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by the bye, were bestowed some slices of bread and butter, wrapped in a clean cloth—furnished him, as he confided to me, by his old woman to help him on the road, had been told or had read of splendid strokes of business done by enterprising individuals possessed of a pail on Derby day at Epsom.
“They'd give anything for a pail of water for their horses sometimes,” said he; "it's more precious than champagne up in that dry part when the sun's blazing down. I've heerd tell of as much as a guinea being give for a pail of water for their horses by gents wot's won and are flush of money ; half-a-crown for a pailful of water is quite common.” And he hitched up the vessel at his back with a wink of confidence; and I feel sure that if any one there and then had offered him a contract to supply water all day to-morrow on Epsom Downs at the rate of eighteenpence a pailful he would have indignantly spurned the idea.
There was no chance, however, of his obtaining such a bid from either of his present companions—assuredly not from the one on my right, an old man who walked with a limp, and whose hands were gnarled and knotted and of the colour of cobbler's wax, and who wore about his throat the old woollen comforter before-mentioned. When the pail-bearer talked so bravely, the old man nudged me and gave me a side glance, in which was expressed much pity for the deluded one, accompanied, however, by a warning shake of the head, adjuring me not on any account to speak my mind, and so blight the poor fellow's innocent expectations.
“And why didn't you bring a pail ?” I asked of the old man, wondering what he had brought, and curious to ascertain.
" Because I couldn't see after two things at the same time,” replied the old fellow cheerily : “my game's string.'”
He looked, albeit his woeful shabbiness, such an inoffensive old man that I could not for a moment suspect him of designs that were very iniquitous; yet I must confess that for the time his answer made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. The only games of "string ” I had ever heard of were those connected with old Bailey gallows exhibitions and Thuggism.
“String !" I repeated, with an uncomfortable feeling that the ignorance I was exhibiting was altogether unworthy of an “umbrella cove.” “How do you work it?”
“What's easier ?” returned the mild old gentleman, withdrawing from his coat-tail pocket as he spoke a bunch of tangled string and piece of cord, and a harness maker's awl : "it don't want much working ; half way up the hill is the place to be on the look-out, just by that steep bit where the elder trees grow; that's the bit that tells on the weak part of a harness. Snap goes a saddle-girth or a breeching, and then there's a crowd, and it's ‘Who's got a bit of string?' Why, I've got a bit of string, and I've got a awl; and there you are in two two's, as right as though nothing had happened, and I've earned, perhaps, a shilling. Ah!” continued the ancient harness-mender, with a hopeful wag of his head, " I've seen and talked with a man who once got a sovereign for one of his old braces on that very spot.” Hearing this the tramp with the pail nudged me with his elbow, and raised his eyebrows in commiseration for a man who was so weak as to pursue shadows, and who undoubtedly would discover his mistake before he was many hours older.
Instructive as were these revelations, it would be mere affectation to pretend that they had an enlivening effect on my spirits. I can say the same for our friend with the tied-up Blucher boot, who audibly growled an opinion that the two old gentlemen were a couple of unheavenly old muffs, and that it was sickening to hear 'em. He was a tall, straight-backed young fellow of five and twenty or thereabouts, and he puffed spitefully at his short pipe as he slouched along with his hands in his dilapidated trousers pockets, while a dare-devil and defiant scowl added to the repulsive expression of his evil-looking face. At present he had not opened his mouth except to swear concerning a “raw" on his foot, and to spit, and so we trudged on until it grew so dark that we could barely see the dust in the road.
“We shall have a dry walk, after all,” remarked the old gentleman, whose game was string, “and I was afeard for it this morning.”
“ Ah! we shall have a dry walk, please God," returned the tramp with the pail. But this was more than the young fellow with the “raw” could stand.
“Please the devil,” he ejaculated, taking the short pipe from his mouth to say so, with such fierce energy that the red-hot ashes in it were scattered in the road. I've happened on nice company, I have! What do you say, Humbereller ? ”
Thụs appealed to, I replied that I had not said anything.
“ Then I'll have a say,” he exclaimed savagely; “I'll say as I said before, please the devil. I'd please him fast enough if he'd only give me the chance. On'y let him give me the chance that I'm lookin' for — that rattling good chance that 'ud make my fortune and the fortune of ten others, if they would on'y trust me. Three years ago I come down this road, not with a raw
on my foot and without a mag in my pocket, but in a drag that I paid a hundred and twenty quid for, coin down, and as good a bit of horseflesh as ever wore silver harness. I did ; I come down with the best, and with them as wouldn't let me brush their coats now if I asked 'em for the job; and yet, lookee here ! if I could only find that rattling chance I am speaking of, I might be up in my drag again, with swell togs and a veil to my white hat, and my hamper with the swell grub and the champagne, and all the jolly kit. It's true, if I could only find the rattling chance, mind you! Please the devil, it may turn up some day.”
I was conscious from his manner of pressing against me, that the sanguine person who hoped to make his fortune out of a pail of water was shrinking away from the young man, who, having concluded his fierce address, was snorting and spitting at a terrific rate. Being farthest from him, the meek old harness-maker ventured on a remark,
"Are you going to Epsom now to see if you can find the chance you are speaking of ?”.
“I ain't such an infernal fool,” returned our alarming friend with a laugh. “I should no more think of looking for it to-morrow than I should think of goin' a nestin' after a bird that I saw flying away with a bit of hay in its beak. The nest would have to be built and the eggs laid before you might think of hatching. Golden eggs and diamond chicks, yah! talk to me about your bits of string, and your pails, and your betting-list fakements. I feel like a wulture keeping company along with tomtits when I think on it.”
We were so unworthy of his companionship that, with a snort of contempt, he stalked ahead of us, and we thought-the man with the pail whispered that it was a
precious good job, too—that he was bent on seeking more congenial company; but he walked by himself for no more than a hundred yards or so, and then he
holted until we cannot betting-list couldn't follow
" You ain't a fool, betting-list cove," he exclaimed, fiercely, addressing me; "you couldn't follow your little game if you was. Come and walk this side.” I humbly did as requested.
“I say,” said he—we were out of earshot of the other two_“I say, you're a wide-awake cove, I should reckon, by the cut of your jib. What did you make out of what I was saying just now?”
“Nothing at all,” I replied ; which was strictly true. “You didn't get a hint out of it ?”
“Not in the least.” He laughed and hugged himself in his tattered old reefing-jacket.
“And yet you're a bettin'-list cove—a cove that must be acquainted with half a dozen of them that are of just the kidney I should like to get hold of. The very thought of it is enough to make a fellow cut his throat.”
His sudden despondency was such that, in sheer compassion, I produced from my pocket a glass bottle, with about half a pint of good French brandy in it.
“Take a sip at this,” I said. Without so much as “ Thanky,” he took it, and drawing the cork out with his teeth, smelt at the bottle's contents. In about five seconds the half-pint was reduced to a tablespoonful, which he handed back to me. I can't say how it happened ; perhaps he hadn't tasted solid food for several hours ; and this, coupled with the fact that he had taken two deep draughts out of two pots of beer a short time before, may have accounted for it; but so it came about that he said not a word for at least ten minutes after he had swigged my brandy, and