The lady was touched—her eye moistened.
“That is really very sad,” she said. “Come right in, my poor man. You must tell your story to my James. James will know how to help you.”
Nickie followed the lady without the smallest compunction. She knocked quietly at the door of a room and admitted Nicholas to a small apartment fitted up like a study. At a table near the window a grave young man was seated with writing materials before him.
“Well, mater” he said, “whom have we here? Another of your proteges?”
“I want you to listen to this poor fellow, James,” said the lady, “his story will touch you as it has touched me. My poor man, this is my son, the Rev. James Nippit.”
Nickie bowed with a grace that did not belong to his tramp’s garments and his insanitary and unshaven state.
“Thank God. I have met you, sir,” he said, in the voice of a strong man whose sorrows have about broken his proud spirit, “if your heart is as gentle as that of this sweet lady.”
The lady withdrew, and the Rev. James Nippit, who had been eyeing Mr. Crips keenly, motioned hit to a chair.
“Be seated,” he said, “and tell me your story.”
“I am the only son of the Rev. Arthur Crips, of Bolton, Lancashire, England,” said Nickie. “My father held a good living. He intended to make a doctor of me. He brought me up always with that intention, lavished much money on me, and from the time I was fourteen I understood I was to live the life of a gentleman. Before my education was completed my father died, and I found that he had been led into speculation and we were ruined. Not only ruined, but disgraced. The shock killed my mother. I came to Australia. Unwittingly, without a chance of saving myself, I sank and drifted till I found myself a mere tramp. For years I have been a tattered, unclean, despised outcast. Yesterday I heard you preach; I was outside under a window too despicable a creature to enter among you trim flock. Your sermon reminded me of what I was, showed me to myself, made the future horribly real to me. I was inspired to fight, to try and work myself out of the slough into which I have drifted, and I have come to you for help. I am here.” Nickie the Kid opened his arms with a dramatic gesture—his face was very sad.
“Liar!” said the young clergyman looking Nickie straight in the eye. “Liar!” he repeated.
Nickie looked back into the eye of the clergyman. His face betrayed no amazement. For a moment it was grave, almost reproachful, and then it relaxed into a broad grin. The device had failed—there was no further occasion for subterfuge.
“Well,” Mr. Crips admitted, “I don’t pretend to be a George Washington. I may have been betrayed into errors of detail.”
“It is as well you admit it,” said the Rev. Nippit. “Because I did not preach yesterday.”
“Very remiss of you,” said Mr. Crips.
“And, furthermore, I remember you well. Two years ago I was on a charity committee that inquired into your case. You were then the son of a Queensland Judge, reduced to poverty by wild living, but anxious to return to respectable courses.”
Nickie grinned again, and took up his hat. “It is as you say.” he said, “a truly delicious morning for a stroll. I think I’ll go and watch the grass grow. Good-day, Mr. Nippit.”
The young clergyman arose and interposed between Nickie and the door. “You will stay where you are,” he said. “Sit down.”
Nickie sat down. He placed his hat very carefully on the carpet, folded his arms, and crossed his legs. “You are very kind,” he said. “May I ask if a compulsory lunch goes with this unwarrantable detention?”
“That remains to be seen,” replied James. “I am going to offer you your choice of two courses. You will either submit yourself to my deliberate intention of making a good, clean, respectable, industrious member of society of you, or you will walk out of this place into gaol.”
Nickie’s mind was made up instantly, but he did not capitulate in too great a hurry; he talked of conditions, and asked for details of his expected regeneration. The Rev. Nippit explained his belief that all men had in them the elements of decency, order and religion. Those elements only needed proper opportunities for development. He purposed giving Nickie the opportunities. He needed a handy man about the house; Nickie was to have the job. He would be expected to bathe every day, to shave every day, and observe the decencies of the well-ordered home.
“And you are prepared to believe you can reform me?” said Nickie the Kid.
“I am not only prepared to believe it—I am determined to believe it,” said the young clergyman, thumping the table.
Nickie smiled again. “I submit myself to the experiment” he said, “but promise nothing. I don’t think you will succeed. Your intentions are good, but mine are not, and it takes two to make a bargain.”
Nickie entered his new duties at once. After lunch he took a shovel into the garden and toyed with the earth a while, and then he went to sleep under a tree. The Rev. Nippit awakened him and talked with him in a firm but kindly spirit on the virtues of honest dealings with one’s employer, and the necessity of industry to keep the world wagging, Nickie’ graciously admitted that it was all very true. But when set to clean out the fowl-house he sat on a stone and held converse with an educated cockatoo next door.
That evening, clean-shaven, freshly-bathed, dressed in a cast-off suit of James Nippit’s, whole if slightly rusty, and robbed of its clerical significance, Nickie the Kid attended a religions function with his reverend employer. Nickie was orderly, wakeful and fairly attentive. When the plate came round he put threepence in, but he took a shilling out. It was a useful trick, taught him by an expert in the art of rigging the thimble and the pea. Nickie, when he had fairly good clothes, often attended church merely to practise it. To-night the exploit was more an act of unseemly and impious levity than a crime.
The Rev. Nippit had a theory which he believed would succeed with nine malefactors out of ten if exerted under fair conditions it was based on kindness, forebearance and the inculcation of excellent precepts.
It is distressing to have to report that Nickie took few pains to encourage his preceptor. He was lazy, he sometimes forgot to shave, he often forgot to bath, he was not always temperate; but the Rev. James bore it all with unconquerable patience. If Nickie was lazy, he talked with him like a brother of the twin virtues, industry and thrift; if he were unwashed, he explained to him that cleanliness was next to godliness: if he seemed to, have gazed too, long upon the wine when it was red, or the beer when it foamed in the bowl, the clergyman pointed out the advantage of strict sobriety, and earnestly besought Nicholas Crips to strive for higher things and the true light.
The Rev. James Nippit was not discouraged. He saw Nickie often clean, usually decently attired, generally fairly decent in his behaviour, and always respectful in his manner, and believed the seed of righteous was sprouting; but Nickie was living comfortably, he was being well fed and well bedded, and was careful not to over-exert himself in the pursuit of his duties; consequently, it was easy for him to maintain a certain show of decorum.
After Nickie the Kid had been under the tutelage of the Rev. James for about three weeks, the latter was puzzled to find that Mr. Crips was far from penniless. Now Nickie was paid nothing his services, but every week a small sum, representing his wages, was paid into the Savings Bank, and the deposit was to be transferred to him when he gave proof of complete and perfect regeneration. When asked to account for a bottle of whisky found in his room, and for a burst of inebriety that represented a good deal in spot cash, Nickie quibbled. The quibble was obvious even to an innocent soul like James. James was hurt, but he persisted.
Nickie was content to have the experiment continue, but he held out no great hopes. “You know,” he said, “this is your scheme, not mine. You, as it were, forced me to submit. You said you’d reform me in spite of myself. Well, I am patient, and you are earnest, but we don’t seem to make much progress.”
For seven weeks the Rev. James Nippit continued experimenting and never once lost faith.
James Nippit’s pet work was in connection with his reform movement, the Young Men’s Mission, a design for upraising the youths of the larrikin and criminal classes. The Young Men’s Mission had attracted some attention, people were found willing to contribute to the good work, and this fact gave rise to some imposition. Uncertified persons of bad character were found to be collecting for the fund and appropriating the money to their own use. This caused James much distress of mind.
One Sunday afternoon when driving from his Sunday School the Rev. Nippit was hailed by a trusted friend, who said:
“For the last ten minutes I have been listening to a man preaching on the sands down there. He represents himself as one of the leaders of the Young Men’s Mission Movement, and I am confident he is an impostor. If he is, it is your duty to expose him.”
The Rev. James took up the task eagerly. Leaving the buggy in charge of a small boy, the two gentle men joined the crowd, and James soon recognised that the speaker was delivering something very like a sermon of his own, but seasoning it with a sort of quaint, insolent humour, that suited the tastes of his hearers admirably. The crowd laughed and applauded.
“Brothers and sisters,” said the speaker, “I have shown you that these young men must be divorced from the long-sleever, and rescued from the lures of the plump, peroxided barmaid, and the blandishments of Bung, the reprobate who runs the pub. I have shown you they must be turned from the joys of the ‘pushes,’ tobacco chewing, and stoushing in offensive Chinamen with bricks, and now I appeal to you for the means of doing things. Money is said to be the root of all evil, but it is also the means of much good. If we want to go to heaven, we must pay the tram fare. He who gives quickly gives twice, but it is better still to give twice and to give quickly.”
As he spoke he moved among the people, taking up a collection in his hat, and the people responded liberally. He returned to his little eminence, and the Rev. James Nippit forced his way through the crowd, and confronted him, flushed, furious, over flowing.
“So,” said James, “this is the reward of my kindness? This—”
Nickie was silent for a moment—for the preacher was Nicholas Crips, garbed in an old suit of his master’s—then he turned calmly and said:
“This gentleman, brothers and sisters, is the Reverend James Nippit, the founder of our noble much desire to say a few words. I desire to say mission. He desires to say a few words.”
“Yes, my good people,” cried James, “I do very that the Young Men’s Mission is one of the finest and most worthy institutions in this city to and to express the abhorrence I feel for those villains who make use of the credit the Mission has won for their own infamous purposes.” He went on to explain how the Mission was being robbed, and wound up dramatically with the words: “And this man, this man at my side, this man who has addressed you in the guise of a minister, is one of the most wicked and detestable of the impostors.”
But in consequence of his oratorical training, and his clergyman’s inability to come quickly to a point the denunciation lost its effect, for Nickie was not at the speaker’s side; he had gone. He had taken the Rev. James Nippit’s buggy, and driven off, and he carried the collection with him.
The buggy was safe in the carriage-house when the Rev. James returned home, but Nickie was seeking fields and pastors new.