by W.W. Jacobs.
BACK TO BACK
THE WEAKER VESSEL
THE THREE SISTERS
HIS OTHER SELF
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS:
"oh, Bill!" She Gasped. "and by Daylight, Too!"
"i'd Pretty Well Swear he Ain't the Same Dog"
"you—you Had Better Let Me Take Care of That"
"i Hope They Won't Meet 'er, Pore Thing," he Ses.
Mrs. Ward and Her Daughter Flung Themselves Hastily Between the Sergeant-major and his Intended Sacrifice
I Got out at Last by Playing a Game on Her
BACK TO BACK
Mrs. Scutts, concealed behind the curtain, gazed at the cab in uneasy amazement. The cabman clambered down from the box and, opening the door, stood by with his hands extended ready for any help that might be needed. A stranger was the first to alight, and, with his back towards Mrs. Scutts, seemed to be struggling with something in the cab. He placed a dangling hand about his neck and, staggering under the weight, reeled backwards supporting Mr. Scutts, whose other arm was round the neck of a third man. In a flash Mrs. Scutts was at the door.
"Oh, Bill!" she gasped. "And by daylight, too!"
Mr. Scutts raised his head sharply and his lips parted; then his head sank again, and he became a dead weight in the grasp of his assistants.
"He's all right," said one of them, turning to Mrs. Scutts.
A deep groan from Mr. Scutts confirmed the statement.
"What is it?" inquired his wife, anxiously.
"Just a little bit of a railway accident," said one of the strangers. "Train ran into some empty trucks. Nobody hurt—seriously," he added, in response to a terrible and annoyed groan from Mr. Scutts.
With his feet dragging helplessly, Mr. Scutts was conveyed over his own doorstep and placed on the sofa.
"All the others went off home on their own legs," said one of the strangers, reproachfully. "He said he couldn't walk, and he wouldn't go to a hospital."
"Wanted to die at home," declared the sufferer. "I ain't going to be cut about at no 'ospitals."
The two strangers stood by watching him; then they looked at each other.
"I don't want—no—'ospitals," gasped Mr. Scutts, "I'm going to have my own doctor."
"Of course the company will pay the doctor's bill," said one of the strangers to Mrs. Scutts, "or they'll send their own doctor. I expect he'll be all right to-morrow."
"I 'ope so," said Mr. Scutts, "but I don't think it. Thank you for bringing of me 'ome."
He closed his eyes languidly, and kept them closed until the men had departed.
"Can't you walk, Bill?" inquired the tearful Mrs. Scutts.
Her husband shook his head. "You go and fetch the doctor," he said, slowly. "That new one round the corner."
"He looks such a boy," objected Mrs. Scutts.
"You go and fetch 'im," said Mr. Scutts, raising his voice. "D'ye hear!"
"But—" began his wife.
"If I get up to you, my gal," said the forgetful Mr. Scutts, "you'll know it."
"Why, I thought—" said his wife, in surprise.
Mr. Scutts raised himself on the sofa and shook his fist at her. Then, as a tribute to appearances, he sank back and groaned again. Mrs. Scutts, looking somewhat relieved, took her bonnet from a nail and departed.
The examination was long and tedious, but Mr. Scutts, beyond remarking that he felt chilly, made no complaint. He endeavoured, but in vain, to perform the tests suggested, and even did his best to stand, supported by his medical attendant. Self-preservation is the law of Nature, and when Mr. Scutts's legs and back gave way he saw to it that the doctor was underneath.
"We'll have to get you up to bed," said the latter, rising slowly and dusting himself.
Mr. Scutts, who was lying full length on the floor, acquiesced, and sent his wife for some neighbours. One of them was a professional furniture- remover, and, half-way up the narrow stairs, the unfortunate had to remind him that he was dealing with a British working man, and not a piano. Four pairs of hands deposited Mr. Scutts with mathematical precision in the centre of the bed and then proceeded to tuck him in, while Mrs. Scutts drew the sheet in a straight line under his chin.
"Don't look much the matter with 'im," said one of the assistants.
"You can't tell with a face like that," said the furniture-remover. "It's wot you might call a 'appy face. Why, he was 'arf smiling as we, carried 'im up the stairs."
"You're a liar," said Mr. Scutts, opening his eyes.
"All right, mate," said the furniture-remover; "all right. There's no call to get annoyed about it. Good old English pluck, I call it. Where d'you feel the pain?"
"All over," said Mr. Scutts, briefly.
His neighbours regarded him with sympathetic eyes, and then, led by the furniture-remover, filed out of the room on tip-toe. The doctor, with a few parting instructions, also took his departure.
"If you're not better by the morning," he said, pausing at the door, "you must send for your club doctor."
Mr. Scutts, in a feeble voice, thanked him, and lay with a twisted smile on his face listening to his wife's vivid narrative to the little crowd which had collected at the front door. She came back, followed by the next-door neighbour, Mr. James Flynn, whose offers of assistance ranged from carrying Mr. Scutts out pick-a-back when he wanted to take the air, to filling his pipe for him and fetching his beer.
"But I dare say you'll be up and about in a couple o' days," he concluded. "You wouldn't look so well if you'd got anything serious the matter; rosy, fat cheeks and——"
"That'll do," said the indignant invalid. "It's my back that's hurt, not my face."
"I know," said Mr. Flynn, nodding sagely; "but if it was hurt bad your face would be as white as that sheet-whiter."
"The doctor said as he was to be kep' quiet," remarked Mrs. Scutts, sharply.
"Right-o," said Mr. Flynn. "Ta-ta, old pal. Keep your pecker up, and if you want your back rubbed with turps, or anything of that sort, just knock on the wall."
He went, before Mr. Scutts could think of a reply suitable for an invalid and, at the same time, bristling with virility. A sinful and foolish desire to leap out of bed and help Mr. Flynn downstairs made him more rubicund than ever.
He sent for the club doctor next morning, and, pending his arrival, partook of a basin of arrowroot and drank a little beef-tea. A bottle of castor-oil and an empty pill-box on the table by the bedside added a little local colour to the scene.
"Any pain?" inquired the doctor, after an examination in which bony and very cold fingers had played a prominent part.
"Not much pain," said Mr. Scutts. "Don't seem to have no strength in my back."
"Ah!" said the doctor.
"I tried to get up this morning to go to my work," said Mr. Scutts, "but I can't stand! couldn't get out of bed."
"Fearfully upset, he was, pore dear," testified Mrs. Scutts. "He can't bear losing a day. I s'pose—I s'pose the railway company will 'ave to do something if it's serious, won't they, sir?"
"Nothing to do with me," said the doctor. "I'll put him on the club for a few days; I expect he will be all right soon. He's got a healthy colour—a very healthy colour."
Mr. Scutts waited until he had left the house and then made a few remarks on the colour question that for impurity of English and strength of diction have probably never been surpassed.
A second visitor that day came after dinner—a tall man in a frock-coat, bearing in his hand a silk hat, which, after a careful survey of the room, he hung on a knob of the bedpost.
"Mr. Scutts?" he inquired, bowing.
"That's me," said Mr. Scutts, in a feeble voice.
"I've called from the railway company," said the stranger. "We have seen now all those who left their names and addresses on Monday afternoon, and I am glad to say that nobody was really hurt. Nobody."
Mr. Scutts, in a faint voice, said he was glad to hear it.
"Been a wonder if they had," said the other, cheerfully. "Why, even the paint wasn't knocked off the engine. The most serious damage appears to be two top-hats crushed and an umbrella broken."
He leaned over the bed-rail and laughed joyously. Mr. Scutts, through half-closed eyes, gazed at him in silent reproach.
"I don't say that one or two people didn't receive a little bit of a shock to their nerves," said the visitor, thoughtfully. "One lady even stayed in bed next day. However, I made it all right with them. The company is very generous, and although of course there is no legal obligation, they made several of them a present of a few pounds, so that they could go away for a little change, or anything of that sort, to quiet their nerves."
Mr. Scutts, who had been listening with closed eyes, opened them languidly and said, "Oh."
"I gave one gentleman twen-ty pounds!" said the visitor, jingling some coins in his trouser-pocket. "I never saw a man so pleased and grateful in my life. When he signed the receipt for it—I always get them to sign a receipt, so that the company can see that I haven't kept the money for myself—he nearly wept with joy."
"I should think he would," said Mr. Scutts, slowly—"if he wasn't hurt."
"You're the last on my list," said the other, hastily. He produced a slip of paper from his pocket-book and placed it on the small table, with a fountain pen. Then, with a smile that was both tender and playful, he plunged his hand in his pocket and poured a stream of gold on the table.
"What do you say to thir-ty pounds?" he said, in a hushed voice. "Thirty golden goblins?"
"What for?" inquired Mr. Scutts, with a notable lack of interest.
"For—well, to go away for a day or two," said the visitor. "I find you in bed; it may be a cold or a bilious attack; or perhaps you had a little upset of the nerves when the trains kissed each other."
"I'm in bed—because—I can't walk-or stand," said Mr. Scutts, speaking very distinctly. "I'm on my club, and if as 'ow I get well in a day or two, there's no reason why the company should give me any money. I'm pore, but I'm honest."
"Take my advice as a friend," said the other; "take the money while you can get it."
He nodded significantly at Mr. Scutts and closed one eye. Mr. Scutts closed both of his.
"I 'ad my back hurt in the collision," he said, after a long pause. "I 'ad to be helped 'ome. So far it seems to get worse, but I 'ope for the best."
"Dear me," said the visitor; "how sad! I suppose it has been coming on for a long time. Most of these back cases do. At least all the doctors say so."
"It was done in the collision," said Mr. Scutts, mildly but firmly. "I was as right as rain before then."
The visitor shook his head and smiled. "Ah! you would have great difficulty in proving that," he said, softly; "in fact, speaking as man to man, I don't mind telling you it would be impossible. I'm afraid I'm exceeding my duty, but, as you're the last on my list, suppose—suppose we say forty pounds. Forty! A small fortune."
He added some more gold to the pile on the table, and gently tapped Mr. Scutts's arm with the end of the pen.
"Good afternoon," said the invalid.
The visitor, justly concerned at his lack of intelligence, took a seat on the edge of the bed and spoke to him as a friend and a brother, but in vain. Mr. Scutts reminded him at last that it was medicine-time, after which, pain and weakness permitting, he was going to try to get a little sleep.
"Forty pounds!" he said to his wife, after the official had departed. "Why didn't 'e offer me a bag o' sweets?"
"It's a lot o' money," said Mrs. Scutts, wistfully.
"So's a thousand," said her husband. "I ain't going to 'ave my back broke for nothing, I can tell you. Now, you keep that mouth o' yours shut, and if I get it, you shall 'ave a new pair o' boots."
"A thousand!" exclaimed the startled Mrs. Scutts. "Have you took leave of your senses, or what?"
"I read a case in the paper where a man got it," said Mr. Scutts. "He 'ad his back 'urt too, pore chap. How would you like to lay on your back all your life for a thousand pounds?"
"Will you 'ave to lay abed all your life?" inquired his wife, staring.
"Wait till I get the money," said Mr. Scutts; "then I might be able to tell you better."
He gazed wistfully at the window. It was late October, but the sun shone and the air was clear. The sound of traffic and cheerful voices ascended from the little street. To Mr. Scutts it all seemed to be a part of a distant past.
"If that chap comes round to-morrow and offers me five hundred," he said, slowly, "I don't know as I won't take it. I'm sick of this mouldy bed."
He waited expectantly next day, but nothing happened, and after a week of bed he began to realize that the job might be a long one. The monotony, to a man of his active habits, became almost intolerable, and the narrated adventures of Mr. James Flynn, his only caller, filled him with an uncontrollable longing to be up and doing.
The fine weather went, and Mr. Scutts, in his tumbled bed, lay watching the rain beating softly on the window-panes. Then one morning he awoke to the darkness of a London fog.
"It gets worse and worse," said Mrs. Scutts, as she returned home in the afternoon with a relish for his tea. "Can't see your 'and before your face."
Mr. Scutts looked thoughtful. He ate his tea in silence, and after he had finished lit his pipe and sat up in bed smoking.
"Penny for your thoughts," said his wife.
"I'm going out," said Mr. Scutts, in a voice that defied opposition. "I'm going to 'ave a walk, and when I'm far enough away I'm going to 'ave one or two drinks. I believe this fog is sent a-purpose to save my life."
Mrs. Scutts remonstrated, but in vain, and at half-past six the invalid, with his cap over his eyes and a large scarf tied round the lower part of his face, listened for a moment at his front door and then disappeared in the fog.
Left to herself, Mrs. Scutts returned to the bedroom and, poking the tiny fire into a blaze, sat and pondered over the willfulness of men.
She was awakened from a doze by a knocking at the street-door. It was just eight o'clock, and, inwardly congratulating her husband on his return to common sense and home, she went down and opened it. Two tall men in silk hats entered the room.
"Mrs. Scutts?" said one of them.
Mrs. Scutts, in a dazed fashion, nodded.
"We have come to see your husband," said the intruder. "I am a doctor."
The panic-stricken Mrs. Scutts tried in vain to think.
"He-he's asleep," she said, at last.
"Doesn't matter," said the doctor.
"Not a bit," said his companion.
"You—you can't see him," protested Mrs. Scutts. "He ain't to be seen."
"He'd be sorry to miss me," said the doctor, eyeing her keenly as she stood on guard by the inner door. "I suppose he's at home?"
"Of course," said Mrs. Scutts, stammering and flushing. "Why, the pore man can't stir from his bed."
"Well, I'll just peep in at the door, then," said the doctor. "I won't wake him. You can't object to that. If you do—"
Mrs. Scutts's head began to swim. "I'll go up and see whether he's awake," she said.
She closed the door on them and stood with her hand to her throat, thinking. Then, instead of going upstairs, she passed into the yard and, stepping over the fence, opened Mr. Flynn's back door.
"Halloa!" said that gentleman, who was standing in the scullery removing mud from his boots. "What's up?"
In a frenzied gabble Mrs. Scutts told him. "You must be 'im," she said, clutching him by the coat and dragging him towards the door. "They've never seen 'im, and they won't know the difference."
"But—" exclaimed the astonished James.
"Quick!" she said, sharply. "Go into the back room and undress, then nip into his room and get into bed. And mind, be fast asleep all the time."
Still holding the bewildered Mr. Flynn by the coat, she led him into the house and waved him upstairs, and stood below listening until a slight creaking of the bed announced that he had obeyed orders. Then she entered the parlour.
"He's fast asleep," she said, softly; "and mind, I won't 'ave him disturbed. It's the first real sleep he's 'ad for nearly a week. If you promise not to wake 'im you may just have a peep."
"We won't disturb him," said the doctor, and, followed by his companion, noiselessly ascended the stairs and peeped into the room. Mr. Flynn was fast asleep, and not a muscle moved as the two men approached the bed on tip-toe and stood looking at him. The doctor turned after a minute and led the way out of the room.
"We'll call again," he said, softly.
"Yes, sir," said Mrs. Scutts. "When?"
The doctor and his companion exchanged glances. "I'm very busy just at present," he said, slowly. "We'll look in some time and take our chance of catching him awake."
Mrs. Scutts bowed them out, and in some perplexity returned to Mr. Flynn. "I don't like the look of 'em," she said, shaking her head. "You'd better stay in bed till Bill comes 'ome in case they come back."
"Right-o," said the obliging Mr. Flynn. "Just step in and tell my landlady I'm 'aving a chat with Bill."
He lit his pipe and sat up in bed smoking until a knock at the front door at half-past eleven sent him off to sleep again. Mrs. Scutts, who was sitting downstairs, opened it and admitted her husband.
"All serene?" he inquired. "What are you looking like that for? What's up?"
He sat quivering with alarm and rage as she told him, and then, mounting the stairs with a heavy tread, stood gazing in helpless fury at the slumbering form of Mr. James Flynn.
"Get out o' my bed," he said at last, in a choking voice.
"What, Bill!" said Mr. Flynn, opening his eyes.
"Get out o' my bed," repeated the other. "You've made a nice mess of it between you. It's a fine thing if a man can't go out for 'arf a pint without coming home and finding all the riffraff of the neighbourhood in 'is bed."
"'Ow's the pore back, Bill?" inquired Mr. Flynn, with tenderness.
Mr. Scutts gurgled at him. "Outside!" he said as soon as he could get his breath.
"Bill," said the voice of Mrs. Scutts, outside the door.
"Halloa," growled her husband.
"He mustn't go," said Mrs. Scutts. "Those gentlemen are coming again, and they think he is you."
"WHAT!" roared the infuriated Mr. Scutts.
"Don't you see? It's me what's got the pore back now, Bill," said Mr. Flynn. "You can't pass yourself off as me, Bill; you ain't good-looking enough."
Mr. Scutts, past speech, raised his clenched fists to the ceiling.
"He'll 'ave to stay in your bed," continued the voice of Mrs. Scutts. "He's got a good 'art, and I know he'll do it; won't you, Jim?"
Mr. Flynn pondered. "Tell my landlady in the morning that I've took your back room," he said. "What a fortunit thing it is I'm out o' work. What are you walking up and down like that for, Bill? Back coming on agin?"
"Then o' course," pursued the voice of Mrs. Scutts, in meditative accents, "there's the club doctor and the other gentleman that knows Bill. They might come at any moment. There's got to be two Bills in bed, so that if one party comes one Bill can nip into the back room, and if the other Bill—party, I mean—comes, the other Bill—you know what I mean!"
Mr. Scutts swore himself faint.
"That's 'ow it is, mate," said Mr. Flynn. "It's no good standing there saying your little piece of poetry to yourself. Take off your clo'es and get to bed like a little man. Now! now! Naughty! Naughty!"
"P'r'aps I oughtn't to 'ave let 'em up, Bill," said his wife; "but I was afraid they'd smell a rat if I didn't. Besides, I was took by surprise."
"You get off to bed," said Mr. Scutts. "Get off to bed while you're safe."
"And get a good night's rest," added the thoughtful Mr. Flynn. "If Bill's back is took bad in the night I'll look after it."
Mr. Scutts turned a threatening face on him. "For two pins—" he began.
"For two pins I'll go back 'ome and stay there," said Mr. Flynn.
He put one muscular leg out of bed, and then, at the earnest request of Mr. Scutts, put it back again. In a few simple, manly words the latter apologized, by putting all the blame on Mrs. Scutts, and, removing his clothes, got into bed.
Wrapped in bedclothes, they passed the following day listening for knocks at the door and playing cards. By evening both men were weary, and Mr. Scutts made a few pointed remarks concerning dodging doctors and deceitful visitors to which Mr. Flynn listened in silent approval.
"They mightn't come for a week," he said, dismally. "It's all right for you, but where do I come in? Halves?"
Mr. Scutts had a rush of blood to the head.
"You leave it to me, mate," he said, controlling himself by an effort. "If I get ten quid, say, you shall have 'arf."
"And suppose you get more?" demanded the other.
"We'll see," said Mr. Scutts, vaguely.
Mr. Flynn returned to the charge next day, but got no satisfaction. Mr. Scutts preferred to talk instead of the free board and lodging his friend was getting. On the subject of such pay for such work he was almost eloquent.
"I'll bide my time," said Mr. Flynn, darkly. "Treat me fair and I'll treat you fair."
His imprisonment came to an end on the fourth day. There was a knock at the door, and the sound of men's voices, followed by the hurried appearance of Mrs. Scutts.
"It's Jim's lot," she said, in a hurried whisper. "I've just come up to get the room ready."
Mr. Scutts took his friend by the hand, and after warmly urging him not to forget the expert instructions he had received concerning his back, slipped into the back room, and, a prey to forebodings, awaited the result.
"Well, he looks better," said the doctor, regarding Mr. Flynn.
"Much better," said his companion.
Mrs. Scutts shook her head. "His pore back don't seem no better, sir," she said in a low voice. "Can't you do something for it?"
"Let me have a look at it," said the doctor. "Undo your shirt."
Mr. Flynn, with slow fingers, fumbled with the button at his neck and looked hard at Mrs. Scutts.
"She can't bear to see me suffer," he said, in a feeble voice, as she left the room.
He bore the examination with the fortitude of an early Christian martyr. In response to inquiries he said he felt as though the mainspring of his back had gone.
"How long since you walked?" inquired the doctor.
"Not since the accident," said Mr. Flynn, firmly.
"Try now," said the doctor.
Mr. Flynn smiled at him reproachfully.
"You can't walk because you think you can't," said the doctor; "that is all. You'll have to be encouraged the same way that a child is. I should like to cure you, and I think I can."
He took a small canvas bag from the other man and opened it. "Forty pounds," he said. "Would you like to count it?"
Mr. Flynn's eyes shone.
"It is all yours," said the doctor, "if you can walk across the room and take it from that gentleman's hand."
"Honour bright?" asked Mr. Flynn, in tremulous tones, as the other man held up the bag and gave him an encouraging smile.
"Honour bright," said the doctor.
With a spring that nearly broke the bed, Mr. Flynn quitted it and snatched the bag, and at the same moment Mrs. Scutts, impelled by a maddened arm, burst into the room.
"Your back!" she moaned. "It'll kill you Get back to bed."
"I'm cured, lovey," said Mr. Flynn, simply.
"His back is as strong as ever," said the doctor, giving it a thump.
Mr. Flynn, who had taken his clothes from a chair and was hastily dressing himself, assented.
"But if you'll wait 'arf a tick I'll walk as far as the corner with you," he said, quickly. "I'd like to make sure it's all right."
He paused at the foot of the stairs and, glancing up at the palid and murderous face of Mr. Scutts, which protruded from the back bedroom, smiled at him rapturously. Then, with a lordly air, he tossed him five pieces of gold.
"Human natur'!" said the night-watchman, gazing fixedly at a pretty girl in a passing waterman's skiff. "Human natur'!"
He sighed, and, striking a match, applied it to his pipe and sat smoking thoughtfully.
"The young fellow is pretending that his arm is at the back of her by accident," he continued; "and she's pretending not to know that it's there. When he's allowed to put it round 'er waist whenever he wishes, he won't want to do it. She's artful enough to know that, and that's why they are all so stand-offish until the thing is settled. She'll move forward 'arf an inch presently, and 'arf a minute arterwards she'll lean back agin without thinking. She's a nice-looking gal, and what she can see in a tailor's dummy like that, I can't think."
He leaned back on his box and, folding his arms, emitted a cloud of smoke.
"Human natur's a funny thing. I've seen a lot of it in my time, and if I was to 'ave my life all over agin I expect I should be just as silly as them two in the skiff. I've known the time when I would spend money as free over a gal as I would over myself. I on'y wish I'd got all the money now that I've spent on peppermint lozenges.
"That gal in the boat reminds me o' one I used to know a few years ago. Just the same innercent baby look—a look as if butter wouldn't melt in 'er mouth—and a artful disposition that made me sorry for 'er sects.
"She used to come up to this wharf once a week in a schooner called the Belle. Her father, Cap'n Butt, was a widow-man, and 'e used to bring her with 'im, partly for company and partly because 'e could keep 'is eye on her. Nasty eye it, was, too, when he 'appened to be out o' temper.
"I'd often took a bit o' notice o' the gal; just giving 'er a kind smile now and then as she sat on deck, and sometimes—when 'er father wasn't looking—she'd smile back. Once, when 'e was down below, she laughed right out. She was afraid of 'im, and by and by I noticed that she daren't even get off the ship and walk up and down the wharf without asking 'im. When she went out 'e was with 'er, and, from one or two nasty little snacks I 'appened to overhear when the skipper thought I was too far away, I began to see that something was up.
"It all came out one evening, and it only came out because the skipper wanted my help. I was standing leaning on my broom to get my breath back arter a bit o' sweeping, when he came up to me, and I knew at once, by the nice way 'e spoke, that he wanted me to do something for 'im.
"'Come and 'ave a pint, Bill,' he ses.
"I put my broom agin the wall, and we walked round to the Bull's Head like a couple o' brothers. We 'ad two pints apiece, and then he put his 'and on my shoulder and talked as man to man.
"'I'm in a little bit o' difficulty about that gal o' mine,' he ses, passing me his baccy-box. 'Six months ago she dropped a letter out of 'er pocket, and I'm blest if it wasn't from a young man. A young man!'
"'You sur-prise me,' I ses, meaning to be sarcastic.
"'I surprised her,' he ses, looking very fierce. 'I went to 'er box and I found a pile of 'em-a pile of 'em-tied up with a piece o' pink ribbon. And a photygraph of my lord. And of all the narrer-chested, weak-eyed, slack-baked, spindly-legged sons of a gun you ever saw in your life, he is the worst. If I on'y get my 'ands on him I'll choke 'im with his own feet.'
"He washed 'is mouth out with a drop o' beer and stood scowling at the floor.
"'Arter I've choked 'im I'll twist his neck,' he ses. 'If he 'ad on'y put his address on 'is letters, I'd go round and do it now. And my daughter, my only daughter, won't tell me where he lives.'
"'She ought to know better,' I ses.
"He took hold o' my 'and and shook it. 'You've got more sense than one 'ud think to look at you, Bill,' he ses, not thinking wot he was saying. 'You see wot a mess I'm in.'
"'Yes,' I ses.
"'I'm a nurse, that's wot I am,' he ses, very savage. 'Just a nursemaid. I can't move 'and or foot without that gal. 'Ow'd you like it, yourself, Bill?'
"'It must be very orkard for you,' I ses. 'Very orkard indeed.'
"'Orkard!' he ses; 'it's no name for it, Bill. I might as well be a Sunday-school teacher, and ha' done with it. I never 'ad such a dull time in all my life. Never. And the worst of it is, it's spiling my temper. And all because o' that narrer-eyed, red-chested—you know wot I mean!'
"He took another mouthful o' beer, and then he took 'old of my arm. 'Bill,' he ses, very earnest, 'I want you to do me a favour.'
"'Go ahead,' I ses.
"'I've got to meet a pal at Charing Cross at ha'-past seven,' he ses; 'and we're going to make a night of it. I've left Winnie in charge o' the cook, and I've told 'im plain that, if she ain't there when I come back, I'll skin 'im alive. Now, I want you to watch 'er, too. Keep the gate locked, and don't let anybody in you don't know. Especially that monkey-faced imitation of a man. Here 'e is. That's his likeness.'
"He pulled a photygraph out of 'is coatpocket and 'anded it to me.
"'That's 'im,' he ses. 'Fancy a gal getting love-letters from a thing like that! And she was on'y twenty last birthday. Keep your eye on 'er, Bill, and don't let 'er out of your sight. You're worth two o' the cook.'
"He finished 'is beer, and, cuddling my arm, stepped back to the wharf. Miss Butt was sitting on the cabin skylight reading a book, and old Joe, the cook, was standing near 'er pretending to swab the decks with a mop.
"'I've got to go out for a little while—on business,' ses the skipper. 'I don't s'pose I shall be long, and, while I'm away, Bill and the cook will look arter you.'
"Miss Butt wrinkled up 'er shoulders.
"'The gate'll be locked, and you're not to leave the wharf. D'ye 'ear?'
"The gal wriggled 'er shoulders agin and went on reading, but she gave the cook a look out of 'er innercent baby eyes that nearly made 'im drop the mop.
"'Them's my orders,' ses the skipper, swelling his chest and looking round, 'to everybody. You know wot'll 'appen to you, Joe, if things ain't right when I come back. Come along, Bill, and lock the gate arter me. An' mind, for your own sake, don't let anything 'appen to that gal while I'm away.'
"'Wot time'll you be back?' I ses, as 'e stepped through the wicket.
"'Not afore twelve, and p'r'aps a good bit later,' he ses, smiling all over with 'appiness. 'But young slab-chest don't know I'm out, and Winnie thinks I'm just going out for 'arf an hour, so it'll be all right. So long.'
"I watched 'im up the road, and I must say I began to wish I 'adn't taken the job on. Arter all, I 'ad on'y had two pints and a bit o' flattery, and I knew wot 'ud 'appen if anything went wrong. Built like a bull he was, and fond o' using his strength. I locked the wicket careful, and, putting the key in my pocket, began to walk up and down the wharf.
"For about ten minutes the gal went on reading and didn't look up once. Then, as I passed, she gave me a nice smile and shook 'er little fist at the cook, wot 'ad got 'is back towards 'er. I smiled back, o' course, and by and by she put her book down and climbed on to the side o' the ship and held out her 'and for me to 'elp her ashore.
"'I'm so tired of the ship,' she ses, in a soft voice; 'it's like a prison. Don't you get, tired of the wharf?'
"'Sometimes,' I ses; 'but it's my dooty.'
"'Yes,' she ses. 'Yes, of course. But you're a big, strong man, and you can put up with things better.'
"She gave a little sigh, and we walked up and down for a time without saying anything.
"'And it's all father's foolishness,' she ses, at last; 'that's wot makes it so tiresome. I can't help a pack of silly young men writing to me, can I?'
"'No, I s'pose not,' I ses.
"'Thank you,' she ses, putting 'er little 'and on my arm. 'I knew that you were sensible. I've often watched you when I've been sitting alone on the schooner, longing for somebody to speak to. And I'm a good judge of character. I can read you like a book.'
"She turned and looked up at me. Beautiful blue eyes she'd got, with long, curling lashes, and teeth like pearls.
"'Father is so silly,' she ses, shaking her 'ead and looking down; 'and it's so unreasonable, because, as a matter of fact, I don't like young men. Oh, I beg your pardon, I didn't mean that. I didn't mean to be rude.'
"'Rude?' I ses, staring at her.
"'Of course it was a rude thing for me to say,' she ses, smiling; 'because you are still a young man yourself.'
"I shook my 'ead. 'Youngish,' I ses.
"'Young!' she ses, stamping 'er little foot.
"She gave me another look, and this time 'er blue eyes seemed large and solemn. She walked along like one in a dream, and twice she tripped over the planks and would 'ave fallen if I hadn't caught 'er round the waist.
"'Thank you,' she ses. 'I'm very clumsy. How strong your arm is!'
"We walked up and down agin, and every time we went near the edge of the jetty she 'eld on to my arm for fear of stumbling agin. And there was that silly cook standing about on the schooner on tip-toe and twisting his silly old neck till I wonder it didn't twist off.
"'Wot a beautiful evening it is!' she ses, at last, in a low voice. 'I 'ope father isn't coming back early. Do you know wot time he is coming home?'
"'About twelve,' I ses; 'but don't tell 'im I told you so.'
"'O' course not,' she ses, squeezing my arm. 'Poor father! I hope he is enjoying himself as much as I am.'
"We walked down to the jetty agin arter that, and sat side by side looking acrost the river. And she began to talk about Life, and wot a strange thing it was; and 'ow the river would go on flowing down to the sea thousands and thousands o' years arter we was both dead and forgotten. If it hadn't ha' been for her little 'ead leaning agin my shoulder I should have 'ad the creeps.
"'Let's go down into the cabin,' she ses, at last, with a little shiver; 'it makes me melancholy sitting here and thinking of the "might-have- beens."'
"I got up first and 'elped her up, and, arter both staring hard at the cook, wot didn't seem to know 'is place, we went down into the cabin. It was a comfortable little place, and arter she 'ad poured me out a glass of 'er father's whisky, and filled my pipe for me, I wouldn't ha' changed places with a king. Even when the pipe wouldn't draw I didn't mind.
"'May I write a letter?' she ses, at last.
"'Sartainly,' I ses.
"She got out her pen and ink and paper, and wrote. 'I sha'n't be long,' she ses, looking up and nibbling 'er pen. 'It's a letter to my dressmaker; she promised my dress by six o'clock this afternoon, and I am just writing to tell her that if I don't have it by ten in the morning she can keep it.'
"'Quite right,' I ses; 'it's the on'y way to get things done.'
"'It's my way,' she ses, sticking the letter in an envelope and licking it down. 'Nice name, isn't it?'
"She passed it over to me, and I read the name and address: 'Miss Minnie Miller, 17, John Street, Mile End Road.'
"'That'll wake her up,' She ses, smiling. 'Will you ask Joe to take it for me?'
"'He—he's on guard,' I ses, smiling back at 'er and shaking my 'ead.
"'I know,' she ses, in a low voice. 'But I don't want any guard—only you. I don't like guards that peep down skylights.'
"I looked up just in time to see Joe's 'ead disappear. Then I nipped up, and arter I 'ad told 'im part of wot I thought about 'im I gave 'im the letter and told 'im to sheer off.
"'The skipper told me to stay 'ere,' he ses, looking obstinate.
"'You do as you're told,' I ses. 'I'm in charge, and I take full responsibility. I shall lock the gate arter you. Wot are you worrying about?'
"'And here's a shilling, Joe, for a bus fare,' ses the gal, smiling. 'You can keep the change.'
"Joe took off 'is cap and scratched 'is silly bald 'ead.
"'Come on,' I ses; 'it's a letter to a dressmaker. A letter that must go to-night.'
"'Else it's no use,' ses the gal. 'You don't know 'ow important it is.'
"'All right,' ses Joe. ''Ave it your own way. So long as you don't tell the skipper I don't mind. If anything 'appens you'll catch it too, Bill.'
"He climbed ashore, and I follered 'im to the gate and unlocked it. He was screwing up 'is eye ready for a wink, but I give 'im such a look that he thought better of it, and, arter rubbing his eye with 'is finger as though he 'ad got a bit o' dust in it, he went off.
"I locked the gate and went back to the cabin, and for some time we sat talking about fathers and the foolish ideas they got into their 'eads, and things o' that sort. So far as I remember, I 'ad two more goes o' whisky and one o' the skipper's cigars, and I was just thinking wot a beautiful thing it was to be alive and 'ealthy and in good spirits, talking to a nice gal that understood wot you said a'most afore you said it, when I 'eard three blows on a whistle.
"'Wot's that?' I ses, starting up. 'Police whistle?'
"'I don't think so,' ses Miss Butt, putting her 'and on my shoulder. 'Sit down and stay where you are. I don't want you to get hurt, if it is. Let somebody I don't like go.'
"I sat down agin and listened, but there was no more whistling.
"'Boy in the street, I expect,' ses the gal, going into the state-room. 'Oh, I've got something to show you. Wait a minute.'
"I 'eard her moving about, and then she comes back into the cabin.
"'I can't find the key of my box,' she ses, 'and it's in there. I wonder whether you've got a key that would open it. It's a padlock.'
"I put my 'and in my pocket and pulled out my keys. 'Shall I come and try?' I ses.
"'No, thank you,' she ses, taking the keys. 'This looks about the size. What key is it?'
"'It's the key of the gate,' I ses, 'but I don't suppose it'll fit.'
"She went back into the state-room agin, and I 'eard her fumbling at a lock. Then she came back into the cabin, breathing rather hard, and stood thinking.
"'I've just remembered,' she ses, pinching her chin. 'Yes!'
"She stepped to the door and went up the companion-ladder, and the next moment I 'eard a sliding noise and a key turn in a lock. I jumped to the foot of the ladder and, 'ardly able to believe my senses, saw that the hatch was closed. When I found that it was locked too, you might ha' knocked me down with a feather.
"I went down to the cabin agin, and, standing on the locker, pushed the skylight up with my 'ead and tried to lookout. I couldn't see the gate, but I 'eard voices and footsteps, and a little while arterwards I see that gal coming along the wharf arm in arm with the young man she 'ad told me she didn't like, and dancing for joy. They climbed on to the schooner, and then they both stooped down with their hands on their knees and looked at me.
"'Wot is it?' ses the young man, grinning.
"'It's a watchman,' ses the gal. 'It's here to take charge of the wharf, you know, and see that nobody comes on.'
"'We ought to ha' brought some buns for it,' ses the young man; 'look at it opening its mouth.'
"They both laughed fit to kill themselves, but I didn't move a muscle.
"'You open the companion,' I ses, 'or it'll be the worse for you. D'ye hear? Open it!'
"'Oh, Alfred,' ses the gal, 'he's losing 'is temper. Wotever shall we do?'
"'I don't want no more nonsense,' I ses, trying to fix 'er with my eye. 'If you don't let me out it'll be the worse for you.'
"'Don't you talk to my young lady like that,' ses the young man.
"'Your young lady?' I ses. 'H'mm! You should ha' seen 'er 'arf an hour ago.'
"The gal looked at me steady for a moment.
"'He put 'is nasty fat arm round my waist, Alfred,' she ses.
"'Wot!' ses the young man, squeaking. 'WOT!'
"He snatched up the mop wot that nasty, untidy cook 'ad left leaning agin the side, and afore I 'ad any idea of wot 'e was up to he shoved the beastly thing straight in my face.
"'Next time,' he ses, 'I'll tear you limb from limb!'
"I couldn't speak for a time, and when I could 'e stopped me with the mop agin. It was like a chained lion being tormented by a monkey. I stepped down on to the cabin floor, and then I told 'em both wot I thought of 'em.
"'Come along, Alfred,' ses the gal, 'else the cook'll be back before we start.'
"'He's all right,' ses the young man. 'Minnie's looking arter him. When I left he'd got 'arf a bottle of whisky in front of 'im.'
"'Still, we may as well go,' ses Miss Butt. 'It seems a shame to keep the cab waiting.'
"'All right,' he ses. 'I just want to give this old chump one more lick with the mop and then we'll go.'
"He peeped down the skylight and waited, but I kept quite quiet, with my back towards 'im.
"'Come along,' ses Miss Butt.
"'I'm coming,' he ses. 'Hi! You down there! When the cap'n comes back tell 'im that I'm taking Miss Butt to an aunt o' mine in the country. And tell'im that in a week or two he'll 'ave the largest and nicest piece of wedding-cake he 'as ever 'ad in his life. So long!'
"'Good-bye, watchman,' ses the gal.
"They moved off without another word—from them, I mean. I heard the wicket slam and then I 'eard a cab drive off over the stones. I couldn't believe it at first. I couldn't believe a gal with such beautiful blue eyes could be so hard-'earted, and for a long time I stood listening and hoping to 'ear the cab come back. Then I stepped up to the companion and tried to shift it with my shoulders.
"I went back to the cabin at last, and arter lighting the lamp I 'ad another sup o' the skipper's whisky to clear my 'ead, and sat down to try and think wot tale I was to tell 'im. I sat for pretty near three hours without thinking of one, and then I 'eard the crew come on to the wharf.
"They was a bit startled when they saw my 'ead at the skylight, and then they all started at the same time asking me wot I was doing. I told 'em to let me out fust and then I'd tell 'em, and one of 'em 'ad just stepped round to the companion when the skipper come on to the wharf and stepped aboard. He stooped down and peeped at me through the skylight as though he couldn't believe 'is eyesight, and then, arter sending the hands for'ard and telling 'em to stay there, wotever 'appened, he unlocked the companion and came down."
"Dogs on board ship is a nuisance," said the night-watchman, gazing fiercely at the vociferous mongrel that had chased him from the deck of the Henry William; "the skipper asks me to keep an eye on the ship, and then leaves a thing like that down in the cabin."
He leaned against a pile of empty casks to recover his breath, shook his fist at the dog, and said, slowly—
Some people can't make too much of 'em. They talk about a dog's honest eyes and his faithful 'art. I 'ad a dog once, and I never saw his eyes look so honest as they did one day when 'e was sitting on a pound o' beefsteak we was 'unting high and low for.
I've known dogs to cause a lot of trouble in my time. A man as used to live in my street told me he 'ad been in jail three times because dogs follered him 'ome and wouldn't go away when he told 'em to. He said that some men would ha' kicked 'em out into the street, but he thought their little lives was far too valuable to risk in that way.
Some people used to wink when 'e talked like that, but I didn't: I remembered a dog that took a fancy to old Sam Small and Ginger Dick and Peter Russet once in just the same way.
It was one night in a little public-'ouse down Commercial Road way. They 'ad on'y been ashore a week, and, 'aving been turned out of a music-'all the night afore because a man Ginger Dick had punched in the jaw wouldn't behave 'imself, they said they'd spend the rest o' their money on beer instead. There was just the three of 'em sitting by themselves in a cosy little bar, when the door was pushed open and a big black dog came in.
He came straight up to Sam and licked his 'and. Sam was eating a arrowroot biscuit with a bit o' cheese on it at the time. He wasn't wot you'd call a partickler sort o' man, but, seeing as 'ow the dog was so careless that 'e licked the biscuit a'most as much as he did his 'and, he gave it to 'im. The dog took it in one gulp, and then he jumped up on Sam's lap and wagged his tail in 'is face for joy and thankfulness.
"He's took a fancy to you, Sam," ses Ginger.
Sam pushed the dog off on to the floor and wiped his face.
"He's a good dog, by the look of 'im," ses Peter Russet, who was country bred.
He bought a sausage-roll, and him and the dog ate it between 'em. Then Ginger Dick bought one and gave it to 'im, and by the time it was finished the dog didn't seem to know which one of 'em he loved the most.
"Wonder who he belongs to?" ses Ginger. "Is there any name on the collar, Peter?"
Peter shook his 'ead. "It's a good collar, though," he ses. "I wonder whether he's been and lost 'imself?"
Old Sam, wot was always on the look-out for money, put his beer down and wiped 'is mouth. "There might be a reward out for 'im," he ses. "I think I'll take care of 'im for a day or two, in case."
"We'll all take care of 'im," ses Ginger; "and if there's a reward we'll go shares. Mind that!"
"I found 'im," ses Sam, very disagreeable. "He came up to me as if he'd known me all 'is life."
"No," ses Ginger. "Don't you flatter yourself. He came up to you because he didn't know you, Sam."
"If he 'ad, he'd ha' bit your 'and," ses Peter Russet.
"Instead o' washing it," ses Ginger.
"Go on!" ses Sam, 'olding his breath with passion. "Go on!"
Peter opened 'is mouth, but just then another man came into the bar, and, arter ordering 'is drink, turned round and patted the dog's 'ead.
"That's a good dog; 'ow old is he?" he ses to Ginger.
"Two years last April," ses Ginger, without moving a eyelid.
"Fifth of April," ses old Sam, very quick and fierce.
"At two o'clock in the morning," ses Peter.
The man took up 'is beer and looked at 'em; then 'e took a drink and looked at 'em again. Arter which he 'ad another look at the dog.
"I could see 'e was very valuable," he ses. "I see that the moment I set eyes on 'im. Mind you don't get 'im stole."
He finished up 'is beer and went out; and he 'ad 'ardly gone afore Ginger took a piece o' thick string out of 'is pocket and fastened it to the dog's collar.
"Make yourself at 'ome, Ginger," ses Sam, very nasty.
"I'm going to," ses Ginger. "That chap knows something about dogs, and, if we can't get a reward for 'im, p'r'aps we can sell 'im."
They 'ad another arf-pint each, and then, Ginger taking 'old of the string, they went out into the street.
"Nine o'clock," ses Peter. "It's no good going 'ome yet, Ginger."
"We can 'ave a glass or two on the way," ses Ginger; "but I sha'n't feel comfortable in my mind till we've got the dog safe 'ome. P'r'aps the people wot 'ave lost it are looking for it now."
They 'ad another drink farther on, and a man in the bar took such a fancy to the dog that 'e offered Ginger five shillings for it and drinks round.
"That shows 'ow valuable it is," ses Peter Russet when they got outside. "Hold that string tight, Ginger. Wot's the matter?"
"He won't come," ses Ginger, tugging at the string. "Come on, old chap! Good dog! Come on!"
He stood there pulling at the dog, wot was sitting down and being dragged along on its stummick. He didn't know its name, but 'e called it a few things that seemed to ease 'is mind, and then he 'anded over the string to Sam, wot 'ad been asking for it, and told 'im to see wot he could do.
"We shall 'ave a crowd round us in a minute," ses Peter. "Mind you don't bust a blood-vessel, Sam."
"And be locked up for stealing it, p'r'aps," ses Ginger. "Better let it go, Sam."
"Wot, arter refusing five bob for it?" ses Sam. "Talk sense, Ginger, and give it a shove be'ind."
Ginger gave it a shove, but it was no good. There was three or four people coming along the road, and Sam made up 'is mind in an instant, and 'eld up his 'and to a cab that was passing.
It took the three of 'em to get the dog into the cab, and as soon as it was in the cabman told 'em to take it out agin. They argufied with 'im till their tongues ached, and at last, arter paying 'im four shillings and sixpence afore they started, he climbed up on the box and drove off.
The door was open when they got to their lodgings, but they 'ad to be careful because o' the landlady. It took the three of 'em to pull and push that dog upstairs, and Ginger took a dislike to dogs that 'e never really got over. They got 'im in the bedroom at last, and, arter they 'ad given 'im a drink o' water out o' the wash-hand basin, Ginger and Peter started to find fault with Sam Small.
"I know wot I'm about," ses Sam; "but, o' course, if you don't want your share, say so. Wot?"
"Talk sense!" ses Ginger. "We paid our share o' the cab, didn't we? And more fools us."
"There won't be no share," ses Peter Russet; "but if there is, we're going to'ave it."
They undressed themselves and got into bed, and Ginger 'adn't been in his five minutes afore the dog started to get in with 'im. When Ginger pushed 'im off 'e seemed to think he was having a game with 'im, and, arter pretending to bite 'im in play, he took the end of the counterpane in 'is mouth and tried to drag it off.
"Why don't you get to sleep, Ginger?" ses Sam, who was just dropping off. "'Ave a game with 'im in the morning."
Ginger gave the dog a punch in the chest, and, arter saying a few o' the things he'd like to do to Sam Small, he cuddled down in 'is bed and they all went off to sleep. All but the dog, that is. He seemed uneasy in 'is mind, and if 'e woke 'em up once by standing on his 'ind-legs and putting his fore-paws on their chest to see if they was still alive, he did arf-a-dozen times.
He dropped off to sleep at last, scratching 'imself, but about three o'clock in the morning Ginger woke up with a 'orrible start and sat up in bed shivering. Sam and Peter woke up, too, and, raising themselves in bed, looked at the dog, wot was sitting on its tail, with its 'ead back, moaning fit to break its 'art.
"Wot's the matter?" ses old Sam, in a shaky voice. "Stop it! Stop it, d'ye hear!"
"P'r'aps it's dying," ses Ginger, as the dog let off a 'owl like a steamer coming up the river. "Stop it, you brute!"
"He'll wake the 'ouse up in a minute," ses Peter. "Take 'im downstairs and kick 'im into the street, Sam."
"Take 'im yourself," ses Sam. "Hsh! Somebody's coming upstairs. Poor old doggie. Come along, then. Come along."
The dog left off his 'owling, and went over and licked 'im just as the landlady and one or two more came to the door and called out to know wot they meant by it.
"It's all right, missis," ses Sam. "It's on'y pore Ginger. You keep quiet," he ses in a whisper, turning to Ginger.
"Wot's he making that row about?" ses the landlady. "He made my blood run cold."
"He's got a touch o' toothache," ses Sam. "Never mind, Ginger," 'e ses in a hurry, as the dog let off another 'owl; "try and bear it."
"He's a coward, that's wot 'e is," ses the landlady, very fierce. "Why, a child o' five wouldn't make such a fuss."
"Sounds more like a dog than a 'uman being," ses another voice. "You come outside, Ginger, and I'll give you something to cry for."
They waited a minute or two, and then, everything being quiet, they went back to bed, while old Sam talked to Ginger about wot 'e called 'is "presence o' mind," and Ginger talked to 'im about wot he'd do to 'im if 'e wasn't a fat old man with one foot in the grave.
They was all in a better temper when they woke up in the morning, and while Sam was washing they talked about wot they was to do with the dog.
"We can't lead 'im about all day," ses Ginger; "and if we let 'im off the string he'll go off 'ome."
"He don't know where his 'ome is," ses Sam, very severe; "but he might run away, and then the pore thing might be starved or else ill-treated. I 'ave 'eard o' boys tying tin cans to their tails."
"I've done it myself," ses Ginger, nodding. "Consequently it's our dooty to look arter 'im," ses Sam.
"I'll go down to the front door," ses Peter, "and when I whistle, bring him down."
Ginger stuck his 'ead out o' the window, and by and by, when Peter whistled, him and Sam took the dog downstairs and out into the street.
"So far so good," ses Sam; "now, wot about brekfuss?"
They 'ad their brekfuss in their usual coffeeshop, and the dog took bits from all of them. Unfortunately, 'e wasn't used to haddick bones, and arter two of the customers 'ad gorn out and two more 'ad complained to the landlord, they 'ad to leave their brekfusses and take 'im outside for a breath o' fresh air.
"Now, wot are we going to do?" ses Ginger. "I'm beginning to be sick of the sight of 'im. 'Ave we got to lead 'im about all day on a bit o' string?"
"Let's take 'im round the corner and lose 'im," ses Peter Russet.
"You give me 'old o' that string," ses Sam. "If you don't want shares, that's all right. If I'm going to look arter 'im I'll 'ave it all."
That made Ginger and Peter look at each other. Direckly Sam began to talk about money they began to think they might be losing something.
"And wot about 'aving 'im in our bedroom and keeping us awake all night?" ses Peter.
"And putting it on to me with the toothache," ses Ginger. "No; you can look arter 'im, Sam, while me and Peter goes off and enjoys ourselves; and if you get anything we go shares, mind."
"All right," ses Sam, turning away with the dog.
"And suppose Sam gets a reward or sells it, and then tells us that it ran away and 'e lost it?" ses Peter.
"O' course; I never thought o' that," ses Ginger. "You've got your 'ead on straight, Peter."
"I see 'im smile, that's why," ses Peter Russet.
"You're a liar," ses Sam.
"We'll stick together," ses Ginger. "Leastways, one of us'll keep with you, Sam."
They settled it that way at last, and while Ginger went for a walk down round about where they 'ad found the dog, Sam Small and Peter waited for him in a little public-'ouse down Limehouse way. Their idea was that there would be bills up, and when Ginger came back and said there wasn't, they 'ad a lot to say about people wot wasn't fit to 'ave dogs because they didn't love 'em.
They 'ad a miserable day. When the dog got sick o' sitting in a pub 'e made such a noise they 'ad to take 'im out; and when 'e got tired o' walking about he sat down on the pavement and they 'ad to drag 'im along to the nearest pub agin. At five o'clock in the arternoon Ginger Dick was talking about two-penn'orth o' rat-poison.
"Wot are we to do with 'im till twelve o'clock to-night?" ses Peter.
"And s'pose we can't smuggle 'im into the 'ouse agin?" ses Ginger. "Or suppose he makes that noise agin in the night?"
They 'ad a pint each to 'elp them to think wot was to be done. And, arter a lot o' talking and quarrelling, they did wot a lot of other people 'ave done when they got into trouble: they came to me.
I 'ad on'y been on dooty about arf an hour when the three of 'em turned up at the wharf with the dog, and, arter saying 'ow well I looked and that I seemed to get younger every time they saw me, they asked me to take charge of the dog for 'em.
"It'll be company for you," ses old Sam. "It must be very lonely 'ere of a night. I've often thought of it."
"And of a day-time you could take it 'ome and tie it up in your back- yard," ses Ginger.
I wouldn't 'ave anything to do with it at fust, but at last I gave way. They offered me fourpence a day for its keep, and, as I didn't want to run any risk, I made 'em give me a couple o' bob to go on with.
They went off as though they'd left a load o' care be'ind 'em, and arter tying the dog up to a crane I went on with my work. They 'adn't told me wot the game was, but, from one or two things they'd let drop, I'd got a pretty good idea.
The dog 'owled a bit at fust, but he quieted down arter a bit. He was a nice-looking animal, but one dog is much the same as another to me, and if I 'ad one ten years I don't suppose I could pick it out from two or three others.
I took it off 'ome with me when I left at six o'clock next morning, and tied it up in my yard. My missis 'ad words about it, o' course—that's wot people get married for—but when she found it woke me up three times she quieted down and said wot a nice coat it 'ad got.
The three of 'em came round next evening to see it, and they was so afraid of its being lost that when they stood me a pint at the Bull's Head we 'ad to take it with us. Ginger was going to buy a sausage-roll for it, but, arter Sam 'ad pointed out that they was paying me fourpence a day for its keep, he didn't. And Sam 'ad the cheek to tell me that it liked a nice bit o' fried steak as well as anything.
A lot o' people admired that dog. I remember, on the fourth night I think it was, the barge Dauntless came alongside, and arter she was made fast the skipper came ashore and took a little notice of it.
"Where did you get 'im?" he ses.
I told 'im 'ow it was, and he stood there for some time patting the dog on the 'ead and whistling under 'is breath.
"It's much the same size as my dog," he ses; "that's a black retriever, too."
I ses "Oh!"
"I'm afraid I shall 'ave to get rid of it," he ses. "It's on the barge now. My missis won't 'ave it in the 'ouse any more cos it bit the baby. And o' course it was no good p'inting out to 'er that it was its first bite. Even the law allows one bite, but it's no good talking about the law to wimmen."
"Except when it's on their side," I ses.
He patted the dog's 'ead agin and whistled, and a big black dog came up out of the cabin and sprang ashore. It went up and put its nose to Sam's dog, and they both growled like thunderstorms.
"Might be brothers," ses the skipper, "on'y your dog's got a better 'eead and a better coat. It's a good dog."
"They're all alike to me," I ses. "I couldn't tell 'em apart, not if you paid me."
The skipper stood there a moment, and then he ses: "I wish you'd let me see 'ow my dog looks in your dog's collar," he ses.
"Whaffor?" I ses.
"On'y fancy," he ses. "Oh, Bill!"
"Yes," I ses.
"It ain't Christmas," he ses, taking my arm and walking up and down a bit, "but it will be soon, and then I mightn't see you. You've done me one or two good turns, and I should like to make you a Christmas-box of three 'arf-dollars."
I let 'im give 'em to me, and then, just to please 'im, I let 'im try the collar on 'is dog, while I swept up a bit.
"It looked beautiful on 'im," he ses, when I'd finished; "but I've put it back agin. Come on, Bruno. Good-night, Bill."
He got 'is dog on the barge agin arter a bit o' trouble, and arter making sure 'that my dog 'ad got its own collar on I went on with my work.
The dog didn't seem to be quite 'imself next day, and he was so fierce in the yard that my missis was afraid to go near 'im. I was going to ask the skipper about it, as 'e seemed to know more about dogs than I did, but when I got to the wharf the barge had sailed.
It was just getting dark when there came a ring at the gate-bell, and afore I could answer it arf-a-dozen more, as fast as the bell could go. And when I opened the wicket Sam Small and Ginger and Peter Russet all tried to get in at once.
"Where's the dog?" ses Sam.
"Tied up," I ses. "Wot's the matter? 'Ave you all gorn mad?"
They didn't answer me. They ran on to the jetty, and afore I could turn round a'most they 'ad got the dog loose and was dragging it towards me, smiling all over their faces.
"Reward," ses Ginger, as I caught 'old of 'im by the coat. "Five pounds —landlord of a pub—at Bow—come on, Sam!"
"Why don't you keep your mouth shut, Ginger?" ses Sam.
"Five pounds!" I ses. "Five pounds! Hurrah!"
"Wot are you hurraying about?" ses Sam, very short.
"Why," I ses, "I s'pose——Here, arf a moment!"
"Can't stop," ses Sam, going arter the others.
I watched 'em up the road, and then I locked the gate and walked up and down the wharf thinking wot a funny thing money is, and 'ow it alters people's natures. And arter all, I thought that three arf-dollars earned honest was better than a reward for hiding another man's dog.
I finished tidying up, and at nine o'clock I went into the office for a quiet smoke. I couldn't 'elp wondering 'ow them three 'ad got on, and just as I was thinking about it there came the worst ringing at the gate-bell I 'ave ever 'eard in my life, and the noise of heavy boots kicking the gate. It was so violent I 'ardly liked to go at fust, thinking it might be bad news, but I opened it at last, and in bust Sam Small, with Ginger and Peter.
For five minutes they all talked at once, with their nasty fists 'eld under my nose. I couldn't make lead or tail of it at fust, and then I found as 'ow they 'ad got the dog back with them, and that the landlord 'ad said 'e wasn't the one.
"But 'e said as he thought the collar was his," ses Sam. "'Ow do you account for that?"
"P'r'aps he made a mistake," I ses; "or p'r'aps he thought you'd turn the dog adrift and he'd get it back for nothing. You know wot landlords are. Try 'im agin."
"I'd pretty well swear he ain't the same dog," ses Peter Russet, looking in a puzzled way at Sam and Ginger.
"You take 'im back to-morrow night," I ses. "It's a nice walk to Bow. And then come back and beg my pardon. I want to 'ave a word with this policeman here. Goodnight."
THE WEAKER VESSEL
Mr. Gribble sat in his small front parlour in a state of angry amazement. It was half-past six and there was no Mrs. Gribble; worse still, there was no tea. It was a state of things that had only happened once before. That was three weeks after marriage, and on that occasion Mr. Gribble had put his foot down with a bang that had echoed down the corridors of thirty years.
The fire in the little kitchen was out, and the untidy remains of Mrs. Gribble's midday meal still disgraced the table. More and more dazed, the indignant husband could only come to the conclusion that she had gone out and been run over. Other things might possibly account for her behaviour; that was the only one that would excuse it.
His meditations were interrupted by the sound of a key in the front door, and a second later a small, anxious figure entered the room and, leaning against the table, strove to get its breath. The process was not helped by the alarming distension of Mr. Gribble's figure.
"I—I got home—quick as I could—Henry," said Mrs. Gribble, panting.
"Where is my tea?" demanded her husband. "What do you mean by it? The fire's out and the kitchen is just as you left it."
"I—I've been to a lawyer's, Henry," said Mrs. Gribble, "and I had to wait."
"Lawyer's?" repeated her husband.
"I got a letter this afternoon telling me to call. Poor Uncle George, that went to America, is gone."
"That is no excuse for neglecting me," said Mr. Gribble. "Of course people die when they are old. Is that the one that got on and made money?"
His wife, apparently struggling to repress a little excitement, nodded. "He—he's left me two hundred pounds a year for life, Henry," she said, dabbing at her pale blue eyes with a handkerchief. "They're going to pay it monthly; sixteen pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence a month. That's how he left it."
"Two hund—" began Mr. Gribble, forgetting himself. "Two hun——Go and get my tea! If you think you're going to give yourself airs because your uncle's left you money, you won't do it in my house."
He took a chair by the window, and, while his wife busied herself in the kitchen, sat gazing in blank delight at the little street. Two hundred a year! It was all he could do to resume his wonted expression as his wife re-entered the room and began to lay the table. His manner, however, when she let a cup and saucer slip from her trembling fingers to smash on the floor left nothing to be desired.
"It's nice to have money come to us in our old age," said Mrs. Gribble, timidly, as they sat at tea. "It takes a load off my mind."
"Old age!" said her husband, disagreeably. "What d'ye mean by old age? I'm fifty-two, and feel as young as ever I did."
"You look as young as ever you did," said the docile Mrs. Gribble. "I can't see no change in you. At least, not to speak of."
"Not so much talk," said her husband. "When I want your opinion of my looks I'll ask you for it. When do you start getting this money?"
"Tuesday week; first of May," replied his wife. "The lawyers are going to send it by registered letter."
Mr. Gribble grunted.
"I shall be sorry to leave the house for some things," said his wife, looking round. "We've been here a good many years now, Henry."
"Leave the house!" repeated Mr. Gribble, putting down his tea-cup and staring at her.
"Leave the house! What are you talking about?"
"But we can't stay here, Henry," faltered Mrs. Gribble. "Not with all that money. They are building some beautiful houses in Charlton Grove now—bathroom, tiled hearths, and beautiful stained glass in the front door; and all for twenty-eight pounds a year."
"Wonderful!" said the other, with a mocking glint in his eye.
"And iron palings to the front garden, painted chocolate-colour picked out with blue," continued his wife, eyeing him wistfully.
Mr. Gribble struck the table a blow with his fist. "This house is good enough for me," he roared; "and what's good enough for me is good enough for you. You want to waste money on show; that's what you want. Stained glass and bow-windows! You want a bow-window to loll about in, do you? Shouldn't wonder if you don't want a servant-gal to do the work."
Mrs. Gribble flushed guiltily, and caught her breath.
"We're going to live as we've always lived," pursued Mr. Gribble. "Money ain't going to spoil me. I ain't going to put on no side just because I've come in for a little bit. If you had your way we should end up in the workhouse."
He filled his pipe and smoked thoughtfully, while Mrs. Gribble cleared away the tea-things and washed up. Pictures, good to look upon, formed in the smoke-pictures of a hale, hearty man walking along the primrose path arm-in-arm with two hundred a year; of the mahogany and plush of the saloon bar at the Grafton Arms; of Sunday jaunts, and the Oval on summer afternoons.
He ate his breakfast slowly on the first of the month, and, the meal finished, took a seat in the window with his pipe and waited for the postman. Mrs. Gribble's timid reminders concerning the flight of time and consequent fines for lateness at work fell on deaf ears. He jumped up suddenly and met the postman at the door.
"Has it come?" inquired Mrs. Gribble, extending her hand.
By way of reply her husband tore open the envelope and, handing her the covering letter, counted the notes and coin and placed them slowly in his pockets. Then, as Mrs. Gribble looked at him, he looked at the clock, and, snatching up his hat, set off down the road.
He was late home that evening, and his manner forbade conversation. Mrs. Gribble, with the bereaved air of one who has sustained an irremediable loss, sighed fitfully, and once applied her handkerchief to her eyes.
"That's no good," said her husband at last; "that won't bring him back."
"Bring who back?" inquired Mrs. Gribble, in genuine surprise.
"Why, your Uncle George," said Mr. Gribble. "That's what you're turning on the water-cart for, ain't it?"
"I wasn't thinking of him," said Mrs. Gribble, trying to speak bravely. "I was thinking of——"
"Well, you ought to be," interrupted her husband. "He wasn't my uncle, poor chap, but I've been thinking of him, off and on, all day. That bloater-paste you are eating now came from his kindness. I brought it home as a treat."
"I was thinking of my clothes," said Mrs. Gribble, clenching her hands together under the table. "When I found I had come in for that money, the first thing I thought was that I should be able to have a decent dress. My old ones are quite worn out, and as for my hat and jacket—"
"Go on," said her husband, fiercely. "Go on. That's just what I said: trust you with money, and we should be poorer than ever."
"I'm ashamed to be seen out," said Mrs. Gribble.
"A woman's place is the home," said Mr. Gribble; "and so long as I'm satisfied with your appearance nobody else matters. So long as I am pleased, that's everything. What do you want to go dressing yourself up for? Nothing looks worse than an over-dressed woman."
"What are we going to do with all that money, then?" inquired Mrs. Gribble, in trembling tones.
"That'll do," said Mr. Gribble, decidedly. "That'll do. One o' these days you'll go too far. You start throwing that money in my teeth and see what happens. I've done my best for you all these years, and there's no reason to suppose I sha'n't go on doing so. What did you say? What!"
Mrs. Gribble turned to him a face rendered ghastly by terror. "I—I said—it was my money," she stammered.
Mr. Gribble rose, and stood for a full minute regarding her. Then, kicking a chair out of his way, he took his hat from its peg in the passage and, with a bang of the street-door that sent a current of fresh, sweet air circulating through the house, strode off to the Grafton Arms.
It was past eleven when he returned, but even the spectacle of his wife laboriously darning her old dress failed to reduce his good-humour in the slightest degree. In a frivolous mood he even took a feather from the dismembered hat on the table and stuck it in his hair. He took the stump of a strong cigar from his lips and, exhaling a final cloud of smoke, tossed it into the fireplace.
"Uncle George dead," he said, at last, shaking his head. "Hadn't pleasure acquaintance, but good man. Good man."
He shook his head again and gazed mistily at his wife.
"He was a teetotaller," she remarked, casually.
"He was tee-toiler," repeated Mr. Gribble, regarding her equably. "Good man. Uncle George dead-tee-toller."
Mrs. Gribble gathered up her work and began to put it away.
"Bed-time," said Mr. Gribble, and led the way upstairs, singing.
His good-humour had evaporated by the morning, and, having made a light breakfast of five cups of tea, he went off, with lagging steps, to work. It was a beautiful spring morning, and the idea of a man with two hundred a year and a headache going off to a warehouse instead of a day's outing seemed to border upon the absurd. What use was money without freedom? His toil was sweetened that day by the knowledge that he could drop it any time he liked and walk out, a free man, into the sunlight.
By the end of a week his mind was made up. Each day that passed made his hurried uprising and scrambled breakfast more and more irksome; and on Monday morning, with hands in trouser-pockets and legs stretched out, he leaned back in his chair and received his wife's alarming intimations as to the flight of time with a superior and sphinx-like smile.
"It's too fine to go to work to-day," he said, lazily. "Come to that, any day is too fine to waste at work."
Mrs. Gribble sat gasping at him.
"So on Saturday I gave 'em a week's notice," continued her husband, "and after Potts and Co. had listened while I told 'em what I thought of 'em, they said they'd do without the week's notice."
"You've never given up your job?" said Mrs. Gribble.
"I spoke to old Potts as one gentleman of independent means to another," said Mr. Gribble, smiling. "Thirty-five bob a week after twenty years' service! And he had the cheek to tell me I wasn't worth that. When I told him what he was worth he talked about sending for the police. What are you looking like that for? I've worked hard for you for thirty years, and I've had enough of it. Now it's your turn."
"You'd find it hard to get another place at your age," said his wife; "especially if they wouldn't give you a good character."
"Place!" said the other, staring. "Place! I tell you I've done with work. For a man o' my means to go on working for thirty-five bob a week is ridiculous."
"But suppose anything happened to me," said his wife, in a troubled voice.
"That's not very likely," said Mr. Gribble.
"You're tough enough. And if it did your money would come to me."
Mrs. Gribble shook her head.
"WHAT?" roared her husband, jumping up.
"I've only got it for life, Henry, as I told you," said Mrs. Gribble, in alarm. "I thought you knew it would stop when I died."
"And what's to become of me if anything happens to you, then?" demanded the dismayed Mr. Gribble. "What am I to do?"
Mrs. Gribble put her handkerchief to her eyes.
"And don't start weakening your constitution by crying," shouted the incensed husband.
"What are you mumbling?"
"I sa—sa—said, let's hope—you'll go first," sobbed his wife. "Then it will be all right."
Mr. Gribble opened his mouth, and then, realizing the inadequacy of the English language for moments of stress, closed it again. He broke his silence at last in favour of Uncle George.
"Mind you," he said, concluding a peroration which his wife listened to with her fingers in her ears—"mind you, I reckon I've been absolutely done by you and your precious Uncle George. I've given up a good situation, and now, any time you fancy to go off the hooks, I'm to be turned into the street."
"I'll try and live, for your sake, Henry," said his wife.
"Think of my worry every time you are ill," pursued the indignant Mr. Gribble.
Mrs. Gribble sighed, and her husband, after a few further remarks concerning Uncle George, his past and his future, announced his intention of going to the lawyers and seeing whether anything could be done. He came back in a state of voiceless gloom, and spent the rest of a beautiful day indoors, smoking a pipe which had lost much of its flavour, and regarding with a critical and anxious eye the small, weedy figure of his wife as she went about her work.
The second month's payment went into his pocket as a matter of course, but on this occasion Mrs. Gribble made no requests for new clothes or change of residence. A little nervous cough was her sole comment.
"Got a cold?" inquired her husband, starting.
"I don't think so," replied his wife, and, surprised and touched at this unusual display of interest, coughed again.
"Is it your throat or your chest?" he inquired, gruffly.
Mrs. Gribble coughed again to see. After five coughs she said she thought it was her chest.
"You'd better not go out o' doors to-day, then," said Mr. Gribble. "Don't stand about in draughts; and I'll fetch you in a bottle of cough mixture when I go out. What about a lay-down on the sofa?"
His wife thanked him, and, reaching the sofa, watched with half-closed eyes as he cleared the breakfast-table. It was the first time he had done such a thing in his life, and a little honest pride in the possession of such a cough would not be denied. Dim possibilities of its vast usefulness suddenly occurred to her.
She took the cough mixture for a week, by which time other symptoms, extremely disquieting to an ease-loving man, had manifested themselves. Going upstairs deprived her of breath; carrying a loaded tea-tray produced a long and alarming stitch in the side. The last time she ever filled the coal-scuttle she was discovered sitting beside it on the floor in a state of collapse.
"You'd better go and see the doctor," said Mr. Gribble.
Mrs. Gribble went. Years before the doctor had told her that she ought to take life easier, and she was now able to tell him she was prepared to take his advice.
"And, you see, I must take care of myself now for the sake of my husband," she said, after she had explained matters.
"I understand," said the doctor.
"If anything happened to me—" began the patient.
"Nothing shall happen," said the other. "Stay in bed to-morrow morning, and I'll come round and overhaul you."
Mrs. Gribble hesitated. "You might examine me and think I was all right," she objected; "and at the same time you wouldn't know how I feel."
"I know just how you feel," was the reply. "Good-bye."
He came round the following morning and, following the dejected Mr. Gribble upstairs, made a long and thorough investigation of his patient.
"Say 'ninety-nine,'" he said, adjusting his stethoscope.
Mrs. Gribble ticked off "ninety-nines" until her husband's ears ached with them. The doctor finished at last, and, fastening his bag, stood with his beard in his hand, pondering. He looked from the little, whitefaced woman on the bed to the bulky figure of Mr. Gribble.
"You had better lie up for a week," he said, decidedly. "The rest will do you good."
"Nothing serious, I s'pose?" said Mr. Gribble, as he led the way downstairs to the small parlour.
"She ought to be all right with care," was the reply.
"Care?" repeated the other, distastefully. "What's the matter with her?"
"She's not very strong," said the doctor; "and hearts don't improve with age, you know. Under favourable conditions she's good for some years yet. The great thing is never to thwart her. Let her have her own way in everything."
"Own way in everything?" repeated the dumbfounded Mr. Gribble.
The doctor nodded. "Never let her worry about anything," he continued; "and, above all, never find fault with her."
"Not," said Mr. Gribble, thickly—"not even for her own good?"
"Unless you want to run the risk of losing her."
Mr. Gribble shivered.
"Let her have an easy time," said the doctor, taking up his hat. "Pamper her a bit if you like; it won't hurt her. Above all, don't let that heart of hers get excited."
He shook hands with the petrified Mr. Gribble and went off, grinning wickedly. He had few favourites, and Mr. Gribble was not one of them.
For two days the devoted husband did the housework and waited on the invalid. Then he wearied, and, at his wife's suggestion, a small girl was engaged as servant. She did most of the nursing as well, and, having a great love for the sensational, took a grave view of her mistress's condition.
It was a relief to Mr. Gribble when his wife came downstairs again, and he was cheered to see that she looked much better. His satisfaction was so marked that it brought on her cough again.
"It's this house, I think," she said, with a resigned smile. "It never did agree with me.
"Well, you've lived in it a good many years," said her husband, controlling himself with difficulty.
"It's rather dark and small," said Mrs. Gribble. "Not but what it is good enough for me. And I dare say it will last my time."
"Nonsense!" said her husband, gruffly. "You want to get out a bit more. You've got nothing to do now we are wasting all this money on a servant. Why don't you go out for little walks?"
Mrs. Gribble went, after several promptings, and the fruit of one of them was handed by the postman to Mr. Gribble a few days afterwards. Half-choking with wrath and astonishment, he stood over his trembling wife with the first draper's bill he had ever received.
"One pound two shillings and threepence three-farthings!" he recited. "It must be a mistake. It must be for somebody else."
Mrs. Gribble, with her hand to her heart, tottered to the sofa and lay there with her eyes closed.
"I had to get some dress material," she said, in a quavering voice. "You want me to go out, and I'm so shabby I'm ashamed to be seen."
Mr. Gribble made muffled noises in his throat; then, afraid to trust himself, he went into the back-yard and, taking a seat on an upturned bucket, sat with his head in his hands peering into the future.
The dressmaker's bill and a bill for a new hat came after the next monthly payment; and a bill for shoes came a week later. Hoping much from the well-known curative effects of fine feathers, he managed to treat the affair with dignified silence. The only time he allowed full play to his feelings Mrs. Gribble took to her bed for two days, and the doctor had a heart-to-heart talk with him on the doorstep.
It was a matter of great annoyance to him that his wife still continued to attribute her ill-health to the smallness and darkness of the house; and the fact that there were only two of the houses in Charlton Grove left caused a marked depression of spirits. It was clear that she was fretting. The small servant went further, and said that she was fading away.
They moved at the September quarter, and a slight, but temporary, improvement in Mrs. Gribble's health took place. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled over new curtains and new linoleum. The tiled hearths, and stained glass in the front door filled her with a deep and solemn thankfulness. The only thing that disturbed her was the fact that Mr. Gribble, to avoid wasting money over necessaries, contrived to spend an unduly large portion on personal luxuries.
"We ought to have some new things for the kitchen," she said one day.
"No money," said Mr. Gribble, laconically.
"And a mat for the bathroom."
Mr. Gribble got up and went out.
She had to go to him for everything. Two hundred a year and not a penny she could call her own! She consulted her heart, and that faithful organ responded with a bound that set her nerves quivering. If she could only screw her courage to the sticking-point the question would be settled for once and all.
White and trembling she sat at breakfast on the first of November, waiting for the postman, while the unconscious Mr. Gribble went on with his meal. The double-knocks down the road came nearer and nearer, and Mr. Gribble, wiping his mouth, sat upright with an air of alert and pleased interest. Rapid steps came to the front door, and a double bang followed.
"Always punctual," said Mr. Gribble, good-humouredly.
His wife made no reply, but, taking a blue-crossed envelope from the maid in her shaking fingers, looked round for a knife. Her gaze encountered Mr. Gribble's outstretched hand.
"After you," he said sharply.
Mrs. Gribble found the knife, and, hacking tremulously at the envelope, peeped inside it and, with her gaze fastened on the window, fumbled for her pocket. She was so pale and shook so much that the words died away on her husband's lips.
"You—you had better let me take care of that," he said, at last.
"It is—all right," gasped his wife.
She put her hand to her throat and, hardly able to believe in her victory, sat struggling for breath. Before her, grim and upright, her husband sat, a figure of helpless smouldering wrath.
"You might lose it," he said, at last. "I sha'n't lose it," said his wife.
To avoid further argument, she arose and went slowly upstairs. Through the doorway Mr. Gribble saw her helping herself up by the banisters, her left hand still at her throat. Then he heard her moving slowly about in the bedroom overhead.
He took out his pipe and filled it mechanically, and was just holding a match to the tobacco when he paused and gazed with a puzzled air at the ceiling. "Blamed if it don't sound like somebody dancing!" he growled.
"Wonderful improvement," said Mr. Jack Mills. "Show 'em to me again."
Mr. Simpson took his pipe from his mouth and, parting his lips, revealed his new teeth.
"And you talk better," said Mr. Mills, taking his glass from the counter and emptying it; "you ain't got that silly lisp you used to have. What does your missis think of 'em?"
"She hasn't seen 'em yet," said the other. "I had 'em put in at dinner- time. I ate my dinner with 'em."
Mr. Mills expressed his admiration. "If it wasn't for your white hair and whiskers you'd look thirty again," he said, slowly. "How old are you?"
"Fifty-three," said his friend. "If it wasn't for being laughed at I've often thought of having my whiskers shaved off and my hair dyed black. People think I'm sixty."
"Or seventy," continued Mr. Mills. "What does it matter, people laughing? You've got a splendid head of 'air, and it would dye beautiful."
Mr. Simpson shook his head and, ordering a couple of glasses of bitter, attacked his in silence.
"It might be done gradual," he said, after a long interval. "It don't do anybody good at the warehouse to look old."
"Make a clean job of it," counselled Mr. Mills, who was very fond of a little cheap excitement. "Get it over and done with. You've got good features, and you'd look splendid clean-shaved." Mr. Simpson smiled faintly. "Only on Wednesday the barmaid here was asking after you," pursued Mr. Mills. Mr. Simpson smiled again. "She says to me, 'Where's Gran'pa?' she says, and when I says, haughty like, 'Who do you mean?' she says, 'Father Christmas!' If you was to tell her that you are only fifty-three, she'd laugh in your face."
"Let her laugh," said the other, sourly.
"Come out and get it off," said Mr. Mills, earnestly. "There's a barber's in Bird Street; you could go in the little back room, where he charges a penny more, and get it done without anybody being a bit the wiser."
He put his hand on Mr. Simpson's shoulder, and that gentleman, with a glare in the direction of the fair but unconscious offender, rose in a hypnotized fashion and followed him out. Twice on the way to Bird Street Mr. Simpson paused and said he had altered his mind, and twice did the propulsion of Mr. Mills's right hand, and his flattering argument, make him alter it again.
It was a matter of relief to Mr. Simpson that the barber took his instructions without any show of surprise. It appeared, indeed, that an elderly man of seventy-eight had enlisted his services for a similar purpose not two months before, and had got married six weeks afterwards. Age of the bride given as twenty-four, but said to have looked older.
A snip of the scissors, and six inches of white beard fell to the floor. For the first time in thirty years Mr. Simpson felt a razor on his face. Then his hair was cut and shampooed; and an hour later he sat gazing at a dark-haired, clean-shaven man in the glass who gazed back at him with wondering eyes—a lean-jawed, good-looking man, who, in a favourable light, might pass for forty. He turned and met the admiring eyes of Mr. Mills.
"What did I tell you?" inquired the latter. "You look young enough to be your own son."
"Or grandson," said the barber, with professional pride.
Mr. Simpson got up slowly from the chair and, accompanied by the admiring Mr. Mills, passed out into the street. The evening was young, and, at his friend's suggestion, they returned to the Plume of Feathers.
"You give the order," said Mr. Mills, "and see whether she recognizes you."
Mr. Simpson obeyed.
"Don't you know him?" inquired Mr. Mills, as the barmaid turned away.
"I don't think I have that pleasure," said the girl, simpering.
"Gran'pa's eldest boy," said Mr. Mills.
"Oh!" said the girl. "Well, I hope he's a better man than his father, then?"
"What do you mean by that?" demanded Mr. Simpson, painfully conscious of his friend's regards.
"Nothing," said the girl, "nothing. Only we can all be better, can't we? He's a nice old gentleman; so simple."
"Don't know you from Adam," said Mr. Mills, as she turned away. "Now, if you ask me, I don't believe as your own missis will recognize you."
"Rubbish," said Mr. Simpson. "My wife would know me anywhere. We've been married over thirty years. Thirty years of sunshine and shadow together. You're a single man, and don't understand these things."
"P'r'aps you're right," said his friend. "But it'll be a bit of a shock to her, anyway. What do you say to me stepping round and breaking the news to her? It's a bit sudden, you know. She's expecting a white- haired old gentleman, not a black-haired boy."
Mr. Simpson looked a bit uneasy. "P'r'aps I ought to have told her first," he murmured, craning his neck to look in the glass at the back of the bar.
"I'll go and put it right for you," said his friend. "You stay here and smoke your pipe."
He stepped out briskly, but his pace slackened as he drew near the house.
"I—I—came—to see you about your husband," he faltered, as Mrs. Simpson opened the door and stood regarding him.
"What's the matter?" she exclaimed, with a faint cry. "What's happened to him?"
"Nothing," said Mr. Mills, hastily. "Nothing serious, that is. I just came round to warn you so that you will be able to know it's him."
Mrs. Simpson let off a shriek that set his ears tingling. Then, steadying herself by the wall, she tottered into the front room, followed by the discomfited Mr. Mills, and sank into a chair.
"He's dead!" she sobbed. "He's dead!"
"He is not," said Mr. Mills.
"Is he much hurt? Is he dying?" gasped Mrs. Simpson.
"Only his hair," said Mr. Mills, clutching at the opening. "He is not hurt at all."
Mrs. Simpson dabbed at her eyes-and sat regarding him in bewilderment. Her twin chins were still quivering with emotion, but her eyes were beginning to harden. "What are you talking about?" she inquired, in a raspy voice.
"He's been to a hairdresser's," said Mr. Mills. "He's 'ad all his white whiskers cut off, and his hair cut short and dyed black. And, what with that and his new teeth, I thought—he thought—p'r'aps you mightn't know him when he came home."
"Dyed?" cried Mrs. Simpson, starting to her feet.
Mr. Mills nodded. "He looks twenty years younger," he said, with a smile. "He'd pass for his own son anywhere."
Mrs. Simpson's eyes snapped. "Perhaps he'd pass for my son," she remarked.
"Yes, easy," said the tactful Mr. Mills. "You can't think what a difference it's made to him. That's why I came to see you—so you shouldn't be startled."
"Thank you," said Mrs. Simpson. "I'm much obliged. But you might have spared yourself the trouble. I should know my husband anywhere."
"Ah, that's what you think," retorted Mr. Mills, with a smile; "but the barmaid at the Plume didn't. That's what made me come to you."
Mrs. Simpson gazed at him.
"I says to myself," continued Mr. Mills, "'If she don't know him, I'm certain his missis won't, and I'd better——'"
"You'd better go," interrupted his hostess.
Mr. Mills started, and then, with much dignity, stalked after her to the door.
"As to your story, I don't believe a word of it," said Mrs. Simpson. "Whatever else my husband is, he isn't a fool, and he'd no more think of cutting off his whiskers and dyeing his hair than you would of telling the truth."
"Seeing is believing," said the offended Mr. Mills, darkly.
"I'll wait till I do see, and then I sha'n't believe," was the reply. "It is a put-up job between you and some other precious idiot, I expect. But you can't deceive me. If your black-haired friend comes here, he'll get it, I can tell you."
She slammed the door on his protests and, returning to the parlour, gazed fiercely into the glass on the mantelpiece. It reflected sixteen stone of honest English womanhood, a thin wisp of yellowish-grey hair, and a pair of faded eyes peering through clumsy spectacles.
"Son, indeed!" she said, her lips quivering. "You wait till you come home, my lord!"
Mr. Simpson, with some forebodings, returned home an hour later. To a man who loved peace and quietness the report of the indignant Mr. Mills was not of a reassuring nature. He hesitated on the doorstep for a few seconds while he fumbled for his key, and then, humming unconcernedly, hung his hat in the passage and walked into the parlour.
The astonished scream of his wife warned him that Mr. Mills had by no means exaggerated. She rose from her seat and, crouching by the fireplace, regarded him with a mixture of anger and dismay.
"It—it's all right, Milly," said Mr. Simpson, with a smile that revealed a dazzling set of teeth.
"Who are you?" demanded Mrs. Simpson. "How dare you call me by my Christian name. It's a good job for you my husband is not here."
"He wouldn't hurt me," said Mr. Simpson, with an attempt at facetiousness. "He's the best friend I ever had. Why, we slept in the same cradle."
"I don't want any of your nonsense," said Mrs. Simpson. "You get out of my house before I send for the police. How dare you come into a respectable woman's house in this fashion? Be off with you."
"Now, look here, Milly——" began Mr. Simpson.
His wife drew herself up to her full height of four feet eleven.
"I've had a hair-cut and a shave," pursued her husband; "also I've had my hair restored to its natural colour. But I'm the same man, and you know it."
"I know nothing of the kind," said his wife, doggedly. "I don't know you from Adam. I've never seen you before, and I don't want to see you again. You go away."
"I'm your husband, and my place is at home," replied Mr. Simpson. "A man can have a shave if he likes, can't he? Where's my supper?"
"Go on," said his wife. "Keep it up. But be careful my husband don't come in and catch you, that's all."
Mr. Simpson gazed at her fixedly, and then, with an impatient exclamation, walked into the small kitchen and began to set the supper. A joint of cold beef, a jar of pickles, bread, butter, and cheese made an appetizing display. Then he took a jug from the dresser and descended to the cellar.
A musical trickling fell on the ear of Mrs. Simpson as she stood at the parlour door, and drew her stealthily to the cellar. The key was in the lock, and, with a sudden movement, she closed the door and locked it. A sharp cry from Mr. Simpson testified to his discomfiture.