An Item Of Value
Following a five-mile walk and his usual lunch of beer and sandwiches – ham this time – at the venerable Whitelock’s Tavern, Rupert Swann was filling one of his pipes when he received a telegram from an address in Oakwood, about two miles from the centre of Leeds. The sender, Miriam Webb, expressed her hope that Swann might be able to receive her at three that afternoon, as she would then be close to his lodgings.
It was almost two o’clock when the communication arrived. As Swann had nothing other than piano practice in mind for the afternoon, he was happy to accommodate the lady. She arrived by cab and was shown to his upstairs rooms by the housekeeper.
Miriam Webb was, Swann guessed, in her forties, tall, gaunt and soberly dressed. She apologised for not giving more notice of her call and explained that she had something on her mind and had decided not to wait any longer before seeing Swann. On being assured that she was not causing any inconvenience, she took a proffered seat by the fireside.
“Now,” said Swann, “what brings you to me this sunny autumn day?”
“I feel I must begin by offering you an apology for my perpetration of a small subterfuge,” she replied. “I did not have other business in this vicinity but was hoping that what I said might mitigate any annoyance you may have felt at my having given you virtually no notice of my visit.”
“Please don’t concern yourself. I’m sure you have a good reason for your action. I imagine you have a problem that falls within my sphere, so kindly tell me what is troubling you.”
“An item of great value has been taken from me.”
“The details if you please.”
“It was a necklace, handed down to me by my late mother just before her death.
“And what do you mean by saying that it has been taken from you?”
“I always kept it in the top drawer of my bedside cabinet but it disappeared two weeks ago last Saturday. I am sure of that because it was in place on the Friday evening and when I opened the drawer on the Sunday morning, it was not there.”
“Do you live alone?”
“No. I am married. There is never anyone in the house but myself and my husband, Charles. When I spoke with him about the loss, he said that when he went to open the door on the Sunday morning, he found that it was not locked. He suspected that a burglar must have broken in. He checked the possible means of entry and found some scratches on the brass lock plate of the front door. As he was sure that they had not been there before, he regarded the discovery as conclusive.”
“I understand. Do you have a safe?”
“No. I did suggest that to Charles, but he was opposed to the idea on the ground that the necklace was the only thing of value in the house.”
“I see. Please describe the piece.”
“It comprises a double string of pearls and has a gold pendant in which the centrepiece is a large ruby, surrounded by a ring of small diamonds. I inherited it from my mother and she from my grandmother. I should perhaps mention that my grandparents once had a flourishing business, which explains how such a treasure came into our family. My parents took over the company but unfortunately fell on evil times. Despite their troubles, my father would not hear of my mother selling the necklace, though she offered to do so several times. Father died, I believe as a result of his Herculean efforts to rescue the firm. Mother followed him to the grave in barely more than a year.”
“Thank you. Have you ever had the necklace valued?”
“Yes. Shortly after it came into my hands I took it to the big jewellery dealer in Lower Briggate. The man who did the appraisal said it was a splendid example of craftsmanship and in his opinion worth at least nine hundred pounds.”
That brought a sharp intake of breath from Swann. “My word, that is indeed an item of value. The cash equivalent would cover the cost of a substantial house, or several modest ones.”
The lady smiled. “No doubt it would but I do not think in such terms. I am not a very worldly person, Mr Swann. To me, the intrinsic worth of the necklace is far less important than the sentimental element.”
“Is there any way for you to identify it?”
“In a sense there is. It does not have any marking itself, but it is normally in an ebony box, resting on a pad of velvet which is sealed to the wood. I am the only one who knows that if the seal is opened and the pad removed, my mother’s initials, J. H., are revealed, carved in the bottom of the box.”
“That is better than nothing. Have you informed the police?”
“No. When I mentioned that course to Charles he said he did not see any point in pursuing it.”
“I see. How has he reacted more generally to the loss?”
“With less distress than I would have expected, possibly because I am at home almost all the time, so the incident preys upon my mind more than his. He has a senior job, which occupies him for many hours during weekdays. That probably accounts for the difference in the way we have responded. Also, Charles is never very emotional.”
“How long have you been married?”
“A little over four years.”
“I’m sorry if this seems intrusive, but do you mind telling me whether you are generally happy together?”
Mrs Webb pursed her lips. “I’m not sure what that may have to do with my visit to you, but I will say that our marriage came about largely as a result of loneliness on both our parts. We met by accident and got into conversation, after which one thing led to another. Neither of us had any friends and you might say that drew us together. A further point is that we married quite late in life, when other opportunities might not have arisen. I am forty-six years of age and he is forty-one. As for our union, it has hardly been excessively affectionate but nothing serious has ever gone amiss between us.”
“Does he know that you are consulting me?”
“What does he do for a living?”
“He is the purchasing manager for Harper & Cole, wholesalers of porcelain tableware. Normally he is busy in his office from Mondays to Fridays and on Saturday mornings.”
“You say normally. Is there any significance in that?”
“Well, he has been travelling quite a lot recently. About three months ago, he said that his chief, Mr Cole – he has been the sole owner since Mr Harper died a while ago – suggested that Charles might be able to help the business by visiting some of the firm’s customers.”
Swann looked puzzled. “Would that not be a matter for the sales manager rather than his counterpart in purchasing?”
“There is no sales manager. The last one left the company early this year and Mr Cole assumed that role himself. Charles was asked to take on some of the burden. Since then he has often been away from the office for at least two days each week, though he returns in time to be at home in the evenings. That is with one exception. Just over a fortnight ago he was required to travel to London and on that occasion he stayed overnight, so was away from Monday morning to Tuesday afternoon.”
“So the Monday would have been his first working day following your loss.”
“That is correct.”
“Do you happen to know when he will be away from his office in the near future?”
“Yes. It is now Wednesday. He is to going York on Friday morning, so will leave home at eight o’clock as usual and walk to the office to pick up his travel expenses.
He will be back later that day.”
“Well, Mrs Webb, I think you have told me what seems to be relevant here. Now, I usually find it helpful to visit the scene of a crime. Is there any reason why I should not call at your home?”
“No. My cab is waiting outside, so if you are free for a while, we can travel together if you wish.”
Swann acquiesced and half an hour later the two arrived at the Webb house. Swann asked the cabbie to wait for him. He followed the lady into the hall and with the door still open he whipped out a magnifying glass and examined the lock plate. Next he went to the rear and looked closely at the back door, then he accepted an invitation to inspect the whole house. That was mere politeness, as he had already seen what he wanted to see. He concluded by asking for a description of Charles Webb. That seemed to surprise the lady but she said that her husband was about an inch under six feet in height, had a narrow black moustache and that there were grey patches at the temples of his otherwise black hair, which he kept short. Whenever he went out, he invariably dressed in a dark-grey suit, black shoes, white shirt and a plain, light-blue tie. In cold weather he wore a black overcoat.
Swann assured the lady that he would take her case. She expressed her relief at hearing that, and her regret at not having been more helpful, and was again somewhat taken aback on being told that she had been most informative and had given Swann a good deal on which to work. He cautioned her not to expect quick results, as he thought the matter would occupy him for at least several days. Having established that there was no reason why he should not communicate with the lady by telegram in mornings or afternoons if that proved necessary, he left.
Swann was back in the city centre by five o’clock. That gave him time make a start on his task. He did that by calling on Josiah Heptenstall, an art dealer and auctioneer, whose place of business was close to Swann’s rooms. The two were old friends and Heptenstall’s greeting was cordial. He produced sherry and the two men chatted for a few minutes before Swann touched upon the reason for his visit.
When he heard about the value of the necklace, Heptenstall raised his eyebrows. “Well, Rupert,” he said, “you are certainly seeking a precious piece of work. Whoever has stolen it will need to be very careful about its disposal.”
Swann nodded. “That is exactly what I was thinking. So far, I am working on the tentative theory that whoever took it will probably not submit it for auction because that would involve advance publicity, which might attract unwelcome attention. Also, the thief probably reasoned that the police may have been involved and perhaps have alerted other forces, who would have had no difficulty in checking with auction houses throughout the country.”
“I would say you are right. There are not many auctioneers who would handle such a piece. Unless the culprit had some means of getting rid of it by a private connection, the likely course would be to ask a jeweller to sell it on a commission basis. That would present the police with a much bigger job, as there are more jewellers than auction houses, in addition to which a jeweller would have the option of being discreet about a sale.”
“Is selling such things on commission a common practice?”
“It is not unheard of. Anyone working in that way would probably demand a substantial return for the service, and a thick slice of several hundred pounds is worth having. However, a thing of such value would hardly be taken on by a Leeds company or, I suspect, by any other in the provinces. If your thief has sufficient imagination, he or she will have handed it to a firm in the great metropolis, where it might not raise many eyebrows.”
Swann rubbed his jaw. “I had begun to think along those lines, but I know nothing about the London scene.”
Heptenstall chuckled. “I do. Even in the capital there are not very many dealers who would take on such a matter. At the moment only two come to mind – Palmer’s of Bond Street and Williamson’s of Piccadilly.
“Hmn, I suppose I could write to them but they may or may not be willing to cooperate. After all, if either of them has the necklace, they stand to make money from it, so might not be communicative.”
“Yes, but if whoever is holding it suspects that it has been stolen, there would a big risk in offering it for sale. Of course it may have already been purchased, in which case, unless the buyer can be traced, the trail could be cold. Allow me to make a suggestion.”
“Very well. If you are prepared to travel to London, the journey might bear fruit. I could supply you with a letter of introduction to the firms I mentioned. It is possible that neither of them knows anything about the piece you are searching for, but if not, one of them may be able to point you towards some other party. Admittedly it’s a long shot, but I cannot think of any other way to help you.”
“Thank you, Josiah. I will take your advice.”
Heptenstall summoned his secretary, dictated a letter suitable for presentation to the companies he had mentioned and asked the lady to prepare it immediately. Swann waited and the two men discussed other matters until the secretary returned with the letter. Heptenstall signed it and handed it to Swann, who thanked him and left.
Within an hour of getting back to his rooms, Swann had decided on a course of action. He would follow Webb on the Friday and depending on the outcome of that excursion he would decide whether or not to travel to London the coming Monday. He realised that the proposed exercise might be a waste of his time, but was resolved to get his teeth into the case.
Friday started mild, dull and windy. Swann made an early start. He took a cab to Oakwood and stopped in sight of the Webb house at seven-thirty. Half an hour later, Charles Webb appeared and strode off in the direction of Harper & Cole’s premises, a little over a mile from his home. Swann followed in the cab. Webb called at his office and spent fifteen minutes there. On emerging, he walked towards the city centre and the railway station. Swann dismissed the cab and followed him.
Webb paused to buy a newspaper, then headed for the ticket window, Swann so close behind him that he heard him book a return journey, not to York but to Harrogate. As Webb turned from the window, Swann replaced him there and bought a ticket for the same destination, making sure that there was no eye contact between the two of them. They boarded the train, Swann taking a compartment next to the one Webb entered.
Quite a number of passengers disembarked at Harrogate. A young woman was waiting for Webb. The two embraced and kissed, long and passionately. It was not the typical encounter between two friends or relations. They left the station on foot and arm in arm, Swann a discreet distance behind them. It was a short walk, ending at a detached house in a road adjacent to the Valley Pleasure Grounds. After Webb and the woman entered the house, Swann took up a position from which he could observe developments. He didn’t expect anything to happen quickly. However, he knew that Webb would emerge in time to return to Leeds by late afternoon, so he filled a pipe, watched and waited.
It was a long vigil. Finally, at three-twenty in the afternoon, Webb left the house, after hugging and kissing the woman on the doorstep. He walked back to the station, Swann well behind him. The Leeds train arrived at its destination shortly before five o’clock and Webb walked off. Swann followed him until there seemed to be no doubt that the man was going back to his office and from there to his home.
It had been a boring but necessary day for Swann, who was sure that, not for the first time, he was in ‘find the lady’ territory. Well, at least he had found her quickly. He had no plans to work on his client’s case over the weekend, but had decided that he would travel to London on the Monday. Aside from the quest to find Mrs Webb’s treasure, he had another idea about what he might do while there. With no other professional work on hand, he devoted the rest of Friday and the whole of Saturday and Sunday to piano playing, mathematical studies and relaxing at his club in the evenings.
Early on Monday Swann boarded a London-bound train. He had been to the capital only once before, but merely for a few days of leisure. This time he would stay only overnight. He had no illusions about his mission. More than likely it would be fruitless, but he could think of no other course to take.
On reaching his destination, Swann wasted no time in getting on with his work. He took a cab to Williamson’s of Piccadilly, where he spoke with the manager, who told him that only occasionally did the company sell jewellery on a commission basis and that it had never had anything on offer resembling what Swann was seeking.
The next port of call was Palmer’s, the other firm Josiah Heptenstall had suggested. Swann had paid off his cabbie and walked to the Palmer establishment, where he spoke with the head salesman. When he gave his reason for the visit, the man shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mr Swann, but we stopped selling jewellery on commision, after a contretemps with a prospective vendor. However, now that you mention it, a man did call on us two or three weeks ago, who asked us dispose of a necklace for him. Because of our change of tack, I did not look at it but perhaps all is not lost for you. I referred the man to Leonard Newman, who has a business quite close to ours. You might almost say that he specialises in commission selling.” Swann thanked the man and followed the directions he was given.
Newman’s premises were distinctly more modest than Williamson’s or Palmer’s but Swann could hardly contain his joy when he saw in the window what he felt sure was Miriam Webb’s pride and joy. Newman, a sole proprietor, was a small, ferrety man and when he heard Swann’s story, he seemed inclined to be obstructive. When Swann persisted and mentioned involving the forces of law and order, he became more tractable, admitting that he had agreed to sell the necklace for a fee.
With Newman somewhat cowed, Swann demanded a description of the prospective seller. What he heard was enough to convince him that his quest had ended successfully. He asked what arrangements had been made for further contact between Newman and Webb. Once again, the jeweller demurred, citing confidentiality as his reason. He also refused to break the seal around the velvet pad. Swann, thinking quickly, did not press the matter but said that he would be back later that afternoon, with an argument he hoped would persuade Newman to change his mind, adding that the necklace must not be sold in the meantime.
On leaving the shop, Swann acted on the other idea had in mind. About eighteen months earlier he had been astounded when the most famous detective of them all, Sherlock Holmes, visited him.* The celebrated caller had been returning to London after dealing with a case in North Yorkshire, in the course of which he had worked with a police officer who had lavished praise upon Swann, saying that the Park Square investigator had been of great help to local constabularies on several occasions.
The two detectives had spent half an hour together and when they parted, Holmes, not noted for encouraging social intercourse, invited Swann to pay a call at 221B, Baker Street, should he find himself in the capital. Now, in addition to wishing to take up the invitation, Swann had a pressing reason for calling on his renowned London counterpart. He was in luck, for on arrival at Holmes’s rooms, he found the man alone, working on a malodorous chemical experiment. Mrs Hudson had announced Swann’s arrival and when he entered the living room, Holmes turned from his equipment. “My dear fellow,” he beamed, “I am surprised to see you but you are most welcome. What brings you so far south?”
Swann replied that he had not anticipated seeing Holmes again so soon after their first meeting. He went on to explain the circumstances surrounding his visit, stressing his problem in dealing with Leonard Newman. He ended by asking if Holmes could think of any way in which the matter might be resolved. Holmes had interrupted his work, filled a pipe and offered his tobacco to Swann, who had accepted it and was stuffing his own briar. The two were seated by the hearth.
“Yes,” said Holmes. “I could go with you to see this troublesome jeweller but I have a better idea. We need some official presence and I can do no better than refer you to Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. He owes me a few favours and I happen to know that unless he is out on case, he usually spends Monday afternoons doing administrative work in his office. I will give you a note asking him to accompany you to Newman’s shop. Should Lestrade be unavailable, you could try Inspector Hopkins, but I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“And you think Lestrade will have the desired effect?”
“Yes. He is devoid of imagination, but once he knows what to do, he does it well. If I am not much mistaken, he will be quite happy to intimidate Newman. I’ll wager that you get your necklace and assuming that you do, I hope you will call back and let me know how the encounter turns out.”
Swann took a cab to Scotland Yard and as Holmes had surmised, Lestrade was in his office, poring over papers. He read Holmes’s note and looked up. “Well,” he said, “I was hoping to finish my own work this afternoon, but Mr Holmes has been helpful to us more than once, so I can hardly refuse a request from him. If your cabbie is waiting, we will go see this Newman fellow and persuade him to be a little more cooperative.”
The jeweller was about to close for the day when Swann and Lestrade reached his shop. The inspector was in no mood to conduct a long debate. He showed his credentials and insisted that the velvet pad be removed at once. When Newman began to show resistance, Lestrade instantly overwhelmed him. “Do not trifle with me,” he snapped, “or you will find yourself charged with obstructing police business. Break that seal at once and let me see what is under it.”
Newman obeyed with as much alacrity as the operation permitted. Within five minutes he had removed the pad, revealing the initials Mrs Webb had mentioned to Swann. “That is good enough for me,” said the inspector. “You will now replace both pad and necklace in the box and hand the thing over to Mr Swann. I take full responsibility for that.”
“But Inspector,” whined Newman, “what about my client?”
“Never mind him,” Lestrade replied. “He is in serious trouble. Now, you rejected Mr Swann’s request for information as to how you and Webb were to make further contact. Kindly tell him now.”
Newman consulted a ledger and announced that he had been asked to inform Webb of further developments by sending a telegram to an address in Harrogate. “Hah,” said Swann, “that fits perfectly. Webb is having an affair with a woman at that house, so obviously he is using her to ensure that his wife is kept out of the picture. How did you value the necklace and what instructions did he give you about the sale?”
“I told him that I assessed the piece as being worth close to a thousand pounds, but that in the current market I was very doubtful about achieving anything near that figure. He said that there was some urgency and that I was to accept any offer over five hundred pounds and that if I did not get one, I was to advise him and he would let me know what to do.”
Lestrade, wanting to complete his own work, brought the interview to an end. “You have had a narrow escape, Mr Newman,” he said. “Had you sold the necklace for Webb, you would have been complicit in a sale of stolen goods. Consider yourself lucky that the matter has ended this way. You are not likely to hear from Webb again. Good evening.”
Swann and Lestrade returned to Scotland Yard, where the inspector alighted from the cab and went back to his duties, Swann’s profuse thanks ringing in his ears. A further short journey brought the Yorkshire agent back to Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes was still occupied with his evil-smelling chemical work. He turned aside from it again, listened to the story and responded to Swann’s gratitude with a casual wave of one hand. The pair spent a pleasant hour discussing various cases, this time in the presence of Holmes’s fellow lodger and regular companion, Doctor Watson, then Swann left and walked to a nearby hotel, recommended by Holmes.
The following day, Swann took a morning train and arrived in Leeds in time for a late lunch. He then took a cab to the Oakwood house, knowing that he could get there before Charles Webb was due to return home. When he arrived and handed the box to his client, she opened it and almost fainted at the sight of her necklace. “I can’t believe it, Mr Swann,” she gasped. “How did you manage this feat of magic, and so quickly?”
“I think you had better sit down, Mrs Webb,” Swann answered. “You have just received the good news, but I fear there is pain as well as pleasure for you. Let me not beat about the bush. Your husband did take the necklace. He handed it to a jeweller to be sold on his behalf. I have reason to believe that he is having an amorous affair and I imagine he probably intended to use the sale proceeds in connection with that liaison.”
Tears welled up in Miriam Webb’s eyes, but otherwise she maintained control of herself, though her voice betrayed the level of her emotions. “When I visited you, Mr Swann, I gave some indication that we have not been the closest of couples, but I have never had any reason to suspect that he had gone astray. How did you draw your conclusion?”
“I followed him when he was supposed to go to York. Instead he went to Harrogate, where he was met by a young woman. They were demonstrative in their greeting, after which they walked to a house near the Valley Pleasure Grounds. Your husband was there for several hours and when he came out, there was a most affectionate parting.
“The purpose of Mr Webb’s trip to London was to arrange for the necklace to be sold. It would have been too conspicuous anywhere else. If you are able to look into your husband’s other outings over the period since they started, you will very likely find that aside from the London one, they were all to Harrogate. I did consider speaking with Mr Webb’s employer but not knowing the relationship between the two men, I thought it better not to do so.”
Miriam Webb’s face showed determination. “I will go to my husband’s workplace, see Mr Cole and get to the bottom of this, but how did you become suspicious so quickly?”
“Our conversation made me so. You seemed startled when I left your house and told you that you had been helpful. I was not merely trying to comfort you. My doubts about your husband were aroused first by his assertion that it was his employer’s idea that he should get out and see the company’s customers. I would have expected a purchasing manager to be in situ at his office most of the time, and the change on Mr Webb’s part appeared odd to me. The second point that struck me was the scratches on the lock plate of your door.”
“Why did you consider that noteworthy?”
“I felt sure that the marks had been made intentionally. Taken together with your husband’s assertion that the door was not locked on the Sunday morning, it was no wonder you were convinced that there had been an intruder. I believe Mr Webb made those marks and overdid his work. No self-respecting burglar would have done so clumsy a job. And why the front door, where neighbours might have seen what was happening? The back door would have been a more obvious point but it does not have a lock plate, so for anyone to make similar intentional signs of forced entry there would have been difficult.”
Miriam Webb dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and gave a deep sigh. “I am most grateful to you,” she said. “You have exceeded my wildest hopes. Now, my husband will here shortly and I would not like him to find you with me. I will deal with this matter in my own way, and if you are interested in the outcome, I will give you an account of it.”
Swann confirmed that he did wish to hear what happened, and in response to Mrs Webb’s request, he told her that he would send her a note of his fees in due course. On returning to his rooms, he treated himself to a stiff drink and two fills of tobacco, then dismissed the case from his mind. He heard nothing more about it until the Friday morning, when he received a letter from Miriam Webb. It read:
Dear Mr Swann,
This is to let you know how the matter of my husband’s misbehaviour ended. I hid the necklace and said nothing to him on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning I took the bull by the horns and went to see Mr Cole, being careful to avoid Charles, who was in his own office.
It emerged that Mr Cole had not asked my husband to visit the company’s customers. That was entirely Charles’s idea. In fact Mr Cole was about to put a stop to the travels. I asked him to say nothing to Charles and to let me out of the premises by a rear door.
When Charles came home that evening, I confronted him with the story of your involvement and its result. There was an ugly scene, the upshot of which was that I insisted on Charles packing his belongings at once and leaving to join his inamorata, or to take whatever other course he might choose. Fortunately the house is my property. When we married, he left his rented accommodation to move in with me.
You now know everything and I am deeply grateful to you for what you have done for me. I will settle with you immediately I receive details of your charges.
Yours most sincerely,
Swann was not in a self-congratulatory mood as he put the letter aside. “Hmn, a pleasing result,” he muttered, “but achieved as much by luck as management.”
* The casebook of Rupert Swann : Number Seven
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