SIR JOSEPH BOSLEY, Bart., of Garton Street and eke Marley Grange, in the County of Kent, and some time of the diplomatic service, was taking one of his morning ambles in the direction of Campden Hill prior to an hour at his club, the Senior Forum. He was a most amiable old gentleman, beautifully spatted and upholstered, rosy as the sunny side of a pippin, and exuding bland amiability from every pore of his clean little body. That he was spoken of in his club as a man breaking up fast and a victim of senile decay troubled him not at all, for the simple reason that he did not know it; but he was vague and absent-minded to a degree, and accordingly a mark for all the artists in the craft of "tale pitching" within a mile of his town residence. He wore no watch for the simple reason that on one occasion a predatory craftsman had by chance fenced for an opening towards the "tale" by asking if Sir Joseph would kindly "give him the time," whereupon he had found himself presented with a quite valuable watch in Sir Joseph's best mental-dementia manner, since when his daughter Patricia had made it her business to see that he carried no timepiece.
He doddered on at peace with all mankind until he reached the gates of Eversdene House, the property of Lord Eversdene, a nobleman with whom he was not on particularly good terms owing to some rather ridiculous dispute over a boundary fence down in Kent, which ran between the properties of the respective protagonists, a dispute that caused a great deal of uneasiness to his lordship's heir and nephew, Kenyon Waldron, and Sir Joseph's daughter Patricia. Not that there had been any open rupture, but Lord Eversdene had made unpleasant remarks on the budding romance, and had hinted at all sorts of things if his successor married into a family showing symptoms of congenital insanity. He could not will away the title or the Kent property, but he could otherwise dispose of the bulky fortune he had inherited from his late spouse; and therefore, it behoved young Kenyon, like Agag, to walk delicately.
But nothing of this was disturbing the pink serenity or Sir Joseph as he paused before the big iron gates. The sudden sight of a placard bearing the legend "On View" brought him up all standing, and the recollection that his lordship was disposing of the property in response to a tempting offer from a firm of speculative builders slowly trickled through the grey matter of his absent-mindedness. In the course of a week or two everything in the house would be sold; meanwhile intended purchasers were free to inspect the goods by ticket, which fact did not deter Sir Joseph from passing beyond the iron gates. A policeman, recognising a distinguished local inhabitant, touched his helmet, and Sir Joseph passed on into the house.
It was all quite familiar, just as it had been in the old days before the unfortunate misunderstanding about the boundary fence. A few people of the better class wandered more or less aimlessly round with catalogues in their hands. In an inner room Sir Joseph found himself presently bending attentively over a small collection of curios spread out on long tables supported by trestles. On these he browsed ruminatively until his absent eye lighted upon a small brass box, in which was an oval object packed in cotton wool, and held in place by little points of india-rubber. It might have been a remarkably fine specimen of the ova of the common or garden hen mottled and splashed in some idle moment, but inside the lid a label neatly printed proclaimed the fact that here was the egg of that extinct fowl the Little Auk, and that the specimen in question had been captured in the year 1851 somewhere in the Hebrides.
"Ah! Remarkable! So it is!" Sir Joseph muttered. "Used to collect birds' eggs myself when a boy. Remember reading about the Little Auk. Worth £100, perhaps more. Dear me."
He placed the specimen down on the edge of the table and ambled away oblivious to the fact that the box had slipped to the floor and, falling, the lid had closed. One of those fussy strangers who appear to be ubiquitous at such gatherings hurried after Sir Joseph with the box in his hand.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, "but I think you have dropped something. It seemed to fall from your pocket."
"Eh, bless my soul, did it?" Sir Joseph cried. "Very likely, very likely, always dropping things from my pocket. Must have done it pulling out my handkerchief. Very kind of you, sir."
In his dreamiest fashion Sir Joseph thrust the brass box under the tails of his immaculate morning coat and passed on. That he was stealing a curiosity of value and rarity he did not realize for a moment. He had already forgotten that there was such a thing as a Little Auk's egg on the face of creation.
He wandered on in a misty, kindly world of his own until, without in the least knowing how he got there, he arrived at his club and pottered into the reading room. The room was almost empty, but fortunately The Times was disengaged. Sir Joseph grabbed it and sank into the depths of a big armchair. The brass box in the coat tail pocket made its presence felt. Sir Joseph sat up with a jolt and proceeded to remove the offending object, which he placed on the table by his side.
"Now how on earth did that get there?" he murmured. "And where did it come from. However??"
With that he forgot the strange incident altogether. He was walking off presently, suddenly conscious of a desire for lunch, when a fellow clubman who had watched the whole incident came after him with a humorous smile on his face and the brass box in his hand.
"A small present for you, Bosley," he said. "I had intended giving it you for some little time. An egg the Little Auk. As an old collector of birds' eggs perhaps??"
Sir Joseph rose just as the licensed club joker imagined he would, knowing the other's absent-mindedness.
"Now that is kind of you, Jorkins, very kind," Sir Joseph cried excitedly. "A Little Auk's egg. Really! Funny, but I seem to have seen another one quite recently. I wonder where."
"South Kensington, probably," Jorkins said solemnly.
"Ah, of course, of course, though I don't remember being there for years. Memory, Jorkins, memory. What a blessing it is."
The romance of the Little Auk's egg would probably have ended there and then save as a club joke but for the fact that for the second time the flattered recipient placed it in his coat tail pocket and once again it made its presence felt as Sir Joseph sat down to lunch with his daughter Patricia. That highly desirable divinity in pink and white with the eyes of heavenly blue and the charming dimples in her peach-like cheeks was none the less dutiful a child because she knew her father and his little ways, and when he started with a painful "ouch" and dived into his pocket to produce the little brass box she quietly waited developments.
"What is that and where did you get it from?" she asked.
Sir Joseph stared at the box with the air of a man suddenly confronted with the evidence of a crime.
"Now, where did I get it from?" he asked himself vaguely. "My dear child, I haven't the faintest? Oh, yes, of course, how stupid I am. Do you know, Pat, there are times when I begin to fear that my memory is not all it was; in fact??"
"Where did you get it from?" Patricia asked inflexibly.
Sir Joseph's eye beamed on her with mild innocence and no consciousness of a hairsbreath from the paths of rectitude. Like most men of his type, he could be rashly obstinate at times, witness the tragedy of the boundary fence in which he was utterly in the wrong, and all the more obdurate in consequence. He was in the habit of coming home with these unconsidered trifles, and much diplomacy was needed to avoid scandalous consequences.
"I was just going to tell you," he said. "Jorkins gave it to me in the club. An egg of that extinct bird the Little Dodo. No, the Great Auk. Ticha, Little Auk. Most valuable curio, and just the thing for my museum."
In the the back drawing room Sir Joseph had a collection of nice-looking rubbish which he was pleased to call his museum, but beyond a set of Apostle spoons of dubious antiquity the rest was beneath contempt. And even those species he would have entirely forgotten long since save for the fact that he was in daily contact with them. He knew that his name was Bosley and that he was a baronet, because his equals and dependants frequently reminded him of the fact, and he was aware of the fact that he was a landowner with a respectable rent roll, since he employed a secretary who did not allow him to forget, but in all probability within a week, if any one asked him a question about Little Auks' eggs, he would have enquired what a Little Auk was. Patricia, however, was interested in the dusky shell and its brief biography, and it was she who placed it in the litter of rubbish that constituted the museum. All the same, she was not altogether easy in her mind, and she mentioned the subject to Kenyon Waldron when he dropped in for tea two days later.
"Dad has added to his museum," she smiled. "It was given him by a man called Jorkins at the Forum Club."
The fortunate youth with the adoring eyes and perfectly creased trousers pricked up his ears. As a member of the Forum himself, he knew something of the sporting qualities of the club jester, so he waited with a certain curiosity.
"Something quite fresh, darling," Pat beamed. "The egg of an extinct bird called the Little Auk."
Kenyon Waldron jumped to his feet with a yell.
"Ken!" Patricia cried. "If there is a nail in that chair??"
"Nail be hanged! I beg your pardon, darling, but this is a serious matter. Fact is, the day before yesterday the very thing you mention was missed from a sort of collection in Eversdene House, and no trace of it can be found. The contents of the mansion are on view, as you know, and I am more or less supposed to be looking after things, as my uncle is in Paris. Fact is, he hated to part with the place after all these centuries, and went to Paris to be out of the way until the sale of the furniture was over. But an egg of the Little Auk is missing, and the matter was put into the hands of the police yesterday. Nothing public, of course, but I feel it in my bones that Sir Joseph is at the bottom of it."
"You think that he sto—took it, dear?"
"'Fraid so. Thing's, unique, you know. None in existence outside museums. What infernal luck, darling. That dad of yours must have pottered into the house, attracted by the notice of the private view, and in one of his absent fits put the egg into his pocket. Where that funny ass Jorkins comes in dashed if I can see. I'll go round to the club presently and pump him cautiously. But, anyhow, if this gets to the ears of my uncle it will be all over so far as we are concerned. Let's have a look at the thing."
It needed no more than a glance to convince Waldron that the little brass box contained the missing treasure.
"Now what on earth's to be done," he asked forlornly.
"It's dreadful," Patricia sighed. "Of course, you might take the egg away with you, but dad is sure to miss it, at any rate, for the next week or two, before he forgets all about it, and there would be a great fuss and the servants would be suspected. Dad can be quite nasty when the mood is on him, and I hate the idea of having to tell, well, downright lies to him. And if he was told what he had done pointblank, it would break his heart. He would never get over it. He hasn't the least idea that he does these sort of things, and the truth would prevent his ever appearing in public again. Is it possible that that horrid Mr. Jorkins was playing a practical joke on dad? A man with a name like that might."
"Oh, Jorkins is by no means a bad chap," Kenyon said, judicially. "However, I shall have to see him in the matter. If I go now I shall probably catch him before he starts his afternoon bridge. If I do, I will come back at once."
As luck would have it, the genial joker was still full of his little jeu d'esprit, and Waldron was able to get full particulars without having to ask for them. He returned presently to the beloved object in a properly chastened frame of mind.
"So that's that," he said, moodily. "Dashed if I know what to do. We must restore the egg somehow before my uncle comes back, or Lord knows what will happen. And I'd hate Sir Joseph to suffer; also, I'd hate for you to have to tell him a lot of lies. At the end of a week, according to what you say, the dear old man would forget he ever had the egg if it disappeared in a way that seemed natural. There must be some way, Pat, dear."
"I'm sure I don't see one," Pat said, despairingly, "unless some providential burglar comes along and clears out the museum. Ken! Oh, Ken! Why shouldn't we have a burglary here?"
"What, a real one?" Waldron cried. "Do you know any burglars who would take the job on with a commission? Got one on your visiting list, by any chance?"
"Don't be absurd." Patricia flashed a glorious April smile behind something suspiciously like tears. "But what about your friend Roger Pennington, the novelist? He knows all sorts of queer people. His last book was all about that class. And didn't he have a burglar in his section when he was serving in France?"
"True, oh queen," Waldron said. "But if we take on this mad stunt Pennington will have to be told the truth."
"Well, why not? Roger Pennington is a gentleman, and one of ourselves. Don't you see that there is no other way, Ken, darling."
Now youth is ever sanguine and ever daring, and not over prone to discount the tricks of fate. Moreover, the virus of adventure is as quicksilver in its veins.
"It would be rather a lark," Waldron said with enthusiasm. "Anyway, I'll see Pennington and ask him."
That somewhat erratic genius Roger Pennington was a scion of the older nobility who had developed an intellect, to the utter astonishment of his progenitors, so instead of going into the church and propping up a family living or starving genteelly in the army, he had adopted the profession of a novelist and done exceedingly well at it with his works of pathos and humour depicting the lives as lived in the underworld. A brief hiatus between 1914-18 had seen him elsewhere in a humble capacity as a section commander, and he held that the time had not been wasted. Now he was back again in London, where he had picked up the broken threads, and his novels were selling by the thousand. He spent a great part of his time in lodgings down Wapping way, where he had a room, and mixed freely with the proletariat in picturesque rags; and, when not engaged in that congenial occupation, he pervaded a flat in Pont street, and it was here that Waldron ran him to earth.
He listened to the tale of woe languidly at first; then he threw off his inertia and proclaimed the fact that he could see a dashed fine short story in the offing. Also, he was quite prepared to take a hand in the adventure.
"I've got the very man you want," he said eagerly. "Chap named Spragster—Reuben Spragster. Once a burglar, and a jolly good burglar, too. He's out of business now, and, I believe, in a regular job, though I haven't seen him for months. He was in my section over yonder, and I had lots of yarns with him, and he provided me with no end of stunning 'copy.' When the shindy was over I persuaded him to drop what he called 'the aside game' and try a little honesty. But if he knew that this was a put-up job requiring an appearance of the genuine artist at work involving no risks, I fancy he would take it on for a tenner. I'll see Spragster if you like."
Waldron assented with marked enthusiasm. Mr. Reuben Spragster was found by Pennington after a long search evidently suffering from severe commercial depression. He had been out of a (sanguinary) job for five weeks and was seriously thinking of going back to the old love if only to keep him on the sunny side of the workhouse.
There was nothing of the Cockney about Spragster. He was a little red man with a west-country accent and in the happy past he had been assistant to a father who lived in a fashionable village of the old thatched type, where the progenitor had made for a long time a handsome living selling spurious antique furniture to guileless tourists, mostly of transatlantic extraction. A particularly bold forgery on the grand scale had resulted in a prosecution, and Spragster pere had paid a penalty which occupied him five years, so that the once flourishing business wilted, and Reuben Spragster drifted to London, and there fell into evil courses. His line was antiques, particularly old silver, of which he possessed a considerable knowledge, and, moreover, he knew where to dispose of it.
"I'm broke to the wide, Guvnor, I mean Captain," he explained. "There ain't no bouquets in this 'ere straight path as you put me an to, and if a cully 'adn't offered me a sort of shop in New York I'd been back at the old game again. However, if you got somethin' on as 'ul 'elp in the pasage money, chuck it off yer chest."
"These are bad times for all of us," Pennington said. "Even we authors are reduced to taking in one another's ideas, the same as a certain community was supposed to support existence by taking in each other's washing."
"Like them there politicians," Spragster grinned, "alias stealin' the policy of the other side."
"Assimilate, I think, is the proper word," Pennington delicately suggested. "It sounds so much better." Spragster grinned his appreciation of the point, for he was a whimsical rascal. "I gather, Cpl. Spragster, that you need money, and, moreover, are not daintily particular how you get it."
Almost passionately Spragster assured his visitor that he had not exaggerated the case. But now that it came to the point Pennington hesitated. He was not quite to sure that this jeu d'esprit was going to make the ripping story he had anticipated. In the first place, he had to guarantee Spragster immunity, and, if matters did go wrong, he couldn't see how he was going to do that without a public explanation, in which case an unfeeling press would have the humorous story and not the chief propagandist—himself. A flaming article, entitled, for instance, "Strange Conduct of a Novelist," did not make a strong appeal to him, and for the first time he was regretting that he had not devoted his ingenious mind to a solution of the problem in some fashion that did not involve this attempt to sap the comparatively tender morality of a converted burglar. But, on the other hand, the thing was pressing, and if the fateful egg was not in its place before Lord Eversdene returned from Paris two lives would be wrecked. Moreover, Pennington had made rather a careful study of Sir Joseph Bosley and his little ways, and if the egg had simply been removed by Waldron or his inamorata a wholesale sacking of the servants would probably follow, for Sir Joseph was given to those impulsive outbreaks which is the way with mild absent-minded people sometimes. But if was too late to draw back now, and Pennington proceeded to unfold the story.
"Twenty pounds," he said. "That is the sum we can give you. In the back drawing room of Sir Joseph Bosley's house, in Garton street, Kensington, you will find a little box containing a bird's egg. 'Only that and nothing more,' as the poet says. That you will procure and leave at my rooms the same day, when I shall hand you what is picturesquely called the boodle. The number of the house is 16. Everything will be made as easy as possible for you, and you will find the area door none too secure. But you must give the thing an artistic finish, so that if the police are called in by any chance they will regard it as the work of a professional. You see it's a sort of practical joke, and if you do get into trouble I shall be prepared to come forward and speak for you. What do you say to tackling the job to-morrow night?"
"Guvnor," Spragster said, almost tearfully, "I'm on."
Sir Joseph sat on the side of his bed ruminating in that rambling way of his instead of getting into bed and sleeping like any other old gentleman with a clear conscience and the solid respect of his bankers. A wandering mind like his rarely concentrated on any disturbing subject did not call for such sleep, and therefore ruminating in his bedroom for hours after the household had retired had become a fixed habit known to nobody but himself.
At 1 o'clock he was still sitting there with the egg of the Little Auk uppermost in what was by courtesy his mind. He was quite vaguely aware as to where he was, then, by some queer mental process he became aware of his bed and proceeded to rise and brush his teeth. The sudden jolt of the brush on a gum where undoubtedly a tooth ought to have been brought him to a certain degree of coherent consciousness. The molar with its gold plate was missing. Most assuredly that specimen of dental artistry had been performing its accustomed function at dinner time or Sir Joseph would have known it. But what had become of it? Annoying, most annoying.
Sir Joseph proceeded to put a powerful strain on his memory. It was painful, but the thing had to be done. Then the inspiration came. He had been sitting in the inner drawing-room pottering over his treasures when he had noticed a sort of swelling in the region of the gums behind the gold plate. He had removed the impediment and placed it on a table where it lay entirely forgotten.
"Must go and get it, go and get it," Sir Joseph muttered. "Not a nice thing for the servants to find in the morning."
He crept quietly down the stairs in his bedroom slippers and felt his way into the drawing-room with the ease of a man who knows his way in the dark. The door of the inner room was ajar and from it came a long slit of light. As if this were quite a customary thing at an hour when the household slept, Sir Joseph pushed his way in. He saw a small figure with a flaming mop of hair bending over the large table which held what Sir Joseph called his treasures, and in the act of slipping something in his pocket. The brass box containing the precious egg was not to be seen. But Sir Joseph was not interested in that. He was wondering who this man was and what the dickens he was doing there.
"My good fellow," he said, blandly, "what is the meaning of this unexpected visit? Surely you are in the wrong house. Unless, perhaps it is the telephones. But you don't look like telephones."
Reuben Spragster said something lurid under his breath. This most emphatically was not what he had expected in the way of treatment. The ingress had been easy enough and the subsequent progress to the drawing-room presented no difficulties, but he had not been prepared to encounter one who obviously was the master of the house in the initial, or indeed any other, stage of the proceedings. Still, the idea of a "plant" was out of the question, and Spragster, conscious of the strength of the position, began to see his way. He was a humorous rascal and the situation had possibilities. Moreover "mug" was written in large letters all over the little mild-eyed gentleman in the striped silk pyjamas.
"I'm a bit of a collector like yourself, guvnor," he said. "Born and bred to it like my father, only we used to sell what we found. Poor lot of stuff you got 'ere."
"Bless my soul," Sir Joseph cried, "you're a burglar."
He appeared quite pleased with his own astuteness.
"I'm afraid that I shall have to hand you over to the police," he went on. "Bless my soul, I never had occasion to do anything of the kind before. Regrettable, most regrettable. Ah!"
He gave a gasp of relief as he noted the missing molar and, making a dart, placed it in his mouth. Spragster began to understand the reason for this unfortunate interruption. Nice thing for people to go shedding their teeth about in this fashion. Still, there might be something to be made out of this amiable lunatic with proper handling. And Spragster was the man to do it.
"I ain't a burglar in the proper way of speakin'," he said, whiningly. "You see it's like this, sir. My father, before he got himself into trouble, was a dealer in antiques. A fine judge he were and loved them things as if they were his kids. But he did wrong and they put him away for a long stretch."
"I beg your pardon. A long stretch?"
"Yus, quod, you know, sir. So the business was broke up and I was sent into the world with no prospects. And me as dead set on them pretty things as the pore old man. Can't keep away from 'em. Can't work fer hangin' round museums. But private collections is me mark, only there's no chance for a poor bloke like me seein' of 'em. So I 'its upon this stunt. Sort o' burglary when the coves as owns the stuff are asleep. Not as I does any 'arm, sir, and I never been caught afore."
"Amazing," Sir Joseph cried, "simply amazing. What a story to tell at the club. But they'll never believe me."
"——'When I tell them how wonderful you are, they'll never believe me,'" Spragster warbled under his breath thoughtfully. "Beg your pardon, sir. Now this 'ere little show of yourn——"
"Yes, yes," Sir Joseph asked eagerly. "As a judge now, come! I am a mere child in such matters."
Spragster did not in the least doubt it, and moreover, he was banking on the fact. This thing was going to be dead easy without calling on his patron, Mr. Pennington, after all.
"Punk, absolute punk, and I won't deceive yer," he said.
"Punk," the bewildered baronet cried, "what is punk?"
"Punk, junk, or chunk, it's all the same. Lord, wouldn't my old man have chucked a customer like you the glad eye. Now, I dessay as you think them Apostle spoons is O.K."
"You mean to say they are not?" Sir Joseph asked in dismay.
"Course not. Gotter a magnerfyin' glass 'andy?"
Sir Joseph had a magnifying glass handy, and produced it.
"Now look fer yerself," Spragster went on. "See them little scratches on the back? That's the mark of the bloke in Amsterdam what made 'em. Put there so as the snide dealers what sell this muck to fools like—well fools, anyway—shan't make awkward mistakes and do themselves. Take my tip and chuck this stuff in the gutter if you don't want yer pals to laugh at yer. 'Ere, I'll take the lot and bury 'em meself."
Sir Joseph was quite visibly moved. This evidence of disinterested kindness on the part of a mere stranger was almost touching.
"Greatly obliged to you, my dear sir," he murmured. "Quite right, too, quite right. Snobbish idea keeping things that are not what they appear to be, very. Now is there anything I can offer you? A glass of wine? A whisky and soda?"
Spragster was touched in his turn. He watched Sir Joseph disappear in the direction of the dining-room, then, quite firmly, he mastered his emotion, and without ostentation, vanished unobtrusively in the direction of the basement stairs. . . .
The egg of the Little Auk was back again in its original home (per Kenyon Waldron), presumably returned by the conscience-stricken thief, and once more the flowers in the garden of romance were blooming. Spragster, happy in the possession of 20 unexpected pounds, was making his simple preparations from his native shores, and Sir Joseph had entirely forgotten that such a phenomenon as the Little Auk had ever existed. And Spragster was not the least happy of the chief protagonists.
"I told him it was punk, and punk it was," he murmured, patting his breast pocket tenderly. "But them there Aspostles was a bit of all right and no error."<</p>