"Now I'm off for the police," cried his wife.
"Don't be a fool," shouted Mr. Simpson, tugging wildly at the door- handle. "Open the door."
Mrs. Simpson remained silent, and her husband resumed his efforts until the door-knob, unused to such treatment, came off in his hand. A sudden scrambling noise on the cellar stairs satisfied the listener that he had not pulled it off intentionally.
She stood for a few moments, considering. It was a stout door and opened inwards. She took her bonnet from its nail in the kitchen and, walking softly to the street-door, set off to lay the case before a brother who lived a few doors away.
"Poor old Bill," said Mr. Cooper, when she had finished. "Still, it might be worse; he's got the barrel o' beer with him."
"It's not Bill," said Mrs. Simpson.
Mr. Cooper scratched his whiskers and looked at his wife.
"She ought to know," said the latter. "We'll come and have a look at him," said Mr. Cooper.
Mrs. Simpson pondered, and eyed him dubiously.
"Come in and have a bit of supper," she said at last. "There's a nice piece of beef and pickles."
"And Bill—I mean the stranger—sitting on the beer-barrel," said Mr. Cooper, gloomily.
"You can bring your beer with you," said his sister, sharply. "Come along."
Mr. Cooper grinned, and, placing a couple of bottles in his coat pockets, followed the two ladies to the house. Seated at the kitchen table, he grinned again, as a persistent drumming took place on the cellar door. His wife smiled, and a faint, sour attempt in the same direction appeared on the face of Mrs. Simpson.
"Open the door!" bellowed an indignant voice. "Open the door!"
Mrs. Simpson, commanding silence with an uplifted finger, proceeded to carve the beef. A rattle of knives and forks succeeded.
"O-pen-the-door!" said the voice again.
"Not so much noise," commanded Mr. Cooper. "I can't hear myself eat."
"Bob!" said the voice, in relieved accents, "Bob! Come and let me out."
Mr. Cooper, putting a huge hand over his mouth, struggled nobly with his feelings.
"Who are you calling 'Bob'?" he demanded, in an unsteady voice. "You keep yourself to yourself. I've heard all about you. You've got to stay there till my brother-in-law comes home."
"It's me, Bob," said Mr. Simpson—"Bill."
"Yes, I dare say," said Mr. Cooper; "but if you're Bill, why haven't you got Bill's voice?"
"Let me out and look at me," said Mr. Simpson.
There was a faint scream from both ladies, followed by protests.
"Don't be alarmed," said Mr. Cooper, reassuringly. "I wasn't born yesterday. I don't want to get a crack over the head."
"It's all a mistake, Bob," said the prisoner, appealingly. "I just had a shave and a haircut and—and a little hair-dye. If you open the door you'll know me at once."
"How would it be," said Mr. Cooper, turning to his sister, and speaking with unusual distinctness—"how would it be if you opened the door, and just as he put his head out I hit it a crack with the poker?"
"You try it on," said the voice behind the door, hotly. "You know who I am well enough, Bob Cooper. I don't want any more of your nonsense. Milly has put you up to this!"
"If your wife don't know you, how do you think I can?" said Mr. Cooper. "Now, look here; you keep quiet till my brother-in-law comes home. If he don't come home perhaps we shall be more likely to think you're him. If he's not home by to-morrow morning we—Hsh! Hsh! Don't you know there's ladies present?"
"That settles it," said Mrs. Cooper, speaking for the first time. "My brother-in-law would never talk like that."
"I should never forgive him if he did," said her husband, piously.
He poured himself out another glass of beer and resumed his supper with relish. Conversation turned on the weather, and from that to the price of potatoes. Frantic efforts on the part of the prisoner to join in the conversation and give it a more personal turn were disregarded. Finally he began to kick with monotonous persistency on the door.
"Stop it!" shouted Mr. Cooper.
"I won't," said Mr. Simpson.
The noise became unendurable. Mr. Cooper, who had just lit his pipe, laid it on the table and looked round at his companions.
"He'll have the door down soon," he said, rising. "Halloa, there!"
"Halloa!" said the other.
"You say you're Bill Simpson," said Mr. Cooper, holding up a forefinger at Mrs. Simpson, who was about to interrupt. "If you are, tell us something you know that only you could know; something we know, so as to identify you. Things about your past."
A strange noise sounded behind the door.
"Sounds as though he is smacking his lips," said Mrs. Cooper to her sister-in-law, who was eyeing Mr. Cooper restlessly.
"Very good," said Mr. Simpson; "I agree. Who is there?"
"Me and my wife and Mrs. Simpson," said Mr. Cooper.
"He is smacking his lips," whispered Mrs. Cooper. "Having a go at the beer, perhaps."
"Let's go back fifteen years," said Mr. Simpson in meditative tones. "Do you remember that girl with copper-coloured hair that used to live in John Street?"
"No!" said Mr. Cooper, loudly and suddenly.
"Do you remember coming to me one day—two days after Valentine Day, it was—white as chalk and shaking like a leaf, and—"
"NO!" roared Mr. Cooper.
"Very well, I must try something else, then," said Mr. Simpson, philosophically. "Carry your mind back ten years, Bob Cooper—"
"Look here!" said Mr. Cooper, turning round with a ghastly smile. "We'd better get off home, Mary. I don't like interfering in other people's concerns. Never did."
"You stay where you are," said his wife.
"Ten years," repeated the voice behind the door. "There was a new barmaid at the Crown, and one night you——"
"If I listen to any more of this nonsense I shall burst," remarked Mr. Cooper, plaintively.
"Go on," prompted Mrs. Cooper, grimly. "One night——"
"Never mind," said Mr. Simpson. "It doesn't matter. But does he identify me? Because if not I've got a lot more things I can try."
The harassed Mr. Cooper looked around appealingly.
"How do you expect me to recognize you—" he began, and stopped suddenly.
"Go back to your courting days, then," said Mr. Simpson, "when Mrs. Cooper wasn't Mrs. Cooper, but only wanted to be."
Mrs. Cooper shivered; so did Mr. Cooper.
"And you came round to me for advice," pursued Mr. Simpson, in reminiscent accents, "because there was another girl you wasn't sure of, and you didn't want to lose them both. Do you remember sitting with the two photographs—one on each knee—and trying to make up your mind?"
"Wonderful imagination," said Mr. Cooper, smiling in a ghastly fashion at his wife. "Hark at him!"
"I am harking," said Mrs. Cooper.
"Am I Bill Simpson or am I not?" demanded Mr. Simpson.
"Bill was always fond of his joke," said Mr. Cooper, with a glance at the company that would have moved an oyster. "He was always fond of making up things. You're like him in that. What do you think, Milly?"
"It's not my husband," said Mrs. Simpson.
"Tell us something about her," said Mr. Cooper, hastily.
"I daren't," said Mr. Simpson. "Doesn't that prove I'm her husband? But I'll tell you things about your wife, if you like."
"You dare!" said Mrs. Cooper, turning crimson, as she realized what confidences might have passed between husband and wife. "If you say a word of your lies about me, I don't know what I won't do to you."
"Very well, I must go on about Bob, then—till he recognizes me," said Mr. Simpson, patiently. "Carry your mind—"
"Open the door and let him out," shouted Mr. Cooper, turning to his sister. "How can I recognize a man through a deal door?"
Mrs. Simpson, after a little hesitation, handed him the key, and the next moment her husband stepped out and stood blinking in the gas-light.
"Do you recognize me?" he asked, turning to Mr. Cooper.
"I do," said that gentleman, with a ferocious growl.
"I'd know you anywhere," said Mrs. Cooper, with emphasis.
"And you?" said Mr. Simpson, turning to his wife.
"You're not my husband," she said, obstinately.
"Are you sure?" inquired Mr. Cooper.
"Very good, then," said her brother. "If he's not your husband I'm going to knock his head off for telling them lies about me."
He sprang forward and, catching Mr. Simpson by the collar, shook him violently until his head banged against the dresser. The next moment the hands of Mrs. Simpson were in the hair of Mr. Cooper.
"How dare you knock my husband about!" she screamed, as Mr. Cooper let go and caught her fingers. "You've hurt him."
"Concussion, I think," said Mr. Simpson, with great presence of mind.
His wife helped him to a chair and, wetting her handkerchief at the tap, tenderly bathed the dyed head. Mr. Cooper, breathing hard, stood by watching until his wife touched him on the arm.
"You come off home," she said, in a hard voice. "You ain't wanted. Are you going to stay here all night?"
"I should like to," said Mr. Cooper, wistfully.
THE THREE SISTERS
Thirty years ago on a wet autumn evening the household of Mallett's Lodge was gathered round the death-bed of Ursula Mallow, the eldest of the three sisters who inhabited it. The dingy moth-eaten curtains of the old wooden bedstead were drawn apart, the light of a smoking oil- lamp falling upon the hopeless countenance of the dying woman as she turned her dull eyes upon her sisters. The room was in silence except for an occasional sob from the youngest sister, Eunice. Outside the rain fell steadily over the steaming marshes.
"Nothing is to be changed, Tabitha," gasped Ursula to the other sister, who bore a striking likeness to her although her expression was harder and colder; "this room is to be locked up and never opened."
"Very well," said Tabitha brusquely, "though I don't see how it can matter to you then."
"It does matter," said her sister with startling energy. "How do you know, how do I know that I may not sometimes visit it? I have lived in this house so long I am certain that I shall see it again. I will come back. Come back to watch over you both and see that no harm befalls you."
"You are talking wildly," said Tabitha, by no means moved at her sister's solicitude for her welfare. "Your mind is wandering; you know that I have no faith in such things."
Ursula sighed, and beckoning to Eunice, who was weeping silently at the bedside, placed her feeble arms around her neck and kissed her.
"Do not weep, dear," she said feebly. "Perhaps it is best so. A lonely woman's life is scarce worth living. We have no hopes, no aspirations; other women have had happy husbands and children, but we in this forgotten place have grown old together. I go first, but you must soon follow."
Tabitha, comfortably conscious of only forty years and an iron frame, shrugged her shoulders and smiled grimly.
"I go first," repeated Ursula in a new and strange voice as her heavy eyes slowly closed, "but I will come for each of you in turn, when your lease of life runs out. At that moment I will be with you to lead your steps whither I now go."
As she spoke the flickering lamp went out suddenly as though extinguished by a rapid hand, and the room was left in utter darkness. A strange suffocating noise issued from the bed, and when the trembling women had relighted the lamp, all that was left of Ursula Mallow was ready for the grave.
That night the survivors passed together. The dead woman had been a firm believer in the existence of that shadowy borderland which is said to form an unhallowed link between the living and the dead, and even the stolid Tabitha, slightly unnerved by the events of the night, was not free from certain apprehensions that she might have been right.
With the bright morning their fears disappeared. The sun stole in at the window, and seeing the poor earth-worn face on the pillow so touched it and glorified it that only its goodness and weakness were seen, and the beholders came to wonder how they could ever have felt any dread of aught so calm and peaceful. A day or two passed, and the body was transferred to a massive coffin long regarded as the finest piece of work of its kind ever turned out of the village carpenter's workshop. Then a slow and melancholy cortege headed by four bearers wound its solemn way across the marshes to the family vault in the grey old church, and all that was left of Ursula was placed by the father and mother who had taken that self-same journey some thirty years before.
To Eunice as they toiled slowly home the day seemed strange and Sabbath- like, the flat prospect of marsh wilder and more forlorn than usual, the roar of the sea more depressing. Tabitha had no such fancies. The bulk of the dead woman's property had been left to Eunice, and her avaricious soul was sorely troubled and her proper sisterly feelings of regret for the deceased sadly interfered with in consequence.
"What are you going to do with all that money, Eunice?" she asked as they sat at their quiet tea.
"I shall leave it as it stands," said Eunice slowly. "We have both got sufficient to live upon, and I shall devote the income from it to supporting some beds in a children's hospital."
"If Ursula had wished it to go to a hospital," said Tabitha in her deep tones, "she would have left the money to it herself. I wonder you do not respect her wishes more."
"What else can I do with it then?" inquired Eunice.
"Save it," said the other with gleaming eyes, "save it."
Eunice shook her head.
"No," said she, "it shall go to the sick children, but the principal I will not touch, and if I die before you it shall become yours and you can do what you like with it."
"Very well," said Tabitha, smothering her anger by a strong effort; "I don't believe that was what Ursula meant you to do with it, and I don't believe she will rest quietly in the grave while you squander the money she stored so carefully."
"What do you mean?" asked Eunice with pale lips. "You are trying to frighten me; I thought that you did not believe in such things."
Tabitha made no answer, and to avoid the anxious inquiring gaze of her sister, drew her chair to the fire, and folding her gaunt arms, composed herself for a nap.
For some time life went on quietly in the old house. The room of the dead woman, in accordance with her last desire, was kept firmly locked, its dirty windows forming a strange contrast to the prim cleanliness of the others. Tabitha, never very talkative, became more taciturn than ever, and stalked about the house and the neglected garden like an unquiet spirit, her brow roughened into the deep wrinkles suggestive of much thought. As the winter came on, bringing with it the long dark evenings, the old house became more lonely than ever, and an air of mystery and dread seemed to hang over it and brood in its empty rooms and dark corridors. The deep silence of night was broken by strange noises for which neither the wind nor the rats could be held accountable. Old Martha, seated in her distant kitchen, heard strange sounds upon the stairs, and once, upon hurrying to them, fancied that she saw a dark figure squatting upon the landing, though a subsequent search with candle and spectacles failed to discover anything. Eunice was disturbed by several vague incidents, and, as she suffered from a complaint of the heart, rendered very ill by them. Even Tabitha admitted a strangeness about the house, but, confident in her piety and virtue, took no heed of it, her mind being fully employed in another direction.
Since the death of her sister all restraint upon her was removed, and she yielded herself up entirely to the stern and hard rules enforced by avarice upon its devotees. Her housekeeping expenses were kept rigidly separate from those of Eunice and her food limited to the coarsest dishes, while in the matter of clothes, the old servant was by far the better dressed. Seated alone in her bedroom this uncouth, hard-featured creature revelled in her possessions, grudging even the expense of the candle-end which enabled her to behold them. So completely did this passion change her that both Eunice and Martha became afraid of her, and lay awake in their beds night after night trembling at the chinking of the coins at her unholy vigils.
One day Eunice ventured to remonstrate. "Why don't you bank your money, Tabitha?" she said; "it is surely not safe to keep such large sums in such a lonely house."
"Large sums!" repeated the exasperated Tabitha, "large sums! what nonsense is this? You know well that I have barely sufficient to keep me."
"It's a great temptation to housebreakers," said her sister, not pressing the point. "I made sure last night that I heard somebody in the house."
"Did you?" said Tabitha, grasping her arm, a horrible look on her face. "So did I. I thought they went to Ursula's room, and I got out of bed and went on the stairs to listen."
"Well?" said Eunice faintly, fascinated by the look on her sister's face.
"There was something there," said Tabitha slowly. "I'll swear it, for I stood on the landing by her door and listened; something scuffling on the floor round and round the room. At first I thought it was the cat, but when I went up there this morning the door was still locked, and the cat was in the kitchen."
"Oh, let us leave this dreadful house," moaned Eunice.
"What!" said her sister grimly; "afraid of poor Ursula? Why should you be? Your own sister who nursed you when you were a babe, and who perhaps even now comes and watches over your slumbers."
"Oh!" said Eunice, pressing her hand to her side, "if I saw her I should die. I should think that she had come for me as she said she would. O God! have mercy on me, I am dying."
She reeled as she spoke, and before Tabitha could save her, sank senseless to the floor.
"Get some water," cried Tabitha, as old Martha came hurrying up the stairs, "Eunice has fainted."
The old woman, with a timid glance at her, retired, reappearing shortly afterwards with the water, with which she proceeded to restore her much- loved mistress to her senses. Tabitha, as soon as this was accomplished, stalked off to her room, leaving her sister and Martha sitting drearily enough in the small parlour, watching the fire and conversing in whispers.
It was clear to the old servant that this state of things could not last much longer, and she repeatedly urged her mistress to leave a house so lonely and so mysterious. To her great delight Eunice at length consented, despite the fierce opposition of her sister, and at the mere idea of leaving gained greatly in health and spirits. A small but comfortable house was hired in Morville, and arrangements made for a speedy change.
It was the last night in the old house, and all the wild spirits of the marshes, the wind and the sea seemed to have joined forces for one supreme effort. When the wind dropped, as it did at brief intervals, the sea was heard moaning on the distant beach, strangely mingled with the desolate warning of the bell-buoy as it rocked to the waves. Then the wind rose again, and the noise of the sea was lost in the fierce gusts which, finding no obstacle on the open marshes, swept with their full fury upon the house by the creek. The strange voices of the air shrieked in its chimneys windows rattled, doors slammed, and even, the very curtains seemed to live and move.
Eunice was in bed, awake. A small nightlight in a saucer of oil shed a sickly glare upon the worm-eaten old furniture, distorting the most innocent articles into ghastly shapes. A wilder gust than usual almost deprived her of the protection afforded by that poor light, and she lay listening fearfully to the creakings and other noises on the stairs, bitterly regretting that she had not asked Martha to sleep with her. But it was not too late even now. She slipped hastily to the floor, crossed to the huge wardrobe, and was in the very act of taking her dressing-gown from its peg when an unmistakable footfall was heard on the stairs. The robe dropped from her shaking fingers, and with a quickly beating heart she regained her bed.
The sounds ceased and a deep silence followed, which she herself was unable to break although she strove hard to do so. A wild gust of wind shook the windows and nearly extinguished the light, and when its flame had regained its accustomed steadiness she saw that the door was slowly opening, while the huge shadow of a hand blotted the papered wall. Still her tongue refused its office. The door flew open with a crash, a cloaked figure entered and, throwing aside its coverings, she saw with a horror past all expression the napkin-bound face of the dead Ursula smiling terribly at her. In her last extremity she raised her faded eyes above for succour, and then as the figure noiselessly advanced and laid its cold hand upon her brow, the soul of Eunice Mallow left its body with a wild shriek and made its way to the Eternal.
Martha, roused by the cry, and shivering with dread, rushed to the door and gazed in terror at the figure which stood leaning over the bedside. As she watched, it slowly removed the cowl and the napkin and exposed the fell face of Tabitha, so strangely contorted between fear and triumph that she hardly recognized it.
"Who's there?" cried Tabitha in a terrible voice as she saw the old woman's shadow on the wall.
"I thought I heard a cry," said Martha, entering. "Did anybody call?"
"Yes, Eunice," said the other, regarding her closely. "I, too, heard the cry, and hurried to her. What makes her so strange? Is she in a trance?"
"Ay," said the old woman, falling on her knees by the bed and sobbing bitterly, "the trance of death. Ah, my dear, my poor lonely girl, that this should be the end of it! She has died of fright," said the old woman, pointing to the eyes, which even yet retained their horror. "She has seen something devilish."
Tabitha's gaze fell. "She has always suffered with her heart," she muttered; "the night has frightened her; it frightened me."
She stood upright by the foot of the bed as Martha drew the sheet over the face of the dead woman.
"First Ursula, then Eunice," said Tabitha, drawing a deep breath. "I can't stay here. I'll dress and wait for the morning."
She left the room as she spoke, and with bent head proceeded to her own. Martha remained by the bedside, and gently closing the staring eyes, fell on her knees, and prayed long and earnestly for the departed soul. Overcome with grief and fear she remained with bowed head until a sudden sharp cry from Tabitha brought her to her feet.
"Well," said the old woman, going to the door.
"Where are you?" cried Tabitha, somewhat reassured by her voice.
"In Miss Eunice's bedroom. Do you want anything?"
"Come down at once. Quick! I am unwell."
Her voice rose suddenly to a scream. "Quick! For God's sake! Quick, or I shall go mad. There is some strange woman in the house."
The old woman stumbled hastily down the dark stairs. "What is the matter?" she cried, entering the room. "Who is it? What do you mean?"
"I saw it," said Tabitha, grasping her convulsively by the shoulder. "I was coming to you when I saw the figure of a woman in front of me going up the stairs. Is it—can it be Ursula come for the soul of Eunice, as she said she would?"
"Or for yours?" said Martha, the words coming from her in some odd fashion, despite herself.
Tabitha, with a ghastly look, fell cowering by her side, clutching tremulously at her clothes. "Light the lamps," she cried hysterically. "Light a fire, make a noise; oh, this dreadful darkness! Will it never be day!"
"Soon, soon," said Martha, overcoming her repugnance and trying to pacify her. "When the day comes you will laugh at these fears."
"I murdered her," screamed the miserable woman, "I killed her with fright. Why did she not give me the money? 'Twas no use to her. Ah! Look there!"
Martha, with a horrible fear, followed her glance to the door, but saw nothing.
"It's Ursula," said Tabitha from between her teeth. "Keep her off! Keep her off!"
The old woman, who by some unknown sense seemed to feel the presence of a third person in the room, moved a step forward and stood before her. As she did so Tabitha waved her arms as though to free herself from the touch of a detaining hand, half rose to her feet, and without a word fell dead before her.
At this the old woman's courage forsook her, and with a great cry she rushed from the room, eager to escape from this house of death and mystery. The bolts of the great door were stiff with age, and strange voices seemed to ring in her ears as she strove wildly to unfasten them. Her brain whirled. She thought that the dead in their distant rooms called to her, and that a devil stood on the step outside laughing and holding the door against her. Then with a supreme effort she flung it open, and heedless of her night-clothes passed into the bitter night. The path across the marshes was lost in the darkness, but she found it; the planks over the ditches slippery and narrow, but she crossed them in safety, until at last, her feet bleeding and her breath coming in great gasps, she entered the village and sank down more dead than alive on a cottage doorstep.
"Handsome is as 'andsome does," said the night-watchman. It's an old saying, but it's true. Give a chap good looks, and it's precious little else that is given to 'im. He's lucky when 'is good looks 'ave gorn—or partly gorn—to get a berth as night-watchman or some other hard and bad-paid job.
One drawback to a good-looking man is that he generally marries young; not because 'e wants to, but because somebody else wants 'im to. And that ain't the worst of it: the handsomest chap I ever knew married five times, and got seven years for it. It wasn't his fault, pore chap; he simply couldn't say No.
One o' the best-looking men I ever knew was Cap'n Bill Smithers, wot used to come up here once a week with a schooner called the Wild Rose. Funny thing about 'im was he didn't seem to know about 'is good looks, and he was one o' the quietest, best-behaved men that ever came up the London river. Considering that he was mistook for me more than once, it was just as well.
He didn't marry until 'e was close on forty; and then 'e made the mistake of marrying a widder-woman. She was like all the rest of 'em— only worse. Afore she was married butter wouldn't melt in 'er mouth, but as soon as she 'ad got her "lines" safe she began to make up for it.
For the fust month or two 'e didn't mind it, 'e rather liked being fussed arter, but when he found that he couldn't go out for arf an hour without having 'er with 'im he began to get tired of it. Her idea was that 'e was too handsome to be trusted out alone; and every trip he made 'e had to write up in a book, day by day, wot 'e did with himself. Even then she wasn't satisfied, and, arter saying that a wife's place was by the side of 'er husband, she took to sailing with 'im every v'y'ge.
Wot he could ha' seen in 'er I don't know. I asked 'im one evening—in a roundabout way—and he answered in such a long, roundabout way that I didn't know wot to make of it till I see that she was standing just behind me, listening. Arter that I heard 'er asking questions about me, but I didn't 'ave to listen: I could hear 'er twenty yards away, and singing to myself at the same time.
Arter that she treated me as if I was the dirt beneath 'er feet. She never spoke to me, but used to speak against me to other people. She was always talking to them about the "sleeping-sickness" and things o' that kind. She said night-watchmen always made 'er think of it somehow, but she didn't know why, and she couldn't tell you if you was to ask her. The only thing I was thankful for was that I wasn't 'er husband. She stuck to 'im like his shadow, and I began to think at last it was a pity she 'adn't got some thing to be jealous about and something to occupy her mind with instead o' me.
"She ought to 'ave a lesson," I ses to the skipper one evening. "Are you going to be follered about like this all your life? If she was made to see the foolishness of 'er ways she might get sick of it."
My idea was to send her on a wild-goose chase, and while the Wild Rose was away I thought it out. I wrote a love-letter to the skipper signed with the name of "Dorothy," and asked 'im to meet me at Cleopatra's Needle on the Embankment at eight o'clock on Wednesday. I told 'im to look out for a tall girl (Mrs. Smithers was as short as they make 'em) with mischievous brown eyes, in a blue 'at with red roses on it.
I read it over careful, and arter marking it "Private," twice in front and once on the back, I stuck it down so that it could be blown open a'most, and waited for the schooner to come back. Then I gave a van-boy twopence to 'and it to Mrs. Smithers, wot was sitting on the deck alone, and tell 'er it was a letter for Captain Smithers.
I was busy with a barge wot happened to be handy at the time, but I 'eard her say that she would take it and give it to 'im. When I peeped round she 'ad got the letter open and was leaning over the side to wind'ard trying to get 'er breath. Every now and then she'd give another look at the letter and open 'er mouth and gasp; but by and by she got calmer, and, arter putting it back in the envelope, she gave it a lick as though she was going to bite it, and stuck it down agin. Then she went off the wharf, and I'm blest if, five minutes arterwards, a young fellow didn't come down to the ship with the same letter and ask for the skipper.
"Who gave it you?" ses the skipper, as soon as 'e could speak.
"A lady," ses the young fellow.
The skipper waved 'im away, and then 'e walked up and down the deck like a man in a dream.
"Bad news?" I ses, looking up and catching 'is eye.
"No," he ses, "no. Only a note about a couple o' casks o' soda."
He stuffed the letter in 'is pocket and sat on the side smoking till his wife came back in five minutes' time, smiling all over with good temper.
"It's a nice evening," she ses, "and I think I'll just run over to Dalston and see my Cousin Joe."
The skipper got up like a lamb and said he'd go and clean 'imself.
"You needn't come if you feel tired," she ses, smiling at 'im.
The skipper could 'ardly believe his ears.
"I do feel tired," he ses. "I've had a heavy day, and I feel more like bed than anything else."
"You turn in, then," she ses. "I'll be all right by myself."
She went down and tidied herself up—not that it made much difference to 'er—and, arter patting him on the arm and giving me a stare that would ha' made most men blink, she took herself off.
I was pretty busy that evening. Wot with shifting lighters from under the jetty and sweeping up, it was pretty near ha'-past seven afore I 'ad a minute I could call my own. I put down the broom at last, and was just thinking of stepping round to the Bull's Head for a 'arf-pint when I see Cap'n Smithers come off the ship on to the wharf and walk to the gate.
"I thought you was going to turn in?" I ses.
"I did think of it," he ses, "then I thought p'r'aps I'd better stroll as far as Broad Street and meet my wife."
It was all I could do to keep a straight face. I'd a pretty good idea where she 'ad gorn; and it wasn't Dalston.
"Come in and 'ave 'arf a pint fust," I ses.
"No; I shall be late," he ses, hurrying off.
I went in and 'ad a glass by myself, and stood there so long thinking of Mrs. Smithers walking up and down by Cleopatra's Needle that at last the landlord fust asked me wot I was laughing at, and then offered to make me laugh the other side of my face. And then he wonders why people go to the Albion.
I locked the gate rather earlier than usual that night. Sometimes if I'm up that end I leave it a bit late, but I didn't want Mrs. Smithers to come along and nip in without me seeing her face.
It was ten o'clock afore I heard the bell go, and when I opened the wicket and looked out I was surprised to see that she 'ad got the skipper with 'er. And of all the miserable-looking objects I ever saw in my life he was the worst. She 'ad him tight by the arm, and there was a look on 'er face that a'most scared me.
"Did you go all the way to Dalston for her?" I ses to 'im.
Mrs. Smithers made a gasping sort o' noise, but the skipper didn't answer a word.
She shoved him in in front of 'er and stood ever 'im while he climbed aboard. When he held out 'is hand to help 'er she struck it away.
I didn't get word with 'im till five o'clock next morning, when he came up on deck with his 'air all rough and 'is eyes red for want of sleep.
"Haven't 'ad a wink all night," he ses, stepping on to the wharf.
I gave a little cough. "Didn't she 'ave a pleasant time at Dalston?" I ses.
He walked a little further off from the ship. "She didn't go there," he ses, in a whisper.
"You've got something on your mind," I ses. "Wot is it?"
He wouldn't tell me at fust, but at last he told me all about the letter from Dorothy, and 'is wife reading it unbeknown to 'im and going to meet 'er.
"It was an awful meeting!" he ses. "Awful!"
I couldn't think wot to make of it. "Was the gal there, then?" I ses, staring at 'im.
"No," ses the skipper; "but I was."
"You?" I ses, starting back. "You! Wot for? I'm surprised at you! I wouldn't ha' believed it of you!"
"I felt a bit curious," he ses, with a silly sort o' smile. "But wot I can't understand is why the gal didn't turn up."
"I'm ashamed of you, Bill," I ses, very severe.
"P'r'aps she did," he ses, 'arf to 'imself, "and then saw my missis standing there waiting. P'r'aps that was it."
"Or p'r'aps it was somebody 'aving a game with you," I ses.
"You're getting old, Bill," he ses, very short. "You don't understand. It's some pore gal that's took a fancy to me, and it's my dooty to meet 'er and tell her 'ow things are."
He walked off with his 'ead in the air, and if 'e took that letter out once and looked at it, he did five times.
"Chuck it away," I ses, going up to him.
"Certainly not," he ses, folding it up careful and stowing it away in 'is breastpocket. "She's took a fancy to me, and it's my dooty——"
"You said that afore," I ses.
He stared at me nasty for a moment, and then 'e ses: "You ain't seen any young lady hanging about 'ere, I suppose, Bill? A tall young lady with a blue hat trimmed with red roses?"
I shook my 'ead.
"If you should see 'er," he ses.
"I'll tell your missis," I ses. "It 'ud be much easier for her to do her dooty properly than it would you. She'd enjoy doing it, too."
He went off agin then, and I thought he 'ad done with me, but he 'adn't. He spoke to me that evening as if I was the greatest friend he 'ad in the world. I 'ad two 'arfpints with 'im at the Albion—with his missis walking up and down outside—and arter the second 'arf-pint he said he wanted to meet Dorothy and tell 'er that 'e was married, and that he 'oped she would meet some good man that was worthy of 'er.
I had a week's peace while the ship was away, but she was hardly made fast afore I 'ad it all over agin and agin.
"Are you sure there's been no more letters?" he ses.
"Sartain," I ses.
"That's right," he ses; "that's right. And you 'aven't seen her walking up and down?"
"No," I ses.
"'Ave you been on the look-out?" he ses. "I don't suppose a nice gal like that would come and shove her 'ead in at the gate. Did you look up and down the road?"
"Yes," I ses. "I've fair made my eyes ache watching for her."
"I can't understand it," he ses. "It's a mystery to me, unless p'r'aps she's been taken ill. She must 'ave seen me here in the fust place; and she managed to get hold of my name. Mark my words, I shall 'ear from her agin."
"'Ow do you know?" I ses.
"I feel it 'ere," he ses, very solemn, laying his 'and on his chest.
I didn't know wot to do. Wot with 'is foolishness and his missis's temper, I see I 'ad made a mess of it. He told me she had 'ardly spoke a word to 'im for two days, and when I said—being a married man myself —that it might ha' been worse, 'e said I didn't know wot I was talking about.
I did a bit o' thinking arter he 'ad gorn aboard agin. I dursn't tell 'im that I 'ad wrote the letter, but I thought if he 'ad one or two more he'd see that some one was 'aving a game with 'im, and that it might do 'im good. Besides which it was a little amusement for me.
Arter everybody was in their beds asleep I sat on a clerk's stool in the office and wrote 'im another letter from Dorothy. I called 'im "Dear Bill," and I said 'ow sorry I was that I 'adn't had even a sight of 'im lately, having been laid up with a sprained ankle and 'ad only just got about agin. I asked 'im to meet me at Cleopatra's Needle at eight o'clock, and said that I should wear the blue 'at with red roses.
It was a very good letter, but I can see now that I done wrong in writing it. I was going to post it to 'im, but, as I couldn't find an envelope without the name of the blessed wharf on it, I put it in my pocket till I got 'ome.
I got 'ome at about a quarter to seven, and slept like a child till pretty near four. Then I went downstairs to 'ave my dinner.
The moment I opened the door I see there was something wrong. Three times my missis licked 'er lips afore she could speak. Her face 'ad gone a dirty white colour, and she was leaning forward with her 'ands on her 'ips, trembling all over with temper.
"Is my dinner ready?" I ses, easy-like. "'Cos I'm ready for it."
"I—I wonder I don't tear you limb from limb," she ses, catching her breath.
"Wot's the matter?" I ses.
"And then boil you," she ses, between her teeth. "You in one pot and your precious Dorothy in another."
If anybody 'ad offered me five pounds to speak then, I couldn't ha' done it. I see wot I'd done in a flash, and I couldn't say a word; but I kept my presence o' mind, and as she came round one side o' the table I went round the other.
"Wot 'ave you got to say for yourself?" she ses, with a scream.
"Nothing," I ses, at last. "It's all a mistake."
"Mistake?" she ses. "Yes, you made a mistake leaving it in your pocket; that's all the mistake you've made. That's wot you do, is it, when you're supposed to be at the wharf? Go about with a blue 'at with red roses in it! At your time o' life, and a wife at 'ome working herself to death to make both ends meet and keep you respectable!"
"It's all a mistake," I ses. "The letter wasn't for me."
"Oh, no, o' course not," she ses. "That's why you'd got it in your pocket, I suppose. And I suppose you'll say your name ain't Bill next."
"Don't say things you'll be sorry for," I ses.
"I'll take care o' that," she ses. "I might be sorry for not saying some things, but I don't think I shall."
I don't think she was. I don't think she forgot anything, and she raked up things that I 'ad contradicted years ago and wot I thought was all forgot. And every now and then, when she stopped for breath, she'd try and get round to the same side of the table I was.
She follered me to the street door when I went and called things up the road arter me. I 'ad a snack at a coffee-shop for my dinner, but I 'adn't got much appetite for it; I was too full of trouble and finding fault with myself, and I went off to my work with a 'art as heavy as lead.
I suppose I 'adn't been on the wharf ten minutes afore Cap'n Smithers came sidling up to me, but I got my spoke in fust.
"Look 'ere," I ses, "if you're going to talk about that forward hussy wot's been writing to you, I ain't. I'm sick and tired of 'er."
"Forward hussy!" he ses. "Forward hussy!" And afore I could drop my broom he gave me a punch in the jaw that pretty near broke it. "Say another word against her," he ses, "and I'll knock your ugly 'ead off. How dare you insult a lady?"
I thought I should 'ave gone crazy at fust, but I went off into the office without a word. Some men would ha' knocked 'im down for it, but I made allowances for 'is state o' mind, and I stayed inside until I see 'im get aboard agin.
He was sitting on deck when I went out, and his missis too, but neither of 'em spoke a word. I picked up my broom and went on sweeping, when suddenly I 'eard a voice at the gate I thought I knew, and in came my wife.
"Ho!" she ses, calling out. "Ain't you gone to meet that gal at Cleopatra's Needle yet? You ain't going to keep 'er waiting, are you?"
"H'sh!" I ses.
"H'sh! yourself," she ses, shouting. "I've done nothing to be ashamed of. I don't go to meet other people's husbands in a blue 'at with red roses. I don't write 'em love-letters, and say 'H'sh!' to my wife when she ventures to make a remark about it. I may work myself to skin and bone for a man wot's old enough to know better, but I'm not going to be trod on. Dorothy, indeed! I'll Dorothy 'er if I get the chance."
Mrs. Smithers, wot 'ad been listening with all her ears, jumped up, and so did the skipper, and Mrs. Smithers came to the side in two steps.
"Did you say 'Dorothy,' ma'am?" she ses to my missis.
"I did," ses my wife. "She's been writing to my husband."
"It must be the same one," ses Mrs. Smithers. "She's been writing to mine too."
The two of 'em stood there looking at each other for a minute, and then my wife, holding the letter between 'er finger and thumb as if it was pison, passed it to Mrs. Smithers.
"It's the same," ses Mrs. Smithers. "Was the envelope marked 'Private'?"
"I didn't see no envelope," ses my missis. "This is all I found."
Mrs. Smithers stepped on to the wharf and, taking 'old of my missis by the arm, led her away whispering. At the same moment the skipper walked across the deck and whispered to me.
"Wot d'ye mean by it?" he ses. "Wot d'ye mean by 'aving letters from Dorothy and not telling me about it?"
"I can't help 'aving letters any more than you can," I ses. "Now p'r'aps you'll understand wot I meant by calling 'er a forward hussy."
"Fancy 'er writing to you!" he ses, wrinkling 'is forehead. "Pph! She must be crazy."
"P'r'aps it ain't a gal at all," I ses. "My belief is somebody is 'aving a game with us."
"Don't be a fool," he ses. "I'd like to see the party as would make a fool of me like that. Just see 'im and get my 'ands on him. He wouldn't want to play any more games."
It was no good talking to 'im. He was 'arf crazy with temper. If I'd said the letter was meant for 'im he'd 'ave asked me wot I meant by opening it and getting 'im into more trouble with 'is missis, instead of giving it to 'im on the quiet. I just stood and suffered in silence, and thought wot a lot of 'arm eddication did for people.
"I want some money," ses my missis, coming back at last with Mrs. Smithers.
That was the way she always talked when she'd got me in 'er power. She took two-and-tenpence—all I'd got—and then she ordered me to go and get a cab.
"Me and this lady are going to meet her," she ses, sniffing at me.
"And tell her wot we think of 'er," ses Mrs. Smithers, sniffing too.
"And wot we'll do to 'er," ses my missis.
I left 'em standing side by side, looking at the skipper as if 'e was a waxworks, while I went to find a cab. When I came back they was in the same persition, and 'e was smoking with 'is eyes shut.
They went off side by side in the cab, both of 'em sitting bolt-upright, and only turning their 'eads at the last moment to give us looks we didn't want.
"I don't wish her no 'arm," ses the skipper, arter thinking for a long time. "Was that the fust letter you 'ad from 'er, Bill?"
"Fust and last," I ses, grinding my teeth.
"I hope they won't meet 'er, pore thing," he ses.
"I've been married longer than wot you have," I ses, "and I tell you one thing. It won't make no difference to us whether they do or they don't," I ses.
And it didn't.
"I'm the happiest man in the world," said Mr. Farrer, in accents of dreamy tenderness.
Miss Ward sighed. "Wait till father comes in," she said.
Mr. Farrer peered through the plants which formed a welcome screen to the window and listened with some uneasiness. He was waiting for the firm, springy step that should herald the approach of ex-Sergeant-Major Ward. A squeeze of Miss Ward's hand renewed his courage.
"Perhaps I had better light the lamp," said the girl, after a long pause. "I wonder where mother's got to?"
"She's on my side, at any rate," said Mr. Farrer.
"Poor mother!" said the girl. "She daren't call her soul her own. I expect she's sitting in her bedroom with the door shut. She hates unpleasantness. And there's sure to be some."
"So do I," said the young man, with a slight shiver. "But why should there be any? He doesn't want you to keep single all your life, does he?"
"He'd like me to marry a soldier," said Miss Ward. "He says that the young men of the present day are too soft. The only thing he thinks about is courage and strength."
She rose and, placing the lamp on the table, removed the chimney, and then sought round the room for the matches. Mr. Farrer, who had two boxes in his pocket, helped her.
They found a box at last on the mantelpiece, and Mr. Farrer steadied her by placing one arm round her waist while she lit the lamp. A sudden exclamation from outside reminded them that the blind was not yet drawn, and they sprang apart in dismay as a grizzled and upright old warrior burst into the room and confronted them.
"Pull that blind down!" he roared. "Not you," he continued, as Mr. Farrer hastened to help. "What do you mean by touching my blind? What do you mean by embracing my daughter? Eh? Why don't you answer?"
"We—we are going to be married," said Mr. Farrer, trying to speak boldly.
The sergeant-major drew himself up, and the young man gazed in dismay at a chest which seemed as though it would never cease expanding.
"Married!" exclaimed the sergeant-major, with a grim laugh. "Married to a little tame bunny-rabbit! Not if I know it. Where's your mother?" he demanded, turning to the girl.
"Upstairs," was the reply.
Her father raised his voice, and a nervous reply came from above. A minute later Mrs. Ward, pale of cheek, entered the room.
"Here's fine goings-on!" said the sergeant major, sharply. "I go for a little walk, and when I come back this—this infernal cockroach has got its arm round my daughter's waist. Why don't you look after her? Do you know anything about it?"
His wife shook her head.
"Five feet four and about thirty round the chest, and wants to marry my daughter!" said the sergeant-major, with a sneer. "Eh? What's that? What did you say? What?"
"I said that's a pretty good size for a cockroach," murmured Mr. Farrer, defiantly. "Besides, size isn't everything. If it was, you'd be a general instead of only a sergeant-major."
"You get out of my house," said the other, as soon as he could get his breath. "Go on Sharp with it."
"I'm going," said the mortified Mr. Farrer. "I'm sorry if I was rude. I came on purpose to see you to-night. Bertha—Miss Ward, I mean—told me your ideas, but I couldn't believe her. I said you'd got more common sense than to object to a man just because he wasn't a soldier."
"I want a man for a son-in-law," said the other. "I don't say he's got to be a soldier."
"Just so," said Mr. Farrer. "You're a man, ain't you? Well, I'll do anything that you'll do."
"Pph!" said the sergeant-major. "I've done my little lot. I've been in action four times, and wounded in three places. That's my tally."
"The colonel said once that my husband doesn't know what fear is," said Mrs. Ward, timidly. "He's afraid of nothing."
"Except ghosts," remarked her daughter, softly.
"Hold your tongue, miss," said her father, twisting his moustache. "No sensible man is afraid of what doesn't exist."
"A lot of people believe they do, though," said Mr. Farrer, breaking in. "I heard the other night that old Smith's ghost has been seen again swinging from the apple tree. Three people have seen it."
"Rubbish!" said the sergeant-major.
"Maybe," said the young man; "but I'll bet you, Mr. Ward, for all your courage, that you won't go up there alone at twelve o'clock one night to see."
"I thought I ordered you out of my house just now," said the sergeant- major, glaring at him.
"Going into action," said Mr. Farrer, pausing at the door, "is one thing —you have to obey orders and you can't help yourself; but going to a lonely cottage two miles off to see the ghost of a man that hanged himself is another."
"Do you mean to say I'm afraid?" blustered the other.
Mr. Farrer shook his head. "I don't say anything," he remarked; "but even a cockroach does a bit of thinking sometimes."
"Perhaps you'd like to go," said the sergeant-major.
"I don't mind," said the young man; "and perhaps you'll think a little better of me, Mr. Ward. If I do what you're afraid to do—"
Mrs. Ward and her daughter flung themselves hastily between the sergeant-major and his intended sacrifice. Mr. Farrer, pale but determined, stood his ground.
"I'll dare you to go up and spend a night there alone," he said.
"I'll dare you," said the incensed warrior, weakly.
"All right; I'll spend Wednesday night there," said Mr. Farrer, "and I'll come round on Thursday and let you know how I got on."
"I dare say," said the other; "but I don't want you here, and, what's more, I won't have you. You can go to Smith's cottage on Wednesday at twelve o'clock if you like, and I'll go up any time between twelve and three and make sure you're there. D'ye understand? I'll show you whether I'm afraid or not."
"There's no reason for you to be afraid," said Mr. Farrer. "I shall be there to protect you. That's very different to being there alone, as I shall be. But, of course, you can go up the next night by yourself, and wait for me, if you like. If you like to prove your courage, I mean."
"When I want to be ordered about," said the sergeant-major, in a magnificent voice, "I'll let you know. Now go, before I do anything I might be sorry for afterwards."
He stood at the door, erect as a ramrod, and watched the young man up the road. His conversation at the supper-table that night related almost entirely to puppy-dogs and the best way of training them.
He kept a close eye upon his daughter for the next day or two, but human nature has its limits. He tried to sleep one afternoon in his easy- chair with one eye open, but the exquisite silence maintained by Miss Ward was too much for it. A hum of perfect content arose from the feature below, and five minutes later Miss Ward was speeding in search of Mr. Farrer.
"I had to come, Ted," she said, breathlessly, "because to-morrow's Wednesday. I've got something to tell you, but I don't know whether I ought to."
"Tell me and let me decide," said Mr. Farrer, tenderly.
"I—I'm so afraid you might be frightened," said the girl. "I won't tell you, but I'll give you a hint. If you see anything awful, don't be frightened."
Mr. Farrer stroked her hand. "The only thing I'm afraid of is your father," he said, softly.
"Oh!" said the girl, clasping her hands together. "You have guessed it."
"Guessed it?" said Mr. Farrer.
Miss Ward nodded. "I happened to pass his door this morning," she said, in a low voice. "It was open a little way, and he was standing up and measuring one of mother's nightgowns against his chest. I couldn't think what he was doing it for at first."
Mr. Farrer whistled and his face hardened.
"That's not fair play," he said at last. "All right; I'll be ready for him."
"He doesn't like to be put in the wrong," said Miss Ward. "He wants to prove that you haven't got any courage. He'd be disappointed if he found you had."
"All right," said Mr. Farrer again. "You're an angel for coming to tell me."
"Father would call me something else, I expect," said Miss Ward, with a smile. "Good-bye. I want to get back before he wakes up."
She was back in her chair, listening to her father's slumbers, half an hour before he awoke.
"I'm making up for to-morrow night," he said, opening his eyes suddenly.
His daughter nodded.
"Shows strength of will," continued the sergeant-major, amiably. "Wellington could go to sleep at any time by just willing it. I'm the same way; I can go to sleep at five minutes' notice."
"It's a very useful gift," said Miss Ward, piously, "very."
Mr. Ward had two naps the next day. He awoke from the second at twelve- thirty a.m., and in a somewhat disagreeable frame of mind rose and stretched himself. The house was very still. He took a small brown- paper parcel from behind the sofa and, extinguishing the lamp, put on his cap and opened the front door.
If the house was quiet, the little street seemed dead. He closed the door softly and stepped into the darkness. In terms which would have been understood by "our army in Flanders" he execrated the forefathers, the name, and the upbringing of Mr. Edward Farrer.
Not a soul in the streets; not a light in a window. He left the little town behind, passed the last isolated house on the road, and walked into the greater blackness of a road between tall hedges. He had put on canvas shoes with rubber soles, for the better surprise of Mr. Farrer, and his own progress seemed to partake of a ghostly nature. Every ghost story he had ever heard or read crowded into his memory. For the first time in his experience even the idea of the company of Mr. Farrer seemed better than no company at all.
The night was so dark that he nearly missed the turning that led to the cottage. For the first few yards he had almost to feel his way; then, with a greater yearning than ever for the society of Mr. Farrer, he straightened his back and marched swiftly and noiselessly towards the cottage.
It was a small, tumble-down place, set well back in an overgrown garden. The sergeant-major came to a halt just before reaching the gate, and, hidden by the hedge, unfastened his parcel and shook out his wife's best nightgown.
He got it over his head with some difficulty, and, with his arms in the sleeves, tried in vain to get his big hands through the small, lace- trimmed wristbands. Despite his utmost efforts he could only get two or three fingers through, and after a vain search for his cap, which had fallen off in the struggle, he made his way to the gate and stood there waiting. It was at this moment that the thought occurred to him that Mr. Farrer might have failed to keep the appointment.
His knees trembled slightly and he listened anxiously for any sound from the house. He rattled the gate and, standing with white arms outstretched, waited. Nothing happened. He shook it again, and then, pulling himself together, opened it and slipped into the garden. As he did so a large bough which lay in the centre of the footpath thoughtfully drew on one side to let him pass.
Mr. Ward stopped suddenly and, with his gaze fixed on the bough, watched it glide over the grass until it was swallowed up in the darkness. His own ideas of frightening Mr. Farrer were forgotten, and in a dry, choking voice he called loudly upon the name of that gentleman.
He called two or three times, with no response, and then, in a state of panic, backed slowly towards the gate with his eyes fixed on the house. A loud crash sounded from somewhere inside, the door was flung violently open, and a gruesome figure in white hopped out and squatted on the step.
It was evident to Sergeant-Major Ward that Mr. Farrer was not there, and that no useful purpose could be served by remaining. It was clear that the young man's courage had failed him, and, with grey head erect, elbows working like the sails of a windmill, and the ends of the nightgown streaming behind him, the sergeant-major bent his steps towards home.
He dropped into a walk after a time and looked carefully over his shoulder. So far as he could see he was alone, but the silence and loneliness were oppressive. He looked again, and, without stopping to inquire whether his eyes had deceived him, broke into a run again. Alternately walking and running, he got back to the town, and walked swiftly along the streets to his house. Police-Constable Burgess, who was approaching from the other direction, reached it at almost the same moment, and, turning on his lantern, stood gaping with astonishment. "Anything wrong?" he demanded.
"Wrong?" panted the sergeant-major, trying to put a little surprise and dignity into his voice. "No."
"I thought it was a lady walking in her sleep at first," said the constable. "A tall lady."
The sergeant-major suddenly became conscious of the nightgown. "I've been—for a little walk," he said, still breathing hard. "I felt a bit chilly—so I—put this on."
"Suits you, too," said the constable, stiffly. "But you Army men always was a bit dressy. Now if I put that on I should look ridikerlous."
The door opened before Mr. Ward could reply, and revealed, in the light of a bedroom candle, the astonished countenances of his wife and daughter.
"George!" exclaimed Mrs. Ward.
"Father!" said Miss Ward.
The sergeant-major tottered in and, gaining the front room, flung himself into his arm-chair. A stiff glass of whisky and water, handed him by his daughter, was swallowed at a gulp.
"Did you go?" inquired Mrs. Ward, clasping her hands.
The sergeant-major, fully conscious of the suspicions aroused by his disordered appearance, rallied his faculties. "Not likely," he said, with a short laugh. "After I got outside I knew it was no good going there to look for that young snippet. He'd no more think of going there than he would of flying. I walked a little way down the road—for exercise—and then strolled back."
"But—my nightgown?" said the wondering Mrs. Ward.
"Put it on to frighten the constable," said her husband.
He stood up and allowed her to help him pull it off. His face was flushed and his hair tousled, but the bright fierceness of his eye was unquenched. In submissive silence she followed him to bed.
He was up late next morning, and made but a poor breakfast. His after- dinner nap was disturbed, and tea was over before he had regained his wonted calm. An hour later the arrival of a dignified and reproachful Mr. Farrer set him blazing again.
"I have come to see you about last night," said Mr. Farrer, before the other could speak. "A joke's a joke, but when you said you would come I naturally expected you would keep your word."
"Keep my word?" repeated the sergeant-major, almost choking with wrath.
"I stayed there in that lonely cottage from twelve to three, as per agreement, waiting for you," said Mr. Farrer.
"You were not there," shouted the sergeant-major.
"How do you know?" inquired the other.
The sergeant-major looked round helplessly at his wife and daughter.
"Prove it," said Mr. Farrer, pushing his advantage. "You questioned my courage, and I stayed there three hours. Where were you?"
"You were not there," said the sergeant-major. "I know. You can't bluff me. You were afraid."
"I was there, and I'll swear it," said Mr. Farrer. "Still, there's no harm done. I'll go there again to-night, and I'll dare you to come for me?"
"Dare?" said the sergeant-major, choking. "Dare?"
"Dare," repeated the other; "and if you don't come this time I'll spread it all over Marcham. To-morrow night you can go there and wait for me. If you see what I saw—"
"Oh, Ted!" said Miss Ward, with a shiver. "Saw?" said the sergeant- major, starting. "Nothing harmful," said Mr. Farrer, calmly.
"As a matter of fact, it was very interesting."
"What was?" demanded the sergeant-major.
"It sounds rather silly, as a matter of fact," said Mr. Farrer, slowly. "Still, I did see a broken bough moving about the garden."
Mr. Ward regarded him open-mouthed.
"Anything else?" he inquired, in a husky voice.
"A figure in white," said Mr. Farrer, "with long waving arms, hopping about like a frog. I don't suppose you believe me, but if you come to- night perhaps you'll see it yourself. It's very interesting.
"Wer—weren't you frightened?" inquired the staring Mrs. Ward.
Mr. Farrer shook his head. "It would take more than that to frighten me," he said, simply. "I should be ashamed of myself to be afraid of a poor thing like that. It couldn't do me any harm."
"Did you see its face?" inquired Mrs. Ward, nervously.
Mr. Farrer shook his head.
"What sort of a body had it got?" said her daughter.
"So far as I could see, very good," said Mr. Farrer. "Very good figure —not tall, but well made."
An incredible suspicion that had been forming in the sergeant-major's mind began to take shape. "Did you see anything else?" he asked, sharply.
"One more," said Mr. Farrer, regarding him pleasantly. "One I call the Running Ghost."
"Run—" began the sergeant-major, and stopped suddenly.
"It came in at the front gate," pursued Mr. Farrer. "A tall, well-knit figure of martial bearing—much about your height, Mr. Ward—with a beautiful filmy white robe down to its knees—"
He broke off in mild surprise, and stood gazing at Miss Ward, who, with her handkerchief to her mouth, was rocking helplessly in her chair.
"Knees," he repeated, quietly. "It came slowly down the path, and half way to the house it stopped, and in a frightened sort of voice called out my name. I was surprised, naturally, but before I could get to it— to reassure it—"
"That'll do," said the sergeant-major, rising hastily and drawing himself up to his full height.
"You asked me," said Mr. Farrer, in an aggrieved voice.
"I know I did," said the sergeant-major, breathing heavily. "I know I did; but if I sit here listening to any more of your lies I shall be ill. The best thing you can do is to take that giggling girl out and give her a breath of fresh air. I have done with her."
A lad of about twenty stepped ashore from the schooner Jane, and joining a girl, who had been avoiding for some ten minutes the ardent gaze of the night-watchman, set off arm-in-arm. The watchman rolled his eyes and shook his head slowly.
Nearly all his money on 'is back, he said, and what little bit 'e's got over he'll spend on 'er. And three months arter they're married he'll wonder wot 'e ever saw in her. If a man marries he wishes he 'adn't, and if he doesn't marry he wishes he 'ad. That's life.
Looking at them two young fools reminds me of a nevy of Sam Small's; a man I think I've spoke to you of afore. As a rule Sam didn't talk much about 'is relations, but there was a sister of 'is in the country wot 'e was rather fond of because 'e 'adn't seen 'er for twenty years. She 'ad got a boy wot 'ad just got a job in London, and when 'e wrote and told 'er he was keeping company with the handsomest and loveliest and best 'arted gal in the whole wide world, she wrote to Sam about it and asked 'im to give 'is nevy some good advice.
Sam 'ad just got back from China and was living with Peter Russet and Ginger Dick as usual, and arter reading the letter about seven times and asking Ginger how 'e spelt "minx," 'e read the letter out loud to them and asked 'em what they thought about it.
Ginger shook his 'ead, and, arter thinking a bit, Peter shook his too.
"She's caught 'im rather young," ses Ginger.
"They get it bad at that age too," ses Peter. "When I was twenty, there was a gal as I was fond of, and a regiment couldn't ha' parted us."
"Wot did part you then?" ses Sam.
"Another gal," ses Peter; "a gal I took a fancy to, that's wot did it."
"I was nearly married when I was twenty," ses Ginger, with a far-away look in his eyes. "She was the most beautiful gal I ever saw in my life; she 'ad one 'undred pounds a year of 'er own and she couldn't bear me out of her sight. If a thump acrost the chest would do that cough of yours any good, Sam—"
"Don't take no notice of 'im, Ginger," ses Peter. "Why didn't you marry 'er?"
"'Cos I was afraid she might think I was arter 'er money," ses Ginger, getting a little bit closer to Sam.
Peter 'ad another turn then, and him and Ginger kept on talking about gals whose 'arts they 'ad broke till Sam didn't know what to do with 'imself.
"I'll just step round and see my nevy, while you and Peter are amusing each other," he ses at last. "I'll ask 'im to come round to-morrow and then you can give 'im good advice."
The nevy came round next evening. Bright, cheerful young chap 'e was, and he agreed with everything they said. When Peter said as 'ow all gals was deceivers, he said he'd known it for years, but they was born that way and couldn't 'elp it; and when Ginger said that no man ought to marry afore he was fifty, he corrected 'im and made it fifty-five.
"I'm glad to 'ear you talk like that," ses Ginger.
"So am I," ses Peter.
"He's got his 'ead screwed on right," ses Sam, wot thought his sister 'ad made a mistake.
"I'm surprised when I look round at the wimmen men 'ave married," ses the nevy; "wot they could 'ave seen in them I can't think. Me and my young lady often laugh about it."
"Your wot?" ses Sam, pretending to be very surprised.
"My young lady," ses the nevy.
Sam gives a cough. "I didn't know you'd got a young lady," he ses.
"Well, I 'ave," ses his nevy, "and we're going to be married at Christmas."
"But—but you ain't fifty-five," ses Ginger.
"I'm twenty-one," ses the nevy, "but my case is different. There isn't another young lady like mine in the world. She's different to all the others, and it ain't likely I'm going to let 'er be snapped up by somebody else. Fifty-five! Why, 'ow I'm to wait till Christmas I don't know. She's the prettiest and handsomest gal in the world; and she's the cleverest one I ever met. You ought to hear 'er laugh. Like music it is. You'd never forget it."
"Twenty-one is young," ses Ginger, shaking his 'ead. "'Ave you known 'er long?"
"Three months," ses the nevy. "She lives in the same street as I do. 'Ow it is she ain't been snapped up before, I can't think, but she told me that she didn't care for men till she saw me."
"They all say that," ses Ginger.
"If I've 'ad it said to me once, I've 'ad it said twenty times," ses Peter, nodding.
"They do it to flatter," ses old Sam, looking as if 'e knew all about it. "You wait till you are my age, Joe; then you'll know; why I should ha' been married dozens o' times if I 'adn't been careful."
"P'r'aps it was a bit on both sides," ses Joe, looking at 'is uncle. "P'r'aps they was careful too. If you only saw my young lady, you wouldn't talk like that. She's got the truthfullest eyes in the world. Large grey eyes like a child's, leastways sometimes they are grey and sometimes they are blue. It seems to depend on the light somehow; I 'ave seen them when they was a brown-brownish-gold. And she smiles with 'er eyes."
"Hasn't she got a mouth?" ses Ginger, wot was getting a bit tired of it.
"You've been crossed in love," ses the nevy, staring at 'im. "That's wot's the matter with you. And looking at you, I don't wonder at it."
Ginger 'arf got up, but Sam gave him a look and 'e sat down agin, and then they all sat quiet while the nevy went on telling them about 'is gal.
"I should like to see 'er," ses his uncle at last.
"Call round for me at seven to-morrow night," ses the young 'un, "and I'll introduce you."
"We might look in on our way," ses Sam, arter Ginger and Peter 'ad both made eyes at 'im. "We're going out to spend the evening."
"The more the merrier," ses his nevy. "Well, so long; I expect she's waiting for me."
He got up and said good-bye, and arter he 'ad gorn, Sam and the other two shook their leads together and said what a pity it was to be twenty- one. Ginger said it made 'im sad to think of it, and Peter said 'ow any gal could look at a man under thirty, 'e couldn't think.
They all went round to the nevy's the next evening. They was a little bit early owing to Ginger's watch 'aving been set right by guess-work, and they 'ad to sit in a row on the nevy's bed waiting while 'e cleaned 'imself, and changed his clothes. Although it was only Wednesday 'e changed his collar, and he was so long making up 'is mind about his necktie that 'is uncle tried to make it up for him. By the time he 'ad finished Sam said it made 'im think it was Sunday.
Miss Gill was at 'ome when they got there, and all three of 'em was very much surprised that such a good-looking gal should take up with Sam's nevy. Ginger nearly said so, but Peter gave 'im a dig in the back just in time and 'e called him something under 'is breath instead.
"Why shouldn't we all make an evening of it?" ses Ginger, arter they 'ad been talking for about ten minutes, and the nevy 'ad looked at the clock three or four times.
"Because two's company," ses Mrs. Gill. "Why you was young yourself once. Can't you remember?"
"He's young now, mother," ses the gal, giving Ginger a nice smile.
"I tell you wot we might do," ses Mrs. Gill, putting 'er finger to her forehead and considering. "You and Joe go out and 'ave your evening, and me and these gentlemen'll go off together somewhere. I shall enjoy an outing; I ain't 'ad one for a long time."
Ginger said it would be very nice if she thought it wouldn't make 'er too tired, and afore Sam or Peter could think of anything to say, she was upstairs putting 'er bonnet on. They thought o' plenty to say while they was sitting alone with Ginger waiting for 'er.
"My idea was for the gal and your nevy to come too," ses pore Ginger. "Then I thought we might lose 'im and I would 'ave a little chat with the gal, and show 'er 'ow foolish she was."
"Well, you've done it now," ses Sam. "Spoilt our evening."
"P'r'aps good will come out of it," ses Ginger. "If the old lady takes a fancy to us we shall be able to come agin, and then to please you, Sam, I'll have a go to cut your nevy out."
Sam stared at 'im, and Peter stared too, and then they looked at each other and began to laugh till Ginger forgot where 'e was and offered to put Sam through the winder. They was still quarrelling under their breath and saying wot they'd like to do to each other when Mrs. Gill came downstairs. Dressed up to the nines she was, and they walked down the street with a feeling that everybody was looking at em.
One thing that 'elped to spoil the evening was that Mrs. Gill wouldn't go into public'ouses, but to make up for it she went into sweet-stuff shops three times and 'ad ices while they stood and watched 'er and wondered 'ow she could do it. And arter that she stopped at a place Poplar way, where there was a few swings and roundabouts and things. She was as skittish as a school-gal, and arter taking pore Sam on the roundabout till 'e didn't know whether he was on his 'eels or his 'ead, she got 'im into a boat-swing and swung 'im till he felt like a boy on 'is fust v'y'ge. Arter that she took 'im to the rifle gallery, and afore he had 'ad three shots the man took the gun away from 'im and threatened to send for the police.
It was an expensive evening for all of them, but as Ginger said when they got 'ome they 'ad broken the ice, and he bet Peter Russet 'arf a dollar that afore two days 'ad passed he'd take the nevy's gal for a walk. He stepped round by 'imself the next arternoon and made 'imself agreeable to Mrs. Gill, and the day arter they was both so nice and kind that 'e plucked up 'is courage and offered to take Miss Gill to the Zoo.
She said "No" at fust, of course, but arter Ginger 'ad pointed out that Joe was at work all day and couldn't take 'er 'imself, and that 'e was Joe's uncle's best pal, she began to think better of it.
"Why not?" ses her mother. "Joe wouldn't mind. He wouldn't be so silly as to be jealous o' Mr. Ginger Dick."
"Of course not," ses the gal. "There's nothing to be jealous of."
She let 'er mother and Ginger persuade 'er arter a time, and then she went upstairs to clean herself, and put on a little silver brooch that Ginger said he 'ad picked up coming along.
She took about three-quarters of an hour to get ready, but when she came down, Ginger felt that it was quite worth it. He couldn't take 'is eyes off 'er, as the saying goes, and 'e sat by 'er side on the top of the omnibus like a man in a dream.
"This is better than being at sea," he ses at last.
"Don't you like the sea?" ses the gal. "I should like to go to sea myself."
"I shouldn't mind the sea if you was there," ses Ginger.
Miss Gill turned her 'ead away. "You mustn't talk to me like that," she ses in a soft voice. "Still—"
"Still wot?" ses Ginger, arter waiting a long time.
"I mean, if I did go to sea, it would be nice to have a friend on board," she ses. "I suppose you ain't afraid of storms, are you?"
"I like 'em," ses Ginger.
"You look as if you would," ses the gal, giving 'im a little look under 'er eyelashes. "It must be nice to be a man and be brave. I wish I was a man."
"I don't," ses Ginger.
"Why not?" ses the gal, turning her 'ead away agin.
Ginger didn't answer, he gave 'er elbow a little squeeze instead. She took it away at once, and Ginger was just wishing he 'adn't been so foolish, when it came back agin, and they sat for a long time without speaking a word.
"The sea is all right for some things," ses Ginger at last, "but suppose a man married!"
The gal shook her 'ead. "It would be hard on 'is wife," she ses, with another little look at 'im, "but—but——"
Ginger pinched 'er elbow agin.
"But p'r'aps he could get a job ashore," she ses, "and then he could take his wife out for a bus-ride every day."
They 'ad to change buses arter a time, and they got on a wrong bus and went miles out o' their way, but neither of 'em seemed to mind. Ginger said he was thinking of something else, and the gal said she was too. They got to the Zoological Gardens at last, and Ginger said he 'ad never enjoyed himself so much. When the lions roared she squeezed his arm, and when they 'ad an elephant ride she was holding on to 'im with both 'ands.
"I am enjoying myself," she ses, as Ginger 'elped her down and said "whoa" to the elephant. "I know it's wicked, but I can't 'elp it, and wot's more, I'm afraid I don't want to 'elp it."
She let Ginger take 'er arm when she nearly tripped up over a peppermint ball some kid 'ad dropped; and, arter a little persuasion, she 'ad a bottle of lemonade and six bath-buns at a refreshment stall for dinner.
She was as nice as she could be to him, but by the time they started for 'ome, she 'ad turned so quiet that Ginger began to think 'e must 'ave offended 'er in some way.
"Are you tired?" he ses.
"No," ses the gal, shaking her 'ead, "I've enjoyed myself very much."
"I thought you seemed a bit tired," ses Ginger, arter waiting a long time.
"I'm not tired," ses the gal, giving 'im a sad sort o' little smile, "but I'm a little bit worried, that's all."
"Worried?" ses Ginger, very tender. "Wot's worrying you?"
"Oh, I can't tell you," ses Miss Gill. "It doesn't matter; I'll try and cheer up. Wot a lovely day it is, isn't it? I shall remember it all my life."
"Wot is it worrying you?" ses Ginger, in a determined voice. "Can't you tell me?"
"No," ses the gal, shaking her 'ead, "I can't tell you because you might want to 'elp me, and I couldn't allow that."
"Why shouldn't I 'elp you?" ses Ginger. "It's wot we was put 'ere for: to 'elp one another."
"I couldn't tell you," ses the gal, just dabbing at'er eyes—with a lace pocket-'ankercher about one and a 'arf times the size of 'er nose.
"Not if I ask you to?" ses Ginger.
Miss Gill shook 'er 'ead, and then she tried her 'ardest to turn the conversation. She talked about the weather, and the monkey-'ouse, and a gal in 'er street whose 'air changed from red to black in a single night; but it was all no good, Ginger wouldn't be put off, and at last she ses—
"Well," she ses, "if you must know, I'm in a difficulty; I 'ave got to get three pounds, and where to get it I don't know any more than the man in the moon. Now let's talk about something else."
"Do you owe it?" ses Ginger.
"I can't tell you any more," ses Miss Gill, "and I wouldn't 'ave told you that only you asked me, and somehow I feel as though I 'ave to tell you things, when you want me to."
"Three pounds ain't much," ses pore Ginger, wot 'ad just been paid off arter a long v'y'ge. "I can let you 'ave it and welcome."
Miss Gill started away from 'im as though she 'ad been stung, and it took 'im all his time to talk 'er round agin. When he 'ad she begged 'is pardon and said he was the most generous man she 'ad ever met, but it couldn't be.
"I don't know when I could pay it back," she ses, "but I thank you all the same for offering it."
"Pay it back when you like," ses Ginger, "and if you never pay it back, it don't matter."
He offered 'er the money four or five times, but she wouldn't take it, but at last just as they got near her 'ouse he forced it in her 'and, and put his own 'ands in his pockets when she tried to make 'im take it back.
"You are good to me," she ses arter they 'ad gone inside and 'er mother 'ad gone upstairs arter giving Ginger a bottle o' beer to amuse 'imself with; "I shall never forget you. Never."
"I 'ope not," ses Ginger, starting. "Are you coming out agin to- morrow?"
"I'm afraid I can't," ses Miss Gill, shaking her 'ead and looking sorrowful.
"Not with me?" ses Ginger, sitting down beside her on the sofa and putting 'is arm so that she could lean against it if she wanted to.
"I don't think I can," ses the gal, leaning back very gentle.
"Think agin," ses Ginger, squeezing 'er waist a little.
Miss Gill shook her 'ead, and then turned and looked at 'im. Her face was so close to his, that, thinking that she 'ad put it there a-purpose, he kissed it, and the next moment 'e got a clout that made his 'ead ring.
"'Ow dare you!" she ses, jumping up with a scream. "'Ow dare you! 'Ow dare——"
"Wot's the matter?" ses her mother, coming downstairs like a runaway barrel of treacle.
"He—he's insulted me," ses Miss Gill, taking out her little 'ankercher and sobbing. "He—k-kissed me!"
"WOT!" ses Mrs. Gill. "Well, I'd never 'ave believed it! Never! Why 'e ought to be taken up. Wot d'ye mean by it?" she ses, turning on pore Ginger.
Ginger tried to explain, but it was all no good, and two minutes arterwards 'e was walking back to 'is lodgings like a dog with its tail between its legs. His 'ead was going round and round with astonishment, and 'e was in such a temper that 'e barged into a man twice as big as himself and then offered to knock his 'ead off when 'e objected. And when Sam and Peter asked him 'ow he 'ad got on, he was in such a state of mind it was all 'e could do to answer 'em.
"And I'll trouble you for my 'arf dollar, Peter," he ses; "I've been out with 'er all day, and I've won my bet."
Peter paid it over like a lamb, and then 'e sat thinking 'ard for a bit.
"Are you going out with 'er agin to-morrow, Ginger?" he ses, arter a time.
"I don't know," ses Ginger, careless-like, "I ain't made up my mind yet."
Peter looked at 'im and then 'e looked at Sam and winked. "Let me 'ave a try," he ses; "I'll bet you another 'arf dollar that I take 'er out. P'r'aps I shall come 'ome in a better temper than wot you 'ave."
Old Sam said it wasn't right to play with a gal's 'art in that way, but arter a lot o' talking and telling Sam to shut up, Ginger took the bet. He was quite certain in his own mind that Miss Gill would slam the door in Peter's face, and arter he 'ad started off next morning, Ginger and Sam waited in to 'ave the pleasure of laughing in 'is face.
They got tired of waiting at last, and went out to enjoy themselves, and breathe the fresh air in a pub down Poplar way. They got back at seven o'clock, and ten minutes arterwards Peter came in and sat down on his bed and began to smoke without a word.
"Had a good time?" ses Ginger.
"Rippin'," ses Peter, holding 'is pipe tight between 'is teeth. "You owe me 'arf a dollar, Ginger."
"Where'd you go?" ses Ginger, passing it over.
"Crystal Pallis," ses Peter.
"Are you going to take 'er out to-morrow?" ses Sam.
"I don't think so," ses Peter, taking 'is pipe out of 'is mouth and yawning. "She's rather too young for me; I like talking to gals wot's a bit older. I won't stand in Ginger's way."
"I found 'er a bit young too," ses Ginger. "P'r'aps we'd better let Sam's nevy 'ave 'er. Arter all it's a bit rough on 'im when you come to think of it."
"You're quite right," ses Peter, jumping up. "It's Sam's business, and why we should go out of our way and inconvenience ourselves to do 'im a good turn, I don't know."
"It's Sam all over," ses Ginger; "he's always been like that, and the more you try to oblige 'im, the more you may."
They went on abusing Sam till he got sick and tired of it, and arter telling 'em wot he thought of 'em he slammed the door and went out and spent the evening by 'imself. He would 'ardly speak to them next day, but arter tea he brightened up a bit and they went off together as if nothing 'ad happened, and the fust thing they saw as they turned out of their street was Sam's nevy coming along smiling till it made their faces ache to look at him.
"I was just coming to see you," he ses.
"We're just off on business," ses Ginger.
"I wasn't going to stop," ses the nevy; "my young lady just told me to step along and show uncle wot she has bought me. A silver watch and chain and a gold ring. Look at it!"
He held his 'and under Ginger's nose, and Ginger stood there looking at it and opening and shutting 'is mouth like a dying fish. Then he took Peter by the arm and led'im away while the nevy was opening 'is new watch and showing Sam the works.
"'Ow much did she get out of you, Peter?" ses Ginger, looking at 'im very hard. "I don't want any lies."
"Three quid," ses Peter, staring at 'im.
"Same 'ere," ses Ginger, grinding his teeth. "Did she give you a smack on the side of your face?"
"Wot—are—you—talking about, Ginger?" ses Peter.
"Did she smack your face too?" ses Ginger.
"Yes," ses Peter.
HIS OTHER SELF
"They're as like as two peas, him and 'is brother," said the night- watchman, gazing blandly at the indignant face of the lighterman on the barge below; "and the on'y way I know this one is Sam is because Bill don't use bad langwidge. Twins they are, but the likeness is only outside; Bill's 'art is as white as snow."
He cut off a plug of tobacco, and, placing it in his cheek, waited expectantly.
"White as snow," he repeated.
"That's me," said the lighterman, as he pushed his unwieldy craft from the jetty. "I'll tell Sam your opinion of 'im. So long."
The watchman went a shade redder than usual. That's twins all over, he said, sourly, always deceiving people. It's Bill arter all, and, instead of hurting 'is feelings, I've just been flattering of 'im up.
It ain't the fust time I've 'ad trouble over a likeness. I've been a twin myself in a manner o' speaking. It didn't last long, but it lasted long enough for me to always be sorry for twins, and to make a lot of allowance for them. It must be very 'ard to have another man going about with your face on 'is shoulders, and getting it into trouble.
It was a year or two ago now. I was sitting one evening at the gate, smoking a pipe and looking at a newspaper I 'ad found in the office, when I see a gentleman coming along from the swing-bridge. Well- dressed, clean-shaved chap 'e was, smoking a cigarette. He was walking slow and looking about 'im casual-like, until his eyes fell on me, when he gave a perfect jump of surprise, and, arter looking at me very 'ard, walked on a little way and then turned back. He did it twice, and I was just going to say something to 'im, something that I 'ad been getting ready for 'im, when he spoke to me.
"Good evening," he ses.
"Good evening," I ses, folding the paper over and looking at 'im rather severe.
"I hope you'll excuse me staring," he ses, very perlite; "but I've never seen such a face and figger as yours in all my life—never."
"Ah, you ought to ha' seen me a few years ago," I ses. "I'm like everybody else—I'm getting on."
"Rubbish!" he ses. "You couldn't be better if you tried. It's marvellous! Wonderful! It's the very thing I've been looking for. Why, if you'd been made to order you couldn't ha' been better."
I thought at fust he was by way of trying to get a drink out o' me—I've been played that game afore—but instead o' that he asked me whether I'd do 'im the pleasure of 'aving one with 'im.
We went over to the Albion, and I believe I could have 'ad it in a pail if I'd on'y liked to say the word. And all the time I was drinking he was looking me up and down, till I didn't know where to look, as the saying is.
"I came down 'ere to look for somebody like you," he ses, "but I never dreamt I should have such luck as this. I'm an actor, and I've got to play the part of a sailor, and I've been worried some time 'ow to make up for the part. D'ye understand?"
"No," I ses, looking at 'im.
"I want to look the real thing," he ses, speaking low so the landlord shouldn't hear. "I want to make myself the living image of you. If that don't fetch 'em I'll give up the stage and grow cabbages."
"Make yourself like me?" I ses. "Why, you're no more like me than I'm like a sea-sick monkey."
"Not so much," he ses. "That's where the art comes in."
He stood me another drink, and then, taking my arm in a cuddling sort o' way, and calling me "Dear boy," 'e led me back to the wharf and explained. He said 'e would come round next evening with wot 'e called his make-up box, and paint 'is face and make 'imself up till people wouldn't know one from the other.
"And wot about your figger?" I ses, looking at 'im.
"A cushion," he ses, winking, "or maybe a couple. And what about clothes? You'll 'ave to sell me those you've got on. Hat and all. And boots."
I put a price on 'em that I thought would 'ave finished 'im then and there, but it didn't. And at last, arter paying me so many more compliments that they began to get into my 'ead, he fixed up a meeting for the next night and went off.
"And mind," he ses, coming back, "not a word to a living soul!"
He went off agin, and, arter going to the Bull's Head and 'aving a pint to clear my 'ead, I went and sat down in the office and thought it over. It seemed all right to me as far as I could see; but p'r'aps the pint didn't clear my 'ead enough—p'r'aps I ought to 'ave 'ad two pints.
I lay awake best part of next day thinking it over, and when I got up I 'ad made up my mind. I put my clothes in a sack, and then I put on some others as much like 'em as possible, on'y p'r'aps a bit older, in case the missis should get asking questions; and then I sat wondering 'ow to get out with the sack without 'er noticing it. She's got a very inquiring mind, and I wasn't going to tell her any lies about it. Besides which I couldn't think of one.
I got out at last by playing a game on her. I pertended to drop 'arf a dollar in the washus, and while she was busy on 'er hands and knees I went off as comfortable as you please.
I got into the office with it all right, and, just as it was getting dark, a cab drove up to the wharf and the actor-chap jumped out with a big leather bag. I took 'im into the private office, and 'e was so ready with 'is money for the clothes that I offered to throw the sack in.
He changed into my clothes fust of all, and then, asking me to sit down in front of 'im, he took a looking-glass and a box out of 'is bag and began to alter 'is face. Wot with sticks of coloured paint, and false eyebrows, and a beard stuck on with gum and trimmed with a pair o' scissors, it was more like a conjuring trick than anything else. Then 'e took a wig out of 'is bag and pressed it on his 'ead, put on the cap, put some black stuff on 'is teeth, and there he was. We both looked into the glass together while 'e gave the finishing touches, and then he clapped me on the back and said I was the handsomest sailorman in England.
"I shall have to make up a bit 'eavier when I'm behind the floats," he ses; "but this is enough for 'ere. Wot do you think of the imitation of your voice? I think I've got it exact."
"If you ask me," I ses, "it sounds like a poll-parrot with a cold in the 'ead."
"And now for your walk," he ses, looking as pleased as if I'd said something else. "Come to the door and see me go up the wharf."
I didn't like to hurt 'is feelings, but I thought I should ha' bust. He walked up that wharf like a dancing-bear in a pair of trousers too tight for it, but 'e was so pleased with 'imself that I didn't like to tell 'im so. He went up and down two or three times, and I never saw anything so ridikerlous in my life.
"That's all very well for us," he ses; "but wot about other people? That's wot I want to know. I'll go and 'ave a drink, and see whether anybody spots me."
Afore I could stop 'im he started off to the Bull's Head and went in, while I stood outside and watched 'im.
"'Arf a pint o' four ale," he ses, smacking down a penny.
I see the landlord draw the beer and give it to 'im, but 'e didn't seem to take no notice of 'im. Then, just to open 'is eyes a bit, I walked in and put down a penny and asked for a 'arf-pint.
The landlord was just wiping down the counter at the time, and when I gave my order he looked up and stood staring at me with the wet cloth 'eld up in the air. He didn't say a word—not a single word. He stood there for a moment smiling at us foolish-like, and then 'e let go o' the beer-injin, wot 'e was 'olding in 'is left hand, and sat down heavy on the bar floor. We both put our 'eads over the counter to see wot had 'appened to 'im, and 'e started making the most 'orrible noise I 'ave ever heard in my life. I wonder it didn't bring the fire-injins. The actor-chap bolted out as if he'd been shot, and I was just thinking of follering 'im when the landlord's wife and 'is two daughters came rushing out and asking me wot I 'ad done to him.
"There—there—was two of 'im!" ses the landlord, trembling and holding on to 'is wife's arm, as they helped 'im up and got 'im in the chair. "Two of 'im!"
"Two of wot?" ses his wife.
"Two—two watchmen," ses the landlord; "both exac'ly alike and both asking for 'arf a pint o' four ale."
"Yes, yes," ses 'is wife.
"You come and lay down, pa," ses the gals. "I tell you there was," ses the landlord, getting 'is colour back, with temper.
"Yes, yes; I know all about it," ses 'is wife. "You come inside for a bit; and, Gertie, you bring your father in a soda—a large soda."
They got 'im in arter a lot o' trouble; but three times 'e came back as far as the door, 'olding on to them, and taking a little peep at me. The last time he shook his 'ead at me, and said if I did it agin I could go and get my 'arf-pints somewhere else.
I finished the beer wot the actor 'ad left, and, arter telling the landlord I 'oped his eyesight 'ud be better in the morning, I went outside, and arter a careful look round walked back to the wharf.
I pushed the wicket open a little way and peeped in. The actor was standing just by the fust crane talking to two of the hands off of the Saltram. He'd got 'is back to the light, but 'ow it was they didn't twig his voice I can't think.
They was so busy talking that I crept along by the side of the wall and got to the office without their seeing me. I went into the private office and turned out the gas there, and sat down to wait for 'im. Then I 'eard a noise outside that took me to the door agin and kept me there, 'olding on to the door-post and gasping for my breath. The cook of the Saltram was sitting on a paraffin-cask playing the mouth-orgin, and the actor, with 'is arms folded across his stummick, was dancing a horn-pipe as if he'd gorn mad.
I never saw anything so ridikerlous in my life, and when I recollected that they thought it was me, I thought I should ha' dropped.
A night-watchman can't be too careful, and I knew that it 'ud be all over Wapping next morning that I 'ad been dancing to a tuppenny-ha'penny mouth-orgin played by a ship's cook. A man that does 'is dooty always has a lot of people ready to believe the worst of 'im.
I went back into the dark office and waited, and by and by I 'eard them coming along to the gate and patting 'im on the back and saying he ought to be in a pantermime instead o' wasting 'is time night-watching. He left 'em at the gate, and then 'e came into the office smiling as if he'd done something clever.
"Wot d'ye think of me for a understudy?" he ses, laughing. "They all thought it was you. There wasn't one of 'em 'ad the slightest suspicion —not one."
"And wot about my character?" I ses, folding my arms acrost my chest and looking at him.
"Character?" he ses, staring. "Why, there's no 'arm in dancing; it's a innercent enjoyment."
"It ain't one o' my innercent enjoyments," I ses, "and I don't want to get the credit of it. If they hadn't been sitting in a pub all the evening they'd 'ave spotted you at once."
"Oh!" he ses, very huffy. "How?"
"Your voice," I ses. "You try and mimic a poll-parrot, and think it's like me. And, for another thing, you walk about as though you're stuffed with sawdust."
"I beg your pardon," he ses; "the voice and the walk are exact. Exact."
"Wot?" I ses, looking 'im up and down. "You stand there and 'ave the impudence to tell me that my voice is like that?"
"I do," he ses.
"Then I'm sorry for you," I ses. "I thought you'd got more sense."
He stood looking at me and gnawing 'is finger, and by and by he ses, "Are you married?" he ses.
"I am," I ses, very short.
"Where do you live?" he ses.
I told 'im.
"Very good," he ses; "p'r'aps I'll be able to convince you arter all. By the way, wot do you call your wife? Missis?"
"Yes," I ses, staring at him. "But wot's it got to do with you?"
"Nothing," he ses. "Nothing. Only I'm going to try the poll-parrot voice and the sawdust walk on her, that's all. If I can deceive 'er that'll settle it."
"Deceive her?" I ses. "Do you think I'm going to let you go round to my 'ouse and get me into trouble with the missis like that? Why, you must be crazy; that dancing must 'ave got into your 'ead."
"Where's the 'arm?" he ses, very sulky.
"'Arm?" I ses. "I won't 'ave it, that's all; and if you knew my missis you'd know without any telling."
"I'll bet you a pound to a sixpence she wouldn't know me," he ses, very earnest.
"She won't 'ave the chance," I ses, "so that's all about it."
He stood there argufying for about ten minutes; but I was as firm as a rock. I wouldn't move an inch, and at last, arter we was both on the point of losing our tempers, he picked up his bag and said as 'ow he must be getting off 'ome.