Nickie was not exactly envious, but looking through the iron railing at the gay array of lanterns in the vast garden, and the glowing mansion, and hearing the hubbub of cheerful voices and the laughter, he had a dawning sense that respectability, especially well-to-do respectability, had its compensations after all.
He walked to the gate for a better view, and discovered a strange object lying on the path. It was a false nose, a large, red, boosy nose, with, a length of elastic to hold it in its place. One of the guests had dropped it. Nickie put it on in a waggish humour, and stood moralising as three pretty Spanish dancers, in charge of a toreador, passed in.
Nickie loved gaiety, waster and rapscallion as he was—sunshine, colour, flowers, beautiful women, life, music and laughter shook passions loose within him. Another little kink in his brain might have made a poet of him, just as the smallest turn of chance might have made a deadbeat of almost any poet of parts.
Mr. Crips actually sighed over that vision of fair women, and longed to be that happy toreador.
“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,|
Before we, too, into the dust descend:
Dust unto dust, and under dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End.”
The quotation had just escaped our hero lips when a young fellow garbed as Romeo, alighting from a hansom, dashed into him.
“By Jove, that was dooced awkward of me—yes, I beg your pardon, I’m sure. Should have looked where I was going—what?” said Romeo.
“Not at all,” answered Nickie politely. “My fault in blocking the path. My fault, entirely.”
“By Jo-o-ve!” gasped Romeo; “that’s a stunnin’ make-up, old chap—what? Nevah saw a bettah, by gad.”
“Make-up?” said Nicholas. Mr. Crips had for gotten his false nose.
“Ya-as,” said Romeo. “Your character, you know. A fellah ’d think you’d just come from sleeping in a rubbish bin. Yes. Best Weary Willie I’ve seen. But aren’t you coming in, dear boy? You’re a cart for Dolly’s prize for best-sustained character, eh?”
“Presently—presently.” said Nicholas, smitten with a sudden idea. “Waiting for a friend, you know.”
Romeo went up the garden path, and Nickie the Kid retired under the shadow of the hedge to allow his thoughts to revolve. Romeo’s words had suggested possibilities. Mr. Crips rarely wasted time making up his mind. Three minutes later he was sauntering jauntily up the garden path on the heels of a laughing Red Indian set.
It was a fancy dress ball. All the guests were masked or otherwise disguised. Nickie had never encountered a softer thing. He determined to make a night of it at the expense of the host of “Whitecliff.” To avoid unpleasantness at the door, Nickie boldly climbed up the trellis of a vine, and entered the noisy crowded ballroom through an open window, rolling head over heels among the guests.
His appearance provoked a shout of laughter. This was the proper way for a tramp to enter such a house. It was accepted as a quaint effort of humour. Weary Willie was applauded, and his appearance, when he rose to his feet, occasioned fresh merriment.
The “make-up” of Mr. Crips was certainly very effective, but with the exception of the false nose it was nothing but his ordinary habit. He wore a pair of old grey trousers, lashed up with one brace, and belted with a strip of red material; between the fringed legs of this garment and his broken canvas shoes the tops of socks, one white, the other plaid, were plainly visible. The fact that they were only tops, and not whole socks, was not to be missed, as they had worked up, and an inch of bare ankle protruded. Nickie’s coat was an old black Beaufort, from which two buttons’ hung on grey threads, which was split half-way up the back, and from below the tails of which fluttered strips of torn lining. He wore no vest, and had on a woman’s faded pink print blouse as a shirt. He had a linen collar that had long since lost all claims to whiteness and all pretence of dignity, and his hat was a small round boxer, with scarcely any rim. On one of the buttons of his Beaufort hung a strip of ordinary sugar bag, on which he had written with a stub of pencil the word “Program.”
Mr. Nicholas Crips looked the part to the life. He had not shaved for a week, and his lank hair was reaching out in all directions from under his ridiculous hat, and from various strands dangled fragments of his last couch under the boat shed. Nickie had nothing of the painted, unconvincing theatrical accessories of the usual fancy dress tramp; he looked real, and his success was instantaneous and complete.
I have endeavoured to show that Mr. Crips was not a diffident man; he did not distress himself with scruples; fear of failure in an enterprise of this kind never worried him. He walked across the grand ball-room, swaggering in his rags, lifted his hat to a Watteau shepherdess who was laughing at him from a settee in a recess, and said:
“Would yer darnce with er poor man, kind lydie?”
Again the crowd laughed. A tall Mary Queen of Scots peered at Nickie through her lorgnette, and said.
“How very whimsical!” The little shepherdess was a merry spirit, and bowed willingly. Nickie wrote “Milk Made” on his absurd programme, and the quaintly assorted pair joined in the waltz. How, where and when Nickie the Kid had learnt to dance Heaven knows, but he waltzed well, and after that he danced with Mary Stuart in a set.
He was particularly attracted by Mary Stuart. She was a fine woman and the rakish Nicholas had a discriminating eye where the sex was concerned. Mary had a bold eye too, and a breezy manner. She took great joy in the tramp.
A feature of Nickie’s very humorous and original impersonation of the Yarra-banker was his waggish begging. When he had danced, before leaving his partner, he assumed a most lugubrious manner, and said:
“Dear lydie, would you kindly assist a pore decayed gent, what’s got a bedridden wife an’ nine starvin’ children, all twins? Just a copper, lydie. The bailiffs is in, lydie, an’ if I don’t take ’ome nine-pence for the rent they’ll seize ther kerosene case, an’ ther flour-sack, and ther rest iv ther drorin-room furniture, kind lydie.”
A gay vivandiere led Nickie to a portly Henry VIII. “Sire,” she said, “this poor man claims king’s bounty for his three sets of triplets. I humbly commend him to your majesty.”
“Just a trifle to assist a poor man, kind gent,” whined Nickie the Kid. “Not a morsel iv turkey’s passed me lips for seven days. Just a few pence, sir, to buy champagne fer me widders and orphans. I don’t care about meself, kind sir.”
King Henry promptly dropped half-a-crown into Nickie’s hat. Two, or three laughing guests standing about contributed silver. There was an impression in the ballroom that the sum of the quaint tramp’s collection would go to a charity. None but Nickie himself knew the charitable object to which the money was to be devoted.
Nickie danced with all sorts and conditions of women. Romeo slapped him on the back.
“Splendid, deah boy!” he said. “We been thrown together, you know. Ran’ into you at the gate—what? By gad, you’re doin it well. But I say, who the devil are you?”
“I’m Willie’ the Waster, kind young gentleman, and I’m residin’ under No. 3 wharf, fifth plank from the corner. Would yer give er trifle towards me time-payment furniture, please, sir.”
Romeo contributed a shilling. “You’re a sport,” he said. “They’re all on to you. Dolly herself’s delighted. Yes, you’re right as rain for the prize, but you might put me on—what?”
“I’m feather-legged Ned, with ther consumptive corf,” said Nickie. “Would you please give me a shillin’ t’ pay fer me medicine?”
“No, dash me if I do!” said Romeo, and he went off laughing.
Nickie took champagne with Sir Peter Teazie, Rip Van Winkle, Slender, and Henry VIII., and under the influence of the good wine became more audacious. He passed the hat with a characteristic complaint wherever a few guests were assembled, and in view of the vast amusement he was giving was allowed any license in reason. The offerings of the charitable he deposited in the tail pocket of his coat, and presently the weight dragged at him with a grateful pressure, and the silver clanked as he walked. Fortune was not actually staring him in the face, but it was hanging on behind.
By one o’clock in the morning Nickie was carrying round a champagne bottle in his left hand, from which he refreshed himself, and he was no longer able to walk a chalk line as wide as a tram with an certainty, and had got into the way of clinging to the curtains and hangings; but this was all accepted as part of an excellent piece of caricature, and earned our hero some applause.
Just before supper a lady, dressed as Portia, came forward, and pinned a neat design of gold laurel leaves and emeralds on the breast of Mr. Nicholas Crips. It was the prize for the best sustained character, which the host had offered his guests in a frivolous mood. Nickie bowed in acknowledgment of applause, and then, with the bottle in one hand, and his hat in the other, he appealed to Portia.
“Could you spare a copper, kind lydie, to assist a poor orphan what’s laid up with lumbago in the feet. I’ve bin bed-ridden fer ten years, lydie, and I lost both me legs in th’ battle of Waterloo. On’y a penny for the battered ’ero good, kind lydie.”
At supper Nickie declined to unmask. He would not remove his preposterous false nose. He also excited doubts and misgivings by the depth of his thirst and his almost miraculous capacity for food. After supper he was simply impossible.
Nicholas Crips in his sober moments was quiet and unpretentious in his rascalities, his temperament was naturally mild; but under the influence of strong drink he always developed tremendous belief in his own magnificence, strutted about and fondly fancied himself a king. He was wholly and completely drunk when he charged into the ballroom at two in the morning, brandishing a full bottle, and singing uproariously. He staggered into the middle of the dancers, whirling his magnum.
“Room” he cried. “Room, there, for King Solomon in all his glory” He whirled his bottle again, and the dancers broke before him. A Sir Toby Belch got the thick end of the bottle in his natural fatness, and collapsed with a groan. “Remove the body!” ordered Nickie, magnificently. “D’ye hear me, there, minions? Remove these offensive remain from the royal presence.”
The guests had retreated against the walls, and Nickie held the floor. Nobody believed this to be an artistic effort to sustain the character. Weary Willie was as drunk as a lord. He tittered a wild Indian whoop, and sang the chorus of “at the Old Bull and Bush,” beating time with a leg of turkey. Then he turned to the band.
“Play ‘God Shave King’.” he said. “If yeh don’ play ‘Go’ Shave King’ I’ll have ver heads off ’fore mornin’.”
King Henry interposed, he put a restraining hand on Nickie, and spoke soothingly to him and Nickie the Kid promptly knocked the poor monarch on the head. Then rude hands seized Nickie: he was rushed from the house; he was rushed down the path, and hurled into the street.
When all the guests had left the white mansion at Banklands, and daylight was streaming in, a weary man-servant interviewed the master of “Whitecliff.”
“Please, sir,” he said; “the—eh—gentleman who was thrown out last night.”
“Well, what of him?” asked the host, disgustedly.
“He’s sleeping in the garden, sir.”
The host went out. He found Nickie the Kid sleeping in the Pansy bed, and Nickie was pulled to his feet.
“Nicholas!” he gasped.
“That’sh me, Willie,” answered Nicholas Crips.
“You blackguard, you intrude into my house and insult my guests, and you promised when I gave you that last £L10 never to interfere with me again.”
“Now Willie, Little Willie,” said Nickie, “when did I ever keep my promises?”
“Leave my grounds or I’ll give you over to the police!”
“Chertainly,” said Nickie. “Chertainly, I’ll leave the grounds. There’s always room for me outside.”
He took the skirt off his coat, heavy with the contributions of the guests, in his hand, and strolled joyously through the gate.
“Ta-ta,” he said. “Good-bye, Billy, dear ole Billy, dear, old, fat-headed, bumptious Billy!”
Feeling like a king, Nickie the Kid passed down the road, and the morning sun glittered on the emblem on his breast. He was still sustaining the character.