Certainly, Nickie did not regret his respectable past, if he were ever respectable, and it is equally certain that he had no craving for high things in the way of tall hats and two-storey houses. He appreciated the value of money, since it enabled him to gratify his tastes, but it must be admitted his tastes were scandalous in the main.
However, at Banklands Nickie solicited work, laborious and painful work. Moreover, he went to the job of his own free will, when sober and in his right mind. This seemed to imply an awakening of conscience, a dawning sense of his utter uselessness to the body politic, and a desire to figure as a useful member of society. On the other hand, it may have been a symptom of brain-softening. But it happened to be neither; it was in fact a means to a wicked end. On the fading end of a superior suburb, where the streets of fine villas and mansions thinned off and dwindled, and were lost among the gum trees of the original wilderness, Nickie found his billet.
The suburb was coming ahead. The motor-car had made it easy and accessible to the rich. Splendid dwellings were going up all over the place, the road makers were exceedingly busy, and hammers of the stone-knappers rattled an incessant fusillade.
Nickie the Kid came to Banklands one pleasant summer day, watched the busy people with a desultory sort of interest, and moralised within himself.
“Do these people expect to live a thousand years?” mused Mr. Crips, “that they build such solid houses? Or do they regard them as monuments? Look at that palace, and I sleep well on a potato sack under four boards!”
Nickie was examining a fine, white house, ornate as a wedding cake, with plentiful cement, and balconies as frivolous as those of a Chinese pagoda. It stood within capacious grounds, and proclaimed aloud the fact that its proprietor was a rich man, ostentatious of his riches.
“I expect there’s a matter of thirty rooms in that house,” mused Nicholas Crips, “and after all, a man can get just as drunk in a threepenny bar.”
Nickie put in a couple of days skirmishing at Banklands, and fared well, but as there was no hotel in the suburb Nicholas did not contemplate making a lengthy stay. Something he saw on the second afternoon induced him to change his mind, and threw him into a state of profound reflection lasting for nearly an hour; then he sauntered over to the man working on the pile of stones before the gates of the cemented mansion, and seating himself on the broken metal, entered into conversation with the two-inch mason wielding the hammer.
“Pretty hard work this,” ventured Nicholas.
“Blanky hard,” assented the stonebreaker.
“Did you ever try the softening influence of beer?” asked Nickie, drawing a bottle from his pocket.
“Well, I won’t make yeh force it on me,” said the stonebreaker.
They divided the liquor like brothers dear, and the stonebreaker developed a sudden affection for Nicholas Crips, who after twenty minutes casual conversation, introduced his plea.
“Must be splendid exercise for the liver, stoneknapping,” he said. “I’ve been troubled with liver complaint lately. Living too high. Could you give a man a job?”
“Well,” said the breaker, “I got a sorter contrac’ t’ break so many yards. If you’ll do it at bob a yard you can get gain’ on the other end iv th’ ’eap.”
The price was far below current rates for cutting metal, but Nickie was not penurious and grasping. He threw off his tattered coat, and, draped in fragments of a shirt, in a pair of trousers, half of which fluttered in the breeze, and boots that looked like a collection of fragments, he set to work.
Certainly Nicholas Crips did not show any disposition to work himself to death. After an hour his employer told him he wasn’t likely to earn enough to keep a rag-gatherer in toilet soap, but Nickie explained again that he was merely exercising his liver, and had no intention of making an independence as a breaker of road metal.
Nickie’s heap was right opposite the great, fanciful iron gates of the cemented residence. He could see the well-kept garden and the showy house from where he worked, and he frequently ceased his half hearted rapping at the tough stone to watch children playing on the lawn. He was particularly interested in a tall, severe-looking, fair-haired woman, who appeared on the balcony for a moment.
Mr. Crips had been at work for about three hours, during which time he had perspired a good deal and gathered much dust, for Nickie was habitually easy going, and his task, although pursued with no diligence, had “taken it out of him” to some extent. He was certainly a deplorable scarecrow. A fine, polished carriage, with rubber tyres, drawn by a splendid pair of chestnuts, was driven down the side drove by a livened menial. It drew up near the centre gates, and Nickie leaned on his hammer and waited.
The tall, dignified lady, accompanied by a short, important man in immaculate black, came along the path, and approached the open door of the vehicle. Nickie advanced carelessly, and intercepted them. He bowed grotesquely.
“Good day, Billy,” he said, familiarly. He lifted his hat pointedly to the lady. “’Ow’s yerself Jinny?” he asked.
The lady and gentleman stared at him in utmost astonishment for a moment, then consternation seized them, and they made a dive for the vehicle. Nickie followed to the door.
“So long, if yer mus’ be goin’, Willyum,” he said, pleasantly. “So long, Jinny. How’s the old man’s fish business?”
“Drive on!” gasped the gentleman. He had the scared expression of one who had seen a spectre.
The liveried menial whipped up, and the carriage was swept away. Nickie returned to his heap, and for fully two minutes Stub McGuire, his employer, gazed at him in speechless, open-mouthed amazement.
“Well, of all the blarsted cheeks!” gasped McGuire, when speech came to him.
“Don’t mention it,” said Nickie.
“Don’t mention it!” yelled Stub. “No, iv course not, but what price his nibs in the noble belltopper mentionin’ it t’ th’ Johns, an’ gettin’ you seven days fer disgustin’ behaviour?”
Nickie smiled inscrutably, and continued his work. When the carriage returned, he made an adroit movement, and courteously opened the door.
“’Low me, Jinny, my dear,” he said, offering his grimy hand.
The lady stepped down, and passed him disdainfully. The gentleman brushed him aside.
“’Ope yeh ’ad er pleasant ride in yer cart, Billy?” said Nicholas.
He followed them to the gate, and called through the bars.
“Very sorry, Jinny, but I carn’t haccept yer pressin’ invitation ter dinner, havin’ er previous engagement.”
He returned to his work again, smiling sweetly. He seemed to enjoy Stub McGuire’s horror.
“’Ere, ’ere,” said McGuire, “off this job you go if you don’t know better than to insult people that way. You’ll be gettin’ me inter mischiff.”
“Not at all,” said Nickie, “not at all. Surely a man may offer ordinary civilities to his friends. Bless my soul, you wouldn’t have me cut old Billy in the streets, would you? If I didn’t speak to Jinny she’d think I was angry with her, and cry her eyes out. She has a tender heart, poor girl. She is a sensitive soul, and craves for social distinction. She looks to me to secure them a footing in exclusive circles, Mr. McGuire.”
“I don’t know what y’re talkin’ about,” Stub grumbled, “but that’s enough of it, see?”
Nickie took no notice of his employer’s admonitions, however, and when a clergyman drove up in a buggy an hour later, our hero intercepted him at the gate.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “Would you mind tellin’ Willyum inside there how Nickie sends him his compliments, and ’opes Jinny’s quite well.”
“My good fellow, you must not be insolent,” ejaculated the minister.
“They won’t take it as hinsolence,” Nicholas explained. “They’ve er very touchin’ regard fer me. Tell them. I arsked after ’em, won’t yer?”
Even Stub McGuire noticed that Nickie, whose speech was usually excellent, adopted the vulgar tongue in addressing the man he called Billy, or any of his friends or relations.
Next day, Nickie inveigled three children, who were playing on the lawn, and entertained them at the gate with frivolous conversation for nearly ten minutes, when the state of affairs was discovered by their dignified mamma, who sent a maid flying to the rescue. Nickie took off his hat to the maid.
“Tell Willyum,” he said, “that bein’ ’andy, I’ll drop in ter lunch t’ day, but Jinny’s not on no account t’ put up a big spread fer me. I’ll jist take what’s goin’.”
He finished these remarks at the top of his voice, the girl being half-way back to the house.
When the important man in immaculate black came out a little later, Nickie saluted him gravely, as between gentlemen, but without deference.
“’Ow’s it, Billy?” he said. “You might drop in an’ see me this evenin’. I’m livin’ under th’ blackberry hedge back o’ your stables.”
The stout man passed in silence, and with a great show of dignity. Nickie had a busy afternoon. Evidently it was the dignified lady’s “day.” Quite a crowd of people drove up to the gates during the afternoon, and Nickie entrusted each with an affectionate and familiar message to Jinny. All were horrified at the insolence of the disgusting man, and one young fellow kicked Mr. Crips, but our’ hero did not seem to mind. He merely warned his assailant that he would issue a County Court writ for any damages done to his trousers.
On the following morning at about 11 o’clock Nickie entered the grounds, his rags fluttering in the breeze, marched to the door and rang the bell. To the Napoleonic man-servant who opened to him, he gravely presented a tomato can half-full of water, and said:
“Will yer please arsk Bill or Jinny if they’ll be so good as to bile my billy at the drorin’-room fire. Tell ’em it’s Nicholas Crips what makes the request. No, thanks, I won’t come in, I’m afraid my motor car might bolt.”
The Napoleonic man-servant threw Nickie off the verandah, and threw his billy after him, but this did not deter Nicholas from an attempt to enter into familiar conversation bearing on family matters, when he found the dignified lady in a summer house.
The lady glared at him in stony horror. “How dare you?” she ejaculated. “How dare you?”
“Why, what’s wrong, Jinny, old girl.” asked Crips innocently, assuming a lounging attitude in the doorway. “You find the togs I’m wearin’ a trifle too negligee, so to speak. They’re quite the thing in our set.”
“Let me pass!” ejaculated the lady with crushing hauteur.
Nickie was not impressed. He smiled, and continued dreamily: “My word, things have moved with you, Jinny. You’re gone up like er rocket in er reg’lar blaze iv glory, but I can still see yeh in the old shop days. You blazed then too, old girl. It wasn’t with di’monds, ’twas fish scales, but you blazed. You could alwiz put on dog. You sold flathead, Jinny, but I give the devil his due—you did it like a duchess.”
At this point the Napoleonic footman intervened again. He took Nickie by his rags and the nape of his neck, and running him tip-toe out of the garden, tumbled him headlong on the grass-grown roadside. Nickie rejoined Stub McGuire quite unconcerned.
“That’s a new society game, my friend,” he said. “The flunkey scored ten points.”
A few hours later the proprietor of the cement mansion came to his gate, and beckoned Nicholas Crips off the heap. Nickie the Kid responded with alacrity, and Stub McGuire gazed in cow-like wonder while the two discussed matters in the gateway.
Nickie was calling him “Bill,” “Billy,” and “Willyum,” indiscriminately. Stub nearly fainted when he saw the gentleman draw a bank-note from his pocket, and hand it to Nicholas Crips. Nickie lifted his deplorable hat, and said:
“So long, Bill. I’m sorry I can’t come an’ stay a month. Some other time, perhaps.”
The gentleman went in, and slammed the gate behind him. Nickie returned to the heap, and picked up his coat and donned it.
“I’m handing in my resignation, Mr. McGuire,” he said. “You are welcome to my earnings, as I intend to live on my means—temporary at least.” He held up the note.
“A tenner!” gasped McGuire.
“A tenner!” replied Nicholas, “presented by the kind gentleman on condition that I emigrate from this suburb and absent myself permanently. The worst thing about rich relations, Stub, is that they want whole suburbs to themselves; the best is that you can make them pay for the privilege of exclusiveness.”