At ten o’clock that night the pawnbroker sat with his friend Levi discussing a bottle of champagne, which the open-eyed assistant had procured from the public-house opposite.
“You’re a lucky man, Hyams,” said his friend, as he raised his glass to his lips. “Thirty thousand pounds! It’s a fortune, a small fortune,” he added correctively.
“I shall give this place up,” said the pawnbroker, “and go away for a time. I’m not safe here.”
“Safe?” queried Levi, raising his eyebrows.
The pawnbroker related his adventures with his visitors.
“I can’t understand that cat business,” said Levi when he had finished. “It’s quite farcical; he must have poisoned it.”
“He wasn’t near it,” said the pawnbroker, “it was at the other end of the counter.”
“Oh, hang it,” said Levi, the more irritably because he could not think of any solution to the mystery. “You don’t believe in occult powers and all that sort of thing. This is the neighborhood of the Commercial Road; time, nineteenth century. The thing’s got on your nerves. Keep your eyes open, and stay indoors; they can’t hurt you here. Why not tell the police?”
“I don’t want any questions,” said the pawnbroker.
“I mean, just tell them that one or two suspicious characters have been hanging round lately,” said the other. “If this precious couple see that they are watched they’ll probably bolt. There’s nothing like a uniform to scare that sort.”
“I won’t have anything to do with the police,” said the pawnbroker firmly.
“Well, let Bob sleep on the premises,” suggested his friend.
“I think I will tomorrow,” said the other. “I’ll have a bed fixed up for him.”
“Why not to-night?” asked Levi.
“He’s gone,” said the pawnbroker briefly. “Didn’t you hear him shut up?”
“He was in the shop five minutes ago,” said Levi.
“He left at ten,” said the pawnbroker.
“I’ll swear I heard somebody only a minute or two back,” said Levi, staring.
“Nerves, as you remarked a little while ago,” said his friend, with a grin.
“Well, I thought I heard him,” said Levi. “You might just secure the door anyway.”
The pawnbroker went to the door and made it fast, giving a careless glance round the dimly lighted shop as he did so.
“Perhaps you could stay to-night yourself,” he said, as he returned to the sitting-room.
“I can’t possibly, to-night,” said the other. “By the way, you might lend me a pistol of some kind. With all these cut-throats hanging round, visiting you is a somewhat perilous pleasure. They might take it into their heads to kill me to see whether I have got the stone.”
“Take your pick,” said the pawnbroker, going to the shop and returning with two or three secondhand revolvers and some cartridges.
“I never fired one in my life,” said Levi dubiously, “but I believe the chief thing is to make a bang. Which’ll make the loudest?”
On his friend’s recommendation he selected a revolver of the service pattern, and, after one or two suggestions from the pawnbroker, expressed himself as qualified to shoot anything between a chimney-pot and a paving-stone.
“Make your room-door fast to-night, and tomorrow let Bob have a bed there,” he said earnestly, as he rose to go. “By the way, why not make those chalk marks on the door just for the night? You can laugh at them tomorrow. Sort of suggestion of the Passover about it, isn’t there?”
“I’m not going to mark my door for all the assassins that ever breathed,” said the Jew fiercely, as he rose to see the other out.
“Well, I think you’re safe enough in the house,” said Levi. “Beastly dreary the shop looks. To a man of imagination like myself it’s quite easy to fancy that there is one of your brown friend’s pet devils crouching under the counter ready to spring.”
The pawnbroker grunted and opened the door.
“Poof, fog,” said Levi, as a cloud streamed in. “Bad night for pistol practice. I shan’t be able to hit anything.”
The two men stood in the doorway for a minute, trying to peer through the fog. A heavy, measured tread sounded in the alley; a huge figure loomed up, and, to the relief of Levi, a constable halted be-fore them.
“Thick night, sir,” said he to the pawnbroker.
“Very,” was the reply. “Just keep your eye on my place to-night, constable. There have been one or two suspicious-looking characters hanging about here lately.”
“I will, sir,” said the constable, and moved off in company with Levi.
The pawnbroker closed the door hastily behind them and bolted it securely. His friend’s jest about the devil under the counter occurred to him as he eyed it, and for the first time in his life, the lonely silence of the shop became oppressive. He half thought of opening the door again and calling them back, but by this time they were out of earshot, and he had a very strong idea that there might be somebody lurking in the fog outside.
“Bah!” said he aloud, “thirty thousand pounds.”
He turned the gas-jet on full — a man that had just made that sum could afford to burn a little gas — and, first satisfying himself by looking under the counter and round the shop, re-entered the sitting room.
Despite his efforts, he could not get rid of the sense of loneliness and danger which possessed him. The clock had stopped, and the only sound audible was the snapping of the extinguished coals in the grate. He crossed over to the mantelpiece, and, taking out his watch, wound the clock up. Then he heard something else.
With great care he laid the key softly on the mantelpiece and listened intently. The clock was now aggressively audible, so that he opened the case again, and putting his finger against the pendulum, stopped it. Then he drew his revolver and cocked it, and, with his set face turned towards the door, and his lips parted, waited.
At first — nothing. Then all the noises which a lonely man hears in a house at night. The stairs creaked, something moved in the walls. He crossed noiselessly to the door and opened it. At the head of the staircase he fancied the darkness moved.
“Who’s there?” he cried in a strong voice.
Then he stepped back into the room and lit his lamp. “I’ll get to bed,” he said grimly; “I’ve got the horrors.”
He left the gas burning, and with the lamp in his left hand and the pistol in his right slowly ascended the stairs. The first landing was clear. He opened the doors of each room, and, holding the lamp aloft, peered in. Then he mounted higher, and looked in the rooms, crammed from floor to ceiling with pledges, ticketed and placed on shelves. In one room he thought he saw something crouching in a corner. He entered boldly, and as he passed along one side of a row of shelves could have sworn that he heard a stealthy footfall on the other. He rushed back to the door, and hung listening over the shaky balusters. Nothing stirred, and, satisfied that he must have been mistaken, he gave up the search and went to his bedroom. He set the lamp down on the drawers, and turned to close the door, when he distinctly heard a noise in the shop below. He snatched up the lamp again and ran hastily downstairs, pausing halfway on the lowest flight as he saw a dark figure spreadeagled against the side door, standing on tiptoe to draw back the bolt.
At the noise of his approach, it turned its head hastily, and revealed the face of the brown man; the bolt shot back, and at the same moment the Jew raised his pistol and fired twice.
From beneath the little cloud of smoke, as it rose, he saw that the door stood open and that the figure had vanished. He ran hastily down to the door, and, with the pistol raised, stood listening, trying to peer through the fog.
An unearthly stillness followed the deafening noise of the shots. The fog poured in at the doorway as he stood there hoping that the noise had reached the ears of some chance passer-by. He stood so for a few minutes, and then, closing the door again, resolutely turned back and went upstairs.
His first proceeding upon entering his room was to carefully look beneath and behind the heavy, dusty pieces of furniture, and, satisfied that no foe lurked there, he closed the door and locked it Then he opened the window gently, and listened The court below was perfectly still. He closed the window, and, taking off his coat, barricaded the door with all the heaviest furniture in the room. With a feeling of perfect security, he complacently regarded his handiwork, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began to undress. He turned the lamp down a little, and reloading the empty chambers of his revolver, placed it by the side of the lamp on the drawers. Then, as he turned back the clothes, he fancied that something moved beneath them. As he paused, it dropped lightly from the other side of the bed to the floor.
At first he sat, with knitted brows, trying to see what it was. He had only had a glimpse of it, but he certainly had an idea that it was alive. A rat perhaps. He got off the bed again with an oath, and, taking the lamp in his hand, peered cautiously about the floor. Twice he walked round the room in this fashion. Then he stooped down, and, raising the dirty bed hangings, peered beneath.
He almost touched the wicked little head of the brown man’s devil, and with a stifled cry, sprang hastily backward. The lamp shattered against the corner of the drawers, and, falling in a shower of broken glass and oil about his stockinged feet, left him in darkness. He threw the fragment of glass stand which remained in his hand from him, and, quick as thought, gained the bed again, and crouched there, breathing heavily.
He tried to think where he had put the matches, and remembered there were some on the widow-sill. The room was so dark that he could not see the foot of the bed, and in his fatuity he had barricaded himself in the room with the loathsome reptile which was to work the brown man’s vengeance.
For some time he lay listening intently. Once or twice he fancied that he heard the rustle of the snake over the dingy carpet, and he wondered whether it would attempt to climb on to the bed. He stood up, and tried to get his revolver from the drawers. It was out of reach, and as the bed creaked beneath his weight, a faint hiss sounded from the floor, and he sat still again, hardly daring to breathe.
The cold rawness of the room chilled him. He cautiously drew the bed-clothes towards him, and rolled himself up in them, leaving only his head and arms exposed. In this position he began to feel more secure, until the thought struck him that the snake might be inside them. He fought against this idea, and tried to force his nerves into steadiness. Then his fears suggested that two might have been placed in the bed. At this his fears got the upper hand, and it seemed to him that something stirred in the clothes. He drew his body from them slowly and stealthily, and taking them in his arms, flung them violently to the other end of the room. On his hands and knees he now travelled over the bare bed, feeling. There was nothing there.
In this state of suspense and dread time seemed to stop. Several times he thought that the thing had got on the bed, and to stay there in suspense in the darkness was impossible. He felt it over again and again. At last, unable to endure it any longer, he resolved to obtain the matches, and stepped cautiously off the bed; but no sooner had his feet touched the floor than his courage forsook him, and he sprang hurriedly back to his refuge again.
After that, in a spirit of dogged fatalism, he sat still and waited. To his disordered mind it seemed that footsteps were moving about the house, but they had no terrors for him. To grapple with a man for life and death would be play; to kill him, joy unspeakable. He sat still, listening. He heard rats in the walls and a babel of jeering voices on the stair-case. The whole blackness of the room with the devilish, writhing thing on the floor became invested with supernatural significance. Then, dimly at first, and hardly comprehending the joy of it, he saw the window. A little later he saw the outlines of the things in the room. The night had passed and he was alive!
He raised his half-frozen body to its full height, and, expanding his chest, planted his feet firmly on the bed, stretching his long body to the utmost. He clenched his fist, and felt strong. The bed was unoccupied except by himself. He bent down and scrutinized the floor for his enemy, and set his teeth as he thought how he would tear it and mangle it. It was light enough, but first he would put on his boots. He leant over cautiously, and lifting one on to the bed, put it on. Then he bent down and took up the other, and, swift as lightning, something issued from it, and, coiling round his wrist, ran up the sleeve of his shirt.
With starting eyeballs the Jew held his breath, and, stiffened into stone, waited helplessly. The tightness round his arm relaxed as the snake drew the whole of its body under the sleeve and wound round his arm. He felt its head moving. It came wriggling across his chest, and with a mad cry, the wretched man clutched at the front of his shirt with both hands and strove to tear it off. He felt the snake in his hands, and for a moment hoped. Then the creature got its head free, and struck him smartly in the throat.
The Jew’s hold relaxed, and the snake fell at his feet. He bent down and seized it, careless now that it bit his hand, and, with bloodshot eyes, dashed it repeatedly on the rail of the bed. Then he flung it to the floor, and, raising his heel, smashed its head to pulp.
His fury passed, he strove to think, but his brain was in a whirl. He had heard of sucking the wound, but one puncture was in his throat, and he laughed discordantly. He had heard that death had been prevented by drinking heavily of spirits. He would do that first, and then obtain medical assistance.
He ran to the door, and began to drag the furniture away. In his haste the revolver fell from the drawers to the floor. He looked at it steadily for a moment and then, taking it up, handled it wistfully. He began to think more clearly, although a numbing sensation was already stealing over him.
“Thirty thousands pounds!” he said slowly, and tapped his cheek lightly with the cold barrel.
Then he slipped it in his mouth, and, pulling the trigger, crashed heavily to the floor.
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University of Adelaide
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10