Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 4

The Innocent Accessory

THE ancient custom of hanging out a distinctive shop sign still struggles for existence in old — fashioned neighbourhoods. In ours there were several examples. A ham-and-beef merchant proclaimed the nature of his wares by a golden ham dangled above his shop front; a gold-beater more appropriately exhibited a golden arm wielding a formidable mallet; barbers in different streets displayed the phlebotomist’s pole with its spiral hint of blood and bandages; and Mr. Abraham announced the horologer’s calling by a large clock projecting on a bracket above his shop.

They all had their uses, but it seemed to me that Mr. Abraham’s was most to the point. For whereas the golden ham could do no more for you than make your mouth water, leaving you to seek satisfaction within, and the barber’s offer to “let blood” was a pure fiction (at least, you hoped that it was), Mr. Abraham’s sign did actually make you a free gift of the time of day. Moreover, for advertising purposes the clock was more efficient. Ham and gold leaf supply only occasional needs; but time is a commodity in constant demand. Its sign was a feature of the little street observed by all wayfarers, and thus conferred distinction on the small, antiquated shop that it surmounted.

At the door of that shop the tenant was often to be seen, looking up and down the street with placid interest and something of a proprietary air; and so I found him, refreshing himself with a pinch of snuff, when I arrived at twenty-six minutes past eight on the morning after my engagement. He received me with unexpected geniality, and, putting away the tortoise shell snuff-box and glancing up approvingly at the clock, proceeded forthwith to introduce me to the art and mystery of taking down the shutters, including the secret disposal of the padlock. The rest of the daily procedure — the cleaning of the small-paned window, the sweeping of the floor, and such dusting as was necessary — he indicated in general terms, and, having shown me where the brooms and other cleaning appliances were kept, retired to the little workshop which communicated with the retail part of the premises, seated himself at the bench, fixed his glass in his eye, and began some mysterious operations on a watch. I observed him furtively in the intervals of my work, and when I had finished, I entered the workshop for further instructions; but by that time the watch had dissolved into a little heap of wheels and plates which lay in a wooden bowl covered by a sort of glass dish-cover, and that was the last that I saw of it. For it appeared that, when not otherwise engaged, my duty was to sit on a stool behind the counter and “mind the shop”.

In that occupation, varied by an occasional errand, I spent the first day; and mighty dull I found it after the life and activity of Mr. Beeby’s establishment, and profoundly was I relieved when, at half-past eight, Mr. Abraham instructed me to put up the shutters under his supervision. As I took my way home, yawning as I went, I almost wished myself back at Beeby’s.

But it was a false alarm. The intolerable dullness of that first day was never repeated. On the following morning I took the precaution to provide myself with a book, but it was not needed; for, while I was cleaning the window, Mr. Abraham went forth, and presently returned with an excessively dirty “grandfather” clock — without its case — which he carried into the workshop and at once began to “take down” (i.e., to take to pieces). As I had finished my work, I made bold to follow him and hover around to watch the operation; and, as he did not seem to take my presence amiss, but chatted in quite a friendly way as he worked, I ventured to ask one or two questions, and meanwhile kept on the alert for a chance to “get my foot in”.

When he had finished the “taking down” and had put away the dismembered remains of the movement in a drawer, leaving the two plates and the dial on the bench, he proceeded to mix up a paste of rotten-stone and oil, and then, taking up one of the plates, began to scrub it vigorously with a sort of overgrown tooth brush dipped in the mixture. I watched him attentively for a minute or two, and then decided that my opportunity had come.

“Wouldn’t it save you time, sir, if I were to clean the other plate?” I asked.

He stopped scrubbing and looked at me in surprise. “That’s not a bad idea, Nat,” he chuckled. “Why shouldn’t you? Yes, get a brush from the drawer. Watch me and do exactly as I do.”

Gleefully, I fetched the brush and set to work, following his methods closely and observing him from time to time as the work progressed. He gave an eye to me now and again, but let me carry out the job completely, even to the final polishing and the “pegging out” of the pivot-holes with the little pointed sticks known as peg-wood. When I had finished, he examined my work critically, testing one or two of the pivot-holes with a clean peg, and finally, as he laid down the plate, informed me that I had made quite a good job of it.

That night I went home in a very different frame of mind. No longer did I yearn for Beeby’s. I realized that I had had my chance and taken it. I had got my foot in and was now free of the workshop. Other jobs would come my way and they would not all be mere plate-cleaning. I should see to that. And I did. Cautiously and by slow degrees I extended my offers of help from plates to wheels and pinions, to the bushing of worn pivot-holes and the polishing of pivots on the turns. And each time Mr. Abraham viewed me with fresh surprise, evidently puzzled by my apparent familiarity with the mechanism of clocks, and still more so by my ability to make keys and repair locks, an art of which he knew nothing at all.

Thus, the purpose that had been in my mind from the first was working out according to plan. My knowledge of the structure and mechanism of time-keepers was quite considerable. But it was only paper knowledge, book-learning. It had to be supplemented by that other kind of knowledge that can be acquired only by working at the bench, before I could hope to become a clock-maker. The ambition to acquire it had drawn me hither from Mr. Beeby’s, and now the opportunity seemed to be before me.

In fact, my way was made unexpectedly easy, for Mr. Abraham’s inclinations marched with mine. Excellent workman as he was, skilful, painstaking and scrupulously conscientious, he had no enthusiasm. As Mr. Beeby would have said, his heart was not in his trade. He did not enjoy his work, though he spared no pains in doing it well. But by nature and temperament he was a dealer, a merchant, rather than a craftsman, and it was his ability as a buyer that accounted for the bulk of his income. Hence he was by no means unwilling for me to take over the more laborious and less remunerative side of the business, in so far as I was able, for thereby he was left with more free time to devote to its more profitable aspects.

Exactly how he disposed of this free time I could never quite make out. I got the impression that he had some other interests which he was now free to pursue, having a deputy to carry on the mere retail part of the business and attend to simple repairs. But how ever that may have been, he began occasionally to absent himself from the shop, leaving me in charge; and as time went on and he found that I managed quite well without him, his absences grew more frequent and prolonged until they occurred almost daily, excepting when there were important repairs on hand. It seemed an anomalous arrangement, but there was really nothing against it. He had instructed me in the simple routine of the business, had explained the artless “secret price marks” on the stock, and ascertained (I think from Beeby) that I was honest and trustworthy, and if he was able to employ his free time more profit ably, there was nothing further to be said.

It was on the occasion of one of these absences that an incident occurred which, simple as it appeared to be at the time, was later to develop unexpected conse quences. This was one of the days on which Mr. Abraham went down into the land of Clerkenwell to make purchases of material and stock. Experience had taught me that a visit to Clerkenwell meant a day off; and, there being no repairs on hand, I made my arrangements to pass the long, solitary day as agreeably as possible. It happened that I had recently acquired an old lock of which the key was missing; and I decided to pass the time pleasantly in making a key to fit it. Accordingly, I selected from the stock of spare keys that I kept in my cupboard a lever key the pipe of which would fit the drill-pin of the lock, but of which the bit was too long to enter; and with this and a small vice and one or two tools, I went out into the shop and prepared to enjoy myself.

I had fixed the vice to the counter, taken off the front plate of the lock (it was a good but simple lock with three levers), clamped the key in the vice and was be ginning to file off the excess length of the bit, preparatory to cutting the steps, when a man entered the shop, and, sauntering up to the counter, fixed an astonished eye on the key.

“Guvnor in?” he enquired.

I replied that he was not.

“Pity,” he commented. “I’ve broke the glass of my watch. How long will he be?”

“I don’t think he will be back until the evening. But I can fit you a new glass.”

“Can you, though?” said he. “You seem to be a handy sort of bloke for your size. How old are you?”

“Getting on for fourteen,” I replied, holding out my hand for the watch which he had produced from his pocket.

“Well, I’m blowed,” said he; “fancy a blooming kid of fourteen running a business like this.”

I rather resented his description of me, but made no remark. Besides, it was probably meant as a compliment, though unfortunately expressed. I glanced at his watch, and, opening the drawer in which watch — glasses were kept, selected one of the suitable size, tried it in the bezel after removing the broken pieces, and snapped it in.

“Well, I’m sure!” he exclaimed as I returned the watch to him. “Wonderful handy cove you are. How much?”

I suggested sixpence, whereupon he fished a handful of mixed coins out of his pocket and began to sort them out. Finally he laid a sixpence on the counter and once more fixed his eyes on the vice.

“What are you doing to that lock?” he asked.

“I am making a key to fit it,” I replied.

“Are you, reely?” said he with an air of surprise. “Actooally making a key? Remarkable handy bloke you are. Perhaps you could do a little job for me. There is a box of mine what I can’t get open. Some thing gone wrong with the lock. Key goes in all right but it won’t turn. Do you think you could get it to open if I was to bring it along here?”

“I don’t know until I have seen it,” I replied. “But why not take it to a locksmith?”

“I don’t want a big job made of it,” said he. “It’s only a matter of touching up the key, I expect. What time did you say the guvnor would be back?”

“I don’t expect him home until closing time. But he wouldn’t have anything to do with a locksmith’s job, in any case.”

“No matter,” said he. “You’ll do for me. I’ll just cut round home and fetch that box”; and with this he bustled out of the shop and turned away towards Regent Street.

His home must have been farther off than he had seemed to suggest, for it was nearly two hours later when he reappeared, carrying a brown-paper parcel. I happened to see him turn into the street, for I had just received a shop dial from our neighbour, the grocer, and had accompanied him to the door, where he paused for a final message.

“Tell the governor that there isn’t much the matter with it, only it stops now and again, which is a nuisance.”

He nodded and turned away, and at that moment the other customer arrived with the unnecessary announcement that “here he was”. He set the parcel on the counter, and, having untied the string, opened the paper covering just enough to expose the keyhole; by which I was able to see that the box was covered with morocco leather and that the keyhole guard seemed to be of silver. Producing a key from his pocket, he inserted it and made a show of trying to turn it.

“You see?” said he. “It goes in all right, but it won’t turn. Funny, isn’t it? Never served me that way before.”

I tried the key and then took it out and looked at it, and, as a preliminary measure, probed the barrel with a piece of wire. Then, as the barrel was evidently clean, I tried the lock with the same piece of wire. It was a ward lock, and the key was a warded key, but the wards of the lock and those of the key were not the same. So the mystery was solved; it was the wrong key.

“Well, now,” my friend exclaimed, “that’s very singler. I could have swore it was the same key what I have always used, but I suppose you know. What’s to be done? Do you think you can make that key fit?”

Now, here was a very interesting problem. I had learned from the incomparable Mr. Denison that the wards of a lock are merely obstructions to prevent it from being opened with the wrong key, and that, since the fore edge of the bit is the only acting part of such a key, a wrong key can be turned into a right one by simply cutting away the warded part and leaving the fore edge intact. I had never tried the experiment; but here was an opportunity to put the matter to a test.

“I’ll try, if you like,” I replied —” that is, if you don’t mind my cutting the key about a little.”

“Oh, the key is no good to me if it won’t open the lock. I don’t care what you do to it.”

With this, I set to work gleefully, first making a further exploration of the lock with my wire and then carrying the key into the workshop, where there was a fixed vice. There I attacked it with a hack-saw and a file, and soon had the whole of the bit cut away excepting the top and fore edge. All agog to see how it worked, I went back to the shop with a small file in my hand in case any further touches should be necessary, and, inserting the key, gave a gentle turn. It was at once evident that there was now no resistance from the wards, but it did not turn freely. So I withdrew it and filed away a fraction from the fore edge to reduce the friction. The result was a complete success, for when I reinserted it and made another trial, it turned quite freely and I heard the lock click.

My customer was delighted (and so was I). He turned the key backwards and forwards several times and once opened the lid of the box; but only half an inch — just enough to make sure that it cleared the lock. Then he took out the key, put it in his pocket, and proceeded to replace the paper cover and tie the string.

“Well,” said he, “you are a regler master craftsman, you are. How much have I got to pay?”

I suggested that the job was worth a shilling, to which he agreed.

“But who gets that shilling?” he enquired.

“Mr. Abraham, of course,” I replied. “It’s his shop.”

“So it is,” said he, “but you have done the job, so here’s a bob for yourself, and you’ve earned it.”

He laid a couple of shillings on the counter, picked up his parcel and went out, whistling gleefully.

Now, all this time, although my attention had been concentrated on the matter in hand, I had been aware of something rather odd that was happening outside the shop. My customer had certainly had no companion when he arrived, for I had seen him enter the street alone. But yet he seemed to have some kind of follower; for hardly had he entered the shop when a man appeared, looking in at the window and seeming to keep a watch on what was going on within. At first he did not attract my attention — for a shop window is intended to be looked in at. But presently he moved off, and then returned for another look; and while I was working at the key in the workshop, I could see him on the opposite side of the street, pretending to look in the shop windows there, but evidently keeping our shop under observation.

I did not give him much attention while I was working at my job; but when my customer departed, I went out to the shop door and watched him as he retired clown the street. He was still alone. But now, the follower, who had been fidgeting up and down the pavement opposite, and looking in at shop windows, turned and walked away down the street, slowly and idly at first, but gradually increasing his pace as he went, until he turned the corner quite quickly.

It was very queer; and, my curiosity being now fairly aroused, I darted out of the shop and ran down the street, where, when I came to the corner, I could see my customer striding quickly along King Street, while the follower was “legging it” after him as hard as he could go. What the end of it was I never saw, for the man with the parcel disappeared round the corner of Argyll Place before the follower could come up with him.

It was certainly a very odd affair. What could be the relations of these two men? The follower could not have been a secret watcher, for there he was, plainly in view of the other. I turned it over in my mind as I walked back to the shop, and as I entered the transaction in the day-book (” key repaired, 1-") and dropped the two shillings into the till, having some doubt as to my title to the “bob for myself”. (But its presence was detected by Mr. Abraham when we compared the till with the day-book, and it was, after a brief discussion, restored to me.) Even when I was making a tentative exploration of the shop dial and restoring the vanished oil to its dry bearings and pallets, I still puzzled over this mystery until, at last, I had to dismiss it as insoluble.

But it was not insoluble, though the solution was not to appear for many weeks. Nor, when my customer disappeared round the corner, was he lost to me for ever. In fact, he revisited our premises less than a fortnight after our first meeting, shambling into the shop just before dinner-time and greeting me as before with the enquiry:

“Guvnor in?”

“No,” I replied, “he has just been called out on business, but he will be back in a few minutes.” (He had, in fact, walked round, according to his custom about this time, to inspect the window of the cook’s shop in Carnaby Street.) “Is there anything that I can do?”

“Don’t think so,” said he. “Something has gone wrong with my watch. Won’t go. I expect it is a job for the guvnor.”

He brought out from his pocket a large gold watch, which he passed across the counter to me. I noted that it was not the watch to which I had fitted the glass and that it had a small bruise on the edge. Then I stuck my eyeglass in my eye, and having opened, first the case and then the dome, took a glance at the part of the movement that was visible. That glance showed me that the balance-staff pivot was broken, which accounted sufficiently for the watch’s failure to go. But it showed me something else — something that thrilled me to the marrow. This was no ordinary watch. It was fitted with that curious contrivance that English watchmakers call a “tourbillion”— a circular revolving carriage on which the escapement is mounted, the purpose being the avoidance of position errors. Now, I had never seen a tourbillion before, though I had read of them as curiosities of advanced watch construction, and I was delighted with this experience, and the more so when I read on the movement the signature of the inventor of this mechanism, Breguet á Paris. So absorbed was I with this mechanical wonder that I forgot the existence of the customer until he, somewhat brusquely, drew my attention to it. I apologized and briefly stated what was the matter with the watch.

“That don’t mean nothing to me,” he complained. “I want to know if there’s much wrong with it, and what it will cost to put it right.”

I was trying to frame a discreet answer when the arrival of Mr. Abraham relieved me of the necessity. I handed him the watch and my eyeglass and stood by to hear his verdict.

“Fine watch,” he commented. “French make. Seems to have been dropped. One pivot broken; probably some others. Can’t tell until I have taken it down. I suppose you want it repaired.”

“Not if it is going to be an expensive job,” said the owner. “I don’t want it for use. I got a silver one what does for me. I bought this one cheap, and I wish I hadn’t now. Gave a cove a flyer for it.”

“Then you got it very cheap,” said Mr. Abraham.

“S’pose I did, but I’d like to get my money back all the same. That’s all I ask. Care to give me a flyer for it?”

Mr. Abraham’s eyes glistened. All the immemorial Semitic passion for a bargain shone in them. And well it might. Even I could tell that the price asked was but a fraction of the real value. It was a tremendous temptation for Mr. Abraham.

But, rather to my surprise, he resisted it. Wistfully, he looked at the watch, and especially at the hall-mark, or its French equivalent, for nearly a minute; then, with a visible pang of regret, he closed the case and pushed the watch across the counter.

“I don’t deal in second-hand watches,” said he.

“Gor!” exclaimed our customer, “it ain’t second hand for you. Do the little repairs what are necessary, and it’s a new watch. Don’t be a mug, Mister. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”

But Mr. Abraham shook his head and gave the watch a further push.

“Look here!” the other exclaimed, excitedly, “the thing’s no good to me. I’ll take four pund ten. That’s giving it away, that is. Gor! You ain’t going to refuse that! Well, say four pund. Four blooming jimmies! Why, the case alone is worth more than double that.”

Mr. Abraham broke out into a cold sweat. It was a frightful temptation, for what the man said was literally true. But even this Mr. Abraham resisted; and eventually the owner of this priceless timepiece, realizing that “the deal was off”, sulkily put it in his pocket and slouched out without another word.

“Why didn’t you buy it, sir?” I asked. “It was a beautiful watch.”

“So it was,” he agreed, “and a splendid case — twenty-two carat gold; but it was too cheap. I would have given him twice what he asked if I had known how he came by it.”

“You don’t think he stole it, sir, do you?” I asked.

“I suspect someone did,” he replied, “but whether this gent was the thief or only the receiver is not my affair.”

It wasn’t mine either; but as I recalled my former transaction with this “gent” I was inclined to form a more definite opinion; and thereupon I decided to keep my own counsel as to the details of that former transaction. But circumstances compelled me to revise that decision when the matter was reopened by someone who took a less impersonal view than that of Mr. Abraham. That someone was a tall, military-looking man who strode into our shop one evening about six weeks after the watch incident. He made no secret of his business, for, as he stepped up to the counter, he produced a card from his pocket and introduced himself with the statement:

“You are Mr. David Abraham, I think. I am Detective Sergeant Pitts.”

Mr. Abraham bowed graciously, and, disregarding the card, replied that he was pleased to make the officer’s acquaintance; whereupon the sergeant grinned and remarked: “You are more easily pleased than most of my clients.”

Mr. Abraham smiled and regarded the officer with a wary eye. “What can I have the pleasure of doing for you?” he asked.

“That’s what I want to find out,” said the sergeant. “I have information that, on or about the thirteenth of May, you made a skeleton key for a man named Alfred Coomey, alias John Smith. Is that correct?”

“No,” Abraham replied, in a startled voice, “certainly not. I never made a, skeleton key in my life. Don’t know how to, in fact.”

The officer’s manner became perceptibly more dry. “My information,” said he, “is that on the date mentioned, the said Coomey, or Smith, brought a jewel case to this shop and that you made a skeleton key that opened it. You say that is not true.”

“Wait a moment,” said Abraham, turning to me with a look of relief; “perhaps the sergeant is referring to the man you told me about who brought a box here to have a key fitted when I was out. It would be about that date.”

The sergeant turned a suddenly interested eye on me and remarked:

“So this young shaver is the operator, is he? You’d better tell me all about it; and first, what sort of box was it?”

“I couldn’t see much of it, sir, because it was wrapped in brown paper, and he only opened it enough for me to get at the keyhole. But it was about fifteen inches long by about nine broad, and it was covered with green leather and the keyhole plate seemed to be silver. That is all that I could see.”

“And what about the key?”

“It was the wrong key, sir. It went in all right, but it wouldn’t turn. So I cut away part of the bit so that it would go past the wards and then it turned and opened the lock.”

The sergeant regarded me with a grim smile.

“You seem to be a rather downy young bird,” said he. “So you made him a skeleton key, did you? Now, how did you come to know how to make a skeleton key?”

I explained that I had read certain books on locks and had taken a good deal of interest in the subject, a statement that Mr. Abraham was able to confirm.

“Well,” said the sergeant, “it’s a useful accomplishment, but a bit dangerous. Don’t you be too handy with skeleton keys, or you may find yourself taking a different sort of interest in locks and keys.”

But here Mr. Abraham interposed with a protest.

“There’s nothing to make a fuss about, Sergeant. The man brought his box here to have a key fitted, and my lad fitted a key. There was nothing incorrect or unlawful in that.”

“No, no,” the sergeant admitted, “I don’t say that there was. It happens that the box was not his, but, of course, the boy didn’t know that. I suppose you couldn’t see what was in the box?”

“No, sir. He only opened it about half an inch, just to see that it would open.”

The sergeant nodded. “And as to this man, Coomey; do you think you would recognize him if you saw him again?”

“Yes, sir, I am sure I should. But I don’t know that I could recognize the other man.”

“The other man!” exclaimed the sergeant. “What other man?”

“The man who was waiting outside;” and here I described the curious proceedings of Mr. Coomey’s satellite and so much of his appearance as I could remember.

“Ha!” said the sergeant, “that would be the foot man who gave Coomey the jewel-case. Followed him here to make sure that he didn’t nip off with it. Well, you’d know Coomey again, at any rate. What about you, Mr. Abraham?”

“I couldn’t recognize him, of course. I never saw him.”

“You saw him later, you know, sir, when he came in with the watch,” I reminded him.

“But you never told me —” Abraham began, with a bewildered stare at me; but the sergeant broke in, brusquely: “What’s this about a watch, Mr. Abraham? You didn’t mention that. Better not hold anything back, you know.”

“I am not holding anything back,” Abraham protested. “I didn’t know it was the same man;” and here he proceeded to describe the affair in detail and quite correctly, while the sergeant took down the particulars in a large, funereal note-book.

“So you didn’t feel inclined to invest,” said he with a sly smile. “Must have wrung your heart to let a bargain like that slip.”

“It did,” Abraham admitted, “but, you see, I didn’t know where he had got it.”

“We can take it,” said the sergeant, “that he got it out of that jewel-case. What sort of watch was it? Could you recognize it?”

“I am not sure that I could. It was an old watch. French make, gold case, engine-turned with a plain centre. No crest or initials.”

“That’s all you remember, is it? And what about you, young shaver? Would you know it again?”

“I think I should, sir. It was a peculiar watch; made by Breguet of Paris, and it had a tourbillion.”

“Had a what!” exclaimed the sergeant. “Sounds like some sort of disease. What does he mean?” he added, gazing at Mr. Abraham.

The latter gave a slightly confused description of the mechanism, explaining that he had not noticed it, as he had been chiefly interested in the case; whereupon the sergeant grinned and remarked that the melting-pot value was what had also interested Mr. Coomey.

“Well,” he concluded, shutting up his note-book, “that’s all for the present. I expect we shall want you to identify Coomey, and the other man if you can; and when the case comes up for the adjourned hearing, you will both have to come and give evidence. But I will let you know about that later.” With this and a nod to Mr. Abraham and a farewell grin at me, he took his departure.

Neither to my employer nor myself was the prospect of visiting the prison and the court at all alluring, especially as our simultaneous absence would entail shutting up the shop; and it was a relief to us both when the sergeant paid us a second, hurried visit to let us know that, as the accused men had decided to plead guilty, our testimony would not be required. So that disposed of the business so far as we were concerned.

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