CHAPTER X.

A RATHER SHADY CHARACTER.

The lower middle classes are a never-failing stalking-horse; we can allafford to laugh at them as ridiculous, vulgar, improvident and wicked.Even the mock hero, the good young man who tries to raise himself, hassomething comic in him. But we haven't seen anything of the lower ordersin this history as yet, and it is only incidentally that we quit King'sWarren for the grimy neighbourhood of St. Luke's. Just behind the greathospital for lunatics is Matilda Street. They are all private houses inMatilda Street, and from the number of brass plates it seems at first aprofessional sort of neighbourhood. Most of the houses are evidentlyoccupied by at least three families, for the right-hand doorpost nearlyalways contains three bells, one for each floor. But the brass platesare not those of lawyers and doctors; many of them indicate the placesof business of working jewellers and watchmakers, and the latterpredominate; dial painters, engine turners, escapement makers, swivelmanufacturers and so on, _ad infinitum_. Then there are pianofortetuners, and dealers of many sorts. Those of the plates which have only asurname upon them, indicate that the place is a lodging house. Though weare in the black heart of London, in one of the darkest, poorest andmost melancholy quarters, there is a great deal of window gardeninggoing on; plants of every kind and sort may be seen on the windowledges, from ground floor to attic; the humble Creeping Jenny is a greatfavourite, and it seems to thrive wonderfully in the damp thickatmosphere. Some of the ground floor windows are discreetly screened bywonderful specimens of lank spindly geraniums--hapless plants whichhave never been known to bloom, but whose sickly-looking leaves ofabnormal pallor struggle towards the light, what little there is of it.Matilda Street, being in the heart of St. Luke's, naturally containsmany fanciers. Numerous bow-windowed, brass-bound cages, each with itslittle bit of turf, are hung outside the windows in all directions, andthe imprisoned skylarks they contain warble away merrily, giving quite arural air to Matilda Street, E.C. Seedy-looking men and boys, carryingtiny square cages carefully tied up in handkerchiefs, are continuallypopping in and out; these are the chaffinch fanciers, and each cagecontains a sightless songster, who at his master's command is preparedto pour forth his simple rural melody at any hour of the day or night ina long unbroken series of cheeps and chirrups. In Matilda Street lives atrainer of piping bullfinches, a man who has passed his whole lifeturning a melodeon and teaching his pupils the tune of ”Rule,Britannia.” Dog-breeding and dog-dealing are favourite occupations inMatilda Street; mysterious men emerge at dusk, leading dogs and carryingthem in their arms, their pockets, or their bosoms, to exhibit them atnumerous local shows held in neighbouring pot-houses. The little backyards--they call them gardens in Matilda Street--are filled with shedsand wondrous home-made constructions, in which fancy poultry and rabbitsare kept. Even the roofs of the houses bristle with pigeon-lofts andartful-looking structures for the capture of wandering birds. Should astray pigeon alight on one of these contrivances, attracted by the hempseed which is profusely scattered thereon, or by the presence of a decoysecurely fastened by the leg, a sudden click may be heard, and the birdfinds himself in an instant imprisoned in an artful arrangement of wirewalls, which has closed on him with the rapidity of a conjuring trick.Matilda Street is a decidedly poor neighbourhood; but, strange to say,it is a favourite ”pitch” for the bogus starving British workman and hisinteresting family, when he is upon what he terms the ”kinchin lay.” Theman generally goes barefoot, his face is half covered by a stubbly cropof bristles, which pathetically indicate that he cannot even afford thecheap luxury of the British workman--a ha'penny shave. He doesn't lethis beard grow--that would look far too comfortable; artful gashes inhis trousers exhibit his knees, which appeal in a startling manner tothe feelings of the benevolent; either elbow is clasped to show how hesuffers from the inclemency of the weather; by his side walks hispattern wife, who always wears a large white apron; she invariablycarries an infant of tender years; at either side of the pair march therest of the family. They keep to the centre of the road; the womanwatches the windows of one side of the street, the man those of theother; and from morning till night they howl a single verse of some hymnwith monotonous obstinacy, varying it with a plaintive lament that”They've got no work to do.” They are quite right in choosing placeslike Matilda Street, for there is little or no traffic to interrupt theeffect of the procession; besides, in such a place as this no policemanwould interrupt them; and, strange to say, it is in shy and poorneighbourhoods that the ”kinchin lay” reaps its richest harvest.

Matilda Street is essentially a shy neighbourhood--perhaps that is whythe tenant of number 13 has chosen it as his residence. On thedoor-plate of number 13 is the simple inscription, ”Parsons, agent.”It's rather a puzzle to make out what Mr. Parsons is agent for; noclients ever come to see him, and he seems to pass the greater part ofhis day in smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. But Mr. Parsons hashis profession--he was born in it, so to speak, and his father was aprofessor before him; but his father failed, and his father'sunfortunate failure has been a lesson to him. The real fact is that Mr.Parson's father was a burglar of the fine old school. His was a life ofvicissitude; and though an ambitious and fairly successful man, the law,against which he had waged war for many years, got the better of him atlast; and after having passed nearly forty years of his life in HerMajesty's jails, death at length prevented his obtaining theticket-of-leave he had almost earned, and his consequent return tobusiness.

It is all very well for the majority of us to wonder why Mr. Parsonsdidn't attempt to earn an honest livelihood, but we must remember thathe had been brought up to a profession of which most people disapprovefrom his earliest infancy. As quite a little fellow he had accompaniedhis father on many a successful nocturnal expedition; it had been hisduty to keep watch for the guardians of public order, and to signaltheir approach. He had been taught to rapidly dispose of preciousplunder in a neat little crucible, plunged in a fierce fire of coke; ashe got bigger, he it was who sat ready at the corner of the street in atax-cart, prepared to rapidly drive off with the ”swag” when of a bulkynature.

But though Mr. Parsons, Senior, had been a clever professor of thepredatory art, though his triumphs had been numerous and his operationsexceedingly brilliant and extensive, he could not be called a success.To pass forty years of one's life in jail, to be perpetually blackmailedby one's accomplices, to obtain only a small proportion of one'slegitimate earnings from those rascals the ”fences” or dealers in stolenproperty, and at last after all to die in prison, is not a brilliantprospect. Now Mr. Parsons the son was a philosopher. On his father'sdeath he found himself the possessor of a complete and almost perfectset of what may be termed his father's trade utensils. There was also alittle secret hoard of valuable gems. Mr. Parsons put his burglariousimplements in a place of safety; he lived abroad upon the proceeds ofhis little fortune for some years; and when he came back to England hisown mother, if she had been alive, would not have known him. Then hesettled down at number 13, Matilda Street, and commenced the practice ofhis profession upon principles of his own: not as a mere mercenaryoccupation, but as a fine art. Mr. Parsons kept well away from hisfather's old haunts and from the perfidious acquaintances who haddegraded him and been the cause of his ultimate ruin. Mr. Parsons had nolow tastes; he disliked drink and bad company; he had but one ambition,and that was to obtain a comfortable competence from the skilfulexercise of his profession. He wisely concluded that it is notsufficient to commit a successful burglary, if you are afterwards foundout. He was a careful student of the police reports and the trials atthe Central Criminal Court, and the more he studied those interestingrecords, the more he became convinced of the wickedness of human nature,the inefficiency of the police, and the tendency of accomplices to”split.” Mr. Parsons, then, being a thoroughly practical man was also atheorist; he made several determinations, which he strictly kept to. Inthe first place, he came to the conclusion that a suspect is alwayswatched, and that accomplices, however useful, are extremely dangerous.So he determined to carry on his profession upon strictly businessprinciples. Wise man that he was, he appreciated the fable of the hareand the tortoise. It was better, he thought, to earn a safe andcomfortable living; and he determined, should he ever be so fortunateas to make a great _coup_, to immediately retire from business. Hetrusted to his own clear head, his own clever fingers, and himself. Sohe habitually worked alone. He passed his afternoons in ”looking round.”His operations were very carefully planned, and generally successfullycarried out.

It will be seen from all this that Mr. Parsons was no common criminal,but he was a dangerous man for all that; for on his nocturnalexpeditions he was in the habit of carrying an ugly sheath knife, not asa weapon of offence, be it remembered, but purely as a last resource forthe protection of his own personal liberty.

It was a fine summer afternoon, and Mr. Parsons was lounging through oneof the better streets of St. John's Wood; that neighbourhood,sarcastically designated ”the shady grove of the Evangelist,” hadpeculiar attractions for Mr. Parsons; it is wealthy, the large housesstand mostly in their own grounds, and the big well-kept gardens offerfavourable hiding-places to the midnight thief. Mr. Parsons loungedalong, peacefully smoking a briar-root pipe; the houses where the paintwas shabby or the gardens were ill-kept did not attract his attention;these signs were quite sufficient for him, and in his mind he put theirowners down as ”electro.” Other houses which were guarded by dogs alsofailed to interest him, but Mr. Parsons took more than a passing glanceat Azalea Lodge.

Azalea Lodge stood back some twenty feet from the road way; the entireoutside of the house was painted or grained; there was a great deal ofgilding on the railings, a large gas lamp of the latest construction wasfixed over each of the polished oak gates that formed the entrances tothe little carriage-drive; the carriage-drive itself was asphalted, andclean as a new pin; the shrubs in the small front garden wereexpensive ones, and well pruned and trimmed; beyond the porchprojected a rather elaborate glass structure set in ornamental ironwork, and the centre of the well-whitened stone steps was covered withstriped horsehair matting. Flowering shrubs in pots were ranged up thesesteps, while the sides of the porch proper were crammed with them.Elaborate floral decorations were on every window-ledge; not mere plantsin pots, but great blocks of colour artfully arranged: scarlet geraniumsand calceolarias with glossy-leaved fuchsias of many hues blazed inframes of blue lobelia, while dwarf ivies, nasturtiums and the prettyvariegated periwinkle hung down in thick festoons, hiding the windowsills. The beds in the front garden were made to show up in startlingcontrast to the closely-shaven turf by means of cocoanut fibre, intowhich potted flowering plants were plunged in reckless profusion. In onewindow of the drawing-room was a quasi-oriental _jardiniere_ in whichstood a large orchid covered with delicate blooms of mauve and yellow;in the next appeared the top of a parrot's cage of plated metal, onwhich sat a tame white cockatoo, who seemed to enjoy the splendour bywhich he was surrounded. The very linings of the curtains were of richcorded silk, and a half open window showed in the dim vista a distantvision of the heavy frames of numerous oil paintings. From top to bottomthe bedroom windows were discreetly screened by lace curtains tied upwith coloured ribbon.

All these pretty things have taken somewhat long to describe, but theeagle eye of Mr. Parsons took them all in at a glance. A fishmonger'scart stopped at the side door, and Mr. Parsons noticed with satisfactionthat a fine piece of salmon and a lobster were taken into the house bythe purveyor's assistant. Mr. Parsons continued his walk as far as thenext house, which proved to be an empty one and in the hands of thepainters; their ladders and paint pots stood about in every direction,but the workmen themselves had evidently gone to dinner. Mr. Parsonsshook out the contents of his pipe, pocketed it, and walking up to thehall door, which stood invitingly open, confidently entered the emptyhouse; he walked into the drawing-room and on to the open Italianbalcony beyond it, which commanded a view of the grounds of AzaleaLodge, and then Mr. Parsons stood wrapped in meditation. Something thathe saw at a heavily-barred window on the ground floor of Azalea Lodgeevidently gave him food for reflection. On a table covered with greenbaize lay a quantity of elaborate specimens of the silversmith's art,racing cups and trophies, vases and statuettes of burnished silver werethere in profusion, and a heap of leathers and brushes showed that theywere undergoing the process of cleaning. The eyes of Mr. Parsonssparkled with satisfaction; he looked round to see if he was observed.There wasn't a soul in sight. And then Mr. Parsons did a very curiousthing; he gave a low growl, then a little yelp, and then an aggressivebark like an irritated dog. Then he began to bark again in a louder andstill more defiant manner. But there was no answer to the strangechallenge. Mr. Parsons gave a satisfied smile, walked quietly out of theempty house, re-lighted his pipe and resumed his walk.

It's hardly likely that Mr. Parsons thought of renting the empty housenext door to Azalea Lodge, but he walked past at least four times thatafternoon. He went home to Matilda Street on the top of an omnibus, andthen, like a respectable man as he was, he sat down to a goodsubstantial tea.

Before commencing a campaign a great general sits down to think it out.This is exactly what Mr. Parsons did. The tenant of number 13, MatildaStreet had declared war against Azalea Lodge. From what he had seen, Mr.Parsons had no doubt whatever in his own mind that, should his campaignprove successful, he would secure the competence he had yearned for, forso many years and be able to retire from business altogether.

That night Mr. Parsons visited a public house, paid for a glass of ale,and consulted the directory. He found that Azalea Lodge was occupied byLord Hetton; the name seemed familiar to him; he turned to the landlord,who was a well-known sporting character, and sought for information.

”Lord Hetton's a political chap, ain't he, Mr. Mason?” said he,addressing the great man with much humility.

”Not as ever I heard of; why his lordship's a racing man. Every oneknows Lord Hetton--him as owned Dark Despair, and lost the Derby once bya short head.”

”Oh, that's him, is it?” replied Mr. Parsons, ”and what's his addresswhen he's at home?”

”How should I know his address?” said the landlord. ”If you wants tocall on him, you might try the Jockey Club, or I shouldn't be surprisedif you was to find him at Tattersall's of a Sunday afternoon; that sortmostly shows up there. What might you want with him?”

”Oh, it's no great matter,” replied Mr. Parsons; ”it's only a little bitof business about a dog,” and then he changed the conversation.

”Racing plate,” he thought, ”there is never any mistake about that;that's the real genuine article, thank goodness.” And then Mr. Parsons,who was of a sentimental turn of mind and a humble patron of the drama,sauntered off to the Britannia Theatre, at Hoxton, and derived no smalldegree of mental comfort in four hours of the sorrows of ”Ada, theBetrayed.”

It has been said that Lord Hetton was an economical man; every farthingthat he could scrape together invariably went to settle his accountswith his trainer. He had begun life as a pigeon, to all appearances hewould end it as a hawk. Dark rumours of shady things which had been donein his name rendered men shy of backing his horses. Scandal had saidthat the boy who rode Dark Despair, when that animal was beaten on thepost, had pulled the great raking chestnut by his lordship's orders. Butthough Lord Hetton had done many shabby things in his time, it was by nofault of his that Dark Despair failed to win the blue ribbon of theturf. It is quite possible that the boy who rode the animal had made amess of the race at the critical moment, or he may even have been ”gotat,” but that was not Lord Hetton's opinion or that of his astutetrainer; and the same stunted youth still always rode in his lordship'scolours in any big event in which Lord Hetton's animals might beengaged. Owner and trainer had neither of them been to blame in thematter; his lordship had honestly backed Dark Despair, and had hadconsiderable difficulty in meeting his engagements at the time. Therehad even been an execution in Azalea Lodge. Azalea Lodge was the oneluxury that his lordship permitted himself; he looked upon it as hishome, and the titular mistress of Azalea Lodge had been the originalcause of all his differences with his father. Hetton was quite a boywhen he first fell into the toils of the syren; he was not quite foolenough to marry her, his fear of the old lord prevented that; for hersake Lord Hetton declined to marry; for her sake he was shut out fromsociety; and he was a man to be pitied after all, for he hadn't a friendin the world, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he succeededin satisfying her numerous extravagant demands for money. The lady was_passee_, vulgar, and her temper was almost diabolical; but she stillretained her hold upon Lord Hetton's affections. She had succeeded inriveting the fetters which bound Lord Hetton to her in a rather originalmanner--by an act of generosity for which none of her acquaintanceswould have given her credit, least of all his lordship. When he made hisgreat _fiasco_ with Dark Despair, and the execution was already inAzalea Lodge, by an impulse of generosity the lady had driven over toMessrs. Israels, and had pledged with them her entire collection ofvaluable jewelry. She had handed the cheque to Lord Hetton, and he didsettle at Tattersall's on the fatal Monday following the race. LordHetton was agreeably astonished; he found, much to his surprise, that hehad one real friend in the world. Is it then to be wondered at that fromthat day Lord Hetton clung to his only friend, and that he looked uponAzalea Lodge as his home? Things went better with Lord Hetton, and hesettled Azalea Lodge and its valuable contents upon the object of hisgratitude.

When anything remained to him after paying his trainer whenever he madea _coup_, or landed a good stake, he invariably made a thank-offering atthe shrine in St. John's Wood. It was all very wrong, and very wicked,no doubt, but after all it was perhaps very natural.

It was nine o'clock one Sunday night, and Mr. Parsons was very busyindeed--he was preparing for the war-path. On his table were arranged anumber of polished steel implements, which looked like surgicalinstruments; they were burglar's tools. Half-a-dozen handy bits ofcandle and a box of silent matches were quickly placed in his pocket; apiece of strong Manilla cord some four yards long, with a sharpthree-pronged hook at the end of it, was wrapped around his waist,beneath his virtuous waistcoat; his plain tweed coat carried numerouscanvas bags lined with washleather in its back. It was a wonderful coatwith innumerable pockets in the inside; in each of these mysteriousreceptacles he placed one or other of the implements of his trade; ashort crow-bar in three pieces, which could be screwed together, formedthe last of these, while a big bunch of skeleton keys, a phial full ofoil and another of acid were slipped into his waistcoat pockets. Hepopped a pair of loose felt slippers into his hat, calmly lighted hispipe and proceeded to Old Street. He then called a hansom cab and toldthe driver to take him to the Swiss Cottage.