Benno consumed his splendid invectives, however, and was silent under the scrutiny. Goudy moved in a semi-circle, peering under and over with an air of grave concern, and the clerk manoeuvred adroitly to hide his injuries.
“It’s never my old friend Benjamin,” said the town traveller with affected concern; “never our Mr. Dickson! It’s not possible. Man, man, but you’re changed. Tut, tut, tut, poor laddie, the moths have been at you.”
“Garn scratch!” grumbled Benno.
“But you have a black eye, Benjamin; your ear is a ruin; you have a split lip. You are ashamed, my boy, you are covered with contrition. Your effort to hide your disgrace implies a lingering remnant of decency, but it advertises your fall, Benno. The beaten bantam creeps under the barn, but the conqueror crows from the housetops. Open your heart to me, laddie. Weep on my bosom. It will ease you.”
“Some’n ’ll git a belt in the whiskers if he don’t behave,” said Benno, reaching for a glass paper-weight.
“That face outrages the proprieties,” Goudy continued. “It ought to be brought under the notice of the Executive. Bless my soul, it’s enough to lose us all our Wesleyan trade.”
“Come erway,” interposed the packer, taking Goudy by the arm. “Respect a strong man’s sorrer.”
Feathers led Goudy to the packing bench, and resumed the handling of a ream of printed tea wraps.
“There was a game iv footy, Saturdee,” said Feathers. The town traveller whistled a gust eloquent of enlightenment.
“Our Mr. Dickson was there. Benno’s bin bestowin’ his vote ’n’ patronage on St. Kilda fer some time past. He’s bin recitin’ bits ’n’ expressin’ loud ’n’ large opinions t’ th’ effect that St. Kilda is the dazzlin’ P., the bonzers, the boshters, the pink, the pride, ’n’ the pick iv th’ earth at the noble game iv footy. Jimmy Jee! T’ hear him flute you’d think he’d discovered th’ whole team on a doorstep, ’n’ ’ad brought ’em up by ’and on the bottle with much patience’n’ self-sacrifice.”
“You know Dickson has a splendid public spirit,” said Goudy. “He’ll be city dog-catcher one of these days.”
Benno crouched lower, and the figures swarmed over his page. He knew the ignominious story would be told, and, knowing how, felt his inwards curdling with hate for G. Mills.
“Benno don’t live at St. Kilda” said the packer, turning in the end of his parcel with movements graceful and adept, “but he ’as ’igh notions. He lives on the fag end iv one iv them cheap, weather-board subbubs what’s all sloppy rightaways ’n’ battered rubbish tins, ’n’ what’s inhabited mainly by bottle-ohs, deserted wives, ’n’ soured cats. But he’s a peacock fer style, ’n’ he hadopted St. Kilda ’cause it goes well with his two-’n’-sixpenny helephant’s breath gloves ’n’ his pinch-back overcoat.
“I have t’ report that our Mr. Dickson went t’ the match, Saints versus South, Saturdee. Me ’n’ the Don was privileged to accompany his nibs, ’n’ his chinnin’ aboard the train was th’ chatter iv th’ man what ain’t mistaken, never was, ’n’ never will be. In one iv his proud moments he offered t’ wager a forty horse-power ’igh-grade, nickel-plated motor-car agin the poor but honest belltopper iv the ginger gent opposite that Saints ’d win, ’n’ he threw a goal in. His magnernimity was terrible t’ behold.
“The ginger bloke declined t’ bet, mentionin’ how he was a preacher iv th’ Gorspel, a hantigambler, ’n’ a Society fer the Prevention iv Vice.
“‘Then don’t talk so much,’ sez Benno with some severity. ‘Don’ get eloquent iv yeh ain’t prepared t’ put yer oof down with a firm hand.’ Which was scaldin’ hot, seein’ the ginger gent ’adn’t said a word. But you can’t stop little Benjamin once he gets flutterin’ his rag in public. Afore we’d reached St. Kilda he’d got the people in the nex’ compartments peepin’ over th’ partitions in the belief he was the prodigal son iv a rich old family; ’n’ the perfect lady, with the brazen head of ’air ’n’ the beautiful set iv new china teeth, lookin’ like a glazed tile staircase, told th’ Don she knew Benno well. He had mountains iv gold, she said, but he was crool t’ women.”
Benno screwed his head round, and snarled at them like a teased dog. “Yar-r-r, get work,” he said. “Who’s polin’ on th’ ’ouse now? Strike me dilly, they’s blokes ’ere don’t earn enough t’ keep a canary in corf drops.”
“But Benny was at th’ height iv his splendour on the field iv battle,” continued Feathers remorselessly. “He got an early camp, ’n’ screwed in t’ th’ fence, ’n’ gave th’ general public some advanced opinions on a lacrosse game what was pervided ez a sort iv preliminary canter. Our Mr. Dickson always selects a confidant on occasions iv this kind—someone t’ sort o’ play ’Oratio t’ his ’Amlet—someone t’ lean up agen ’n’ address hisself to. By this means he lets information about hisself leak out, ’n’ ’elps t’ edjikate the masses. Ez a matter o’ fact, his niblets don’t know th’ game iv lacrosse from tiggie-tiggie-touchwood, but that didn’t diminish the flow ev Benny’s heloquence nothin’. He told the silent bloke next him all about it, trustin’ to his own common-sense t’ pick up points ez he went along.
“Benny’s always trustin’ to his own commonsense, disregardless iv th’ fact that he ain’t got none. Presently the crowd sort iv glued itself round Mr. Dickson ’n’ the silent lad, ’n’ bekan t’ pass the blurt. Then ’Oratio bestirred himself. He shouldered ’Amlet off.
“‘Gar-r-rn,’ sez he, ‘this ain’t a game iv hi-spy-hi, ’uthbert, this is quoits. Turn yer voice th’ other way. It’s givin’ me the sleepin’ sickness.’
“‘P’raps I don’ know lacrosse?’ said Benno; bravely. ‘Yeh think yeh can gi’ me instructions, don’t yeh? Let me tell yeh I was playin’ the game when you was suckin’ milk through a tube.’
“‘Any’ow, Ned, don’t talk all over me. I got me Sunday things on. ’Sides, everybody’s lookin’. They’ll be thinkin’ we’re out o’ th’ same cage.’
“‘There’s someone in th’ himmediate vicinity infested with rats,’ says Benno in his ’appiest style.
“At this th’ lad got the flat iv his juke agin Mr. Dickson’s chiv, ’n’ shoved it ’ard t’ th’ off. ‘If yer turn it on me again, Ned,’ sez he, ‘I’ll hurt it.’
“Benjamin the cop-out was dooly impressed, ’n’ suffered a long spasm iv silent reflection. Then he shifted his bunk, ’n’ wormed in lower down. When the Saints ambled out, he was ready ’n’ waitin’. The yell he let loose caused er fat peeler t’ shy, ’n’ turned er lady’s umbreller inside out.
“‘Get at ’em, Saints!’ he howled. ‘Now fer th’ sacrifice. No beg-pardons, ’n’ no mercy. Give ’em a bump. Stand ’em on their necks. You can do it, you beauts!’
“Little Benny’s frenzy when the game got goin’ would freeze yer blood. He was that angry with the South pie-biters, he didn’t care what ’appened to ’em, ’n’ the way he screamed at the doomed wretches would mind you iv Mrs. Canty tellin’ Mrs. Bill Higgins candidly what she thinks iv her ’n’ hers over the right-o’-way, after a sisterly spree ’n’ a dispute ’bout a stew-pan.
“‘Wade into ’em, Saints!’ he yelled ‘Swing him on his ear, Cumby. Snatch th’ ’air off him! Bring ’em down, you boshters! Jump ’em in the mud. Good man, Barwick! That shifted ’im. Give ’im another fer his mother!’
“Benno’s ’appiest moments was when a S’melbin’ player got busted, or took the boot in er tender place, ’n’ curled up on the field, wrigglin’ like a lamed worm. These affectin’ incidents stirred th’ clerk deeply.
“‘Oh, a bonzer, a bonzer, a boshter, a bontoshter!’ screamed our Christian brother. ‘Fair in the balloon, ’n’ good enough for him! That’s the way to tease ’em, the blighters! They’re lookin’ fer it, so let ’em have it wet ’n’ heavy! Lay ’em out! Stiffen ’em! You can get better players fer old bottles anywhere!’
“There was on’y one thing our Mr. Dickson was undecided erbout, ’n’ that was th’ humpire. He couldn’t quite make up his mind whether he should get a presentation gold watch ’n’ a gran’ banquet, ’r be tethered t’ the field with a stake driven through his gizzard. Yeh see, when he gave a free kick t’ Saints he was a noble soul ’n’ a bright ’n’ shinin’ example iv all th’ virtues; but when he gave a free kick t’ South he was a despicable ’n’ disgustin’ object what orter ’ave been smothered in mud. Th’ humpire blew his toot, ’n’ passed the leather on t’ Ginger Stewart, representin’ Saints, ’n’, iv course, the South barrackers took it in bad part, ’n’ put up the yell iv hate. Sez Benno:
“‘Yah-h-h! get work! What’s er matter with that? Want the blanky humpire t’ put the Saints t’ bed,’n’ let yer lame hens play it on their own, do yer? Good man, Tulloch! You’re a blitherer!’ ’N’ the nice boy ’d put his ands t’gether ’n’ exalt Mr. Tulloch with prayer ’n’ praise.
“By’m-bye, Tulloch blows his horn again ’n’ Hughie Callan, representin’ South, is allowed a free-’n’-easy, coz one iv the Saints bit him in a burst iv affection, ’r somethin’, ’n’ Benno’s disgust almost stiffens him.
“‘Lorblime!’ ’e wails, ‘wot sort! Jimmie Jee, it’s murder-gory murder ’n’ blanky robbery, tha’s what it is!’ Then he lets his whole himpassioned soul loose, ’n’ blasts th’ humpire with abuse, coverin’ his family with shame ’n’ degradin’ his name fer ever.
“But ’twas when someone was shootin’ fer goal that little Benjy worked ’is ’ead t’ the best effect. ’Twas et sich tryin’ moments that his nibs ducked in, ’n’ went it blind, hangin’ on ter the railin’, his mince pies stickin’ out like warts on a horse, ’n’ all his henergies ’n’ his surprisin’ intellec’ screwed up t’ the breakin’ point, ’n’ his young emotions fair seethin’ ’n’ bubblin’ out iv him. ’Twas et a moment like this Benno hachieved his splendid effort iv diplomacy.”
“Don’be fergettin’ what yeh got frim the three-card sparrer at Flemington that Saturdee, Mills,” said Benno from his desk, with sudden ferocity. “’N’ by the holy, you’ll get it agin if you give me too much iv yer gibber. Jist you be careful, tha’s all.”
Mr. Dickson actually looked as if on the point of coming down from his stool, and indulging in manslaughter, but the packer paid no attention.
“Scotty,” he said, “you don’t do justice t’ the keen ’n’ brilliant mind iv our Mr. Dickson. Yiv no idear iv his power t’ grasp a situation, ’n’ his great promptness ’n’ resource in a hemergency. The game was at a critical stage, ’n’ Benno was bumpin’ the Saints up all he knew ’ow.
“‘Lay ’em out,’ sez he. ‘Tear ’em down, ’n’ walk over ’em. Jerk him on his chin, Scotty. Bust up the gander-neck. Fracture his back. Lorblime, Saints, you got ’em goin’. Rush it along there, Harwick! Oh, the cripples, they’re dead t’ the world! Welt their ’ead in! Stiffen ’em! Kill ’em! Buck in, S’——
“There Benny’s eloquence was shut off. Yeh never struck anythin’ suddener in yer natural. ‘Buck in, Sus——” sez he, ’n’ stuck there, with his north-’n’-south wide open, ’n’ his eyes fair glarin’. ‘’N’ why?’ sez you. Fact is, Benjamin’s splendid powers iv persuasion ’ad bin attractin’ a good deal iv public attention lately, ’n’ slowly but surely a lot iv South barrackers had been percolatin’ through the crowd, ’n’ gatherin’ round Benno, ’n’ Ben discovered ’em at that tragic moment when his head was wide ajar in his best burst iv horatory. The push had blood in its eyes, ’n’ its fists was ready. ’Twas jist th’ toughest bunch, ’n’ carried a banner made iv a old white shirt with the legend: ‘Deth or Victry.’ Fer ten terrible seconds Benno glared, chokin’, on them vital words, ‘Buck in, S——’ Then his bright mind got t’ work, ’n’ the squeal he put up split the blouse iv a fat lady on his left.
“‘Buck in South!’ sez he. ‘Lay ’em out, South! Tear ’em down! Waltz over ’em! Whooroo, Souths! Oh, you beauts, you bonzers! South’ll do ’em! South’s the pride, the boshters! I’ll lay a doller to a dump on South Melbin!’”
“‘Twas a masterpiece of strategy,” said Goudy, gravely.
“‘Twas an instance iv phenomenal presence iv mind,” continued Feathers, “’n’ it saved Benno’s life. The push suspended ’ostilities, ’n’ fer twenty minutes ’r so Bennie was very subdoo’d, puttin’ in on’y a half-’earted word fer South now ’n’ agin. ’N’ when he got his chance he backed out, ’n’ shifted his pitch. He shoved in further round, where the toms was thickest, ’n’ where he reckoned it’d be safe t’ have some hopinions iv his own.
“We had some trouble in findin’ him agin, but when we did he was hittin’ up St. Kilda once more, ’n’ givin’ South samples iv slum language that ’d demoralise a navvy’s cow. But Benno had made another mistook. The toms erbout was ingrained South barrackers to a woman, fact’ry rats from the Port ’n’ the river mills, ez willin’ ez cats, ’n’ ’ard in th’ face ez fish-plates. We ’eard Benno’s yell, n’ then somethin’ fizzed like pullin’ the cork out iv a soder-water foundry, ’n’ out iv the throng comes a push iv bright girls fighting round somethin’, like a pack iv greyhounds on a starved cat. There was no noise ’cept a sort iv buzzin’ ’n’ tearin’, ’n’ then the toms opened out, leavin’ their prey on the ground. ’Twas Benno. ’Twas th’ immortal cop-out, ’n’ he sat up in the mud ermong his rags, blinkin’, a monimint iv human sorrer. His eye was black, ’n’ his nose was bleedin’ free, but the look on his face was not anger. ’Twas a look iv sad perplexity. He thort th’ earth had bin hit with a comet.
“He went ’ome at once, not bein’ fit fer publication. He rode in the guard’s van, hidin’ from the crool world under a ’orse r-ug, ’n’ he never spoke iv his troubles.
“This, Scotty, accounts fer them evidences iv a bad past what our Mr. Dickson is displayin’ fer th’ edification iv the vulgar, ’n’ which he tells the junyer partner was obtained in a ’eroic effort t’ save a sick policeman from a ill-mannered gang up in Little Lon. Poor Benno; his luck’s disgustin’, but he’s the backbone iv our national winter game. I wouldn’t give peanuts for a play iv footy without him as leadin’ comedian.”