“When I think o’ what I was,” said she to the sympathetic pasters around her (and as she spoke she picked out the flattering symbols on an imaginary four-sheet poster of many colors, with a proud fore-finger)—“Miss Gloriana Brobding, the Mammoth Mermaid, Twenty-five Stone in her Bathing-dress; Admired by the Prince o’ Wales’—’n’ then think o’ what I am, pastin’ beastly bags fer Spats at a tizzy a dray-load, it fair gi’s me the ’ump.”
Martha was still young. Her professional experiences had begun at the early age of 12, and had ended at 17, her unfaithful flesh having melted by that time to such an extent that the most audacious showman declined to try to impose the Mammoth Mermaid upon the public as a curiosity, even in a liberally-padded bathing-dress. As the Mermaid’s papa, who drank like a fish, had always carefully consumed her salary far in advance, poor Martha was left to earn her daily bread by the sweat of her brow.
The fat girl was very proud of having been “an artist,” and comforted herself in her present lowliness with enraptured reflections on her professional triumphs. She showed many photographs of her prodigious former self, dressed in a scant and scaly bathing-dress, standing by a painted sea; she had an old exercise book in which were pasted clippings from the up-country papers referring to her enormous disproportions in terms of wondering eulogy; she had also the proud privilege of free entree to the waxworks.
Though fallen from her high estate, Martha did not despair. She still had hopes of regaining her old magnitude, and strove for it by judicious dieting and careful attention to a set of rules for the guidance of skinny people, which were published in a medical almanac. She weighed herself about three times a week, and her spirits varied in accordance with the tally of the slot-machine; rising with an increase, falling with an appreciable loss.
One warm morning she came wearily down the flat with her empty paste-keg under her arm, and leaned despondingly upon the packer’s board.
“Got off one pound seven ounces since Saterdee,” she said.
“G’on! yeh don’t say,” answered Feathers. “Well, what price goin’ inter trainin’ fer a livin’ skelington”
“Dicken! Skeletons is low. They ain’t no class, ’n’ they ain’t decent, if you ask me. Y’ wouldn’t catch me standin’ afore the public in me bones, anyhow.”
“Yeh ain’t exac’ly over-dressed in them photografs iv you ez the Mammoth Mermaid, are yeh”
“The Duke o’ York said I was a splendid natural produc’, ’n’ a credit t’ me country,” said Martha in proud vindication.
“Where was his missus? A few fish-scales ain’t much iv a wardrobe fer strikin’ moral attitudes in, Sis. ’F I was you, old girl, I’d skip a couple o’ thousand ev’ry mornin’, punch the bag a bit, ’n’ get down t’ me own class.”
“Ah! you don’t know nothin’ iv the feelin’s iv a hartist, Feathers,” said Martha, sadly.
“Say, how’d yeh account fer yer fallin’ off” asked Feathers, spraying a handful of bags to bind his parcel.
Martha looked round cautiously, and then whispered, “’Twas love!”
“Oh, catch me!”
“Yes,” persisted Martha, “I was mug enough t’ go ’n’ fall in love, ’n’ it brought me down to this.” She opened her arms, inviting attention to her fragile figure. “He was dark ’n’ tall, with long, black ’air ’n’ piercin’ dark eyes. Pale he was, ’n’ ’andsome. Perfessor Pedro was a hartist, too, readin’ palms ’n’ tellin’ fortunes, ’n’ ownin’ a trick dog with his tail growin’ out between his ears. He would smooge to me when the boss wasn’t about, ’n’ he said we could run a grand little show on our lonesome. Well, I got fair struck mad on him, ’n’ began t’ dwindle away from that minit. I lost a stone in less’n a fortnit. I near over-ate meself t’ death, tryin’ t’ stop the drift. ’Twasn’t no use, ’n’ the Perfessor, seem’ me goin’ t’ waste, done a guy; ’n’ that finished me. I come a reg’lar slump after that, ’n’ now where am I”
“You’re right in the ash-barrel, Sissy.”
Martha groaned. “But no more love fer me. The bloke that comes canoodlin’ here gets that in his feed-bag!” She flourished her paste-tub fiercely. “Love! Love! I’d sooner get the bloomin’ bubonic.”
Martha was really afraid that love might afflict her again, and interfere with her prospects of being restored to her former glory as the pride of the museums; and there were reasons. One of them was her knowledge of the emotions raging in the bosom of Ponny Scott. He was a compositor on the lower flat; a depressed youth with a strange head of streaky black hair that grew from a definite centre on the occiput, and radiated in lank petals like a chrysanthemum freak. He had a thin, long, hatchet face, narrow eyes, large invertebrate ears; a high, fragile, razor-backed nose that looked very superior to its present position, and an unstable underlip sagging almost to his chin. As Martha was short and fat, Ponny’s love for her was a genuine attempt on the part of Mother Nature to restore the happy mean, for Ponny was very tall and very thin.
Ponny’s love was scarcely distinguishable from melancholia. He was often heard soliloquising on the miseries of life and the vanity of human wishes, whereat Billy the Boy, as quick to detect a sensitive soul as a mosquito is to discover a new-chum, uttered dolorous dog-howlings and wailed piteously for his “mummer.”
“Wha’s a bloke born fer, tha’s what I wanter know” was the problem that beset poor Ponny. One day he put it to the packer. Feathers was not sympathetic.
“Well, there’s beer,” he said. Then, noting the drift of Ponny’s eye, and having a mind to relieve the tedium of life in the factory with a little comedy, he altered his tone. “There’s a little tom in this flat who’d give a bit t’ have you hers for keeps.”
“S’elp me! The round-’n’-rosy at the third board. She’s shook ter bits about yeh. ’Ave a shy et it.”
“Come off. She don’t look where I live,” said Mr. Scott, gloomily.
“Coz you ain’t a battler. Get in ’n’ bustle ’er. Yeh don’t expect the girl t’ fling herself at yeh off a ’ouse.”
Thus encouraged, Ponny Scott’s advances towards Miss Pilcher became more definite. He spoke to her on the stairs as she came in of mornings, and escorted her home one evening, very much against her will. The more ardent he grew, the greater was Martha’s alarm. She was an extremely tender-hearted girl, and realising her weakness, feared that Ponny’s love might eventually awaken reciprocal emotion, to the ruin of her professional prospects. She stormed at her devoted admirer; she threatened him with her paste-tub; she abused him with the invectives of the cheap suburbs; she talked of invoking the aid of a younger brother, who was the pride of a notorious “push”; and, as a last resource, threatened an appeal to Spats himself.
Ponny was much depressed by all this; it caused his views of life to become so horribly jaundiced that the printer’s devil, with a great show of brotherly concern, declared he had warned all the chemists on no account to serve him with rat-poison, and advised him that he would certainly be arrested on suspicion if found with a rope in his possession, or caught near the river. But for all that Ponny did not desist. He continued to pursue Miss Pilcher with sighs and protestations and lugubrious looks.
“Oh, take a jump at yerself!” cried Martha, petulantly, in the face of the whole factory. “What d’yer want sighin’ ’n’ snivellin’ round my pitch? Here iv lost two pounds ’n’ three-quarters worryin’ over you a’ready. Ain’t that enough? Bli’ me, give us a charnce!”
Ponny never replied to these attacks. He stole downstairs and soliloquised on the sorrow of things for the delectation of Billy the Boy, and was up on the girls’ flat again at the first opportunity. Martha bore it with loud complainings, till the morning she came up the stairs, bathed in tears, and confided in Feathers.
“What yer think” she said; “I’ve just been weighed on the station, ’n’ I’m ’arf a stone t’ the bad again. It’s all that Ponny Scott, ’n’ he’s fair filled me. I ain’t takin’ any more.”
That day, when the boss appeared on the factory flat, Martha marched boldly from her board and confronted him.
“Please, Mr. Odgson, I got a complaint,” she said. “There’s a bloke on the printer’s flat, name o’ Scott; he’s fair pesterin’ the life out o’ me with love ’n’ all that sort o’ thing, ’n’ I want it seen inter.”
Evidently it was “seen into.” Ponny did not speak to Martha again for the rest of that week, but when opportunity offered he beset her with such mournful looks that she was actually more worried than before, and when she caught him glowering darkly and reproachfully at her between the stair-railings she shivered with apprehension.
On the following Monday, Ponny did not appear, and it was soon known that he had been dismissed for “interfering”—a heinous crime. This troubled Martha, too; she had pangs of conscience for two days, and then Feathers delivered a letter which some mysterious hand had attached to the hook on the end of the rope with which he dropped small orders to the lower flats.
The letter contained a sheet of paper, to which was pinned a wisp of dark hair-one of the petals from Ponny’s chrysanthemum—and on which was written the following grim poem:—
“Farewell. Oh, cruel girl, you’ve cast me off|
Because I ain’t a naughty toff.
When in the river I am found dead
Well you’ll know why I’ve drownded.”
Martha read the missive through twice with staring, terrified eyes, then uttered a woeful cry, and fainted, and her fall shook Odgson and Co. to its foundations. Her anxieties increased a hundredfold. Nobody had heard anything of Ponny for three days.
“I know what it is, he’s went ’n’ killed himself, ’n’ they’ll pinch me for accessory afore the act,” Martha told Feathers, tearfully.
“Not a bit iv it,” said the packer. “He’s gone off on his ace somewhere; he’ll be all ri’.”
“’N’ ’ow ’m I t’know that” wailed Martha. “’Ow’s a girl t’ keep a tranquil mind ’n’ in good feed while a bloke’s gone missin’ all along of ’er, ’n’ may turn up in the paper any mornin’, drownded or hanged? What price me all this time, with weight fair droppin’ off me”
Sorrow marked Martha for its own during the next week. Ponny had not been heard of. She was sure the blighted wretch had taken his own life, and she brooded over the terrible thought till all noted her diminished bulk. Martha was in danger of assuming normal proportions, and was a wretched woman in consequence. She opened the morning paper in trepidation, dreading to see Ponny’s name in the list of those found drowned. When the packer’s evening sheet was delivered, the pasters gathered about him, and the columns were eagerly scanned for news of the comp.’s un-timely end; but it never came, and Martha always returned to her board in tears.
“If he was on’y found,” she said, “I think I’d make flesh again. Worry’s terrible redoocin’.”
But Martha was not destined to fade completely. One morning when she came in Feathers greeted her joyously.
“It’s all right, Sis,” he said.
“What!” gasped Martha, “iv’ they found the body”
“I’ve seen him. He was at ther Owls’ smoke night lars night, singin’ ‘Me Little Back-Room in Blooms-ber-ee.’”
“Alive!” cried the fat girl.
“’N’ singin’ comics,” said Feathers.
“Thank Heaven!” ejaculated Martha, piously. “Now I’ll be able t’ pick up a bit.”