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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 11284

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Nevill paused, latch-key in hand; a cautious impulse checked the admission of his identity. The individual who had accosted him, seen by the glow of a distant street-lamp, was thickset and rakish-looking, with a heavy mustache. He repeated his question uneasily.

"If I've made a mistake-" he went on.

"No, you are not mistaken," said Nevill. "But how did you learn my name, and what do you want with me?"

On a natural impulse, fancying he recognized a racing tipster who had been of service to him in the past, he reached for his pocket; the jingling of coin was heard.

"Stow that-I'm not a beggar!" the man said, sharply.

"I beg your pardon! I thought I recalled-"

"We never met before, Mr. Nevill."

"Then it's a queer time of night for a stranger to hunt me up. If you have business with me, come in the morning; or, better still, write to me."

"I've got to talk to you to-night, sir, and I ain't to be put off. For two blessed hours I've been hanging around this house, watching an' waiting-"

"A sad waste of time! You are an impudent fellow, whoever you are. I refuse to have anything to do with you."

"I think you'll change your mind, sir. If you don't you'll be sorry till your dying day."

"You scoundrel, do you dare to threaten me?" cried Nevill. "There is only one remedy for ruffians of your kind-" He looked up and down the street in search of a policeman.

"You can call an officer if you like," the man said, scornfully; "or, if you choose to order me away, I'll go. But in that case," he bent nearer and dropped his voice to a whisper, "I'll take my secret straight to Sir Lucius Chesney. And I'll warrant he won't refuse to hear it."

Nevill's countenance changed, and he seemed to wilt instantly.

"Your secret?" he muttered. "Are you telling the truth? What is it?"

"Do you suppose I'm going to give that away here in the street? It's a private matter, and can only be told under shelter, where there ain't no danger of eavesdroppers."

"I'll trust you," replied Nevill, after a brief hesitation. "Come, you shall go to my rooms. But I warn you in advance that if you are playing a game of blackmail I'll have no mercy on you."

"I won't ask none. Don't you fear."

Nevill opened the house door, and the two went softly up the dimly lit staircase. The gas-lamps were turned on, revealing the luxuries of the front apartment, and the visitor looked about him with bewildered admiration; he seemed to feel his unfitness for the place, and instinctively buttoned his coat over his shabby linen. But that was only for a moment. With an insolent smile he took possession of a basket-chair, helped himself to a cigar, and poured some brandy from a carafe into a glass. Meanwhile Nevill had drawn the window curtains, and when he turned around he had hard work to restrain his anger.

"What the devil-," he began, and broke off. "You are the cheekiest fellow I ever came across," he added.

"It ain't often," replied the man, puffing away contentedly, "that I get a chance to try a swell's tobacco and liquor. That's prime stuff, sir. I feel more like talking now."

"Then be quick about it. What is your business? And as you have the advantage of me at present, it would be better if you began by stating your name."

"My name," the man paused half a second, "is Timmins-Joe Timmins. It ain't likely that you-"

"No; I never heard it," Nevill interrupted. He sat down at the other side of the table, and endeavored to hide his anxiety and impatience. "I can't spare you much time," he added.

"Sure there ain't nobody within earshot?"

"Quite sure. Make your mind easy."

Mr. Joe Timmins-alias Noah Hawker-expressed his satisfaction by a nod. He produced a paper from his pocket, and slowly unfolded it.

"If you will kindly read that," he said.

Nevill took the document curiously. It consisted of half a dozen pages of writing, well-worded and grammatical, but done by a wretched, scrawling hand, and embellished with numerous blots and smudges. From the first he grasped its import, and as he read on to the end his face grew pale and his hands shook. With a curse he started to his feet and made a step toward the grate, where the embers of a coal fire lingered. Then, dropping down again, he laughed bitterly.

"Of course this is only a copy?" he exclaimed.

"That's all, sir," replied Mr. Timmins, with a grim smile. "It ain't likely I'd been fool enough to bring the original here. I did the copy myself, an' though I ain't much of a scholar, I do say as it reads for what it's meant to be, word for word."

"I want better proof than this, my man."

"Ain't you satisfied? Look at the date of the letter, an' where it was written, an' what it says. Could I invent such a thing?"

"No; you couldn't," Nevill admitted. "You have the original letter, you say?"

"I've had that and other papers for years, hid away in a safe place, which is where they lie now. It's only lately I looked into them deep, so to speak, and saw what they might be worth to me. I studied them, sir, and by putting things together I found there were three persons concerned-three chances for me to try."

"You are a cunning fellow," said Nevill. "Why did you bring the letter to me?"

"Because it pointed that way. I knew you were the biggest bird, and the one most likely to pay me for my secret. It was quite a different matter with the others-"

"You haven't seen them?"

"No fear!" Mr. Timmins answered, emphatically. "I spotted you as my man from the first, and I'm glad you've got the sense to look at it right. I hope we understand each other."

"I don't

think there can be much doubt about that," replied Nevill, whose quick mind had grasped the situation in all its bearings; he realized that there was no alternative-save ruin-but to submit to the scoundrel's terms. But the bargain must be made as easy as possible.

"I must know more than you have told me," he went on. "How did the letter come into your possession? And why have you waited more than five years to make use of it?"

Mr. Timmins was not averse to answering the questions. He pulled his chair closer, and in low tones spoke for some minutes, revealing all that Nevill wished to know, and much besides that was of interest.

"You'll find me a square-dealing customer," he concluded, "and I expect the same of a gent like you."

Nevill shrank from him with ill-concealed disgust and repulsion; contact with the lower depths of crime affected his aristocratic sensibilities.

"You swear that you have all the papers?" he asked.


"And they are in a safe place?"

"If I was to drop over dead, sir, they wouldn't be found in a hundred years."

"We'll proceed to the next question," Nevill said, abruptly. "To speak with brutal frankness, Mr. Timmins, what is your price?"

"One thousand pounds in cash, when the papers are handed over," was the prompt reply, "and a signed agreement to pay me as much more when you come into-"

"Do you take me for a millionaire?" cried Nevill. "It's all right about the agreement, but a thousand pounds is utterly beyond my means. Say two hundred."

Mr. Timmins shook his head, and glanced significantly about the room.

"I can't take a shilling less," he firmly replied. "I know a good thing when I have it, sir."

Nevill temporized. He argued and entreated, but without avail. He had an inflexible customer to deal with, who would not be put off with anything but his pound of flesh. A decision that night was impossible, and arrangements were made for another meeting within a few days. Then Mr. Timmins filled his pocket with cigars and took his leave.

Nevill let him out into Jermyn street, locked the door, and returned to his sitting-room. His face was distorted with evil passions, and he spilled the brandy on the table as he poured some into a glass.

"Curse him!" he said, hoarsely. "He again! Is he destined to blast my life and ruin my prospects?"

* * *

The "do" at Joubert Mansions, Chelsea, by no means fell short of Jack's forecast; on the contrary, it exceeded it. His memory failed him as to what transpired after three in the morning; he woke at noon in a strange bed, with a sense of overmastering languor, and a head that felt too big for his body. Vance Dickens, with a palette on his thumb, was standing over him. He laughed till the roof threatened to come off.

"I wish you could see yourself," he howled. "It's not exactly the awakening of Venus. You wouldn't be undressed, so we had to tuck you away as you were-some chaps helped to bring you here."

"You beggar!" growled Jack. "You look as fresh as a new penny."

"Two whiskies is my limit, old boy-I don't go beyond it. And I had a page black-and-white to do to-day. Stir yourself, and we'll have breakfast. The kettle is boiling. Wait-I'll bring you a pick-me-up."

The pick-me-up, compounded on the principle that like cures like, did not belie its name. It got Jack to his feet and soothed his head. The two men were about of a size, and Dickens loaned his friend a shirt and collar and a tweed suit, promising to send his dress clothes home by a trusty messenger.

"No; I'll attend to that," demurred Jack, who did not care to tell where he lived.

He nibbled at his breakfast, drank four cups of strong tea, and then sauntered to the window. It was drizzling rain, and the streets between the river and the King's road were wrapped in a white mist.

"This sort of thing won't do," he reflected. "I must pull up short, or I'll be a complete wreck." He remembered the brief, sad note-with more love than bitterness in it-which he had received from Madge in reply to his letter of explanation. "I owe something to her," he thought. "She forgave me, and begged me to face the future bravely. And, by heavens, I'll do it! I hope she doesn't know the life I've been leading since I came back. Work is the thing, and I'll buckle down to it again."

Fired by his new resolve, Jack settled himself in a cozy corner and lighted a pipe. With a stimulating interest he watched Dickens, who had finished his black-and-white, and was doing a water color from a sketch made that summer at Walberswick, a quaint fishing village on the Suffolk coast. He blobbed on the paint, working spasmodically, and occasionally he refreshed himself at the piano with a verse of the latest popular song.

"By Jove, this is Friday!" he said suddenly; "and I'm due at the London Sketch Club to-night. Will you come there and have supper with me at nine?"

"Sorry, but I can't," Jack replied, remembering his promise to Sir Lucius Chesney. "I'm off now. I'll drop in to-morrow and get my dress-suit-don't trouble to send it."

Dickens vainly urged a change of mind. Jack was not to be coerced, and, putting on a borrowed cap and overcoat, he left the studio. He walked to Sloane square, and took a train to the Temple; but he was so absorbed in a paper that he was carried past his station. He got out at Blackfriars, and lingered doubtfully on the greasy pavement, staring at the sea of traffic surging in the thick, yellow fog. He had reached another turning-point in his life, but he did not know it.

"I'll go to the 'Cheese,'" he decided, "and have some supper."

* * *

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