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The Knave of Diamonds by Alexander Montgomery

 

"DOCUMENTS of all kinds altered so as to defy detection. Letters skilfully opened and reclosed. Handwriting imitated to perfection; signatures a speciality. Moderate terms and profound secresy!"

To some such tune might have run Yee Wung's advertisement, had not that great artist been debarred by an unfortunate prejudice of society from letting his light shine before men. Upon Yee Wung in the flesh no user of his skill had ever yet set eyes, which was why--though most of his clients had come, sooner or later, into disastrous collision with the prejudice aforesaid--the accomplished Yee pursued his peaceful way, as untroubled of the law as of his conscience.

Scarce ten feet square was Yee's skylighted den, be-shelved and pigeon--holed from floor to ceiling, and stuffy with tobacco, tea, and opium. The opium-lamp, in fact, stood ever on the table; nor had 30 years of smoking dulled one whit the subtle intellect of this candle-coloured little man with European-cut, grizzling hair and a long peninsula of thin grey beard.

A scuffle in the ante-room--an unwonted sound of voices--and lo! Yee Wung's professional incognito was broken at last! A woman walked in upon him--tall, closely-veiled, and palpably excited, but none the less determined. Behind her grinned and jabbered Yee's faithful sentinel, taken thus, for the first time, off his guard. But the old man's wits were ready. In an instant he had slipped round the table--thrust the intruder in--the janitor out--locked the door inside and put his back against it. The woman eyed him through her veil, and quailed a little. This little bird-like man--long-clawed and bright-eyed--was dangerous.

"No harm, John!" she said. "Only me wantee you writee me something! That all!"

Yee Wung cackled. "Sit down, madam! If you wish to speak English, speak it!--or Dutch, or Spanish, or Malay!--I am at your service in whichever you please! Did I understand you to say that you want something written for you?"

The astonished woman sat down. "Yes!" she said. "I knew that old idiot outside couldn't be the man I wanted, so I pushed my way in."

Yee Wung came to the table. "Something in Malay you want, no doubt; or is it in Chinese?"

The woman recovered her arrogance. "Nonsense!" she said. "It's English I want written, in a particular handwriting!--in this!" and she held out a letter.

The Chinaman took it. "The signature?" he asked. "Do you want that imitated, too?"

"Of course!"

"Forgery, madam!--forgery!"

"I know it! But I was told that you--if you were well paid, of course--"

"Would risk 10 or 15 years of the Andamans? You have been grossly imposed upon, madam! Let me wish you good-day--and better advisers!" And Yee Wung unlocked the door.

Mrs. Harrison--the letter had told the Chinaman her name--stared at him for a moment, sprang up, and went, without another word. Yee Wung cackled softly again, took from within the forgotten letter the pencilled draft of another, absorbed its tenor at a glance, replaced it, dropped both on the floor, and told his seneschal to admit the lady when she came back, which would be soon. In three minutes back she came, saw the letter on the floor, snatched it up, and was gone again; where-upon Yee Wung took unto himself a sturdy cane, called in the defaulting Ah Meng, and, having batooned that unlucky servitor with much spirit and satisfaction, kicked him out again, re-locked the door, and mounted upon a step-ladder to search an upper shelf.

Systematic to the ends of his claws, Yee Wung kept stored upon his shelves not only cheque-books of every bank in India, China, and the Peninsula, and special stationery of every leading firm in Singapore and Malacca, but also an indexed multitude of letters, procured per medium of the expertest sneak-thieves in the world--his Singapore compatriots. Ere long Yee found what he wanted--some headed paper of Harrison Bros. and an autograph letter of the senior partner in that great American concern. With these at hand, Yee Wung sat down to commit to paper the words of the pencilled draft he had glanced at.

Gentlemen,--Please to deliver to the bearer--my wife--the diamond bracelet completed last week to my order.--WILBERFORCE F. HARRISON. Messrs. Van Houten and Groot, Jewellers.

Yee Wung lit his pipe and ruminated. Gay dog, Wilberforce Harrison! All Singapore knew that! Bracelet not for his wife! Wife wanted to get hold of it, and thus have a pull upon the faithless one. "Now, wherein could all this be manipulated unto the personal use and benefit of Yee Wung?" asked that ingenious Pagan of himself. Two minutes brought the answer, and then, with several pens and various inks, the expert addressed himself to the production of two documents which were to have important consequences. In half an hour the job was finished, and, solacing himself once more with the "drowsy syrup of the East," Yee Wung descended to his subjacent cubiculum, and there upon his ancient person worked such wondrous changes that his mother--had that excellent heathen lady been alive--would have repudiated him as of alien race. From dirty quince--colour he changed his face to brightest lemon, shaved his beard, blacked his thin moustache, and conferred upon himself an arching pair of jetty eyebrows. He clipped close his portentous finger-nails, arrayed himself in snowy drill and spotless topee, and, thus equipped, went forth upon the warpath.


Messrs. Van Houten and Groot,--I had intended to call to-day for the bracelet, but, as I have some unexpected business to attend to, I hereby authorize you to deliver over the article to the bearer, Mr. Lathi Tal, my confidential clerk, who will countersign enclosed receipt.--WILBERFORCE F. HARRISON.

Letter and receipt were on the firm's business-paper; the signatures were beyond dispute; and thus, when to the acknowledgment the irreproachable--looking Bengali gentleman had appended his sign-manual, the jewellers handed him the bracelet without a qualm--the more readily that it was already paid for. But, ten minutes after the smiling Lathi Tal had vanished, like a thunderbolt upon the heads of Van Houten and Groot descended the purport of a document which that confidential person must have accidentally dropped in their shop.

Received from Mrs. W. F. Harrison, upon handing over to her a diamond bracelet obtained by me from Van Houten and Groot, the sum of Rs. 1,000.--LATHI TAL.

"Der skoontrel!" spluttered old Van Houten, smiting hard upon his bald Dutch pate. "He moost haf hat der rezeed all retty to gif dat voman, und he never know he tropt it here!"

But Lathi Tal--which is to say, Yee Wung--knew very well where he had dropped it, and had calculated the result of the finding thereof. Which was, that after Lathi Tal had proved undiscoverable--which, considering he didn't exist, was not surprising--the disgusted Harrison, disbelieving utterly his wife's protestations, made no further fuss about the bracelet, although, to soothe his wounded purse and feelings, he sued the jewellers for the price of the undelivered article. "Delivered to his wife through her agent," contended those level-headed Dutchmen, and thus arose the famous "Bracelet Case," which, rising by degrees in courts and costs, fizzled out at last in the Privy Council decision that there could be no decision, and that each side should pay its by-that-time-prodigious whack of the expenses.

The bracelet, long ere then, was a bracelet no longer. By way of Batavia it had found its way to Amsterdam, from which emporium of diamonds "its stones were scattered far and wide," to the ultimate satisfactory fattening of Yee Wung's balance with the Bank of Cathay.

 
 
 

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