THE MISSING LINK
EDWARD DYSON 1922
DR. CRIPS'S HEALING MIXTURE.
HIS Christian name was Nicholas but his familiars called him Nickie the Kid. The title did not imply that Nicholas possessed the artless gaiety, the nimbleness, or any of the simple virtues of the young of the common goat. Kid was short for "kidder," a term that as gone out recently in favour of "smoodger," and which implies a quality of suave and ingratiating cunning backed by ulterior motives.
The familiars of Mr. Nicholas Crips were a limited circle, and all "beats," that is to say, gentlemen sitting on the rail dividing honest toil from open crime. They were not workers, neither were they thieves, excepting in very special circumstances, when the opportunity made honesty almost an impertinence. The sobriquet coming from such a source acquires peculiar significance. The god-fathers of Nickie the Kid were all experts, and obtained bed and board mainly by exercising the art of dissimulation. To stand out conspicuously as a specialist in such company one needed to possess very bright and peculiar qualities.
Mr. Nicholas Crips was blonde, bony man perhaps five feet nine in height, but looking taller because of the spareness of his limbs. This spareness was not cultivated, as Nickie the Kid was partial to creature comforts, but was of great assistance to him in a profession in which it was often necessary to profess chronic sickness and touching physical decrepitude. Mr Crips despised whiskers, but, as shaving was an extravagant indulgence, his slightly cadaverous countenance was often littered with a crisp, pale stubble, not unlike dry grass.
To-day Nickie wore a suit of black cloth. It had once been a very imposing suit, and had adorned a great person, but having fallen on evil days, was dusty and rusty, while the knees of Mr. Crips poked familiarly through a long slit in each leg of the stained trousers. The frock coat went badly with the damaged tan boots and the moth-eaten rag cap Nicholas was wearing.
Mr. Crips was making back-door call, and telling housewives what the doctors at the hospital had said about his peculiar ailment which, it appears, was an interesting heart weakness.
"Above all, I must be careful never to over-exert myself, madam—those are the doctor's orders," said Nickie, in his sad, calm way. "The smallest excitement, the slightest strain, and my life goes out like that." Nickie puffed an imaginary candle with dramatic significance.
This was the preliminary to a mild appeal for creature and medical comforts, and it had two objects—to open the soul to compassion, and bar all considerations of manual labour.
Our hero's manner with women was a gentle manly deference; his begging showed no trace of servility, but he was always polite. He accepted failure with good grace, and did not resent scorn, abuse, or even violence from intended victims. He was rarely combative. Fighting was not his special gift; he met misfortune with patient passivity Resistance he found a mistake. But for all this a certain sense of superiority was, never wanting in Nickie the Kid; the shabbiest clothes, a deplorable hat, fragmentary boots, shirtlessness, the most distressing situations all failed to wholly eliminate a touch of impudent dignity, a trace of rakish self-satisfaction which as a rule escaped the attention of his clients; but, here and there, a student of human nature found it delightfully whimsical. Sometimes it appeared that this spice of egotism sprang from a blackguardly sense of humour that found joy in the abounding weaknesses and simplicity of the people he imposed upon, but, on the other hand, it would be sufficient to show that Mr. Crips was inspired only with gross selfishness or to comprehend that the stability of society depends upon fair dealing and faithful labour.
Nevertheless there were occasions when Nickie the Kid deliberately undertook to earn his daily bread. For a week he served as waiter in a six penny restaurant. He had been a "super" in drama and a practical crocodile in pantomime and was long in the employ of a fashionable undertaker as second in command on the hearse. In this latter billet he had to keep his hair dyed a presentable black, but otherwise the duties were light, and Nickie might still have been useful mute, only that he had the misfortune to get drunk at the funeral of an eminent politician and behaved himself in a way obnoxious to the other mourners.
Some credit must be given to Crips for the above in view of the fact that he had long, since discovered how unnecessary work was to a man free of prejudices and unhampered with conscience. Every man should be master of his own conscience, and the exactions of conscience should be subordinate to the needs of the body. That was a large part of Nickie's philosophy, and he had acted up to it with marked success, but this morning housewives were incredulous and tough, and our hero was faring badly.
He entered the yard of Ebonwell, the chemist, and was about to knock, when his eye fell upon a well-worn Gladstone bag full of small bottles. In the course of long experience as a beat, Nickie had learned the value of prompt action. He gently snapped up the bag, and jauntily to the gate. Here he collided with a female entering in a hurry.
"Was yeh wantin' anythin', mister?" said the woman suspiciously.
"Good morning, madam," said Nickie, with unction. "Can I tune your piano this morning?" His manner was most courteous, he smiled kindly, but he did not invite attention to the bag.
"No yeh can't," snapped the woman, "an' a good reason why—coz we ain't got a pianner to toon."
"A pity," said Nickie, suavely, "a pity, madam. No home should be without the refining influence of good music."
The woman passed in as Nickie passed out, and the latter looked back over the gate, and said, "Good morning, lady," with profound respect.
Nickie must have forgotten all about his weak heart; the dash he made out of that right-of-way, across the street, down a second right-of-way, and into a public garden, would not have discredited a trained pedestrian. An hour later Mr. Crips was seated in a secluded spot on the river bank, taking stock. He possessed one very second-hand black bag and four dozen four-ounce bottles. The Kid's intention in the first place had been to dispose of the loot at the nearest marine store, but Nickie was a man of ideas, and one had come to him there in his loneliness. He hid his bag of bottles, and wandered into the city. After several misses he succeeded in begging sixpence to buy cough drops for his influenza.
He paid threepence for the cough drops at a convenient hotel, and took them in bulk. With his change he purchased threepence worth of small corks. Back at the Yarra Nickie the Kid dissolved one of three gingernuts he had taken from the bar lunch in a two pound jam tin of river water, and started to fill his bottles. He filled one dozen.
Having explained to a small knot of brother professionals that he needed change of air and scenery, Nickie the Kid started out of town that afternoon. We next discover him seated under a spreading gum in a pleasant sweep of sunny landscape at Tarra, with his trousers in his hands, carefully and systematically repairing and renovating the same. The frock coat had been "restored," the rag cap was abandoned in favour of a limp bell-topper, contributed by the family of a benevolent clergyman, and the tan boots were artistically blacked with stove polish. Nickie the Kid warbled at his work with the innocent gaiety of a bird.
It was not yet sundown, and Nicholas Crips was clothed, and stood with his black Gladstone in his right hand, prepared for the campaign. He had had a clean shave, and his face had a sort of calm dignity touched with benevolence. He turned round, examining himself, and the coat-tails floated gracefully in the breeze.
"Eminently satisfactory," said Mr. Crips. "And now for business." He cleared his throat, as if about to commence an oration, and set off at a smart pace towards the farm-house whose chimneys peeped over the hill.
A dog barked surlily as Nickie passed up the garden walk, but Nickie knew the character and quality of dogs, no beat better, and he recognised this one as harmless to man. A woman came to the door, wiping her fat, red arms on a canvas apron.
"A very good day to you, madam," said Mr. Crips, lifting his belltopper with some grace, and bowing slightly. "I have taken the liberty of calling upon you to bring under your attention my celebrated medicine—Dr. Crips's Healing Mixture, for coughs, colds, consumption indigestion, biliousness and all bronchial complaints."
He took a bottle from his bag and shook it invitingly, his voice was respectful and very persuasive, but by no means subservient. Nickie's voice was his most valuable possession; it had a note so winning, so appealing, that it was only with strong effort that ordinary people could resist it.
"No," said the woman, "we ain't got any o' them complaints."
"Headache, earache, toothache, lumbago, Bright's disease?" said Nickie, suggestively.
"No." The woman shook her head. "We ain't got nothin' in the 'ouse but rhoomertism in me ole man's back. He's bin laid up three weeks with it."
"Dr. Crips's Rheumatic Balm!" exclaimed Nickie, with decision, restoring the first bottle to the bag, and producing another of exactly the same mixture. "Cures rheumatism in two hours. Gives instant relief in cases of neuralgia and sciatica. A little to be rubbed on the affected parts night and morning."
The woman took the bottle, examined it closely, shook it up, and said, "It looks good."
"It's invaluable, madam," replied Nickie, with quiet conviction. "No family should be without it. Two shillings, if you please."
The woman took a bottle, and when leaving, Nickie the Kid turned and said, "I shall be back this way in a week, and shall do myself the honour of calling on you for a testimonial, if I may?"
At the next farm-house Nickie had a man to deal with. The man began by wanting to throw Dr. Crips over the fence, and ended by buying a bottle of his Infallible Hair Restorer, and paying him half-a-crown for professional advice in the case of a brown cow afflicted with mumps.
Nickie the Kid had put in the busiest day of his varied career, and here he rested from his labours. With six and six in his pocket he could afford luxuries. That night he slept in a bed at the Harrow Hotel, and next morning breakfasted on grilled bacon and boiled eggs. Before leaving, he sold the publican two bottles of the world-famous Healing Mixture as a pick-me-up.
On the second day the doctor set out to cover as much ground as possible. He was astute enough to recognise the wisdom of moving on before his customers had time to compare notes. Before noon, he sold six bottles of the Healing Mixture for influenza, two bottles of the Rheumatic Balm, and one bottle of the same as a certain cure for a peculiar disorder in pigs.
Nickie was going along the main road, heading north, branching off to the farm-houses by the way to sell his cure-all. He sold one guileless housewife a bottle, assuring her that it would convert brass spoons into real silver. A little mercury in a rag helped this trifling deception. On the third day Nickie had to buy some gingernuts to make a fresh supply of the Healing Mixture, and bottles were running short. He saw fortune staring him in the face.
It was about eleven, and Mr. Crips was trudging contentedly along, the road, swinging his bag and singing his tender lay, at peace with the world, and buoyed with great hopes, when a trap drove up and a voice out of the accompanying dust said:—
"That's 'im. That's the bloke!" A man jumped down and advanced to Nickie, and laid hands on him.
"You're that doctor bloke what's selling the Rheumatic Balm, ain't yeh?" he asked.
Nickie said nothing. Retribution had overtaken him. He knew that. His fair dreams fell from him, he sighed deeply, and philosophically, as was his wont, abandoned himself to the inevitable.
There were two young men in the trap. They hoisted Nickie to the seat behind, and drove on. No explanation was offered, and Mr Crips expected none. They would come, he imagined, along with the familiar penalties. One of the young men did remark, with cheerful enthusiasm: "You're in fer it all right, blokie," but Nickie the Kid only sighed.
Crips recognised the farm-house they drove to as that of the farmer with rheumatism in the back, his first customer. One young man ran in with the news, and presently reappeared in company with a large, elderly, energetic man, who was crying, excitedly: "Where is he? Bring him to me!"
This large man dashed at Nickie the Kid, and fell on him bodily. He was followed by the housewife who purchased the Rheumatic Balm, and she also fell upon Nickie, who put up a short prayer. But to the doctor's immense surprise he found presently that he was not being assaulted, but hugged, that it was not curses, but blessings the old couple were showering upon his head.
"Lor love yeh, I'll never forget yeh fer this," cried the farmer.
"Come inside an' have a bit to eat," exclaimed his wife.
The pair literally dragged Nickie into the house and dumped him down at a loaded table. He was waited upon by a rather nice-looking girl of twenty.
"This is him, Millie," said the farmer, with enthusiasm. "This is Dr. Crips what cured yer old dad. Gord bless you, sir."
The girl shook Nickie by the hand, and smiled on him sweetly, and said she could never forget the man that cured her dear pa, and all Nickie's happiness and his great content came back to him like refreshing waters. Dr. Crips stood up straight, he shook hands enthusiastically with farmer Dickson.
"So the Rheumatic Balm has set you up again?" he said, heartily.
"Hasn't it, by gum! Look at this." The farmer capered about the room. "Every bit o' pain's gone. I'll buy every drop of that balm you've got. That's why I had you brought back. But sit down, and eat, man—eat!"
They simply squandered hospitality on Nickie the Kid that night; they had neighbours in to see him; they had music, and Dr. Crips sang, and danced, and drank, and made love to Miss Dickson out under the elderberries. Out under the elderberries, for the edification of Millie Dickson, Nicholas Crips was a medical man of high attainments, but the victim of extraordinary vicissitudes. It was very touching, most romantic. Nickie lied with great splendour. He displayed no little aptitude in the character of Don Juan too. Miss Dickson thought him a perfect dear.
Returning to the house for supper, Nickie and the ingenuous Millie loitered by the open kitchen window, and Nickie saw and heard things of no little interest to him professionally. Farmer Dickson and three neighbours were comparing bottles of Dr. Crip's Celebrated Healing Mixture.
"Anyhow," said one, "I'll swear his nibs sold me this ez a cure fer pip in chickens."
"And he told me this was a dead sure cure fer corns 'n' ingrowin' toe-nail," ejaculated another.
"I bought this bottle fer me diabetes," explained Coleman. "He said it ud root out diabetes in nine hours."
Farmer Dickson shook his bottle, and looked at it very dubiously. "It seems t' me it's all the same mixture," he said. "It looks like it, tastes like, 'n' it smells like. Now I come t' think iv it, I ain't too sure 'bout these blanky rheumatics o' mine." He reached down his back and rubbed himself anxiously.
"I thought my diabetes was a-movin', but they're all back at me agin," said Coleman.
"The chicken died what I gave the mixture to," explained Anderson.
Dickson scowled and felt himself, for as far as he could reach up and down his spine. "I'm pretty certain the rheumatics 're comin' back," he murmured. "Wow!" he gasped, as a bad twinge took him. "It is back!"
"Tell yeh what," Anderson remarked plaintively, "we've been done."
"He's a blanky fraud!"
"Let's look him up, 'n' 'ave a word or two."
The farmers seized their sticks. They moved towards the door, but already Nickie had begged to be excused, and passed into the night. The stillness and mystery of the bush enveloped him.
Next day the neighbours compared notes and bottles, and found that the medicine for influenza, consumption, liver disease, indigestion and cold feet, the embrocation for rheumatism, sprains, corns, bruises and headaches, the cure for pigs, the wash for silvering spoons, and the hair-restorer were all the same mixture. Then a great popular demand for Dr. Crips set in at Tarra, but by this time Nickie the Kid was back in town, amazing his friends with his lavish hospitality in threepenny bars.
A FAMILY MATTER.
EVEN Nickie's intimates of the wharves and the river banks knew nothing of his ancestors or relations. Nickie was naturally reticent about his own business; On the point of family connections he was dumb. It was assumed that he had had a father and mother at some stage of his career, but the evolution of Nickie the Kid from a schoolboy, with shining morning face, to a homeless rapscallion, living on his impudence, was never dwelt upon by our hero, which is a great pity, as the process of degeneration must have been highly interesting.
Certainly, Nickie did not regret his respectable past, if he were ever respectable, and it is equally certain that he had no craving for high things in the way of tall hats and two-storey houses. He appreciated the value of money, since it enabled him to gratify his tastes, but it must be admitted his tastes were scandalous in the main.
However, at Banklands Nickie solicited work, laborious and painful work. Moreover, he went to the job of his own free will, when sober and in his right mind. This seemed to imply an awakening of conscience, a dawning sense of his utter uselessness to the body politic, and a desire to figure as a useful member of society. On the other hand, it may have been a symptom of brain-softening. But it happened to be neither; it was in fact a means to a wicked end. On the fading end of a superior suburb, where the streets of fine villas and mansions thinned off and dwindled, and were lost among the gum trees of the original wilderness, Nickie found his billet.
The suburb was coming ahead. The motor-car had made it easy and accessible to the rich. Splendid dwellings were going up all over the place, the road makers were exceedingly busy, and hammers of the stone-knappers rattled an incessant fusillade.
Nickie the Kid came to Banklands one pleasant summer day, watched the busy people with a desultory sort of interest, and moralised within himself.
"Do these people expect to live a thousand years?" mused Mr. Crips, "that they build such solid houses? Or do they regard them as monuments? Look at that palace, and I sleep well on a potato sack under four boards!"
Nickie was examining a fine, white house, ornate as a wedding cake, with plentiful cement, and balconies as frivolous as those of a Chinese pagoda. It stood within capacious grounds, and proclaimed aloud the fact that its proprietor was a rich man, ostentatious of his riches.
"I expect there's a matter of thirty rooms in that house," mused Nicholas Crips, "and after all, a man can get just as drunk in a threepenny bar."
Nickie put in a couple of days skirmishing at Banklands, and fared well, but as there was no hotel in the suburb Nicholas did not contemplate making a lengthy stay. Something he saw on the second afternoon induced him to change his mind, and threw him into a state of profound reflection lasting for nearly an hour; then he sauntered over to the man working on the pile of stones before the gates of the cemented mansion, and seating himself on the broken metal, entered into conversation with the two-inch mason wielding the hammer.
"Pretty hard work this," ventured Nicholas.
"Blanky hard," assented the stonebreaker.
"Did you ever try the softening influence of beer?" asked Nickie, drawing a bottle from his pocket.
"Well, I won't make yeh force it on me," said the stonebreaker.
They divided the liquor like brothers dear, and the stonebreaker developed a sudden affection for Nicholas Crips, who after twenty minutes casual conversation, introduced his plea.
"Must be splendid exercise for the liver, stoneknapping," he said. "I've been troubled with liver complaint lately. Living too high. Could you give a man a job?"
"Well," said the breaker, "I got a sorter contrac' t' break so many yards. If you'll do it at bob a yard you can get gain' on the other end iv th' 'eap."
The price was far below current rates for cutting metal, but Nickie was not penurious and grasping. He threw off his tattered coat, and, draped in fragments of a shirt, in a pair of trousers, half of which fluttered in the breeze, and boots that looked like a collection of fragments, he set to work.
Certainly Nicholas Crips did not show any disposition to work himself to death. After an hour his employer told him he wasn't likely to earn enough to keep a rag-gatherer in toilet soap, but Nickie explained again that he was merely exercising his liver, and had no intention of making an independence as a breaker of road metal.
Nickie's heap was right opposite the great, fanciful iron gates of the cemented residence. He could see the well-kept garden and the showy house from where he worked, and he frequently ceased his half hearted rapping at the tough stone to watch children playing on the lawn. He was particularly interested in a tall, 'severe-looking, fair-haired woman, who appeared on the balcony for a moment.
Mr. Crips had been at work for about three hours, during which time he had perspired a good deal and gathered much dust, for Nickie was habitually easy going, and his task, although pursued with no diligence, had "taken it out of him" to some extent. He was certainly a deplorable scarecrow. A fine, polished carriage, with rubber tyres, drawn by a splendid pair of chestnuts, was driven down the side drove by a livened menial. It drew up near the centre gates, and Nickie leaned on his hammer and waited.
The tall, dignified lady, accompanied by a short, important man in immaculate black, came along the path, and approached the open door of the vehicle. Nickie advanced carelessly, and intercepted them. He bowed grotesquely.
"Good day, Billy," he said, familiarly. He lifted his hat pointedly to the lady. "'Ow's yerself Jinny?" he asked.
The lady and gentleman stared at him in utmost astonishment for a moment, then consternation seized them, and they made a dive for the vehicle. Nickie followed to the door.
"So long, if yer mus' be goin', Willyum," he said, pleasantly. "So long, Jinny. How's the old man's fish business?"
"Drive on!" gasped the gentleman. He had the scared expression of one who had seen a spectre.
The liveried menial whipped up, and the carriage was swept away. Nickie returned to his heap, and for fully two minutes Stub McGuire, his employer, gazed at him in speechless, open-mouthed amazement.
"Well, of all the blarsted cheeks!" gasped McGuire, when speech came to him.
"Don't mention it," said Nickie.
"Don't mention it!" yelled Stub. "No, iv course not, but what price his nibs in the noble belltopper mentionin' it t' th' Johns, an' gettin' you seven days fer disgustin' behaviour?"
Nickie smiled inscrutably, and continued his work. When the carriage returned, he made an adroit movement, and courteously opened the door.
"'Low me, Jinny, my dear," he said, offering his grimy hand.
The lady stepped down, and passed him disdainfully. The gentleman brushed him aside.
"'Ope yeh 'ad er pleasant ride in yer cart, Billy?" said Nicholas.
He followed them to the gate, and called through the bars.
"Very sorry, Jinny, but I carn't haccept yer pressin' invitation ter dinner, havin' er previous engagement."
He returned to his work again, smiling sweetly. He seemed to enjoy Stub McGuire's horror.
"'Ere, 'ere," said McGuire, "off this job you go if you don't know better than to insult people that way. You'll be gettin' me inter mischiff."
"Not at all," said Nickie, "not at all. Surely a man may offer ordinary civilities to his friends. Bless my soul, you wouldn't have me cut old Billy in the streets, would you? If I didn't speak to Jinny she'd think I was angry with her, and cry her eyes out. She has a tender heart, poor girl. She is a sensitive soul, and craves for social distinction. She looks to me to secure them a footing in exclusive circles, Mr. McGuire."
"I don't know what y're talkin' about," Stub grumbled, "but that's enough of it, see?"
Nickie took no notice of his employer's admonitions, however, and when a clergyman drove up in a buggy an hour later, our hero intercepted him at the gate.
"Good afternoon, sir," he said. "Would you mind tellin' Willyum inside there how Nickie sends him his compliments, and 'opes Jinny's quite well."
"My good fellow, you must not be insolent," ejaculated the minister.
"They won't take it as hinsolence," Nicholas explained. "They've er very touchin' regard fer me. Tell them. I arsked after 'em, won't yer?"
Even Stub McGuire noticed that Nickie, whose speech was usually excellent, adopted the vulgar tongue in addressing the man he called Billy, or any of his friends or relations.
Next day, Nickie inveigled three children, who were playing on the lawn, and entertained them at the gate with frivolous conversation for nearly ten minutes, when the state of affairs was discovered by their dignified mamma, who sent a maid flying to the rescue. Nickie took off his hat to the maid.
"Tell Willyum," he said, "that bein' 'andy, I'll drop in ter lunch t' day, but Jinny's not on no account t' put up a big spread fer me. I'll jist take what's goin'."
He finished these remarks at the top of his voice, the girl being half-way back to the house.
When the important man in immaculate black came out a little later, Nickie saluted him gravely, as between gentlemen, but without deference.
"'Ow's it, Billy?" he said. "You might drop in an' see me this evenin'. I'm livin' under th' blackberry hedge back o' your stables."
The stout man passed in silence, and with a great show of dignity. Nickie had a busy afternoon. Evidently it was the dignified lady's "day." Quite a crowd of people drove up to the gates during the afternoon, and Nickie entrusted each with an affectionate and familiar message to Jinny. All were horrified at the insolence of the disgusting man, and one young fellow kicked Mr. Crips, but our' hero did not seem to mind. He merely warned his assailant that he would issue a County Court writ for any damages done to his trousers.
On the following morning at about 11 o'clock Nickie entered the grounds, his rags fluttering in the breeze, marched to the door and rang the bell. To the Napoleonic man-servant who opened to him, he gravely presented a tomato can half-full of water, and said:
"Will yer please arsk Bill or Jinny if they'll be so good as to bile my billy at the drorin'-room fire. Tell 'em it's Nicholas Crips what makes the request. No, thanks, I won't come in, I'm afraid my motor car might bolt."
The Napoleonic man-servant threw Nickie off the verandah, and threw his billy after him, but this did not deter Nicholas from an attempt to enter into familiar conversation bearing on family matters, when he found the dignified lady in a summer house.
The lady glared at him in stony horror. "How dare you?" she ejaculated. "How dare you?"
"Why, what's wrong, Jinny, old girl." asked Crips innocently, assuming a lounging attitude in the doorway. "You find the togs I'm wearin' a trifle too negligee, so to speak. They're quite the thing in our set."
"Let me pass!" ejaculated the lady with crushing hauteur.
Nickie was not impressed. He smiled, and continued dreamily: "My word, things have moved with you, Jinny. You're gone up like er rocket in er reg'lar blaze iv glory, but I can still see yeh in the old shop days. You blazed then too, old girl. It wasn't with di'monds, 'twas fish scales, but you blazed. You could alwiz put on dog. You sold flathead, Jinny, but I give the devil his due—you did it like a duchess."
At this point the Napoleonic footman intervened again. He took Nickie by his rags and the nape of his neck, and running him tip-toe out of the garden, tumbled him headlong on the grass-grown roadside. Nickie rejoined Stub McGuire quite unconcerned.
"That's a new society game, my friend," he said. "The flunkey scored ten points."
A few hours later the proprietor of the cement mansion came to his gate, and beckoned Nicholas Crips off the heap. Nickie the Kid responded with alacrity, and Stub McGuire gazed in cow-like wonder while the two discussed matters in the gateway.
Nickie was calling him "Bill," "Billy," and "Willyum," indiscriminately. Stub nearly fainted when he saw the gentleman draw a bank-note from his pocket, and hand it to Nicholas Crips. Nickie lifted his deplorable hat, and said:
"So long, Bill. I'm sorry I can't come an' stay a month. Some other time, perhaps."
The gentleman went in, and slammed the gate behind him. Nickie returned to the heap, and picked up his coat and donned it.
"I'm handing in my resignation, Mr. McGuire," he said. "You are welcome to my earnings, as I intend to live on my means—temporary at least." He held up the note.
"A tenner!" gasped McGuire.
"A tenner!" replied Nicholas, "presented by the kind gentleman on condition that I emigrate from this suburb and absent myself permanently. The worst thing about rich relations, Stub, is that they want whole suburbs to themselves; the best is that you can make them pay for the privilege of exclusiveness."
THE MASK BALL.
NICKIE the Kid only observed his agreements and kept honourable promises so long as some material advantage flowed from his complaisance. Within a month he was again haunting the vicinity of the white mansion. One night he leaned against the fence and watched a procession of guests alighting from their vehicles. Splendid motors dashed up, and loads of gaily-dressed ladies and gentlemen quaintly caparisoned were discharged at the great iron gates, and went trooping up the path to the flaring white residence, blazing like a crystal palace in a fairy tale.
Nickie was not exactly envious, but looking through the iron railing at the gay array of lanterns in the vast garden, and the glowing mansion, and hearing the hubbub of cheerful voices and the laughter, he had a dawning sense that respectability, especially well-to-do respectability, had its compensations after all.
He walked to the gate for a better view, and discovered a strange object lying on the path. It was a false nose, a large, red, boosy nose, with, a length of elastic to hold it in its place. One of the guests had dropped it. Nickie put it on in a waggish humour, and stood moralising as three pretty Spanish dancers, in charge of a toreador, passed in.
Nickie loved gaiety, waster and rapscallion as he was—sunshine, colour, flowers, beautiful women, life, music and laughter shook passions loose within him. Another little kink in his brain might have made a poet of him, just as the smallest turn of chance might have made a deadbeat of almost any poet of parts.
Mr. Crips actually sighed over that vision of fair women, and longed to be that happy toreador.
"Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we, too, into the dust descend: Dust unto dust, and under dust to lie, Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End."
The quotation had just escaped our hero lips when a young fellow garbed as Romeo, alighting from a hansom, dashed into him.
"By Jove, that was dooced awkward of me—yes, I beg your pardon, I'm sure. Should have looked where I was going—what? said Romeo.
"Not at all," answered Nickie politely. "My fault in blocking the path. My fault, entirely."
"By Jo-o-ve!" gasped Romeo; "that's a stunnin' make-up, old chap—what? Nevah saw a bettah, by gad."
"Make-up?" said Nicholas. Mr. Crips had for gotten his false nose.
"Ya-as," said Romeo. "Your character, you know. A fellah 'd think you'd just come from sleeping in a rubbish bin. Yes. Best Weary Willie I've seen. But aren't you coming in, dear boy? You're a cart for Dolly's prize for best-sustained character, eh?"
"Presently—presently." said Nicholas, smitten with a sudden idea. "Waiting for a friend, you know."
Romeo went up the garden path, and Nickie the Kid retired under the shadow of the hedge to allow his thoughts to revolve. Romeo's words had suggested possibilities. Mr. Crips rarely wasted time making up his mind. Three minutes later he was sauntering jauntily up the garden path on the heels of a laughing Red Indian set.
It was a fancy dress ball. All the guests were masked or otherwise disguised. Nickie had never encountered a softer thing. He determined to make a night of it at the expense of the host of "White-cliff." To avoid unpleasantness at the door, Nickie boldly climbed up the trellis of a vine, and entered the noisy crowded ballroom through an open window, rolling head over heels among the guests.
His appearance provoked a shout of laughter. This was the proper way for a tramp to enter such a house. It was accepted as a quaint effort of humour. Weary Willie was applauded, and his appearance, when he rose to his feet, occasioned fresh merriment.
The "make-up" of Mr. Crips was certainly very effective, but with the exception of the false nose it was nothing but his ordinary habit. He wore a pair of old grey trousers, lashed up with one brace, and belted with a strip of red material; between the fringed legs of this garment and his broken canvas shoes the tops of socks, one white, the other plaid, were plainly visible. The fact that they were only tops, and not whole socks, was not to be missed, as they had worked up, and an inch of bare ankle protruded. Nickie's coat was an old black Beaufort, from which two buttons' hung on grey threads, which was split half-way up the back, and from below the tails of which fluttered strips of torn lining. He wore no vest, and had on a woman's faded pink print blouse as a shirt. He had a linen collar that had long since lost all claims to whiteness and all pretence of dignity, and his hat was a small round boxer, with scarcely any rim. On one of the buttons of his Beaufort hung a strip of ordinary sugar bag, on which he had written with a stub of pencil the word "Program."
Mr. Nicholas Crips looked the part to the life. He had not shaved for a week, and his lank hair was reaching out in all directions from under his ridiculous hat, and from various strands dangled fragments of his last couch under the boat shed. Nickie had nothing of the painted, unconvincing theatrical accessories of the usual fancy dress tramp; he looked real, and his success was instantaneous and complete.
I have endeavoured to show that Mr. Crips was not a diffident man; he did not distress himself with scruples; fear of failure in an enterprise of this kind never worried him. He walked across the grand ball-room, swaggering in his rags, lifted his hat to a Watteau shepherdess who was laughing at him from a settee in a recess, and said:
"Would yer darnce with er poor man, kind lydie?"
Again the crowd laughed. A tall Mary Queen of Scots peered at Nickie through her lorgnette, and said.
"How very whimsical!" The little shepherdess was a merry spirit, and bowed willingly. Nickie wrote "Milk Made" on his absurd programme, and the quaintly assorted pair joined in the waltz. How, where and when Nickie the Kid had learnt to dance Heaven knows, but he waltzed well, and after that he danced with Mary Stuart in a set.
He was particularly attracted by Mary Stuart. She was a fine woman and the rakish Nicholas had a discriminating eye where the sex was concerned. Mary had a bold eye too, and a breezy manner. She took great joy in the tramp.
A feature of Nickie's very humorous and original impersonation of the Yarra-banker was his waggish begging. When he had danced, before leaving his partner, he assumed a most lugubrious manner, and said:
"Dear lydie, would you kindly assist a pore decayed gent, what's got a bedridden wife an' nine starvin' children, all twins? Just a copper, lydie. The bailiffs is in, lydie, an' if I don't take 'orne nine-pence for the rent they'll seize ther kerosene case, an' ther flour-sack, and ther rest iv ther drorin-room furniture, kind lydie."
A gay vivandiere led Nickie to a portly Henry VIII. "Sire," she said, "this poor man claims king's bounty for his three sets of triplets. I humbly commend him to your majesty."
"Just a trifle to assist a poor man, kind gent," whined Nickie the Kid. "Not a morsel iv turkey's passed me lips for seven days. Just a few pence, sir, to buy champagne fer me widders and orphans. I don't care about meself, kind sir."
King Henry promptly dropped half-a-crown into Nickie's hat. Two, or three laughing guests standing about contributed silver. There was an impression in the ballroom that the sum of the quaint tramp's collection would go to a charity. None but Nickie himself knew the charitable object to which the money was to be devoted.
Nickie danced with all sorts and conditions of women. Romeo slapped him on the back.
"Splendid, deah boy!" he said. "We been thrown together, you know. Ran' into you at the gate—what? By gad, you're doin it well. But I say, who the devil are you?"
"I'm Willie' the Waster, kind young gentleman, and I'm residin' under No. 3 wharf, fifth plank from the corner. Would yer give er trifle towards me time-payment furniture, please, sir."
Romeo contributed a shilling. "You're a sport," he said. "They're all on to you. Dolly herself's delighted. Yes, you're right as rain for the prize, but you might put me on—what?"
"I'm feather-legged Ned, with ther consumptive corf," said Nickie. "Would you please give me a shillin' t' pay fer me medicine?"
"No, dash me if I do!" said Romeo, and he went off laughing.
Nickie took champagne with Sir Peter Teazie, Rip Van Winkle, Slender, and Henry VIII., and under the influence of the good wine became more audacious. He passed the hat with a characteristic complaint wherever a few guests were assembled, and in view of the vast amusement he was giving was allowed any license in reason. The offerings of the charitable he deposited in the tail pocket of his coat, and presently the weight dragged at him with a grateful pressure, and the silver clanked as he walked. Fortune was not actually staring him in the face, but it was hanging on behind.
By one o'clock in the morning Nickie was carrying round a champagne bottle in his left hand, from which he refreshed himself, and he was no longer able to walk a chalk line as wide as a tram with an certainty, and had got into the way of clinging to the curtains and hangings; but this was all accepted as part of an excellent piece of caricature, and earned our hero some applause.
Just before supper a lady, dressed as Portia, came forward, and pinned a neat design of gold laurel leaves and emeralds on the breast of Mr. Nicholas Crips. It was the prize for the best sustained character, which the host had offered his guests in a frivolous mood. Nickie bowed in acknowledgment of applause, and then, with the bottle in one hand, and his hat in the other, he appealed to Portia.
"Could you spare a copper, kind lydie, to assist a poor orphan what's laid up with lumbago in the feet. I've bin bed-ridden fer ten years, lydie, and I lost both me legs in th' battle of Waterloo. On'y a penny for the battered 'ero good, kind lydie."
At supper Nickie declined to unmask. He would not remove his preposterous false nose. He also excited doubts and misgivings by the depth of his thirst and his almost miraculous capacity for food. After supper he was simply impossible.
Nicholas Crips in his sober moments was quiet and unpretentious in his rascalities, his temperament was naturally mild; but under the influence of strong drink he always developed tremendous belief in his own magnificence, strutted about and fondly fancied himself a king. He was wholly and completely drunk when he charged into the ballroom at two in the morning, brandishing a full bottle, and singing uproariously. He staggered into the middle of the dancers, whirling his magnum.
"Room" he cried. "Room, there, for King Solomon in all his glory" He whirled his bottle again, and the dancers broke before him. A Sir Toby Belch got the thick end of the bottle in his natural fatness, and collapsed with a groan. "Remove the body!" ordered Nickie, magnificently. "D'ye hear me, there, minions? Remove these offensive remain from the royal presence."
The guests had retreated against the walls, and Nickie held the floor. Nobody believed this to be an artistic effort to sustain the character. Weary Willie was as drunk as a lord. He tittered a wild Indian whoop, and sang the chorus of "at the Old Bull and Bush," beating time with a leg of turkey. Then he turned to the band.
"Play 'God Shave King'." he said. "If yeh don' play 'Go' Shave King' I'll have ver heads off 'fore mornin'."
King Henry interposed, he put a restraining hand on Nickie, and spoke soothingly to him and Nickie the Kid promptly knocked the poor monarch on the head. Then rude hands seized Nickie: he was rushed from the house; he was rushed down the path, and hurled into the street.
When all the guests had left the white mansion at Banklands, and daylight was streaming in, a weary man-servant interviewed the master of "Whitecliff."
"Please, sir," he said; "the—eh—gentleman who was thrown out last night."
"Well, what of him?" asked the host, disgustedly.
"He's sleeping in the garden, sir."
The host went out. He found Nickie the Kid sleeping in the Pansy bed, and Nickie was pulled to his feet.
"Nicholas!" he gasped.
"That'sh me, Willie," answered Nicholas Crips.
"You blackguard, you intrude into my house and insult my guests, and you promised when I gave you that last L10 never to interfere with me again."
"Now Willie, Little Willie," said Nickie, "when did I ever keep my promises?"
"Leave my grounds or I'll give you over to the police!"
"Chertainly," said Nickie. "Chertainly, I'll leave the grounds. There's always room for me outside."
He took the skirt off his coat, heavy with the contributions of the guests, in his hand, and strolled joyously through the gate.
"Ta-ta," he said. "Good-bye, Billy, dear ole Billy, dear, old, fat-headed, bumptious Billy!"
Feeling like a king, Nickie the Kid passed down the road, and the morning sun glittered on the emblem on his breast. He was still sustaining the character.
A TEMPORARY REFORMATION.
NICKIE the Kid presented himself at the front door of a decorous villa in an intensely respectable suburb, with sad story. Mr. Crips did not address the lady as an unblushing mendicant, he spoke as a man of some refinement and keen sensibility, whose bitter complaint was literally dragged from him by adverse circumstances.
The lady was touched—her eye moistened.
"That is really very sad," she said. "Come right in, my poor man. You must tell your story to my James. James will know how to help you."
Nickie followed the lady without the smallest compunction. She knocked quietly at the door of a room and admitted Nicholas to a small apartment fitted up like a study. At a table near the window a grave young man was seated with writing materials before him.
"Well, mater" he said, "whom have we here? Another of your proteges?"
"I want you to listen to this poor fellow, James," said the lady, "his story will touch you as it has touched me. My poor man, this is my son, the Rev. James Nippit."
Nickie bowed with a grace that did not belong to his tramp's garments and his insanitary and unshaven state.
"Thank God. I have met you, sir," he said, in the voice of a strong man whose sorrows have about broken his proud spirit, "if your heart is as gentle as that of this sweet lady."
The lady withdrew, and the Rev. James Nippit, who had been eyeing Mr. Crips keenly, motioned hit to a chair.
"Be seated," he said, "and tell me your story."
"I am the only son of the Rev. Arthur Crips, of Bolton, Lancashire, England," said Nickie. "My father held a good living. He intended to make a doctor of me. He brought me up always with that intention, lavished much money on me, and from the time I was fourteen I understood I was to live the life of a gentleman. Before my education was completed my father died, and I found that he had been led into speculation and we were ruined. Not only ruined, but disgraced. The shock killed my mother. I came to Australia. Unwittingly, without a chance of saving myself, I sank and drifted till I found myself a mere tramp. For years I have been a tattered, unclean, despised outcast. Yesterday I heard you preach; I was outside under a window too despicable a creature to enter among you trim flock. Your sermon reminded me of what I was, showed me to myself, made the future horribly real to me. I was inspired to fight, to try and work myself out of the slough into which I have drifted, and I have come to you for help. I am here." Nickie the Kid opened his arms with a dramatic gesture—his face was very sad.
"Liar!" said the young clergyman looking Nickie straight in the eye. "Liar!" he repeated.
Nickie looked back into the eye of the clergyman. His face betrayed no amazement. For a moment it was grave, almost reproachful, and then it relaxed into a broad grin. The device had failed—there was no further occasion for subterfuge.
"Well," Mr. Crips admitted, "I don't pretend to be a George Washington. I may have been betrayed into errors of detail."
"It is as well you admit it," said the Rev. Nippit. "Because I did not preach yesterday."
"Very remiss of you," said Mr. Crips.
"And, furthermore, I remember you well. Two years ago I was on a charity committee that inquired into your case. You were then the son of a Queensland Judge, reduced to poverty by wild living, but anxious to return to respectable courses."
Nickie grinned again, and took up his hat. "It is as you say." he said, "a truly delicious morning for a stroll. I think I'll go and watch the grass grow. Good-day, Mr. Nippit."
The young clergyman arose and interposed between Nickie and the door. "You will stay where you are," he said. "Sit down."
Nickie sat down. He placed his hat very carefully on the carpet, folded his arms, and crossed his legs. "You are very kind," he said. "May I ask if a compulsory lunch goes with this unwarrantable detention?"
"That remains to be seen," replied James. "I am going to offer you your choice of two courses. You will either submit yourself to my deliberate intention of making a good, clean, respectable, industrious member of society of you, or you will walk out of this place into gaol."
Nickie's mind was made up instantly, but he did not capitulate in too great a hurry; he talked of conditions, and asked for details of his expected regeneration. The Rev. Nippit explained his belief that all men had in them the elements of decency, order and religion. Those elements only needed proper opportunities for development. He purposed giving Nickie the opportunities. He needed a handy man about the house; Nickie was to have the job. He would be expected to bathe every day, to shave every day, and observe the decencies of the well-ordered home.
"And you are prepared to believe you can reform me?" said Nickie the Kid.
"I am not only prepared to believe it—I am determined to believe it," said the young clergyman, thumping the table.
Nickie smiled again. "I submit myself to the experiment" he said, "but promise nothing. I don't think you will succeed. Your intentions are good, but mine are not, and it takes two to make a bargain."
Nickie entered his new duties at once. After lunch he took a shovel into the garden and toyed with the earth a while, and then he went to sleep under a tree. The Rev. Nippit awakened him and talked with him in a firm but kindly spirit on the virtues of honest dealings with one's employer, and the necessity of industry to keep the world wagging, Nickie' graciously admitted that it was all very true. But when set to clean out the fowl-house he sat on a stone and held converse with an educated cockatoo next door.
That evening, clean-shaven, freshly-bathed, dressed in a cast-off suit of James Nippit's, whole if slightly rusty, and robbed of its clerical significance, Nickie the Kid attended a religions function with his reverend employer. Nickie was orderly, wakeful and fairly attentive. When the plate came round he put threepence in, but he took a shilling out. It was a useful trick, taught him by an expert in the art of rigging the thimble and the pea. Nickie, when he had fairly good clothes, often attended church merely to practise it. To-night the exploit was more an act of unseemly and impious levity than a crime.
The Rev. Nippit had a theory which he believed would succeed with nine malefactors out of ten if exerted under fair conditions it was based on kindness, forebearance and the inculcation of excellent precepts.
It is distressing to have to report that Nickie took few pains to encourage his preceptor. He was lazy, he sometimes forgot to shave, he often forgot to bath, he was not always temperate; but the Rev. James bore it all with unconquerable patience. If Nickie was lazy, he talked with him like a brother of the twin virtues, industry and thrift; if he were unwashed, he explained to him that cleanliness was next to godliness: if he seemed to, have gazed too, long upon the wine when it was red, or the beer when it foamed in the bowl, the clergyman pointed out the advantage of strict sobriety, and earnestly besought Nicholas Crips to strive for higher things and the true light.
The Rev. James Nippit was not discouraged. He saw Nickie often clean, usually decently attired, generally fairly decent in his behaviour, and always respectful in his manner, and believed the seed of righteous was sprouting; but Nickie was living comfortably, he was being well fed and well bedded, and was careful not to over-exert himself in the pursuit of his duties; consequently, it was easy for him to maintain a certain show of decorum.
After Nickie the Kid had been under the tutelage of the Rev. James for about three weeks, the latter was puzzled to find that Mr. Crips was far from penniless. Now Nickie was paid nothing his services, but every week a small sum, representing his wages, was paid into the Savings Bank, and the deposit was to be transferred to him when he gave proof of complete and perfect regeneration. When asked to account for a bottle of whisky found in his room, and for a burst of inebriety that represented a good deal in spot cash, Nickie quibbled. The quibble was obvious even to an innocent soul like James. James was hurt, but he persisted.
Nickie was content to have the experiment continue, but he held out no great hopes. "You know," he said, "this is your scheme, not mine. You, as it were, forced me to submit. You said you'd reform me in spite of myself. Well, I am patient, and you are earnest, but we don't seem to make much progress."
For seven weeks the Rev. James Nippit continued experimenting and never once lost faith.
James Nippit's pet work was in connection with his reform movement, the Young Men's Mission, a design for upraising the youths of the larrikin and criminal classes. The Young Men's Mission had attracted some attention, people were found willing to contribute to the good work, and this fact gave rise to some imposition. Uncertified persons of bad character were found to be collecting for the fund and appropriating the money to their own use. This caused James much distress of mind.
One Sunday afternoon when driving from his Sunday School the Rev. Nippit was hailed by a trusted friend, who said:
"For the last ten minutes I have been listening to a man preaching on the sands down there. He represents himself as one of the leaders of the Young Men's Mission Movement, and I am confident he is an impostor. If he is, it is your duty to expose him."
The Rev. James took up the task eagerly. Leaving the buggy in charge of a small boy, the two gentle men joined the crowd, and James soon recognised that the speaker was delivering something very like a sermon of his own, but seasoning it with a sort of quaint, insolent humour, that suited the tastes of his hearers admirably. The crowd laughed and applauded.
"Brothers and sisters," said the speaker, "I have shown you that these young men must be divorced from the long-sleever, and rescued from the lures of the plump, peroxided barmaid, and the blandishments of Bung, the reprobate who runs the pub. I have shown you they must be turned from the joys of the 'pushes,' tobacco chewing, and stoushing in offensive Chinamen with bricks, and now I appeal to you for the means of doing things. Money is said to be the root of all evil, but it is also the means of much good. If we want to go to heaven, we must pay the tram fare. He who gives quickly gives twice, but it is better still to give twice and to give quickly."
As he spoke he moved among the people, taking up a collection in his hat, and the people responded liberally. He returned to his little eminence, and the Rev. James Nippit forced his way through the crowd, and confronted him, flushed, furious, over flowing.
"So," said James, "this is the reward of my kindness? This—"
Nickie was silent for a moment—for the preacher was Nicholas Crips, garbed in an old suit of his master's—then he turned calmly and said:
"This gentleman, brothers and sisters, is the Reverend James Nippit, the founder of our noble much desire to say a few words. I desire to say mission. He desires to say a few words."
"Yes, my good people," cried James, "I do very that the Young Men's Mission is one of the finest and most worthy institutions in this city to and to express the abhorrence I feel for those villains who make use of the credit the Mission has won for their own infamous purposes." He went on to explain how the Mission was being robbed, and wound up dramatically with the words: "And this man, this man at my side, this man who has addressed you in the guise of a minister, is one of the most wicked and detestable of the impostors."
But in consequence of his oratorical training, and his clergyman's inability to come quickly to a point the denunciation lost its effect, for Nickie was not at the speaker's side; he had gone. He had taken the Rev. James Nippit's buggy, and driven off, and he carried the collection with him.
The buggy was safe in the carriage-house when the Rev. James returned home, but Nickie was seeking fields and pastors new.
THE INCIDENT IN BIGGS'S BUILDINGS.
THE tall, spare man in rusty, clerical raiment was going from room to room in one of the huge, city buildings where Business people, gregarious as sparrows, nest in hundreds.
The tall, spare man was cleanly shaved, he wore a very white collar, his expression combined benignity with a certain ascetic calm. He carried two or three books in his left hand, pressed against his heart with a sort of caress, an affection very common with gentlemen of the cloth, for Nicholas Crips had a keen eye for character, and his various impersonations were fairly true to type, and of no mean dramatic quality.
Nickie the Kid knocked gently at an office door, a peremptory voice called "Come in," and he opened the door very softly, entered, closed the door very gently behind him, placed his crippled belltopper (rim uppermost) on the small counter that walled visitors off from the severe gentleman dictating to a blonde typewriter and said, with clerical unction.
"Good-day sir. Good-day my dear young lady."
"D-afternoon!" replied the severe gentleman severely.
"Sir. I am here on a mission of charity, if you don't mind. I am the Rev Andrew Rowbottom. I am collecting subscriptions for the widow and family of the late William John Elphinston, a worthy member of my congregation, and a most estimable bricklayers labourer, killed, as you may remember, in the execution of his duty on the 14th September last."
"Bless my soil, I can't be bothered with these matters in business hours," said the gentleman, and is severity was something terrible, but it did not appal the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom.
"I have here a subscription list," continued the intruder suavely. "You will find upon it the name of some of our most prominent business people."
"I'm busy." said the severe gentleman.
"Need I remind you, my very good sir, that the smallest contribution will be thankfully received?"
"Be so good as to close the door after you."
"Certainly, brother, all in good time. Shall we say half-a-crown? Half-a-crown is a nice sum. No? A shilling perhaps?"
"I suppose I shall have to pay for the privilege of being left in peace to the pursuit of my affairs. Here!!" The severe man slapped a shilling on the counter.
"Oh, thank you—thank you so much." said the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom effusively. "What name?"
"Confound the name!" snapped the severe gentle man. "Good-day."
"Oh, to be sure, to be sure—good—day," said the Rev. Andrew, and he smiled and bowed and slid I trough the half-open door.
Nicholas Crips called at many offices. In a few instances the occupants evaded a levy. They were people who had no particular business in hand, and could spare the time to hear all the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom persuasive arguments and stubbornly resist each plea, but the majority of the men were glad to buy the eloquent clergyman off with a small contribution. Sometimes office boys were impertinent, and an occasional business man was insolent and talked of throwing the suppliant out of the window, but Mr. Rowbottom was always suave and conciliatory. He seemed to sympathise with the angry individual whose privacy he was forced to break in pursuit of a sacred duty.
Nickie the Kid reached the fourth floor. It was very quiet, and most of the offices were deserted. He found a pale young typewriter, a slave of the machine, in a room rather larger than an alderman's coffin, and obtained threepence in coppers for the widow and family of the late lamented William John Elphinston. He passed along a dim passage, and came to one of the larger apartments fronting the main street. It was evidently one of a suite. On the door was a brass plate bearing the name. "Henry Berryman."
The Rev. Andrew Rowbottom knocked on his door a meek, appealing summons. He received no reply. Confident that he had heard a movement in the room Andrew knocked again. Still on answer. The Rev Andrew Rowbottorn turned the knob, opened the door a foot or so, and thrust his benignant countenance into the room.
The face when it first appeared to the occupant was lit with a smile, suffused with a tender benevolence, a moment later it was stark and white, drawn with horror, a horror that chilled the blood, and gripped at the heart with a hand of iron.
What the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom saw was a tall, handsome, fashionably-dressed woman of about thirty-six resting with her back to an office table, the position was crouching, her fingers clung to the table's edge; her eyes, large, dark, and instinct with mortal terror, were fixed upon the stranger in the doorway. At her feet was the body of a man, a stout man of perhaps forty. The body lay on its right side, the face turned to the floor, and from somewhere in the breast flowed a red stream that massed in a dark, clammy pool upon the slate coloured linoleum.
Nickie saw a faint, flutter of movement in the limbs of the man on the floor, and his eyes rose to the face of the woman again. Her dry tongue passed over her parched lips, she seemed to be making an effort to speak. On the table near her right hand was a knife.
Nicholas Crips slipped into the room, the door closed softly behind him. He had recognised the woman. She was his Mary Stuart of the Mask Ball. The man on the floor he remembered in the guise of Henry VIII.
For a terrible half-minute the two stared at each other over the dead man.
"You killed him!" whispered Nickie.
The woman tried to moisten her lips again, made an effort to speak, and her voice broke in her throat. She nodded dumbly.
"You-you-what are you going to do?" whispered the woman. "Why don't you call out?" There was a wild hope in her dilated eyes. "You don't! You don't!"
Nickie shook his head. "I don't run for the police?" he said. "No, I am not on speaking terms with the police myself."
"You won't seize me, you won't betray me—you, a clergyman!"
"No." said Nicholas Crips.
The woman moved forward, she laid hands upon him, she looked into his face.
"He was a villain." she said. "He deserved it, but I am a murderess, and you won't—" Her hands gripped him, a new light shone in her eyes.
"Why were you creeping in here?" she said. "You are a thief, That's it—you are a thief. Well, listen, there are five thousand pounds' worth of diamonds in a little leather bag in his breast pocket!" She pointed down at the body. "Five thousand pounds' worth," she said.
"Five thousand!" he gasped. "Five thousand!"
The woman's hand was on the door knob. She opened the door and slipped out. The lock clicked as she closed the door behind her.
A DEPARTURE INTO ART.
NICHOLAS CRIPS seated-himself on a warm stone, on a convenient boulder spread the contents of yesterday's "Age." The "Age" contents on this occasion was the lunch of Mr. Nicholas Grips. Nickie had been given the meal half-an-hour earlier by a kind soul in one of the suburbs, to whom he had pitifully presented his urgent need of sustenance of an inviting kind. Very adroitly Nickie the Kid had dwelt upon his necessities, while impressing the lady's with the eccentricities of a peculiarly capricious appetite.
It was the day after the distressing incident in Biggs's Buildings. Mr. Crips was no longer dressed in his clerical garments; they were carefully stowed away in a niche in a riverside quarry where he had long kept his wardrobe. To-day Nickie was dressed in the rags of a simple mendicant.
The strongly melodramatic adventure the previous day did not seem to distress Mr. Crips; he ate heartily, but had only reached his second course, which was represented by the chicken, when his attention was attracted by a very lean, very pale, hollow-eyed, sad stranger who had seated himself on a sloping tree nearer the river, and was eyeing the banquet hungrily.
Nickie the Kid, was not selfish. When his own needs were fairly met he could be generous with anybody's property, even his own. He tapped the chicken's breastbone invitingly with his penknife, and addressed the stranger.
"May I offer you a little lunch, sir?" he said urbanely, with quite the air of a generous host.
The long, lean man shook his head in mute melancholy, but accepted the invitation as an offer of friendship, and approached nearer, seating himself on a rock facing Nickie's banquet.
"No, thanks, boss," he said.
"You'll forgive me," said Nickie, after wrenching a mouthful from the back of the pullet, "but you look famished."
"I am," answered the stranger.
"Well, help yourself. These garlic sausage sandwiches are superb. Try the beer."
Nickie pushed his jam tin forward.
The other shook his head very regretfully.
"I mustn't," he said. "Fact is, my livin' depends on me not eatin', an' I've got a wife an' kiddies to support."
Nickie paused with the bottle half-way to his mouth.
"Your living depends on your not eating?" he ejaculated. "What, do you earn anything by starving, then? By Jove, that's a quaint idea."
"I earn all I get by starvin'. My name's Cann—Matty Cann, but I'm known professionally as Bony-part. Ain't yeh seen me advertisements up the main street? I'm drawed on a big poster outside Professer Thunder's Museum iv Marvels, I'm the livin' skelington."
"He isn't ruining himself with your upkeep," Nickie.
"No." replied the Living Skeleton. "I'm allowanced off an' I've got t' eat on'y what he gives me—that's in our contrac'. If I eat more an put on flesh out I go. There's a clause in ther contrac' what sez I'm li'ble t' be fired if goes above seven stone seven. The previous livin' skelington got the run at Barnip fer breakin' out. He was the only original. I'm just a sort iv understudy."
Nickie clicked his tongue sympathetically. "Well," he said, "you might pick a hone. That wouldn't be very fattening, and it might delude your stomach with the idea you were having something to eat."
Bonypart, the Living Skeleton, took the wish-bone with a few shreds of chicken on it.
"Thanks," he said, "it might be a comfort." He sucked the bone fondly.
"You said that Professor Thunder's only original living skeelton broke out at Barnip. What happened to him?"
"He went on the spree," said Matty Cann.
"Drink?" queried Nickie.
"No, food. He got at a bar spread in the Shire hall at Barnip, an' afore they missed him he ate enough fer ten Shire Councillors. He completely rooned that banquet. That was the third time he'd gone on th' spree, an' ther Perfesser 'ad warned him if it 'appened again he'd get the shoot."
Nickie the Kid grinned.
"It isn't a Profession that would suit me," he said. "I have an instinctive fondness for meals. I knew the travelling show' business was a hungry game but I never reckoned on starvation as a means of earning a livelihood."
"Oh. 'tisn't all bad." said Ronypart eagerly. "There's th' Missin' Link, fer instance; he a glutton. Blime, th' food that Missin' Link gets makes me lose all patience, an' sometimes I'd like t' get right up from my chair, an' bite him. He's in the 'ospital just now, sufferin' from his over—feedin'. It's a judgment on him."
"A monkey in the hospital!"
"Well, he ain't exactly a monkey. He was a man done up something like one o' them hoorang-hoo-tangs. Yeh see, part o' Perfesser Thunder's show is called the Descent of Man. It contains ten different kinds of monkeys, from Spider, a little cove 'bout th' size iv a rat, up t' Ammonia, what's a big griller. Th' Missin' Link, he comes next; but as I was sayin' he's out iv it just now, bein' ill, an' Perfesser Thunder ud give ez much ez two quid er week fee a good, reliable Missin' Link what wouldn't over-eat hisself." The Living Skeleton was allowing an inquiring eye to roam over Nickie the Kid.
"I was thinkin' yon was just bout th' build fer a Missin' Link," he said.
"What, me?" cried Nickie.
The Skeleton nodded, and Nickie was silent for a moment, lost in thought. It was very necessary that Nickie should sink his identity for a time. Here was a magnificent opportunity. "Has the Missing Link much to do?" he asked.
"No," replied Matty Cann. "He's just gotter he careful not t' over-eat hisseif, as I was savin'. Yeh see, people what come in t' th' show gives him buns, an' lollies an' things, an' if he's a glutton he' bound t' he knocked out."
"What else does he do?"
"Oh, prowls round in the cage."
"An' scratches hisself."
"That seems easy."
"Well, it all depends. If yer gifted that way it's easy enough, but real scratchin' an' natural growlin' takes a bit o' doin'."
"How's this?" asked Nickie.
He scratched himself in approved monkey style, hopped briskly over the stone, then sat up, and growled a deep, guttural growl.
"That's it—that's it, t' th' life!" cried Bonypart in amazed admiration. "Why, you're er natural born artist, that's what you are. If I could growl an' scratch like that I'd be a Missin' Link t'-morrer. No more living skelingtons fer me."
"Look here," said Nicholas Crips seriously, "how long does the Missing Link have to remain in the cage?"
"The show opens et one in th' afternoon, close at five, opens again at seven, an' closes et arf-pas ten."
"And has the Missing Link to be growling' and scratching all the time?"
"No, not all the time. If there ain't any people in he kin lie in er corner on th' stror under his blanket an' sleep, an' sometimes he kin stay lyin' on the stror when there's on'y a few people in, so long ez he growls a bit, an' stretches hisself. There's a lot in stretchin' hisself proper."
"Like this," said Nickie. He reached out one leg, clawed with his left hand, and yawned cavernously.
"Th' very identical," said Bonypart admiringly. "You was meant t' be a Missin' Link. Y'iv got all th' natural gifts, an' with th' proper hide drawn on over yeh, an' yer face made up a bit, nobody ud ever think you was anythink else but a true African Missin' Link, born an' bred."
"Are you quite sure the Missing Link has nothing else to do?" asked Nickie, cautiously.
"Positive, Missin' Links is scarce; they has pretty much their own way. Hold on—he's gotter 'aug a bit by one hand from a bar what goes through his cage, an' pretent to be sleepin'."
Nickie the Kid had a contemplative expression "Bless my soul," he said, "there are strange ways of earning a living, and I'm not sure that my way is the easiest after all."
He drained the bottle.
Professor Thunder's Museum of Marvels was established in a shop in Bourke Street, Melbourne. The shop window was curtained with large posters, one representing a tall man, very thin even for a skeleton, sitting at a table, tying knots in his limbs. The other pictured a strange, hairy monster, half human, half monkey, which was labelled "Darwin's Missing Link." On a kerosene case at the door stood Professor Thunder himself, appealing to the populace to pause and contemplate the "astonishin' marvellous pictorial representations," and assuring five small boys that these were "living, speaking likenesses" of the wonders within. "No deception, ladies and gents, no deception!" he cried.
Professor Thunder was his own "spruicher;" his eloquence was remarkable, his voice had the carrying power of a steam whistle, and the penetrating qualities of a circular saw. He was a quaint product of the show business, having been born in a museum and bred in an atmosphere of cheap theatricals.
"Step inside! Step inside! Step inside!" cried the Professor. "There you will behold our extraordinary educational collection of Nature's mysteries, known as 'The Descent of Man,' described by the nobility, the scientists, and the faculty as the most complete representation of man's descent from the apes ever presented to an intelligent audience. There you will behold Bonypart, the miraculous, the bone man who has mystified all the doctors and amazed millions. There you will behold Ephraim, the enlightened pig; Madame Marve, the unrivalled seer, and last, but not least, Mahdi, the Missing Link, pronounced by travellers, medical men, and Darwinian students to be the one and only authentic and reliable Missing Link discovered by mortal man. And the price is only sixpence. Step up! Step up!"
The people stepped up, and saw the living skeleton, a thin, long, melancholy man sitting on a chair, in limp tights, showing his bony knees; the educated pig, that did astonishing things at the bidding of Madame Marve; and the Descent of Man, represented by several monkeys of varying sizes, a gorilla, and the awe-inspiring Missing Link.
The cage of Mahdi, the Missing Link, was some what dark, and the terrible form of the mystery loomed in the dusk, heavy and formidable. He was as big as a man, somewhat lank, and covered with coarse hair the colour of cocoanut matting. This afternoon, when the early patrons entered, they found him hanging limply by one arm, like a great ungainly bat.
"The Missing Link always reposes in this manner in his native wilds," said Madame Marve, in the chaste tones she assumed when imparting valuable instruction "but he is otherwise very human in his tastes and habits."
"Has 'e a vote, ma'am?" asked a facetious labourer.
A stout lady prodded Mahdi with her umbrella, and he flopped on all fours on the floor of his cage, and sprang forward with a hoarse growl, reaching a great, hairy paw out of the cage.
"Lor blime, missus, yer ortenter do that to another woman's 'ushand," said the facetious labourer.
The people pressed about Mahdi's cage. They threw nuts at him, and offered him lollies and cakes, and the Missing Link went through many surprising contortions, and rolled about, and capered, and growled in a most realistic way, while Madame Marve gave a full and exciting account of his capture in the jungles of Central Africa by a party of hunters, of whom Professor Thunder was the leader and the conspicuous hero.
"Mahdi was then very young," said Madame. "He has been reared with great tenderness, and is now probably the most valuable, and he is the rarest animal in the world. Professor Thunder has been offered thousands of pounds for Mahdi, but refuses to part with him, preferring to take the marvellous monkey-man through the world for the education and edification of his fellow-creatures."
Mahdi swung on his bar again, flopped, and then ran up the back wall several times, after which he sat in a corner and scratched himself industriously, grinning at the people every now and then, or uttering a growl that gave the women delicious cold shivers.
The attention of the patrons was next drawn to the educated pig, and presently the show-room was empty again for a minute or two. Madame Marve addressed Mahdi the Missing Link.
"You must growl more, my boy," she said. "The people like the growling, it terrifies them, and they talk to their friends about it. You really must keep on growling. I don't care if you don't scratch quite so much, but you must growl."
The Missing Link pushed his drab muzzle through the bars.
"Keep on growling," he protested. "Excuse me, madame, but I'm damned if I do unless you give me more beer. I've got a throat like a hot-box."
Old friend of Mr. Nicholas Crips would have recognised those crisp tones instantly. Nickie the Kid had found his vocation.
AN UNFORTUNATE MEETING.
NICHOLAS CRIPS entered into formal agreement with Professor Thunder, sole organiser, director and owner of Thunder's Celebrated Museum of Marvels, to impersonate Mahdi, the Missing Link, at a salary of thirty-seven and sixpence a week and keep, Nickie undertaking to observe the Sabbath, to behave becomingly and in no circumstances to disclose his identity to persons outside the show.
The clause entailing strict observance of the Sabbath was a wise one from the Professor's point of view, as a previous Missing Link had taken advantage of Sunday being an off-day to get unreasonably drunk, in which state he betrayed the confidence of his employer, and disclosed the most sacred secrets of the profession.
Nickie was assured that the job would be a permanency if he proved himself a zealous, efficient Missing Link, and as he understood that even when on show Mahdi was expected to do little more than curl up on the straw in his cage and growl, he gratefully accepted. The contract was signed.
So far Nicholas had discovered the new skin he was compelled to don to be the only serious disadvantage attached to his office. It was tight-fitting, coated with monkey-like hair, and covered him entirely, the face being disguised under an attached mask with a flat nose and patches of hair. The skin laced down the spine, but the laces were artfully hidden under the fur.
At least Nickie was leading man of the small company. Ammonia (whose cage adjoined the more sumptuous one in which Nickie was exhibited, and whose open jealousy of Mahdi was a source of no little inconvenience to Nickie the Kid) was an item of considerable interest, but the Link was the culminating point of the monkey's progress the climax, so to speak, and he enjoyed great popularity and many nuts. Possibly the nuts were the true source of Ammonia's dislike.
Nickie the Kid had been three days figuring as the star of Professor Thunder's Museum of Marvels, and was growing accustomed to his suit, and to the situation. The Professor himself was a born vagabond, and his wife, Madame Marve, the somewhat plump prophetess, who read fortunes, and was mistress of the educated pig, had the Gipsy instinct and took life easily. Nickie had a good deal in common with both, and they promised to be a happy family.
In his proudest moments Professor Thunder was not likely to overestimate the intrinsic value of the Missing Link as he stood, for tucked away under the singlet that lay between him and his hairy simian cuticle was a store of treasure with the product of which Nicholas Crips dreamed of living a life of ease and luxury when certain matters had blown over and it was wise for him to resume his proper place in the animal creation.
The murder in Briggs's Building had stirred up a tremendous sensation, but as yet no one had thought of associating either the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom or the tall, fashionably-dressed lady with the crime.
The show was not yet open for the evening, and Mahdi, the Missing Link, was permitted the privilege of free speech, denial of which was one of the most painful disadvantages of his public career.
"Well, how're yeh likin' th' grip, Nickie?" asked Matty Cann, otherwise Bonypart the living skeleton.
"It is not exacting." said the Missing Link, dreamily, "but it has its drawbacks to a man accustomed to finding favour with the ladies."
"Drawbacks," exclaimed Bonypart. "What price living skelingtons? You wouldn't believe it, but I'm considered rather a fine man in flesh. It almost breaks my poor wife's 'eart t' see me in such redooced circumstances. I tell yeh I never thought I'd come clown t' this."
Nickie peered at the living skeleton from his cage. "I believe being a missing link has its advantages." he said. "After all, a missing link does have time off, but a living skeleton has no relaxations."
"Dry up, Mahdi, an' get on your perch," cried Madame Thunder, "The Professor's openin' up."
The door was opened, and the Marvels heard Professor Thunder declaiming on the astonishing quality of his exhibits.
"Roll up! Roll up! Roll up!" exclaimed the professor in his deep, steam-organ tones. "Roll up, and see Mahdi and Marve—Mabdi the Missing Link, the great man-monkey, captured in the gloom junge of Darkest Africa, the Connectin' link 'tween man an' the beasts; Marve, the Mystic, the prophetess, enchantess and Egyptian seer, who will read your future in your palm, exhibit her educated pig, and display the occult science of the Oriental wonder-workers!'
"Here they come," said Madame, arranging her rich Egyptian costume, made by sewing a design of spangles on a curiously-patterned bed quilt.
The Missing Link hooked himself to the crossbar with one hand, drew up his hairy legs, and remained suspended in a limp attitude, as two women, with frightened children clinging to their skirts, entered the show.
Madame took charge of the audience, and lucidly explained the Darwinian theory, beginning with Spider, the tiny ape, and tracing the descent of man through Ammonia, the gorilla, to Mahdi the Missing Link, and Mahdi romped about the cage, growled and gibbered, poking his amazingly human face through the bars for fleeting moments.
When not engaged telling fortunes, performing a few primitive illusions, or putting Ephraim, the Educated Hog, through his manoeuvres, Madame was anything the occasion required. The Professor had great faith in her. She had once carried the show through successfully when the Living Skeleton, the Missing Link, Ammonia the Gorilla, and Ephraim were all incapacitated through an influenza epidemic.
They had a big evening, the holiday-makers flocked in so freely that Professor Thunder abandoned his position as "spruicher," or public speaker, and took charge of the interior, acting as explainer and interpreter, leaving his little daughter Letitia to take the sixpences at the door.
The night was warm, and as the stream of patrons was incessant, Nickie the Kid found his duties most oppressive, and had serious thoughts of shedding his skin.
Professor Thunder greatly excited the interest of the crowd by announcing that a sum of one pound and a silver medal valued at one guinea would be given to any person courageous enough to follow Madame Marve's example and enter the cage containing Mahdi, the Missing Link.
Nickie was resentful, as this meant a most energetic demonstration of savagery on his part, following a fawning and submissive manner, while madame, wearing a large sombrero and a man's coat, moved about in the cage, cracking a whip.
The people gathered before the cage gazed upon madame with stupid awe, while the strange monster capered, or prostrated himself in great humility at her bidding. When she had withdrawn, and after the Professor had made his prodigal offer, it was Mahdi's duty to stimulate ungovernable ferocity, in order to deter any too-venturesome spirits. Nickie did his best. He bounded madly round the cage, he tore at the straw, tooth and nail, he roared terribly, and snatched furiously at the people near the bars. The crowd retreated in terror; all save one woman, a grim-looking female with the indurated face of an old-established lodginghouse-keeper.
This woman came forward, and jabbed at Mahdi the Missing Link with her umbrella. "Gerrout, yeh brute!" she said. Mahdi backed into shades carefully provided at the back of the cage, and the old woman reached her umbrella through the bars, and made a hit at him. Mahdi seemed to cower.
"A prize of one pound and a silver medal to any person daring enough to enter the cage of Mahdi, the man-monkey!" repeated Professor Thunder, with great hardihood.
"Wha's that?" gasped the woman.
Professor Thunder repeated his intrepid words; aside he hissed "Bellow, damn you—bellow!"
Nickie bellowed; he jumped with desperate energy, he clawed up the straw, but he remained in the shadow.
"A pound!" cried the woman. "A pound jist fer goin' in with that ape? Done! I'm yer man."
The Professor was thunderstruck, so also was Mahdi the Missing Link. Never since Thunder invested in his famous fake of the man-monkey had man or woman been found courageous enough to beard the monster in his den for a pound. Never had any been expected to. Professor Thunder stood non-plussed.
Madame went to the back of the cage. "Howl!" she whispered. "Howl! Do you want to ruin us?"
Mahdi howled, he growled ferociously, he made an attempt to savage Ammonia. His paroxysms were fearful to look upon, but the woman did not seem to mind in the least.
"Open the door," she said.
"Madame, are you quite resolved to take this terrible risk?" said Thunder, gravely, feeling keenly the approaching loss of a hard-earned pound.
"Terrible pickles!" said the woman. "I've bin managin' men fer twenty years, an' I ain't goin' t be stopped be no monkey."
"Very well, madam, the consequences be upon your own head." (Aside to Nickie) "Roar, curse you, roar!"
The Missing Link crept to the back bars in an imploring attitude. "No, no; for the love of heaven! don't let her in!" he whispered to Madame Marve.
Professor Thunder burst into one of his frenzied street orations to drown the voice of the Missing Link, and threw open the cage door. The crowd huddled hack, horrified. One girl screamed, but the heroine from the old-established lodging-house boldly entered the cage, swinging her gamp.
It was expected that the strange monster from the dim, damp jungles of Darkest Africa would spring upon her, but he did nothing of the kind; he rushed to the back of his cage, and cowered down, burying his face in the straw.
The heroine butted Mahdi the Missing Link with her gamp. He gave no sign. She kicked him. He bore it meekly, crouching lower. There was some tittering in the crowd.
"Get up, you nasty brute!" said the woman, and prodded the horrid monster.
Nickie didn't even growl. The woman kicked, she kicked with force. She booted the terrible brute round the cage. She seemed to glory in her triumph, and when Mahdi butted into a corner and refused to stir, she took him by one leg, and towed him twice round the cage, and the tittering the crowd swelled to yells of derisions and ribald laughter, while Professor Thunder pranced about and cursed furiously. To save his show from being ruined with ridicule, he rushed in, seized the woman, and bundled her from the cage.