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A Hero of Romance by Richard Marsh

Bertie dimly wondering what was going to happen next


dear boy; sorry to lose you, but the best of friends must part. Come along, my rib-stone pippin; you and me'll go home to tea."

Satisfied that the coast was clear, the two ventured out of the doorway, reached the open street again, and this time turned without hesitation into the court which they had passed before. It was unlit by any lamp, and was so narrow that it was not difficult to believe that a man standing on a roof on one side of the way might, if he were an active fellow, spring with a single bound on to the roof on the opposite side. Fortunately it was not long, the whole consisting of apparently not more than twelve or fifteen houses. At the extreme end Bertie's companion stopped.

The place was a _cul-de-sac_. It ended in a dead wall. But on the other side of the wall towered a house of what, in such a neighbourhood, seemed unusual dimensions. The entrance proper was in another street, and the original architect had probably had no intention that an entry should be effected from where they were. In a recess in the wall, so hidden as to be invisible to Bertie in that light, and so placed as to appear to be a door opening into the last house in the court in which they actually stood, was an ancient wooden door, from which the paint had all disappeared owing to the action of time and weather. The two boys stood still for a moment, Bertie dimly wondering what was going to happen next. It seemed to him

that he really was an actor in a dream at last--the strangest dream he had ever dreamed. Then the thief whistled a few lines of some uncouth melody in a low but singularly piercing tone. A pause again; then he gave four taps against the ancient wooden door, with a momentary pause between each one. Bertie had heard of mysterious methods of effecting entrances into mysterious houses, and had been charmed with them; but he concluded that they were perhaps better in theory than practice. He would not have liked to have been kept hanging about in the wet such an unconscionable length of time every time he wanted to go home.

At last the door was opened--just as Bertie was beginning to think that the mysterious proceedings would have to be all gone through again.

"Who's there?" inquired a husky voice.

It seemed that after all the whistling and the tapping caution were required.

"All right, mother; it's only me and a friend. Come on, Ikey; cut along inside."

Bertie, thus addressed as "Ikey," was about to "cut along inside," when he found the way barred by the old woman who acted as janitrix. She was a very unpleasant-looking old woman, old and grisly, and very much in want of soap and water: quite unpleasant-looking enough to be called a "hag"--and she smelt of gin. In her hand she carried a guttering tallow candle in a battered old tin candlestick. Hitherto she had held it behind her back, as if to conceal the presence of a light from passers-by. Now she raised it above her head so that its light might fall on Bertie's face. He thought he had never seen a more disagreeable-looking lady.

"Who's the friend?"

"What's that to you? He's a friend of mine, and square; that's quite enough for you. Come along, my pippin."

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