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Title: A Pair of Handcuffs REAL DRAMAS Part 6 (Being Some Leaves from the Notebook of a Late Theatrical Agent) Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200751h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: January 2012 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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It was quite a new departure for so high-class a crowd as the Sutton-Vascombe Opera Company, but from the financial point of view it had been a great success. The company were on sharing terms, though the general public was not supposed to know that. The expenses had been heavy, and something had to be done. More than half the chorus were dismissed, two-thirds of the orchestra found engagements in Melbourne or Sydney, and then 'the grand tour' of the 'back blocks' began. It was somewhat rough-and-ready, but the miners and sheep-shearers did not mind that. They got the best of singing and acting for their money, which they put down freely. There were mining villages where the exchange was pure dust—an ounce for a stall, and in proportion for the gallery, so that the exchequer was actually getting heavy with gold that had yet to see the mint. The treasurer was naturally a little anxious—it was a wild district, and 'robbery under arms' was not yet altogether a thing of the past. Jim Baynham came that way sometimes, and when he did somebody had to suffer. Jim was the last word in the way of bushrangers—an Englishman who had left his country for his country's good; there were warrants out for his apprehension in England. For the last five years he had been ever the delight and terror of the territory between the Poonah and the Yarra. He was by way of being a gentleman, too, and he could do the thing very well when he chose. On the other hand, he could behave with the most cold and malignant cruelty.
Consequently the secretary of the Sutton-Vascombe Company was uneasy in his mind. He was responsible for some twelve hundred ounces of gold-dust, and there was no chance of conveying it to a place of safety. He confided his fears to all and sundry. They treated him lightly—they had no fear of Jim Baynham. The women were nervous, of course—Marjorie Hickson, for instance. She was a sweet little girl with a sweet voice, and she was going far in her profession. Meanwhile, she had a brother just recovering from a serious illness, and lying in a Melbourne hospital, who was entirely dependent upon her for the time being. And in turn he had a wife in England. If anything happened to Marjorie's share of the treasury, she trembled for the consequences.
"None of 'em care," the treasurer groaned. "Seem to think that actors are exempt from troubles of that kind. They say that Jim Baynham was in the house at Banawaddy. Just as if that was going to make any difference. And that chap Claxton agrees with me. He knows the ropes. Been out here for years, he tells me."
Claxton had joined the company at Paira River. He was understood to be the surviving actor of a variety company which had been utterly stranded a year ago. Claxton had been down with fever, and when he was on his feet again, it was only to stand in his last pair of boots with the last shilling in his pocket. He had drifted up against the Sutton-Vascombe combination just at the time when they were short of an assistant baggage-man. The mere fact that Claxton was undoubtedly a gentleman weighed very little with the company. The knowledge that the stranger had been in vaudeville was enough. They never even asked him what his line was. Most of them had been recruited from the Universities, a good many of the women bore good names. They really were a 'tony' crowd. They admitted that the baggage-man was a gentleman; therefore they tolerated him. But, artistically, they made him aware of the awful gulf between them.
With the sweet unreasonableness of her sex, Marjorie took to Claxton from the first. She was sorry for him—she felt sure that he had been the victim of misfortune. She admired his square, handsome face, and that well-knit figure of his. His eye was clear, his check was brown—he could not have passed anything but a clean, wholesome existence. He had been all over the world, too, and had many an interesting story to tell. At least, Marjorie thought them interesting. And whenever her mind wandered uneasily in the direction of bushrangers, she was curiously confronted by the knowledge that Claxton was travelling with the company.
He was a little man, with a clean-cut, alive face, with a great beak of a nose all on one side: a mass of thick black hair was brushed back from the forehead and fell over the nape of his neck. A thin, clean-shaven mouth was parted in a smile that disclosed a really splendid set of teeth. He was dressed in a neat, double-breasted, blue serge suit; his brown shoes shone with a glittering polish. In his right hand he had a revolver.
They had played for two nights near Sendigo when the drama began in earnest. People had come from far and near to see the show—they were prepared to travel home under the coolness of the stars, and the village was deserted. The so-called 'hotel' was filled with the company, to the exclusion of everybody else; supper was a thing of the past, and the management had retired. Most of the combination were still in the big pitch-pine dining-room, talking over the events of the evening, when the door was suddenly pushed open and a stranger entered. He was a little man, with a clean-cut, alive face, with a great beak of a nose all on one side; a mass of thick black hair was brushed back from the forehead and fell over the nape of his neck. A thin, clean-shaven mouth was parted in a smile that disclosed a really splendid set of teeth. He was dressed in a neat, double-breasted, blue serge suit; his blown shoes shone with a glittering polish. In his right hand he held a revolver.
"Mr. James Baynham, greatly at your service," he said gently. "It is as well, perhaps, to remark that the first suggestion of resistance on the part of any of you gentleman will result in a vacancy in the company. I should deeply deplore this, as I am a musician myself. To shoot a tenor or precipitate a baritone into an untimely grave would be a source of lasting sorrow to me."
Nobody moved for a moment. They were taken utterly by surprise, there was not a revolver amongst the whole crowd; indeed it is doubtful whether a single member of the company had the slightest idea how to handle one. Marjorie Hickson crept a little closer to Claxton.
"Is that really the man, or is it somebody playing a trick on us?" she asked.
"Oh, that's the man right enough," Claxton replied. "We are old acquaintances. As a matter of fact, I was at school with him in England."
"Oh, indeed! And is he really quite as bad as people——"
"Worse," Claxton said curtly. "He's a born rascal. As a matter of fact, he couldn't be anything else. Some chaps are like that, you know. We shall have to make the best of it."
Baynham was speaking again. He was understood to say that he was not alone. He had come with two other intimate friends of his for a little music. The friends were engaged at that moment taking precautions against a surprise on the part of the hotel management. He regretted that he would be compelled to take similar measures so far as the male members of the company were concerned. There were too many of them for safety; they boasted too many athletes.
"We raided the police-station at Garralong as we came here," Baynham said smilingly. "It was necessary to my scheme that we should have some handcuffs. We found some score of pairs, and they are at present in the bar. Very sorry, of course, but the thing must be done. You gentlemen will kindly line up against the wall, facing it. Ladies, we are your devoted slaves. No harm shall come to any of you. Now, you chaps!"
The last word rang out like a threat. Claxton shut his teeth together grimly.
"It might be a great deal worse," he whispered to Marjorie. "You will see where I come in presently. Don't worry about your share of the exchequer, and don't be afraid. No harm will come to any of you girls. You will have to sing and play until they have had enough of it. We shall look on with our hands fastened behind our backs. It's a grim joke, but you will see presently that there are two sides to it."
Marjorie smiled bravely. She heard Baynham utter a curse as Caxton lagged behind. He strode up to Claxton and caught him by the shoulder. Then he started back.
"Good evening, James," Claxton said mockingly. "Quite an unexpected pleasure, isn't it? Never expected to see me again. Nice sort of life you are leading, isn't it? Wonder how a family like yours managed to turn out such a waster! It would have been far better if we had let you down that day in the Monk's Pool below Chesham Bridge."
Baynham's lips parted in a snarl.
"So it's Claxton," he said, "Claxton of the Sixth. Head of the school. The shining example to the rest of us! Kicking about Australia juggling, or something of that kind. Very glad to meet you again, Phil Claxton. I shall know how to deal with you presently. Be so good as to point out the treasurer of this powerful operatic cast to me. He is suffering from over-anxiety, and I want to relieve him of some of it. Oh, yes; the little man in the spectacles. Still, pleasure before business is always my motto. Where is the music? I expect the piano is a sufficiently ancient instrument, but we must make the best of that. Now, ladies, please."
Two other men came trooping into the room at the same time. There was nothing in their appearance to give cause for alarm. They were neatly and quietly dressed like their chief, and were openly amused at the sight of the helpless row of men facing the wall.
"Have you got the bracelets there?" Baynham asked.
The glittering pile of handcuffs were produced and handed to the leader of the raid. One by one he fitted them on the wrists of the male members of the company. The quick snapping of the locks was the only sound that could be heard.
"So far so good," Bayham said cheerfully; "I am sorry that you will not be able to smoke, gentlemen, but you can stand there with your hands behind you and listen to the concert. When it is over I shall be able to relieve the anxious mind of your treasurer, and after that I will place the key of the handcuffs on the old green tree where the roads cross about a mile away."
The concert began promptly. The performers were palpably nervous, but that wore off after a time. At any rate there was no violence to be feared. They might lose all their money, but there was ample time to make some more. And, after all, the situation was not devoid of comedy. The light-heartedness of the artistic nature was asserting itself. Marjorie Hickson had sung a song that had been received by the select audience with singular favour. Claxton stood with a group of men about him whispering something in their ears. They seemed to be interested in what he was saying. Claxton had a chance to say a few words to Marjorie presently.
"I am very thirsty," she exclaimed. "It is such a hot night. Please get me some lemonade."
Baynham turned to his colleagues. They hurried off in the direction of the bar. Claxton strolled across the room towards Baynham. There was an ugly gleam in his eye. Baynham saw it and rose to his feet instinctively. Instantaneously his hand went to his hip-pocket. Then he smiled as if half-ashamed of himself. Claxton's hands were securely fastened behind him. Nothing but a miracle.. .. the miracle happened. Claxton's right fist appeared with the left end of the handcuff dangling from it. The heavy metal described a gleaming circle in the air, then it came down with a sickening blow on the parting of Baynham's thick black hair. Something spurted hot and red as Baynham pitched headlong to the floor and laid there lost to all creation. The thing was so startling, so dramatic, so utterly unexpected, that no cry came from the ring of white-faced women looking on. Claxton flung himself on the prostate body and hastily searched Baynham's pocket. He held up something not unlike the key of an ordinary beer-barrel.
"Gather round," he said hoarsely. "Stand in a group as naturally as you can. I can release two or three of you if you will be quick. Make a stage scene of it—nobody should be able to do it better."
Baynham's subordinates came bustling into the room carrying glasses and bottles. As they advanced somebody stumbled against one of them, and a glass smashed on the floor. There was a scramble to pick it up, and an instant later the two outlaws lay at the bottom of a veritable football scrimmage. The thing was done almost without a word being spoken.
"I think that will about do," Claxton said, after the discomfited ruffians had been searched. "Take this key, somebody, and release the rest of the crowd. I don't know who you two rascals are, but I expect the police do, and that comes to the same thing. I've laid open the head of your chief, and he is not likely to do any more mischief for some time to come. Now let's release the landlord and the hotel staff and get them to ride for the police."
Claxton's popularity was assured now. The story spread like wildfire all through the colony. Baynham was safe in jail with his followers; he was never likely to do any more mischief. The whole thing was a piece of coolness and courage calculated to appeal to the Colonial mind. But nobody quite knew how Claxton had managed to get rid of his shackles. He did not in the least seem disposed to talk about it either. It was Marjorie Hickson in whom he finally confided.
"It was quite easy," he said. "I'll tell you, because you are the only one who has been really nice to me. Besides, I'm giving up the game and going home. My uncle is dead, and I have come into his property. As a matter of fact, the whole business was a piece of wonderful good luck. These chaps here wanted to know what my line was, and I refused to say. I was a Handcuff King. I learnt the dodge from a professor in England. I have a wonderful pair of wrists, and I can get out of anything. When these handcuffs were produced by Baynham, I saw my way at once. He might just as well have tied me up with a piece of cobweb. I waited till he felt quite comfortable, and then I took him unawares, as you saw. You'll keep my secret, Miss Marjorie."
Marjorie thanked him with tears in her eyes.
"You have saved everything," she said. "I don't know what I should have done without my money. I was going to offer to share it with you, but since you have so much——"
"Then let me share with you," Claxton said eagerly. "I shall never enjoy it alone. And the worst of the thing is, there is such a lot of it, my dear. I hope you are not offended."
But Marjorie was not in the least offended. She was not even annoyed when Claxton kissed her. And she has seen no reason to repent her decision since.
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