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The Uttermost Farthing (Chapter6)

2006-08-22 20:34

  VI. The Trail of the Serpent

  Hitherto, in my transcriptions from Humphrey Challoner's “Museum Archives” I have taken the entries in their order, omitting only such technical details as might seem unsuitable for the lay reader. Now, however, I pass over a number of entries. The capture of Numbers 7, 8 and 9 exhibits the methods to which Challoner, in the main, adhered during his long residence in East London; and, though there were occasional variations, the accounts of the captures present a general similarity which might render their recital tedious. The last entry but one, on the other hand, is among the most curious and interesting. Apart from the stirring incidents that it records, the new light that it throws on a hitherto unsolved mystery makes it worth extracting entire, which I now proceed to do, with the necessary omissions alluded to above.

  “Circumstances connected with the acquirement of Numbers 23 and 24 in the Anthropological Series.

  “The sand of my life ran out with varying speed——as it seemed to me——in the little barber's shop in Saul Street, Whitechapel. Now would my pulses beat and the current of my blood run swift. Those were the times when I had visitors; and presently a new skeleton or two would make their appearance in the long wall-case. But there were long intervals of sordid labor and dull inaction when I would cut hair——and examine it through my lens——day after day and wonder whether, in electing to live, rather than pass voluntarily into eternal repose, I had, after all, chosen the better part. For in all those years no customer with ringed hair ever came to my shop. The long pursuit seemed to bring me no nearer to that unknown wretch, the slayer of my beloved wife. Still was he hidden from me amidst the unclean multitude that seethed around; or perchance some sordid grave had already offered him an everlasting sanctuary, leaving me wearily to pursue a phantom enemy.

  “But I am digressing. This is not a record of my emotions, but a history of the contents of my museum. Let me proceed to specimens 23 and 24 and the very remarkable circumstances under which I had the good fortune to acquire them. First, however, I must describe an incident which, although it occurred some time before, never developed its importance until this occasion arose.

  “One drowsy afternoon there came to my shop a smallish, shabby-looking man, quiet and civil in manner and peculiarly wooden as to his countenance; in short, a typical 'old lag.' I recognized the type at a glance; the 'penal servitude face' had become a familiar phenomenon. He spread himself out to be shaved and to have the severely official style of his coiffure replaced by a less distinctive mode; and as I worked he conversed affably.

  “'Saw old Polensky a week or two ago.'

  “'Did you indeed?' said I.

  “'Yus. Portland. Got into 'ot water, too, 'e did. Tried to fetch the farm and didn't pull it orf.' ('The farm,' I may explain, is the prison infirmary.) 'Got dropped on for malingering. That's the way with these bloomin' foreigners.'

  “'He didn't impose on the doctor, then?'

  “'Lor', no! Doctor'd seen that sort o' bloke before. Polensky said he'd got a pain in 'is stummik, so the doctor says it must be becos 'is diet was too rich, and knocks orf arf 'is grub. I tell yer, Polensky was sorry 'e'd spoke.'

  “Here, my client showing a disposition to smile, I removed the razor to allow him to do so. Presently he resumed, discursively:

  “'I knoo this 'ouse years ago, before Polensky's time, when old Durdler had it. Durdler used to do the smashin' lay up on the second floor and me and two or three nippers used to work for 'im——plantin' the snide, yer know. 'E was a rare leery un, was Durdler. It was 'im what made that slidin' door in the wall in the second floor front.'

  “I pricked up my ears at this. 'A sliding door? In this house?'

  “'Gawblimy!' exclaimed my client. 'Meantersay you don't know about that door?'

  “I assured him most positively that I had never heard of it.

  “'Well, well,' he muttered. 'Sich a useful thing, too. Durdler used to keep 'is molds and stuff up there, and then, when there was a scare of the cops, he used to pop the thing through into the next 'ouse——Mrs. Jacob 'ad the room next door——and the coppers used to come and sniff round, but of course there wasn't nothin' to see. Regler suck in for them. And it was useful if you was follered. You could mizzle in through the shop, run upstairs, pop through the door, downstairs next door and out through the back yard. I've done it myself. 'Oo's got the second floor front now?'

  “'I have,' said I. 'I keep the whole of the house.'

  “'My eye!' exclaimed my friend, whose name I learned to be Towler, 'you are a bloomin' toff. Like me to show you that door?'

  “I said that I should like it very much, and accordingly, when the trimming operations were concluded and I had secured a wisp of Mr. Towler's hair for subsequent examination, we ascended to the second floor front and he demonstrated the hidden door.

  “'It's in this 'ere cupboard, under that row of pegs. That peg underneath at the side is the 'andle. You catches 'old of it, so, and you gives a pull to the right.' He suited the action to the words, and, with a loud groan, the middle third of the back of the cupboard slid bodily to the right, leaving an opening about three feet square, beyond which was a solid-looking panel with a small knob at the left-hand side.

  “'That,' whispered Towler, 'is the back of a cupboard in the next 'ouse. If you was to pull that 'andle to the right, it would slide along same as this one. Only I expect there's somebody in the room there.'

  “I rewarded Mr. Towler with half a sovereign, which he evidently thought liberal, and he departed gleefully. Shortly afterwards I learned that he had 'got a stretch' in connection with a 'job' at Camberwell; and he vanished from my ken. But I did not forget the sliding doors. No special use for them suggested itself, but their potentialities were so obvious that I resolved to keep a sharp eye on the second floor front next door.

  “I had not long to wait. Presently the whole floor was advertised by a card on the street door as being to let and I seized the opportunity of a quiet Sunday to reconnoiter and put the arrangements in going order. I slid back the panel on my own side and then, dragging at the handle, pushed back the second panel. Both moved noisily and would require careful treatment. I passed through the square opening into the vacant room and looked round, but there was little to see, though a good deal to smell, for the windows were hermetically sealed and a closed stove fitted into the fireplace precluded any possibility of ventilation. The aroma of the late tenants still lingered in the air.

  “I returned through the opening and began my labors. First, with a hard brush I cleaned out both sets of grooves, top and bottom. Then, into each groove I painted a thick coating of tallow and black lead, mixed into a paste and heated. By moving the panels backwards and forwards a great number of times I distributed the lubricant and brought the black lead to such a polish that the doors slid with the greatest ease and without a sound. I was so pleased with the result that I was tempted to engage the room next door, but as this might have aroused suspicion——seeing that I had a whole house already——I refrained; and shortly afterwards the floor was taken by a family of Polish Jews, who apparently supplemented their income by letting part of it furnished.

  “I now pass over an intervening period and come to the circumstances of one of my most interesting and stirring experiences. It was about this time that some misbegotten mechanician invented the automatic magazine pistol, and thereby rendered possible a new and execrable type of criminal. It was not long before the appropriate criminal arrived. The scene of the first appearance was the suburb of Tottenham, where two Russian Poles attempted, and failed in, an idiotic street robbery. The attempt was made in broad daylight in the open street, and the two wretches, having failed, ran away, shooting at every human being they met. In the end they were both killed——one by his own hand——but not until they had murdered a gallant constable and a poor little child and injured in all, twenty-two persons.

  “I read the newspaper account with deep interest and the conviction that this was only a beginning. Those two frenzied degenerates belonged to a common enough type; the type of the Slav criminal who has not sense enough to take precautions nor courage enough to abide the fortune of war. The automatic pistol, I felt sure, would bring him into view; and I was not mistaken.

  “One night, returning from a tour of inspection, I met a small excited crowd accompanying a procession of three police ambulances. I joined the throng and presently turned into a small blind thoroughfare in which had gathered a small and nervous-looking crowd and a few flurried policemen. Several of the windows were shattered and on the ground were three prostrate figures. One was dead, the others were badly wounded, and all three were members of the police force.

  “I watched the ambulances depart with their melancholy burdens and then turned for information to a bystander. He had not much to give, but the substance of his account——confirmed later by the newspapers——was this: The police had located a gang of suspected burglars and three officers had come to the house to make arrests. They had knocked at the door, which, after some delay, was opened. Some person within had immediately shot one of the officers dead and the entire gang of four or five had rushed out, fired point blank at the other two officers, and then raced up the street shooting right and left like madmen. Several people had been wounded and, grievous to relate, the whole gang of miscreants had made their escape into the surrounding slums.

  “I was profoundly interested and even excited for several reasons. In the first place, here at last was the real Lombroso criminal, the sub-human mattoid, devoid of intelligence, devoid of the faintest glimmering of moral sense, fit for nothing but the lethal chamber; compared with whom the British 'habitual' was a civilized gentleman. Without a specimen or two of this type, my collection was incomplete. Then there was the evident applicability of my methods to this class of offender; methods of quiet extermination without fuss, public disorder or risk to the precious lives of the police. But beyond these there was another reason for my interest. The murder of my wife had been a purposeless, unnecessary crime, committed by some wretch to whom human life was a thing of no consideration. There was an analogy in the circumstances that seemed to connect that murder with this type of miscreant. It was even possible that one of these very villains might be the one whom I had so patiently sought through the long and weary years.

  “The thought fired me with a new enthusiasm. Forthwith I started to pursue the possible course of the fugitives, threading countless by-streets and alleys, peering into squalid courts and sending many a doubtful-looking loiterer shuffling hastily round the nearest corner. Of course it was fruitless. I had no clue and did not even know the men. I was merely walking off my own excitement.

  “Nevertheless, every night as soon as I had closed my shop, I set forth on a voyage of exploration, impelled by sheer restlessness; and during the day I listened eagerly to the talk of my customers in Yiddish——a language of which I was supposed to be entirely ignorant. But I learned nothing. Either the fugitives were unknown, or the natural secretiveness of an alien people forbade any reference to them, even among themselves; and meanwhile, as I have said, I tramped the streets nightly into the small hours of the morning.

  “Returning from one of these expeditions a little earlier than usual, I found a small party of policemen and a sprinkling of idlers gathered opposite the house next door. There was no need to ask what was doing. The suppressed excitement of the officers and the service revolvers in their belts told the story. There was going to be another slaughter; and I was probably too late for any but a spectator's part.

  “The street door was open and the house was being quietly emptied of its human occupants. They came out one by one, shivering and complaining, with little bundles of their possessions hastily snatched up, and collected in a miserable group on the pavement. I opened my shop door and invited them to come in and rest while their messengers went to look for a harbor of refuge; but I stayed outside to see the upshot of the proceedings.

  “When the last of the tenants had come out, a sergeant emerged and quietly closed the street door with a latch-key. The rest of the policemen took up sheltered positions in doorways after warning the idlers to disperse and the sergeant turned to me.

  “'Now, Mr. Vosper, you'd better keep your nose indoors if you don't want it shot off. There's going to be trouble presently.' He pushed me gently into the shop and shut the door after me.

  “I found the evicted tenants chattering excitedly and very unhappy. But they were not rebellious. They were mostly Jews, and Jews are a patient, submissive people. I boiled some water in my little copper and made some coffee, which they drank gratefully——out of shaving mugs; my outfit of crockery being otherwise rather limited. And meanwhile they talked volubly and I listened.

  “'I vunder,' said a stout, elderly Jewess, 'how der bolice know dose shentlemens gom to lotch mit me. Zumpotty must haf toldt dem.'

  “'Yus,' agreed an evicted tenant of doubtful occupation, 'some bloomin' nark has giv 'em away. Good job too. Tain't playin' the game for to go pottin' at the coppers like that there. Coppers 'as got their job to do same as what we 'ave. You know that, Mrs. Kosminsky.'

  “'Ja, dat is droo,' said the Jewess; 'but dey might let me bring my dings mit me. Do-morrow is Ky-fox-tay. Now I lose my money.'

  “'How is that, Mrs. Kosminsky?' I asked.

  “'Pecause I shall sell dem not, de dings vot I buy for Ky-fox-tay; de fireworks, de gragers, de masgs and oder dings vor de chiltrens. Dvendy-vaive shillings vort I buy. Dey are in my room on ze zecond floor. I ask de bolice to let me vetch dem, hot dey say no; I shall disturb de chentlemens in de front room. Zo I lose my money pecause I sell dem not.' Here the unfortunate woman burst into tears and I was so much affected by her distress that I instantly offered to buy the whole consignment for two pounds, whereat she wept more copiously than ever, but collected the purchase-money with great promptitude and stowed it away in a very internal pocket, displaying in the process as many layers of clothing as an old-fashioned pen-wiper.

  “'Ach! Mizder Fosper, you are zo coot to all de boor beebles, dough you are only a boor man yourzelf. Bot it is de boor vot is de vriendts of de boor;' and in her gratitude she would have kissed my hands if I had not prudently stuck them in my trousers pockets.

  “A messenger now arrived to say that a refuge had been secured for the night, and my guests departed with many thanks and benedictions. The street, as I looked out, was now quite deserted save for one or two prowling policemen, who, apparently bored with their hiding-places, had come forth to patrol in the open. I did not stay to watch them, for Mrs. Kosminsky's remarks had started a train of thought which required to be carried out quickly. Accordingly I went in and fell to pacing the empty shop.

  “The police, I assumed, were waiting for daylight to rush the house. It was a mad plan and yet I was convinced that they had no other. And when they should enter, in the face of a stream of bullets from those terrible automatic pistols, what a carnage there would be! It was frightful to think of. Why does the law permit those cowards' tools to be made and sold? A pistol is the one weapon that has no legitimate use. An axe, a knife——even a rifle, has some lawful function. But a pistol is an appliance for killing human beings. It has no other purpose whatever. A man who is found with house-breaking tools in his possession is assumed to be a house-breaker. Surely a man who carries a pistol convicts himself of the intention to kill somebody.

  “But perhaps the police had some reasonable plan. It was possible, but it was very unlikely. The British policeman is a grand fellow, brave as a lion and ready to march cheerfully into the mouth of hell if duty calls. But he knows no tactics. His very courage is almost a disadvantage, leading him to disdain reasonable caution. I felt that our guardians were again going to sacrifice themselves to these vermin. It was terrible. It was a wicked waste of precious lives. Could nothing be done to prevent it?

  “According to Mrs. Kosminsky, the 'chentlemens' were in the second floor front——the room with the sliding panel. Then I could, at least, keep a watch on them. I walked slowly upstairs gnashing my teeth with irritation. The sacrifice was so unnecessary. I could think, offhand, of half a dozen ways of annihilating these wretches without risking a single hair of any decent person's head. And here were the police, with all the resources of science at their disposal and practically unlimited time in which to work, actually contemplating a fight with all the odds against them!

  “I stole into the second floor front and, by the light of a match, found the cupboard. The inside panel——as I will call the one on my side——slid back without a sound. There was now only the second panel between me and the next room, and I could plainly hear the murmur of voices and sounds of movement. But I could not distinguish what was being said; and as this was of some importance, I determined to try the other panel. Grasping the handle, I gave a firm but gradual pull, and felt the panel slide back quite silently for a couple of inches. Instantly the voices became perfectly distinct and a whiff of foul, stuffy air came through, with a faint glimmer of light; by which I knew that the cupboard on their side was at least partly open.

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