“I’m livin’ on’y fer revenge,” he told Feathers, darkly.
“Come orf the keg, little boy,” replied the packer, with his man-of-the-world air. “You ain’t talkin’, y’ know; ye’re just makin’ a noise.”
“I’m talkin’, gorstruth,” the clerk continued. “There isn’t a bit o’ common in treatin’ women decent. If y’ do, they’ll dog on yer fer a cert. Deal ’em out stoush ’ard ’n’ often, ’n’ they’ll lick yer ’and. Show ’em yer gone soft about ’em, ’n’ y’ get what yer lookin’ fer—the sudden jerk. Ye’re on’y fit t’ be cut up fer dusters then. Women’s pure nark, I tell yeh. I spared one woman once” (here the little clerk’s voice became husky and morose, and his small brow darkened), “’n’ she never forgive me fer it, but never again—never again. Any iv the sect what’s in my power after this won’t git no mercy, ’n’ that’s how it is.”
“It’s after ’avin’ sixpen’orth iv ’ang-over et ‘The Cankered ’Eart, ’r The Cooper in the Soup,’ ’n’ it’s puttin’ up fer a ’eavy villain et eight stone seven”, Feathers commented; and then he continued in a declamatory manner: “T’ mothers ‘iv fam’lies, ’n’ all whom it may concern. As Benno, the feather-weight devil, otherwise the Merciless Midget, is now prowlin’ at large in the parks ’n’ waste places, it would be well ’n’ wise t’ keep all girls iv the female sex under sixteen stone limit on the chain till the monster’s plugged with bullets ’r otherwise pervided fer.”
“You’re the king comic, ain’t yeh?” sneered Benno. “Better mind out ’r you’ll be makin’ me larf. A man might ’s well tork sense to a madhouse cockertoo.”
The clerk returned to his high stool in a huff, but he was back at Feathers in the course of an hour as if nothing had happened, with an elaboration of his complaint, and the theme was staling on Mills. In fact, the whole factory was losing faith in Mr. Dickson in the character of a destroyer, although the Beauties still considered it worth while to affect a grotesque timidity when he approached them.
“Oh, ’eavens! Take them eyes away,” cried the ex-professional fat girl, retreating behind her board. “Have pity on the orfin girl!”
“Back, wretch!” hissed Sarah Eddie, arming herself with a paste brush. “I’m on’y a lone woman, pa’s in the country, ’n’ ma’s gone fishin’, but if you touch me I’ll scream.”
Selina Dodd (“Silly” in the vernacular), who was fashioned on the lines of the giraffe and, according to Feathers, “as plain as a hide pie,” elevated herself almost out of sight at the attenuated clerk, and quoted from a popular melodrama:
“Think, man, think! Would you stain your soul with this hidjis sin? Remember, you had a mother once.”
“Ar-r-r, get it stopped!” retorted Benno with awful vindictiveness. Or perhaps he said: “So y’ ort to,” or “Git yer ’ead read,” or something equally felicitous. Benno was never wanting in telling repartee. But neither the burlesque of the Beauties, the derision of Feathers, nor the irony of the town traveller affected Benno’s attitude. He loved himself as the soured victim of the perfidious sex, relentless in his anguish, justified in all his iniquities by the faithlessness and villainy of woman.
For some time past he had been hinting to Mills and Goudy, and even to the depressed foreman—the only person in the whole establishment who took him seriously—that he had found a victim. His hints were dark, but significant, and he smiled a mirthless smile.
“Lead ’em on, an’ when yer got ’em fair dilly about yer, freeze ’em; that’s my motto,” he told Goudy.
“Thanks be, my doors are shut to you,” answered the town traveller. “A man with maiden aunts of his own can’t be too careful.”
“Out with it, Benno, who’s yer cuddle?” said Feathers.
“There’s ’ere an’ there one,” Benno admitted wearily, “but the little hextra special’s a bit iv a widder Kingy’s interjuced to me.”
“A widow,” murmured Goudy, “and he laid a heavy, hot, fatherly hand on Benno’s head, and sighed three times, “a poor, little, bereaved, helpless, artless, innocent widow, and you a man of the world, a callous, sin-stained devil! Ah! this is indeed a hard world for women.”
“Good enough for ’er,” Benno scowled darkly.
“But all the same your mother ought to be warned,” concluded Goudy.
“Is she a shine squeeze, Benno?” asked Feathers.
“Such ez they are,” replied Benno, without warmth. “They’re all erlike t’ me. But I’m thinkin’ o’ havin’ it on my string fer the picnic so y’ wanter watch out.”
The packer had no conscience, and respected nobody’s confidence if his ruffianly sense of humour suggested that food for laughter was to be gained by violating it. And yet the packer never laughed. He went to the Beauties with the story of Benno’s little widow, and inspired a systematic pulling of Benno’s leg, and was happy through a whole week while the clerk cynically enlarged on the widow’s great, despairing affection for him, and gave everybody to understand that he could twist her round his finger, but her love awakened no reciprocal emotions in his case-hardened breast. He was a man with a past.
“Women’s bin me ruin,” Benno told the foreman, surveying the wreck in the mirror on Ellis’s wall with a good deal of interest and adjusting his tie, “’n’ I’ve got it up agen ’em till my dyin’ day.”
“My advice,” said Fuzzy earnestly and in almost a whisper, “is, do nothink rash.”
Benno laughed his new, mirthless laugh, and walked away.
“Gor’ delp us orl!” cried slatternly Arabella Harte—called “Harrerbeller,” hearing the laugh, and the fat girl crossed herself.
The appearance of Benno’s little widow before the loading-up on the picnic morning occasioned something like a sensation. She proved to be a tall, stout, hilarious woman of about thirty, with ruddy cheeks, black hair, and a large, dark, cheerfully defiant eye. She was of the stamp our fathers classified as ‘bouncing.’
“Mother of Jimmy! Is that the victim of Benno’s guile?” gasped Goudy.
“It’s it orl right,” answered Feathers. “Don’t she look it t’ the life? She’s the one little ewe lamb bein’ led t’ the slaughter.”
Then Benno passed the lady round. “Let me interjuce yous,” he said. “These is Mr. Goudy ’n’ Mr. Mills, ’n’ this is Mrs. Norah Cavanagh, one of mine.”
Feathers could hold his face; he winked the lady hard in the eye, and stood his ground; but the town traveller retired precipitately behind the delivery waggon, and bit himself.
“What use ’ave yer got fer him, Norah?” asked the packer, familiarly.
“Oh, I don’t let him get in me way,” replied the widow.
Then Benno introduced Nicholas Don, and Nicholas immediately entered into possession. The Don was employed as carter at thirty-six shillings per week. He told Mrs. Cavanagh, immediately and confidentially, that he was taking the odds on his being made junior partner within a year.
“If you are out for a good gay day,” he said, “place your order with me. I’m not financin’ this frolic on my only, of course—a fellow can’t do everything with a paltry ten pounds a week—but I’m spinning a few jim over it, and what’s mine’s yours.”
The Don was reported to have a way with women. His “way” was a system of cheerful and audacious mendacity, and was uniformly successful for a time. In ordinary circumstances his conversation was in the vernacular, but, when impressing a lady, he fell into a fairly accurate imitation of the barbarous accent of the English dude in the burlesques.
The factory went to its picnic in vehicles of nine kinds, and, passing through the city, looked like a bush funeral gone astray; but it did not sound anything like that. It was a peculiarly blatant procession, and for the most part sang touching vaudeville ballads about ‘mother’ or somebody’s ‘broken heart,’ each vehicle exercising its liberty of choice and striving to out-sing the other. Those excursionists who did not sing cast reflections on the habits, manners, and personal appearance of respectable pedestrians carrying small black bags to business. Their astonishment and indignation under the ordeal were considered most diverting.
Nicholas sat next to Mrs. Cavanagh during the ride out, and monopolised her. Benno sat on the other side of the widow, and was prey to a grievous uneasiness, in strong contrast with his previous attitude as the cold, proud avenger. His uneasiness was occasioned by the carter’s frank repudiation of his right, title and interest in Mrs. Cavanagh, and by a painful suspicion that Don had his arm round Norah from the off side. The suspicion was unworthy, but well-founded. Benno strove to maintain an air of proprietorship, but his efforts to keep a place in the conversation were quietly ignored.
The picnic ground was at Dogwood, where there was a sprinkling of gums along the river, and a nice belt of ti-tree scrub offering cover for affectionate couples between meals. Nicholas Don remained in possession of Benno’s widow, and the clerk prowled after the pair all the morning, making occasional protestations with an attempt at humour that became pitiful through repetition.
Norah could not be brought to understand that she owed allegiance to Benno, who had introduced her to such a select gathering and paid her way, and Don had no sense of honour. The moment Benno withdrew his surveillance the pair disappeared, and then Benjamin Dickson went trotting from cover to cover, making enquiries, the effectedly comic nature of which did not disguise his great distress, and meeting everywhere with the bitterest contempt. Benno threatened to be the ruin of the picnic.
Discovering Nicholas and Norah for the second time since dinner, Benno abandoned facetiae.
“Strike me up a stick,” he said, bitterly, “this is gettin’ on my nerves. Say, what brought yeh to this corrob—me or his nibs?”
“Go on along and mind baby. Mummy’s busy,” replied Norah.
“Don’t I like yer pink cheek, polin’ in on ’er bloke’s ticket, ’n’ then doin’ the smoodge with his cobber.” Benno was deeply hurt. “’Tain’t the act iv a lady,” he added virtuously. He was so sure of this point of etiquette that he repeated it five times.
“Yar-r, go away, carn’t yeh!” snorted Nicholas, “an’ send in yer bill. Get somethin’ iv yer own. I got a reserve on this.”
“Somethin’ o’ me own!” Benno fairly gasped. “I like that, I don’t think.” He seated himself deliberately on the grass at their feet. “Somethin’ o’ me own!” he repeated.
Nicholas Don resigned himself to the situation. He pillowed Norah’s head on his shoulder, he addressed to the widow words of tenderness and sighs of ardour, he kissed her at intervals, and Benno, the miserable, sat and looked on, and denounced them occasionally in his own inimitable way.
“Yeh needn’t mind me,” he said, “I’m in the nearse. I’m s’posed to be dead. All the same, it’s daylight dam robbery, iv yeh arsk me.”
“Don’t erpologise,” answered Nicholas
They tried to shake Benno off later, but Benno refused to be shaken. He yapped at their heels like a disagreeable little dog, following them everywhere, and voices out of ambush cried derisively after the three as they drifted from place to place.
Despairing of ridding themselves of Benno, Nicholas and the widow returned to the camping ground on the river bank, where a number of the Beauties and their boys were varying honest Pagan dalliance with another meal. Norah seated herself, and Don provided ‘’am san’wiches’ and picnic tea.
Benno stood over them while they ate, glowering darkly. He had no appetite. That was another injustice. He meditated an appeal to common decency and popular opinion, and, meanwhile, raked the perfidious pair with scathing invective; but they ate, drank and were merry.
“Don’t ’ave ’im on yer mind,” said Nicholas; “he ain’t on the earth.”
“But yer gotter,” piped Benno. “I’m ’ere t’ live. You don’t shake me. Get on to it, blokes,” he cried in shrill tones. “Ain’t it dead hooketty? Here’s me bin ’n’ parted the beans t’ bring a tom along, ’n’ the Don backs his barrer ’n’ burgles her. He’s too dirt mean to finance a skirt iv ’is own, ’n’.”
Benno’s first public oration ended there. He was standing on the rug on which Norah was seated, with his back to the river. The widow’s hand gripped the rug. She gave it a sharp tug. Benno’s boots shot out. He sat down. The bank was steep there. Benno struck it halfway down, ricochetted smartly, and shot into the river, feet first.
There was an instantaneous rush of picnickers as Benno went down. There was a unanimous roar of advice as Benno came up. Benno disregarded it. He was clawing like a desperate cat with a weight on her tail. His eyes were wild. He opened his mouth and the river ran in.
Benno went under once more. Nicholas Don was waiting for him with a hooked stick when he reappeared. The stick was hitched in the back of Benno’s coat, and Nicholas hauled the half-drowned clerk on to the bank, and left him there.
When Dickson recovered sufficiently to manifest an interest in mundane things, Nicholas and the widow had disappeared.
Deserted, deluded, sodden, Ben Dickson bore with the heartless barracking of the Beauties and their boys for ten minutes, and then turned his back on womankind and fled into the scrub. He went far beyond the range of the smoodgers, seeking the solace of solitude.
In the depths Benjamin lit a fire, and, having stripped, hung his dripping garments to dry, and then lay down in the shade, and, like a desolate babe in the woods, covered himself with leaves, and gave his mind to despairing reflections upon the perfidy, selfishness, and deceit of the race of men—especially women.
Our Mr. Dickson was awakened by an unpleasant sensation of frying, which attacked his feet, and sprang up with a yell. The scrub was afire.
The day had been extremely hot, there was a strong north wind, and the scrub burnt fiercely. Benno’s only chance was in instantaneous flight. He fled—fled as he was—rushing, diving, tearing and tumbling through the bush, an image of supreme alarm, with the fire springing at his heels, licking out whips of flame to lash him along.
The fire swept through the scrub, and drove all the smoodgers into the open, Nicholas Don and Norah Cavanagh with the rest. Blame attached to Benno. The firing of the scrub was supposed to be an act of malicious retaliation, and the picnic cursed him.
At half-past five, when tea was spread, there was no Benno to appreciate the little acts of vengeance that they were saving for him. An hour later, when the vans were loaded for the home journey, there was still no Benno. Goudy, with the faintest suggestion of concern, advised a search of the burnt area.
The men went to the hunt with some ferocity, cursing Benno. They returned two hours later, walking like a funeral procession. Feathers had portion of a hat and part of a boot, recognisable as belonging to the deceased Benjamin Dickson. Nicholas Don carried some bones, not recognisable as those of the deceased B. Dickson, but reasonably supposed to be his.
The Beauties were overwhelmed, and consternation fell upon the picnic. The widow uttered cries of bitterest self-reproach, and, giving way to tears, reviled Nicholas Don for his cruelty and faithlessness to his poor dead friend. That would have been a proud moment for Benno had he only lived to witness the complete revulsion of feeling in his favour.
Some of the men remained to continue the hunt, and the bones and the other relics were handed over to the police at Dogwood, with details. There was no singing of ribald songs as Spats’s picnic drove into town that night. Gloom was seated in every vehicle. The Beauties discussed Benno’s perfections in low, reverent voices. The widow was a pariah. Nicholas Don’s unpopularity was absolute.
Next day there was the same gloom in the factory. Benno’s deserted desk was a silent reproach to all who had aided and abetted Don in his act of treachery. The evening paper contained a full and not over-particular account of the supposed terrible death of a young clerk, but the papers of the following morning prepared the Beauties for the re-appearance of Benno.
He was pale and signed, and he sat with great apparent discomfort, but he had rather a jaunty air, for he was now a person of some notoriety and his race for life had been given quite a heroic aspect in the press.
Feathers, who had stayed at Dogwood to assist the police, explained the denouement.
“Seems ’is nibs there done a quarter mile in ten secs, under the hofficial record, with the fire proddin’ him all the way, ’n’ come out on the west side, alone in a crool world. Then he recorlected with a holler groan that in the ’urry iv shiftin’ he’d clean fergot his glad rags, ’n’ was ixposed to the hinclemency iv the weather ’n’ the dangers iv the law ’orribly undressed,’n’ fearin’ t’ be caught in the act he went t’ roost in a ’oller tree. He stayed there all night.
“In the mornin’ there was nothin’ better fer a man t’ do, mother naked ’n’ ten miles from ’ome, so our Mr. Dickson returned to his ’oller, specially as another picnic party rushed ’im outer sight, ’n’ then camped in his back-yard. A yeller dog traced him out in the afternoon, ’n’ me ’n’ a John discovered the plant, just when some boys was goin’ t’ light a fire t’ smoke out somethin’ or another—they didn’t care which.
“We made a collection from the picnic, ’n’ presented Benno with a stror lid, a pink tie, a flannel petticut, four handkerchiefs, ’n’ a donah’s bobtailed coat, ’n’ delivered him at his ’ome larst night. He was blistered, ’n’ singed, ’n’ smoked, ’n’ scratched all over, ’n’ the ants had got at him, otherwise he’s free iv himpediments ’n’ in good repair, ’n’ he’s thinkin’ iv applyin’ fer the Rile Humane Society’s medal for distinguished bravery in savin’ his own life, ain’t yeh, Benno?”
“Better he had died,” said Goudy impressively; “better have perished in the flames than live to continue his pitiless career among innocent and confiding widows.”
“Pah! who let that in?” said Benno with contempt. “I ortenter talk t’ your sort.”
Just then the call pipe whistle blew, and a voice from the depths said very distinctly:
“There’s a gentleman from the press here to interview our Mr. Dickson.”
The call was timely. The celebrity took a lapel of his coat in either hand, gave a little, characteristic, saucy tug, squared his small shoulders, and went down stairs a cold, proud man.
“Fer photographs ’n’ full perticklers, see our later editions,” said the packer.