The Adventures of Martin Hewitt, by Arthur Morrison

The Case of the Flitterbat Lancers

It was late on a summer evening, two or three years back, that I drowsed in my armchair over a particularly solid and ponderous volume of essays on social economy. I was doing a good deal of reviewing at the time, and I remember that this particular volume had a property of such exceeding toughness that I had already made three successive attacks on it, on as many successive evenings, each attack having been defeated in the end by sleep. The weather was hot, my chair was very comfortable, and the book had somewhere about its strings of polysyllables an essence as of laudanum. Still something had been done on each evening, and now on the fourth I strenuously endeavoured to finish the book. I was just beginning to feel that the words before me were sliding about and losing their meanings, when a sudden crash and a jingle of broken glass behind me woke me with a start, and I threw the book down. A pane of glass in my window was smashed, and I hurried across and threw up the sash to see, if I could, whence the damage had come.

The building in which my chambers (and Martin Hewitt’s office) were situated was accessible — or rather visible, for there was no entrance — from the rear. There was, in fact, a small courtyard, reached by a passage from the street behind, and into this courtyard, my sitting-room window looked.

“Hullo, there!” I shouted. But there came no reply. Nor could I distinguish anybody in the courtyard. Some men had been at work during the day on a drainpipe, and I reflected that probably their litter had provided the stone with which my window had been smashed. As I looked, however, two men came hurrying from the passage into the court, and going straight into the deep shadow of one corner, presently appeared again in a less obscure part, hauling forth a third man, who must have already been there in hiding. The third man struggled fiercelym but without avail, and was dragged across toward the passage leading to the street beyond. But the most remarkable feature of the whole thing was the silence of all three men. No cry, no exclamation, escaped any of them. In perfect silence the two hauled the third across the courtyard, and in perfect silence he swung and struggled to resist and escape. The matter astonished me not a little, and the men were entering the passage efore I found voice to shout at them. But they took no notice, and disappeared. Soon after I heard cab wheels in the street beyond, and had no doubt that the two men had carried off their prisoner.

I turned back into my room a little perplexed. It seemed probable that the man who had been borne off had broken my window. But why? I looked about on the floor, and presently found the missile. It was, as I had expected, a piece of broken concrete, but it was wrapped up in a worn piece of paper, which had partly opened out as it lay on my carpet, thus indicating that it had just been crumpled round the stone.

I disengaged the paper and spread it out. Then I saw it to be a rather hastily written piece of manuscript music, whereof I append a reduced facsimile:


This gave me no help. I turned the paper this way and that, but could make nothing of it. There was not a mark on it that I could discover, except the music and the scrawled title, Flitterbal Lancers, at the top. The paper was old, dirty, and cracked. What did it all mean? One might conceive of a person in certain circumstances sending a message — possibly an appeal for help — through a friend’s window, wrapped round a stone, but this seemed to be nothing of that sort.

Once more I picked up the paper, and with an idea to hear what the Flitterbat Lancers sounded like, I turned to my little pianette and strummed over the notes, making my own time and changing it as seemed likely. But I could by no means extract from the notes anything resembling an air. I half thought of trying Martin Hewitt’s office door, in case he might still be there and offer a guess at the meaning of my smashed window and the scrap of paper, when Hewitt himself came in. He had stayed late to examine a bundle of papers in connection with a case just placed in his hands, and now, having finished, came to find if I were disposed for an evening stroll before turning in. I handed him the paper and the piece of concrete, observing, “There’s a little job for you, Hewitt, instead of the stroll.” And I told him the complete history of my smashed window.

Hewitt listened attentively, and examined both the paper and the fragment of paving. “You say these people made absolutely no sound whatever?” he asked.

“None but that of scuffling, and even that they seemed to do quietly.”

“Could you see whether or not the two men gagged the other, or placed their hands over his mouth?”

“No, they certainly didn’t do that. It was dark, of course, but not so dark as to prevent my seeing generally what they were doing.”

Hewitt stood for half a minute in thought, and then said, “There’s something in this, Brett — what, I can’t guess at the moment, but something deep, I fancy. Are you sure you won’t come out now?”

I told Hewitt that I was sure, and that I should stick to my work.

“Very well,” he said; “then perhaps you will lend me these articles?” holding up the paper and the stone.

“Delighted,” I said. “If you get no more melody out of the clinker than I did out of the paper, you won’t have a musical evening. Goodnight!”

Hewitt went away with the puzzle in his hand, and I turned once more to my social economy, and, thanks to the gentleman who smashed my window, conquered.

At this time my only regular daily work was on an evening paper so that I left home at a quarter to eight on the morning following the adventure of my broken window, in order, as usual, to be at the office at eight; consequently it was not until lunchtime that I had an opportunity of seeing Hewitt. I went to my own rooms first, however, and on the landing by my door I found the housekeeper in conversation with a shortish, sun-browned man, whose accent at once convinced me that he hailed from across the Atlantic. He had called, it appeared, three or four times during the morning to see me, getting more impatient each time. As he did not seem even to know my name, the housekeeper had not considered it expedient to give him any information about me, and he was growing irascible under the treatment. When I at last appeared, however, he left her and approached me eagerly.

“See here, sir,” he said, “I’ve been stumpin’ these here durn stairs o’ yours half through the mornin’. I’m anxious to apologize, and fix up some damage.”

He had followed me into my sitting-room, and was now standing with his back to the fireplace, a dripping umbrella in one hand, and the forefinger of the other held up boulder-high and pointing, in the manner of a pistol, to my window, which, by the way, had been mended during the morning, in accordance with my instructions to the housekeeper.

“Sir,” he continued, “last night I took the extreme liberty of smashin’ your winder.”

“Oh,” I said, “that was you, was it?”

“It was, sir — me. For that I hev come humbly to apologize. I trust the draft has not discommoded you, sir. I regret the accident, and I wish to pay for the fixin’ up and the general inconvenience.” He placed a sovereign on the table. “I ‘low you’ll call that square now, sir, and fix things friendly and comfortable as between gentlemen, an’ no ill will. Shake.”

And he formally extended his hand.

I took it at once. “Certainly,” I said. “As a matter of fact, you haven’t inconvenienced me at all; indeed, there were some circumstances about the affair that rather interested me.” And I pushed the sovereign toward him.

“Say now,” he said, looking a trifle disappointed at my unwillingness to accept his money, “didn’t I startle your nerves?”

“Not a bit,” I answered, laughing. “In fact, you did me a service by preventing me going to sleep just when I shouldn’t; so we’ll say no more of that.”

“Well — there was one other little thing,” he pursued, looking at me rather sharply as he pocketed the sovereign. “There was a bit o’ paper round that pebble that came in here. Didn’t happen to notice that, did you?”

“Yes, I did. It was an old piece of manuscript music.”

“That was it — exactly. Might you happen to have it handy now?”

“Well,” I said, “as a matter of fact a friend of mine has it now. I tried playing it over once or twice, as a matter of curiosity, but I couldn’t make anything of it, and so I handed it to him.”

“Ah!” said my visitor, watching me narrowly, “that’s a puzzler, that Flitterbat Lancers — a real puzzler. It whips ’em all. Ha, ha’.” He laughed suddenly — a laugh that seemed a little artificial. “There’s music fellers as ‘lows to set right down and play off anything right away that can’t make anything of the Flitterbat Lancers. That was two of ’em that was monkeyin’ with me last night. They never could make anythin’ of it at all, and I was tantalizing them with it all along till they got real mad, and reckoned to get it out o’ my pocket and learn it at home. Ha, ha! So I got away for a bit, and just rolled it round a stone and heaved it through your winder before they could come up, your winder being the nearest one with a light in it. Ha, ha! I’ll be considerable obliged you’ll get it from your friend right now. Is he stayin’ hereabout?”

The story was so ridiculously lame that I determined to confront my visitor with Hewitt, and observe the result. If he had succeeded in making any sense of the Flitterbat Lancers, the scene might be amusing. So I answered at once, “Yes; his office is on the floor below; he will probably be in at about this time. Come down with me.”

We went down, and found Hewitt in his outer office. “This gentleman,” I told him with a solemn intonation, “has come to ask for his piece of manuscript music, the Flitterbat Lancers. He is particularly proud of it, because nobody who tries to play it can make any sort of tune out of it, and it was entirely because two dear friends of his were anxious to drag it out of his pocket and practice it over on the quiet that he flung it through my windowpane last night, wrapped round a piece of concrete.”

The stranger glanced sharply at me, and I could see that my manner and tone rather disconcerted him. Burt Hewitt came forward at once. “Oh, yes,” he said “just so — quite a natural sort of thing. As a matter of fact, I quite expected you. Your umbrella’s wet — do you mind putting it in the stand? Thank you. Come into my private office.”

We entered the inner room, and Hewitt, turning to the stranger, went on: “Yes, that is a very extraordinary piece of music, that Flitterbat Lancers. I have been having a little bit of practice with it myself, though I’m really nothing of a musician. I don’t wonder you are anxious to keep it to yourself. Sit down.”

The stranger, with a distrustful look at Hewitt, complied. At this moment, Hewitt’s clerk, Kerrett, entered from the outer office with a slip of paper. Hewitt glanced at it, and crumpled it in his hand. “I am engaged just now,” was his remark, and Kerrett vanished.

“And now,” Hewitt said, as he sat down and suddenly turned to the stranger with an intent gaze, “and now, Mr Hooker, we’ll talk of this music.”

The stranger started and frowned. “You’ve the advantage of me, sir,” he said; “you seem to know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

Hewitt smiled pleasantly. “My name,” he said, “is Hewitt, Martin Hewitt, and it is my business to know a great many things. For instance, I know that you are Mr Reuben B Hooker, of Robertsville, Ohio.”

The visitor pushed his chair back, and stared. “Well — that gits me,” he said. “You’re a pretty smart chap, Mr Hewitt. I’ve heard your name before, of course. And — and so you’ve been a-studyin’ the Flitterbat Lancers, have you?” This with a keen glance at Hewitt’s face. “Well, s’pose you have. What’s your idea?”

“Why,” answered Hewitt, still keeping his steadfast gaze on Hooker’s eyes, “I think it’s pretty late in the century to be fishing about for the Wedlake jewels.”

These words astonished me almost as much as they did Mr Hooker. The great Wedlake jewel robbery is, as many will remember, a traditional story of the ‘sixties. I remembered no more of it at the time than probably most men do who have at some time or another read the causes celebra of the century. Sir Francis Wedlake’s country house had been robbed, and the whole of Lady Wedlake’s magnificent collection of jewels stolen. A man named Shiels, a strolling musician, had been arrested and had been sentenced to a long term of penal servitude. Another man named Legg — one of the comparatively wealthy scoundrels who finance promising thefts or swindles and pocket the greater part of the proceeds — had also been punished, but only a very few of the trinkets, and those quite unimportant items, had been recovered. The great bulk of the booty was never brought to light. So much I remembered, and Hewitt’s sudden mention of the Wedlake jewels in connection with my broken window, Mr Reuben B. Hooker, and the Flitterbat Lancers, astonished me not a little.

As for Hooker, he did his best to hide his perturbation, but with little success. “Wedlake jewels, eh?” he said; “and — and what’s that to do with it, anyway?”

“To do with it?” responded Hewitt, with an air of carelessness. “Well, well, I had my idea, nothing more. If the Wedlake jewels have nothing to do with it, we’ll say no more about it, that’s all. Here’s your paper, Mr Hooker — only a little crumpled.” He rose and placed the article in Mr Hooker’s hand, with the manner of terminating the interview.

Hooker rose, with a bewildered look on his face, and turned toward the door. Then he stopped, looked at the floor, scratched his cheek, and finally sat down and pu his hat on the ground. “Come,” he said, “we’ll play a square game. That paper has something to do with the Wedlake jewels, and, win or lose, I’ll tell you all I know about it. You’re a smart man and whatever I tell you, I guess it won’t do me no harm; it air’t done me no good yet, anyway.”

“Say what you please, of course,” Hewitt answered, “but think first. You might tell me something you’d be sorry for afterward.”

“Say, will you listen to what I say, and tell me if you think I’ve been swindled or not? My two hundred and fifty dollars is gone now, and I guess I won’t go skirmishing after it anymore if you think it’s no good. Will you do that much?”

“As I said before,” Hewitt replied, “tell me what you please, and if I can help you I will. But remember, I don’t ask for your secrets.”

“That’s all right, I guess, Mr Hewitt. Well, now, it was all like this.” And Mr Reuben B. Hooker plunged into a detailed account of his adventures since his arrival in London.

Relieved of repetitions, and put as directly as possible, it was as follows: Mr Hooker was a wagon-builder, had made a good business from very humble beginnings, and intended to go on and make it still a better. Meantime, he had come over to Europe for a short holiday — a thing he had promised himself for years. He was wandering about the London streets on the second night after his arrival in the city, when he managed to get into conversation with two men at a bar. They were not very prepossessing men, though flashily dressed. Very soon they suggested a game of cards. But Reuben B. Hooker was not to be had in that way, and after a while, they parted. The two were amusing enough fellows in their way, and when Hooker saw them again the next night in the same bar, he made no difficulty in talking with them freely. After a succession of drinks, they told him that they had a speculation on hand — a speculation that meant thousands if it succeeded — and to carry out which they were only waiting for a paltry sum of £50. There was a house, they said, in which was hidden a great number of jewels of immense value, which had been deposited there by a man who was now dead. Exactly in what part of the house the jewels were to be found they did not know. There was a paper, they said, which was supposed to contain some information, but as yet they hadn’t been quite able to make it out. But that would really matter very little if once they could get possession of the house. Then they would simply set to work and search from the topmost chimney to the lowermost brick, if necessary. The only present difficulty was that the house was occupied, and that the landlord wanted a large deposit of rent down before he would consent to turn out his present tenants and give them possession at a higher rental. This deposit would come to £50, and they hadn’t the money. However, if any friend of theirs who meant business would put the necessary sum it their disposal, and keep his mouth shut, they would make him an equal partner in the proceeds with themselves; and as the value of the whole haul would probably be something not very far off £20,000, the speculation would bring a tremendous return to the man who w as smart enough to put down his £50.

Hooker, very distrustful, skeptically demanded more detailed particulars of the scheme. But these the two men (Luker and Birks were their names, he found, in course of talking) inflexibly refused to communicate.

“Is it likely,” said Luker, “that we should give the ‘ole thing away to anybody who might easily go with his fifty pounds and clear out the bloomin’ show? Not much. We’ve told you what the game is, and if you’d like to take a flutter with your fifty, all right; you’ll do as well as anybody, and we’ll treat you square. If you don’t — well, don’t, that’s all. We’ll get the oof from somewhere — there’s blokes as ‘ud jump at the chance. Anyway, we ain’t going to give the show away before you’ve done somethin’ to prove you’re on the job, straight. Put your money in, and you shall know as much as we do.”

Then there were more drinks, and more discussion. Hooker was still reluctant, though tempted by the prospect, and growing more venturesome with each drink.

“Don’t you see,” said Birks, “that if we was a-tryin’ to ‘ave you we should out with a tale as long as yer arm, all complete, with the address of the ’ouse and all. Then I s’pose you’d lug out the pieces on the nail, without askin’ a bloomin’ question. As it is, the thing’s so perfectly genuine that we’d rather lose the chance and wait for some other bloke to find the money than run a chance of givin’ the thing away. It’s a matter o’ business, simple and plain, that’s all. It’s a question of either us trustin’ you with a chance of collarin’ twenty thousand pounds or you trustin’ us with a paltry fifty. We don’t lay out no ‘igh moral sentiments, we only say the weight o’ money is all on one side. Take it or leave it, that’s all. ‘Ave another Scotch?”

The talk went on and the drinks went on, and it all ended, at “chucking-out time,” in Reuben B. Hooker handing over five £10 notes, with smiling, though slightly incoherent, assurances of his eternal friendship for Luker and Birks.

In the morning he awoke to the realization of a bad head, a bad tongue, and a bad opinion of his proceedings of the previous night. In his sober senses it seemed plain that he had been swindled. All day he cursed his fuddled foolishness, and at night he made for the bar that had been the scene if the transaction, with little hope of seeing either Luker or Birks, who had agreed to be there to meet him. There they were, however, and, rather to his surprise, they made no demand for more money. They asked him if he understood music, and showed him the worn old piece of paper containing the Flitterbat Lancers. The exact spot, they said, where the jewels were hidden was supposed to be indicated somehow on that piece of paper. Hooker did not understand music, and could find nothing on the paper that looked in the least like a direction to a hiding-place for jewels or anything else.

Luker and Birks then went into full particulars of their project. First, as to its history. The jewels were the famous Wedlake jewels, which had been taken from Sir Francis Wedlake’s house in 1866 and never heard of again. A certain Jerry Shiels had been arrested in connection with the robbery, had been given a long sentence of penal servitude, and had died in jail. This Jerry Shiels was an extraordinarily clever criminal, and travelled about the country as a street musician. Although an expert burglar, he very rarely perpetrated robberies himself, but acted as a sort of traveling fence, receiving stolen property and transmitting it to London or out of the country. He also acted as the agent of a man named Legg, who had money, and who financed any likely looking project of a criminal nature that Shiels might arrange.

Jerry Shiels traveled with a “pardner”— a man who played the harp and acted as his assistant and messenger in affairs wherein Jerry was reluctant to appear personally. When Shiels was arrested, he had in his possession a quantity of printed and manuscript music, and after his first remand his “pardner,” Jimmy Snape, applied for the music to be given up to him, in order, as he explained, that he might earn his living. No objection was raised to this, and Shiels was quite willing that Snape should have it, and so it was handed over. Now among the music was a small slip, headed Flitterbat Lancers, which Shiels had shown to Snape before the arrest. In case of Shiels being taken, Snape was to take this slip to Legg as fast as he could.

But as chance would have it, on that very day Legg himself was arrested, and soon after was sentenced also to a term of years. Snape hung about in London for a little while, and then emigrated. Before leaving, however, he gave the slip of music to Luker’s father, a rag-shop keeper, to whom he owed money. He explained its history, and Luker senior made all sorts of fruitless efforts to get at the information concealed in the paper. He had held it to the fire to bring out concealed writing, had washed it, had held it to the light till his eyes ached, had gone over it with a magnifying glass — all in vain. He had got musicians to strum out the notes on all sorts of instruments — backwards, forwards, alternately, and in every other way he could think of. If at any time he fancied a resemblance in the resulting sound to some familiar song-tune, he got that song and studied all its words with loving care, upside-down, right-side up — every way. He took the words Flitterbat Lancers and transposed the letters in all directions, and did everything else he could think of. In the end he gave it up, and died. Now, lately, Luker junior had been impelled with a desire to see into the matter. He had repeated all the parental experiments, and more, with the same lack of success. He had taken his “pal” Birks into his confidence, and together they had tried other experiments till at last they began to believe that the message had probably been written in some sort of invisible ink which the subsequent washings had erased altogether. But he had done one other thing: he had found the house which Shiels had rented at the time of his arrest, and in which a good quantity of stolen property — not connected with the Wedlake case — was discovered. Here, he argued, if anywhere, Jerry Shiels had hidden the jewels. There was no other place where he could be found to have lived, or over which he had sufficient control to warrant his hiding valuables therein. Perhaps, once the house could be properly examined, something about it might give a clue as to what the message of the Flitterbat Lancers meant.

Hooker, of course, was anxious to know where the house in question stood, but this Luker and Birks would on no account inform him. “You’ve done your part,” they said, “and now you leave us to do ours. There’s a bit of a job about gettin’ the tenants out. They won’t go, and it’ll take a bit of time before the landlord can make them. So you just hold your jaw and wait. When we’re safe in the ’ouse, and there’s no chance of anybody else pokin’ in, then you can come and help find the stuff.”

Hooker went home that night sober, but in much perplexity. The thing might be genuine, after all; indeed, there were many little things that made him think it was. But then, if it were, what guarantee had he that he would get his share, supposing the search turned out successful? None at all. But then it struck him for the first time that these jewels, though they may have lain untouched so long, were stolen property after all. The moral aspect of the affair began to trouble him a little, but the legal aspect troubled him more. That consideration however, he decided to leave over for the present. He had no more than the word of Luker and Birks that the jewels (if they existed) were those of Lady Wedlake, and Luker and Birks themselves only professed to know from hearsay. At any rate, he made up his mind to have some guarantee for his money. In accordance with this resolve, he suggested, when he met the two men the next day, that he should take charge of the slip of music and make an independent study of it. This proposal, however, met with an instant veto.

Hooker resolved to make up a piece of paper, folded as like the slip of music as possible, and substitute one for the other at their next meeting. Then he would put the Flitterbat Lancers in some safe place, and face his fellow conspirators with a hand of cards equal to their own. He carried out his plan the next evening with perfect success, thanks to the contemptuous indifference with which Luker and Birks had begun to regard him. He got the slip in his pocket, and left the bar. He had not gone far, however, before Luker discovered the loss, and soon he became conscious of being followed. He looked for a cab, but he was in a dark street, and no cab was near. Luker and Birks turned the corner and began to run. He saw they must catch him. Everything now depended on his putting the Flitterbat Lancers out of their reach, but where he could himself recover it. He ran till he saw a narrow passageway on his right, and into this he darted. It led into a yard where stones were lying about, and in a large building before him he saw the window of a lighted room a couple of floors up. It was a desperate expedient, but there was no time for consideration. He wrapped a stone in the paper and flung it with all his force through the lighted window. Even as he did it he heard the feet of Luker and Birks as they hurried down the street. The rest of the adventure in the court I myself saw.

Luker and Birks kept Hooker in their lodgings all that night. They searched him unsuccessfully for the paper; they bullied, they swore, they cajoled, they entreated, they begged him to play the game square with his pals. Hooker merely replied that he had put the Flitterbat Lancers where they couldn’t easily find it, and that he intended playing the game square as long as they did the same. In the end they released him, apparently with more respect than they had before entertained, advising him to get the paper into his possession as soon as he could.

“And now,” said Mr Hooker, in conclusion of his narrative, “perhaps you’ll give me a bit of advice. Am I playin’ a fool-game running after these toughs, or ain’t I?”

Hewitt shrugged his shoulders. “It all depends,” he said, “on your friends Luker and Birks. They may want to swindle you, or they may not. I’m afraid they’d like to, at any rate. But perhaps you’ve got some little security in this piece of paper. One thing is plain: they certainly believe in the deposit of the jewels themselves, else they wouldn’t have taken so much trouble to get the paper back.”

“Then I guess I’ll go on with the thing, if that’s it.”

“That depends, of course, on whether you care to take trouble to get possession of what, after all, is somebody else’s lawful property.”

Hooker looked a little uneasy. “Well,” he said, “there’s that, of course. I didn’t know nothin’ of that at first, and when I did I’d parted with my money and felt entitled to get something back for it. Anyway, the stuff ain’t found yet. When it is, why then, you know, I might make a deal with the owner. But, say, how did you find out my name, and about this here affair being jined up with the Wedlake jewels?”

Hewitt smiled. “As to the name and address, you just think it over a little when you’ve gone away, and if you don’t see how I did it. You’re not so cute as I think you are. In regard to the jewels — well, I just read the message of the Flitterbat Lancers, that’s all.”

“You read it? Whew! And what does it say? How did you do it?” Hooker turned the paper over eagerly in his hands as he spoke.

“See, now,” said Hewitt, “I won’t tell you all that, but I’ll tell you something, and it may help you to test the real knowledge of Luker and Birks. Part of the message is in these words, which you had better write down: Over the coals the fifth dancer slides, says Jerry Shield the homey.

“What?” Hooker exclaimed, “fifth dancer slides over the coals? That’s mighty odd. What’s it all about?”

“About the Wedlake jewels, as I said. Now you can go and make a bargain with Luker and Birks. The only other part of the message is an address, and that they already know, if they have been telling the truth about the house they intend taking. You can offer to tell them what I have told you of the message, after they have told you where the house is, and proved to you that they are taking the steps they talked of. If they won’t agree to that, I think you had best treat them as common rogues and charge them with obtaining your money under false pretenses.”

Nothing more would Hewitt say than that, despite Hooker’s many questions; and when at last Hooker had gone, almost as troubled and perplexed as ever, my friend turned to me and said, “Now, Brett, if you haven’t lunched and would like to see the end of this business, hurry!”

“The end of it?” I said. “Is it to end so soon? How?”

“Simply by a police raid on Jerry Shiels’s old house with a search warrant. I communicated with the police this morning before I came here.”

“Poor Hooker!” I said.

“Oh, I had told the police before I saw Hooker, or heard of him, of course. I just conveyed the message on the music slip — that was enough. But I’ll tell you all a out it when there’s more time; I must be off now. With the information I have given him, Hooker and his friends may make an extra push and get into the house soon, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to give the unfortunate Hooker some sort of sporting chance — though it’s a poor one, I fear. Get your lunch as quickly as you can, and go at once to Colt Row, Bankside — Southwark way, you know. Probably we shall be there before you. If not, wait.”

Colt Row was not difficult to find. It was one of those places that decay with an excess of respectability, like Drury Lane and Clare Market. Once, when Jacob’s Island was still an island, a little farther down the river, Colt Row had evidently been an unsafe place for a person with valuables about him, and then it probably prospered, in its own way. Now it was quite respectable, but very dilapidated and dirty. Perhaps it was sixty yards long — perhaps a little more. It was certainly a very few yards wide, and the houses at each side had a patient and forlorn look of waiting for a metropolitan improvement to come along and carry them away to their rest.

I could see no sign of Hewitt, nor of the police, so I walked up and down the narrow pavement for a little while. As I did so, I became conscious of a face at the window of the least ruinous house in the row, a face that I fancied expressed particular interest in my movements. The house was an old gabled structure, faced with plaster. What had apparently once been a shopwindow on the ground floor was now shuttered up, and the face that watched me — an old woman’s — looked out from the window above. I had noted these particulars with some curiosity, when, arriving again at the street corner, I observed Hewitt approaching, in company with a police inspector, and followed by two unmistakable plainclothesmen.

“Well,” Hewitt said, “you’re first here after all. Have you seen any more of our friend Hooker?”

“No, nothing.”

“Very well — probably he’ll be here before long, though.”

The party turned into Colt Row, and the inspector, walking up to the door of the house with the shuttered bottom window, knocked sharply. There was no response, so he knocked again, equally in vain.

“All out,” said the inspector.

“No,” I said; “I saw a woman watching me from the window above not three minutes ago.”

“Ho, ho!” the inspector replied. “That’s so, eh? One of you — you, Johnson — step round to the back, will you?”

One of the plainclothesmen started off, and after waiting another minute or two the inspector began a thundering cannonade of knocks that brought every available head out of the window of every inhabited room in the Row. At this the woman opened the window, and began abusing the inspector with a shrillness and fluency that added a street-corner audience to that already congregated at the windows.

“Go away, you blaggards!” the lady said, “you ought to be ‘orse-w’ipped, every one of ye! A-comin’ ’ere a-tryin’ to turn decent people out o’ ’ouse and ‘ome! Wait till my ‘usband comes ‘ome —‘e’ll show yer, ye mutton-cadgin’ scoundrels! Payin’ our rent reg’lar, and good tenants as is always been — and I’m a respectable married woman, that’s what I am, ye dirty great cow-ards!”— this last word with a low, tragic emphasis.

Hewitt remembered what Hooker had said about the present tenants refusing to quit the house on the landlord’s notice. “She thinks we’ve come from the landlord to turn her out,” he said to the inspector. “We’re not here from the landlord, you old fool!” the inspector said. “We don’t want to turn you out. We’re the police, with a search warrant, and you’d better let us in or you’ll get into trouble.”

“‘Ark at ’im!” the woman screamed, pointing at the inspector. “‘Ark at ’im! Thinks I was born yesterday, that feller! Go ‘ome, ye dirty pie-stealer, go ‘ome!”

The audience showed signs of becoming a small crowd, and the inspector’s patience gave out. “Here, Bradley,” he said, addressing the remaining plainclothesman, “give a hand with these shutters,” and the two — both powerful men — seized the iron bar which held the shutters and began to pull. But the garrison was undaunted, and, seizing a broom, the woman began to belabour the invaders about the shoulders and head from above. But just at this moment, the woman, emitting a terrific shriek, was suddenly lifted from behind and vanished. Then the head of the plainclothesman who had gone round to the back appeared, with the calm announcement, “There’s a winder open behind, sir. But I’ll open the front door if you like.”

In a minute the bolts were shot, and the front door swung back. The placid Johnson stood in the passage, and as we passed in he said, “I’ve locked ‘er in the back room upstairs.”

“It’s the bottom staircase, of course,” the inspector said; and we tramped down into the basement. A little way from the stairfoot Hewitt opened a cupboard door, which enclosed a receptacle for coals. “They still keep the coals here, you see,” he said, striking a match and passing it to and fro near the sloping roof of the cupboard. It was of plaster, and covered the underside of the stairs.

“And now for the fifth dancer,” he said, throwing the match away and making for the staircase again. “One, two, three, four, five,” and he tapped the fifth stair from the bottom.

The stairs were uncarpeted, and Hewitt and the inspector began a careful examination of the one he had indicated. They tapped it in different places, and Hewitt passed his hands over the surfaces of both tread and riser. Presently, with his hand at the outer edge of the riser, Hewitt spoke. “Here it is, I think,” he said; “it is the riser that slides.”

He took out his pocketknife and scraped away the grease and paint from the edge of the old stair. Then a joint was plainly visible. For a long time the plank, grimed and set with age, refused to shift; but at last, by dint of patience and firm fingers, it moved, and was drawn clean out from the end.

Within, nothing was visible but grime, fluff, and small rubbish. The inspector passed his hand along the bottom angle. “Here’s something,” he said. It was the gold hook of an old-fashioned earring, broken off short.

Hewitt slapped his thigh. “Somebody’s been here before us,” he said “and a good time back too, judging from the dust. That hook’s a plain indication that jewellery was here once. There’s plainly nothing more, except — except this piece of paper.” Hewitt’s eyes had detected — black with loose grime as it was — a small piece of paper lying at the bottom of the recess. He drew it out and shook off the dust. “Why, what’s this?” he exclaimed. “More music!”

We went to the window, and there saw in Hewitt’s hand a piece of written musical notation, thus:


Hewitt pulled out from his pocket a few pieces of paper. “Here is a copy I made this morning of the Flitterbat Lancers, and a note or two of my own as well,” he said. He took a pencil, and, constantly referring to his own papers, marked a letter under each note on the last-found slip of music. When lie had done this, the letters read:

You are a clever cove whoever you are but there was a cleverer says Jim Snape the horney’s mate.

“You see.” Hewitt. said handing the inspector the paper. “Snape, the unconsidered messenger, finding Legg in prison, set to work and got the jewels for himself. The thing was a cryptogram, of course, of a very simple sort, though uncommon in design. Snape was a humorous soul, too, to leave this message here in the same cipher, on the chance of somebody else reading the Flitterbat Lancers.”

“But,” I asked, “why did he give that slip of music to Laker’s father?”

“Well, he owed him money, and got out or it that way. Also, he avoided the appearance of ‘flushness’ that paying the debt might have given him, and got quietly out of the country with his spoils.”

The shrieks upstairs had grown hoarser, but the broom continued vigorously. “Let that woman out,” said the inspector, “and we’ll go and report. Not much good looking for Snape now, I fancy. But there’s some satisfaction in clearing up that old quarter-century mystery.”

We left the place pursued by the execrations of the broom wielder, who bolted the door behind us, and from the window defied us to come back, and vowed she would have us all searched before a magistrate for what we had probably stolen. In the very next street we hove in sight of Reuben B. Hooker in the company of two swell-mob-looking fellows, who sheered off down a side turning in sight of our group. Hooker, too, looked rather shy at the sight of the inspector.

“The meaning of the thing was so very plain,” Hewitt said to me afterwards, “that the duffers who had the Flitterbat Lancers in hand for so long never saw it at all. If Shiels had made an ordinary clumsy cryptogram, all letters and figures, they would have seen what it was at once, and at least would have tried to read it; but because it was put in the form of music, they tried everything else but the right way. It was a clever dodge of Shiels’s, without a doubt. Very few people, police officers or not, turning over a heap of old music, would notice or feel suspicious of that little slip among the rest. But once one sees it is a cryptogram (and the absence of bar lines and of notes beyond the stave would suggest that) the reading is as easy as possible. For my part I tried it as a cryptogram at once. You know the plan — it has been described a hundred times. See here — look at this copy of the Flitterbat Lancers. Its only difficulty — and that is a small one — is that the words are not divided. Since there are positions for less than a dozen notes on the stave, and there are twenty-six letters to be indicated, it follows that crotchets, quavers, and semiquavers on the same line or space must mean different letters. The first step is obvious. We count the notes to ascertain which sign occurs most frequently, and we find that the crotchet in the top space is the sign required — it occurs no less than eleven times. Now the letter most frequently occurring in an ordinary sentence of English is e. Let us then suppose that this represents e. At once a coincidence strikes us. In ordinary musical notation in the treble clef the note occupying the top space would be E. Let us remember that presently.

“Now the most common word in the English language is the. We know the sign for e, the last letter of this word, so let us see if in more than one place that sign is preceded by two others identical in each case. If so, the probability is that the other two signs will represent t and h, and the whole word will be the. Now it happens in no less than four places the sign e is preceded by the same two other signs — once in the first line, twice in the second, and once in the fourth. No word of three letters ending in e would be in the least likely to occur four times in a short sentence except the. Then we will call it the, and note the signs preceding the e. They are a quaver under the bottom line for the t, and a crotchet on the first space for the h. We travel along the stave, and wherever these signs occur we mark them with t or h, as the case may be.

“But now we remember that e, the crotchet in the top space, is in its right place as a musical note, while the crotchet in the bottom space means h, which is no musical note at all. Considering this for a minute, we remember that among the notes which are expressed in ordinary music on the treble stave, without the use of ledger lines, d, e and f are repeated at the lower and at the upper part of the stave. Therefore, anybody making a cryptogram of musical notes would probably use one set of these duplicate positions to indicate other letters, and as A is in the lower part of the stave, that is where the variation comes in. Let us experiment by assuming that all the crotchets above f in ordinary musical notation have their usual values, and let us set the letters over their respective notes. Now things begin to shape. Look toward the end of the second line: there is the word the and the letters f f t h, with another note between the two f’s. Now that word can only possibly be fifth, so that now we have the sign for i. It is the crotchet on the bottom line. Let us go through and mark the I’s.

“And now observe. The first sign of the lot is i, and there is one other sign before the word the. The only words possible here beginning with i, and of two letters, are it, if, is and in. Now we have the signs for t and f, so we know that it isn’t it or if. Is would be unlikely here, because there is a tendency, as you see, to regularity in these signs, and t, the next Idler alphabetically to s, is at the bottom of the stave. Let us try n. At once we get the word dance at the beginning of line three. And now we have got enough to see the system of the thing. Make a stave and put G A B C and the higher D E F in their proper musical places. Then fill in the blank places with the next letters of the alphabet downward, h i j, and we find that h and i fall in the places we have already discovered for them as crotchets. Now take quavers, and go on with k l m n o, and so on as before, beginning on the A space. When you have filled the quavers, do the same with semiquavers — there are only six alphabetical letters left for this — u v w x y z. Now you will find that this exactly agrees with all we have ascertained already, and if you will use the other letters to fill up over the signs still unmarked you will get the whole message:

“In the Colt Row ken over the coals the fifth dancer slides says Jerry Shiels the homey.

“‘Dancer,’ as perhaps you didn’t know, is thieves’ slang for a stair, and ‘homey’ is the strolling musician’s name for cornet player. Of course the thing took a little time to work out, chiefly because the sentence was short, and gave one few opportunities. But anybody with the key, using the cipher as a means of communication, would read it easily.

“As soon as I had read it, of course I guessed the purport of the Flitterbat Lancers. Jerry Shiels’s name is well-known to anybody with half my knowledge of the criminal records of the century, and his connection with the missing Wedlake jewels, and his death in prison, came to my mind at once. Certainly here was something hidden, and as the Wedlake jewels seemed most likely, I made the shot in talking to Hooker.”

“But you terribly astonished him by telling him his name and address. How was that?” I asked curiously.

Hewitt laughed aloud. “That,” he said; “why, that was the thinnest trick of all. Why, the man had it engraved on the silver band of his umbrella handle. When he left his umbrella outside, Kerrett (I had indicated the umbrella to him by a sign) just copied the lettering on one of the ordinary visitors’ forms, and brought it in. You will remember I treated it as an ordinary visitor’s announcement.” And Hewitt laughed again.

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11