For years she had searched high and low for some penniless woman to share her cottage and Jonah's allowance, and her pensioners had gone out of their way to invent new methods of robbing her. But Miss Perkins (whom she had found shivering and hungry on the doorstep as she was going to bed one night and had taken in without asking questions, as was her habit) guarded Mrs Yabsley's property like a watchdog. For Cardigan Street, when it learned that Mrs Yabsley only worked for the fun of the thing, had leaped to the conclusion that she was rolling in money. They knew that she had given Jonah his start in life, and felt certain that she owned half of the Silver Shoe.
So the older residents had come to look on Mrs Yabsley as their property, and they formed a sort of club to sponge on her methodically. They ran out of tea, sugar and flour, and kept the landlord waiting while they ran up to borrow a shilling. They each had their own day, and kept to it, respecting the rights of their friends to a share of the plunder. None went away empty-handed, and they looked with unfriendly eyes on any new arrivals who might interfere with their rights. They thought they deceived the old woman, and the tea and groceries had a finer flavour in consequence; but they would have been surprised to know that Mrs Yabsley had herself fixed her allowance from Jonah at two pounds a week and her rent.
"That's enough money fer me to play the fool with, an' if it don't do much good, it can't do much 'arm," she had remarked, with a mysterious smile, when he had offered her anything she needed to live in comfort.
The terrible Miss Perkins had altered all that. She had discovered that Mrs Harris was paying for a new hat with the shilling a week she got for Johnny's medicine; that Mrs Thorpe smelt of drink half an hour after she had got two shillings towards the rent; that Mr Hawkins had given his wife a black eye for saying that he was strong enough to go to work again. Mrs Yabsley had listened with a perplexing smile to her companion's cries of indignation.
"I could 'ave told yer all that meself," she said, "but wot's it matter? Who am I to sit in judgment on 'em? They know I've got more money than I want, but they're too proud to ask fer it openly. People with better shirts on their backs are built the same way, if all I 'ear is true. I've bin poor meself an' yer may think there's somethin' wrong in me 'ead, but if I've got a shillin', an' some poor devil's got nuthin', I reckon I owe 'im sixpence. It isn't likely fer you to understand such things, bein' brought up in the lap of luxury, but don't yer run away with the idea that poor people are the only ones who are ashamed to beg an' willin' to steal."
Mrs Yabsley had asked no questions when she had found Miss Perkins on the step, but little by little her companion had dropped hints of former glory, and then launched into a surprising tale. She was the daughter of a rich man, who had died suddenly, and left her at the mercy of a stepmother and she had grown desperate and fled, choosing to earn her own bread till her cousin arrived, who was on his way from England to marry her. On several occasions she had forgotten that her name was Perkins, and when Mrs Yabsley dryly commented on this, she confessed that she had borrowed the name from her maid when she fled. And she whispered her real name in the ear of Mrs Yabsley, who marvelled, and promised to keep the secret.
Mrs Yabsley, who was no fool, looked for some proof of the story, and was satisfied. The girl was young and pretty, and gave herself the airs of a duchess. Mrs Swadling, indeed, had spent so much of her time at the cottage trying to worm her secret from the genteel stranger that she unconsciously imitated her aristocratic manner and way of talking, until Mr Swadling had brought her to her senses by getting drunk and giving her a pair of black eyes, which destroyed all resemblance to the fascinating stranger. Mrs Swadling had learned nothing, but she assured half the street that Miss Perkins's father had turned her out of doors for refusing to marry a man old enough to be her father, and the other half that a forged will had robbed her of thousands and a carriage and pair.
Cardigan Street had watched the aristocracy from the gallery of the theatre with sharp, envious eyes, and reported their doings to Mrs Yabsley, but Miss Perkins was the first specimen she had ever seen in the flesh. In a week she learned more about the habits of the idle rich than she had ever imagined in a lifetime. Her lodger lay in bed till ten in the morning, and expected to be waited on hand and foot. And when Mrs Yabsley could spare a minute, she described in detail the splendours of her father's home. She talked incessantly of helping Mrs Yabsley with the washing, but she seemed as helpless as a child, and Mrs Yabsley, noticing the softness and whiteness of her hands, knew that she had never done a stroke of work in her life. Then, with the curious reverence of the worker for the idler, she explained to her lodger that she only worked for exercise.
When Miss Perkins came, she had nothing but what she stood up in; but one night she slipped out under cover of darkness, and returned with a dress-basket full of finery, with which she dazzled Mrs Yabsley's eyes in the seclusion of the cottage. The basket also contained a number of pots and bottles with which she spent hours before the mirror, touching up her eyebrows and cheeks and lips. When Mrs Yabsley remarked bluntly that she was young and pretty enough without these aids, she learned with amazement that all ladies in society used them. Mrs Yabsley never tired of hearing Miss Perkins describe the splendours of her lost home. She recognized that she had lived in another world, where you lounged gracefully on velvet couches and life was one long holiday.
"It's funny," she remarked, "'ow yer run up agin things in this world. I never 'ad no partic'lar fancy fer dirty clothes an' soapsuds, but in my time, which ever way I went, I never ran agin the drorin'-room carpet an' the easy-chairs. It was the boilin' copper, the scrubbin' brush, an' the kitchen floor every time."
She was intensely interested in Miss Perkins's cousin, who was on his way from England to marry her. She described him so minutely that Mrs Yabsley would have recognized him if she had met him in the street. His income, his tastes and habits, his beautiful letters to Miss Perkins, filled Mrs Yabsley with respectful admiration. As a special favour Miss Perkins promised to read aloud one of his letters announcing his departure from England, but found that she had mislaid it. She made up for it by consulting Mrs Yabsley on the choice of a husband. Mrs Yabsley, who had often been consulted on this subject, gave her opinion.
"Some are ruled by 'is 'andsome face, an' some by 'ow much money 'e's got, but they nearly all fergit they've got ter live in the same 'ouse with 'im. Women 'ave only one way of lookin' at a man in the long run, an' if yer ask my opinion of any man, I want ter know wot 'e thinks about women. That's more important, yer'll find in the long run, than the shape of his nose or the size of 'is bankin' account."
Mrs Yabsley still hid her money, but out of the reach of rats and mice, and Miss Perkins had surprised her one day by naming the exact amount she had in her possession. And she had insisted on Mrs Yabsley going with her to the Ladies' Paradise and buying a toque, trimmed with jet, for thirty shillings, a fur tippet for twenty-five shillings, and a black cashmere dress, ready-made, for three pounds. Mrs Yabsley had never spent so much money on dress in her life, but Miss Perkins pointed out that the cadgers in Cardigan Street went out better dressed than she on Sunday, and Mrs Yabsley gave in. Miss Perkins refused to accept a fur necklet, slightly damaged by moth, reduced to twelve-and-six, but took a plain leather belt for eighteen pence. They were going out to-morrow for the first time to show the new clothes, and she had left Miss Perkins at home altering the waistband of the skirt and the hooks on the bodice, as there had been some difficulty in fitting Mrs Yabsley's enormous girth.
Mrs Yabsley's thoughts came to a sudden stop as she reached the steep part of the hill. On a steep grade her brain ceased to work, and her body became a huge, stertorous machine, demanding every ounce of vitality to force it an inch farther up the hill. Always she had to fight for wind on climbing a hill, but lately a pain like a knife in her heart had accompanied the suffocation, robbing her of all power of locomotion. The doctor had said that her heart was weak, but, judging by the rest of her body, that was nonsense, and a sniff at the medicine before she threw it away had convinced her that he was merely guessing.
When she reached the cottage she was surprised to find it in darkness, but, thinking no harm, took the key from under the doormat and went in. She lit the candle and looked round, as Jonah had done one night ten years ago. The room was unchanged. The walls were stained with grease and patches of dirt, added, slowly through the years as a face gathers wrinkles. The mottoes and almanacs alone differed. She looked round, wondering what errand had taken Miss Perkins out at that time of night. She was perplexed to see a sheet of paper with writing on it pinned to the table. Miss Perkins knew she was no scholar. Why had she gone out and left a note on the table? The pain eased in her heart, and strength came back slowly to her limbs as the suffocation in her throat lessened. At last she was able to think. She had left Miss Perkins busy with her needle and cotton, and she noticed with surprise that the clothes were gone.
With a sudden suspicion she went into the bedroom with the candle, and looked in the wardrobe made out of six yards of cretonne. The black cashmere dress, the fur tippet, and the box containing the toque with jet trimmings were gone! She shrank from the truth, and, candle in hand, examined every room, searching the most unlikely corners for the missing articles. She came back and, taking the note pinned to the table, stared at it with intense curiosity. What did these black scratches mean? For the first time in her life she wished she were scholar enough to read. She had had no schooling and when she grew up it seemed a poor way to spend the time reading, when you might be talking. Somebody always told you what was in the newspapers, and if you wanted to know anything else, why, where was your tongue? She examined the paper again, but it conveyed no meaning to her anxious eyes.
And then in a flash she saw Miss Perkins in a new light, The woman's anxiety about her was a blind to save her money from dribbling out in petty loans. Mrs Yabsley, knowing that banks were only traps, still hid her money so carefully that no one could lay hands on it. So that was the root of her care for Mrs Yabsley's appearance. She held up the note, and regarded it with a grimly humorous smile. She knew the truth now, and felt no desire to read what was written there—some lie, she supposed—and dropped it on the floor.
Suddenly she felt old and lonely, and wrapping a shawl round her shoulders, went out to her seat on the veranda. It was near eleven, and the street was humming with life. The sober and thrifty were trudging home with their loads of provisions; gossips were gathered at intervals; sudden jests were bandied, conversations were shouted across the width of the street, for it was Saturday night, and innumerable pints of beer had put Cardigan Street in a good humour. The doors were opened, and the eye travelled straight into the front rooms lit with a kerosene lamp or a candle. Under the veranda at the corner the Push was gathered, the successors of Chook and Jonah, young and vicious, for the larrikin never grows old.
She looked on the familiar scenes that had been a part of her life since she could remember. The street was changed, she thought, for a new generation had arrived, scorning the old traditions. The terrace opposite, sinking in decay, had become a den of thieves, the scum of a city rookery. She felt a stranger in her own street, and saw that her money had spoilt her relations with her neighbours. Once she could read them like a book, but these people came to her with lies and many inventions for the sake of a few miserable shillings. She wondered what the world was coming to. She threw her thoughts into the past with an immense regret. A group on the kerbstone broke into song:
Now, honey, yo' stay in yo' own back yard, Doan min' what dem white chiles do; What show yo' suppose dey's a-gwine to gib A little black coon like yo'? So stay on this side of the high boahd fence, An', honey, doan cry so hard; Go out an' a-play, jes' as much as yo' please, But stay in yo' own back yard.
The tune, with a taking lilt in it, made no impression on the old woman. And she thought with regret that the old tunes had died out with the people who sang them. These people had lost the trick of enjoying themselves in a simple manner. Ah for the good old times, when the street was as good as a play, and the people drank and quarrelled and fought and sang without malice! A meaner race had come in their stead, with meaner habits and meaner vices. Her thoughts were interrupted by a tinkling bell, and a voice that cried:
"Peas an' pies, all 'ot!—all 'ot!"
It was the pieman, pushing a handcart. He went the length of the street, unnoticed. She thought of Joey, dead and gone these long years, with his shop on wheels and his air of prosperity. His widow lived on the rent of a terrace of houses, but his successor was as lean as a starved cat, for the people's tastes had changed, and the chipped-potato shop round the corner took all their money. She thought with pride of Joey and the famous wedding feast—the peas, the pies, the saveloys, the beer, the songs and laughter. Ah well, you could say what you liked, the good old times were gone for ever. Once the street was like a play, and now...Her thoughts were disturbed again by a terrific noise in the terrace opposite. The door of a cottage flew open, and a woman ran screaming into the road, followed by her husband with a tomahawk. But as the door slammed behind him, he suddenly changed his mind and, turning back, hammered on the closed door with frantic rage, calling on someone within to come out and be killed. Then, as he grew tired of trying to get in, he remembered his wife, but she had disappeared.
The crowd gathered about, glad of a diversion, and the news travelled across the street to Mrs Yabsley on her veranda. Doughy the baker, stepping down unexpectedly from the Woolpack to borrow a shilling from his wife, had found her drinking beer in the kitchen with Happy Jack. And while Doughy was hammering on the front door, Happy Jack had slipped out at the back, and was watching Doughy's antics over the shoulders of his pals. Presently Doughy grew tired and, crossing the street, sat on the kerbstone in front of Mrs Yabsley's, with his eye on the door. And as he sat, he caressed the tomahawk, and carried on a loud conversation with himself, telling all the secrets of his married life to the street. Cardigan Street was enjoying itself. The crowd dwindled as the excitement died out, and Doughy was left muttering to himself. From the group at the corner came the roar of a chorus:
You are my honey, honeysuckle, I am the bee, I'd like to sip the honey sweet from those red lips, you see; I love you dearly, dearly, and I want you to love me; You are my honey, honeysuckle, I am the bee.
Doughy still muttered, but the beer had deadened his senses and his jealous anger had evaporated. Half an hour later his wife crossed the street cautiously and went inside. Doughy saw her and, having reached the maudlin stage, got up and lurched across the street, anxious to make it up and be friends. Quite like the old times, thought Mrs Yabsley, when the street was as good as a play. And suddenly remembering her dismal thoughts of an hour ago, she saw in a flash that she had grown old and that the street had remained young. The past, on which her mind dwelt so fondly, was not wonderful. It was her youth that was wonderful, and now she was grown old. She recognized that the street was the same, and that she had changed—that the world is for ever beginning for some and ending for others.
It was nearly midnight, and, with a shiver, she pulled the shawl over her shoulders and took a last look at the street before she went to bed. Thirty years ago since she came to live in it, when half the street was an open paddock! If Jim could see it now he wouldn't know it! The thought brought the vision of him before her eyes. She was an old woman now, but in her mind's eye he remained for ever young and for ever joyous, the smart workman in a grey cap, with the brown moustache and laughing eyes, who was nobody's enemy but his own. Something within her had snapped when he died, and she had remained on the defensive against life, expecting nothing, surprised at nothing, content to sit out the performance like a spectator at the play.
She thought of to-morrow, and decided to pay a surprise visit to the Silver Shoe before the people set out for church. There was something wrong with Ada, she felt sure. Jonah had failed to look her in the eye when she had asked news of Ada the last time. Well, she would go and see for herself, and talk Ada into her senses again. She locked the door and went to bed.
She gave Jonah and Ada a surprise, but not in the way she intended. On Sunday morning it happened that Mrs Swadling sent over for a pinch of tea, and, growing impatient, ran across to see what was keeping Tommy. She found that he could make no one hear, and growing suspicious, called the neighbours. An hour later the police forced the door, and found Mrs Yabsley dead in bed. The doctor said that she had died in her sleep from heart failure. Mrs Swadling, wondering what had become of Miss Perkins, found a note lying on the floor, and wondered no more when she read:
DEAR MRS YABSLEY,
I am sorry that I can't stay for the outing to-morrow, but my cousin came out of Darlinghurst jail this morning, and we are going to the West to make a fresh start. All I told you about my beautiful home was quite true, only I was the upper housemaid. I am taking a few odds and ends that you bought for the winter, as I could never find out where you hid your money. I have searched till my back ached, and quite agree with you that it is safer than a bank. I left your clothes at Aaron's pawnshop, and will post you the ticket. When you get this I shall be safe on the steamer, which is timed to leave at ten o'clock. I hope someone will read this to you, and tell you that I admire you immensely, although I take a strange way of showing it.
In haste, MAY
THE TWO-UP SCHOOL
The silence of sleeping things hung over the Haymarket, and the three long, dingy arcades lay huddled and lifeless in the night, black and threatening against a cloudy sky. Presently, among the odd nocturnal sounds of a great city, the vague yelping of a dog, the scream of a locomotive, the furtive step of a prowler, the shrill cry of a feathered watchman from the roost, the ear caught a continuous rumble in the distance that changed as it grew nearer into the bumping and jolting of a heavy cart.
It was the first of a lumbering procession that had been travelling all night from the outlying suburbs—Botany, Fairfield, Willoughby, Smithfield, St Peters, Woollahra and Double Bay—carrying the patient harvest of Chinese gardens laid out with the rigid lines of a chessboard. A sleepy Chinaman, perched on a heap of cabbages, pulled the horse to a standstill, and one by one the carts backed against the kerbstone forming a line the length of the arcades, waiting patiently for the markets to open. And still, muffled in the distance, or growing sharp and clear, the continuous rumble broke the silence, the one persistent sound in the brooding night.
Presently the iron gates creaked on rusty hinges, the long, silent arcades were flooded with the glow from clusters of electric bulbs, and, with the shuffle of feet on the stone flags, the huge market woke slowly to life, like a man who stretches himself and yawns. Outside, the carters encouraged the horses with short, guttural cries, the heavy vehicles bumped on the uneven flags, the horses' feet clattered loudly on the stones as the drivers backed the carts against the stalls, and the unloading began.
In half an hour the grimy stalls had disappeared under piles of green vegetables, built up in orderly masses by the Chinese dealers. The rank smell of cabbages filled the air, the attendants gossiped in a strange tongue, and the arcades formed three green lanes, piled with the fruits of the earth. Here and there the long green avenues were broken with splashes of colour where piles of carrots, radishes and rhubarb, the purple bulbs of beetroot, the creamy white of cauliflowers, and the soft green of eschalots and lettuce broke the dominant green of the cabbage.
The markets were transformed; it was an invasion from the East. Instead of the sharp, broken cries of the dealers on Saturday night, the shuffle of innumerable feet, the murmur of innumerable voices in a familiar tongue, there was a silence broken only by strange guttural sounds dropping into a sing-song cadence, the language of the East. Chinamen stood on guard at every stall, slant-eyed and yellow, clothed in the cheap slops of Sydney, their impassive features carved in fantastic ugliness, surveying the scene with inscrutable eyes that had opened first on rice-fields, sampans, junks, pagodas, and the barbaric trappings of the silken East.
At four o'clock the sales began, and the early buyers arrived with the morose air of men who have been robbed of their sleep. There were small dealers, Dagoes from the fruit shops, greengrocers from the suburbs, with a chaff-bag slung across their arm, who buy by the dozen. They moved silently from stall to stall, pricing the vegetables, feeling the market, calculating what they would gain by waiting till the prices dropped, making the round of the markets before they filled the chaff-bags and disappeared into the darkness doubled beneath their loads.
Chook and Pinkey reached the markets by the first workman's tram in the morning. As the rain had set in, Chook had thrown the chaff-bags over his shoulders, and Pinkey wore an old jacket that she was ashamed to wear in the daytime. By her colour you could tell that they had been quarrelling as usual, because she had insisted on coming with Chook to carry one of the chaff-bags. And now, as she came into the light of the arcades, she looked like a half-drowned sparrow. The rain dripped from her hat, and the shabby thin skirt clung to her legs like a wet dishcloth. Chook looked at her with rage in his heart. These trips to the market always rolled his pride in the mud, the pride of the male who is willing to work his fingers to the bone to provide his mate with fine plumage.
The cares of the shop had told on Pinkey's looks, for the last two years spent with Chook's mother had been like a long honeymoon, and Pinkey had led the life of a lady, with nothing to do but scrub and wash and help Chook's mother keep her house like a new pin. So she had grown plump and pert like a well-fed sparrow, but the care and worry of the new shop had sharpened the angles of her body. Not that Pinkey cared. She had the instinct for property, the passionate desire to call something her own, an instinct that lay dormant and undeveloped while she lived among other people's belongings. Moreover, she had discovered a born talent for shopkeeping. With her natural desire to please, she enchanted the customers, welcoming them with a special smile, and never forgetting to remember that it was Mrs Brown's third child that had the measles, and that Mrs Smith's case puzzled the doctors. They only wanted a horse and cart, so that she could mind the shop while Chook went hawking about the streets, and their fortunes were made. But this morning the rain and Chook's temper had damped her spirits, and she looked round with dismay on the cold, silent arcades, recalling with a passionate longing the same spaces transformed by night into the noisy, picturesque bazaar through which she had been accustomed to saunter as an idler walks the block on a Saturday morning.
Pinkey waited, shivering in a corner, while Chook did the buying. He walked along the stalls, eyeing the sellers and their goods with the air of a freebooter, for, as he always had more impudence than cash, he was a redoubtable customer. There was always a touch of comedy in Chook's buying, and the Chinamen knew and dreaded him, instantly on the defensive, guarding their precious cabbages against his predatory fingers, while Chook parted with his shillings as cheerfully as a lioness parts with her cubs. A pile of superb cauliflowers caught his eye.
"'Ow muchee?" he inquired.
"Ten shilling," replied the Chinaman.
"Seven an' six," answered Chook, promptly.
"No fear," replied the seller, relapsing into Celestial gravity and resuming his dream of fan-tan and opium.
Chook walked the length of the arcade and then came back. These were the pick of the market, and he must have them. Suddenly he pushed a handful of silver into the Chinaman's hand and began to fill his bag with the cauliflowers. With a look of suspicion the seller counted the money in his hand; there were only eight shillings.
"'Ere, me no take you money," cried he, frantic with rage, trying to push the silver into Chook's hand. And then Chook overwhelmed him with a torrent of words, swearing that he had taken the money and made a sale. The Chinaman hesitated and was lost.
"All li, you no pickum," he said, sullenly.
"No fear!" said Chook, grabbing the largest he could see.
In the next arcade he bought a dozen of rhubarb, Chin Lung watching him suspiciously as he counted them into the bag.
"You gottum more'n a dozen," he cried.
"What a lie!" cried Chook, with a stare of outraged virtue.
"I'll push yer face in if yer say I pinched yer rotten stuff," and he emptied the rhubarb out of the bag, dexterously kicking the thirteenth bunch under the stall.
"Now are yez satisfied?" he cried, and began counting the bunches into the bag two by two. As the Chinaman watched sharply, he stooped to move a cabbage that he was standing on, and instantly Chook whipped in two bunches without counting.
"Twelve," said Chook, with a look of indignation. "I 'ope ye're satisfied: I am."
When the bags were full, Pinkey was blue with the cold, and the dawn had broken, dull and grey, beneath the pitiless fall of rain. It was no use waiting for such rain to stop, and they quarrelled again because Chook insisted that she should wait in the markets till he went home with one chaff-bag and came back for the other. Each bag, bulging with vegetables, was nearly the size of Pinkey, but the expert in moving furniture was not to be dismayed by that. She ended the dispute by seizing a bag and trudging out into the rain, bent double beneath the load, leaving Chook to curse and follow.
Halfway through breakfast Pinkey caught Chook's eye fixed on her in a peculiar manner.
"Wot are yez thinkin' about?" she asked, with a smile.
"Well, if yer want ter know, I'm thinkin' wot a fool I was to marry yer," said Chook, bitterly.
A cold wave swept over Pinkey. It flashed through her mind that he was tired of her; that he thought she wasn't strong enough to do her share of the work. Well, she could take poison or throw herself into the harbour.
"Ah!" she said, cold as a stone. "Anythin' else?"
"I mean," said Chook, stumbling for words, "I ought to 'ave 'ad more sense than ter drag yez out of a good 'ome ter come 'ere an' work like a bus 'orse."
"Is that all?" inquired Pinkey.
"Yes; wot did yer think?" said Chook, miserably. "It fair gives me the pip ter see yer 'umpin' a sack round the stalls, when I wanted ter make yer 'appy an' comfortable."
Pinkey took a long breath of relief. She needn't drown herself, then, he wasn't tired of her.
"An' who told yer I wasn't 'appy an' comfortable?" she inquired, "'cause yer can go an' tell 'em it's only a rumour. An' while ye're about it, yous can tell 'em I've got a good 'ome, a good 'usband, an' everythin' I want." Here she looked round the dingy room as if daring it to contradict her. "An' as fer the good 'ome I came from, I wasn't wanted there, an' was 'arf starved; an' now the butcher picks the best joint an' if I lift me finger, a big 'ulkin' feller falls over 'imself ter run an' do wot I want."
Chook listened without a smile. Then his lips twitched and his eyes turned misty. Pinkey ran at him, crying, "Yer silly juggins, if I've got yous, I've got all I want." She hung round his neck, crying for pleasure, and Mrs Higgs knocked on the counter till she was tired before she got her potatoes.
The wet morning gave Pinkey a sore throat, and that finished Chook. The shop gave them a bare living, but with a horse and cart he could easily double their takings, and Pinkey could lie snug in bed while he drove to Paddy's Market in the morning. He looked round in desperation for some way of making enough money to buy Jack Ryan's horse and cart, which were still for sale. He could think of nothing but the two-up school, which had swallowed all his spare money before he was married. Since his marriage he had sworn off the school, as he couldn't spare the money with a wife to keep.
All his life Chook had lived from hand to mouth. He belonged to the class that despises its neighbours for pinching and scraping, and yet is haunted by the idea of sudden riches falling into its lap from the skies. Certainly Chook had given Fortune no excuse for neglecting him. He was always in a shilling sweep, a sixpenny raffle, a hundred to one double on the Cup. He marked pak-a-pu tickets, took the kip at two-up, and staked his last shilling more readily than the first. It was always the last shilling that was going to turn the scale and make his fortune. Well, he would try his luck again unknown to Pinkey, arguing with the blind obstinacy of the gambler that after his abstinence fate would class him as a beginner, the novice who wins a sweep with the first ticket he buys, or backs the winner at a hundred to one because he fancies its name.
Chook and Pinkey had been inseparable since their marriage, and he spent a week trying to think of some excuse for going out alone at night. But Pinkey, noticing his gloomy looks, decided that he needed livening up, and ordered him to spend a shilling on the theatre. Instantly Chook declined to go alone, and Pinkey fell into the trap. She had meant to go with him at the last moment, but now she declared that the night air made her cough. Chook could tell her all about the play when he came home. This in itself was a good omen, and when two black cats crossed his path on the way to the tram, it confirmed his belief that his luck was in.
When Chook reached Castlereagh Street, he hesitated. It was market-day on Thursday, and the two sovereigns in his pocket stood for his banking account. They would last for twenty minutes, if his luck were out, and he would never forgive himself. But at that moment a black cat crossed the footpath rapidly in front of him, and his courage revived. That made the third tonight. Men were slipping in at the door of the school, which was guarded by a sentinel. Chook, being unknown, waited till he saw an acquaintance, and was then passed in. The play had not begun, and his long absence from the alley gave his surroundings an air of novelty.
The large room, furnished like a barn, gave no sign of its character, except for the ring, marked by a huge circular seat, the inner circle padded and covered with canvas to deaden the noise of falling coins. Above the ring the roof rose into a dome where the players pitched the coins. The gaffers, a motley crowd, were sitting or standing about, playing cards or throwing deck quoits to kill time till the play began. The money-changer, his pockets bulging with silver, came up, and Chook turned his sovereigns into half-crowns. Chook looked with curiosity at the crowd; they were all strangers to him.
The cards and quoits were dropped as the boxer entered the ring. It was Paddy Flynn himself, a retired pugilist, with the face and neck of a bull, wearing a sweater and sandshoes, his arms and legs bared to show the enormous muscles of the ancient athlete. He threw the kip and the pennies into the centre, and took his place on a low seat at the head of the ring.
The gaffers scrambled for places, wedged in a compact circle, the spectators standing behind them to advise or take a hand as occasion offered. Chook looked at the kip, a flat piece of wood, the size of a butter-pat, and the two pennies, blackened on the tail and polished on the face. A gaffer stepped into the ring and picked them up.
"A dollar 'eads! A dollar tails! 'Arf a dollar 'eads!" roared the gamblers, making their bets.
"Get set!—get set!" cried the boxer, lolling in his seat with a nonchalant air; and in a twinkling a bright heap of silver lay in front of each player, the wagers made with the gaffers opposite. The spinner handed his stake of five shillings to the boxer, who cried "Fair go!"
The spinner placed the two pennies face down on the kip, and then, with a turn of the wrist, the coins flew twenty feet into the air. For a second there was a dead silence, every eye following the fall of the coins. One fell flat, the other rolled on its edge, every neck craned to follow its movements. One head and one tail lay in the ring.
"Two ones!" cried the boxer; and the stakes remained untouched.
The spinner tossed the coins again, and, as they fell, the gaffers cried "Two heads!"
"Two heads," repeated the boxer, with the decision of a judge.
The next moment a shower of coins flew like spray across the ring; the tails had paid their dollars to the winning heads. Three times the spinner threw heads, and the pile of silver in front of Chook grew larger. Then Chook, who was watching the spinner, noticed that he fumbled the pennies slightly as he placed them on the kip. Success had shaken his nerve, and instantly Chook changed his cry to "A dollar tails—a dollar tails!"
The coins spun into the air with a nervous jerk, and fell with the two black tails up. The spinner threw down the kip, and took his winnings from the boxer—five pounds for himself and ten shillings for the boxer.
As another man took the kip, the boxer glared at the winning players. "How is it?" he cried with the voice of a footpad demanding charity, and obeying the laws of the game, the winners threw a dollar or more from their heap to the boss.
For an hour Chook won steadily, and then at every throw the heap of coins in front of him lessened. A trot or succession of seven tails followed, and the kip changed hands rapidly, for the spinner drops the kip when he throws tails. Chook stopped betting during the trot, obeying an instinct. Without counting, his practised eye told him that there were about five pounds in the heap of coins in front of him. The seventh man threw down the kip, and Chook, as if obeying a signal, rose from his seat and walked into the centre of the ring. He handed five shillings to the boxer, and placed the pennies tail up on the kip. His stake was covered with another dollar, the betting being even money.
"Fair go!" cried the boxer.
Chook jerked the coins upward with the skill of an old gaffer; they flew into the dome, and then dropped spinning. As they touched the canvas floor, a hundred voices cried "Two heads!"
"Two heads!" cried the boxer, and a shower of coins flew across the ring to the winners.
"A dollar or ten bob heads!" cried the boxer, staking Chook's win. Chook spun the coins again, and as they dropped heads, the boxer raked in one pound.
"Wot d'ye set?" he cried to Chook.
"The lot," cried Chook, and spun the coins. Heads again, and Chook had two pounds in the boxer's hands, who put ten shillings aside in case Chook "threw out", and staked thirty. Chook headed them again, and was three pounds to the good. The gaffers realized that a trot of heads was coming, and the boxer had to offer twelve to ten to cover Chook's stake. For the seventh time Chook threw heads, and was twelve pounds to the good. This was his dream come true, and with the faith of the gambler in omens, he knew that was the end of his luck. He set two pounds of his winnings, and tossed the coins.
"Two ones!" cried the gamblers, with a roar.
Chook threw again. One penny fell flat on its face; the other rolled on its edge across the ring. In a sudden, deadly silence, a hundred necks craned to follow its movements. Twenty or thirty pounds in dollars and half-dollars depended on the wavering coin. Suddenly it stopped, balanced as if in doubt, and fell on its face.
"Two tails!" cried the gaffers, and the trot of heads was finished. Chook's stake was swept away, and the boxer handed him ten pounds. Chook tossed a pound to him for commission. He acknowledged it with a grunt, and looking round the ring at the winning players cried out "How is it?—how is it?" With his other winnings Chook had over fifteen pounds in his pocket, and he decided to go, although the night was young. As he went to the stairs, the boxer cried out, "No one to leave for five minutes!" following the custom when a big winner left the room, to prevent a swarm of cadgers, lug-biters, and spielers begging a tram fare, a bed, a cup of coffee from the winner. When Chook reached the top of the staircase, the G.P.O. clock began to strike, and Chook stopped to listen, for he had forgotten the lapse of time. He counted the last stroke, eleven, and then, as if it had been a signal, came the sound of voices and a noise of hammering from the front door. The next moment the doorkeeper ran up the narrow staircase crying "The Johns are here!"
For a moment the crowd of gamblers stared, aghast; then the look of trapped animals came into their faces, and with the noise of splintering wood below, they made a rush at the money on the floor. The boxer ran swearing into the ring to hide the kip and the pennies, butting with his bull shoulders against a mob of frenzied gaffers mad with fear and greed, grabbing at any coins they could reach in despair of finding their own. The news spread like fire. The school was surrounded by a hundred policemen in plain clothes and uniform; every outlet from the alley was watched and guarded. A cold scorn of the police filled Chook's mind. For months the school ran unmolested, and then a raid was planned in the spirit of sportsmen arranging a drive of rabbits for a day's outing. This raid meant capture by the police, an ignominious procession two by two to the lock-up, a night in the cells unless bail was found, and a fine and a lecture from the magistrate in the morning. To some it meant more. To the bank clerk it meant the sack; to the cashier who was twenty pounds short in his cash, an examination of his books and discovery; to the spieler who was wanted by the police, scrutiny by a hundred pair of official eyes.
The gaffers ran here and there bewildered, cursing and swearing in an impotence of rage. Like trapped rats the men ran to the windows and doors, but the room, fortified with iron bars and barbed wire, held them like a trap. The boxer cried out that bail would be found for the captured, but his bull roar was lost in the din.
There was a rush of heavy police boots on the stairs, the lights were suddenly turned out, and in the dark a wild scramble for liberty. Someone smashed a window that was not barred, and a swarm of men fought round the opening, dropping one by one on to the roof of some stables. The first man through shouted something and tried to push back, but a frenzied stream of men pushed him and the others into the arms of the police, who had marked this exit beforehand. Chook found himself on the roof, bleeding from a cut lip, and hatless. Below him men were crouching on the roofs like cats, to be picked off at the leisure of the police.
He could never understand how he escaped. He stood on the roof awaiting capture quietly, as resistance was useless, picked up a hat two sizes too large for him, and, walking slowly to the end of the roof, ducked suddenly under an old signboard that was nailed to a chimney. Every moment he expected a John to walk up to him, but, to his amazement, none came. As a man may walk unhurt amid a shower of bullets, he had walked unseen under twenty policemen's eyes. From Castlereagh Street came a murmur of voices. The theatres were out, and a huge crowd, fresh from the painted scenes and stale odours of the stalls and gallery, watched with hilarious interest the harlequinade on the roofs. In half an hour a procession was formed, two deep, guarded by the police, and followed by a crowd stumbling over one another to keep pace with it, shouting words of encouragement and sympathy to the prisoners. Five minutes later Chook slithered down a veranda post, a free man, and walked quietly to the tram.
THE "ANGEL" LOSES A CUSTOMER
Six months after the death of Mrs Yabsley, Ada and Mrs Herring sat in the back parlour of the Angel sipping brandy. They had drunk their fill and it was time to be going, but Ada had no desire to move. She tapped her foot gently as she listened to the other woman's ceaseless flow of talk, but her mind was elsewhere. She had reached the stage when the world seemed a delightful place to live in; when it was a pleasure to watch the people moving and gesticulating like figures in a play, without jar or fret, as machines move on well-oiled cogs.
There was nothing to show that she had been drinking, except an uncertain smile that rippled over her heavy features as the wind breaks the surface of smooth water. Mrs Herring was as steady as a rock, but she knew without looking that the end of her nose was red, for drink affected that organ as heat affects a poker. Ada looked round with affection on the small room with the sporting prints, the whisky calendar, and the gong. For months past she had felt more at home there than at the "Silver Shoe."
She had never forgotten the scene that had followed her first visit to this room, when Jonah, surprised by her good humour, had smelt brandy on her breath. The sight of a misshapen devil, with murder in his eyes, spitting insults, had sobered her like cold water. She had stammered out a tale of a tea-room where she had been taken ill, and brandy had been brought in from the adjoining hotel. Mrs Herring, who had spent a lifetime in deceiving men, had prepared this story for her as one teaches a lesson to a child, but she had forgotten it until she found herself mechanically repeating it, her brain sobered by the shock. For a month she had avoided the woman with the hairy lip, and then the death of her mother had removed the only moral barrier that stood between her and hereditary impulse.
Since then she had gone to pieces. Mrs Herring had prescribed her favourite remedy for grief, a drop of cordial, and Jonah for once found himself helpless, for Mrs Herring taught Ada more tricks than a monkey. Privately she considered Ada a dull fool, but she desired her company, for she belonged to the order of sociable drunkards, for whom drink has no flavour without company, and who can no more drink alone than men can smoke in the dark. Ada was an ideal companion, rarely breaking the thread of her ceaseless babble, and never forgetting to pay for her share. It was little enough she could squeeze out of Aaron, and often she drank for the afternoon at Ada's expense.
She looked anxiously at Ada, and then at the clock. For she drank with the precision of a patient taking medicine, calculating to a drop the amount she could carry, and allowing for the slight increase of giddiness when she stepped into the fresh air of the streets. But to-day she felt anxious, for Ada had already drunk a glass too much, and turned from her coaxings with an obstinate smile. The more she drank, she thought, the less she would care for what Jonah said when she got home. Mrs Herring felt annoyed with her for threatening to spoil a pleasant afternoon, but she talked on to divert her thoughts from the brandy.
"And remember what I told you, dearie. Every woman should learn to manage men. Some say you should study their weak points, but that was never my way. They all like to think their word is law, and you can do anything you please if you pretend you are afraid to do anything without asking their permission. And always humour them in one thing. Now, Aaron insists on punctuality. His meals must be ready on the stroke, and once he is fed, I can do as I please. Now, do be ruled by me, dearie, and come home."
But Ada had turned unmanageable, and called for more drink. Mrs Herring could have slapped her. Her practised eye told her that Ada would soon be too helpless to move, and she thought, with a cringing fear, of Aaron the Jew, and her board and lodging that depended on his stomach.
Outside it had begun to rain, and Joe Grant, a loafer by trade and a lug-biter by circumstance, shifted from one foot to another, and stared dismally at the narrow slit between the swinging doors of the "Angel", where he knew there was warmth, and light, and comfort—everything that he desired. The rain, fine as needle-points, fell without noise, imperceptibly covering his clothes and beard with moisture. The pavements and street darkened as if a shadow had been thrown over them, and then shone in irregular streaks and patches of light, reflected from the jets of light that suddenly appeared in the shop windows. Joe looked at the clock through the windows of the bar. It was twenty to six. The rain had brought the night before its time, and Joe wondered what had become of Mrs Jones and her pal. He had had the luck to see her going in at the side door, and she was always good for a tray bit when she came out. Failing her, he must depend on the stream of workmen, homeward bound, who always stopped at the Angel for a pint on their way home.
Suddenly the huge white globes in front of the hotel spluttered and flashed, piercing the darkness and the rain with their powerful rays. The bar, as suddenly illumined, brilliant with mirrors and glass, invited the weary passenger in to share its comforts. Joe fingered the solitary coin in his pocket—threepence. It was more than the price of a beer to him; it was the price of admission to the warm, comfortable bar every night, for the landlord was the friend of every man with the price of a drink in his pocket, and once inside, he could manage to drink at other people's expense till closing time. He kept an eye on the side door for Ada and Mrs Herring, at the same time watching each pedestrian as he emerged from the darkness into the glare of the electric lights.
The fine points of rain had gradually increased to a smart downfall, that drummed on the veranda overhead and gurgled past his feet in the gutter. Behind him, from a leak in the pipe, the water fell to the ground with a noisy splash as if someone had turned on a tap. Joe felt that he hated water like a cat. His watery blue eyes, fixed with a careless scrutiny on every face, told him in an instant whether the owner was a likely mark that he could touch for a drink, but his luck was out. He decided that the two women must have slipped out by another door.
Jonah, who had been caught in the shower, stopped for a moment under the veranda, anxious to get back to the Silver Shoe before closing time. Joe let him pass without stirring a muscle; he knew him. If you asked him for a drink, he offered you work. But, as Jonah hesitated before facing the rain again, a sudden anger flamed in his mind at the sight of Jonah's gold watch-chain and silver-mounted umbrella. Cripes, he knew that fellow when he knocked about with the Push, and now he was rolling in money! And with the sudden impulse of a suicide who throws himself under a train, he stepped up to Jonah.
"Could I 'ave a word with yer, Mr Jones?" he mumbled.
"'Ello, Smacker! Just gittin' 'ome, like myself?" said Jonah.
"Not much use gittin' 'ome to an empty 'ouse," said Joe, with a doleful whine, "an' I've earned nuthin' this week."
"'Ow do yer expect to find work, when the only place yer look fer it is in the bottom of a beer-glass?" said Jonah.
"I 'ave me faults, none knows better than meself," said Joe humbly, "but thinkin' of them won't fill me belly on a night like this."
"Now look 'ere," said Jonah, "I'm in a 'urry. I won't give yer any money, but if ye're 'ungry, come across the street, an' I'll buy yer a meal."
Joe hesitated, but the thought of good money being wasted on food was too much for him, and he played his last card.
"Look, I'll tell yer straight, Mr Jones; it's no use tryin' to pull yer leg. I can git all the tucker I want for the askin', but I'm dyin' for a beer to cheer me up an' keep out the cold."
He smiled at Jonah with an air of frankness, hoping to play on Jonah's vanity by this cynical confession, but his heart sank as Jonah replied "No, not a penny for drink," and prepared to dive into the rain.
"'Orl right, boss," muttered Joe; and then, half to himself, he added "'Ard luck, to grudge a man a pint, with 'is own missis inside there gittin' as full as a tick."
"What's that yer say?" cried Jonah, turning pale.
"Nuthin'," muttered Joe, conscious that he had made a mistake.
But a sudden light flashed on Jonah. Ada had lied to him from the beginning. She had told him that she got the drink at Paddy Boland's in the Haymarket, a notorious drinking-den for women, where spirits were served to customers, disguised as light refreshments. The fear of a public scandal in a room full of women had alone prevented him from going there to find her. It was Mrs Herring's craft to throw Jonah on the wrong scent, and sip comfortably in the back parlour of the Angel, safe from detection, a stone's throw from the Silver Shoe. Jonah turned and walked in at the side door, leaving Joe with the uneasy feeling of the man who killed the goose to get the golden eggs.
Ada had just rung the gong, insisting on another drink with the fatuous obstinacy of drunkards. She lolled in her chair, her hat tilted over one ear, watching the door for the return of Cassidy with the tray and glasses, and wondering dimly why Mrs Herring's voice sounded far away, as if she were speaking through a telephone. Mrs Herring, the tip of her nose growing a brighter red with drink and vexation, was scolding and coaxing by turns in a rapid whisper. Suddenly she stopped, her eyes fixed in a petrified stare at an apparition in the doorway. It was the devil himself, Ada's husband, the hunchback. As he stood in the doorway, his eyes travelled from her to his wife. His face turned white, a nasty greyish white, his eyes snapped like an angry cat's, and then his face hardened in a sneer. But Ada, who was fast losing consciousness of her identity, stared at her husband without fear or surprise. The deadly silence was broken by the arrival of Cassidy, who nearly ran into Jonah with the tray.
"Beg pardon," said he, briskly, and looking down found himself staring into the face of a grinning corpse.
"Don't mind me, Cassidy," said the corpse, speaking. "She can stand another glass, I think."
Cassidy put the tray down with a jerk that upset the glasses.
"I'm very sorry this should have happened, Mr Jones," he stammered. "I'm very ..."
"Of course you are," cried Jonah. "Ye're sorry fer anythin' that interferes with yer business of turning men and women into swine."
"Come now," said Cassidy, making a last stand on his dignity, "this is a public house, and I am bound to serve drink to anyone that asks for it. As a matter of fact, I didn't know the lady was in this condition till the barman sent me in to see what could be done."
"You're a liar, an' a fat liar. I hate fat liars—I don't know why—an' if yer tell another, I'll ram yer teeth down yer throat. She's been comin' 'ere for months, an' you've been sending her home drunk for the sake of a few shillings, to poison my life and make her name a byword in the neighbourhood. Now, listen to me! You'll not serve that woman again with drink under any pretext whatever."
"I should be glad to oblige you; but this is a public house, as I said before..."
He stopped as Jonah took a step forward, his fists clenched, transformed in a moment into Jonah the larrikin, king of the Cardigan Street Push.
"D'ye remember me, Cassidy?" he cried. "I've sent better men than you to the 'orspital in a cab. D'ye remember w'en yer were a cop with one stripe, an' we smashed every window in Flanagan's pub for laggin'? D'ye remember the time yer used ter turn fer safety down a side street w'en yer saw us comin'?"
Cassidy's face stiffened for a moment, the old policeman coming to life again at the sight of his natural enemy, the larrikin. But years of ease had buried the guardian of the law under layers of fat. He stepped hastily back from Jonah's fists.
"No, I won't hit yer; yer might splash," cried Jonah bitterly.
And Cassidy, forgetting that the dreaded Push was scattered to the winds, and trembling for the safety of his windows, spoke in a changed voice.
"I'll do anything to meet your wishes, Mr Jones. There's no call to rake up old times. We've both got on since then, and it won't pay us to be enemies. I promise you faithfully that your wife shan't be served with drink here."
"I'm glad to 'ear it," said Jonah; "an' now yer better 'elp me ter git 'er 'ome."
He looked round the room. There were only himself, Cassidy, and Ada. Mrs Herring, who had been paralysed by the sight of the devil in the shape of a hunchback, had found herself on the footpath, sober as a judge, without very well knowing how she got there.
Ada, stupefied with brandy, and tired over the long conversation, had fallen asleep on the table. Jonah went to the door and called Joe, who was listening dismally to the hum of voices raised in argument and the pleasant clink of glasses in the bar, now filled with workmen carrying their bags of tools, their faces covered with the sweat and grime of the day.
"Fetch me a cab, Smacker," he said. "My wife's been taken ill. She fainted in the street, and they brought her here to recover."
"Right y'are, boss," cried Joe. "She turned giddy as she was walkin' past, an' yer tried to pull 'er round with a drop of brandy."
He repeated the words like a boy reciting a lesson, feeling anxiously with his thumb as he spoke, wondering if the coin Jonah had pushed into his hand was a florin or a half-dollar.
Cassidy and Joe, one on each side, helped Ada into the cab. Her feet scraped helplessly over the flagged pavement her head lolled on her shoulder, and the baleful white gleam of the huge electric lamps fell like limelight on her face contracted in an atrocious leer.
The "Silver Shoe" was closed and in darkness, and Jonah drew a breath of relief. The neighbours were at their tea, and he could get his shameful burden in unseen. Prendergast, the cabman, helped him to drag Ada across the shop to the foot of the stairs, where with an oath he threw her across his shoulder, and ran up the winding staircase as if he were carrying a bag of chaff.
Suddenly the door on the landing opened, throwing a flood of light on their faces, and Jonah was astonished to see Miss Grimes, trim and neat, looking in alarm from him to the cabman and his burden. As Prendergast dropped Ada on the couch, she took a step forward.
"What has happened? Is she hurt?" she asked, bending over Ada; but the next moment she turned away.
This unconscious movement of disgust maddened Jonah. What was she doing there to see his humiliation?
"No, she's not hurt," said Jonah dryly. "But wot are you doing 'ere?" he added.
His tone nettled the young woman, and she coloured.
"I'm sorry I'm in the way," she said stiffly, "but Mr Johnson locked up, and was anxious to get away, and as I was giving Ray his lesson, I offered to stay with him till someone came."
"I beg yer pardon," said Jonah. "I'm much obliged to yer fer mindin' the kid, but I didn't want yer to see this."
"I've known it all the time," said Clara, quietly.
"Ah," said Jonah, understanding many things in a flash.
He caught sight of Ray, staring open-mouthed at his mother lying so strangely huddled on the couch.
"Yer mother's tired, Ray," he said. "Go an' boil the kettle; she'll want some tea when she wakes up."
"That's 'ow I 'ave ter lie to everybody; an' I suppose they all know the truth, an' nod an' wink behind my back," he cried bitterly. "I've tried all I know; but now 'er mother's gone, I'm fair beat. People envy me because I've got on, but they little know wot a millstone I've got round my neck."
He lifted his head, and look steadily at Ada snoring in a drunken sleep on the couch. And to Clara's surprise, his face suddenly changed; tears stood in his eyes.
"Poor devil! I don't know that she's to blame altogether. It's in her blood. Her father went the same way. My money's done 'er no good. She'd 'ave been better off in Cardigan Street on two pounds a week."
Clara was surprised at the pity in his voice. She thought that he loathed and despised his wife. Suddenly Jonah looked up at her.
"Will yer meet me to-morrow afternoon?" he asked abruptly.
"Why?" said Clara, alarmed and surprised.
"I want yer to 'elp me. Since 'er mother died, she's gone from bad to worse. I've got no one to 'elp me, an' I feel I'll burst if I don't talk it over with somebody."
"I hardly know," replied Clara, taken by surprise.
"Say the Mosman boat at half past two, an' I'll be there," said Jonah brusquely.
"Very well," said Clara.
THE PIPES OF PAN
Circular Quay, shaped like a bite in a slice of bread, caught the eye like a moving picture. The narrow strip of roadway, hemmed in between the Customs House and the huge wool stores, was alive with the multitudinous activity of an ant-hill. A string of electric cars slid past the jetties in parallel lines or climbed the sharp curve to Phillip Street; and every minute cars, loaded with passengers from the dusty suburbs, swung round the corners of the main streets and stopped in front of the ferries. And as the cars stopped, the human cargo emptied itself into the roadway and hurried to the turnstiles, harassed by the thought of missing the next boat.
From the waterside, where the great mail steamers lay moored along the Quay, came the sudden rattle of winches, the cries of men unloading cargo, and the shrill hoot of small steamers crossing the bay. Where the green waters licked the piles and gurgled under the jetties, waterside loafers sat on the edge of the wharves intently watching a fishing-line thrown out. Men in greasy clothes and flannel shirts, with the look of the sea in their eyes, smoked and spat as they watched the ships in brooding silence. For of all structures contrived by the hands of man, a ship is the most fascinating. It is so complete, so perfect in its devices and ingenuity, a house and a habitation for men set adrift on the waste of waters, plunging headlong into danger and romance with its long spars and coiled ropes, its tarry sailors roaring a sea-chanty, and the common habits of eating and sleeping accomplished in a spirit of adventure.
Two streams, mainly women, met at the turnstiles—mothers and children from the crowded, dusty suburbs, drawn by the sudden heat of an autumn sun in a cloudless sky to the harbour for a day in the open air, and the leisured ladies of the North Shore, calm and collected, dressed in expensive materials, crossing from the fashionable waterside suburbs to the Quay to saunter idly round the Block, look in the shops, and drink a cup of tea.
Jonah, who had been standing outside the Mosman ferry for the last half-hour, looked at the clock in the Customs House opposite, and swore to himself. It was on the stroke of three, and she would miss the boat, as usual. It was always the same—she was always late; and when he had worked himself into a fury, deciding to wait another minute, and then to go home, she would suddenly appear breathless, with a smile and an apology that took the words out of his mouth.
He watched each tram as it stopped, looking for one face and figure among the moving crowd, for he had learned to know her walk in the distance while her features were a blur. For months past he had endured that supreme tyranny—the domination of the woman—till his whole life seemed to be spent between thinking about her and waiting for her at appointed corners. The hours they spent together fled with incredible speed, and she always shortened the flying minutes by coming late, with one of half a dozen excuses that he knew by heart.
Their first meeting had been at the Quay the day after he had brought Ada home drunk from the "Angel", and since then a silent understanding had grown between them that they should always meet there and cross the water, as Jonah's conspicuous figure made recognition very likely in the streets and parks of the city.
The first passion of his life—love of his child—had for ever stamped on his brain the scenes and atmosphere of Cardigan Street, the struggle for life on the Road, and the march of triumph to the "Silver Shoe". And this, the second passion of his life—love of a woman—was set like a stage-play among the wide spaces of sea and sky, the flight of gulls, the encircling hills, and the rough, salt breath of the harbour.
Suddenly he saw her crossing the road, threading her way between the electric cars, and noted with intense satisfaction the distinction of her figure, clothed in light tweed, with an air of scrupulous neatness in which she could hold her own with the rich idlers from the Shore. She smiled at him with her peculiar, intense look, and then frowned slightly. Jonah knew that something was wrong, and remembered that he had forgotten to raise his hat, an accomplishment that she had taught him with much difficulty.
"So sorry to be late, but I couldn't really help it. I'll tell you presently," she said, as they passed the turnstiles.
Jonah knew by her voice that she was in a bad temper, and his heart sank. The afternoon that he had waited for and counted on for nearly a week would be spoiled. Never before in his life had his pleasures depended on the humour or caprice of anyone, but he had learned with dismal surprise that a word or a look from this woman could make or mar the day for him. He gave her a sidelong look, and saw she was angry by a certain hardness in her profile, and, as he stared moodily at the water, he wondered if all women were as mutable and capricious. In his dealings with women—shop-hands who moved at his bidding like machines—he had never suspected these gusts of emotion that ended as suddenly as they began. Ada had the nerves of a cow.
Over the way the Manly boat was filling slowly with mothers and children and stray couples. A lamentable band on the upper deck mixed popular airs with the rattle of winches. The Quay was alive with ferry-boats, blunt-nosed and squat like a flat-iron, churning the water with invisible screws. A string of lascars from the P. & O. boat caught his eye with a patch of colour, the white calico trousers, the gay embroidered vests, and the red or white turbans bringing a touch of the East to Sydney. Suddenly the piles of the jetty slipped to the rear, and the boat moved out past the huge mail-steamers from London, Marseilles, Bremen, Hongkong, and Yokohama lying at the wharves.
As they rounded the point the warships swung into view, grim and forbidding, with the ugly strength of bulldogs. A light breeze flicked the waters of the harbour into white flakes like the lash of a whip, and Jonah felt the salt breath of the sea on his cheeks. His eye travelled over the broad sheet of water from the South Head, where the long rollers of the Pacific entered and broke with a muscular curve, to the shores broken by innumerable curves into bays where the moving waters, already tamed, lost their beauty like a caged animal, and spent themselves in fretful ripples on the sand. Overhead the sky, arched in a cloudless dome of blue, was reflected in the turquoise depths of the water.
Then Mosman came in sight with its shaggy slopes and terra-cotta roofs, the houses, on the pattern of a Swiss chalet, standing with spaces between, fashionable and reserved. Jonah thought of Cardigan Street, and smiled. They walked in silence along the path to Cremorne Point, the noise of birds and the rustling of leaves bringing a touch of the country to Jonah.
"Had you been waiting long?" asked Clara, suddenly.
"Since twenty past two," replied Jonah.
"The impudence of some people is incredible," she said. "I've just lost a pupil and a guinea a quarter—it's the same thing. The mother thought I should buy the music for the child out of the guinea. That means a hat and a pair of gloves or a pair of boots less through no fault of my own. You don't seem very sympathetic," she cried, looking sharply at Jonah.
"I ain't," said Jonah, calmly.
"Well, I must say you don't pick your words. A guinea may be nothing to you, but it means a great deal to me."
"It ain't that," said Jonah, "but I hate the thought of yer bein' at the beck an' call of people who ain't fit to clean yer boots. Ye're like a kid 'oldin' its finger in the fire an' yellin' with pain. There's no need fer yer to do it. I've offered ter make yer cashier in the shop at two pounds a week, if yer'd put yer pride in yer pocket."
"And throw a poor girl out of work to step into her shoes."
"Nuthin' of the sort, as I told yer. She's been threatenin' fer months to git married, but it 'urts 'er to give up a good billet an' live on three pounds a week. Yer'd do the bloke a kindness, if yer made me give 'er the sack."
"It's no use. My mother wouldn't listen to it. For years she's half starved herself to keep me out of a shop. She can never forget that her people in England are gentry."
"I don't know much about gentry, but I could teach them an' yer mother some common sense," said Jonah.
"We won't discuss my mother, if you please," said Clara, and they both fell silent.
They had reached the end of Cremorne Point, a spur of rock running into the harbour. Clara ran forward with a cry of pleasure, her troubles forgotten as she saw the harbour lying like a map at her feet. The opposite shore curved into miniature bays, with the spires and towers of the city etched on a filmy blue sky. The mass of bricks and mortar in front was Paddington and Woollahra, leafless and dusty where they had trampled the trees and green grass beneath their feet; the streets cut like furrows in a field of brick. As the eye travelled eastward from Double Bay to South Head the red roofs became scarcer, alternating with clumps of sombre foliage. Clara looked at the scene with parted lips as she listened to music. This frank delight in scenery had amused Jonah at first. It was part of a woman's delight in the pretty and useless. But, as his eyes had become accustomed to the view, he had begun to understand. There was no scenery in Cardigan Street, and he had been too busy in later years to give more than a hasty glance at the harbour. There was no money in it.
From where they sat they could see a fleet of tramps and cargo-boats lying at anchor on their right. Jonah examined them attentively, and then his eyes turned to the city, piled massively in the sunlight, studded with spires and towers and tall chimneys belching smoke into the upper air. It was this city that had given him life on bitter terms, a misshapen and neglected street-arab, scouring the streets for food, of less account than a stray dog.
His eye softened as he looked again at the water. As the safest place for their excursions they had picked by chance on the harbour with its fleet of steamers that threaded every bay and cove, and little by little, in the exaltation of the senses following his love for this woman, the swish of the water slipping past the bows, the panorama of rock and sandy beach, and the salt smell of the sea were for ever part of this strange, emotional condition where reality and dream blended without visible jar or shock.
He turned and looked at the woman beside him. She was silent, looking seaward. He stared at her profile, cut like a cameo, with intense satisfaction. The low, straight forehead, the straight nose, the full curving chin, satisfied his eye like a carved statue. About her ear, exquisitely small and delicate, the wind had blown a fluff of loose hair, and on this insignificant detail his eye dwelt with rapture. This woman's face pleased him like music. And as he looked, all his desires were melted and confounded in a wave of tenderness, caressing and devotional, the complete surrender of strength to weakness. He wanted to take her in his arms, and dared not even touch her hand. There had been no talk of love between them, and she had kept him at a distance with her air of distinction and superficial refinements. She seemed to spread a silken barrier between them that exasperated and entranced him. Some identity in his sensations puzzled him, and as he looked, with a flash he was in Cardigan Street again, stooping over his child with a strange sensation in his heart, learning his first lesson in pity and infinite tenderness. Another moment and he would have taken her in his arms. Instead of that, he said "I'm putting that line of patent leather pumps in the catalogue at seven and elevenpence, post free."
Instantly Clara became attentive.
"You mean those with the buckles and straps? They'll go like hot cakes!"
"They ought to," said Jonah, dryly. "Post free brings them a shade below cost price."
"A shade below cost?" said Clara in surprise. "I thought you bought them at seven and six?"
"So I do," replied Jonah, "but add twelve per cent for working expenses, an' where's the profit? Packard's manager puts them in the window at eight an' six, an' wonders why they don't sell. His girls come straight from the factory and buy them off me. They're the sort I want—waitresses, dressmakers, shop-hands, bits of girls that go without their meals to doll themselves up. They want the cheapest they can get, an' they're always buying."
And at once they plunged into a discussion on the business of the Silver Shoe. Clara always listened with fascination to the details of buying and selling. Novelettes left her cold, but the devices to attract customers, the lines that were sold at a loss for advertisement, the history of the famous Silver Shoe that Jonah sold in thousands at a halfpenny a pair profit, astonished her like a fairy-tale that happened to be real.
One day, while shopping at Jordan's mammoth cash store, her ear had caught the repeated clink of metal, and turning her head, she stood on the stairs, thunderstruck. She saw a square room lit with electric bulbs in broad daylight. It was the terminus of a multitude of shining brass tubes leading from counters the length of a street away, and, with an incessant popping, the tubes dropped a cascade of gold and silver before the cashiers, silent and absorbed in this river of coin. She felt that she was looking at the heart of this huge machine for drawing money from the pockets of the multitude. The "Silver Shoe", that poured a stream of golden coins into the pockets of the hunchback, fascinated her in a like manner.
They had talked for half an hour, intent on figures which Jonah dotted on the back of an envelope, when they were surprised by a sudden change in the light. The sun was low in the sky, dipping to the horizon, where its motion seemed more rapid, as if it had gathered speed in the descent. The sudden heat had thrown a haze over the sky, and the city with its spires and towers was transformed. The buildings floated in a liquid veil with the unreality of things seen in a dream. The rays of the sun, filtered through bars of crystal cloud, fell not crimson nor amber nor gold, but with the mystic radiance of liquid pearls, touching the familiar scene with Eastern magic. In the silvery light a dome reared its head that might have belonged to an Eastern mosque with a muezzin calling the faithful to prayers. Minarets glistered, remote and ethereal, and tall spires lifted themselves like arrows in flight. On the left lay low hills softly outlined against the pearly sky; hills of fairyland that might dissolve and disappear with the falling night; hills on the borderland of fantasy and old romance.
And as they watched, surprised out of themselves by this magic play of light, the sun's rim dipped below the skyline, a level lake of blood, and the fantastic city melted like a dream. The pearly haze was withdrawn like a net of gossamer, and the magic city had vanished at a touch. The familiar towers and spires of Sydney reappeared, silhouetted against the amber rim of night; the hills, robbed of their pearly glamour, huddled beneath a belt of leaden cloud; the harbour waters lay fiat and grey like a sheet of polished metal; light clouds were pacing in from the sea.
They stared across the water, silent and thoughtful, touched for a moment with the glamour of a dream. The sound of a cornet, prolonged into a wail, reached them from the deck of a Manly steamer. At intervals the full strength of the band, cheerful and vulgar, was carried by a gust of wind to their ears.
"Oh, I would like to hear some music!" cried Clara. "Something slow and solemn, a dirge for the dying day."
Jonah turned and looked at her curiously, surprised by the gush of emotion in her voice. He started to speak, and hesitated. Then the words came with a rush.
"I could give yer a tune meself, but I suppose yer'd poke borak."
"Give me a tune? I never knew you could sing," said Clara, in surprise.
"Sing!" said Jonah, in scorn. "I can beat any singin' w'en I'm in good nick."
"Whatever do you mean?" said Clara. She was surprised to see that the habitual shrewd look had gone out of his eyes. He looked half ashamed and defiant.
"Yer remember w'en I first met yer in the shop I mentioned that I could do a bit with the mouth-organ?"
"The mouth-organ?" said Clara, smiling. "I thought only boys amused themselves with that."
"No fear!" cried Jonah. "I 'eard a bloke at the 'Tiv.' play a fair treat. That's 'ow I come to git this instrument," and he tapped something in his breast pocket. "Kramer's 'ad to send 'ome for it, an' I only got it this afternoon. I've bin dyin' to 'ave a go at it, but I always wait till I git the place to meself. It wouldn't do for the 'ands to see the boss playin' the mouth-organ."
He took the instrument out of his pocket, and handed it to Clara with the pride of a fiddler showing his Strad. Clara looked carelessly at the flat row of tubes cased in nickel-silver.
"Exhibition concert organ with forty reeds," said Jonah. Again Clara looked at the instrument with a slightly disdainful air, as an organist would look at a penny whistle.
"Well, play something," she said with a smile.
Jonah breathed slowly into the reeds, up and down the scale, testing the compass of the instrument. It was full and rich, unlike any that she had heard in the streets. Presently he struck into a popular ballad from the music-hall, holding the organ to his mouth with the left hand. With his right he covered the pipes to control the volume of sound as a pianist uses the pedals. When he had finished, Clara smiled in encouragement, with a secret feeling that he was making himself ridiculous. She looked across the water, wishing he would put the thing away and stop this absurd exhibition. But Jonah had warmed up to his work. He was back in Cardigan Street again, when the Push marched through the streets with him in the lead, playing tunes that he had learned at the music-halls.
In five minutes Clara's uneasiness had vanished, and she was listening to the music with a dreamy languor quite foreign to her usual composure. Her mind was filled with the fantastic splendour of the sunset; the fresh salt air had acted like a drug; and the sounds breathed into the reeds made her nerves vibrate like strings. Strange, lawless thoughts floated in her mind. The world was meant for love, and passionate sadness, and breaking hearts that healed at the glance of an eye. And as her ear followed the tune, her eyes were drawn with an irresistible movement to the musician. She found him staring at her with a magnetic look in his eyes.
He was no longer ridiculous. The large head, wedged beneath the shoulders, the projecting hump, monstrous and inhuman, and the music breathed into the reeds set him apart as a sinister, uncanny being. She frowned in an effort to think what the strange figure reminded her of, and suddenly she remembered. It was the god Pan, the goat-footed lord of rivers and woods, sitting beside her, who blew into his pipes and stirred the blood of men and women to frenzies of joy and fear. There was fear and exultation in her heart. A pagan voluptuousness spread through her limbs. Jonah paused for a moment, and then broke into the pick of his repertory. And Clara listened, hypnotized by the sounds, her brain mechanically fitting the words to the tune:
Come to me, sweet Marie, sweet Marie, come to me! Not because your face is fair, love, to see; But your soul, so pure and sweet, Makes my happiness complete, Makes me falter at your feet, sweet Marie.
The vulgar, insipid words rang as plainly in her ears as if a voice were singing them. Jonah stopped playing, and stared at her with a curious glitter in his eyes. She felt, in a dazed, dreamy fashion, that this was the hunchback's declaration of love. The hurdy-gurdy tune and the unsung words had acted like a spell. For a space of seconds she gazed with a fixed look at Jonah, waiting for him to move or speak. She seemed to be slipping down a precipice without the power or desire to resist. Then, like a fit of giddiness, the sensation passed. She stumbled to her feet and ran wildly down the rocky path to the wharf where the ferry-boat, glittering with electric lights, like a gigantic firefly, was waiting at the jetty.
MRS PARTRIDGE MINDS THE SHOP
Chook caught the last tram home, and found Pinkey asleep in bed with a novelette in her hand. She had fallen asleep reading it. The noise of Chook's entry roused her, and she stared at him, uncertain of the hour. Then, seeing him fully dressed, she decided that it was four o'clock in the morning, and that he was trying to sneak off to Paddy's Market without her. She was awake in an instant, and her face flushed pink with anger as she jumped out of bed, indignant at being deprived of her share of the unpleasant trip to the markets. Three times a week she nerved herself for that heartbreaking journey in the raw morning air, resolved never to let Chook see her flinch from her duty. As she started to dress herself with feverish haste, Chook recovered enough from his astonishment to ask her where she was going.
"To Paddy's, of course," she replied fiercely. "Yer sneaked off last week on yer own, an' cum 'ome so knocked out that yer couldn't eat yer breakfast."
A cold shiver ran through Chook. Her mind was affected, and in a flash he saw his wife taken to the asylum and himself left desolate. Then he understood, and burst into a roar.
"Git into bed again, Liz," he cried. "Ye're walkin' in yer sleep."
"Wot's the time?" she asked, with a suspicious look.
"Five past twelve," said Chook, reluctantly.
"An' ye're only just come 'ome! Wot d'ye mean by stoppin' out till this time of night?" she cried, turning on him furiously, but secretly relieved, like a patient who finds the dentist is out.
"The play was out late, an' we..." stammered Chook.
As he stammered, Pinkey caught sight of a rip in his sleeve, and looking at him intently, was horrified to see his lip cut and bleeding. She gave a cry of terror and burst into tears.
"Yer never went to no play; yer've bin fightin'," she sobbed.
"No, I ain't, fair dinkum," cried Chook. "I'll tell yer 'ow I come by this, if yer wait a minute."
"Yer never cut yer lip lookin' at the play; yer've gone back ter the Push, as Sarah always said yer would."
"I'll screw Sarah's neck when I can spare the time," said Chook, savagely.
Chook, the old-time larrikin, had turned out a model husband, but, for years after his marriage, Mrs Partridge had taken a delight in prophesying that he would soon tire of Pinkey's apron-strings and return to the Push and the streets. And now, although Waxy Collins and Joe Crutch were in jail for sneak-thieving, their places taken by younger and more vicious scum, Pinkey thought instantly of the dread Push when Chook grew restive.
"No," said Chook, deciding to cut it short, "I tore me coat an' cut me lip gittin' away from the Johns at Paddy Flynn's alley."
Pinkey turned sick with fear. The two-up school was worse than the Push, and they were ruined.
"I knew it the moment I set eyes on yer. Yer've been bettin' again, an' lost all yer money. Yer've got nothing left for the markets, an' the landlord'll turn us out," she cried, seeing herself already in the gutter.
"Yes, I lost a bit, but I pulled up, an' I'm a couple of dollars to the good," said Chook, feeling in his pocket for some half-crowns.
"Well, give it to me," said Pinkey, "an' I'll go straight termorrer and pay ten shillings on a machine."
"Wot would yer 'ave said if I'd won ten or fifteen quid?" asked Chook.
"I should 'ave said 'Buy Jack Ryan's 'orse an' cart, an' never go near a two-up school again'," said Pinkey, thinking of the impossible.
"Well, I won the dollars, an' I'll do as yer say," cried Chook emptying his pockets on the counterpane.
As Chook poured the heap of gold and silver on to the bed, Pinkey gasped, and turned deadly white. Chook thought she was going to faint.
"It's all right, Liz," he cried. "I've 'ad a good win, an' we're set up fer life."
He was busy sorting the gold and silver into heaps, first putting aside his stake, two pounds ten. There were fifteen pounds twelve shillings and sixpence left. Pinkey stared in amazement. It seemed incredible that so much money could belong to them. And suddenly she thought, with a pang of joy, that no longer would she need to nerve herself for the cruel journey to the markets in the morning. Chook would drive down in his own cart, and she would be waiting on his return with a good breakfast. They had gone up in the world like a rocket.
The marriage of Pinkey, three years ago, had affected Mrs Partridge like the loss of a limb. For over two years she had been chained to the same house, in the same street, with the desire but not the power to move. Only once had she managed to change her quarters with the aid of William, and the result had been disastrous. For the first time in his life William had lost a day at Grimshaw's to move the furniture, and for six months he had brooded over the lost time. This last move had planted them in Botany Street, five minutes' walk from Chook's shop. At first Mrs Partridge had fretted, finding little consolation in the new ham-and-beef shop on Botany Road; and then, little by little, she had become attached to the neighbourhood. She had been surprised to find that entertainment came to her door unsought, in the form of constant arrivals and departures among the neighbours. And each of them was the beginning or the end of a mystery, which she probed to the bottom with the aid of the postman, the baker, the butcher, and the tradesmen who were left lamenting with their bills unpaid. Never before in her wanderings had she got so completely in touch with her surroundings.
But from habit she always talked of moving. She could never pass an empty house without going through it, sniffing the drains, and requesting the landlord to make certain improvements, with the mania of women who haunt the shops with empty purses, pricing expensive materials. Every week she announced to Chook and Pinkey that she had found the very house, if William would take a day off to move. But in her heart she had no desire to leave the neighbourhood. It was an agreeable and daily diversion for her to run up to the shop, and prophesy ruin and disaster to Chook and Pinkey for taking a shop that had beggared the last tenant, ignoring the fact that Jack Ryan had converted his profits into beer. Chook's rough tongue made her wince at times, but she refused to take offence for more than a day. She had taken a fancy to Chook the moment she had set eyes on him, and was sure Pinkey was responsible for his sudden bursts of temper. She thought to do him a service by dwelling on Pinkey's weak points, and Chook showed his gratitude by scowling. Pinkey, who had been a machinist in the factory, was no hand with a needle, and Mrs Partridge commented on this in Chook's hearing.
"An' fancy 'er 'ardly able to sew on a button, which is very dangerous lyin' about on the floor, as children will eat anythin', not knowin' the consequences," she cried.
Chook pointed out that there were no children in the house to eat stray buttons.
"An' thankful you ought to be for that," she cried. "There's Mrs Brown's baby expectin' to be waited on 'and an' foot, an' thinks nothin' of wakin' 'er up in the night, cryin' its heart out one minute, an' cooin' like a dove the next, though I don't 'old with keepin' birds in the 'ouse as makes an awful mess, an' always the fear of a nasty nip through the bars of the cage, which means a piece of rag tied round your finger."
Here she stopped for breath, and Chook turned aside the torrent of words by offering her some vegetables, riddled with grubs, for the trouble of carrying them home. She considered herself one of Chook's best customers, having dealt off him since their first meeting. Every market-day she came to the shop, picked out everything that was damaged or bruised, and bought it at her own price. She often wished that Pinkey had married a grocer.
Chook had said nothing to her of his win at the two-up school, and she only heard of it at the last moment through a neighbour. She put on her hat, and just reached the shop in time to see Chook drive up to the door in his own horse and cart. Pinkey was standing there, radiant, her dreams come true, already feeling that their fortunes were made. Mrs Partridge looked on with a choking sensation in her throat, desiring nothing for herself, but angry with Fortune for showering her gifts on others. Then she stepped up briskly, and cried out:
"I 'eard all about yer luck, an' I sez to myself, 'it couldn't 'ave 'appened to a more deservin' young feller.' You'll ride in yer carriage yet, mark my words."
She came nearer and stared at the mare, anxious to find fault, but knowing nothing of the points of a horse. She decided to make friends with it, and rubbed its nose. The animal, giving her an affectionate look, furtively tried to bite her arm, and then threw back its head, expecting the rap on the nose that always followed this attempt. Mrs Partridge trembled with fear and rage.
"Well, I never!" she cried. "The sly brute! Looked at me like a 'uman being, an' then tried to eat me, which I could never understand people preachin' about kindness to dumb animals, an' 'orses takin' a delight in runnin' over people in the street every day."
"It's because they've got relations that makes 'em thankful animals are dumb," said Chook.
"Meaning me?" cried Mrs Partridge, smelling an insult.
"You?" said Chook, affecting surprise. "I niver mind yous talkin'. It goes in one ear an' out of the other."
Mrs Partridge bounced out of the shop in a rage, but next day she came back to tell Pinkey that she had found the very house in Surry Hills for a shilling a week less rent. She stayed long enough to frighten the life out of Pinkey by telling her that she had heard that Jack Ryan was well rid of the horse, because it had a habit of bolting and breaking the driver's neck. Chook found Pinkey trembling for his safety, and determined to put a stop to these annoyances. He disappeared for a whole day, and when Pinkey wanted to know where he had been, he told her to wait and see. They nearly quarrelled. But the next morning he gave her a surprise. After breakfast he announced that he was going to take her to the Druids' picnic in his own cart, and that Mrs Partridge had consented to mind the shop in their absence.
When Chook asked Mrs Partridge to mind the shop for the day, she jumped at the idea. She felt that she had a gift for business which she had wasted by not marrying the greengrocer; and now, with the shop to herself, she would show them how to deal with the customers, and find time in between to run her eye through Pinkey's boxes. She, too, would have a holiday after her own heart. She decided to wear her best skirt and blouse, to keep the customers in their place and remind them that she was independent of their favours. She found everything ready on her arrival. The price of every vegetable was freshly painted on the window by Chook in white letters, and there were five shillings in small change in the till. Lunch was set for her on the kitchen table, a sight to make the mouth water, for Chook, remembering the days of his courting, had ransacked the ham-and-beef shop for dainties—sheep's trotters, brawn, pig's cheek, ham-and-chicken sausage, and a bottle of mixed pickles. Nothing was wanting. As Chook drove off with Pinkey, she waved her hand to them, and then, surveying the street with the air of a proprietor, entered the shop and took possession.
They were going to Sir Joseph Banks's for the picnic; but, to Pinkey's surprise, the cart turned into Botany Street and pulled up in front of Sarah's cottage.
"Wotcher stoppin' 'ere for?" she inquired.
"'Cause we're goin' ter git out," said Chook, with a grin.
"Git out? Wot for? There's nobody at 'ome, Dad's at work."
"I know; that's w'y I came," said Chook, tying the reins to the seat. "Git down, Liz; yer've got a 'ard day in front of yer."
"'Ard day? Wotcher mean?" cried Pinkey, suspiciously.
"We're goin' ter move Sarah's furniture to the new 'ouse she found in Surry Hills," replied Chook.
"She never took no 'ouse," said Pinkey.
"No, I took it yesterday in 'er name," said Chook, grinning at Pinkey's perplexed frown. "I wanted ter give 'er a pleasant surprise fer 'er birthday."
"Wot about the picnic?" exclaimed Pinkey, suddenly.
"There ain't no picnic," said Chook. "It's next Monday; the date must 'ave slipped me mind."
"An' yer mean ter move 'er furniture in without 'er knowin'?"
"That's the dart," said Chook, with a vicious smile. "If Sarah's tongue don't git a change of air, I'll git three months fer murder. So 'urry up, Liz, an' put this apron over yer skirt."
The impudence of Chook's plan took her breath away, but when he insisted that there was no other way of getting rid of Mrs Partridge, she consented, with the feeling that she was taking part in a burglary. Chook took the key from under the flower-pot and went in. They found the place like a pigsty, for in the excitement of dressing for her day behind the counter, Sarah had wasted no time in making the bed or washing up, and Pinkey, trained under the watchful eye of Chook's mother, stood aghast. She declared that nothing could be done till that mess was cleared away, and tucked up her sleeves.
The appearance of the cart had roused the neighbours' curiosity, and Chook engaged them in conversation over the back fence. He explained that Mrs Partridge had begged him to come down and move her furniture while she minded the shop. There was a general sigh of relief. Nothing had escaped her eye or tongue. Mrs King, who was supposed to be temperance, did wonders with the bottle under her apron, but was caught. Then she found out that Mrs Robinson's brother, who was supposed to be doing well in the country, was really doin' seven years. Chook refused half a dozen offers of help before Pinkey had finished washing up.
As Chook lacked the professional skill of Jimmy the van-man, Pinkey was obliged to make two loads of the furniture; but by twelve o'clock the last stick was on the cart, and Pinkey, sitting beside her husband on a plank, carried the kerosene lamp in her lap to prevent breakage. By sunset everything was in its place, and Chook and Pinkey, aching in every joint, locked the door and drove home.
Meanwhile, Mrs Partridge had spent a pleasant day conducting Chook's business on new lines. She had always suspected that she had a gift for business, and here was an opportunity to prove it. The first customer was a child, sent for three penn'orth of potatoes. As children are naturally careless, Mrs Partridge saw here an excellent opportunity for weeding out the stock, and went to a lot of trouble in picking out the small and damaged tubers, reserving the best for customers who came to choose for themselves. Five minutes later she was exchanging them for the largest in the sack under the direction of an infuriated mother. This flustered her slightly, and when Mrs Green arrived, complaining of rheumatic twinges in her leg, she decided to try Pinkey's sympathetic manner.
"Ah, if anybody knows what rheumatism is, I do," she cried. "For years I suffered cruelly, an' then I was persuaded to carry a new pertater in me pocket, an' I've never 'ad ache or pain since; though gettin' cured, to my mind, depends on the sort of life you've led."
Mrs Green, a woman with a past, flushed heavily.
"'Oo are yer slingin' off at?" she cried. "You and yer new pertater. I'd smack yer face for two pins," and she walked out of the shop.
This made Mrs Partridge careful, and she served the next customers in an amazing silence. Then she dined royally on the pick of the ham-and-beef shop, and settled down for the afternoon. But she recovered her tongue when Mrs Paterson wanted some lettuce for a salad.
"Which I could never understand people eatin' salads, as I shall always consider bad for the stomach, an' descendin' to the lower animals," she cried. "Nothing could make me believe I was meant to eat vegetables raw when I can 'ave them boiled an' strained for 'alf an 'our."
In her eagerness to convert Mrs Paterson to her views, she forgot to charge for the lettuce. When Chook and Pinkey arrived, she had partially destroyed the business, and was regretting that she had been too delicate to marry the greengrocer. She showed Chook the till bulging with copper and silver.
"Yer've done us proud," cried Chook, staring.
Mrs Partridge sorted out ten shillings from the heap.
"That's Mrs Robins's account," she remarked.
"Wot made 'er pay?" inquired Pinkey, suspiciously. "Yer didn't go an' ask 'er for it, did yer?"
"Not likely," said Mrs Partridge; "but when she complained of the peas bein' eighteenpence a peck, I pointed out that if she considered nothing too dear for 'er back, she should consider nothing too dear for 'er stomach, an' she ran 'ome to fetch this money an' nearly threw it in my face."
"Me best customer," cried Pinkey in dismay. "She pays at the end of the month like clockwork."
Mrs Partridge stared at the heap of silver, and changed the subject.
"It 'ud give me the creeps to sleep in the 'ouse with all that money," she remarked, "after readin' in the paper as 'ow burglars are passionate fond of silver, an' 'avin' no reg'lar 'ours for callin', like to drop in when least expected." She noted with satisfaction that Pinkey changed colour, and shook the creases out of her skirt. "Well, I must be goin'," she added. "I never like to keep William waitin' for 'is tea."
A cold wave swept over Chook. He had clean forgotten William, who would go home to Botany Street and find an empty house. Pinkey dived into the bedroom, and left Chook to face it out.
"'Ere's yer key," he said helplessly, to make a beginning.
"This is my key," said Mrs Partridge, feeling in her pocket, "an' the other one is under the flower-pot for William, if I'm out. I dunno what you mean."
"I mean this is the key of yer new 'ouse in Surry Hills," said Chook, fumbling hopelessly with the piece of iron.
"You've bin drinkin', an' the beer's gone to yer 'ead," said Mrs Partridge, unwilling to take offence.
"I tell yer I'm as dry as a bone," cried Chook, losing patience.
"Yer think yer live in Botany Street, but yer don't. Yer live in Foveaux Street, an' this is the key of the 'ouse."
"I think I live in Botany Street, but I've moved to Foveaux Street," repeated Mrs Partridge, but the words conveyed no meaning to her mind.
She came closer to Chook. He looked and smelt sober, and suddenly a horrid suspicion ran through her mind that her brain was softening. She was older than they thought, for she had taken five years off her age when she had married William. In an agony of fear she searched her memory for the events of the past month, trying to recall any symptom of illness that should have warned her. She could remember nothing, and turned to Chook with a wild fear in her eyes. Something must be wrong with him.
"Can you understand what you're sayin'?" she asked.
"Yes," said Chook, anxious to get it over. "Yer lived in Botany Street this morning, but yer moved to-day, an' now yer live in Foveaux Street in the 'ouse yer picked on Monday."