Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 4

Steal!” Pho! A fico for the phrase —“conveythe wise it call.

Soon after this occurrence Ralph was walking in the city, when chancing to go into Lombard Street, he observed that the common sewer was open for the purpose of repairs being effected. Now, not far away from this opening there was an opulent banking-house, and Ralph had often heard that in the vaults beneath these city banks considerable sums of gold and Bank of England notes were deposited, and he thought of a plan by which he might perchance break into one of the vaults. To gain as much information as he could with regard to the position of the house he went into the bank, pretending to enquire whether a certain country establishment had failed or not. There were several people within, and Rashleigh had thus a chance of strictly scrutinising the place. It seemed, from the narrowness of the frontage, that there could be no spare room on this floor, and he naturally conceived that the hoard of valuables must be deposited below, as he had before heard.

This was on Thursday, and by Saturday night he had fixed on his plan, in pursuance of which he told the peeple of the house where he lodged that he was going a little way into the country that evening, and should not probably return before Monday. He then provided the usual implements: plenty of false keys, a strong crow-bar, technically called a jemmy, an instrument used for cleaning bricks, some spirits and a slight provision of bread and meat. All these he stowed away in his carpet bag, which he carried under a large boat cloak, and about eight o’clock steered towards the city. Here he waited in a coffee room until it was past eleven, and then started for the scene of his proposed exploit. As he had a long distance to walk, it was after midnight when he reached Lombard Street, which, not being inhabited by any of the working classes, was now quite deserted save by the watchman.

Just at this moment propitious fortune seemed to favour his design, for it began to rain heavily, and Ralph met no person whatever near the opening of the sewer. After hastily reconnoitring to make sure, he got into the cavity and with some difficulty reached the bottom. Keeping close to the side of the sewer, he proceeded along it, groping his way and taking note, as he went, of the branch drains, by which he relied on finding the house he sought, as there was usually one of these openings to each dwelling, leading into the main sewer. He had carefully counted the houses, gratings, etc. from the bank to that part of the street where the chasm was formed.

At length he pitched upon an orifice which he felt sure would lead him to the scene of his proposed exploit, and having first procured a light by means of phosphorus and a wax taper — of which he had brought an ample supply — he crept along the branch drain, sounding its sides at short intervals until he was aware, through the hollow jar produced by the wall, that he must be opposite one of the apartments in the basement of the bank.

He now stripped himself and went seriously to work, prizing out first one brick and then another. Soon, from the closeness of the drain, he was in a state of profuse perspiration; but he kept steadily on, varying his position as well as he could, for he felt almost cramped to death by the confined spot and constrained posture in which he was working. Thus he had wrought for a long period, while all around him was as still as if he had been a thousand fathoms deep in the bowels of the earth, when at once a confused crash astounded him with its noise and almost smothered him with dust and broken mortar. After the lapse of a few seconds, this having partially cleared away, he found that several yards of the brick crown and sides of the drain had fallen in, so that his egress was completely blocked up. This, however, gave him but little uneasiness, as he felt sure that if he were only fortunate enough, once to get in to the haven of his hopes, he would easily find some way to get out. But shortly after this discovery he cast his eyes above him, and found to his utter dismay that a large part of the wall he was then undermining had become loose and was apparently about to give way, threatening to overwhelm and crush him to atoms. He recoiled from the sight in consternation, and retreated beneath a sound part of the drain, which he had hardly gained, before down came the portion of wall, carrying away a large piece of the drain in its fall, some flying fragment of which struck our adventurer on the head and stretched him senseless in the bottom of the sewer.

How long he lay there, of course, he could not tell; but on recovering, he fancied it must have been some time, for a considerable quantity of water had accumulated in the drain, which was before dry. This must have greatly assisted Ralph’s recovery by its coolness, for he was lying in it; and if the injury he sustained had been more serious, it is very probable he might have been suffocated.

As it was, having raised himself with some difficulty, he groped about until he found the phosphorus bottle and his tapers, which he had fortunately put on one side, out of the way of his operations. Having procured a light. his next care was to look for his bag of tools and refreshments, which had also escaped injury. A hearty pull at the spirit flask revived him, and he soon after mustered up courage to approach the scene of his late discomfiture, when he found to his great joy that a considerable breach had been formed in the wall of the house, through which he could discern an apartment or cellar of some sort. He speedily enlarged the opening and got in, taking care to remove all his implements at the same time.

Upon searching this room, however, he quickly discovered that it contained not the object of his ambition, and he therefore examined the door, intending to try one of his skeleton keys. But alas, there was a key in the lock, and from its peculiar make, it seemed to bid defiance to his efforts at forcing it. At last he dislodged the door from its position, tearing out frame and all from the brickwork, when he found that the opening led into a dark passage, in which were three other doors, either open or having keys left in them; but nothing could be found to induce Rashleigh to suppose this any portion of the bank premises, as the rooms contained nothing but empty packing-cases, old hampers, broken bottles and straw. The powerful odour of drugs that pervaded all these dens convinced Ralph that he had commenced operations on the wrong side of the drain, having in fact broken into the house above the bank, next to which he now recollected there was a wholesale druggist’s warehouse; and it was clear he had entered the latter.

Almost reduced to despair by this discovery, which rendered all his previous toil and danger abortive, our adventurer was on the point of abandoning his enterprise, as he perceived, on looking at his watch, it yet wanted two hours of day and he thought he could leave the sewer unobserved. But at last he determined to persevere, chiefly induced by reflecting that this being Sunday, there was little fear of any interruption, at any rate for some hours further.

He then returned to the drain from whence he had come, and after having again sounded the opposite side of it, fixed upon a place for recommencing his labour. Rendered much wiser by experience than at first, he now commenced by taking out a double row of bricks above the scene of his intended operations. Therein he inserted into the wall a strong piece of wood, after the manner of a lintel, to support the brickwork above, while he made his opening below. Again he toiled incessantly, until his hands were galled and blistered to a most painful degree. Stimulated, however, by hope of a golden reward, he suffered not his energy to relax until he had pierced through this partition, when he found a more serious obstacle presented itself. This wall, for the sake of either security or dryness, had been lined with oak planking, which stood perpendicularly against it, well secured to horizontal pieces of timber built into the wall. After having in vain attempted to dislodge a plank, no resource remained but the centre-bit and keyhole saw, with which, after about an hour more of arduous toil, Ralph succeeded in making a square opening large enough to admit his whole person.

His joy was now boundless to find that he was at length in the wished-for treasure cell, of which he had no doubt at the first glance. There were several cases of copper and silver money lying open before him, and some smaller cases, which still more attracted the attention and excited the cupidity of the plunderer. To force some of these was his first care. But the greater part of them contained only blanks, to fill up as bank notes for different sums. There was also one case of bill stamps. Ralph began to think his toil would be but ill repaid after all, when a chest which stood by itself in a corner attracted his attention. Antique in its appearance, and secured by many a clasp and many a massy band, besides three huge padlocks, it bade defiance to all his efforts, until he remembered having heard in experienced thief in Maidstone Gaol say that after trying every other means in vain to rob a strong chest, he often found it might be easily broken open at the bottom, if it could only be turned over, the reason being that if there be any damp near it is sure to be drawn under an article of this kind, which causes the wood with which it comes into contact to decay much sooner than any other part.

Acting on this idea, Ralph capsized the box in question with some difficulty and discovered that the bottom was in fact quite rotten and presented no serious obstacle to the tools, with which he effected his purpose. He then saw that the chest in question contained many bags, which on examination he found with joy were full of coined gold. There was also a small open case, in which were many Bank of England notes. Here then at last was the fruit of his labours, his suffering and his danger; and after having puzzled himself for a little while which was the best booty, he determined on taking as many sovereigns as he could well carry, and all the Bank of England paper he saw. He then emptied his carpet bag of its contents, replacing them by sovereigns and notes, until he judged that he must have nearly ten thousand pounds’ worth. Next, carefully removing all the implements he had brought with him, he withdrew through the drain into the adjoining house, where he resolved to conceal himself during the day, as it was now nearly eight o’clock. Choosing the most out-of-the-way nook on the whole floor, he made himself up a comfortable bed of straw from the empty hampers, which he then disposed around him in such a manner that it would not be very easy to discover him, even in case of a search. He then made a hearty meal, drank some spirits, and resigned himself to sleep.

When he awoke it was just getting dark and he began now to consider the means of egress, as he did not like the idea of removing the bricks and rubbish from the drain, which he knew must be done before he could return by that path. He shortly found out a grating in the corner of one of the druggist’s cellar rooms, which he doubted not communicated with the main common sewer that he had come up, and upon his removing it, this proved to be the case. He now collected every tool he had used and threw them into a cesspit, reserving only the phosphorus box and a taper, for fear of an accident.

All being now ready for his departure, he waited with anxiety the hour of twelve, which he had fixed upon because before that time there were many stragglers always in the streets; but after that, especially on Sunday nights, the city was comparatively quiet. At length the wished-for number of strokes tolled from a neighbouring church clock, and Rashleigh cautiously commenced his return. When within a few yards of the opening from the sewer into the street, he put out the taper he had hitherto carried, and threw it, together with the phosphorus box, into the deepest hole near him. He now listened attentively, and hearing no sound of footsteps or aught else, he clambered, without loss of time, into the street, heartily rejoicing in his success so far.

The night was very dark. It was still raining and from the sloppy state of the streets, appeared to have been doing so without any intermission since the night before. Ralph had made his way to the foot pavement when a watchman suddenly stepped frorn under a door and stood before him. Though he was somewhat startled, Ralph preserved his equanimity as well as he could, merely saying in his blandest tone of voice, “Good-night, watchman.”

“Good-night, sir,” said the other. “Do you know, I thought you came up out of the middle of that big hole just now.” And he laughed heartily at the idea.

Ralph smiled in return, saying as he went on, “I crossed the street just by that opening, which perhaps deceived your sight.”

It being now too late to obtain a hackney coach in that neighbourhood, Rashleigh made the best of his way to the riverside, where he knew there was a house kept open all night for the accommodation of persons arriving by late packet boats, into which he gained admittance. Not being much inclined to sleep, he spent the remainder of the morning in reading a book he found by chance in his bedroom. Soon after daylight he went to a neighbouring stairs, where he hired a boat for Lambeth. Here he breakfasted, and took a hackney coach for his lodgings, at which it was his first care to hide every portion of his spoil in various secret places he had before contrived for this purpose. He then put on a new sporting suit of clothes that he had provided for his country excursions, which, consisting of a Jolliffe white hat with an enormous brim, a bottle green Newmarket-cut coat, white cord breeches and top boots, effected a most surprising change in his personal appearance. In the next place, being very desirous to ascertain the earliest intelligence respecting the steps likely to be taken for his own discovery and apprehension as the perpetrator of the late robbery, he now repaired to the White Horse Cellar Inn, Piccadilly, carrying with him a valise and umbrella. Here he ascended a coach just arrived from Bristol, which was going into the city to the Swan With Two Necks, Lad Lane, intending to remain there for a day or two, fishing for information which might tend to guide him not only in the disposal of his booty, but as to what part of the world he had better go to. Having arrived at the inn, he gave his name out to be Mr Robert Rowland, from Bristol, and shortly afterwards stepped out, taking an opportunity of passing by the scene of his depredation, and went into a coffee-room hard by, but did not hear a breath respecting the matter.

At last he returned to the Swan, where, as he was dining in the travellers’ room, it was not long before he overheard a conversation between two persons occupying the box next to himself, relative to the robbery. One o these two seemed to have been near the bank when the discovery was made, which did not take place until after ten o’clock that morning. It also appeared that the civic police were quite at fault; the means by which the house had been robbed by being broken into were plain enough, for the instant that the cashier went into the strong vault he saw all was in confusion, and a very slight search led to the discovery of the opening into the sewer; but they knew not how to, account for all the rubbish in the branch drain, nor could they at all conceive how the robbers had escaped after executing their purpose. It was agreed, however, by all, that several thieves must have been concerned, as it appeared to them the labour performed was far greater than the truth.

The only persons upon whom suspicion had as yet fallen were the workmen employed in repairing the sewer, all of whom had been directly taken into custody; but it seemed two of their number, who had been at work with them on the Saturday previous, had not returned that morning to their task; nor could they be traced by any enquiry which had been made. Therefore very heavy suspicion attached itself to them, and a high reward had been offered for their apprehension. In the mean time placards had been largely circulated, giving intimation of the robbery, publishing the numbers of the notes stolen, and promising £500 for the detection of the guilty parties.

Rashleigh devoured all this story with great avidity and felt very easy in his mind, it being quite apparent that all the police authorities were perfectly astray as yet. The next morning he attended at the Guildhall to pick up what further news or information he could upon the examination of the workmen; but he failed, as this, being only a preliminary investigation, was held in private. He elicited, however, from a very communicative civic functionary of some sort, with whom he picked a conversation on the subject, that a watchman who was stationed in Lombard Street had that day come forward to state that a little after twelve on the morning of Monday he had seen a very gentlemanly-looking person in the street, whom he had spoken to, as he had at first thought he must have come out of the sewer; but that the stranger had denied doing so and the watchman could not swear that he actually saw him emerge from the opening. Nor could he give any other description of the party in question, save that he spoke very much like a gentleman and had on a large cloak, which covered him from head to foot, so Ralph’s informant thought. “Their Worships” could make nothing out of that.

As usual, the newspapers teemed with various and conflicting statements; but the chief information they contained consisted of the fact that several of the most active and intelligent officers of Bow Street had been sent to the different seaports to examine all suspicious persons about to leave the kingdom; but above all things, the strictest search was everywhere to be made for the missing workmen.

Rashleigh having thus learned all that he could for the present, determined on going out of London for a short rime, and selected Farnham, in Surrey, as his retreat, having been much taken with the beauty of the town when he had spent a day or two there after his exploit at Winchester. Here, then, he located himself, passing as usual for a clerk upon a holiday.

About a fortnight after he arrived there, he was horrified by reading in the newspaper an account of a great fire which had taken place in Essex Street, Strand, where he had lodged, and which had already consumed nearly the whole of the houses on one side of that street. This news quite unmanned him because he had left nearly the whole of his large stock of ill-acquired cash in the places of concealment before mentioned at his lodgings. The only hope that remained to him was that the side consumed might not be that on which he had lived, as the paper did not specify the spot exactly. Suspense, however, was intolerable, and feigning that he had received a letter claiming his instant return to London, he took coach the same night, and having arrived at the Golden Cross, flew on the wings of anxiety to Essex Street. Here his very worst anticipations were fully realised. His late lodgings were not distinguishable amid the mass of smoking ruins, and the firemen. who were all busied in pulling down those walls which still stood but threatened to fall, would not allow Rashleigh to approach near the spot on which the house he lived in had stood. Indeed, if they had, it would have proved useless, for that dwelling appeared to have suffered even more, if possible, than any of the rest, having been completely gutted, the roof and floors fallen in; and the workmen, at that moment, were levelling the front walls.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05