The Recollections of Captain Wilkie by Arthur Conan
A STORY OF AN OLD OFFENDER
First published in Chambers's Journal, Jan 19, 1895
First book appearance in The Unknown Conan Doyle, 1929
"WHO can he be?" thought I, as I watched my companion in the second-class
carriage of the London and Dover Railway.
I had been so full of the fact that my long-expected holiday had come at
last, and that for a few days, at least, the gayeties of Paris were about to
supersede the dull routine of the hospital wards, that we were well out of
London before I observed that I was not alone in the compartment. In these days
we have all pretty well agreed that "three is company and two is none" upon the
railway. At the time I write of, however, people were not so morbidly sensitive
about their travelling companions. It was rather an agreeable surprise to me to
find that there was some chance of whiling away the hours of a tedious journey.
I therefore pulled my cap down over my eyes, took a good look from beneath it
at my vis-à-vis, and repeated to myself: "Who can he be?"
I used rather to pride myself on being able to spot a man's trade or
profession by a good look at his exterior. I had the advantage of studying
under a master of the art, who used to electrify both his patients and his
clinical classes by long shots, sometimes at the most unlikely of pursuits; and
never very far from the mark.
"Well, my man," I have heard him say, "I can see by your fingers that you
play some musical instrument for your livelihood, but it is a rather curious
one; something quite out of my line." The man afterwards informed us that he
earned a few coppers by blowing "Rule Britannia" on a coffee-pot, the spout of
which was pierced to form a rough flute. Though a novice in the art, I was
still able to astonish my ward companions on occasion, and I never lost an
opportunity of practising. It was not mere curiosity, then, which led me to
lean back on the cushions and analyze the quiet middle-aged man in front of
I used to do the thing systematically, and my train of reflections ran
somewhat in this wise: "General appearance, vulgar; fairly opulent and
extremely self-possessed; looks like a man who could out-chaff a bargee, and
yet be at his ease in middle-class society. Eyes well set together and nose
rather prominent; would be a good long-range marksman. Cheeks flabby, but the
softness of expression redeemed by a square-cut jaw and a well-set lower lip.
On the whole, a powerful type. Now for the hands—rather disappointed
there. Thought he was a self-made man by the look of him, but there is no
callous in the palm and no thickness at the joints. Has never been engaged in
any real physical work, I should think. No tanning on the backs of the hands;
on the contrary, they are very white, with blue projecting veins and long,
delicate fingers. Couldn't be an artist with that face, and yet he has the
hands of a man engaged in delicate manipulations. No red acid spots upon his
clothes, no ink stains, no nitrate of silver marks upon the hands (this helps
to negative my half-formed opinion that he was a photographer). Clothes not
worn in any particular part. Coat made of tweed, and fairly old; but the left
elbow, as far as I can see it, has as much of the fluff left on as the right,
which is seldom the case with men who do much writing. Might be a commercial
traveller, but the little pocketbook in the waistcoat is wanting, nor has he
any of those handy valises suggestive of samples."
I give these brief headings of my ideas merely to demonstrate my method of
arriving at a conclusion. As yet I had obtained nothing but negative results;
but now, to use a chemical metaphor, I was in a position to pour off this
solution of dissolved possibilities and examine the residue. I found myself
reduced to a very limited number of occupations. He was neither a lawyer nor a
clergyman, in spite of a soft felt hat, and a somewhat clerical cut about the
necktie. I was wavering now between pawnbroker and horsedealer; but there was
too much character about his face for the former, and he lacked that
extraordinary equine atmosphere which hangs about the latter even in his hours
of relaxation; so I formed a provisional diagnosis of betting man of
methodistical persuasions, the latter clause being inserted in deference to his
hat and necktie.
Pray, do not think that I reasoned it out like this in my own mind. It is
only now, sitting down with pen and paper, that I can see the successive steps.
As it was, I had formed my conclusion within sixty seconds of the time when I
drew my hat down over my eyes and uttered the mental ejaculation with which my
I did not feel quite satisfied even then with my deduction. However, as a
leading question would—to pursue my chemical analogy—act as my
litmus paper, I determined to try one. There was a "Times" lying by my
companion, and I thought the opportunity too good to be neglected.
"Do you mind my looking at your paper? " I asked.
"Certainly, sir, certainly," said he most urbanely, handing it across.
I glanced down its columns until my eye rested upon the list of the latest
betting. "Hullo!" I said, "they are laying odds upon the favorite for the
Cambridgeshire. But perhaps," I added, looking up, "you are not interested in
"Snares, sir!" said he violently; "wiles of the enemy! Mortals are but given
a few years to live; how can they squander them so? They have not even an eye
to their poor worldly interests," he added in a quieter tone, "or they would
never back a single horse at such short odds with a field of thirty."
There was something in this speech of his which tickled me immensely. I
suppose it was the odd way in which he blended religious intolerance with
worldly wisdom. I laid the "Times" aside with the conviction that I should be
able to spend the next two hours to better purpose than in its perusal.
"You speak as if you understood the matter, at any rate," I remarked.
"Yes, sir," he answered; "few men in England understood these things better
in the old days before I changed my profession. But that is all over now."
"Changed your profession?" said I, interrogatively.
"Yes; I changed my name, too."
"Indeed?" said I.
"Yes; you see, a man wants a real fresh start when his eyes become opened,
so he has a new deal all round, so to speak. Then he gets a fair chance."
There was a short pause here, as I seemed to be on delicate ground in
touching on my companion's antecedents, and he did not volunteer any
information. I broke the silence by offering him a cheroot.
"No, thanks," said he; "I have given up tobacco. It was the hardest wrench
of all, was that. It does me good to smell the whiff of your weed. Tell me," he
added suddenly, looking hard at me with his shrewd gray eyes, "why did you take
stock of me so carefully before you spoke?"
"It is a habit of mine," said I. "I am a medical man, and observation is
everything in my profession. I had no idea you were looking."
"I can see without looking," he answered. "I thought you were a detective,
at first; but I couldn't recall your face at the time I knew the force."
"Were you a detective, then?" said I.
"No," he answered, with a laugh; "I was the other thing—the detected,
you know. Old scores are wiped out now, and the law cannot touch me; so I don't
mind confessing to a gentleman like yourself what a scoundrel I have been in my
"We are none of us perfect," said I.
"No; but I was a real out-and-outer. A 'fake,' you know, to start with, and
afterwards a 'cracksman.' It is easy to talk of these things now, for I've
changed my spirit. It's as if I was talking of some other man, you see."
"Exactly so," said I. Being a medical man, I had none of that shrinking from
crime and criminals which many men possess. I could make all allowances for
congenital influence and the force of circumstances. No company, therefore,
could have been more acceptable to me than that of the old malefactor; and as I
sat puffing at my cigar, I was delighted to observe that my air of interest was
gradually loosening his tongue.
"Yes; I'm converted now," he continued, "and of course I am a happier man
for that. And yet," he added wistfully, "there are times when I long for the
old trade again, and fancy myself strolling out on a cloudy night with my jimmy
in my pocket. I left a name behind me in my profession, sir. I was one of the
old school, you know. It was very seldom that we bungled a job. We used to
begin at the foot of the ladder, the rope ladder, if I may say so, in my
younger days, and then work our way up, step by step, so that we were what you
might call good men all through."
"I see," said I.
"I was always reckoned a hard-working, conscientious man, and had talent,
too; the very cleverest of them allowed that. I began as a blacksmith, and then
did a little engineering and carpentering, and then I took to sleight-of-hand
tricks, and then to picking pockets. I remember, when I was home on a visit,
how my poor old father used to wonder why I was always hovering around him. He
little knew that I used to clear everything out of his pockets a dozen times a
day, and then replace them, just to keep my hand in. He believes to this day
that I am in an office in the City. There are few of them could touch me in
that particular line of business, though."
"I suppose it is a matter of practice?" I remarked.
"To a great extent. Still, a man never quite loses it, if he has once been
an adept—excuse me; you have dropped some cigar ash on your coat," and he
waved his hand politely in front of my breast, as if to brush it off. "There,"
he said, handing me my gold scarf pin, "you see I have not forgot my old
He had done it so quickly that I hardly saw the hand whisk over my bosom,
nor did I feel his fingers touch me, and yet there was the pin glittering in
his hand. "It is wonderful," I said as I fixed it again in its place.
"Oh, that's nothing! But I have been in some really smart jobs. I was in the
gang that picked the new patent safe. You remember the case. It was guaranteed
to resist anything; and we managed to open the first that was ever issued,
within a week of its appearance. It was done with graduated wedges, sir, the
first so small that you could hardly see it against the light, and the last
strong enough to prize it open. It was a clever managed affair."
"I remember it," said I. " But surely some one was convicted for that? "
"Yes, one was nabbed. But he didn't split, nor even let on how it was done.
We'd have cut his soul out if—" He suddenly damped down the very ugly
fires which were peeping from his eyes. "Perhaps I am boring you, talking about
these old wicked days of mine? "
"On the contrary," I said, "you interest me extremely."
"I like to get a listener I can trust. It's a sort of blow-off, you know,
and I feel lighter after it. When I am among my brethren I dare hardly think of
what has gone before. Now I'll tell you about another job I was in. To this
day, I cannot think about it without laughing." I lit another cigar, and
composed myself to listen.
"It was when I was a youngster," said he. "There was a big City man in those
days who was known to have a very valuable gold watch. I followed him about for
several days before I could get a chance; but when I did get one, you may be
sure I did not throw it away. He found, to his disgust, when he got home that
day, that there was nothing in his fob. I hurried off with my prize, and got it
stowed away in safety, intending to have it melted down next day. Now, it
happened that this watch possessed a special value in the owner's eyes because
it was a sort of ancestral possession—presented by his father on coming
of age, or something of that sort. I remember there was a long inscription on
the back. He was determined not to lose it if he could help it, and accordingly
he put an advertisement in an evening paper, offering thirty pounds reward for
its return, and promising that no questions should be asked. He gave the
address of his house, 31 Caroline Square, at the end of the advertisement. The
thing sounded good enough, so I set off for Caroline Square, leaving the watch
in a parcel at a public house which I passed on the way. When I got there, the
gentleman was at dinner; but he came out quick enough when he heard that a
young man wanted to see him. I suppose he guessed who the young man would prove
to be. He was a genial-looking old fellow, and he led me away with him into his
"'Well, my lad,' said he, 'what is it?'
"'I've come about that watch of yours,' said I. 'I think I can lay my hands
"'Oh, it was you that took it!' said he.
"'No,' I answered; 'I know nothing whatever about how you lost it. I have
been sent by another party to see you about it. Even if you have me arrested
you will not find out anything.'
"'Well,' he said, 'I don't want to be hard on you. Hand it over, and here is
my check for the amount.'
"'Checks won't do,' said I;' I must have it in gold.'
"'It would take an hour or so to collect in gold,' said he.
"'That will just suit,' I answered, 'for I have not got the watch with me.
I'll go back and fetch it, while you raise the money.'
"I started off and got the watch where I had left it. When I came back, the
old gentleman was sitting behind his study table, with the little heap of gold
in front of him.
"'Here is your money,' he said, and pushed it over.
"'Here is your watch,' said I.
"He was evidently delighted to get it back; and after examining it
carefully, and assuring himself that it was none the worse, he put it into the
watch-pocket of his coat with a grunt of satisfaction.
"'Now, my lad,' he said, 'I know it was you that took the watch. Tell me how
you did it, and I don't mind giving you an extra five-pound note.'
"'I wouldn't tell you in any case,' said I; 'but especially I wouldn't tell
you when you have a witness hid behind that curtain.' You see, I had all my
wits about me, and it didn't escape me that the curtain was drawn tighter than
it had been before.
"'You are too sharp for us,' said he, good-humoredly. 'Well, you have got
your money, and that's an end of it. I'll take precious good care you don't get
hold of my watch again in a hurry. Good night—no; not that door,' he
added as I marched towards a cupboard. 'This is the door,' and he stood up and
opened it. I brushed past him, opened the hall door, and was round the corner
of the square in no time. I don't know how long the old gentleman took to find
it out, but in passing him at the door, I managed to pick his pocket for the
second time, and next morning the family heirloom was in the melting-pot, after
all. That wasn't bad, was it?'"
The old war-horse had evidently forgotten all about his conversion now.
There was a tone of triumph in the conclusion of his anecdote which showed that
his pride in his smartness far surpassed his repentance of his misdeeds. He
seemed pleased at the astonishment and amusement I expressed at his
"Yes," he continued with a laugh, "it was a capital joke. But sometimes the
fun lies all the other way. Even the sharpest of us come to grief at times.
There was one rather curious incident which occurred in my career. You may
possibly have seen the anecdote, for it got into print at the time."
"Pray let me hear it," said I.
"Well, it is hard lines telling stories against one's self, but this was how
it happened: I had made a rather good haul, and invested some of the swag in
buying a very fine diamond ring. I thought it would be something to fall back
upon when all the ready was gone and times were hard. I had just purchased it,
and was going back to my lodgings in the omnibus, when, as luck would have it,
a very stylishly-dressed young lady came in and took her seat beside me. I
didn't pay much attention to her at first; but after a time something hard in
her dress knocked up against my hand, which my experienced touch soon made out
to be a purse. It struck me that I could not pass the time more profitably or
agreeably than by making this purse my own. I had to do it very carefully; but
I managed at last to wriggle my hand into her rather light pocket, and I
thought the job was over. Just at this moment she rose abruptly to leave the
'bus, and I had hardly time to get my hand with the purse in it out of her
pocket without detection. It was not until she had been gone some time that I
found out that in drawing out my hand in that hurried manner the new and ill-
fitting ring had slipped over my finger and remained in the young lady's
pocket. I sprang out and ran in the direction in which she had gone with the
intention of picking her pocket once again. She had disappeared, however; and
from that day till this I have never set eyes on her. To make the matter worse,
there was only four pence half-penny in coppers inside the purse. Sarve me
right for trying to rob such a pretty girl; still, if I had that two hundred
quid now I should not be reduced to—Good heavens, forgive me! What am I
He seemed inclined to relapse into silence after this; but I was determined
to draw him out a little more, if I could possibly manage it.
"There is less personal risk in the branch you have been talking of," I
remarked, " than there is in burglary."
"Ah!" he said, warming to his subject once again, "it is the higher game
which is best worth aiming at. Talk about sport, sir, talk about fishing or
hunting! Why, it is tame in comparison! Think of the great country house with
its men-servants and its dogs and its firearms, and you with only your jimmy
and your centre-bit, and your mother wit, which is best of all. It is the
triumph of intellect over brute force, sir, as represented by bolts and
"People generally look upon it as quite the reverse," I remarked.
"I was never one of those blundering life-preserver fellows," said my
companion. "I did try my hand at garroting once; but it was against my
principles, and I gave it up. I have tried everything. I have been a bedridden
widow with three young children; but I do object to physical force."
"You have been what? " said I.
"A bedridden widow. Advertising, you know, and getting subscriptions. I have
tried them all. You seem interested in these experiences," he continued, "so I
will tell you another anecdote. It was the narrowest escape from penal
servitude that ever I had in my life. A pal and I had gone down on a country
beat—it doesn't signify where it was—and taken up our headquarters
in a little provincial town. Somehow it got noised abroad that we were there,
and householders were warned to be careful, as suspicious characters had been
seen in the neighborhood. We should have changed our plans when we saw the game
was up; but my chum was a plucky fellow, and wouldn't consent to back down.
Poor little Jim! He was only thirty-four round the chest, and about twelve at
the biceps; but there is not a measuring-tape in England could have given the
size of his heart. He said we were in for it, and we must stick to it; so I
agreed to stay, and we chose Morley Hall, the country house of a certain
Colonel Morley, to begin with.
"Now this Colonel Morley was about the last man in the world that we should
have meddled with. He was a shrewd, coolheaded fellow, who had knocked about
and seen the world, and it seems that he took a special pride in the detection
of criminals. However, we knew nothing of all this at that time; so we set
forth hopefully to have a try at the house.
"The reason that made us pick him out among the rest was that he had a
good-for-nothing groom, who was a tool in our hands. This fellow had drawn up a
rough plan of the premises for us. The place was pretty well locked up and
guarded, and the only weak point we could see was a certain trap-door, the
padlock of which was broken, and which opened from the roof into one of the
lumber-rooms. If we could only find any method of reaching the roof, we might
force a way securely from above. We both thought the plan rather a good one,
and it had a spice of originality about it which pleased us. It is not the mere
jewels or plate, you know, that a good cracksman thinks about. The neatness of
the job and his reputation for smartness are almost as important in his
"We had been very quiet for a day or two, just to let suspicion die away.
Then we set out one dark night, Jim and I, and got over the avenue railings and
up to the house without meeting a soul. It was blowing hard, I remember, and
the clouds were hurrying across the sky. We had a good look at the front of the
house, and then Jim went round to the garden side. He came running back in a
minute or two in a great state of delight. 'Why, Bill,' he said, gripping me by
the arm, 'there never was such a bit of luck! They've been repairing the roof
or something, and they've left the ladder standing.' We went round together,
and there, sure enough, was the ladder towering above our heads, and one or two
laborers' hods lying about, which showed that some work had been going on
during the day. We had a good look round, to see that everything was quiet, and
then we climbed up, Jim first and I after him. We got to the top, and were
sitting on the slates, having a bit of a breather before beginning business,
when you can fancy our feelings to see the ladder that we came up by suddenly
stand straight up in the air, and then slowly descend until it rested in the
garden below. At first we hoped it might have slipped, though that was bad
enough; but we soon had that idea put out of our heads.
"'Hullo, up there!' cried a voice from below.
"We craned our heads over the edge, and there was a man, dressed, as far as
we could make out, in evening dress, and standing in the middle of the grass
plot. We kept quiet.
"'Hullo!' he shouted again. 'How do you feel yourself? Pretty comfortable,
eh? Ha! ha! You London rogues thought we were green in the country. What's your
"We both lay still, though feeling pretty considerably small, as you may
"'It's all right; I see you,' he continued. 'Why, I have been waiting behind
that lilac bush every night for the last week, expecting to see you. I knew you
couldn't resist going up that ladder, when you found the windows were too much
for you.—Joe! Joe!'
"'Yes, sir,' said a voice, and another man came from among the bushes.
"'Just you keep your eye on the roof, will you, while I ride down to the
station and fetch up a couple of constables?—Au revoir, gentlemen!
You don't mind waiting, I suppose?' And Colonel Morley—for it was the
owner of the house himself—strode off; and in a few minutes we heard the
rattle of his horse's hoofs going down the avenue.
"Well, sir, we felt precious silly, as you may imagine. It wasn't so much
having been nabbed that bothered us, as the feeling of being caught in such a
simple trap. We looked at each other in blank disgust, and then, to save our
lives, we couldn't help bursting into laughter at our own fix. However, it was
no laughing matter; so we set to work going around the roof, and seeing if
there was a likely water-pipe or anything that might give us a chance of
escape. We had to give it up as a bad job; so we sat down again, and made up
our minds to the worst. Suddenly an idea flashed into my head, and I groped my
way over the roof until I felt wood under my feet. I bent down and found that
the colonel had actually forgotten to secure the padlock! You will often
notice, as you go through life, that it is the shrewdest and most cunning man
who falls into the most absurd mistakes; and this was an example of it. You may
guess that we did not lose much time, for we expected to hear the constables
every moment. We dropped through into the lumber-room, slipped downstairs, tore
open the library shutters, and were out and away before the astonished groom
could make out what had happened. There wasn't time enough to take any little
souvenir with us, worse luck. I should have liked to have seen the colonel's
face when he came back with the constables and found that the birds were
"Did you ever come across the colonel again?" I asked.
"Yes; we skinned him of every bit of plate he had, down to the salt- spoons,
a few years later. It was partly out of revenge, you see, that we did it. It
was a very well-managed and daring thing, one of the best I ever saw, and all
done in open daylight, too."
"How in the world did you do it? " I asked.
"Well, there were three of us in it—Jim was one—and we set about
it in this way: We wanted to begin by getting the colonel out of the way, so I
wrote him a note purporting to come from Squire Brotherwick, who lived about
ten miles away, and was not always on the best of terms with the master of
Morley Hall. I dressed myself up as a groom, and delivered the note myself. It
was to the effect that the squire thought he was able to lay his hands on the
scoundrels who had escaped from the colonel a couple of years before, and that
if the colonel would ride over they would have little difficulty in securing
them. I was sure that this would have the desired effect; so, after handing it
in, and remarking that I was the squire's groom, I walked off again, as if on
the way back to my master's.
"After getting out of sight of the house, I crouched down behind a hedge;
and, as I expected, in less than a quarter of an hour the colonel came swinging
past me on his chestnut mare. Now, there is another accomplishment I possess
which I have not mentioned to you yet, and that is, that I can copy any
handwriting that I see. It is a very easy trick to pick up if you only give
your mind to it. I happened to have come across one of Colonel Morley's letters
some days before, and I can write so that even now I defy an expert to detect a
difference between the hands. This was a great assistance to me now, for I tore
a leaf out of my pocket-book and wrote something to this effect:
"'As Squire Brotherwick has seen some suspicious characters about, and the
house may be attempted again, I have sent down to the bank, and ordered them to
send up their bank-cart to convey the whole of the plate to a place of safety.
It will save us a good deal of anxiety to know that it is in absolute security.
Have it packed up and ready, and give the bearer a glass of beer.'
"Having composed this precious epistle, I addressed it to the butler, and
carried it back to the Hall, saying that their master had overtaken me on the
way and asked me to deliver it. I was taken in and made much of down-stairs,
while a great packing case was dragged into the hall, and the plate stowed
away, among cotton-wool and stuffing. It was nearly ready, when I heard the
sound of wheels upon the gravel, and sauntered round just in time to see a
business-like closed car drive up to the door. One of my pals was sitting very
demurely on the box, while Jim, with an official-looking hat, sprang out and
bustled into the hall.
"'Now then,' I heard him say, 'look sharp! What's for the bank? Come
"'Wait a minute, sir,' said the butler.
"'Can't wait. There's a panic all over the country, and they are clamoring
for us everywhere. Must drive on to Lord Blackbury's place, unless you are
"'Don't go, sir!' pleaded the butler. 'There's only this one rope to tie.
There, it is ready now. You'll look after it, won't you?'
"'That we will. You'll never have any more trouble with it now,' said Jim,
helping to push the great case into the car.
"'I think I had better go with you and see it stowed away in the bank,' said
"'All right,' said Jim, nothing abashed. 'You can't come in the car, though,
for Lord Blackbury's box will take up all the spare room. Let's see; it's
twelve o'clock now. Well, you be waiting at the bank door at half-past one, and
you will just catch us.'
"'All right; half-past one,' said the butler.
"'Good-day,' cried my chum; and away went the car, while I made a bit of a
short cut and caught it around a turn of the road. We drove right off into the
next county, got a down-train to London, and before midnight the colonel's
silver was fused into a solid lump."
I could not help laughing at the versatility of the old scoundrel. "It was a
daring game to play," I said.
"It is always the daring game which succeeds best," he answered.
At this point the train began to show symptoms of slowing down, and my
companion put on his overcoat and gave other signs of being near the end of his
"You are going on to Dover? " he said.
"For the Continent?"
"How long do you intend to travel?"
"Only for a week or so."
"Well, I must leave you here. You will remember my name, won't you? John
Wilkie. I am pleased to have met you. Is my umbrella behind you?" he added,
stretching across. "No; I beg your pardon. Here it is in the corner;" and with
an affable smile, the ex-cracksman stepped out, bowed, and disappeared among
the crowd upon the platform.
I lit another cigar, laughed as I thought of my late companion, and lifted
up the "Times," which he had left behind him. The bell had rung, the wheels
were already revolving, when, to my astonishment, a pallid face looked in at me
through the window. It was so contorted and agitated that I hardly recognized
the features which I had been gazing upon during the last couple of hours.
"Here, take it," he said, "take it. It's hardly worth my while to rob you of
seven pounds four shillings, but I couldn't resist once more trying my hand;"
and he flung something into the carriage and disappeared.
It was my old leather purse, with my return ticket, and the whole of my
travelling expenses. His newly awakened conscience had driven him to instant