The Brown Man's Servant, by W. W. Jacobs

Chapter 1

The shop of Solomon Hyams stood in a small thoroughfare branching off the Commercial Road. In its windows unredeemed pledges of all kinds, from old-time watches to seamen’s boots, appealed to all tastes and requirements. Bundles of cigars, candidly described as “wonderful,” were marked at absurdly low figures, while silver watches endeavored to excuse the clumsiness of their make by describing themselves as “strong workmen’s.” The side entrance, up a narrow alley, was surmounted by the usual three brass balls, and here Mr. Hyams’ clients were wont to call. They entered as optimists, smiled confidently upon Mr. Hyams, argued, protested shrilly, and left the establishment pessimists of a most pronounced and virulent type.

None of these things, however, disturbed the pawnbroker. The drunken client who endeavored to bail out his Sunday clothes with a tram ticket was accommodated with a chair, while the assistant went to hunt up his friends and contract for a speedy removal; the old woman who, with a view of obtaining a higher advance than usual, poured a tale of grievous woe into the hardened ears of Mr. Hyams, found herself left to the same invaluable assistant, and, realizing her failure, would at once become cheerful and take what was offered. Mr. Hyams’ methods of business were quiet and unostentatious, and rumor had it that he might retire at any time and live in luxury.

It was a cold, cheerless afternoon in November as Mr. Hyams, who had occasional hazy ideas of hygiene, stood at his door taking the air. It was an atmosphere laden with soot and redolent of many blended odors, but after the fusty smell of the shop it was almost health-giving. In the large public-house opposite, with its dirty windows and faded signboards, the gas was already being lit, which should change it from its daylight dreariness to a resort of light and life.

Mr. Hyams, who was never in a hurry to light up his own premises, many of his clients preferring the romantic light which comes between day and night for their visits, was about to leave the chilly air for the warmth inside, when his attention was attracted by a seaman of sturdy aspect stopping and looking in at his window. Mr. Hyams rubbed his hands softly. There was an air of comfort and prosperity about this seaman, and the pawnbroker had many small articles in his window, utterly useless to the man, which he would have liked to have sold him.

The man came from the window, made as though to pass, and then paused irresolute before the pawn-broker.

“You want a watch?” said the latter genially. “Come inside.”

Mr. Hyams went behind his counter and waited.

“I don’t want to buy nothing, and I don’t want to pawn nothing,” said the sailor. “What do you think o’ that?”

Mr. Hyams, who objected to riddles, especially those which seemed to be against business, eyed him unfavorably from beneath his shaggy eyebrows.

“We might have a little quiet talk together,” said the seaman, “you an’ me; we might do a little bit o’ business together, you an’ me. In the parler, shall we say, over a glass o’ something hot?”

Mr. Hyams hesitated. He was not averse to a little business of an illicit nature, but there rose up vividly before him the picture of another sailor who had made much the same sort of proposal, and, after four glasses of rum, had merely suggested to him that he should lend him twenty pounds on the security of an I.O.U. It was long since, but the memory of it still rankled.

“What sort of business is it?” he inquired.

“Business that’s too big for you, p’raps,” said the sailor with a lordly air. “I’ll try a bigger place. What’s that lantern-faced swab shoving his ugly mug into the daylight for?”

“Get off,” said the pawnbroker to the assistant, who was quietly and unobtrusively making a third.

“Mind the shop. This gentleman and I have business in the parlor. Come this way, sir.”

He raised the flap of the counter, and led the way to a small, untidy room at the back of the shop. A copper kettle was boiling on the fire, and the table was already laid for tea. The pawnbroker, motioning his visitor to a dingy leather armchair, went to a cupboard and produced a bottle of rum, three parts full, and a couple of glasses.

“Tea for me,” said the seaman, eyeing the bottle wistfully.

The pawnbroker pricked up his ears. “Nonsense,” he said, with an attempt at heartiness, “a jolly fellow like you don’t want tea. Have some o’ this.”

“Tea, confound yer!” said the other. “When I say tea, I mean tea.”

The pawnbroker, repressing his choler, replaced the bottle, and, seating himself at the table, reached over for the kettle, and made the tea. It was really a pleasing picture of domestic life, and would have looked well in a lantern slide at a temperance lecture, the long, gaunt Jew and the burly seaman hobnobbing over the blameless teapot. But Mr. Hyams grew restless. He was intent upon business; but the other, so far as his inroads on the teapot and the eatables gave any indication, seemed to be bent only upon pleasure. Once again the picture of the former sailor rose before Mr. Hyams’ eyes, and he scowled fiercely as the seaman pushed his cup up for the fourth time.

“And now for a smoke,” said his visitor, as he settled back in his chair. “A good ’un, mind. Lord, this is comfort! It’s the first bit o’ comfort I’ve ‘ad since I come ashore five days ago.”

The pawnbroker grunted, and producing a couple of black, greasy-looking cigars, gave one to his guest. They both fell to smoking, the former ill at ease, the latter with his feet spread out on the small fender, making the very utmost of his bit of comfort.

“Are you a man as is fond of asking questions?” he said at length.

“No,” said the pawnbroker, shutting his lips illustratively.

“Suppose,” said the sailor, leaning forward intently —“suppose a man came to you an’ ses — there’s that confounded assistant of yours peeping through the door.”

The pawnbroker got up almost as exasperated as the seaman, and, after rating his assistant through the half-open door, closed it with a bang, and pulled down a small blind over the glass.

“Suppose a man came to you,” resumed the sailor, after the pawnbroker had seated himself again, “and asked you for five hundred pounds for something. Have you got it?”

“Not here,” said the pawnbroker suspiciously. “I don’t keep any money on the premises.”

“You could get it, though?” suggested the other.

“We’ll see,” said the pawnbroker; “five hundred pounds is a fortune — five hundred pounds, why it takes years of work — five hundred pounds —”

“I don’t want no blessed psalms,” said the seaman abruptly; “but, look here, suppose I wanted five hundred pounds for something, and you wouldn’t give it. How am I to know you wouldn’t give information to the police if I didn’t take what you offered me for it?”

The pawnbroker threw up his huge palms in virtuous horror.

“I’d mark you for it if you did,” said the seaman menacingly, through his teeth. “It ‘ud be the worst day’s work you ever did. Will you take it or leave it at my price, an’ if you won’t give it, leave me to go as I came?”

“I will,” said the pawnbroker solemnly.

The seaman laid his cigar in the tray, where it expired in a little puddle of tea, and, undoing his coat, cautiously took from his waist a canvas belt In a hesitating fashion he dangled the belt in his hands, looking from the Jew to the door, and from the door back to the Jew again. Then from a pocket in the belt he took something wrapped in a small piece of dirty flannel, and, unrolling it, deposited on the table a huge diamond, whose smouldering fires flashed back in many colors the light from the gas.

The Jew, with an exclamation, reached forward to handle it, but the sailor thrust him back.

“Hands off,” he said grimly. “None of your ringing the changes on me.”

He tipped it over with his finger-nail on the table from side to side, the other, with his head bent down, closely inspecting it. Then, as a great indulgence, he laid it on the Jew’s open palm for a few seconds.

“Five hundred pounds,” he said, taking it in his own hands again.

The pawnbroker laughed. It was a laugh which he kept for business purposes, and would have formed a valuable addition to the goodwill of the shop.

“I’ll give you fifty,” he said, after he had regained his composure.

The seaman replaced the gem in its wrapper again.

“Well, I’ll give you seventy, and risk whether I lose over it,” continued the pawnbroker.

“Five hundred’s my price,” said the seaman calmly, as he placed the belt about his waist and began to buckle it up.

“Seventy-five,” said the pawnbroker persuasively.

“Look here,” said the seaman, regarding him sternly, “you drop it. I’m not going to haggle with you. I’m not going to haggle with any man. I ain’t no judge o’ diamonds, but I’ve ‘ad cause to know as this is something special. See here.”

He rolled back the coat sleeve from his brawny arm, and revealed a long, newly healed scar.

“I risked my life for that stone,” he said slowly. “I value my life at five hundred pounds. It’s likely worth more than as many thousands, and you know it. However, good-night to you, mate. How much for the tea?”

He put his hand contemptuously in his trouser pocket, and pulled out some small change.

“There’s the risk of getting rid of the stone,” said the pawnbroker, pushing aside the proffered coin. “Where did it come from? Has it got a history?”

“Not in Europe it ain’t,” said the seaman. “So far as I know, you an’ me an’ one other are the only white men as know of it. That’s all I’m going to tell you.”

“Do you mind waiting while I go and fetch a friend of mine to see it?” inquired the pawnbroker. “You needn’t be afraid,” he added hastily. “He’s a respectable man and as close as the grave.”

“I’m not afraid,” said the seaman quietly. “But no larks, mind. I’m not a nice man to play them on. I’m pretty strong, an’ I’ve got something else besides.”

He settled himself in the armchair again, and accepting another cigar, watched his host as he took his hat from the sideboard.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” said the latter somewhat anxiously. “You won’t go before I come?”

“Not me,” said the seaman bluntly. “When I say a thing I stick to it. I don’t haggle, and haggle, and —” he paused a moment for a word, “and haggle,” he concluded.

Left to himself, he smoked on contentedly, blandly undisturbed by the fact that the assistant looked in at the door occasionally, to see that things were all right. It was quite a new departure for Mr. Hyams to leave his parlor to a stranger, and the assistant felt a sense of responsibility so great that it was a positive relief to him when his master returned, accompanied by another man.

“This is my friend,” said Mr. Hyams, as they entered the parlor and closed the door. “You might let him see the stone.”

The seaman took off his belt again, and placing the diamond in his hand held it before the stranger who, making no attempt to take it, turned it over with his finger and examined it critically.

“Are you going to sea again just yet?” he inquired softly.

“Thursday night,” said the seaman, “Five hundred is my price; p’raps he told you. I’m not going to haggle.”

“Just so, just so,” said the other quietly. “It’s worth five hundred.”

“Spoke like a man,” said the seaman warmly.

“I like to deal with a man who knows his own mind,” said the stranger, “it saves trouble. But if we buy it for that amount you must do one thing for us. Keep quiet and don’t touch a drop of liquor until you sail, and not a word to anybody.”

“You needn’t be afraid o’ the licker,” said the sailor grimly. “I shan’t touch that for my own sake.”

“He’s a teetotaler,” explained the pawnbroker.

“He’s not,” said the seaman indignantly.

“Why won’t you drink, then?” asked the other man.

“Fancy,” said the seaman dryly, and closed his mouth.

Without another word the stranger turned to the pawnbroker, who, taking a pocket-book from his coat, counted out the amount in notes. These, after the sailor had examined them in every possible manner, he rolled up and put in his pocket, then without a word he took out the diamond again and laid it silently on the table. Mr. Hyams, his fingers trembling with eagerness, took it up and examined it delightedly.

“You’ve got it a bargain,” said the seaman. “Good-night, gentlemen. I hope, for your sakes, nobody’ll know I’ve parted with it. Keep your eyes open, and trust nobody. When you see black, smell mischief. I’m glad to get rid of it.”

He threw his head back, and, expanding his chest as though he already breathed more freely, nodded to both men, and, walking through the shop, passed out into the street and disappeared.

Long after he had gone, the pawnbroker and his friend, Levi, sat with the door locked and the diamond before them, eagerly inspecting it.

“It’s a great risk,” said the pawnbroker. “A stone like that generally makes some noise.”

“Anything good is risky,” said the other somewhat contemptuously. “You don’t expect to get a windfall like that without any drawback, do you?”

He took the stone in his hand again, and eyed it lovingly. “It’s from the East somewhere,” he said quietly. “It’s badly cut, but it’s a diamond of diamonds, a king of gems.”

“I don’t want any trouble with the police,” said the pawnbroker, as he took it from him.

“You are talking now as though you have just made a small advance on a stolen overcoat,” said his friend impatiently. “A risk like that — and you have done it before now — is a foolish one to run; the game is not worth the candle. But this — why it warms one’s blood to look at it.”

“Well, I’ll leave it with you,” said the pawnbroker. “If you do well with it I ought not to want to work any more.”

The other placed it in an inside pocket, while the owner watched him anxiously.

“Don’t let any accident happen to you to-night, Levi,” he said nervously.

“Thanks for your concern,” said Levi grimacing. “I shall probably be careful for my own sake.”

He buttoned up his coat, and, drinking a glass of hot whisky, went out whistling. He had just reached the door when the pawnbroker called him back.

“If you like to take a cab, Levi,” he said, in a low voice so that the assistant should not hear, “I’ll pay for it.”

“I’ll take an omnibus,” said Levi, smiling quietly. “You’re getting extravagant, Hyams. Besides, fancy the humor of sitting next to a pickpocket with this on me.”

He waved a cheery farewell, and the pawnbroker, watching him from the door, scowled angrily as he saw his light-hearted friend hail an omnibus at the corner and board it. Then he went back to the shop, and his everyday business of making advances on flat-irons and other realizable assets of the neighborhood.

At ten o’clock he closed for the night, the assistant hurriedly pulling down the shutters that his time for recreation might not be unduly curtailed. He slept off the premises, and the pawnbroker, after his departure, made a slight supper, and sat revolving the affairs of the day over another of his black cigars until nearly midnight. Then, well contented with himself, he went up the bare, dirty stairs to his room and went to bed, and, despite the excitement of the evening, was soon in a loud slumber, from which he was aroused by a distant and sustained knocking.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38