Chapter 04 The Unwitting Accomplice

Mr. Henry Fowler, forty-seven, knew Edward Pierce in rather different circumstances. Fowler admitted freely that he had little knowledge of Pierces background: the man had said he was an orphan, and he was clearly educated, and well-to-do, keeping a most excellent house, which was always fitted out with the latest appurtenances, some of them exceedingly clever.

Mr Fowler remembered particularly an ingenious hallway stove for warming the entrance to the house. This stove was in the shape of a suit of armor, and functioned admirably. Mr. Fowler also recalled seeing a pair of beautifully constructed aluminum field glasses covered in Moroccan leather; these had so intrigued Mr. Fowler that he had sought a pair of his own and was astounded to discover that they were eighty shillings, an exorbitant price. Clearly, Pierce was well-heeled, and Henry Fowler found him amusing for an occasional dinner.

He recalled, with difficulty, an episode at Pierce's home in late May, 1854. It had been a dinner of eight gentlemen; the conversation chiefly concerned a new proposal for an underground railway within London itself. Fowler found the idea tedious, and he was disappointed when it was still discussed over brandy in the smoking room.

Then the topic of conversation turned to cholera, of late an epidemic in certain parts of London, where the disease was snatching up one person in a hundred. The dispute over the proposals of Mr. Edwin Chadwick, one of the Sanitary Commissioners, for new sewer systems in the city and for a cleaning-up of the polluted Thames, was profoundly boring to Mr. Fowler. Besides, Mr. Fowler had it on good authority that old "Drain Brain" Chadwick was soon to be discharged, but he was sworn not to divulge this information. He drank his coffee with a growing sense of fatigue. Indeed, he was thinking of taking his leave when the host, Mr. Pierce, asked him about a recent attempt to rob a gold shipment from a train.

It was only natural that Pierce should ask Fowler, for Henry Fowler was the brother-in-law of Sir Edgar Huddleston, of the banking firm of Huddleston & Bradford, Westminster. Mr. Fowler was the general manager of that prosperous enterprise, which had specialized in dealings in foreign currency since its founding in 1833.

This was a time of extraordinary English domination of world commerce. England mined more than half the world's coal, and her output of pig iron was greater than that of the rest of the world combined. She produced three-quarters of the world's cotton cloth. Her foreign trade was valued at 700,000,000 annually, twice that of her leading competitors, the United States and Germany. Her overseas empire was the greatest in world history and still expanding, until ultimately it accounted for almost a quarter of the earth's surface and a third of her population.

Thus it was only natural that foreign business concerns of all sorts made London their financial center, and the London banks thrived. Henry Fowler and his bank profited from the general economic trends, but their emphasis on foreign-currency transactions brought them additional business as well. Thus, when England and France had declared war on Russia two months previously, in March, 1854, the firm of Huddleston & Bradford was designated to arrange for the payment of British troops fighting the Crimean campaign. It was precisely such a consignment of gold for troop payments that had been the object of a recent attempted theft.

"A trivial endeavor," Fowler declared, conscious he was speaking on behalf of the bank. The other men in the room, smoking cigars and drinking brandy, were substantial gentlemen who knew other substantial gentlemen. Mr. Fowler felt obliged to put down any suspicion of the bank's inadequacy in the strongest possible terms. "Yes, indeed," he said, "trivial and amateurish. There was not the slightest chance of success."

"The villain expired?" asked Mr. Pierce, seated opposite him, puffing his cigar.

"Quite," Mr. Fowler said. "The railroad guard threw him from the train at a goodly speed. The shock must have killed him instantly." And he added, "Poor devil."

"Has he been identified?"

"Oh, I shouldn't think so," Fowler said. "The manner of his departure was such that his features were considerably--- ah, disarrayed. At one time it was said he was named Jack Perkins, but one doesn't know. The police have taken no great interest in the matter, as is, I think, only wise. The whole manner of the robbery speaks of the rankest amateurism. It could never have succeeded."

"I suppose," Pierce said, "that the bank must take considerable precautions."

"My dear fellow," Fowler said, "considerable precautions indeed! I assure you, one doesn't transport twelve thousand pounds in bullion to France each month without the most extensive safeguards."

"So the blackguard was after the Crimean payments?" asked another gentleman, Mr. Harrison Bendix. Bendix was a well-known opponent of the Crimean campaign, and Fowler had no wish to engage in political disputes at this late hour.

"Apparently so," he said shortly, and was relieved when Pierce spoke again.

"We should all be curious to know the nature of your precautions," he said. "Or is that a secret of the firm?"

"No secret at all," Fowler said, taking the opportunity to withdraw his gold watch from the pocket of his waistcoat, flick open the cover, and glance at the dial. It was past eleven; he should retire; only the necessity to uphold the bank's reputation kept him there. "In point of fact, the precautions are of my own devising. And if I may say so, I invite you to point out any weakness in the established plan." He glanced from one face to the next as he talked.

"Each gold bullion shipment is loaded within the confines of the bank itself, which I hardly need mention is wholly impregnable. The bullion is placed in a number of ironbound strongboxes, which are then sealed. A sensible man might regard this as protection enough, but of course we go much further." He paused to sip his brandy.

"Now, then. The sealed strongboxes are taken by armed guard to the railway station. The convoy follows no established route, nor any established timetable; it keeps to populous thoroughfares, and thus there is no chance that it may be waylaid on the road to the station. Never do we employ fewer than ten guards, all trusted and longstanding servants of the firm, and all heavily armed.

"Now, then. At the station, the strongboxes are loaded into the luggage van of the Folkestone railway, where we place them into two of the latest Chubb safes."

"Indeed, Chubb safes?" Pierce said, raising an eyebrow. Chubb manufactured the finest safes in the world, and was universally recognized for skill and workmanship.

"Nor are these the ordinary line of Chubb safes," Fowler continued, "for they have been specially built to the bank's specifications. Gentlemen, they are on all sides constructed of one-quarter-inch tempered steel, and the doors are hung with interior hinges which offer no external purchase for tampering. Why, the very weight of these safes is an impediment to theft, for they each weigh in excess of two hundred and fifty pounds."

"Most impressive," Pierce said.

"So much so," Fowler said, "that one might in good conscience consider this to be adequate safeguard for the bullion shipment. And yet we have added still further refinements. Each of the safes is fitted with not one but two locks, requiring two keys."

"Two keys? How ingenious:"

"Not only that," Fowler said, "but each of the foot keys--- two to each safe--- is individually protected. Two are stored in the railway office itself. A third is in the custody of the bank's president, Mr. Trent, whom some of you may know to be a most reliable gentleman. I confess I do not know precisely where Mr. Trent has sequestered his key. But I know of the fourth key, for I myself am entrusted with guarding it."

"How extraordinary," Pierce said. "A considerable responsibility, I should think."

"I must admit I felt a certain need for invention in the matter," Fowler admitted, and then he lapsed into a dramatic pause.

It was Mr. Wyndham, a bit stiff with drink, who finally spoke up. "Well, damn it all, Henry, will you tell us where you have hidden your bloody key?"

Mr. Fowler took no offense, but smiled benignly. He was not a serious drinking man himself, and he viewed the foibles of those who overindulged with a certain modest satisfaction. "I keep it," he said, "about my neck." And he patted his starched shirt front with a flat hand. "I wear it at all times, even while bathing--- indeed, even in my sleep. It is never off my person."

He smiled broadly. "So, gentlemen, you see that the crude attempt of a mere child from the dangerous classes can hardly be of concern to Huddleston & Bradford, for the little ruffian had no more chance of stealing that bullion than I have of--- well, of flying to the moon."

Here Mr. Fowler allowed himself a chuckle at the absurdity of it all. "Now, then," he said, "can you discern any flaw in our arrangements?"

"None whatsoever," said Mr. Bendix coldly.

But Mr. Pierce was warmer. "I must congratulate you, Henry," he said. "It is really quite the most ingenious strategy I have ever heard for protecting a consignment of valuables."

"I rather think so myself," Mr. Fowler said.

Soon thereafter, Mr. Fowler took his leave, arising with the comment that if he were not soon home to his wife, she should think him dallying with a judy--- "and I should hate to suffer the pains of chastisement without the antecedent reward." His comment drew laughter from the assembled gentlemen; it was, he thought, just the right note on which to depart. Gentlemen wanted their bankers prudent but not prudish; it was a fine line.

"I shall see you out," Pierce said, also rising.