Pearson’s Magazine (UK), November 1905
My friend James Centrebit is a man for whom I have always had a great respect. We were boys together, and went to the same school.
I was expelled shortly after him, and for some time lost sight of his cheery face. It was not till some years later, when I had gone down from Oxford and entered my father’s office (he was a partner in Jones & Rowbotham, forgers and begging-letter writers) that we met once more.
I had heard during the interval that he had become a burglar and was doing well at that exacting profession; and, curiously enough, it was while he was breaking into a house at which I was a guest that I came upon him. I had gone down late at night to the drawing-room to steal a little silver jug on which I had set my heart, and there was the dear old fellow, as big and rosy as ever, stowing away a pair of hideous vases in a sack.
“Jemmy!” I exclaimed.
“If it isn’t old Jack!” he cried. “Well, I am pleased. How are you, old chap? What’s the game?”
“I’m after that little jug there,” I said; “but if you had your eye on it—don’t let me—you were here first.”
“Not at all, dear boy, not at all. The jug’s yours. These vases are all I want.”
“Those vases!” I cried. “They’re rotten, old man. Come with me, and I’ll show you something worth taking.”
“No, I only want the vases, beastly as they are. I’ll explain, if it won’t bore you.”
“Come along, then, to the smoking-room. Our host keeps a very decent brand of Scotch and passable cigars.”
And in the smoking-room he explained.
“Burglary,” he said, “is not what it was. What with electric wires and vegetarian dogs it is becoming played out. ’Pon my word, I was on the point of chucking it and reading for the Bar when the thought of our family name checked me. We Centrebits have always been burglars, you know. I couldn’t let the family down. So off I went, and broke into the Bishop of Bayswater’s Palace. The old fellow happened to catch me just as I was leaving, and we chatted.
“ ‘Young man,’ he said to me, with a shake of his white head, ‘you ought not to be doing this.’ I explained to him how matters were, and he understood at once.
“ ‘Ah, if it’s a case of family tradition,’ he said, ‘well and good. I would be the last man to stifle a fellow-being’s lofty motives. But I think I see a way by which you can keep up the family credit and still benefit the community.’ And, by Jove, the old boy brought out the idea of the century.
“ ‘Everyone,’ he said, ‘possesses certain trifles of which he would fain be rid, gifts from relatives and the like, and I am sure they would pay you handsomely to break in and abstract them. Now I myself. Some time ago my devoted flock presented me with a portrait of myself. It is not a good portrait. Indeed, if I were sure that I looked like that I should resign my see. I should not consider myself fit to be a bishop. Now, if you could manage—eh?’ After a brief but satisfactory discussion of the matter from its financial aspect, I consented to remove the portrait.
“From that moment, Jack, I have never looked back. I am now a prosperous man. I have two motors, one green, the other red. Everybody loves me, and I am received at all the best houses. Newly-married couples rely on me to edit the wedding-presents. After Christmas I am particularly busy.
“My connection, small at first, has extended until I now number among my clients most of the best-known names in the land. It is the ideal existence. Large profits. No risks. I insist on a cheque in advance, and if I am bitten by the dog of the house in the execution of my professional duties an extra ten pounds is always added. Young couples idolise me. They are no longer haunted by terrible gifts from rich relations, which they dare not lose or give away. They send for me. I remove the horrors, and the delighted owners explain to the donor that it was doubtless the magnificence and costliness of the stolen article which led the burglar to carry it away and nothing else but it. So that everybody’s happy. In the present case, these vases, which I shall abstract when I have finished this really excellent cigar, were presented to our host a week ago by a wealthy aunt. Unspeakably foul, are they not?”
“The burglar,” said the local paper, “was probably frightened away before he had time to commit serious depredations. His booty consisted of two valuable china vases and a small silver cream-jug. The police are very reticent, but are believed to have a clue.”