“Er man learns a bit ’bout women in a crib like this,” he said, ruminating over a quid, “’n’ the more he learns, the more he puts his confidence in beer.”
Nobody had ever seen the packer drunk, but he had a deep, abiding affection for beer, and with the affection was coupled a large respect.
“It’s these cheap ’n’ easy shickers rollin’ round on their ear what brings discredit on beer. ’Tain’t the liquor wot’s snide, it’s the dead hookity hides what it gets chuted into, ’n’ the grown bloke ez kin take his little lot in bond, ’n’ then go ’ome on his own end ’ithout wakin’ the town, ’s got a friend in beer more lovin’ than mother. Jimmy Jee! how’d a man get bumped with worldly trubs if he ’adn’t beer t’ fall back on! ’Ow’d I iv bin many a time if ’twasn’t fer the drop iv buck-up? I’ve seen me put all my bits on a little silly more’n once ’r twice, ’n’ played fer keeps too—took the teetotal fer ’er sake, ’n’ was mother’s bes’ boy fer ez much ez a month, ’n’ then ’ad t’ get back et the pints agin fer consolation. Now I wouldn’t turn it down fer the toffest Dolly on the block.”
The “little silly” Mills had more particularly in his mind when moralizing thus was Connie Gleeson, an expert paster from a rival establishment. Miss Gleeson was a revelation to Spats’ Beauties—tall and fair, with large blue eyes, abundant hair, an excellent complexion, and a decent figure. Sitting quite still, in a plain black dress, with her mouth shut, Connie was a passable imitation of a lady, but the illusion vanished the moment she opened her ruby lips. Feathers was well pleased with her; so was Benno, and, for the matter of that, so was Billy the Boy, in whom familiarity with the Beauties had bred a quaint precocity.
“My Jimmy! you kin tread on me face, whoever y’ are,” said the small devil, when he first confronted Miss Gleeson. “You’re the prize bloom, Sis. Where’d they get yeh? Look ’ere, if you ain’t runnin’ a bes’ boy iv yer own would y’ min’ givin’ me a little kiss”
“Cheeky boy,” said Miss Gleeson. “Get goin’ ’r I’ll hit y’ in the squint.” She threatened him pleasantly with her brush.
Billy the Boy stood back for a better view. “What’s a bonzer like you doin’ spreadin’ sour paste fer yer daily?” said the wise child. “You outer be in the sixp’ny bar, spangled with di’monds, dishin’ up drinks t’ lots iv squatters.” To Billy’s young idea, a barmaid’s position in a sixpenny bar was the ultimate height in the way of social elevation.
“Wa’s that” exclaimed Miss Gleeson, struck with the idea. “D’yeh think I’d do fer a barmaid”
“Do I what? Take it from the teller, you’d slap the town. You’d have firs’ pull ermong the doods, ’n’ cud pick one t’ suit.”
Feathers came softly behind the printer’s devil, took him by the ear, led him to the top of the stairs, and prompted him with a kick. Billy went down. The packer already had other views for Miss Gleeson, and he did not like the turn the conversation had taken.
“Gar-rt!” cried Connie. “Le’ the boy be. ’E’s a fair treat.”
Billy’s head bobbed up the stairs again. “’Andle him tender, Sis,” he piped, “he’s li’ble t’ boils. That what yeh notice ’bout ’im’s free-lunch onyins. Cud chip it with a chisel, cudn’t yeh”
The packer’s usual weapon, the twine ball, missed, and knocked in the belltopper of the junior partner in the cellar below. Billy the Boy was absent from the subsequent explanations. He was very happy. Later in the day he presented Miss Gleeson with a caricature of the packer in three inks. Bill’s caricatures were always atrociously broad, and yet held some strange, loathly resemblance to the victim that made them a joy to everybody else.
Feathers’ love for Connie Gleeson was a sudden infection. In the words of Benno, he took it “ez the kitten took the brick.” Miss Twentyman introduced the stranger with grave formalities, and the packer was glad he had kept his collar on that morning, and pleased that his well-oiled hair was truly parted, and that the branching arabesques on his forehead were as accurate as a printer’s bracket. These reflections flowed in upon him, despite the fact that it was “a fair knock-out.” Connie had large eyes, into which she could infuse at will a touching shyness quite infantile. She rolled them at Mills, and she smiled at him through moist, red lips. She had a trick of moistening her lips when she wished to be particularly bewitching. Feathers was stunned. Ten minutes later Benno found him, fifty two-pound fruit bags in his inert hands, his jaws suspended, and his unseeing eyes fixed on the whitewashed wall beyond his packing-board, dead to the world.
“’Ello! ’ello, there!” cried the clerk, dropping a fourteen pound weight on the scales. “Get a move on, ’r you’ll get the shoot. Hoggy’s comin’ up with his gun.”
The packer sprung into action as if a button had been touched. “Hev y’ taken er inven’try iv the new goods” he said presently, finding it was a false alarm.
“What-ho!” said the little clerk, giving his lapels a tug. “Have I not!”
“Isn’t she” commented Mills, with something like enthusiasm.
“She is,’n’ more,” replied Benno. “Me ’n’ me worldly goods ’re all hers.”
“Pity t’ waste yeh!” sneered Feathers.
Miss Gleeson discovered herself to be the object of interest, and moistened her lips, dropped her face, and smiled up shyly at them through her nimbus of fair hair. It was a very pretty action, and most effective, but it drew a long, moaning sound from Harrerbeller Harte, followed by a lot of irrelevant baby-talk, addressed to nobody and nothing.
“Oo’s mummy’s ickle sly-boots, oo is—oo is! Baby’s a baddy baddy’icky bubb-bubb to goo-goo the wicked mans!” said the lank and homely Miss Harte, and she kept at it till Feathers got angry and advised her to get back to the madhouse.
“S’pose it’s in the fam’ily,” he said. “Y’orter be seen to. How d’we know y’ ain’t dangerous”
For answer Harrerbeller gave a grotesque parody of Miss Gleeson’s timid droop and moist, shy smile that set half the pasters squealing. Already the Beauties had decided that Connie was “as ratty as rabbits,” and their hasty judgment was confirmed by wider experience, although no man in the house could be brought to admit that there was anything the matter with Connie beyond an excess of girlish sweetness.
It is a foolish girl indeed who has not some kind of an eye to the main chance in her dealings with man, and it is not likely that Connie regarded Feathers as her main chance at any time. There is no doubt, however, that the packer was very serious. After the first month he gave up beer and other little self indulgences, in order to have it in his power to shout the young lady to 2s. seats at the Royal, and to suppers of fried whiting, chips, and coffee at the fish-shops. Feathers was not a demonstrative lover, but his affection for Miss Gleeson was soon common knowledge. He built a stack of sugar-bags near her board as a cover for little flirtations, and if anybody in authority came to the flat while he was making himself sweet with the paster, he adroitly shifted his interest, and was found to be busy at that stack, either taking parcels off or building them on.
Benno brought to Goudy the news that Mills had been seen at large in a flogger coat, and wearing a turn-over collar five inches high, and a little bow tie of tender pink. The facts were communicated in George’s hearing.
“Strike me, you’d iv thought it had ten thousan’ er year from aunty t’ do what it liked with,” said Benno.
“A little pink bow tie,” said the town traveller, with exaggerated interest. “How coy!”
“’N a new grey felt ’at tucked in by mother,” said Benno.
“And a pure white collar and a clean shave,” added Goudy. “It must have looked like ‘The Maiden’s Prayer.’ How did the women seem to bear up, poor things”
Feathers arranged fourteen pound of sugar bags with great attention to detail.
“But you’ve gotter overlook it.” Benno went on. “It ain’t responsible. It’s doin’ a dote on a little silly, ’n’ it’s took t’ walkin’ in its sleep.”
“Takes her to sixpenny shows, and shouts cough drops,” said the town traveller. “The man’s mad!”
Feathers began to soliloquise aloud. “Once knew a Scotchman give an ounce iv liver t’ bribe a tom cat, ’n’ then, after frettin’ erbout it fer a month, he ate the cat t’ get his own back.” Then, discovering Goudy and the clerk, he said pleasantly: “’Ello! is that you? Thort it was the cockroaches.” Taking up his parcel, the packer crossed to Connie’s board, and held playful conversation with the paster merely to demonstrate his superiority to criticism. While his back was turned, the town traveller filled his drawer with dodgers and cuttings from furnishing warehousemen’s advertisements, all addressed to those about to marry, and all undertaking to furnish a home for two at a cost the ridiculous smallness of which absolutely filled the advertisers with amazement. Later, Goudy led Miss Gleeson to the packer’s bench, and, pulling out the drawer, revealed to her the many cuttings.
“Keep at him, my girl. You’ve got him thinking,” he said.
“Yar, go’n chase yerself, why don’t yeh” said Miss Gleeson, pleasantly confused. Then, as a bright afterthought, she added, “Yer fair up the pole!”
Mills had become very spruce these mornings. He shaved every day. He wore white collars and gay ties at his bench, and kept a bit of broken mirror in the lift corner, to which he repaired several times a day to refresh himself and re-arrange his hair. Billy the Boy noticed these things, and commented on them.
“He’s bin mendin’ his hair agin, Sis,” said the small boy. “He parts it with a plumb-bob. I say, ain’t he one fer keepin’ hisself clean? I ain’t bin able t’ rekernize him lately.”
Billy lurked behind stacks of bales, with his retreat always open. The packer placed a hard twine ball handy, and trusted in Providence. Billy the Boy resented the packer’s courtship of Connie. He thought she should aim higher, and he brought her affectionate messages, mostly mythical, from superior persons in the warehouse. Billy’s messages from the junior partner once removed, “Our Mr. Duff,” were particularly ardent. Miss Gleeson was inclined to think there was something in them, but everybody else knew them to be preposterous.
“Suety’s bin tellin’me he’s seen nothin’ t’ touch yeh ’tween here ’n’ world’s end, Sis,” said Billy, soberly.
“Oh, go on, get off me face,” answered Connie.
“Sez yer a knock-out, ’n’ if anyone ’ud poison his wife he’d be on’y too ’appy t’ track with yeh. He sez yer’air’s the goldenest he knows, ’n’ you’ve got a neye like a tram lamp, ’n’ ’ere are yow dodgin’ round with a waster like Feathers, what gets a matter iv three bob a day, ’n’ couldn’t afford t’ keep white mice after he’s paid fer the brilliantine what he glues his ’air with.”
Judge the amazement of the factory when one afternoon Mr. Duff, the junior partner once removed, approached Connie Gleeson’s board, and, under a thin and miserable pretence of examining her work, entered into serious conversation, which soon developed a flippancy of which his wife would certainly not have approved. Connie was greatly flustered and flattered. Her moist, red lips, her large, infantile eye, and her girlish airs were all overworked in a distressing way. A strange silence fell upon the Beauties. Feathers worked stolidly. His back betrayed nothing, but it would have pleased him to have been in a position to command a special thunderbolt for the junior partner that day.
In the course of a week Mr. Duff came twenty times to the factory flat and he never left without exchanging a little airy badinage with Miss Gleeson. On each succeeding occasion the conversation was a little more familiar, and Connie moistened her lips, giggled ingenuously, and, glancing up through her hair, said again and again: “Oh, Mr. Duff, you are a one!” Feathers grew murderous. Harrerbeller Harte’s little burlesques of the meetings convulsed the factory.
“Popsey-wopsey mustn’t play with the wicked gentleman,” cautioned Harrerbeller. “Wicked gentleman steal mummy’s ickle sweetie away, and then bub cry her pretty blue eyes out, she will. Popsey’s a teeny weeny sillikin; nice gentleman eat her all up!” In concluding, Harrerbeller aped a cow-like coquetry, and squealed with affected rapture: “Oh, Mr. Duff, you are a one!” And then the Beauties gave the chorus: “Oh, Mr. Duff, you are a one!” But Connie was not distressed by this by-play. She merely giggled, and wriggled, and rolled her blue eyes, and said, mincingly, with her most ladylike air: “Stop it off, y’ lot iv wasters. I wouldn’t ’ave him on me mind.”
Feathers was the real sufferer. In his own language, he was “off the Dolly.” Connie passed his bench now with her mouth pursed, her nose up, and her eyes half-closed, usually trilling a popular tune with a most elaborate assumption of preoccupation. The packer gave no sign, but his soul was a seething geyser of emotion, waiting for a chance to spout.
It was a pleasant afternoon. The sunshine poured in through the western windows, and a droning calmness was upon the factory. Mills packed steadily, apparently unconscious of everything but duty, really alert from his ear-tips to his ankles. Benno came to him from the lift end, touched him on the shoulder, winked three times, and jerked his thumb in the direction of the stacks.
“Get back t’ yer barrel!” said Feathers, with concentrated vindictiveness.
As if Feathers did not know that the junior partner had just met Connie as she was coming back from the boilers, and that round the turn of the room a flighty flirtation was going on. The packer could hear the sound of playful slapping, and Connie’s irritating titter scalded his ears. The two were under cover of a high stack of hat bags in parcels of five hundred, built twelve on, and almost reaching the roof. Hat bags are extremely light, the whole stack would not weigh anything considerable, and it had caved, and had a big list. It overhung the philanderer and Miss Gleeson like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Billy the Boy came up the stairs on a special mission.
“Mister Duff ’ere” he asked. “His missus wants him pertickler.” Billy looked back. “She’s comin’ up,” he said.
A blinding inspiration struck Mills. He ceased packing. His vengeance was at hand.
“Comin’ up, is she” He looked over the stair, and lied calmly. “Suety’s jist gone down t’ the printer’s flat. Get after him on the front stairs.”
Billy fled, and Feathers looked over the balusters again. He wished to time his little tableau precisely. There came to his mind rumors of Mr. Duff’s domestic infelicities. He had heard Mrs. Duff referred to as “the Duchess.” She was large and stout, and she had followed her husband to the top flat on previous occasions.
The packer bent over a few reams of confectionery paper by the stack of hat bags. His shoulder was against the stack. He lifted deliberately, and with a great heave, and slowly, silently, like a snow-drift, over went the stack, burying Connie and the junior partner in an avalanche of bags. One shrill scream from Connie, and for a moment all was still. Then there was a clamorous rush of Beauties. Mrs. Duff and Feathers were first upon the scene of the disaster. Feathers was particularly careful that Mrs. Duff should have a front place and a full view.
On the floor lay a mound of hat bags. Nothing of humanity was visible. Feathers set to work, hurling the parcels aside. He worked with energy, but wisely too, and presently a pair of boots came into view. They were the junior partner’s. Mrs. Duff recognised them with an ejaculation of terror. Feathers tossed aside a dozen more bundles, and another pair of boots and ankles were revealed. They were Connie Gleeson’s. Mrs. Duff uttered a second ejaculation, but this time it was not terror that impelled it. Feathers grinned inwardly.
“Get a jig on, can’t yeh” he cried, and the dumbfounded pasters fell upon the bundles.
A minute later Mr. Duff struggled up out of the wreckage, and shook himself. He was unhurt, and seemed rather amused. The next moment Connie was pulled from under, and she, too, stood erect.
“By Jove, that was a queer experience,” cried Mr. Duff. “I hope you’re not hurt, my dear.” Then he discovered his wife, and caught her awful eye.
“’E didn’t faint,” said Feathers to Goudy next morning. “’E didn’t scream. ’E jist faded away. ’E turned the tint iv a young Chow, ’n’ the smile went dead on his face, ’n’ he was struck that way. His wife took a firm ’n’ masterly grip iv his arm, ’n’ she said: ‘Come, Mister Duff! Come, Mister Duff!’ That was all, but y’ ortiv ’eard it. S’elp me, Jimmy Jee, ’twas like a sentence iv death! I watched ’em down stairs. She never eased her grip iv him all the way. I don’t believe she’s let go yet.”
“Mighty curious how that stack came to topple over just then,” said the town traveller, scratching his lip in a troubled way.
“Yes,” said the packer. “’Twas what the papers call a dispensation iv Providence.”
The following Saturday was Connie’s last day at the factory. A fortnight later Billy the Boy had news of her.
“Gleeson took the tip from one what knows, after all,” he said. “She’s in a bar up town. A sixpenny bar.”
“My troubs!” answered the packer. He was unshaven, uncollared, and disreputable, and there was a taint of beer in his atmosphere, but, all the same, when Billy had gone, he heaved a great sigh. She was indeed lost to him, for to Feathers a sixpenny bar seemed as remote as the North Pole, and not more desirable of attainment.