The Club of Queer Trades
The Singular Speculation of the House-Agent
Lieutenant Drummond Keith was a man about whom conversation always burst
like a thunderstorm the moment he left the room. This arose from many separate
touches about him. He was a light, loose person, who wore light, loose clothes,
generally white, as if he were in the tropics; he was lean and graceful, like a
panther, and he had restless black eyes.
He was very impecunious. He had one of the habits of the poor, in a degree so
exaggerated as immeasurably to eclipse the most miserable of the unemployed; I
mean the habit of continual change of lodgings. There are inland tracts of London
where, in the very heart of artificial civilization, humanity has almost become
nomadic once more. But in that restless interior there was no ragged tramp so
restless as the elegant officer in the loose white clothes. He had shot a great
many things in his time, to judge from his conversation, from partridges to
elephants, but his slangier acquaintances were of opinion that "the moon" had
been not unfrequently amid the victims of his victorious rifle. The phrase is a fine
one, and suggests a mystic, elvish, nocturnal hunting.
He carried from house to house and from parish to parish a kit which consisted
practically of five articles. Two odd-looking, large-bladed spears, tied together,
the weapons, I suppose, of some savage tribe, a green umbrella, a huge and
tattered copy of the Pickwick Papers, a big game rifle, and a large sealed jar of
some unholy Oriental wine. These always went into every new lodging, even for
one night; and they went in quite undisguised, tied up in wisps of string or straw,
to the delight of the poetic gutter boys in the little grey streets.
I had forgotten to mention that he always carried also his old regimental sword.
But this raised another odd question about him. Slim and active as he was, he
was no longer very young. His hair, indeed, was quite grey, though his rather wild
almost Italian moustache retained its blackness, and his face was careworn
under its almost Italian gaiety. To find a middle-aged man who has left the Army
at the primitive rank of lieutenant is unusual and not necessarily encouraging.
With the more cautious and solid this fact, like his endless flitting, did the
mysterious gentleman no good.
Lastly, he was a man who told the kind of adventures which win a man
admiration, but not respect. They came out of queer places, where a good man
would scarcely find himself, out of opium dens and gambling hells; they had the
heat of the thieves' kitchens or smelled of a strange smoke from cannibal
incantations. These are the kind of stories which discredit a person almost
equally whether they are believed or no. If Keith's tales were false he was a liar; if
they were true he had had, at any rate, every opportunity of being a scamp.