Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Hooligan Nights, by Clarence Rook, 1899 - Chapter 17 - Strange Dwellings

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Strange Dwellings

     Somewhat doubtfully the servant announced that a young man was waiting in the hall and wished to see me. I bade her show him up to my study. Half-a-minute later young Alf came noiselessly up the stairs, hesitated a moment at the door with a quick glance round the room, and entered. He had prepared himself carefully for his call. The top button of his coat, which had been missing for many weeks, was represented by a substitute. He had shaved. And his neckerchief - the blue one with the white spots - was folded with the utmost neatness. He seated himself before the fire, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, and his cap bunched between his hands. I expressed a hope that he had had no difficulty in finding my house. In reply he hinted that so far from having any difficulty in finding the house, he would have had no difficulty in effecting an entry without the aid of the servant who opened the door.
     This led us naturally to the subject of burglary, and I turned my chair and listened to what my guest had to say.
     Young Alf spoke with scorn of the burglar who boasts of the time he has done. This is no legitimate ground for boasting. It is as though the fighting man should boast of being knocked out, or the bookmaker take pride in his losses. If you are caught you have shown your incompetence. And though young Alf has been pinched once or twice for minor offences, such as passing snide coin, he has never done a stretch for burglary.
     'I come near it more'n once, but I never fell,' he said. 'Once I should have fell, on'y I got up the chimbly. I was workin' a job at a country 'ouse, 'bout fifteen miles out of  Lunnun. I fort it was awright, 'cause the famb'ly was away. But I s'pose I must have made more noise than what I oughter 'ave, an' 'earing a sort of rushing about, I made a dash for the chimbly. It was one of them old chimblys - in the 'all - wiv pigeon-holes for the climbin' boys to put their 'ands an' feet, so I could keep up awright while they was wonderin' what it was they'd 'eard. Raver 'ealfy, wasn't it? On'y they never fort of lookin' up the chimbly.'
     That was the narrowest squeak that young Alf ever had, in his own opinion. But he is particularly anxious that no one should think the less of him for never having done a stretch for burglary. He argues, quite reasonably, that the perfect burglar is never caught, and consequently never does a stretch. It is to his immunity from arrest that he owes his position as leader of his gang.
     I alluded to Charles Peace, who has always appealed to me as the ideal burglar - suave, certain, and secretive. The history of that eminent man, who was well-known in the Walk, is familiar to young Alf. He speaks of Charles Peace with the respect due to the great dead, but is always a little annoyed to hear him cracked up as anything out of the way in the burgling line. The old man, he thinks, would not be much to the front in these days of working jobs in record time. Besides, he was no flyer; and, while young Alf never saw a cop to whom he could not give a good start and a bad beating, there are a good many who could have outspun Peace. But then, as you know, running is one of young Alf's hobbies. To run well and far you must be loose in the girth; and policemen wear belts.
     Anyhow, now that you have heard young Alf's argument, you will not, I trust, think any the worse of him for never having done a stretch for burglary.
     Young Alf attaches great importance to the planning of a job, and neglects no means of making himself acquainted with the interior arrangements of any house he proposes to visit. There are many ways of gaining this information. The commonest is to set out with a few plumber's tools and offer your services in looking over the cistern and pipes. This method, of course, can only be adopted in the winter. Besides, young Alf considers the fake a little overdone. Nevertheless, it has its advantages; for, while you are pretending to tinker with the cistern, you can not only get a good idea of the position of the various rooms and the best means of effecting an entry, but you are morally certain to be able to pick up any stray articles that seem to want taking care of. Some men favour the insurance book as disarming suspicion, now that so many people have taken to the insurance business. It is easy enough to get hold of an insurance book; and even if you have none it doesn't much matter, as it is scarcely likely that anyone will ask to see it. But the insurance book will not gain you admission to the best houses, such as the really smart burglar wishes to have upon his visiting list. Young Alf thinks that the best dodge is to send one of the gang with flowers or ferns for sale. As soon as the door is opened he puts his eye over the bolts and fastenings, the run of the staircase, and gets a general notion of the plan of the house. The chances are that he will not sell any flowers at the front door. So he wanders round to the servants' premises, noting how the grounds lie, and what entrances are available.
     Young Alf does not approve of the rope-ladder which the late Charles Peace used. A better plan is to stand upon the shoulders of your pals. But then it must be remembered that Peace worked without companions. A rope, however, comes m handy when you have to climb high and have a chance to lasso a chimney. You must carry the end up in your teeth in case a copper should notice it hanging down. No burglar-proof window-fastener has yet been invented. For young Alf holds that the best of patents falls before a damond fixed in one leg of a pair of compasses, whereby a circle of any required size may be cut out of the window. If you gently push the surrounding portion you can pick out the circular piece with a pair of tweezers, or even a pin. Then there is nothing to prevent your unfastening the catch. Once an entrance is effected, shut the window behind you. Nothing attracts the suspicion of a policeman like an open window. But note carefully its position, in case you have to make a sudden retreat. A burglar prefers to leave a house unostentatiously by the door. There are, however, occasions on which decent time is not afforded for a quiet and respectable exit, and you are compelled to jump through a window. That requires some doing. Remember to go through sideways, adopting a sparring attitude. You will thus save your face, and also avoid identification. Electric bells under the door-mats and the stairs need not worry you, for you will not step on a mat, but straddle it, and usually only the middle and top steps are wired. It is safer, however, to go up by the banisters. Creaking boards are sometimes an annoyance even to the lightest-footed crib-cracker. Young Alf carries a set of wedges which shut together like a telescope. He carries, too, a small supply of oil for the lubrication of any noisy article of furniture on which he proposes to operate.
     Having thus gained entrance, it will be your own fault if you do not make the best use of your time. Let your visit be as short as possible, resist the temptation of refreshment (you will have taken a nip of brandy before getting to work on the window), and on no account omit to look behind the pictures. Young Alf expresses great surprise at the prevalence of this habit of hiding valuables behind pictures, which are invariably searched by the experienced burglar. He recommends a safe built into the wall. Having three of its sides guarded it cannot be played round; in fact, young Alf holds that a first-class safe of this kind cannot be tackled in any reasonable time, and without more risk than most men care to incur.
     Finally, do not wire the lawn. The wires are of no use unless you have to do a scoot. If you do, you are likely to fall into your own trap, being naturally flustered.
     Burglaries are often committed on the information given away by servants, but young Alf thinks the servant is usually quite unaware of the purpose for which the information is required. The young man who walks out with her, and takes a sympathetic interest in her employers' affairs, rarely takes a hand in the actual work. He is known as a 'black cap' or a 'white sheep', and is usually looked upon as useful in his way, but a bit too soft for the hard grind of the business.
     There was one occasion, however, on which young Alf secured an accomplice from the inside, a young man in the cashier's department of a big business house; and at this he hinted as he leaned forward in his favourite attitude, elbows upon knees, and his cap rolled into a ball between his palms.
     'Time I'm speakin' of, I'd 'ad a bit of luck,' said young Alf. 'There was a job come in me way that brought me a nice little lump of ready, an' I was chuckin' me brass about just like a toff. Looked like a toff, too, I did.'
     Young Alf threw himself back in his chair, and thrust his hands into his pockets. 'Wiv me top 'at, all shiny, an' a bleed'n' big stinker in me mouf. What you fink, eh?'
     I said I should like to hear more about it, and asked what was the nature of the job.
     Young Alf was silent for a moment or two. Then he looked at me from the tail of his eye. 'I'd been robbin' a museum,' he said.
     'Robbing a museum!' I repeated. 'Where? And what of?'
    Young Alf's lower jaw was hard at work; but no answer came. He would not tell me of this exploit. He would only tell me that someone in America - a showman, he thought - wanted a particular object, a specimen of which existed in a museum in England. To young Alf came through various hands a commission to carry off the specimen in question. Young Alf carried out his commission successfully, and had no reason to complain of his reward.
     So it happened, that, being flush of brass, young Alf frequented the bars in the neighbourhood of Oxford Street at the hours when the houses of business closed, and stood drinks, with discrimination, casting his bread, as it were on the waters, in the hope that it would return as buttered toast.
     ' 'Fore long,' said young Alf, 'I'd marked me young man; sawft-'eaded bloke, he was; fort a lot of me. Got quite pals like, we did, meetin' every evenin' be 'pointment at the same ole 'ouse. 'Course for all me ole swank I didn't say nuffink about bein' on the crooked. See? Least not at first. On'y, one night I remawked I was on for a bit of a game, an' wouldn't he come up to the Oxford wiv me? So we goes along to the Oxford togevver, an' gargled a bit, an' then we looked in at one bar an' annuver, garglin' as per before, an' time it was twelve o'clock, me young man was - 'e was jest 'ow I fort e'd be. 'Cause, you unnerstand, I'd settled it all in me mind 'ow I was goin' to work.
     'So I says to him, " 'Ow'd it be if you was to land a nice little lump on yer own? "
     'Well, 'e says 'e could do wiv a bit of ready, on'y 'e didn't see where it was to come from. An' wiv that I rang in me tale, 'ow there was stuff in 'is awfice that 'e could put 'is 'ooks on, an' 'ow I knowed a way to help 'im if he'd stan' in wiv me.
     'That skeered 'im, like, at first, an' he said he didn't want to frow away 'is employment.
     ' "Garn," I says, "there's you at your graft day in an' day out, an' gettin' five-an'-twenty bob a week; an' here's me, livin' like a toff, an' doin' a job 'ere an' a job there, jest as the fancy takes me. See?" More'n that, I told 'im he'd 'ave nuffink to do 'cept 'andin me 'is keys.
     'Well, he didn't fall that night, nor the next night. But he fort a lot of avin' me for a pal, an' what wiv one fing an' annuver he was gettin' short of ready. Long an' short of it was the job was worked awright.'
     'How did you work it?' I said.
     The method was simple. Young Alf strolled into the emporium just before closing time, found an opportunity of secreting himself, obtained all the necessary keys from his friend, and cleared off with something over a hundred pounds as his reward.
     'And what became of your friend?' I inquired.
     'Never see 'im since. I unnerstand he got the push,' replied young Alf.
     'And he did not get his share of the spoil?'
     Young Alf's under jaw denoted impatience at the absurdity of the question.
     'That little bit didn't last me long,' he continued, after a pause, during which I reflected on the unequal distribution of this world's blessings. 'I flew me kite pretty high for the first few days. Rigged meself out like the Duke of Barnet Fair, an' hired a slap up 'awse an' trap, an' drove up to Aldridge's in St Martin's Lane.'
     Young Alf sat up in his chair, stuck out his feet, and made as though he were tickling up a high-stepper with a touch of the whip.
     'Did me good to see the 'angers-on all tryin' to get the job of holdin' me 'awse's 'ead. I bought free animals at Aldridge's, cause I was always fond of 'awses. But I didn't know what to do wiv 'em, an' not long afterwards I sold 'em for next to nuffink, me bein' boozed at the time. So I didn't get much more out of that job than me pal - if that's any consolation to 'im.'
     Young Alf nodded at the fire as one who casts regrets after wasted substance.
     'But Jimmy fort I'd done the job about as neat as it could be done,' he continued more cheerfully, after a pause.
     And then we fell to talking of Jimmy and his present prosperity. As I have told you, he is doing very well as a fence, and when he is finally gathered to his rest will be found a very warm man. The mention of Jimmy reminded me of a question which I had intended to ask young Alf. Jimmy, you may remember, carried a revolver in the days before increasing bulk rendered a more sedentary occupation than burglary advisable, and was quite prepared to empty it into the skull of anyone who stood between him and his swag. I wanted to know if young Alf had ever found it necessary to shoot.
     In ordinary circumstances you might hesitate to ask a guest who is sitting with his feet on your fender if he has committed a murder. But a moment's reflection assured me that the circumstances were not quite ordinary, and that I might put the question, bluntly, without offence.
     My conclusion was right. Young Alf saw nothing offensive, or even unusual, in my question, and answered frankly that whenever he had carried a revolver in the exercise of his profession, he had taken care that it should be unloaded.
     'I'd do me stretch on me napper,' he said, 'but I don't want to do it wiv me neck. See?'
     Young Alf enjoyed his joke amazingly, puffing out his cheeks and digging his hands yet deeper into his trouser pockets.
     He then explained that it was only old hands who carried loaded revolvers and used them when in a tight place. A man such as Jimmy would certainly, if caught, get it  served out to him pretty hot, being an old offender, well known to the police, and acquainted with many prison warders. Jimmy would rather swing than do a stretch of which he was not likely to see the end. But Young Alf's case is different. He has youth on his side, and a clean sheet, so far as convictions for burglary are concerned. It would not pay him - at present - to throw his life into the scale against your money.
     Besides, he has great faith in the efficacy of an unloaded revolver which is not compromised by the discovery of any cartridge whatsoever on the person. He holds that the mere look of the inside of a pistol barrel is enough to bring the average householder to his senses. This theory he enunciated as he crossed one leg over the other and accepted a second cigar. It is based on the assumption that the average householder, even though he sleep with a loaded revolver under his pillow, has not the pluck to pull the trigger on an emergency. This theory he had an opportunity of testing one night when he found himself unexpectedly in the bedroom of a householder who was a bit too sharp for him. Young Alf found himself covered with a revolver.
     'Move, and you're a dead man,' said the householder, who was seated on the edge of his bed.
     Young Alf was compelled to temporize.
     'For Gawd's sake don't murder me, mister,' he pleaded. 'It's my first offence, an' you wouldn't send my soul to 'ell?'
     The householder advanced slowly upon young Alf, giving him an excellent view of the inside of the pistol barrel. Young Alf determined to act on the assumption that the man was afraid to fire at him. He whipped out his own revolver.
     'Now, guv'nor, it's your life or mine,' said young Alf. 'And it shan't be mine.'
     In a moment the householder was down on his knee begging young Alf to spare him for the sake of his little ones.
     Young Alf consented to spare him, kept him covered while backing out of the door, and then scooted for all he was worth.
     My own theory is that the householder's revolver was unloaded, and that he allowed himself to be bluffed. But in this young Alf does not agree with me.
     'That didn't skeer me,' continued young Alf, ' 'cause I was sure in me own mind that the bloke wouldn't let fly at me. Time I was skeered was one night at Glasgow - subbubs of Glasgow, it was. That was one of the curiousest fings ever I come across.'
     I inquired how he came to be in Glasgow, and learned that he and Jimmy were travelling with a circus. Jimmy held that this was a very good way of looking round the country without attracting suspicion. Young Alf was employed in the stables, looking after the horses, an occupation which he found congenial. He quitted his employment rather abruptly, having ascertained that the proprietor of the circus, a man addicted to drinking very freely when the day's work was over, kept the treasury chest by his bedside. Young Alf waited for a night when his employer was more than usually drunk, gained access to his sleeping apartment through a skylight, and left Glasgow by the next train.
     This, however, is by the way.
     'It was when we was at Glasgow,' said young Alf, 'that it happened what I was goin' to tell you about. Jimmy'd kep' 'is eyes skinned for chances, an' one night 'e put me on to a job to work on me own. He'd got a 'ouse waxed in the subbubs, seem' it stood by itself, wiv a lawn all round an' French windys. Reg'lar burglar's frens, French windys, wiv no error. Didn't take me 'arf a mo to get inside; but soon as I was inside I fort I 'eard a step comin' down the stairs. So I got be'ind the curtains an' stood quiet. Course, you unnerstand it was quite dark. Well, the steps come down the stairs, an' the door opened, an' in come a young man in 'is night fings wiv a lamp. I stood quiet as I could, peepin' out tween the curtains, an' I see 'im put the lamp down on the table, an' go up to a box that was stannin' in the corner of the room close to where I was.'
     Young Alf took his hands from his pockets and leaned forward, looking at me obliquely.
     'He opened the box an' put 'is arms inside, an' I see 'im take out - what you fink I see 'im take out?'
     'Gold - spade guineas?' I suggested.
     Young Alf shivered.
     'Bones?' I exclaimed.
     'Heap o' bones,' continued young Alf; 'sure as I'm settin' 'ere. Then 'e put 'em on the table, side o' the lamp, an' began settin' 'em one atop of the uvver, an' fittin' 'em togevver, careful like, an' after a bit there was a real skilliton stannin' up in the room. 'Ealfy, eh? Then the young man began playin' wiv is skilliton, like, pullin' out 'is arms, an' makin' 'im work is legs. That upset me, raver. On'y, course, I dursn't move from where I was. An' then 'e picked up the lamp an' went out again, leavin' me alone wiv the skilliton in the dark. Gawd's trewth, I nipped out quicker'n I come in, wiv no error.'
     'But - did you ever find the explanation?' I asked.
     'I told Jimmy bout it, an' Jimmy said from what 'e'd 'eard there was a lot of young doctors livin' in the house. It was a sort of lodgin'-'ouse, you unnerstand. An' Jimmy fort the young man'd been studyin' too 'ard, an' it'd got on 'is napper. See? Walkin' in his sleep, 'e was; that's what Jimmy finks. D'you fink so?'
     I said the explanation seemed a reasonable one.
     'But it made me feel - made me feel gashly,' said young Alf.
     Even the memory was so gashly that young Alf consented to break through his rule and have a little whisky before he went, and under its influence he told me tales of gallantries that I would gladly set down if by any means they could be printed. As it is, you must take my word for it that young Alf has been loved by many, and has loved not a few.
     It was nearly midnight when we parted. Young Alf glanced round the hall as I was letting him out, and asked if I kept that light burning all night.
     I replied that I thought it was a sort of safeguard against burglars, and asked his opinion.
     Young Alf said that for his part he would not be put off by finding a light in any house he had determined to work. In fact, he was always grateful to a householder who saved him the trouble of striking matches for himself. It is less nervous work when you can see what you are about. And on the whole he advised me to turn the light out.
     We bade one another good-night, and young Alf went noiselessly down the steps.
     'You know your way?' I asked.
     Young Alf did not condescend to reply, but swung down the street, shoulders slightly hunched, his hands at his sides. From the opposite pavement a policeman watched him curiously.
     I turned the light out.