When Rogues Fall Out - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

When Rogues Fall Out ebook

R. Austin Freeman



"When Rogues Fall Out” incorporates some wonderful conundrums to hoodwink and hinder the cleverest of crime readers. This book contains three interconnected stories. In the first, a respectable collector of antiques falls victim to temptation. In the second a police inspector is found dead in suspicious circumstances in a railway tunnel. This section includes an interesting „essay” on the early use of fingerprint evidence. The third is a classic locked room mystery where someone has been making use of a sealed room in a remote country house. All three are resolved together in the last few pages. The rogues of the title include three very different men engaged in stealing and fencing high-quality jewelry. One is a working-class robber; one a refined antiques dealer turned fence; and one a mysterious middleman with the appearance of a gentleman.

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THERE is nothing so deceptive as a half-truth. The half that is true has a certain suggestive power that lends to the other half a plausibility and a credibility that it does not possess in its own right. This interesting psychological fact was realized, at least subconsciously, by Mr. Didbury Toke. For Mr. Toke was a collector of antique and other works of art, a connoisseur and a dealer. He really was. It was not a pose or a pretence. He was a bona fide collector, and a connoisseur who had that genuine love of fine and beautiful works that is the indispensable condition of real connoisseurship. But Mr. Toke was also a fence. And that was where the illusory element came in. Any person who, not being a known collector and a recognized dealer, should have been seen, as he frequently was, in the company of definitely shady characters, would inevitably have attracted the attention of the guardians of the law. But everyone knows that the really enthusiastic collector must needs seek his quarry where it is most likely to be found; and there is no need to watch him, for no crook or fence would be so foolish as to sell doubtful merchandise to a collector who is going to expose it forthwith in his show-cases, or a dealer who is going to offer it in the open market. So Mr. Didbury Toke went about his lawful occasions unmolested and unsuspected, and, under the cover of them, did a little unlawful business if it happened to come his way.

It came his way pretty often in these latter days.

But this was a comparatively new development. For many years he had carried on his activities in the most scrupulously correct manner. And so he might have continued to the end, but for some exceptional circumstance. We are all, indeed, the creatures of circumstance. But circumstances are not entirely beyond human control. Their control is, however, largely proportionate to our control of ourselves. And that was where Mr. Toke had failed. At a critical moment he found himself unable to resist a sudden temptation. But let us have done with generalities and consider the circumstances in detail.

The descent to Avernus is proverbially easy; and, in practice, it is usually somewhat gradual. But there are exceptions; and the case of Mr. Didbury Toke furnishes an example. For his start upon that famous decline was the result of an incident quite unforeseen and, to a certain extent, beyond his control. At any rate, the determining cause–or perhaps we should say the predisposing cause–was a convulsion of nature for which he certainly could not be held responsible; being, in fact, no less than a thunderstorm. Mr. Toke did not like thunderstorms. Few of us do; especially when they come on us in the open country, in which the only refuge visible is the illusory shelter offered by scattered hedgerow elms.

At the moment Mr. Toke was pursuing his way along the rather unfrequented road that led from the village in which his house was situated to the neighbouring market town of Packington. As he walked at an easy pace on the grass verge of the road, his thoughts were pleasantly occupied by reflections on a little windfall that he had recently picked up at a country auction; so much so that his immediate surroundings received but the vaguest attention. Suddenly, he was aroused from his meditations by a low rumble from the far distance behind him, and, turning sharply, became aware of an obvious inkiness of the sky, and, low down, an arched edge of blackness surmounting a pale area in which, even as he looked, jagged streaks of light shot up from the dim horizon.

Mr. Toke looked about him uneasily. He had passed no habitation, so far as he could remember, for the last mile; and Packington lay some two miles farther on. But, clearly, it was useless to think of turning back. His only chance of shelter, apart from the treacherous elms, was in some possible inn or cottage that might lurk unseen by the roadside ahead. Accordingly, he resumed his progress in that direction, mending his pace appreciably as his ears were smitten by a sound as if a Brobdingnagian tea-tray had been kicked by a Titanic foot.

Swiftly Mr. Toke padded along the solitary, inhospitable road while the leaves of the elm trees shivered audibly and elemental bangings from behind announced the approach of the storm. And then, just as the first big drops began to fall with an audible plop on the earth, a slight turn of the road revealed a cottage, hitherto hidden by a clump of trees. It was but a humble labourer’s dwelling, timber-built and roofed with thatch, but to Mr. Toke’s eagerly searching eyes it was more grateful than a baronial mansion. As a resounding crash from behind mingled with the hiss of a sudden deluge, he frantically unfastened the button of the gate and darted up the path to the small porch that sheltered the door. Nor did he come as a mere suppliant doubtful of his welcome; for, on the jamb of the door hung a small board bearing the single word “TEAS.” It was a laconic announcement; but brevity is the soul of wit; and to Mr. Toke it was as a charter of freedom conferring the right to enter unquestioned.

The door was opened in response to his rather urgent thumps by an elderly labourer, who looked first at Mr. Toke and then at the sky, as if he suspected the former of some responsibility for the unfavourable state of the weather. But he uttered no word; and, as the rain was playing freely on Mr. Toke’s back, that gentleman proceeded bluntly to state his wants.

“Can I have some tea?” asked Mr. Toke.

The man seemed surprised at the request. “Tea, you wants,” said he. He took another critical survey of the landscape, and then replied cautiously: “I’ll ask the’ old woman.”

As “the old woman” was plainly in view, sitting by the fire and obviously attentive to the conversation, the precaution seemed hardly necessary. In fact, she anticipated the question.

“Why, certainly, Tom; I can get the gentleman a cup of tea if he wants one.” She rose stiffly from her chair and cast an enquiring glance at the kettle which reposed in unpromising silence on the hob.

“You have a notice by your door that you supply teas,” Mr. Toke ventured to remark.

“Yes,” the master of the house admitted; “that there board was put up by my darter. She’s gone and got married, so we don’t do much in that line nowadays. Never did, in fact. Oo’s coming out ‘ere for tea?”

Mr. Toke agreed that the road was not actually congested, and, meanwhile, under the guidance of his host, squeezed himself past an obstructive table towards a Windsor arm-chair which he distinguished with some difficulty in the pervading gloom. For, now that the door was closed, the room was almost in darkness, the small window, obscured by dirt and invading creepers, admitting only a fraction of the feeble light from the inky sky.

“Seems as if we was going to have a bit of rain,” the host remarked, by way of making conversation. Mr. Toke agreed that there was a suggestion of moisture in the air, and ventured to express the hope that it would do the country good.

“Ay,” said his host, “a bit of rain is allers useful at this time o’ year. In reason, mind yer. Yer don’t want it a-comin’ down like brickbats, a-flattenin’ down the crops. A nice, soft, steady rain is what ye wants for the land. Keeps it miste, d’ye see.”

Mr. Toke assimilated this lucid explanation as he watched the old woman coaxing the unresponsive kettle with sticks of firewood. By degrees, his eyes were becoming accustomed to the obscurity. Already, he had converted the sound of harsh, metallic ticking into the visual impression of a drum clock, perched on the mantelshelf, and now let his glance wander questingly round the dim interior, it was not an idle glance. By no means. Not, it is true, that he was ordinarily much concerned with the simple domestic antique. But all is fish that comes to a collector’s net; and experience had taught him that if “Honesty lives in a poor house, like your fair pearl in your foul oyster,” so was it occasionally with the treasures that the past has bequeathed to the present. So Mr. Toke had made it a rule of life to “keep his weather eyelid lifting” even in the most unlikely surroundings.

“Main lucky for you, it is,” remarked his host, as a resounding crash shook the door and made the window-frames rattle, “that you struck this house in time. There ain’t another this side of The Rose and Crown, and that’s a good mile and a half further on down the road. You’d a-caught it proper if you’d a-been out in it now.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Mr. Toke. “Holy water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out of doors.”

His host did not, apparently, recognize the quotation, for he looked at him suspiciously, and replied in a somewhat surly tone:

“There ain’t no holy water in this house. We’re Baptisses, we are.”

“Ha,” said Mr. Toke; “I was merely repeating an old saying. And there is some truth in it, you know.”

“So there may be,” was the grudging reply. “I don’t hold with none of them there superstitions. Lord! Look at that!”

“That” was a blinding flash that flooded the room with violet light, and was instantly followed by a shattering crash directly overhead, as if some aerial three-decker had fired a broadside straight down the chimney. The instantaneous flash, followed by what seemed to the dazzled eye a period of total darkness, left Mr. Toke with a strangely vivid impression of the cottage interior, in which all its details were clearly visible: the seated figure of his host, the old woman, standing by the fire, the tea-pot poised in her hand, the little dresser with its modest crockery set out in an orderly array, and one or two pictures on the wall. But all these things lay, as it were, on the margin of his field of vision, seen, indeed, but only half-consciously perceived. For it happened that, at the moment of the flash, Mr. Toke’s eyes had been fixed upon a dim square patch of paleness that was just barely discernible in the darkest corner of the room, and he had been speculating on the nature of the object to which it appertained. The flash solved that problem. The pale, square patch was the dial of a long-case clock. Anyone could have seen that much. But Mr. Toke saw a good deal more. It is true that the object was seen only for an infinitesimal fraction of a second (plus a further sixteenth of a second for what the physiologists call “the persistence of visual impressions”), and that in that instant of time it had revealed little more than a dark silhouette. But a silhouette may be highly significant. It was to Mr. Toke. The square-headed hood, flanked by twisted pillars, the slender body, the low plinth, taken together, suggested a date before the time of good Queen Anne. There were, indeed, two hands–pointing to an impossible hour and clearly indicating that the clock was not a “going concern”–but there was nothing incongruous in this, for two-handed clocks and even eight-day movements, were made before the dawn of the eighteenth century.

But what really did worry Mr. Toke was the appearance of the dial. It was obviously white. Now the seventeenth-century clock-maker had a soul above a painted dial. If this dial was painted, as it appeared to be, there were two possibilities; either the old dial had been barbarously covered with paint, or, at some time, the clock had fallen into the hands of a Philistine and had its original movement replaced by a new one.

It was a momentous question, and Mr. Toke debated it anxiously as he stirred his tea and kept up a rambling conversation with his host. Of course, it was none of his business–at least one would have said so. But one would have been wrong. Mr. Toke intended to make it his business. There are, indeed, some who maintain that to strike a keen bargain with an ignorant man who happens to possess some valuable object is a base act almost tantamount to robbery. This was not Mr. Toke’s view. He held most emphatically that the expert was fully entitled to the usufruct of his knowledge. And there is something to be said for this point of view. A man does not become a connoisseur without the expenditure of time, effort, and money; and as to the person who, by chance inheritance, happens to possess a Rembrandt or a Leonardo and elects to use it as a tea-tray or to cover up a damp place on the wall, it is not easy to grow sentimental over his rights. After all, the base collector rescues the treasure from imminent destruction, and preserves it for the benefit of mankind at large.

At any rate, Mr. Toke, recalling the fugitive vision of that elegant silhouette, kept an acquisitive eye on the dim, pale square, which, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, persisted when all else had vanished, and cast about for some mode of strategic approach to the subject. Presently his host, all unconsciously, gave him an opening.

“You takes your tea early,” he remarked (it had just turned half-past three).

Mr. Toke pulled out his watch and glanced at the drum clock on the mantelshelf.

“Is your clock right?” he asked.

“Ay–leastways as near as I can tell. I sets him by the carrier’s cart. He go past every morning at nine o’clock, sharp.”

“Ha,” said Mr. Toke, “and does it keep good time–the clock, I mean?”

“Ay, he do that; wunnerful good time he keeps. And I only give three shillings for him, brand noo.”

“Really,” said Mr. Toke. “It’s surprising how cheap clocks are nowadays.”

“Ay,” agreed the host, “times has changed. It’s what they calls progress. Now, that old clock in the corner, he wasn’t never bought for three shillings; no, nor for three pund.”

Mr. Toke stared into the dark corner indicated, as if he had not noticed the clock before. But the corner was less dark now; for, with the last crash, the storm seemed to have spent its wrath, and now a gleam of sunshine stole in at the window and so brightened up the room that the shape of the clock became distinctly visible.

“No,” Mr. Toke concurred, “there were no three-shilling clocks in the days when that was made. Have you had it long?”

“Had him from my old woman’s grandfather. And he had him from the squire what he was coachman to. So he wasn’t made yesterday. He’s like my old woman and me: he’s one of the has-beens.”

“Does it keep good time?” Mr. Toke asked, regardless of the wildly erroneous position of the hands.

His host chuckled. “Don’t keep no time at all. Won’t go. My darter’s husband has a tinker at him now and again–he’s a plumber and gas-fitter by trade–but it ain’t no use. The’ old clock’s wore out. Takin’ up room to no purpose. Chap offered me five shillin’ for him, and I’d a-took it. But my old woman said no. So we kep’ him.”

“It wasn’t a very liberal offer,” Mr. Toke remarked.

“That’s what I thought,” said the old woman. “‘Twasn’t enough for a good old clock, even if it won’t go. I said so to Tom at the time.”

“Well,” growled Thomas, “who’s a-going for to pay good money for a clock what won’t even tick?”

Mr. Toke decided that the time had come to open negotiations.

“There are such people,” said he. “I have a friend who has quite a fancy for old clocks. He would probably be willing to give you a couple of pounds for it.”

“Then,” said Thomas, “I be glad if you’d send him along this way. What d’you say, Susan?”

“Two pounds ‘ud be very useful,” replied the old woman. “But I doubt if he’d give it when he see the clock. It be terrible old.”

Mr. Toke rose and strolled across to the corner. The light was now quite good, and at close quarters it was possible to make out the details. And at some of those details Mr. Toke’s gorge rose, and he half regretted the liberality of his offer. The venerable time-piece had received the most shocking treatment from some Vandal. The case was encrusted with varnish, apparently applied with a tar brush, and the brass dial had received a thick coat of white paint. Yet, through the treacly depths of the varnish and the layer of paint, other details were faintly discernible which he noted with deep satisfaction.

The clock had been an aristocrat in its day. The dark wood of the case was richly ornamented with marquetry, and a framed panel seemed to enclose some initials and a date, though Mr. Toke could not actually decipher them. But their presence hinted at a possibly traceable history, which would greatly enhance the value of the piece. A glance at the dial showed it to be undoubtedly the original one. The corner ornaments–simple cherubs’ heads–were quite characteristic of the period, as were the hour and minute figures, where they were distinguishable, and the hands, though their form was obscured by a thick coat of black enamel paint, showed the simple elegance that marks the work of the earlier makers. Mr. Toke, seeking in vain to decipher the maker’s name, was reassured. Perhaps, after all, the plumber’s contribution did not go beyond the paint and the varnish.

“Do you happen to remember the name of the squire who originally owned the clock?” Mr. Toke enquired.

“His name was Hawkwood,” the old woman replied. “Sir John Hawkwood.”

Mr. Toke made a mental note of the name and announced: “I am inclined to think that my friend would be willing to give a couple of pounds for this clock, if you are prepared to sell it.”

Thomas was undoubtedly prepared to sell, and said so with some emphasis; and the old lady opined that two pounds would be more useful than the clock.

“Very well,” said Mr. Toke, “then we will consider the matter settled. How am I to get the clock to my house?”

“Where is your house?” the practical-minded Thomas demanded.

“I live at Hartsden Manor; just outside the village.”

“I knows him,” said Thomas. “A tumbledown old house just alongside the old church what is shut up. ‘Tain’t fur from here. A couple of mile. I could run th’ old clock down in my barrer.”

“When?” asked Mr. Toke.

“Now, if yer like. I suppose yer pays on delivery?”

“Certainly. When I receive the clock, you’ll receive the money.”

With this stimulus, Thomas awoke to strenuous activity. The clock was hauled out of its corner, and, while Mr. Toke detached the pendulum and secured the weights in a packing of spare garments, old Susan went in search of a blanket, and Thomas retired to fetch the “barrer.” In a few minutes all was ready. The clock, decently swathed in the blanket, and faintly suggesting an impending inquest, was tied firmly on the barrow and Thomas signified that the procession was ready to start.

The journey to Hartsden was, for the most part, uneventful. One or two wayfarers on the road greeted the barrow and its burden with surprised grins, and, at the entrance to the village, a group of schoolboys, just released from bondage, formed up into an orderly procession and followed the barrow, two by two, with bare and bowed beads and unseemly giggles; a proceeding that attracted unnecessary attention, and added appreciably to the gaiety of the neighbourhood for the time being.

“Passel o’ grinnin’ fules,” said Thomas, casting a resentful and contemptuous glance at the little party of smiling bystanders as he drew up at the gate of the house while Mr. Toke unfastened it to admit him to the short drive. As the gate swung open, he stooped to grasp the handles of the barrow at the moment when one of the juvenile mourners advanced, with his hand kerchief held to his eyes, to drop a dandelion on the shrouded clock.

The business was soon concluded to mutual satisfaction. The clock was conveyed to a disused room at the back of the house and deposited on a rough table. Then Mr. Toke wrote out a receipt in such terms as amounted to a formal conveyance of the property, and, when the vendor had subscribed his sign manual, two sovereigns were laid on the table.

“Thank ye, sir,” said Thomas, transferring them to his pocket. “I hopes the clock will suit your friend. I shouldn’t like to think of it being left on your hands.”

“He’ll have to take it now that I have paid for it,” replied Mr. Toke. “But you needn’t worry. He’ll be quite satisfied.”

In point of fact, the “friend” was more than satisfied. A rapid inspection showed that the case was in excellent condition under the crust of varnish; and through the latter, it was now possible to see that the dark walnut was adorned with marquetry of a richness unusual in such early work. For, in the strong light, the date was clearly legible as well as the initials, grouped in a triangle around a heart–J. H. M. 1692, the H being uppermost, and, as Mr. Toke reasonably surmised, representing the name, Hawkwood. The dial and hands, too, were of appropriate style and of the same excellent workmanship; and on the former could now be deciphered, through the paint: “Robert Cooke, Londini, fecit.”

From this general, preliminary inspection Mr. Toke proceeded to the consideration of details. He had already noticed that the case was closed at the bottom. Now, on opening the door, he observed a partition closing the interior space at an appreciably higher level. This was rather remarkable, for the position of this upper partition was such as possibly to interfere with the proper fall of the weights. But what was still more remarkable was the way in which it was secured. There were four screws; but, though the wood of the partition appeared to be old, the screws certainly did not. Their bright, clean heads seemed to shout, “Nettlefold.”

Mr. Toke was quite interested. Between those two partitions there must be a space. That space might be an ancient hiding-place. But the screws hardly supported that view. At any rate, the question could soon be set at rest. And the first turn of the screwdriver settled it. The readiness with which the screw turned suggested a touch of tallow; and a greasy stain on the wood around the hole was clear confirmation. The other three screws followed with the same ease, and then, by inserting a bradawl into one of the holes, it was possible to prise up the loose partition.

Now, whether this had or had not been an ancient hiding-place, it was quite clear that the contents were modern; consisting of a parcel wrapped in undeniable newspaper. Mr. Toke lifted it out, and, having cut the string, carefully opened it. And then he got the surprise of his life. There were several layers of paper, the innermost being of clean tissue paper; and, when the last of these was turned back, there was revealed to Mr. Toke’s astonished gaze a magnificent diamond necklace and a still more magnificent pendant.

For some moments he stood staring at the gorgeous bauble, lost in amazement. Then a slow grin stole over his face. Now he understood how it was that the “tinkerings” of the plumber and gas-fitter had failed to make the clock go. “My darter’s husband” had had other fish to fry. But that estimable artisan seemed to have taken unnecessary risks, for the door had a lock. Apparently it was not in working order, and the key was missing (perhaps in the plumber’s possession). Common prudence would have suggested a repair to the lock. But, possibly, it had been left for fear of attracting attention. Thomas was not, it had seemed, gifted with a peculiarly enquiring mind. Perhaps the plumber had adopted the more prudent course.

But the obvious question arose, What was to be done? Mr. Toke believed that he recognized the necklace. He thought that he recalled a daring daylight robbery at a great London house when the thief had entered a bedroom by way of a stack-pipe while the family were at dinner and got away unseen with a diamond necklace–presumably this very one–said to be worth £20,000. There would therefore be no difficulty in discovering the owner. Indeed, there was no need for him to do anything of the kind. All that was necessary was to report the discovery to the police. And this was what occurred to Mr. Toke as the obvious thing to do.

But was it so very obvious, after all? Mr. Toke looked at the necklace, and somehow the obviousness of that course of action seemed to grow less. In the course of his rather varied life, Mr. Toke had been connected for a year or two with the diamond and gem trade. That tended strongly to influence his point of view. It was not that he was a great judge of gems. He was not; though, of course, he could price a stone approximately. But the vital fact, in regard to the present transaction, was that he knew the ropes. The man who had stolen this jewel had been reduced to the necessity of hiding it until such time as he should find a “fence” who would take the incriminating treasure off his hand and ask no questions. And what would that fence pay him for it? No more than a paltry fraction of its real value. Now he, Mr. Toke, could dispose of it at something like its market price.

He looked at it with a calculating eye. It was a fine necklace. Probably report had not greatly over estimated its value. Every stone in it was a valuable stone. But there was no one of those fine brilliants that was of spectacular value. Not one of them was of a size that would involve questions or possibly lead to identification. He could safely deal with any of them in the ordinary market.

And, after all, why not? He had not stolen the necklace. So far as he was concerned, it was a case of treasure trove, pure and simple. So he told himself, casuistically trying to smother his not very lively scruples. Of course, he knew quite well that he was contemplating a theft. But, although, up to this time, he had been a least conventionally honest, he was, if not actually avaricious, highly acquisitive by nature, as is apt to be the case with collectors. He had the passion to possess; and, even if he had been unable to dispose of these diamonds, he would still have been reluctant to give them up.

The conflict in his mind was not a long one. There were the diamonds–ten thousand pounds’ worth of them, at a moderate estimate–staring him in the face and inviting him to accept the gifts of Fortune. There was absolutely no danger. The transaction was as simple and safe as an ordinary commercial deal. Suppose the plumber should denounce him to the police. It was wildly improbable; but suppose he did? Well, who was going to prove that the diamonds were ever there? The plumber’s unsupported testimony would go for nothing; and apart from him, there was, presumably, no one who had any knowledge of their whereabouts–unless it was “my darter.” But neither of these was in a position to swear that the diamonds were in the clock-case when it was removed from its late owner’s custody. Mr. Toke’s position was impregnable. He simply knew nothing about the matter.

But he was not going to leave it at that. No sooner had he taken the fateful resolution to treat this gorgeous derelict as treasure trove than the inevitable psychological effect began to manifest itself. The contemplation of a criminal act immediately began to generate the criminal mentality. Safe as the enterprise was, he was going to make it safer. The tracks, already confused, must be further confounded. His intention had been to clean the case himself. He was a fairly expert french polisher. Not that he had contemplated french polishing this old case. On the contrary, his intention had been to un-french-polish it. But now he realized the inexpediency of meddling with it at all. It should go, just as it was, for treatment to some third party. Thus would the issues be further confused.

Having made his decision, he acted promptly. The very next day he conveyed the clock to a roomy closed car that he had lately adopted, and bore it up to town. There he deposited the movement at the premises of a reliable “chamber worker” in Clerkenwell for a careful overhaul, and then carried the case to Curtain Road and handed it to a skilful cabinet-maker with the instruction that it was to be cleaned and wax-polished, but left structurally intact, with the exception of any trifling repairs that might be unavoidable. The lock was to be repaired and fitted with a key of the correct pattern according to the date on the panel.

When he had done this, Mr. Toke felt that he had made his position unassailable. He allowed himself to hope that he would be left in undisputed possession of his treasure trove. But his hopes were tempered by a suspicion that he had not heard the last of the worthy Thomas’s too-ingenious son-in-law. And subsequent events justified his suspicions.

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