Behind the window was a deep and narrow room, lined on both sides with cabinets of great age and curious workmanship, oaken furniture belonging to various periods, pictures restored and pictures cracked and faded, cases filled with dainty objects of gold and silver, brass work from Moorish and Saracenic craftsmen, tall suits of armor, helmets and weapons that had clashed in battle hundreds of years before, and other things too numerous to mention, all of a genuine value that put them beyond the reach of a slim purse.
In the rear of the shop—which was looked after by a salesman—was a small office almost opulent in its appearance. Soft rugs covered the floor, and costly paintings hung on the walls. The chairs and desk, the huge couch, would have graced a palace, and a piece of priceless tapestry partly overhung the big safe at one end. An incandescent lamp was burning brightly, for very little light entered from the dreary court on which a single window opened.
Here, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Stephen Foster sat poring over a sheaf of papers. He was a man of fifty-two, nearly six feet tall and correspondingly built—a man with a fine head and handsome features, a man to attract more than ordinary attention. His hands were white, slim and long. His eyes were deep brown, and his mustache and beard—the latter cut to a point—were of a tawny yellowish-brown color, mixed with gray to a slight degree. It would be difficult to analyze his character, for in many ways he was a contradiction. He was not miserly, but his besetting evil was the love of accumulating money—the lever that had made him thoroughly unscrupulous. He was rich, or reputed so, but in amassing gold, by fair means or foul, lay the keynote to his life. And it was a dual life. He had chosen the old mansion at Strand-on-the-Green to be out of the roar and turmoil of London life, and yet within touch of it. Here, where his evenings were mostly spent, he was a different man. He derived his chief pleasures from his daughter’s society, from a table filled with current literature, from a box of choice Havanas. In town he was a sordid man of business, clever at buying and selling to the best advantage. He had loved his wife, the daughter of a city alderman and a friend of his father’s, and her death twelve years before had been a great blow to him. Madge resembled her, and he gave the girl a father’s sincere devotion.
Few persons knew that Stephen Foster was the proprietor of the curio-shop in Wardour street—his daughter was among the ignorant—and but one or two were aware that the business of Benjamin and Company, carried on in Duke street, belonged also to him. None, assuredly, among his sprinkling of acquaintances, would have believed that he could stoop to lower things, or that he and his equally unscrupulous and useful tool, Victor Nevill, the gay young-man-about-town, had been mixed up in more than one nefarious transaction that would not bear the light of day. He had taken the place in Wardour street within the past five years, and prior to that time he had held a responsible position as purchasing agent—there was not a better judge of pictures in Europe—with the well-known firm of Lamb and Drummond, art dealers and engravers to Her Majesty, of Pall Mall.