He hurried up the stairs from the basement and unlocked the door which kept the public from wandering down into the private areas of the museum. Pushing it open a crack, he heard voices in the North Hall. He froze, still as a rabbit mesmerized by a stoat, nerves aquiver.
“Regular maze down there, Sarge, innit?” The constable must have just come up the stairs on the other side of the hall. “Proper sinister, the pipes gurgling away up by the ceiling, and all them pillars with their shadows moving when you walk past with your torch. And all full of bones and dead things—ugh! Like a cata-thingummy.”
“Catacomb. It’s live people you’re looking out for, Jones. Anyone in the offices downstairs?”
“Nah, they don’t work late, mostly, these light summer evenings.”
“There’s a bloke in one of the Bird Rooms, stuffing a bird of Paradise. Lovely thing.”
“One of them taxi-whatsits,” suggested the constable.
“-Dermists. Taxidermists. Couple of chaps in the libraries, too, noses stuck in their dusty old books. Me, I’d rather be outdoors smelling the roses.”
“Wouldn’t mind being out on the beat, nice day like this.”
“No kettle on the beat,” observed the sergeant. “Let’s go brew up. Twitchell’ll be down in a minute.”
Their voices receded, accompanied by the clink of the sergeant’s great bunch of keys and the thunk of police boots on the mosaic floor, echoing hollowly in the vast spaces of the museum.
The listener hesitated. The third policeman, Constable Twitchell, would probably descend by the main staircase after completing the night’s first patrol of the upper floors. Even if bad luck brought him down these stairs, he would think nothing of meeting another late worker, like the taxidermist in the Bird Room, the readers in the libraries.
Still, better not to be seen unnecessarily. He stayed where he was, ears straining for a third set of footsteps.
Only his own breath soughed in his ears. The massive Victorian building absorbed even the heavy tread of three policemen, relaying no hint of their whereabouts. Two would have reached the police post by the main entrance by now, but had the third come down to join them yet? Vital minutes ticked away while he listened.
Surely Twitchell must have gone down the main stairs by now.
Rubber-soled shoes silent on the stone steps, he sped upward again. Now he was committed, at least to the extent that he had no legitimate purpose above the ground floor.
Slightly out of breath, he reached the first floor. Instinct shrieked, “Go with care!” but to be caught peeking around the corner would instantly arouse suspicion. He stepped out boldly. No one in sight in the long gallery ahead.
As he passed the head of the main staircase, keeping well back, he glanced that way. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a still figure standing on the broad half-landing. His heart jumped.
Sir Richard Owen did not stir, being bronze. But footsteps sounded down in the Central Hall.
The tread of heavy boots, not a scholar’s shoes—all three coppers accounted for. Tempted nonetheless to look over the balustrade to make sure it was the third policeman, not a stray museum employee, he made himself move on along the window side of the gallery. Between him and temptation marched a silent, motionless parade of giraffes and okapi.
Four steps up, then the stairs to the second floor, bridging the central hall, rose on his right. The heavy black wrought-iron gate to the Mineral Gallery barred the way to his left, and Pettigrew’s private office lay straight ahead. The Keeper of Mineralogy had just started his annual fortnight’s holiday.
It was a shadowy corner. He had not reckoned on being silhouetted against the frosted glass door-panes, all too visible from the giraffe gallery and the stairs.
Crouching below the level of the glass, he fumbled in his trouser pocket for the key.
His discovery that the key of the Keeper of Geology’s office also opened Pettigrew’s directly above had been purely fortuitous. He happened to be present that day last year when Dr. Smith Woodward, having—typically—mislaid his own keys, borrowed Pettigrew’s. From that chance had developed his present brilliant plan. The old man’s forgetfulness of anything not directly concerning his beloved fossils had made it easy to borrow the keys and have the important ones copied.
The door-key copy grated in the lock and his heart stood still. He glanced round, but only Giraffa camelopardalis watched him, with a glassy-eyed stare.
The key clicked round. Taking out his handkerchief, he wiped his suddenly damp forehead, then used the cloth to turn the door-handle. The door swung open. He stepped through and closed it quickly behind him …
… Leaving the blasted key on the outside.
That was the sort of stupid mistake which could get him caught. All the same, he decided to risk leaving it there for a few minutes. He must find Pettigrew’s keys very soon, or he might as well give up. Of course, if the Keeper of Mineralogy had taken them home, the whole thing was off.
As he put away the handkerchief and took out his light summer gloves, he scanned the spacious room. The two large windows admitted plenty of light in spite of the trees outside and the late hour.
On a row of pegs behind the door hung a silk scarf in a brown and blue Paisley pattern. The keys were not conveniently hanging next to it, nor under it—he checked.
On a work-bench to his left, under the east window, lay various tools and a dozen or so pieces of rock, of varied size and colour but undifferentiated and uninteresting in his eyes. Pettigrew apparently liked the view of trees and the omnibuses, hansoms, motor taxis, and horse-drawn vans in the Cromwell Road, for the government-issue pedestal desk faced the south window. Against the right-hand wall stood a filing cabinet and a bookcase.
Desk, cabinet, and bookcase, appropriate to the grade of keeper, matched Smith Woodward’s in the office below. Whether they were keyed alike he was about to discover.
He crossed to the desk and pulled open the centre drawer to find paper, envelopes, a book of penny-ha’penny stamps, blotting paper to fit the pad on top. The first drawer on the left held an old fountain pen with a cracked cap, a bottle of blue-black ink and another of India ink, a paper knife, and other odds and ends. The second drawer down was locked.
Smith Woodward’s desk key turned in the lock. So much for government standardization! The drawer slid open to disclose a plethora of keys.
For a moment he stared, scarcely able to believe his luck. There they lay, the big iron key for the iron gate and three rings of small brass ones for the display cases. The latter even had tags with the numbers of the cases they opened.
He began to feel a sense of inevitability. Everything seemed to conspire to help him: the keys falling into his hands; Pettigrew’s absence when short summer nights made a betraying torch unnecessary; one lucky coincidence after another. Dame Fortune favored those with the guts, brains, and patience to take advantage when opportunity offered.
Long patience had made tonight possible, but for the next few hours time was of the essence. He picked up the keys, stuffed all but the large one in his pockets to stop them jangling, and hurried to the door.
Now caution was called for. He had crossed the line; if he was caught coming out of Pettigrew’s office laden with Pettigrew’s keys no excuse would serve, his goose was well and truly cooked. Opening the door a crack, he peered through the narrow gap.
The view was singularly uninformative. Eyes shut, head cocked, he listened. His heart thundered, but no whisper of external sound reached him.
Pull the door open; step through; close it, gently; lock it and take the key. He tiptoed ten long yards to the iron gate. Set in a grid which filled the archway, it was backed by a wood and glass screen and door which kindly limited the view of the interior, as did the double row of rectangular pillars within.
The clumsy key turned silently. Not a creak escaped the well-oiled hinges. And the door opened with equal ease. He was inside the Mineral Gallery.
He cast a long, yearning look at the Colenso diamond, but a hundred and thirty carats of crystallized carbon was too conspicuous, too recognizable. The rest of the diamonds he passed with a disdainful sneer. They were all paste copies of famous stones, including the uncut Cullinan, a monster at over three thousand carats.
Without a jeweller’s lens, the heavy lead glass invented centuries ago by Herr Strasser was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. They were all inanimate objects, unchanging, never alive, their value artificial, one very like another in all but size. Studying them taught nothing. What did it matter whether the public gaped at genuine gems or counterfeits?
Moving on, he opened case after case. His inside breast-pockets filled with amethysts, sapphires, garnets, topazes, aquamarines, rubies, emeralds. Kind of Sir Arthur Church to bequeath his splendid collection to the museum!
He hesitated over the Transcarpathia ruby. It was an uncommonly large stone, famous half a century ago, but few colored jewels achieved the lasting notoriety of the largest diamonds. Weight for weight, though, a large ruby was more valuable than a diamond. He pocketed it.
Under the arch to the meteorite pavilion stood the case of precious stones mentioned in the Bible. Superstitiously, he left it untouched.
The rear exit was close by, with little-used stairs right down to the basement. He had the key to the door. Alas, the innocent wood was backed by another of solid steel, and only the police had the key to that. No choice but to return the way he had come.
He started back along the north aisle, glancing from side to side to check that he had closed all the cases. Had he locked the iron gate behind him? In a sudden flash of panic he could not remember. The patrolling constable probably tried it every time he passed.
The constable might even now be on his way upstairs after his cup of tea. The gate was two hundred feet away, nearly the whole length of the gallery.
His immediate impulse was to run. Sweating again, he tried to force himself to be calm, to think. The urge for speed won.
Feet thudding dully, he loped towards the entrance. The keys clinked in his bulging pockets. Suspiciously bulging—so many details he had not envisioned! But it would take too long to return Pettigrew’s keys to his desk.
As he approached the entrance he slowed, and stopped, panting, to one side of the arch. Craning his neck, he could see through the glass that the gate was still closed. No police countenance frowned back at him. Bent double, below the level of the glass panes, he crept forward and reached for the handle of the inner door.
He had locked it, quite unnecessarily. Dammit, he cursed under his breath, what a waste of time! Fumble for the key, open a crack to listen, reach through to try the gate.
It, too, was locked. All that panic for nothing.
The big key turned easily. A moment later he was out, feverishly locking door and gate behind him while straining for the sound of boots.
The nearest stairs were in a nook just around the corner from Pettigrew’s office. He had avoided them before because, on the ground floor, they opened to Smith Woodward’s office, right beside the police post. Now, time slipping away, he unlocked the door at the top and tiptoed down the narrow, gloomy stairwell, heart in mouth, clutching his pockets to keep the keys quiet.
On the ground floor, only a wall and a yard or two separated him from the police.
Back in the basement at last, in the dim light beneath grumbling pipes, he leant weakly against the yellow brick wall and blotted his brow. He would not use those nerve-racking stairs again.
Just a little farther, to the staff cloakrooms, and he was safe. He had left his hat and attaché case there. From here on, he was just a late-working employee on his way home.
As on any ordinary day, he left the museum by a door at the rear of the basement. The usual staff entrance, it was secured with a Yale mechanism. Every employee had a key, though he did not need one to exit. He walked along the arcade to Queen’s Gate and turned south towards South Ken tube station. There, he showed his season ticket at the barrier, and plunged into the depths, breaking into a trot as a subterranean rumble warned of a train’s approach. Emerging onto the platform in its chasm, open to the darkening sky, he automatically turned to the west-bound side.
Then he remembered he was not going home. He had told them he had been invited to give a lecture in Cambridge and it would be easier to stay the night there. Swinging round, he made for the east-bound platform. The first train to come in was on the Inner Circle, but he took it anyway. The sooner he escaped the vicinity of the museum, the happier he would be. He could change at Mark Lane onto a District line train to Whitechapel.
A rosy dawn stained London’s sooty skies when he returned to Kensington. He was tired and hungry—he had felt conspicuous enough walking down the street among the bustling Hebrew population of Whitechapel without venturing into one of their cafés to dine. Besides, he had no idea what sort of weird, foreign concoctions they ate.
He was also hurried. All too soon an army of housemen would arrive to sweep, scrub, dust, and polish. He had to be gone before then.
Haste and lack of sleep must not lead to carelessness, he thought, yet caution must not slow him. If he was seen, no conceivable excuse could explain away his presence at that hour of the morning.
Slipping in through the basement door, he made for the west end of the west wing, where stairs led all the way up to the second floor. That was the safest place to cross to the central block at this time in the morning. The constable on duty upstairs would be busy later keeping an eye on the housemen. At this dead hour, he was probably to be found with his colleagues in the police post on the ground floor, drinking endless cups of tea to stay awake. If he made occasional patrols, he might not even bother to go above the first floor.
In the dim dawn light, the Upper Mammal Gallery on the second floor was an eerie place. The gorillas, lurking in their artificial jungle, seemed about to pounce. Once or twice he could have sworn a chimpanzee or a monkey turned its head to watch as he trudged wearily past.
The human skeletons on the other side sent atavistic shivers down his spine. If they affected him so, he told himself, no uneducated boor of a policeman was likely to enter the gallery unnecessarily until full daylight drove the ghosts away.
Guarding the top of the main stairs, the massive marble statue of Sir Joseph Banks was a friendly figure in comparison. In Sir Joseph’s shadow he stopped to listen.
The huge, sound-deadening mass of the building weighed oppressively on his nerves now. He felt as if an officer could creep up silently behind him and tap him on the shoulder before he became aware of his presence.
Utter bosh! Police boots could be heard a hundred yards off, he reminded himself. He crossed to the stair head, stared down into the shadowy depths. Nothing moved.
Another shadow, he tiptoed down, turning right on the half-landing. More monkeys watched, a terra cotta troupe climbing the arch over the stairs, chattering at him silently.
Twenty minutes later, he returned by the same route and let himself out by the basement door.
The cleaners who polished the glass cases in the Mineral Gallery, their every move scrutinized by the constable on duty, noticed nothing amiss. Nor did the public, when they wandered in later to ooh and aah at diamonds and sapphires before moving on to the meteorites.
Naturally; nothing was missing. Yet.
That was Monday night and Tuesday morning. The following Friday he went out to Whitechapel after work, to make sure everything was proceeding according to plan.
Satisfied, he did not return until the Friday after, fortunately a sunny though cool and breezy day. He went at midday, setting off from the museum with his attaché case, as if to eat his luncheon sandwiches in Kensington Gardens. Only that day, the case contained no sandwiches. It was stuffed with banknotes, every last remaining penny of his nest-egg.
Sitting in the Tube, as it joggled its rattling way beneath the West End and the City, he wondered if he was crazy. He could turn around now, open a new Post Office savings account, and redeposit his few hundred. No one would ever know what he had already done, what he planned to do tonight.
But he could not bring himself to abandon hope. Not when he had already paid over half the price, with no chance of recovering the money.
Besides, what he had to do tonight was no riskier than what he had already accomplished—if anything, less. He was cleverer than the police, cleverer than the museum authorities, cleverer than Pettigrew. He had the cool daring to complete the business, the patience to wait for time to cover his tracks.
Pettigrew always returned from his holiday laden with rock specimens. Until he had studied them thoroughly, he had little interest in anything already classified, catalogued, labelled, and locked away. Weeks, if not months, would pass before he discovered that the jewels in his display cases were all as false as the Cullinan “diamond.”
Stepping off the train at the Whitechapel station, he went up to the noisy, anonymous street.
The strass glass gems were ready. They looked to him just as good as the real jewels. Having—that night two weeks ago—taken photographs and minutely precise measurements of the originals, and matched the colours against dozens of samples, the old man swore he had made perfect copies.
“Better qvality you vill novhere get,” he declared. “Vunce zese stones are beautifully set, only an eggspert can ze difference tell. Your vife vill be proud to vear. You vant I tell you ze address mine cousin’s, can make rings, necklaces, bracelets, vhat you like?”
“No, thank you!” He lifted his attaché case onto the work table and opened it. “My wife has her own favourite jeweller. Here you are.”
Peering through thick spectacles, the old man watched him count out every note. Then he tenderly tucked each of his creations into its own little chamois bag. The exchange was made. Another bridge crossed.
He left it late, until even the most dedicated of his colleagues had surely gone home. It couldn’t be helped that that made his own presence the more questionable. He must not be seen!
This time, he had to put the keys back in Pettigrew’s desk. The gods were assuredly on his side. As he left the Mineral Gallery, nothing moved among the giraffes and okapis. Nothing moved on the stairs. No footsteps echoed. Turning left, he sped to the Keeper of Mineralogy’s office.
The key which had grated, he had taken to a locksmith to be smoothed. Now it rotated in the lock as easily as a spoon in a soft-boiled egg. He was in and out of the office in no more than ninety seconds.
He intended to leave via the giraffes and the back staircase at the north end, but as he came abreast of the main stairs to the second floor, he changed his mind. If he was spotted, the farther from the Mineral Gallery the better. It would be safer to go along the far side of the Central Hall. The stairs tempted him, arching over the hall below, but he resisted—far too exposed. Back he went and around, past the iron gate and Pettigrew’s office, past the entrance to the Lower Mammals: stuffed everything from aardvark to zebra.
The stairs rose on his right, now, and ahead four steps led down to British Nesting Birds.
A shadow moved. His heart stood still.
“I weren’t asleep, sir,” protested a thick voice. From his seat on the steps, a stout police constable lumbered to his feet. An elderly man, he blinked bewilderedly as he moved forward, straightening his jacket. “Jest resting me pins a minute. The knees ain’t what they was.”
“I shan’t report you, officer.” He had to force the words through his constricted throat.
His one thought now was to get away without doing anything which might fix him in the man’s memory. His head averted, trying not to scurry, he carried on between the glass cases, scrutinized as he passed by the beady eyes of plover and pigeon. The policeman would surely presume he had come from the Lower Mammals, or perhaps down the stairs from the second floor. Anyway, the fellow would not mention seeing him, for fear of his unauthorized nap coming to light.
The door to the stairwell closed behind him. Down the stairs he ran, past the ground floor and on down to the basement.
An old man, confused with sleep, the constable would not remember whom he had seen—probably had not recognized him. The police seconded to the Natural History Museum could not know every employee by sight. No prompt outcry would make him recall the incident, for the substitution of paste for precious stones would not be discovered for ages. Should not be discovered.
With an effort, he slowed his stride. The gloomy corridor seemed endless. At last he reached the still-gloomier pillared cavern beneath the east wing. He was halfway across when he heard the approaching tramp of police boots.
He froze behind a pillar. A regular patrol? Or had the constable upstairs reported his presence?
The officer passed no more than ten feet from him, swinging an electric torch so that its beam probed the darkest corners. If it was a search, it was far from systematic—but nonetheless alarming.
His heart pounding, palms sweaty, he ducked around the brick pillar. Suppose the old man was suspicious, had called down to his colleagues in the Central Hall. Suppose they put a guard on the basement exit? He dared not try to leave carrying the jewels.
Better to lock them in his office overnight and take them home tomorrow at midday, at the end of the short Saturday workday, when he was one of a swarm of departing employees.
No, he did not want to keep them at home. He did not know how long it would take to find a buyer, and when the paste gems were discovered, the police might search everyone’s residences. And what if the theft was somehow detected before tomorrow noon? It would be safer to hide the real stones somewhere in the museum until the furor died down. Then, if they were found, there would be nothing to link them to him.
The torchbeam bobbed away, the footsteps faded. As he let out the breath he had unconsciously been holding, the answer came to him.
Perfect! He could hide the jewels tomorrow morning, before the museum opened to the public, and no one who saw him would ask what he was doing. No one else would conceive of looking there, however long he left them. When the moment was right, he could retrieve them with ease.
He should never have doubted himself. Not only was his plan brilliant to start with, but he was quite capable of improvising brilliantly when advisable. He was going to outwit the lot of them.
RATTLE HIS BONES. Copyright © 2000 by Carola Dunn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.