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

Chapter 3

The cat, with its fore-paws tucked beneath it, was dozing on the counter. Business had been slack that morning, and it had only been pushed off three times. It had staked out a claim on that counter some five years before, and if anything was required to convince it of the value of the possession it was the fact that it was being constantly pushed off. To a firm-minded cat this alone gave the counter a value difficult to overestimate, and sometimes an obsequious customer fell into raptures over its beauty. This was soothing, and the animal allowed customers of this type to scratch it gently behind the ear.

The cat was for the time the only occupant of the shop. The assistant was out, and the pawnbroker sat in the small room beyond, with the door half open, reading a newspaper. He had read the financial columns, glanced at the foreign intelligence, and was just about to turn to the leader when his eye was caught by the headline, “Murder in White-chapel.”

He folded the paper back, and, with a chilly feeling creeping over him, perused the account. In the usual thrilling style it recorded the finding of the body of a man, evidently a sailor, behind a hoarding placed in front of some shops in course of erection. There was no clue to the victim, who had evidently been stabbed from behind in the street, and then dragged or carried to the place in which the body had been discovered.

The pockets had been emptied, and the police who regarded the crime as an ordinary one of murder and robbery, entertained the usual hopes of shortly arresting the assassins.

The pawnbroker put the paper down, and drummed on the table with his fingers. The description of the body left no room for doubt that the victim of the tragedy and the man who had sold him the diamond were identical. He began to realize the responsibilities of the bargain, and the daring of his visitor of the day before, in venturing before him almost red-handed, gave him an unpleasant idea of the lengths to which he was prepared to go. In a pleasanter direction it gave him another idea; it was strong confirmation of Levi’s valuation of the stone.

“I shall see my friend again,” said the Jew to himself, as he looked up from the paper. “Let him make an attempt on me and we’ll see.”

He threw the paper down, and, settling back in his chair, fell into a pleasing reverie. He saw his release from sordid toil close at hand. He would travel and enjoy his life. Pity the diamond hadn’t come twenty years before. As for the sailor, well, poor fellow, why didn’t he stay when he was asked?

The cat, still dozing, became aware of a strong strange odor. In a lazy fashion it opened one eye, and discovered that an old, shrivelled up little man, with a brown face, was standing by the counter. It watched him lazily, but warily, out of a half-closed eye, and then, finding that he appeared to be quite harmless, closed it again.

The intruder was not an impatient type of customer. He stood for some time gazing round him; then a thought struck him, and he approached the cat and stroked it with a masterly hand. Never, in the course of its life, had the animal met such a born stroker. Every touch was a caress, and a gentle thrum, thrum rose from its interior in response.

Something went wrong with the stroker. He hurt. The cat started up suddenly and jumped behind the counter. The dark gentleman smiled an evil smile, and, after waiting a little longer, tapped on the counter.

The pawnbroker came from the little room beyond, with the newspaper in his hand, and his brow darkened as he saw the customer. He was of a harsh and dominant nature, and he foresaw more distasteful threats.

“Well, what do you want?” he demanded abruptly.

“Morning, sir,” said the brown man in perfect English; “fine day.”

“The day’s well enough,” said the Jew.

“I want a little talk with you,” said the other suavely, “a little, quiet, reasonable talk.”

“You’d better make it short,” said the Jew. “My time is valuable.”

The brown man smiled, and raised his hand with a deprecatory gesture. “Many things are valuable,” said he, “but time is the most valuable of all. And time to us means life.”

The Jew saw the covert threat, and grew more irritable still.

“Get to your business,” he said sharply.

The brown man leant on the counter, and regarded him with a pair of fierce, brown eyes, which age had not dimmed.

“You are a reasonable man,” he said slowly, “a good merchant. I can see it. But sometimes a good merchant makes a bad bargain. In that case what does the good merchant do?”

“Get out of here,” said the Jew angrily.

“He makes the best of it,” continued the other calmly, “and he is a lucky man if he is not too late to repair the mischief. You are not too late.”

The Jew laughed boisterously.

“There was a sailor once made a bad bargain,” said the brown man, still in the same even tones, “and he died — of grief.”

He grinned at this pleasantry until his face looked like a cracked mask.

“I read in this paper of a sailor being killed,” said the Jew, holding it up. “Have you ever heard of the police, of prison, and of the hangman?”

“All of them,” said the other softly.

“I might be able to put the hangman on the track of the sailor’s murderer,” continued the Jew grimly.

The brown man smiled and shook his head. “You are too good a merchant,” he said; “besides, it would be very difficult.”

“It would be a pleasure to me,” said the Jew.

“Let us talk business like men, not nonsense like children,” said the brown man suddenly. “You talk of hangmen. I talk of death. Well, listen. Two nights ago you bought a diamond from a sailor for five hundred pounds. Unless you give me that diamond back for the same money I will kill you.”

“What?” snarled the Jew, drawing his gaunt figure to its full height. “You, you miserable mummy?”

“I will kill you,” repeated the brown man calmly. “I will send death to you — death in a horrible shape. I will send a devil, a little artful, teasing devil, to worry you and kill you. In the darkness he will come and spring out on you. You had better give back the diamond, and live. If you give it back I promise you your life.”

He paused, and the Jew noticed that his face had changed, and in place of the sardonic good-humor which had before possessed it, was now distorted by a devilish malice. His eyes gleamed coldly, and he snapped them quickly as he spoke.

“Well, what do you say?” he demanded.

“This,” said the Jew.

He leant over the counter, and, taking the brown man’s skinny throat in his great hand, flung him reeling back to the partition, which shook with his weight. Then he burst into a laugh as the being who had just been threatening him with a terrible and mysterious death changed into a little weak old man, coughing and spitting as he clutched at his throat and fought for breath.

“What about your servant, the devil?” asked the Jew maliciously.

“He serves when I am absent,” said the brown man faintly. “Even now I give you one more chance. I will let you see the young fellow in your shop die first. But no, he has not offended. I will kill —”

He paused, and his eye fell on the cat, which at that moment sprang up and took its old place on the counter. “I will kill your cat,” said the brown man. “I will send the devil to worry it. Watch the cat, and as its death is so shall yours be — unless —”

“Unless?” said the Jew, regarding him mockingly.

“Unless to-night before ten o’clock you mark on your door-post two crosses in chalk,” said the other. “Do that and live. Watch your cat.”

He pointed his lean, brown finger at the animal, and, still feeling at his throat, stepped softly to the door and passed out.

With the entrance of other customers, the pawnbroker forgot the annoyance to which he had been subjected, and attended to their wants in a spirit made liberal by the near prospect of fortune. It was certain that the stone must be of great value. With that and the money he had made by his business, he would give up work and settle down to a life of pleasant ease. So liberal was he that an elderly Irishwoman forgot their slight differences in creeds and blessed him fervently with all the saints in the calendar.

His assistant being back in his place in the shop, the pawnbroker returned to the little sitting-room, and once more carefully looked through the account of the sailor’s murder. Then he sat still trying to work out a problem; to hand the murderers over to the police without his connection with the stolen diamond being made public, and after considerable deliberation, convinced himself that the feat was impossible. He was interrupted by a slight scuffling noise in the shop, and the cat came bolting into the room, and, after running round the table, went out at the door and fled upstairs. The assistant came into the room.

“What are you worrying the thing for?” demanded his master.

“I’m not worrying it,” said the assistant in an aggrieved voice. “It’s been moving about up and down the shop, and then it suddenly started like that. It’s got a fit, I suppose.”

He went back to the shop, and the Jew sat in his chair half ashamed of his nervous credulity, listening to the animal, which was rushing about in the rooms upstairs.

“Go and see what’s the matter with the thing, Bob,” he cried.

The assistant obeyed, returning hastily in a minute or two, and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s the matter?” demanded his master.

“The brute’s gone mad,” said the assistant, whose face was white. “It’s flying about upstairs like a wild thing. Mind it don’t get in, it’s as bad as a mad dog.”

“Oh, rubbish,” said the Jew. “Cats are often like that.”

“Well, I’ve never seen one like it before,” said the other, “and, what’s more, I’m not going to see that again.”

The animal came downstairs, scuffling along the passage, hit the door with its head, and then dashed upstairs again.

“It must have been poisoned, or else it’s mad,” said the assistant. “What’s it been eating, I wonder?”

The pawnbroker made no reply. The suggestion of poisoning was a welcome one. It was preferable to the sinister hintings of the brown man. But even if it had been poisoned it was a very singular coincidence, unless indeed the Burmese had himself poisoned it He tried to think whether it could have been possible for his visitor to have administered poison undetected.

“It’s quiet now,” said the assistant, and he opened the door a little way.

“It’s all right,” said the pawnbroker, half ashamed of his fears, “get back to the shop.”

The assistant complied, and the Jew, after sitting down a little while to persuade himself that he really had no particular interest in the matter, rose and went slowly upstairs. The staircase was badly lighted, and half way up he stumbled on something soft.

He gave a hasty exclamation and, stooping down, saw that he had trodden on the dead cat.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56