The acquaintance between Mr. Dyson and Mr. Charles Phillipps arose from
one of those myriad chances which are every day doing their work in the
streets of London. Mr. Dyson was a man of letters, and an unhappy
instance of talents misapplied. With gifts that might have placed him in
the flower of his youth among the most favored of Bentley’s favorite
novelists, he had chosen to be perverse; he was, it is true, familiar
with scholastic logic, but he knew nothing of the logic of life, and he
flattered himself with the title of artist, when he was in fact but an
idle and curious spectator of other men’s endeavors. Amongst many
delusions, he cherished one most fondly, that he was a strenuous worker;
and it was with a gesture of supreme weariness that he would enter his
favorite resort, a small tobacco shop in Great Queen Street, and
proclaim to any one who cared to listen that he had seen the rising and
setting of two successive suns. The proprietor of the shop, a
middle-aged man of singular civility, tolerated Dyson partly out of good
nature, and partly because he was a regular customer; he was allowed to
sit on an empty cask, and to express his sentiments on literary and
artistic matters till he was tired or the time for closing came; and if
no fresh customers were attracted, it is believed that none were turned
away by his eloquence. Dyson, was addicted to wild experiments in
tobacco; he never wearied of trying new combinations, and one evening he
had just entered the shop and given utterance to his last preposterous
formula, when a young fellow, of about his own age, who had come in a
moment later, asked the shopman to duplicate the order on his account,
smiling politely, as he spoke, to Mr. Dyson’s address. Dyson felt
profoundly flattered, and after a few phrases the two entered into
conversation, and in an hour’s time the tobacconist saw the new friends
sitting side by side on a couple of casks, deep in talk.
“My dear sir,” said Dyson, “I will give you the task of the literary man
in a phrase. He has got to do simply this: to invent a wonderful story,
and to tell it in a wonderful manner.”
“I will grant you that,” said Mr. Phillipps, “but you will allow me to
insist that in the hands of the true artist in words all stories are
marvellous, and every circumstance has its peculiar wonder. The matter
is of little consequence, the manner is everything. Indeed, the highest
skill is shown in taking matter apparently commonplace and transmuting
it by the high alchemy of style into the pure gold of art.”
“That is indeed a proof of great skill, but it is great skill exerted
foolishly, or at least unadvisedly. It is as if a great violinist were
to show us what marvellous harmonies he could draw from a child’s
“No, no, you are really wrong. I see you take a radically mistaken view
of life. But we must thresh this out. Come to my rooms; I live not far
from here.”
It was thus that Mr. Dyson became the associate of Mr. Charles
Phillipps, who lived in a quiet square not far from Holborn. Thenceforth
they haunted each other’s rooms at intervals, sometimes regular, and
occasionally the reverse, and made appointments to meet at the shop in
Queen Street, where their talk robbed the tobacconist’s profit of half
its charm. There was a constant jarring of literary formulas, Dyson
exalting the claims of the pure imagination, while Phillipps, who was a
student of physical science and something of an ethnologist, insisted
that all literature ought to have a scientific basis. By the mistaken
benevolence of deceased relatives both young men were placed out of
reach of hunger, and so, meditating high achievements, idled their time
pleasantly away, and revelled in the careless joys of a Bohemianism
devoid of the sharp seasoning of adversity.
One night in June Mr. Phillipps was sitting in his room in the calm
retirement of Red Lion Square. He had opened the window, and was smoking
placidly, while he watched the movement of life below. The sky was
clear, and the afterglow of sunset had lingered long about it; and the
flushing twilight of a summer evening, vying with the gas-lamps in the
square, had fashioned a chiaroscuro that had in it something unearthly;
and the children, racing to and fro upon the pavement, the lounging
idlers by the public, and the casual passers-by rather flickered, and
hovered in the play of lights than stood out substantial things. By
degrees in the houses opposite one window after another leaped out a
square of light, now and again a figure would shape itself against a
blind and vanish, and to all this semi-theatrical magic the runs and
flourishes of brave Italian opera played a little distance off on a
piano-organ seemed an appropriate accompaniment, while the deep-muttered
bass of the traffic of Holborn never ceased. Phillipps enjoyed the scene
and its effects; the light in the sky faded and turned to darkness, and
the square gradually grew silent, and still he sat dreaming at the
window, till the sharp peal of the house bell roused him, and looking at
his watch he found that it was past ten o’clock. There was a knock at
the door, and his friend Mr. Dyson entered, and, according to his
custom, sat down in an armchair and began to smoke in silence.
“You know, Phillipps,” he said at length, “that I have always battled
for the marvellous. I remember your maintaining in that chair that one
has no business to make use of the wonderful, the improbable, the odd
coincidence in literature, and you took the ground that it was wrong to
do so, because, as a matter of fact, the wonderful and the improbable
don’t happen, and men’s lives are not really shaped by odd coincidence.
Now, mind you, if that were so, I would not grant your conclusion,
because I think the “criticism-of-life” theory is all nonsense; but I
deny your premise. A most singular thing has happened to me to-night.”
“Really, Dyson, I am very glad to hear it. Of course I oppose your
argument, whatever it may be; but if you would be good enough to tell me
of your adventure I should be delighted.”
“Well, it came about like this. I have had a very hard day’s work;
indeed, I have scarcely moved from my old bureau since seven o’clock
last night. I wanted to work out that idea we discussed last Tuesday,
you know, the notion of the fetish-worshipper.”
“Yes, I remember. Have you been able to do anything with it?”
“Yes; it came out better than I expected; but there were great
difficulties, the usual agony between the conception and the execution.
Anyhow I got it done at about seven o’clock to-night, and I thought I
should like a little of the fresh air. I went out and wandered rather
aimlessly about the streets; my head was full of my tale, and I didn’t
much notice where I was going. I got into those quiet places to the
north of Oxford Street as you go west, the genteel residential
neighborhood of stucco and prosperity. I turned east again without
knowing it, and it was quite dark when I passed along a sombre little
by-street, ill lighted and empty. I did not know at the time in the
least where I was, but I found out afterwards that it was not very far
from Tottenham Court Road. I strolled idly along, enjoying the
stillness; on one side there seemed to be the back premises of some
great shop; tier after tier of dusty windows lifted up into the night,
with gibbet-like contrivances for raising heavy goods, and below large
doors, fast closed and bolted, all dark and desolate. Then there came a
huge pantechnicon warehouse; and over the way a grim blank wall, as
forbidding as the wall of a jail, and then the headquarters of some
volunteer regiment, and afterwards a passage leading to a court where
wagons were standing to be hired. It was, one might almost say, a street
devoid of inhabitants, and scarce a window showed the glimmer of a
light. I was wondering at the strange peace and dimness there, where it
must be close to some roaring main artery of London life, when suddenly
I heard the noise of dashing feet tearing along the pavement at full
speed, and from a narrow passage, a mews or something of that kind, a
man was discharged as from a catapult under my very nose and rushed past
me, flinging something from him as he ran. He was gone and down another
street in an instant, almost before I knew what had happened, but I
didn’t much bother about him, I was watching something else. I told you
he had thrown something away; well, I watched what seemed a line of
flame flash through the air and fly quivering over the pavement, and in
spite of myself I could not help tearing after it. The impetus lessened,
and I saw something like a bright half-penny roll slower and slower, and
then deflect towards the gutter, hover for a moment on the edge, and
dance down into a drain. I believe I cried out in positive despair,
though I hadn’t the least notion what I was hunting; and then to my joy
I saw that, instead of dropping into the sewer, it had fallen flat
across two bars. I stooped down and picked it up and whipped it into my
pocket, and I was just about to walk on when I heard again that sound of
dashing footsteps. I don’t know why I did it, but as a matter of fact I
dived down into the mews, or whatever it was, and stood as much in the
shadow as possible. A man went by with a rush a few paces from where I
was standing, and I felt uncommonly pleased that I was in hiding. I
couldn’t make out much feature, but I saw his eyes gleaming and his
teeth showing, and he had an ugly-looking knife in one hand, and I
thought things would be very unpleasant for gentleman number one if the
second robber, or robbed, or what you like, caught him up. I can tell
you, Phillipps, a fox hunt is exciting enough, when the horn blows clear
on a winter morning, and the hounds give tongue, and the red-coats
charge away, but it’s nothing to a man hunt, and that’s what I had a
slight glimpse of to-night. There was murder in the fellow’s eyes as he
went by, and I don’t think there was much more than fifty seconds
between the two. I only hope it was enough.”
Dyson leant back in his armchair and relit his pipe, and puffed
thoughtfully. Phillipps began to walk up and down the room, musing over
the story of violent death fleeting in chase along the pavement, the
knife shining in the lamplight, the fury of the pursuer, and the terror
of the pursued.
“Well,” he said at last, “and what was it, after all, that you rescued
from the gutter?”
Dyson jumped up, evidently quite startled. “I really haven’t a notion. I
didn’t think of looking. But we shall see.”
He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and drew out a small and shining
object, and laid it on the table. It glowed there beneath the lamp with
the radiant glory of rare old gold; and the image and the letters stood
out in high relief, clear and sharp, as if it had but left the mint a
month before. The two men bent over it, and Phillipps took it up and
examined it closely.
“Imp. Tiberius Cæsar Augustus,” he read the legend, and then, looking at
the reverse of the coin, he stared in amazement, and at last turned to
Dyson with a look of exultation.
“Do you know what you have found?” he said.
“Apparently a gold coin of some antiquity,” said Dyson, coolly.
“Quite so, a gold Tiberius. No, that is wrong. You have found _the_ gold
Tiberius. Look at the reverse.”
Dyson looked and saw the coin was stamped with the figure of a faun
standing amidst reeds and flowing water. The features, minute as they
were, stood out in delicate outline; it was a face lovely and yet
terrible, and Dyson thought of the well-known passage of the lad’s
playmate, gradually growing with his growth and increasing with his
stature, till the air was filled with the rank fume of the goat.
“Yes,” he said, “it is a curious coin. Do you know it?”

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“I know about it. It is one of the comparatively few historical objects
in existence; it is all storied like those jewels we have read of. A
whole cycle of legend has gathered round the thing; the tale goes that
it formed part of an issue struck by Tiberius to commemorate an infamous
excess. You see the legend on the reverse: ‘Victoria.’ It is said that
by an extraordinary accident the whole issue was thrown into the melting
pot, and that only this one coin escaped. It glints through history and
legend, appearing and disappearing, with intervals of a hundred years in
time and continents in place. It was discovered by an Italian humanist,
and lost and rediscovered. It has not been heard of since 1727, when Sir
Joshua Byrde, a Turkey merchant, brought it home from Aleppo, and
vanished with it a month after he had shown it to the virtuosi, no man
knew or knows where. And here it is!”
“Put it into your pocket, Dyson,” he said, after a pause. “I would not
let any one have a glimpse of the thing, if I were you. I would not talk
about it. Did either of the men you saw see you?”
“Well, I think not. I don’t think the first man, the man who was vomited
out of the dark passage, saw anything at all; and I am sure that the
second could not have seen me.”
“And you didn’t really see them. You couldn’t recognize either the one
or the other if you met him in the street to-morrow?”
“No, I don’t think I could. The street, as I said, was dimly lighted,
and they ran like mad-men.”
The two men sat silent for some time, each weaving his own fancies of
the story; but lust of the marvellous was slowly overpowering Dyson’s
more sober thoughts.
“It is all more strange than I fancied,” he said at last. “It was queer
enough what I saw; a man is sauntering along a quiet, sober, every-day
London street, a street of gray houses and blank walls, and there, for a
moment, a veil seems drawn aside, and the very fume of the pit steams up
through the flagstones, the ground glows, red hot, beneath his feet, and
he seems to hear the hiss of the infernal caldron. A man flying in mad
terror for his life, and furious hate pressing hot on his steps with
knife drawn ready; here indeed is horror. But what is all that to what
you have told me? I tell you, Phillipps, I see the plot thicken, our
steps will henceforth be dogged with mystery, and the most ordinary
incidents will teem with significance. You may stand out against it, and
shut your eyes, but they will be forced open; mark my words, you will
have to yield to the inevitable. A clue, tangled if you like, has been
placed by chance in our hands; it will be our business to follow it up.
As for the guilty person or persons in this strange case, they will be
unable to escape us, our nets will be spread far and wide over this
great city, and suddenly, in the streets and places of public resort, we
shall in some way or other be made aware that we are in touch with the
unknown criminal. Indeed, I almost fancy I see him slowly approaching
this quiet square of yours; he is loitering at street corners,
wandering, apparently without aim, down far-reaching thoroughfares, but
all the while coming nearer and nearer, drawn by an irresistible
magnetism, as ships were drawn to the Loadstone Rock in the Eastern
“I certainly think,” replied Phillipps, “that, if you pull out that coin
and flourish it under people’s noses as you are doing at the present
moment, you will very probably find yourself in touch with the criminal,
or a criminal. You will undoubtedly be robbed with violence. Otherwise,
I see no reason why either of us should be troubled. No one saw you
secure the coin, and no one knows you have it. I, for my part, shall
sleep peacefully, and go about my business with a sense of security and
a firm dependence on the natural order of things. The events of the
evening, the adventure in the street, have been odd, I grant you, but I
resolutely decline to have any more to do with the matter, and, if
necessary, I shall consult the police. I will not be enslaved by a gold
Tiberius, even though it swims into my ken in a manner which is somewhat
“And I for my part,” said Dyson, “go forth like a knight-errant in
search of adventure. Not that I shall need to seek; rather adventure
will seek me; I shall be like a spider in the midst of his web,
responsive to every movement, and ever on the alert.”
Shortly afterwards Dyson took his leave, and Mr. Phillipps spent the
rest of the night in examining some flint arrow-heads which he had
purchased. He had every reason to believe that they were the work of a
modern and not a palæolithic man, still he was far from gratified when a
close scrutiny showed him that his suspicions were well founded. In his
anger at the turpitude which would impose on an ethnologist, he
completely forgot Dyson and the gold Tiberius; and when he went to bed
at first sunlight, the whole tale had faded utterly from his thoughts.