The Ditty-box by Owen Oliver

A Pawnbroker's Story

In the course of our dealings over the curiosities that my brother sent home from Burma, Mr. Levy and I became very good friends. When we had finished one of our deals we generally had a chat in the quaint little room behind his queer little shop in the old-world alley frequented by sailormen. On one of these occasions he mentioned that the cigar which he had given me was the brand which he always smoked; and the quality of the cigar suggested opulence.

"If you can afford cigars like this," I remarked, "you must make some pretty good bargains with your curiosities!"

"Good and bad," he said. "That's the way in business—in life, if you come to that!" He was a bit of a philosopher.

"You make more good bargains than bad ones, I'll be bound," I asserted.

"Yes," he agreed; "but it isn't so much that. The bad aren't very bad, as a rule; and some of the good are very good. That's where I get my profit."

"What was the best bargain you ever made?" I asked.

He filled his glass and pushed the decanter toward me.

"The best bargain I ever made," he said, "was over a ditty-box."

I helped myself to a little whiskey.

"A ditty-box? I thought they were ordinary sailors' chests that they keep their clothes in?"

"Not exactly chests," he corrected. "They're smallish boxes that they keep their needles and thread in, and their money, and anything else that they set store by—their letters or their sweethearts' photos, or their wives'—or other people's! There's no profit in them, and I don't deal in them in a general way. I got my gain out of this one in a roundabout fashion; but it was handsome. If you've got half an hour to spare I'll tell you about it."

This was his story:

It was eight years ago, and I'd had Isaac for seven years, and concluded that he was to be trusted. So I took it into my head to have a fortnight's holiday and leave him in charge of the shop. Everything was in order when I came back, and the books balanced to a penny. Business had been pretty good, he told me, but nothing out of the ordinary.

"Unless," he said, "I've stumbled on a good thing by accident. It's a ditty-box; rather a superior one, and a good bit bigger than usual; almost a chest; brass bound and a nice bit of poker-work on it; a girl's head. I've put it in your bedroom."

"Ah!" I said. "Ah-h!" He wouldn't make this fuss over a bit of poker-work, I knew.

"The mate of the Saucy Jane brought it here," he went on. "It belonged to the captain. George Markby, the name was; and that's poker-work on it, too. He sickened of a fever over at Rotterdam and died at sea; and they sold off his things to send the money to his widow. I gave a sovereign for it. There's a tray inside with a lock-up till. Keys all complete. Ought to fetch thirty-five shillings."

"As much as that?" I said. I knew there must be a good deal more in it than appeared, but it's no use hurrying Isaac. He likes to tell things his own way.

"I thought it might suit you to lock up your books and papers. That was all—till the day before yesterday. Then a ginger-haired sailor came in. North countryman. Wanted a ditty-box, he said. I told him we weren't marine outfitters, and he'd better try Barnard's, round the corner. He said he didn't want the ordinary sort, but something out of the common; extra large size; brass-bound; tray with a lock-up till. 'Mind if it was a trifle old?' I asked. 'Carved or cut about a bit? You know how some chaps use their knives on them, just to pass the time.' He said he didn't care for things that were hacked about, but he wouldn't object to a bit of poker-work on it. I told him I'd look through the warehouse and let him know in the morning, and he went. Byles, the dock policeman, was standing outside. I went and asked him who the chap was. He said he was cook on the Anne Traylor, just come in, and he believed he'd done time. If he hadn't I'll swear he ought to have, from the look of him.

"About half an hour afterward in walks an oldish chap with a stoop and a gray goat's beard. He wanted a ditty-box, too; something extra large and old, and strong, and a tray with a lock-up till in it. He was a fireman on the Anne Traylor, I found; a shifty sort of chap that couldn't look you in the face. He offered to go to a couple of pounds for the right thing. I told him I'd look through our stuff and let him know if we had one of the sort.

"Just as I was closing, a smart young fellow swaggered in. He was second mate of the Anne Traylor, and he'd heard of the death of her old captain on the Saucy Jane, and that we'd bought some of his effects, and he'd like to have a memento; just a matter of sentiment, he explained. I asked him what form the sentiment took, and he said a ditty-box; and if we had the one that belonged to the old man he'd give two pounds five for it. I put him off like the others.

"Two Swedish sailors came in after the shutters were up, while the door was still open. They wanted a ditty-box of the identical description. I told them I'd look for it, same as I told the rest. You always brought me up not to close too soon with a customer who was keen on a thing."

"Very good, Isaac," I said. "Very good! Go on!"

"In the evening I made inquiries at the 'Duke of Wellington,' where the dock policemen go, and the two-penny-halfpenny money lenders and such; and old Mrs. Higgins, the landlady, knows more about the crews that come here than anyone. Lots of them knew old Markby, it seemed; a very respectable old chap and a favorite with his men, but a bit of a miser, and a trifle queer in his ways. He boasted that he didn't believe in banks and such things, and he'd got his money hidden where even his wife didn't know. And the conclusion I've come to is that those chaps believe it's in the ditty-box, and they mean to have it."

"Ah!" I said. "We'll have something to say to that, Isaac! You told them we hadn't got it, of course."

"Of course," he said; "and of course they didn't believe me! I had a rare bother with the ginger-haired man yesterday morning, and had to send the boy for a policeman before he'd go. And in the afternoon the Swedes tried to sneak through the shop into the warehouse, but I jumped out of the shop parlor and hustled them off. I've put longer screws in the bars to the windows; but I'd be easier if you'd let me sleep here."

Isaac always thought that he could look after me better than I could look after myself!

"I'm all right, Isaac," I said; "but we'll have a look at the box before you go. It might be worth a bit more if it had a secret drawer, eh?"

When the shop was closed we went upstairs and laid the box on my bed, and turned it over and tapped it, and put a lamp inside, and examined every inch. We couldn't find a trace of a secret drawer, or anything scratched on it to say where the old captain had hidden his long stocking. So I concluded that the talk was the usual nonsense, and I daresay I'd have sold it and thought no more about it, if the goat's-beard man hadn't come in the first thing the next morning. He didn't beat about the bush, but said he wanted Captain Markby's ditty-box that we'd bought, and he'd give two pounds ten for it. I told him I wished I'd got it to sell, since he was so generous, but ditty-boxes weren't in my line.

The others that Isaac had spoken of came in too. I was tempted to sell it to the mate for three pounds, but I couldn't quite make up my mind, and told him to come again the next morning. That very night the two Swedes broke into the shop. The police caught them. They're always on the look-out round my place, knowing that it's a fiver to them on the quiet if they catch anyone breaking in. The Swedes got three months apiece.

That made up my mind. I showed the mate an ordinary box when he called, and he went off grumbling that it was nothing like the one he'd asked about, and I'd played the fool with him. I never saw him again, or the Swedes either; but the old man and the ginger-headed chap were always looking in the window. They seemed to have chummed up. I had an anonymous letter that I put down to them—written in red ink that I suppose they meant me to take for blood. It warned me against keeping "a ditty-box that others have a better claim to, and is like to cost you dear." D-e-r-e they spelt it, and one t in ditty.

Two days later they called to ask if the box had come my way yet. "Yes," I said, "and I'm going to keep it. It's got two blackguards three months, and it will get two others a good hiding if they don't mind. Clear out, and don't come here again." They didn't, but we often saw them hanging round, and when I went out one of them generally followed me. I didn't worry about that, for I could have settled the two of them easily if I wasn't taken unaware. I was always a bit obstinate, and I'd sooner have chopped the chest up for firewood than have been bullied into letting them have it; but I was sorry that I hadn't taken the mate's offer, for Isaac and I had measured it all over inside and out, and calculated that there wasn't space anywhere for a secret drawer.

I'd had it about three months; and then a young girl, about twenty, came into the shop one afternoon, when Isaac was at tea. She was a pale slip of a young thing, and her clothes looked as if they'd been worn all through the summer, and it was autumn then; and she hesitated as if she was half afraid of me.

"Well, little missie," I said. "What is it?" I spoke to her with the smooth side of my tongue uppermost, as a big, rough chap generally does to a girl of that sort, if there's anything decent about him.

"My father was Captain Markby," she said, and I liked the way she spoke. "He died at sea, and they sold his things here. I want to find something of his, and I thought that perhaps you might have bought it?"

I knew directly what she meant, but I looked very innocent.

"If it was anything in the curiosity line, I might have," I answered. "You see the sort of things I deal in." I waved my hand round the place.

"No," she said. "It wasn't a curiosity. It was an oak chest with brass corners. I think they call it a ditty-box."

"A ditty-box," I said. "They're too common to be curious. Was there anything special about it?"

"It had a tray in it, and he'd drawn a head on it with a red-hot iron; a girl's head. He meant it for me; but I don't expect you'd recognize me by it. I hope not!" She smiled faintly.

"I hope not," I agreed, "judging from what I've seen of such figures." I laughed, and she laughed a little, too. "And you want to buy it, if you can find it?"

"Ye-es," she said. "At least—I haven't very much money; but I would pay you as soon as I could, if—I suppose you wouldn't be so kind—so very kind—as to agree to that?"

"Umph!" I said. "I don't generally give credit; but as it was your father's, I might stretch a point for once if I should find that I have it."

"Oh, thank you!" she said with a flush. "It is a kindness that I have no right to expect. Thank you!"

"I'll have a look round among my things," I promised. "I haven't bought such a box myself; but my assistant might have; or I might be able to find it for you in some of the shops round here. I'll see what I can do." I meant to let her have it, but I wanted to find out more about it first.

"How kind you are!" she cried. "I—you see I want it very particularly, Mr. Levy."

"Being associated with your father," I said, "naturally you would. Perhaps if I don't come across the ditty-box, I might find something else of his that would do, eh?"

"No-o," she said. "It wouldn't. You see we—my mother and I—aren't well off. We knew that father had some money, but we couldn't find it, or learn anything about it; and we think it must be in the box, or a paper telling us about it."

I shook my head.

"There's no paper in any box that I have," I assured her. "We always go through the things that we buy very carefully."

"You wouldn't find it," she explained eagerly. "There was a secret place. He showed it to me when I was a little girl. I don't expect he thought I would remember, but I did. You take off the brass corners on top, and then the lower part of the lid drops out. The lid's in two pieces and you could put papers—or bank notes—in between."

I couldn't help smiling.

"Aren't you rather foolish to tell me?" I suggested.

She looked at me appealingly.

"Am I?" she asked.

"No," I said. "As it happens, you aren't; but I wouldn't tell anyone else, if I were you. They might think they'd like those bank notes for themselves. I might if—well, if you weren't a good deal younger and more in need of them than I am."

"I think you are a very good and kind man, Mr. Levy," she said solemnly.

"I'm afraid not, little missie," I told her; "but there are some a good deal worse; and some of them have an inkling of what may be in that box, if I'm not mistaken. They've been inquiring after it."

"Oh!" She started. "There were two horrid men who seemed to be watching me when I came in here. I half thought I remembered one of them: an old man with a stoop. I believe I must have seen him aboard my father's ship. I felt rather nervous—because it's such a dark alley." She looked anxiously at the door.

"It is a bit dark," I agreed. "Would you feel safer if I saw you to a main thoroughfare?"

"I should feel quite safe then," she declared, and she smiled like a child does. "I really don't know how to thank you enough for your goodness to me."

I called Isaac to look after the shop, and put on my hat and walked off with her. She was a bright little creature to talk to, and when she was excited she looked very pretty. I found that she was going to walk all the way, so I said that I would see her right to her road. She seemed pleased to have my company, and jabbered nineteen to the dozen. It was such a change to have someone to talk to, she said, because they had moved and knew nobody here. She told me that she tried to earn money by teaching music and by painting. I said that I was badly in want of a few little sketches, and she promised to bring some for me to look at.

"I would ask you to accept them," she said, with a flush, "if we weren't so poor."

"If it weren't for that," I said, "I should ask you to have some tea before I leave you, without fear that you would be too proud to accept. It would be a pleasure to me. Will you?" We were just outside a good place, and I stopped.

"It is very kind of you," she said, "but I don't think—I suppose I am foolishly proud." She laughed an uneasy laugh.

"You mustn't let your pride spoil my pleasure," I told her, and grinned at myself for talking like a book. "You can repay me when you find your fortune, if you insist; but I hope you won't."

She looked up at me quickly.

"No," she said. "I couldn't treat your kindness like that. Thank you, Mr. Levy."

So we went in, and I ordered tea and chicken and cakes. The poor little thing was positively hungry, I could see; and when she mentioned her mother the tears came into her eyes. I understood what she was thinking, and I had some meat patties put up in a package. When I left her at the corner of her road I put the package into her hands, and boarded a 'bus with a run before she had time to object. She shook her head at me when I was on top of the 'bus; but when I took off my hat she waved her hand, and laughed as if she was a great mind to cry. It's hard for an old woman and a young girl when they're left like that.

I had the corners of that ditty-box off as soon as Isaac had gone for the night. The lid was double, as she had said. Between the two boards I found a portrait of an elderly woman—her mother, no doubt—and three photos of herself; two in short frocks and one with her hair in a plait when she was about seventeen. She looked stouter and jollier then, poor girl. There was one other thing: a half sheet of note-paper. "Memo in case of accident. Money up chimney in best bedroom. Geo. Markby, sixth of April, 1897."

I started to change my clothes to go there and tell them; but just as I had taken off my waistcoat I altered my mind. The money wouldn't be in the rooms where they lived then, but in their old house; and that was probably occupied by someone else now, and even if the money was still there she would not be able to get it. It was no use raising her hopes, just to disappoint her. I would try to get the money before I spoke, I decided.

She came at eleven the next morning, and timidly produced a few little sketches, mostly copies of things. I'd like to say that they were good, but I can't. It was just schoolgirl painting, nothing else. She wanted to give me some, but I wouldn't hear of that. She had sold a few for eighteenpence apiece, she said. I said that I wanted four to frame for ships' cabins, and I'd give twelve-and-six for them, and that would leave me a fair margin. I was afraid to offer more, for fear she would suspect me; and as it was she was dubious.

"You're sure you will get a profit?" she asked.

"You ask anyone round here about me," I said. "They'll soon tell you that I look out sharp for that. They'll look very nice when they're framed; and I make a good bit out of the frames, you see. Now about this ditty-box. I've got on the track of one that might turn out right; but there's a difficulty that I'd like to put to you. Suppose that there's no money in it, only a clue to where your father hid it. Wouldn't that be likely to be somewhere where you can't get at it? On board his ship, for example? Or in your old house?

"If it's in the house," she said, "I could get in. At least it was empty a week ago. Mother heard from an old neighbor. But perhaps it would be better to get someone else to go, and say that they wanted to look at the house?" She glanced at me doubtfully.

"You mean me?" She nodded slowly. "You are afraid that I might keep some of it?"

She stared at me in sheer amazement.

"Why, of course not!" she cried. "I was only thinking that it was a long way to ask you to go; and that I must not impose on your kindness."

"Give me the address," I said, "in case I should want it any time."

She gave me an address in Andeville. Then I changed the subject. I walked part of the way home with her. Then I had my dinner and went off to Andeville.

It was about an hour by train. By the time that I had found the agent and got the key it was growing dusk. I was some time arguing with him, because he wanted to send a man with me to lock up afterward. "We've had tramps get in several times," he explained, "and they've done a lot of damage; torn up the flooring and such senseless mischief." It occurred to me directly that the tramps were some of the men who had come after the ditty-box.

I persuaded him at last that I'd lock up all right and he let me go alone. I soon spotted what would be the best bedroom. I fumbled up the chimney and lit a match or two, and found a heavy canvas bag and a smaller one that rustled like notes. I was just looking for the last time when I heard soft steps behind me. I glanced round and saw two men before the match flickered out. The light caught the face of the foremost. It was the old man with the goat's beard. Then I was struck on the head and knocked senseless.

It was about six when I came to and lit another match and looked at my watch. The bags were gone, of course. I never saw them again or the two men. It was as well for them I didn't!

It was no use telling the agent or anybody. I never thought about that, only what I was to do about the girl and her mother. I didn't think very much about the mother, if you come to that. It seemed to me that I'd made a mess of it and lost their money, and I couldn't bear to think of the girl's disappointment. What upset me most was that I knew she'd believe every word of my story, and never dream that I'd taken the money myself, as some people would. She was such a trusting little thing, and—well, I may as well own up that I liked her. If I hadn't been fifteen years older than she was, and felt sure that she'd never look at a Jew—and a much rougher chap then than I am now—I should have had serious thoughts of courting her. And so—well, I knew that a hundred pounds was what they hoped for; and it didn't make very much odds to me. I took out the paper that night and put in twenty five-pound notes, and did it up again. A bit of folly that you wouldn't have suspected me of, eh? Then you think me a bigger fool than most people do! At the same time, it was only fair and honest. I'd had her money and lost it, you see.

I was going to take the chest to their lodgings in a cab the next morning, but she called in early to ask if I had found it. I had an unhappy sort of feeling when I saw her come smiling into the shop, thinking that she wouldn't need to come any more. It's queer how a man feels over a little slip of a girl when he's knocked about all over the world and known hundreds of women and thought nothing of them!

I'd carried it down into this room, and I took her in and showed it. Her delight was pretty to see. She fidgeted about at my elbow like a child while I was taking the corners off; and when she saw the notes she danced and clapped her hands; and when I gave them to her she sat down and hugged them and laughed and cried.

"If you knew how poor we've been!" she said, wiping her eyes. "How lonely and worried and miserable! Your kindness has been the only nice thing ever since father died. Twenty times five! That's a hundred. They're real notes aren't they? I haven't seen one for ages."

"They're real enough," I told her. "I'll give you gold for them, if you like."

"I'd rather have their very selves," she said with a laugh. She studied one carefully; and suddenly she dropped them with a cry and sprang to her feet. Her face had gone white.

"Mr. Levy!" she cried. "Oh, Mr. Levy! You put them there!"

I told her a lie right out; and I'm not ashamed of it. I was a hard man of business, I said; and a Jew; and she was a silly sentimental child, or she'd never take such an idea into her head; and she needn't suppose I kept my shop for charity, and she'd know better when she was older. She heard me out. Then she put her hand on my shoulder.

"Dear kind friend," she said, "father died in May this year. The note that I looked at was dated in June!" And I stood and stared at her like a fool. I suppose I looked a bit cut up, for she stroked my arm gently.

"You dear, good fellow!" she said. She seemed to have grown from a child into a woman in a few minutes. "I can't take them, but it will help me to be a better girl, to have known someone like you!"

"Like me!" I said, and laughed. "I'm just—just a rough, money-grubbing Jew. That's all I am."

She shook her head like mad.

"You may say what you like," she told me; "but you can't alter what I think. You're good—good—good!"

Then I told her just what had happened.

"So, you see, you owe me nothing," I wound up.

She wiped her eyes and took hold of me by the sleeve.

"I will tell you what I owe you," she said. "Food when I was hungry; kindness when I was wretched; your time, your care—yes, and the risk of your life. If you had had your way you would have given me all that money. You—Mr. Levy, you say that it is just a matter of business. What profit did you expect to make?"

"I expected—to make you happy," I said; and she looked up at me suddenly; and I saw what I saw. "Little girl!" I cried. "May I try? In another way."

I held out my arms, and she dropped into them.

"My profits!" I said.

"Oh!" she cried. "I hope so. I will try—try—try!"

Mr. Levy offered me a fresh cigar and took another himself.

"It's a class of profit that's difficult to estimate," he remarked. "I had a difficulty with Isaac over the matter. You see he has 5 per cent. over the business that he introduces, but that was only meant for small transactions, I argued. He argued that there were no profits at all; not meaning any disrespect to her, but holding that there was no money in it; or, if there was, it was a loss because I'd have to keep her, and nobody knew how a wife would turn out. She held much the same, except that she was sure she was going to turn out good; but she thought I ought to find some plan of doing something for Isaac. We settled it that way. He wanted to get married, so I gave him a rise and let them have the rooms over the shop to live in; and there they are now."

"And how do you reckon the profits yourself?" I asked.

"Well," he said "in these last eight years I've cleared forty thousand pounds, though you wouldn't think it in this little shop. I reckon that I cleared a good bit more over that ditty-box. Come round to my house one evening, and I'll introduce you to her."