But if Henry took a drop too much he had always the melancholy satisfaction of knowing that he was driven to it. People, Fate, circumstances and events combined with malicious diligence to drive Henry to drink. To begin with he was at the pitiful necessity of having to earn his own living by the sweat of his brow when the weather was sultry, and this, to a young man of his temperament, was sufficient justification for a little indulgence. Then there were the sisters and mother at home, who nagged at him to mend his manners and customs and to contribute more liberally towards the household expenses; and they introduced Brother Dripstone Meekin, from No. 3 Blue Tent of the Fighting Rechabites, to point out the error of his ways, from two to four on Sundays, and endeavour to win him to temperance.
Henry was often surprised at his own moderation when he considered the number and persistence of the forces impelling him.
Reekie’s wine shop was no place for a man, already stricken in drink. The Dago’s wines possessed some of the qualities of corrosive sublimate, and, acting alone, rapidly undermined the intellect and the higher instincts of man; but operating in conjunction with beer or any other foreign substance, they set up almost immediate acute inflammation of the faculties.
“Good-a-ni’, Meester,” said the bulky licensee, lounging in the doorway, his long, white grin flashing like a bared knife through the black stubble. “Queek, queek! you miss-a th’ fun. Insi’ th’ boys they make-a th’ ’ell-play. The great-a time eet is. Ah, gran’!”
Up went Reekie’s hands in affected esctasy.
“Righto, Metto!” cried Henry, clapping the Dago’s fat back with a fine show of appreciation, it was part of the convention, to affect an airy familiarity with this blowsy ruffian, and to be intimate with the frequenters of his den. You could not expect to be rated as a young devil, a no-doubt bad lad, and a real sport if you were not bosom brothers with Fiani and quite at home in his grimy parlour bar, with the tinted barmaids, the old grey cat, and the buckled piano.
The wine-seller had a tremendous name that steeplechased across the front of his shop and half-way round the building, but the customers had broken it into seven pieces, and they used the fragments indiscriminately.
Fiani bustled Inman towards the parlour.
“Th’ boy-a they cry out-they speak-a for ’Enry. They want-a ’Enry, they say-a th’ fine fella, th’ splendid-a fella, ’Enry. Queek, queek!” Reekie resented any delay in getting down to business.
Inman was greeted with a shout of boozy enthusiasm when he entered the back parlour. Three acquaintances of his held two strangers to the wine bar; a red-headed youth was carving his initials on the grand piano; the brunette barmaid, a pale Australian with Chinese symptoms, was arranging her bunch of black mule’s wool at the dingy mirror behind the shelves; the lemon-yellow blonde devoted her time and talents to the younger of the two strangers. Everybody smoked cigarettes. The small counter pinched the girls into a corner, with a few wine bottles fraudulently labelled “Claret,” “Burgundy,” “Port,” etc.
“’Ello, ’ello, Willie,” cried the brunette. “What ink are you drinkin’?”
“Make it red,” answered Inman. There was no pretence of expecting virgin purity in Reekie’s liquors.
The taller of the two strangers insisted on paying for Henry’s drink. “Any fren’ o’ yours sa fren’ o’ mine,” he explained to the company.
Inman and the newcomers were formally introduced, the latter as Jim and Bill. There was an uncertainty as to the correctness of these names; in fact, nobody could guarantee which was Jim and which Bill, least of all Bill and Jim; but no man present was in a condition to worry over trifles.
Bill and Jim were American sailors, both very young, clean-limbed, clear-skinned, fresh from the green sea, and both open-hearted and fairly ingenuous, despite the reputation for precocity in wickedness that attaches to sailormen all the world over.
Johno Hobbs and Raymond Cato, alias ‘The Toucher,’ had met the sailors at a riverside bar. Drinks and compliments were exchanged, and the four fraternised. Then the Australians, with the best intentions in the world, started out to show the Americans the hospitality of the town. Cordial relations deepened with successive refreshments. In an hour the four agreed among themselves, with kindliest regard, that Americans and Australians were first cousins on both sides, and that America and Australia united could dictate terms to creation.
“As fer Japan,” said Johno Hobbs, resuming the conversation, when Henry was comfortably disposed, “let ’em get gaudy ideas about ownin’ the earth, and they’ll have We-Us t’ deal with.” Hobbs ranged alongside the tall sailor.
“Them’s the facts,” said the sailor, with Bacchic gravity. “We call off the spread of Japanese influence, and the Orient gets biffed.”
“’Ave another?” Cato was gloriously reckless.
They had another. Hobbs proposed ‘Hail Columbia’ as a toast, and sat down to the piano to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Reekie’s piano was the only ancient ruin Australia could boast of. When Hobbs sparred with it, it made hideous noises like the jangling of tin-ware on a drover’s horse, but Hobbs’s singing provoked immense enthusiasm. ‘Advance Australia’ was demanded, and Reekie’s grey cat’s nine kittens rallied round their mother on the lid, and added their noisy protestations to hers. All hands joined in the chorus. It was a moment of concord and patriotic fervour.
“Fill ’em up again,” said Henry Inman.
Henry was playing his part, but, truth to tell, he was not happy. It had been his privilege to monopolise the attentions of the lemon-yellow barmaid on occasions like this, but to-night she was absorbed in the blue-eyed sailor, who seemed to have most right to the name of Jim, and Henry’s pride was hurt.
Jim’s years of discretion were yet far off, he had drunk much more back-lane beer and Barcoo burgundy than was good for him, and he was seeing things in quaint perspective and through a glamour of beatitude. Belle Devoy, the blonde, was considerably his senior, and she ‘made up’ with the audacity of an elderly circus rider, but Jim thought her rarely beautiful. She had whispered to him the sad story of her life, and his manliness was stirred. He was a monument of chivalry.
Belle loved to tell the sad story of her life, with its sorrows, its sicknesses and sufferings, its heroic struggles with adversity, and its triumphs over the machinations of wicked men. Jim believed. Just then he was prepared to believe anything creditable to the fair. He was very respectful to Miss Devoy, very gentle with her, and Belle was deeply touched. She drank wine with him, clinking glasses like a perfect lady.
Inman soured. He felt that he was being badly treated. He was out on the edge, he who should lead the band. With the grand audacity with which drink sometimes endowed him, Henry began to blurt derision, but his gibes were lost in the din and in the thick, smoky atmosphere of international conviviality.
The sailors called for fresh bottles. Belle and Miss Peony Dodd, the brunette, had to help to do honour to the great men of two great countries.
They toasted George Washington and Captain Cook, President Roosevelt and Alfred Deakin. Then Jim, striking as dignified and perpendicular an attitude as circumstances would permit, gravely and gallantly proposed the health of Miss Belle Devoy.
“Mos’ bu’ful garden in Beauty’s blossom,” said Jim, with a burst of poesy.
The figure was mixed, but who cared?—the sentiment was all right. They drank the toast with jubilation.
This incident served to fix attention on Jim and the barmaid. The emotions of the company took a new trend.
“Jimmy Jee! They’re shook to their foundations,” cried Inman. “It’s a case of love et first sight, and a complex attack at that.”
“’Merica ’n’ ’Stralia, hooray!” cried the red-headed youth. He swung his glass in the air, and fell in a sitting position in the corner behind the piano, and was not heard from again for some time.
Raymond Cato solemnly clapped the sailor on the back.
“Congrasherlations, old fl’r,” he said, affectionately. “She’s goo’ girl!”
“Girl any man ud be proud of,” added Johno Hobbs.
“Oh, go on; let go!” giggled Belle. “I’m sure me and Mr. Jim is on’y friends.”
Jim took her hand and held it. “Mos’ bu’ful garden in Beauty’s blossom,” he repeated, vaguely.
Belle’s heart was stirred, or, possibly, Reekie’s red Burgundy had obscured her natural sense of propriety. She sat on the counter, and wound an arm about Jim’s neck. The others stood off, and surveyed the touching tableau with owl-like earnestness.
Hobbs began a speech in which he gave expression to his opinion that a match between Miss Belle Devoy, of Melbourne, Australia, and our friend and ally, Jim, of United States, America, would be a source of gratification on two continents, and would serve to bind together still more closely the people of the great English-speaking countries. It was a very fine speech, and provoked yells of approval and another toast.
At this stage Henry Inman conceived the idea of his magnificent joke. Why not marry Belle and Jim as a climax for the big spree?
It was not a new joke. There are many men in Australia, who have had the quaint experience of awakening after a night of wassail, and finding themselves well and truly married to total strangers. Melbourne ‘marriage shops’ for the convenience of casuals were open at almost all hours, and in them an impulsive couple could be married by a duly-qualified clergyman (of a kind), equipped with a ring, and supplied with witnesses for a trifling cost. Henry knew of one man who had recovered from a jamboree to a knowledge of the fact that he was possessed of a legally-wedded wife whose face he did not recollect, and whose maiden name he did not know.
All the elements for the magnificent, merry, and mischievous prank were at hand. Inman began to work them up. He was drunk, but not quite so thoroughly obfuscated as the others, and he had sense enough to keep the general attention fixed on the idea of a love-match between Jim and the lemon-yellow barmaid.
So the idea grew until it was quite understood by the company that Jim’s marriage with Belle was fore-ordained. Bill, who at first seemed to possess a puzzled impression that there was some show of unnecessary haste, eventually became a clamorous advocate of short engagements and early marriages. He insisted on being best man.
This point was not reached without a further liberal consumption of Reekie’s red Burgundy, however, and meanwhile Henry was losing command of his gorgeous idea. It had a misty effect now, but he had brilliant intervals, when he saw his purpose clearly enough.
When closing time came even Belle and Peony had abandoned their earlier impression that it was all a joke. An inquisitive policeman brought festivities to a hasty close, and precipated the nuptials.
Presently the members of the party found themselves in the street, animated with a fugitive impression that a sacred duty lay before them. They pursued it with the sobriety and decorum the occasion demanded. They were seeking Swinnerton’s Matrimonial Bureau.
Raymond Cato led the way. Bill followed importantly, with the lady on his arm. Inman and the bridesmaid, Miss Peony Dodd, came next. The bridegroom and Johno Hobbs were in the rear.
A feeble light burned in Swinnerton’s windows, but the proprietor of the Matrimonial Bureau and his tame parson were lurking for possible victims, and the party had a cordial reception.
Raymond Cato explained the situation, and tendered the fees, the sum of which had been contributed by all concerned, for Henry had taken round the hat at Reekie’s. Meanwhile the prospective bridegroom and Johno were having a contest of courtesy at the street door.
“’Merica first,” said Johno, politely making way for his companion.
“Not a’ tall,” replied Jim, with equal cordiality.
“You firs’, Jim—bri’groom firs’,” insisted Johno.
Jim solved the problem. “We’ll go togerrer,” he said. They linked arms, and he made another stagger, stuck in the narrow doorway, rebounded, and sat down on the mat, where, after a minute’s inlence, Jim asked with some anxiety:
“Say Ned, wheresh thish ole paraffin drag whirl-anyway?”
Johno did not know. He thought they were going to a wedding, or perhaps it was a funeral. On second thoughts he was sure it was a funeral. In endeavouring to preserve the solemnity proper to their character as chief mourners both fell asleep.
Inside while the proprietor was arranging preliminaries, a vague uneasiness was manifesting itself among the wedding party. It knew it was a wedding party, but it was hazy about details.
“Where’sh bridegroom, boys?” asked Cato.
“Dem’ fiknow,” responded Bill.
Even Inman was bewildered. “There orter be bri’groom,” he said, positively.
There was general agreement that no wedding was complete without a bridegroom. Cato appealed Devoy, but the bride-elect no longer held rasp of actualities. She responded sleepily that any old thing would do.
“Someone’s gorrer be bri’groom,” said the redheaded person to Cato. “I’ll tosh yer for it.”
This solution was acceptable to Cato, and he was act on it, when, in a sun-burst of perspicacity recollected that he was already a married man with a family.
Mr. Swinnerton and his ordained clergyman were weary and little disposed to waste time over trifles. The ceremony proceeded. Somebody was married according to law and the rites of the Free or Partially-Chained-Up Presbyterian Church of Gippsland, and the wedding party was driven forth. It gathered Jim and Hobbs off the mat by the way, and trooped into the street, where presently it was disbanded by a zealous constable.
Henry, Johno, and the red-headed youth, impressed with the idea that the laws of hospitality required them to see their guests safely home, spent an hour wandering with the sailors through the streets of an inland suburb, waking the occupants of one demure villa after another to inquire if that was the American ship Acme. Once they narrowly escaped arrest for wanting to fight a stout councillor in pyjamas. They suspected him of spiriting away the good ship Acme for his own evil purposes.
Henry Inman was feeling very poorly when he awoke next morning. His appearance gave his mother and sisters much concern, and he was profoundly sorry for himself. It was a shocking thing that a man in his low state should have to turn out and work for his bread.
Henry recollected things as he trained into the city, and eventually his morning was brightened with a full comprehension of his glittering joke. It was the joke of the century-immense, magnificent-it would become historical.
At the warehouse Inman told the clerks how he had lured a motherless sailor-man into marrying one of Reekie’s she-rapscallions.
“The one with a head like a scrambled egg,” Henry explained. He gave a graphic description of the wild night, taking full credit for all its humours.
Some of the clerks did not think Inman’s joke a joke at all; they said it was a dog’s trick, but they were persons wanting in a true sense of the ludicrous.
Knowledge of the joke travelled all through a city block. The affair was being discussed during lunch hour when Johno, looking very limp and woebegone, called in on Henry Inman. He beckoned Henry aside.
“That was an awful business last night,” he said. “What’re you going to do about it?”
“Do!” ejaculated Henry. “Why, nothing. It’s star joke. It’s all over the shop.”
“Joke! Why, the infernal marriage is valid!”
“To be sure it is. Have you seen the American sailor? Is he buckin’ at all?”
A strange light shone in Johno’s eye. “’Enery,” he said, “you’re switched to a sad delusion. The Devoy wasn’t married to any sailor—she was married to Cato.”
Henry Inman was dumb for fully half a minute. He glared at Hobbs, his eyes astare, his mouth ajar, petrified with astonishment and some terror. “You’re—you’re monkeyin’,” he murmured.
“It’s the immortal I’m tellin’ you,” retorted Johno. “Cato was the bridegroom and he was married already. It’s bigamy, and you’re an accessory before and after the act. It’ll get you two years hard. I’ve seen Cato. He’s sure he’s the man, and he’s out for you with a gun.”
Henry was trembling in every limb; he put a hand on Johno’s shoulder. “Not a word,” he said piteously.
Inman pleaded sickness that afternoon, and rushed home. A greater horror awaited him. There were five persons in the dining-room-Henry’s mother, his two sisters, Brother Dripstone Meekin, and, standing at the head of the table, Belle Devoy, looking ghastly through the dye and the powder, and in all the fluff and shabbiness of ‘the day after.’
As Henry entered Belle slapped a document down before the company, and stepped back with an air of triumph.
Henry snatched the lines from the Rev Meekin, and as he read them an agony of grief prostrated him. He collapsed on the couch.
Here Belle swooped upon him. She asserted ownership in a fond embrace.
“Me husbind!” she murmured.
Henry Inman answered with a hollow moan. Johno Hobbs’s version was a mere trifle to the actual disaster. The name of the bridegroom on Belle’s legal document was Henry Inman.
Not the sailorman, and not Cato, but Henry himself was securely married to Belle Devoy of the Black Slum!