The Three Impostors, by Arthur Machen

Incident of the Private Bar.

Mr. Dyson often meditated at odd moments over the singular tale he had listened to at the Café de la Touraine. In the first place he cherished a profound conviction that the words of truth were scattered with a too niggardly and sparing hand over the agreeable history of Mr. Smith and the Black Gulf Cañon; and, secondly, there was the undeniable fact of the profound agitation of the narrator, and his gestures on the pavement, too violent to be simulated. The idea of a man going about London haunted by the fear of meeting a young man with spectacles struck Dyson as supremely ridiculous; he searched his memory for some precedent in romance, but without success; he paid visits at odd times to the little café, hoping to find Mr. Wilkins there; and he kept a sharp watch on the great generation of the spectacled men without much doubt that he would remember the face of the individual whom he had seen dart out of the Aerated Bread Shop. All his peregrinations and researches, however, seemed to lead to nothing of value, and Dyson needed all his warm conviction of his innate detective powers and his strong scent for mystery to sustain him in his endeavors. In fact, he had two affairs on hand; and every day, as he passed through streets crowded or deserted, and lurked in the obscure districts, and watched at corners, he was more than surprised to find that the affair of the gold coin persistently avoided him; while the ingenious Wilkins, and the young man with spectacles whom he dreaded, seemed to have vanished from the pavements.

He was pondering these problems one evening in a house of call in the Strand, and the obstinacy with which the persons he so ardently desired to meet hung back gave the modest tankard before him an additional touch of bitter. As it happened, he was alone in his compartment, and, without thinking, he uttered aloud the burden of his meditations. “How bizarre it all is!” he said, “a man walking the pavement with the dread of a timid-looking young man with spectacles continually hovering before his eyes. And there was some tremendous feeling at work, I could swear to that.” Quick as thought, before he had finished the sentence, a head popped round the barrier, and was withdrawn again; and while Dyson was wondering what this could mean, the door of the compartment was swung open, and a smooth, clean-shaven, and smiling gentleman entered.

“You will excuse me, sir,” he said politely, “for intruding on your thoughts, but you made a remark a minute ago.”

“I did,” said Dyson; “I have been puzzling over a foolish matter, and I thought aloud. As you heard what I said, and seem interested, perhaps you may be able to relieve my perplexity?”

“Indeed. I scarcely know; it is an odd coincidence. One has to be cautions. I suppose, sir, that you would have no repulsion in assisting the ends of justice.”

“Justice,” replied Dyson, “is a term of such wide meaning, that I too feel doubtful about giving an answer. But this place is not altogether fit for such a discussion; perhaps you would come to my rooms?”

“You are very kind; my name is Burton, but I am sorry to say I have not a card with me. Do you live near here?”

“Within ten minutes’ walk.”

Mr. Burton took out his watch and seemed to be making a rapid calculation.

“I have a train to catch,” he said; “but after all, it is a late one. So, if you don’t mind, I think I will come with you. I am sure we should have a little talk together. We turn up here?”

The theatres were filling as they crossed the Strand, the street seemed alive with voices, and Dyson looked fondly about him. The glittering lines of gas-lamps, with here and there the blinding radiance of an electric light, the hansoms that flashed to and fro with ringing bells, the laden buses, and the eager hurrying east and west of the foot passengers, made his most enchanting picture; and the graceful spire of St. Mary le Strand, on the one hand, and the last flush of sunset on the other, were to him a cause of thanksgiving, as the gorse blossom to Linnæus. Mr. Burton caught his look of fondness as they crossed the street.

“I see you can find the picturesque in London,” he said. “To me this great town is as I see it is to you, the study and the love of life. Yet how few there are that can pierce the veils of apparent monotony and meanness! I have read in a paper which is said to have the largest circulation in the world, a comparison between the aspects of London and Paris, a comparison which should be positively laureat, as the great masterpiece of fatuous stupidity. Conceive if you can a human being of ordinary intelligence preferring the Boulevards to our London streets; imagine a man calling for the wholesale destruction of our most charming city, in order that the dull uniformity of that whited sepulchre called Paris should be reproduced here in London. Is it not positively incredible?”

“My dear sir,” said Dyson, regarding Burton with a good deal of interest. “I agree most heartily with your opinions, but I really cannot share your wonder. Have you heard how much George Eliot received for ‘Romola’? Do you know what the circulation of ‘Robert Elsmere’ was? Do you read ‘Tit Bits’ regularly? To me, on the contrary, it is constant matter both for wonder and thanksgiving that London was not boulevardized twenty years ago. I praise that exquisite jagged sky line that stands up against the pale greens and fading blues and flushing clouds of sunset, but I wonder even more than I praise. As for St. Mary le Strand, its preservation is a miracle, nothing more or less. A thing of exquisite beauty versus four buses abreast! Really, the conclusion is too obvious. Didn’t you read the letter of the man who proposed that the whole mysterious system, the immemorial plan of computing Easter, should, be abolished off-hand because he doesn’t like his son having his holidays as early as March 20th? But shall we be going on?”

They had lingered at the corner of a street on the north side of the Strand, enjoying the contrasts and the glamour of the scene. Dyson pointed the way with a gesture, and they strolled up the comparatively deserted streets, slanting a little to the right, and thus arriving at Dyson’s lodging on the verge of Bloomsbury. Mr. Burton took a comfortable armchair by the open window, while Dyson lit the candles and produced the whiskey and soda and cigarettes.

“They tell me these cigarettes are very good,” he said, “but I know nothing about it myself. I hold at last that there is only one tobacco, and that is shag. I suppose I could not tempt you to try a pipeful?”

Mr. Burton smilingly refused the offer, and picked out a cigarette from the box. When he had smoked it half through, he said with some hesitation:—

“It is really kind of you to have me here, Mr. Dyson; the fact is that the interests at issue are far too serious to be discussed in a bar, where, as you found for yourself, there may be listeners, voluntary or involuntary, on each side. I think the remark I heard you make was something about the oddity of an individual going about London in deadly fear of a young man with spectacles.”

“Yes, that was it.”

“Well, would you mind confiding to me the circumstances that gave rise to the reflection?”

“Not in the least; it was like this.” And he ran over in brief outline the adventure in Oxford Street, dwelling on the violence of Mr. Wilkins’s gestures, but wholly suppressing the tale told in the café. “He told me he lived in constant terror of meeting this man; and I left him when I thought he was cool enough to look after himself,” said Dyson, ending his narrative.

“Really,” said Mr. Burton. “And you actually saw this mysterious person.”

“Yes.”

“And could you describe him?”

“Well, he looked to me a youngish man, pale and nervous. He had small black side whiskers, and wore rather large spectacles.”

“But this is simply marvellous! You astonish me. For I must tell you that my interest in the matter is this. I am not in the least in terror of meeting a dark young man with spectacles, but I shrewdly suspect a person of that description would much rather not meet me. And yet the account you give of the man tallies exactly. A nervous glance to right and left — is it not so? And, as you observed, he wears prominent spectacles, and has small black whiskers. There cannot be surely two people exactly identical — one a cause of terror, and the other, I should imagine, extremely anxious to get out of the way. But have you seen this man since?”

“No, I have not; and I have been looking out for him pretty keenly. But, of course, he may have left London, and England too for the matter of that.”

Hardly, I think. Well, Mr. Dyson, it is only fair that I should explain my story, now that I have listened, to yours. I must tell you, then, that I am an agent for curiosities and precious things of all kinds. An odd employment, isn’t it? Of course I wasn’t brought up to the business; I gradually fell into it. I have always been fond of things queer and rare, and by the time I was twenty I had made half a dozen collections. It is not generally known how often farm laborers come upon rarities; you would be astonished if I told you what I have seen turned up by the plough. I lived in the country in those days, and I used to buy anything the men on the farms brought me; and I had the queerest set of rubbish, as my friends called my collection. But that’s how I got the scent of the business, which means everything; and, later on, it struck me that I might very well turn my knowledge to account and add to my income. Since those early days I have been in most quarters of the world, and some very valuable things have passed through my hands, and I have had to engage in difficult and delicate negotiations. You have possibly heard of the Khan opal — called in the East ‘The Stone of a Thousand and One Colors’? Well, perhaps the conquest of that stone was my greatest achievement. I call it myself the stone of the thousand and one lies, for I assure you that I had to invent a cycle of folk-lore before the Rajah who owned it would consent to sell the thing. I subsidized wandering story-tellers, who told tales in which the opal played a frightful part; I hired a holy man, a great ascetic, to prophesy against the thing in the language of Eastern symbolism; in short, I frightened the Rajah out of his wits. So you see there is room for diplomacy in the traffic I am engaged in. I have to be ever on my guard, and I have often been sensible that unless I watched every step and weighed every word my life would not last me much longer. Last April I became aware of the existence of a highly valuable antique gem. It was in Southern Italy, and in the possession of persons who were ignorant of its real value. It has always been my experience that it is precisely the ignorant who are most difficult to deal with. I have met farmers who were under the impression that a shilling of George I. was a find of almost incalculable value; and all the defeats I have sustained have been at the hands of people of this description. Reflecting on these facts, I saw that the acquisition of the gem I have mentioned would be an affair demanding the nicest diplomacy; I might possibly have got it by offering a sum approaching its real value, but I need not point out to you that such a proceeding would be most unbusinesslike. Indeed, I doubt whether it would have been successful, for the cupidity of such persons is aroused by a sum which seems enormous, and the low cunning which serves them in place of intelligence immediately suggests that the object for which such an amount is offered must be worth at least double. Of course, when it is a matter of an ordinary curiosity — an old jug, a carved chest, or a queer brass lantern — one does not much care; the cupidity of the owner defeats its object, the collector laughs, and goes away, for he is aware that such things are by no means unique. But this gem I fervently desired to possess; and as I did not see my way to giving more than a hundredth part of its value, I was conscious that all my, let us say, imaginative and diplomatic powers would have to be exerted. I am sorry to say that I came to the conclusion that I could not undertake to carry the matter through single-handed, and I determined to confide in my assistant, a young man named William Robbins, whom I judged to be by no means devoid of capacity. My idea was that Robbins should get himself up as a low-class dealer in precious stones; he could patter a little Italian, and would go to the town in question and manage to see the gem we were after, possibly by offering some trifling articles of jewelry for sale, but that I left to be decided, then my work was to begin, but I will not trouble you with a tale told twice over. In due course, then, Robbins went off to Italy with an assortment of uncut stones and a few rings, and some jewelry I bought in Birmingham, on purpose for his expedition. A week later I followed him, travelling leisurely, so that I was a fortnight later in arriving at our common destination. There was a decent hotel in the town, and on my inquiring of the landlord whether there were many strangers in the place, he told me very few; he had heard there was an Englishman staying in a small tavern, a pedlar he said, who sold beautiful trinkets very cheaply, and wanted to buy old rubbish. For five or six days I took life leisurely, and I must say I enjoyed myself. It was part of my plan to make the people think I was an enormously rich man; and I knew that such items as the extravagance of my meals, and the price of every bottle of wine I drank, would not be suffered, as Sancho Panza puts it, to rot in the landlord’s breast. At the end of the week I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Signor Melini, the owner of the gem I coveted, at the café, and with his ready hospitality and my geniality I was soon established as a friend of the house. On my third or fourth visit I managed to make the Italians talk about the English pedlar, who, they said, spoke a most detestable Italian. ‘But that does not matter,’ said the Signora Melini, ‘for he has beautiful things, which he sells very very cheap.’ ‘I hope you may not find he has cheated you,’ I said, ‘for I must tell you that English people give these fellows a very wide berth. They usually make a great parade of the cheapness of their goods, which often turn out to be double the price of better articles in the shops,’ They would not hear of this, and Signora Melini insisted on showing me the three rings and the bracelet she had bought of the pedlar. She told me the price she had paid; and after scrutinizing the articles carefully, I had to confess that she had made a bargain, and indeed Robbins had sold her the things at about fifty per cent below market value. I admired the trinkets as I gave them back to the lady, and I hinted that the pedlar must be a somewhat foolish specimen of his class. Two days later, as I was taking my vermouth at the café with Signor Melini, he led the conversation back to the pedlar, and mentioned casually that he had shown the man a little curiosity, for which he had made rather a handsome offer. ‘My dear sir,’ I said, ‘I hope you will be careful. I told you that the travelling tradesman does not bear a very high reputation in England; and notwithstanding his apparent simplicity, this fellow may turn out to be an arrant cheat. May I ask you what is the nature of the curiosity you have shown him?’ He told me it was a little thing, a pretty little stone with some figures cut on it: people said it was old. ‘I should like to examine it,’ I replied; ‘as it happens I have, seen a good deal of these gems. We have a fine collection of them in our museum at London.’ In due course I was shown the article, and I held the gem I so coveted between my fingers. I looked at it coolly, and put it down carelessly on the table. ‘Would you mind telling me, signor,’ I said, ‘how much my fellow-countryman offered you for this?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘my wife says the man must be mad; he said he would give me twenty lire for it.’

“I looked at him quietly, and took up the gem and pretended to examine it in the light more carefully; I turned it over and over, and finally pulled out a magnifying glass from my pocket, and seemed to search every line in the cutting with minutest scrutiny. ‘My dear sir,’ I said at last, ‘I am inclined to agree with Signora Melini. If this gem were genuine, it would be worth some money; but as it happens to be a rather bad forgery, it is not worth twenty centesimi. It was sophisticated, I should imagine, some time in the last century, and by a very unskilful hand.’ ‘Then we had better get rid of it,’ said Melini. ‘I never thought it was worth anything myself. Of course I am sorry for the pedlar, but one must let a man know his own trade. I shall tell him we will take the twenty lire.’ ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘the man wants a lesson. It would be a charity to give him one. Tell him that you will not take anything under eighty lire, and I shall be much surprised if he does not close with you at once.

“A day or two later I heard that the English pedlar had gone away, after debasing the minds of the country people with Birmingham art jewelry; for I admit that the gold sleeve links like kidney beans, the silver chains made apparently after the pattern of a dog-chain, and the initial brooches, have always been heavy on my conscience. I cannot acquit myself of having indirectly contributed to debauch the taste of a simple folk; but I hope that the end I had in view may finally outbalance this heavy charge. Soon afterwards, I paid a farewell visit at the Melinis, and the signor informed me with an oily chuckle that the plan I had suggested had been completely successful. I congratulated him on his bargain, and went away after expressing a wish that heaven might send many such pedlars in his path.

“Nothing of interest occurred on my return journey. I had arranged that Robbins was to meet me at a certain place on a certain day, and I went to the appointment full of the coolest confidence; the gem had been conquered, and I had only to reap the fruits of victory. I am sorry to shake that trust in our common human nature which I am sure you possess, but I am compelled to tell you that up to the present date I have never set eyes on my man Robbins, or on the antique gem in his custody. I have found out that he actually arrived in London, for he was seen three days before my arrival in England by a pawnbroker of my acquaintance consuming his favorite beverage, four ale, in the tavern where we met to-night. Since then he has not been heard of. I hope you will now pardon my curiosity as to the history and adventures of dark young men with spectacles. You will, I am sure, feel for me in my position; the savor of life has disappeared for me; it is a bitter thought that I have rescued one of the most perfect and exquisite specimens of antique art from the hands of ignorant, and indeed unscrupulous persons, only to deliver it into the keeping of a man who is evidently utterly devoid of the very elements of commercial morality.”

“My dear sir,” said Dyson, “you will allow me to compliment you on your style; your adventures have interested me exceedingly. But, forgive me, you just now used the word morality; would not some persons take exception to your own methods of business? I can conceive, myself, flaws of a moral kind being found in the very original conception you have described to me. I can imagine the Puritan shrinking in dismay from your scheme, pronouncing it unscrupulous, nay, dishonest.”

Mr. Burton helped himself, very frankly, to some more whiskey.

“Your scruples entertain me,” he said. “Perhaps you have not gone very deeply into these questions of ethics. I have been compelled to do so myself, just as I was forced to master a simple system of book-keeping. Without book-keeping, and still more without a system of ethics, it is impossible to conduct a business such as mine. But I assure you that I am often profoundly saddened as I pass through the crowded streets and watch the world at work by the thought of how few amongst all these hurrying individuals, black hatted, well dressed, educated we may presume sufficiently — how few amongst them have any reasoned system of morality. Even you have not weighed the question; although you study life and affairs, and to a certain extent penetrate the veils and masks of the comedy of man, even you judge by empty conventions, and the false money which is allowed to pass current as sterling coin. Allow me to play the part of Socrates; I shall teach you nothing that you do not know. I shall merely lay aside the wrappings of prejudice and bad logic, and show you the real image which you possess in your soul. Come then. Do you allow that happiness is anything?”

“Certainly,” said Dyson.

“And happiness is desirable or undesirable?”

“Desirable of course.”

“And what shall we call the man who gives happiness? Is he not a philanthropist?”

“I think so.”

“And such a person is praiseworthy, and the more praiseworthy in the proportion of the persons whom he makes happy?”

“By all means.”

“So that he who makes a whole nation happy, is praiseworthy in the extreme, and the action by which he gives happiness is the highest virtue?”

“It appears so, O Burton,” said Dyson, who found something very exquisite in the character of his visitor.

“Quite so; you find the several conclusions inevitable. Well, apply them to the story I have told, you. I conferred happiness on myself by obtaining (as I thought) possession of the gem; I conferred happiness on the Melinis by getting them eighty lire instead of an object for which they had not the slightest value, and I intended to confer happiness on the whole British nation by selling the thing to the British Museum, to say nothing of the happiness a profit of about nine thousand per cent would have conferred on me. I assure you I regard Robbins as an interferer with the cosmos and fair order of things. But that is nothing; you perceive that I am an apostle of the very highest morality; you have been forced to yield to argument.”

“There certainly seems a great deal in what you advance,” said Dyson. “I admit that I am a mere amateur of ethics, while you, as you say, have brought the most acute scrutiny to bear on these perplexed and doubtful questions. I can well understand your anxiety to meet the fallacious Robbins, and I congratulate myself on the chance which has made us acquainted. But you will pardon my seeming inhospitality, I see it is half past eleven, and I think you mentioned a train.”

“A thousand thanks, Mr. Dyson, I have just time, I see. I will look you up some evening if I may. Good-night.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39