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[-4-]

CHAPTER II.

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 Bill.
    "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 tiger."
    "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, han't it?"
    "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 maintain 'em!"
    "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 room.
    "It's only some dd 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 room.

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