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“Indeed?” said Chester.
“Yes, my dear sir, indeed; but you see, I am a very old man now, and I fear that I have grown weak and vacillating; I may add cowardly too. I have shrunk from going to a doctor for fear that he should tell me that I must give up my studies – that I am failing and coming very near to the end of my span.”
“Oh, surely not,” said Chester. “You look a very healthy subject, sir.”
“I – I don’t know, my dear sir, but I have been afraid to go; and here, all at once, in the most casual way, I suddenly make the acquaintance of a medical man, and find him seated opposite to me, talking in a friendly way which quite invites my confidence. It is strange, is it not?”
“Very strange, indeed,” said Chester, gazing hard in the pleasant, bland old countenance before him. “But really, my dear sir, I do not think you require medical advice.”
The old man returned the fixed gaze and then said appealingly —
“I hope, my dear sir, you are speaking sincerely.”
“Of course,” replied Chester.
“Not as doctors sometimes do, to encourage their patients?”
“Certainly not,” cried Chester. “There is every sign of a vigorous, green old age about you.”
“That is very pleasant to hear, my dear sir,” said the old man, “very pleasant. I don’t think I am one ready to repine, or one who would seek to live for selfish considerations – love of pleasure or the like – but I have so much to do. I want years yet to complete my collection, and I may have to go over to Leyden, Leipsic, Nuremberg, Florence, and several of the other Continental towns which were the birthplaces of many of these old tomes which you see upon my shelves.”
“I see no reason why you should not live for years yet, sir,” said Chester, encouragingly.
“But my head – my brain. I find I grow forgetful, my dear sir. I put away books and forget their places. All little symptoms, are they not, of failing powers?”
“To be perfectly candid, certainly they are,” said Chester; “but in a healthy old age these failings come very, very gradually, and nature suggests so many ways of palliating them. For instance, a clever young secretary with a methodical turn of mind would relieve you of a trouble like this. Really I do not think that you have any occasion to trouble yourself about such a symptom as that, any more than you have about the failing powers of sight which compelled you to take to glasses.”
“My dear young friend!” cried the old man, leaning forward to catch at his visitor’s hand, “I cannot find words to express my gratitude. You do not know what a relief your words have been to me. It is wonderful, and upon such a casual acquaintanceship. But I sincerely hope that you will let me see more of you – er – that is, if I am not troublesome to you; such a wearisome old bookworm as I fear I must be. But the mouse helped the lion, you know, and who knows but what I may be able to help you with some information about your friends next door – let me see, I think you said it was the people next door whom you had been trying to find.”
“I did not say so,” said Chester, quietly.
“I beg your pardon; but you do wish to know something about them.”
“Well, frankly, yes, I do,” said Chester.
“Hah! And who knows but what I may be able to help you? I may remember something that does not occur to me now – a trifle or two perhaps, but which may be of importance from your point of view.
Come and see me sometimes. Let me show you my library. I think you might be interested in some of my books.”
“I have no doubt but that I should be.”
“To be sure, yes. I have an old copy of Hippocrates on surgery and medicine, and I daresay many others which do not occur to me now. Yes, of course, I have Boerhaave. You will come?”
“I shall be very glad to,” said Chester, warmly, though his conscience smote him for what he felt to be a false pretence.
“I am very, very glad,” said the old man, rising, going to an old cabinet and pulling out a drawer, from which he took a key and at the same time something short and black which he cleverly thrust into the breast of his loosely-made, old-fashioned tail-coat. “Now I am about to ask a favour of you, doctor,” he said, turning with a pleasant, genial smile upon his countenance. “I have other treasures here down below, besides books. Stored up and rarely brought out, bin after bin of very fine old wine. I am going to ask you to drink a glass of exceedingly old port with me.”
“No, no,” said Chester, “you must excuse me. I never drink wine at this time of day. Let me dine with you some time or other, and then – ”
“Yes, of course, my dear young friend; I hope many times; but just one glass now. Don’t say no. I feel to need it a little myself, for – don’t think me a feeble old dotard – the fact of telling you of my weakness, of confessing to a doctor my fears of coming to an end, have upset my nerves a little, and I can’t help fancying that a glass of good old wine would do me good.”
“I am sure it would, sir,” said Chester, warmly. “Well, there! I will break a rule, and join you in one glass.”
“Hah!” cried the old man, brightening up; “that is very good of you, doctor – very good. I feel better already in anticipation. Now, let me see – let me see.”
He opened the library table drawer and took out a box of matches and an old-fashioned, curled-up twist of wax taper, such as was the accompaniment of a writing-table in sealing-wax days, fifty years or so ago. This latter he lit, and then hung a large old key upon his little finger.
“The library next time you come, doctor; the cellar this time. A very fine cellar of wines, my dear sir, but wasted upon me. Just a glass now and then as a medicine. This way. I hope you will not mind the dust and cobwebs. An old-fashioned notion, but books seem to need the dust of ages, and it is precious upon them, just as old port ought to have its cobwebs and its crust. You will come with me to get a bottle?”
“Oh yes,” said Chester, and he followed the old man out of the room into the book-encumbered hall, and along to the back, past chest and shelf, to where there was the glass door opening on the stone flight leading down into the basement.
“This way, my dear sir. One moment; there should be a basket here. Yes, here we are; would you mind lighting me? Thank you.”
Chester took the wax taper and lighted the old man, while he took down from behind the glass door, where it hung upon a hook, one of those cradle-like baskets in which a bottle of rich old wine can recline without destroying its fineness.
“You see,” said the old man, “I am a bit of a connoisseur. I like to keep my wine as it has lain in the bin. No decanting for me. Straight on down, my dear sir.”
Chester did not hesitate, but led on down the stone stairs, holding the light on high, the tiny taper shining back upon a pair of flashing eyes and the wrinkles of a now wonderfully wrinkled face, while in the shadows behind a thin, claw-like hand glided to the breast-pocket of the old-fashioned coat, to draw out one of those misnamed weapons formed of twisted whalebone, ending in a weighty leaden knob.
Chester bore the light; behind him seemed to hover upon the dingy walls the Shadow of Death.
By the Skin of his Teeth
The Shadow passed away.
In another moment a crushing blow from a life-preserver, delivered by a vigorous arm, would have fallen upon the back of Chester’s skull, and sent him headlong down the flight of stairs; but the deadly weapon was thrust back into its owner’s breast, and the fierce, vindictive expression passed from his face as there was a violent ringing of the largest of the row of bells hanging to their right, and Chester turned sharply round, taper in hand, to look questioningly at the old man.
“Dear me!” he said, smiling, “how tiresome! This is one of the troubles of living quite alone, my dear young friend. I always have to answer my own door. I’m afraid that I must ask you to come back to the front room. Would you mind bringing the light? Thank you; I will take it.”
He blew out the clear little flame as they reached the glass door, and then set down the basket, before leading the way back into the library, where he glanced from the window.
“Dear me!” he said. “More books. So very late in the day too. They always come at awkward times. Pray sit down or look at some of my works. You’ll find something to interest you, I feel sure. Yes – yes; I’m coming,” he said, as the bell rang loudly again. “Don’t be so impatient, my good men, don’t be so impatient.”
“One moment; if you have business, I will go now,” said Chester.
“Oh, by no means,” said the old man. “I shall not be many moments. Pray take a book and my chair, there. It is only the railway men. I shall soon be done.”
Chester did not take the chair, but began to inspect the dusty shelves, while he heard the front door open and after a time the sound of heavy feet upon the steps, and then the bump down of what sounded like a heavy chest. Then more steps outside, the rattle of a chain belonging to the tail-board of a van, and the steps again.
Then he ceased to hear anything that was going on, for his thoughts had run to the adjoining house and his experiences there, but only to be succeeded by an indescribable sensation of dread – a singular feeling of malaise which troubled his faculties. It was like a portent of something hanging over him, or over her who occupied so much of his thoughts.
“I can’t stay here,” he said to himself. “I must get out into the open air. This place makes me feel sick and faint.”
He picked up one of the many books lying about, and threw it down again impatiently, to walk to the door, where he could hear the old student directing the men who had brought the consignment; while from the sounds it was evident that they were carrying the chests or whatever they were, down into the basement.
Feeling that it would be rude to interrupt his host then, he went back to the table.
“What is the matter with me?” he muttered, as he shivered involuntarily. “Is it from cold, or from over-thought and worry? Not going to be ill, am I, and at such a time?”
“I know,” he thought, at the end of a few minutes; “it is this place. The air is close and mephitic. I don’t believe the windows are ever open. I cannot stay here. I feel as if I should faint. Rude or not, I must go.”
He had sunk into a chair, and now started up, just as the old man re-entered.
“Just done,” he said cheerfully. “One moment. Heavy boxes, and these men like to have a glass. Not my old port, though. They would not appreciate it. A little of this – a little of this brandy.”
He kept on talking softly as he took out a bottle and glasses from a cellarette, filled a couple, set the bottle down again, and carried the glasses out; and as the door swung to, Chester caught up the bottle quickly, held it to his lips, and gulped down a mouthful.
“Hah!” he muttered, as he set the brandy down and sank back in the chair; “that is stimulating. But how strange that I should feel like this. Ugh!”
He shuddered, for a cold chill ran through him, and the sensation of fear increased.
“Can it be something threatening her?” he muttered. “How strange! I have not felt like this since I lost my first patient,” and the chill of coming dissolution seemed to hang in the air.
“Pooh! Fancy. It is a slight chill. That brandy will soon take it off.”
The voices reached him again, and the steps were heard outside; then the front door was closed, and the old man came in smiling.
“Always at such inconvenient times,” he said. “Generally when I am studying some intricate passage by an old author; but to-day when I have had my first visitor for months. I’m afraid you have found me very long.”
“Oh no, don’t name it,” said Chester, hurriedly, “but – ”
“Ah! your kindness of heart makes you speak thus,” said the old man, hastily. “Two heavy chests of books, and I was obliged to make the men take them downstairs, or they would block the passage. But now for the glass of wine and our chat.”
“I’m afraid that I shall be obliged to ask you to excuse me to-day,” said Chester, who had risen.
“Oh, surely not,” cried the old man in a disappointed tone. “I was reckoning so upon asking your opinion, my dear sir. Like liquid rubies. It will not take long.”
“No, it would not take long,” replied Chester, who now spoke rather excitedly, while the old man’s eyes glittered strangely behind his glasses; “but I have been here some time now, and I must get back.”
“But, my dear sir – ”
“Don’t press me, please. I, am rather unwell.”
“You are not offended at my leaving you?”
“No, absurd!” cried Chester, hastily. “I have had a good deal of trouble lately, and my nerves have been shaken.”
“Your nerves have been shaken?” said the old man, gazing at him in a peculiar way.
“Yes,” said Chester; “but another day you must let me come; and perhaps you can tell me a little more about your neighbours.”
The old man smiled sadly.
“Ah!” he said, “I am growing old and garrulous, and I have bored you, as you young people call it. You will not come again.”
“Indeed, I will,” cried Chester, holding out his hand to take his host’s, which was extended unwillingly, and felt like ice. “Oh yes, I will come to-morrow or the next day. This is no paltry excuse. You may trust me.”
“Ah, well, I will,” said the old man, who seemed to be satisfied with his scrutiny. “Pray come, then, and put up with my strange, unworldly ways; and you must give me some more hints about my health. In the meantime I will look out some of the old medical and surgical works. You will find them interesting.”
“Yes, I hope we shall spend many hours together,” said Chester, frankly, as he moved toward the door, the old man walking by his side with his hands under the tails of his coat, where a looker-on would have seen that they were crooked and opening and shutting spasmodically.
It was very dim now in the book-burdened room, the evening light having hard work to pierce the uncleaned panes of the windows; but there was light enough to show that, and also that the old bookworm’s claw-like right hand went into the coat-pocket and half drew from it something small and hard.
But nothing followed as they walked into the gloomy hall and away to the front door, where, after a friendly shake of the hand, Chester uttered a sigh of relief as he turned away from the house, seeming to breathe more freely as he walked briskly along.
“Pah! the old place felt like a sepulchre,” he muttered. “It was just as if the hand of death were clutching at me. I believe that if I had not taken that brandy I should have fainted. What a state my nerves must be in. Why, it is the most fortunate thing that could have happened. Once gain the old man’s confidence, I can stay there and watch the next house as long as I like.”
There was something ominous about the old bookworm’s act as he went softly back into his half-dark, dusty room, evidently thinking deeply, till he stopped short in the middle to stand gazing down at the floor.
“Yes, he said he was ill; he looked ill when he came up to the door – half mad. He will come back again, perhaps to-morrow – perhaps to-morrow. Hah! it was very near.”
He raised his head now, went to the drawer from which he had taken the key, and placed back in it the heavy life-preserver, and then taking from the tail of the coat one of the short, old-fashioned pocket pistols which were loaded by unscrewing the little barrel by means of a key. This he examined, taking off the cap, after raising the hammer and putting a fresh one in its place. After this he closed the drawer and sat down to think.
“Yes,” he said, half aloud, “it was very near. The next time he comes perhaps he’ll stay. He is getting to be a nuisance, and a dangerous one, as well.”
Strangely Mysterious Proceedings
The Clareboroughs’ carriage was at the door, and the well-matched, handsome pair of horses were impatiently pawing the ground, in spite of sundry admonitions from the plump coachman of the faultless turn-out to be “steady there!” “hold still!” and the like.
Mr Roach, the butler, had appeared for a minute on the step, looking very pompous and important, exchanged nods with the coachman, and gone in again to wait for the descent of their people, bound for one of Lord Gale’s dinner-parties in Grosvenor Place.
All was still in the hall as the door was closed, and the marble statues and bodiless busts did not move upon their pedestals, nor their blank faces display the slightest wonder at the proceedings which followed, even though they were enough to startle them out of their equanimity.
For all at once the pompous, stolid butler and the stiff, military-looking footman, in his good, refined livery, suddenly seemed to have been stricken with a kind of delirious attack. The expression upon their faces changed from its customary social diplomatic calm to one of wild delight, and they both broke into a spasmodic dance, a combination of the wildest step of the can-can and the mad angulations of a nigger breakdown, with the accompaniment of snapping of fingers at each other and the final kick-up and flop of the right foot upon the floor.
Then they rushed at each other and embraced – the solemn, middle-aged butler and the tall young footman – theatrically, after which they seemed to come to their normal senses, and quietly shook hands.
“’Bliged to let some of the steam off, old man?” whispered the footman.
“Yes, Orthur, my boy, had to open the safety valve,” replied the butler. “We’re made men, eh?”
“Not quite,” said the footman, grinning, “but getting into shape. Three hundred a-piece. I say, ain’t it grand?”
“Splendid,” said the butler, with a broad smile. “But steady now.”
“I say; wasn’t the idea right?”
“Right as right, my boy.”
“Ah,” said the footman, with a knowing wink, “who’d be without a good only uncle to tip you when you want a few pounds to invest? I say, though, you’ll go and pay the old boy as soon as we’re gone?”
“Won’t be time.”
“Oh yes; you’ll be all right. Get it done. Make it easy if we want to do it again, eh?”
“All right; I’ll go. I say, Orthur, ain’t I like a father to you?”
“Dear old man!” whispered the gentleman addressed, with a grin. “Me long-lost forther!”
“Steady!” said the butler, sternly, and their masks of servitude were on their faces again, with the elder stern and pompous, the younger respectful and steady as a rock. “Yes; I’ll go and put that right. Must take a cab. You’ll pay half?”
“Of course; that’s all right, sir. Fair shares in everything. I say, Bob’s got something else on. Hadn’t a chance to tell you before.”
“Eh? What is that?”
“Goodwood. He’s had a letter. I say, shall we be on there? Oh no, not at all.”
“Pst! coming down,” whispered the butler; and the footman opened the door and went out to the carriage, which soon after dashed off, while the butler, after the regular glance up street and down, closed the door. He descended to his pantry, where he drew a glossy hat from a box, took an empty Gladstone bag from a cupboard and went out to hail the first hansom round the corner. This rattled him away in the direction of Bloomsbury, where he descended close to the great grim portico of the church, and told the man to wait.
The driver gave a glance at him, but the butler looked too respectable for a bilker, and he settled down for a quiet smoke, muttering, “Grapes or pears.”
But cabby was wrong. Mr Roach was not the class of domestic to lower his dignity by engaging in a kind of commerce which could be properly carried on by the fruiterer. He made for a quiet street, turned up a narrow court, and passed in through a glazed swing door upon whose embossed pane appeared the blazon of the Medici family – the three golden pills – the crest of the generous relative – “mine uncle” of the borrower high and low, and the minute after he stood in darkness in a narrow box.
A sharp-faced young man with a pen behind his ear came from the right and stretched out his hand across the broad counter.
“Send the guv’nor,” said Roach, importantly.
A sharp look was the answer, the shopman went away, and his place was taken directly by a keen, dark man, with a gaslight complexion, and to him Roach handed a little white ticket.
“Hullo! So soon!” said the man, showing his teeth, which matched his skin.
“Well, didn’t I tell you so?” said Roach, importantly.
“Yes, but I don’t quite believe everything my clients say.”
“No, and you were precious uppish and hold-offish the other day,” said Roach, shortly.
“Obliged to be careful, Mr Smith, in my profession,” said the pawnbroker, with a peculiar smile. “There’s a law against receiving stolen goods, and one don’t want to get into trouble.”
“Well, you needn’t begin to suspect everybody who wants money, if there is. Do you suppose gentry don’t run short of money sometimes?”
“Oh no. I know they do, Mr Smith. I could show you some jewellery that would open your eyes.”
“And I dessay I could show you something that would open yours. May have to bring it to you some day. Who knows?”
“Glad to do business on the square any time, Mr Smith,” said the pawnbroker.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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