On one such night as this the scene in the little cabin was a curious one. A lamp burned brightly on the table, and its lights shone on a number of objects, some lying openly on the green table-cover, some reclining superbly in velvet-lined cases. Shells! Yes, but not such shells as were heaped in profusion on shelf and counter. Those were lovely, indeed, and some of them of considerable value; but it was a fortune, no less, that lay now spread before the eyes of the Skipper and his guest. For these were the days when fine shells could not be bought on every hand, as they can to-day; when a good specimen of the Imperial Harp brought two hundred and fifty dollars easily, and when a collector would give anything, even to the half of his kingdom (if he were a collector of the right sort), for a Precious Wentletrap.
It was a Wentletrap on which the little red eyes of Mr. Endymion Scraper were fixed at this moment. The morocco case in which it lay was lined with crimson velvet, and the wonderful shell shone purely white against the glowing colour,—snow upon ice; for the body of the shell was semi-transparent, the denser substance of the spiral whorls turning them to heavy snow against the shining clearness beneath them. Has any of my readers seen a Precious Wentletrap? Then he knows one of the most beautiful things that God has made.
Apparently the Skipper had just opened the case, for Mr. Scraper was sitting with his mouth wide open, staring at it with greedy, almost frightened eyes. Truly, a perfect specimen of this shell was, in those days, a thing seen only in kings’ cabinets; yet no flaw appeared in this, no blot upon its perfect beauty. The old miser sat and stared, and only his hands, which clutched the table-cloth in a convulsive grasp, and his greedy eyes, showed that he was not turned to stone. He had been amazed enough by the other treasures, as the Skipper had taken them one by one from the iron safe in the corner, whose door now hung idly open. Where had been seen such Pheasants as these,—the fragile, the exquisite, the rarely perfect? Even the Australian Pheasant, rarest of all, lay here before him, with its marvellous pencillings of rose and carmine and gray. Mr. Endymion’s mouth had watered at the mere description of the shell in the catalogue, but he had never thought to see one, except the imperfect specimen in the museum at Havenborough. Here, too, was the Orange Cowry; here the Bishop’s Mitre, and the precious Voluta Aulica; while yonder,—what was this man, that he should have a Voluta Junonia, of which only a few specimens are possessed in the known world? What did it all mean?