Seated at his ease in the warm tap-room of the Cauliflower, the stranger had been eating and drinking for some time, apparently unconscious of the presence of the withered ancient who, huddled up in that corner of the settle which was nearer to the fire, fidgeted restlessly with an empty mug and blew with pathetic insistence through a churchwarden pipe which had long been cold. The stranger finished his meal with a sigh of content and then, rising from his chair, crossed over to the settle and, placing his mug on the time-worn table before him, began to fill his pipe.
The old man took a spill from the table and, holding it with trembling fingers to the blaze, gave him a light. The other thanked him, and then, leaning back in his corner of the settle, watched the smoke of his pipe through half-closed eyes, and assented drowsily to the old man's remarks upon the weather.
"Bad time o' the year for going about," said the latter, "though I s'pose if you can eat and drink as much as you want it don't matter. I s'pose you mightn't be a conjurer from London, sir?"
The traveller shook his head.
"I was 'oping you might be," said the old man. The other manifested no curiosity.
"If you 'ad been," said the old man, with a sigh, "I should ha' asked you to ha' done something useful. Gin'rally speaking, conjurers do things that are no use to anyone; wot I should like to see a conjurer do would be to make this 'ere empty mug full o' beer and this empty pipe full o' shag tobacco. That's wot I should ha' made bold to ask you to do if you'd been one."
The traveller sighed, and, taking his short briar pipe from his mouth by the bowl, rapped three times upon the table with it. In a very short time a mug of ale and a paper cylinder of shag appeared on the table before the old man.
"Wot put me in mind o' your being a conjurer," said the latter, filling his pipe after a satisfying draught from the mug, "is that you're uncommon like one that come to Claybury some time back and give a performance in this very room where we're now a-sitting. So far as looks go, you might be his brother."
The traveller said that he never had a brother.
We didn't know 'e was a conjurer at fust, said the old man. He 'ad come down for Wickham Fair and, being a day or two before 'and, 'e was going to different villages round about to give performances. He came into the bar 'ere and ordered a mug o' beer, and while 'e was a-drinking of it stood talking about the weather. Then 'e asked Bill Chambers to excuse 'im for taking the liberty, and, putting his 'and to Bill's mug, took out a live frog. Bill was a very partikler man about wot 'e drunk, and I thought he'd ha' had a fit. He went on at Smith, the landlord, something shocking, and at last, for the sake o' peace and quietness, Smith gave 'im another pint to make up for it.
"It must ha' been asleep in the mug," he ses.
Bill said that 'e thought 'e knew who must ha' been asleep, and was just going to take a drink, when the conjurer asked 'im to excuse 'im agin. Bill put down the mug in a 'urry, and the conjurer put his 'and to the mug and took out a dead mouse. It would ha' been a 'ard thing to say which was the most upset, Bill Chambers or Smith, the landlord, and Bill, who was in a terrible state, asked why it was everything seemed to get into his mug.
"P'r'aps you're fond o' dumb animals, sir," ses the conjurer. "Do you 'appen to notice your coat-pocket is all of a wriggle?"
He put his 'and to Bill's pocket and took out a little green snake; then he put his 'and to Bill's trouser-pocket and took out a frog, while pore Bill's eyes looked as if they was corning out o' their sockets.
"Keep still," ses the conjurer; "there's a lot more to come yet."
Bill Chambers gave a 'owl that was dreadful to listen to, and then 'e pushed the conjurer away and started undressing 'imself as fast as he could move 'is fingers. I believe he'd ha' taken off 'is shirt if it 'ad 'ad pockets in it, and then 'e stuck 'is feet close together and 'e kept jumping into the air, and coming down on to 'is own clothes in his hobnailed boots.
"He ain't fond o' dumb animals, then," ses the conjurer. Then he put his 'and on his 'art and bowed.
"Gentlemen all," he ses. "'Aving given you this specimen of wot I can do, I beg to give notice that with the landlord's kind permission I shall give my celebrated conjuring entertainment in the tap-room this evening at seven o'clock; ad--mission, three-pence each."
They didn't understand 'im at fust, but at last they see wot 'e meant, and arter explaining to Bill, who was still giving little jumps, they led 'im up into a corner and coaxed 'im into dressing 'imself agin. He wanted to fight the conjurer, but 'e was that tired 'e could scarcely stand, and by-and-by Smith, who 'ad said 'e wouldn't 'ave anything to do with it, gave way and said he'd risk it.
The tap-room was crowded that night, but we all 'ad to pay threepence each--coining money, I call it. Some o' the things wot he done was very clever, but a'most from the fust start-off there was unpleasantness. When he asked somebody to lend 'im a pocket-'andkercher to turn into a white rabbit, Henery Walker rushed up and lent 'im 'is, but instead of a white rabbit it turned into a black one with two white spots on it, and arter Henery Walker 'ad sat for some time puzzling over it 'e got up and went off 'ome without saying good-night to a soul.
Then the conjurer borrowed Sam Jones's hat, and arter looking into it for some time 'e was that surprised and astonished that Sam Jones lost 'is temper and asked 'im whether he 'adn't seen a hat afore.
"Not like this," ses the conjurer. And 'e pulled out a woman's dress and jacket and a pair o' boots. Then 'e took out a pound or two o' taters and some crusts o' bread and other things, and at last 'e gave it back to Sam Jones and shook 'is head at 'im, and told 'im if he wasn't very careful he'd spoil the shape of it.
Then 'e asked somebody to lend 'im a watch, and, arter he 'ad promised to take the greatest care of it, Dicky Weed, the tailor, lent 'im a gold watch wot 'ad been left 'im by 'is great-aunt when she died. Dicky Weed thought a great deal o' that watch, and when the conjurer took a flat-iron and began to smash it up into little bits it took three men to hold 'im down in 'is seat.
"This is the most difficult trick o' the lot," ses the conjurer, picking off a wheel wot 'ad stuck to the flat-iron. "Sometimes I can do it and sometimes I can't. Last time I tried it it was a failure, and it cost me eighteenpence and a pint o' beer afore the gentleman the watch 'ad belonged to was satisfied. I gave 'im the bits, too."
"If you don't give me my watch back safe and sound," ses Dicky Weed, in a trembling voice, "it'll cost you twenty pounds."
"'Ow much?" ses the conjurer, with a start. "Well, I wish you'd told me that afore you lent it to me. Eighteenpence is my price."
He stirred the broken bits up with 'is finger and shook his 'ead.
"I've never tried one o' these old-fashioned watches afore," he ses. "'Owever, if I fail, gentle-men, it'll be the fust and only trick I've failed in to-night. You can't expect everything to turn out right, but if I do fail this time, gentlemen, I'll try it agin if anybody else'll lend me another watch."
Dicky Weed tried to speak but couldn't, and 'e sat there, with 'is face pale, staring at the pieces of 'is watch on the conjurer's table. Then the conjurer took a big pistol with a trumpet-shaped barrel out of 'is box, and arter putting in a charge o' powder picked up the pieces o' watch and rammed them in arter it. We could hear the broken bits grating agin the ramrod, and arter he 'ad loaded it 'e walked round and handed it to us to look at.
"It's all right," he ses to Dicky Weed; "it's going to be a success; I could tell in the loading."
He walked back to the other end of the room and held up the pistol.
"I shall now fire this pistol," 'e ses, "and in so doing mend the watch. The explosion of the powder makes the bits o' glass join together agin; in flying through the air the wheels go round and round collecting all the other parts, and the watch as good as new and ticking away its 'ardest will be found in the coat-pocket o' the gentleman I shoot at."
He pointed the pistol fust at one and then at another, as if 'e couldn't make up 'is mind, and none of 'em seemed to 'ave much liking for it. Peter Gubbins told 'im not to shoot at 'im because he 'ad a 'ole in his pocket, and Bill Chambers, when it pointed at 'im, up and told 'im to let somebody else 'ave a turn. The only one that didn't flinch was Bob Pretty, the biggest poacher and the greatest rascal in Claybury. He'd been making fun o' the tricks all along, saying out loud that he'd seen 'em all afore--and done better.
"Go on," he ses; "I ain't afraid of you; you can't shoot straight."
The conjurer pointed the pistol at 'im. Then 'e pulled the trigger and the pistol went off bang, and the same moment o' time Bob Pretty jumped up with a 'orrible scream, and holding his 'ands over 'is eyes danced about as though he'd gone mad.
Everybody started up at once and got round 'im, and asked 'im wot was the matter; but Bob didn't answer 'em. He kept on making a dreadful noise, and at last 'e broke out of the room and, holding 'is 'andkercher to 'is face, ran off 'ome as 'ard as he could run.
"You've done it now, mate," ses Bill Chambers to the conjurer. "I thought you wouldn't be satisfied till you'd done some 'arm. You've been and blinded pore Bob Pretty."
"Nonsense," ses the conjurer. "He's frightened, that's all."
"Frightened!" ses Peter Gubbins. "Why, you fired Dicky Weed's watch straight into 'is face."
"Rubbish," ses the conjurer; "it dropped into 'is pocket, and he'll find it there when 'e comes to 'is senses."
"Do you mean to tell me that Bob Pretty 'as gone off with my watch in 'is pocket?" screams Dicky Weed.
"I do," ses the other.
"You'd better get 'old of Bob afore 'e finds it out, Dicky," ses Bill Chambers.
Dicky Weed didn't answer 'im; he was already running along to Bob Pretty's as fast as 'is legs would take 'im, with most of us follering behind to see wot 'appened.
The door was fastened when we got to it, but Dicky Weed banged away at it as 'ard as he could bang, and at last the bedroom winder went up and Mrs. Pretty stuck her 'ead out.
"H'sh!" she ses, in a whisper. "Go away."
"I want to see Bob," ses Dicky Weed.
"You can't see 'im," ses Mrs. Pretty. "I'm getting 'im to bed. He's been shot, pore dear. Can't you 'ear 'im groaning?"
We 'adn't up to then, but a'most direckly arter she 'ad spoke you could ha' heard Bob's groans a mile away. Dreadful, they was.
"There, there, pore dear," ses Mrs. Pretty.
"Shall I come in and 'elp you get 'im to bed?" ses Dicky Weed, 'arf crying.
"No, thank you, Mr. Weed," ses Mrs. Pretty. "It's very kind of you to offer, but 'e wouldn't like any hands but mine to touch 'im. I'll send in and let you know 'ow he is fust thing in the morning."
"Try and get 'old of the coat, Dicky," ses Bill Chambers, in a whisper. "Offer to mend it for 'im. It's sure to want it."
"Well, I'm sorry I can't be no 'elp to you," ses Dicky Weed, "but I noticed a rent in Bob's coat and, as 'e's likely to be laid up a bit, it ud be a good opportunity for me to mend it for 'im. I won't charge 'im nothing. If you drop it down I'll do it now."
"Thankee," ses Mrs. Pretty; "if you just wait a moment I'll clear the pockets out and drop it down to you."
She turned back into the bedroom, and Dicky Weed ground 'is teeth together and told Bill Chambers that the next time he took 'is advice he'd remember it. He stood there trembling all over with temper, and when Mrs. Pretty came to the winder agin and dropped the coat on his 'ead and said that Bob felt his kindness very much, and he 'oped Dicky ud make a good job of it, because it was 'is favrite coat, he couldn't speak. He stood there shaking all over till Mrs. Pretty 'ad shut the winder down agin, and then 'e turned to the conjurer, as 'ad come up with the rest of us, and asked 'im wot he was going to do about it now.
"I tell you he's got the watch," ses the conjurer, pointing up at the winder. "It went into 'is pocket. I saw it go. He was no more shot than you were. If 'e was, why doesn't he send for the doctor?"
"I can't 'elp that," ses Dicky Weed. "I want my watch or else twenty pounds."
"We'll talk it over in a day or two," ses the conjurer. "I'm giving my celebrated entertainment at Wickham Fair on Monday, but I'll come back 'ere to the Cauliflower the Saturday before and give another entertainment, and then we'll see wot's to be done. I can't run away, because in any case I can't afford to miss the fair."
Dicky Weed gave way at last and went off 'ome to bed and told 'is wife about it, and listening to 'er advice he got up at six o'clock in the morning and went round to see 'ow Bob Pretty was.
Mrs. Pretty was up when 'e got there, and arter calling up the stairs to Bob told Dicky Weed to go upstairs. Bob Pretty was sitting up in bed with 'is face covered in bandages, and he seemed quite pleased to see 'im.
"It ain't everybody that ud get up at six o'clock to see 'ow I'm getting on," he ses. "You've got a feeling 'art, Dicky."
Dicky Weed coughed and looked round, wondering whether the watch was in the room, and, if so, where it was hidden.
"Now I'm 'ere I may as well tidy up the room for you a bit," he ses, getting up. "I don't like sitting idle."
"Thankee, mate," ses Bob; and 'e lay still and watched Dicky Weed out of the corner of the eye that wasn't covered with the bandages.
I don't suppose that room 'ad ever been tidied up so thoroughly since the Prettys 'ad lived there, but Dicky Weed couldn't see anything o' the watch, and wot made 'im more angry than anything else was Mrs. Pretty setting down in a chair with 'er 'ands folded in her lap and pointing out places that he 'adn't done.
"You leave 'im alone," ses Bob. "He knows wot 'e's arter. Wot did you do with those little bits o' watch you found when you was bandaging me up, missis?"
"Don't ask me," ses Mrs. Pretty. "I was in such a state I don't know wot I was doing 'ardly."
"Well, they must be about somewhere," ses Bob. "You 'ave a look for 'em, Dicky, and if you find 'em, keep 'em. They belong to you."
Dicky Weed tried to be civil and thank 'im, and then he went off 'ome and talked it over with 'is wife agin. People couldn't make up their minds whether Bob Pretty 'ad found the watch in 'is pocket and was shamming, or whether 'e was really shot, but they was all quite certain that, whichever way it was, Dicky Weed would never see 'is watch agin.
On the Saturday evening this 'ere Cauliflower public-'ouse was crowded, everybody being anxious to see the watch trick done over agin. We had 'eard that it 'ad been done all right at Cudford and Monksham; but Bob Pretty said as 'ow he'd believe it when 'e saw it, and not afore.
He was one o' the fust to turn up that night, because 'e said 'e wanted to know wot the conjurer was going to pay him for all 'is pain and suffering and having things said about 'is character. He came in leaning on a stick, with 'is face still bandaged, and sat right up close to the conjurer's table, and watched him as 'ard as he could as 'e went through 'is tricks.
"And now," ses the conjurer, at last, "I come to my celebrated watch trick. Some of you as wos 'ere last Tuesday when I did it will remember that the man I fired the pistol at pretended that 'e'd been shot and run off 'ome with it in 'is pocket."
"You're a liar!" ses Bob Pretty, standing up. "Very good," ses the conjurer; "you take that bandage off and show us all where you're hurt."
"I shall do nothing o' the kind," ses Bob. I don't take my orders from you."
"Take the bandage off," ses the conjurer, "and if there's any shot marks I'll give you a couple o' sovereigns."
"I'm afraid of the air getting to it," ses Bob Pretty.
"You don't want to be afraid o' that, Bob," ses John Biggs, the blacksmith, coming up behind and putting 'is great arms round 'im. "Take off that rag, somebody; I've got hold of 'im."
Bob Pretty started to struggle at fust, but then, seeing it was no good, kept quite quiet while they took off the bandages.
"There! look at 'im," ses the conjurer, pointing. "Not a mark on 'is face, not one."
"Wet!" ses Bob Pretty. "Do you mean to say there's no marks?"
"I do," ses the conjurer.
"Thank goodness," ses Bob Pretty, clasping his 'ands. "Thank goodness! I was afraid I was disfigured for life. Lend me a bit o' looking-glass, somebody. I can 'ardly believe it."
"You stole Dicky Weed's watch," ses John Biggs. "I 'ad my suspicions of you all along. You're a thief, Bob Pretty. That's wot you are."
"Prove it," ses Bob Pretty. "You 'eard wot the conjurer said the other night, that the last time he tried 'e failed, and 'ad to give eighteenpence to the man wot the watch 'ad belonged to."
"That was by way of a joke like," ses the conjurer to John Biggs. "I can always do it. I'm going to do it now. Will somebody 'ave the kindness to lend me a watch?"
He looked all round the room, but nobody offered--except other men's watches, wot wouldn't lend 'em.
"Come, come," he ses; "ain't none of you got any trust in me? It'll be as safe as if it was in your pocket. I want to prove to you that this man is a thief."
He asked 'em agin, and at last John Biggs took out 'is silver watch and offered it to 'im on the understanding that 'e was on no account to fire it into Bob Pretty's pocket.
"Not likely," ses the conjurer. "Now, everybody take a good look at this watch, so as to make sure there's no deceiving."
He 'anded it round, and arter everybody 'ad taken a look at it 'e took it up to the table and laid it down.
"Let me 'ave a look at it," ses Bob Pretty, going up to the table. "I'm not going to 'ave my good name took away for nothing if I can 'elp it."
He took it up and looked at it, and arter 'olding it to 'is ear put it down agin.
"Is that the flat-iron it's going to be smashed with?" he ses.
"It is," ses the conjurer, looking at 'im nasty like; "p'r'aps you'd like to examine it."
Bob Pretty took it and looked at it. "Yes, mates," he ses, "it's a ordinary flat-iron. You couldn't 'ave anything better for smashing a watch with."
He 'eld it up in the air and, afore anybody could move, brought it down bang on the face o' the watch. The conjurer sprang at 'im and caught at 'is arm, but it was too late, and in a terrible state o' mind 'e turned round to John Biggs.
"He's smashed your watch," he ses; "he's smashed your watch."
"Well," ses John Biggs, "it 'ad got to be smashed, 'adn't it?"
"Yes, but not by 'im," ses the conjurer, dancing about. "I wash my 'ands of it now."
"Look 'ere," ses John Biggs; "don't you talk to me about washing your 'ands of it. You finish your trick and give me my watch back agin same as it was afore."
"Not now he's been interfering with it," ses the conjurer. "He'd better do the trick now as he's so clever."
"I'd sooner 'ave you do it," ses John Biggs. "Wot did you let 'im interfere for?"
"'Ow was I to know wot 'e was going to do?" ses the conjurer. "You must settle it between you now. I'll 'ave nothing more to do with it."
"All right, John Biggs," ses Bob Pretty; "if 'e won't do it, I will. If it can be done, I don't s'pose it matters who does it. I don't think anybody could smash up a watch better than that."
John Biggs looked at it, and then 'e asked the conjurer once more to do the trick, but 'e wouldn't.
"It can't be done now," he ses; "and I warn you that if that pistol is fired I won't be responsible for what'll 'appen."
"George Kettle shall load the pistol and fire it if 'e won't," ses Bob Pretty. "'Aving been in the Militia, there couldn't be a better man for the job."
George Kettle walked up to the table as red as fire at being praised like that afore people and started loading the pistol. He seemed to be more awkward about it than the conjurer 'ad been the last time, and he 'ad to roll the watch-cases up with the flat-iron afore 'e could get 'em in. But 'e loaded it at last and stood waiting.
"Don't shoot at me, George Kettle," ses Bob. "I've been called a thief once, and I don't want to be agin."
"Put that pistol down, you fool, afore you do mischief," ses the conjurer.
"Who shall I shoot at?" ses George Kettle, raising the pistol.
"Better fire at the conjurer, I think," ses Bob Pretty; "and if things 'appen as he says they will 'appen, the watch ought to be found in 'is coat-pocket."
"Where is he?" ses George, looking round.
Bill Chambers laid 'old of 'im just as he was going through the door to fetch the landlord, and the scream 'e gave as he came back and George Kettle pointed the pistol at 'im was awful.
"It's no worse for you than it was for me," ses Bob.
"Put it down," screams the conjurer; "put it down. You'll kill 'arf the men in the room if it goes off."
"Be careful where you aim, George," ses Sam Jones. "P'r'aps he'd better 'ave a chair all by hisself in the middle of the room."
It was all very well for Sam Jones to talk, but the conjurer wouldn't sit on a chair by 'imself. He wouldn't sit on it at all. He seemed to be all legs and arms, and the way 'e struggled it took four or five men to 'old 'im.
"Why don't you keep still?" ses John Biggs. "George Kettle'll shoot it in your pocket all right. He's the best shot in Claybury."
"Help! Murder!" says the conjurer, struggling. "He'll kill me. Nobody can do the trick but me."
"But you say you won't do it," ses John Biggs. "Not now," ses the conjurer; "I can't."
"Well, I'm not going to 'ave my watch lost through want of trying," ses John Biggs. "Tie 'im to the chair, mates."
"All right, then," ses the conjurer, very pale. "Don't tie me; I'll sit still all right if you like, but you'd better bring the chair outside in case of accidents. Bring it in the front."
George Kettle said it was all nonsense, but the conjurer said the trick was always better done in the open air, and at last they gave way and took 'im and the chair outside.
"Now," ses the conjurer, as 'e sat down, "all of you go and stand near the man woe's going to shoot. When I say 'Three,' fire. Why! there's the watch on the ground there!"
He pointed with 'is finger, and as they all looked down he jumped up out o' that chair and set off on the road to Wickham as 'ard as 'e could run. It was so sudden that nobody knew wot 'ad 'appened for a moment, and then George Kettle, wot 'ad been looking with the rest, turned round and pulled the trigger.
There was a bang that pretty nigh deafened us, and the back o' the chair was blown nearly out. By the time we'd got our senses agin the conjurer was a'most out o' sight, and Bob Pretty was explaining to John Biggs wot a good job it was 'is watch 'adn't been a gold one.
"That's wot comes o' trusting a foreigner afore a man wot you've known all your life," he ses, shaking his 'ead. "I 'ope the next man wot tries to take my good name away won't get off so easy. I felt all along the trick couldn't be done; it stands to reason it couldn't. I done my best, too."