The scene was the up-platform of Knype railway station on a summer afternoon, and, more particularly, that part of the platform round about the bookstall. There were three persons in the neighbourhood of the bookstall. The first was the principal bookstall clerk, who was folding with extraordinary rapidity copies of the special edition of the Staffordshire Signal; the second was Mr Sandbach, an earthenware manufacturer, famous throughout the Five Towns for his ingenious invention of teapots that will pour the tea into the cup instead of all over the table; and a very shabby man, whom Mr Sandbach did not know. This very shabby man was quite close to the bookstall, while Mr Sandbach stood quite ten yards away. Mr Sandbach gazed steadily at the man, but the man, ignoring Mr Sandbach, allowed dreamy and abstracted eyes to rest on the far distance, where a locomotive or so was impatiently pushing and pulling waggons as an excitable mother will drag and shove an inoffensive child. The platform as a whole was sparsely peopled; the London train had recently departed, and the station was suffering from the usual reaction; only a local train was signalled.
Mr Gale, a friend of Mr Sandbach's, came briskly on to the platform from the booking-office, caught sight of Mr Sandbach, and accosted him.
"How do, Gale?"
To a slight extent they were rivals in the field of invention. But both had succeeded in life, and both had the alert and prosperous air of success. Born about the same time, they stood nearly equal after forty years of earthly endeavour.
"What are you doing here?" asked Gale, casually.
"I've come to meet someone off the Crewe train."
"And I'm going by it--to Derby," said Mr Gale. "They say it's thirteen minutes late."
"Look here," said Mr Sandbach, taking no notice of this remark, "you see that man there?"
"Which one--by the bookstall?"
"Well, what about him?"
"I bet you you can't make him move from where he is--no physical force, of course."
Mr Gale hesitated an instant, and then his eye glistened with response to the challenge, and he replied:
"I bet you I can."
"Well, try," said Mr Sandbach.
Mr Sandbach and Mr Gale frequently threw down the glove to each other in this agreeable way. Either they asked conundrums, or they set test questions, or they suggested feats. When Mr Sandbach discovered at a Christmas party that you cannot stand with your left side close against a wall and then lift your right leg, his first impulse was to confront Mr Gale with the trick. When Mr Gale read in a facetious paper an article on the lack of accurate observation in the average man, entitled, "Do 'bus horses wear blinkers?" his opening remark to Mr Sandbach at their next meeting was: "I say, Sandbach, do 'bus horses wear blinkers? Answer quick!" And a phrase constantly in their mouths was, "I'll try that on Gale;" or, "I wonder whether Sandbach knows that?" All that was required to make their relations artistically complete was an official referee for counting the scores. Such a basis of friendship may seem bizarre, but it is by no means uncommon in the Five Towns, and perhaps elsewhere.
So that when Mr Sandbach defied Mr Gale to induce the shabby man to move from where he stood, the nostrils of the combatants twitched with the scent of battle.
Mr Gale conceived his tactics instantly and put them into execution. He walked along the platform some little distance, then turned, and taking a handful of silver from his pocket, began to count it. He passed slowly by the shabby man, almost brushing his shoulder; and, just as he passed, he left fall half-a-crown. The half-crown rolled round in a circle and lay down within a yard and a half of the shabby man. The shabby man calmly glanced at the half-crown and then at Mr Gale, who, strolling on, magnificently pretended to be unaware of his loss; and then the shabby man resumed his dreamy stare into the distance.
"Hi!" cried Mr Sandbach after Mr Gale. "You've dropped something."
It was a great triumph for Mr Sandbach.
"I told you you wouldn't get him to move!" said Mr Sandbach, proudly, having rejoined his friend at another part of the platform.
"What's the game?" demanded Mr Gale, frankly acknowledging by tone and gesture that he was defeated.
"Perfectly simple," answered Mr Sandbach, condescendingly, "when you know. I'll tell you--it's really very funny. Just as everyone was rushing to get into the London express I heard a coin drop on the platform, and I saw it rolling. It was half-a-sovereign. I couldn't be sure who dropped it, but I think it was a lady. Anyhow, no one claimed it. I was just going to pick it up when that chap came by. He saw it, and he put his foot on it as quick as lightning, and stood still. He didn't notice that I was after it too. So I drew back. I thought I'd wait and see what happens."
"He looks as if he could do with half-a-sovereign," said Mr Gale.
"Yes; he's only a station loafer."
"Then why doesn't he pick up his half-sovereign and hook it?"
"Can't you see why?" said Mr Sandbach, patronizingly. "He's afraid of the bookstall clerk catching him at it. He's afraid it's the bookstall clerk that has dropped that half-sovereign. You wait till the bookstall clerk finishes those papers and goes inside, and you'll see."
At this point Mr Gale made the happy involuntary movement of a man who has suddenly thought of something really brilliant.
"Look here," said he. "You said you'd bet. But you didn't bet. I'll bet you a level half-crown I get him to shift this time."
"But you mustn't say anything to him."
"No--of course not."
"Very well, I'll bet you."
Mr Gale walked straight up to the shabby man, drew half-a-sovereign from his waistcoat pocket, and held it out. At the same time he pointed to the shabby man's boots, and then in the most unmistakable way he pointed to the exit of the platform. He said nothing, but his gestures were expressive, and what they clearly expressed was: "I know you've got a half-sovereign under your foot; here's another half-sovereign for you to clear off and ask no questions."
Meanwhile the ingenious offerer of the half-sovereign was meditating thus: "I give half-a-sovereign, but I shall gather up the other half-sovereign, and I shall also win my bet. Net result: Half-a-crown to the good."
The shabby man, who could not have been a fool, comprehended at once, accepted the half-sovereign, and moved leisurely away--not, however, without glancing at the ground which his feet had covered. The result of the scrutiny evidently much surprised him, as it surprised, in a degree equally violent, both Mr Gale and Mr Sandbach. For there was no sign of half-a-sovereign under the feet of the shabby man. There was not even nine and elevenpence there.
Mr Gale looked up very angry and Mr Sandbach looked very foolish.
"This is all very well," Mr Gale exploded in tones low and fierce. "But I call it a swindle." And he walked, with an undecided, longing, shrinking air, in the wake of the shabby man who had pocketed his half-sovereign.
"I'm sure I saw him put his foot on it," said Mr Sandbach in defence of himself (meaning, of course, the other half-sovereign), "and I've never taken my eyes off him."
"Well, then, how do you explain it?"
"I don't explain it," said Mr Sandbach.
"I think some explanation is due to me," said Mr Gale, with a peculiar and dangerous intonation. "If this is your notion of a practical joke."
"There was no practical joke about it at all," Mr Sandbach protested. "If the half-sovereign has disappeared it's not my fault. I made a bet with you, and I've lost it. Here's your half-crown."
He produced two-and-six, which Mr Gale accepted, though he had a strange impulse to decline it with an air of offended pride.
"I'm still seven-and-six out," said Mr Gale.
"And if you are!" snapped Mr Sandbach, "you thought you'd do me down by a trick. Offering the man ten shillings to go wasn't at all a fair way of winning the bet, and you knew it, my boy. However, I've paid up; so that's all right."
"All I say is," Mr Gale obstinately repeated, "if this is your notion of a practical joke--"
"Didn't I tell you--" Mr Sandbach became icily furious.
The friendship hitherto existing between these two excellent individuals might have been ruined and annihilated for a comparative trifle, had not a surprising and indeed almost miraculous thing happened, by some kind of freak of destiny, in the nick of time. Mr Sandbach was sticking close to Mr Gale, and Mr Gale was following in the leisurely footsteps of the very shabby man, possibly debating within himself whether he should boldly demand the return of his half-sovereign, when lo! a golden coin seemed to slip from the boot of the very shabby man. It took the stone-flags of the platform with scarcely a sound, and Mr Sandbach and Mr Gale made a simultaneous, superb and undignified rush for it. Mr Sandbach got it. The very shabby man passed on, passed eternally out of the lives of the other two. It may be said that he was of too oblivious and dreamy a nature for this world. But one must not forget that he had made a solid gain of ten shillings.
"The soles of the fellow's boots must have been all cracks, and it must have got lodged in one of them," cheerfully explained Mr Sandbach as he gazed with pleasure at the coin. "I hope you believe me now. You thought it was a plant. I hope you believe me now."
Mr Gale made no response to this remark. What Mr Gale said was:
"Don't you think that in fairness that half-sovereign belongs to me?"
"Why?" asked Mr Sandbach, bluntly.
"Well," Mr Gale began, searching about for a reason.
"You didn't find it," Mr Sandbach proceeded firmly. "You didn't see it first. You didn't pick it up. Where do you come in?"
"I'm seven and sixpence out," said Mr Gale.
"And if I give you the coin, which I certainly shall not do, I should be half-a-crown out."
Friendship was again jeopardized, when a second interference of fate occurred, in the shape of a young and pretty woman who was coming from the opposite direction and who astonished both men considerably by stepping in front of them and barring their progress.
"Excuse me," said she, in a charming voice, but with a severe air. "But may I ask if you have just picked up that coin?"
Mr Sandbach, after looking vaguely, as if for inspiration, at Mr Gale, was obliged to admit that he had.
"Well," said the young lady, "if it's dated 1898, and if there's an 'A' scratched on it, it's mine. I've lost it off my watch-chain." Mr Sandbach examined the coin, and then handed it to her, raising his hat. Mr Gale also raised his hat. The young lady's grateful smile was enchanting. Both men were bachelors and invariably ready to be interested.
"It was the first money my husband ever earned," the young lady explained, with her thanks.
The interest of the bachelors evaporated.
"Not a profitable afternoon," said Mr Sandbach, as the train came in and they parted.
"I think we ought to share the loss equally," said Mr Gale.
"Do you?" said Mr Sandbach. "That's like you."
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