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Chapter LV


from Memoirs of a great detective:
incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray

compiled by Victor Speer

PENNYFEATHER'S life was one long series of additions and subtractions. Pennyfeather was an accountant in the Chatham branch of the Standard Bank. He was a faithful fellow, and if $9,000 had not vanished from the Chatham branch, Pennyfeather to this day might have been adding columns of figures and peering at depositors through the crosswork of his cage in the bank.

   "There was a township fair near Chatham on October 1st, 1892," says Murray. "The day after the fair it was found that $9,000 in bills had disappeared from the bank. The Department was notified immediately, and I went to Chatham. I found the bank's safe untouched. It had not been forced, and there had been no tampering with its locks. I examined Manager Rogers. He knew nothing about it. The cash that had vanished was in charge of Cashier Brown. I called in Cashier Brown, and questioned him. He said he had put the $9,000 in a tin box, and during business hours of the bank on October 1st the tin box was out of the vault, as was customary with a cashbox, and was in its usual place in the cage. Cashier Brown said that, owing to his desire to get away to the fair, he had closed the vault hurriedly and forgot to put the cashbox in the vault. In fact, he had supposed it had been put in the vault before he closed it.

   "I went out and talked to the people across the street from the bank, and asked them particularly about whether they had seen any person in or around the bank after the bank closed. Cashier Brown's statement had satisfied me that no burglars had done the job, but some one aware of the fact that the tin box full of cash had been left out of the vault must have had a hand in it, if he was not the sole perpetrator of the crime. A person to have this knowledge of the tin box must have been in the bank when Cashier Brown closed the vault, or must have gone into the bank after it had been locked up for the day. No locks had been forced on any of the doors of the building. The people across the street had seen no strange persons in or around the bank after the usual time for closing the vault.

   "I returned to the bank. Pennyfeather, the accountant, who had been out at luncheon, had returned, and I called him in. Pennyfeather came into the private room very slowly. He walked with a mincing tread, as if to avoid stepping on eggs. He had just been married. In fact, he had violated a rule of the bank, which forbade an employee getting married unless he was in receipt of a certain amount of salary from the bank. The object of this rule was to compel employees to incur no incumbrances beyond their resources, and a wife was regarded as an incumbrance; and in his efforts to provide properly for her, the young husband, who married on insufficient income, might be tempted to borrow from the bank's funds. I have heard a variety of opinions expressed about this rule. Thirty years ago I knew folks who married on fifty cents and a horse and waggon, and some had nothing but hope and faith. They got along well, but of course they were not employed in a bank. It may be a wise rule, but when two young folks, with their full share of 'gumption,' decide that in the course of human events it was intended they should get married, all the banks in Christendom are not apt to avail. Marriages are made in heaven, not in banks, we are told. The compound interest of happiness or misery resulting from them may cause us to wonder if, after all, banking rules may not govern the transaction.

   "Pennyfeather had broken the rules of the bank. He had married on a salary below the minimum fixed for wedding wages. He was to be discharged. He knew it some days before the tin box vanished. He knew that if he married he would lose his job with the bank. He knew also that it might be many a day in the bank before he could expect to reach the marriage sum in the salary line. So he decided to marry anyhow, on the theory that even if he did not work in a bank he would not have to get off the earth. Then he married, and then the $9,000 cash in the tin box disappeared. I looked at Pennyfeather, the happy young husband, and I smiled. Pennyfeather smiled a wan smile.

   "'Tis a pleasant day, Mr. Pennyfeather,' said I. 'Be seated.'

   "Pennyfeather sat down. Instantly he arose.

   "'Excuse me a moment, please,' said he. 'I feel ill. I will return.'

   "'Thereupon Pennyfeather hastened to the toilet-room, and presently I heard a noise as of a man in the throes of retching. In a few minutes Pennyfeather returned, pale and faint, and sank into a chair. I had been in the toilet-room a few minutes before, to wash the grime from my hands after poking around in the vault. I knew there was no way of escape from it, for as I lathered my hands with a big cake of soap I had looked for outlets from the room.

   "'Now please tell me, Mr. Pennyfeather, the last you saw of this tin box and its contents,' said I.

   "Pennyfeather gulped and gasped.

   "'Excuse me again, please,' said he, and he made a second hurried exit to the toilet-room, and once more I heard the noise of belching; and presently in came Pennyfeather, pallid and feeble, with his voice quite weak.

   "Pennyfeather dropped into the chair, and gazed at me with sunken eyes, and on his lips were little flecks of foam.

   "'Have you ever had fits, Mr. Pennyfeather?' I asked politely. 'I mean, to the best of your knowledge or recollection have you ever had fits?'

   "Pennyfeather closed his eyes and breathed heavily. I waited. Finally he opened them a wee bit and looked at me.

   "'You were about to say where you last saw the tin box and its contents,' I resumed.

   "Up rose Pennyfeather again.

   "'Excuse me,' said he, 'I am seized again.'

   "Away he went to the toilet-room. I noticed that he went with celerity, but returned with difficulty. I heard again the rumblings of a human volcano in a state of eruption. I waited, and at length Pennyfeather tottered in and collapsed in a chair. He was breathing like a fish out of water, and his lips were frothy.

   "'My dear Mr. Pennyfeather,' I began. 'Let us forget the interruptions, and begin anew with your last sight of the contents of the tin box.'

   "But Pennyfeather staggered to the toilet, and when he reappeared he was ghastly white and deathly sick, judging from appearances.

   "'I must go home,' he whispered. 'I am purging and retching myself away. I feel death in me. I will see you when I recover, if I ever do recover.'

   "I bowed, and Pennyfeather was escorted to his home, and two doctors were called in to attend him. After he had gone an idea struck me. I went to the toilet-room to wash my hands. I picked up the soap, and lo! instead of the big cake I had used before Pennyfeather came in, there was a mere remnant of what once had been the cake.

   "'Has some one eaten it?' I exclaimed to myself.

   "That night I called at Pennyfeather's house with President Cowan of the Standard Bank. Pennyfeather seemingly was very ill, moaning faintly, and looking very white. His wife was there. President Cowan got Dr. Brown the next morning, and the physician examined Pennyfeather. All the doctors said he had typhoid fever.

   "'Can he be suffering from soapus typhus?' was my question.

   "'Might I ask what soapus typhus is?' asked one of the doctors.

   "'A state of collapse superinduced by over-indulgence in toilet soap,' I said.

   "They held it was typhoid fever. I said that if he had typhoid it would be weeks before he was able to be out. I went away. When Pennyfeather got up from his sick bed, he was arrested by Officer McGee, of Windsor. He was tried and acquitted while I was out of the country. Of course he no longer worked for the bank. He became a tavern keeper.

   "I never had any positive proof that Pennyfeather ate soap.

   I recall Clutch Donohue, in Kingston, who ate soap to break his health, and thereby gain a pardon. He ate too much, and after he got out he died in a hotel outside the penitentiary walls before he could get home."

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