“They’re all erlike,” said Nicholas, and it must be admitted that his experience was extensive. He devoted the greater part of his leisure to the pursuit of it, and his audacity in ‘wording’ cold, proud young persons in the grand march past in the city on Sunday evenings, and his success in attaching himself to girls in whom his first advances had seemed to provoke unutterable loathing and contempt were the wonder, the admiration, and the envy of comparatively timid spirits like Benno and the printers.
On these occasions the Don always indulged a harmless and pleasing imposition, and presented himself to the little lady of his fancy—or the little ladies, for Nicholas did not hesitate in the face of numbers—as a person of consequence. He adopted the name of some singer or actor conspicuous for the moment, some well-known man about town, a titled visitor, or a local celebrity of great wealth, and he acted the part. Young devils from the factories and warehouses generally assume fictitious names when plunging into adventures of this kind.
Mr. Nicholas Don did not always expect the young lady to be deceived when he introduced himself as Lord Saveus or Walter Baker. Often the fiction was accepted with open glee, as the mere manifestation of a cheerful spirit. But if the damsel were sufficiently ingenuous, and seemed prepared to take Nicholas at his word, the carter presumed upon her innocent, trusting nature. Then the eye-glass appeared, the drawl became very marked, and the toothpick was gracefully manipulated.
The Don had carried through many a successful impersonation of a wicked young English aristocrat with these properties alone—especially the quill toothpick. Nicholas’s faith in a toothpick was profound.
“A bloke with a bit iv sav ’n’ a toothpick kin trade himself off ez a haide-de-kong ’r somethin’ jist ez large ez life, though he’s wearin’ trowsis that look zif he’d bin tryin’ t’ blast ’em off with dinnymite,” said the Don.
Spats’s carter admitted that his attention was first drawn to the meek Almira by an advertisement in the ‘Missing Friends’ column of a morning paper. Therein Almira described herself as a young widow and a lonely soul, and craved the sympathy of ‘middle-aged gentlemen similarly situated.’
“Thinks I, ‘Wha’s the matter with me?’” said the Don, long after it was all over. “I ain’t middle-aged, but I’m a symperthetic soul. I’ll do a duck in, ’n’ mingle tears with Almira. I put on me bes’ pretties, ’n’ took me brass ring all covered with di’monds, ini me card-case, ’n’ went forth ez the Hon. Horace Badminton-Carte t’ yearn ’long with me Almira by happointment. Trust me when I say she wiz jist the best piece, a little fat widder risin’ thirty, a sad, sentimental, hush-a-bye kind, but with a savin’ bias towards oysters ’n’ stout. She tole me ’er ole pot-’n’-pan’ed dodged under the daisies through sittin’ outside the draught in ’otel bars year in ’n’ year out, ’n’ took me to ’er ’umble ’ome, where she earned a ’onest livin’, givin’ man ’n’ his young boxin’ lessons on the pianner. I sighed over ’er unhappy lot, ’n’ she tumbled that we was symperthetic souls orl right.
“The Hon. Horace Badminton-Carte was a young English gentleman, out ’ere fer change iv scene ’n’ what not. I gave it to Almira strong, she lookin’ a soft ’n’ simple baby mine. ‘It’s dem hard,’ I sez, ‘fer ah fellah to be penned in this beastly country, but what’s ah fellah to do, bai Jove, when the old gentleman says, “Go there, sir, and stay there, demmy, till you’re sent for”? That’s what ah fellah gets for being too dooced rackety, and serve him dooced well right, of course. By gad, it’s sobered me, by gad it has. By gad, I’d have been down to it on my bendeds if Sir Chawles hadn’t dwopped a wemittance now and again. As it is, I’ve had to take a dem billet, by gad, and work like a bally slave seven hours a day. Bai Jove, yes. I’m ashamed to say where I am, positively. By Jove, yes, by gad.’”
The Don, who was a close student of the drama, got his idea of the English younger son largely from certain familiar comedy types, but he had a talent for dissimulation, and it must not be imagined that meek Almira was necessarily a fool in reposing some little confidence in Horace Badminton-Carte, and believing in his reformation and in his expected remittances.
The idea was that dear Horace was to call on Almira frequently, ‘with a view to the above’ when eventually the remittances became regular, and the black sheep was restored to parental favour. Meanwhile they were to regard themselves as each other’s, for better or worse.
Escapades of this kind were meat and drink to Nicholas. He followed-up the meek Almira with assiduity. He devoted evenings, Sundays, and Saturday afternoons to the quest. Twice during off-days in the city she excused him while he darted into a bank to see the manager respecting an idea he had that “Sir Chawles” might be placing a thousand or two to his credit. Once he detained her while he held a cordial conversation with the chauffeur of a grand motor, whom he afterwards described to her as “dear old Fitzie, you know. Dooced good chap. His people know my people at home. Beastly rich-wanted to lend me fifty. Couldn’t think of it, you know; couldn’t think of it.”
The little widow found this all very convincing. She thought Horace’s scruples in refusing to take the fifty from dear old Fitzie a trifle strained, but there was certainly wisdom in his heroic determination to let the governor see he could do without that sort of thing.
The Don’s only doubts were inspired by Almira’s maid, a pert young thing of sixteen, who giggled foolishly at him. She also called him “Percy” when she caught him alone, winked with insolent familiarity, and said, “Oh, what sort!” in a tone that almost made Horace Badminton-Carte forget himself. Horace feared that he might have met her in some former existence.
It was the meek Almira who suggested the evening at the theatre, and it was she who financed the venture. She had a new evening dress, and an early public display of it was essential to her happiness.
Horace, fearing a financial failure, raised objections.
“Fact is, me dear,” explained the younger son of one of our oldest families, “ah fellah’s been peculiarly situated. Dem awkward. Yes, by Jove. Fellah’s had reverses and that sort of thing, by gad. Had to sell his dwess clothes. Beastly vulgar thing to do. By gad, yes. But ah fellah had no alternative—honest poverty, don’t you know.”
Horace seemed deeply moved by the contemplation of his misfortunes, and the little fat widow was touched. She shed two distinct tears, and strove to comfort him with a kiss. She said she had a dress suit that had been left by the late lamented Berryman. It was in an excellent state of repair, and it was at Horace’s service.
So Horace Badminton-Carte and Mrs. Almira Berryman went to the theatre. Horace insisted on paying the tram fare. The dress-suit was a pretty good fit, but smelt suspiciously of pawn-shops. It was a trifle long in the leg, and full in the bust, but Horace had no difficulty in keeping it on. In the coat room he brushed his hair very flat, and arranged the parting and the curves with artistic deftness. The effect was highly decorative. Horace thrust an expensive red silk handkerchief negligently into the front of his evening vest.
The carter followed Almira into the circle, with the bland case of a man to whom this was rather a come-down after Vienna and Paris, but who was prepared to be quite pleasant for all that. “The pater always had his box, you know,” he told the meek Almira.
In a conspicuous seat near the front Nicholas Don flattered himself he was quite at home, although hitherto when attending the theatre he had been a god in the galleries. He bought Almira a shilling box of chocolates from the boy. He bowed graciously into the thick of the crowd on the other side of the circle, and made some show of being concerned on finding Sir John and Lady Winterton present.
“Dooced annoying,” he said. “Met ’em at Government House, you know, before the funds gave out. Fussy old devil, Sir John. Hope he won’t come dinning ah fellah with his demmed invitation to dinner, by gad.”
Almira was radiant to find there were those present who appreciated Horace at his true social value. She was a trifle florid in her present setting, but the Don thought her a particularly fine woman. It was a proud moment. He spread himself. His attitudes were graceful. He made excellent play with the brass ring ‘all covered with diamonds,’ which, he had explained, belonged to the Badminton-Carte family jewels, and was not to be parted with at any price. He talked familiarly of the people in the boxes. Not a doubt assailed him, until there came faintly to his ear a familiar voice from the gallery, which said:
“’Strewth, Donny, howjer do it?”
Then Horace Badminton-Carte went cold all over, his flow of small talk was frozen under, and suddenly the Don realised that his dress suit was too big for him, that too much linen was falling out in front, and that his awful night had come.
“Tuck in yer washin” Nickie, cried the voice, in graceful allusion to Horace’s superabundance of shirt.
Something hit Nick on the head, and bounced into the lap of the lady on his right. It was a peanut.
There is nothing more humiliating to a young gentleman enjoying a rare interval of high life and superior refinement with the lady of his heart than to become the object of loud, vulgar, and familiar criticism. When discourteous address is accompanied by a fusillade of peanuts, the young gentleman fathoms the depths of human anguish, and knows utter degradation. For a moment the Don had a blind idea of springing up, dashing over or through the intervening audience, and flying from the scoffers, but presently his natural and acquired impudence came to his aid, and he determined to see the matter through.
Nicholas leaned gracefully towards the meek Almira, and entertained her with fluent small talk. He flourished his toothpick. A cone formed of a twisted programme, weighted with a grape, shot like a dart from above, smote him on the head, and skidded into the corsage of a very stout lady in front, where the grape remained.
A flush of rage spread all over the visible surface of the stout lady; face, neck, and suburbs glowed angrily, and she rounded on Horace Badminton-Carte with an ejaculation far below her apparent station in life. Horace was distracted at the unmerited accusation the address implied, and sat forward to expostulate. He wore one of those steel-backed clip ties. The tie jerked from its moorings, struck the stout lady sharply on the nose, and fell into the depths, whence it was dug by the now furious female and flung aside.
A young man recovered the tie and it was courteously returned to Horace, passing from hand to hand. The incident was very popular; everybody seemed delighted.
“What-hol Nickie, you won’t get nothin’ from the missus Saturday,” said a voice above—a voice of friendliness touched with commiseration.
“Doin’ in yer board on chocolates,” added another voice, in admonitory tones.
Horace Badminton-Carte did not enjoy that first act, and the meek Almira seemed uneasy. He was afraid her suspicions were aroused, and he whispered something about the demned lower orders always being stirred to malice at the sight of wealth, breeding, and beauty. He wished to convey the idea that the attack was the outcome of class prejudice, and was general, not personal.
Don thought of going out during the interval, but feared that a movement on his part would provoke a demonstration that must identify him as the boon companion of the ruffians aloft, and it was a long way to the door. Meanwhile an occasional peanut dropped on his head, and an occasional one fell into the recesses of the vast female in front.
The act was all too short, and when the curtain came down and the lights shone out again only two or three men moved for the door. The Don sat very still, waiting anxiously. He forgot Almira. The strain was awful, but didn’t last long.
“Say, Nickie,” called a persuasive voice, “won’t yeh come ’n’ ’ave a beer—a long cool-’n’-juicy?”
“Garn, don’t lure ’im!” said a second, in mock expostulation.
“Rats!” cried a third. “What’s beer t’ the Don after the bar’ls iv champagne he’s used ter?”
Then the first voice again, pleadingly: “Nickie, where did you get them round-the-’ouses?”
“’N’ that flogger?”
“’N’ that little dickie-dirt?”
Involuntarily the Don made an effort to tuck in his shirt. The action called him to himself. He became extremely attentive to the little widow, and talked airily. The twenty-fifth peanut bounced off his head.
The Don was not quite his suave, collected self. Some of his sentences were in Horace’s speech, some in the rude utterance of Nicholas Don, driver of Spats’s delivery van. He was perspiring a little. His hand trembled, his monocle refused to stick in; he felt that every eye in the theatre was on him. Then came the awful voice again in anxious warning:
“Don, Don, ye’ve clean fergot t’ snatch the for hire docket off yer clobber.”
“Wait till the little tom from the pie plant gets onter these goin’s on false one!”
“’R Lizzie et the pickle mill.”
At this point the specialist engaged to weed disorderly persons out of the gallery arrived and expostulated with the Don’s friends up aloft. He said he would bump them down the stairs, and they said it was too big a trouble for a man with a face like that, and in the subsequent argument Horace Badminton-Carte escaped attention. But the badinage was resumed in the second interval, and the cheerful push above, having run out of peanuts, collected orange-peel, and dropped it into Horace’s clothes. Remarks having reference to his humble calling were exchanged in a matter of fact way. He was cautioned not to spill the devilled oysters into his lap, otherwise the Hebrew owner of the dress suit would certainly bankrupt him with a claim for damages.
“Wear’em et the two-up Friday, Ned,” said Chiller Green.
The Don was wholly himself now, and a bottled geyser of bubbling invective and boiling wrath. A section of orange fell on his head and stuck there. All was forgotten but his wrongs. He arose before the whole house; he shook a vengeful fist aloft.
“Righto, Pinkie!” he cried, “I seen yeh. I’ll put a screw on your chin Monday see if I don’t You——”
Here Almira swung on Nickie’s coat tails, and dragged him into his seat. The gallery had broken into howls, shouts, stamping, laughter, and a roar of barracking; the dress circle was horrified and delighted; a small usher was tapping at the Don’s shoulder, threatening to eject him; the Don was replying that if the minion didn’t get a shift on he’d kick the crupper off him. And then came a violent diversion to Nickie’s rescue. Loud, angry voices were heard from the vestibule, and suddenly a stoutish man fell into the circle through the folding doors.
The intruder was red, dishevelled, and somewhat drunken. He was uttering loud threats. Hands from outside clung to him, other servile hands hastened to thrust him back. He fell through the folding doors again and disappeared.
At the sight of this man meek Almira had started and uttered a cry of distress. She said she was feeling ill. Then came the blessed darkness, and the play was resumed.
Happily there were only three acts, and when the curtain fell Nickie and his little widow mingled with the escaping crowd, yearning for the night air and the sweet oblivion of back streets.
But their trials were not over. In the crush room a large man—an angry man—breathing whisky and bad words, arose from a settee and lurched at Nicholas Don. It was the man who had fallen through the folding doors. Almira screamed and buried herself in the press of people.
“That’s him!” cried the inebriate. “That’s the chap. He’s got my clo’s on. Gimme me clo’s, yeh robber.”
The evening-dress crowd backed away and made a ring. Don was again the centre of interest. The drunken stranger slid down and hung on to his trousers. He tried with violence to pull them off.
“Gimme me clo’s,” gurgled the inebriate. “Whatcher mean be stealin’ a man’s trousers?”
“Who th’ ’ell ’re you?” said Nicholas.
“I’m the man whose clo’s yeh wearin’, yeh bla’guard!” wailed the stranger. “Gimme me clo’s!”
There was laughter and excitement and talk of police. The man had risen and barred the way. Nicholas Don saw red. He drew his foe with a feint, shot a left in on his neck, and the claimant of the clothes went down hard, skidded on the pile carpet and shot under the settee.
Then Horace Badminton-Carte broke the ring and bolted, hatless and without his overcoat. The meek Almira had disappeared.
Nicholas turned to the left and ran for the slum streets, hunted by terror of the ignominy of being arrested in another man’s clothes—if indeed it were true that the lamented Berryman had resurrected.
In a frowsy parlour Don reviewed the situation over a consolatory beer. He was abroad in the dyed garments of a total stranger, pursued by the law perhaps, his own suit was in the little spare bedroom at the abode of Almira, his hat and coat were in the cloakroom at the theatre. If the law were seeking him the widow’s cottage was no safe place. He must proceed with caution.
Don had another beer. Three quarters of an hour later, Nicholas, wearing a dress suit, a staring white shirt, and an old soft felt hat—a villainous thing that had been at the service of the cat for weeks, but the only one the hotel would trust him with—stole down the dim, suburban street to Almira’s garden gate.
Astout man was staggering about on the verandah brandishing his hands in the air, and clamouring in drunken speech for his clothes.
The house was in darkness, but curious neighbours were hanging their heads out of adjacent houses offering loud advice, all deeply interested in the stout man’s grievance. The man rattled at Almira’s window, pounded on the door, and filled the night with piteous cries for his wearing apparel.
Don ducked down a side street, found another hotel, and stayed till kick-out, taking counsel with long, strong drink. Then he sneaked back to Almira’s cottage. The heads were all gone, but the stout man was sitting on the mat, with his back to the front door, drowsing and making weak lamentation. Nicholas stood cogitating. Would it be possible to steal by in the gloom and effect an entrance by the back? Suddenly the outcast put up a howl of great anguish and started battering the door again.
“Lemme in!” he cried. “Lemme get the vill’n who shtole me clo’s.” His voice broke, and he continued piteously: “Oh, M’rier, how could yeh—how could yeh?” He advanced to the edge of the verandah and addressed an imaginary audience in tones of poignant anguish.
“Lays ’n’ shennlemen, I’m man iv sorrers. Behol’ me broken ’eart. Englishman’s clo’s is hish cashle.”
Nicholas Don left the man unbosoming himself to the stars, and stole away. He walked through the cold, dark, damp morning to his home in the distant suburb on the other side of the city.
Don held long arguments with policemen by the way—policemen whose suspicious were aroused by the incongruity of his hat and his costume. It is easy to arouse the suspicions of policemen at two o’clock in the morning.
On Sunday Nicholas could not venture out because he had only an old working suit and the evening clobber of a perfect stranger. On Monday night he recovered his overcoat and hat at the theatre, and journeyed to Almira’s cot. From the door he heard the beery, melancholy voice of the stout man within, and the man of sorrows was still uttering bitter reproaches about the absent clothes. The person who had once been Horace Badminton-Carte retired without knocking.
On Tuesday Nicholas discovered an advertisement in the “Missing Friends” column, in which H.B.C. was informed that if he appeared at noon at the corner where he first met A.B. parcels might be exchanged.
Nick rolled the unfortunate evening suit in brown paper and took it to work with him. He managed with some difficulty to be at the corner mentioned at noon, with the delivery van. Almira’s servant was waiting, nursing a parcel.
“What-o’ Percy!” she cried, “’s that you?”
“No,” growled Nicholas, “but it’s me nearest ’n’ dearest survivin’ relation. Them my soft-goods, Sissie?”
Sissie nodded. “But you gotter part up first. I ain’t t’ be done in.”
The Don threw down his parcel, and after Sissie had torn the paper and satisfied her mind she tossed the other bundle into the van.
“Strike me, you’re a pretty pair o’ take-downs,” said the girl, “you ’n’ mar.”
“Me ’n’ mar!” cried Don. “Garn, you ain’t chattin’ that the meek Almira’s your mar?”
“Well, I am!”
“’N’ I s’pose the pickled bloke was the ole pot-’n’-pan?”
“Yes—he’s dad. Mum’s got a legal separate, but he comes round sometimes when ’e’s drunk ’n’ lovin’. An’ mar passed me off as the girl for fear your rich relations mightn’t like me. How’s Sir Charles?”
“’N’ you put the old man on t’ us at the theatre Saterdee?”
“Lor’ strike yeh cock-eyed for it,” said Nicholas, bitterly.
That evening Nick encountered Pinkie in Egg Lane, and they fought three rounds, to their great mutual disadvantage. The conclusion was postponed.
Nicholas did not open his parcel till he returned home, and then he found, to his astonishment, that it contained some old rags, a note, and a pawn ticket for his best suit. The note said:—
“This is the best I can do for you. Had to pawn your clothes to keep George drunk till I got his own back. You are an impudent impostor.|
Nicholas sat down.
“’Struth!” he gasped. “I do like that. Swelp me Jimmy Gee, I do like that!”
And then for five minutes Nick sat in a rigid attitude, staring blankly at the pawn ticket.