Mr. Letts shook hands.
"Fine day," said Mr. Widden.
"Beautiful," said the other. "I'll come in and have a talk about it when I've had a wash."
"Me and Miss Foster are going out for a bit of a stroll," said Mr. Widden.
"Quite right," agreed Mr. Letts. "Much more healthy than staying indoors all the evening. If you just wait while I have a wash and a bit o' something to eat I'll come with you."
"Co-come with us!" said Mr. Widden, after an astonished pause.
Mr. Letts nodded. "You see, I don't know you yet," he explained, "and as head of the family I want to see how you behave yourself. Properly speaking, my consent ought to have been asked before you walked out with her; still, as everybody thought I was drowned, I'll say no more about it."
"Mr. Green knows all about me," said Mr. Widden, rebelliously.
"It's nothing to do with him," declared Mr. Letts. "And, besides, he's not what I should call a judge of character. I dare say you are all right, but I'm going to see for myself. You go on in the ordinary way with your love-making, without taking any notice of me. Try and forget I'm watching you. Be as natural as you can be, and if you do anything I don't like I'll soon tell you of it."
The bewildered Mr. Widden turned, but, reading no hope of assistance in the infuriated eyes of Mr. Green, appealed in despair to Betty.
"I don't mind," she said. "Why should I?"
Mr. Widden could have supplied her with many reasons, but he refrained, and sat in sulky silence while Mr. Letts got ready. From his point of view the experiment was by no means a success, his efforts to be natural being met with amazed glances from Mr. Letts and disdainful requests from Miss Foster to go home if he couldn't behave himself. When he relapsed into moody silence Mr. Letts cleared his throat and spoke.
"There's no need to be like a monkey-on-a-stick, and at the same time there's no need to be sulky," he pointed out; "there's a happy medium."
"Like you, I s'pose?" said the frantic suitor. "Like me," said the other, gravely. "Now, you watch; fall in behind and watch."
He drew Miss Foster's arm through his and, leaning towards her with tender deference, began a long conversation. At the end of ten minutes Mr. Widden intimated that he thought he had learned enough to go on with.
"Ah! that's only your conceit," said Mr. Letts over his shoulder. "I was afraid you was conceited."
He turned to Miss Foster again, and Mr. Widden, with a despairing gesture, abandoned himself to gloom. He made no further interruptions, but at the conclusion of the walk hesitated so long on the door-step that Mr. Letts had to take the initiative.
"Good-night," he said, shaking hands. "Come round to-morrow night and I'll give you another lesson. You're a slow learner, that's what you are; a slow learner."
He gave Mr. Widden a lesson on the following evening, but cautioned him sternly against imitating the display of brotherly fondness of which, in a secluded lane, he had been a wide-eyed observer.
"When you've known her as long as I have—nineteen years," said Mr. Letts, as the other protested, "things'll be a bit different. I might not be here, for one thing."
By exercise of great self-control Mr. Widden checked the obvious retort and walked doggedly in the rear of Miss Foster. Then, hardly able to believe his ears, he heard her say something to Mr. Letts.
"Eh?" said that gentleman, in amazed accents.
"You fall behind," said Miss Foster.
"That—that's not the way to talk to the head of the family," said Mr. Letts, feebly.
"It's the way I talk to him," rejoined the girl.
It was a position for which Mr. Letts was totally unprepared, and the satisfied smile of Mr. Widden as he took the vacant place by no means improved matters. In a state of considerable dismay Mr. Letts dropped farther and farther behind until, looking up, he saw Miss Foster, attended by her restive escort, quietly waiting for him. An odd look in her eyes as they met his gave him food for thought for the rest of the evening.
At the end of what Mr. Letts was pleased to term a month's trial, Mr. Widden was still unable to satisfy him as to his fitness for the position of brother-in-law. In a spirit of gloom he made suggestions of a mutinous nature to Mr. Green, but that gentleman, who had returned one day pale and furious, but tamed, from an interview that related to his treatment of his wife, held out no hopes of assistance.
"I wash my hands of him," he said bitterly. "You stick to it; that's all you can do."
"They lost me last night," said the unfortunate. "I stayed behind just to take a stone out of my shoe, and the earth seemed to swallow them up. He's so strong. That's the worst of it."
"Strong?" said Mr. Green.
Mr. Widden nodded. "Tuesday evening he showed her how he upset a man once and stood him on his head," he said, irritably. "I was what he showed her with."
"Stick to it!" counselled Mr. Green again. "A brother and sister are bound to get tired of each other before long; it's nature."
Mr. Widden sighed and obeyed. But brother and sister showed no signs of tiring of each other's company, while they displayed unmistakable signs of weariness with his. And three weeks later Mr. Letts, in a few well-chosen words, kindly but firmly dismissed him.
"I should never give my consent," he said, gravely, "so it's only wasting your time. You run off and play."
Mr. Widden ran off to Mr. Green, but before he could get a word out discovered that something unusual had happened. Mrs. Green, a picture of distress, sat at one end of the room with a handkerchief to her eyes; Mr. Green, in a condition compounded of joy and rage, was striding violently up and down the room.
"He's a fraud!" he shouted. "A fraud! I've had my suspicions for some time, and this evening I got it out of her."
Mr. Widden stared in amazement.
"I got it out of her," repeated Mr. Green, pointing at the trembling woman. "He's no more her son than what you are."
"What?" said the amazed listener.
"She's been deceiving me," said Mr. Green, with a scowl, "but I don't think she'll do it again in a hurry. You stay here," he shouted, as his wife rose to leave the room. "I want you to be here when he comes in."
Mrs. Green stayed, and the other two, heedless of her presence, discussed the situation until the front door was heard to open, and Mr. Letts and Betty came into the room. With a little cry the girl ran to her mother.
"What's the matter?" she cried.
"She's lost another son," said Mr. Green, with a ferocious sneer—"a flash, bullying, ugly chap of the name o' Letts."
"Halloa!" said Mr. Letts, starting.
"A chap she picked up out of the street, and tried to pass off on me as her son," continued Mr. Green, raising his voice. "She ain't heard the end of it yet, I can tell you."
Mr. Letts fidgeted. "You leave her alone," he said, mildly. "It's true I'm not her son, but it don't matter, because I've been to see a lawyer about her, and he told me that this house and half the furniture belongs by law to Betty. It's got nothing to do with you."
"Indeed!" said Mr. Green. "Now you take yourself off before I put the police on to you. Take your face off these premises."
Mr. Letts, scratching his head, looked vaguely round the room.
"Go on!" vociferated Mr. Green. "Or will you have the police to put you out?"
Mr. Letts cleared his throat and moved towards the door. "You stick up for your rights, my girl," he said, turning to Betty. "If he don't treat your mother well, give him back his kitchen chair and his three stair-rods and pack him off."
"Henry," said Mr. Green, with dangerous calm, "go and fetch a policeman."
"I'm going," said Mr. Letts, hastily. "Good-by, Betty; good-by, mother. I sha'n't be long. I'm only going as far as the post-office. And that reminds me. I've been talking so much that I quite forget to tell you that Betty and me were married yesterday morning."
He nodded pleasantly at the stupefied Mr. Green, and, turning to Mr. Widden, gave him a friendly dig in the ribs with his finger.
"What's mine is Betty's," he said, in a clear voice, "and what's Betty's is MINE! D'ye understand, step-father?"
He stepped over to Mrs. Green, and putting a strong arm around her raised her to her feet. "And what's mine is mother's," he concluded, and, helping her across the room, placed her in the best arm-chair.
The old man stood by the window, gazing at the frozen fields beyond. The sign of the Cauliflower was stiff with snow, and the breath of a pair of waiting horses in a wagon beneath ascended in clouds of steam.
"Amusements" he said slowly, as he came back with a shiver and, resuming his seat by the tap-room fire, looked at the wayfarer who had been idly questioning him. "Claybury men don't have much time for amusements. The last one I can call to mind was Bill Chambers being nailed up in a pig-sty he was cleaning out, but there was such a fuss made over that —by Bill—that it sort o' disheartened people."
He got up again restlessly, and, walking round the table, gazed long and hard into three or four mugs.
"Sometimes a little gets left in them," he explained, meeting the stranger's inquiring glance. The latter started, and, knocking on the table with the handle of his knife, explained that he had been informed by a man outside that his companion was the bitterest teetotaller in Claybury.
"That's one o' Bob Pretty's larks," said the old man, flushing. "I see you talking to 'im, and I thought as 'ow he warn't up to no good. Biggest rascal in Claybury, he is. I've said so afore, and I'll say so agin."
He bowed to the donor and buried his old face in the mug.
"A poacher!" he said, taking breath. "A thief!" he continued, after another draught. "I wonder whether Smith spilt any of this a-carrying of it in?"
He put down the empty mug and made a careful examination of the floor, until a musical rapping on the table brought the landlord into the room again.
"My best respects," he said, gratefully, as he placed the mug on the settle by his side and slowly filled a long clay pipe. Next time you see Bob Pretty ask 'im wot happened to the prize hamper. He's done a good many things has Bob, but it'll be a long time afore Claybury men'll look over that.
It was Henery Walker's idea. Henery 'ad been away to see an uncle of 'is wife's wot had money and nobody to leave it to—leastways, so Henery thought when he wasted his money going over to see 'im—and he came back full of the idea, which he 'ad picked up from the old man.
"We each pay twopence a week till Christmas," he ses, "and we buy a hamper with a goose or a turkey in it, and bottles o' rum and whiskey and gin, as far as the money'll go, and then we all draw lots for it, and the one that wins has it."
It took a lot of explaining to some of 'em, but Smith, the landlord, helped Henery, and in less than four days twenty-three men had paid their tuppences to Henery, who 'ad been made the seckitary, and told him to hand them over to Smith in case he lost his memory.
Bob Pretty joined one arternoon on the quiet, and more than one of 'em talked of 'aving their money back, but, arter Smith 'ad explained as 'ow he would see fair play, they thought better of it.
"He'll 'ave the same chance as all of you," he ses. "No more and no less."
"I'd feel more easy in my mind, though, if'e wasn't in it," ses Bill Chambers, staring at Bob. "I never knew 'im to lose anything yet."
"You don't know everything, Bill," ses Bob, shaking his 'ead. "You don't know me; else you wouldn't talk like that. I've never been caught doing wrong yet, and I 'ope I never shall."
"It's all right, Bill," ses George Kettle. "Mr. Smith'll see fair, and I'd sooner win Bob Pretty's money than anybody's."
"I 'ope you will, mate," ses Bob; "that's what I joined for."
"Bob's money is as good as anybody else's," ses George Kettle, looking round at the others. "It don't signify to me where he got it from."
"Ah, I don't like to hear you talk like that George," ses Bob Pretty. "I've thought more than once that you 'ad them ideas."
He drank up his beer and went off 'ome, shaking his 'cad, and, arter three or four of'em 'ad explained to George Kettle wot he meant, George went off 'ome, too.
The week afore Christmas, Smith, the landlord, said as 'ow he 'ad got enough money, and three days arter we all came up 'ere to see the prize drawn. It was one o' the biggest hampers Smith could get; and there was a fine, large turkey in it, a large goose, three pounds o' pork sausages, a bottle o' whiskey, a bottle o' rum, a bottle o' brandy, a bottle o' gin, and two bottles o' wine. The hamper was all decorated with holly, and a little flag was stuck in the top.
On'y men as belonged was allowed to feel the turkey and the goose, and arter a time Smith said as 'ow p'r'aps they'd better leave off, and 'e put all the things back in the hamper and fastened up the lid.
"How are we going to draw the lottery?" ses John Biggs, the blacksmith.
"There'll be twenty-three bits o' paper," ses Smith, "and they'll be numbered from one to twenty-three. Then they'll be twisted up all the same shape and put in this 'ere paper bag, which I shall 'old as each man draws. The chap that draws the paper with the figger on it wins."
He tore up twenty-three bits o' paper all about the same size, and then with a black-lead pencil 'e put the numbers on, while everybody leaned over 'im to see fair play. Then he twisted every bit o' paper up and held them in his 'and.
"Is that satisfactory?" he ses.
"Couldn't be fairer," ses Bill Chambers.
"Mind," ses Smith, putting them into a tall paper bag that had 'ad sugar in it and shaking them up, "Number I wins the prize. Who's going to draw fust?"
All of 'em hung back and looked at each other; they all seemed to think they'd 'ave a better chance when there wasn't so many numbers left in the bag.
"Come on," ses Smith, the landlord. "Some-body must be fust."
"Go on, George Kettle," ses Bob Pretty. "You're sure to win. I 'ad a dream you did."
"Go on yourself," ses George.
"I never 'ave no luck," ses Bob; "but if Henery Walker will draw fust, I'll draw second. Somebody must begin."
"O' course they must," ses Henery, "and if you're so anxious why don't you 'ave fust try?"
Bob Pretty tried to laugh it off, but they wouldn't 'ave it, and at last he takes out a pocket-'andkerchief and offers it to Smith, the landlord.
"All right, I'll go fust if you'll blindfold me," he ses.
"There ain't no need for that, Bob," ses Mr. Smith. "You can't see in the bag, and even if you could it wouldn't help you."
"Never mind; you blindfold me," ses Bob; "it'll set a good example to the others."
Smith did it at last, and when Bob Pretty put his 'and in the bag and pulled out a paper you might ha' heard a pin drop.
"Open it and see what number it is, Mr. Smith," ses Bob Pretty. "Twenty- three, I expect; I never 'ave no luck."
Smith rolled out the paper, and then 'e turned pale and 'is eyes seemed to stick right out of his 'ead.
"He's won it!" he ses, in a choky voice. "It's Number I. Bob Pretty 'as won the prize."
You never 'eard such a noise in this 'ere public-'ouse afore or since; everybody shouting their 'ardest, and Bill Chambers stamping up and down the room as if he'd gone right out of his mind.
"Silence!" ses Mr. Smith, at last. "Silence! How dare you make that noise in my 'ouse, giving it a bad name? Bob Pretty 'as won it fair and square. Nothing could ha' been fairer. You ought to be ashamed o' yourselves."
Bob Pretty wouldn't believe it at fust. He said that Smith was making game of 'im, and, when Smith held the paper under 'is nose, he kept the handkerchief on his eyes and wouldn't look at it.
"I've seen you afore to-day," he says, nodding his 'ead. "I like a joke as well as anybody, but it ain't fair to try and make fun of a pore, 'ard-working man like that."
I never see a man so astonished in my life as Bob Pretty was, when 'e found out it was really true. He seemed fair 'mazed-like, and stood there scratching his 'ead, as if he didn't know where 'e was. He come round at last, arter a pint o' beer that Smith 'ad stood 'im, and then he made a little speech, thanking Smith for the fair way he 'ad acted, and took up the hamper.
"'Strewth, it is heavy," he ses, getting it up on his back. "Well, so long, mates."
"Ain't you—ain't you going to stand us a drink out o' one o' them bottles?" ses Peter Gubbins, as Bob got to the door.
Bob Pretty went out as if he didn't 'ear; then he stopped, sudden-like, and turned round and put his 'ead in at the door agin, and stood looking at 'em.
"No, mates," he ses, at last, "and I wonder at you for asking, arter what you've all said about me. I'm a pore man, but I've got my feelings. I drawed fust becos nobody else would, and all the thanks I get for it is to be called a thief."
He went off down the road, and by and by Bill Chambers, wot 'ad been sitting staring straight in front of 'im, got up and went to the door, and stood looking arter 'im like a man in a dream. None of 'em seemed to be able to believe that the lottery could be all over so soon, and Bob Pretty going off with it, and when they did make up their minds to it, it was one o' the most miserable sights you ever see. The idea that they 'ad been paying a pint a week for Bob Pretty for months nearly sent some of 'em out of their minds.
"It can't be 'elped," ses Mr. Smith. "He 'ad the pluck to draw fust, and he won; anybody else might ha' done it. He gave you the offer, George Kettle, and you, too, Henery Walker."
Henery Walker was too low-spirited to answer 'im; and arter Smith 'ad said "Hush!" to George Kettle three times, he up and put 'im outside for the sake of the 'ouse.
When 'e came back it was all quiet and everybody was staring their 'ardest at little Dicky Weed, the tailor, who was sitting with his head in his 'ands, thinking, and every now and then taking them away and looking up at the ceiling, or else leaning forward with a start and looking as if 'e saw something crawling on the wall.
"Wot's the matter with you?" ses Mr. Smith.
Dicky Weed didn't answer 'im. He shut his eyes tight and then 'e jumps up all of a sudden. "I've got it!" he says. "Where's that bag?"
"Wot bag?" ses Mr. Smith, staring at 'im. "The bag with the papers in," ses Dicky.
"Where Bob Pretty ought to be," ses Bill Chambers. "On the fire."
"Wot?" screams Dicky Weed. "Now you've been and spoilt everything!"
"Speak English," ses Bill.
"I will!" ses Dicky, trembling all over with temper. "Who asked you to put it on the fire? Who asked you to put yourself forward? I see it all now, and it's too late."
"Wot's too late?" ses Sam Tones.
"When Bob Pretty put his 'and in that bag," ses Dicky Weed, holding up 'is finger and looking at them, "he'd got a bit o' paper already in it—a bit o' paper with the figger I on it. That's 'ow he done it. While we was all watching Mr. Smith, he was getting 'is own bit o' paper ready."
He 'ad to say it three times afore they understood 'im, and then they went down on their knees and burnt their fingers picking up bits o' paper that 'ad fallen in the fireplace. They found six pieces in all, but not one with the number they was looking for on it, and then they all got up and said wot ought to be done to Bob Pretty.
"You can't do anything," ses Smith, the landlord. "You can't prove it. After all, it's only Dicky's idea."
Arf-a-dozen of 'em all began speaking at once, but Bill Chambers gave 'em the wink, and pretended to agree with 'im.
"We're going to have that hamper back," he ses, as soon as Mr. Smith 'ad gone back to the bar, "but it won't do to let 'im know. He don't like to think that Bob Pretty was one too many for 'im."
"Let's all go to Bob Pretty's and take it," ses Peter Gubbins, wot 'ad been in the Militia.
Dicky Weed shook his 'ead. "He'd 'ave the lor on us for robbery," he ses; "there's nothing he'd like better."
They talked it over till closing-time, but nobody seemed to know wot to do, and they stood outside in the bitter cold for over arf an hour still trying to make up their minds 'ow to get that hamper back. Fust one went off 'ome and then another, and at last, when there was on'y three or four of 'em left, Henery Walker, wot prided himself on 'is artfulness, 'ad an idea.
"One of us must get Bob Pretty up 'ere to-morrow night and stand 'im a pint, or p'r'aps two pints," he ses. "While he's here two other chaps must 'ave a row close by his 'ouse and pretend to fight. Mrs. Pretty and the young 'uns are sure to run out to look at it, and while they are out another chap can go in quiet-like and get the hamper."
It seemed a wunnerful good idea, and Bill Chambers said so; and 'e flattered Henery Walker up until Henery didn't know where to look, as the saying is.
"And wot's to be done with the hamper when we've got it?" ses Sam Jones.
"Have it drawed for agin," ses Henery. "It'll 'ave to be done on the quiet, o' course."
Sam Jones stood thinking for a bit. "Burn the hamper and draw lots for everything separate," 'e ses, very slow. "If Bob Pretty ses it's 'is turkey and goose and spirits, tell 'im to prove it. We sha'n't know nothing about it."
Henery Walker said it was a good plan; and arter talking it over they walked 'ome all very pleased with theirselves. They talked it over next day with the other chaps; and Henery Walker said arterwards that p'r'aps it was talked over a bit too much.
It took 'em some time to make up their minds about it, but at last it was settled that Peter Gubbins was to stand Bob Pretty the beer; Ted Brown, who was well known for his 'ot temper, and Joe Smith was to 'ave the quarrel; and Henery Walker was to slip in and steal the hamper, and 'ide the things up at his place.
Bob Pretty fell into the trap at once. He was standing at 'is gate in the dark, next day, smoking a pipe, when Peter Gubbins passed, and Peter, arter stopping and asking 'im for a light, spoke about 'is luck in getting the hamper, and told 'im he didn't bear no malice for it.
"You 'ad the pluck to draw fust," he ses, "and you won."
Bob Pretty said he was a Briton, and arter a little more talk Peter asked 'im to go and 'ave a pint with 'im to show that there was no ill-feeling. They came into this 'ere Cauliflower public-'ouse like brothers, and in less than ten minutes everybody was making as much fuss o' Bob Pretty as if 'e'd been the best man in Claybury.
"Arter all, a man can't 'elp winning a prize," ses Bill Chambers, looking round.
"I couldn't," ses Bob.
He sat down and 'elped hisself out o' Sam Jones's baccy-box; and one or two got up on the quiet and went outside to listen to wot was going on down the road. Everybody was wondering wot was happening, and when Bob Pretty got up and said 'e must be going, Bill Chambers caught 'old of him by the coat and asked 'im to have arf a pint with 'im.
Bob had the arf-pint, and arter that another one with Sam Jones, and then 'e said 'e really must be going, as his wife was expecting 'im. He pushed Bill Chambers's 'at over his eyes—a thing Bill can't abear—and arter filling 'is pipe agin from Sam Jones's box he got up and went.
"Mind you," ses Bill Chambers, looking round, "if 'e comes back and ses somebody 'as taken his hamper, nobody knows nothing about it."
"I 'ope Henery Walker 'as got it all right," ses Dicky Weed. "When shall we know?"
"He'll come up 'ere and tell us," ses Bill Chambers. "It's time 'e was here, a'most."
Five minutes arterwards the door opened and Henery Walker came staggering in. He was as white as a sheet, his 'at was knocked on one side of his 'ead, and there was two or three nasty-looking scratches on 'is cheek. He came straight to Bill Chambers's mug—wot 'ad just been filled—and emptied it, and then 'e sat down on a seat gasping for breath.
"Wots the matter, Henery?" ses Bill, staring at 'im with 'is mouth open.
Henery Walker groaned and shook his 'ead. "Didn't you get the hamper?" ses Bill, turning pale. Henery Walker shook his 'ead agin.
"Shut up!" he ses, as Bill Chambers started finding fault. "I done the best I could. Nothing could ha' 'appened better—to start with. Directly Ted Brown and Joe Smith started, Mrs. Pretty and her sister, and all the kids excepting the baby, run out, and they'd 'ardly gone afore I was inside the back door and looking for that hamper, and I'd hardly started afore I heard them coming back agin. I was at the foot o' the stairs at the time, and, not knowing wot to do, I went up 'em into Bob's bedroom."
"Well?" ses Bill Chambers, as Henery Walker stopped and looked round.
"A'most direckly arterwards I 'eard Mrs. Pretty and her sister coming upstairs," ses Henery Walker, with a shudder. "I was under the bed at the time, and afore I could say a word Mrs. Pretty gave a loud screech and scratched my face something cruel. I thought she'd gone mad."
"You've made a nice mess of it!" ses Bill Chambers.
"Mess!" ses Henery, firing up. "Wot would you ha' done?"
"I should ha' managed diff'rent," ses Bill Chambers. "Did she know who you was?"
"Know who I was?" ses Henery. "O' course she did. It's my belief that Bob knew all about it and told 'er wot to do."
"Well, you've done it now, Henery," ses Bill Chambers. "Still, that's your affair."
"Ho, is it?" ses Henery Walker. "You 'ad as much to do with it as I 'ad, excepting that you was sitting up 'ere in comfort while I was doing all the work. It's a wonder to me I got off as well as I did."
Bill Chambers sat staring at 'im and scratching his 'ead, and just then they all 'eard the voice of Bob Pretty, very distinct, outside, asking for Henery Walker. Then the door opened, and Bob Pretty, carrying his 'ead very 'igh, walked into the room.
"Where's Henery Walker?" he ses, in a loud voice.
Henery Walker put down the empty mug wot he'd been pretending to drink out of and tried to smile at 'im.
"Halloa, Bob!" he ses.
"What was you doing in my 'ouse?" ses Bob Pretty, very severe.
"I—I just looked in to see whether you was in, Bob," ses Henery.
"That's why you was found under my bed, I s'pose?" ses Bob Pretty. "I want a straight answer, Henery Walker, and I mean to 'ave it, else I'm going off to Cudford for Policeman White."
"I went there to get that hamper," ses Henery Walker, plucking up spirit. "You won it unfair last night, and we determined for to get it back. So now you know."
"I call on all of you to witness that," ses Bob, looking round. "Henery Walker went into my 'ouse to steal my hamper. He ses so, and it wasn't 'is fault he couldn't find it. I'm a pore man and I can't afford such things; I sold it this morning, a bargain, for thirty bob."
"Well, then there's no call to make a fuss over it, Bob," ses Bill Chambers.
"I sold it for thirty bob," ses Bob Pretty, "and when I went out this evening I left the money on my bedroom mantelpiece—one pound, two arf-crowns, two two-shilling pieces, and two sixpences. My wife and her sister both saw it there. That they'll swear to."
"Well, wot about it?" ses Sam Jones, staring at 'im.
"Arter my pore wife 'ad begged and prayed Henery Walker on 'er bended knees to spare 'er life and go," ses Bob Pretty, "she looked at the mantel-piece and found the money 'ad disappeared."
Henery Walker got up all white and shaking and flung 'is arms about, trying to get 'is breath.
"Do you mean to say I stole it?" he ses, at last.
"O' course I do," ses Bob Pretty. "Why, you said yourself afore these witnesses and Mr. Smith that you came to steal the hamper. Wot's the difference between stealing the hamper and the money I sold it for?"
Henery Walker tried for to answer 'im, but he couldn't speak a word.
"I left my pore wife with 'er apron over her 'ead sobbing as if her 'art would break," ses Bob Pretty; "not because o' the loss of the money so much, but to think of Henery Walker doing such a thing—and 'aving to go to jail for it."
"I never touched your money, and you know it," ses Henery Walker, finding his breath at last. "I don't believe it was there. You and your wife 'ud swear anything."
"As you please, Henery," ses Bob Pretty. "Only I'm going straight off to Cudford to see Policeman White; he'll be glad of a job, I know. There's three of us to swear to it, and you was found under my bed."
"Let bygones be bygones, Bob," ses Bill Chambers, trying to smile at 'im.
"No, mate," ses Bob Pretty. "I'm going to 'ave my rights, but I don't want to be 'ard on a man I've known all my life; and if, afore I go to my bed to-night, the thirty shillings is brought to me, I won't say as I won't look over it."
He stood for a moment shaking his 'ead at them, and then, still holding it very 'igh, he turned round and walked out.
"He never left no money on the mantelpiece," ses Sam Jones, at last.
"Don't you believe it. You go to jail, Henery."
"Anything sooner than be done by Bob Pretty," ses George Kettle.
"There's not much doing now, Henery," ses Bill Chambers, in a soft voice.
Henery Walker wouldn't listen to 'em, and he jumped up and carried on like a madman. His idea was for 'em all to club together to pay the money, and to borrow it from Smith, the landlord, to go on with. They wouldn't 'ear of it at fust, but arter Smith 'ad pointed out that they might 'ave to go to jail with Henery, and said things about 'is license, they gave way. Bob Pretty was just starting off to see Policeman White when they took the money, and instead o' telling 'im wot they thought of 'im, as they 'ad intended, Henery Walker 'ad to walk alongside of 'im and beg and pray of 'im to take the money. He took it at last as a favor to Henery, and bought the hamper back with it next morning—cheap. Leastways, he said so.
Mr. Fred Carter stood on the spacious common, inhaling with all the joy of the holiday-making Londoner the salt smell of the sea below, and regarding with some interest the movements of a couple of men who had come to a stop a short distance away. As he looked they came on again, eying him closely as they approached—a strongly built, shambling man of fifty, and a younger man, evidently his son.
"Good-evening," said the former, as they came abreast of Mr. Carter.
"Good-evening," he replied.
"That's him," said both together.
They stood regarding him in a fashion unmistakably hostile. Mr. Carter, with an uneasy smile, awaited developments.
"What have you got to say for yourself?" demanded the elder man, at last. "Do you call yourself a man?"
"I don't call myself anything," said the puzzled Mr. Carter. "Perhaps you're mistaking me for somebody else."
"Didn't I tell you," said the younger man, turning to the other—"didn't I tell you he'd say that?"
"He can say what he likes," said the other, "but we've got him now. If he gets away from me he'll be cleverer than what he thinks he is."
"What are we to do with him now we've got him?" inquired his son.
The elder man clenched a huge fist and eyed Mr. Carter savagely. "If I was just considering myself," he said, "I should hammer him till I was tired and then chuck him into the sea."
His son nodded. "That wouldn't do Nancy much good, though," he remarked.
"I want to do everything for the best," said the other, "and I s'pose the right and proper thing to do is to take him by the scruff of his neck and run him along to Nancy."
"You try it," said Mr. Carter, hotly. "Who is Nancy?"
The other growled, and was about to aim a blow at him when his son threw himself upon him and besought him to be calm.
"Just one," said his father, struggling, "only one. It would do me good; and perhaps he'd come along the quieter for it."
"Look here!" said Mr. Carter. "You're mistaking me for somebody else, that's what you are doing. What am I supposed to have done?"
"You're supposed to have come courting my daughter, Mr. Somebody Else," said the other, re-leasing himself and thrusting his face into Mr. Carter's, "and, after getting her promise to marry you, nipping off to London to arrange for the wedding. She's been mourning over you for four years now, having an idea that you had been made away with."
"Being true to your memory, you skunk," said the son.
"And won't look at decent chaps that want to marry her," added the other.
"It's all a mistake," said Mr. Carter. "I came down here this morning for the first time in my life."
"Bring him along," said the son, impatiently. "It's a waste of time talking to him."
Mr. Carter took a step back and parleyed. "I'll come along with you of my own free will," he said, hastily, "just to show you that you are wrong; but I won't be forced."
He turned and walked back with them towards the town, pausing occasionally to admire the view. Once he paused so long that an ominous growl arose from the elder of his captors.
"I was just thinking," said Mr. Carter, eying him in consternation; "suppose that she makes the same mistake that you have made? Oh, Lord!"
"Keeps it up pretty well, don't he, Jim?" said the father.
The other grunted and, drawing nearer to Mr. Carter as they entered the town, stepped along in silence. Questions which Mr. Carter asked with the laudable desire of showing his ignorance concerning the neighborhood elicited no reply. His discomfiture was increased by the behavior of an elderly boatman, who, after looking at him hard, took his pipe from his mouth and bade him "Good-evening." Father and son exchanged significant glances.
They turned at last into a small street, and the elder man, opening the door of a neat cottage, laid his hand on the prisoner's shoulder and motioned him in. Mr. Carter obeyed, and, entering a spotless living- room, removed his hat and with affected composure seated himself in an easy-chair.
"I'll go up and tell Nan," said Jim. "Don't let him run away."
He sprang up the stairs, which led from a corner of the room, and the next moment the voice of a young lady, laboring under intense excitement, fell on the ears of Mr. Carter. With a fine attempt at unconcern he rose and inspected an aged engraving of "The Sailor's Return."
"She'll be down in a minute," said Jim, returning
"P'r'aps it's as well that I didn't set about him, after all," said his father. "If I had done what I should like to do, his own mother wouldn't have known him."
Mr. Carter sniffed defiantly and, with a bored air, resumed his seat. Ten minutes passed—fifteen; at the end of half an hour the elder man's impatience found vent in a tirade against the entire sex.
"She's dressing up; that's what it is," explained Jim. "For him!"
A door opened above and a step sounded on the stairs. Mr. Carter looked up uneasily, and, after the first sensation of astonishment had passed, wondered vaguely what his double had run away for. The girl, her lips parted and her eyes bright, came swiftly down into the room.
"Where is he?" she said, quickly.
"Eh?" said her father, in surprise. "Why, there! Can't you see?"
The light died out of the girl's face and she looked round in dismay. The watchful Mr. Carter thought that he also detected in her glance a spice of that temper which had made her relatives so objectionable.
"That!" she said, loudly. "That! That's not my Bert!"
"That's what I told 'em," said Mr. Carter, deferentially, "over and over again."
"What!" said her father, loudly. "Look again."
"If I looked all night it wouldn't make any difference," said the disappointed Miss Evans. "The idea of making such a mistake!"
"We're all liable to mistakes," said Mr. Carter, magnanimously, "even the best of us."
"You take a good look at him," urged her brother, "and don't forget that it's four years since you saw him. Isn't that Bert's nose?"
"No," said the girl, glancing at the feature in question, "not a bit like it. Bert had a beautiful nose."
"Look at his eyes," said Jim.
Miss Evans looked, and meeting Mr. Carter's steady gaze tossed her head scornfully and endeavored to stare him down. Realizing too late the magnitude of the task, but unwilling to accept defeat, she stood confronting him with indignant eyes.
"Well?" said Mr. Evans, misunderstanding.
"Not a bit like," said his daughter, turning thank-fully. "And if you don't like Bert, you needn't insult him."
She sat down with her back towards Mr. Carter and looked out at the window.
"Well, I could ha' sworn it was Bert Simmons," said the discomfited Mr. Evans.
"Me, too," said his son. "I'd ha' sworn to him anywhere. It's the most extraordinary likeness I've ever seen."
He caught his father's eye, and with a jerk of his thumb telegraphed for instructions as to the disposal of Mr. Carter.
"He can go," said Mr. Evans, with an attempt at dignity; "he can go this time, and I hope that this'll be a lesson to him not to go about looking like other people. If he does, next time, p'r'aps, he won't escape so easy."
"You're quite right," said Mr. Carter, blandly. "I'll get a new face first thing to-morrow morning. I ought to have done it before."
He crossed to the door and, nodding to the fermenting Mr. Evans, bowed to the profile of Miss Evans and walked slowly out. Envy of Mr. Simmons was mingled with amazement at his deplorable lack of taste and common sense. He would willingly have changed places with him. There was evidently a strong likeness, and——
Busy with his thoughts he came to a standstill in the centre of the footpath, and then, with a sudden air of determination, walked slowly back to the house.
"Yes?" said Mr. Evans, as the door opened and the face of Mr. Carter was thrust in. "What have you come back for?"
The other stepped into the room and closed the door softly behind him. "I have come back," he said, slowly—"I have come back because I feel ashamed of myself."
"Ashamed of yourself?" repeated Mr. Evans, rising and confronting him.
Mr. Carter hung his head and gazed nervously in the direction of the girl. "I can't keep up this deception," he said, in a low but distinct voice. "I am Bert Simmons. At least, that is the name I told you four years ago."
"I knew I hadn't made a mistake," roared Mr. Evans to his son. "I knew him well enough. Shut the door, Jim. Don't let him go."
"I don't want to go," said Mr. Carter, with a glance in the direction of Nancy. "I have come back to make amends."
"Fancy Nancy not knowing him!" said Jim, gazing at the astonished Miss Evans.
"She was afraid of getting me into trouble," said Mr. Carter, "and I just gave her a wink not to recognize me; but she knew me well enough, bless her."
"How dare you!" said the girl, starting up. "Why, I've never seen you before in my life."
"All right, Nan," said the brazen Mr. Carter; "but it's no good keeping it up now. I've come back to act fair and square."
Miss Evans struggled for breath.
"There he is, my girl," said her father, patting her on the back. "He's not much to look at, and he treated you very shabby, but if you want him I suppose you must have him."
"Want him?" repeated the incensed Miss Evans. "Want him? I tell you it's not Bert. How dare he come here and call me Nan?"
"You used not to mind it," said Mr. Carter, plaintively.
"I tell you," said Miss Evans, turning to her father and brother, "it's not Bert. Do you think I don't know?"
"Well, he ought to know who he is," said her father, reasonably.
"Of course I ought," said Mr. Carter, smiling at her. "Besides, what reason should I have for saying I am Bert if I am not?"
"That's a fair question," said Jim, as the girl bit her lip. "Why should he?"
"Ask him," said the girl, tartly.
"Look here, my girl," said Mr. Evans, in ominous accents. "For four years you've been grieving over Bert, and me and Jim have been hunting high and low for him. We've got him at last, and now you've got to have him."
"If he don't run away again," said Jim. "I wouldn't trust him farther than I could see him."
Mr. Evans sat and glowered at his prospective son-in-law as the difficulties of the situation developed themselves. Even Mr. Carter's reminders that he had come back and surrendered of his own free will failed to move him, and he was hesitating between tying him up and locking him in the attic and hiring a man to watch him, when Mr. Carter himself suggested a way out of the difficulty.
"I'll lodge with you," he said, "and I'll give you all my money and things to take care of. I can't run away without money."
He turned out his pockets on the table. Seven pounds eighteen shillings and fourpence with his re-turn ticket made one heap; his watch and chain, penknife, and a few other accessories another. A suggestion of Jim's that he should add his boots was vetoed by the elder man as unnecessary.
"There you are," said Mr. Evans, sweeping the things into his own pockets; "and the day you are married I hand them back to you."
His temper improved as the evening wore on. By the time supper was finished and his pipe alight he became almost jocular, and the coldness of Miss Evans was the only drawback to an otherwise enjoyable evening.
"Just showing off a little temper," said her father, after she had withdrawn; "and wants to show she ain't going to forgive you too easy. Not but what you behaved badly; however, let bygones be bygones, that's my idea."
The behavior of Miss Evans was so much better next day that it really seemed as though her father's diagnosis was correct. At dinner, when the men came home from work, she piled Mr. Carter's plate up so generously that her father and brother had ample time at their disposal to watch him eat. And when he put his hand over his glass she poured half a pint of good beer, that other men would have been thankful for, up his sleeve.
She was out all the afternoon, but at tea time she sat next to Mr. Carter, and joined brightly in the conversation concerning her marriage. She addressed him as Bert, and when he furtively pressed her hand beneath the table-cloth she made no attempt to withdraw it.
"I can't think how it was you didn't know him at first," said her father. "You're usually wide-awake enough."
"Silly of me," said Nancy; "but I am silly sometimes."
Mr. Carter pressed her hand again, and gazing tenderly into her eyes received a glance in return which set him thinking. It was too cold and calculating for real affection; in fact, after another glance, he began to doubt if it indicated affection at all.
"It's like old times, Bert," said Miss Evans, with an odd smile. "Do you remember what you said that afternoon when I put the hot spoon on your neck?"
"Yes," was the reply.
"What was it?" inquired the girl.
"I won't repeat it," said Mr. Carter, firmly.
He was reminded of other episodes during the meal, but, by the exercise of tact and the plea of a bad memory, did fairly well. He felt that he had done very well indeed when, having cleared the tea-things away, Nancy came and sat beside him with her hand in his. Her brother grunted, but Mr. Evans, in whom a vein of sentiment still lingered, watched them with much satisfaction.
Mr. Carter had got possession of both hands and was murmuring fulsome flatteries when the sound of somebody pausing at the open door caused them to be hastily withdrawn.
"Evening, Mr. Evans," said a young man, putting his head in. "Why, halloa! Bert! Well, of all the——"
"Halloa!" said Mr. Carter, with attempted enthusiasm, as he rose from his chair.
"I thought you was lost," said the other, stepping in and gripping his hand. "I never thought I was going to set eyes on you again. Well, this is a surprise. You ain't forgot Joe Wilson, have you?"
"Course I haven't, Joe," said Mr. Carter. "I'd have known you anywhere."
He shook hands effusively, and Mr. Wilson, after a little pretended hesitation, accepted a chair and began to talk about old times.
"I lay you ain't forgot one thing, Bert," he said at last.
"What's that?" inquired the other.
"That arf-quid I lent you," said Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Carter, after the first shock of surprise, pretended to think, Mr. Wilson supplying him with details as to time and place, which he was in no position to dispute. He turned to Mr. Evans, who was still acting as his banker, and, after a little hesitation, requested him to pay the money. Conversation seemed to fail somewhat after that, and Mr. Wilson, during an awkward pause, went off whistling.
"Same old Joe," said Mr. Carter, lightly, after he had gone. "He hasn't altered a bit."
Miss Evans glanced at him, but said nothing. She was looking instead towards a gentleman of middle age who was peeping round the door indulging in a waggish game of peep-bo with the unconscious Mr. Carter. Finding that he had at last attracted his attention, the gentleman came inside and, breathing somewhat heavily after his exertions, stood before him with outstretched hand.
"How goes it?" said Mr. Carter, forcing a smile and shaking hands.
"He's grown better-looking than ever," said the gentleman, subsiding into a chair.
"So have you," said Mr. Carter. "I should hardly have known you."
"Well, I' m glad to see you again," said the other in a more subdued fashion. "We're all glad to see you back, and I 'ope that when the wedding cake is sent out there'll be a bit for old Ben Prout."
"You'll be the first, Ben," said Mr. Carter, quickly.
Mr. Prout got up and shook hands with him again. "It only shows what mistakes a man can make," he said, resuming his seat. "It only shows how easy it is to misjudge one's fellow-creeturs. When you went away sudden four years ago, I says to myself, 'Ben Prout,' I says, 'make up your mind to it, that two quid has gorn.'"
The smile vanished from Mr. Carter's face, and a sudden chill descended upon the company.
"Two quid?" he said, stiffly. "What two quid?"
"The two quid I lent you," said Mr. Prout, in a pained voice.
"When?" said Mr. Carter, struggling.
"When you and I met him that evening on the pier," said Miss Evans, in a matter-of-fact voice.
Mr. Carter started, and gazed at her uneasily. The smile on her lip and the triumphant gleam in her eye were a revelation to him. He turned to Mr. Evans and in as calm a voice as he could assume, requested him to discharge the debt. Mr. Prout, his fingers twitching, stood waiting "Well, it's your money," said Mr. Evans, grudgingly extracting a purse from his trouser-pocket; "and I suppose you ought to pay your debts; still——"
He put down two pounds on the table and broke off in sudden amazement as Mr. Prout, snatching up the money, bolted headlong from the room. His surprise was shared by his son, but the other two made no sign. Mr. Carter was now prepared for the worst, and his voice was quite calm as he gave instructions for the payment of the other three gentlemen who presented claims during the evening endorsed by Miss Evans. As the last departed Mr. Evans, whose temper had been gradually getting beyond his control, crossed over and handed him his watch and chain, a few coppers, and the return half of his railway ticket.
"I think we can do without you, after all," he said, breathing thickly. "I've no doubt you owe money all over England. You're a cadger, that's what you are."
He pointed to the door, and Mr. Carter, after twice opening his lips to speak and failing, blundered towards it. Miss Evans watched him curiously.
"Cheats never prosper," she said, with gentle severity.
"Good-by," said Mr. Carter, pausing at the door.
"It's your own fault," continued Miss Evans, who was suffering from a slight touch of conscience. "If you hadn't come here pretending to be Bert Simmons and calling me 'Nan' as if you had known me all my life, I wouldn't have done it."
"It doesn't matter," said Mr. Carter. "I wish I was Bert Simmons, that's all. Good-by."
"Wish you was!" said Mr. Evans, who had been listening in open-mouthed astonishment. "Look here! Man to man—are you Bert Simmons or are you not?"
"No," said Mr. Carter.
"Of course not," said Nancy.
"And you didn't owe that money?"
"Nobody owed it," said Nancy. "It was done just to punish him."
Mr. Evans, with a strange cry, blundered towards the door. "I'll have that money out of 'em," he roared, "if I have to hold 'em up and shake it out of their trouser-pockets. You stay here."
He hurried up the road, and Jim, with the set face of a man going into action against heavy odds, followed him.
"Your father told me to stay," said Mr. Carter, coming farther into the room.
Nancy looked up at him through her eyelashes. "You need not unless you want to," she said, very softly.
KEEPING UP APPEARANCES
"Everybody is superstitious," said the night-watchman, as he gave utterance to a series of chirruping endearments to a black cat with one eye that had just been using a leg of his trousers as a serviette; "if that cat 'ad stole some men's suppers they'd have acted foolish, and suffered for it all the rest of their lives."
He scratched the cat behind the ear, and despite himself his face darkened. "Slung it over the side, they would," he said, longingly, "and chucked bits o' coke at it till it sank. As I said afore, everybody is superstitious, and those that ain't ought to be night-watchmen for a time—that 'ud cure 'em. I knew one man that killed a black cat, and arter that for the rest of his life he could never get three sheets in the wind without seeing its ghost. Spoilt his life for 'im, it did."
He scratched the cat's other ear. "I only left it a moment, while I went round to the Bull's Head," he said, slowly filling his pipe, "and I thought I'd put it out o' reach. Some men——"
His fingers twined round the animal's neck; then, with a sigh, he rose and took a turn or two on the jetty.
Superstitiousness is right and proper, to a certain extent, he said, resuming his seat; but, o' course, like everything else, some people carry it too far—they'd believe anything. Weak-minded they are, and if you're in no hurry I can tell you a tale of a pal o' mine, Bill Burtenshaw by name, that'll prove my words.
His mother was superstitious afore 'im, and always knew when 'er friends died by hearing three loud taps on the wall. The on'y mistake she ever made was one night when, arter losing no less than seven friends, she found out it was the man next door hanging pictures at three o'clock in the morning. She found it out by 'im hitting 'is thumb-nail.
For the first few years arter he grew up Bill went to sea, and that on'y made 'im more superstitious than ever. Him and a pal named Silas Winch went several v'y'ges together, and their talk used to be that creepy that some o' the chaps was a'most afraid to be left on deck alone of a night. Silas was a long-faced, miserable sort o' chap, always looking on the black side o' things, and shaking his 'ead over it. He thought nothing o' seeing ghosts, and pore old Ben Huggins slept on the floor for a week by reason of a ghost with its throat cut that Silas saw in his bunk. He gave Silas arf a dollar and a neck-tie to change bunks with 'im.
When Bill Burtenshaw left the sea and got married he lost sight of Silas altogether, and the on'y thing he 'ad to remind him of 'im was a piece o' paper which they 'ad both signed with their blood, promising that the fust one that died would appear to the other. Bill agreed to it one evenin' when he didn't know wot he was doing, and for years arterwards 'e used to get the cold creeps down 'is back when he thought of Silas dying fust. And the idea of dying fust 'imself gave 'im cold creeps all over.
Bill was a very good husband when he was sober, but 'is money was two pounds a week, and when a man has all that and on'y a wife to keep out of it, it's natural for 'im to drink. Mrs. Burtenshaw tried all sorts o' ways and means of curing 'im, but it was no use. Bill used to think o' ways, too, knowing the 'arm the drink was doing 'im, and his fav'rite plan was for 'is missis to empty a bucket o' cold water over 'im every time he came 'ome the worse for licker. She did it once, but as she 'ad to spend the rest o' the night in the back yard it wasn't tried again.
Bill got worse as he got older, and even made away with the furniture to get drink with. And then he used to tell 'is missis that he was drove to the pub because his 'ome was so uncomfortable.
Just at that time things was at their worst Silas Winch, who 'appened to be ashore and 'ad got Bill's address from a pal, called to see 'im. It was a Saturday arternoon when he called, and, o' course, Bill was out, but 'is missis showed him in, and, arter fetching another chair from the kitchen, asked 'im to sit down.
Silas was very perlite at fust, but arter looking round the room and seeing 'ow bare it was, he gave a little cough, and he ses, "I thought Bill was doing well?" he ses.
"So he is," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw.
Silas Winch coughed again.
"I suppose he likes room to stretch 'imself about in?" he ses, looking round.
Mrs. Burtenshaw wiped 'er eyes and then, knowing 'ow Silas had been an old friend o' Bill's, she drew 'er chair a bit closer and told him 'ow it was. "A better 'usband, when he's sober, you couldn't wish to see," she ses, wiping her eyes agin. "He'd give me anything—if he 'ad it."
Silas's face got longer than ever. "As a matter o' fact," he ses, "I'm a bit down on my luck, and I called round with the 'ope that Bill could lend me a bit, just till I can pull round."
Mrs. Burtenshaw shook her 'ead.
"Well, I s'pose I can stay and see 'im?" ses Silas. "Me and 'im used to be great pals at one time, and many's the good turn I've done him. Wot time'll he be 'ome?"
"Any time after twelve," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw; "but you'd better not be here then. You see, 'im being in that condition, he might think you was your own ghost come according to promise and be frightened out of 'is life. He's often talked about it."
Silas Winch scratched his head and looked at 'er thoughtful-like.
"Why shouldn't he mistake me for a ghost?" he ses at last; "the shock might do 'im good. And, if you come to that, why shouldn't I pretend to be my own ghost and warn 'im off the drink?"
Mrs. Burtenshaw got so excited at the idea she couldn't 'ardly speak, but at last, arter saying over and over agin she wouldn't do such a thing for worlds, she and Silas arranged that he should come in at about three o'clock in the morning and give Bill a solemn warning. She gave 'im her key, and Silas said he'd come in with his 'air and cap all wet and pretend he'd been drowned.
"It's very kind of you to take all this trouble for nothing," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw as Silas got up to go.
"Don't mention it," ses Silas. "It ain't the fust time, and I don't suppose it'll be the last, that I've put myself out to help my feller- creeturs. We all ought to do wot we can for each other."
"Mind, if he finds it out," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw, all of a tremble, "I don't know nothing about it. P'r'aps to make it more life-like I'd better pretend not to see you."
"P'r'aps it would be better," ses Silas, stopping at the street door. "All I ask is that you'll 'ide the poker and anything else that might be laying about handy. And you 'ad better oil the lock so as the key won't make a noise."
Mrs. Burtenshaw shut the door arter 'im, and then she went in and 'ad a quiet sit-down all by 'erself to think it over. The only thing that comforted 'et was that Bill would be in licker, and also that 'e would believe anything in the ghost line.
It was past twelve when a couple o' pals brought him 'ome, and, arter offering to fight all six of 'em, one after the other, Bill hit the wall for getting in 'is way, and tumbled upstairs to bed. In less than ten minutes 'e was fast asleep, and pore Mrs. Burtenshaw, arter trying her best to keep awake, fell asleep too.
She was woke up suddenly by a noise that froze the marrer in 'er bones— the most 'art-rending groan she 'ad ever heard in 'er life; and, raising her 'ead, she saw Silas Winch standing at the foot of the bed. He 'ad done his face and hands over with wot is called loominous paint, his cap was pushed at the back of his 'ead, and wet wisps of 'air was hanging over his eyes. For a moment Mrs. Burtenshaw's 'art stood still and then Silas let off another groan that put her on edge all over. It was a groan that seemed to come from nothing a'most until it spread into a roar that made the room tremble and rattled the jug in the wash-stand basin. It shook everything in the room but Bill, and he went on sleeping like an infant. Silas did two more groans, and then 'e leaned over the foot o' the bed, and stared at Bill, as though 'e couldn't believe his eyesight.
"Try a squeaky one," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw.
Silas tried five squeaky ones, and then he 'ad a fit o' coughing that would ha' woke the dead, as they say, but it didn't wake Bill.
"Now some more deep ones," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw, in a w'isper.
Silas licked his lips—forgetting the paint—and tried the deep ones agin.
"Now mix 'em a bit," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw.
Silas stared at her. "Look 'ere," he ses, very short, "do you think I'm a fog-horn, or wot?"
He stood there sulky for a moment, and then 'e invented a noise that nothing living could miss hearing; even Bill couldn't. He moved in 'is sleep, and arter Silas 'ad done it twice more he turned and spoke to 'is missis about it. "D'ye hear?" he ses; "stop it. Stop it at once."
Mrs. Burtenshaw pretended to be asleep, and Bill was just going to turn over agin when Silas let off another groan. It was on'y a little one this time, but Bill sat up as though he 'ad been shot, and he no sooner caught sight of Silas standing there than 'e gave a dreadful 'owl and, rolling over, wropped 'imself up in all the bed-clothes 'e could lay his 'ands on. Then Mrs. Burtenshaw gave a 'owl and tried to get some of 'em back; but Bill, thinking it was the ghost, only held on tighter than ever.
"Bill!" ses Silas Winch, in an awful voice.
Bill gave a kick, and tried to bore a hole through the bed.
"Bill," ses Silas agin, "why don't you answer me? I've come all the way from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to see you, and this is all I get for it. Haven't you got anything to say to me?"
"Good-by," ses Bill, in a voice all smothered with the bed-clothes.
Silas Winch groaned agin, and Bill, as the shock 'ad made a'most sober, trembled all over.
"The moment I died," ses Silas, "I thought of my promise towards you. 'Bill's expecting me,' I ses, and, instead of staying in comfort at the bottom of the sea, I kicked off the body of the cabin-boy wot was clinging round my leg, and 'ere I am."
"It was very—t-t-thoughtful—of you—Silas," ses Bill; "but you always— w-w-was—thoughtful. Good-by—"
Afore Silas could answer, Mrs. Burtenshaw, who felt more comfortable, 'aving got a bit o' the clothes back, thought it was time to put 'er spoke in.
"Lor' bless me, Bill," she ses. "Wotever are you a-talking to yourself like this for? 'Ave you been dreaming?"
"Dreaming!" ses pore Bill, catching hold of her 'and and gripping it till she nearly screamed. "I wish I was. Can't you see it?"
"See it?" ses his wife. "See wot?"
"The ghost," ses Bill, in a 'orrible whisper; "the ghost of my dear, kind old pal, Silas Winch. The best and noblest pal a man ever 'ad. The kindest-'arted——"
"Rubbish," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw. "You've been dreaming. And as for the kindest-'arted pal, why I've often heard you say—"
"H'sh!" ses Bill. "I didn't. I'll swear I didn't. I never thought of such a thing."
"You turn over and go to sleep," ses his wife, "hiding your 'ead under the clothes like a child that's afraid o' the dark! There's nothing there, I tell you. Wot next will you see, I wonder? Last time it was a pink rat."
"This is fifty million times worse than pink rats," ses Bill. "I on'y wish it was a pink rat."
"I tell you there is nothing there," ses his wife. "Look!"
Bill put his 'ead up and looked, and then 'e gave a dreadful scream and dived under the bed-clothes agin.
"Oh, well, 'ave it your own way, then," ses his wife. "If it pleases you to think there is a ghost there, and to go on talking to it, do so, and welcome."
She turned over and pretended to go to sleep agin, and arter a minute or two Silas spoke agin in the same hollow voice.
"Bill!" he ses.
"Yes," ses Bill, with a groan of his own.
"She can't see me," ses Silas, "and she can't 'ear me; but I'm 'ere all right. Look!"
"I 'ave looked," ses Bill, with his 'ead still under the clothes.
"We was always pals, Bill, you and me," ses Silas; "many a v'y'ge 'ave we had together, mate, and now I'm a-laying at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and you are snug and 'appy in your own warm bed. I 'ad to come to see you, according to promise, and over and above that, since I was drowned my eyes 'ave been opened. Bill, you're drinking yourself to death!"
"I—I—didn't know it," ses Bill, shaking all over. "I'll knock it—off a bit, and—thank you—for—w-w-warning me. G-G-Good-by."
"You'll knock it off altogether," ses Silas Winch, in a awful voice. "You're not to touch another drop of beer, wine, or spirits as long as you live. D'ye hear me?"
"Not—not as medicine?" ses Bill, holding the clothes up a bit so as to be more distinct.
"Not as anything," ses Silas; "not even over Christmas pudding. Raise your right arm above your 'ead and swear by the ghost of pore Silas Winch, as is laying at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, that you won't touch another drop."
Bill Burtenshaw put 'is arm up and swore it.
Then 'e took 'is arm in agin and lay there wondering wot was going to 'appen next.
"If you ever break your oath by on'y so much as a teaspoonful," ses Silas, "you'll see me agin, and the second time you see me you'll die as if struck by lightning. No man can see me twice and live."
Bill broke out in a cold perspiration all over. "You'll be careful, won't you, Silas?" he ses. "You'll remember you 'ave seen me once, I mean?"
"And there's another thing afore I go," ses Silas. "I've left a widder, and if she don't get 'elp from some one she'll starve."
"Pore thing," ses Bill. "Pore thing."
"If you 'ad died afore me," ses Silas, "I should 'ave looked arter your good wife—wot I've now put in a sound sleep—as long as I lived."
Bill didn't say anything.
"I should 'ave given 'er fifteen shillings a week," ses Silas.
"'Ow much?" ses Bill, nearly putting his 'ead up over the clothes, while 'is wife almost woke up with surprise and anger.
"Fifteen shillings," ses Silas, in 'is most awful voice. "You'll save that over the drink."
"I—I'll go round and see her," ses Bill. "S'he might be one o' these 'ere independent—" 277
"I forbid you to go near the place," ses Silas. "Send it by post every week; 15 Shap Street will find her. Put your arm up and swear it; same as you did afore."
Bill did as 'e was told, and then 'e lay and trembled, as Silas gave three more awful groans.
"Farewell, Bill," he ses. "Farewell. I am going back to my bed at the bottom o' the sea. So long as you keep both your oaths I shall stay there. If you break one of 'em or go to see my pore wife I shall appear agin. Farewell! Farewell! Farewell!"
Bill said "Good-by," and arter a long silence he ventured to put an eye over the edge of the clothes and discovered that the ghost 'ad gone. He lay awake for a couple o' hours, wondering and saying over the address to himself so that he shouldn't forget it, and just afore it was time to get up he fell into a peaceful slumber. His wife didn't get a wink, and she lay there trembling with passion to think 'ow she'd been done, and wondering 'ow she was to alter it.
Bill told 'er all about it in the morning; and then with tears in his eyes 'e went downstairs and emptied a little barrel o' beer down the sink. For the fust two or three days 'e went about with a thirst that he'd ha' given pounds for if 'e'd been allowed to satisfy it, but arter a time it went off, and then, like all teetotallers, 'e began to run down drink and call it pison.
The fust thing 'e did when 'e got his money on Friday was to send off a post-office order to Shap Street, and Mrs. Burtenshaw cried with rage and 'ad to put it down to the headache. She 'ad the headache every Friday for a month, and Bill, wot was feeling stronger and better than he 'ad done for years, felt quite sorry for her.
By the time Bill 'ad sent off six orders she was worn to skin and bone a'most a-worrying over the way Silas Winch was spending her money. She dursn't undeceive Bill for two reasons: fust of all, because she didn't want 'im to take to drink agin; and secondly, for fear of wot he might do to 'er if 'e found out 'ow she'd been deceiving 'im.
She was laying awake thinking it over one night while Bill was sleeping peaceful by her side, when all of a sudden she 'ad an idea. The more she thought of it the better it seemed; but she laid awake for ever so long afore she dared to do more than think. Three or four times she turned and looked at Bill and listened to 'im breathing, and then, trembling all over with fear and excitement, she began 'er little game.
"He did send it," she ses, with a piercing scream. "He did send it."
"W-w-wot's the matter?" ses Bill, beginning to wake up.
Mrs. Burtenshaw didn't take any notice of 'im.
"He did send it," she ses, screaming agin. "Every Friday night reg'lar. Oh, don't let 'im see you agin."
Bill, wot was just going to ask 'er whether she 'ad gone mad, gave a awful 'owl and disappeared right down in the middle o' the bed.
"There's some mistake," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw, in a voice that could ha' been 'eard through arf-a-dozen beds easy. "It must ha' been lost in the post. It must ha' been."
She was silent for a few seconds, then she ses, "All right," she ses, "I'll bring it myself, then, by hand every week. No, Bill sha'n't come; I'll promise that for 'im. Do go away; he might put his 'ead up at any moment."
She began to gasp and sob, and Bill began to think wot a good wife he 'ad got, when he felt 'er put a couple of pillers over where she judged his 'ead to be, and hold 'em down with her arm.
"Thank you, Mr. Winch," she ses, very loud. "Thank you. Good-by, Good-by."
She began to quieten down a bit, although little sobs, like wimmen use when they pretend that they want to leave off crying but can't, kept breaking out of 'er. Then, by and by, she quieted down altogether and a husky voice from near the foot of the bed ses: "Has it gorn?"
"Oh, Bill," she ses, with another sob, "I've seen the ghost!"
"Has it gorn?" ses Bill, agin.
"Yes, it's gorn," ses his wife, shivering. "Oh, Bill, it stood at the foot of the bed looking at me, with its face and 'ands all shiny white, and damp curls on its forehead. Oh!"
Bill came up very slow and careful, but with 'is eyes still shut.
"His wife didn't get the money this week," ses Mrs. Burtenshaw; "but as he thought there might be a mistake somewhere he appeared to me instead of to you. I've got to take the money by hand."
"Yes, I heard," ses Bill; "and mind, if you should lose it or be robbed of it, let me know at once. D'ye hear? At once!"
"Yes, Bill," ses 'is wife.
They lay quiet for some time, although Mrs. Burtenshaw still kept trembling and shaking; and then Bill ses. "Next time a man tells you he 'as seen a ghost, p'r'aps you'll believe in 'im."
Mrs. Burtenshaw took out the end of the sheet wot she 'ad stuffed in 'er mouth when 'e began to speak.
"Yes, Bill," she ses.
Bill Burtenshaw gave 'er the fifteen shillings next morning and every Friday night arterwards; and that's 'ow it is that, while other wimmen 'as to be satisfied looking at new hats and clothes in the shop-winders, Mrs. Burtenshaw is able to wear 'em.