Many a true tale has been told of the disappearance of money in passing through the post. Sometimes the loss is never cleared up, but remains a mystery to the end. One of these losses happened to us, and the circumstances were so curious that they would have puzzled a bench of judges. It was a regular mystery, and could not be accounted for in any way.
If you chanced to read the first series of these papers, it may scarcely be necessary to recall certain points to your recollection — that Mr. Todhetley, commonly called the Squire, had two estates. The chief one, Dyke Manor, lay on the borders of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, partly in both counties; the other, Crabb Cot, was a smaller place altogether, and much nearer Worcester. Sometimes we stayed at one place, sometimes at the other. By an arrangement with Mr. Brandon, my guardian and the trustee to my property, I, Johnny Ludlow, lived with the Todhetleys. Mrs. Todhetley, the Squire’s present wife, was my stepmother, my father having married her after my own mother’s death. After my father’s death — which took place speedily — she became the second wife of Squire Todhetley, and the stepmother of his only son and heir, Joseph. Two children were subsequently born to them, Hugh and Lena, to whom Joseph was of course half-brother. Joseph, unlike myself, had been old enough to resent the advent of a stepmother when she came. Indulged and haughty, he did not like the gentle control she brought; though she was good as gold, as loving to him as he would let her be, and kind to everybody. I don’t say but that she was tall and thin as a lamp-post, with a mild face, given to having aches in it, scanty light hair, and kindly blue eyes; so she had not much to boast of in the way of appearance. Joe and I grew up together like brothers. He was several years the elder, and domineered over me absolutely. At school he was always called “Tod;” and I fell into the same habit. Perhaps that is sufficient explanation.
“And if you don’t come back to-night, you had better send me a five-pound note in a letter,” said Mrs. Todhetley.
“All right,” replied the Squire.
This was said on the platform of Timberdale Station. We were staying at Crabb Cot, and were taking the train at Timberdale instead of that at South Crabb. The Squire was going to Worcester, and was taking Tod and myself with him. It was a fine morning in April, and Mrs. Todhetley and little Hugh had come with us through the Ravine for the sake of the walk. Our returning at night, or not, was left an open question, contingent upon the Squire’s business at Worcester being over.
“Bring me a whip, and a new bird-cage for my thrush, and a pot of marmalade, papa,” called out Hugh.
“What else would you like, sir?” retorted the Squire.
“You bring ’em, Joe.”
“I dare say!” said Tod.
The train puffed off, drowning Hugh’s further commands. We saw him throw his cap at the train, and Mrs. Todhetley holding him back from running after it.
“That young gentleman wants to be sent to school,” remarked the Squire. “I’m afraid you two boys make him worse than he would be.”
We reached Worcester about twelve, and went to the Star and Garter. The Squire had no end of matters on hand that day: but the two chief things that had brought him to Worcester were — to draw some money from the bank, and to negotiate with Mr. Prothero, a corn-dealer, for the sale of a load of wheat. Mr. Prothero was a close man to deal with: he wanted the wheat at one price, the Squire said it should only go at another: if he held out, the Squire meant to hold out, even though it involved staying the night in Worcester.
It was Wednesday; market-day. Not so large a market as the Saturday’s, but the town looked pretty full. The first thing the Squire did was to go to the Old Bank. At the door he turned round and said there was no need for three of us to crowd into the place. However, we were then inside, and so went on with him.
He had something particular to say to Mr. Isaac, and asked for him. They were talking together in private for a minute or two, and then the Squire took out his cheque for fifty pounds, and laid it on the counter.
“How will you take it?” asked Mr. Isaac.
“In five-pound notes.”
Mr. Isaac brought the money himself. The Squire put it in his pocket-book, and we said good-morning, and departed. There were shops to call at and people to see: and of course the market to walk through. You wouldn’t get the Squire to keep himself out of the market-house, when in Worcester on market-day: he’d go about asking the price of butter and fowls like any old woman. A little after four o’clock we got back to the Star; and found Mr. Prothero had not made his appearance.
“Just like him!” cried the Squire. “His appointment was for four o’clock sharp. He means to hold out against my price; that’s what he thinks to do. Let him! he won’t get the wheat at less.”
“I’d see him a jolly long way before he should have it at all,” said haughty Tod. “Do you hear, sir?”
“Hold your tongue, Joe,” was the Squire’s answer.
“Anyway, sir, Prothero gives you more trouble than all the rest of the buyers put together. He’s a stingy, close-fisted fellow.”
“But his money’s safe and sure. Prothero is a respectable man, Joe; his word’s as good as his bond.”
Half-past four, and no Prothero. The Squire began to fume a little: if he hated one thing more than another it was to be kept waiting.
“Look here, boys, I’ll send that note to your mother,” he said, taking out his pocket-book. “There’s not much chance of our going home to-night at this rate. Ring, one of you, for some paper and envelopes.”
Separating one of the notes from the roll Mr. Isaac had handed to him, he gave it to me to put up. I asked him if I should take down the number.
“I don’t think it matters, Johnny.”
But I took it down, perhaps through some unconscious instinct — for I don’t suppose I am more cautious than other people. In my pocket was a letter from Anna Whitney: and I pencilled on it the number of the note.
“Write inside the envelope ‘Not home till tomorrow,’” growled the Squire, forgetting that it could not be there till the morning. But he was in an ill-humour.
I wrote it at his bidding, enclosed the bank-note, and addressed the letter to Mrs. Todhetley at Crabb Cot. Tod and I went out to post it, and began laying plans as to how we should spend the evening at Worcester.
The post-office is not far from the Star, as everybody knows: and though we met a fellow who used to go to school with us, a doctor’s son, and stayed talking with him, not ten minutes elapsed before we were back again. And behold in that short time there was a change in the programme. Old Prothero had been in, the bargain about the wheat was concluded, and the Squire intended to start for home as soon as dinner was over. Tod resented the change.
“Johnny and I were going to that advertised séance— or whatever they call the thing — on electro-biology, sir. It will be first-rate fun, they say.”
“Very sorry for you and Johnny. You’ll have to go home instead. Prothero has bought the wheat: and that’s all I should have had to stay here for.”
“At his own price!” cried Tod, rather mockingly.
“No, Mr. Joe; at mine.”
“Well, it’s an awful sell for us,” grumbled Tod. “It’s not so often we get a night at Worcester, that we should be done out of this chance.”
“The fact is, I don’t feel well,” said the Squire, “and should most likely have gone home, whether Prothero had come in or not. I’m afraid I have caught cold, Joe.”
There was not any more to be said. The Squire’s colds were no joke: once he caught one, he would be downright ill; laid up for days. We went back by rail to Timberdale, and took a fly home.
The next morning the Squire did not get up. Sure enough he had a cold, and was feverish. At breakfast Mrs. Todhetley said one of us should go over to South Crabb and ask Mr. Cole to call and see him.
“Why, the pater hates doctors!” exclaimed Tod.
“I know he does,” she answered. “But I feel sure that if he would only take remedies for his colds in time, they would not be so bad as they usually are, Joseph. Who’s that?” she added — for she was seated where she could not see out, and had heard the gate click.
It was the postman: so I opened the glass doors.
“Only one, sir,” said he, handing me the letter we had posted at Worcester the previous afternoon.
Mrs. Todhetley laughed as she opened it, saying it would have come sooner had we brought it with us. Looking to see that the bank-note was safe, she left it in the envelope on the breakfast-table.
“You may as well get it changed for me at Salmon’s,” she said, handing it to Tod as we were going out, “and then I need not disturb your father. But you must make haste back, for you know I want the money.”
She had no money in the house except a few shillings: and this was why the note was to be posted to her if we stayed at Worcester. You are often run short of money in rural country places: it’s quite different from town, where the banks are at hand.
We went through North Crabb, and met the doctor coming out at his door. Tod told him the Squire wanted some physicking.
“Caught a cold, has he?” cried Cole. “If he will only be reasonable and keep himself warm in bed, we’ll soon have that out of him.”
Cole lived close upon South Crabb — I think I’ve said so before. A few yards beyond his house the shops began. Salmon’s was the fifth from the corner: a double shop, grocer’s and draper’s. The savings’ bank was at Salmon’s, and the post-office: he was the busiest tradesman in South Crabb, rather conceited over it, but very intelligent. His brother was in business at Timberdale. This is what occurred.
“Will you be good enough to change this five-pound note for me, Mr. Salmon?” said Tod, laying the note down on the grocer’s counter, on the left of the door, behind which Salmon stood, his grey hair carefully brushed and a white apron on.
Salmon took the note up for a moment, and then unlocked the inner drawer of his till, where he kept his gold. He was counting out the five sovereigns when he paused; put them down, and picked up the note again quickly. I had seen his eyes fall on it.
“Where did you get this note from, sir?” asked he of Tod.
“From the Old Bank at Worcester.”
“Well, it’s one of them notes that was lost in the robbery at Tewkesbury, unless I’m much mistaken,” cried Salmon, beginning to turn over the leaves of a small account-book that he fetched from the post-office desk. “Ay, I thought I was right,” he adds, running his finger across some figures on one of the pages. “I had the numbers correct enough in my head.”
“You must be out of your mind, Salmon,” retorted Tod, in his defiant way. “That note was paid to my father yesterday at Worcester Old Bank.”
“I don’t think it was, sir.”
“You don’t think it was! Why, I was present. I saw Mr. Isaac count the notes out himself. Ten; and that was one of them.”
“Mr. Isaac never counted out this note,” persisted Salmon.
He smoothed it out on the counter as he spoke. I had not noticed it before: but it struck me now as I looked at it that it was not the note I had put into the envelope at Worcester. That was a new, crisp note; this was not crisp, and it looked a little soiled. Tod turned passionate over it: he was just like the Squire in some things.
“I don’t understand your behaviour, Salmon. I can swear that this note was one given with the other nine at the bank yesterday, and given by Mr. Isaac.”
Salmon shook his head. As much as to say he knew to the contrary.
“You’d better accuse Mr. Isaac of dealing in stolen notes — or me,” cried hot Tod.
“You’d neither of you be likely to deal in them, Mr. Todhetley. There’s a mistake somewhere. That’s what it is. Mr. Isaac would be too glad to get this note into his possession to pay it away again. No people are more severe against money-robberies than bankers.”
Salmon talked, and Tod talked; but they could not agree. The apprentice behind the counter on the drapery side listened with admiration, evidently not knowing which side to take. I spoke then, saying that the note did not appear to be the same as the one I had enclosed in the letter; and Tod looked as though he could have knocked me down for saying it. I had changed my clothes and had not Anna Whitney’s letter with me.
“Tod, it is of no use your taking it up in this way. If the thing is so, it is. And it can soon be proved. I say I don’t think it is the same note, or the same numbers.”
“If I had taken down the numbers of a bank-note, I could remember what they were; so would any one but a muff, Johnny,” said he, sarcastically.
“I don’t remember what they were. But I do seem to remember that they were not these.”
Tod flung out of the shop in a passion: to him it seemed impossible that anything could be wrong with a note had direct from the bank. As to its not being the same note, he scouted it utterly. Had it dropped through the envelope and changed itself en route from Worcester? he sarcastically demanded — coming in again to ask it.
Salmon was quietly going over the circumstances of the Tewkesbury robbery to me. About three weeks before, a butcher’s shop was robbed in Tewkesbury — the till carried off in open day. It had gold and silver in it and two five-pound notes. The numbers of the notes happened to be known, and notice of them was circulated, to put people on their guard against taking them.
“Look here, Mr. Ludlow,” said Salmon, showing me the numbers of the stolen notes written down in his book, and comparing the one with the bank-note we had taken to him. “It’s the same, you see. Reason’s reason, sir.”
“But I don’t see how it’s practicable,” cried Tod, coming round the least bit in the world, as he condescended to look himself at the numbers.
“Well, sir, neither do I— the facts being as you state them,” acknowledged Salmon. “But here’s the proof to stagger us, you observe. It’s in black and white.”
“There must be two notes with the same numbers,” said Tod.
Salmon smiled: great in his assumption of superior knowledge.
“There never was yet, Mr. Todhetley.”
“Who numbers the notes, I wonder? I suppose mistakes are not impossible to those who do it, any more than to other people.”
“No fear of that, sir, with their system. The note has been changed in the post.”
“Nonsense!” retorted Tod.
They’d have cavilled until night, with no result, one holding out against the other. Tod brought away the note and the five sovereigns — which Salmon offered. We could send over another note at leisure, he said. I examined the envelope after we had hastened home: it was the same we had posted at Worcester, and did not appear to have been tampered with.
Getting Anna Whitney’s letter out of my best clothes’ pocket, I brought it to Tod. The numbers were quite different from the note’s. He stared like one bewildered: his eyes passing from those on the letter to those on the note.
“Johnny, this beats bull-baiting.”
So it did — for mystification.
“Are you sure you copied the figures correctly, old fellow?”
“Now, Tod! Of course I did.”
“Let us go up to the pater.”
The pater was getting up, in defiance of old Cole and Mrs. Todhetley, and was dressed, up to his coat. He had a fire in his room and his white night-cap on. I told him about the note. Tod was outside, telling Mrs. Todhetley. He did not receive the news kindly.
“The note I gave you to put into the envelope was one of those stolen from the butcher at Tewkesbury! How dare you bring your rubbishing stories to me, Mr. Johnny!”
I tried to explain how it was — that it was not the same note; as the numbers proved. He would hear nothing at first, only went on at me, stamping his slippers and nodding his head, the big white tassel of the night-cap bobbing up and down. If Salmon dared to say he had sent him a stolen note to change, he’d teach Salmon what slander meant the next time the magistrates sat.
Tod came in then with Mrs. Todhetley. The Squire had talked himself quiet, and I got a hearing: showing him the numbers I had taken down outside Anna’s letter and the numbers on the stolen bank-note. It brought him to reason.
“Why, bless my heart! How can they have been changed, Johnny?”
Taking the packet of notes out of his pocket-book, he went over their numbers. They were all consecutive, the nine of them; and so was the tenth, the one I had taken down. He pushed his night-cap back and stared at us.
“Did you two get larking yesterday and drop the letter on your way to the post?”
“We took it straight to the post, sir, and put it safely in.”
“I don’t know that I’d answer for that,” stormed the Squire. “Once dropped in the street, there’s no knowing who might pick it up, or what tricks might be played with it. Hold your tongues, you two. How else do you suppose it could have been done? We don’t live in the days of miracles.”
Off went his night-cap, on went his coat. Ringing the bell, he ordered the phaeton to be got ready on the instant, to take him to the station: he was going to Worcester. Mrs. Todhetley quite implored him not to go; as good as went down on her knees: he would increase his cold, and perhaps be laid up. But he wouldn’t listen. “Hang the cold!” he said: “he had no cold; it was gone. People shouldn’t have it to say that tricks could be played on him with impunity, and stolen notes substituted for honest ones.”
“What a way he puts himself into!” laughed Tod, when he had ordered us off to make ready.
“I know somebody else who does just the same.”
“You’ll get it presently, Johnny.”
Away we went to the station, Bob and Blister spanking along and Tod driving; the Squire, wrapped in about a dozen rugs and comforters, sitting beside him. The groom, Dwarf Giles, was behind with me: he would have to take the carriage back again. A train came up pretty soon, and we reached Worcester.
Of all commotions, the Squire made the worst. When he got to the bank, Mr. Isaac was out: would not be in till three o’clock: and that put the finishing stroke to the pater’s impatience. Next he went to the Star, and told of the matter there, gathering half the house about him. The post-office was taken next. They seemed to know nothing whatever about the letter — and I don’t think they did — had not particularly noticed it in sorting: could not have seemed to see less had they been in a fog at sea: except one thing, and that they’d swear to — that every letter posted at the office the previous day, and all other days, had been duly forwarded, untampered with, to its destination.
The first dawn of reason that fell over us was in the interview with Mr. Isaac. It was pleasant to be with any one so cheerfully calm. Taking the roll of five-pound notes in his hand, he pronounced them to be the same he had given us on the previous day; and the number I had dotted down to have been the one belonging to the tenth note.
“And is this one of those two stolen ones that were advertised?” demanded the Squire, putting it into Mr. Isaac’s hands.
Mr. Isaac spoke with a clerk for a minute — perhaps referring to the numbers as Salmon had done — and came back saying that it was the note. So there we were: the matter laid, so far, to rest. Nothing could be more unsatisfactory. The Squire sat quite still, as if he had been struck dumb.
“I’m sure I shall never see daylight out of this,” cried the Squire, in a sort of hopeless, mazy tone. “It’s worse than conjuring.”
Mr. Isaac was called away. The Squire fastened upon one of the old clerks, and went over the matter with him. He could not readily understand it.
“The note must have been changed, Mr. Todhetley,” said he.
“Changed in the post?”
“But who did it?”
“That’s the question.”
The Squire could not tear himself away. Once out of the bank he would be nonplussed. He began casting a doubt on the Worcester post-office; the clerk retorted that there was a post-office at our end, Timberdale: and at that the Squire fired up. Each would have held out for the good faith of his respective post-office to the death. It put Tod and me in mind of the fable of the crows, each old mother saying that her own crow was the whitest. After glaring at one another for a bit through their spectacles, they shook hands and parted.
We arrived home to a late dinner at Crabb Cot, just as wise as we had left it in the morning. The Squire had an awful cold, though he wouldn’t admit it. At nine o’clock he virtually gave in, went up to bed, and said Molly was to make him a basin of hot gruel, and we might put a drop of brandy in it.
The mode of conveying the letters from Worcester was this. The Timberdale bag, made up at the Worcester office, was brought out at night by the late train, and dropped at the Timberdale Station. The postmaster of Timberdale would be at the station to receive it, and carry it home.
His name was Rymer. A man of acknowledged respectability in the place, and of good connections, the son of a clergyman. He had been brought up for a surgeon, but somehow never had the chance to pass; and, years and years ago, opened a chemist and druggist’s shop at Timberdale. Then he added other things: stationery, Christmas cards, valentines, boys’ marbles, purses, and such like, which his wife attended to. In time he had the post-office. As to suspecting Rymer of doing anything wrong with the note, it was not to be thought of. He had two children: a son, who never seemed to do any good for himself, and if placed away from home would return to it again: and a daughter, a nice little girl of sixteen, who was as useful amidst the drugs and the post-office work as her father.
Timberdale had two letter-carriers. One for the place itself, the other for the country round. This last had a regular journey of it, for the farm-houses were scattered. There had always been talk that our two houses — the Squire’s and old Coney’s — ought not to be put in the Timberdale district of delivery, and why it was originally done nobody could make out; seeing that we were ever so far off Timberdale, and in Crabb parish. But people did not bestir themselves to alter it, and so the old custom went on. The country postman was Lee: a trustworthy old soul with shaky legs.
The next morning, Cole the surgeon came in, vexed. The Squire ought not to have got up at all the day before, he said, much less have gone to Worcester; and where was the use of his prescribing remedies if they were not attended to? Upon that, the Squire (after retorting that he should do as he pleased in spite of Cole and his remedies, and speaking in a sort of hoarse and foggy voice) told about posting the bank-note to Mrs. Todhetley, and what had come of it.
“Well, it’s a strange thing,” said Cole, when he had turned the news over in his mind. “What do you think, Johnny?”
He would often say to me when talking of things and people, “What do you think?” He had a theory that I saw more clearly than others, just as Duffham at Church Dykely had. I had nothing particular to think about this: it seemed a hopeless mystery.
“Lee’s sure,” said Cole, speaking of the postman; “so is Rymer. It could have been in no other hands on this side the journey.”
“The Worcester people say it was not tampered with on their side.”
“Have you questioned Rymer about it?”
“Not yet,” croaked the Squire. “I meant to have gone to him today.”
“Which you will not do!” cried Mr. Cole. “But now, look here: I wouldn’t tell people at first that the exchanged note was one of those stolen ones, if I were you: not even Rymer. No one likes to be mixed up in robberies. You’d put folks on their guard at once; and any chance word of enlightenment, that might otherwise be dropped, would be kept in.”
We did not quite take him. “I would not,” repeated Cole.
“But we must inquire about it,” said Tod. “What’s to be said of the note?”
“Say that the bank-note you put in was changed en route for another one: that the numbers did not tally. That’s all you need say at first.”
Tod could not see any reason in the argument; but the Squire took up the idea eagerly, and ordered Tod to do as was suggested. He was unable to go to Timberdale himself, but was far too impatient to let it rest until another day, and so Tod was to be his deputy.
With at least a hundred suggestions and injunctions from the Squire — who only ceased when his voice disappeared completely — we set off, taking the way of the Ravine. It was a fine spring day: the trees were coming into leaf, the thorns and other bushes were budding: violets and primroses nestled at their feet. I picked some early cowslips for a ball for Lena, and some double white violets for Mrs. Todhetley.
Past Timberdale Court went we; past the church; past Jael Batty’s and the other straggling cottages, and came to the village street. It was paved: and you can’t say that of all villages.
Mr. Rymer was behind his counter: a thin, delicate-faced man, with a rather sad expression and mild brown eyes. In spite of his poor clothes and his white apron and the obscure shop he had served in for twenty years, his face had “gentleman” plainly stamped on it: but he gave you the idea of being too meek-spirited; as if in any struggle with the world he could never take his own part.
The shop was a double shop, resembling Salmon’s at South Crabb in shape and arrangements. The drugs and chemicals were on the left-hand side as you entered; the miscellaneous wares on the other. Horse and cattle medicines were kept with the drugs: and other things too numerous to mention, such as pearl barley, pickles, and fish-sauce. The girl, Margaret Rymer, was serving a woman with a pennyworth of writing-paper when we went in, and a postage-stamp. Tod asked for Mr. Rymer.
He came forward from the little parlour, at one end of which was the desk where he did his postal work.
Upon Tod’s saying that we wished to speak with him privately, he took us into the parlour. As we sat down opposite to him, I could not help thinking what a nice face he had. It was getting very careworn. A stranger would have given him more than his forty-five years: though the bright brown hair was abundant still. Tod told his story. The chemist looked thoroughly surprised, but open and upright as the day. I saw at once that no fault attached to him.
“A bank-note exchanged as it passed through the post!” he exclaimed. “But, Mr. Joseph Todhetley, the thing appears impossible.”
“It appears so,” said Tod. “I was just as unwilling to believe it at first: but facts are facts.”
“I cannot see the motive,” said Rymer. “Why should one bank-note be taken out of a letter, if another were substituted?”
Tod looked at me. Wanting to say that the other was a stolen note, and was no doubt put in to be got rid of. But the Squire had bound us down.
“Had the note been simply abstracted from the letter, we should be at no loss to understand that a thief had helped himself to it; but a thief would not put another note of the same value in its place,” went on Rymer.
“Well, the facts are as I tell you, Mr. Rymer,” returned Tod, impatient at being trammelled and having to tell so lame a tale. “One bank-note was taken out of the letter and another put in its place. We want you to help us unravel the mystery.”
“I will help you to the utmost of my power,” was Rymer’s answer. “But — are you sure you have told me the circumstances correctly?”
“Quite sure,” answered Tod. “The thing was done between Worcester post-office and our house. How it was done, and by whom, is the question.”
“You enclosed the note in the letter yourself at Worcester on Wednesday afternoon, and put it into the post-office: when we delivered the letter at Crabb Cot yesterday morning, you found the note inside had been taken out and another put in? These are the circumstances?”
“Precisely so. Except that it was not I who enclosed the note and took down its number, but Johnny Ludlow. The Worcester office disclaims all knowledge of the matter, and so we are thrown on this side of the journey. Did you go to the station yourself for the letter-bag, Rymer?”
“I did, sir. I brought it home and sorted the letters at that desk, ready for the two men to take out in the morning. I used to sort all the letters in the morning, London and others: but lately I’ve done what we call the local bags — which come in before bed-time — at night. It saves time in the morning.”
“Do you recollect noticing the letter for Crabb Cot?”
“I think I noticed it. Yes, I feel sure I did. You see, there’s often something or other for you, so that it’s not remarkable. But I am sure I did notice the letter.”
“No one could have got to it in the night?”
“What — here?” exclaimed Rymer, opening his eyes in surprise that such a question should be put. “No, certainly not. The letter-bags are locked up in this desk, and I keep the key about me.”
“And you gave them as usual to Lee in the morning?”
Mr. Rymer knitted his patient brow the least in the world, as if he thought that Tod’s pursuing these questions reflected some suspicion on himself. He answered very meekly — going over the whole from the first.
“When I brought the Worcester bag in on Wednesday night, I was at home alone: my wife and daughter happened to be spending the evening with some friends, and the servant had asked leave to go out. I sorted the letters, and locked them up as usual in one of the deep drawers of the desk. I never unlocked it again until the last thing in the morning, when the other letters that had come in were ready to go out, and the two men were waiting for them. The letter would be in Lee’s packet, of course — which I delivered to him. But Lee is to be depended on: he would not tamper with it. That is the whole history so far as I am connected with it, Mr. Joseph Todhetley. I could not tell you more if I talked till mid-day.”
“What’s that, Thomas? Anything amiss with the letters?” called out a voice at this juncture, as the inner door opened, that shut out the kitchen.
I knew it. Knew it for Mrs. Rymer’s. I didn’t like her a bit: and how a refined man like Rymer (and he was so in all respects) could have made her his wife seemed to me to be a seven days’ wonder. She had a nose as long as from Timberdale to Crabb Ravine; and her hair and face were red, and her flounces gaudy. As common a woman as you’d see in a summer’s day, with a broad Brummagem accent. But she was very capable, and not unkindly natured. The worst Timberdale said of her was, that she had done her best to spoil that ugly son of hers.
Putting her head, ornamented with yellow curl-papers, round the door-post, she saw us seated there, and drew it away again. Her sleeves were rolled up, and she had on a coarse apron; altogether was not dressed for company. Letting the door stand ajar, she asked again if anything was amiss, and went on with her work at the same time: which sounded like chopping suet. Mr. Rymer replied in a curt word or two, as if he felt annoyed she should interfere. She would not be put off: strong-minded women never are: and he had to give her the explanation. A five-pound bank-note had been mysteriously lost out of a letter addressed to Mrs. Todhetley. The chopping stopped.
“Stolen out of it?”
“Well — yes; it may be said so.”
“But why do you call it mysterious?”
Mr. Rymer said why. That the bank-note had not, in one sense, been stolen; since another of the same value had been substituted for it.
Chop, chop, chop: Mrs. Rymer had begun again vigorously.
“I’d like to know who’s to make top or tail of such a story as that,” she called out presently. “Has anything been lost, or not?”
“Yes, I tell you, Susannah: a five-pound note.”
Forgetting her curl-papers and the apron, Mrs. Rymer came boldly inside the room, chopping-knife in hand, and requested further enlightenment. We told her between us: she stood with her back against the door-post while she listened.
“When do you say this took place, young gents?”
“On Wednesday night, or Thursday morning. When the letter reached us at breakfast-time, the job was done.”
She said no more then, but went back and chopped faster than ever. Tod and I had got up to go when she came in again.
“The odd part about it is their putting in a note for the same value,” cried she. “I never heard of such a thing as that. Why not spend the other note, and make no bother over it?”
“You would be quite justified in doing so under the circumstances, Mr. Todhetley,” said the quieter husband.
“But we can’t,” returned Tod, hotly — and all but said more than he was to say.
“Why not?” asked she.
“Because it’s not ours; there, Mrs. Rymer.”
“Well, I know what I’d say — if the chance was given me,” returned she, resenting Tod’s manner. “That the note found in the letter was the one put into it at Worcester. Changed in the post! It does not stand to reason.”
“But, my dear ——” her husband was beginning.
“Now, Thomas Rymer, that’s what I think: and so would you, if you had a grain of sense beyond a gander’s. And now good-morning, young gents: my pudding won’t get done for dinner at this rate.”
Mr. Rymer came with us through the shop to the door. I shook hands with him: and Tod’s nose went up in the air. But I think it lies in what you see a man is, by mind and nature, whether he is your equal, and you feel proud to think he is so — not in the fact of his wearing an apron. There are some lords in the land I wouldn’t half care to shake hands with as I would with Thomas Rymer.
“I hope you will pardon me for reverting to my first opinion, Mr. Todhetley,” he said, turning to Tod —“but indeed I think there must be some mistake. Mrs. Rymer may be right — that the note found in the letter was the one put into it.”
Tod flung away. The facts he had obstinately refused to believe at first, he had so fully adopted now, that any other opinion offended him. He was in a passion when I caught him up.
“To think that the pater should have sent us there like two fools, Johnny! Closing our mouths so that we could not speak the truth.”
“Rymer only three parts believes it. His wife not at all.”
“His wife be sugared! It’s nothing to her. And all through the suggestion of that precious calf, Cole. Johnny, I think I shall act on my own judgment, and go back and tell Rymer the note was a stolen one.”
“The pater told us not to.”
“Stuff! Circumstances alter cases. He would have told it himself before he had been with Rymer two minutes. The man’s hands are partly tied, you see; knowing only half the tale.”
“Well, I won’t tell him.”
“Nobody asked you. Here goes. And the Squire will say I’ve done right.”
Rymer was standing at his door still. The shop was empty, and there were no ears near. Tod lowered his voice, though.
“The truth is, Mr. Rymer, that the note, substituted in the letter for ours, was one of those two lost by the butcher at Tewkesbury. I conclude you heard of the robbery.”
“One of those two!” exclaimed Rymer.
“Yes: Salmon at South Crabb recognized it yesterday when we were asking him to give change for it.”
“But why not have told me this at once, Mr. Joseph?”
“Because the Squire and Cole, laying their wise heads together this morning, thought it might be better not to let that get abroad: it would put people on their guard, they said. You see now where the motive lay for exchanging the notes.”
“Of course I do,” said Mr. Rymer in his quiet way. “But it is very unaccountable. I cannot imagine where the treason lies.”
“Not on this side, seemingly,” remarked Tod: “The letter appears to have passed through no one’s hands but Lee’s: and he is safe.”
“Safe and sure. It must have been accomplished at Worcester. Or — in the railway train,” he slowly added. “I have heard of such things.”
“You had better keep counsel at present as to the stolen note, Mr. Rymer.”
“I will until you give me leave to speak. All I can do to assist in the discovery is heartily at Squire Todhetley’s service. I’d transport these rogues, for my part.”
We carried our report home — that the thing had not been, and could not have been, effected on the Timberdale side, unless old Lee was to be suspected: which was out of the question.
Time went on, and it grew into more of a mystery than ever. Not as to the fact itself or the stolen note, for all that was soon known high and low. The Worcester office exonerated itself from suspicion, as did the railway letter-van. The van let off its resentment in a little private sneering: but the office waxed hot, and declared the fraud must lie at the door of Timberdale. And so the matter was given up for a bad job, the Squire submitting to the loss of his note.
But a curious circumstance occurred, connected with Thomas Rymer. And, to me, his behaviour had seemed almost curious throughout. Not at that first interview — as I said, he was open, and, so to say, indifferent then; but soon afterwards his manner changed.
On the day following that interview, the Squire, who was very restless over it, wanting the thing to come to light in no time, sent me again to Rymer’s, to know if he had learned any news. Rymer said he had not; and his manner was just what it had been the past day. I could have staked my life, if necessary, that the man believed what he said — that news must be looked for elsewhere, not at Timberdale. I am sure that he thought it impossible that the theft could have been effected after the letters came into his hands. But some days later on, when the whole matter had been disclosed, and the public knew as much about it as we did, the Squire, well of his cold, thought he would have a talk with Rymer himself, went over, and took me with him.
I shall not forget it. In Rymer’s window, the chemical side, there was a picture of a bullock eating up some newly-invented cattle-food and growing fat upon it. It caught the Squire’s eye. Whilst he stopped to read the advertisement, I went in. The moment Rymer saw me — his daughter called to him to come out of the parlour where he was at dinner — his face turned first red, and then as pale as death.
“Mr. Todhetley thought he would like to come and see you, Mr. Rymer.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, in an agitated sort of tone, and then he stooped to put some jars closer together under the counter; but I thought he knew how white he was, and wanted to hide it.
When the Squire came in, asking first of all about the new cattle-food, he noticed nothing. Rymer was very nearly himself then, and said he had taken the agency, and old Massock had ordered some of it.
Then they talked about the note. Rymer’s tone was quite different from what it had been before; though whether I should have noticed it but for his white face I can hardly tell. That had made me notice him. He spoke in a low, timid voice, saying no more than he was obliged to say, as if the subject frightened him. One thing I saw — that his hands trembled. Some camomile blows lay on a white paper on the counter, and he began doing them up with shaky fingers.
Was his wife given to eavesdropping? I should have thought not — she was too independent for it. But there she was, standing just within the little parlour, and certainly listening. The Squire caught sight of her gown, and called out, “How d’ye do, Mrs. Rymer?” upon which she came forward. There was a scared look on her face also, as if its impudence had shrunk out of it. She did not stay an instant — just answered the Squire, and went away again.
“We must come to the bottom of the business somehow, you know, Rymer,” concluded the Squire, as he was leaving. “It would never do to let the thief get off. What I should think is, that it must be the same fellow who robbed the butcher ——”
“No, no,” hastily interrupted Rymer.
“No! One of the gang, then. Any way, you’ll help us all you can. I should like to bring the lot to trial. If you get to learn anything, send me word at once.”
Rymer answered “Yes,” and attended us to the door. Then the Squire went back to the cattle-food; but we got away at last.
“Thomas Rymer breaks, Johnny, I think. He doesn’t seem in spirits somehow. It’s hard for a man to be in a shop all day long, from year’s end to year’s end, and never have an hour’s holiday.”
Ever after this, when the affair was spoken of with Rymer, he showed more or less the same sort of shrinking — as if the subject gave him some terrible pain. Nobody but myself noticed it; and I only because I looked out for it. I believe he saw I thought something; for when he caught my eye, as he did more than once, his own fell.
But some curious circumstances connected with him have to be told yet. One summer evening, when it was getting towards dusk, he came over to Crabb Cot to see the Squire. Very much to the pater’s surprise, Rymer put a five-pound note into his hand.
“Is the money found?” cried he, eagerly.
“No, sir, it is not found,” said Rymer, in a subdued tone. “It seems likely to remain a mystery to the last. But I wish to restore it myself. It lies upon my conscience — being postmaster here — that such a loss should have taken place. With three parts of the public, and more, it is the Timberdale side that gets the credit of being to blame. And so — it weighs heavily upon me. Though I don’t see how I could have prevented it: and I lie awake night after night, thinking it over.”
The Squire stared for awhile, and then pushed back the note.
“Why, goodness, man!” cried he, when his amazement let him speak, “you don’t suppose I’d take the money from you! What in the world! — what right have you to bear the loss? You must be dreaming.”
“I should feel better satisfied,” said poor Rymer, in his subdued voice of pain. “Better satisfied.”
“And how do you think I should feel?” stamped the Squire, nearly flinging the note into the fire. “Here, put it up; put it up. Why, my good fellow, don’t, for mercy’s sake, let this bother take your senses away. It’s no more your fault that the letter was rifled than it was mine. Well, this is a start — your coming to say this.”
They went on, battling it out. Rymer praying him to take the note as if he’d pray his life away; the Squire accusing the other of having gone clean mad, to think of such a thing. I happened to go into the room in the middle of it, but they had not leisure to look at me. It ended in Rymer’s taking back the note: it could not have ended in any other manner: the Squire vowing, if he did not, that he should go before the magistrates for lunacy.
“Get the port wine, Johnny.”
Rymer declined to take any: his head was not accustomed to wine, he said. The Squire poured out a bumper and made him drink it: telling him he believed it was something of the kind his head wanted, or it would never have got such a wild notion into it as the errand he had come upon that evening.
A few minutes after Rymer had left, I heard the Squire shouting to me, and went back to the room. He had in his hand a little thin note-case of green leather, something like two leaves folded together.
“Rymer must have dropped this, Johnny, in putting it into his pocket. The note is in it. You had better run after him.”
I took it, and went out. But which way had Rymer gone? I could see far along the solitary road, and it was light enough yet, but no one was in view, so I guessed he was taking the short-cut through the Ravine, braving the ghost, and I went across the field and ran down the zigzag path. Wasn’t it gloomy there!
Well, it was a surprise! Thinking himself alone, he had sat down on the stump of a tree, and was sobbing with all his might: sobs that had prevented his hearing me. There was no time for me to draw back, or for him to hide his trouble. I could only hold out the green case and make the best of it.
“I am afraid you are in some great trouble, Mr. Rymer?”
He got up and was quiet at once. “The best of us have trouble at times, Master Johnny.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Nothing. Nothing. Except forget that you have seen me giving way. It was very foolish of me: but there are moments when — when one loses self-control.”
Either through his awkwardness or mine, the leaves of the case opened, and the bank-note fluttered out. I picked it up and gave it to him. Our eyes met in the gloom.
“I think you know,” he whispered.
“I think I suspect. Don’t be afraid: no one else does: and I’ll never drop a hint to mortal man.”
Putting my hand into his that he might feel its clasp, he took it as it was meant, and wrung it in answer. Had we been of the same age, I could have felt henceforth like his brother.
“It will be my death-blow,” he whispered. “Heaven knows I was not prepared for it. I was unsuspicious as a child.”
He went his way with his grief and his load of care, and I went mine, my heart aching for him. I am older now than I was then: and I have learnt to think that God sends these dreadful troubles to try us, that we may fly from them to Him. Why else should they come?
And I dare say you have guessed how it was. The time came when it was all disclosed; so I don’t break faith in telling it. That ill-doing son of Rymer’s had been the thief. He was staying at home at the time with one of the notes stolen from Tewkesbury in his possession: some of his bad companions had promised him a bonus if he could succeed in passing it. It was his mother who surreptitiously got the keys of the desk for him, that he might open it in the night: he made the excuse to her that there was a letter in the Worcester bag for himself under a false direction, which he must secure, unsuspected. To do Madam Rymer justice, she thought no worse: and it was she who in her fright, when the commotion arose about the Tewkesbury note, confessed to her husband that she had let Ben have the keys that night. There could be no doubt in either of their minds after that. The son, too, had decamped. It was to look for our letter he had wanted the keys. For he knew it might be coming, with the note in it: he was on the platform at Timberdale railway-station in the morning — I saw him standing there — and must have heard what Mrs. Todhetley said. And that was the whole of the mystery.
But I would have given the money from my own pocket twice over, to have prevented it happening, for Thomas Rymer’s sake.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55