The packer recaptured him on the printers’ flat.
“It’s all right, Mumps,” said Feathers. “You’re the new boy, I reckon.”
“’M orf it,” answered the boy, sullenly.
“Rats!” said the packer. “This is dead easy. Yer got nothin’ t’ do ’ere but tickle the pianer ’n’ blow the dust off the chandeliers.”
Feathers towed the lad back to the flat, and away to the changing room, where he superintended the removal of his coat and the donning of a hessian apron with a large pocket across the middle, a relic of the truculent boy. Then he led Mumps to the busy half of the long room, and started him up the track to the foreman’s retreat. But a couple of minutes after resuming work the packer saw that Mumps was standing where he had left him, in the middle of the gangway, gazing straight before him, like something petrified. Mumps had no initiative; this was discovered before he had been in the factory an hour. A girl’s glance had the effect of striking him motionless in the middle of a job, and he would stand inert, with a lolling tongue and a dead eye. Fuzzy, the foreman, gave him a fresh start.
“Nice, bright, active, lovable lad that,” said the clerk to Feathers. “Wonder where they gathered him”
“He come over th’ ’sylum wall,” said the packer. “Already he’s brought the best knife in the big machine down on a spanner, cut two reams iv cartridge t’ waste, ’n’ spilt a quart iv ink inter Fuzzy’s lunch.”
“’N’ he hums like a little bone mill,” said Benno, “bless him!”
It was his capacity as a “hummer” that conquered the factory. Where he passed went consternation, and even Fuzzy, who was supposed to be superior to little prejudices, put Mumps from him, and regarded him with a thoughtful and troubled air. The Beauties were not hampered by the niceties of polite convention; they rarely strained the point at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue; and when Mumps passed them by the injured did not stifle their cries, but yelled like devils.
Martha, the ex-professional fat girl, when Mumps brought work to her table, cried “Wow!” threw her apron over her head, and sat down on the floor in an imitation fit.
“Give it Christian burial,” squealed the thin machinist.
“Shift that tannery!” The whole flat was giving tongue.
“Yah, dry it, can’t yeh,” said Benno, “The lad was reared in a soap foundry ’n’ can’t help hisself.”
Mumps did not show that he was conscious of the impression he was making; the scorn of the girls failed to deepen the heavy imbecility of his manner. It was late in the afternoon, when all hope of an abatement of the nuisance had been abandoned, that Feathers attacked the new boy.
“In the name o’ Jimmy Jee, wha’s the matter with yeh” he cried, brutally. “Bli me, you’re ’ummin’ somethin’ awful.”
“’Taint me, neither,” growled Mumps.
Feathers pulled at the pocket of the apron. “What yeh got ’ere” he said. “Pooh! Strike me dead! She’s a corker. Take it out!” he yelled.
Mumps dipped into the pocket and produced a dead rat on a string, the identical rat with which the truculent boy had stampeded the factory. Being unable to escape from the folded apron, the beast had perished miserably, and Mumps had carried its remains with him all day.
“Well, you’re a shine idyit,” commented Feathers. “Why didn’t yer throw the thing away”
“How wiz I t’know” whined the morbid boy.
This was characteristic of Mumps; the rat might have remained there a month before he would have taken upon himself the responsibility of dislodging it.
Feathers had some felicity in the selection of nicknames, and although the new boy was officially entered as John Robey, the room refused to recognize him as anything but Mumps. Strange to say, Ellis contracted a liking for John; possibly because the youngster was never impudent. John, who seemed to be in a perpetual state of moral hibernation, hadn’t sufficient impulse to be insolent, and the foreman had had a large and varied experience of boys with impulse. As a rule, the boys treated Fuzzy brutally. The truculent boy—4ft. 9in. and 13 next birthday—had once clamored violently for three rounds with his boss, being anxious to prove in the eyes of the whole world which was “best man.” True, Mumps was dull and needed close watching, and had to be started and stopped like a machine, and could never learn what was to be done next, and was liable to fall into a condition of open-mouthed inanimation in the middle of a job, but he never gave back-talk, and there was something respectful in his stupid awe.
Three mornings running a very ponderous woman, who was taken to be his mother, lugged Mumps up the stairs and drove him to his work, but after that John accepted the inevitable and came regularly at eight. He brought enormous lunches in a rush basket, and sat alone amongst the bales to eat them. When work started again, his distress was painful to behold, and he was often heard to groan pitiably during the hour that followed. Then Benno would tell him that he ought to have his lunch made to measure and not go trying to fit a No. 3 stomach on a No. 9 meal; and Feathers would gravely advise him to have it pulled.
One morning Mumps fell into a state of dreamy inaction over a truck of grey sugar paper, just where the front stairs cut into the flat. A yap at his back jerked him into consciousness, and, looking round, he discovered the imposing figure of the boss at his heels. Instantly John Robey was thrown into a condition of fatuous irresponsibility; he seized on his truck, heaved up the great burden, made a blind stagger, and rushed the whole box of tricks straight down the stairs. The truck bounded, threw a dazzling revolution, and its handles crashed through the floor of the first landing. Great reams of paper leaped down the remaining stairs, shooting in all directions into the printing room, and the crashes told of ravage and disaster. Mumps stared after his lost load for seven terrible seconds, and then turned, and fled for the men’s dressing-room. He reappeared with his hat in his hand, dragging his coat after him, and darted down the back stairs.
Feathers overtook John, and he was given another trial after the foreman had interceded on his behalf, but the printers’ devil never forgave him. One of the reams having jumped into a tub of lye, and deluged Billy with the awful mixture, the boy felt called upon to subject John to monotonous persecution as long as he remained in the place. Mumps was a child of persecution, but he dulled the point of practical jokes by preserving a Chinese unconsciousness. The packer dropped all subterfuge, and treated him as an open and unabashed idiot, telling him twenty times a day exactly how much of an ass he was, in language calculated to appeal to the lowest intelligence, but always with a well-intentioned and benevolent air as of one imparting useful knowledge. Benno, however, adopted a tone of biting irony, and it must be credited to Mumps’ penetration that one day, after surveying the clerk heavily for five minutes or so, he said: “I hate you, Dickson!” Although the tone was phlegmatic, this, coming from Mumps, was regarded as an amazing burst of confidence.
At about this time there began a frequent disappearance of lunches, and although John Robey was known as a monument of gluttony it did not occur to anybody that he had degenerated into a crib thief. For over a week suspicion rested upon the rats, which were frequent in the factory, though during all that time Mumps’ painful indispositions might have enlightened the dullest minds. One day when three lunches were missed, Mumps remained curled up on a big bag of waste for some time after the lunch hour, sweating and groaning. He told Feathers that it was “apendickitis” he had. Later the crib thief grew discriminating, and stole only the choicest morsels from the lunches, spoiling no less than nine in one morning. But it was not till Miss Kruse sent John out for sixpenn’orth of mixed pastry, and he came back with the empty bag and explained dully that he had eaten the stuff “by accident,” that the elucidation of the mystery was whispered about.
Next morning at about a quarter to twelve, while Mumps was depositing work on Martha Pilcher’s board, the fat girl called across the room:
“Say, youse, I’ve fixed up them rats proper this trip. They nicked some ’am sandwiches from my lunch this mornin’. Them sandwiches was poisoned!”
Mumps dropped the goods he had in his hands, and stared at Martha, and his pallor took a faint greenish tinge.
“I poisoned ’em myself,” said Martha, “with ninepenn’orth o’ arsenic.”
Mumps doubled his arms across his stomach, bent like a man in agony, and uttered a long, anguished howl.
“They’s enough poison in ’em to kill a norse,” continued the fat girl, remorselessly.
The boy scrambled under the bench, and rushed for the stairs. He was heard to fall down the last flight. He raced through the warehouse, colliding blindly with the boss in the doorway, and a few minutes later the people in the main street of the city saw a white-faced, despairing Mumps, wild-eyed, bare-headed, and wearing a bag apron, racing along the road like something frantic. Mumps clamored at the door of the most expensive doctor in town, kicking the panels, pulling the bell, and shrieking simultaneously; and when the door was opened to him he fell in, crying:
“I’m poisoned. Quick! quick! do something—they’ve poisoned me!”
About an hour later, a tall, grave constable brought John Robey back to us, and John was a woeful thing to see—pale and clammy, and so limp that the policeman had to hold him up, like exhibit A, while he explained to the company:
“He swore he was poisoned. The doctor said ’twas nothing of the kind, but the b’y was so set on it, the gentleman gave him a bit iv an emetic to satisfy him. Bechune me ’n’ youse, things iv happened sinst.”
“He looks it,” said the packer.
Mumps was dropped on a bag of waste, where he groaned so fearfully that Fuzzy endeavoured to reassure him by explaining that whatever had happened to Martha’s sandwiches they were free of poison, and fit for human consumption.
“’Tain’t that, mister,” said Mumps, weakly. “I’m starvin’. They ain’t nothin’ left inside o’ me, an’ I’m starvin’ to death.”
There was no denying that the possibility had real terrors for him, so Ellis took pity on his emptiness, and Mumps was sent home to re-stock.
|1. A version of this story is found in Benno and Some of the Push [back]|