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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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."