“No man that wore ’ome-made round-th’-’ouses ever done wonders in this world,” Mills continued. “Napoleon’s missus never made his trowsis, ’n’ iv Julius Caesar’s ole lady ’d tried t’ push a brace iv pants cut off a set iv father’s on t’ him, he’d ’a’ shown her some new hits, take it from me. Straight, there ain’t no call fer two opinons ’bout the bloke in breeches with all the fullin’ in front, ’n’ legs like rusty tin cylinders. They show he ain’t got hit enough in him t’ make himself respected in his own ’ome, ’n’ you can bet that at a pinch the wearer wouldn’t have sufficient gimp t’ get up off a tack.”
Feathers punched his parcel round, and whipped in the other end with automatic precision. “’N’ yet,” he said, bitterly, “half the ’ouses in town ’ud give a gooey iv that sort a billet rather ’n’ take on a lad with a tizzy’s worth iv grit in him. ’Specially if His Trowsis had a slitherin’ chin, ’n’ the Sunday face iv a sick sheep.”
The new man packed on in a painful way. The articles Mills handled so deftly tormented him like things possessed of devils, and slid all over the bench. His face was that of a depressed animal, and his large, pale eyes had the intense expression of a prestidigitateur in action.
“Feathers,” said the town traveller, “you’re a heathen. You do not appeciate the refining influence of a pure woman. Now, when I see a man in a pair of trousers facing both ways I recognise the tender touch of a woman’s hand, and know he has a good, frugal, little wife.”
“Who knocks cats out iv him iv he spits in the fender.”
“I admit the trousers mother makes are not elegant, but by persistenly making her hubby’s pants, a thoughtful wife may save enough to bury him.”
The trousers were Dutch-rigged and wonderful. They were of a thick, hard, brown material, and looked as if they might have stood alone had not one leg been so much shorter than the other; they were extremely baggy fore and aft, and were corrugated up the seams, and had a decided list to port; but the criticism did not seem to reach the wearer. He found no personal significance in the conversation, but was absorbed in the effort to get the paper round his parcel without spilling everything. Billy the Boy, whose mere wart of a nose poked into all mischief, had been grinning ecstatically through the stair battens, and now ventured to take his part in the play. He approached the new man and examined his trousers closely, critically, with grave concern, from several points of view. He was very small, very inky, and had a sense of humor much beyond his years. He touched the new man inquisitively.
“How’d it happen, cully” he said, pointing to the trousers.
The new man looked down at his pants, and his parcel went to pieces under his hand again. He turned round once, as if to get a general view.
“What’s wrong” he said.
“Did yeh put ’em on wrong, ’r hev they gone wrong on yeh?” asked the printer’s devil, anxiously.
“They’re all right, ain’t they?” asked the man, and he dusted them carefully.
“Oh, they’re jist the glassy, but if yeh did’nt get in backwards yeh must ’a’ turned the corner too soon.”
The new man suspected something jocular at last, and looked up, and bleated at Feathers and the town traveller. He meant well, and thought he was smiling, but, as Benno said, it looked like the figure-head of a wild asylum having spasms.
“Jimmy Jee!” ejaculated Feathers. “Someone stop it, for the love iv heaven.”
“Mother, I’ve come home to die,” sang Goudy.
“Kiss me ’n’ I will be good,” cried Bella Coleman, and the pasters squealed rapturously. A new hand was always fair game for them.
The foreman cantered down the room spluttering; the new hand switched off his smile, and the others went about the firm’s business with an appearance of great industry.
Levi Goss, the new hand, had been engaged to assist Feathers during the busy season, and the packer had wasted so much time endeavouring to teach him his business that he now regarded him as a painful grievance, sent into the factory by Spats and an adverse Providence for his especial mortification.
Levi was about 35, a lugubrious and unsociable person who neither drank, smoked, swore, nor canoodled with Beauty. “He ain’t no hangel, but he enjoys all the disadvantages,” said Feathers. He was always dressed in anticipation of the worst, in heavy suits that looked as if they had been made more by accident than design, and wore thick, grey, woollen socks, and thick, blue, knitted mitts about his wrists, and a thick woollen muffler, and he carried an umbrella. The packer declared that he wore red felt chest-protectors and woollen knee comforters, too, but that was mere conjecture.
Goss was something of a new chum, and spoke with the remains of a barbarous North country dialect, the burr of which defies every known process of literary reproduction. He was a covert man, and avoided the girls with a deliberate intention that became an offence in the course of a week—an open offence calling for retaliation. It was crass folly to take service in a factory full of undisciplined hussies in any spirit but one of proper humility backed by trust in Providence.
The Beauties resented Goss’s dull, unseeing eye and his bovine insensibility, and with the sex’s quick instinct in discovering man’s most vulnerable parts, opened an attack upon his trousers.
These trousers were a source of great uneasiness to Levi; they were always on his mind. It was not the eccentricity of their style that worried him—he was plainly unconscious of their imperfections—but fear that an injury should come to them. His care that no stain should sully their well-preserved newness, was not merely the natural anxiety of a careful man. There was terror in it. For a time his little attentions were secret. He would fearfully inspect his nether garments by the lift windows behind the piled bales. He went under cover to brush them many times a day, and before leaving of an evening cautiously removed every particle of factory dust.
Later, when his pants became an object of open ridicule and a target for scorn, Goss’s distress about them was open and undisguised, and still the Beauties harried him with heathenish relish. Clots of paste attached themselves to his trousers in ways inconceivable to the wearer; adhesive papers were picked up from every scat; flour bespattered them, and they were defiled with dust and printer’s ink and gum. Levi grew haggard in his devotion to them, and wore the look of a hunted animal.
The factory was never without a stock joke or two, and for a fortnight Levi’s trousers usurped the honor. One afternoon the Fat Girl came from the changing-room in a caricature of the despicable garments, done in hessian, drawn on over her petticoats, and the result was a storm of ribald joy that drove the foreman half frantic, and brought Spats himself up from his lurking place in the warehouse. Purple with wrath, and quite breathless after the exertion, he stood for a minute at the head of the stairs, a malignant black figure, scowling horribly.
On another occasion a large tub of paste disguised with paper was substituted for the seat Levi usually occupied at lunch, and Levi came up out of it so bedraggled that his misery completely unsettled the packer, and Feathers assisted manfully in cleaning him down. This kindly office must have touched the new hand; at any rate it led him to repose some little confidence in the packer. A few hours later he approached the bench at which Feathers was working, and said, lugubriously:
“You know, Mr. Mills, I got a sorrer, I have.”
“Whater” gasped Feathers.
“I got a sorrer—here.” He smote himself on the breast, and returned to his work, leaving the packer in a condition of semi-paralysis. It was too good a joke to be thrown away.
“Know what” said the packer to Goudy and the clerk next morning. “Goss’s got a sorrer. Ain’t yeh, Goss”
Levi nodded, and pointed to his heart as if to imply its secret nature. “Here,” he said, and his expression was such that Goudy bent suddenly over a parcel and coughed violently to save the situation.
“Hello,” said Benno, “a sorrer—eh what? ’Tain’t a little duchess is it”
“No, no, no, no,” gasped Levi, with trepidation; “it isn’t anything of that kind.”
“Something he’s keeping from the missus,” said Goudy.
“Maybe iv it ain’t women it’s the booze,” mused Feathers. “Confide in us, Goss—weak men the best iv us, ’n’ all mis’rable sinners.”
“Perhaps it’s his trousers,” ventured the town traveller, with a sympathetic inflection.
Goss shook his head. “No,” he said, “it’s a secret sorrer.”
“Ther fact is,” Feathers admitted, impressively, “his missus makes him wear red flannel binders.”
“They’re very sustaining,” said Goudy, encouragingly.
“Yes, but blime a bloke in flannel binders ain’t properly weaned; ’n’ I cud just cry over pore ole Levi there with binders gnawin’ inter his vitals.”
“Here,” cried Goudy, tremulously, “don’t you give way or you’ll have me crying, too.”
Goss hastened to reassure them, but he would not tell the true story of his sorrow.
Within ten minutes the whole factory was in possession of the legend of Levi’s sorrow, and the Beauties were enjoying it with undisciplined rapture like the barbarians they were. It was a new theme, but it did not divert attention from the trousers, which seemed to develop fresh possibilities in the way of low comedy every day, and at length Levi approached Feathers on the subject.
“I say,” he said, with the faintest suggestion of impatience, “is there anythin’ wrong about my trousers”
“Yer trowsis!” ejaculated Feathers, with surprising self-control.
“Yes, what’s against them!”
The packer examined the clothes with a judicial air, as if his attention had now been called to them for the first time.
“I dunno,” he said, “they seem t’ be a orl right pair iv pants, iv sound constitution, ’n’ not too saucy. Hi, Benno!” The clerk climbed down from his desk, and joined in the inspection. “Yeh don’t see nothin’ irreg’lar about Goss’s trowsis, do yeh” continued Feathers. “Jest have a look at ’em, ’n’ give us yer unbiassed opinion.”
“They’re the pink!” said Benno, warmly. “T’ tell the gor’s truth, if I have showed any envy iv Goss, it’s on account iv them garments.”
Feathers called the Fat Girl, and she came readily. “Goss here, he’s a bit put out over his pants,” said the packer. “Thinks perhaps they ain’t the height iv ambition in their way. Speakin’ ez a hexpert, what’s yer candid opinion iv ’em, Miss Pilcher”
“If Mr. Goss hadn’t been so cold to me I’d ’ve asked him fer a pattern off ’em fer pa,” said Martha, almost sadly.
“’Old ’ard a bit, ’n’ I’ll whistle up the guv’ner, ’n’ we’ll hear what a really great mind thinks about ’em.” Feathers pulled the plug out of the speaking-tube, and blew a blast. “Is Mr. Odgson in his office” Y’ might ask him t’ step upstairs fer a moment. Goss is in great distress iv mind about his trowsis—wants counsel’s opinion respectin’ the fit iv the keel ’n’ the hang iv the basque.”
“No, no, no, no!” wailed Goss. “It doesn’t much matter. You mustn’t disturb the proprietor.” He fled back to his bench, and flurried a thousand envelopes on to the floor.
That was a very bad day for the trousers, and in the evening, a few minutes after the last of the girls had gone downstairs, an excited bit of pantomime on the part of the packer brought half-a-dozen printers to the top flat. Feathers, going on tip-toe, led them round the turn of the room to where Levi Goss, denuded of the precious breeches, stood at the sink, a lank-legged, ungainly object, carefully cleaning his pants with “turps.” Feathers commanded silence with a master hand. Then suddenly bounded down upon Levi, counterfeiting great excitement.
“Run fer yer life!” he yelled. “Run, ’r yer a rooned man! Half-a-dozen iv the girls ’re comin’ back up the stairs.”
Levi swung round, and glared for one terrible moment, his eyes full of horror, his fallen chin suggestive of a sheepish helplessness, his few poor wits utterly demoralised by the shock; and then he made a desperate rush for the lift as the only possible haven of refuge, pulled the rope with a furious tug, and dropped out of sight.
Goss made frantic efforts to struggle into the wrong end of his trousers during the down journey, but had only succeeded in working up a strange entanglement when the lift bumped on the bottom floor at the wide doors opening on to a crowded lane, where two-thirds of the Beauties were still loitering, exchanging badinage with the youths in the bacon stores opposite.
A shriek of pagan delight greeted the spectacle of the trouserless man, and there was a dash for the entrance.
Terror-stricken, Goss caught up his draperies and rushed into the cellar, falling over bales in his hurry. He went up the rough steps to the first flat in a few bounds, ending in a grotesque scramble. Voices above headed him off, and he raced down the warehouse, like some quaint, mad animal, and jumped for the front stairs. His clambering up them was suggestive of the caperings of a drugged tarantula. He made maniacal attempts to jump into his trousers as he climbed, and twice he hit the steps with his shins, and sprawled half way down the flight again, his face retaining the expression of a man escaping narrowly from the jaws of some ravening beast, and all the while clerks and customers gaped in speechless wonderment.
The Printers’ flat greeted Goss with a yell as he rushed through it, trailing his trousers. One voice cried “Fire!”
Thrown back by the sounds of feminine squealing above, Levi hurled himself bodily under the double-royal printing machine, and lay there, beseeching protection in gasps, and picking up inked paper and coagulated grease as he fought his way into his garments again.
Neither Spats nor the second in command was in the establishment during the term of Levi’s flight, and there was nobody malicious enough to give him away, but Goss was not destined to remain long in Spats’ factory.
One afternoon, eight or nine days later, a short, stout, neat-looking Methodistical woman of about 30, with a very businesslike expression in her eye, came up the back stairs and stood for a moment regarding Levi Goss silently, severely. Levi’s work slid from his hand; he cowered under the stern gaze like a criminal. Feathers, looking from one to the other, whistled down the scale.
“Goss’s sorrer, fer a dollar!” he said.
The woman advanced to Levi. “So, Mr. Goss, this is your quiet little job, is it?” Her eyes went over the factory taking inventory of the girls, and classifying them, and her lips tightened, and her color rose. “You dissipated devil!” she hissed. “You abominable rake! You have deceived me. This is why you have lied to me.”
“’Pon my soul, Louisal I—” Levi’s attitude was humble, but the woman cut him short.
“Yes,” she cried, “you are in your element here with all these hussies, you wretch. Oh, but you shall pay for this.” Nobody seeing Louisa’s face could doubt it for a moment. “To think after all the care I have taken of you, you should have been here unwatched, unguarded. You brute, I’ll divorce you.”
The truth dawned upon the factory. Louisa was jealous—jealous of her Levi. It seemed too utterly grotesque, but there was no doubting it. Bella Coleman had marked the word “hussies”, and the contemptuous flashes in Louisa’s grey eyes, and she approached diffidently with an anxious expression, seeking vengeance.
“Who—who are you, woman?” she asked in agonised Theatre Royal accents.
“I am this man’s wife, that’s who I am!” said Louisa, fiercely.
“Great Heavings!” gasped Bella, staggering. “Great Heavings; and he never told us he was a married man.”
Then she passed on with bowed head and a faltering step, the picture of a blighted life.
Louisa turned on Goss, and for half-a-minute she was speechless. Then she seized him by the shoulder. “Get your coat!” She dragged him from his bench, and Levi lurched away to the dressing room, Louisa retaining her grip. He returned presently with his coat, and Louisa, with her relentless clutch upon him, pushed him before her down the stairs. She pushed him all the way, never relaxing her hold for a moment. Feathers, leaning over the rail, watched them down in a dazed way, with the feeling of a man who had seen the last possibility of human folly. Then he straightened himself and addressed the factory.
“Levi’s a giddy,” he said. “He’s a rake, a bloomin’ Henry the Eight. ’n’ in them trowsis too!”
But we had not seen the last of Levi Goss. He came up to the top flat again next day with his wife in charge. Louisa stood aside, wearing a grim, unbelieving expression, while her husband set about clearing his character.
“I’m in an awful mess, Mr. Mills,” he said to the packer, “and you’re a good chap, you’ll help me. See, my missus, she’s ’orribly jealous o’ me, and I didn’t care to tell her I was workin’ in the same room with a pack o’ girls, and now she thinks I’ve bin carryin’ on, and—and I didn’t get a wink o’ sleep all last night. ’Twas bad enough when I got my clothes dirty, but now it’s somethin’ awful.” A tear rolled down Levi’s cheek.
Feathers took the matter in hand with judicious gravity. He assured Mrs. Goss that her husband’s conduct had been most exemplary during his stay in the factory, that he had been blind to beauty and deaf to the voice of the tempter. He produced witnesses in proof, Bella Coleman among the rest, and this young lady admitted that Goss’s not having told her he was a married man might reasonably have been ascribed to the fact that he had never spoken to her at all. “I wouldn’t have one like him if they gave ’em away with a gold mine,” added Miss Coleman, with convincing emphasis.
Levi looked happier as he went away, and Feathers called a bit of advice after them.
“Take it from me, missus,” he said, “give the pore man a charnce. Let him buy his own trowsis.”