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The Coming of Love
Young Alf, as you have been given to understand, was precocious, having been
brought up in a society which will tolerate everything but incompetence, and
having struck out a line for himself as soon as he had escaped from the
schoolroom; wherefore you will conclude, and conclude rightly, that love came
early into the life of young Alf.
The conscientious reader will already have caught the first faint flushes of the great passion which heralded the dawn of young Alf's manhood. He has, I gather, been loved by many, and loved more than one. Many names of many girls float across his reminiscences; some of them are to me - and, I fear, to him - mere names, and nothing more. As is the case with the rest and the best of us, young Alf climbed to the height of his desire over his mistakes. And his mistakes were not few. As a ladder they should raise him high.
Of many of these flames I cannot find even the ashes. But there was the girl he invited to drive with him to the Derby; the girl who helped him to nick the toff's property in the bar; and there was Emmamarier.
You must not miss the story of Emmamarier, for it is one upon which young Alf looks back with great satisfaction. Also it has a moral attached to it, a moral which needs no pointing.
Love seemed to come with Emmamarier, who had, I presume, her attractions. Anyhow, she attracted young Alf. Also she attracted Maggots, who was an acquaintance of young Alf's.
Now Maggots was employed in sitting at the tail of a van, and doing odd jobs about a warehouse in the Borough. Thus his days were occupied and his evenings left free for dalliance. At this period, as you know, young Alf had his days to himself, but was frequently engaged in the evening.
Also Emmamarier was a flirt.
The plot develops obviously.
For Emmamarier permitted her lovers to overlap. One evening young Alf, who sometimes took an evening off, was turning from Vauxhall into Tyers Street, on his way to Lambeth Walk, when he encountered Emmamarier in company with Maggots. There was a bit of an argument; not enough of an argument to cause a window in Tyers Street to open, but enough to black one of Maggots' eyes, and to send Emmamarier scurrying up the street.
The situation was awkward.
Both boys wanted Emmamarier. And Emmamarier wanted both boys.
But neither boy was satisfied with fifty per cent of Emmamarier.
Nor would Emmamarier have been contented with fifty per cent of both boys.
As days passed the situation became intolerable. For Maggots and young Alf met constantly, both being on the watch for infidelity; and Emmamarier did not know which of the two she was walking with.
Advice came from various friends. The advice was taken, and young Alf and Maggots decided to fight for Emmamarier. Moreover, Emmamarier, when the scheme was laid before her by Maggots, consented willingly, stipulating only that she should be permitted to watch the fight.
On this condition she promised to belong to the winner. The condition was accepted. The preliminaries were simple and easily arranged. One of the stables off Lambeth Walk, in which many a quiet scrap has taken place, was selected as the scene of the conflict. Three trusty friends were invited to see fair; and young Alf and Maggots stripped to the waist, while Emmamarier, the prize, sat proudly on a rung of the ladder which led to the loft, waited for the victor to claim her.
The fight was soon over, for half-way through the second round young Alf knocked Maggots out, and sent for beer. Maggots recovered his senses as soon as the beer came, and handed over Emmamarier formally to young Alf.
And here a strange thing happened: for young Alf, having won Emmamarier, no longer desired her. He told Maggots that a girl who wanted to be fought for was not worth having, and that he resigned Alf claim on Emmamarier in favour of Maggots; whereupon Maggots, not to be outdone in generosity, declared that he would have no truck with her.
So Emmamarier was taken by the shoulders, cleared ignominiously out of the stable, and got no beer.
Young Alf and Maggots put on their coats, had a friendly drink together, and ever since then have been the best of pals, having frequently been associated in little jobs to their mutual profit.
But that was not real love. Real love came to young Alf when he encountered Alice in the coffee-shop, to which he frequently recurred in order to enjoy for a season the pleasure of Alice's society. That this was real love is certain enough. For whereas young Alf, as we have seen, objected to fighting for Emmamarier, he did not, as we shall see, mind fighting for Alice.
We were talking one evening of foreigners - a class of person for which young Alf has a great contempt - and the subject led him to a story in which he figures as the champion of virtue in distress. It shows, too, how he first captured the imagination of Alice.
We were sitting in the saloon-bar of the house at the corner of Paradise Street - The Feathers. The bar was almost empty. It contained but one customer except ourselves, a man who spoke with a pronounced German accent.
Young Alf rolled an eye after the man as he left the bar. 'There's too many of them foreigners about,' said young Alf, as the door swung to and fro and settled to rest, cutting off the din of the Walk from our ears. Too many be 'arf. Ef you was to arst me, I wouldn't 'ave 'em in the country. They're no bleed'n' good.'
'Have you ever worked with a foreigner?' I asked.
Young Alf's mouth and shoulders expressed violent dissent.
'I'd never 'ave a foreigner workin' wiv me,' he said. 'Nor I don't believe any boy that's worked the biz down our way'd take on a foreigner. Soon as you get in a 'ole a foreigner shows the white leaver and turns round on yer. See?'
Young Alf leaned suddenly forward, elbows on knees, his mouth working, and I knew that another reminiscence was struggling for expression.
'Didn't I never tell you about that Frenchy that we bashed?' he asked, with a swift, sidelong glance.
I replied that the story would be new to me.
'Well, I told you bout Alice - 'ow I Iarked wiv er in the cawfy-shop.'
I remembered Alice.
'Lived down China Walk, Alice did. Pretty little gal wiv yellow air - none o' your bloomin' faked actris kind o' tow - but real golden, - straight. Reg'lar little pride of the place Alice was, an' everybody liked 'er. Only I flatter myself she liked me more'n she liked anybody else. See? Well, Alice was slavey at the cawfy-shop - I told you that. An' one night me and Scrappin' Dick was comin' by the cawfy-shop togevver-'
'Scrapping Dick? Who was he?' I asked.
'Fort I told you bout 'im,' said young Alf. ''E come into the gang just after what I did. I expect Scrappin' Dick'd took on pretty nigh every boy in the Walk, from first to last, an' turned 'is face into a butcher's shop too, wiv no error. 'E won't do much scrappin' not for anuvver two years or so; doin' a stretch 'e is. But I'm told 'e's got a nice little bit o' stuff planted 'gainst the time when he comes out again.'
'Well, what about Alice - and-'
'We was comin' by the cawfy-shop where Alice was slavey, me and Scrappin' Dick, an' there was Alice stannin' outside on the pavement. sobbin' fit to break 'er little 'eart.'
'An' no wunner she was sobbin', cause when we stopped and arst 'er what was the matter, she tells us the boss of the 'ouse - 'e was a Frenchy, 'e was - the boss of the 'ouse'd been tryin' to interfere wiv 'er. I arst 'er what 'e'd been doin' of; but she wouldn't say no more than 'e'd been interferin' wiv 'er, and went on sobbin' somefink cruel. Dick he turns round an' 'e says:
'"Look ere, we ain't goin' to see the girl wronged by a bloody frog-eater, eh?"
'I'd made up me mind a'ready, on'y I was finkin' what was the best way to snuff 'im. "Same 'ere," I replies to Dick. "I'm going to see young Alice righted, and that's Alf about it. Come on," I says.
"I'm wiv you," says Dick.
'An' wiv that in we goes togevver, an' young Alice stannin' Alf the time on the pavement outside.
'We reckoned we'd 'ave a snack 'fore getting to work, specially as we didn't mean to pay for it - not in the usual way. So we called for a small do an' two doorsteps each, an' the Frenchy come an' brought it to us. I could see Alice's yellow air outside where she was stannin', but she wasn't cryin' no more then. She was peerin' round the door to see what we was goin' to do. I was finkin' of 'er more'n I was finkin of me snack. Well, when we'd done, Dick started arstin' the Frenchy about Alice bein' interfered wiv; an' 'e puts 'is shoulders up an' says:
"Vat is it you to business wiv me?" That's their bleed'n lingo, y' know. "You b'lieve vat girl?" says the Frenchy. "Yes we do, you bloody frog-swallerer!" I chips in.
Then Dick says: "Let's give 'im a one two," 'e says. But the Frenchy ran back to the parlour be'ind the shop, and in 'arf a mo 'e'd brought out a dam savage-lookin' bull-terrier, that made as if 'e was goin' to make a go for us. So, quicker'n you could say knife, I leans over an' gets old of a bottle, an' lands out. Slashed the dawg clean across the dial, I did, an' carved 'is front pretty well in two. The dawg ran froo to the back wiv a terrible owl, an' I turned round to see what Dick was up to. An' there was Dick puttin' the Frenchy over the tables an' chairs proper. He could do that, Dick could, wiv no error. Then I come in, and sent 'im down into the sawdust by way of givin' 'im a change of diet. Fair knockout that'd a' been for the froggy, on'y jest as I'd got 'is razzo into one of the sputtoons young Alice comes runnin' in, an' callin' that the missus'd gone for the cops.
Well, I fort it was about time for us to clear, an' I scooted quick as I could; nor I didn't see no cops at all. But a couple of 'em come along and pinched Dick just as 'e was comin' out of the cawfy-shop. Wasn't much good Dick sayin' anyfink with the froggy layin' there, an' 'is ole mag in the sputtoon. Eh? So next day Dick was up in front of the beak for a murd'rous assault. 'Ealfy, wasn't it? An' im on'y takin' it out of the bleed'n' Frenchy what was interterin' wiv young Alice. S'elp me! Well-'
Speech failed young Alf for the moment. He leaned back in his seat with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, anattitude which necessitated the hunching of his shoulders. His eyes blazed with the excitement of the narrative, and his cheeks worked like the cheeks of the puff-adder.
'What'd you a' done if your young lady'd been interfered wiv?' asked young Alf presently.
I expressed the heartiest appreciation of his conduct, and inquired of the subsequent fate of Scrapping Dick.
'Well, next day Dick was up before the beak,' continued young Alf, relaxing somewhat the tension of his manner. 'An' me an' the uvver boys was in the p'lice court to 'elp pull 'im froo.'
'Was Jimmy there?' I asked.
'Jimmy wasn't there,' replied young Alf. 'Jimmy never did old wiv scrappin' and makin' yourself conspickyus. But young Alice fried it up for the Frenchy pretty warm, an' told the beak about is interferin' wiv 'er, an' 'ow she'd told Dick, makin' no mention of me, you unnerstand, though there was me stannin' where the beak could put 'is lamps over me, carrm as you please. But the froggy got all the best of it all froo, an' Dick 'ad it weighed out to him to the tune of forty bob, or a month. Course the brass was made up by the uvver boys before Dick got took to the stir.'
The saloon bar was filling, and young Alf was looking under his brows at a quietly-dressed man who was leaning against the corner of the partition and smoking a cigar. The quietly-dressed man seemed interested in nothing but his cigar, unless it was the shoes of his neighbours.
Young Alf shot a glance at me.
'That's a split,' he said.
'How do you know a detective when you see him!' I asked.
'Know im?' said young Alf, sniffing contemptuously. 'Be lookin' at 'im.'
'Well, anyway,' I said, 'the story ends well. And I suppose Alice was very proud of you?'
Young Alf wagged his head.
'I don't meanter say there was anyfink to talk about - me takin' on a Frenchy an' 'is dawg. But what I meanter say is this: us boys don't often get a chalk down in their favour, but that time a couple of us saw to it that the bleed'n' foreigner don't always get the best cut off the joint in this country. Eh? They mustn't try any of their old hank just as they please when any of us boys is around an' about. Tell you what it is, there's a dam sight too many of them foreigners in the country, Hightalians an' Frenchies an' the rest of 'em. Too many be arf. Mor' n that.'
We parted at the door of The Feathers, and young Alf slid suddenly from my view.
He has a wonderful way of disappearing; a keen eye for cover. One moment he stands in full sight before you, the next moment he is not.