Sept. 16.—Private Montease and a cough entered into residence.
Sept. 17, 11.45 p.m.—Maid came to bedroom-door with some cough lozenges which she asked me to take to the new billet. Took them. Private Montease thanked me, but said he didn't mind coughing. Said it was an heirloom; Montease cough, known in highest circles all over Scotland since time of Young Pretender.
Sept. 20.—Private Montease installed in easy-chair in dining-room with touch of bronchitis, looking up trains to Bournemouth.
Sept. 21.—Private Montease in bed all day. Cook anxious "to do her bit" rubbed his chest with home-made embrocation. Believe it is same stuff she rubs chests in hall with. Smells the same anyway.
Sept. 24.—Private Montease, complaining of slight rawness of chest, but otherwise well, returned to duty.
Oct. 5.—Cough worse again. Private Montease thinks that with care it may turn to bronchitis. Borrowed an A.B.C.
Oct. 6.—Private Montease relates uncanny experience. Woke up with feeling of suffocation to find an enormous black-currant and glycerine jujube wedged in his gullet. Never owned such a thing in his life. Seems to be unaware that he always sleeps with his mouth open.
Nov. 14.—Private Bowser, youngest and tallest of my billets, gazetted.
Nov. 15, 10.35 a.m.—Private Bowser in tip-top spirits said good-bye to us all.
10.45.—Told that Q.M.S. Beddem desired to see me. Capitulated. New billet, Private Early, armed to the teeth, turned up in the evening. Said that he was a Yorkshireman. Said that Yorkshire was the finest county in England, and Yorkshiremen the finest men in the world. Stood toying with his bayonet and waiting for contradiction.
Jan. 5, 1916.—Standing in the garden just after lunch was witness to startling phenomenon. Q.M.S. Beddem came towards front-gate with a smile so expansive that gate after first trembling violently on its hinges swung open of its own accord. Q.M.S., with smile (sad), said he was in trouble. Very old member of the Inns of Court, Private Keen, had re-joined, and he wanted a good billet for him. Would cheerfully give up his own bed, but it wasn't long enough. Not to be outdone in hospitality by my own gate accepted Private Keen. Q.M.S. digging hole in my path with toe of right boot, and for first and only time manifesting signs of nervousness, murmured that two life-long friends of Private Keen's had rejoined with him. Known as the Three Inseparables. Where they were to sleep, unless I——. Fled to house, and locking myself in top-attic watched Q.M.S. from window. He departed with bent head and swagger-cane reversed.
Jan 6.—Private Keen arrived. Turned out to be son of an old Chief of mine. Resolved not to visit the sins of the father on the head of a child six feet two high and broad in proportion.
Feb. 6.—Private Keen came home with a temperature.
Feb. 7.—M.O. diagnosed influenza. Was afraid it would spread.
Feb. 8.—Warned the other four billets. They seemed amused. Pointed out that influenza had no terrors for men in No. 2 Company, who were doomed to weekly night-ops. under Major Carryon.
Feb. 9.—House strangely and pleasantly quiet. Went to see how Private Keen was progressing, and found the other four billets sitting in a row on his bed practising deep-breathing exercises.
Feb. 16.—Billets on night-ops. until late hour. Spoke in highest terms of Major Carryon's marching powers—also in other terms.
March 3.—Waited up until midnight for Private Merited, who had gone to Slough on his motor-bike.
March 4, 1.5 a.m.—Awakened by series of explosions from over-worked, or badly-worked, motor-bike. Put head out of window and threw key to Private Merited. He seemed excited. Said he had been chased all the way from Chesham by a pink rat with yellow spots. Advised him to go to bed. Set him an example.
1.10. a.m.—Heard somebody in the pantry. 2.10. a.m.—Heard Private Merited going upstairs to bed.
2.16 a.m.—Heard Private Merited still going upstairs to bed.
2.20-3.15. a.m.—Heard Private Merited getting to bed.
April 3, 12.30 a.m.—Town-hooter announced Zeppelins and excited soldier called up my billets from their beds to go and frighten them off. Pleasant to see superiority of billets over the hooter: that only emitted three blasts.
12.50 a.m.—Billets returned with exception of Private Merited, who was retained for sake of his motor-bike.
9 a.m.—On way to bath-room ran into Private Merited, who, looking very glum and sleepy, inquired whether I had a copy of the Exchange and Mart in the house.
10 p.m.—Overheard billets discussing whether it was worth while removing boots before going to bed until the Zeppelin scare was over. Joined in discussion.
May 2.—Rumours that the Inns of Court were going under canvas. Discredited them.
May 5.—Rumours grow stronger.
May 6.—Billets depressed. Begin to think perhaps there is something in rumours after all.
May 9.-All doubts removed. Tents begin to spring up with the suddenness of mushrooms in fields below Berkhamsted Place.
May 18, LIBERATION DAY.—Bade a facetious good-bye to my billets; response lacking in bonhomie.
May 19.-House delightfully quiet. Presented caller of unkempt appearance at back-door with remains of pair of military boots, three empty shaving- stick tins, and a couple of partially bald tooth-brushes.
May 21.—In afternoon went round and looked at camp. Came home smiling, and went to favourite seat in garden to smoke. Discovered Private Early lying on it fast asleep. Went to study. Private Merited at table writing long and well-reasoned letter to his tailor. As he said he could never write properly with anybody else in the room, left him and went to bath-room. Door locked. Peevish but familiar voice, with a Scotch accent, asked me what I wanted; also complained of temperature of water.
May 22.—After comparing notes with neighbours, feel deeply grateful to Q.M.S. Beddem for sending me the best six men in the corps.
July 15.—Feel glad to have been associated, however remotely and humbly, with a corps, the names of whose members appear on the Roll of Honour of every British regiment.
Mr. Purnip took the arm of the new recruit and hung over him almost tenderly as they walked along; Mr. Billing, with a look of conscious virtue on his jolly face, listened with much satisfaction to his friend's compliments.
"It's such an example," said the latter. "Now we've got you the others will follow like sheep. You will be a bright lamp in the darkness."
"Wot's good enough for me ought to be good enough for them," said Mr. Billing, modestly. "They'd better not let me catch—"
"H'sh! H'sh!" breathed Mr. Purnip, tilting his hat and wiping his bald, benevolent head.
"I forgot," said the other, with something like a sigh. "No more fighting; but suppose somebody hits me?"
"Turn the other cheek," replied Mr. Purnip.
"They won't hit that; and when they see you standing there smiling at them—"
"After being hit?" interrupted Mr. Billing.
"After being hit," assented the other, "they'll be ashamed of themselves, and it'll hurt them more than if you struck them."
"Let's 'ope so," said the convert; "but it don't sound reasonable. I can hit a man pretty 'ard. Not that I'm bad-tempered, mind you; a bit quick, p'r'aps. And, after all, a good smack in the jaw saves any amount of argufying."
Mr. Purnip smiled, and, as they walked along, painted a glowing picture of the influence to be wielded by a first-class fighting-man who refused to fight. It was a rough neighbourhood, and he recognized with sorrow that more respect was paid to a heavy fist than to a noble intellect or a loving heart.
"And you combine them all," he said, patting his companion's arm.
Mr. Billing smiled. "You ought to know best," he said, modestly.
"You'll be surprised to find how easy it is," continued Mr. Purnip. "You will go from strength to strength. Old habits will disappear, and you will hardly know you have lost them. In a few months' time you will probably be wondering what you could ever have seen in beer, for example."
"I thought you said you didn't want me to give up beer?" said the other.
"We don't," said Mr. Purnip. "I mean that as you grow in stature you will simply lose the taste for it."
Mr. Billing came to a sudden full stop. "D'ye mean I shall lose my liking for a drop o' beer without being able to help myself?" he demanded, in an anxious voice.
"Of course, it doesn't happen in every case," he said, hastily.
Mr. Billing's features relaxed. "Well, let's 'ope I shall be one of the fortunate ones," he said, simply. "I can put up with a good deal, but when it comes to beer——"
"We shall see," said the other, smiling.
"We don't want to interfere with anybody's comfort; we want to make them happier, that's all. A little more kindness between man and man; a little more consideration for each other; a little more brightness in dull lives."
He paused at the corner of the street, and, with a hearty handshake, went off. Mr. Billing, a prey to somewhat mixed emotions, continued on his way home. The little knot of earnest men and women who had settled in the district to spread light and culture had been angling for him for some time. He wondered, as he walked, what particular bait it was that had done the mischief.
"They've got me at last," he remarked, as he opened the house-door and walked into his small kitchen. "I couldn't say 'no' to Mr. Purnip."
"Wish 'em joy," said Mrs. Billing, briefly. "Did you wipe your boots?"
Her husband turned without a word, and, retreating to the mat, executed a prolonged double-shuffle.
"You needn't wear it out," said the surprised Mrs. Billing.
"We've got to make people 'appier," said her husband, seriously; "be kinder to 'em, and brighten up their dull lives a bit. That's wot Mr. Purnip says."
"You'll brighten 'em up all right," declared Mrs. Billing, with a sniff. "I sha'n't forget last Tuesday week—no, not if I live to be a hundred. You'd ha' brightened up the police-station if I 'adn't got you home just in the nick of time."
Her husband, who was by this time busy under the scullery-tap, made no reply. He came from it spluttering, and, seizing a small towel, stood in the door-way burnishing his face and regarding his wife with a smile which Mr. Purnip himself could not have surpassed. He sat down to supper, and between bites explained in some detail the lines on which his future life was to be run. As an earnest of good faith, he consented, after a short struggle, to a slip of oil-cloth for the passage; a pair of vases for the front room; and a new and somewhat expensive corn-cure for Mrs. Billing.
"And let's 'ope you go on as you've begun," said that gratified lady. "There's something in old Purnip after all. I've been worrying you for months for that oilcloth. Are you going to help me wash up? Mr. Purnip would."
Mr. Billing appeared not to hear, and, taking up his cap, strolled slowly in the direction of the Blue Lion. It was a beautiful summer evening, and his bosom swelled as he thought of the improvements that a little brotherliness might effect in Elk Street. Engrossed in such ideas, it almost hurt him to find that, as he entered one door of the Blue Lion, two gentlemen, forgetting all about their beer, disappeared through the other.
"Wot 'ave they run away like that for?" he demanded, looking round. "I wouldn't hurt 'em."
"Depends on wot you call hurting, Joe," said a friend.
Mr. Billing shook his head. "They've no call to be afraid of me," he said, gravely. "I wouldn't hurt a fly; I've got a new 'art."
"A new wot?" inquired his friend, staring.
"A new 'art," repeated the other. "I've given up fighting and swearing, and drinking too much. I'm going to lead a new life and do all the good I can; I'm going—"
"Glory! Glory!" ejaculated a long, thin youth, and, making a dash for the door, disappeared.
"He'll know me better in time," said Mr. Billing. "Why, I wouldn't hurt a fly. I want to do good to people; not to hurt 'em. I'll have a pint," he added, turning to the bar.
"Not here you won't," said the landlord, eyeing him coldly.
"Why not?" demanded the astonished Mr. Billing.
"You've had all you ought to have already," was the reply. "And there's one thing I'll swear to—you ain't had it 'ere."
"I haven't 'ad a drop pass my lips began the outraged Mr. Billing.
"Yes, I know," said the other, wearily, as he shifted one or two glasses and wiped the counter; "I've heard it all before, over and over again. Mind you, I've been in this business thirty years, and if I don't know when a man's had his whack, and a drop more, nobody does. You get off 'ome and ask your missis to make you a nice cup o' good strong tea, and then get up to bed and sleep it off."
"I dare say," said Mr. Billing, with cold dignity, as he paused at the door—"I dare say I may give up beer altogether."
He stood outside pondering over the unforeseen difficulties attendant upon his new career, moving a few inches to one side as Mr. Ricketts, a foe of long standing, came towards the public-house, and, halting a yard or two away, eyed him warily.
"Come along," said Mr. Billing, speaking somewhat loudly, for the benefit of the men in the bar; "I sha'n't hurt you; my fighting days are over."
"Yes, I dessay," replied the other, edging away.
"It's all right, Bill," said a mutual friend, through the half-open door; "he's got a new 'art."
Mr. Ricketts looked perplexed. "'Art disease, d'ye mean?" he inquired, hopefully. "Can't he fight no more?"
"A new 'art," said Mr. Billing. "It's as strong as ever it was, but it's changed—brother."
"If you call me 'brother' agin I'll give you something for yourself, and chance it," said Mr. Ricketts, ferociously. "I'm a pore man, but I've got my pride."
Mr. Billing, with a smile charged with brotherly love, leaned his left cheek towards him. "Hit it," he said, gently.
"Give it a smack and run, Bill," said the voice of a well-wisher inside.
"There'd be no need for 'im to run," said Mr. Billing. "I wouldn't hit 'im back for anything. I should turn the other cheek."
"Whaffor?" inquired the amazed Mr. Ricketts.
"For another swipe," said Mr. Billing, radiantly.
In the fraction of a second he got the first, and reeled back staggering. The onlookers from the bar came out hastily. Mr. Ricketts, somewhat pale, stood his ground.
"You see, I don't hit you," said Mr. Billing, with a ghastly attempt at a smile.
He stood rubbing his cheek gently, and, remembering Mr. Purnip's statements, slowly, inch by inch, turned the other in the direction of his adversary. The circuit was still incomplete when Mr. Ricketts, balancing himself carefully, fetched it a smash that nearly burst it. Mr. Billing, somewhat jarred by his contact with the pavement, rose painfully and confronted him.
"I've only got two cheeks, mind," he said, slowly.
Mr. Ricketts sighed. "I wish you'd got a blinking dozen," he said, wistfully. "Well, so long. Be good."
He walked into the Blue Lion absolutely free from that sense of shame which Mr. Purnip had predicted, and, accepting a pint from an admirer, boasted noisily of his exploit. Mr. Billing, suffering both mentally and physically, walked slowly home to his astonished wife.
"P'r'aps he'll be ashamed of hisself when 'e comes to think it over," he murmured, as Mrs. Billing, rendered almost perfect by practice, administered first aid.
"I s'pect he's crying his eyes out," she said, with a sniff. "Tell me if that 'urts."
Mr. Billing told her, then, suddenly remembering himself, issued an expurgated edition.
"I'm sorry for the next man that 'its you," said his wife, as she drew back and regarded her handiwork.
"'Well, you needn't be," said Mr. Billing, with dignity. "It would take more than a couple o' props in the jaw to make me alter my mind when I've made it up. You ought to know that by this time. Hurry up and finish. I want you to go to the corner and fetch me a pot."
"What, ain't you going out agin?" demanded his astonished wife.
Mr. Billing shook his head. "Somebody else might want to give me one," he said, resignedly, "and I've 'ad about all I want to-night."
His face was still painful next morning, but as he sat at breakfast in the small kitchen he was able to refer to Mr. Ricketts in terms which were an eloquent testimony to Mr. Purnip's teaching. Mrs. Billing, unable to contain herself, wandered off into the front room with a duster.
"Are you nearly ready to go?" she inquired, returning after a short interval.
"Five minutes," said Mr. Billing, nodding. "I'll just light my pipe and then I'm off."
"'Cos there's two or three waiting outside for you," added his wife.
Mr. Billing rose. "Ho, is there?" he said, grimly, as he removed his coat and proceeded to roll up his shirt-sleeves. "I'll learn 'em. I'll give 'em something to wait for. I'll——"
His voice died away as he saw the triumph in his wife's face, and, drawing down his sleeves again, he took up his coat and stood eyeing her in genuine perplexity.
"Tell 'em I've gorn," he said, at last.
"And what about telling lies?" demanded his wife. "What would your Mr. Purnip say to that?"
"You do as you're told," exclaimed the harassed Mr. Billing. "I'm not going to tell 'em; it's you."
Mrs. Billing returned to the parlour, and, with Mr. Billing lurking in the background, busied herself over a china flower-pot that stood in the window, and turned an anxious eye upon three men waiting outside. After a glance or two she went to the door.
"Did you want to see my husband?" she inquired.
The biggest of the three nodded. "Yus," he said, shortly.
"I'm sorry," said Mrs. Billing, "but he 'ad to go early this morning. Was it anything partikler?"
"Gorn?" said the other, in disappointed tones. "Well, you tell 'im I'll see 'im later on."
He turned away, and, followed by the other two, walked slowly up the road. Mr. Billing, after waiting till the coast was clear, went off in the other direction.
He sought counsel of his friend and mentor that afternoon, and stood beaming with pride at the praise lavished upon him. Mr. Purnip's co-workers were no less enthusiastic than their chief; and various suggestions were made to Mr. Billing as to his behaviour in the unlikely event of further attacks upon his noble person.
He tried to remember the suggestions in the harassing days that followed; baiting Joe Billing becoming popular as a pastime from which no evil results need be feared. It was creditable to his fellow-citizens that most of them refrained from violence with a man who declined to hit back, but as a butt his success was assured. The night when a gawky lad of eighteen drank up his beer, and then invited him to step outside if he didn't like it, dwelt long in his memory. And Elk Street thrilled one evening at the sight of their erstwhile champion flying up the road hotly pursued by a foeman half his size. His explanation to his indignant wife that, having turned the other cheek the night before, he was in no mood for further punishment, was received in chilling silence.
"They'll soon get tired of it," he said, hopefully; "and I ain't going to be beat by a lot of chaps wot I could lick with one 'and tied behind me. They'll get to understand in time; Mr. Purnip says so. It's a pity that you don't try and do some good yourself."
Mrs. Billing received the suggestion with a sniff; but the seed was sown. She thought the matter over in private, and came to the conclusion that, if her husband wished her to participate in good works, it was not for her to deny him. Hitherto her efforts in that direction had been promptly suppressed; Mr. Billing's idea being that if a woman looked after her home and her husband properly there should be neither time nor desire for anything else. His surprise on arriving home to tea on Saturday afternoon, and finding a couple of hard-working neighbours devouring his substance, almost deprived him of speech.
"Poor things," said his wife, after the guests had gone; "they did enjoy it. It's cheered 'em up wonderful. You and Mr. Purnip are quite right. I can see that now. You can tell him that it was you what put it into my 'art."
"Me? Why, I never dreamt o' such a thing," declared the surprised Mr. Billing. "And there's other ways of doing good besides asking a pack of old women in to tea."
"I know there is," said his wife. "All in good time," she added, with a far-away look in her eyes.
Mr. Billing cleared his throat, but nothing came of it. He cleared it again.
"I couldn't let you do all the good," said his wife, hastily. "It wouldn't be fair. I must help."
Mr. Billing lit his pipe noisily, and then took it out into the back-yard and sat down to think over the situation. The ungenerous idea that his wife was making goodness serve her own ends was the first that occurred to him.
His suspicions increased with time. Mrs. Billing's good works seemed to be almost entirely connected with hospitality. True, she had entertained Mr. Purnip and one of the ladies from the Settlement to tea, but that only riveted his bonds more firmly. Other visitors included his sister- in-law, for whom he had a great distaste, and some of the worst-behaved children in the street.
"It's only high spirits," said Mrs. Billing; "all children are like that. And I do it to help the mothers."
"And 'cos you like children," said her husband, preserving his good- humour with an effort.
There was a touch of monotony about the new life, and the good deeds that accompanied it, which, to a man of ardent temperament, was apt to pall. And Elk Street, instead of giving him the credit which was his due, preferred to ascribe the change in his behaviour to what they called being "a bit barmy on the crumpet."
He came home one evening somewhat dejected, brightening up as he stood in the passage and inhaled the ravishing odours from the kitchen. Mrs. Billing, with a trace of nervousness somewhat unaccountable in view of the excellent quality of the repast provided, poured him out a glass of beer, and passed flattering comment upon his appearance.
"Wot's the game?" he inquired.
"Game?" repeated his wife, in a trembling voice. "Nothing. 'Ow do you find that steak-pudding? I thought of giving you one every Wednesday."
Mr. Billing put down his knife and fork and sat regarding her thoughtfully. Then he pushed back his chair suddenly, and, a picture of consternation and wrath, held up his hand for silence.
"W-w-wot is it?" he demanded. "A cat?"
Mrs. Billing made no reply, and her husband sprang to his feet as a long, thin wailing sounded through the house. A note of temper crept into it and strengthened it.
"Wot is it?" demanded Mr. Billing again. "It's—it's Mrs. Smith's Charlie," stammered his wife.
"In—in my bedroom?" exclaimed her husband, in incredulous accents. "Wot's it doing there?"
"I took it for the night," said his wife hurriedly. "Poor thing, what with the others being ill she's 'ad a dreadful time, and she said if I'd take Charlie for a few—for a night, she might be able to get some sleep."
Mr. Billing choked. "And what about my sleep?" he shouted. "Chuck it outside at once. D'ye hear me?"
His words fell on empty air, his wife having already sped upstairs to pacify Master Smith by a rhythmical and monotonous thumping on the back. Also she lifted up a thin and not particularly sweet voice and sang to him. Mr. Billing, finishing his supper in indignant silence, told himself grimly that he was "beginning to have enough of it."
He spent the evening at the Charlton Arms, and, returning late, went slowly and heavily up to bed. In the light of a shaded candle he saw a small, objectionable-looking infant fast asleep on two chairs by the side of the bed.
"H'sh!" said his wife, in a thrilling whisper. "He's just gone off."
"D'ye mean I mustn't open my mouth in my own bedroom?" demanded the indignant man, loudly.
"H'sh!" said his wife again.
It was too late. Master Smith, opening first one eye and then the other, finished by opening his mouth. The noise was appalling.
"H'sh! H'sh!" repeated Mrs. Billing, as her husband began to add to the noise. "Don't wake 'im right up."
"Right up?" repeated the astonished man. "Right up? Why, is he doing this in 'is sleep?"
He subsided into silence, and, undressing with stealthy care, crept into bed and lay there, marvelling at his self-control. He was a sound sleeper, but six times at least he was awakened by Mrs. Billing slipping out of bed—regardless of draughts to her liege lord—and marching up and down the room with the visitor in her arms. He rose in the morning and dressed in ominous silence.
"I 'ope he didn't disturb you," said his wife, anxiously.
"You've done it," replied Mr. Billing. "You've upset everything now. Since I joined the Purnip lot everybody's took advantage of me; now I'm going to get some of my own back. You wouldn't ha' dreamt of behaving like this a few weeks ago."
"Oh, Joe!" said his wife, entreatingly; "and everybody's been so happy!"
"Except me," retorted Joe Billing. "You come down and get my breakfast ready. If I start early I shall catch Mr. Bill Ricketts on 'is way to work. And mind, if I find that steam-orgin 'ere when I come 'ome to-night you'll hear of it."
He left the house with head erect and the light of battle in his eyes, and, meeting Mr. Ricketts at the corner, gave that justly aggrieved gentleman the surprise of his life. Elk Street thrilled to the fact that Mr. Billing had broken out again, and spoke darkly of what the evening might bring forth. Curious eyes followed his progress as he returned home from work, and a little later on the news was spread abroad that he was out and paying off old scores with an ardour that nothing could withstand.
"And wot about your change of 'art?" demanded one indignant matron, as her husband reached home five seconds ahead of Mr. Billing and hid in the scullery.
"It's changed agin," said Mr. Billing, simply.
He finished the evening in the Blue Lion, where he had one bar almost to himself, and, avoiding his wife's reproachful glance when he arrived home, procured some warm water and began to bathe his honourable scars.
"Mr. Purnip 'as been round with another gentleman," said his wife.
Mr. Billing said, "Oh!"
"Very much upset they was, and 'ope you'll go and see them," she continued.
Mr. Billing said "Oh!" again; and, after thinking the matter over, called next day at the Settlement and explained his position.
"It's all right for gentlemen like you," he said civilly. "But a man. like me can't call his soul 'is own—or even 'is bedroom. Everybody takes advantage of 'im. Nobody ever gives you a punch, and, as for putting babies in your bedroom, they wouldn't dream of it."
He left amid expressions of general regret, turning a deaf ear to all suggestions about making another start, and went off exulting in his freedom.
His one trouble was Mr. Purnip, that estimable gentleman, who seemed to have a weird gift of meeting him at all sorts of times and places, never making any allusion to his desertion, but showing quite clearly by his manner that he still hoped for the return of the wanderer. It was awkward for a man of sensitive disposition, and Mr. Billing, before entering a street, got into the habit of peering round the corner first.
He pulled up suddenly one evening as he saw his tenacious friend, accompanied by a lady-member, some little distance ahead. Then he sprang forward with fists clenched as a passer-by, after scowling at Mr. Purnip, leaned forward and deliberately blew a mouthful of smoke into the face of his companion.
Mr. Billing stopped again and stood gaping with astonishment. The aggressor was getting up from the pavement, while Mr. Purnip, in an absolutely correct attitude, stood waiting for him. Mr. Billing in a glow of delight edged forward, and, with a few other fortunates, stood by watching one of the best fights that had ever been seen in the district. Mr. Purnip's foot-work was excellent, and the way he timed his blows made Mr. Billing's eyes moist with admiration.
It was over at last. The aggressor went limping off, and Mr. Purnip, wiping his bald head, picked up his battered and dusty hat from the roadway and brushed it on his sleeve. He turned with a start and a blush to meet the delighted gaze of Mr. Billing.
"I'm ashamed of myself," he murmured, brokenly—"ashamed."
"Ashamed!" exclaimed the amazed Mr. Billing. "Why, a pro couldn't ha' done better."
"Such an awful example," moaned the other. "All my good work here thrown away."
"Don't you believe it, sir," said Mr. Billing, earnestly. "As soon as this gets about you'll get more members than you want a'most. I'm coming back, for one."
Mr. Purnip turned and grasped his hand.
"I understand things now," said Mr. Billing, nodding sagely. "Turning the other cheek's all right so long as you don't do it always. If you don't let 'em know whether you are going to turn the other cheek or knock their blessed heads off, it's all right. 'Arf the trouble in the world is caused by letting people know too much."
Dealing with a man, said the night-watchman, thoughtfully, is as easy as a teetotaller walking along a nice wide pavement; dealing with a woman is like the same teetotaller, arter four or five whiskies, trying to get up a step that ain't there. If a man can't get 'is own way he eases 'is mind with a little nasty language, and then forgets all about it; if a woman can't get 'er own way she flies into a temper and reminds you of something you oughtn't to ha' done ten years ago. Wot a woman would do whose 'usband had never done anything wrong I can't think.
I remember a young feller telling me about a row he 'ad with 'is wife once. He 'adn't been married long and he talked as if the way she carried on was unusual. Fust of all, he said, she spoke to 'im in a cooing sort o' voice and pulled his moustache, then when he wouldn't give way she worked herself up into a temper and said things about 'is sister. Arter which she went out o' the room and banged the door so hard it blew down a vase off the fireplace. Four times she came back to tell 'im other things she 'ad thought of, and then she got so upset she 'ad to go up to bed and lay down instead of getting his tea. When that didn't do no good she refused her food, and when 'e took her up toast and tea she wouldn't look at it. Said she wanted to die. He got quite uneasy till 'e came 'ome the next night and found the best part of a loaf o' bread, a quarter o' butter, and a couple o' chops he 'ad got in for 'is supper had gorn; and then when he said 'e was glad she 'ad got 'er appetite back she turned round and said that he grudged 'er the food she ate.
And no woman ever owned up as 'ow she was wrong; and the more you try and prove it to 'em the louder they talk about something else. I know wot I'm talking about because a woman made a mistake about me once, and though she was proved to be in the wrong, and it was years ago, my missus shakes her 'ead about it to this day.
It was about eight years arter I 'ad left off going to sea and took up night-watching. A beautiful summer evening it was, and I was sitting by the gate smoking a pipe till it should be time to light up, when I noticed a woman who 'ad just passed turn back and stand staring at me. I've 'ad that sort o' thing before, and I went on smoking and looking straight in front of me. Fat middle-aged woman she was, wot 'ad lost her good looks and found others. She stood there staring and staring, and by and by she tries a little cough.
I got up very slow then, and, arter looking all round at the evening, without seeing 'er, I was just going to step inside and shut the wicket, when she came closer.
"Bill!" she ses, in a choking sort o' voice.
I gave her a look that made her catch 'er breath, and I was just stepping through the wicket, when she laid hold of my coat and tried to hold me back.
"Do you know wot you're a-doing of?" I ses, turning on her.
"Oh, Bill dear," she ses, "don't talk to me like that. Do you want to break my 'art? Arter all these years!"
She pulled out a dirt-coloured pocket-'ankercher and stood there dabbing her eyes with it. One eye at a time she dabbed, while she looked at me reproachful with the other. And arter eight dabs, four to each eye, she began to sob as if her 'art would break.
"Go away," I ses, very slow. "You can't stand making that noise outside my wharf. Go away and give somebody else a treat."
Afore she could say anything the potman from the Tiger, a nasty ginger- 'aired little chap that nobody liked, come by and stopped to pat her on the back.
"There, there, don't take on, mother," he ses. "Wot's he been a-doing to you?"
"You get off 'ome," I ses, losing my temper.
"Wot d'ye mean trying to drag me into it? I've never seen the woman afore in my life."
"Oh, Bill!" ses the woman, sobbing louder than ever. "Oh! Oh! Oh!"
"'Ow does she know your name, then?" ses the little beast of a potman.
I didn't answer him. I might have told 'im that there's about five million Bills in England, but I didn't. I stood there with my arms folded acrost my chest, and looked at him, superior.
"Where 'ave you been all this long, long time?" she ses, between her sobs. "Why did you leave your happy 'ome and your children wot loved you?"
The potman let off a whistle that you could have 'eard acrost the river, and as for me, I thought I should ha' dropped. To have a woman standing sobbing and taking my character away like that was a'most more than I could bear.
"Did he run away from you?" ses the potman.
"Ye-ye-yes," she ses. "He went off on a vy'ge to China over nine years ago, and that's the last I saw of 'im till to-night. A lady friend o' mine thought she reckernized 'im yesterday, and told me."
"I shouldn't cry over 'im," ses the potman, shaking his 'ead: "he ain't worth it. If I was you I should just give 'im a bang or two over the 'ead with my umberella, and then give 'im in charge."
I stepped inside the wicket—backwards—and then I slammed it in their faces, and putting the key in my pocket, walked up the wharf. I knew it was no good standing out there argufying. I felt sorry for the pore thing in a way. If she really thought I was her 'usband, and she 'ad lost me—— I put one or two things straight and then, for the sake of distracting my mind, I 'ad a word or two with the skipper of the John Henry, who was leaning against the side of his ship, smoking.
"Wot's that tapping noise?" he ses, all of a sudden. "'Ark!"
I knew wot it was. It was the handle of that umberella 'ammering on the gate. I went cold all over, and then when I thought that the pot-man was most likely encouraging 'er to do it I began to boil.
"Somebody at the gate," ses the skipper.
"Aye, aye," I ses. "I know all about it."
I went on talking until at last the skipper asked me whether he was wandering in 'is mind, or whether I was. The mate came up from the cabin just then, and o' course he 'ad to tell me there was somebody knocking at the gate.
"Ain't you going to open it?" ses the skipper, staring at me.
"Let 'em ring," I ses, off-hand.
The words was 'ardly out of my mouth afore they did ring, and if they 'ad been selling muffins they couldn't ha' kept it up harder. And all the time the umberella was doing rat-a-tat tats on the gate, while a voice— much too loud for the potman's—started calling out: "Watch-man ahoy!"
"They're calling you, Bill," ses the skipper. "I ain't deaf," I ses, very cold.
"Well, I wish I was," ses the skipper. "It's fair making my ear ache. Why the blazes don't you do your dooty, and open the gate?"
"You mind your bisness and I'll mind mine," I ses. "I know wot I'm doing. It's just some silly fools 'aving a game with me, and I'm not going to encourage 'em."
"Game with you?" ses the skipper. "Ain't they got anything better than that to play with? Look 'ere, if you don't open that gate, I will."
"It's nothing to do with you," I ses. "You look arter your ship and I'll look arter my wharf. See? If you don't like the noise, go down in the cabin and stick your 'ead in a biscuit-bag."
To my surprise he took the mate by the arm and went, and I was just thinking wot a good thing it was to be a bit firm with people sometimes, when they came back dressed up in their coats and bowler-hats and climbed on to the wharf.
"Watchman!" ses the skipper, in a hoity-toity sort o' voice, "me and the mate is going as far as Aldgate for a breath o' fresh air. Open the gate."
I gave him a look that might ha' melted a 'art of stone, and all it done to 'im was to make 'im laugh.
"Hurry up," he ses. "It a'most seems to me that there's somebody ringing the bell, and you can let them in same time as you let us out. Is it the bell, or is it my fancy, Joe?" he ses, turning to the mate.
They marched on in front of me with their noses cocked in the air, and all the time the noise at the gate got worse and worse. So far as I could make out, there was quite a crowd outside, and I stood there with the key in the lock, trembling all over. Then I unlocked it very careful, and put my hand on the skipper's arm.
"Nip out quick," I ses, in a whisper.
"I'm in no hurry," ses the skipper. "Here! Halloa, wot's up?"
It was like opening the door at a theatre, and the fust one through was that woman, shoved behind by the potman. Arter 'im came a car-man, two big 'ulking brewers' draymen, a little scrap of a woman with 'er bonnet cocked over one eye, and a couple of dirty little boys.
"Wot is it?" ses the skipper, shutting the wicket behind 'em. "A beanfeast?"
"This lady wants her 'usband," ses the pot-man, pointing at me. "He run away from her nine years ago, and now he says he 'as never seen 'er before. He ought to be 'ung."
"Bill," ses the skipper, shaking his silly 'ead at me. "I can 'ardly believe it."
"It's all a pack o' silly lies," I ses, firing up. "She's made a mistake."
"She made a mistake when she married you," ses the thin little woman. "If I was in 'er shoes I'd take 'old of you and tear you limb from limb."
"I don't want to hurt 'im, ma'am," ses the other woman. "I on'y want him to come 'ome to me and my five. Why, he's never seen the youngest, little Annie. She's as like 'im as two peas."
"Pore little devil," ses the carman.
"Look here!" I ses, "you clear off. All of you. 'Ow dare you come on to my wharf? If you aren't gone in two minutes I'll give you all in charge."
"Who to?" ses one of the draymen, sticking his face into mine. "You go 'ome to your wife and kids. Go on now, afore I put up my 'ands to you."
"That's the way to talk to 'im," ses the pot-man, nodding at 'em.
They all began to talk to me then and tell me wot I was to do, and wot they would do if I didn't. I couldn't get a word in edgeways. When I reminded the mate that when he was up in London 'e always passed himself off as a single man, 'e wouldn't listen; and when I asked the skipper whether 'is pore missus was blind, he on'y went on shouting at the top of 'is voice. It on'y showed me 'ow anxious most people are that everybody else should be good.
I thought they was never going to stop, and, if it 'adn't been for a fit of coughing, I don't believe that the scraggy little woman could ha' stopped. Arter one o' the draymen 'ad saved her life and spoilt 'er temper by patting 'er on the back with a hand the size of a leg o' mutton, the carman turned to me and told me to tell the truth, if it choked me.
"I have told you the truth," I ses. "She ses I'm her 'usband and I say I ain't. Ow's she going to prove it? Why should you believe her, and not me?"
"She's got a truthful face," ses the carman.
"Look here!" ses the skipper, speaking very slow, "I've got an idea, wot'll settle it p'raps. You get outside," he ses, turning sharp on the two little boys.
One o' the draymen 'elped 'em to go out, and 'arf a minute arterwards a stone came over the gate and cut the potman's lip open. Boys will be boys.
"Now!" ses the skipper, turning to the woman, and smiling with conceitedness. "Had your 'usband got any marks on 'im? Birth-mark, or moles, or anything of that sort?"
"I'm sure he is my 'usband," ses the woman, dabbing her eyes.
"Yes, yes," ses the skipper, "but answer my question. If you can tell us any marks your 'usband had, we can take Bill down into my cabin and——"
"You'll do WOT?" I ses, in a loud voice.
"You speak when you're spoke to," ses the carman. "It's got nothing to do with you."
"No, he ain't got no birthmarks," ses the woman, speaking very slow—and I could see she was afraid of making a mistake and losing me—"but he's got tattoo marks. He's got a mermaid tattooed on 'im."
"Where?" ses the skipper, a'most jumping.
I 'eld my breath. Five sailormen out of ten have been tattooed with mermaids, and I was one of 'em. When she spoke agin I thought I should ha' dropped.
"On 'is right arm," she ses, "unless he's 'ad it rubbed off."
"You can't rub out tattoo marks," ses the skipper.
They all stood looking at me as if they was waiting for something. I folded my arms—tight—and stared back at 'em.
"If you ain't this lady's 'usband," ses the skipper, turning to me, "you can take off your coat and prove it."
"And if you don't we'll take it off for you," ses the carman, coming a bit closer.
Arter that things 'appened so quick, I hardly knew whether I was standing on my 'cad or my heels. Both, I think. They was all on top o' me at once, and the next thing I can remember is sitting on the ground in my shirt-sleeves listening to the potman, who was making a fearful fuss because somebody 'ad bit his ear 'arf off. My coat was ripped up the back, and one of the draymen was holding up my arm and showing them all the mermaid, while the other struck matches so as they could see better.
"That's your 'usband right enough," he ses to the woman. "Take 'im."
"P'raps she'll carry 'im 'ome," I ses, very fierce and sarcastic.
"And we don't want none of your lip," ses the carman, who was in a bad temper because he 'ad got a fearful kick on the shin from somewhere.
I got up very slow and began to put my coat on again, and twice I 'ad to tell that silly woman that when I wanted her 'elp I'd let 'er know. Then I 'eard slow, heavy footsteps in the road outside, and, afore any of 'em could stop me, I was calling for the police.
I don't like policemen as a rule; they're too inquisitive, but when the wicket was pushed open and I saw a face with a helmet on it peeping in, I felt quite a liking for 'em.
"Wot's up?" ses the policeman, staring 'ard at my little party.
They all started telling 'im at once, and I should think if the potman showed him 'is ear once he showed it to 'im twenty times. He lost his temper and pushed it away at last, and the potman gave a 'owl that set my teeth on edge. I waited till they was all finished, and the policeman trying to get 'is hearing back, and then I spoke up in a quiet way and told 'im to clear them all off of my wharf.
"They're trespassing," I ses, "all except the skipper and mate here. They belong to a little wash-tub that's laying alongside, and they're both as 'armless as they look."
It's wonderful wot a uniform will do. The policeman just jerked his 'ead and said "out-side," and the men went out like a flock of sheep. The on'y man that said a word was the carman, who was in such a hurry that 'e knocked his bad shin against my foot as 'e went by. The thin little woman was passed out by the policeman in the middle of a speech she was making, and he was just going for the other, when the skipper stopped 'im.
"This lady is coming on my ship," he ses, puffing out 'is chest.
I looked at 'im, and then I turned to the policeman. "So long as she goes off my wharf, I don't mind where she goes," I ses. "The skipper's goings-on 'ave got nothing to do with me."
"Then she can foller him 'ome in the morning," ses the skipper. "Good night, watch-man."
Him and the mate 'elped the silly old thing to the ship, and, arter I 'ad been round to the Bear's Head and fetched a pint for the police-man, I locked up and sat down to think things out; and the more I thought the worse they seemed. I've 'eard people say that if you have a clear conscience nothing can hurt you. They didn't know my missus.
I got up at last and walked on to the jetty, and the woman, wot was sitting on the deck of the John Henry, kept calling out: "Bill!" like a sick baa-lamb crying for its ma. I went back, and 'ad four pints at the Bear's Head, but it didn't seem to do me any good, and at last I went and sat down in the office to wait for morning.
It came at last, a lovely morning with a beautiful sunrise; and that woman sitting up wide awake, waiting to foller me 'ome. When I opened the gate at six o'clock she was there with the mate and the skipper, waiting, and when I left at five minutes past she was trotting along beside me.
Twice I stopped and spoke to 'er, but it was no good. Other people stopped too, and I 'ad to move on agin; and every step was bringing me nearer to my house and the missus.
I turned into our street, arter passing it three times, and the first thing I saw was my missus standing on the doorstep 'aving a few words with the lady next door. Then she 'appened to look up and see us, just as that silly woman was trying to walk arm-in-arm.
Twice I knocked her 'and away, and then, right afore my wife and the party next door, she put her arm round my waist. By the time I got to the 'ouse my legs was trembling so I could hardly stand, and when I got into the passage I 'ad to lean up against the wall for a bit.
"Keep 'er out," I ses.
"Wot do you want?" ses my missus, trembling with passion. "Wot do you think you're doing?"
"I want my 'usband, Bill," ses the woman.
My missus put her 'and to her throat and came in without a word, and the woman follered 'er. If I hadn't kept my presence o' mind and shut the door two or three more would 'ave come in too.
I went into the kitchen about ten minutes arterwards to see 'ow they was getting on. Besides which they was both calling for me.
"Now then!" ses my missus, who was leaning up against the dresser with 'er arms folded, "wot 'ave you got to say for yourself walking in as bold as brass with this hussy?"
"Bill!" ses the woman, "did you hear wot she called me?"
She spoke to me like that afore my wife, and in two minutes they was at it, hammer and tongs.
Fust of all they spoke about each other, and then my missus started speaking about me. She's got a better memory than most people, because she can remember things that never 'appened, and every time I coughed she turned on me like a tiger.
"And as for you," she ses, turning to the woman, "if you did marry 'im you should ha' made sure that he 'adn't got a wife already."
"He married me fust," ses the woman.
"When?" ses my wife. "Wot was the date?"
"Wot was the date you married 'im?" ses the other one.
They stood looking at each other like a couple o' game-cocks, and I could see as plain as a pike-staff 'ow frightened both of 'em was o' losing me.
"Look here!" I ses at last, to my missus, "talk sense. 'Ow could I be married to 'er? When I was at sea I was at sea, and when I was ashore I was with you."
"Did you use to go down to the ship to see 'im off?" ses the woman.
"No," ses my wife. "I'd something better to do."
"Neither did I," ses the woman. "P'raps that's where we both made a mistake."
"You get out of my 'ouse!" ses my missus, very sudden. "Go on, afore I put you out."
"Not without my Bill," ses the woman. "If you lay a finger on me I'll scream the house down."
"You brought her 'ere," ses my wife, turning to me, "now you can take 'er away?"
"I didn't bring 'er," I ses. "She follered me."
"Well, she can foller you agin," she ses. "Go on!" she ses, trembling all over. "Git out afore I start on you."
I was in such a temper that I daren't trust myself to stop. I just gave 'er one look, and then I drew myself up and went out. 'Alf the fools in our street was standing in front of the 'ouse, 'umming like bees, but I took no notice. I held my 'ead up and walked through them with that woman trailing arter me.
I was in such a state of mind that I went on like a man in a dream. If it had ha' been a dream I should ha' pushed 'er under an omnibus, but you can't do things like that in real life.
"Penny for your thoughts, Bill," she ses. I didn't answer her.
"Why don't you speak to me?" she ses.
"You don't know wot you're asking for," I ses.
I was hungry and sleepy, and 'ow I was going to get through the day I couldn't think. I went into a pub and 'ad a couple o' pints o' stout and a crust o' bread and cheese for brekfuss. I don't know wot she 'ad, but when the barman tried to take for it out o' my money, I surprised 'im.
We walked about till I was ready to drop. Then we got to Victoria Park, and I 'ad no sooner got on to the grass than I laid down and went straight off to sleep. It was two o'clock when I woke, and, arter a couple o' pork-pies and a pint or two, I sat on a seat in the Park smoking, while she kep' dabbing 'er eyes agin and asking me to come 'ome.
At five o'clock I got up to go back to the wharf, and, taking no notice of 'er, I walked into the street and jumped on a 'bus that was passing. She jumped too, and, arter the conductor had 'elped 'er up off of 'er knees and taken her arms away from his waist, I'm blest if he didn't turn on me and ask me why I 'adn't left her at 'ome.
We got to the wharf just afore six. The John Henry 'ad gorn, but the skipper 'ad done all the 'arm he could afore he sailed, and, if I 'adn't kept my temper, I should ha' murdered arf a dozen of 'em.
The woman wanted to come on to the wharf, but I 'ad a word or two with one o' the fore-men, who owed me arf-a-dollar, and he made that all right.
"We all 'ave our faults, Bill," he ses as 'e went out, "and I suppose she was better looking once upon a time?"
I didn't answer 'im. I shut the wicket arter 'im, quick, and turned the key, and then I went on with my work. For a long time everything was as quiet as the grave, and then there came just one little pull at the bell. Five minutes arterwards there was another.
I thought it was that woman, but I 'ad to make sure. When it came the third time I crept up to the gate.
"Halloa!" I ses. "Who is it?"
"Me, darling," ses a voice I reckernized as the potman's. "Your missus wants to come in and sit down."
I could 'ear several people talking, and it seemed to me there was quite a crowd out there, and by and by that bell was going like mad. Then people started kicking the gate, and shouting, but I took no notice until, presently, it left off all of a sudden, and I 'eard a loud voice asking what it was all about. I suppose there was about fifty of 'em all telling it at once, and then there was the sound of a fist on the gate.
"Who is it?" I ses.
"Police," ses the voice.
I opened the wicket then and looked out. A couple o' policemen was standing by the gate and arf the riff-raff of Wapping behind 'em.
"Wot's all this about?" ses one o' the policemen.
I shook my 'ead. "Ask me another," I ses. "Your missus is causing a disturbance," he ses.
"She's not my missus," I ses; "she's a complete stranger to me."
"And causing a crowd to collect and refusing to go away," ses the other policeman.
"That's your business," I ses. "It's nothing to do with me."
They talked to each other for a moment, and then they spoke to the woman. I didn't 'ear wot she said, but I saw her shake her 'ead, and a'most direckly arterwards she was marching away between the two policemen with the crowd follering and advising 'er where to kick 'em.
I was a bit worried at fust—not about her—and then I began to think that p'raps it was the best thing that could have 'appened.
I went 'ome in the morning with a load lifted off my mind; but I 'adn't been in the 'ouse two seconds afore my missus started to put it on agin. Fust of all she asked me 'ow I dared to come into the 'ouse, and then she wanted to know wot I meant by leaving her at 'ome and going out for the day with another woman.
"You told me to," I ses.
"Oh, yes," she ses, trembling with temper. "You always do wot I tell you, don't you? Al-ways 'ave, especially when it's anything you like."
She fetched a bucket o' water and scrubbed the kitchen while I was having my brekfuss, but I kept my eye on 'er, and, the moment she 'ad finished, I did the perlite and emptied the bucket for 'er, to prevent mistakes.
I read about the case in the Sunday paper, and I'm thankful to say my name wasn't in it. All the magistrate done was to make 'er promise that she wouldn't do it again, and then he let 'er go. I should ha' felt more comfortable if he 'ad given 'er five years, but, as it turned out, it didn't matter. Her 'usband happened to read it, and, whether 'e was tired of living alone, or whether he was excited by 'caring that she 'ad got a little general shop, 'e went back to her.
The fust I knew about it was they came round to the wharf to see me. He 'ad been a fine-looking chap in 'is day, and even then 'e was enough like me for me to see 'ow she 'ad made the mistake; and all the time she was telling me 'ow it 'appened, he was looking me up and down and sniffing.
"'Ave you got a cold?" I ses, at last.
"Wot's that got to do with you?" he ses. "Wot do you mean by walking out with my wife? That's what I've come to talk about."
For a moment I thought that his bad luck 'ad turned 'is brain. "You've got it wrong," I ses, as soon as I could speak. "She walked out with me."
"Cos she thought you was her 'usband," he ses, "but you didn't think you was me, did you?"
"'Course I didn't," I ses.
"Then 'ow dare you walk out with 'er?" he ses.
"Look 'ere!" I ses. "You get off 'ome as quick as you like. I've 'ad about enough of your family. Go on, hook it."
Afore I could put my 'ands up he 'it me hard in the mouth, and the next moment we was at it as 'ard as we could go. Nearly every time I hit 'im he wasn't there, and every time 'e hit me I wished I hadn't ha' been. When I said I had 'ad enough, 'e contradicted me and kept on, but he got tired of it at last, and, arter telling me wot he would do if I ever walked 'is wife out agin, they went off like a couple o' love-birds.
By the time I got 'ome next morning my eyes was so swelled up I could 'ardly see, and my nose wouldn't let me touch it. I was so done up I could 'ardly speak, but I managed to tell my missus about it arter I had 'ad a cup o' tea. Judging by her face anybody might ha' thought I was telling 'er something funny, and, when I 'ad finished, she looks up at the ceiling and ses:
"I 'ope it'll be a lesson to you," she ses.
Mr. Jernshaw, who was taking the opportunity of a lull in business to weigh out pound packets of sugar, knocked his hands together and stood waiting for the order of the tall bronzed man who had just entered the shop—a well-built man of about forty—who was regarding him with blue eyes set in quizzical wrinkles.
"What, Harry!" exclaimed Mr. Jernshaw, in response to the wrinkles. "Harry Barrett!"
"That's me," said the other, extending his hand. "The rolling stone come home covered with moss."
Mr. Jernshaw, somewhat excited, shook hands, and led the way into the little parlour behind the shop.
"Fifteen years," said Mr. Barrett, sinking into a chair, "and the old place hasn't altered a bit."
"Smithson told me he had let that house in Webb Street to a Barrett," said the grocer, regarding him, "but I never thought of you. I suppose you've done well, then?"
Mr. Barrett nodded. "Can't grumble," he said modestly. "I've got enough to live on. Melbourne's all right, but I thought I'd come home for the evening of my life."
"Evening!" repeated his friend. "Forty-three," said Mr. Barrett, gravely. "I'm getting on."
"You haven't changed much," said the grocer, passing his hand through his spare grey whiskers. "Wait till you have a wife and seven youngsters. Why, boots alone——"
Mr. Barrett uttered a groan intended for sympathy. "Perhaps you could help me with the furnishing," he said, slowly. "I've never had a place of my own before, and I don't know much about it."
"Anything I can do," said his friend. "Better not get much yet; you might marry, and my taste mightn't be hers."
Mr. Barrett laughed. "I'm not marrying," he said, with conviction.
"Seen anything of Miss Prentice yet?" inquired Mr. Jernshaw.
"No," said the other, with a slight flush. "Why?"
"She's still single," said the grocer.
"What of it?" demanded Mr. Barrett, with warmth. "What of it?"
"Nothing," said Mr. Jernshaw, slowly. "Nothing; only I——"
"Well?" said the other, as he paused.
"I—there was an idea that you went to Australia to—to better your condition," murmured the grocer. "That—that you were not in a position to marry—that——"
"Boy and girl nonsense," said Mr. Barrett, sharply. "Why, it's fifteen years ago. I don't suppose I should know her if I saw her. Is her mother alive?"
"Rather!" said Mr. Jernshaw, with emphasis. "Louisa is something like what her mother was when you went away."
Mr. Barrett shivered.
"But you'll see for yourself," continued the other. "You'll have to go and see them. They'll wonder you haven't been before."
"Let 'em wonder," said the embarrassed Mr. Barrett. "I shall go and see all my old friends in their turn; casual-like. You might let 'em hear that I've been to see you before seeing them, and then, if they're thinking any nonsense, it'll be a hint. I'm stopping in town while the house is being decorated; next time I come down I'll call and see somebody else."
"That'll be another hint," assented Mr. Jernshaw. "Not that hints are much good to Mrs. Prentice."
"We'll see," said Mr. Barrett.
In accordance with his plan his return to his native town was heralded by a few short visits at respectable intervals. A sort of human butterfly, he streaked rapidly across one or two streets, alighted for half an hour to resume an old friendship, and then disappeared again. Having given at least half-a-dozen hints of this kind, he made a final return to Ramsbury and entered into occupation of his new house.
"It does you credit, Jernshaw," he said, gratefully. "I should have made a rare mess of it without your help."
"It looks very nice," admitted his friend. "Too nice."
"That's all nonsense," said the owner, irritably.
"All right," said Mr. Jernshaw. "I don't know the sex, then, that's all. If you think that you're going to keep a nice house like this all to yourself, you're mistaken. It's a home; and where there's a home a woman comes in, somehow."
Mr. Barrett grunted his disbelief.
"I give you four days," said Mr. Jernshaw.
As a matter of fact, Mrs. Prentice and her daughter came on the fifth. Mr. Barrett, who was in an easy-chair, wooing slumber with a handkerchief over his head, heard their voices at the front door and the cordial invitation of his housekeeper. They entered the room as he sat hastily smoothing his rumpled hair.
"Good afternoon," he said, shaking hands.
Mrs. Prentice returned the greeting in a level voice, and, accepting a chair, gazed around the room.
"Nice weather," said Mr. Barrett.
"Very," said Mrs. Prentice.
"It's—it's quite a pleasure to see you again," said Mr. Barrett.
"We thought we should have seen you before," said Mrs. Prentice, "but I told Louisa that no doubt you were busy, and wanted to surprise her. I like the carpet; don't you, Louisa?"
Miss Prentice said she did.
"The room is nice and airy," said Mrs. Prentice, "but it's a pity you didn't come to me before deciding. I could have told you of a better house for the same money."
"I'm very well satisfied with this," said Mr. Barrett. "It's all I want."
"It's well enough," conceded Mrs. Prentice, amiably. "And how have you been all these years?"
Mr. Barrett, with some haste, replied that his health and spirits had been excellent.
"You look well," said Mrs. Prentice. "Neither of you seem to have changed much," she added, looking from him to her daughter. "And I think you did quite well not to write. I think it was much the best."
Mr. Barrett sought for a question: a natural, artless question, that would neutralize the hideous suggestion conveyed by this remark, but it eluded him. He sat and gazed in growing fear at Mrs. Prentice.
"I—I couldn't write," he said at last, in desperation; "my wife——"
"Your what?" exclaimed Mrs. Prentice, loudly.
"Wife," said Mr. Barrett, suddenly calm now that he had taken the plunge. "She wouldn't have liked it."
Mrs. Prentice tried to control her voice. "I never heard you were married!" she gasped. "Why isn't she here?"
"We couldn't agree," said the veracious Mr. Barrett. "She was very difficult; so I left the children with her and——"
"Chil——" said Mrs. Prentice, and paused, unable to complete the word.
"Five," said Mr. Barrett, in tones of resignation. "It was rather a wrench, parting with them, especially the baby. He got his first tooth the day I left."
The information fell on deaf ears. Mrs. Prentice, for once in her life thoroughly at a loss, sat trying to collect her scattered faculties. She had come out prepared for a hard job, but not an impossible one. All things considered, she took her defeat with admirable composure.
"I have no doubt it is much the best thing for the children to remain with their mother," she said, rising.
"Much the best," agreed Mr. Barrett. "Whatever she is like," continued the old lady. "Are you ready, Louisa?"
Mr. Barrett followed them to the door, and then, returning to the room, watched, with glad eyes, their progress up the street.
"Wonder whether she'll keep it to herself?" he muttered.
His doubts were set at rest next day. All Ramsbury knew by then of his matrimonial complications, and seemed anxious to talk about them; complications which tended to increase until Mr. Barrett wrote out a list of his children's names and ages and learnt it off by heart.
Relieved of the attentions of the Prentice family, he walked the streets a free man; and it was counted to him for righteousness that he never said a hard word about his wife. She had her faults, he said, but they were many thousand miles away, and he preferred to forget them. And he added, with some truth, that he owed her a good deal.
For a few months he had no reason to alter his opinion. Thanks to his presence of mind, the Prentice family had no terrors for him. Heart- whole and fancy free, he led the easy life of a man of leisure, a condition of things suddenly upset by the arrival of Miss Grace Lindsay to take up a post at the elementary school. Mr. Barrett succumbed almost at once, and, after a few encounters in the street and meetings at mutual friends', went to unbosom him-self to Mr. Jernshaw.
"What has she got to do with you?" demanded that gentleman.
"I—I'm rather struck with her," said Mr. Barrett.
"Struck with her?" repeated his friend, sharply. "I'm surprised at you. You've no business to think of such things."
"Why not?" demanded Mr. Barrett, in tones that were sharper still.
"Why not?" repeated the other. "Have you forgotten your wife and children?"
Mr. Barrett, who, to do him justice, had forgotten, fell back in his chair and sat gazing at him, open-mouthed.
"You're in a false position—in a way," said Mr. Jernshaw, sternly.
"False is no name for it," said Mr. Barrett, huskily. "What am I to do?"
"Do?" repeated the other, staring at him. "Nothing! Unless, perhaps, you send for your wife and children. I suppose, in any case, you would have to have the little ones if anything happened to her?"
Mr. Barrett grinned ruefully.
"Think it over," said Mr. Jernshaw. "I will," said the other, heartily.
He walked home deep in thought. He was a kindly man, and he spent some time thinking out the easiest death for Mrs. Barrett. He decided at last upon heart-disease, and a fort-night later all Ramsbury knew of the letter from Australia conveying the mournful intelligence. It was generally agreed that the mourning and the general behaviour of the widower left nothing to be desired.
"She's at peace at last," he said, solemnly, to Jernshaw.
"I believe you killed her," said his friend. Mr. Barrett started violently.
"I mean your leaving broke her heart," explained the other.
Mr. Barrett breathed easily again.
"It's your duty to look after the children," said Jernshaw, firmly. "And I'm not the only one that thinks so."
"They are with their grandfather and grand-mother," said Mr. Barrett.
Mr. Jernshaw sniffed.
"And four uncles and five aunts," added Mr. Barrett, triumphantly.
"Think how they would brighten up your house," said Mr. Jernshaw.
His friend shook his head. "It wouldn't be fair to their grandmother," he said, decidedly. "Besides, Australia wants population."
He found to his annoyance that Mr. Jernshaw's statement that he was not alone in his views was correct. Public opinion seemed to expect the arrival of the children, and one citizen even went so far as to recommend a girl he knew, as nurse.
Ramsbury understood at last that his decision was final, and, observing his attentions to the new schoolmistress, flattered itself that it had discovered the reason. It is possible that Miss Lindsay shared their views, but if so she made no sign, and on the many occasions on which she met Mr. Barrett on her way to and from school greeted him with frank cordiality. Even when he referred to his loneliness, which he did frequently, she made no comment.
He went into half-mourning at the end of two months, and a month later bore no outward signs of his loss. Added to that his step was springy and his manner youthful. Miss Lindsay was twenty-eight, and he persuaded himself that, sexes considered, there was no disparity worth mentioning.
He was only restrained from proposing by a question of etiquette. Even a shilling book on the science failed to state the interval that should elapse between the death of one wife and the negotiations for another. It preferred instead to give minute instructions with regard to the eating of asparagus. In this dilemma he consulted Jernshaw.
"Don't know, I'm sure," said that gentle-man; "besides, it doesn't matter."
"Doesn't matter?" repeated Mr. Barrett. "Why not?"
"Because I think Tillett is paying her attentions," was the reply. "He's ten years younger than you are, and a bachelor. A girl would naturally prefer him to a middle-aged widower with five children."
"In Australia," the other reminded him.
"Man for man, bachelor for bachelor," said Mr. Jernshaw, regarding him, "she might prefer you; as things are—"
"I shall ask her," said Mr. Barrett, doggedly. "I was going to wait a bit longer, but if there's any chance of her wrecking her prospects for life by marrying that tailor's dummy it's my duty to risk it—for her sake. I've seen him talking to her twice myself, but I never thought he'd dream of such a thing."
Apprehension and indignation kept him awake half the night, but when he arose next morning it was with the firm resolve to put his fortune to the test that day. At four o'clock he changed his neck-tie for the third time, and at ten past sallied out in the direction of the school. He met Miss Lindsay just coming out, and, after a well-deserved compliment to the weather, turned and walked with her.
"I was hoping to meet you," he said, slowly.
"Yes?" said the girl.
"I—I have been feeling rather lonely to-day," he continued.
"You often do," said Miss Lindsay, guardedly.
"It gets worse and worse," said Mr. Barrett, sadly.
"I think I know what is the matter with you," said the girl, in a soft voice; "you have got nothing to do all day, and you live alone, except for your housekeeper."
Mr. Barrett assented with some eagerness, and stole a hopeful glance at her.
"You—you miss something," continued Miss. Lindsay, in a faltering voice.
"I do," said Mr. Barrett, with ardour.
"You miss"—the girl made an effort—"you miss the footsteps and voices of your little children."
Mr. Barrett stopped suddenly in the street, and then, with a jerk, went blindly on.
"I've never spoken of it before because it's your business, not mine," continued the girl. "I wouldn't have spoken now, but when you referred to your loneliness I thought perhaps you didn't realize the cause of it."
Mr. Barrett walked on in silent misery.
"Poor little motherless things!" said Miss Lindsay, softly. "Motherless and—fatherless."
"Better for them," said Mr. Barrett, finding his voice at last.
"It almost looks like it," said Miss Lindsay, with a sigh.
Mr. Barrett tried to think clearly, but the circumstances were hardly favourable. "Suppose," he said, speaking very slowly, "suppose I wanted to get married?"
Miss Lindsay started. "What, again?" she said, with an air of surprise.
"How could I ask a girl to come and take over five children?"
"No woman that was worth having would let little children be sacrificed for her sake," said Miss Lindsay, decidedly.
"Do you think anybody would marry me with five children?" demanded Mr. Barrett.
"She might," said the girl, edging away from him a little. "It depends on the woman."
"Would—you, for instance?" said Mr. Barrett, desperately.
Miss Lindsay shrank still farther away. "I don't know; it would depend upon circumstances," she murmured.
"I will write and send for them," said Mr. Barrett, significantly.
Miss Lindsay made no reply. They had arrived at her gate by this time, and, with a hurried handshake, she disappeared indoors.
Mr. Barrett, somewhat troubled in mind, went home to tea.
He resolved, after a little natural hesitation, to drown the children, and reproached himself bitterly for not having disposed of them at the same time as their mother. Now he would have to go through another period of mourning and the consequent delay in pressing his suit. Moreover, he would have to allow a decent interval between his conversation with Miss Lindsay and their untimely end.
The news of the catastrophe arrived two or three days before the return of the girl from her summer holidays. She learnt it in the first half- hour from her landlady, and sat in a dazed condition listening to a description of the grief-stricken father and the sympathy extended to him by his fellow-citizens. It appeared that nothing had passed his lips for two days.
"Shocking!" said Miss Lindsay, briefly. "Shocking!"
An instinctive feeling that the right and proper thing to do was to nurse his grief in solitude kept Mr. Barrett out of her way for nearly a week. When she did meet him she received a limp handshake and a greeting in a voice from which all hope seemed to have departed.
"I am very sorry," she said, with a sort of measured gentleness.
Mr. Barrett, in his hushed voice, thanked her.
"I am all alone now," he said, pathetically. "There is nobody now to care whether I live or die."
Miss Lindsay did not contradict him.
"How did it happen?" she inquired, after they had gone some distance in silence.
"They were out in a sailing-boat," said Mr. Barrett; "the boat capsized in a puff of wind, and they were all drowned."
"Who was in charge of them?" inquired the girl, after a decent interval.
"Boatman," replied the other.
"How did you hear?"
"I had a letter from one of my sisters-in-law, Charlotte," said Mr. Barrett. "A most affecting letter. Poor Charlotte was like a second mother to them. She'll never be the same woman again. Never!"
"I should like to see the letter," said Miss Lindsay, musingly.
Mr. Barrett suppressed a start. "I should like to show it to you," he said, "but I'm afraid I have destroyed it. It made me shudder every time I looked at it."
"It's a pity," said the girl, dryly. "I should have liked to see it. I've got my own idea about the matter. Are you sure she was very fond of them?"
"She lived only for them," said Mr. Barrett, in a rapt voice.
"Exactly. I don't believe they are drowned at all," said Miss Lindsay, suddenly. "I believe you have had all this terrible anguish for nothing. It's too cruel."
Mr. Barrett stared at her in anxious amazement.
"I see it all now," continued the girl. "Their Aunt Charlotte was devoted to them. She always had the fear that some day you would return and claim them, and to prevent that she invented the story of their death."
"Charlotte is the most truthful woman that ever breathed," said the distressed Mr. Barrett.
Miss Lindsay shook her head. "You are like all other honourable, truthful people," she said, looking at him gravely. "You can't imagine anybody else telling a falsehood. I don't believe you could tell one if you tried."
Mr. Barrett gazed about him with the despairing look of a drowning mariner.
"I'm certain I'm right," continued the girl. "I can see Charlotte exulting in her wickedness. Why!"
"What's the matter?" inquired Mr. Barrett, greatly worried.
"I've just thought of it," said Miss Lindsay. "She's told you that your children are drowned, and she has probably told them you are dead. A woman like that would stick at nothing to gain her ends."
"You don't know Charlotte," said Mr. Barrett, feebly.
"I think I do," was the reply. "However, we'll make sure. I suppose you've got friends in Melbourne?"
"A few," said Mr. Barrett, guardedly.
"Come down to the post-office and cable to one of them."
Mr. Barrett hesitated. "I'll write," he said, slowly. "It's an awkward thing to cable; and there's no hurry. I'll write to Jack Adams, I think."
"It's no good writing," said Miss Lindsay, firmly. "You ought to know that."
"Why not?" demanded the other.
"Because, you foolish man," said the girl, calmly, "before your letter got there, there would be one from Melbourne saying that he had been choked by a fish-bone, or died of measles, or something of that sort."
Mr. Barrett, hardly able to believe his ears, stopped short and looked at her. The girl's eyes were moist with mirth and her lips trembling. He put out his hand and took her wrist in a strong grip.
"That's all right," he said, with a great gasp of relief. "Phew! At one time I thought I had lost you."
"By heart-disease, or drowning?" inquired Miss Lindsay, softly.
THE WINTER OFFENSIVE
N.B.—Having regard to the eccentricities of the Law of Libel it must be distinctly understood that the following does not refer to the distinguished officer, Lieut. Troup Horne, of the Inns of Court. Anybody trying to cause mischief between a civilian of eight stone and a soldier of seventeen by a statement to the contrary will hear from my solicitors.
Aug. 29, 1916.—We returned from the sea to find our house still our own, and the military still in undisputed possession of the remains of the grass in the fields of Berkhamsted Place. As in previous years, it was impossible to go in search of wild-flowers without stumbling over sleeping members of the Inns of Court; but war is war, and we grumble as little as possible.
Sept. 28.—Unpleasant rumours to the effect that several members of the Inns of Court had attributed cases of curvature of the spine to sleeping on ground that had been insufficiently rolled. Also that they had been heard to smack their lips and speak darkly of featherbeds. Respected neighbour of gloomy disposition said that if Pharaoh were still alive he could suggest an eleventh plague to him beside which frogs and flies were an afternoon's diversion.
Oct. 3.—Householders of Berkhamsted busy mending bedsteads broken by last year's billets, and buying patent taps for their beer-barrels.
Oct. 15.—Informed that a representative of the Army wished to see me. Instead of my old friend Q.M.S. Beddem, who generally returns to life at this time of year, found that it was an officer of magnificent presence and two pips. A fine figure of a man, with a great resemblance to the late lamented Bismarck, minus the moustache and the three hairs on the top of the head. Asked him to be seated. He selected a chair that was all arms and legs and no hips to speak of and crushed himself into it. After which he unfastened his belt and "swelled wisibly afore my werry eyes." Said that his name was True Born and asked if it made any difference to me whether I had one officer or half-a-dozen men billeted on me. Said that he was the officer, and that as the rank-and-file were not allowed to pollute the same atmosphere, thought I should score. After a mental review of all I could remember of the Weights and Measures Table, accepted him. He bade a lingering farewell to the chair, and departed.
Oct. 16.—Saw Q.M.S. Beddem on the other side of the road and gave him an absolutely new thrill by crossing to meet him. Asked diffidently—as diffidently as he could, that is—how many men my house would hold. Replied eight—or ten at a pinch. He gave me a surprised and beaming smile and whipped out a huge note-book. Informed him with as much regret as I could put into a voice not always under perfect control, that I had already got an officer. Q.M.S., favouring me with a look very appropriate to the Devil's Own, turned on his heel and set off in pursuit of a lady-billetee, pulling up short on the threshold of the baby-linen shop in which she took refuge. Left him on guard with a Casablanca-like look on his face.
Nov. 1.—Lieut. True Born took up his quarters with us. Gave him my dressing-room for bedchamber. Was awakened several times in the night by what I took to be Zeppelins, flying low.
Nov. 2.—Lieut. True Born offered to bet me five pounds to twenty that the war would be over by 1922.
Nov. 3.—Offered to teach me auction-bridge.
Nov. 4.—Asked me whether I could play "shove ha'penny."
Nov. 10.—Lieut. True Born gave one of the regimental horses a riding- lesson. Came home grumpy and went to bed early.
Nov. 13.—Another riding-lesson. Over-heard him asking one of the maids whether there was such a thing as a water-bed in the house.
Nov. 17.—Complained bitterly of horse-copers. Said that his poor mount was discovered to be suffering from saddle-soreness, broken wind, splints, weak hocks, and two bones of the neck out of place.
Dec. 9.—7 p.m.—One of last year's billets, Private Merited, on leave from a gunnery course, called to see me and to find out whether his old bed had improved since last year. Left his motor-bike in the garage, and the smell in front of the dining-room window.
8 to 12 p.m.—Sat with Private Merited, listening to Lieut. True Born on the mistakes of Wellington.
12.5 a.m.—Rose to go to bed. Was about to turn out gas in hall when I discovered the lieutenant standing with his face to the wall playing pat- a-cake with it. Gave him three-parts of a tumbler of brandy. Said he felt better and went upstairs. Arrived in his bed-room, he looked about him carefully, and then, with a superb sweep of his left arm, swept the best Chippendale looking-glass in the family off the dressing table and dived face down-wards to the floor, missing death and the corner of the chest of drawers by an inch.
12:15 a.m.—Rolled him on to his back and got his feet on the bed. They fell off again as soon as they were cleaner than the quilt. The lieutenant, startled by the crash, opened his eyes and climbed into bed unaided.
12.20 a.m.—Sent Private Merited for the M.O., Captain Geranium.
12.25 a.m.—Mixed a dose of brandy and castor-oil in a tumbler. Am told it slips down like an oyster that way—bad oyster, I should think. Lieut. True Born jibbed. Reminded him that England expects that every man will take his castor-oil. Reply unprintable. Apologized a moment later. Said that his mind was wandering and that he thought he was a colonel. Reassured him.
12.40 a.m.—Private Merited returned with the M.O. Latter nicely dressed in musical-comedy pyjamas of ravishing hue, and great-coat, with rose- tinted feet thrust into red morocco slippers. Held consultation and explained my treatment. M.O. much impressed, anxious to know whether I was a doctor. Told him "No," but that I knew all the ropes. First give patient castor-oil, then diet him and call every day to make sure that he doesn't like his food. After that, if he shows signs of getting well too soon, give him a tonic. . . . M.O. stuffy.
Dec. 10.—M.O. diagnosed attack as due to something which True Born believes to be tobacco, with which he disinfects the house, the mess-sheds, and the streets of Berkhamsted.
Dec. 11.—True Born, shorn of thirteen pipes a day out of sixteen, disparages the whole race of M.O.'s.
Dec. 14.—He obtains leave to attend wedding of a great-aunt and ransacks London for a specialist who advocates strong tobacco.
Dec. 15.—He classes specialists with M.O.'s. Is surprised (and apparently disappointed) that, so far, the breaking of the looking-glass has brought me no ill-luck. Feel somewhat uneasy myself until glass is repaired by local cabinet-maker.
Jan. 10, 1917.—Lieut. True Born starts to break in another horse.
Feb. 1.—Horse broken.
March 3.—Running short of tobacco, go to my billet's room and try a pipe of his. Take all the remedies except the castor-oil.
April 4, 8.30 a.m.—Awakened by an infernal crash and discover that my poor looking-glass is in pieces again on the floor. True Born explains that its position, between the open door and the open window, was too much for it. Don't believe a word of it. Shall believe to my dying day that it burst in a frantic but hopeless attempt to tell Lieut. True Born the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
April 6.—The lieutenant watching for some sign of misfortune to me. Says that I can't break a mirror twice without ill-luck following it. Me!
April 9.—Lieut. True Born comes up to me with a face full of conflicting emotions. "Your ill-luck has come at last," he says with gloomy satisfaction. "We go under canvas on the 23rd. You are losing me!"
The night watchman had just returned to the office fire after leaving it to attend a ring at the wharf bell. He sat for some time puffing fiercely at his pipe and breathing heavily.
"Boys!" he said, at last. "That's the third time this week, and yet if I was to catch one and skin 'im alive I suppose I should get into trouble over it. Even 'is own father and mother would make a fuss, most like. Some people have boys, and other people 'ave the trouble of 'em. Our street's full of 'em, and the way they carry on would make a monkey-'ouse ashamed of itself. The man next door to me's got seven of 'em, and when I spoke to 'im friendly about it over a pint one night, he put the blame on 'is wife.