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September 7, 2023

The Joker Outwitted, by James Scott. (4 September 1863)


Published in the Picton Gazette, 4 September, 1863.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story also appeared in The New York Coachmaker’s Magazine of December 1858]

I have heard and read of many practical jokers, queer geniuses too, some of them, but Bill Brush was the most inveterate, and, at the same time, the most successful one I ever knew personally. — Joking was his hobby, or, rather, a sort of idiosyncrasy, to which all other habits, tastes, and inclinations which he possessed were, in a great measure, subservient. Had he devoted half the study to his legitimate occupation — carriage painting — that he did in concocting and carrying out schemes to “sell” the unwary, he would, no doubt, have been a star painter, instead of a second-rate dauber — a consideration which, by the way, might be profitably applied to the cases of several geniuses of my acquaintance; but, de gustibus non est disputandum. Being utterly unscrupulous as to the means employed, and having no respect for persons in the selection of victims, it is not surprising that this peculiar kind of amusement got him into some ugly scrapes, several of which terminated in boot applications and pugilistic demonstrations of a sanguinary character, Bill always coming off with the outlines of his countenance sadly marred, and in a state of complete physical dilapidation. One might naturally suppose that these little drawbacks would teach him caution, if not total forbearance; but no, he was too thoroughly devoted to this strange passion to be cured by aught but some powerful remedy. His disease was chronic in its nature, but there were those who knew how to treat it, and were busily preparing a dose for him which — but I am anticipating.

He was the only journeyman painter employed in the shop. For assistants he had a couple of boys, of that interesting age when youngsters first begin to feel a hankering after calico, and talk largely of the enormous expense incident on two weekly visits to the barber’s shop. Bob and Ike, the aforesaid boys, were most bitter, uncompromising enemies of Bill Brush, against whom they were compelled, in self-defense, to wage constant war, for he gave them no rest — no peace. Not a day passed but saw one, or both of them, the victims of some bamboozling operation, much to the merriment of the balance of the hands and the triumphant exultation of their persecutor. They often attempted to retaliate in the same manner, but seldom succeeded, owing to the fact that they did not sufficiently study and mature their plans before carrying them into execution. This remission, considering the master-spirit they had to deal with, was a sad oversight, but one which they finally discovered, and took measures to obviate. It became evident to them that, in order to insure success, they must plot — must form plans understood by both, and must hit upon some ingenious combination of circumstances which would effectually draw the wool over the eyes of their ever-vigilant antagonist, and then, when off his guard, open out on him with some well-devised and carefully-arranged contrivance which would expose him to the ridicule of the whole shop. “Beat him badly once” they argued, “and we can do it again; besides, it will take the conceit out of him to be overreached at his own game. At all events, we will try.” Such was the conclusion they arrived at, after an evening spent in consultation, and they mutually agreed thenceforth to devote their minds and energies to the discomfiture of the great joker.

It was one of those cool mornings — too cool to be comfortable — which often occur in early autumn. Bill, on arriving at the shop, gave orders to put up the stove, and sent the youngsters to bring it from the shed, where it had been stowed away in the spring. As they were ascending the stairway on their return, it became evident that they had quarreled, for loud and threatening language was freely exchanged between them. The “boss” painter was surprised, as he had never known them to fall out before.

“Don’t you tell me again that I stole Mrs. Bricktop’s water-melons, or I’ll warm your ear for you!” exclaimed Ike, vehemently, as they deposited the stove on the floor.

“Takes a bigger feller than you to do that, you swell-head, you!” retorted Bob, defiantly.

Swell-head, eh! I’ll swell your head.”

“You can’t do it, hoss, nary time!”

Like gladiators — I mean Bowery Boys — rushing to the combat, they charged upon each other. Bill dropped the stove-pipe, and sprang between them, just in time to prevent a collision. Seizing one with each hand, he commenced to reason the case with them; but to little purpose.

“Let me go!” yelled Ike, struggling to release himself.

“Take that!” screamed Bob, aiming a furious kick at him.

The aim, however, was not true, for, by some means, it took effect on a very sensitive part of one of Brush’s organs of locomotion. Quick as lightning he released the boys, and, clutching the wounded member in his hand, he hopped around the shop, groaning and squirming in an agony of pain. There was a rush — a scuffle, and co-whollop! the infuriated combatants came to the floor. Again the now crippled mediator flew to prevent the strife. But alas! in his eagerness to prevent bloodshed, he unwittingly caused it. Three hops and a jump had he advanced, when crash! he went over the stove, up went his heels and down came his head — nose undermost — to which circumstance he probably owed the preservation of his skull, for the aforesaid nose was completely sm — but spare me the harrowing details. Suffice it to say that, when he gathered himself up, it looked a good deal like a small-sized head of red cabbage.

Simultaneously with this terrible catastrophe, the proprietor of the establishment, attracted by the noise, came running into the shop, and started back aghast at the ferocious appearance of matters and things.

“What does all this mean, Mr. Brush?” he at length inquired.” Are you drunk, sir, or crazy? Fighting with the boys, too — you ought to be ashamed, a man of your age engaged in this disgraceful manner!”

“I aint drunk!” replied the painter, spitting out the blood that descended from his battered organ of smell; “nor I aint been a fight —”

“There, there, that will do! Don’t add falsehood to your folly ! Remember, sir, I will have no more of this in my shop!” And the old man bounced indignantly out.

“Well, now, if this here aint a piling things on a little too steep!” whined Brush.” Here, I’ve been most murdered a tryin’ to stop a fight, and he says I’m drunk. Now, see here, if you fellers ever —” But the fellers were gone — they hadvslipped out while the boss was lecturing Bill. “Confound them cubs!— This here’s all owin’ to them; but I’ll pay them off! See if I don’t!”

The mutilated proboscis was plastered up — the belligerent youngsters received a severe ” talking to,” which only drew from them sullen, threatening mutterings. All through the forenoon, they looked the wickedest kind of daggers at each other, and, several times, Brush thought he detected symptoms of a fresh outbreak. This, when he thought of the vindictive fury which characterized the fight of the morning, made him nervous and awfully uneasy. Noon, however, arrived without any further demonstration, and he, with commendable caution, determined to remain in the shop until they had gone to dinner, in order to prevent them from being alone, and renewing the quarrel. For the same reason he hurried back just as soon as he had swallowed his “grub.” It lacked, perhaps, a quarter of one o’clock when he returned, and many of the “hands” were lounging around, waiting for the bell to call them to work. Some of them attempted to detain him, and commenced joking about the warlike appearance of his nose; but, contrary to his wont, when attacked in this way, he made no reply, other than an expressive shake of his head, as he hurried up stairs. They were beginning to speculate on this sudden change in his manner, when a terrific yell from the paint-shop thrilled through every heart.

“Murder! murder! come up here, men, for mercy’s sake! Oh, be quick! They’re dead I do believe! Oh-o-o!”

Pell-mell they flew up stairs. At the open door of the shop stood Bill, his face pale as that of the dead — eyes fixed and full of horror — hair bristling like the mane of a wild boar — one hand nervously clutching the door-latch for support, and the other pointing into the room. The door was soon gained by the excited crowd, when a scene of frightful violence met their gaze. Near the centre of the floor lay the form of Bob, stiff and bloody, his right hand still grasping an ensanguined knife. Further on, the body of Ike was seen in a half-recumbent position, and presenting the same horrible appearance. Near him lay a hatchet, red from edge to handle. Paint-pots, brushes, buckets, stools, and boxes were scattered around in the wildest confusion, giving evidence of a terrible struggle. For a few moments the spectators stood horror-struck and speechless, when some one at length found a voice, and, in imploring accents, cried: “Do, some of you, run for a doctor!”

“Yes, yes! some of you run for a doctor!” repeated Bill, recovering himself; “and be quick about it; perhaps they aint both dead yet. Let’s raise up Bob; poor feller, who’d a thought he’d ever come to this, he was allers so peaceful and quiet. This is awful! Easy, now, don’t hurt him!”

Tenderly did the sorrowing joker take the boy by the shoulders, and raised his head from the floor, and gently was he placing it on a pile of buggy cushions, when, to his unutterable consternation and surprise, the gory lips parted, and, in triumphant tone exclaimed — “sold!

At the same instant, the body of Ike, in the most singular manner, commenced rolling around the floor, giving vent to wild and uproarious peals of laughter.

With mouth stretched to its widest extent, and protruding, wondering eyes, Brush looked first at one, and then at the other. He rubbed his forehead vacantly, and silently turned to the crowd, as if seeking an explanation. A perfect roar of merriment was the only response. Sides shook, vest buttons flew, and cries of sold! sold! resounded from every side. Again he turned to the boys, and then the truth suddenly flashed upon him — he had been fooled — was victimized — the whole thing — quarrel, fight, murder, blood, hatchet, and knife — was a joke — a ” sell” gotten up expressly for his benefit. He saw it clearly enough now — he was able to trace the whole plot from the beginning. The tables were completely turned on him — he, the prince of jokers, was beat at his own game. He would be laughed at by every one — would be derided, pointed at in the street, and his defeat would be gloried in by his enemies. The reaction, occasioned by the consciousness of the full extent of his discomfiture, was too much for him, and he fainted. A cold bath, in the shape of a bucket of water dashed in his face, soon restored animation. The scattered utensils were restored to their places, and the lately defunct apprentices were busily removing the blood (rose-pink mixed with water) from their hands and faces when he reopened his eyes. With a ghastly smile, he inquired for his hat. It was given to him, when he slowly and languidly advanced to the grinning boys, and, throwing it at their feet, left the shop bare-headed. The action spoke volumes, and was greeted with loud applause.

For a time, Bill bravely breasted the storm of ridicule which assailed him from every quarter; but, so violent did it become, he was forced to retreat. Remembering that he had an aunt living “Out West,” who had urgently invited him to visit her, he went, glad of even this shadow of an excuse for leaving the scene of his downfall. In some six months he returned an altered man — a man who repudiated joking, and practiced gravity and dignity of deportment.

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