Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 8

Mr. Parrish Remembers

FOR a month or two after the agreeable episode just recounted, the stream of my life flowed on tranquilly and perhaps rather monotonously. But I was quite happy. My position in Mr. Parrish’s establishment seemed fairly settled and I had the feeling that my employer set some value on me as a workman. Not, however, to the extent of increasing my salary, though of this I still cherished hopes. But I did not dare to raise the question; for at least I had an assured livelihood, if a rather meagre one, and so great was my horror of being thrown out of employment that I would have accepted the low wage indefinitely rather than risk my security. So I worked on contentedly, poor as a church mouse, but always hoping for better times.

But at last came the explosion which blew my security into atoms. It was a disastrous affair and foolish, too; and what made it worse was that it was my own hand that set the match to the gunpowder. Very vividly do I recall the circumstances, though, at first, they seemed trivial enough. A man from a tool-maker’s had come into the workshop to inspect a new slide-rest that his firm had fitted to the lathe. When he had examined it and pronounced it satisfactory, he picked up the heavy bag that he had brought and was turning towards the door when Mr. Parrish said:

“If you have got the account with you, I may as well settle up now.”

The man produced the account from his pocket-book and handed it to Mr. Parrish, who glanced at it and then, diving into his coat-tail pocket, brought out a leather wallet (which I instantly recognized as an old acquaintance) and, extracting from it a five-pound note, handed the latter to the man in exchange for the receipt and a few shillings change. As our visitor put away the note, Mr. Parrish said to me: “Take Mr. Soames’s bag, Polton, and carry it out to the cab.”

I picked up the bag, which seemed to be filled with tool-makers’ samples, and conveyed it out to the waiting “growler”, where I stowed it on the front seat, and, waiting with the door open, saw Mr. Soames safely into the vehicle and shut him in. Returning into the house, I encountered Mr. Parrish, who was standing at the front door; and then it was that some demon of mischief impelled me to an act of the most perfectly asinine folly.

“I see, sir,” I said with a fatuous smirk, “that you still carry your wallet in your coat-tail pocket.”

He halted suddenly and stared at me with a strange, startled expression that brought me to my senses with a jerk. But it was too late. I saw that the fat was in the fire, though I didn’t guess how much fat there was or how big was the fire. After a prolonged stare, he commanded, gruffly:

“Come into my room and tell me what you mean.” I followed him in, miserably, and when he had shut the door, I explained:

“I was thinking, sir, of what the inspector at the police station said to you about carrying your wallet in your tail pocket. Don’t you remember, sir?”

“Yes,” he replied, glaring at me ferociously, “I remember. And I remember you, too, now that you have reminded me. I always thought that I had seen you before. So you are the young rascal who was found in possession of the stolen property.”

“But I didn’t steal it, sir,” I pleaded.

“Ha!” said he. “So you said at the time. Very well. That will do for the present.”

I sneaked out of the room very crest-fallen and apprehensive. “For the present!” What did he mean by that? Was there more trouble to come? I looked nervously in at the workshop, but as the other occupants had now gone to dinner, I took myself off and repaired to an a-la-mode beef shop in Oxford Market, where I fortified myself with a big basinful of the steaming compound and “topped up” with a halfpennyworth of apples from a stall in the market. Then I whiled away the remainder of the dinner hour rambling about the streets, trying to interest myself in shop windows, but unable to rid myself of the haunting dread of what loomed in the immediate future.

At length, as the last minutes of the dinner hour ran out, I crept back timorously, hoping to slink unnoticed along the passage to the workshop. But even as I entered, my forebodings were realized. For there was my employer, evidently waiting for me, and a glance at his face prepared me for instant dismissal. He motioned to me silently to follow him into his room, and I did so in the deepest dejection; but when I entered and found a third person in the room, my dejection gave place to something like terror. For that third person was Detective Sergeant Pitts.

He recognized me instantly, for he greeted me drily by name. Then, characteristically, he came straight to the point.

“Mr. Parrish alleges that you have opened his cash drawer with a false key and have, from time to time, taken certain monies from it. Now, before you say any thing, I must caution you that anything you may say will be taken down in writing and may be used in evidence against you. So be very careful. Do you wish to say anything?”

“Certainly I do,” I replied, my indignation almost overcoming my alarm. “I say that I have no false key, that I have never touched the drawer except in Mr. Parrish’s presence, and that I have never taken any money whatsoever.”

The sergeant made a note of my reply in a large black note-book and then asked: “Is it true that you made a key to fit this drawer?”

“Yes, for Mr. Parrish; and he has that key and the broken one from which it was copied. I made no other key.”

“How did you make that key? By measurements only, or did you make a squeeze?”

“I made a squeeze from the broken key, and, as soon as the job was finished, I destroyed it.”

“That’s what he says,” exclaimed Mr. Parrish, “but it’s a lie. He kept the squeeze and made another key from it.”

The sergeant cast a slightly impatient glance at him and remarked, drily: “We are taking his statement,” and continued:

“Now, Polton, Mr. Parrish says that he marked some, or all, of the money in that drawer with a P. scratched just behind the head. If you have got any money about you, perhaps you would like to show it to us.”

“Like, indeed!” exclaimed Mr. Parrish. “He’ll have to be searched whether he likes it or not.”

The sergeant looked at him angrily, but, as I proceeded to turn out my pockets and lay the contents on the table, he made no remark until Mr. Parrish was about to pounce on the coins that I had laid down, when he said, brusquely: “Keep your hands off that money, Mr. Parrish. This is my affair.”

Then he proceeded to examine the coins, one by one, laying them down again in two separate groups. Having finished, he looked at me steadily and said:

“Here, Polton, are five coins: three half-crowns and a shilling and a sixpence. All the half-crowns are marked with a P. The other coins are not marked. Can you explain how you came by those half-crowns?”

“Yes, sir. I received them from Mr. Parrish when he paid me my wages last Saturday. He gave me four half-crowns, two forms and a shilling; and he took the money from that drawer.”

The sergeant looked at Mr. Parrish. “Is that correct?” he asked.

“I paid him his wages — fifteen shillings — but I don’t admit that those are the coins I gave him.”

“But,” the sergeant persisted, “did you take the money from that drawer?”

“Of course I did,” snapped Parrish. “It’s my petty-cash drawer.”

“And did you examine the coins to see whether they were marked?”

“I expect I did, but I really don’t remember.”

“He did not,” said I. “He just counted out the money and handed it to me.”

The sergeant gazed at my employer with an expression of bewilderment.

“Well, of all —” he began, and then stopped and began again: “But what on earth was the use of marking the money and then paying it out in the ordinary way?”

The question stumped Mr. Parrish for the moment. Then, having mumbled something about “a simple precaution”, he returned to the subject of the squeeze and the key. But the sergeant cut him short.

“It’s no use just making accusations without proof. You’ve got nothing to go on. The marked money is all bunkum, and as to the key, you are simply guessing. You’ve not made out any case at all.”

“Oh, haven’t I?” Parrish retorted. “What about that key and the lock that he repaired and the stolen money? I am going to prosecute him, and I call on you to arrest him now.”

“I’m not going to arrest him,” said the sergeant; “but if you still intend to prosecute, you’d better come along and settle the matter with the inspector at the station. You come, too, Polton, so that you can answer any questions.”

Thus did history repeat itself. Once more, after five years, did I journey to the same forbidding destination in company with the same accuser and the guardian of the law. When we arrived at the police station and were about to enter, we nearly collided with a smartly dressed gentleman who was hurrying out, and whom I recognized as my late benefactor, Mr. Cohen. He recognized me at the same moment and stopped short with a look of surprise at the sergeant.

“Why, what’s this, Polton?” he demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“He is accused by this gentleman,” the sergeant explained, “of having stolen money from a drawer by means of a false key.”

“Bah!” exclaimed Mr. Cohen. “Nonsense. He is a most respectable lad. I know him well and can vouch for his excellent character.”

“You don’t know him as well as I do,” said Mr. Parrish, viciously.

Mr. Cohen turned on him a look of extreme disfavour and then addressed the sergeant.

“If there is going to be a prosecution, Sergeant, I shall undertake the defence. But I should like to have a few words with Polton and hear his account of the affair before the charge is made.”

To this Mr. Parrish was disposed to object, muttering something about” collusion “, but, as the inspector was engaged at the moment, the sergeant thrust my adviser and me into a small, empty room and shut the door. Then Mr. Cohen began to ply me with questions, and so skilfully were they framed that in a few minutes he had elicited, not only the immediate circumstances, but also the material antecedents, including the incident of the wax squeeze and Mr. Kennet’s observations with the reflecting level. I had just finished my recital when the sergeant opened the door and invited us to step into the inspector’s office.

Police officers appear to have astonishing memories. The inspector was the same one who had taken — or rather refused — the charge on my former visit, and I gathered that not only was his recognition of accused and accuser instantaneous, but that he even remembered the circumstances in detail. His mention of the fact did not appear to encourage Mr. Parrish, who began the statement of his case in a rather diffident tone; but he soon warmed up, and finished upon a note of fierce denunciation. He made no reference to the marked coins, but the sergeant supplied the deficiency with a description of the incident to which the inspector listened with an appreciative grin.

“It comes to this, then,” that officer summed up. “You have missed certain money from your cash-drawer and you suspect Polton of having stolen it because he is able to make a key.”

“And a very good reason, too,” Mr. Parrish retorted, defiantly.

“You have no proof that he did actually make a key?”

“He must have done so, or he wouldn’t have been able to steal the money.”

The inspector exchanged glances of intelligence with the sergeant and then turned to my adviser.

“Now, Mr. Cohen, you say you are acting for the accused. You have heard what Mr. Parrish has said. Is there any answer to the charge?”

“There is a most complete and conclusive answer,” Mr. Cohen replied. “In the first place I can prove that Polton destroyed the wax squeeze immediately when he had finished the key. Further, I can prove that, while Polton was absent, trying the key in the lock, some other person abstracted a piece of the wax and made an impression on it with the broken key. He thought he was unobserved, but he was mistaken. Someone saw him take the wax and make the squeeze. Now, the person who made that squeeze was a member of Mr. Parrish’s household, and so would have had access to Mr. Parrish’s office in his absence.”

“He wouldn’t,” Mr. Parrish interposed. “I always lock my office when I go away from it.”

“And when you are in it,” the inspector asked, “where is the key?”

“In the door, of course,” Mr. Parrish replied impatiently.

“On the outside, where anyone could take it out quietly, make a squeeze and put it back. And somebody must have made a false key if the money was really stolen. The drawer couldn’t have been robbed when you were in the office.”

“That is exactly what I am saying,” Mr. Parrish protested. “This young rogue made two keys, one of the door and one of the cash-drawer.”

The inspector took a deep breath and then looked at Mr. Cohen.

“You say, Mr. Cohen, that you can produce evidence. What sort of evidence?”

“Absolutely conclusive evidence, sir,” Mr. Cohen replied. “The testimony of an eye-witness who saw Polton destroy his squeeze and saw the other person take a piece of the wax and make the impression. If this case goes into Court, I shall call that witness and he will disclose the identity of that person. And then I presume that the police would take action against that person.”

“Certainly,” replied the inspector. “If Mr. Parrish swears that money was stolen from that drawer and you prove that some person, living in the house, had made a squeeze of the drawer-key, we should, naturally, charge that person with having committed the robbery. Can you swear, Mr. Parrish, that the money was really stolen and give particulars of the amounts?”

“Well,” replied Mr. Parrish, mightily flustered by these new developments, “to the best of my belief — but if there is going to be a lot of fuss and scandal, perhaps I had better let the matter drop and say no more about it.”

“That won’t do, Mr. Parrish,” my champion said, sharply. “You have accused a most respectable young man of a serious crime, and you have actually planted marked money on him and pretended that he stole it. Now, you have got, either to support that accusation — which you can’t do, because it is false — or withdraw the charge unconditionally and acknowledge your mistake. If you do that, in writing, I am willing to let the matter drop, as you express it. Otherwise, I shall take such measures as may be necessary to establish my client’s innocence.”

The pretty obvious meaning of Mr. Cohen’s threat was evidently understood, for my crestfallen accuser turned in dismay to the inspector with a mumbled request for advice; to which the officer replied, briskly:

“Well. What’s the difficulty? You’ve been guessing, and you’ve guessed wrong. Why not do the fair thing and admit your mistake like a man?”

In the end, Mr. Parrish surrendered, though with a very bad grace; and when Mr. Cohen had written out a short statement, he signed it, and Sergeant Pitts attested the signature and Mr. Cohen bestowed the document in his wallet; which brought the proceedings to an end. Mr. Parrish departed in dudgeon; and I— when I had expressed my profound gratitude to Mr. Cohen for his timely help — followed him, in considerably better spirits than when I had arrived.

But as soon as I was outside the police station, the realities of my position came back to me. The greater peril of the false charge and possible conviction and imprisonment, I had escaped; but the other peril still hung over me. I had now to return to my place of employment, but I knew that there would be no more employment for me. Mr. Parrish was an unreasonable, obstinate man, and evidently vindictive. No generous regret for the false accusation could I expect, but rather an exacerbation of his anger against me. He would never forgive the humiliation that Mr. Cohen had inflicted on him.

My expectations were only too literally fulfilled. As I entered the house, I found him waiting for me in the hail with a handful of silver in his fist.

“Ha!” said he, “so you have had the impudence to come back. Well, I don’t want you here. I’ve done with you. Here are your week’s wages, and now you can take yourself off.”

He handed me the money and pointed to the door, but I reminded him that my tools were in the workshop and requested permission to go and fetch them.

“Very well,” said he, “you can take your tools, and I will come with you to see that you don’t take any thing else.”

He escorted me to the workshop, where, as we entered, Kennet looked at us with undissembled curiosity, and Gus cast a furtive and rather nervous glance over his shoulder. Both had evidently gathered that there was trouble in the air.

“Now,” said Mr. Parrish, “look sharp. Get your things together and clear out.”

As the order was given, in a tone of furious anger, Gus bent down over his bench and Kennet turned to watch us with a scowl on his face that suggested an inclination to take a hand in the proceedings. But if he had had any such intention, he thought better of it, though he continued to look at me, gloomily, as I packed my bag, until Mr Parrish noticed him an demanded, angrily:

“What are you staring at, Kennet? Mind your own business and get on with your work.”

“Polton got the sack?” asked Kennet.

“Yes, he has,” was the gruff reply.

“What for?” Kennet demanded with equal gruffness.

“That’s no affair of yours,” Parrish replied. “You attend to your own job.”

“Well,” said Kennet, “you are sending away a good workman, and I hope he’ll get a better billet next time. So long, mate.” and with this he turned back sulkily to his lathe, while I, having now finished packing my bag, said “good-bye” to him and was forthwith shepherded out of the workshop.

As I took my way homeward — that is, towards Foubert’s Place — I reflected on the disastrous change in my condition that a few foolish words had wrought. For I could not disguise from myself the fact that my position was even worse than it had been when poor Mr. Abraham’s death had sent me adrift. Then, I had a reasonable explanation of my being out of work, Just now I should not dare to mention my last employer. I had been dismissed on suspicion of theft. It was a false suspicion and its falsity could be proved. But no stranger would go into that question. The practical effect was the same as if I had been guilty. I should have to evade any questions as to my last employment.

A review of my resources was not more encouraging. I had nine shillings left from my last wages and the fifteen shillings that Mr. Parrish had just paid me, added to which was a small store in my money-box that I had managed to put by from week to week. I knew the amount exactly, and, casting up the entire sum of my wealth, found that the total was two pounds, three shillings and sixpence. On that I should have to subsist and pay my rent until I should obtain some fresh employment; and the ominous question as to how long it would last was one that I did not dare to consider.

When I had put away my tool-bag in the cupboard and bestowed the bulk of my money in the cash-box, I took a long drink from the water-jug to serve in lieu of tea and set forth towards Clerkenwell to use what was left of the day in taking up once more the too-familiar quest.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54