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Jane and the nimble thief

May 20, 2017 02:34PM
It's my birthday, and I've just released the much expanded, corrected and poked version of the Braithwaite Letters, as well as my first fantasy book so I'm well pleased and would like to share that pleasure with an extra short story in which Jane determines how some of her own jewellery disappears.

Jane and the nimble thief

“Oh, Madam, it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t, it wasn’t!” Sobbed Hanny, as Mrs. Barnard dragged the diminutive maidservant by the ear to the parlour, where Jane had been trying to take a nap.
“If you succumbed to temptation and threw them jewels down to your brother, you tell Mrs. Armitage now and she’ll be lenient towards you,” said Mrs. Barnard. “Jewellery don’t just disappear.”
Jane resigned herself to losing any semblance of a nap, and hid a sigh. She had got to the stage of pregnancy where she felt tired all the time. She looked firmly at Mrs. Barnard. The housekeeper could be bossy if not kept firmly in check, and though Jane was happy for Ella to be a bit protectively bossy towards her, she would not accept it from Mrs. Barnard who had not been through all Ella had been with Jane.
“Let Hanny tell her story, Mrs. Barnard,” Jane said, mildly. “She has never shown herself to be dishonest, not in the employ of the Attwoods or here.” Hanny, like Mrs. Barnard herself, along with nervous Jenny and poor stupid Eliza, had been employed by Clement Attwood before that individual engaged in arson for the insurance money.
“She’s very young, and a bit silly, and I feared she may have been tempted and acted without thinking what she was doing,” said Mrs. Barnard.
“I ain’t a thief and I ain’t so young I don’t know what stealing is,” said Hanny, truculently, rubbing her abused ear. Tear tracks and snot on her face hid its normally bright and cheerful aspect, and Jane, who always carried a multitude of handkerchiefs, offered her one.
“Blow your nose and wipe your eyes, Hanny, and tell me what it is that has happened to make Mrs. Barnard so willing to believe the worst of you,” said Jane, kindly. Hanny was scarcely older than Simon, after all, and accusations would only make him stubbornly refuse to say anything to clear himself, so there was no reason to suppose that Hanny would react any differently to any other child, just because she was a servant.
Privately, Jane planned to give Mrs. Barnard a good ticking off for mismanaging the child; she was there as a mother-figure to the girls as well as to keep them on their toes. She had failed in her role to make sure that the hapless Betty Gibbs was out of the burning house, although there were many extenuating circumstances. She plainly did care for the girls under her, but Jane felt that she could be too brusque. She had received complaints from Molly and Annie, sisters who had come, with Ella and Jem Fowler, from the London house. Annie, as nursemaid, was outside the jurisdiction of Mrs. Barnard, which as she was not much older than Hanny and rather nervy was just as well, but Molly did not care for the tone of someone who did not know the way ‘Mrs. Jane’ did things, and who would not be quietly put right. Molly had complained of being fined for impudence, and Jane had needed to have a quiet word with Mrs. Barnard to tell her that Molly had been trying to be helpful; and that as Molly acted at times as her personal maid, she was permitted the liberty of referring to her mistress as ‘Mrs. Jane’ in the affectionate way all the London staff had done.
No, Mrs. Barnard might go to the London house, and Jane would have Mrs. Maggie Ketch as her housekeeper here. A bustling besom would do well by those who rented, and London maids came and went like snow in April anyway. It would be good to have Mrs. Ketch. Jane resolved to write later that day.
Hanny meanwhile had blown her nose hard, and mopped herself up, and stood, pleating her apron between her hands, having stowed the capacious handkerchief in her pocket at Jane’s signal that she should do so.
“Well, Madam, I was doing as Mrs. Fowler told me, cleaning your jools.”
It was a job Ella hated, and delegated when she could.
“So you were soaking them in warm cider vinegar and brushing them off with a hog’s hair brush?” Jane asked.
“Yes, Madam!” said Hanny, awed that the mistress knew what to do. “Excepting them pearls, of course, account of how they dissolve in vinegar and the likes of Cleopatra drinks it, which is awful wasteful of pretty things.”
“I think you’ll find that dissolving pearls in vinegar is a myth, Hanny; just a story,” Jane hastily explained what a myth was. “But you were a good girl to be safe rather than sorry if you did not know.”
“I rubbed them gentle-like with a shammy-cloth,” said Hanny. “And did the others in vinegar. And Cuh! They didn’t half look shiny for it. And then I dried them with the shammy, and left them on your dressing table to finish drying proper-like in the air.”
Jane nodded. A soft chamois would not hurt the pearls. And the rest would not have taken Hanny long to clean; Jane did not own much jewellery.
“So what happened next?” she asked Hanny.
“I left the jools out while I went to help Jenny to do the bedrooms,” said Hanny. “Account o’ how you direct two girls always to do a room, to turn the mattress, and Eliza being as much good as an eyeless needle, and Molly helping out with the children. So we done the rooms, and finished up in yours and the Captain’s room, and then I noticed some o’ them jools was missing.”
“So about three quarters of an hour had elapsed in which you left them unattended?” Jane asked.
“Ar, someat like that,” said Hanny.
Mrs. Barnard gave her a little shake, and tutted with her tongue.
“Hanny swears nobody could come upstairs without her and Jenny hearing, which is right enough since them stairs creak, and says it must have been gypsies climbing in at the window; and expects me to swallow a story like that!”
“Mrs. Barnard, please do not shake the child like that,” said Jane. “There is no reason to doubt her veracity, however fanciful her imagination may be. Failing to have a reasonable explanation for the occurrence of a mysterious phenomenon is not proof that the one failing to come up with a theory for the said phenomenon is guilty of it,” said Jane. “By the same token, you could have been accused of setting the fire at the Attwood house, because you did not know how it had started.”
Mrs. Barnard flushed at the acid tone in Jane’s voice.
“I’m sorry, Madam,” she said.
“So I should hope. Are there gypsies in the neighbourhood? I recall Simon said something about going to see a performing bear and a horse which counts.”
“Well … yes, Madam, there are,” admitted Mrs. Barnard. “But how would they cross the garden and climb up to the window without being seen in broad daylight?”
“A good point, but if everyone were distracted watching a performing bear, then a nimble and acrobatic gypsy might make nothing of it. I wager Simon could climb up the wisteria there in a trice,” said Jane. “I agree, it seems unlikely, but not as unlikely as believing that Hanny has suddenly become dishonest. I think I know all my maids quite well, now, and Hanny is a good, honest little maid. I can’t answer for her clumsiness however, and I could wonder if that has been to blame. Hanny, you are unhandy! Can you have knocked any of the jewellery, or caught it in a cloth, so that it fell out of the window?”
“I don’t think so, Madam,” said Hanny, frowning with the effort of remembering.
“Run down now and look in the flowerbed below my window, and see,” said Jane. “Pay attention to anywhere such a falling object might have lodged in the wisteria too. And while you are there, you may see if there are any marks of where a ladder might have been stood, or the marks of anyone’s boots amongst my pansies.”
Hanny nodded eagerly and darted off.
“What if she did take them?” asked Mrs. Barnard.
“I think it unlikely that she did,” said Jane. “And if, for any reason, she did take them, to show her brother or something, for I don’t suppose for a ,moment that she ever intended theft, then it gives her a way to ‘discover’ them and bring them back without loss of face. And there is the outside chance that some passing vagabond used one of our ladders, or the wisteria, to have a quick look in an open upstairs window. It may be unlikely, but I won’t discard that idea out of hand. What I’d like to know is why you are so certain that Hanny must have stolen the jewellery, with or without the connivance of her brother?”
“Because I can’t see no other way it could disappear,” said Mrs. Barnard. “I hate to suspect one of the girls, but with heavy heart, I have no other suggestion. I confess, the idea that she knocked them off the windowsill is more likely than her stealing them, or gypsies, but I can see her taking them to show her brother.”
“Send Jenny to look, too, in my chamber, behind and under the furniture, and in the drawers of the dressing-table, for if they were even a little bit open, a small item like jewellery could fall in. and we both know that Hanny can flail wildly and create chaos beyond what her size might indicate.”
Mrs. Barnard withdrew to issue orders to Jenny, and Jane composed herself to wait.

Hanny came running in, coltishly, her skirts flying, and one stocking descended around her ankles, and one blonde plait coming undone under her cap. She was waving something in her hand.
“I can’t of knocked it that far, Madam, it were a thief and he dropped it on his way to get away,” she panted. She opened her hand to show a bracelet, somewhat the worse for having been dropped in mud.
“Is this all that went missing?” asked Jane.
“Oh no, Madam, it was two rings and a brooch as well,” said Hanny.
“Not the pearls, nor the garnet necklace?” asked Jane.
“No, Madam, they was still there,” said Hanny.
“Interesting,” mused Jane. “Nothing large. An odd sort of thief to take the cheapest items and leave two moderately valuable pieces. And he also dropped a bracelet. Very odd. Where was it?”
“On the path, not in a flower bed at all, but half way across the garden,” said Hanny. “Only I saw the sun catch it and sparkle on the lawn.”
Lawn was something of a misnomer for the grassy patch which had scorched in the summer and was now muddy from recent rains, but with due care it might become a decent bit of turf in the future.
Mrs. Barnard bustled back in, and frowned to see a piece of jewellery retrieved, a disappointed look on her face.
“Well, Mrs. Barnard,” said Jane, “This was found on the lawn, which tends to prove Hanny’s veracity. Why would she make up such an odd location to find one of the pieces, and the biggest at that, when she could have claimed it had, indeed, fallen out of the window? Hanny is as honest as the day is long. The lighter pieces were taken by an outside agency.”
“If you say so, Madam,” said Mrs. Barnard. “Goodness knows, I don’t want to suspect the child. Jenny found nothing.”
“No, the jewellery is some way away,” said Jane.
“Oh Madam, do the gypsies have a monkey?” asked Hanny.
“I don’t know, but my idea does not require a monkey or gypsies,” said Jane. “And nor do I think there was any use of the clever hooks some crooks in London use to remove items from upper storey windows, since most of those engaged in the lay of prigging sparklers by the dubious means of hooking tends to do so in the darkmans, or as the rest of us might say, during the hours of darkness. And I doubt they could get the angle anyway,” she added.
“Well, landsakes, how was it done, Madam?” asked Mrs. Barnard.
“By flying,” said Jane.
“You mean with a balloon?” squeaked Hanny.
“No, Hanny. Something far more mundane. Have you not heard the magpies squabbling?”
“Oh, yes, Madam, fearfully noisy birds they be,” said Hanny.
“Indeed. Now, why don’t you run and get your brother, and if he can climb the tree where the magpies roost, I wager he’ll recover my rings and brooch and possibly any amount of other shiny things,” said Jane.
“Birds? Really?” asked Mrs. Barnard.
“Certain birds of the carrion variety are attracted to bright objects, especially magpies and jackdaws,” said Jane. “I think that Tom may find a lot of surprising things.”

Tom came down from the tree with a few nasty pecks to his head and hands, and his pockets full of bright things.
As well as Jane’s missing jewellery, there were some other rings, mostly tawdry fairings, and one fine diamond ring, nestling amongst the shiny dross, which included a broken St Christopher medal, a piece of blue bottle glass, a string with a few glass beads on it, and a piece of fabric with gold thread and spangles on it. It had probably come from someone’s drizzling box.
“You’ll be due a reward on that ring as well as what I’m going to give you, Tom,” said Jane. “I recognise it; it was reported to Bow Street as stolen in this vicinity, and the captain was keeping half an eye out for thieves. It went from the inn, and the captain will make sure you get the full reward.”
“Cuh!” said Tom. “It ain’t as pretty as your rings.”
Jane smiled. Tom thought more of her coloured, semi-precious stones than of fine diamonds it seemed. The diamonds were a trifle mired by detritus from the roost, so he had some good reason. Hanny might clean that, as well as re-cleaning the other missing pieces, as proof that she was trusted.
And Caleb should then take it in to London.
Caleb laughed to hear the story.
“Well, I shall write a report, but I will have to say that I failed to get the cramp-rings on the felon as he flew away,” he chuckled.

Tom was in seventh heaven. He had received a reward beyond his dreams of avarice from his own mistress, and the reward for the diamond ring made his jaw drop. The illustrious lady who had lost it was delighted and paid a reward to Caleb without a question when he took it to her.
“I want to put this in a bank for you, young Tom,” said Caleb.
“Oh, yes, sir, it’s enough to scare me,” said Tom. “I can buy presents for Ma with what the Missus give me for finding her rings. I don’t think I like being rich; it’s main uncomfortable.”
“The time will come when you will want to use this to buy a cottage, perhaps, or a share in a livery stable,” said Caleb. “And if you invest it in the funds, it will sit making you money while you grow up.”
“Oh, yes, sir, thank you sir,” said Tom, quite overcome. “And please, sir, can you tell Ma? She’ll only worry I didn’t come by it honest if you don’t.”
“Your Ma should realise her children are good, honest people,” said Caleb, “But yes, I’ll tell her.”

It was harder for Jane to ask Mrs. Barnard to go to supervise the London house, Maggie Ketch having indicated her willingness to live in the country to be with her rightful mistress, as she put it. However, judicious flattery about Mrs. Barnard’s undoubted ability to run a house unsupervised left the woman feeling that Jane had asked her to go to London so that she could keep a less efficient housekeeper under her eye, and Jane mentally apologised to Maggie for slighting her, even by implication, in such a fashion. She and Maggie and Ella would sit and giggle about it in the housekeeper’s room over a cup of tea and some of Ella’s delectable macaroons.
Jane could hardly wait.

Jane and the nimble thief

Sarah WaldockMay 20, 2017 02:34PM


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