But Mr. Dickson’s special interest lay in the fact that he felt himself called upon to seize this opportunity of wounding and humiliating Miss Cilly Gwynne, who had turned him down for the third and last time. Any bloke with the usual allowance of human weaknesses may be ‘done in’ once by the girl he’s fond of. Any man with a forgiving heart added to those common weaknesses may take his chances and be ‘had’ a second time. But only a confirmed chump and irremediable ‘gooey’ comes up for a third ‘chuck.’ So the astute Benno argued with himself. He had had ‘the chuck’ twice. Miss Gwynne had cruelly forsaken him for a strange German in the theatre. At Stonkie’s picnic she had passed him over in favour of Billy Crib, the butter bumper, across the lane. And lately she was devoting her time and talents to a stocky youth, one Did Cootie, who mauled bags of carrots, spuds, onions, and other flora at the produce store.
Did Cootie was new to Egg Lane, where he provoked some little resentment by a slight superiority of style and a pretentious use of tall collars. He was quite quiet and apparently harmless, but truculent spirits in the lane discovered a certain confidence in his demeanour where humility might have been more natural and becoming in a stranger. The resulting prejudice was responsible for a display of fictitious sympathy for Benno. When quite honest, the Lane had nothing but derision for the bloke who showed any disposition to squeal over the vagaries of a mere ‘tom.’
Mr. Dickson, mindful of the ignominy due to the man who ‘gets brusher,’ thought he was combining airy indifference to Miss Gwynne with a man’s natural craving to ‘put it across’ his enemy.
“All toms is erlike t’ me,” he said, tweaking his lapels with a birdlike jauntiness of demeanour, “but, all the same, it’s up t’ me t’ put a mock on that tripester et the ’ay-an’-corn.”
The packer winked a grave aside at the town-traveller. “Why don’t yeh get to him, Benno?” he said.
Benno looked wise. “That’ll be all right,” he said. “He’ll get his pot on. You leave it t’me.”
“Yes, Feathers,” said the town-traveller, “you leave it to our little Benno—he’ll give him a black look.”
Really Mr. Dickson was wounded, and secretly he hoped to score a triumph at the Assembly on Thursday night. Proprietary rights were respected at Dukie M‘Kenzie’s dances. No gent could appropriate another patron’s ‘bit of skirt’ at Dukie’s and hope to escape the retribution prescribed for dishonourable conduct in well-regulated push society.
Benno was taking Miss Adelia Smith, Miss Priscilla Gwynne’s rival for the honour of belle of Whimble’s pickle mill. Both were in the pepper department, for Whimble milled coffee and spices, and manufactured many odorous condiments in addition to his main business, which was bottling onions.
The little clerk had not been hasty in his choice. It was a matter calling for deep deliberation. He was having a new suit himself, and the lady must not discredit it. As a clerk, he was a man of position. More is expected of a man with a position than is looked for in one who has only a job. Furthermore, and above all, there was the necessity of giving Cilly Gwynne thoroughly to understand that she was no wise necessary to his happiness, and that her betters were, to use his own expressive phrase, ‘dead easy’ to him.
True, Miss Smith was rather tall and aggressively lean, but her dress promised to be the best at the ball, and she was decidedly superior. At Whimble’s, Adelia was abbreviated to Haddy, but the young lady’s intense propriety was admitted and respected. She held herself aloof from Miss Gwynne, whom she considered ‘fast.’ If professional duties threw them together, Miss Smith’s mouth became depressed at the corners, her nostrils inflated, and she moved her lips and tongue as if tasting something disagreeable.
Mr. Dickson was very pleased with the effect when he entered the assembly hall with Haddy Smith on his arm. In consequence of Miss Smith’s great height it was difficult for Benno to avoid the appearance of being a mere appendage to the lady, but his loud vest helped him, and his cardinal tie assisted in maintaining his individuality.
Cilly and Did Cootie were present. Benno and Haddy sailed in under their very noses. It gratified the clerk to note that in the matter of dressing Cilly was ‘no class’ beside Miss Smith, while Cootie wore nothing that could have been heard in the same street with Benno’s splendid get-up.
And yet Benno found it difficult to bear up against the plain fact that as a cheerful companion and a ballroom feature Cilly Gwynne was just ‘it,’ and easily outdid Miss Smith, whose frigid style was not to the taste of M‘Kenzie’s patrons.
“Blime, where’d yeh get it?” said Kingie, a bosom friend of Benno’s. “Ain’t she ’ead saleswoman at a hice fact’ry? Why, when I’m swingin’ corners with ’er I sez, ‘’Ow are yeh!’ I sez. ‘It’s a bit iv good goods ’ere t’-night, ain’t it?” She ups with ’er trunk, sniffs at me, ’n’ sez her gills ‘No conversation, if yeh please! she sez.”
“Yes,” said Benno with a touch of regret, “she is a bit iv a lady.”
While no one could possibly have a truer appreciation of the qualities of refinement and breeding than Mr. Dickson, he realised before an hour had gone that Haddy was overdoing the perfect lady. She was altogether too genteel. She sat, prim and erect, against the wall, her head slightly on one side, her face drawn down tight, and her eyes drooping. Her expression was that of one who has discovered a defect in the drainage, but is too well-mannered to mention it.
If asked to dance Miss Smith yielded, and went through the performance with a sort of stony energy. Hugged to her partner’s breast, she danced with vehemence, but in silence, and her superior expression never relaxed for a moment. She seemed to say, “I dance with you, but allow no liberties.”
There was another marked disadvantage in dancing with Miss Smith that presently excited some discussion.
“Nit, cobber, what’s got that piece o’yours?” said M’Kenzie after a round dance. “I no sooner gets into holts with ’er than I fair sneezes me napper off.”
Nicholas Don also rose to complain. “She’s a snorter, Dickson,” he said. “She’s got everyone sneezin’. The blokes is blowin’ false teeth all over the shop. Wot sort iv a game is this fer a perfec’ lady whose ma washes fer the Gov’ner?”
Benno was sad. He had been sneezing a good deal himself. No man could grapple with Haddy without breaking the continuity of the dance several times while he got down to sneeze explosively.
The sight of Haddy standing erect and alone, waiting with a coldly superior air while her gent bucked and contorted on the floor in a paroxysm of explosion, became one of the features of the evening. Not her partners alone, but all the dancers in a set in which Haddy took part were similarly afflicted.
Miss Smith’s curious influence was due to the fact that she had been toiling among pepper in Whimble’s factory all day, and had neglected to brush the floating stock out of her abundant fluffy locks in the hurry of preparing for the ball. Indurated to pepper herself, she felt no unpleasant effects; but when she came into good action she discharged the irritant in clouds, and infected the whole atmosphere of the room. This did not add to her popularity. A tendency to isolate the young lady manifested itself.
Benno was hurt. His new grievance against Haddy increased the bitterness with which he regarded Cilly Gwynne and Mr. Cootie. He took occasion to mention to a few friends that Miss Smith had been in a measure forced upon him at the last moment in consequence of the gross unfaithulness of Miss Gwynne.
“The blokie in the blue suit kidded ’er t’ turn me down, ’n’ she dogged on me after I’d made me arrangements,” said Benno. “It cost a bit, take it from me.”
“Gar-rn,” said Twitter Feeney disgustedly. “Didn’ yeh take somethin’ to ’im? The cow!”
“That’s t’ come,” retorted Benno with a sort of deadly composure.
Benno’s friends were most sympathetic, especially Twitter. Twitter had a great reputation to lose. He was supposed to be a very destructive street fighter. He was said to have outed a fourteen-stone policeman in a dust-up. Benno cultivated Twitter Feeney; he took him in to refreshments two or three times.
The refreshment room was very small and extremely hot. Refreshments consisted mainly of corned beef and bread and beer. Dukie M’Kenzie had set up a large barrel of beer, and put Jumbo Stone in command. A charge of 3d. a glass was exacted. This was a breach of covenant, it being set out on the tickets that refreshments were free to all. It was also contrary to law, but Dukie was a law unto himself. Jumbo was a large man; he was hot and flurried by the strain put upon him. He chopped bread and meat and filled beer glasses with perspiring energy; but he found time to have one himself on Benno’s invitation, and to show some interest in Benno’s grievance. Then he had another to avoid the worry of giving the clerk his change.
Feeling right was with him, and that the weight of public opinion was behind him, Benno no longer took the trouble to disguise his enmity. He passed a gibe or two to Did Cootie, but Did was not looking for trouble, and heard nothing. Benno grew valiant, and bumped his enemy several times in the course of a dance. Cootie found nothing in this to object to. He went on dancing very amiably.
Mr. Dickson realised now that he had a ‘soft thing.’ It was plain that Cootie would take it lying down. Benno became reckless in his attacks and in his loud criticism of Did’s dress, appearance, and manner of dancing. Several young gentlemen, hurt by Cootie’s success with their girls, took open joy in Benno’s wit, and seconded his attacks. Did was jostled a great deal, and his feet were trodden on. Somebody knocked his boxer from its peg, and walked in it. The little clerk was doing a violent schottische with Miss Bills, and, to hasten a climax, came into heavy collision with Cootie.
Did resisted like a gum-butt. Benno ricochetted and went down hard, slid three yards on the polished floor and bumped his head violently against the wall. It was the last straw. Benno arose, spitting wrath. His hair was disarranged; his collar was adrift; there was homicide in his fiery eye.
“’Ere, ’ere, wot sort!” he said, throwing himself in Cootie’s way, his hands up, and sparring decoratively. “Yer lookin’ fer it. Yiv bin fair beggin’ fer it all evenin’. Put ’em up!”
Benno lunged a feeble left at Did Cootie, and Did very calmly evaded; and then he smote Benno dispassionately. He batted Benno with the open hand on the right cheek, then he batted him on the left cheek, and then, with a forward thrust, took the aggressor with the heel of his palm right on the nose. Benno went down again, harder than before, and this time he skidded right across the hall, like a fish on a marble slab, fetching up under one of the forms.
Instantly Twitter Feeney was up in arms in defence of his friend and patron. He walked up to Did Cootie with a leery swagger, and thrust his face into that of Did, and his countenance wore a look of ferocity terrible to behold.
“Come orf!” he said. “’Ow’s this, pluggin’ a bloke out iv yeh class? ’Ere’s where yeh get it, see. Yes-yus-ya-as.” Twitter pushed his hard jaw closer to Did’s with each repetition, then he swung a destructive left.
Did Cootie ducked the lead, and stepping up timed Twitter with such precision and such force that the youth’s legs crumpled under him. He went down like a dropped sack and lay on the floor, without movement, while the crowd pressed round, gazing with silent, almost breathless, amazement at the vanquished champion.
Dukie M’Kenzie broke through the circle and grappled Cootie roughly.
“Out yeh get, ’n’ get easy, ’r I’ll topple yeh in the drain!” he snorted.
Dukie made a cocksure twist to get Did’s arm up his back, but the young man from the produce store had an excellent repertoire of holds, twists, and clips. He took a jiu-jitsu turn on Dukie’s arm, and kicked up Dukie’s heels, and Dukie hit the floor with his ear.
The master of ceremonies arose, somewhat dazed. Twitter Feeney arose still more dazed. Benno was on his feet, but was not pushing himself forward at this stage. A line of angry enemies confronted Did Cootie, who was backed by Cilly Gwynne only.
“Jumbo!” yelled M’Kenzie. “Jumbo! Bring erlong Jumbo someone, ’n’ we’ll blessed soon clear up this gazob.”
Jumbo came, twining his sleeves neatly above the elbow. Jumbo was an elephant of a man. He could ‘chuck out’ anything human, and for years had been toying with recalcitrant drunks and bad men in minor pubs and similar resorts of the vicious.
“Pitch him through the winder,” said M’Kenzie, “’n’ put all expenses down t’ me.”
Jumbo advanced. He liked the job. Did Cootie backed quickly to the end wall. Cilly stood by him, shrilly abusing the company as cowards and people of mean instincts. Cootie was bent on escaping with honour. He was a ready-reckoner, and, snatching the bright hydrant from the neat folds of the hose on the stand, he said softly:
“Turn that little brass wheel, Priscilla. Turn it hard.”
Did had armed himself with the hose insisted upon by the Board of Health as a provision against fire. He made a show of using it as a club, and the enemy loitered. Cilly pounced on the wheel, with a squeal of rapture. The folds of hose jumped and pranced under the pressure of the rush of water, and Jumbo received the stream full in the face.
Jumbo was a brave man, but he loathed water. He fell back, gasping, and the flood got into his mouth, and washed his false teeth into his vest. Cilly gave the wheel another turn, and a hard jet bounced off Jumbo’s large, taut corporation. Jumbo was beaten. He turned keel up, and lay gasping for breath on the boards.
The regular patrons who were backing M’Kenzie had formed a solid support behind Jumbo. It was now their turn Did Cootie played the hose on Dukie, and Dukie collapsed. The great wash struck Benno in the breast, and Benno rolled over. Cootie followed up his merciless attack. He kept the stream on his small foe, and washed him across the floor and under the form again.
“The door, Priscilla!” said Cootie gently. “Put the key on the outside.”
Did ran the powerful stream among his foes, and they broke before it, and fled pell-mell, drenched and ignominious. Then Did dropped the hydrant, and leaped after Priscilla.
When the wet people recovered and rushed the door they found it locked on the outside, and long before an exit was made Cootie and Miss Gwynne were safely aboard a city-bound tram.
The drenched company in the water-logged hall thought seriously of inviting the intervention of the law, but wiser counsel prevailed.
Of all the woeful herd that went from Dukie’s dance that night the most woeful was Mr. Ben Dickson, the great ‘cop-out.’ His suit was wrecked, his vest was spoiled, and his cardinal tie could never be worn again. Above all, his amour propre had received an awful shock.
Next morning the little clerk passed Did Cootie at the store door in Egg Lane. Cootie smiled quite nicely, as if nothing had happened, and said, “How do you do, Mr. Dickson?” in the pleasantest way.
Here was Benno’s opportunity.
He cut the fellow dead.