The Unwilling Burglar

The Unwilling Burglar  (1903) 
by E. R. Punshon

Extracted from The London Magazine, April 1903; pp. 299-304. Accompanying illustrations by will Owen omitted.




MR. WILLIAM TOMPKYNS, Editor of the Daily Press, was holding forth at the breakfast table on the dangers of neglected fastenings.

"Three times this year," he complained bitterly, "on my return from the office I have found a window left open."

"I will speak to the servants about it again, dear," said his wife, meekly.

"But nothing has happened, papa," urged Mollie, a vigorous young woman of an independent turn of mind.

"That simply shows your good fortune," said the editor, crushingly. "You must remember, Mollie, and you, too, my dear, that this house is particularly open to attack. Not only are you two women left alone in the house until my late return, but there is my collection of coins."

"Um-m," said MoHie, doubtfully. "I do not think myself that the coin collection would attract the average burglar. He is not, as a rule, possessed of numismatic tastes."

"If it occurs again," continued Mr. Tompkyns, severely, "I shall speak to the servants myself."

"Um-m," said his wife, doubtfully, for she had heard that warning before, but had never seen the threat carried into execution.

"I should like to know how you would both feel if burglars did break in while I was away at the office," proceeded Mr. Tompkyns. "I'll guarantee that if it did happen you would be very careful indeed to see all the windows fastened for the future. It's the nature of women to lock the stable-door after the horse is stolen."

"If anyone did break in," said Mollie, promptly, "we should sound that electric alarm to the police station, you had installed the other day."

"More likely you would hide your heads under the bed clothes," he retorted. "If I were in the house to protect you, this carelessness would not be so annoying. If I return some night to find the house ransacked, my coins gone, and you with your throats cut, don't blame me, that's all."

"Really, William," said Mrs. Tompkyns, with mild shudders, "I do wish you would not have such horrible ideas."

"If that happened," said Mollie, demurely, "I'm sure it would be very wonderful indeed if we blamed papa."

"You know quite well what I mean," observed Mr. Tompkyns with dignity. "I am really tempted to wish that some burglar should break in some night and teach you a lesson that would not be forgotten in a hurry. May I trouble you to pass the salt?"

When Mr. Tompkyns returned late that night from his editorial sanctum, his paper safely despatched to press, he had not forgotten the conversation at the breakfast table. Determined to ascertain the real effect of his warning, he went carefully round the house and was supremely disgusted to find the scullery window at least an inch open, offering easy entrance to the house.

"Upon my word, it's really too bad, and after all that I said, too," exclaimed Mr. Tompkyns angrily. "Really, I have a good mind—I have a very good mind indeed—to teach them a lesson they will not forget in a hurry. Yes. They shall be taught the necessity of listening to what I say," he concluded, vehemently.

Without more ado Mr. Tompkyns retired to the shelter of some trees near by, took off his coat and, chuckling softly to himself, turned it inside out and then put it on again. He withdrew a large silk muffler from his pocket, and removing his collar and tie, he twisted it round his neck—a proceeding that always makes a startling change in one's appearance. Then it struck him that he must have a mask or he would be recognised at once. This was rather a difficulty, but he was now in no mood to stick at trifles. There had been heavy rain earlier in the night, and remembering an expedient he had heard of somewhere, he gathered up some mud and smeared it over his cheeks. By now he had entered thoroughly into the spirit of the thing and he assured himself, with amusement and with truth, that he could not possibly be recognised.

"This will be a good joke to tell afterwards," he muttered as he finished his preparations. "I must be careful not to frighten them too much," he added with a momentary touch of compunction, but the thought of his coins, exposed so carelessly, hardened his heart again.

Bubbling over with glee and satisfaction, and hardly able to contain his merriment as he thought of the lesson he was about to give his careless wife and daughter, he made his way to the scullery window. Anxious not to give a premature alarm, Mr. Tompkyns opened the window noiselessly to its full extent. He had already thrown one leg over the sill when he felt a heavy touch upon his arm.

"Steady, matey," said a hoarse voice.

The speaker was a short, thick-set man, his face covered by a half-mask. A small lantern was fastened to his waist, and the hand that touched Mr. Tompkyns' arm held also a short iron bar that the editor at once recognised as a jemmy. With a feeling of great fear he understood that he, a mere amateur, had unwittingly crossed the path of a professional burglar. His first impulse was to shout for help, but his companion understood and clapped a large and very dirty hand over his mouth.

"No, you don't," he growled, flourishing his jemmy threateningly. "You drop that," he said again: "what's yer game, anyway?"

Mr. Tompkyns had frequently made others tremble before his biting leading articles: it was now his turn to shake and tremble. As he afterwards explained, it was not exactly ordinary physical fear that overpowered him, but a sense of the strangeness of the situation. This impressed him so much that he even found a difficulty in speaking coherently so long as the jemmy was flourished before him in so extremely unpleasant a manner.

"I won't 'urt you if you play fair," continued the burglar. "I've 'ad my eye on this 'ere show for weeks and no one ain't a-going to do me out of it now, I can tell yer. But look 'ere, I'm willing to be mates seeing as 'ow you're on the spot and already in possession, so to speak. But make a noise and I'll brain you as soon as I would a peeler."

"Do put that thing down," said the editor; "and go away yourself or I shall really be forced to give the alarm. This is my own house."

"Well you're a comical cribcracker, an' no bloomin' herror,"' said the burglar, with a chuckle of amusement.

"I tell you this is my house," repeated the editor, impatiently. "I am Mr. Tompkyns. Do go, there's a good man, or I shall be forced to summon the police."

"There's no man fonder of a bit o' fun than me," asserted the burglar; "but that's enough of this 'ere. O' course I know gents is in the 'abit of breakin' into their own 'ouses, with mud on their bloomin' mugs so's to look pretty; but this's time for work, not gassin'."

"It's your only chance," said the editor, almost beseechingly, for he by no means relished the explanations that he foresaw would be required if an alarm were given. "The police——"

"None o' that," said the cracksman, angrily, thinking that he detected a suspicious movement. He tapped the editor's head with his jemmy so that that gentleman shrank away in alarm. "You want the 'ole swag yoreself, you do, you greedy, avver-verishous feller. I know your sort. Get inside an' not so much gas, or I'll brain you. 'Urry, now."

Never had leading article proved so potent an argument as that vicious jemmy. Before he quite realised what was happening, Mr. Tompkyns found himself inside the house, followed by the burglar, who was moving with an expert quietude that contrasted strongly with Mr. Tompkyns' clumsiness.

"Why, whispered the cracksman, in sudden disgust, "you blessed greeny, you ain't took your boots off. Look alive. Ain't you got no list slippers? No? You're a nice mate for a bloke to *ave, you are; there's no class about you at all."

He spoke with pained disgust, and the editor thought he saw another opportunity to explain matters.

"My good man, this is my own house. I am Mr. Tompkyns, and have lived here these ten years. It you go quietly——"

"Must be blessed big swag you're after," said the burglar, thoughtfully, "that makes yer so anxious to do this job on your own. And you a blooming amatoor that ought to be proud to work with a bloke like me what's done time in every jug in England. Why, I shouldn't wonder if you ain't never cracked a crib afore?"

"Certainly not," said Mr. Tompkyns, with dignity. "And now what will you take to go, my good man?" he continued, in desperation.

"My share of the swag," the prompt rejoinder, "and if yer talk so loud as that agin I'll bash yer 'ed in," and the burglar made a vicious cut in the air with his jemmy.

"But," began the editor again, intent on making one last desperate effort, when his companion, as good as his word, aimed at him a heavy blow. Mr. Tompkyns only just avoided it, leaned back, feeling quite faint and ill, and held up one arm to ward off a second blow.

"Don't get scared."

"My good man," said Mr. Tompkyns piteously; "you—you will be hanged, and you will find it most unpleasant."

"You are comical to be sure," said the other with intense enjoyment; "only stop yer foolin;, or I'll be 'urting you. Now jes' listen; are we to be true mates, so 'elp us, or not? Because if not, I'll bash your 'ed in."

"Oh mates, by all means," said Mr. Tompkyns hastily.

"Then you show the way," was the retort. "As you're so anxious to be on yer own, I s'pose yer know the lay o' things all right?"

Going as quietly as he could, yet with such clumsiness as to produce a muttered threat or two from his companion, Mr. Tompkyns led the way, meekly enough, into his own kitchen.

"’Ere," said the burglar, looking round approvingly, "we'll 'ave a little bit o' somethin*'. I daresay, old cock," he continued, with a playful dig in Mr. Tompkyns' ribs, "as yer've been making love to the cook to find out about the show as you do. So you get out the grub, and look sharp."

Miserably Mr. Tompkyns did as he was told, and watched the man thoroughly enjoy his meal. In spite of repeated urging he refused to have anything himself. Several times Mr. Tompkyns was on the point of raising an alarm and summoning help. Twice he put out his hand to knock over some plates, and once he contemplated felling the burglar with a bottle of stout. But he saw the jemmy lying handy at its master's side, and each time he shrank in fear from the actual deed.

"Now," commented the cracksman when he had finished; "now for this 'ere swag o' yours, and if it ain't something uncommon good, I shall be crooly disappointed. And mind, no dirty games, cos my jemmy, what's in my fist, is most remarkably close to yer skull."

By way of aiding the editor's recollections the burglar dug the latter violently in the small of the back with the tool, and then, at Tompkyns' groan of anguish, growled at him in a vicious undertone for making such a noise. The two entered the dining-room, and under the burglar's supervision, with one or two more references to the jemmy as a stimulant, the unfortunate editor was forced to point out some plate on the sideboard, some notes hidden away in a private drawer, and his wife's store of housekeeping money. The cracksman also expressed condescending approval of two of Mollie's rings which he found on the mantelpiece. Finally, under the influence of more threats, for the burglar persisted in believing that there must be something very valuable in the house to account for his companion's wish to do the job "on his own," Mr. Tompkyns produced a valuable presentation watch, and even began to tremble for the safety of his famous coins.

"It ain't bad," admitted the man; "it ain't at all bad; but what I want to know is what was yer after particular? Something extry good there must be. Come, matey," he continued, persuasively, "I've done fair by you, you do fair by me."

He paused for an answer and then a sudden noise in the passage struck him into silence. He turned with a fierce, threatening gesture to Mr. Tompkyns, who had moved forward hopefully on hearing the sound. It was repeated and the marauder went on silent feet to the window.

"No go," he muttered; "it's a twenty foot drop and there's peelers all round. It's a ten year stretch, mate. You take my tip and try to get sent to Parkhurst. Portland's just 'orrid."

The door opened and three stalwart policemen entered. Mr. Tompkyns dropped on the sofa, almost crying with relief, and for a moment far too overwhelmed for speech. The professional put his hands in his pockets and nodded to them philosophically. "It's a fair cop."

One of the policemen took a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and walked up to the burglar, who held out his hands with the air of a man who sees resistance to be hopeless and as if bored by the repetition of a performance he had already experienced too frequently.

"’Ow did you manage to bring off this 'ere, if I may ask, sir?" enquired the prisoner.

"Electric alarm to the station," was the laconic reply.

"Matey," said the burglar, reproachfully, turning to the still prostrate editor, "don't yer reckon as when yer was a-makin' love to that there cook, you might 'ave found out about that, too?"

"Thank God," said the editor, looking up for the first time, "that you've come at last."

"S'elp me," said the burglar with a stare, "if I ever 'eard of a bloke so glad to be copped afore. But yer always was a comical bloke, and no herror."

"Hands out," said another of the policemen, approaching Tompkyns, and before the unfortunate editor knew what was happening he was neatly and expeditiously handcuffed. He had not found words to protest against this indignity when he heard his wife's voice in the passage outside.

"Have you secured them safely?"

"Yes, ma'am," said the policeman. "Would you like to see 'em?"

"Oh yes, do, mamma," came Mollie's voice, "I would just love to see a real burglar."

Next moment Mr. Tompkyns found himself jerked to his feet and pushed to a place by the side of the professional, who was held by one policeman, while another grasped the editor firmly by the back of the neck.

As they stood thus his wife and daughter appeared in the doorway.

"’Ere they are, ma'am, got both of 'em," said the sergeant with an air of proud proprietorship. "A good thing, ma'am, if I may say so, that the young lady had the courage to sound the alarm for us. Some ladies, and men, too, for that matter, would have pulled the blankets over their heads and been too frightened to do anything."

"They are two dreadful looking men," said Mollie, blushing prettily at this praise.

"They certainly are—most repulsive," agreed her mother; "do you know them?" she added, turning to the sergeant.

"This one I do, he's done time before," he answered, "but not the other."

He put his fingers under Mr. Tompkyns' chin and, to the latter's intense disgust, tilted up his face so as to examine him closely. In his indignation the unfortunate editor tried to protest, but the grip on his neck instantly tightened so that he was nearly choked.

"He's much the uglier of the two," observed Mollie, with an air of dispassionate criticism. "Only he looks more like a pickpocket than a burglar somehow—something small and mean about him."

"Will you take them away, please," said Mrs. Tompkyns. "To think, Mollie, that but for your presence of mind your poor father might indeed have found the house robbed when he returned. He ought to be here by now, too."

At a nod from the sergeant, the two policemen impelled their captives, none too gently, towards the door. The burglar went quietly enough, but Mr. Tompkyns recognised that now he must speak.

"Jane," he said, "don't you know me? One moment, officer, I can explain everything."

"Very like; but it'll be to the magistrate in the morning. You don't know him, ma'am?"

"Such impertinence—most certainly not." She paused. "But stay—yes—there's certainly something familiar about him, too"—she continued, hesitatingly—"the voice, I think!"

"Oh, I know," cried Mollie, excitedly, and in his relief Mr. Tompkyns decided to double her pocket money. "Don't you remember that horrid dirty man who pretended to be hawking umbrellas, and papa threatened to have him locked up?"

"Very like," observed the sergeant, "they often come spying houses they intend to break into."

"Jane," said Mr. Tompkyns in an awful voice, "do you mean to say you don't know your own husband?"

"William!" screamed his wife.

She rushed up to him, stared intently into his countenance, and then flung herself into an arm-chair, laughing and sobbing in a mild attack of hysterics.

"Well, I'm blowed," exclaimed the real burglar in a very aggrieved tone, "he was the genuine article all the time, and me thinkin' 'im such a comical gent, too."

"If you had only listened instead of threatening to murder me," said Mr. Tompkyns, "we should both have escaped these very unpleasant proceedings. Perhaps now you will be so kind as to remove these—er—handcuffs," he added to the sergeant.

Some more explanations were required, but Mollie adding her testimony, the stupefied and rather disappointed police released him. With great politeness, Mr. Tompkyns escorted them and their prisoner to the door, and then returned upstairs, his soul full of gloomy forebodings as to the probable comments in the evening newspaper.

"I hope you now see," he remarked with much severity to his wife, who had recovered her composure, "the consequences that ensue upon your neglect of the simple precautions I request you to take."

"I am very sorry, dear," said Mrs. Tompkyns, "but who would ever have thought that you, William, of all men——"

"You had better return to bed, now," interrupted Mr. Tompkyns, hastily. "Mollie, may I ask if you see anything humorous in what has occurred to to-night?"

"Nothing at all, papa," answered Mollie, demurely; but to this day she indulges in apparently causeless fits of laughter that invariably make her father glare at her with angry suspicion and mutter something about giggling girls.

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

The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 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.