"' Wunnerful affectionate old dog, ain't you, Joseph?' ses Bob.
"'He's got a kind eye,' ses Mr. Bunnett.
"'He's like another child to me, ain't you, my pretty?' ses Bob, smiling at 'im and feeling in 'is pocket. 'Here you are, old chap.'
"He threw down a biskit so sudden that Joseph, thinking it was a stone, went off like a streak o' lightning with 'is tail between 'is legs and yelping his 'ardest. Most men would ha' looked a bit foolish, but Bob Pretty didn't turn a hair.
"'Ain't it wunnerful the sense they've got,' he ses to Mr. Bunnett, wot was still staring arter the dog.
"'Sense?' ses the old gen'leman.
"'Yes,' ses Bob smiling. 'His food ain't been agreeing with 'im lately and he's starving hisself for a bit to get round agin, and 'e knew that 'e couldn't trust hisself alongside o' this biskit. Wot a pity men ain't like that with beer. I wish as 'ow Bill Chambers and Henery Walker and a few more 'ad been 'ere just now.'
"Mr. Bunnett agreed with 'im, and said wot a pity it was everybody 'adn't got Bob Pretty's commonsense and good feeling.
"'It ain't that,' ses Bob, shaking his 'ead at him; 'it ain't to my credit. I dessay if Sam Jones and Peter Gubbins, and Charlie Stubbs and Dicky Weed 'ad been brought up the same as I was they'd 'ave been a lot better than wot I am.'
"He bid Mr. Bunnett good-bye becos 'e said he'd got to get back to 'is work, and Mr. Bunnett had 'ardly got 'ome afore Henery Walker turned up full of anxiousness to ask his advice about five little baby kittens wot 'is old cat had found in the wash-place: the night afore.
"'Drownd them little innercent things, same as most would do, I can't,' he ses, shaking his 'ead; 'but wot to do with 'em I don't know.'
"'Couldn't you find 'omes for 'em?' ses Mr. Bunnett.
"Henery Walker shook his 'ead agin. ''Tain't no use thinking o' that,' he ses. 'There's more cats than 'omes about 'ere'. Why, Bill Chambers drownded six o'ny last week right afore the eyes of my pore little boy. Upset 'im dreadful it did.'
"Mr. Bunnett walked up and down the room thinking. 'We must try and find 'omes for 'em when they are old enough,' he says at last; 'I'll go round myself and see wot I can do for you.'
"Henery Walker thanked 'im and went off 'ome doing a bit o' thinking; and well he 'ad reason to. Everybody wanted one o' them kittens. Peter Gubbins offered for to take two, and Mr. Bunnett told Henery Walker next day that 'e could ha' found 'omes for 'em ten times over.
"'You've no idea wot fine, kind-'arted people they are in this village when their 'arts are touched,' he ses, smiling at Henery. 'You ought to 'ave seen Mr. Jones's smile when I asked 'im to take one. It did me good to see it. And I spoke to Mr. Chambers about drowning 'is kittens, and he told me 'e hadn't slept a wink ever since. And he offered to take your old cat to make up for it, if you was tired of keeping it.
"It was very 'ard on Henery Walker, I must say that. Other people was getting the credit of bringing up 'is kittens, and more than that, they used to ask Mr. Bunnett into their places to see 'ow the little dears was a-getting on.
"Kindness to animals caused more unpleasantness in Claybury than anything 'ad ever done afore. There was hardly a man as 'ud speak civil to each other, and the wimmen was a'most as bad. Cats and dogs and such-like began to act as if the place belonged to 'em, and seven people stopped Mr. Bunnett one day to tell 'im that Joe Parsons 'ad been putting down rat-poison and killed five little baby rats and their mother.
"It was some time afore anybody knew that Bob Pretty 'ad got 'is eye on that gold watch, and when they did they could 'ardly believe it. They give Bob credit for too much sense to waste time over wot they knew 'e couldn't get, but arter they 'ad heard one or two things they got alarmed, and pretty near the whole village went up to see Mr. Bunnett and tell 'im about Bob's true character. Mr. Bunnett couldn't believe 'em at fast, but arter they 'ad told 'im of Bob's poaching and the artful ways and tricks he 'ad of getting money as didn't belong to 'im 'e began to think different. He spoke to parson about 'im, and arter that 'e said he never wanted for to see Bob Pretty's face again.
"There was a fine to-do about it up at this 'ere Cauliflower public-'ouse that night, and the quietest man 'o the whole lot was Bob Pretty. He sat still all the time drinking 'is beer and smiling at 'em and giving 'em good advice 'ow to get that gold watch.
"'It's no good to me,' he ses, shaking his 'ead. 'I'm a pore labourin' man, and I know my place.'
"'Ow you could ever 'ave thought you 'ad a chance, Bob, I don't know,' ses Henery Walker.
"'Ow's the toad, Bob?' ses Bill Chambers; and then they all laughed.
"'Laugh away, mates,' ses Bob; 'I know you don't mean it. The on'y thing I'm sorry for is you can't all 'ave the gold watch, and I'm sure you've worked 'ard enough for it; keeping Henery Walker's kittens for 'im, and hanging round Mr. Bunnett's.'
"'We've all got a better chance than wot you 'ave, Bob,' ses little Dicky Weed the tailor.
"The quietest man o' the whole lot was Bob Pretty"
"'Ah, that's your iggernerance, Dicky,' ses Bob. 'Come to think it over quiet like, I'm afraid I shall win it arter all. Cos why? Cos I deserves it.'
"They all laughed agin, and Bill Chambers laughed so 'arty that 'e joggled Peter Gubbins's arm and upset 'is beer.
"'Laugh away,' ses Bob, pretending to get savage. 'Them that laughs best laughs last, mind. I'll 'ave that watch now, just to spite you all.'
"'Ow are you going to get it, Bob?' ses Sam Jones, jeering.
"'Never you mind, mate,' ses Bob, stamping 'is foot; 'I'm going to win it fair. I'm going to 'ave it for kindness to pore dumb animals.'
"Ear! 'ear!' ses Dicky Weed, winking at the others. 'Will you 'ave a bet on it, Bob?'
"'No,' ses Bob Pretty; 'I don't want to win no man's money. I like to earn my money in the sweat o' my brow.'
"'But you won't win it, Bob,' ses Dicky, grinning. 'Look 'ere! I'll lay you a level bob you don't get it.'
"Bob shook his 'ead, and started talking to Bill Chambers about something else.
"'I'll bet you two bob to one, Bob,' ses Dicky. 'Well, three to one, then.'
"Bob sat up and looked at'im for a long time, considering, and at last he ses, 'All right,' he ses, 'if Smith the landlord will mind the money I will.'
"He 'anded over his shilling,' but very slow-like, and Dicky Weed 'anded over 'is money. Arter that Bob sat looking disagreeable like, especially when. Dicky said wot 'e was goin' to do with the money, and by an by Sam Jones dared 'im to 'ave the same bet with 'im in sixpences.
"Bob Pretty 'ad a pint more beer to think it over, and arter Bill Chambers 'ad stood 'im another, he said 'e would. He seemed a bit dazed like, and by the time he went 'ome he 'ad made bets with thirteen of 'em. Being Saturday night they 'ad all got money on 'em, and, as for Bob, he always 'ad some. Smith took care of the money and wrote it all up on a slate.
"'Why don't you 'ave a bit on, Mr. Smith?' ses Dicky.
"'Oh, I dunno,' ses Smith, wiping down the bar with a wet cloth.
"'It's the chance of a lifetime,' ses Dicky.
"'Looks like it,' ses Smith, coughing.
"'But 'e can't win,' ses Sam Jones, looking a bit upset. 'Why, Mr. Bunnett said 'e ought to be locked up.'
"'He's been led away,' ses Bob Pretty, shaking his 'ead. 'He's a kind-'arted old gen'leman when 'e's left alone, and he'll soon see wot a mistake 'e's made about me. I'll show 'im. But I wish it was something more useful than a gold watch.'
"'You ain't got it yet,' ses Bill Chambers.
"'No, mate,' ses Bob.
"'And you stand to lose a sight o' money,' ses Sam Jones. 'If you like, Bob Pretty, you can 'ave your bet back with me.'
"'Never mind, Sam,' ses Bob; 'I won't take no advantage of you. If I lose you'll 'ave sixpence to buy a rabbit-hutch with. Good-night, mates all.'
"He rumpled Bill Chambers's 'air for 'im as he passed—a thing Bill never can a-bear—and gave Henery Walker, wot was drinking beer, a smack on the back wot nearly ruined 'im for life.
"Some of 'em went and told Mr. Bunnett some more things about Bob next day, but they might as well ha' saved their breath. The old gen'leman said he knew all about 'im and he never wanted to 'ear his name mentioned agin. Arter which they began for to 'ave a more cheerful way of looking at things; and Sam Jones said 'e was going to 'ave a hole bored through 'is sixpence and wear it round 'is neck to aggravate Bob Pretty with.
"For the next three or four weeks Bob Pretty seemed to keep very quiet, and we all began to think as 'ow he 'ad made a mistake for once. Everybody else was trying their 'ardest for the watch, and all Bob done was to make a laugh of 'em and to say he believed it was on'y made of brass arter all. Then one arternoon, just a few days afore Mr. Bunnett's time was up at the farm, Bob took 'is dog out for a walk, and arter watching the farm for some time met the old gen'leman by accident up at Coe's plantation.
"'Good arternoon, sir,' he ses, smiling at 'im. 'Wot wunnerful fine weather we're a-having for the time o' year. I've just brought Joseph out for a bit of a walk. He ain't been wot I might call hisself for the last day or two, and I thought a little fresh air might do 'im good.'
"Mr. Bunnett just looked at him, and then 'e passed 'im by without a word.
"'I wanted to ask your advice about 'im,' ses Bob, turning round and follering of 'im. 'He's a delikit animal, and sometimes I wonder whether I 'aven't been a-pampering of 'im too much.'
"'Go away,' ses Mr. Bunnett; 'I've'eard all about you. Go away at once.'
"'Heard all about me?' ses Bob Pretty, looking puzzled. 'Well, you can't 'ave heard no 'arm, that's one comfort.'
"'I've been told your true character,' ses the old gen'leman, very firm. 'And I'm ashamed that I should have let myself be deceived by you. I hope you'll try and do better while there is still time.'
"'If anybody 'as got anything to say agin my character,' says Bob, 'I wish as they'd say it to my face. I'm a pore, hard-working man, and my character's all I've got.'
"'You're poorer than you thought you was then,' says Mr. Bunnett. 'I wish you good arternoon.'
"'Good arternoon, sir,' ses Bob, very humble. 'I'm afraid some on 'em 'ave been telling lies about me, and I didn't think I'd got a enemy in the world. Come on, Joseph. Come on, old pal. We ain't wanted here.'
"He shook 'is 'ead with sorrow, and made a little sucking noise between 'is teeth, and afore you could wink, his dog 'ad laid hold of the old gen'leman's leg and kep' quiet waiting orders.
"'Help!' screams Mr. Bunnett. 'Call, 'im off! Call 'im off!'
"Bob said arterwards that 'e was foolish enough to lose 'is presence o' mind for a moment, and instead o' doing anything he stood there gaping with 'is mouth open.
"'Call 'im off!' screams Mr. Bunnett, trying to push the dog away. 'Why don't you call him off?'
"'Don't move,' ses Bob Pretty in a frightened voice. 'Don't move, wotever you do.'
"'Call him off! Take 'im away!' ses Mr. Bunnett.
"'Why, Joseph! Joseph! Wotever are you a-thinking of?' ses Bob, shaking 'is 'ead at the dog. 'I'm surprised at you! Don't you know Mr. Bunnett wot is so fond of animals?'
"'If you don't call 'im off, ses Mr. Bunnett, trembling all over, 'I'll have you locked up.'
"'I am a-calling 'im off,' ses Bob, looking very puzzled. 'Didn't you 'ear me? It's you making that noise that excites 'im, I think. P'r'aps if you keep quiet he'll leave go. Come off, Joseph, old boy, there's a good doggie. That ain't a bone.'
"'It's no good talking to 'im like that,' ses Mr. Bunnett, keeping quiet but trembling worse than ever. 'Make him let go.'
"'I don't want to 'urt his feelings,' ses Bob; 'they've got their feelings the same as wot we 'ave. Besides, p'r'aps it ain't 'is fault— p'r'aps he's gone mad.'
"'HELP!' ses the old gen'leman, in a voice that might ha' been heard a mile away. 'HELP!'
"'Why don't you keep quiet?' ses Bob. 'You're on'y frightening the pore animal and making things worse. Joseph, leave go and I'll see whether there's a biskit in my pocket. Why don't you leave go?'
"'Pull him off. Hit 'im,' ses Mr. Bunnett, shouting.
"'Wot?' ses Bob Pretty, with a start. 'Hit a poor, dumb animal wot don't know no better! Why, you'd never forgive me, sir, and I should lose the gold watch besides.'
"'No, you won't,' ses Mr. Bunnett, speaking very fast. 'You'll 'ave as much chance of it as ever you had. Hit 'im! Quick!'
"'It 'ud break my 'art,' ses Bob. 'He'd never forgive me; but if you'll take the responserbility, and then go straight 'ome and give me the gold watch now for kindness to animals, I will.'
"He shook his 'ead with sorrow and made that sucking noise agin.'
"'All right, you shall 'ave it,' ses Mr. Bunnett, shouting. 'You shall 'ave it.'
"'For kindness to animals?' ses Bob. 'Honour bright?'
"'Yes,' ses Mr. Bunnett.
"Bob Pretty lifted 'is foot and caught Joseph one behind that surprised 'im. Then he 'elped Mr. Bunnett look at 'is leg, and arter pointing out that the skin wasn't hardly broken, and saying that Joseph 'ad got the best mouth of any dog in Claybury, 'e walked 'ome with the old gen'leman and got the watch. He said Mr. Bunnett made a little speech when 'e gave it to 'im wot he couldn't remember, and wot he wouldn't repeat if 'e could.
"He came up to this 'ere Cauliflower public-'ouse the same night for the money 'e had won, and Bill Chambers made another speech, but, as Smith the landlord put' in outside for it, it didn't do Bob Pretty the good it ought to ha' done."
R. Robert Clarkson sat by his fire, smoking thoughtfully. His lifelong neighbour and successful rival in love had passed away a few days before, and Mr. Clarkson, fresh from the obsequies, sat musing on the fragility of man and the inconvenience that sometimes attended his departure.
His meditations were disturbed by a low knocking on the front door, which opened on to the street. In response to his invitation it opened slowly, and a small middle-aged man of doleful aspect entered softly and closed it behind him.
"Evening, Bob," he said, in stricken accents. "I thought I'd just step round to see how you was bearing up. Fancy pore old Phipps! Why, I'd a'most as soon it had been me. A'most."
Mr. Clarkson nodded.
"Here to-day and gone to-morrow," continued Mr. Smithson, taking a seat. "Well, well! So you'll have her at last-pore thing."
"That was his wish," said Mr. Clarkson, in a dull voice.
"And very generous of him too," said Mr. Smithson. "Everybody is saying so. Certainly he couldn't take her away with him. How long is it since you was both of you courting her?"
"Thirty years come June," replied the other.
"Shows what waiting does, and patience," commented Mr. Smithson. "If you'd been like some chaps and gone abroad, where would you have been now? Where would have been the reward of your faithful heart?"
Mr. Clarkson, whose pipe had gone out, took a coal from the fire and lit it again.
"I can't understand him dying at his age," he said, darkly. "He ought to have lived to ninety if he'd been taken care of."
"Well, he's gone, pore chap," said his friend. "What a blessing it must ha' been to him in his last moments to think that he had made provision for his wife."
"Provision!" exclaimed Mr. Clarkson. "Why he's left her nothing but the furniture and fifty pounds insurance money—nothing in the world."
Mr. Smithson fidgeted. "I mean you," he said, staring.
"Oh!" said the other. "Oh, yes—yes, of course."
"And he doesn't want you to eat your heart out in waiting," said Mr. Smithson. "'Never mind about me,' he said to her; 'you go and make Bob happy.' Wonderful pretty girl she used to be, didn't she?" Mr. Clarkson assented.
"And I've no doubt she looks the same to you as ever she did," pursued the sentimental Mr. Smithson. "That's the extraordinary part of it."
Mr. Clarkson turned and eyed him; removed the pipe from his mouth, and, after hesitating a moment, replaced it with a jerk.
"She says she'd rather be faithful to his memory," continued the persevering Mr. Smithson, "but his wishes are her law. She said so to my missis only yesterday."
"Still, she ought to be considered," said Mr. Clarkson, shaking his head. "I think that somebody ought to put it to her. She has got her feelings, poor thing, and, if she would rather not marry again, she oughtn't to be compelled to."
"Just what my missis did say to her," said the other; "but she didn't pay much attention. She said it was Henry's wish and she didn't care what happened to her now he's gone. Besides, if you come to think of it, what else is she to do? Don't you worry, Bob; you won't lose her again."
Mr. Clarkson, staring at the fire, mused darkly. For thirty years he had played the congenial part of the disappointed admirer but faithful friend. He had intended to play it for at least fifty or sixty. He wished that he had had the strength of mind to refuse the bequest when the late Mr. Phipps first mentioned it, or taken a firmer line over the congratulations of his friends. As it was, Little Molton quite understood that after thirty years' waiting the faithful heart was to be rewarded at last. Public opinion seemed to be that the late Mr. Phipps had behaved with extraordinary generosity.
"It's rather late in life for me to begin," said Mr. Clarkson at last.
"Better late than never," said the cheerful Mr. Smithson.
"And something seems to tell me that I ain't long for this world," continued Mr. Clarkson, eyeing him with some disfavour.
"Stuff and nonsense," said Mr. Smithson. "You'll lose all them ideas as soon as you're married. You'll have somebody to look after you and help you spend your money."
Mr. Clarkson emitted a dismal groan, and clapping his hand over his mouth strove to make it pass muster as a yawn. It was evident that the malicious Mr. Smithson was deriving considerable pleasure from his discomfiture—the pleasure natural to the father of seven over the troubles of a comfortable bachelor. Mr. Clarkson, anxious to share his troubles with somebody, came to a sudden and malicious determination to share them with Mr. Smithson.
"I don't want anybody to help me spend my money," he said, slowly. "First and last I've saved a tidy bit. I've got this house, those three cottages in Turner's Lane, and pretty near six hundred pounds in the bank."
Mr. Smithson's eyes glistened.
"I had thought—it had occurred to me," said Mr. Clarkson, trying to keep as near the truth as possible, "to leave my property to a friend o' mine —a hard-working man with a large family. However, it's no use talking about that now. It's too late."
"Who—who was it?" inquired his friend, trying to keep his voice steady.
Mr. Clarkson shook his head. "It's no good talking about that now, George," he said, eyeing him with sly enjoyment. "I shall have to leave everything to my wife now. After all, perhaps it does more harm than good to leave money to people."
"Rubbish!" said Mr. Smithson, sharply. "Who was it?"
"You, George," said Mr. Clarkson, softly.
"Me?" said the other, with a gasp. "Me?" He jumped up from his chair, and, seizing the other's hand, shook it fervently.
"I oughtn't to have told you, George," said Mr. Clarkson, with great satisfaction. "It'll only make you miserable. It's just one o' the might ha' beens."
Mr. Smithson, with his back to the fire and his hands twisted behind him, stood with his eyes fixed in thought.
"It's rather cool of Phipps," he said, after a long silence; "rather cool, I think, to go out of the world and just leave his wife to you to look after. Some men wouldn't stand it. You're too easy-going, Bob, that's what's the matter with you."
Mr. Clarkson sighed.
"And get took advantage of," added his friend.
"It's all very well to talk," said Mr. Clarkson, "but what can I do? I ought to have spoke up at the time. It's too late now."
"If I was you," said his friend very earnestly, "and didn't want to marry her, I should tell her so. Say what you like it ain't fair to her you know. It ain't fair to the pore woman. She'd never forgive you if she found it out."
"Everybody's taking it for granted," said the other.
"Let everybody look after their own business," said Mr. Smithson, tartly. "Now, look here, Bob; suppose I get you out of this business, how am I to be sure you'll leave your property to me?—not that I want it. Suppose you altered your will?"
"If you get me out of it, every penny I leave will go to you," said Mr. Clarkson, fervently. "I haven't got any relations, and it don't matter in the slightest to me who has it after I'm gone."
"As true as you stand there?" demanded the other, eyeing him fixedly.
"As true as I stand here," said Mr. Clarkson, smiting his chest, and shook hands again.
Long after his visitor had gone he sat gazing in a brooding fashion at the fire. As a single man his wants were few, and he could live on his savings; as the husband of Mrs. Phipps he would be compelled to resume the work he thought he had dropped for good three years before. Moreover, Mrs. Phipps possessed a strength of character that had many times caused him to congratulate himself upon her choice of a husband.
Slowly but surely his fetters were made secure. Two days later the widow departed to spend six weeks with a sister; but any joy that he might have felt over the circumstance was marred by the fact that he had to carry her bags down to the railway station and see her off. The key of her house was left with him, with strict injunctions to go in and water her geraniums every day, while two canaries and a bullfinch had to be removed to his own house in order that they might have constant attention and company.
"She's doing it on purpose," said Mr. Smithson, fiercely; "she's binding you hand and foot."
Mr. Clarkson assented gloomily. "I'm trusting to you, George," he remarked.
"How'd it be to forget to water the geraniums and let the birds die because they missed her so much?" suggested Mr. Smithson, after prolonged thought.
Mr. Clarkson shivered.
"It would be a hint," said his friend.
Mr. Clarkson took some letters from the mantelpiece and held them up. "She writes about them every day," he said, briefly, "and I have to answer them."
"She—she don't refer to your getting married, I suppose?" said his friend, anxiously.
Mr. Clarkson said "No. But her sister does," he added. "I've had two letters from her."
Mr. Smithson got up and paced restlessly up and down the room. "That's women all over," he said, bitterly. "They never ask for things straight out; but they always get 'em in roundabout ways. She can't do it herself, so she gets her sister to do it."
Mr. Clarkson groaned. "And her sister is hinting that she can't leave the house where she spent so many happy years," he said, "and says what a pleasant surprise it would be for Mrs. Phipps if she was to come home and find it done up."
"That means you've got to live there when you're married," said his friend, solemnly.
Mr. Clarkson glanced round his comfortable room and groaned again. "She asked me to get an estimate from Digson," he said, dully. "She knows as well as I do her sister hasn't got any money. I wrote to say that it had better be left till she comes home, as I might not know what was wanted."
Mr. Smithson nodded approval.
"And Mrs. Phipps wrote herself and thanked me for being so considerate," continued his friend, grimly, "and says that when she comes back we must go over the house together and see what wants doing."
Mr. Smithson got up and walked round the room again.
"You never promised to marry her?" he said, stopping suddenly.
"No," said the other. "It's all been arranged for me. I never said a word. I couldn't tell Phipps I wouldn't have her with them all standing round, and him thinking he was doing me the greatest favour in the world."
"Well, she can't name the day unless you ask her," said the other. "All you've got to do is to keep quiet and not commit yourself. Be as cool as you can, and, just before she comes home, you go off to London on business and stay there as long as possible."
Mr. Clarkson carried out his instructions to the letter, and Mrs. Phipps, returning home at the end of her visit, learned that he had left for London three days before, leaving the geraniums and birds to the care of Mr. Smithson. From the hands of that unjust steward she received two empty bird-cages, together with a detailed account of the manner in which the occupants had effected their escape, and a bullfinch that seemed to be suffering from torpid liver. The condition of the geraniums was ascribed to worms in the pots, frost, and premature decay.
"They go like it sometimes," said Mr. Smithson, "and when they do nothing will save 'em."
Mrs. Phipps thanked him. "It's very kind of you to take so much trouble," she said, quietly; "some people would have lost the cages too while they were about it."
"I did my best," said Mr. Smithson, in a surly voice.
"I know you did," said Mrs. Phipps, thoughtfully, "and I am sure I am much obliged to you. If there is anything of yours I can look after at any time I shall be only too pleased. When did you say Mr. Clarkson was coming back?"
"He don't know," said Mr. Smithson, promptly. "He might be away a month; and then, again, he might be away six. It all depends. You know what business is."
"It's very thoughtful of him," said Mrs. Phipps. "Very."
"Thoughtful!" repeated Mr. Smithson.
"He has gone away for a time out of consideration for me," said the widow. "As things are, it is a little bit awkward for us to meet much at present."
"I don't think he's gone away for that at all," said the other, bluntly.
Mrs. Phipps shook her head. "Ah, you don't know him as well as I do," she said, fondly. "He has gone away on my account, I feel sure."
Mr. Smithson screwed his lips together and remained silent.
"When he feels that it is right and proper for him to come back," pursued Mrs. Phipps, turning her eyes upwards, "he will come. He has left his comfortable home just for my sake, and I shall not forget it."
Mr. Smithson coughed-a short, dry cough, meant to convey incredulity.
"I shall not do anything to this house till he comes back," said Mrs. Phipps. "I expect he would like to have a voice in it. He always used to admire it and say how comfortable it was. Well, well, we never know what is before us."
Mr. Smithson repeated the substance of the interview to Mr. Clarkson by letter, and in the lengthy correspondence that followed kept him posted as to the movements of Mrs. Phipps. By dint of warnings and entreaties he kept the bridegroom-elect in London for three months. By that time Little Molton was beginning to talk.
"They're beginning to see how the land lays," said Mr. Smithson, on the evening of his friend's return, "and if you keep quiet and do as I tell you she'll begin to see it too. As I said before, she can't name the day till you ask her."
Mr. Clarkson agreed, and the following morning, when he called upon Mrs. Phipps at her request, his manner was so distant that she attributed it to ill-health following business worries and the atmosphere of London. In the front parlour Mr. Digson, a small builder and contractor, was busy whitewashing.
"I thought we might as well get on with that," said Mrs. Phipps; "there is only one way of doing whitewashing, and the room has got to be done. To-morrow Mr. Digson will bring up some papers, and, if you'll come round, you can help me choose."
Mr. Clarkson hesitated. "Why not choose 'em yourself?" he said at last.
"Just what I told her," said Mr. Digson, stroking his black beard. "What'll please you will be sure to please him, I says; and if it don't it ought to."
Mr. Clarkson started. "Perhaps you could help her choose," he said, sharply.
Mr. Digson came down from his perch. "Just what I said," he replied. "If Mrs. Phipps will let me advise her, I'll make this house so she won't know it before I've done with it."
"Mr. Digson has been very kind," said Mrs. Phipps, reproachfully.
"Not at all, ma'am," said the builder, softly. "Anything I can do to make you happy or comfortable will be a pleasure to me."
Mr. Clarkson started again, and an odd idea sent his blood dancing. Digson was a widower; Mrs. Phipps was a widow. Could anything be more suitable or desirable?
"Better let him choose," he said. "After all, he ought to be a good judge."
Mrs. Phipps, after a faint protest, gave way, and Mr. Digson, smiling broadly, mounted his perch again.
Mr. Clarkson's first idea was to consult Mr. Smithson; then he resolved to wait upon events. The idea was fantastic to begin with, but, if things did take such a satisfactory turn, he could not help reflecting that it would not be due to any efforts on the part of Mr. Smithson, and he would no longer be under any testamentary obligations to that enterprising gentleman.
By the end of a week he was jubilant. A child could have told Mr. Digson's intentions—and Mrs. Phipps was anything but a child. Mr. Clarkson admitted cheerfully that Mr. Digson was a younger and better-looking man than himself—a more suitable match in every way. And, so far as he could judge, Mrs. Phipps seemed to think so. At any rate, she had ceased to make the faintest allusion to any tie between them. He left her one day painting a door, while the attentive Digson guided the brush, and walked homewards smiling.
"Morning!" said a voice behind him.
"Morning, Bignell," said Mr. Clarkson.
"When—when is it to be?" inquired his friend, walking beside him.
Mr. Clarkson frowned. "When is what to be?" he demanded, disagreeably.
Mr. Bignell lowered his voice. "You'll lose her if you ain't careful," he said. "Mark my words. Can't you see Digson's little game?"
Mr. Clarkson shrugged his shoulders.
"He's after her money," said the other, with a cautious glance around.
"Money?" said the other, with an astonished laugh. "Why, she hasn't got any."
"Oh, all right," said Mr. Bignell. "You know best of course. I was just giving you the tip, but if you know better—why, there's nothing more to be said. She'll be riding in her carriage and pair in six months, anyhow; the richest woman in Little Molton."
Mr. Clarkson stopped short and eyed him in perplexity.
"Digson got a bit sprung one night and told me," said Mr. Bignell. "She don't know it herself yet—uncle on her mother's side in America. She might know at any moment."
"But—but how did Digson know?" inquired the astonished Mr. Clarkson.
"He wouldn't tell me," was the reply. "But it's good enough for him. What do you think he's after? Her? And mind, don't let on to a soul that I told you."
He walked on, leaving Mr. Clarkson standing in a dazed condition in the centre of the foot-path. Recovering himself by an effort, he walked slowly away, and, after prowling about for some time in an aimless fashion, made his way back to Mrs. Phipps's house.
He emerged an hour later an engaged man, with the date of the wedding fixed. With jaunty steps he walked round and put up the banns, and then, with the air of a man who has completed a successful stroke of business, walked homewards.
Little Molton is a small town and news travels fast, but it did not travel faster than Mr. Smithson as soon as he had heard it. He burst into Mr. Clarkson's room like the proverbial hurricane, and, gasping for breath, leaned against the table and pointed at him an incriminating finger.
"You you've been running," said Mr. Clarkson, uneasily.
"What—what—what do you—mean by it?" gasped Mr. Smithson. "After all my trouble. After our—bargain."
"I altered my mind," said Mr. Clarkson, with dignity.
"Pah!" said the other.
"Just in time," said Mr. Clarkson, speaking rapidly. "Another day and I believe I should ha' been too late. It took me pretty near an hour to talk her over. Said I'd been neglecting her, and all that sort of thing; said that she was beginning to think I didn't want her. As hard a job as ever I had in my life."
"But you didn't want her," said the amazed Mr. Smithson. "You told me so."
"You misunderstood me," said Mr. Clarkson, coughing. "You jump at conclusions."
Mr. Smithson sat staring at him. "I heard," he said at last, with an effort... "I heard that Digson was paying her attentions."
Mr. Clarkson spoke without thought. "Ha, he was only after her money," he said, severely. "Good heavens! What's the matter?"
Mr. Smithson, who had sprung to his feet, made no reply, but stood for some time incapable of speech.
"What—is—the—matter?" repeated Mr. Clarkson. "Ain't you well?"
Mr. Smithson swayed a little, and sank slowly back into his chair again.
"Room's too hot," said his astonished host.
Mr. Smithson, staring straight before him, nodded.
"As I was saying," resumed Mr. Clarkson, in the low tones of confidence, "Digson was after her money. Of course her money don't make any difference to me, although, perhaps, I may be able to do something for friends like you. It's from an uncle in America on her mother's—"
Mr. Smithson made a strange moaning noise, and, snatching his hat from the table, clapped it on his head and made for the door. Mr. Clarkson flung his arms around him and dragged him back by main force.
"What are you carrying on like that for?" he demanded. "What do you mean by it?"
"Fancy!" returned Mr. Smithson, with intense bitterness. "I thought Digson was the biggest fool in the place, and I find I've made a mistake. So have you. Good-night."
He opened the door and dashed out. Mr. Clarkson, with a strange sinking at his heart, watched him up the road.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL
The night-watchman shook his head. "I never met any of these phil— philantherpists, as you call 'em," he said, decidedly. "If I 'ad they wouldn't 'ave got away from me in a hurry, I can tell you. I don't say I don't believe in 'em; I only say I never met any of 'em. If people do you a kindness it's generally because they want to get something out of you; same as a man once—a perfick stranger—wot stood me eight 'arf-pints becos I reminded 'im of his dead brother, and then borrered five bob off of me.
"O' course, there must be some kind-'arted people in the world—all men who get married must 'ave a soft spot somewhere, if it's only in the 'ead—but they don't often give things away. Kind-'artedness is often only another name for artfulness, same as Sam Small's kindness to Ginger Dick and Peter Russet.
"It started with a row. They was just back from a v'y'ge and 'ad taken a nice room together in Wapping, and for the fust day or two, wot with 'aving plenty o' money to spend and nothing to do, they was like three brothers. Then, in a little, old-fashioned public-'ouse down Poplar way, one night they fell out over a little joke Ginger played on Sam.
"It was the fust drink that evening, and Sam 'ad just ordered a pot o' beer and three glasses, when Ginger winked at the landlord and offered to bet Sam a level 'arf-dollar that 'e wouldn't drink off that pot o' beer without taking breath. The landlord held the money, and old Sam, with a 'appy smile on 'is face, 'ad just taken up the mug, when he noticed the odd way in which they was all watching him. Twice he took the mug up and put it down agin without starting and asked 'em wot the little game was, but they on'y laughed. He took it up the third time and started, and he 'ad just got about 'arf-way through when Ginger turns to the landlord and ses—
"'Did you catch it in the mouse-trap,' he ses, 'or did it die of poison?'
"Pore Sam started as though he 'ad been shot, and, arter getting rid of the beer in 'is mouth, stood there 'olding the mug away from 'im and making such 'orrible faces that they was a'most frightened.
"'Wot's the matter with him? I've never seen 'im carry on like that over a drop of beer before,' ses Ginger, staring.
"'He usually likes it,' ses Peter Russet.
"'Not with a dead mouse in it,' ses Sam, trembling with passion.
"'Mouse?' ses Ginger, innercent-like. 'Mouse? Why, I didn't say it was in your beer, Sam. Wotever put that into your 'ead?'
"'And made you lose your bet,' ses Peter.
"Then old Sam see 'ow he'd been done, and the way he carried on when the landlord gave Ginger the 'arf-dollar, and said it was won fair and honest, was a disgrace. He 'opped about that bar 'arf crazy, until at last the landlord and 'is brother, and a couple o' soldiers, and a helpless cripple wot wos selling matches, put 'im outside and told 'im to stop there.
"He stopped there till Ginger and Peter came out, and then, drawing 'imself up in a proud way, he told 'em their characters and wot he thought about 'em. And he said 'e never wanted to see wot they called their faces agin as long as he lived.
"'I've done with you,' he ses, 'both of you, for ever.'
"'All right,' ses Ginger moving off. 'Ta-ta for the present. Let's 'ope he'll come 'ome in a better temper, Peter.'
"'Ome?' ses Sam, with a nasty laugh, "'ome? D'ye think I'm coming back to breathe the same air as you, Ginger? D'ye think I want to be suffocated?'
"He held his 'ead up very 'igh, and, arter looking at them as if they was dirt, he turned round and walked off with his nose in the air to spend the evening by 'imself.
"His temper kept him up for a time, but arter a while he 'ad to own up to 'imself that it was very dull, and the later it got the more he thought of 'is nice warm bed. The more 'e thought of it the nicer and warmer it seemed, and, arter a struggle between his pride and a few 'arf-pints, he got 'is good temper back agin and went off 'ome smiling.
"The room was dark when 'e got there, and, arter standing listening a moment to Ginger and Peter snoring, he took off 'is coat and sat down on 'is bed to take 'is boots off. He only sat down for a flash, and then he bent down and hit his 'ead an awful smack against another 'ead wot 'ad just started up to see wot it was sitting on its legs.
"He thought it was Peter or Ginger in the wrong bed at fust, but afore he could make it out Ginger 'ad got out of 'is own bed and lit the candle. Then 'e saw it was a stranger in 'is bed, and without saying a word he laid 'old of him by the 'air and began dragging him out.
"'Here, stop that!' ses Ginger catching hold of 'im. 'Lend a hand 'ere, Peter.'
"Peter lent a hand and screwed it into the back o' Sam's neck till he made 'im leave go, and then the stranger, a nasty-looking little chap with a yellow face and a little dark moustache, told Sam wot he'd like to do to him.
"'Who are you?' ses Sam, 'and wot are you a-doing of in my bed?'
"'It's our lodger,' ses Ginger.
"'Your wot?' ses Sam, 'ardly able to believe his ears.
"'Our lodger,' ses Peter Russet. 'We've let 'im the bed you said you didn't want for sixpence a night. Now you take yourself off.'
"Old Sam couldn't speak for a minute; there was no words that he knew bad enough, but at last he licks 'is lips and he ses, 'I've paid for that bed up to Saturday, and I'm going to have it.'
"He rushed at the lodger, but Peter and Ginger got hold of 'im agin and put 'im down on the floor and sat on 'im till he promised to be'ave himself. They let 'im get up at last, and then, arter calling themselves names for their kind-'artedness, they said if he was very good he might sleep on the floor.
"Sam looked at 'em for a moment, and then, without a word, he took off 'is boots and put on 'is coat and went up in a corner to be out of the draught, but, wot with the cold and 'is temper, and the hardness of the floor, it was a long time afore 'e could get to sleep. He dropped off at last, and it seemed to 'im that he 'ad only just closed 'is eyes when it was daylight. He opened one eye and was just going to open the other when he saw something as made 'im screw 'em both up sharp and peep through 'is eyelashes. The lodger was standing at the foot o' Ginger's bed, going through 'is pockets, and then, arter waiting a moment and 'aving a look round, he went through Peter Russet's. Sam lay still mouse while the lodger tip-toed out o' the room with 'is boots in his 'and, and then, springing up, follered him downstairs.
"He caught 'im up just as he 'ad undone the front door, and, catching hold of 'im by the back o' the neck, shook 'im till 'e was tired. Then he let go of 'im and, holding his fist under 'is nose, told 'im to hand over the money, and look sharp about it.
"'Ye—ye—yes, sir,' ses the lodger, who was 'arf choked.
"Sam held out his 'and, and the lodger, arter saying it was only a little bit o' fun on 'is part, and telling 'im wot a fancy he 'ad taken to 'im from the fust, put Ginger's watch and chain into his 'ands and eighteen pounds four shillings and sevenpence. Sam put it into his pocket, and, arter going through the lodger's pockets to make sure he 'adn't forgot anything, opened the door and flung 'im into the street. He stopped on the landing to put the money in a belt he was wearing under 'is clothes, and then 'e went back on tip-toe to 'is corner and went to sleep with one eye open and the 'appiest smile that had been on his face for years.
"He shut both eyes when he 'eard Ginger wake up, and he slept like a child through the 'orrible noise that Peter and Ginger see fit to make when they started to put their clothes on. He got tired of it afore they did, and, arter opening 'is eyes slowly and yawning, he asked Ginger wot he meant by it.
"'You'll wake your lodger up if you ain't careful, making that noise,' he ses. 'Wot's the matter?'
"'Sam,' ses Ginger, in a very different voice to wot he 'ad used the night before, 'Sam, old pal, he's taken all our money and bolted.'
"'Wot?' ses Sam, sitting up on the floor and blinking, 'Nonsense!'
"'Robbed me and Peter,' ses Ginger, in a trembling voice; 'taken every penny we've got, and my watch and chain.'
"'You're dreaming,' ses Sam.
"'I wish I was,' ses Ginger.
"'But surely, Ginger,' ses Sam, standing up, 'surely you didn't take a lodger without a character?'
"'He seemed such a nice chap,' ses Peter. 'We was only saying wot a much nicer chap he was than—than——'
"'Go on, Peter,' ses Sam, very perlite.
"'Than he might ha' been,' ses Ginger, very quick.
"'Well, I've 'ad a wonderful escape,' ses Sam. 'If it hadn't ha' been for sleeping in my clothes I suppose he'd ha' 'ad my money as well.'
"He felt in 'is pockets anxious-like, then he smiled, and stood there letting 'is money fall through 'is fingers into his pocket over and over agin.
"'Pore chap,' he ses; 'pore chap; p'r'aps he'd got a starving wife and family. Who knows? It ain't for us to judge 'im, Ginger.'
"He stood a little while longer chinking 'is money, and when he took off his coat to wash Ginger Dick poured the water out for im and Peter Russet picked up the soap, which 'ad fallen on the floor. Then they started pitying themselves, looking very 'ard at the back of old Sam while they did it.
"'I s'pose we've got to starve, Peter,' ses Ginger, in, a sad voice.
"'Looks like it,' ses Peter, dressing hisself very slowly.
"'There's nobody'll mourn for me, that's one comfort,' ses Ginger.
"'Or me,' ses Peter.
"'P'r'aps Sam'll miss us a bit,' ses Ginger, grinding 'is teeth as old Sam went on washing as if he was deaf. 'He'ss the only real pal we ever 'ad.'
"'Wot are you talking about?' ses Sam, turning round with the soap in his eyes, and feeling for the towel. 'Wot d'ye want to starve for? Why don't you get a ship?'
"'I thought we was all going to sign on in the Cheaspeake agin, Sam,' ses Ginger, very mild.
"'She won't be ready for sea for pretty near three weeks,' ses Sam. 'You know that.'
"'P'r'aps Sam would lend us a trifle to go on with, Ginger,' ses Peter Russet. 'Just enough to keep body and soul together, so as we can hold out and 'ave the pleasure of sailing with 'im agin.'
"'P'r'aps he wouldn't,' ses Sam, afore Ginger could open his mouth. 'I've just got about enough to last myself; I 'aven't got any to lend. Sailormen wot turns on their best friends and makes them sleep on the cold 'ard floor while their new pal is in his bed don't get money lent to 'em. My neck is so stiff it creaks every time I move it, and I've got the rheumatics in my legs something cruel.'
"He began to 'um a song, and putting on 'is cap went out to get some brekfuss. He went to a little eating-'ouse near by, where they was in the 'abit of going, and 'ad just started on a plate of eggs and bacon when Ginger Dick and Peter came into the place with a pocket-'ankercher of 'is wot they 'ad found in the fender.
"'We thought you might want it, Sam,' ses Peter.
"'So we brought it along,' ses Ginger. 'I 'ope you're enjoying of your brekfuss, Sam.'
"Sam took the 'ankercher and thanked 'em very perlite, and arter standing there for a minute or two as if they wanted to say something they couldn't remember, they sheered off. When Sam left the place 'arf-an-hour afterwards they was still hanging about, and as Sam passed Ginger asked 'im if he was going for a walk.
"'Walk?' ses Sam. 'Cert'nly not. I'm going to bed; I didn't 'ave a good night's rest like you and your lodger.'
"He went back 'ome, and arter taking off 'is coat and boots got into bed and slept like a top till one o'clock, when he woke up to find Ginger shaking 'im by the shoulders.
"'Wot's the matter?' he ses. 'Wot are you up to?'
"'It's dinner-time,' ses Ginger. 'I thought p'r'aps you'd like to know, in case you missed it.'
"'You leave me alone,' ses Sam, cuddling into the clothes agin. 'I don't want no dinner. You go and look arter your own dinners.'
"He stayed in bed for another 'arf-hour, listening to Peter and Ginger telling each other in loud whispers 'ow hungry they was, and then he got up and put 'is things on and went to the door.
"'I'm going to get a bit o' dinner,' he ses. 'And mind, I've got my pocket 'ankercher.'
"He went out and 'ad a steak and onions and a pint o' beer, but, although he kept looking up sudden from 'is plate, he didn't see Peter or Ginger. It spoilt 'is dinner a bit, but arter he got outside 'e saw them standing at the corner, and, pretending not to see them, he went off for a walk down the Mile End Road.
"He walked as far as Bow with them follering'im, and then he jumped on a bus and rode back as far as Whitechapel. There was no sign of 'em when he got off, and, feeling a bit lonesome, he stood about looking in shop-windows until 'e see them coming along as hard as they could come.
"'Why, halloa!' he ses. 'Where did you spring from?'
"'We—we—we've been—for a bit of a walk,' ses Ginger Dick, puffing and blowing like a grampus.
"'To-keep down the 'unger,' ses Peter Russet.
"Old Sam looked at 'em very stern for a moment, then he beckoned 'em to foller 'im, and, stopping at a little public-'ouse, he went in and ordered a pint o' bitter.
"'And give them two pore fellers a crust o' bread and cheese and 'arf-a-pint of four ale each,' he ses to the barmaid.
"Ginger and Peter looked at each other, but they was so hungry they didn't say a word; they just stood waiting.
"'Put that inside you my pore fellers,' ses Sam, with a oily smile. 'I can't bear to see people suffering for want o' food,' he ses to the barmaid, as he chucked down a sovereign on the counter.
"The barmaid, a very nice gal with black 'air and her fingers covered all over with rings, said that it did 'im credit, and they stood there talking about tramps and beggars and such-like till Peter and Ginger nearly choked. He stood there watching 'em and smoking a threepenny cigar, and when they 'ad finished he told the barmaid to give 'em a sausage-roll each, and went off.
"Peter and Ginger snatched up their sausage-rolls and follered 'im, and at last Ginger swallowed his pride and walked up to 'im and asked 'im to lend them some money.
"'You'll get it back agin,' he ses. 'You know that well enough.'
"'Cert'nly not,' ses Sam; 'and I'm surprised at you asking. Why, a child could rob you. It's 'ard enough as it is for a pore man like me to 'ave to keep a couple o' hulking sailormen, but I'm not going to give you money to chuck away on lodgers. No more sleeping on the floor for me! Now I don't want none o' your langwidge, and I don't want you follering me like a couple o' cats arter a meat-barrer. I shall be 'aving a cup o' tea at Brown's coffee-shop by and by, and if you're there at five sharp I'll see wot I can do for you. Wot did you call me?'
"Ginger told 'im three times, and then Peter Russet dragged 'im away. They turned up outside Brown's at a quarter to five, and at ten past six Sam Small strolled up smoking a cigar, and, arter telling them that he 'ad forgot all about 'em, took 'em inside and paid for their teas. He told Mr. Brown 'e was paying for 'em, and 'e told the gal wot served 'em 'e was paying for 'em, and it was all pore Ginger could do to stop 'imself from throwing his plate in 'is face.
"Sam went off by 'imself, and arter walking about all the evening without a ha'penny in their pockets, Ginger Dick and Peter went off 'ome to bed and went to sleep till twelve o'clock, when Sam came in and woke 'em up to tell 'em about a music-'all he 'ad been to, and 'ow many pints he had 'ad. He sat up in bed till past one o'clock talking about 'imself, and twice Peter Russet woke Ginger up to listen and got punched for 'is trouble.
"They both said they'd get a ship next morning, and then old Sam turned round and wouldn't 'ear of it. The airs he gave 'imself was awful. He said he'd tell 'em when they was to get a ship, and if they went and did things without asking 'im he'd let 'em starve.
"He kept 'em with 'im all that day for fear of losing 'em and having to give 'em their money when 'e met 'em agin instead of spending it on 'em and getting praised for it. They 'ad their dinner with 'im at Brown's, and nothing they could do pleased him. He spoke to Peter Russet out loud about making a noise while he was eating, and directly arterwards he told Ginger to use his pocket 'ankercher. Pore Ginger sat there looking at 'im and swelling and swelling until he nearly bust, and Sam told 'im if he couldn't keep 'is temper when people was trying to do 'im a kindness he'd better go and get somebody else to keep him.
"He took 'em to a music-'all that night, but he spoilt it all for 'em by taking 'em into the little public-'ouse in Whitechapel Road fust and standing 'em a drink. He told the barmaid 'e was keeping 'em till they could find a job, and arter she 'ad told him he was too soft-'arted and would only be took advantage of, she brought another barmaid up to look at 'em and ask 'em wot they could do, and why they didn't do it.
"Sam served 'em like that for over a week, and he 'ad so much praise from Mr. Brown and other people that it nearly turned his 'ead. For once in his life he 'ad it pretty near all 'is own way. Twice Ginger Dick slipped off and tried to get a ship and came back sulky and hungry, and once Peter Russet sprained his thumb trying to get a job at the docks.
"They gave it up then and kept to Sam like a couple o' shadders, only giving 'im back-answers when they felt as if something 'ud give way inside if they didn't. For the fust time in their lives they began to count the days till their boat was ready for sea. Then something happened.
"They was all coming 'ome late one night along the Minories, when Ginger Dick gave a shout and, suddenly bolting up a little street arter a man that 'ad turned up there, fust of all sent 'im flying with a heavy punch of 'is fist, and then knelt on 'im.
"'Now then Ginger,' ses Sam bustling up with Peter Russet, 'wot's all this? Wot yer doing?'
"'It's the thief,' ses Ginger. 'It's our lodger. You keep still!' he ses shaking the man. 'D'ye hear?'
"Peter gave a shout of joy, and stood by to help.
"'Nonsense!' ses old Sam, turning pale. 'You've been drinking, Ginger. This comes of standing you 'arf-pints.'
"'It's him right enough,' ses Ginger. 'I'd know 'is ugly face anywhere.'
"'You come off 'ome at once,' ses Sam, very sharp, but his voice trembling. 'At once. D'ye hear me?'
"'Fetch a policeman, Peter,' ses Ginger.
"'Let the pore feller go, I tell you,' ses Sam, stamping his foot. ''Ow would you like to be locked up? 'Ow would you like to be torn away from your wife and little ones? 'Ow would you—'
"'Fetch a policeman, Peter,' ses Ginger agin. 'D'ye hear?'
"'Don't do that, guv'nor,' ses the lodger. 'You got your money back. Wot's the good o' putting me away?'
"'Got our wot back?' ses Ginger, shaking 'im agin. 'Don't you try and be funny with me, else I'll tear you into little pieces.'
"'But he took it back,' ses the man, trying to sit up and pointing at Sam. 'He follered me downstairs and took it all away from me. Your ticker as well.'
"'Wot?' ses Ginger and Peter both together.
"Strue as I'm 'ere,' ses the lodger. 'You turn 'is pockets out and see. Look out! He's going off!'
"Ginger turned his 'ead just in time to see old Sam nipping round the corner. He pulled the lodger up like a flash, and, telling Peter to take hold of the other side of him, they set off arter Sam.
"'Little-joke-o' mine-Ginger,' ses Sam, when they caught 'im. 'I was going to tell you about it to-night. It ain't often I get the chance of a joke agin you Ginger; you're too sharp for a old man like me.'
"Ginger Dick didn't say anything. He kept 'old o' Sam's arm with one hand and the lodger's neck with the other, and marched 'em off to his lodgings.
"He shut the door when 'e got in, and arter Peter 'ad lit the candle they took hold o' Sam and went through 'im, and arter trying to find pockets where he 'adn't got any, they took off 'is belt and found Ginger's watch, seventeen pounds five shillings, and a few coppers.
"'We 'ad over nine quid each, me and Peter,' ses Ginger. 'Where's the rest?'
"'It's all I've got left,' ses Sam; 'every ha'penny.'
"He 'ad to undress and even take 'is boots off afore they'd believe 'im, and then Ginger took 'is watch and he ses to Peter, 'Lemme see; 'arf of seventeen pounds is eight pounds ten; 'arf of five shillings is 'arf-a-crown; and 'arf of fourpence is twopence.'
"'What about me Ginger old pal?' ses Sam, in a kind voice. 'We must divide it into threes.'
"'Threes?' ses Ginger, staring at'im. 'Whaffor?'
"''Cos part of it's mine,' ses Sam, struggling 'ard to be perlite. 'I've paid for everything for the last ten days, ain't I?'
"'Yes,' ses Ginger. 'You 'ave, and I thank you for it.'
"'So do I,' ses Peter Russet. 'Hearty I do.'
"'It was your kind-'artedness,' ses Ginger, grinning like mad. 'You gave it to us, and we wouldn't dream of giving it to you back.'
"'Nothin' o' the kind,' ses Sam, choking.
"'Oh, yes you did,' ses Ginger, 'and you didn't forget to tell people neither. You told everybody. Now it's our turn.'
"He opened the door and kicked the lodger out. Leastways, he would 'ave kicked 'im, but the chap was too quick for 'im. And then 'e came back, and, putting his arm round Peter's waist, danced a waltz round the room with 'im, while pore old Sam got on to his bed to be out of the way. They danced for nearly 'arf-an-hour, and then they undressed and sat on Peter's bed and talked. They talked in whispers at fust, but at last Sam 'eard Peter say:—
"'Threepence for 'is brekfuss; sevenpence for 'is dinner; threepence for 'is tea; penny for beer and a penny for bacca. 'Ow much is that, Ginger?'
"'One bob,' ses Ginger.
"Peter counted up to 'imself. 'I make it more than that, old pal,' he ses, when he 'ad finished.
"'Do you?' ses Ginger, getting up. 'Well, he won't; not if he counts it twenty times over he won't. Good-night, Peter. 'Appy dreams.'"
"Never say 'die,' Bert," said Mr. Culpepper, kindly; "I like you, and so do most other people who know what's good for 'em; and if Florrie don't like you she can keep single till she does."
Mr. Albert Sharp thanked him.
"Come in more oftener," said Mr. Culpepper. "If she don't know a steady young man when she sees him, it's her mistake."
"Nobody could be steadier than what I am," sighed Mr. Sharp.
Mr. Culpepper nodded. "The worst of it is, girls don't like steady young men," he said, rumpling his thin grey hair; "that's the silly part of it."
"But you was always steady, and Mrs. Culpepper married you," said the young man.
Mr. Culpepper nodded again. "She thought I was, and that came to the same thing," he said, composedly. "And it ain't for me to say, but she had an idea that I was very good-looking in them days. I had chestnutty hair. She burnt a piece of it only the other day she'd kept for thirty years."
"Burnt it? What for?" inquired Mr. Sharp.
"Words," said the other, lowering his voice. "When I want one thing nowadays she generally wants another; and the things she wants ain't the things I want."
Mr. Sharp shook his head and sighed again.
"You ain't talkative enough for Florrie, you know," said Mr. Culpepper, regarding him.
"I can talk all right as a rule," retorted Mr. Sharp. "You ought to hear me at the debating society; but you can't talk to a girl who doesn't talk back."
"You're far too humble," continued the other. "You should cheek her a bit now and then. Let 'er see you've got some spirit. Chaff 'er."
"That's no good," said the young man, restlessly. "I've tried it. Only the other day I called her 'a saucy little kipper,' and the way she went on, anybody would have thought I'd insulted her. Can't see a joke, I s'pose. Where is she now?"
"Upstairs," was the reply.
"That's because I'm here," said Mr. Sharp. "If it had been Jack Butler she'd have been down fast enough."
"It couldn't be him," said Mr. Culpepper, "because I won't have 'im in the house. I've told him so; I've told her so, and I've told 'er aunt so. And if she marries without my leave afore she's thirty she loses the seven hundred pounds 'er father left her. You've got plenty of time—ten years."
Mr. Sharp, sitting with his hands between his knees, gazed despondently at the floor. "There's a lot o' girls would jump at me," he remarked. "I've only got to hold up my little finger and they'd jump."
"That's because they've got sense," said Mr. Culpepper. "They've got the sense to prefer steadiness and humdrumness to good looks and dash. A young fellow like you earning thirty-two-and-six a week can do without good looks, and if I've told Florrie so once I have told her fifty times."
"Looks are a matter of taste," said Mr. Sharp, morosely. "Some of them girls I was speaking about just now—"
"Yes, yes," said Mr. Culpepper, hastily. "Now, look here; you go on a different tack. Take a glass of ale like a man or a couple o' glasses; smoke a cigarette or a pipe. Be like other young men. Cut a dash, and don't be a namby-pamby. After you're married you can be as miserable as you like."
Mr. Sharp, after a somewhat lengthy interval, thanked him.
"It's my birthday next Wednesday," continued Mr. Culpepper, regarding him benevolently; "come round about seven, and I'll ask you to stay to supper. That'll give you a chance. Anybody's allowed to step a bit over the mark on birthdays, and you might take a glass or two and make a speech, and be so happy and bright that they'd 'ardly know you. If you want an excuse for calling, you could bring me a box of cigars for my birthday."
"Or come in to wish you 'Many Happy Returns of the Day,'" said the thrifty Mr. Sharp.
"And don't forget to get above yourself," said Mr. Culpepper, regarding him sternly; "in a gentlemanly way, of course. Have as many glasses as you like—there's no stint about me."
"If it ever comes off," said Mr. Sharp, rising—"if I get her through you, you shan't have reason to repent it. I'll look after that."
Mr. Culpepper, whose feelings were a trifle ruffled, said that he would "look after it too." He had a faint idea that, even from his own point of view, he might have made a better selection for his niece's hand.
Mr. Sharp smoked his first cigarette the following morning, and, encouraged by the entire absence of any after-effects, purchased a pipe, which was taken up by a policeman the same evening for obstructing the public footpath in company with a metal tobacco-box three parts full.
In the matter of ale he found less difficulty. Certainly the taste was unpleasant, but, treated as medicine and gulped down quickly, it was endurable. After a day or two he even began to be critical, and on Monday evening went so far as to complain of its flatness to the wide-eyed landlord of the "Royal George."
"Too much cellar-work," he said, as he finished his glass and made for the door.
"Too much! 'Ere, come 'ere," said the landlord, thickly. "I want to speak to you."
The expert shook his head, and, passing out into, the street, changed colour as he saw Miss Garland approaching. In a blundering fashion he clutched at his hat and stammered out a "Good evening."
Miss Garland returned the greeting and, instead of passing on, stopped and, with a friendly smile, held out her hand. Mr. Sharp shook it convulsively.
"You are just the man I want to see," she exclaimed. "Aunt and I have been talking about you all the afternoon."
Mr. Sharp said "Really!"
"But I don't want uncle to see us," pursued Miss Garland, in the low tones of confidence. "Which way shall we go?"
Mr. Sharp's brain reeled. All ways were alike to him in such company. He walked beside her like a man in a dream.
"We want to give him a lesson," said the girl, presently. "A lesson that he will remember."
"Him?" said the young man.
"Uncle," explained the girl. "It's a shocking thing, a wicked thing, to try and upset a steady young man like you. Aunt is quite put out about it, and I feel the same as she does."
"But," gasped the astonished Mr. Sharp, "how did you?"
"Aunt heard him," said Miss Garland. "She was just going into the room when she caught a word or two, and she stayed outside and listened. You don't know what a lot she thinks of you."
Mr. Sharp's eyes opened wider than ever. "I thought she didn't like me," he said, slowly.
"Good gracious!" said Miss Garland. "Whatever could have put such an idea as that into your head? Of course, aunt isn't always going to let uncle see that she agrees with him. Still, as if anybody could help—" she murmured to herself.
"Eh?" said the young man, in a trembling voice.
Miss Garland walked along with averted face; Mr. Sharp, his pulses bounding, trod on air beside her.
"I thought," he said, at last "I thought that Jack Butler was a favourite of hers?"
"Jack Butler!" said the girl, in tones of scornful surprise. "The idea! How blind men are; you're all alike, I think. You can't see two inches in front of you. She's as pleased as possible that you are coming on Wednesday; and so am—"
Mr. Sharp caught his breath. "Yes?" he murmured.
"Let's go down here," said Miss Garland quickly; "down by the river. And I'll tell you what we want you to do."
She placed her hand lightly on his arm, and Mr. Sharp, with a tremulous smile, obeyed. The smile faded gradually as he listened, and an expression of anxious astonishment took its place. He shook his head as she proceeded, and twice ventured a faint suggestion that she was only speaking in jest. Convinced at last, against his will, he walked on in silent consternation.
"But," he said at last, as Miss Garland paused for breath, "your uncle would never forgive me. He'd never let me come near the house again."
"Aunt will see to that," said the girl, confidently. "But, of course, if you don't wish to please me—"
She turned away, and Mr. Sharp, plucking up spirit, ventured to take her hand and squeeze it. A faint, a very faint, squeeze in return decided him.
"It will come all right afterwards," said Miss Garland, "especially with the hold it will give aunt over him."
"I hope so," said the young man. "If not, I shall be far—farther off than ever."
Miss Garland blushed and, turning her head, gazed steadily at the river.
"Trust me," she said at last. "Me and auntie."
Mr. Sharp said that so long as he pleased her nothing else mattered, and, in the seventh heaven of delight, paced slowly along the towpath by her side.
"And you mustn't mind what auntie and I say to you," said the girl, continuing her instructions. "We must keep up appearances, you know; and if we seem to be angry, you must remember we are only pretending."
Mr. Sharp, with a tender smile, said that he understood perfectly.
"And now I had better go," said Florrie, returning the smile. "Uncle might see us together, or somebody else might see us and tell him. Good-bye."
She shook hands and went off, stopping three times to turn and wave her hand. In a state of bewildered delight Mr. Sharp continued his stroll, rehearsing, as he went, the somewhat complicated and voluminous instructions she had given him.
By Wednesday evening he was part-perfect, and, in a state of mind divided between nervousness and exaltation, set out for Mr. Culpepper's. He found that gentleman, dressed in his best, sitting in an easy-chair with his hands folded over a fancy waistcoat of startling design, and, placing a small box of small cigars on his knees, wished him the usual "Happy Returns." The entrance of the ladies, who seemed as though they had just come off the ice, interrupted Mr. Culpepper's thanks.
"Getting spoiled, that's what I am," he remarked, playfully. "See this waistcoat? My old Aunt Elizabeth sent it this morning."
He leaned back in his chair and glanced down in warm approval. "The missis gave me a pipe, and Florrie gave me half a pound of tobacco. And I bought a bottle of port wine myself, for all of us."
He pointed to a bottle that stood on the supper-table, and, the ladies retiring to the kitchen to bring in the supper, rose and placed chairs. A piece of roast beef was placed before him, and, motioning Mr. Sharp to a seat opposite Florrie, he began to carve.
"Just a nice comfortable party," he said, genially, as he finished. "Help yourself to the ale, Bert."
Mr. Sharp, ignoring the surprise on the faces of the ladies, complied, and passed the bottle to Mr. Culpepper. They drank to each other, and again a flicker of surprise appeared on the faces of Mrs. Culpepper and her niece. Mr. Culpepper, noticing it, shook his head waggishly at Mr. Sharp.
"He drinks it as if he likes it," he remarked.
"I do," asserted Mr. Sharp, and, raising his glass, emptied it, and resumed the attack on his plate. Mr. Culpepper unscrewed the top of another bottle, and the reckless Mr. Sharp, after helping himself, made a short and feeling speech, in which he wished Mr. Culpepper long life and happiness. "If you ain't happy with Mrs. Culpepper," he concluded, gallantly, "you ought to be."
Mr. Culpepper nodded and went on eating in silence until, the keen edge of his appetite having been taken off, he put down his knife and fork and waxed sentimental.
"Been married over thirty years," he said, slowly, with a glance at his wife, "and never regretted it."
"Who hasn't?" inquired Mr. Sharp.
"Why, me," returned the surprised Mr. Culpepper.
Mr. Sharp, who had just raised his glass, put it down again and smiled. It was a faint smile, but it seemed to affect his host unfavourably.
"What are you smiling at?" he demanded.
"Thoughts," said Mr. Sharp, exchanging a covert glance with Florrie. "Something you told me the other day."
Mr. Culpepper looked bewildered. "I'll give you a penny for them thoughts," he said, with an air of jocosity.
Mr. Sharp shook his head. "Money couldn't buy 'em," he said, with owlish solemnity, "espec—especially after the good supper you're giving me."
"Bert," said Mr. Culpepper, uneasily, as his wife sat somewhat erect "Bert, it's my birthday, and I don't grudge nothing to nobody; but go easy with the beer. You ain't used to it, you know."
"What's the matter with the beer?" inquired Mr. Sharp. "It tastes all right—what there is of it."
"It ain't the beer; it's you," explained Mr. Culpepper.
Mr. Sharp stared at him. "Have I said anything I oughtn't to?" he inquired.
Mr. Culpepper shook his head, and, taking up a fork and spoon, began to serve a plum-pudding that Miss Garland had just placed on the table.
"What was it you said I was to be sure and not tell Mrs. Culpepper?" inquired Mr. Sharp, dreamily. "I haven't said that, have I?"
"No!" snapped the harassed Mr. Culpepper, laying down the fork and spoon and regarding him ferociously. "I mean, there wasn't anything. I mean, I didn't say so. You're raving."
"If I did say it, I'm sorry," persisted Mr. Sharp. "I can't say fairer than that, can I?"
"You're all right," said Mr. Culpepper, trying, but in vain, to exchange a waggish glance with his wife.
"I didn't say it?" inquired Mr. Sharp.
"No," said Mr. Culpepper, still smiling in a wooden fashion.
"I mean the other thing?" said Mr. Sharp, in a thrilling whisper.
"Look here," exclaimed the overwrought Mr. Culpepper; "why not eat your pudding, and leave off talking nonsense? Nobody's listening to you."
"Speak for yourself," said his wife, tartly. "I like to hear Mr. Sharp talk. What was it he told you not to tell me?"
Mr. Sharp eyed her mistily. "I—I can't tell you," he said, slowly.
"Why not?" asked Mrs. Culpepper, coaxingly.
"Because it—it would make your hair stand on end," said the industrious Mr. Sharp.
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Culpepper, sharply.
"He said it would," said Mr. Sharp, indicating his host with his spoon, "and he ought—to know— Who's that kicking me under the table?"
Mr. Culpepper, shivering with wrath and dread, struggled for speech. "You'd better get home, Bert," he said at last. "You're not yourself. There's nobody kicking you under the table. You don't know what you are saying. You've been dreaming things. I never said anything of the kind."
"Memory's gone," said Mr. Sharp, shaking his head at him. "Clean gone. Don't you remember—"
"NO!" roared Mr. Culpepper.
Mr. Sharp sat blinking at him, but his misgivings vanished before the glances of admiring devotion which Miss Garland was sending in his direction. He construed them rightly not only as a reward, but as an incentive to further efforts. In the midst of an impressive silence Mrs. Culpepper collected the plates and, producing a dish of fruit from the sideboard, placed it upon the table.
"Help yourself, Mr. Sharp," she said, pushing the bottle of port towards him.
Mr. Sharp complied, having first, after several refusals, put a little into the ladies' glasses, and a lot on the tablecloth near Mr. Culpepper. Then, after a satisfying sip or two, he rose with a bland smile and announced his intention of making a speech.
"But you've made one," said his host, in tones of fierce expostulation.
"That—that was las' night," said Mr. Sharp. "This is to-night—your birthday."
"Well, we don't want any more," said Mr. Culpepper.
Mr. Sharp hesitated. "It's only his fun," he said, looking round and raising his glass. "He's afraid I'm going to praise him up—praise him up. Here's to my old friend, Mr. Culpepper: one of the best. We all have our—faults, and he has his—has his. Where was I?"
"Sit down," growled Mr. Culpepper.
"Talking about my husband's faults," said his wife.
"So I was," said Mr. Sharp, putting his hand to his brow. "Don't be alarm'," he continued, turning to his host; "nothing to be alarm' about. I'm not going to talk about 'em. Not so silly as that, I hope. I don't want spoil your life."
"Sit down," repeated Mr. Culpepper.
"You're very anxious he should sit down," said his wife, sharply.
"No, I'm not," said Mr. Culpepper; "only he's talking nonsense."
Mr. Sharp, still on his legs, took another sip of port and, avoiding the eye of Mr. Culpepper, which was showing signs of incipient inflammation, looked for encouragement to Miss Garland.
"He's a man we all look up to and respect," he continued. "If he does go off to London every now and then on business, that's his lookout. My idea is he always ought to take Mrs. Culpepper with him.
"He'd have pleasure of her company and, same time, he'd be money in pocket by it. And why shouldn't she go to music-halls sometimes? Why shouldn't she—"
"You get off home," said the purple Mr. Culpepper, rising and hammering the table with his fist. "Get off home; and if you so much as show your face inside this 'ouse again there'll be trouble. Go on. Out you go!"
"Home?" repeated Mr. Sharp, sitting down suddenly. "Won't go home till morning."
"Oh, we'll soon see about that," said Mr. Culpepper, taking him by the shoulders. "Come on, now."
Mr. Sharp subsided lumpishly into his chair, and Mr. Culpepper, despite his utmost efforts, failed to move him. The two ladies exchanged a glance, and then, with their heads in the air, sailed out of the room, the younger pausing at the door to bestow a mirthful glance upon Mr. Sharp ere she disappeared.
"Come—out," said Mr. Culpepper, panting.
"You trying to tickle me?" inquired Mr. Sharp.
"You get off home," said the other. "You've been doing nothing but make mischief ever since you came in. What put such things into your silly head I don't know. I shall never hear the end of 'em as long as I live."
"Silly head?" repeated Mr. Sharp, with an alarming change of manner. "Say it again."
Mr. Culpepper repeated it with gusto.
"Very good," said Mr. Sharp. He seized him suddenly and, pushing him backwards into his easychair, stood over him with such hideous contortions of visage that Mr. Culpepper was horrified. "Now you sit there and keep quite still," he said, with smouldering ferocity. "Where did you put carving-knife? Eh? Where's carving-knife?"
"No, no, Bert," said Mr. Culpepper, clutching at his sleeve. "I—I was only joking. You—you ain't quite yourself, Bert."
"What?" demanded the other, rolling his eyes, and clenching his fists.
"I—I mean you've improved," said Mr. Culpepper, hurriedly. "Wonderful, you have."
Mr. Sharp's countenance cleared a little. "Let's make a night of it," he said. "Don't move, whatever you do."
He closed the door and, putting the wine and a couple of glasses on the mantelpiece, took a chair by Mr. Culpepper and prepared to spend the evening. His instructions were too specific to be disregarded, and three times he placed his arm about the waist of the frenzied Mr. Culpepper and took him for a lumbering dance up and down the room. In the intervals between dances he regaled him with interminable extracts from speeches made at the debating society and recitations learned at school. Suggestions relating to bed, thrown out by Mr. Culpepper from time to time, were repelled with scorn. And twice, in deference to Mr. Sharp's desires, he had to join in the chorus of a song.
Ten o'clock passed, and the hands of the clock crawled round to eleven. The hour struck, and, as though in answer, the door opened and the agreeable face of Florrie Garland appeared. Behind her, to the intense surprise of both gentlemen, loomed the stalwart figure of Mr. Jack Butler.
"I thought he might be useful, uncle," said Miss Garland, coming into the room. "Auntie wouldn't let me come down before."
Mr. Sharp rose in a dazed fashion and saw Mr. Culpepper grasp Mr. Butler by the hand. More dazed still, he felt the large and clumsy hand of Mr. Butler take him by the collar and propel him with some violence along the small passage, while another hand, which he dimly recognized as belonging to Mr. Culpepper, was inserted in the small of his back. Then the front door opened and he was thrust out into the night. The door closed, and a low feminine laugh sounded from a window above.
The night-watchman, who had left his seat on the jetty to answer the gate-bell, came back with disgust written on a countenance only too well designed to express it.
"If she's been up 'ere once in the last week to, know whether the Silvia is up she's been four or five times," he growled. "He's forty-seven if he's a day; 'is left leg is shorter than 'is right, and he talks with a stutter. When she's with 'im you'd think as butter wouldn't melt in 'er mouth; but the way she talked to me just now you'd think I was paid a-purpose to wait on her. I asked 'er at last wot she thought I was here for, and she said she didn't know, and nobody else neither. And afore she went off she told the potman from the 'Albion,' wot was listening, that I was known all over Wapping as the Sleeping Beauty.
"She ain't the fust I've 'ad words with, not by a lot. They're all the same; they all start in a nice, kind, soapy sort o' way, and, as soon as they don't get wot they want, fly into a temper and ask me who, I think I am. I told one woman once not to be silly, and I shall never forget it as long as I live-never. For all I know, she's wearing a bit o' my 'air in a locket to this day, and very likely boasting that I gave it to her.
"Talking of her reminds me of another woman. There was a Cap'n Pinner, used to trade between 'ere and Hull on a schooner named the Snipe. Nice little craft she was, and 'e was a very nice feller. Many and many's the pint we've 'ad together, turn and turn-about, and the on'y time we ever 'ad a cross word was when somebody hid his clay pipe in my beer and 'e was foolish enough to think I'd done it.
"He 'ad a nice little cottage, 'e told me about, near Hull, and 'is wife's father, a man of pretty near seventy, lived with 'em. Well-off the old man was, and, as she was his only daughter, they looked to 'ave all his money when he'd gorn. Their only fear was that 'e might marry agin, and, judging from wot 'e used to tell me about the old man, I thought it more than likely.
"'If it wasn't for my missis he'd ha' been married over and over agin,' he ses one day. 'He's like a child playing with gunpowder.'
"''Ow would it be to let 'im burn hisself a bit?' I ses.
"'If you was to see some o' the gunpowder he wants to play with, you wouldn't talk like that,' ses the cap'n. 'You'd know better. The on'y thing is to keep 'em apart, and my pore missis is wore to a shadder a-doing of it.'
"It was just about a month arter that that he brought the old man up to London with 'im. They 'ad some stuff to put out at Smith's Wharf, t'other side of the river, afore they came to us, and though they was on'y there four or five days, it was long enough for that old man to get into trouble.
"The skipper told me about it ten minutes arter they was made snug in the inner berth 'ere. He walked up and down like a man with a raging toothache, and arter follering 'im up and down the wharf till I was tired out, I discovered that 'is father-in-law 'ad got 'imself mixed up with a widder-woman ninety years old and weighing twenty stun. Arter he 'ad cooled down a bit, and I 'ad given 'im a few little pats on the shoulder, 'e made it forty-eight years old and fourteen stun.
"'He's getting ready to go and meet her now,' he ses, 'and wot my missis'll say to me, I don't know.'
"His father-in-law came up on deck as 'e spoke, and began to brush 'imself all over with a clothesbrush. Nice-looking little man 'e was, with blue eyes, and a little white beard, cut to a point, and dressed up in a serge suit with brass buttons, and a white yachting cap. His real name was Mr. Finch, but the skipper called 'im Uncle Dick, and he took such a fancy to me that in five minutes I was calling 'im Uncle Dick too.
"'Time I was moving,' he ses, by and by. 'I've got an app'intment.'
"'Oh! who with?' ses the skipper, pretending not to know.
"'Friend o' mine, in the army,' ses the old man, with a wink at me. 'So long.'
"He went off as spry as a boy, and as soon as he'd gorn the skipper started walking back'ards and for'ards agin, and raving.
"'Let's 'ope as he's on'y amusing 'imself,' I ses.
"'Wait till you see 'er,' ses the skipper; 'then you won't talk foolishness.'
"As it 'appened she came back with Uncle Dick that evening, to see 'im safe, and I see at once wot sort of a woman it was. She 'adn't been on the wharf five minutes afore you'd ha' thought it belonged to 'er, and when she went and sat on the schooner it seemed to be about 'arf its size. She called the skipper Tom, and sat there as cool as you please holding Uncle Dick's 'and, and patting it.
"I took the skipper round to the 'Bull's Head' arter she 'ad gorn, and I wouldn't let 'im say a word until he had 'ad two pints. He felt better then, and some o' the words 'e used surprised me.
"'Wot's to be done?' he ses at last. 'You see 'ow it is, Bill.'
"'Can't you get 'im away?' I ses. 'Who is she, and wot's 'er name?'
"'Her name,' ses the skipper, 'her name is Jane Maria Elizabeth Muffit, and she lives over at Rotherhithe.'
"'She's very likely married already,' I ses.
"'Her 'usband died ten years ago,' ses the skipper; 'passed away in 'is sleep. Overlaid, I should say.'
"He sat there smoking, and I sat there thinking. Twice 'e spoke to me, and I held my 'and up and said 'H'sh.' Then I turned to 'im all of a sudden and pinched his arm so hard he nearly dropped 'is beer.
"'Is Uncle Dick a nervous man?' I ses.
"'Nervous is no name for it,' he ses, staring.
"'Very good, then,' I ses. 'I'll send 'er husband to frighten 'im.'
"The skipper looked at me very strange. 'Yes,' he ses. 'Yes. Yes.'
"'Frighten 'im out of 'is boots, and make him give 'er up,' I ses. 'Or better still, get 'im to run away and go into hiding for a time. That 'ud be best, in case 'e found out.'
"'Found out wot?' ses the skipper.
"'Found out it wasn't 'er husband,' I ses.
"'Bill,' ses the skipper, very earnest, 'this is the fust beer I've 'ad to-day, and I wish I could say the same for you.'
"I didn't take 'im at fast, but when I did I gave a laugh that brought in two more customers to see wot was the matter. Then I took 'im by the arm—arter a little trouble—and, taking 'im back to the wharf, explained my meaning to 'im.
"'I know the very man,' I ses. 'He comes into a public-'ouse down my way sometimes. Artful 'Arry, he's called, and, for 'arf-a-quid, say, he'd frighten Uncle Dick 'arf to death. He's big and ugly, and picks up a living by selling meerschaum pipes he's found to small men wot don't want 'em. Wonderful gift o' the gab he's got.'
"We went acrost to the 'Albion' to talk it over. There's several bars there, and the landlady always keeps cotton-wool in 'er ears, not 'aving been brought up to the public line. The skipper told me all 'e knew about Mrs. Muffit, and we arranged that Artful 'Arry should come down at seven o'clock next night, if so be as I could find 'im in time.
"I got up early the next arternoon, and as it 'appened, he came into the 'Duke of Edinburgh' five minutes arter I got there. Nasty temper 'e was in, too. He'd just found a meerschaum pipe, as usual, and the very fust man 'e tried to sell it to said that it was the one 'e lost last Christmas, and gave 'im a punch in the jaw for it.
"'He's a thief, that's wot he is,' ses 'Arry; 'and I 'ate thiefs. 'Ow's a honest tradesman to make a living when there's people like that about?'
"I stood 'im 'arf a pint, and though it hurt 'im awful to drink it, he said 'ed 'ave another just to see if he could bear the pain. Arter he had 'ad three 'e began for to take a more cheerful view o' life, and told me about a chap that spent three weeks in the London 'Orsepittle for calling 'im a liar.
"'Treat me fair,' he ses, 'and I'll treat other people fair. I never broke my word without a good reason for it, and that's more than everybody can say. If I told you the praise I've 'ad from some people you wouldn't believe it.'
"I let 'im go on till he 'ad talked 'imself into a good temper, and then I told 'im of the little job I 'ad got for 'im. He listened quiet till I 'ad finished, and then he shook 'is 'ead.
"'It ain't in my line,' he ses.
"'There's 'arf a quid 'anging to it,' I ses.
"'Arry shook his 'ead agin. 'Tain't enough, mate,' he ses. 'If you was to make it a quid I won't say as I mightn't think of it.'
"I 'ad told the skipper that it might cost 'im a quid, so I knew 'ow far I could go; and at last, arter 'Arry 'ad got as far as the door three times, I gave way.
"'And I'll 'ave it now,' he ses, 'to prevent mistakes.'
"'No, 'Arry,' I ses, very firm. 'Besides, it ain't my money, you see.'
"'You mean to say you don't trust me,' 'e ses, firing up.
"'I'd trust you with untold gold,' I ses, 'but not with a real quid; you're too fond of a joke, 'Arry.'
"We 'ad another long argyment about it, and I had to tell 'im plain at last that when I wanted to smell 'is fist, I'd say so.
"'You turn up at the wharf at five minutes to seven,' I ses, 'and I'll give you ten bob of it; arter you've done your business I'll give you the other. Come along quiet, and you'll see me waiting at the gate for you.'
"He gave way arter a time, and, fust going 'ome for a cup o' tea, I went on to the wharf to tell the skipper 'ow things stood.
"'It couldn't 'ave 'appened better,' he ses. 'Uncle Dick is sure to be aboard at that time, 'cos 'e's going acrost the water at eight o'clock to pay 'er a visit. And all the hands'll be away. I've made sure of that.'
"He gave me the money for Artful 'Arry in two 'arf-suverins, and then we went over to the 'Albion' for a quiet glass and a pipe, and to wait for seven o'clock.
"I left 'im there at ten minutes to, and at five minutes to, punctual to the minute, I see 'Arry coming along swinging a thick stick with a knob on the end of it.
"'Where's the 'arf thick-un?' he ses, looking round to see that the coast was clear.
"I gave it to 'im, and arter biting it in three places and saying it was a bit short in weight he dropped it in 'is weskit-pocket and said 'e was ready.
"I left 'im there for a minute while I went and 'ad a look round. The deck of the Snipe was empty, but I could 'ear Uncle Dick down in the cabin singing; and, arter listening for a few seconds to make sure that it was singing, I went back and beckoned to 'Arry.
"'He's down in the cabin,' I ses, pointing. 'Don't overdo it, 'Arry, and at the same time don't underdo it, as you might say.'
"'I know just wot you want,' ses 'Arry, 'and if you'd got the 'art of a man in you, you'd make it two quids.'
"He climbed on board and stood listening for a moment at the companion, and then 'e went down, while I went off outside the gate, so as to be out of earshot in case Uncle Dick called for me. I knew that I should 'ear all about wot went on arterwards—and I did.
"Artful 'Arry went down the companion-ladder very quiet, and then stood at the foot of it looking at Uncle Dick. He looked 'im up and down and all over, and then 'e gave a fierce, loud cough.
"'Good-evening,' he ses.
"'Good-evening,' ses Uncle Dick, staring at 'im. 'Did you want to see anybody?'
"'I did,' ses 'Arry. 'I do. And when I see 'im I'm going to put my arms round 'im and twist 'is neck; then I'm going to break every bone in 'is body, and arter that I'm going to shy 'im overboard to pison the fishes with.'
"'Dear me!' ses Uncle Dick, shifting away as far as 'e could.
"'I ain't 'ad a wink o' sleep for two nights,' ses 'Arry—'not ever since I 'eard of it. When I think of all I've done for that woman-working for 'er, and such-like-my blood boils. When I think of her passing 'erself off as a widder—my widder—and going out with another man, I don't know wot to do with myself.'
"Uncle Dick started and turned pale. Fust 'e seemed as if 'e was going to speak, and then 'e thought better of it. He sat staring at 'Arry as if 'e couldn't believe his eyes.
"'Wot would you do with a man like that?' ses 'Arry. 'I ask you, as man to man, wot would you do to 'im?'
"'P'r'aps-p'r'aps 'e didn't know,' ses Uncle Dick, stammering.
"'Didn't know!' ses 'Arry. 'Don't care, you mean. We've got a nice little 'ome, and, just because I've 'ad to leave it and lay low for a bit for knifing a man, she takes advantage of it. And it ain't the fust time, neither. Wot's the matter?'
"'Touch-touch of ague; I get it sometimes,' ses Uncle Dick.
"'I want to see this man Finch,' ses 'Arry, shaking 'is knobby stick. 'Muffit, my name is, and I want to tell 'im so.'
"Uncle Dick nearly shook 'imself on to the floor.
"'I—I'll go and see if 'e's in the fo'c'sle,' he ses at last.
"'He ain't there, 'cos I've looked,' ses 'Arry, 'arf shutting 'is eyes and looking at 'im hard. 'Wot might your name be?'
"'My name's Finch,' ses Uncle Dick, putting out his 'ands to keep him off; 'but I thought she was a widder. She told me her 'usband died ten years ago; she's deceived me as well as you. I wouldn't ha' dreamt of taking any notice of 'er if I'd known. Truth, I wouldn't. I should'nt ha' dreamt of such a thing.'
"Artful 'Arry played with 'is stick a little, and stood looking at 'im with a horrible look on 'is face.
"''Ow am I to know you're speaking the truth?' he ses, very slow. 'Eh? 'Ow can you prove it?'
"'If it was the last word I was to speak I'd say the same,' ses Uncle Dick. 'I tell you, I am as innercent as a new-born babe.'
"'If that's true,' ses 'Arry, 'she's deceived both of us. Now, if I let you go will you go straight off and bring her 'ere to me?'
"'I will,' ses Uncle Dick, jumping up.
"''Arf a mo,' ses 'Arry, holding up 'is stick very quick. 'One thing is, if you don't come back, I'll 'ave you another day. I can't make up my mind wot to do. I can't think—I ain't tasted food for two days. If I 'ad any money in my pocket I'd 'ave a bite while you're gone.'
"'Why not get something?' ses Uncle Dick, putting his 'and in his pocket, in a great 'urry to please him, and pulling out some silver.
"'Arry said 'e would, and then he stood on one side to let 'im pass, and even put the knobby stick under 'im to help 'im up the companion-ladder.
"Uncle Dick passed me two minutes arterwards without a word, and set off down the road as fast as 'is little legs 'ud carry 'im. I watched 'im out o' sight, and then I went on board the schooner to see how 'Arry 'ad got on.
"Arry,' I ses, when he 'ad finished, 'you're a masterpiece!'
"'I know I am,' he ses. 'Wot about that other 'arf-quid?'
"'Here it is,' I ses, giving it to 'im. 'Fair masterpiece, that's wot you are. They may well call you Artful. Shake 'ands.'
"I patted 'im on the shoulder arter we 'ad shook 'ands, and we stood there smiling at each other and paying each other compliments.
"'Fancy 'em sitting 'ere and waiting for you to come back from that bite,' I ses.
"'I ought to 'ave 'ad more off of him,' ses 'Arry. ''Owever, it can't be helped. I think I'll 'ave a lay down for a bit; I'm tired.'
"'Better be off,' I ses, shaking my 'ead. 'Time passes, and they might come back afore you think.'
"'Well, wot of it?' ses 'Arry.
"'Wot of it?' I ses. 'Why, it'ud spoil everything. It 'ud be blue ruin.'
"'Are you sure?' ses 'Arry'.
"'Sartin,' I ses.
"'Well, make it five quid, and I'll go, then,' he ses, sitting down agin.
"I couldn't believe my ears at fust, but when I could I drew myself up and told 'im wot I thought of 'im; and he sat there and laughed at me.
"'Why, you called me a masterpiece just now,' he ses. 'I shouldn't be much of a masterpiece if I let a chance like this slip. Why, I shouldn't be able to look myself in the face. Where's the skipper?'
"'Sitting in the "Albion",' I ses, 'arf choking.
"'Go and tell 'im it's five quid,' ses 'Arry. 'I don't mean five more, on'y four. Some people would ha' made it five, but I like to deal square and honest.'
"I run over for the skipper in a state of mind that don't bear thinking of, and he came back with me, 'arf crazy. When we got to the cabin we found the door was locked, and, arter the skipper 'ad told Artful wot he'd do to 'im if he didn't open it, he 'ad to go on deck and talk to 'im through the skylight.
"'If you ain't off of my ship in two twos,' he ses, 'I'll fetch a policeman.'
"'You go and fetch four pounds,' ses 'Arry; 'that's wot I'm waiting for, not a policeman. Didn't the watchman tell you?'
"'The bargain was for one pound,' ses the skipper, 'ardly able to speak.
"'Well, you tell that to the policeman,' ses Artful 'Arry.
"It was no use, he'd got us every way; and at last the skipper turns out 'is pockets, and he ses, 'Look 'ere,' he ses, 'I've got seventeen and tenpence ha' penny. Will you go if I give you that?'
"''Ow much has the watchman got?' ses 'Arry. 'His lodger lost 'is purse the other day.'
"I'd got two and ninepence, as it 'appened, and then there was more trouble because the skipper wouldn't give 'im the money till he 'ad gone, and 'e wouldn't go till he 'ad got it. The skipper gave way at last, and as soon as he 'ad got it 'Arry ses, 'Now 'op off and borrer the rest, and look slippy about it.'