Who Stole the Organizer’s Handbag ?
How an Innocent Scribe was an Object of Suspicion for Several Months During a Fierce Political Campaign and Barely Escaped the Clutches of the Law.
By F. H. Dobbin, Illustrated by W. F. Ralph
IT was that delicious half-hour after the paper had gone to press. The news staff lounged around in easy attitudes. To-day’s paper was a thing of the past and to-morrow a long way off. The knife-hacked table was littered with a debris of proofs, clippings and discarded copy which no one offered to clear away. The hump, hump of the duplex press came through the building with a subdued shudder as the cylinders took the impression. The ruck and clamor of the route and newsboys had ceased, andthrough the open window came the tinkling of a hammer as the tinsmith across the alley rounded up the rim of a boiler. It was good to be there, resting where the strenuous work of the day was shut out of sight and merged in a recollection of many days similar.
The sporting man was making one more search in his private drawer for a cherished Harry K. Thaw cigar, a gift from a city friend. The sporting man had been saving it as a souvenir but some fiend, lacking soul and sentiment, had swiped it. At the recollection of such perversion of friendship and greed of opportunity the s.m. grumbled afresh, nor was he mollified when told that precedent and practice both admonished that a cigar should be smoked on the spot and not hoarded. Scoops for the paper had been noted, scoops against ignored, and as the fire of jocular recrimination ran low the voice of the city editor broke in.
“You fellows made a close squeak of it in that under suspicion article.
We’ll have to be careful. Just now the law is being pulled over with the object of protecting the great public against the papers. Papers up west had to buck up a cool five thousand to settle the alleged damages after the gentle defendant got free.”
“But this,” said the police reporter, “is a sure thing. It was taken from the blotter at the police office. The chief wrote it himself. If we are wrong, so are the police.”
“That’s just your innocence, sonny,” was the reply. “If the police were held accountable for everything they do that is not exactly verified, then we would not have policemen, for no man would take the risks at the salary. The law protects the policeman, even if he does make a mistake, but it doesn’t the paper that prints the mistake after the policeman perpetrates it. The law says we have no blamed business, until the case, whatever it may be, is proved, to print anything. Once proved we have the facts. All else is only suspicion or surmise except in some case where the offender is taken red-handed, so to speak.
“Suspicion is suspicion only and utterly useless as a foundation for an action and risky for an arrest. I was under suspicion myself for about four months and came mighty near being arrested and jugged. Only my well-known probity and general austerity and the fact that my clothes weren’t too good for the walk in life to which I had been called kept the claws of the law off,” and the city editor, who was one of the most genial of men, smiled. The staff guffawed in chorus. Next day the boss got a telegram that made him sit up and take notice. “Where’s my handbag. Not here,” it said. As the bag had been left in my care I was expected to make good. I then learned, for the first time, that the bag held a whopping lot of political thunder, all the organizer’s papers and a lot of stuff that if it fell into the hands of the enemy would be nuts for the Tories and compromise the party to which it belonged. The boy was called and put through his facings. He vowed that he had taken the bag to the express office and left it on the counter. Said he saw no one at the time but thought a man was at back of the shop firing up a stove. Couldn’t say who it was. That and nothing more. Clearly the boy could not help me out. afternoon a delegation of three came to the office. The boss went out and the triumvirate put me through the fifth degree. They begged me to own up, to call the thing a joke and to bring out the bag. By Jove ! I wished I could. Of course I couldn’t produce the thing, and said so. Then they threatened, and at that I fired up and got good and mad. By George, there are some things a fellow won’t stand for, and I told them there was a special Gehenna for such as they, and consigned the three to the place. I defied either to make a move to have me arrested, and I sent the office boy for a friend of mine, a Tory lawyer, and shoved him into the fuss. He affecting to be righteously indignant, gave them a cotker of a roast. Gee, it was great. First bit of satisfaction I’d had for three days. The net results of the conference was five pretty mad men, of which I was one. My lawyer friend lost his temper and said a whole raft of things about the enemy that stung and they were almost ready to lick him. About the middle of the following month we had one of those congenial January thaws, culminating in heavy rain, falling at its worst just as we were shutting up shop. The boss and I lived along the same street and generally went home together. I had an umbrella, he nothing but a light overcoat As he had the farthest to go I offered him the parasol but he declined. I told him that on the safe in his room—the editorial room—was a waterproof that belonged to the canvasser, Gardiner, left there some time before, and that he might as well wear the garment and bring it back in the morning. The boss stepped in to get the coat, lifted it up to put it on and there in the corner, on the top of the safe, under the waterproof, was the organizer’s bag, locked and all its political thunder mute and still. The boss let a yell and we both whistled. Talk of puzzles. Here was tangible evidence of a lack of housecleaning and tidiness, for the coat had lain on top of the safe, to my knowledge, for nearly six weeks. Of course, we could not surmise how the grip came there, but called in the canvasser and put him through his facings. Was the coat his? Certainly. W^hen did he put it there? He couldn’t say, probI told you of the express office. All along I felt sure that the trouble began in that confounded shack, for there the bag was left and there it disappeared. Well, among the clerks or hands at this office was a young chap named Sanders. TTe’d been there for a couple of years and about the time of the concussion he made application for an express run, preferring that to office work. He got it, and he got me into trouble. Sure thing I haven’t forgiven him. Not being thoroughly weaned to staying away he would drop off to run over to the house to see the folks, between trains.
“Think I’ll tell you of it, as an object lesson, and ever since I have been slow in jumping to conclusions. Sort of keeps the brake on a man’s inclination to take things as they seem.
Along in ’85 or ’86, I forget which, I was doing time on a country weekly, decent paper, put up a good sheet. I had been working at tlie press end of the business and cultivated reporting on the side. Presently I was picked up to manage the concern in getting out the work, looking after orders and writing local stuff on off days, a fair enough contract with no time to spare. I made a lot of friends in the place and stood well with business men, though I was a Tory working on a Grit sheet. That didn’t count as I had nothing to do with the political stuff for the paper or the iniquities of the blamed party. Some of the hottest Reformers always looked on me as a sort of wolf in sheep’s clothing, and didn’t like it.
In the fall of the year, about November, we began to get ready for an election, for the local house, if I remember right. The boss was a whale at elections and just laid into it, column after column, in great shape. As usual, in these country places, he was the lock, stock and barrel of the party gun. Little went on that he was not consulted about. His political belief seemed to him a sort of religion. That’s where what happened struck him hard.
The campaign was in full swing and the paper was getting in some great licks—we referred to the opposition candidate as a respectable ironmonger, he being in the hardware business, and were dishing up pretty hot stuff, when about the end of the month (polling day was fixed for first week in December) a caucus of the faithful was held at the office and a stranger turned up and
joined the conclave. All along I’d kept as close as an oyster, minding my own business and doing no talking, though the whole printing business of that side of the campaign was going through my hands. I learned that the new comer was the organizer for the Grit party, a sort of political John the Baptist, with a dispensation and a wad. His name was Hilton, and he carried a bag, fairly big and corpulent. The conference over, he left early in the afternoon, drove to a village at the other side of the riding, where he stayed all night.
The next day was Thursday. On Thursday night we went to press,and being a weekly and wanting to get in the latest stuff, we worked to all hours before through. Just as the boss and I were going off to tea the organizer drove up to the door and said he was On his way to the station to catch the evening train for Toronto, due to go through at 6.15. The boss persuaded him to wait, to go and have supper and to stay all night, making the city next morning. So Hilton got out of the sleigh to walk home with the boss. He was reaching for the black hand bag when the boss suggested that it might as well be expressed on to the city at once, instead of lugging it about. Grabbing an office tag he addressed it to the organizer’s city address, tied it to the satchel and told me to see that it went forward on the jump. I hunted up one of the boys, packed him off with the grip, went home, came back and ran off the paper, as usual.
. The express people filed a blank. Had no record. Never saw the blamed bag. Knew nothing of it. Scouted the idea of any responsibility. Had no entry or way bill. Good as said I was a “liar.” Would have said so in fact and taken steps to prove it only it happened that the agent of the company, who did some insurance on the side, had in his hands an application which he had fished out of me, for some insurance and didn’t wish to lose it.
Early in the evening along came another wire as hot as they make them. “Get that grip here. No fooling,” was the song. Things getting serious. The organizer was crippled wanting his ammunition and papers, and before the telegraph office closed down we had a couple more, one of which, I afterwards learned, demanded my arrest and prosecution for larceny or theft, whichever was the worst and carried with it the heaviest penalty. A hurried meeting of the leaders of the party was called for the next morning and the thing talked over. Some of the hottest demanded for me transportation for life, only stipulating that the shipment be early and the destination as remote as possible. Others said that the thing to do was to shake me until my boots fell off and I disgorged the plunder. However, a couple of friends of mine
appeared, said they felt that even if the bag had disappeared, I was not guilty. They were promptly sat on and told that they were weaker vessels and accomplices. All this I found out afterwards but had no inkling of it at the time.
The boss, to his credit, had stood my friend, but even he began to wobble. I could see that he was
i .ightily worried and bothered with the jangling that he was getting from his political allies. He and I talked the thing over until we were tired and ready to fight, he ready to sack me and I ready to go. But we stopped short of that. In the
Next day the organizer came back. Wasn’t he mad. He gave the boss a piece of -his mind and then got ready to wire into me, but by that time I was getting used to the situation and wasn’t so abjectly on the apologetic as I had been. I had my lawyer come in, before the organizer got started to flay me alive, which he evidently wished to do. The lawyer wouldn’t let me say anything, which was quite to my taste, and pulling out a formidable looking document served notice on
r. Hilton that he had plunged himself into the delights of a suit for slander, that there were witnesses that he was barking up the wrong tree and a whole lot of hot talk, besides.
Do you know, I did not blame Hilton very much. He and his friends firmly believed that I had swiped the bag, and sent it to the city to the headquarters for the Tory party, and, when they looked into the papers each day they expected to find in print such stuff as the bag contained, and which I judged by this time must have been of some considerable importance. He stayed around the rest of the day, saw the political friends, held some conferences, but no one would
take the responsibility of going so far as to have me charged with the theft of the bag, for fear that, if the case failed of proof, I might come back on the layer of the charge for damages, and of course, the committee, not being incorporated, could not lay the charge as a whole.
Gradually the excitement simmered down, but I could see that I was the object of a thundering lot of suspicion and distrust. Gee, but I was uncomfortable. Didn’t go to church, missed many a game at the curling rink, shirked lodge and was looked on as a black sheep generally. Even the Tories, while on the whole, the party might profit by the general racket, were disposed to consider me a sneak and a traducer in the house of my friends.
Polling day came, and as if in just retribution, the Tories were whaled out of their boots. This seemed as if in just return for my pusillanimous conduct, so the Grits affirmed, and that settled it. They said that such dastardly practices— inherent in Tories—would do no good, and faith they had the result to blow about. Clearly my cake was dough. I felt that I would better get out—andleave the mystery —for it was so to me—unsolved and to remain one of those things no fellow can undèrstand. The boss objected. I was useful, and he said that the only bit of business comfort he had in his business life was, while I was with him, but the whole blamed town was suspicious and about a brigade of them resentful. Even the women took a hand and made remarks that set a fellow’s teeth on edge.
ably some weeks ago. He left it there, knew it was there but didn’t need it. Did he see the grip there when he slammed down the coat?
Thought he did, was not sure, but didn’t remember. Anyway, he was not going to be lugged into the thing, if he knew himself, and he
thought he did. Nothing definite in all this, and the general impression was that I had brought back the bag, put it where it was found and covered it up. So help me, Jeff Davis, I had not done so.
Now, if you fellows will dig back into such minds as you have you may recollect of some transaction that failed of explanation at the time but afterwards was cleared up on a perfectly reasonable basis. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, and I haven’t the gift of divination, and I didn’t make heroic efforts to unravel the tangle, but it unravelled itself. Most things come to those who wait—if they wait in the right place and long enough. It was six months before the thing cleared itself, and in so simple a way that we all laughed consumedly. And here is the story:
On the fateful evening that he left the train, he called at the express office to pass a word with the old hands, but found no one there. Seeipg the bag on the counter, and .getting a glimpse of the newspaper’s name on the tag, (the Toronto address was written on the blank side) he grabbed the confounded thing and, seeing from where he stood that the printing office was lit up^ he walked over with the bag in his hand. Being Thursday night the front door was open. No one was there. He walked in, threw the bag in the corner on top of the safe and went off home. He passed out
of the place on the next train and was in a distant part of the country during the fuss, and in fact, did not get back until the late spring. Now look at the oddity of the situation. In comes the canvasser, getting off the 6.15 train, goes to the office to report, finds it empty, sheds his waterproof, slams it on top of the bag on top of the safe and leaves the limits. It froze up the next morning, and he did not, as he had said, require the garment, and let it stay where it was.
In justice to myself we printed a paragraph, but it wasn’t received with applause. To-day there are those who firmly believe that I was a knave and a villain of rare accomplishment and that I should, at least, have been hanged, drawn and quartered.
So don’t be too ready to do things on the strength of suspicion. I’ve had my lesson and I don’t forget. Let us go and eat.