Behind the Shutters
This is not Ted Lyte’s story. He merely had the excessive misfortune to come into it, and to remain in it longer than he wanted. Had he adopted Cardinal Wolsey’s advice and flung away ambition, continuing to limit his illegal acts to the petty pilfering and pickpocketing at which he was fairly expert, he would have spared himself on this historic Saturday morning the most horrible moment of his life. The moment was so horrible that it deprived him temporarily of his senses. But he was not a prophet; all he could predict of the future was the next instant, and that often wrongly; and the open gate, with the glimpse beyond of the shuttered window, tempted him.
He hadn’t had much luck lately. He had been brooding on that dismal fact while searching for flotsam and jetsam along the deserted shore. Pretty well all he had found there was mud, and it was mud, coupled perhaps with the depressing sound of a fog-horn out at sea, that had driven him inland near Havenford Creek. But a shuttered window suggested brighter possibilities. It suggested an unoccupied house. If he could summon a little courage—it was lack of courage that prevented him from becoming a Napoleon of his trade—he might find a bit of all right behind those shutters! Wot abart it?
He glanced up and down the lane. The glance was satisfactory. Not a soul in sight. Not even a house—beyond this one. He glanced again at the open gate. It was swinging slightly on faintly squeaking hinges. Nasty sound. Almost as nasty as the fog-horn. Ted was susceptible to any form of nastiness just now, for it was a long while since his last square meal, and an empty stomach plays havoc with your manhood. Still, till you lived in a world where people looked after you, you had to work for your living.
So he took a breath and trespassed. Now he was beyond the gate, standing on gravel, and the gate was squeaking behind him instead of ahead of him. It was not nice smooth gravel. It was rough, with weeds growing out of it. It looped round an untidy plot of grass. You could go round whichever way you chose to the front porch—if you chose. Ted wasn’t quite sure whether you chose. As he stared at the house, the house—two-storeyed, grey-bricked, half-dressed in dilapidated vines—stared back with one eye closed. The closed eye was the shuttered window on the right of the porch. There was no shutter over the window on the left. The uninvited guest got an unpleasant sensation that the house was winking at him.
Still, other signs were more favourable. There was no movement anywhere. There was no chimney-smoke. There was no dog. These omissions were too valuable to ignore in the state of the exchequer, and they decided him to take the risk. All that remained, therefore, was to find the way to get in.
He gave a quick glance behind him, to make sure that the short length of visible lane beyond the swinging gate was still empty, then hastened round the path to the porch. The front door, of course, was no good to him. Nor was the shuttered window. All the other windows in the front of the house were closed and locked, and he hesitated to break one till he had exhausted other less noisy possibilities. Not being a professional house-breaker, he had no implements to assist him. A professional could have sliced a circle out of the glass in a jiffy.
In the hope of finding an open window he went round the house. On the left was a narrow way between the wall and a high hedge, but somehow or other he didn’t like the look of it, and chose a lawn on the right. The lawn stretched from the house to a long tangle of dark trees, and a french window opened on to it. The french window, like the window on the right of the front porch, was shuttered behind its glass.
“Wunner why they’ve shuttered one side of the ’ouse and not t’other?” ruminated Ted.
Had he known the reason, his knees would not have carried him any farther.
In happy ignorance, he passed the french window. The lawn, which needed scything, extended beyond the back of the house, ending at a little gate that led into a wood. Beyond the wood was the low cliff that dropped to Havenford Creek. But Ted was not interested in the scenery or the geography; it was the house itself that grimly fascinated him, and at the back, to his pleasant surprise, he found what he was looking for. A little window had not been securely fastened, and on being pushed inwards, it provided an aperture just large enough for a small man to slip through.
Ted was a small man, and fifteen seconds after the discovery he had dropped on to a scullery floor.
His first sensation was of intense relief. When you are breaking into a house you feel as though the whole world is watching you, but once you have entered, the world is shut outside. You pause for a few seconds to get back your breath and to enjoy the comforting privacy of close walls. To a man of Ted’s fragile calibre, however, the sense of comfort is short-lived; and once he had fully realised that he had achieved his object of getting into the house, the next urgent object appeared to be to get out of it. Still, if he were ever to look himself in the face again, never the most cheering of occupations, he could not leave until he had secured some sort of a prize.
Sitting on his impulse to fly before the occasion demanded it, he stole softly out of the scullery. He did not need a plan of the house to find the larder. Instinct took him there, and appetite kept him there. For a few minutes Ted Lyte was completely happy. In fact, cheese and bread make such a difference to a man that when he emerged he did not see why he should not benefit by a handful of silver spoons as well. He knew a fellow who got rid of all the silver spoons you could find for him.
Leaving the larder quarters, he crept into the front hall. Here, ahead of him, was the front door at which he had stared so anxiously from the gravel path outside. How much bigger the door looked now—funny that—somehow. And here, on each side of him, was a door. And there were the stairs.
Well—which? The doors or the stairs? Silver below and jewellery above. That was the way of it, wasn’t it? Why not both?
The cheese was operating.
He moved towards the staircase. Get the top done first and work downwards. Yes, that was it! But something worried him as he reached the staircase and put his soiled boot on the first worn stair, and he paused. What was worrying him?
He paused for five anxious seconds trying to discover what was worrying him. Not knowing was the worst worry of the lot! It wasn’t just the silence, was it? No. He wanted silence. It wasn’t the opposite, then—a noise? Had he heard a noise? He listened so hard that it hurt, even clenching his teeth with the idea that that would help. He heard nothing. The silence persisted. Not that. Was it the sort of heavy, suffocating atmosphere? No, again. Any one doing this kind of a job for the first time would feel a bit weak and wobbly. Even after half a pound of bolted cheddar.
Ah! Got it! He knew what it was. With a novice’s inefficiency he was doing this the wrong way about. Get downstairs done first, and work up! What had worried him was that somebody might pop out of one of these doors while he was on the top floor, and then he’d be caught. Mug!
Of the two doors, one was ajar, and the other was closed, with the key in the lock. The door that was ajar was on his right. That would be the unshuttered front window. The door with the key was on his left. That would be the shuttered room. He had turned round from the stairs, and now had his back to them while studying the geography.
He went first to the room with the door ajar. After listening at the crack, he pushed the door wide and looked into a dining-room. In his hurry to get to the sideboard he tripped, caught hold of a chair and went over with it. The sound of the fall was thunderous. He felt sure it could be heard for miles around. But it produced no disastrous results, so he picked himself up, sucked a scraped knuckle, and completed the interrupted journey to the sideboard.
The sideboard drawers yielded a small harvest. He left the room with a dozen silver spoons and forks added to his normal meagre weight.
Was this enough? Yes. That tumble had shaken him, and the fog-horn had started up again—he could just hear it moaning its two mournful notes in the distance—and the heavy suffocating quality of the atmosphere seemed to be increasing. Yes, quite enough. He had filled his stomach well and his pockets modestly, and this kind of thing wasn’t really in his line.
But as he looked at the door with the key, the itch of curiosity got hold of him, and he found himself moving towards it. That shuttered room—he’d have to take just a peep. It was the shutters that had first drawn his attention to the house. There might be something interesting behind them, and he was no longer worried by the question of an occupant. If there had been any one in the room, or the house, the noise of that fall in the dining-room would have brought them along!
Maybe he’d find an ornament or two to add to the forks and spoons.
He turned the handle. The door did not open. Locked. He turned the key. Now the door opened.
He had expected darkness. He looked into a blaze of electric light…
Ted Lyte never remembered leaving that house. The next thing he remembered was being out of it; and, as if he had not been given horror enough, he woke into a fresh nightmare. As he sped to the gate that still swung and groaned on its rusty hinges he heard footsteps speeding after him.
The shock of this produced a second period of oblivion, and once again he swooned mentally, although his legs kept on running. Had there been any spectators of this unique race, they might have imagined they were witnessing a new form of paper-chase, in which the trail was spoons and forks instead of paper. Ted’s pockets were plentifully supplied with holes, and in the violence of his flight he shed much ballast. But there were no spectators on that lonely lane. For half a mile, pursued and pursuer had the road to themselves.
During the first part of the race Ted looked like winning. His velocity was volcanic, which was not surprising, since he imagined he was being pursued by Death itself. Then his pursuer gained ground, and gradually the gap between them shortened. It was the sound of the footsteps close behind him that finally brought him to and inspired his last frenzied spurt. He spurted into the widespread arms of a new enemy, who loomed abruptly ahead. He found himself flattened against a massive chest. His pursuer, shooting into his back, completed the sandwich.
“What’s all this?” demanded the owner of the massive chest.
The speaker was a constable. Ted’s luck was dead out.
“A spoon collector, I imagine,” panted the pursuer. “I chased him when I saw him leaving a house in rather a hurry.”
“’Urry? My Gawd!” choked Ted.
“Perhaps hurry is not the right word,” admitted the pursuer. “He left the house as if he had been fired out of it from a cannon.”
“Oh, did he?” said the constable. “What house?”
“Some way back along the road. I just came off my boat in time for the fun—hey! Watch him!”
For the victim had begun to screech with laughter. That word “fun” had crashed into his solar plexus.