Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 2

The Pickpocket’s Leavings

IT was shortly after my eleventh birthday that I conceived a really brilliant idea. It was generated by a card in the shop window of our medical attendant, Dr. Pope (in those days, doctors practising in humble neighbourhoods used to keep what were euphemistically described as “Open Surgeries”, but which were, in effect, druggists’ shops), bearing the laconic announcement, “Boy wanted.” I looked at the card and debated earnestly the exact connotation of the word “wanted”. It was known to me that some of my schoolfellows contrived to pick up certain pecuniary trifles by delivering newspapers before school hours or doing small jobs in the evenings. Was it possible that the boy wanted by Dr. Pope might thus combine remunerative with scholastic industry? There would be no harm in enquiring.

I entered, and, finding the Doctor secretly compounding medicine in a sort of hiding-place at the end of the counter, proceeded to state my case without preamble.

The Doctor put his head round the corner and surveyed me somewhat disparagingly.

“You’re a very small boy,” he remarked.

“Yes, sir,” I admitted, “but I am very strong for my size.”

He didn’t appear much impressed by this, but proceeded to enquire:

“Did Mrs. Gollidge tell you to apply?”

“No, sir,” I replied, “it’s my own idea. You see, sir, I’ve been rather an expense to Aunt Judy — Gollidge, I mean — and I thought that if I could earn a little money, it would be useful.”

“A very proper idea, too,” said the Doctor, apparently more impressed by my explanation than by my strength. “Very well. Come round this evening when you leave school. Come straight here, and you can have some tea, and then you can take a basket of medicine and see how you get on with it. I expect you will find it a bit heavy.”

“It will get lighter as I go on, sir,” said I; on which the Doctor smiled quite pleasantly, and, having admonished me to be punctual, retired to his hiding-place, and I departed in triumph.

But the Doctor’s prediction turned out to be only too correct; for when I lifted the deep basket, stacked with bottles of medicine, I was rather shocked by its weight and had to remind myself of my own prediction that the weight would be a diminishing quantity. That was an encouraging reflection. Moreover, there had been agreeable preliminaries in the form of a Gargantuan tea, including a boiled egg and marmalade, provided by Mrs. Stubbs, the Doctor’s fat and jovial housekeeper. So I hooked the basket boldly on my arm — and presently shifted it to the other one — and set forth on my round, consulting the written list provided for me and judiciously selecting the nearest addresses to visit first and thereby lighten the basket for the more distant ones.

Still, there was no denying that it was heavy work for a small boy, and when I had made a second round with a fresh consignment, I felt that I had had enough for one day; and when I returned the empty basket, I was relieved to learn that there was nothing more to deliver.

“Well,” said the Doctor as I handed in the basket, “how did you get on?”

“All right, thank you, sir,” I replied, “but I think it would be easier if I put rather less in the basket and made more journeys.”

The Doctor smiled approvingly. “Yes,” he agreed, “that’s quite a sensible idea. Give your legs a bit more to do and save your arms. Very well; you think you can do the job?”

“I am sure I can, sir, and I should like to.”

“Good,” said he. “The pay will be three and sixpence a week. That suit you?”

It seemed to me an enormous sum, and I agreed gleefully; which closed the transaction and sent me homewards rejoicing and almost oblivious of my fatigue.

A further reward awaited me when I arrived home. Aunt Judy, it is true, had professed disapproval of the arrangement as interfering with my “schooling”; but the substantial hot supper seemed more truly to express her sentiments. It recognized my new status as a working man and my effort to pull my weight in the family boat.

The next day’s work proved much less arduous, for I put my plan into operation by sorting out the bottles into groups belonging to particular localities, and thus contrived never to have the basket more than half full. This brought the work well within my powers, so that the end of the day found me no more than pleasantly tired; and the occupation was not without its interest, to say nothing of the dignity of my position as a wage-earner. But the full reward of my industry came when, returning home on Saturday night, I was able to set down my three shillings and sixpence on the kitchen table before Aunt Judy, who was laying the supper. The little heap of silver coins, a florin, a shilling, and a sixpence, made a quite impressive display of wealth. I looked at it with proud satisfaction — arid also with a certain wistful curiosity as to whether any of that wealth might be coming my way. I had faint hopes of the odd sixpence, and watched a little anxiously as Aunt Judy spread out the heap with a considering air. Eventually, she picked up the florin and the sixpence, and, pushing the shilling towards me, suddenly put her arm round my neck and kissed me.

“You’re a good boy, Nat,” said she; and as she released me and dropped the money in her pocket, I picked up my shilling and turned away to hide the tears that had started to my eyes. Aunt Judy was not a demonstrative woman; but, like many undemonstrative persons, could put a great deal of meaning into a very few words. Half a dozen words and a kiss sweetened my labours for many a day thereafter.

My peregrinations with the basket had, among other effects, that of widening the range of my knowledge of the geography of London. In my early days that knowledge was limited to the few streets that I traversed on my way to and from school, to certain quiet back waters in which one could spin tops at one’s convenience or play games without undue interruption, and certain other quiet streets in which one was likely to find the street entertainer: the acrobat, the juggler, the fire-eater, or, best of all, the Punch and Judy show.

But now the range of my travels coincided with that of Dr. Pope’s practice and led me far beyond the limits of the familiar neighbourhood; and quite pleasant these explorations were, for they brought me into new streets with new shops in them which provided new entertainment. I think shops were more interesting then than they are in these days of mass-production and uniformity, particularly in an old-fashioned neighbourhood where the crafts were still flourishing. A special favourite was Wardour Street, with its picture-frame makers, its antique shops filled with wonderful furniture and pictures and statuettes and gorgeous clocks.

But the shop that always brought me to a halt was that of M. Chanot, the violin-maker, which had, hanging on the door-jamb by way of a trade sign, a gigantic bow (or fiddlestick, as I should have described it). It was stupendous. As I gazed at it with the fascination that the juvenile mind discovers in things gigantic or diminutive, my imagination strove to picture the kind of fiddle that could be played with it and the kind of Titan who could have held the fiddle. And then, as a foil to its enormity, there hung in the window an infant violin, a “kit” such as dancing — masters were wont to carry in the skirt pockets of their ample frock-coats.

A few doors from M. Chanot’s was the shop of a second-hand bookseller which was also one of the attractions of the street; for it was from the penny and twopenny boxes that my modest library was chiefly recruited, On the present occasion, having paid my respects to the Lilliputian fiddle and the Brobdingnagian bow, I passed on to see what treasures the boxes had to offer. Naturally, I tried the penny box first as being more adapted to my financial resources. But there was nothing in it which specially attracted me; whereupon I turned my attention to the twopenny box.

Now, if I were disposed to moralize, I might take this opportunity to reflect on the momentous consequences which may emerge from the most insignificant antecedents. For my casual rooting about in the twopenny box started a train of events which profoundly influenced my life in two respects, and in one so vitally that, but for the twopenny box, this story could never have been written.

I had turned over nearly all the contents of the box when from the lowest stratum I dredged up a shabby little volume the spine of which bore in faded gold lettering the title, “Clocks and Locks; Denison.” The words instantly rivetted my attention. Shifting the basket to free both my hands, I opened the book at random and was confronted by a beautiful drawing of the interior of a common house-clock, clearly displaying the whole mechanism. It was a wonderful drawing. With fascinated eyes I pored over it, com paring it rapidly with the well-remembered Dutch clock at home and noting new and unfamiliar features. Then I turned over the leaves and discovered other drawings of movements and escapements on which I gazed in rapture. I had never supposed that there was such a book in the world.

Suddenly I was assailed by a horrible doubt. Had I got twopence? Here was the chance of a lifetime; should I have to let it slip? Putting the basket down on the ground, I searched feverishly through my pockets; but search as I might even in the most unlikely pockets, the product amounted to no more than a single penny. It was an awful predicament. I had set my heart on that book, and the loss of it was a misfortune that I shuddered to contemplate. Yet there was the grievous fact; the price of the book was two pence and I had only a penny.

Revolving this appalling situation, I thought of a possible way out of the difficulty. Leaving my basket on the pavement (a most reprehensible thing to do; but no one wants to steal medicine, and there were only three bottles left), I stepped into the shop with the book in my hand and deferentially approached the book-seller, a stuffy-looking elderly man.

“I want to buy this book, sir,” I explained, timorously, “but it is twopence, and I have only got a penny. Will you keep it for me if I leave the penny as a deposit? I hope you will, sir. I very much want to have the book.”

He looked at me curiously, and, taking the little volume from me, glanced at the title and then turned over the leaves.

“Clocks, hey,” said he. “Know anything about clocks?

“Not much, sir,” I replied, “but I should like to learn some more.”

“Well,” said he, “you’ll know all about them when you have read that book; but it is stiffish reading for a boy.”

He handed it back to me, and I laid my penny on it and put it down on the counter.

“I will try to call for it this evening, sir,” said I, “and pay the other penny; and you’ll take great care of it, sir, won’t you?

My earnestness seemed to amuse him, but his smile was a kindly and approving smile.

“You can take it away with you,” said he, “and then you will make sure of it.”

Tears of joy and gratitude rose to my eyes, so that I had nearly taken up the penny as well as the book. I thanked him shyly but warmly and, picking up the precious volume, went out with it in my hand. But even now I paused to take another look at my treasure before resuming charge of the neglected basket. At length I bestowed the book in my pocket, and, returning to my proper business, took up the basket and was about to sort out the remaining three bottles when I made a most surprising discovery. At the bottom of the basket, beside the bottles, lay a leather wallet. I gazed at it in astonishment. Of course, it was not mine, and I had not put it there, nor, I was certain, had it been there when I went into the shop. Some one must have put it in during my short absence. But why should anyone present me with a wallet? It could hardly have been dropped into the basket by accident; but yet — I picked it out and examined it curiously, noting that it had an elastic band to keep it closed but that nevertheless it was open. Then I ventured to inspect the inside, but, beyond a few stamps and a quantity of papers, it seemed to contain nothing of interest to me. Besides, it was not mine. I was still puzzling over it when I became aware of a policeman approaching down the street in company with a short, wrathful looking elderly gentleman who appeared to be talking excitedly while the constable listened with an air of resignation. Just as they reached me, the gentleman caught sight of the wallet and immediately rushed at me and snatched it out of my hand.

“Here you are, Constable,” he exclaimed, “here is the stolen property and here is the thief, taken red-handed.”

“Red-handed be blowed,” said the constable. “You said just now that you saw the man run away, and you’ve led me a dance a-chasing him. You had better see if there is anything missing.”

But the wrathful gentleman had already seen that there was.

“Yes!” he roared, “there were three five-pound notes, and they’re gone! Stolen! Fifteen pounds! But I’ll have satisfaction. I give this young villain in charge. Perhaps he has the notes on him still. We’ll have him searched at the station.”

“Now, now,” said the constable, soothingly, “don’t get excited, sir. Softly, softly, you catch the monkey. You said that you saw the man run off.”

“So I did; but, of course, this young rascal is a confederate, and I give him in charge.”

“Wait a minute, sir. Let’s hear what he’s got to say. Now, young shaver, tell us how you came by that pocket-book.”

I described the circumstances, including my absence in the shop, and the constable, having listened patiently, went in and verified my statement by questioning the bookseller.

“There, sir, you see,” said he when he came out, “it’s quite simple. The pickpocket fished the notes out of your wallet and then, as he was making off, he looked for some place where he could drop the empty case out of sight, and there was this boy’s basket with no one looking after it, just the very place he wanted. So he dropped it in as he passed. Wouldn’t have done to drop it in the street where some one might have seen it and run after him to give it back.”

The angry gentleman shook his head. “I can’t accept that,” said he. “It’s only a guess, and an unlikely one at that.”

“But,” the constable protested, “it’s what they always do: drop the empty purses or pocket-books in a doorway or a dark corner or post them in pillar-boxes — anywhere to get the incriminating stuff out of sight. It’s common sense.”

But the gentleman was obdurate. “No, no,” he persisted, “that won’t do. The common sense of it is that I found this boy with the stolen property in his possession, and I insist on giving him in charge.”

The constable was in a dilemma, but he was a sensible man and he made the best of it. “Well, sir,” he said, “if you insist, I suppose we must walk round to the station and report the affair. But I can tell you that the inspector won’t take the charge.”

“He’ll have to,” retorted the other, “when I have made my statement.”

The constable looked at him sourly and then turned to me almost apologetically.

“Well, sonny,” said he, “you’ll have to come along to the station and see what the inspector has to say.”

“Can’t I deliver my medicines first?” I pleaded. “The people may be wanting them, and there are only three bottles.”

The policeman grinned but evidently appreciated my point of view, for he replied, still half-apologetically: “You’re quite right, my lad, but I don’t suppose they’ll be any the worse for a few minutes more without their physic, and the station is quite handy. Come, now; step out.”

But even now the irate gentleman was not satisfied.

“Aren’t you going to hold him so that he doesn’t escape?” he demanded.

Then, for the first time, the patient constable showed signs of temper. “No, sir,” he replied, brusquely, “I am not going to drag a respectable lad through the streets as if he had committed a crime when I know he hasn’t.”

That settled the matter, and we walked on with the manner of a family party. But it was an uncomfortable experience To a boy of my age, a police station is a rather alarming sort of place; and the fact that I was going to be charged with a robbery was a little disturbing. However, the constable’s attitude was reassuring, and, as we traversed Great Marlborough Street and at last entered the grim doorway, I was only moderately nervous.

The proceedings were, as my constabulary friend had foreseen, quite brief. The policeman made his concise report to the inspector, I answered the few questions that the officer asked, and the gentleman made his statement, incriminating me.

“Where did the robbery take place?” the inspector asked.

“In Berwick Street,” was the reply. “I was leaning over a stall when I felt myself touched, and then a man moved away quickly through the crowd; and then I missed my wallet and gave chase.”

“You were leaning over a stall,” the inspector repeated. “Now, how on earth did he get at your wallet?”

“It was in my coat-tail pocket,” the gentleman explained.

“In your coat-tail pocket!” the inspector repeated, incredulously; “with fifteen pounds in it, and you leaning over a stall in a crowded street! Why, sir, it was a free gift to a pickpocket.”

“I suppose I can carry my wallet where I please,” the other snapped.

“Certainly you can — at your own risk. Well, I can’t accept the charge against this boy. There is no evidence; in fact, there isn’t even any suspicion. It would be only wasting the magistrate’s time. But I will take the boy’s name and address and make a few inquiries. And I will take yours too and let you know if anything transpires.”

He took my name and address (and my accuser made a note of them), and that, so far as I was concerned, finished the business. I took up my basket and went forth a free boy in company with my friend the police man. In Great Marlborough Street we parted, he to return to his beat, and I to the remainder of my round of deliveries.

So ended an incident that had, at one time, looked quite threatening. And yet it had not really ended. Perhaps no incident ever does truly end. For every antecedent begets consequences. Coming events cast their shadows before them; but those shadows usually remain invisible until the events which have cast them have, themselves, come into view. Indeed, it befalls thus almost from necessity; for how can a shadow be identified otherwise than by comparison with the substance?

But I shall not here anticipate the later passages of my story. The consequences will emerge in their proper place. I may, however, refer briefly to the more immediate reactions, though these also had their importance later. The little book which I had purchased (and paid for the same evening) was a treatise on clocks and locks by that incomparable master of horology and mechanism, Edmund Beckett Denison (later to be known as Lord Grimthorpe). It was an invaluable book, and it became my chiefest treasure. Carefully wrapped in a protective cover of brown paper, the precious volume was henceforth my constant companion. The abstruse mathematical sections I had regretfully to pass over, but the descriptive parts were read and reread until I could have recited them from memory. Even the drawings of the Great Westminster Clock, which had at first appeared so bewildering, became intelligible by repeated study, and the intricacies of gravity escapements and maintaining powers grew simple by familiarity.

Thus did the revered E. B. Denison add a new delight to my life. Not only was every clock-maker’s window a thing of beauty and a provider of quiet pleasure, but an object so lowly as the lock of the scullery door — detached by Uncle Sam and by me carefully dismembered — was made to furnish an entertainment compared with which even the Punch and Judy show paled into insignificance.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06