“Say, Ned,” observed Billy the Boy, on the occasion of Nipper’s first appearance, “’r them things ears, ’r what?”
“Wha’ th’ ’ell d’yer think?” retorted Creegan, sourly.
“Oh, I was thinkin’ they might be handles ’r fakements t’ swim with. ’Skews me fer mentionin’ it afore we’re interdooced, won’tcher?”
“I’ll belt yer chin in iv yer get merry with me,” said the new boy, the light of battle shining in his eye. “Yes! Yes!”
“Yes, will I Say, ’re yer wantin’ it?” Nipper sidled up to the printer’s devil, and butted him along with his shoulder three times. “I’m yer man,” he said. “Yes. Fight yer with one ’and. Yes. Yes. Any day. Yes.”
“Dear, dear, dear,” murmured Billy the Boy, “’ow these children talk!” But Billy displayed a certain discretion in getting downstairs. Then his voice came up: “Hi, yous, get up ’n’ ’ave a look et the strange-but-true on the bag-flat, It can flap its ears.”
“I’ll pass that mug one iv he comes pickin’ et me,” said Creegan to the packer. “Yes. Y-e-e-s.” And the boy resumed his work, growling with exceeding bitterness.
The ‘Yes’ in Nipper’s speech took the place that snarling holds in the vocabulary of an angry terrier. The word was uttered with an open mouth and a shooting of the under jaw, was drawn out as long as breath held, and the air that went with it was a hateful blend of malevolence and contempt.
The truculent boy made no friends. Within a few days he had established a reign of terror, and the feeble foreman displayed a nervous awe in his presence. He gave Nipper no orders, but sometimes ventured a mild request or a gentle suggestion, which was received by the boy with sullen mutterings.
Master Creegan entertained a dark suspicion that the people of the factory were conspiring to work him to death, and hate smouldered in his soul. His combativeness was purely instinctive; it dominated him on the slightest encroachment, or in the face of the smallest wrong. When roused to fury, his language was that of a sinner grown old and hardened dealing with working bullocks.
On fine days the male employees from the factory and the printers’ flat sat along the kerb or on the window-sills in Egg Lane, and Nipper’s truculence made him the butt of the company. Billy the Boy was the first victim. Billy was something of a spoilt child in the business, and was allowed much latitude in consideration of his elderly humour, his quaint impishness, and his talent in imitating farm-yards, phonographs, and popular actors; but his quality as an entertainer did not appeal to Nipper Creegan, more especially when Nipper was the butt of Billy’s insolence. The printer’s devil had discretion, and as a rule he assailed Nipper from elevated places, or only when the road was open for a rapid retreat; but retribution overtook him one day in the middle of his lunch.
“D’jer know me ’n’ Nip’s goin’ t’ run a circus?” Billy asked the assemblage. “It’ll be a boshter, too. I’m buildin’ a cage fer Nipper. He’s goin’ ter be the mad monkey, ’n’ flap his ears. Flap yer ears fer the gentlemen, Nipper. Get outer the lugs, lads; he pinched ’em from a baby helerphant. Iv Nip had any sense he’d fly with them ears, but yer kin see he ain’t got no more savvy than a doped goslin’.”
Here Billy dropped his lunch and ‘did his dash,’ but a delivery van blocked the way, and the next instant Nipper Creegan was on him, and for one minute there was a bewildering whirl of limbs in a small storm of dust, chaff, straw, and lunch wrappers. Then Billy went down in a sitting position against the store opposite, and he was a changed boy. He was ruffled and torn and had a black eye, and his nose shed much blood.
Billy the Boy wept and whined, and crawled round on his hands and knees seeking a ‘rock.’ As he crawled he heaped wonderful abuse upon his enemy.
“Yeh dirty, mean, cock-eyed Chow t’ hit a man when he ain’t ready,” moaned Billy, continuing his hunt. “Yeh stinkin’ cur! You’ll see what you’ll get. G’ out, yer monkey-mugged slum mungrool, you’ll cop yer doss.”
Billy arose, and Creegan made another rush, but a stone bounced on his thick skull and broke a window on the second floor, and the printer’s devil dived under a delivery van and fled into the wilderness of bales in the dark basement.
When next Billy appeared on the top flat his eye resembled a large, rain-cracked purple plum, but Billy felt he could afford to be jaunty, in view of the egg-like excrescence on Nipper’s head and the blood-stains on his shirt. He whistled an airy strain, keeping a sidelong eye on the foe.
“When’s the berloon goin’ up?” he asked the packer, with a wink towards Nipper’s swelling.
“Yes, ’n’ if yer gi’ me yer lip y’ll get more yes,” growled Creegan. “Jist wait till nex’ time, that’s all. Yes.”
“Hark et the animal with the ’ump,” retorted Billy. “Looks t’ me ‘s if it got anythin’ that was goin’.”
But Billy’s air and utterance lacked the true assurance, and it was plain there was to be no next time for him.
Benno, the clerk, was ill-advised enough to incur Master Creegan’s wrath on one occasion. Benno had given the boy certain orders in his superior way, and Nipper had carefully ignored them. Benno went up to him an hour later, very angry indeed, and Benno when very angry had the formidable aspect of an indignant cock-sparrow. He took Nipper by the ear and pinched.
“Here, me noble,” he said, “whatt erbout them samples? Er yer goin’ t’ trot ’em up, ’r am I a party iv the name iv Mud? Have ’em erlong in ten ticks, ’r I’ll be a bad father t’ yeh, little Creegan.”
“Take yer meat-hooks outer me,” snarled Nipper.
“Is the little boy goin’ t’ be good?” said Benno, playfully, and his pinch tightened.
Then Nipper let go with both hands, and Benno was rushed before a small tornado full of flying limbs, and was backed against the packer’s table winded and suffering many hurts. He leaned there, very pale, open-mouthed, amazed, and his index finger went up and painfully oscillated a loosened tooth. The sight stirred the factory to unfeeling laughter.
Benno wagged the other index finger impressively at Creegan. “I’ll see you after hours, Mister Creegan,” he gasped, “’n’ I’ll take my belt t’ yeh, young feller, me lad. You can save up for it—you’ll get an unmerciful.”
“Garn!” said Nipper. “I’m Mat Dooley’s fav’rit pupil. I could do with a dozen like you jist t’ toy with. Yes, I could—yes.”
The clerk did not take his belt to the truculent boy that evening. Perhaps he forgot. It remained for Sarah Eddie to visit upon Nipper the only retribution that befell him during his stay at Spats’s.
Sarah was large, and Sarah was powerful. She happened to be turning quite suddenly with a stack of freshly-pasted brown bags in her arms, when Creegan was passing her board, and the bundle caught the boy in the face, bore him down, and skated all over him.
In circumstances like these Nipper never waited for apologies. He scrambled to his feet, maddened by the outrage and the yells of the Beauties, and plunged at Sarah, punching blindly. Miss Eddie sustained injuries before she quite realised what had happened, but, once understanding came to her, she got promptly down to business. She reached for Nipper Creegan with two large capable hands, and she grabbed his ears as he came in. Then she took the remaining trifle of sense out of him; she rocked him to and fro; she bumped his head on the pasting-board; she anathematised him with screams; she towed him to the wall and deliberately knocked his skull against it five times; she kicked him repeatedly, then put him down and stood on part of him.
Nipper came up, blind with rage and far from conquered, and Miss Eddie was willing, but the packer intervened. Master Creegan writhed in his clutches.
“Lemme go!” he cried; “I ain’t done! I’ll fight her, big ez she is. Yes, I’ll fight her any time she likes.”
Sarah went at him with her brush. “Come on!” she screamed, “come on!” She smote Nipper across the face, smearing him with paste.
“Let ’er fight fair!” vociferated Nipper. “Let ’er fight fair, ’n’ I’m her man. She was foulin’ all the time. Yes, yes; ’ittin’ in bolts ’n’ fightin’ all in, she was. Let ’er break clean, ’n’ I’ll fight ’er fer five quid. Yes!”
The packer dragged him away by the scruff, and planted him at his bench, soothing him with a punt.
“This ain’t no place fer you, Baby Creegan,” said Feathers. “You’re too dainty fer this job. You want a grip in a religious ’ome. Be busy, ’r I’ll belt yeh.”
“You look who yer skull-dragging, see,” said Nipper, and he sparred at Feathers, but the packer adroitly kicked his heels from under him, and Nipper went down hard. Feathers hoisted him up by the scruff again, and rubbed his nose on the packing board.
“I kin see your untimely end, sweetie,” said Mills.
“Yes, you’d nark a church. Ye-e-es,” sneered Nipper. “Get me sacked, ’n’ iv I carn’t deal with yeh on me lonesome I knows them what can. Yes. My push’ll mess you about. Yes. Yes.”
Feathers punted him again for comfort, and returned to his customary duties, and for the rest of the day the truculent boy was a black and bitter misanthrope.
Nipper would attack anything. He did not discriminate, and went for the largest man as readily as for the smallest girl. Goudy, the town traveller, was the largest man, and it must be admitted he brought it on himself.
Creegan had merely run into him with a loaded truck. The load was so high as to obscure Nipper’s view, and the iron lug took the town traveller across the calves. Now, there is nothing nastier to collide with than the iron lug of a perpendicular truck.
Goudy gave a bound and a howl, then cuffed Nipper in his anger and his pain, and foolishly went down to rub his hurts, instead of preparing his defence. Consequently, when Master Creegan came in, wrathfully punching and kicking, Goudy sustained a cut lip, a maimed ear, and a clicking clip on the shin from a new boot before he could clear decks for action.
“Whoof!” cried Goudy in pure anguish, as he ran at Nipper.
It was not in Nipper’s nature to run from anything. He met Goudy in a sullen, stupid spirit, and kicked him on the other shin.
“Whoof!” said Goudy again, and he sat down on some parcels and embraced his shins. “Wheew!” he cried, drawing wind in through his set teeth.
Goudy was an elderly man, and a stout one, and the father of a family. It was a painful sight. Feathers choked on his quid, struggled with his emotions for a moment, and then fell into un-christian laughter. All the Beauties commanding a full view of Goudy’s distress joined in the uproar, and the rest rushed for positions.
The town traveller recollected himself and came gingerly to his feet and turned on Nipper. The boy faced him like a young bull, with beetling brows, and lowering grimly. Goudy changed his mind and limped downstairs.
“Here’s where yer bundled out, baby mine,” said the packer
“Well, what’d he wanter plug me for?” said the truculent boy. “I never done nothink t’ him. No. Yous all seem t’ think I’m here t’ practise on. Yes, yes, yes, yeh do. Ye-e-es.”
But Mr Goudy did not report the boy. He knew the Beauties were disposed to be resentful to a ‘put-away,’ and after due consideration left Nipper to work his own undoing.
The truculent boy would not have lasted a month were it not that Feathers took a certain joy in the young ruffian. Feathers could always manage him. He had a pleasant way of dropping the bag-shaped dusty hessian off a bale over Nipper when he was otherwise uncontrollable, and bringing him up sharp, smothering and struggling, but helpless. One afternoon he had him bagged for an hour, while the foreman revolved nervously about the tumbling bundle, stumbling over things and ejaculating, “Now, now! Come, come! Bless my soul! Enough of this! Enough of this!”
The comps and printers on the lower flat delighted to aggravate Nipper. His bursts of fighting fury were vastly entertaining to everybody but the party attacked.
Master Creegan was a very strong boy, and took delight in displaying his strength. It was his duty to truck the reams of paper up to the guillotines, and he stacked mighty loads on the upright truck, and deftly ran them up the gangway past the stair railings, hidden from sight behind the moving pile. While the road was clear, and he could keep his fifteen or sixteen cwt. of paper poised on a dead centre he was all right, but any misadventure that disturbed the equilibrium resulted in disaster.
The printers had often come up the stairs, and slid small obstacles in front of the truck-wheels, and Nipper had assaulted innocent folders when his reams shot all about the factory.
On this occasion Nipper was steering a stack of reams of brown paper higher than himself, and had a good run on the smooth floor, when Billy the Boy saw him coming, and pushed a length of ‘furniture’ through the rails, and then shot downstairs again.
The two wheels of the truck struck the piece of wood with a terrible jolt. Nipper was hoisted off his feet, and his nose collided sharply with a cross-bar of the truck. The reams slid all over the place. One brought Sarah Eddie down, another crashed into a loaded pasting board, overturning it on top of two squealing pasters, and Master Creegan and the truck and one loose ream fell together, Nipper underneath.
The boy worried his way out of the scattered sheets and arose. He gazed at the ruin, he felt his injuries, and then he began to see red. He dashed for the stairs, he went down them with a swoop, collided with a figure on the midway landing, and ‘bucked in.’
With his hard, bullet head down, Creegan used his fists in desperate swings, and the thud of his blows was heard all over the place. Hurled back by his victim, Nipper fell in a half-reclining position on the stairs, and now he saw and understood. Towering over him was a massive, ginger man, purple with wrath. The man was a Personage, he was clad in broadcloth and fine linen, the blood from his damaged nose dripped through his moustache, his battered bell-topper floated in the lye tub below.
This time Nipper’s victim was Odgson himself—Odgson the owner—Odgson the great and good!
For a moment Nipper blinked at Spats in stupid wonder, and then he grasped the situation.
“Gimme me money, ’n’ I’ll go!” he said.
Nipper Creegan was off the premises inside of four minutes.