Mr. Ben Dickson, recording angel of the topmost flat, leaned desolately on the western wall, and answered the badinage of the girls with flabby interest. Benno was “broke,” so depressed financially that a corresponding moral condition was induced, and the small clerk was really as hapless as a tarred cat. But in no circumstances was it the disposition of our Mr. Dickson to expose his penuriousness to a bitter world, barren of respect for honest poverty; even as he mourned his pitiful lack of pence he sedulously rattled a bald-faced six-pence on a latch-key and a lucky penny with a Boer bullet wound in it, with the object of asserting his competence.
Feathers, the wise packer, to whom no man’s weakness was sacred, had summarised this trait in Benno.
“Jimmy Jee!” he said, “there’s Dickson, the gord on the ’igh stool, drorin’ his thirty-five ’n’ a tizzie a week—’n’ thank yeh kindly, sir—’n’ he’d have us all think Rockfeller a motherless blind cripple aside him. His good ole ma divvies thirty off the high pile, leavin’ her bonny boy five shillin’s fer dress, ’n’ drink, ’n’ to scatter alms ’n’ run his ’arum on, not to mention trifles iv bangles ’n’ diamond tararas for the young ’n’ fair, ’n’ yet whoever knew Benno admit he was shout iv the price iv a town mansion? Even the night afore the oof blooms he’ll jingle like a mint in full goin’. He’s a miracle iv sound finance, that’s what Benno is. He’ll get enough sound out iv tuppence in small change to establish the credit iv a patent bath-heater in Gehenner.”
Benno’s straitened circumstances were due to lavish expenditure on a new ‘straw’ and a purple tie last Saturday night, when the Cup seemed a matter of small concern, and now, when all the world was running to Flemington, he felt himself pitifully out of it, and experienced much difficulty in hiding his anguish of mind.
“Garn! Be a sport,” said the Don; “butt in with the push, ’n’ slop yer wealth about. Are all them dead certs yiv bin talkin’ up fer weeks to be coldly neglected?”
“Can’t be did, Nickie,” answered Benno, carelessly. “I placed me bit on the birds all right—trust yer uncle—but the fact is, a man’s got a better offer.”
“Oh, what-oh!” cried the driver. “A little Dutch?”
The small clerk’s face twitched in a wan, blase smile. “There or thereabouts,” he said. “She’s all fer the simple life; reckons on weanin’ me nibs from vicious courses. You know what women are? We all gotter play up to ’em a bit.”
“Flemin’ton won’t seem the same without yeh,” called Harrerbeller Harte in gentle derision, “not to mention the Gov’ment ’Ouse party’s broken ’eart.”
“Ya-a-ah, what’s the cat got now?” This telling retort called for no discoverable effort in the master of repartee. Benno resumed his conversation with the Don as though nothing had happened. “She holds a bushel of tram shares, ’n’ sonny’s wise,” he said.
The Don tried to look impressed. “Righto! If you won’t, you don’t. Woman wins. Wot about commissions? Can I put you a bit on ’ere ’n’ there?”
Benno thought this matter over carefully. “No-o,” he replied. “I’ve pinned me dollars on what I like. Got in early. Alwiz do.”
The Don passed on, the late leavers bobbed out of the little door, one by one, bolts were shot, and presently the melancholy midget leaning on the western wall gazed up and down an empty lane. He passed a hand over his mouth in pathetic cogitation. “Now, what’s a bloke—”
Benno’s eye fell upon a ticket at his feet. He stooped quickly, and snatched it. He read its superscription with a touch of awe, so direct an answer was it to the prayer of his lonely soul.
“First-class Return, Flemington. Admit one—Lawn!”
The last word came from Mr. Dickson in a yell. He crowded the ticket into his pocket, turned as if expecting to face an accuser, and fled precipitately in a direction opposite to that the racegoers had taken.
From round the corner Benno peeped back. He saw an agitated figure break into Pepper-lane, searching hurriedly right and left. The figure was Harrerbeller Harte’s. Mr. Dickson felt no higher impulses, he recognised no promptings towards restitution, he felt only that the ambition of a life-time was about to be realised, and in order that the manifest intentions of Providence should not be frustrated he left the vicinity of Pepper-lane with uncommon celerity.
Benno spent several minutes lurking in a doorway up a dingy street, endeavouring to grasp the situation in a masterly way. He had access to the Lawn at Flemington, he was privileged to rotate with the whirl of fashion, to blend with youth and wealth and beauty, to do the thing as he had lusted to do it, with appropriate ‘dog,’ and now it was up to him as an ingenious and spirited youth to make the most of a noble opportunity.
Fortunately our Mr. Dickson had arrayed himself that morning as a young Solomons, in all his glory. Feathers described him as ‘the acme of It.’ His suit was a beautiful blue, his socks were bluer, his tie was bluest. He was sartorially ne plus ultramarine, and he knew it.
But there were cockroaches in Dickson’s soup, beetles in the bread; in the matter of finance he was down to hard macadam. Benno scrambled in his pants pockets, and ruefully examined the net result. Never was cash so petty. The bald-faced sixpence was only to be negotiated on a bluff—it was that thin you could cut an acquaintance with it.
Still, if a man is hard in the oof, he need not parade his financial instability by going limp in the face of a purse-proud generation. Benno bucked up. From the pocket to which his brass-filled iron watch-chain was tethered with a safety pin he drew a small wad of very dirty paper, and straightened it out on his palm. It was not negotiable paper money, but bore a striking family resemblance to the legal quid; no longer to be regarded as beans, it was a good has-been. In fact it was a five-pound note once, but the banking institution which issued it was now so much a thing of the past that two of the directors were out of gaol again.
The clerk made a collection of scraps of soft, suitable paper, folded them into a neat pad and around this he tenderly wrapped the decayed fiver. That disabled and discredited note had often been worked to give Mr. Dickson an air of financial stability; once more it must serve to impart the semblance of wealth.
Benno having padded the oof, patted his wad into nice shape, and felt a better and bigger man as he looked at it. It might not have been ready money, but as a money ‘ready’ it was entirely satisfactory.
At Spencer-street the clerk bustled a small boy for a card, and escaped through the gates while the vendor was straightening out the bald-faced sixpence, seeking marks of identification.
Wearing his shrill socks, his good-as-gold and pearl-bead ring, and his barley-sugar diamond shirt-stud very much in evidence, Benno lolled in a first-class carriage, sitting almost on his neck, studying the race-card with painful elaboration, making sudden little marginal notes as if millions depended on it. He drew fourteen disused betting tickets from his breast pocket, and after looking them over made a dashing calculation in his notebook. The result seemed to please him. He smiled languidly up one cheek, as he had seen the miraculous detective do in a worst-ever play called ‘The Wickedest Barber in Bologne.’ The business of backing winners was too easy to Benjamin Dickson, any passenger could see that. They were all impressed, especially the red-faced man in the corner opposite, and the anxious gent next him with the lap full of nail parings.
The red-faced man was first to dare. He leaned forward, and plucked Benno by the elbow, drew the clerk’s head into the onion belt that clung to him like a curse, and said hoarsely:
“Say whatcher know? Gotter real thing fer the second?”
Benno smiled his cynical, lop-sided smile.
“Gotter real thing?” he said. “I’ve got the dead bird stuffed and trussed and baked brown, but this ain’t my day for handin’ out quids in bulk. When I’m distributing me good things I’ll ring you up.”
“’Tween gentlemen,” pleaded the red-faced man, “what’s the whisper? Square ’n’ all, I’m that seedy the weevils ’ll get at me if I can’t hit a homin’ pigeon this trip.”
Mr. Dickson took pity on him. He ran his eye down the card and chanced it. “Dandy’s the P,” he said. “Put yer whole week’s wash on Dandy, ’n’ hold me responsible if the goods ain’t delivered.”
“Dandy!” cried Red Face. “Dandy’s a never-did ’n’ never-will. He gallops like a cow. Dandy; Streuth, I know a pound ov cheese that’ll donkey-lick Dandy.”
Benno lolled with an air of patient weariness! he addressed his conversation to the lamp in the carriage roof.
“Dandy can’t shift; Dandy’s a permanent fixture. He’s that slow they paste bills on him. He was put off the hearse fer loiterin’. All the me son. Dandy’s comin’ ’ome t’-day. S’pose you ain’t dreamed iv them ever savin’ a horse, Mr. Wise?”
“Savin’, yes,” said Red Face sulkily, “but not after he’s got general debillty, ’n’ the crows have been at him. Dandy’s eighteen if a day.”
“You take it or leave it,” said Benno with a decisive gesture, magnificent in itself. “I can’t force money on yeh.”
All doubts vanished, the passengers gave Dandy good-conduct marks on their cards, and the gent sprinkled with nail-parings said diffidently:
“I suppose you had a few winners Saturday, young gentleman.”
“A few!” Benno pulled his trick roll, and gave the eager people a peep at that monetary hollow mockery. “A bit left over from Derby winnin’s,” he said. “Tons more where those were grown.”
The nice, gentlemanly young chap with the classic profile, sitting next to our Mr. Dickson, turned an eye of kindly regard upon the improvident punter.
The anxious person opposite was quite tremulous. “Dear me,” he stammered, “you might be robbed.”
“I might,” said Benno, with some amusement, “things ’appen, but a man could drop a mangy couple of hundred quid without ’avin’ to sell up the ’appy home.”
“Then you really win a very great deal, sir?”
This nonsense was wearying the small clerk. He yawned. “Well, a fellow doesn’t need to wear his fingers to the bone juggling bricks,” said he.
“One lives without tearing up roads, ’n’ maybe one lives high.” The matter was not one to argue about. Benno yawned again.
The gentlemanly young fellow with the Greek profile offered Benno his card. Benno ruffled his clothes, perturbed for the moment, and then he soared to an Alpine pinnacle of effrontery.
“Curse it,” he said; “if my man hasn’t forgotten that infernal card-case again.”
“Ghastly incompetents, these colonial valets,” said the nice-looking stranger. The latter’s card was inscribed, ‘Michael Ambrose.’
Benno made a gesture of weariness. He introduced himself by word of mouth, and learned that the stranger was an Englishman travelling to see little of the world, and without acquaintances in Melbourne. Mr. Ambrose was soft-spoken and unassuming; not for a moment did his confidence seem obtrusive. As they approached the course he suggested that since both were unencumbered they might keep each other company for the afternoon.
“Shall be decidedly obliged to you, Mr. Dickson, you’ll be so good as to show a fellow round,” he said. “Of course, musn’t let me impose, you know; but if you have nothing better to do you might amuse yourself instructing a new chum. I’m positively a lost sheep here, and it might occur to some of these clever Johnnies to fleece me, but with a smart man like you, knowing the whole bally scheme, as guide, philosopher, and friend, I should be jolly well all right. You will? Now, that’s awfully good of you. We’ll go right away and have a small bottle of the best beaded, shall we?”
Benno had some trifling misgivings at first, but his share of that half-guinea’s worth of champagne served to dispel them. He was a very small clerk, and it took only a trifling amount of strong drink to inflame his ideas.
After the champagne Mr. Dickson was properly proud of his new acquaintance. Michael Ambrose was tall and well-dressed, an aristocrat in appearance and manner. Benno admitted the Englishman did him credit.
Ambrose bought two tickets for the saddling paddock, and with the pink-ribboned blue tag gaily decorating a well-washed check vest the clerk felt that nothing was lacking in his impersonation of a dashing young sport dissipating a large patrimony. He hoped many of his friends and acquaintances might see him.
In return for the other’s generosity Benno imparted information about his besetting sins, mainly horses and women. The information was poor, but there was plenty of it.
Later, Mr. Ambrose paid for whiskies and soda. Over the drink Benno explained his system of betting. His habit, it appeared, was to get his money on early in history, when a man could command a fair price. None of the cheap push’s dogging round in the heat and dust for a dollar’s worth of the favourite at five to three on for Ben Dickson.
“Use your own ’orse sense,” he said. “Pick the most promisin’ thing for a long shot, ’n’ slap yer dough on it in gobs.” Here Benno gulped his whisky and soda a trifle rashly, it took the wrong shoot, and the clerk blew out, as it were; but he was in no mood to be deterred by trifles like that. In fact, he almost shouted in the excess of his exuberance, but recollection of the fact that he possessed only three ounces of tissue paper wrapped in a cracked note deterred him.
Mr. Ambrose dragged Benjamin off to lunch. Benjamin did not resist violently.
“What will you drink,” asked his friend cheerily. “For my part I think nothing sits on a good lunch as a spanking whiskey and soda.”
Benno said he would take a spanking ‘wissy ’n’ sorer’ too. He was a man, a fact that he was ready to assert in the world’s teeth, and what became a grown man better than a spanking ‘wissy ’n’ sorer.’
Our Mr. Dickson had turkey and tongue. Then he had trifle. This was life. The top flat at Spats’s seemed a hideous unreality, a dim dream.
Over the trifle Ambrose left our dear young friend for a moment, but although Benno was by this as comfortable and creditable a companion as a sore dog, his faithful Michael returned, and conducted him to the Lawn once more.
Here for a terrible moment Benno encountered something that looked like retribution. It was large, camel-like, ungainly; it was profusely, if not lavishly, garbed; it had the face of Harrerbeller Harte, and in that face, as the eyes glared into his, was utter amazement and fiery accusation; but just as grim fate appeared about to overwhelm him Ambrose towed Benno into the thick of the crowd. The crisis passed and was forgotten.
At this point Benjamin wanted to shout. Never was a little man so bent on squandering his substance.
“’Aver wissy ’n’ sorer,” he said. “’Aver hot cham. ’Ave wha’ yer like; I pay.” He tore out his roll, he flourished it with desperate courage.
But Mr. Ambrose would not hear of Benno paying, he even took the roll from him and restored it to his pocket.
“No,” he said, “this afternoon you are my guest.”
Mr. Dickson was touched. “You’re splendid,” he said. “I’m glad I took you up. Yesh, I am. Tell you wha’, you gorrer come to dinner wi’ me after races. Thash settled. Give you besht dinner in Melbourne.”
Soon after this Mr. Dickson seemed to pall on the gentlemanly stranger. You might even have thought he was trying to break with our improvident Benno, but he had brought it on himself, and retribution clung to him. B. Dickson was not the man to be easily shaken off once he contracted a deep and generous affection for a friend, more especially when that friend needed his guiding hand and wise guardianship. He clung to Mr. Ambrose with the tenacity of a nettle-rash, he mothered him with half-drunken effusiveness, and the poor young Englishman was kept busy dissuading him from avishing his bundle of tissue paper on costly wines and extravagant cigars.
“Why can’t man spen’ ’sown money?” cried Benno, “’unnerd poun ’snothin’ to me. Benno the Boy can pick winners in the dark. Ask anyone. Everyone knows Benno—Benno man of beans. Aver magnum?”
He almost carried Ambrose to the bar, but, fired as was, the clerk had a little glimmer of sense at the back of his half-helping of brains, which kept him from risking two year’s hard by attempting to pass his perished fiver, so he was prevailed upon to let Ambrose pay in every case.
Two or three times the amiable stranger broke through the crowd and dodged cunningly, but at the conclusion of the manoeuvre Benno was always there, and when the penultimate race had been run the clerk was still hanging affectionately to Michael’s arm, promising to never leave him while danger threatened and trouble loomed.
“You trus’ me,” he said. “You trus’ Benno, ’n’ you’re all ri’. Ole Benno’ll see you dumped safely on your own doorstep without scar or stain. Never deser’ a pal. Tha’s smi motter.”
Mr. Ambrose had Benno as a travelling companion back to town. In Collins-street the little clerk remembered the sumptuous dinner he had promised his friend. He insisted on having that dinner. In a state of almost deadly calm Ambrose endured the dinner and the ignominious Benno’s shocking behaviour at table, under the eyes of a superior company. (N.B.—Ambrose also paid for the repast.)
Mr. Benjamin Dickson was very much worse after dinner. It was now his appointed mission to see dear old Mickie home. Poor Mick, he insisted, was in no fit state to be left to the mercy of the guns and thieves with whom Melbourne was infested.
Then, somehow, the pair got into a narrow, dark lane, and next day Benno recollected his being stood against a wall, and hearing his dear old cobber Mick Ambrose saying in a cold, hard voice:
“You will have it, you pestilent little swine. Here’s where you get it.”
Then Ambrose punched Benno awfully on the jaw. Benno went down.
“That’s for remembrance,” said the gentlemanly young Englishman, and he kicked Mr. Dickson, and Mr. Dickson’s ribs hummed like a muffled drum.
Then Mr. Ambrose hastened along the lane, sauntered into the lighted street, mounted a tram, and passed out of this history.
Benno’s next recollection was of leaning on a Collins-street bank, weeping dolorously, and addressing his tale of woe to the wide, wide world.
“’Twasn’ the act iv a jennleman,” he wailed. “After all I done for him, he punch me onner jore. I took him up when he was lone ’n’ frien’less; I shtood by him in all hish troubles; ’n’ he kicksh me fair in the basket, he gives me the boot hard in the bag, ’n’ me a mother to him. Hesh no jennleman.”
The policeman admonished Benjamin, as one man to another, to go home and forget it.
“Don’ care wha’ yeh say,” Benno wailed; “he’s jennleman. No jennleman kicksh ’nother what’s been a mother to him. See here, I took that bloke outer the gurrer. Yesh I did—took him outer gurrer, treated him liker brother, shpent poundsh poundsh on him, ’n’ he fouled me out, ’n’ then put in the boot. There’s graritude! There’s—”
“See here,” said the policeman roughly, “go home wid you, ’n’ tell it to the cat, ’r I’ll put you bed on a board, so I will, will I.”
Benno went home. He spent a troubled night, and awoke in torment, with a large, hard, unfamiliar head that felt like a wooden block with a wedge in it. He drank comfortless cold water that couldn’t touch the spot, and tried to think of his great day. His stiffened jaw and its sore tendons minded him Ambrose’s merciless punch, a bruise on his ribs like a blooming iris recalled the brutal kick. Benjamin Dickson groaned aloud; but at that moment something fell from his clothes. It was the padded oof. Benno took up the roll and opened it. The wad of paper fell out, leaving the note in Benno’s hand.
The clerk gazed at the note, mournfully at first, then with a startled air, and then in blank amazement. Mr. Dickson took a pull at himself, walked to the basin, and deliberately soaked his head. Then, with water dripping over him, and streams running down his back, he examined the note again and a great cry of gladness burst from him.
The note in Mr. Dickson’s hand was a good, sound, Bank of Australasia note for five pounds sterling!
Benno sat and hugged his treasure, and his giant intellect worked like an electric motor. The note he held was not the note he wrapped round the wad of paper the wad of paper on the bed was not the paper with which he had readied up his splendid roll.
A great sunburst of perspicacity illumined Benno’s mind. Michael Ambrose was a spieler; from the first he deliberately designed to rob the clerk of his pile believing it to be good goods to the tune of two hundred pounds. This accounted for the liberal effort to intoxicate his victim, and the short absence at lunch, when the second roll, wrapped in a good fiver, to take the place of Benno’s bunch, was fabricated. It accounted, too, for Ambrose’s efforts to restrain Benno from paying and his anxiety to escape when the exchange was made.
Benno had never possessed a whole five-pound note in his life before. As he gazed at this one another jubilant idea grew radiant in his joyful soul.
“Jimmy Jee!” he murmured, “here’s a mag that’ll fair paralyse the house. I’ll just stun ’em with it. The big gun gets out after Little Benno t’ do him fer his savins iv a lifetime, ’n’ Little Benno, lyin’ low, ’n’ crackin’ soft ’n’ silly, does the gun fer all he owns, ’n’ gets home with the boodle.”
Benno smiled his lop-sided smile, a smile of ineffable vanity, and stood, erect and square, happy in defiance of his sore head.
“Lor lum!” he gasped, “I’ve bit the dog; I’ve spieled the spielers. Me! Oh, wot-oh, Benno ain’t cute, Benno ain’t up to schemes, he ain’t wise! Oh, no, not in a manner of speakin.’ Benno, yer a fair bonza!”
Benno did an exultant step-dance, and then got back into bed, cuddling his five-pound note. As a man of means he did not care a curse if he should happen to be late at Spats’s that day.