The History of the Young Man with Spectacles (part 2/3)

One day Lipsius summoned me to his private room, and told me that he had a difficult task to give me. He unlocked a drawer, and gave me a sheet of type-written paper, and had me read it. It was without place, or date, or signature, and ran as follows:–

“Mr. James Headley, F.S.A., will receive from his agent in Armenia, on the 12th inst., a unique coin, the gold Tiberius. It hears on the reverse a faun, with the legend VICTORIA. It is believed that this coin is of immense value. Mr. Headley will come up to town to show the coin to his friend, Professor Memys, of Chenies Street, Oxford Street, on some date between the 13th and the 18th.”

Dr. Lipsius chuckled at my face of blank surprise when I laid down this singular communication.

“You will have a good chance of showing your discretion,” he said. “This is not a common case; it requires great management and infinite tact. I am sure I wish I had a Panurge in my service, but we will see what you can do.”

“But is it not a joke?” I asked him. “How can you know, or rather how can this correspondent of yours know that a coin has been despatched from Armenia to Mr. Headley? And how is it possible to fix the period in which Mr. Headley will take it into his head to come up to town? It seems to me a lot of guess work.”

“My dear Mr. Walters,” he replied; “we do not deal in guess work here. It would bore you if I went into all these little details, the cogs and wheels, if I may say so, which move the machine. Don’t you think it is much more amusing to sit in front of the house and be astonished, than to be behind the scenes and see the mechanism? Better tremble at the thunder, believe me, than see the man rolling the cannon ball. But, after all, you needn’t bother about the how and why; you have your share to do. Of course, I shall give you full instructions, but a great deal depends on the way the thing is carried out. I have often heard very young men maintain that style is everything in literature, and I can assure you that the same maxim holds good in our far more delicate profession. With us style is absolutely everything, and that is why we have friends like yourself.”

I went away in some perturbation; he had no doubt designedly left everything in mystery, and I did not know what part I should have to play. Though I had assisted at scenes of hideous revelry, I was not yet dead to all echo of human feeling, and I trembled lest I should receive the order to be Mr. Headley’s executioner.

A week later, it was on the sixteenth of the month, Dr. Lipsius made me a sign to come into his room.

“It is for to-night,” he began. “Please to attend carefully to what I am going to say, Mr. Walters, and on peril of your life, for it is a dangerous matter,–on peril of your life I say, follow these instructions to the letter. You understand? Well, to-night at about half-past seven you will stroll quietly up the Hampstead Road till you come to Vincent Street. Turn down here and walk along, taking the third turning to your right, which is Lambert Terrace. Then follow the terrace, cross the road, and go along Hertford Street, and so into Lillington Square. The second turning you will come to in the square is called Sheen Street; but in reality it is more a passage between blank walls than a street. Whatever you do, take care to be at the corner of this street at eight o’clock precisely. You will walk along it, and just at the bend, where you lose sight of the square, you will find an old gentleman with white beard and whiskers. He will in all probability be abusing a cabman for having brought him to Sheen Street instead of Chenies Street. You will go up to him quietly and offer your services; he will tell you where he wants to go, and you will be so courteous as to offer to show him the way. I may say that Professor Memys moved, into Chenies Street a month ago; thus Mr. Headley has never been to see him there, and moreover he is very short-sighted, and knows little of the topography of London. Indeed he has quite lived the life of a learned hermit at Audley Hall.

“Well, need I say more to a man of your intelligence? You will bring him to this house; he will ring the bell, and a servant in quiet livery will let him in. Then your work will be done, and I am sure done well. You will leave Mr. Headley at the door, and simply continue your walk, and I shall hope to see you the next day. I really don’t think there is anything more I can tell you.”

These minute instructions I took care to carry out to the letter. I confess that I walked up the Tottenham Court Road by no means blindly, but with an uneasy sense that I was coming to a decisive point in my life. The noise and rumor of the crowded pavements were to me but dumb-show. I revolved again and again in ceaseless iteration the task that had been laid on me, and I questioned myself as to the possible results. As I got near the point of turning, I asked myself whether danger were not about my steps; the cold thought struck me that I was suspected and observed, and every chance foot-passenger who gave me a second glance seemed to me an officer of police. My time was running out, the sky had darkened, and I hesitated, half resolved to go no farther, but to abandon Lipsius and his friends forever. I had almost determined to take this course, when the conviction suddenly came to me that the whole thing was a gigantic joke, a fabrication of rank improbability. Who could have procured the information about the Armenian agent, I asked myself. By what means could Lipsius have known the particular day, and the very train that Mr. Headley was to take? How engage him to enter one special cab amongst the dozens waiting at Paddington? I vowed it a mere Milesian tale, and went forward merrily, and turned down Vincent Street, and threaded out the route that Lipsius had so carefully impressed upon me. The various streets he had named were all places of silence and an oppressive cheap gentility; it was dark, and I felt alone in the musty squares and crescents, where people pattered by at intervals, and the shadows were growing blacker. I entered Sheen Street, and found it, as Lipsius had said, more a passage than a street; it was a by-way, on one side a low wall and neglected gardens and grim backs of a line of houses, and on the other a timber yard. I turned the corner, and lost sight of the square, and then to my astonishment I saw the scene of which I had been told. A hansom cab had come to a stop beside the pavement, and an old man carrying a handbag was fiercely abusing the cabman, who sat on his perch the image of bewilderment.

“Yes, but I’m sure you said Sheen Street, and that’s where I brought you,” I heard him saying, as I came up, and the old gentleman boiled in a fury, and threatened police and suits at law.

The sight gave me a shock; and in an instant I resolved to go through with it. I strolled on, and without noticing the cabman, lifted my hat politely to old Mr. Headley.

“Pardon me, sir,” I said, “but is there any difficulty? I see you are a traveller; perhaps the cabman has made a mistake. Can I direct you?”

The old fellow turned to me, and I noticed that he snarled and showed his teeth like an ill-tempered cur as he spoke.

“This drunken fool has brought me here,” he said. “I told him to drive to Chenies Street, and he brings me to this infernal place. I won’t pay him a farthing, and I meant to have given him a handsome sum. I am going to call for the police and give him in charge.”

At this threat the cabman seemed to take alarm. He glanced round as if to make sure that no policeman was in sight and drove off grumbling loudly, and Mr. Headley grinned, savagely with satisfaction at having saved his fare, and put back one and sixpence into his pocket, the “handsome sum” the cabman had lost.

“My dear sir,” I said, “I am afraid this piece of stupidity has annoyed you a great deal. It is a long way to Chenies Street, and you will have some difficulty in finding the place unless you know London pretty well.”

“I know it very little,” he replied. “I never come up except on important business, and I’ve never been to Chenies Street in my life.”

“Really? I should be happy to show you the way. I have been for a stroll, and it will not at all inconvenience me to take you to your destination.”

“I want to go to Professor Memys, at number 15. It’s most annoying to me. I’m short-sighted, and I can never make out the numbers on the doors.”

“This way if you please,” I said, and we set out.

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