By W. PETT RIDGE.
"BUT thanks be!" said the middle-aged man fervently, "thanks be I've put all that sort of thing away from me, and now it don't temp' me not in the least whatsoever."
The two men, one middle-aged and one young, stood outside the Shelter in Hanbury Street and watched children who came from the Board-school nearly opposite; the younger man did this without seeing them. He, a floury-jacketed lad, did not belong to the Shelter; he had been stopped on his way to Mile End Road by a request from the middle-aged man for a match, some tobacco, and a pipe.
"I look at them little kiddies," went on the middle-aged man reminiscently, "and I think of the time when I was like 'em, innercent and with no thought of crime or what not from one week's end to the other. I see meself growing up and getting me reputation as Pug Nainby, of Bethnal Green, eight stone six, with me name in the Sporting Life sometimes as often as twice a week, and backers ready to plank down a sovereign whenever ast so to do. I was like one of the lilies of the valley at that time."
The younger man looked at him admiringly, but with something of doubt.
"Not in regard to me appearance," he explained, "but in so far as concerned me toiling not nor spinning. Then there came a time when, owing to a generous habit of accepting drinks whenever they was offered me, I had to look about for other means of earning a living. Then it was that——"
Mr. Nainby gave it all in an even monotone which suggested that he was accustomed to reciting it in public, but to the interested young man it had all the charm of novelty, and he listened.
"If this Surbiton job had come under my notice," said Pug Nainby, lowering his voice, "at the time of which I am now speaking, I should have been on it like a bird—I regret to say. I should choose a Wednesday night, because the man that's left in charge of the 'ouse is 'alf engaged to a lady in a shop, and they'll be down on the riverside listening to the band. I should catch the seven-thirty down from Waterloo; I should take a large kit-bag with me—'Eaven forgive me for thinking of all this!—a kit-bag with the name of Captain Somebody painted on it, carrying it, ye see, as though it was full and heavy, and with this yer article that I 'old in my 'and at the present moment——"
The younger man's eyes became fixed on the shining key.
"This would open it as easy—ah! as easy as easy. And then—if it hadn't been that I'd found salvation—then I should have me bag filled as full as it would chock, and I should hop out at the back, catch the nine-five 'ome, that reaches Waterloo at nine-twenty-nine, and there I should be, a 'underd pounds better off than when I started. See? But unfortunately—I mean to say fortunately—I've done with little capers of that kind; I've got me future life to think of, and the good opinion of kind 'elping friends, and so forth and so on. Besides, I'm troubled with rheumatics."
"Come and have a glass," suggested the younger man eagerly but deferentially, "and let's talk the matter over."
"Not me!" said Pug Nainby; "not me! Fifteen year ago it'd be different; to-day I make answer unto you——"
"Grove Road, did you say?"
"Don't tell me I went and let the address slip out?"
"Grove Road, wasn't it?"
"Grove Road it was," admitted Mr. Nainby reluctantly. "But don't you go thinking any more of what I said about that seven-thirty on Wednesday night from Waterloo, and a kit-bag with a military name on it. Put all that out of your mind, for goodness' sake! I should never forgive meself if I thought that I'd been the means of starting a likely young chap on the broad path that leadeth to destruction. And you, being new to the game, would only go making a mull of it. As for this key, in order to show you how easily I can avoid temptation at my time of life, why—here it goes!"
Mr. Nainby made all the preparations for sending the key into distant space, but somehow it fell short and went only into the middle of the road. He said "Good-night" curtly and went into the dark passage of the Shelter. Looking back, he saw that the younger man, after glancing around cautiously, went across and picked up the key, dropped it quietly into his pocket, and strolled on Mile End Road way, whistling a cheerful American march. Mr. Nainby, winking at a text, permitted his rheumatic limbs to convey him slowly upstairs, and later joined in a meeting with enthusiasm, showing signs of annoyance only when he failed in his endeavour to catch the leader's eye, and other reformed characters were called upon to recount the history of their lives and crimes. This he attributed to sheer favouritism, and in order to give some definite sign of his annoyance he sang with great determination a wrong hymn at the close of the meeting, winning over by force of voice and general energy a few undecided, newly joined comrades who were prepared to go in whatever direction they were pushed. The leader afterwards remonstrated with him gently, and Mr. Nainby retorted, he was found challenging a mild man to fight in order to settle some dispute concerning a quotation from Isaiah, and the manager, being called up, had to speak clearly; whereupon Mr. Nainby showed signs of tears and remarked pitifully that it seemed as though everybody was making a dead set against him; he threatened to give it all up and go back to his old life. On this, the whole forces of the establishment were brought to bear on Mr. Nainby, and admirable men begged him fervently to reconsider this hasty pronouncement, which Mr. Nainby, after an elaborate show of determination, hesitancy, and graceful condescension, agreed to do. He went to his leather couch that night with the feeling that he had sacrificed himself for the good of the community.
On the following Wednesday he collected two shillings from his fellow lodgers on behalf of a widower with fifteen children, and took 'bus to the City, walking thence to Waterloo Station. He had borrowed a silk hat of the fashion of the early 'eighties.
"You wouldn't have me go on a mission of this kind," he had said to the owner of the silk hat, "without dressing meself up a bit."
And in the thick stream of people flowing from the City in order to snatch hasty meals at home, make a quick change into flannels, and speed to the river, Mr. Nainby looked one of the many who loaf about Walbrook and other side streets, waiting for financial miracles to happen. He took a third return, and, to escape suspicion, went at once to the very front of the train. He did not risk a glance out of the compartment, much as he was tempted, and here he found reward, for on arriving at Surbiton he caught sight, a distance off, of the floured young man of Hanbury Street, carrying with apparent difficulty a large kit-bag, marked "Capt. Charling, R.E." On the bridge a porter offered to help, but the young man declined assistance; outside the station a covey of boys came up insisting on being allowed, for the mere pleasure, to carry the bag: but they were driven off, and they retired giving imitation of the gait and the Cockney voice of young man man. "Oh! go aw'y, do!" they cried to each other; "I can kerry it meself!"
Mr. Nainby, his elderly silk hat well over his eyes, walked along on the other side of the way, affecting to read with great interest a leading article in an evening paper which he had bought on his way down. When necessary, he stopped, as though anxious to concentrate his mind more accurately on some knotty problem raised by the leader; sometimes he halted to apply a match to an imaginary cigarette; he kept always an eye on the kit-bag marked "Capt. Charling, R.E." The summer was on its return, but dusk had not yet arrived, and Mr. Nainby went into a corner public-house in Maple Road, which commanded a view of the house. There he had a long and amiable talk with the landlord on the subject of rheumatism and its various ineffective remedies, bewailing to a sympathetic ear the drawbacks that it brought to a man of active habits.
"You begin to get pains in your joints," he said dogmatically, "and you can't get in and out of winders like what you used to."
"Winders?" echoed the landlord.
"When I say winders," explained Mr. Nainby, "I speak in a general sense. What I'm trying to make you understand is, that it 'ampers you in akerabatic tricks of any kind whatever."
"Oh! that's your line," said the landlord, enlightened. "I thought I wasn't far out. Funny thing, but d'rectly you come in I said to myself: 'Hullo!' I said, 'ere's a chap that's up to something or other.’"
"And what call have you got," demanded Mr. Nainby with heat, "to jolly well think anything of the kind? Some of you licensed vitchlers seem to think you've got the earth to look after. I wonder it never occurs to you to mind your own bisness. You don't see me interfere with other people's affairs, do you? Very well, then!"
"Let's change the conversation," urged the landlord timidly. "Let's talk about something else. Do you happen to know Wormwood Scrubbs at all?"
"Loogere!" cried Mr. Nainby, with fierceness, "when I want any insults, I'll ask for 'em."
"I used to have a house up Wormwood Scrubbs way, but it never what you may call paid. Except on Saturdays."
"What on earth have I got to do with your troubles? Haven't I got enough on me mind, what with rheumatism and—and other affairs, without you coming worrying of me?"
"I only want to show politeness to a customer," urged the landlord weakly. "It's all done for the good of the 'ouse. You needn't talk to me as though I was a—I was a policeman."
Mr. Nainby started so violently at this dread word that the landlord took up a Windsor chair in self-defence. The two faced each other.
"Now, then!" cried Pug Nainby, "out with it! Make a clean breast of it. Tell us what the little game is. Speak as man to man—if you are able. Who's give me away?"
"It's a funny thing, hut I was never so much misunderstood," protested the landlord, "in all me blessèd life. I don't know you any more than I know that chap over there that's going in at the gate with a kit-bag."
Mr. Nainby whirled round with a word of contempt for his own thoughtlessness, and another word of reproof to his knees. By this foolish row he had as nearly as possible missed the entrance; another second, and the Hanbury Street young man would have gone into the house between the protecting trees, unobserved by him. The sky had taken a darker shade of grey, and the young man, novice-like, had seized the first opportunity. Nainby, recognising his indebtedness to the landlord, apologised to that gentleman with great profuseness, remarking that he hoped he knew an honest man when he met one; that any remark he might have let slip in the heat of the moment should be debited to error of manner rather than fault of heart; that he would esteem it a high privilege, and one not easily to be forgotten, if the landlord would allow him to shake hands. This ceremony over, Mr. Nainby, now in the high state of content that comes to those who offend and make generous reparation, went out of the public-house, to the owner's great relief, and distributing a few temperance leaflets to children in Maple Road, headed "Stop Ere It Is Too Late," found his way to the back of the Grove Road house and waited in the increasing dusk with as much patience as he could command. His mind went back, with a touch of regret, to the time when rheumatism was unknown to him and he carried on a risky and a chequered profession alone and unaided. Mr. Nainby sighed to think that he was forced to adopt what some might think unsportsmanlike methods; but possessing a conscience that had become dulled by exposure, he had little trouble in persuading himself that he was acting for the best, in the interests of all parties.
"It'll be a lesson to this youngster," he said paternally, "that he'll never forget. Likely as not it'll prove the making of him."
It appeared that the youngster was taking his time. Mr. Nainby became obsessed by a horrid fear that the lad might, with the daring of stupidity, have gone out with his loaded bag by the front gate, instead of obeying the suggestion; and he told himself that should this prove to be the case, there was no alternative for an honourable man but to give immediate information to the police. It would be a new character for him to play, that of "nark," and it was one to be adopted only as a last and desperate resource; but bad as it was, it would prove to the officials in Hanbury Street that his conversion was definite and complete, and the evening papers would applaud him at the expense of New Scotland Yard. Mr. Nainby had become almost reconciled in a bitter, resentful way to this possibility, when he heard near the laurel tree behind which he was hiding the fall of a heavy package, and looking round, he saw the head of the youth coming out of a small window in the scullery.
"Come along, sergeant!" said Pug Nainby in an assumed gruff voice. "We'll nab him as easy as catching flies."
The youth's head disappeared. Mr. Nainby smiled at the instant success of his ruse, and going quietly down the gravelled path, he turned the kit-bag over and found the handles. It was cruelly heavy, but this, counted a drawback for the moment, was, he knew, a prospective advantage. There was the trouble of carrying it to the station; once arrived at Waterloo, only a shilling cab to a quiet shop off Blackfriars Road would be necessary.
"Want any help?" asked a voice.
"Thanks!" replied Mr. Nainby, starting affrightedly, "I can manage. Goo' night."
"Don't go like that!" begged the misty figure that he could not make out with distinctness.
"I'm in a 'hurry."
"Yes, I know," said the other, giving a harsh whistle that grated on Nainby's ears. "But I think we may as well give you a hand."
A grasp on the shoulder seemed to take Pug Nainby back to the years of his prime. He wriggled as he had done in those golden days, but the grip became more secure.
"It's a fair cop!" whimpered Mr. Nainby. "I'll come quiet. Shall I carry the bag, or will you?"
"I'll see to that, constable," said another voice—the voice of the landlord. "Funny thing! but d'rectly he came into my place I said to myself——"
"Hold him for a moment," ordered the constable, "whilst I turn my lamp on the inside of the bag. Got him?"
"Yes," said the landlord prematurely. "I mean no. Catch him! He's off! Run! Run after him and catch him! Or I will."
It was the indecision of the landlord (so the constable said afterwards) that gave Mr. Nainby his opportunity. The constable had started, when he found the landlord running with him. It then occurred to the constable (so he said) that there might be two of them in the business, and he accordingly turned and ran back in order to make sure of the kit-bag marked "Capt. Charling, K.E."; whereupon the landlord turned also and ran back with the constable. The landlord, a fortnight later, found excuse for this by pointing out that it was not unprecedented for a notable idea to occur to two great minds at once. The landlord further argued—and never ceased to argue—that he could pick the man out of a thousand, and this could not be contradicted, for his powers in this regard were never put to the test.
"It 'curred to me," said Pug Nainby to the young man as they journeyed home empty-handed by the nine-five to Waterloo, "that I might unknowingly have put ideas into your 'ead by certain remarks that I let drop."
"Well," said the white-faced young man, mopping the inside of his hat, "so you did. If I hadn't popped off out by the front door——"
"And I thinks to myself, 'Nainby,' I thinks, 'this won't do. If so be that you've been, the cause of starting a youngster on the path of crime, it's you that must stop him before he gets too fur.' It cost me two-and-three to do it, and if you're a honest man, you'll pay me back the sum, with a bit over for me exes."
"Mr. Nainby," said the other fervently, "I shan't try this on again. The baking business is safer and there's more money in it. I can never thank you enough. If ever I have a chance of repaying you——"
"Make it three bob," said Mr. Nainby.