The Wrong Box

Page 25

It was a breathing-space in the day's traffic. There were few people there, and these for the most part quiescent on the benches. Morris seemed to attract no remark, which was a good thing; but, on the other hand, he was making no progress in his quest. Something must be done, something must be risked. Every passing instant only added to his dangers. Summoning all his courage, he stopped a porter, and asked him if he remembered receiving a barrel by the morning train. He was anxious to get information, for the barrel belonged to a friend. 'It is a matter of some moment,' he added, 'for it contains specimens.'

'I was not here this morning, sir,' responded the porter, somewhat reluctantly, 'but I'll ask Bill. Do you recollect, Bill, to have got a barrel from Bournemouth this morning containing specimens?'

'I don't know about specimens,' replied Bill; 'but the party as received the barrel I mean raised a sight of trouble.'

'What's that?' cried Morris, in the agitation of the moment pressing a penny into the man's hand.

'You see, sir, the barrel arrived at one-thirty. No one claimed it till about three, when a small, sickly--looking gentleman (probably a curate) came up, and sez he, "Have you got anything for Pitman?" or "Wili'm Bent Pitman," if I recollect right. "I don't exactly know," sez I, "but I rather fancy that there barrel bears that name." The little man went up to the barrel, and seemed regularly all took aback when he saw the address, and then he pitched into us for not having brought what he wanted. "I don't care a damn what you want," sez I to him, "but if you are Will'm Bent Pitman, there's your barrel."'

'Well, and did he take it?' cried the breathless Morris.

'Well, sir,' returned Bill, 'it appears it was a packing-case he was after. The packing-case came; that's sure enough, because it was about the biggest packing-case ever I clapped eyes on. And this Pitman he seemed a good deal cut up, and he had the superintendent out, and they got hold of the vanman--him as took the packing-case. Well, sir,' continued Bill, with a smile, 'I never see a man in such a state. Everybody about that van was mortal, bar the horses. Some gen'leman (as well as I could make out) had given the vanman a sov.; and so that was where the trouble come in, you see.'

'But what did he say?' gasped Morris.

'I don't know as he SAID much, sir,' said Bill. 'But he offered to fight this Pitman for a pot of beer. He had lost his book, too, and the receipts, and his men were all as mortal as himself. O, they were all like'--and Bill paused for a simile--'like lords! The superintendent sacked them on the spot.'

'O, come, but that's not so bad,' said Morris, with a bursting sigh. 'He couldn't tell where he took the packing-case, then?'

'Not he,' said Bill, 'nor yet nothink else.'

'And what--what did Pitman do?' asked Morris.

'O, he went off with the barrel in a four-wheeler, very trembling like,' replied Bill. 'I don't believe he's a gentleman as has good health.'

'Well, so the barrel's gone,' said Morris, half to himself.

'You may depend on that, sir,' returned the porter. 'But you had better see the superintendent.'

'Not in the least; it's of no account,' said Morris. 'It only contained specimens.' And he walked hastily away.

Ensconced once more in a hansom, he proceeded to reconsider his position. Suppose (he thought), suppose he should accept defeat and declare his uncle's death at once? He should lose the tontine, and with that the last hope of his seven thousand eight hundred pounds. But on the other hand, since the shilling to the hansom cabman, he had begun to see that crime was expensive in its course, and, since the loss of the water-butt, that it was uncertain in its consequences. Quietly at first, and then with growing heat, he reviewed the advantages of backing out. It involved a loss; but (come to think of it) no such great loss after all; only that of the tontine, which had been always a toss-up, which at bottom he had never really expected.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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