Claude was not yet fifteen, and was plainly a spoilt child. This was his first job. He came upstairs on his first morning, clinging to the hand of his papa, timorous and tearful.
Johns, senior, was a type of the highly respectable mechanic, the perfect model of all those splendid drawings of the British workman that adorned the Band of Hope, and other pious, non-alcoholic publications familiar in our youth. He had the same surprising and shining cleanliness, the same benignant, ox-like eye, the same trim, hyacinthine side-whiskers, the same luxuriant hair deftly combed into a ‘cockie,’ and was obviously possessed of all those gentle virtues that endear the teetotal, church-going English mechanic to the editors of moral publications for the very young.
Claude was a smaller edition of his excellent parent—spotless, deftly combed, highly polished as to face and boots, and extremely proficient in ‘manners.’ He took off his hat on entering the factory; he called the packer ‘Sir,’ and plaintively begged Harrerbeller Harte’s pardon for merely being alive. Master Johns’s large, turned-down collar gave him an infantile appearance, which was accentuated by his shy blue eye and childish diffidence.
Billy the Boy, who had followed in that spirit of earnest investigation so characteristic of him, surveyed Claude with disgust that implied an abandonment of all hope in the future of the human race.
“Now yiv got it,” he said to the packer. “Iv it ain’t the king stinker boy, pickle me.”
“Wha’s that?” asked Mills.
“G’out. A stinker boy’s a bub et school what won’t fight nothin’, smooges t’ the teachers, narks everythin’, ’n’s clean an’ pretty alwiz. You know—it’s granny’s ickle sweetie—early t’ bed, ’n’ early t’ rise, ’n’ gets sops fer breckfist every day.”
Having commanded Claude to the care of the foreman, with much solicitude, the elder Johns departed leaving his son leaning over the balusters of the parcel-well by the stairs, tremulous and desolate.
When his father passed from sight Claude’s apprehension quite overcame him. He cried “Dadder! dadder!” in despair, and then blubbered miserably.
The ruffianly young printer’s devil was struck speechless at the sight. He approached Master Johns, he examined him closely, and then, diving a knuckle into each eye, he too roared in an excess of grotesque woe.
Claude raised his voice. Billy the Boy raised his Billy’s anguish was something awful. Master Johns was touched at this generous sympathy. He ceased crying himself and looked tenderly at the devil.
“Dud-don’t kuck-cry, little boy,” he said.
That finished Billy. He hadn’t believed such simplicity could exist. He gaped dumbly for a moment, and then fell back in a simulated fit, and the packer took him up by the ear and solemnly slid down stairs.
“Yiv got somethin’t’ dry-nurse now, Feathers,” cried Billy from the first landing. “Lucky yer fond iv kids. Stick it in a corner with a crust t’ suck, ’n’ it’ll be good.”
Harrerbeller Harte, whose camel-like ungainliness and blatant humour masked a somewhat sensitive soul, took Claude under her wing, fashioned a hessian apron for him, and, having divested him of his coat and his impossible collar, decked him for labour, and handed him over to the packer.
“What’s yer name?” said Mills.
“Please, sir, Claude Alva Arthur”——
“Time flies,” interjected the packer. “S’pose we make it Snivel? It’s more like yer.”
Mills instructed Master Johns in the art of making up 14 lb. parcels, and the youth shaped better than might have been expected. In the course of a few days he was more at home in the factory than many hardened boys had succeeded in being in as many weeks.
Feminine company was congenial to Claude. He revelled in it. On the second day he kissed Harrerbeller, and that was more than a grown man would have done in seven years. He was already very partial to the ex-professional fat girl too, and had smooged about prim Miss Magill’s board a good deal.
Claude’s way with the women was distressingly ingenuous, and he had none of a boy’s natural shame about cuddling or being cuddled. He offered caresses in company without compunction, and received them unabashed. To Billy the Boy he was a source of unending amazement, and an object of unmitigated loathing. To vindicate the honour of his class the Boy felt called upon to boot Claude every time he found him guilty of conduct unbecoming a grown lad.
“Get t’ yer game,” he snorted disgustedly, coming upon Claude dangling about a paster of thirty, with an arm round her waist, and he punted him skilfully. “Want people t’ think y’ ain’t weaned? Look’ere, you’ll cop sock-o every time I get onter yeh playin’ handies, ’r doin’ duckie with our hemployees. Take that t’ go on with. It’ll make a man iv yeh!” He punted Claude again and then had to double smartly, and dive for the next flat to evade retribution from Feathers.
Claude wept. Claude always did weep. An unkind word would drive Claude to an excess of tears, and make him bleat like a motherless calf. The packer had no patience with his new assistant’s deplorable weaknesses, but was not willing to share with Billy the authority he himself had usurped from the timid foreman.
In fact, Claude’s snivelling was a new and poignant horror in the professional career of Mills. Where another boy would take a curse and a cuff uncomplainingly, counting it all in the day’s work, Snivel, if sternly rebuked, would relapse into a condition of tearful misery, and cry copiously for twenty minutes or so. When he had grown accustomed to the place, a tirade of doleful complaint went with the long blubbering.
“Come outer that, ’n’ dig in,” said Feathers, finding Claude philandering with the machinists when there was a rush on. “We ain’t hirin’ yeh t’ play hose you blighted gooey.”
Claude came, his face wreathed into an expression of deep-seated spiritual anguish and tears flowing down his cheeks.
“There you go,” he blubbered; “there you go, getting on to me again. You’re always getting on to me. Everybody gets on to me. I wish I was dead!”
“Jimmy Jee! that would be er himprovement,” said the packer. “I’ll squeeze half a dollar fer the undertaker’s exes.”
“Dicken there, Feathers,” chimed in Benno; “let the kid be. It’s his teeth worryin’ him. His mother sez he ain’t t’be teased.”
“That’s right,” wailed Claude, “insult my mother now; go on, insult my dear mother. If I was a man I would kill you but you know I am only a boy, and you do everything you can to make me unhappy.”
Snivel boo-hooed, and his tears splashed on the bags he was handling.
Billy the Boy went to him murmuring the soothing prattle usually addressed to fretful babies, arranged his apron with a few motherly touches and then tenderly wiped his nose with a bunch of cotton waste that left blobs of ink on Claude’s pink cheeks. Master Johns put up a pitiful cry. Benno laughed derisively, and Feathers plaintively requested the world at large to “give it milk fer the love iv Heaving.”
There was a yell of protest from the girls. Harrerbeller Harte dashed at Billy with her brush, and the devil jumped for the lift chain, and slid into the depths. Harrerbeller cleaned Claude’s face with the softer parts of her very pasty skirt, subjecting Feathers and Benno to contemptuous criticism the while.
“Lor’ bli,” she said, “youter be shot, a pair iv buck larrikins slingin’ off at a bit iv a kid.”
“Terust him not, gentle lydie,” sang Feathers. “Bit iv a kid,” he said—— “that? ’Struth, he’s a bloated Brigham Young, ’n’ he am’ troo t’ you, Harrerbeller. He loves some others. What erbout you, Beller, wastin’ yer wealth iv affection on a goody-goody-two-shoes when y’orter be standin’ up agin a sixteen stun p’leeceman?”
Miss Harte almost blushed. “What’s torkin’?” she said contemptuously, retiring to her table.
Nothing surprised Feathers so much as the attitude of the elder Beauties towards Claude Alva Arthur Johns. The younger girls treated him with the derision he deserved; the youngest-hoydens of about Claude’s own age-quarrelled with him continually, and slaps were frequently exchanged; but the elder girls and the old ones mothered him quite affectionately. When Snivel let them out by the basement door at night, after overtime, he kissed them all.
“Strike me cock-eyed iv the old dorkin’s ain’t stricken with it,” said Mills to the town traveller. “It’s a taste iv the unexpected. They waited for him comin’ ’n’ he never come at all, ’n’ now this is a sort iv Consolation Stakes. Et first ’twas had out in th’ open, but now it’s goin’ inter hidin’ behind the bales ’n’ stacks, ’n’ takin’ on the character n’ complexion iv ’n established smooge, with a touch iv the dear old Auntie Aggie business thrown in fer the sake iv decorum. Ez fer Snivel, he’s perfectly satisfied. He’s a whale fer motherly love ’n’ auntly affection ’n’ sisterly solicertude. Takes it all shapes, ’e does. He’d rather lean his bonny curls up agin a gentle breast than carry bricks.”
It was true that the demonstrations of affection for Claude, at first quite careless, had become somewhat covert, but the Beauties were responsible for this. They had grown sensitive to the gibes of the packer, and, although they might accept Claude’s caresses in comparative seclusion, they were impelled to restrain his innocent impetuosity in the eye of the factory. No barracking could alter Snivel’s affectionate little ways, but it often awoke tearful remonstrance.
“Well, I’m blessed!” he would cry with doleful self-pity. “It’s enough to break a fellow’s heart, abusing him just because he’s got a loving disposition. You’re cruel wretches, and I hate you!”
Then Claude would weep many tears, grumbling at his work about the packer’s wickedness and want of brotherly love.
“You’re always making my poor dear mamma cry with the way you treat me!” he blurted one afternoon, following the disclosure with a howl so poignant that Fuzzy came tumbling down the flat, thinking the boy had sustained a mortal injury.
The printer’s devil remained the sorest trial Snivel was called upon to endure. Billy found an infernal joy in pursuing him. Claude had to have a bodyguard of pasters going home in the evening and coming in in the morning; and Billy the Boy ferreted him out amongst the stacks at lunch-time, and, finding him in affectionate juxtaposition with the fat girl or Harrerbeller, or Miss Magill, or some other, mounted a bale and pointed out the error of his ways in language of remarkable fluency.
“I wish I’d had the bringin’ of yeh,” said Billy the Boy.
Claude had a favourite in the factory. It was Miss Lucy Tooth, machinist. She was a thin, decorous woman of twenty-seven, with superior airs and eyebrows permanently elevated. She called Snivel “a sweet boy,” and “a perfect little gentleman,” and coddled him a good deal. Then came the announcement of the machinist’s approaching marriage. It was not broken to Claude gently; the awful truth was flashed upon him, and it brought on one of his worst bursts.
“There, I knew you didn’t love me! You just pretended to love me, and you loved somebody else all the time.” He was crying wretchedly. “I don’t care, I won’t stand it,” he bleated. “Nobody loves me. I’ll kill myself! I’ll kill myself!”
Claude rushed to the recess by the lift where stood the taps and the paste-boiler, and presently sounds of a mild commotion issued from that quarter. Benno made a somewhat anxious move.
“Snivel’s gorn to kill hisself,” said Feathers; “don’t disturb him.”
But there followed screams and cries of terror, and the packer was constrained to approach the disturbed centre in a leisurely way. He found Master Johns with his head and shoulders burrowed down in a bin, and three or four folders standing round in helpless consternation. Claude was actually endeavouring to drown himself in flour. He was pulled out, and spread on the floor in an unconscious condition, and he could not breathe till about a pint of flour had been dug out of his wide-open mouth.
“’Twas a cold-blooded case iv attempted suercide while in a state iv unsound mind,” said Feathers, and there was more of gravity and thoughtfulness in his attitude towards Snivel after that.
When Miss Tooth had gone Snivel was more than usually lachrymose for a week, and then he permitted Kitty Coudray to console him.
“Coudray’s makin’ a little love with his gills now,” Feathers informed Goudy, who was interested in the development of Snivel. “She doesn’t know it’s loaded, but Sonny’s a mummer’s boy what’ll make scandals afore he’s hanged, take it frim me. He’s got too much emotion fer his size in knickers.”
Feathers was a true prophet. Within a fortnight a bloke came to visit Kitty. The whisper went round that this was her ‘regular,’ and Claude heard it, and began to fret.
The boy was not so demonstrative in his grief as usual, however. But it happened that when Kitty’s bloke passed down stairs, Claude was standing at the drop with three 28 lb. parcels of brown bags in the rope, balanced on the handrail.
With practice it was easy to swing a load like this on the rope and pulley into any flat. Claude let the lot down with a rush, swung it badly and it took Kitty Coudray’s regular boy in the small of the back, wiped him off the stairs, kicked him head over tip into the well, and then the whole 84 lbs. struck him in the wind as he lay on the asphalt floor of the basement, with a broken collarbone and minor injuries.
The packer did not pause to investigate. He took Claude Alva Arthur Johns by the scruff, and kicked him all the way to the changing room, and there gave him a paternal doing. Later, Mills said to the foreman:
“Ain’t yeh thinkin’ it’s time we made representations below erbout this sweet child of ours? Don’t it strike you he ain’t no fit companion for me ’n’ you ’n’ innocence ’n’ beauty generally?”
“He’s a very nice lad, only a little unfortunate,” faltered Ellis.
“Oh, he’s a peach bloom, he is, but it’s up t’ you t’ be tired of him afore he bites holes in the wall. Tryin’ t’ drown hisself in the flour bar’l was a bit hookity, but nothin’ t’ homycide. Look ’ere, you think droppin’ them goods on the lad just now was haccidental. Yer wrong. I was watching his nibs, ’n’ it was dam, deliberate manslaughter. Claudie’s too passionate for a hot shop like this; better recommend his ole pot’n’pan t’ put him in a ice mill.”
So it happened that Claude Johns was passed out, but Feathers is waiting for him to turn up in a striking evening-paper sensation.