Bag and Baggage/Priscilla Pipkin

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pp. 320-330.

PRISCILLA PIPKIN

"And the long carpet rose along the gusty floor."

PRISCILLA PIPKIN came on a windy evening and left on a windy morning. All night I heard the gale flapping in my blind, and dreamed of flying skirts, and at breakfast Priscilla was gone. There was no lamp alight, as usual, under an empty kettle; no stove-brush on my chair; no toast-rack at all (Priscilla would occasionally put my letters in it and post the toast under my bedroom door). Priscilla Pipkin, in short, had disappeared, like the baseless fabric of a vision, and left not a rack behind her.

Mrs. Hoskins, my landlady, when I rang her up to explain, explained. She had always mistrusted the girl, she said; she wore such small boots. There was an artful hussy hid somewhere behind that print apron. Priscilla, it appeared, had come straight down from her attic that morning and give her notice—not a month's, or a week's, or a day's, if you please; but had just up'd with her nose like a silk pairasole, and walked out of the house as grand as my lady. It was possible, Mrs. Hoskins thought, that a letter she had received by the early post had inspired her to this astonishing decision. But, whatever the case, Prisilla Pipkin, forgoing a month's wages and the possibility of a tip from the lodger, was gone on the wings of the wind.

"She'd neither stop nor explain," said Mrs. Hoskins bitterly; "but carried off her things, as she'd brought 'em, in a newspaper parcel as big as a target, and pinned down at the corners; and what I may come to think of it all, the Lord deny me."

I begged that for the moment she would think of it in connection with my breakfast, and asked if there were any letters for me.

"No, sir," said Mrs. Hoskins; "though the postman come; I hear him. But I suppose Priscilla's was the only one."

Here was an additional aggravation. I had looked—with a confidence justified by nothing but inexperience—for a letter that morning from a certain "trustee," whose duty it should have been to pay me the first fourth of a yearly allowance of five hundred pounds on this, the first day of May. He had not done so—I supposed to impress me with the insignificance of my claim on his attention. He was a beast, and beastly rich—a great sweltering Crœsus, with thin yellow hair streaking his head like soap, swollen eyes, and an ill-tempered mouth, with a purse of chin hanging from it as if he kept his gold there. In his view, I knew, I was a young ass, lately estated, whom it was his grudging responsibility to supply with the means to fresh wasteful imbecilities; and that, while I was as certain of my own young old-worldliness, of my inherent precaution and moderation, as I was of his detestable cynicism. "But I will convince him of my business capacities," I fumed, "if I have to do it by quoting to his face his own lack of 'em. Just a day or two's grace first!"

The day or two ran into a week; and then, desperate, I took cab to the City. To my astonishment Crœsus received me with affability.

"You should have acknowledged that cheque, my boy," he said. "You aren't come, I suppose, to ask for an advance on the next? No, no; that would never do. I can't possibly entertain such a proposal."

"I haven't made it, sir," I said coldly. "I haven't received any cheque from you, that's all."

"Not?"

He sat back in his chair, one arm out on the desk, fiddling with a pen, and squinted at me, with his left eye closed, intolerably.

"O! that's it, is it?" he said quietly. "Well, you're beginning early."

"Don't you believe me?"

"Of course I do. But the cheque was sent."

"I never received it, I say."

He touched a bell; sent a clerk for the book; showed me the counterfoil—thirtieth of April, a hundred and twenty-five pounds, pay to the order of, etc.—and threw the book, with an air of insolent finality, on the desk.

"There it is," he said.

"It did not reach me."

"Well, I can't help that."

"Can't help it, sir? Am I to go without my money, because—because it was lost in the post?"

"You can sue me, if you like. The thing's been done before; and ended, I believe, in favour of the drawer. But it's an open question. The cheque was posted—there'll be my letter-book to prove it—and with that I wash my hands of the matter. I dare say one of your—one of your friends will be opening an account with it by and by. Good morning!"

What was the beast implying? That I was manœuvring to obtain a further advance on the strength of an understanding with an accomplice? My blood boiled.

"You'll be sorry for this," I said, rising.

"All right," he said. "I'll be prepared with the sackcloth when my time comes."

I left him without another word. Outside, a paper-boy was announcing in a shrill voice: "Romance in 'igh life. Lady of quality steals a letter addressed to her 'ostess."

Like a smack, the words smote the blood to my cheek. Priscilla Pipkin!

It was she, of course. The letter, the circumstances, the informal "bolt." How could I have doubted it for a moment! Priscilla was the culprit.

I did not pause to consider in what way it would be possible for the girl to avail herself of that unnegotiable plunder. The thought of the sight, of the temptation, was enough. The draft was a potential treasure, at least. Priscilla had got it—perhaps in her pocket; perhaps enclosed in the newspaper parcel which was like a target. En avant for Priscilla Pipkin.

I consulted a friend of mine, Charlie Glossop. He was dead against my approaching Scotland Yard.

"Police go for the criminal; swag's a secondary consideration with 'em," he said. " You take my advice, and employ a private enquiry agent. Find out what's become of the cheque, and settle the girl after. I know a chap who's the very moral of what you want—Hawkesby's his name, Long Acre."

Mr. Hawkesby, on Glossop's initiative, came to visit me. I told him that it would be as well to keep the affair very private.

"Else why apply to Hawkesby, sir?" he said. "A fair field and no favour's all that he asks."

He was elaborately designed to fit the part of the stage detective—an astute, quiet person, with side-whiskers (removable); a respectable top-hat, rather narrow in the brim; a frock-coat, somewhat short, and buttoned tightly about an upright, fairly portly figure; very black brows and blue eyes underneath, impenetrable but observant. His mind was obviously scored with information about all those things which a population of four millions particularly desires shall not be known about itself. Add to this a superhuman capacity for detecting motives, a condemning guile, a power of fascinating like the serpent's, and you have Mr. Hawkesby—at least according to the portrait of himself which he sketched for me. He gave me a feeling of fearful confidence at once.

He asked me for the outlines of the case. They appeared simple to absurdity to my unsophisticated mind; but Hawkesby thought otherwise.

"Here's what I like," he said, "a provocation to the best in me."

"It don't seem very difficult," I protested.

"Ah!" he answered. "That's the amateur mind. You wouldn't say it if you'd had my experience. Beware most when all seems plain sailing." (Sherlock Holmes.) "I've built my reputation and made my little pile on that understanding, sir. What about Mrs. Hoskins, now, and her point of view?"

"Why, I questioned her—very cautiously, of course," I answered deprecatingly; " and she told me that she knew nothing whatever about the girl—had taken her on at a moment's notice and without a character."

"Of course she'd say that," said Hawkesby triumphantly. He rubbed his chin, conning me shrewdly. "What would you think, now," he pondered, "of the two being all this time in collusion? "

The suggestion struck me dumb. Mrs. Hoskins, the garrulous, the fussy, but the immaculate! No; I could not, I would not believe it. Yet, from that moment, the horrible insinuation began to poison my very fount of trustfulness in human nature. Henceforth all appearances were to be estimated by their speciousness. Hawkesby had emancipated me.

"Well," he said, "you leave her to me. I'll turn her inside out in no time." And he left me.

The next day an old lady called upon Mrs. Hoskins (I saw her come and go from my sitting-room window)—a tottery, whining old body, in a respirator and blue spectacles. Later, Mrs. Hoskins enlightened me, voluntarily, as to the old lady's mission. She had come about "that Pipkin," it appeared. The girl had applied to her for "tweenie's " place, and had referred her to Mrs. Hoskins for a character. "And I give her a rare one, my eye," said the landlady.

"Didn't you ask her what was the girl's present address?" I demanded in great excitement.

"No, to be sure," she answered. "What should I want with it? "

"Nor her own?"

"No, sir. It didn't matter to me."

Was this a criminal admission? I tried to think it out.

That evening Hawkesby paid me a visit.

"I've got some news for you," I began at once. He winked. Some subtle quality in the act confounded and silenced me.

"I dare say," he said. "Mrs. H. hasn't been letting on to you about her visitor to-day, I suppose?"

"Yes, she has."

"And didn't you twig?"

"Twig what?"

"The old lady."

"What about her? "

"She was me, that's all."

I began to comprehend his methods.

"Well," I said; "did you find out anything?"

"Something," he answered; "but this Rome isn't going to be built in a day. We're getting on; that's enough."

I saw him constantly after this—was always either entertaining or running up against him, in fact. I acquired an infernal shrewdness in identifying him under his innumerable disguises. Sometimes it would be a bricklayer, shouldering a hod to nowhere; sometimes an evangelical person, after the Stiggins type, distributing tracts; sometimes an itinerant and snuffling tradesman hawking boot laces along the kerb. Once, I am sure, I recognised him under the helmet of a policeman; and he was certainly the traveller who endeavoured to persuade Mrs. Hoskins to put her name down for a sewing machine on the hire system. The provincial and rather over-fatuous looking curate, too, whom I saw looking in upon me one day, his nose pressed against the glass of my window, was Hawkesby without a doubt, yearning to convince me of his fertility of invention.

He generally, after each of these essays, paid me a visit, bringing the comforting assurance that we were "beginning to move now." Then he would sound me, cunningly, on the subject of my penetration of his latest disguise, and appear pleased with my confession of recognition, though, one might have thought, it could be held rather to discount the cleverness of his "make-up." But he took a childish delight in the parts he played, and—so it seemed to me—was quite satisfied with their utter irrelevance and inanity, so long as I was an appreciative observer.

"You see, you're in the know, sir," he would confess jocundly; "but the public isn't, and takes me at my own valuation. Bless you! I can wind 'em round my little finger. I made seventy-five per cent profit on those bootlaces."

I began to see deeper than ever into his methods—and his "pile." Detectiveness, if I may use the word, embraces a multitude of "pickings."

And then, suddenly convinced, perhaps, of my thorough mastery of his modus operandi, he disappeared—or, at least, I saw him no more for quite a long time.

The respite, I admit, was a complete relief to me. I had come to think any atmosphere would be better than that atmosphere of exotic and luxuriant suspicion in which my scepticism of all human motives had been forced of late into a preposterous growth. I wanted to be my young credulous self again; I was ready even to waive the question of the cheque, if only Hawkesby would leave me alone to skimp and deny myself, and recover lost ground thereby. And when I thought of the bill he might be running up against me, I shivered.

But the respite was only a respite—by no means a reprieve. All too soon I was in his thrall again.

His manner had taken on a new seriousness; the weight of fresh problems and responsibilities had scored his brow with thunder. The range of his enquiries, he told me, was widening and ever widening. He left me almost in tears.

At length the end came. One day he suddenly appeared before me, his face suffused with a light of sombre triumph. The eccentric course of his enquiries, he said, had whirled him inevitably at last to the seashore. He had certain information that Priscilla Pipkin had gone to America.

And then Mrs. Hoskins came in.

She apologised; didn't know I was engaged, and so on. But the fact was that she had done a body wrong by her insiniations, and, being an honest woman, couldn't abide to rest till she had made the truth known. She thought, in brief, the explanation due to me that Priscilla Pipkin had had her reasons for departing suddenly as she had that morning, having received by the post an invitation, or an order, rather, from her young man (recently promoted) to come and marry him at once on that first of May, parsons obliging, or for ever hold her peace. To which peremptory citation Priscilla Pipkin had incontinently succumbed, and was now in Mrs. Hoskins's kitchen, on a visit to her former mistress, the proud possessor of the surname and affections of Mr. Bertie Birdekin.

"And very modest she bears it, that I will say," said Mrs. Hoskins.

I looked at Hawkesby. He was equal to the occasion.

"A double," he whispered. "I shouldn't have thought her up to it."

Then he addressed Mrs. Hoskins affably.

"And where's this Mrs. Birdekin been living since her marriage?" he said.

"Why, that's the queer part of it," answered my landlady. "No farther away than the next street, sir, if you'll believe me."

"I believe you, of course, ma'am," he said, with a knowing emphasis on the pronoun, and a wink to me to imply: "We haven't travelled where we have to be made Mrs. Birdekin's gulls!" Then he continued aloud: "And now, ma'am, with your permission, we will wait upon this young woman."

Mrs. Hoskins looked surprised; but preceded us to the kitchen. There, sure enough, was Priscilla, in a hat with a whole cherry-orchard in it. She blushed and giggled as she rose to greet me.

"A moment," said Hawkesby, as I stuck undecided. "We—my friend here and me—have been wanting to see you, Mrs. Birdekin; very much we have."

Priscilla gaped, dumbfoundered.

"Quite a romance," said Hawkesby, "upon my word—your being hooked like that, I mean, by a letter—and the only one, too, that came by that post, I understand."

"No," said Priscilla; "there were another."

"O, indeed!" said Hawkesby. "For whom?"

"For the lodger, sir."

"Dear, dear! how very strange. Would you be surprised to hear, now, that he never received it?"

"I put it under his door, sir," said Priscilla, breathing a little hard.

"Would you mind showing us, now, exactly where?"

Somehow, then, we were all trooping upstairs. I felt horribly mean and treacherous—shaken, moreover, with a premonition of scenes unthinkable to follow. It was Priscilla who threw open the door, and who scanned the room with a lost air, as if baffled in the hope that the letter, unaccountably overlooked by us, might be lying there on the threshold all the time.

"I shot it in for certain," she said, half weeping. "It were a windy morning; perhaps it went under the carpet."

Hawkesby, with a smile of ineffable toleration, lifted the hem of the thing—and there was the letter.

A dead silence ensued. Then I looked for Hawkesby. He was nowhere to be seen. He had folded his tent like the Arab, and as silently stolen away. I began giggling like a maniac; and then checked myself with a gasp.

"O! that's all right," I said. "I couldn't make it out, and wanted you to tell me, that was all; but—but you were gone. It was unwise of you to leave us in that way, Priscilla; but, never mind—my wedding present shall carry interest with it, now I know where to send it."

"You're very good, sir," she said, drying her eyes. "Bert's badly in need of an accordion."