STRANGE OCCURRENCE IN CLERKENWELL

Mr. Dyson had inhabited for some years a couple of rooms in a moderately
quiet street in Bloomsbury, where, as he somewhat pompously expressed
it, he held his finger on the pulse of life without being deafened with
the thousand rumors of the main arteries of London. It was to him a
source of peculiar, if esoteric gratification, that from the adjacent
corner of Tottenham Court Road a hundred lines of omnibuses went to the
four quarters of the town; he would dilate on the facilities for
visiting Dalston, and dwell on the admirable line that knew extremest
Ealing and the streets beyond Whitechapel. His rooms, which had been
originally “furnished apartments,” he had gradually purged of their more
peccant parts; and though one would not find here the glowing splendors
of his old chambers in the street off the Strand, there was something of
severe grace about the appointments which did credit to his taste. The
rugs were old, and of the true faded beauty; the etchings, nearly all of
them proofs printed by the artist, made a good show with broad white
margins and black frames, and there was no spurious black oak. Indeed,
there was but little furniture of any kind: a plain and honest table,
square and sturdy, stood in one corner; a seventeenth century settle
fronted the hearth; and two wooden elbow-chairs, and a bookshelf of the
Empire made up the equipment, with an exception worthy of note. For
Dyson cared for none of these things. His place was at his own bureau, a
quaint old piece of lacquered-work at which he would sit for hour after
hour, with his back to the room, engaged in the desperate pursuit of
literature, or, as he termed his profession, the chase of the phrase.
The neat array of pigeon-holes and drawers teemed and overflowed with
manuscript and note-books, the experiments and efforts of many years;
and the inner well, a vast and cavernous receptacle, was stuffed with
accumulated ideas. Dyson was a craftsman who gloved all the detail and
the technique of his work intensely; and if, as has been hinted, he
deluded himself a little with the name of artist, yet his amusements
were eminently harmless, and, so far as can be ascertained, he (or the
publishers) had chosen the good part of not tiring the world with
printed matter.

Here, then, Dyson would shut himself up with his fancies, experimenting
with words, and striving, as his friend the recluse of Bayswater strove,
with the almost invincible problem of style, but always with a fine
confidence, extremely different from the chronic depression of the
realist. He had been almost continuously at work on some scheme that
struck him as well-nigh magical in its possibilities since the night of
his adventure with the ingenious tenant of the first floor in Abingdon
Grove; and as he laid down the pen with a glow of triumph, he reflected
that he had not viewed, the streets for five days in succession. With
all the enthusiasm of his accomplished labor still working in his brain,
he put away his papers, and went out, pacing the pavement at first in
that rare mood of exultation which finds in every stone upon the way the
possibilities of a masterpiece. It was growing late, and the autumn
evening was drawing to a close amidst veils of haze and mist, and in the
stilled air the voices, and the roaring traffic, and incessant feet
seemed, to Dyson like the noise upon the stage when all the house is
silent. In the square, the leaves rippled down as quick as summer rain,
and the street beyond was beginning to flare with the lights in the
butcher’s shops and the vivid illumination of the green-grocer. It was a
Saturday night, and the swarming populations of the slums were turning
out in force; the battered women in rusty black had begun to paw the
lumps of cagmag, and others gloated over unwholesome cabbages, and there
was a brisk demand for four-ale. Dyson passed through these night-fires
with some relief; he loved to meditate, but his thoughts were not as De
Quincey’s after his dose; he cared not two straws whether onions were
dear or cheap, and would not have exulted if meat had fallen to twopence
a pound. Absorbed in the wilderness of the tale he had been writing,
weighing nicely the points of plot and construction, relishing the
recollection of this and that happy phrase, and dreading failure here
and there, he left the rush and the whistle of the gas-flares behind
him, and began to touch upon pavements more deserted.

He had turned, without taking note, to the northward, and was passing
through an ancient fallen street, where now notices of floors and
offices to let hung out, but still about it there was the grace and the
stiffness of the Age of Wigs; a broad roadway, a broad pavement, and on
each side a grave line of houses with long and narrow windows flush with
the walls, all of mellowed brick-work. Dyson walked with quick steps, as
he resolved that short work must be made of a certain episode; but he
was in that happy humor of invention, and another chapter rose in the
inner chamber of his brain, and he dwelt on the circumstances he was to
write down with curious pleasure. It was charming to have the quiet
streets to walk in, and in his thought he made a whole district the
cabinet of his studies, and vowed he would come again. Heedless of his
course, he struck off to the east again, and soon found himself involved
in a squalid network of gray two-storied houses, and then in the waste
void and elements of brick-work, the passages and unmade roads behind
great factory walls, encumbered with the refuse of the neighborhood,
forlorn, ill-lighted, and desperate. A brief turn, and there rose before
him the unexpected, a hill suddenly lifted from the level ground, its
steep ascent marked by the lighted lamps, and eager as an explorer Dyson
found his way to the place, wondering where his crooked paths had
brought him. Here all was again decorous, but hideous in the extreme.
The builder, some one lost in the deep gloom of the early ‘twenties, had
conceived the idea of twin villas in gray brick, shaped in a manner to
recall the outlines of the Parthenon, each with its classic form
broadly marked with raised bands of stucco. The name of the street was
all strange, and for a further surprise, the top of the hill was crowned
with an irregular plot of grass and fading trees, called a square, and
here again the Parthenon-motive had persisted. Beyond the streets were
curious, wild in their irregularities, here a row of sordid, dingy
dwellings, dirty and disreputable in appearance, and there, without
warning, stood a house genteel and prim with wire blinds and brazen
knocker, as clean and trim as if it had been the doctor’s house in some
benighted little country town. These surprises and discoveries began to
exhaust Dyson, and he hailed with delight the blazing windows of a
public-house, and went in with the intention of testing the beverage
provided for the dwellers in this region, as remote as Libya and
Pamphylia and the parts about Mesopotamia. The babble of voices from
within warned him that he was about to assist at the true parliament of
the London workman, and he looked about him for that more retired
entrance called private. When he had settled himself on an exiguous
bench, and had ordered some beer, he began to listen to the jangling
talk in the public bar beyond; it was a senseless argument, alternately
furious and maudlin, with appeals to Bill and Tom, and mediæval
survivals of speech, words that Chaucer wrote belched out with zeal and
relish, and the din of pots jerked down and coppers rapped smartly on
the zinc counter made a thorough bass for it all. Dyson was calmly
smoking his pipe between the sips of beer, when an indefinite looking
figure slid rather than walked into the compartment. The man started
violently when he saw Dyson placidly sitting in the corner, and glanced
keenly about him. He seemed to be on wires, controlled by some electric
machine, for he almost bolted out of the door when the barman asked with
what he could serve him, and his hand shivered as he took the glass.
Dyson inspected him with a little curiosity; he was muffled up almost to
the lips, and a soft felt hat was drawn down over his eyes; he looked as
if he shrank from every glance, and a more raucous voice suddenly
uplifted in the public bar seemed to find in him a sympathy that made
him shake and quiver like a jelly. It was pitiable to see any one so
thrilled with nervousness, and Dyson was about to address some trivial
remark of casual inquiry to the man, when another person came into the
compartment, and, laying a hand on his arm, muttered something in an
undertone, and vanished as he came. But Dyson had recognized him as the
smooth-tongued and smooth-shaven Burton, who had displayed so sumptuous
a gift in lying; and yet he thought little of it, for his whole faculty
of observation was absorbed in the lamentable and yet grotesque
spectacle before him. At the first touch of the hand on his arm, the
unfortunate man had wheeled round as if spun on a pivot, and shrank back
with a low, piteous cry, as if some dumb beast were caught in the toils.
The blood fled away from the wretch’s face, and the skin became gray as
if a shadow of death had passed in the air and fallen on it, and Dyson
caught a choking whisper–




“Mr. Davies! For God’s sake, have pity on me, Mr. Davies. On my oath, I
say–” and his voice sank to silence as he heard the message, and strove
in vain to bite his lip; and summon up to his aid some tinge of manhood.
He stood there a moment, wavering as the leaves of an aspen, and then he
was gone out into the street, as Dyson thought silently, with his doom
upon his head. He had not been gone a minute when it suddenly flashed
into Dyson’s mind that he knew the man; it was undoubtedly the young man
with spectacles for whom so many ingenious persons were searching; the
spectacles indeed were missing, but the pale face, the dark whiskers,
and the timid glances were enough to identify him, Dyson saw at once
that by a succession of hazards he had unawares hit upon the scent of
some desperate conspiracy, wavering as the track of a loathsome snake in
and out of the highways and byways of the London cosmos; the truth was
instantly pictured before him, and he divined that all unconscious and
unheeding he had been privileged to see the shadows of hidden forms,
chasing and hurrying, and grasping and vanishing across the bright
curtain of common life, soundless and silent, or only babbling fables
and pretences. For him in an instant the jargoning of voices, the garish
splendor, and all the vulgar tumult of the public-house became part of
magic; for here before his eyes a scene in this grim mystery play had
been enacted, and he had seen human flesh grow gray with a palsy of
fear; the very hell of cowardice and terror had gaped wide within an
arm’s breadth. In the midst of these reflections, the barman came up and
stared at him as if to hint that he had exhausted his right to take his
ease, and Dyson bought another lease of the seat by an order for more
beer. As he pondered the brief glimpse of tragedy, he recollected that
with his first start of haunted fear the young man with whiskers had
drawn his hand swiftly from his great coat pocket, and that he had heard
something fall to the ground; and pretending to have dropped his pipe,
Dyson began to grope in the corner, searching with his fingers. He
touched some thing, and drew it gently to him, and with one brief
glance, as he put it quietly in his pocket, he saw it was a little
old-fashioned note book, bound in faded green morocco.

He drank down his beer at a gulp, and left the place, overjoyed at his
fortunate discovery, and busy with conjecture as to the possible
importance of the find. By turns he dreaded to find perhaps mere blank
leaves, or the labored follies of a betting-book, but the faded morocco
cover seemed to promise better things, and hint at mysteries. He piloted
himself with no little difficulty out of the sour and squalid quarter he
had entered with a light heart, and emerging at Gray’s Inn Road, struck
off down Guilford Street, and hastened home, only anxious for a lighted
candle and solitude.

Dyson sat down at his bureau, and placed the little book before him; it
was an effort to open the leaves and dare disappointment. But in
desperation at last he laid his finger between the pages at haphazard,
and rejoiced to see a compact range of writing with a margin, and as it
chanced, three words caught his glance, and stood out apart from the
mass. Dyson read:

THE GOLD TIBERIUS,

and his face flushed with fortune and the lust of the hunter.

He turned at once to the first leaf of the pocket-book, and proceeded to
read with rapt interest the