an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: The Golden Shanty
Author: Edward Dyson
eBook No.: 2300121h.html
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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[Note: The introduction by Norman Lindsay is still copyright in Australia]
A Golden Shanty
A Visit to Scrubby Gully
An Incident at the old Pioneer
At the Yards
A Sabbath Morn at Waddy
The Trucker’s Dream
Hebe of Grasstree
The Conquering Bush
A Zealot in Labour
The Elopement of Mrs. Peters
Dead Man’s Lode
A Vain Sacrifice
After the Accident
Benno’s Little Boshter
A Hot Day at Spats’
The Wooing of Minnie
The Packer’s “Little Silly”
A Saturday at Spats’
The Fickle Dolly Hopgood
At a Boxing Bout
Susie Gannon’s Young Man
A Question of Propriety
The Haunted Corner
A Little Love Affair
The Morbid Boy
About ten years ago, not a day’s tramp from Ballarat, set well back from a dusty track that started nowhere in particular and had no destination worth mentioning, stood the Shamrock Hotel. It was a low, rambling, disjointed structure, and bore strong evidence of having been designed by an amateur artist in a moment of vinous frenzy. It reached out in several well-defined angles, and had a lean-to building stuck on here and there; numerous outhouses were dropped down about it promiscuously; its walls were propped up in places with logs, and its moss-covered shingle roof, bowed down with the weight of years and a great accumulation of stones, hoop-iron, jam-tins, broken glassware, and dried ’possum skins, bulged threateningly, on the verge of utter collapse. The Shamrock was built of sun-dried bricks, of an unhealthy, bilious tint. Its dirty, shattered windows were plugged in places with old hats and discarded female apparel, and draped with green blinds, many of which had broken their moorings, and hung despondently by one corner. Groups of ungainly fowls coursed the succulent grasshopper before the bar door; a moody, distempered goat rubbed her ribs against a shattered trough roughly hewn from the butt of a tree, and a matronly old sow of spare proportions wallowed complacently in the dust of the road, surrounded by her squealing brood.
A battered sign hung out over the door of the Shamrock, informing people that Michael Doyle was licensed to sell fermented and spirituous liquors, and that good accommodation could be afforded to both man and beast at the lowest current rates. But that sign was most unreliable; the man who applied to be accommodated with anything beyond ardent beverages—liquors so fiery that they “bit all the way down”—evoked the astonishment of the proprietor. Bed and board were quite out of the province of the Shamrock. There was, in fact, only one couch professedly at the disposal of the weary wayfarer, and this, according to the statement of the few persons who had ever ventured to try it, seemed stuffed with old boots and stubble; it was located immediately beneath a hen-roost, which was the resting-place of a maternal fowl, addicted on occasion to nursing her chickens upon the tired sleeper’s chest. The “turnover” at the Shamrock was not at all extensive, for, saving an occasional agricultural labourer who came from “beyant”—which was the versatile host’s way of designating any part within a radius of five miles—to revel in an occasional “spree,” the trade was confined to the passing “cockatoo” farmer, who invariably arrived on a bony, drooping prad, took a drink, and shuffled away amid clouds of dust.
The only other dwellings within sight of the Shamrock were a cluster of frail, ramshackle huts, compiled of slabs, scraps of matting, zinc, and gunny-bag. These were the habitations of a colony of squalid, gibbering Chinese fossickers, who herded together like hogs in a crowded pen, as if they had been restricted to that spot on pain of death, or its equivalent, a washing.
About a quarter of a mile behind the Shamrock ran, or rather crawled, the sluggish waters of the Yellow Creek. Once upon a time, when the Shamrock was first built, the creek was a beautiful limpid rivulet, running between verdant banks; but an enterprising prospector wandering that way, and liking the indications, put down a shaft, and bottomed on “the wash” at twenty feet, getting half an ounce to the dish. A rush set in, and within twelve months the banks of the creek, for a distance of two miles, were denuded of their timber, torn up, and covered with unsightly heaps. The creek had been diverted from its natural course half a dozen times, and hundreds of diggers, like busy ants, delved into the earth and covered its surface with red, white, and yellow tips. Then the miners left almost as suddenly as they had come; the Shamrock, which had resounded with wild revelry, became as silent as a morgue, and desolation brooded on the face of the country. When Mr. Michael Doyle, whose greatest ambition in life had been to become lord of a “pub.,” invested in that lucrative country property, saplings were growing between the deserted holes of the diggings, and agriculture had superseded the mining industry in those parts.
Landlord Doyle was of Irish extraction; his stock was so old that everybody had forgotten where and when it originated, but Mickey was not proud—he assumed no unnecessary style, and his personal appearance would not have led you to infer that there had been a king in his family, and that his paternal progenitor had killed a landlord “wanst.” Mickey was a small, scraggy man, with a mop of grizzled hair and a little red, humorous face, ever bristling with auburn stubble. His trousers were the most striking things about him; they were built on the premises, and always contained enough stuff to make him a full suit and a winter overcoat. Mrs. Doyle manufactured those pants after plans and specifications of her own designing, and was mighty proud when Michael would yank them up into his armpits, and amble round, peering about discontentedly over the waistband. “They wus th’ great savin in weskits,” she said.
Of late years it had taken all Mr. Doyle’s ingenuity to make ends meet. The tribe of dirty, unkempt urchins who swarmed about the place “took a power of feedin’,” and Mrs. D. herself was “th’ big ater.” “Ye do be atin’ twinty-four hours a day,” her lord was wont to remark, “and thin yez must get up av noights for more. Whin ye’r not atin’ ye’r munchin’ a schnack, bad cess t’ye.”
In order to provide the provender for his unreasonably hungry family, Mickey had been compelled to supplement his takings as a Boniface by acting alternately as fossicker, charcoal-burner, and “wood-jamber;” but it came “terrible hard” on the little man, who waxed thinner and thinner, and sank deeper into his trousers every year. Then, to augment his troubles, came that pestiferous heathen, the teetotal Chinee. One hot summer’s day he arrived in numbers, like a plague, armed with picks, shovels, dishes, cradles, and tubs, and with a clatter of tools and a babble of grotesque gibberish, camped by the creek and refused to go away again. The awesome solitude of the abandoned diggings was ruthlessly broken. The deserted field, with its white mounds and decaying windlass-stands fallen aslant, which had lain like a long-for-gotten cemetery buried in primeval forest, was now desecrated by the hand of the Mongol, and the sound of his weird, Oriental oaths. The Chows swarmed over the spot, tearing open old sores, shovelling old tips, sluicing old tailings, digging, cradling, puddling, ferreting, into every nook and cranny.
Mr. Doyle observed the foreign invasion with mingled feelings of righteous anger and pained solicitude. He had found fossicking by the creek very handy to fall back upon when the wood-jambing trade was not brisk; but now that industry was ruined by Chinese competition, and Michael could only find relief in deep and earnest profanity.
With the pagan influx began the mysterious disappearance of small valuables from the premises of Michael Doyle, licensed victualler. Sedate, fluffy old hens, hitherto noted for their strict propriety and regular hours, would leave the place at dead of night, and return from their nocturnal rambles never more; stay-at-home sucking-pigs, which had erstwhile absolutely refused to be driven from the door, corrupted by the new evil, absented themselves suddenly from the precincts of the Shamrock, taking with them cooking utensils and various other articles of small value, and ever afterwards their fate became a matter for speculation. At last a favourite young porker went, whereupon its lord and master, resolved to prosecute inquiries, bounced into the Mongolian camp, and, without any unnecessary preamble, opened the debate.
“Look here, now,” he observed, shaking his fist at the group, and bristling fiercely, “which av ye dhirty haythen furriners cum up to me house lasht noight and shtole me pig Nancy? Which av ye is it, so’t I kin bate him! ye thavin’ hathins?”
The placid Orientals surveyed Mr. Doyle coolly, and innocently smiling, said, “No savee;” then bandied jests at his expense in their native tongue, and laughed the little man to scorn. Incensed by the evident ridicule of the “haythen furriners,” and goaded on by the smothered squeal of a hidden pig, Michael “went for” the nearest Asiatic, and proceeded to “put a head on him as big as a tank,” amid a storm of kicks and digs from the other Chows. Presently the battle began to go against the Irish cause; but Mrs. Mickey, making a timely appearance, warded off the surplus Chinamen by chipping at their skulls with an axe-handle. The riot was soon quelled, and the two Doyles departed triumphantly, bearing away a corpulent young pig, and leaving several broken, discouraged Chinamen to be doctored at the common expense.
After this gladsome little episode the Chinamen held off for a few weeks. Then they suddenly changed their tactics, and proceeded to cultivate the friendship of Michael Doyle and his able-bodied wife. They liberally patronized the Shamrock, and beguiled the licensee with soft but cheerful conversation; they flattered Mrs. Doyle in seductive pigeon-English, and endeavoured to ensare the children’s young affections with preserved ginger. Michael regarded these advances with misgiving; he suspected the Mongolians’ intentions were not honourable, but he was not a man to spoil trade—to drop the substance for the shadow.
This state of affairs had continued for some time before the landlord of the Shamrock noticed that his new customers made a point of carrying off a brick every time they visited his caravansary. When leaving, the bland heathen would cast his discriminating eye around the place, seize upon one of the sun-dried bricks with which the ground was littered, and steal away with a nonchalant air—as though it had just occurred to him that the brick would be a handy thing to keep by him. The matter puzzled Mr. Doyle sorely; he ruminated over it, but he could only arrive at the conclusion that it was not advisable to lose custom for the sake of a few bricks; so the Chinese continued to walk off with his building material. When asked what they intended to do with the bricks, they assumed an expression of the most deplorably hopeless idiocy, and suddenly lost their acquaintance with the “Inglisiman” tongue. If bricks were mentioned they became as devoid of sense as wombats, although they seemed extremely intelligent on most other points. Mickey noticed that there was no building in progress at their camp, also that there were no bricks to be seen about the domiciles of the pagans, and he tried to figure out the mystery on a slate, but, on account of his lamentable ignorance of mathematics, failed to reach the unknown quantity and elucidate the enigma. He watched the invaders march off with all the loose bricks that were scattered around, and never once complained; but when they began to abstract one end of his licensed premises, he felt himself called upon, as a husband and father, to arise and enter a protest, which he did, pointing out to the Yellow Agony, in graphic and forcible language, the gross wickedness of robbing a struggling man of his house and home, and promising faithfully to “bate” the next lop-eared Child of the Sun whom he “cot shiftin’ a’er a brick.”
“Ye dogs! Wud yez shtale me hotel, so’t whin me family go insoide they’ll be out in the rain?” he queried, looking hurt and indignant.
The Chinaman said, “No savee.” Yet, after this warning, doubtless out of consideration for the feelings of Mr. Doyle, they went to great pains and displayed much ingenuity in abstracting bricks without his cognizance. But Mickey was active; he watched them closely, and whenever he caught a Chow in the act, a brief and one-sided conflict raged, and a dismantled Chinaman crawled home with much difficulty.
This violent conduct on the part of the landlord served in time to entirely alienate the Mongolian custom from the Shamrock, and once more Mickey and the Chows spake not when they met. Once more, too, promising young pullets, and other portable valuables, began to go astray, and still the hole in the wall grew till the after-part of the Shamrock looked as if it had suffered recent bombardment. The Chinamen came while Michael slept, and filched his hotel inch by inch. They lost their natural rest, and ran the gauntlet of Mr. Doyle’s stick and his curse—for the sake of a few bricks. At all hours of the night they crept through the gloom, and warily stole a bat or two, getting away unnoticed perhaps, or, mayhap, only disturbing the slumbers of Mrs. Doyle, who was a very light sleeper for a woman of her size. In the latter case the lady would awaken her lord by holding his nose—a very effective plan of her own—and, filled to overflowing with the rage which comes of a midnight awakening, Mickey would turn out of doors in his shirt to cope with the marauders, and course them over the paddocks. If he caught a heathen he laid himself out for five minutes’ energetic entertainment, which fully repaid him for lost rest and missing hens, and left a Chinaman too heart-sick and sore to steal anything for at least a week. But the Chinaman’s friends would come as usual, and the pillage went on.
Michael Doyle puzzled himself to prostration over this insatiable and unreasonable hunger for bricks; such an infatuation on the part of men for cold and unresponsive clay had never before come within the pale of his experience. Times out of mind he threatened to “have the law on the yalla blaggards;” but the law was a long way off, and the Celestial housebreakers continued to elope with scraps of the Shamrock, taking the proprietor’s assaults humbly and as a matter of course.
“Why do ye be shtealing me house?” fiercely queried Mr. Doyle of a submissive Chow, whom he had taken one night in the act of ambling off with a brick in either hand.
“Me no steal ’em, no feah—odder feller, him steal em,” replied the quaking pagan.
Mickey was dumb-stricken for the moment by this awful prevarication; but that did not impair the velocity of his kick—this to his great subsequent regret, for the Chinaman had stowed a third brick away in his pants for convenience of transit, and the landlord struck that brick; then he sat down and repeated aloud all the profanity he knew.
The Chinaman escaped, and had presence of mind enough to retain his burden of clay.
Month after month the work of devastation went on. Mr. Doyle fixed ingenious mechanical contrivances about his house, and turned out at early dawn to see how many Chinamen he had “nailed”—only to find his spring-traps stolen and his hotel yawning more desperately than ever. Then Michael could but lift up his voice and swear—nothing else afforded him any relief.
At last he hit upon a brilliant idea. He commissioned a “cocky” who was journeying into Ballarat to buy him a dog—the largest, fiercest, ugliest, hungriest animal the town afforded; and next day a powerful, ill-tempered canine, almost as big as a pony, and quite as ugly as any nightmare, was duly installed as guardian and night-watch at the Shamrock. Right well the good dog performed his duty. On the following morning he had trophies to show in the shape of a boot, a scrap of blue dungaree trousers, half a pig-tail, a yellow ear, and a large part of a partially-shaved scalp; and just then the nocturnal visits ceased. The Chows spent a week skirmishing round, endeavouring to call the dog off, but he was neither to be begged, borrowed, nor stolen; he was too oldfashioned to eat poisoned meat, and he prevented the smallest approach to familiarity on the part of a Chinaman by snapping off the most serviceable portions of his vestments, and always fetching a scrap of heathen along with them.
This, in time, sorely discouraged the patient Children of the Sun, who drew off to hold congress and give the matter weighty consideration. After deliberating for some days, the yellow settlement appointed a deputation to wait upon Mr. Doyle. Mickey saw them coming, and armed himself with a log and unchained his dog. Mrs. Doyle ranged up alongside, brandishing her axe-handle, but by humble gestures and a deferential bearing the Celestial deputation signified a truce. So Michael held his dog down, and rested on his arms to await developments. The Chinamen advanced, smiling blandly; they gave Mr. and Mrs. Doyle fraternal greeting, and squirmed with that wheedling obsequiousness peculiar to “John” when he has something to gain by it. A pock-marked leper placed himself in the van as spokesman.
“Nicee day, Missa Doyle,” said the moon-faced gentleman, sweetly. Then, with a sudden expression of great interest, and nodding towards Mrs, Doyle, “How you sissetah?”
“Foindout! Fwhat yer wantin’?” replied the host of the Shamrock, gruffly; “t’ shtale more bricks, ye crawlin’ blaggards?”
“No, no. Me not steal ’em blick—odder feller; he hide ’em; build big house byem-bye.”
“Ye loi, ye screw—faced nayger! I seed ye do it, and if yez don’t cut and run I’ll lave the dog loose to feed on yer dhirty carcasses.”
The dog tried to reach for his favourite hold, Mickey brandished his log, and Mrs. Doyle took a fresh grip of her weapon. This demonstration gave the Chows a cold shiver, and brought them promptly down to business.
“We buy ’em hotel; what for you sell ’em—eh?”
“Fwhat! yez buy me hotel? D’ye mane it? Purchis th’ primisis and yez can shtale ivery brick at yer laysure. But ye’re joakin’. Whoop! Look ye here! I’ll have th’ lot av yez aten up in two minits if yez play yer Choinase thricks on Michael Doyle.”
The Chinamen eagerly protested that they were in earnest, and Mickey gave them a judicial hearing. For two years he had been in want of a customer for the Shamrock, and he now hailed the offer of his visitors with secret delight. After haggling for an hour, during which time the ignorant Hi Yup of the contorted countenance displayed his usual business tact, a bargain was struck. The yellow men agreed to give fifty pounds cash for the Shamrock and all buildings appertaining thereto, and the following Monday was the day fixed for Michael to journey into Ballarat with a couple of representative heathens to sign the transfer papers and receive the cash.
The deputation departed smiling, and when it gave the news of its triumph to the other denizens of the camp there was a perfect babel of congratulations in the quaint dialogue of the Mongol. The Chinamen proceeded to make a night of it in their own outlandish way, indulging freely in the seductive opium, and holding high carouse over an extemporized fantan table, proceedings which made it evident that they thought they were getting to windward of Michael Doyle, licensed victualler.
Michael, too, was rejoicing with exceeding great joy, and felicitating himself on being the shrewdest little man who ever left the “ould sod.” He had not hoped to get more than a twenty-pound note for the dilapidated old humpy, erected on Crown land, and unlikely to stand the wear and tear of another year. As for the business, it had fallen to zero, and would not have kept a Chinaman in soap. So Mr. Doyle plumed himself on his bargain, and expanded till he nearly filled his capacious garments. Still, he was harassed to know what could possibly have attached the Chinese so strongly to the Shamrock. They had taken samples from every part of the establishment, and fully satisfied themselves as to the quality of the bricks, and now they wanted to buy. It was most peculiar. Michael “had never seen anything so quare before, savin’ wanst whin his grandfather was a boy.”
After the agreement arrived at between the publican and the Chinese, one or two of the latter hung about the hotel nearly all their time, in sentinel fashion. The dog was kept on the chain, and lay in the sun in a state of moody melancholy, narrowly scrutinizing the Mongolians. He was a strongly anti-Chinese dog, and had been educated to regard the almond-eyed invader with mistrust and hate; it was repugnant to his principles to lie low when the heathen was around, and he evinced his resentment by growling ceaselessly. Sunday dawned. It was a magnificent morning; but the rattle of the Chinamen’s cradles and toms sounded from the creek as usual. Three or four suave and civil Asiatics, however, still lingered around the Shamrock, and kept an eye on it in the interests of all, for the purchase of the hotel was to be a joint-stock affair. These “Johns” seemed to imagine they had already taken lawful possession; they sat in the bar most of the time, drinking little, but always affable and genial. Michael suffered them to stay, for he feared that any fractiousness on his part might upset the agreement, and that was a consummation to be avoided above all things. They had told him, with many tender smiles and much gesticulation, that they intended to live in the house when it became theirs; but Mr. Doyle was not interested—his fifty pounds was all he thought of.
Michael was in high spirits that morning; he beamed complacently on all and sundry, appointed the day as a time of family rejoicing, and in the excess of his emotion actually slew for dinner a prime young sucking pig, an extravagant luxury indulged in by the Doyles only on state occasions. On this particular Sunday the younger members of the Doyle household gathered round the festive board and waited impatiently for the lifting of the lid of the camp-oven. There were nine children in all, ranging in years from fourteen downwards—“foine, shtrappin’ childer, wid th’ clear brain,” said the prejudiced Michael. The round, juicy sticker was at last placed upon the table. Mrs. Doyle stood prepared to administer her department—serving the vegetables to her hungry brood—and, armed with a formidable knife and fork, Michael, enveloped in savoury steam, hovered over the pig.
But there was one function yet to be performed—a function which came as regularly as Sunday’s dinner itself. Never, for years, had the housefather failed to touch up a certain prodigious knife on one particular hard yellow brick in the wall by the door, preparatory to carving the Sunday’s meat. Mickey examined the edge of his weapon critically, and found it unsatisfactory. The knife was nearly ground through to the backbone; another “touch-up” and it must surely collapse, but, in view of his changed circumstances, Mr. Doyle felt that he might take the risk. The brick, too, was worn an inch deep. A few sharp strokes from Mickey’s vigorous right arm were all that was required; but, alas! the knife snapped whereupon Mr. Doyle swore at the brick, as if holding it immediately responsible for the mishap, and stabbed at it fiercely with the broken carver.
“Howly Moses! Fwhats that?”
The brick fell to pieces, and there, embedded in the wall, gleaming in the sunbeam, was a nugget of yellow gold. With feverish haste Mickey tore the brick from its bedding, and smashed the gold-bearing fragment on the hearth. The nugget was a little beauty, smooth, round, and four ounces to a grain.
The sucking pig froze and stiffened in its fat, the “taters” and the cabbage stood neglected on the dishes. The truth had dawned upon Michael, and, whilst the sound of a spirited debate in musical Chinese echoed from the bar, his family were gathered around him, open-mouthed, and Mickey was industriously, but quietly, pounding the sun-dried brick in a digger’s mortar. Two bricks, one from either end of the Shamrock, were pulverized, and Michael panned off the dirt in a tub of water which stood in the kitchen. Result: seven grains of waterworn gold. Until now Michael had worked dumbly, in a fit of nervous excitement; now he started up, bristling like a hedgehog.
“Let loose th’ dog, Mary Melinda Doyle!” he howled, and, uttering a mighty whoop, he bounded into the bar to dust those Chinamen off his premises. “Gerrout!” he screamed—“Gerrout av me primises, ye thavin’ crawlers!” And he frolicked with the astounded Mongolians like a tornado in full blast, thumping at a shaven occiput whenever one showed out of the struggling crowd. The Chinamen left; they found the dog waiting for them outside, and he encouraged them to greater haste. Like startled fawns the heathens fled, and Mr. Doyle followed them, howling:
“Buy the Shamrock, wud yez! Robbers! Thaves! Fitch back th.’ soide o’ me house, or Oi’ll have th’ law onto yez all.”
The damaged escapees communicated the intelligence of their overthrow to their brethren on the creek, and the news carried consternation, and deep, dark woe to the pagans, who clustered together and ruefully discussed the situation.
Mr. Doyle was wildly jubilant. His joy was only tinctured with a spice of bitterness, the result of knowing that the “haythens” had got away with a few hundreds of his precious bricks. He tried to figure out the amount of gold his hotel must contain, but again his ignorance of arithmetic tripped him up, and already in imagination Michael Doyle, licensed victualler, was a millionaire and a J.P.
The Shamrock was really a treasure-house. The dirt of which the bricks were composed had been taken from the banks of the Yellow Creek, years before the outbreak of the rush, by an eccentric German who had settled on that sylvan spot. The German died, and his grotesque structure passed into other hands. Time went on, and then came the rush. The banks of the creek were found to be charged with gold for miles, but never for a moment did it occur to anybody that the clumsy old building by the track, now converted into a hotel, was composed of the same rich dirt; never till years after, when by accident one of the Mongolian fossickers discovered grains of gold in a few bats he had taken to use as hobs. The intelligence was conveyed to his fellows; they got more bricks and more gold—hence the robbery of Mr. Doyle’s building material and the anxiety of the Mongolians to buy the Shamrock. Before nightfall Michael summoned half-a-dozen men from “beyant,” to help him in protecting his hotel from a possible Chinese invasion. Other bricks were crushed and yielded splendid prospects. The Shamrock’s small stock of liquor was drunk, and everybody became hilarious. On the Sunday night, under cover of the darkness, the Chows made a sudden sally on the Shamrock, hoping to get away with plunder. They were violently received, however; they got no bricks, and returned to their camp broken and disconsolate.
Next day the work of demolition was begun. Drays were backed up against the Shamrock, and load by load the precious bricks were carted away to a neighbouring battery. The Chinamen slouched about, watching greedily, but their now half-hearted attempts at interference met with painful reprisal. Mr. Doyle sent his family and furniture to Ballarat, and in a week there was not a vestige left to mark the spot where once the Shamrock flourished. Every scrap of its walls went through the mill, and the sum of one thousand nine hundred and eighty-three pounds sterling was cleared out of the ruins of the hostelry. Mr. Doyle is now a man of some standing in Victoria, and as a highly respected J.P. has often been pleased to inform a Chinaman that it was “foive pound or a month.”
The men at the mine were anxious to have me visit our magnificent property. The battery and water-wheel were erected, there were 50 tons of stone in the hopper, and we only needed water and the blessing of Providence to start crushing out big weekly dividends. I know now that there has never been a time within the memory of man when Scrubby Gully did not want water, and that Scrubby Gully is the one place on earth to which a discriminating man would betake himself if he wished to avoid all the blessings of Providence for ever. But that is beside the matter.
I was carefully instructed by letter to take the train to Kanan, coach it to the Rabbit Trap, take horse from Whalan’s to the Cross Roads, ask someone at Old Poley’s on the hill to direct me to Sheep’s Eye; from there strike west on foot, keeping Bugle Point on my right, and “Chin Whiskers” would meet me at The Crossing. There was no accommodation at the mine for city visitors, but I was given to understand Mr. Larry Jeans would be happy to accommodate me at his homestead over the spur.
Casual references to Mr. Jeans in the correspondence gave me the impression that Jeans was an affluent gentleman of luxurious tastes and a hospitable disposition, and that a harmless eccentricity led him to follow agricultural and pastoral pursuits in the vicinity of Scrubby Gully instead of wasting his time in voluptuous ease in the city.
“Chin Whiskers” met me at The Crossing. “Chin Whiskers” was a meditative giant who exhausted his mental and physical energies chewing tobacco, and who bore about his person interesting and obvious evidence of the length and the severity of the local drought—he was, in fact, the drought incarnate. The Crossing was a mere indication of a track across a yellow, rock-strewn indentation between two hills, which indentation, “Chin Whiskers” informed me, was “The Creek.” That did not surprise me, because I knew that every second country township and district in Australia has a somewhat similar indentation which it always calls “The Creek.” Sometimes “The Creek” has moist places in it, sometimes it is quite damp for almost a dozen miles, but more often it is as hard and dry as a brick-kiln. When the indentation is really wet along its whole length it is invariably called “The River.”
I found the mine; it was a simple horizontal hole bored in a hill. The battery was there, and the water-wheel. The water-wheel stood disconsolate beside the dust-strewn creek, and looked as much at home as a water-wheel might be expected to look in the centre of the sandy wastes of Sahara. The working shareholders were unaffectedly glad to see me. They were sapless and drought-stricken, but they assured me, with great enthusiasm, that they lived in momentary expectation of a tremendous downfall. Leen had been mending the roof of his hut, he said, in readiness for the heavy rains which were due before morning. He examined the sky critically, and expressed a belief that I would be detained on Scrubby Gully a couple of weeks or so in consequence of the floods.
This spirit of unreasonable hopefulness and trust seemed to be shared by Cody, and Ellis, and MacMahon. I alone was dubious. The journey up had worn me out; the dry desolation all around and the flagrant unprofitableness of our spec. sickened me; but Jeans still remained—the prodigal Jeans, with his spacious homestead and profuse hospitality. I was heartfully grateful for Jeans. We met in due course. As I talked with Leen, a man came wearily down the hill, towing a meagre horse, which in turn was towing a log. This man delivered his log, unslung his animal, and approached us, heroically lugging behind him the miserable apology for a horse—a morbid brute manifestly without a hope or ambition left in life, and conveying mysteriously to the observer a knowledge of its fixed and unshakable determination to lie down and die the moment its owner’s attention was otherwise directed. But the proprietor seemed fully alive to the situation, and never allowed his thoughts to stray entirely from the horse, but was continually jerking its head up, and addressing towards it reproaches, expostulations, and curses—curses that had lost all their vigour and dignity. This man was Jeans, and if I had not seen his horse I would have said that Jeans was the most hopelessly heart-broken and utterly used-up animal breathing on the face of the earth. He was about 40, grey, hollow—cheeked, hollow—chested, bent, and apathetic with the dreadful apathy that comes of wasted effort, vain toil, and blasted hopes. Jeans had a face that had forgotten how to smile and never scowled—a face that took no exercise, but remained set in the one wooden expression of joyless, passionless indifference to whatever fate could offer henceforth and forever. My last hopes exploded at the sight of him.
Mr. Larry Jeans said I was welcome to camp in the spare room “up to” his place, and added dully that “proberly” his missus could scrape up grub enough for me “fer a day’r two.” “Proberly” did not sound very encouraging, but I had no option, and, being dead-beat, accepted the hospitality offered, and followed Mr. Jeans. Larry laboriously hauled his melancholy horse over a couple of low stony rises, and then we tackled the scrag end of the range, across which led a vague track that wound in and out amongst a forest of great rocks, and presented all the difficulties and dangers of mountaineering without its compensations. Jeans struggled on with dull patience, and in silence, saving when it was necessary to divert the old horse from his morbid thoughts, and when he briefly answered my questions. I gathered from him that the men at the mine had been expecting rain for four months.
“And what do you think of the chances?” I asked.
“Oh, me, I never expect nothin’. Sometimes things happen. I don’t expect ’em, though.”
“Things happen—what, for instance?”
“Well, dry spells.”
I elicited that pleuro happened, and rabbits, and fires, and “this here new-fangled fever.” But whatever happened Jeans never fluctuated; he had struck an average of misery, and was bogged in the moral slough. It seemed as if his sensibilities above a certain capacity had been worn out by over-work, and refused to feel more than a fixed degree of trouble, so that whatever might come on top of his present woes, be it fever, or fire, or death, the man remained in his normal condition of grim apathy and spiritless obedience to fate.
The “homestead” stood upon the flat timbered country beyond the rise. It was just what Jeans’s homestead might have been expected to be—a low structure of bark and slabs, with a slab chimney at one end, and a door in the middle between two canvas “windows.” It stood in a small clearing; just beyond the house stood the skeleton of a shed, upon which, it being sundown, roosted a few gaunt fowls; a lank cow with one horn was deeply meditating by the front door. There were signs of bold raids upon the stubborn bush, pathetic ventures; and great butts lay about in evidence of much weary but unprofitable work. A dog-leg fence, starting at no particular point, straddled along in front of the house, and finished nowhere about a hundred yards off. Not a new fence either, but an old one, with much dry grass matted amongst the logs—that was the pathos of it. There had been a brave attempt at a garden, too; but the few fruit trees that stood had been stripped of the bark, and the hens had made dust-baths in all the beds. In this dust an army of children were wallowing—half-clad, bare-footed, dirt-encrusted children, but all hale and boisterous.
At the door we were met by Mrs. Larry Jeans, and after introducing me as “him from the city,” the master laboured away, dragging his shuffling horse, and leaving me in the centre of a wondering circle of youngsters of all sorts and sizes, from two dusty mites not yet properly balanced on their crooked little legs up to a shock-headed lubberly boy of thirteen, curiously embossed with large tan freckles, and a tall, gawky girl of the same age in preposterously short skirts, whom my presence afflicted with a most painful bashfulness. A peculiarity about Jeans’s children that struck me was the fact that they seemed to run in sets: there was a pair even for the sticky baby deftly hooked under its mother’s left arm, judging by the petulant wailing to be heard within.
The Jeans’s homestead consisted of two compartments. I looked about in vain for the “spare room,” and concluded it must be either the capacious fire-place or the skeleton shed on which the hens were roosting. The principal article of kitchen furniture was a long plank table built into the floor; between it and the wall was a bush-made form, also a fixture. A few crazy three-legged stools, a safe manufactured from a zinc-lined case, and an odd assortment of crockery and tin cups, saucers, and plates piled on slab shelves in one corner, completed the list of “fixings.”
Mrs. Larry Jeans was a short, bony, homely woman, very like her husband—strangely, pathetically like in face and demeanour; similarly bowed with labour, and with the same air of hopelessness and of accepting the toils and privations of their miserable existence as an inevitable lot. She was always working, and always had worked; her hands were hard and contorted in evidence of it, and her cheek was as brown and as dry as husks from labouring in the sun.
We had tea and bread and boiled onions and corned beef for tea that evening—a minimum of beef and a maximum of onions. The last onion crop had been a comparative success somewhere within half a day’s journey of Scrubby Gully. Tea served to introduce more children; they dangled over the arms of the unhappy mother, hung to her skirts, sprawled about her feet, squabbled in the corners, and overran the house. Jeans helped to feed the brood in his slow, patient way, and after tea he helped to pack away the younger in little bundles—here, there, and everywhere—where they slept peacefully, but in great apparent peril, whilst the bigger kids charged about the room and roared, and fought, and raised a very pandemonium of their own. Every now and again Mrs. Jeans would lift her tired head from her sewing or her insatiable twins, and say weakly, “Now, you Jinny, behave.” Or Larry would remark dispassionately, “Hi, you, Billy!” But otherwise the youngsters raged unchecked, their broken-spirited parents seeming to regard the noise and worry of them as the lightest trial in a world of struggling and trouble.
I asked Jeans how many children he thought he had. He didn’t seem certain, but after due deliberation said there might be thirteen in all. He had probably lost count, for I am certain I tallied fifteen—seven sets and one odd one.
When the washing-up was done, and half of the family were bedded down, Larry dragged a tangle of old harness from the other room, and sat for two hours painfully piecing it up with cord, and his wife sat opposite him, silent and blank of face, mending one set of rags with another—I perched upon a stool watching the pair, studying one face after the other, irritated at length by the sheeplike immobility of both, thinking it would be a relief if Jeans would suddenly break out and do something desperate, something to show that he had not, in spite of appearances, got beyond the possibility of sanguinary revolt; but he worked on steadily, uncomplainingly, till the boy with the unique freckles came hurrying in with the intelligence that the old horse was “havin’ a fit’r somethin’.” Jeans did not swear. He said “Is he but?” and put aside his harness, and went out, like a man for whom life has no surprises.
The selector was over an hour struggling with his hypochondriac horse, whilst I exchanged fragments of conversation with Mrs. Jeans, and went upon various mental excursions after that spare room. It appeared that the Jeanses had neighbours. There was another family settled seven miles up the gully, but Mrs. Jeans informed me that the Dicksons, being quiet and sort of down-hearted, were not very good company, consequently she and Jeans rarely visited them. I was indulging in a mental prospect of the jubilation at a reunion of the down-hearted Dicksons and the gay and frivolous Jeanses when Larry returned from his struggle with the horse. He resumed his work upon the harness without any complaint. His remark that “Them skewball horses is alwis onreasonable” was not spoken in a carping spirit; it was given as conveying valuable information to a stranger.
At 11 o’clock my host “s’posed that p’r’aps maybe” I was ready to turn in. I was, and we went forth together in quest of the spare room. The room in question proved to be a hastily-constructed lean-to on the far corner of the house, at the back. Inside, one wall was six feet high and the other was merely a tree-butt. My bunk was built against the butt, and between the bunk and the roof there were about eighteen inches of space. That bunk had not been run up for a fat man. After establishing me in the spare room Jeans turned to go.
“Best bar the door with a log, case o’ the cow,” he said. “If she comes bumpin’ round in the night, don’t mind. She walks in her sleep moonlight nights.”
It only needed this to convince me that I was usurping the customary domicile of the meditative cow.
The room had been carefully furbished up and deeply carpeted with scrub ferns. But the cow was not to be denied.
Weary as I was, I got little sleep that night. I had fallen off comfortably about half an hour after turning in, when I was awakened again by some commotion in the house. Half a dozen of the children were blubbering, and I could hear the heavy tread of Larry, and the equally heavy tread of his wife, moving about the house. Presently both passed by the lean-to, and away in the direction of the range. For another half-hour or so there was silence, and then the one-horned cow came along and tried my door. Failing to open it, she tried the walls and the roof, but could not break her way in, so she camped under the lee of the structure, and lowed dismally at intervals till day-break.
When I arose a scantily-attired small boy generously provided me with a pint pannikin three-parts full of water. The water was for my morning bath, and the small boy was careful to warn me not to throw it away when I was through with it. This youngster told me that “Dad, an’ mum, an’ Jimmy ” had been out all night hunting Steve. Steve, I gathered, was the one enterprising child in the household, and was in the habit of going alone upon voyages of exploration along the range, where, being a very little fellow, he usually lost himself, and provided his parents with a night’s entertainment searching for him in the barren gorges and about the boulder-strewn spurs of the range. How it happened that he was not missed till nearly midnight on this occasion I cannot say, unless the father and mother were really as ignorant of the extent and character of their family as they appeared to be.
Mrs. Jeans was the first to return, and she brought Steve with her. The dear child had not been lost, after all. Incensed by some indignity that had been put upon him during the afternoon, he had “run away from home,” he said, and slept all night in a wombat’s hole about 200 yards from the house. There his mother found him, returning from her long, weary search. The incident did not appear to have affected her in any way; she looked as tired and as heart-sick as on the previous evening, but not more so.
“You know we lost one little one there”—she extended her hand towards the low, rambling repellent hills—“an’ found him dead a week after.”
Larry returned half an hour later, and his apathy under the circumstances was simply appalling.
We had fried onions and bread and tea for breakfast, and immediately the meal was over Larry, who I imagined would be going to bed for a few hours, appeared in front of the house leading his deplorable horse. He was bound for the mine, he said. I put in that day exploring the tunnel, examining the immovable mill, hunting for specimens in the quartz-tip, and listening to Leen’s cheerful weather prophesies; and Jeans and his soured quadruped dragged logs to the mine from a patch of timber about a mile off, which patch the men alluded to largely as The Gum Forest.
Returning to the homestead at sundown we found the children fighting in the dust and the one-horned cow meditating at the door as on the previous evening. I fancied I detected in the eye of the cow a look of pathetic reproach as I passed her. Tea that evening consisted mainly of roast onions. Jeans felt called upon to apologize because the boys had been unable to trap a rabbit for my benefit.
“Now’n agen, after a rainy spell, we’re ’most afraid the rabbits is a-goin’ to eat us, an’ then when we’d like a rabbit-stoo there ain’t a rabbit to be found within twenty mile,” said the settler impassively. “When there is rabbits, there ain’t onions,” he added as a further contribution to the curiosities of natural history.
The second night at Scrubby Gully was painfully like the first: Mrs. Jeans stitched, Mr. Jeans laboured over his tangle of harness, and the brood rolled and tumbled about the room, raising much dust and creating a deafening noise, to which Larry and Mary his wife gave little heed. When a section of the family had been parcelled up and put to sleep, I was tempted to ask Jeans why he continued to live in that unhallowed, out-of-the-way corner, and to waste his energies upon a parched and blasted holding instead of settling somewhere within reach of a market and beyond the blight of tangible and visible despair that hung over Scrubby Gully and its vicinity.
“Dunno,” said Jeans, without interest, “’pears t’ me t’ be pretty much as bad in other places. Evans is the same, so’s Calder.”
I did not know either Evans or Calder, but I pitied both from the bottom of my heart. Jeans admitted that he had given up hope of getting the timber off his land, though he “suspected” he might be able to handle it somehow “when the boys grew up.” He further admitted that he didn’t know “as the land was good for anythin’ much” when it was cleared but his pessimism was proof against all my arguments, and I went sadly to bunk, leaving the man and his wife working with slow, animal perseverance, apparently unconscious of the fact that they had not slept a wink for over thirty hours.
The cow raided my room shortly after midnight. She managed to break down the door this time, but as her intentions were peaceful, and as it was preferable rather to have her for a room-mate than to be kept awake by her pathetic complaints, I made no attempt to evict her, and we both passed an easy night.
I was up early next morning, but Mr. and Mrs. Jeans were before me. They were standing together down by the aimless dog-leg fence, and the hypochondriacal horse lay between them. I walked across, suspecting further “unreasonableness” on the part of the horse. The animal was dead.
“Old man, how’ll you manage to haul those logs in now?” As Mrs. Jeans said this I fancied I saw flicker in her face for a moment a look of spiritual agony, a hint of revolt that might manifest itself in tears and bitter complainings, but it passed in the instant.
Jeans merely shook his head, and answered something indicative of the complete destruction of his faith in “them skewbald horses.”
We had bread and onions for breakfast.
When I last saw Jeans, as I was leaving Scrubby Gully that day, he was coming down the hill from the direction of the gum forest, struggling in the blinding heat, with a rope over his shoulder, towing a nine-foot sluice leg.
We had a letter from Leen yesterday; he says the working shareholders are hurrying to get the sluice fixed over the wheel, and he (Leen) anticipates a heavy downfall of rain during the night.
Manager M‘Fie had seen the 12 o’clock shift below, and now, tired and disgusted, he kicked off his wet things, and “turned in.” Manager M‘Fie’s hut was quite a salubrious summer residence, but the rain had already picked holes in the bark roof. An iron bucket suspended above the head of the bunk caught the tiny stream that would otherwise have dribbled upon his pillow, an oil-skin coat turned the drops that rained upon the foot of the bed into a miniature river meandering along the hard clay floor, and the darkness was made musical by the tinkling sound of drops falling into tin dishes placed here and there about the hut to catch them. Mack curled down amongst the blankets under his great ’possum rug, swore a prayer or two, and endeavoured to give himself up to sweet forgetfulness of his “danged roomertism,” the fact that she was pinching out—“she” being the reef—and his many other managerial troubles.
Outside the night was pitch dark, and the rain raced by in successive charges, driven by the howling wind that caught and tore the gusts of phosphorescent steam above the engine-house at the mine, and sent the fragments streaming and curling away amongst the complaining trees like maddened wraiths. The driver in the well-lighted, rain-tight engine-house whistled contentedly over his work, and the battery boys, under comfortable shelter, rather delighted in the storm, the howling of which could be heard even above the thunder of the stampers; but the unfortunate braceman, crouching in the lee of one of the poppet-legs beneath the misty yellow glow of his lantern, cold, soddened, and more than half afraid of the tempest, that shook the brace vigorously under its bare poles, muffled the chattering of his teeth with a big quid, and heartily envied the facemen in the warm stopes and drives below.
Sleep was long coming to the weary “skipper;” he lay awake for hours, feeling the rheumatism like rats gnawing. in his old bones, and swearing quietly but with the emphasis of a devout “Geordie.” At length, whilst listening intently for the four o’clock whistle, oblivion fell upon him, and a deep organ note mingled with the tinkling of the raindrops in the scattered tins.
Mack imagined he had not slept twenty minutes when he was roughly awakened. He felt himself being energetically shaken, and heard a voice with a decided note of terror in it mixed up with the march, march, march of the rain and the long shrill cries of the wind in the dead gums. A shower of water rained upon his face from wet oilskins as he turned, and the voice of Tom White called again:—
“For God’s sake, boss, tumble up! The ‘big blow ’ has caved in, and the old shaft is choked with reef.”
The manager was out on the sloppy floor in a moment, groping for his clothes.
“An’ Brierly, Brierly——D——n it all, man! what about Brierly?” he gasped.
“He is trapped like a rat.”
“Lord, Lord!” groaned M‘Fie, “an’ there hasn’t been a man near the cursed hole for months before to-night.”
Mack discovered the matches, but they were like mush in his hand, and he was compelled to tear his way into his clothes in the darkness. Presently he rushed after White towards the mine. The whistle was piping piteously against the storm, which still thundered in the gully.
A hasty examination served to inform the manager of the extent of the disaster, which troubled him all the more for the fact that it was not quite unforeseen and might have been avoided. About forty yards from the working shaft of the Old Pioneer mine was another and a smaller shaft, one that had been sunk by the discoverers of the reef. At the lower-most level of the latter hole the two shafts were connected by means of a drive for the purpose of improving the air in the workings. Within about fifty feet of the surface the original workers had opened out and struck a big blow of quartz, the very richest of the lode, and in taking out the stone had excavated a great irregular chamber, reaching in places to within twenty feet of the surface. This chamber they eventually stowed full of loose reef from the lower workings, with the dual object of saving hauling and holding up the ground. It was a bad job from a miner’s point of view, but when a small independent party is on rich stuff that is not expected to hold out the members rarely waste time on fancy mining. Long since the surface over the excavation had settled down, leaving a large hollow place. To-night the great pressure of the many tons of earth, combined with the force exerted by the swelling of the reef, caused by the moisture that percolated through, had crushed out the timbers that walled up the mouth of the old drive, and sent the broken reef pouring into the pit, like the waters of a cataract, filling eighty feet of shaft in the winking of an eye.
If this were all the accident might not have been very serious, but at 12 o’clock M‘Fie had sent Bill Brierly to put in a shift in a small drive leading from the air-shaft towards the Old Pioneer, and about thirty feet from the bottom of the former. Scarcely any work had been done in this drive since it was opened out, and now the shaft was choked, and Brierly was penned in that tiny chamber, with air enough, Mack reckoned, to last a man five hours, provided he had sense enough to put out his candles, and sit and wait for death in the dark—a hair-bleaching, marrow-freezing experience men say who have so sat and waited.
“Stop the battery!” roared M‘Fie, after his cursory inspection. “Send the boys to knock up the men at the Piper an’ up at Mother Murty’s. They’ll never hear that penny whistle agin this wind. White, you take Harry an’ Bricky an’ a couple of others when they come, an’ rig a win’las over the air-shaft, an’ pull reef till all’s blue! Ben, go below—I expect Evans an’ Castro are already on the job. Chuck it down the winze, stow it anywhere, an’ work—work like fiends. If we don’t get at Brierly inside five hours I’m a done man, an’ so is he!”
The manager remained on top a few minutes longer, giving orders to the brace-man and the engine-driver, and then went below with a couple of volunteers who had come out of the black bush, half-dressed and puffing like engines. In No. 3, which drive ran into the old shaft, three silent men, stripped to their flannels, reeking in the faint, ghostly light of the candles, worked desperately upon the broken reef that had gushed into the drive.
M‘Fie and the others “took a hand,” more men came down in the next cage, and the next, and next, and presently wherever there was room for a man to plant a shovel or push a truck a man was toiling with the magnificent energy with which the meanest miner is endowed when the life of a mate is at stake. On the brace three or four men handled the trucks as the cages leapt to the landing. The engine throbbed, groaned, and strained like a living thing, and the eager volunteers, stoking vigorously, kept steam up to a dangerous pressure, while the safety-valve fairly shrieked under it. At the mouth of the air-shaft a brawny contingent whirled the windlass, pulling dirt from the top of the heap below, where two men toiled like heroes. Six or seven others, waiting to relieve exhausted mates, gathered in the red glow before the boilers, and talked of the imprisoned man in low voices and with a newborn respect, telling all the best they knew of him; and two or three frightened, curious women, with shawls drawn over their heads, peered with white faces out of the surrounding darkness.
At daybreak the struggle was still going on with undiminished zeal, and every handy place that would hold a truck of dirt was choked with reef, and the cages sprang up with the full trucks or rattled down with the “empties” swiftly, and with scarcely a pause.
Manager M‘Fie worked with the best of them. Drenched with perspiration, bruised and cut by pieces of falling reef, he faced the mass of dirt in the old shaft, careless of danger and ignorant of fatigue. As fast as the reef was shovelled away more rolled into the drive out of the shaft, but at length Mack uttered a sharp exclamation of joy and pointed to a dark open space showing below the cap-piece of the first set. Enlarging this with a few strokes of the shovel, he seized a candle and examined the shaft beyond; then, staggering back in the drive, bellowed a cheer that was caught up by the men and echoed on the brace.
The unexpected had happened. The choked pit was a ladder-shaft; a stout ladder, well stayed, ran up the side of the shaft, past the drive in which Brierly was immured; between it and the slabs lining the shaft was a space about 18 in. wide; large lumps of reef had jammed between the rungs, and now, right up the side to the mouth of the drive, was a clear passage, large enough to admit of the escape of a slight man like Brierly.
“Steady lads—easy does it!” said Mack, as the men attacked the reef again. “A wrong stroke might bring the stuff down again. Clear a way, an let’s see what can be done.” Mack put his head into the shaft and called, but no answer came back. He called louder, again and again. Still there was no reply, and the old manager turned away, and looked meaningly into the blank faces of the men, and his own cheeks were grey with dread.
“I’ll chance it, boss!”
A young fellow stepped forward—a trucker, a boy merely—with a plain, strong face and glowing eyes, luminous with resolution.
“No, no, lad! it might mean death.”
But young Stevens pushed by the extended arm and seized the ladder. Somebody stuck a lighted candle on his hat with a scrap of moist clay, and he went up the shaft on the under side of the ladder, climbing gingerly, conscious that the least vibration might bring the reef rushing in upon him. Mack watched him from below, and no man spoke a word. The boy reached the drive, paused only a moment, and started down again. Half a minute later he was dragged from the ladder by M‘Fie’s eager hands, and the same instant the reef rushed in, and filled up the place where he had been, and poured into the drive with a vibrant roar like thunder. Stevens stood with his back to one of the legs for a moment, a superstitious fear transfiguring his face, his limbs trembling painfully.
“He is not there!” he gasped in a choked voice.
The boy shook his head.
“Then,” murmured M‘Fie, “he is there;” and he pointed towards the filled-in shaft with a despairing gesture. “He must have made a rush for the ladder when she started to run, and he’s under the reef. It’s all UP, boys!”
Something like a groan broke from the lips of the men, but they seized their shovels and went to work again—all but one man. Graham turned away and walked towards the working shaft. He went up on the cage, and in less than five minutes returned and drew M‘Fie aside. He whispered a few words in the manager’s ear, and Mack followed him with an amazed look in his face. The two men got on the cage, and Graham pulled the knocker, signalling to the engine-driver to drop them at No. 2.
Graham led the way along No. 2, in which drive no work had been done for some months, and presently stopped and threw the light of his candle full upon the recumbent form of a man sleeping heavily upon a few slabs, his head pillowed on his arm. Mack turned the face towards the light, and beheld Bill Brierly, the supposed dead man. Graham, and M‘Fie stared at each other for a moment. Graham grinned feebly but Mack breathed a mighty oath. Brierly’s tea-flask lay near. The manager picked it up and brought it to his nose.
“Drunk!” he ejaculated, kicking the sleeping miner.
“As a jackass,” responded Graham, tersely.
Ten minutes later the brace-man called to the men below to knock off and come up.
“We have got Brierly. He is alive!” he cried.
The men rushed the cages, cheering, and wondering. On top a circle of disgusted miners stood round Bill Brierly, who lay sprawling on the floor before the boilers, grinning inanely in his drunken sleep. The truth was told in constrained whispers. Brierly was probably “half-screwed” when he went on at 12; he had made his way to No. 2, the driest and warmest drive in the mine, early in the shift, taking his flask of rum with him, and intending, no doubt, to “do a comfortable loaf” up there; and there he had lain, stupidly drunk, throughout those dreadful hours of anxiety and toil. The men thought of their long struggle and their wasted sympathies, of the reef piled everywhere about the workings, yesterday so orderly and correct, and each man glanced into his neighbour’s face, but none spoke; no one even ventured to swear, and they could not laugh—the situation was too tremendous for any form of expression of which they were capable.
One by one the worn-out miners dragged themselves away towards their huts and houses, but M‘Fie remained, sitting on a log, glowering at the drunken man, his mind full of the choked winzes and drives below, and of young Stevens cheek by jowl with death on the buried ladder.
“Ain’t you going to turn in, boss?” someone asked.
“No,” he said, angrily. “No. I’m goin’ to sit here till Bill Brierly sobers up, an’ then, by thunder, I’m goin’ to kick him from here to the Piper, an’ back again!”
“But, man, this is better than having to fish him from under the reef.”
“I dunno, I dunno!” snarled Mack, striking his knee fiercely with his great gnarled fist, “but I must kick that man or blow up!”
Waddy, in its decadence, lived through two days of every week. The awakening began late on Sunday night, or in the gloom of Monday morning, with the sound of phlegmatic cursing—softened and chastened by distance and the enfolding darkness—the yapping of busy dogs, the pathetic lowing of weary beasts, the marching of many hoofs, the slow movements of big flocks and herds on the ironstone road.
On Sunday evening Waddy was a mile-long township facing an apparently interminable post-and-rail fence and a wide stretch of treeless country dotted with poppet-legs—a township of some fifty houses, a Sunday-school and a chapel; grey, weatherboard, rain-washed houses, and an old, bleached, wooden day-school shored up on either side with stays, but lurching forward and peering stupidly out of its painted windows with a ludicrous suggestion of abject drunkenness. On Sunday evening Waddy was still, silent, and apparently deserted, oppressed by the weight of a Cousin-Jack Sabbath, but on Monday morning tents and covered carts linked the scattered houses, camp-fires smoked everywhere, and bearded cattle-men, making their scant toilet under the decent cover of a cart-wheel or a rail-fence, enlivened the place with light-hearted blasphemy and careless snatches of song, whilst flocks of sheep drifted on the common, fraternizing with the local goats, and mobs of cattle came slowly down the old toll-road, sniffing at the bare, brown track; the dust-coloured, sleepy drovers, with sunken heads, nodding on their limp horses.
Tuesday was sale-day. Monday afternoon was devoted to the yarding of cattle and the yarding and drafting of innumerable sheep—the former a comparatively easy and decorous undertaking; the latter a clamorous and arduous business provocative of disgust, dust, and madness, and inducing a thirst that afflicts the toiler like a visible disease, making him an object of pity to all humane beholders. The average bullock is of incalculable mental density, but he has the virtue of faith, and if you wish him to go through a gateway he goes in blind confidence; but you may pack a mob of five or fifty thousand sheep hard against a 10 ft. opening in a fence, and you may yap yourself hoarse, and beat your trousers to rags, and your dogs may bark their lungs up, without inducing a single monumental idiot of the whole flock to venture through.
It is a hot afternoon—it always was a hot afternoon, it seems to me at this distance—and scores of thousands of sheep are being hauled, and bullied, and cursed, and cajoled into the yards, and from pen to pen. There is a decided substratum of sound—the ceaseless, senseless bleating of sheep, low and unvarying; above this the “yap, yap, yap” of the men and boys, the sharp barking of the dogs, and the lowing of the cattle in the high yards beyond. Over all, the dust and the sun—a burning, yellow sun, and a rolling cloud of powdery dust—and everywhere in the air the taint of sheep, the pungent smell of the beasts, and the taste of them if you open your lips to breathe. It is a great time for several of the boys of Waddy; it means half a day from school and the opportunity of earning a shilling or two playing at work. Every healthy boy in the township is ambitious to be a drover, and have a black pipe, a wonderful horse, and a fabulous dog. Working at the yards is an approach to the ideal, and confers a dignity obtainable in no other way. To the boys penned in the stuffy little drunken schoolhouse the others who have a job at the yards are kings, and objects of an envy unspeakable. They command humble service, and awe, and admiration always.
With treasured whips, home-made of many fragments, the boys are busy helping with the drafting and penning of the cattle, or, coated half an inch deep with yellow dust, they are rushing the sheep up and down, bleary black patches indicating where their eyes may be, and muddy circles the probable situation of their mouths. It is hot, hard work, but, oh! the glory of it, and the pride of walking home with money in one’s pockets, and covered with heaped-up, honourable dirt!
On sale-day the Drovers’ Arms is hemmed in with conveyances of all sorts and sizes, each with a sober horse or two tethered to a wheel, dreaming with drooped heads under the scorching sun, or patiently foraging for the last oat in the corner of the feed-box. The heat is the same, so are the dust and the smells, but the noises of yesterday are supplemented by the continuous rattle of the auctioneers’ voices. Over the simmering stew sound the voices like the crackling of gum-twigs in an open fire:—
“Fo’rteen T! fo’rteen T! fo’rteen T!
“All done eighteen, done eighteen, done eighteen!
“Fo’r pounds, I’m bid. Fo’r two six! fo’r two six!
“Fo’r two six! Goin’ for—two—six!”
There are a few “drunks” sleeping in attitudes of absurd abandon along M’Mahon’s fence, coated with flies; and out on the common, with the whole waste to themselves, two men, stripped to the buff, are engaging in a dull, boozy, interminable fight. They have been fighting ineptly for many hours, and their punctilious observance of the rules of the ring is the wildest farce; but the comedy is wasted on Waddy, and the drovers are too busy to give heed.
In the afternoon the cattle begin to move out again and off by the roads they came, but the babel continues, and the buyers—stout, red, bibulous men of one pronounced type—follow the auctioneers in knots along the platforms over the yards. The cattle are not the meek, weary animals of yesterday; they have been hustled from one yard to another, rushed around, whipped and prodded, packed into small pens, and cursed and orated over to the complete loss of their few poor wits, and there is now a decided note of revolt in the lowing that rises up from the yards like a lingering curse. In every lot turned out there are one or two beasts filled with blind, blundering hate; they swing up the road, leading the mobs, red-eyed and possessed of devils; cords of saliva hang from their muzzles, and their moaning is ominous, suggesting the vacuous complaining of a maniac.
The youngsters coming from school keep close to the rail-fence, but they delight to run deadly risks, and fill the air with the profane shrieks of the drovers. Often a goaded, homicidal bullock bolts, and then young hearts are glad. It is wonderful sport to behold that frantic race for the distant timber—the long, rolling plunge of the bullock, with the good horse working on his shoulder, and the volleying whip kicking up dust and hair from his hollow ribs.
The clatter of the auctioneers grows fainter and hoarser, and the perishing beasts in the pens below toss up their heads like the branches of wind-blown trees, and push hither and thither ceaselessly with a pitiful “mooing.”
Marks is selling a pen of Bellman’s stock in No. 26. The buyers cluster about him on top of the fence, and bidding is brisk. One bullock, a fine red beast, has knocked himself about badly; his tail has been torn clean away, one horn is cracked close to the head, and the thick red blood oozes out, and blackens rolling sluggishly down the white blaze of his face. It is a large yard, and there is plenty of room for the brute to charge, which he does several times, now and then driving blindly into another bullock, but generally cracking his skull sharply on the great posts of the fence. Suddenly a portly, helmeted buyer, leaning over to get a better view, misses his centre of gravity and goes after it, the whole 16 st. plumping solidly into the slush of the yard below. The red bullock is at him instantly. The good horn takes Langley in the back of the trousers, and the drive rips him bare to the collar, leaving him unmarked, but prone, in a condition of unseemly nudity.
The beast backs away for another drive, shaking his head and uttering his low, tigerish bellow, the expression of all malevolence; but at the same moment a figure drops smartly from the platform, and a ragged, smudgy, red-headed small boy is riding astride the animal’s neck, diverting his attention by battering him over the eyes with an old felt hat. Dicky Haddon has performed this feat often for his own amusement, to the amazement of staid and matronly cows, but this is a beast of another colour, and the trick is done in response to an involuntary heroic impulse.
The bullock backs about the yard, tossing his head in an effort to be rid of his mysterious burden, and many hands clutch stout old Langley from the other pen, and tow him along through the mire to the gate, the bottom rail of which is high enough from the ground to enable them to pull him out of danger. Then he is borne away, unnerved and invertebrate. The boy seizes his opportunity, drops from the bullock and slips under the gate like a cat. Then he follows Langley, and stands in eager expectance whilst the damaged grazier is being bundled into his buggy. Really Langley suffers from nothing more serious than blue funk, but is oblivious of everything excepting a great craving for neat brandy, and is driven off without bestowing even a glance on his small preserver.
This base ingratitude inspires the youth with a loathing that can only be expressed in the choice idiom of the yards, and the disappointed hero, dancing in the road with his thumb to his nose, yells bitter and profane insults after Jabez Langley, moneyed man and M.L.A.
Sunday-School was “in” at Waddy. The classes were all in place, and of the teachers only Brother Spence was absent, strange to say. This was the first Sunday of the new superintendent’s term, always an evil time for grace, and a season of sulkiness, and bickering, and bad blood. Each beloved brother coveted the dignity of the office, and those who failed to get it were consumed with envy and all uncharitableness for many Sabbaths after. Some deserted the little wooden chapel on the hill till the natural emotions of prayerful men pent in their bosoms could no longer be borne, and then they stole back, one by one, and condoned in hurricanes of exhortation with rain and thunder.
Brother Nehemiah Best occupied the seat of office behind a deal table on the small platform, under faded floral decorations left since last anniversary. Rumour declared that Brother Best was unable to write his own name, and whispered that he spent laborious nights learning the hymns by heart before he could give them out on Sunday, as witness the fact that he “read” with equal facility whether the book was straight, or end-ways, or upside down. Brother Best was thin-voiced, weak in wind, and resourceless and unconvincing in prayer. No wonder Brother Spence was disgusted. Brother Spence could write his own name with scarcely more effort than it cost him to swing the trucks at the Phoenix; his voice raised in prayer set the loose shingles fairly dancing on the old roof; and his recitation of “The Drunkard’s Doom” had been the chief attraction on Band of Hope nights for years past. Ernest Spence had not hesitated to express himself freely at Friday evening’s meeting:
“Ay, they Brother Best, he no more fit for pourin’ out the spirit, you, than a blin’ kitten. Look at the chest of en!”
“True for en, Ernie!” cried Brother Tresize.
“They old devil, you, he laugh at Best’s prayin’, sureli. Brother Spence some tuss, you.”
But Brother Spence had left the meeting in a state of righteous indignation. Yet here were Brothers Tresize, and Tregaskis, and Prator, and Pearce, and Eddy. True, they all looked grim and unchastened, and there was an uneasy, shifty feeling in the chapel that inspired boys and girls, young men and young women, teachers and choir, with great expectations. Brother Best, in his favourite attitude, with one arm behind him under his coat tails, his right hand holding the book a yard from his eyes, his right foot thrust well out, the toe touching the floor daintily, made his first official announcement:
“We will open they service this mornin’ by singing hymn won, nought, won.”
Then, in a nasal sing-song, swinging with a long sweep from toe to heel and heel to toe, he gave out the first verse and the chorus, ending unctuously with a smack of the lips at the line:
Thou beautiful, beautiful Poley Star!
Nehemiah was a dairyman, and had a fixed conviction that the poley star and a poley cow had much in common.
The hymn being sung, the superintendent engaged in prayer, speaking weakly, with a wearisome repetition of stock phrases, eked out with laboured groans and random cries.
Brother Tresize could not disguise his cynical disgust, and remained mute. A prayer to be successful amongst the Wesleans of Waddy must make the hearers squirm and wriggle upon their knees, and cry aloud. Brothers and sisters were all happy when moved to wild sobbing, to the utterance of moans, and groans, and hysterical appeals to heaven, and when impelled to sustain a sonorous volley by the vigorous use of pocket handkerchiefs; but that was a spiritual treat that came only once in a while, with the visit of a specialist, or when the spirit moved Brother Spence or Brother Tresize to unusual fervor.
The superintendent’s prayer did not raise a single qualm; and the boys of Class II. straggled openly over the forms, pinched each other, and passed such rubbish as they could collect to Dicky Haddon, the pale, saintly, ginger-headed boy at the top of the class, who was in honour bound to drop everything so sent him in amongst the mysteries of the old, yellow, guttural harmonium, through a convenient crack in the back.
Throughout the service Brother Best, proud of his new office, watched the scholars diligently, visiting little boys and girls with sudden sharp raps or twitches of the ear if they dared even to sneeze, but judiciously overlooking much that was injurious and unbecoming in the bigger boys of Class II., who had a vicious habit of sullenly kicking elderly shins when cuffed or wigged for their misdeeds.
The Bible reading, with wonderful, original expositions of the obscure passages by horny-handed miners, occupied about half an hour, and then the superintendent stilled the racket and clatter of stowing away the tattered books with an authoritative hand, and invited Brother Tresize to pray. If he was great he could be merciful.
Brother Tresize made his preparations with great deliberation, spreading a handkerchief large enough for a bed-cover to save the knees of his sacred black-cloth trousers, hitching up the latter to prevent bagging, and finally loosening his paper collar from the button in front to give free vent to his emotions—and preserve the collar. Then, the rattling of feet, the pushing and shoving, the coughing and whispering and sniffing having subsided, and all being on their knees, Brother Tresize began his prayer in a soft, low, reverent voice that speedily rose to a reverberant roar.
“Oh, Gwad, ah! look down upon we here, ah; let the light of Thy countenance ahluminate, ah, this little corner of Thy vineyard, ah. Oh, Gwad, ah! be merciful to they sinners what be assembled here, ah; pour down Thy speerit upon they, ah, make they whole, ah. Oh, Gwad, ah! Thoo knowest they be some here, ah, that be wallerin’ in sin, ah, some that be hippycrits, ah, some that be cheats, ah, some that be scoffers, an’ misbelievers, an’ heathens, oh, Gwad, ah! Have mercy on they people, oh, Gwad, ah! Show they Thy fires, ah, an’ turn they from the wrath, oh, Loord Gwad, ah!”
Brother Tresize was evidently in fine form this morning; already the windows were vibrating before the concussions of his tremendous voice, and the floor bounded under the great blows that punctuated his sentences. As he went on, the air became electrical, and the spirit moved amongst the flock. The women felt it first.
“Oh, Gwad, ah!” interjected Mrs. Eddy from her corner.
“Throw up the windies, an’ let the speerit in!” sobbed Mrs. Eddy.
Brother Prator blew his nose with a loud report, a touching and helpful manifestation.
Brother Tresize prayed with every atom of energy he possessed. His opinion was on record:
“A good prayer Sunday mornin’, you, takes it out of en more’n a hard shift in a hot drive, you.”
When his proper momentum was attained he oscillated to and fro between the floor and the form, swaying back over his heels till his head almost touched the boards—a gymnastic feat that was the envy of all the brethren—he shook his clenched fist at the rafters and reached his highest note. The plunge forward was accompanied by falling tones, and ended with a blow on the form that made every article of furniture in the building jump. The perspiration ran in streams down his face and neck; dry sobs broke from his labouring chest; long strands of his moist, well-oiled, red hair separated themselves from the flattened mass and stood out like feelers, to the wild, ungodly delight of Class II.; and whilst he prayed the brethren and “sistern” kept up a continuous fire of interjections and heartrending groans.
“They be people here, ah! what is careless of Thy grace; chasten ’em with fire an’ brimstone—chasten ’em, oh, Lord, ah! They be those of uz what go to be Thy servants, oh, Gwad, ah! an’ to do Thy work here below, ah, what is tried an’ found wantin’, ah—some do water they milk, oh, Gwad, ah! an’ some do be misleadin’ they neighbors’ hens to lay away. Smite they people for Thy glory, oh, Loord, ah!”
A great moaning filled the chapel, and all heads turned towards Brother Nehemiah Best, kneeling at his chair, with his face buried in his hands, trembling violently. Nehemiah, two years earlier, had been fined for watering the milk sold to his town customers; quite recently he had been thrown into the Phoenix slurry by an unregenerate trucker, who accused him of beguiling his hens to lay from home. Brother Tresize was wrestling with the superintendent in prayer, and the excitement rose instantly to fever heat.
“They what do not as they wad be done by, pursue ’em, ah; smite they with Thy right hand, oh, Lord Gwad, ah! so they may be turned from they wickedness, ah. They what have better food to they table for theyselves than for they children or they wives, ah, they what be filled with vanity, ah, they what havin’ no book-learnin’ do deceive Thy people, an’ fill the seats o’ the learned, ah, deal with such, oh, Gwad, ah!”
Brother Tresize was now almost frantic with the ecstasy of his zeal. His exhortation was continued in this strain, and every word was a lance to prick the cowering superintendent. The women sniffed and sobbed, the men groaned and cried “Ahmen, ah!” It was a great time for grace.
But suddenly a new voice broke in—a shrill, thin voice, splitting into that of Brother Tresize like a steam-whistle. Brother Best had assumed the defensive.
“Oh, Lord, ah!” he cried, “give no ear to they what bears false witness against they neighbors, to they what backbite, ah, an’ slander, ah, an’ bear malice, ah; heed they not, oh, Lord, ah!”
Abel Tresize rose to the occasion. It was a battle. His voice swelled till it rivalled the roar of the ravening lion; he no longer selected his words or cared to make himself understood of the people; it was necessary only to smother Brother Best, to pray him down, and Abel prayed as no man had ever prayed before at Waddy. A curious crowd—the Irish children, Dan the Drover, an old shepherd, and a few cattlemen from the Red Cow—attracted by the great commotion, had assembled in the porch, and were gazing in open-mouthed, delighted.
Tresize persevered, but Best’s shrill, penetrating voice rang out distinctly above all. Brother Best was transformed, inspired; under the influence of his great wrath he had waxed eloquent; he smote his enemy hip and thigh, he heaped coals of fire upon his head, and marshalled St. Peter and all the angels against him.
The severity of his exertions was telling heavily upon Abel Tresize; he was dreadfully hoarse, his great hands fell upon the form without emphasis, he was almost winded, and his legs wobbled under him. He pulled himself together for another effort, and the cry that he uttered thrilled every heart, but it quite exhausted him, and he went over backwards, striking his head upon the floor, and lay in the aisle convulsed in a fit.
Instantly the chapel became a babel. The teachers ran to Brother Tresize, and bore him into the open air, the wondering children crowding after, and left the new superintendent sobbing on his table like a broken-hearted boy.
“I had a divil of a drame last night,” said Bart O’Brien, as he crowded his usual two-pound “plaster” of cold fried bacon and bread into his crib-bag.
“‘Drame,’ d’ye call it?” muttered Brown from his bunk. “I thouoht you had the buckin’ fantods; you howled like a madman.”
“Be Hiven, I don’t wonder thin. I thought I was pumpin’ away in the place below there, whin thim two sets at the bottom av the incline came away, an’ I saw Lane crushed under thim. His dead face was starin’ out av the heap at me, all battered an’ bloody, an’ ghost-like in the candle-light. Faith, an’ I ain’t much amused wid these lone shifts!”
The boys grinned at O’Brien’s fears, but Gleeson muttered something about the manager being “d—d well hanged” for not giving an eye to that timber, and Gleeson was considered an authority.
Bartholomew O’Brien was a Bungaree native. In Bungaree the natives are more Milesian than the Irish. Bart had for Father Cassidy a great, childlike veneration that the ribald stories told of His Reverence by Bart’s sceptical hut-mates could not shake; and his belief in the wonders and mysteries of his religion and the folklore of his mother’s country was profound. Bartholomew had also ruddy cheeks, and an unreliable heart.
It was Sunday evening at Waddy, hot and thirst-provoking. His mates were lounging about in their trousers on the tumbled bunks, but O’Brien was due on the plat at nine o’clock, and was dressed in his working clothes. He was a trucker at the Hand-in-Hand, and it was his turn to go below into the mine and pump the water over the incline at the head of the main drive on the lower level. Every Sunday night, after the long shift off, this work had to be done by one of the truckers, so that the face might be dry for the first night-shift, coming on at one a.m. None of the boys liked the job—O’Brien hated it. In the presence of a tangible danger he was as game a fellow as any in the district, but his superstition—an ineradicable inheritance intensified by early influences that bring the emotional side of the unlettered believer to an unhealthy development, and leave to the man the reasoning faculties of the child—made him little more than an irresponsible idiot when his imagination ran riot amongst the spooks and wraiths. He had an extraordinary stock of mottoes, religious and legendary, for warding off the spirits, and possessed all the portable charms obtainable; but his faith was not as powerful as his fears, and, in spite of these spiritual arms and armour, he dreaded to be alone in the murderous old mine with the ghosts of its many dead.
On going to the bottom level that night, and threading the course of the long, tortuous main drive, the trucker found the water below the incline higher than usual. The heavy iron pump stood over a slab-covered well in a small chamber about ten feet by six, dug in the side of the drive. It was worked with a back-racking up-and-down stroke, and lifted the water into pipes, which carried it to the higher ground, whence it drained to the shaft. The face was quite a thousand yards from the plat; and the sound from the air-pipe, like the laborious breathing of some gigantic animal afar off, offered no relief from the oppressive stillness and the deathly atmosphere of the drive.
It is a trying thing to a man afflicted with the accumulated superstitions of a hundred generations to be left alone for any time in the deep, extensive workings of an old mine, every drive, and winze, and shoot in which has its tale of blood and suffering. Bart O’Brien stuck his candle to the side of the chamber, and paused to listen. The terror was already strong upon him: his mouth was dry, and his heart beat like a plunger, catching his breath at every pulsation. The chamber was deep enough down and hot enough to suggest its proximity to the flaming home of all the damned devils in whose existence Bartholomew implicitly believed. He had done solitary duty several times at the pump, but never before had his horror of it been so great as to-night. His dream recurred to him, and he glanced uneasily towards the suspicious sets. He was a believer in the portents of dreams—he expected something to come of this one.
Catching at the long handle, Bart began to pump, almost in desperation. Up and down, up and down—there was relief in action, and he worked fiercely. The pump had been oiled recently, and ran smoothly and noiselessly. This irritated him—he wanted hard work, something material to fight with. And then the “click, clack,” would have gone well to the rhythm of an ancient Irish rhyme which his old mother held to be infallible in keeping the elves from cows, and which he was wont to mutter all the time when beset by supernatural enemies.
So hard was the mental battle O’Brien was fighting that bodily pain or weariness never obtruded. With bent head and tightly-closed eyes he toiled at the big pump, whilst the perspiration streamed from him and ran through the folds of his scant clothing. Sometimes the face of Geordie Lane, corpse-white and bloodstained, as he had seen it in his dream, thrust itself upon him; then his brows met in cords, his hands gripped the iron with a force that split his callous fingers, the handle took a quicker, longer sweep, and the water boiled and foamed into the wooden gutter in the drive.
Bart worked in this manner till about half-past eleven; then he was startled by a gurgling, choking sound in the well beneath his feet, and fell back into one corner of the chamber with an exclamation, his eyes staring, full of fear.
The pump was drawing air! He had done four hours’ hard work in little over half the time. The drive was dry.
The young man’s left arm was rubbed raw from the elbow to the wrist, and his indurated hands were bleeding profusely from several deep cracks. Bart gazed at the blood stupidly, and presently found himself listening again—listening in the profound silence, out of which he heard at length the distinct patter of footsteps. Small flakes of clay were falling from the roof of the drive on to the muddy floor, but what little reasoning power Bart had was lost by this time in a passion of superstitious fear. He clutched the pump-handle once more, but it rose and fell loosely, with a clatter, and drew no water.
With nothing for his hands to do, O’Brien was no longer able to control his thoughts; they ran over the history of the mine—its list of killed. He recalled the story of Martin’s ghost haunting the old balance-shaft, whilst the spirit of his wife, who died of grief, sought for him after every shift in the next level. He remembered with startling vividness Rooke, the braceman, as he looked spread upon the plat-sheets after falling down five hundred feet of shaft—battered into a horrible mass, out of which the face stood forth, ghastly white, and unmarked, though the brain was laid bare as cleanly as by surgeon’s saw. Then passed before his eyes in grisly procession, showing their fearful wounds—Bill the trucker, killed at No. 5 by a fall; Carter, brained in the shaft; Praer and Hopkins, smashed in the runaway cage; Moore and German Harry, blown up in the well when sinking; and Lane, pinched under the shattered timber right before his eyes there in the drive.
O’Brien was crouching in the corner. No longer understanding that it was only in a dream he had seen Lane killed, he expected a ghost to start up before his eyes—a ghost with mangled limbs and a pale, blood-stained face. He remained thus for some time, fighting the dread as it grew upon him. At length he started up, and his fear found vent in a yell that echoed shrilly through the workings. He meant to rush into the drive and make his way to the shaft, but struck his head against the pump-handle at the first stride, and was hurled back into the water, which had risen again to the height of several inches.
The blow and the drenching steadied Bart a little, and he started pumping once more, with nervous energy. Whilst he worked, the candle fell from the wall and hissed out in the wet clay. He had no matches. In a few minutes the pump was drawing wind again, and now O’Brien’s greatest trial began.
The darkness was solid, substantial—the young man felt it weighing upon him with a pressure as of deep water, and his sense of solitude and awe was such as might be known by the last, lone man in a waste, sunless world. At times he crushed his ears with his hands to shut out the dreadful silence, and then he heard the passing of spirit feet, the muffled beat of wings, sobbing sounds, and long moans dying away beyond the distant curves. His treacherous eyes saw fleeting forms and tense, inhuman faces traced in faint, phosphorescent lines on the dense, black wall that stood up before him. His agonized fears had now obtained complete mastery of him, his mind ran in a frenzy from horror to horror, and an intolerable dread filled his soul with hellish expectations.
He stood transfixed at the back of the chamber, his arms outspread, his fingers dug knuckle-deep in the sodden reef. His eyes stared as in death, and his mouth was open wide, the fallen lower jaw jerking spasmodically. His greatest terror was of the thing he had seen at the chamber-door—the corpse-face under the splintered timbers. He saw it now, white as quartz, with clots of blood hiding the eyes; he felt its presence—it mouthed at him—threatened him.
Out of the darkness and the silence of death came a faint rumbling sound, like far-off thunder. It swelled and drew nearer. It roared in the drive, and from the inky blackness, in a pale yellow light, Lane rose up with a bloody face, and caught at O’Brien.
A minute or two later the men of the night-shift were shocked to meet Lane rushing back from the face like a maniac, with a dead man in his truck.
* * * * * * *
“Thoo’s got a bad cut i’ tha head thasel,’ lad,” said the boss of the shift to Lane, half an hour later.
“Yes,” he answered, “I slipped into that crab-hole at the second curve going up, and knocked my forehead on the truck.”
A change had come over the spirit of Grasstree; there was a false note in the gaiety of the men up from Ramrod Flat, and the young fellows in the pastoral interest around on the Black Cockatoo, when they foregathered in Cleever’s bar, discovered an un-accustomed awkwardness and restraint in their attitudes towards each other. With miners and bushmen alike confidence had given place to suspicion, and good-fellowship to an all-round surliness.
For a time the men could not account even to themselves for this strange alteration; an attempt was made to make the climate responsible, and a few insisted that it was something in the drink, but certainly all had become “sudden and quick in quarrel”—hats went down and hands went up on the slightest provocation. Men whose ordinary work-a-day friendship had previously heightened to brotherly love under the warming influence of alcohol now became profane and bitter in drink, and short arguments terminated with a rush and a collision in the bar. Little differences that might previously have been settled by mutual concessions were now nursed and coddled till they grew into hot enmities, and even Foster and Brierly, once the best of mates, were camping apart and each working a lone hand at Goat Creek.
Eventually Hefty Maconochie was generally recognized as the disturbing element at the Grasstree, but, by tacit agreement, that fact was not publicly admitted. Possibly a delicate and chivalrous consideration for “Miss Mack’s” sensibilities inspired this polite reticence, but perhaps it chiefly arose from the shamefacedness of her worshippers. The man out-back, secretive in most things personal, will admit any weakness or wickedness ere confessing to the pangs of unrequited passion. Hence when Hetty was particularly affable to Stacey on Monday evening in the bar, and allowed Riverton to monopolize her smiles on Tuesday evening, Riverton and Stacey fought a desperate and bloody battle on the Wednesday afternoon to decide the ownership of a one-eyed dog which was the local head depot for fleas, and which really belonged to a third man, who, being public-spirited, waived his claim rather than spoil sport. Riverton won the dog.
Of course Miss Maconochie was quite conscious that she had introduced a new element into the relationship of things at the Grasstree, but, although exultant in the knowledge that the men were contending with animal ferocity for her favour, she appeared always quite oblivious, and was genial or distant with the discrimination of a conscientious barmaid.
Miss Mack had been sent to the Travellers’ Rest from a Melbourne labour office in response to Cleever’s order, which specified “a strapping girl, not more than 26, to work and assist in bar.” Hetty was “strapping,” and certainly not more than 26; five feet seven, straight as a lath, strong, ruddy-cheeked, and possessing a marvellous efflorescence of glorious red hair as fine as spun silk, coruscant, throwing little subtle tendrils down about her ears, her temples, and her long white neck. There are many female Samsons. But Hetty’s power was not wholly in her hair; her strength was peculiarly attractive to the men; her every action suggested strength—strength underlying a womanly softness and roundness. She often served in the bar on warm evenings with her sleeves rolled well above her shapely elbows, and then Cleever’s patrons felt it was worth the price of the drink to see “Mack” reach up for the bottle. She draped lightly for comfort, and blushed to find it fame. The average woman who puts on much to make herself attractive does not realize that half the art is in taking off. Hetty was innocent of coquetry when she divested herself of superfluous drapery, but she could not remain long ignorant of the advantages she enjoyed from her emancipation. Then her laugh helped to ensure success—it was a generous laugh, full of suggestive music, and discovered new attractions in her large, handsome mouth. Such a laugh is honeyed flattery for the man who provokes it, and, as Hetty was proud of her fine white teeth, no man’s joke was altogether a failure in Cleever’s bar.
There were other young women in and about the Grasstree—two or three in the township, and settlers’ and farmers’ daughters judiciously distributed over the district; but, although these had been courted, it was in a temperate and bloodless manner. These girls were not slow in concluding that Miss Maconochie was a person of extraordinary deceit and peculiar morals. But Hetty was by no means a designing woman. Saving a year spent in domestic service in an extremely Methodist household in Melbourne, her knowledge of men and manners had been gathered in the bush township where she was born and bred. Her morals were particularly healthy; it was soon understood by Cleever’s customers that “Mack” knew how to take care of herself—an understanding that detracted not from the zest of the pursuit.
After the morbid propriety of that Methodist household, Hetty revelled in the unrestraint and comparative brilliancy of life at the Travellers’ Rest. Cleever was a widower, and not at all exacting, and in the bar of evenings the girl received at least a specious show of respect sufficiently gratifying to a young woman of her intellectual limitations.
The first battle fell about between Stacey and one of the Devoys. Both had been dangling over the bar, chatting and larking with Hetty for an hour or so, when Stacey’s glass was upset in a bit of horse-play, and Stacey, receiving its contents over his shirt-front, became a butt and an object of derision to all in the bar. “Mack” laughed aloud, and flashed her white teeth in the lamp-light, and Devoy laughed too, and Stacey’s blood grew hot, and he longed for slaughter. His opportunity came when the girl left the bar a minute later. He confronted Devoy:
“Damn you, Devoy, you did that on purpose!”
It was entirely an accident, but neither was in any humour for explanations. Devoy felt it was beneath him to excuse or parley; he blurted much defiant profanity.
“What if I did! Why don’t you drink up your liquor like a man!”
He was cut short by a swinging, open-hand blow. Then thud, thud, thud, thud—four quick blows, two and two, with a sound as of a teamster banging the ribs of his bogged horses with a shovel—and Stacey and Devoy were fighting with the ferocity of tigers at mating-time.
Hetty returned to the bar to see the first blow struck, and now, leaning over the counter, with sparkling eyes, glowing cheeks, and heaving breast she watched the fight. There was none of the impassivity of the lolling tigress in her attitude: she burned with excitement; she clenched her own hands, and bruised her knuckles on the boards; she followed each swift, cutting blow, and uttered inarticulate cries of wonder.
The men fought without science, fought with the brutality of powerful men, wounding with every blow, but feeling nothing in their heat and fury. A ring of onlookers circled round them, and outside this ring danced Cleever—“Fighting” Cleever—with his “peacemaker,” a wicked-looking “waddy,” eager to get in a blow and stun one of the combatants, for the peace of Devil’s End and the credit of the house.
The fight was not settled in Cleever’s bar. Two or three rounds served to exhaust the blind fury of the combatants, and then mutual friends interceded, and a formal meeting was arranged for next day. A two hours’ struggle in Haddon’s grass paddock on the following afternoon ended in the defeat of Stacey, and that night Devoy appeared before Hetty Maconochie, bruised, bandaged, and badly hacked about, but big with victory. The fight was not discussed, but the girl quite understood, and the conquering hero rejoiced in her luminous smile, and was sullenly given the pride of place by his companions, who tacitly admitted this right to the victor for the time being.
After that fistic battles were daily occurrences at Devil’s End. Callaghan, the solitary constable of the district, made a gallant attempt to cope with the press of business, but after an exhausting week yielded to public opinion and was officially blind and deaf when the battle-cries were heard at the Travellers’ Rest. Presently every second man in the district possessed black eyes, split lips, or a swollen ear, or all these things, and the local chemist did a roaring trade in court-plaster and Friar’s balsam. The men fought on the slightest provocation, or with no obvious provocation at all; arguments on religion or politics invariably ended in bloodshed; mates in the drives below disagreed as to the proper locality for a “shot,” and came blaspheming up the shafts to “settle it” in a “mill;” the boys at “Old Burgoo’s” fought viciously to maintain their superiority as horsemen and shearers, and always the victorious pugilist turned up at Cleever’s, in all the glory of his wounds and bruises, to invite the admiration of the creamy-skinned goddess with the brown eyes.
Grasstree had discovered Hetty Maconochie. Previously she had received a reasonable amount of attention from the men with whom she was thrown in contact, but Grasstree had made her a sensation—a craze. She gloried and revelled in her success, and the sense of pride and power it gave her. Thinking over it through the day, she laughed with rapturous delight, and felt like a queen amongst her pans. Cleever did well these times: there were no tee-totallers left in and about Grasstree, and the Travellers’ Rest had absorbed all the business of the district. Being in love with Hetty himself, Cleever made an effort to dispense with her help in the bar, and excited an instantaneous revolt.
“Fetch out the girl,” was the general demand. “You don’t think we’ve travelled down here to be served by a splay-mouthed Dutchman!”
Cleever was a Swede; but Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Belgians, Germans, Austrians, and men of Holland are all Dutchmen out-back. Other foreigners are invariably Frenchmen. If Hetty was not produced on demand there was no more drinking, but much disorder and many accidents, and the proprietor was always compelled to yield. Cleever fought with the rest. He fought without science or discrimination, and nobody took any satisfaction from an encounter with the “Dutchman.” He never knew when he was beaten, and had a ridiculous and disconcerting way of resuming the battle, without word or warning, a day, a week, or a month after being egregiously whipped. Being a foreigner, he did not allow any absurd sentiment to interfere with his manner of fighting, and repudiated British prejudices and British reverence for rule and precedent, and fought with all his weapons—fists, nails, teeth, and feet. There was no credit in beating Cleever; he couldn’t fight, but he was always willing to try, and, although he was considered wildly humorous in his tantrums, his opponents rarely escaped an injury of some kind or another before the battle was ended.
After much indiscriminate fighting, in the course of a couple of months it was understood and admitted without argument that the final must be contested by Riverton and Devoy. Both were unbeaten, and each would have done battle with a raging lion for the love of Hetty Maconochie. Cleever alone, of all the whipped candidates, refused to abandon his hopes of winning his handsome Hebe, and was quite willing to “take on” the two last aspirants one after the other or both together. The other men of Grasstree, and Ramrod Flat, and Grecian Bend admitted themselves “out of it,” and it was quite understood that the winner of the Riverton-Devoy contest had only to step up and take possession of the prize. This view had never been questioned; Hetty’s keen interest in the many battles, and her evident delight in the knowledge that she was the prize in the greatest competition that had ever shaken an Australian bush township out of its habitual quietude and lethargy, were taken as indicating her acquiescence. Certainly both Devoy and Riverton took it for granted that the best man of the two was destined to marry the belle of Grasstree.
The great fight came off on a beautiful pitch under Grecian Bend on a Tuesday morning, and half the male population of the district was there to see. Devoy and Riverton fought because the latter had ventured before witnesses to assert his disbelief in the story of Devoy’s great shooting exploit—a wonderful narrative, never before questioned at Grasstree. The fight was long and stubborn. Both men were young, strong, hardened with toil, active, game as peccaries, six-foot and a bit, and fighting for an issue that seemed dear as dear life.
They fought bare-knuckled and stripped to the buff. There was no sparring and no vain display; every blow cut or bruised; and during the first half-dozen rounds the great toughened, knubbly fists were going like sledge-hammers about a busy forge. After that it was a brutal exhibition of butchery and endurance. Blood ran freely, dyeing the combatants and darkening the grass. The faces of the fighters became unrecognizable, and after the 13th round neither could see. By this time half the spectators had sickened and turned away, and awaited the end at a distance. Devoy was knocked clean out in the 19th round, and then Riverton was carried away across three saplings, a bruised and battered champion, limp as a wet shirt, but triumphant, and feeling drunk—happily, jubilantly drunk.
Riverton would have much liked to drag himself to the Travellers’ Rest that night, but it was impossible.
He was helpless next night, and on the following morning his bunk still held him captive. But on Friday night, with the assistance of his mate, he conveyed his battered carcass into Cleever’s bar. A woeful spectacle was the champion of Grasstree, but his wounds were glorious. About a dozen men sat in the bar. Cleever was in attendance. The hero called for drinks all round.
“Where’s Mack?” he asked authoritatively.
The publican had evaded this query from others for two days in order to produce a good effect when the champion appeared to claim her. He lingered over the answer now as he served the drinks.
“She haf went by dot city for der honeymoons,” he said composedly.
“Wha-at!” Riverton sprawled upon the counter, and his bruised face went livid.
“Vile you vos fight mit Devoy, she haf ride away in der coach to marry anodder feller.”
“Marry! marry! Who—who is he?”
“Haynes!” Riverton stood upright, looking around upon his companions, but saw only blank faces.
Tommy Haynes was the successful storekeeper of Grasstree, a small boyish man of 24, slight and fair, with curls and a complexion. He would easily have stood upright under Hetty’s extended arm. Whilst others fought and suffered Haynes courted—courted pluckily, with kisses and caresses and pretty presents—courted and conquered. “Haynes!” repeated Riverton, with a lingering, bitter imprecation, “that—that worm. By the Lord! when they come back I’ll put him over my knee and spank him before her face.”
But they were two months coming, and long before their return Riverton had thought better of it.
Ned “picked up” his wife in Sydney. He had come down for a spell in town, and to relieve himself of the distress of riches—to melt the cheque accumulated slowly in toil and loneliness on a big station in the North. He was a stockrider, a slow, still man naturally, but easily moved by drink. When he first reached town he seemed to have with him some of the atmosphere of silence and desolation that surrounded him during the long months back there on the run. Ned was about thirty-four, and looked forty. He was tall and raw-boned, and that air of settled melancholy, which is the certain result of a solitary bush life, suggested some romantic sorrow to Mrs. Black’s sentimental daughter.
Darton, taught wisdom by experience, had on this occasion taken lodgings in a suburban private house. Mrs. Black’s home was very small, but her daughter was her only child, and they found room for a “gentleman boarder.”
Janet Black was a pleasant-faced, happy-hearted girl of twenty. She liked the new boarder from the start, she acknowledged to herself afterwards, but when by some fortunate chance he happened to be on hand to drag a half-blind and half-witted old woman from beneath the very hoofs of a runaway horse, somewhat at the risk of his own neck, she was enraptured, and in the enthusiasm of the moment she kissed the hand of the abashed hero, and left a tear glittering on the hard brown knuckles.
This was a week after Ned Darton’s arrival in Sydney.
Ned went straight to his room and sat perfectly still, and with even more than his usual gravity watched the tear fade away from the back of his hand. Either Janet’s little demonstration of artless feeling had awakened suggestions of some glorious possibility in Ned’s heart, or he desired to exercise economy for a change; he suddenly became very judicious in the selection of his drinks, and only took enough whisky to dispel his native moodiness and taciturnity and make him rather a pleasant acquisition to Mrs. Black’s limited family circle.
When Ned Darton returned to his pastoral duties in the murmuring wilds, he took Janet Black with him as his wife. That was their honeymoon.
Darton did not pause to consider the possible results of the change he was introducing into the life of his bride—few men would. Janet was vivacious, and her heart yearned towards humanity. She was bright, cheerful, and impressionable. The bush is sad, heavy, despairing; delightful for a month, perhaps, but terrible for a year.
As she travelled towards her new home the young wife was effervescent with joy, aglow with health, childishly jubilant over numberless plans and projects; she returned to Sydney before the expiration of a year, a stranger to her mother in appearance and in spirit. She seemed taller now, her cheeks were thin, and her face had a new expression. She brought with her some of the brooding desolation of the bush—even in the turmoil of the city she seemed lost in the immensity of the wilderness. She answered her mother’s every question without a smile. She had nothing to complain of: Ned was a very good husband and very kind. She found the bush lonesome at first, but soon got used to it, and she didn’t mind now. She was quite sure she was used to it, and she never objected to returning.
A baby was born, and Mrs. Darton went back with her husband to their hut by the creek on the great run, to the companionship of bears, birds, ’possums, kangaroos, and the eternal trees. She hugged her baby on her breast, and rejoiced that the little mite would give her something more to do and something to think of that would keep the awful ring of the myriad locusts out of her ears.
Man and wife settled down to their choking existence again as before, without comment. Ned was used to the bush—he had lived in it all his life—and though its influence was powerful upon him he knew it not. He was necessarily away from home a good deal, and when at home he was not companionable, in the sense that city dwellers know. Two bushmen will sit together by the fire for hours, smoking and mute, enjoying each other’s society; “in mute discourse” two bushmen will ride for twenty miles through the most desolate or the most fruitful region. People who have lived in crowds want talk, laughter, and song. Ned loved his wife, but he neither talked, laughed, nor sang.
Summer came. The babe at Mrs. Darton’s breast looked out on the world of trees with wide, unblinking, solemn eyes, and never smiled.
“Ned,” said Janet, one bright, moonlight night, “do you know that that ’possum in the big blue gum is crazy? She has two joeys, and she has gone mad.”
Janet spent a lot of her time sitting in the shade of the hut on a candle-box, gazing into her baby’s large, still eyes, listening to the noises of the bush, and the babe too seemed to listen, and the mother fancied that their senses blended, and they both would some day hear something awful above the crooning of the insects and the chattering of the parrots. Sometimes she would start out of these humours with a shriek, feeling that the relentless trees which had been bending over and pressing down so long were crushing her at last beneath their weight.
Presently she became satisfied that the laughing jackasses were mad. She had long suspected it. Why else should they flock together in the dim evening and fill the bush with their crazy laughter? Why else should they sit so grave and still at other times, thinking and grieving?
Yes, she was soon quite convinced that the animals and birds, even the insects that surrounded her, were mad, hopelessly mad, all of them. The country was now burnt brown, and the hills ached in the great heat, and the ghostly mirage floated in the hollows. In the day-time the birds and beasts merely chummered and muttered querulously from the deepest shades, but in the dusk of evening they raved and shrieked, and filled the ominous bush with mad laughter and fantastic wailings.
It was at this time that Darton became impressed by the peculiar manner of his wife, and a great awe stole over him as he watched her gazing into her baby’s eyes with that strange look of frightened conjecture. He suddenly became very communicative; he talked a lot, and laughed, and strove to be merry, with an indefinable chill at his heart. He failed to interest his wife; she was absorbed in a terrible thought. The bush was peopled with mad things—the wide wilderness of trees, and the dull, dead grass, and the cowering hills instilled into every living thing that came under the influence of their ineffable gloom a madness of melancholy. The bears were mad, the ’possums, the shrieking cockatoos, the dull grey laughing jackasses with their devilish cackling, and the ugly yellow-throated lizards that panted at her from the rocks—all were mad. How, then, could her babe hope to escape the influence of the mighty bush and the great white plains beyond, with their heavy atmosphere of despair pressing down upon his defenceless head? Would he not presently escape from her arms, and turn and hiss at her from the grass like a vicious snake; or climb the trees, and, like a bear, cling in day-long torpor from a limb; or, worst of all, join the grey birds on the big dead gum, and mock at her sorrow with empty, joyless laughter?
These were the fears that oppressed Janet as she watched her sad, silent baby at her breast. They grew upon her and strengthened day by day, and one afternoon they became an agonizing conviction. She had been alone with the dumb child for two days, and she sat beside the hut door and watched the evening shadows thicken, with a shadow in her eyes that was more terrible than blackest night, and when a solitary mopoke began calling from the Bald Hill, and the jackasses set up a weird chorus of laughter, she rose, and clasping her baby tighter to her breast, and leaning over it to shield it from the surrounding evils, she hurried towards the creek.
Janet was not in the hut when Ned returned home half an hour later. Attracted by the howling of his dog, he hastened to the waterhole under the great rock, and there in the shallow water he found the bodies of his wife and child and the dull grey birds were laughing insanely overhead.
The creek was hacked and mangled out of all semblance to a sylvan rivulet.
The ruin effected looked like the work of many men. The muddy, yellow stream had been diverted from its course several times within half a mile, and all along the banks were torn down, great cuttings made, piles of gravel heaped up, dams built, and races dug. But the ravisher was there—a lone man, gouging his way into a bank at the head of the flat where it met the hill, looking a mere midge amongst the destruction he had wrought with his two good hands.
“Humpy” Bannon was puny and weazened and old; he had a hump between his shoulders, and no intelligence to speak of, but he had the spirit of a little red ant, magnified to suit his size. He loved labour, and he had chosen Grim Creek as his vineyard. From a miner’s point of view Bannon was the discoverer of Grim Creek. He it was who prospected it and found gold in it, and he was exceedingly proud of his field, although it was a starvation hole at the best, and rewarded him for his tremendous labours—digging, shovelling, puddling, cradling, wading in water, and grubbing in sludge—with a few wretched pennyweights where ounces would have been poor pay. But Humpy never thought of leaving. Wet days and fine found him, smeared with clays of many colours, struggling in a wet shaft or delving at the banks, full of enthusiasm, without resource, without horse sense, but all grit.
“Leave the creek?” he would say in answer to the advice of casual visitors. “Why, where’d I go ter?”
“Well, there’s some good gold gettin’ at Black Cap, an’ I hear about somethin’ worth prospectin’ ten miles out by Double-U Hill.”
“No fear! you don’t catch me leavin’ the creek. Why, some o’ them minin’ sharks from the city would be down here an’ jump the claim afore I’d bin gone a week.”
“Jump this show, Humpy! Why, there is not gold enough in a mile of it to buy a peanut.”
Bannon couldn’t restrain his temper when the creek—his creek—was disparaged, and at this point always became incoherent between extravagant predictions as to the fabulous richness of the wash he was going to cut presently and insulting reflections upon the intelligence of the maligner, and he would fall to working again more fiercely than ever, jigging his old head the while, and chummering bitterly.
How he did graft! Little, and skinny, and aged, and ill-fed as he was, he cheerfully faced mountains of labour, and wore them down by sheer pertinacity—shifted them by faith and works. What wonders of toil can one determined man perform in a year! To know you must see the man struggling amongst the evidences of it, with the work of his hands piled up about him, and the man’s sole master must be a belief, sane or otherwise.
Humpy’s faith in Grim Creek was transcendent. That the creek gave him no justification mattered not a scrap. He lived in a little bark hut, comfortless as a mia-mia, on nothing in particular; he dressed at work in a worn shirt, patched extravagantly, and deplorable trousers and boots, and he wound lengths of sugee about his shins. His hat, a battered boxer, a gift from a sympathetic selector, had a big hole fore and aft—driven to extremes, he had once run a handle through it, and used it for a ladle when cradling—and the whole costume was cemented and frescoed with the grit and clay of the unspeakable creek.
The old man never had a mate—he never wanted one. He designed all sorts of hare-brained, unworkable contrivances in the shape of dumb-waiters, and cranks, and feed-pipes, and sluices, to overcome the difficulties that hamper a lone hand, but through disappointments and dangers and endless tribulation he struggled on, and turned up regularly every Saturday afternoon at the log store on the Piper road with his pathetic little packet of gold and his long familiar story of the good day that was coming for Grim Creek and the surrounding district when he finally “got on to it.”
A few of the farmers and selectors in the district, thinking that possibly, by reason of an unlooked-for contingency, Humpy might some day “get on to it” and boom the place a bit, helped with gifts of food and old clothes that to him were as good as new. One or two, from pure wooden-headed good nature, visited him at times, especially on Sundays, and sat with him in the sun or in his smoky hut, and let him talk to them by the hour about his creek. Next to grafting in the creek like a tiger, nothing pleased Humpy better than to prattle about his work, and invent, and lie, and rhapsodize to a sympathetic audience.
Tom Hughes was the old digger’s best friend. He had secured a selection in the locality of Grim Creek within the last six months, built a hut upon it, and settled down to take life as easily as a selector can who observes the covenants. Hughes was a hatter—a big, hairy man, physically slow, mentally alert, with a golden faculty of extracting amusement out of anything and everything, from the capers of his waddling terrier pup or the solicitude of a motherly hen to the foibles of his fellows. Hughes enjoyed Humpy Bannon enormously. He cultivated him. He would sit and study him by the hour, ponderous and apparently as grave as a fat frog between meals, but with a soul full of laughter. Humpy reminded him of an ant that he had once seen attempt to shift Mount Macedon. The ant thought the mount obstructed its view, or felt that it had a call; anyhow, Tom kept track of the insect for a week and neglected his duties to watch progress, and when he left the ant was still going strongly. Now, here was this other midge ripping up the face of nature and tearing at the bowels of the earth after something he didn’t really want and wouldn’t know how to appreciate. Wifeless, childless, without a taste superior to mutton and bread or an aspiration above the puddling tub, and with very few years of life before him, he worked from daylight to dusk, moving mountains, and grew radiant describing the treasure he must win some day. Yet ten shillings a week would have satisfied his needs, twelve would have embarrassed him with riches.
Walking along the creek one day Hughes came upon the old man clambering out of a prospecting hole on a rise. He was dripping wet, and coated with mud; clay was in his hair and his ears, and the dirty water ran from him as he stood. Humpy was too busy for conversation; he seized the windlass handle and began hauling with terrific energy. There were two buckets on the rope—one a kerosene tin, the other an ordinary water bucket. Humpy landed and emptied these, and then, lowering the rope into the shaft again, began to fish about. Presently he hooked another bucket and brought it to the surface. After fishing once more he landed a nail keg. Then he proceeded to let himself down again, sliding on the rope.
“What’s the little game, old man?” asked Hughes as the dripping head disappeared.
“After a bit o’ wash here. Tremenjis rich, I think,” answered Bannon up the shaft.
“But it’s too wet; you’ll never be able to bottom, workin’ her alone.”
“Bet I will, though!”
Further comment was deferred by the pit-pit of the old man’s pick in the wet hole. Tom Hughes hooked the nail keg, and put in an hour or so at the windlass, and was rewarded later with Humpy’s confidence. As usual, the little man was on the eve of a discovery that was going to revolutionize the district, and bring a big town humming about their ears on Grim Creek in less than no time. Hughes was a better miner than old Bannon, and thought the latter was fighting after a vain thing, but he offered no advice, understanding that it would be wasted, and remembering that it was Humpy’s policy to go and find out for himself at whatever cost of sweat and patience.
Humpy did bottom that hole, and scraped up a prospect that promised about ten “weights ” to the load to a sanguine man, but the water was up within three feet of the surface next morning, and eight hours’ vigorous baling had no appreciable effect. The claim could not be worked without a diving-suit and apparatus.
So Humpy went apart and thought. He wasted little time in speculation, and presently took a bee-line from his shaft to the foot of the rise, 250 yards off, and commenced an open cutting. His idea was to carry this narrow cutting into the hill on a level as long as he could throw the dirt, and then, when the sides became too high, to tunnel to the shaft, and so drain the ground he wished to work. This represented about a year’s labour to an average man working decent hours and in moderation. It was an utterly fatuous and foolhardy undertaking; as far as it was possible to judge, the ground would not pay for the working, let alone compensate for this gigantic “dead horse;” but Bannon did not calculate—he worked. On the occasion of Hughes’s next visit he found Humpy pegging away industriously in his cutting. He had covered a good distance in the shallow ground.
“Well, old party, what’re you coursin’ after now?” asked Tom.
Humpy explained between blows.
“Gee-rusalem, but you do lick ’ell an’ all!”
Tom proceeded to explain the difficulties of the job, and the ridiculousness of it; but the digger’s under-hand pick was going busily all the time, and at last Hughes seated himself upon a log and overlooked the toiler in silent enjoyment of his wonderful courage, his dunderheadedness, and the comical little ape-like figure and quaint tricks and turns of the man.
Humpy persisted, and in the weeks wore by his cutting extended and deepened, and at length he was forced to take on another contract. It was necessary to get the water away. He felled trees, and split palings, and laid down a box drain all along the cutting—a wonderful drain, representing much time and trouble. He timbered his job where timber was needed, and continued as before eating his way into the hill, and as he progressed his pride in his work increased. The cutting was trim and true; Humpy bestowed the most loving care upon it, and Tom Hughes brought all the strangers he came across to inspect and admire it as the one spectacle of Grim Creek, and to gaze upon Humpy and wonder over him. And whilst Tom stood aloft eulogizing the digger with something of the air of a showman, and amiably explaining his humours and eccentricities for the pleasure of these strangers, Humpy hammered away eagerly on the job below.
“He ain’t got common-sense about minin’,” Hughes would say; “have you, old man?”
Humpy, with his pick driven to the eye in the wall before him, would turn up his puckered, tanned, hairy face with the aspect of a venerable mandril, and damn his friend—hide, bones, and soul—as the selector went on:—
“But in a tunnel or a drive he’d work any man I ever knew stone-blind inside a week. Wouldn’t you, Humpy?”
More profanity from below.
“See, he’s built for it. Them shoulders was built fer pokin’ round in low black drives an’ muddy tunnels, but he’s wasted fer want of horse sense. He’s a blessed steam-engine whirling away like blazes, but doin’ nothin’ that matters a hang. Look at him! He’s the only man in Australia that likes work—he’d rather be workin’ than drinkin’—an’ he’s only happy when he’s clayed up to the ears and sweatin’ quarts.”
Sometimes a visitor dropped Humpy a half-crown or a shilling, and often a settler or farmer gave him help; but for all that he was compelled to leave his cutting now and again and go fossicking in the creek for a pennyweight or two, and then he was given over to a great discontent. Whilst he was working in the cutting it preserved its spick-and-span appearance; when he was away dead leaves accumulated in it, and Monaghan’s sheep sometimes destroyed the symmetry of its edges, and that affected Humpy as dirt and litter about a room irritate a good housewife.
But as time passed the great work progressed, and at length the tunnel had been opened out, and was being driven towards the shaft. It was the most elegant of tunnels, with a beautiful entrance, and carefully squared throughout, and it went in and in until at length, when Humpy was within a week of his goal, there came jangling up the creek one day a mounted policeman. The officer of the law examined Bannon’s hut carefully, and tossed things about and turned the place upside down with the placid insolence with which power endows most men; and then he rode to Humpy’s cutting, called the little man into the light of day, handcuffed him, and led him off.
The charge was sheep-stealing. There was no doubt of Bannon’s guilt: one skin with the brand on it was found doing service as a rug on his bunk another, quite fresh, was tacked up in his shed; and the best part of a fine lamb was rescued from his pickling-tub, and produced in court. The spirit of the early squatter still survives in the particular and express abomination of sheep-stealing manifested by our virtuous and humane judges. The sentence was two years.
Tom Hughes tried hard to preserve Humpy’s cutting from destruction, and kept a careful eye on his hut, but, walking down the creek one day twenty months later, he came upon the little old digger standing surveying the ruins of his great work. The sides of the cutting had tumbled in, the tunnel was down, and the drained ground was worked out. Humpy was smaller-looking and more shrunken, and ten years seemed to have been added to his age; he was bent nearly double, and was bleached a deadly dough-colour; his limbs trembled as he stood, and he snivelled miserably like a boy. No greeting passed between the two men.
“’Twas three fellers from Melbourne done it,” said Hughes, indicating the cuttings.
“Damn ’em!” snapped Bannon.
“I tried hard to stop ’em,” continued the selector. “I explained it was your job; I argued, an’ pleaded, an’ preached, but ’twasn’t no good.”
Tom had also fought the intruders, singly and in a bunch, and had been severely manhandled for his kindness and consideration, but he did not explain this.
“Hows’mever, Wasn’t worth a cuss,” he added eagerly. “They skursly knocked out tucker, an’ only hung on jest from pure villainy.”
This was a lie: the young men had done fairly well out of Humpy’s claim, and had taken to town with them when they left sufficient gold to run a month-long “bender” of the most virulent and dazzling description.
“Damn ’em!” said Humpy again.
“Better track up to yer hut, old man,” Hughes said. “You’ll find it in order. You can spell-oh till you pick up a bit, an’ then you can get down to graft. You’ll be all right, you know.”
“Yes, yes,” grasped Bannon with a feeble return of his old fire, “there’s somethin’ above the fork I’m goin’ after. I’ll have to turn the creek. B’lieve there’s some ten-ounce stuff there.”
Hughes had to lead him to his hut, and attend to him for a few days, but presently Humpy was out and about again, with pick and shovel, pottering weakly here and there. Once Tom found him struggling to clean out the old cutting. By-and-by he started making great raids upon the hills, digging aimless holes, and throwing up heaps of dirt anywhere. Two or three times he was discovered lying helplessly by his work. At length the same policeman came trotting up the gully again, and once more Humpy Bannon was led away. This time he did not come back. He finished his days performing extraordinary feats of labour with a little wooden shovel at Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, destroyed in mind and body by eighteen months of comparative peace and rest and comfort in Her Majesty’s gaol.
Simon Peters, irreverently called “The Apostle,” returned to the railway camp late on Sunday night, and found his tent topsy-turvy and his “missus ” gone. On the paling table, weighted with a piece of cheese, was a scrap of sugar-paper, on which was written in Fan’s dog-leg hand:
“I’m sik. I’m goin’ to cleer.”
Sim swore a muffled oath under his abundant moustache, and looked around upon the unwonted disorder. The blue blanket and the rug had been stripped from their bunk; the spare, rough furniture of the big tent lay about in confusion; and amongst the grey ashes in the wide sod fireplace was a bunch of reddish hair. Peters fished this out, and examined it with as much astonishment as the phlegmatic, even-tempered navvy was capable of feeling. It was his wife’s hair, and had evidently been hacked off in a hurry, regardless of effect. Piled on the bush stool against the wall were Mrs. Peters’s clothes. Nothing of hers that Peters could recall was missing; even the big quondong ear-rings, of which she was so proud, were thrown upon the floor. Her hat was on the bed, and her boots were under the table.
Still clutching the mop of hair in his hand, Sim backed solemnly and soberly on to a seat, and sat for a few minutes gravely weighing the evidence. Obviously Fanny had gone off clad only in a blue blanket or a ’possum rug. This was most extraordinary, even for Fanny, but there was some satisfaction in it, since it should not be difficult to trace a white woman so attired.
Presently Peters arose and went forth to prosecute inquiries. On Saturday, before departing for Dunolly, he had asked Rolley’s wife to keep an eye on the missus. As he approached the gaffer’s tent, however, he heard a woman’s voice raised in shrill vituperation, and recognised Mrs. Rolley’s strident contralto.
“My poor mother that’s in heaven knew you, you——. She always said you was a——.”
And poor Rolley was inundated with a torrent of his own choice blasphemies. Simon Peters knew by experience that when Mrs. Rolley dragged her sainted mother into little domestic differences, she was at least two days gone in drink, and quite incapable of recollecting anything beyond Rolley’s shortcomings, so he turned away with a sigh, and carried his quest into the camp. Half an hour later he returned to his tent and resumed his thoughtful attitude on the stool. He had secured one piece of evidence that seemed to throw a good deal of light on the situation. Late on Saturday night someone had broken into Curly Hunter’s tent and stolen therefrom a grey tweed suit, a black felt hat, and a pair of light blucher boots. Peters, putting this and that together slowly and with great mental effort, concluded that Curly Hunter and Fanny were about the same height. He recollected, too, the explanation his wife offered when he discovered her back to be seamed and lined with scars.
“Dad done it,” said Fanny. “Poor old dad, he was always lickin’ me.”
“But,” gasped Peters, filled with a sudden itch to beat the throat of his deceased father-in-law, “you don’t mean to say the cowardly brute lashed you like that!”
“Didn’t he?” replied she, laughing lightly. “He used to rope me up to the cow-bail an’ hammer me with a horsewhip. Once when I set the grass on fire, an’ burned the stable an’ the dairy; another time when I broke Grasshopper’s neck, ridin’ him over Coleman’s chock-an’-log fence; an’ agen when I dressed up in Tom’s clothes, took a swag, and got a job pickin’-up in M‘Kinley’s shed.”
Early on Monday morning Peters had an interview with Curly Hunter. Hunter was sympathetic, and readily sold Sim the stolen things at a modest valuation, promising at the same time to observe a friendly reticence in the matter; but, for all that, two hours later everybody in the camp knew that Mrs. Peters had run off, and that “The Apostle” was away hunting for her. The general opinion, freely and profanely expressed, was that Simon Peters was a superlative idiot. It was agreed that Peters would have exhibited common-sense by sitting still under the bereavement, and casually thanking Providence for the “let off.” Since Mrs. Peters started a couple of ramshackle waggons down the gradient, and nearly smashed up Ryan’s gang, the camp had suddenly grown weary of her “monkey tricks.”
Mrs. Simon Peters was a woman of twenty-six, ten or twelve years younger than her husband, more comely, more decent, and more presentable in every way than the other wives of the camp. She did not get drunk in the bedroom end of Wingy Lee’s shanty on pay nights, did not use the picturesque idiom of the gangers in ordinary conversation, and in some respects had been a good mate to Peters. But it must be admitted that the camp had further justification in doubting the complete sanity of Simon Peters’s wife. She had an eerie expression that was quaintly accented by keen, twinkling, black eyes in combination with light red hair and rather pale brows; and she was possessed of a spirit of mischief that led her into the wildest extravagances. Her devilment was that of an ungovernable school-boy, without his preposterous sense of humour. An uncontrollable yearning for excitement impelled her to the strangest actions. She had another peculiar characteristic, not unknown to the camp, in her apparent insensibility to physical pain. Peters had been astounded by the fact that a burn, a cut, a scald, or a blow provoked no complainings from his wife and scarcely any regard. This indifference extended to the sufferings of others. After the blasting accident in the North cutting, Fanny, of all the women in the camp, was the only one who had the nerve to approach the mangled body of poor M‘Intyre, and she placidly worked over the shocking mass, still instinct with life, when the strongest men turned sick at the sight of it.
Sim made no effort to understand his wife, which was well, as he was only an average man, and she was past finding out. He concluded that her extraordinary conduct was just the natural unreasonableness and contrariness of women “coming out strong,” and made the best of the situation in which he found himself. Being an average man, Sim was a superior navvy; he only got drunk on big occasions, and, drunk or sober, treated his wife with indulgent fondness, and occasionally Fanny seemed fond of him in return; but then she had been very warmly attached to that father who used to bail her up in the cowshed and lash her with a horsewhip in the hope of converting her to sweet reasonableness.
On the Monday morning Peters first went up the road, seeking his wife, but no one at White’s had seen a slim young fellow in a grey suit pass that way, so he tried down the road, with better success. Clark, at the Travellers’ Rest, had seen “just sich a feller” as Sim described.
“They had a drink here Sunday, an’ left, making for Moliagul, it seemed t’ me,” said Clark.
“They?” queried Peters.
“Yes. There was two of ’em. The big feller shouted. A brown-faced chap, with a black moustache, an’ a deep cut in his chin, here.”
Simon’s grip made a dent in the pewter he held, and a grey hue crept over his cheeks and into his lips. Never before had he doubted his wife in this way; never through all her mad escapades had he had reason to question her fealty as a wife till now. Peters remembered the man distinctly; he had seen him about the camp, looking for work. The peculiar cleft chin would serve to identify him amongst ten thousand. Striding along the road the fugitives had taken, the navvy recollected hearing Fanny speaking enthusiastically of the tall, brown stranger as a fine man, and the grey in his cheek deepened to the colour of ashes, and his jaw hardened meaningly. His quest had suddenly assumed a terrible significance, and that fierce pallor and grim rigidity of the jaw never left him until its end.
Peters heard of them again in the afternoon, but got off the trail towards evening, and it was not till late on the following day that he picked up the scent. Then he talked with a farmer who had seen them.
“They slep’ in an old hut up in my grass paddock las’ night,” said the man, “an’ went up the road at about seven this mornin’.”
“Did both men sleep in the hut?” asked Peters.
“To be sure!”
Sim continued his journey, steadily, and with apparent unconcern, but cherishing an immovable determination to kill the brown-faced man the moment they met.
Early on the Wednesday morning Peters came up with the runaway. An old man watering a horse at a small creek told him, in answer to his inquiries:
“A tall chap, with a divided chin—name of Sandler, ain’t it? He’s here. I let him a bit of ringin’. That’s his axe you hear up the paddock.”
Following the ring of the axe, Peters soon came upon his man. Sandler stopped working as he approached, and turned towards him, resting on the handle of his axe. Sim walked to within a couple of yards of the stranger, and threw off the light swag he carried.
“You infernal hound!” he said; “where is my wife?”
Sandler started up in extreme amazement. “Keep off!” he cried. “What the devil do I know about your wife?”
Peters rushed at him with the fury of a brute, and the two men exchanged heavy blows. Then they closed, and wrestled for a moment, but Simon’s rage lent him a strength that was irresistible, and presently the other man was sent down with stunning force. As he attempted to rise, shaken and almost breathless, Peters, who had seized the axe, struck him once with the head of it, and Sandler fell back again and lay perfectly still, with a long, gaping wound over his left eye, from which the blood poured through his hair upon the new chips and the yellow grass. When Peters looked up his wife stood facing him. She wore blucher boots, a pair of grey trousers, and a man’s shirt, and carried an axe. She gazed composedly at the fallen man.
“What have you done, Sim? ” she asked.
“You ran away with that man?” He pointed at Sandler.
She nodded her head.
“He did not know I was a woman,” she said.
It was bright and cosy within the pile-getters’ hut; outside the night was wet and stormy, and the wind piped a deep, mournful organ tone in the gnarled and stunted gums on the hill-side. The three young men had finished tea, and washed up and squared up—that is to say, Dayton had stowed the bread and butter and the remains of the salt beef in the kerosene box that served them as a larder, M‘Gill had dipped the tin plates in hot water and wiped them carefully on a superannuated white shirt, and Woodhead had raised a tremendous dust under a pretence of sweeping out the hut with a broom extemporized from a bundle of scrub ferns; for it was the first principle of their association that every man should “do his whack” in the matter of attendance to domestic duties.
“Too thunderin’ wet to go down to the camp, an’ too blessed windy to climb up to Scrubby’s,” said Dayton, who was curing himself of an extraordinary habit of profanity for a wager, and found the task of filling in the blanks rather a trial. “I s’pose cut-throat’s our little dart,” he continued, producing an overworked euchre pack.
M‘Gill was fighting his way into a stubborn oil-skin coat that crackled like tin armour.
“Not cut-throat to-night, boys,” he said; “I’m going up the gully a spell.”
“Where bound, Mack?” queried Dayton, with quick suspicion. The young men had discovered a pretty girl at Scrubby Scanlan’s settlement, two miles off, and each thought he had an exclusive right to the friendship and hospitality of Scanlan and the smiles of his handsome, hard-working, and very sensible eldest daughter.
“Not there, old man,” he said. “I promised ‘The Identity’ I’d give him a look in to-night.”
“Well, you ought!” with great derision. “What d’ye want foolin’ after that evil old beast? If he was well to-morrer he’d bang you on the head for half a quid. That’s my straight say-so. I’ll be sworn he shook our crosscut; an’ here you are, dancin’ attendance same ’s if he was clear white!”
“The poor devil is as harmless as a baby,” said M’Gill. “Anyhow, I can’t leave a sick man to take his chances in that miserable hole up there.”
Joe M‘Gill went out amidst a rush of wind and rain, and left his mates to their game and the comfort of their warm, watertight hut.
“Off his bloomin’ chump!” commented Dayton emphatically, slapping down the cards.
The philosophical Woodhead, who was smoking placidly, looked up and cut.
“Joe’s all rioht,” he drawled. “Always had a weakness for sick things. I’ve seen him take more trouble with a lame dog than most men would over a poor relation. Besides, the old man is real bad, and if Mack didn’t give an eye to him I expect I would have to do it myself. I’m awfully soft-hearted that way, and I like to see other fellows looking after the poor and the sick—it saves me the trouble.”
Meanwhile M‘Gill was boring his way through the storm towards a point of light showing fitfully amongst the thick, supple saplings that rolled like a sea in a gale. “The Identity’s” hut stood at the head of the gully, in the centre of a small clearing. It was sheltered on one side by the abrupt rise of Emu Hill, and exposed on the other (saving for the intervention of the leafy young peppermints, the growth of recent years) to the fierce winds that seemed to gather the rains into the narrow confines of the gully, and drive them pounding up its whole length, in eddying torrents, to be thrown back in tumbling yellow floods from the invulnerable side of Emu Hill. Peter Shaw, variously known as “The Identity,” “The Hermit,” “Blue Peter,” and “Old Shaw,” was a veteran fossicker, a reticent, gruff man, whose almost complete isolation had recently been broken by the appearance in the locality of Brown’s Patch of a few parties of sleeper-cutters and pile-getters, driven thitherward by the approach of the railway to Bunyip. Peter was living in the same chock-and-log hut at the head of Grasshopper Gully when the first selector settled in the district, and when the reputation of Brown’s Patch as an alluvial field had already faded and been forgotten, and when the fact that the creek, and the hill, and the gully had once rattled and rung with the clatter of cradle and puddling-tub, pick and shovel, and windlass-barrel was unknown to all within the jurisdiction of the Bunyip Shire Council, with the exception of old Shaw. Even now Peter’s settled neighbours were few and far between, and until the arrival of the timber-getters his beloved seclusion was but rarely disturbed by man, woman, or child. He lived, according to the common belief, on the vegetables he grew, eked out with the supplies he brought from Bunyip at long intervals—supplies bought with the price of the few “weights ” of gold won by fossicking patiently and laboriously up and down the creek and in the many little blind gullies running into Emu Hill.
Of course “The Identity” was talked about. Whenever two or more selectors were met together Peter’s character and habits were sure, sooner or later, to come under discussion, and as he was one of the the stock themes of the local fabulist, the history attached to him did not lack romantic interest. He was generally credited with having stolen everything that went missing in the district, and, amongst the women at least, there was a profound belief that he and “the old devil” were on excellent terms and exchanged visits frequently; but for all the attention Shaw gave these people they might have been merely stumps or stones by the way.
M‘Gill pulled the catch of the old man’s door, and entered without knocking. The remains of a big log were smouldering in the wide sod chimney, and a slush lamp, manufactured from a sardine tin, guttered on the bush table, filling the hut with a villainous smoke. On a narrow bunk, face downward, lay the half-clad figure of a man. “The Identity” lifted himself upon his hands as the door clanged to, and turned a haggard face, surrounded by a scrub of iron-grey hair, towards the intruder. His eyes brightened as he recognized Joe.
“Good on you! Good on you!” he gasped, extending a shaky hand. “I was hopin’ you’d come.”
Joe threw open his oilskin, and drew a couple of small parcels from his shirt.
“Here you are, old party,” he said; “I’ve brought you some stuff for beef tea, and a bottle of medicine.” Shaw took the bottle in his hand and examined it. It contained a patent medicine then very popular with bushmen as an infallible remedy for all the physical ills that man is heir to, from cuts to consumption.
“It’s too late, my boy,” he said, “I’m a done man; but a dose might ease me a bit if it’s hot enough—gimme a dose.”
Joe poured out a quantity of the medicine into a pannikin, and held it towards him; but the sick man clutched his hand, and a sudden excitement lit up his deathly face as he whispered:
“Did you do the other thing what I told you?”
“Put your pegs in an’ make your application fer the lease all correct an’ accordin’ to law?”
“Yes, yes, just as you told me. Now drink!”
Shaw drained off his medicine, but retained his grip on Joe’s arm.
“Certain you didn’t let on to no one?” he asked, with a look half suspicious, half cunning in his eyes—“no p’lice, no doctors—eh?”
“Not a soul; I always keep my word. But for all that I think you should have a doctor.”
“No, no, no!” cried the old man, with fierce energy; “no doctors—no p’lice! I’m peggin’ out—don’t I know it?—an’ I won’t have doctors, damn em! Can’t you let a man die his own way?”
“Right you are,” said Joe, soothingly; “you’ll buck up again, though, when you get outside a pint or two of this.”
M‘Gill threw the wood in the fireplace together, and set about preparing the beef tea, and Shaw, who had relapsed into his former position, face downwards upon the bunk, watched every movement with one alert eye. Presently he spoke again.
“I said I’d tell you the whole yarn t’-night, Joe.”
“Not to-night, Peter, you’re not equal to it—wait till you are stronger.”
“Stronger! stronger!” The fossicker had started up again, and was glaring angrily. “Wait till I’m dead an’ dumb, you mean. No, it mus’ be t’-night. One of the chaps up at the camp’ll be knockin’ together a coffin fer me t’-morrer.”
M‘Gill admitted to himself, as he looked into the brilliant, deep-set eyes of the man, and saw the grisly configuration of the skull standing out under the stark yellow skin of his face, that nothing was more probable. Shaw looked like a man face to face with death, sustained only by the feverish excitement that blazed in his restless eyes and manifested itself in the uneasy motions of his wasted hands. The young man offered him a pannikin of the beef tea, but Peter put it aside after trying a couple of mouthfuls.
“No, I can’t take it, boy,” he said, “I can’t take nothin’, I don’t want nothin’, only to tell you all before I cave in. Sit here on the edge of the bunk. I’ll hold you so you can’t go till I’m through. Wait—go round the hut, see no one’s listenin’.”
M‘Gill, to please him, did as he was directed, and then resumed his position by the side of the bunk.
“Joe,” said “The Identity,” “you come here to help me, an’ you’ve took a lot of trouble with me, ’cause you’re a good sort, an’ can’t help it, like; but you don’t like me. I could see you didn’t like me—you suspicioned me from the first, eh—didn’t you?”
This was quite true, but the young man returned no answer. There had never been anything about Peter Shaw to invite affection; in health he was sullen, covert, and uncanny, and in sickness evil-tempered and childish in his wants, and, more particularly, in his fears.
“I knew it—I knew it!” he continued, “but because you are a good sort, an’ because I must out with this load here, here!”—he struck his breast feebly with his hand—“I’m goin’to tell you somethin’ that’ll make a rich man of you, Joseph M‘Gill.”
Clutching Joe’s sleeve with his bony fingers, he went on with his story, speaking in quick undertones, with a sort of insane energy that sustained him to the end.
“I came to this district twenty odd years ago, my lad. Brown had just struck the surfacin’ down the gully by the creek, an’ we called the rush Brown’s Patch. Two days after campin’ I picked up my mate Harry Foote—Stumpy Foote we named him ’cause he was bumble-footed. He was a dog, a mean hound, but he didn’t look it, an’ he was a good miner. We went to work on the alluvial, an’ did fairly, but we both had a great idea about a good reef in these hills. All the indications pointed to it, an’ presently we slung the wash an’ started prospectin’. We trenched, an’ travelled, an’ trenched fer weeks without strikin’ an ounce of quartz, an’ Stumpy got full of it; but I grew more certain about that lode, an’ hung on. So we agreed that he’d go back to the alluvial again, an’ I’d keep on peggin’away after the reef, an’ we’d be mates whatever turned up. Well, we kep’ this up fer a long time, me trustin’ Stumpy all the time, an’ intendin’ t’ do the square thing by him when I lobbed on the lode, as I was sure I would. I worked like a fiend. I was mad fer gold then. I hadn’t been out on’y a few years, an’ strikin’ it lucky meant everythin’ t’ me; meant—But no matter, that ain’t anythin’ t’ do with the story. You wouldn’t understand how I felt if I told you, an’ I believe I don’t understand meself now. Stumpy did poorly, or told me as much. I got barely enough as my share to pay tucker bills, but he kep’ workin’ away, sluicin’ the surfacin’ down along the creek—a patch he had hit on himself.”
“One night I returned to the tent unexpected. Foote had told me the week afore that he was goin’ to roll up his swag. an’ skip, an’ I’d bin out on those hills beyond Scanlan’s ever since. A light was burnin’ inside, an’ Stumpy didn’t hear me till I’d thrown back the flap of the tent. He was leanin’ over the table, an’ he looked up at me sudden, an’ his face went milky white. Well it might—I caught him in the act of sweepin’ a pile of gold into a canvas bag. A pile—a heap—hundreds of ounces it looked t’ me—hundreds of ounces in coarse nuggets an’ rich specimens. The cur fumbled it in his hurry t’ get it out of sight, an’ spilled some of the finer stuff on the floor.”
“I went mad at the sight of all that gold, an’ at the thought of the dirty trick he’d served me. I didn’t speak, but jes’ grabbed him so, by the neck, an’ dragged him outer the tent. I don’t think I meant murder—I don’t know what I meant, but there was a pick handle leanin’ agen the sod chimbley, an’ I took it in my right hand. He opened his mouth to yell, an’ I hit him once—jes’ once—an’ he went over like a wet shirt. I waited fer him to get up, but he didn’t move agen, an’ when I come t’ look at him he was dead. The paper-skulled, chicken-hearted cur, he was dead!
“I didn’t funk—I didn’t lose my head fer a second. I was never cooler in my life; my brain was clear, but I saw on’y one thing at a time—on’y one thing, an’ I acted on it. After dousin’ the light in the tent, I took Stumpy up on my shoulder, an’ carried him over the hill to the slope furthest from the camp.
“’Twas a clear, moonlight night, bright enough t’ read Bible print by, but the sides of Emu Hill was well timbered, an’ the saplin’s was thick as scrub, so I was not likely t’ be seen. I dropped the body in a small clear space amongst a thick patch of scrub on that spur above the soda spring. There was a good depth of soft vegetable soil there—a beautiful quiet place fer a grave.
“Then I went back t’ the tent, careless like, case anyone should chance along; but the camp was a good step down the creek from our tent, an’ I never met a soul. Stumpy had his swag ready fer rollin’ up—he meant to cut and leave me. I took up his things an’ a pick an’ shovel, an’ trudged back t’ the body. It lay sprawlin’ in the shadder of the scrub, jest as I’d dropped it, one hand reachin’ out into the light clawin’ the grass; but I on’y thought of my job, an’ I set t’ work t’dig his grave at once.
“I worked quietly—the pick made no noise in that soft ground—but I worked hard. I meant t’ bury him deep, an’ bury him well. A neat hole I made him, seven by two, an’ as plumb as a prospectin’ shaft. As I dug an’ shovelled—quite cool in my mind, fer all the body was spread out there behind me in the shadder—my thoughts went wanderin’ over my bad luck, an’ the idea that Stumpy had been on good gold, an’ meant to rob me of my fair half, made me vicious, an’ I belted in hard an’ fast.
“I had her down ’bout three foot, an’ reckoned that’d nearly do. I was squarin’ up the end when my pick struck agen somethin’ that made it ring. I dug away a bit around that somethin’, a sudden excitement growin’ in me, an’ makin’ me ferget I was diggin’ a grave—a grave fer a murdered man. Down in the west corner of the hole I saw the white gleam of quartz. Stoopin’, I lit a match to examine it. By the Lord, Joe! I’d struck it—struck it thick an’ rich!” Old Peter’s agitation became so intense at this stage that Joe was compelled to put his arms about his attenuated form, and hold him on the bunk.
“See that fire, boy?” he gasped, pointing an uncertain hand, and glaring as if in a frenzy. “Well, it was like that—the live embers, the glowin’ red gold in it! Rich! It seemed all gold. I’d struck the cap of the reef, an’ I went a’most mad with joy at the sight of the beautiful, beautiful gold. I staggered back agen the other end of the hole, starin’ at the reef. I was goin’ t’ yell an’ dance, thinkin’ of nothin’ but my lovely luck, when I half turned, an’ caught a glimpse of Stumpy’s white, dead face glowerin’ et me in the moonlight, an’ I funked fer the first time. The shadder had crep’ back, leavin’ jest his face showin’, an’ there it was, with a spark in each of its big eyes, mouthin’ at me—grinnin’ horribly!
“I went dead cold, my legs broke under me. All of a sudden I was dreadfully afraid. Then I thought: ‘Pete, this is a hangin’ match—Pete, they’re after you. What’s the good of a golden reef to a hanged man?’ I crawled out of the hole, wantin’ t’ run, but It’s devilish eyes followed me. Oh! I crawled like a worm, crazy with fear—sick with it! The findin’ the gold there in his grave seemed a damned trick of his an’ the devil’s t’ spite me—t’ make me mad. I seemed t’ know then, while the horror was on me, what it all meant—thet I’d cursed meself fer ever—thet, good luck or bad luck, fer the future ’twas all the same t’ me.
“But I was strong enough t’ bury him. I turned his face down, an’ dragged the body along, an’ flung it into the hole on top of the reef; and when it was out of sight, under a foot or so of dirt, I began t’ feel stronger an’ braver, an’ t’ reason a bit. I would bury him beautifully there, I said to meself, an’ wait, an’ some time I would dig him up again, and hide him far enough away, an’ then I could work the reef, an’ by-an’ bye go home to—to—go home a rich man!
“I did bury him, an’ then crawled back t’ the tent, an’ tried t’ sleep, but couldn’t. At daylight I was back at the grave again, smoothin’ it with my fingers, rakin’ dry leaves, an’ grass, an’ bark over it t’ hide every trace, shiverin’ in my boots all the time. They reckoned me a brave man once. I’d done some things that made men think me game. But I’ve been a cur ever since the night I killed my mate—a coward in the night an’ in the day, before men and before devils.
“Durin’ the day I managed to go down among the men an’ make inquiries ’bout Stumpy. None of the chaps seemed surprised t’ hear he was not around, an’ one or two hinted pretty straight thet I wasn’t likely t’ see him agen—thet he’d been doin’ pretty well down the creek, an’ had cleared with the gold to do me outer my share.
“Joe, I never dared t’ touch Stumpy’s grave from thet day t’ this. Fer five years small parties was workin’ about the creek off an’ on, an’ I kep’ tellin’ meself that when they’d all gone some day I’d shift Stumpy’s bones. Then the Chows came fossickin’, an’ time went on, an’ as it passed I grew more an’ more of a coward. Once or twice there’s bin prospectin’ parties out here after the reef, an’ I think I was stark crazy while they was about. The fear of them strikin’ the lode used t’ drive me wild, an’ I grew t’ hate every man who come near Emu Hill, an’ gradually to loathe the sight of human bein’s. I shifted up here t’ be further from the grave, an’ ’cause I’d got luny notions that Stumpy was walkin’ about o’ nights.
“There was on’y a hundred ounces or so in my mate’s bag, after all. It’d looked five times ez much t’ me. It’s buried in the ground jest under the head of my bunk. Onst I sold a few ounces of it in et the township, but it was coarse stuff, an’ the news got ’round, an’ the next thing I knew there was another small rush along the creek, an’ diggers was pokin’ about everywhere. That frightened me again. If the reef was struck Stumpy’s bones would be found, an’ they’d hang me, sure ez death. Half a dozen men lived at Wombat who’d remember my mate’s disappearance, an’ there was things I’d buried with Stumpy that’d make his bones known. So I buried the gold, an’ never tried t’ sell another colour of it.
“Since then I’ve had scores of chances of shiftin’ them bones, but I wasn’t the man t’ do it, an’ then I begun t’ find thet I didn’t want to—thet I didn’t want the gold—thet I didn’t want any of the things thet I’d wanted like mad before. But I didn’t go away. I was chained here, an’ I always thought thet some day someone would find Stumpy, an’ I would be wanted, an’ all these years I’ve dreaded it, an’ waited fer it, an’ hated, an’ suffered, an’ here I am, an’ there, out on the hill, are Stumpy’s bones, an’ the gold—the beautiful yellow gold! It’s yours, Joe—all yours. I leave it to you! You know the spot. I planted that stunted bluegum, with the limb thet turns down to the ground, right on the top of the grave the mornin’ after I buried him. You’ll find his bones in among its roots.”
“The Identity” sank back on his bed, cold and exhausted.
“You’ll bury them bones decent, Joe?” he murmured in a voice that had suddenly grown faint.
“Yes, Peter,” replied M‘Gill, in whose mind the story had created both amazement and doubt.
“An’ you’ve got the lease, Joe, sure?”
“I’ve applied for it—the ground is secured.”
“Yes, yes, an’ you’ll stick by me while I last, eh—you won’t go? An’ no p’lice, mind—no p’lice!”
It was already daylight when Joe M‘Gill awakened his mates stumbling into the hut.
“Old Shaw is dead,” he explained to the indignant Dayton. “You might dress, Jack, and go and stay by him, for decency’s sake, while I have a few hours’ sleep. And, Woodhead, you must go to Bunyip and bring the police. They will have to take charge of the body.”
M‘Gill and his mates found the skeleton of Foote exactly as Peter Shaw had said they would, and the grinning skull rested upon the cap of the golden reef that was eventually known as “Dead Man’s Lode,” and which, before twelve months went by, had enriched the three young men, and had yielded small fortunes to many dozens beside.
“A big fire down on the flat!”
It was after midnight. Petersen, Manly, Collier, and Grigg had been playing euchre for the last five hours, and drinking Cody’s hand-made, chain-lightning whisky. They were heavy-eyed and heavy-headed, and did not seem to realize the significance of the shout for a few moments. Then they placed their cards carefully on the table, face downwards, and filed out, blundering along the passage to the hotel verandah.
A fierce red glow burned against the western sky, and far down amongst the black gum-trees a tongue of flame danced in the darkness.
Petersen, his tall form steadied against the verandah post, gazed for a moment, and the heaviness passed out of his eyes, succeeded by a keen interest, the flush in his handsome bearded face, induced by the heat of the room and the poisonous liquor he had drunk, died out, and his cheeks became ashen-grey in the dim light reflected from the bar window. Suddenly a cry burst from his lips:
“It is my house! Oh, God, my wife!”
He sprang off in the darkness, and rushed at full speed along the rough track leading down the hill in the direction of the fire, and his friends followed swiftly on his heels.
Petersen had only become even a moderately good customer to Cupid Cody, the preternaturally ugly landlord of the Wallaby Arms, and patentee and sole proprietor of the Gehenna brand of whisky, within the last three months; but of late he had been a very frequent visitor at the hotel, and had developed an appetite for Cupid’s noxious liquors and a fondness for euchre which Mr. Cody was not slow to encourage.
Bert was a native of the Pea Creek district, and after living a sober and industrious life to take suddenly to vitriolic whisky and combative euchre parties two years after marriage was to excite curiosity and comment. The comment was not complimentary to Mrs. Bert. His few scattered neighbours seemed to find a sneaking satisfaction in the belief that Petersen was not happy in his married life. This, they contended, was only in accord with the fitness of things. In the first place young Petersen had gone to town for his wife, an action that was considered extremely unneighbourly, and was accepted as a reflection upon the marriageable young maidens of Pea Creek and district. In the second place Mrs. Petersen had shown no disposition to “make up to” her neighbours’ wives and daughters, and consequently had the reputation of being “stuck up,” and that is a sin unpardonable amongst bush people, to whom sociability means so much.
Bert’s married life had not been the happiest. The girl he loved and the girl he married was quite unsuited to the life his wife was called upon to lead. She was a small, fair, town-bred girl, fond of gaiety and admiration, and used to little work and much amusement. He had won her in his best clothes, in the course of occasional trips to the city, and he took her to his home out in the silent bush, where the nearest neighbour was a quarter of a mile off, and then a big, plain, motherly person, with a great contempt for “Sunday clothes,” and few ideas above the dairy.
Lately Mary’s discontent had shown itself in petulant outbursts, in fits of the sulks, and a callous indifference to her husband’s feelings, She grew to despise Petersen in his coloured moleskins and heavy boots. Bert fought against it good-humouredly, striving to make her life pleasant, and to retain her affection, but latterly her temper had driven him almost to despair, and as he still loved her he preferred the savage delights of Cody’s bar parlour to the childish querulousness of the disappointed woman and her eternal twitching at his heartstrings.
Petersen’s house was quite two miles from the Wallaby Arms, and throughout the long race the fear that had sprung into the man’s soul never left him for a second. A conviction that his wife was in the burning house possessed him, and endowed him with extraordinary speed and strength.
He had left his wife at five o’clock in the afternoon, suffering from the headache that seemed to have become perpetual, and that filled his house with wailing, and called down upon his head tearful reproaches without reason and without end.
“What can I do?” he had asked, helplessly.
“At least you can go away,” she answered, with fierce petulance.
When Petersen reached his burning home two or three men were running about hopelessly with buckets of water, and two pale-faced women stood before the house, watching it burn, stupid with fear. To these Bert appealed:
“My wife! where is she?”
The women shook their heads dumbly, and one pointed a long, trembling hand towards the leaping flames.
“No, no, no!” the husband cried, and he called his wife’s name again and again, running wildly from place to place. The men had seen nothing of Mrs. Petersen—they believed she was in the house.
Distracted with fear and grief, Bert rushed once round the home, seeking amongst the saplings, crying his wife’s name in a voice pregnant with pain and apprehension, and then the watchers saw him stop at the front and survey the burning house for a moment. The fire had now seized upon every part of the building, and threw up great tongues of flame against the black sky. Only for a second he stood, and then they saw him dash at the door and drive it in with his shoulder, and presently he disappeared amidst the flames and smoke.
The people who had now collected about the burning house drew closer and gazed into the flames, speechless and pale with terror. The moments dragged by, and they waited, the great fear growing upon them as the walls trembled, and the long, spiral flames were flung higher and higher into the windless night. Still they waited, scarcely breathing. The suspense became intolerable. Men looked into each other’s eyes with fearful meaning, and dry tongues passed over drier lips. At length an overwrought woman shrieked aloud, and sank upon her knees, hiding her face in the folds of her dress. And then the roof was seen to rise upwards and outwards, the whole building vibrated, and, with a roaring and hissing of flames, collapsed into a glowing ruin, from which the sparks rose in clouds, and about which the flames ran and curled like great serpents.
The watchers knew now that Bert Petersen would never come forth again. The women sobbed, crouching on the ground. The men, white-faced and dumb, stood gazing stupidly into the fire, paralyzed by the sense of their impotence.
Not till Ragan, the mounted constable from Magpie, arrived did they find tongue, and as the tale was told Ragan’s face grew grey under its accustomed bronze.
“Was burned trying to rescue his wife, you say?” he murmured.
“It was a mad attempt,” said the now sobered Collier.
“’Twas,” continued the constable in a harsh voice; “for his wife wasn’t there.”
“She’s eloped with young Arthur Grey, the dude at the post-office, damn her. They cleared out from Magpie together on the up train!”
One man sat upon a heap of broken reef near the face, with his broad palms supporting his chin. His thin, hollow cheeks showed, between the out-spread fingers, a sickly yellow in the candle-light. One candle in a spiked holder burned against the side of the drive. Two billies and two full crib-bags hung near on dog-hooks driven in an upright leg, and at the man’s feet lay a couple of picks and a shovel. Kyley sat with his back to the face, staring with glowing, vindictive eyes into the gathered gloom down the drive, where the passage to the shaft was choked to the roof with splintered timber and fallen mullock, and where the head of a second man was dimly visible. Only the head and shoulders of this other were free; the rest of his body was hidden under the débris . The second man was thrown face downwards; across his back, pinning his arms, lay the great cap-piece, which alone seemed heavy enough to have crushed the life out of him. Beyond this the tumbled reef and splintered slabs were piled to the roof.
But the buried miner was not dead. The tough red-gum log, forced down by the mighty pressure, had ploughed its way diagonally down the side of the drive, and pinched him to the floor, stopping when the pressure of another inch must have been followed by certain and speedy death. A stout iron truck was jammed under the log beside him, torn and doubled like a cardboard box. The young man could lift his chin a few inches from the floor of the drive, and turn his face from one side to the other, but was incapable of any other movement.
Presently he spoke. His voice came with an effort, and sounded feebly shrill, like that of a very old man.
“Dick, Dick! in the name o’ God, speak, man! D’ye think there’s a chance fer us?”
Dick Kyley dropped his hands, and there was an expression of grim satisfaction in his gaunt face as he replied deliberately—“There’s a chance for me, William. ”
The buried man lifted his clay-smirched face, startled by the other’s tone, and gazed eagerly at his mate, and continued gazing for fully a minute, puzzled and frightened by the incongruous levity in the face that confronted him. Then, the position becoming painful, he dropped his cheek in the wet clay again.
“What d’ye mean?” he asked anxiously. “Why only fer you?”
“Because, William, I don’t think you’ve got a dog’s Show.”
The reply was without a trace of sympathy; there was, in fact, a touch of malicious banter in the mincing tone of the “William.” William Hether had never been anything but “Hether” or “Bill” to his shift-mate before.
Again Hether looked anxiously into Kyley’s face. Its cadaverous hollows were filled with dark shadows, and the high-lights brought out the salient features in a grotesque caricature that struck Hether as simply fiendish. He turned from the sight, with a new horror in his heart.
“This ain’t no time to fool a man, Dick,” he said humbly. “How can there be any chance fer you if I ain’t in it?”
Kyley arose, plucked the candle from the wall, and advancing close to his mate held the flame low down and showed him a small pool of water gathered upon the floor within 18 inches of his face.
“That’s why,” he said.
Hether understood, and a cry broke from his lips.
“Keep it back, Dick!” he gasped.
“William,” said Kyley, calmly replacing the candle and resuming his former position on the reef, “you’re a fool. That water’s coming in from the face, as usual. The fall has dammed the gutters, and it can’t get away; consequently, in less’n five hours the pool will be above your ears. And you know what that means.”
“But you can build a dam around me. Get the shovel-quick! Make a dam with that loose reef an’ the clay off the floor. Dick, Dick! give us a chance, for God’s sake, man!”
Hether stopped short, staring at the other, who sat calmly regarding him. Presently he spoke again in a quavering whisper:
“You won’t see a man drown without lendin’ a hand t’ help him?”
“No, I won’t see it,” replied Kyley, “because I’m goin’ to douse this light. A candle burns up the air, an’ I’ll want all there is here, I reckon, before the boys reach me.”
Driven almost wild with terror, a terror occasioned no less by the grim significance of Kyley’s leering countenance and the brutality of the words than by the horrors of his position, Hether began to plead piteously, with tears and moanings. The pain of broken bones and the sickness of exhaustion had quite unmanned “Big Bill Hether;” but his agony did not touch the heart of Kyley, who seemed to have forgotten that death also threatened him in the delight that the young man’s sufferings awakened within his breast.
“Why’ve you rounded ’on me, Dick? What’ve I done—what‘ve I ever done?” moaned the helpless man.
“I’m not goin’ to lift a finger to keep you out of hell,” answered the other, “because of her, William—because of Hannah.”
Bill turned his face to the light again, and once more he stared at Kyley, sharply, inquiringly, reading every line of his fateful countenance. Then a groan of despair broke from him.
“I’ll go away, Kyley,” he said—“true’s Christ, if we get out I’ll go away, an’ you’ll never hear of me again. Only make a dam. Quick, man, quick—it’s comin’! God! this is worse than murder. Dick——-”
The water, having filled the depression at the side of the drive, was now running down and forming a pool in the hollow under Hether’s chin.
Kyley turned and blew out the candle. For a long time Hether continued to supplicate in the darkness, and Kyley, leaning comfortably against the face, heard the thin voice, weakening to an almost inarticulate whisper, beseeching by all that is good on earth and holy in heaven for a little grace—another poor chance of life—and answered never a word. By a painful effort the young man continued to keep his mouth above the gathering water, but gradually the torture that afflicted his extended neck became unendurable, and now in his last extremity he railed at Kyley as a murderer, and abused him with curses in weak, childish tones that were nevertheless pregnant with passion, and sounded distinctly and with terrifying emphasis in that black chamber of death.
Suddenly there was silence. Dick Kyley listened, and presently heard a bubbling sound in the water. That ceased, and all was still. He felt now that his vengeance was complete—that Hether was dead, and at that moment the fierce emotions of resentment and revenge—hunger that had possessed and upheld him departed in a breath, and left him weak and cowed. His limbs trembled, and beads of perspiration gathered about the roots of his hair and rolled coldly upon his brow and cheeks. He was thinking, too, of his own wretched case. He heard, fitfully, a distant drumming, the sound of timber being driven home, and knew that the rescue parties were working as hard as men may work, but whether theirs would be a job of hours or days he could not tell, and already he fancied he detected some taint of vitiation in the air.
Dick Kyley, sitting alone in the blackness of his prison, waiting for salvation or death, was soon the victim of an ungovernable fear, a supernatural terror entirely new to him, and the more awful for its novelty. From the moment he believed Hether dead he began to fear him. He strove with all the energy of his strong sense to drive him from his thoughts, but do what he might his mind would revert to the dread subject, and his eyes turn, staring intently into the darkness, where at times they seemed to detect a yet blacker form in the pitch-black night that filled the drive—the shape of the dead man’s head. The horror grew, and with it an agonizing conviction that Hether’s dead face was staring at him with dead but seeing eyes. Imagination had pictured the pallid cheeks stained with blood and clay, and the wide, accusing eyes, till the vision became a reality to him. Tortured beyond endurance, Kyley fumbled in his pocket and found a match, which he struck upon the shovel blade. As the light filled the chamber a groan of relief broke from the miner’s labouring breast. Only the back of Hether’s head was visible; his face was sunk to the temple in the water. Dick extinguished the match—his last—and sat down again, only to struggle with another relay of horrors that presently arose against him.
William Hether still lived. He had discovered that by taking a deep breath and sinking his face till the forehead rested upon the clay he was enabled to allay the pain in his neck and to continue the struggle. He persisted in this course, noiselessly, for the sound of the rescuers at work had filled him with a glorious hope, and with that hope had come a fear that Kyley might be moved to murder him if he thought his rescue possible.
So another hour fled. The water in the drive, which had now found a broad level, continued to rise slowly. Kyley had lost the power of appreciating time, and sat huddled against the wall, distraught with fear and despair. Hether’s face was haunting him again, standing forth visibly, threatening and awful in the tomb-like darkness. His mad fancy stretched every hour of his imprisonment into a long day, and he believed that it was his fate to be stifled by the foul gases from his mate’s decomposing corpse. Even now the taint was in his nostrils. Although he was listening all the time with agonized intensity, he no longer heard the hammering of the miners beyond; his mind was too full of its unspeakable fear—he awaited the attack of the inhuman thing that his irresponsible faculties had fashioned out of the impenetrable gloom at the end of his narrow prison. At this crisis Hether called again, in a piercing voice, full of the supreme terror:—
“Help! help! Kyley, you murderer! fiend devil——”
At the first sound of the voice, Kyley sprang back against the end of the drive, and shrieked, with all the power of his lungs, again and again; and there he remained, crouched down, pressing his face into the gravel, clutching his ears, shivering and moaning.
Three hours later the rescuers broke through, and found Hether under the fall, with his head in a pool of water, dead, and Kyley squatting at the face, babbling of spectres and devils.
It is still Mr. Richard Kyley’s quaint belief that he is a conspicuous figure in hell.
It was Monday morning. Benno loitered at the packer’s bench. The clerk was possessed with a great unrest, and his high stool could not hold him today.
“She’s er little boshter!” he said vehemently. “Y’ orter seen ’er.”
“Fair ’r dark”” asked Feathers, with the intention of showing a friendly interest in the matter. This was the fifth time Benno had declaimed on the “boshter” qualities of the unknown, and fraternal sympathy could not be longer deferred with decency. Feathers delayed the completion of a knot, and bit off a morsel of tobacco. He solaced business hours with an occasional quid, smoking on the premises being strictly prohibited by order of the Czar below.
“Fair,” replied Benno, with rapture, “with bloo eyes, ’n’ er mouth like er bloomin’ baby. Never saw anythin’ like it. She’s ther show biscuit, take it from ther man in ther business—ther top apple, th’ ’ole blessed cake-walk, ’n’ straight ez er church. Yeh can see it stickin’ out. Bin well brought up, yeh know—bit shy, ’n’ romantic, ’n’ all that.”
“This gentle little maiden of today,” sang Goudy, the town traveller, to himself, absently, as he reached for twenty-eight of sixes.
“Ah-h-h go’n ’ave er scratch!” retorted the clerk, bitterly. The town traveller was a Scot, but the insult had no sting for him; he went on cheerfully sorting out his order. “Some men,” said Benno, with cold despair, “ain’t got no more fine feelin’ than a hotel cat.”
“When she left the village she was shy,” hummed the town traveller, changing his tune.
“It ’appened dead simple,” Benno continued, turning a contemptuous shoulder on Goudy. “Me ’n’ Billy King was standin’ on ther usual corner, Satedee night, watchin’ ther little toms trippin’ it, ’n’ sortin’ out samples, y’ know; when ’long she comes with ’er cobber, ’n’ blessed iv she don’t chance an eye on me noble—jest er little frightened sort iv look, but, s’elp me, I was fittted.”
Goudy put his forefinger to his lip, and dropped a lopsided curtsey. “Oh, sir, me father’s a clergyman,” he simpered, “and I used to play the organ once.”
“Her cobber seemed t’ be quite took with Billy’s lip whisker,” said Benno, his air and attitude insinuating that the town traveller was offensively dead, “n’ yeh know what Billy is. ‘I’ll word ’em when they pass again,’ he says, ’n’ struth he done it. Billy’s ther pure glassey. ‘Iv course you know my friend, Percy Chirnside, Miss Fortesque”’ ses he t’ ther fair one, havin’ took over th’ other. She blushed, ’n’ smiled, ’n’ said somethin’ about not having ther pleasure, ’n’ in two ticks we was lifelong cobbers, me ’n’ ’er. ‘Course, I sees ’er ’ome, ’n’ we parts at ther gate. ’Er father, being ’ead salesman at Gum ’a’ Tumbledon’s is er bit stiff on ettiket ’n’ all that. But she meets me Sund’y afternoon. Feathers, there was nothin’ on ther grass t’ touch ’er. She’s er little boshter—er boshter! ’n’ I’m ’er one ’n’ only.”
Feathers winked hard at Goudy, keeping a smooth and sympathetic cheek to Benno.
“’Minds me iv er little lady I carried lollies to seven years ago,” Feathers said, softly. “She had feathery, flaxen ’air, ’n’ a neye like ther grace iv ’Eaven, ’n’ she walked about with ’em turned up t’ ’allelujah, ’n’ a nym-book pressed to ’er ’eart. She died lingerin’ iv some kind iv saintly disease, ’n’ I’ve never bin the same man since.” Here Goudy wiped his own eye, and passed the handkerchief to Feathers, and the packer mopped up a covert tear. “I took ther teetotal, ’n’ learned some hymns, ’n’ cried on her grave every fine Sund’y afternoon for er week ’r more, ’n’ cot lumbago through it, ’n’ passed away in er little white shimmy ’n’ er pale-blue light, callin’ her name in er low sweet voice.” Feathers broke down, and Goudy, despite his fifty dishonourable years, uttered a desolate cry, and besought the packer to come up some evening, and tell that beautiful story to his poor old bedridden mother.
“Pigs to you!” said Benno, with incredible scorn—“ther pair iv yeh,” and he returned sulkily to his desk.
This was a strange development in Benno the cynic—Benno who had been in the swarming factory from his boyhood, and who on his high stool had looked down upon a world of women, and learnt the sex off like a nursery rhyme. True, his attitude towards girls had always been indulgent, but it was the indulgence of a superior being. At twenty-one one is no longer deceived by women, but it does not follow that Benno took no delight in the human girl. It is pleasant to be appreciated by her; it is pleasant to give her the rapture one’s kindly notice may confer; so that Benno dressed with many precautions and great difficulty on Saturday evenings, and loved to walk with a young gentleman friend of kindred tastes where the girls were thickest in the favourite city street; and, if a fair percentage looked at him with dawning interest as he passed, he was happy. Spats’ Beauties, as a rule, were ignored, but he did not disdain to escort the better-dressed pasters in the great mashing march along the crowded pave. He loved to be seen with women—it helped his reputation as a young devil.
A Panama hat, a high, white, turn-over collar, a small, gay, mechanical tie, a dark suit, carefully creased to preserve a fictitious air of newness, tan boots, a clean shave, and a cigarette, all went to the making of Benno. For the rest, he had a pimply, thin, somewhat foxy face, pale with the pallor that belonged to Spats’ factory, and his right ear drooped like a wilted lily. His expression was one of unnatural precocity, his attitude of mind that of a small and early humorist. He was artificially funny at the expense of all things on earth below and in the heavens above; his conversation was supposed to be delightfully light and sparkling, and consisted mainly of a large collection of street gags and fanciful phrases. Sometimes the clerk spent sixpence or ninepence, perhaps even one shilling, on drinks, which expenditure carried with it the splendid privilege of extending an airy patronage to the barmaid; but Benno did not like drink, and the fine moment came in the gay roll forth from the bar, with a flourish of handkerchiefs and a fusillade of badinage. That, too, was necessary to the part of the young devil. Really, when ‘on his own’ Benno had no vices, and was of a frugal mind; his Savings Bank pass book was tattered and limp, and stained with long service.
And now the cynical and worldly-wise Mr Ben Dickson was raving over the perfections of a mere girl with yellow hair and the mouth of a baby, despite the fact that he had seen golden hair come and go on black-browed Beauties time and again, and in defiance of his knowledge of the guile that lurks behind little red lips. His yearning for a confidant drove him back to the packer’s bench within an hour. He proudly displayed a coloured photograph in a rolled-gold locket.
“Present from ’er,” he said proudly. “Ain’t she ther pick iv ther peaches’ ’n’ she never took up with er lad before.”
“Neat enough bit iv skirt,” said Feathers, critically. “Saucy eye, that.”
“Nothin’ like it,” replied Benno, with spirit. “She’s ez fresh ez eggs. She don’t know A.B.—ab.”
“’N’ ’er ’air ez yaller ez all that.”
“It’s pure gold.”
“All ain’t gold that glitters, Benno, my boy. Does it wear well”
“Ask me! But iv course you can’t be expected t’ have no idea iv the points iv er lady in your walk iv life,” replied Dickson, with the superior air of a clerk. “This is somethin’ er cut above you, for er cert.”
Feathers beat his parcel square, threw it on the heap, and spread another sheet of paper. “I know I ain’t been movin’ much in ’igh society lately,” he said, accepting the rebuff; “’n’ I may be wrong in thinkin’ your tom was tryin’ t’ mash ther man shootin’ off ther camera, but I recollec’ er bloke sayin’ at this ’ere bech, Chewsdee last, that he wouldn’t trust no girl with er giggle in her eye.”
“But she ain’t got er giggle, I tell yeh.”
“’N’ he also said that most iv these golden ’aired pieces was not genuine, just dipped.”
“Jimmy Jee! She’s no fact’ry rat. Do ’ave er bit iv common.”
Ellis, the foreman, stopped beside the young men, mumbling plaintively, hurt by the disregard of his authority shown in their open loafing. Benno lingered only a minute longer, so that the girls might get no false impression in respect to Ellis’s influence over him.
In the course of the week Benno’s infatuation increased alarmingly. The clerk, hitherto so methodical, became the victim of a devil of uneasiness. He was up and down his high stool all day long, like a hungry ape, and he mooned about the room, seeking sympathy from the Beauties. He even confided in Miss Kruse, the fat, elderly forewoman, and gushed rapturously and at great length, regardless of the stupid depression that clung in the flabby folds of her Dutch face. He cornered Ellis himself behind the guillotines, and poured out his whole soul to him, giving minute descriptions of Minetta Bird’s perfections of character, appearance, dress, and manner. Minetta Bird was his darling’s name. “Min,” he called her, as his confidence grew more confidential. Before a fortnight had passed he had confided in every girl on the flat; always in a low, earnest voice, presumably with the impression that the nature of his communications was unsuspected by the rest; whereas by this time Benno’s “boshter” had become the choice jibe of the factory, the printing flat, and the warehouse below.
“I’m just crazy gone on ’er,” he told Kitty Coudray; “’n’ she deserves it. Innocent!—innocent!”— Benno was simply confounded in the contemplation of Min’s infantile unworldliness, and words failed him.
“Beautiful soft golden ’air,” murmured the ecstatic voice from the folding board.
“Mouth like a bloomin’ babby,” cried the ex-professional fat girl.
“’N’ she didn’t know it was loaded,” interjected a third voice somewhat irrelevantly, it would seem.
And then came a chorus like a chant from the four corners of the flat.
“Oh, she’s a little boshter!” The expression was repeated three times, with increasing intensity. This had been adopted as a plan of defence. It threatened to put an end to Benno’s confessions, but the clerk’s devotion dulled his sensibilities and subjugated even his vanity.
It was a good time for the printer’s devil. Billy the Boy had some talent as a caricaturist, and much stolen leisure; he littered he factory with ribald illustrations of Benno’s courtship, in which Min—was represented with a wicked leer and a sliding chin, and giving expression to vulgar sentiments encased in small balloons. He scattered fictitious love-notes, addressed to Benno and signed ‘The Boshter’, all of which represented Min as a designing creature of the yellowest dye, and he had a most irritating way of bobbing up above the stair rail at odd moments, and ejaculating amazedly: “’N’ her ’air’s ez good ez gold.” Mottos casting ridicule on the innocence and prettiness of Miss Bird were scribbled on the white-washed walls, and strangers visiting the flat were beset with questions respecting the character, habits, and appearance of Benno’s boshter.
The humour of the town traveller was particularly offensive. He had a deep sense of gravity, and his method of attack was to address indirect conversations to the furthest ends of the flat. His theme was always the infantile virtues of Min. He had a fresh story every morning, each more preposterous than the other, and his repertoire of music-hall—the heroines of which were guileful creatures who hid their vicious tendencies under golden hair and an ingenious girlishness—was practically inexhaustible.
But Benno’s mental obfuscation pulled him through. His infatuation survived all attacks, and one morning he came in fatuously radiant.
“She—she’s promised t’ be my wife, ole man,” he gasped, grasping the packer’s hand, and shaking it with great heartiness.
Feathers stood it manfully. “Don’t surprise yeh much, does it,” he said. “Thought yeh was prepared for ther worst.”
“You don’t understand ’er, Mills. She’s er hangel—er bloomin’ hangel—that’s what she is,” said Dickson, fervently.
“Well, she’s goin’ cheap,” answered the packer.
Benno was beyond insult and above anger. He went through the factory bubbling. He bubbled all day. He even forgave Goudy everything, and bubbled to him.
“She’s goin’ t’ marry me, Scotty,” he said confidentially.
“Well, ’ou brought it on yourself!” answered the town travellor, washing his hands of the whole business.
Benno told everybody in the place, bar Spats himself, and for one portentous moment the flat thought he was even going confide in the boss; but the clerk recollected himself in time, and pulled up short. For a year after, the Beauties wondered what would have happened had Benno actually babbled his rapture to the master. The majority favoured the opinion that Spats would have burst on the spot.
After this, Dickson’s raving took a new form; it was now all of the little cottage and the furnishing. He was leaving everything to Min, excepting, of course, the unimportant part of financing the business; that was his pleasant duty.
“Yeh know, Feathers, she’s no bally nark; er bloke kin trust ’er,” he said. “’N’ she’s got taste, mind yeh. ’Er father was er winder-dresser once. She took er pretty little cottage, ’n’ furnishin’ it good ’n’ fine. I’m outer all that; don’t even know where ther crib is. When all’s finished, we rings up ther parson, do ther trick, all rights reserved, ’n’ I sails inter me little ’ome, all Sir Garney oh. That’s er idea. Just ther thing, eh, what. Oh, yeh can’t push er down. She’s er boshter!”
The happy date arrived. Benno was allowed two days off on full pay to celebrate the event. Spats liked his hands to marry; it made them submissive, he thought; hence the liberality. Benno returned on the third day, and the Beauties greeted him yell as he mounted the stairs. The yell died away when Dickson came fully into view. Benno the jaunty was no more; a grey-faced, pinched, hollow-eyed, broken wretch confronted them. The clerk almost staggered to the packer’s bench, and, leaning upon it, passed a nervous hand over his eyes. There was an abject piteousness in his face, his lips trembled, a tear rolled down his cheek.
“I bin done, Feathers,” he blurted. “She—she’s er speiler.” Benno’s head dropped, he cried before them all, sobbing without shame.
“What, ain’t yeh married, then” asked Feathers.
Benno shook his head. “No,” he said; “she never turned up. I ’unted fer ther ’ouse yesterdee ’n’ ther day before. I—I found it. It was furnished beautiful.” Benno’s feelings overcame him again.
“’N’ ther girl” prompted Feathers, eagerly.
“She’d—she’d married another feller, ’n’ he was livin’ in my ’ouse!”
Goudy let fall the parcel he had taken up when Benno entered. His face was set hard, like that of a stone man He walked straight to the stairs, head erect, and went down past each flat right into the cellar, and at the far end, in the darkness, among the bales, he sat down and exploded, and the echoes of his mad subterranean laughter came faintly up to the factory. But there was no laughing there. Benno was weeping at his desk, and the Beauties were storming in throes of indignation righteous and profound. Hours later the factory generously offered to “deal with” Min but Benno, with a touch of his old self, said that it didn’t matter; he had consulted his solicitor.
The day was hot. The industrious little tin thermometer over packer’s bench registered 103°, not out, and the atmosphere of the long flat was as oppressive as a burden, and heavy with motes. The factory was low-roofed and ill-ventilated. Through the row of dingy western windows the afternoon sun shot broad beams that shimmered in the dull interior like strips of white-hot steel. To many of the sallow girls at the pasting boards it seemed that they were supporting the ceiling with their stiff and aching heads. The factory sulked; all brows were lowering, and lips drooped with a sickly petulance. Several of the piece-workers, confirmed grafters, toiled with swift fingers, hanging desperately to the task, but the majority of the Beauties leaned upon their boards indolently, moving their limbs with slow effort. The flat was gusty with sighs. It was impossible to hold the paid hands to their tables; the forewomen kept up a continual whining, and Ellis fluttered about uneasily, tremulous with apprehension, the paper-dust and the sweat coagulating into mud in his scattered tufts of whiskers.
“Now, now, girls!” the foreman’s timorous expostulation was almost as insistent as the ticking of the big clock. “Now, now, girls—now, now!” The Beauties treated him with full disdain; they had no heart even for insolence.
That part of the flat which turned to the left, out of the sight of Ellis at his cutting-machines, was piled to the rafters with stock and bales, and here were the dressing-rooms. This was the favourite rendezvous of the impudent shirkers, too, and now and again the foreman made an angry excursion along the dark passages between the piles of goods, driving the loafers forth, with pathetic reproaches and threats of dismissal.
From behind one of the stacks an unhealthy-looking girl, of about eighteen, with a tousled mass of dull red hair, made pantomimic efforts to attract the packer. Feathers was very sad. He was a man with a thirst that became an actual infliction under the stress of 103° in the shade—“Worse ’n’ neuralger,” he complained—but Odgson, whose office stock of uncustomed whisky never ran short, was scandalized by anything like drinking habits in the lower orders, and alcoholic beverages were strictly prohibited upstairs. Feathers’ affliction cut into his earnings. Already he had gone forth secretly as a passionate pilgrim, but his limited credit at the Star and Garter was exhausted.
“I wouldn’ ’a’ b’lieved ’twas in er ’uman woman t’ be ez firm ez what that Mrs Publican is,” he told Bruno, bitterly. “Wimmin ain’t fit t’ keep pubs; they ain’t got no compassion.”
Feathers was thinking over these things, with a dull pain at his heart and a mouth “like a drought-struck bone mill”, when his eye fell upon Linda gesticulating in the distance.
“Yah, get up yer pole!” Feathers hated frivolity at a moment like this.
“What-oh, Feathers,” hissed Linda. “Come ’n’ ’av’ a—”
The packer was about to descend to the vulgar in his anguish, when an action of Linda’s swept the black thoughts from his soul. The girl had raised her right hand to her face, her head was tilting slowly backwards, rhythmical ripples ran along her white throat. Feathers shivered.
“Meanin’” he pointed to the centre of his breast, and his eyes were round with inquiry.
“Fair dinkum,” telegraphed Linda.
“Right-o, then. In arf er tick.” Feathers ran a casual eye over the room, took up a parcel, and carried it round the bend. In a small space between a stack and the wall four or five were crowded round a large billy. The billy had liquor in it. Feathers recognized it at a glance, and half the misery of a hard life fell from him. It was beer. Linda dipped a cupful and offered it.
“Oh, come, what sort” The packer spoke in stern expostulation. But he took the cup. “This means ther dirty push fer ther lot iv yer copped,” he said.
“Rats,” said Carrie Bent. “Ole Spats’ rotten fact’ry ain’t ’eaven, is it? Run it in, Jud, I’m fair hungry for another.”
“Howdja work it”
“New cove from the mill smuggled it up the lift.”
“It’s er fair cop out iv yer cort. Mind, I told yeh.” Feathers thought he was being very firm, but the arm that held the cup was weakening visibly. The cup moved towards his face as if of its own volition. “’N’ it’s rotten bad fer yeh beer is, this weather,” he continued. “It goes t’ yer ’ead.” What further wisdom the packer might have spoken was stopped by the arrival of the cup at his lips. He seemed surprised to find it there. Something like a feat of legerdemain followed, and the beer was swept away.
Linda took the cup and served one round, Feathers standing over, moralizing. Then came the sound of Ellis’s familiar hobble, and instantly the billy went out of sight under a sack and behind a bale.
“What rot, girls; why don’t yer get er shift on” cried Feathers virtuously, making himself right. “’Taint ther mealy pertater, polin’ on the firm like this.”
“Come, come, come,” spluttered Ellis. “Get to your boards, I’ll fine you—every one of you.” A trifling revolt was sufficient to rob Fuzzy of what little understanding and self-control he possessed. He took every dereliction to heart as a personal wrong. His voice ran shrill in an agony of reproach, and, as he stumped after the girls, the timid, nervous man pitifully asserting himself, he ran blindly into a bale, cannoned on to a case of white note, and fell into the truck. The foreman fell into, or over, one or the other of the trucks at least once a day, and the joke had lost point. The Beauties remained sullen, some sprawling over their boards, openly loafing, their bare arms hanging down, their figures sharply outlined in thin skirts and skimpy bodices.
“Dead hookity, I call it,” said the packer sympathetically, as he helped Ellis out of his complication with the truck.
The foreman turned to his machines, whimpering “Now, now, girls; come, come now!” as he passed the boards. Feathers returned to his bench. He packed with some little energy for ten minutes, and then the knowledge that there was illicit beer on the flat began to prey upon his mind. He sighed frequently; his nagging thirst got at him again. The heat came through the factory in successive clouds. In answer to some weary pleasantry that came up the speaking tube, he said distinctly that life was a “blasted fraud”.
“Is that the Union Brewery” asked the voice, after an sniff.
“Nah, it’s ’ell’s stokehole, yer Jack chump.”
A few minutes later Feathers paid another urgent visit to the billy. The beer was tepid, but he returned refreshed. The factory was almost silent under the heat and burden of the day, saving for the rattle of the cogs of the guillotines and the whirr of the sewing machines ripping out leagues of meal bags. The girls had nothing to say for themselves. They were stripped to the last rag within the requirements of decency. The ex-professsional fat girl, working hard, was a humid mountain; there was an uncanny look in her set face. Benno drowsed at his desk. Much latitude was permitted to the clerk these days, in consideration of a recent sorrow. The air of the factory was heavy with the tang of humanity. The curse of Adam brooded in the room.
The printer’s devil below sang a line of “Climbing up the Golden Stairs”. It was the “office’. Feathers snatched something from his drawer, bit off an ample mouthful and chewed. Spats’ belltopper loomed above the stairs. Spats followed. The “guv’-nor’s” face was purple with heat and emotion, and large beads of oil glistened upon his tuberous nose. The machines whirred with new vigour, the Beauties made a spiritless effort to look busy, Benno drove his pen with a great show of energy, and the owner stood and glared over the factory under his clumps of brow. His look was one of unmeasured hatred. He grunted, and his grunt was expressive of great loathing. He turned, and shuffled along the flat till he came to the packer’s bench. There he paused and sniffed. He sniffed at Feathers repeatedly, like an angry dog, and grunted three times—rising grunts of fathomless disgust—the last almost a snort. Then he passed downstairs again.
Feathers leaned over the rail. “Pig’s Whiskers!” he hissed. The expression might have lacked point but it relieved him. It was cheese the packer was eating—very old cheese, and very strong for its age. It was not nice cheese, but it had the virtue of subordinating the smell of any beer that might be within an acre at the time of eating.
The whirr of the machines softened again. The cogs clanked no more. Benno’s head sank, and the Beauties abandoned all pretensions. The heated atmosphere came up the stairways, and grew denser in the top flat; breathing was a labour, and the packer’s head was humming like a mill. He was thinking of the unguarded beer behind the bale.
Suddenly the factory was disturbed by a thin crying—a low, helpless crying that had an animal-like agony in it. The fat girl was wailing at her boards. Her large face shone white; she still worked with deft fingers, but she wept at her task like an insensate creature. Ellis understood what it meant; he had heard it before more than once, and instantly he fell into his familiar condition of terror-stricken irresponsibility. He scrambled down the room, knocking against all the boards, throwing tiers of work into confusion.
“Here, here—you stop it!” he cried. “Stop it! Stop it, I tell you.”
A little girl at the folding board was making strange gasping noises. Many of the girls seemed to become suddenly possessed of a bovine fear. Sarah Eddie ran to Martha Rickards, and put strong arms about her, whereupon the fat girl flopped upon the floor, and her crying increased to an agonized scream. The little girl at the folding-board fell back convulsed. Two other girls started crying, and Ellis ran foolishly from one to the other, pleading and complaining. Feathers alone remained cool. He was experienced in all the foolishness of women. The packer leaned over the stair and called down to the printers:
“Here, er couple iv you blokes len’s a ’and Fat’s down.”
A couple of printers bounded up from the lower flat, and Feathers took command.
“Yah-h! go ’n’ get hosed!” he said, contemptuously, to the foreman, who was fussing uselessly. “Grab er ’ead, lads.”
The fat girl was now screaming in violent hysterics. Feathers took her heels, the printers her arms, and, with Sarah’s help, they carried their great burden to the lift.
“Take ’er inter ther cellar an’ let ’er bloomin’ well ’ave it out there,’ ’r she’ll ’ave ther ’ole fact’ry ’owlin’ mad in ’arf a tick.” The fat girl was promptly lowered, and Feathers turned to his other patients.
Chrissie M‘Fadyen, a tall dark girl, had fallen in a huddled heap under her board, and was making weird, choking noises. Feathers straightened her out, pillowed her head on a pile of bags and said angrily:
“Shut up’! D’ yeh ’ear? We ain’t doin’ anythin’ in fancy fits today.” Then with extreme disdain: “Arr-r-r, ring off, can’t yeh!” The girl shivered, stiffened her limbs, and opened a startled eye. “Nah, then, Mac, that’ll do you. Just you take a ’ammerlock holt iv yerself, ’n’ ’ave some dam’ consideration fer others.” The tone was brutal. Chrissie struggled with her symptoms, and conquered. “Take ’er away ’n’ sprinkle ’er,” said Feathers to one of the machinists, and Chrissie M‘Fadyen was led to the taps, weeping quietly.
The packer passed on to Ginger Copin, the foreman dancing at his heels and stuttering like a cranky monkey. It seemed as if half the girls might get out of hand at any moment. Many were crying. Feathers took Ginger by the shoulders in a masterful grip, and shook her to emphazise his biting rebuke.
“Shine idyit you makin’ o’ yerself, Copin,” he said. “Bli’ me, have er bit iv common. Stow it; stow it, d’ye hear” Ginger strove against her racked nerves, and looked surprised and piteous. Feathers was not to be softened, however. He said further things to Copin, and they were not tender and soothing things. In short he cursed her from boots to breakfast; and Copin revived as under cooling showers, and was led away by the stronger girls.
Feathers swore bitterly at a couple of weeping pasters in passing, and braced them up wonderfully; delivered a scathing expostulation to Miss Bentley, the sedate piece-worker, who gave marked indications of going off; and then addressed himself to the little girl at the folding-board, who had fallen in a fit. He carried her to the taps in the cooler part of the building, sothing the factory with bad, masterful words as he passed.
“New one, this, ain’t she” he said. “Wha’s she called”
They told him, and he addressed her by her name; not so sternly as in the former cases and without bullock-compelling expletives, but with the tone of a man who was not to be denied. He insisted on her getting well by her own effort. “It’s no use tellin’ me yeb carn’t, y’know, ’cause I know better. Come, come, buck-up!” The little girl was slowly reviving, and although this case took longer than the others, the patient was presently well enough to go below with the rest.
Feathers went back to the Beauties, bullying manfully here and there. He picked out three more, cursed them into some sense of decency, and passed them down to the cellar to cool off; and behold, the factory was in order again, and clothed in its right mind. The packer had proved himself master of the situation.
“Never you snivel ’n’ whine over wimmen when they’re ’avin’ ’sterics ’n’ them jiggity fits,” he said, wisely, to the printers; “it on’y makes ’em feel they’re pore sufferin’ dears, ’n’ they’ll holler their ’eads off, ’n’ kick ther ceilin’ in outer dashed sympathy fer themselves. What er woman wants when she’s feelin’ like that is a real beast t’ boss her. Yiv gotter work in among ’em here fer er few years t’ know what er consolation er reg’lar brute is to er woman now ’n’ again.”
“Sst—Pig’s Whiskers!” hissed Billy the boy. The printers fled downstairs, and Feathers packed. “Pig’s Whiskers” was one of the many pet names the factory had given Odgson, the Boss.
Half an hour later a south breeze was sweeping the factory, and the Beauties were barracking noisily at their work. Feathers was in an amiable mood; he had emptied the billy, and now walked with ostentatious uprightness. The fact that there was no longer any alcoholic beverage on the flat, and that the boss had no just cause for complaint, filled him with genuine and virtuous satisfaction.
After years spent in the quest of the perfect boy, Odgson seem satisfied that the species became extinct when he grew up, and a man was engaged to assist at the guillotines and do the rouse-about work of the factory. Chiller Green was about twenty-four and a sinister young man at first sight. He came on to the flat with the tips of his fingers dipped behind his belt in front, his chin thrust forward, and his eyes full of truculence. He surveyed the room and its occupants coldly, and his expression implied a certain disgust at finding himself in such cheap company. As he glared, his chin moved in a chewing action, leisurely and insolent. The movement was purely for effect; Chiller had nothing to chew. He had dressed in a soft black felt hat, high in the crown—a kind much effected by jockey-boys; a short, faded coat; trousers very skimped in the waist, and high-heeled boots.
A facetious clerk called up the tube to Feathers: “Accept delivery of the new boy. Please forward receipt at your convenience.”
The packer grinned. “’R’ yow ther new boy” he said.
Chiller looked sidelong at the packer’s feet with contemptuous casualness, “I’m Chiller Green, amachoor bantim champyin iv ther Port,” he replied.
“Don’ mention it,” said Feathers, cordially.
“I’m jest sayin’,” continued Chiller, “I’m man enough t’ go on with, s’posin’ anyone’s wantin’ anythin’.”
“G’out!” said Feathers; “I’ll contract t’ bury all your dead with ther fat-money from er brick-mill. Iv you’ve come ’ere t’ work, sling off yer coat ’n’ move, ’r the fore-woman ’ll smack you.”
Chiller spat with scientific precision, turned slowly away, and slouched towards the changing-room.
The impression Chiller Green conveyed during those first few minutes proved to be quite erroneous. The new hand was really a jaunty, companionable youth, and demonstrated as much within a week by inaugurating a boxing class in the lift corner, and fraternally blackening the packer’s eye during the luncheon hour. The boxing-gloves were extemporized out of pairs of working stockings discarded by the Beauties. Green was the pride of a suburban “push”, and was certainly not more impudent than was excusable in a man who could “hook” with both hands and had “done time” because a bush-bred policeman had no more respect for his head than to leave it in the way when the “push” was throwing bricks about. Chiller was not backward in publishing his record. He promised to show Feathers a “boshter knack for passing out gazobs”.
“Got on to it when I was ‘up’,” he said.
“Gar-rn!” said the packer.
“Oh, I done my bit,” Chiller went on. “’Tain’t nothin’ agen me, though. Jist lined er John with er half-Brunswick, ’n’ got four moon. Knocked him fair off his trolly.”
“Iv it gets known here they’ll bounce yeh on ther pavement.”
“My trubs! I’d have er cut at ole Spats hisself if ’e looked cock-eyed at me.” Chiller titled his truck-load on to its base, put his hands up to nothing, did a shadowy spar, and then danced a few steps indicative of his cheerful indifference. “I kin alwez get back to ther trade,” he said; “on’y it’s Chinaman’s work.”
“’N’ what’s yer trade” asked Feathers.
“Barrerin’ rabbies. They’s money in it when meat’s riz, but pushin’ a barrer gets er man down, I tell yeh, specially in the winter mon’s. I reckon I’ll hang up here ’n’ make er name fer mesilf.”
“Hope you’ll keep us all on when you take over the business,” said the town-traveller.
The “bantim champyin” sparred at Gaudy, feinted and baulked in a highly decorative way, and tweaked the big man’s beard, making at the same time a plaintive baa-ing. Then he resumed his burden and passed on, singing something to the effect that he could get a sweetheart any day, but not another mother. Chiller’s taste in songs inclined to the sentimental and woebegone.
The town traveller’s remark was called for. Already Chiller Green had assumed dominance in the factory. The deprecatory Ellis was most polite towards his assistant. The foreman’s native timidity doomed him to be an easy victim to the audacity of young Mr Green. Chiller respected nobody. When Spats visited the factory flat, the Bantam outraged his dignity and ruined his influence by ridiculing him with audacious effrontery. As a compliment to Odgson’s hairiness, Chiller had christened him Jo-Jo, and he indulged in doggy pantomime at the heels of the proprietor, or whined and yapped plaintively for the edification of the pasters, scattering choice sotto voce reflections on Spats, his appearance and manners, etc., reflections that embraced all Odgson’s relations, including a purely hypothetical Aunt Lucy, and it was carried on with bravado that amounted to insane recklessness in the minds of the girls, whose dislike for the great man from below was tempered with a becoming awe.
Chiller’s manner towards the girls was familiar, and flippant. Even the superiority of the two or three sedate and somewhat elderly pasters, who preserved a certain aloofness, had no effect upon the Bantam’s exuberance, and he maintained for their benefit an assumption of close and intimate friendship that they seem to find extremely galling. Miss Stevens was the most reserved of all these. The factory had endowed her with aristocratic antecedents and romantic misfortune, and even the ragamuffin Beauties called her “Miss”. She was thirty and scornful.
“What-oh, Steve! How-de-do-de” was Chiller’s morning greeting. Miss Stevens treated him as if he were something to which the attention of the Board of Health should be drawn at the earliest possible moment, and, addressing a neighbour, the young man would continue brightly: “Great cobbers, me ’n’ Steve. She kin keep nothin’ from me, tells me all her secrets. No end iv conferdence in me, she’s got. Used t’ be er friend o’ mother’s. How’s th’ indigestion this mornin’, Sissy” Miss Steven’s name was not Sissy; she had no indigestion. Her wrath towards Mr Green was silent, but very deep.
Benno, the clerk, Mr Green refused to take seriously, at any time or in any capacity. He called him “Tutsie”, and insisted that, despite his present pretensions, his antecedents were of the lowest.
“How’s yer ole pot-’n’-pan, Tutsie” said Chiller. “When I knew him, he was head shop-walker on er saverloy-can, ’n’ yer mother was carryin’ round babies t’ ther poor, ’n’ runnin’ er ‘families supplied’ emporium in Paddy’s Alley.”
“Le’ go me leg,” retorted the clerk, smartly.
“’N’ ’ere ’re you, wearin’ made-t’-measure suits, ’n’ collars what turn down all round, ’n’ splashin’ yerself agin ther verandy posts iv fine nights, like er young dook.”
Mr Green’s spirits were guaranteed to keep in any climate. When the factory was cold it was as inclement as a refrigerating mill, and when it was hot it was suggestive of a material hell with all the modern improvements in house-warming; but cold or hot, Green retained his flippancy, and went about his work with abounding cheerfulness. He frequently paused by the way to put up a vivacious spar with a stack of parcels, and every now and then he threw in a “dead flash” scrap of step-dancing, or sang a couple of lines of a popular music-hall chorus with original effects.
This was before the Spadger began to get in her work. The Spadger was a little folder, so called because Feathers had discovered in her a strong resemblance to a bedraggled sparrow. She was waspish and thin, with a nose like a cheap wooden doll’s, round eyes, and a mouth puckered into an ineradicable perkiness. Her walk had a confident sort of hop in it. Her ginger hair was literally dragged into a knot at the back, which was always misplaced, so that her head had a cunning appearance of being pulled to one side or the other. She dressed very poorly, and her hats looked like some few unconsidered trifles collected on a plate. She was old-maidish at eighteen. Her name was Minnie Silver.
Chiller had been in the factory two months or more before he noticed Minnie particularly. When he began to offer her little attentions, his manner was still gaily impertinent, and the small folder ignored him with elaborate disdain that was a grotesque parody of the arts and graces of her betters. When she came up the stairs Chiller would make a burlesque demonstration, dusting the floor, and bustling pasters and parcels out of the way.
“Hello there, get off th’ earth!” cried the Bantam “’Ere comes ther little Duchess. How’s it this mornin’, yer Grace”
Miss Silver’s nose would be hoisted into the air, her under-lip would curl outwards disdainfully, and she would sweep aside her scarp of faded skirt, and pass on with intense hauteur. Then Chiller to the packer: “Get on to ’er, Feathers. You see ’ow she treats me—me what never put her away when she stole ther tutsie, ’n’ never will, s’help me.” The reference to the tutsie (vernacular for cat) was provoked by Minnie’s muff—a skimpy moth-eaten muff with bald patches—of which she was rather proud.
“I ’ope I got too much self-respec’ t’ have anythink t’ say t’ them low larrikins,” said Minnie to the nearest paster.
Mr Green continued in this vein for some weeks. He never came near Miss Silver without favouring her with some trifle of banter, and his remarks were personal—painfully so, they might have seemed to people of refinement. One afternoon Minnie remarked, in a high-pitched, thin voice, addressing nobody in particular:
“If someone don’t know better ’n ter sing out after people in the street they’ll find out.” The speech was laboriously enigmatic, but Chiller understood. Strange to say, the young man had no reply.
There was an undercurrent of sadness in the Bantam’s greeting to Miss Silver next morning.
“’Ere she is agin. Ain’t she saucy” he said.
“Phew!” said Miss Silver, disdainfully.
“Oh, mother, she bit me!” Chiller sparred, side-stepped the town traveller, hit him in the wind, and then danced a shuffle or two; but it was evident to Feathers that the bloom was passing from the young man’s assurance.
Not long after this the packer came upon Chiller and Miss Silver behind one of the stacks. Minnie was supercilious; Chiller was protesting almost pathetically.
“Oh, I say, Min, get off me face. Ain’t I sweet with yeh! Ain’t—” Chiller discovered Feathers at this point, and fell into a low-comedy vein. He feinted at the stack, ducked in, and put in some effective half-arm blows on a bundle of fruit-bags; but Feathers was not deceived. Miss Silver went perkily up the room. Certainly the courtship was progressing.
After this there was an unmistakably pathetic appeal in Chiller’s banter; and Miss Silver, understanding her advantage accentuated her haughtiness. She was weazened, and plain, and miserably dressed, and in all probability had never had an admirer before, but the most disdainful beauty could not have assumed more airs towards a hapless suppliant. Indeed, at this stage Miss Silver’s performance was an exquisite piece of comedy. Despite her disdain, instinct prompted the girl to preen herself with silly little bits of ribbon and scraps of lace, and a small bunch of second-hand cherries and a turkey feather were added to the quaint collection in her battered hat. Her scorn for Chiller was rapidly working upon what strange sense of humour the Beauties possessed. She put herself to no little trouble to display it. She went out of her way to meet the Bantam in order to avoid him with unspeakable disdain. She talked at Chiller in a loud, reedy voice.
“There’s someone what’s always follerin’ someone about in a way what he orter be ashamed of hisself, knowin’ he ain’t wanted,” she cried.
“Better lay poison for him,” said the Fat Girl.
“It’s yer fatal beauty, Spadger,” suggested Kitty Coudray “Cut yer ’air ’n’ sit in the sun till you freckle up, ’n’ then the man might give you a rest.”
Another paster asked if the villain who still pursued her was an aide-de-camp or a rich squatter.
“Oh, ’e knows what ’e is well enough,” answered Minnie shrilly, “’n’ ’e better mind ’isself, that’s all.”
Chiller had no answer to make to these insinuations. They left him depressed. He went about his work quietly. He had abandoned the boxing-class in the lift-corner, and showed a marked dislike for the society of Feathers, Goudy, and the ribald printers. Even Billy the Boy was losing respect for him, and cast painful reflections up and down the stairs.
“Buck up,” said Billy, “there’s lots better ’n her in ther dust-box.”
Chiller declined to buck up. Minnie piped something to the effect that she would disdain to be “found drowned with a bloke what done up ’is ’air dead leary”; next morning the elaborate festoons had disappeared from Chiller’s brow, and his hair was parted with the oily precision characteristic of Sunday-school superintendents and reputable young barbers.
“They’s scrougers what think they’s jist the lolly in a red tie,” piped Minnie, “but they ain’t respectible if yer arsk me.” Chiller abandoned his red tie. He put away the proud bob-tailed coat with the buttons on it, because Minnie said acridly of all wearers of such coats; “It shows what they are—lurchers ’n’ rats, the lot iv ’em.” He lowered his heels for the same reasons and discarded a black-and-white sweater that he had prized very highly, because Minnie thought sweaters suggested disreputable sporting connections. But poor young Mr Green’s courtship was not visibly advanced by these concessions. Minnie Silver remained supercilious.
“Oh, Min, come off,” said Chiller, in sad expostulation.
“Speak ter yer equals!” sniffed the little folder.
“Give’s er charnce won’t yeh” persisted Chiller, following her up.
Minnie gathered up her dingy skirt, pointed her nose straight at the rafters, and to use Chiller’s own expressive phrase, “laid him out cold”. Half-an-hour later, speaking from her place at the board, and addressing the whole factory, Miss Silver cried:
“If people ’angs round other people’s ’ouses of nights it’s their own look-out if the police gets spoke to.”
Chiller Green actually blushed. A few minutes later, when the Bantam was busy at the machines, and well within range, Minnie said to Miss Twentyman:
“Seen me out with Mr Eddie, Sunday, didn’t yer, Sis? ’E’s a gentleman ’e is. Knows how t’ behave ’isseif. Gets ’s quid a week et Goosie’s, solderin’ jam-tins, ’n’ a rise every year. ’E don’t ’ave no truck with no low fightin’ scrougers, ’e don’t.”
Mr Green did not blush this time, but a light came into his eye that augured ill for Mr Eddie, of Goosie’s jam factory. On the morning of the second day, Minnie was extremely caustic in her comments on some person or persons of pugnacious quality.
“Them what ’its them what is too good for them will be made to pay for it, so they better mind out,” she said. Chiller growled a bad expression, and Miss Silver continued moralizing. “It’s somethin’ if a young lady can’t walk down the street with a friend what’s a gentleman, without ’im bein’ dealt with, an’ ’is nose punched. But what I sez is, there’s a law for the likes.”
Chiller got a day off to attend his aunt’s funeral, and Feathers discovered in the suburban department of an evening paper an intimation that one James Green had been fined two pounds, with the alternative of a week’s imprisonment, for a grievous and unprovoked assault on a Mr Henry Eddie in the public street.
Next evening, Chiller said to Feathers, “I’m slingin’ it, blokey, Goin’ back ter ther trade.”
“But I thought barrer-pushin’ was er game fer gazobs”
“Oh, ole Spats can’t expect me ter go on muckin’ round fact’ry fer seventeen-’n’-a-tizzy. I’m thinking iv gettin’ married.”
“Ya-a-a-a-s.” Chiller sparred a bit, danced a step or two, and went off singing. “She’s onlee a wuckin’ girl, no friends ’as she”, but his old spirit was lacking.
Chiller left. In two months, Minnie left. One Monday morning about a year later. Feathers said to Benno, the clerk:
“Who’d yeh think I seen, Sundee? Th’ Bantam ’n’ ’er nibs.”
“Ya-as. They ’ad er pramberlater. There was er pincher in it. Chiller was pushin’ it.”
“Good enough for ’im”, said the relentless Benno.
Mr. George Mills, packer, was not wholly impervious to the arrows of the little love god. He had not served, for twelve years or more, on the top flat at Spats’, with girls of all ages, all sorts and sizes, and every make and shape, gathered about him, without sustaining wounds. But Feathers was a philosopher.
“Er man learns a bit ’bout women in a crib like this,” he said, ruminating over a quid, “’n’ the more he learns, the more he puts his confidence in beer.”
Nobody had ever seen the packer drunk, but he had a deep, abiding affection for beer, and with the affection was coupled a large respect.
“It’s these cheap ’n’ easy shickers rollin’ round on their ear what brings discredit on beer. ’Tain’t the liquor wot’s snide, it’s the dead hookity hides what it gets chuted into, ’n’ the grown bloke ez kin take his little lot in bond, ’n’ then go ’ome on his own end ’ithout wakin’ the town, ’s got a friend in beer more lovin’ than mother. Jimmy Jee! how’d a man get bumped with worldly trubs if he ’adn’t beer t’ fall back on! ’Ow’d I iv bin many a time if ’twasn’t fer the drop iv buck-up? I’ve seen me put all my bits on a little silly more’n once ’r twice, ’n’ played fer keeps too—took the teetotal fer ’er sake, ’n’ was mother’s bes’ boy fer ez much ez a month, ’n’ then ’ad t’ get back et the pints agin fer consolation. Now I wouldn’t turn it down fer the toffest Dolly on the block.”
The “little silly” Mills had more particularly in his mind when moralizing thus was Connie Gleeson, an expert paster from a rival establishment. Miss Gleeson was a revelation to Spats’ Beauties—tall and fair, with large blue eyes, abundant hair, an excellent complexion, and a decent figure. Sitting quite still, in a plain black dress, with her mouth shut, Connie was a passable imitation of a lady, but the illusion vanished the moment she opened her ruby lips. Feathers was well pleased with her; so was Benno, and, for the matter of that, so was Billy the Boy, in whom familiarity with the Beauties had bred a quaint precocity.
“My Jimmy! you kin tread on me face, whoever y’ are,” said the small devil, when he first confronted Miss Gleeson. “You’re the prize bloom, Sis. Where’d they get yeh? Look ’ere, if you ain’t runnin’ a bes’ boy iv yer own would y’ min’ givin’ me a little kiss”
“Cheeky boy,” said Miss Gleeson. “Get goin’ ’r I’ll hit y’ in the squint.” She threatened him pleasantly with her brush.
Billy the Boy stood back for a better view. “What’s a bonzer like you doin’ spreadin’ sour paste fer yer daily?” said the wise child. “You outer be in the sixp’ny bar, spangled with di’monds, dishin’ up drinks t’ lots iv squatters.” To Billy’s young idea, a barmaid’s position in a sixpenny bar was the ultimate height in the way of social elevation.
“Wa’s that” exclaimed Miss Gleeson, struck with the idea. “D’yeh think I’d do fer a barmaid”
“Do I what? Take it from the teller, you’d slap the town. You’d have firs’ pull ermong the doods, ’n’ cud pick one t’ suit.”
Feathers came softly behind the printer’s devil, took him by the ear, led him to the top of the stairs, and prompted him with a kick. Billy went down. The packer already had other views for Miss Gleeson, and he did not like the turn the conversation had taken.
“Gar-rt!” cried Connie. “Le’ the boy be. ’E’s a fair treat.”
Billy’s head bobbed up the stairs again. “’Andle him tender, Sis,” he piped, “he’s li’ble t’ boils. That what yeh notice ’bout ’im’s free-lunch onyins. Cud chip it with a chisel, cudn’t yeh”
The packer’s usual weapon, the twine ball, missed, and knocked in the belltopper of the junior partner in the cellar below. Billy the Boy was absent from the subsequent explanations. He was very happy. Later in the day he presented Miss Gleeson with a caricature of the packer in three inks. Bill’s caricatures were always atrociously broad, and yet held some strange, loathly resemblance to the victim that made them a joy to everybody else.
Feathers’ love for Connie Gleeson was a sudden infection. In the words of Benno, he took it “ez the kitten took the brick.” Miss Twentyman introduced the stranger with grave formalities, and the packer was glad he had kept his collar on that morning, and pleased that his well-oiled hair was truly parted, and that the branching arabesques on his forehead were as accurate as a printer’s bracket. These reflections flowed in upon him, despite the fact that it was “a fair knock-out.” Connie had large eyes, into which she could infuse at will a touching shyness quite infantile. She rolled them at Mills, and she smiled at him through moist, red lips. She had a trick of moistening her lips when she wished to be particularly bewitching. Feathers was stunned. Ten minutes later Benno found him, fifty two-pound fruit bags in his inert hands, his jaws suspended, and his unseeing eyes fixed on the whitewashed wall beyond his packing-board, dead to the world.
“’Ello! ’ello, there!” cried the clerk, dropping a fourteen pound weight on the scales. “Get a move on, ’r you’ll get the shoot. Hoggy’s comin’ up with his gun.”
The packer sprung into action as if a button had been touched. “Hev y’ taken er inven’try iv the new goods” he said presently, finding it was a false alarm.
“What-ho!” said the little clerk, giving his lapels a tug. “Have I not!”
“Isn’t she” commented Mills, with something like enthusiasm.
“She is, ’n’ more,” replied Benno. “Me ’n’ me worldly goods ’re all hers.”
“Pity t’ waste yeh!” sneered Feathers.
Miss Gleeson discovered herself to be the object of interest, and moistened her lips, dropped her face, and smiled up shyly at them through her nimbus of fair hair. It was a very pretty action, and most effective, but it drew a long, moaning sound from Harrerbeller Harte, followed by a lot of irrelevant baby-talk, addressed to nobody and nothing.
“Oo’s mummy’s ickle sly-boots, oo is—oo is! Baby’s a baddy baddy ’icky bubb-bubb to goo-goo the wicked mans!” said the lank and homely Miss Harte, and she kept at it till Feathers got angry and advised her to get back to the madhouse.
“S’pose it’s in the fam’ily,” he said. “Y’ orter be seen to. How d’ we know y’ ain’t dangerous”
For answer Harrerbeller gave a grotesque parody of Miss Gleeson’s timid droop and moist, shy smile that set half the pasters squealing. Already the Beauties had decided that Connie was “as ratty as rabbits,” and their hasty judgment was confirmed by wider experience, although no man in the house could be brought to admit that there was anything the matter with Connie beyond an excess of girlish sweetness.
It is a foolish girl indeed who has not some kind of an eye to the main chance in her dealings with man, and it is not likely that Connie regarded Feathers as her main chance at any time. There is no doubt, however, that the packer was very serious. After the first month he gave up beer and other little self indulgences, in order to have it in his power to shout the young lady to 2s. seats at the Royal, and to suppers of fried whiting, chips, and coffee at the fish-shops. Feathers was not a demonstrative lover, but his affection for Miss Gleeson was soon common knowledge. He built a stack of sugar-bags near her board as a cover for little flirtations, and if anybody in authority came to the flat while he was making himself sweet with the paster, he adroitly shifted his interest, and was found to be busy at that stack, either taking parcels off or building them on.
Benno brought to Goudy the news that Mills had been seen at large in a flogger coat, and wearing a turn-over collar five inches high, and a little bow tie of tender pink. The facts were communicated in George’s hearing.
“Strike me, you’d iv thought it had ten thousan’ er year from aunty t’ do what it liked with,” said Benno.
“A little pink bow tie,” said the town traveller, with exaggerated interest. “How coy!”
“’N a new grey felt ’at tucked in by mother,” said Benno.
“And a pure white collar and a clean shave,” added Goudy. “It must have looked like ‘The Maiden’s Prayer.’ How did the women seem to bear up, poor things”
Feathers arranged fourteen pound of sugar bags with great attention to detail.
“But you’ve gotter overlook it.” Benno went on. “It ain’t responsible. It’s doin’ a dote on a little silly, ’n’ it’s took t’ walkin’ in its sleep.”
“Takes her to sixpenny shows, and shouts cough drops,” said the town traveller. “The man’s mad!”
Feathers began to soliloquise aloud. “Once knew a Scotchman give an ounce iv liver t’ bribe a tom cat, ’n’ then, after frettin’ erbout it fer a month, he ate the cat t’ get his own back.” Then, discovering Goudy and the clerk, he said pleasantly: “’Ello! is that you? Thort it was the cockroaches.” Taking up his parcel, the packer crossed to Connie’s board, and held playful conversation with the paster merely to demonstrate his superiority to criticism. While his back was turned, the town traveller filled his drawer with dodgers and cuttings from furnishing warehousemen’s advertisements, all addressed to those about to marry, and all undertaking to furnish a home for two at a cost the ridiculous smallness of which absolutely filled the advertisers with amazement. Later, Goudy led Miss Gleeson to the packer’s bench, and, pulling out the drawer, revealed to her the many cuttings.
“Keep at him, my girl. You’ve got him thinking,” he said.
“Yar, go’n chase yerself, why don’t yeh” said Miss Gleeson, pleasantly confused. Then, as a bright afterthought, she added, “Yer fair up the pole!”
Mills had become very spruce these mornings. He shaved every day. He wore white collars and gay ties at his bench, and kept a bit of broken mirror in the lift corner, to which he repaired several times a day to refresh himself and re-arrange his hair. Billy the Boy noticed these things, and commented on them.
“He’s bin mendin’ his hair agin, Sis,” said the small boy. “He parts it with a plumb-bob. I say, ain’t he one fer keepin’ hisself clean? I ain’t bin able t’ rekernize him lately.”
Billy lurked behind stacks of bales, with his retreat always open. The packer placed a hard twine ball handy, and trusted in Providence. Billy the Boy resented the packer’s courtship of Connie. He thought she should aim higher, and he brought her affectionate messages, mostly mythical, from superior persons in the warehouse. Billy’s messages from the junior partner once removed, “Our Mr. Duff,” were particularly ardent. Miss Gleeson was inclined to think there was something in them, but everybody else knew them to be preposterous.
“Suety’s bin tellin’me he’s seen nothin’ t’ touch yeh ’tween here ’n’ world’s end, Sis,” said Billy, soberly.
“Oh, go on, get off me face,” answered Connie.
“Sez yer a knock-out, ’n’ if anyone ’ud poison his wife he’d be on’y too ’appy t’ track with yeh. He sez yer ’air’s the goldenest he knows, ’n’ you’ve got a neye like a tram lamp, ’n’ ’ere are yow dodgin’ round with a waster like Feathers, what gets a matter iv three bob a day, ’n’ couldn’t afford t’ keep white mice after he’s paid fer the brilliantine what he glues his ’air with.”
Judge the amazement of the factory when one afternoon Mr. Duff, the junior partner once removed, approached Connie Gleeson’s board, and, under a thin and miserable pretence of examining her work, entered into serious conversation, which soon developed a flippancy of which his wife would certainly not have approved. Connie was greatly flustered and flattered. Her moist, red lips, her large, infantile eye, and her girlish airs were all overworked in a distressing way. A strange silence fell upon the Beauties. Feathers worked stolidly. His back betrayed nothing, but it would have pleased him to have been in a position to command a special thunderbolt for the junior partner that day.
In the course of a week Mr. Duff came twenty times to the factory flat and he never left without exchanging a little airy badinage with Miss Gleeson. On each succeeding occasion the conversation was a little more familiar, and Connie moistened her lips, giggled ingenuously, and, glancing up through her hair, said again and again: “Oh, Mr. Duff, you are a one!” Feathers grew murderous. Harrerbeller Harte’s little burlesques of the meetings convulsed the factory.
“Popsey-wopsey mustn’t play with the wicked gentleman,” cautioned Harrerbeller. “Wicked gentleman steal mummy’s ickle sweetie away, and then bub cry her pretty blue eyes out, she will. Popsey’s a teeny weeny sillikin; nice gentleman eat her all up!” In concluding, Harrerbeller aped a cow-like coquetry, and squealed with affected rapture: “Oh, Mr. Duff, you are a one!” And then the Beauties gave the chorus: “Oh, Mr. Duff, you are a one!” But Connie was not distressed by this by-play. She merely giggled, and wriggled, and rolled her blue eyes, and said, mincingly, with her most ladylike air: “Stop it off, y’ lot iv wasters. I wouldn’t ’ave him on me mind.”
Feathers was the real sufferer. In his own language, he was “off the Dolly.” Connie passed his bench now with her mouth pursed, her nose up, and her eyes half-closed, usually trilling a popular tune with a most elaborate assumption of preoccupation. The packer gave no sign, but his soul was a seething geyser of emotion, waiting for a chance to spout.
It was a pleasant afternoon. The sunshine poured in through the western windows, and a droning calmness was upon the factory. Mills packed steadily, apparently unconscious of everything but duty, really alert from his ear-tips to his ankles. Benno came to him from the lift end, touched him on the shoulder, winked three times, and jerked his thumb in the direction of the stacks.
“Get back t’ yer barrel!” said Feathers, with concentrated vindictiveness.
As if Feathers did not know that the junior partner had just met Connie as she was coming back from the boilers, and that round the turn of the room a flighty flirtation was going on. The packer could hear the sound of playful slapping, and Connie’s irritating titter scalded his ears. The two were under cover of a high stack of hat bags in parcels of five hundred, built twelve on, and almost reaching the roof. Hat bags are extremely light, the whole stack would not weigh anything considerable, and it had caved, and had a big list. It overhung the philanderer and Miss Gleeson like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Billy the Boy came up the stairs on a special mission.
“Mister Duff ’ere” he asked. “His missus wants him pertickler.” Billy looked back. “She’s comin’ up,” he said.
A blinding inspiration struck Mills. He ceased packing. His vengeance was at hand.
“Comin’ up, is she” He looked over the stair, and lied calmly. “Suety’s jist gone down t’ the printer’s flat. Get after him on the front stairs.”
Billy fled, and Feathers looked over the balusters again. He wished to time his little tableau precisely. There came to his mind rumors of Mr. Duff’s domestic infelicities. He had heard Mrs. Duff referred to as “the Duchess.” She was large and stout, and she had followed her husband to the top flat on previous occasions.
The packer bent over a few reams of confectionery paper by the stack of hat bags. His shoulder was against the stack. He lifted deliberately, and with a great heave, and slowly, silently, like a snow-drift, over went the stack, burying Connie and the junior partner in an avalanche of bags. One shrill scream from Connie, and for a moment all was still. Then there was a clamorous rush of Beauties. Mrs. Duff and Feathers were first upon the scene of the disaster. Feathers was particularly careful that Mrs. Duff should have a front place and a full view.
On the floor lay a mound of hat bags. Nothing of humanity was visible. Feathers set to work, hurling the parcels aside. He worked with energy, but wisely too, and presently a pair of boots came into view. They were the junior partner’s. Mrs. Duff recognised them with an ejaculation of terror. Feathers tossed aside a dozen more bundles, and another pair of boots and ankles were revealed. They were Connie Gleeson’s. Mrs. Duff uttered a second ejaculation, but this time it was not terror that impelled it. Feathers grinned inwardly.
“Get a jig on, can’t yeh” he cried, and the dumbfounded pasters fell upon the bundles.
A minute later Mr. Duff struggled up out of the wreckage, and shook himself. He was unhurt, and seemed rather amused. The next moment Connie was pulled from under, and she, too, stood erect.
“By Jove, that was a queer experience,” cried Mr. Duff. “I hope you’re not hurt, my dear.” Then he discovered his wife, and caught her awful eye.
“’E didn’t faint,” said Feathers to Goudy next morning. “’E didn’t scream. ’E jist faded away. ’E turned the tint iv a young Chow, ’n’ the smile went dead on his face, ’n’ he was struck that way. His wife took a firm ’n’ masterly grip iv his arm, ’n’ she said: ‘Come, Mister Duff! Come, Mister Duff!’ That was all, but y’ ortiv ’eard it. S’elp me, Jimmy Jee, ’twas like a sentence iv death! I watched ’em down stairs. She never eased her grip iv him all the way. I don’t believe she’s let go yet.”
“Mighty curious how that stack came to topple over just then,” said the town traveller, scratching his lip in a troubled way.
“Yes,” said the packer. “’Twas what the papers call a dispensation iv Providence.”
The following Saturday was Connie’s last day at the factory. A fortnight later Billy the Boy had news of her.
“Gleeson took the tip from one what knows, after all,” he said. “She’s in a bar up town. A sixpenny bar.”
“My troubs!” answered the packer. He was unshaven, uncollared, and disreputable, and there was a taint of beer in his atmosphere, but, all the same, when Billy had gone, he heaved a great sigh. She was indeed lost to him, for to Feathers a sixpenny bar seemed as remote as the North Pole, and not more desirable of attainment.
There was a sort of dress parade on the top flat at Spats’ every Saturday. On ordinary days the Beauties came in their second best, which was changed on the premises for paste-stiffened skirts and bedraggled blouses, any old thing being considered good enough to work in. But on Saturday the pasters and folders sported their glad rags, forgetting nothing that would impress their enemies; and in the bitter rivalry of dress there were no friendships. On this day the new hat was flashed upon the factory like a smack in the face, the unexpected frock shocked the Beauties with its insolent beauty, the nine-carat brooch or the glittering ring, set profusely with precious stones, “quite as good as diamonds”, was displayed for the first time with a disregard for the feelings of others that was simply vindictive. Every girl did her utmost on Saturday, and, excepting in a few special cases, always with the fear that her best possible would be out-done by a special effort on the part of some more fortunate sister.
On this particular Saturday morning Kitty Coudray had no misgivings. She was wearing the whole of her new summer’s goods for the first time, and went up the front stairs, so that she might have to walk the length of the flat to the dressing-room. Every woman in an astonishing frock is at heart a stage-manager. Kitty’s entrance was a great success, her march down the stage a triumph. She was radiant in blue and white muslin, and a saucy little black hat with white lace and feathers. The girls who had gone before sighed over their little faded glories, and meekly abandoned all pretensions for the time being.
“Oh my, what a turn you’ve give me!” cried the clerk, having fallen off his stool in blind wonder.
Benno’s amazement, if facetious, was flattering, and Kitty smiled on him very sweetly.
The packer barred her way. “Break it t’ me gently,” he said in an awed voice. “Have y’ killed yer rich old uncle ’r embezzled ther fam’ly di’monds?”
Kitty blushingly insisted that it was only a simple bit of a dress for second best—nothing to speak of.
“Yer er fair blaze iv glory,” Mills continued. “Y’ kin do what y’ like with me. I’m done. I’ll never get over this, I know.” He was walking round her, humbly inspecting.
“Yah-h-h,” cried a derisive voice from a distant board, “stick ’er in the bloomin’ winder, ’n’ give ther town er charnce!”
Kitty stiffened at once, her nose went up, and she walked on with an increase of dignity, but not really displeased. That cry had come from a stricken soul. It was really a tribute. She would not have been wholly satisfied had the girls taken it all quite kindly.
The Salvation Army lass at the machine began to sing a plaintive little hymn. The Army had had a revival in the cheap suburbs lately, and had been getting in some good work amongst the factory hands. There were two or three converts in the room. They joined in the hymn. It was the protest of the saints against the vanities of the flesh. Spotty Corbet, the machinist, was intensely “saved”. She came to work in shabby regimentals, and spoke a three minutes’ grace over a “crib” of bread and jam that it took her two minutes to eat. She was a squat, sallow girl of about sixteen, sullen and slovenly, and had a guilty secret. When not observed, she oiled her greasy dark hair with the machine lubricators.
Kitty Coudray had changed and taken her place at the board, when Billy the Boy charged upstairs crimson with information.
“Wipe yer nose ’n’ pull down yer pinny, Mills,” gasped the devil, “here’s her Excellency makin’ er mornin’ call.”
Up the stairs came a faint frou-frou. Feathers cocked his ear. There was no mistaking it. It was the musical rattle of silk. The packer ventured to look over the rail. He blew a long, faint whistle, expressive of profound emotion. He beckoned to Goudy in the manner of a man bereft of speech. There was an apprehensive hush, and the sibilant call of a silk underskirt stole through the factory. All eyes turned to the stairs.
“You’ve done yer dash,” cried Billy, addressing the Beauties. “You kin all git orf ther earth. Twentyman’s got yeh beat.”
“Jimmy Jee!” whispered Mills. “it’s Bland ’Olt’s wicked woman straight from ther halls of gilded vice, with all her clobber on.”
Feathers and the town traveller stood back reverently, giving the newcomer a clear stage, and as Sis Twentyman stepped on to the flat the silence of the factory broke in a long gasp. Nothing like this had ever before been seen at Spats’. The most riotous imagination there had never dreamed of such magnificence in a mere “fact’ry ’and”. Sis was profusely clad in pink silk, billows and billows of it, trimmed with cream lace, and she wore a great black picture hat foaming with feathers, and new glazed shoes with steel buckles. Kitty Coudray, her brush clutched in her frozen hand, gazed at this overwhelming spectacle, her eyes wide, her mouth gaping, transfixed. It was a form of paralysis, and she did not recover consciousness for three minutes.
Sis remained talking with Feathers. It was his duty to keep a record of late arrivals, who were fined according to the length of their transgression. Miss Twentyman made a pretty show of excusing herself, but her late arrival was premeditated malice and Feathers understood the situation. Sis was not merely completing her triumph—she was “rubbing it in”.
“Won thirty thousan’ quid in Tatt’s, ’aven’t yeh?” said the packer, affecting the meekness of the poor and lowly.
“If you had let us know you were coming we’d have had the stair carpet down and the walls decorated,” said the town-traveller.
“Excuse yourself, Mister Cloudy,” replied Sis, with a ladylike air of hauteur.
“Who’re yeh ruinin’, Sis?” asked Feathers.
“Not so familiar, Mister Mills, please.”
Sis gathered up her profuse skirt and swept away, and half a dozen of the Beauties, driven from their usual refuge of seeming indifference by such splendour, forsook their work, and clattered after her, shrill with admiration. After these went the anguished foreman, with his feeble but insistent:
“Come, come! Come, come, there. What’s this? What’s this?”
The girls buzzed about Sis, deaf to Fuzzy’s orders and his threats, and Spotty Corbet drove her machine fiercely, and piped her hymn of protest once more.
Mills aired his philosophy of clothes to Goudy. “Take it from the man under the bed, Spotty, wimmin’s mostly clothes, an’ ther rest rings an’ things. Man’s what he drinks; woman’s what she wears. Size up this bunch. On ther ordin’ry mornin’s in their secon’ best baggin’, they’re sort iv subdood ’n’ moderate perlite, ’n’ you don’t see ’em buckin’ up, or playin’ ther frivolous ox. Look at ther difference when they get inter ther rags. Then they gets down to it—they’re cobbers with ther rats; ’n’ yer needn’t put much apast ’em. But watch out fer Saturdees when ther latest season’s goods is out fer the air; ’n’ they’re ther real pink, ’n’ yer mustn’t touch ’em with er prop if yer don’t wanter get it cold. Blime, y’d think Spats’ was er select seminary fer young lydies iv gentle birth, ’n’ that ther dorters iv ther aristocracy here t’ get made fit in French, dancin’, haccomplishments, ’n’ perlite conversation. Mop up what’s goin’ when Twentyman comes along in her old stuff.”
When Sis came again, dressed for work, and carying her tub of paste, the packer said:
“S’elp me shicker, Twenty, you was the on’y pebble. Flemin’ton on Cup Day!—don’ mention. Ther Mayor’s ball!—a blessed marine store. Lovely, y’ was, straight!”
“Gar’n! Le’ go me leg!” retorted Miss Twentyman, saucily.
“What’d I tell yeh?” said Mills to Goudy.
The Beauties got down to work slowly and reluctantly that morning. There was a still later arrival. Bell Olliver came in quite half an hour behind time, wearing a new blue blouse, a blouse that would have created some little stir on ordinary occasions, but which was received with absolute indifference, coming after the extravagance of Kitty and the magnificence of Sis.
Bell came by the front stairs, radiant with expectation, smiling a self-conscious smile, and blushing brightly. By the time she reached the packer’s board the smile had fled, and Bell’s face had assumed the colour of old dough. She turned down the wing to the dressing-rooms, and as she did not re-appear in the course of a quarter of an hour, the foreman went ambling down the flat, full of zeal, and tripping over his own feet every few yards as usual, in the agonies preceding an encounter with a Beauty of Bell’s argumentative power and uncertain temper.
Fuzzy found Miss Oliver seated behind a stack of straw-boards, wearing her drab working apparel, her little tub of paste between her feet, weeping like a wet day.
“Come, come!” he cried, with tremulous valour. “Come, come! Out o’ this!”
“Gar’n scratch!” retorted the young lady, drearily.
“What’s this? What’s this? This won’t do, you know. Get to work, ’r I’ll fine you a shillin’.”
Miss Olliver jumped up and confronted Fuzzy, suddenly ablaze.
“You tork t’ me!” she screamed. “You, ’r fat old Pig’s Whiskers downstairs, ’r any iv yer rats. Do it! Tork t’ me, monkey face, ’n’ I’ll—”
The foreman recognized the symptoms. He retreated precipitately, but Miss Olliver’s tub of paste took him between the shoulders as he fled, and made his back view absurd for the rest of the day. Saturday morning was a trying time for Fuzzy in many ways.
Bell came to her board when it pleased her. She was an expert paster, and rival firms would have been glad of her services. Fuzzy had to rule her and many like her by a system of judicious submission. For three hours order and industry prevailed on the flat. Bell was in a fit of black sulks; Kitty Coudray was sour and insolent; the other girls had a thoughtful and depressed air. Sis Twentyman alone was gay. She was particularly affectionate towards Kitty, and seemed quite stupidly blind and deaf to Miss Coudray’s coldness and contempt.
Naturally Sis Twentyman was the first in the dressing-room at knock-off time. Her arrival there was signalled by a series of shrieks that stirred the establishment to its lowest depths, galvanized the factory, and brought the printers streaming upstairs. Shrieking was not uncommon on the top flat, but never had such poignant yells pierced its walls. Sis performed like a woman in mortal agony. Feathers, heading the rush, discovered her standing in her petticoats, holding the pink silk skirt out before her, and screaming with all her energies in a stupid, blind, settled way suggestive of madness.
“’Struth, Twenty, what bit yeh?” gasped Mills. He shook her as if expecting to rearrange a disorganized apparatus. “’Ere, ’ere,” he cried, “take er grip on yerself if yeh ain’t fair off yer almond.” But Sis only screamed again, and shook the pink silk skirt, and now the situation became comprehensible. The skirt was an utter ruin; it was torn this way and that, and the frills and the lace hung from it in rags.
At this moment Sis Twentyman’s eyes fell upon Kitty Coudray, in whose face was something like a light of elation.
“You!” she shrieked. “You—you—you-” Her passion choked her on the suitable epithet, and she dashed at Kitty with hooked claws, like a ravening lioness. But Feathers and Don clung to the fury and averted manslaughter.
The light of elation had fled suddenly from the eyes of Kitty Coudray. It was succeeded by a poignant apprehension. She darted into the dressing-room, and the next moment her cries added to the general confusion. She came forth carrying her new blue skirt. It was split from waistband to hem, six or seven times and was a hopeless wreck. Kitty glared at Sis in dumb rage for a moment, and all a woman could possibly feel of spite and anguish was in her face.
“She did it!” she cried. “She did it, the devil!” and it took two printers to keep her from Sis Twentyrnan. The Salvation girl was singing “Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea, Jehovah hath triumphed, His people are free.” Spats himself and other authorities had arrived on the scene, but their influence was as nothing in the face of a catastrophe like this. The Beauties swarmed: their indignation was virtuous but virulent. They cried aloud for vengeance on the destroyer. A rush for the dressing-room revealed the fact that no further damage had been done, and slowly the factory simmered down. Sis and Kitty, surrounded by guards, sat apart, and sorrowed over their tattered garments, soaking themselves in tears.
It was Feathers suggested the cat: “Ther Tutsie’s erbout arf ez big ez er bar’l,” he said, “’n’ when he gets out after himself in high pressure hysterics, he fair digs bricks outer ther buildin’. I’ve seen him kick ther hessian off er bale iv paper afore t’ day, ’n’ he ’ad er fit this mornin’. I ’eard him doin ’an’ springs ’n’ fizzin’ like er soda factory back er ther lift.”
The authorities retired to the depths, and slowly the girls dressed and drifted downstairs. Sis and Kitty had come together, mutually forgiving, as sisters in misfortune should be, and they mingled their tears, pending the conclusion of a consultation being held in the boss’s office. Feathers brought the news. The foreman had gone under cover behind his guillotines, overwhelmed by the catastrophe, and knowing that blame, unplaceable elsewhere, invariably fell upon him.
“It’s rybuck, girls,” said Feathers. “Yer on velvet. Ther firm’s willin’ t’ accept responsibility fer ther actions iv it’s dooly accredited cat, ’n’ pays compensation. Yer on’y ’ave t’ put in a claim fer damages ’n’ ther quids is yours.”
Sis and Kitty brightened up wonderfully at this, but not sufficiently to imply that they had wholly parted with their grievance.
“Spats has sent fer er ’ansom, ’n’ yer to be wheeled ’ome et ther firm’s expense,” continued Feathers. Then he cried to Spotty Corbet, the Salvation girl, whom he had requested to stay, pending orders, and who was stealing from behind the bales towards the stairs. “Yeh don’t do er guy jes’ yet, Spot. This is where yer trouble comes. Back in yer cart. I want ter chat yeh.”
The girl came slowly towards them, lowering under her battered Army bonnet, her sallow face smeared with tears and dust, her brief, shabby skirt falling short of its duty. She was an absurd and pitiful figure. Feathers took her by the shoulder:
“Now,” he said, “cough it up. Why’d yeh tear them dresses?”
Sis and Kitty sprang to their feet, their eyes blazed, and they made at Spotty Corbet with bared talons. “’Ere, ’ere,” cried the packer, “keep good. Enough iv it.” He put them back, and addressed Spotty again. “I don’t hear y’ talkin’,” he said. “Y’ know yeh tore them skirts, y’ can’t jolly me. Why’d yeh do it?”
Spotty dug a finger in her mouth, and squirmed for a moment, and then her eyes gleamed and she stood erect for a fine effort.
“They was offensive in the sight of the Lord!’ she said. Then she collapsed again, her finger went back into her mouth, she began to cry, and kicking her old skirt out with her knee, she said with stupid bitterness, “’N’ mine is sich rags.”
“Hum,” said Feathers, philosophically, “I thought I’d fitted yeh. Now do er bunk.”
The packer held the two pasters while Spotty shuffled to the stairs, and went down, snivelling all the way. She did not reappear at Spats’.
“Why didn’t yer let me at her?” said Sis fiercely. “I’d a’ scraped her bones.”
“Garn, Twenty, ain’t yeh got er bit of sav? Make a bustle with her ’n’ ’ave it orl over ther shop she done it, ’n’ ther cat’s been wrongly accused, ’n’ how does yer compensation come in?”
“Oh-o-o-o-!” breathed Sis and Kitty in chorus, very softly.
“Oh-o-o-o!” breathed the packer in mockery, more softly still.
Feathers was a true diplomat, and had a fine contempt for accuracy. “’Onesty,” he said, “is the bust policy.”
Miss Dolly Hopgood was commonly called ‘Ginge’, an abbreviation of Ginger, and a polite allusion to her prevailing tint. She was a saucy young lady of about sixteen, and lived in a push-ridden suburb. Her hair was worn turned in a hard pad all round her head, so that from a little distance it looked very much as if she were wearing the pneumatic cushion from Odgson’s office chair, as a sort of halo.
The dress in which Miss Hopgood came to business was of light-coloured, limp material, ribbed with cheap black lace, like the hoops on a barrel. Her hat was a wide-rimmed ‘gem’, skewered so far forward that in her walks it preceded her by about half a yard; the high-heeled boots she affected accentuated the apparent precipitation of Dolly’s top-hamper.
Dolly was a plump and cheerful rapscallion, but her face had a certain granite quality characteristic of the daughters of slum families—a quality devised by an all-wise Providence, no doubt, as a provision against injury in contact with the bluchers of husbands and lovers, the ardour of whose affection, when accelerated by beer, is apt to express itself in kicks.
On the first appearance of Miss Hopgood the packer greeted her with breezy familiarity.
“’Ow is it, Sis?” he said. “Here, ain’t I seen you proppin’ the door at Crilly’s Assembly Toosday nights?”
Benno grinned approvingly. “Strike me, Feathers, you’ve fitted her in one!” he chortled.
Ginge certainly did suggest a larrikin hop.
“Gart! git back t’yer lorndry!” retorted the young lady. The remark conveyed a playful insinuation that Feathers and the clerk were of ignominious Asiatic origin.
There was usually some little diffidence about novitiates on the factory flat, but Miss Hopgood betrayed not the smallest concern.
“Yow, there, Tilly! Scratchin’ a livin’ ’ere, are yeh?” she cried shrilly, shaking her crib basket at a distant paster. The ex-professional fat girl caught her eye. Miss Pilcher was wearing a superior expression. Ginge raised her hand, and wagged playful fingers at Martha. “Buck up, puds,” she said, “you’re all right. They’re payin’ quids a bar’l fer your sort at Stonkie Watson’s.” Watson’s was the soap-boiling establishment that gave rank to a river-side suburb. The fat girl resented the insinuation with a loathly sneer, and Ginge passed by in triumph.
Ginge Hopgood was just as gaily impertinent with the comps and machine hands on the printers’ flat, and hailed them from the stairs with frank familiarity. Clinker Gill, one of the freeders, was Sophie Oddie’s boy, but Miss Hopgood assumed possession without a trace of compunction. Clinker, greatly flattered to find himself the chief object of her somewhat personal back-street flippancies, succumbed instantly, and Sophie ceased to be an item in his daily life.
Possibly Clinker lived to repent his perfidy. Sometimes he might have looked as if he did, but he never admitted it. Master Gill was about seventeen, a round-headed lad with closely-mown black hair, and a countenance the utter commonplaceness of which beggared criticism. On the morning of the fifth day after Miss Hopgood’s arrival, Clinker came to work with a damaged eye, and all day his manner was subdued, not to say penitent.
“How’d it ’appen, Ned?” asked Feathers, when Gill came up with a bundle of printed tea papers.
“Bit iv a dust-up with a bloke down ar way,” said Clinker.
Feathers had all a woman’s curiosity about details.
“S’pose th’ other lad won’t be leavin’ his bed this side Christmas?” he said.
“Oh, I dunno.” Clinker was becomingly modest. “There ain’t nothin’ much wrong with him, barrin’ two teeth out ’n’ a thick ear.”
“Give us the strength iv it, Ned. Did yeh hand him the pass out?”
Clinker Gill grew confidential. His opponent was a rival claimant for Ginge’s favours. Miss Hopgood had had another boy for some months, a boy who was prepared to assert his prior rights on the gory battlefield, and who had already done so on two occasions, to Clinker’s great discomfort. The claimant’s name was Holland. He was a stiff-built youth, with large freckles and a fair down all over his face. Also, he was an impetuous and unscrupulous fighter, and lurked at corners to intercept Clinker and Dolly, charging down upon the former, and commencing hostilities without fair and sufficient warning.
In the course of the following fortnight Clinker had four scraps with Tommy Holland—wholly unsatisfactory Street ‘scrims’ that were interrupted by the appearance of a John, or the intervention of some benevolently-disposed old lady or gentleman; but the feeder always sustained more or less damage, and he burned to fight a conclusive engagement with his hated rival.
Apparently there was no peaceful way of settling the matter in dispute, since Ginge could not be brought to see that she was called upon to accept any responsibility. The girl would not give a decision. She might walk home with Clinker in the evening but she would stroll out with Tommy at night, and Gill was the occasion of a most unusual pleasant Sunday afternoon in the Botanical Gardens. He had discovered Holland reposing by Miss Hopgood on the sward. It took three gardeners and a whole revival meeting to stop the fight.
Truth to tell, neither young gentleman seemed to expect Dolly to express any partiality, but the packer sometimes reproached her in a frivolous spirit. “Ain’t yeh announced yer choice yet, Ginge?” he asked. “’Strewth, if yeh can’t make up yer mind which is the prettiest, why not toss ’em for it—double or quits?”
“Not me,” said Dolly. “I ain’t took on either of ’em fer keeps. I ain’t one fer tyin’ meself down.”
“Then this ’ere bloodshed is t’ continue to the bitter end?”
“My oath it is! While these blokes is fightin’ each other they ain’t fightin’ me—see?” It was a specimen of slum philosophy that tickled the packer immensely.
“Jimmy Jee! You’re a bird,” he said delightedly. “What you don’t know ain’t in the books.”
Clinker Gill came to Feathers’ board a few days after this, with an air of great importance.
“It’s all fixed up, Mills,” he said.
“What,” cried the packer, “has she given yeh brusher?”
Clinker wagged his round head confidently. “No blinded fear,” he said. “Ginge knows when she’s got a good thing. The fight’s arranged ’tween me ’n’ th’ other bloke. We fight the prelim. to the Bull Green ’n’ Coffee Hogan scrap et the Smithers Street Hathletic Club’s room on Monday night fortnight, catch-weights, fer harf-a-Jim ’n’ a five-bob side wager—eight rounds, one t’ win.”
“Go on,” ejaculated Feathers in proud appreciation.
“Yes, Markis o’ Queensbee rules, four-ounce gloves, ’n’ regerlation trunks. Prelimery starts punctual et eight; prices two, one, ’n’ a tizzie. We’ve both signed harticles.”
“Good e-nough,” cried the packer. “I must ’ave a deener’s worth iv that.”
During the following fortnight Clinker Gill was the hero of Spats’ factory. He trained industriously night and morning, and at lunch time he boxed vigorously on a full stomach in the lift-corner with any good friend who would oblige him with a generous hiding.
Clinker got punching enough in twelve days to have made him indifferent to anything short of a mad bull-camel. The bigger fellows nearly belted the head off him in the kindliest spirit imaginable, believing they were doing him a great favour, and everybody offered him advice and gave him useful hints to beginners, especially Benno the clerk. Mr Dickson insisted with great wisdom on the necessity of keeping a straight left. He committed himself no further, but he impressed that one point on Gill at least twenty times a day.
“I sticks my left into ’em,” said Benno. “Never do nothin’ else, but jab ’em with a straight left ez they come in, savin’ me right fer a finisher.”
Mr Dickson had never fought a round in his life, but he was very impressive, and Clinker accepted his advice with proper respect.
Master Gill bought a shilling book on boxing, and started to learn it off by heart, from cover to cover, but he was a poor study, and had only mastered about three chapters relating to rules, training and attitudes, when the eventful night arrived.
The room of the Smithers Street Athletic Club was over a threepenny hair-cut saloon in a cheap, crowded suburb. It was a small, low, dark apartment, with a tiny ring in the centre, and just space enough between the ropes and one wall for the high-priced patrons to creep to the cramped gallery rising abruptly from the ringside to the roof. The cheap ‘sports’ were packed in a space twelve feet by twelve on the other side of the roped enclosure, and a third set of supporters gathered on the roof on the occasion of a really popular engagement, and looked on the warfare through the broken shingles. In the course of the battle the proprietor of the threepenny saloon went among these latter with a collection box, and any spectator refusing to contribute was summarily chucked off. The chucking entailed a fall of six feet to an adjoining roof.
Feathers, Benno, the Don and several comps from the factory occupied seats in the shilling reserve, the top half of the gallery close to the roof, where the smoke accumulated and the heat of perdition assailed them. For it was a summer night, and the room was packed as tight as it could hold with baking humanity, half of whom tugged at pipes which sizzled like frying-pans and stank like future punishment. The other half smoked cigarettes.
Benno took immediate steps to let it be known that he was a personal friend of one of the boxers, and in all probability had taught the lad all he knew, and then, finding nobody disposed to bet on the preliminary, he offered five to four on Clinker Gill.
“Five t’ four in quids,” said the clerk, addressing a ‘tough’ who was nursing a brindle bulldog with a face like a Japanese nightmare. Putting a trace of pleading in his voice, he added:
“Come on, Ned, be a sport. I’ll lay six t’ four the Clinker outs him inside iv five rounds.”
The tough answered hoarsely that he hadn’t four warts, and the dog growled in a venomous way, so Benno did not press his point.
At twenty past eight Tommy Holland came into the ring, followed a few minutes later by Clinker Gill and his seconds, two lads from a racing stable with which Clinker was acquainted. Tommy Holland looked strong and confident, but Clinker was pale and very nervous. He trembled visibly, his knees knocked as he sat in his chair. One of the seconds noticed this, and kicked the lad disgustedly.
“See ’ere, Clink,” he said, “drop yer bundle, ’n’ make a guy iv me, ’n’ I’ll pelt yeh a few meself.”
Clinker’s lip trembled, and a tear rolled down his cheek, which he wiped with his glove.
The MC. and official announcer was in the ring. He was a retired lightweight run to flesh, and sported a face like a freak potato.
“Gents,” he said, addressing the dress circle, “I’ll ask yez kindly t’ put out yer smokes ’n’ give the boys a chance. Youse,” he added, turning with some fierceness on the sixpenny patrons, “stop smokin’ ’r ye’ll land in the fat. A let me ’ave ter talk t’ yer agin. Gents,” he repeated, softening his voice, “this ’ere’s a perliminry iv eight rounds, ’tween a pair iv unknowns. I may tell yeh it all erbout a bit iv skirt, ’n’ I think I can promise yeh a dead willin’ go. Nar then, lads, get ready.”
The announcer then joined the seconds, and there was some argument over the appointment of a referee. During the discussion Clinker’s nervousness increased to such an extent that he began to whimper piteously, mopping up his tears with his gloves.
The announcer stepped forward again. “Is Mr Peter Nickie present in th’ ’all?” he cried.
Mr Nicklie was present. He arose with dignity. He was a fat and florid bookmaker, with a reputation for paying successful backers with stoush.
“Both parties is willin’ t’ ’ave you referee this ’ere, Pete,” said the announcer, and Peter obligingly rolled through the ropes, and swayed into a corner.
Mr Nickie was now seen to be lamentably drunk. He propped himself securely against a post.
“Is yez all ready?” he said. “Shake ’an’s!”
The boys advanced into the centre, Clinker pushed behind by his second, and touched gloves. They returned to their corners, and the timekeeper smote the gong, a superannuated dinner tray.
“Box On!” gurgled the referee, and Clinker Gill faced his enemy.
Clinker was snivelling; his face was very white; there was a wild look in his eye. The boys circled round and round, moving their hands mechanically. For a whole minute there was no attempt to strike a blow; then Tommy rushed furiously, whirling his arms, and Clinker went down. He rose again, still weeping and Holland rushed him again, and again Gill, was prostrated by the impact. On his hands and knees, his face pathetically contorted, and tears streaming down his cheeks, Clinker seemed, to be looking for a way of escape, but all exits were blocked. It seemed as if the whole world was screaming derision at him.
Gill arose, and Tommy charged him. Utterly demoralized, Clinker turned and ran. He ran three times round the ring, hotly pursued by Tommy Holland, and the onlookers roared with laughter. After the third lap, Tommy overtook Gill, and hit him in the small of the back, and Clinker fell again. While he was down the gong sounded, and the pride of Spats’ factory was dragged into his corner, and sat there, blubbering dismally, while his seconds fanned him, and covered him with scoffing and curses.
Tommy Holland came straight from his corner at the sound of the gong, and hit Clinker hard on the nose, and Clinker went to the floor. Clinker got up and Tommy hit him again.
“Yeh blinded cow!” squealed Gill, and he whirled a glove on to Tommy’s ear. He hurled his left, and hit Tommy on the mark. The crowd applauded. Clinker’s blubbering was loud now, but there was a note of anger in it. He charged at his opponent, head down, and pounded with both hands. Clinching, he got Holland’s head under his arm, and punched him five times on the nose, while Tommy’s seconds howled for a foul and the referee nodded in his corner, swaying on the ropes.
When the gong clashed the boxers continued fiercely fighting, and Clinker’s seconds had to tear him off. Benno was applauding like a madman, and yelling advice. The crowd was delighted. Clinker made a dash out of his chair to get at the foe again, and had to be carried struggling to the seat.
Gill was no longer pale, and his nervousness had evaporated. The third round was full of fight. Clinker waded in. He forgot all he had learned, and utterly ignored Benno’s wise advice. He hit in holds, he hit anyhow; he butted, and palmed, and screwed, and broke every known rule. Tommy had a cut lip, a bleeding ear, and a mouse on one eye. Again the pride of Spat’s had to be torn from his opponent.
The boys spent the greater part of the fourth round on the floor, but time was not wasted. They fought there just as well as anywhere else, pasting each other desperately. Clinker bumped Tommy’s nose against the boards, and while the crowd roared and laughed, the master of ceremonies woke up the referee, and expostulated profanely. Mr Nickie blinked about vaguely, realized where he was, and murmured:
“Sh all ready? Shake ’an’s.”
When the two minutes were up the seconds had to disentangle the boys, and drag them to their corners.
“Yiv got ’im done in, Clinker!” yelled the passionate Benno. “He’s your mutton. Keep that left goin’ how I told yeh, ’n’ it’s a moral.”
But Clinker was deaf and blind to everything but his mighty wrath. He charged Tommy, and felled him, he smote him on the chin as he was rising, and Tommy clung to his legs, and climbed up by them, and punched Clinker in the left eye, putting that organ completely out of action.
In the sixth they were both tired, but continued to fight like terriers. In the seventh Clinker had Holland down three times, but in the eighth and last Tommy freshened up, and made it very willing. They finished on the floor, punching, clawing, and even kicking.
The lads were carried to their chairs, and once more the referee was shaken up.
“Hello! what’s matter?” said Mr Nickie.
“A decision—give a decision, blarst it!” hissed the master of ceremonies behind his hand.
Mr Peter Nickie bucked up, he moved into the centre of the ring, and held aloft an impressive palm.
“Gen’lemen,” he said—“Smith the winner!”
“’Ere, ’ere,” hissed the M.C., “there ain’t no Smith in the fight!”
“Wha’s that?” said the referee, staggering to the ropes.
“I say they ain’t no Smith in the fight. Which lad are yeh givin’ it to?”
“Smith the winner!” repeated Mr Nickie, with the air of a man of marked integrity.
“But, dammitall, they ain’t no Smith!”
“Look ’ere, Spud Malone,” said Mr Nickie with great dignity, “are you refereein’ thish fight, ’r ’m I?”
“But I tell yeh they ain’t no Smith.”
“Wha’ th’ ’ell I care? Smith the winner!” Then the referee rolled out of the ring and fell into his seat, and the battered boys were led away to the changing room downstairs, while the over-joyed crowd, more delighted with the fight than it would have been with a pantomime, simmered down for the serious business of the evening.
The error of Mr Nickie left things practically as they were with Clinker Gill and Tommy Holland; and Dolly, who had spent the night of the fight in full enjoyment of a dance at the Six-penny Quadrille, remained perfectly impartial, so far as they were concerned. This was fair, since it could be demonstrated quite satisfactorily that Clinker had won on points and Tommy had won on a foul.
On the Saturday night twelve days later, two young gentlemen were leaning in fraternal sympathy against the front of a cobbler’s shop in the push-ridden suburb. The were Clinker Gill and Tommy Holland. Some traces of their battle lingered on the countenances of both, but they were now bosom friends, drawn together by a common sorrow.
A young lady passed, walking daintily on high-heeled shoes, with a characteristic projection of the figure, and wearing a large hat liberally feathered. By her side walked a young man, his thumbs in the arm-holes of his vest, his hat hung precariously on the back of his head, a blazer screaming the local football colours tossed about his neck, his cold grey eye defying creation.
Clinker nudged Tommy Holland. “There she goes,” he whispered.
“Let ’er,” growled, Holland, “the nark!”
The passing fair was Ginge Hopgood. The young gentleman in charge was ‘Nigger’ Tish, a promising welterweight.
Clinker and Tommy have now resigned all pretensions to Dolly’s favour, knowing themselves hopelessly outclassed.
The big building was crowded. Below in the five shilling and ten shilling reserves, was a flood of human faces. In the balcony opposite, the two shilling push piled itself against the railing. The atmosphere was one of blue smoke, and through this the stout, bald, purple M.C. in the ring shouted the names, weights, and colours of the competitors in the preliminary tournament, his voice like that of a very old crow.
“Struth, his jibs wouldn’t earn peanuts ez gripman on a mussel barrer,” said the youth next Benno, sociably.
The clerk looked wise “That’s right, Ned,” he said. “But Dinny’s a good ernough spruicher. Givin’ chat t’ aujinces this size jiggers up the ’uman organ, I tell yeh.”
Feathers, on a seat behind, touched the lad on the shoulder, and edged him away from Benno with a sidelong motion of the head. “Knows a bit erbout elercutlon, he does,” he said confidentially behind his hand, “somethin’ iv a horater ’imseif. Fam’ly’s in Parlymint.”
“Gar-rn?” said the lad.
“’S truth,” Feathers assured him. “Mother’s got the contrac’ fer scrubbin’ ’n’ dustin’.”
“Get yer ear out, Ned, ’r he’ll bite it,” said Benno sourly to the stranger, suspecting mischief.
Benno had been to a couple of fights before this, and felt entitled to be regarded as an authority. Down in his heart he cherished an idea on the strength of the experience thus acquired, that, should occasion arise, he could give an excellent account of himself. He had never hit a man, but it seemed easy, and he had magnificent dreams of outing fourteen-stone foes with a right cross which he had frequently tried on a bed bolster with success. This visionary feat always took place under the eyes of astonished and admiring multitudes.
Two featherweights were scrambling in the ring, exchanging wild swings, and the referee was dodging about, looking for points in a pointless exhibition, Benno watched closely, making a little critical ‘tut-tut-tut’ now and again.
During the rests the clerk instructed the lad next him with a wise old air. The lad chewed gravely, and said little. Occasionally he jerked a quaint grimace at an acquaintance on the off side, but nothing in his attitude was intended to disturb the clerk’s pleasing faith in himself. The lad had a thick ear.
“O’Brien ’ll out ‘im this round,” said Benno with calm confidence, when the gong sounded. “He’ll get that crool right iv his ercross, ’n’ Scorcher’ll go t’ bunk, you take it frim the prefessor.”
“Bin in the game yerself, Ned,” said the lad, with a touch of mock reverence.
Benno lowered his voice. He had an uneasy consciousness of the proximity of Feathers and Nicholas Don, the driver. “Oh, nothin’ t’ speak of,” he said in the way of a man deliberately hiding his light. “Matter ev a scrap ’er two.”
“Perfeshional?” asked the lad.
“No-o,” said Benno, “not yet.”
O’Brien aimed a blind swing at Scorcher; Scorcher took it on his glove, and prodded his man a straight left flush. “Ha-ha,” cried Benno, starting up excitedly. “What’d I tell you? O’Brien’ll out ’im; O’Brien’s got ’im goin’! He’s got ’im goin’! Five t’ O’Brien! I bet five t’ one O’Brien!”
“In cherry-bobs!” said a derisive voice.
Before the clerk could frame an apt rejoinder, the Scorcher planted a left on O’Brien’s mark, and a right on his chin, and O’Brien went down. Eleven seconds later he was carried to his corner, as limp as a dead eel.
“A quitter!” said Benno, disgustedly. “The Scorcher never touched ’im. That’s often the way with clever sparrers, they’ve got science, but no ’eart.”
Then Benno went on to explain to the lad with the thick ear how O’Brien must have beaten the Scorcher to dough if he had kept at him. The lad seemed quite grateful for the polite attention.
“If ’e’d on’y kep’ that left iv ’is goin’,” said Benno regretfully.
A youth in front rounded on the clerk with vociferous disgust. “Garn, get work!” he said. “O’Brien never had a possible. ’E ain’t got a left ’and, and ’e ain’t got a right. ’E’s a gander. ’E don’t know enough to win a tombstone novice tournament up in the ’Ome for Incurables.”
“Oh,” said Benno, composedly, “p’raps I know somethin’ erbout the game. It’s just possible. Then again, o’ course, I may be little Georgie, the gazob, ’n’ maybe I’m goat ernough t’ gnaw the posters off the ’oardin if I ain’t watched.” He looked about to note the effect of this preposterous supposition, and then warmed up. “But, all the same, Ned, I’m bettin’ twenty t’ five in quids O’Brien does Scorcher up inside seven rounds with two-ounce gloves. Come, now!”
“G’ out,” snorted the other; “you don’t know boxin’ from dominoes. Get back t’ the socks.”
Benno grew rash. Money was nothing to him. “I’ll make it a ’undred t’ twenty,” he said, “’n’ arrange the match meseif. A ’undred t’ twenty in Jimmy O’Gobs. Say what?” He even plunged his hand in his trousers pocket, where lurked three and fourpence and a bone stud. “Is it a bet?” he asked, defiantly.
“My name ain’t Chirnside,” growled the youth, quite over-whelmed. “I ain’t got twenty ticks.”
“Then get ’em ’n’ pull the string,” retorted the clerk. He looked about him magnificently. Several people were regarding him with marked respect. Benno exulted. He felt that he was being mistaken for a bookmaker. “Listen t’ the oof bird twitter,” he said “How does it talk ’em down.” He slapped his pocket.
“What do yo’ think of Brophy’s chance in the big fight, young gentleman?” asked the greybeard on Benno’s left, with proper diffidence.
Benno looked him over slowly, somewhat superciliously, took out a cigar-case, and drew out a cigar. It was a somewhat worn and ragged cigar, and Benno, who was no smoker, had once taken it for a threepenny shout. It came in handy now. He lit it like a millionaire. Then he condescended to speak. “If yer wantin’ t’ pick up good money dirt cheap, Whiskers,” he said, “back Brophy.”
“Fer a win or a place?” asked the derisive voice.
Young Mr Dickson felt he could afford to ignore the interjection. “Put yer plate on Brophy,” he repeated, “his chances ’re all right. He’s got the quids ez good ez in ’is ’and. Hark to the prophet. I admit the big feller’s strong ’n’ game, but what’s ’e done?” He looked hard at the old gentleman, toying daintily with his ragged cigar the while, and repeated, “What’s ’e done?”
“Yes, yes, that’s the point,” said the greybeard.
“Whereas, look at Brophy,” continued Benno for the benefit of the company, “he’s bin through ’em all. He’s a bit small fer this, but he’s got the science. He’s used t’ handlin’ big blokes, too, ’n’ you just watch out ’n’ see him quilt Mr Rocker Dodd from goin' t’ beddy-bye. Dodd won’t ’it ’im, he’s too shifty. He’ll just pelt ’em inter Rocker’s biscuit barrel, ’n’ slide out every time the ’eavyweight offers t’ pass ’im one.”
“Ever seen either of ’em fight?” asked the unbeliever in front.
For a moment Benno was taken back. As a matter of fact, he had not. He rallied quickly. “Have I seen ’em! Have I what?” he retorted. “Brophy’s ez quick ez dam’ it, ’n’ gets erbout a bit, I’m tellin’ yeh.”
“I ain’t seen Brophy,” growled the other, “but this Dodd can shift. He ain’t as slow as a hearse.”
“You’re comin’ on all right, Ned,” said Benno soothingly. “When you’re growed up you’ll know a bit, I promise yeh, but just now I wouldn’t open me head too wide erbout boxin’ iv I was you.”
Benno was very excitable and very demonstrative during the other preliminary bouts. He brandished a notebook and talked in hundreds with the glibness of a King of the Ring. He even shouted directions to the combatants, using their Christian names familiarly.
Feathers and the Don, sitting behind, were enjoying themselves immensely. They refrained from interfering for fear of spoiling ‘our Mr Dickson’s’ flow of skite, and the clerk, in his great exultation, had forgotten their existence.
But it was when the fight of the night came on that Benno excelled himself. While the men were in their corners his enthusiasm in the cause of Brophy manifested itself in a reckless offering of the odds to all and sundry. He stood on his chair gesticulating over the heads of the standing crowd, till those behind him howled him down.
Mr Dickson’s cheap, dry cigar burst into flame at this point, but that did not disconcert him. Threats of personal violence he treated with a cold scornful smile. He hoped he was looking as if he could fight a bit.
In his calmer moments our hero invited the lad with the thick ear to call on him at his hotel—Benno, it must not be forgotten, lived in a humble five-roomed cottage with his ma and his sister Amelia—and he would teach him a few hits that might be useful to him in his dealings with a cruel world.
In the first round Mike Brophy showed himself a flash fighter, and very fanciful in his movements. He had a fine figure and feline grace, and was anxious to display himself in the limelight, and, while he was pouting his chest and striking attitudes for the benefit of his artistic minority, Rocker Dodd, who was a hard-headed, lumbering pug with no eye for the beautiful, swung in a punch, a punch that lifted the smaller man up off his two feet, and dropped him like a bag of scraps.
“On’y a slip!” cried Benno. “He’s up agin all right.” And so he was, but looking like a man full of warm whisky suddenly ejected into the cold night.
Rocker sprang at Mike again, and Mike ducked by instinct into safety under his enemy’s wing.
“What’d I tell you,” squealed the clerk. “See that? What’d I tell yeh? Ain’t ’e a beaut? Rocker can’t ’it ’im. He can’t ’it ’im, that’s what.” Rocker shook his man off, and punched with right and left, putting a lop-sided head on Brophy, and then the gong sounded, and a thankful fighter sank into Mike’s corner.
“Ain’t ’e a beaut?” vociferated Benno. “Good man, Brophy! It’s twenty t’ one on yeh! Twenty t’ one Brophy!” cried the clerk, raising his voice. “Twenty t’ one Brophy.”
A red-faced, pimply man bobbed up out of the crowd, and pinned Benno with a fat forefinger. “Done!” he said, “I’ll take that, Ned.”
“Twenty t’ one in quids erbout Brophy!” repeated Benno, flourishing his pocket-book.
“Same fer me, mister,” said a sport with a broken nose, tugging at Benno’s coat.
Several others were anxious to do business with Mr Dickson. “I’ll have a dollar worth in that,” said the lad with the thick ear. “Referee’s decision.”
Benno was too elated to heed them. He was shouting expert advice to Brophy’s corner, “Give ’im the tow’l!” he cried, disgustedly. “He don’t want no sermons from you. Wag the washin’, blarst yeh!” He turned to the lad with the thick ear. “Wish I was in his corner,” he said.
“Bitter bad mozzle fer Brophy yeh ain’t,” said the other. “He’d be glad t’ know all you don’t.”
In the second round Brophy was more anxious to keep out of trouble than to show his elegant shape, and he sprinted about the ring with Rocker lumbering after him, punching anyhow and anywhere. Twice Mike was down, thinking, but that did not damp Benno’s ardour.
The clerk was now offering thirty to one Brophy with splendid prodigality, and there were many takers whom he didn’t even notice.
“He’ll let the big bloke wear ’imself out, ’n’ then he’ll dish ’im up on the arf shell with a taste iv lemon,” said ‘our Mr Dickson’.
Presently Brophy was bleeding from a cut over the eye, and had a numbed nose and a split lip, and Rocker Dodd was wishing the fight would begin in earnest.
During the next interval Benno was more confident than ever. He said it was picking up money backing Brophy. He casually offered to lay two hundred to ten about it, He addressed Brophy like an old and valued friend, advising him to keep cool and fight his own hand.
Mike tried to make the third round a foot-race, but Mr Dodd was there, and wouldn’t hear of it. He blocked Brophy in the corners, and punched him, and his punches had all the nervous energy that is in the heels of an exuberant young pack mule. When they reached Mike, Mike’s feet sprang up, and he struck the boards with the back of his head.
For the fifth time in two minutes Mike was down, and now his better judgement prevailed, and he pretended to be asleep in order to evade the responsibility of getting up again. The seconds called him early, the ten-seconds-check reminded him it was time to be up and doing, but Mike slept on. It was all over. The referee, in a few terse, epigrammatic words declared Rocker Dodd the winner.
“Yaha-h, a schlinter!” cried Benno. “A schlinter! A schlinter!”
The red-faced man was working his way towards Benno through the press, pinning the clerk with that imperious forefinger. He took Benno by a button. “That’s a matter o’ twenty jim you’re owin’ me, Ned,” he said.
“Ah, scratch!” retorted the clerk. “That wasn’t no bet.”
The sport with the perverted nose and the lad with the thick ear were clamouring for an immediate settlement of their claims. Several others, thinking the bluff might be worth it, put in large demands. The red-faced man was furious and threatening. He recited terrible things that would happen to ‘our Mr Dickson’ if he did not instantly hand out twenty pounds.
The painful nature of the situation flashed upon Benno. He had been taken too seriously. He went chalk white, his legs wobbled foolishly.
“Bli’me, ’twas on’y a joke,” he protested. “I was just talkin’. I ain’t got a bean.”
“A blessed welsher!” yelled the red-faced man.
“An infernal gun!” cried the sport.
Twenty hands fell upon Benno. He went down into dark night that was full of arms and feet and broken chairs, and his only sensation was of being a mere scrap of himself whirling in the blackness, in which the arms, the chairs, and the feet continually multiplied themselves.
The packer and Nicholas Don, ably assisted by six policemen, effected a rescue, and what they rescued was a weary fragment. Very reluctant were the police to give Feathers charge of it, for it was ragged, dusty, blood-stained, hatless and battered, and would have been a striking object lesson in the dock next morning.
However, the packer’s eloquence prevailed, and he and Nick took the weary fragment away with them, wrapped in Nick’s over-coat. Without that coat it would not have been possible to introduce the clerk into mixed company on a tram, what remained of his clothes being hardly sufficient to establish identification.
“Well, you’re the king cop-out,” said the packer, having delivered Benno into his sister’s hands at his own door “If yeh was t’ go t’ church the boiler ’ud bust.”
Benno answered never a word. His splendid spirit was broken.
Miss Gannon made rapid strides in the bag factory. She came to the flat fresh from the country, a tall, bony girl of sixteen, very angular, all legs and wings with strangely obtrusive feet, large freckles, and a face like that of a patient horse. At this time, too, Susie Gannon’s apparel was markedly inadequate. She had grown out of everything, and the abruptness of her skirts, and the strain upon her jackets, and the brevity of her sleeves, showed how her parents had been distanced in their well-meant efforts to keep pace with their daughter’s startling development. The whole effect made an irresistible appeal to the strong sense of humour in the women of the world dominant on the top flat, and Susie provoked much merriment for many days.
“Blime, she looks like a shillin’ ling wrapped in a penny stamp!” cried Harrerbeller Harte.
“See yeh got yer old brown—brown, brown—see yeh got yer old brown ’at on,” piped the ex-professional fat girl every morning, when Susie’s bizarre felt headdress appeared above the stairs.
The girls at Spats’ were not over-burdened with sensibilities. They did not scruple to make merry at the expense of the smaller misfortunes and the little idiosyncrasies of their weaker sisters. The factory had a peculiar spirit of hoydenish frivolity; it helped to ward off weariness and break the tedium of a set task. Susie served her time as the common butt. It was everybody’s lot.
In those earlier days Susie was gaunt and timid. She stole into the factory like a furtive cat. She loved to creep into cover of any kind, to get anything between her and the ribald pasters—a stack of bags or a heap of envelopes on a board. She was grateful even for a gas bracket that she could hang a strip of paper on. But marvellous is the sex’s adaptability; its power of development is wonderful. In two months Susie was as pert and as self-assertive as the best of them.
Miss Gannon had not been at Spats’ many days when she told Kitty Coudray, who was posing as a sympathetic soul, that she had left a lover behind her in the country, and Kitty, with a shocking lack of respect for the confidence reposed in her, instantly communicated the information to the whole factory.
“What-oh, girls!” she cried, “little Gannon’s got a John iv her own.”
“What!” cried Harrerbeller Harte in mock wonder. “T’ do ez she likes with?”
“Yes,” said Kitty, “’or very own—’ers for keeps. He’s a squatter ‘r somethin’, ’n’ his name’s Oliver Thripny, ’n’ he’ll call fer her with the fam’ly carriage ’n’ pair when he comes into town, ’n’ she’s goin’ t’ be married in white satin shoes ’n’ hon blossom. She sez Oliver’s got a noble bearin’.”
“So he has,” cried Susie defiantly.
“There,” said Miss Harte to the pasters, “that’s up agen’ yeh. There ain’t one iv yeh got a bloke with a noble bearin’.”
“He writ her a love letter,” continued Kitty when the yells of derision had subsided, fluttering a slip of paper in the air. “Would yeh like t’ hear it? No, iv course not.”
A dozen girls scampered to Kitty’s board, and danced about her with shrill clamour; but Fuzzy Ellis went hopping among them, protesting bitterly, spluttering threats of fines and dismissal and with the help of the sullen forewoman he drove the girls back to their boards again.
Kitty Coudray retained the letter, however, and read it to a large audience at lunch time. It was the love letter of an uncultured youth, written with dire pains, wonderfully spelt and quaintly worded. Evidently the opening passage had been borrowed from a tradesman’s circular. The document began: “Dear sir or madam, this is to inform you how I’m still lovin’ you with all me hart.” And it concluded: “I have the honour to remain, yours obedient to command, Oliver Thripny.”
Of course the Beauties revelled in the outpourings of Oliver’s simple soul, and Susie whose sense of the ridiculous was as yet but poorly developed, filled with triumph in the face of the loudly expressed envy of the girls.
Susie’s squatter was adopted by the factory. It expressed unlimited faith in him. It endowed him with great wealth and superlative personal attractions, and affected to believe that his love for Miss Gannon, as expressed in his letters, was a consuming passion beside which the torrid affection of the ducal hero for the simple heroine in penny fiction was pale and cold and weak.
George Mills, alias Feathers, entered into the spirit of the comedy with unaffected joy. He pretended to find in Miss Gannon’s equine cast of countenance a marked resemblance to a popular racehorse, and rechristened her accordingly.
“’Ella, Carbine,” he said, “half a mo’. I want t’ whisper. Will yeh put in a word with the squatter fer me nibs? I’m sick iv this grip; it don’t suit me style. I’m hambitious, ’n’ a bloke don’t get no charnce t’ improve his social position snatching bags in a measly city crib. What I’d like would be the management iv a big cattle run where I could spread meself ’n’ develop, ’n’ I s’pose iv yeh was t’ put in a kind word with Mr. Thripny it ud be ez good ez done.”
“Oh, he ain’t got that much land,” said Susie dubiously.
“So yeh twitter!” answered the unbelieving Feathers. “Fair dinkum yeh might use yer influence, Miss Gannon. ’Tain’t ez iv I didn’t know the game. I managed a milk run onst, ’n’ I’ve sheared all our own cows fer years past.”
Miss Gannon promised to see about it, raking up the while an abbreviated stocking, much of the leg of which had been worn out, doing service at foot.
Harrerbeller bespoke the position of house-keeper, and the ex-professional fat girl thought she would like to be nursery governess.
The situation was almost forced upon poor Susie, but she certainly made a game effort to live up to it, and every day her young man in the country increased in importance, wealth, and manly beauty. Kitty Coudray, who had Susie’s confidence, never failed to inform the factory of the latest development.
The packer introduced a highly decorative oleograph of a member of the royal family—a picture of astounding beauty which he hung on the factory wall, decorated with a frame of tinted papers, and labelled “Oliver”.
The Oliver Thripny legend spread through the establishment. Susie met with elaborate courtesy from the clerks downstairs, and the compositors were painfully polite. Billy, the printer’s devil, was humble, almost piteous, pleading, cap in hand, for the position of lady’s companion for his dear mother. His mother, he said, had been lady’s companion and confidential friend to all the best families in Paddy’s Alley, and if Susie would engage her in some ladylike office at a prodigious salary when she married wealth and station, he would be, oh, so grateful. Billy the Boy wiped his eyes with his cap when he mentioned his mother.
Meanwhile Miss Gannon was steadily improving. She was taken from the folding board and put on to piecework, and she made great progress as a paster. Her comical, out-of-date garments fell from her, replaced by more stylish and appropriate articles.
Susie was earning good money, and she made a corresponding development in her ambition. Oliver grew and expanded. Susie was picking up town ideas, and she grafted city traits on to her country lover. His letters began to display some literary pretension. They lost their quaint and captivating stupidity, and became ponderously correct and stilted. They were full of fine expressions of love and devotion, wordy protestations, and formal offers of service. Harrerbeller was quick to note the change.
“Blime, that ain’t a love letter,” she said. “That’s a bit iv parsing.”
“Oh. he’s ’ighly edjicated, Holiver is,” said Susie.
“’N’ the ’andwritin’s different,” said Feathers. “But he’s had ’em writ be his privit secretary.”
The letters became more numerous. Then one morning the ex-professional fat girl brought in a copy of somebody’s “Ready Letter Writer for Young Lovers”, and huddled away in a corner at lunch-time, the packer and half-a-dozen of the Beauties went through it, and discovered the source of Oliver’s eloquence. Susie was up to page thirteen, and had used every letter so far. Obviously she had been writing love letters to herself, and evidently it was her intention to go straight through the book. There had long been a suspicion that Oliver Thripny had no existence in fact, and now that suspicion was held to be confirmed; but the conspirators swore secrecy, and Susie was encouraged to further flights.
Susie produced more letters, and eventually a cabinet photograph of Oliver. She showed the picture first to sympathetic Mr. Mills, and the packer went into ecstasies with Benno, the clerk, at his elbow, and a lot of pasters crowded about him, craning to get a glimpse.
“A bloke with arf a neye kin see he’s nobly born,” said Mills, “’n’ iv yeh don’t believe he’s a gentleman iv means, there’s the di’mond studs t’ prove it, ’n’ look at his proud, cold manner, his mock kids, ’n’ his ’air caught back like Padder Whosths, pianner scratcher’s.”
“’Ow beautiful the man is!” moaned the scandalous Harrerbeller.
“’N’ such breedin’!” said Benno. “But what iv the down droopin’ yaller mo?”
“He’s ’ad it pulled, yeh chump,” retorted the packer.
Mills begged the photograph, and it was hung on the wall with the other trophies.
“It’s a photo iv one iv them beauty actors,” the packer told Harrerbeller, in confidence, some minutes later. “They’re a bob a quart at the fancy-goods up town. Ain’t yeh noticed it?”
Miss Harte threw her pasty hessian apron over her head, and squealed with rapture. “Love a duck! Susie’s a treat,” she gasped “This is better’n the wicked lady in the drammer. I’m wonderin’ what’s next.”
The next came one afternoon, when a young man arrived on the top flat from the front stairs. He was a very diffident young man, and plainly fresh from the wilds. He took off his hat a he entered, and stood with it in his hand, with the reverent irresolution some strangers display in church. He had very large feet, and his trousers were hung too high. So large were his feet and so heavy his boots that he looked like an immovable object standing there before the gaping factory. His hands were large too, and heavy and very red. His hair was profuse, and his face was covered with a fluffy down that caught a strange radiance from the sunbeams sloping through the windows.
The strange young man’s clothes were new but curiously cut, and so small for him that each piece had an appearance of being semi-detached. He had adopted a tall white collar for this occasion only, and it rode high up above his coat at the back. His countenance was honest but not intellectual, and his neck very long. He gazed sheepishly about the place, wearing an uncomfortable grin, and the Beauties gazed on him in strained silence, awaiting developments.
“Get on t’ it,” said Benno. “It’s lost its mother.”
Feathers looked with great interest. “Looks a bit like a goose with ears, don’t ’e?” he said.
The stranger found tongue. “Please, does Miss Gannon work here?” he asked.
A whoop of delight welled from the pasters, and a dozen brushes pointed to Susie’s board, but Harrerbeller Harte intervened. She confronted the young man, and bobbed with a ridiculous curtsey.
“What name, if yeh please, sir?” she said.
There was another whoop, louder, longer, more ecstatic than the first, but Harrerbeller disregarded it. “Yes, sir,” she said. “Walk this way, if you please sir!” She led him between the boards, with a ridiculous affectation of the manners of a shopwalker. “Nice weather we’re ’avin’, sir,” she simpered.
“Beautiful, Miss, thank you, and how’s yourself?” stammered Oliver.
This broke up Harrerbeller’s gravity and she had only strength to point Miss Cannon out before collapsing. But the factory had hurriedly composed itself to enjoy the encounter between Susie Cannon and her young man.
Susie had been almost petrified on the discovery of Oliver standing hat in hand in the gangway. Now she was working at top-speed, with averted eyes and her face scarlet with the conflict of many emotions. Evidently she was taken wholly by surprise, and the drop from the ideal to the real left her in a state of utter confusion. Oliver came awkwardly to her board, hat in hand still.
“Hello, Suze,” he said, “how’re you doin’?”
Susie turned up her Roman nose and closed her eyes in an expression of scorn, and continued her work. Oliver raised his voice, “How are you, Suze?” he said. “I said I’d come after you.”
Susie, with eyes still closed and nose still elevated, turned to him for a moment, and said contemptuously: “What yeh givin’ us? I don’t know yeh from a ding-bat!”
The young man was astounded. “Don’t y’ know me, Suze?” he gasped. “Why, I’m Oliver—Oliver Thripny.”
“Phew!” said Susie, intensifying her scorn.
Oliver’s situation was a very painful one. He gazed piteously about the room, as if seeking corroboration.
“Oh, go on, you know me all right,” he pleaded. “I on’y come down lars’ night, ’n’ I thought you’d be glad t’ see me.”
“Phew!” repeated Susie, accenting her contempt to the utmost.
“Well, I’m bloomin’ well jiggered!” said Mr. Thripny, helplessly.
The Beauties were moved by some small promptings of compassion.
“Garn, ’ive the lad a show!” said the fat girl.
“It’s Oliver the squatter come t’ claim his bride,” pleaded Kitty Coudray. “Kiss him pretty.”
“’Tisn’t!” squealed Miss Gannon, with a sudden access of fury. “’Tisn’t! ’Tisn’t! ’Tisn’t!”
“Oh, crikey,” murmured the astounded bushman, “that’ll tell you. Says I ain’t Oliver Thripny. Crikey!”
“You ain’t,” cried Susie, “you know you ain’t. You’re a himposter. It’s forgery, that’s what it is. The p’lice orter be sent fer.”
“Crikey!” said the helpless Oliver, “I wouldn’t ’a’ believed it. Oh, I say, Suze, have a good look at me.”
“I won’t,” said Susie. “Go away. You ain’t a bit like.”
Then Oliver invited the bursting of the storm. Appealing to Harrerbeller in his amazement he blurted: “There, that’ll tell you the difference good clothes makes in a bloke.”
The shriek that followed welled from thirty throats, and befoe the beauties had recovered from their paroxysm of mirth Oliver had fled down the stairs. In the language of the flat Susie ‘got nothing’ for the next hour or two. As the pasters worked they exercised their ingenuity in reminding Miss Gannon of what she had lost.
“No more garding parties et Gov’ment ’Ouse fer you, me lady,” said the fat girl.
“Wot price th’ opera ’n’ the fam’ly jewels?” said Hareerbeller. “They’ve a blue duck fer Susie.”
“Now, who’ll drive yeh in a brougham ’n’ pair, ’n’ spatter yeh with di’monds?” asked Kitty.
“Fame, fortune, lux’ry, ’igh society, all gone,” said the packer. “She might iv ’ad mullingatawney soup ’n’ hice cream fer dinn every day, ’n’ swelled it with the best, but she done in her chances in a fit iv pick.” Feathers meant ‘pique’.
But the factory had not seen the last of Oliver. He came up the stairs again at about five o’clock, and turned to pull something after him. He helped a short, fat, red-faced female to the flat. She was about forty-five, and she cuddled a large umbrella, and faced the pasters like a startled horse.
“Now,” cried the bushie, “I am Oliver Thripny, and here’s mother to prove it!”
The ‘hoy’ that greeted this announcement disturbed the whole establishment. Mid the laughter and badinage Susie escaped, and entrenched herself in the dressing-room.
Boldly Mrs. Thripny confronted the storm. The climb had robbed her of breath, but she brandished her brolly in the face of the factory. The pasters’ demonstration was regarded by her as one of open enmity, whereas, as with most outbreaks amongst the hands, it was mere devilment, without a shadow of malice. A scampish craving for diversion inspired such displays. The Beauties were not tender souls themselves, and did not look for supersitiveness in others.
Mrs. Thripny grew redder. Her redness merged into purple. She hurled thunderbolts at the laughing hoydens from the end of her fat gamp.
Oliver retired before the storm, and stood trembling at the head of the stairs. Not so his nuggety mother. She advanced, gasping, full of heroic wrath, and then she burst into language. It was a torrent, a Niagara. The woman tumbled great lexicons on the heads of the girls. Her shrill voice penetrated to the offices. It brought Spats and the junior partner to the top flat. They found Mrs. Thripny ‘going strong’, and the dusty foreman nervously skipping round just beyond the orbit of her umbrella, excitedly but piteously pleading for peace.
The lordly proprietor thundered orders, but Mrs. Thripny lunged at him angrily, gripping his belltopper, and continued her speech.
Exactly what the woman said nobody knew, but she said a tremendous deal, and nothing was complimentary to Spats or the staring hussies, stunned by the downpour they had precipitated.
Mr. Duff, the junior partner, intervened, and it was quaint to see his timid overtures, but a prod in the ear from the raging gamp put him out of action.
Then the diplomatic Feathers took a hand. Feathers was a mere packer and something of a larrikin, perhaps, but in an emergency he was the wise man of that establishment.
“Garn!” he cried, addressing the factory generally, “le’ the poor woman be, carn’t yeh? ’Ave a bit iv manners if y’ are fact’ry rats. It’s dead hookety if a decent married woman’s t’ be abused ’n’ hinsulted ’n’ treated no better ’n’ a Chow. Switch off, carn’t yeh? Yeh might be decent people yerselves some day.”
Mrs. Thripny, who was now breathless, fell back beside her ally.
“Don’t ye know a lady when yeh see one?” asked Feathers indignantly. Then, addressing Oliver’s mother, he said: “You put it down t’ their ignorance ’n’ bad bringin’ up, Mrs Thripny.”
He soothed her with deferential words, and an air of vast respect, and in three minutes she was under perfect control. Before she left she invited Feathers to tea on Sunday.
The packer assured Oliver’s ma that nobody doubted the authenticity of Oliver, and there was no intention to question his legitimacy. This was Mrs. Thripny’s sore point. He said he would send her a written apology, signed by the proprietor and all the employees, and she departed after the boy, quite satisfied. Feathers called innocently over the stairs:
“Mrs. Thripny, may I bring mother with me on Sunday?”
Six months later, when Susie’s squatter was almost forgotten, Susie startled the factory with the announcement of her forthcoming marriage to Mr. Thripny.
“He’s sold out his selection ’n’ bought sand drays. He’s makin’ his five quid a week,” said Susie, proudly.
“What!” ejaculated Feathers; “are yeh his special agin, ’n’ after the way yeh dogged on him?”
“Oh,” said Miss Gannon, “he could see all along that was on’y my joke.”
“Could he?” answered the packer. “A wise gazob is Oliver—yeh can’t kid ’im!”
Jinny Bitt—known as Thripny—was going on for sixteen, too tall for her age and her width and her wearing apparel. Her shins were so thin they seemed to have a cutting edge, and there was too much of them visible, although the frayed, stained and faded skirt was let down so far in the hope of covering the deficiency that a wide gap existed between it and the skimpy body part of her costume, where a quantity of dun-coloured underclothing protruded. Her arms, too, were long and thin; so was her neck. The long, thin arms came far out of her tight sleeves, always worn at the elbow and torn in the armpit. The long, thin neck was surmounted by a very small head decorated with pale, drab-tinted hair that had been cropped within the year, and was now about a span in length, and amenable to no kind of treatment. It writhed like shrivelled pea-pods, and Miss Bitt thought it was curly.
Jinny wore a bit of stale red ribbon awkwardly knotted in the middle of her swan-like neck, but she was not a girl who put forth any pretensions to style. Her boots were heelless, and their symmetry had been destroyed by bigger feet. Her stockings had many holes. The hat she wore had been a ‘gem’ in its day and generation, but most of the rim was nibbled off by the rats and cockroaches abounding on the factory flat, and its only ornaments were a bootlace and a large brass button. Miss Bitt might have picked up a better hat any day anywhere, but she seemed cheerfully unconscious of this one’s imperfections.
“Thripny looks ez if she was painted on elastic, ’n’ then stretched,” said the packer. The description was apt.
Coffee Morgan was Miss Bitt’s cobber. She was a girl of about the same age, shorter, and fleshy in an unhealthy way. She owed her nick-name to her prevailing tone. Her hair might have been bright red under more favourable conditions, but she oiled it liberally, and it collected the factory dust and assumed the tint of ground coffee. Her complexion was like coffee milked, and her disposition was morose.
Miss Morgan dressed rather better than Miss Bitt, but the Beauties soon discovered that her new dresses were always made of second-hand material, and her latest hats were at least a generation too old for the girl, and had evidently come down to her after seeing long service. From the fact that all her dresses were coffee-coloured, the Beauties rashly concluded that her grandmother was a “Beardie,” a brown sect closely allied to Quakers.
Nearly all the Beauties paired off. Their mateships were close, affectionate, and to some extent secretive. Once the alliance was formed, and while it lasted, the two friends seemed to cherish identical tastes, appetites, and desires. The characteristic is not peculiar to factory hands; it is noticeable in a young ladies’ seminary. This intimacy of Thripny and Coffee Morgan was more quaint than another, because of Thripny’s length and leanness, and Miss Morgan’s shortness and shapelessness, and for the reason that Thripny had the ungainly sprightliness of a half-grown Newfoundland pup, while her cobber was slow, weighty, and depressed in manner. Miss Bitt was shrill and voluble; Miss Morgan talked little, and then in a low, mumbling tone, and with an aggrieved air, as if resenting the task.
The two were typical of the younger hands from the slum suburbs. They served in the lower branches of the game, and were still novices. With experience and increase of income would come something like a sense of decorum, and a passion for fine raiment and brass bangles; but as yet Thripny was an undisciplined rapscallion of a girl, street-bred, unconscious, and with no more restraint than the unowned, shambling, jubilant mongrel you may see brazenly claiming acquaintance with elegant young ladies in public places.
Turned loose from Spats’s, Thripny tore down Egg Lane, her bony knees tossing up her sparse petticoats, her left hand hitching some detached or displaced portion of apparel, her right clutching her battered sugee crib basket, her scrap of a hat dangling from the bootlace, one end of which she always chewed as a precaution against high winds or casual mishaps. Now and again she might look back in her wild career and shout: “Come ’long, Mordie, here’s er jinker!” And Miss Morgan, a bad second, would paddle behind, displaying no manner of interest in anything.
The grease-grimed lads at the egg, ham, and butter market looked out for Thripny, and whooped at her as she passed. The grimier young men in the potato depot assailed her with joyful badinage. Miss Bitt’s troubles—she was bent on catching the first jinker or lorry for home at the Port and had time only for a breathless “Ga-an, get work!” which was no more than the civilities demanded.
If it happened to be a timber jinker Thripny dashed at the protruding beam and scrambled astride, excited and voluble, shouting encouragement to Miss Morgan as the stout girl made clumsy efforts to follow suit. At the rope works they were joined by four or five congenial spirits of their own age, sex and station, and so, triumphantly, with legs a-swing, squealing jubilant impudence at all sorts and conditions of men, the Pagans rode home.
The way to work in the morning was enlivened by frequent encounters with jocose young milkmen, raucous sand carters, and whimsical butcher’s assistants. Strange though it may seem, it is nevertheless true that no driver of a milk-cart could pass Jinny and Maud without shouting at them some terse sentiment, the humour of which lay in its gratuitous insolence. Thripny usually responded for both with a shrill yell: “A-a-a-h, ’ave it stitched!” or, “Hi, where yer goin’ wi’ the bones?”
The uninitiated might have thought the greeting and the response bitter, even vindictive. They were nothing of the kind. Often they were the preliminaries to an amorous friendship, and led to votive plates of hot peas and sociable rides in the swing-boats at the gay market on Saturdays.
Coffee Morgan and Thripny worked close together at the same board, and when not working they were linked together in an awkward embrace. They were the closest cobbers the factory had known, and yet Maud was never anything but sullen and depressed, whereas the factory often revolted against Jinny’s joyful melodies because of their ‘damnable iteration.’ It needed Maud’s warning growl: “Chuck it, Thripny!” a dozen times a day to repress her musical exuberance.
Then, one morning, Miss Bitt came in alone. “Gor bli!” said the packer, in amazement, “bin a funeral in the family, er what?”
“Speak t’cher equals!” said Thripny, with none of her usual vivacity.
Coffee Morgan came later, looking more morose than ever.
“Split partners, hev yeh, Corfee?” said the packer. “S’pose the dark man’s come between yer?”
“Give yeh swipe cross the jore!” mumbled Miss Morgan.
At their board the pair worked in silence, as far apart as possible. Thripny had no inclination to sing; she was ill at ease. Maud’s face was set sourly over her work, and she never raised her eyes. The Beauties were inquiring and derisive, and Jinny, who had hitherto done all the barracking for herself and Maud, and had always been effective in retort, was silent now. So matters remained till the afternoon, when Feathers intervened.
“It’s like this,” said the packer addressing the factory, “Mord saw ’im first, ’n’ Thripny’s bin ’n’ pinched him. No wonder Morgan’s givin’ ’er brusher—he’s the pride iv the habbattoirs, ain’t he, Mordie?”
Coffee Morgan was slapping paste all over her work, and her small, ‘greenery-yallery’ eyes were turned up vindictively.
“Don’t have him on yer thinker, little sister,” continued Mills, with much sympathy, “he ain’t th’ on’y sardine in the tin. Put on yer spring millin’ry, ’n’ get out after a squatter, why don’t yeh?”
At this point Coffee Morgan’s feelings became too many for her. She uttered a piggish scream of fury, and darted at Thripny. Clutching her bunch of short hair with one hand Maud smote her cobber of yesterday about the face and head with her paste brush, and then, dropping the brush, got at her with the Beauties’ favourite weapons, and scratched like a burrowing terrier.
Borne back against the board, slightly off her perpendicular, Thripny was quite helpless against the fury of her small enemy. She seemed overcome with a great amazement, and stared with wide-eyed, stupid surprise, while Miss Morgan scratched, and tore, and punched. Jinny Bitt’s astonishment was so comical that, tragic as the incident was, the unfeeling Beauties laughed aloud.
The packer went to the rescue, and struggled with Coffee Morgan, while the lean foreman, in his excitement, endeavoured to walk through two pasting boards, and fell three times in ten yards, hastening to quell the riot.
Jinny and Maud were put to work at separate boards. The former did not recover from her surprise for twenty minutes, and then she started to cry, and wept long and bitterly, and her tears ran down the furrows Miss Morgan’s nails had made.
During the following three days Jinny continued silent, and Maud vindictive. There was something of triumph in Jinny’s air, however, that excited Maud beyond bearing. Five times she rushed Jinny with the intention of inflicting liberal bodily harm, but Maud was nowhere in a race with Thripny.
The factory was enjoying itself, but the lean foreman was thrown into pathetic distress of mind. Spats’s was short-handed. If Fuzzy Ellis sacked a girl the authorities below would bound on him, and break his heart with duplicated abuse; and, on the other hand, if knowledge of the disturbance above came to the powers below, they would unite to abase and abuse him. That was what he was there for. Several stout pasters were posted between the foes to intercept and overcome Coffee Morgan when wrought too far by silent contemplation of her wrongs.
On Monday morning there was a new development. Maud came upstairs smiling, actually smiling. The Beauties squealed, Feathers cried “Wow!” and the town traveller collapsed on a stack of bags. Maud had not been known to smile even in the old happy days.
Jinny Bitt came up a few minutes later. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she was the picture of misery. The Beauties greeted her with a shout that broke her up, and, mopping her tears with the front of her jacket, she bellowed dismally on her way round to the changing-room.
There was a silence of seven minutes, and then a yell announced the outbreak of hostilities. The packer rushed, but was just too late. Thripny had struck Maud on the head with the hot, iron pasteladle, and Maud was thinking it over on the floor.
Now, the difficulty was to keep Jinny Bitt off Coffee Morgan. Jinny, as the turned worm, was much more ferocious than Maud had been. She had a tongue, too, and before noon the factory had Maud’s history, and the history of Maud’s mother, who, it appeared, once cleaned skins at a sausage mill, and of Maud’s father, who had to be treated in gaol for a morbid habit of gathering bags of hens from other people’s roosts at unseemly hours.
“’N’ she cracks she’s someone, ’n’ wears asylum ’and-me-downs!” squealed Jinny. “What price pauper ’ats frim the Ladies’ Beneverlent? Anyone kin put on dog when they cadges their rags frim a bloomin’ institoot.”
Coffee Morgan plied her nimble fingers, mumbling sourly all the time, only an occasional word or two like “scrougers,” “sooer rats,” and “low commonies” being articulate.
“I’ll fight yeh,” yelled Thripny defiantly. “I’ll take it outer yeh, any day. Come ’n’ ’it me now, ’n’ y’ll cop yer doss in the Morgue.”
Maud mumbled on, but kept out of range. Thripny’s demonstrations had cowed her.
“So yeh loored him back with yer pretty ways?” said the packer to Coffee Morgan at lunch-time.
“How yer talk!” growled Maud.
“The Pride’s true t’ yeh after all. ‘Come back,’ sez you, ‘’n’ all will be fergot ’n’ forgave, ’n’ no questions arst’; ’n’ now he’s yours for keeps.”
“The lad what’s keepin’ co. with me ain’t got no use fer scrags, if that’s what yer song’s erbout,” said Miss Morgan, almost pertly.
Maud paid dearly for her triumph. Jinny harried her in the factory with hard blows and bitter speech, and she hunted her all the way home in pursuit of her vengeance. The sight of Thripny tearing down Egg Lane after her enemy was a new joy for the lads at the butter mart and the potato depot, and the ‘hoys’ that resulted startled the town.
But another change came within a week. Jinny bobbed up on Friday, radiant.
“’Twiz all a mistook,” she said joyfully to Feathers. “He’s true t’ me. Coffee’s gone t’ the tip.”
“Bli’ me,” said the packer, “Ned’s a bit shifty, ain’t he?”
“Oh, we’re pets now, me ’n’ him. He’s arst me t’ Snadger Halligan’s darnce nex’ month.”
For four days Maud was terribly depressed, and Jinny crowed over her without pity. Once Miss Morgan threw a ladle of hot paste over Thripny, and once the pair fought a destructive two-minute round in the lift corner, but there were many changes before Snadger Halligan’s dance came off. Coffee Morgan came into her own again, and was deposed again. The fluctuations of feeling wrought by the mysterious unknown awakened a hilarious interest amongst the Beauties, and the first question every day was “Who’s got him this mornin’, Thripny?” Through it all Maud and Jinny remained bitterest enemies.
Thripny was in possession of the vagrant fancy of the much beloved, and Snadger Halligan’s dance was only two nights off. Which would have him for the ‘darnce’? The Beauties were much concerned, and betting was rife. Feathers was making a book on the event.
It was at lunch time. Feathers was sitting on his own bench, finishing his bundle, when an unknown came up the stairs. He was an under-sized, bullet-headed youth of about twenty-four, “ez plain ez a bottle iv pickled mussels,” said the packer to his friend, the town traveller, “’n’ look-in’ like the cockie talker from a tuppeny push. He was jist erbout class ernough t’ be a roustabout et a trainin’ stable fer dogs, ’n’ he ’ad the sting-proof cheek iv a Scotch auctioneer.”
The stranger stopped at the top of the stairs, put his hands to his mouth, and uttered the familiar call of the early morning milkman. That identified him. Then he turned to the packer, and said:
“Got a tom name iv Bitt workin’ ’ere erbart, ain’t yeh?”
“Supposin’?” said the packer, with his mouth full.
“Oh, she’s one of mine, tha’s all.”
“What-o, Billy-be-dam’d, are you it?” said the packer.
“Come orf, I’m no it,” answered the lad. “I’m somethink.”
“Yer dreamin’,” scoffed Feathers.
Thripny had heard the call. She approached diffidently.
“Ello, Danny,” she said. “Who’d’ ’a’ thort?”
“’Ere’s ther bit o’ stick,” said Danny to Feathers, and then he took Jinny aside, and for a few moments they talked in low voices, but with increasing feeling, and from over bales and round stacks the Beauties tittered and giggled at the prize boy who had kept Thripny Bitt and Coffee Morgan at deadly enmity for a month past. Maud stood at a little distance and glowered. It was presently seen that Danny and Miss Bitt were not agreeing too well.
“It’s orf,” said Danny; “I thort I’d tell yeh it’s O double F orf. This is the chuck fer yow, Sticks. I’m otherwise engaged fer the future. Yeh got smoogin’ up ter Gopher Eddie at the Blondin, Chewsdee, ’n’ that’s the last quarter. It’s me takin’ Little Bilk-street ter the darnce at Snadger’s-Bilk-street! Put it in yer book. No more fact’ry rats for Danno.” This was hurled at Maud, who was edging up. Dan threw out his hand, edge on, and wreathed lip and nose contemptuously. “No more rats, d’ y’ ’ear? Both o’ yeh, when yer meets me next, ’ll get brusher.”
Dan had turned at the top of the stairs to deliver the last salute, and a tornado of discarded lunch struck him, and blotted him out. The Beauties considered ‘fact’ry rats’ an offensive phrase.
“Bilk-street!” gasped Thripny.
“It’s Liz Bricky,” mumbled Miss Morgan.
Thripny flew to the balusters, and yelled abuse after Danny. Danny responded in kind as he passed down in a shower of scraps. Mills gave him ‘the order’ most offensively.
“Gar-r-ut, cat’s milk,” cried Miss Bitt. “Wouldn’t be seen with your sort at a bottle-oh’s garding party.”
“Scrouger! Scrouger!” mumbled Coffee Morgan, spitting after the retreating lad. “Who bit the pig?”
“Ever speak t’ me agin ’n’ y’ll cop out,” said Jinny. “I’ll put the John on ter yeh, that’s what.”
“Cat’s milk! Cat’s milk!” said Maud, sullenly. She was not audible five yards off, but wished to keep her end up.
Jinny had the last words, a triumphant yell covering Dan with odium as a stealer of door mats.
“Now yiv done yerselves in, both iv yeh,” said the packer. “Hensforth, Danno’s on’y a cherished mem’ry. Bilk-street’s got him clinched.”
“Our trubs!” answered Thripny, with terrible scorn. She wound a long, thin arm affectionately around Maud. Maud responded in kind.
“Don’ want nothink t’ do with low larrikins like Danno, we don’t,” mumbled Miss Morgan, and the two went down the room, linked lovingly. The entente cordiale was restored.
Feathers christened her the Man-Eater. The implication was that Porline was the counterpart of the devilish adventuress in the popular melodrama, who consumes men with undiminishable appetite. Porline was small, and so thin that her whole osseous structure stood out like a skeleton in a bran sack; she was ugly, and no longer young; her mere wisp of hair was drawn tight into a tiny knot at the top, augmented with scraps of black ribbon; she had deeply-sunken beady, black eyes, and her complexion, indeed, her whole binding, was leathery.
There was a painful cheerfulness about Porline, an inexcusable skittishness that might have hurt finer sensibilities than those common in the bag factory. She made an affectation of being a devil of a fellow, which, taken in conjunction with her manifest disabilities, was quite pitiful, but the hands did not see it in that light.
Her name, Pauline Streeton, would have been a jarring note in the factory if it had been used there, but to Spats’ Beatties she was always Porline or The Man-Eater, and Porline took no exception to the nickname; on the contrary, she accepted it as a compliment to her fatal powers of fascination, and even strained a point to live up to it. Although she had been in the factory some years, nothing was known of Porline’s home life, but because she had little slang, and spoke fairly correct English—a thing generally condemned by the Beauties as a beastly affectation—it was whispered to all new-corners that the Man-Eater’s family had been somebodies. One romancer in a burst of recklessness asserted positively that Porline’s father was an Inspector of Police, but the factory held that there was a medium in all things, and the idea perished of inanition.
Porline affected a youthful style in frocks, and her hats had always a misplaced jauntiness; her feathers were higher than any other girl’s, and particularly vivid, and even at work, when the Beauties discarded sleeves and collars, and all adornment, she loved to flutter bits of cardinal ribbon, and generally wore a wilted artificial rose of extreme redness in her sparse hair.
George H. Mills, alias Jud, alias Feathers, the packer, was supposed to cherish a hopeless passion for Porline. It was part of the poor comedy. Feathers maintained the pose without loss of interest for some years, and Porline’s archness towards the young man, according to the opinion of the judicial Benno, was “the sort iv thing t’ make er dorg ’owl.” She hung upon him, and turned saucy eyes up into his face, and giggled heartlessly, remembering her part as the slayer. Feathers had a formula.
“Look at ’er,” he would say appealingly to anybody or nobody, “ain’t she ther sort what’s fillin’ ther river” It’s them eyes what does it. S’elp me Jimmy Jee she’s rooned my life! Straight—she’s draggin’ me down.”
Then Porline would laugh coquettishly, and skip away to her work. But she was lavish of her attentions, and wasted no little time at Benno’s desk, trying to bewitch him too.
“What I wonder when I see you is that there ain’t more unhappy homes,” said Benno. “Porline, I’d ’a’ bin er better man iv I’d never set eyes on yeh.”
Billy the Boy, on the next flat, murmured with deep feeling: “Oh you little devil!” as Porline went gaily downstairs. The printers cried: “Chase me, Charley!” or affected a great concern about mythical appointments, and the clerks in the warehouse, if the eagle eye of Spats was not upon them, sighed deeply as she pranced in or out, and addressed poetical raptures to the rafters. Whereat Porline smiled roguishly upon all, and accented her girlishness of manner. She did everything with a girly air that became grim burlesque in comparison with her years and infirmities. Porline even tried her kittenish graces on the foreman, and had once looked bewitchingly at the fat proprietor himself. Spats backed before the glance like a man menaced by a python, pulled the lift rope with a perk, and shot into the depth, whence he almost immediately sent an order demanding Porline’s instant dismissal. She was saved by Ellis, who assured the “gov’ner” of her harmlessness, and the more cogent fact that she was one of the most profitable hands in the factory.
Tim Moore came to the flat one morning in the capacity of assistant packer. He was a shy young exile of Erin, new to Australia, and the Beauties overwhelmed him. He worked with his back to them in a state of nervous apprehension, and it was noticed that he had not lifted his eyes to the ribald hussies at the pasting boards in a whole week. Porline showed no respect for Tim’s native reserve, however, but beset him with artful wheedling, like the sly minx she affected to be, and poor Tim cowered before her attacks. The woman’s audacity, her boniness, her desiccated charms, and her ridiculous pretensions in the matter of hair, threw him into a sort of helpless amazement.
Feathers was the first to offer a kindly word of warning.
“Yer a young man,” he said, “n’ yeh ain’t got no mother to advise yeh. Take my tip—pluck her out iv yer ’eart.” Tim cast a look of alarm towards Porline’s board, and the packer dropped his voice to an impressive whisper. “We call her ther Man-Eater,” he said. “She’ll bring yeh sorrer ’n’ disgrace. Buck up—tear her himage from yer breast.”
An hour or two later Benno, primed by the packer, drifted from the room, and loitered at Tim’s bench.
“So,” he said gloomily, “you’re to be her new victim. That’s like her, castin’ her devilish wiles over ther young an’ ther fair. We’ve all yielded to her fatal fascination; her path is strooed with ruined lives. Well, well, iv ther worst comes t’ ther worst, don’t say I never done me juty by yeh.”
Tim’s uneasiness developed into a sort of superstitious awe. He watched Porline’s comings and goings out of the corner of his eyes, with a pathetic trepidation. In the afternoon, Goudy the town traveller, when upstairs picking out an order, led Moore behind a stack of bales. His manner was full of mystery.
“She’s a siren,” he said. Moore did not know what a siren was, but he was impressed. “I’ve got sons of my own, and think it only right to speak ere it is too late. Let her get a hold upon you, and—” Goudy left the rest to Tim’s imagination, but his gesture was eloquent of desolation and despair.
Two hours later Tim stole over to Feathers. “D’ye mind tellin’ me what’s a sireen, at all” he said.
“It’s one iv them things that sings and sucks yer blood,” answered the packer, with the readiness of an expert.
“An’ I t’ought ’twas nothin’ more’n a bit iv a whistle.” Tim allowed his eyes to turn cautiously in Porline’s direction. “Goudy sez she’s wan iv them sireens.”
Feathers nodded gloomily. “She’s bin the blight iv me young life,” he said.
The joke ended there, for when Tim was missed from the flat half an hour later, it was found that he had taken his hat and coat, and stolen off. He did not even return for his pay, and Goudy heard that he shipped West by a boat that left on the following day. The flight was a triumph for Porline. “He told me another week iv it, ’n’ he’d ’a’ bin yours body ’n’ soul,” said the veracious Feathers. Benno confided to her that he had seen Tim passionately kissing an artificial rose she had tossed to him. Porline’s middle-aged diablerie increased, and this success prompted her crowning audacity. She came to the factory the on following Saturday, dressed in her gayest, and leading by the hand a child of about three years of age, a little girl, pretty and fresh as a flower, and caparisoned like the daughter of a duchess. Spats’ Beauties were very partial to kiddies; they deserted their paste boards in a body, and swarmed about the child, gushing rapturously, praising its beauty with longing ecstasies, finding wonders in the tiniest details of its dress, the blueness of its eyes, and the gold of its hair. Porline lifted the little girl to the bench, that all might see, and her own weird sapless ugliness, was in hurtful contrast with the sweetness of the child, but her little, spotty eyes shone with joy.
“Whose kiddy is it” asked Martha, the fat girl.
Porline looked round upon them all. “Whose should she be” she said. “Mine, of course. She’s mine!”
The Beauties, if not particularly keen on morals, were on the side of conventions in their initial impulses. They drew off a step or two.
“But who’s its mother, I mean” said Martha.
“I’m its mother,” answered Porline defiantly. “Pooh!”—she snapped her fingers like the bad female in the drama—”what do I care who knows” Why shouldn’t I acknowledge my child” I don’t give that for your respectables.”
Feathers pursed his mouth and whistled a long tremolo. “Well, iv she ain’t a fair take-down!” gasped Benno. The Beauties did not seem to know what to do in the circumstances, so they laughed, and drifted back to their boards, where they made calculations and compared dates. Circumstantial evidence supported the claim of Porline; amazement possessed the factory. Nobody would have believed it possible—everybody said so.
For a time there was some little inclination to hold off from Porline’s kiddy, but the child’s winsomeness dissipated all pruderies, and the hands would have killed it with kindness had not Porline shown herself as alert and scrupulous as a mothering hen; but the pride she felt in her child lit her up like an inward light, and she paraded the proof of her paganism with a flaunting audacity. The news went through the establishment in a matter of minutes. The printers came up in a procession to see Porline’s “illegim”; the clerks, one after another, found excuse for a visit to the top flat. The fat, bald ledger-keeper, bowed his head upon a stack of nine-pound browns, and sobs shook his frame. The fat ledger-keeper was an instinctive comedian. He had given it out far and wide that Porline was his secret sorrow. All the men reproached Porline, mutely, or with the speech of desolated hearts. Ellis, the dusty foreman, was stunned; hours later he stopped to whisper to Feathers, with the air of a man who’s missed the point of a story.
“Does she mean the young un’s really hers” he said.
“Sure pop,” answered the packer. “Hers fer keeps.”
The foreman clicked his tongue for half a minute, looking like a mazed hen. “I been in the thick of ’em here fer more’n twenty-five year,” he said, “an’ my opinion is girls is mad more ’r less most times by reason of the nature of ’em, but I’d never ’a’ suspected anythin’ o’ the like o’ that of ’er.”
“I’d never ’a’ suspected it iv any man,” said Feathers.
Having recovered from his great wonder, the packer resumed the thread of his long joke.
“Yeh might ’a’ broke it to er bloke gently, Porline,” he murmured dolefully. “Iv yeh, can’t return ther haffections iv one what worships ther very old slippers yeh work in, there’s no call t’ go laceratin’ his ’eart. Girl, girl, ain’t yeh got no ’uman instincts”
“Oh, fritters!” cried Porline vivaciously.
“Can’t yeh be true t’ one what loves yeh fer yerself alone”
“To a dozen,” said Porline.
Feathers wiped away the tears with which he had sprinkled hisface in preparation for the scene. “Leave me t’ me grief,” he “Let me sorrer make me sacred.”
Porline went off jauntily in her character of the heartless foreign female out of the third act, and Feathers stole down for his daily beer like a man driven to it.
After that Porline often brought little Kitty to the factory. The Beauties made a toy of the pretty child, and presently the astonishment passed, and Porline’s motherhood was accepted without remark. The woman was an Ishmaelite, she had no relatives to consider, and keeping no society, was bound to no social observances. How she behaved within the law was her own affair; the factory at least pressed no demands.
One week, about two months after the first appearance of the child at Spats’, Porline absented herself from work three days running. She returned on the Friday, coming in late, and the factory gasped at the sight of her. She was changed as if by a visitation, all her jauntiness was gone, she was hopelessly old and withered, the leathery tan had gone from her cheeks, and the folded skin was yellow and blotched, her red-lidded eyes were rimmed with purple—she looked like death in a feathered hat.
She passed through the girls, without a word, deaf to their inquiries. The packer’s joke died on his lips. At her board she worked fiercely, wrapping herself up in the task, and the Beauties looked at her and at each other, and whispered conjectures. Fat Martha worked at the same table, but it was not till an hour and a half had passed that she dared put the question that had been on her lips all along.
“Is—is it somethin’ wrong with Kitty, Porline” she said.
Porline turned on her savagely, raising her brush to strike. “Shut up, you fool!” she cried shrilly. Her voice sank almost to a whisper. “Can’t—can’t you see I’m dying” Her head fell amongst the paper before her, and then she slid to the floor, and lay grovelling, and the sobs that convulsed her beat her face upon the boards until it bled.
The girls rushed about her. Some tried to lift her from the floor, but she beat them off, and lay there writhing in a passion of grief.
“It’s Kitty,” she said presently. “My Kitty, my baby, my beautiful Kitty. They have taken her from me.”
“Who, dear” asked the fat girl, sobbing in sympathy.
“Her mother. I took her when she was a tiny mite, and her own mother was afraid to have her, and she said I could keep her always, and I paid to have her nursed, and I dressed her in all the prettiest things I could buy, and I loved her—I loved her, and she is gone. They have taken her—my baby! my baby!”
Porline struck her bare hands upon the floor, and lying upon her face in the dust, abandoned herself to a grief that was tragic—profound as the human heart—and the Beauties, who caught up emotions as the trees take the winds, cried over her in a woeful chorus.
Feathers broke away, and staring at Benno, and pushing his hands before him, he said brokenly: “I’m beat! I’m beat! Fer God’s sake come ’n’ ’ave er drink I’m fair beat!”
There was something amiss; the crowded factory room was quick with the sense of it. A stranger coming up the stairs might have been visited with a consciousness of the fact that the spirit of mischief was stirring on the top flat. Spats’ Beauties, girls of a kind commonly given to rebellious and frivolous practices, had preserved for over an hour the decorum of a superior young ladies’ seminary under a Presbyterian regime.
The foreman clawed his fuzzy hair, and showed a cowering back. The quiet was ominous. Nothing was heard but the whir and whiz of the machines, the fluttering of busy hands in paper, and a sibilant whispering peculiarly viperish. Spats’ girls did not usually whisper; their ordinary conversation was shrill and over-bearing, and there were at least eighty of them, young and old. Factory girls, like those of the ballet, remain “girls” in defiance of time and the ravages thereof.
“Wha’ ‘s wrong, Feathers” Billy the Boy, the juvenile rouseabout from the printers’ flat, who had crept up the stairs, thrust an inky stub of a nose through the battens, and cocked an anxious eye.
“Get t’ ’ell outer this!” said the packer, throwing a ball of twine. The day was oppressive, and the packer’s attempt to steal out for a pint of consolation had been stalled off at the lift door by the boss, and he was feeling wronged and vindictive.
Billy whipped down on a banister at the peril of his neck, and called softly upwards:
“Oh, yer love me, Carrie, dontcher, spite o’ me boil”
The tone had a tender pathos touched with passion. It stirred the packer to black wrath. Leaning over the open space by the stairs, he promised Billy death with barbaric effects. Feathers was liable to boils, and was also a man of a philandering temperament. The printer’s devils were in the habit of deliberately hearing things in the cellar among the bales when the girls were being let out after over-time.
Billy was deeply moved; he smeared ink on the rope with which Feathers swung parcels to the shop flat, and resumed the ordinary evasion of his duties as a devil.
The majority of the girls worked at square boards on trestles. There was a heap of paste in the centre of each board, and the piece-workers stood to their task, pasting and folding at the terraced stacks of stationery with the dexterity of machines, bare-armed, bare-necked, in slovenly gowns caked with dirt-colored dough, their tousled hair powdered with the fibre of the paper. One girl worked alone. There was a drift from her neighbourhood, but sidelong glances assailed her with accusations; the tittering that occasionally broke out was all for her ears, and it was suppressed with a malicious understanding that she would recognise the suppression to be a measure of consideration extended to a transgressor.
The creature apart was a sallow, freckled girl, with pale hair and sharp features. She was fully conscious of what was going on—had felt some symptoms of it working for weeks, but to-day the devilment was pointed and deliberate. The hot oppression of the top flat had wrought upon the Beauties, and Annie Mack was sacrificed to the necessity for diversion. From a purely moral point of view the factory had no particular qualms about Miss Mack’s weaknesses.
There was a sullen stupidity in Annie’s face; she raced her work; her hands flashed along the automatic movements of a set task; the perspiration ran down her long neck. This energetic action was the only relief, and the girl’s consolation would come in a fat packet on Saturday, she being a piece-worker.
Benno loitered at the packer’s bench for a word. Our Mr. Dickson, it must not be forgotten, was a superior creature—he reigned on a high stool at a desk in a top corner near the cutters, piling figures on figures all day long. He came at nine, after the others, and left at half-past five, before the others, and had become shockingly lop-eared as a result of his practice of carrying a long pen behind his ear to assert his dignity. Benno as a clerk should have held status with the young gentlemen down in the warehouse if people had their rights.
“They’re settin’ her nibs t’-day,” said Benno, with a sportsman’s keenness, a sidewise convulsion of his features indicating Annie.
Feathers finished a knot with some deliberation.
“Dunno what they’re gettin’ at,” he said. His air was that of a man with a mild grievance.
“G’out, man! mean t’ say yeh ain’t took a tumble” Benno had his own opinion of such mental denseness.
“No, iv you”
“Course—weeks ago. Ain’t yeh got eyes in yer ’ead”
A harsh voice barked behind them. Benno fled to his high stool. Feathers banged his ream industriously, and Odgson, the Gov’ner, otherwise Spats, snarled and glowered for a few minutes, like an angry dog. Spats was rarely articulate. After scrutinising his Beauties under the rim of his belltopper, overlooking the room in the attitude of an avenging Fate, the Gov’ner drifted down stairs again. He had been disturbed in his den below by the ominous silence aloft.
Billy the Boy reappeared under the banister, grinning maliciously.
“Copped out that trip, didn’t yeh! Up to yeh, too, fer a dead nark.” The “office” should have come from Billy the Boy. Feathers took him on the nose with a treacherous jerk of the twine ball, and the devil retreated to the first landing, whence he sent up shrill whisperings to remind the packer of his lowly birth, and his many defects of character and education. “Anyhow, thank Gawd, ’twasn’t my old mother stole the boots!” said Billy.
The hush imposed by the great man’s presence passed, the voices hissed again; and Annie bent to her task. Her face was to her enemies. She increased her pace. She had listened so long, and at such a strain that now the whole room buzzed in her head like a big bee.
Miss Kruse, the ever depressed elderly maiden, nominally forewoman, felt the electrical condition of the atmosphere, and, knowing her helplessness in the face of a combination of the bigger girls, devoted herself to the kids at the folding-boards, casting sulky, underhand glances at the others, and wearing the piteous expression of an ill-used woman on her flat face. Ellis, boss of the flat, who had retired behind his guillotines, shot his head over the machines every now and again, and nervously surveyed the room. Being mortally afraid of the girls, anything like a display of insubordination threw the lathy man into a state of imbecile distress.
The long day wore on to half-past four, and there was no outbreak. Ellis prayed for 6 o’clock. With marvellous cunning he had approached Miss Mack, hinting at illness, and mildly advising bed and a brand of pills much appreciated in the factory. Diplomacy was Fuzzy’s strong point.
“Set a trap in yer ’at, you’ve got rats!” responded the young lady, bitterly, and though the foreman revolved for a few minutes agitatedly expostulating, after that she treated him as something extinct.
Work had been Annie’s safety-valve. While running at high pressure she could contain herself, but now came a break. Her paste was used up, and to get more she must turn her back to the foe and pass down a long flat to the corner where the coppers were. She went with resolution. Simultaneously with her disappearance, there was a burst of uproar in the factory, loud conversation, calls, badinage, and laughter; the flat roared with its characteristic babel.
The moment Annie reappeared the racket sank to a sibilant murmuring once more. The girl walked erect, with tight drawn lips and fiery eyes, carrying the dipper of steaming paste in her hand. She came to the packer’s bench, where Benno stood talking business.
“Fifty-six iv nine pound brown,” said Feathers.
Annie saw the heads together, and suddenly her restraint collapsed. She turned upon the men, her whole person animate with passion.
“You’re a lyin’ ’ound!” she yelled.
Feathers got the whole dipper of hot paste full in his face. The stuff half choked him; it clung in his hair, it rolled down his neck, it deluged him. He slid down into a pool of it, and blinked up at his assailant in pitiable amazement, a ludicrous object smoking on the floor, no longer a man, but a clammy mass.
“An’ I never said a word!” he protested weakly. “S’ ’elp me, I never said a word!”
But Annie Mack was otherwise engaged. She flamed upon the factory. Rage possessed her. She was crammed with hatred, and it flew from her in language that shot terror into her enemies.
“I leave it t’ Benno, there. Now, come, what ’d I say” cried Feathers, virtuously pathetic.
“Flamin’, blazin’ liars!” cried Annie. “You tork about me—you—you! You orter! A pack o’ rats. What’re yer gotter say ’bout me” Spit it out!” She stood with up lifted hands and screamed at them, and then her eye picked out an individual. “You, Kitty Conroy, call me things, will yeh”
She dashed at Kitty, and fastened on her like a fury, all claws. “Fight me, yeh waster!” she shrieked, tearing at the other’s hair.
Kitty fought back with spirit. Crash went her board and on it rolled the combatants, fighting like tykes amongst the paste and the papers. They clawed, and tore, and punched, screaming incessantly, turning over and over in the mess. Annie arose from the fray half-blinded, pasted from head to foot, and garnished with fruit-bags. She rushed into the thick of her enemies. The girls screamed, and broke before her in terror, and havoc followed in her wake. She tore down the tables, she filled the air with paste and myriads of envelopes, storms of stationery broke out whenever she paused a moment, and the unhappy girl that fell into her hands was reft of hair and draperies, and blackened with bruises. The distracted foreman danced on the outskirts of the riot, shedding real tears, and appealing in heart-rending accents alternately to Annie and to high heaven.
“Miss Mack! Miss Mack, for pity’s sake!” He became valiant in his great perturbation, and threw himself in Annie’s way.
Snatching up a small tub of paste, she smashed it over the foreman’s head, leaving him with a necklace of hoops, and in a smother of his own composition. In that awful moment, Ellis bitterly regretted his attempts to improve the consistency of good flour paste with common glue.
Sis Twentyman was the next victim, but she escaped, leaving a wisp of hair in Annie’s hands, and took refuge behind her table, and Miss Mack chased her round it five times.
“I’ll give yeh whisperin’ an’ tisperin’,” cried Annie. “I’ll tear the eyes out of yer monkey face, you pig’s sister. What ’re you, to go whisperin’ about people! What ’re you, more’n a half Chow” She paused for breath, and a fierce resolution shone in her eyes. “I’ll do yeh, though! I’ll do yeh!”
Annie darted to the dressing-room, and presently reappeared, brandishing something with the triumph of a scalp-hunting savage. It was Sis Twentyman’s new hat she held aloft—the beautiful confection Sis had introduced only that morning—the most precious thing in all the world. “See,” cried Annie-”See, you dirty stop-out!” She placed the hat on the floor and danced wildly amongst the feathers.
Sis uttered a yell of mortal agony, and, heedless of danger, dashed in to the rescue; but with her foot still upon the crown, Annie tore the hat to fragments, and flung them in Sis’s face, and the two girls fastened on each other after the manner of cats.
A number of the printers had come to Benno’s assistance by this time. They parted the combatants, and Annie relapsed into hysterics. She was carried to the dressing-room, and Fuzzy followed after with the Gov’ner, who had just arrived on the scene, snapping orders.
A quarter of an hour later Annie Mack came forth, clothed in her right mind, and stole down the stairs. It was understood that she had been discharged, and her foes were appeased, but order was not restored in the factory that day, nor the next.
One afternoon, some nine weeks later, Annie re-visited the top flat, proudly carrying a long-coated baby about three weeks of age. Annie was gaily dressed, and the infant’s gown was worked to a point of extravagance. The girl smiled cheerfully on all, just as if nothing had happened, sailing through the room, a vision of happiness. She bore no malice for the mischief she had wrought. Annie submitted her baby to Miss Kruse’s approval with beaming confidence. Curiosity overcame the others, and they gathered round to inspect and applaud.
“Ain’t he a bute” said Annie.
“A little love!” said Kitty Conroy.
“The darlin’!” gasped Bell Oliver.
The girls flattered and gushed. Sis Twentyman kissed the baby.
“Course you know I’m married” said Annie.
“Go on!” cried Bell. “Was that lately”
“Bless yeh, no!” answered Annie—“a week ago!”
The Packer was entertaining Pepper Ned, from Whimble’s pickle mill, in the Wharf-side bar. There were threepenny beers and spring-onions lunch, and the talk had taken a scientific turn, it bore upon molecular disturbances of the atmosphere, set up by the popular esculent, and the carrying power of certain breeds of onions, on all of which matters Pepper discoursed oracularly as an expert. The young man from the pickle mill was reminded of the pathetic case of one Artie Coutts, a sensitive soul who had been driven by stress of circumstances and the unfortunate remissness of his people at Home in the matter of remittances, to take service at Whimbles and who had become obsessed by onions in the course of a few weeks. It seemed that Artie was a man whose natural refinement had survived a demoralizing weakness that sacrificed everything else for whisky of Scotch extraction, and fate threw him into that department of the factory where the onions were flayed.
“’N’ me lord juke fair stooed in atter iv onyins,” said Ned. “Ev’ry one else got ’ardened t’ ther hum iv onyins, but Artie he never cud. It fair turned him up, ’n’ he’d go er pale pea-green when er bunch iv busy girls got er rush on er ton iv young uns’, ’n’ th’ ink-pink began t’ rattle ther windows, ’n’ push ther slates off ther roof. Youse don’t know what ther little pickle onyin’s capable of till yev met er ton of ’em stripped fer bizness in a ’ot room. Artie began t’ look like er man with er settled sorrer after er week of it. ‘My Gord! my Gord!’ he used t’ say, slappin’ his bald ’ead with his two ’ands, ‘what’s t’ become iv me?’ ’N’ then he’d sneak er gulp of whisky, ’n’ face it agin like a ’ero. I ’eard afterwards that he got a sort iv idea how he was ’aunted by ther concentrated hodor iv Whimble’s onyin branch. He took it ’ome with him. It follered him everywhere. He couldn’t shake it. He took ’t sprintin’ in ther streets, thinkin’ t’ outrun it ’n’ ’ide where it couldn’t find him, ’n’ twice he was run in fer gallopin wild through ther city without his ’at, ’n’ with ther light iv madness in his eye, thinkin’ in his addled ’ead how he was makin’ er break from ther orful smell iv Whimble’s. Then he took t’ shriekin’ out iv nights when he woke ’n’ found th’ ’orrid hodor in his room, ’n’ flier people ’ud find him crouched down in one corner in his nightie, tremblin’ all over, ’n’ moanin’ erbout ther purple ’n’ green smells what was comin’ at him down ther chimbley.
“He said they was some nine foot high,” continued Ned, “’n’ they was breathin’ pestilent fumes on him, ’n’ he couldn’t get no sleep fer ther noise they made trampin’ erbout in ther ’obnailed boots. Then came a Sunday when he went out on ther roof in his shirt, explodin’ the lan’lord’s gun, ’n’ when ther p’lice pulled ’im down, he said he was shootin’ ther big, red onions with livid eyes, what was comin’ down in millyins ’n’ millyins t’ stifle ther town. They put poor Artie in er padded cell, but ther smell gave him no peace, ’n he died of it eventual, sayin’ he was—t’ ’ell, ’n’ ’ell was er pickle fact’ry, jist like Whimble’s, where the scent iv onions without end rolled over ther souls iv ther damned fer ever ’n’ ever, amen!”
Feathers was deeply impressed by the story of Artie. He sipped his beer with a thoughtful air. “Yes,” he said, “I kin understan’ that lad bein’ ’aunted by a nodor. I’ve known ther time when I’ve thort there was somethin’ spooky ’n’ soopernatural erbout er pertickler weird ’n’ unaccountable erfluvium, ’n’ wasn’t ther on’y one, ther whole bloomin’ fact’ry got er bit ratty erbout it, ’n’ was thinkin’ iv givin’ ther grip brusher, ’n’ going’ inter Co. with ther unemployed.”
The wharf-labourers, and the sailor-men, and the hands from Egg Lane drew their beer about the packer. Feathers had some reputation as a yarn spinner. His low-comedy style was popular and it was admitted that with education and opportunity he might have become eminent—he might even have aspired to be an auctioneer.
“Spats’ fact’ry’s got er bend in it, yeh know, ’n’ ’twas round in ther west corner be ther lift well we first got up agin that ‘whoof’,” continued the packer. “’Twas er mos’ curious ink-pink sorter unearthly—ther kinder thing yeh might expect t’ biff yeh in ther feelin’s when ther trap lid iv ther bottomless is lifted t’ hadmit one more dead ’ead t’ ther pit. For er few days it loitered round there, gatherin’ force, ’n’ preparin’ fer ther attack, ’n’ that part iv ther buildin’ became very unpop’lar. Fuzzy, ther foreman, went down with reports ev’ry arf hour ’r so, ’n’ ther new smell created er good deal iv talk. His gills would come battlin’ down ther flat, full iv bisness ’n’ good intentions, ez he always is, ’n’ butt up agin ther new flavour, what was takin’ on fresh developments each day, ’n’ he’d fetch up, ’n’ sniff round ’n’ round, like er startled terrier, with er new idear erbout rats. Then he’d claw up his bunch iv cobwebs, ’n’ sample her agin. Then he’d say: ‘Seems t’ me they’s somethin’ a bit queer, George ’Enery’; ’n’ he’d paw erbout, ’n’ scratch ’n’ dig ermong ther stacks iv bags ’n’ ther cuttin’s ’n’ stuff, more like er terrier ’n’ ever. Lummie! I used t’ wonder ther beggar didn’t bark.”
Feathers moistened his lips with two-thirds of a long-sleever, and Pepper Ned leaned on his pint, and sighed heavily. The interval between drinks promised to be protracted.
“Well, them hatmospheric ’ints grew more pointed. ’n’ presently they began t’ clamour. They crep’ down on ther pasters, ’n’ eventual they raided Fuzzy’s end, ’n’ drifted out into ther street t’ disturb ther traffic. It was midsummer, ’n’ she raised her voice to er yell, ’n’ ther whole fam’ly iv hodors jined in ther chorus. By’n bye she was screamin’ perlice ’n’ blue murder, ’n’ you couldn’t hear a bloomin’ iron tank drop above ther general din ’n’ hodoref’rousness. Down comes Fuzzy, ’n’ whacks into it agin, ’n’ he gives er sad cry, ’n’ drops his bundle, ’n’ goes pluckin’ et his ’air, ’n’ bedevillin’ his whisks, ’n’ barkin’ his bleedin’ shins over things, ’n’ comin’ up out iv ther tangle presently, wet ’n’ dusty, ’n’ pale ez death, with one ’and pressed on his ‘Darby Kell’. ’n’ the other holdin’ himself down, ‘n’, ‘George ’Enery,’ he sez, petulant like, ‘they must be a leak,’ sez he. Er leak! Mother iv Moses! ’twas more like er Niagarer or er barrel iv litherfracture bustin’ in er condemned graveyard.
“’Er leak!’ I sez, ‘I think ’er whale’s gone bad on ther firm’s ’ands.’
“’Can’t yeh do somethin’?’ wails he, more in sorrow than in anger.
“I asked t’ be excused fer me old mother’s sake, me not havin’ a sound ’eart. ‘Send fer ther Board iv Health ’n’ ther corporation shifters iv detestable objects,’ I sez; ‘I ain’t no dealer in remains.’
“’Somethin’ must be done,’ whimpers Fuzzy, very pitiful. ‘Somethin’ mus’ be done;’ ’n’ he makes ernother break, ’n’ spills over er tub iv paste, ’n’ nex’ minit he’s giggin round ermong ther Beauts, tryin’ t’ bustle ’em inter takin’ on ther job iv searchin’ fer ther disturbin’ element, ’n’ removin’ it beyond ther city limits. Ther toms bucked like mules. Kitty Coudray said she was wanted ’ome, th’ ’ouse being afire, ’n’ Rickards ’n’ nine others guv him er week’s notice with their compliments, but some iv ther wages ’ands took it on; ’n’ presently there was er procession iv pale, sick girls on ther stairs goin’ ’ome t’ bed.
“Meanwhile, that strange, houtlandish smell was reachin’ out ’n’ developin’, same ez Goatie’s candle mill with ther lid off, ’n’ our foreman was gettin’ so worked up he couldn’t sleep iv nights. Ther toadstools ’n’ things was growin’ on that pale blue hodour in ther ’aunted corner like mussels on er mudbarge, ’n’ et this point up comes his gills, ther junior partner, Duff, come on er voyage iv discovery ’n’ in er spirit iv scientific inquiry. ’Twas his juty t’ hinvestergate ’n’ draw up er report. He tried samples from nine points iv view, ’n’ then he looked tired, ’n’ withdrew frim ther commission, holdin’ affectionately to his wishbone, ’n’ mutterin’ like er man in er dream.
“Ther respected proprietor, His Whiskers, was disgusted with what he called this heffeminate weakness on ther part iv Suety, ’n’ he ’eaded fer ther shockin’ outbreak on his own. Bizness was suspended on ther spot, every eye was on Odgson. He passed me with his ’ead up, ’n’ his nose high, ’n’ his cady balanced on ther bridge iv it. He came into collision with ther thick end iv ther distressin’ event unexpected, ’n’ it took his breath erway. He sorter bounced off it. But ther boss is Scotch and stubborn. He put his ’ead down, ’n’ ducked in, ’n’ fer arf er minit there was er catch-ez-cats-can contest ’tween him ’n’ ther reek iv after judgement, ’n’ His Whiskers was beat. He come up out iv it, lookin’ white ’n’ weak, leavin’ his bell-topper in ther possession iv th’ enemy, ’n’ he leaned ’eavily on my board ’n’ breathed hard. Presently he called t’ Ellis in er weak voice, ’n’ Fuzzy come stumpin down ther aisle, cryin’ ‘Yessir! Yessir!’ every stride.
“’Huh, dammit all, man, what’s yonder?’ sez Odgson, speakin’ like er man who’s jist done his ’undred yards in ten secs.
‘I’m erfraid it’s er leak, sir,’ stammers Fuzzy.
“’Er leak, yeh idjit!’ yells Spats ‘Are none iv ther girls missin’? Then he turns t’ me. ‘Come back t’night, Mills,’ sez he, ‘you ’n’ Don, ther carter, ’n’ shift those bales. ’Unt it out! ‘Unt it out!’ I had t’ do it ’r resign me grip on ther spot, ’n’ blime if he didn’t send me in fer his ’at.
“Wot er night we ’ad—Jimmy Jee, wot er night! Fuzzy pegged out after ther first hour, ’n’ ther Don ’n’ me shifted bales ’n’ stacks, ’n’ ate dust, ’n tainted our himmortal bloomin’ souls with the hum of old Tophet, ’n’ nothin’ come iv it ’septin’ ther discovery iv er mysterfyin’ noise wot cud be ’eard when leaned up agin ther wall in ther ’aunted corner. Er creepy, unaccountable kinder noise, like ther faint, far off tickin’ iv er clock shop. We tried t’ track it down, but couldn’t. It seemed t’ come outer ther bricks. That was more ghostly than ther smell, ’n’ it started my thatch walkin’ tiptoe all over me napper, though I ain’t ther man t’ take long odds erbout ghosts happenin’ up anywheres ’r anyhow.
“When ther Beauts got onter that mystery tickin’ erway in the wall then ther plot thickened. You couldn’t get one iv ’em back, fer night work fer gold ’n’ di’monds, ’n’ they shied from ther ’aunted corner in ther shades iv evenin’, ’n’ still ther odour grew, so et life wasn’t worth livin’ up on ther top flat. There was talks iv er general strike, ’n’ er bunch iv ther pasters interviewed Odgson, ’n’ pointed out how they’d wanter be paid time ’n’ er half t’ carry on ther firm’s bizness in ther supernatural hatmosphere what was prevailin’ upstairs. Neighbourin’ firms was complainin’ bitterly, ’n’ people was cryin’ out in the street, sayin’ Spats’ biz otter come under ther head iv noxious trades, ’n’ be shifted out inter ther tannery ’n’ glue mill district. This stirred the boss up, ’n’ he got in workmen t’ punch er hole in ther wall ’n’ locate that spook odour, imaginin’ ther queer tickin’ might be ther furious smell gnawin’ its way inter ther buildin’.
“Er gang was on ther job for four days, goin’ inter ther hinfected arear in shifts iv short dooration, one man down th’ other come on, but, blime, they discovered nothink. They broke ’oles in ther wall, but ther mystery never shifted, ther tickin’ went on just ther same, ’a’ ther erfluvium become more ’n’ more denser. The Board iv ’Ealth was warned be this, ’n’ it come down, ’n’ stood round, wearin’ little patent respirators, ’n’ lookin’ wise, but it couldn’t do nothin’ towards solvin’ ther problem, so after measurin’ ther density iv ther smell with scientific hinstruments, ’n’ takin’ its longertude ’n lattertude, ’n’ selectin’ some samples fer analysis, it went down, ’n’ gave Spats legal notice t’ have ther tincture iv fiends removed frim his premises within three days, ’r suffer ther hextreme penalty iv ther law.
“Well, that smell got inter ther papers. Ther evenin’ organ was quite excited erbout it, ’n’ spoke iv it ez er marvellous fernomenon, goin’ on t’ say how Spats was evidently ther centre iv some new manifestation iv natural forces, ’n’ callin’ on ther Govment t’ pass er Act iv Parliament without delay. Er perfessor writ er wonderful letter, sayin’ proberly the eruption was due t’ er earth fissure under ther buildin’, what was lettin’ ther fumes iv er suppressed volcaner leak out He said it was er most curious ’n’ interestin’ subject, but gor blime, he didn’t ’ave t’ live in it!
“Erbout here ’n’ now, Apps ’n’ Winterbee, ther plumbers, had their perfeshional curiosity excited, ’n’ they come erlong with er offer iv ther loan iv their boy Sniff et er quid er time. It seems this ’ere boy Sniff ’ad er gift. He was a hexpert smeller out iv things, ’n’ was ther firm’s greatest treasure. Spats was asked t’ take pertickler care iv him. When Apps ’n’ Winterbee was called in ter ferrit out er gas leak what ’ad defied all ther other firms in town, it put Sniff on ther job, ’n’ Sniff was never known t’ fail. He was sent inter all sorts iv dark ’n’ dusty places, over ceilin’s, ’tween walls, under floors, up channels, anywheres, ’n’ he went gaily enough, like er bally foxie after er rat, ’cause it was his speciality, ’n’ he was proud iv his great erbility. Sniff was what yeh’d call or hinfant progidy, sniffin’ out mysteries was his big hit. ’E was a genius at it, but he didn’t look it.
“T’ see Sniff, you wouldn’ think he was er champion in his class. He was erbout fourteen, ’n’ very small for his age. They kep’ him small with gin ’a’ ’ard trainin’, I think, so’s he could creep inter any kind iv er rat ’ole in pursuit iv his callin’. He had er dull eye, ’n’ er vacant face, ’n’ no chin, his face jist slippin’ off where his chin should iv come in, but ’e had er bonzer nose. He’d fair run t’ nose. You never see such er nose on er ’uman face. ’Twas habnormally over-developed, so t’ speak. Lookin’ et that nose, you was sure Sniff wouldn’t live long. ’Twasn’t in ther nature iv things he could go on sustainin’ sich a snich.
“Sniff was turned loose on ther fact’ry flat, ’n’ ’e went over it like er tradesman. Other folks was turned end on be one gust iv it, but I think Sniff was ’appy. He was in his helement. He sorter prowled erbout all ther mormn’, gettin’ ther lay ’n’ drift iv ther varyis currents ’n’ odours, ’n’ makin’ his plans; but after lunch he got goin’, ’n’ how did he ’unt! Nothin’ could ’old ’im. He was full iv er sort iv artistic frenzy, ’n’ ’e chased trails with his long nose feelin’ ther way before him fer all ther world like er ’ound after er ’erring. In two hours he’d run down four gas leaks, three old rats, ’n’ two escapes frim ther pickle mill nex’ door. Then ’e got out after ther King odour, but that puzzled him. He’d come up agin ther brick wall with er bunt every time, then he’d listen t’ ther tick-tackin’ fer er bit, ’n’ get back on his tracks, ’n’ chase her agin. No use, she alwiz brought him up short agin ther bricks in ther ’aunted corner.
“After ther fifth run he stayed there, studyin’. He went down ther wall, ’n’ up ther wall, ’n’ then er glad light broke over him
“’Bring er ladder!’ he sez.
“Ther ladder was brought, ’n’ Sniff went up it, hot on ther trail. Ther top iv that wall was jist er wide, flat shelf iv brick, on which ther big tye-beams rested. Ther roof over-shot it. On this shelf, back agin one iv ther rafters, was er parcel what couldn’t be seen frim below. ’Twas erbout ther size iv er candle box ’n’ ther wrapper was ther tin lining out iv er case, ’n’ this tin was polished like silver with ther paws iv ther ten thousan’ famished rats what had been spendin’ ther brightest years iv their lives, tryin’ t’ get in. Would yeh believe it, that tin was tickin’ like forty watches, ’n’ when Sniff stirred it, you’d think it was full iv live dried peas, ’n’ was rattlin’ on its ace.
“Sniff pulled ther tin parcel out, ’n’ he let her drop, ’n’ she bust open on ther floor. Boys, I’m done! Here’s where I fail. Mother iv Murphy! how did that parcel fogue! Ther volume iv smell smashed ther winders, it rattled ther town, clocks stopped, ’n’ trams bolted, fire brigades was called out, ’n’ perlice were sent fer in all directions. Ther hinstruments up et ther hobservatory recorded er earthquake iv great vi’lence, ther Lord Mare resigned his office, ’n’ all ther cats left town. Shrieks ’n’ cries was heard in ther streets ’n’ people ran ’n’ hid in ther cellars, thinkin’ ther end iv ther world was come. Benno fell down in er fit, ’n’ I had ter drag him frim under be ther legs. I was a bit ratty meself fer seven days, ’n’ beer ain’t never tasted ther same ter me since.
“’N’ after all ’twas on’y er cheese, er good-sized, fat, New Zealan’ cream cheese, what some one ’ad pinched frim ther produce stores in Egg Lane, ’n’ wrapped up in tin ter keep ther rats off, ’n’ hid on ther top iv flier wall, till er good charnce come t’ mooch with it. I suspect er lad name iv Creegan—Nipper Creegan—what got ther sudden jerk fer punchin’ ther boss er clinker in ther whiskers. He got fired so prompt he ’adn’t time t’ shift his cheese, ’n’ it was lef’ there t’ ripen ’n’ rot, ’n’ set up er storm centre iv cyclonic odorif’rousness what knocked ther street out iv plumb, ’n’ redooced unimproved land values t’ nex’ t’ nixie.
“Oh, ther tickin’? That was ther cheese mites what bred ’n’ mustered in that cheese, on’y these wasn’t mites, they was monsters, ’n’ it was ther tin wrapper what we’d bin hearin’ fer weeks. When ther package broke loose on ther floor, ther ball iv mites bust, ’n’ went skippin’ erbout ther flat like er flight iv ole man kangeroos. They was fearsome things t’ meet in ther dark, I’m tellin’ yeh, pale, dreadful grubs ez big ez concertinas, with long grey hair, ’n’ no features exceptin’ two dead black eyes. They could jump five yards, ’n’ had er ’ide on ’em like er blonde pig. They was turnin’ up, fright’nin’ ther paint off ther girls fer weeks after, ’n’ we ’ad t’ set rabbit traps ’n’ lay poisoned bate for ’em all over ther place.
“Ther remains iv ther cheese was removed be divers in full dress, ’n’ Sniff got ther Ryle Humane Society’s medal fer ’erosim, ’n’ was rewarded with er public subscription. There’s still er flavor iv that cheese lingerin’ in ther fact’ry t’ prove what I’ve bin tellin’ yeh’s gorspel.”
Feathers lifted up his empty pewter, looked into it, knocked it on the counter in an inverted position, as if to shake out the dust of dry days, and then said reproachfully to the Aberdeen engineer off the donkey engine on the wharf, whose turn it was to “spring”: “Blime, cobber, er yer givin’ ther barmaid er per petual ’oliday ’r what?”
Feathers, the packer, owed his name to a strange set of side-whiskers he once grew. Over these the feathery paper-dust collected till they looked like the wings of an adolescent gosling. He soon wearied of the nick-name, and shaved off his fluff, thinking the insult would pass with it. He was mistaken. The sobriquet of the foreman, Fuzzy Ellis, had a similar origin. His dead-looking, reddish hair was as fine as tow; it was always distracted, and in it the fibrous dust gathered so thickly that every jerk of his head produced a miniature dust storm.
Fuzzy was a queer bird. Besides being long and lank, he had a prematurely withered appearance. The white apron that enveloped him gave him something of the aspect of a wilted candle. His eye had a hunted look that corresponded with the distraction of his hair; his pinched face might have been put on his bones with a palette-knife and had the sallow livery of Spats’ factory. It was always moist, as with trepidation, and from it oozed driblets of whiskers. He was the dustiest man in the world, and gaunt with everlasting worry. Fuzzy could not be imagined apart from the factory. He was first to come in the morning, last to leave at night. Nobody in the firm recollected his beginning. It was vaguely surmised that he was born in the factory and nourished on its insidious dust and the paste and gum that over-ran the place and caked on everything. He was regarded as a fixture; that he had friends or relations was never dreamed of—he was hardly credited with a soul.
So rooted was this conception of Fuzzy as an inseparable adjunct of the factory, that Feathers, having proof to the contrary, went to Benno, the clerk, one Monday morning, feeling like a man about to endanger a hard-earned reputation.
“Who jer think I seen at the Zoo yes’dee afternoon” he said.
“Give it up,” answered Benno, ruling a line with insolent elaboration.
“Fuzzy!” said the packer.
Benno revolved on his high stool and faced his friend. “Knock it off, George Henry,” he said, appealingly. “You’d be all right iv it wasn’t for the drink. Knock it off, ther’s a good feller. You warn’t at no Zoo, yeh know.” Then, with a change of tone, he continued: “D’ yeh mean t’ say yeh saw Fuzzy out on his own—prowlin’ round in th’ open like a ’uman bein’”
Feathers assured him of it on his honor as a man and his faith as a Christian. “S’elp me cat! I did,” he said.
Benno surveyed the foreman with a new interest. “After all, I s’pose the beggar must be somewhere when we’re shut down,” he said thoughtfully.
Feathers carried the story to the girls, but it seemed probable to them that he was lying, particularly as Sarah Eddie had been to the Zoo on Sunday and had seen nothing of the foreman there. And yet the tale was true. Moreover, Fuzzy, having heard Miss Eddie declare her intention of visiting the Zoological Gardens, had gone there with the deliberate idea of exhibiting himself to that young lady in his Sunday clothes, but had been too timid to carry out his purpose. In the marvellous workings of Providence it was allotted to Sarah Eddie’s destiny to awaken a tender passion in the dusty heart of Fuzzy Ellis.
Sarah was a large, fair young woman of thirty, stoutly framed, with a mouth extended beyond all reason and human necessity, good teeth, and a gummy smile. She had been in the factory some months, and Fuzzy’s love was the mysterious and unhallowed growth of a moment. Sarah, with the mercenary object of securing the most profitable work, had beguiled him with her Ethiopian grin and glances of matured coyness, and when the foreman’s hand pressed hers, as he placed the work on her board, she giggled affectedly.
“Oh, Mr. Ellis, you are a one!” she said.
In the words of Benno the wise, “It took like a vaccination.” Fuzzy came up the room with a stunned look in his eyes, and the expression of a man who had committed himself irretrievably. He offered no more advances for some days, and then, after hovering about Miss Eddie’s board a dozen times during the morning, he made a rally, and, placing a small packet on the table beside her paste, fled to cover behind his cutting-machines, tripping over the truck and barking his shins by the way.
The packet contained three penn’orth of cheap jujubes.
During the afternoon the hands saw Fuzzy’s small sheep-like head shoot up above his machines on a stalk of neck, transfixed. Fuzzy’s eyes were turned upon Sarah with a tender and absorbed expression. Heaven knows what blissful emotions were stirring softly in his bony breast, but he was “dead to the world.” Girls at the top benches discovered him, and “passed the office” along. The intelligence drifted down the flat; work was suspended; silence fell upon the factory. The girls stared at Fuzzy, and Fuzzy gloated upon the object of his affection with a fatuous ardor. He suggested an amorous adjutant-bird. A titter ran through the factory. It swelled to a yell of laughter; and Ellis, recalled to a sense of his position, ducked, spun the guillotine wildly, and, in his great agitation, nearly cut off the tip of his index finger.
The idea of Fuzzy as a lover was the acme of the incongruous; he was so arid, so nervous, so thin, and so unhuman. No one had any idea of his age, but he looked like a man who had dried up at the age of thirty-six, and had since been free of all human infirmities. His little love-affair was to the factory a mad joke; news of it spread to the printers, it was discussed in the warehouse, it was talked of in the street; but the foreman, unconscious of all this, continued to steal to Miss Eddie’s board with love-tokens—a pound of grapes, a bag of buns, a bottle of ginger-ale; once it was a pork-pie. Miss Eddie was involved in the comedy, and there were jokes at her expense, but she took them all in very good part, and continued to ogle Fuzzy with a cow-like playfulness.
Feathers, the humorist, affected the airs of a desolate man, and encouraged Fuzzy with descriptions of his own hopeless love of Sarah and pitiable accounts of her recent cruelties. He hinted at suicide.
“Someone’s come between us,” sighed the packer, wiping away a tear. Benno swore that the foreman almost smiled at this. “’Twas touch ’n’ go,” said Benno. The clerk was of opinion that Sarah Eddie had a “bit iv splosh.” He declared he had seen her smuggle a bank-book out of her bag. That afternoon Fuzzy gave Sarah a brooch. It was of an ancient device, and had lost a stone, but was large and had some value as old gold.
It was several days before the girls quite understood Sarah, but when they did there was a sudden revulsion of feeling. Fuzzy’s courtship was no longer a joke—it was an outrage. All the easy work was going to Sarah’s board. She was given the pleasant and profitable jobs. The special stuff that had hitherto been distributed fairly among the piece-workers all brought extra money to Sarah, and her earnings went up with a jump. This was not to be borne. Spats’ Beauties began to murmur, murmurs swelled to open complaint, cries of bitterness and insult followed, and then the Beauties began to throw things. Blobs of half-caked paste assailed the foreman and clung in his hair; balls of sodden paper fell about him; a recently-emptied flour-sack turned inside-out was dropped on him down the lift-well; an unknown hand knocked him headlong off the stairs with a bundle of waste. Fuzzy’s hunted look deepened to one of terror. He moved gingerly, but his infatuation made him strong to endure, and Sarah continued to score.
An act of flagrant favoritism precipitated a strike. The piece-workers threw their brushes into the paste, and, seating themselves on their boards, swung their heels, and yelled defiance at Fuzzy. A dozen of them went downstairs as a deputation to Spats, and the foreman, after stumbling about the room in a fit of nervous irresponsibility, retreated behind the guillotines to await developments.
The deputation charged into the office of the boss. Twelve voices raised in vociferous complaint. Spats drove them up stairs again with angry snarls and snappings, and sent for Fuzzy. Ellis returned from that interview looking a complete wreck, and Miss Kruse informed the girls that for the future there would be a fair division of the better-class work.
The foreman could still do his adored many favors, and he was her humble servant. Her paste was brought for her, he carried her work to her hand, and although she did not scrape her board on Saturday like the others, it was white and clean when she came to work on Monday; so that it was still worth Sarah’s while to shed shy glances on Samuel.
“You do so grow on a body,” she whispered one morning, and this excited Fuzzy to such a degree that he was bumping into things three hours later.
But the termination of Fuzzy’s love-affair was sudden and dramatic. Early one Saturday morning, a bulky, black-browed man came lumbering up the back stairs.
“’S your name Ellis” he said to Feathers. The packer directed him along the room with a nod of the head, and the bulky stranger moved in that direction. To the surprise of everyone, Sarah Eddie flew out, and intercepted him, brandishing a threatening brush.
“If yeh do, Jim!” she cried in great agitation. “Mind, if yeh do!” Jim seemed prepared to chance it, and, thrusting her aside, passed on. “Your name Ellis, Mister” he asked Benno. The clerk pointed out the foreman with his pen, and the intruder faced Fuzzy.
“They tell me you’re Ellis!” he said. The tone was threatening, the man’s air distinctly dangerous. It was obviously unwise to be Ellis. Fuzzy hedged.
“Well, er—it depends,” he said, and retreated timidly.
“If so happens you are Ellis, I mean to punch your damn’ head off.” It was the tone of an earnest man, one who had resolved on a course of conduct, and had no use for argument.
Fuzzy fled behind the folding board, and the bulky man dashed after him. The pursuer was not a man to stick at trifles; he carried the long board off its trestles in his rush, but fell among the ruins, and Fuzzy went down too. The foreman extricated himself first, and darted for another table, Jim after him. They raced round twice, and then faced each other across the board.
Jim controlled himself for a moment and shook a terrible fist at his destined victim, and then thumped the board determinedly.
“Wha’—wha’—what is it” gasped Ellis.
“I’ll tell yer what it is,” he said. “That there’s my girl.” He pointed to Sarah Eddie. “She’s been goin’ to marry me, more ’r less, fer a year, an’ now you’ve chipped-in. Well, I don’t allow it! D’yer hear? I don’t allow it!”
“Police!” piped Fuzzy.
Smash went another board before the impetuous Jim, and Fuzzy fled again, under the tables, around the packing-benches, and then down the long flat, with Jim at his heels. It was a sensational scramble, and choke-full of interest to the Beauties. They clambered on to their boards, and screamed encouragement to Jim. The stranger made a grab at Ellis, and it seemed that all was over with the foreman, but a parcel of bags tripped his rival, and he fell headlong. This was Samuel’s chance; he raced for the ladder at the opening in the ceiling, straddled up it like a distracted spider, and crawled into the darkness above. He was making a desperate effort to haul the ladder up after him when Jim snatched at the bottom-rung, and, swinging his great weight brought the ladder down with a crash on top of himself, and plucked Fuzzy on to his face at the opening, clutching wildly at the edges to avert a disaster. Jim reared the ladder again, and, racing up it, scrambled into the loft, and those below heard muffled sounds of running feet, bumpings, and curses, coming from above the ceiling.
The loft was a spacious place, hot and black as the pit, and the strange, volatile dust characteristic of Spats’ factory lay a foot deep on its floor, and clung thickly to the weird festoons of cobweb that spanned the rafters. A rat-fight up there was sufficient to convert the atmosphere into a feathery mass. There was silence in the factory—all ears were strained to mark the progress of the race overheard. Every bump sent a blast of dust out of the manholes, and it billowed along the factory ceiling, and poured out of the windows like smoke. A shrill cry indicated that Fuzzy had fallen into the clutches of the enemy. A confusion of yells, much swearing, and a great trampling and bumping, during which the dust rolled from the openings in dense masses, told of a bitter, hand-to-hand contest. Then a body was dragged along the ceiling, and presently Jim’s boots came into view on the ladder; his legs followed, but slowly, and after his legs came his body, and then came Fuzzy. Jim, backing down the ladder, reckless of consequences, dragged Ellis out with a run on top of himself, and the two fell in a tangle on a heap of stock.
The identity of the men had to be taken for granted; they were now monstrous objects, with few human attributes, swathed round with clinging rags of black cobweb, their features blotted out, masses of web hanging from their limbs like elfin wings. But Jim had not lost sight of his mission. He seized on the foreman again, and dragged him through the factory, seeking Sarah Eddie; and when he found her he dumped Fuzzy at her feet. He tried to spit, but his mouth was like a dust-bin; he opened it, but was inarticulate. Then he sneezed five times, and speech returned to him.
“Now, we’ll settle this matter,” he said. He shook Fuzzy up, and they were obscured in the dust. “Here, you,” he went on, “is this here your girl, ’r is she mine”
Fuzzy made a gesture of complete abandonment.
“You give her up” Fuzzy nodded supinely. Jim was still holding him.
“You gives it to her straight that all’s over atween yer, that you ain’t havin’ any truck with her whatsomever, savin’ in the way o’ business” The wretched foreman signified his assent. “Very well,” said Jim, “that bein’ so, I ain’t got nothin’ more agin yer.” And he dropped Ellis on the floor.
The trouble being ended, two policemen, who had been hastily summoned under the impression that murder was being done on the top flat, came up the stairs and seized upon Jim. He was fined five pounds, with the alternative of three weeks’ gaol, and took the alternative with a good grace. To show he had no ill-feeling towards anybody, he put ninepence in the poor-box.
Three weeks and two days later, Sarah was married to a wharf-lumper, who, there is every reason to believe, was identical with Jim, and Fuzzy’s dream of love was over.
The truculent boy had been summarily dismissed, and the morbid boy was introduced late on the following Monday morning. Billy, the devil, hit him with the cake off a tin of ink as he lumbered wearily up the stairs. The morbid boy was very broad and extremely meaty. His head was large and almost square; nose, ears, cheeks, and lips were puffy, and he had a fat forehead. His color was pasty, and his average expression vacuous. This morning its vacuity was relieved by a dull wonder as he stood at the head of the stair, his arms hanging limply, gazing at the pack of girls. It dawned on him presently that he had been deceived, that life would not be worth living in this ruck of heathens, and he started downstairs again.
The packer recaptured him on the printers’ flat.
“It’s all right, Mumps,” said Feathers. “You’re the new boy, I reckon.”
“’M orf it,” answered the boy, sullenly.
“Rats!” said the packer. “This is dead easy. Yer got nothin’ t’ do ’ere but tickle the pianer ’n’ blow the dust off the chandeliers.”
Feathers towed the lad back to the flat, and away to the changing room, where he superintended the removal of his coat and the donning of a hessian apron with a large pocket across the middle, a relic of the truculent boy. Then he led Mumps to the busy half of the long room, and started him up the track to the foreman’s retreat. But a couple of minutes after resuming work the packer saw that Mumps was standing where he had left him, in the middle of the gangway, gazing straight before him, like something petrified. Mumps had no initiative; this was discovered before he had been in the factory an hour. A girl’s glance had the effect of striking him motionless in the middle of a job, and he would stand inert, with a lolling tongue and a dead eye. Fuzzy, the foreman, gave him a fresh start.
“Nice, bright, active, lovable lad that,” said the clerk to Feathers. “Wonder where they gathered him”
“He come over th’ ’sylum wall,” said the packer. “Already he’s brought the best knife in the big machine down on a spanner, cut two reams iv cartridge t’ waste, ’n’ spilt a quart iv ink inter Fuzzy’s lunch.”
“’N’ he hums like a little bone mill,” said Benno, “bless him!”
It was his capacity as a “hummer” that conquered the factory. Where he passed went consternation, and even Fuzzy, who was supposed to be superior to little prejudices, put Mumps from him, and regarded him with a thoughtful and troubled air. The Beauties were not hampered by the niceties of polite convention; they rarely strained the point at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue; and when Mumps passed them by the injured did not stifle their cries, but yelled like devils.
Martha, the ex-professional fat girl, when Mumps brought work to her table, cried “Wow!” threw her apron over her head, and sat down on the floor in an imitation fit.
“Give it Christian burial,” squealed the thin machinist.
“Shift that tannery!” The whole flat was giving tongue.
“Yah, dry it, can’t yeh,” said Benno, “The lad was reared in a soap foundry ’n’ can’t help hisself.”
Mumps did not show that he was conscious of the impression he was making; the scorn of the girls failed to deepen the heavy imbecility of his manner. It was late in the afternoon, when all hope of an abatement of the nuisance had been abandoned, that Feathers attacked the new boy.
“In the name o’ Jimmy Jee, wha’s the matter with yeh” he cried, brutally. “Bli me, you’re ’ummin’ somethin’ awful.”
“’Taint me, neither,” growled Mumps.
Feathers pulled at the pocket of the apron. “What yeh got ’ere” he said. “Pooh! Strike me dead! She’s a corker. Take it out!” he yelled.
Mumps dipped into the pocket and produced a dead rat on a string, the identical rat with which the truculent boy had stampeded the factory. Being unable to escape from the folded apron, the beast had perished miserably, and Mumps had carried its remains with him all day.
“Well, you’re a shine idyit,” commented Feathers. “Why didn’t yer throw the thing away”
“How wiz I t’know” whined the morbid boy.
This was characteristic of Mumps; the rat might have remained there a month before he would have taken upon himself the responsibility of dislodging it.
Feathers had some felicity in the selection of nicknames, and although the new boy was officially entered as John Robey, the room refused to recognize him as anything but Mumps. Strange to say, Ellis contracted a liking for John; possibly because the youngster was never impudent. John, who seemed to be in a perpetual state of moral hibernation, hadn’t sufficient impulse to be insolent, and the foreman had had a large and varied experience of boys with impulse. As a rule, the boys treated Fuzzy brutally. The truculent boy—4ft. 9in. and 13 next birthday—had once clamored violently for three rounds with his boss, being anxious to prove in the eyes of the whole world which was “best man.” True, Mumps was dull and needed close watching, and had to be started and stopped like a machine, and could never learn what was to be done next, and was liable to fall into a condition of open-mouthed inanimation in the middle of a job, but he never gave back-talk, and there was something respectful in his stupid awe.
Three mornings running a very ponderous woman, who was taken to be his mother, lugged Mumps up the stairs and drove him to his work, but after that John accepted the inevitable and came regularly at eight. He brought enormous lunches in a rush basket, and sat alone amongst the bales to eat them. When work started again, his distress was painful to behold, and he was often heard to groan pitiably during the hour that followed. Then Benno would tell him that he ought to have his lunch made to measure and not go trying to fit a No. 3 stomach on a No. 9 meal; and Feathers would gravely advise him to have it pulled.
One morning Mumps fell into a state of dreamy inaction over a truck of grey sugar paper, just where the front stairs cut into the flat. A yap at his back jerked him into consciousness, and, looking round, he discovered the imposing figure of the boss at his heels. Instantly John Robey was thrown into a condition of fatuous irresponsibility; he seized on his truck, heaved up the great burden, made a blind stagger, and rushed the whole box of tricks straight down the stairs. The truck bounded, threw a dazzling revolution, and its handles crashed through the floor of the first landing. Great reams of paper leaped down the remaining stairs, shooting in all directions into the printing room, and the crashes told of ravage and disaster. Mumps stared after his lost load for seven terrible seconds, and then turned, and fled for the men’s dressing-room. He reappeared with his hat in his hand, dragging his coat after him, and darted down the back stairs.
Feathers overtook John, and he was given another trial after the foreman had interceded on his behalf, but the printers’ devil never forgave him. One of the reams having jumped into a tub of lye, and deluged Billy with the awful mixture, the boy felt called upon to subject John to monotonous persecution as long as he remained in the place. Mumps was a child of persecution, but he dulled the point of practical jokes by preserving a Chinese unconsciousness. The packer dropped all subterfuge, and treated him as an open and unabashed idiot, telling him twenty times a day exactly how much of an ass he was, in language calculated to appeal to the lowest intelligence, but always with a well-intentioned and benevolent air as of one imparting useful knowledge. Benno, however, adopted a tone of biting irony, and it must be credited to Mumps’ penetration that one day, after surveying the clerk heavily for five minutes or so, he said: “I hate you, Dickson!” Although the tone was phlegmatic, this, coming from Mumps, was regarded as an amazing burst of confidence.
At about this time there began a frequent disappearance of lunches, and although John Robey was known as a monument of gluttony it did not occur to anybody that he had degenerated into a crib thief. For over a week suspicion rested upon the rats, which were frequent in the factory, though during all that time Mumps’ painful indispositions might have enlightened the dullest minds. One day when three lunches were missed, Mumps remained curled up on a big bag of waste for some time after the lunch hour, sweating and groaning. He told Feathers that it was “apendickitis” he had. Later the crib thief grew discriminating, and stole only the choicest morsels from the lunches, spoiling no less than nine in one morning. But it was not till Miss Kruse sent John out for sixpenn’orth of mixed pastry, and he came back with the empty bag and explained dully that he had eaten the stuff “by accident,” that the elucidation of the mystery was whispered about.
Next morning at about a quarter to twelve, while Mumps was depositing work on Martha Pilcher’s board, the fat girl called across the room:
“Say, youse, I’ve fixed up them rats proper this trip. They nicked some ’am sandwiches from my lunch this mornin’. Them sandwiches was poisoned!”
Mumps dropped the goods he had in his hands, and stared at Martha, and his pallor took a faint greenish tinge.
“I poisoned ’em myself,” said Martha, “with ninepenn’orth o’ arsenic.”
Mumps doubled his arms across his stomach, bent like a man in agony, and uttered a long, anguished howl.
“They’s enough poison in ’em to kill a norse,” continued the fat girl, remorselessly.
The boy scrambled under the bench, and rushed for the stairs. He was heard to fall down the last flight. He raced through the warehouse, colliding blindly with the boss in the doorway, and a few minutes later the people in the main street of the city saw a white-faced, despairing Mumps, wild-eyed, bare-headed, and wearing a bag apron, racing along the road like something frantic. Mumps clamored at the door of the most expensive doctor in town, kicking the panels, pulling the bell, and shrieking simultaneously; and when the door was opened to him he fell in, crying:
“I’m poisoned. Quick! quick! do something—they’ve poisoned me!”
About an hour later, a tall, grave constable brought John Robey back to us, and John was a woeful thing to see—pale and clammy, and so limp that the policeman had to hold him up, like exhibit A, while he explained to the company:
“He swore he was poisoned. The doctor said ’twas nothing of the kind, but the b’y was so set on it, the gentleman gave him a bit iv an emetic to satisfy him. Bechune me ’n’ youse, things iv happened sinst.”
“He looks it,” said the packer.
Mumps was dropped on a bag of waste, where he groaned so fearfully that Fuzzy endeavoured to reassure him by explaining that whatever had happened to Martha’s sandwiches they were free of poison, and fit for human consumption.
“’Tain’t that, mister,” said Mumps, weakly. “I’m starvin’. They ain’t nothin’ left inside o’ me, an’ I’m starvin’ to death.”
There was no denying that the possibility had real terrors for him, so Ellis took pity on his emptiness, and Mumps was sent home to re-stock.
He was a jobbing hand from the printers’ flat. His name was Raymond Cato, but he acquired “Toucher” as a complimentary title when we knew him better. He was tall, sallow, languid and distressingly impecunious. I put it that way because Mr Cato’s impecuniosity was more a trait of character than the result of misfortune. He was the sort of young man who would have been impecunious had he been born to ten thousand a year. He was slovenly in his dress, and his trousers were always worn to strings at the heels, and this fringe collected various foreign bodies, which dragged after him as be walked, Raymond being too languid or too indifferent to shake them off. You got to know when Toucher was coming by the clatter of vagrant articles attached to his trousers fringe. He once towed a disused fish-tin after him through a whole hot afternoon. That will give you an idea of the sort of person Raymond Cato was. But this depraved young man, while apparently sleeping against a case, could paw type with miraculous speed and precision, and he handled the most intricate jobs with absolute certainty when under the influence of two buckets of very bad beer.
Mr Cato had only been ten days in the factory when be came to the packer’s board and leaned there. There were two peach-nuts, a metal rule, and the rind off a tin of red ink dangling at his fetlock. He passed his hand wearily over his brow, brushing back his long, black hair, and rested his eyes on the packer. Raymond’s eyes were large and dark, and suffused with an overwhelming sadness. The Toucher owed his success largely to those appealing eyes.
“S’pose we do a break, Mills.” he said, joylessly.
Feathers looked at him with bitter reproach. The remark was an invitation to execute a strategic exit by the lift door, and drink pints, and Feathers was up to his ears in work.
“’Ow th’ell can I” he said, pointing at the long list of orders, “’nt’ the whole flamin’ warehouse whoopin’ fer goods?”
“Oh, well,” said Cam, resignedly. “I had a tizzie, my last and it’s so lonely I reckoned I’d let it go.” He took the coin out, turned it over in his fingers, and sighed. “Left blooming alone,” he said.
“Down to it, are yeh?” asked the packer with sympathy. “There’ve been times when I’ve ’ad t’ run by ther pub with me eyes shut meself, ’n’ I know what it is.”
“Fair on my knuckle-bone,” said the printer. “But a man doesn’t care on his own account. It’s the old lady.”
Feathers looked sidelong. Feathers’s class is always suspicious of sentiment; but there was no snivelling in Raymond’s tone. His expression was that of a strong man who bears his troubles bravely, and his accent hinted at a profound emotion kept well in hand.
“Tribulation in thor ’appy ’ome?” queried Feathers, warily.
“Slathers, Mills, old man.” Raymond Cato turned his shoulder, but the strong composed voice continued presently: “The mother, you know. Seen better days, George; good family. Dreadfully ill, and”—here the voice was almost cold—“and I haven’t the half-crown to pay for her medicine tonight.”
“Jimmy Jee!” murmured Feathers. He fingered a solitary coin in his pocket lovingly, drew it out, and laid it on the bench.
“’Ere’s arf er dollar you can have ther use of,” he said.
There was just the faintest suggestion of a start, the most momentary hint of eagerness, in Raymond’s descent upon the money. The thing had been easier than he expected. Mills noticed the start, and a pang of repentance shot through him. Cato realized his mistake instantly. He placed a firm retainer on the half-crown, and slid it back towards the packer.
“No, no, old man,” he said, “you can’t spare this.”
“Garn!” retorted the packer, with simulated indifference, “get a ’ammerlock on it.” With a flash of diplomacy, he added; “It’s on’y till Saterdee, anyhow.”
“Oh, all right, Geordie—till Saturday. You’re a good sort.” Cato’s tone implied that the time might soon come when he would show his gratitude by dying for the packer. He took up the half-crown slowly, reluctantly, and went gently downstairs.
For a minute Feathers gazed fixedly at the blank wall before him, forgetting his work.
“I’ve been stabbed,” he whispered. “That’s it, er clean stab. ’N’ I was beginnin’ t’ think I was grown up. Geordie Mills, you ain’t fit t’ be allowed out without yer aunt.”
Feathers was not a man to show his wounds. He said nothing, and in the course of a day or so the town traveller came to him with his trouble.
“What of young Cato, the comp with the fatal beauty of a consumptive nun,” said Goudy; “is he a confidence trick or what?”
“He’s ther pride iv ther fam’ly, ’n’ ther sole support iv all his bed-ridden relations,” replied the packer.
“Well, he’s touched me three times in a week, and I’m as Scotch as most people.”
“How’d he plead? Was it corf drops for his sick sister, ’r fun’ral expenses fer his dead brother-in-law left over from last week consequence iv thor ’ard ’earted undertaker refusin’ delivery at ther graveside?”
“I don’t know how he did it,” mused Goudy, scratching his whiskers. “He must have used laughing gas. ’Twas absolutely painless extraction.”
“’E’s er hartist—got er touch like velvet. ’E put’s ther acid on so’t yeh think it’s ther milk iv ’uman kindness.”
“Hello,” cried Goudy, “he’s dipped up something of yours then, has he?”
Feathers almost blushed. “Come off,” he said, with a shade less than his usual confidence. “Ther gay deceivers don’t twitter t’ me. I’ve bin too long out iv th’ egg.”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. I was forgetting,” chortled the town traveller, softly. “You are Abdul the Wise and Wonderful. You are the great Take-Down. The bad men go home by the back streets to escape your machinations, and you’ve brought hundreds of spielers to destitution.” And Goudy went about his business, whistling absently the offensive refrain of “Muggins the Juggins”.
Feathers pasted a label, and attached it to a parcel with unwonted precision. He hated Goudy when he used big words. “Any’ow,” said Mills, “I’m not er soft thing for beginners. I’m not sich er snag fer sharpers that ther boys practise on me.”
This little disputation rendered it unnecessary for Feathers to breathe a word about the manner in which the Toucher had stabbed him. The town traveller, too, concluded that his reputation as a business man would not be enhanced by further discussion, and so Raymond Cato was free to play upon the tender buds of human sympathy in the lean and dusty breast of Samuel Ellis, foreman of the flat.
Ellis was cutting a ream of tinfoil for which Toucher was waiting, and Toucher’s sadness was dramatic. He sighed heavily, and a tear fell on the polished platform of the guillotine. Raymond gently wiped it off with a piece of waste.
“Aren’t you well, then, Mr Cato?” said Ellis. The woeful foreman even ministered Billy, the personal devil from the printing flat.
Raymond Cato started like a guilty thing, moved away a few steps, changed his mind, as if convinced that Fuzzy was the kind of man in whom any stricken soul might confide, returned, and placed the photograph of a baby boy on the platform. The baby was taken on the half-shell, and looked like one of those remarkably fine children who earn an excellent living by posing as examples of the results of feeding on Somebody s infants’ Condition Mixture. The young man had found the photograph in a drawer downstairs that afternoon.
“You are a father yourself?” he asked.
“No” said Ellis, “but I have a sister what is. Five she has.” And then, with a lugubrious effort to show interest, “What’s he, a boy or a girl?”
“You wouldn’t know him now,” Raymond said, huskily. “Skin and bone—skin and bone. And he cries to me so pitifully; and what can I do?”
“Have you tried castor oil?” asked Ellis, vaguely.
“My God!” said the young man, in a low, terrible voice “if that boy dies, I don’t care what becomes of me.”
“Go on!” murmured the foreman, deeply touched.
“And what’s a man to do?—what can a man do? They order expensive things—chicken in champagne. I tell you, I feel sometimes that I could commit murder to procure the money that might be the saving of my boy.”
“I wouldn’t if I was you,” Ellis said. He was quite agitated. He looked at Cato with pitiful eyes. “I really wouldn’t you know.”
Raymond snatched up the tinfoil and walked away, stopped, and came back, looked Ellis square in the eye, steadily, for nearly half a minute, and then he said deliberately, emphatically, as if putting the foreman to the test of his life.
“Would you lend me half-a-sovereign?”
“Yes, yes; of course,” stammered Fuzzy. He went to his vest pocket for the money. His hands quite trembled with eagerness as he handed it to Cato.
“But mind, now, no murders,” he said.
“Don’t speak to me or I shall break down,” faltered Raymond Cato, in the character of one unaccustomed to such great kindness and he fled from the flat.
Benno’s turn came later. Be also went to Feathers with the tale. He tried to speak as one with unshaken confidence in the Toucher, but there were subtle doubts hovering at the back of his head.
“Got ther luck iv er lame cat, Cato has,” he said, fiddling with the packer’s scales. “D’jer hear about him?”
Feathers fanned out a ream, and knocked it up like a second Cinquevalli; then he sought a hiding place for the incriminating tobacco juice, and spat with judgement.
“Benno,” he said, with aggravating conviction, “yer comin’ t’ me with ther story iv yer shame?”
“Give’s er charnce,” retorted the clerk.
“Ther lad below been nibblin’ yer ear, ’n thinkin’ iv doin’ er mag erbout sheddin’ yer beans in ther sacred cause iv charity, but it don’t go.”
“You’re one what knows,” sneered Benno.
“Well, er bloke’s lived er bit,” admitted the oracle. “Chat aloud, Benjamin, I’m waitin’ fer ther ’arrowin’ details. Was it his pore ole father, what was er Dook once, crying all night with dried peas in his appendicitis, him bein’ er victim to ’em ’r his lady mother who’s li’ble t’ become sober at any moment if ther charitably inclined don’t come to ’er assistance in ’er hour iv need? ’Cause I may tell yeh, Benno ther seraph, that Cato’s parents ’ve both bin missin’ for years. They saw what he was comin’ to when he was five, ’n’ did er guy, leavin’ him t’ ther mercy iv er crool world on er pub doorstep.”
“Nothin’ like it,” said the clerk. “He had a naxident—swallered er thick-un. I was workin’ a bit late day before yes’day, ’n’ ’long erbout arf past six who should come sprintin’ upstairs but me nibs, pale’s er blessed egg, hair on end—fair dilly. The bums was in his house fer rent, ’n’ he was hurryin’ ’ome with ther quid he’d got advanced stuck in his tooth box, when he butted into some gazob in ther street, ’n’ down went ther thick-un. He was tearin’ ratty t’ raise another jim. Er bloke he knows promised him four half dollars, ’n’ he come t’ me fer ther rest, seein’ I was a cobber in er way, ’n’ his ’ome sweet ’ome was goin’ t’ pieces on his ’ands. Acourse, I parted me arf jim—couldn’t have ther brick face t’ do less under ther circs. ’Twas on’y fer er day, he said, cause he was goin’ under er operation yes’day ter recover then lost goblin.”
“’N’ was ther operation er triumph iv surgical skill?” asked Feathers. “I know—they recovered ten sovs ’n’ er gold watch, ’n’ Cato’s payin’ two ’undred per cent dividends t’ ther share holders. Yer goin’ t’ hinvite me out t’ ther parlour bar, ’n’ plaster me in ’n’ out with sixpenny drinks.”
“You ain’t bettin’ on that.” Benno was gloomy now. “No; his nibs come t’ me yes’day ’n’ said he’d seen his medical adviser, ‘if the blessed operation ’ud cost one ’n’ a ’arf, ’n’ that he’d go on with it if I’d contribit another dollar.”
“N’ yeh did it, yeh did it!” yelled Feathers in ecstasy. “Yeh sank another five shillin’ in yer wild cat. Oh, here’s Bertie off ther boat, here’s Little Willie. Some kind gentleman hold his purse while he gets his ’ead read. Yeh did it!”
“’Tain’t possible,” retorted Benno.
“Oh, ain’t it? Well, y’ orter wear ear muffs this bitin’ weather, silly boy.” Feathers slapped at Benno with feminine affectation. “Why, Cato never had no ’ome that it ’ud pay to put er bailiff in at tuppence er day. He’s got er leaky room at mother Spargo’s, in Williamson Street, fer which ’e owes regular every Fridee, ’n’ he dosses on er two-feather bed, weather permittin’.”
Evidently it was Mr Cato’s intention to try the acid on Feathers again. He approached the packer a few days after Benno’s confession, and he had the air of one patient under great provocation. The packer’s hand went to his ear instinctively.
“How would you take a good thing for the Handicap tomorrow. Feathers?” said the comp. “You’re the straightest man here, and the only one I’d let into this with me.”
The packer did not reply for a few moments. He lingered for effect, chewing absently.
“This ther one yeh worked on Billy?” He spoke without interest.
Raymond looked at Mills with the reproachful eyes of a starved dog.
“You don’t trust me, George,” he said.
“Chattin’ iv good things,” continued Feathers, “what’s gone wrong with that beautiful arf-dollar iv mine?”
“Did you lend me half-a-dollar? Of course—of course, you did, Oh, that’s all right, old fellow.”
“That’s er weight off me mind,” sighed Feathers. “I’ve bin expectin’ that two ’n’ er tanner home. I’ve bin sittin’ up iv nights waitin’ fer it comin’, ’n’ I got t’ thinkin’ yeh was neglectin’ me. Ray, ’n’ devotin’ all yer money t’ good works.”
The comp’s sadness was intensified by Mills’ sarcasm. “Surely a miserable half dollar wouldn’t hurt you,” he said.
“It ’urts me pride,” answered Feathers. “It ’urts me t’ think I’ve bin done on ther grid. The hagony’s somethin’ awful, ’n’ I’ve gotter get that ’arf-bull ’r sometin’ dangerous may set in.”
“Oh, very well, you shall have it immediately.”
“Don’t get runnin’ me down with it, Ray—gi’ me time t’ break ther glad tidin’s t’ me fam’ly.”
Raymond Cato spent the dinner-hour discussing the drama and kindred arts with Martha Pilcher, and in the afternoon he sent the half-crown to Mills in an envelope inscribed, “With R.C.’s compliments.”
By this time the Toucher had almost exhausted the male employees. There were many aching victims downstairs, and his title was recognized all through the factory. He paid a pressing creditor when he could borrow the necessary sum from another subject, but that did not happen often. Strangers were continually asking for him at the door in the lane, and people would await his coming for an hour after he had gone home over the adjoining roofs, and down via an accommodating tea warehouse with an open-air staircase. Raymond borrowed only small sums from the Beauties, but he was very successful with them. The other young men always approached the girls in a mood of artful and distressing levity, but the Toucher was very grave with them, and always sympathetic whatever the complaint might be, and there was scarcely a Beauty who hadn’t a complaint of some kind by her, if only as a convenient theme of conversation. Half-a-dozen of them would have died for the bibulous comp despite the bottle-oh’s stock garnered in the trouser fringe at his boot heels, and every paster but one seemed good for a shilling in exchange for a sigh or two and a pathetic glance from his soulful eyes. Those eyes were irresistible when Raymond was really thirsty.
The one girl whom Raymond had not been seen to approach for a little loan was Miss Eva Magill. Miss Eva was not as young as some, and she had no “cobbers” amongst the Beauties. She was demure and steadfast, came softly into the factory with down cast eyes, worked quietly and persistently in an out-of-the-way corner, with drooping lids, and passed out again, noiselessly, with eyes unlifted, and was wholly unknown. She was disliked and respected by the whole factory.
Toucher’s finish was sudden and dramatic. One afternoon faint echoes of a warm debate came up from the warehouse. Presently Miss Magill was sent for. She went down, with her apron over her face, weeping. She returned in a quarter of an hour, still weeping, went to the dressing-room corner, and had a fit of hysterics, concluding with a dead faint.
Billy the Boy bobbed up a few moments later. “Er fair ole beano!” he gasped. “They’ve dumped Toucher in ther dust-box for immedjit removal. Spats wanted t’ send fer the Johns, He’s done Magill in fer ’er little bit.”
A voice of authority roared below, and Billy ducked down again, but Feathers had the whole story before evening.
“’E bin givin’ Magill guff erbout marriage,” Mills explained to the town traveller, “’n’ ther spiel was good fer fifteen jim ther savin’s iv er lifetime, which ther dear boy was goin’ t risk in ther comfits of a ’ome, but which ’e’s bounced down et ther two-up.”
“That pale maiden lady with the little lisp?” exclaimed Goudy, in amazement. “Why, the very thoughts of man gave her all the unfavourable symptoms mentioned in a quack advertisement.”
“G’out, that sort’s sweet ’n’ easy t’ ther lad that ain’t punched off with a frown,” retorted Feathers. “Her brother took er tumble, ’n’ he’s bin here, wantin’ t’ hit Cato clean out, ’n’ put him away over ther ’olidays for false pretensions, ’r larceny ez er bailiff, ’r somethin’, only th’ girl wouldn’t hear iv it. She’s bin squealin’ roun’ all ther afternoon that Raymond’s true to ’er, true ez true—she don’t care.”
“The infernal scoundrel,” snorted Goudy. “He ought to be hanged!”
“’E’s er naughty tease,” Mills soliloquized, “’n’ ’e did Scotty fer er tray-bit—’angin’s too good fer him!’
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