HISTORY OF THE YOUNG MAN WITH SPECTACLES

From the filthy and obscure lodging, situated, I verily believe, in one
of the foulest slums of Clerkenwell, I indite this history of a life
which, daily threatened, cannot last for very much longer. Every day,
nay, every hour, I know too well my enemies are drawing their nets
closer about me; even now, I am condemned to be a close prisoner in my
squalid room, and I know that when I go out I shall go to my
destruction. This history, if it chance to fall into good hands, may,
perhaps, be of service in warning young men of the dangers and pitfalls
that most surely must accompany any deviation from the ways of
rectitude.

My name is Joseph Walters. When I came of age I found myself in
possession of a small but sufficient income, and I determined that I
would devote my life to scholarship. I do not mean the scholarship of
these days; I had no intention of associating myself with men whose
lives are spent in the unspeakably degrading occupation of “editing”
classics, befouling the fair margins of the fairest books with idle and
superfluous annotation, and doing their utmost to give a lasting
disgust of all that is beautiful. An abbey church turned to the base use
of a stable or a bake-house is a sorry sight; but more pitiable still is
a masterpiece spluttered over with the commentator’s pen, and his
hideous mark “cf.”

For my part I chose the glorious career of scholar in its ancient sense;
I longed to possess encyclopædic learning, to grow old amongst books, to
distil day by day, and year after year, the inmost sweetness of all
worthy writings. I was not rich enough to collect a library, and I was
therefore forced to betake myself to the Reading-Room of the British
Museum.

O dim, far-lifted and mighty dome, Mecca of many minds, mausoleum of
many hopes, sad house where all desires fail. For there men enter in
with hearts uplifted, and dreaming minds, seeing in those exalted stairs
a ladder to fame, in that pompous portico the gate of knowledge; and
going in, find but vain vanity, and all but in vain. There, when the
long streets are ringing, is silence, there eternal twilight, and the
odor of heaviness. But there the blood flows thin and cold, and the
brain burns adust; there is the hunt of shadows, and the chase of
embattled phantoms; a striving against ghosts, and a war that has no
victory. O dome, tomb of the quick; surely in thy galleries where no
reverberant voice can call, sighs whisper ever, and mutterings of dead
hopes; and there men’s souls mount like moths towards the flame, and
fall scorched and blackened beneath thee, O dim, far-lifted, and mighty
dome.

Bitterly do I now regret the day when I took my place at a desk for the
first time, and began my studies. I had not been an habitué of the place
for many months, when I became acquainted with a serene and benevolent
gentleman, a man somewhat past middle age, who nearly always occupied a
desk next to mine. In the Reading-Room it takes little to make an
acquaintance, a casual offer of assistance, a hint as to the search in
the catalogue, and the ordinary politeness of men who constantly sit
near each other; it was thus I came to know the man calling himself Dr.
Lipsius. By degrees I grew to look for his presence, and to miss him
when he was away, as was sometimes the case, and so a friendship sprang
up between us. His immense range of learning was placed freely at my
service; he would often astonish me by the way in which he would sketch
out in a few minutes the bibliography of a given subject, and before
long I had confided to him my ambitions.

“Ah,” he said, “you should have been a German. I was like that myself
when I was a boy. It is a wonderful resolve, an infinite career. ‘I will
know all things;’ yes, it is a device indeed. But it means this–a life
of labor without end, and a desire unsatisfied at last. The scholar has
to die, and die saying, ‘I know very little.'”

Gradually, by speeches such as these, Lipsius seduced me: he would
praise the career, and at the same time hint that it was as hopeless as
the search for the philosopher’s stone, and so by artful suggestions,
insinuated with infinite address, he by degrees succeeded in undermining
all my principles. “After all,” he used to say, “the greatest of all
sciences, the key to all knowledge, is the science and art of pleasure.
Rabelais was perhaps the greatest of all the encyclopædic scholars; and
he, as you know, wrote the most remarkable book that has ever been
written. And what does he teach men in this book? Surely, the joy of
living. I need not remind you of the words, suppressed in most of the
editions, the key of all the Rabelaisian mythology, of all the enigmas
of his grand philosophy, _Vivez joyeux_. There you have all his
learning; his work is the institutes of pleasure as the fine art; the
finest art there is; the art of all arts. Rabelais had all science, but
he had all life too. And we have gone a long way since his time. You are
enlightened, I think; you do not consider all the petty rules and
by-laws that a corrupt society has made for its own selfish convenience
as the immutable decrees of the eternal.”

Such were the doctrines that he preached; and it was by such insidious
arguments, line upon line, here a little and there a little, that he at
last succeeded in making me a man at war with the whole social system. I
used to long for some opportunity to break the chains and to live a free
life, to be my own rule and measure. I viewed existence with the eyes of
a pagan, and Lipsius understood to perfection the art of stimulating the
natural inclinations of a young man hitherto a hermit. As I gazed up at
the great dome I saw it flushed with the flames and colors of a world of
enticement, unknown to me, my imagination played me a thousand wanton
tricks, and the forbidden drew me as surely as a loadstone draws on
iron. At last my resolution was taken, and I boldly asked Lipsius to be
my guide.

He told me to leave the Museum at my usual hour, half past four, to walk
slowly along the northern pavement of Great Russell Street, and to wait
at the corner of the street till I was addressed, and then to obey in
all things the instructions of the person who came up to me. I carried
out these directions, and stood at the corner looking about me
anxiously, my heart beating fast, and my breath coming in gasps. I
waited there for some time, and had begun to fear I had been made the
object of a joke, when I suddenly became conscious of a gentleman who
was looking at me with evident amusement from the opposite pavement of
Tottenham Court Road. He came over, and raising his hat, politely begged
me to follow him, and I did so without a word, wondering where we were
going, and what was to happen. I was taken to a house of quiet and
respectable aspect in a street lying to the north of Oxford Street, and
my guide rang the bell, and a servant showed us into a large room,
quietly furnished, on the ground floor. We sat there in silence for some
time, and I noticed that the furniture, though unpretending, was
extremely valuable. There were large oak-presses, two book-cases of
extreme elegance, and in one corner a carved chest which must have been
mediæval. Presently Dr. Lipsius came in and welcomed me with his usual
manner, and after some desultory conversation, my guide left the room.
Then an elderly man dropped in and began talking to Lipsius; and from
their conversation I understood that my friend was a dealer in antiques;
they spoke of the Hittite seal, and of the prospects of further
discoveries, and later, when two or three more persons had joined us,
there was an argument as to the possibility of a systematic exploration
of the pre-celtic monuments in England I was; in fact, present at an
archæological reception of an informal kind; and at nine o’clock, when
the antiquaries were gone, I stared at Lipsius in a manner that showed I
was puzzled, and sought an explanation.

“Now,” he said, “we will go upstairs.”

As we passed up the stairs, Lipsius lighting the way with a hand-lamp, I
heard the sound of a jarring lock and bolts and bars shot on at the
front door. My guide drew back a baize door, and we went down a passage,
and I began to hear odd sounds, a noise of curious mirth, and then he
pushed me through a second door, and my initiation began. I cannot write
down what I witnessed that night; I cannot bear to recall what went on
in those secret rooms fast shuttered and curtained so that no light
should escape into the quiet street; they gave me red wine to drink, and
a woman told me as I sipped it that it was wine of the Red Jar that
Avallaunius had made. Another asked me how I liked the Wine of the
Fauns, and I heard a dozen fantastic names, while the stuff boiled in my
veins, and stirred, I think, something that had slept within me from the
moment I was born. It seemed as if my self-consciousness deserted me; I
was no longer a thinking agent, but at once subject and object. I
mingled in the horrible sport and watched the mystery of the Greek
groves and fountains enacted before me, saw the reeling dance, and heard
the music calling as I sat beside my mate, and yet I was outside it all,
and viewed my own part an idle spectator. Thus with strange rites they
made me drink the cup, and when I woke up in the morning I was one of
them, and had sworn to be faithful. At first I was shown the enticing
side of things. I was bidden to enjoy myself and care for nothing but
pleasure, and Lipsius himself indicated to me as the acutest enjoyment
the spectacle of the terrors of the unfortunate persons who were from
time to time decoyed into the evil house. But after a time it was
pointed out to me that I must take my share in the work, and so I found
myself compelled to be in my turn a seducer; and thus it is on my
conscience that I have led many to the depths of the pit.

One day Lipsius summoned me to his private room, and told me that he had
a difficult task to give me. He unlocked a drawer, and gave me a sheet
of type-written paper, and had me read it. It was without place, or
date, or signature, and ran as follows:–

“Mr. James Headley, F.S.A., will receive from his agent in Armenia, on
the 12th inst., a unique coin, the gold Tiberius. It hears on the
reverse a faun, with the legend VICTORIA. It is believed that this coin
is of immense value. Mr. Headley will come up to town to show the coin
to his friend, Professor Memys, of Chenies Street, Oxford Street, on
some date between the 13th and the 18th.”

Dr. Lipsius chuckled at my face of blank surprise when I laid down this
singular communication.

“You will have a good chance of showing your discretion,” he said. “This
is not a common case; it requires great management and infinite tact. I
am sure I wish I had a Panurge in my service, but we will see what you
can do.”

“But is it not a joke?” I asked him. “How can you know, or rather how
can this correspondent of yours know that a coin has been despatched
from Armenia to Mr. Headley? And how is it possible to fix the period in
which Mr. Headley will take it into his head to come up to town? It
seems to me a lot of guess work.”

“My dear Mr. Walters,” he replied; “we do not deal in guess work here.
It would bore you if I went into all these little details, the cogs and
wheels, if I may say so, which move the machine. Don’t you think it is
much more amusing to sit in front of the house and be astonished, than
to be behind the scenes and see the mechanism? Better tremble at the
thunder, believe me, than see the man rolling the cannon ball. But,
after all, you needn’t bother about the how and why; you have your share
to do. Of course, I shall give you full instructions, but a great deal
depends on the way the thing is carried out. I have often heard very
young men maintain that style is everything in literature, and I can
assure you that the same maxim holds good in our far more delicate
profession. With us style is absolutely everything, and that is why we
have friends like yourself.”

I went away in some perturbation; he had no doubt designedly left
everything in mystery, and I did not know what part I should have to
play. Though I had assisted at scenes of hideous revelry, I was not yet
dead to all echo of human feeling, and I trembled lest I should receive
the order to be Mr. Headley’s executioner.

A week later, it was on the sixteenth of the month, Dr. Lipsius made me
a sign to come into his room.

“It is for to-night,” he began. “Please to attend carefully to what I am
going to say, Mr. Walters, and on peril of your life, for it is a
dangerous matter,–on peril of your life I say, follow these
instructions to the letter. You understand? Well, to-night at about
half-past seven you will stroll quietly up the Hampstead Road till you
come to Vincent Street. Turn down here and walk along, taking the third
turning to your right, which is Lambert Terrace. Then follow the
terrace, cross the road, and go along Hertford Street, and so into
Lillington Square. The second turning you will come to in the square is
called Sheen Street; but in reality it is more a passage between blank
walls than a street. Whatever you do, take care to be at the corner of
this street at eight o’clock precisely. You will walk along it, and just
at the bend, where you lose sight of the square, you will find an old
gentleman with white beard and whiskers. He will in all probability be
abusing a cabman for having brought him to Sheen Street instead of
Chenies Street. You will go up to him quietly and offer your services;
he will tell you where he wants to go, and you will be so courteous as
to offer to show him the way. I may say that Professor Memys moved,
into Chenies Street a month ago; thus Mr. Headley has never been to see
him there, and moreover he is very short-sighted, and knows little of
the topography of London. Indeed he has quite lived the life of a
learned hermit at Audley Hall.

“Well, need I say more to a man of your intelligence? You will bring him
to this house; he will ring the bell, and a servant in quiet livery will
let him in. Then your work will be done, and I am sure done well. You
will leave Mr. Headley at the door, and simply continue your walk, and I
shall hope to see you the next day. I really don’t think there is
anything more I can tell you.”

These minute instructions I took care to carry out to the letter. I
confess that I walked up the Tottenham Court Road by no means blindly,
but with an uneasy sense that I was coming to a decisive point in my
life. The noise and rumor of the crowded pavements were to me but
dumb-show. I revolved again and again in ceaseless iteration the task
that had been laid on me, and I questioned myself as to the possible
results. As I got near the point of turning, I asked myself whether
danger were not about my steps; the cold thought struck me that I was
suspected and observed, and every chance foot-passenger who gave me a
second glance seemed to me an officer of police. My time was running
out, the sky had darkened, and I hesitated, half resolved to go no
farther, but to abandon Lipsius and his friends forever. I had almost
determined to take this course, when the conviction suddenly came to me
that the whole thing was a gigantic joke, a fabrication of rank
improbability. Who could have procured the information about the
Armenian agent, I asked myself. By what means could Lipsius have known
the particular day, and the very train that Mr. Headley was to take? How
engage him to enter one special cab amongst the dozens waiting at
Paddington? I vowed it a mere Milesian tale, and went forward merrily,
and turned down Vincent Street, and threaded out the route that Lipsius
had so carefully impressed upon me. The various streets he had named
were all places of silence and an oppressive cheap gentility; it was
dark, and I felt alone in the musty squares and crescents, where people
pattered by at intervals, and the shadows were growing blacker. I
entered Sheen Street, and found it, as Lipsius had said, more a passage
than a street; it was a by-way, on one side a low wall and neglected
gardens and grim backs of a line of houses, and on the other a timber
yard. I turned the corner, and lost sight of the square, and then to my
astonishment I saw the scene of which I had been told. A hansom cab had
come to a stop beside the pavement, and an old man carrying a handbag
was fiercely abusing the cabman, who sat on his perch the image of
bewilderment.

“Yes, but I’m sure you said Sheen Street, and that’s where I brought
you,” I heard him saying, as I came up, and the old gentleman boiled in
a fury, and threatened police and suits at law.

The sight gave me a shock; and in an instant I resolved to go through
with it. I strolled on, and without noticing the cabman, lifted my hat
politely to old Mr. Headley.

“Pardon me, sir,” I said, “but is there any difficulty? I see you are a
traveller; perhaps the cabman has made a mistake. Can I direct you?”

The old fellow turned to me, and I noticed that he snarled and showed
his teeth like an ill-tempered cur as he spoke.

“This drunken fool has brought me here,” he said. “I told him to drive
to Chenies Street, and he brings me to this infernal place. I won’t pay
him a farthing, and I meant to have given him a handsome sum. I am going
to call for the police and give him in charge.”

At this threat the cabman seemed to take alarm. He glanced round as if
to make sure that no policeman was in sight and drove off grumbling
loudly, and Mr. Headley grinned, savagely with satisfaction at having
saved his fare, and put back one and sixpence into his pocket, the
“handsome sum” the cabman had lost.

“My dear sir,” I said, “I am afraid this piece of stupidity has annoyed
you a great deal. It is a long way to Chenies Street, and you will have
some difficulty in finding the place unless you know London pretty
well.”

“I know it very little,” he replied. “I never come up except on
important business, and I’ve never been to Chenies Street in my life.”

“Really? I should be happy to show you the way. I have been for a
stroll, and it will not at all inconvenience me to take you to your
destination.”

“I want to go to Professor Memys, at number 15. It’s most annoying to
me. I’m short-sighted, and I can never make out the numbers on the
doors.”



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“This way if you please,” I said, and we set out.

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.