|W.S. Gilbert > Short Stories > The Key of the Strong Room
Twas a terrible blow to Johnny Pounce and his wife, who had a restless time of it that night. He knew very well that Mr. Pintle had made a will, and further, that his, Johnny Pounce's, name was down in it for £1,000, which was a sum sufficient to render him independent for life. If the will turned up, which appeared unlikely, all would be well; if not, the family prospects were particularly unsatisfactory. He was thrown out of employment, with no immediate prospect of obtaining anything half so good (for he was getting on in years), and had saved but little money, for he knew, or felt sure that he knew, that Pintle and Sim would never let him want. Moreover his son, whom he had looked upon as the only prop and stay of the family respectability, had that day been ignominiously discharged from his clerkship.
And the manner of his dismissal was this. He had a few days before, in resisting a piece of unnecessary petty tyranny on the part of a fellow clerk in temporary charge of his department, used stronger language than was absolutely necessary. This was reported to the Secretary. Now the Secretary had a double action, back-hand way of dealing with complaints of the kind between "hands," (as he delighted to call them) of nearly equal rank, and the usual remedy was adopted on this occasion. Fox (the complainant) was rebuked for having used unnecessary tyranny, but it was shown that young John was doubly culpable, for he not only resisted the order, which he should have obeyed and then complained of, but he had also sworn a bad oath, and otherwise misconducted himself (being a hot-headed young fellow) to the annihilation of all order and discipline. So it was ordered that young John should forthwith publicly apologize to the miscreant Fox, which young John resolutely declined to do. So My Lords deliberated on the state of the case, and the result of the deliberation was that young John was required to deliver over into My Lords' hands his resignation of the appointment he held under them.
A more miserable young man than young John was on the afternoon of Christmas Eve probably never stepped out of a government office. He was absolutely penniless, and particularly deeply in debt — in a small vulgar way — besides. He had borrowed £5 from a loan office, and he was in debt to the amount of some pounds to the tavern-keeper who supplied his dinner. His tailor and boot-maker had for months been a source of anxiety to him, sleeping and waking; and a miserable bit of kite-flying (of which he expected to hear more on the 1st February) exercised a depressing influence over him, which appeared to increase in geometrical proportion as the day approached.
As a set-off to these claims, he had his half quarter's cheque on the Paymaster-General for about £12, and a letter from the Secretary accepting his resignation in My Lords' names.
Young John had, however, quite made up his mind as to his future course. The Crimean war was then in full swing, the battles of the Alma and Inkerman had both been fought in the course of the last three or four months, and the demand for young and active fellows to fill up the lists of the dead was unprecedented. There were recruiting sergeants at every street corner in Westminster, who talked with robust eloquence of the glories of the War (which they had not seen) and of the rollicking character of life in the trenches (of which they had formed but vague and imperfect notions). Liberal bounty and a free kit were offered as a temptation, should the war itself be an insufficient attraction. Of the starving, with plenty within grasp (only under lock and key); of the freezing, with new great-coats and rugs in tens of thousands a mile away (only under seal); of the dying for want of medicines and bandages, with stores of drugs and bales of lint within pistol shot (only stowed in ship holds) nothing was said. In point of fact, of these matters little or nothing was then known in England. Young John had made up his mind that morning that he would take the shilling of the first smart cavalry sergeant who hailed him, so he spent an hour or two in writing a letter to his father and mother (enclosing his cheque on the Paymaster-General duly signed) and in packing up a scanty wardrobe, the greater part of which he determined to sell. He left his home before daybreak on Christmas morning, and bore away straight for a public-house in Charles Street, Westminster, the head quarters of a party of cavalry recruiting sergeants.
He soon found what he wanted. A non-commissioned officer of the 13th Light Dragoons was down upon him in a hail-fellow well-met sort of way, with, an affectation of joviality intended to convey an idea of what a particular jolly thing a soldier's life really was. Young John soon entered into conversation with the sergeant, and the sergeant, who was a liberal-hearted dog, stood a pot of beer (because it was Christmas-day) which they drank together.
Young John asked few questions of the sergeant, but those that he did ask had reference principally to the nature of the life in store for him.
"Well," said the sergeant, summarizing the whole thing, "look here; eight in the morning reveillé — up you get. You can get up at eight, can't you?"
Johnny thought he could manage it at a pinch.
"That's lucky. Well, you have an hour to dress; then comes breakfast — coffee or chocolate, bread and butter, and eggs, or wot not. Then once a week, mornin' stables; twice a week, adjutants' parade, one hour; other days, nothing, except when for guard or fatigue, which comes (say) once a month. One o'clock, dinner — soup or fish (seldom both), and jint; pudden very rare. Then nothin' till six: six, evening stables, once a week; other days, reading out loud, half an hour. Then nothing till tattoo, which in crack regiments is mostly half-past eleven. At tattoo, roll call, and bed. That's the programme."
Young John made some allowance for the gallant fellow's enthusiasm: extreme love of a profession often invests it with an attractive colouring.
"I joined eighteen months ago," the sergeant continued. "I'm but a young soldier, as you see, but I rose. In six weeks I was made a corporal, with 5s. 9d. a day; in six more I was troop sergeant, with 8s. 4d. That's what I'm getting now; 8s. 4d. ain't bad for eighteen months. You'd do it in half the time."
"Now look here," said John. "Don't tell unnecessary lies. If the service was the worst on the face of the earth, I'd join it, because I've, what people call, gone wrong, and I want to get away from. this. I'm a strongish chap, and about the sort of man you fellows want; so hand over the shilling. My name's John Cole; age, twenty-two; previous occupation, clerk."
The sergeant vowed he was the very man he wanted. He admired pluck he said, and had himself cut away from, a lucrative profession because he wanted to see what blood was like. Most of the men in crack cavalry regiments were young barristers of arts or medical doctors, with here and there a young nobleman or two, under an assumed name. These young men had cut from home because their relentless parents, having set their face against the army as a profession, had refused to buy them commissions. That was his case. He was a barrister of arts once; now he was troop-sergeant in Her Majesty's 13th Light, and thank God, he said.
All this was satisfactory, as far as it went, and young John Pounce was duly enlisted, under the name of John Cole, by the friendly sergeant. The subsequent medical examination and attestation were properly and satisfactorily undergone, and Private John Cole, of Her Majesty's 13th Light Dragoons, was drafted off to the regimental depôt, and thence in about six weeks to the Crimea.
A thoroughly sleepless night is a fearful thing to undergo. It is bad enough when that sleeplessness is the result of sharp pain or irritating fever, but when it comes of a distressed and disheartened mind, it is absolutely terrible. Poor old Johnny Pounce had a bad time of it that Christmas night. He tossed and rolled about, and changed the side of his pillow, and then, when it turned out that that energetic step was barren of good result, he got out of bed, and walked up and down the room; then he got into bed again, and counted five thousand. "Five thousand" found him rather more wakeful if possible than he was when he began, so he gave up counting to listen to the ticking of the old Dutch clock. But the old Dutch clock called so loudly for "Linkman Toddles! Linkman Toddles! Linkman Toddles!" that he began to wish that functionary would appear, and satisfy the clamorous old instrument. Toddles not turning up, the clock gave him up for a bad job, and in despair at Toddles' want of faith, ticked out plaintively, "Come Dyspepsia! Come Dyspepsia! Come Dyspepsia!" This awful invocation was too much for poor Johnny, who got out of bed once more, and finally stopped the dreadful machine. As morning broke, he fell into a restless tossing sleep, which only had the effect of giving him a racking headache. When he finally awoke, it was with a dull heavy sense of some fearful misfortune which had just happened to him, and when the events of the preceding night broke suddenly upon him, he buried his old head in his pillow, and sobbed aloud.
Matters were not mended by the discovery of the letter which young John had placed on the sitting-room table. It hardly wanted this to complete the family misery, and old Johnny and his wife were absolutely thunderstruck by this fresh misfortune. The letter did not say where young John was going, nor did it give any clue to the step that he was about to take. It merely said that he was going away for a while; that if he could save any money he would send it from time to time to a post-office in the neighbourhood; that they were not to fret for him, as he would be sure to turn up sooner or later; that the cheque for £12 was for their use; that his dismissal was not attended by any disgraceful circumstances, and that he was their ever-loving son, John Pounce.
Old Johnny's indignation at this desertion was unbounded.
"So that's my son, is it? That's my fair-weather son, whom I've brought up, and educated, and clothed, and fed, and whom the Firm made a gentleman of. What'll the Firm think of this, after all their kindness?"
Mrs. Pounce mildly reminded her husband that the Firm was in heaven.
"True, true — I forgot. If he'd only given us a hint as to where he was going; if he'd shaken his old dad's hand and kissed his old mother before he left, I could have forgiven him. But to desert his old parents just as soon as he found out that they were penniless and could help him no longer, was that like a son of ours, Emma?"
"Well, Johnny, for the matter of that, it may be that he was fearful of being an incumbrance. He's left his half quarter's salary for us, and I'm afraid the poor boy has gone forth into the world without a penny in his pocket. I'd make a better breakfast this morning for the knowledge beyond doubt that he'd had one too. Perhaps he's hungry, Johnny."
"Hungry, Emma? Young John hungry? Hungry, and me a-pegging away into bread and meat, and his half quarter's cheque a-staring me in the face, and him hungry. What a dreadful thing to think of, old girl. Poor young John!"
They were not long in coming to the conclusion that he had enlisted. Johnny's duties called him to Carey Street, although it was Christmas Day, but Mrs. Johnny made it her business to wander about recruiting depôts all day. Young John, however, carefully kept himself inside the public-house, and gave the friendly recruiting sergeant, who was not quite so friendly now — that professional gentleman having cooled down amazingly since the morning — a hint that he might possibly be sought for. So Mrs. Pounce's efforts were utterly fruitless.
Johnny spent every day that ensuing week at the office. It was difficult at first to persuade oneself that that chair would never be filled by Mr. Pintle again; that the ruler, paper-weight, gum-bottle, pens, ink, and scissors, left as he had left them day after day for fifty years, had been arranged in their methodical order by him for the last time. The conveyancing clerk and the common law clerk were paid their salaries and dismissed by Captain Redfern, the heir-at-law, who was closeted all day long with old Johnny, going over mortgage deeds, and making himself intimate with all the affairs of the dead man. On the Saturday evening, old Johnny was paid his last week's salary of three pounds, and was informed that his services would for the future be dispensed with.
Old Johnny spent many a weary day, and trudged many a weary mile through snow and slush, after fresh employment. He was known and respected by many of Pintle's clients, and also by solicitors who had been opposed to Pintle and Sim; but he could get little from them. The fact that no will had been found, although it was admitted by Johnny that one had been made and deposited in his custody two days before Pintle's death, argued either gross carelessness or gross felony on the part of the confidential clerk, and added to this, he was a feeble old man, and quite past learning new duties. A few of his better friends subscribed small sums for the old man's maintenance, and others gave his wife needlework, so that for some weeks they were kept from absolute want. But these weekly subscriptions dwindled down, one by one, as the recollection of old Johnny and his distress became less vivid, until at last they had nothing to depend on but a weekly five shillings, the subscription of a stauncher friend than the rest.
In his extreme distress he made an appeal to Mrs. Pintle. He dressed himself as neatly as his reduced circumstances would allow, and presented himself at her house in Russell Square. He had been there once before since Mr. Pintle' s death, to ask permission to follow his old employer to the grave, but he was curtly informed that Captain Redfern would require him in the office that day, and that therefore he could not be present. This rebuff, conveyed to him by a weak-eyed flunkey, who called him "my man," had had the effect of preventing his applying to Mrs. Pintle for assistance hitherto; but emboldened by hunger, and more especially by the thinning face of his once chubby little wife, he determined to put his pride in his pocket, and encounter the weak-eyed one once more.
The weak-eyed one was just in the transition state between a very old page and a very young footman. His precise functions in Mrs. Pintle's household were as indefinite as his age, for his duties extended from cleaning the windows to driving (at a pinch) the brougham. He was engaged in the familiar but necessary duty of cleaning the knives when Johnny called, and as Johnny inadvertently pulled the visitor's bell, the weak-eyed one was under the necessity of exchanging the linen jacket of domestic life for the black coat and worsted epaulette of ceremony, and of making other radical improvements in his personal appearance, before he opened the door. This functionary had, from, a great many years' apprenticeship at opening street doors, taught himself to look upon society as divided into two great heads or groups Visitors and Servants; and he who was not a visitor, was, from the weak-eyed one's point of view, a servant. He considered that a man's social position was typified by the bell he rung, and as there existed no intermediate bell for the numerous classes of callers who certainly could not aspire to the dignity of being considered visitors in the ordinary acceptation of the term, and who were equally far from being in the position of domestic servants, he recognized no intermediate class between the honoured drawing-room morning caller and the boy who brought the servants' beer. Avowedly a servant himself, he was affable, and in a weak-eyed way even cheerful, to those who identified themselves with the humbler bell; but he who, without due excuse, rang a bell which implied that he was a drawing-room visitor, became on the spot the object of the weak-eyed one's unutterable loathing and foul scorn.
Wretched Johnny stood on the steps waiting for the opening of the door, and improving the opportunity by blowing his frozen nose, that he might not be compelled to the commission of that indecency before Mrs. Pintle. Eventually it opened, and the weak-eyed one stood before him in all the respectable magnificence of expensive mourning.
"Well, what is it?'' said that retainer, as soon as he had taken Johnny's measure, and assured himself of Johnny's want of title to the dignity to which he had aspired.
Now "What is it?" is a peculiarly aggravating form of address, and one which is much affected by haughty menials, Bank of England clerks, ushers in courts of law, and other insolent and overbearing underlings. Providence, however, who seldom inflicts a bane without providing an antidote, has mercifully endowed the questioned one with the power of making the return inquiry, "What is what?" which, being unanswerable, has the effect of invariably shutting up, humbling, and morally squashing the miserable flunkey whose misconduct brings it down upon him.
Johnny, however, being depressed in mind, enfeebled in body, and entertaining altogether the poorest possible opinion of himself and his claims to an honourable reception, and, moreover, not being aware of the magnificent revenge which lay within his grasp, humbly replied that he should be glad to see Mrs. Pintle, if convenient.
"What might you wish with Mrs. Pintle?" asked the weak-eyed one.
"I am the late Mr. Pintle's confidential clerk; I wish to speak to her in that capacity."
"Oh! indeed, sir; walk in," said the weak-eyed one, not feeling altogether sure whether Johnny had not succeeded in establishing his title to the visitors' bell after all, notwithstanding the depressing seediness of Johnny's appearance. He perhaps thought that this melancholy state of things was the natural result of the absorbing nature of the confidences which had been reposed in Johnny by Mr. Pintle. The Queen's Counsel, who dined now and then at the house, were seedy, so that after all that was no rule. So he showed Johnny into the library, and shortly returned with the information that Mrs. Pintle was in the drawing-room and would see him there. So Johnny walked up the softly-carpeted staircase, with much internal flutter, and much external mopping, and moreover, with much clearing of husky throat. He found Mrs. Pintle dressed in the deepest black, and reclining, in a spineless way, on a comfortable sofa.
Mrs. Pintle was a lady of fifty, or thereabouts. She was a lank, limp, lady, with pale straw-coloured hair, turning grey, in that underdone pie-crust looking way peculiar to straw-coloured hair in middle age. She was a perfect monument of black bombazine, crape, bugles, and jet, and if the depth of her sorrow could be fathomed in any way by reference to the funereal character of her appearance, she must have been a wife to be proud of. The memorial erected in Kensal Green to the late Mr. Pintle's memory, covered as it was with Scriptural references (which were, no doubt, anxiously overhauled by all visitors to that cheerful spot immediately on their reaching home), was an admirable conventional tombstone, as tombstones go, but it was entirely eclipsed in efficacy by Mrs. Pintle herself, who possessed peripatetic advantages which carried a mournful recollection of the deceased lawyer into the very bosom of her visiting acquaintance. The only question was as to the comparative duration of the two monuments. Every article of furniture which admitted of black drapery was smothered in it, and the envelopes and note-paper were black, with a small white parallelogram in the centre. As you gazed upon this melancholy state of things, you were almost tempted to wonder how it was that the pie-crust hair had not been placed in mourning also.
Johnny was immensely impressed by this dismal spectacle, and was much pleased at the contradiction it gave to the popular rumour that Mr. and Mrs. Pintle had not spent a particularly happy life together. He bowed with much reverence, an act which Mrs. Pintle acknowledged with a movement of the head, which bore the same relationship to an ordinary nod that the Old Hundredth does to an Irish jig.
"You were my dear husband's clerk, I believe'" she remarked.
"You can take a chair, if you have anything to say."
So Johnny sat down on the extreme edge of a very low prie Dieu chair, which was the only available seat immediately at hand, and twitched nervously at his old hat; an operation which appeared likely to result in the immediate dissolution of that article of apparel. It is always an awkward thing, that hat. There are only three classes of visitors who are permitted to know what to do with it when they take it into a house which is not their own. The friend of the family, who comes to spend the evening, leaves it with the man in the hall, the ordinary visitor places it on an unoccupied chair, and the carpenter deposits it on the ground; but all others are required to hold it in their hands during an interview, and yet, if possible, to keep it out of sight. Johnny's was a self-assertive hat, which did not admit of easy concealment; so he fidgeted it about until it actually appeared to be taking a prominent part in the conversation.
"Now, then," said Mrs. Pintle, "what do you want? I suppose it's nothing about the will?"
"Nothing about the will, ma'am. I've not been in the way of hearing about it lately."
"Well, then, what in goodness's name do you want? Speak out, man, and have done with it."
Mrs. Pintle was one of that numerous class of mourners, whose grief takes the form of irritability. Besides, she had jumped to the conclusion that Johnny's visit referred to the missing document, and was disappointed.
"Ma'am, I've never done this before, but it's help I've come for. I've been Mr. Pintle's clerk, man and boy for five and forty year; and — and now I'm in want, ma'am. I'm in absolute want. I've not come," said Johnny hurriedly, anxious that he should not be misunderstood, "I've not come, ma'am, to mention that, in the hopes that your kindness will immediately — will immediately" — (and he paused for a way of expressing it; and then added triumphantly) "will immediately put me right. God forbid. But if you would kindly put me or my wife (she's a young woman still) in the way of earning a livelihood — we don't care how humble it is, or how hard the work — we shall be deeply grateful."
"Is that all?" asked Mrs. Pintle, with a cold official air which did not promise well.
"I've no more to say, ma'am," added he, "except that I've been living in a sort of way, on charity mostly, for the last six weeks. I've tried to get work, and failed. I don't know how it is, but I've failed. I'm not young, ma'am, but I've got plenty of work left in me, if I could only find somebody who wants it."
"That is all, I presume?"
"That is all, ma'am."
"Then listen to me. My husband made a will, you know that?"
Poor Johnny knew it perfectly well. It had been the leading fact in his thoughts for weeks past, and there was no chance of his forgetting it. So he bowed.
"Very good. You know that my husband made a will. He placed it under your care. He gave it to you on the 22nd December. He died at mid-night on the 24th. No will was to be found on the night of the 24th, and you have been unable or unwilling to produce it since. I don't know which, nor do I care. You can draw your own conclusions. Now you can go."
It burst upon Johnny all at once; a sort of suspicion appeared to attach itself to him that he knew more about the missing document than he cared to say. This was the solution of the difficulty he had experienced in getting employment from solicitors whom he had known, and with whom he had been friendly in better days.
"Mrs. Pintle," he exclaimed, "listen to me for one moment. Is it possible that I am suspected of having suppressed Mr. Pintle's will? It is a horrible thing to have to say in connection with one's self, but you seem to think that I know more than I have said. Good God! ma'am! why I am the greatest sufferer by its not being found. I am a legatee for £1,000. If it had turned up, my wife and I would have been independent by this time. As it is, my wife is dreadfully ill from want, and I have not a penny in my pocket — not a penny, not a penny!"
And old Johnny fairly gave way, and sobbed like a child on the crown of the self-assertive old hat.
"Will you oblige me by ringing that bell?" said Mrs. Pintle.
Johnny obeyed, and the weak-eyed one responded to the summons.
"Give this person some bread and cheese in the kitchen, and then show him out," said Mrs. Pintle.
Johnny got up, brushed the obtrusive hat the wrong way with a trembling hand, and silently turned about and followed the retainer downstairs. When he reached the foot, he made for the street door.
"Didn't you hear missus say you was to have some food?" asked the weak-eyed one.
But Johnny made no reply. He tugged at the street door with the view of getting into the street as quickly as possible. It was a complicated street door, with five or six small handles, and it was only to be opened by a combined tugging of two handles at once.
The weak-eyed one sauntered up to him, with his hands in his pockets, and watched Johnny's efforts with much complacency.
"Go on, old cock, try again. Never give it up. Go in and win." These and other remarks of an encouraging description, intended to spur Johnny on to fresh exertions, had the effect of irritating the poor old gentleman beyond all bounds.
"Damn you, open it, you dog, will you?" exclaimed Johnny with (for him) supernatural vehemence. And the weak-eyed one obeyed with an alacrity which one would scarcely have looked for in a man who a moment before was taking life in such a leisurely way.
Johnny tottered down the steps, shaking and trembling, and the weak-eyed one contemplated him from, the door.
"Poor devil!" exclaimed he. "Mad as flints; quite as mad!"
And Johnny doddered on bravely, until he reached the corner of Guilford Street. He then began to feel that his strength was almost at an end; so he made an effort to turn round the corner, in order to get out of sight of the insolent flunkey, and, that accomplished, fell heavily to the ground.
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