Cilly was short for Priscilla, and Priscilla filled an inferior office in the pepper department in Whimble’s pickle and spice mill, next door.
In his more candid moments ‘our Mr. Dickson’ admitted to himself that it was something of a come-down for a man in his position to knock round with a “tom” who packed pepper for fifteen and a tizzie a week at “Stonkies.” But there was much to be said for Miss Gwynne. She had style, and Mr. Ben Dickson boasted a fine appreciation of style. She had social pretensions, too, having an elder sister in a comic opera chorus, and a brother, known as “The Flash”, who was recognised as one of the best-dressed ‘guns’ in the metropolis.
True, Cilly’s tastes were rather expensive. She had a passion for the theatre, and apart altogether from the cost, it was not an unalloyed pleasure to take her to the play, since she invariably lost all conception of Benno’s liberality, and his social status, his qualities of mind, and his charms of person, in her voluble and foolish adoration of the hero.
But on occasions Benno could be magnificent, and this was one of the occasions. He shouted Miss Gwynne to a two-shilling seat at the opera. More in consideration of the fact that doors opened at half-past six, he had stood her a ninepenny tea. On the top of that, there were two tram fares, two ice-cream wafers, and a sixpenny box of chocolates. It was the night of Benno’s life.
“Straight griffin,” he told Miss Gwynne, “there ain’t no one can tell yer uncle ’ow t’ spend his stuff. It’s scatter sixes with me while I’ve got it.”
Neither of them had been to grand opera before, but Mr. Dickson understood “The Valkyrie” was ‘class.’ He also perceived that the generous management was giving a great deal for the money, the performance starting at seven and terminating at half after eleven. Furthermore, Cilly, having a sort of family connection with opera, was naturally eager to see the show, a fact she had delicately conveyed to Benno by occasional casual references to sundry gentlemen who were eager to take her—Billy Crib, for instance, greaser from the butter depot, and Ned Morrissy, the lad in charge of the onion plant at Whimble’s mill. “But ’avin’ a John o’ me own, I gave ’em all nay,” said Cilly, virtuously. So it came about that Benno suggested a visit to the opera as a spontaneous idea of his own.
Their seats were in the centre of the gallery, up under the roof. Benno had the box of lollies and a pair of battered field-glasses, and he filled Cilly’s satchel with peanuts. Nothing was wanting to make the evening a complete success.
To be sure, Benno was not quite at his best in the presence of a staid and elderly audience, and he would have been easier in his mind if the pale-faced, black-haired young German on Cilly’s left had been plainer and less polite.
“Wha’s it all about, Benny?” asked Miss Gwynne.
Mr. Dickson hated being called “Benny” in public, but he passed that over. “I don’t quite get on to it, t’ tell gorstruth,” said he, “but Mills the packer, one iv our ’ands, tells me she’s great ’n’ good. Better’n a pantermime, he sez. Sez he never larfed so much since mother blew up.”
“That’s bon tosh,” said Cilly, with enthusiasm. “Benno, you’re a taw. But what’s come o’ George Lauri? I don’t see his name.”
“Go hon!” Benno was amazed. He chased through the programme. He even examined the advertisements, to be sure the comedian’s name had not strayed into the three-shilling supper. “Gor blime,” he said bitterly, “old George ain’t in it. They’ve juggled us fer our beans, that’s what. George Lauri ain’t appearin’.” He raised his voice for the benefit of the people about him.
There was some tittering. “You’d better see the manager about it,” said a wire-haired youth in front.
Benno resented the sarcasm. “If Willie ain’t good he’ll get his ’ands slapped,” he said, quite loud enough for Miss Gwynne to hear. “Wonder why Lauri’s bin took out,” he continued. “Mills told me ’e was playin’ Wotan, ’n’ little Percy was playin’ Siegmund. Funniest he ever saw, he said.”
Priscilla tugged at Mr. Dickson’s sleeve. All within earshot were grinning broadly.
“Hallelujah but someone’s been swingin’ on your leg-end,” said the lad in front.
Benno gasped. Recollections of the frivolous disposition of the packer dawned upon him. For five minutes he was silent and depressed. Then came the commanding officer of the gallery, busily packing the already over-crowded audience by hand to make room for newcomers. He went along the rows at a great pace, hustling the people up by inches, and “Mind yer fav’rites! Mind yer fav’rites!” he cried with the insolence of an elected person. His efforts pressed Cilly into closer contact with the poetic German. Benno resented this.
“Yar-r-r!” he said, “better get under the ’ouse, this is th’ day fer th’ dogman.” The official grabbed Benno and battled him into place. “Dunno why they don’t lay poison for’em,” said the aggrieved clerk.
“Gimme lip, ’n’ you’ll hit th’ pavement with yer nut, sonny,” said the usher, hurrying about his business.
“P’raps so—p’raps not. Me ’n’ meself ’ud out a batch iv your sort,” said Benno in quite a loud voice. Then to Cilly, with a tired air: “These gazobs what get proud, ’n’ go round wantin’ t’ mix it with strangers, generally strikes a snag.”
The orchestra came out, and played something that sounded to Mr. Dickson like the flight of a thousand kerosene tins down a hill. He listened in silence for a few minutes, and then exclaimed disgustedly:
“Jimmy Jee! what ‘re they givin’ us? The orchestra’s shicker, if yeh arsk me. They’ve got at Sunday’s beer fer a cert. Why, that ain’t anythin’ they’re playin’. It’s jist every beggar fer himself, ’n’ first man dead pay th’ slate. Strike me up a pipe, yeh can’t get a hook into this anywhere. ’Tain’t coon song, ’tain’t dance music, ’tain’t ballads, ’tain’t serio an’ it ain’t comic. Start again!” he cried, addressing the conductor.
“Shoot oop!” “’Seats!” “Stop-a de rah!” “Lie down!” hissed fierce voices. The audience as a very mixed one, the alien being strongly and variously represented.
“You know,” said Benno, in justification of his superior attitude, “me sister Hameliar sings in the choir at St. Mark’s.”
The clerk felt himself taken by the shoulders in two big, strong hands, and jerked violently to and fro, till he had a startling impression that his head was about to be shot into the stalls. When the shaking ceased, and he looked back in amazement, he discovered a large, stolid-looking Dutch frau dumped on the scat directly behind.
“Will you make no inderuptions off you please,” she said, with a calmness in surprising contrast with her audacity.
“Our Mr. Dickson” was paralysed. He sat in stony silence till the first act was well under way. He was slowly overcoming his indignation, and trying hard to make head or tail of the happenings on the stage, and failing miserably. A very fleshy tenor, clad mainly in goat skins, lay in a most uneasy attitude on an inadequate rock in the centre of some ruins, making occasional outcries, the purport of which always evaded the little clerk. One emotional yell stirred the audience to its boots.
“Eh, wh-wh-what did he say? What ’id he say then?” said Benno eagerly to the man on his right.
“’Ow t’ hell d’ I know!” responded the man, sourly, and the frau at the back kicked Benno in the spine, and said “Shoot oop!”
Later the large, round tenor, in the course of a struggle with his emotions set to music, lost his centre of gravity, and nearly rolled off the couch. Benno liked that. He laughed rather noisily, and started to applaud.
“He’s the funny one. That bloke in the carfskin vest. He’s dead comic,” he said, excitedly, delighted to have discovered something at last.
“Shoot oop!” said the frau, and kicked again.
“Pud ’im oud!” commanded another voice.
There were hisses of “Hush!” “Hush!” from all round the gallery.
Benno was hurt. “Ah-h-h, get work!” he said, vehemently.
A stout, fair lady and a wild man of the woods with profuse black whiskers, joined the corpulent tenor, and Mr. Dickson’s hopes revived. He whispered to Cilly his belief that the cove with the chin whisker was old George Lauri in disguise, but when the three ranged themselves at a table, and sang endlessly, his soul revolted again. He bore up for twenty minutes, but at the expiration of that time, nothing having appeared, he could no longer contain his righteous emotions.
“Blime, send for someone, somebody; they’ve forgot ’ow t’ stop,” he said, scornfully. “Ring up the fire brigade! Call in the amberlance!” Then, with still keener disgust, “They outer be shot! Call this grand operer! Grand! Strike me blue, it’s rotten—fair rotten!”
The people at hand rose at him in a sort of frenzy. They were enthusiasts, and they loathed this discordant Philistine. The frau behind avenged the injured ones. Drawing a fat hand like a shoulder of lamb, she dealt Mr. Dickson a box on the ear that knocked him end over on to the people in the next tier.
“Will you make no inderuptions off you please?” she said, composedly, when Benno crawled into his place, wearing a dazed expression, and foolishly rubbing his damaged ear.
The clerk was too stunned to expostulate, and Cilly, who at another time would certainly have espoused his cause with violence and strong language, was leaning very much towards the young German, and trying to create an impression that she was not acquainted with the absurd person on her right.
Till close upon the conclusion of the act Benno was sulky, and occupied himself muttering scathing comments on the Dutch female behind. At this stage, however, he made a startling discovery. It was a great truth that should not be suppressed. He had unearthed a scandalous imposition, and he spoke up like a man.
“Jimmy Jee!” he said, “they ain’t talkin’ at all. They ain’t said a word fer ’arf a hour. It’s jist jabber they’re givin’ us.”
“You blighted ass, they’ll fire you out in half a tick, and serve you good,” said the man on his right.
Benno rounded on him. “Since yer so smart, Ned,” he said, “what’s the bloke sayin’? Come now, what’s his nibs gassin’ about? Garn, I like your sort, kiddin’ ye’re pleased with the show, ’n’ all the time yeh don’ know what’s it more’n a dead hen. There ain’t bin a word iv English spoke. I’ll lay yeh six t’ four on it.”
Had not the curtain come down just then, Benno would certainly have been ignominiously ejected.
During the interval he explained to Priscilla, in loud, assertive tones, that the members of the company had all forgotten their parts, and were merely pretending to employ civilised language.
“Jest jollyin’ these gooeys, tha’s how,” he said. “But they don’t jolly your Uncle Ben, not once. They outer be pinched.”
He bought two ice-creams wafers in a defiant mood, and talked scathingly of the infamous conduct of the management in deluding an audience, the infantile innocence of which passed human belief.
“It’s a bilk,” he said. “This ain’t no play. The cows ’re makin’ it up ez they go along.”
Benno was quiet and depressed during the second act. He gave little attention to the opera. Cilly’s conduct was filling his soul with gloomy doubts. The poetic young German was explaining the opera to her in a whisper as it progressed, and Priscilla inclined away from Benno, and towards the interesting foreigner.
The clerk had an uneasy feeling that ‘the Dago’s’ arm was about his girl’s waist, but the press of knees behind barred investigation. He thought of his lavish expenditure, and the base ingratitude of woman. Twice he whispered to Cilly, but she disregarded him, bending an attentive car to the stranger.
“Garn,” blurted Mr. Dickson, “get orf the kraut hog. Let’s get a word in.”
“’Scats!” retorted Miss Gwynne, contemptuously.
Benno’s small soul bubbled with wrath. He sat there sourly, meditating vengeance. If his suspicions were verified his dealings with the bladder-headed Dago would startle the town. Little did the devoted Dutchman know what horrors of retribution were saving up for him. Little did he understand the pugilistic power and the grim malignancy of Mr. Dickson.
Benno’s suspicions were verified immediately the lights went up in the second interval. Obviously ‘the Dago’ was holding Cilly’s hand under the poor cover of the programme spread on the girl’s lap. The righteously indignant clerk tore the programme away. It was too true; the hands of Cilly and the German were clasped affectionately. The pale German blinked up at Dickson with bland composure.
“’Ere, ’ere! what yeh givin’ us?” snorted Benno.
“Mint yer pissenes!” said the German, with a calmness that bespoke depths of stupidity unprecedented even in a foreigner.
Benno struck his rival. The German arose. There was a scuffle and a sudden uproar. Mr. Dickson saw the gallery M.C. working rapidly towards the centre of disturbance, and then the German’s fist landed with terrible force in dead centre. “Whoo-oof!” said the little clerk, and went down, writhing in an agony of breathlessness.
The next thing Mr. Dickson knew he was being rushed down the stone stairs ahead of the ruthless chucker-out. There was a choking grip on Benno’s collar, there was an incisive connection with the rear of his pants, he was leaping perilously on his toes, his eyes stuck out, he had a nasty, dizzy feeling, and thought at every stride that he was about to be precipitated down the stone flight on his defenceless head.
Benno struck the wall opposite, rebounded, and sat in the gutter. Blind fury seized our hero. His craving for vengeance was not to be sated by little deeds. He circled fiercely, seeking a weapon, went down on a stone, and then did a blind, mad act. He hurled the junk of blue metal with all his force at the theatre. Fortunately the wall was well built, and no harm was done.
Rushing back to the entrance, he was confronted by a stern, cold policeman pointing a commanding finger into the middle distance. Benno pulled up short, gulping.
“Well, wh-wh-” he gasped.
The policeman’s finger became more peremptory, and Benno picked up the hat thrown at him and stole away. He hung about till the performance was over, and saw the German courteously assisting Miss Gwynne down the stairs. When Benno took charge ‘the Dago’ raised his hat gravely, and passed on. Benno said nothing at all. His soul was a black pit of wrath. On the tram he made an attempt to awaken some sense of compunction in the girl.
“S’pose yeh ate them choc’lits I bought?” he said.
“No,” answered Cilly composedly, “Mr. Van Norden ate ’em all.”
“’N’ the peanuts?” said Benno.
“He ate them too,” repllied Cilly. “He’s a all-right John. So nice lookin’,” she went on with enthusiasm, “and he’s goin’ t’ teach me the pianner.”
Benno arose, his eyes blazing. This was too much. “Is he?” he cried; “is he? Then, blime, the gooey kin pay yer tram fare!”
It was a crushing rejoinder, too cruel perhaps, but relentless, Benno sailed out without another word, and took his seat on the dummy.