Fact’ry ’Ands

Chapter III

A Little Love Affair

Edward Dyson

FEATHERS, the packer, owed his name to a strange set of side-whiskers he once grew. Over these the feathery paper-dust collected till they looked like the wings of an adolescent gosling. He soon wearied of the nick-name, and shaved off his fluff, thinking the insult would pass with it. He was mistaken. The sobriquet of the foreman, Fuzzy Ellis, had a similar origin. His dead-looking, reddish hair was as fine as tow; it was always distracted, and in it the fibrous dust gathered so thickly that every jerk of his head produced a miniature dust storm.

Fuzzy was a queer bird. Besides being long and lank, he had a prematurely withered appearance. The white apron that enveloped him gave him something of the aspect of a wilted candle. His eye had a hunted look that corresponded with the distraction of his hair; his pinched face might have been put on his bones with a palette-knife and had the sallow livery of Spats’ factory. It was always moist, as with trepidation, and from it oozed driblets of whiskers. He was the dustiest man in the world, and gaunt with everlasting worry. Fuzzy could not be imagined apart from the factory. He was first to come in the morning, last to leave at night. Nobody in the firm recollected his beginning. It was vaguely surmised that he was born in the factory and nourished on its insidious dust and the paste and gum that over-ran the place and caked on everything. He was regarded as a fixture; that he had friends or relations was never dreamed of—he was hardly credited with a soul.

So rooted was this conception of Fuzzy as an inseparable adjunct of the factory, that Feathers, having proof to the contrary, went to Benno, the clerk, one Monday morning, feeling like a man about to endanger a hard-earned reputation.

“Who jer think I seen at the Zoo yes’dee afternoon” he said.

“Give it up,” answered Benno, ruling a line with insolent elaboration.

“Fuzzy!” said the packer.

Benno revolved on his high stool and faced his friend. “Knock it off, George Henry,” he said, appealingly. “You’d be all right iv it wasn’t for the drink. Knock it off, ther’s a good feller. You warn’t at no Zoo, yeh know.” Then, with a change of tone, he continued: “D’ yeh mean t’ say yeh saw Fuzzy out on his own-prowlin’ round in th’ open like a ’uman bein’”

Feathers assured him of it on his honor as a man and his faith as a Christian. “S’elp me cat! I did,” he said.

Benno surveyed the foreman with a new interest. “After all, I s’pose the beggar must be somewhere when we’re shut down,” he said thoughtfully.

Feathers carried the story to the girls, but it seemed probable to them that he was lying, particularly as Sarah Eddie had been to the Zoo on Sunday and had seen nothing of the foreman there. And yet the tale was true. Moreover, Fuzzy, having heard Miss Eddie declare her intention of visiting the Zoological Gardens, had gone there with the deliberate idea of exhibiting himself to that young lady in his Sunday clothes, but had been too timid to carry out his purpose. In the marvellous workings of Providence it was allotted to Sarah Eddie’s destiny to awaken a tender passion in the dusty heart of Fuzzy Ellis.

Sarah was a large, fair young woman of thirty, stoutly framed, with a mouth extended beyond all reason and human necessity, good teeth, and a gummy smile. She had been in the factory some months, and Fuzzy’s love was the mysterious and unhallowed growth of a moment. Sarah, with the mercenary object of securing the most profitable work, had beguiled him with her Ethiopian grin and glances of matured coyness, and when the foreman’s hand pressed hers, as he placed the work on her board, she giggled affectedly.

“Oh, Mr. Ellis, you are a one!” she said.

In the words of Benno the wise, “It took like a vaccination.” Fuzzy came up the room with a stunned look in his eyes, and the expression of a man who had committed himself irretrievably. He offered no more advances for some days, and then, after hovering about Miss Eddie’s board a dozen times during the morning, he made a rally, and, placing a small packet on the table beside her paste, fled to cover behind his cutting-machines, tripping over the truck and barking his shins by the way.

The packet contained three penn’orth of cheap jujubes.

During the afternoon the hands saw Fuzzy’s small sheep-like head shoot up above his machines on a stalk of neck, transfixed. Fuzzy’s eyes were turned upon Sarah with a tender and absorbed expression. Heaven knows what blissful emotions were stirring softly in his bony breast, but he was “dead to the world.” Girls at the top benches discovered him, and “passed the office” along. The intelligence drifted down the flat; work was suspended; silence fell upon the factory. The girls stared at Fuzzy, and Fuzzy gloated upon the object of his affection with a fatuous ardor. He suggested an amorous adjutant-bird. A titter ran through the factory. It swelled to a yell of laughter; and Ellis, recalled to a sense of his position, ducked, spun the guillotine wildly, and, in his great agitation, nearly cut off the tip of his index finger.

The idea of Fuzzy as a lover was the acme of the incongruous; he was so arid, so nervous, so thin, and so unhuman. No one had any idea of his age, but he looked like a man who had dried up at the age of thirty-six, and had since been free of all human infirmities. His little love-affair was to the factory a mad joke; news of it spread to the printers, it was discussed in the warehouse, it was talked of in the street; but the foreman, unconscious of all this, continued to steal to Miss Eddie’s board with love-tokens—a pound of grapes, a bag of buns, a bottle of ginger-ale; once it was a pork-pie. Miss Eddie was involved in the comedy, and there were jokes at her expense, but she took them all in very good part, and continued to ogle Fuzzy with a cow-like playfulness.

Feathers, the humorist, affected the airs of a desolate man, and encouraged Fuzzy with descriptions of his own hopeless love of Sarah and pitiable accounts of her recent cruelties. He hinted at suicide.

“Someone’s come between us,” sighed the packer, wiping away a tear. Benno swore that the foreman almost smiled at this. “’Twas touch ’n’ go,” said Benno. The clerk was of opinion that Sarah Eddie had a “bit iv splosh.” He declared he had seen her smuggle a bank-book out of her bag. That afternoon Fuzzy gave Sarah a brooch. It was of an ancient device, and had lost a stone, but was large and had some value as old gold.

It was several days before the girls quite understood Sarah, but when they did there was a sudden revulsion of feeling. Fuzzy’s courtship was no longer a joke—it was an outrage. All the easy work was going to Sarah’s board. She was given the pleasant and profitable jobs. The special stuff that had hitherto been distributed fairly among the piece-workers all brought extra money to Sarah, and her earnings went up with a jump. This was not to be borne. Spats’ Beauties began to murmur, murmurs swelled to open complaint, cries of bitterness and insult followed, and then the Beauties began to throw things. Blobs of half-caked paste assailed the foreman and clung in his hair; balls of sodden paper fell about him; a recently-emptied flour-sack turned inside-out was dropped on him down the lift-well; an unknown hand knocked him headlong off the stairs with a bundle of waste. Fuzzy’s hunted look deepened to one of terror. He moved gingerly, but his infatuation made him strong to endure, and Sarah continued to score.

An act of flagrant favoritism precipitated a strike. The piece-workers threw their brushes into the paste, and, seating themselves on their boards, swung their heels, and yelled defiance at Fuzzy. A dozen of them went downstairs as a deputation to Spats, and the foreman, after stumbling about the room in a fit of nervous irresponsibility, retreated behind the guillotines to await developments.

The deputation charged into the office of the boss. Twelve voices raised in vociferous complaint. Spats drove them up stairs again with angry snarls and snappings, and sent for Fuzzy. Ellis returned from that interview looking a complete wreck, and Miss Kruse informed the girls that for the future there would be a fair division of the better-class work.

The foreman could still do his adored many favors, and he was her humble servant. Her paste was brought for her, he carried her work to her hand, and although she did not scrape her board on Saturday like the others, it was white and clean when she came to work on Monday; so that it was still worth Sarah’s while to shed shy glances on Samuel.

“You do so grow on a body,” she whispered one morning, and this excited Fuzzy to such a degree that he was bumping into things three hours later.

But the termination of Fuzzy’s love-affair was sudden and dramatic. Early one Saturday morning, a bulky, black-browed man came lumbering up the back stairs.

“’S your name Ellis” he said to Feathers. The packer directed him along the room with a nod of the head, and the bulky stranger moved in that direction. To the surprise of everyone, Sarah Eddie flew out, and intercepted him, brandishing a threatening brush.

“If yeh do, Jim!” she cried in great agitation. “Mind, if yeh do!” Jim seemed prepared to chance it, and, thrusting her aside, passed on. “Your name Ellis, Mister” he asked Benno. The clerk pointed out the foreman with his pen, and the intruder faced Fuzzy.

“They tell me you’re Ellis!” he said. The tone was threatening, the man’s air distinctly dangerous. It was obviously unwise to be Ellis. Fuzzy hedged.

“Well, er—it depends,” he said, and retreated timidly.

“If so happens you are Ellis, I mean to punch your damn’ head off.” It was the tone of an earnest man, one who had resolved on a course of conduct, and had no use for argument.

Fuzzy fled behind the folding board, and the bulky man dashed after him. The pursuer was not a man to stick at trifles; he carried the long board off its trestles in his rush, but fell among the ruins, and Fuzzy went down too. The foreman extricated himself first, and darted for another table, Jim after him. They raced round twice, and then faced each other across the board.

Jim controlled himself for a moment and shook a terrible fist at his destined victim, and then thumped the board determinedly.

“Wha’—wha’—what is it” gasped Ellis.

“I’ll tell yer what it is,” he said. “That there’s my girl.” He pointed to Sarah Eddie. “She’s been goin’ to marry me, more ’r less, fer a year, an’ now you’ve chipped-in. Well, I don’t allow it! D’yer hear? I don’t allow it!”

“Police!” piped Fuzzy.

Smash went another board before the impetuous Jim, and Fuzzy fled again, under the tables, around the packing-benches, and then down the long flat, with Jim at his heels. It was a sensational scramble, and choke-full of interest to the Beauties. They clambered on to their boards, and screamed encouragement to Jim. The stranger made a grab at Ellis, and it seemed that all was over with the foreman, but a parcel of bags tripped his rival, and he fell headlong. This was Samuel’s chance; he raced for the ladder at the opening in the ceiling, straddled up it like a distracted spider, and crawled into the darkness above. He was making a desperate effort to haul the ladder up after him when Jim snatched at the bottom-rung, and, swinging his great weight brought the ladder down with a crash on top of himself, and plucked Fuzzy on to his face at the opening, clutching wildly at the edges to avert a disaster. Jim reared the ladder again, and, racing up it, scrambled into the loft, and those below heard muffled sounds of running feet, bumpings, and curses, coming from above the ceiling.

The loft was a spacious place, hot and black as the pit, and the strange, volatile dust characteristic of Spats’ factory lay a foot deep on its floor, and clung thickly to the weird festoons of cobweb that spanned the rafters. A rat-fight up there was sufficient to convert the atmosphere into a feathery mass. There was silence in the factory—all ears were strained to mark the progress of the race overheard. Every bump sent a blast of dust out of the manholes, and it billowed along the factory ceiling, and poured out of the windows like smoke. A shrill cry indicated that Fuzzy had fallen into the clutches of the enemy. A confusion of yells, much swearing, and a great trampling and bumping, during which the dust rolled from the openings in dense masses, told of a bitter, hand-to-hand contest. Then a body was dragged along the ceiling, and presently Jim’s boots came into view on the ladder; his legs followed, but slowly, and after his legs came his body, and then came Fuzzy. Jim, backing down the ladder, reckless of consequences, dragged Ellis out with a run on top of himself, and the two fell in a tangle on a heap of stock.

The identity of the men had to be taken for granted; they were now monstrous objects, with few human attributes, swathed round with clinging rags of black cobweb, their features blotted out, masses of web hanging from their limbs like elfin wings. But Jim had not lost sight of his mission. He seized on the foreman again, and dragged him through the factory, seeking Sarah Eddie; and when he found her he dumped Fuzzy at her feet. He tried to spit, but his mouth was like a dust-bin; he opened it, but was inarticulate. Then he sneezed five times, and speech returned to him.

“Now, we’ll settle this matter,” he said. He shook Fuzzy up, and they were obscured in the dust. “Here, you,” he went on, “is this here your girl, ’r is she mine”

Fuzzy made a gesture of complete abandonment.

“You give her up” Fuzzy nodded supinely. Jim was still holding him.

“You gives it to her straight that all’s over atween yer, that you ain’t havin’ any truck with her whatsomever, savin’ in the way o’ business” The wretched foreman signified his assent. “Very well,” said Jim, “that bein’ so, I ain’t got nothin’ more agin yer.” And he dropped Ellis on the floor.

The trouble being ended, two policemen, who had been hastily summoned under the impression that murder was being done on the top flat, came up the stairs and seized upon Jim. He was fined five pounds, with the alternative of three weeks’ gaol, and took the alternative with a good grace. To show he had no ill-feeling towards anybody, he put ninepence in the poor-box.

Three weeks and two days later, Sarah was married to a wharf-lumper, who, there is every reason to believe, was identical with Jim, and Fuzzy’s dream of love was over.

Fact’ry ’Ands - Contents    |     Chapter IV - The Morbid Boy

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