Foggerty's Fairy and Other Tales/The Burglar's Story
THE BURGLAR'S STORY.
When I became eighteen years of age, my father, a distinguished begging-letter impostor, said to me, "Reginald, I think it is time that you began to think about choosing a profession."
These were ominous words. Since I left Eton, nearly a year before, I had spent my time very pleasantly, and very idly, and I was sorry to see my long holiday drawing to a close. My father had hoped to have sent me to Cambridge (Cambridge was a tradition in our family), but business had been very depressed of late, and a sentence of six months' hard labour had considerably straitened my poor father's resources.
It was necessary—highly necessary—that I should choose a calling. With a sigh of resignation, I admitted as much.
"If you like," said my father, "I will take you in hand, and teach you my profession, and, in a few years perhaps, I may take you into partnership; but, to be candid with you, I doubt whether it is a satisfactory calling for an athletic young fellow like you."
"I don't seem to care about it, particularly," said I.
"I'm glad to hear it," said my father; "it's a poor calling for a young man of spirit. Besides, you have to grow grey in the service before people will listen to you. It's all very well as a refuge in old age; but a young fellow is likely to make but a poor hand at it. Now, I should like to consult your own tastes on so important a matter as the choice of a profession. What do you say? The Army?"
No, I didn't care for the army.
"Forgery? The Bar? Cornish Wrecking?"
"Father," said I, "I should like to be a forger, but I write such an infernal hand."
"A regular Eton hand," said he. "Not plastic enough for forgery; but you could have a writing-master."
"It's as much as I can do to forge my own name. I don't believe I should ever be able to forge anybody else's."
"Anybody's else, you should say, not 'anybody else's.' It's a dreadful barbarism. Eton English."
"No," said I, "I should never make a fortune at it. As to wrecking—why you know how sea-sick I am."
"You might get over that. Besides, you would deal with wrecks ashore, not wrecks at sea."
"Most of it done in small boats, I'm told. A deal of small boat work. No, I won't be a wrecker. I think I should like to be a burglar."
"Yes," said my father, considering the subject. "Yes, it's a fine manly profession; but it's dangerous, it's highly dangerous."
"Just dangerous enough to be exciting, no more."
"Well," said my father, "if you've a distinct taste for burglary I'll see what can be done."
My dear father was always prompt with pen and ink. That evening he wrote to his old friend Ferdinand Stoneleigh, a burglar of the very highest professional standing, and in a week I was duly and formally articled to him, with a view to ultimate partnership.
I had to work hard under Mr. Stoneleigh.
"Burglary is a jealous mistress," said he. "She will tolerate no rivals. She exacts the undivided devotion of her worshippers."
And so I found it. Every morning at ten o'clock I had to present myself at Stoneleigh's chambers in New Square, Lincoln's Inn, and until twelve I assisted his clerk with the correspondence. At twelve I had to go out prospecting with Stoneleigh, and from two to four I had to devote to finding out all particulars necessary to a scientific burglar in any given house. At first I did this merely for practice, and with no view to an actual attempt. He would tell me off to a house of which he knew all the particulars, and order me to ascertain all about the house and its inmates—their coming and going, the number of their servants, whether any of them were men, and, if so, whether they slept on the basement or not, and other details necessary to be known before a burglary could be safely attempted. Then he would compare my information with his own facts, and compliment or blame me, as I might deserve. He was a strict master, but always kind, just, and courteous, as became a highly polished gentleman of the old school. He was one of the last men who habitually wore hessians.
After a year's probation, I accompanied him on several expeditions, and had the happiness to believe that I was of some little use to him. I shot him eventually in the stomach, mistaking him for the master of a house into which we were breaking (I had mislaid my dark lantern), and he died on the grand piano. His dying wish was that his compliments might be conveyed to me. I now set up on my own account, and engaged his poor old clerk, who nearly broke his heart at his late master's funeral. Stoneleigh left no family. His money—about £12,000, invested for the most part in American railways—he left to the Society for Providing More Bishops; and his ledgers, daybooks, memoranda, and papers generally he bequeathed to me.
As the chambers required furnishing, I lost no time in commencing my professional duties. I looked through his books for a suitable house to begin upon, and found the following attractive entry:—
Thurloe Square.—No. 102.
Occupant.—John Davis, bachelor.
Occupation.—Designer of Dados.
Physical Peculiarities.—Very feeble; eccentric; drinks; Evangelical; snores.
Servants.—Two housemaids, one cook.
Particulars of Servants.—Pretty housemaid called Rachel; Jewess; open to attentions. Goes out for beer at 9 p.m.; snores. Ugly housemaid, called Bella; Presbyterian. Open to attentions; snores. Elderly cook; Primitive Methodist. Open to attentions; snores.
Fastenings.—Chubb's look on street door, chain, and bolts. Bars to all basement windows. Practicable approach from third room, ground floor, which is shuttered and barred, but bar has no catch, and can be raised with table knife.
Valuable Contents of House.—Presentation plate from grateful aesthetes. Gold repeater. Mulready envelope. Two diamond rings. Complete edition of "Bradshaw," from 1834 to present time, 588 volumes, bound in limp calf.
General,—Mr. Davis sleeps second floor front; servants on third floor. Davis goes to bed at ten. No one on basement. Swarms with beetles; otherwise excellent house for purpose.
This seemed to me to be a capital house to try single-handed. At twelve o'clock that very night I pocketed two crowbars, a bunch of skeleton keys, a centre-bit, a dark lantern, a box of silent matches, some putty, a life-preserver, and a knife; and I set off at once for Thurloe Square. I remember that it snowed heavily. There was at least a foot of snow on the ground, and there was more to come. Poor Stoneleigh's particulars were exact in every detail. I got into the third room on the ground floor without any difficulty, and made my way into the dining-room. There was the presentation plate, sure enough—about 800 ounces, as I reckoned. I collected this, and tied it up so that I could carry it without attracting attention.
Just as I had finished, I heard a slight cough behind me. I turned and saw a dear old silver-haired gentleman in a dressing-gown standing in the doorway. The venerable gentleman covered me with a revolver.
My first impulse was to rush at and brain him with my life-preserver.
"Don't move," said he, "or you're a dead man."
A rather silly remark occurred to me to the effect that if I did move it would rather prove that I was a live man, but I dismissed it at once as unsuited to the business character of the interview.
"You're a burglar?" said he.
"I have that honour," said I, making for my pistol-pocket.
"Don't move," said he; "I have often wished to have the pleasure of encountering a burglar, in order to be able to test a favourite theory of mine as to how persons of that class should be dealt with. But you mustn't move."
I replied that I should be happy to assist him, if I could do so consistently with a due regard to my own safety.
"Promise me," said I, "that you will allow me to leave the house unmolested when your experiment is at an end?"
"If you will obey me promptly, you shall be at perfect liberty to leave the house."
"You will neither give me into custody, nor take any steps to pursue me."
"On my honour as a Designer of Dados," said he.
"Good," said I; "go on."
"Stand up," said he, "and stretch out your arms at right angles to your body."
"Suppose I don't?" said I.
"I send a bullet through your left ear," said he.
"But permit me to observe——" said I.
Bang! A ball cut off the lobe of my left ear.
The ear smarted, and I should have liked to attend to it, but under the circumstances I thought it better to comply with the whimsical old gentleman's wishes.
"Very good," said he. "Now do as I tell you, promptly and without a moment's hesitation, or I cut off the lobe of your right ear. Throw me that life-preserver."
"Ah, would you?" said he, cocking the revolver.
The "click" decided me. Besides, the old gentleman's eccentricity amused me, and I was curious to see how far it would carry him. So I tossed my life-preserver to him. He caught it neatly.
"Now take off your coat and throw it to me."
I took off my coat, and threw it diagonally across the room.
"Now the waistcoat."
I threw the waistcoat to him.
"Boots," said he.
"They are shoes," said I, in some trepidation lest he should take offence when no offence was really intended.
"Shoes then," said he.
I threw my shoes to him.
"Trousers," said he.
"Come, come; I say," exclaimed I.
Bang! The lobe of the other ear came off. With all his eccentricity the old gentleman was a man of his word. He had the trousers, and with them my revolver, which happened to be in the right-hand pocket.
"Now the rest of your drapery."
I threw him the rest of my drapery. He tied up my clothes in the table-cloth; and, telling me that he wouldn't detain me any longer, made for the door with the bundle under his arm.
"Stop," said I. "What is to become of me?"
"Really, I hardly know," said he.
"You promised me my liberty," said I.
"Certainly," said he. "Don't let me trespass any further on your time. You will find the street door open; or, if from force of habit you prefer the window, you will have no difficulty in clearing the area railings."
"But I can't go like this! Won't you give me something to put on?"
"No," said he, "nothing at all. Good night."
The quaint old man left the room with my bundle. I went after him, but I found that he had locked an inner door that led up stairs. The position was really a difficult one to deal with. I couldn't possibly go into the street as I was, and if I remained I should certainly be given into custody in the morning. For some time I looked in vain for something to cover myself with. The hats and great coats were no doubt in the inner hall, at all events they were not accessible under the circumstances. There was a carpet on the floor, but it was fitted to the recesses of the room, and, moreover, a heavy sideboard stood upon it.
"However, there were twelve chairs in the room, and it was with no little pleasure I found on the back of each an antimacassar. Twelve antimacassars would go a long way towards covering me, and that was something.
I did my best with the antimacassars, but on reflection I came to the conclusion that they would not help me very much. They certainly covered me, but a gentleman walking through South Kensington at 3 a.m. dressed in nothing whatever but antimacassars, with the snow two feet deep on the ground, would be sure to attract attention. I might pretend that I was doing it for a wager, but who would believe me?
I grew very cold.
I looked out of window, and presently saw the bull's-eye of a policeman who was wearily plodding through the snow. I felt that my only course was to surrender to him.
"Policeman," said I, from the window, "one word."
"Anything wrong, sir?" said he.
"I have been committing a burglary in this house, and shall feel deeply obliged to you if you will kindly take me into custody."
"Nonsense, sir," said he; "you'd better go to bed."
"There is nothing I should like better, but I live in Lincoln's Inn, and I have nothing on but antimacassars; I am almost frozen. Pray take me into custody."
"The street door's open," said he.
"Yes," said I. "Come in."
He came in. I explained the circumstances to him, and with great difficulty I convinced him that I was in earnest. The good fellow put his own great coat over me, and lent me his own handcuffs. In ten minutes I was thawing myself in Walton Street police station. In ten days I was convicted at the Old Bailey. In ten years I returned from penal servitude.
I found that poor Mr. Davis had gone to his long home in Brompton Cemetery.
For many years I never passed his house without a shudder at the terrible hours I spent in it as his guest. I have often tried to forget the incident I have been relating, and for a long time I tried in vain. Perseverance, however, met with its reward. I continued to try. Gradually one detail after another slipped from memory, and one lovely evening last May I found, to my intense delight, that I had absolutely forgotten all about it.