The Mystery of the Missing Monocle

The Mystery of the Missing Monocle  (1914) 
by Philip Curtiss

From Harper's Weekly, Mar 7, 1914


The Mystery of the Missing Monocle

By PHILIP CURTISS


I HAVE always thought it a beautiful thing for a son to embrace the profession of his father—of his grandfather, too, if possible—and thus continue through generations, an occupation which a family has once made notable. However, when father and I talked it over, he thought it best that I should not embrace his. Father was a burglar.

The beautiful old tradition, however, was not entirely lost sight of in my case for, although not a burglar or even a thief, I did finally become a detective, a noble profession which calls for many of the same qualities, and, as I acquired a wife at the same time that I obtained a profession, my family has, at last, become entirely reconciled to what it was, at first inclined to regard as a lowering of the old home standards.

The tradition of my father's life still lives among us, moreover, and, the call of the blood being strong, I like to look back on the heritage which seems, at times, to crop out in my own more humdrum and less romantic calling.

Judging impartially, I do not think that I can honestly say that father was a remarkable burglar, but, in the crude profession of his time, he was well thought of and well liked by such associates as he gathered around him; and I know that we of his family, at least, thought him the most wonderful burglar on earth. You can talk to me about Travers and Frisco Red and all of that bunch whom the papers have made notable in these degenerate days, but I know that any of us children, picturing our dear old dad as we used to see him going to work every evening with his worn black mask and his odorous, old-fashioned dark-lantern, and as we used to find him in the morning, with a soup-ladle or a napkin-ring or some such trifle which he never forgot to collect for us, would have resented heartily the idea that he was not the most wonderful burglar in the world. I once heard a young man say that it was a terrible day for him when he realized that his father—a stoop-shouldered banker—was not the strongest man in the world, and I know exactly how he felt.

Nevertheless, whatever early hopes my father might have had of my stepping into his sneakers, and picking up his jimmy where he laid it down, as time went on he realized more and more, that my brothers and I would have to follow some other profession. To begin with, the old gentleman, like most veterans, was a good deal of a fogy and was wont to proclaim that burglary, since he was a youth, had gone all to the devil. Flash-lamps he abhorred; he could never bring himself to use one; and, in addition, he always maintained that, since the apprenticeship system by which a man was years in acquiring his trade had been abolished, and sneak-thieves, purse-snatchers and lemon-squeezers were going into the business without a day's practice, burglary was no longer an art but a haphazard occupation. Father was a great reader; Fagin, I think, was his hero; and the days when a man might be trustee in a bank one moment and a full-fledged burglar the next cut him to the quick. In addition to this, the Bertillon system, to say nothing of burglar insurance and the bankers' association, had put practical obstacles in the way of a climbing young man which had not existed when he was a boy; so that, on the whole, he advised his sons to embrace some less remunerative but quieter profession.


THE natural impatience, however, with which I waited the choice of a profession was heightened, as it is in the case of many young men, by the fact that very shortly after I had completed my education and had been graduated from the reform school, I became engaged to Helen Clayton, the daughter of one of the largest pawnbrokers in the United States, and a beautiful girl of about nineteen. At least I thought her beautiful, and, in addition, there was something treacherous and underhanded about her that appealed to me, so that our first acquaintance speedily ripened into the deepest affection and everything was going well. Old Colonel Clayton, her father, had no real objections to me, except that he considered that I was immature, and ought to know more of the world, and so, while he did not actively oppose our marriage, he said that we had better wait until I had had more experience, and more thoroughly understood the pitfalls which would naturally assail me.


IT was while I was making one of my periodical visits to the Claytons, however, that an event befell which hastened materially the time of our marriage, and, incidentally, my choice of a profession. And when I add that this event was directly connected with the now famous theft of the Clayton pearl monocle, an incident which stirred the opticians of two continents, and the story of which has never been truthfully told, it will add material interest to a tale which is now given to the world for the very first time.

As every pawnbroker will remember, the Clayton monocle was a jewel absolutely unique and practically priceless. In the first place, it was a monocle so large that it could never have been intended for any human eye, which gave rise to the tradition that it had been designed originally for one of the now extinct race of giants living in the foothills of the Himalayas not far from the Afghan border. Around the rim, moreover, in place of the customary tortoise shell, was a band of extremely fine soft gold, showing the curious green of the old twenty-two carat and inscribed with certain mysterious symbols, while at the outer edge, in place of the ordinary round ring for inserting a ribbon, was nothing less than a huge diamond through which a hole had been pierced with what must have been extraordinary effort. The most remarkable feature of the whole bijou, however, was the glass itself, which, when looked at from an angle, displayed a curious sheen and was, in fact, nothing less than a concave shell ground out and made transparent from a huge single pearl.

Around such a jewel there arose, naturally, a host of traditions which were only increased by the extreme care with which it was guarded, for as I, among a favored few. was aware, it was always kept in an iron-bound chest nailed to the floor of the Colonel's bedroom, from which it had never been taken except on two notable occasions—once when it was exhibited. under guard, at the annual convention of the American Association of First-Nighters, and once when the room was swept. The story which was most generally accepted, however, was that the gem had been pawned at the Calcutta branch of Colonel Clayton's establishment for two-and-six by a British soldier who had had no idea of its value and who had thus never reclaimed it.

The value and the feeling akin to reverence with which this monocle was held will naturally explain, then, the excitement which overcame me one evening when I received u telegram from the Colonel's country-place, which read:

"Monocle stolen. Come at once. Clayton."


IT was about an hour after midnight when the wire reached me. and father had just gone to work. Mother was a timid woman and had a fear of being left alone at night, but nevertheless so great was the urgency of the message that I started immediately and, pausing only at two or three haberdashers' to throw a few things into a grip which I got from a trunk store. I caught the two o'clock freight and reached Barneyville, my destination, almost four in the morning. The house, when I arrived, was dark, but, sawing out a tiny circle of glass, I made my way in and was soon asleep. The Colonel, realizing from the condition of the glass that I had arrived, awoke me early the next morning and within an hour I was in possession of the whole story. It was not, however, on the theft of the monocle itself that my interest, that morning, centered, but on the presence of three strangers who made their appearance at the breakfast table and who, I quickly learned, were no less than Blackmore, Atterton and Severn, probably the three most famous detectives in America of the modern scientific school. For, like my father, Colonel Clayton had never had much confidence in the police and having read, as had everybody in America, of the exploits of these men, had not hesitated to obtain their services at prices which seemed almost fabulous.


UP to that time, all the detectives whom I had ever known had worked on the old principle that, whenever a crime was committed, they must go out and run in everybody who might have done it—a process which used to furnish dad infinite amusement, for. as he often said, "three-quarters of them are no more guilty than you or I." And they weren't.

In contrast to such rude methods those of these scientific leaders of their profession stood out in remarkable contrast and awakened within me the first spark of interest which I had ever had ill the detection of crime. For, instead of swaggering around the streets and prying their noses into the private affairs of peaceable citizens, they sat down quietly in a conference in the library and calmly discussed the matter as would a board of directors.

To be admitted to this conference, then, was indeed a privilege, as it gave me my first insight into the sharply varying methods displayed by the three famous scientists.

Blackmore, to take them in order, had once been a physician, but having noted the startling relation between disease and crime had given up his practice and had established an entirely new school of detection. By his theory, crime was simply a nervous disease, like St. Vitus' dance or philanthropy, and he maintained that, for every crime committed by the human race, he could find a diseased nerve cell and eradicate it as thoroughly as he would a tumor.

Severn, on the other hand, was what was known us a diplomatic detective, a term entirely new to my experience, as father said it was to his. It meant, however, that he had been employed by various nations in the solution of international mysteries and, in this work, had traveled all over the world, specializing in the Eastern nations, where he had found his largest field. His theories were based largely on a vast knowledge of European and Asiatic conditions, and he maintained that criminals were a nation, a race, with rulers, laws, and customs, and with branches and sub-branches in all parts of the world.

Atterton, the third man, was a psychologist and had founded what he called the inductive, as contrasted with the deductive, school of detection. That is, instead of starting at the evidence and working in to the crime, he started at a possible hypothesis and worked out to the evidence. With this he was said to have secured some very remarkable results. I told father about it afterward and he said he didn't doubt it in the least.

Of the crime itself there was little to be learned. The facts were simply that, on the preceding Monday evening, the priceless monocle had been reposing in the iron-bound chest. On Tuesday noon it had not. Than this nothing could be more baffling and, to an ordinary mind, the situation would have been absolutely hopeless; but to the three great detectives nothing was hopeless, and the quiet assurance with which they started to work was an inspiration to a young man whose experience had been as limited as mine.

Dr. Blackmore, in the first place, following his usual theory, had concluded that the theft was the result of a diseased imagination and, in order to substantiate the possibility of such a diagnosis, he had telegraphed his New York office for tables showing the relative proportion of felony in cases of croup, as well us the famous monograph of the German—Stultzhurger of Jena—on the same theory, which he proceeded to read in greater part. He also pointed out that, grunting the prevalence of disease in such an overwhelming majority of felonies, it was possible to substantiate the idea in this particular case, first, by the fact that rural life such os that surrounding the house was especially conducive to insanity; second, that nothing but the one object had been disturbed by the intruder, and third, that the object itself was of a nature to appeal naturally to an abnormal and sensuous intellect.

"So then," he concluded triumphantly, "it is only necessary to find u person with a mind sufficiently diseased."


BUT Atterton, all this time, had been fairly bursting to interrupt him and hardly had the doctor concluded his discourse, when he was immediately launched upon his.

"I grant you. Doctor," he began, "that, in a general way, your ideas are absolutely sound, yet in this particular case, our problem is not to find all the persons who might have stolen the jewel, but to apprehend the one who actually did it."

"Now then," he continued impressively, "I have come to the conclusion that the jewel was stolen by one of two persons—either somebody inside the house or somebody outside of it. So, granting that it was one or the other, the question is: first, if it were somebody inside the house, is the jewel still here? Or, second, if it were somebody outside the house (a) How did they get in? and (b) How did they get out?"

I then gathered in a general way that he had attributed the theft to a hypothetical man whom he called X. By a consultation of time-tables for trains running into town during the hours when the theft was committed, he had decided that X lived in Trenton, or thereabouts, had come to town on the 11:43 and had left for New York on the 5:59. He had also found tracks on the west lawn leading up to the porch, evidently made late the night before, which effectively disposed of the theory that the robbery had been committed by some one within the house. He also knew that X was a man of some learning, because certain books which none of the rest of us ever read were found open in the library; he knew further that he had once been in good circumstances, because the order of the bottles in the wine cellar showed that a rare old vintage had been recently extracted; and he also showed that he was left-handed, because the jewel was always kept in the right-hand side of the chest and the left-hand side had been disturbed before the monocle had been found. Like the doctor, moreover, he concluded triumphantly, saying:

"So then, our sole problem is now to locale Mr. X."


DURING all the talk between the doctor and Atterton I had seen that Severn had been listening with the air of one who has a bomb up his sleeve and, when they had finished, he now proceeded to explode it.

"Your theories, gentlemen," he said, "are interesting in the extreme, but, unfortunately, you have overlooked one feature into which, as it happens, I have a rather intimate insight—and that is the Oriental character."

He then went on to point out that the remarkable feature of the monocle was that it was of native Indian manufacture. He referred to Colonel Clayton's branch house in Calcutta; gave an outline of some of the famous clans, castes and secret societies of the Orient; and finally concluded with remarks on a singular trait of the Oriental character—the almost religious significance which the Eastern mystic, and particularly the Indian, attaches to inanimate articles, especially jewels. He knew of a case, he said, in which a fanatic had pursued a certain emerald over three continents and had finally found it in Cape Town after a career entailing three murders and an international diplomatic situation of extreme delicacy. He then advanced the idea that the monocle, by reason of its hieroglyphics, which he had not had the opportunity to translate, was of extreme importance to some Indian sect or tribe.

"And so, gentlemen," he concluded, "the solution of this mystery lies not in Barneyville, not in New York. It lies in India!"

The thrill which swept over little group at this suggestion of Oriental mystery in this quiet, sleeping village in New Jersey can well be imagined. It left us, indeed, with a creeping, uncanny feeling which even the brightness of the morning could not dispel and, looking over our shoulders as if we felt the suggestion of an unearthly presence, we broke up our conference, promising to meet on the following evening.

Personally, however, I was slightly downcast, for, in the face of these mighty minds, my own small efforts seemed puny and childish. Persistence, however, has always been a characteristic of our family, making up, perhaps, for a possible lack of genius, and, hopeless though the task might seem, I spurred myself not to give up.

For some reason or other I have always found that I can think best in the small hours of the morning and so, about three o'clock, there came to me a plan so vast, so strange, so daring, that I can believe it nothing short of a revelation.

In the morning I put it into effect. Immediately after breakfast I went to Barneyville Center, walked into the local police station, and asked the sergeant at the desk:

"Will you kindly give me a list of your leading burglars?"

The sergeant was a slow-witted man. He rather bore out father's theory, but, after looking me over for a moment and seeing that I was apparently all right, he drawled, reminiscently:

"Well, I tell you. Most of our real first-class burglars are up in state's prison. In a town like this we don't get so many of them, anyway, and, about a year ago, they got so troublesome that we had to go out and lock them up."

"And then," I said, a little crestfallen, "there are not any local burglars who are working now?"

The sergeant paused and bit off a chew of tobacco.

"No," he replied, "I can't say that there are, but you might try old man Kinney, who lives up in the white house beyond the tavern. He's been locked up for arson once or twice, but I don't know what he is doing now. I haven't heard."


I THANKED him, gave him a cigar, and then went out to look for old man Kinney. I found him to be a picturesque, nasal-voiced Yankee pottering around the yard with a short-handled rake. I told him what the sergeant had said, which rather pleased him. and then introduced myself. After a little talk about my father, with whom he had had some correspondence, I related the object of my call and asked him if he had stolen the monocle. He stopped and chewed a moment before he answered.

"No," he said, at last, with great deliberation, "I didn't steal it, and I don't think that any of the boys here in town did, but of course you can't tell. Burglary is a funny business and sometimes a fellow don't tell you all he knows. I remember a time along about two years after the war—"

On any other occasion I would have been glad indeed to listen to his reminiscences, but, this morning, I was in somewhat of a hurry and so 1 drew him back to the question.

"No," he said again, "I don't think it was any one in town stole it and, if it was stolen at all, it must have been some stranger. You see, we all think a lot of the Colonel around here and we all agreed, one time, not to steal anything but his apples."

"Then you really have no idea," I said, "who look the monocle?"

"No," he repeated, "I hain't; but still," and again he paused, "there's a fellow up the road a piece who does a little housebreaking sometimes, though he's a watchmaker by trade. He's some kind of a Dutchman. He lives in the second house beyond the mill, one with vines on the stoop. You might go and ask him."

I thanked him for his information and hurried off to interview the watchmaker. He was, it seemed, a Swiss, and did not speak English very well, but he was excessively polite and offered to do anything in his power to help me. He regretted to say, however, that he had not stolen the monocle. In fact he didn't know it was there. If he had he might have.

Thus I was rather dejected as I wended my way into the village, but, as I neared the tavern, old man Kinney came running out, waving his arms.

"Say," he called, clear across the street, "have you tried the pawnshop?"

I confessed that I hadn't, so old man Kinney, in a confidential tone, said that he would go along with me, as they might not feel like showing stolen goods to a stranger.


THE pawnshop was kept by a man named Schwartz, and, after Kinney had introduced me, Schwartz went into the back room and produced the monocle.

"You're sure it's all right, are you, Jim?" he asked, however, before he showed it.

"Oh, sure," replied Kinney in the friendliest way. "This young fellow is straight as a die. His father is one of the best-known burglars in Newark."

With this assurance Schwartz allowed me to put the monocle in my pocket on my promise that I would return it by registered mail, and back I went to the house. My dearest girl was up when I returned and, our first morning greetings over, I asked her:

"Sweetheart, will you kindly tell me why you hocked your father's monocle?"

The look of suspicion that I loved so well came over her features.

"How did you know," she asked, "that it was I who pawned it?"

"The man at the hockshop told me," I replied. "I asked him and he said that it was you. But why did you do it?"

She blushed and then buried her head in my shoulder.

"I did it for you, Thomas," she murmured.

"For me?" I asked in amazement.

"Yes," she assented, almost in tears, "I thought that I couldn't stand it any longer. Things were going on so quietly and smoothly that I knew that, in a month or two, we were sure to he married here at home, and the thought of it simply overpowered me. All my life, the one thing that I have wanted to do was to elope, to be married on the sly, and now I was afraid that father was going to spoil everything by giving in."

"That's all right, dearie," I reassured her; "we'll elope this very night, but still, why did you hock the eyeglass?"

"I will tell you, dearest," she whispered, "I needed the money. I had none of my own, and goodness knows that you haven't any."


I QUIETED her as best I could by promising to elope that very evening, and then sought out her father.

"Colonel," I said, "Helen and I have decided to elope."

The Colonel wiped off his mustache in a way he had.

"That so?" he said. "I thought maybe you would."

"Yes," I explained; "Helen wants to run off this evening, but I thought I'd best tell you about it before we did anything."

"Quite right, my boy," he replied, contentedly. "Helen is an excitable girl. I think she takes after her mother and, on the whole, I guess it is best to let her have her way. I'll leave the latch off the front door, as you might have trouble with it."

I explained that I had already learned to operate the latch, at which he smiled again and said:

"Well, boys will be boys."

It was not until he asked whether I needed any money that I showed him the monocle and explained that I could not give it back to him until the pawnbroker had had a chance to correct his records.

"Quite right," he added again, "it's best to have everything shipshape. I always did it when I was in the business myself."

So, that night, Helen and I eloped, and my profession was found; but, before we went, I attended the conference presided over by Blackmore, who, with his colleagues, was overwhelmed with amazement when I produced the jewel. For once, however, I did not tell the whole truth, and I am sure that father would not have liked it, for he was a very punctilious man; but, not wishing to make too much of my own brilliant idea, I said that it had been sent to the Colonel by a wifebeater who had confessed on his deathbed that it had been given to him by a tall, dark man in a Spanish cloak. They seemed quite interested in that and started anew on a discussion of why a tall, dark man should wear a Spanish cloak. Before I left them, however, I passed the monocle to Severn and asked him if he could translate the inscription. He studied it eagerly for a moment and then he turned very red.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "the inscription reads," and here he went very slowly, " 'Delhi, 1809. Souvenir of the Durbar. Welcome to Our City.' "

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1964, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.