First stop was the registrar’s office. It was all over, quick and painless.
“You may now kiss the bride,” said the officiator, so John did.
“Oh, get off,” said Ruth smiling. “So where now? Shall we go to the dog track?”
“The track’s closed today,” said John. “Let’s go and buy you a wedding ring.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” said Ruth.
Ruth expected that John would take her to a fancy Jewellers, but John led her through the narrow, twisting back lanes of London and into a pawnbroker shop in the middle of Shoreditch.
“We’ll get one in here cheap,” he said.
Ruth was not impressed. A second-hand wedding ring, she thought, the nerve of it. And she secretly decided she would insist on the most expensive ring in the shop. That’s the one I’ll be getting, no matter how expensive it is.
When they got into the shop, the clerk welcomed John like an old friend
“Good morning, John,” he called.
First name terms with the pawnbroker, thought Ruth, just how much money have you lose at cards in the past that you’ve had to pawn everything.
John called the pawnbroker over and introduced Ruth.
“This is my wife,” he said. “Ruth, this is my friend Michael.”
“Pleased to meet you, Michael,” said Ruth. “Do have any wedding rings for sale.”
“You want a ring,” said Michael. “I have the finest here.” And he brought out a tray of gold rings of all shapes and sizes.
Ruth looked at the tray and tried one on for size. It was a good fit. She held it up to show John, but when she did, she saw that he was over inspecting something on the other side of the shop. Well, that’s charming, Ruth thought.
Michael left Ruth and hurried over to where John was.
“Do you want me to open the case,” asked Michael. “Do you want to look at it?”
“Yes please,” said John. “But, I want to do more than look at it. I want to buy it back.”
“Ten pounds,” said Michael, “That’s what I gave you for it. And I want another two pounds and twelve shillings in interest. That’s what you agreed.”
John sighed. “Just open the case, Michael. I’ve got the money.”
Michael unlocked a glass case, and Ruth watched as he handed John a fiddle of some sort. John held it gently in his hand. As if it were a baby; and Ruth thought about her own baby and wondered if John would hold it, the poor thing, as gently and lovingly when it came.
“My Bergonzi,” said John in hushed tones. And then he lifted the violin to his chin, and holding the bow in his long delicate fingers; he drew the sweetest sound Ruth had ever heard. She stood transfixed. That’s why his hands are so soft and supple, she thought, he’s a musician.
“Beautiful,” said Michael. “Now where is the money?”
John carefully put the violin into the case and then started to count out twelve pounds and twelve shillings.
Ruth turned back to the tray of rings. As she did, she noticed one just like the ring she’d tried on earlier in the morning, a serpent ring. It was ugly, hardly suitable for a wedding ring, but still, her interest was pricked.
I wonder who pawned this, she thought and held it up to the light.
“Stop,” shouted John, and came dashing across the shop, and grabbed the ring out of Ruth’s hand.
“How rude,” Ruth protested.
John said nothing. Instead, he took the ring and gave it a twist so that now instead of the snake being wrapped in a circle, the snakes head swung forward.
“Give me a handkerchief,” said John.
“Give me a handkerchief, please,” corrected Ruth, but she handed him one none the less.
John took the handkerchief and wiped the protruding fangs of the golden snake. Two black drops of liquid dripped onto the cloth and started to smoke and smoulder.
“Poison,” said Ruth, and then continued, “That was my best handkerchief.”
The handkerchief was of fine Portuguese lace, another souvenir of her dismissal from the Dunn household. Now it had two large holes eaten into the fabric.
“Totally ruined,” complained Ruth.
“Never mind that,” said John and then turned to Michael. “Where did you get this? Who brought it to you? Do you know what it is?”
Michael looked shocked. “I can’t remember everything that comes into my shop,” he protested.
“No, but you’ll have an account in your ledger,” said John.
“What if I do; what business is it of yours?” said Michael.
“Just do it,” said John in voice Ruth had never heard him use before. If the shopkeeper knows what’s good for him, he’ll do as he’s told, thought Ruth.
The shopkeeper did know what was good for him. He grumbled a bit, but took out his ledger.
“What’s the ticket number?” he asked.
Ruth read out the number, “891898.”
“So,” said the shopkeeper, pouring over the ledger, “That’s the 8th of September 1898. It’s been in here a while. Now let me see. Here is the entry.” And he read, “Snake charm ring, sold gold. Egyptian made, sold by a soldier returning from Sudan. Sargent Hicks.”
“Sargent Hicks,” said John, and then fell silent. He knows this Sargent, thought Ruth, I must ask him what he knows, but not now, not in front of the shopkeeper.
“How much,” said John, taking the ring.
“Two pounds,” said the shopkeeper.
John counted another two pounds out of his purse. Then wrapped the serpent ring in the ruined lace handkerchief and put it safely in his pocket. Then he picked up the violin case.
“Come on,” John called to Ruth and bustled her out of the shop.
They hadn’t gone very far when he stopped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I forgot what we went there for; we’ve still to get you a wedding ring. We can go back, or if you prefer we go somewhere else.”
But Ruth shook her head.
“You’re going through those winnings like water, that’s twelve pounds you spent already.”
“Fourteen,” corrected John. “But a promise is a promise. Besides, I don’t want anyone snatching you from under my nose.”
“Don’t worry about that,” replied Ruth. “No one is going to snatch me away without my say so.”
“What about a ring,” said John?
“I’ve taken care of that too,” said Ruth, and she held up her hand that still had the gold ring that she had been trying on sitting snuggly on her finger. It really was a perfect fit.
“Well,” laughed John, “Serves him right after cheating me on the violin, and on the other ring. By my reckoning that’s us even.”