“She’s er little boshter!” he said vehemently. “Y’ orter seen ’er.”
“Fair ’r dark”” asked Feathers, with the intention of showing a friendly interest in the matter. This was the fifth time Benno had declaimed on the “boshter” qualities of the unknown, and fraternal sympathy could not be longer deferred with decency. Feathers delayed the completion of a knot, and bit off a morsel of tobacco. He solaced business hours with an occasional quid, smoking on the premises being strictly prohibited by order of the Czar below.
“Fair,” replied Benno, with rapture, “with bloo eyes, ’n’ er mouth like er bloomin’ baby. Never saw anythin’ like it. She’s ther show biscuit, take it from ther man in ther business—ther top apple, th’ ’ole blessed cake-walk, ’n’ straight ez er church. Yeh can see it stickin’ out. Bin well brought up, yeh know—bit shy, ’n’ romantic, ’n’ all that.”
“This gentle little maiden of today,” sang Goudy, the town traveller, to himself, absently, as he reached for twenty-eight of sixes.
“Ah-h-h go’n ’ave er scratch!” retorted the clerk, bitterly. The town traveller was a Scot, but the insult had no sting for him; he went on cheerfully sorting out his order. “Some men,” said Benno, with cold despair, “ain’t got no more fine feelin’ than a hotel cat.”
“When she left the village she was shy,” hummed the town traveller, changing his tune.
“It ’appened dead simple,” Benno continued, turning a contemptuous shoulder on Goudy. “Me ’n’ Billy King was standin’on ther usual corner, Satedee night, watchin’ ther little toms trippin’it, ’n’ sortin’ out samples, y’ know; when ’long she comes with ’er cobber, ’n’ blessed iv she don’t chance an eye on me noble—jest er little frightened sort iv look, but, s’elp me, I was fittted.”
Goudy put his forefinger to his lip, and dropped a lopsided curtsey. “Oh, sir, me father’s a clergyman,” he simpered, “and I used to play the organ once.”
“Her cobber seemed t’ be quite took with Billy’s lip whisker,” said Benno, his air and attitude insinuating that the town traveller was offensively dead, “n’ yeh know what Billy is. ‘I’ll word ’em when they pass again,’ he says, ’n’ struth he done it. Billy’s ther pure glassey. ‘Iv course you know my friend, Percy Chirnside, Miss Fortesque”’ ses he t’ ther fair one, havin’ took over th’ other. She blushed, ’n’ smiled, ’n’ said somethin’ about not having ther pleasure, ’n’ in two ticks we was lifelong cobbers, me ’n’ ’er. ‘Course, I sees ’er ’ome, ’n’ we parts at ther gate. ’Er father, being ’ead salesman at Gum ’a’ Tumbledon’s is er bit stiff on ettiket ’n’ all that. But she meets me Sund’y afternoon. Feathers, there was nothin’ on ther grass t’ touch ’er. She’s er little boshter—er boshter! ’n’ I’m ’er one ’n’ only.”
Feathers winked hard at Goudy, keeping a smooth and sympathetic cheek to Benno.
“’Minds me iv er little lady I carried lollies to seven years ago,” Feathers said, softly. “She had feathery, flaxen ’air, ’n’ a neye like ther grace iv ’Eaven, ’n’ she walked about with ’em turned up t’ ’allelujah, ’n’ a nym-book pressed to ’er ’eart. She died lingerin’ iv some kind iv saintly disease, ’n’ I’ve never bin the same man since.” Here Goudy wiped his own eye, and passed the handkerchief to Feathers, and the packer mopped up a covert tear. “I took ther teetotal, ’n’ learned some hymns, ’n’ cried on her grave every fine Sund’y afternoon for er week ’r more, ’n’ cot lumbago through it, ’n’ passed away in er little white shimmy ’n’ er pale-blue light, callin’ her name in er low sweet voice.” Feathers broke down, and Goudy, despite his fifty dishonourable years, uttered a desolate cry, and besought the packer to come up some evening, and tell that beautiful story to his poor old bedridden mother.
“Pigs to you!” said Benno, with incredible scorn—“ther pair iv yeh,” and he returned sulkily to his desk.
This was a strange development in Benno the cynic—Benno who had been in the swarming factory from his boyhood, and who on his high stool had looked down upon a world of women, and learnt the sex off like a nursery rhyme. True, his attitude towards girls had always been indulgent, but it was the indulgence of a superior being. At twenty-one one is no longer deceived by women, but it does not follow that Benno took no delight in the human girl. It is pleasant to be appreciated by her; it is pleasant to give her the rapture one’s kindly notice may confer; so that Benno dressed with many precautions and great difficulty on Saturday evenings, and loved to walk with a young gentleman friend of kindred tastes where the girls were thickest in the favourite city street; and, if a fair percentage looked at him with dawning interest as he passed, he was happy. Spats’ Beauties, as a rule, were ignored, but he did not disdain to escort the better-dressed pasters in the great mashing march along the crowded pave. He loved to be seen with women—it helped his reputation as a young devil.
A Panama hat, a high, white, turn-over collar, a small, gay, mechanical tie, a dark suit, carefully creased to preserve a fictitious air of newness, tan boots, a clean shave, and a cigarette, all went to the making of Benno. For the rest, he had a pimply, thin, somewhat foxy face, pale with the pallor that belonged to Spats’ factory, and his right ear drooped like a wilted lily. His expression was one of unnatural precocity, his attitude of mind that of a small and early humorist. He was artificially funny at the expense of all things on earth below and in the heavens above; his conversation was supposed to be delightfully light and sparkling, and consisted mainly of a large collection of street gags and fanciful phrases. Sometimes the clerk spent sixpence or ninepence, perhaps even one shilling, on drinks, which expenditure carried with it the splendid privilege of extending an airy patronage to the barmaid; but Benno did not like drink, and the fine moment came in the gay roll forth from the bar, with a flourish of handkerchiefs and a fusillade of badinage. That, too, was necessary to the part of the young devil. Really, when ’on his own’ Benno had no vices, and was of a frugal mind; his Savings Bank pass book was tattered and limp, and stained with long service.
And now the cynical and worldly-wise Mr Ben Dickson was raving over the perfections of a mere girl with yellow hair and the mouth of a baby, despite the fact that he had seen golden hair come and go on black-browed Beauties time and again, and in defiance of his knowledge of the guile that lurks behind little red lips. His yearning for a confidant drove him back to the packer’s bench within an hour. He proudly displayed a coloured photograph in a rolled-gold locket.
“Present from ’er,” he said proudly. “Ain’t she ther pick iv ther peaches’ ’n’ she never took up with er lad before.”
“Neat enough bit iv skirt,” said Feathers, critically. “Saucy eye, that.”
“Nothin’ like it,” replied Benno, with spirit. “She’s ez fresh ez eggs. She don’t know A.B.—ab.”
“’N’ ’er ’air ez yaller ez all that””
“It’s pure gold.”
“All ain’t gold that glitters, Benno, my boy. Does it wear well”
“Ask me! But iv course you can’t be expected t’ have no idea iv the points iv er lady in your walk iv life,” replied Dickson, with the superior air of a clerk. “This is somethin’ er cut above you, for er cert.”
Feathers beat his parcel square, threw it on the heap, and spread another sheet of paper. “I know I ain’t been movin’ much in ’igh society lately,” he said, accepting the rebuff; “’n’ I may be wrong in thinkin’ your tom was tryin’ t’ mash ther man shootin’ off ther camera, but I recollec’ er bloke sayin’ at this ’ere bech, Chewsdee last, that he wouldn’t trust no girl with er giggle in her eye.”
“But she ain’t got er giggle, I tell yeh.”
“’N’ he also said that most iv these golden ’aired pieces was not genuine, just dipped.”
“Jimmy Jee! She’s no fact’ry rat. Do ’ave er bit iv common.”
Ellis, the foreman, stopped beside the young men, mumbling plaintively, hurt by the disregard of his authority shown in their open loafing. Benno lingered only a minute longer, so that the girls might get no false impression in respect to Ellis’s influence over him.
In the course of the week Benno’s infatuation increased alarmingly. The clerk, hitherto so methodical, became the victim of a devil of uneasiness. He was up and down his high stool all day long, like a hungry ape, and he mooned about the room, seeking sympathy from the Beauties. He even confided in Miss Kruse, the fat, elderly forewoman, and gushed rapturously and at great length, regardless of the stupid depression that clung in the flabby folds of her Dutch face. He cornered Ellis himself behind the guillotines, and poured out his whole soul to him, giving minute descriptions of Minetta Bird’s perfections of character, appearance, dress, and manner. Minetta Bird was his darling’s name. “Min,” he called her, as his confidence grew more confidential. Before a fortnight had passed he had confided in every girl on the flat; always in a low, earnest voice, presumably with the impression that the nature of his communications was unsuspected by the rest; whereas by this time Benno’s “boshter” had become the choice jibe of the factory, the printing flat, and the warehouse below.
“I’m just crazy gone on ’er,” he told Kitty Coudray; “’n’ she deserves it. Innocent!—innocent!”— Benno was simply confounded in the contemplation of Min’s infantile unworldliness, and words failed him.
“Beautiful soft golden ’air,” murmured the ecstatic voice from the folding board.
“Mouth like a bloomin’ babby,” cried the ex-professional fat girl.
“’N’ she didn’t know it was loaded,” interjected a third voice somewhat irrelevantly, it would seem.
And then came a chorus like a chant from the four corners of the flat.
“Oh, she’s a little boshter!” The expression was repeated three times, with increasing intensity. This had been adopted as a plan of defence. It threatened to put an end to Benno’s confessions, but the clerk’s devotion dulled his sensibilities and subjugated even his vanity.
It was a good time for the printer’s devil. Billy the Boy had some talent as a caricaturist, and much stolen leisure; he littered he factory with ribald illustrations of Benno’s courtship, in which Min—was represented with a wicked leer and a sliding chin, and giving expression to vulgar sentiments encased in small balloons. He scattered fictitious love-notes, addressed to Benno and signed ‘The Boshter’, all of which represented Min as a designing creature of the yellowest dye, and he had a most irritating way of bobbing up above the stair rail at odd moments, and ejaculating amazedly: “’N’ her ’air’s ez good ez gold.” Mottos casting ridicule on the innocence and prettiness of Miss Bird were scribbled on the white-washed walls, and strangers visiting the flat were beset with questions respecting the character, habits, and appearance of Benno’s boshter.
The humour of the town traveller was particularly offensive. He had a deep sense of gravity, and his method of attack was to address indirect conversations to the furthest ends of the flat. His theme was always the infantile virtues of Min. He had a fresh story every morning, each more preposterous than the other, and his repertoire of music-hall—the heroines of which were guileful creatures who hid their vicious tendencies under golden hair and an ingenious girlishness—was practically inexhaustible.
But Benno’s mental obfuscation pulled him through. His infatuation survived all attacks, and one morning he came in fatuously radiant.
“She—she’s promised t’ be my wife, ole man,” he gasped, grasping the packer’s hand, and shaking it with great heartiness.
Feathers stood it manfully. “Don’t surprise yeh much, does it,” he said. “Thought yeh was prepared for ther worst.”
“You don’t understand ’er, Mills. She’s er hangel—er bloomin’ hangel—that’s what she is,” said Dickson, fervently.
“Well, she’s goin’ cheap,” answered the packer.
Benno was beyond insult and above anger. He went through the factory bubbling. He bubbled all day. He even forgave Goudy everything, and bubbled to him.
“She’s goin’ t’ marry me, Scotty,” he said confidentially.
“Well, ’ou brought it on yourself!” answered the town travellor, washing his hands of the whole business.
Benno told everybody in the place, bar Spats himself, and for one portentous moment the flat thought he was even going confide in the boss; but the clerk recollected himself in time, and pulled up short. For a year after, the Beauties wondered what would have happened had Benno actually babbled his rapture to the master. The majority favoured the opinion that Spats would have burst on the spot.
After this, Dickson’s raving took a new form; it was now all of the little cottage and the furnishing. He was leaving everything to Min, excepting, of course, the unimportant part of financing the business; that was his pleasant duty.
“Yeh know, Feathers, she’s no bally nark; er bloke kin trust ’er,” he said. “’N’ she’s got taste, mind yeh. ’Er father was er winder-dresser once. She took er pretty little cottage, ’n’ furnishin’ it good ’n’ fine. I’m outer all that; don’t even know where ther crib is. When all’s finished, we rings up ther parson, do ther trick, all rights reserved, ’n’ I sails inter me little ’ome, all Sir Garney oh. That’s er idea. Just ther thing, eh, what. Oh, yeh can’t push er down. She’s er boshter!”
The happy date arrived. Benno was allowed two days off on full pay to celebrate the event. Spats liked his hands to marry; it made them submissive, he thought; hence the liberality. Benno returned on the third day, and the Beauties greeted him yell as he mounted the stairs. The yell died away when Dickson came fully into view. Benno the jaunty was no more; a grey-faced, pinched, hollow-eyed, broken wretch confronted them. The clerk almost staggered to the packer’s bench, and, leaning upon it, passed a nervous hand over his eyes. There was an abject piteousness in his face, his lips trembled, a tear rolled down his cheek.
“I bin done, Feathers,” he blurted. “She—she’s er speiler.” Benno’s head dropped, he cried before them all, sobbing without shame.
“What, ain’t yeh married, then” asked Feathers.
Benno shook his head. “No,” he said; “she never turned up. I ’unted fer ther ’ouse yesterdee ’n’ ther day before. I—I found it. It was furnished beautiful.” Benno’s feelings overcame him again.
“’N’ ther girl” prompted Feathers, eagerly.
“She’d—she’d married another feller, ’n’ he was livin’ in my ’ouse!”
Goudy let fall the parcel he had taken up when Benno entered. His face was set hard, like that of a stone man He walked straight to the stairs, head erect, and went down past each flat right into the cellar, and at the far end, in the darkness, among the bales, he sat down and exploded, and the echoes of his mad subterranean laughter came faintly up to the factory. But there was no laughing there. Benno was weeping at his desk, and the Beauties were storming in throes of indignation righteous and profound. Hours later the factory generously offered to “deal with” Min but Benno, with a touch of his old self, said that it didn’t matter; he had consulted his solicitor.