Tit-Bits, June 18, 1910
AN EXHIBITION PERFORMANCE.
Cold reason may disapprove of wagers, but without a doubt there is something joyous and lovable in the type of mind which rushes at the least provocation into the making of them, something smacking of the spacious days of the Regency. Nowadays the spirit seems to have deserted England. When Mr. Asquith became Premier of Great Britain no earnest forms were to be observed rolling pea-nuts along the Strand with a toothpick. When Mr. Asquith is dethroned, it is improbable that any Briton will allow his beard to remain unshaved until the Liberal party returns to office. It is in the United States that the wager has found a home. It is characteristic of some minds to dash into a wager with the fearlessness of a soldier in a forlorn hope, and, once in, to regard it almost as a sacred trust. Some men never grow up out of the schoolboy spirit of “daring.”
To this class Jimmy Pitt belonged. He was of the same type as the man in the comic opera who proposed to the lady because somebody bet him he wouldn’t. There had never been a time when a challenge, a “dare,” had not acted as a spur to him. In his newspaper days life had been one long series of challenges. They had been the essence of the business. A story had not been worth getting unless the getting were difficult.
With the conclusion of his newspaper life came a certain flatness into the scheme of things. There were times, many times, when Jimmy was bored. He hungered for excitement, and life appeared to have so little to offer. The path of the rich man was so smooth, and it seemed to lead nowhere. This task of burgling a house was like an unexpected treat to a child. With an intensity of purpose which should have touched his sense of humour, but which, as a matter of fact, did not appeal to him as ludicrous in any way, he addressed himself to the work. The truth was that Jimmy was one of those men who are charged to the brim with force. Somehow the force had to find an outlet. If he had undertaken to collect birds’ eggs, he would have set about it with the same tense energy.
Spike was sitting on the edge of his chair, dazed but happy, his head still buzzing from the unhoped-for praise. Jimmy looked at his watch. It was nearly three o’clock. A sudden idea struck him. The gods had provided gifts—why not take them?
“Would you care to come and crack a crib with me now?”
Reverential awe was written on the red-haired one’s face.
“Surest t’ing you know, boss.”
“Or, rather,” proceeded Jimmy, “would you care to crack a crib while I came along with you? Strictly speaking, I am here on a vacation, but a trifle like this isn’t real work. It’s this way,” he explained. “I’ve taken a fancy to you, Spike, and I don’t like to see you wasting your time on coarse work. You have the root of the matter in you, and with a little coaching I could put a polish on you. I wouldn’t do this for everyone, but I hate to see a man bungling who might do better! I want to see you at work. Come right along and we’ll go up-town and you shall start in. Don’t get nervous. Just work as you would if I were not there. I shall not expect too much. Rome was not built in a day. When we are through I will criticize a few of your mistakes. How does that suit you?”
“Gee, boss! Great! And say, I knows just de place. A friend of mine puts me wise to it. Leastways, I didn’t know he was me friend, but I falls for him now. It’s a——”
“Very well, then. One moment, though.”
He went to the telephone. Before he had left New York on his travels Arthur Mifflin had been living at an hotel near Washington Square. It was probable that he was still there. He called up the number. The night-clerk was an old acquaintance of his.
“Halloa, Dixon!” said Jimmy, “is that you? I’m Pitt. Pitt. Yes. I’m back. How did you guess? Yes, very pleasant, thanks. Has Mr. Mifflin come in yet? Gone to bed? Never mind, ring him up, will you? Thanks.” Presently the sleepy and outraged voice of Mr. Mifflin spoke at the other end of the line.
“What’s wrong? Who the deuce is that?”
“My dear Arthur! Where you pick up such expressions I can’t think. Not from me.”
“Is that you, Jimmy? What in the name of——”
“Heavens! what are you kicking about? The night’s yet young. Arthur, touching that little arrangement we made. Cracking that crib, you know. Are you listening? Have you any objection to my taking an assistant along with me? I don’t want to do anything contrary to our agreement, but there’s a young fellow here who’s anxious that I should let him come along and pick up a few hints. He’s a professional all right. Not in our class, of course, but quite a fair rough workman. He—— Arthur! Arthur! These are harsh words! Then am I to understand you have no objection? Very well. Only don’t say later on that I didn’t play fair. Good night.”
He hung up the receiver and turned to Spike.
“Ain’t youse goin’ to put on your gum-shoes, boss?”
Jimmy frowned reflectively, as if there was something in what this novice suggested. He went into the bedroom, and returned wearing a pair of thin patent leather shoes.
Spike coughed tentatively.
“Won’t youse need your gun?” he hazarded.
Jimmy gave a short laugh.
“I work with brains, not guns,” he said. “Let us be going.”
There was a taxi-cab near by, as there always is in New York. Jimmy pushed Spike in.
The luxury of riding in a taxi-cab kept Spike dumb for several miles. At One Hundred and Fiftieth Street Jimmy stopped the cab and paid the driver, who took the money with that magnificently aloof air which characterizes the taxi-chauffeur. A lesser man might have displayed some curiosity about the ill-matched pair. The chauffeur, having lit a cigarette, drove off without any display of interest whatsoever. It might have been part of his ordinary duties to drive gentlemen in evening clothes and shock-headed youths in parti-coloured sweaters about the city at three o’clock in the morning.
“We will now,” said Jimmy, “stroll on and prospect. It might excite comment if we drove up to the door. It is up to you, Spike. Lead me to this house you mentioned.”
They walked on, striking eastwards out of Broadway. It caused Jimmy some surprise to find that much-enduring thoroughfare extended as far as this. It had never occurred to him before to ascertain what Broadway did with itself beyond Times Square. He had spent much of his time abroad, in cities where a street changes its name every hundred yards or so without any apparent reason.
It was darker now that they had moved from the centre of things, but it was still far too light for Jimmy’s tastes. He was content, however, to leave matters entirely in his companion’s charge. Spike probably had his method for evading publicity on these occasions.
Spike, meanwhile, plodded steadily onwards. Block after block he passed, until finally the houses began to be more scattered.
At length he stopped opposite a fair-sized detached house. As he did so a single rain-drop descended with a splash on the nape of Jimmy’s neck. In another moment the shower had begun—jerkily at first, then, as if warming to its work, with the quiet persistence of a shower-bath.
“Dis is de place, boss,” said Spike.
From a burglar’s point of view it was an admirable house. It had no porch, but there was a handy window only a few feet from the ground. Spike pulled from his pocket a small bottle and a piece of coarse paper.
“What’s that?” inquired Jimmy.
“Treacle, boss,” said Spike, deferentially.
He poured the contents of the bottle on to the paper, which he pressed firmly against the window-pane. Then, drawing out a short steel instrument, he gave the paper a sharp tap. The glass beneath broke, though the sound was almost inaudible. The paper came away with the glass attached, and Spike, inserting his hand into the opening, shot back the catch and softly pushed up the window.
“Elementary,” said Jimmy; “elementary, but quite neat.”
There was now a shutter to be negotiated. This took longer, but in the end Spike’s persuasive methods prevailed.
Jimmy became quite cordial.
“You have been well grounded, Spike,” he said. “And, after all, that is half the battle. The advice I give to every novice is, ‘Learn to walk before you try to run.’ Master the A B C of the craft first. With a little careful coaching you will do. Just so. Pop in.”
Spike climbed cautiously over the sill, followed by Jimmy. The latter struck a match and found the electric light switch. They were in a parlour furnished and decorated with surprising taste. Jimmy had expected the usual hideousness, but here everything, from the wall-paper to the smallest ornaments, was wonderfully well selected.
Business, however, was business. This was no time to stand admiring artistic efforts in room-furnishing. There was that big J to be carved on the front door. If ’twere done, then ’twere well ’twere done quickly.
He was just moving to the door, when from some distant part of the house came the bark of a dog. Another joined in. The solo became a duet. The air was filled with their clamour.
“Gee!” cried Spike.
The remark seemed more or less to sum up the situation.
“ ’Tis sweet,” says Byron, “to hear the watch-dog’s honest bark.” Jimmy and Spike found two watch-dogs’ honest barks cloying. Spike intimated this by making a feverish dash for the open window. Unfortunately for the success of this manœuvre, the floor of the room was covered, not with a carpet, but with tastefully scattered rugs, and underneath these rugs it was very highly polished. Spike, treading on one of these islands, was instantly undone. No power of will or muscle can save a man in such a case. Spike skidded. His feet flew from under him. There was a momentary flash of red head, as of a passing meteor. The next moment he had fallen on his back with a thud which shook the house, and probably the rest of Manhattan Island as well. Even in that crisis the thought flashed across Jimmy’s mind that this was not Spike’s lucky night.
Upstairs the efforts of the canine choir had begun to resemble the “A che la morte” duet in “Il Trovatore.” Particularly good work was being done by the baritone dog.
Spike sat up, groaning. Equipped though he was by Nature with a skull of the purest and most solid ivory, the fall had disconcerted him. His eyes, like those of Shakespeare’s poet, rolling in a fine frenzy, did glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. He passed his fingers tenderly through his vermilion hair.
Heavy footsteps were descending the stairs. In the distance the soprano dog had reached A in alto and was holding it, while his fellow-artiste executed runs in the lower register.
“Get up!” hissed Jimmy. “There’s somebody coming! Get up, you idiot, can’t you?”
It was characteristic of Jimmy that it never even occurred to him to desert the fallen one and depart alone. There was once an Italian convict who, in planning a jail-breaking, assigned to his brother felons such duties as shooting the governor and strangling the warders, reserving for himself the task of making “da gran’ escape.” Jimmy was the exact opposite of this strategist. Spike was his brother-in-arms. He would as soon have thought of deserting him as a sea-captain would think of abandoning his ship.
Consequently, as Spike, despite all exhortations, continued to remain on the floor, rubbing his head and uttering “Gee!” at intervals in a melancholy voice, Jimmy resigned himself to fate, and stood where he was, waiting for the door to open.
It opened the next moment as if a cyclone had been behind it.
A cyclone entering a room is apt to alter the position of things. This one shifted a footstool, a small chair, a rug, and Spike. The chair, struck by a massive boot, whirled against the wall. The footstool rolled away. The rug crumpled up and slid. Spike, with a yell, leaped to his feet, slipped again, fell, and finally compromised on an all-fours position, in which attitude he remained, blinking.
While these stirring acts were in progress there was the sound of a door opening upstairs, followed by a scuttering of feet and an appalling increase in the canine contribution to the current noises. The duet had now taken on quite a Wagnerian effect.
There raced into the room first a white bull-terrier, he of the soprano voice, and—a bad second—his fellow-artiste, the baritone, a massive bulldog, bearing a striking resemblance to the big man with the revolver.
And then, in theatrical parlance, the entire company “held the picture.” Up-stage, with his hand still on the door, stood the large householder; down-stage, Jimmy. Centre, Spike and the bulldog, their noses a couple of inches apart, inspected each other with mutual disfavour. On the extreme O.P. side, the bull-terrier, who had fallen foul of a wicker-work table, was crouching with extended tongue and rolling eyes, waiting for the next move.
The householder looked at Jimmy. Jimmy looked at the householder. Spike and the bulldog looked at each other. The bull-terrier distributed his gaze impartially around the company.
“A typical scene of quiet American home-life,” murmured Jimmy.
The man with the pistol glowered.
“Hands up, you two!” he roared, pointing a mammoth revolver.
The two marauders humoured his whim.
“Let me explain,” said Jimmy, pacifically, shuffling warily round in order to face the bull-terrier, who was now strolling in his direction with an ill-assumed carelessness.
“Keep still, you blackguard!”
Jimmy kept still. The bull-terrier, with the same abstracted air, was beginning a casual inspection of his right trouser-leg.
Relations between Spike and the bulldog, meanwhile, had become more strained. The sudden flinging-up of the former’s arms had had the worst effects on the animal’s nerves. Spike the croucher on all-fours he might have tolerated; but Spike the semaphore inspired him with thoughts of battle. He was growling in a moody, reflective manner. His eye was full of purpose.
It was probably this that caused Spike to look at the householder. Till then he had been too busy to gaze elsewhere, but now the bulldog’s eye had become so unpleasing that he cast a pathetic glance up at the man by the door.
“Gee!” he cried, as he did so. “It’s de boss! Say, boss, call off de dawg. It’s sure goin’ to nip de hull head off of me.”
The other lowered his revolver in surprise.
“So it’s you, is it, you limb of Satan?” he remarked. “I thought I had seen that confounded red head of yours before. What are you doing in my house?”
Spike uttered a moan of self-pity.
“Boss,” he cried, “I’ve had a raw deal. Dere’s bin coarse woik goin’ on. Listen! It’s dis way. Honest, I didn’t know dis was where you lived. A fat Swede—Ole Larsen his monaker is—tells me dis house belongs to a widder-loidy what lives here all alone, and has all kinds of silver and all dat, and she’s down Sout’ visiting, so dat de house is empty. Gee, I’m onto his game now. I’m wise. Listen, boss. Him and me starts in scrappin’ last week over somet’in’, and I t’inks he’s got it in bad for me, because I puts it all over him. But t’ree days ago up he comes and says, ‘Let’s be fren’s,’ and puts me wise to dis joint. I’ll soak it to dat Swede! Dis was what he was woikin’ for. He knows you lives here, and he t’inks to put me in bad wit youse. It’s a raw deal, boss!”
The big man listened to this sad tale of Grecian gifts in silence. Not so the bulldog, which growled ominously from start to finish. Spike glanced nervously in its direction.
“De dawg,” he persisted, uneasily. “Won’t you call off de dawg, boss?”
The big man stooped and grasped the animal’s collar, jerking him away.
“The same treatment,” suggested Jimmy, with approval, “would also do a world of good to this playful and affectionate animal—unless he is a vegetarian, in which case don’t bother.”
The householder glowered at him.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name,” began Jimmy, “is——”
“Say,” said Spike, “he’s a champion burglar, boss——”
The householder shut the door.
“Eh?” he said.
“He’s a champion burglar from de odder side. He sure is. From Lunnon. Gee, he’s de guy! Tell him about de bank you opened, and de jools you swiped from de duchess, and de what-d’ye-call-it blow-pipe.”
It seemed to Jimmy that Spike was showing a certain want of tact. When you are discovered by a householder—with revolver—in his parlour at half-past three in the morning, it is surely an injudicious move to lay stress on your proficiency as a burglar. The householder may be supposed to take that for granted. The side of your character which should be advertised in such a crisis is the non-burglarious. Allusion should be made to the fact that as a child you attended Sunday-school regularly, and to what the curate said when you took the Divinity prize. The idea should be conveyed to the householder’s mind that, if let off with a caution, your innate goodness of heart will lead you to reform and avoid such scenes in future.
With some astonishment, therefore, Jimmy found that these revelations, so far from prejudicing the man with the revolver against him, had apparently told in his favour. The man behind the gun was regarding him rather with interest than disapproval.
“So you’re a crook from London, are you?”
Jimmy did not hesitate. If being a crook from London was a passport into citizens’ parlours in the small hours, and, more particularly, if it carried with it also a safe-conduct out of them, Jimmy was not the man to refuse the rôle. He bowed.
“Well, you’ll have to come across now you’re in New York. Understand that. And come across good.”
“Sure, he will,” said Spike, charmed that the tension had been relieved and matters placed upon a pleasant and business-like footing. “He’ll be good. He’s next to de game, sure.”
“Sure,” echoed Jimmy, courteously. He did not understand; but things seemed to be taking a turn for the better, so why disturb the harmony?
“Dis gent,” said Spike, respectfully, “is boss of de cops. A police-captain,” he corrected himself.
A light broke upon Jimmy’s darkness. He wondered he had not understood before. He had not been a newspaper-man in New York for a year without finding out something of the inner workings of the police force. He saw now why the other’s manner had changed.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “We must have a talk together one of these days.”
“We must,” said the police-captain, significantly.
“Of course, I don’t know your methods on this side, but anything that’s usual——”
“I’ll see you at my office. Spike Mullins will show you where it is.”
“Very well. You must forgive this preliminary informal call. We came in more to shelter from the rain than anything.”
“You did, did you?”
Jimmy felt that it behoved him to stand on his dignity. The situation demanded it.
“Why,” he said, with some hauteur, “in the ordinary course of business I should hardly waste time over a small crib like——”
“It’s banks for his,” murmured Spike, rapturously. “He eats dem alive. And jools from duchesses.”
“I admit a partiality for jewels and duchesses,” said Jimmy. “And now, as it’s a little late, perhaps we had better—— Ready, Spike? Good night, then. Pleased to have met you.”
“I’ll see you at my office.”
“I may possibly look in. I shall be doing very little work in New York, I fancy. I am here merely on a vacation.”
“If you do any work at all,” said the policeman, coldly, “you’ll look in at my office, or you’ll wish you had when it’s too late.”
“Of course, of course. I shouldn’t dream of omitting any formality that may be usual. But I don’t fancy I shall break my vacation. By the way, one little thing. Have you any objection to my carving a ‘J’ on your front door?”
The policeman stared.
“On the inside. It won’t show. It’s just a whim of mine. If you have no objection.”
“I don’t want any of your——” began the policeman.
“You misunderstand me. It’s only that it means paying for a dinner. I wouldn’t for the world——”
The policeman pointed to the window.
“Out you get,” he said, abruptly. “I’ve had enough of you. And don’t you forget to come to my office.”
Spike, still deeply mistrustful of the bulldog Rastus, jumped at the invitation. He was through the window and out of sight in the friendly darkness almost before the policeman had finished speaking. Jimmy remained.
“I shall be delighted——” he had begun, when he stopped. In the doorway was standing a girl—a girl whom he recognized. Her startled look told him that she too had recognized him.
Not for the first time since he had set out from his flat that night in Spike’s company Jimmy was conscious of a sense of the unreality of things. It was all so exactly as it would have happened in a dream. He had gone to sleep thinking of this girl, and here she was. But a glance at McEachern brought him back to earth. There was nothing of the dream-world about the police-captain.
The policeman, whose back was towards the door, had not observed the addition to the company. Molly had turned the handle quietly and her slippered feet made no sound. It was the amazed expression on Jimmy’s face that caused him to look towards the door.
She smiled, though her face was still white. Jimmy’s evening clothes had reassured her. She did not understand how he came to be there, but evidently there was nothing wrong. She had interrupted a conversation, not a conflict.
“I heard the noise and you going downstairs, and I sent the dogs down to help you, father,” she said. “And then, after a little, I came down to see if you were all right.”
Mr. McEachern was perplexed. Molly’s arrival had put him in an awkward position. To denounce his visitor as a cracksman was impossible. Jimmy knew too much about him. The only real fear of the policeman’s life was lest some word of his money-making methods might come to his daughter’s ears.
Quite a brilliant idea came to him.
“A man broke in, my dear,” he said. “This gentleman was passing and saw him.”
“Distinctly,” said Jimmy. “The ugly-looking customer!”
“But he slipped out of the window and got away,” concluded the policeman.
“He was very quick,” said Jimmy. “I think he may have been a professional acrobat.”
“He didn’t hurt you, father?”
“No, no, my dear.”
“Perhaps I frightened him,” said Jimmy, airily.
Mr. McEachern scowled furtively at him.
“We mustn’t detain you, Mr.——”
“Pitt,” said Jimmy. “My name is Pitt.” He turned to Molly. “I hope you enjoyed the voyage?”
The policeman started.
“You know my daughter?”
“By sight only, I’m afraid. We were fellow-passengers on the Lusitania. Unfortunately I was in the second cabin. I used to see your daughter walking the deck sometimes.”
“I remember seeing you—sometimes.”
McEachern burst out:—
He stopped and looked at Molly. Molly was bending over Rastus, tickling him under the ear.
“Let me show you the way out, Mr. Pitt,” said the policeman, shortly. His manner was abrupt, but when one is speaking to a man whom one would dearly love to throw out of the window abruptness is almost unavoidable.
“Perhaps I should be going,” said Jimmy.
“Good night, Mr. Pitt,” said Molly.
“I hope we shall meet again,” said Jimmy.
“This way, Mr. Pitt,” growled McEachern, holding the door.
“Please don’t trouble,” said Jimmy. He went to the window, and, flinging his leg over the sill, dropped noiselessly to the ground.
He turned and put his head in at the window again.
“I did that rather well,” he said, pleasantly. “I think I must take up this sort of thing as a profession. Good night.”
In the days before the Welshman began to expend his surplus energy in playing Rugby football, he was accustomed, whenever the monotony of his everyday life began to oppress him, to collect a few friends and make raids across the border into England, to the huge discomfort of the dwellers on the other side. It was to cope with this habit that Dreever Castle, in Shropshire, came into existence. It met a long-felt want. In time of trouble it became a haven of refuge. From all sides people poured into it, emerging cautiously when the marauders had disappeared. In the whole history of the castle there is but one instance recorded of a bandit attempting to take the place by storm, and the attack was an emphatic failure. On receipt of a ladleful of molten lead, aimed to a nicety by one John, the Chaplain—evidently one of those sporting parsons—this warrior retired, done to a turn, to his mountain fastnesses, and is never heard of again. He would seem, however, to have passed the word round among his friends, for subsequent raiding parties studiously avoided the castle, and a peasant who had succeeded in crossing its threshold was for the future considered to be “home” and out of the game.
Such was Dreever in the olden times. To-day, the Welshman having calmed down considerably, it had lost its militant character. The old walls still stood, grey, menacing, and unchanged, but they were the only link with the past. The castle was now a very comfortable country-house, nominally ruled over by Hildebrand Spencer Poyns de Burgh John Hannasyde Coombe-Crombie, twelfth Earl of Dreever (“Spennie” to his relatives and intimates), but in reality the possession of his uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Julia Blunt.
Spennie’s position was one of some embarrassment. At no point in their history had the Dreevers been what one might call a parsimonious family. If a chance presented itself of losing money in a particularly wild and futile manner, the Dreever of the period had invariably sprung at it with the vim of an energetic bloodhound. The South Sea Bubble absorbed £200,000 of good Dreever money, and the remainder of the family fortune was squandered to the ultimate farthing by the sportive gentleman who had held the title in the days of the Regency, when Watier’s and the Cocoa Tree were in their prime, and fortunes had a habit of disappearing in a single evening. When Spennie became Earl of Dreever there was about eighteenpence in the old oak chest.
This is the point at which Sir Thomas Blunt breaks into Dreever history. Sir Thomas was a small, pink, fussy, obstinate man, with a genius for trade and the ambition of a Napoleon, probably one of the finest and most complete specimens of the came-over-Waterloo-Bridge-with-half-a-crown-in-my-pocket-and-now-look-at-me class of millionaire in existence. He had started almost literally with nothing. By carefully excluding from his mind every thought except that of making money, he had risen in the world with a gruesome persistence which nothing could check. At the age of fifty-one he was chairman of Blunt’s Stores, Ltd., a member of Parliament, silent as a wax figure, but a great comfort to the party by virtue of liberal contributions to its funds, and a knight. This was good, but he aimed still higher; and, meeting Spennie’s aunt, Lady Julia Coombe-Crombie, just at the moment when, financially, the Dreevers were at their lowest ebb, he had effected a very satisfactory deal by marrying her, thereby becoming, as one might say, chairman of Dreever, Ltd. Until Spennie should marry money, an act on which his chairman vehemently insisted, Sir Thomas held the purse, and, except in minor matters ordered by his wife, of whom he stood in uneasy awe, had things entirely his own way.
One afternoon, a year after the events recorded in the preceding chapter, he was in his private room, looking out of the window. The view from that window was very beautiful. The castle stood on a hill, the lower portion of which, between the house and the lake, had been cut into broad terraces. The lake itself, with its island with the little boat-house in the centre, was a glimpse of Fairyland.
But it was not altogether the beauty of the view that had drawn Sir Thomas to the window. He was looking at it more because the position enabled him to avoid his wife’s eye; and, just at the moment, he was rather anxious to avoid his wife’s eye. A somewhat stormy board meeting was in progress, and Lady Julia, who constituted the board of directors, had been heckling the chairman. The point under discussion was one of etiquette, and in matters of etiquette Sir Thomas felt himself at a disadvantage.
“I tell you, my dear,” he said to the window, “I am not easy in my mind.”
“Nonsense!” snapped Lady Julia. “Absurd! Ridiculous!”
Lady Julia Blunt, when conversing, resembled a Maxim gun more than anything else.
“But your diamonds, my dear?”
“I can take care of them.”
“But why should you have the trouble? Now, if we——”
“It’s no trouble.”
“When we were married there was a detective——”
“Don’t be childish, Thomas. Detectives at weddings are quite customary.”
“I paid twenty thousand pounds for that rope of pearls,” said Sir Thomas, obstinately. Switch things on to a cash basis, and he was more himself.
“May I ask if you suspect any of our guests of being criminals?” inquired Lady Julia, frostily.
Sir Thomas looked out of the window. At the moment the sternest censor could have found nothing to cavil at in the movements of such of the house-party as were in sight. Some were playing tennis, some clock golf, and others were smoking.
“Why, no,” he began.
“Of course. Absurd! Quite absurd!”
“But the servants. We have engaged a number of new servants lately.”
“With excellent recommendations.”
Sir Thomas was on the point of suggesting that the recommendations might be forged, but his courage failed him. Julia was sometimes so abrupt in these little discussions. She did not enter into his point of view. He was always a trifle inclined to treat the castle as a branch of Blunt’s Stores. As proprietor of the stores he had made a point of suspecting everybody, and the results had been excellent. In Blunt’s Stores you could hardly move in any direction without bumping into a gentlemanly detective, efficiently disguised. For the life of him Sir Thomas could not see why the same principle should not obtain at Dreever. Guests at a country house do not as a rule steal their host’s possessions, but then it is only an occasional customer at a store who goes in for shop-lifting. It was the principle of the thing, he thought. Be prepared against every emergency. With Sir Thomas Blunt suspiciousness was almost a mania. He was forced to admit that the chances were against any of his guests exhibiting larcenous tendencies, but, as for the servants, he thoroughly mistrusted them all except Saunders, the butler. It had seemed to him the merest prudence that a detective from a private inquiry agency should be installed at the castle while the house was full. Somewhat rashly he had mentioned this to his wife, and Lady Julia’s critique of the scheme had been terse and unflattering.
“I suppose,” said Lady Julia, sarcastically, “you will jump to the conclusion that this man whom Spennie is bringing down with him to-day is a criminal of some sort?”
“Eh? Is Spennie bringing a friend?”
There was not a great deal of enthusiasm in Sir Thomas’s voice. His nephew was not a young man whom he respected very highly. Spennie regarded his uncle with nervous apprehension, as one who would deal with his shortcomings with vigour and severity. Sir Thomas, for his part, looked on Spennie as a youth who would get into mischief unless he had an eye fixed on him. So he proceeded to fix that eye.
“I had a wire from him just now.”
“Who is his friend?”
“He doesn’t say. He just says he’s a man he met in London.”
“And what does ‘H’m!’ mean?” demanded Lady Julia.
“A man can pick up strange people in London,” said Sir Thomas, judicially.
“Just as you say, my dear.”
Lady Julia rose.
“As for what you suggest about the detective, it is, of course, absolutely absurd.”
“Quite so, my dear.”
“You mustn’t think of it.”
“Just as you say, my dear.”
Lady Julia left the room.
What followed may afford some slight clue to the secret of Sir Thomas Blunt’s rise in the world. It certainly suggests singleness of purpose, which is one of the essentials of success.
No sooner had the door closed behind Lady Julia than he went to his writing-table, took pen and paper, and wrote the following letter:—
To the Manager, Wragge’s Detective Agency, Holborn Bars, London E.C.
Sir,—With reference to my last of the 28th ult., I should be glad if you would send down immediately one of your best men. Am making arrangements to receive him. Kindly instruct him to present himself at Dreever Castle as applicant for position of valet to myself. I will see and engage him on his arrival, and further instruct him in his duties. Yours faithfully, Thos. Blunt.
P.S.—I shall expect him to-morrow evening. There is a good train leaving Paddington at 2.15.
He read it over and put in a couple of commas, then placed it in an envelope, and lit a cigar with the air of one who can be checked—yes, but vanquished—never.
A NEW FRIEND AND AN OLD ONE.
On the night of the day on which Sir Thomas Blunt wrote his letter to Wragge’s, Jimmy Pitt was supping at the Savoy.
If you have the money and the clothes, and want to see all the best people in London at a moderate cost, there are few things pleasanter than supper at the Savoy Hotel, Strand. But as Jimmy sat there, eyeing the multitude through the smoke of his cigarette, he felt, despite all the brightness and glitter, that this was a flat world and that he was very much alone in it.
A little over a year had passed since the merry evening at Police-Captain McEachern’s. During that time he had covered a good deal of new ground. His restlessness had reasserted itself. Somebody had mentioned Morocco in his hearing, and a fortnight later he was in Fez.
Of the principals in that night’s drama he had seen nothing more. It was only when walking home on air, rejoicing over the strange chance which had led to his finding and having speech with the lady of the Lusitania—he had reached Fifty-Ninth Street—that he realized that he had also lost her. It suddenly came home to him that not only did he not know her address, but was also ignorant of her name. Spike had called the man with the revolver “boss” throughout. Only that and nothing more. Except that he was a police-captain, Jimmy knew as little about him as he had done before their meeting. And Spike, who held the key to the mystery, had vanished. His acquaintances of that night had passed out of his life like figures in a waking dream. As far as the big man with the pistol was concerned, this did not distress him. He had only known that massive person for about a quarter of an hour, but to his thinking that was ample. Spike he would have liked to have met again, but he bore the separation with fortitude. There remained the girl of the ship, and she had haunted him with unfailing persistence during every one of the three hundred and eighty-four days which had passed since their meeting.
It was the thought of her that had made New York seem cramped. For weeks he had patrolled the more likely streets, the Park, and Riverside Drive, in the hope of meeting her. He had gone to the theatres and restaurants, but with no success. Sometimes he had wandered through the Bowery on the chance of meeting Spike. He had seen red heads in profusion, but none that belonged to his young disciple in the art of burglary. In the end he had wearied of the search, and, to the disgust of Arthur Mifflin and his other friends of the Strollers’, had gone out again on his wanderings. He was greatly missed, especially by that large section of his circle which was in a perpetual state of wanting a little to see it through till Saturday. For years Jimmy had been to these unfortunates a human bank on which they could draw at will. It offended them that one of those rare natures which are always good for two dollars at any hour of the day should be allowed to waste itself on places like Morocco and Spain—especially Morocco, where, by all accounts, there were brigands with almost a New York sense of touch.
They argued earnestly with Jimmy. They spoke of Raisuli and Kaid Maclean. But Jimmy was not to be stopped. The gadfly was vexing him, and he had to move.
For a year he had wandered, realizing every day the truth of Horace’s philosophy for those who travel—that a man cannot change his feelings with his climate, until finally he had found himself, as every wanderer does, at Charing Cross.
At this point he had tried to rally. This running away, he told himself, was futile. He would stand still and fight the fever in him.
He had been fighting it now for a matter of two weeks, and already he was contemplating retreat. A man at lunch had been talking about Japan——
Watching the crowd, Jimmy had found his attention attracted chiefly by a party of three a few tables away. The party consisted of a girl, rather pretty; a lady of middle age and stately demeanour, plainly her mother; and a light-haired, weedy young man in the twenties. It had been the almost incessant prattle of this youth and the peculiarly high-pitched, gurgling laugh which shot from him at short intervals which had drawn Jimmy’s notice upon them. And it was the curious cessation of both prattle and laugh which now made him look again in their direction.
The young man faced Jimmy; and Jimmy, looking at him, could see that all was not well with him. He was pale. He talked at random. A slight perspiration was noticeable on his forehead.
Jimmy caught his eye. There was a hunted look in it.
Given the time and the place, there were only two things which could have caused that look. Either the light-haired young man had seen a ghost, or he had suddenly realized that he had not enough money to pay the bill.
Jimmy’s heart went out to the sufferer. He took a card from his case, scribbled the words, “Can I help?” on it, and gave it to a waiter to take to the young man, who was now in a state bordering on collapse.
The next moment the light-haired one was at his table, talking in a feverish whisper.
“I say,” he said, “it’s frightfully good of you, old chap; it’s frightfully awkward. I’ve come out with too little money. I hardly like to—— You’ve never seen me before——”
“Don’t rub in my misfortunes,” pleaded Jimmy. “It wasn’t my fault.”
He placed a £5 note on the table.
“Say when,” he said, producing another.
“I say, thanks fearfully,” the young man said. “I don’t know what I’d have done.” He grabbed at the note. “I’ll let you have it back to-morrow. Here’s my card. Is your address on your card? I can’t remember. Oh, by Jove, I’ve got it in my hand all the time.” The gurgling laugh came into action again, freshened and strengthened by its rest. “Savoy Mansions, eh? I’ll come round to-morrow. Thanks frightfully again, old chap. I don’t know what I should have done.”
“It’s been a treat,” said Jimmy, deprecatingly.
The young man flitted back to his table, bearing the spoil. Jimmy looked at the card he had left. “Lord Dreever,” it read, and in the corner the name of a well-known club. The name Dreever was familiar to Jimmy. Everyone knew of Dreever Castle, partly because it was one of the oldest houses in England, but principally because for centuries it had been advertised by a particularly gruesome ghost-story. Everyone had heard of the secret of Dreever, which was known only to the Earl and the family lawyer, and confided to the heir at midnight on his twenty-first birthday. Jimmy had come across the story in corners of the papers all over the States, from New York to Onehorseville, Iowa. He looked with interest at the light-haired young man—the latest depository of the awful secret. It was popularly supposed that the heir, after hearing it, never smiled again; but it did not seem to have affected the present Lord Dreever to any great extent. His gurgling laugh was drowning the orchestra. Probably, Jimmy thought, when the family lawyer had told the light-haired young man the secret, the latter’s comment had been, “No, really? By Jove, I say, you know!”
Jimmy paid his bill and got up to go.
It was a perfect summer night—too perfect for bed. Jimmy strolled on to the Embankment, and stood leaning over the balustrade, looking across the river at the vague, mysterious mass of buildings on the Surrey side.
He must have been standing there for some time, his thoughts far away, when a voice spoke at his elbow.
“I say. Excuse me, have you—— Halloa!”
It was his light-haired lordship of Dreever.
“I say, by Jove! Why, we’re always meeting!”
A tramp on a bench close by stirred uneasily in his sleep as the gurgling laughter ripped the air.
the man in the comic opera: W. S. Gilbert, in the libretto for the comic opera His Excellency (1894), Act I:
Griffenfeld: No, but really now, what would you say if you found out, quite unexpectedly, that I wasn’t in earnest, and that I only proposed to you because — because somebody bet me I wouldn’t?
hotel near Washington Square: Wodehouse himself was living at the Hotel Earle (now the Washington Square Hotel) as he wrote this story, so there is little doubt this is an inside joke; I strongly suspect the night-clerk was really named Dixon.
If ’twere done: Macbeth (I,vii):
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly
’Tis sweet: Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto I, stanza 123
the “A che la morte” duet: A powerful scene from Act IV of Verdi’s Il trovatore, in which soprano Leonora sings onstage to her lover, tenor Manrico, who replies by singing “Ah! che la morte” (Ah, how slow Death is in coming) from his prison cell in a tower, while an offstage chorus sings a setting of “Miserere” (Lord, have mercy), so it’s really more than just a duet. Wodehouse may have known it from this 1909 recording featuring Enrico Caruso and Frances Alda; you may know it from the final scene of the Marx Bros. film A Night at the Opera. I’m not sure why Wodehouse refers to a baritone dog; Manrico’s part is definitely in the tenor range. And the piece is in the key of A flat, so if the soprano dog reached high A it would be off pitch.
A in alto: More usually “A in alt” (though the British first edition also reads “alto”); the American first edition has “alt.” This terminology refers to the first octave above the treble staff, on or between the ledger lines, from G to F, in the higher part of a soprano singer’s range. [Thanks to Karen Shotting for noticing the spelling discrepancy.]
South Sea Bubble: The South Sea Company was formed in 1711 as a British joint-stock company, a public-private partnership designed to consolidate the national debt. Though nominally it had a monopoly on trade with South America, at the time Britain was at war with Spain and little such trade was actually happening. It became essentially a vehicle for speculating in government bonds, and share prices rose rapidly until collapsing in 1720, causing many investors to be ruined.
Watier’s: a gentlemen’s gambling club and restaurant at 81 Piccadilly, established 1807 by the Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and then George IV), and named after his chef, who ran the operation. Dandies such as Beau Brummell patronized it until it closed in 1819.
Cocoa Tree: a chocolate house (serving a wealthier and wilder clientele than the coffee houses of the time) in Pall Mall, converted into a private club in the mid-eighteenth century and known later on for high-stakes gaming as well as political intrigue.
Maxim gun: a machine gun invented by Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884; it was the first to use the energy from the recoil of one firing to eject the spent cartridge and load the next one. Capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute, it was a heavy, carriage- or tripod-mounted weapon that required water cooling.
Raisuli: more accurately Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (1871–1925) a Moroccan tribal leader, described by one historian as “a combination Robin Hood, feudal baron and tyrannical bandit”
Kaid Maclean: Sir Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean (1848–1920), a Scottish soldier who instructed and advised the Moroccan army, who bestowed on him the title Kaïd, Arabic for “leader.”
Horace’s philosophy for those who travel: Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt: They who rush across the sea change their sky, not their soul. (Epistles I, xi)
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Ch. VII: Magazine had “Now for the first time”; corrected to “Not” as in American book (and to make sense)
Ch. VIII: “I paid twenty thousand pounds for that rope of pearls” — but pearls are never mentioned elsewhere in the serial. The American book text has “diamonds” here, which is consistent with the rest of the story. The single reference to pearls, however, persisted in the British book A Gentleman of Leisure. Karen Shotting and Ian Michaud each pointed out that in the earlier novella The Gem Collector Lady Julia’s treasure was a rope of pearls, so apparently this was one place not changed when Wodehouse expanded the story to full novel length. I wonder who, then, caught it for the American book and made it consistent there?
Ch. IX: “the gurgling laughter ripped the air” is the reading of the end of this episode here and in the British book; the American book text has “rippled” which seems somewhat, but not conclusively, more likely.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff