Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Stavros Macdonald Rimouski

STAVROS MACDONALD RIMOUSKI.

 

 

I was brought up to the wholesale haberdashery business, but had the misfortune to lose my situation last May. It was on one of the few fine days during the month of June, that wearied with wandering the streets I strolled forth into the country, and found myself in a footpath leading to Hornsey, where, fatigued with the length of my walk, I laid myself down under a hedge for a few minutes’ rest. As I lay there, I observed a man approaching, dressed in a volunteer uniform, with his rifle in his hand. When he drew nearer I recognised my acquaintance, Stavros Macdonald Rimouski.

“Hallo!” he exclaimed, “Peter; what are you doing here, 2.30, p.m.? You ought to be in Aldermanbury.”

“So I should,” I replied, “but I’ve lost my berth. What brings you to this place?”

“Oh! I’ve just been having a turn at the Hornsey butts. I’m an idle man, like yourself. The wine-business in Crutched Friars didn’t pay. So I’ll sit down beside you, and hear your story, and you shall hear mine. Take a cigar,” said he, presenting a case, “a genuine Lopez.”

While Rimouski was talking, I regarded him earnestly with a sensation of repulsion amounting to alarm. Though a good-looking fellow, his features had at all times a Mephistophilean expression, but now their aspect was absolutely Satanic. I glanced hurriedly at his boots. He observed my movement.

“Too dandified for suburban walking, are they not? but never mind,” said he gaily. “I have something more important to think about, something that will produce boots and everything else I want in profusion.”

“I should like to know the recipe,” I rejoined, “for my cash is getting uncommonly low.” “Willingly,” he answered. “I want a partner, and you are the very man I should have selected, especially as Providence” (he laid a sneering emphasis on the word) “has thrown you in my way.”

He then proceeded to detail his project. It involved severe bodily exertion, a calm judgment, and an utter contempt of the value of character, liberty, and life. I listened for upwards of an hour to the musical voice of the tempter, as he poured forth his schemes into my ear. I thought of approaching poverty, the apparent hopelessness of obtaining employment—and consented.

The singular name of Rimouski may excite some curiosity. It is easily gratified. His father was a Scotchman, named Macdonald, who settled in Poland, and, from patriotic or other motives, adopted the surname of Rimouski. Being implicated in the national insurrection of 1832, so mercilessly crushed by the Emperor Nicholas, he fled to Greece, and there married a native lady. Their son, young Stavros, enjoyed a remarkably cosmopolitan education. Born and nurtured in Greece up to the age of ten, he received his schooling at Clapham, and subsequently studied at the university of Jena. Consequently he spoke half-a-dozen languages with equal ease, and in England always passed for a thorough Englishman.

“So you agree to become my partner in this enterprise?” said Rimouski.

“I do.”

“Then,” continued he, rising to his feet, and throwing away the remnant of his cigar, “you had better be enrolled in the fraternity.”

“I don’t comprehend.”

“You will presently. Oblige me by examining this bullet,” said he, handing me a cartridge from his cartouche-box.

“I see nothing but one of Eley’s cartridges, containing a common Minié bullet.”

“Please to make it an uncommon one then, by scratching upon it any mark you think proper.”

I took out my penknife, and scratched P. R., being the initials of my name—Peter Railton. I then handed the cartridge to Rimouski, who at once loaded his rifle with it.

“Now,” said he, “I am going to fire in the air. When I say ‘Catch,’ hold out your hand.”

He said “Catch,” fired, and in a few seconds I felt a sharp blow on the palm of my hand.

I opened my hand, and there was the P. R. bullet. I expressed my astonishment.

“It is nothing,” said Rimouski, “only a common conjuring trick, which Robin or Frikell would do better than I can.”

“But how about the enrolling?” I asked.

Rimouski opened his hand, and showed me a small circular mark, showing the tricolor—red, white, and blue, arranged in concentric circles.

I instinctively examined the palm of my own hand. There, on the spot where the bullet had struck me, appeared a precisely similar mark.

“Stavros,” I said, solemnly, “I don’t like this; I shall back out of it.”

“Nonsense, my dear fellow. What! on account of that elegant little emblem? Consider how conveniently it is situated. No one sees the inside of your hand. It might have been on the tip of your nose. Come, stick faithfully by me, and your fortune is made.”

He seemed to have obtained a mysterious influence over me, which it was useless to combat.

“I am willing,” I said with a sigh.

“It is barely half-past three,” said Rimouski, looking at his watch. “There is no train for King’s Cross till 5.13. Let us stroll to the Hanley Arms, and go by the ’bus.”

At Charing Cross we took a cab to Brompton.

“I will now show you the house,” said Rimouski, producing from his breast-pocket a clumsy street door-key.

“You have already taken it then?”

“This child,” answered Rimouski, tapping himself on the breast, “is wide awake; there was no time to be lost. Here we are.”

The house was situated at a short distance from the southern end of the Exhibition building. It was in striking contrast to the palatial edifices which were rising rapidly around it, being small, dingy, and shabby. The back-yard was divided from a large piece of waste ground by a common paling fence.

“Read this,” said Rimouski, pointing to a board—

“Dry Rubbish may be shot here.”

“That will suit our game, won’t it?” said he, laughing and rubbing his hands.

The interior of the house differed in no respect from the interior of other London houses, except that it possessed a large and spacious cellar.

“That is also convenient,” pursued Rimouski, with a grin. “The wine trade, which was unsuccessful at the East-end, will, I think, flourish here. To-morrow a neat plate will be affixed to our door, ‘Rimouski & Railton, Wine Merchants.’ And now, my dear fellow, let us proceed to your lodgings in Brompton, pay your worthy landlady a week’s rent, and remove your portmanteaus. Everybody connected with the enterprise must sleep in this house.”

“How about beds?”

“I will arrange that as we go along. A second-hand dealer in Brompton Row shall send in beds, tables, and such cooking apparatus as persons of our Arcadian tendencies will require. Allons!

We quitted the house, and proceeded on foot. On our way we purchased the furniture. At an ironmonger’s shop Rimouski ordered shovels, pickaxes, crowbars, a couple of wheelbarrows, and a quantity of planking, the latter to be procured by the obliging tradesman from a neighbouring timber-yard.

“By the way,” said Rimouski to the shopkeeper, “is there a brassfounder’s in the neighbourhood?”

“I doubt if there is, sir,” replied the ironmonger; “but I daresay we can get anything you want in that line across Westminster Bridge.”

“Then I want a couple of pounds of brass filings. And you may as well send me a large washerwoman’s tub and a tin dish or two. I shall also want a spade. I suppose you don’t keep cradles?”

Observing that the worthy tradesman opened his mouth wide with astonishment, Rimouski said, smiling, “I hope you don’t think I mean a child’s cradle—no, no, we are a couple of gay bachelors—I mean a gold-digger’s cradle—”

“Oh—of—of course, sir,” stammered the bewildered tradesman.

“But,” continued Rimouski, frankly, “I daresay you are surprised at the peculiarity of my order. The fact is, my friend here, just arrived from Melbourne, purposes giving some lectures on mining, with practical illustrations.”

“Oh, ah, I see, sir!” exclaimed the tradesman, “and the brass filings are to represent the gold.”

“My friend,” said Rimouski, slapping him on the shoulder, “you have a penetrating genius. Send in all the goods to-morrow by twelve o’clock, and now, good evening. Come along, Peter.”

We settled accounts with my landlady, who did not appear very sorry to lose me. I trust it was because the Exhibition would enable her to relet the lodgings easily; but I fear that young men out of situations are not popular with landladies, being apt to be inconveniently in the way when parlours are dusted and beds made. Our scanty stock of furniture arrived, and we spent the evening in rather a savage style, as people are wont to do on the first night in a new house. Being both of us too fatigued to unroll the carpeting, or put the iron bedsteads together, we spread our beds on the floor, and smoked, reclining on them after the oriental fashion. Rimouski, however, signalised himself as an admirable cook, by preparing an excellent ragout in a frying-pan, which we washed down with a pot of half-and-half from a neighbouring public-house, concluding the evening with some very tolerable whiskey from the same establishment.

Next morning Rimouski rose precisely at six, and, aided by my somewhat awkward assistance, swept out the house (he actually scrubbed the floors of two rooms), laid down the carpets, put the bedsteads together, repaired a defect which he had observed in the kitchen range, lit the fire, and got breakfast ready. Need I add that I regarded him with admiration and astonishment?

“Who would think, Rimouski, after seeing you sauntering down Regent Street in lacquered boots and lavender gloves, that you were capable of all this?”

“My dear fellow,” he replied, tossing a breakfast-cake in the fryingpan as he spoke, “it is simply because I am a man of the world. Half the people so styled are useless fools, who, removed from the appliances of civilisation, would be as unable to help themselves as the gentleman in the old story of the Basket-maker.”

At twelve o’clock our punctual friend, the ironmonger, sent in his assortment of goods. Rimouski, stripped to his shirt, and wearing a pair of corduroy trousers, worked like a horse, shouldering three-inch planks, and inciting me, by his wholesome example, to feats of which I had hitherto deemed myself incapable.

“Now then,” said he, “we are working men, and will adopt workmen’s habits. We will dine punctually at one. To-day we shall be rather later. I have some matters to look to in the cellar; do you, meanwhile, attend to the boiling of the potatoes. Don’t act the part of King Alfred, and burn the bottom out of our new saucepan.”

I acquitted myself pretty well, and after the lapse of about an hour Rimouski emerged from the cellar, looking extremely dirty. He gave himself a good wash, and we then fell to dinner, with an appetite which I had never felt in the close, sedentary occupation of Aldermanbury. After dinner, a workman came to fix the brass-plate on our street-door. My partner contemplated the legend—“Rimouski & Railton, Wine Merchants,” with huge satisfaction.

“I have ordered a few dozens,” he said, “from my wholesale friends in the city; but I hope we shan’t be bothered with much business.”

“You won’t advertise?” I asked, jocosely.

“Why—no. I think advertising must bring business, or people wouldn’t go to the expense of it, so I purpose on mature deliberation, not advertising the Standard, or any other natural or unnatural sherry. Come, let us dress in our usual costume, and take a walk.”

As we went along, Rimouski lingered at a street corner.

“What are you looking at?” I asked. “Nothing so very extraordinary in a group of Irish labourers outside a tavern!”

“I was wondering which was the stupidest of that body of stalwart men now before me.”

“That young fellow with his mouth open, leaning against the lamp-post.”

“Friend Peter,” said Rimouski, approvingly, “thou hast some scintillations of acuteness in thy brain. I had marked out that self-same fellow.”

To my surprise he crossed the street, and entered into conversation with the labourer in question. At the end of some minutes the Irishman lifted his battered hat respectfully, and Rimouski recrossed the street with a triumphant expression of countenance.

“I have told him to call this evening, at half-past six o’clock,” he said. “I think he will suit our purpose. He is but newly come from the Green Isle, and is as verdant as you could desire. But mind, Peter, no revelation of secrets—those are to be locked in our two breasts. You will understand my game with Paddy when he arrives.”

At half-past six o’clock our Irishman made his appearance. Rimouski received him with a most magisterial air, seated in our parlour, which now looked exceedingly neat and tidy.

“Your name,” he commenced, “is Timothy Dolan?”

“Yes, sir.”

“A bachelor?”

Paddy stood open-mouthed.

“No wife?”

“Not yet, sir; the times is bad, and Biddy and me thought—”

“Ah! I see—a prudent couple. Well, Dolan, wouldn’t you like to earn better wages than you are now getting?”

“Faith, then, I would.”

“Let me see; you say you are getting three-and-sixpence a-day, and find yourself?”—

“And find my own shovel, your honour manes.”

Rimouski winked at me with delight.

“Well, how should you like five shillings a-day, and board here?”

Timothy’s eyes sparkled: but he hesitated.

“Aboard ship, sir?”

“No; on dry land—here. I offer you five shillings a-day for two months certain, and will give you as much bread, and beef, and beer, as you like.”

“I’m your honour’s man,” quoth Paddy, with alacrity.

“On certain conditions.”

“Plase yer honour, what’s that?”

Il ne connait pas parfaitement la langue Anglaise,” said Rimouski, aside to me. “C’est un Irlandais pur sang. Ça va pas mal.” Then, turning to Dolan, he continued. “I mean this. You will have to sleep in this house, and never talk to anybody out of doors, unless myself or this gentleman is with you.”

Paddy looked alarmed.

“Follow me,” said Rimouski, “into the cellar. Mr. Railton, you will kindy accompany us.”

We descended to the cellar. Rimouski lit a couple of candles, and taking up a position on an inverted tub, with a spade in his hand, addressed the assembled company thus:

“You have heard, I dare say, that London streets are paved with gold. It is not exactly the case. The gold is in the soil, beneath the pavement. Timothy Dolan,” he exclaimed, speaking excitedly, “this cellar-dust is full of gold. But here we are only at the beginning of the mine. The real vein of gold lies further back. It will require strong arms and hard work to reach it. That, Timothy, you can give us. Here we have but a few glittering particles. Two months’ steady work will bring us to the mine itself, and then our fortunes will be made. You, Timothy, will have a farm of your own; and, as the song says, Biddy will mind the dairy, while you will guide the plough. Oblige me,” he concluded, setting the tub upright as he spoke, “by shovelling some of this dirt into the tub.”

Paddy obeyed his instructions.

Rimouski then filled the tub with water, puddled it for some time with a spade, emptied the muddy water, added fresh, and finally carefully removed the debris which lay at the bottom into a tin dish. This he filled with water, which he tilted out by a peculiar reverberating motion.

“Look here!” he exclaimed.

“Gold, by St. Patrick!” shouted Tim Dolan, “only to think of this in London!”

I now saw the use of the brass filings.

The same evening Rimouski, who did not care for the future to trust Dolan out of his sight, accompanied him to his lodgings in Little Chelsea, whence he brought away Paddy’s worldly goods, tied up in a large cotton handkerchief. Timothy was accommodated with a turn-up bedstead at the top of the house, and was soon to be heard proclaiming through his nose that he was enjoying sweet slumber.

“Our worthy coadjutor,” said Rimouski, as we sat over our grog, “possesses a most energetic snore—I am glad we put him in the garret. Now then to business. To-morrow I hope to begin work, and the system I mean to adopt is as follows: First, with regard to household matters. Paddy will make his own bed, and keep his attic clean. I will soon drill him into that. You and I will do the rest of the housemaid’s work between us. I have arranged with a coffee-shop keeper to send in Paddy’s meals thrice a day. The door will always be answered by one of us—our own simple repasts will be cooked by my humble hands. Secondly, with regard to professional matters: some months ago, before the Exhibition was opened, I picked up a very intelligent foreman of the work, who, under the influence of my fascinating conversation and a bottle of sherry, gave me a vast deal of useful information regarding measurements, distances, &c. This I afterwards verified by going over the ground with a Chesterman’s metallic tape, in the character of the intelligent correspondent of one of our most influential weekly journals. All these data I have reduced on paper with mathematical accuracy. To reach the building at the nearest point to the object of our desires we shall have to steer nor’-west-by-north by the compass (I have allowed for the magnetic variation in the parallel of London). I propose to construct a tunnel of the usual semi-circular form, three feet high by three feet six inches at the base. One hundred and twenty-seven yards of this tunnel will take us to the building. Now, in open ground, an ordinary navvy can shift seven cubic yards of dirt in a day. Each linear yard in our tunnel will measure in round numbers about a cubic yard. Making allowance then for the greater difficulty of tunnelling, for the time expended in encountering gas and water pipes, and in timbering the passage as we proceed, I reckon that we ought to accomplish at least two yards a day; sixty-four week-days then, from to-morrow, which is the 26th of June, ought to accomplish the work. By the Saturday evening of September the 6th, our labours should be nearly completed. I propose doing the greater part of the tunnelling myself, you and Dolan will attend to the barrow-work. As I said before, we shall keep workmen’s hours, from six to six, allowing two hours for meals. It is now ten o’clock; let us go to bed.”

I shall not attempt to describe the progress of the work which, under Rimouski’s admirable management and unwearied activity, progressed with great regularity. We should have completed the tunnel within the specified time, but for three annoying hindrances, which I will mention separately. To use medical language, the first annoyance was chronic, the two others were acute and temporary. With regard to the chronic obstacle; in spite of our non-advertising system, our ostensible business in wine flourished with inconvenient vigour. Orders were perpetually coming in, customers were constantly calling. Rimouski lost much valuable time in attending to them, and frequently vowed that he would in future sell nothing but the most undrinkable trash. Two motives tended to restrain him. In the first place his esprit de corps as a wine merchant influenced him greatly; secondly, the cash which this business brought in was extremely acceptable. So Rimouski grumbled, but continued to please his customers. The next annoyance was more serious. About the end of the first month, Tim Dolan had begun to grow restive under his confinement. He had been permitted to go to mass every Sunday under the guardianship of Rimouski or myself, and had been allowed to take possession of small nuggets of real gold (supplied by Rimouski’s watchful care) which he found during the progress of the work. But this did not satisfy him. He insisted on a night’s liberty, and it was eventually agreed that, dressed in my labouring clothes, I should accompany him to a certain free-and-easy in the neighbourhood of Peter Street, Westminster.

For a time Timothy behaved with great decorum, but presently, heated by the liquor he had drunk, he began boasting to the assembled company of the enormous fortune that was in store for him. At first they laughed at him, but when a burly fellow gave him the lie direct, Timothy jumped up, and promptly knocked him down. A general scrimmage now ensued; the Englishmen took part with their countrymen, and were in turn assaulted by the whole of the Irish element. Bottles, glasses, and pewter-pots flew as thick as hail. The terrified landlord called in the police, and presently, to my horror, I saw Timothy Dolan marched off in custody. There was no time to be lost. When we had proceeded some distance from the scene of action, and the idle mob who followed us had diminished in numbers, I touched the policeman on the shoulder; I winked at him, displaying a sovereign; he returned the wink, and presently Timothy Dolan and I, safely ensconced in a Hansom cab, were bowling along towards Brompton. Next day, Rimouski administered a lecture; Timothy was penitent, and never asked leave to go out again.

The third contretemps was perhaps the worst of all. We had accomplished the hundredth yard, and had had a sort of jubilee on the occasion. Possibly the extra amount of grog made us all sleep sound. At any rate, Rimouski and I, who slept in the same room, were awakened at dead of night by a policeman. He threw the glare of his bull’s-eye lantern into our astonished eyes, and bade us get up at once, for the street door was open, and there were thieves in the house. We started up, and on examining the cellar found there a couple of ill-looking personages, who had drunk themselves into a state of tipsy security by the assistance of our stock-in-trade. They had knocked the heads off at least a dozen bottles, and had apparently enjoyed themselves extremely. Rimouski and I observed that the policeman cast a glance of astonishment round the cellar.

“I’m enlarging my cellarage, you see, policeman,” he began. “Hark! what was that? There’s another thief in the attics. Run, policeman, and nab him—we will hold these two rascals.”

The unsuspecting policeman hurried up-stairs, upon which Rimouski said to the astonished burglars:

“Confound you fellows for taking my wine at this time of night. Call in the daytime, and you shall have a gallon a-piece. Now then, be off with you.”

He opened the back door, and the thieves, who were by this time wide awake, vanished in a trice.

“Hey! help! murder!” shouted a voice from above. It was the policeman. We rushed up-stairs with a light, and found Timothy and the constable rolling on the floor in dire contention. Hearing the noise below, Timothy, it seems, had jumped out of bed, and, in the dark, he and the policeman took each other for a midnight robber. A hearty laugh, and a stiff glass of grog to the policeman, settled the affair. Of course, we accounted for the escape of the cellar marauders by having to go to the policeman’s assistance.

Having successfully overcome this triplet of difficulties, we were rapidly approaching the conclusion of our labours. On Thursday night, September the 11th, we had accomplished the 135th yard of tunnelling, and were beneath the Exhibition building. The discrepancy between the number of yards actually accomplished, and Rimouski’s original calculation, was accounted for by a divergence of route which the gas-pipes compelled us to make. On the Friday we were crawling cautiously on our hands and knees beneath the flooring, listening to the tread of the vast multitude above our heads. One trifling circumstance gave us some uneasiness. Close by where Rimouski was crouching, some stupid person let a half-sovereign drop between the boards. Rimouski quietly slipped it into his pocket, and crawled away. We feared the boards would be lifted, and the whole of our plans discovered. They were not.

As Rimouski did not wish Dolan to know where we had arrived, he kept him hard at work driving a fresh tunnel, in a totally opposite direction, alleging that we were somewhat mistaken in the course of the gold-drift.

On the Friday night, when Timothy was fast asleep in his attic, Rimouski and I sat in solemn conclave. The result of two months’ severe and exhausting toil was to be tested. Rimouski spoke.

“To carry off the Koh-i-Noor would be a barren achievement. A gem of such size is practically as useless to us as a bit of Derbyshire spar. No: I prefer flying at smaller, but more profitable game. I will tackle the case of —— in the French department, you will direct your attention to the display of Messrs. —— in the English area.”

On the following day, amid the roar of organs, the jingle of pianofortes, and the tramp of innumerable feet, we sawed away the flooring underneath our respective cases, in such a manner that no cut was observable on the upper side. Rimouski had fixed a couple of small fine-toothed saws in a frame peculiarly adapted for this sort of work. The pieces sawn through were large enough to admit the body of a man, and were supported from below by carefully-arranged props.

The important night had arrived at last. It was dark, moonless, and windy. Rimouski gravely handed me a sharp, small stiletto, reserving a similar one for himself.

“To be used,” he said, “in case of emergency.”

“Which Heaven forefend!” I exclaimed.

He made no reply. We passed through the tunnel, having taken the precaution to lock the door of Tim Dolan’s room. When under the floor of the Exhibition building, Rimouski silently shook my hand. We separated, and took our respective routes for England and for France. I reached the appointed spot with perfect ease, having arranged a line of whipcord from the entrance of the tunnel, which led me directly beneath the jewel-case. With the utmost caution I took away the props, and removed the sawn flooring-boards; I then slowly thrust my head and body through the aperture. Having proceeded thus far, I paused for a few moments, listening to the measured tread of the numerous watchmen perambulating the building. Being satisfied that I was unobserved, I proceeded to fill my pockets with the jewels that surrounded me on all sides. In some instances, I removed the jewels from the case; in others I put case and all into my pockets. While thus engaged the door of the show-case was violently opened, for a moment the uniform of a Sapper glimmered in the darkness; I attempted to lower myself into the aperture; I was suddenly seized by the hair of the head. The horrors of my position overcame me; a blasted character—penal servitude!—I shrieked aloud!

 
*****
 

What is this? Where am I? It is broad daylight, and I am lying beneath a hedge in the peaceful fields of Hornsey. My hat has fallen off, and a bramble-bush has caught my hair. And is that all? Has all the strange drama of two months’ duration which I have passed through been but a dream—or has my spirit, beguiled by the hateful influence of Stavros Rimouski, really enacted these scenes, while my body lay here, a mere senseless trunk? Thank Heaven, at any rate, that I am where I am, a free man; honest at least in outward act, if not in inward purpose. I will seek Stavros, and learn whether he has really been here or not.

I returned to London, and made inquiries. It might be only an accidental coincidence, but on the day of my dream, vision, or temporary separation of body and spirit, whichever it might be, Stavros Macdonald Rimouski had disappeared, and none of his friends or acquaintances have since been able to trace him.