Oliver Bacon lived at the top of a house overlooking the Green
Park. He had a flat; chairs jutted out at the right
angles—chairs covered in hide. Sofas filled the bays of the
windows—sofas covered in tapestry. The windows, the three
long windows, had the proper allowance of discreet net and figured
satin. The mahogany sideboard bulged discreetly with the right
brandies, whiskeys and liqueurs. And from the middle window he
looked down upon the glossy roofs of fashionable cars packed in the
narrow straits of Piccadilly. A more Central position could not be
imagined. And at eight in the morning he would have his breakfast
brought in on a tray by a manservant: the manservant
would unfold his crimson dressing-gown; he would rip his
letters open with his long pointed nails and would extract thick
white cards of invitation upon which the engraving stood up roughly
from duchesses, countesses, viscountesses and Honourable Ladies.
Then he would wash; then he would eat his toast; then he would read
his paper by the bright burning fire of electric coals.
“Behold Oliver,” he would say, addressing himself.
“You who began life in a filthy little alley, you who . .
.” and he would look down at his legs, so shapely in their
perfect trousers; at his boots; at his spats. They were all
shapely, shining; cut from the best cloth by the best scissors in
Savile Row. But he dismantled himself often and became again a
little boy in a dark alley. He had once thought that the height of
his ambition—selling stolen dogs to fashionable women in
Whitechapel. And once he had been done. “Oh, Oliver,”
his mother had wailed. “Oh, Oliver! When will you have sense,
my son?” . . . Then he had gone behind a counter; had sold
cheap watches; then he had taken a wallet to Amsterdam. . . . At
that memory he would churckle—the old Oliver remembering the
young. Yes, he had done well with the three diamonds; also there
was the commission on the emerald. After that he went into the
private room behind the shop in Hatton Garden; the room with the
scales, the safe, the thick magnifying glasses. And then . . . and
then . . . He chuckled. When he passed through the knots of
jewellers in the hot evening who were discussing prices, gold
mines, diamonds, reports from South Africa, one of them would lay a
finger to the side of his nose and murmur,
“Hum—m—m,” as he passed. It was no more
than a murmur; no more than a nudge on the shoulder, a finger on
the nose, a buzz that ran through the cluster of jewellers in
Hatton Garden on a hot afternoon—oh, many years ago now! But
still Oliver felt it purring down his spine, the nudge, the murmur
that meant, “Look at him—young Oliver, the young
jeweller—there he goes.” Young he was then. And he
dressed better and better; and had, first a hansom cab; then a car;
and first he went up to the dress circle, then down into the
stalls. And he had a villa at Richmond, overlooking the river, with
trellises of red roses; and Mademoiselle used to pick one every
morning and stick it in his buttonhole.
“So,” said Oliver Bacon, rising and stretching his
legs. “So . . .”
And he stood beneath the picture of an old lady on the
mantelpiece and raised his hands. “I have kept my
word,” he said, laying his hands together, palm to palm, as
if he were doing homage to her. “I have won my bet.”
That was so; he was the richest jeweller in England; but his nose,
which was long and flexible, like an elephant’s trunk, seemed
to say by its curious quiver at the nostrils (but it seemed as if
the whole nose quivered, not only the nostrils) that he was not
satisfied yet; still smelt something under the ground a little
further off. Imagine a giant hog in a pasture rich with truffles;
after unearthing this truffle and that, still it smells a bigger, a
blacker truffle under the ground further off. So Oliver snuffed
always in the rich earth of Mayfair another truffle, a blacker, a
bigger further off.
Now then he straightened the pearl in his tie, cased himself in
his smart blue overcoat; took his yellow gloves and his cane; and
swayed as he descended the stairs and half snuffed, half sighed
through his long sharp nose as he passed out into Piccadilly. For
was he not still a sad man, a dissatisfied man, a man who seeks
something that is hidden, though he had won his bet?
He swayed slightly as he walked, as the camel at the zoo sways
from side to side when it walks along the asphalt paths laden with
grocers and their wives eating from paper bags and throwing little
bits of silver paper crumpled up on to the path. The camel despises
the grocers; the camel is dissatisfied with its lot; the camel sees
the blue lake and the fringe of palm trees in front of it. So the
great jeweller, the greatest jeweller in the whole world, swung
down Piccadilly, perfectly dressed, with his gloves, with his cane;
but dissatisfied still, till he reached the dark little shop, that
was famous in France, in Germany, in Austria, in Italy, and all
over America—the dark little shop in the street off Bond
As usual, he strode through the shop without speaking, though
the four men, the two old men, Marshall and Spencer, and the two
young men, Hammond and Wicks, stood straight behind the counter as he passed and looked at him,
envying him. It was only with one finger of the
amber-coloured glove, waggling, that he acknowledged their
presence. And he went in and shut the door of his private room
Then he unlocked the grating that barred the window. The cries
of Bond Street came in; the purr of the distant traffic. The light
from reflectors at the back of the shop struck upwards. One tree
waved six green leaves, for it was June. But Mademoiselle had
married Mr. Pedder of the local brewery—no one stuck roses in
his buttonhole now.
“So,” he half sighed, half snorted,
“so. . .”
Then he touched a spring in the wall and slowly the panelling
slid open, and behind it were the steel safes, five, no, six of
them, all of burnished steel. He twisted a key; unlocked one; then
another. Each was lined with a pad of deep crimson velvet; in each
lay jewels—bracelets, necklaces, rings, tiaras, ducal
coronets; loose stones in glass shells; rubies, emeralds, pearls,
diamonds. All safe, shining, cool, yet burning, eternally, with
their own compressed light.
“Tears!” said Oliver, looking at the pearls.
“Heart’s blood!” he said, looking at the
“Gunpowder!” he continued, rattling the diamonds so
that they flashed and blazed.
“Gunpowder enough to blow Mayfair—sky high, high,
high!” He threw his head back and made a sound like a horse
neighing as he said it.
The telephone buzzed obsequiously in a low muted voice on his
table. He shut the safe.
“In ten minutes,” he said. “Not before.”
And he sat down at his desk and looked at the heads of the Roman
emperors that were graved on his sleeve links. And again he
dismantled himself and became once more the little boy playing
marbles in the alley where they sell stolen dogs on Sunday. He
became that wily astute little boy, with lips like wet cherries. He
dabbled his fingers in ropes of tripe; he dipped them in pans of
frying fish; he dodged in and out among the crowds. He was slim,
lissome, with eyes like licked stones. And now—now—the
hands of the clock ticked on. One, two, three, four . . . The
Duchess of Lambourne waited his pleasure; the Duchess of Lambourne,
daughter of a hundred Earls. She would wait for ten minutes on a
chair at the counter. She would wait his pleasure. She would wait
till he was ready to see her. He watched the clock in its shagreen
case. The hand moved on. With each tick the clock handed
him—so it seemed—pâté de foie gras, a glass of
champagne, another of fine brandy, a cigar costing one guinea. The
clock laid them on the table beside him as the ten minutes passed.
Then he heard soft slow footsteps approaching; a rustle in the
corridor. The door opened. Mr. Hammond flattened himself against
“Her Grace!” he announced.
And he waited there, flattened against the wall.
And Oliver, rising, could hear the rustle of the dress of the
Duchess as she came down the passage. Then she loomed up, filling
the door, filling the room with the aroma, the prestige, the
arrogance, the pomp, the pride of all the Dukes and Duchesses
swollen in one wave. And as a wave breaks, she broke, as she sat
down, spreading and splashing and falling over Oliver Bacon, the
great jeweller, covering him with sparkling bright colours, green,
rose, violet; and odours; and iridescences; and rays shooting from
fingers, nodding from plumes, flashing from silk; for she was very
large, very fat, tightly girt in pink taffeta, and past her prime.
As a parasol with many flounces, as a peacock with many feathers,
shuts its flounces, folds its feathers, so she subsided and shut
herself as she sank down in the leather armchair.
“Good morning, Mr. Bacon,” said the Duchess. And she
held out her hand which came through the slit of her white glove.
And Oliver bent low as he shook it. And as their hands touched the
link was forged between them once more. They were friends, yet
enemies; he was master, she was mistress; each cheated the other,
each needed the other, each feared the other, each felt this and
knew this every time they touched hands thus in the little back
room with the white light outside, and the tree with its six
leaves, and the sound of the street in the distance and behind them
“And today, Duchess—what can I do for you
today?” said Oliver, very softly.
The Duchess opened; her heart, her private heart, gaped wide. And
with a sigh, but no words, she took from her bag a long wash-leather
pouch—it looked like a lean yellow ferret. And from a slit in
the ferret’s belly she dropped pearls—ten pearls. They
rolled from the slit in the ferret’s belly—one, two,
three, four—like the eggs of some heavenly bird.
“All that’s left me, dear Mr. Bacon,”
she moaned. Five, six, seven—down they rolled, down the
slopes of the vast mountain sides that fell between her knees into
one narrow valley—the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth. There
they lay in the glow of the peach–blossom taffeta. Ten
“From the Appleby cincture,” she mourned. “The
last . . . the last of them all.”
Oliver stretched out and took one of the pearls between finger
and thumb. It was round, it was lustrous. But real was it, or
false? Was she lying again? Did she dare?
She laid her plump padded finger across her lips. “If the
Duke knew . . .” she whispered. “Dear Mr. Bacon, a bit
of bad luck. . .”
Been gambling again, had she?
“That villain! That sharper!” she hissed.
The man with the chipped cheek bone? A bad ’un. And the
Duke was straight as a poker; with side whiskers; would cut her
off, shut her up down there if he knew—what I know, thought
Oliver, and glanced at the safe.
“Araminta, Daphne, Diana,” she moaned.
“It’s for them.”
The ladies Araminta, Daphne, Diana—her daughters. He knew
them; adored them. But it was Diana he loved.
“You have all my secrets,” she leered. Tears slid;
tears fell; tears, like diamonds, collecting powder in the ruts of
her cherry-blossom cheeks.
“Old friend,” she murmured, “old
“Old friend,” he repeated, “old friend,”
as if he licked the words.
“How much?” he queried.
She covered the pearls with her hand.
“Twenty thousand,” she whispered.
But was it real or false, the one he held in his hand? The
Appleby cincture—hadn’t she sold it already? He would
ring for Spencer or Hammond. “Take it and test it,” he
would say. He stretched to the bell.
“You will come down tomorrow?” she urged, she
interrupted. “The Prime Minister—His Royal Highness . .
.” She stopped. “And Diana . . .” she added.
Oliver took his hand off the bell.
He looked past her, at the backs of the houses in Bond Street.
But he saw, not the houses in Bond Street, but a dimpling river;
and trout rising and salmon; and the Prime Minister; and himself
too, in white waistcoat; and then, Diana. He looked down at the
pearl in his hand. But how could he test it, in the light of the
river, in the light of the eyes of Diana? But the eyes of the
Duchess were on him.
“Twenty thousand,” she moaned. “My
The honour of the mother of Diana! He drew his cheque book
towards him; he took out his pen.
“Twenty—” he wrote. Then he stopped writing.
The eyes of the old woman in the picture were on him—of the
old woman, his mother.
“Oliver!” she warned him. “Have sense!
Don’t be a fool!”
“Oliver!” the Duchess entreated—it was
“Oliver” now, not “Mr. Bacon.”
“You’ll come for a long weekend?”
Alone in the woods with Diana! Riding alone in the woods with
“Thousand,” he wrote, and signed it.
“Here you are,” he said.
And there opened all the flounces of the parasol, all the plumes
of the peacock, the radiance of the wave, the swords and spears of
Agincourt, as she rose from her chair. And the two old men and the
two young men, Spencer and Marshall, Wicks and Hammond, flattened
themselves behind the counter envying him as he led her through the
shop to the door. And he waggled his yellow glove in their faces,
and she held her honour—a cheque for twenty thousand pounds
with his signature—quite firmly in her hands.
“Are they false or are they real?” asked Oliver,
shutting his private door. There they were, ten pearls on the
blotting paper on the table. He took them to the window. He
held them under his lens to the light. . .. This, then, was the
truffle he had routed out of the earth! Rotten at the
centre—rotten at the core!
“Forgive me, oh, my mother!” he sighed, raising his
hand as if he asked pardon of the old woman in the picture. And
again he was a little boy in the alley where they sold dogs on
“For,” he murmured, laying the palms of his hands
together, “it is to be a long week–end.”