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THE MYSTERIES OF THE OLD HOUSE
FORTUNATELY for the interesting young
stranger, the individuals who had just entered the house did not attempt the
door of the room in which he had taken refuge. They proceeded straight - and
with a steadiness which seemed to indicate that they knew the locality well - to
the front chamber upon the same floor.
In a few moments there was a sharp grating noise along the
wall; and then a light suddenly shone into the room where the young stranger was
concealed, He cast a terrified glance around, and beheld a small square window
in the wall, which separated the two apartments. It was about five feet from the
floor - a height which permitted the youth to avail himself of it, in order to
reconnoitre the proceedings in the next room.
By means of a candle which had been lighted by the aid of a
lucifer-match, and which stood upon a dirty deal table, the young stranger
beheld two men, whose outward appearance did not serve to banish his alarm. They
were dressed like operatives of the most humble class. One wore a gabardine and
coarse leather gaiters, with laced-up boots; the other had on a fustian
shooting-jacket and long corduroy trousers. They were both dirty and unshaven.
The one with the shooting-jacket had a profusion of hair about his face, but
which was evidently not well acquainted with a comb : the other wore no
whiskers, but his beard was of three or four days' growth. Both were powerful,
thick-set, and muscular men; and the expression of their countenances was
dogged, determined, and ferocious.
The room to which they had betaken themselves was cold,
gloomy, and dilapidated. It was furnished with the deal table before mentioned,
and three old crazy chairs, upon two of which the men now seated themselves. But
they were so placed that they commanded, their door being open, a full view of
the landing-place; and thus the youthful stranger deemed it impolitic to attempt
to take his departure for the moment.
"Now, Bill, out with the bingo," said the man in
the gabardine to his companion.
"Oh! you're always for the lush, you are, Dick,"
answered the latter in a surly tone, producing at the same time a bottle of
liquor from the capacious pocket of his fustian coat. "But I wonder how the
devil it is that Crankey Jem ain't come yet. Who the deuce could have left that
infernal door open ?"
"Jem or some of the other blades must have been here and
left it so. It don't matter; it lulls suspicion."
"Well, let's make the reglars all square," resumed
the man called Bill, after a moment's pause; "we'll then booze a bit, and
talk over this here new job of our'n."
[-5-] "Look alive, then,"
said Dick; and he forthwith took from beneath his gabardine several small
parcels done up in brown paper.
The other man likewise divested the pockets of his fustian
coat of divers packages; and all these were piled upon the table.
A strange and mysterious proceeding then took place.
The person in the fustian coat approached the chimney, and
applied a small turnscrew, which be took from his pocket, to a screw in the iron
frame-work of the rusty grate. In a few moments he was enabled to remove the
entire grate with his hands; a square aperture of considerable dimensions was
then revealed. Into this place the two men thrust the parcels which they had
taken from their pockets: the grate was replaced, the screws were fastened once
more, and the work of concealment was complete.
The one in the gabardine then advanced towards that portion
of the wall which was between the two windows; and the youth in the adjoining
room now observed for the first time that the shutters of those windows were
closed, and that coarse brown paper had been pasted all over the chinks and
joints. Dick applied his hand in a peculiar manner to the part of the wall just
alluded to, and a sliding panel immediately revealed a capacious cupboard.
Thence the two men took food of by no means a coarse description, glasses,
pipes, and tobacco; and, having hermetically closed the recess once more, seated
themselves at the table to partake of the good cheer thus mysteriously supplied.
The alarm of the poor youth in the next chamber, as he
contemplated these extraordinary proceedings, may be better conceived than
depicted. His common sense told him that he was in the den of lawless thieves -
perhaps murderers; in a house abounding with the secret means of concealing
every kind of infamy. His eyes wandered away from the little window that had
enabled him to observe the above-described proceedings, and glanced fearfully
around the room in which he was concealed. He almost expected to see the very
floor open beneath his feet. He looked down mechanically as this idea flitted
through his imagination; and to his horror and dismay he beheld a trap-door in
the floor. There was no mistaking it: there it was - about three feet long and
two broad, and a little sunken beneath the level of its frame-work.
Near the edge of the trap-door lay an object which also
attracted the youth's attention and added to his fears. It was a knife with a
long blade pointed like a dagger. About three inches of this blade was covered
with a peculiar rust: the youth shuddered; could it be human blood that had
stained that instrument of death?
Every circumstance, however trivial, aided, in such a place
as that, to arouse or confirm the worst fears, the most horrible suspicions.
The voices of the two men in the next room fell upon the youth's
ear; and, perceiving that escape was still impracticable, he determined to
gratify that curiosity which was commingled with his fears.
"Well, now, about this t'other job, Dick?" said
"It's Jem as started it," was the reply. "But
he told me all about it, and so we may as well talk it over. It's up Islington
way - up there between Kentish Town and Lower Holloway."
"Who's crib is it?"
"A swell of the name of Markham. He is an old fellow,
and has two sons. One, the eldest, is with his regiment; t'other, the youngest,
is only about fifteen, or so - a mere kid."
"Well, there's no danger to be expected from him. But
what about the flunkies?"
"Only two man-servants and three wimen. One of the
man-servants is the old butler, too fat to do any good; and t'other is a young
"And that's all ?"
"That's all. Now you, and I, and Jem is quite enough to
crack that there crib. When is it to be done?"
"Let's say to-morrow night; there is no moon now to
speak on, and business in other quarters is slack."
"So be it. Here goes, then, to the success of our now
job at old Markham's;" and as the burglar uttered these words he tossed off
a bumper of brandy.
This example was followed by his worthy cornpanion; and their
conversation then turned upon other topics.
"I say, Bill, this old house has seen some jolly games,
"I should think it had too. It was Jonathan Wild's
favourite crib; and he was no fool at keeping things dark."
"No, surely. I dare say the well-staircase in the next
room there, that's covered over with the trap-door, has had many a dead body
flung down it into the Fleet."
"Ah !- and without telling no tales too. But the
trap-door has been nailed over for some years now."
The unfortunate youth in the adjacent chamber was riveted in
silent horror to the spot, as these fearful details fell upon his ears.
"Why was the trap-door nailed down?"
" Cos there's no use for that now, since the house is
uninhabited, and no more travellers comes to lodge here. Besides, if we wanted
to make use of such a conwenience, there's another "
A loud clap of thunder prevented the remainder of this
sentence from reaching the youth's ears.
"I've heard it said that the City is going to make great
alterations in this quarter," observed Dick, after a pause. "If so be
they comes near us, we must shift our quarters."
"Well, and don't we know other cribs as good as this -
and just under the very nose of the authorities too? The nearer you gets to them
the safer you finds yourself. Who'd think now that here, and in Peter-street,
and on Saffron-hill too, there was such cribs as this? Lord, how such coves as
you and me does laugh when them chaps in the Common Council and the House of
Commons gets on their legs and praises the blue-bottles up to the skies as the
most acutest police in the world, while they wotes away the people's money to
"Oh! as for alterations, I don't suppose there'll be any
for the next twenty years to come. They always talks of improvements long afore
they begins 'em."
"But when they do commence, they won't spare this lovely
old crib! It 'ud go to my heart to see them pull it about. I'd much sooner take
and shove a dozen stiff uns myself down the trap than see a single rafter of the
place ill-treated - that I would."
"Ah! if so be as the masons does come to pull its old
carcass about, there'll be some fine things [-6-] made
known to the world. Them cellars down stairs, in which a man might hide for
fifty years and never be smelt out by the police, will turn up a bone or two, I
rather suspect; and not of a sheep, nor a pig, nor a bull neither."
"Why - half the silly folks in this neighbourhood are
afeerd to come hero even in the daytime, because they say it's haunted,"
observed Bill, after a brief pause. "But, for my part, I shouldn't be
frightened to come here at all hours of the night, and sit here alone too, even
if every feller as was scragged at Tyburn or Newgate, and every one wot has been
tumbled down these holes into the Fleet, was to startup, and"
The man stopped short, turned ghastly pale, and fell back
stupified and speechless in his chair. His pipe dropped from between his
fingers, and broke to pieces upon the floor.
"What the devil's the matter now?" demanded his
companion, casting an anxious glance around.
"There! there! don't you see ," gasped the
terrified ruffian, pointing towards the little window looking into the next
"It's only some d–d gammon of Crankey Jim,"
ejaculated Dick, who was more courageous in such matters than his companion.
"I'll deuced soon put that to rights!"
Seizing the candle, he was hurrying towards the door, when
his comrade rushed after him, crying, "No - I won't be left in the dark! I
can't bear it! Damme, if you go, I'll go with you!"
The two villains accordingly proceeded together into the next
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