Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/How our grandmother stopped the thief
HOW OUR GRANDMOTHER STOPPED THE THIEF.
I am a very old lady. I have very often told my grandchildren the story of how I stopped the thief. And now they beg me to write it down, that they may read my story themselves. When I am dead, they mean. And so I write it.
When I was a little girl, I lived alone in an old country farm-house with my father. Your great grandmother died, as you have heard, when I was born, and so I was my father’s only companion. Dearly I loved him, and tenderly he talked to me of all his labours and all his pleasures. At the time I write of I was just eleven years old; a merry boisterous girl, with big fearless eyes, and a spirit of achievement that was always getting me into mischief. I could fill pages with my adventures, but I know you only now wish for one.
I must describe our house. It was built in the days of Dutch William, by some one who had learned to love the houses of Holland. The dwelling-house itself was nearly a cube: a great cube of dark red brick. The front door opened into a passage that pierced the block, and ended by another door which led into our farm-yard. There were two tall, narrow windows on either side of the principal door, and five tall, narrow windows on the first story. A heavy cornice hung over this row of windows, and from it rose the steep roof, covered with curly red tiles. This roof did not rise to a point. It was surmounted by a kind of summer house of wood, about seven or eight feet square, with a window in each of its four sides. This little chamber, which we called our lighthouse, was itself surmounted by a big shining vane. The interior of the lighthouse was reached through a small trap-door. This trap-door was in the ceiling of the great garret formed by the whole roof of the house. The garret could only be entered by one other trap-door, which opened into my father’s room. There was just space enough in the lighthouse for my father’s writing-table. There he kept his accounts, not without some straining of his brain, with scrupulous exactness. There he wrote his letters, on those rare occasions when necessity compelled him to do so. There were his samples of corn, his rusty pistols, and his dozen drawers of indescribable odds and ends. There he could see the half of his lands, and exercise a distant supervision over his men.
Four times a year my father paid the rent for his hired lands. The home-farm, as you know, was his own. On the day before the rent was to be taken to the landlord’s steward, the sum was always brought in gold from the bank at the town. Such a proceeding might not be very wise, but it was hallowed by its antiquity. The money was usually kept in a bag in my father’s own room. All these arrangements were well known to me. I shut my eyes now, and I see my father in his clean gaiters, and the neat bow that tied his hair; I see him ride off on his roan hack to pay his rent, and I know every crease in the little leathern bag that carries the gold.
All the tribe of house servants and labourers who lived on our farm knew my father’s ways as well as I did. But he was unsuspicious to a fault.
One Friday evening my father had ridden to the town, and had come back with his gold. All the maids and the men were sitting at their supper in our great kitchen, and I stood by the noisy fire waiting for my father to come down to them. He always came in to their meal, said a hearty word to those who were nearest to him, and then retired with me to his own parlour, his supper, and his pipe of peace.
On the particular evening in question, he walked into the room, swinging something in his hand. It was the leathern bag that carried the money; but it was empty. I knew that its place was in the bureau in my father’s room—not empty, but full.
“Father,” I said, “where’s the money? Why haven’t you locked it up in the bag?”
Everybody in the room heard my question, for there was always a hush when the master came among his men, and everybody in the room heard his answer:
“Where’s the money, missie? I mounted the lighthouse when I came in, to get the keys I left there in the morning, caught the bag in the corner of the table, and tumbled all the coin into the drawer. There it may lie. It’s safe enough.”
In an hour more, I had been dismissed with my usual kiss, and was shut close in my own room. I have said that I should describe the house. I have only partly done so. The great range of stables and farm-buildings, at the corner of which the actual house was built, were partly made out of the ruins of an old manor-house that had fallen into decay with a fallen family. The only part of the buildings that still showed any signs of architectural beauty was one gable end, where the stables abutted on the modern house. There stood still an old room on a third floor, with great mullioned windows, each in a gable of its own, that stood out from the old roof. Two of these large windows looked out to the west; and on the south side, which adjoined the modern house, was a smaller attic window, apparently inserted since the dismantling of the building, for instead of mullions, it contained a rough sash. The base of this little window (it was some five feet in height) was on the floor of the attic, and nearly level with the projecting cornice of the house. Between the cornice and the sill of the window was a space of about a yard. The staircase of the old house led from what had been the hall (now filled with gardening tools and accumulations of out-door rubbish) into a room on the first floor, and up into the top room with the three windows. At some former time it had been proposed to use both the old and new buildings for domestic purposes, and a bridge passage had been built between the first-floor landing of the old staircase, and the room which I occupied. The door which led from my room to the little passage had been since furnished with many stout locks and bolts, but they were all on my side. It was a special delight to me to escape through my own door, and wander about the premises. I had taken possession of the great attic with the great old windows, and there I kept my treasures, and did my best-loved work, as my father in his lighthouse. My father condoned my independence, and would only say, as he bade me good night:
“Mind you lock your private front door, little missie. I would not have thee stolen.”
On the night in question, I lay long awake. I heard all the servants who slept in the house mount to their rooms. Then I heard my father locking and barring the two doors of the passage, and ascend in his turn, pausing a minute to listen at my room, before he retired to his own. Still I lay awake, and grew restless in my bed. I began to think of all that I had done in the day, and of all I meant to do to-morrow. I was going down; to fish in the beck with Beriah, the stable-help, and Mary, the dairywoman. I had been cutting a new hazel top to my rod, up in my sanctum in the old buildings. And where was my knife that I had been cutting with? My knife that my father had brought me from the town a year ago, and that I loved so very fondly? I had left it in the attic. Of course no one would go there. It was quite safe. But how silly to leave it! Could I go and fetch it? No: certainly not. My father would be very angry with me for going out in the night. I must go to sleep. But I should like to see how the attic looks in the bright moonlight that shines in my room. I cannot do any harm by going out. And I cannot sleep. And I hate to lie awake. The Dutch clock on the stairs strikes eleven. The house has been quite still for an hour and a half.
I stepped gently out of my bed, and stole to the window. How sharply outlined thé shadows were. I remember the whole scene now. Great clouds were coursing over the sky, and presently the moon would be hid. I turned the key in the lock of my own door. It moved so silently and easily, that I could not help pulling back the bolts. In another minute I was in my attic. You may think that I was a very courageous girl, and very unlike most of the children you know. Perhaps children nowadays have more foolish ideas in their heads, than those of seventy years ago. I knew nothing to be afraid of. There lay my rod, and there was my cherished knife, its blade looking very blue in the moonlight. I shut it, and vowed never to be so careless again. How strange the room looked! Everything was very black, or very bright, and the broad mullions made great stripes of shadow over the floor. I feasted my eyes at the big window, and then I turned to the little one. Opposite to me rose up the steep tiled roof, and at the top was the lighthouse, its vane shining in the clear light, and its windows looking just as though there were a candle inside. I had turned to go down to my bed again, for I was beginning to be conscious that it was cold, when I saw the window of the lighthouse that was nearest to me slowly open. I cannot say that I was exactly afraid, even then. I was spell-bound with astonishment, and stood motionless to watch. The sash was raised, and a man cautiously got out. He moved awkwardly, and seemed to have his hands tied. Then he began to descend the roof very slowly, and very warily. He leaned back against the tiles, and lodging his feet and elbows in their projections, advanced inch by inch along his perilous journey, with his hands still in front of him. I had just time to recognise his features, when the great cloud came over the moon, and in the sudden gloom of the comparative darkness, I could see little. But I had seen enough now. The man was one James Connor, a labourer on the farm. He had come to the house some weeks ago, and though my father knew nothing of him, and he looked like a mere tramp, he had been received. His fellow-servants had complained, once or twice, that he was a drunkard, but he had promised amendment. He was in the kitchen when my father had indiscreetly answered my indiscreet question. What he was doing was clear enough. He had passed through my father’s room before the house was closed for the night, had concealed himself in the garret till all was still, and had then mounted to the lighthouse to steal the money. He could not descend through my father’s room without rousing him. Nor was it needful to do so. He knew the premises well, and was aware that if he could descend the roof, and gain the little window, he could at once reach the farm-yard, and so make his way whithersoever he would. All this flashed through my mind as the cloud fell over the moon. In a moment I was watching more eagerly through the night, as the dim figure crept heedfully downward. He wore his shirt, and stockings, and shoes, and a pair of rough breeches. In his hands he held his spoils, perhaps because he wore no pockets; perhaps, because, as his stupid look showed, he was half drunk, and ran the risk of marring his plot, and maiming himself for life, by his folly. This I could not explain. I only saw him coming lower, lower, lower, with my father’s gold clasped in his hands. The bottom sash alone was standing in the window, about a yard from the floor in height, and there was nothing between us but the abyss between the two buildings. I was hidden completely in the dark corner of the window. I thought the man must fall. He reached the cornice in safety, and stood up for a second before he stept across. Then he stept from roof to roof, and in a moment was leaning over the sash, supporting himself upon it by his arms, and resting his feet on the gutter that ran round the wall outside.
All this time I had simply watched. I had not thought what to do. I could not run away for help. I was chained to the spot. I knew that if the robber was to be baffled, it must be done now. As he paused before he clambered over the sash, and as he held out his hands with their spoil within them, I struck them with all my strength. The suddenness of the shock effected what my weak form could never have done. The man was startled, his hands parted, and the gold rolled all over the floor. With a curse he clutched at my arm as I darted from the window, and caught it with a grasp that I feel to this hour. Had his power not been crippled by his dangerous position I should have stood but a sorry chance against him. He could only use one arm, for with the other he was compelled to steady himself on the window. With that one arm he held me, and raised his knee to step into the room. I do not know why he did not let me go. He could have caught me long before I could have given any serious alarm, and have silenced me effectually. He could not at the same time hold me and enter the room. All this time I did not scream. It seemed to me that the struggle was too serious to be interrupted, and I felt so intense an earnestness in the work of trying to escape, that I was prevented from uttering a sound. At last the thief contrived to hold my little wrist in his huge hand, and grasp the sash with it at the same time. In a second he would have been in the room. He could have stunned, or perhaps murdered, me, in a moment—have re-collected the gold, have descended into the court, and in those days, when as yet there were neither detectives nor telegraphs, have escaped. It was my left arm that was prisoned. In my right I held the knife. I was desperate, then; and though I was but a little, small-boned girl, all the devil in me was roused. I fear I could have slain the man with small compunction, at the instant of the deed. I lifted the clasp-knife to my mouth, and tore open the blade with my teeth, and then I cut at the wrist of my foe as though I would cut it through. He started back with a cry of pain and fury, lost his hold on the window, and fell. I heard the dull, heavy sound of his body as it struck the ground below. My left arm was covered with the hot blood I had shed. Then I turned round to rouse the house. But my young nerves remained strung only while the work was to be done. I staggered, and fell fainting among the broad guineas I had saved. I lay senseless for some hours, and then woke with a strange feeling of having done or suffered something—I hardly knew what. Slowly I remembered what had happened. It was still dark. I went to the window to see what had become of my antagonist. There was light enough for me to see a dark mass below me, which I thought could be nothing else than Connor’s body. I turned my head to the left, and saw the first faint light of morning breaking through the clouds. In half an hour the world of the farm would be astir. Slowly I returned to my deserted chamber, and passed through it to my father’s. It did not take long to assure him of my being whole and unhurt, in spite of my bloody nightdress. Wondering as I told him my tale, he called some of his men, and we went out to see the enemy. He was alive. I felt a thrill of pleasure at knowing that, though I could have taken his life so ruthlessly in my rage. He was alive, but so bruised and injured by his fall that he was perfectly helpless. One of his legs was broken, as we discovered afterwards, and his right arm was out of joint. The gash of my knife had done him no serious harm. It was a bad cut; but no more. He was carried off to gaol as soon as he could be moved. I will not tell you the story of his trial and his punishment. I remember the judge said that the little girl was more fit to carry the King’s colours than many a man of twice her years. But I doubt whether I could have carried a big flag, though I conquered a thief. And now my story is done. It happened seventy years ago, my children; but I remember it all, and though I own to being proud of my stout heart, I have exaggerated nothing.