― 203 ―


OLD SAL, seated on the verandah outside the kitchen and plucking a fowl for table, discussed with her less respectable compeer the joys of London life, where persons of the familynote all knew each other and traded as friends, where certain pretty skills of the hands were practised, where money was free and manners easy. Old Sal herself had been a fence or receiver; but in her younger days she boasted, tucking her petticoats up to show a leg no longer shapely, that she had been the companion in felony of James Hardy Vaux, most genteel of rascals. How she would cover him she related, while he put down his forks, light as a bird, and brought up handkerchiefs you could have sold to the Archbishop of Canterbury; how he once gave her a ring that he had pinched, he told her, off the little finger of one of the Newgate turnkeys; how he walked like a swell, and talked like a clergyman, and never addressed her in public save as “Sarah, dear love.”

Her companion listened doubtfully, recollecting no such days, skills, attentions. She came from a small country town where she had been the chief inn's chambermaid. Finding that her child's arrival coincided with that of lord in a coach, she, not choosing to lose tips or time, smothered the baby and went about her work. She was caught slipping out at night to bury the

  ― 204 ―
small body, which had the top of an old stocking for its winding-sheet. Her experiences lacked glamour, and for this reason she was unable to believe in old Sal. How came so clever a trickster to Botany Bay? And on a ten-year stretch, too.

But old Sal explained, loudly enough for the secretary to hear at his desk round the corner, that these things were all a matter of luck. You might be fly. You might be up in the stirrups and working well. But you had no protection, she explained, against the dirty devices of traps. These individuals would let a man alone, look the other way, until he committed a crime he could be hanged for—and how, asked old Sal of heaven, could you tell until after you had lifted a montranote whether its value was under the limit or over? £40 was the reward for bringing in a man wanted on a hanging charge. So the traps—blast them!—would say: We don't want him till he weighs his weight, forty pounds, see? This kind of duplicity no man could guard against, and thus it was that the traps had got their claws into James Hardy Vaux and herself.

The younger woman began a little pitiful story of some country constable's astuteness, how he had identified a highwayman by a patch on his boot. She spoke lower, and she was well within the room. The secretary waited for Sal's voice.

It came soon, overcalling the other. The country was nothing, it was easy as butter taking the stuff off countrymen.

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London was the place, plenty of crowds, London was the place for clever fingers. They all said in London that she, Sal, was as neat of her fingers as a man, more than one had said that. And she dared swear even now with her rheumatics she could lift the handkerchief out of Miss M.'s pocket, given half a chance, except for that one keeping everything on a key; why, she wouldn't leave open not so much as her bowels——

Laughter none too savoury ended the talk by the window. William Winter, accepting instructions from his employer, related what he had heard to what his own enquiry and imagination had discovered. The woman was honest, odiously so; the meagre trunks that came back to the house with her were evidence of this probity, the household books acquitted her. Yet he could not give up an irrational conviction that this was the channel——

“Answer, can't you?”

“I beg your pardon, sir.”

“Has that answer come yet from His Ex.?”

“This morning, yes, sir; by hand.”

While Flusky slowly read the letter he could escape again to his own thoughts. If the household books acquitted Milly, somewhere there must be other evidence. She was methodical, the expenditure considerable, she could not carry it all in her head——

“Are you hanging it on?note I'm talking.”

“Yes, sir.”

  ― 206 ―

“Take an answer. I'll come and see him, say. Obedient, humble, and all the rest of it. Like to see his face if I put Yours, bender! Any of their faces.”