The Toucher

A poem by Edward Dyson

He was a jobbing hand from the printers’ flat. His name was Raymond Cato, but he acquired “Toucher” as a complimentary title when we knew him better. He was tall, sallow, languid and distressingly impecunious. I put it that way because Mr Cato’s impecuniosity was more a trait of character than the result of misfortune. He was the sort of young man who would have been impecunious had he been born to ten thousand a year. He was slovenly in his dress, and his trousers were always worn to strings at the heels, and this fringe collected various foreign bodies, which dragged after him as be walked, Raymond being too languid or too indifferent to shake them off. You got to know when Toucher was coming by the clatter of vagrant articles attached to his trousers fringe. He once towed a disused fish-tin after him through a whole hot afternoon. That will give you an idea of the sort of person Raymond Cato was. But this depraved young man, while apparently sleeping against a case, could paw type with miraculous speed and precision, and he handled the most intricate jobs with absolute certainty when under the influence of two buckets of very bad beer.

Mr Cato had only been ten days in the factory when be came to the packer’s board and leaned there. There were two peach-nuts, a metal rule, and the rind off a tin of red ink dangling at his fetlock. He passed his hand wearily over his brow, brushing back his long, black hair, and rested his eyes on the packer. Raymond’s eyes were large and dark, and suffused with an overwhelming sadness. The Toucher owed his success largely to those appealing eyes.

“S’pose we do a break, Mills.” he said, joylessly.

Feathers looked at him with bitter reproach. The remark was an invitation to execute a strategic exit by the lift door, and drink pints, and Feathers was up to his ears in work.

“’Ow th’ell can I” he said, pointing at the long list of orders, “’nt’ the whole flamin’ warehouse whoopin’ fer goods?”

“Oh, well,” said Cam, resignedly. “I had a tizzie, my last and it’s so lonely I reckoned I’d let it go.” He took the coin out, turned it over in his fingers, and sighed. “Left blooming alone,” he said.

“Down to it, are yeh?” asked the packer with sympathy. “There’ve been times when I’ve ’ad t’ run by ther pub with me eyes shut meself, ’n’ I know what it is.”

“Fair on my knuckle-bone,” said the printer. “But a man doesn’t care on his own account. It’s the old lady.”

Feathers looked sidelong. Feathers’s class is always suspicious of sentiment; but there was no snivelling in Raymond’s tone. His expression was that of a strong man who bears his troubles bravely, and his accent hinted at a profound emotion kept well in hand.

“Tribulation in thor ’appy ’ome?” queried Feathers, warily.

“Slathers, Mills, old man.” Raymond Cato turned his shoulder, but the strong composed voice continued presently: “The mother, you know. Seen better days, George; good family. Dreadfully ill, and”, here the voice was almost cold, “and I haven’t the half-crown to pay for her medicine tonight.”

“Jimmy Jee!” murmured Feathers. He fingered a solitary coin in his pocket lovingly, drew it out, and laid it on the bench.

“’Ere’s arf er dollar you can have ther use of,” he said.

There was just the faintest suggestion of a start, the most momentary hint of eagerness, in Raymond’s descent upon the money. The thing had been easier than he expected. Mills noticed the start, and a pang of repentance shot through him. Cato realized his mistake instantly. He placed a firm retainer on the half-crown, and slid it back towards the packer.

“No, no, old man,” he said, “you can’t spare this.”

“Garn!” retorted the packer, with simulated indifference, “get a ’ammerlock on it.” With a flash of diplomacy, he added; “It’s on’y till Saterdee, anyhow.”

“Oh, all right, Geordie, till Saturday. You’re a good sort.” Cato’s tone implied that the time might soon come when he would show his gratitude by dying for the packer. He took up the half-crown slowly, reluctantly, and went gently downstairs.

For a minute Feathers gazed fixedly at the blank wall before him, forgetting his work.

“I’ve been stabbed,” he whispered. “That’s it, er clean stab. ’N’ I was beginnin’ t’ think I was grown up. Geordie Mills, you ain’t fit t’ be allowed out without yer aunt.”

Feathers was not a man to show his wounds. He said nothing, and in the course of a day or so the town traveller came to him with his trouble.

“What of young Cato, the comp with the fatal beauty of a consumptive nun,” said Goudy; “is he a confidence trick or what?”

“He’s ther pride iv ther fam’ly, ’n’ ther sole support iv all his bed-ridden relations,” replied the packer.

“Well, he’s touched me three times in a week, and I’m as Scotch as most people.”

“How’d he plead? Was it corf drops for his sick sister, ’r fun’ral expenses fer his dead brother-in-law left over from last week consequence iv thor ’ard ’earted undertaker ref usin’ delivery at ther graveside?”

“I don’t know how he did it,” mused Goudy, scratching his whiskers. “He must have used laughing gas. ’Twas absolutely painless extraction.”

“’E’s er hartist, got er touch like velvet. ’E put’s ther acid on so’t yeh think it’s ther milk iv ’uman kindness.”

“Hello,” cried Goudy, “he’s dipped up something of yours then, has he?”

Feathers almost blushed. “Come off,” he said, with a shade less than his usual confidence. “Ther gay deceivers don’t twitter t’ me. I’ve bin too long out iv th’ egg.”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. I was forgetting,” chortled the town traveller, softly. “You are Abdul the Wise and Wonderful. You are the great Take-Down. The bad men go home by the back streets to escape your machinations, and you’ve brought hundreds of spielers to destitution.” And Goudy went about his business, whistling absently the offensive refrain of “Muggins the Juggins”.

Feathers pasted a label, and attached it to a parcel with unwonted precision. He hated Goudy when he used big words. “Any’ow,” said Mills, “I’m not er soft thing for beginners. I’m not sich er snag fer sharpers that ther boys practise on me.”

This little disputation rendered it unnecessary for Feathers to breathe a word about the manner in which the Toucher had stabbed him. The town traveller, too, concluded that his reputation as a business man would not be enhanced by further discussion, and so Raymond Cato was free to play upon the tender buds of human sympathy in the lean and dusty breast of Samuel Ellis, foreman of the flat.

Ellis was cutting a ream of tinfoil for which Toucher was waiting, and Toucher’s sadness was dramatic. He sighed heavily, and a tear fell on the polished platform of the guillotine. Raymond gently wiped it off with a piece of waste.

“Aren’t you well, then, Mr Cato?” said Ellis. The woeful foreman even ministered Billy, the personal devil from the printing flat.

Raymond Cato started like a guilty thing, moved away a few steps, changed his mind, as if convinced that Fuzzy was the kind of man in whom any stricken soul might confide, returned, and placed the photograph of a baby boy on the platform. The baby was taken on the half-shell, and looked like one of those remarkably fine children who earn an excellent living by posing as examples of the results of feeding on Somebody s infants’ Condition Mixture. The young man had found the photograph in a drawer downstairs that afternoon.

“You are a father yourself?” he asked.

“No” said Ellis, “but I have a sister what is. Five she has.” And then, with a lugubrious effort to show interest, “What’s he, a boy or a girl?”

“You wouldn’t know him now,” Raymond said, huskily. “Skin and bone, skin and bone. And he cries to me so pitifully; and what can I do?”

“Have you tried castor oil?” asked Ellis, vaguely.

“My God!” said the young man, in a low, terrible voice “if that boy dies, I don’t care what becomes of me.”

“Go on!” murmured the foreman, deeply touched.

“And what’s a man to do?, what can a man do? They order expensive things, chicken in champagne. I tell you, I feel sometimes that I could commit murder to procure the money that might be the saving of my boy.”

“I wouldn’t if I was you,” Ellis said. He was quite agitated. He looked at Cato with pitiful eyes. “I really wouldn’t you know.”

Raymond snatched up the tinfoil and walked away, stopped, and came back, looked Ellis square in the eye, steadily, for nearly half a minute, and then he said deliberately, emphatically, as if putting the foreman to the test of his life.

“Would you lend me half-a-sovereign?”

“Yes, yes; of course,” stammered Fuzzy. He went to his vest pocket for the money. His hands quite trembled with eagerness as he handed it to Cato.

“But mind, now, no murders,” he said.

“Don’t speak to me or I shall break down,” faltered Raymond Cato, in the character of one unaccustomed to such great kindness and he fled from the flat.

Benno’s turn came later. Be also went to Feathers with the tale. He tried to speak as one with unshaken confidence in the Toucher, but there were subtle doubts hovering at the back of his head.

“Got ther luck iv er lame cat, Cato has,” he said, fiddling with the packer’s scales. “D’jer hear about him?”

Feathers fanned out a ream, and knocked it up like a second Cinquevalli; then he sought a hiding place for the incriminating tobacco juice, and spat with judgement.

“Benno,” he Said, with aggravating conviction, “yet comin’ t’ me with ther story iv yet shame?”

“Give’s er charnce,” retorted the clerk.

“Ther lad below been nibblin’ yet ear, ’n thinkin’ iv doin’ er mag erbout sheddin’ yer beans in ther sacred cause iv charity, but it don’t go.”

“You’re one what knows,” sneered Benno.

“Well, er bloke’s lived er bit,” admitted the oracle. “Chat aloud, Benjamin, I’m waitin’ fer ther ’arrowin’ details. Was it his pore ole father, what was er Dook once, crying all night with dried peas in his appendicitis, him bein’ er victim to ’em ’r his lady mother who’s li’ble t’ become sober at any moment if ther charitably inclined don’t come to ’er assistance in ’er hour iv need? ’Cause I may tell yeh, Benno ther seraph, that Cato’s parents ’ye both bin missin’ for years. They saw what he was comin’ to when he was five, ’n’ did er guy, leavin’ him t’ ther mercy iv er crool world on er pub doorstep.”

“Nothin’ like it,” said the clerek. “He had a naxident, swallered er thick-un. I was workin’ a bit late day before yes’day, ’n’ ’long erbout art past six who should come sprintin’ upstairs but me nibs, pale’s er blessed egg, hair on end, fair dilly. The bums was in his house fer rent, ’n’ he was hurryin’ ’ome with ther quid he’d got advanced stuck in his tooth box, when he butted into some gazob in ther street, ’n’ down went ther thick-un. He was tearin’ ratty t’ raise another jim. Er bloke he knows promised him four half dollars, ’n’ he come t’ me fer ther rest, seein’ I was a cobber in er way, ’n’ his ’ome sweet ’ome was goin’ t’ pieces on his ’ands. Acourse, I parted me arf jim, couldn’t have ther brick face t’ do less under ther circs. ’Twas on’y fer er day, he said, cause he was goin’ under er operation yes’day ter recover then lost goblin.”

“’N’ was ther operation er triumph iv surgical skill?” asked Feathers. “I know, they recovered ten sovs ’n’ er gold watch, ’n’ Cato’s payin’ two ’undred per cent dividends t’ ther share holders. Yer goin’ t’ hinvite me out t’ ther parlour bar, ’n’ plaster me in ’n’ out with sixpenny drinks.”

“You ain’t bettin’ on that.” Benno was gloomy now. “No; his nibs come t’ me yes’day ’n’ said he’d seen his medical adviser, ‘if the blessed operation ’ud cost one ’n’ a ’arf, ’n’ that he’d go on with it if I’d contribit another dollar.”

“N’ yeh did it, yeh did it!” yelled Feathers in ecstasy. “Yeh sank another five shillin’ in yer wild cat. Oh, here’s Bertie off ther boat, here’s Little Willie. Some kind gentleman hold his purse while he gets his ’ead read. Yeh did it!”

“’Tain’t possible,” retorted Benno.

“Oh, ain’t it? Well, y’ orter wear ear muffs this bitin’ weather, silly boy.” Feathers slapped at Benno with feminine affectation. “Why, Cato never had no ’ome that it ’ud pay to put er bailiff in at tuppence er day. He’s got er leaky room at mother Spargo’s, in Williamson Street, fer which ’e owes regular every Fridee, ’n’ he dosses on er two-feather bed, weather permittin’.”

Evidently it was Mr Cato’s intention to try the acid on Feathers again. He approached the packer a few days after Benno’s confession, and he had the air of one patient under great provocation. The packer’s hand went to his ear instinctively.

“How would you take a good thing for the Handicap tomorrow. Feathers?” said the comp. “You’re the straightest man here, and the only one I’d let into this with me.”

The packer did not reply for a few moments. He lingered for effect, chewing absently.

“This ther one yeh worked on Billy?” He spoke without interest.

Raymond looked at Mills with the reproachful eyes of a starved dog.

“You don’t trust me, George,” he said.

“Chattin’ iv good things,” continued Feathers, “what’s gone wrong with that beautiful arf-dollar iv mine?”

“Did you lend me half-a-dollar? Of course, of course, you did, Oh, that’s all right, old fellow.”

“That’s er weight off me mind,” sighed Feathers. “I’ve bin expectin’ that two ’n’ er tanner home. I’ve bin sittin’ up iv nights waitin’ fer it comin’, ’n’ I got t’ thinkin’ yeh was neglectin’ me. Ray, ’n’ devotin’ all yer money t’ good works.”

The comp’s sadness was intensified by Mills’ sarcasm. “Surely a miserable half dollar wouldn’t hurt you,” he said.

“It ’urts me pride,” answered Feathers. “It ’urts me t’ think I’ve bin done on ther grid. The hagony’s somethin’ awful, ’n’ I’ve gotter get that ’arf-bull ’r sometin’ dangerous may set in.”

“Oh, very well, you shall have it immediately.”

“Don’t get runnin’ me down with it, Ray, gi’ me time t’ break ther glad tidin’s t’ me fam’ly.”

Raymond Cato spent the dinner-hour discussing the drama and kindred arts with Martha Pilcher, and in the afternoon he sent the half-crown to Mills in an envelope inscribed, “With R.C.’s compliments.”

By this time the Toucher had almost exhausted the male employees. There were many aching victims downstairs, and his title was recognized all through the factory. He paid a pressing creditor when he could borrow the necessary sum from another subject, but that did not happen often. Strangers were continually asking for him at the door in the lane, and people would await his coming for an hour after he had gone home over the adjoining roofs, and down via an accommodating tea warehouse with an open-air staircase. Raymond borrowed only small sums from the Beauties, but he was very successful with them. The other young men always approached the girls in a mood of artful and distressing levity, but the Toucher was very grave with them, and always sympathetic whatever the complaint might be, and there was scarcely a Beauty who hadn’t a complaint of some kind by her, if only as a convenient theme of conversation. Half-a-dozen of them would have died for the bibulous comp despite the bottle-oh’s stock garnered in the trouser fringe at his boot heels, and every paster but one seemed good for a shilling in exchange for a sigh or two and a pathetic glance from his soulful eyes. Those eyes were irresistible when Raymond was really thirsty.

The one girl whom Raymond had not been seen to approach for a little loan was Miss Eva Magill. Miss Eva was not as young as some, and she had no “cobbers” amongst the Beauties. She was demure and steadfast, came softly into the factory with down cast eyes, worked quietly and persistently in an out-of-the-way corner, with drooping lids, and passed out again, noiselessly, with eyes unlifted, and was wholly unknown. She was disliked and respected by the whole factory.

Toucher’s finish was sudden and dramatic. One afternoon faint echoes of a warm debate came up from the warehouse. Presently Miss Magill was sent for. She went down, with her apron over her face, weeping. She returned in a quarter of an hour, still weeping, went to the dressing-room corner, and had a fit of hysterics, concluding with a dead faint.

Billy the Boy bobbed up a few moments later. “Er fair ole beano!” he gasped. “They ye dumped Toucher in ther dust-box for immedjit removal. Spats wanted t’ send fer the Johns, He’s done Magill in fer ’er little bit.”

A voice of authority roared below, and Billy ducked down again, but Feathers had the whole story before evening.

“’E bin givin’ Magill guff erbout marriage,” Mills explained to the town traveller, “’n’ ther spiel was good fer fifteen jim ther savin’s iv er lifetime, which ther dear boy was goin’ t risk in ther comfits of a ’ome, but which ’e’s bounced down et ther two-up.”

“That pale maiden lady with the little lisp?” exclaimed Goudy, in amazement. “Why, the very thoughts of man gave her all the unfavourable symptoms mentioned in a quack advertisement.”

“G’out, that sort’s sweet ’n’ easy t’ ther lad that ain’t punched off with a frown,” retorted Feathers. “Her brother took er tumble, ’n’ he’s bin here, wantin’ t’ hit Cato clean out, ’n’ put him away over ther ’olidays for false pretensions, ’r larceny ez er bailiff, ’r somethin’, only th’ girl wouldn’t hear iv it. She’s bin squealin’ roun’ all ther afternoon that Raymond’s true to ’er, true ez true, she don’t care.”

“The infernal scoundrel,” snorted Goudy. “He ought to be hanged!”

“’E’s er naughty tease,” Mills soliloquized, “’n’ ’e did Scotty fer er tray-bit, ’angin’s too good fer him!’

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