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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 12051

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

The rear-guard of London's great army of clerks had already vanished in the city, and the hour was drawing near to eleven, when Victor Nevill shook off his lassitude sufficiently to get out of bed. A cold tub freshened him, and as he dressed with scrupulous care, choosing his clothes from a well-filled wardrobe, he occasionally walked to the window of his sitting-room and looked down on the narrow but lively thoroughfare of Jermyn street. It was a fine morning, with the scent of spring in the air, and the many colors of the rumbling 'busses glistened like fresh paint in the sunlight.

His toilet completed, Victor Nevill pressed an electric bell, in answer to which there presently appeared, from some mysterious source downstairs, a boy in buttons carrying a tray on which reposed a small pot of coffee, one of cream, a pat of butter, and a couple of crisp rolls. Nevill ate his breakfast with the mechanical air of one who is doing a tiresome but necessary thing, meanwhile consulting a tiny memorandum-book, and counting over a handful of loose gold and silver. Then he put on his hat and gloves, looked at the fit of his gray frock-coat in the glass, and went into the street. At Piccadilly Circus he bought a boutonniere, and as he was feeling slightly rocky after a late night at card-playing, he dropped into the St. James. He emerged shortly, fortified by a brandy-and-soda, and sauntered westward along the Piccadilly pavement.

A typical young-man-about-town, an indolent pleasure-lover, always dressed to perfection and flush with money-such was Victor Nevill in the opinion of the world. For aught men knew to the contrary, he thrived like the proverbial lily of the field, without the need of toiling or spinning. He lived in expensive rooms, dined at the best restaurants, and belonged to a couple of good clubs. To his friends this was no matter of surprise or conjecture. They were aware that he was well-connected, and that years before he had come into a fortune; they naturally supposed that enough of it remained to yield him a comfortable income, in spite of the follies and extravagances that rumor attributed to him in the past, while he was abroad.

But Nevill himself, and one other individual, knew better. The bulk of his fortune exhausted by reckless living on the Continent, he had returned to London with a thousand pounds in cash, and a secured annuity of two hundred pounds, which he was too prudent to try to negotiate. The thousand pounds did not last long, but by the time they were spent he had drifted into degraded and evil ways. None had ever dared to whisper-none had ever suspected-that Victor Nevill was a rook for money-lenders and a dangerous friend for young men. He knew what a perilous game he was playing, but he studied every move and guarded shrewdly against discovery. There were many reasons, and one in particular, for keeping his reputation clean and untarnished. It was a matter of the utmost satisfaction to him that his uncle, Sir Lucius Chesney, of Priory Court in Sussex, cared but little for London, and seldom came up to town. For Sir Lucius was childless, elderly, and possessed of fifteen thousand pounds a year.

Victor Nevill's progress along Piccadilly was frequently interrupted by friends, fashionably dressed young men like himself, whose invitations to come and have a drink he declined on the plea of an engagement. Just beyond Devonshire House he was accosted eagerly by a fresh-faced, blond-haired boy-he was no more than twenty-two-who was coming from the opposite direction.

"Hullo, Bertie," Nevill said carelessly, as he shook hands. "I was on my way to the club."

"I got tired of waiting. You are half an hour over the time, Vic. I thought of going to your rooms."

"I slept later than I intended," Nevill replied. "I had a night of it."

"So had I-a night of sleeplessness."

The Honorable Bertie Raven, second son of the Earl of Runnymede, might have stepped out of one of Poole's fashion-plates, so far as dress was concerned. But there was a strained look on his handsome, patrician face, and in his blue eyes, that told of a gnawing mental anxiety. He linked arms with his companion, and drew him to the edge of the pavement.

"Is it all right?" he asked, pleadingly and hurriedly. "Were you able to fix the thing up for me?"

"You are sure there is no other way, Bertie?"

"None, Vic. I have until this evening, and then-"

"Don't worry. I saw Benjamin and Company yesterday."

"And they will accommodate me?"

"Yes, at my request."

"You mean for your indorsement on the bill?" the lad exclaimed, blushing. "Vic, you're a trump. You're the best fellow that ever lived, and I can't tell you how grateful I am. God only knows what a weight you've lifted from my mind. I'm going to run steady after this, and with economy I can save enough out of my allowance-"

"My dear boy, you are wasting your gratitude over a trifle. Could I refuse so simple a favor to a friend?"

"I don't know any one else who would have done as much, Vic. I was in an awful hole. Will-will they give me plenty of time?"

"As much as you like. And, I say, Bertie, this affair must be quite entre nous. There are plenty of chaps-good fellows, too-who would like to use my name occasionally. But one must draw the line-"

"I understand, Vic. I'll be mum as an oyster."

"Well, suppose we go and have the thing over," said Nevill, "and then we'll lunch together."

They turned eastward, walking briskly, and a few minutes later they entered a narrow court off Duke street, St. James. Through a dingy and unpretentious doorway, unmarked by sign or plate, they passed into the premises of Benjamin and Company. In a dark, cramped office, scantily furnished, they found an elderly Jewish gentleman seated at a desk.

Without delay, with a smoothness that spoke well for the weight and influence of Victor Nevill's name, the little matter of business, as the Jew smilingly called it, was transacted. A three-months' bill f

or five hundred pounds was drawn up for Bertie's signature and Nevill's indorsement. The lad hesitated briefly, then wrote his name in a bold hand. He resisted the allurements of some jewelry, offered him in part payment, and received the amount of the bill, less a prodigious discount for interest. The Jew servilely bowed his customers out.

The Honorable Bertie's face was grave and serious as he walked toward Piccadilly with his friend; he vaguely realized that he had taken the first step on a road that too frequently ends in disgrace and ruin. But this mood changed as he felt the rustling bank notes in his pocket. The world had not looked so bright for many a day.

"I never knew the thing was so easy," he said. "What a good fellow you are, Vic! You've made a new man of me. I can pay off those cursed gambling losses, and a couple of the most pressing debts, and have nearly a hundred pounds over. But I wish I had taken that ruby bracelet for Flora-it would have pleased her."

"Cut Flora-that's my advice," replied Nevill.

"And jolly good advice, too, Vic. I'll think about it seriously. But where will you lunch with me?"

"You are going to lunch with me," said Nevill, "at the Arlington."

* * *

In Wardour street, Soho, as many an enthusiastic collector has found out to the depletion of his pocket-book, there are sufficient antique treasures of every variety stored away in dingy shop windows and dingier rooms to furnish a small town. Number 320, which by chance or design failed to display the name of its proprietor, differed from its neighbors in one marked respect. Instead of the usual conglomerate mass, articles of value cheek by jowl with worthless rubbish, the long window contained some rare pieces of china and silver, an Italian hall-seat of richly carved oak, and half a dozen paintings by well-known artists of the past century, the authenticity of which was an excuse for the amount at which they were priced.

Behind the window was a deep and narrow room, lined on both sides with cabinets of great age and curious workmanship, oaken furniture belonging to various periods, pictures restored and pictures cracked and faded, cases filled with dainty objects of gold and silver, brass work from Moorish and Saracenic craftsmen, tall suits of armor, helmets and weapons that had clashed in battle hundreds of years before, and other things too numerous to mention, all of a genuine value that put them beyond the reach of a slim purse.

In the rear of the shop-which was looked after by a salesman-was a small office almost opulent in its appearance. Soft rugs covered the floor, and costly paintings hung on the walls. The chairs and desk, the huge couch, would have graced a palace, and a piece of priceless tapestry partly overhung the big safe at one end. An incandescent lamp was burning brightly, for very little light entered from the dreary court on which a single window opened.

Here, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Stephen Foster sat poring over a sheaf of papers. He was a man of fifty-two, nearly six feet tall and correspondingly built-a man with a fine head and handsome features, a man to attract more than ordinary attention. His hands were white, slim and long. His eyes were deep brown, and his mustache and beard-the latter cut to a point-were of a tawny yellowish-brown color, mixed with gray to a slight degree. It would be difficult to analyze his character, for in many ways he was a contradiction. He was not miserly, but his besetting evil was the love of accumulating money-the lever that had made him thoroughly unscrupulous. He was rich, or reputed so, but in amassing gold, by fair means or foul, lay the keynote to his life. And it was a dual life. He had chosen the old mansion at Strand-on-the-Green to be out of the roar and turmoil of London life, and yet within touch of it. Here, where his evenings were mostly spent, he was a different man. He derived his chief pleasures from his daughter's society, from a table filled with current literature, from a box of choice Havanas. In town he was a sordid man of business, clever at buying and selling to the best advantage. He had loved his wife, the daughter of a city alderman and a friend of his father's, and her death twelve years before had been a great blow to him. Madge resembled her, and he gave the girl a father's sincere devotion.

Few persons knew that Stephen Foster was the proprietor of the curio-shop in Wardour street-his daughter was among the ignorant-and but one or two were aware that the business of Benjamin and Company, carried on in Duke street, belonged also to him. None, assuredly, among his sprinkling of acquaintances, would have believed that he could stoop to lower things, or that he and his equally unscrupulous and useful tool, Victor Nevill, the gay young-man-about-town, had been mixed up in more than one nefarious transaction that would not bear the light of day. He had taken the place in Wardour street within the past five years, and prior to that time he had held a responsible position as purchasing agent-there was not a better judge of pictures in Europe-with the well-known firm of Lamb and Drummond, art dealers and engravers to Her Majesty, of Pall Mall.

A slight frown gathered on Stephen Foster's brow as he put aside the packet of papers, and it deepened as he recognized a familiar step coming through the shop. But he had a cheery smile of greeting ready when the office door opened to admit Victor Nevill. The young man's face was flushed with excitement, and he carried in one hand a crumpled copy of the Westminster Budget.

"Seen the evening editions yet?" he exclaimed.

"No; what's in them?" asked the curio-dealer.

"I was lunching at the Arlington, with the Honorable Bertie-By the way, he took the hook," Nevill replied, in a calmer tone, "and when I came out I bought this on the street. But read for yourself."

He opened the newspaper, folded it twice, and tossed it down on Stephen Foster's desk.

* * *

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