Each to His Trade

Each to His Trade  (1903) 
by Cy Warman

From The Idler, vol 23, 1903

They were all men, and nearly all bankers. There were millionaires among them, poor, unhappy millionaires, who had come through the storm and snow and sleet to see a man melt a hole in a safe, and incidentally, to hear the man tell of the wondrous workings of the "Startler" alarm, which was to guard the millionaire's millions and give him a rest.



Illustrated by Walter J. Enright

A RUDE theatre, improvised in an empty store room; a rough stage, floored with bridge plank; upon the stage a strong steel safe like those used in country banks, and an expert cracksman to crack it. The principal performer is not a robber—that is, a burglar. He is the representative of the Startler Alarm Company. This company undertakes to put intricate and elaborate alarm systems into banks and other buildings, which, when disturbed by midnight prowlers, will wake and warn the sleeping city, as an Æolian harp wakes and sings in the rising wind.

The repertoire of the "Startler" depends altogether upon the amount of money the bank, village, or city is willing to give up. A cheap one will cause an electric bell to ring in the room over the bank where the cashier sleeps. A better one will sound a gong in the street. A still more elaborate system will sound a number of gongs, and if those interested could spare the price, no doubt the company would provide a system that, in addition to sounding the gongs, would ring the fire, church, and school bells, and assemble the Vigilance Committee (which is an important part of the system) in the public square. However, the man had not come to show the system at this performance, but the necessity for it.

The day was dark in the smoke-veiled city. The lamps had been turned down, lighting the theatre dimly, for the thing must be realistic. The struggling robber—the real professional burglar—must often work in absolute darkness, so this make-believe robber must not have too much light.

Presently the big doors began to cry and moan, as the audience began to assemble. A man in morning dress received each guest at the door, smiled, and waved him forward to a seat. They were all men, and nearly all bankers. There were millionaires among them, poor, unhappy millionaires, who had come through the storm and snow and sleet to see a man melt a hole in a safe, and incidentally, to hear the man tell of the wondrous workings of the "Startler" alarm, which was to guard the millionaire's millions and give him a rest.

The show had not been advertised in the regular way. A neat card had been posted to prominent banking houses in the city and to country bankers round about, so that every man present was intensely interested in the performance. There were bank managers, cashiers, paying tellers and clerks, all waiting eagerly for the show to begin.

In the front row of chairs there were three men who were not bankers: a detective, a burglar, and a struggling author, who sees the inside of a bank only once in a great while, when he goes in to cash a cheque that comes to him from some one of the magazines.

Presently, when about half of the chairs had been filled, a nervous man in a fur coat pounded the floor with a heavy stick, after the way of the gallery god, and immediately a man came from a rear room, leaped lightly upon the stage, hit the safe a rap or two with a hard hammer, and asked any man in the audience who might doubt the tangibility of the strong box to come forward and examine it.

"Hit it where you are going to burn it," said a man in the front row, and the showman did so. That seemed to satisfy the company. At all events no one went up to test the armour, and the showman went on with the show.

Of the apparatus, there was a switch-board to begin with, a positive electric wire attached to a carbon, clamped to a stick, a negative wire attached to the safe, an asbestos-lined sheet-iron box with a hole in the centre, also attached to the safe, and a man who knew how to work the machinery.

The metal did not melt as rapidly as the expert had predicted, but it surely melted, and in a short while a small hole appeared in the face of the safe.

The man said it would be foolish to make another hole, for if one hole could be made, any number of holes of any size could be made, and the audience consented silently to what the man said.

Now, to guard against these enterprising burglars, who have only to harness an electric light wire and go to work (and there are electric lights wherever there are civilised men and money), the Startler Alarm Company was prepared to put in a system that would call the people to arms. As a matter of fact, the "Startler" could not catch a thief, but it would wake the inhabitants up, and that was something.

Presently, when the performance was at an end, the people passed out. The banker and the burglar each went back to the even tenor of his way. But the millionaire—poor, unhappy millionaire—carried a new fear away with him. In the old days, by the old ways, he could at least hear his chest going to pieces, but with this newfangled device he might slumber sweetly the whiles his safe melted and ran out over his carpet. It worried the millionaire.

At 1 a.m. of the following morning, in that small hour when all respectable people are supposed to be in bed, the detective was walking softly in the shadow of the big building wherein had been the "Bankers' Matinée" the day before. At the close of the performance he had managed to loosen the fastening on one of the back windows, and to that window he now made his way. To his surprise the detective found the window open. He listened for a moment, and then stepped inside. In a little while he had made his way to the basement, and a moment later had the blinding light of a dark lantern flashed in his face. Instantly the detective flashed his light on the flasher, and found that the man in the cellar had a revolver in his other hand. The detective had one too.

"Horse and horse," said the man.

"Put that down," the detective replied.

"Hello, ol' Never Sleep, that you?"

"Yes, that's me. What you trying to do, bag the outfit?"

"No. What you trying to do, learn the business?"

"I know it already."

"Sit down," said the man, turning his bull's-eye upon an empty biscuit box, and the famous detective and the notorious burglar sat side by side in the dark cellar and discussed the show and the probable importance of the new system of robbing banks.

"What do you think of the layout?" asked the detective.

"I'm not in the habit of giving expert testimony gratis, or revealing professional secrets, but now that you are here, and doubtless to investigate, I'll save you the trouble. It's a good thing; that is, it would be a good thing if bankers would build their banks on the banks of streams, or fit up their basements as this one is fitted up. Otherwise it's going to be a great burden to beginners, and to burglars working on small capital. To do this act properly a man wants a private railway carriage, same as a theatrical star, to carry his outfit. An operator will be obliged to remain in each town three or four days, running up hotel bills, which he must necessarily jump, and so get a bad name, to put up his plant. You see the ordinary electric light current will not do the work. I tried it once, and successfully, too, but I found afterwards that the safe was a big paper imitation vault that a sharper had used in a buncum bank at Brumingham. But the ordinary light wire won't touch an iron safe."

"Then the system is not a success?"

"No. There's too much machinery. Over against that wall, whence comes the song of the running brook, there is a huge tank, or rather a trough, and in that trough are miles of resistance coils, carefully packed out of sight, and there are tons of other paraphernalia, to say nothing of wiring the building, which is apt to attract the notice of the employés. No," the veteran burglar added, with the faintest sigh of regret, "it won't work. With the exception of that paper one no bank has ever been robbed by electricity."

So the two men who had gone forth at the dead of night, each in quest of information that would be useful in his business, climbed up the dark stairway and out into the wind-swept street. At the first turning the detective called a cab and said good-night.

"Good-morning," called the crook, and then, being a poor man, he walked slowly and thoughtfully home.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.