“Blime, she looks like a shillin’ ling wrapped in a penny stamp!” cried Harrerbeller Harte.
“See yeh got yer old brown—brown, brown—see yeh got yer old brown ’at on,” piped the ex-professional fat girl every morning, when Susie’s bizarre felt headdress appeared above the stairs.
The girls at Spats’ were not over-burdened with sensibilities. They did not scruple to make merry at the expense of the smaller misfortunes and the little idiosyncrasies of their weaker sisters. The factory had a peculiar spirit of hoydenish frivolity; it helped to ward off weariness and break the tedium of a set task. Susie served her time as the common butt. It was everybody’s lot.
In those earlier days Susie was gaunt and timid. She stole into the factory like a furtive cat. She loved to creep into cover of any kind, to get anything between her and the ribald pasters—a stack of bags or a heap of envelopes on a board. She was grateful even for a gas bracket that she could hang a strip of paper on. But marvellous is the sex’s adaptability; its power of development is wonderful. In two months Susie was as pert and as self-assertive as the best of them.
Miss Gannon had not been at Spats’ many days when she told Kitty Coudray, who was posing as a sympathetic soul, that she had left a lover behind her in the country, and Kitty, with a shocking lack of respect for the confidence reposed in her, instantly communicated the information to the whole factory.
“What-oh, girls!” she cried, “little Gannon’s got a John iv her own.”
“What!” cried Harrerbeller Harte in mock wonder. “T’ do ez she likes with?”
“Yes,” said Kitty, “’or very own—’ers for keeps. He’s a squatter ‘r somethin’, ’n’ his name’s Oliver Thripny, ’n’ he’ll call fer her with the fam’ly carriage ’n’ pair when he comes into town, ’n’ she’s goin’ t’ be married in white satin shoes ’n’ hon blossom. She sez Oliver’s got a noble bearin’.”
“So he has,” cried Susie defiantly.
“There,” said Miss Harte to the pasters, “that’s up agen’ yeh. There ain’t one iv yeh got a bloke with a noble bearin’.”
“He writ her a love letter,” continued Kitty when the yells of derision had subsided, fluttering a slip of paper in the air. “Would yeh like t’ hear it? No, iv course not.”
A dozen girls scampered to Kitty’s board, and danced about her with shrill clamour; but Fuzzy Ellis went hopping among them, protesting bitterly, spluttering threats of fines and dismissal and with the help of the sullen forewoman he drove the girls back to their boards again.
Kitty Coudray retained the letter, however, and read it to a large audience at lunch time. It was the love letter of an uncultured youth, written with dire pains, wonderfully spelt and quaintly worded. Evidently the opening passage had been borrowed from a tradesman’s circular. The document began: “Dear sir or madam, this is to inform you how I’m still lovin’ you with all me hart.” And it concluded: “I have the honour to remain, yours obedient to command, Oliver Thripny.”
Of course the Beauties revelled in the outpourings of Oliver’s simple soul, and Susie whose sense of the ridiculous was as yet but poorly developed, filled with triumph in the face of the loudly expressed envy of the girls.
Susie’s squatter was adopted by the factory. It expressed unlimited faith in him. It endowed him with great wealth and superlative personal attractions, and affected to believe that his love for Miss Gannon, as expressed in his letters, was a consuming passion beside which the torrid affection of the ducal hero for the simple heroine in penny fiction was pale and cold and weak.
George Mills, alias Feathers, entered into the spirit of the comedy with unaffected joy. He pretended to find in Miss Gannon’s equine cast of countenance a marked resemblance to a popular racehorse, and rechristened her accordingly.
“’Ella, Carbine,” he said, “half a mo’. I want t’ whisper. Will yeh put in a word with the squatter fer me nibs? I’m sick iv this grip; it don’t suit me style. I’m hambitious, ’n’ a bloke don’t get no charnce t’ improve his social position snatching bags in a measly city crib. What I’d like would be the management iv a big cattle run where I could spread meself ’n’ develop, ’n’ I s’pose iv yeh was t’ put in a kind word with Mr. Thripny it ud be ez good ez done.”
“Oh, he ain’t got that much land,” said Susie dubiously.
“So yeh twitter!” answered the unbelieving Feathers. “Fair dinkum yeh might use yer influence, Miss Gannon. ’Tain’t ez iv I didn’t know the game. I managed a milk run onst, ’n’ I’ve sheared all our own cows fer years past.”
Miss Gannon promised to see about it, raking up the while an abbreviated stocking, much of the leg of which had been worn out, doing service at foot.
Harrerbeller bespoke the position of house-keeper, and the ex-professional fat girl thought she would like to be nursery governess.
The situation was almost forced upon poor Susie, but she certainly made a game effort to live up to it, and every day her young man in the country increased in importance, wealth, and manly beauty. Kitty Coudray, who had Susie’s confidence, never failed to inform the factory of the latest development.
The packer introduced a highly decorative oleograph of a member of the royal family—a picture of astounding beauty which he hung on the factory wall, decorated with a frame of tinted papers, and labelled “Oliver”.
The Oliver Thripny legend spread through the establishment. Susie met with elaborate courtesy from the clerks downstairs, and the compositors were painfully polite. Billy, the printer’s devil, was humble, almost piteous, pleading, cap in hand, for the position of lady’s companion for his dear mother. His mother, he said, had been lady’s companion and confidential friend to all the best families in Paddy’s Alley, and if Susie would engage her in some ladylike office at a prodigious salary when she married wealth and station, he would be, oh, so grateful. Billy the Boy wiped his eyes with his cap when he mentioned his mother.
Meanwhile Miss Gannon was steadily improving. She was taken from the folding board and put on to piecework, and she made great progress as a paster. Her comical, out-of-date garments fell from her, replaced by more stylish and appropriate articles.
Susie was earning good money, and she made a corresponding development in her ambition. Oliver grew and expanded. Susie was picking up town ideas, and she grafted city traits on to her country lover. His letters began to display some literary pretension. They lost their quaint and captivating stupidity, and became ponderously correct and stilted. They were full of fine expressions of love and devotion, wordy protestations, and formal offers of service. Harrerbeller was quick to note the change.
“Blime, that ain’t a love letter,” she said. “That’s a bit iv parsing.”
“Oh. he’s ’ighly edjicated, Holiver is,” said Susie.
“’N’ the ’andwritin’s different,” said Feathers. “But I he’s had ’em writ be his privit secretary.”
The letters became more numerous. Then one morning the ex-professional fat girl brought in a copy of somebody’s “Ready Letter Writer for Young Lovers”, and huddled away in a corner at lunch-time, the packer and half-a-dozen of the Beauties went through it, and discovered the source of Oliver’s eloquence. Susie was up to page thirteen, and had used every letter so far. Obviously she had been writing love letters to herself, and evidently it was her intention to go straight through the book. There had long been a suspicion that Oliver Thripny had no existence in fact, and now that suspicion was held to be confirmed; but the conspirators swore secrecy, and Susie was encouraged to further flights.
Susie produced more letters, and eventually a cabinet photograph of Oliver. She showed the picture first to sympathetic Mr. Mills, and the packer went into ecstasies with Benno, the clerk, at his elbow, and a lot of pasters crowded about him, craning to get a glimpse.
“A bloke with arf a neye kin see he’s nobly born,” said Mills, “’n’ iv yeh don’t believe he’s a gentleman iv means, there’s the di’mond studs t’ prove it, ’n’ look at his proud, cold manner, his mock kids, ’n’ his ’air caught back like Padder Whosths, pianner scratcher’s.”
“’Ow beautiful the man is!” moaned the scandalous Harrerbeller.
“’N’ such breedin’!” said Benno. “But what iv the down droopin’ yaller mo?”
“He’s ’ad it pulled, yeh chump,” retorted the packer.
Mills begged the photograph, and it was hung on the wall with the other trophies.
“It’s a photo iv one iv them beauty actors,” the packer told Harrerbeller, in confidence, some minutes later. “They’re a bob a quart at the fancy-goods up town. Ain’t yeh noticed it?”
Miss Harte threw her pasty hessian apron over her head, and squealed with rapture. “Love a duck! Susie’s a treat,” she gasped “This is better’n the wicked lady in the drammer. I’m wonderin’ what’s next.”
The next came one afternoon, when a young man arrived on the top flat from the front stairs. He was a very diffident young man, and plainly fresh from the wilds. He took off his hat a he entered, and stood with it in his hand, with the reverent irresolution some strangers display in church. He had very large feet, and his trousers were hung too high. So large were his feet and so heavy his boots that he looked like an immovable object standing there before the gaping factory. His hands were large too, and heavy and very red. His hair was profuse, and his face was covered with a fluffy down that caught a strange radiance from the sunbeams sloping through the windows.
The strange young man’s clothes were new but curiously cut, and so small for him that each piece had an appearance of being semi-detached. He had adopted a tall white collar for this occasion only, and it rode high up above his coat at the back. His countenance was honest but not intellectual, and his neck very long. He gazed sheepishly about the place, wearing an uncomfortable grin, and the Beauties gazed on him in strained silence, awaiting developments.
“Get on t’ it,” said Benno. “It’s lost its mother.”
Feathers looked with great interest. “Looks a bit like a goose with ears, don’t ’e?” he said.
The stranger found tongue. “Please, does Miss Gannon work here?” he asked.
A whoop of delight welled from the pasters, and a dozen brushes pointed to Susie’s board, but Harrerbeller Harte intervened. She confronted the young man, and bobbed with a ridiculous curtsey.
“What name, if yeh please, sir?” she said.
There was another whoop, louder, longer, more ecstatic than the first, but Harrerbeller disregarded it. “Yes, sir,” she said. “Walk this way, if you please sir!” She led him between the boards, with a ridiculous affectation of the manners of a shopwalker. “Nice weather we’re ’avin’, sir,” she simpered.
“Beautiful, Miss, thank you, and how’s yourself?” stammered Oliver.
This broke up Harrerbeller’s gravity and she had only strength to point Miss Cannon out before collapsing. But the factory had hurriedly composed itself to enjoy the encounter between Susie Cannon and her young man.
Susie had been almost petrified on the discovery of Oliver standing hat in hand in the gangway. Now she was working at top-speed, with averted eyes and her face scarlet with the conflict of many emotions. Evidently she was taken wholly by surprise, and the drop from the ideal to the real left her in a state of utter confusion. Oliver came awkwardly to her board, hat in hand still.
“Hello, Suze,” he said, “how’re you doin’?”
Susie turned up her Roman nose and closed her eyes in an expression of scorn, and continued her work. Oliver raised his voice, “How are you, Suze?” he said. “I said I’d come after you.”
Susie, with eyes still closed and nose still elevated, turned to him for a moment, and said contemptuously: “What yeh givin’ us? I don’t know yeh from a ding-bat!”
The young man was astounded. “Don’t y’ know me, Suze?” he gasped.
“Why, I’m Oliver—Oliver Thripny.”
“Phew!” said Susie, intensifying her scorn.
Oliver’s situation was a very painful one. He gazed piteously about the room, as if seeking corroboration.
“Oh, go on, you know me all right,” he pleaded. “I on’y come down lars’ night, ’n’ I thought you’d be glad t’ see me.”
“Phew!” repeated Susie, accenting her contempt to the utmost.
“Well, I’m bloomin’ well jiggered!” said Mr. Thripny, helplessly.
The Beauties were moved by some small promptings of compassion.
“Garn, ’ive the lad a show!” said the fat girl.
“It’s Oliver the squatter come t’ claim his bride,” pleaded Kitty Coudray. “Kiss him pretty.”
“’Tisn’t!” squealed Miss Gannon, with a sudden access of fury. “’Tisn’t! ’Tisn’t! ’Tisn’t!”
“Hello, Suze; How’re you doin’?”
“Oh, crikey,” murmured the astounded bushman, “that’ll tell you. Says I ain’t Oliver Thripny. Crikey!”
“You ain’t,” cried Susie, “you know you ain’t. You’re a himposter. It’s forgery, that’s what it is. The p’lice orter be sent fer.”
“Crikey!” said the helpless Oliver, “I wouldn’t ’a’ believed it. Oh, I say, Suze, have a good look at me.”
“I won’t,” said Susie. “Go away. You ain’t a bit like.”
Then Oliver invited the bursting of the storm. Appealing to Harrerbeller in his amazement he blurted: “There, that’ll tell you the difference good clothes makes in a bloke.”
The shriek that followed welled from thirty throats, and befoe the beauties had recovered from their paroxysm of mirth Oliver had fled down the stairs. In the language of the flat Susie ‘got nothing’ for the next hour or two. As the pasters worked they exercised their ingenuity in reminding Miss Gannon of what she had lost.
“No more garding parties et Gov’ment ’Ouse fer you, me lady,” said the fat girl.
“Wot price th’ opera ’n’ the fam’ly jewels?” said Hareerbeller. “They’ve a blue duck fer Susie.”
“Now, who’ll drive yeh in a brougham ’n’ pair, ’n’ spatter yeh with di’monds?” asked Kitty.
“Fame, fortune, lux’ry, ’igh society, all gone,” said the packer. “She might iv ’ad mullingatawney soup ’n’ hice cream fer dinn every day, ’n’ swelled it with the best, but she done in her chances in a fit iv pick.” Feathers meant ‘pique’.
But the factory had not seen the last of Oliver. He came up the stairs again at about five o’clock, and turned to pull something after him. He helped a short, fat, red-faced female to the flat. She was about forty-five, and she cuddled a large umbrella, and faced the pasters like a startled horse.
“Now,” cried the bushie, “I am Oliver Thripny, and here’s mother to prove it!”
The ‘hoy’ that greeted this announcement disturbed the whole establishment. Mid the laughter and badinage Susie escaped, and entrenched herself in the dressing-room.
Boldly Mrs. Thripny confronted the storm. The climb had robbed her of breath, but she brandished her brolly in the face of the factory. The pasters’ demonstration was regarded by her as one of open enmity, whereas, as with most outbreaks amongst the hands, it was mere devilment, without a shadow of malice. A scampish craving for diversion inspired such displays. The Beauties were not tender souls themselves, and did not look for supersitiveness in others.
Mrs. Thripny grew redder. Her redness merged into purple. She hurled thunderbolts at the laughing hoydens from the end of her fat gamp.
Oliver retired before the storm, and stood trembling at the head of the stairs. Not so his nuggety mother. She advanced, gasping, full of heroic wrath, and then she burst into language. It was a torrent, a Niagara. The woman tumbled great lexicons on the heads of the girls. Her shrill voice penetrated to the offices. It brought Spats and the junior partner to the top flat. They found Mrs. Thripny ‘going strong’, and the dusty foreman nervously skipping round just beyond the orbit of her umbrella, excitedly but piteously pleading for peace.
The lordly proprietor thundered orders, but Mrs. Thripny lunged at him angrily, gripping his belltopper, and continued her speech.
Exactly what the woman said nobody knew, but she said a tremendous deal, and nothing was complimentary to Spats or the staring hussies, stunned by the downpour they had precipitated.
Mr. Duff, the junior partner, intervened, and it was quaint to see his timid overtures, but a prod in the ear from the raging gamp put him out of action.
Then the diplomatic Feathers took a hand. Feathers was a mere packer and something of a larrikin, perhaps, but in an emergency he was the wise man of that establishment.
“Garn!” he cried, addressing the factory generally, “le’ the poor woman be, carn’t yeh? ’Ave a bit iv manners if y’ are fact’ry rats. It’s dead hookety if a decent married woman’s t’ be abused ’n’ hinsulted ’n’ treated no better ’n’ a Chow. Switch off, carn’t yeh? Yeh might be decent people yerselves some day.”
Mrs. Thripny, who was now breathless, fell back beside her ally.
“Don’t ye know a lady when yeh see one?” asked Feathers indignantly. Then, addressing Oliver’s mother, he said: “You put it down t’ their ignorance ’n’ bad bringin’ up, Mrs Thripny.”
He soothed her with deferential words, and an air of vast respect, and in three minutes she was under perfect control. Before she left she invited Feathers to tea on Sunday.
The packer assured Oliver’s ma that nobody doubted the authenticity of Oliver, and there was no intention to question his legitimacy. This was Mrs. Thripny’s sore point. He said he would send her a written apology, signed by the proprietor and all the employees, and she departed after the boy, quite satisfied. Feathers called innocently over the stairs:
“Mrs. Thripny, may I bring mother with me on Sunday?”
Six months later, when Susie’s squatter was almost forgotten, Susie startled the factory with the announcement of her forthcoming marriage to Mr. Thripny.
“He’s sold out his selection ’n’ bought sand drays. He’s makin’ his five quid a week,” said Susie, proudly.
“What!” ejaculated Feathers; “are yeh his special agin, ’n’ after the way yeh dogged on him?”
“Oh,” said Miss Gannon, “he could see all along that was on’y my joke.”
“Could he?” answered the packer. “A wise gazob is Oliver—yeh can’t kid ’im!”