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The Friend in Need.

HOW I do like to sit down to a paper with a good murder trial in it!"

Thus, after a supper of gross abundance, as he drew to the fender, Mr. Henry Bellamy, pawnbroker. The labours of a well-spent day were over, and he had his family about him: two sons, a daughter, and the wife espoused in second nuptials after the death of his children's mother. Mrs. Bellamy was a high-coloured adipose woman, arrayed, as always for the evening—with the barbarous splendour justified by her independent income; courted by Bellamy twenty years ago, she had forsaken him for another, but now, in the mellowing of her charms, fulfilled those early vows. Admirably did the couple suit each other, and they were never so conscious of the fact as after high feeding. Of the youths, one had a rakish, the other a stolid aspect; their sister was characterised by an unwholesome skin and shrill hilarity.

"I wouldn't care to be young again," Bellamy had remarked. "To my mind, this is the 'appiest time of life." And his look declared sincerity. Complete baldness emphasised the simian shape of his head; than his visage none more vulgar could be discovered in all Peckham; but unmistakable felicity enwrapped him. He was the owner of houses in swarming neighbourhoods, and his business had long been lucrative. The house above the shop, crammed with ostentatious furniture, which he had acquired in the way of trade, was still his abode, but he talked of "retiring," and often inspected "eligible villas."

Absorbed in the newspaper, he did not perceive that a servant summoned his wife from the room. On her return in a minute or two, Mrs. Bellamy told him that a woman stood at the door below, "It's that Mrs. Brookes. She wants you for Gawd's sake to let her have something on a dress. There's one of her children ill, and she hasn't a penny in the 'ouse, and not even coal to make a fire. I've told her you can't do business after hours, but she won't go away. It's fair cruel to hear the pore creature talk."

"Bring the pledge up here," said Bellamy, without raising his eyes from the paper. And the garment was brought; a better dress than might have been expected, worth to a secondhand dealer some seven and sixpenoe. Mrs. Bellamy spread it upon a table, and the family grouped about it.

"She says for Gawd's sake let her have all it's worth, 'Arry."

Now it was certain, as the pawnbroker knew, that this pledge would never be redeemed. Mrs. Brookes had brought numerous articles to the shop of late; a widow with many children, she was fighting hopelessly against inevitable pauperdom. Bellamy, after a few cold glances, took from his pocket one shilling and a threepenny-piece.

"Tell her to come for the ticket to-morrow—and we won't say nothing about the 'apenny."

A scarce perceptible pause, and Mrs. Bellamy left the room. The two youths exchanged a grin, but spoke no word; the daughter, with deft hand, rolled the garment together, and threw in into a corner; then, as if to break silence, she began singing: "It won't be a stylish marriage—I can't afford a carriage——"

Mrs. Bellamy was absent for rather a long time, and when she reappeared her husband had finished his reading.

"Well, I have had a job to get rid of her. But she went quiet at last, and said I was to thank you for attending to her out of business hours."

"I'm glad she was civil," replied Bellamy, with a satisfied air. "It's what I always am myself, even to the poorest. Just think! A night like this without a bit of fire! Why, it fair makes your blood run cold! I am sorry for that woman! Yes, I am. She used to be comfortable. It's hard lines. But that's the world, my sonnies; one up and the other down. Life isn't all honey. Be thankful you wasn't born in a family like that."

He was talkative how, and quite cheerful. See—he remarked—what a useful friend a pawnbroker was to the poor. Suppose that wretched woman had had no such person to call upon in her need. It wasn't charity. He didn't believe in charity. Nothing was any use that hadn't a solid basis of business.

"You may give and give and you don't really help people. They must learn to help themselves." Mrs. Bellamy made strong assent, and cited instances of the demoralising effect of almsgiving. Then the subject was dismissed, and all began to talk of the murder trial; they reviewed with gusto every terrible and loathsome detail; they probed possibilities, debated evidence, and, in short, thoroughly enjoyed the close of the evening.

In his bedroom, the pawnbroker, as he undressed before a glowing fire, observed musingly how glad he was that he hadn't refused to oblige that poor woman.

"It's a cruel night. She'll have got a fire lit by now. What's the matter with the child? "

"Hooping cough, pore little thing. Why, I'd rather have given money out of my own pocket than think of them all night long in a freezing bedroom, It makes me shiver to think of it!"

"No good thinking about that kind of thing. It doesn't do. You get uncomfortable, and where's the use. Life's life, and business is business. But there's a pleasure in feeling we've done her a kindness. It's worth the money. Yes, it is."

Bellamy spoke gravely, pausing to reflect, as he unbuttoned his waistcoat. Not a trace of troubled consciousness marked his demeanour. He smiled with the nearest approach to benevolence possible on such features, and then he sighed, as though dismissing his melancholy.

"I've a good' mind to make it next midsummer, Jane—the retiring. I haven't done badly; we're comfortably off, old girl. I feel it about time I took a rest. It hasn't been all honey, you know."

"You've worked 'ard for it, 'Arry," answered the woman, with genuine kindness. "Yes, I'd make it midsummer if I was you."

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.