and 'Ounds. We got there in the evenin' after Chipstead, an' sat in the parlour a-talkin' to the Nuthatchers an' doin' our best to astonish the natives. And all through the conversation, whatever was said, there was our bloke, Mr. Choppy Byles, feelin' round and hintin' to find if he couldn't get a bet on with somebody about any ol' thing. At last he got on to runnin', an' it turns out the Nuthatchers had got a chap they fancied could run a good mile.
That was enough for Choppy Bytes. He was on it. The runnin' chap's name was Dobbin—Jarge Dobbin they called 'im—an' it didn't seem to stand to reason that a chap with a name like that could run a fast mile. What was more, Choppy Byles's memory was wonderful, and, follerin' the Sheffield 'andicaps reg'lar, he knew the name o' pretty well everything on two legs that could raise a toddle, and the name o' Jarge Dobbin wasn't one of 'em. But he always wanted the best bargain he could make, did Choppy; so he began comin' the innocent kid.
"'E must be a wonderful runner," he said, "this here Dobbin. I s'pose 'e could run a mile in four minutes quite easy?"
"Why, no," says the Nuthatcher as was talkin' most—chap called Gosling—"nobody could do that. The best as was ever done in the world was nearly thirteen seconds more'n that."
"Was it?" says Choppy, lettin' on to be surprised. "Well, o' course, I dunno nothin' about them things. I only seemed to 'ave a sort of idea that four minutes would be pretty quick. I s'pose he'd do it all right in four minutes and a 'alf?"
"No," says Gosling; "that's championship time, too. Jarge Dobbin ain't a champion, not yet. But he'd run a mile on the road in five minutes."
"That seems rather slow for sich a very fine runner," says Choppy.
"Well, I think he could beat that," says Gosling; and a whole lot o' the others there said they was sure he could.
"Ah!" says Choppy. "Sich a man as him ought. You don't seem to be stickin' up for your pal half enough. I expect you'd be glad to bet big odds he'd do it in four minutes an' three-quarters?"
"Why, yes," says one chap in the crowd, "I would." An' some o' the others says "'Ear, 'ear!" But Gosling, he sat considerin'. He was a fat, jolly-lookin' feller, but very thoughtful, with sharp little eyes.
"I wouldn't bet very big odds," he says, presently. "But I'd give a bit of odds he'd do it—say between the forty-fourth and forty-fifth milestones along the main London road here."
"What odds?" asks Choppy, snappin' him up quick. "Two to one?"
"Why, no," says Gosling, in his slow way; "not sich odds as them. 'Five to four."
Choppy 'aggled a bit, but he couldn't get the odds no longer. So it was settled and put down in writin' that Jarge Dobbin was to run from the forty-fourth to the forty-fifth milestone, next day, in four minutes forty-five seconds, if he could, the stakes bein' five quid to four on his doin' it. An' as soon as that was fixed Choppy Byles began offerin' side bets all round.
"Not in my 'ouse," says the landlord. "I can't 'ave no bettin' 'ere. I've got my licence to think of. You'll 'ave to go outside if that's your game."
So everybody got up an' went out. Jist as we came tumblin' out into the lane Choppy gives me a drive in the ribs and whispers "'Ere's your chance to make a bit for yourself. Take the odds, same as me, an' tell Jerry Stagg."
What his game was o' course I didn't know, but it was pretty clear there was something up his sleeve—it was the sort o' sleeve there's allus something up, was Choppy's. Well, I told you the Nuthatchers were a sportin' lot, but it would ha' surprised you to see the little crowd out there under the stars in that peaceful village a-backin' and a-layin' that evenin'. Choppy Byles, he took every bet he could get, givin' evens when there was no more odds to be got, an' then offerin' odds against—anything to pile it up. Jerry Stagg an' me, we got our little bit on soon and stopped; and sooner or later all the others stopped too, and went 'ome. It was the sort o' place where they go to bed in the middle o' the evenin'.
The back door o' the Fox and 'Ounds was left on the latch all night for the potman to come in in the mornin'. Choppy found that out by tellin' the landlord he'd take a evenin' stroll, and might be in late. So Choppy gave us the tip and went out for his stroll; and when everybody else was in bed we went out very quiet by the back way, and found Choppy waitin' for us.
"Come along," says he. "Don't make no row, and don't waste time; there's a job o' work for you two."
"Work?" says we; an' I could 'ear Jerry Stagg shudderin' in the dark.
"Yes," says Choppy, "and you'll 'ave to do it smart if you want to win them bets you've made."
"'Ow's that?" says I.
"Why," says he, "we're goin' to shove one o' them milestones a bit further along the road. We might win with 'em where they are, but it's always best to make sure."
Quite a genius, you see, was Choppy Byles—a genius out an' out. How many 'ud 'a' thought o' sich a move as that? Not one in a million.
"But won't they spot it?" says Jerry, a bit doubtful.
"Not if we do it careful," says Choppy. "And, besides, what odds if they do? We ain't takin' no witnesses, and it's down plain enough, in black an' white. Between the forty-fourth and forty-fifth milestones, it says, an' nothing about 'ow far apart they're to be. Nobody can't get over that. What's more, that chap Gosling, I believe he knows something about them milestones. What for should he pick on them two and no others? And it was him as put it down on the paper; remember—not a mile, but between them stones. It struck me mighty odd at the time. It's a short mile, that's what that is an' he knows it. There's lots of 'em like that about the country, where they put the motor traps. So we shall only be putting the mistake right, or thereabouts, and doin' the nation a favour, as well as takin' it out o' that dishonest sharp, Gosling. Come along. That won't be a short mile tomorrow mornin', whatever else it is."
The village was mostly scattered about a lane leadin' out o' the main road, you understand, so up the lane we goes. It was a windy night and very dark—just as suited us.
When we come out on the main road we looks up an' down in the dark for two or three minutes 'fore we spotted there was a milestone right opposyte the end o' the lane. So across the road we went, and began strikin' matches to read what was on it.
I began, but arter about fifteen matches had blown out before I could see anything more than it was a milestone, Choppy Bytes lost his temper and had a go himself. We stood round, Jerry and me, and spread our coats while Choppy knelt down and struck more matches, talkin' about 'em that pretty all the while I wonder the milestone didn't catch fire itself. It was a worn old thing and not easy to make out, but presently Choppy persuaded a match to keep alight a bit, and then he jumped up.
"That's one of 'em," he says; "number forty-five. But it's right opposite the end o' the lane and everybody'll remember that. P'r'aps forty-four's in a easier place. Let's see—that'll be this way." So we starts off walkin' to the right.
We hadn't gone much more'n half-way when we came to the church, with the graveyard round it.
"Just the place we want," says Choppy. "There's sure to be a shed with spades and things in it. I was rather lookin' for a farm shed."
So we went gropin' about round the church, and, sure enough, we found a shed all right, with no lock on the door and a whole lot o' shovels and picks and what not in it, and a wheelbarrer—one o' them wide, flat sort as navvies use. It looked as though Choppy Byles's usual luck was in.
We shoved a crowbar and a couple o' shovels and picks on the barrer, and Jerry Stagg had just started wheelin' it down the path to the gate when we got one o' the biggest frights I ever had in my life. We very near ran into a man standing in the gateway.
"Ullo!" says the man. "What's all this?"
"'Sh!" Choppy whispers to us. "Not a word!" and he shoved in front.
"Good evenin'!" says he to the chap. "We thought you'd ha' been in bed, or we'd ha' come round. We just wanted to borrow—hire, that is—the barrer and shovels for a hour or two, to bury a—a dawg."
"Well," says the chap, "you've come out a rum time to bury a dawg."
"Why, yes," says Choppy, "we 'ave left it a bit late; but we wanted to keep it very private—not 'avin' a licence for the dawg, you see. Now, what should you think might be a fair charge for us borrowin' these things for a couple of hours, strictly private, to bury a dawg?"
"Well," says the chap, "it'll come a bit dear. That there Christian wheelbarrer an' things out of a churchyard oughtn't properly to be used to bury a dawg at all—specially a dawg with no licence. There's the strain on my conscience to consider," he says. "Say a quid."
"Bit 'igh, ain't it?" Choppy says, with his hand in his pocket. He was always a dreadful 'ard 'un to part, was Choppy.
"I told you it 'ud come a bit 'igh," says the chap; "specially if it's got to be kep' private. A quid."
So, seein' there was no help for it, Choppy lugged out the money and 'anded over. "Mind," he says, "this is strict Q. T.—between ourselves. We'll be careful to put the things back again."
"I don't care whether you do or not," says the chap, turnin' out o' the gate and chucklin' all over. "They ain't my things. I only took a look in as I went along!"
I'd almost 'a' give another quid to see Choppy's face just then, but I could guess it. We shoved out into the road, and I could hear Choppy's rage almost bustin' out through his ears and nose. "If it wasn't for givin' away the show," he said, presently, as we went along the road, "we'd have it back out of him. Never mind—I'll get it all back to-morrow. Keep your eyes a-goin' for that milestone."
It wanted watchin' for in the dark, for there was a lot o' big trees along the hedge just thereabout, which made it darker than ever. Pretty soon we spotted it, however, right in against the bank, with long grass and thistles and what not all round it. The trees sheltered us a bit more here, so we didn't have to waste so many matches, and there was the "44 miles" all right and plain enough. So we set to work.
Me and Jerry did the diggin' and Choppy Byles did the lookin' out—just the department he would choose. It was a sight easier than our job, anyhow, for that ground was very near as hard as the milestone itself. We dug pretty hard for a bit, and then Jerry took hold o' the top o' the stone and gave it a shove. It stood like a rock. "My wig!" says Jerry. "I wonder 'ow far it goes down?"
We went at it again, and the more we dug the 'arder the ground got. I never had sich work; and I was just slackin' off a bit for a rest when we had another startler.
A strange voice says, all of a sudden: "Look 'ere—I'm sharin' in that!"
Jerry Stagg fell over his spade, and I sat down whop. Choppy Byles spun round with a jump, and there in the road was a chap standin' watchin' us.
"I've bin sittin' over 'Ome Chips 'arf the night workin' out that clue," says the chap, "and now I come along and find you diggin' on the very spot. I reckon I share in that treasure."
This was the time when the buried-treasure rage was on, as you'll remember. All sorts o' papers buried money all over the shop, and parties was a-diggin' and pokin' about everywhere after it. We was relieved the chap wasn't up to our game, but it was a bit awkward.
"What rot!" says Choppy. "We're buryin' a dawg!"
"Dawg be blowed!" says the chap. "Show me your dawg!"
"Certainly not," Choppy says, very decided. "It's a private dawg. You've done the clue wrong, that's what it is. Go back and do it again, careful."
"I have done it careful," says the chap; "and now I'll stop here and see if I'm wrong or not."
"No," says Choppy Byles, gettin' nasty, "you won't stop here, not when you come to think of it you won't. When we go out buryin' dawgs, private dawgs, we want to be let alone, see? And there's three of us, with shovels. No, when you come to think of it, this is what you'll think," says Choppy, speakin' more friendly, and gettin' nearer to the chap, with his hand in his pocket again; "this is what you'll think. You'll think to yourself, ''Ere's three genelmen buryin' a dawg, a private dawg, what they're very grieved over. If I was right about that there treasure,' you'll think, 'why, they're there first anyhow, an' there's three of 'em with shovels and other things just as 'ard, and I'd better not make 'em angry,' you'll think. 'I'd better take a friendly quid what they offer me and go away, and write to the editor of 'Ome Chips for a consolation prize.' That's what you'll think if you're a reasonable chap, as knows what's best and safest."
"Well," says the chap, steppin' back a bit and speakin' milder, "I am a-thinkin' something o' the sort, since you put it that way. Only I'm a-thinkin' the friendly quid ought to be two."
Choppy was a hard parter in general, but prompt when it paid. "Here y'are," he snapped out; "two quid take 'em and hook it, 'fore I change my mind."
So the chap took the two quid and went off along the road. We listened to hear his footsteps dyin' away, and then Choppy grabs a pick himself.
"W'e'll get this over quick," he says, "before any more 'Ome Chippers comes along. Them papers is a public noosance upsettin' people's minds like this. But keep a lookout in that there hole, in case that feller's right."
I don't like thinkin' about the job we had. Nobody ain't got any right to ask me to work again for the rest o' my life after what I did that night. That milestone was like them icebergs you read about—about ten times as much down below as up above. And the ground—well, you'd ha' sworn we'd found a iron mine, all solid metal. Choppy dropped his pick soon and put in all his energy stimulatin' Jerry and me, and gropin' about in the dirt for any odd thing 'Ome Chips might ha' put there.
Well, we did it at last. That is, we got the milestone a-lollin' over sideways in a big hole, and we began sich a fight to get it on the wheelbarrer as we'd never gone through before not even at Alexander's Park. Jerry and me was down the hole heavin' most desprit at the bottom of the stone, and Choppy Byles was haulin' at the top to pull the thing into the barrer, and the chorus was enough to roast the little birds a-sleepin' on the trees overhead. Our tempers was none the better for all this, and before we got the stone fair on the barrer we nearly had a fight among ourselves. I'd ha' sworn I 'eard Choppy laughin' at us, but he said it was Jerry, an' Jerry said it was us two, and we never properly settled it. But we did get the stone on the barrer at last, filled in the hole, and started off along the road.
It was a pretty straight bit o' road, with trees along the side all very much the same so it looked as though we could stretch out that mile a good bit without makin' the change look very noticeable. So we went along lookin' for a place as looked as much as possible like the one we took it from when something else 'appened.
I never see sich a country road as that one was that night; it was like the Strand, pretty near, barrin' the lights an' the evenin' papers. We was just steadyin' up to look at what seemed a good place when we heard footsteps.
"What shall we do?" I says.
"Stand still," whispers Choppy. "P'r'aps he won't notice, Get in front o' the barrer." Then we heard the footsteps again, and they was all over the road at once; and the next minute the chap comes in among us like a Catherine-wheel, and bang over the wheel-barrer we was tryin' to hide.
"Whash this?" says the new chap turnin' over very unsteady on the milestone.
"What they leave wheelbarrers about in public road for people tummle over for, eh? Wheelbarrers an'—an' tombstones! I say there's a tombstone on thishyer barer D'y'ear? Tombstone. What you want tombstone on barrer middle o' night for?" An' with that he lifts up and sits in the barrer talkin' to us by and large.
"I know what you think," says he; "you think I'm drunk. That's my legs; they're shockin', but I'm allri'—sober as judge. Now what about tombstone?"
"It's all right, old chap," says Choppy tryin' to haul him up. "It's for a dawg we're buryin'."
The chap sat and wagged his head and chuckled. "Dawg?" he said. "Dawg? You don't seem believe I'm sober. I know what you've done. You've bin an' boned thishyer tombstone out o' the churchyard 'long there, to make—make—here, I say what you goin' to make out o' that tombstone?"
"You get up, old feller, and come along o' me," says Choppy, "and I'll tell you all about it. I got a drink for you a little further up the road—in a flask. It's a beautiful night for a walk; come along—the drink ain't very far off."
We never knew Choppy had got his flask with him, or it 'ud 'a' been empty long before this, with what we'd gone through. But we got the chap up somehow between us, and him and Choppy went staggerin' off along the road the way we'd come.
Choppy was gone a most rabunculous long time, and me and Jerry pretty well fell asleep on the milestone waitin' for him. When he came at last he was spittin' and snarlin' with rage like an old tom-cat.
"That there drunken tyke's been and lost my flask," he said. "Swigged it empty and then dropped it in the ditch or somewhere—he didn't know. I've bin gropin' all over the road and ditch and burnt all my matches, and had to give it up. But he's fast asleep an' safe enough, up against a stile. These here Nuthatch people owe me a bit more over this; but I'll have it all out of 'em to-morrow. We'll shove this milestone on a bit further still. But spread your coats over it, in case we meet somebody else in this here busy thoroughfare."
So Jerry and me put our coats over it and started off once more. We didn't go far this time—about fifty or sixty yards. We'd made it a pretty long mile by now, and there was a sort o' place here that seemed a good deal like the one the milestone came from, so we stopped. And here we found the first bit o' reasonable luck since we left the churchyard shed; the ground seemed pretty soft.
So we whanged in with the picks and shovels, and soon had a pretty tidy hole. The boss took a hand quite serious this time, for he was gettin' nervous. Not that he was much good. If you get three men as ain't used to it all a-diggin' one hole together on a dark night, you'll find they get a bit tangled up, one way and another. Jerry and me both resigned our appointments several times in that hole, and it was only business considerations as prevented a fight.
Now, we was diggin' this hole just at the foot of the bank by the roadside, and there was a hedge atop of the bank. We'd got the hole, as we thought, pretty near deep enough, and was just a-stoppin' to say so, when there came a most terrifyin' voice from over the top o' the hedge.
"Oo—oo—oo!" says the voice. "It's murder! Nothing but murder!"
We looked up, and there was a monstrous sort of ragged head lookin' down at us from the hedge.
"You've woke me up," says the head, "with your horrid language. I may be obliged by circumstances to sleep agin a hedge, but I've got my feelin's. You've got a corpse in that there barrer, covered over with coats, and you're a-buryin' of it. I ain't goin' to stand and see that done, not free of charge, I ain't. I may be a tramp, but I've got my feelin's!"
Here was another fine go. To think we should ha' picked on the very spot where this tramp was dossin'! But Choppy spoke up again.
"'S-sh!" he said. "We're very sorry we disturbed you—didn't know you was there. Do you read 'Ome Chips?"
"Read what?" says the head.
"'Ome Chips. The best and most 'olesome family paper in the world. Full of excitin' but moral stories, interestin' puzzles, and instructive articles by Aunt Eliza. One penny weekly. We're advertisin' it."
"Are you?" says the tramp. "Well, I'm a nervous chap and always carry a police whistle. I'll blow it 'ard, and advertise 'Ome Chips a little more."
"No," says Choppy, very hasty, "don't do that. We don't advertise that way—anybody can blow a whistle."
"I can," says the tramp. "You hear me!" And he shoved the whistle in his mouth.
"Stow it!" says Choppy, scramblin' up the bank. "Don't do a silly thing like that. You see, we're out buryin' treasure."
"All right, I don't mind that," says the chap in the hedge. "Bury it quick, so's I can come an' dig it up. Or give it me now, and save trouble."
"That ain't likely." says Choppy. "You don't seem to understand liter'y work. We cha'n't bury no treasure here now, when you've spotted the place; not likely, is it? But we'll give you five bob to go and sleep somewhere else."
"Why?" asks the tramp. "I ain't doin' no 'arm, and it's a very nice hedge. No, I don't believe this treasure yarn. My theory's murder. It's a habit I don't 'old with, is murder. I never allow a murder under two quid; and this whistle's a very loud 'un. Don't you get no nearer—I'm nervous."
Choppy Byles looked up at the tramp and down at us, helpless. Then he pulled out the money and handed it over. The tramp was off in a jiffy; and presently we could hear him whistlin' a little tune a long way off. I believe he did that to give us another scare.
"Two more this peaceful village owes me," says Choppy. "Just till to-morrow."
So we tumbled that milestone into the hole holus-bolus, and shovelled in the earth quick and stamped it down. There was a rare lot there was no room for, but we kicked it about among the long grass and made it pretty tidy. And then we went home. We put the things back all right in the churchyard shed, and we crawled very quiet into the Fox and 'Ounds not very long afore the potman.
In the mornin', after breakfast, Choppy Byles says to the landlord, in a casual sort o' way, "I s'pose you're goin' to see the runnin' match this afternoon?"
"Why, yes," says the landlord. "I did hink o' goin' over after dinner."
"Where is it?" asks Choppy, innocent as putty. "I don't know my way about here."
"Well," the landlord says, takin' him to the window, "you see the church right away there to the right?"
"Yes," says Choppy.
"Well, the forty-fourth milestone's a little way beyond that, along the road, and the forty-fifth's further on still."
"Further on still?" says Choppy, with a sort o' fall in his voice. "Further on still?"
"Why, yes, o' course," says the landlord. "A mile further on. It would be wouldn't it?"
Choppy Byles looked round at me and Jerry Stagg with a face like a paper kite.
"What's this mean?" he gasped, as soon as the landlord was out o' the room.
"I'll go along the lane and see," says Jerry. And we both went with him.
We came out at the end o' the lane, and there was the first milestone we'd seen, straight in front of us. We took a look round and went across. It was the forty-third! The forty-third!
The figures was worn, and not particular clear, and the three was one o' them with the flat top and a corner instead of a curl; very much like a five on a pitch-dark night with a match in a wind; but a three all the same.
The three of us stood a-blinkin' at each other over that milestone, as it come to us that we'd gone and made the mile a lump shorter instead of longer! And such a lump!
"Look out!" says Jerry, very sudden. "There's Gosling comin' up the lane with another chap. Get behind the hedge!"
There was a gate close by, and we nipped in like winkin' and stooped behind the hedge. It was Gosling, sure enough, with a pal, talkin' and laughin' like anything. He seemed to have a lot to say, but we only heard one bit, and that was enough.
"Five quid and a silver flask," says Gosling "not to mention a night's fun. But that'll be nothing to the afternoon's!"
We three just sat down behind that hedge and looked at each other like waxworks. We saw a whole new picture-show of that awful night in two seconds, us workin' and them peepin' and laughin'.
Then says Choppy Byles, "My bag's in the bedroom at the Fox and 'Ounds. Cheaper to leave it there. Foller the railway line. We'll hoof it."
So we did.
THERE can be no more widely spread delusion than that a man can believe his own eyes. And yet it is difficult to understand how such a delusion can have survived a single year's experience of a single human life; for every man's eyes—except a blind man's—must deceive him at least a score of times in the period.
I learned the lesson long ago by aid of my own eyes; and it was a fault of those same eyes that brought me the story I am here to tell again. It was in the best days of my Essex memories, when I was so very young a man that many people called me a boy. I was walking by night on a road I had traversed a hundred times before at all times of the day and night, so that I knew almost every bush in the hedges. There was a crowded sky of hurrying cloud, which never wholly blackened the country about me, and sometimes, for a space of seconds, let through a ray of clear moonlight that flung my shadow sharp on the road before me, and lit the meadows deadly pale as far as I could see. For all the hastening of the clouds above it was not a windy night in the lower air, and there was no more than a whisper among the trees as I passed the group of elms that stood in the hedge eighty yards before you reach the four-wont way. It is just beyond these elms that the country so falls away on the right that you can see the sea without interruption for a quarter of a mile along the road; and the widest view of the water is that from the four-wont way, where the cross-road drops steep toward the village by the shore.
I am reminded here that it may be necessary to explain that a four-wont way in Essex is nothing but the meeting-place of crossroads. To me the phrase is so familiar that I am disposed to apologise for the explanation, since it may be superfluous; though at the moment I cannot remember to have heard the words in any other county.
By involuntary habit I turned my head as I came to the spot where by day the sea is first visible, though now I rather remembered than saw it. But a distant light or two in the far dark and a wisp of mist over the marsh below mapped the familiar view clearly enough. So I reached the four-wont way at a moment of moderate brightness, and saw, as I thought, a man lying on the bank by the roadside.
By reason of the fall of the hill there were banks by the two corners to my left, but none by those on the right, and it was on the bank before me, on the side that bordered the crossroad, that the form appeared to lie. Drunk and asleep, was my first fancy; but I looked again, and the dark figure seemed to lie with a limpness that was more than that of sleep. Was the man ill—or dead? I checked my walk, and went across; but as I bent over the grass and weeds that grew on the bank the figure lost shape, and was nothing but a darkness, and the darkness fell into the natural forms of shadows on the broken ground among the grass and weeds.
Clearly there was nothing there. I had been deceived by the chance form of shadows on the bank. And yet the impression had been so real and so certain that even now I could not refrain from feeling about the bank with my hands. They came on the rough, dry ground, the grass and the weeds, and nothing else.
Yet one is by nature slow to discredit one's own eyes, even when the illusion is proved. So now I had the curiosity to walk backward till I reached again the spot where first I had paused in my walk. The shadows still lay along the bank, but whether from the changed light through the clouds that scurried overhead, or because actual examination had enabled me to correct my sight, I could see no human form now. Once more I went toward the bank, this time very slowly, watching for any change in the shadows that might suggest, however remotely, the shape that had deceived me. But still I saw nothing; nothing but the broken shade among the grass and weeds. I even put out my hand again, and felt the rough earth.
I turned back now more carelessly into the road, fully convinced of my error, but still with a sidelong step and a parting glance at the bank as I went. And as I did it I saw the dark form again, but in another place.
This time it was on the other face of the same bank—round the corner, as it were, and at the side of the road I was to pass along, though no more than a few feet from where I had already seen it. I stood still and rubbed my eyes. There was no mistaking it now, at any rate. Exactly the same dark form, apparently as solid as anything about me, lying in precisely the same attitude, at full length, with the head, which seemed as black as the rest, drooping slackly.
I took a good, deliberate look, and walked slowly toward it, watching for the moment when it should resolve itself into ordinary shadow, as I had seen it do before. It held its shape and its apparent substance till I stood over it, and then for the second time as I put out my hand I perceived that there was nothing before me but the shadows one would expect to see on the bank.
I had an odd feeling of chilliness, and from that moment to this I have never been able to decide whether the chilliness preceded or followed the sudden remembrance that a gibbet had stood at this corner in old times. At any rate I lingered no longer, but, after a quick look about me, went on my way; constraining myself, in the vain pride of youth, to walk with a regular step at a slower pace than I had been making, and resisting an almost overpowering impulse to glance over my shoulder.
In a hundred yards I began to be angry with myself for taking so much thought of an absurd error of vision, and especially for so illogical a recollection of the gibbet, which could have no possible connection with the faults of my eyes. But no logic will check a train of thought; and I went on remembering all I knew about the gibbet for the remaining two miles of my walk.
It was not a vast deal that I remembered after all. I had seen and handled a treasured little bag of chips cut from the post fifty years before I was born, and vastly esteemed for wear as a remedy for ague. I had heard old men tell of the men hanged there in chains, visible to passing ships at sea, about the year of Waterloo and before it; and I once had the curiosity to fasten a sheet of white paper in a neighbouring tree, so that I might readily pick out the spot when I rowed out in a boat. I found it a clearly noticeable spot on the skyline, where the figure of a dangling man must have caught the eye at once.
At this moment I cannot recall why I mentioned my little optical illusion to Roboshobery Dove next morning, unless I made it one of my arguments against some of the old fellow's ancient beliefs. But mention it I did, sitting at his cottage door under the shade of his best plum-tree; told him the whole transaction, in fact.
Roboshobery, who was knocking out his pipe against the socket of his wooden leg, paused and stared.
"All black, you say?" he queried. "An' laid out straight like someone might ha' putt him there?"
"Why, yes, so it seemed; but then, as I was saying—"
"Head hangin' all aside?"
"Yes—what seemed the head. I might have guessed it fancy, from that, now I come to think of it—it was so unnatural."
The old man never took his eyes from mine.
"You've seen Derifal," he said.
"Ay, sir, you've seen Derifal, an' not the first, either. Though 'tis nigh ten year since I heard of it last, that not bein' a road much used o' nights. 'Twere Derifal."
"And who is Derifal?"
"What he be now you may make your guess, sir," Dove answered deliberately, giving his attention once more to his pipe. "Once he were a man, an' he hung in chains on the gibbet at that there corner."
"But Derifal? I never heard the name before. I have heard of Cavell, and Munt, and Apprice, that Prentice remembers—the last that hung there; but never of Derifal."
"Cavell, an' Munt, an' Apprice—I saw 'em all myself when I were a boy. But Derifal were before that, long; an' the last man that saw him hangin' died fifty year ago. I'll tell 'ee, sir. 'Tis a true proper tale for wilful youth."
Roboshobery filled his pipe from the steel box engraved with a frigate in full sail, and I saw in his eye the quaint twinkle that ever accompanied a rebuke to a junior. He smoked a few puffs in silence, and then began his tale:
"It were fair to count that Derifal had a father, like most on us, but none hereabout ever heard tell on him. His mother dropped into the place out o' nowhere, so to say, in a po'-chay, nobody but her and her boy, about six year old or so, then. D'ye know the waste corner in the lane by t' oad common, leadin' to Beggar's Bush—the place where so much wallflower and snapdragon grows wild?"
The place was very noticeable to anybody passing the lane, and here and there the footings of old walls were still visible, showing it to be the site of a vanished cottage.
"Well," the old man proceeded, when I had answered him, "they lived in a cottage that stood there. There were some sort o' walls to it when I were a boy, though no roof; but the bricks were hiked off a few at a time, till 'twere as you see it now. But that makes nothen', here or there. The cottage were bought an' the furnitude put in by the lawyer at Rochford, by orders from another lawyer in London; an' nobody knew where the orders come from to begin with. But when all were ready, down comes Mrs. Derifal an' the boy, an' here they lived the rest o' their lives.
"Rather a gentry sort o' person, 'twould seem, were this Mrs. Derifal; an', keepin' to herself, there were tales a-plenty about—some I heard myself many's a year after she were dust and bones. But not a soul knew anything certain till the boy growed up, an' then they knew bad things of him. 'Twere as you might expect. He never went to school—his mother teached him, or wanted; but he learnt little that he hadn't a mind to. She were all for him, body an' soul, an' he growed up to prove her folly. She drew money quarterly through the lawyers, an' spent it all on the boy; an' as soon as he was old enough to do it, he spent it himself.
"There were little o' the genelman about he, whatever his father may or may not ha' been. He couldn't find company low enough hereabouts; an' that 'ud sound strange enough to you if you knew these parts as I've known 'em. He was away days together, an' 'twas said his mother never slept those times, but sat watchin'. An' like as not, when his humour was bad, he'd knock her down for it. He took her money as soon as she got it, every farden; an' what she lived on nobody could guess. She, that had been as neat an' lady-lookin' a woman as you might find in Essex, turned into a poor oad trollops with half a gownd to cover her, an' eyes blistered red with cryin' when they wasn't black with beatin'. But with it all she wouldn't hear a word against him, an' tried to make believe to be the best-fortuned mother in the parish. She bought him out o' trouble with selling the furnitude an' he turned on her for her ill-kep' house. She would take him by the hem of his coat, an' pray him to come back home, till he drove her away; an' she'd find him drunk in a ditch an' sit by him all night till she could take him home with her.
"They lived like that for long enough to set such tales about those parts as I might go on tellin' you for an hour, an' all tales o' the same sort. We've had our share o' bad 'uns hereabout; but I never heard of the like of Derifal—not a man that 'ud so behave to his own mother, that is. His name was a sort o' common sayin' in my time, though he hanged at the four-wont way 'fore I was born, as I've said.
"The time came when all he could get from his mother wasn't enough for Derifal, an' he tried other ways. He were never taken for it; but I've heard he went with some others a-robbin' on the road. An' at last it came that he an' two more had a plan that nobody ever learned the rights of, though 'tis to be guessed it were breaking into a house. His mother got some notion of it, though, an' tried to keep him back. Much good that was.
"It seems she followed him unbeknown as he went out at night, an' over by Dawes Heath he met his two pals. Whether or not she heard anything they said, I can't tell 'ee; but sartain it is she ran an' catched him about with her arms, pleadin' an' prayin' he wouldn't go. 'Danny, my boy, ye'll never go! Don't listen to 'em, Danny! 'Tis your life, my boy! You sha'n't go while I can hold 'ee, my Danny!'
"He threatened her, an' she held him the tighter and begged the harder. He beat her with his shut fist, an' she hung tight to save him. He couldn't break her hold, and he maddened an' cursed, an' beat her down by the head with an iron bar from his pocket. She let go then, and dropped, dyin'!
"Derifal's mates were hainish low enough; but this was beyond 'em. They went King's evidence, an' Derifal were hanged on Dawes Heath, with half Essex tryin' to pull him out o' the cart an' limb him. An' at the end of the hour he were taken down and hung in chains there at the four-wont way.
"Now a man hung in chains was padlocked, as you may have heard, an' Derifal was padlocked in the reg'lar way. But the next mornin' the chains hung empty, an' the corpse was lying on the bank, put out straight an' decent like it were in a coffin, barring that the head—Well, you remember about the head yourself. So they sent a man off a-hossback to Chelmsford, an' before night Derifal were up in the chains again with a new padlock, it bein' guessed that somebody had a key to fit the other. But that weren't enough; for next morning they found Derifal laid out the same again on the bank, at the other side o' the post! An' the padlock were tight as ever!
"They did it again, an' the sheriff set a secret watch. But in the night the two watchmen came down runnin', half dead o' fright. They'd watched a bit, and seen nothen'; an' then they sat to take a rest behind the hedge, countin' they could hear if anybody came a-nigh. They'd sat a while, an' maybe dozed a bit, when they heard a most piteous noise of cryin' and sobbin'—not screams nor like that, but just quiet, bitter cryin'. So they upped and peeped over the hedge, an' there were Derifal, laid out straight an' black on the bank again, an' a gashly thin, pale woman over him, cryin' as they'd never dreamed, an' with her hands to his head, like as she'd knelt many a night with him drunk by the wayside. An' with that they runned.
"In the morning they carried the body away from the bank, an' it never went back. How 'twas done I don't know, but after a time there came an order—'twas said from the King himself—that Derifal should be buried. So buried he was; an' with that 'tis to be guessed his mother got her rest at last, for I never heard she were seen again. You saw no white woman, sir, did you?"
"Certainly not; and as for the—"
"Ay, ay, sir, 'tis as I said; she's at rest. But I can show you two men alive now that have seen the black man, besides yourself."
A SHADOW hung ever over the door, which stood black in the depth of its arched recess, like an unfathomable eye under a frowning brow. The landing was wide and panelled, and a heavy rail, supported by a carved balustrade, stretched away in alternate slopes and levels down the dark staircase, past other doors, and so to the courtyard and the street. The other doors were dark also; but it was with a difference. That top landing was lightest of all, because of the skylight; and perhaps it was largely by reason of contrast that its one doorway gloomed so black and forbidding The doors below opened and shut, slammed, stood ajar. Men and women passed in and out, with talk and human sounds—sometimes even with laughter or a snatch of song; but the door on the top landing remained shut and silent through weeks and months. For, in truth, the logement had an ill name, and had been untenanted for years. Long even before the last tenant had occupied it, the room had been regarded with fear and aversion, and the end of that last tenant had in no way lightened the gloom that hung about the place.
The house was so old that its weather-washed face may well have looked down on the bloodshed of St. Bartholomew's, and the haunted room may even have earned its ill name on that same day of death. But Paris is a city of cruel history, and since the old mansion rose proud and new, the hôtel of some powerful noble, almost any year of the centuries might have seen the blot fall on that upper room that had left it a place of loathing and shadows. The occasion was long forgotten, but the fact remained; whether or not some horror of the ancien régime or some enormity of the Terror was enacted in that room was no longer to be discovered; but nobody would live there, nor stay beyond that gloomy door one second longer than he could help. It might be supposed that the fate of the solitary tenant within living memory had something to do with the matter—and, indeed, his end was sinister enough; but long before his time the room had stood shunned and empty. He, greatly daring, had taken no more heed of the common terror of the room than to use it to his advantage in abating the rent; and he had shot himself a little later, while the police were beating at his door to arrest him on a charge of murder. As I have said, his fate may have added to the general aversion from the place, though it had no in no way originated it; and now ten years had passed, and more, since his few articles of furniture had been carried away and sold; and nothing had been carried in to replace them.
When one is twenty-five, healthy, hungry and poor, one is less likely to be frightened from a cheap lodging by mere headshakings than might be expected in other circumstances. Attwater was twenty-five, commonly healthy, often hungry, and always poor. He came to live in Paris because, from his remembrance of his student days, he believed he could live cheaper there than in London; while it was quite certain that he would not sell fewer pictures, since he had never yet sold one.
It was the concierge of a neighbouring house who showed Attwater the room. The house of the room itself maintained no such functionary, though its main door stood open day and night. The man said little, but his surprise at Attwater's application was plain to see. Monsieur was English? Yes. The logement was convenient, though high, and probably now a little dirty, since it had not been occupied recently. Plainly, the man felt it to be no business of his to enlighten an unsuspecting foreigner as to the reputation of the place; and if he could let it there would be some small gratification from the landlord, though, at such a rent, of course a very small one indeed.
But Attwater was better informed than the concierge supposed. He had heard the tale of the haunted room, vaguely and incoherently, it is true, from the little old engraver of watches on the floor below, by whom he had been directed to the concierge. The old man had been voluble and friendly, and reported that the room had a good light, facing north-east—indeed, a much better light than he, engraver of watches, enjoyed on the floor below. So much so that, considering this advantage and the much lower rent, he himself would have taken the room long ago, except—well, except for other things. Monsieur was a stranger, and perhaps had no fear to inhabit a haunted chamber; but that was its reputation, as everybody in the quarter knew; it would be a misfortune, however, to a stranger to take the room without suspicion, and to undergo unexpected experiences. Here, however, the old man checked himself, possibly reflecting that too much information to inquirers after the upper room might offend his landlord. He hinted as much, in fact, hoping that his friendly warning would not be allowed to travel farther. As to the precise nature of the disagreeable manifestations in the room, who could say? Perhaps there were really none at all. People said this and that. Certainly, the place had been untenanted for many years, and he would not like to stay in it himself. But it might be the good fortune of monsieur to break the spell, and if monsieur was resolved to defy the revenant, he wished monsieur the highest success and happiness.
So much for the engraver of watches; and now the concierge of the neighbouring house led the way up the stately old panelled staircase, swinging his keys in his hand, and halted at last before the dark door in the frowning recess. He turned the key with some difficulty, pushed open the door, and stood back with an action of something not wholly deference, to allow Attwater to enter first.
A sort of small lobby had been partitioned off at some time, though except for this the logement was of one large room only. There was something unpleasant in the air of the place—not a smell, when one came to analyse one's sensations, though at first it might seem so. Attwater walked across to the wide window and threw it open. The chimneys and roofs of many houses of all ages straggled before him, and out of the welter rose the twin towers of St. Sulpice, scarred and grim.
Air the room as one might, it was unpleasant; a sickly, even a cowed, feeling, invaded one through all the senses—or perhaps through none of them. The feeling was there, though it was not easy to say by what channel it penetrated. Attwater was resolved to admit none but a common-sense explanation, and blamed the long closing of door and window; and the concierge, standing uneasily near the door, agreed that that must be it. For a moment Attwater wavered, despite himself. But the rent was very low, and, low as it was, he could not afford a sou more. The light was good, though it was not a top-light, and the place was big enough for his simple requirements. Attwater reflected that he should despise himself ever after if he shrank from the opportunity; it would be one of those secret humiliations that will rise again and again in a man's memory, and make him blush in solitude. He told the concierge to leave door and window wide open for the rest of the day, and he clinched the bargain.
It was with something of amused bravado that he reported to his few friends in Paris his acquisition of a haunted room; for, once out of the place, he readily convinced himself that his disgust and dislike while in the room were the result of imagination and nothing more. Certainly, there was no rational reason to account for the unpleasantness; consequently, what could it be but a matter of fancy? He resolved to face the matter from the beginning, and clear his mind from any foolish prejudices that the hints of the old engraver might have inspired, by forcing himself through whatever adventures he might encounter. In fact, as he walked the streets about his business, and arranged for the purchase and delivery of the few simple articles of furniture that would be necessary, his enterprise assumed the guise of a pleasing adventure. He remembered that he had made an attempt, only a year or two ago, to spend a night in a house reputed haunted in England, but had failed to find the landlord. Here was the adventure to hand, with promise of a tale to tell in future times; and a welcome idea struck him that he might look out the ancient history of the room, and work the whole thing into a magazine article, which would bring a little money.
So simple were his needs that by the afternoon of the day following his first examination of the room it was ready for use.
He took his bag from the cheap hotel in a little street of Montparnasse, where he had been lodging, and carried it to his new home. The key was now in his pocket, and for the first time he entered the place alone. The window remained wide open; but it was still there—that depressing, choking something that entered the consciousness he knew not by what gate. Again he accused his fancy. He stamped and whistled, and set about unpacking a few canvases and a case of old oriental weapons that were part of his professional properties. But he could give no proper attention to the work, and detected himself more than once yielding to a childish impulse to look over his shoulder. He laughed at himself—with some effort—and sat determinedly to smoke a pipe, and grow used to his surroundings. But presently he found himself pushing his chair farther and farther back, till it touched the wall. He would take the whole room into view, he said to himself in excuse, and stare it out of countenance. So he sat and smoked, and as he sat his eye fell on a Malay dagger that lay on the table between him and the window. It was a murderous, twisted thing, and its pommel was fashioned into the semblance of a bird's head, with curved beak and an eye of some dull red stone. He found himself gazing on this red eye with an odd, mindless fascination. The dagger in its wicked curves seemed now a creature of some outlandish fantasy—a snake with a beaked head, a thing of nightmare, in some new way dominant, overruling the centre of his perceptions. The rest of the room grew dim, but the red stone glowed with a fuller light; nothing more was present to his consciousness. Then, with a sudden clang, the heavy bell of St. Sulpice aroused him, and he started up in some surprise.
There lay the dagger on the table, strange and murderous enough, but merely as he had always known it. He observed with more surprise, however, that his chair, which had been back against the wall, was now some six feet forward, close by the table; clearly, he must have drawn it forward in his abstraction, towards the dagger on which his eyes had been fixed...The great bell of St. Sulpice went clanging on, repeating its monotonous call to the Angelus.
He was cold, almost shivering. He flung the dagger into a drawer, and turned to go out. He saw by his watch that it was later than he had supposed; his fit of abstraction must have lasted some time. Perhaps he had even been dozing.
He went slowly downstairs and out into the streets. As he went he grew more and more ashamed of himself, for he had to confess that in some inexplicable way he feared that room. He had seen nothing, heard nothing of the kind that one might have expected, or had heard of in any room reputed haunted; he could not help thinking that it would have been some sort of relief if he had. But there was an all-pervading, overpowering sense of another Presence—something abhorrent, not human, something almost physically nauseous. Withal it was something more than presence; it was power, domination—so he seemed to remember it. And yet the remembrance grew weaker as he walked in the gathering dusk; he thought of a story he had once read of a haunted house wherein it was shown that the house actually was haunted—by the spirit of fear, and nothing else. That, he persuaded himself, was the case with his room; he felt angry at the growing conviction that he had allowed himself to be overborne by fancy—by the spirit of fear.
He returned that night with the resolve to allow himself no foolish indulgence. He had heard nothing and had seen nothing; when something palpable to the senses occurred, it would be time enough to deal with it. He took off his clothes and got into bed deliberately, leaving candle and matches at hand in case of need. He had expected to find some difficulty in sleeping, or at least some delay, but he was scarce well in bed ere he fell into a heavy sleep.
Dazzling sunlight through the window woke him in the morning, and he sat up, staring sleepily about him. He must have slept like a log. But he had been dreaming; the dreams were horrible. His head ached beyond anything he had experienced before, and he was far more tired than when he went to bed. He sank back on the pillow, but the mere contact made his head ring with pain. He got out of bed, and found himself staggering; it was all as though he had been drunk—unspeakably drunk with bad liquor. His dreams—they had been horrid dreams; he could remember that they had been bad, but what they actually were was now gone from him entirely. He rubbed his eyes and stared amazedly down at the table: where the crooked dagger lay, with its bird's head and red stone eye. It lay just as it had lain when he sat gazing at it yesterday, and yet he would have sworn that he had flung that same dagger into a drawer. Perhaps he had dreamed it; at any rate, he put the thing carefully into the drawer now, and, still with his ringing headache, dressed himself and went out.
As he reached the next landing the old engraver greeted him from his door with an inquiring good-day. "Monsieur has not slept well, I fear?"
In some doubt, Attwater protested that he had slept quite soundly. "And as yet I have neither seen nor heard anything of the ghost," he added.
"Nothing?" replied the old man, with a lift of the eyebrows, "nothing at all? It is fortunate. It seemed to me, here below, that monsieur was moving about very restlessly in the night; but no doubt I was mistaken. No doubt, also, I may felicitate monsieur on breaking the evil tradition. We shall hear no more of it; monsieur has the good fortune of a brave heart."
He smiled and bowed pleasantly, but it was with something of a puzzled look that his eyes followed Attwater descending the staircase.
Attwater took his coffee and roll after an hour's walk, and fell asleep in his seat. Not for long, however, and presently he rose and left the café. He felt better, though still unaccountably fatigued. He caught sight of his face in a mirror beside a shop window, and saw an improvement since he had looked in his own glass. That indeed had brought him a shock. Worn and drawn beyond what might have been expected of so bad a night, there was even something more. What was it? How should it remind him of that old legend—was it Japanese?—which he had tried to recollect when he had wondered confusedly at the haggard apparition that confronted him? Some tale of a demon-possessed person who in any mirror, saw never his own face, but the face of the demon.
Work he felt to be impossible, and he spent the day on garden seats, at café tables, and for a while in the Luxembourg. And in the evening he met an English friend, who took him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes, shook him, and declared that he had been overworking, and needed, above all things, a good dinner, which he should have instantly. "You'll dine with me," he said, "at La Perouse, and we'll get a cab to take us there. I'm hungry."
As they stood and looked for a passing cab a man ran shouting with newspapers. "We'll have a cab," Attwater's friend repeated, "and we'll take the new murder with us for conversation's sake. Hi! Journal!"
He bought a paper, and followed Attwater into the cab. "I've a strong idea I knew the poor old boy by sight," he said. "I believe he'd seen better days."
"The old man who was murdered in the Rue Broca last night. The description fits exactly. He used to hang about the cafés and run messages. It isn't easy to read in this cab; but there's probably nothing fresh in this edition. They haven't caught the murderer, anyhow."
Attwater took the paper, and struggled to read it in the changing light. A poor old man had been found dead on the footpath of the Rue Broca, torn with a score of stabs. He had been identified—an old man not known to have a friend in the world; also, because he was so old and so poor, probably not an enemy. There was no robbery; the few sous the old man possessed remained in his pocket. He must have been attacked on his way home in the early hours of the morning, possibly by a homicidal maniac, and stabbed again and again with inconceivable fury. No arrest had been made.
Attwater pushed the paper way: "Pah!" he said; "I don't like it. I'm a bit off colour, and I was dreaming horribly all last night; though why this should remind me of it I can't guess. But it's no cure for the blues, this!"
"No," replied his friend heartily; "we'll get that upstairs, for here we are, on the quay. A bottle of the best Burgundy on the list and the best dinner they can do—that's your physic. Come!"
It was a good prescription, indeed. Attwater's friend was cheerful and assiduous, and nothing could have bettered the dinner. Attwater found himself reflecting that indulgence in the blues was a poor pastime, with no better excuse than a bad night's rest. And last night's dinner in comparison with this! Well, it was enough to have spoiled his sleep, that one-franc-fifty dinner.
Attwater left La Perouse as gay as his friend. They had sat late, and now there was nothing to do but cross the water and walk a little in the boulevards. This they did, and finished the evening at a café table with half a dozen acquaintances.
Attwater walked home with a light step, feeling less drowsy than at any time during the day. He was well enough. He felt he should soon get used to the room. He had been a little too much alone lately, and that had got on his nerves. It was simply stupid.
Again he slept quickly and heavily and dreamed. But he had an awakening of another sort. No bright sun blazed in at the open window to lift his heavy lids, and no morning bell from St. Sulpice opened his ears to the cheerful noise of the city. He awoke gasping and staring in the dark, rolling face-downward on the floor, catching his breath in agonized sobs; while through the window from the streets came a clamour of hoarse cries: cries of pursuit and the noise of running men: a shouting and clatter wherein here and there a voice was clear among the rest—"A l'assassin! Arrêtez!"
He dragged himself to his feet in the dark, gasping still. What was this—all this? Again a dream? His legs trembled under him, and he sweated with fear. He made for the window, panting and feeble; and then, as he supported himself by the sill, he realized wonderingly that he was fully dressed—that he wore even his hat. The running crowd straggled through the outer street and away, the shouts growing fainter. What had wakened him? Why had he dressed? He remembered his matches, and turned to grope for them; but something was already in his hand—something wet, sticky. He dropped it on the table, and even as he struck the light, before he saw it, he knew. The match sputtered and flared, and there on the table lay the crooked dagger, smeared and dripping and horrible.
Blood was on his hands—the match stuck in his fingers. Caught at the heart by the first grip of an awful surmise, he looked up and saw in the mirror before him, in the last flare of the match, the face of the Thing in the Room.
AT my first encounter with Mr. Montgomery Staggers, he offered me, out of pure personal regard and affection, five thousand shares in the Stumer Gold, Diamond, Silver, and Gas Mine, Limited, at fourpence a share; an offer, by his own confession, equivalent to making my fortune in a fortnight. Somehow I refrained from buying those shares, and on later occasions I neglected other similar opportunities. After this the financier's zeal for my temporal welfare somewhat abated, and with no more than one or two further attempts to endow me beyond the dreams of avarice, he descended to an occasionally expressed desire for the loan of half a crown. It was thus that I first heard of myxomycetes.
I was base enough, at first, to suspect Mr. Staggers of inventing this word, but you will find it in any dictionary or any encylopaedia, and you may find myxomycetes itself on an old tree-stump—any number of species of it, and men of science call it protozoa—the lowest form of animal life.
Unless you are a hardened teetotaller you are probably aware of those
wine-shops in London where a basket of free biscuits stands near a crumbled
heap of eleemosynary cheese. It was at one of these institutions that Mr.
Montgomery Staggers absorbed his daily sustenance and transacted such
business as he could compass. The fluid share of the honour was mine, Mr.
Montgomery Staggers being snugly entrenched between the biscuits and the
cheese, while he proceeded to deliver himself of the following:—
People have been most shockingly fed up with mines, but they're as good a promotion as anything even now, if you can only get 'em to bite. Scientific invention's all my eye; the scientific chaps don't seem to know the game, and they're bound to let you in for something, sooner or later. No more science for me, not after old Burridge and his blooming myxomycetes.
I was in with a useful little crowd at that time that were very enterprising, and game for anything. What money was wanted we usually got from a chap called Stibbins—for office furniture and such, not much—but he certainly had ideas sometimes, and synthetic goods was one of his specials. Commercial Syntheses, Unlimited—you could do so much with it, you see; anyhow, it seemed so; synthetic bricks, synthetic timber, synthetic leather, glass, wool, gold—anything; make 'em all chemically. We made up our minds to do it properly; get a tame science merchant and put him in a proper laboratory, just to show the mugs, with all his synthetic bricks and timber round him, and a precious large lot o' retorts and tubes and jars and glass bubble-shaped things and blow-pipes. So Stibbins got hold of Burridge. He'd been a teacher in science schools, but he was always hoofed out because he would muddle with his own experiments instead o' teachin'. So we got him a new suit o' clothes and all the retorts and stinks and stuff he wanted, and shoved 'em all in the back room o' the office Stibbins took in a court off Broad Street. "And now," says we, "go ahead and make bricks out o' straw or anything you like in them glass things."
"Bricks?" says the old chap, "I want to make protoplasm. I believe I can generate life! It's the dream of my career."
"Life be blowed," says we; "we want something with money in it, like bricks. It'll do if you only make-believe to make 'em, in a scientific way."
They were buildin' a new bank up the street, and I went out and borrowed a few bricks in the dusk. We brushed 'em up neat and set 'em out on a bit o' green baize in the office with a label: "SYNTHETIC BRICKS—THE FINISHED ARTICLE!" And next morning old Bashford Keeble—he was one of us then—brought in a bit of synthetic timber he'd sawed off a new fence, and we put that on another bit o' green baize with a label of its own. We bought a bit of synthetic leather at a grinder's shop for a bob, and we all put in specimens of synthetic glass—such a lot of empty whisky-bottles that Stibbins said there was nothing so suspicious as overdoin' it, and pitched most of 'em out. You never saw anybody more surprised than old Burridge when he saw the specimens all nicely laid out with their labels, in the front office. "But I haven't made 'em yet," says he.
"What rot!" says we. "Of course you made 'em—here they are! We can't wait for your experiments—this is business."
I ought to have told you that besides Stibbins and me there was old Bashford Keeble and a couple of others, Pewtris and Crump. I did the gentlemanly man o' the world, and Bashford Keeble was the respectable virtuous. He had a very high, shiny forehead—mostly baldness—beautiful wavy grey hair—and a beard like Moses. You'd have trusted him with your last bob—lots o' people did it at different times, and sure enough it was their last. What?
Stibbins pulled the strings generally, and Pewtris and Crump were what you might call general utility.
First we were after a private syndicate—just a few select mugs at as much as they were good for apiece; got at through the partnership and investment advertisements.
Well, we began on the syndicate, but somehow the syndicate wouldn't begin on us. We got out ads. solid-lookin' enough for the Bank of England, but at first we didn't get a bite. Nibbles, yes; miserable nibbles. Old fogies would come in and listen to it all, and take a peep at Burridge and his stinks, and say the bricks were wonderful, and the bit o' wood was marvellous, and the leather amazing, and the bottles that life-like they almost smelt of whisky; and then they'd say they'd think over it, and they'd go fading out on to the stairs and never be heard of again.
Stibbins was getting short and rusty about the whole thing, and kept throwing up to us the money we were all costing him for the new clothes he'd rigged us out with, and all that. And then I had a good idea. So I knocked up a little ad. like this:—
A unique opportunity of lucrative investment in the greatest scientific discovery of the age, with an important directorship, is open to a woman who is able to exercise independent judgment untrammelled by the "advice" or other patronage of the duller sex.—Address, COMMERCIAL, 5, Duffield Court, Broad Street.
That went into a suffragette paper, and it rather fetched 'em—quite a number. The trouble was we had so many call that were all ready for the directorship but wanted to leave out the investment. And then all of a sudden we had a double event in one day. Old Burridge invented his myxomycetes and Miss Agatha Gunter answered the ad.
We got the invention first. Stibbins and I were sittin' in the office, when suddenly there came a frightful yell from the stink-shop. We thought old Burridge had caught fire at last or something, and rushed at the door in a bunch. But there was the old frump dancing and waving his arms like mad, and staring at a little gruelly splash on a bit o' glass lyin' on his bench.
"Got it!" shouts the old boy. "Organic life! Synthetic myxomycetes! Done it! Me! Alone! Hooray!"
And before we could make up our minds whether to knock him down or tie him up, he burst into a gabble of explanations.
"Oh, stow the pigeon-English," says Stibbins; "what is it in plain Whitechapel?"
"Myxomycetes," says Burridge; "protozoa, the lowest form of animal life—made it synthetically! It's quite a new species, too—stronger in growth and assimilation than any of 'em, and grows with the damp of the atmosphere alone. Look here that splash on the glass is dormant, and ready to throw out spores; but look at this!"
He scraped up a bit with a knife, and put it on a piece o' firewood; and sure enough it settled down in a sort of blob and then began spreading out little points very slowly all round.
We watched the points creep out over the wood, hardly moving; and then Burridge dipped a little glass rod in water and let fall a drop or two in the wood just by the side of the jelly. The moment it reached the damp it rushed ahead like one o'clock; ran all along the bit of wood and spread round it, till it was covered.
"It's eating that wood up," says Burridge and he dropped it into a jar. Sure enough presently it all sort of melted down in the bottom of the jar and there was no wood there—one o' the rummest things I ever saw. Creepy, too, to think that messy stuff was really alive and calmly lunchin' off our firewood in that gluttonous way.
"It's a most amazingly vigorous species," says Burridge, grinning with triumph all over. "Nothing like it in the natural protozoa. Anything that's really wet it gobbles up like lightning. Look at this."
He tore off a bit from a duster, and dipped it in water. Then he picked up another bit of the jelly on the knife and wiped it on the wet rag. It just rushed all over that rag, and in two seconds it was another lump of jelly, which he dropped into the jar on top of the first.
"You see," says Burridge, "in the glass jar it goes dormant. So it would on metal; it only grows on what it can eat, and it only eats organic matter or its derivatives. Warmth makes it grow and eat quicker, so does darkness. Dryness stops most species, and perhaps absolute dryness would stop this; but as it is, the ordinary moisture of the atmosphere keeps it going, and any greater moisture—well, you've seen what that does."
We were all standin' round among the bottles and gadgets starin' and tryin' to think of some way to turn old Burridge's jelly into the merry ha'pence, when I happened to peep over Crump's shoulder into the outer office and there saw a lady. I dropped myxomycetes and skipped out for business.
This looked more like progress. The lady was labelled money all over. Real lace, no less; diamonds at her neck; gold chain-purse in one hand; gold lorgnette in the other. Not young, no; and a bit severe to look at, especially when she popped up her gold lorgnette and stared at you through it.
She came to the point straight away—she was ready to invest in anything she was satisfied with. What was this? And before I could begin to explain, there was that oily old flatterer, Bashford Keeble, wagging his venerable locks on the other side of her, and taking the words out of my mouth. Stibbins lay low. He was no society ornament, and he had the sense to know it.
We pointed out the bricks, and old Bashford Keeble began to discourse at large on bricks as a moral institution. "Bricks, my dear madam," he said; "bricks produced by this wonderful synthetic process add the advantage of great commercial possibilities to the universal higher significance of the brick in general. The thoughtless throng is apt to ignore the moral import of the brick. The brick in its multitudes gives shelter to the human race, supports the domestic hearth, has its part in the sanctity of the home. It is an inspiring thought—"
"Yes, yes," says the lady; "and do these bricks support the domestic hearth any better than the usual kind?"
"Much," says Keeble; "it's one of their chief recommendations."
"Also," I put in, "the whole scheme is more particularly calculated to support in opulence the domestic hearths of those investors who come in privately now—on the ground floor as we say in the City."
"Indeed?" she says; "and how do you make the bricks?"
"By the process invented by our Mr. Burridge, whose name will resound throughout the ages when Newton's is forgotten. You see, we take hydrated silica of ammonia and magnesia, and then, combining these ingredients with calcium, and adding the proper quantity of potash and free silica, we pass the whole through an intricate process of—er—synthesis, and what with the synthesis of the combination actin' on the combination of the synthesis, and the consequent reaction on both—why, there you are, don't you know!"
"Dear me!" says she, looking hard at me through her lorgnette all the while. "So much simpler than baking clay! Show me something else!"
Somehow I began to feel that the stroke hadn't quite come off, but I dashed in on the wood tack.
"Now, this timber," I said, pickin' up the specimen; "we're anticipatin' an enormous revenue from chemically produced timber. Quite indistinguishable from the natural article, and free from all knots and defects. Made in any length to order, at a price beyond the reach of competition with e-normous profits. To a lady of your educated intelligence, I need scarcely point out the enormous, the universal demand for timber."
"Timber," says old Keeble, shovin' in his oar from the other side, "hitherto only to be procured by the barbarous destruction of the fairest scenes of sylvan delight, will now be supplied to the crying needs of our fellow-creatures by an inexpensive but moral chemical process, placing it within the reach of the humblest."
"And what's the inexpensive moral process?" asks Miss Gunter. She had a way of starin' immovably at you through those frozen glasses all the while you were speakin' with about as much expression on her face as the back of a tombstone, and then rappin' out a question like an assegai.
Old Bashford Keeble never could be sure of the scientific patter. He flourished his hands in a sort of general way and said it was done with lignum and cellulose, and synthetic combination, and other secret ingredients.
"Oh!" says the lady, as though she hadn't expected that. "Have you tried melting down sawdust?"
Poor old Keeble waggled his hands feebly and said it seemed a good idea, and he'd mention it to the board.
"Do," says Miss Gunter; "it's just the soft of thing that might interest a board."
Old Keeble and I looked across at each other pretty blank, but to hear her voice and look at her tombstone face it was hard to believe she was guyin' us, even now. She reached over and took up the piece of leather.
"And this is the synthetic leather, is it?" she said, turning it over. "Extraordinarily like the real thing, quite extraordinarily. If you were not so honest you might safely call it genuine. But it's rather rudimentary. Why not synthetic boots? You're more advanced with the glass, I see. Such a convenient shape, isn't it? I suppose you'll soon produce bottles ready labelled?"
"And with whisky in 'em," I said, with something as near a wink as I dared. For it was plain now we weren't scorin', and old Keeble was shakin' his head and waggin' his hands and tryin' to look as though he wasn't responsible for anything.
"Yes, yes; very profitable to somebody no doubt," says Miss Gunter. "Where's your works?"
"No works, as yet," I said; "but we've a small laboratory here where Mr. Burridge works."
It struck me suddenly that we might do something after all, if we could impress her with the myxomycetes. So I said, very confidentially, "I don't know if I ought to mention it yet, but as a matter of fact he really has made the most astounding discovery only just now. He has produced life by chemical means!"
"Indeed? How wonderful!" says she calm and stony as ever. "Show me. 'Let us come and see life—by chemical means."
We went into the back room, and she almost seemed to take to old Burridge, comparatively speaking. He was bubblin' all over still, and he explained all about myxomycetes and the formic aldehydes and amino acids, and he did the experiments again with a larger piece of wood and a wet duster. Miss Gunter was so taken with it she forgot to say anything sarcastic, and old Keeble, findin' her comin' round a bit on this, butted in again, and poked his fingers and his whiskers into things and muddled up the explanations, and did all he could to shove himself in front of poor old Burridge, who was providin' the show.
I must say it was a fascinatin' show, with its horrid, slobbery creepiness. To know that beastly jelly was alive, and to see it go reachin' out over things and wrap 'em round and eat 'em up, and to see it rush ahead like lightning the moment it met any sort of moisture, as though a drink stimulated its appetite—well, creepy fascination was all you could call it; I found myself sort o' dislikin' the stuff more and more, as you might lookin' at a worse than usual kind of reptile, and yet bein' fascinated to see it. Miss Gunter, stony as she was, kind of stood off and pulled in her skirts, but couldn't take her eyes off the stuff till the experiment was done, and the swelled jelly dropped into a jar.
Then she said, "Thank you, Mr. Burridge; it is most interesting. This is one thing I can congratulate you on at any rate, and I really think I should like to come again!" Quite gracious to old Burridge.
"Certainly—delighted, I'm sure," says old Keeble, buttin' in as usual and nubbin' his hands. "I shall always be most pleased—"
"Yes, yes," says Miss Gunter, turnin' on him stony again; "and what do you propose to produce from this discovery of chemical life? Synthetic menageries?"
She'd got him fixed with her glasses, and old Keeble could only smile uneasily and shrug his shoulders and waggle his hands as though he'd lost a towel.
Miss Gunter took a general look round and said, "Quite the most interesting afternoon! I really think I must come again. I've to see my broker to-morrow morning at eleven, and if there's time, I might come then. It's all so very original! Good afternoon!"
With that she was gone, and in the next second old Keeble had bolted after her. I saw his game in a flash—treacherous old blighter. He was throwin' us over—betrayin' his pals. Here was a woman rollin' in money, and—single; that was enough for him. He'd been sort of washin' his hands of us in dumb-show ever since it was plain she wasn't swallowin' what we served her; and now he was off after her by himself. I saw at once it was a thing that must be seen to; and if the lady preferred a weddin' to shares in a syndicate, what was the matter with me? I grabbed my hat and hooked it after Keeble.
It's a short court, and by the time I was out of the front door the lady was gettin' into a spankin' landaulette car waitin' at the end of the court in Broad Street, and Keeble, with his beard all flyin' and his shoulders bobbin', was holdin' the door and seein' her in.
There's a tea-and-bun shop at the corner of the court, with an entrance in each street. So I just slipped in there till I saw Keeble retire and the car begin to move off, and then I dashed out of the front door and skipped on to the step.
"Pardon me, ma'am," I said; "one word in justice to myself!"
She stopped the car. "Well," she said, "and what do you want? I can't wait here long."
"My dear madam," says I, "I am ashamed positively ashamed, to have appeared wanting in respect for the intelligence of a lady of your incisive intellect. I wish to be allowed to warn you against the nefarious designs of the Commercial Syntheses Syndicate. As to my own seeming part in their scheme, if you will allow me a few minutes' explanation—"
"Oh," says she. "Another penitent, is it? I can't wait now. I've just sent the other away. He's to be here at the entrance of the court to-morrow morning at half-past ten to catch me before I go in, and explain everything. You'd better come too. Good afternoon!"
I skipped off the step with the best bow I could muster, and the car sailed off. It was a bit awkward. To begin with, I wasn't altogether sorry to be cut off just then because, as a matter of fact, I hadn't any particular explanation ready, and it might have been a bit awkward to invent as I went along.
On the other hand, old Keeble and I were to weigh in our explanations in a blessed chorus.
As I turned it over, the humour of the thing came uppermost, and it gradually presented itself in the light of a prodigious lark. Old Keeble would know nothing about the arranged chorus, and when I turned up, all ready for the fun, he would be rather off his game. I spent half the night thinking out my part.
But it wasn't needed—not a line. I got to the office pretty early in the morning, but only just before old Keeble; and when he came in, he came like a firework, and he was bald as a coot, head and chin and all! All his wavy locks and every hair of his beard was gone, and anything less like Moses you couldn't invent. You'd only have known him by his clothes.
"Look at this!" he blared. "I'm ruined! I can't show myself for half a year! This is what comes of that old fool's experiments! I must ha' got some of the spores or something out of that stuff of his into my beard yesterday. I thought I felt something gummy in it, and as soon as I began to wash, it was all a mess of that infernal jelly, and the more I washed the worse it went, till it was all over my head and I could feel it gnawing into my skin! I thought I was goin' stark ravin' mad! I rolled over in the bedclothes and wiped it off on the sheets, and I got up like this! Not a hair on my head—not a hair! I rubbed it all over with vaseline and stopped the gnawing, or I believe it would have eaten my head off! And while I was doin' that it ate the bed-clothes, and I left it comin' downstairs, gobblin' up the stair carpet!"
He fell back into a chair for a moment, blown; and then he jumped up and went for the back room. "I'll exterminate the stuff and Burridge too!" he yelled.
Poor old Burridge was busy with his jim-jams, and wasn't prepared to receive cavalry so to speak. Old Keeble burst in on him like a bomb-shell, and before I could interfere, he'd swept off a whole tableful of retorts and things, and whacked the jar of myxomycetes into the fireplace. It smashed into fifty thousand bits, and Burridge set up a howl like a tortured soul.
"The spores'll be everywhere," he yelled scrapin' at the stuff with the fire-shovel.
"Yes—have some of 'em!" bawls Keeble firin' another jar at his head.
It hit the wall and scattered everywhere and then I grabbed Keeble, and Stibbins and Crump came in and pacified him with office-rulers. Stibbins had paid hard money for the stuff in the office, and he was sensitive about it.
Presently I left them trying to clean up and slipped out to keep my appointment with Miss Gunter. I hadn't to wait long at the end of the court before I saw the spankin' landaulette sailin' up.
"Well," says Miss Gunter, "and where's the other penitent?"
I explained the accident. "It's a most unfortunate occurrence," I said, "and I expect it'll be a long time before he's visible. Some might call it a judgment!"
"So they might," says she. "And where's your judgment?"
"That," I said, "I am content to leave in your hands. At any rate, this unfortunate accident gives me the opportunity of expressing, unheard but by you, my gratitude for the angelic influence—yours, Miss Gunter—which has made another and a better man of me. Partly in my innocence, led away by evil persons—older men I may say, much older—and partly, let me confess it with a new heart, tempted by the prospect of gain held out to me, I was about to engage—had begun to engage, in fact—in an enterprise of questionable probity; when suddenly, by the magic of your presence, your manner your words, your better, nobler influence, for which, if I may offer the devotion of a lifetime—"
"Why, bless me," says Miss Gunter, "Ido believe you're making love to me; nobody ever did that before. I thought your venerable friend was beginning yesterday, and I was so sorry I hadn't time to let him go on. But don't you stop, on any account. Come inside the car—it's beginning to rain!"
So it was. It was ploppin' heavily on my new hat and all over the best suit of clothes I ever had. So I nipped inside, and went on.
"Your woman's heart," I said, "your divine instinct has told you the truth. Agatha! If I may call you so—I saw the charming name on your card—Agatha—"
"Why, what's the matter with your hat?" she said, suddenly, staring at it through her glasses.
I whipped it off, and there, in great blobs, was that unholy jelly—myxomycetes! The stuff and its spores had flown everywhere in the scrimmage, and now the rain had finished the job, and the blobs were running together in masses! And even while I stared, fascinated and horrified, a great dollop fell flop on Miss Gunter's dress and began to spread! More, I was coming out in great spots of jelly all over my clothes, my boots—everywhere!
A full comprehension of the state of affairs struck Miss Gunter in a flash. She sprang up with a yelp I shouldn't have expected of her and shoved me out into the street.
The unspeakable jelly was climbing all over me, but I gasped "Agatha! Agatha!" and I heard her scream to the chauffeur, "Home! Home! As fast as you can go! Never mind the speed limit!"
It was the end of love's young dream. What happened to that dear lady in that expensive car I never knew, though I often try to imagine. There was nothing in the carriage part of the car that myxomycetes wouldn't eat, except the metal fittings, and it depended entirely on an uncertain equation of distance home, blocks in traffic, and speed of car, whether or not that stony maiden lady arrived home on a bare iron chassis, clad in a mass of jelly.
But for the moment my business was to get into the office, and I ran, with my clothes and boots melting off me as I went. I rushed up the stairs and into the office. And there the sight was appalling. Myxomycetes was crawling everywhere and eating everything, and nothing stopped it but the stone passage at the outer door. Carpet, chairs, tables, wainscot—everything. It was the most unholy scrape I ever was in. I got home somehow, in five bob's worth of rags from Houndsditch; and we left that office with nobody but myxomycetes to settle with the landlord.
MR. SAMUEL POTTER, cheese-monger and provision merchant, looked out from his shop-door and surveyed High Street, Mugby, on the morning of the day of Mugby Races with a pleasurable internal thrill, not unqualified by a certain flutter of trepidation; it was the thrill, in fact, of the unaccustomed plotter, the flutter of the beginner in secret adventure.
Mugby High Street was the picture of tradesmanlike respectability, and in all Mugby there was no milder pattern of respectability in appearance, than Mr. Samuel Potter himself; which is as much as to say that there was no milder pattern in the world. For the world contained no duller place than Mugby where, if dullness were not always respectability, at any rate respectability was always dullness. Such a pattern was Mr. Potter—in appearance; and his visible ambitions went not a yard beyond the border of Mugby. But if you could have read the ambitions that were not visible, if you could have plumbed the imaginings of his inmost soul—why, then you would have been surprised as no doubt you would be if you could similarly penetrate anybody else.
Mugby Races were a nuisance—that every respectable tradesman in Mugby agreed. True, they were at Mugby Heath, three miles off, with a separate railway-station; but Mugby itself and all its tradesmen were so very respectable that they felt a contamination of rowdiness even three miles off, and as a matter of fact, the three miles precluded any benefit to Mugby trade. It was a fool of a distance altogether.
Mugby Races always fell on early-closing day, and the Mugby shops closed on that day even a little earlier than usual, to emphasize the general disapproval of the anniversary. This morning Mr. Potter surveyed successively the shop-fronts of Cripps the greengrocer, Hopkins the undertaker, Tubbs the chemist and Dodson the draper, and wondered vaguely which would be most horrified could he have guessed at the desperate project slumbering in the brain of himself, Potter the cheesemonger.
Mr. Potter's visible ambition spread not a yard beyond High Street, Mugby, as I have said; but if you could have pierced below the respectable surface and read his inmost mind, you would have found him a terrible fellow—a sportsman, no less.
But this secret, interior sportsmanship was wholly platonic—the mere private habit of an imaginative lifetime. From boyhood up in his secret self-communings, Mr. Potter had pictured himself engaged in phantasmagorial feats of sport: bringing down a brace of grouse on one side and a pheasant and a rabbit on the other, with a clean right-and-left from the same trusty rifle with which he had bowled over a magnificent stag at a thousand yards' range not five minutes before; leading the field, hounds and all, in a gallant burst straight across a dangerous country obstructed by many seven-foot brick walls, and riding down the fox in a spinney after a ten-mile gallop; beating both 'Varsity eights alone in a sculling outrigger for Doggett's coat and badge; hooking the largest conger-eel on record with the dry fly; and scoring a century of goals off his own bat for his county in Association Rugger. From all which it may be perceived that Mr. Potter's sportsmanship was of the most highly theoretical and ideal not to say ghostly, character; and the mind is the better prepared for the desperate project lurking that fine morning in Mr. Potter's breast. He was going to Mugby Races!
Not brazenly, openly, before the shocked eyes of his fellow-townsmen, but deviously across meadows, with all the horrid joy of a stealthy adventure. Moreover, he was going to bet on a horse.
It arose through Bigsby. Bigsby was a commercial traveller in lard, and he looked in on Mr. Potter once a fortnight. Bigsby was no sculler or gunner, but a far more desperate character, whose darkling fascination grew on Mr. Potter every fortnight. Bigsby knew all about races and the horses running in them; and, more, he freely communicated his information. He told Mr. Potter—when it was certain that neither Mrs. Potter nor the shopman was listening—what was a certainty for the Derby, a dead snip for the Cesarewitch, and a perfect ankle-biter for the City and Suburban. And when, a year ago, he had prophesied a positively inevitable for the Mugby Stakes itself, and the horse had won, Mr. Potter had become strangely excited.
After that he paid special attention to Bigsby's vaticinations. Mostly he found he had forgotten the name of the horse—they were such odd names—as soon as Bigsby had left; but two or three times he remembered and on these rare occasions, stealthily consulting the sporting column of his daily paper after the race, he ascertained that the traveller had really picked the right horse each time out of any number from a dozen to a score. Mr. Potter began to think the matter over very seriously.
He took a stump of pencil, a bill-head, and some rules of arithmetic. A bet of a sovereign on each of the horses whose performances he had verified would have produced a total profit of seventeen pounds ten. Consequently, one of five pounds on each horse would have brought in eighty-seven pounds ten, and by the same process he perceived that a bet of fifty pounds would have made eight hundred and seventy-five, and one of but you could go on multiplying to any extent, and the prospect was dazzling. The cheesemongery was all right, in a humdrum sort of way, but nothing like this.
Of course there were serious arguments against betting; all sorts of ruin followed when you lost, and nothing could be less respectable than ruin. But if you only made bets when winning was certain (and Bigsby was astonishing)—why, then, eh? What could be more profitable and, for that reason proper?
This was the state of Mr. Potter's cogitations when the time of Mugby Races was coming round again. This time Bigsby was more positive than ever. In fact, he was rather sorry that the result was so wholly foregone and indisputable; he would much have preferred the credit of picking out the winner from a doubtful field. But as things stood there was only one in it—Magpie, of course. Nothing but a loaded gun, fired straight at the quadruped's head, could prevent Magpie winning the Mugby Stakes by the length of a street.
"It will be simply a sinful throwing away of money," said Bigsby, "not to back Magpie—if you can get on. The nuisance is that everybody knows it, and the price is so short. Evens Magpie, as early as this, in a field of very near twenty—well, you know what that means."
Mr. Potter didn't know in the least, but he nodded sagaciously, and then glanced nervously along the counter, lest he were overheard.
"I've never laid a bet," he said; "but of course it would be all right when it's quite certain."
The word "bet" left Mr. Potter's lips with a strange shock. It seemed not quite a proper word. It had a bold, raffish flavour and even from the days of his upbringing he had formed the habit of dodging it conversationally with the milder substitute "lay"—"I lay we won't come, after all"; "It's upstairs, I'll lay anything," and so on.
"Of course it would be all right when it's quite certain," said Mr. Potter.
"Why, of course," replied Bigsby. "But Magpie's almost too much of a certainty. Spoils the race—nothing else in it. It'll be odds on before the day, and not easy to get on at that."
Truly, as Bigsby had said, it would seem sheer improvidence to neglect such an opportunity as this. Ordinary betting, of course was quite indefensible. But when one saw the opportunity of acquiring just as much money as one might arrange for, and at the expense of a low bookmaker—well, what respectable tradesman could hesitate about the propriety of that?
"I will lay," said Mr. Potter to himself dodging the raffish word again; "I will go to the races and lay on Magpie. Nobody will know but myself. It will be early-closing day, and Maria will go to my aunt's."
Moreover, when he had won all the money he could get, he would make Maria a handsome present, and so atone for any furtiveness that might oppress his conscience; and in the same way he would cut out that bounceable person, Dodson the draper, who had just put his name down conspicuously for ten pounds in the subscription raised to clear off the debt incurred by the last bazaar in aid of the chapel funds.
There was a lack of excitement about cheesemongery in Mugby which bored the secretly romantic soul of Potter, and, as a fact, if he had but known it, all his sporting aspirations were nothing but the natural rebellion of that same secretly romantic soul. For years the one excitement vouchsafed him had been the anticipation of a visit from Maria's rich Uncle Wilkins from the north which had never come off. Maria had always believed that, once her Uncle Wilkins had been made acquainted with Samuel, great good fortune would somehow follow. Uncle Wilkins would certainly, at the lowest, make a large corner for Samuel in his will, and, more probably, struck by his nephew's business capacity, he would "put something into" the business. Long had Mrs. Potter cherished these hopes, and had brought Potter himself to share them; often had the invitation been extended to Uncle Wilkins, and as often had Uncle Wilkins promised to "drop down on them" unexpectedly at some odd time. But Uncle Wilkins had never come, and even Maria's hope had waned, while to the ardent soul of Mr. Potter the indefinite prospect of a surprise visit from his wife's uncle was all too inadequate a supply of excitement to outlast the years. And so, by revulsion of spirit, Uncle Wilkins's neglect made Samuel Potter a sportsman.
Thus, in the state of mind produced by all this internal disturbance, Mr. Potter looked out on Mugby High Street on the morning of race day. Such was the disgust of the Mugby tradesmen at the races that the shutters always went up a little before the regular time on race-day, and somehow to-day they went up sooner than ever. There was an animated competition between the shutters of Cripps the greengrocer and Hopkins the undertaker, which Cripps's boy won by a bare shutter. Mr. Potter's shopman got permission to go early to visit his grandmother's grave. Mrs. Potter was already gone to Aunt Hannah's, and nothing remained to hinder the sportsman's departure.
A QUICK step behind, a cry of "Ha! caught you!" and a hand fell on Mr. Potter's shoulder. He turned with something like a gasp of horror, but it was only Bigsby.
"Ha!" cried Bigsby, heartily. "The Mugby contingent goes a-footback to Mugby Races. All alone?"
"Why, yes," answered Potter; "I should hope so. There's sure not to be anybody else from Mugby." He felt shocked, indeed, at the suggestion. "Why are you here?"
For the place was a footpath over a field between Mugby and the heath.
"Got stuck up at Hockwood and missed the train; the one I got in only came to Mugby, and not a thing on wheels to be found. So I'm hoofing it, like you—and we shall just about miss the first race. So trot!"
Trotting was uncomfortable for Mr. Potter, for, to the best of his ability, he had dressed his part. He had a yellow box-cloth coat, much too hot for the weather, and the brimmiest hat in his possession. Also he had field-glasses on one sling and a satchel on another. These two implements of sport he had fondled lovingly for days, as a boy fondles a new fishing-rod or cricket-bat. There were sandwiches in the satchel, because Mr. Potter could think of nothing else to put in it, and, anyhow, a satchel was the proper thing, as you might see in the illustrated papers. Things that hang on slings will flop when you run, so the trot soon ceased.
"The Stakes is the second race," Bigsby remarked, while Potter recovered his breath. "I want to get a bit on Magpie if I can, but it won't be easy. You might get some sort o' price at a big meeting, but hardly here. They'll just bar it, I'm afraid."
Mr. Potter's face fell. If you couldn't bet on a certainty, what was the good of the whole business? That was the one thing that redeemed the system from depravity; now it all seemed more disgraceful than ever.
They climbed the last stile and came in view of the heath. The green ring of the course was set about with patches of moving crowd and a confused clamour of shouts told that the first race had started.
"Missed it," said Bigsby. "I thought so. We needn't hurry now; there's half an hour before the Stakes."
They strolled on easily, and presently reached the open part of the course. Mr. Potter threaded the struggling crowd at the heels of Bigsby, who rescued him twice from betting on a certainty in a game of three cards played on the top of an opened umbrella. Presently they arrived at a row of strikingly-dressed and rather noisy gentlemen, each with his satchel hanging before him.
"Fiver one—there y'are, elevener two Bluestar!" shouted the first, aggressively, at Bigsby.
"Magpie," answered Bigsby. "What price?"
"Full Magpie," replied the shouter, hastily turning to Mr. Potter. "'Ere, 'levener two Bluestar or Chadwick!"
They moved on to the next of the row—a very hoarse man with a Union Jack round his hat.
"'Leven to two," bayed this patriot; "'leven to two bar one!"
"Evens Magpie?" queried Bigsby.
"Bar Magpie; 'leven to two Chadwick or Bluestar, tenner one anything else."
"Odds on Magpie?" persevered Bigsby.
"No Magpie—'ere, give someone else a chance. 'Levener two! 'Levener two, bar one!"
From number two in the row they went to number three, thence to number four, and so all down the line, with the same result each time. It was no good. There was no betting on this certainty, and the bottom had fallen out of Mr. Potter's new world. The Turf was a disappointment—a gigantic engine of national demoralization.
Bigsby stood for a moment at the end of the line and considered. Then he said:—
"You stay just here while I run over to the enclosure; perhaps I can do it there."
Mr. Potter took his stand at the end of the line of bookmakers and began to look about him. Presently a man in the crowd, taking a look at him and another at his satchel, came up and said:—
"Do you want to lay?"
"Yes," said Mr. Potter, eagerly. "I do—very much."
"Make it evens?"
"Right—a quid," said the man, promptly producing a sovereign and thrusting it into Mr. Potter's hand.
All Mr. Potter's disgust at the state of the Turf vanished on the spot. This was extraordinary—this touching confidence of a perfect stranger. He hadn't expected it. Not only was this sterling sportsman ready to bet against a certainty, but he recognized the certainty and paid the money over beforehand. Never again would Mr. Potter suffer a word against the frequenters of race-meetings.
"Got a ticket?" asked the man.
"A ticket?" repeated Potter. "No."
"Well, you ain't put it down."
"Oh, I sha'n't forget," protested Potter; and then bethought him that some acknowledgment of this gentleman's confiding faith was only proper. So he dived into his pocket and produced a large card headed "S. POTTER, CHEESEMONGER AND PROVISION MERCHANT," with his address below, and little ornamental remarks, about supplying families and respectfully soliciting orders, scattered round.
"All right," said the sportsman, making a note on the back of the card and holding it up. "Magpie a quid."
But now Mr. Potter was confronted by a large, staring man wearing horse-cloth tweeds and waving enormous grey Dundreary whiskers. He had overheard the transaction, and now thrust forward a sovereign of his own with an aggressive drive of an enormous hand.
"Magpie, evens," said the apparition; and at that moment two other bystanders took up the cry and pushed before him with money extended in their hands.
Mr. Potter found himself the centre of a small but very eager crowd, who thrust money on him from every side. Bigsby would seem to be a duffer, after all. If he had stayed he might have shared this overwhelming tide of luck. In the midst of it Mr. Potter received a shock; for he looked in the face of one of his eager customers and saw Cripps the greengrocer. Cripps was startled, too; but he handed over his money, a little shamefacedly, and was succeeded, of all marvels, by Dodson the draper! Dodson stopped, coughed, stuffed his hand back into his pocket, and nodded uneasily; then he mumbled vaguely about the fine afternoon and turned away. He was trying to look as though he had come that way by accident.
Mr. Potter was surprised at the behaviour of his fellow-townsman, and more when he perceived Hopkins, the undertaker, hovering undecidedly at the edge of the crowd. And then there burst through the press, with two half-crowns extended in his hand—his own shopman!
There was a horrid gasp of mutual recognition, and the wretched hireling turned tail and ran—no doubt in the direction of his grandmother's grave. And then appeared through the press the amazed face of Bigsby; and with that there was a shout of "They're off!" and everybody scrambled for a place to see the race.
Bigsby shouldered the triumphing Potter aside and demanded, "What's all this? What have you been up to?"
"Laying," replied his friend, jubilantly. "Quite a lot of people wanted to bet against Magpie, after all."
"Laying! G'law! Do you know what you've done? D'you know what laying means?"
"Yes, betting, of course. I've been laying Magpie with all this lot, and they've paid their money in advance."
"My wig, you've done it!" gasped Bigsby, his eyes protruding like those of a lobster. "Laying is betting against, you blithering chump! Those bookies are layers! All this crowd have been backing Magpie, and you'll have to pay 'em!"
Everything inside Mr. Potter from his chin downwards seemed to turn over and fall into bottomless space. He gasped and stammered incoherently, and Bigsby heard what he said better than he heard himself.
"Explain!" cried Bigsby, in reply. "I think I see you explaining to this crowd when they want their money! Can you pay 'em? Because you're in the soup if you can't, my hearty! Halloa! Now they're off!" And he took what space he could get on the side of a hillock to watch.
There had been a false start, but now the race was really begun. There was a roar of shouting, and then a clamour of cries. "Magpie! Magpie all the way! He's coming out a'ready! Magpie!"
Mr. Potter stared wildly about him. The situation was terrible—desperate; and he had about two minutes to decide how to meet it. Of course, he would have to pay—but how? The money he had brought with him would be short by forty—fifty—sixty pounds or more. And his nearest resource was the bank at Mugby!
There was nothing else for it. Either he must be torn to pieces by the infuriated populace or they must wait till he could fetch the money. Now was the only chance; and in fifteen seconds from the start of the race for the Mugby Stakes Mr. Potter was legging it away from the course at the uttermost pace he could tear.
For a moment he was unnoticed, for the race drew every eye. Then somebody turned with a shout, and in an instant there was a cry of "Welsher!" from a score of throats. Bigsby turned too, and gasped with horror to see one of his best customers eloping with the money of confiding strangers.
The confiding strangers went after Mr. Potter in a crowd. Cripps the greengrocer, gazing on the scene, was surprised and scandalized, but resolved to call on Potter in the morning rather than interfere. As for Hopkins the undertaker and Dodson the draper, they experienced a virtuous satisfaction. They had not been betting; and they were able to contemplate the utter downfall of their erring townsman with self-approval and no pecuniary loss. Even Mr. Potter's shopman, had the scene been visible from his grandmother's grave, might have found occasion for a little self-righteousness on his own account.
But the hunted cheesemonger guessed nothing of this, having urgent business of his own. He scampered madly ahead, with the angry yells of his pursuers ringing in ears, and saw nothing of the last and only service Bigsby was able to render him. For the man of tallow followed with the crowd, and, selecting what seemed to be the speediest among the pursuers, contrived to blunder against him so that they both came down in a sprawl together.
The heavy yellow coat and the flopping satchel sadly incommoded the flying Potter. The coat was buttoned, and he could hardly drop it without stopping; but the satchel was different. He snatched at the strap and flung it over his head, and the act saved him. For the hungry pursuers, seeing him thus apparently abandon his plunder, flung themselves on the satchel in a struggling heap. In a tornado of snatching, grabbing, and scrambling, the scrummage failed at first to realize that the tumbling sandwiches came from the satchel, and they tore and dragged it this way and that, while the innocent welsher pegged away breathlessly a field and a half off.
But he did not get wholly clear. He was making his best for a path behind a hedge when he was suddenly aware of a fearful apparition approaching from another part of the course—the staring man in the horse-blanket clothes, who came bounding with appalling strides, and whiskers flickering in the breeze like the wings of an avenging angel, to cut him off.
Mr. Potter was leaving the rest, but this ogre was inevitable. His arms swung like sails on a windmill and his legs seemed to take a field in two leaps.
"Two pun'—two pun'!" he roared, as he came nearer, shaking a fist like a loaf and spreading a palm like a malt-shovel.
Mr. Potter steadied his run and plunged his hand into the mass of coins in his pocket. This debt, at any rate, he could pay on the spot—and he'd got to.
"Two pun'!" repeated the apparition, seizing Mr. Potter's collar. "Two pun', yo' gallus thief!"
Mr. Potter never hesitated, but popped the two sovereigns into the malt-shovel as though they were red-hot. And the next instant the loaf hit him in the ear and something else—perhaps it was a foot—lifted him from the rear and dropped him in the ditch by the hedge.
Mr. Potter uprose breathless and dusted his coat. The crowd was no longer near—indeed, it seemed to have stopped—and the ogre in horse-blankets was louping away over the fields, with his whiskers flying over his shoulders. But the misunderstood sportsman wasted no time and took no chances. He put the hedge between himself and the racecourse, and he started for Mugby at a forlorn trot, the money in heavy lumps jingling in his pockets and mocking him as he went.
It seemed clear that this racing and betting was a villainous and unprincipled business, after all. Even a man whose strict morals would only permit of his betting on a certainty was liable to be tripped up by some shameful technicality like this. It was all scandalous. As to Cripps and Hopkins and Dodson, he was grieved and surprised to find them taking part in it; and in regard to that shopman—but there!
It was a weary way to Mugby now, and he hurried and worried every yard of it; for his address was known, and he had a horrid apprehension that the mob would besiege him in his house as soon as the races were over. He emerged at last in the familiar High Street, and then remembered what he should have remembered before. Mugby market-day being Saturday, the little branch bank shut on early-closing afternoon instead.
It was the worst shock he had had since the whisker-man had caught him. But it must not stop him—he would knock up the manager and appeal for help. If he couldn't get at the money he might do something—lend him some, or guarantee him to the infuriated mob, or something. So Mr. Potter hammered and rang wildly at the private door till a tousle-headed servant appeared, only so far aroused from a nap as to resentful of the disturbance.
No, Mr. Kenrick wasn't in. Nor Mrs. Kenrick. Nor not nobody else wasn't in nohow. And no saying when they would be in.
Mr. Potter was insistent, desperate. Where was Mr. Kenrick? Where should he go for him?
The handmaid was unsympathetic. Couldn't say. "I dunno," she said at last, "but it's my belief he's gone to the races!"
Mr. Potter's world was crumbling about him. Here was Kenrick, the bank-manager, type of all solid respectability—gone to the races! Cripps, and Hopkins, and Dodson, and now Kenrick!
He turned and made for Tubbs's—the chemist. The only chance now was to get some friend to cash a cheque, or to get several to advance as much as possible till the morning. Tubbs was the most likely.
Tubbs's young man, a short youth with a large head, left in charge in case of emergency, looked up from a game of spillikins played with a boxful of matches, and was surprised to be asked for his master.
"He's out," he said. "Didn't you know?"
"No," replied Potter; "where has he gone?"
"Well, he told me not to say, but it won't matter to you. He's gone to the races—in a wagonette."
Tubbs, too! And in a wagonette! The world was a worse place than Mr. Potter had ever supposed it—this part, at any rate. He sat down in the shop and gasped his astonishment. The young man sniggered.
"There's lots of 'em gone this year that don't go usually," he said. "It seems there was a certainty for the Mugby Stakes, and that fetched 'em. Haven't you been?" he added, pointing suddenly to the field-glasses. Mr. Potter left Tubbs's sad and apprehensive. These things had all taken time, and the afternoon was waning. What else could he do? He would go to his Aunt Hannah's, make a clean breast of the whole business—it would certainly come out to-morrow, anyhow—and borrow any money she and Mrs. Potter might have between them.
He trudged wearily and reluctantly round to the little villa in the lane by the end of the High Street, and was met at the door by a very bright and shiny small servant.
"Missis?" said the small servant. "No, she's gone out. Didn't you know? Her and Mrs. Potter went in a wagonette with Mr. Tubbs and some friends!"
There was not another illusion left in the world for Mr. Potter—not one. His own wife and—Aunt Hannah! He turned out into the lane to meditate on the depravity of the age. And behold—the wagonette itself coming down the lane!
He advanced to meet the vehicle as it pulled up. At any rate, Aunt Hannah and his wife should make their confession first; that was tactics.
And then suddenly, from the depths of the wagonette, there sprang up like a jack-in-the-box, even to the whiskers, the ogre in horse-blanket tweeds! He sprang up and out, and he made for Mr. Potter with a bounce. Mr. Potter ran round by the horses' heads. What else could he do? The ogre doubled back, and Mr. Potter dodged the other way. The ogre came with a rush up one side of the equipage, shouting, "Eh! Eh! Coom here! I'll pay yo!" And Mr. Potter went with another rush down the opposite side.
This was terrible. Everybody stood up in the wagonette and called and chattered unintelligibly. Mr. Potter, on the off-side of the vehicle, saw his aunt's front door open, and made a wild dive toward it under the carriage. The ogre, about to chase him round behind, saw the plunge, and dived to meet it, from the opposite side. Their heads met with a crash, and they sat together in the road-way, locked in each other's arms.
Mr. Potter's impulse was to scream for help, but the malt-shovel hand was thrust across his mouth, and the ogre said, whispering and thrusting something into his hand, "Shut oop! shut oop! Here's tha money, and you say nowt o' me bettin', see?"
And truly the two sovereigns were back in Mr. Potter's hand. He spluttered wildly, and made for the kerb, but found himself gripped by the arm.
"Shut oop, see?" repeated the ogre. "Magpie crossed his legs and was beat. Shut oop about me bettin', now!"
"Why, Uncle Wilkins, what are you doing?" asked Mrs. Potter, by this time safely on the ground with Aunt Hannah beside her. "And you, too, Samuel; what sort of game is this?"
"Tooch," replied the divine figure from the north, scrambling out' and lifting once more his whiskers to the breeze. "Tooch. I were always fond o' playing tooth, from a lad. Wasn't we playing tooth?" he added fiercely, turning to Mr. Potter as he rose.
"Yes, of course," assented Mr. Potter, hastily. "Capital exercise, touch. I—I felt it would do me good."
"But you didn't know Uncle Wilkins, did you?" persisted Mrs. Potter. "He was coming to give us that surprise visit, and went to the Heath station by mistake. We met him there, at the—on the Heath. 'I'd have known him anywhere; but how did you recognize him?"
"Oh, I'd know him anywhere, too," replied the cheesemonger, his mind being chiefly occupied with the blessed realization that the certainty was a failure and all the money in his pockets was really his own after all. "Anywhere—a mile off!"
"Wonderful how people notice a fine-lookin' man," archly observed Aunt Hannah, who had been wishing all the afternoon she had brought her other bonnet.
"Yes, it is," agreed Mrs. Potter. "And I am glad to see you and Samuel such friends at once, uncle. Though I did wonder what you were up to, and I certainly never saw Samuel break out like that before. But there—high spirits is catching, no doubt!"
"I believe they are," said Mr. Potter, rapidly recovering his equanimity, with his hands deep in his bursting pockets. "I don't believe I ever felt more high-spirited in my life!"
"Yes," observed Snorkey Timms; "it's a wonderful thing, is credit." He filled his pipe from my pouch with a grunt of satisfaction and lit it with a match from my box. He paused in an instinctive motion to drop my property into his pocket, and handed the articles back with a sigh.
"They tell me," he pursued, "that there in the City the blokes pay each other thousands o' quids without brassing up a single real thick 'un—all done on the nod. So that any 'opeful party as slaves away a 'ole night bustin' a safe there only gets IOU's an' things like that, an' nobody'll give him a bob a ton for 'em, cos he's got no credit. It's just as wonderful in a pub: a chap with credit can get a drink for marks with a bit o' chalk, an' the landlord even finds the chalk. Wonderful, ain't it? I wish I 'ad some. But it seems to be a sort o' thing you have to be born with."
"Born with?" I repeated interrogatively. "Do you mean chalk?" For Snorkey's philosophy was full of surprises, and the one proposition seemed as reasonable as the other.
"Credit," replied Snorkey, with emphasis. "If people ain't born with it I dunno how they get it—I've tried hard enough, all sorts o' ways. But I don't believe anybody's born with it in Shoreditch; it never was a 'ealthy air. We can't even raise it 'out of each other down here." Snorkey smoked in silence for a few seconds, and then laughed aloud. "Ha! ha! Dido Fox!" he burst out. "Dido Fox an' old Billy Blenkin!"
"Tell me about Dido Fox and old Billy Blenkin," I demanded.
"Billy Blenkin," Snorkey repeated thoughtfully; "ah, you didn't know old Billy Blenkin. 'E was a reformed character, 'e was. Ho yus! Sich a moral old party!" Snorkey shut one eye and shook his head with many chuckles. "Billy Blenkin," he went on, "was a-climbin' into back winders an' Bustin' into safes when I was a innocent nipper a-gettin' my eddication in Spitalfields Market. He was a clever old 'un, by all accounts; but as he got older he got a bit absent-minded. Now, a absent-minded burglar gets into all sorts of trouble; he sits down in a strange 'ouse to 'ave a bit o' supper an' a drink, an' then he forgets the 'ouse ain't his, an' goes to bed, or starts up a song or what not; or he swops his old coat for the best one he can find an' leaves his ticket-o'-leave in the pocket, with his name an' address all fine an' large, or some other silly thing like that. Poor old Billy Blenkin got makin' so many mistakes that he see clear enough he'd have to retire, afore the judge at the Old Bailey retired him, permanent, as he'd done so often temp'ry. Not only because he made so many mistakes, either; he'd got so well known to the p'lice that they ran him in sort of automatic whenever almost any place was broke into. So poor old Billy had to retire. But a burglar can't retire so easy as some people might think. In other businesses a man makes a bit 'fore he thinks of retirin', but it's quite wonderful to see how little a burglar ever 'as to retire on."
"It doesn't pay," I interjected. "You know it doesn't pay in the long run."
Snorkey winked genially and screwed his mouth aside.
"You've told me that before," he said; which was true, for I was young and a little apt to preach. "You've told me before though I ain't quite sich a mug as not to ha' found it out meself. But there! However you make it, I never 'eard of a gonoph of any sort as ever 'ad enough to retire on unless it was one o' the big City sort, as is born with credit. Poor old Billy Blenkin 'adn't, anyhow, an' he put in a deal o' thinkin' 'ow to get a livin' before a fust-rate plan struck him. When it did strike him at last he wondered it hadn't been the fust thing he'd thought of. It was jest what you'd expect anybody to think of as was givin' up burglary. He see the only thing was to 'ave a noo 'art."
"A New Art?" I queried. For a moment I had a wild vision of old Billy Blenkin seeking admission to the Guilds of them that design furniture and chintzes in dead-worm curves; and then I understood. "Oh, I see. You mean a new heart?"
"So I said; a noo 'art."
He walked round lookin' for one o' them mission-'alls that's always ready to swaller an old gonoph with a noo 'art, and the wuss he's been the more they like him. But Billy wasn't just workin' the old racket plain; he had ideas of his own. Bein' a reformed character an' a moral party don't pay a cent beyond the fust week or so; then they expect you to work, an' precious cheap, too. Billy Blenkin 'ad 'is eye on something better than that. He found his mission-'all all right, an' got on famous with the ringleaders; an' then he let on his noo idea, which was lectures on his wicked life, illustriated with his beautiful kit o' burglar's tools.
"The idea did fust-rate for a bit, an' Billy Blenkin was quite the fashion at tea-fights an' pleasant Sunday afternoons. It was wonderful how it pleased all them respectable parties to be showed 'ow to screw a lock with a filed-out key, or bust a safe with a nice little james, made in jints. An' Billy allus finished up by showin' a bottle o' whisky, which he put all the blame on.
"'Ah, my friends,' says old Billy, 'this 'ere's the enemy what made me go wrong! Here he is! See me shake 'im! He's my prisoner now,' says he, 'arter I been his so many times. No more of 'im! I keep 'im by me now jist to remind me, an' jist to spite 'im. I've done with 'im, and 'e can't hurt me now!'
"This allus brought down the 'ouse an' made a difference in the collection. But poor old Billy's luck never would last, an' he made them lectures that fascinatin', an' the Pleasant Sunday Endeavours got that interested an' enthusiastic, that several of 'em got run in for tryin' experiments on their own. It seems this wasn't what the mission-'all parties wanted at all, an' they complained very serious to Billy. They said he was makin 'isself a deal too interestin' an' it was unsettlin' the minds o' the congregation, as hadn't been used to it; an' to 'ave 'arf the Band of 'Ope in the jug for 'ousebreakin' was quite unpresidented. Moreover, they said it wasn't always the same bottle o' whisky as he showed at the end o' the lecture, an' that looked suspicious. So Billy got sarcastic an' told 'em they seemed to 'ave a better eye for a bottle o' whisky than some o' the most experienced boozers of 'is acquaintance, an' he wondered 'ow they got so clever. An' with that all the fat was in the fire, an' they suspended the lectures an' called a special committee meetin' to consider 'is conduck.
"Now it happened about this time that Dido Fox had found a beautiful place for a bust."
Such is my disgraceful familiarity with the tongue of the disreputable that I knew what Snorkey meant. "A beautiful place for a bust" was not, as some might suppose, a convenient spot for a carousal, but a house at which a profitable burglary might be perpetrated. Snorkey went on.
"It was sich a beautiful place," he said "that Dido half thought, at first, of keepin' it to himself, though it was really a place that wanted two—most places any good do. But one thing was quite plain—whether he did it alone or with a pal, it wanted a good set o' tools, an' a good set o' tools was just what Dido Fox hadn't got. Dido Fox hadn't got 'em, but old Billy Blenkin had. So Dido went round to old Billy Blenkin an' wanted to borrow his.
"'H'm!' says old Billy. Want 'em for a lecture, I suppose? They're a fast-rate set o' tools for a lecture!'
"'No, I want 'em for a job,' says Dido, as hadn't caught on to old Billy's noo refined way o' talkin'.
"'We never call a lecture a job,' says old Billy, very solemn; it's low. Well, I'll lend you the tools; but I shall have to charge you —rather high. I expect it's a particular good lecture you want 'em for; a common one you could do without 'em.'
"'Well, it's pretty fair,' says Dido. I'll pay when the job's done.'
"Old Billy shook his head very decided. 'No,' says he, 'arterwards won't do. It 'ud be wrong o' me to encourage you to get in debt; it's bad for a young man like you. You'll have to leave a deposit of five pound on them tools, an' I'll give you back three of 'em when you've busted the—the lecture.'
"'Can't do it,' says Dido. 'What d'ye want a deposit for? 'Fraid I'll pinch the tools?'
"'Why, no,' says old Billy, I should 'ope not; but I've had experience o' them lectures like what you want the tools for. Sometimes you get that enthusiastic over 'em you get quite carried away, an' your friends don't see you again for years. I can't afford to lose them tools.'
"'But I'm 'ard up,' says Dido Fox; 'I sha'n't have the money till after I've done the—well, the lecture, an' sold the stuff.'
"'Ah, you'll have to get some dear friend to 'elp you with that lecture,' says old Billy; 'these particular good lectures allas want two. Go an' get a dear friend to 'elp you an' make up the five quid between you.'
"So Dido Fox thought it over, an' made up his mind to take Joe Kelly into partnership over this job. It really was a job as needed two, when he come to think of it serious, an' then there was the money to be made up to get the tools. So he went to Joe Kelly and let him into it. He didn't tell him quite everythink, o' course, in case Joe might be tempted to go in an' do it himself first. You allus have to be careful about things like that—very careful. He didn't tell him where he was goin' to get the tools. He jist said he could get 'em, but there was five quid deposit wanted, and two of it to be paid for the hire. But it appeared Joe was jist as 'ard up as Dido. They couldn't raise five bob between 'em, let alone five quid.
"Can't you borrow it somewhere?" says Dido.
"Joe Kelly thought a bit, and then said p'r'aps he could. He wouldn't tell Dido where he thought he could borrow it, for the same reason that Dido wouldn't tell him where he could borrow the tools. Each of 'em didn't want t'other chap to go an' do it on his own, you see. That's a thing you 'ave to be careful about, o' course.
"But no doubt you've 'eard somethink about great minds jumpin' together, an' that was jist what was 'appenin' with Dido an' Joe this time. When Joe stopped to think about who he could borrow five quid off, the fust person he thought of was old Billy Blenkin. There was old Billy, retired an' doin' fust-rate at tea-fights an' lectures, an' no doubt quite ready to make a bit extry lendin' five quid just overnight, at good interest. So Joe made up his mind he'd get the needful off old Billy, but was precious careful not to say so to Dido. As for Dido, he was glad enough to think Joe would do the trick, an' he quite understood why he wouldn't give away his idea—that was on'y business, an' each agreed to 'tend to his own department. So Joe, he went off to get the money, an' said he'd meet Dido the same evenin' an' report. When they met in the evenin' o' course Dido wanted to know 'ow Joe had got on.
"'Oh, it's all right,' says Joe, grinnin' and winkin' very knowin'.
"'Hooray!' says Dido, stickin' out 'is 'and. 'Where's the five quid?'
"'Well,' says Joe, 'I ain't quite what you might call got it, not yet. But it's all right—I expect I'll get it to-morrow. The chap don't 'appen to 'ave it by 'im just now—he's goin' to get it. But he's goin' to charge two quid for lendin' it.'
"'Two quid!' says Dido. 'Why, we on'y want it till the next day!'
"'Yes, so I told 'im,' says Joe, 'but he won't do it under.'
"'You're lettin' 'im swindle us,' says Dido, gettin' ratty.
"'Then 'ow about you?' says Joe. 'You're payin' two quid just the same to the chap as is lendin' the tools, and we on'y want them for a night.'
"'Well, yes, that's right,' says Dido thinkin' of it again, 'so I am. But it seems a lot. Why, that's four quid it's goin' to cost us; we must make a bit extry out o' the job that's all. You get the money to-morrow an' we'll do the job to-morrow night. You didn't tell 'im what the five quid was for did you?'
"'Is it likely?' says Joe. 'Not much I didn't. Oh no; I told 'im a nice little tale o' my own. He don't know nothing.'
"Now p'r'ays you'll begin to catch on to old Billy Blenkin's game," Snorkey proceeded. "When Dido come after the tools he thought he see 'is way to makin' 'em pay still, even though the lectures was stopped. An' then when Joe Kelly came along an' wanted to borrow five quid at interest, he thought he see 'ow to make a bit more still. He hadn't got any five pound of 'is own to lend, bein' 'ard up, in fact, consekence o' the lectures being stopped. But Dido Fox was goin' to lease five pound with 'im for the tools, and that was just what Joe Kelly wanted, for one night only. So, Bein' a man o' genius, thinks old Billy, why not lend Dido Fox's five quid to Joe Kelly and do a double stroke? What ho!
"The consekence of all this was that next mornin' Dido Fox 'ad 'ardly got out o' doors when who should he see but old Billy Blenkin, pretendin' to be walkin' down the street by accident.
"'Good mornin',' says old Billy, very casual. 'Wasn't you sayin' somethink about borrowin' my kit o' tools for a very special job—lecture, I mean—an' leavin' five pounds deposit, me to 'ave two for lendin' 'em?'
"'Why, yes, o' course,' says Dido, surprised to find old Billy so 'alf-forgetful. 'Though it wasn't me as proposed payin' the money.'
"'I think it must 'a' been,' says old Billy lookin' at 'im very 'ard, 'but anyhow that was the arrangement. When will that there lecture come off?'
"'Why,' says Dido, 'I was thinkin' of to-night.'
"'Fust-rate,' says old Billy. 'It'll be a fust-rate evenin' for a lecture, the nights bein' so dark just now.' And then he sticks out 'is 'and an' says, 'Where's the five pound?'
"'I ain't got it,' says Dido.
"'Ain't got it?' says old Billy. 'What dy'e mean? 'Ow are you goin' to do that—that lecture? You can't do it without the tools, an' you can't 'ave them without the money, you know. You ain't expectin' that are you?'
"'Oh, no,' says Dido, 'that's all right. I know what I've got to pay. I ain't got the money yet, that's all. But I shall get it some time to-day.'
"'When?' says old Billy, very eager. 'You must let me know when you'll bring it round, 'cos I might be out.'
"'Well, I must see my pal first,' says Dido. 'But s'ppose we say seven this evenin'?'
"So they made it seven in the evenin' an' Dido went off to find Joe Kelly an' get the money. He didn't find him for hours an' when he did find him at last o' course Joe 'adn't got the money—not a cent of it.
"'I ain't managed it yet, Dido,' he says 'but I'm goin' to 'ave it for certain to-night.'
"What time?' says Dido.
"'Eight o'clock,' says Joe.
"You're awful slow,' says Dido. 'Can't you get it a bit sooner?'
"'Well, I tried to, but I couldn't,' says Joe. 'The chap says he's got important business up to then.'
"'Where's his place?' says Dido.
"'Oh, it's a pretty good way off,' says Joe off-handed like. Because you see he wasn't going to give Dido a ghost of a chance o' leavin' him in the lurch.
"'Well, if it's a pretty good way off,' says Dido, 'it's goin' to crowd up our evenin' an' p'raps we shall have to put the job off. I was goin' to get the tools at seven, but if you can't get the money till eight, an' then 'ave to fetch it a long way, very likely I shall miss the chap I'm getting the tools from.'
"'Can't 'elp it,' says Joe. An' Dido agreed they couldn't.
"So Dido went 'ome and sat down to smoke a few pipes an' wait till Joe brought the money in the evenin'. But about 'alf-past seven up comes old Billy Blenkin after the money, blowin' like a grampus an' most outrageous shirty.
"'I thought you 'ad an appointment with me at seven o'clock at my place,' says old Billy. 'I'm a man o' business,' he says, 'an' very busy, an' I can't afford to 'ave my time wasted in this 'ere disgraceful way. People as can't keep appointments shouldn't make 'em. Where's that five pound?'
"'Ain't got it,' says Dido.
"'But—but you was goin' to bring it round at seven,' says old Billy.
"'I know I was,' says Dido; 'but I've bin disappointed—in the City; an' it ain't come yet.'
"'But what about that job o' yours—the lecture?' says old Billy, in a mighty fluster. ''Ow are you goin' to do that tonight?'
"'Looks as though I should 'ave to put it off,' says Dido; 'till to-morrow, any'ow. Unless I get the money in time tonight though I don't know as it's likely.'
"Old Billy Blenkin just sat an' spluttered. His short time at the mission-'all had bin just enough to spile 'is flow o' language, an' at first he found it 'ard to get goin'. But be did get goin' presently, an' he called Dido Fox most things he could think of, except a genelman o' business-like 'abits. 'Why' says Billy, 'you're puttin' me to more trouble and ill-convenience over this 'ere little matter than what I'd 'a' taken to do your bloomin' lecture myself. An' I've got a particular reason for wantin' to finish this bit o' business tonight, an' I can't wait. I've got another appointment—an important appointment—at eight. You're a perfeck noosance. Now, look 'ere. S'pose you don't come round with the money to-night, will you make a solid, 'ard, final, dead-beat, settled, derry down, rock-bottom agreement to bring it to-morrow mornin'?'
"'Why, yes,' says Dido, 'you can bet your 'ead on that. Shall I come to your place?'
"'No,' says old Billy. 'I don't want you comin' there in daylight I'm a man o' business with a reputation to keep up, now. Come to the Carpenters' Arms at eleven.'
"'An' will you 'ave the tools there then?' says Dido.
"'O' course I shall,' says the old man. 'I keep my appointments. I don't make fools o' people in matters o' business.' An' with that off goes old Billy to keep his appointment with Joe Kelly.
"So when Joe Kelly turns up at Dido's about an 'our later, 'Hello,' says Dido; ''ere you are at last. Hand over the pieces.'
"'Ain't got 'em,' says Joe.
"'What? Ain't got 'em now?' says Dick fair gaspin'.
"'No, I ain't,' says Joe. 'It's a fresh caper now.'
"'What fresh caper?' says Dido.
"'When I see the chap at eight,' says Dido, he hummed an' hah'd a bit, an' seemed to want to put me off again. But I told 'im it was no good; I must 'ave the money to-night. Then he said all right what security was I goin' to give; an' that flummoxed me. I 'adn't got no security.'
"'Security?' says Dido; 'what's this about security? Joe Kelly, you're a common flat—a mug! I never 'ad sich a fool of a pardner! You undertake to get this 'ere five quid as we want for this 'ere job o' business an' you come 'ere puttin' me off time after time like this an' makin' a perfeck fool o' me when the chap with the tools comes an' wants 'is five pound, so as I 'eve to make all sorts o' lyin' excuses, which lyin' comes, most unnachral to me, an' now at last, when it's quite fixed up final, you come an' talk about security! You're lettin' that money-lendin' bloke o' yours mug you, Joe Kelly. What's the good o' you? Ain't you got no credit? What does he want security for?'
"'Well, come to that,' says Joe, 'what does your bloke want security for? Why, the bloomin' five quid itself's security for them tools! Don't you get chuckin' your names about so free, Dido Fox. What's the good o' you, eh? Ain't you got no credit? I don't wonder you ain't. 'Ow do I know this 'ere ain't all a plant for you to get five quid out o' me? Who is this chap as is goin' to lend you the tools—tell me that?"
"'Sha'n't!' says Dido. 'Tell me the name an' address o' this 'ere fanciful feller as is goin' to lend you five quid!'
"'Sha'n't!' says Joe Kelly.
"They glared furious at one another an' shut their fists, an' then Dido says, 'I don't never allow pleasure to interfere with business, but when this job's over an' the swag divided fair, I'll punch you in the eye, Joe Kelly!'
"'I take my pleasure whenever it's convenient,' says Joe; 'an' after we've busted that 'ouse, if there is one, an' shared the stuff, I'll knock your ugly face out at the back o' your fat 'ead, Dido Fox!'
"So they glared a bit more, an' then Dido Fox says, 'All right, we won't forget that engagement, after the job's done. An' as there is a 'ouse to be busted an' stuff to be shared, we'll do that first, an' each attend to his own department. I won't interfere with your chap and you won't interfere with mine. You shin out an' get that security somehow, 'cos I've got to 'and over that money, final, solid, an' without fail, at eleven in the mornin'.'
"So Joe Kelly went 'ome an' slept on it. When he awoke in the morning it was all clear as day. He hadn't got no security, but he could get it quick enough, just the same way as he got his livin'. He went out very early into the crowd comin' out o' Liverpool Street Station an' snatched a watch. He had a most awful run for it, with a crowd o' City clerks arter 'im, an' was so near caught that he could 'ardly speak when he got to old Billy Blenkin's. Old Billy was in bed, and grumpy at bein' disturbed. 'That ain't much of a security,' he said, when he see the watch, an' Joe could see, now that he looked at it that it wasn't worth five pound, nor anything like it. 'Never mind,' says old Billy, 'you can leave it with me an' come to the Carpenters' Arms at eleven for the money.'
"Joe was ready enough to leave the watch, you may guess, in case he might be spotted in the street and searched, an' so at eleven o'clock there was old Billy Blenkin with the tools waitin' in the Carpenters' Arms for 'is customers, an' the 'ole situation was elegant an' delightful. Old Billy, with no more idea than Adam that 'is two customers 'ad anythink to do with each other, was quite sure he'd best get 'em both there together—in different compartments p'r'aps—an' save any more mistakes. An' there was Joe Kelly comin' along gay an' 'appy for the five pound quite certain 'e was gettin' it at last, an' there was Dido Fox, what had been lookin' for Joe Kelly all the mornin' an' gettin' angrier every minute, comin' along too, so as to catch old Billy to time an' ask him to wait a bit longer for the five pound; an' there was no bloomin' five pound anywhere among 'em! What ho!
"Dido Fox turns into the street leadin' to the Carpenters' Arms, an' there he see Joe Kelly, goin' the same way, just in front of him. At that a orful suspicion came over him. 'Ere was Joe Kelly playin' the bloomin' traitor arter givin' 'im the slip all the mornin', an' goin' direck to old Billy Blenkin with the money to get the tools on 'is own! He rushed arter Joe an' grabbed 'im with both 'ands.
"''Ere, where's that money?' says Dido, very fierce.
"'Ain't got it,' says Joe, tryin' to shake him off. 'You leave go o' me, go on. Where are you goin' to about 'ere, eh?'
"With that he stood still an' stared, for the same orful suspicion came over him what had come over Dido. 'Ere was Dido doin' the treacherous an' goin' direct to old Billy Blenkin to get the money on 'is own! 'Ullo!' he says, 'I see your game, Dido Fox! You just step down to the other end o' the street while I go into the Carpenters' Arms!'
"Dido was mad enough a'ready, an' this made him wuss. 'Oh, yes,' says he. 'I'm on to your trick, Joe Kelly. Walk off while you go an' do it on your own? Not much! I'm going in there fust. Take that!'
"Joe Kelly had got his punch in the eye in advance, an' in a moment there was a bunch o' Joe Kelly an' Dido Fox flyin' all over the pavement. Old Billy Blenkin heard the row, an' he looks out o' the Carpenters' Arms surprised to see 'is two customers fightin' most unbusinesslike. So he rushed out to part 'em. Dido was on top for the moment, an' when, he see this 'ere other traitor grabbin' at him, o' course he thought Billy had come to 'elp his pal, so he gave him one hard, an' over went old Billy. An' then when Joe an' old Billy both got up together, Joe, seein' old Billy there, as had treated him so tricky, he gave him one, an' over went poor old Billy again, wonderin' whatever he'd done to deserve it all. An' then the p'lice turned up an' ran 'em in, all three.
"Dido Fox and Joe Kelly, they got off easy enough for fightin'; but poor old Billy, his luck was clean out. He was found in possession of 'ousebreakin' implements an' a watch what had been stole that very mornin' at Liverpool Street.
"So the Old Bailey got old Billy again, an' the mission-'all committee they passed a lot of extry serious resolutions to put things straight, an' they made their lectures extry dull in future. An' one o' the most promisin' burglaries never came off, 'cos o' the difficulty o' raisin' credit in Shoreditch."
THE tale of old Billy Blenkin and his attempt to finance a burglary was told, and Snorkey Timms refreshed his throat and filled his pipe once more from my pouch.
"Yes," he said, "it was rough on poor old Billy, and all his beautiful respectableness went pop. Anybody else would ha' starved after he came out from his six months; but Billy was all ready. He played one stroke and went—he ain't been seen in these parts ever since. Emigrated, I expect. Nobody'd want to stop after sich a stroke as that, unless he wanted to fight 'arf 'Oxton and Kingsland Road all at once, and old Billy was no sich mug."
"What sort of stroke was this, then?" I asked.
Snorkey Timms sucked at his pipe and grinned softly and long. "What 'ud you think o' liftin' about a million quids' worth o' radium off a doctor in a bus?" he said.
"A million?" I queried.
"Well, I won't swear to the 'zact figures," replied Snorkey, "but it was one o' them precious large lots o' money what little bits o' radium's worth when you read about 'em in the papers. P'r'aps it was a thousand. I 'eard about it through Jimmy Spicer—a little chap as kep' a little wardrobe shop up Bacchus Walk. Jimmy hadn't always got the same shop; sometimes it was another one, and sometimes it was a stall; and once or twice Jimmy's only shop was Coldbath Fields, consekence o' bein' a bit careless what he bought. But Jimmy wasn't easy discouraged, and was always expectin' his next venture to turn out a fortune for him and his missis, what was about three times his size and twice as determined, though not more'n half as hopeful.
"A little while after old Billy Blenkin was out after his troubles with that five quid, and when the Mission Hailers wouldn't have nothing to say to him, Jimmy Spicer met him, very full o' news and mystery. 'Good mornin', Mr. Spicer,' says old Billy, very quiet and confidential. I s'pose you've read the news about that there little bit o' radium?'
"'No,' says Jimmy, I don't think so. What is it?'
"Old Billy, twice as mysterious as ever, pulls out a day before yesterday's newspaper. 'I wonder you ain't heard of it,' says he; 'it's in all the papers, and quite the shout jist now. Read that.'
"So Jimmy Spicer took the paper, and there he read a report all about how a very swell doctor from a 'orspital had managed to lose one o' them tiny little bits o' radium, and thought it must ha' been in a bus. It was in a little bit of a glass phial, it seemed, not more'n an inch and a half long, and all the doctor knew about it was that soon after he got out o' the bus it wasn't in his waistcoat pocket, and he s'posed he must ha' dropped it. And then the paper went on to say what a fearful lot o' money that little bit o' radium was worth—a million quid, or a thousand, or whatever it was.
"Jimmy read it all through and licked his lips over the big figures. 'That's a bit of all right for the chap as finds it,' he said.
"'Yes,' says old Billy, coughin' be'ind 'is 'and. 'Yes. As it 'appens, that there doctor's a old friend o' mine.'
"'Is he?' says Jimmy, surprised. 'Pore chap!'
"'Yes,' says old Billy, not noticin' Jimmy's clumsy compliment. 'Yes, he's a very old friend o' mine. Did you ever 'appen to see any radium?'
"'Why, no!' says jimmy.
"'Ah,' says old Billy, 'not many 'ave. Here's another thing you might read. I cut it out o' Home Chips.' And he lugs out a bit o' paper from his pocket.
"Jimmy reads the new piece, gettin' more excited every line. He was always excited about anything worth money. The piece was a interview with some scientific toff as had some radium of his own. It told all about how there wasn't 'arf a fistful of it in the wide wide, and if there was the Bank of England 'ud bust itself if it tried to buy it. Then it described what the little bit looked like what the scientific toff had got. 'Professor Simpson holds before our eyes,' it said, 'a tiny glass bottle, in the bottom of which lie a few grains of a dull-looking metallic powder. This, then, is the mysterious substance of which we hear so much, and this pinch of uninteresting-looking dust is worth a fortune!'
"'Lor'!' says little Jimmy; 'wonderful, ain't it?'
"'Yes,' says old Billy, lookin' at Jimmy dreamy-like; 'he was a old friend o' mine—that doctor as lost his bit. And I 'appened to be in the bus at the time.'
"'Lummy!' says Jimmy Spicer; 'you don't say so!'
"'Yes,' says Billy, 'I was; and I'll prove it. 'Ere's the stuff itself!' And he pulls out a bit of a glass bottle half as long as your little finger.
"Jimmy Spicer hadn't got enough eyes to stare with, and he 'arf choked hisself with excitement. There sure enough was a little bit o' dusty-looking dirty-yeller powder in the bottle, just enough to cover the bottom.
"G'lor'!' busts out Jimmy. Then you—you got it off of him!'
"Old Billy puts his head aside and smiles very meek. 'He was a very old friend o' mine,' he says. 'Sometimes you don't mind takin' a liberty with a old friend; and I sort o' felt I might as well 'ave that radium.'
"'What are you goin' to do with it?' says Jimmy Spicer.
"'Well,' says old Billy, 'I been a-thinkin' about it, and I don't quite know. It's worth a rare lot o' money, you can see that from the papers. Of course, as a erring human creature, I'm tempted to keep it, but times are 'ard, and I don't like keepin' a thing belongin' to a old friend like that doctor; cured me of pneumatic information, he did, more'n once. So in case I might be tempted to sell it, I think I'll give it him back.'
"'What?' screams Jimmy, shocked and 'orrified. 'Give it back? You're off your napper! Give back that radium? It's positive wicked! What for?'
"'Why,' says old Billy, 'p'r'aps it ain't quite right I should have it—lots o' people might think so. I'm quite sure that doctor 'ud think so hisself, and p'r'aps he suspects I've got it. I'm a bit afraid he does, in fact, and that kind o' makes me feel conscientious about it. Takin' it by and large, I think I'd better repent; p'r'aps he'd stand a reward for my honesty.'
"'No,' says Jimmy, very eager, 'don't do that. I'm sure he wouldn't stand anythink; he'd 'ave you jugged as soon as look at you, a feller like that. But it's quite right to repent, you know—you ought to; only not with the stuff on you—it ain't safe. You repent, and I'll give you five bob for the stuff. See?'
"But old Billy didn't see it a bit, at the price. 'Five bob?' he says. 'Why, it's ridic'lous. I'm game enough to repent, but not for five bob. Five quid, now, I might think about.'
"So they argued it out longways, little Jimmy Spicer tellin' old Billy what a awful risk he was runnin' goin' about with the swag on him, and how ungrateful it 'ud be to his old friend the doctor to try to make a lot o' money out of it—especially as he couldn't try to sell sich a thing without being pinched on the spot. And, after all, old Billy took a quid and 'anded over the radium, with tears in his eyes.
"'It's a fortune I'm givin' you,' he said, 'and I 'ope you won't forget it if ever I'm 'ard up. I shall never 'ave a fortune o' my own; I'm too conscientious!'
"Jimmy Spicer rushed 'ome to tell his wife, but half-way he stopped and bought Home Chips, in case she mightn't understand. She didn't understand at first, but when she got the hang of the business and rumbled the fact that the little bit o' dust in the bottle meant one o' them fortunes you write with a one and a lot o' noughts, she grabbed the bottle and stuck to it tight. She said she wasn't goin' to give Jimmy a chance o' squanderin' of it backin' losers or any sich foolishness as that, and she meant to take care of the family capital till there was proper chance o' turnin' it into the real 'ard stuff. So she just surrounded that bottle o' radium, and all poor Jimmy could do he couldn't find out where she hid it. It was no good askin' questions; she was three times his size, as I think I've told you, and twice as determined; and now the fortune 'ad come at last she wasn't goin' to risk Jimmy doin' anything with it except skirmish out and find 'ow to make money of it. As for her, not wantin' to waste time, she took the best 'at and shawl out o' the shop and went round puttin' on most rabunculous airs in advance. She practised comin' the lawfty to sich a extent that, if she 'adn't been a precious large woman, she'd ha' had the 'at tore off her head half-a-dozen times by some of her friends. Them she partic'lar favoured she said wasn't lookin' well, and she'd take 'em for a blow in the noo motah!
"But Jimmy Spicer was busy skirmishin'—not that it did much good. It cost quite a lot in drinks, though, because the only idea he began with was getting talking casual with anybody as would, and leadin' on gradually to radium. It was surprisin' what a lot of people wasn't too proud to talk in consideration of drinks, and surprisin' what a little they knew about radium when it come to the point. Some of 'em had read bits in the papers, though, and pretty soon Jimmy began buyin' Home Chips and Nobby Bits reg'lar, and cuttin' out all the things about radium. For a long time he didn't get much out of them 'cept figures and centigrammes and things, but the figures excited him most outrageous, and he got more anxious than ever to find where his missis had hid the little bottle. He tried the whole house, and broke quite a lot of things afore he made up his mind his missis must keep it somewhere about 'er. As soon as he made quite sure o' that he got all of a sudden most wonderful affectionate, and went a-chasin' his missis about and huggin' and cuddlin' of her all over the place, pattin' and squeejin' of her most lovin' to find out where the stuff was stowed. It was sich a novelty for Mrs. Spicer she couldn't understand it, and swiped 'im over the head with anything as come fust. She said she'd take the poker to him next time 'e came 'ome dangerous drunk like that.
"So Jimmy never found out exactly where his missis hid the radium, though it turned out it was about her somewhere. It come out 'cos of a piece he found in a noo number of Home Chips. He came 'ome with it chucklin' all the way to think what a jolt he was goin' to give her. 'Look here,' he says as soon as he see her, 'here's somethink most uncommon interestin' about radium. Listen:
"In regard to the recent loss of a quantity of radium in a London omnibus, it may not he generally known that most seriously dangerous results arise from the carrying of the smallest quantity of this remarkable mineral near the human body. Malignant ulcers are formed, leading to many painful and obscure diseases."'
"'What?' screams the missis. 'What?' And with one bounce she was in the bed-room, and Jimmy could hear her things rippin' and floppin' as she tore 'em off. In about four seconds she was back at the door lookin' like half a ton o' stock out o' the wardrobe shop, with the bottle o' radium in the end of a pair o' tongs.
"'Here y'are!' says she. 'Take yer precious radium! Jist like a man, puttin' all the risk on yer pore wife! Want to get me out of the way, don't ye? Jist you wait till I've tied meself up agen, you cowardly little blaggard, that's all! I'll show ye!'
"'But 'old on, Maria!' says Jimmy; 'you didn't wait to hear it all. Here's the rest:
"These unpleasant results, however, may be effectually prevented by wrapping the vessel containing the radium in lead foil."'
"'What?' shouts the missis again, goin' nearly black in the face. 'What? And you let me carry it about without any lead foil on it all this time! You murderer! Ow!' And with that she chucks one o' them fits when they scream and kick their heels on the ground.
"The best physic Jimmy could think of for fits and fury was whisky, so he skipped out and got a bottle. It acted pretty well and after a while the missis was a bit consoled, though nervous still, and rather threatenin'. And Jimmy very carefully took the lead-foil cap from the cork and wrapped it all round the bottle o' radium. When she see that, the missis got businesslike again, snatched it, and went back with it to tie herself up. So Jimmy lost sight o' that precious metal once more for a bit.
"But it was only for a bit. Jimmy decided he must keep on gettin' educated about radium, and he went in such a buster for papers and magazines he very nigh ruined hisself. He fetched home a big armful about twice a day, and raked 'em all through for information about radium, till he found a little article in one of 'em that said the lead foil wrapped outside a bottle o' radium didn't really prevent it actin' on the human frame but only made it strike deeper internal. When she read that, Jimmy's missis caught him one whang over the ear with a shovel and then chucked her clothes off final and went to bed, groanin' pitiful. She said the pains all over the inside of her was more than ord'nary Hoxton language could tell; and she called him to witness that there wasn't one single mark on the outside of her, which proved how horrid deep it had struck internal and she 'oped he was satisfied now he'd killed her at last.
"Poor Jimmy fished out the little bottle from under the heap o' clothes, rolled it up in a lot o' brown paper, and hung it on a string to a nail, where it couldn't touch nothink. He was beginnin' to get a bit sick of his fortune, and he went out to think things over and get away from Mrs. Spicer's dyin' groans. The first friend he met invited him to have a drink, and then began to ask him if he knew anything about radium. This gave Jimmy a bit of a guilty start, and he got away from that friend as soon as the glass was empty. But that wasn't the only start he got that day, nor the worst. Two other friends offered him drinks, one after the other, and then led the conversation round, very artful to radium. Both of 'em did it. Jimmy was that frightened he left half the last drink in the glass and bolted. It seemed pretty plain there was a general suspicion got about that he had that radium; so he made up his mind to make what he could on it quick, or at any rate, put it out of hand for a bit. So he went into a pawnbroker's and asked if they'd buy some radium, or lend a thousand or two on some.
"'What?' roars the pawnbroker; 'another of yer? You're a funny joker, ain't you? What sort of a game d'ye call it, eh?'
"He was that fierce that Jimmy almost galloped out o' the shop and down the street quite bewildered. What was the matter with everythink?
"He got home and found the missis sittin' up angrier than ever, if possible. She wanted to know why he'd gone out and left her alone to die, and why he hadn't fetched the doctor. He said it wouldn't do to tell a doctor about the radium, but she wanted to know what was the good o' radium or anythink else, to a woman as was dyin' by inches. Jimmy began to think serious about takin' that radium back to the doctor as had lost it and gettin' a reward, since it seemed he couldn't get nothing else. So he took down the little brown-paper parcel from the nail, holdin' it very careful by the string, and walked off to have a look at the board outside the police-station, where they stick up rewards and found-drowneds and sich.
"Sure enough, when he got there, there was a reward bill, offerin' fifty quid for the little bottle o' radium, supposed to ha' been lost in a omnibus. Fifty quid was a long way short o' what he had expected, but then it was a long way better than nothing and another dose of Coldbath Fields; and Jimmy felt very uneasy about them two or three friends as had been pumpin' him about radium that very afternoon. And then, just as he was a-thinkin' of it, a hand drops on his shoulder and there stands one o' the very chaps hisself!
"Poor Jimmy very near dropped in a heap, but the chap winks to him confidential. 'Look 'ere,' says the chap; 'no hank, just between ourselves now. S'pose you'd got that there radium, what 'ud you do? Would you take that there reward, or could you sell it better? You might tell a pal.'
"'I—I'm a honest man,' says Jimmy, as proud as he could manage, but tremblin' horrid. 'I'm a honest man, and I'm a-goin' to take it back to the gentleman. I was jist lookin' to see his address.'
"'Oh, you was, was you?' says the chap starin'. 'You was goin' to take it back? How?'
"'In this here parcel,' says Jimmy, holdin' up the bunch o' brown paper on the end of the string. 'I'm a straightforward, honest man, I am, and I don't conceal nothing.'
"The chap stared harder than ever. Then he whispered, 'Come round the corner,' and Jimmy went.
"'Look here,' says the chap, 'did you say you'd got that radium?'
"'Yes,' says Jimmy. 'I ain't afraid to say it. I came by it honest, I did, in a bus. At least, my missis sat on it, and she's—'
"'Hold 'ard!' says the chap. I've got that radium!'
"'You?'says Jimmy. 'You?'
"'Yes,' says the chap, 'and 'ere it is. I've been worried to death what to do with it, 'cos in fact it's worth a fortune—thousands. I've been askin' all kinds o' people about it on the quiet, but I couldn't find out how to sell it. It's in this little bottle.' And the chap pulls out jist sich another little bottle as Jimmy's.
"Jimmy went giddy with a awful suspicion. 'That—that's all your humbug,' he said. 'I—I'm goin' to the gentleman at the 'orspital—'
"'I'll come, too,' says the chap. 'I want that reward!'
"So they started off together. Half-way to the 'orspital Jimmy pulled 'isself a bit together and stopped. 'How much did you give Billy Blenkin for that bottle?' he said.
"'Ten bob,' says the chap.
"'Then I believe I'm twice as big a mug as you,' groans Jimmy. But we'll see.'
"When they got to the 'orspital and asked the porter for Dr. Sowter the man grinned all over his face. 'What's this?' says he. 'More radium? Show us yer little bottle!'
"'We come to see Dr. Sowter on private business,' says Jimmy, doin' the sniffy.
"'Oh, yus,' says the porter, 'and so 'ave about twenty-seven more of you, all with bottles o' brass filin's. Dr. Sowter's about fed up with them bottles o' brass filin's, and he says they're all to be left at this lodge or else took straight away. So you jist take your choice. I only wonder he ain't had some o' you locked up.'
"And that was the end of Jimmy Spicer's fortune," concluded Snorkey. "We've bid a long good-bye to old Billy Blenkin—we sha'n't ever see him again down this way. He must ha' made about forty quid out o' that penn'orth o' brass filin's. And I should be surprised if he paid for the penn'orth, either."
WHIT-MONDAY was late in the year, and, astonishing to tell, the holiday was bright and warm, gay and sunny. The ordinarily quiet suburban village in which Mr. Septimus Deacon lived was crowded, hilarious, uproarious. The common was become a fair, where swings swung, roundabouts rotated, cocoanuts stood undisturbed in an atmosphere of whizzing sticks, and ear-piercing tunes, evolved by steam power, tore the affrighted air. With a corner of the common all to itself, Filer's Royal and Imperial Circus contributed a large part of the general uproar and animation and not far away Challis's Show of Natural Wonders and Tasty Talent hinted its presence through the medium of two big drums and a key-bugle, with an occasional interlude on a megaphone. The Green Dragon was crowded within and without, and the ample and busy space about it was edged with a fringe of small children, in perambulators and out of them; so that an innocent foreigner might have supposed them to stand in waiting to supply the legendary meal of the Green Dragon when that monster should find business slackening, and snatch a moment to take a little sustenance on its own account. But the free-born Briton would have passed by unalarmed, recognizing the operation of the Act of Parliament that hallows all licensed premises from youthful intrusion.
Mr. Septimus Deacon always took a philanthropic delight in the Whit-Monday fair on the common, though it was not often that the weather permitted him so thorough an enjoyment of its cheerfulness. He was called accurately enough, an old bachelor, though he had few or none of the characteristics of the conventional bachelor type; it was, in fact, merely by accident of sex that he was not an old maid, as perhaps he should have been. He had been coddled at home as a boy, and remained his mother's companion when he grew up; and now that he was alone and had never had to work, or rub against the rude world, he coddled himself, and would have been happier, perhaps, and busier if Miss Wicks, the old maid next door, had taught him wool-work.
Mr. Deacon, short-sighted, benevolent of aspect, wrapped about the neck—for one is liable to a chill in the brightest of weather—and carrying an umbrella—for showers come very suddenly, no matter how close home one may be—stared through thick spectacles at everything in the fair, and benignantly approved of it all.
"Fine, hearty, wholehearted enjoyment," he said to himself, smiling at a game that looked like football with no ball, wherein the sons and daughters of toil exchanged hats and thumped each other, hard, between the shoulder-blades, with howls of laughter.
"Healthy, unrestrained merriment," he added, brushing vaguely at his ear, and there encountering a long feather "tickler," extended from the hand of a thick-set damsel with a still longer feather in her hat. He turned quickly, and met a sharp squirt of chilly liquid, which for a moment wholly blinded him to the charms of the thick-set damsel's two companions, who danced off with jubilant shrieks, leaving him hurriedly intercepting the streams that ran down his neck. He wondered rather at the smell, as he would not have done had he been out early enough to see the "tormentor" merchant filling his "scent-fountains" at the ditch across the common.
Mr. Septimus Deacon occupied some few minutes in adjusting his wrappers and reconciling his adventure with his general delight in the proceedings, and then found himself politely begging pardon of a solitary son of toil, very husky, who ran into him sideways and hung heavily on to his coat-lappet hiccupping dismally.
"You s-seen my missis anywhere?" demanded the son of toil, disregarding Mr. Deacon's apologies.
"No," said Mr. Deacon, "I haven't."
"Qui' sure?" pursued his questioner, with piercing emphasis, supporting himself now by both lappets of Mr. Deacon's coat, and regarding him with an apparent suspicion that the lady might be artfully concealed in his tail-pocket.
"I'm really quite sure," replied Mr. Deacon fervently; "absolutely sure that I haven't seen her at all, anywhere."
"I dunno wha's become of 'er," mused the bereaved husband, disconsolately shaking his head. "I biffed 'er in the eye, an' I ain't seen 'er since. I dunno wha' she wan' go 'way like that for. No accountin' for a woman. Comin' out for 'nollidy an' goin' off soon's we begin!"
"Quite unaccountable," agreed Mr. Deacon gently seeking to detach his new friend's grasp. "You must be most anxious, and I am sorry to have detained you. Good morning!"
"But look 'ere you'll tell me when you see 'er, won' yer?"
"Certainly—of course; at once!"
"Tell 'er I'm worry outomelife 'bout 'er. I'm very fon' my wife. I jis' biffed 'er in the eye, an' I ain' seen 'er—ain' seen 'er noffor a long time. Answers to the name o' Soosan. Goo' bye, of pal! I'll never forgeshyer. I'll go'n ask s'mother feller."
"A fine, affectionate character under a rough exterior!" bleated Mr. Deacon, inwardly, as with some relief he observed the anxious spouse's intricate progress through the crowd. Then he went his way in the direction leading by the Green Dragon.
"Charming sight! Charming sight!" he mused, beaming on the fringe of small children; when he found himself addressed by a somewhat worried-looking woman with a large double perambulator, of the sort called a bassinette, with two hoods.
"Would you jist give a 'and to my pram sir, while I go an' fetch my 'usband?" pleaded the woman. "He's in the Green Dragon, an' I been a-waitin' 'ere 'all an hour."
"Certainly!" replied Mr. Deacon, beaming more than ever. "He's a little forgetful of the flight of time, no doubt, on so fine a holiday."
He took the handle of the unaccustomed vehicle, and the woman, with an appearance of great relief, disappeared in the main door of the Green Dragon. Mr. Deacon waited with a great deal of patience, with his eyes fixed on the door. "Another affectionate husband, no doubt," he thought. "He is distressed to find he has kept his wife waiting so long, and now insists on her sharing his refreshment."
But there was no sign of the anxious mother, and Mr. Deacon's patience suffered a certain strain. He began to feel a little apprehensive. The re-united parents had apparently forgotten all about their offspring. He looked anxiously about him, and presently his attention was arrested by a long, steady chuckle from a man who leaned on a neighbouring post, smoking a pipe.
"It's a do, guv'nor," he said, as Mr. Deacon's gaze met his. "You're landed with them kids, like what she was afore you."
"What do you mean?" demanded Mr. Deacon, conscious of a distinct change of temperature under his clothes.
The man at the post chuckled again.
"I've been a-watchin' that there pram some time," he said. "Three or four parties 'as bin landed with it what I see myself, an' others afore that, no doubt. As soon as they tumbled to the do they jist looked round an' found another mug an' passed it on. You'll 'ave to find another mug."
"What?" exclaimed Mr. Deacon, with a sharper change of temperature still. "Do you mean that these children don't belong to that woman?"
"Not a bit of it," replied the man at the post. "It was a man as lumbered 'em on to her. Arst her to mind 'em while he went arter his wife, 'e did; an' it was a woman as landed 'im with 'em—said she was waitin' for 'er 'usband."
"But where are all these people?" demanded Mr. Deacon, as the state of the case dawned on him. "Aren't they in the Green Dragon?"
"Not them. They 'ooked it out the back way as fast as they went in, you bet. You'll have to find a mug too, I tell ye. Go on—I won't give you away."
"That's quite out of the question," returned Mr. Deacon, conscientious in his sweat of panic. "Where are the police?"
"Don't believe there are none—I never see none 'bout 'ere on Bank 'Oliday."
Mr. Deacon recognized that this observation was not far from truth. For the place was outside the Metropolitan Police district, and the neighbourhood was apt to be given over wholly to the beanfeasters on these occasions. The police-station was a cottage some distance off, and the policeman might be anywhere. Moreover, the workhouse was eight miles away. The situation was shocking.
"Never mind, guv'nor," urged his adviser. "Don't spile the fun. It's bin a fair beano for me, lookin' on. Land somebody else like what you've bin landed. 'Ere's a woman comin' along now. Tell 'er to ketch 'old while you go into the pub an' give your wife a 'idin'. That'll fetch 'er!"
But it became plain that Mr. Deacon fell far short of his prompter's ideal of a sportsman. He allowed the suggested victim to pass, and desperately collected his scattered faculties to face the situation. He separated the two hoods, which made something like a complete roof, and peeped at the babies. They seemed a particularly ugly couple, he thought, as they lay at opposite ends; but then Mr. Deacon was exceptionally inexperienced in babies, and with all his philanthropy could not conscientiously recall any baby that he hadn't considered ugly. Fortunately both appeared to be asleep, so he quietly closed the hoods together, and with a last hopeless glance at the door of the Green Dragon began to push the perambulator toward home, to the audible scorn of the sportsman on the post. For Mr. Deacon could think of only one resource; he must consult Miss Wicks, the old maid next door.
"Well, you are a mug," remarked the man on the post, bitterly, as he saw his morning's diversion leaving him. "I must say I wish you joy o' that lot!"
Mr. Deacon pursued his unaccustomed exercise in deep perplexity. The parting shot from the humorist at the post made him uneasy. Suppose this pair of infants were never claimed—would they remain for ever on his hands? All his recollections of cases of foundling children tended to reassure him in that respect, and yet—his experience of the world was small, and of babies nothing; and he could not help feeling a little uneasy. They looked as though they might be rather ill-tempered babies.
He was disposed to take another peep, and presently a fancied movement under the hoods decided him. He was in a quieter spot, and unobserved. He pulled back the hoods and looked again. Certainly they were most unprepossessing babies. Both appeared to have moved since Mr. Deacon's last peep so he ventured to lift the mouthpiece of the feeding-bottle that lay conspicuously on the coverlet and gently insinuate it between the lips of the baby that seemed a trifle the less ugly of the two. But instantly mouth and eyes screwed tighter, and turned in toward the pillow with unmistakable rejection. So Mr. Deacon conveyed the bottle to the opposite end and tried the other baby, with a more pronounced result. For there was a spit and splutter from that mouth, and as the face turned pillow-wards one screwed-up eye half opened with a momentary gleam of evil rage that caused Mr. Deacon to drop the feeding-bottle with something like a gasp. Obviously they were most ill-tempered babies. It was a mercy they hadn't started crying.
"Go it, nuss-maid," growled a voice at his elbow. And Mr. Deacon turned quickly to perceive the disgruntled humorist, late of the post, who, apparently despairing of better diversion, had followed his tracks.
"Go it," repeated the philosopher. "Pick 'em up an' cuddle 'em. My eye, your missis'll comb your 'air for you when you take that lot 'ome!"
He glanced about him in search of a post—he looked curiously incomplete with no post—and, finding none, relapsed into morose contemplation.
Mr. Deacon closed the hood and went on. At any rate, the scoffer was baulked of one triumph; there was no Mrs. Deacon. But his persevering steps could be heard following behind, albeit with an easy languor proper to Bank Holiday. It was Mr. Deacon's pause that had enabled him to catch up; plainly he was making the best of an economical holiday free of personal exertion.
Mr. Deacon hurried forward, and the scoffer lagged unswervingly behind. The garden of Miss Wicks's house, as of Mr. Deacon's own, was enclosed with a thick hedge, in which stood a gate; and it was with a sense of relief that Mr. Deacon heard this gate clang behind him.
The house stood well back in the garden, and he had a winding course of gravel path to traverse, amid many flower-beds of diverse shapes. Miss Wicks was visible near the house, but her back was turned, and the contorted ingenuity of her garden-planning caused Mr. Deacon and the perambulator to execute many tacks and long reaches, like a ship beating up wind. As he executed these laborious manoeuvres Mr. Deacon grew aware of the delighted regards of a housemaid at a first-floor window, whose round and healthy face grew suddenly broader, and whose fist was stuffed convulsively against her mouth as she contemplated the deviously-approaching phenomenon. For an instant she vanished, and in the next had returned with another grinning housemaid, larger and shinier and more hilarious than herself.
Vaguely Mr. Deacon wondered why the spectacle of an elderly single gentleman living next door, rather warm with exertion, pushing a perambulator-load of babies along many curvilinear garden-paths should so vastly entertain housemaids; and as he wondered he added a clause including parlourmaids and cooks, for presently another window revealed two more faces similarly exhilarated.
Mr. Deacon became afflicted with an unreasonable sheepishness; for a moment he contemplated retreat, but the length of intricate garden-path behind him was much greater than that before, and he pushed on with confused misgivings. Would Miss Wicks laugh at him too?
"Ha—good morning, good morning!" he said, with feeble geniality; and Miss Wicks turned.
She did not laugh. Laughter was not a common habit of the exceedingly correct Miss Wicks, who now regarded Mr. Deacon and his charge with a gaze of chilly amazement.
Panic spread through Mr. Deacon's bones.
"Good morning," he repeated, with a flurried bow and a ghastly smile. "I've—I've brought some babies!"
The word is easy to write; but as Miss Wicks said it—not in twenty volumes! Mr. Deacon dimly felt himself guilty of some unimagined atrocity.
"I—I hope you don't mind?" he bleated, anxiously.
"Really, Mr. Deacon," came the reply, as from frozen altitudes, "why should I mind?"
"So glad you're so pleased," he answered, desperately. "I felt sure you'd take to them. Your motherly instincts—"
"Eh?" gasped Mr. Deacon, blankly. "I—of course, what I meant was, with all your experience—"
"My experience, Mr. Deacon?"
"Yes—that is, of course, what I really mean is—very extraordinary how I got hold of them, really. You'd be most interested—"
"Indeed, you are mistaken; I am not at all interested, I assure you." And Miss Wicks turned toward the rose she had been tending.
"Then, perhaps," pursued Mr. Deacon, desperately gathering his scattered faculties, "perhaps you'd rather not take charge of them?"
"Take charge of them, Mr. Deacon? Most certainly I shall do nothing of the kind!"
Here the conversation was interrupted by a loud shout from the gate.
"Garn! Don't you believe 'im, mum," came the voice of the scoffer from the post. "It's a yarn, mum. Don't you 'ave nothink to do with 'em. Oh, he's a shockin' old bloke, that 'usband o' yours! You 'ave a separation at the p'lice-court!"
"What outrage is this?" cried Miss Wicks, turning on the unhappy Mr. Deacon, who quailed and cowered over the handle of the perambulator. "What ruffian associate have you brought to help insult me, sir?"
"It's a Toiler," explained Mr. Deacon feebly. "A Toiler under a misapprehension. He only does these things on Bank Holidays. I—I—perhaps I'd better be getting along!"
"I certainly think it most desirable," bridled the indignant lady.
And Mr. Deacon, much impeded by his umbrella, made a stumbling shift to turn the heavy perambulator about, and began to reverse his divagations among the garden-beds.
But his visit had been observed afar from an upper window, through a pair of binoculars kept for such purposes by Mrs. Griffin, the most scandalous moralist in the village. A glance was enough, and in a trice Mrs. Griffin in such articles of outdoor attire as could be drawn about her as she descended the stairs was waddling furiously in the direction of Miss Wicks's front gate. Consequently, Mr. Deacon had barely made the first tack on his return journey when Mrs. Griffin, in hasty disarray, burst into the garden and began from her end strategic movements designed to cut off the retreat of the perambulator.
Miss Wicks regarded this invasion with horror unspeakable. Even the impenetrable Mr. Deacon, tacking about with his perambulator, was startled by the tragic distress of her demeanour. He could not in the least understand it, except as a part of the general unaccountability of the female mind, but he vaguely guessed that she had some decided objection to Mrs. Griffin making acquaintance with the babies, and that he was expected to prevent it.
"Oh, good morning, good morning!" cried Mrs. Griffin, bearing down on the perambulator as directly as the sinuosities of the gravel paths permitted. "Why, bless my soul, Mr. Deacon, what have you got there?"
"Samples!" cried Mr. Deacon, desperately.
"Samples?" repeated Mrs. Griffin. "What sort of samples?"
"Oh, just the ordinary kind," replied Mr. Deacon, trying his best to push past. "Quite ordinary! Sort of samples you see every day!"
At this moment the garden gate opened once more, and a new figure appeared; a tall stout, tightly buttoned man in a frogged and furred coat, a man with a red face, a black moustache, a bell-topped hat, and a cigar. Skipping the corners of garden-beds and striding quickly over the paths, he thrust himself with many bows and flourishes, between the perambulator and Mrs. Griffin, who seemed on the point of forcibly seizing the hood, spite of Mr. Deacon's struggles.
"Samples, madam, samples, as me de-arr friend says," interposed the stranger, in a round and fruity voice, placing himself bodily before the object of Mrs. Griffin's ambition.
"Merely samples of an ordinary, everyday description, I assure you, madam, on me sacred honarr!" Here he bowed again twice, and signalled quickly with a hand behind him to hasten Mr. Deacon's departure. "As to the exact species of sample, therre madam, you place me, as a gentleman, in a certain difficulty. Perhaps it will suffice if you allow me to observe, me de-arr madam that the subject would be better discussed with another of your own charming sex, when I have withdrawn. Permit me, me de-arr madam, to indicate the lady up the garden who will no doubt give you every information; and pardon me if I seize the opportunity to rejoin me de-arr friend with the—the samples!"
Mrs. Griffin, stimulated beyond measure by this mysterious communication, made straightway for the hapless Miss Wicks; while the magniloquent stranger hurried after the fast-retreating Mr. Deacon.
In the mind of Mr. Deacon perplexity and panic were succeeded by bewilderment. Who was this affable stranger, and why should he come to the rescue out of nowhere? Revolving this puzzle, Mr. Deacon emerged from the gate, and barely noticed that the scoffer had found himself another post, and now accepted its support with a gloomy relish of the domestic revolution he supposed to be in progress in Mr. Deacon's household. He barely noticed it because his whole attention was taken by a voice—a distinct voice, audible from under the hood of the perambulator.
"Maria!" said the voice. "I'll swear that was Filer!
"Mr Deacon's bewilderment was doubled. How soon did babies begin to talk like that? It was most extraordinary. He stopped to listen again, and with that he found the stranger by his side.
"Well, my joker," said the stranger, in a low voice, looking him hard in the eye "what's the game?"
"The game?" repeated the mystified Mr. Deacon. "I don't understand you."
"Cheese that," replied the stranger. "I suppose you want a bit for yourself, eh?"
"A bit? A bit of what?" asked Mr. Deacon, amazedly, laying his hand by instinct on his own gate as they reached it.
The stranger took another hard look at him and then at once resumed his earlier flowery manner.
"I beg your pardon, me de-arr sir—I humbly beg your pardon! Of course, I should nevarr have doubted I was talking to a gentleman. Your own premises, sir? Ah—permit me!" He pushed open the gate and flourished and crowded Mr. Deacon and the perambulator into the garden. "Better in private, of course. Now, my de-arr sir, touching the contents of this, ah—vehicle?"
"They seem very extraordinary babies," said Mr. Deacon.
"Ah, wonderful—wonderful babies indeed, sir"—this with a quick glance at Mr. Deacon's puzzled face. "Truly wonderful babies, as you say. Family man yourself, sir?"
"No, I'm a bachelor."
"Ah, precisely. You would be all the more surprised, I can well understand. May I inquire how they came into your charge?"
Mr. Deacon made shift to tell the tale in a dozen words.
"My de-arr sir, accept the heartfelt gratitude of a—what one might almost call more or less a father! Your devotion to these helpless infants has been equal to anything recorded in the annals of heroism. I will trespass no longer on your noble philanthropy. Their nurse is close at hand—a de-arr creature, devoted to these darling infants—"
"Ah-h-h!" came a startling voice from the hedge, like a bull's. "Me heart's bleedin' for thim blessed babbies!"
"Shut up, Lanigan!" cried the tall man, angrily. "A male nurse," he went on, to Mr. Deacon, "who is devoted to the de-arr children, and who was in charge of them this morning till he foolishly entrusted them to the care of a stranger on an emergency—"
"Met a frind I hadn't seen for years!" came the voice from the hedge again.
"Was unavoidably detained—"
"They're that moighty slow behoind the bar at the Green Dragon!" wailed the voice.
"Will you shut up, Lanigan? Was detained, as I say, and the stranger basely handed over her charge to somebody else. Fortunately, my de-arr sir—"
"Misther Filer! Misther Filer!" came the voice once more, this time in a stage whisper.
"What now? What?"
"He's there—he's comin' wid a policeman They're talkin' wid the man at the post!"
"Who are? Who is it?" Mr. Filer's voice was hushed now.
Mr. Deacon, blank with amaze, and Mr Filer, frowning and pulling his moustache listened intently. There were hurried step on the road without, and then a dozen thing happened at once.
In at the gate came a threatening, red-faced man in a white hat, dragging the local policeman with him and blaring denunciation at Filer. Down went both hoods of the perambulator at once, and over the side, with astounding agility, went both the babies in their white gowns. The nearest hedge was that dividing the two gardens, and through a hole in that hedge by the ground the two babies bolted like rabbits. The white-hatted man and the policeman turned and ran round by the gate for Miss Wicks's garden, and Mr. Deacon, three-fourths demented, ran after them.
Once returned within Miss Wicks's gate an appalling sight met the eye. Mrs. Griffin sat gasping in a bed of geraniums, while Miss Wicks fled shrieking with her apron over her face, followed by the babies at a most amazing rate, with the white-hatted man after them and the policeman bringing up the rear. First Miss Wicks, then the babies, then the white-hatted man, and then the policeman vanished in a shrubbery, whence presently emerged the white-hatted man and the policeman only.
"All right!" cried the white-hatted man. "They can't go far now we know they're here. But here's one o' the gang," he added, pointing to Mr. Deacon. "My name's Challis, of Challis's Nat'ral Wonders, an' I give this feller in charge for kidnappin' my dwarfs! Three years' contract that married pair had with me, straight and legal, and Filer and this chap 'ticed 'em away from me in a p'rambulator! Promised 'em double salaries or summat, I s'pose. They'd find salaries want some gettin' out o' Filer, when it comes to the pinch! I'll 'ave the lor o' them all right, but just you make sure o' this feller!"
The scoffer at the post was a difficult man to please, in general, but he always admitted that this particular Bank Holiday was a complete success. Mrs. Griffin, also, did manage to make something out of it, after all, when the first shock was over, at tea-tables; and Miss Wicks is slowly recovering under medical care.
SIR HUDSON BAGG'S title was brand new, and his country house was so newly occupied and recently furnished and freshly painted and lately aired that it seemed brand-new also, although it had stood in the same place for two hundred years. But the deeds of conveyance were as new as the house looked, and Sir Hudson Bagg and Lady Bagg were strangers in the county though desperately anxious to remain so no more; for Lady Bagg already, in her mind's eye, saw the Baggs pre-eminent among the county families. At present, however, calls were strangely few and tardy, so that expedients were necessary, and Sir Hudson and Lady Bagg became patrons of the Philanthropic Society for Harassing the Indigent. That alone, of course, was not enough; it was merely a step. The next was to take so active an interest in the society that it became advisable to organize a great meeting and conversazione in furtherance of its principles to which everybody desirable in the county and out of it was invited, and for which Sir Hudson Bagg very kindly allowed the use of the Hall and grounds, where he and Lady Bagg were "at home" to all distinguished Harassers of the Indigent, and speeches and tea and resolutions and a garden-party took their parts in the confusion.
The success was glorious. The Philanthropic Harassers were a society of very high patronage, and for some while Lady Bagg even dared to indulge a hope that a minor Royalty might be netted. This failed to "come off," but the company was nevertheless sufficiently numerous and distinguished to constitute a triumph for the house of Bagg and the first of many. So much, therefore for Sir Hudson and Lady Bagg, who merely provide the house and grounds for this story as they did for the Philanthropic Society for Harassing the Indigent.
The day was fine, and a large crowd of people brightened the grounds. At least some of them did, but a great proportion were a very serious-looking lot indeed. Bishops dotted the landscape, deans punctuated the lawns; one or two countesses were visible, and a duchess very nearly came, but not quite. The less distinguished Harassers pointed out the more distinguished to each other, and the more distinguished exhibited themselves with great affability. There were several quite respectable politicians, and three Labour members came in strange mixtures of clothes which had cost hours of thinking out to express their unutterable independence.
"Why," said one visitor to another indicating a clerically-attired figure in the distance, "I do believe that's Aubrey Fitzmaurice!"
"No, is it?" replied his friend. "I haven't seen him since he buried himself in the East-end—not since he left Oxford in fact. Mightn't have recognized him in those things."
The first speaker turned to a second friend and repeated his remark.
"Why, so I believe it is!" answered this third observer. "Who'd have expected to see him here? I thought he didn't believe in this sort of thing. I'll go over and speak to him presently."
Each of these three pointed out the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice to somebody else, for he was a man of celebrity among East-end parsons, and many tales were told of his whole-souled devotion to his work. A man of brilliant gifts, notable connections and some private fortune, he had married a wife of like mind with himself, and had gone to live altogether in one of the worst of the East-end parishes, cutting himself off entirely from his old acquaintance, and giving his whole time and faculties for the bettering of the people in his parish. He lived with them and liked them, it was said, and gathered the worst of them about him in a club, where he met them on equal terms, playing billiards with them, boxing with them, and sharing as much of their lives as they would allow. It was so great a change for this exquisite of Balliol in particular that he was noted and talked of above the generality of them that laboured east of Aldgate, though he displayed himself less than any, and had vanished wholly from his earlier world.
"That," said a lady in the crowd, who had just been told, "is Aubrey Fitzmaurice, who married Clara Tyrwhitt and hid her and himself in some parish in the East-end. They've made quite a mania of it. Nobody's seen her since the wedding."
"Is that the man?" replied the other. "Why, Clara Tyrwhitt was my greatest chum at school, and I haven't seen her for years. I must ask about her. Does anybody know him?"
"I believe his aunt's coming presently—Lady Bilbury. And there's Clara's cousin Mary right across the lawn. We'll speak to her."
Meanwhile, Mr. Harry Benyon, who had not seen the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice since he left Oxford, strolled across with his two friends and accosted the exile.
"Why, Aubrey, old chap!" said Harry Benyon. "I hardly knew you!"
"Wotcheer!" replied the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice, looking up quickly and continuing his walk. "Cheer-oh!"
"Why, I don't believe you know me," answered Benyon, following and offering his hand. "You remember Harry Benyon, surely?"
"What-ho! Don't I rather!" responded the reverend gentleman, shaking hands vigorously. "Good ol 'Arry! An' 'ow's yerself?"
"First-rate, thanks. But, I say, you are East-end, you know!"
"What d' you think? Right in it! I'm one o' the nuts down 'Oxton!"
"I'm sure you are. But do you keep it up always?"
"Keep it up? Not 'arf! Always keep it up. I'm a-thinkin' out a sermon now."
Benyon and his friends looked at each other blankly, and then at the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice.
"Well," said one, "if you deliver 'em like that I'd like to come and hear one."
"Right-o, ol' cockalorum! Come whenever you like. Any old sinner's welcome; an' bring a bob for the whack round. We don't often get a toff."
"We'll all come," said Benyon, "and all bring our bobs for the—the what-d'ye-call-it. But now just you forget that sermon and the East-end for a bit and be yourself again. This function's going to be dull—we'll keep together."
"Garn—cheese it, 'Arry!" replied the Reverend Mr. Fitzmaurice. "What price my sermon? I got to think it over, I tell ye. See ye later on, matey."
The reverend gentleman sheered off to a quieter part and left the three friends somewhat perplexed.
"They told me he'd gone East-end mad," remarked Benyon, "and by Jove he has! Who'd have dreamed he'd have played it as low as that—he, of all men? Making oneself popular in the parish is all very well, but—hang it all!"
"There may be something in it," observed one of the others. "I've heard they're very suspicious of strange ways down there, and the Oxford manner they won't stand at any price."
"But, my dear chap—"
"Oh, of course I know he's got it pretty rank, but it's only more extreme than some of the others. Some of them do all sorts of wild things and play it most amazin' low to catch the fancy of the Eastenders. There was even a bishop—"
"Oh, yes, we know about that; but Aubrey isn't an advertising bishop, and, more he was never that sort at all. I believe it's actual mania—I do, positively. He is East-end mad, that's plain. But we'll see him again in course of the afternoon."
Meanwhile, the lady who had been Mrs. Fitzmaurice's greatest chum at school and her friend, Miss Cust, had lost sight of Mrs. Fitzmaurice's cousin Mary, but presently found her in another part of the grounds.
Before they could speak of the thing themselves she said: "Do you know, Clara's husband's here somewhere? Harry Benyon's been talking to him. He's gone clean East-end mad, it seems—worse than the Bishop of Limehouse. Talks just like a costermonger. Isn't it quaint? I can't think what aunt will say!"
"Oh, we must speak to him," said Miss Cust's friend. "Indeed, we were looking for you to introduce him. I never saw him before; I haven't seen Clara for years."
"I don't know him myself; the engagement was very short, and we were away in Egypt at the time of the wedding. Harry Benyon promised to find him again for me. Harry says he's become quite a curiosity. I hope he won't swear very much!"
At this moment Harry Benyon hove in sight, hauling with him the reluctant Aubrey.
"I tell y' I'm a-thinkin' out a sermon!" he was heard to protest as he approached.
"Here you are—I've found him," said Harry Benyon. "Mr. Aubrey Fitzmaurice—Mrs. Fitzmaurice's cousin Mary, Miss Cust and Miss Peyton."
"What-oh! 'Ow do?" said the Reverend Aubrey, shaking hands all round. "My ol' pal 'Arry 'ere, 'e won't let me think out my sermon, blimy. Still, as it's laidies—"
"We've been longing to see you for ages." said Miss Tyrwhitt. "Tell us all about Clara. Why isn't she here?"
"Washin' day," said the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice.
"What? you don't mean to say that poor Clara does her own washing?"
"Lummy, no—not all of it. 'Tain't likely is it?"
"I shouldn't have thought so. I suppose she does a little, just as a sort of example to the poor women in the parish?"
"Right-o! Got it in once. She does lead the fashions—no kid!"
"Well, you must both be very devoted I'm sure. And does Clara talk that funny way, too?"
"Talk funny? Rats! No more'n what me an' you do."
"Oh, well! But doesn't she find it very dull?"
"Dull? Blimy, no! I ain't the sort to be dull with. She don't 'ave time to be dull."
"Of course, I suppose there's a lot of visiting?"
"Not 'arf! She goes a-visitin' every day—except washin' day, o' course. An she 'aves 'er pals in to tea, too, sometimes—'Oxton pals, I mean. Dull? Why, the Paragon an' the Britannia's close by, an' a corkin' movin'-picture show just raand the corner—on'y a dee a time!"
"Poor Clara! But there, no doubt she likes it as much as you. I suppose it is necessary to be so very East-end? I expect you find the people appreciate it?"
"Fair knocks 'em. Me an' the ol' Dutch—"
"Ol' Dutch; the delo elrig, you know—the storm an' strife; the missis, I mean—Clara."
"Clara? Oh, don't call her such things as that!"
"Don't? Well, what would you call 'er? But stow all this—no 'ank, I must think out that sermon. So long! See you later."
"But surely you don't think out sermons in places like this! And here comes your aunt; I expect she's looking for you. Lady Bilbury, we've just been introduced to Aubrey, and he's such an East-ender!"
Lady Bilbury, stout, imposing, and peering through an ivory-handled lorgnon, came sailing toward the group. The Reverend Aubrey, with an air of resignation, stayed his departure, and then smiled cheerfully as he met Lady Bilbury's gaze and plunged to meet her.
"Wotcheer, auntie!" he cried, and kissed her with a loud smack.
Lady Bilbury, her lorgnon knocked into one eye, choked with fury.
"Go away, Aubrey, you fool!" she gasped. "It's plain you are mad, as everybody says. You neglect us all for two years, and then make a disgusting public exhibition of yourself like this! You're not fit to be at large!"
"'Ere, cheese it, auntie!" protested the reverend gentleman, somewhat abashed for Lady Bilbury could be a very terrible person on occasion. "Draw it mild. Don't go chewin' the rag afore company. I'll do a bunk till your monkey climbs down. Got to think out a sermon. Tooraloo!"
"The creature's mad!" said Lady Bilbury flushed and indignant, as her nephew's back view vanished in the crowd. "Hopelessly crazy! It's not safe to let him go about!"
"He does certainly seem very strange," observed Miss Tyrwhitt. "He's been saying the most extraordinary things in the most peculiar language. I wonder if it's safe for Clara to be with him?"
"It's the sort of thing some of them do," said one of Benyon's friends, who had joined the party. "Do in Rome as the Romans do, you know, and all that. They call their parishioners 'blokes' and that, and they say it goes down wonderfully. There's the Bishop of Limehouse, now—"
"Oh, of course, we know the Bishop of Limehouse," said Lady Bilbury, smoothing her ruffled plumage; "but he's no excuse for Aubrey, and the Bishop does draw the line somewhere. He doesn't behave like a drunken bargee among his friends. No, it's actual mental derangement, I'm sure, and what I've expected all along. These absurd enthusiasms always lead to something of the sort. Something must be done, and quickly; he mustn't be allowed to go about disgracing his family."
"Shall we wire to Clara?"
"That would scarcely be of much use. This affair would be all over long before she could get here. Besides, we're not sure how Clara might take it. I hate to say it, my dear but I've a horrid fear she may he almost as bad herself, if it's only from constant association with him. She worshipped him, you know, and we've seen nothing of them for ever so long, since they went so mad over this East-end business. No, the family must interfere, and we must really do something to restrain him among all these people. There will he a perfect scandal. What can we do? We can scarcely ask Sir Hudson Bagg to have him turned out; that would make a scene at once. But we really must do something."
"He keeps saying he wants to think out a sermon," remarked Harry Benyon. "I've heard him say it half-a-dozen times at least—the sort of cranky, persistent thing they're apt to say, you know. I think that's the side to take him on. Get Sir Hudson Bagg to lend him his study to do his sermon, and then lock him in."
"Excellent, Mr. Benyon—a really admireable suggdstion. I'll see Sir Hudson Bagg at once." And Lady Bilbury, with recovered dignity, sailed off in search of her host.
Lady Bilbury was one of the great captures of the occasion, and Sir Hudson Bagg, under Lady Bagg's instructions, would gladly have lent her the whole house for a week if she had asked for it. Consequently the mere request of the study for an hour or two was met with alacrity, and the faithful Benyon was dispatched to decoy the Reverend Mr. Fitzmaurice into the toils. The task was easy, for nothing, it seemed, could have pleased the sermon cogitator better.
"That's a little bit of all right," he observed gratefully. "I'm gettin' fed up with all this noisy push outside, an' I must get on some'ow with that sermon."
He was seen safely into the study, and a trusty servitor of the house was placed just without the study door. And with that Harry Benyon sought Lady Bilbury to report that her reverend nephew was safely withdrawn from public notice.
"It's all right now," he said. "He's put away in the study with a new pen and a pile of foolscap. I found him talking to a newspaper man."
"A newspaper man, Mr. Benyon?" exclaimed Lady Bilbury. "But that will never do. We shall have all his insanities published broadcast—and exaggerated, if that is possible. We must find that newspaper man and forbid him absolutely forbid him—to print anything about Aubrey. Where is he?"
Harry Benyon knew where the newspaper man had been, but he was not there now, nor anywhere else to be seen. The fact was he had found the meeting rather dull copy and, having hit on something much more attractive, had now vanished to write up his little scoop.
Meantime, the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice was somewhat restless in the study as the trusted servitor in the passage could hear. After a little while he appeared suddenly at the door, stared at the servitor for a moment, and then retreated. The servitor—called ordinarily simply a footman—had been made somewhat apprehensive by the mysterious instructions given him; and when, ten minutes later, the door once again opened, and once more the clerical gentleman glared wildly at him and again disappeared, his apprehensions vastly increased. He grew firmly convinced that he was deputed to guard a dangerous madman, and on the whole he judged it expedient to turn the key of the study door, which he did, with a loud click that refused to be stifled. At once the door was tried from the inside; the footman retreated to an angle of the passage and watched; and the sequel was witnessed from the grounds.
The study window opened on a balcony, which made a roof for the veranda of the ground floor. The butler was in the act of emerging from the veranda, bearing a very large tray of ices, when he was suddenly rooted to the spot by the apparition of a pair of human legs depending from the balcony and kicking within an inch of his nose. The next instant the legs, the body thereto attached, the ices, the tray, and the butler were involved in one cataclysmal smash, from the thick of which rose the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice, splashed and veined in pink and cream, and darted across the lawn for the nearest shrubbery.
"Stop him!" screamed Lady Bilbury, her worst fears realized and doubled.
But nobody made the attempt save one portly dean, who, chancing to be in the line of flight, extended his arms and for one second danced before the fugitive as of yore danced the Bishop of Rum-ti-foo. In the next second the dean had turned three-quarters of a somersault, and the Reverend Mr. Fitzmaurice vanished like a harlequin through an arbutus.
NEXT day's issue of that bright little paper the Telephone, contained a bright little personal article, contributed by the journal's representative at the meeting of the Philanthropic Society for Harassing the Indigent. He had, it appeared, "enjoyed an unusual opportunity of a chat with that fascinating and interesting personality, the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice, whose devoted work among the poor of his East London parish has made his name familiar to all who are interested in the upraising of the masses. Amid a thousand calls of duty the reverend gentleman gladly gave ''arf a mo,' to use his own picturesque expression, to a few remarks on his opinions and experiences. In spite of his high connections and his University education, he has become one of the people, sharing their joys and sorrows, and adopting their simple manners and earnest vocabulary. By dint of continued perseverance he has completely succeeded in eliminating the noxiously undemocratic consonant 'h' from his speech, and he has as carefully assimilated the expressive locutions of the down-trodden toiler. As he himself says, he finds Stepney a fair knock-out, and, although he wears a black 'I'm afloat' and 'round the 'ouses'—playful synonyms for coat and trousers—he is truly right in the push at 'Oxton. Questioned as to the prevalent views as to the localities he loves, the reverend gentleman replied with the pregnant monosyllable 'Rats!' As for himself and his old Dutch—an affectionate reference to Mrs. Fitzmaurice—residence anywhere else would speedily drive them balmy on the crumpet.
"In regard to the type of pulpit discourse he considered best fitted to his parishioners Mr. Fitzmaurice expressed no very particular views, beyond a general opinion that the preacher should chuck it off his chest with no hank and serve it up very OT—or, as you might say, peas in the pot."
Several more paragraphs followed, in which a pleasant picture was drawn, from the Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice's own information, of the devoted vicar traversing his parish in cheerful guise, reproving an acquaintance who seemed elephant's trunk in one place, correcting an unruly parishioner elsewhere with one on the I suppose, and farther along encountering a tragedy that wrung his raspberry tart; all explained as being translatable on the usual principles of rhyming slang. 'And, finally, the vicar was represented as he tore himself away from his interviewer to prepare an urgently needed sermon. "Don't forget," were the parting words of this remarkable man, accompanied by a cordial shake of the hand, "whenever you're near the vicarage, be sure to knock at the Rory O'More and give us a chyike!"
The Reverend Aubrey Fitzmaurice did not see the Telephone that day till he returned to the vicarage from a round of visits in the afternoon. He read the opening lines of the article with some surprise, the rest with a growing sense of gasping stupefaction. He blinked, gazed at the familiar furniture about him, rubbed his eyes, looked at the paper again, and finally groped his way to the door and called for his wife.
"Clara," he said, "do read this article and tell me what in the world it means, or if I'm mad or dreaming."
"Yes, dear," his wife replied. "I didn't know you were in. There are two gentlemen waiting to see you in the drawing-room; they were told to call by Lady Bilbury, they say. They seem to be doctors, and they've been asking the oddest questions about you. And I've had a strange letter from my cousin Mary. She wants to know if you've been home since yesterday, and says she's terribly afraid that your work here has upset yours mental balance!"
"Has it? Perhaps it has," replied the distracted vicar. "I shouldn't have believed it till five minutes ago, when I read that paper. Just look at it, Clara, and tell me—do tell me—what it all is. Either I am mad or somebody writing there is."
THREE streets away from the vicarage, in the darkest corner of the bar of the Feathers, Snorkey Timms was bitterly reproaching Dido Fox for the failure of an attempt on Sir Hudson Bagg's household valuables.
"I said what it 'ud be." snarled Snorkey. "You an' your Reverend Aubrey! There's bin no 'oldin' you since that parson come down here and everybody began callin' you Aubrey. If I'd 'a' done it, like I wanted, it 'ud 'a' bin all right. I wouldn't 'a' bin nobody in particular, 'cept an anonymarious parson in them clothes you've got to pay Ikey Cohen for. I'd 'a' gone in easy enough with all that mob an' made no 'ank, an' got in the place an' done it neat an' quiet. Nobody 'ud 'a' come talkin' to me, an' if they did I wouldn't 'a' give meself away like that. 'Tain't enough to wear a parson's clobber, you idjit!"
"But look what a chance it was," protested Dido—"me lookin' the very livin' spit of 'im when I've 'ad a wash an' a shave."
"Chance? Rats! It's lookin' like the parson that's busted the show. So mighty proud o' yerseif an' yer Aubrey, once you got the togs you must go an dress up in 'em an' fancy yourself, I s'pose! So o' course the first thing somebody thinks 'e knows you, an' o' course the next thing you go a-jawin' up an' down an'—Why, what's the good o' lookin' like a parson unless you talk like one? That's where I'd 'a' come in. I'd 'a' chucked 'em the proper dialogue. I may not look like any partic'ler parson, but I can sling orf a few words classy."
"Classy? You? Rats!"
"There you are—'rats' is just what you'd say. You've got no polite savvy yerself, so you bloomin' well can't see mine. That's your ignorance."
Truly it seemed like to be what is called an old-fashioned Christmas in the matter of cold and snow. The weather had cheated all observers till as late as three days before the festival. Autumn had lingered long, ways weir dank, leaves still brown about boughs, and what little chill hung in the air was all pointless and in the main a mere effect of damp. But a night had changed all, and what had begun as drizzle turned to sleet and that to snow. All that day it fell, and toward evening, prevailing over the mire, it whitened the roads at last, even as it had already whitened fields and hedges and the housetops of the little town of Crowbridge. So that morning, the morning before Christmas, broke upon a muffled whiteness and, though the fall had ceased, the sky had an even grayness that promised another.
Of the townsfolk of Crowbridge the more robust looked out of window and called it reasonable, and others who had grumbled a week ago because of the mugginess, now that they had what they asked for, grumbled again. But there were visitors long past grumbling at anything, though the change hit them sorely. At the end of the town, nearest the railway station, on a piece of common ground given to fairs and markets, Leatherby's Royal Victoria theatre stood forlorn and solitary. It was a dismal construction of canvas and wood, called an outdoor fit up, and it had stood almost unregarded for a week. Never had Leatherby's so little encouragement to stay, never so grievous a lack of means to get away. Business had been bad, and worse than bad, even for a strolling company. And now—
The whole concern was fallen on evil times, and its early welfare was gone with its early paint. All show of salaries had been dropped months ago and equal division made of what poor sums might remain after expenses. But now it seemed that an end had come to all things. Once upon a time the show had been wont to travel by rail and the buskers to take cheap lodgings: now it moved as it might and sheltered the company itself. It had crawled into Crowbridge drawn by two angular horses, hired in the last town, but there seemed no possibility of its ever crawling out unless the company harnessed themselves and dragged it. The load of one van stood more or less erect, with a groan and a flap at each stir of wind, and was the theatre; in the other Leatherby himself and his wife had taken to lodge, with their daughter of seventeen, Lou, called in print in the days when it ran to bills, Miss Sibylla de Vere.
It was a horrible place, this Crowbridge: nobody would trust, nobody would support the drama. As for trust, a gallant effort had been made in the beginning, when Teddy Norton, general utility—all the company were general utility—was endued in the best mixture of clothes the show could get together and sent forth to pledge the credit of the concern with butcher and baker. He did it all with an air, poor fellow—somewhat the air of a private secretary conferring a royal appointment in person, and he was careful to stipulate for the punctual presentation of bills next Saturday. But the Crowbridge shopkeepers were a stony-hearted, even a stony-faced, lot, and they wanted money down and made no bones of saying so, without circumlocution. And as for the drama, they would have none of it. It would seem, indeed, that most of them judged it sinful, for Crowbridge was a most dull and proper place, and the money it sent to Leatherby's doors scarce paid for lamp oil.
"Patronage," too, failed utterly, and every cover was drawn blank. Chiefly and first, Leatherby attacked Baring Spencer, Esq., and attacked him again and again. Baring Spencer. Esq., would neither send his servants nor support a "special performance" nor presently permit Leatherby standing room on his doorstep. It seemed that something must be got out of Baring Spencer, Esq., if only he were pestered enough, for he was a man of vast projects in money and companies, and he was here at Crowbridge, where he had taken a furnished house for a few months, with schemes in bicycle factories that would make the place rich. Indeed, it was said that he was buying the house outright and would some day go to Parliament for the county. The local paper was full of Baring Spencer, Esq., his undertakings and his designs for the nourishment and glory of Crowbridge. He "patronized" everything, and his name was everywhere, so that it was doubly maddening to find him resolute not to patronize the drama as represented by Leatherby's. There was his house, almost in sight of the "pitch," and his fame and his glory pervaded Crow-bridge. It would seem that every applicant might tap him, if not for money, for his name, except Leatherby. Him he would not even see.
Last night had been bad indeed at the show. They had tried a wonderful version of "The Courier of Lyons," slashed and battered out of all recognition to fit the five male and three female members of the company and the only two scenes available, and the "house" (2s. 4d. and a few passed in loafers) had merely sniggered and rattled its feet. To-morrow would be Christmas and unless something occurred desperately like a miracle the festival must be celebrated by a total fast. What could be done? A desperate suggestion of carol singing had bean considered and abandoned early. There were already two parties each night, one from the church and one from the chapel, each with its harmonium and each audible to the other at intervals even from opposite ends of the town. And it was plain, as Sam Davis (general utility) observed, that outside competition was useless when the regular crowd worked for nix.
Mrs. Leatherby, her daughter and Mrs. Hendy sat about a little coke fire behind the stage mending and darning, a task that grew day by day—grew in difficulty as well as magnitude. The girl was haggard an sharp beyond her years, and already her complexion was rough and unwholesome because of the nightly paint: perhaps it was worse today from overnight weeping. Even her mother, staunch through a hundred ups and downs, made but a poor face of it, try as she might, and the widening bulk that had long led her, with rare frankness, to abandon juvenile parts, was now merely recorded by a slackness of clothes. As for Mrs. Hendy, who was also Miss Beaumont, leading lady, she almost wept as she sewed. She lamented aloud, in season and out, the fate that had brought her to such a pass, for she would have it known that she, above all the rest, had known better things and had played Pauline to the great Kedgerton's Claude Melnotte at Liverpool. She was at great pains to impress these things on anybody who would listen, and she made them a ghastly affliction to her husband, into whose misfortunes she had married, and little thanks she got for it, as she was insistent to remind him.
For his part it was his habit to receive her reproaches sometimes with querulous retort, but mostly with mild deprecation, and to make his escape, when it was possible, in the direction of the nearest liquid refreshment he was aware of.
So that now be was one of the first of the men, furtive and ill clad, to sneak across toward the bar of the Crown. Not because he or they had money to spend there, but, if truth must be confessed, because they had fallen low, and very low—so low that not a man of them but was glad to take a drink at the invitation of any free handed bar lounger who might offer it.
A drover was in the bar and a butcher—a butcher who had declined the honor of Leatherby's custom as offered by Teddy Norton. Norton and Hendy pushed open the door and stared about the bar with a poor pretence of looking for some of the others—whom they had left at the show. They stared as long as possible, and were making a reluctant show of withdrawal when the butcher, with a wink and a grin at the drover, sang out "Come along—come along in! There ain't no charge for comin' in!"
They pushed the door wider, mumbling something about "looking for a friend," with expectant eyes.
"Ah, your friend's bin sailed out unexpected to his gran'mother's funeral. 'Ave a drink?"
They let the door swing to and came sheepishly in. The drinks were ordered and brought, and then the butcher, pulling out a handful of silver, said abstractedly, with another wink at the drover, "Let's see: we toss odd man out for these, don't we?"
The drover grinned, and Teddy Norton made a ghastly show of feeling about his pockets for money. But Hendy only flushed and paled and frowned at the door. He had his feelings yet.
The silence endured for three seconds, and then the butcher flung the money on the counter, with a coarse laugh. "All right," he said: "my show." And presently they were all talkative together for, after all, there were the drinks, and the poor players had learned not to be too thin skinned.
Sam Davis and Billy Mack found their way across soon, and the drover was good for another round of drinks on their entrance.
"Trade in your line doesn't seem fust rate," said the butcher, happy in many Christmas orders. "Ain't overcrowded, are you?"
The buskers looked at one another and shook their heads. There could be no concealment. "Beastly business," Davis answered—"'orrid!"
"Not a very payin' game, eh?" said the drover.
"Well," Teddy Norton replied, "I'd be pretty well off if I had all that's owin' me, anyhow."
"Ah, but then suppose you had to pay all you owe?" rejoined the butcher and guffawed joyously at his own wit.
"Owing?" cried Hendy, with excitement. "Why, the money in salaries I haven't had 'ud start a bank!"
"Yus—no doubt," said the butcher, and laughed again. "What I ain't got 'ud sink a ship."
"Let's see," said Davis, "you was in Trevor Fits-Howard's crowd, wasn't you, when it left 'em stranded at Leeds?"
"I was that, my boy, an' Teddy Norton here, an' my missis—before I married her. That was the second time he put me in the cart, too," Hendy went on, with bitter reminiscence. "He dropped a company at Bristol once after three weeks, an' I was in that, an' that second time at Leeds he collared a bag o' mine to put the plunder in, with a new pair o' boots in it!"
"I bet you'd like to have 'em now," observed the butcher, with a glance at the actor's dilapidated shoes.
"I didn't know Fitz-Howard," ventured Davis, "but I've known some pretty near as hot. There was Digby, that called himself Stuart, an' Waldegrave an'—"
So the talk went, and each poor player fell to a computation of what he had lost in shortages by reason of "bad business" and by the robberies of rascally managers, so that if debts were but assets here would sit a company of affluent persons sponging for drinks in the Crown. Scarce a town in the kingdom but one or other had been stranded in it. They counted it a successful engagement that brought first to last half the stipulated salary and, though it was held "too bad" when a manager bolted with the money bags, the thing was so common as scarce to seem worse than a piece of rather sharp practice.
Last, poor old Leatherby himself, a stout figure of a stout man worried thin, joined the group and drew another round of drinks. It was hard, very hard, to maintain the dignity proper to a proprietor and manager conscious the while that he, even he, had fallen to "press" for a drink among strangers, though in truth he did his best.
That night they played "The Ticket of Leave Man"—played it with the energy of despair. Whatever that performance might bring was as all that lay between them and the lack of a Christmas dinner, and worse lack than that, Hendy played Bob Brierly to his wife's May Edwards. Leatherby doubled Melter Moss and Mr. Gibson, with a rush round the back and a change of coat in the office scene, played with a cottage interior. Billy Mack doubly, too—Maltby and Green Jones—and Leatherby's daughter was Sam Willoughby and Miss St. Evremond by turns, while Mrs. Leatherby as Mrs. Willoughby, Teddy Norton as Hackshaw the detective and Davis as Dalton had only one part apiece to think about. So that on the whole the play was fairly complete and regular, save for a cut or a botch in rare places and a lack of crowds here and there. It was not a comforting play altogether for the players. Money had to be flourished recklessly in some scenes, and a basket of trotters made of rolled rags, and once Hendy had to pretend that he couldn't eat a biscuit.
But the house—well, it was better than last might, by eighteen pence. The butcher come and brought a friend. He was not so bad a fellow after all in his own way, and he did his best to applaud for the whole house. But half the rest were boys, disciples of the local wit, a hostler from the Crown, and these made the night's work harder. Hawkshaw was called "Lockjaw" or "Lockjaw the Defective," and the sally drew yells of delight at every repetition. A certain frock coat that from time to time adorned a different character, in accordance with necessity, was greeted with cheerful recognition at each reappearance, and "Garn, it ain't your turn—you've 'ad it on twice!" was the indignant reproof that met Mr. Gibson in the office scene. And toward the end Leatherby (as Melter Moss) came forward with injured dignity and a large potato, which he protested that no gentleman would have thrown.
All was done that Leatherby's could do, and all was done in vain or very near it. A few pence apiece was all the poor strollers had to see them through Christmas and to get them away from this abhorrent town. The men shared a screw of tobacco and turned in as best they might. Mrs. Hendy was near to tears as she left the stage, and she indulged in a passionate and reproachful outburst as soon as she and her husband were alone. For his part, he could but feebly protest that it wasn't his fault.
"Nice situation this is for me," she scolded; "and then to be told it's not your fault!" Here she wept afresh. "Of course you put it on to me—like a man. Oh, oh, to think I ever was such a fool as to bring it on to myself!"
"But, my dear," Hendy began, with entreaty in his voice—
"Oh, don't talk to me!" she answered, pushing away the hand he had put on her shoulder. "To think I should come to this! And then you tell me it's my fault!"
Hendy drew off to sulk alone. Weak characters both, their sentiment (like most sentiment) was rooted in self pity, and this, their one remaining luxury, was best concentrated when they quarrelled. The last embers of the coke fire gave the sole light, and the woman sat before them with her face upon her knees.
Suddenly a loud burst of singing startled the pair, for the sound came, as it were, out of nothing, and it was close to their ears:
"The first good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of one.
To see the blessed Jesus Christ
When he was first her son.
When he was first her Son, Good Lord,
And happy may we be!
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost
To all eternity!"
The carolers had come over the snow unheard and now choirboys' voices were uplifted lustily, while the bass of a large and healthy curate went booming below them.
"The next good joy that Mary had
It was the joy of two,
To see her own Son, Jesus Christ,
Making the lame to go—
Making the lame to go, Good Lord,
And happy may we be!
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost
To all eternity!"
At the first shock man and wife lifted their eyes toward each other. Then something took the woman at the throat, and she dropped her head in a fit of sobbing. If Hendy had come to her now, he would have been repulsed no more. But he was sulky and resentful and peevishly conscious that the advance was due from her. More, this carol sung at his very shoulder, this sign of merriment in the world about him, gave flavor to his self-pity. So the woman sobbed herself quiet again, and the carol went verse after verse to its end:
"The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of seven,
To see her own Son, Jesus Christ,
Ascending into heaven.
Ascending into heaven, good Lord,
And happy may we be!
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost
To all eternity!"
There was silence and then the shouts of the carollers as they went their way by the street corner. "A merry Christmas!" It was the final touch of irony.
For a while neither spoke, but sat as they were. Then Hendy said roughly: "I'm going to sleep. That's cheap enough anyhow." And he reached for an old rug that made part of their bed.
His wife made no answer. It irritated him. "For heaven's sake, Polly," he said, "don't sit there sulking!"
That roused her, and she fell to reproaches bitterer than all, for she was the angrier because he had let her cry alone and had made no overtures toward conciliation—overtures she had been expecting as her right. Rejoinder followed quick and cruel on reply, and at last, when he talked desperately of sleeping outside, she answered with a gesture borrowed of her trade: "Go, then! Go! If you can't give me food and shelter, as other women's husbands do, go and let me earn them for myself! I can do without you!"
"And you shall, too," he retorted throwing down the rug and snatching his hat. "You shall, too." And in a second he had flung out into the night and the snow.
They had done it all before, and it was scarce more than another kind of acting. But this time the quarrel was a trifle sharper than common, and he could not go back and make it up with any self-respect for an hour at least. Meantime it was a cold night and a snowy one, so he turned up his collar and strode off straight ahead to be an ill used and homeless outcast for a hour, or, at any rate, for three-quarters of an hour.
Another snowfall had begun, though it was sparse and light, making itself felt now and again by a moist spot upon the face. The carollers had struck up "Noel" some little distance away, and between their verses the chapel party could be heard at the farther end of the town. Indeed, it was scarce the best possible night for Hendy's petulant adventure. The snow declared itself in the weak spots of his shoes ere he had gone 200 yards and the wind was in his teeth, spiting his face and coming little short of cutting off his nose.
Thus he came to Cawthorns, where lived Baring Spencer, esquire, that illustrious invisible; and the high privet hedge, like a massive black wall, was so good a wind screen that Hendy turned up a side lane and followed it, walking close, with bowed head and shoulder brushing the twigs. The hedge took a wide curve and, following this, he came plump against a small wooden gate, which swung inward at the shock. At this he stopped and looked about him. Without a doubt this was the kitchen entrance. Here was a narrow path, with a tall hedge at each side, a short path ending in a door with a pent roof.
He took a step back and another forward. The wind was as sharp as ever and there was a wetness in the snowdrops, now more frequent, that told of coming sleet. To follow the lane were to emerge presently in open country; here was shelter under the lee of a good-sized house, with a pent roof to make it better. More, here was a "situation." The homeless outcast, wronged by all the world, would seek shelter, for half an hour at least, on the doorstep of the proud and haughty capitalist, who, if only he were awake and aware of the trespass, would probably send his pampered minions to drive him forth into the bitter night. The fancy accorded with the outcast's mood, and truly for one bent on wallowing deep in the pathos of his predicament this was the most promising spot thereabout, and one not at all exposed to the weather.
He let the gate swing behind him and walked quietly to the kitchen door. All was silent and, as he stood under the pent roof, he saw that the path he had come by went farther and skirted all the back premises, dividing them from the kitchen garden. As he looked, a projecting frame caught his eye, like that of an open window, but nearer the ground than he would have expected. It was but a few yards away, and he went idly toward it. It was a window, no doubt left open by the carelessness of a servant. There was a stain on the snow below it which betrayed the occasion. Plainly the servant had flung out coffee grounds or the like and taken no care to shut the casement. The house was rather old, and for a moment he wondered vaguely what room it might be whose window was so near the ground. And then the answer came to his hungry senses from the window itself. Clearly it was the larder, and no empty larder either. Pickles could be smelled—pickles plainly and something else, something of fulsome steaminess and sweet recollection—Christmas pudding.
No doubt it was a large larder, though a mere blackness to sight now; no doubt crammed to the ceiling with a superfluity of the Christmas fare that Hendy saw no chance of tasting. Was it really so large as he fancied? He felt his pocket and found a matchbox with a few matches still remaining. At least it was no sin to take a peep. Everybody was in bed. He struck a match in the shelter of the window frame and held it within.
A larder it was, indeed, with both windows—wire within and glass without—left open; a long, brick paved place—the floor was a yard at least below the path he stood on and fitted round with shelves everywhere. And on the shelves—
He gazed till the match burned his fingers. But the picture remained vivid in his mind. Six plum puddings (was it six or seven—at any rate six) in a row, in china molds, with cloths tied on top; a cut ham on a dish, and three whole ones, hanging; two birds—geese—hanging also; a mass of cold sirloin, half cut away; another mass of sirloin, uncooked; a large dish of mince pies, a tub of water in a dark corner, with oatmeal spilled about it—oysters, no doubt; rows of jam pots, butter, cheese—everything. The agony of it!
Was it six puddings or seven? No harm in counting, at any rate. He struck another match.
Six plum puddings! And what could one man—a bachelor—want with six plum puddings, to say nothing of all the rest of this extravagant provision? Probably the housekeeper or the cook was swindling her master and preparing all this to regale herself and her friends. It would serve her right it somebody were to walk off with one of those puddings and, say, one ham—a mere act of justice, indeed. Not that he could do such a thing as that himself, of course, though, indeed, it would he rather a lark—the sort of joke you could tell your friends of years after—how the rich company monger supported the drama, after all, without knowing it.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to get in, too—as easy as going down stairs. Nobody would know, of course, and it would really seem a capital joke afterward. And, while this would be a joke, going without a Christmas dinner would be a serious matter. Were they oysters in that tub? The spilled oatmeal would seem to indicate as much, though you couldn't tell with certainty at this distance. And then—
Mr. Baring Spencer sat late, with a box of cigars and a decanter. He was a florid, heavy jowled man of forty-five or thereabout, and it was probable that in his time he had emptied more decanters than this one. A few draft prospectuses and such papers lay about the table, but they were done with hours ago. He had discovered a very excellent port in the cellar, and now, the decanter being empty, Mr. Baring Spencer, after a look at his watch, decided that on the whole he would see about another bottle. The rest of the household were in bed, so he took a candle and went down stairs himself. He was on the cellar stairs when he heard a slight noise in the direction of the larder. Perhaps a cat had got into it.
Joe Hendy had burned his last match and, with a pudding dangling by its cloth from one hand, was feeling along the shelf with the other in pursuit of the cut ham when the door flew open behind him, and his heart flew up into his mouth. There were a light and a crash and two hands on his collar behind and, at that, with a yell of despair, Hendy twisted about and fought wildly with both hands. The candle went over and out, the pudding mold smashed against a shelf and the cloth, still gripped in his fingers, shed cool, moist pudding about the heads of thief and financier alike.
But Hendy was the weaker, and the shock had despoiled him of wind. Presently he was dragged through the door and found himself imploring pardon and release in abject terms. He was starving, and the window was open to tempt him; he had a sick wife, no food for her, disgrace would kill her, and so forth.
"Come," said his captor, hard of breath himself; "you just come along, and we'll see about that." And he pushed the captive, now all terror and submission, up stairs before him in the dark, tripping and stumbling. For it struck Mr. Baring Spencer for reasons that possibly, if no particular harm were done, it would be better to terrify the intruder and send him about his businesss rather than engage in troublesome business at a police court. So at the top of a short flight Hendy found himself pushed first across a dimly lighted passage and then through a study door.
From a landing high above came a trembling female voice: "Mr. Spencer, sir! Are you there, sir? I—I thought I heard a noise!"
Whereto Mr. Spencer, In the passage without, replied with so terrifying a mouthful of language that the voice was heard no more.
Poor Hendy, pale and trembling, smeared across the face with pudding and staring at the decanter on the table without seeing it, started at that amazing string of rhetoric. Surely—surely the idiom was somehow familiar.
Mr. Baring Spencer came in at the door, and for the first time their eyes met in full light. Both were to some extent disguised in pudding, but Hendy knew his man at once. "Why," he gasped, "Fitz—Fitz-Howard."
"Eh?" grunted the other sharply. "What's that?" for his own recollection was slower. But the name—
Hendy took a long breath, wiped the back of his hand across his face and sat down uninvited. "My name's Hendy," he said; "Joseph Hendy, juveniles, Trevor Fitz-Howard's company, Leeds; Trevor Fitz-Howard's company, Bristol. You've got your pudding back; give me my boots."
"What? What do you mean?"
"All right, all right," Hendy went on, now clear in mind and dangerous. "P'raps you might bluff it off with one stone broke busker, but there's Miss Beaumont here, too; same company. You owe her a week or two salary, I think. An' there's Norton—Teddy Norton. Remember him? Walking gentleman. Trevor Fitz-Howard's company, Leeds."
Mr. Baring Spencer sat down. "Well?" he said, after a pause.
"Well," Hendy went on slowly, "you seem to be doing pretty well now. P'raps you can afford to pay off those arrears."
"Oh," answered the other laconically, and there was another pause. "But suppose I won't? Suppose I just call the Police and put you in jail? For, of course, I know nothing of all this nonsense you talk of."
"Very well," Hendy replied, rising wearily, "call 'em, but I'm afraid you'll get county courted over those salaries. An' when it begins—Lor', when will it stop?"
This was quite true. For if all the unliquidated debts incurred in Mr. Trevor Fitz-Howard's theatrical career were to be called up at once by creditors all over the country Mr. Baring Spencer would be squeezed very tight, indeed. And once the two names were identified the rush would begin. But there was another consideration. Mr. Baring Spencer was at a critical stage in his present operations, but his name just now stood good for anything; whereas, Mr. Trevor Fitz-Howard was a notorious swindler. So anything that might reveal the fact that the two names stood for one financial operator would mean a crash indeed. So Mr. Baring Spencer, like a man of business, went to the root of the matter straightway.
"Look here," he said. "We'll fool about no longer. How much do you want?"
Hendy sat down again.
"For me," he said, "say four weeks at thirty bob, and say nothing about the boots. Miss Beaumont four weeks at thirty bob, too, an' Teddy Norton a fortnight at the same. That's fifteen quid."
The sum seemed enormous in these lean days, but he was dealing with a capitalist and the estimate was honest enough. "An' then," he went on, "you might give poor old Leatherby a lift on the road—"
"Never mind all that," the other said, unlocking a drawer. "You don't expect to make me believe you're interested in all those people, do you? Or that you'd give them a cent? I ain't a baby; no more are you. See here." He took a small parcel of notes and counted, "One, two, three, four, five—a pony; £25. Take it and clear out, and keep your mouth shut. As for getting the show on the road, do it anyhow you please and as soon as you like. Only mind"—and he raised his finger—"if any of those others get on the scent and come here I shall tell them you've got their money. Now you can go as soon as you like."
But, indeed, Mr. Baring Spencer was just a trifle too clever. He was much too clever, in fact, to suppose that Hendy—a man just caught stealing pudding—would not part with any of that money unless he were obliged. He assumed, of course, that Hendy would keep the money to himself, say nothing of the encounter, and, moreover, use every exertion to get the show out of the neighborhood, because of the threat to set the others after a share of the notes if he, Spencer, were troubled by them. Indeed, he judged it a very cunning shift to shut Hendy's mouth and clear away the players from the town at one stroke. He was never safe from recognition among players.
But he miscalculated, for Leatherby's company signalized Christmas by two dinners at the Crown, one at midday and one at 7, and Leatherby gave the health of Baring Spencer, founder of the feast, with great fervor and proclaimed him an ornament to the theatrical profession, which he had an lately left, for Hendy had made no secret of whence he had the money or of the debts it was to liquidate, and some of it he represented as a subscription toward a Leatherby benefit designed to set the show on its legs again in the next town. And the company called Mr. Baring Spencer a noble fellow and, moreover, insisted on tearing the butcher from the bosom of his family (the drover was not to be found) and making him drink Mr. Spencer's health, too, a great many times, so that they were all mighty merry together that Christmas, and every hour was an hour of joy and feasting. And at last, to cap everything, all the male part of the company, with the butcher in the midst of them, stood in the early evening on Mr. Baring Spencer's lawn roaring "For he's a jolly good fellow!" at the top of their voices, to the amazement and scandal of all Crowbridge and the speechless fury of the jolly good fellow himself, till at Last he found his voice and, throwing open a window and shaking his fist, flung out such a shower of the rhetoric that Hendy so well remembered that the players went off mightily astonished.
"It is his modesty." said Leatherby, outside, with tears of gratitude trembling in his eyes; "just his modesty. Truly he is a noble fellow!"
But the story spread about Crowbridge, and ere long it was very generally known that Mr. Baring Spencer was Mr. Trevor Fitz-Howard and that Mr. Trevor Fitz-Howard probably had half a dozen other names as well. And it was even said in the end that the thing hastened his arrest by three days. He had bought the house at Crowbridge, had managed to pay for it in worthless shares and had mortgaged it instantly for hard cash. His companies were timed to burst just after the new year, and he was laid by the heels just a day before his appointed steamer left Liverpool, a sad victim of his own excess of cunning and the misplaced gratitude of others.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia