On the southern edge of the populous parish of Paddington, in a parallelogram bounded by Oxford and Cambridge Terrace on the south, Praed Street on the north, and by Edgware Road on the east and Spring Street on the west, lies an assemblage of mean streets, the drab dulness of which forms a remarkable contrast to the pretentious architectural grandeurs of Sussex Square and Lancaster Gate, close by. In these streets the observant will always find all those evidences of depressing semi-poverty which are more evident in London than in any other English city. The houses look as if laughter was never heard within them. Where the window blinds are not torn, they are dirty; the folk who come out of the doors wear anxious and depressed faces. Such shops as are there are mainly kept for the sale of food of poor quality: the taverns at the corners are destitute of attraction or pretension. Whoever wanders into these streets finds their sordid shabbiness communicating itself: he escapes, cast down, wondering who the folk are who live in those grey, lifeless cages; what they do, what they think; how life strikes them. Even the very sparrows which fight in the gutters for garbage are less lively than London sparrows usually are; as for the children who sit about the doorsteps, they look as if the grass, the trees, the flowers, and the sunlight of the adjacent Kensington Gardens were as far away as the Desert of Gobi. Within this slice of the town, indeed, life is lived, as it were, in a stagnant backwash, which nothing and nobody can stir.
In an upper room of one of the more respectable houses in one of the somewhat superior streets of this neighbourhood, a young man stood looking out of the window one November afternoon. It was then five o'clock, and the darkness was coming: all day a gentle, never-ceasing rain had been bringing the soot down from the dark skies upon the already dingy roofs. It was a dismal and miserable prospect upon which the watcher looked out, but not so miserable nor so dismal as the situation in which he just then found himself. The mean street beneath him was not more empty of cheerfulness than his pockets were empty of money and his stomach of food. He had spent his last penny on the previous day: it, and two other coppers, had gone on a mere mouthful of food and drink: since their disappearance he had eaten nothing. And he was now growing faint with hunger—and to add to his pains, some one, downstairs, was cooking herrings. The smell of the frying-pan nearly drove him ravenous.
He turned from the window presently and looked round at the small room behind him. It was a poor, ill-furnished place—cleanliness, though of a dingy sort, its only recommendation. There was a bed, and a washstand, and a chest of drawers, and a couple of chairs—a few shillings would have purchased the lot at any second-hand dealer's. In a corner stood the occupant's trunk—all the property he had in the world was in it, save a few books which were carefully ranged on the chimney-piece, and certain writing materials that lay on a small table. A sharp eye, glancing at the books and the writing materials, and at a few sheets of manuscript scattered on the blotting-pad, would have been quick to see that here was the old tale, once more being lived out, of the literary aspirant who, at the very beginning of his career, was finding, by bitter experience, that, of all callings, that of literature is the most precarious.
A half-hesitating tap at the door prefaced the entrance of a woman—the sort of woman who is seen in those streets by the score—a tallish, thinnish woman, old before her time, perpetually harassed, always anxious, always looking as if she expected misfortune. Her face was full of anxiety now as she glanced at her lodger—who, on his part, flushed all over his handsome young face with conscious embarrassment. He knew very well what the woman wanted—and he was powerless to respond to her appeal.
"Mr. Lauriston," she said in a half whisper, "when do you think you'll be able to let me have a bit of money? It's going on for six weeks now, you know, and I'm that put to it, what with the rent, and the rates—"
Andrew Lauriston shook his head—not in denial, but in sheer perplexity.
"Mrs. Flitwick," he answered, "I'll give you your money the very minute I get hold of it! I told you the other day I'd sold two stories—well, I've asked to be paid for them at once, and the cheque might be here by any post. And I'm expecting another cheque, too—I'm surprised they aren't both here by this. The minute they arrive, I'll settle with you. I'm wanting money myself—as badly as you are!"
"I know that, Mr. Lauriston," assented Mrs. Flitwick, "and I wouldn't bother you if I wasn't right pressed, myself. But there's the landlord at me—he wants money tonight. And—you'll excuse me for mentioning it—but, till you get your cheques, Mr. Lauriston, why don't you raise a bit of ready money?"
Lauriston looked round at his landlady with an air of surprised enquiry.
"And how would I do that?" he asked.
"You've a right good gold watch, Mr. Lauriston," she answered. "Any pawnbroker—and there's plenty of 'em, I'm sure!—'ud lend you a few pounds on that. Perhaps you've never had occasion to go to a pawnbroker before? No?—well, and I hadn't once upon a time, but I've had to, whether or no, since I came to letting lodgings, and if I'd as good a watch as yours is, I wouldn't go without money in my pocket! If you've money coming in, you can always get your goods back—and I should be thankful for something, Mr. Lauriston, if it was but a couple o' pounds. My landlord's that hard—"
Lauriston turned and picked up his hat.
"All right, Mrs. Flitwick," he said quietly. "I'll see what I can do. I— I'd never even thought of it."
When the woman had gone away, closing the door behind her, he pulled the watch out of his pocket and looked at it—an old-fashioned, good, gold watch, which had been his father's. No doubt a pawnbroker would lend money on it. But until then he had never had occasion to think of pawnbrokers. He had come to London nearly two years before, intending to make name, fame, and fortune by his pen. He had a little money to be going on with— when he came. It had dwindled steadily, and it had been harder to replace it than he had calculated for. And at last there he was, in that cheap lodging, and at the end of his resources, and the cheque for his first two accepted stories had not arrived. Neither had a loan which, sorely against his will, he had been driven to request from the only man he could think of—an old schoolmate, far away in Scotland. He had listened for the postman's knock, hoping it would bring relief, for four long days—and not one letter had come, and he was despairing and heartsick. But—there was the watch!
He went out presently, and on the stair, feebly lighted by a jet of gas, he ran up against a fellow-lodger—a young Jew, whom he knew by the name of Mr. Melchior Rubinstein, who occupied the rooms immediately beneath his own. He was a quiet, affable little person, with whom Lauriston sometimes exchanged a word or two—and the fact that he sported rings on his fingers, a large pin in his tie, and a heavy watch-chain, which was either real gold or a very good imitation, made Lauriston think that he would give him some advice. He stopped him—with a shy look, and an awkward blush.
"I say!" he said. "I—the fact is, I'm a bit hard up—temporarily, you know—and I want to borrow some money on my watch. Could you tell me where there's a respectable pawnbroker's?"
Melky—known to every one in the house by that familiar substitute for his more pretentious name—turned up the gas-jet and then held out a slender, long-fingered hand. "Let's look at the watch," he said curtly, in a soft, lisping voice. "I know more than a bit about watches, mister."
Lauriston handed the watch over and watched Melky inquisitively as he looked at it, inside and out, in a very knowing and professional way. Melky suddenly glanced at him. "Now, you wouldn't like to sell this here bit of property, would you, Mr. Lauriston?" he enquired, almost wheedlingly. "I'll give you three quid for it—cash down."
"Thank you—but I wouldn't sell it for worlds," replied Lauriston.
"Say four quid, then," urged Melky. "Here!—between friends, I'll give you four-ten! Spot cash, mind you!"
"No!" said Lauriston. "It belonged to my father. I don't want to sell—I want to borrow."
Melky pushed the watch back into its owner's hand.
"You go round into Praed Street, mister," he said, in business-like fashion. "You'll see a shop there with Daniel Multenius over it. He's a relation o' mine—he'll do what you want. Mention my name, if you like. He'll deal fair with you. And if you ever want to sell, don't forget me."
Lauriston laughed, and went down the stairs, and out into the dismal evening. It was only a step round to Praed Street, and within five minutes of leaving Melky he was looking into Daniel Multenius's window. He remembered now that he had often looked into it, without noticing the odd name above it. It was a window in which there were all sorts of curious things, behind a grille of iron bars, from diamonds and pearls to old ivory and odds and ends of bric-á-brac. A collector of curiosities would have found material in that window to delay him for half-an-hour—but Lauriston only gave one glance at it before hastening down a dark side- passage to a door, over which was a faintly-illuminated sign, showing the words: PLEDGE OFFICE.
He pushed open that door and found himself before several small, boxed-off compartments, each just big enough to contain one person. They were all empty at that moment; he entered one, and seeing nobody about, tapped gently on the counter. He expected to see some ancient and Hebraic figure present itself—instead, light steps came from some recess of the shop, and Lauriston found himself gazing in surprise at a young and eminently pretty girl, who carried some fancy needle-work in her hand, and looked over it at him out of a pair of large, black eyes. For a moment the two gazed at each other, in silence.
"Yes?" said the girl at last. "What can I do for you?"
Lauriston found his tongue.
"Er—is Mr. Multenius in?" he asked. "I—the fact is, I want to see him."
"Mr. Multenius is out," answered the girl. "But I'm in charge—if it's business."
She was quietly eyeing Lauriston over, and she saw his fresh-complexioned face colour vividly.
"I do my grandfather's business when he's out," she continued. "Do you want to borrow some money?"
Lauriston pulled out the watch, with more blushes, and pushed it towards her.
"That's just it," he answered. "I want to borrow money on that. A friend of mine—fellow-lodger—Mr. Melky Rubinstein—said I could borrow something here. That's a real good watch, you know."
The girl glanced at her customer with a swift and almost whimsical recognition of his innocence, and almost carelessly picked up the watch.
"Oh, Melky sent you here, did he?" she said, with a smile. "I see!" She looked the watch over, and snapped open the case. Then she glanced at Lauriston. "How much do you want on this?" she asked.