Bob Harris's Deputy

It was not an ordinary love affair, and the tenants of Filter’s Rents laughed when they first heard about it, yet laughed good-naturedly, too. The male element of the tenantry was divided in its admiration of his cheek and her devotion; the feminine element said openly that, though nobody could blame him, poor fellow, she was a fool, but said it half-heartedly, and, in secret, cherished a sympathetic interest in both of them. Only the very young were puzzled because they could not fathom her motives, for only the very young expect to understand a woman or look for a reason in everything or anything she may do.

There cannot be less than two chief actors in any love story; in this there were three, and the odd one was a man. One roof covered them all. The woman, who was still under five and twenty, lived alone in a front room on a second floor; one of the men, Dave Kirk, occupied the back room opening on to the same landing; and the other, Bob Harris, resided, with his aged mother, down in the basement.

Perhaps the most unusual circumstance in connection with this episode was that Dave Kirk had no legs; he lost them four years before in the explosion of a gas retort, at the works where he had been employed. But he was a man of an independent, self-reliant spirit, and on his discharge from hospital was, by his own wish, carried back to his old room in Filter’s Rents, resolute to resume the task of earning his own living.

Without being parsimonious, he had always been rationally careful of his money, and drawing now on his small capital in the savings bank, he fitted himself out with a specially constructed wooden trolley on four small wheels, and set up in business as a shoe black. The trolley was low enough for him to be able to reach the ground easily, and paddle himself to and fro with his hands, whilst a long iron handle, hinged on at the front, supplied a ready means of traction, when a casual friend was disposed to oblige him by pulling.

There were inconveniences, of course, in such systems of life and locomotion, but Dave was wise enough to accommodate himself to the inevitable, and so by degrees recovered much of his former cheerfulness of demeanour, and discovered that existence without legs was not only bearable, but even to be enjoyed. Since he could no longer climb into bed, he realised the bedstead and disposed his mattress on the floor. His table and chairs being practically inaccessible heights, he sawed their legs off short, and dwarfed all his furniture.

‘If I can’t get up to them,’ he said, cheerily, ‘I can bring them down to me, an’ they look as tidy on their stumps as I do on mine, an’ chance it!’

For an infinitesimal salary, he retained the services of an able-bodied moucher to look after his trolley, and carry him up and down stairs; and finding that his business was liberally patronised, and, moreover, that he could not mount or descend the kerbs unaided, he presently increased the stipend of this menial, on condition that he drew him daily to and from his pitch by Dalston Station.

To this coming and going in state there was but one objection. The menial, though he rarely possessed visible means, had a tendency to get miraculously drunk quite early in the day, and hence could not be depended upon to draw the trolley home at night, in anything like a direct line. He generally tacked along the pavement, from side to side, as if the vehicle were a preposterous yacht making headway in the teeth of a gale, and this practice grew upon him, until twice he went too far in one direction, and, the wheels of the trolley slipping off the edge of the kerb, Dave was deposited in the road.

After the second of these mishaps, Dave began to look about him for a new and more reliable man; and was luckier in finding one than he had expected to be.

It was just about this time that Bob Harris and his mother arrived in the basement of the house in Filter’s Rents, and Bob, in particular, took an immediate and friendly interest in the crippled lodger on the second floor back. He came up of evenings to chat with him, and hearing of the moucher’s imperfections, generously volunteered to replace him. He was a warehouse porter, and passed Dalston Station every morning and evening on his way to the City and back.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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