|W.S. Gilbert > Short Stories > The Key of the Strong Room
This story is also available as a PDF File [152 KB]
Orather, how the Bad came to Johnny Pounce; for Johnny Pounce was a brisk, energetic little man, with a strong sense of his own duty towards his neighbour, and a very hazy and indefinite notion of his neighbour's duty towards himself; and it has been generally observed that the folk who appear to go to the bad of their own volition are distinguished by precisely opposite characteristics, inasmuch as they are, as a rule, neither brisk nor energetic (except in the matter of language) and while they have formed the liveliest possible conception of what is due to themselves from others, appear to imagine that their obliging conduct in consenting to exist is an ample set-off against any account which might otherwise have stood against them in their neighbours' books.
He had been Johnny Pounce for many years. There is in the lifetime of most Johnnies an epoch at which the last syllable is cut off from the affectionate diminutive as being a species of undignified fringe, which, although proper and consistent when taken in conjunction with embroidered collars, frilled trousers, and caps of peculiar construction, resembling nothing so much as a concertina with a tassel and a spinal affection, is wholly inconsistent with the maturer dignity of jackets and highlow boots, to say nothing whatever of whiskers and the toga virilis. But it was otherwise with Johnny Pounce, There existed a legend in his family that for some years after his christening he was addressed and referred to on all occasions, formal or otherwise, as John, with a view to the propitiation of a rich uncle, likewise so called, who was then, and for ever after until he died Something in Demerara, and who was known to have entertained great objections to anything in the shape of a corruption of his own name, and who would, it was supposed, be proportionately gratified at his nephew's Christian name being maintained in its integrity.
But the rich uncle died insolvent of Sugar, when Johnny Pounce was six years old, to the great indignation of the Pounce family generally, and of those immediately interested in Johnny's welfare in particular. They had only one way of taking it out of the rich uncle's memory, and they availed themselves of it without delay. John became Jack upon the spot, and the name, whenever it was used, was rapped out with an emphatic asperity, which, although in no way referable to any misconduct on the part of its small proprietor, plunged that citizen into great consternation whenever family necessities required that he should be addressed by name. A sense of injury is seldom so deeply implanted, however, that time will not do much towards uprooting it, and in the course of years a compromise was effected, and John became Johnny. This consummation was brought about by various causes, and among others, through the intercession of the small owner himself, as he considered the emendation was not so susceptible of startling emphasis as the shorter corruption, and moreover would give him more time to collect and arrange under various heads, those senses which were generally widely scattered whenever it was necessary to address him. A stern sense of the impropriety of disturbing the average which declared that every John shall be both Johnny and Jack in the course of his existence, may have had some influence in inducing Johnny's papa (who was then in temporary employment as a Census clerk) to make the alteration. As Johnny grew up, he continued so small (if one may so express oneself) and evinced a disposition so pleasantly timid and so easily imposed upon, and interpreted by such a cheery, piping little voice, that the propriety, not to say the necessity, of continuing to identify him as Johnny Pounce, was tacitly admitted as a matter of course upon all sides. So as Johnny Pounce he grew up, as Johnny Pounce he fought the battle of life, in a timidly courageous sort of way, like the comic soldier in the Battle of Waterloo, who is such a terrible coward until the necessity of engaging six or eight cuirassiers at once, becomes apparent.
Hitherto, that is to say up to the date of Johnny's going to the Bad, the Bad had left him pretty well to himself. Johnny was far from being a rich man, for he was an attorney's clerk, but he was almost as far removed, or so he thought, from being a very poor one. At the age of thirteen he entered the office of Messrs. Pintle and Sim, gentlemen, attorneys of Her Majesty's Courts at Westminster, and solicitors of the High Court of Chancery, at a commencing salary of seven shillings a week. The salary was small, but then so was Johnny, and it was understood that the two should increase and grow up together — an arrangement which was fortunately broken through, for at fifteen Johnny became, physically, a constant quantity. The salary, however, was increased by small degrees, as the unobtrusive virtues of the recipient became unintentionally conspicuous, until at the age of fifty-five he found himself in the possession of one hundred and fifty pounds per annum, together with his employers' full and undivided confidence.
Johnny had married, at the age of twenty-one, a pleasant round-faced little body of about his own age. She was the daughter of the housekeeper then attached to Pintle and Sim's offices, in Carey Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and by her he had a son. The son, Young John for distinction, was a tall young fellow, who had been decently educated by his father, and effectually provided for by Messrs. Pintle and Sim, who had managed to procure for him a Government appointment — a junior assistant clerkship in the office of the Board for the Dissemination of Pauper Philosophy. Jack Pounce was looked up to as the great Pounce Court Card, being the representative of Majesty in the Pounce Councils, and in that capacity was played with great effect by Mrs. Pounce, whenever it became necessary, in contest with a fashionable lodging-letting neighbour, to assert the family respectability.
Not that the office of the Board for the Dissemination of Pauper Philosophy was an aristocratic Government office, or even an agreeable one, as far as the clerks were concerned. To be sure it was situated in Whitehall, and the hours were from eleven to five, which sounded well, but any aristocratic inferences drawn from these facts would be decidedly erroneous. It was to the Pauper Philosophy Office that all those shabby, not to say dirty, young men in caps and pipes, contrasting strongly with the graceful crowd of other more fortunate Government clerks, were making their way down Parliament Street at a quarter to eleven every morning, and it was at the door of the Pauper Philosophy Office that many unceremonious arrests were made by showy Caucasians, who looked quite gentlemanly by contrast with their dispirited and shabby prisoners.
In fact the Pauper Philosophy Office, from the President of the Board and Secretary down to the assistant messengers, lived in chronic hot water, which appeared to have had the effect of boiling them, hard, so particularly impracticable were all officials connected with the establishment to each other and to the world at large. The President of the Board was in hot water, because he was ostensibly responsible for the proceedings of the office; and as he was a ministerial officer who in his ministerial capacity was also responsible for the good behaviour of five and twenty other Departments, with the intricate working of which he was supposed to become intimate by a species of Divine Right, immediately upon his taking office, he found his time fully occupied in cramming up "explanations," wherewith to satisfy the awkward demands of members with a natural taste for figures. The Secretary was in hot water because remorseless leader writers invariably spotted him as the actual author of every official bungle, and called (about three times a month) upon the country for his instant dismissal. The Under-Secretaries were in hot water because they found that the Secretary, upon parliamentary emergencies, was so fully occupied in cramming the President, that every detail of official business was referred to them for decision — matters upon which, as one was appointed by a Liberal, and the other by a Conservative Government, they never entirely agreed and the clerks were in hot water because they were deeply in debt, because they hated each other, looking, as they did, upon each other as the stepping-stones to a yearly increment of £10 instead of £5, and because their prospects in life were limited to the remote possibility of their attaining, one at a time, the princely salary of £300, after a forty years' apprenticeship. And finally, the messengers were in hot water because the clerks owed them money, because they owed each other money, and because hot arguments as to the comparative official superiority of clerks and messengers arose upon every occasion upon which these functionaries came into collision.
There was only one class of officials connected with the Pauper Philosophy Department, which appeared to enjoy a comparative immunity from the general feeling of unhappiness and discontent which pervaded the office. These were the Examiners; a dozen or so of gentlemen who were appointed (for no reason that clearly appeared) at a salary of £300, rising (for no obvious cause) by large yearly instalments to £800. It was required of these gentlemen that they should smoke pipes, drink beer, make bets, come when they liked, go when they liked, do what they liked, and be saddled with no responsibility whatever. These twelve gentlemen were the stock Mystery of the civil service. More questions were asked in the House about these functionaries than about any other minor topic of Parliamentary discussion, and they were naturally proud of the interest they excited. Sometimes, to be sure, this interest grew to rather too unwieldy dimensions to be pleasant, and in such cases it would become the duty of one of them to manufacture a return calculated to show, beyond all dispute, that the whole work of the Pauper Philosophy Office was, in point of fact, discharged by them, whereupon they would be much complimented in an indirect sort of way, and the subject allowed to drop for the time.
On Christmas Eve, in the year of grace 1854, Johnny Pounce entertained a small circle of his more intimate friends. Johnny lived on a second floor in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and on the second floor in question were assembled besides Johnny Pounce, and his wife, and his son John, Mr. and Mrs. Jemmy Feather, and Mr. Jemmy Feather, junior. Mr. Feather made a good thing of it as clerk to Bolter, Q.C. Jemmy Feather was a short, stoutish, middle-aged gentleman, with a highly respectable gold chain, a responsible-looking shirt pin, and a gold ring which was a reference in itself. Mrs. Feather was a weazen little body, with over lady-like manners, and a tendency to be ultra-genteel. Mr. Feather, junior, was fifteen, and in collars and straps. He was also in Bolter, Q.C.'s chambers as a sort of under-clerk and beer-fetcher to Bolter's pupils. This fact was carefully concealed from Mrs. Feather, who had been deluded by her designing husband into the idea that Mr. Feather, junior, spent his day in an arm chair, settling pleas and declarations all day long, and occasionally meeting in consultation such attorneys as his employer could not conveniently find time to see. This hypothetical and rosy view of the real facts of the case reconciled his mamma to his entering the service of a Queen's Counsel in such large practice that his clerk drew about £300 a year in fees alone. Then there was Joe Round, Mrs. Joe Round, and Miss Joe Round, and Miss Joe Round's young man, in a pink fluffy face, and blue stock with gold flies. Joe Round was deputy usher at the Central Criminal Court. He was a big, full-voiced man, with a red face, black curly hair, and a self-assertive manner. He had a way with him which seemed to say, "I am Joe Round. Take me as you find me, or let me go, but don't find fault." Mrs. Joe Round was a beautiful specimen of faded gentility. She was an Old Bailey attorney's daughter, and a taste for exciting trials had led her in early youth to the C. C. C., where she saw Joe Round, fell in love with his big voice, and married him. Miss Round was a rather pretty girl, with flirty, aggravating ways which threatened to drive Miss Round's young man (who was a Toast-master) into a state of utter desperation. John Pounce the younger was present, but sat apart in a moody, sulky way, that created considerable astonishment; for John was a strapping, good-looking young fellow, with plenty to say for himself, and always, on occasions of festivity, in good humour.
The evening had been spent as most conventional Christmas Eves are. There is a fearful ordeal to be gone through by all who wish to see Christmas-day in according to rule, and this ordeal is called Forfeits. By way of atonement for an imaginary crime you are required to perform an enigmatical and apparently impossible task. As there exist only about six of these supplicia, and as everybody has known them, and their solution by heart from the age of four, and as the tasks, when known, are of the simplest possible description, it is difficult to see in what particular feature the amusement consists. In nearly all cases the penalty involves kisses, which, have to be bestowed on young ladies present, which is an insulting view to take of what is usually looked upon as a favour, and places them, moreover, in an embarrassing position. As there was only one young lady present, Miss Round, she became as a matter of course the implement of torture to the aggravation of the pink young toast-master, who appeared to be doing the reverse of drinking everybody's health, and making no exception in favour of young John, between whom and Miss Round an excellent understanding seemed to exist.
Supper had been laid, devoured, and removed, and a fragrant liquor looking like gravy soup, but being in point of fact, rum-punch, had taken its place. Cheery little Johnny Pounce was ladling it out of a very large ladle into very small glasses, with a skill which argued an extensive practice, extending over a large number of consecutive Christmas Eves.
Johnny Pounce was eminently loyal, and there were three toasts that invariably obtained at his meetings, the Queen, Church and State, and the Firm.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, in proposing the last toast, "I call it still the Firm, though it's a Firm no longer except in name. Mr. Sim, as you have heard me say, left the business three years since, and he's now in Melbourne doing his ten thousand a year, God bless him. It's my conviction, gentlemen, that if ever there was a better-hearted gentleman than Pintle that gentleman is Sim, and if ever there existed a nobler old gentleman than Sim that old gentleman is Pintle. They were good to me when I was a boy no higher than — than I am now, gentlemen, and they've made a man of me, and they've given me my old wife there (hear, hear) — my old wife there, who's looking just the same in my old eyes as she did thirty year ago, gentlemen. ("Go along, Johnny, do," from Mrs. Pounce.) She's stuck to me through thick and thin, for I've had a hardish time of it, take one thing with another, and here I am thrown high and dry beyond the reach, as I humbly believe, of poverty, with my boy here — look up, young John — with my boy here a-serving the Queen; (John, my boy, fill up) — a-serving the Queen, God bless her, and doing more to make his old dad's heart happy, by doing that for ninety pound a year than if he was managing a bank with five hundred, gentlemen. Gentlemen, this is all Pintle and Sim, and what I say is, Here's the health of Pintle and Sim, and God bless 'em. The Firm, gentlemen."
The toast was received with all enthusiasm.
"Why, young John," said Johnny. "Cheer up, lad, you're terrible down-hearted to-night!"
"What's it all about, John?" said Jemmy Feather. "Give it a name, young John."
"I think Mr. John must be in love," said Miss Round.
"Nonsense, I'm all right, father. Don't mint me, I'm a bit low to-night, but it's nothing to speak of."
"Now, Mr. John,'' said Miss Round, "I insist upon your cheering up. It's a very bad compliment you're paying me; I declare you haven't spoken a word to me all the evening." And Miss Round assumed a becoming pout which had worked great things in bringing the young toast-master to the point.
The effect of the usually successful pout was quite lost upon Mr. John, who fidgeted upon his chair in an unsatisfactory and discontented way. Not so, however, upon the toast-master who, remembering the effect the pout in question had had upon him, regarded young John with feelings of the bitterest hate. He was, of course, unable to convey any verbal expressions of his sentiments on this point, so he contented himself with silently drinking innumerable ironical toasts, all of which professed to invoke blessings without number on the head of the miserable young man.
A knock was heard at the door, and a drabby maid servant put her head in.
"Mr. Pounce, sir. If you please, sir, you're wanted."
"Eh, what, Maria, me wanted? Why, who wants Johnny Pounce at half-past twelve on Christmas morning?"
"It's a gentleman, sir. It's from the Firm. He's in the back room."
"God bless me, at this time of night! Excuse me, old friends, for a moment; I'll be with you again directly. Here, young John, take my place, my boy, and give 'em a song: I'll be back directly." And Johnny Pounce left the room.
Young John could not in strictness be complimented upon his conduct in the chair. The song which his father had suggested on leaving the room, was loudly called for.
"Now, young John," said Round. "The song. Silence in court."
"Oh do, Mr. John," chorussed the ladies.
"For my sake," added Miss Round.
"Yes, for her sake," muttered the toast-master, ironically.
"Look here," said John, "I'm not in cue for singing, and that's the long and short of it. Hang it all, can't you see that?"
It could be seen, and very plainly too. The poor fellow presented a depressing specimen of a convivial chairman.
"I believe it's usual to sing when called on," said the toast-master. "At least that's the rule."
"Hear, hear," from Feather. "Now, gents, what do you say? The prisoner at the bar stands on his deliverance."
"Ha! ha! Good that. 'Stands on his deliverance.' So he does." This from Round.
"Now, gents, you shall well and truly try; eh, Round, my boy?"
"Certainly," said the usher. "'Well and truly try.' Well said, Jemmy. Good. 'Well and truly try. And true deliverance make.'"
Whether the result of this combination of forces backed up as it was by the majesty of the Law, would have had the desired effect is uncertain, for at that moment Johnny Pounce entered the room as pale as a ghost.
"We're very glad you're come, Mr. Pounce," said Mrs. Feather, "young Mr. John is quite refractory he won't sing, do what we can. Why, dear me, Mr. Pounce, what on earth's the matter?"
"There must be no more singing to-night; an awful thing has happened. Mr. Pintle fell down dead half-an-hour ago!"
And Johnny Pounce dropped into his chair, and covered his face with his hands.
"Good God, Johnny! Dead!" said Mrs. Pounce; "Mr. Pintle dead!"
"Yes, dead! and me drinking his health not ten minutes since. Old friends, you'll forgive me, I know; but I'm afraid we must break up; it's an awful thing."
"And you a drinking of his health!" reflected the toast-master, with an air which suggested that he regretted the circumstance as having a tendency to lessen the general belief in the efficacy of toasts, and, indirectly, in his professional importance.
The company arose to go amid an awkward silence, which was broken by occasional and spasmodic efforts at common-place consolation.
The having to go away gave a heartless effect to the behaviour of the company; it seemed so like deserting a friend in the hour of need; but there was no help for it, and one by one, almost silently, the visitors took their departure.
"It's a dreadful thing," said Johnny, when he and his wife and son were left alone. "Disease of the heart: sudden, quite sudden; dropped down in his chair, and me sent to, to give up his papers; I must be off to the office."
"Oh, Johnny, Johnny! what are we to do? Poor Mr. Pintle! Such a fine old gentleman, and ten years more life you could have declared to; the picture of health he always was. Poor Mrs. Pintle!"
And Johnny Pounce wrapped himself in a great coat and shawl, and hurried through the driving snow across Lincoln's Inn Fields into Carey Street.
The visitors (for they were two) who had so unceremoniously disturbed Johnny's party were waiting for him in a Hansom at the office door. One of them was an errand-lad, whose faculties seemed to have been quite dispersed by the frightful occurrence which had just taken place, and which, in fact, he had almost witnessed. The other was a tall, dark gentlemanly man, with a heavy black moustache and military bearing. He was John Redfern, the late Mr. Pintle's nephew and heir-at-law, and held a captain's commission in a cavalry regiment. The mission upon which he had come was to fetch the will which was known to be in the office, together with such other documents as might refer to the affairs of the dead man, and to seal all cupboards, doors, and safes.
"Oh! here you are," said Captain Redfern.
"What a deuce of a time you've been! Now, we'll get the will and other papers, and then you must come down with them to Russell Square, and deliver them into Mrs. Pintle's custody."
Poor Johnny opened the office door with some difficulty, for his hand shook violently, and his eyes were blinded with big tears. Although he winked and blinked hard at them, they wouldn't take the hint, but rolled down his face until their identity was lost in that of the melting snow on his woollen comforter.
"Mr. Pintle's will, sir, is in this box; shall I take it to Russell Square, sir, or unlock it here?"
"Better open it now," said Captain Redfern; "Mrs. Pintle is, of course, greatly distressed, and would be unable to attend to it at present. Open it; will you?"
The box was opened, but no will was there; and the papers it contained referred only to mortgages effected on his real property. Poor Johnny stood utterly dismayed, as he had a perfect recollection of having seen Mr. Pintle place it there a few days before his death.
"There is no will here, sir, and yet he always told me to look here for it if ever he was carried off sudden. What's more, I see him put it in here himself not three days ago. It was the day before yesterday when he kindly added a codicil, which increased the sum he was good enough to leave to me, sir; I'm his confidential clerk, sir, and have been for fifteen year, and he'd have told me if ——"
"Well, but isn't there any other receptacle into which he may have placed it? Think now. Don't stand staring there, but bustle about and find it."
"Captain Redfern, I'm doing my best to think, but my head's not strong, and I've been terribly shook, sir. There are the drawers of his private table; it's the only place I can think of."
The drawers of the desk were opened one by one, and their contents overhauled, Memoranda, important letters that required his personal attention, stationery, and other matters of a similar nature, were there, but no will.
"I'm quite lost, sir," said Johnny. "It's the most extraordinary thing! He would never have destroyed it without telling me."
"Come along, you boy," said Captain Redfern to the office lad. "You can go," he added to Pounce. "I keep you on at your salary another week, during which time you be always here in case you're wanted. At the end of the week you go. Take this as notice to quit. Stop; seal up the inner room;" and sealed up the inner room was.
Captain Redfern and the boy got into the Hansom, and drove off to Russell Square. Old Johnny Pounce, completely staggered by what had occurred, locked the outer door, and trudged back through the cold slush to Great Queen Street.
His wife and son were still sitting up, talking over the event of the evening, when Johnny entered. The mother had evidently been recapitulating the chances of Johnny Pounce having been comfortably provided for; and young John listened sulkily, but with interest nevertheless.
"Well, Johnny, back again! Now you just drink this right off before you say another word;" and she handed him a big tumbler of punch, which she had kept hot for him during his absence.
"No, no, my dear; no punch. It's a most extraordinary thing, but there's no will to be found. He must have destroyed it since the day before yesterday, and I've notice to go this day week. Thus ends forty-five years' faithful service!"
"Oh! Johnny!" sobbed his wife.
"Young John, my boy," said his father, "there's no knowing how long I may be without employment; for I'm an old man, John, and it'll be poor work whatever it is. You're the head of the family now, young John, and it's your turn to show yourself equal to the position. You're the Queen's servant, John, and a gentleman. John, my boy, we must look to you."
"Don't look to me, father, for much," said young John, "for I got the sack this morning!"
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive | W.S. Gilbert | Short Stories
Page modified 28 July, 2011 Copyright © 2008 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved