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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?”
“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.
This story is not yet available.
AMONG the few personal friendships that Martin Hewitt has allowed himself to make there is one for an eccentric but very excellent old lady named Mrs. Mallett. She must be more than seventy now, but she is of robust and active, not to say masculine, habits, and her relations with Hewitt are irregular and curious. He may not see her for many weeks, perhaps for months, until one day she will appear in the office, push Kerrett (who knows better than to attempt to stop her) into the inner room, and salute Hewitt with a shake of the hand and a savage glare of the eye which would appal a stranger, but which is quite amiably meant. As for myself, it was long ere I could find any resource but instant retreat before her gaze, though we are on terms of moderate toleration now.
After her first glare she sits in the chair by the window and directs her glance at Hewitt’s small gas grill and kettle in the fireplace — a glance which Hewitt, with all expedition, translates into tea. Slightly mollified by the tea, Mrs. Mallett condescends to remark in tones of tragic truculence, on passing matters of conventional interest — the weather, the influenza, her own health, Hewitt’s health, and so forth, any reply of Hewitt’s being commonly received with either disregard or contempt. In half an hour’s time or so she leaves the office with a stern command to Hewitt to attend at her house and drink tea on a day and at a time named — a command which Hewitt obediently fulfils, when he passes through a similarly exhilarating experience in Mrs. Mallett’s back drawing-room at her little freehold house in Fulham. Altogether Mrs. Mallett, to a stranger, is a singularly uninviting personality, and indeed, except Hewitt, who has learnt to appreciate her hidden good qualities, I doubt if she has a friend in the world. Her studiously concealed charities are a matter of as much amusement as gratification to Hewitt, who naturally, in the course of his peculiar profession, comes across many sad examples of poverty and suffering, commonly among the decent sort, who hide their troubles from strangers’ eyes and suffer in secret. When such a case is in his mind it is Hewitt’s practice to inform Mrs. Mallett of it at one of the tea ceremonies. Mrs. Mallett receives the story with snorts of incredulity and scorn but takes care, while expressing the most callous disregard and contempt of the troubles of the sufferers, to ascertain casually their names and addresses; twenty-four hours after which Hewitt need only make a visit to find their difficulties in some mysterious way alleviated.
Mrs. Mallett never had any children, and was early left a widow. Her appearance, for some reason or another, commonly leads strangers to believe her an old maid. She lives in her little detached house with its square piece of ground, attended by a house-keeper older than herself and one maid-servant. She lost her only sister by death soon after the events I am about to set down, and now has, I believe, no relations in the world. It was also soon after these events that her present housekeeper first came to her in place of an older and very deaf woman, quite useless, who had been with her before. I believe she is moderately rich, and that one or two charities will benefit considerably at her death; also I should be far from astonished to find Hewitt’s own name in her will, though this is no more than idle conjecture. The one possession to which she clings with all her soul — her one pride and treasure — is her great-uncle Joseph’s snuff-box, the lid of which she steadfastly believes to be made of a piece of Noah’s original ark discovered on the top of Mount Ararat by some intrepid explorer of vague identity about a hundred years ago. This is her one weakness, and woe to the unhappy creature who dares hint a suggestion that possibly the wood of the ark rotted away to nothing a few thousand years before her great-uncle Joseph ever took snuff. I believe he would be bodily assaulted. The box is brought for Hewitt’s admiration at every tea ceremony at Fulham, when Hewitt handles it reverently and expresses as much astonishment and interest as if he had never seen or heard of it before. It is on these occasions only that Mrs. Mallett’s customary stiffness relaxes. The sides of the box are of cedar of Lebanon, she explains (which very possibly they are), and the gold mountings were worked up from spade guineas (which one can believe without undue strain on the reason). And it is usually these times, when the old lady softens under the combined influence of tea and uncle Joseph’s snuff-box, that Hewitt seizes to lead up to his hint of some starving governess or distressed clerk, with the full confidence that the more savagely the story is received the better will the poor people be treated as soon as he turns his back.
It was her jealous care of uncle Joseph’s snuff-box that first brought Mrs. Mallett into contact with Martin Hewitt, and the occasion, though not perhaps testing his acuteness to the extent that some did, was nevertheless one of the most curious and fantastic on which he has ever been engaged She was then some ten or twelve years younger than she is now, but Hewitt assures me she looked exactly the same; that is to say, she was harsh, angular, and seemed little more than fifty years of age. It was before the time of Kerrett, and another youth occupied the outer office. Hewitt sat late one afternoon with his door ajar when he heard a stranger enter the outer office, and a voice, which he afterwards knew well as Mrs. Mallett’s, ask “Is Mr. Martin Hewitt in?”
“Yes, ma’am, I think so. If you will write your name and ——”
“Is he in there?” And with three strides Mrs. Mallett was at the inner door and stood before Hewitt himself, while the routed office-lad stared helplessly in the rear.
“Mr. Hewitt,” Mrs. Mallet said, “I have come to put an affair into your hands, which I shall require to be attended to at once.”
Hewitt was surprised, but he bowed politely, and said, with some suspicion of a hint in his tone, “Yes — I rather supposed you were in a hurry.”
She glanced quickly in Hewitt’s face and went on: “I am not accustomed to needless ceremony, Mr. Hewitt. My name is Mallett — Mrs. Mallett — and here is my card. I have come to consult you on a matter of great annoyance and some danger to myself. The fact is I am being watched and followed by a number of persons.”
Hewitt’s gaze was steadfast, but he reflected that possibly this curious woman was a lunatic, the delusion of being watched and followed by unknown people being perhaps the most common of all; also it was no unusual thing to have a lunatic visit the office with just such a complaint. So he only said soothingly, “Indeed? That must be very annoying.”
“Yes, yes, the annoyance is bad enough perhaps,” she answered shortly, “but I am chiefly concerned about my great-uncle Joseph’s snuff-box.”
This utterance sounded a trifle more insane than the other, so Hewitt answered, a little more soothingly still: “Ah, of course. A very important thing, the snuff-box, no doubt.”
“It is, Mr. Hewitt — it is important, as I think you will admit when you have seen it. Here it is,” and she produced from a small handbag the article that Hewitt was destined so often again to see and affect an interest in. “You may be incredulous, Mr. Hewitt, but it is nevertheless a fact that the lid of this snuff-box is made of the wood of the original ark that rested on Mount Ararat.”
She handed the box to Hewitt, who murmured, “Indeed! Very interesting — very wonderful, really,” and returned it to the lady immediately.
“That, Mr. Hewitt, was the property of my great-uncle, Joseph Simpson, who once had the honour of shaking hands with his late Majesty King George the Fourth. The box was presented to my uncle by — — ” and then Mrs. Mallett plunged into the whole history and adventures of the box, in the formula wherewith Hewitt subsequently became so well acquainted, and which need not be here set out in detail. When the box had been properly honoured Mrs. Mallett proceeded with her business.
“I am convinced, Mr. Hewitt,” she said, “that systematic attempts are being made to rob me of this snuff-box. I am not a nervous or weak-minded woman, or perhaps I might have sought your assistance before. The watching and following of myself I might have disregarded, but when it comes to burglary I think it is time to do something.”
“Certainly,” Hewitt agreed.
“Well, I have been pestered with demands for the box for some time past. I have here some of the letters which I have received, and I am sure I know at whose instigation they were sent.” She placed on the table a handful of papers of various sizes, which Hewitt examined one after another. They were mostly in the same handwriting, and all were unsigned. Every one was couched in a fanatically toned imitation of scriptural diction, and all sorts of threats were expressed with many emphatic underlinings. The spelling was not of the best, the writing was mostly uncouth, and the grammar was in ill shape in many places, the “thous” and “thees” and their accompanying verbs falling over each other disastrously. The purport of the messages was rather vaguely expressed, but all seemed to make a demand for the restoration of some article held in extreme veneration. This was alluded to in many figurative ways as the “token of life,” the “seal of the woman,” and so forth, and sometimes Mrs. Mallett was requested to restore it to the “ark of the covenant.” One of the least vague of these singular documents ran thus:— “Thou of no faith put the bond of the woman clothed with the sun on the stoan sete in thy back garden this night or thy blood beest on your own hed. Give it back to us the five righteous only in this citty, give us that what saves the faithful when the erth is swalloed up.” Hewitt read over these fantastic missives one by one till he began to suspect that his client, mad or not, certainly corresponded with mad Quakers. Then he said, “Yes, Mrs. Mallett, these are most extraordinary letters. Are there any more of them?”
“Bless the man, yes, there were a lot that I burnt. All the same crack-brained sort of thing.”
“They are mostly in one handwriting,” Hewitt said, “though some are in another. But I confess I don’t see any very direct reference to the snuff-box.”
“Oh, but it’s the only thing they can mean,” Mrs. Mallett replied with great positiveness. “Why, he wanted me to sell it him; and last night my house was broken into in my absence and everything ransacked and turned over, but not a thing was taken. Why? Because I had the box with me at my sister’s; and this is the only sacred relic in my possession. And what saved the faithful when the world was swallowed up? Why, the ark of course.” The old lady’s manner was odd, but notwithstanding the bizarre and disjointed character of her complaint Hewitt had now had time to observe that she had none of the unmistakable signs of the lunatic. Her eye was steady and clear, and she had none of the restless habits of the mentally deranged. Even at that time Hewitt had met with curious adventures enough to teach him not to be astonished at a new one, and now he set himself seriously to get at his client’s case in full order and completeness.
“Come, Mrs. Mallett,” he said, “I am a stranger, and I can never understand your case till I have it, not as it presents itself to your mind, in the order of importance of events, but in the exact order in which they happened. You had a great-uncle, I understand, living in the early part of the century, who left you at his death the snuff-box which you value so highly. Now you suspect that somebody is attempting to extort or steal it from you. Tell me as clearly and simply as you can whom you suspect and the whole story of the attempts.”
“That’s just what I’m coming to,” the old lady answered, rather pettishly. “My uncle Joseph had an old housekeeper, who of course knew all about the snuff-box, and it is her son Reuben Penner who is trying to get it from me. The old woman was half crazy with one extraordinary religious superstition and another, and her son seems to be just the same. My great-uncle was a man of strong common-sense and a churchman (though he did think he could write plays), and if it hadn’t been for his restraint I believe — that is I have been told — Mrs. Penner would have gone clean demented with religious mania. Well, she died in course of time, and my great-uncle died some time after, leaving me the most important thing in his possession (I allude to the snuff-box of course), a good bit of property, and a tin box full of his worthless manuscript. I became a widow at twenty-six, and since then I have lived very quietly in my present house in Fulham.
“A couple of years ago I received a visit from Reuben Penner. I didn’t recognise him, which wasn’t wonderful, since I hadn’t seen him for thirty years or more. He is well over fifty now, a large heavy-faced man with uncommonly wild eyes for a greengrocer — which is what he is, though he dresses very well, considering. He was quite respectful at first, and very awkward in his manner. He took a little time to get his courage, and then he began questioning me about my religious feelings. Well, Mr. Hewitt, I am not the sort of person to stand a lecture from a junior and an inferior, whatever my religious opinions may be, and I pretty soon made him realise it. But somehow he persevered. He wanted to know if I would go to some place of worship that he called his ‘Tabernacle.’ I asked him who was the pastor. He said himself. I asked him how many members of the congregation there were, and (the man was as solemn as an owl. I assure you, Mr. Hewitt) he actually said five! I kept my countenance and asked why such a small number couldn’t attend church, or at any rate attach itself to some decent Dissenting chapel. And then the man burst out; mad — mad as a hatter. He was as incoherent as such people usually are, but as far as I could make out he talked, among a lot of other things, of some imaginary woman — a woman standing on the moon and driven into a wilderness on the wings of an eagle. The man was so madly possessed of his fancies that I assure you for a while he almost ceased to look ridiculous. He was so earnest in his rant. But I soon cut him short. It’s best to be severe with these people — it’s the only chance of bringing them to their senses. ‘Reuben Penner,’ I said ‘shut up! Your mother was a very decent person in her way, I believe, but she was half a lunatic with her superstitious notions, and you’re a bigger fool than she was. Imagine a grown man, and of your age, coming and asking me, of all people in the world, to leave my church and make another fool in a congregation of five, with you to rave at me about women in the moon! Go away and look after your greengrocery, and go to church or chapel like a sensible man. Go away and don’t play the fool any longer; I won’t hear another word!’
“When I talk like this I am usually attended to, and in this case Penner went away with scarcely another word. I saw nothing of him for about a month or six weeks and then he came and spoke to me as I was cutting roses in my front garden. This time he talked — to begin with, at least — more sensibly. ‘Mrs. Mallett,’ he said, ‘you have in your keeping a very sacred relic.’
“‘I have,’ I said, ‘left me by my great-uncle Joseph. And what then?’
“‘Well’— he hummed and hawed a little —‘I wanted to ask if you might be disposed to part with it.’
“‘What?’ I said, dropping my scissors —‘sell it?’
“‘Well, yes,’ he answered, putting on as bold a face as he could.
“The notion of selling my uncle Joseph’s snuff-box in any possible circumstances almost made me speechless. ‘What!’ I repeated. ‘Sell it? — sell it? It would be a sinful sacrilege!’
“His face quite brightened when I said this, and he replied, ‘Yes, of course it would; I think so myself, ma’am; but I fancied you thought otherwise. In that case, ma’am, not being a believer yourself, I’m sure you would consider it a graceful and a pious act to present it to my little Tabernacle, where it would be properly valued. And it having been my mother’s property ——’
“He got no further. I am not a woman to be trifled with, Mr. Hewitt, and I believe I beat him out of the garden with my basket. I was so infuriated I can scarcely remember what I did. The suggestion that I should sell my uncle Joseph’s snuff-box to a greengrocer was bad enough; the request that I should actually give it to his ‘Tabernacle’ was infinitely worse. But to claim that it had belonged to his mother — well I don’t know how it strikes you, Mr. Hewitt, but to me it seemed the last insult possible.”
“Shocking, shocking, of course,” Hewitt said, since she seemed to expect a reply. “And he called you an unbeliever, too. But what happened after that?”
“After that he took care not to bother me personally again; but these wretched anonymous demands came in, with all sorts of darkly hinted threats as to the sin I was committing in keeping my own property. They didn’t trouble me much. I put ’em in the fire as fast as they came, until I began to find I was being watched and followed, and then I kept them.”
“Very sensible,” Hewitt observed, “very sensible indeed to do that. But tell me as to these papers. Those you have here are nearly all in one handwriting, but some, as I have already said, are in another. Now before all this business, did you ever see Reuben Penner’s handwriting?”
“Then you are not by any means sure that he has written any of these things?”
“But then who else could?”
“That of course is a thing to be found out. At present, at any rate, we know this: that if Penner has anything to do with these letters he is not alone, because of the second handwriting. Also we must not bind ourselves past other conviction that he wrote any one of them. By the way, I am assuming that they all arrived by post?”
“Yes, they did.”
“But the envelopes are not here. Have you kept any of them?”
“I hardly know; there may be some at home. Is it important?”
“It may be; but those I can see at another time. Please go on.”
“These things continued to arrive, as I have said, and I continued to burn them till I began to find myself watched and followed, and then I kept them. That was two or three months ago. It is a most unpleasant sensation, that of feeling that some unknown person is dogging your footsteps from corner to corner and observing all your movements for a purpose you are doubtful of. Once or twice I turned suddenly back, but I never could catch the creatures, of whom I am sure Penner was one.”
“You saw these people, of course?”
“Well, yes, in a way — with the corner of my eye, you know. But it was mostly in the evening. It was a woman once, but several times I feel certain it was Penner. And once I saw a man come into my garden at the back in the night, and I feel quite sure that was Penner.”
“Was that after you had this request to put the article demanded on the stone seat in the garden?”
“The same night. I sat up and watched from the bath-room window, expecting someone would come. It was a dark night, and the trees made it darker, but I could plainly see someone come quietly over the wall and go up to the seat.”
“Could you distinguish his face?”
“No, it was too dark. But I feel sure it was Penner.”
“Has Penner any decided peculiarity of form or gait?”
“No, he’s just a big common sort of man. But I tell you I feel certain it was Penner.”
“For any particular reason?”
“No, perhaps not. But who else could it have been? No, I’m very sure it must have been Penner.”
Hewitt repressed a smile and went on. “Just so,” he said. “And what happened then?”
“He went up to the seat, as I said, and looked at it, passing his hand over the top. Then I called out to him. I said if I found him on my premises again by day or night I’d give him in charge of the police. I assure you he got over the wall the second time a good deal quicker than the first. And then I went to bed, though I got a shocking cold in the head sitting at that open bath-room window. Nobody came about the place after that till last night. A few days ago my only sister was taken ill. I saw her each day, and she got worse. Yesterday she was so bad that I wouldn’t leave her. I sent home for some things and stopped in her house for the night. To-day I got an urgent message to come home, and when I went I found that an entrance had been made by a kitchen window and the whole house had been ransacked, but not a thing was missing.”
“Were drawers and boxes opened?”
“Everywhere. Most seemed to have been opened with keys, but some were broken. The place was turned upside down, but, as I said before, not a thing was missing. A very old woman, very deaf, who used to be my housekeeper, but who does nothing now, was in the house, and so was my general servant. They slept in rooms at the top and were not disturbed. Of course the old woman is too deaf to have heard anything, and the maid is a very heavy sleeper. The girl was very frightened, but I pacified her before I came away. As it happened, I took the snuff-box with me. I had got very suspicious of late, of course, and something seemed to suggest that I had better so I took it. It’s pretty strong evidence that they have been watching me closely, isn’t it, that they should break in the very first night I left the place?”
“And are you quite sure that nothing has been taken?”
“Quite certain. I have spent a long time in a very careful search.”
“And you want me, I presume, to find out definitely who these people are, and get such evidence as may ensure their being punished?”
“That is the case. Of course I know Reuben Penner is the moving spirit — I’m quite certain of that. But still I can see plainly enough that as yet there’s no legal evidence of it. Mind, I’m not afraid of him — not a bit. That is not my character. I’m not afraid of all the madmen in England; but I’m not going to have them steal my property — this snuff-box especially.”
“Precisely. I hope you have left the disturbance in your house exactly as you found it?”
“Oh, of course, and I have given strict orders that nothing is to be touched. To-morrow morning I should like you to come and look at it.”
“I must look at it, certainly,” Hewitt said, “but I would rather go at once.”
“Pooh — nonsense!” Mrs. Mallett answered, with the airy obstinacy that Hewitt afterwards knew so well. “I’m not going home again now to spend an hour or two more. My sister will want to know what has become of me, and she mustn’t suspect that anything is wrong, or it may do all sorts of harm. The place will keep till the morning, and I have the snuff-box safe with me. You have my card, Mr. Hewitt, haven’t you? Very well. Can you be at my house to-morrow morning at half-past ten? I will be there, and you can see all you want by daylight. We’ll consider that settled. Good-day.” Hewitt saw her to his office door and waited till she had half descended the stairs. Then he made for a staircase window which gave a view of the street. The evening was coming on murky and foggy, and the street lights were blotchy and vague. Outside a four-wheeled cab stood, and the driver eagerly watched the front door. When Mrs. Mallett emerged he instantly began to descend from the box with the quick invitation, “Cab, mum, cab?” He seemed very eager for his fare, and though Mrs. Mallett hesitated a second she eventually entered the cab. He drove off, and Hewitt tried in vain to catch a glimpse of the number of the cab behind. It was always a habit of his to note all such identifying marks throughout a case, whether they seemed important at the time or not, and he has often had occasion to be pleased with the outcome. Now, however, the light was too bad. No sooner had the cab started than a man emerged from a narrow passage opposite, and followed. He was a large, rather awkward, heavy-faced man of middle age, and had the appearance of a respectable artisan or small tradesman in his best clothes. Hewitt hurried downstairs and followed the direction the cab and the man had taken, toward the Strand. But the cab by this time was swallowed up in the Strand traffic, and the heavy-faced man had also disappeared. Hewitt returned to his office a little disappointed, for the man seemed rather closely to answer Mrs. Mallett’s description of Reuben Penner.
Punctually at half-past ten the next morning Hewitt was at Mrs. Mallett’s house at Fulham. It was a pretty little house, standing back from the road in a generous patch of garden, and had evidently stood there when Fulham was an outlying village. Hewitt entered the gate, and made his way to the front door, where two young females, evidently servants, stood. They were in a very disturbed state, and when he asked for Mrs. Mallett, assured him that nobody knew where she was, and that she had not been seen since the previous afternoon.
“But,” said Hewitt, “she was to stay at her sister’s last night, I believe.”
“Yes, sir,” answered the more distressed of the two girls — she in a cap —“but she hasn’t been seen there. This is her sister’s servant, and she’s been sent over to know where she is, and why she hasn’t been there.” This the other girl — in bonnet and shawl — corroborated. Nothing had been seen of Mrs. Mallett at her sister’s since she had received the message the day before to the effect that the house had been broken into.
“And I’m so frightened,” the other girl said, whimperingly. “They’ve been in the place again last night.”
“The robbers. When I came in this morning ——”
“But didn’t you sleep here?”
“I— I ought to ha’ done sir, but — but after Mrs. Mallett went yesterday I got so frightened I went home at ten.” And the girl showed signs of tears, which she had apparently been already indulging in.
“And what about the old woman — the deaf woman; where was she?”
“She was in the house, sir. There was nowhere else for her to go, and she was deaf and didn’t know anything about what happened the night before, and confined to her room, and — and so I didn’t tell her.”
“I see,” Hewitt said with a slight smile. “You left her here. She didn’t see or hear anything, did she?”
“No sir; she can’t hear, and she didn’t see nothing.”
“And how do you know thieves have been in the house?”
“Everythink’s tumbled about worse than ever, sir, and all different from what it was yesterday; and there’s a box o’ papers in the attic broke open, and all sorts o’ things.”
“Have you spoken to the police?”
“No, sir; I’m that frightened I don’t know what to do. And missis was going to see a gentleman about it yesterday, and ——”
“Very well, I am that gentleman — Mr. Martin Hewitt. I have come down now to meet her by appointment. Did she say she was going anywhere else as well as to my office and to her sister’s?”
“No, sir. And she — she’s got the snuff-box with her and all.” This latter circumstance seemed largely to augment the girl’s terrors for her mistress’s safety.
“Very well,” Hewitt said, “I think I’d better just look over the house now, and then consider what has become of Mrs. Mallett — if she isn’t heard of in the meantime.” The girl found a great relief in Hewitt’s presence in the house, the deaf old house-keeper, who seldom spoke and never heard, being, as she said, “worse than nobody.”
“Have you been in all the rooms?” Hewitt asked.
“No, sir; I was afraid. When I came in I went straight upstairs to my room, and as I was coming away I see the things upset in the other attic. I went into Mrs. Perks’ room, next to mine (she’s the deaf old woman), and she was there all right, but couldn’t hear anything. Then I came down and only just peeped into two of the rooms and saw the state they were in, and then I came out into the garden, and presently this young woman came with the message from Mrs. Rudd.”
“Very well, we’ll look at the rooms now,” Hewitt said, and they proceeded to do so. All were in a state of intense confusion. Drawers, taken from chests and bureaux, littered about the floor, with their contents scattered about them. Carpets and rugs had been turned up and flung into corners, even pictures on the walls had been disturbed, and while some hung awry others rested on the floor and on chairs. The things, however, appeared to have been fairly carefully handled, for nothing was damaged except one or two framed engravings, the brown paper on the backs of which had been cut round with a knife and the wooden slats shifted so as to leave the backs of the engravings bare. This, the girl told Hewitt, had not been done on the night of the first burglary; the other articles also had not on that occasion been so much disturbed as they now were.
Mrs. Mallett’s bedroom was the first floor front. Here the confusion was, if possible, greater than in the other rooms. The bed had been completely unmade and the clothes thrown separately on the floor, and everything else was displaced. It was here indeed that the most noticeable features of the disturbance were observed, for on the side of the looking-glass hung a very long old-fashioned gold chain untouched, and on the dressing-table lay a purse with the money still in it. And on the looking-glass, stuck into the crack of the frame, was a half sheet of notepaper with this inscription scrawled in pencil:— To Mr. Martin Hewitt.
Mrs. Mallett is alright and in frends hands. She will return soon alright, if you keep quiet. But if you folloe her or take any steps the conseqinses will be very serious.
This paper was not only curious in itself, and curious as being addressed to Hewitt, but it was plainly in the same handwriting as were the most of the anonymous letters which Mrs. Mallett had produced the day before in Hewitt’s office. Hewitt studied it attentively for a few moments and then thrust it in his pocket and proceeded to inspect the rest of the rooms. All were the same — simply well-furnished rooms turned upside down. The top floor consisted of three comfortable attics, one used as a lumber-room and the others used respectively as bedrooms for the servant and the deaf old woman. None of these rooms appeared to have been entered, the girl said, on the first night, but now the lumber-room was almost as confused as the rooms downstairs. Two or three boxes were opened and their contents turned out. One of these was what is called a steel trunk — a small one — which had held old papers, the others were filled chiefly with old clothes.
The servant’s room next this was quite undisturbed and untouched; and then Hewitt was admitted to the room of Mrs. Mallett’s deaf old pensioner. The old woman sat propped up in her bed and looked with half-blind eyes at the peak in the bedclothes made by her bent knees. The servant screamed in her ear, but she neither moved nor spoke.
Hewitt laid his hand on her shoulder and said, in the slow and distinct tones he had found best for reaching the senses of deaf people, “I hope you are well. Did anything disturb you in the night?” But she only turned her head half toward him and mumbled peevishly, “I wish you’d bring my tea. You’re late enough this morning.” Nothing seemed likely to be got from her, and Hewitt asked the servant, “Is she altogether bedridden?”
“No,” the girl answered; “leastways she needn’t be. She stops in bed most of the time, but she can get up when she likes — I’ve seen her. But missis humours her and lets her do as she likes — and she gives plenty of trouble. I don’t believe she’s as deaf as she makes out.”
“Indeed!” Hewitt answered. “Deafness is convenient sometimes, I know. Now I want you to stay here while I make some inquiries. Perhaps you’d better keep Mrs. Rudd’s servant with you if you want company. I don’t expect to be very long gone, and in any case it wouldn’t do for her to go to her mistress and say that Mrs. Mallett is missing, or it might upset her seriously.” Hewitt left the house and walked till he found a public-house where a post-office directory was kept. He took a glass of whisky and water, most of which he left on the counter, and borrowed the directory. He found “Greengrocers” in the “Trade” section and ran his finger down the column till he came on this address:— “Penner, Reuben, 8, Little Marsh Row, Hammersmith, W.” Then he returned the directory and found the best cab he could to take him to Hammersmith.
Little Marsh Row was not a vastly prosperous sort of place, and the only shops were three — all small. Two were chandlers’, and the third was a sort of semi-shed of the greengrocery and coal persuasion, with the name “Penner” on a board over the door.
The shutters were all up, though the door was open, and the only person visible was a very smudgy boy who was in the act of wheeling out a sack of coals. To the smudgy boy Hewitt applied himself. “I don’t see Mr. Penner about,” he said; “will he be back soon?”
The boy stared hard at Hewitt. “No,” he said, “he won’t. ‘E’s guv’ up the shop. ‘E paid ‘is next week’s rent this mornin’ and retired.”
“Oh!” Hewitt answered sharply. “Retired, has he? And what’s become of the stock, eh! Where are the cabbages and potatoes?”
“‘E told me to give ’em to the pore, an’ I did. There’s lots o’ pore lives round ’ere. My mother’s one, an’ these ’ere coals is for ‘er, an’ I’m goin’ to ‘ave the trolley for myself.”
“Dear me!” Hewitt answered, regarding the boy with amused interest. “You’re a very business-like almoner. And what will the Tabernacle do without Mr. Penner?”
“I dunno,” the boy answered, closing the door behind him. “I dunno nothin’ about the Tabernacle — only where it is.”
“Ah, and where is it? I might find him there, perhaps.”
“Ward Lane — fust on left, second on right. It’s a shop wot’s bin shut up; next door to a stable-yard.” And the smudgy boy started off with his trolley.
The Tabernacle was soon found. At some very remote period it had been an unlucky small shop, but now it was permanently shuttered, and the interior was lighted by holes cut in the upper panels of the shutters. Hewitt took a good look at the shuttered window and the door beside it and then entered the stable-yard at the side. To the left of the passage giving entrance to the yard there was a door, which plainly was another entrance to the house, and a still damp mud-mark on the step proved it to have been lately used. Hewitt rapped sharply at the door with his knuckles.
Presently a female voice from within could be heard speaking through the keyhole in a very loud whisper. “Who is it?” asked the voice.
Hewitt stooped to the keyhole and whispered back, “Is Mr. Penner here now?”
“Then I must come in and wait for him. Open the door.” A bolt was pulled back and the door cautiously opened a few inches. Hewitt’s foot was instantly in the jamb, and he forced the door back and entered. “Come,” he said in a loud voice, “I’ve come to find out where Mr. Penner is, and to see whoever is in here.” Immediately there was an assault of fists on the inside of a door at the end of the passage, and a loud voice said, “Do you hear? Whoever you are I’ll give you five pounds if you’ll bring Mr. Martin Hewitt here. His office is 25 Portsmouth Street, Strand. Or the same if you’ll bring the police.” And the voice was that of Mrs. Mallett.
Hewitt turned to the woman who had opened the door, and who now stood, much frightened, in the corner beside him. “Come,” he said, “your keys, quick, and don’t offer to stir, or I’ll have you brought back and taken to the station.” The woman gave him a bunch of keys without a word. Hewitt opened the door at the end of the passage, and once more Mrs. Mallett stood before him, prim and rigid as ever, except that her bonnet was sadly out of shape and her mantle was torn.
“Thank you, Mr. Hewitt,” she said. “I thought you’d come, though where I am I know no more than Adam. Somebody shall smart severely for this. Why, and that woman — that woman,” she pointed contemptuously at the woman in the corner, who was about two-thirds her height, “was going to search me — me! Why ——” Mrs. Mallett, blazing with suddenly revived indignation, took a step forward and the woman vanished through the outer door.
“Come,” Hewitt said, “no doubt you’ve been shamefully treated; but we must be quiet for a little. First I will make quite sure that nobody else is here, and then we’ll get to your house.” Nobody was there. The rooms were dreary and mostly empty. The front room, which was lighted by the holes in the shutters, had a rough reading-desk and a table, with half a dozen wooden chairs. “This,” said Hewitt, “is no doubt the Tabernacle proper, and there is very little to see in it. Come back now, Mrs. Mallett, to your house, and we’ll see if some explanation of these things is not possible. I hope your snuff-box is quite safe?”
Mrs. Mallett drew it from her pocket and exhibited it triumphantly. “I told them they should never get it,” she said, “and they saw I meant it, and left off trying.” As they emerged in the street she said: “The first thing, of course, is to bring the police into this place.”
“No, I think we won’t do that yet,” Hewitt said. “In the first place the case is one of assault and detention, and your remedy is by summons or action; and then there are other things to speak of. We shall get a cab in the High Street, and you shall tell me what has happened to you.”
Mrs. Mallett’s story was simple. The cab in which she left Hewitt’s office had travelled west, and was apparently making for the locality of her sister’s house; but the evening was dark, the fog increased greatly, and she shut the windows and took no particular notice of the streets through which she was passing. Indeed with such a fog that would have been impossible. She had a sort of undefined notion that some of the streets were rather narrow and dirty, but she thought nothing of it, since all cabmen are given to selecting unexpected routes. After a time, however, the cab slowed, made a sharp turn, and pulled up. The door was opened, and “Here you are mum,” said the cabby. She did not understand the sharp turn, and had a general feeling that the place could not be her sister’s, but as she alighted she found she had stepped directly upon the threshold of a narrow door into which she was immediately pulled by two persons inside. This, she was sure, must have been the side-door in the stable-yard, through which Hewitt himself had lately obtained entrance to the Tabernacle.
Before she had recovered from her surprise the door was shut behind her. She struggled stoutly and screamed, but the place she was in was absolutely dark; she was taken by surprise, and she found resistance useless. They were men who held her, and the voice of the only one who spoke she did not know. He demanded in firm and distinct tones that the “sacred thing” should be given up, and that Mrs. Mallett should sign a paper agreeing to prosecute nobody before she was allowed to go. She however, as she asserted with her customary emphasis, was not the sort of woman to give in to that. She resolutely declined to do anything of the sort, and promised her captors, whoever they were, a full and legal return for their behaviour. Then she became conscious that a woman was somewhere present, and the man threatened that this woman should search her. This threat Mrs. Mallett met as boldly as the others. She should like to meet the woman who would dare attempt to search her, she said. She defied anybody to attempt it. As for her uncle Joseph’s snuff-box, no matter where it was, it was where they would not be able to get it. That they should never have, but sooner or later they should have something very unpleasant for their attempts to steal it. This declaration had an immediate effect. They importuned her no more, and she was left in an inner room and the key was turned on her. There she sat, dozing occasionally, the whole night, her indomitable spirit remaining proof through all those doubtful hours of darkness. Once or twice she heard people enter and move about, and each time she called aloud to offer, as Hewitt had heard, a reward to anybody who should bring the police or communicate her situation to Hewitt. Day broke and still she waited, sleepless and unfed, till Hewitt at last arrived and released her.
On Mrs. Mallett’s arrival at her house Mrs. Rudd’s servant was at once despatched with reassuring news and Hewitt once more addressed himself to the question of the burglars. “First, Mrs. Mallett,” he said, “did you ever conceal anything — anything at all mind — in the frame of an engraving?”
“Were any of your engravings framed before you had them?”
“Not one that I can remember. They were mostly uncle Joseph’s, and he kept them with a lot of others in drawers. He was rather a collector, you know.”
“Very well. Now come up to the attic. Something has been opened there that was not touched at the first attempt.”
“See now,” said Hewitt, when the attic was reached, “here is a box full of papers. Do you know everything that was in it?”
“No, I don’t,” Mrs. Mallett replied. “There were a lot of my uncle’s manuscript plays. Here you see ‘The Dead Bridegroom, or the Drum of Fortune,’ and so on; and there were a lot of autographs. I took no interest in them, although some were rather valuable, I believe.”
“Now bring your recollection to bear as strongly as you can,” Hewitt said. “Do you ever remember seeing in this box a paper bearing nothing whatever upon it but a wax seal?”
“Oh yes, I remember that well enough. I’ve noticed it each time I’ve turned the box over — which is very seldom. It was a plain slip of vellum paper with a red seal, cracked and rather worn — some celebrated person’s seal, I suppose. What about it?” Hewitt was turning the papers over one at a time. “It doesn’t seem to be here now,” he said. “Do you see it?”
“No,” Mrs. Mallett returned, examining the papers herself, “it isn’t. It appears to be the only thing missing. But why should they take it?”
“I think we are at the bottom of all this mystery now,” Hewitt answered quietly. “It is the Seal of the Woman.”
“The what? I don’t understand.
The fact is, Mrs. Mallett, that these people have never wanted your uncle Joseph’s snuff-box at all, but that seal.”
“Not wanted the snuff-box? Nonsense! Why, didn’t I tell you Penner asked for it — wanted to buy it?”
“Yes, you did, but so far as I can remember you never spoke of a single instance of Penner mentioning the snuff-box by name. He spoke of a sacred relic, and you, of course, very naturally assumed he spoke of the box. None of the anonymous letters mentioned the box, you know, and once or twice they actually did mention a seal, though usually the thing was spoken of in a roundabout and figurative way. All along, these people — Reuben Penner and the others — have been after the seal, and you have been defending the snuff-box.”
“But why the seal?”
“Did you never hear of Joanna Southcott?”
“Oh yes, of course; she was an ignorant visionary who set up as prophetess eighty or ninety years ago or more.”
“Joanna Southcott gave herself out as a prophetess in 1790. She was to be the mother of the Messiah, she said, and she was the woman driven into the wilderness, as foretold in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. She died at the end of 1814, when her followers numbered more than 100,000, all fanatic believers. She had made rather a good thing in her lifetime by the sale of seals, each of which was to secure the eternal salvation of the holder. At her death, of course, many of the believers fell away, but others held on as faithfully as ever, asserting that ‘the holy Joanna’ would rise again and fulfil all the prophecies. These poor people dwindled in numbers gradually, and although they attempted to bring up their children in their own faith, the whole belief has been practically extinct for years now. You will remember that you told me of Penner’s mother being a superstitious fanatic of some sort, and that your uncle Joseph possessed her extravagances. The thing seems pretty plain now. Your uncle Joseph possessed himself of Joanna Southcott s seal by way of removing from poor old Mrs. Penner an object of a sort of idolatry, and kept it as a curiosity. Reuben Penner grew up strong in his mother’s delusions, and to him and the few believers he had gathered round him at his Tabernacle, the seal was an object worth risking anything to get.
“First he tried to convert you to his belief. Then he tried to buy it; after that, he and his friends tried anonymous letters, and at last, grown desperate, they resorted to watching you, burglary and kidnapping. Their first night’s raid was unsuccessful, so last night they tried kidnapping you by the aid of a cabman. When they had got you, and you had at last given them to understand that it was your uncle Joseph’s snuff-box you were defending, they tried the house again, and this time were successful. I guessed they had succeeded then, from a simple circumstance. They had begun to cut out the backs of framed engravings for purposes of search, but only some of the engravings were so treated. That meant either that the article wanted was found behind one of them, or that the intruders broke off in their picture-examination to search somewhere else, and were then successful, and so under no necessity of opening the other engravings. You assured me that nothing could have been concealed in any of the engravings, so I at once assumed that they had found what they were after in the only place wherein they had not searched the night before — the attic — and probably among the papers in the trunk.”
“But then if they found it there why didn’t they return and let me go?”
“Because you would have found where they had brought you. They probably intended to keep you there till the dark of the next evening, and then take you away in a cab again and leave you some distance off. To prevent my following and possibly finding you they left here on your looking-glass this note” (Hewitt produced it) “threatening all sorts of vague consequences if you were not left to them. They knew you had come to me, of course, having followed you to my office. And now Penner feels himself anything but safe. He has relinquished his greengrocery and dispensed his stock in charity, and probably, having got the seal he has taken himself off. Not so much perhaps from fear of punishment as for fear the seal may be taken from him, and with it the salvation his odd belief teaches him it will confer.”
Mrs. Mallett sat silently for a little while and then said in a rather softened voice, “Mr. Hewitt, I am not what is called a woman of sentiment, as you may have observed, and I have been most shamefully treated over this wretched seal. But if all you tell me has been actually what has happened I have a sort of perverse inclination to forgive the man in spite of myself. The thing probably had been his mother’s — or at any rate he believed so — and his giving up his little all to attain the object of his ridiculous faith, and distributing his goods among the poor people and all that — really it’s worthy of an old martyr, if only it were done in the cause of a faith a little less stupid — though of course he thinks his is the only religion, as others do of theirs. But then”— Mrs. Mallett stiffened again —“there’s not much to prove your theories, is there?”
Hewitt smiled. “Perhaps not,” he said, “except that, to my mind at any rate, everything points to my explanation being the only possible one. The thing presented itself to you, from the beginning, as an attempt on the snuff-box you value so highly, and the possibility of the seal being the object aimed at never entered your mind. I saw it whole from the outside, and on thinking the thing over after our first interview I remembered Joanna Southcott. I think I am right.”
“Well, if you are, as I said, I half believe I shall forgive the man. We will advertise if you like, telling him he has nothing to fear if he can give an explanation of his conduct consistent with what he calls his religious belief, absurd as it may be.” That night fell darker and foggier than the last. The advertisement went into the daily papers, but Reuben Penner never saw it. Late the next day a bargeman passing Old Swan Pier struck some large object with his boat-hook and brought it to the surface. It was the body of a drowned man, and it was afterwards identified as that of Reuben Penner, late greengrocer, of Hammersmith. How he came into the water there was nothing to show. There was no money nor any valuables found on the body, and there was a story of a large, heavy-faced man who had given a poor woman — a perfect stranger — a watch and chain and a handful of money down near Tower Hill on that foggy evening. But this again was only a story, not definitely authenticated. What was certain was that, tied securely round the dead man’s neck with a cord, and gripped and crumpled tightly in his right hand, was a soddened piece of vellum paper, blank, but carrying an old red seal, of which the device was almost entirely rubbed and cracked away. Nobody at the inquest quite understood this.
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