The Old Man in the Corner

by Baroness Orczy

The Liverpool Mystery (#5)
Illustrations by H. M. Brock

The Old Man in the Corner from the cover of the Greening & Co. 1908 printing by H. M. Brock

The following story is from the 1902 series of Old Man in the Corner stories, those dealing with mysteries from different cities of the British Isles. As in “The York Mystery,” the Old Man shows that he can solve out-of-town crimes from his teashop lair as readily as he can unravel London crimes.

Dan Neyer
August, 2013
Introduction © 2013 by Dan Neyer

A TITLE—A FOREIGN TITLE, I mean—is always very useful for purposes of swindles and frauds,” remarked the man in the corner to Polly one day. “The cleverest robberies of modern times were perpetrated lately in Vienna by a man who dubbed himself Lord Seymour; whilst over here the same class of thief calls himself Count Something ending in ‘o,’ or Prince the other, ending in ‘off.’”

“Fortunately for our hotel and lodging-house keepers over here,” she replied, “they are beginning to be more alive to the ways of foreign swindlers, and look upon all titled gentry who speak broken English as possible swindlers or thieves.”

“The result sometimes being exceedingly unpleasant to the real grands seigneurs who honour this country at times with their visits,” replied the man in the corner. “Now, take the case of Prince Semionicz, a man whose sixteen quarterings are duly recorded in Gotha, who carried enough luggage with him to pay for the use of every room in an hotel for at least a week, whose gold cigarette case with diamond and turquoise ornament was actually stolen without his taking the slightest trouble to try and recover it; that same man was undoubtedly looked upon with suspicion by the manager of the Liverpool North-Western Hotel from the moment that his secretary—a dapper, somewhat vulgar little Frenchman—bespoke on behalf of his employer, with himself and a valet, the best suite of rooms the hotel contained.

“Obviously those suspicions were unfounded, for the little secretary, as soon as Prince Semionicz had arrived, deposited with the manager a pile of bank notes, also papers and bonds, the value of which would exceed tenfold the most outrageous bill that could possibly be placed before the noble visitor. Moreover, M. Albert Lambert explained that the Prince, who only meant to stay in Liverpool a few days, was on his way to Chicago, where he wished to visit Princess Anna Semionicz, his sister, who was married to Mr. Girwan, the great copper king and multi-millionaire.

“Yet, as I told you before, in spite of all these undoubted securities, suspicion of the wealthy Russian Prince lurked in the minds of most Liverpudlians who came in business contact with him. He had been at the North-Western two days when he sent his secretary to Window and Vassall, the jewellers of Bold Street, with a request that they would kindly send a representative round to the hotel with some nice pieces of jewellery, diamonds and pearls chiefly, which he was desirous of taking as a present to his sister in Chicago.

“Mr. Winslow took the order from M. Albert with a pleasant bow. Then he went to his inner office and consulted with his partner, Mr. Vassall, as to the best course to adopt. Both the gentlemen were desirous of doing business, for business had been very slack lately: neither wished to refuse a possible customer, or to offend Mr. Pettitt, the manager of the North-Western, who had recommended them to the Prince. But that foreign title and the vulgar little French secretary stuck in the throats of the two pompous and worthy Liverpool jewellers, and together they agreed, firstly, that no credit should be given; and, secondly, that if a cheque or even a banker’s draft were tendered, the jewels were not to be given up until that cheque or draft was cashed.

“Then came the question as to who should take the jewels to the hotel. It was altogether against business etiquette for the senior partners to do such errands themselves; moreover, it was thought that it would be easier for a clerk to explain, without giving undue offence, that he could not take the responsibility of a cheque or draft, without having cashed it previously to giving up the jewels.

“Then there was the question of the probable necessity of conferring in a foreign tongue. The head assistant, Charles Needham, who had been in the employ of Winslow and Vassall for over twelve years, was, in true British fashion, ignorant of any language save his own; it was therefore decided to dispatch Mr. Schwarz, a young German clerk lately arrived, on the delicate errand.

“Mr. Schwarz was Mr. Winslow’s nephew and godson, a sister of that gentleman having married the head of the great German firm of Schwarz & Co., silversmiths, of Hamburg and Berlin.

“The young man had soon become a great favourite with his uncle, whose heir he would presumably be, as Mr. Winslow had no children.

“At first Mr. Vassall made some demur about sending Mr. Schwarz with so many valuable jewels alone in a city which he had not yet had the time to study thoroughly; but finally he allowed himself to be persuaded by his senior partner, and a fine selection of necklaces, pendants, bracelets, and rings, amounting in value to over £16,000, having been made, it was decided that Mr. Schwarz should go to the North-Western in a cab the next day at about three o’clock in the afternoon. This he accordingly did, the following day being a Thursday.

“Business went on in the shop as usual under the direction of the head assistant, until about seven o’clock, when Mr. Winslow returned from his club, where he usually spent an hour over the papers every afternoon, and at once asked for his nephew. To his astonishment Mr. Needham informed him that Mr. Schwarz had not yet returned. This seemed a little strange, and Mr. Winslow, with a slightly anxious look in his face, went into the inner office in order to consult his junior partner. Mr. Vassall offered to go round to the hotel and interview Mr. Pettitt.

“ ‘I was beginning to get anxious myself,’ he said, ‘but did not quite like to say so. I have been in over half an hour, hoping every moment that you would come in, and that perhaps you could give me some reassuring news. I thought that perhaps you had met Mr. Schwarz, and were coming back together.’

“However, Mr. Vassall walked round to the hotel and interviewed the hall porter. The latter perfectly well remembered Mr. Schwarz sending in his card to Prince Semionicz.

“ ‘At what time was that?’ asked Mr. Vassall.

“ ‘About ten minutes past three, sir, when he came; it was about an hour later when he left.’

“ ‘When he left?’ gasped, more than said, Mr. Vassall.

“ ‘Yes, sir. Mr. Schwarz left here about a quarter before four, sir.’

“ ‘Are you quite sure?’

“ ‘Quite sure. Mr. Pettitt was in the hall when he left, and he asked him something about business. Mr. Schwarz laughed and said, “not bad.” I hope there’s nothing wrong, sir,’ added the man.

“ ‘Oh—er—nothing—thank you. Can I see Mr. Pettitt?’

“ ‘Certainly, sir.’

“Mr. Pettitt, the manager of the hotel, shared Mr. Vassall’s anxiety, immediately he heard that the young German had not yet returned home.

“ ‘I spoke to him a little before four o’clock. We had just switched on the electric light, which we always do these winter months at that hour. But I shouldn’t worry myself, Mr. Vassall; the young man may have seen to some business on his way home. You’ll probably find him in when you go back.’

“Apparently somewhat reassured, Mr. Vassall thanked Mr. Pettitt and hurried back to the shop, only to find that Mr. Schwarz had not returned, though it was now close on eight o’clock.

“Mr. Winslow looked so haggard and upset that it would have been cruel to heap reproaches upon his other troubles or to utter so much as the faintest suspicion that young Schwarz’s permanent disappearance with £16,000 in jewels and money was within the bounds of probability.

“There was one chance left, but under the circumstances a very slight one indeed. The Winslows’ private house was up the Birkenhead end of the town. Young Schwarz had been living with them ever since his arrival in Liverpool, and he may have—either not feeling well or for some other reason—gone straight home without calling at the shop. It was unlikely, as valuable jewellery was never kept at the private house, but—it just might have happened.

“It would be useless,” continued the man in the corner, “and decidedly uninteresting, were I to relate to you Messrs. Winslow’s and Vassall’s further anxieties with regard to the missing young man. Suffice it to say that on reaching his private house Mr. Winslow found that his godson had neither returned nor sent any telegraphic message of any kind.

“Not wishing to needlessly alarm his wife, Mr. Winslow made an attempt at eating his dinner, but directly after that he hurried back to the North-Western Hotel, and asked to see Prince Semionicz. The Prince was at the theatre with his secretary, and probably would not be home until nearly midnight.

“Mr. Winslow, then, not knowing what to think, nor yet what to fear, and in spite of the horror he felt of giving publicity to his nephew’s disappearance, thought it his duty to go round to the police-station and interview the inspector. It is wonderful how quickly news of that type travels in a large city like Liverpool. Already the morning papers of the following day were full of the latest sensation: ‘Mysterious disappearance of a well-known tradesman.’

“Mr. Winslow found a copy of the paper containing the sensational announcement on his breakfast-table. It lay side by side with a letter addressed to him in his nephew’s handwriting, which had been posted in Liverpool.

“Mr. Winslow placed that letter, written to him by his nephew, into the hands of the police. Its contents, therefore, quickly became public property. The astounding statements made therein by Mr. Schwarz created, in quiet, businesslike Liverpool, a sensation which has seldom been equalled.

“It appears that the young fellow did call on Prince Semionicz at a quarter past three on Wednesday, December 10th, with a bag full of jewels, amounting in value to some £16,000. The Prince duly admired, and finally selected from among the ornaments a necklace, pendant, and bracelet, the whole being priced by Mr. Schwarz, according to his instructions, at £10,500. Prince Semionicz was most prompt and businesslike in his dealings.

“ ‘You will require immediate payment for these, of course,’ he said in perfect English, ‘and I know you business men prefer solid cash to cheques, especially when dealing with foreigners. I always provide myself with plenty of Bank of England notes in consequence,’ he added with a pleasant smile, ‘as £10,500 in gold would perhaps be a little inconvenient to carry. If you will kindly make out the receipt, my secretary, M. Lambert, will settle all business matters with you.’

“He thereupon took the jewels he had selected and locked them up in his dressing-case, the beautiful silver fillings of which Mr. Schwarz just caught a short glimpse of. Then, having been accommodated with paper and ink, the young jeweller made out the account and receipt, whilst M. Lambert, the secretary, counted out before him 105 crisp Bank of England notes of £100 each. Then, with a final bow to his exceedingly urbane and eminently satisfactory customer, Mr. Schwarz took his leave. In the hall he saw and spoke to Mr. Pettitt, and then he went out into the street.

“He had just left the hotel and was about to cross towards St. George’s Hall when a gentleman, in a magnificent fur coat, stepped quickly out of a cab which had been stationed near the kerb, and, touching him lightly upon the shoulder, said with an unmistakable air of authority, at the same time handing him a card:

“ ‘I must speak with you immediately.’ ”

“ ‘That is my name. I must speak with you immediately.”

“Schwarz glanced at the card, and by the light of the arc lamps above his head read on it the name of ‘Dimitri Slaviansky Burgreneff, de la IIIe Section de la Police Imperial de S.M. le Czar.’

“Quickly the owner of the unpronounceable name and the significant title pointed to the cab from which he had just alighted, and Schwarz, whose every suspicion with regard to his princely customer bristled up in one moment, clutched his bag and followed his imposing interlocutor; as soon as they were both comfortably seated in the cab the latter began, with courteous apology in broken but fluent English:

“ ‘I must ask your pardon, sir, for thus trespassing upon your valuable time, and I certainly should not have done so but for the certainty that our interests in a certain matter which I have in hand are practically identical, in so far that we both should wish to outwit a clever rogue.’

“Instinctively, and his mind full of terrible apprehension, Mr. Schwarz’s hand wandered to his pocket-book, filled to overflowing with the bank-notes which he had so lately received from the Prince.

“ ‘Ah, I see,’ interposed the courteous Russian with a smile, ‘he has played the confidence trick on you, with the usual addition of so many so-called bank-notes.’

“ ‘So-called,’ gasped the unfortunate young man.

“ ‘I don’t think I often err in my estimate of my own countrymen,’ continued M. Burgreneff; ‘I have vast experience, you must remember. Therefore, I doubt if I am doing M.—er—what does he call himself?—Prince something—an injustice if I assert, even without handling those crisp bits of paper you have in your pocket-book, that no bank would exchange them for gold.’

“Remembering his uncle’s suspicions and his own, Mr. Schwarz cursed himself for his blindness and folly in accepting notes so easily without for a moment imagining that they might be false. Now, with every one of those suspicions fully on the alert, he felt the bits of paper with nervous, anxious fingers, while the imperturbable Russian calmly struck a match.

“ ‘See here,’ he said, pointing to one of the notes, ‘the shape of that “w” in the signature of the chief cashier. I am not an English police officer, but I could pick out that spurious “w” among a thousand genuine ones. You see, I have seen a good many.’

“Now, of course, poor young Schwarz had not seen very many Bank of England notes. He could not have told whether one ‘w’ in Mr. Bowen’s signature is better than another, but, though he did not speak English nearly as fluently as his pompous interlocutor, he understood every word of the appalling statement the latter had just made.

“ ‘Then that Prince,’ he said, ‘at the hotel——’

“ ‘Is no more Prince than you and I, my dear sir,’ concluded the gentleman of His Imperial Majesty’s police calmly.

“ ‘And the jewels? Mr. Winslow’s jewels?’

“ ‘With the jewels there may be a chance—oh! a mere chance. These forged bank-notes, which you accepted so trustingly, may prove the means of recovering your property.’

“ ‘How?’

“ ‘The penalty of forging and circulating spurious bank-notes is very heavy. You know that. The fear of seven years’ penal servitude will act as a wonderful sedative upon the—er—Prince’s joyful mood. He will give up the jewels to me all right enough, never you fear. He knows,’ added the Russian officer grimly, ‘that there are plenty of old scores to settle up, without the additional one of forged bank-notes. Our interests, you see, are identical. May I rely on your co-operation?’

“ ‘Oh, I will do as you wish,’ said the delighted young German. ‘Mr. Winslow and Mr. Vassall, they trusted me, and I have been such a fool. I hope it is not too late.’

“ ‘I think not,’ said M. Burgreneff, his hand already on the door of the cab. ‘Though I have been talking to you I have kept an eye on the hotel, and our friend the Prince has not yet gone out. We are accustomed, you know, to have eyes everywhere, we of the Russian secret police. I don’t think that I will ask you to be present at the confrontation. Perhaps you will wait for me in the cab. There is a nasty fog outside, and you will be more private. Will you give me those beautiful bank-notes? Thank you! Don’t be anxious. I won’t be long.’

“He lifted his hat, and slipped the notes into the inner pocket of his magnificent fur coat. As he did so, Mr. Schwarz caught sight of a rich uniform and a wide sash, which no doubt was destined to carry additional moral weight with the clever rogue upstairs.

“Then His Imperial Majesty’s police officer stepped quickly out of the cab, and Mr. Schwarz was left alone.”

"YES, LEFT SEVERELY ALONE," continued the man in the corner with a sarcastic chuckle. “So severely alone, in fact, that one quarter of an hour after another passed by and still the magnificent police officer in the gorgeous uniform did not return. Then, when it was too late, Schwarz cursed himself once again for the double-dyed idiot that he was. He had been only too ready to believe that Prince Semionicz was a liar and a rogue, and under these unjust suspicions he had fallen an all too easy prey to one of the most cunning rascals he had ever come across.

“An inquiry from the hall porter at the North-Western elicited the fact that no such personage as Mr. Schwarz described had entered the hotel. The young man asked to see Prince Semionicz, hoping against hope that all was not yet lost. The Prince received him most courteously; he was dictating some letters to his secretary, while the valet was in the next room preparing his master’s evening clothes. Mr. Schwarz found it very difficult to explain what he actually did want.

“There stood the dressing-case in which the Prince had locked up the jewels, and there the bag from which the secretary had taken the bank-notes. After much hesitation on Schwarz’s part and much impatience on that of the Prince, the young man blurted out the whole story of the so-called Russian police officer whose card he still held in his hand.

“The Prince, it appears, took the whole thing wonderfully good-naturedly; no doubt he thought the jeweller a hopeless fool. He showed him the jewels, the receipt he held, and also a large bundle of bank-notes similar to those Schwarz had with such culpable folly given up to the clever rascal in the cab.

“ ‘I pay all my bills with Bank of England notes, Mr. Schwarz. It would have been wiser, perhaps, if you had spoken to the manager of the hotel about me before you were so ready to believe any cock-and-bull story about my supposed rogueries.’

“Finally he placed a small 16mo volume before the young jeweller, and said with a pleasant smile:

“ ‘If people in this country who are in a large way of business, and are therefore likely to come in contact with people of foreign nationality, were to study these little volumes before doing business with any foreigner who claims a title, much disappointment and a great loss would often be saved. Now in this case had you looked up page 797 of this little volume of Gotha’s Almanach you would have seen my name in it and known from the first that the so-called Russian detective was a liar.’

“There was nothing more to be said, and Mr. Schwarz left the hotel. No doubt, now that he had been hopelessly duped he dared not go home, and half hoped by communicating with the police that they might succeed in arresting the thief before he had time to leave Liverpool. He interviewed Detective-Inspector Watson, and was at once confronted with the awful difficulty which would make the recovery of the bank-notes practically hopeless. He had never had the time or opportunity of jotting down the numbers of the notes.

“Mr. Winslow, though terribly wrathful against his nephew, did not wish to keep him out of his home. As soon as he had received Schwarz’s letter, he traced him, with Inspector Watson’s help, to his lodgings in North Street, where the unfortunate young man meant to remain hidden until the terrible storm had blown over, or perhaps until the thief had been caught red-handed with the booty still in his hands.

“This happy event, needless to say, never did occur, though the police made every effort to trace the man who had decoyed Schwarz into the cab. His appearance was such an uncommon one; it seemed most unlikely that no one in Liverpool should have noticed him after he left that cab. The wonderful fur coat, the long beard, all must have been noticeable, even though it was past four o’clock on a somewhat foggy December afternoon.

“But every investigation proved futile; no one answering Schwarz’s description of the man had been seen anywhere. The papers continued to refer to the case as ‘the Liverpool Mystery.’ Scotland Yard sent Mr. Fairburn down—the celebrated detective—at the request of the Liverpool police, to help in the investigations, but nothing availed.

“Prince Semionicz, with his suite, left Liverpool, and he who had attempted to blacken his character, and had succeeded in robbing Messrs. Winslow and Vassall of £10,500, had completely disappeared.”

The man in the corner readjusted his collar and necktie, which, during the narrative of this interesting mystery, had worked its way up his long, crane-like neck under his large flappy ears. His costume of checked tweed of a peculiarly loud pattern had tickled the fancy of some of the waitresses, who were standing gazing at him and giggling in one corner. This evidently made him nervous. He gazed up very meekly at Polly, looking for all the world like a bald-headed adjutant dressed for a holiday.

“Of course, all sorts of theories of the theft got about at first. One of the most popular, and at the same time most quickly exploded, being that young Schwarz had told a cock-and-bull story, and was the actual thief himself.

“However, as I said before, that was very quickly exploded, as Mr. Schwarz senior, a very wealthy merchant, never allowed his son’s carelessness to be a serious loss to his kind employers. As soon as he thoroughly grasped all the circumstances of the extraordinary case, he drew a cheque for £10,500 and remitted it to Messrs. Winslow and Vassall. It was just, but it was also high-minded.

“All Liverpool knew of the generous action, as Mr. Winslow took care that it should; and any evil suspicion regarding young Mr. Schwarz vanished as quickly as it had come.

“Then, of course, there was the theory about the Prince and his suite, and to this day I fancy there are plenty of people in Liverpool, and also in London, who declare that the so-called Russian police officer was a confederate. No doubt that theory was very plausible, and Messrs. Winslow and Vassall spent a good deal of money in trying to prove a case against the Russian Prince.

“Very soon, however, that theory was also bound to collapse. Mr. Fairburn, whose reputation as an investigator of crime waxes in direct inverted ratio to his capacities, did hit upon the obvious course of interviewing the managers of the larger London and Liverpool agents de change. He soon found that Prince Semionicz had converted a great deal of Russian and French money into English bank-notes since his arrival in this country. More than £30,000 in good solid, honest money was traced to the pockets of the gentleman with the sixteen quarterings. It seemed, therefore, more than improbable that a man who was obviously fairly wealthy would risk imprisonment and hard labour, if not worse, for the sake of increasing his fortune by £10,000.

“However, the theory of the Prince’s guilt has taken firm root in the dull minds of our police authorities. They have had every information with regard to Prince Semionicz’s antecedents from Russia; his position, his wealth, have been placed above suspicion, and yet they suspect and go on suspecting him or his secretary. They have communicated with the police of every European capital; and while they still hope to obtain sufficient evidence against those they suspect, they calmly allow the guilty to enjoy the fruit of his clever roguery.”

“The guilty?” said Polly. “Who do you think——”

“Who do I think knew at that moment that young Schwarz had money in his possession?” he said excitedly, wriggling in his chair like a Jack-in-the-box. “Obviously some one was guilty of that theft who knew that Schwarz had gone to interview a rich Russian, and would in all probability return with a large sum of money in his possession?”

“Who, indeed, but the Prince and his secretary?” she argued. “But just now you said——”

“Just now I said that the police were determined to find the Prince and his secretary guilty; they did not look further than their own stumpy noses. Messrs. Winslow and Vassall spent money with a free hand in those investigations. Mr. Winslow, as the senior partner, stood to lose over £9000 by that robbery. Now, with Mr. Vassall it was different.

“When I saw how the police went on blundering in this case I took the trouble to make certain inquiries, the whole thing interested me so much, and I learnt all that I wished to know. I found out, namely, that Mr. Vassall was very much a junior partner in the firm, that he only drew ten per cent of the profits, having been promoted lately to a partnership from having been senior assistant.

“Now, the police did not take the trouble to find that out.”

“But you don’t mean that——”

“I mean that in all cases where robbery affects more than one person the first thing to find out is whether it affects the second party equally with the first. I proved that to you, didn’t I, over that robbery in Phillimore Terrace? There, as here, one of the two parties stood to lose very little in comparison with the other——”

“Even then——” she began.

“Wait a moment, for I found out something more. The moment I had ascertained that Mr. Vassall was not drawing more than about £500 a year from the business profits I tried to ascertain at what rate he lived and what were his chief vices. I found that he kept a fine house in Albert Terrace. Now, the rents of those houses are £250 a year. Therefore speculation, horse-racing or some sort of gambling, must help to keep up that establishment. Speculation and most forms of gambling are synonymous with debt and ruin. It is only a question of time. Whether Mr. Vassall was in debt or not at the time, that I cannot say, but this I do know, that ever since that unfortunate loss to him of about £1000 he has kept his house in nicer style than before, and he now has a good banking account at the Lancashire and Liverpool bank, which he opened a year after his ‘heavy loss.’”

“But it must have been very difficult——” argued Polly.

“What?” he said. “To have planned out the whole thing? For carrying it out was mere child’s play. He had twenty-four hours in which to put his plan into execution. Why, what was there to do? Firstly, to go to a local printer in some out-of-the-way part of the town and get him to print a few cards with the high-sounding name. That, of course, is done ‘while you wait.’ Beyond that there was the purchase of a good second-hand uniform, fur coat, and a beard and a wig from a costumier’s.

“No, no, the execution was not difficult; it was the planning of it all, the daring that was so fine. Schwarz, of course, was a foreigner; he had only been in England a little over a fortnight. Vassall’s broken English misled him; probably he did not know the junior partner very intimately. I have no doubt that but for his uncle’s absurd British prejudice and suspicions against the Russian Prince, Schwarz would not have been so ready to believe in the latter’s roguery. As I said, it would be a great boon if English tradesmen studied Gotha more; but it was clever, wasn’t it? I couldn’t have done it much better myself.”

That last sentence was so characteristic. Before Polly could think of some plausible argument against his theory he was gone, and she was trying vainly to find another solution to the Liverpool mystery.

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