The Uttermost Farthing by R. Austin Freeman
III. The Housemaid's Followers
The contrast in effect between suspicion and certainty is very curious to observe. When I had walked through the private museum of my poor friend Challoner and had looked at the large collection of human skeletons that it contained, a suspicion that there was something queer about those skeletons had made me quite uncomfortable. Now, after reading his first narrative, I knew all about them. They were the relics of criminals whom he had taken red-handed and preserved for the instruction of posterity. Thus were my utmost suspicions verified, and yet, strange as it may seem, with the advent of certainty, my horror of them vanished. Even the hideous little doll-like heads induced but a passing shudder. Vague, half superstitious awe gave place to scientific interest.
I took an early opportunity of renewing my acquaintance with the astonishing and gruesome "Museum Archives." The second narrative was headed "Anthropological Series, 2, 3 and 4." It exhibited the same singular outlook as the first, showing that to Challoner the criminal had not appeared to be a human being at all, but merely a sub-human form, anatomically similar to man.
"The acquisition of Specimen Number One," it began, "gave me considerable occupation, both bodily and mental. As I labored from day to day rendering the osseous framework of the late James Archer fit for exhibition in a museum case, I reflected on the future to which recent events had committed me. I had been, as it were, swept away on the tide of circumstance. The death of this person had occurred by an inadvertence, and accident had thrown on me the onus of disposing of the remains. I had solved that difficulty by converting the deceased into a museum specimen. So far, well, but what of the future?
"My wife had been murdered by a criminal. The remainder of my life--short, I hoped--was to be spent in seeking that criminal. But the trap that I set to catch him would probably catch other criminals first; and since the available method of identification could not be applied to newly-acquired specimens while in the living state, it followed that each would have to be reduced to the condition in which identification would be possible. And if, on inspection, the specimen acquired proved to be not the one sought, I should have to add it to the collection and rebait the trap. That was evidently the only possible plan.
"But before embarking on it I had to consider its ethical bearings. Of the legal position there was no question. It was quite illegal. But that signified nothing. There are recent human skeletons in the Natural History Museum; every art school in the country has one and so have many board schools. What is the legal position of the owners of those human remains? It will not bear investigation. As to the Hunterian Museum, it is a mere resurrectionist's legacy. That the skeleton of O'Brian was obtained by flagrant body-snatching is a well-known historical fact, but one at which the law, very properly, winks. Obviously the legal position was not worth considering.
"But the ethical position? To me it looked quite satisfactory, though clearly at variance with accepted standards. For the attitude of society towards the criminal appears to be that of a community of stark lunatics. In effect, society addresses the professional criminal somewhat thus:
"'You wish to practice crime as a profession, to gain a livelihood by appropriating--by violence or otherwise--the earnings of honest and industrious men. Very well, you may do so on certain conditions. If you are skilful and cautious you will not be molested. You may occasion danger, annoyance and great loss to honest men with very little danger to yourself unless you are clumsy and incautious; in which case you may be captured. If you are, we shall take possession of your person and detain you for so many months or years. During that time you will inhabit quarters better than you are accustomed to; your sleeping-room will be kept comfortably warm in all weathers; you will be provided with clothing better than you usually wear; you will have a sufficiency of excellent food; expensive officials will be paid to take charge of you; selected medical men will be retained to attend to your health; a chaplain (of your own persuasion) will minister to your spiritual needs and a librarian will supply you with books. And all this will be paid for by the industrious men whom you live by robbing. In short, from the moment that you adopt crime as a profession, we shall pay all your expenses, whether you are in prison or at large.' Such is the attitude of society; and I repeat it is that of a community of madmen.
"How much better and more essentially moral is my plan! I invite the criminal to walk into my parlor. He walks in, a public nuisance and a public danger; and he emerges in the form of a museum preparation of permanent educational value.
"Thus I reflected and mapped out my course of action as I worked at what I may call the foundation specimen of my collection. The latter kept me busy for many days, but I was very pleased with the result when it was finished. The bones were of a good color and texture, the fracture of the skull, when carefully joined with fish-glue, was quite invisible, and, as to the little dried preparation of the head, it was entirely beyond my expectations. Comparing it with the photographs taken after death, I was delighted to find that the facial characters and even the expression were almost perfectly retained.
"It was a red-letter day when I put Number One in the great glass case and took out the skeleton that I had bought from the dealer to occupy its place until it was ready. The substitute was no longer needed and I accordingly dismantled it and destroyed it piecemeal in the furnace, crushing the calcined bones into unrecognizable fragments.
"Meanwhile I had been pushing on my preparations for further captures. A large, mahogany-faced safe was fixed in the dining-room to contain the silver; a burglar alarm was fitted under the floor in front of the safe and connected with a trembler-drum that was kept (with the concussor and a few other appliances) locked in a hanging cupboard at my bed-head, ready to be switched on and placed under my pillow at night. I secretly purchased a quantity of paste jewelry--bracelets, tiaras, pendants and such like glittering trash--and when everything was ready I engaged two new servants of decidedly queer antecedents. I was at first a little doubtful about the cook, but the housemaid was a certainty from the outset. Her character from her late reverend and philanthropic employer, urging me as a Christian man (which I was not) to 'give her another chance,' made that perfectly clear.
"I gave her another chance, though not quite of the kind that the reverend gentleman meant. Two days after her arrival I directed her to clean the plate and handed her the key of the safe, of which I have reason to believe that she took a squeeze with a piece of dough. The sham diamonds were locked in a separate division of the safe, but I introduced them to her by taking them out in her presence, spreading them on the table and ostentatiously cleaning their rolled-gold settings with a soft brush. They certainly made a gorgeous and glittering show. I could not have distinguished them from real diamonds; and as for Susan Slodger--that was the housemaid's name--her eyes fairly bulged with avarice.
"It was less than a week after this that the next incident occurred. I was lying in bed, dozing fitfully but never losing consciousness. I slept badly at that time, for memories which I avoided by day would come crowding on me in the darkness. I would think of my lost happiness, of my poor, murdered wife and of the wretch who had so lightly crushed out her sweet life as one would kill an inconvenient insect; and the thoughts filled me alternately with unutterable sadness that banished sleep or with profound anger that urged me to seek justice and retribution.
"The long-case clock on the stair had just struck two when the trembler-drum beneath my pillow suddenly broke into a prolonged roll. Someone was standing in front of the safe in the dining-room. I rose quietly, switched off the drum, replaced it in the hanging cupboard, and, taking from the same receptacle the concussor and a small leather bag filled with shot and attached to a long coil of fishing-line, softly descended the stairs. On the mid-way landing I laid down the shot-bag and paid out the coil of line as I descended the next flight. In the hall I paused for a few seconds to listen. Both the doors of the dining-room were shut, but I could hear faint sounds within. I approached the door further from the street and carefully grasped the knob. The locks and hinges I knew were thoroughly oiled, for I had attended to them daily in common with all the other doors in the lower part of the house. I turned the knob slowly and made gentle pressure on the door, which presently began to open without a sound. As it opened I became aware of a low muttering, and caught distinctly the half-whispered words, 'Better try the pick first, Fred.'
"So there was more than one at any rate.
"When the door was wide enough open to admit my head, I looked in. One burner of the gas was alight but turned very low, though it gave enough light for me to see three men standing before the safe. Three were rather more than I had bargained for. Number One, by himself, had given me a good deal of occupation, both during and after the capture. Three might prove a little beyond my powers. And yet, if I could only manage them, they would make a handsome addition to my collection. I watched them and turned over the ways and means of dealing with them. Evidently the essence of the strategy required was to separate them and deal with them in detail. But how was it to be done?
I watched the three men with their heads close together looking into the safe. The door stood wide open and a key in the lock explained the procedure so far. One of the men held an electric bulls-eye lamp, the light of which was focussed on the keyhole of the jewel-compartment, into which another had just introduced a skeleton key.
At this moment, the third man turned his head. By the dim light I could see that he was looking, with a distinctly startled expression, in my direction; in fact, I seemed to meet his eye; but, knowing that I was in complete darkness in the shadow of the door, I remained motionless.
"'Fred,' he whispered hoarsely, 'the door's open.'
"The other two men looked round sharply, and one of them--presumably Fred--retorted gruffly, 'Then go and shut it. And don't make no bloomin' row.'
"The man addressed felt in his pocket and advanced stealthily across the room. His feet were encased in list slippers and his tread was perfectly noiseless. As he approached I backed away, and grasping the newel-post of the staircase gave it a sharp pull, whereat the whole of the balusters creaked loudly. Then I slipped behind the curtain that partly divided the hall, poised the concussor as a golf-player poises his club, and gathered in the slack of the fishing-line.
"The burglar's head appeared dimly in silhouette against the faint light from within. He listened for a moment and then peered out into the dark hall. The opportunity seemed excellent if I could only lure him a little farther out. In any case, he must not be allowed to retire and shut the door.
"I gave a steady pull at the fishing-line. The shot-bag slid over the carpet on the landing above with a sound remarkably like that of a stealthy footstep.
"The burglar looked up sharply and raised his hand; and against the dimly-lighted wall of the dining-room I saw the silhouette of a pointed revolver. The practice of carrying firearms seems to be growing amongst the criminal classes, perhaps by reason of the increasing number of American criminals who visit this country. At any rate, the matter should be dealt with by appropriate legislation.
"The burglar then stood looking out with his revolver pointed up the stairs. I was about to give another tweak at the fishing-line when an unmistakable creak came from the upper stairs. I think this somewhat reassured my friend, for I heard him mutter that 'he supposed it was them dam girls.' He stepped cautiously outside the door, and, fumbling in his pocket, produced a little electric bulls-eye, the light of which he threw up the stairs.
"The opportunity was perfect. Against the circle of light produced by his lamp his head stood out black and distinct, its back towards me, one outstanding ear serving to explain what I may call the constructive details of the flat, dark shape.
"With my left hand I silently held aside the curtain and took a careful aim. Remembering the mishap with Number One, I selected the right parietal eminence, an oblique impact on which would be less likely to injure the base of the skull than a vertical blow. But I put my whole strength into the stroke, and when the padded weight descended on the spot selected, the burglar doubled up as if struck by lightning.
"The impact of the concussor was silent enough, but the man fell with a resounding crash, and the revolver and lamp flew from his hands and rattled noisily along the floor of the hall. The instant I had struck the blow I ran lightly up the hall and softly turned the knob of the farther door. Fortunately the two men in the room were too much alarmed to rush out into the hall, or, with the aid of their lamp, they would have seen me. But they were extremely cautious. I thrust my head in at the door and from the dark end of the room I could see them peering out of the other door and listening intently. After a short interval they tip-toed out into the hall and I lost sight of them.
"Close to the farther door was a large, four-fold Japanese screen. It had sheltered me in my last adventure and I thought it might do so again, as the prostrate burglar was lying a couple of yards past the opening of the door and his two friends were probably examining him. Accordingly I stepped softly along the room and took up a position behind the screen in a recess of the folds. My movements had evidently been unobserved and my new position enabled me to peep out into the hall--at some risk of being seen--and to hear all that passed.
"For the moment there was nothing to hear but a faint rustling from the two men and an occasional creak from the upper stairs. But presently I caught a hoarse whisper.
"'Dam funny. He seems to be dead.'
"'Yus; he do look like it,' the other agreed and then added optimistically, 'but p'raps he's only took queer.'
"'Dam!' was the impatient rejoinder. 'I tell yer he's dead--dead as a pork chop.'
"There was another silence and then, in a yet softer whisper, a voice asked:
"'D'yer think somebody's been and done 'im in, Fred?'
"'Don't see no marks,' answered Fred; 'besides there ain't no one here. Hallo! what's that?'
"'That' was a loud creak on the upper stairs near the first-floor landing, doubtless emanating from Miss Slodger or the cook. I have no doubt that these sounds of stealthy movement were highly disturbing to the burglars, especially in the present circumstances. And so it appeared, for the answer came in an obviously frightened whisper: 'There's someone on the stairs, Fred. Let's hook it. This job ain't no class.'
"'What!' was the indignant reply. ''Ook it and leave all that stuff. Not me! Nor you neither. There's more'n what one of us can carry. And you put away that barker or else you'll be lettin' it off and bringin' in the coppers. D'ye 'ear?'
"'Ain't going to be done in the dark same as what Joe's been,' the other whispered sulkily. 'If anyone comes down 'ere, I pots 'im.'
"At this moment there was another very audible creak from above, and then followed rapidly a succession of events which I subsequently disentangled, but which, at the time, were involved in utter confusion. What actually happened was that Fred had begun boldly to ascend the stairs, in some way missing the fishing-line, and being closely followed by his more nervous comrade. The latter, less fortunate, caught his foot in the line, stumbled, tightened the line and brought the shot-bag hopping down the stairs. What I heard was the sound of the stumble, followed by the quick thud, thud, of the descending shot-bag, exactly resembling the footfalls of a heavy man running down the stairs barefoot. Then came two revolver shots in quick succession, a shower of plaster, a hoarse cry, a heavy fall, and, from above, a loud scuffling followed by the slamming of a door and the noisy turning of a key; a brief interval of silence and then a quavering whisper.
"'I ain't 'it yer, Fred, 'ave I?'
"To this question there was no answer but a gurgling groan. I stepped out from my hiding-place, passed through the open doorway and stole softly along the hall, guided by the sound of the survivor extricating himself from his fallen comrade. A few paces from him I halted with the concussor poised ready to strike and listened to his fumbling and scuffling. Suddenly a bright light burst forth. He had found Fred's electric lantern, which was, oddly enough, uninjured by the fall (it had a metal filament, as I subsequently ascertained).
"The circle of light from the bulls-eye, quivering with the tremor of the hand which held the lantern, embraced the figure of the injured burglar, huddled in a heap at the foot of the stairs and still twitching at intervals. It could not have been a pleasant sight to his companion. The greenish-white face with its staring eyes and blood-stained lips stood out in the bright light from its background of black darkness with the vivid intensity of some ghastly wax-work.
"The surviving burglar stood petrified, stooping over his comrade, with the lantern in one shaking hand and the revolver still grasped in the other; and as he stood, he poured out, in a curious, whimpering undertone, an unending torrent of incoherent blasphemies, as appears to be the habit of that type of man when frightened. I stepped silently behind him and looked over his shoulder at the expiring criminal, speculating on what he would do next. At the moment he was paralyzed and imbecile with terror, and I had a strong inclination to dispatch him then and there; but the same odd impulse that I had noticed on the last occasion constrained me to dally with him. Again I was possessed by a strange, savage playfulness like that which impels a cat or leopard to toy daintily and tenderly with its prey for a while before the final scrunch.
"We remained thus motionless for more than half a minute in a silence broken only by his blasphemous mutterings. Then, quite suddenly, he stood up and began to flash his lantern on the stairs and about the hall until at length its light fell full on my face which was within a foot of his own. And at that apparition he uttered a most singular cry, like that of a young goat, and started back. Another moment and he would have raised his pistol arm, but I had foreseen this and was beforehand with him. Even as his hand rose, the concussor struck the outer side of his arm, between the shoulder and the elbow, on the exact spot where the musculo-spiral nerve turns round the bone. The effect was most interesting. The sudden nerve stimulus produced an equally sudden contraction of the extensors. The forearm straightened with a jerk, the fingers shot out straight and the released revolver flew clattering along the hall floor.
"Anatomy has its uses even in a midnight scuffle.
"The suddenness of my appearance and the promptness of my action paralyzed him completely. He stared at me in abject terror and gibbered inarticulately. Only for a few moments, however. Then he turned and darted towards the street door.
"But I did not mean to let him escape. In a twinkling I was after him and had him by the collar. He uttered a savage snarl and dropped the lamp on the mat to free his hands; and, as the spring switch was released, the light went out, leaving us in total darkness. Now that he was at bay, he struggled furiously, and I could hear him snorting and cursing as he wriggled in my grasp. I had to drop the concussor that I might hold him with both hands, and it was well that I did, for he suddenly got one hand free and struck. It was a vicious blow and had it not been partly stopped by my elbow the adventure would have ended very differently, for I felt the point of a knife sweep across my chest, ripping open my pajama jacket and making a quite unpleasant little flesh-wound. On this I gripped him round the chest, pinioning both his arms as well as I could and trying to get possession of the knife, while he made frantic struggles to aim another blow.
"So, for awhile we remained locked in a deadly embrace, swaying to and fro, and each straining for the momentary advantage that would have brought the affair to a finish. The end came unexpectedly.
"One of us tripped on the edge of the mat and we both came down with a crash, he underneath and face downwards. As we fell, he uttered a sharp cry and began to struggle in a curious, convulsive fashion; but after a time he grew quieter and at last lay quite still and silent.
"At first I took this for a ruse to put me off my guard, and held on more firmly than ever; but presently a characteristic limpness of his limbs suggested a new idea. Gradually and cautiously I relaxed my hold, and, as he still did not move, I felt about on the mat for the lamp; and when I had found it and pushed over the switch I threw its light on him.
"He was perfectly motionless and did not appear to be breathing. I turned him over and then saw that it was as I had suspected. He had held the knife ready for a second blow when I had pinioned him. He was still grasping it so when we fell, and the point had entered his own chest near the middle line, between the fourth and fifth ribs, and had been driven in up to the very haft by the force of the fall. He must have died almost instantaneously.
"I stood up and listened. The place was as silent as the grave; a remarkably apt comparison, by the way. The pistol shots had apparently not been heard by the police, so there was no fear of interruption from that quarter; and as for the maids they were very carefully keeping out of harm's way.
"Still, there was a good deal to do, and not so very much time to do it in. It was now getting on for three o'clock and the sun would be up by four. Daylight would bring the maids down and everything must be clear before they made their appearance.
"I wasted no time. One by one, I conveyed the bodies to the laboratory and deposited them in the tank, the accommodation of which was barely equal to the occasion. The sudden death of the first man had rather puzzled me, but when I lifted him the explanation was obvious enough. The heavy blow, catching the head obliquely, had dislocated the neck. So the concussor was not such a very harmless implement after all.
"The slight traces left in transporting the material to the laboratory, I obliterated with great care, excepting the last man's knife, which I left on the mat. Then I changed my pajamas, putting the blood-stained suit to soak in the laboratory, strapped up my wound, put on a dressing-gown, opened the street door and shut it rather noisily and ascended with a candle to the upper floor.
"The housemaid's bedroom door was open and the room empty. I tapped at the cook's door and elicited a faint scream.
"'Who's that?' a shaky voice demanded.
"'It is I,' was my answer--a stupid answer, by the way, but, of course, they knew my voice. The door opened and the two women appeared, fully dressed but rather disheveled and both very pale.
"'Is anything the matter, sir?' the housemaid asked.
"'Yes,' I replied. 'I think there has been a burglary. I woke in the night and thought I heard a pistol-shot, but, putting it down to a dream, I went to sleep again. Did either of you hear anything?'
"'I thought I heard a pistol go off, sir,' said the cook, 'and so did Susan. That's why she came in here.'
"'Ah!' said I, 'then it was not a dream. Then just now I distinctly heard the street door shut, so I went down and found the gas alight in the dining-room and the safe open.'
"'Lor', sir!' exclaimed Susan, 'I hope nothing's been took.' (She spoke exceedingly badly for a good-class housemaid.)
"'That,' said I, 'is what I wish you to find out. Perhaps you will come down and take a look round. There is no one about now.'
"On this they came down with alacrity, each provided with a candle, all agog, no doubt, to see what success their friends had had. The first trace of the intruders was a large blood-stain at the foot of the stairs, at which Susan shied like a horse. There was another stain near the street door, and there was the burglar's knife on the mat, which the cook picked up and then dropped with a faint scream. I examined it and discovered the letters 'G.B.' cut on the handle.
"'It looks,' I remarked, 'as if the burglars had quarreled. However, that is none of our business. Let us see what has happened to the safe.'
"We went into the dining-room and the two women looked eagerly at the open safe; but though they both repeated the hope that 'nothing had been took,' they could hardly conceal their disappointment when they saw that the contents were intact. I examined the roughly-made false key without comment but with a significant glance at them which I think they understood; and I overhauled a couple of large carpet bags, neither of which contained anything but the outfit of appliances for the raid.
"'I suppose I ought to communicate with the police,' said I (without the slightest intention of doing anything of the kind).
"'I don't see what good that would do, sir,' said Susan. 'The men is gone and nothing hasn't been took. The police would only come in and turn the place upside down and take up your time for nothing.'
"Thus Susan Slodger, with a vivid consciousness of the false key, made exactly the suggestion that I desired. Of course it would never do to have the police in the house again so soon. I affected to be deeply impressed by her sagacity and in the end decided to 'let sleeping dogs lie.' Only Susan did not realize how exceedingly soundly they slept.
"It was necessary for me to visit the osteological dealer in the course of the morning to obtain three suitable skeletons as understudies according to my plan. This was quite indispensable. The dealer's receipt and invoice for three human skeletons was my passport of safety. But I regretted the necessity. For it was certain that as soon as I was out of the house one of these hussies would run off to make inquiries about her friends; and when it was found that the burglars were missing, there might be trouble. You can never calculate the actions of women. I did not suppose that either of them was capable of breaking into the laboratory. But still, one or both of them might. And if they did, the fat would be in the fire with a vengeance.
"However, it had to be done, and accordingly I set forth after breakfast with a spring tape and a note of the measurements in my pocket. Fortunately the dealer had just received a large consignment of skeletons from Germany (Heaven alone knows whence these German exporters obtain their supply), so I had an ample number to select from; and as they ran rather small--I suspect they were mostly Frenchmen--I had no difficulty in matching my specimens, which, as is usual with criminals, were all below the average stature.
"On my return I found that the housemaid was out, 'doing some shopping,' the cook explained. But she returned shortly, and as soon as I saw her I knew that she had been making 'kind inquiries.' Her manner was most peculiar, and so was the cook's for that matter. They were both profoundly depressed and anxious; they both regarded me with evident dislike and still more evident fear. They mumped about the house, silent and restless; they showed an inconvenient desire to keep me in sight and yet they hurried out of the rooms at my approach.
"The housemaid was very much disturbed. When waiting at table, she eyed me incessantly and if I moved suddenly she jumped. Once she dropped a soup tureen merely because I looked at her rather attentively; she was continually missing my wine-glass and pouring the claret on to the table-cloth; and when I tested the edge of a poultry-carver, which had become somewhat blunt, she hurried from the room and I saw her watching me through the crack of the door.
"The arrival of the 'understudy' skeletons from the dealers a couple of days later gave her a terrible shock. I was in the dining-room when they arrived and through the open door heard what passed; and certainly the incident was not without a humorous side.
"The carrier came to the front door and to Susan, who answered his ring, he addressed himself with the familiarity of his class.
"'Here's three cases for your master. Funny uns, they are, too. He don't happen to be in the resurrection line, I suppose?'
"'I don't know what you mean,' Susan replied, sourly.
"'You will when you see the cases,' the man retorted. 'Three of 'em, there are. Big uns. Where will you have 'em?'
Susan came to me for instructions and I directed that they should be taken through to the museum, the door of which I unlocked for the purpose.
"The appearance of the cases was undeniably funereal, not in shape only but also in color; for the dealer, with an ill-timed sense of fitness, had had them painted black. And the effect was heightened by the conduct of the two grinning carriers, who bore each case on their shoulders, coffin-wise, and proceeded to the museum at a slow, funereal walk; and when I was out of sight, though not out of earshot, I heard the leading carrier, who seemed to be somewhat of a humorist, softly whistling the 'Dead March in Saul.'
"Meanwhile, Susan Slodger stood in the hall with a face as white as a tallow candle. She stared with fearful fascination at the long, black cases and uttered no sound even when the facetious carrier questioned her as to the destination of 'our dear departed brother.' She was absolutely thunderstruck.
"When the carriers had gone I directed her to come to the museum and help me to unpack the cases, which she flatly refused to do unless supported by the cook. To this, of course, I had no objection, and when she went off to the kitchen to fetch her colleague, I took up a position just inside the laboratory door and awaited developments. The cases had hinged lids secured with a simple hook, so that when the binding cords were cut there would be no difficulty in ascertaining the nature of the contents.
"The two women came briskly through the lobby, the cook babbling cheerfully and the housemaid silent; but at the museum door they both stopped short and the former ejaculated, 'Gawd! what's this?'
"Here I stepped out and explained, 'These are some cases of specimens for the museum. I want you to unfasten the cords. That is all. I will take out the things myself.' With this I went back to the laboratory; but in less than half a minute I heard a series of shrieks, and the two women raced through the lobby and disappeared below stairs.
"After this the position grew worse than ever. Though obviously terrified of me, these two women dogged me incessantly. It was most inconvenient, for the excess of material kept me exceedingly busy; and to make things worse, I had received from Jamrach's (without an order--but I had to keep the thing) a dead hyena which had been affected with osteitis deformans. It was a fine specimen and was useful as serving to explain my great preoccupation; but it added to my labors and made me impatient of interruptions.
"The museum wing had an entrance of its own in a side street for the delivery of material (such as the hyena), and this gave me some relief; for I could go out of the front door and slip in by the side entrance. But Susan soon discovered this and thereafter was continually banging at the lobby door to see if I was in. I don't know what she thought. She was an ignorant woman and stupid, but I think she vaguely associated my labors in the laboratory with her absent friends.
"This perpetual spying on my actions became at last intolerable and I was on the point of sending the two hussies about their business when an accident put an end to the state of affairs. I had gone out of the front door and let myself in by the side entrance, but, by some amazing inadvertence, had left the lobby door unfastened; and I had barely got on my apron to begin work when I heard someone enter the lobby. Then came a gentle tapping at the door of the laboratory. I took no notice, but waited to see what would happen. The tapping was repeated louder and yet louder, and still I made no move. Then, after an interval, I heard a wire inserted in the lock.
"I determined to make an end of this. Quietly concealing the material on which I was working, I took down from a hook a large butterfly-net (my poor wife had been interested in Lepidoptera). Very softly I tiptoed to the door and suddenly flung it open. There stood Susan Slodger with a hair-pin in her hand, absolutely paralyzed with terror. In a moment, before she had time to recover, I had slipped the butterfly-net over her head.
"That revived her. With a piercing yell she turned and fled, and with such precipitancy that she pulled the net off the handle. I saw her flying down the lobby with the net over her head, looking like an oriental bride; I heard the street door bang, and I found the butter-fly net on the doormat. But Susan Slodger I never set eyes on again.
"The cook left me the same day, taking Susan's box with her. It was a great relief. I now had the house to myself and could work without interruption or the discomfort of being spied upon. As to the products of my labors, they are fully set forth in the catalogue; and of this adventure I can only say to the visitor to my museum in the words of the well-known inscription, 'Si monumentum requiris, Circumspice?'"
Such was Challoner's account of his acquisition of the specimens numbered 2, 3 and 4. The descriptions of the preparations were, as he had said, set out in dry and precise detail in the catalogue, and some of the particulars were really quite interesting, as, for instance, the fact that "the skull of Number 4 combines an extreme degree of dolichocephaly (67.5) with a cranial capacity of no more than 1523 cubic centimeters." It was certainly what one might have expected from his conduct.
But to the general reader the question which will suggest itself is, What was the state of Challoner's mind? Was he mad? Was he wicked? Or had he merely an unconventional point of view? It is to the latter opinion that I incline after long consideration. He clearly rejected the criminal as a fellow-creature and regarded himself as a public benefactor in eliminating him. And perhaps he was right.
As to the apparently insane pleasure that he took in the actual captures, I can only say that sane men take a pleasure in the slaughter of harmless animals--such as the giraffe--for which they have no need; and other sane men actually go abroad and kill--by barbarous methods--foreign men of estimable character with whom they have no quarrel. This sport they call war and seem to enjoy it. But killing is killing; and a foreign peasant's life is surely worth more than a British criminal's.
This, however, is only an obiter dictum from which many will no doubt dissent.