Chapter Two. Mrs. Goldmark's Eating-House

Lauriston thrust his hands in his pockets and looked at the girl in sheer perplexity. She was a very pretty, dark girl, nearly as tall as himself, slender and lissom of figure, and decidedly attractive. There was evident sense of fun and humour in her eyes, and about the corners of her lips: he suddenly got an idea that she was amused at his embarrassment.

"How much can you lend me?" he asked. "What--what's it worth?"

"No, that's not it!" she answered. "It's--what do you want to borrow? You're not used to pledging things, are you?"

"No," replied Lauriston. "This is the first time. Can--can you lend me a few pounds?"

The girl picked up the watch again, and again, examined it.

"I'll lend you three pounds fifteen on it," she said suddenly, in business-like tones. "That do?"

"Thank you," replied Lauriston. "That'll do very well--I'm much obliged. I suppose I can have it back any time."

"Any time you bring the money, and pay the interest," replied the girl. "Within twelve calendar months and seven days." She picked up a pen and began to fill out a ticket. "Got any copper?" she asked presently.

"Copper?" exclaimed Lauriston. "What for?"

"The ticket," she answered. Then she gave him a quick glance and just as quickly looked down again. "Never mind!" she said. "I'll take it out of the loan. Your name and address, please."

Lauriston presently took the ticket and the little pile of gold, silver, and copper which she handed him. And he lingered.

"You'll take care of that watch," he said, suddenly. "It was my father's, you see."

The girl smiled, reassuringly, and pointed to a heavily-built safe in the rear.

"We've all sorts of family heirlooms in there," she observed. "Make yourself easy."

Lauriston thanked her, raised his hat, and turned away--unwillingly. He would have liked an excuse to stop longer--and he did not quite know why. But he could think of none, so he went--with a backward look when he got to the door. The pretty pawnbroker smiled and nodded. And the next moment he was out in the street, with money in his pocket, and a strange sense of relief, which was mingled with one of surprise. For he had lived for the previous four days on a two-shilling piece--and there, all the time, close by him, had been a place where you could borrow money, easily and very pleasantly.

His first thought was to hurry to his lodgings and pay his landlady. He owed her six weeks' rent, at ten shillings a week--that would take three pounds out of the money he had just received. But he would still have over fourteen shillings to be going on with--and surely those expected letters would come within the next few postal deliveries. He had asked the editor who had taken two short stories from him to let him have a cheque for them, and in his inexperience had expected to see it arrive by return of post. Also he had put his pride in his pocket, and had written a long letter to his old schoolmate, John Purdie, in far-away Scotland, explaining his present circumstances, and asking him, for old times' sake, to lend him some money until he had finished and sold a novel, which, he was sure, would turn out to be a small gold-mine. John Purdie, he knew, was now a wealthy young man--successor to his father in a fine business; Lauriston felt no doubt that he would respond. And meantime, till the expected letters came, he had money--and when you have lived for four days on two shillings, fourteen shillings seems a small fortune. Certainly, within the last half-hour, life had taken on a roseate tinge--all due to a visit to the pawnshop.

Hurrying back along Praed Street, Lauriston's steps were suddenly arrested. He found himself unconsciously hurrying by an old-fashioned eating-house, from whence came an appetizing odour of cooking food. He remembered then that he had eaten nothing for four-and-twenty hours. His landlady supplied him with nothing: ever since he had gone to her he had done his own catering, going out for his meals. The last meal, on the previous evening, had been a glass of milk and a stale, though sizable bun, and now he felt literally ravenous. It was only by an effort that he could force himself to pass the eating-house; once beyond its door, he ran, ran until he reached his lodgings and slipped three sovereigns into Mrs. Flitwick's hands.

"That'll make us right to this week end, Mrs. Flitwick," he said. "Put the receipt in my room."

"And greatly obliged I am to you, Mr. Lauriston," answered the landlady. "And sorry, indeed, you should have had to put yourself to the trouble, but--"

"All right, all right--no trouble--no trouble at all," exclaimed Lauriston. "Quite easy, I assure you!"

He ran out of the house again and back to where he knew there was food. He was only one-and-twenty, a well-built lad, with a healthy appetite, which, until very recently, had always been satisfied, and just then he was feeling that unless he ate and drank, something--he knew not what--would happen. He was even conscious that his voice was weakening, when, having entered the eating-house and dropped into a seat in one of the little boxes into which the place was divided, he asked the waitress for the food and drink which he was now positively aching for. And he had eaten a plateful of fish and two boiled eggs and several thick slices of bread and butter, and drunk the entire contents of a pot of tea before he even lifted his eyes to look round him. But by that time he was conscious of satisfaction, and he sat up and inspected the place to which he had hurried so eagerly. And in the same moment he once more saw Melky.

Melky had evidently just entered the little eating-house. Evidently, too, he was in no hurry for food or drink. He had paused, just within the entrance, at a desk which stood there, whereat sat Mrs. Goldmark, the proprietress, a plump, pretty young woman, whose dark, flashing eyes turned alternately from watching her waitresses to smiling on her customers as they came to the desk to pay their bills. Melky, his smart billy-cock hat cocked to one side, his sporting-looking overcoat adorned with a flower, was evidently paying compliments to Mrs. Goldmark as he leaned over her desk: she gave him a playful push and called to a waitress to order Mr. Rubinstein a nice steak. And Melky, turning from her with a well satisfied smile, caught sight of Lauriston, and sauntered down to the table at which he sat.

"Get your bit of business done all right?" he asked, confidentially, as he took a seat opposite his fellow-lodger and bent towards him. "Find the old gent accommodating?"

"I didn't see him," answered Lauriston. "I saw a young lady."

"My cousin Zillah," said Melky. "Smart girl, that, mister--worth a pile o' money to the old man--she knows as much about the business as what he does! You wouldn't think, mister," he went on in his soft, lisping tones, "but that girl's had a college education--fact! Old Daniel, he took her to live with him when her father and mother died, she being a little 'un then, and he give her--ah, such an education as I wish I'd had--see? She's quite the lady--is Zillah--but sticks to the old shop--not half, neither!"

"She seems very business-like," remarked Lauriston, secretly pleased that he had now learned the pretty pawnbroker's name. "She soon did what I wanted."

"In the blood," said Melky, laconically. "We're all of us in that sort o' business, one way or another. Now, between you and me, mister, what did she lend you on that bit o' stuff?"

"Three pounds fifteen," replied Lauriston.

"That's about it," assented Melky, with a nod. He leaned a little nearer. "You don't want to sell the ticket?" he suggested. "Give you a couple o' quid for it, if you do."

"You seem very anxious to buy that watch," said Lauriston, laughing. "No-- I don't want to sell the ticket--not I! I wouldn't part with that watch for worlds."

"Well, if you don't, you don't," remarked Melky. "And as to wanting to buy--that's my trade. I ain't no reg'lar business--I buy and sell, anything that comes handy, in the gold and silver line. And as you ain't going to part with that ticker on no consideration, I'll tell you what it's worth, old as it is. Fifteen quid!"

"That's worth knowing, any way," said Lauriston. "I shall always have something by me then, while I have that. You'd have made a profit of a nice bit, then, if I'd sold it to you?"

"It 'ud be a poor world, mister, if you didn't get no profit, wouldn't it?" assented Melky calmly. "We're all of us out to make profit. Look here!--between you and me--you're a lit'ry gent, ain't you? Write a bit, what? Do you want to earn a fiver--comfortable?"

"I should be very glad," replied Lauriston.

"There's a friend o' mine," continued Melky, "wholesale jeweller, down Shoreditch way, wants to get out a catalogue. He ain't no lit'ry powers, d'you see? Now, he'd run to a fiver--cash down--if some writing feller 'ud touch things up a bit for him, like. Lor' bless you!--it wouldn't take you more'n a day's work! What d'ye say to it?"

"I wouldn't mind earning five pounds at that," answered Lauriston.

"Right-oh!" said Melky. "Then some day next week, I'll take you down to see him--he's away till then. And--you'll pay me ten per cent. on the bit o' business, won't you, mister? Business is business, ain't it?"

"All right!" agreed Lauriston. "That's a bargain, of course."

Melky nodded and turned to his steak, and Lauriston presently left him and went away. The plump lady at the desk gave him a smile as she handed him his change.

"Hope to see you again, sir," she said.

Lauriston went back to his room, feeling that the world had changed. He had paid his landlady, he had silver and copper in his pocket, he had the chance of earning five pounds during the coming week--and he expected a cheque for his two stories by every post. And if John Purdie made him the loan he had asked for, he would be able to devote a whole month to finishing his novel--and then, perhaps, there would be fame and riches. The dismal November evening disappeared in a dream of hope.

But by the end of the week hope was dropping to zero again with Lauriston. No letters had arrived--either from John Purdie or the editor. On the Sunday morning he was again face to face with the last half-crown. He laid out his money very cautiously that day, but when he had paid for a frugal dinner at a cheap coffee-shop, he had only a shilling left. He wandered into Kensington Gardens that Sunday afternoon, wondering what he had best do next. And as he stood by the railings of the ornamental water, watching the water-fowls' doings, somebody bade him good-day, and he turned to find the pretty girl of the pawnshop standing at his side and smiling shyly at him.