"The worst boy I ever knew used to be office-boy in this 'ere office, and I can't understand now why I wasn't 'ung for him. Undersized little chap he was, with a face the colour o' bad pie-crust, and two little black eyes like shoe-buttons. To see 'im with his little white cuffs, and a stand-up collar, and a little black bow, and a little bowler-'at, was enough to make a cat laugh. I told 'im so one day, and arter that we knew where we was. Both of us.
"By rights he ought to 'ave left the office at six—just my time for coming on. As it was, he used to stay late, purtending to work 'ard so as to get a rise. Arter all the clerks 'ad gorn 'ome he used to sit perched up on a stool yards too 'igh for him, with one eye on the ledger and the other looking through the winder at me. I remember once going off for 'arf a pint, and when I come back I found 'im with a policeman, two carmen, and all the hands off of the Maid Marian, standing on the edge of the jetty, waiting for me to come up. He said that, not finding me on the wharf, 'e made sure that I must 'ave tumbled overboard, as he felt certain that I wouldn't neglect my dooty while there was breath in my body; but 'e was sorry to find 'e was mistook. He stood there talking like a little clergyman, until one of the carmen knocked his 'at over 'is eyes, and then he forgot 'imself for a bit.
"Arter that I used to wait until he 'ad gorn afore I 'ad my arf-pint. I didn't want my good name taken away, and I had to be careful, and many's the good arf-pint I 'ad to refuse because that little imitation monkey was sitting in the office drawing faces on 'is blotting-paper. But sometimes it don't matter 'ow careful you are, you make a mistake.
"There was a little steamer, called the Eastern Monarch, used to come up here in them days, once a week. Fat little tub she was, with a crew o' fattish old men, and a skipper that I didn't like. He'd been in the coasting trade all 'is life, while I've knocked about all over the world, but to hear 'im talk you'd think he knew more about things than I did.
"Eddication, Bill,' he ses one evening, 'that's the thing! You can't argufy without it; you only talk foolish, like you are doing now.'
"'There's eddication and there's common sense,' I ses. 'Some people 'as one and some people 'as the other. Give me common sense.'
"'That's wot you want,' he ses, nodding.
"'And, o' course,' I ses, looking at 'im, 'there's some people 'asn't got either one or the other.'
"The office-boy came out of the office afore he could think of an answer, and the pair of 'em stood there talking to show off their cleverness, till their tongues ached. I took up my broom and went on sweeping, and they was so busy talking long words they didn't know the meaning of to each other that they was arf choked with dust afore they noticed it. When they did notice it they left off using long words, and the skipper tried to hurt my feelings with a few short ones 'e knew.
"'It's no good wasting your breath on 'im,' ses the boy. 'You might as well talk to a beer-barrel.'
"He went off, dusting 'imself down with his little pocket-'ankercher, and arter the skipper 'ad told me wot he'd like to do, only he was too sorry for me to do it, 'e went back to the ship to put on a clean collar, and went off for the evening.
"He always used to go off by hisself of a evening, and I used to wonder 'ow he passed the time. Then one night I found out.
"I had just come out of the Bear's Head, and stopped to look round afore going back to the wharf, when I see a couple o' people standing on the swing-bridge saying 'Good-bye' to each other. One of 'em was a man and the other wasn't.
"'Evening, cap'n,' I ses, as he came towards me, and gave a little start. 'I didn't know you 'ad brought your missis up with you this trip.'
"'Evening, Bill,' he ses, very peaceful. 'Wot a lovely evening!'
"'Bee-utiful!' I ses.
"'So fresh,' ses the skipper, sniffing in some of the air.
"'Makes you feel quite young agin,' I ses.
"He didn't say nothing to that, except to look at me out of the corner of 'is eye; and stepping on to the wharf had another look at the sky to admire it, and then went aboard his ship. If he 'ad only stood me a pint, and trusted me, things might ha' turned out different.
"Quite by chance I happened to be in the Bear's Head a week arterwards, and, quite by chance, as I came out I saw the skipper saying 'Good-bye' on the bridge agin. He seemed to be put out about something, and when I said 'Wot a lovely evening it would be if only it wasn't raining 'ard!' he said something about knocking my 'ead off.
"'And you keep your nose out o' my bisness,' he ses, very fierce.
"'Your bisness!' I ses. 'Wot bisness?'
"'There's some people as might like to know that you leave the wharf to look arter itself while you're sitting in a pub swilling gallons and gallons o' beer,' he ses, in a nasty sort o' way. 'Live and let live, that's my motter."
"'I don't know wot you're talking about,' I ses, 'but it don't matter anyways. I've got a clear conscience; that's the main thing. I'm as open as the day, and there's nothing about me that I'd mind anybody knowing. Wot a pity it is everybody can't say the same!'
"I didn't see 'im saying 'Good-bye' the next week or the week arter that either, but the third week, arter just calling in at the Bear's Head, I strolled on casual-like and got as far as the bottom of Tower Hill afore I remembered myself. Turning the corner, I a'most fell over the skipper, wot was right in the fair way, shaking 'ands with his lady-friend under the lamp-post. Both of 'em started, and I couldn't make up my mind which gave me the most unpleasant look.
"'Peep-bo!' I ses, cheerful-like.
"He stood making a gobbling noise at me, like a turkey.
"'Give me quite a start, you did,' I ses. 'I didn't dream of you being there.'
"'Get off!' he ses, spluttering. 'Get off, afore I tear you limb from limb! 'Ow dare you follow me about and come spying round corners at me? Wot d'ye mean by it?'
"I stood there with my arms folded acrost my chest, as calm as a cucumber. The other party stood there watching us, and wot 'e could 'ave seen in her, I can't think. She was dressed more like a man than a woman, and it would have taken the good looks of twenty like her to 'ave made one barmaid. I stood looking at 'er like a man in a dream.
"'Well, will you know me agin?' she ses, in a nasty cracked sort of voice.
"'I could pick you out of a million,' I ses—'if I wanted to.'
"'Clear out!' ses the skipper. 'Clear out! And thank your stars there's a lady present.'
"'Don't take no notice of 'im, Captain Pratt,' ses the lady. 'He's beneath you. You only encourage people like that by taking notice of 'em. Good-bye.'
"She held out her 'and, and while the skipper was shaking it I began to walk back to the wharf. I 'adn't gorn far afore I heard 'im coming up behind me, and next moment 'e was walking alongside and saying things to try and make me lose my temper.
"'Ah, it's a pity your pore missis can't 'ear you!' I ses. 'I expect she thinks you are stowed away in your bunk dreaming of 'er, instead of saying things about a face as don't belong to you.'
"'You mind your bisness,' he ses, shouting. 'And not so much about my missis! D'ye hear? Wot's it got to do with you? Who asked you to shove your oar in?'
"'You're quite mistook,' I ses, very calm. 'I'd no idea that there was anything on as shouldn't be. I was never more surprised in my life. If anybody 'ad told me, I shouldn't 'ave believed 'em. I couldn't. Knowing you, and knowing 'ow respectable you 'ave always purtended to be, and also and likewise that you ain't no chicken——'
"I thought 'e was going to 'ave a fit. He 'opped about, waving his arms and stuttering and going on in such a silly way that I didn't like to be seen with 'im. Twice he knocked my 'at off, and arter telling him wot would 'appen if 'e did it agin, I walked off and left him.
"Even then 'e wasn't satisfied, and arter coming on to the wharf and following me up and down like a little dog, he got in front of me and told me some more things he 'ad thought of.
"'If I catch you spying on me agin,' he ses, 'you'll wish you'd never been born!'
"'You get aboard and 'ave a quiet sleep,' I ses. 'You're wandering in your mind.'
"'The lady you saw me with,' he ses, looking at me very fierce, 'is a friend o' mine that I meet sometimes for the sake of her talk.'
"'Talk!' I ses, staring at 'im. 'Talk! Wot, can't one woman talk enough for you? Is your missis dumb? or wot?'
"'You don't understand,' he ses, cocking up 'is nose at me. 'She's a interleckshal woman; full of eddication and information. When my missis talks, she talks about the price o' things and says she must 'ave more money. Or else she talks about things I've done, or sometimes things I 'aven't done. It's all one to her. There's no pleasure in that sort o' talk. It don't help a man.'
"'I never 'eard of any talk as did,' I ses.
"'I don't suppose you did,' he ses, sneering-like. 'Now, to-night, fust of all, we talked about the House of Lords and whether it ought to be allowed; and arter that she gave me quite a little lecture on insecks.'
"'It don't seem proper to me,' I ses. 'I 'ave spoke to my wife about 'em once or twice, but I should no more think of talking about such things to a single lady——'
"He began to jump about agin as if I'd bit 'im, and he 'ad so much to say about my 'ed and blocks of wood that I pretty near lost my temper. I should ha' lost it with some men, but 'e was a very stiff-built chap and as hard as nails.
"'Beer's your trouble,' he ses, at last. 'Fust of all you put it down, and then it climbs up and soaks wot little brains you've got. Wot you want is a kind friend to prevent you from getting it.'
"I don't know wot it was, but I 'ad a sort of sinking feeling inside as 'e spoke, and next evening, when I saw 'im walk to the end of the jetty with the office-boy and stand there talking to 'im with his 'and on his shoulder, it came on worse than ever. And I put two and two together when the guv'nor came up to me next day, and, arter talking about 'dooty' and 'ow easy it was to get night-watchmen, mentioned in 'a off-'and sort of way that, if I left the wharf at all between six and six, I could stay away altogether.
"I didn't answer 'im a word. I might ha' told 'im that there was plenty of people arter me ready to give me double the money, but I knew he could never get anybody to do their dooty by the wharf like I 'ad done, so I kept quiet. It's the way I treat my missis nowadays, and it pays; in the old days I used to waste my breath answering 'er back.
"I wouldn't ha' minded so much if it 'adn't ha' been for that boy. He used to pass me, as 'e went off of a evening, with a little sly smile on 'is ugly little face, and sometimes when I was standing at the gate he'd give a sniff or two and say that he could smell beer, and he supposed it came from the Bear's Head.
"It was about three weeks arter the guv'nor 'ad forgot 'imself, and I was standing by the gate one evening, when I saw a woman coming along carrying a big bag in her 'and. I 'adn't seen 'er afore, and when she stopped in front of me and smiled I was on my guard at once. I don't smile at other people, and I don't expect them to smile at me.
"'At last!' she ses, setting down 'er bag and giving me another smile. 'I thought I was never going to get 'ere."
"I coughed and backed inside a little bit on to my own ground. I didn't want to 'ave that little beast of a office-boy spreading tales about me.
"'I've come up to 'ave a little fling,' she ses, smiling away harder than ever. 'My husband don't know I'm 'ere. He thinks I'm at 'ome.'
"I think I went back pretty near three yards.
"'I come up by train,' she ses, nodding.
"'Yes,' I ses, very severe, 'and wot about going back by it?'
"'Oh, I shall go back by ship,' she ses. 'Wot time do you expect the Eastern Monarch up?'
"'Well,' I ses, 'ardly knowing wot to make of 'er, 'she ought to be up this tide; but there's no reckoning on wot an old washtub with a engine like a sewing-machine inside 'er will do.'
"'Oh, indeed!' she ses, leaving off smiling very sudden. 'Oh, indeed! My husband might 'ave something to say about that.'
"'Your 'usband?' I ses.
"'Captain Pratt,' she ses, drawing 'erself up. 'I'm Mrs. Pratt. He left yesterday morning, and I've come up 'ere by train to give 'im a little surprise.'
"You might ha' knocked me down with a feather, and I stood there staring at her with my mouth open, trying to think.
"'Take care,' I ses at last. 'Take care as you don't give 'im too much of a surprise!'
"'Wot do you mean?' she ses, firing up.
"'Nothing,' I ses. 'Nothing, only I've known 'usbands in my time as didn't like being surprised—that's all. If you take my advice, you'll go straight back home agin.'
"'I'll tell 'im wot you say,' she ses, 'as soon as 'is ship comes in.'
"That's a woman all over; the moment they get into a temper they want to hurt somebody; and I made up my mind at once that, if anybody was going to be 'urt, it wasn't me. And, besides, I thought it might be for the skipper's good—in the long run.
"I broke it to her as gentle as I could. I didn't tell 'er much, I just gave her a few 'ints. Just enough to make her ask for more.
"'And mind,' I ses, 'I don't want to be brought into it. If you should 'appen to take a fancy into your 'ed to wait behind a pile of empties till the ship comes in, and then slip out and foller your 'usband and give 'im the little surprise you spoke of, it's nothing to do with me.'
"'I understand,' she ses, biting her lip. 'There's no need for 'im to know that I've been on the wharf at all.'
"I gave 'er a smile—I thought she deserved it—but she didn't smile back. She was rather a nice-looking woman in the ordinary way, but I could easy see 'ow temper spoils a woman's looks. She stood there giving little shivers and looking as if she wanted to bite somebody.
"'I'll go and hide now,' she ses.
"'Not yet,' I ses. 'You'll 'ave to wait till that little blackbeetle in the office 'as gorn.' 'Blackbeetle?' she ses, staring.
"'Office-boy,' I ses. 'He'd better not see you at all. S'pose you go off for a bit and come back when I whistle?'
"Afore she could answer the boy came out of the office, ready to go 'ome. He gave a little bit of a start when 'e saw me talking to a lady, and then 'e nips down sudden, about a couple o' yards away, and begins to do 'is bootlace up. It took 'im some time, because he 'ad to undo it fust, but 'e finished it at last, and arter a quick look at Mrs. Pratt, and one at me that I could ha' smacked his 'ed for, 'e went off whistling and showing 'is little cuffs.
"I stepped out into the road and watched 'im out o' sight. Then I told Mrs. Pratt to pick up 'er bag and foller me.
"As it 'appened there was a big pile of empties in the corner of the ware'ouse wall, just opposite the Eastern Monarch's berth. It might ha' been made for the job, and, arter I 'ad tucked her away behind and given 'er a box to sit on, I picked up my broom and began to make up for lost time.
"She sat there as quiet as a cat watching a mouse'ole, and I was going on with my work, stopping every now and then to look and see whether the Monarch was in sight, when I 'appened to turn round and see the office- boy standing on the edge of the wharf with his back to the empties, looking down at the water. I nearly dropped my broom.
"''Ullo!' I ses, going up to 'im. 'I thought you 'ad gorn 'ome.'
"'I was going,' he ses, with a nasty oily little smile, 'and then it struck me all of a sudden 'ow lonely it was for you all alone 'ere, and I come back to keep you company.'
"He winked at something acrost the river as 'e spoke, and I stood there thinking my 'ardest wot was the best thing to be done. I couldn't get Mrs. Pratt away while 'e was there; besides which I felt quite sartain she wouldn't go. The only 'ope I 'ad was that he'd get tired of spying on me and go away before he found out she was 'iding on the wharf.
"I walked off in a unconcerned way—not too far—and, with one eye on 'im and the other on where Mrs. Pratt was 'iding, went on with my work. There's nothing like 'ard work when a man is worried, and I was a'most forgetting my troubles, when I looked up and saw the Monarch coming up the river.
"She turned to come into 'er berth, with the skipper shouting away on the bridge and making as much fuss as if 'e was berthing a liner. I helped to make 'er fast, and the skipper, arter 'e had 'ad a good look round to see wot 'e could find fault with, went below to clean 'imself.
"He was up agin in about ten minutes, with a clean collar and a clean face, and a blue neck-tie that looked as though it 'ad got yeller measles. Good temper 'e was in, too, and arter pulling the office-boy's ear, gentle, as 'e was passing, he stopped for a moment to 'ave a word with 'im.
"'Bit late, ain't you?' he ses.
"'I've been keeping a eye on the watchman,' ses the boy. 'He works better when 'e knows there's somebody watching 'im.'
"'Look 'ere!' I ses. 'You take yourself off; I've had about enough of you. You take your little face 'ome and ask your mother to wipe its nose. Strickly speaking, you've no right to be on the wharf at all at this time.'
"'I've as much right as other people,' he ses, giving me a wicked look. 'I've got more right than some people, p'r'aps.'
"He stooped down deliberate and, picking up a bit o' coke from the 'eap by the crane, pitched it over at the empties.
"'Stop that!' I ses, shouting at 'im.
"'What for?' 'e ses, shying another piece. 'Why shouldn't I?'
"'Cos I won't 'ave it,' I ses. 'D'ye hear? Stop it!'
"I rushed at 'im as he sent another piece over, and for the next two or three minutes 'e was dodging me and chucking coke at the empties, with the fool of a skipper standing by laughing, and two or three of the crew leaning over the side and cheering 'im on.
"'All right,' he ses, at last, dusting 'is hands together. 'I've finished. There's no need to make such a fuss over a bit of coke.'
"'You've wasted pretty near arf a 'undered-weight,' I ses. 'I've a good mind to report you.'
"'Don't do that, watchman!' he ses, in a pitiful voice. 'Don't do that! 'Ere, I tell you wot I'll do. I'll pick it all up agin.'
"Afore I could move 'and or foot he 'ad shifted a couple o' cases out of 'is way and was in among the empties. I stood there dazed-like while two bits o' coke came flying back past my 'ed; then I 'eard a loud whistle, and 'e came out agin with 'is eyes rolling and 'is mouth wide open.
"'Wot's the matter?' ses the skipper, staring at 'im.
"'I—I—I'm sorry, watchman,' ses that beast of a boy, purtending 'e was 'ardly able to speak. 'I'd no idea——'
"'All right,' I ses, very quick.
"'Wot's the matter?' ses the skipper agin; and as 'e spoke it came over me like a flash wot a false persition I was in, and wot a nasty-tempered man 'e could be when 'e liked.
"'Why didn't you tell me you'd got a lady-friend there?' ses the boy, shaking his 'ed at me. 'Why, I might 'ave hit 'er with a bit o' coke, and never forgiven myself!'
"'Lady-friend!' ses the skipper, with a start. 'Oh, Bill, I am surprised!'
"My throat was so dry I couldn't 'ardly speak. 'It's my missis,' I ses, at last.
"'Your missis?' ses the skipper. 'Woes she 'iding behind there for?'
"'She—she's shy,' I ses. 'Always was, all 'er life. She can't bear other people. She likes to be alone with me.'
"'Oh, watchman!' ses the boy. 'I wonder where you expect to go to?'
"'Missis my grandmother!' ses the skipper, with a wink. 'I'm going to 'ave a peep.'
"'Stand back!' I ses, pushing 'im off. 'I don't spy on you, and I don't want you to come spying on me. You get off! D'ye hear me? Get off!'
"We had a bit of a struggle, till my foot slipped, and while I was waving my arms and trying to get my balance back 'e made a dash for the empties. Next moment he was roaring like a mad bull that 'ad sat down in a sorsepan of boiling water, and rushing back agin to kill me.
"I believe that if it 'adn't ha' been for a couple o' lightermen wot 'ad just come on to the jetty from their skiff, and two of his own 'ands, he'd ha' done it. Crazy with passion 'e was, and it was all the four of 'em could do to hold 'im. Every now and then he'd get a yard nearer to me, and then they'd pull 'im back a couple o' yards and beg of 'im to listen to reason and 'ear wot I 'ad to say. And as soon as I started and began to tell 'em about 'is lady-friend he broke out worse than ever. People acrost the river must ha' wondered wot was 'appening. There was two lightermen, two sailormen, me and the skipper, and Mrs. Pratt all talking at once, and nobody listening but the office-boy. And in the middle of it all the wicket was pushed open and the 'ed of the lady wot all the trouble was about peeped in, and drew back agin.
"'There you are!' I ses, shouting my 'ardest. 'There she is. That's the lady I was telling you about. Now, then: put 'em face to face and clear my character. Don't let 'er escape.'
"One o' the lightermen let go o' the skipper and went arter 'er, and, just as I was giving the other three a helping 'and, 'e came back with 'er. Mrs. Pratt caught 'er breath, and as for the skipper, 'e didn't know where to look, as the saying is. I just saw the lady give 'im one quick look, and then afore I could dream of wot was coming, she rushes up to me and flings 'er long, bony arms round my neck.
"'Why, William!' she ses, 'wot's the matter? Why didn't you meet me? Didn't you get my letter? Or 'ave you ceased to care for me?"
"'Let go!' I ses, struggling. 'Let go! D'ye 'ear? Wot d'ye mean by it? You've got 'old of the wrong one.'
"'Oh, 'William!' she ses, arf strangling me. ''Ow can you talk to me like that? Where's your 'art?'
"I never knew a woman so strong. I don't suppose she'd ever 'ad the chance of getting 'er arms round a man's neck afore, and she hung on to me as if she'd never let go. And all the time I was trying to explain things to them over 'er shoulder I could see they didn't believe a word I was saying. One o' the lightermen said I was a 'wonder,' and the other said I was a 'fair cough-drop.' Me!
"She got tired of it at last, but by that time I was so done up I couldn't say a word. I just dropped on to a box and sat there getting my breath back while the skipper forgave 'is wife for 'er unjust suspicions of 'im—but told 'er not to do it agin—and the office-boy was saying I'd surprised even 'im. The last I saw of the lady-friend, the two lightermen was helping 'er to walk to the gate, and the two sailormen was follering 'er up behind, carrying 'er pocket-'ankercher and upberella."
"You've what?" demanded Mrs. Porter, placing the hot iron carefully on its stand and turning a heated face on the head of the family.
"Struck," repeated Mr. Porter; "and the only wonder to me is we've stood it so long as we have. If I was to tell you all we've 'ad to put up with I don't suppose you'd believe me."
"Very likely," was the reply. "You can keep your fairy-tales for them that like 'em. They're no good to me."
"We stood it till flesh and blood could stand it no longer," declared her husband, "and at last we came out, shoulder to shoulder, singing. The people cheered us, and one of our leaders made 'em a speech."
"I should have liked to 'ave heard the singing," remarked his wife. "If they all sang like you, it must ha' been as good as a pantermime! Do you remember the last time you went on strike?"
"This is different," said Mr. Porter, with dignity.
"All our things went, bit by bit," pursued his wife, "all the money we had put by for a rainy day, and we 'ad to begin all over again. What are we going to live on? O' course, you might earn something by singing in the street; people who like funny faces might give you something! Why not go upstairs and put your 'ead under the bed-clothes and practise a bit?"
Mr. Porter coughed. "It'll be all right," he said, confidently. "Our committee knows what it's about; Bert Robinson is one of the best speakers I've ever 'eard. If we don't all get five bob a week more I'll eat my 'ead."
"It's the best thing you could do with it," snapped his wife. She took up her iron again, and turning an obstinate back to his remarks resumed her work.
Mr. Porter lay long next morning, and, dressing with comfortable slowness, noticed with pleasure that the sun was shining. Visions of a good breakfast and a digestive pipe, followed by a walk in the fresh air, passed before his eyes as he laced his boots. Whistling cheerfully he went briskly downstairs.
It was an October morning, but despite the invigorating chill in the air the kitchen-grate was cold and dull. Herring-bones and a disorderly collection of dirty cups and platters graced the table. Perplexed and angry, he looked around for his wife, and then, opening the back-door, stood gaping with astonishment. The wife of his bosom, who should have had a bright fire and a good breakfast waiting for him, was sitting on a box in the sunshine, elbows on knees and puffing laboriously at a cigarette.
"Susan!" he exclaimed.
Mrs. Porter turned, and, puffing out her lips, blew an immense volume of smoke. "Halloa!" she said, carelessly.
"Wot—wot does this mean?" demanded her husband.
Mrs. Porter smiled with conscious pride. "I made it come out of my nose just now," she replied. "At least, some of it did, and I swallowed the rest. Will it hurt me?"
"Where's my breakfast?" inquired the other, hotly. "Why ain't the kitchen-fire alight? Wot do you think you're doing of?"
"I'm not doing anything," said his wife, with an aggrieved air. "I'm on strike."
Mr. Porter reeled against the door-post. "Wot!" he stammered. "On strike? Nonsense! You can't be."
"O, yes, I can," retorted Mrs. Porter, closing one eye and ministering to it hastily with the corner of her apron. "Not 'aving no Bert Robinson to do it for me, I made a little speech all to myself, and here I am."
She dropped her apron, replaced the cigarette, and, with her hands on her plump knees, eyes him steadily.
"But—but this ain't a factory," objected the dismayed man; "and, besides —I won't 'ave it!"
Mrs. Porter laughed—a fat, comfortable laugh, but with a touch of hardness in it.
"All right, mate," she said, comfortably. "What are you out on strike for?"
"Shorter hours and more money," said Mr. Porter, glaring at her.
His wife nodded. "So am I," she said. "I wonder who gets it first?"
She smiled agreeably at the bewildered Mr. Porter, and, extracting a paper packet of cigarettes from her pocket, lit a fresh one at the stub of the first.
"That's the worst of a woman," said her husband, avoiding her eye and addressing a sanitary dustbin of severe aspect; "they do things without thinking first. That's why men are superior; before they do a thing they look at it all round, and upside down, and—and—make sure it can be done. Now, you get up in a temper this morning, and the first thing you do—not even waiting to get my breakfast ready first—is to go on strike. If you'd thought for two minutes you'd see as 'ow it's impossible for you to go on strike for more than a couple of hours or so."
"Why?" inquired Mrs. Porter.
"Kids," replied her husband, triumphantly. "They'll be coming 'ome from school soon, won't they? And they'll be wanting their dinner, won't they?"
"That's all right," murmured the other, vaguely.
"After which, when night comes," pursued Mr. Porter, "they'll 'ave to be put to bed. In the morning they'll 'ave to be got up and washed and dressed and given their breakfast and sent off to school. Then there's shopping wot must be done, and beds wot must be made."
"I'll make ours," said his wife, decidedly. "For my own sake."
"And wot about the others?" inquired Mr. Porter.
"The others'll be made by the same party as washes the children, and cooks their dinner for 'em, and puts 'em to bed, and cleans the 'ouse," was the reply.
"I'm not going to have your mother 'ere," exclaimed Mr. Porter, with sudden heat. "Mind that!"
"I don't want her," said Mrs. Porter. "It's a job for a strong, healthy man, not a pore old thing with swelled legs and short in the breath."
"Strong—'ealthy—man!" repeated her husband, in a dazed voice. "Strong—'eal—— Wot are you talking about?"
Mrs. Porter beamed on him. "You," she said, sweetly.
There was a long silence, broken at last by a firework display of expletives. Mrs. Porter, still smiling, sat unmoved.
"You may smile!" raved the indignant Mr. Porter. "You may sit there smiling and smoking like a—like a man, but if you think that I'm going to get the meals ready, and soil my 'ands with making beds and washing-up, you're mistook. There's some 'usbands I know as would set about you!"
Mrs. Porter rose. "Well, I can't sit here gossiping with you all day," she said, entering the house.
"Wot are you going to do?" demanded her husband, following her.
"Going to see Aunt Jane and 'ave a bit o' dinner with her," was the reply. "And after that I think I shall go to the 'pictures.' If you 'ave bloaters for dinner be very careful with little Jemmy and the bones."
"I forbid you to leave this 'ouse!" said Mr. Porter, in a thrilling voice. "If you do you won't find nothing done when you come home, and all the kids dirty and starving."
"Cheerio!" said Mrs. Porter.
Arrayed in her Sunday best she left the house half an hour later. A glance over her shoulder revealed her husband huddled up in a chair in the dirty kitchen, gazing straight before him at the empty grate.
He made a hearty breakfast at a neighbouring coffee-shop, and, returning home, lit the fire and sat before it, smoking. The return of the four children from school, soon after midday, found him still wrestling with the difficulties of the situation. His announcement that their mother was out and that there would be no dinner was received at first in stupefied silence. Then Jemmy, opening his mouth to its widest extent, acted as conductor to an all-too-willing chorus.
The noise was unbearable, and Mr. Porter said so. Pleased with the tribute, the choir re-doubled its efforts, and Mr. Porter, vociferating orders for silence, saw only too clearly the base advantage his wife had taken of his affection for his children. He took some money from his pocket and sent the leading treble out marketing, after which, with the assistance of a soprano aged eight, he washed up the breakfast things and placed one of them in the dustbin.
The entire family stood at his elbow as he cooked the dinner, and watched, with bated breath, his frantic efforts to recover a sausage which had fallen out of the frying-pan into the fire. A fourfold sigh of relief heralded its return to the pan.
"Mother always—" began the eldest boy.
Mr. Porter took his scorched fingers out of his mouth and smacked the critic's head.
The dinner was not a success. Portions of half-cooked sausages returned to the pan, and coming back in the guise of cinders failed to find their rightful owners.
"Last time we had sausages," said the eight-year-old Muriel, "they melted in your mouth." Mr. Porter glowered at her.
"Instead of in the fire," said the eldest boy, with a mournful snigger.
"If I get up to you, my lad," said the harassed Mr. Porter, "you'll know it! Pity you don't keep your sharpness for your lessons! Wot country is Africa in?"
"Why, Africa's a continent!" said the startled youth.
"Jes so," said his father; "but wot I'm asking you is: wot country is it in?"
"Asia," said the reckless one, with a side-glance at Muriel.
"And why couldn't you say so before?" demanded Mr. Porter, sternly. "Now, you go to the sink and give yourself a thorough good wash. And mind you come straight home from school. There's work to be done."
He did some of it himself after the children had gone, and finished up the afternoon with a little shopping, in the course of which he twice changed his grocer and was threatened with an action for slander by his fishmonger. He returned home with his clothes bulging, although a couple of eggs in the left-hand coat-pocket had done their best to accommodate themselves to his figure.
He went to bed at eleven o'clock, and at a quarter past, clad all too lightly for the job, sped rapidly downstairs to admit his wife.
"Some 'usbands would 'ave let you sleep on the doorstep all night," he said, crisply.
"I know they would," returned his wife, cheerfully. "That's why I married you. I remember the first time I let you come 'ome with me, mother ses: 'There ain't much of 'im, Susan,' she ses; 'still, arf a loaf is better than—'"
The bedroom-door slammed behind the indignant Mr. Porter, and the three lumps and a depression which had once been a bed received his quivering frame again. With the sheet obstinately drawn over his head he turned a deaf ear to his wife's panegyrics on striking and her heartfelt tribute to the end of a perfect day. Even when standing on the cold floor while she remade the bed he maintained an attitude of unbending dignity, only relaxing when she smote him light-heartedly with the bolster. In a few ill-chosen words he expressed his opinion of her mother and her deplorable methods of bringing up her daughters.
He rose early next morning, and, after getting his own breakfast, put on his cap and went out, closing the street-door with a bang that awoke the entire family and caused the somnolent Mrs. Porter to open one eye for the purpose of winking with it. Slowly, as became a man of leisure, he strolled down to the works, and, moving from knot to knot of his colleagues, discussed the prospects of victory. Later on, with a little natural diffidence, he drew Mr. Bert Robinson apart and asked his advice upon a situation which was growing more and more difficult.
"I've got my hands pretty full as it is, you know," said Mr. Robinson, hastily.
"I know you 'ave, Bert," murmured the other. "But, you see, she told me last night she's going to try and get some of the other chaps' wives to join 'er, so I thought I ought to tell you."
Mr. Robinson started. "Have you tried giving her a hiding?" he inquired.
Mr. Porter shook his head. "I daren't trust myself," he replied. "I might go too far, once I started."
"What about appealing to her better nature?" inquired the other.
"She ain't got one," said the unfortunate. "Well, I'm sorry for you," said Mr. Robinson, "but I'm busy. I've got to see a Labour-leader this afternoon, and two reporters, and this evening there's the meeting. Try kindness first, and if that don't do, lock her up in her bedroom and keep her on bread and water."
He moved off to confer with his supporters, and Mr. Porter, after wandering aimlessly about for an hour or two, returned home at mid-day with a faint hope that his wife might have seen the error of her ways and provided dinner for him. He found the house empty and the beds unmade. The remains of breakfast stood on the kitchen-table, and a puddle of cold tea decorated the floor. The arrival of the children from school, hungry and eager, completed his discomfiture.
For several days he wrestled grimly with the situation, while Mrs. Porter, who had planned out her week into four days of charing, two of amusement, and Sunday in bed, looked on with smiling approval. She even offered to give him a little instruction—verbal—in scrubbing the kitchen-floor.
Mr. Porter, who was on his knees at the time, rose slowly to his full height, and, with a superb gesture, emptied the bucket, which also contained a scrubbing-brush and lump of soap, into the back-yard. Then he set off down the street in quest of a staff.
He found it in the person of Maudie Stevens, aged fourteen, who lived a few doors lower down. Fresh from school the week before, she cheerfully undertook to do the housework and cooking, and to act as nursemaid in her spare time. Her father, on his part, cheerfully under-took to take care of her wages for her, the first week's, payable in advance, being banked the same evening at the Lord Nelson.
It was another mouth to feed, but the strike-pay was coming in very well, and Mr. Porter, relieved from his unmanly tasks, walked the streets a free man. Beds were made without his interference, meals were ready (roughly) at the appointed hour, and for the first time since the strike he experienced satisfaction in finding fault with the cook. The children's content was not so great, Maudie possessing a faith in the virtues of soap and water that they made no attempt to share. They were greatly relieved when their mother returned home after spending a couple of days with Aunt Jane.
"What's all this?" she demanded, as she entered the kitchen, followed by a lady-friend.
"What's all what?" inquired Mr. Porter, who was sitting at dinner with the family.
"That," said his wife, pointing at the cook-general.
Mr. Porter put down his knife and fork. "Got 'er in to help," he replied, uneasily.
"Do you hear that?" demanded his wife, turning to her friend, Mrs. Gorman. "Oh, these masters!"
"Ah!" said her friend, vaguely.
"A strike-breaker!" said Mrs. Porter, rolling her eyes.
"Shame!" said Mrs. Gorman, beginning to understand.
"Coming after my job, and taking the bread out of my mouth," continued Mrs. Porter, fluently. "Underselling me too, I'll be bound. That's what comes of not having pickets."
"Unskilled labour," said Mrs. Gorman, tightening her lips and shaking her head.
"A scab!" cried Mrs. Porter, wildly. "A scab!"
"Put her out," counselled her friend.
"Put her out!" repeated Mrs. Porter, in a terrible voice. "Put her out! I'll tear her limb from limb! I'll put her in the copper and boil her!"
Her voice was so loud and her appearance so alarming that the unfortunate Maudie, emitting three piercing shrieks, rose hastily from the table and looked around for a way of escape. The road to the front-door was barred, and with a final yelp that set her employer's teeth on edge she dashed into the yard and went home via the back-fences. Housewives busy in their kitchens looked up in amazement at the spectacle of a pair of thin black legs descending one fence, scudding across the yard to the accompaniment of a terrified moaning, and scrambling madly over the other. At her own back-door Maudie collapsed on the step, and, to the intense discomfort and annoyance of her father, had her first fit of hysterics.
"And the next scab that comes into my house won't get off so easy," said Mrs. Porter to her husband. "D'you understand?"
"If you 'ad some husbands—" began Mr. Porter, trembling with rage.
"Yes, I know," said his wife, nodding. "Don't cry, Jemmy," she added, taking the youngest on her knee. "Mother's only having a little game. She and dad are both on strike for more pay and less work."
Mr. Porter got up, and without going through the formality of saying good-bye to the hard-featured Mrs. Gorman, put on his cap and went out. Over a couple of half-pints taken as a sedative, he realized the growing seriousness of his position.
In a dull resigned fashion he took up his household duties again, made harder now than before by the scandalous gossip of the aggrieved Mr. Stevens. The anonymous present of a much-worn apron put the finishing touch to his discomfiture; and the well-meant offer of a fair neighbour to teach him how to shake a mat without choking himself met with a reception that took her breath away.
It was a surprise to him one afternoon to find that his wife had so far unbent as to tidy up the parlour. Ornaments had been dusted and polished and the carpet swept. She had even altered the position of the furniture. The table had been pushed against the wall, and the easy- chair, with its back to the window, stood stiffly confronting six or seven assorted chairs, two of which at least had been promoted from a lower sphere.
"It's for the meeting," said Muriel, peeping in.
"Meeting?" repeated her father, in a dazed voice.
"Strike-meetings," was the reply. "Mrs. Gorman and some other ladies are coming at four o'clock. Didn't mother tell you?"
Mr. Porter, staring helplessly at the row of chairs, shook his head.
"Mrs. Evans is coming," continued Muriel, in a hushed voice—"the lady what punched Mr. Brown because he kept Bobbie Evans in one day. He ain't been kept in since. I wish you——"
She stopped suddenly, and, held by her father's gaze, backed slowly out of the room. Mr. Porter, left with the chairs, stood regarding them thoughtfully. Their emptiness made an appeal that no right-minded man could ignore. He put his hand over his mouth and his eyes watered.
He spent the next half-hour in issuing invitations, and at half-past three every chair was filled by fellow-strikers. Three cans of beer, clay pipes, and a paper of shag stood on the table. Mr. Benjamin Todd, an obese, fresh-coloured gentleman of middle age, took the easy-chair. Glasses and teacups were filled.
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Todd, lighting his pipe, "afore we get on to the business of this meeting I want to remind you that there is another meeting, of ladies, at four o'clock; so we've got to hurry up. O' course, if it should happen that we ain't finished——"
"Go on, Bennie!" said a delighted admirer. "I see a female 'ead peeping in at the winder already," said a voice.
"Let 'em peep," said Mr. Todd, benignly. "Then p'r'aps they'll be able to see how to run a meeting."
"There's two more 'eads," said the other. "Oh, Lord, I know I sha'n't be able to keep a straight face!"
"H'sh!" commanded Mr. Todd, sternly, as the street-door was heard to open. "Be'ave yourself. As I was saying, the thing we've got to consider about this strike——"
The door opened, and six ladies, headed by Mrs. Porter, entered the room in single file and ranged themselves silently along the wall.
"Strike," proceeded Mr. Todd, who found himself gazing uneasily into the eyes of Mrs. Gorman——"strike—er—strike——"
"He said that before," said a stout lady, in a loud whisper; "I'm sure he did."
"Is," continued Mr. Todd, "that we have got to keep this—this—er—"
"Strike," prompted the same voice.
Mr. Todd paused, and, wiping his mouth with a red pocket-handkerchief, sat staring straight before him.
"I move," said Mrs. Evans, her sharp features twitching with excitement, "that Mrs. Gorman takes the chair."
"'Ow can I take it when he's sitting in it?" demanded that lady.
"She's a lady that knows what she wants and how to get it," pursued Mrs. Evans, unheeding. "She understands men—"
"I've buried two 'usbands," murmured Mrs. Gorman, nodding.
"And how to manage them," continued Mrs. Evans. "I move that Mrs. Gorman takes the chair. Those in favour—"
Mr. Todd, leaning back in his chair and gripping the arms, gazed defiantly at a row of palms.
"Carried unanimously!" snapped Mrs. Evans.
Mrs. Gorman, tall and bony, advanced and stood over Mr. Todd. Strong men held their breath.
"It's my chair," she said, gruffly. "I've been moved into it."
"Possession," said Mr. Todd, in as firm a voice as he could manage, "is nine points of the law. I'm here and—"
Mrs. Gorman turned, and, without the slightest warning, sat down suddenly and heavily in his lap. A hum of admiration greeted the achievement.
"Get up!" shouted the horrified Mr. Todd. "Get up!"
Mrs. Gorman settled herself more firmly.
"Let me get up," said Mr. Todd, panting.
Mrs. Gorman rose, but remained in a hovering position, between which and the chair Mr. Todd, flushed and dishevelled, extricated himself in all haste. A shrill titter of laughter and a clapping of hands greeted his appearance. He turned furiously on the pallid Mr. Porter.
"What d'you mean by it?" he demanded. "Are you the master, or ain't you? A man what can't keep order in his own house ain't fit to be called a man. If my wife was carrying on like this——"
"I wish I was your wife," said Mrs. Gorman, moistening her lips.
Mr. Todd turned slowly and surveyed her.
"I don't," he said, simply, and, being by this time near the door, faded gently from the room.
"Order!" cried Mrs. Gorman, thumping the arm of her chair with a large, hard-working fist. "Take your seats, ladies."
A strange thrill passed through the bodies of her companions and communicated itself to the men in the chairs. There was a moment's tense pause, and then the end man, muttering something about "going to see what had happened to poor old Ben Todd," rose slowly and went out. His companions, with heads erect and a look of cold disdain upon their faces, followed him.
It was Mr. Porter's last meeting, but his wife had several more. They lasted, in fact, until the day, a fortnight later, when he came in with flushed face and sparkling eyes to announce that the strike was over and the men victorious.
"Six bob a week more!" he said, with enthusiasm. "You see, I was right to strike, after all."
Mrs. Porter eyed him. "I am out for four bob a week more," she said, calmly.
Her husband swallowed. "You—you don't understand 'ow these things are done," he said, at last. "It takes time. We ought to ne—negotiate."
"All right," said Mrs. Porter, readily. "Seven shillings a week, then."
"Let's say four and have done with it," exclaimed the other, hastily.
And Mrs. Porter said it.
It was nearly high-water, and the night-watchman, who had stepped aboard a lighter lying alongside the wharf to smoke a pipe, sat with half-closed eyes enjoying the summer evening. The bustle of the day was over, the wharves were deserted, and hardly a craft moved on the river. Perfumed clouds of shag, hovering for a time over the lighter, floated lazily towards the Surrey shore.
"There's one thing about my job," said the night-watchman, slowly, "it's done all alone by yourself. There's no foreman a-hollering at you and offering you a penny for your thoughts, and no mates to run into you from behind with a loaded truck and then ask you why you didn't look where you're going to. From six o'clock in the evening to six o'clock next morning I'm my own master."
He rammed down the tobacco with an experienced forefinger and puffed contentedly.
People like you 'ud find it lonely (he continued, after a pause); I did at fust. I used to let people come and sit 'ere with me of an evening talking, but I got tired of it arter a time, and when one chap fell overboard while 'e was showing me 'ow he put his wife's mother in 'er place, I gave it up altogether. There was three foot o' mud in the dock at the time, and arter I 'ad got 'im out, he fainted in my arms.
Arter that I kept myself to myself. Say wot you like, a man's best friend is 'imself. There's nobody else'll do as much for 'im, or let 'im off easier when he makes a mistake. If I felt a bit lonely I used to open the wicket in the gate and sit there watching the road, and p'r'aps pass a word or two with the policeman. Then something 'appened one night that made me take quite a dislike to it for a time.
I was sitting there with my feet outside, smoking a quiet pipe, when I 'eard a bit of a noise in the distance. Then I 'eard people running and shouts of "Stop, thief!" A man came along round the corner full pelt, and, just as I got up, dashed through the wicket and ran on to the wharf. I was arter 'im like a shot and got up to 'im just in time to see him throw something into the dock. And at the same moment I 'eard the other people run past the gate.
"Wot's up?" I ses, collaring 'im.
"Nothing," he ses, breathing 'ard and struggling. "Let me go."
He was a little wisp of a man, and I shook 'im like a dog shakes a rat. I remembered my own pocket being picked, and I nearly shook the breath out of 'im.
"And now I'm going to give you in charge," I ses, pushing 'im along towards the gate.
"Wot for?" he ses, purtending to be surprised.
"Stealing," I ses.
"You've made a mistake," he ses; "you can search me if you like."
"More use to search the dock," I ses. "I see you throw it in. Now you keep quiet, else you'll get 'urt. If you get five years I shall be all the more pleased."
I don't know 'ow he did it, but 'e did. He seemed to sink away between my legs, and afore I knew wot was 'appening, I was standing upside down with all the blood rushing to my 'ead. As I rolled over he bolted through the wicket, and was off like a flash of lightning.
A couple o' minutes arterwards the people wot I 'ad 'eard run past came back agin. There was a big fat policeman with 'em—a man I'd seen afore on the beat—and, when they 'ad gorn on, he stopped to 'ave a word with me.
"'Ot work," he ses, taking off his 'elmet and wiping his bald 'ead with a large red handkerchief. "I've lost all my puff."
"Been running?" I ses, very perlite.
"Arter a pickpocket," he ses. "He snatched a lady's purse just as she was stepping aboard the French boat with her 'usband. 'Twelve pounds in it in gold, two peppermint lozenges, and a postage stamp.'"
He shook his 'ead, and put his 'elmet on agin.
"Holding it in her little 'and as usual," he ses. "Asking for trouble, I call it. I believe if a woman 'ad one hand off and only a finger and thumb left on the other, she'd carry 'er purse in it."
He knew a'most as much about wimmen as I do. When 'is fust wife died, she said 'er only wish was that she could take 'im with her, and she made 'im promise her faithful that 'e'd never marry agin. His second wife, arter a long illness, passed away while he was playing hymns on the concertina to her, and 'er mother, arter looking at 'er very hard, went to the doctor and said she wanted an inquest.
He went on talking for a long time, but I was busy doing a bit of 'ead- work and didn't pay much attention to 'im. I was thinking o' twelve pounds, two lozenges, and a postage stamp laying in the mud at the bottom of my dock, and arter a time 'e said 'e see as 'ow I was waiting to get back to my night's rest, and went off—stamping.
I locked the wicket when he 'ad gorn away, and then I went to the edge of the dock and stood looking down at the spot where the purse 'ad been chucked in. The tide was on the ebb, but there was still a foot or two of water atop of the mud. I walked up and down, thinking.
I thought for a long time, and then I made up my mind. If I got the purse and took it to the police-station, the police would share the money out between 'em, and tell me they 'ad given it back to the lady. If I found it and put a notice in the newspaper—which would cost money—very likely a dozen or two ladies would come and see me and say it was theirs. Then if I gave it to the best-looking one and the one it belonged to turned up, there'd be trouble. My idea was to keep it—for a time—and then if the lady who lost it came to me and asked me for it I would give it to 'er.
Once I had made up my mind to do wot was right I felt quite 'appy, and arter a look up and down, I stepped round to the Bear's Head and 'ad a couple o' goes o' rum to keep the cold out. There was nobody in there but the landlord, and 'e started at once talking about the thief, and 'ow he 'ad run arter him in 'is shirt-sleeves.
"My opinion is," he ses, "that 'e bolted on one of the wharves and 'id 'imself. He disappeared like magic. Was that little gate o' yours open?"
"I was on the wharf," I ses, very cold.
"You might ha' been on the wharf and yet not 'ave seen anybody come on," he ses, nodding.
"Wot d'ye mean?" I ses, very sharp. "Nothing," he ses. "Nothing."
"Are you trying to take my character away?" I ses, fixing 'im with my eye.
"Lo' bless me, no!" he ses, staring at me. "It's no good to me."
He sat down in 'is chair behind the bar and went straight off to sleep with his eyes screwed up as tight as they would go. Then 'e opened his mouth and snored till the glasses shook. I suppose I've been one of the best customers he ever 'ad, and that's the way he treated me. For two pins I'd ha' knocked 'is ugly 'ead off, but arter waking him up very sudden by dropping my glass on the floor I went off back to the wharf.
I locked up agin, and 'ad another look at the dock. The water 'ad nearly gone and the mud was showing in patches. My mind went back to a sailorman wot had dropped 'is watch over-board two years before, and found it by walking about in the dock in 'is bare feet. He found it more easy because the glass broke when he trod on it.
The evening was a trifle chilly for June, but I've been used to roughing it all my life, especially when I was afloat, and I went into the office and began to take my clothes off. I took off everything but my pants, and I made sure o' them by making braces for 'em out of a bit of string. Then I turned the gas low, and, arter slipping on my boots, went outside.
It was so cold that at fust I thought I'd give up the idea. The longer I stood on the edge looking at the mud the colder it looked, but at last I turned round and went slowly down the ladder. I waited a moment at the bottom, and was just going to step off when I remembered that I 'ad got my boots on, and I 'ad to go up agin and take 'em off.
I went down very slow the next time, and anybody who 'as been down an iron ladder with thin, cold rungs, in their bare feet, will know why, and I had just dipped my left foot in, when the wharf-bell rang.
I 'oped at fust that it was a runaway-ring, but it kept on, and the longer it kept on, the worse it got. I went up that ladder agin and called out that I was coming, and then I went into the office and just slipped on my coat and trousers and went to the gate.
"Wot d'you want?" I ses, opening the wicket three or four inches and looking out at a man wot was standing there.
"Are you old Bill?" he ses.
"I'm the watchman," I ses, sharp-like. "Wot d'you want?"
"Don't bite me!" he ses, purtending to draw back. "I ain't done no 'arm. I've come round about that glass you smashed at the Bear's Head."
"Glass!" I ses, 'ardly able to speak.
"Yes, glass," he ses—"thing wot yer drink out of. The landlord says it'll cost you a tanner, and 'e wants it now in case you pass away in your sleep. He couldn't come 'imself cos he's got nobody to mind the bar, so 'e sent me. Why! Halloa! Where's your boots? Ain't you afraid o' ketching cold?"
"You clear off," I ses, shouting at him. "D'ye 'ear me? Clear off while you're safe, and you tell the landlord that next time 'e insults me I'll smash every glass in 'is place and then sit 'im on top of 'cm! Tell 'im if 'e wants a tanner out o' me, to come round 'imself, and see wot he gets."
It was a silly thing to say, and I saw it arterwards, but I was in such a temper I 'ardly knew wot I was saying. I slammed the wicket in 'is face and turned the key and then I took off my clothes and went down that ladder agin.
It seemed colder than ever, and the mud when I got fairly into it was worse than I thought it could ha' been. It stuck to me like glue, and every step I took seemed colder than the one before. 'Owever, when I make up my mind to do a thing, I do it. I fixed my eyes on the place where I thought the purse was, and every time I felt anything under my foot I reached down and picked it up—and then chucked it away as far as I could so as not to pick it up agin. Dirty job it was, too, and in five minutes I was mud up to the neck, a'most. And I 'ad just got to wot I thought was the right place, and feeling about very careful, when the bell rang agin.
I thought I should ha' gorn out o' my mind. It was just a little tinkle at first, then another tinkle, but, as I stood there all in the dark and cold trying to make up my mind to take no notice of it, it began to ring like mad. I 'ad to go—I've known men climb over the gate afore now—and I didn't want to be caught in that dock.
The mud seemed stickier than ever, but I got out at last, and, arter scraping some of it off with a bit o' stick, I put on my coat and trousers and boots just as I was and went to the gate, with the bell going its 'ardest all the time.
When I opened the gate and see the landlord of the Bear's Head standing there I turned quite dizzy, and there was a noise in my ears like the roaring of the sea. I should think I stood there for a couple o' minutes without being able to say a word. I could think of 'em.
"Don't be frightened, Bill," ses the landlord. "I'm not going to eat you."
"He looks as if he's walking in 'is sleep," ses the fat policeman, wot was standing near by. "Don't startle 'im."
"He always looks like that," ses the landlord.
I stood looking at 'im. I could speak then, but I couldn't think of any words good enough; not with a policeman standing by with a notebook in 'is pocket.
"Wot was you ringing my bell for?" I ses, at last.
"Why didn't you answer it before?" ses the landlord. "D'you think I've got nothing better to do than to stand ringing your bell for three- quarters of an hour? Some people would report you."
"I know my dooty," I ses; "there's no craft up to-night, and no reason for anybody to come to my bell. If I was to open the gate every time a parcel of overgrown boys rang my bell I should 'ave enough to do."
"Well, I'll overlook it this time, seeing as you're an old man and couldn't get another sleeping-in job," he ses, looking at the policeman for him to see 'ow clever 'e was. "Wot about that tanner? That's wot I've come for."
"You be off," I ses, starting to shut the wicket. "You won't get no tanner out of me."
"All right," he ses, "I shall stand here and go on ringing the bell till you pay up, that's all."
He gave it another tug, and the policeman instead of locking 'im up for it stood there laughing.
I gave 'im the tanner. It was no use standing there arguing over a tanner, with a purse of twelve quid waiting for me in the dock, but I told 'im wot people thought of 'im.
"Arf a second, watchman," ses the policeman, as I started to shut the wicket agin. "You didn't see anything of that pickpocket, did you?"
"I did not," I ses.
"'Cos this gentleman thought he might 'ave come in here," ses the policeman.
"'Ow could he 'ave come in here without me knowing it?" I ses, firing up.
"Easy," ses the landlord, "and stole your boots into the bargain!"
"He might 'ave come when your back was turned," ses the policeman, "and if so, he might be 'iding there now. I wonder whether you'd mind me having a look round?"
"I tell you he ain't 'ere," I ses, very short, "but, to ease your mind, I'll 'ave a look round myself arter you've gorn."
The policeman shook his 'ead. "Well, o' course, I can't come in without your permission," he ses, with a little cough, "but I 'ave an idea, that if it was your guv'nor 'ere instead of you he'd ha' been on'y too pleased to do anything 'e could to help the law. I'll beg his pardon tomorrow for asking you, in case he might object."
That settled it. That's the police all over, and that's 'ow they get their way and do as they like. I could see 'im in my mind's eye talking to the guv'nor, and letting out little things about broken glasses and such-like by accident. I drew back to let 'im pass, and I was so upset that when that little rat of a landlord follered 'im I didn't say a word.
I stood and watched them poking and prying about the wharf as if it belonged to 'em, with the light from the policeman's lantern flashing about all over the place. I was shivering with cold and temper. The mud was drying on me.
"If you've finished 'unting for the pickpocket I'll let you out and get on with my work," I ses, drawing myself up.
"Good night," ses the policeman, moving off. "Good night, dear," ses the landlord. "Mind you tuck yourself up warm."
I lost my temper for the moment and afore I knew wot I was doing I 'ad got hold of him and was shoving 'im towards the gate as 'ard as I could shove. He pretty near got my coat off in the struggle, and next moment the police-man 'ad turned his lantern on me and they was both staring at me as if they couldn't believe their eyesight.
"He—he's turning black!" ses the landlord.
"He's turned black!" ses the policeman.
They both stood there looking at me with their mouths open, and then afore I knew wot he was up to, the policeman came close up to me and scratched my chest with his finger-nail.
"It's mud!" he ses.
"You keep your nails to yourself," I ses. "It's nothing to do with you." and I couldn't 'elp noticing the smell of it. Nobody could. And wot was worse than all was, that the tide 'ad turned and was creeping over the mud in the dock.
They got tired of it at last and came back to where I was and stood there shaking their 'eads at me.
"If he was on the wharf 'e must 'ave made his escape while you was in the Bear's Head," ses the policeman.
"He was in my place a long time," ses the landlord.
"Well, it's no use crying over spilt milk," ses the policeman. "Funny smell about 'ere, ain't there?" he ses, sniffing, and turning to the landlord. "Wot is it?"
"I dunno," ses the landlord. "I noticed it while we was talking to 'im at the gate. It seems to foller 'im about."
"I've smelt things I like better," ses the policeman, sniffing agin. "It's just like the foreshore when somebody 'as been stirring the mud up a bit."
"Unless it's a case of 'tempted suicide," he ses, looking at me very 'ard.
"Ah!" ses the landlord.
"There's no mud on 'is clothes," ses the policeman, looking me over with his lantern agin.
"He must 'ave gone in naked, but I should like to see 'is legs to make— All right! All right! Keep your 'air on."
"You look arter your own legs, then," I ses, very sharp, "and mind your own business."
"It is my business," he ses, turning to the landlord. "Was 'e strange in his manner at all when 'e was in your place to-night?"
"He smashed one o' my best glasses," ses the landlord.
"So he did," ses the policeman. "So he did. I'd forgot that. Do you know 'im well?"
"Not more than I can 'elp," ses the landlord. "He's been in my place a good bit, but I never knew of any reason why 'e should try and do away with 'imself. If he's been disappointed in love, he ain't told me anything about it."
I suppose that couple o' fools 'ud 'ave stood there talking about me all night if I'd ha' let 'em, but I had about enough of it.
"Look 'ere," I ses, "you're very clever, both of you, but you needn't worry your 'eads about me. I've just been having a mud-bath, that's all."
"A mud-bath!" ses both of 'em, squeaking like a couple o' silly parrots.
"For rheumatics," I ses. "I 'ad it some-thing cruel to-night, and I thought that p'r'aps the mud 'ud do it good. I read about it in the papers. There's places where you pay pounds and pounds for 'em, but, being a pore man, I 'ad to 'ave mine on the cheap."
The policeman stood there looking at me for a moment, and then 'e began to laugh till he couldn't stop 'imself.
"Love-a-duck!" he ses, at last, wiping his eyes. "I wish I'd seen it."
"Must ha' looked like a fat mermaid," ses the landlord, wagging his silly 'ead at me. "I can just see old Bill sitting in the mud a-combing his 'air and singing."
They 'ad some more talk o' that sort, just to show each other 'ow funny they was, but they went off at last, and I fastened up the gate and went into the office to clean myself up as well as I could. One comfort was they 'adn't got the least idea of wot I was arter, and I 'ad a fancy that the one as laughed last would be the one as got that twelve quid.
I was so tired that I slept nearly all day arter I 'ad got 'ome, and I 'ad no sooner got back to the wharf in the evening than I see that the landlord 'ad been busy. If there was one silly fool that asked me the best way of making mud-pies, I should think there was fifty. Little things please little minds, and the silly way some of 'em went on made me feel sorry for my sects.
By eight o'clock, 'owever, they 'ad all sheered off, and I got a broom and began to sweep up to 'elp pass the time away until low-water. On'y one craft 'ad come up that day—a ketch called the Peewit—and as she was berthed at the end of the jetty she wasn't in my way at all.
Her skipper came on to the wharf just afore ten. Fat, silly old man 'e was, named Fogg. Always talking about 'is 'ealth and taking medicine to do it good. He came up to me slow like, and, when 'e stopped and asked me about the rheumatics, the broom shook in my 'and.
"Look here," I ses, "if you want to be funny, go and be funny with them as likes it. I'm fair sick of it, so I give you warning."
"Funny?" he ses, staring at me with eyes like a cow. "Wot d'ye mean? There's nothing funny about rheumatics; I ought to know; I'm a martyr to it. Did you find as 'ow the mud did you any good?"
I looked at 'im hard, but 'e stood there looking at me with his fat baby- face, and I knew he didn't mean any harm; so I answered 'im perlite and wished 'im good night.
"I've 'ad pretty near everything a man can have," he ses, casting anchor on a empty box, "but I think the rheumatics was about the worst of 'em all. I even tried bees for it once."
"Bees!" I ses. "Bees!"
"Bee-stings," he ses. "A man told me that if I could on'y persuade a few bees to sting me, that 'ud cure me. I don't know what 'e meant by persuading! they didn't want no persuading. I took off my coat and shirt and went and rocked one of my neighbour's bee-hives next door, and I thought my last hour 'ad come."
He sat on that box and shivered at the memory of it.
"Now I take Dr. Pepper's pellets instead," he ses. "I've got a box in my state-room, and if you'd like to try 'em you're welcome."
He sat there talking about the complaints he had 'ad and wot he 'ad done for them till I thought I should never have got rid of 'im. He got up at last, though, and, arter telling me to always wear flannel next to my skin, climbed aboard and went below.
I knew the hands was aboard, and arter watching 'is cabin-skylight until the light was out, I went and undressed. Then I crept back on to the jetty, and arter listening by the Peewit to make sure that they was all asleep, I went back and climbed down the ladder.
It was colder than ever. The cold seemed to get into my bones, but I made up my mind to 'ave that twelve quid if I died for it. I trod round and round the place where I 'ad seen that purse chucked in until I was tired, and the rubbish I picked up by mistake you wouldn't believe.
I suppose I 'ad been in there arf an hour, and I was standing up with my teeth clenched to keep them from chattering, when I 'appened to look round and see something like a white ball coming down the ladder. My 'art seemed to stand still for a moment, and then it began to beat as though it would burst. The white thing came down lower and lower, and then all of a sudden it stood in the mud and said, "Ow!"
"Who is it?" I ses. "Who are you?" "Halloa, Bill!" it ses. "Ain't it perishing cold?"
It was the voice o' Cap'n Fogg, and if ever I wanted to kill a fellow- creetur, I wanted to then.
"'Ave you been in long, Bill?" he ses. "About ten minutes," I ses, grinding my teeth.
"Is it doing you good?" he ses.
I didn't answer 'im.
"I was just going off to sleep," he ses, "when I felt a sort of hot pain in my left knee. O' course, I knew what it meant at once, and instead o' taking some of the pellets I thought I'd try your remedy instead. It's a bit nippy, but I don't mind that if it does me good."
He laughed a silly sort o' laugh, and then I'm blest if 'e didn't sit down in that mud and waller in it. Then he'd get up and come for'ard two or three steps and sit down agin.
"Ain't you sitting down, Bill?" he ses, arter a time.
"No," I ses, "I'm not."
"I don't think you can expect to get the full benefit unless you do," he ses, coming up close to me and sitting down agin. "It's a bit of a shock at fust, but Halloa!"
"Wot's up?" I ses.
"Sitting on something hard," he ses. "I wish people 'ud be more careful."
He took a list to port and felt under the star-board side. Then he brought his 'and up and tried to wipe the mud off and see wot he 'ad got.
"Wot is it?" I ses, with a nasty sinking sort o' feeling inside me.
"I don't know," he ses, going on wiping. "It's soft outside and 'ard inside. It——"
"Let's 'ave a look at it," I ses, holding out my 'and.
"It's nothing," he ses, in a queer voice, getting up and steering for the ladder. "Bit of oyster-shell, I think."
He was up that ladder hand over fist, with me close behind 'im, and as soon as he 'ad got on to the wharf started to run to 'is ship.
"Good night, Bill," he ses, over 'is shoulder.
"Arf a moment." I ses, follering 'im.
"I must get aboard," he ses; "I believe I've got a chill," and afore I could stop 'im he 'ad jumped on and run down to 'is cabin.
I stood on the jetty for a minute or two, trembling all over with cold and temper. Then I saw he 'ad got a light in 'is cabin, and I crept aboard and peeped down the skylight. And I just 'ad time to see some sovereigns on the table, when he looked up and blew out the light.