With a Clear Conscience
WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE
FROM THE MEMOIRS OF CONSTANTINE DIX
By Barry Pain
I HAVE already disclaimed any overmastering ambitions. I care nothing about the coup for its own sake. There are men who seek out the difficult coup, just as an artist may intentionally seek difficulties of subject or treatment in a story or picture. I prefer easy work, when I can get it. Nor has wealth any such charms for me that I would take absurd risks to obtain it. For years past an annual income of £2,000 has satisfied me. I live regularly, and am aware that any sudden increase of means and expenditure with nothing to account for it is likely to render one an object of suspicion. All thieves know this, but comparatively few can bring themselves to act upon it.
Take, for instance, the case of Ikey. He is not unintelligent. As an inspector of an Electric Lighting Company he is admirable. He carries a notebook with the right name and address of the company stamped in gold on its morocco cover, and the book is partly filled with notes and figures that would deceive anybody except an electrician. He carries a printed card of authorization and a little brown bag with apparatus in it. The apparatus consists of a compass, a screw-driver and two coils of bell-wire, so it is not remarkably electrical. But it suffices; in fact, Ikey has said to me that no servant in London is able to doubt him after he has once opened that bag and produced the bell-wire. He knows nothing whatever of electricity. He told one old lady in Berkeley Square that the ampère wanted cleaning, and he was afraid he would have to unscrew the volts. But he knows when it is best for him to look very serious and to say very little. In this way he has in one morning cleared a thousand pounds' worth of diamonds from a good house in the West End. Naturally, the "fence" gave him rather less than one-tenth of this sum, but it was too much for Ikey. He could not resist new clothes, some showy jewelry and an inclination to stand drinks freely and to brag of his coup. So, of course, the police got him.
There have been times when I have undertaken an adventure of considerable risk for the sake of considerable profit. There was, for instance, the case of the Manton-on-Sea branch of Appleby, Hanson & Lane's Bank. I had just purchased my motor-car, one of my three banking accounts was very low, and I did not wish to realize investments. The risks were great, but they were not absurd; the branch was in temporary premises at the time, and one or two other accidental circumstances were in my favor. It was merely necessary for me to drug three people, and I did it. The manager himself was a teetotaler, and as earnest and God-fearing a man as ever I saw; but he was a bit of a hypochondriac, and quite ready to try my new medicine. I felt sorry for him at the time. The amount in gold was much less than I had expected, and I did not care to touch the notes, but, on the whole, I was fairly satisfied. Still, I avoid such work as a rule. The only way by which I care to open a good safe or strong room is by its own proper keys, and too many accidents are possible in getting and using them.
That business with the bank then turned out more easy than I had expected. Frequently the reverse has been the case. I have taken on some- thing that looked perfectly soft and simple, and have given weeks of time and thought before I could bring it to a successful issue. This was the case with the miser of Darwen village.
I was staying at Brighton at the time, and in the course of a long walk I stopped for rest and refreshment at the Crown Inn at Darwen. It is a quiet and old-fashioned inn, with a comfortable and sleepy landlord. As I sat chatting with my host, a little old man of strange appearance came in. He was very dirty and very ragged. He had a timid and watery eye and thin lips pressed tightly together. His rags were not those that would have been worn by a laborer, nor was his appearance that of one of the laboring class. His voice, as I noticed when he spoke, was that of a man of refinement and education.
"Good morning, Mr. Jacobs," said the landlord, with something like a wink in my direction, as though to bid me watch what would happen.
"Good morning, sir," said the old man. "A beautiful morning for walking, though the air is somewhat chilly. I have called in because I have a present to make you. I wish to give you something."
The landlord grinned good-humoredly. The little old man dived into the pocket of his shabby gray overcoat and pulled out two large apples.
"There, sir!" he said. "I should not say it, but they are beautiful fruit. You will find nothing like them in Darwen. And I will trouble you for six-pennyworth of brandy."
The landlord, still grinning, put the apples on a shelf, and measured out the old man's drink. Mr. Jacobs had, with the apples, pulled out an empty clay pipe, gazed at it and then up at the ceiling.
"There is some delicious tobacco being smoked in this room," he said reflectively. "I like to drink in its fragrance for a minute or two before I spoil it with my pipeful of a ranker and cheaper variety. The poor must not expect too much. I have always maintained that the poor are wrong when they expect too much."
I was the only man in the room who was smoking, and I passed my pouch over to him.
"Thank you, sir," he said. "I did did not intend to trespass upon you in this way—nothing was further from my thoughts. Still, as you so kindly insist, I will partake."
He filled his clay pipe, and palmed some more of the tobacco when he thought that he was unobserved. He lighted his pipe with a match from the stand and, in an absent-minded way, slid a few of the matches into his pock- et. Then he turned to the landlord. "And how much am I indebted to you, sir, for this refreshment?"
"Why, nothing, Mr. Jacobs. Surely, if I accept your presents, I may offer you a friendly glass."
"If you wish it, let it be so. You are very kind. The world is in many respects better than the cynics would have us believe. There are still great and generous hearts. Good morning to both of you."
He went out, and the landlord immediately burst out laughing.
"That's a queer old chap," I said.
"He is," said the landlord. "They call him the miser of Darwen. He is worth twenty-five thousand pounds, so they say, and he lives alone in a cottage that isn't fit to keep a dog in. I have never seen a penny of his money in my life. He brings fruit or he brings vegetables, and goes through the same bit of play-acting that you saw just now. Of course, I don't want his apples; everybody has got more apples than they can give away this year. It's the same with all his presents, but I don't care. The old chap always makes me laugh, and it's dull enough in a little place like this. Besides, he can't last much longer, and who knows but what he may remember me? He tried the same game on at the Blue Boar, bottom of the village, but the chap there wouldn't have it. Did you twig him sneaking your 'baccy?"
This was interesting. I got the landlord to tell me all he knew about Jacobs. He was, it appeared, in receipt of an annuity of two pounds a week, and for the last thirty years, so the villagers computed, he had never spent more than six shillings a week. His garden and cottage were his own freehold; the cottage was in a most wretched condition, but he refused to spend a penny on it. Once a year—the villagers said it was on his birthday—he would give a child a penny to whiten the step in front of his door, and for weeks afterward would avoid using that step. But with this exception he did everything for himself. Sometimes he even earned a little money. He was, the landlord said, a scholar, and had written letters for people in the village in cases where a noble and correct style was felt to be worth a penny a page. He had no bank account, and it was supposed that his savings were hidden in his cottage, which he would never leave for more than a quarter of an hour at a time. "Not that he need trouble himself," said the landlord, "for we are all honest in Darwen. Like to see the old chap's shanty? It's only just across the road there."
All of this seemed to me to be particularly good. There would be no twenty-five thousand, of course, but there would be a sum very well worth taking, and, so it seemed at the time, very easy to take. I told the landlord that I should stop at his inn for a day or two. I did not think so simple a business could possibly take longer. In reality, I stopped there a month and was compelled to neglect my reformation work in London in a way that I greatly regretted. However, I went back there at the end of that month with renewed health and strength from my holiday in the country—and with something else besides.
The next time I encountered Jacobs was again in the bar of the Crown. He had presented, with great solemnity, three exceedingly small potatoes, and had ordered a pint of old ale very much as if he had had an intention of paying for it. It was easy enough to get into conversation with him; he himself began it.
"I cannot but remember you, sir. That one little pipe of your excellent tobacco has been fragrant in my memory ever since."
I renewed his acquaintance with it, and asked him if he could tell me of anyone in the village who would call in the evening to take my letters to the post, and could do neat and legible copying.
"Might I inquire what the terms would be?"
I satisfied him on this point, and he turned the matter over in his own mind. The post-office was a full mile from his own cottage, but the copying work which I had added by way of bait attracted him.
"I am, sir," he said, "a bachelor of arts of the University of Oxford. I admit that I do not look it, but it is the case. I shall be pleased to undertake the copying on the terms you suggest, and any passer-by will always be willing to post your letters for you." I explained to him that this would not do; it was essential that my letters should be posted by a responsible person—someone whom I could trust, not a chance person who might lose them or forget them or stay to talk on the way and thus miss the post. Finally, though with some apparent misgiving, he gave way.
The lock on the cottage door presented no difficulties. I went all over the place that night while Jacobs was away at the post. It was a three-room cottage, standing in a small garden with a few fruit trees at the back. It looked disreputable enough on the outside. The roof was crazy and half covered with ivy. Windows were patched and gutters broken. Clouds of flies hovered over the fetid green water in the butt at the comer of the house. On the other hand, the garden was well-kept and cultivated. There were no flowers there; the miser grew nothing that he could not eat. And the interior of the cottage surprised me. It was more tidy and clean than I had expected. What little furniture there was seemed for the most part, to have been made by the miser himself from old packing-cases. There were hanging book-shelves on the walls, and the books in them were all classical. In fact, I found the Phædo lying open on the kitchen table. But I did not find any trace of the hidden treasure. After three more visits I came to the conclusion that it could not be in the cottage at all. I had probed and examined everywhere, and it could not have escaped me. So I gave up the cottage and tried the garden. It seemed to me quite likely that the old man buried his money; his gardening operations would provide a useful cover for it.
I learned that garden by heart. I knew every inch of it, and day after day I waited to see if there was any disturbance of the soil that might give me a clue. Hidden by the high hedge at the further end, I watched the old man at work there. I tried the trunks of the fruit trees, to see if they could be used as a hiding place. All was in vain. The miser's gardening was of the most ordinary and genuine description, and his trees were all solid. I had gone into this matter as if it were child's play, and it was giving me far more trouble than the bank's local branch had done. I took to watching the place at night, and all that I could discover was that the old man slept from five to nine with the utmost regularity. I began to think that the money could not be there at all. But I had assured myself of the existence of the annuity, and that Jacobs did not spend the money, and that he did not bank it. Where, then, could it be?
I might have remained in ignorance to this day if it had not been for the fact that one afternoon a sandy-colored gutter-cat went to sleep on the path just outside the miser's garden gate. She awoke as a group of boys came along from school, and slipped through into the garden. The foremost boy sent a stone after her, and missed her. The stone struck the water butt. I had witnessed the little incident, and I now knew where Jacobs kept his savings. The sound the stone made was not what it would have been if the butt had been full of water—as it apparently was, and as I had always supposed it to be. I went back to the inn, had a cup of tea, and wrote a reply to a letter I had received from my friend, the Rev. Arthur Hope, asking when he could see me in town about a poor family in which we were both interested. I was able to give him an appointment for two days later.
That night I sent Jacobs off with my letter to the post, and made an examination. The butt consisted of a large barrel standing on end, and divided just above the bung-hole into two parts. The upper part was filled with water. The money was kept in the lower part. The bung was easily removed, but I could not get my hand in. With my stick I could feel down onto a concrete floor heaped with coins.
I was in no hurry now. I went back to my rooms and thought the thing over. The old fool had used this place with success for years, and had probably grown very confident about it. He dropped his sovereigns through the bung-hole, and loved to think how they were accumulating. It was the only pleasure money could give him. Every miser is a madman. If I had taken the hoard that night it is quite possible he would never have discovered his loss. But if he did it was also quite likely that suspicion would fall on me. To divert it, I should have had to remain in the place for some time longer and to have continued the farce of giving him employment. This would have been very tiresome to me. So I left for London the following morning, without the money.
About six weeks later I was stopping at my Brighton house, and I thought I might as well walk over to Darwen one night. I chose a dark night, and took precautions to establish an alibi if one should prove necessary. At the time that I was walking to Darwen my household was convinced that I was asleep in bed.
I had at first intended to cut a hole through the barrel and get the money that way. But I gave up this idea; it would have made it quite certain that the miser would discover his loss. The method I chose was to fish out the money. It was the more tedious way» but it would leave no immediate evidence that the hoard had been disturbed; and, if nothing were found out, it might be worth my while to try the same thing again in a year or two.
I do not know why, but I was very nervous about this simple affair—possibly because it had given me so much trouble at the outset. For instance, I had provided myself with a loaded line and a tin of birdlime, but I decided that these things came within the category of suspicious apparatus. I took with me instead a bottle of my hair-dresser's "Mustacheoline." This is an innocent preparation for dressing the mustache. It is a fluid, but on exposure to the air it becomes hard and intensely sticky.
Half a mile outside Darwen I left the road and took to the fields. I approached Jacobs's cottage from the back. The whole place was as still as a little village generally is at midnight. I had cut a little sprig of furze and tied it to the end of a string. I smeared this with the preparation, and attached to it the seal I wore on my watch-chain to serve as a weight. Then I knelt beside the water butt, and lowered my line through the bung-hole. The first time I got four sovereigns, and the second time three. Once or twice a coin fell back on the heap just as I was raising it, and I would wait a minute or two until I was sure that the chink had not by any chance been heard. It was a slow and laborious business, and all the time I was most unaccountably timid and jumpy. When I had got two hundred and fifty I gave up, though I was nothing like at the end of the heap.
I got back home without an adventure of any kind, but when I met a policeman in Brighton street I nearly jumped out of my skin, and though I was dead tired when I got home, I was too excited to sleep. I was thoroughly ashamed of myself, and if my nerves often gave way like this I should at once choose some other means of providing for myself. I believe in proper precautions, and I despise the recklessness which sooner or later is sure to end in detection. But when once the plan is made and the decision taken, there should be calm presence of mind in its execution, and this I had not shown. I record my weakness, because in these pages I wish to give the truth without self-glorification.
A week later, finding that Jacobs had apparently never discovered his loss, I walked into Darwen and had a talk with him. He was just going into the Crown, and had a small cauliflower with him. He seemed a little hurt that the landlord did not show more enthusiasm about that cauliflower, but otherwise he was quite happy. I felt that I had done a good action. He was none the worse and I was two hundred and fifty pounds the better. Money was meant to be used.
In the course of the next year I paid two other nocturnal visits to Mr. Jacobs's water butt. On the first occasion, when I was interrupted, I took thirty pounds, and on the next day, when I was able to give more time to it, I secured three hundred and eighty. On both of these occasions I was pleased to find that my nerves were in their normal condition. With this I was satisfied, though I might have gone back yet again but for the poor old man's sudden death from double pneumonia. In his will he left a statement of the sum that would be found in the bottom of the water butt, and this was discovered by his executors to be quite inaccurate. There was a shortage of six hundred and sixty pounds, a sum for which they will, if they ever read my memoirs, now be able to account. As it was, they decided that the old man must have hidden this money elsewhere, and forgotten all about it. They searched the house and the garden with the utmost thoroughness; the whole of the garden was dug up and the cottage was nearly pulled down. And even then, when the property came into the market, it fetched twice its proper value, as the purchaser believed that he had a chance of finding the missing six hundred and sixty.
Jacobs's executors were his solicitors, and, after their expenses had been paid, the rest of his money went to his old college, St. Cecilia's, at Oxford. His college had refused him the fellowship which he confidently expected, and since that time he had had no connection with it. There was no reason why he should have left his money there, and I was glad that I had been able to rescue six hundred and sixty of it from aiding an institution for providing a classical and useless education. Not one penny was left to the landlord of the Crown who had frequently and in many ways befriended the old miser.
I am not accustomed to feel remorse for any theft that I may commit. I am a born thief; I thieve very well; theft is a thing, as I have said, that I do best and like best. But it is seldom that I can look back on any of my operations with the immense satisfaction that this has given me. Jacobs was not a man who in a really civilized country would have been allowed to possess any money at all, and my only regret is that I did not take more.