On the Central  (1896) 
by W. Pett Ridge

Extracted from Windsor magazine, v.03, 1896, pp. 306-309. Accompanying illustrations by L. Gunnis omitted.

On the Central


THE four-wheeler pulled half way down Bush Lane out of Cannon Street and stopped at a doorway where the brass name plates were so thickly crowded that they seemed to be screaming at each other, protesting at the want of room. A burly young woman was on her knees at the entrance scrubbing, and she looked round as the four-wheeler stopped.

“This,” said one of the men in the four-wheeler gloomily, “this now’ll go and spoil the ’ole bloomin’ show!”

“Stay right here,” said the other man sharply, “and look after the boy.”

The last speaker jumped out and tapped the burly young woman on the shoulder.

“Ophelia,” he said with his nasal twang, “I want you to do me a favour. I want you to run round to the hotel and ask them to send in a good square meal. Can you go right away?”

“I’ll just take me apron off first,” said Ophelia, “and put me ’at on. What would you like them to send, Mr. Bailey? Chops or steaks, or——” Ophelia’s imagination halted—“or what?”

“Anything,” said Mr. Bailey, “only be slick!”

“You have got funny manners,” said the burly young woman as she fixed her straw hat. “First you go and call me Ophelia when my name’s Jane, then you sav slick instead of quick, then you——

“Scoot!” said Mr. Bailey pointing up the narrow lane. And Ophelia went.

“Is the little chap asleep, Tomkins?” he said loudly. “Guess he’s a bit tired. Come along kiddie.”

“He’ll be as right as rine,” said Mr. Tomkins stepping out with a small boy in his arms and going quickly in the doorway. “Ah! righter than rine when he wikes up. It’s the joltin’ of the keb that sent him off to bye-bye.” He turned to the American. “Tike the kid,” he said; “he’s lumpy. I’ll settle with the kebby.”

In the small office on the third floor, on the window of which was printed the name “Paul R. Bailey & Co.,” the small boy was deposited on three chairs. The two men locked the door carefully and turned down the gas to its lowest point without absolutely extinguishing it. Mr. Tomkins wiped his forehead with his tweed cap and looking round gave a grunt of profound satisfaction.

“This ain’t a bad little plice,” he said approvingly. “No one would think of looking for Master ’Arry Anstruther in a City office. What’s that arrangement over there with the toobs?”

“That’s a tel’phone,” said the American briskly. “Don’t you know what a tel’phone is?”

“I’ve ’eard talk of ’em,” said Mr. Tomkins evasively. Mr. Tomkins shared a weakness common to us all in that he did not care to confess ignorance. “And the idea is then that I’m to stay ’ere all night with this youngster is it?"

“That’s jest the size of it,” said Mr. Bailey. “Meanwhile I’ll see a friend of mine who, to-morrow evening when young Mrs. Anstruther is near mad with anxiety, will call upon her at Prince’s Gate and say, “Look here now, ma’am, give me five thousand pounds and I can tell you where your boy is.”

“It’s a lump of money,” said Mr. Tomkins, “for a young widow woman to shell out.”

“It’s nothing at all,” declared Mr. Bailey, “to her. She’s got enough money to fill a room. Her husband wasn’t able to take it with him when he died and therefore he left it all to her. And this boy is pretty near all she cares for.”

“It’s a bit steep,” said Mr. Tomkins looking thoughtfully at the small boy on the three chairs.

Master Anstruther was so obedient to the draught which Mr. Paul R. Bailey had induced him to take that his round little head rested composedly on the ledge of the biggest chair, and his breath came with regularity.

“As steep a job as ever I was in, and that poor young lady, his mother, will ’ave about the most ’eart-rending night of it that ever was.”

“That cain’t be helped,” said Mr. Paul R. Bailey; “some one’s bound to get left in this world. All we’ve got to do is to take care that it isn’t us.”

A knock at the door. Mr. Bailey responding to the knock took from the waiter a large tray loaded with plates protected by round metal covers, a cruet-stand and a corpulent bottle of wine. He re-locked the door again, and Mr. Tomkins, removing a round metal dish-cover with a gratified flourish, took off his coat, as one preparing for serious labour, and placed his chair at the small table.

“A little treat like this,” said Tomkins, “I can enjoy.”

“Will you have some wine?” asked Mr. Bailey. “’Tain’t half a bad sort of wine, and if it does go to your head it won’t matter. It’s called Chianti, and——

“So long as it’s moist,” said Mr. Tomkins agreeably, “and so long as there’s plenty of it I don’t care what it’s called. I’ll take the biggest tumbler.”

When Mr. Paul R. Bailey went in search of his friend (locking the door after him and taking the key), Master Harry Anstruther, to the flushed Mr. Tomkins’ great amazement, suddenly awoke.

The small boy rubbed his plump little fists into his eyes and yawned and sat up. Mr. Tomkins took his pipe out of his mouth and stood it on the ledge of the telephone.

“B-r-r-r,” said Master Anstruther with a shiver.

“I daresay you’re right, sir,” said Mr. Tomkins politely. “Had a nice sleep?”

“Where’s my mamma gone?” asked the small boy.

“She’s just stepped round to make a few calls,” said Mr. Tomkins adroitly. “She said she might not be long, and on the other ’and she might be some little time—it all depended.”

“Did she kiss me before she went away?”

“Like anything,” said Mr. Tomkins. “I thought she were never going to leave off.”

“She always does that.” The small boy smiled thoughtfully. “We love each other dreffully, my mamma and me.”

“That’s right,” said Mr. Tomkins approvingly. “There’s nothing like it. Respect your parents when they’re young and when they grow up——

“Who are you?” demanded Master Anstruther. “Are you a new servant?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tomkins. “I’m noo—to a certain extent.”

“You’ll have to smarten up, my man,” said the small boy. “You don’t brush your hair very often, do you?”

“I run a comb through it now and again,” said Tomkins apologetically. “A man can’t be always a-titivating hisself—not a man, that is to say, who’s got his living to earn. You might be always at it if you’d nothing else to do.”

Master Anstruther walked across and examined Tomkins more carefully. He seemed a little puzzled, and glancing round the small office his eyes again rested on Mr. Tomkins’ face.

“How often do you wash, Tomkins?” he asked.

“’Ow often do I wash, sir? Ah, now you are awsking something. I don’t keep count, you see. But it’s very rare I let a day or two pass without a bit of a sluish of some kind or other.”

“Good gracious!” cried Master Anstruther, “I thought everybody washed three or four times a day.”

“Ah!” said Mr. Tomkins, “I’m old-fashioned.”

“I’m very much afraid, Tomkins, that my mamma wouldn’t like to see you as you are now.”

“I rather think she would, sir. What do you say to ’alf a glass of wine?”

“I never drink wine,” said the small boy with a dignified air, “excepting on my mamma’s birthday, and that only happens once a year.”

“That wouldn’t suit me,” said Tomkins refilling his tumbler twice. “I should want a lot of birthdays if that was my rule. How’d it be if you was to doze off to sleep again?”

“No, thank you, Tomkins.”

“I feel a bit drowsy myself. I expect it’s the wine as much as anything.”

“You haven’t taken too much I hope, Tomkins?”

“Lord, no!” said Tomkins yawning. “I never ’ave enough of that sort of thing.” He took off his hat and leaned back comfortably in the chair. “I’ve had a tidy lot at one time and another, you understand me, but I’ve never had what I call enough. Where’s my pipe?”

“Isn’t that it just on the telephone?”

“So it is, so it is. And if you don’t mind I’ll just have a whiff or two more.”

“I don’t mind,” said Master Anstruther. “Commander Gane always smokes when he comes to dinner. Do you know Commander Gane, Tomkins?”

“May ’ave met him,” said Tomkins sleepily, “in the ’aunts of society, but don’t know him well enough to ’ob-nob with.”

“Commander Gane is going to marry my mamma some day,” said the small boy importantly. “He’s such a big strong fellow. Is this your telephone, Tomkins?”

“Don’t belong me,” murmured Mr. Tomkins closing his eyes. “Belongs ’nother genelman.”

“May I talk through it? I do with ours at home. We’re on the Central you know, and when mamma goes to the Stores and I’m at home she always speaks to me from Victoria Street, and a sister of my governess is at the Central Office, and——

“Bless my soul,” murmured Mr. Tomkins. His chin dropped on his woollen muffler. “Wha’s the boy talking about? You have game with wha’ever you like, my lad. I’ll ’ave doss for few minutes.”

“Commander Gane told me all about it,” went on Master Anstruther. “He calls me Lieutenant, and he tells me all about torpedle boats, and shipwrecks, and niggers, and all sorts of things. Have you ever heard about the ‘Swiss Family Family Robinson,’ Tomkins?”

“Bill Rob’son, you mean,” said Mr. Tomkins opening one eye. “Keeps c’gar shop Bethnal Green.”

“No, no, ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’”

“Can’t say I do,” said Mr. Tomkins. His chin dropped again and his eyes closed. “Goo’night.”

Master Anstruther pressed his small thumb against the white knob of the telephone with the air of one practised in the art. A ring came in answer, and the young man put the tube to his ear. “Number 3039,” said Master Anstruther; “and please is Miss Farmer there?” Miss Farmer being there, and being indeed the young person who had received the summons, Master Anstruther told Miss Farmer that he was in such a funny room with such a funny man who had gone fast off to sleep, and would Miss Farmer let him speak to his dear mamma in Bruton Street? The good Miss Farmer, having suggested to the youth how to find his real number—it was written just above the instrument on a slip of paper—immediately switched him on to No. 3630, and in a few moments the distracted young mother had the keen delight of hearing her boy’s piping little voice.

“My dear, sweet boy, is it really you?”

“Yes, mamma; I’m quite sure about that.”

“And I have been nearly out of my mind because I thought we had lost you, dear!”

“Oh, I’m not lost, mamma,” said the young man confidently.

There was a sound of a deeper voice at the other end.

“Hullo! Lieutenant Anstruther,” said the voice of Commander Gane cheerily, “what ship are you on now?”

“I’ll give you the number,” said the boy, flushing with delight at the old title. And he did. “Miss Farmer knows where I am.”

“On no account leave, Lieutenant, until I arrive.”

“All right, Commander Gane. Won’t be long, will you?”

“Not ten minutes, Lieutenant.”

When Mr. Paul R. Bailey entered, excited by the conclusion of admirable arrangements, he started to find the youth gazing at him calmly.

“Do you want Tomkins?”

“River Jordan!” exclaimed Mr. Bailey, with much annoyance. “What does the fool mean by going to sleep?”

“He was tired,” said the small boy.

Mr. Bailey shook the dormant Tomkins roughly.

“It’s all ri’, Maria,” said Mr. Tomkins, opening his eyes and closing them again; “I’m not goin’ to work to-day.”

“Wake yourself up, you silly idiot!” cried Mr. Bailey. “We’ve got to set out at once. How is it the boy is not asleep?”

Mr. Tomkins rubbed his eyes and blinked at Master Anstruther stupidly.

“Yes,” he said, “why is it you’re not asleep in bed? Who told you you could wake up? You just see what a lot of trouble you give anybody just for want of a little thought.”

“Listen to me, Tomkins,” said Mr. Bailey. They conferred seriously for a few minutes together, looking now and again at Master Anstruther.

“The mile trine from Cannon Street?” repeated Mr. Tomkins.

“Once we get him on the car,” said Mr. Bailey, “we’ll be as safe as a bank. Come right along, youngster.”

“Yes,” said Tomkins, with more suavity, “come along, nipper. Let’s go and have a look at the puff-puff.”

“Put your cap on straight,” said Mr. Bailey, “and button up your coat and——

“I’m not going to leave this place,” said the small boy, definitely.

The two men looked at each other.

“’Ere’s a jolly nuisance,” whispered Tomkins. “What are we to do nah?”

“I’m not going to leave this office,” repeated Master Anstruther trembling, “until my dear mamma comes.”

“Your mar,” said Mr. Bailey, “cain’t come here jest for the moment, so we’ll get on a train and go and meet her.”

“I shall not go,” said Master Harry Anstruther.

“Then we’ll jest have to make you,” said Mr. Bailey. “Tie this handkerchief over his mouth, Tomkins.”

“Don’t let’s ’urt the little beggar,” urged Tomkins.

“If you dare to touch me,” said Master Anstruther (his small face turned very white), “I’ll just tell Commander Gane, andhe——

A sound of footsteps on the landing. A sound, too, of voices.

“Why, there he is,” exclaimed the boy delightedly. “And that’s my dear mamma talking now.”

“Pardon me,” said Tomkins to Mr. Bailey. “This job’s getting a bit too thick. I’m going to slope out of this winder.”

A deep voice outside demanded that the door should be opened. There was no answer, for the two men were on the window sill, and broad shoulders pressed against the door and made it crack complainingly. Another attempt and the door, with a slight squeal, came in.

“Oh, my dearest, dearest mamma!” cried Master Anstruther.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1930, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 92 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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