Read CHAPTER XXVIII of The Tale of Timber Town , free online book, by Alfred Grace, on ReadCentral.com.

The Goldsmith Comes to Town the Second Time.

Tresco stood in the yellow light of the paraffin lamp, and gazed in wonderment at Gentle Annie. He was a tattered and mournful object; his boots worn out, his trousers a marvel of patchwork, his coat a thing discoloured and torn, his hair and beard unshorn, himself a being unrecognisable by his former friends.

Gentle Annie’s attitude betokened the greatest surprise. With her hands on her bosom, her lips parted, her cheeks pale, her eyes frightened, she stood, and timidly returned the gaze of the strange man before her.

“What do you want?” she asked, so soon as she could find her voice. “Why do you come here?”

“Don’t be alarmed,” said Benjamin reassuringly. “First, let me tell you that I’m your friend and protector. Do you forget Tresco the goldsmith?”

Gentle Annie gave vent to a little cry of astonishment.

“I am an outlaw,” he spoke as if he were defending himself before his peers “an outcast, a hunted dog. My own house is unsafe, so I came here for protection and a little comfort.” He dropped suddenly into quite a sentimental tone of voice. “I haven’t spoken to a soul, save my lad, for over six weeks. I’m a bit lonesome and miserable; and I badly need a well-cooked meal.”

“But if you stop here” Gentle Annie’s ample bust rose and fell with agitation “the police will catch you.”

“They’d think of looking for me in the moon before they came here, my dear; besides I have no intention of stopping. I only want rest and food.”

“I’ll do what I can for you, but you must go almost directly.”

“Why, certainly.” Tresco sat down, and drew a deep breath. “It’s good to look at a wholesome woman again it seems years since I saw one.”

A smile passed over Gentle Annie’s face, and her eyes twinkled with merriment. “I see you’re not cured of your old weakness,” she said.

“No, my dear; and I hope I never shall be.” Benjamin had rallied from his depression. “On the contrary, it increases.”

They were a strange couple the wild-looking man on one side of the table, and the fine figure of a woman who emitted a faint odour of patchouli, on the other.

“I suppose you know I’m my own mistress now.”

“It looks like it. I understood something of the kind from Jake.”

“I objected to be pulled about indiscriminately, so I left The Lucky Digger. A rough brute cut my arm with a broken glass.” She rolled up her sleeve, and showed the scar of the newly-healed wound.

Benjamin took the soft, white arm in his hand, and gave it just the suspicion of a squeeze.

“I wish I’d bin there, my dear: I’d ha’ chucked him through the window.”

“Mr. Scarlett who has been so lucky on the diggings kicked him out of the house on to the pavement.”

“Ah! but did he do the thing properly, scientifically?”

“I think so. And when he found the boss blaming me for the row, he turned on him like a tiger. But afterwards old Townson gave me the office, so I’ve retired into private life. Do you like my rooms?”

“A trifle small, don’t you think?” said Benjamin.

“Cozy.”

“My dear, where you are it can’t help being cozy.”

“After that I’ll get you something to eat. What do you say to grilled steak and onions?”

“Delicious! Couldn’t be better.”

Gentle Annie bustled out to the safe, at the back of the house, and returned with a dish of red and juicy meat.

“And to follow, you shall have stewed plums and cream.”

“Better than ever,” said Benjamin; his mouth watering behind his ragged beard.

“I believe I understand mankind,” said Gentle Annie, going to a cupboard, whence she took a big bottle, which she placed on the table.

“If all the women in the world understood men as you do, my dear, we should have Arcadia here, instead of Gehennum.”

“Instead of what?”

“Gehennum, my dear; a place where they drive men into the wilderness and cut them off from supplies, and they rot in damp caves, destitute of bread, beer, and even tobacco.”

“No; I really can’t supply that last. If I let you smoke, some old cat would come sniffing round to-morrow morning, and say, ’Phew! a man has been here.’ Good food and drink you shall have, but no tobacco.”

“But you’ll let me wash?”

“Certainly. Cleanliness is next to godliness. If you can’t have the one, I wouldn’t bar you from the other.” She led him to the door of her bedroom, and said, “Walk in.”

The room was a dainty affair of muslin blinds and bed-hangings. To Benjamin it was a holy of holies dedicated to the sweet, the lovely, the inscrutable. All the feminine gear lying around, the little pots of powder and ointment, the strange medicaments for the hair, the mirrors, the row of little shoes, the bits of jewellery lying on fat pincushions, the skirts and wrappers and feminine finery hanging behind the door, these and fifty other things appealed to the softest spot in his susceptible nature. He took up the ewer, and poured water into the basin; but he was ashamed to place his dirty coat on a thing so clean as was the solitary dimity-covered chair, so he put the ragged garment on the floor. Then he took up a pink cake of soap, and commenced his ablutions.

A strong and agreeable odour tickled his olfactory nerves the cooking had begun. Though his ears were full of lather, he could hear the meat frying in the pan, and the spluttering of the fat.

“What punishment do they give to people who harbour malefactors?” Gentle Annie called from over her cooking.

“Who’s a malefactor?” called Tresco from the middle of a towel with which he was drying his roseate face.

“What are you then?”

“I’m a gentleman at large, my dear. No one has charged me with anything yet, let alone convicted me.”

“But there’s a warrant out against you, old gentleman.”

“Maybe. I haven’t seen it.”

“But what’s my position?”

“You’re accessory after the fact, if there is a fact.”

“What am I liable for?”

“That depends on the judge, my dear. It might be two, three, or more kisses. If I was on the bench, the sentence would be as heavy as possible, and I’d insist on executing it myself.”

A laugh came from over the frying-pan.

“If you’re not careful, old party, you’ll have some of this hot fat on your head.”

Benjamin had finished his toilette, and walked into the other room.

The small, square table was spread with a white cloth, and a place was set for one.

“But, my dear, won’t you partake?” said Benjamin, eyeing the arrangement of the table.

“I’m not hungry,” the girl replied. “I’ll watch the lion feed.”

The little room was filled with the smell of cooked viands, and Tresco seated himself in readiness to eat.

The smoking steak, garnished with fried onions and potatoes, was placed before him.

“For what I am about to receive, my dear, I thank you.” Gently squeezing the ex-bar-maid’s hand, he kissed it.

“Now, that’ll do. You’re getting giddy in your old age it must be the effect of the steak. Cupboard love, cupboard love!”

Tresco drew the cork of the big bottle, which he handed to Gentle Annie.

“What’s this for?” she asked.

“You pour it out, my dear. It’ll make it taste so much sweeter.”

“You gay old deceiver: you’re like the rest of them.”

“No, my dear: they’re imitation; I’m the genuine article.”

Gentle Annie filled his tall glass deftly, so that the froth stood in a dome over the liquor. She was about to replace the bottle on the table, when Tresco took a tumbler from the dresser, and filled it for her.

“Keep me company,” he said. “It looks more comfortable.”

“But stout’s so fattening.”

“My dear, a lean woman is a reproach to her sex.”

“Then, what’s a fat one?”

“A credit, like I am to mine, or used to be before I got thin through semi-starvation. Here’s to your very good health; may your beauty never grow less.” Benjamin raised his glass to his lips.

“More flattery.” Gentle Annie’s comfortable laugh shook her whole body. “I’m sorry I can’t return the compliment.”

“You do better: you supply the inner man steak, done to a turn; stout; sweet stuffs. You couldn’t have treated me better, if I’d been a bishop.”

“Why a bishop?”

“I’ve looked round, and taken stock of my fellows; and I think a bishop has a rousing good time, don’t you?”

“I can’t say; I don’t often entertain bishops.”

“Bishops and licensed victuallers; I think they get the cream of life.”

“But what about lords and dukes?”

“They have to pay through the nose for all they get, but bishops and landlords get all their good things chucked in gratuitous. Of course a bishop’s more toney, but a publican sees more of life honours, meaning good tucker and liquor, divided.”

Tresco attacked the juicy steak: his satisfaction finding expression in murmurs of approval. He finished the stout with as much relish as if it had been the richest wine; and then Gentle Annie took from the cupboard two glass dishes, the one half-filled with luscious red plums swimming in their own juice, the other containing junket.

Tresco had almost forgotten the taste of such food. While he was eating it Gentle Annie made some tea.

“Is this the way you treat the toffs, when they come to see you?”

“Toffs? You’re the greatest toff that has come to see me, so far.”

“I shall come again.”

“Do you know there’s a reward offered for you?”

“How much?”

“Twenty pounds.”

“Is that all? I’ll give it you, my dear.”

From his dirty rags he pulled out a small linen bag, from which he emptied upon a clean plate a little pile of nuggets.

Gentle Annie was lost in wonderment. Her eyes glistened, and she turned the pieces of gold over with her finger covetously.

“These should go close on L4 to the ounce,” remarked the goldsmith, as he separated with the blade of a table-knife a portion of the gold equal to what he guessed to be five ounces, and the remainder he replaced in the bag.

“That’s for you,” he said, pushing the plate towards her.

Gentle Annie gleefully took the gold in her hands.

“You generous old party!” she exclaimed. “I know when I am well off.”

They now drank tea out of dainty cups, and Benjamin took a pipe and tobacco from his pocket.

“I really must have a smoke to settle my dinner,” he said.

“Of course,” said she; “it was only my fun. I smoke myself.” Taking a packet from the mantelpiece, she lighted a cigarette, which she handed to Tresco, when a low knock was heard at the door.

In a moment she had blown out the light, and led the erring goldsmith to her inner room, where he stood, apprehensive but alert. From his belt he drew a knife, and then he furtively examined the fastenings of the muslin-draped window.

He heard his hostess open the door and speak to her visitor, who replied in a deep voice, at some length. But, presently, the door closed, the steps of the visitor were heard departing, and Gentle Annie softly entered the room.

“You’re quite safe,” she said.

“Who was it?”

“Only a friend of mine. He’s gone. He won’t call again to-night.”