Chapter 29 Minor Setbacks

The robbers originally intended to take the gold during the next Crimean shipment. The plan was extremely simple. Pierce and Agar were to board the train in London, each checking several heavy satchels onto the baggage van. The satchels would be filled with sewn packets of lead shot.

Agar would again ride in the van, and while Burgess looked away Agar would open the safes, remove the gold, and replace it with lead shot. These satchels would be thrown from the train at a predetermined point, and collected by Barlow. Barlow would then drive on to Folkestone, where he would meet Pierce and Agar.

Meanwhile, the gold strongboxes--- still convincingly heavy--- would be transferred to the steamer going to Ostend, where the theft would be discovered by the French authorities hours later. By then, enough people would have been involved in the transportation process that there would be no particular reason to fix suspicion on Burgess; and in any case, British-French relations were at a low level because of the Crimean War, and it would be natural that the French would assume the English had carried out the thefts, and vice versa. The robbers could count on plenty of confusion to muddy the waters for the police.

The plan seemed utterly foolproof, and the robbers prepared to carry it out on the next gold shipment, scheduled for March 14, 1855.

On March 2nd, "that fiend in human shape," Czar Nicholas I of Russia, died suddenly. News of his death caused considerable confusion in business and financial circles. For several days the reports were doubted, and when his death was finally confirmed, the stock markets of Paris and London responded with large gains. But as a result of the general uncertainty the gold shipment was delayed until March 27th. By then, Agar, who had sunk into a kind of depression after the fourteenth, was desperately ill with an exacerbation of his chest condition, and so the opportunity was missed.

The firm of Huddleston & Bradford was making gold shipments once a month; there were now only 11,000 English troops in the Crimea, as opposed to 78,000 French, and most of the money was paid out directly from Paris. Thus Pierce and his compatriots were obliged to wait until April.

The next shipment was set for April 19th. The robbers at this time were getting their information on shipment schedules from a tart named Susan Lang, a favorite of Henry Fowler's. Mr. Fowler liked to impress the simple girl with episodes reflecting his importance to the world of banking and commerce, and for her part, the poor girl--- who could hardly have understood a word he said--- seemed endlessly fascinated by everything he told her.

Susan Lang was hardly simple, but somehow she got her facts wrong: the gold went out on April 18th, and when Pierce and Agar arrived at London Bridge Station in time to board the April 19th train, Burgess informed them of their error. To maintain appearances, Pierce and Agar made the trip anyway, but Agar testified in court that Pierce was in "very ugly humor, indeed" during the journey.

The next shipment was scheduled for May 22nd. In order to prevent any further snags, Pierce took the rather risky step of opening a line of communication between Agar and Burgess. Burgess could reach Agar at any time through an intermediary, a betting-shop proprietor named Smashing Billy Banks; and Burgess was to get in touch with Banks if there was any change in the planned routine. Agar would check with Banks daily.

On May 10th, Agar returned to Pierce with a piece of ghastly news--- the two safes had been removed from the South Eastern Railway's luggage van and returned to the manufacturer, Chubb, for "overhaul."

"Overhaul?" Fierce said. "What do you mean, overhaul?"

Agar shrugged. "That was the cant"

"Those are the finest safes in the world," Pierce said. "They don't go back for an overhaul." He frowned. "What's wrong with them?"

Agar shrugged.

"You bastard," Pierce said, "did you scratch the locks when you put on your finishing touches? I swear, if someone's cooled your scratches-"

"I greased her lovely,".Agar said. "I know they look as a routine for scratches. I tell you, she had nary a tickle on her."

Agar's calm demeanor convinced Pierce that the screwsman was telling the truth. Pierce sighed. "Then why?"

"I don't know," Agar said. "You know a man who will blow on the doings at Chubb?"

"No," Pierce said. "And I wouldn't want to try a cross. They're not gulled at Chubb's." The safemaker's firm was unusually careful about its employees. Men were hired and fired only with reluctance, and they were continually warned to look for underworld figures who might try to bribe them.

"A little magging, then?" Agar suggested, meaning some conning.

Pierce shook his head. "Not me," he said. "They're just too careful; I'd never be able to slip it to them...."

He stared into the distance thoughtfully.

"What is it?" Agar asked.

"I was thinking," Pierce said, "that they would never suspect a lady."

Chapter 30 A Visit to Mr. Chubb

What Rolls-Royce would become to automobiles, and Otis to elevators, Chubb's had long since been to safes. The head of that venerable firm, Mr. Laurence Chubb, Jr., did not later remember--- or pretended not to remember--- a visit by a handsome young woman in May, 1855. But an employee of the company was sufficiently impressed by the lady's beauty to recall her in great detail.

She arrived in a handsome coach, with liveried footmen, and swept imperiously into the firm unattended by any escort. She was extremely well dressed and spoke with a commanding manner; she demanded to see Mr. Chubb himself, and immediately.

When Mr. Chubb appeared a few moments later, the woman announced that she was Lady Charlotte Simms; that she and her invalid husband maintained a country estate in the Midlands, and that recent episodes of thievery in the neighborhood had convinced her that she and her husband needed a safe.

"Then you have come to the best shop in Christendom," said Mr. Chubb.

"So I have been previously informed," Lady Charlotte said, as if not at all convinced.

"Indeed, Madam, we manufacture the finest safes in the world, and in all sizes and varieties, and these excel even the best of the Hamburg German safes."

"I see."

"What is it, specifically, that Madam requires?"

Here Lady Charlotte, for all her imperiousness, seemed to falter. She gestured with her hands. "Why, just some manner of, ah, large safe, you know."

"Madam," said Mr. Chubb severely, "we manufacture single-thickness and double-thickness safes; steel safes and iron safes; lock safes and throwbolt safes; portable safes and fixed safes; safes with a capacity of six cubic inches and safes with a capacity of twelve cubic yards; safes mounted with single locks and double locks--- and triple locks, should the customer require it."

This recitation seemed to put Lady Charlotte even further off her form. She appeared nearly helpless--- quite the ordinary way of a female when asked to deal with technical matters. "Well," she said,. "I, ah, I don't know..."

"Perhaps if Madam looks through our catalogue, which is illustrated, and denotes the various aspects and features of our different models."

"Yes, excellent, that would be fine."

"This way, please." Mr. Chubb led her into his office and seated her by his desk. He drew out the catalogue and opened it to the first page. The woman hardly looked at it.

"They seem rather small."

"These are only pictures, Madam. Yon will notice that the true dimensions are stated beside each. For example, here---"

"Mr. Chubb," she interrupted, in an earnest tone, "I must beg your assistance. The fact is that my husband is recently ill, or he should be conducting this business for himself. In truth, I know nothing of these matters, and should press my own brother into my assistance were he not at this very minute abroad on business. I am quite at a loss and I can tell nothing from pictures. Can you perhaps show me some of your safes?"

"Madam, forgive me," Mr. Chubb said, rushing around the desk to help her to her feet. "Absolutely, of course. We maintain no showroom, as you might imagine, but if you will follow me into the workrooms--- and I heartily apologize for any dust, noise, or commotion you may suffer--- I can show you the various safes we make."

He led Lady Charlotte back into the long workroom behind the offices. Here a dozen men were busy hammering, fitting, welding, and soldering. The noise was so loud that Mr. Chubb had to shout for Lady Charlotte to hear, and the good woman herself fairly winced from the din.

"Now, this version here," he said, "has a one-cubic-foot capacity, and is double-layered, sixteenth-inch tempered steel, with an insulating layer of dried brick dust of Cornish origin. It is an excellent intermediate safe for many purposes."

"It is too small."

"Very good, Madam, too small. Now, this one here" ---he moved down the line--- "is one of our most recent creations. It is a single layer of eighth-inch steel with an inner hinge and a capacity of---" He turned to the workman: "What is the capacity?"

"This'un here's two and a half," the workman said.

"Two and a half cubic feet," Mr. Chubb said.

"Still too small."

"Very good, Madam. If you will come this way;" and he led,her deeper into the workroom. Lady Charlotte coughed delicately in a cloud of brick dust.

"Now, this model here" Mr. Chubb began.

"There!" said Lady Charlotte, pointing across the room. "That's the size I want."

"You mean those two safes over there?"

"Yes, those."

They crossed the room. "These safes," said Mr. Chubb, "represent the finest examples of our workmanship. They are owned by the Huddleston & Bradford Bank, and are employed in the Crimean gold shipments, where naturally security is of the utmost. However, these are generally sold to institutions, and not to private individuals. I naturally thought---"

"This is the safe I want," she said; and then looked at them suspiciously. "They don't appear very new."

"Oh, no, Madam, they are nearly two years old now."

This seemed to alarm Lady Charlotte. "Two years old. Why are they back? Have they some defect?"

"No, indeed. A Chubb safe has no defects. They have merely been returned for replacement of the undercarriage mounting pins. Two of them have sheared. You see, they travel on the railway, and the vibration from the roadbed works on the bolts which anchor the safes to the luggage-van floor." He shrugged. "These details need not concern you. There is nothing wrong with the safes, and we are making no alterations. We are merely replacing the anchor bolts."

"Now I see these have double locks."

"Yes, Madam, the banking firm requested doublelock mechanisms. As I believe I mentioned, we also install triple locks if the customer requires it."

Lady Charlotte peered at the locks. "Three seems excessive. It must be rather a bore to turn three locks just to open a safe. These locks are burglarproof?"

"Oh, absolutely. So much so that in two years no villain has ever even attempted to break these locks. It would be quite hopeless, in any case. These safes are double-layered eighth-inch tempered steel. There is no breaking these."

Lady Charlotte peered thoughtfully at the safes for some moments, and finally nodded. "Very well," she said, "I shall take one. Please have it loaded into my carriage outside."

"I beg pardon?"

"I said I shall take one safe such as these I see here. It is precisely what I need."

"Madam," Mr. Chubb said patiently, "we must construct the safe to your order."

"You mean you have none for sale?"

"None already built, no, Madam, I am very sorry. Each safe is specially built to the customer's specifications."

Lady Charlotte appeared quite irritated. "Well, can I have one tomorrow morning?"

Mr. Chubb gulped. "Tomorrow morning--- um, well, as a rule, Madam, we require six weeks to construct a safe. On occasion we can manufacture one as quickly, as four weeks, but---"

"Four weeks? That is a month."

"Yes, Madam."

"I wish to purchase a safe today"

"Yes, Madam, quite. But as I have attempted to explain, each safe must be built, and the shortest time---"

"Mr. Chubb, you must think me an utter fool. Well, I shall disabuse you of the notion. I have come here for the purpose of buying a safe, and now I discover you have none to sell---"

"Madam, please---"

"---but on the contrary will construct one for me in only a month's time. Within a month the brigands of the neighborhood will very probably have come and gone, and your safe will not in the least interest me, or my husband. I shall take my business elsewhere. Good day to you, sir, and thank you for your time."

With that, Lady Charlotte swept out of the firm of Chubb's. And Mr. Laurence Chubb, Jr, was heard to mutter in a low voice, "Women."

It was in this fashion that Pierce and Agar learned that the overhaul did not include changing the locks on the safes. That was, of course, all they cared about, and so they made their final preparations for the robbery, which they would carry out on May 22, 1855.