[... back to menu for this book]
VERY HARD UPON MY AUNT
AT five o'clock on the evening of the 31st of December, 1849, Mr. Twinch, of Grosvenor Street, rushed into his dining-room with a packet in his hand, sat down at a little Davenport writing-table in the window, and scribbled off the following letter:
"MY DEAR MADAM, - I am delighted to say that I have been
able to keep my word, and herewith send you what you require. With best
compliments, I am,
This note he folded round the packet, placed both in a stout
envelope, which he addressed "Miss L. Pemberton, The Grove, Heavitree, near
Exeter;" carried the packet to a neighbouring receiving-office, caused it
to be duly registered, and with the receipt in his pocket returned home.
Miss Letitia Pemberton was my father's youngest sister, a maiden lady of middle age, kind, amiable, and accomplished, whom everybody liked for her good temper, and whom many of us younger ones regarded with deep interest on account of what we were pleased to term "her romance." For when Aunt Letitia was a girl she was very pretty, and was a county beauty, and a reigning toast for miles round she had scores of admirers, but behaved very scornfully to all of them, and she had acquired a reputation of being [-327-] thoroughly heartless, when she chose to tumble head-over-ears in love with a Mr. Butterworth, a fair-haired, mild, spooney young man, who had come up from Oxford to read with my father during the long vacation. Of course Mr. Butterworth responded, and the affair was progressing to the great satisfaction of the lovers, and the intense delight of my father, who thereby was relieved from much of Mr. Butterworth's society and all his tuition. But when my grandfather, who was what is called "one of the old school," a remarkably peppery veteran, discovered what was going on, he showed Mr. Butterworth the door, and was with great difficulty restrained from kicking him through it. Aunt Letitia wept and sulked by turns, but it was of no use; and soon afterwards my father heard that Butterworth had left Oxford, and gone out as a private secretary and companion to an old gentleman who held some high official appointment in South America. Miss Letitia redoubled her lamentations; but that was the last that was heard of Mr. Butterworth.
Until years after, when my grandfather had been long since dead, my father long since married, myself and my sister long since born, and my Aunt Letitia long since resident with us at The Grove, my father, in London on some business, accidentally ran against a portly gentleman in the Strand, who, turning round with hurt dignity, revealed the features of the mild Mr. Butterworth of bygone years. He told my father that his patron had died, leaving him his fortune; that he had married in South America, but that his wife had died, within a twelvemonth of their union, and that he had come home to settle in England. He asked my father for all his news, and wound up by saying: "And-Miss Letitia-is-she-still-?" And my father said she was-still - but that Butterworth had better see for himself. This proposition seemed to suit Mr. Butterworth entirely. He should be in Devonshire about the end of the year; he had business at Exeter. Finally [-328-] it was decided that he should dine on New Year's Day at The Grove, and pass the night there.
When my father came home with the news, my Aunt Letitia was tremendously affected. We noticed next morning that a kind of dust-trap of black lace, skewered on to a comb which she was in the habit of wearing at the back of her head, had been got rid of, and that she had a mass of plaits in its place; we noticed that the usual nightshirt hemming for the charity children had been put aside, and that a large portion of her day was spent in devouring the poetical works of the late Lord Byron, in a Galignani edition brought from Paris by my father many years before. We noticed - we could not help noticing - how pretty she looked with her bright complexion, her white teeth, her neat little figure, and as the days passed by she seemed to grow more and more animated. One day, however - I remember it perfectly, it was the 16th of December, and we had boiled beef for dinner - my aunt was taken dreadfully ill; it was at the dinner-table, when, without the slightest warning, she suddenly gave a sharp scream, placed her handkerchief to her mouth, and rushed from the room. My mother followed, and so did my sister, but the latter had my aunt's bedroom-door slammed in her face. When my mother rejoined us, she had a little private conversation with my father, and we were then told that Aunt Letitia was very ill, and would probably have to keep her room for many days. All sorts of invalid's delicacies, broth, soups, calf's-foot jelly, and sago puddings, were sent up to her; but she did not reappear amongst us, and it seemed very doubtful whether she would be able to do so by the time of Mr. Butterworth's visit.
I must now change the venue, as the lawyers call it, of my story. At midnight, on the night when Mr. Twinch posted his letter, the down night-mail running between Paddington and Plymouth was within ten miles of the station at Exeter. In the travelling post-office two clerks, [-329-] with their warm caps drawn far down over their ears, were sorting letters for dear life, one or other of them turning round now and then and objurgating old Barnett, the mail-guard, who occasionally opened the window and pushed his head out to inform himself of the train's whereabout, bringing it back always with a puff, and a snort, and an exclamation that the frost was a "reg'lar black 'un to-night, and no mistake." Close upon Exeter now, all old Barnett's sacks for delivery are ready on the floor close by the door, handy for the porters to seize, old Barnett himself sitting on the pile, clapping his hands, stamping his feet, and whistling to himself softly the while. With a protracted grind, a bump, and a shriek, the train ran alongside the Exeter platform, and old Barnett pushed back the sliding- door of the travelling-office and handed the sacks to the expectant porter. But ere the man touched them, he said, while his face was ghastly white and his voice trembled: "Lord, Mr. Barnett! such a smash to-night!"
"Smash!" said old Barnett; "what, an accident?"
"Pooh!" said the porter, "not that, that would be nothing - no - they've robbed the up-mail!"
"Robbed the up-mail!"
"Ah, tender broke open, bags all cut and hacked, and letters all strewn about the floor. You never see such like!"
"The deuce they have!" said Barnett, after a moment's pause; "well, Simon, my boy, I'll take devilish good care they don't rob my mail. Here, clear these bags out, and let's pass." He jumped down on to the platform, ran to the next carriage, which was the "post-office tender," a second-class carriage fitted up for the reception of mailbags, unlocked the door with a key, saw all secure, relocked the door, and returned to the travelling post-office just as the train began to move.
Old Tom Barnett had been in the Post-office service in one capacity or other for nearly forty years, during the whole of which time no word of complaint had ever been [-330-] uttered against him, and, a strict disciplinarian himself, he naturally felt that there must have been some dereliction of duty on the part of his brother-guard of the up-mail, of which the robbers had taken advantage. Consequently, as the train flew through the black darkness at forty-mile-an- hour speed, Barnett, at five-minute intervals, lowered the window of the travelling-office and peered out in the direction of his "tender." He could not distinguish much; all he could make out (and this principally from the shadows thrown on the embankments) was that the train was, as usual, a short one: that immediately after the engine came two second-class carriages, then the travelling-office in which he was, then his tender, then a first-class carriage, and then finally a luggage-van. Nothing particular was to be seen, nothing at all (save the invariable ramping, roaring, and rattle) was to be heard; on they sped through the darkness, and never stopped until they came to Bridgewater, where old Barnett descended, took his key from his pocket, unlocked the tender, and-fell back, calling, at the top of his voice: "Help - thieves! - damme, they've done me!" At his cry, two of the train-guards came running up, and turned their bull's-eye lanterns on to the tender, into which Barnett at once climbed. The mail-bags, ordinarily so neatly arranged, lay scattered in pell-mell disorder on the floor, the Plymouth bag had been shifted from the hook on which it had been hung, and, on examining it, Barnett found it had been opened, and retied but not resealed; short bits of string, splotches of sealing-wax, and drifting pieces of tindered paper covered the floor of the tender, and the window on the farther side-which had been carefully closed when they left Bristol-was open. "They've done me!" roared old Barnett again; "but they shan't escape they're somewhere in this train, and I'll have them out!"
At this juncture two gentlemen, one of whom was recognised as Mr. Marlow, one of the directors of the company, the other as Mr. Joyce, the great contractor, to whom the [-331-] safe keeping of a great portion of the permanent way was confided, came up and inquired what was the matter. On the affair being explained to them, they agreed with Barnett as to the necessity for closely searching the train, and all proceeded at once to the first-class carriage which was immediately next to the post-office tender. This, as is usual, was divided into three double compartments. The first was that from which Messrs. Marlow and Joyce had just emerged, and was, of course, empty; so was the second; in the nearest division of the third compartment was an old gentleman named Parker, well known on the line as a solicitor of Modbury, whose business frequently took him to London. The door between the divisions in this carriage was closed and the blind drawn down. On being recognised, Mr. Parker at once answered to his name, and stated that the farther division was occupied by two men who had entered the carriage at Bristol, and had at once closed the door and drawn down the blind. Had he noticed anything. further about them? No, he had not. Yes! as they got in he noticed something dragging after them; unperceived by them, he put down his hand and found it to be a piece of string. He cut off what remained on his side when they shut the door, and here it was. Barnett looked at it, and exclaimed: "Bag-string official bag-string without a doubt!" One of the railway-guards, then opened the door and looked into the other division. In it were two men; one of them, with a Jim Crow hat pulled over his eyes and enveloped in a large thick cloak, was lying with his legs upon the opposite seat, and was apparently suffering from toothache, as he held his pocket-handkerchief up to his face; the other, a tall man in a dark Chesterfield greatcoat, was screwed into his corner of the carriage and appeared to be asleep. "Tickets, please!" called out old Barnett; and as the reclining man raised himself to get at his ticket, the handkerchief fell from his face, and the railway-guard, recognising him at once, called [-332-] out: "HalIo, Pond! is that you? What are you doing down the line?" Instead of answering this question, Pond told the guard to go to the devil; but Mr. Marlow had heard the exclamation, and asked the guard whether the man in the carriage was Pond, formerly a guard in their service, who had been dismissed some six months before on suspicion of robbery. The guard replying in the affirmative, old Barnett's previous suspicions were fully confirmed, and he insisted on having both the men (who, of course, declared they were strangers to each other) thoroughly searched. Nothing at all extraordinary was found on either of them, but from the pocket of the carriage in which they had been travelling were taken a crape mask, a pair of false mustachios, a bit of wax-candle, and some sealing-waxed string. As the time for the starting of the train had now arrived, old Barnett and Mr. Parker travelled in one compartment with Pond, while the two railway-guards took charge of his anonymous friend, and thus they journeyed to Plymouth, where, on their arrival at the station, the prisoners were at once taken into one of the waiting-rooms under Barnett's custody, while the others proceeded to search the carriages for further traces of the robbery. That was an anxious time for old Tom Barnett; he felt convinced that these were the culprits; but if they had made away with their spoil, if something were not found the identification of which could be ratified beyond doubt, he knew that the prosecution would fail. At last the men entered bearing a bundle. "Here it is; all right!" said one of them.
"What is it? asked Barnett.
"A lot o' registered letters, most of 'em broke open, tied up in pocket-'ankerchief and shoved under the seat where Pond was sittin'."
"Brayvo!" cried old Barnett, "brayvo! But have you got anything that can be identified, anything that can be swore to?"
[-333-] "Well, I don't know !" said the guard, grinning. "I don't think there'll be much difficulty in the owner's swearin' to this!" and he held up the torn cover of the packet which Mr. Twinch had posted. Old Barnett glanced at its contents, then clapped his hands and burst into a roar of laughter.
The fact that the postman who called at The Grove as usual on the 1st of January brought no letter for my Aunt Letitia, created immense consternation in our family circle. My mother seemed much vexed; and even my father, usually a taciturn man, allowed that it was "confoundedly unfortunate." As for my aunt, we never heard what happened, but it was generally understood that she had a relapse. The day passed on, and Mr. Butterworth arrived; he manifested great concern at hearing of my aunt's illness, and plainly showed that he had missed the real object of his visit. He was dull and silent; and when my mother left the gentlemen sitting over their wine, scarcely a word was exchanged between them, and my father was just nodding off to sleep when he was aroused by a loud ring at the gate, followed by the entrance of the servant, who stated that a rough-looking man wanted to speak to Miss Letitia, and would take no denial. My father immediately went out into the hall, closely followed by Mr. Butterworth, and there they found a tall fellow, who introduced himself as a member of the county constabulary, and who reiterated his wish to speak with (apparently reading from something in his hand) "Miss L. Pemberton."
"You can't see her," said my father : "she's ill, and in her room. I'm her brother; what do you want?"
"Well, sir," said the man ponderously, "there have bin a robbery, and we want the lady to swear to some of the swag."
"Some of the swag?" said Mr. Butterworth.
"Some of the swag!" repeated my father. "What does the man mean!"
"Why the man means just this," said the constable, [-334-] "the mail's been robbed, and 'mongst the things broke open was this addressed to Miss L. Pemberton. There won't be no difficulty about her recognisin' it, I fancy." And as the wretch spoke he drew from a packet a top row of dazzling false teeth.
Yes, that was the secret of Aunt Letitia's illness. A year or two before, when nature failed her, she called in the assistance of art, and availed herself of the services of Mr. Twinch; but an accident occurring on the fatal boiled-beef day, the teeth were sent back to their creator, who had the strictest injunctions to return them, renovated, by the 1st of January. Mr. Twinch obeyed these orders implicitly; and, had not Mr. Pond and his friend selected that very night for the robbery of the mail, all would have been well. As it was, the teeth were detained by the lawyers for the prosecution until after the trial, at which they were produced, and at which my aunt also was compelled to appear, though strongly against her will. But, when once on her mettle, she behaved with great spirit, and gave her evidence with such clearness (albeit with a pretty lisp), that she was complimented by the judge, and was the main cause of Mr. Pond and his friend being found guilty, and sentenced to fifteen years' transportation.
It has never been known to this day whether Mr. Butterworth was in court. At all events, three days after he called at The Grove, and then found that he had business which would oblige him to take lodgings in the neighbourhood for a month. At the end of that time I was measured for a new suit of clothes, and wore them one morning when they seemed to have dinner-champagne, cold fowls and things-at twelve o'clock; when Mr. Butterworth had on a blue coat, and when Aunt Letitia laughed a good deal, and cried all over my new jacket, as she bade us good-bye, and told us she was then Mrs. Butterworth.