THE first officer of the Breslau asked me to dinner on board, before the ship went round to Southampton to pick up her passengers. The Breslau was lying below London Bridge, her fore-hatches opened for cargo, and her deck littered with nuts and bolts, and screws and chains. The Black M‘Phee had been putting some finishing touches to his adored engines, and M‘Phee is the most tidy of chief engineers. If the leg of a cockroach gets into one of his slide-valves the whole ship knows it, and half the ship has to clean up the mess.
After dinner, which the first officer, M‘Phee, and I ate in one little corner of the empty saloon, M‘Phee returned to the engine-room to attend to some brass-fitters. The first officer and I smoked on the bridge and watched the lights of the crowded shipping till it was time for me to go home. It seemed, in the pauses of our conversation, that I could catch an echo of fearful bellowings from the engine-room, and the voice of M‘Phee singing of home and the domestic affections.
‘M‘Phee has a friend aboard to-night—a man who was a boiler-maker at Greenock when M‘Phee was a ’prentice,’ said the first officer. ‘I didn’t ask him to dine with us because——’
‘I see—I mean I hear,’ I answered. We talked on for a few minutes longer, and M‘Phee came up from the engine-room with his friend on his arm.
‘Let me present ye to this gentleman,’ said M‘Phee. ‘He’s a great admirer o’ your wor-rks. He has just hearrd o’ them.’
M‘Phee could never pay a compliment prettily. The friend sat down suddenly on a bollard, saying that M‘Phee had understated the truth. Personally, he on the bollard considered that Shakespeare was trembling in the balance solely on my account, and if the first officer wished to dispute this he was prepared to fight the first officer then or later, ‘as per invoice.’ ‘Man, if ye only knew,’ said he, wagging his head, ‘the times I’ve lain in my lonely bunk reading Vanity Fair an’ sobbin’—ay, weepin’ bitterly at the pure fascination of it.’
He shed a few tears for guarantee of good faith, and the first officer laughed. M’1’hee resettled the man’s hat, that had tilted over one eyebrow.
‘That’ll wear off in a little. It’s just the smell o’ the engine-room,’ said M‘Phee.
‘I think I’ll wear off myself,’ I whispered to the first officer. ‘Is the dinghy ready?’
The dinghy was at the gangway, which was down, and the first officer went forward to find a man to row me to the bank. He returned with a very sleepy Lascar, who knew the river.
‘Are you going?’ said the man on the bollard. ‘Well, I’ll just see ye home. M‘Phee, help me down the gangway. It has as many ends as a cato’-nine-tails, and—losh!—how innumerable are the dinghies!’
‘You’d better let him come with you,’ said the first officer. ‘Muhammad Jan, put the drunk sahib ashore first. Take the sober sahib to the next stairs.’
I had my foot in the bow of the dinghy, the tide was making up-stream, when the man cannoned against me, pushed the Lascar back on the gangway, cast loose the painter, and the dinghy began to saw, stern-first, along the side of the Breslau.
‘We’ll have no exter-r-raneous races here,’ said the man. ‘I’ve known the Thames for thirty years——’
There was no time for argument. We were drifting under the Breslau’s stern, and I knew that her propeller was half out of water, in the middle of an inky tangle of buoys, low-lying hawsers, and moored ships, with the tide ripping through them.
‘What shall I do?’ I shouted to the first officer.
‘Find the Police Boat as soon as you can, and for God’s sake get some way on the dinghy. Steer with the oar. The rudder’s unshipped and——’
I could hear no more. The dinghy slid away, bumped on a mooring-buoy, swung round and jigged off irresponsibly as I hunted for the oar. The man sat in the bow, his chin on his hands, smiling.
‘Row, you ruffian,’ I said. ‘Get her out into the middle of the river——’
‘It’s a preevilege to gaze on the face o’ genius. Let me go on thinking. There was “Little Barrnaby Dorrit” and “The Mystery o’ the Bleak Druid.” I sailed in a ship called the Druid once—badly found she was. It all comes back to me so sweet. It all comes back to me. Man, ye steer like a genius.’
We bumped round another mooring-buoy and drifted on to the bows of a Norwegian timber-ship—I could see the great square holes on either side of the cut-water. Then we dived into a string of barges and scraped through them by the paint on our planks. It was a consolation to think that the dinghy was being reduced in value at every bump, but the question before me was when she would begin to leak. The man looked ahead into the pitchy darkness and whistled.
‘Yon’s a Castle liner; her ties are black. She’s swinging across stream. Keep her port light on our starboard bow, and go large,’ he said.
‘How can I keep anything anywhere? You’re sitting on the oars. Row, man, if you don’t want to drown.’
He took the sculls, saying sweetly: ‘No harm comes to a drunken man. That’s why I wished to come wi’ you. Man, ye’re not fit to be alone in a boat.’
He flirted the dinghy round the big ship, and for the next ten minutes I enjoyed—positively enjoyed—an exhibition of first-class steering. We threaded in and out of the mercantile marine of Great Britain as a ferret threads a rabbit-hole, and we, he that is to say, sang joyously to each ship till men looked over bulwarks and cursed us. When we came to some moderately clear water he gave the sculls to me, and said:
‘If ye could row as ye write, I’d respect you for all your vices. Yon’s London Bridge. Take her through.’
We shot under the dark ringing arch, and came out the other side, going up swiftly with the tide chanting songs of victory. Except that I wished to get home before morning, I was growing reconciled to the jaunt. There were one or two stars visible, and by keeping into the centre of the stream, we could not come to any very serious danger.
The man began to sing loudly:
‘The smartest clipper that you could find,
Yo ho! Oho!
Was the Marg’ret Evans of the Black X Line,
A hundred years ago!
Incorporate that in your next book, which is marvellous.’ Here he stood up in the bows and declaimed:—
‘Ye Towers o’ Julia, London’s lasting wrong,
By mony a foul an’ midnight murder fed—
Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song— And yon’s the grave as little as my bed.
I’m a poet mysel’ an’ I can feel for others.’
‘Sit down,’ said I. ‘You’ll have the boat over.’
‘Ay, I’m settin’—settin’ like a hen.’ He plumped down heavily, and added, shaking his forefinger at me:—
Is wisdom’s root.
How did a man o’ your parts come to be so drunk? Oh, it’s a sinfu’ thing, an’ ye may thank God on all fours that I’m with you. What’s yon boat?’
We had drifted far up the river, and a boat manned by four men, who rowed with a soothingly regular stroke, was overhauling us.
‘It’s the River Police,’ I said, at the top of my voice.
‘Oh ay! If your sin do not find you out on dry land, it will find you out in the deep waters. Is it like they’ll give us drink?’
‘Exceedingly likely. I’ll hail them.’ I hailed.
‘What are you doing?’ was the answer from the boat.
‘It’s the Breslau’s dinghy broken loose,’ I began.
‘It’s a vara drunken man broke loose,’ roared my companion, ‘and I’m taking him home by water, for he cannot stand on dry land.’ Here he shouted my name twenty times running, and I could feel the blushes racing over my body three deep.
‘You’ll be locked up in ten minutes, my friend,’ I said, ‘and I don’t think you’ll be bailed either.’
‘H’sh, man, h’sh. They think I’m your uncle.’ He caught up a scull and began splashing the boat as it ranged alongside.
‘You’re a nice pair,’ said the sergeant at last.
‘I am anything you please so long as you take this fiend away. Tow us in to the nearest station, and I’ll make it worth your while,’ I said.
‘Corruption—corruption,’ roared the man, throwing himself flat in the bottom of the boat. ‘Like unto the worms that perish, so is man! And all for the sake of a filthy half-crown to be arrested by the river police at my time o’ life!’
‘For pity’s sake, row,’ I shouted. ‘The man’s drunk.’
They rowed us to a flat—a fire or a police-station; it was too dark to see which. I could feel that they regarded me in no better light than the other man. I could not explain, for I was holding the far end of the painter, and feeling cut off from all respectability.
We got out of the boat, my companion falling flat on his wicked face, and the sergeant asked us rude questions about the dinghy. My companion washed his hands of all responsibility. He was an old man; he had been lured into a stolen boat by a young man—probably a thief—he had saved the boat from wreck (this was absolutely true), and now he expected salvage in the shape of hot whisky and water. The sergeant turned to me. Fortunately I was in evening dress, and had a card to show. More fortunately still, the sergeant happened to know the Breslau and M‘Phee. He promised to send the dinghy down next tide, and was not beyond accepting my thanks, in silver.
As this was satisfactorily arranged, I heard my companion say angrily to a constable, ‘If you will not give it to a dry man, ye maun to a drookit.’ Then he walked deliberately off the edge of the flat into the water. Somebody stuck a boathook into his clothes and hauled him out.
‘Now,’ said he triumphantly, ‘under the rules o’ the R-royal Humane Society, ye must give me hot whisky and water. Do not put temptation before the laddie. He’s my nephew an’ a good boy i’ the main. Tho’ why he should masquerade as Mister Thackeray on the high seas is beyond my comprehension. Oh the vanity o’ youth! M‘Phee told me ye were as vain as a peacock. I mind that now.’
‘You had better give him something to drink and wrap him up for the night. I don’t know who he is,’ I said desperately, and when the man had settled down to a drink supplied on my representations, I escaped and found that I was near a bridge.
I went towards Fleet Street, intending to take a hansom and go home. After the first feeling of indignation died out, the absurdity of the experience struck me fully and I began to laugh aloud in the empty streets, to the scandal of a policeman. The more I reflected the more heartily I laughed, till my mirth was quenched by a hand on my shoulder, and turning I saw him who should have been in bed at the river police-station. He was damp all over; his wet silk hat rode far at the back of his head, and round his shoulders hung a striped yellow blanket, evidently the property of the State.
‘The crackling o’ thorns under a pot,’ said he, solemnly. ‘Laddie, have ye not thought o’ the sin of idle laughter? My heart misgave me that ever ye’d get home, an’ I’ve just come to convoy you a piece. They’re sore uneducate down there by the river. They wouldna listen to me when I talked o’ your worrks, so I e’en left them. Cast the blanket about you, laddie. It’s fine and cold.’
I groaned inwardly. Providence evidently intended that I should frolic through eternity with M‘Phee’s infamous acquaintance.
‘Go away,’ I said; ‘go home, or I’ll give you in charge!’
He leaned against a lamp-post and laid his finger to his nose—his dishonourable, carnelian neb.
‘I mind now that M‘Phee told me ye were vainer than a peacock, an’ your castin’ me adrift in a boat shows ye were drunker than an owl. A good name is as a savoury bakemeat. I ha’ nane.’ He smacked his lips joyously.
‘Well, I know that,’ I said.
‘Ay, but ye have. I mind now that M‘Phee spoke o’ your reputation that you’re so proud of. Laddie, if ye gie me in charge—I’m old enough to be your father—I’ll bla-ast your reputation as far as my voice can carry; for I’ll call you by name till the cows come hame. It’s no jestin’ matter to be a friend to me. If you discard my friendship, ye must come to Vine Street wi’ me for stealin’ the Breslau’s dinghy.’
Then he sang at the top of his voice:—
I’ the morrnin’ by the black van—
We’ll toodle up to Vine Street i’ the morrnin’!
Yon’s my own composeetion, but I’m not vain. We’ll go home together, laddie, we’ll go home together.’ And he sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to show that he meant it.
A policeman suggested that we had better move on, and we moved on to the Law Courts near St. Clement Danes. My companion was quieter now, and his speech, which up till that time had been distinct—it was a marvel to hear how in his condition he could talk dialect—began to slur and slide and slummock. He bade me observe the architecture of the Law Courts and linked himself lovingly to my arm. Then he saw a policeman, and before I could shake him off, whirled me up to the man singing:—
Has a watch and chain of course—
and threw his dripping blanket over the helmet of the Law. In any other country in the world we should have run an exceedingly good chance of being shot, or dirked, or clubbed—and clubbing is worse than being shot. But I reflected in that wet-cloth tangle that this was England, where the police are made to be banged and battered and bruised, that they may the better endure a police-court reprimand next morning. We three fell in a festoon, he calling on me by name—that was the tingling horror of it—to sit on the policeman’s head and cut the traces. I wriggled clear first and shouted to the policeman to kill the blanket-man.
Naturally the policeman answered: ‘You’re as bad as ’im,’ and chased me, as the smaller man, round St. Clement Danes into Holywell Street, where I ran into the arms of another policeman. That flight could not have lasted more than a minute and a half, but it seemed to me as long and as wearisome as the foot-bound flight of a nightmare. I had leisure to think of a thousand things as I ran; but most I thought of the great and god-like man who held a sitting in the north gallery of St. Clement Danes a hundred years ago. I know that he at least would have felt for me. So occupied was I with these considerations, that when the other policeman hugged me to his bosom and said: ‘What are you tryin’ to do?’ I answered with exquisite politeness: ‘Sir, let us take a walk down Fleet Street.’ ‘Bow Street’ll do your business, I think,’ was the answer, and for a moment I thought so too, till it seemed I might scuffle out of it. Then there was a hideous scene, and it was complicated by my companion hurrying up with the blanket and telling me—always by name—that he would rescue me or perish in the attempt.
‘Knock him down,’ I pleaded. ‘Club his head open first and I’ll explain afterwards.’
The first policeman, the one who had been outraged, drew his truncheon and cut at my companion’s head. The high silk hat crackled and the owner dropped like a log.
‘Now you’ve done it,’ I said. ‘You’ve probably killed him.’
Holywell Street never goes to bed. A small crowd gathered on the spot, and some one of German extraction shrieked: ‘You haf killed the man.’
Another cried: ‘Take his bloomin’ number. I saw him strook cruel ’ard. Yah!’
Now the street was empty when the trouble began, and, saving the two policemen and myself, no one had seen the blow. I said, therefore, in a loud and cheerful voice:—
‘The man’s a friend of mine. He’s fallen down in a fit. Bobby, will you bring the ambulance?’ Under my breath I added: ‘It’s five shillings apiece, and the man didn’t hit you.’
‘No, but ‘im and you tried to scrob me,’ said the policeman.
This was not a thing to argue about.
‘Is Dempsey on duty at Charing Cross?’ I said.
‘Wot d’you know of Dempsey, you bloomin’ garrotter?’ said the policeman.
‘If Dempsey’s there, he knows me. Get the ambulance quick, and I’ll take him to Charing Cross.’
‘You’re coming to Bow Street, you are,’ said the policeman crisply.
‘The man’s dying’—he lay groaning on the pavement—‘get the ambulance,’ said I.
There is an ambulance at the back of St. Clement Danes, whereof I know more than most people. The policeman seemed to possess the keys of the box in which it lived. We trundled it out—it was a three-wheeled affair with a hood—and we bundled the body of the man upon it.
A body in an ambulance looks very extremely dead. The policemen softened at the sight of the stiff boot-heels.
‘Now then,’ said they, and I fancied that they still meant Bow Street.
‘Let me see Dempsey for three minutes if he’s on duty,’ I answered.
‘Very good. He is.’
Then I knew that all would be well, but before we started I put my head under the ambulance-hood to see if the man were alive. A guarded whisper came to my ear.
‘Laddie, you maun pay me for a new hat. They’ve broken it. Dinna desert me now, laddie. I’m o’er old to go to Bow Street in my gray hairs for a fault of yours. Laddie, dinna desert me.’
‘You’ll be lucky if you get off under seven years,’ I said to the policeman.
Moved by a very lively fear of having exceeded their duty, the two policemen left their beats, and the mournful procession wound down the empty Strand. Once west of the Adelphi, I knew I should be in my own country; and the policemen had reason to know that too, for as I was pacing proudly a little ahead of the catafalque, another policeman said ‘Good-night, sir,’ to me as he passed.
‘Now, you see,’ I said, with condescension, ‘I wouldn’t be in your shoes for something. On my word, I’ve a great mind to march you two down to Scotland Yard.’
‘If the gentleman’s a friend o’ yours, per’aps—’ said the policeman who had given the blow, and was reflecting on the consequences.
‘Perhaps you’d like me to go away and say nothing about it,’ I said. Then there hove into view the figure of Constable Dempsey, glittering in his oil-skins, and an angel of light to me. I had known him for months; he was an esteemed friend of mine, and we used to talk together in the early mornings. The fool seeks to ingratiate himself with Princes and Ministers; and courts and cabinets leave him to perish miserably. The wise man makes allies among the police and the hansoms, so that his friends spring up from the round-house and the cab-rank, and even his offences become triumphal processions.
‘Dempsey,’ said I, ‘have the police been on strike again? They’ve put some things on duty at St. Clement Danes that want to take me to Bow Street for garrotting.’
‘Lor, sir!’ said Dempsey indignantly.
‘Tell them I’m not a garrotter, nor a thief. It’s simply disgraceful that a gentleman can’t walk down the Strand without being man-handled by these roughs. One of them has done his best to kill my friend here; and I’m taking the body home. Speak for me, Dempsey.’
There was no time for the much misrepresented policemen to say a word. Dempsey spoke to them in language calculated to frighten. They tried to explain, but Dempsey launched into a glowing catalogue of my virtues, as noted by gas in the early hours. ‘And,’ he concluded vehemently; ‘’e writes for the papers, too. How’d you like to be written for in the papers—in verse, too, which is ’is ’abit. You leave ’im alone. ’Im an’ me have been friends for months.’
‘What about the dead man?’ said the policeman who had not given the blow.
‘I’ll tell you,’ I said relenting, and to the three policemen under the lights of Charing Cross assembled, I recounted faithfully and at length the adventures of the night, beginning with the Breslau and ending at St. Clement Danes. I described the sinful old ruffian in the ambulance in words that made him wriggle where he lay, and never since the Metropolitan Police was founded did three policemen laugh as those three laughed. The Strand echoed to it, and the unclean birds of the night stood and wondered.
‘Oh lor’!’ said Dempsey, wiping his eyes, ‘I’d ha’ given anything to see that old man runnin’ about with a wet blanket an’ all! Excuse me, sir, but you ought to get took up every night for to make us ’appy.’ He dissolved into fresh guffaws.
There was a clinking of silver and the two policemen of St. Clement Danes hurried back to their beats, laughing as they ran.
‘Take ’im to Charing Cross,’ said Dempsey between shouts. ‘They’ll send the ambulance back in the morning.’
‘Laddie, ye’ve misca’ed me shameful names, but I’m o’er old to go to a hospital. Dinna desert me, laddie. Tak me home to my wife,’ said the voice in the ambulance.
‘He’s none so bad. ’Is wife’ll comb ’is hair for ’im proper,’ said Dempsey, who was a married man.
‘Where d’you live?’ I demanded.
‘Brugglesmith,’ was the answer.
‘What’s that?’ I said to Dempsey, more skilled than I in portmanteau-words.
‘Brook Green, ’Ammersmith,’ Dempsey translated promptly.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘That’s just the sort of place he would choose to live in. I only wonder that it was not Kew.’
‘Are you going to wheel him ’ome, sir,’ said Dempsey.
‘I’d wheel him home if he lived in——Paradise. He’s not going to get out of this ambulance while I’m here. He’d drag me into a murder for tuppence.’
‘Then strap ’im up an’ make sure,’ said Dempsey, and he deftly buckled two straps that hung by the side of the ambulance over the man’s body. Brugglesmith—I know not his other name—was sleeping deeply. He even smiled in his sleep.
‘That’s all right,’ said Dempsey, and I moved off, wheeling my devil’s perambulator before me. Trafalgar Square was empty except for the few that slept in the open. One of these wretches ranged alongside and begged for motley, asserting that he had been a gentleman once.
‘So have I,’ I said. ‘That was long ago. I’ll give you a shilling if you’ll help me to push this thing.’
‘Is it a murder?’ said the vagabond, shrinking back. ‘I’ve not got to that yet:’
‘No, it’s going to be one,’ I answered. ‘I have.’
The man slunk back into the darkness and I pressed on, through Cockspur Street, and up to Piccadilly Circus, wondering what I should do with my treasure. All London was asleep, and I had only this drunken carcase to bear me company. It was silent—silent as chaste Piccadilly. A young man of my acquaintance came out of a pink brick club as I passed. A faded carnation drooped from his button-hole; he had been playing cards, and was walking home before the dawn, when he overtook me.
‘What are you doing?’ he said.
I was far beyond any feeling of shame. ‘It’s for a bet,’ said I. ‘Come and help.’
‘Laddie, who’s yon?’ said the voice beneath the hood.
‘Good Lord!’ said the young man, leaping across the pavement. Perhaps card-losses had told on his nerves. Mine were steel that night.
‘The Lord, The Lord?’ the passionless, incurious voice went on. ‘Dinna be profane, laddie. He’ll come in His ain good time.’
The young man looked at me with horror.
‘It’s all part of the bet,’ I answered. ‘Do come and push!’
‘W—where are you going to?’ said he.
‘Brugglesmith,’ said the voice within. ‘Laddie, d’ye ken my wife?’
‘No,’ said I.
‘Well, she’s just a tremenjus wumman. Laddie, I want a drink. Knock at one o’ those braw houses, laddie, an’—an’—ye may kiss the girrl for your pains.’
‘Lie still, or I’ll gag you,’ I said, savagely.
The young man with the carnation crossed to the other side of Piccadilly, and hailed the only hansom visible for miles. What he thought I cannot tell.
I pressed on—wheeling, eternally wheeling—to Brook Green, Hammersmith. There I would abandon Brugglesmith to the gods of that desolate land. We had been through so much together that I could not leave him bound in the street. Besides, he would call after me, and oh! it is a shameful thing to hear one’s name ringing down the emptiness of London in the dawn.
So I went on, past Apsley House, even to the coffee-stall, but there was no coffee for Brugglesmith. And into Knightsbridge—respectable Knightsbridge—I wheeled my burden, the body of Brugglesmith.
‘Laddie, what are ye going to do wi’ me?’ he said when opposite the barracks.
‘Kill you,’ I said briefly, ‘or hand you over to your wife. Be quiet.’
He would not obey. He talked incessantly—sliding in one sentence from clear cut dialect to wild and drunken jumble. At the Albert Hall he said that I was the ‘Hattle Gardle buggle,’ which I apprehend is the Hatton Garden burglar. At Kensington High Street he loved me as a son, but when my weary legs came to the Addison Road Bridge he implored me with tears to unloose the straps and to fight against the sin of vanity. No man molested us. It was as though a bar had been set between myself and all humanity till I had cleared my account with Brugglesmith. The glimmering of light grew in the sky; the cloudy brown of the wood pavement turned to heather-purple; I made no doubt that I should be allowed vengeance on Brugglesmith ere the evening.
At Hammersmith the heavens were steel-gray, and the day came weeping. All the tides of the sadness of an unprofitable dawning poured into the soul of Brugglesmith. He wept bitterly, because the puddles looked cold and houseless. I entered a half-waked public-house—in evening dress and an ulster, I marched to the bar—and got him whisky on condition that he should cease kicking at the canvas of the ambulance. Then he wept more bitterly, for that he had ever been associated with me, and so seduced into stealing the Breslau’s dinghy.
The day was white and wan when I reached my long journey’s end, and, putting back the hood, bade Brugglesmith declare where he lived. His eyes wandered disconsolately round the red and gray houses till they fell on a villa in whose garden stood a staggering board with the legend ‘To Let.’ It needed only this to break him down utterly, and with the breakage fled his fine fluency in his guttural northern tongue; for liquor levels all.
‘Olely lil while,’ he sobbed. ‘Olely lil while. Home—falmy—besht of falmies—wife too—you dole know my wife! Left them all a lill while ago. Now everything’s sold—all sold. Wife—falmy—all sold. Lemmegellup!’
I unbuckled the straps cautiously. Brugglesmith rolled off his resting-place and staggered to the house.
‘Wattle I do?’ he said.
Then I understood the baser depths in the mind of Mephistopheles.
‘Ring,’ I said; ‘perhaps they are in the attic or the cellar.’
‘You do’ know my wife, She shleeps on soful in the dorlin’ room, waiting meculhome. You do’ know my wife.’
He took off his boots, covered them with his tall hat, and craftily as a Red Indian picked his way up the garden path and smote the bell marked ‘Visitors’ a severe blow with the clenched fist.
‘Bell sole too. Sole electick bell! Wassor bell this? I can’t riggle bell,’ he moaned despairingly.
‘You pull it—pull it hard,’ I repeated, keeping a wary eye down the road. Vengeance was coming and I desired no witnesses.
‘Yes, I’ll pull it hard.’ He slapped his forehead with inspiration. ‘I’ll pull it out.’
Leaning back he grasped the knob with both hands and pulled. A wild ringing in the kitchen was his answer. Spitting on his hands he pulled with renewed strength, and shouted for his wife. Then he bent his ear to the knob, shook his head, drew out an enormous yellow and red handkerchief, tied it round the knob, turned his back to the door, and pulled over his shoulder.
Either the handkerchief or the wire, it seemed to me, was bound to give way. But I had forgotten the bell. Something cracked in the kitchen, and Brugglesmith moved slowly down the doorsteps, pulling valiantly. Three feet of wire followed him.
‘Pull, oh pull!’ I cried. ‘It’s coming now.’
‘Qui’ ri’,’ he said. ‘I’ll riggle bell.’
He bowed forward, the wire creaking and straining behind him, the bell-knob clasped to his bosom, and from the noises within I fancied the bell was taking away with it half the woodwork of the kitchen and all the basement banisters.
‘Get a purchase on her,’ I shouted, and he spun round, lapping that good copper wire about him. I opened the garden gate politely, and he passed out, spinning his own cocoon. Still the bell came up, hand over hand, and still the wire held fast. He was in the middle of the road now, whirling like an impaled cockchafer, and shouting madly for his wife and family. There he met with the ambulance, the bell within the house gave one last peal, and bounded from the far end of the hall to the inner side of the hall-door, where it stayed fast. So did not my friend Brugglesmith. He fell upon his face, embracing the ambulance as he did so, and the two turned over together in the toils of the never-sufficiently-to-be-advertised copper wire.
‘Laddie,’ he gasped, his speech returning, ‘have I a legal remedy?’
‘I will go and look for one,’ I said, and, departing, found two policemen. These I told that daylight had surprised a burglar in Brook Green while he was engaged in stealing lead from an empty house. Perhaps they had better take care of that bootless thief. He seemed to be in difficulties.
I led the way to the spot, and behold! in the splendour of the dawning, the ambulance, wheels uppermost, was walking down the muddy road on two stockinged feet—was shufing to and fro in a quarter of a circle whose radius was copper wire, and whose centre was the bell-plate of the empty house.
Next to the amazing ingenuity with which Brugglesmith had contrived to lash himself under the ambulance, the thing that appeared to impress the constables most was the fact of the St. Clement Danes ambulance being at Brook Green, Hammersmith.
They even asked me, of all people in the world, whether I knew anything about it!
* * * * *
They extricated him; not without pain and dirt. He explained that he was repelling boarding-attacks by a ‘Hattle Gardle buggle’ who had sold his house, wife, and family. As to the bell-wire, he offered no explanation, and was borne off shoulder-high between the two policemen. Though his feet were not within six inches of the ground, they paddled swiftly, and I saw that in his magnificent mind he was running—furiously running.
Sometimes I have wondered whether he wished to find me.