A Conflict of Interests
A CONFLICT OF INTERESTS.
THE STORY OF "CAPTAIN" BALLARD.
By W. PETT RIDGE
"CAPTAIN" BALLARD, sitting opposite to me in the tea-shop in the Rue de Rivoli, sells me a copy of En Avant, and places the coins with some care in a small leather purse. I offer my St, James's, and "Captain" Ballard reads an account of an interesting counterfeit coin case heard the previous morning at Clerkenwell Police-Court. She sighs when she reaches the finish of the report, and shakes her head and takes two more lumps of sugar.
"Ah," she says regretfully, "kerime, kerime, kerime! You can't stem it; you can't stop it; you can't retard it. On, on it goes, never ceasing, never ending. Ho, if only——"
I remark that there is presumably some attraction about the game.
"I never found it so," says "Captain" Ballard, with some tartness, smoothing her blue serge skirt. "It was always jolly 'ard work for me, that I do know. Before I found I'd got a soul I was as much in the thick of it as 'ere and there a one, and I think I'm entitled to speak a word or two on the subject. There was one affair I rec'lect——" She stopped herself. "It don't become any of us to brag onless we do it in a spirit of thenkfulness; but it does no 'arm to look back on them bad times, if only we can prove a warning to those dear bretheren and sisters who——"
When I manage to stop "Captain" Ballard's oration I ask her for particulars of the incident to which she has referred. "Captain" Ballard stirs the tea-pot, and leaning two elbows on the marble table, tells this tale.
On the day after Sir Benjamin bought the picture at Christie's Miss Ballard was engaged as lady's maid to his daughter. It was one of those strokes of luck which do not occur often (so Miss Ballard says) in one lifetime, and the excellent character produced by the new maid, together with her ability to speak colloquial French, considerably assisted her engagement. This shows the advantage of writing one's own testimonials.
"Now look here, my dear"—Sir Benjamin never spoke to the servants; his young daughter had full control over them—"I want them all warned that just for a day or so this most valuable and delightful Velasquez—I'm sure I can get more than I gave for it if I can only hit upon the right man—this picture will remain here; and I want everybody to keep their wits about them, Maggie, and there must be no loafers downstairs, or anything of that sort. See?"
"I understand, papa. This is Ballard, the new maid."
Sir Benjamin promptly turned his back upon Miss Ballard.
"Ask her whether she's got a sweet-heart?"
"No, indeed, Miss," said Miss Ballard with an indignant air. "I don't 'old with them for a single moment. I 've got something better to do than bother my head about a pack of grinning——"
"Because if she had," said Sir Benjamin to his daughter, "she would have had to understand that he mustn't come hanging around here. I hope they all clearly comprehend that."
"I think they ought, papa. We are always reminding them of it."
"Anything else, Miss."
"No, Ballard. Make the acquaintance of the others, and try to work as quietly as you can and avoid all disturbance."
"You trust me, Miss, for that. I don't suppose a more amiable person than me has ever been born on this earth; and as for quietness, why I don't think you'd find my equal. I'm sure the last place I had—it was in the country certainly, but that don't affect the argument—they couldn't find words to express what they thought of me."
"Tell her to go, Maggie," shouted Sir Benjamin hotly.
Miss Ballard, going downstairs, immediately made inquiries in regard to this stringent, and to her possibly inconvenient, rule in regard to followers.
"It's as much as your life is worth," said Cook regretfully, "to try it on. It's awk'ard I admit; but what can't be cured must be endured."
"It don't show much sympathy to'rds your fellow-creatures," remarked Miss Ballard. "I don't see any 'arm myself of one young man calling now and again. One isn't like a 'ole regiment."
"Your young man a army man, may I ask?" inquired Cook.
"No, indeed," said Miss Ballard proudly. "I do draw the line somewhere. My friend is in business on his own account, and doing very well. He 's been away on a—er—kind of 'oliday for some months——"
"Oh, well," said Miss Ballard, "if he likes to, why shouldn't he? He gets all his exes paid."
"I wonder whether I know his name?" said Cook.
"No," answered the new maid shortly, "you don't."
"You 've been in good families, I suppose, before this?"
"There's many a worse one than this," remarked Cook. "The young mistress knows what's right and she knows what's wrong, and she will have what's right. Once she finds out you 're a-trying to play false with her, you get your month."
"I'm not trying to play false with her," declared Miss Ballard indignantly. "What do you mean by your 'ints?"
"I wasn't 'inting at all," answered Cook; "I was only just mentioning for your own private information out of the goodness of my 'eart, as you may say, that——"
"You keep the goodness of your 'eart to yourself, then," said the new maid definitely. "I can look after myself right enough."
"That's a good thing." Cook shivered with indignation. "I shouldn't think anyone else would want to do it for you. There's no need to fly all to pieces directly anyone 'appens to open their mouth; and whilst I think of it, perhaps you 'll kindly step out of my kitchen and not interfere with me in my work with your silly gossip. I 've got something else to do besides answering all your inquisitiveness."
"I'm going as fast as ever I can," said Miss Ballard, trembling, "and I bid you good afternoon."
"'Urry," said Cook.
When, later, a letter marked "Ergent" arrived addressed to Miss M. Ballard, Cook directed that it should be laid on the dresser so that Miss M. Ballard could find it if she liked. "Perhaps," added Cook, "it would learn her a lesson not to be so haughty in her manners. Civility," added Cook, with some severity, "civility becomes us all."
The house was late that night in retiring to rest. Several visitors called after dinner to see the Velasquez, and a South African person had offered Sir Benjamin a thousand pounds over and above the amount paid for the picture. At Sir Benjamin's express directions, his daughter locked the door very carefully, and placed the key on her bunch, and Miss Ballard took the key off' the bunch with the dexterity that practice brings. Her spirits revived under the prospect of success, and if it had not been so late she would have sent a telegram to Huntingdon Street, Hoxton.
"As it is," said Miss Ballard to herself brightly, "this little trick will have to be executed by Number One. Jim will be cross at being out of it, but Jim must put up with that. It 'll just show him that a woman's as capable if she only gets 'alf a chance as any amount of men. Jim has been just a leetle bit too 'igh and mighty once or twice of late, and though I didn't say an}'thing, I didn't like the way he threw his boot at me the other night. It wasn't what I call etiquette."
Miss Ballard crept downstairs very carefully. She was fully dressed ready to go out as soon as she had cut the canvas from the frame. She did not mind leaving her box behind, inasmuch as it contained only sufficient lumber to make it feel heavy. The way out into the area would be the most convenient exit.
"Steady does it," remarked Miss Ballard, softly. "Where's that key and where's that knife?"
There was a glimmer of gas in the library, and the Velasquez could just be seen dimly on the easel in the corner. Miss Ballard considered it wise not to turn up the gas, and taking the knife she cut the painting very closely at the edge of the old frame. The knife was very keen, and the job was nearly completed (the top only remained to be severed) when suddenly there was a grating noise of a window opening. She started back, and closing the knife, placed it in her pocket. The window opened slowly, and presently a man swung himself into the room. To Miss Ballard's terror, he went straight to the corner where she was.
"I'm very sorry," she pleaded in a whisper. "I'd no idea you were watching; I 'aven't done any particular 'arm."
The man turned his bull's-eye on her and did not speak.
"I can tell you 're a good sort, Sergeant," she went on, "from the kind look on your face." As a matter of fact, it was not possible to see his face; but it seemed a diplomatic thing to say. "I'm just going out of the 'ouse."
"Oh," he said, "just a-going are you? Not till I say you can go, young woman. You must kindly consider yourself my prisoner until I think fit to say otherwise. What is it? Case of going out to see your sweetheart, s'pose?"
"That was just it, Sergeant." The suggestion seemed to revive Miss Ballard's spirits. "You don't suppose for a moment, I hope, that it was anything else. I 've got what you may call a unspotted character, and it isn't likely I should want to go and rob the plate, or anything of that kind. If you don't mind, I 'll just step back to my room, thanking you for——"
"That's a nice old picture that," he said. The white shaft of light from his lantern waved round and settled on the Velasquez. "I'm a bit of a art lover myself, and——"
"Why," interrupted Miss Ballard, "you're not in uniform!"
"Well, I know that. Can't a 'tec dress in plain clothes?"
"But you don't, somehow, look like a 'tec."
"That's the cunning part of it," he said. "There ain't a better man at making up in all Scotland Yard than Robert Warkins."
"And are you engaged specially to look after this picture?"
"That is my identical business at the present time. I 've been waiting outside, but it's a bit parky there, and I don't know as I won't stay in 'ere for a bit. And if anybody comes in whilst I'm here, why——"
He took a neat little revolver from his trousers pocket.
"Well, you don't mind if I say good-night to you?" asked Miss Ballard with a regretful look at the picture. It was hard to have arrived so near to success, and then to have to leave.
"Not at all, my dear. Don't you go and lose your beauty sleep on my account. By-the-bye, is there a new girl come to-day name of Ballard?"
"I rather think there is," said Miss Ballard, "but I haven't met her. I daresay I shall do sooner or later." Miss Ballard at the door seemed struck with a sudden thought, and took her long white wrap from her neck. "Good night."
"Good night," he said. "Don't make a noise as you go upstairs."
"It's all right, Sergeant; I've got me boots off."
He turned, and, holding up his small bull's-eye lantern looked at the Velasquez and chuckled. Miss Ballard closed the door very quietly, and very softly crept up behind him. The white wrap went round thick and secure over his mouth, and was tied quickly; the revolver taken out of his pocket. The man, astounded, sank back for a moment into an arm-chair.
"Now look here. Sergeant: you just 'ark a—a bit to me."
She covered him with the revolver, and he made vain attempts to speak.
"You attempt to loosen that scarf that's over your mouth or you attempt to get out of that chair until I say 'Go,' and as sure as I'm a living woman you 'll never see Scotland Yard again. Understand that."
He looked at her appealingly but did not dare to move. A faint sound of suppressed grumbling came from his lips.
"Less noise there," said Miss Ballard, commandingly. "That's the worst of you detectives. You 're all jaw. Get up now and open that window. It isn't easy to see quite how to manage this business, but I'm going to do it. Open the window."
He complied with the order. He also gave a most appealing look to her, and raised his hand to undo the tight, well-tied knot at the back of his head.
"Ah," said Miss Ballard warningly, "would you? You do that again and pop goes this little pistol. Now I 'll just talk to you plainly, Sergeant. Sit down in that chair again."
He obeyed reluctantly, with one eye on his revolver, which she held steadily.
"I 'll tell you straightforwardly what I'm a-going to do. I'm a-going to pinch this painting and get away with it, whether you like it or not. If you don't like it, you can lump it!"
He smiled, and would have moved his hands again towards the tight knot, only that the revolver jerked threateningly.
"I 've got the upper 'and of you now," she said, "and if you was the chiefest inspector ever born in Scotland Yard, you shouldn't interfere with me or stop me at the present point. This is serious business for me. Make so much as another move to untie that shawl, and your life won't be worth a bad threepenny bit."
With her left hand Miss Ballard cut the top line of the painting. Released, it slipped down on the floor. As it did so, the door opened behind her, and the muffled man in the chair made a swift rush for the window. The revolver dropped from the hands of the startled Miss Ballard, and went off with a loud report.
"Now, then!" cried Miss Ballard; "you're doing what I told you not to. Why couldn't you keep quiet instead of——"
"You good, brave Ballard!" The voice of her young mistress made Miss Ballard turn. "You have stopped that dreadful burglar from stealing the beautiful picture. My father will never be able to thank you enough."
She was in her scarlet dressing-gown, and there was a look of mingled amazement and admiration in her eyes.
"What a smart, clever maid you are, Ballard. How did you have the courage to do it?"
"Well," said Miss Ballard modestly, "it had to be done, and I did it."
"But why are you wearing your bonnet?"
"I thought," explained Miss Ballard, "that I might 'ave to chase him."
She went to the open window and looked down. The man had taken off the wrap, and, turning at the corner, he shook his fist at her.
"You silly Juggins," he shouted.
When the household had complimented Miss Ballard to its full and was returning again to rest after the commotion caused by the scare. Sir Benjamin elected to stay in the library for the rest of the night, and thanked his stars that the Velasquez was going away to its new purchaser the next day. Cook relented her harshness towards the new maid, and brought her the letter.
Miss Ballard read it—Dear Martha,—A chum of mint is going to try to get in to-night. His name is Robert Warkins. Do all you can to help him.
"I 'ope," said Cook graciously, "that we shall get on better than we begun. I'm a bit "asty in me temper, but if you 're 'ere for a bit longer I daresay we——"
"I 've had just enough of this shop," said Miss Ballard moodily; "I shall sling my 'ook at the very earliest opportunity."
"Captain" Ballard drinks up her tea (which is cold) and takes a lump of sugar, to be munched on her way home to the Rue Auber. She sighs a little regretfully.
"Ah well," she says, pulling her straw bonnet forward, "Glowry be it's all past and forgot now. There's a well-known 'ymn commencing——"
I am so afraid "Captain" Ballard is going to sing that I shake hands.
"Sinful days," says "Captain" Ballard as she grasps my hand, "Sinful days, but, my word, they was exciting."