Through a window at ten in the morning I saw Number One coming toward the back gate. His appearance was neat, but decidedly shabby and a little down-at-heel. A man down on his luck, plainly enough; and I decided to attend to him myself.
"Good morning," he said, in a precise and rather English voice as I opened the door. "A most delightful day. I was venturing to hope that perhaps you had some edged tools needing attention - knives, scissors, axes."
When informed that another scissors grinder had been here only a few days ago, his air of disappointment had behind it a just suspicion of practised simulation; yet his bearing betrayed nothing of the professional battler.
"A pity," he said. "Ah, well! The luck of the game." But he made no move to depart.
A very diffident offer of food, or perhaps tobacco, he politely declined. "People are extremely kind," he said. "I was amply provendered a few miles down the road. Still --" He shrugged forlornly and sighed; but still gave no hint of departure.
"A charming place you have here," he commented. "Charming place. You are fortunate. Yet one has no right to be envious. One realises that envy is the crude sin of the unintelligent. And yet -- when one is compelled to walk the roads without a shilling in one's pocket --" He sighed again, and half turned away as if to hide the self-pity in his hopeless face.
Almost before I knew, I had reached into my pocket. I found myself proffering the ten-shilling note that had been destined, that week-end, to go on an uncertain horse. Just a shade too readily, his own hand, surprisingly soft, had grasped the tribute.
And still murmuring cultured gratitude, he went away at last, rather hurriedly.
At about two o'clock in the afternoon Number Two arrived. His blue eye twinkled confidently, and he wore a jaunty air and a disarming grin.
"Day, Dig," he said easily in unmistakeable Australian. "Any chance of a man grabbin' off a bit of tucker?"
As usual I called to those within, and as usual, there was the clatter and bustle that always attends the arrival of the infrequent tramp.
"Thanks," he said. "You're a sport," as bread, cold beef, tea, sugar, eggs, et al., went into his gunny bag. "The luck's been dead rotten all along the road. Must a been some coot cleanin' up in front of me."
I said there was.
"Ah," he said. "That explains it. Aw, well. Heaps o' luck. You're a real toff."
And he, too, departed in gleeful haste.
"Two tramps in one day," I thought. This place is rather off the beaten track and it was unusual.
But I was more surprised at about four o'clock to see coming across the lawn on inadequate legs an ancient figure that resembled nothing so much as a perambulating scarecrow.
He did not need tucker, he did not seek money. Clothes were his objective.
Again matters were taken out of my hands, and, much to my annoyance, I saw an absurd number of my own shabby treasures, pants, shoes, shirts, a well-beloved hat, et cetera -- the only things I really enjoyed wearing -- being piled into his aged arms.
Toward sundown that evening, having occasion to walk some three miles up the road, I turned a corner and came suddenly upon three familiar figures walking before me. They walked as leisured gentlemen out for a pleasure jaunt, and their laughing discourse smote my indignant ear with the full tale of my own shameful unwariness. I was an easy mark.
I yelled at them and, turning as one man, their confusion was only momentary.
"Kamarad!" said a cultured voice, as his soft hands went up.
"Clean bowled," said he of the twinkling eye. "But you got to own it's a good stunt mate. We been workin' it from the other side of the border."
"But listen, now," said the aged one. "Yeh'd not be after blowin' the gaff down the road on us. 'Tis a swate schame."
"I won't," I said. "I'm going back."
"Well, good luck, Dig!" one called after me. How could I remain annoyed?
The one thing that really hurt was that, in the week-end, the uncertain horse, unbacked by me, romped home at fifteen to one.
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003|