The Opal Serpent - Fergus Hume - ebook
Opis

Simon Beecot was a country gentleman with a small income, a small estate and a mind considerably smaller than either. He dwelt at Wargrove in Essex and spent his idle hours—of which he possessed a daily and nightly twenty-four—in snarling at his faded wife and in snapping between whiles at his son. Mrs. Beecot, having been bullied into old age long before her time, accepted sour looks and hard words as necessary to God's providence, but Paul, a fiery youth, resented useless nagging. He owned more brain-power than his progenitor, and to this favoring of Nature paterfamilias naturally objected. Paul also desired fame, which was likewise a crime in the fire-side tyrant's eyes. As there were no other children Paul was heir to the Beecot acres, therefore their present proprietor suggested that his son should wait with idle hands for the falling in of the heritage. In plain words, Mr. Beecot, coming of a long line of middle-class loafers, wished his son to be a loafer also. Again, when Mrs. Beecot retired to a tearful rest, her bully found Paul a useful person on whom to expend his spleen. Should this whipping-boy leave, Mr. Beecot would have to forego this enjoyment, as servants object to being sworn at without cause. For years Mr. Beecot indulged in bouts of bad temper, till Paul, finding twenty-five too dignified an age to tolerate abuse, announced his intention of storming London as a scribbler.

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Table of contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER I

DON QUIXOTE IN LONDONSimon Beecot was a country gentleman with a small income, a small estate and a mind considerably smaller than either. He dwelt at Wargrove in Essex and spent his idle hours—of which he possessed a daily and nightly twenty-four—in snarling at his faded wife and in snapping between whiles at his son. Mrs. Beecot, having been bullied into old age long before her time, accepted sour looks and hard words as necessary to God's providence, but Paul, a fiery youth, resented useless nagging. He owned more brain-power than his progenitor, and to this favoring of Nature paterfamilias naturally objected. Paul also desired fame, which was likewise a crime in the fire-side tyrant's eyes.As there were no other children Paul was heir to the Beecot acres, therefore their present proprietor suggested that his son should wait with idle hands for the falling in of the heritage. In plain words, Mr. Beecot, coming of a long line of middle-class loafers, wished his son to be a loafer also. Again, when Mrs. Beecot retired to a tearful rest, her bully found Paul a useful person on whom to expend his spleen. Should this whipping-boy leave, Mr. Beecot would have to forego this enjoyment, as servants object to being sworn at without cause. For years Mr. Beecot indulged in bouts of bad temper, till Paul, finding twenty-five too dignified an age to tolerate abuse, announced his intention of storming London as a scribbler.The parents objected in detail. Mrs. Beecot, after her kind, dissolved in tears, and made reference to young birds leaving the nest, while her husband, puffed out like a frog, and redder than the wattles of a turkey-cock, exhausted himself in well-chosen expressions. Paul increased the use of these by fixing a day for his departure. The female Beecot retired to bed with the assistance of a maid, burnt feathers and sal volatile, and the male, as a last and clinching argument, figuratively buttoned up his pockets."Not one shilling will you get from me," said Beecot senior, with the graceful addition of vigorous adjectives."I don't ask for money," said Paul, keeping his temper, for after all the turkey-cock was his father. "I have saved fifty pounds. Not out of my pocket-money," he added hastily, seeing further objections on the way. "I earned it by writing short stories.""The confounded mercantile instinct," snorted paterfamilias, only he used stronger words. "Your mother's uncle was in trade. Thank Heaven none of my people ever used hands or brains. The Beecots lived like gentlemen.""I should say like cabbages from your description, father.""No insolence, sir. How dare you disgrace your family? Writing tales indeed! Rubbish I expect" (here several adjectives). "And you took money I'll be bound, eh! eh!""I have just informed you that I took all I could get," said Beecot junior, quietly. "I'll live in Town on my savings. When I make a name and a fortune I'll return.""Never! never!" gobbled the turkey-cock. "If you descend to the gutter you can wallow there. I'll cut you out of my will.""Very good, sir, that's settled. Let us change the subject."But the old gentleman was too high-spirited to leave well alone. He demanded to know if Paul knew to whom he was talking, inquired if he had read the Bible touching the duties of children to their parents, instanced the fact that Paul's dear mother would probably pine away and die, and ended with a pathetic reference to losing the prop of his old age. Paul listened respectfully and held to his own opinion. In defence of the same he replied in detail,—"I am aware that I talk to my father, sir," said he, with spirit; "you never allow me to forget that fact. If another man spoke to me as you do I should probably break his head. I have read the Bible, and find therein that parents owe a duty to their children, which certainly does not include being abused like a pick-pocket. My mother will not pine away if you will leave her alone for at least three hours a day. And as to my being the prop of your old age, your vigor of language assures me that you are strong enough to stand alone."Paterfamilias, never bearded before, hastily drank a glass of port—the two were enjoying the usual pleasant family meal when the conversation took place—and said—but it is useless to detail his remarks. They were all sound and no sense. In justice to himself, and out of pity for his father, Paul cut short the scene by leaving the room with his determination unchanged. Mr. Beecot thereupon retired to bed, and lectured his wife on the enormity of having brought a parricide into the world. Having been countered for once in his life with common-sense, he felt that he could not put the matter too strongly to a woman, who was too weak to resent his bullying.Early next day the cause of the commotion, not having swerved a hair's-breadth from the path he had marked out, took leave of his mother, and a formal farewell of the gentleman who described himself as the best of fathers. Beecot senior, turkey-cock and tyrant, was more subdued now that he found bluster would not carry his point. But the wave of common-sense came too late. Paul departed bag and baggage, and his sire swore to the empty air. Even Mrs. Beecot was not available, as she had fainted.Once Paul was fairly out of the house paterfamilias announced that the glory of Israel had departed, removed his son's photograph from the drawing-room, and considered which of the relatives he had quarrelled with he should adopt. Privately, he thought he had been a trifle hard on the lad, and but for his obstinacy—which he called firmness—he would have recalled the prodigal. But that enterprising adventurer was beyond hearing, and had left no address behind him. Beecot, the bully, was not a bad old boy if only he had been firmly dealt with, so he acknowledged that Paul had a fine spirit of his own, inherited from himself, and prophesied incorrectly. "He'll come back when the fifty pounds is exhausted," said he in a kind of dejected rage, "and when he does—" A clenched fist shaken at nothing terminated the speech and showed that the leopard could not change his spots.So Paul Beecot repaired to London, and after the orthodox fashion began to cultivate the Muses on a little oatmeal by renting a Bloomsbury garret. There he wrote reams on all subjects and in all styles, and for six months assiduously haunted publishers' doors with varying fortunes. Sometimes he came away with a cheque, but more often with a bulky manuscript bulging his pocket. When tired of setting down imaginary woes he had time to think of his own; but being a cheerful youth, with an indomitable spirit, he banished trouble by interesting himself in the cheap world. By this is meant the world which costs no money to view—the world of the street. Here he witnessed the drama of humanity from morning till night, and from sunset till dawn, and on the whole witnessed very good acting. The poorer parts in the human comedy were particularly well played, and starving folks were quite dramatic in their demands for food. Note-book in hand, Paul witnessed spectacular shows in the West End, grotesque farces in the Strand, melodrama in Whitechapel and tragedy on Waterloo Bridge at midnight. Indeed, he quite spoiled the effect of a sensation scene by tugging at the skirts of a starving heroine who wished to take a river journey into the next world. But for the most part, he remained a spectator and plagiarised from real life.Shortly, the great manager of the Universal Theatre enlisted Paul as an actor, and he assumed the double rôle of an unappreciated author and a sighing lover. In the first capacity he had in his desk ten short stories, a couple of novels, three dramas and a sheaf of doubtful verses. These failed to appeal to editor, manager or publisher, and their author found himself reduced to his last five-pound note. Then the foolish, ardent lad must needs fall in love. Who his divinity was, what she was, and why she should be divinised, can be gathered from a conversation her worshipper held with an old school-fellow.It was in Oxford Street at five o'clock on a June afternoon that Paul met Grexon Hay. Turning the corner of the street leading to his Bloomsbury attic, the author was tapped on the shoulder by a resplendent Bond Street being. That is, the said being wore a perfectly-fitting frock-coat, a silk hat, trousers with the regulation fold back and front, an orchid buttonhole, grey gloves, boots that glittered, and carried a gold-topped cane. The fact that Paul wheeled without wincing showed that he was not yet in debt. Your Grub Street old-time author would have leaped his own length at the touch. But Paul, with a clean conscience, turned slowly, and gazed without recognition into the clean-shaven, calm, cold face that confronted his inquiring eyes."Beecot!" said the newcomer, taking rapid stock of Paul's shabby serge suit and worn looks. "I thought I was right."The voice, if not the face, awoke old memories."Hay—Grexon Hay!" cried the struggling genius. "Well, I am glad to see you," and he shook hands with the frank grip of an honest man."And I you." Hay drew his friend up the side street and out of the human tide which deluged the pavement. "But you seem—""It's a long story," interrupted Paul flushing. "Come to my castle and I'll tell you all about it, old boy. You'll stay to supper, won't you? See here"—Paul displayed a parcel—"a pound of sausages. You loved 'em at school, and I'm a superfine cook."Grexon Hay always used expression and word to hide his feelings. But with Paul—whom he had always considered a generous ass at Torrington school—a trifle of self-betrayal didn't matter much. Beecot was too dense, and, it may be added, too honest to turn any opportunity to advantage. "It's a most surprising thing," said Hay, in his calm way, "really a most surprising thing, that a Torrington public school boy, my friend, and the son of wealthy parents, should be buying sausages.""Come now," said Paul, with great spirit and towing Hay homeward, "I haven't asked you for money.""If you do you shall have it," said Hay, but the offer was not so generous a one as would appear. That was Hay all over. He always said what he did not mean, and knew well that Beecot's uneasy pride shied at loans however small.Paul, the unsophisticated, took the shadow of generosity for its substance, and his dark face lighted up. "You're a brick, Hay," he declared, "but I don't want money. No!"—this in reply to an eloquent glance from the well-to-do—"I have sufficient for my needs, and besides," with a look at the resplendent dress of the fashion-plate dandy, "I don't glitter in the West End.""Which hints that those who do, are rich," said Grexon, with an arctic smile. "Wrong, Beecot. I'm poor. Only paupers can afford to dress well.""In that case I must be a millionaire," laughed Beecot, glancing downward at his well-worn garb. "But mount these stairs; we have much to say to one another.""Much that is pleasant," said the courtly Grexon.Paul shrugged his square shoulders and stepped heavenward. "On your part, I hope," he sang back; "certainly not on mine. Come to Poverty Castle," and the fashionable visitor found his host lighting the fire in an apartment such as he had read about but had never seen.It was quite the proper garret for starving genius—small, bleak, bare, but scrupulously clean. The floor was partially covered with scraps of old carpet, faded and worn; the walls were entirely papered with pictures from illustrated journals. One window, revealing endless rows of dingy chimney-pots, was draped with shabby rep curtains of a dull red. In one corner, behind an Indian screen, stood a narrow camp bedstead, covered with a gaudy Eastern shawl, and also a large tin bath, with a can of water beside it. Against the wall leaned a clumsy deal bookcase filled with volumes well-thumbed and in old bindings. On one side of the tiny fireplace was a horse-hair sofa, rendered less slippery by an expensive fur rug thrown over its bareness; on the other was a cupboard, whence Beecot rapidly produced crockery, knives, forks, a cruet, napkins and other table accessories, all of the cheapest description. A deal table in the centre of the room, an antique mahogany desk, heaped high with papers, under the window, completed the furnishing of Poverty Castle. And it was up four flights of stairs like that celebrated attic in Thackeray's poem."As near heaven as I am likely to get," rattled on Beecot, deftly frying the sausages, after placing his visitor on the sofa. "The grub will soon be ready. I'm a first-class cook, bless you, old chap. Housemaid too. Clean, eh?" He waved the fork proudly round the ill-furnished room. "I'd dismiss myself if it wasn't.""But—but," stammered Hay, much amazed, and surveying things through an eye-glass. "What are you doing here?""Trying to get my foot on the first rung of Fame's ladder.""But I don't quite see—""Read Balzac's life and you will. His people gave him an attic and a starvation allowance in the hope of disgusting him. Bar the allowance, my pater has done the same. Here's the attic, and here's my starvation"—Paul gaily popped the frizzling sausages on a chipped hot plate—"and here's your aspiring servant hoping to be novelist, dramatist, and what not—to say nothing of why not? Mustard, there you are. Wait a bit. I'll brew you tea or cocoa.""I never take those things with meals, Beecot.""Your kit assures me of that. Champagne's more in your line. I say, Grexon, what are you doing now?""What other West-End men do," said Grexon, attacking a sausage."That means nothing. Well, you never did work at Torrington, so how can I expect the leopard to change his saucy spots."Hay laughed, and, during the meal, explained his position. "On leaving school I was adopted by a rich uncle," he said. "When he went the way of all flesh he left me a thousand a year, which is enough to live on with strict economy. I have rooms in Alexander Street, Camden Hill, a circle of friends, and a good appetite, as you will perceive. With these I get through life very comfortably.""Ha!" said Paul, darting a keen glance at his visitor, "you have the strong digestion necessary to happiness. Have you the hard heart also? If I remember at school—""Oh, hang school!" said Grexon, flushing all over his cold face. "I never think of school. I was glad when I got away from it. But we were great friends at school, Paul.""Something after the style of Steerforth and David Copperfield," was Paul's reply as he pushed back his plate; "you were my hero, and I was your slave. But the other boys—" He looked again."They hated me, because they did not understand me, as you did.""If that is so, Grexon, why did you let me slip out of your life? It is ten years since we parted. I was fifteen and you twenty.""Which now makes us twenty-five and thirty respectively," said Hay, dryly; "you left school before I did.""Yes; I had scarlet fever, and was taken home to be nursed. I never went back, and since then I have never met an old Torrington boy—""Have you not?" asked Hay, eagerly."No. My parents took me abroad, and I sampled a German university. I returned to idle about my father's place, till I grew sick of doing nothing, and, having ambitions, I came to try my luck in town." He looked round and laughed. "You see my luck.""Well," said Hay, lighting a dainty cigarette produced from a gold case, "my uncle, who died, sent me to Oxford and then I travelled. I am now on my own, as I told you, and haven't a relative in the world.""Why don't you marry?" asked Paul, with a flush.Hay, wary man-about-town as he was, noted the flush, and guessed its cause. He could put two and two together as well as most people."I might ask you the same question," said he.The two friends looked at one another, and each thought of the difference in his companion since the old school-days. Hay was clean-shaven, fair-haired, and calm, almost icy, in manner. His eyes were blue and cold. No one could tell what was passing in his mind from the expression of his face. As a matter of fact he usually wore a mask, but at the present moment, better feelings having the upper hand, the mask had slipped a trifle. But as a rule he kept command of expression, and words, and actions. An admirable example of self-control was Grexon Hay.On the other hand, Beecot was slight, tall and dark, with an eager manner and a face which revealed his thoughts. His complexion was swart; he had large black eyes, a sensitive mouth, and a small moustache smartly twisted upward. He carried his head well, and looked rather military in appearance, probably because many of his forebears had been Army men. While Hay was smartly dressed in a Bond Street kit, Paul wore a well-cut, shabby blue serge. He looked perfectly well-bred, but his clothes were woefully threadbare.From these and the garret and the lean meal of sausages Hay drew his conclusions and put them into words."Your father has cut you off," said he, calmly, "and yet you propose to marry.""How do you know both things?""I keep my eyes open, Paul. I see this attic and your clothes. I saw also the flush on your face when you asked me why I did not marry. You are in love?""I am," said Beecot, becoming scarlet, and throwing back his head. "It is clever of you to guess it. Prophesy more."Hay smiled in a cold way. "I prophesy that if you marry on nothing you will be miserable. But of course," he looked sharply at his open-faced friend, "the lady may be rich.""She is the daughter of a second-hand bookseller called Norman, and I believe he combines selling books with pawnbroking.""Hum," said Hay, "he might make money out of the last occupation. Is he a Jew by any chance?""No. He is a miserable-looking, one-eyed Christian, with the manner of a frightened rabbit.""One-eyed and frightened," repeated Hay, musingly, but without change of expression; "desirable father-in-law. And the daughter?""Sylvia. She is an angel, a white lily, a—""Of course," said Grexon, cutting short these rhapsodies. "And what do you intend to marry on?"Beecot fished a shabby blue velvet case out of his pocket. "On my last five pounds and this," he said, opening the case.Hay looked at the contents of the case, and saw a rather large brooch made in the form of a jewelled serpent. "Opals, diamonds and gold," he said slowly, then looked up eagerly. "Sell it to me." Table of Contents

CHAPTER II

DEBORAH JUNK, DUENNA

Number forty-five Gwynne Street was a second-hand bookshop, and much of the stock was almost as old as the building itself. A weather-stained board of faded blue bore in tarnished gold lettering the name of its owner, and under this were two broad windows divided by a squat door, open on week-days from eight in the morning until eight at night. Within the shop was dark and had a musty odor.

On either side of the quaint old house was a butcher's and a baker's, flaunting places of business, raw in their newness. Between the first-named establishment and the bookshop a low, narrow passage led to a small backyard and to a flight of slimy steps, down which clients who did not wish to be seen could arrive at a kind of cellar to transact business with Mr. Norman.

This individual combined two distinct trades. On the ground floor he sold second-hand books; in the cellar he bought jewels and gave money on the same to needy people. In the shop, pale youths, untidy, abstracted old men, spectacled girls, and all varieties of the pundit caste were to be seen poring over ancient volumes or exchanging words with the proprietor. But to the cellar came fast young men, aged spendthrifts, women of no reputation and some who were very respectable indeed. These usually came at night, and in the cellar transactions would take place which involved much money exchanging hands. In the daytime Mr. Norman was an innocent bookseller, but after seven he retired to the cellar and became as genuine a pawnbroker as could be found in London. Touching books he was easy enough to deal with, but a Shylock as regards jewels and money lent. With his bookish clients he passed for a dull shopkeeper who knew little about literature; but in the underground establishment he was spoken of, by those who came to pawn, as a usurer of the worst. In an underhand way he did a deal of business.

Aaron Norman—such was the name over the shop—looked like a man with a past—a miserable past, for in his one melancholy eye and twitching, nervous mouth could be read sorrow and apprehension. His face was pale, and he had an odd habit of glancing over his left shoulder, as though he expected to be tapped thereon by a police officer. Sixty years had rounded his shoulders and weakened his back, so that his one eye was almost constantly on the ground. Suffering had scored marks on his forehead and weary lines round his thin-lipped mouth. When he spoke he did so in a low, hesitating voice, and when he looked up, which was seldom, his eye revealed a hunted look like that of a wearied beast fearful lest it should be dragged from its lair.

It was this strange-looking man that Paul Beecot encountered in the doorway of the Gwynne Street shop the day after his meeting with Hay. Many a visit had Paul paid to that shop, and not always to buy books. Norman knew him very well, and, recognizing him in a fleeting look as he passed through the doorway, smiled weakly. Behind the counter stood Bart Tawsey, the lean underling, who was much sharper with buyers than was his master, but after a disappointed glance in his direction Paul addressed himself to the bookseller. "I wish to see you particularly," he said, with his eager air.

"I am going out on important business," said Norman, "but if you will not be very long—"

"It's about a brooch I wish to pawn."

The old man's mouth became hard and his eyes sharper. "I can't attend to that now, Mr. Beecot," he said, and his voice rang out louder than usual. "After seven."

"It's only six now," said Paul, looking over his shoulder at a church clock which could be seen clearly in the pale summer twilight. "I can't wait."

"Well, then, as you are an old customer—of books," said Aaron, with emphasis, "I'll stretch a point. You can go below at a quarter to seven, and I'll come round through the outside passage to see you. Meantime, I must go about my business," and he went away with his head hanging and his solitary eye searching the ground as usual.

Paul, in spite of his supposed hurry, was not ill-pleased that Aaron had gone out and that there was an idle hour before him. He stepped lightly into the shop, and, under the flaring gas—which was lighted, so dark was the interior of the shop in spite of the luminous gloaming—he encountered the smile of Barty. Paul, who was sensitive and proudly reticent, grew red. He knew well enough that his apparent admiration of Sylvia Norman had attracted the notice of Bart and of the red-armed wench, Deborah Junk, who was the factotum of the household. Not that he minded, for both these servants were devoted to Sylvia, and knowing that she returned the feelings of Paul said nothing about the position to Aaron. Beecot could not afford to make enemies of the pair, and had no wish to do so. They were coarse-grained and common, but loyal and kindly of heart.

"Got any new books, Bart?" asked Beecot, coming forward with roving eyes, for he hoped to see Sylvia glide out of the darkness to bless his hungry eyes.

"No, sir. We never get new books," replied Bart, smartly. "Leastways there's a batch of second-hand novels published last year. But bless you, Mr. Beecot, there ain't nothing new about them 'cept the bindings."

"You are severe, Bart. I hope to be a novelist myself."

"We need one, sir. For the most part them as write now ain't novelists, if that means telling anything as is new. But I must go upstairs, sir. Miss Sylvia said I was to tell her when you came."

"Oh, yes—er—er—that is—she wants to see a photograph of my old home. I promised to show it to her." Paul took a parcel out of his pocket. "Can't I go up?"

"No, sir. 'Twouldn't be wise. The old man may come back, and if he knew as you'd been in his house," Bart jerked his head towards the ceiling, "he'd take a fit."

"Why? He doesn't think I'm after the silver?"

"Lor' bless you no, sir. It ain't that. What's valuable—silver and gold and jewels and such like—is down there." Bart nodded towards the floor. "But Mr. Norman don't like people coming into his private rooms. He's never let in anyone for years."

"Perhaps he fears to lose the fairest jewel he has."

Bart was what the Scotch call "quick in the uptake." "He don't think so much of her as he ought to, sir," said he, gloomily. "But I know he loves her, and wants to make her a great heiress. When he goes to the worms Miss Sylvia will have a pretty penny. I only hope," added Bart, looking slyly at Paul, "that he who has her to wife won't squander what the old man has worked for."

Beecot colored still more at this direct hint, and would have replied, but at this moment a large, red-faced, ponderous woman dashed into the shop from a side door. "There," said she, clapping her hands in a childish way, "I know'd his vice, an' I ses to Miss Sylvia, as is sittin' doing needlework, which she do do lovely, I ses 'That's him,' and she ses, with a lovely color, 'Oh, Deborah, jus' see, fur m'eart's abeating too loud for me t'ear 'is vice.' So I ses—"

Here she became breathless and clapped her hands again, so as to prevent interruption. But Paul did interrupt her, knowing from experience that when once set going Deborah would go on until pulled up. "Can't I go up to Miss Norman?" he asked.

"You may murder me, and slay me, and trample on my corp," said Deborah, solemnly, "but go up you can't. Master would send me to walk the streets if I dared to let you, innocent as you are, go up them stairs."

Paul knew long ago how prejudiced the old man was in this respect. During all the six months he had known Sylvia he had never been permitted to mount the stairs in question. It was strange that Aaron should be so particular on this point, but connecting it with his downcast eye and frightened air, Paul concluded, though without much reason, that the old man had something to conceal. More, that he was frightened of someone. However, he did not argue the point, but suggested a meeting-place. "Can't I see her in the cellar?" he asked. "Mr. Norman said I could go down to wait for him."

"Sir," said Deborah, plunging forward a step, like a stumbling 'bus horse, "don't tell me as you want to pawn."

"Well, I do," replied Paul, softly, "but you needn't tell everyone."

"It's only Bart," cried Deborah, casting a fierce look in the direction of the slim, sharp-faced young man, "and if he was to talk I'd take his tongue out. That I would. I'm a-training him to be my husband, as I don't hold with the ready-made article, and married he shall be, by parsing and clark if he's a good boy and don't talk of what don't matter to him."

"I ain't goin' to chatter," said Bart, with a wink. "Lor' bless you, sir, I've seen gentlemen as noble as yourself pawning things down there"—he nodded again towards the floor—"ah, and ladies too, but—"

"Hold your tongue," cried Deborah, pitching herself across the floor like a ship in distress. "Your a-talking now of what you ain't a right to be a-talkin' of, drat you. Come this way, Mr. Beecot, to the place where old Nick have his home, for that he is when seven strikes."

"You shouldn't speak of your master in that way," protested Paul.

"Oh, shouldn't I," snorted the maid, with a snort surprisingly loud. "And who have a better right, sir? I've been here twenty year as servant and nuss and friend and 'umble well-wisher to Miss Sylvia, coming a slip of a girl at ten, which makes me thirty, I don't deny; not that it's too old to marry Bart, though he's but twenty, and makes up in wickedness for twice that age. I know master, and when the sun's up there ain't a better man living, but turn on the gas and he's an old Nick. Bart, attend to your business and don't open them long ears of yours too wide. I won't have a listening husband, I can tell you. This way, sir. Mind the steps."

By this time Deborah had convoyed Paul to a dark corner behind the counter and jerked back a trap door. Here he saw a flight of wooden steps which led downwards into darkness. But Miss Junk snatched up a lantern on the top step, and having lighted it dropped down, holding it above her red and touzelled head. Far below her voice was heard crying to Beecot to "Come on"; therefore he followed as quickly as he could, and soon found himself in the cellar. All around was dark, but Deborah lighted a couple of flaring gas-jets, and then turned, with her arms akimbo, on the visitor.

"Now then, sir, you and me must have a talk, confidential like," said she in her breathless way. "It's pawning is it? By which I knows that you ain't brought that overbearing pa of yours to his knees."

Paul sat down in a clumsy mahogany chair, which stood near a plain deal table, and stared at the handmaiden. "I never told you about my father," he said, exhibiting surprise.

"Oh, no, of course not"—Miss Junk tossed her head—"me being a babe an' a suckling, not fit to be told anything. But you told Miss Sylvia and she told me, as she tells everything to her Debby, God bless her for a pretty flower!" She pointed a coarse, red finger at Paul. "If you were a gay deceiver, Mr. Beecot, I'd trample on your corp this very minute if I was to die at Old Bailey for the doing of it."

Seeing Deborah was breathless again, Paul seized his chance. "There is no reason you shouldn't know all about me, and—"

"No, indeed, I should think not, begging your pardon, sir. But when you comes here six months back, I ses to Miss Sylvia, I ses, 'He's making eyes at you, my lily,' and she ses to me, she says, 'Oh, Debby, I love him, that I do.' And then I ses, ses I, 'My pretty, he looks a gent born and bred, but that's the wust kind, so we'll find out if he's a liar before you loses your dear heart to him.'"

"But I'm not a liar—" began Paul, only to be cut short again.

"As well I knows," burst out Miss Junk, her arms akimbo again. "Do you think, sir, as I'd ha' let you come loving my pretty one and me not knowing if you was Judas or Jezebel? Not me, if I never drank my nightly drop of beer again. What you told Miss Sylvia of your frantic pa and your loving ma she told me. Pumping you may call it," shouted Deborah, emphasising again with the red finger, "but everything you told in your lover way she told her old silly Debby. I ses to Bart, if you loves me, Bart, go down to Wargrove, wherever it may be—if in England, which I doubt—and if he—meaning you—don't tell the truth, out he goes if I have the chucking of him myself and a police-court summings over it. So Bart goes to Wargrove, and he find out that you speaks true, which means that you're a gent, sir, if ever there was one, in spite of your frantic pa, so I hopes as you'll marry my flower, and make her happy—bless you," and Deborah spread a large pair of mottled arms over Paul's head.

"It's all true," said he, good-naturedly; "my father and I don't get on well together, and I came to make a name in London. But for all you know, Deborah, I may be a scamp."

"That you are not," she burst out. "Why, Bart's been follerin' you everywhere, and he and me, which is to be his lawful wife and master, knows all about you and that there place in Bloomsbury, and where you go and where you don't go. And let me tell you, sir," again she lifted her finger threateningly, "if you wasn't what you oughter be, never would you see my pretty one again. No, not if I had to wash the floor in your blue blood—for blue it is, if what Bart learned was true of them stone figgers in the church," and she gasped.

Paul was silent for a few minutes, looking at the floor. He wondered that he had not guessed all this. Often it had seemed strange to him that so faithful and devoted a couple of retainers as Bart and Deborah Junk should favor his wooing of Sylvia and keep it from their master, seeing that they knew nothing about him. But from the woman's story—which he saw no reason to disbelieve—the two had not rested until they had been convinced of his respectability and of the truth of his story. Thus they had permitted the wooing to continue, and Paul privately applauded them for their tact in so making sure of him without committing themselves to open speech. "All the same," he said aloud, and following his own thoughts, "it's strange that you should wish her to marry me."

Miss Junk made a queer answer. "I'm glad enough to see her marry anyone respectable, let alone a gent, as you truly are, with stone figgers in churches and a handsome face, though rather dark for my liking. Mr. Beecot, twenty year ago, a slip of ten, I come to nuss the baby as was my loving angel upstairs, and her ma had just passed away to jine them as lives overhead playing harps. All these years I've never heard a young step on them stairs, save Miss Sylvia's and Bart's, him having come five years ago, and a brat he was. And would you believe it, Mr. Beecot, I know no more of the old man than you do. He's queer, and he's wrong altogether, and that frightened of being alone in the dark as you could make him a corp with a turnip lantern."

"What is he afraid of?"

"Ah," said Deborah, significantly, "what indeed? It may be police and it may be ghosts, but, ghosts or police, he never ses what he oughter say if he's a respectable man, which I sadly fear he ain't."

"He may have his reasons to—"

Miss Junk tossed her head and snorted again loudly. "Oh, yes—he has his reasons," she admitted, "and Old Bailey ones they are, I dessay. But there's somethin' 'anging over his head. Don't ask me what it is, fur never shall you know, by reason of my being ignorant. But whatever it is, Mr. Beecot, it's something wicked, and shall I see my own pretty in trouble?"

"How do you know there will be trouble?" interrupted Paul, anxiously.

"I've heard him pray," said Miss Junk, mysteriously—"yes, you may look, for there ain't no prayer in the crafty eye of him—but pray he do, and asks to be kept from danger—"

"Danger?"

"Danger's the word, for I won't deceive you, no, not if you paid me better wages than the old man do give and he's as near as the paring of an inion. So I ses to Bart, if there's danger and trouble and Old Baileys about, the sooner Miss Sylvia have some dear man to give her a decent name and pertect her the more happy old Deborah will be. So I looked and looked for what you might call a fairy prince as I've heard tell of in pantomimes, and when you comes she loses her heart to you. So I ses, find out, Bart, what he is, and—"

"Yes, yes, I see. Well, Deborah, you can depend upon my looking after your pretty mistress. If I were only reconciled with my father I would speak to Mr. Norman."

"Don't, sir—don't!" cried the woman, fiercely, and making a clutch at Paul's arm; "he'll turn you out, he will, not being anxious fur anyone to have my flower, though love her as he oughter do, he don't, no," cried Deborah, "nor her ma before her, who died with a starvin' 'eart. But you run away with my sweetest and make her your own, though her pa swears thunderbolts as you may say. Take her from this place of wickedness and police-courts." And Deborah looked round the cellar with a shudder. Suddenly she started and held up her finger, nodding towards a narrow door at the side of the cellar. "Master's footstep," she said in a harsh whisper. "I'd know it in a thousand—just like a thief's, ain't it?—stealing as you might say. Don't tell him you've seen me."

"But Sylvia," cried Paul, catching her dress as she passed him.

"Her you'll see, if I die for it," said Deborah, and whirled up the wooden steps in a silent manner surprising in so noisy a woman. Paul heard the trap-door drop with a stealthy creak.

As a key grated in the lock of the outside door he glanced round the place to which he had penetrated for the first time. It was of the same size as the shop overhead, but the walls were of stone, green with slime and feathery with a kind of ghastly white fungus. Overhead, from the wooden roof, which formed the floor of the shop, hung innumerable spider's webs thick with dust. The floor was of large flags cracked in many places, and between the chinks in moist corners sprouted sparse, colorless grass. In the centre was a deal table, scored with queer marks and splotched with ink. Over this flared two gas-jets, which whistled shrilly. Against the wall, which was below the street, were three green painted safes fast locked: but the opposite wall had in it the narrow door aforesaid, and a wide grated window, the bars of which were rusty, though strong. The atmosphere of the place was cold and musty and suggestive of a charnel house. Certainly a strange place in which to transact business, but everything about Aaron Norman was strange.

And he looked strange himself as he stepped in at the open door. Beyond, Paul could see the shallow flight of damp steps leading to the yard and the passage which gave admission from the street. Norman locked the door and came forward. He was as white as a sheet, and his face was thickly beaded with perspiration. His mouth twitched more than usual, and his hands moved nervously. Twice as he advanced towards Paul, who rose to receive him, did he cast the odd look over his shoulder. Beecot fancifully saw in him a man who had committed some crime and was fearful lest it should be discovered, or lest the avenger should suddenly appear. Deborah's confidential talk had not been without its effects on the young man, and Paul beheld in Aaron a being of mystery. How such a man came to have such a daughter as Sylvia, Paul could not guess.

"Here you are, Mr. Beecot," said Aaron, rubbing his hands as though the cold of the cellar struck to his bones. "Well?"

"I want to pawn a brooch," said Beecot, slipping his hand into his breast pocket.

"Wait," said Norman, throwing up his lean hand. "Let me tell you that I have taken a fancy to you, and I have watched you all the many times you have been here. Didn't you guess?"

"No," said Paul, wondering if he was about to speak of Sylvia, and concluding that he guessed what was in the wind.

"Well then, I have," said the pawnbroker, "and I think it's a pity a young man should pawn anything. Have you no money?" he asked.

Paul reddened. "Very little," he said.

"Little as it may be, live on that and don't pawn," said Aaron. "I speak against my own interests, but I like you, and perhaps I can lend you a few shillings."

"I take money from no one, thank you all the same," said Beecot, throwing back his head, "but if you can lend me something on this brooch," and he pulled out the case from his pocket. "A friend of mine would have bought it, but as it belongs to my mother I prefer to pawn it so that I may get it again when I am rich."

"Well, well," said Aaron, abruptly, and resuming his downcast looks, "I shall do what I can. Let me see it."

He stretched out his hand and took the case. Slowly opening it under the gas, he inspected its contents. Suddenly he gave a cry of alarm, and the case fell to the floor. "The Opal Serpent!—The Opal Serpent!" he cried, growing purple in the face, "keep off!—keep off!" He beat the air with his lean hands. "Oh—the Opal!" and he fell face downward on the slimy floor in a fit or a faint, but certainly unconscious.

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CHAPTER III

DULCINEA OF GWYNNE STREET

Near the Temple Station of the Metropolitan Railway is a small garden which contains a certain number of fairly-sized trees, a round band-stand, and a few flower-beds intersected by asphalt paths. Here those who are engaged in various offices round about come to enjoy rus in urbes, to listen to the gay music, and, in many cases, to eat a scanty mid-day meal. Old women come to sun themselves, loafers sit on the seats to rest, workmen smoke and children play. On a bright day the place is pretty, and those who frequent it feel as though they were enjoying a country holiday though but a stone's throw from the Thames. And lovers meet here also, so it was quite in keeping that Paul Beecot should wait by the bronze statues of the Herculaneum wrestlers for the coming of Sylvia.

On the previous day he had departed hastily, after committing the old man to Deborah's care. At first he had lingered to see Aaron revive, but when the unconscious man came to his senses and opened his eyes he fainted again when his gaze fell on Paul. Deborah, therefore, in her rough, practical way, suggested that as Beecot was "upsetting him" he had better go. It was in a state of perplexity that Paul had gone away, but he was cheered on his homeward way by a hasty assurance given by Miss Junk that Sylvia would meet him in the gardens, "near them niggers without clothes," said Deborah.

It was strange that the sight of the brooch should have produced such an effect on Aaron, and his fainting confirmed Paul's suspicions that the old man had not a clean conscience. But what the serpent brooch had to do with the matter Beecot could not conjecture. It was certainly an odd piece of jewellery, and not particularly pretty, but that the merest glimpse of it should make Norman faint was puzzling in the extreme.

"Apparently it is associated with something disagreeable in the man's mind," soliloquised Paul, pacing the pavement and keeping a sharp look-out for Sylvia, "perhaps with death, else the effect would scarcely have been so powerful as to produce a fainting fit. Yet Aaron can't know my mother. Hum! I wonder what it means."

While he was trying to solve the mystery a light touch on his arm made him wheel round, and he beheld Sylvia smiling at him. While he was looking along the Embankment for her coming she had slipped down Norfolk Street and through the gardens, to where the wrestlers clutched at empty air. In her low voice, which was the sweetest of all sounds to Paul, she explained this, looking into his dark eyes meanwhile. "But I can't stay long," finished Sylvia. "My father is still ill, and he wants me to return and nurse him."

"Has he explained why he fainted?" asked Paul, anxiously.

"No; he refuses to speak on the matter. Why did he faint, Paul?"

The young man looked puzzled. "Upon my word I don't know," he said. "Just as I was showing him a brooch I wished to pawn he went off."

"What kind of a brooch?" asked the girl, also perplexed.

Paul took the case out of his breast pocket, where it had been since the previous day. "My mother sent it to me," he explained; "you see she guesses that I am hard up, and, thanks to my father, she can't send me money. This piece of jewellery she has had for many years, but as it is rather old-fashioned she never wears it. So she sent it to me, hoping that I might get ten pounds or so on it. A friend of mine wished to buy it, but I was anxious to get it back again, so that I might return it to my mother. Therefore I thought your father might lend me money on it."

Sylvia examined the brooch with great attention. It was evidently of Indian workmanship, delicately chased, and thickly set with jewels. The serpent, which was apparently wriggling across the stout gold pin of the brooch, had its broad back studded with opals, large in the centre of the body and small at head and tail. These were set round with tiny diamonds, and the head was of chased gold with a ruby tongue. Sylvia admired the workmanship and the jewels, and turned the brooch over. On the flat smooth gold underneath she found the initial "R" scratched with a pin. This she showed to Paul. "I expect your mother made this mark to identify the brooch," she said.

"My mother's name is Anne," replied Paul, looking more puzzled than ever, "Anne Beecot. Why should she mark this with an initial which has nothing to do with her name?"

"Perhaps it is a present," suggested Sylvia.

Paul snapped the case to, and replaced it in his pocket. "Perhaps it is," he said. "However, when I next write to my mother I'll ask her where she got the brooch. She has had it for many years," he added musingly, "for I remember playing with it when a small boy."

"Don't tell your mother that my father fainted."

"Why not? Does it matter?"

Sylvia folded her slender hands and looked straight in front of her. For some time they had been seated on a bench in a retired part of the gardens, and the laughter of playing children, the music of the band playing the merriest airs from the last musical comedy, came faintly to their ears. "I think it does matter," said the girl, seriously; "for some reason my father wants to keep himself as quiet as possible. He talks of going away."

"Going away. Oh, Sylvia, and you never told me."

"He only spoke of going away when I came to see how he was this morning," she replied. "I wonder if his fainting has anything to do with this determination. He never talked of going away before."

Paul wondered also. It seemed strange that after so unusual an event the old man should turn restless and wish to leave a place where he had lived for over twenty years. "I'll come and have an explanation," said Paul, after a pause.

"I think that will be best, dear. Father said that he would like to see you again, and told Bart to bring you in if he saw you."

"I'll call to-day—this afternoon, and perhaps your father will explain. And now, Sylvia, that is enough about other people and other things. Let us talk of ourselves."

Sylvia turned her face with a fond smile. She was a delicate and dainty little lady, with large grey eyes and soft brown hair. Her complexion was transparent, and she had little color in her cheeks. With her oval face, her thin nose and charming mouth she looked very pretty and sweet. But it was her expression that Paul loved. That was a trifle sad, but when she smiled her looks changed as an overcast sky changes when the sun bursts through the clouds. Her figure was perfect, her hands and feet showed marks of breeding, and although her grey dress was as demure as any worn by a Quakeress, she looked bright and merry in the sunshine of her lover's presence. Everything about Sylvia was dainty and neat and exquisitely clean: but she was hopelessly out of the fashion. It was this odd independence in her dress which constituted another charm in Paul's eyes.

The place was too public to indulge in love-making, and it was very tantalising to sit near this vision of beauty without gaining the delight of a kiss. Paul feasted his eyes, and held Sylvia's grey-gloved hand under cover of her dress. Further he could not go.

"But if you put up your sunshade," he suggested artfully.

"Paul!" That was all Sylvia said, but it suggested a whole volume of rebuke. Brought up in seclusion, like the princess in an enchanted castle, the girl was exceedingly shy. Paul's ardent looks and eager wooing startled her at times, and he thought disconsolately that his chivalrous love-making was coarse and common when he gazed on the delicate, dainty, shrinking maid he adored.

"You should not have stepped out of your missal, Sylvia," he said sadly.

"Whatever do you mean, dearest?"

"I mean that you are a saint—an angel—a thing to be adored and worshipped. You are exactly like one of those lovely creations one sees in mass-books of the Middle Ages. I fear, Sylvia," Paul sighed, "that you are too dainty and holy for this work-a-day world."

"What nonsense, Paul! I'm a poor girl without position or friends, living in a poor street. You are the first person who ever thought me pretty."

"You are not pretty," said the ardent Beecot, "you are divine—you are Beatrice—you are Elizabeth of Thuringia—you are everything that is lovely and adorable."

"And you are a silly boy," replied Sylvia, blushing, but loving this poetic talk all the same. "Do you want to put me in a glass case when we marry? If you do, I sha'n't become Mrs. Beecot. I want to see the world and to enjoy myself."

"Then other men will admire you and I shall grow jealous."

"Can you be jealous—Paul?"

"Horribly! You don't know half my bad qualities. I am poor and needy, and ambitious and jealous, and—"

"There—there. I won't hear you run yourself down. You are the best boy in the world."

"Poor world, if I am that," he laughed, and squeezed the little hand. "Oh, my love, do you really think of me?"