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Dirty Work by W.W. Jacobs

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Produced by David Widger




It was nearly high-water, and the night-watchman, who had stepped aboard
a lighter lying alongside the wharf to smoke a pipe, sat with half-closed
eyes enjoying the summer evening. The bustle of the day was over, the
wharves were deserted, and hardly a craft moved on the river. Perfumed
clouds of shag, hovering for a time over the lighter, floated lazily
towards the Surrey shore.

"There's one thing about my job," said the night-watchman, slowly, "it's
done all alone by yourself. There's no foreman a-hollering at you and
offering you a penny for your thoughts, and no mates to run into you from
behind with a loaded truck and then ask you why you didn't look where
you're going to. From six o'clock in the evening to six o'clock next
morning I'm my own master."

He rammed down the tobacco with an experienced forefinger and puffed

People like you 'ud find it lonely (he continued, after a pause); I did
at fust. I used to let people come and sit 'ere with me of an evening
talking, but I got tired of it arter a time, and when one chap fell
overboard while 'e was showing me 'ow he put his wife's mother in 'er
place, I gave it up altogether. There was three foot o' mud in the dock
at the time, and arter I 'ad got 'im out, he fainted in my arms.

Arter that I kept myself to myself. Say wot you like, a man's best
friend is 'imself. There's nobody else'll do as much for 'im, or let 'im
off easier when he makes a mistake. If I felt a bit lonely I used to
open the wicket in the gate and sit there watching the road, and p'r'aps
pass a word or two with the policeman. Then something 'appened one night
that made me take quite a dislike to it for a time.

I was sitting there with my feet outside, smoking a quiet pipe, when I
'eard a bit of a noise in the distance. Then I 'eard people running and
shouts of "Stop, thief!" A man came along round the corner full pelt,
and, just as I got up, dashed through the wicket and ran on to the wharf.
I was arter 'im like a shot and got up to 'im just in time to see him
throw something into the dock. And at the same moment I 'eard the other
people run past the gate.

"Wot's up?" I ses, collaring 'im.

"Nothing," he ses, breathing 'ard and struggling. "Let me go."

He was a little wisp of a man, and I shook 'im like a dog shakes a rat.
I remembered my own pocket being picked, and I nearly shook the breath
out of 'im.

"And now I'm going to give you in charge," I ses, pushing 'im along
towards the gate.

"Wot for?" he ses, purtending to be surprised.

"Stealing," I ses.

"You've made a mistake," he ses; "you can search me if you like."

"More use to search the dock," I ses. "I see you throw it in. Now you
keep quiet, else you'll get 'urt. If you get five years I shall be all
the more pleased."

I don't know 'ow he did it, but 'e did. He seemed to sink away between
my legs, and afore I knew wot was 'appening, I was standing upside down
with all the blood rushing to my 'ead. As I rolled over he bolted
through the wicket, and was off like a flash of lightning.

A couple o' minutes arterwards the people wot I 'ad 'eard run past came
back agin. There was a big fat policeman with 'em--a man I'd seen afore
on the beat--and, when they 'ad gorn on, he stopped to 'ave a word with

"'Ot work," he ses, taking off his 'elmet and wiping his bald 'ead with a
large red handkerchief. "I've lost all my puff."

"Been running?" I ses, very perlite.

"Arter a pickpocket," he ses. "He snatched a lady's purse just as she
was stepping aboard the French boat with her 'usband. 'Twelve pounds in
it in gold, two peppermint lozenges, and a postage stamp.'"

He shook his 'ead, and put his 'elmet on agin.

"Holding it in her little 'and as usual," he ses. "Asking for trouble, I
call it. I believe if a woman 'ad one hand off and only a finger and
thumb left on the other, she'd carry 'er purse in it."

He knew a'most as much about wimmen as I do. When 'is fust wife died,
she said 'er only wish was that she could take 'im with her, and she made
'im promise her faithful that 'e'd never marry agin. His second wife,
arter a long illness, passed away while he was playing hymns on the
concertina to her, and 'er mother, arter looking at 'er very hard, went
to the doctor and said she wanted an inquest.

He went on talking for a long time, but I was busy doing a bit of 'ead-
work and didn't pay much attention to 'im. I was thinking o' twelve
pounds, two lozenges, and a postage stamp laying in the mud at the bottom
of my dock, and arter a time 'e said 'e see as 'ow I was waiting to get
back to my night's rest, and went off--stamping.

I locked the wicket when he 'ad gorn away, and then I went to the edge of
the dock and stood looking down at the spot where the purse 'ad been
chucked in. The tide was on the ebb, but there was still a foot or two
of water atop of the mud. I walked up and down, thinking.

I thought for a long time, and then I made up my mind. If I got the
purse and took it to the police-station, the police would share the money
out between 'em, and tell me they 'ad given it back to the lady. If I
found it and put a notice in the newspaper--which would cost money--very
likely a dozen or two ladies would come and see me and say it was theirs.
Then if I gave it to the best-looking one and the one it belonged to
turned up, there'd be trouble. My idea was to keep it--for a time--and
then if the lady who lost it came to me and asked me for it I would give
it to 'er.

Once I had made up my mind to do wot was right I felt quite 'appy, and
arter a look up and down, I stepped round to the Bear's Head and 'ad a
couple o' goes o' rum to keep the cold out. There was nobody in there
but the landlord, and 'e started at once talking about the thief, and 'ow
he 'ad run arter him in 'is shirt-sleeves.

"My opinion is," he ses, "that 'e bolted on one of the wharves and 'id
'imself. He disappeared like magic. Was that little gate o' yours

"I was on the wharf," I ses, very cold.

"You might ha' been on the wharf and yet not 'ave seen anybody come on,"
he ses, nodding.

"Wot d'ye mean?" I ses, very sharp. "Nothing," he ses. "Nothing."

"Are you trying to take my character away?" I ses, fixing 'im with my

"Lo' bless me, no!" he ses, staring at me. "It's no good to me."

He sat down in 'is chair behind the bar and went straight off to sleep
with his eyes screwed up as tight as they would go. Then 'e opened
his mouth and snored till the glasses shook. I suppose I've been one of
the best customers he ever 'ad, and that's the way he treated me. For
two pins I'd ha' knocked 'is ugly 'ead off, but arter waking him up very
sudden by dropping my glass on the floor I went off back to the wharf.

I locked up agin, and 'ad another look at the dock. The water 'ad nearly
gone and the mud was showing in patches. My mind went back to a
sailorman wot had dropped 'is watch over-board two years before, and
found it by walking about in the dock in 'is bare feet. He found it more
easy because the glass broke when he trod on it.

The evening was a trifle chilly for June, but I've been used to roughing
it all my life, especially when I was afloat, and I went into the office
and began to take my clothes off. I took off everything but my pants,
and I made sure o' them by making braces for 'em out of a bit of string.
Then I turned the gas low, and, arter slipping on my boots, went outside.

It was so cold that at fust I thought I'd give up the idea. The longer I
stood on the edge looking at the mud the colder it looked, but at last I
turned round and went slowly down the ladder. I waited a moment at the
bottom, and was just going to step off when I remembered that I 'ad got
my boots on, and I 'ad to go up agin and take 'em off.

I went down very slow the next time, and anybody who 'as been down an
iron ladder with thin, cold rungs, in their bare feet, will know why,
and I had just dipped my left foot in, when the wharf-bell rang.

I 'oped at fust that it was a runaway-ring, but it kept on, and the
longer it kept on, the worse it got. I went up that ladder agin and
called out that I was coming, and then I went into the office and just
slipped on my coat and trousers and went to the gate.

"Wot d'you want?" I ses, opening the wicket three or four inches and
looking out at a man wot was standing there.

"Are you old Bill?" he ses.

"I'm the watchman," I ses, sharp-like. "Wot d'you want?"

"Don't bite me!" he ses, purtending to draw back. "I ain't done no 'arm.
I've come round about that glass you smashed at the Bear's Head."

"Glass!" I ses, 'ardly able to speak.

"Yes, glass," he ses--"thing wot yer drink out of. The landlord says
it'll cost you a tanner, and 'e wants it now in case you pass away in
your sleep. He couldn't come 'imself cos he's got nobody to mind the
bar, so 'e sent me. Why! Halloa! Where's your boots? Ain't you afraid
o' ketching cold?"

"You clear off," I ses, shouting at him. "D'ye 'ear me? Clear off while
you're safe, and you tell the landlord that next time 'e insults me I'll
smash every glass in 'is place and then sit 'im on top of 'cm! Tell 'im
if 'e wants a tanner out o' me, to come round 'imself, and see wot he

It was a silly thing to say, and I saw it arterwards, but I was in such a
temper I 'ardly knew wot I was saying. I slammed the wicket in 'is face
and turned the key and then I took off my clothes and went down that
ladder agin.

It seemed colder than ever, and the mud when I got fairly into it was
worse than I thought it could ha' been. It stuck to me like glue, and
every step I took seemed colder than the one before. 'Owever, when I
make up my mind to do a thing, I do it. I fixed my eyes on the place
where I thought the purse was, and every time I felt anything under my
foot I reached down and picked it up--and then chucked it away as far as
I could so as not to pick it up agin. Dirty job it was, too, and in five
minutes I was mud up to the neck, a'most. And I 'ad just got to wot I
thought was the right place, and feeling about very careful, when the
bell rang agin.

I thought I should ha' gorn out o' my mind. It was just a little tinkle
at first, then another tinkle, but, as I stood there all in the dark and
cold trying to make up my mind to take no notice of it, it began to ring
like mad. I 'ad to go--I've known men climb over the gate afore now--and
I didn't want to be caught in that dock.

The mud seemed stickier than ever, but I got out at last, and, arter
scraping some of it off with a bit o' stick, I put on my coat and
trousers and boots just as I was and went to the gate, with the bell
going its 'ardest all the time.

When I opened the gate and see the landlord of the Bear's Head standing
there I turned quite dizzy, and there was a noise in my ears like the
roaring of the sea. I should think I stood there for a couple o' minutes
without being able to say a word. I could think of 'em.

"Don't be frightened, Bill," ses the landlord. "I'm not going to eat

"He looks as if he's walking in 'is sleep," ses the fat policeman, wot
was standing near by. "Don't startle 'im."

"He always looks like that," ses the landlord.

I stood looking at 'im. I could speak then, but I couldn't think of any
words good enough; not with a policeman standing by with a notebook in
'is pocket.

"Wot was you ringing my bell for?" I ses, at last.

"Why didn't you answer it before?" ses the landlord. "D'you think I've
got nothing better to do than to stand ringing your bell for three-
quarters of an hour? Some people would report you."

"I know my dooty," I ses; "there's no craft up to-night, and no reason
for anybody to come to my bell. If I was to open the gate every time a
parcel of overgrown boys rang my bell I should 'ave enough to do."

"Well, I'll overlook it this time, seeing as you're an old man and
couldn't get another sleeping-in job," he ses, looking at the policeman
for him to see 'ow clever 'e was. "Wot about that tanner? That's wot
I've come for."

"You be off," I ses, starting to shut the wicket. "You won't get no
tanner out of me."

"All right," he ses, "I shall stand here and go on ringing the bell till
you pay up, that's all."

He gave it another tug, and the policeman instead of locking 'im up for
it stood there laughing.

I gave 'im the tanner. It was no use standing there arguing over a
tanner, with a purse of twelve quid waiting for me in the dock, but I
told 'im wot people thought of 'im.

"Arf a second, watchman," ses the policeman, as I started to shut the
wicket agin. "You didn't see anything of that pickpocket, did you?"

"I did not," I ses.

"'Cos this gentleman thought he might 'ave come in here," ses the

"'Ow could he 'ave come in here without me knowing it?" I ses, firing

"Easy," ses the landlord, "and stole your boots into the bargain"

"He might 'ave come when your back was turned," ses the policeman, "and
if so, he might be 'iding there now. I wonder whether you'd mind me
having a look round?"

"I tell you he ain't 'ere," I ses, very short, "but, to ease your mind,
I'll 'ave a look round myself arter you've gorn."

The policeman shook his 'ead. "Well, o' course, I can't come in without
your permission," he ses, with a little cough, "but I 'ave an idea, that
if it was your guv'nor 'ere instead of you he'd ha' been on'y too pleased
to do anything 'e could to help the law. I'll beg his pardon tomorrow
for asking you, in case he might object."

That settled it. That's the police all over, and that's 'ow they get
their way and do as they like. I could see 'im in my mind's eye talking
to the guv'nor, and letting out little things about broken glasses and
such-like by accident. I drew back to let 'im pass, and I was so upset
that when that little rat of a landlord follered 'im I didn't say a word.

I stood and watched them poking and prying about the wharf as if it
belonged to 'em, with the light from the policeman's lantern flashing
about all over the place. I was shivering with cold and temper. The mud
was drying on me.

"If you've finished 'unting for the pickpocket I'll let you out and get
on with my work," I ses, drawing myself up.

"Good night," ses the policeman, moving off. "Good night, dear," ses the
landlord. "Mind you tuck yourself up warm."

I lost my temper for the moment and afore I knew wot I was doing I 'ad
got hold of him and was shoving 'im towards the gate as 'ard as I could
shove. He pretty near got my coat off in the struggle, and next moment
the police-man 'ad turned his lantern on me and they was both staring at
me as if they couldn't believe their eyesight.

"He--he's turning black!" ses the landlord.

"He's turned black!" ses the policeman.

They both stood there looking at me with their mouths open, and then
afore I knew wot he was up to, the policeman came close up to me and
scratched my chest with his finger-nail.

"It's mud!" he ses.

"You keep your nails to yourself," I ses. "It's nothing to do with you."
and I couldn't 'elp noticing the smell of it. Nobody could. And wot was
worse than all was, that the tide 'ad turned and was creeping over the
mud in the dock.

They got tired of it at last and came back to where I was and stood there
shaking their 'eads at me.

"If he was on the wharf 'e must 'ave made his escape while you was in the
Bear's Head," ses the policeman.

"He was in my place a long time," ses the landlord.

"Well, it's no use crying over spilt milk," ses the policeman. "Funny
smell about 'ere, ain't there?" he ses, sniffing, and turning to the
landlord. "Wot is it?"

"I dunno," ses the landlord. "I noticed it while we was talking to 'im
at the gate. It seems to foller 'im about."

"I've smelt things I like better," ses the policeman, sniffing agin.
"It's just like the foreshore when somebody 'as been stirring the mud up
a bit."

"Unless it's a case of 'tempted suicide," he ses, looking at me very

"Ah!" ses the landlord.

"There's no mud on 'is clothes," ses the policeman, looking me over with
his lantern agin.

"He must 'ave gone in naked, but I should like to see 'is legs to make--
All right! All right! Keep your 'air on."

"You look arter your own legs, then," I ses, very sharp, "and mind your
own business."

"It is my business," he ses, turning to the landlord. "Was 'e strange in
his manner at all when 'e was in your place to-night?"

"He smashed one o' my best glasses," ses the landlord.

"So he did," ses the policeman. "So he did. I'd forgot that. Do you
know 'im well?"

"Not more than I can 'elp," ses the landlord. "He's been in my place a
good bit, but I never knew of any reason why 'e should try and do away
with 'imself. If he's been disappointed in love, he ain't told me
anything about it."

I suppose that couple o' fools 'ud 'ave stood there talking about me all
night if I'd ha' let 'em, but I had about enough of it.

"Look 'ere," I ses, "you're very clever, both of you, but you needn't
worry your 'eads about me. I've just been having a mud-bath, that's

"A mud-bath!" ses both of 'em, squeaking like a couple o' silly parrots.

"For rheumatics," I ses. "I 'ad it some-thing cruel to-night, and I
thought that p'r'aps the mud 'ud do it good. I read about it in the
papers. There's places where you pay pounds and pounds for 'em, but,
being a pore man, I 'ad to 'ave mine on the cheap."

The policeman stood there looking at me for a moment, and then 'e began
to laugh till he couldn't stop 'imself.

"Love-a-duck!" he ses, at last, wiping his eyes. "I wish I'd seen it."

"Must ha' looked like a fat mermaid," ses the landlord, wagging his silly
'ead at me. "I can just see old Bill sitting in the mud a-combing his
'air and singing."

They 'ad some more talk o' that sort, just to show each other 'ow funny
they was, but they went off at last, and I fastened up the gate and went
into the office to clean myself up as well as I could. One comfort was
they 'adn't got the least idea of wot I was arter, and I 'ad a fancy that
the one as laughed last would be the one as got that twelve quid.

I was so tired that I slept nearly all day arter I 'ad got 'ome, and I
'ad no sooner got back to the wharf in the evening than I see that the
landlord 'ad been busy. If there was one silly fool that asked me the
best way of making mud-pies, I should think there was fifty. Little
things please little minds, and the silly way some of 'em went on made me
feel sorry for my sects.

By eight o'clock, 'owever, they 'ad all sheered off, and I got a broom
and began to sweep up to 'elp pass the time away until low-water. On'y
one craft 'ad come up that day--a ketch called the Peewit--and as she was
berthed at the end of the jetty she wasn't in my way at all.

Her skipper came on to the wharf just afore ten. Fat, silly old man 'e
was, named Fogg. Always talking about 'is 'ealth and taking medicine to
do it good. He came up to me slow like, and, when 'e stopped and asked
me about the rheumatics, the broom shook in my 'and.

"Look here," I ses, "if you want to be funny, go and be funny with them
as likes it. I'm fair sick of it, so I give you warning."

"Funny?" he ses, staring at me with eyes like a cow. "Wot d'ye mean?
There's nothing funny about rheumatics; I ought to know; I'm a martyr to
it. Did you find as 'ow the mud did you any good?"

I looked at 'im hard, but 'e stood there looking at me with his fat baby-
face, and I knew he didn't mean any harm; so I answered 'im perlite and
wished 'im good night.

"I've 'ad pretty near everything a man can have," he ses, casting anchor
on a empty box, "but I think the rheumatics was about the worst of 'em
all. I even tried bees for it once."

"Bees!" I ses. "_Bees!_"

"Bee-stings," he ses. "A man told me that if I could on'y persuade a few
bees to sting me, that 'ud cure me. I don't know what 'e meant by
persuading! they didn't want no persuading. I took off my coat and shirt
and went and rocked one of my neighbour's bee-hives next door, and I
thought my last hour 'ad come."

He sat on that box and shivered at the memory of it.

"Now I take Dr. Pepper's pellets instead," he ses. "I've got a box in my
state-room, and if you'd like to try 'em you're welcome."

He sat there talking about the complaints he had 'ad and wot he 'ad done
for them till I thought I should never have got rid of 'im. He got up at
last, though, and, arter telling me to always wear flannel next to my
skin, climbed aboard and went below.

I knew the hands was aboard, and arter watching 'is cabin-skylight until
the light was out, I went and undressed. Then I crept back on to the
jetty, and arter listening by the Peewit to make sure that they was all
asleep, I went back and climbed down the ladder.

It was colder than ever. The cold seemed to get into my bones, but I
made up my mind to 'ave that twelve quid if I died for it. I trod round
and round the place where I 'ad seen that purse chucked in until I was
tired, and the rubbish I picked up by mistake you wouldn't believe.

I suppose I 'ad been in there arf an hour, and I was standing up with my
teeth clenched to keep them from chattering, when I 'appened to look
round and see something like a white ball coming down the ladder. My
'art seemed to stand still for a moment, and then it began to beat as
though it would burst. The white thing came down lower and lower, and
then all of a sudden it stood in the mud and said, "Ow!"

"Who is it?" I ses. "Who are you?" "Halloa, Bill!" it ses. "Ain't it
perishing cold?"

It was the voice o' Cap'n Fogg, and if ever I wanted to kill a fellow-
creetur, I wanted to then.

"'Ave you been in long, Bill?" he ses. "About ten minutes," I ses,
grinding my teeth.

"Is it doing you good?" he ses.

I didn't answer 'im.

"I was just going off to sleep," he ses, "when I felt a sort of hot pain
in my left knee. O' course, I knew what it meant at once, and instead o'
taking some of the pellets I thought I'd try your remedy instead. It's a
bit nippy, but I don't mind that if it does me good."

He laughed a silly sort o' laugh, and then I'm blest if 'e didn't sit
down in that mud and waller in it. Then he'd get up and come for'ard two
or three steps and sit down agin.

"Ain't you sitting down, Bill?" he ses, arter a time.

"No," I ses, "I'm not."

"I don't think you can expect to get the full benefit unless you do," he
ses, coming up close to me and sitting down agin. "It's a bit of a shock
at fust, but Halloa!"

"Wot's up?" I ses.

"Sitting on something hard," he ses. "I wish people 'ud be more

He took a list to port and felt under the star-board side. Then he
brought his 'and up and tried to wipe the mud off and see wot he 'ad got.

"Wot is it?" I ses, with a nasty sinking sort o' feeling inside me.

"I don't know," he ses, going on wiping. "It's soft outside and 'ard
inside. It----"

"Let's 'ave a look at it," I ses, holding out my 'and.

"It's nothing," he ses, in a queer voice, getting up and steering for the
ladder. "Bit of oyster-shell, I think."

He was up that ladder hand over fist, with me close behind 'im, and as
soon as he 'ad got on to the wharf started to run to 'is ship.

"Good night, Bill," he ses, over 'is shoulder.

"Arf a moment." I ses, follering 'im.

"I must get aboard," he ses; "I believe I've got a chill," and afore I
could stop 'im he 'ad jumped on and run down to 'is cabin.

I stood on the jetty for a minute or two, trembling all over with cold
and temper. Then I saw he 'ad got a light in 'is cabin, and I crept
aboard and peeped down the skylight. And I just 'ad time to see some
sovereigns on the table, when he looked up and blew out the light.


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