Again we had been spending the Christmas at Crabb Cot. It was January weather, cold and bright, the sun above and the white snow on the ground. Mrs. Todhetley had been over to Timberdale Court, to the christening of Robert and Jane Ashton’s baby: a year had gone by since their marriage. The mater went to represent Mrs. Coney, who was godmother. Jane was not strong enough to sit out a christening dinner, and that was to be given later. After some mid-day feasting, the party dispersed.
I went out to help Mrs. Todhetley from the carriage when she got back. The Squire was at Pershore for the day. It was only three o’clock, and the sun quite warm in spite of the snow.
“It is so fine, Johnny, that I think I’ll walk to the school,” she said, as she stepped down. “It may not be like this tomorrow, and I must see about those shirts.”
The parish school was making Tod a set of new shirts; and some bother had arisen about them. Orders had been given for large plaits in front, when Tod suddenly announced that he would have the plaits small.
“Only —— Can I go as I am?” cried Mrs. Todhetley, suddenly stopping in indecision, as she remembered her fine clothes: a silver-grey gown that shone like silver, white shawl of china crape, and befeathered bonnet.
“Why, yes, of course you can go as you are, good mother. And look all the nicer for it.”
“I fear the children will stare! But then — if the shirts get made wrong! Well, will you go with me, Johnny?”
We reached the school-house, I waiting outside while she went in. It was during that time of strike that I have told of before, when Eliza Hoar died of it. The strike was in full swing still; the men looked discontented, the women miserable, the children pinched.
“I don’t know what in the world Joseph will say!” cried Mrs. Todhetley, as we were walking back. “Two of the shirts are finished with the large plaits. I ought to have seen about it earlier; but I did not think they would begin them quite so soon. We’ll just step into Mrs. Coney’s, Johnny, as we go home. I must tell her about the christening.”
For Mrs. Coney was a prisoner from an attack of rheumatism. It had kept her from the festivity. She was asleep, however, when we got in: and Mr. Coney thought she had better not be disturbed, even for the news of the little grandson’s christening, as she had lain awake all the past night in pain; so we left again.
“Why, Johnny! who’s that?”
Leaning against the gate of our house, in the red light of the setting sun, was an elderly woman, dark as a gipsy.
“A tramp,” I whispered, noticing her poor clothes.
“Do you want anything, my good woman?” asked Mrs. Todhetley.
She was half kneeling in the snow, and lifted her face at the words: a sickly face, that somehow I liked now I saw it closer. Her tale was this. She had set out from her home, three miles off, to walk to Worcester, word having been sent her that her daughter, who was in service there, had met with an accident. She had not been strong of late, and a faintness came over her as she was passing the gate. But for leaning on it she must have fallen.
“You should go by train: you should not walk,” said Mrs. Todhetley.
“I had not the money just by me, ma’am,” she answered. “It ‘ud cost two shillings or half-a-crown. My daughter sent word I was to take the train and she’d pay for it: but she did not send the money, and I’d not got it just handy.”
“You live at Islip, you say. What is your name?”
“Nutt’n, ma’am,” said the woman, in the local dialect. Which name I interpreted into Nutten; but Mrs. Todhetley thought she said Nutt.
“I think you are telling me the truth,” said the mater, some hesitation in her voice, though. “If I were assured of it I would advance you half-a-crown for the journey.”
“The good Lord above us knows that I’m telling it,” returned the woman earnestly, turning her face full to the glow of the sun. “It’s more than I could expect you to do, ma’am, and me a stranger; but I’d repay it faithfully.”
Well, the upshot was that she got the half-crown lent her; and I ran in for a drop of warm ale. Molly shrieked out at me for it, refusing to believe that the mistress gave any such order, and saying she was not going to warm ale for parish tramps. So I got the ale and the tin, and warmed it myself. The woman was very grateful, drank it, and disappeared.
“Joseph, I am so very sorry! They have made two of your shirts, and the plaits are the large ones you say you don’t like.”
“Then they’ll just unmake them,” retorted Tod, in a temper.
We were sitting round the table at tea, Mrs. Todhetley having ordered some tea to be made while she went upstairs. She came down without her bonnet, and had changed her best gown for the one she mostly wore at home: it had two shades in it, and shone like the copper tea-kettle. The Squire was not expected home yet, and we were to dine an hour later than usual.
“That Miss Timmens is not worth her salt,” fired Tod, helping himself to some thin bread-and-butter. “What business has she to go and make my shirts wrong?”
“I fear the fault lies with me, Joseph, not with Miss Timmens. I had given her the pattern shirt, which has large plaits, you know, before you said you would prefer —— Oh, we hardly want the lamp yet, Thomas!” broke off the mater, as old Thomas came in with the lighted lamp.
“I’m sure we do, then,” cried Tod. “I can’t see which side’s butter and which bread.”
“And I, not thinking Miss Timmens would put them in hand at once, did not send to her as soon as you spoke, Joseph,” went on the mater, as Thomas settled the lamp on the table. “I am very sorry, my dear; but it is only two. The rest shall be done as you wish.”
Something, apart from the shirts, had put Tod out. I had seen it as soon as we got in. For one thing, he had meant to go to Pershore: and the pater, not knowing it, started without him.
“Let them unmake the two,” growled Tod.
“But it would be a great pity, Joseph. They are very nicely done; the stitching’s beautiful. I really don’t think it will signify.”
“You don’t, perhaps. You may like odd things. A pig with one ear, for example.”
“A what, Joseph?” she asked, not catching the last simile.
“I said a pig with one ear. No doubt you do like it. You are looking like one now, ma’am.”
The words made me gaze at Mrs. Todhetley, for the tone bore some personal meaning, and then I saw what Tod meant: an earring was absent. The lamp-light shone on the flashing diamonds, the bright pink topaz of the one earring; but the other ear was bare and empty.
“You have lost one of your earrings, mother!”
She put her hands to her ears, and started up in alarm. These earrings were very valuable: they had been left to her, when she was a child, in some old lady’s will, and constituted her chief possession in jewellery worth boasting of. Not once in a twelvemonth did she venture to put them on; but she had got them out today for the christening.
Whether it was that I had gazed at the earrings when I was a little fellow and sat in her lap, I don’t know; but I never saw any that I liked so well. The pink topaz was in a long drop, the slender rim of gold that encircled it being set with diamonds. Mrs. Todhetley said they were worth fifty guineas: and perhaps they were. The glittering white of the diamonds round the pink was beautiful to look upon.
The house went into a commotion. Mrs. Todhetley made for her bedroom, to see whether the earring had dropped on the floor or was lodging inside her bonnet. She shook out her grey dress, hoping it had fallen amidst the folds. Hannah searched the stairs, candle in hand; the two children were made to stand in corners for fear they should tread on it. But the search came to nothing. It seemed clear enough that the earring was not in the house.
“Did you notice, Johnny, whether I had them both in my ears when we went to the school?” the mater asked.
No, I did not. I had seen them sparkling when she got out of the carriage, but had not noticed them after.
I went out to search the garden-path that she had traversed, and the road over to the Coneys’ farm. Tod helped me, forgetting his shirts and his temper. Old Coney said he remarked the earrings while Mrs. Todhetley was talking to him, and thought how beautiful they were. That is, he had remarked one of them; he was sure of that; and he thought if the other had been missing, its absence would have struck him. But that was just saying nothing; for he could not be certain that both were there.
“You may hunt till tomorrow morning, and get ten lanterns to it,” cried Molly, in her tart way, meeting us by the bay-tree, as we went stooping up the path again: “but you’ll be none the nearer finding it. That tramp got’s the earring, Master Joe.”
“What tramp?” demanded Tod, straightening himself.
“A tramp that Master Johnny there must needs give hot ale to,” returned Molly. “I know what them tramps are worth. They’d pull rings out of ears with their own fingers, give ’em the chance: and perhaps this woman did, without the missis seeing her.”
Tod turned to me for an explanation. I gave it, and he burst into a derisive laugh, meant for me and the mater. “To think we could be taken in by such a tale as that!” he cried: “we should never see tramp, or half-crown, or perhaps the earring again.”
The Squire came home in the midst of the stir. He blustered a little, partly at the loss, chiefly at the encouragement of tramps, calling it astounding folly. Ordering Thomas to bring a lantern, he went stooping his old back down the path, and across to Coney’s and back again; not believing any one had searched properly, and finally kicking the snow about.
“It’s a pity this here snow’s on the ground, sir,” cried Thomas. “A little thing like an earring might easily slip into it in falling.”
“Not a bit of it,” growled the Squire. “That tramp has got the earring.”
“I don’t believe the tramp has,” I stoutly said. “I don’t think she was a tramp at all: and she seemed honest. I liked her face.”
“There goes Johnny with his ‘faces’ again!” said the Squire, in laughing mockery: and Tod echoed it.
“It’s a good thing you don’t have to buy folks by their faces, Johnny: you’d get finely sold sometimes.”
“And she had a true voice,” I persisted, not choosing to be put down, also thinking it right to assert what was my conviction. “A voice you might trust without as much as looking at herself.”
Well, the earring was not to be found; though the search continued more or less till bed-time, for every other minute somebody would be looking again on the carpets.
“It is not so much for the value I regret it,” spoke Mrs. Todhetley, the tears rising in her meek eyes: “as for the old associations connected with it. I never had the earrings out but they brought back to me the remembrance of my girlhood’s home.”
Early in the morning I ran down to the school-house. More snow had fallen in the night. The children were flocking in. Miss Timmens had not noticed the earrings at all, but several of the girls said they had. Strange to say, though, most of them could not say for certain whether they saw both the earrings: they thought they did; but there it ended. Just like old Coney!
“I am sure both of them were there,” spoke up a nice, clean little girl, from a back form.
“What’s that, Fanny Fairfax?” cried Miss Timmens, in her quick way. “Stand up. How are you sure of it?”
“Please governess, I saw them both,” was the answer; and the child blushed like a peony as she stood up above the others and said it.
“Are you sure you did?”
“Yes, I’m quite sure, please, governess. I was looking which o’ the two shined the most. ’Twas when the lady was stooping over the shirt, and the sun came in at the window.”
“What did they look like?” asked Miss Timmens.
“They looked ——” and there the young speaker came to a standstill.
“Come, Fanny Fairfax!” cried Miss Timmens, sharply. “What d’you stop for? I ask you what the earrings looked like. You must be able to tell if you saw them.”
“They were red, please, governess, and had shining things round them like the ice when it glitters.”
“She’s right, Master Johnny,” nodded Miss Timmens to me: “and she’s a very correct child in general. I think she must have seen both of them.”
I ran home with the news. They were at breakfast still.
“What a set of muffs the children must be, not to have taken better notice!” cried Tod. “Why, when I saw only the one earring in, it struck my eye at once.”
“And for that reason it is almost sure that both of them were in at the school-house,” I rejoined. “The children did not particularly observe the two, but they would have remarked it directly had only one been in. Old Coney said the same.”
“Ay: it’s that tramp that has got it,” said the Squire. “While your mother was talking to her, it must have slipped out of the ear, and she managed to secure it. Those tramps lay their hands on anything; nothing comes amiss to them; they are as bad as gipsies. I dare say this was a gipsy — dark as she was. I’ll be off to Worcester and see the police: we’ll soon have her found. You had better come with me, Johnny; you’ll be able to describe her.”
We went off without delay, caught a passing train, and were soon at Worcester and at the police-station. The Squire asked for Sergeant Cripp: who came to him, and prepared to listen to his tale.
He began it in his impulsive way; saying outright that the earring had been stolen by a gipsy-tramp. I tried to say that it might have been only lost, but the pater scoffed at that, and told me to hold my tongue.
“And now, Cripp, what’s to be done?” he demanded, not having given the sergeant an opportunity to put in a word edgeways. “We must get the earring back; it is of value, and much prized, apart from that, by Mrs. Todhetley. The woman must be found, you know.”
“Yes, she must be found,” agreed the sergeant. “Can you give me a description of her?”
“Johnny — this young gentleman can,” said the Squire, rubbing his brow with his yellow silk handkerchief, for he had put himself into a heat, in spite of the frosty atmosphere that surrounded us. “He was with Mrs. Todhetley when she talked to the woman.”
“A thin woman of middle height, stooped a good deal, face pale and quiet, wrinkles on it, brown eyes,” wrote the sergeant, taking down what I said. “Black poke bonnet, clean cap border, old red woollen shawl with the fringe torn off in places. Can’t remember gown: except that it was dark and shabby.”
“And, of course, sir, you’ve no clue to her name?” cried the sergeant, looking at me.
“Yes: she said it was Nutten — as I understood it; but Mrs. Todhetley thought she said Nutt.” And I went on to relate the tale the woman told. Sergeant Cripp’s lips extended themselves in a silent smile.
“It was well got up, that tale,” said he, when I finished. “Just the thing to win over a warm-hearted lady.”
“But she could not have halted at the gate, expecting to steal the earring?”
“Of course not. She was prowling about to see what she could steal, perhaps watching her opportunity to get into the house. The earring fell in her way, a more valuable prize than she expected, and she made off with it.”
“You’ll be able to hunt her up if she’s in Worcester, Cripp,” put in the pater. “Don’t lose time.”
“If she’s in Worcester,” returned Mr. Cripp, with emphasis. “She’s about as likely to be in Worcester, Squire Todhetley, as I am to be at this present minute in Brummagem,” he familiarly added. “After saying she was coming to Worcester, she’d strike off in the most opposite direction to it.”
“Where on earth are we to look for her, then?” asked the pater, in commotion.
“Leave it to us, Squire. We’ll try and track her. And — I hope — get back the earring.”
“And about the advertisement for the newspapers, Cripp? We ought to put one in.”
Sergeant Cripp twirled the pen in his fingers while he reflected. “I think, sir, we will let the advertisement alone for a day or two,” he presently said. “Sometimes these advertisements do more harm than good: they put thieves on their guard.”
“Do they? Well, I suppose they do.”
“If the earring had been simply lost, then I should send an advertisement to the papers at once. But if it has been stolen by this tramp, and you appear to consider that point pretty conclusive ——”
“Oh, quite conclusive,” interrupted the pater. “She has that earring as sure as this is an umbrella in Johnny Ludlow’s hand. Had it been dropped anywhere on the ground, we must have found it.”
“Then we won’t advertise it. At least not in tomorrow’s papers,” concluded Sergeant Cripp. And telling us to leave the matter entirely in his hands, he showed us out.
The Squire went up the street with his hands in his pockets, looking rather glum.
“I’m not sure that he’s right about the advertisement, Johnny,” he said at length. “I lay awake last night in bed, making up the wording of it in my own mind. Perhaps he knows best, though.”
“I suppose he does, sir.”
And he went on again, up one street, and down another, deep in thought.
“Let’s see — we have nothing to do here today, have we, Johnny?”
“Except to get the pills made up. The mother said we were to be sure and not forget them.”
“Oh, ay. And that’s all the way down in Sidbury! Couldn’t we as well get them made up by a druggist nearer?”
“But it is the Sidbury druggist who holds the prescription.”
“What a bother! Well, lad, let us put our best leg foremost, for I want to catch the one-o’clock train, if I can.”
Barely had we reached Sidbury, when who should come swinging along the pavement but old Coney, in a rough white great-coat and top-boots. Not being market-day, we were surprised to see him.
“I had to come in about some oats,” he explained. And then the Squire told him of our visit to the place, and the sergeant’s opinion about the advertisement.
“Cripp’s wrong,” said Coney, decisively. “Not advertise the earring! — why, it is the first step that ought to be taken.”
“Well, so I thought,” said the pater.
“The thing’s not obliged to have been stolen, Squire; it may have been dropped out of the ear in the road, and picked up by some one. The offering of a reward might bring it back again.”
“And I’ll be shot if I don’t do it,” exclaimed the pater. “I can see as far through a millstone as Cripp can.”
Turning into the Hare and Hounds, which was old Coney’s inn, they sat down at a table, called for pen and ink, and began to draw out an advertisement between them. “Lost! An earring of great value, pink topaz and diamonds,” wrote the Squire on a leaf of his pocket-book; and when he had got as far as that he looked up.
“Johnny, you go over to Eaton’s for a sheet or two of writing-paper. We’ll have it in all three of the newspapers. And look here, lad — you can run for the pills at the same time. Take care of the street slides. I nearly came down on one just now, you know.”
When I got back with the paper and pills, the advertisement was finished. It concluded with an offer of £5 reward. Applications to be made to Mr. Sergeant Cripp, or to Squire Todhetley of Crabb Cot. And, leaving it at the offices of the Herald, Journal, and Chronicle, we returned home. It would appear on the next day, Saturday; to the edification, no doubt, of Sergeant Cripp.
“Any news of the earring?” was the Squire’s first question when we got in.
No, there was no news of it, Mrs. Todhetley answered. And she had sent Luke Macintosh over to the little hamlet, Islip; who reported when he came back that there was no Mrs. Nutt, or Nutten, known there.
“Just what I expected,” observed the pater. “That woman was a thieving tramp, and she has the earring.”
Saturday passed over, and Sunday came. When the Worcester paper arrived on Saturday morning the advertisement was in it as large as life, and the pater read it out to us. Friday and Saturday had been very dull, with storms of snow; on Sunday the sun shone again, and the air was crisp.
It was about three o’clock, and we were sitting at the dessert-table cracking filberts, for on Sundays we always dined early, after morning service — when Thomas came in and said a stranger had called, and was asking if he could see Mrs. Todhetley. But the mater, putting a shawl over her head and cap, had just stepped over to sit a bit with sick Mrs. Coney.
“Who is it, Thomas?” asked the Squire. “A stranger! Tell him to send his name in.”
“His name’s Eccles, sir,” said Thomas, coming back again. “He comes, he says, from Sergeant Cripp.”
“My goodness! — it must be about the earring,” cried the Squire.
“That it is, sir,” said old Thomas. “The first word he put to me was an inquiry whether you had heard news of it.”
I followed the pater into the study. Tod did not leave his filberts. Standing by the fire was a tall, well-dressed man, with a black moustache and blue silk necktie. I think the Squire was a little taken aback at the fashionable appearance of the visitor. He had expected to see an ordinary policeman.
“Have you brought tidings of Mrs. Todhetley’s earring?” began the pater, all in a flutter of eagerness.
“I beg a thousand pardons for intruding upon you on a Sunday,” returned the stranger, cool and calm as a cucumber, “but the loss of an hour is sometimes most critical in these cases. I have the honour, I believe, of speaking to Squire Todhetley?”
The Squire nodded. “Am I mistaken in supposing that you come about the earring?” he reiterated. “I understood my servant to mention Sergeant Cripp. But — you do not, I presume, belong to the police force?”
“Only as a detective officer,” was the answer, given with a taking smile. “A private officer,” he added, putting a stress upon the word. “My name is Eccles.”
“Take a seat, Mr. Eccles,” said the Squire, sitting down himself, while I stood back by the window. “I do hope you have brought tidings of the earring.”
“Yes — and no,” replied Mr. Eccles, with another fascinating smile, as he unbuttoned his top-coat. “We think we have traced it; but we cannot yet be sure.”
“And where is it? — who has it?” cried the Squire, eagerly.
“It is a very delicate matter, and requires delicate handling,” observed the detective, after a slight pause. “For that reason I have come over today myself. Cripp did not choose to entrust it to one of his men.”
“I am sure I am much obliged to him, and to you too,” said the Squire, his face beaming. “Where is the earring?”
“Before I answer that question, will you be so kind as to relate to me, in a few concise words, the precise circumstances under which the earring was lost?”
The pater entered on the story, and I helped him. Mr. Eccles listened attentively.
“Exactly so,” said he, when it was over. “Those are the facts Cripp gave me; but it was only second-hand, you see, and I preferred to hear them direct from yourselves. They serve to confirm our suspicion.”
“But where is the earring?” repeated the pater.
“If it is where we believe it to be, it is in a gentleman’s house at Worcester. At least he may be called a gentleman. He is a professional man: a lawyer, in fact. But I may not give names in the present stage of the affair.”
“And how did the earring get into his house?” pursued the Squire, all aglow with interest.
“News reached us last evening,” began Mr. Eccles, after searching in his pockets for something that he apparently could not find: perhaps a note-case —“reached us in a very singular way, too — that this gentleman had been making a small purchase of jewellery in the course of yesterday; had been making it in private, and did not wish it talked of. A travelling pedlar — that was the description we received — had come in contact with him and offered him an article for sale, which he, after some haggling, purchased. By dint of questioning, we discovered this article to be an earring: one earring, not a pair. Naturally Mr. Cripp’s suspicion was at once aroused: he thought it might be the very self-same earring that you have lost. We consulted together, and the result is, I decided to come over and see you.”
“I’d lay all I’ve got it is the earring!” exclaimed the Squire, in excitement. “The travelling pedlar that sold it must have been that woman tramp.”
“Well, no,” returned the detective, quietly. “It was a man. Her husband, perhaps; or some confederate of hers.”
“No doubt of that! And how can we get back the earring?”
“We shall get it, sir, never fear; if it be the earring you have lost. But, as I have just observed, it is a matter that will require extreme delicacy and caution in the handling. First of all, we must assure ourselves beyond doubt that the earring is the one in question. To take any steps upon an uncertainty would not do: this gentleman might turn round upon us unpleasantly.”
“Well, let him,” cried the Squire.
The visitor smiled his candid smile again, and shook his head. “For instance, if, after taking means to obtain possession of the earring, we found it to be coral set with pearls, or opal set with emeralds, instead of a pink topaz with diamonds, we should not only look foolish ourselves, but draw down upon us the wrath of the present possessor.”
“Is he a respectable man?” asked the pater. “I know most of the lawyers ——”
“He stands high enough in the estimation of the town, but I have known him do some very dirty actions in his profession,” interrupted Mr. Eccles, speaking rapidly. “With a man like him to deal with, we must necessarily be wary.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“The first step, Squire Todhetley, is to make ourselves sure that the earring is the one we are in quest of. With this view, I am here to request Mrs. Todhetley to allow me to see the fellow-earring. Cripp has organized a plan by which he believes we can get to see the one I have been telling you of; but it will be of no use our seeing it unless we can identify it.”
“Of course not. By all means. Johnny, go over and ask your mother to come in,” added the Squire, eagerly. “I’m sure I don’t know where she keeps her things, and might look in her places for ever without finding it. Meanwhile, Mr. Eccles, can I offer you some refreshment? We have just dined off a beautiful sirloin of beef: it’s partly cold now, but perhaps you won’t mind that.”
Mr. Eccles said he would take a little, as the Squire was so good as to offer it, for he had come off by the first train after morning service, and so lost his dinner. Taking my hat, I dashed open the dining-room door in passing. Tod was at the nuts still, Hugh and Lena on either side of him.
“I say, Tod, do you want to see a real live detective? There’s one in the study.”
Who should be seated in the Coneys’ drawing-room, her bonnet and shawl on, and her veil nearly hiding her sad face, but Lucy Bird — Lucy Ashton that used to be. It always gave me a turn when I saw her: bringing up all kinds of ugly sorrows and troubles. I shook hands, and asked after Captain Bird.
She believed he was very well, she said, but she had been spending the time since yesterday at Timberdale Court with Robert and Jane. To-day she had been dining with the Coneys — who were always kind to her, she added, with a sigh — and she was now about to go off to the station to take the train for Worcester.
The mater was in Mrs. Coney’s bedroom with old Coney and Cole the doctor, who was paying his daily visit. One might have thought they were settling all the cases of rheumatism in the parish by the time they took over it. While I waited, I told Mrs. Bird about the earring and the present visit of Detective Eccles. Mrs. Todhetley came down in the midst of it; and lifted her hands at the prospect of facing a detective.
“Dear me! Is he anything dreadful to look at, Johnny? Very rough? Has he any handcuffs?”
It made me laugh. “He is a regular good-looking fellow — quite a gentleman. Tall and slender, and well-dressed: gold studs and a blue necktie. He has a ring on his finger and wears a black moustache.”
Mrs. Bird suddenly lifted her head, and stared at me: perhaps the description surprised her. The mater seemed inclined to question my words; but she said nothing, and came away after bidding good-bye to Lucy.
“Keep up your heart, my dear,” she whispered. “Things may grow brighter for you some time.”
When I got back, Mr. Eccles had nearly finished the sirloin, some cheese, and a large tankard of ale. The Squire sat by, hospitably pressing him to take more, whenever his knife and fork gave signs of flagging. Tod stood looking on, his back against the mantelpiece. Mrs. Todhetley soon appeared with a little cardboard box, where the solitary earring was lying on a bed of wool.
Rising from the table, the detective carried the box to the window, and stood there examining the earring; first in the box, then out of it. He turned it about in his hand, and looked at it on all sides; it took him a good three minutes.
“Madam,” said he, breaking the silence, “will you entrust this earring to us for a day or two? It will be under Sergeant Cripp’s charge, and perfectly safe.”
“Of course, of course,” interposed the Squire, before any one could speak. “You are welcome to take it.”
“You see, it is possible — indeed, most probable — that only one of us may be able to obtain sight of the other earring. Should it be Cripp, my having seen this one will be nearly useless to him. It is essential that he should see it also: and it will not do to waste time.”
“Pray take charge of it, sir,” said Mrs. Todhetley, mentally recalling what I had said of his errand to her and Lucy Bird. “I know it will be safe in your hands and Sergeant Cripp’s. I am only too glad that there is a probability of the other one being found.”
“And look here,” added the Squire to Eccles, while the latter carefully wrapped the box in paper, and put it into his inner breast-pocket, “don’t you and Cripp let that confounded gipsy escape. Have her up and punish her.”
“Trust us for that,” was the detective’s answer, given with an emphatic nod. “She is already as good as taken, and her confederate also. There’s not a doubt — I avow it to you — that the other earring is yours. We only wait to verify it.”
And, with that, he buttoned his coat, and bowed himself out, the Squire himself attending him to the door.
“He is as much like a detective as I’m like a Dutchman,” commented Tod. “At least, according to what have been all my previous notions of one. Live and learn.”
“He seems quite a polished man, has quite the manners of society,” added the mater. “I do hope he will get back my poor earring.”
“Mother, is Lucy Bird in more trouble than usual?” I asked.
“She is no doubt in deep distress of some kind, Johnny. But she is never out of it. I wish Robert Ashton could induce her to leave that most worthless husband of hers!”
The Squire, after watching off the visitor, came in, rubbing his hands and looking as delighted as old Punch. He assumed that the earring was as good as restored, and was immensely taken with Mr. Eccles.
“A most intelligent, superior man,” cried he. “I suppose he is what is called a gentleman-detective: he told me he had been to college. I’m sure it seems quite a condescension in him to work with Cripp and the rest.”
And the whole of tea-time and all the way to church, the praises were being rung of Mr. Eccles. I’m not sure but that he was more to us that night than the sermon.
“I confess I feel mortified about that woman, though,” confessed Mrs. Todhetley. “You heard him say that she was as good as taken: they must have traced the earring to her. I did think she was one to be trusted. How one may be deceived in people!”
“I’d have trusted her with a twenty-pound note, mother.”
“Hark at Johnny!” cried Tod. “This will be a lesson for you, lad.”
Monday morning. The Squire and Tod had gone over to South Crabb. Mrs. Todhetley sat at the window, adding up some bills, her nose red with the cold: and I was boxing Hugh’s ears, for he was in one of his frightfully troublesome moods, when Molly came stealing in at the door, as covertly as if she had been committing murder.
“Ma’am! ma’am! — there’s that tramp in the yard!”
“What?” cried the mater, turning round.
“I vow it’s her; I know the old red shawl again,” pursued Molly, with as much importance as though she had caught half the thieves in Christendom. “She turned into the yard as bold as brass; so I just slipped the bolt o’ the door against her, and come away. You’ll have her took up on the instant, ma’am, won’t you?”
“But if she has come back, I don’t think she can be guilty,” cried Mrs. Todhetley, after a bewildered pause. “We had better see what she wants. What do you say, Johnny?”
“Why, of course we had. I’ll go to her, as Molly’s afraid.”
Rushing out of hearing of Molly’s vindictive answer, I went round through the snow to the yard, and found the woman meekly tapping at the kitchen-door — the old red shawl, and the black bonnet, and the white muslin cap border, all the same as before. Before I got quite up, the kitchen-door was cautiously drawn open, and Mrs. Todhetley looked out. The poor old woman dropped a curtsy and held out half-a-crown on the palm of her withered hand.
“I’ve made bold to call at the door to leave it, lady. And I can never thank you enough, ma’am,” she added, the tears rising to her eyes; “my tongue would fail if I tried it. ’Tis not many as would have trusted a stranger; and, that, a poor body like me. I got over to Worcester quick and comfortable, ma’am, thanks to you, and found my daughter better nor I had hoped for.”
The same feeling of reliance, of trust, arose within me as I saw her face and heard her voice and words. If this woman was what they had been fancying her, I’d never eat tarts again.
“Come in,” said Mrs. Todhetley; and Molly, looking daggers as she heard it, approached her mistress with a whisper.
“Don’t, ma’am. It’s all a laid-out plan. She has heard that she’s suspected, and brings back the half-crown, thinking to put us off the scent.”
“Step this way,” went on Mrs. Todhetley, giving no heed to Molly, except by a nod — and she took the woman into the little store-room where she kept her jam-pots and things, and bade her go to the fire.
“What did you tell me your name was,” she asked, “when you were here on Friday?”
“Nutten,” repeated the mater, glancing at me. “But I sent over to Islip, and no one there knew anything about you — they denied that any one of your name lived there.”
“Why, how could they do that?” returned the woman, with every appearance of surprise. “They must have mistook somehow. I live in the little cottage, ma’am, by the dung-heap. I’ve lived there for five-and-twenty year, and brought up my children there, and never had parish pay.”
“And gone always by the name of Nutten?”
“Not never by no other, ma’am. Why should I?”
Was she to be believed? There was the half-crown in Mrs. Todhetley’s hand, and there was the honest wrinkled old face looking up at us openly. But, on the other side, there was the assertion of the Islip people; and there was the earring.
“What was the matter with your daughter, and in what part of Worcester does she live?” queried the mater.
“She’s second servant to a family in Melcheapen Street, ma’am, minds the children and does the beds, and answers the door, and that. When I got there — and sick enough my heart felt all the way, thinking what the matter could be-I found that she had fell from the parlour window that she’d got outside to clean, and broke her arm and scarred her face, and frighted and shook herself finely. But thankful enough I was that ’twas no worse. Her father, ma’am, died of an accident, and I can never abear to hear tell of one.”
“I— I lost an earring out of my ear that afternoon,” said Mrs. Todhetley, plunging into the matter, but not without hesitation. “I think I must have lost it just about the time I was talking to you. Did you pick it up?”
“No, ma’am, I didn’t. I should have gave it to you if I had.”
“You did not carry it off with you, I suppose!” interrupted wrathful Molly; who had come in to get some eggs, under pretence that the batter-pudding was waiting for them.
And whether it was Molly’s sharp and significant tone, or our silence and looks, I don’t know; but the woman saw it all then, and what she was suspected of.
“Oh, ma’am, were you thinking that ill of me?”— and the hands shook as they were raised, and the white border seemed to lift itself from the horror-stricken face. “Did you think I could do so ill a turn, and after all the kindness showed me? The good Lord above knows I’m not a thief. Dear heart! I never set eyes, lady, on the thing you’ve lost.”
“No, I am sure you didn’t,” I cried; “I said so all along. It might have dropped anywhere in the road.”
“I never see it, nor touched it, sir,” she reiterated, the tears raining down her cheeks. “Oh, ma’am, do believe me!”
Molly tossed her head as she went out with the eggs in her apron; but I would sooner have believed myself guilty than that poor woman. Mrs. Todhetley thought with me. She offered her some warm ale and a crust; but the old woman shook her head in refusal, and went off in a fit of crying.
“She knows no more of the earring than I know of it, mother.”
“I feel sure she does not, Johnny.”
“That Molly’s getting unbearable. I wonder you don’t send her away.”
“She has her good points, dear,” sighed Mrs. Todhetley. “Only think of her cooking! and of what a thrifty, careful manager she is!”
The Squire and Tod got home for lunch. Nothing could come up to their ridicule when they heard what had occurred, saying that the mother and I were two muffs, fit to go about the world in a caravan as specimens of credulity. Like Molly, they thought we ought to have secured the woman.
“But you see she was honest in the matter of the half-crown,” debated Mrs. Todhetley, in her mild way. “She brought that back. It does not stand to reason that she would have dared to come within miles of the place, if she had taken the earring.”
“Why, it’s just the thing she would do,” retorted the Squire, pacing about in a commotion. “Once she had got rid of the earring, she’d show up here to throw suspicion off herself. And she couldn’t come without returning the half-crown: it must have gone nicely against the grain to return that.”
And Mrs. Todhetley, the most easily swayed spirit in the world, began to veer round again like a weathercock, and fear we had been foolish.
“You should see her jagged-out old red shawl,” cried Molly, triumphantly. “All the red a’most washed out of it, and the edges in tatters. I know a tramp when I sees one: and the worst of all tramps is them that do the tricks with clean hands and snow-white cap-borders.”
The theme lasted us all the afternoon. I held my tongue, for it was of no use contending against the stream. It was getting dusk when Cole called in, on his way from the Coneys. The Squire laid the grievance before him, demanding whether he had ever heard of two people so simple as I and the mother.
“What did she say her name was?” asked Cole. “Nutten? — of Islip? Are you sure she did not say Norton?”
“She said Nutt’n. We interpreted it into Nutten.”
“Yes, Johnny, that’s how she would say it. I’ll lay a guinea it’s old Granny Norton.”
“Granny Norton!” echoed the Squire. “She is respectable.”
“Respectable, honest, upright as the day,” replied Cole. “I have a great respect for old Mrs. Norton. She’s very poor now; but she was not always so.”
“She told us this morning that she lived in the cottage by the dung-heap,” I put in.
“Exactly: she does so. And a nice dung-heap it is; the disgrace of Islip,” added Cole.
“And you mean to say, Cole, that you know this woman — that she’s not a tramp, but Mrs. Norton?” spoke the pater.
“I know Mrs. Norton of Islip,” he answered. “I saw her pass my window this morning: she seemed to be coming from the railway-station. It was no tramp, Squire.”
“How was she dressed?” asked Mrs. Todhetley.
“Dressed? Well, her shawl was red, and her bonnet black. I’ve never seen her dressed otherwise, when abroad, these ten years past.”
“And — has she a daughter in service at Worcester?”
“Yes, I think so. Yes, I am sure so. It’s Susan. Oh, it is the same person: you need not doubt it.”
“Then what the deuce did Luke Macintosh mean by bringing word back from Islip that she was not known there?” fiercely demanded the Squire, turning to me.
“But Luke said he asked for her by the name of Nutt — Mrs. Nutt. I questioned him about it this afternoon, sir, and he said he understood Nutt to have been the name we gave him.”
This was very unsatisfactory as far as the earring went. (And we ascertained later that poor Mrs. Norton was Mrs. Norton, and had been suspected wrongly.) For, failing the tramp view of the case, who could have sold the earring to the professional gentleman in Worcester?
“Cripp knows what he is about; never fear,” observed the Squire. “Now that he has the case well in hand, he is sure to pull it successfully through.”
“Yes, you may trust Cripp,” said the doctor. “And I hope, Mrs. Todhetley, you will soon be gladdened by the sight of your earring again.” And Cole went out, telling us we were going to have a thaw. Which we could have told him, for it had already set in, and the snow was melting rapidly.
“To think that I should have done so stupid a thing. But I have been so flustered this morning by that parson and his nonsense that I hardly know what I’m about.”
The speaker was Miss Timmens. She had come up in a passion, after twelve o’clock school. Not with us, or with her errand — which was to bring one of the new shirts to show, made after Tod’s fancy — but with the young parson. Upon arriving and unfolding the said shirt, Miss Timmens found that she had brought the wrong shirt — one of those previously finished. The thaw had gone on so briskly in the night that this morning the roads were all mud and slop, and Miss Timmens had walked up in her pattens.
“He is enough to make a saint swear, with his absurdities and his rubbish,” went on Miss Timmens, turning from the table where lay the unfolded shirt, and speaking of the new parson; between whom and herself hot war waged. “You’d never believe, ma’am, what he did this morning”— facing Mrs. Todhetley. “I had got the spelling-class up, and the rest of the girls were at their slates and copies, and that, when in he walked amidst the roomful. ‘Miss Timmens,’ says he to me, in the hearing of them all, ‘I think these children should learn a little music. And perhaps a little drawing might not come amiss to those who have talent for it.’ ‘Oh yes, of course,’ says I, hardly able to keep my temper, ‘and a little dancing as well, and let ’em go out on the green daily and step their figures to a fife and tambourine!’ ‘There’s nothing like education,’ he goes on, staring hard at me, as if he hardly knew whether to take my words for jest or earnest; ‘and it is well to unite, as far as we can, the ornamental with the useful, it makes life pleasanter. It is quite right to teach girls to hem dusters and darn stockings, but I think some fancy-work should be added to it: embroidery and the like.’ ‘Oh, you great baby!’ I thought to myself, and did but just stop my tongue from saying it. ‘Will embroidery and music and drawing help these girls to scour floors, and cook dinners, and wash petticoats?’ I asked him. ‘If I had a set of young ladies here, it would be right for them to learn accomplishments; but these girls are to be servants. And all I can say, sir, is, that if ever those new-fangled notions are introduced, you’ll have to find another mistress, for I’ll not stop to help in it. It would just lead many a girl to her ruin, sir; that’s what it would do, whoever lives to see it.’ Well, he went away with that, ma’am, but he had put my temper up — talking such dangerous nonsense before the girls, their ears all agape to listen! — and when twelve o’clock struck, I was not half through the spelling-class! Altogether, it’s no wonder I brought away the wrong shirt.”
Miss Timmens, her errand a failure, began folding up the shirt in a bustle, her thin face quite fiery with anger. Mrs. Todhetley shook her head; she did not approve of nonsensical notions for these poor peasant girls any more than did the rest of us.
“I’ll bring up the right shirt this evening when school’s over; and if it suits we’ll get on with the rest,” concluded Miss Timmens, making her exit with the parcel.
“What the world will come to later, Mr. Johnny, if these wild ideas get much ground, puzzles me to think of,” resumed Miss Timmens, as I went with her, talking, along the garden-path. “We shall have no servants, sir; none. It does not stand to reason that a girl will work for her bread at menial offices when she has had fine notions instilled into her. Grammar, and geography, and history, and botany, and music, and singing, and fancy-work! — what good will they be of to her in making beds and cleaning saucepans? The upshot will be that they won’t make beds and they won’t clean saucepans; they’ll be above it. The Lord protect ’em! — for I don’t see what else will; or what will become of them. Or of the world, either, when it can get no servants. My goodness, Master Johnny! what’s that? Surely it’s the lost earring?”
Close to the roots of a small fir-tree it lay: the earring that had caused so much vexation and hunting. I picked it up: its pink topaz and diamonds shone brightly as ever in the sun, and were quite uninjured. Mrs. Todhetley remembered then, though it had slipped her memory before, that in coming indoors after the interview with the woman at the gate, she had stopped to shake this fir-tree, bowed down almost to breaking with its weight of snow. The earring must have fallen from her ear then into the snow, and been hidden by it.
Without giving himself time for a mouthful of lunch, the Squire tore away to the station through the mud, as fast as his legs would carry him, and thence to Worcester by train. What an unfortunate mistake it would be should that professional gentleman have been accused, who had bought something from the travelling pedlar!
“Well, Cripp, here’s a fine discovery!” panted the Squire, as he went bursting into the police-station and to the presence of Sergeant Cripp. “The lost earring has turned up.”
“I’m sure I am very glad to hear it,” said the sergeant, facing round from a letter he was writing. “How has it been found?”
And the Squire told him how.
“It was not stolen at all, then?”
“Not at all, Cripp. And the poor creature we suspected of taking it proves to be a very respectable old body indeed, nothing of the tramp about her. You — you have not gone any lengths yet with that professional gentleman, I hope!” added the Squire, dropping his voice to a confidential tone.
Cripp paused for a minute, as if not understanding.
“We have not employed any professional man at all in the matter,” said he; “have not thought of doing so.”
“I don’t mean that, Cripp. You know. The gentleman you suspected of having bought the earring.”
Cripp stared. “I have not suspected any one.”
“Goodness me! you need not be so cautious, Cripp,” returned the Squire, somewhat nettled. “Eccles made a confidant of me. He told me all about it — except the name.”
“What Eccles?” asked Cripp. “I really do not know what you are talking of, sir.”
“What Eccles — why, your Eccles. Him you sent over to me on Sunday afternoon: a well-dressed, gentlemanly man, with a black moustache. Detective Eccles.”
“I do not know any Detective Eccles.”
“Dear me, my good man, you must be losing your memory!” retorted the Squire, in wrath. “He came straight to me from you on Sunday; you sent him off in haste without his dinner.”
“Quite a mistake, sir,” said the sergeant. “It was not I who sent him.”
“Why, bless my heart and mind, Cripp, you’ll be for telling me next the sun never shone! Where’s your recollection gone to?”
“I hope my recollection is where it always has been, Squire. We must be at cross-purposes. I do not know any one of the name of Eccles, and I have not sent any one to you. As a proof that I could not have done it, I may tell you, sir, that I was summoned to Gloucester on business last Friday directly after I saw you, and did not get back here until this morning.”
The Squire rubbed his face, whilst he revolved probabilities, and thought Cripp must be dreaming.
“He came direct from you — from yourself, Cripp; and he disclosed to me your reasons for hoping you had found the earring, and your doubts of the honesty of the man who had bought it — the lawyer, you remember. And he brought back the other earring to you that you might compare them.”
“Eh — what?” cried Cripp, briskly. “Brought away the other earring, do you say, sir?”
“To be sure he did. What else did you send him for?”
“And he has not returned it to you?”
“Returned it! of course not. You hold it, don’t you?”
“Then, Squire Todhetley, you have been cleverly robbed of this second earring,” cried Cripp, quietly. “Dodged out of it, sir. The man who went over to you must have been a member of the swell-mob. Well-dressed, and a black moustache!”
“He was a college man, had been at Oxford,” debated the unfortunate pater, sitting on a chair in awful doubt. “He told me so.”
“You did not see him there, sir,” said the sergeant, with a suppressed laugh. “I might tell you I had a duke for a grandmother; but it would be none nearer the fact.”
“Mercy upon us all!” groaned the Squire. “What a mortification it will be if that other earring’s gone! Don’t you think some one in your station here may have sent him, if you were out yourself?”
“I will inquire, for your satisfaction, Squire Todhetley,” said the sergeant, opening the door; “but I can answer for it beforehand that it will be useless.”
It was as Cripp thought. Eccles was not known at the station, and no one had been sent to us.
“It all comes of that advertisement you put in, Squire,” finished up Cripp, by way of consolation. “The swell-mob would not have known there was a valuable jewel missing but for that, or the address of those who had missed it.”
The pater came home more crestfallen than a whipped schoolboy, after leaving stringent orders with Cripp and his men to track out the swindler. It was a blow to all of us.
“I said he looked as much like a detective as I’m like a Dutchman,” quoth Tod.
“Well, it’s frightfully mortifying,” said the Squire.
“And the way he polished off that beef, and drank down the ale! I wonder he did not contrive to walk off with the silver tankard!”
“Be quiet, Joe! You are laughing, sir! Do you think it is a laughing matter?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said bold Tod. “It was cleverly done.”
Up rose the pater in a passion. Vowing vengeance against the swindlers who went about the world, got up in good clothes and a moustache; and heartily promising the absent and unconscious Cripp to be down upon him if he did not speedily run the man to earth.
And that’s how Mrs. Todhetley lost the other earring.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55