“What do you say,” he drawled, “if we go and have a look at a dancing saloon—one of these larrikin dancing saloons?”
“I’d like it awfully,” said one Englishman.
“Most interesting,” said the other. “I’ve heard such a lot about the Australian larrikin. What they call a basher in England, isn’t it? Eh, what? Sort of rough that lays for you with a pal and robs you, eh?”
The Bo’sun rang for cigars and liqueurs, and then answered the question. “Pretty much the same as a basher,” he said, “but with a lot more science and dog-cunning about him. They go in gangs, and if you hit one of the gang, all the rest will ‘deal with you’, as they call it.
“If they have to wait a year to get you, they’ll wait, and get you alone some night or other and set on to you. They jump on a man if they get him down, too. Oh, they’re regular beauties.”
“Rather roughish sort of Johnnies, eh?” said the Englishman. “But we might go and see the dancing—no harm in that.”
Pinnock said he had to go back to his office; the globe-trotter didn’t care about going out at night: and the Bo’sun tried to laugh the thing off. “You don’t catch me going,” he said. “There’s nothing to be seen—just a lot of flash young rowdies dancing. You’ll gape at them, and they’ll gape at you, and you’ll feel rather a pair of fools, and you’ll come away. Better stop and have a rubber.”
“If you dance with any of their women, you get her particular fancy-man on to you, don’t you?” asked Gordon. “It’s years since I was at that sort of place myself.”
The Bo’sun, who knew nothing about it, assumed the Sir Oracle at once.
“I don’t suppose their women would dance with you if you paid ’em five shillings a step,” he said.
“There’d certainly be a fight if they did. Are you fond of fighting, Carew?”
“Not a bit,” replied that worthy. “Never fight if you can help it. No chap with any sense ever does.”
“That’s like me,” said Gordon. “I’d sooner run a mile than fight, any time. I’m like a rat if I’m cornered, but it takes a man with a stockwhip to corner me. I never start fighting till I’m done running. But we needn’t get into a row. I vote we go. Will you come, Carew?”
“Oh, yes; I’d like to,” said the Englishman. “I don’t suppose we need get into a fight.”
So, after many jeers from the Bo’sun, and promises to come back and and tell them all about it, Carew and Gordon sallied forth, a pair of men as capable of looking after themselves as one would meet in a day’s march. Stepping into the street they called a cab.
“Where to, sir?” asked the cabman.
“Nearest dancing saloon,” said Gordon, briefly.
“Nearest darncin’ saloon,” said the cabman. “There ain’t no parties tonight, sir; it’s too ’ot.”
“We’re not expecting to drop into a ballroom without being asked, thank you,” said Gordon.
“We want to go to one of those saloons where you pay a shilling to go in. Some place where the larrikins go.”
“Ho! is that it, sir?” said the cabman, with a grin. “Well, I’ll take you to a noo place, most selectest place I know. Git up,’orse.” And off they rattled through the quiet streets, turning corners and crossing tramlines every fifty yards, apparently, and bumping against each other in the most fraternal manner.
Soon the cab pulled up in a narrow, ill-lit street, at the open door of a dingy house. Instructing the cabman to wait, they hustled upstairs, to be confronted at the top by a man who took a shilling from each, and then was not sure whether he would admit them. He didn’t seem to like their form exactly, and muttered something to a by-stander as they went in. They saw a long, low room, brilliantly lighted by flaring gas jets. Down one side, on wooden forms, was seated a row of flashily dressed girls—larrikinesses on their native heath, barmaids from cheap, disreputable hotels, shop girls, factory girls—all sharp-faced and pert, young in years, but old in knowledge of evil. The demon of mischief peeped out of their quick-moving restless eyes. They had elaborate fringes, and their short dresses exhibited well-turned ankles and legs.
A large notice on the wall stated that “Gentlemen must not dance with nails in their boots. Gentlemen must not dance together.”
“That blocks us,” said Gordon, pointing to the notice. “Can’t dance together, no matter how much we want to. Look at these fellows here.”
Opposite the women sat or lounged a score or two of youths—wiry, hard-faced little fellows, for the most part, with scarcely a sizeable man amongst them. They were all clothed in “push” evening dress—black bell-bottomed pants, no waistcoat, very short black paget coat, white shirt with no collar, and a gaudy neckerchief round the bare throat. Their boots were marvels, very high in the heel and picked out with all sorts of colours down the sides. They looked “varminty” enough for anything; but the shifty eyes, low foreheads, and evil faces gave our two heroes a sense of disgust. The Englishman thought that all the stories he had heard of the Australian larrikin must be exaggerated, and that any man who was at all athletic could easily hold his own among such a poor-looking lot. The whole spectacle was disappointing. The most elaborately decorous order prevailed; no excitement or rough play was noticeable, and their expedition seemed likely to be a failure.
The bushman stared down the room with far-seeing eyes, apparently looking at nothing, and contemplated the whole show with bored indifference.
“Nothing very dazzling about this,” he said. “I’m afraid we can’t show you anything very exciting here. Better go back to the club, eh?”
Just then the band (piano and violin) struck up a slow, laboured waltz, “Bid me goodbye and go,” and each black-coated male, with languid self-possession, strolled across the room, seized a lady by the arm, jerked her to her feet without saying a syllable, and commenced to dance in slow, convulsive movements, making a great many revolutions for very little progress. Two or three girls were left sitting, as their partners were talking in a little knot at the far end of the room; one among them was conspicuously pretty, and she began to ogle Carew in a very pronounced way.
“There’s one hasn’t got a partner,” said Gordon. “Good-looking Tottie, too. Go and ask her to dance. See what she says.” The Englishman hesitated for a second. “I don’t like asking a perfect stranger to dance,” he said.
“Go on,” said Gordon, “it’s all right. She’ll like it.”
Carew drew down his cuffs, squared his shoulders, assumed his most absolutely stolid drawing-room manner, and walked across the room, a gleaming vision of splendour in his immaculate evening dress.
“May I—er—have the pleasure of this dance?” he said, with elaborate politeness.
The girl giggled a little, but said nothing, then rose and took his arm. As she did so, a youth among the talkers at the other end of the room looked round, and stared for a second. Then he moistened his fingers with his tongue, smoothed the hair on his temples, and with elbows held out from his sides, shoulders hunched up and under-jaw stuck well out, bore down on Carew and the girl, who were getting under way when he came up. Taking not the slightest notice of Carew, he touched the girl on the shoulder with a sharp peremptory tap, and brought their dance to a stop.
“’Ere,” he said, in commanding tones. “’Oo are you darncin’ with?”
“I’m darncin’ with ’im,” answered the girl, pertly, indicating the Englishman with a jerk of her head.
“Ho, you’re darncin’ with ’im, are you? ’E brought you ’ere, p’r’aps?”
“No, he didn’t,” she said.
“No,” said he. “You know well enough ’e didn’t.”
While this conversation was going on, the Englishman maintained an attitude of dignified reserve, leaving it to the lady to decide who was to be the favoured man. At last he felt it was hardly right for an Oxford man, and a triple blue at that, to be discussed in this contemptuous way by a larrikin and his “donah”, so he broke into the discussion, perhaps a little abruptly, but using his most polished style.
“I—ah—asked this lady to dance, and if she—er—would be kind enough to do me the honour,” he said, “I ——”
“Oh! you arst ’er to darnce? And what right ’ad you to arst ’er to darnce, you lop-eared rabbit?” interrupted the larrikin, raising his voice as he warmed to his subject. “I brought ’er ’ere. I paid the shillin’. Now then, you take your ’ook,” he went on, pointing sternly to the door, and talking as he would to a disobedient dog. “Go on, now. Take your ’ook.”
The Englishman said nothing, but his jaw set ominously. The girl giggled, delighted at being the centre of so much observation. The band stopped playing, and the dancers crowded round. Word was passed down that it was a “toff darncin’ with Nugget’s donah”, and from various parts of the room blackcoated duplicates of Nugget hurried swiftly to the scene.
The doorkeeper turned to Gordon. “You’d best get your mate out o’ this,” he said. “These are the Rocks Push, and they’ll deal with him all right.”
“Deal with him, will they?” said Gordon, looking at the gesticulating Nugget. “They’ll bite off more than they can chew if they interfere with him. This is just his form, a row like this. He’s a bit of a champion in a rough-and-tumble, I believe.”
“Is he?” said the doorkeeper, sardonically. “Well, look ’ere, now, you take it from me, if there’s a row Nugget will spread him out as flat as a newspaper. They’ve all been in the ring in their time, these coves. There’s Nugget, and Ginger, and Brummy—all red ’ot. You get him away!”
Meanwhile the Englishman’s ire was gradually rising. He was past the stage of considering whether it was worth while to have a fight over a factory girl in a shilling dancing saloon, and the desire for battle blazed up in his eyes. He turned and confronted Nugget.
“You go about your business,” he said, dropping all the laboured politeness out of his tones. “If she likes to dance—”
He got no further. A shrill whistle rang through the room; a voice shouted, “Don’t ’it ’im; ’ook ’im!” His arms were seized from behind and pinioned to his sides. The lights were turned out. Somebody in front hit him a terrific crack in the eye at the same moment that someone else administered a violent kick from the rear. He was propelled by an invisible force to the head of the stairs, and then—whizz! down he went in one prodigious leap, clear from the top to the first landing.
Here, in pitch-darkness, he grappled one of his assailants. For a few seconds they swayed and struggled, and then rolled down the rest of the stairs, over and over each other, grappling and clawing, each trying to tear the other’s shirt off. When they rolled into the street, Carew discovered that he had hold of Charlie Gordon.
They sat up and looked at each other. Then they made a simultaneous rush for the stairs, but the street door was slammed in their faces. They kicked it violently, but without result, except that a mob of faces looked out of the first-floor window and hooted, and a bucket of water was emptied over them. A crowd collected as if by magic, and the spectacle of two gentlemen in evening dress trying to kick in the door of a shilling dancing saloon afforded it unmitigated delight.
“’Ere’s two toffs got done in all right,” said one.
“What O! Won’t she darnce with you?” said another; and somebody from the back threw banana peel at them.
Charlie recovered his wits first. The Englishman was fairly berserk with rage, and glared round on the bystanders as if he contemplated a rush among them. The cabman put an end to the performance. He was tranquil and unemotional, and he soothed them down and coaxed them into the cab. The band in the room above resumed the dreamy waltz music of “Bid me goodbye and go!” and they went.
Carew subsided into the corner, breathing hard and feeling his eye. Charlie leant forward and peered out into the darkness. They were nearly at the club before they spoke. Then he said, “Well, I’m blessed! We made a nice mess of that, didn’t we?”
“I’d like to have got one fair crack at some of ’em,” said the Englishman, with heartfelt earnestness. “Couldn’t we go back now?”
“No, what’s the good? We’d never get in. Let the thing alone. We needn’t say anything about it. If once it gets known that we were chucked out, we’ll never hear the last of it. Are you marked at all?”
“Got an awful swipe in the eye,” replied the other briefly.
“I’ve got a cut lip, and my head nearly screwed off. You did that. I’ll know the place again. Some day we’ll get a few of the right sort to come with us, and we’ll just go there quietly, as if we didn’t mean anything, and then, all of a sudden, we’ll turn in and break the whole place up! Come and have a drink now.”
They had a silent drink in the deserted club. The mind of each was filled with a sickening sense of defeat, and without much conversation they retired to bed. They thanked heaven that the Bo’sun, Pinnock, and Gillespie had disappeared.
Even then Fate hadn’t quite finished with the bushman. A newly joined member of the club, he had lived a life in which he had to shift for himself, and the ways of luxury were new to him. Consequently, when he awoke next morning and saw a man moving with cat-like tread about his room, absolutely taking the money out of his clothes before his very eyes, he sprang out of bed with a bound and halfthrottled the robber. Then, of course, it turned out that it was only the bedroom waiter, who was taking his clothes away to brush them. This contretemps, on top of the overnight mishap, made him determined to get away from town with all speed. When he looked in the glass, he found his lip so much swelled that his moustache stuck out in front like the bowsprit of a ship. At breakfast he joined the Englishman, who had an eye with as many colours as an opal, not to mention a tired look and dusty boots.
“Are you only just up?” asked Charlie, as they contemplated each other.
Carew had resumed his mantle of stolidity, but he coloured a little at the question. “I’ve been out for a bit of a walk round town,” he said. “Fact is,” he added in a sudden burst of confidence, “I’ve been all over town lookin’ for that place where we were last night. Couldn’t find anything like it at all.”
Charlie laughed at his earnestness. “Oh, bother the place,” he said. “If you had found it, there wouldn’t have been any of them there. Now, about ourselves—we can’t show out like this. We’d better be off today, and no one need know anything about it. Besides, I half-killed a waiter this morning. I thought he was some chap stealing my money, when he only wanted to take my clothes away to brush ’em. Sooner we’re out of town the better. I’ll wire to the old man that I’ve taken you with me.”
So saying, they settled down to breakfast, and by tacit agreement avoided the club for the rest of the day.
Before leaving, Charlie had to call and interview Pinnock, and left Carew waiting outside while he went in. He didn’t want to parade their injuries, and knew that Carew’s eye would excite remark; but by keeping his upper lip well drawn over his teeth, he hoped his own trouble would escape notice.
“Seems a harmless sort of chap, that new chum,” said Pinnock.
“He’ll do all right,” said Charlie casually. “I’ve met his sort before. He’s not such a fool as he lets on to be. Shouldn’t wonder if he killed somebody before he gets back here, anyhow.”
“How did you get on at the dancing saloon?” asked Pinnock.
“Oh, slow enough. Nothing worth seeing. Goodbye.”
They sneaked on board the steamer without meeting the Bo’sun or anybody, and before evening were well on their way to No Man’s Land.