Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Expecting Burglars

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My friend Croker removes to a suburban villa - His despising and contempt for the whole burglar tribe - Croker's courage cools - "I've bought a dog" - I am a visitor at the new house on the first night - Croker further damped by the policeman on duty - The maid-of-all-work has burglar on the brain - The ruffian with the red comforter and a black wideawake who haunts our evening - We retire to rest - Outrageous behaviour of Mary Ann - That horrible dog - Midnight alarms - The ruffian over the wall - Sacrifice of Brigand, and the "ruffian" is reconciled.

IT may be remembered that what one has grown accustomed to hear spoken of as the "burglars' season" began last year somewhat earlier than usual. Indeed, scarcely were the shortening evenings of September eclipsed by the still briefer ones of October ere more than one startling performance by members of the Cracksman family gave promise of what since has been but too faithfully fulfilled.
    It was in September when my friend Croker accepted the tenancy of a house at Dulwich. He did not take immediate possession - indeed, the then occupier was entitled to remain until Christmas; but Croker, who was given to suburban rambling, had long had his eye on the residence in question, and was only too happy to secure it, despite the inconvenience of having to enter on occupation in the dark and dreary wintertime. But it was as yet but mid-autumn when he signed the agreement, and the pretty country all round about in its lusty prime. Croker made light of his new residence being rather more than a mile from the town and the shops; indeed, of the two he would have preferred to be somewhat farther afield. What he required was quiet and tranquillity - to be able, when his day's business was done, to flee from the busy haunts of men and to feel for awhile that he was hand-in-hand with nature. He yearned, he said, for the inestimable privilege of closing his weary eyes, safe and secure in his peaceful abode, and when he awoke with the balmy morn, open his chamber windows and breathe the fragrance of the budding day. He grew so rhapsodical on the subject (we had just left the Dulwich house agent, with whom he had concluded the house-letting business) that I [-124-] felt mischievously disposed to draw his attention to the seamy side of the captivating picture.
    "It may be all very well," I remarked, "to talk about closing your eyes in peace and security; but people who reside in suburban wilds are sometimes troubled with unexpected and unwelcome visitors - midnight burglars, for example." Croker stands five feet ten in his socks, and is a man of muscular proportions. He laughed aloud and scornfully. "I should like them to try it," he exclaimed, as he neatly decapitated a wayside thistle with a whisk of his walking-stick.
    "They wouldn't care to repeat the visit if they once gave me an opportunity to entertain them. Pooh! Burglars, indeed! All that a man has to do in the event of his having to deal with such ruffians, is to show them the sort of stuff he is made of, and it is any odds against their staying to argue the matter with him."
    I charitably refrained from reminding him of his vaunting when next we met, and the subject of our conversation was his Dulwich residence. He came to inform me that the process of furniture removal was at length completed, and that he intended to proceed to Dulwich that afternoon with his wife and two children, and take up his quarters there for good. The maidservant had been sent on in advance two or three days previously to receive the goods and take care of the house.
    "But, confound her!" said Croker, "I wish we had sent her away altogether, and engaged in her stead a sensible woman. She has got burglar on the brain, I believe. She has been frightening Mrs. C. out of her wits almost with her stories of not having been able to close her eyes for two nights in succession, in consequence of the strange noises she has heard, and you know how nervous my wife is. She has been bothering me to buy a dog; I've just come from Leadenhall Market, where I've made a canine purchase. He's a teaser, by jingo I wouldn't care to be the burglar that came within his reach. They have sent him on. I should like to have your opinion of him when you've time to run over. It is no use asking such a favour of you to-day, of course?"
    I saw at once, although he appeared to speak lightly of my running over, that for some reason or other he was really anxious that I should do so that very day. It was evident that the maid-servant's report, much as he would no doubt have ridiculed [-125-] the insinuation, had affected her master as well as her mistress, and that Croker himself did not feel altogether comfortable, after all he had heard, on the prospect of a first night in his new house. Unless the weather changed for the better, it looked like being a by no means nice night. I was not particularly busy, however, so I gladdened Croker's heart by promising to meet him at the railway station that same afternoon.
    It was waning towards dusk when we arrived at Dulwich, and, as it was still raining and blowing gustily, we hired a vehicle at the station and drove to his new abode. Its situation was, no doubt, all that could be desired in the summer-time; but in early January, when the sky was leaden and the grass was dank, and the trees all black and bare, the general effect, especially on a man familiar with the comforts of town life, was not calculated to have an exhilarating influence on his spirits. We passed through the very lane where, typifying his contempt for the whole burglar tribe, Croker beheaded the thistle. We trod on a carpet of dust then, but now the cab wheels laboured through a six-inch depth of clayey mire, and the way was dark.
    "They don't light the gas-lamps too early in these parts, my friend," Croker observed to the cabman.
    "They ain't thought of laying down the gas-pipes yet awhile," returned the driver, sulkily; "there's some talk of 'em doing it next year or the year after, I believe."
    "I could have declared," said Croker to me, "that I saw lamp-posts all along the road as far as the house the last time I was this way. Not that one cares a button about gas," he hastened to add: "a place is much more delightfully rural without it, and it is only during the few darker months that it is really required."
    He was silent for several seconds after this, and it was in a strikingly altered tone that he then remarked,
    "It will be confoundedly awkward if that fellow who was sent with the dog has not been able to find the house."
    The lane opened into the road, sparsely fringed with nice-looking semi-detached villas, each with a front garden thickly planted with bushes and evergreens. One of these was Croker's new abode, and we had discharged the cab and were entering the gate when a policeman emerged from the shadow of the wall, and civilly remarked on the unpleasantness of the weather. [-126-] Croker could hardly have greeted the constable more cordially if he had been an old acquaintance he had lost sight of for years and despaired of ever meeting again. He waggishly observed that he supposed it would be no use his attempting to induce him, the police officer, to accept of a glass of something comforting on such a beastly night. The suggestion being gratefully accepted, he rallied the man on the advantages of a suburban beat compared with one in a populous district, and on the lightness of his duties generally.
    But at this the constable shook his head. He only wished, he said, that it was as the gentleman seemed to suppose. It wasn't only the few houses thereabout he had to look after. His beat extended a good three-quarters of a mile up the road, which was that lonely this time of year a man might get a knock on the head, and no one be the wiser for an hour or two afterwards. Croker's face grew grave as he remarked,
    "And while you are three-quarters of a mile away, the houses here are at the mercy of - are, in fact, unprotected."
    To which the policeman replied reassuringly that there wasn't much to be afraid of on that account, though of course it was only natural that any one newly arrived in the neighbourhood should think more about it than the more settled inhabitants.
    "Mind you, sir," said the policeman, "I don't mean to say that it isn't necessary for a man on his beat in these queer times to keep a sharp look-out, especially if a house has been empty for some little time, like this one that you've taken."
    "And why, pray?"
    "Because, don't you see, sir, a house being empty gives them burglar chaps a easy chance to get in and overhaul the bolts and fastenings, and to take impressions of the locks. When they've made that right, all they've got to do is to find out whether the next occupier is of the sort it will pay 'em to visit, and then in they come, in the dead o' night, as easy as though they were lettin' themselves in at their own house."
    "And how am I to know that this place has not been 'overhauled,' as you call it?"
    "Let's hope it hain't," returned the frank policeman.
    "What did you mean," asked Croker, "when you said that they could find out whether the next occupier was the right sort or no?"
    [-127-] "Oh! they've got no end of ways of doing that, bless you, sir. They'll watch the furniture going in, for one thing. I shouldn't like to state it as a certainty, and I am bound to say that when I described the chap to our sergeant, he said he knew nothing of him. But there was a strange fellow hanging about here who seemed to take a curious interest in the last load of goods of yours that came - the load that the iron chest came with. He was a short, thickset man, and wore a dark wide-awake, and a red comforter twisted round his neck. I asked him what he was prying after, and he told me to mind my own business, which I thought was suspicious. Course he might ha' been as honest a man as ever breathed for all I know. I merely mention it. There s one thing, sir: you may make sure that your house will be well looked after while I'm on duty."
    Croker thankfully replied that he relied on the policeman keeping his word, and broadly hinted that his civility and attention should not go unrewarded.
    I had hurriedly agreed with Croker that it would be as well to make no mention to his wife of our conversation with the policeman, but when we got inside the house we discovered the lady in question in tears and greatly excited. She had already been apprised of all the candid constable had told us, and more. Mary Ann, the maid-servant, had all this time been listening at the street door, and had instantly reported to her mistress that the officer had been sent from the station-house to give master notice that a notorious burglar would attack the premises that night, and that he might be recognized by his wearing a black wideawake hat, and by his carrying a thingammy to twist round the throats of his victims to choke them. It was only when I had several times repeated my solemn assurance that Mary Ann was altogether mistaken, and offered to call in the policeman that she might question him, that she became calmer. Her husband, however, was much upset by her being so affected. As I jokingly remarked to him, only that I knew the sort of man he was, I might have imagined that he was as much afraid of burglars as his wife. He replied with a brief, boisterous laugh, but immediately remarked with great seriousness that it was a rum sort of story the policeman had told me about the fellow who wore the red comforter. He appeared to [-128-] be immensely relieved when he was informed that the dog had arrived, and we went together to the back garden with a lantern to have a look at him.
    But the light blew out when we had gone a few paces beyond the washhouse door, and we hastily scampered back again to the shelter of the house on hearing, close at hand, a sudden rush as of an animal in anger, and the rattle of an iron chain. We looked through the window, and saw that it was the dog. Croker had properly described him as a "teaser," if appearances went for anything. It was an enormous smooth white creature, of no breed in particular, and with handy fore legs and an immense breadth of chest, and eyes bloodshot and savage-looking as the eyes of a jaguar, The man who brought him home had fastened him securely, as he thought, to the wall, but Brigand (the dog's name) had drawn the staple from between the bricks, and was now wandering at large among the flower-beds, trailing his chain after him, and howling fretfully at short intervals. Croker thought it might be as well to fasten him up again; but, as the dog made another open-mouthed run at us the instant we opened the washhouse door, he altered his mind and thought that after all it would be better for him to run loose.
    We found Mary Ann in the kitchen, haggard and pale, and stonily resigned to her fate. Remonstrance and persuasion were alike lost on her. Exasperated by her unreasonable behaviour, Croker gave her a month's notice to leave, at which she laughed grimly, and replied that she had no doubt but that they would be all dead and in their graves by that time. And for my edification she repeated all that had so horrified her mistress respecting the stealthy footsteps and the strange creaking and scratching noises at the doors and windows that had driven repose from her pillow last night and the night before. Croker declared that it was all a pack of nonsense, but it was difficult for him to disguise that as it grew later he became more nervous and less reconciled to bedtime.
    We took a social glass together, and our conversation turned on the most cheerful topics, and Mrs. Croker was induced to try if there was any music to be got out of the piano after its rough passage from Barnsbury to Dulwich; but the ruffian with the black wideawake and the red comforter haunted us the whole time, and the moment the conversation flagged came boldly out [-129-] and stood on the hearthrug for our contemplation. Between nine and ten I announced that I must be going, and with rueful visage Croker stepped out to see what kind of night it was. I never saw a man so elated with foul weather. It was as dark as pitch, he declared, and the rain was coming down by bucketsful.
    "So we must do the best we can for you here, my friend, until morning," said he, rubbing his hands and beaming with hospitality.
    It was in vain that I protested.
    "Hang it," Croker said, he would not turn a friend's dog out on such a night, let alone a friend. He would not be guilty of such a shabby action for fifty pounds. So we had another glass, and got on much better than before, and Croker showed me a pair of revolvers he had bought that day, and which had been offered him at such a ridiculously small price that he could not let them go.
    We retired to our bed-rooms about eleven, after a fruitless attempt to soothe the white watch dog in the back garden, who seemed suddenly to have realized the fact that he had been torn from the home of his puppyhood and placed among strangers. He vented his woe in a series of howls that might have been heard half a mile off, and which were rendered with a chain-rattling accompaniment. We endeavoured to pacify him for some time by throwing him pieces of cold roast shoulder of mutton from a landing window, until it seemed that the more he ate the more vigorously he howled, when we desisted and left him to his fate.
    "They'll know he is here, at all events, if any of those fellows that fool of a policeman was speaking of should be hanging about," Croker remarked jocosely, as he bade me good night. I didn't quite see the joke myself but that, perhaps, was because I was to sleep at the back of the house. Mary Ann slept with the two children in the room immediately above mine, and, the howlings of the dog having temporarily subsided, I could have gone to sleep but for the steady tramping overhead, and which betokened that the frightened servant was steadfast in her expressed determination to avoid being murdered in her bed by sitting up all night. She occasionally came out on to the landing to listen, and between twelve and one o'clock she came down, and, knocking at her master's bed-room door, announced [-130-] muffled voices in the area, and a sound as of glass being cut with a diamond. Croker shipped on his things, and came and called me, not, as he said, that he wished me to accompany him, but that he might apprise me of his intentions, and so prevent my being alarmed if I heard him pottering about the house.
    Finding all safe below, we retired to bed again, to be once more awakened by Mary Ann, who had brought down both the children in their nightgowns (awoke out of their sheep, poor little souls, and roaring like mad, one against the other), and again knocked at her mistress's door. Asked what she wanted, she replied that she could not reconcile it with her conscience to undertake any longer the responsibility of their safe keeping; and please would mistress let them in, and take charge of them herself? Having successfully effected the transfer, Mary Ann returned to pace her own apartment.
    The brute in the back garden had been for some time quiet; but whether it was that he had heard the crying of Croker's children, and was again reminded of his happy puppyhood, or what else it may have been that moved him, he suddenly commenced howling again, and worse than ever. It seemed but too evident that he had now set himself steadily to the task, and meant keeping it up till morning. He raised such a horrible din that it was more than Croker could lie in bed and listen to, and he presently hooked in to inquire if, as my window overlooked the garden, I could make out what was the matter with him. He looked and I looked, and hearing us, as I suppose, at the sash, Mary Ann also hooked out, and instantly gave utterance to a shrill shriek.
    "Dashed if there isn't the very villain!" ejaculated Croker, in an awful whisper. "You see him, don't you? He s leaning over the parting wall, at the end there, shying stones - perhaps it s poisoned meat - at the dog!"
    There was no mistake about it. Yes, there he was, with a black wideawake on his head, and a red something or other round his neck, alternately throwing something and shaking his fist at the furious beast, who was springing at the wall to get at him. Croker promptly fetched his pistols.
    "Shall we go down, or shall I try a pop at him from here?" he asked in an agitated voice. "I am a decent shot with a pistol, and do doubt I can wing the ruffian."
    [-131-] But at that instant the "ruffian" caught sight of us at the window, which Croker was stealthily raising. With an effort he, the individual with the black wideawake, raised his voice so that it was heard above the furious barking.
    "For goodness' sake," he cried, in anything but burglarious tones, "come down, some of you, and stop this horrible noise. I must really insist on it. Neither my poor wife, who is an invalid, nor me have closed our eyes the whole night through. It is impossible to do so."
    It was Croker's next-door neighbour. We both went down and expressed regret that he should have been afflicted with such an annoyance, and Croker sternly bade the savage beast with the trailing chain to "Lie down." It seemed, however, to regard Croker as its arch enemy, and came at him as though intent on tearing him to pieces.
    It was fortunate for my friend that, almost without being aware of it, he had brought down the revolver in his hand. A click of the trigger and it was all over with Brigand, and having shaken hands with the old gentleman next door, whose wrath the sacrifice had completely appeased, we returned to our chamber and slept in peace till daylight.