Chapter Three. The Dead Man
 

Lauriston was thinking about Zillah at the very moment in which she spoke to him: the memory of her dark eyes and the friendly smile that she had given him as he left the pawnshop had come as a relief in the midst of his speculations as to his immediate future. And now, as he saw her real self, close to him, evidently disposed to be friendly, he blushed like any girl, being yet at that age when shyness was still a part of his character. Zillah blushed too--but she was more self-possessed than Lauriston.

"I've been talking to my Cousin Melky about you," she said quickly. "Or, rather, he's been talking to me. He says he's going to introduce you to a man who wants his catalogue put in shape--for five pounds. Don't you do it for five pounds! I know that man--charge him ten!"

Lauriston moved away with her down the walk.

"Oh, but I couldn't do that, now!" he said eagerly. "You see I promised I'd do it for five."

Zillah gave him a quick glance.

"Don't you be silly!" she said. "When anybody like Melky offers you five pounds for anything, ask them double. They'll give it. You don't know much about money matters, do you?"

Lauriston laughed, and gaining confidence, gave the girl a knowing look.

"Not much," he admitted, "else I wouldn't have had to do that bit of business with you the other day."

"Oh--that!" she said indifferently. "That's nothing. You'd be astonished if you knew what sort of people just have to run round to us, now and then--I could tell you some secrets! But--I guessed you weren't very well up in money matters, all the same. Writing people seldom are."

"I suppose you are?" suggested Lauriston.

"I've been mixed up in them all my life, more or less," she answered. "Couldn't help being, with my surroundings. You won't think me inquisitive if I ask you something? Were you--hard up--when you came round the other night?"

"Hard up's a mild term," replied Lauriston, frankly. "I hadn't a penny!"

"Excepting a gold watch worth twelve or fifteen pounds," remarked Zillah, drily. "And how long had you been like that?"

"Two or three days--more or less," answered Lauriston. "You see, I've been expecting money for more than a week--that was it."

"Has it come?" she asked.

"No--it hasn't," he replied, with a candid blush. "That's a fact!"

"Will it come--soon?" she demanded.

"By George!--I hope so!" he exclaimed. "I'll be hard up again, if it doesn't."

"And then you offer to do for five what you might easily get ten for!" she said, almost reproachfully. "Let me give you a bit of advice--never accept a first offer. Stand out for a bit more--especially from anybody like my cousin Melky."

"Is Melky a keen one, then?" enquired Lauriston.

"Melky's a young Jew," said Zillah, calmly. "I'm not--I'm half-and-half--a mixture. My mother was Jew--my father wasn't. Well--if you want money to be going on with, and you've got any more gold watches, you know where to come. Don't you ever go with empty pockets in London while you've got a bit of property to pledge! You're not a Londoner, of course?"

"I'm a Scotsman!" said Lauriston.

"To be sure--I knew it by your tongue," asserted Zillah. "And trying to make a living by writing! Well, you'll want courage--and money. Have you had any luck?"

"I've sold two stories," answered Lauriston, who by that time was feeling as if the girl was an old friend. "They come to twenty pounds for the two, at the rate that magazine pays, and I've asked for a cheque--it's that I'm waiting for. It ought to come--any time."

"Oh, but I know that game!" said Zillah. "I've two friends--girls--who write. I know how they have to wait--till publication, or till next pay- day. What a pity that some of you writers don't follow some other profession that would bring in a good income--then you could do your writing to please yourselves, and not be dependent on it. Haven't you thought of that?"

"Often!" answered Lauriston. "And it wouldn't do--for me, anyway. I've made my choice. I'll stick to my pen--and swim or sink with it. And I'm not going to sink!"

"That's the way to talk--to be sure!" said the girl. "But--keep yourself in money, if you can. Don't go without money for three days when you've anything you can raise money on. You see how practical I am! But you've got to be in this world. Will you tell me something?"

"It strikes me," answered Lauriston, looking at her narrowly and bringing the colour to her cheeks, "that I'm just about getting to this--that I'd tell you anything! And so--what is it?"

"How much money have you left?" she asked softly.

"Precisely a shilling--and a copper or two," he answered.

"And--if that cheque doesn't arrive?" she suggested.

"Maybe I'll be walking round to Praed Street again," he said, laughing. "I've a bit of what you call property, yet."

The girl nodded, and turned towards a side-walk that led across the Gardens.

"All right," she said. "Don't think me inquisitive--I don't like to think of--of people like you being hard up: I'm not wrapped up in business as much as all that. Let's talk of something else--tell me what you write about."

Lauriston spent the rest of that afternoon with Zillah, strolling about Kensington Gardens. He had lived a very lonely life since coming to London, and it was a new and pleasant experience to him to have an intelligent companion to talk to. There was a decided sense of exhilaration within him when he finally left her; as for Zillah, she went homewards in a very thoughtful mood, already conscious that she was more than half in love with this good-looking lad who had come so strangely into her life. And at the corner of Praed Street she ran up against Mr. Melky Rubinstein, and button-holed him, and for ten minutes talked seriously to him. Melky, who had good reasons of his own for keeping in his cousin's favour, listened like a lamb to all she had to say, and went off promising implicit obedience to her commandments.

"Zillah ain't half gone on that chap!" mused Melky, as he pursued his way. "Now, ain't it extraordinary that a girl who'll come into a perfect fortune should go and fall head over ears in love with a red-headed young feller what ain't got a penny to bless hisself with! Not but what he ain't got good looks--and brains. And brains is brains, when all's said!"

That night, as Lauriston sat writing in his shabby little room, a knock came at his door--the door opened, and Melky slid in, laying his finger to the side of his large nose in token of confidence.

"Hope I ain't interrupting," said Melky. "I say, mister, I been thinking about that catalogue business. Now I come to sort of reflect on it, I think my friend'll go to ten pound. So we'll say ten pound--what? And I'll take you to see him next Friday. And I say, mister--if a pound or two on account 'ud be of any service--say the word, d'ye see?"

With this friendly assurance, Melky plunged his hand into a hip-pocket, and drew out some gold, which he held towards Lauriston on his open palm.

"Two or three pound on account, now, mister?" he said, ingratiatingly. "You're welcome as the flowers in May!"

But Lauriston shook his head; he had already decided on a plan of his own, if the expected remittance did not arrive next morning.

"No, thank you," he answered. "It's uncommonly good of you--but I can manage very well indeed--I can, really! Next Friday, then--I'll go with you. I'm very much obliged to you."

Melky slipped his money into his pocket--conscious of having done his part. "Just as you like, mister," he said. "But you was welcome, you know. Next Friday, then--and you can reckon on cash down for this job."

The Monday morning brought neither of the expected letters to Lauriston. But he had not spoken without reason when he said to Zillah that he had a bit of property to fall back upon--now that he knew how ready money could easily be raised. He had some pledgeable property in his trunk--and when the remittances failed to arrive, he determined to avail himself of it. Deep down in a corner of the trunk he had two valuable rings--all that his mother had left him, with the exception of two hundred pounds, with which he had ventured to London, and on which he had lived up to then. He got the rings out towards the end of Monday afternoon, determining to take them round to Daniel Multenius and raise sufficient funds on them to last him for, at any rate, another month or two. He had little idea of the real value of such articles, and he had reasons of his own for not showing the rings to Melky Rubinstein; his notion was to wait until evening, when he would go to the pawnshop at about the same time as on his previous visit, in the hope of finding Zillah in charge again. After their meeting and talk of the afternoon before, he felt that she would do business with him in a sympathetic spirit--and if he could raise twenty pounds on the rings he would be free of all monetary anxiety for many a long week to come.

It was half-past five o'clock of that Monday evening when Lauriston, for the second time, turned into the narrow passage which led to the pawnshop door. He had already looked carefully through the street window, in the hope of seeing Zillah inside the front shop. But there was no Zillah to be seen; the front shop was empty. Nor did Zillah confront him when he stepped into the little boxed-in compartment in the pawnshop. There was a curious silence in the place--broken only by the quiet, regular ticking of a clock. That ticking grew oppressive during the minute or two that he waited expecting somebody to step forward. He rapped on the counter at last--gently at first, then more insistently. But nobody came. The clock-- hidden from his sight--went on ticking.

Lauriston bent over the counter at last and craned his neck to look into the open door of a little parlour which lay behind the shop. The next instant, with no thought but of the exigencies of the moment, he had leapt over the partition and darted into the room. There, stretched out across the floor, his head lying on the hearthrug, his hands lying inert and nerveless at his sides, lay an old man, grey-bearded, venerable--Daniel Multenius, no doubt. He lay very still, very statuesque--and Lauriston, bending over and placing a trembling hand on the high, white forehead, knew that he was dead.

He started up--his only idea that of seeking help. The whole place was so still that he knew he was alone with the dead in it. Instinctively, he ran through the front shop to the street door--and into the arms of a man who was just entering.