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

I did not find Mr. Headley an agreeable man; indeed, he grumbled the whole way. He informed me of his name, and I took care to say, “The well-known antiquary?” and thenceforth I was compelled to listen to the history of his complicated squabbles with publishers, who had treated him, as he said, disgracefully. The man was a chapter in the Irritability of Authors. He told me that he had been on the point of making the fortune of several firms, but had been compelled to abandon the design owing to their rank ingratitude. Besides these ancient histories of wrong and the more recent misadventure of the cabman, he had another grievous complaint to make. As he came along in the train, he had been sharpening a pencil, and the sudden jolt of the engine as it drew up at a station had driven the penknife against his face, inflicting a small triangular wound just on the cheek-bone, which he showed me. He denounced the railway company, and heaped imprecations on the head of the driver, and talked of claiming damages. Thus he grumbled all the way, not noticing in the least where he was going, and so inamiable did his conduct appear to me that I began to enjoy the trick I was playing on him.

Nevertheless my heart beat a little faster as we turned into the street where Lipsius was waiting. A thousand accidents, I thought, might happen. Some chance might bring one of Headley’s friends to meet us; perhaps, though he knew not Chenies Street, he might know the street where I was taking him; in spite of his short-sight he might possibly make out the number, or in a sudden fit of suspicion he might make an inquiry of the policeman at the corner. Thus every step upon the pavement, as we drew nearer to the goal, was to me a pang and a terror, and every approaching passenger carried a certain threat of danger. I gulped down my excitement with an effort, and made shift to say pretty quietly:–

“No. 15, I think you said? That is the third house from this. If you will allow me, I will leave you now; I have been delayed a little, and my way lies on the other side of Tottenham Court Road.”

He snarled out some kind of thanks, and I turned my back and walked swiftly in the opposite direction. A minute or two later, I looked round and saw Mr. Headley standing on the doorstep, and then the door opened and he went in. For my part I gave a sigh of relief, and hastened to get away from the neighborhood and endeavored to enjoy myself in merry company.

The whole of the next day I kept away from Lipsius. I felt anxious, but I did not know what had happened or what was happening, and a reasonable regard for my own safety told me that I should do well to remain quietly at home. My curiosity, however, to learn the end of the odd drama in which I had played a part stung me to the quick, and late in the evening I made up my mind to go and see how events had turned out. Lipsius nodded when I came in, and asked me if I could give him five minutes’ talk. We went into his room, and he began to walk up and down, and I sat waiting for him to speak.

“My dear Mr. Walters,” he said at length, “I congratulate you warmly. Your work was done in the most thorough and artistic manner. You will go far. Look.”

He went to his escritoire and pressed a secret spring, and a drawer flew out, and he laid something on the table. It was a gold coin, and I took it up and examined it eagerly, and read the legend about the figure of the faun.

“Victoria,” I said, smiling.

“Yes, it was a great capture, which we owe to you. I had great difficulty in persuading Mr. Headley that a little mistake had been made; that was how I put it. He was very disagreeable, and indeed ungentlemanly about it; didn’t he strike you as a very cross old man?”

I held the coin, admiring the choice and rare design, clear cut as if from the mint; and I thought the fine gold glowed and burned like a lamp.

“And what finally became of Mr. Headley?” I said at last.

Lipsius smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“What on earth does it matter?” he said. “He might be here, or there, or anywhere; but what possible consequence could it be? Besides, your question rather surprises me. You are an intelligent man, Mr. Walters. Just think it over, and I’m sure you won’t repeat the question.”

“My dear sir,” I said, “I hardly think you are treating me fairly. You have paid me some handsome compliments on my share in the capture, and I naturally wish to know how the matter ended. From what I saw of Mr. Headley, I should think you must have had some difficulty with him.”

He gave me no answer for the moment, but began again to walk up and down the room, apparently absorbed in thought.

“Well,” he said at last, “I suppose there is something in what you say. We are certainly indebted to you. I have said, that I have a high opinion of your intelligence, Mr. Walters. Just look here, will you.”

He opened a door communicating with another room and pointed.

There was a great box lying on the floor; a queer coffin-shaped thing. I looked at it and saw it was a mummy case like those in the British Museum, vividly painted in the brilliant Egyptian colors, with I knew not what proclamation of dignity or hopes of life immortal. The mummy, swathed about in the robes of death, was lying within, and the face had been uncovered.

“You are going to send this away?” I said, forgetting the question I had put.

“Yes; I have an order from a local museum. Look a little more closely, Mr. Walters.”

Puzzled by his manner, I peered into the face, while he held up the lamp. The flesh was black with the passing of the centuries; but as I looked I saw upon the right cheek-bone a small triangular scar, and the secret of the mummy flashed upon me. I was looking at the dead body of the man whom I had decoyed into that house.

There was no thought or design of action in my mind. I held the accursed coin in my hand, burning me with a foretaste of hell, and I fled as I would have fled from pestilence and death, and dashed into the street in blind horror, not knowing where I went. I felt the gold coin grasped in my clenched list, and threw it away, I knew not where, and ran on and on through by-streets and dark ways, till at last I issued out into a crowded thoroughfare, and checked myself. Then, as consciousness returned, I realized my instant peril, and understood what would happen if I fell into the hands of Lipsius. I knew that I had put forth my finger to thwart a relentless mechanism rather than a man; my recent adventure with the unfortunate Mr. Headley had taught me that Lipsius had agents in all quarters, and I foresaw that if I fell into his hands, he would remain true to his doctrine of style, and cause me to die a death of some horrible and ingenious torture. I bent my whole mind to the task of outwitting him and his emissaries, three of whom I knew to have proved their ability for tracking down persons who for various reasons preferred to remain obscure. These servants of Lipsius were two men and a woman, and the woman was incomparably the most subtle and the most deadly. Yet I considered that I too had some portion of craft, and I took my resolve. Since then I have matched myself day by day and hour by hour against the ingenuity of Lipsius and his myrmidons. For a time I was successful; though they beat furiously after me in the covert of London, I remained _perdu_, and watched with some amusement their frantic efforts to recover the scent lost in two or three minutes. Every lure and wile was put forth to entice me from my hiding-place. I was informed by the medium of the public prints that what I had taken had been recovered, and meetings were proposed in which I might hope to gain a great deal without the slightest risk. I laughed at their endeavors, and began a little to despise the organization I had so dreaded, and ventured more abroad. Not once or twice, but several times, I recognized the two men who were charged with my capture, and I succeeded in eluding them easily at close quarters; and a little hastily I decided that I had nothing to dread, and that my craft was greater than theirs. But in the mean while, while I congratulated myself on my cunning, the third of Lipsius’s emissaries was weaving her nets, and in an evil hour I paid a visit to an old friend, a literary man named Russell, who lived in a quiet street in Bayswater. The woman, as I found out too late, a day or two ago, occupied rooms in the same house, and I was followed and tracked down. Too late, as I have said, I recognized that I had made a fatal mistake, and that I was besieged. Sooner or later I shall find myself in the power of an enemy without pity; and so surely as I leave this house I shall go to receive doom. I hardly dare to guess how it will at last fall upon me. My imagination, always a vivid one, paints to me appalling pictures of the unspeakable torture which I shall probably endure; and I know that I shall die with Lipsius standing near and gloating over the refinements of my suffering and my shame.

Hours, nay, minutes, have become very precious to me. I sometimes pause in the midst of anticipating my tortures, to wonder whether even now I cannot hit upon some supreme stroke, some design of infinite subtlety, to free myself from the toils. But I find that the faculty of combination has left me. I am as the scholar in the old myth, deserted by the power which has helped, me hitherto. I do not know when the supreme moment will come, but sooner or later it is inevitable, and before long I shall receive sentence, and from the sentence to execution will not be long.

* * * * *

I cannot remain here a prisoner any longer. I shall go out to-night when the streets are full of crowds and clamors, and make a last effort to escape.

* * * * *

It was with profound astonishment that Dyson closed the little book, and thought of the strange series of incidents which had brought him into touch with the plots and counterplots connected with the Gold Tiberius. He had bestowed the coin carefully away, and he shuddered at the bare possibility of its place of deposit becoming known to the evil band who seemed to possess such extraordinary sources of information.

It had grown late while he read, and he put the pocket-book away, hoping with all his heart that the unhappy Walters might even at the eleventh hour escape the doom he dreaded.

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