There was, until a year ago, a little and very grimy-looking shop nearSeven Dials, over which, in weather-worn yellow lettering, the name of“C. Cave, Naturalist and Dealer in Antiquities,” was inscribed. Thecontents of its window were curiously variegated. They comprised someelephant tusks and an imperfect set of chessmen, beads and weapons, abox of eyes, two skulls of tigers and one human, several moth-eatenstuffed monkeys (one holding a lamp), an old-fashioned cabinet, aflyblown ostrich egg or so, some fishing-tackle, and an extraordinarilydirty, empty glass fish-tank. There was also, at the moment the storybegins, a mass of crystal, worked into the shape of an egg andbrilliantly polished. And at that two people, who stood outside thewindow, were looking, one of them a tall, thin clergyman, the other ablack-bearded young man of dusky complexion and unobtrusive costume. Thedusky young man spoke with eager gesticulation, and seemed anxious forhis companion to purchase the article.
While they were there, Mr. Cave came into his shop, his beard stillwagging with the bread and butter of his tea. When he saw these men andthe object of their regard, his countenance fell. He glanced guiltilyover his shoulder, and softly shut the door. He was a little old man,with pale face and peculiar watery blue eyes; his hair was a dirty grey,and he wore a shabby blue frock coat, an ancient silk hat, and carpetslippers very much down at heel. He remained watching the two men asthey talked. The clergyman went deep into his trouser pocket, examined ahandful of money, and showed his teeth in an agreeable smile. Mr. Caveseemed still more depressed when they came into the shop.
The clergyman, without any ceremony, asked the price of the crystal egg.Mr. Cave glanced nervously towards the door leading into the parlour,and said five pounds. The clergyman protested that the price was high,to his companion as well as to Mr. Cave — it was, indeed, very much morethan Mr. Cave had intended to ask, when he had stocked the article — andan attempt at bargaining ensued. Mr. Cave stepped to the shop-door, andheld it open. “Five pounds is my price,” he said, as though he wishedto save himself the trouble of unprofitable discussion. As he did so,the upper portion of a woman’s face appeared above the blind in theglass upper panel of the door leading into the parlour, and staredcuriously at the two customers. “Five pounds is my price,” said Mr.Cave, with a quiver in his voice.
The swarthy young man had so far remained a spectator, watching Cavekeenly. Now he spoke. “Give him five pounds,” he said. The clergymanglanced at him to see if he were in earnest, and, when he looked at Mr.Cave again, he saw that the latter’s face was white. “It’s a lot ofmoney,” said the clergyman, and, diving into his pocket, began countinghis resources. He had little more than thirty shillings, and he appealedto his companion, with whom he seemed to be on terms of considerableintimacy. This gave Mr. Cave an opportunity of collecting his thoughts,and he began to explain in an agitated manner that the crystal was not,as a matter of fact, entirely free for sale. His two customers werenaturally surprised at this, and inquired why he had not thought of thatbefore he began to bargain. Mr. Cave became confused, but he stuck tohis story, that the crystal was not in the market that afternoon, thata probable purchaser of it had already appeared. The two, treating thisas an attempt to raise the price still further, made as if they wouldleave the shop. But at this point the parlour door opened, and the ownerof the dark fringe and the little eyes appeared.
She was a coarse-featured, corpulent woman, younger and very much largerthan Mr. Cave; she walked heavily, and her face was flushed. “Thatcrystal is for sale,” she said. “And five pounds is a good enoughprice for it. I can’t think what you’re about, Cave, not to take thegentleman’s offer!”
Mr. Cave, greatly perturbed by the irruption, looked angrily at her overthe rims of his spectacles, and, without excessive assurance, assertedhis right to manage his business in his own way. An altercation began.The two customers watched the scene with interest and some amusement,occasionally assisting Mrs. Cave with suggestions. Mr. Cave, harddriven, persisted in a confused and impossible story of an enquiry forthe crystal that morning, and his agitation became painful. But he stuckto his point with extraordinary persistence. It was the young Orientalwho ended this curious controversy. He proposed that they should callagain in the course of two days — so as to give the alleged enquirer afair chance. “And then we must insist,” said the clergyman, “Fivepounds.” Mrs. Cave took it on herself to apologise for her husband,explaining that he was sometimes “a little odd,” and as the twocustomers left, the couple prepared for a free discussion of theincident in all its bearings.
Mrs. Cave talked to her husband with singular directness. The poorlittle man, quivering with emotion, muddled himself between his stories,maintaining on the one hand that he had another customer in view, and onthe other asserting that the crystal was honestly worth ten guineas.“Why did you ask five pounds?” said his wife. “Do let me manage mybusiness my own way!” said Mr. Cave.
Mr. Cave had living with him a step-daughter and a step-son, and atsupper that night the transaction was re-discussed. None of them had ahigh opinion of Mr. Cave’s business methods, and this action seemed aculminating folly.
“It’s my opinion he’s refused that crystal before,” said the step-son, aloose-limbed lout of eighteen.
“But Five Pounds!” said the step-daughter, an argumentative youngwoman of six-and-twenty.
Mr. Cave’s answers were wretched; he could only mumble weak assertionsthat he knew his own business best. They drove him from his half-eatensupper into the shop, to close it for the night, his ears aflame andtears of vexation behind his spectacles. “Why had he left the crystal inthe window so long? The folly of it!” That was the trouble closest inhis mind. For a time he could see no way of evading sale.
After supper his step-daughter and step-son smartened themselves up andwent out and his wife retired upstairs to reflect upon the businessaspects of the crystal, over a little sugar and lemon and so forth inhot water. Mr. Cave went into the shop, and stayed there until late,ostensibly to make ornamental rockeries for goldfish cases but reallyfor a private purpose that will be better explained later. The next dayMrs. Cave found that the crystal had been removed from the window, andwas lying behind some second-hand books on angling. She replaced it in aconspicuous position. But she did not argue further about it, as anervous headache disinclined her from debate. Mr. Cave was alwaysdisinclined. The day passed disagreeably. Mr. Cave was, if anything,more absent-minded than usual, and uncommonly irritable withal. In theafternoon, when his wife was taking her customary sleep, he removed thecrystal from the window again.
The next day Mr. Cave had to deliver a consignment of dog-fish at one ofthe hospital schools, where they were needed for dissection. In hisabsence Mrs. Cave’s mind reverted to the topic of the crystal, and themethods of expenditure suitable to a windfall of five pounds. She hadalready devised some very agreeable expedients, among others a dress ofgreen silk for herself and a trip to Richmond, when a jangling of thefront door bell summoned her into the shop. The customer was anexamination coach who came to complain of the non-delivery of certainfrogs asked for the previous day. Mrs. Cave did not approve of thisparticular branch of Mr. Cave’s business, and the gentleman, who hadcalled in a somewhat aggressive mood, retired after a brief exchange ofwords — entirely civil so far as he was concerned. Mrs. Cave’s eye thennaturally turned to the window; for the sight of the crystal was anassurance of the five pounds and of her dreams. What was her surprise tofind it gone!
She went to the place behind the locker on the counter, where she haddiscovered it the day before. It was not there; and she immediatelybegan an eager search about the shop.
When Mr. Cave returned from his business with the dog-fish, about aquarter to two in the afternoon, he found the shop in some confusion,and his wife, extremely exasperated and on her knees behind the counter,routing among his taxidermic material. Her face came up hot and angryover the counter, as the jangling bell announced his return, and sheforthwith accused him of “hiding it.”