by R. Austin Freeman and John Pitcairn
Romney Pringle, the creation of R. Austin Freeman and John J. Pitcairn, is a phoney literary agent, inveterate cyclist, and confidence man in a series of droll tales set in Edwardian London. (It's worth noting that a number of writers, like Freeman, created both classic detectives and, as minor counterpoint, crooks and swindlers.)
THE ASSYRIAN REJUVENATOR
The rejuvenator in question is what today we would call a cure for aging skin. Romney Pringle, through various layers of impersonation, turns tables on swindlers and victims in order to get access to the concern's money orders.
....Sitting down at the secretarial desk, he sent a quick glance round the office. A poor creature, that Jacobs, he reflected, for all his rascality, or he wouldn't have been scared so easily. And he drew a piece of wax from his pocket and took a careful impression of the key.
He had not been in possession of the "Rejuvenator" offices for very long before he discovered that Mr. Jacobs' desire to break out in a fresh place had proved abortive. It will be remembered that on the occasion of his interview with that gentleman, Mr. Jacobs assumed that Pringle's visit had reference to "Pelosia," whose virtues he extolled in a leaflet composed in his own very pronounced style. A large package in the office Pringle found to contain many thousands of these effusions, which had apparently been laid aside for some considerable time. From the absence in the daily correspondence of any inquiries thereafter, it was clear that the public had failed to realize the advantages of the internal administration of mud, so that Mr. Jacobs had been forced to stick to the swindle that was already in existence. After all, the latter was a paying concern—eminently so! Besides, the patent-medicine trade is rather overdone.
The price of the "Assyrian Rejuvenator" was such as to render the early cashing of remittances an easy matter. Ten-and-sixpence being a sum for which the average banker demurs to honour a cheque, the payments were usually made in postal orders; and Pringle acquired a larger faith in Carlyle's opinion of the majority of his fellow-creatures as he cashed the previous day's takings at the General Post Office on his way up to Barbican each morning. The business was indeed a flourishing one, and his satisfaction was only alloyed by the probability of some legal interference, at the instance of Colonel Sandstream, with the further operations of the Company. But for the present Fortune smiled, and Pringle continued energetically to despatch parcels of the "Rejuvenator" in response to the daily shower of postal orders. In this indeed he had little trouble, for he had found many gross of parcels duly packed and ready for posting.
One day while engaged in the process, which had grown quite a mechanical one by that time, he listened absently to a slow but determined step which ascended the stairs and paused on the landing outside. Above, on the third floor, was an importer of cigars made in Germany, and the visitor evidently delayed the further climb until he had regained his wind. Presently, after a preliminary pant or two, he got under weigh again, but proceeded only as far as the "Rejuvenator" door, to which he gave a peremptory thump, and, opening it, walked in without further ceremony.
THE FOREIGN OFFICE DESPATCH
Pringle insinuates himself into acquaintance with a Foreign Office staffer at a local casino. A little forgery might bring London and Paris to the brink of war, but they send Romney Pringle to his broker in triumph.
"How do you do, Mr. Pringle? How's literature?" was his greeting.
"Very quiet just now."
"Really?" And Pringle, with a smile, glanced round the office. A clerk was sitting ankle-deep in a pile of wrappers and envelopes, which gradually submerged his legs as he attacked a heap of letters and circulars; beside him another incessantly tapped correspondence out of a typewriter; while a third divided his attention between responses to the calls of a telephone and the sundering of a tape disgorged in endless snaky coils from the unresting little machine in one corner.
"Fact!" asseverated the broker, leading the way to a little den separated from the office by a glazed window-frame partition. "Truth is, Paris has got the blues, and ditch-water's sparkling compared to the present state of things."
"What about Consols today?"
"Consols? Not much in my line, you know."
"But I suppose you're open to do business?"
"Oh, of course it can be done. Depends what you want to do, though."
"Will you sell for me?"
"How much?" inquired the broker, producing a little book.
"What do you say to fifty thousand?"
The other looked dubiously at him, and sucked the top of his pencil. "There's always a large bear account open—I shall want good cover," he remarked after a pause.
"Will you take one percent?"
"Why, yes, I'll take that. From anyone else I should ask two—indeed, I don't like it much at any price. They're high enough, goodness knows, now; but who's to say they won't go higher?"
"What are they at?"
Mr. Hedsor went into the outer office and consulted the board on which the tapes were impaled.
"A hundred and ten and an eighth," said he, returning. "Lord! What a price!"
"Well, I think I'll trust my luck," Pringle remarked quietly.
"You need something better to trust to than luck in these hard times."
"Did you ever hear of a company called the 'Lobatsi Consolidated'?"
"Yes, you were lucky there, I own, for a mere bit of stagging."
"And wasn't there another called the 'Bokfontein Development'?"
"By Jove! I never thought you'd get out of that as well as you did."
"And the Topsipitsi Deep Level'?"
"Oh, hang it all! Your proper place is inside the House. I'd forgotten the 'Topsipitsi.' Come out and have a drink."
The world was rather less tranquil when Mr. Hedsor awoke the next morning. Indeed, it was many years since the newspapers had offered the public such a sensational bill-of-fare as their posters promised. In the journals themselves the news was displayed in startling headlines, The Times so far forgetting its dignity as to double-lead its leader on the momentous news.
Towards one a.m. the previous night there had come over the wires from the matter-of-fact Reuter the following piece of news, which dislocated the "make-up" of the papers, reducing the sub-editors to a condition of frenzy:
"Paris.—In accordance, it is understood, with instructions from London, Lord Strathclyde leaves for Calais tomorrow, diplomatic relations having been abruptly broken off between the two countries."
THE CHICAGO HEIRESS
Pringle thinks he's come up trumps after swiping the blotting paper of a odd young man at the British Museum reading room.
....A little further search for disconnected words in the mazes of the blotting-paper, a little re-arrangement of the disjointed syllables, a happy guess or two, and he clothed the bare bones of the skeleton thus:
92, Langbourne Street, Leicester Square.
My Lord, Seeing the announcement of your betrothal to Miss Petasöhn of Chicago, which I hope will repair your fortunes, it has occurred to me that I am in possession of facts concerning your family history which may be considered of value by the lady's family. When I tell you that I have documentary evidence of the suicide of your father and two brothers, facts which have been successfully concealed hitherto, you will understand my reasons for informing you that I wish to leave England and start a business in Germany. The sum of a thousand pounds is what I require, and should your lordship be good enough to assist me to obtain this sum in notes, I promise you nothing more shall be heard of the matter.
This, then, or something very like it, must have been the letter which Mr. Schillinghammer had not thought fit to trust to the post, and Pringle contemplated his solution of the mystery with very pardonable pride.
THE LIZARD'S SCALE
Pringle, on vacation, finds he bears a similarity to a man whose friend is wrongly imprisoned by relatives in any asylum. He sets about freeing the man and profiting from wrong-footing the conspirators.
The morning sail had given Pringle an appetite for lunch, and after a hearty meal he walked briskly to the little station and took the train to Axford. He had no difficulty in finding Dr. Fernhurst's asylum. It was a three-story Manor-house built in the prim but substantial style of Queen Anne's days, and as Pringle crossed the pleasaunce surrounding it, he noted, with the grateful eye of a connoisseur, the elaborate fanlight and the handsome pilasters which flanked the doorway supporting a pediment of chaste design. Pulling the wrought-iron bell-handle, he inquired for Mr. Windrush, and was ushered into a waiting-room. Here in a few moments he was joined by a smart young man looking like a superior valet, who introduced himself as the chief attendant of the Asylum.
"Dr. Fernhurst is out at present," he said, "but Mr. Windrush will be glad to see you if you will step this way. I believe, sir, that you are an old friend of his?"
"Not so very," replied Pringle ingenuously.
Ascending the stairs, they entered a room on the first-floor, with a cheerful outlook over a formal garden bordered with yew-trees fantastically trimmed into the shape of mushrooms, peacocks, chickens, and, in one instance, of a cup and saucer. "Mr. Windrush, here is your friend Mr. Coatbridge to see you," announced the attendant, immediately retiring and closing the door behind him. A tall, dejected-looking man, with a student's stoop and hair prematurely grey, rose hesitatingly, with an exclamation of surprise, from the chair in which he had been reading.
"Why, you're never Coatbridge!" he cried.
"Hush! Please don't speak so loudly—I have something for your private ear alone." Pringle sprang to the door and opening it, looked out for a moment, "Excuse me for this slight deception," he continued, as he resumed his seat: "I took the liberty of assuming the name of one whom I know to be your friend in order to have freer access to you."
The lunatic subsided irresolutely into his chair and began to nervously finger the leaves of the book he held. He did not attempt to read, although he kept his eyes downcast, but threw an occasional furtive glance at Pringle as he spoke. "My real name is Pringle," said that gentleman. "I live in London, and have accidentally acquired some information which leads me to think that the facts connected with your case appear to require investigation." Windrush started and opened his lips as if to speak, but he repressed the impulse and continued to listen intently. "How I got to know of it is of no immediate consequence. I have been lucky enough to find you alone, and, as we may be interrupted at any moment, we mustn't waste precious time. What I want you to understand at present is that I have come to see you with a view of extricating you from this very unpleasant position."
Still Windrush made no reply, but assuming a less constrained attitude he regarded Pringle more openly and with a shade less suspicion.
"I am inclined to think," continued Pringle, "that your old medical attendant, Dr. Toddington, has been the victim of a very suspicious train of circumstances."
"But surely," exclaimed Windrush, at length breaking silence, "you did not get your information from him? He is the last person in the world to throw any fresh light upon the case! Why, the old simpleton firmly believes I am insane, and has been the chief means of putting me here!"
"No, no! It was from quite a different source."
"I must confess," said Windrush after a pause, during which he appeared to be reflecting deeply; "I must confess that I am very curious as to the means by which you, a total stranger, have got to know so much about my private affairs."
"I will tell you with the greatest pleasure, only, as I said before, time is precious, and I must ask you not to waste it by interrupting me. I will be as brief as I can." And in a few words, Pringle informed him of his accidental interview with the Doctor and the innkeeper's son. "Now," he said in conclusion, "may I ask you to regard me as a friend, and to speak to me unreservedly?"
"I really don't know how you are going to help me, Mr. Pringle, but I can only say that I shall be eternally grateful to anyone who will rescue me from this miserable position. It is quite true that I see things at night, but I swear to you positively they are realities, and not delusions! Why, only last night I saw a fiery object of some sort while I was in bed. It was about six or eight inches long and appeared to run along the floor. I feel that if these things continue to trouble me much longer, my brain will indeed give way under the strain." He covered his face with his hands and sobbed passionately. "You must excuse me," said he, regaining his composure after a pause, during which Pringle had affected to be examining the garden, "but if you knew all that I have gone through during the last few months, you would wonder that I am as sensible as I am. I often wonder at it myself," he added with a melancholy smile.
"Do I understand you to say that these fiery apparitions only occur at nights'?" inquired Pringle.
"They have never appeared at any other time. As a rule I see them on first retiring. I cannot even have the poor consolation of believing they are merely a nightmare horror."
THE PASTE DIAMONDS
Mr. Windrush, recently freed from an asylum after Romney Pringle proved he was the victim of a family plot, leans on the mendacious literary agent in another family crisis.
"Well now, a cousin of mine lives near me; her husband is head of one of the oldest families in our county, and I have always been on very affectionate terms with her. Well, I'm sorry to say she has lately got in with a rather fast set, and being in pressing need of about a thousand pounds, she took a very fine diamond star, which is a sort of family heirloom, to some West-end jewellers who do that sort of thing, and got an advance, and as she didn't want her husband to know anything about it, she got these people to make her a facsimile in paste. About a week or two ago, she found the central stone had dropped out. The jewellers said they couldn't replace it in under a week, and she was at her wit's end, for they were entertaining a party of friends, and her husband would have wondered if she had never worn the diamonds all the time. Well, the jewellers suggested letting her have the real star, on hire for fifty pounds, until the sham stone was replaced, but they insisted on her giving them a cheque for the thousand they had lent her with interest, they agreeing to hold it over and return it to her when she returned the real diamonds. So she wore the star once or twice for the look of the thing, and then put it away. After the party broke up yesterday, she found to her horror the jewel-case was empty. She says it had been opened at the hinges."
THE KAILYARD NOVEL
Mr. Honeyby, vicar of Wurzelford, is taking a month's vacation.
....Mr. Honeyby ought to have no difficulty in getting a locum tenens, thought Pringle, as he laid down the paper. He wondered how would be to—? It was risky, but worth trying! Why let a good thing go a-begging? He had a good mind to take the berth himself! Wurzleford seemed an attractive little place. Well, its attractiveness would certainly not be lessened for him when the Maharajah arrived! At the very least it might prove an agreeable holiday, and any case would lead to a new and probably amusing experience of human nature. Smiling at the ludicrous audacity of the idea, Pringle strolled up to the mantelpiece and interrogated himself in the Venetian mirror. Minus the delible port-wine mark, a pair of pince-nez, blackened hair, and a small strip of easily applied whisker would be sufficient disguise. He thoughtfully lighted another cigarette.
16 May 2020