Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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I AM afraid to face my Aunt Sarah. Though how I am to get out of it I don't quite see. At any rate, I will never again undertake the work of a private detective; though that would have been a more useful resolve a fortnight ago. The mischief is done now.
The main bitterness lies in the reflection that it is all Aunt Sarah's fault. Such a muddlesome old —— but, there, losing my temper won't mend it. A few weeks ago I was Clement Simpson, with very considerable expectations from my Aunt Sarah and no particular troubles on my mind, and I was engaged to my cousin, Honoria Prescott. Now I am still Clement Simpson (although sometimes I almost doubt even that), but my expectations from my Aunt Sarah are of the most uncomfortable, and my troubles overwhelm me. As for Honoria Prescott—but read and learn it all.
My aunt is a maiden lady of sixty-five, though there is something about her appearance at variance with the popular notion of a spinster, insomuch that it is the way of tradesmen to speak of her as "Mrs." Simpson, and to send their little bills thus addressed. She is a very positive old lady, and she measures, I should judge, about five feet round the waist. She is constantly attended by a doctor, and from time to time, in her sadder moments, it has been her habit to assure me that she shall not live long, and that very soon I shall find myself well provided for; though for an invalid she always ate rather well: about as much, I should judge, as a fairly healthy navvy. She had a great idea of her importance in the family—in fact, she was important and she had—has now, indeed—a way of directing the movements of all its members, who submit with a becoming humility. It is well to submit humbly to the caprice of a rich elderly aunt, and it has always been my own practice. It was because of Aunt Sarah's autocratic reign in the family that Honoria Prescott and I refrained from telling her of our engagement; for Aunt Sarah had conceived vast matrimonial ambitions on behalf of each of us. We were each to make an exceedingly good marriage: there was even a suggestion of a title for Honoria, though what title, and how it was to be captured, I never heard. And for me, I understood there would be nothing less than a brewer's daughter, or even a company-promoter's. And so we feared that Aunt Sarah might look upon a union between us not only as a flat defiance of her wishes, but as a deplorable mésalliance on both sides. So, for the time the engagement lasted (not very long, alas!), we feared to reveal it. Now there is no engagement to reveal. But this is anticipating.
Aunt Sarah was very fussy about her jewels. In perpetual apprehension lest they might be stolen, she carried them with her whenever she took a change of air (and she had a good many such changes), while in her own house she kept them in some profoundly secret hiding-place.
I have an idea that it was under a removable board in the floor of her bedroom. Of course, we all professed to share Aunt Sarah's solicitude, and it had been customary in the family, from times beyond my knowledge, to greet her first with inquiries as to her own health, and next with hopes for the safety of the jewels. But, as a matter of fact, they were not vastly valuable things; probably they were worth more than the case they were kept in, but not very much. Aunt Sarah never wore them—even she would not go as far as that. They were nothing but a small heap of clumsy old brooches, ear-rings, and buckles, with one or two very long, thin watch-chains, and certain mourning and signet rings belonging to departed members of the family who had flourished (or not) in the early part of the century. There were no big diamonds among them—scarcely any diamonds at all, in fact: but the garnets and cats' eyes strove to make good in size and ugliness of setting what they lacked in mere market worth. Chief of all the "jewels," and most precious of Aunt Sarah's possessions, was a big amethyst brooch, with a pane of glass let in behind, inclosing a lock of the reddest hair I have ever seen. It was the hair of Aunt Sarah's own uncle Joseph, the most distinguished member of the family, who had written three five-act tragedies, and dedicated them all, one after another, to George the Fourth. Joseph's initials appeared on the frame of the brooch behind—"J." on one side and "S." on the other. It was, on the whole, perhaps, the ugliest and clumsiest of all Aunt Sarah's jewels, and I never saw anything else like it anywhere, except one; and that, singularly enough, was an exact duplicate—barring, of course, the hair and the inscription—in a very mouldy shop in Soho, where all sorts of hopelessly out-of-date rings and brooches and chains hung for sale. It was the way of the shopkeeper to ticket these gloomy odds and ends with cheerful inscriptions, such as "Antique, 17s. 6d.," "Real Gold, £1 5s.," "Quaint, £2 2S. 6d." But even he could find no more promising adjective for the hideous brooch than "massive"—which was quite true. He wanted £3 for the thing when I first saw it, and it slowly declined, by half-a-crown at a time, to £1 15s., and then it vanished altogether. I wondered at the time what misguided person could have bought it; but I learnt afterward that the shopkeeper had lost heart, and used the window space for something else.
Aunt Sarah had been for six weeks at a "Hydropathic Establishment" at Malvern. On the day fixed for her return, I left a very agreeable tennis party for the purpose of meeting her at the station, as was dutiful and proper. First I called at her house, to learn the exact time at which the train was expected at Paddington. It was rather sooner than I had supposed, so I hurried to find a cab, and urged the driver to drive his best. I am never lucky with cabs, however nor, I begin to think, with anything else—and the horse, with all the cabman's efforts, never got beyond a sort of tumultuous shamble; and so I missed Aunt Sarah at Paddington. It was very annoying, and I feared she might take it ill, because she never made allowances for anybody's misfortunes but her own. However, I turned about and cabbed it back as fast as I could. She had been home nearly half an hour when I arrived, and was drinking her third or fourth cup of tea. She was not ill-tempered, on the whole, and she received my explanations with a fairly good grace.
She had been a little better, she thought, during her stay at Malvern, but feared that her health could make no permanent improvement. And indeed there seemed very little room for improvement in Aunt Sarah's bodily condition, and no more room at all in her clothes. Then, in the regular manner, I inquired as to the well-being of the jewels.
The jewels, it seemed, were all right. Aunt Sarah had seen to that. She had herself stowed the case at the bottom of her biggest and strongest trunk, which was now upstairs, partly unpacked. My question reminded her, and she rose at once, to transfer her valuables to their permanent hiding-place.
I heard Aunt Sarah going upstairs with a groan at every step, each groan answered by a loud creak from the woodwork. Then for awhile there was silence, and I walked to the French window to look out on the lawn and the carriage-drive. But as I looked, suddenly there came a dismal yell from above, followed by many shrieks.
We—myself and the servants—found Aunt Sarah seated on a miscellaneous heap of clothes by the side of her big trunk, a picture of calamity. "Gone!" she ejaculated. "Stolen! All my jewels! Stop thief! Catch 'em! My jewel-case!"
There was no doubt about it, it seemed. The case had been at the bottom of the big trunk—Aunt Sarah had put it there herself—and now it was gone. The trunk had been locked and tightly corded at Malvern, and it had been opened by Aunt Sarah's maid as soon as it had been set down where it now stood. But now the jewel-case was gone, and Aunt Sarah made such a disturbance as might be expected from the Constable of the Tower if he suddenly learned that the Crown of England was gone missing.
"Clement!" said my aunt, when she rose to her feet, after sending for the police; "go, Clement, and find my jewels. I rely on your sagacity. The police are always such fools. But you—you I can depend upon. Bring the jewels back, my dear, and you will never regret it, I promise you. At least bring back the brooch—the brooch with Uncle Joseph's hair and initials. That I must have, Clement!" And here Aunt Sarah grew quite impressive—almost noble. "Clement, I rely entirely on you. I forbid you to come into my presence again without that brooch! Find it, and you will be rewarded to the utmost of my power!"
Nevertheless, as I have said, Aunt Sarah took care to call in the police.
Now what was I to do? Of course, I must make an effort to satisfy Aunt Sarah; but how? The thing was absurd enough, and personally, I was in little grief at the loss, but Aunt Sarah must be propitiated at any cost. I was to go and find the jewels, or at least the brooch, and the whole world was before me wherein to search. I was confused, not to say dazed. I stood on the pavement outside Aunt Sarah's gate, and I tried to remember what the detectives I had read of did in such circumstances as these.
What they did, of course, was to find a clue—instantly and upon the spot. I stared blankly up and down the street—it was a quiet road in Belsize Park—but I could see nothing that looked like a clue. Perhaps the commonest sort of clue was footprints. But the weather was fine and dry, and the clean, hard pavement was without a mark of any kind. Besides, I had a feeling that footprints as a clue were a little threadbare and out of date; they were so obvious—so "otiose" as I have heard it called. No respectable novelist would depend on footprints alone, nowadays. Then there was a piece of the thief's coat, torn off by a sharp railing, or by a broken bottle on top of a wall; and there was also a lost button. I remembered that many excellent detective stories had been brought to breathless and triumphant terminations by the aid of one or other of these clues. I looked carefully along the line of broken glass that defended the top of Aunt Sarah's outer wall, but not a rag, not a shred, fluttered there. I tried to remember something else, and as I gazed thoughtfully downward, my eye was attracted by some small black object lying on the pavement by the gate. I stooped—and behold, it was a button! A trouser button, by all that's lucky!
I snatched it eagerly, and read the name stamped thereon, "J. Pullinger, London." I knew the name—indeed it was the name of my own tailor. The scent would seem to be growing stronger. But at that moment I grew conscious of an uneasy subsidence of my right trouser-leg. Hastily clapping my hand under my waistcoat, I found a loose brace-strap, and then realized that I had merely picked up my own button. I went home.
I spent the evening in fruitless brain-cudgelling. My brightest idea (which came about midnight) was to go back to Aunt Sarah's the first thing in the morning. True, she had forbidden me to come into her presence without that brooch, but that, I felt, must be regarded rather as a burst of rhetoric than as a serious prohibition. Besides, the case might have been stolen by one of her own servants; and, moreover, if I wanted a clue, clearly I must begin my search at the very spot where the theft had been committed. She couldn't object to that, anyhow.
So in the morning I went. Aunt Sarah seemed to have forgotten her order that I must not approach her without the brooch, but she seemed hurt to find I had not brought it. She had had no sleep all night, she said. She thought I ought to have discovered the thieves before she went to bed; but at any rate, she expected I would do it to-day. I said I would certainly do my best, and I fear I found it necessary to invent a somewhat exciting story of my adventures of the previous evening in search of the brooch.
There was a plain-clothes constable, it seemed, still about the place, and the police had searched all the servants' boxes, without discovering anything. Their theory, it seemed, was that some thief must have secreted himself about the garden, entered by a French window soon after Aunt Sarah's arrival, made his way to the bedroom—which would be easy, for there were two staircases—and then made off with the case; and, indeed, Aunt Sarah declared that the clothes in the box were much disturbed when she discovered her loss. The police spoke mysteriously about "a clue," but would not say what it was—which, no doubt, would be unprofessional.
All the servants had been closely questioned, and the detective now in the place wished to ask me if I had observed anything unusual. I hadn't, and I told him so. Had I noticed whether any of the French windows were open when I called the first time? No, I hadn't noticed. I didn't happen to have called more than once before my aunt had come in? No, I didn't. Which way had I entered the house when I came back after my aunt's arrival? By the front door, in the usual way. Was the front door open? Yes, I remembered that it was—probably left open by forgetfulness of the servants after the luggage had been brought in: so that I had come in without knocking or ringing. And he asked other questions which I have forgotten. I did not feel hopeful of his success, although he seemed so very sagacious; he spoke with an air of already knowing all about it, but I doubted. All my experience of newspaper reports told me that when the police spoke mysteriously of "a clue," that case might as well be given up at once, to save trouble. That seemed also to be Aunt Sarah's opinion. Before I left she confided to me that she didn't believe in the police a bit; she was sure that they were only staring about and asking questions to make a show of doing something, and that it would end in no result after all. All the more, she said, must she rely on me. The punishment of the thief was altogether a secondary matter; what she wanted were the jewels—or, as a minimum, the brooch with Uncle Joseph's hair in it. She would be glad if I would report progress to her during my search, but whether I did so or not, she must insist on my recovering the property. I was a grown man now, she pointed out, and, with my intelligence, ought to be easily equal to such a small thing; certainly more so than mere ordinary ignorant policemen. Of those she gave up all hope. She would not mind if I took a day or two over it, but she would prefer me to find the brooch at once.
I felt a little desperate when I left Aunt Sarah. I must do something. She had made up her mind that I was to recover the trinkets, or at least the brooch, and if I failed her she would cut me off, I knew. There was a fellow called Finch, secretary to the Society for the Dissemination of Moral Literature among the Esquimaux, who had been very friendly with her of late, and although I had no especial grudge against the Esquimaux as a nation, I had a strong objection to seeing Aunt Sarah's fortune go to provide them with moral literature, or Mr. Finch with his salary—the latter being, I had heard, the main object of the society. I spent the day in fruitless cogitation and blank staring into pawnshop windows, in the remote hope of seeing Aunt Sarah's brooch exposed for sale. And on the following morning I went back to Aunt Sarah.
I confess I had a tale prepared to account for my time—a tale, perhaps, not strictly true in all its details. But what was I to do to satisfy such a terrible 'old lady? I must say I think it was a very interesting sort of tale, with plenty of thieves' kitchens and receivers' dens in it, and, on the whole, it went down very well, although I could see that Aunt Sarah's good opinion of me was in danger for lack of tangible result to my adventures. The police, she said, had given the case up altogether and gone away. They reported, finally, that there was no clue, and that they could do nothing. I came away, feeling a good deal of sympathy with the police.
And then the wicked thought came—the wicked thought that has caused all the trouble. Plainly, the jewels were gone irrecoverably—did not the police admit it? Aunt Sarah would never see them again, and I should be cut out of her will—unless I brought her, at least, that hideous old brooch. The brooch by this time was probably in the melting-pot; but—there was, or had been, an exact duplicate in the grimy shop in Soho. There was the wicked idea. Perhaps this duplicate brooch hadn't been sold. If not, it would be easy to buy it, stuff it with red hair, and take it back in triumph to Aunt Sarah. And, as I thought, I remembered that I had frequently seen a girl with just such red hair, waiting at a cheap eating-house, where I sometimes passed on my way home. I had noticed her particularly, not only because of the uproarious colour of her hair, which was striking enough, but because of its exact similarity in shade to that in Aunt Sarah's brooch. No doubt the girl would gladly sell a small piece of it for a few shillings. Then the initials for the brooch-back would be easy enough. They were just the plain italic capitals J and S, one at each side, and I was confident that, with the brooch before me, I could trace their precise shape and size for the guidance of an engraver. And Aunt Sarah would never for a moment suppose that there could be another brooch in the world at all like her most precious "jewel." The longer I thought over the scheme the easier it seemed, and the greater the temptation grew. Till at last I went and looked in at the window of the shop in Soho.
Was the brooch sold or not? It was not in the window, and I tried to persuade myself that it must be gone. I hung about for some little while, but at last I took the first step in the path of deception. I went into the shop.
Once there, I was in for it, and nothing but the absence of the brooch could have saved me. But the brooch was there, in all its dusty hideousness, in a box, among scores of others. I turned it over and over; there was no doubt about it—barring the hair and the initials, it was as exact a duplicate as was ever made. The man asked two pounds ten for it, and I was in such a state of agitation that I paid the money at once, feeling unequal to the further agony of beating him down to the price he had last offered it at in his window.
I slipped it into my trouser pocket and sneaked guiltily down the street. There was no going back for me now—fate was too strong. I went home and locked myself in my room. There I spent an hour and a half in marking the exact position and size of the necessary initials. When all was set out satisfactorily, I went back to Soho again to find an engraver.
I might have gone to the shop where I had bought the brooch, but I fancied that might let the shopkeeper some little way into my secret. I walked till I came to just such another shop, and then, feeling, as I imagined, like an inexperienced shoplifter on a difficult job, I went in and gave my instructions. I offered to pay extra if the work could be done at once, and under my inspection. The engraver eyed me rather curiously, I fancied, but he was quite ready to earn his money, and in a quarter of an hour I was sneaking along the street again with the fraudulent brooch, one step nearer completion. The letters, to my eye at least, were as exactly cut as if copied from the original. They were a bit too bright and new, of course, but that I would remedy at home, and I did. A little fine emery on the point of my thumb, properly persevered with, took off all the raw edges and the newness of appearance, and a trifle of greasy black from a candle-wick, well wiped into the incisions and almost all wiped out again, left the initials apparently fifty years old at least.
Next morning's interview with Aunt Sarah was one of veiled triumph. I was on the track of the jewels at last, I said—or at any rate, of the brooch. I might have to sacrifice the rest, I explained, for the sake of getting that. Indeed, I was pretty sure that I could only get at the brooch. I could say no more, just then, but I hinted that nothing must be said to a soul, as my proceedings might possibly be considered, in the eye of the law, something too near compounding a felony. But I would risk that, I assured Aunt Sarah, and more, in her behalf. She was mightily pleased, and said I was the only member of the family worth his salt. I began to think the Esquimaux stood a chance of going short of moral literature, if Mr. Finch were depending much on Aunt Sarah's will.
The rest seemed very easy, but in reality it wasn't. I set out briskly enough for the eating-house, but as I neared it my steps grew slower and slower. It seemed an easy thing, at a distance, to ask for a lock of the red-headed girl's hair, but as I came nearer the shop, and began to consider what I should say, the job seemed a bit awkward. She was a thick-set sort of girl, with very red arms and a snub nose, and I felt doubtful how she would take the request. Perhaps she would laugh, and dab me in the face with a wet lettuce, as I had once seen her do with a jocular customer. Now, I am a little particular about my appearance and bearing, and I was not anxious to be dabbed in the face with a wet lettuce by a red-haired waitress at a cheap eating-house. If I had known anybody else with hair of that extraordinary colour I would not have taken the risk; but I didn't. Nevertheless I hesitated, and walked up and down a little before entering.
There was no customer in the place, for it was at least an hour before mid-day. The girl issued from a recess at the back, and came toward me. She seemed a terrible—a most formidable girl, seen so closely. She had small, sharp eyes, a snub nose, and a very large mouth—the sort of mouth that is ever ready to pour forth shrill abuse or vulgar derision. My heart sank into my boots, I couldn't—no, I couldn't ask her straightaway for a lock of her hair.
I temporized. I said I would have something to eat. She asked what. I said I would take anything there was. After a while she brought a plate of hideous coarse cold beef—like cat's meat. This is a sort of food I cannot eat, but I had to try. And she brought pickles on a plate—horrid, messy yellow pickles. I had often wondered as I passed what gave that eating-house its unpleasant smell, and now I knew it was the pickles.
I cut the offensive stuff into small pieces, made as much show of eating it as I could, and shoved it into a heap at one side of the plate. The girl had retired to a partly inclosed den at the back of the shop, where she seemed to be washing plates. After all, I reflected, there was nothing to be afraid of. It was a purely commercial transaction, and no doubt the girl would be very glad to sell a little of her hair. Moreover, the longer I waited the greater risk I ran of having other customers come in and spoil the thing altogether. There was the hair—the one thing to straighten all my difficulties, and a few shillings would certainly buy all I wanted. I rapped on the table with my fork.
The red-haired girl came down the shop wiping her hands on her apron—big hands, and very red; terrible hands to box an ear or claw a face. This thought disturbed me, but I said, manfully, "I should like, if you've no objection, to have—I should like—I should like a—"
It was useless. I couldn't say "a lock of your hair." I stammered, and the girl stared doubtfully. "Cawfy?" she suggested.
"Yes, yes," I answered, eagerly, with a breath of relief. "Coffee, of course."
The coffee was as bad as the beef. It came in a vast, thick mug, like a gallipot with a handle. It ought to have been very strong coffee, considering its thickness, but it had a flat, rather metallic taste, and a general flavour of boiled crusts.
I became convinced that the real reason of my hesitation was the fact that I had not settled how much to offer for the hair. It might look suspicious, I reflected, to offer too much, but, on the other hand, it would never do to offer too little. What was the golden mean? As I considered, a grubby, shameless boy put his head in at the door, and shouted, "Wayo, carrots! What price yer wig?"
The red-haired girl made a savage rush, and the boy danced off across the street with gestures of derision. Plainly, I couldn't make an offer at all after that. She would take it as a deliberate insult—suggested by the shout of the dirty boy. Perhaps she would make just such a savage rush at me—and what should I do then? Here the matter was settled for the present by the entrance of two coal-heavers.
For three days in succession I went to that awful eating-house, and each day I ate, or pretended to eat, just such an awful meal. I shirked the beef, but I was confronted with equally fearful bloaters—bloaters that smelt right across the street. It occurred to me, so criminal and so desperate had I grown, that I might steal enough of the girl's hair for my purpose, by the aid of a pair of pocket scissors, and so escape all difficulty. With that design I followed her quietly down the shop once or twice, making a pretence of reaching for a paper, or a mustard-pot, or the like. But that was useless. I never knew which way she would move next, and I saw no opportunity of effecting my purpose without the risk of driving the points of my scissors into her head. Indeed, if I had seen the chance, I should scarce have had the courage to snip. And once, when she turned suddenly, she looked a trifle suspicious.
I attempted to engage her in conversation, in order that I might, by easy and natural stages, approach the subject of her hair. It was not easy. She disliked hair as a subject of conversation. I began to suspect, and more than suspect, that her hair was the stock joke of the regular customers. Not a boy could pass the door singing "Her golden hair was hanging down her back" (as most of them did), but she bridled and glared. Truly, it was very awkward. But then, there was no other such hair, so far as my observation had gone, in all London, or anywhere else.
Some men have the easiest way imaginable of dropping into familiar speech with barmaids and waitresses at a moment's notice, or less. I had never cultivated the art, and now I was sorry for my neglect. Still, I might try, and I did. But somehow it was difficult to hit the right note. My key varied. A patronizingly uttered "My dear," seemed a good general standby to begin or finish a sentence; so I said: "Ah—Hannah—Hannah, my dear!"
The words startled me when I heard them—I feared my tone had scarcely the correct dignity. Hannah's red head turned, and she came across, grinning slily. "Yus?" she said, interrogatively, and still grinning.
I feared I had begun wrong. It was all very well to be condescendingly familiar with a waitress, but it would never do to allow the waitress to be familiar with me. So I said, rather severely, "Just give me a newspaper. Ah—Hannah!"
I think I hit the medium very well with the last two words. "Yus?" she said again, and now she positively leered.
"I—I meant to have given you sixpence yesterday; you're very attentive, Hannah—Hannah, my dear." (That didn't sound quite right, somehow—never mind.) "Very attentive. Here's the sixpence. Er—er—" (what in the world should I say next?) "What—er—what—" (I was desperate) "what is the latest fashion in hair?"
"Not your colour ain't," she said; "so now!" And she swung off with a toss of her red head.
I had offended her! I ought to have guessed she would take that question amiss—I was a fool. And before I could apologize a customer came in—a waggoner. I had lost another day! And Aunt Sarah was growing more and more impatient.
At last I resolved to go at the business point-blank, as I should have done at first. Plainly it was my only chance. The longer I made my approach, the more awkward I got. I had the happy thought to take a flower in my button-hole, and give it to Hannah as a peace-offering, after my unintentional rudeness of yesterday. It acted admirably, and I was glad to see a girl in her humble position so much gratified by a little attention like that. She grinned—she even blushed a little—all the while I ate that repulsive early lunch. So I seized the opportunity of her good humour, paid for the food as soon as I could, and said, with as much business-like ease as I could assume:—
"I—ah—I should like, Hannah, ah—if you don't mind—just as a—a matter of—of scientific interest, you know—scientific interest, my dear—to buy a small piece of your hair."
"'Oo ye gettin' at?" she replied, with a blush and a giggle.
"I—I'm perfectly serious," I said—and I believe I looked desperately so. "I'll give you half a sovereign for a small piece—just a lock—for purely scientific purposes, I assure you."
She giggled again, more than ever, and ogled in a way that sent cold shivers all over me. It struck me now, with a twinge of horror, that perhaps she supposed I had conceived an attachment for her, and wanted the hair as a keepsake. That would be terrible to think of. I swore inwardly that I would never come near that street again, if only I got out safely with the hair this time.
She went over into her lair, where the dirty plates were put, and presently returned with the object of my desires—a thick lump of hair rolled up in a piece of newspaper. I thrust the half-sovereign towards her, grabbed the parcel, and ran. I feared she might expect me to kiss her.
Now I had to employ another Soho jeweller, but by this time, after the red-headed waitress, no jeweller could daunt me. The pane of glass had to be lifted from the back of the brooch, the brown hair that was in it removed, and a proper quantity of the red hair substituted; and the work would be completed by the refixing of the glass and the careful smoothing down of the gold rim about it. I found a third dirty jeweller's shop, and waited while the jeweller did it all.
And now that the thing was completed, I lost no time on the way to Aunt Sarah's. I went by omnibus, and alighted a couple of streets from her house. It astonishes me, now, to think that I could have been so calm. I had never had a habit of deception, but now I had slid into it by such an easy process, and it had worked so admirably for a week or more, that it seemed quite natural and regular.
I turned the last corner, and was scarce a dozen yards from Aunt Sarah's gate, when I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned, and saw the detective who had questioned me, and everybody else, just after the robbery.
"Good morning, Mr. Simpson," he said. "Mr. Clement Simpson, I believe?"
"Yes," I said.
"Just so. Sorry to trouble you, Mr. Simpson, but I must get you to come along o' me on a small matter o' business. You needn't say anything, of course; but if you do I shall have to make a note of it, and it may be used as evidence."
What was this? I gasped, and the whole street seemed to turn round and round and over and over. Arrested! What for?
Whether I asked the question or only moved my lips silently, I don't know, but the man answered—and his voice seemed to come from a distance out of the chaos about me.
"Well, it's about that jewel-case of your aunt's, of course. Sorry to upset you, and no doubt it'll be all right, but just for the present you must come to the station with me. I won't hold you if you promise not to try any games. Or you can have a cab, if you like."
"But," I said, "but it's all a mistake—an awful mistake! It's—it's out of the question! Come and see my aunt, and she'll tell you! Pray let me see my aunt!"
"Don't mind obliging a gentleman if I can, and if you want to speak to your aunt you may, seein' it's close by, and it ain't a warrant case. But I shall have to be with you; and you'll have to come with me after, whatever she says."
I was in an awful position, and I realized it fully. Here I was with that facsimile brooch in my possession, and if it were found on me at the police-station, of course, it would be taken for the genuine article, and regarded as a positive proof that I was the thief. In the few steps to Aunt Sarah's house I saw and understood now what the police had been at. I was the person they had suspected from the beginning. Their pretence of dropping the inquiry was a mere device to throw me off my ground and lead me to betray myself by my movements. And I had been watched frequenting shady second-hand jewellery shops in Soho! And, no doubt I had been seen in the low eating-house where I might be supposed to be leaving messages for criminal associates! It was hideous. On the one side there was the chance of ruin and imprisonment for theft, and on the other the scarcely less terrible one of estranging Aunt Sarah for ever by confessing my miserable deception. Plainly I had only one way of safety—to brazen out my story of the recovery of the brooch. I was bitterly sorry, now, that I had coloured the story, so far as it had gone, quite so boldly. It had gone a good way, too, for I had been obliged to add something to it each time I saw Aunt Sarah during my operations. But I must lie through stone walls now.
I scarcely remember what Aunt Sarah said when she was told I was under arrest for the robbery. I know she broke a drawing-room chair, and had to be dragged off the floor on to the sofa by the detective and myself. But she got her speech pretty soon, and protested valiantly. It was a shameful outrage, she proclaimed, and the police were incapable fools. "While you've been doing nothing," she said, "my dear nephew has traced out the jewels and—and—"
"I've got the brooch, aunt!" I cried, for this seemed the dramatic moment. And I put it in her hand.
"I must have that, please," the detective interposed. "Do you identify it?"
"Identify it?" exclaimed Aunt Sarah, rapturously. "Of course I identify it! I'd know my Uncle Joseph's brooch among ten thousand! And his initials and his hair and all! Identify it, indeed! I should think so! And did you get it from Bludgeoning Bill himself, Clement, my dear?"
Now "Bludgeoning Bill" was the name I had given the chief ruffian of my story; rather a striking sort of name, I fancied. So I said, "Yes—yes. That's the name he's known by—among his intimates, of course. The police," (I had a vague idea of hedging, as far as possible, with the detective) "the police only know his—his other names, I believe. A—a very dangerous sort of person!"
"And did you have much of a struggle with him?" pursued Aunt Sarah, hanging on my words.
"Oh, yes—terrible, of course. That is, pretty fair, you know—er—nothing so very extraordinary." I was getting flurried. That detective would look at me so intently.
"And was he very much hurt, Clement? Any bones broken, I mean, or anything of that sort?"
"Bones? O, yes, of course—at least, not many, considering. But it serves him right, you know—serves him right, of course."
"Oh, I'm sure he richly deserved it, Clement. I suppose that was in the thieves' kitchen?"
"Yes—no, at least; no, not there. Not exactly in the kitchen, you know."
"I see; in the scullery, I suppose," said Aunt Sarah, innocently. "And to think that you traced it all from a few footsteps and a bit of cloth rag on the wall and—and what else was it, Clement?"
"A trouser button," I answered. I felt a trifle more confident here, for I had found a trouser button. "But it was nothing much—not actual evidence, of course. Just a trifle, that's all."
But here I caught the policeman's eye, and I went hot and cold. I could not remember what I had done with that trouser button of mine. Had the police themselves found it later? Was this their clue? But I nerved myself to meet Aunt Sarah's fresh questions.
"I suppose there's no chance of getting the other things?" she asked.
"No," I answered, decisively, "not the least." I resolved not to search for any more facsimiles.
"Lummy Joe told you that, I suppose?" pursued my aunt, whose memory for names was surprising. "Either Lummy Joe or the Chickaleary Boy?"
"Both," I replied, readily. "Most valuable information from both—especially Chickaleary Joe. Very honourable chap, Joe. Excellent burglar, too."
Again I caught the detective's eye, and suddenly remembered that everything I had been saying might be brought up as evidence in a court of law. He was carefully noting all those rickety lies, and presently would write them down in his pocket-book, as he had threatened! Another question or two, and I think I should have thrown up the game voluntarily, but at that moment a telegram was brought in for Aunt Sarah. She put up her glasses, read it, and let the glasses fall. "What!" she squeaked.
She looked helplessly about her, and held the telegram toward me. "I must see that, please," the detective said.
It was from the manager of the hydropathic establishment at Malvern where Aunt Sarah had been staying, and it read thus:—
"FOUND LEATHER JEWEL-CASE WITH YOUR INITIALS ON LEDGE UP CHIMNEY OF ROOM LATELY OCCUPIED HERE. PRESUME VALUABLE, SO AM SENDING ON BY SPECIAL MESSENGER."
"Why, bless me!" said Aunt Sarah, as soon as she could find speech; "bless me! I—I felt sure I'd taken it down from the chimney and put it in the trunk!" And, with her eyes nearly as wide open as her mouth, she stared blankly in my face.
Personally I saw stars everywhere, as though I had been hit between the eyes with a club. I don't remember anything distinctly after this till I found myself in the street with the detective. I think I said I preferred waiting at the police-station.
It is unnecessary to say much more, and it would be very painful to me. I know, indirectly, through the police, that the jewel-case did turn up a few hours later, with the horrible brooch, and all the other things in it, perfectly safe. Aunt Sarah had put it up the chimney for safety at Malvern—just the sort of thing she would do—and made a mistake about bringing it away, that was all. There it had stayed for more than a week before it had been discovered, while Aunt Sarah was urging me to deception and fraud. That was some days ago, and I have not seen her since; I admit I am afraid to go. I see no very plausible way of accounting for those two brooches with the initials and the red hair—and no possible way of making them both fit with the thrilling story of Bludgeoning Bill and the thieves' kitchen. What am I to do?
But I have not told all yet. This is the letter I have received from Honoria Prescott, in the midst of my perplexities:—
"Sir,—I inclose your ring, and am sending your other presents by parcel delivery. I desire to see no more of you. And though I have been so grossly deceived, I confess that even now I find it difficult to understand your extraordinary taste for waitresses at low eating-houses. Fortunately my mother's kitchen-maid happens to be a relative of Hannah Dobbs, and it was because she very properly brought to my notice a letter which she had received from that young person that I learnt of your scandalous behaviour. I inclose the letter itself, that you may understand the disgust and contempt with which your conduct inspires me.—Your obedient servant,
The lamentable scrawl which accompanied this letter I have copied below—at least the latter part of it, which is all that relates to myself:—
"Lore Jane i have got no end of a yung swel after me now and no mistake. quite the gent he is with a torl hatt and frock coat and spats and he comes here every day and eats what i know he dont want all for love of me and he give me ½ a soffrin for a lock of my hare to day and rushed off blushin awful he has bin follerin me up and down the shop that loving for days, and presents of flowers that beautiful, and his name is Clement Simpson i got it off a letter he pulled out of his pocket one day he is that adgertated i think he is a friend of your missise havent i hurd you say his name but I do love him that deer so now no more from yours afexntely,
Again I ask any charitable person with brains less distracted than my own—What am I to do? I wonder if Mr. Finch will give me an appointment as tract-distributor to the Esquimaux?
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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