― 273 ―

Bailiffs I Have Met.

IT has been remarked that the worst use to which you can put a man is to hang him. A mistake. You can put him to a still worse use. You can make him a bailiff.

I am writing this article in bed, using as a desk a box which at one time, according to the printed legend pasted on its lid, contained seven pounds nett of cocoanut ice. It commenced its career coldly, this poor little box; but it shall end warmly and famously. To-morrow morning I shall split it up into neat little splinters, to which I shall deftly set fire, and therewith boil my coffee. I know that in years to come, when I shall have lost my taste for coffee and all other worldly pleasures, relic collectors will wish that I had not done this thing; but one can't boil coffee on posthumous glory.

Alexander Pope is said to have written most of his translation of the Iliad in bed, but that was mere luxurious laziness on his part. I am writing in bed for the reason that if I were up I would have to sit on the floor to write—a position which, besides being uncomfortable, is apt to make one round-shouldered.

The intelligent reader will gather from the foregoing remarks that the bailiff has been with me. He has been, with a vengeance, and liked my taste in furniture so well that he took it all away with him, including even my little Japanese tobacco-jar, and a Satsuma spittoon of fantastic elegance. I shouldn't have cared so much if he had left me my engraving of Don Quixote, which used to bring the tears to my eyes every time I looked at it. The noble knight-errant is shown sitting in his chamber, with all his armour around him. His withered hands, with their bony knuckles and outstanding veins and sinews, are clasped on the hilt of his long,

  ― 274 ―
cross-hilted sword, and there is a look of visionary exaltation in his faded eyes which is in itself an inspiration. The valourous Manchegan had also his troubles with the world, even as I have mine.

It is now twelve years ago since I gathered my first practical knowledge of bailiffdom. Even then I did not see a bailiff in the flesh, but I stood in the place—he had left nothing to sit upon—where a bailiff had been, only a few hours before. It was after dusk, one evening in autumn, and, as I knocked at the door of the house in which dwelt my guide, philosopher, and friend of those early days, I thought that the knock sounded singularly loud, as though the house were empty. So it was, in a sense,—its sole contents being my philosopher and his wife and family. They were seated on the floor, in a circle, around a sheet of newspaper, upon which were displayed two or three loaves of bread, a paper bag containing sugar, a large billycan of tea, and some tinned sardines They were eating with their fingers, and drinking in turns out of a pannikin, which passed from hand to hand, in the manner of a bottle at a small and informal convivial gathering of friends. “You observe,” said my philosopher, with a nod at the newspaper, and a wave of his hand towards the bare walls, “you observe, my young sage, how little the natural man really needs to satisfy his legitimate requirements. All else is mere superfluous luxury. The bailiff relieved me of my superfluous luxury this morning. I bear him no malice on that account. A man of letters” (my philosopher was a contributor to the weekly papers, but always called himself a man of letters) “should fly light in the matter of furniture.”

I looked at the squabbling children on the floor, and thought that the remark might be extended to include family as well as furniture.

My philosopher, however, had his revenge on bailiffdom in due course, as will be seen later on.

A year or so after the foregoing incident, which occurred in Melbourne, I was in Sydney lodging in the house of a friend, who

  ― 275 ―
also described himself as a man of letters. He was, as a matter of fact, a reporter on one of the daily papers, but was endowed with tastes and aspirations far above his position. These found expression in speckled-green jars, papier-mâché statuettes of classical shepherds and shepherdesses, vases of every size and shape, brackets, tables with spiral legs like crossed corkscrews, and other articles of virtu too numerous to mention. The front room of the little house in which he lived was so crowded with these things that it was seldom opened, except when his wife went in to dust them. He had also a library, contained in a carven bookcase with glass doors. It consisted of some forty or fifty volumes, works of the old dramatists. These were carefully numbered and catalogued, and it was (as Artemus Ward called the Tower of London) a Sweet Boon to me to see him, when he required a book, gravely refer to a small ledger, neatly lettered from A to Z on its outer edge, and then, having discovered the registered number of the volume, take the latter out of the bookcase with the air of a man who had found what he wanted on the shelves of the Bodleian or the Bibliothèque Nationale. Of course, Simson (this was not my friend's real name, but it will answer quite as well for present purposes) could have put his hand upon the book at once, without going through this elaborate mummery, but that would not have been Simson's style. “My father,” he observed to me upon one occasion, “always kept an index to the books in his library, and I do my best to follow in his footsteps. I haven't the number of books he had—his library contained several thousand volumes; but I can, at least, have an index.” This filial sentiment was expressed with so much dignity that I almost felt ashamed of myself for having laughed at the index.

The true shrine of the Simson household, however, was the room in which was stored the gimcrackery previously referred to. Simson himself entered it but rarely, and then trod softly with slippered feet. I accused him once of going in there to worship in secret a hideous porcelain image of the Chinese dragon god which stood on the mantelpiece, but he merely smiled and said I was a hopeless Philistine.

  ― 276 ―

One morning I came downstairs and found the door of the shrine open. I went in, half expecting to surprise Simson in the midst of some mysterious rite, but he was not there. There was somebody in the room, however. A man with tousled hair, a dirty-reddish beard, and a face that looked as if it had been (which was, no doubt, the fact) soaking in beer for years, was lying in a loose heap on the dainty green satin sofa, with one of his huge feet, encased in a broken blucher, resting carelessly on the glory of the shrine—a tall Japanese vase embellished with illustrations of the story of the Forty Ronins. I stared hard at the man, who winked familiarly at me with one bloodshot eye, and I walked out of the room, greatly wondering. In the dining-room I met Simson with hair on end, and eyes glaring wildly. “Who's your friend?” I asked, nodding in the direction of the front room.

“He's no friend of mine!” replied Simson,—and then a base inspiration seemed to come to him, for he added: “He's the wife's uncle.”

Of course, the man was a bailiff.

He had insisted on camping in the front room, because he saw that it contained all the really valuable articles in the house.

I am glad to say that Simson managed to raise the money required to meet the ruffian's demand, and to get rid of him before he had been in the house more than a few hours. As it was, he left behind him an effluvium of stale alcohol which hung around the place for days afterwards.

Two or three years passed without my making any further acquaintance with bailiffdom. And then it came about that I stopped one night at a house in Woolloomooloo, wherein dwelt a happy family, consisting of a poet, a piano-tuner, a professor of mathematics, and an artist who painted religious subjects by preference, but, owing to lack of orders in this direction, painted panels of bar-screens and picturesque whisky advertisements for a living. The house was taken in the name of the artist, he being the

  ― 277 ―
only member of the party who did any regular work. The piano-tuner came next in financial importance, but he was not a perfect character in other respects. When he earned a few shillings by tuning a piano, he often started to tune himself up with beer to such an extent that the artist, who was a fastidious person when not himself intoxicated, always insisted on his sleeping in the wood-shed till he became sober again. As for the poet and the professor of mathematics, they also made a little money occasionally,—the poet by writing elegies and epitaphs—and the professor by “coaching” students for examinations. They brought home their money manfully, and handed it over to the artist, who as manfully expended it in the purchase of liquor and tinned provisions for the use of the establishment. Taking them altogether, the happy family was the most genial set of Bohemians I have ever had the fortune to meet with. I do not even except the piano-tuner, as he made up for his periodical bouts by long spells of self-sacrificing total abstinence, and put the money he earned during these intervals into the common fund like a hero. If they had a fault at all it was that they were almost too convivial. They used to drink rum at breakfast, and bottled beer in cups at tea-time.

Of course, a menage of this kind was too gay to last. The end came, as luck would have it, on the morning when I happened to be a guest of the household. I was awakened by hearing a sound of voices in the passage—the artist had made up a bed for me on the floor of the front room with newspapers, and had covered me, in the kindest manner, with one of his great historical cartoons, representing the landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, the paint upon which was alone sufficient to keep me warm, without taking the canvas into account.

I knew at once what the trouble was—the bailiff was in possession. So far, however, he had not penetrated beyond the passage, and the artist, with a ring of pathos in his voice which revealed to me unsuspected depths of feeling in his nature, was imploring him not to take away the furniture without giving him (the artist) a chance to find the coin required, or, at any rate, to

  ― 278 ―
come to some arrangement with the landlord. (The distraint was, I may remark, about to be made for arrears of rent).

“Not me!” said the bailiff, a brutal miscreant bloated with intemperance; “I'm not that kind of bloomin' goat. Fork out the coin at once or I clean out the furnicher.”

“Heartless wretch!” exclaimed the artist, turning away with a choking sob, “do your worst!”

The bailiff, signing to his assistant to remain in the passage—a wily precaution against any of the furniture being removed on the sly—went through the house to take an inventory of its contents.

He had not been gone five minutes before he was back in the passage again, cursing and blaspheming in a most shocking style.

“What's the matter!” his assistant asked.

“This is what's the matter!” he replied bitterly, kicking a table made out of an old packing-case into the passage—“this is the kind of thing they have the blanky cheek to call furnicher. Why, s'elp me gawd, there is n't enough in the whole place to pay our blanky fees!”

It was so. Every article of furniture in the house was literally home-made out of palings, packing-cases, and pieces of old deal board, picked up from time to time by the artist and his friends.

I then appreciated the full burlesque significance of the pathetic appeal made to the bailiff with regard to sparing the furniture.

“I am glad to see,” observed the artist by way of a parting shot, “that your better feelings have prevailed, and that you intend to leave me my little household treasures.”

The bailiff scowled horribly, and went away threatening unutterable things.

“We shall have to move now, boys,” said the artist, addressing the others; “we can't stand off the landlord any more on the strength of our furniture.”

I have said that my philosopher ultimately had his revenge on bailiffdom. I was on the spot when the revenge was consummated,

  ― 279 ―
having occasion to call on the philosopher with reference to some impracticable scheme peculiarly in his line. There was a van in front of the door, into which a vanman was piling tables, chairs, washstands, bedsteads, and other articles of domestic use. The philosopher, in his shirt-sleeves, and with beads of perspiration rolling down his intellectual forehead, was vigorously assisting.

“Lend a hand here!” he exclaimed, as he caught sight of me.

I followed him into the house and saw, lying on a sofa, snoring stertorously, a man who looked like Simson's wife's uncle.

“Take hold of his head!” said my philosopher.

I took hold of his head. The philosopher grasped him by the feet.

“Now, lay him gently down on the floor—steady!”

We laid him on the floor. The movement didn't awake the sodden ruffian, who simply turned over on his side, and grunted drunkenly.

“Now, take hold of one end of the sofa and we'll run it into the van.”

Which was accordingly done.

The house was now empty of anything in the shape of furniture. My philosopher, after placing a bottle of beer by the head of the unconscious man in possession, locked the front door and threw the key through the window into the front room.

“I don't pretend to be a practical man, but I think I managed that little affair pretty well,” he remarked, making a sign to the vanman to drive on.

“How did you do it?” I enquired.

“Well, I happened to meet the bailiff on his way down to the house. I knew who he was, and where he was going. I also knew he couldn't refuse a drink to save his life, and so I took him into a hotel, with the result you have seen. He knew me as a man of letters, but didn't know my name or that I lived in the house we have just left. I couldn't make him stay in the hotel, however. Drunk as he was he had still a muddled idea of responsibility, seeing which I offered to accompany him, and brought a flask of rum with

  ― 280 ―
me to ‘top off with.’ He topped off with it, and the moment he sat down on the sofa where you saw him he went to sleep like the debauched beast he is. For all that, I had to leave him something to recover upon. Noblesse oblige, you know—even in dealing with a bailiff. He'll be glad to find that bottle of beer when he wakes.”

I have met other bailiffs since then, and the result of my experience is that, as I said in the beginning of this article, the worst use to which you can put a man is to make him a bailiff.