The Heidelberg Jaw

For Miss Briscoe the antique had a fatal fascination, which fact explains the deplorable anthropological antics of this devastating lady from New England

ANTHONY GIBBS November 15 1936

The Heidelberg Jaw

For Miss Briscoe the antique had a fatal fascination, which fact explains the deplorable anthropological antics of this devastating lady from New England

ANTHONY GIBBS November 15 1936

The Heidelberg Jaw

For Miss Briscoe the antique had a fatal fascination, which fact explains the deplorable anthropological antics of this devastating lady from New England


IN FEBRUARY of last year a small figure appeared in the eastern sky above Heidelberg, swooped round into a perfect landing, seized a suitcase and started grimly forward toward the sheds. This was Miss Briscoe. Though Julian Playfair is generously regarded as the brightest and altogether most capable of the young English biologists. Miss Briscoe was his aunt. Miss Briscoe was an American. Miss Briscoe was small and, somehow, birdlike. She was. to use her own description, vital. She wore a black velvet thing round her neck, indescribable garments of a vaguely sensible nature, a dangling assortment of bulky apparatus suspended by straps, and a pair of highly polished and wide-awake spectacles through which her beady brown eyes appraised mankind and the world about her with unfailing interest.

Miss Briscoe was interested in everything. She was interested in the Pyramids, peace, the ancient Assyrians, the civilization of the Incas, Praxiteles. Gothic cathedrals, the history of the Jews, and above all her young nephew, Julian. When Miss Briscoe had taken flight for the last time and “gone,” as her expression was, “aloft." it was her firm intention to bequeath Julian the increment from the shoe business which she owned in New England. In the meantime she spent it in going places.

During the fifteen years since 1918, when the habit first overcame her, she had gone more places than one could have believed possible. From each and every one of them she mailed him a postal card. Her sparrowlike and efficient little figure obtained a world-wide currency. Her spectacles and her beady brown eyes were apt to appear over the counter of steamship offices in Hawaii or Alexandria at any moment. Her penetrating, kindly voice could be heard haranguing the clerks in travel agencies from Moose Jaw to Mexico City, from Oklahoma to Peiping, or Warsaw, calling them “young man” and speaking knowledgeably of round trips and stop-overs. No matter in what habitable, semi-habitable or uninhabitable part of the globe the business of the white man’s burden took you. whether down the Strand or the Bund in Shanghai or the second on the left in Omsk, you were practically certain to run into Miss Briscoe, unable to speak one word of any tongue but American English, surrounded by brigands or naked savages or uniformed porters, on her way to mail a postal card to her nephew.

Miss Briscoe was an inveterate mailer of postal cards. It could be calculated exactly how much the travel agencies, steamship companies, State railways and Government post offices of the world collected annually in tribute from Miss Briscoe, for it corresponded precisely with the increment from her shoe factory. Thus Julian, her nephew, in his lodgings in Paddington, accepted them as an intimate part of life. About every third breakfast he received one, from the S.S. Berengaria, from Addis Ababa, ioronto, Istambul and Valparaiso:

“Having a fine time. My bedroom is marked with a cross.”. . . “We hope to hit the Gulf of Corinth Thursday.”. . . “Stopping over at Wadi Haifa till the next dahabieh. This is not ours but one like it.”. “My.

these sampans certainly are slow. Mail me c/o American Express, ’Frisco.”. . . “Chat with Mustapha Kemal here, yesterday. Hope to take Knossos on the round trip. He has only one wife.”. . . “This is where Jesus lived. Interesting but not v. clean.”

JULIAN PLAYFAIR was amused and J pleased by these evidences of her intellect and endeavor. He was a very large man who wrote with an immense stylo the size of a small cricket stump in a flowing manner and with some sense of humor. He had noticed of late, however, a regrettable tendency on the part of Miss Briscoe to send more concrete and tangible evidences of her encyclopedic activity. Thus he had received a small segment of eggand-dart pattern from a frieze of the Acropolis. This was followed about a month later by a chipping from the step-pyramid at Sakkara, and shortly after by a louts plaque from the casino at Monte Carlo, a small corner of the superstructure of the Majestic, and finally and perhaps most heinous of all, the A.A.A. sign from President Roosevelt’s private car.

He wired to her, by week-end telegram:

“My dear aunt. Distressed to observe strong symptoms of kleptomania. Was it for this the cell evolved from the original protoplasm?”

To which she replied:

“You should worry stop Reckon to hit the Santa Fé trail Tuesday stop Who cares about the proto-what-is-it anyway? stop Mail me care of American Express, Hong Kong.”

So the first two sentences Miss Briscoe uttered when she descended upon Heidelberg last February were: “Show me the

way to the Heidelberg Jaw,” and “Where can I mail a jx)stal card to my nephew?”

The officials, who were practical men, a little in awe perhaps of this celestial apparition and the sounds it made, examined her cameras and her binoculars, turned over

She was ottered both.

“Fine,” said Miss Briscoe. “How’s the situation in Germany right now?”

“Bad,” said the young man.

“Isn’t that too bad !” exclaimed Miss Briscoe. She wrote on the back of a view of the Schloss: “Reckon to stop over here till Tuesday anyway. Situation in Germany bad this minute;” and asked: “What do you know about this

Heidelberg Jaw?”

“It is very old,” said the young man. “One, two tree million years."

her sensible clothes and her sensible toothbrushes and a great many of her sensible pamphlets, ranging in subject from "The Short History of Phoenicia” to “The Astral Self." and bundled her into a motor car bound for the Schloss Hotel. In the Schloss Hotel Miss Briscoe said: “Good afternoon, young man. I want a room with a bathtub and a postal card to mail to my nephew.” “What do you know about that!” exclaimed Miss Briscoe. disbelievingly.

"Is true,” said the young man. “You wish to see? 'There is omnibus.” He poised a finger over a bell.

“Why, yes,” agreed Miss Briscoe. “That certainly sounds good to me.”

The finger descended. The bell pinged. A page-boy attended. Miss Briscoe was conducted to a bus and. sitting very upright and receptively, was bounced down the hill again and deposited at a small door between shops.

“You got me wrong, I guess,” said Miss Briscoe. "I want the Heidelberg Jaw.”

"Ja ja" cried the porters, nodding in unison. “Heidelberg Jaw.”


"Ja ja! Heidelberg Jaw.”

“Well!” said Miss Briscoe and. pushing the door, disappeared within. A few moments later she saw through a glass panel some museum cases and a skeleton or two, and added herself briskly to the collection. Miss Briscoe peered about her eagerly. Flint instruments, Roman pottery. . .

A young man stood silently behind her. “Bitte schön?” said the young man.

“Oh,” said Miss Briscoe. “Would you show me please, the Heidelberg Jaw7?”

The young man indicated a jaw in one of the cases. Miss Briscoe pounced upon it and absorbed it. “And you say,” she enquired breathlessly, “that that’s three millions of years old?”

“That,” replied the young man, “is copy.”

Miss Briscoe faced him. “Say!” she remarked. “Have I come around four thousand miles to this city to be shown a plaster cast?” She nodded and twinkled engagingly. “Come along now, young man ! You produce the genuine article. I just want to take one look at it, so as afterward I can write to my nephew, Julian Playfair, and say I saw—”

“He is nephew? Julian Playfair?” interrupted the young man, impressed. As a matter of fact he was a doctor of anthropology.

“Why certainly,” nodded Miss Briscoe. “Now come along now. Be a you-know-what.”

The doctor of anthropology smiled, took a key from his pocket, unlocked a drawer in his bureau and brought out a box which contained a few odd pieces of bone, some sealing-wax, some cotton wool, a small piece of pencil, and the Heidelberg Jaw.

Miss Briscoe gazed with delight. “And that’s — three — million — years — old?”

“Two-tree million,” said the doctor of anthropology with a shrug. “You excuse?”

Somew'here a bell was ringing.

Two or three million years! Miss Briscoe found it difficult to get around to that fact. Three million! Miss Briscoe looked over her shoulder. The young man could be heard telephoning in an adjoining chamber. She picked the jaw up, caressed it, ran the ball of her thumb over its teeth. Three million ! Quite suddenly Miss Briscoe began to look exceptionally innocent. She began to hum one of Sousa’s marches. The professor of anthropology still telephoned. He was saying: “Ja ja. . . ja ja. . .” which was the only word of German Miss Briscoe understood.

Miss Briscoe tiptoed to the door, gained the landing, peered through an adjoining door, caught the eye of the telephoning professor, nodded brightly, and went down the stairs to the waiting hotel bus.

The driver and the attendant greeted her with patriotic enthusiasm. “Heidelberg Jaw! Das ist wunderschön, nicht wahr?”

“You’re telling me,” said Miss Briscoe. “We’d better get right back to the hotel, I guess. Can I mail a packet from the hotel?”

Fortunately the word “hotel” is the same in all languages.

XJOW, by one of those remarkable coincidences without which no tale would ever be told, Miss Briscoe’s nephew, Julian, was reading, two nights later, at a meeting of the Royal Institution, a paper entitled “Second Thoughts on the Antiquity of Man.” It was Julian’s grandfather, old Erasmus of the same name, who had startled science and shocked Victorian self-complacency by starting the whole bad business in his Antiquity of Man, about man being descended from the apes. Previous to grandfather Erasmus, you may remember, the world had been very content to accept the calculation of Archbishop Ussher, that the date of creation was B.C. 4004. It seemed almost indecent, you may remember or you may have heard, to suppose that the Eminent Victorians were really not the Devonshire branch at all but unadulterated aixi, whereas to the irreverent neoEdwardians, studying their faces in the oleographs of the period, the fact seemed obvious. So that it was almost inevitable that, living in the later period, the younger biologists should exhibit a distinct tendency to return to the Garden of Eden, thus keeping well ahead of the times.

So Julian had expounded his theory.

“Everything, gentlemen,” he shouted, "has a beginning and an end, even the members of the Royal Institution. Why should we be so afraid to acknowledge our beginning? Why must we thrust it back through fabulous millions of years into antiquity in our efforts to run away from it? Are we ashamed of creation? Must we be like the maid-servant discovered red-handed with a broken cup who says, ‘Oh, mum, that happened a long time ago!’ As if that explained everything. I say there is not one single shred of evidence in support of evolution, not one single fossil of one single living thing halfway between one species and the next.” “The four-toed horse!” said a professor angrily.

“I give you the four-toed horse,” said Julian generously. “It proves nothing except that one horse—out of how many million?—once had four toes.”

“The Piltdown Skull!” urged another.

Julian smiled. “The Piltdown Skull is a fraud. The braincase of a monkey found twenty yards from the jawbone of a man. Is this the Missing Link?”

“The Heidelberg Jaw!” shouted another.

“The Heidelberg Jaw,” said Julian, “is simply a Heidelberg jaw. Come with me to any restaurant in Heidelberg and I’ll show you twenty Heidelberg jaws.”

“But the bone construction, man!”

“Typically German,” said Julian.

“Bosh !” cried two voices at once.

“It is not bosh !” cried Julian. ‘The Heidelberg Jaw is as human as your jaw or my jaw.”

“The jawbone of an ass,” said somebody quietly.

Julian lost his temper. Like so many large and genial men with a large and intolerant sense of humor, he became very red in the face when the unwonted laughter rippled down upon him from the surrounding horseshoe of bearded faces. A small voice told him that his reputation was at stake, that if he went too far he could be proved wrong. He went too far. He denied the authenticity of the Heidelberg Jaw in the rashest and most emphatic of terms. He almost denied its existence.

“It seems,” said the same quiet voice, “that we had better try and produce it.”

“Produce it then !” he shouted. He strode from the hall, flapped into somebody else’s overcoat, crammed the wrong hat on his head, emerged thunderously into Albemarle Street, and saw a newspaper placard which said “Theft of the Heidelberg Jaw.”

He stood stock still for perhaps fifteen seconds. Then he said roughly “Give me one!” jumped into a taxi, and with trembling hands tried to read the account by the light of electric signs flickering through the back window.

'“PHE ACCOUNT was elaborate, filled with hyperbole, and agreeably baffled. The essence of a first-class mystery is that it should be incapable of solution. The jaw was missing. No one knew how. The professor of anthropology who had charge of it was at a complete loss to explain. He kept it always locked up in his bureau. He had shown it once or twice to visitors during that day. The last visitor had been an American woman. He had been called for a few moments to the telephone. When he returned he had forgotten all about the jaw, had made some notes and gone back to the telephone again. When he came back the jaw had gone. The American lady had been identified and knew nothing about it. Site had been allowed to leave on the afternoon plane for Prague. The thing was an utter and insoluble mystery.

Continued on page 45

The Heidelberg Jaw

Continued from page 13—Starts on page 12

When Julian arrived home, his Austrian maid announced that the nobility were in the drawing-room. He crashed open the floor and found what he had exacted.

“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour, Mr. Playfair, but I’m representing the Daily—”

“Then you can go to the devil,” said Julian.

“Quite. I was wondering if you could give me anything about the Heidelberg Jaw.”

“I don’t know a thing about the Heidelberg Jaw.”

“How much is it worth?”

“How on earth do I know how much it’s worth? If it’s a fraud it isn’t worth anything. If it’s genuine it’s priceless.”


“Man. it’s unique! It’s not saleable. On the other hand—”

The Austrian maid entered, laid a postcard and a small parcel on the table, said “Bitte schon,“ and withdrew.

“A million?”

“If there was a museum rich enough to pay -certainly. That is. if it’s genuine.” “I understand, Mr. Playfair, that you say it isn’t genuine.”

“Yes. I do.”

“Thanks very much,” said the reporter, getting up. “I can’t see why anybody should want the thing myself. Unless, as you say, a museum, or some scientist who might find it a bit awkward. Don’t bother. I ’ll let myself out.” But he did not go. The eyes of both men rested for a moment on the small package with its German stamps.

“Dramatic.” said the repirter, “if thatcontained the jaw. ‘From an unknown well wisher.’ Well, as I said before, good night.” Julian reached out for the parcel and the postcard. The postcard bore on one side a colored photograph of the Schloss at Heidelberg and on the other the message “Reckon to hit Prague Tuesday or Wednesday. The situation in Germany is bad this minute.” The parcel contained a piece of paper on which was written “The enclosed is three million years old. Can you beat that?” and the Heidelberg Jaw.

For a few minutes he examined the thing, running his finger over it just as Miss Briscoe had done. Then, quite suddenly, he put his head back and gave himself up to a roar of Gargantuan mirth. For a full minute he lay back in his chair and bellowed with joy. Then he stopped abruptly, bounded up, slipped the jaw in his pocket and waited with bated breath. Someone was coming in.

But it was only the Austrian maid THE HUE and cry was sensational.

Never, since the theft of the Mona List) from the Louvre, had the press of the world fastened with such avidity on such an affair. There seemed so little reason for the theft. The amazing jaw of a half-manhalf-monkey cannot be melted down or broken up for dis[X)sal in the diamond market at Amsterdam. It would not raise three-and-sixpence in a pawnshop. The tiling had no value at all except for its scientific interest and, judged by those standards, its worth was incalculable. But to whom? The more this question was asked—and it was asked a hundred times a day in the papers and by insistent reporters who hung alxmt the Gloucester Road in purposeful droves—the more Julian Playfair realized that the only JXTson to whom it could conceivably be useful was Julian Playfair. For him alone, its disappearance was convenient. If it were found in his possession. . .He decided to get rid of it.

His first thought was to post it back to the museum. That meant denouncing Miss Briscoe, which lie was loath to do, particularly with the increment of the New England shoe factory in view. Anonymously then? He was afraid of the posts. These things could be traced hack to the sender. Nevertheless that was what he decided to do. Ile made a neat parcel of it, addressed it to the University of Heidelberg in German script, and boarded by night a train for the uttermost parts of Hendon.

The tiling made an uncomfortable bulge in his pocket. Indeed, according to his habit of putting words to everything suitable lor publication in article form, he wrote subconsciously the “Thing.” I lis face by now was familiar to every newspaper reader, but he hojxxl that in the uttermost parts of 1 lendon the sjiectacle of a large man posting a parcel might pass without comment. He came to a place called Colindale which he had never heard of. and made a sudden decision to make the attempt there. He left the train and with his hat pulled well down over his eyes, passed from the station and found himsell in a quiet street of suburban houses. About a hundred yards down it on the left, in the full light of a street lamp, stood a pillar box. He approached it at an abstracted run.

He ran right past it. lie had been convinced of the presence of a watcher in an i up|XT window. Then he swore at himself j lor a fat fool, appeared suddenly to recolj lect something, patted his pocket in the I agitated manner of an absent-minded man,

! and found that his pocket was empty, j For a moment he was stricken with I terror, and then he raised his great arms to . the Colindale sky in a splendid gesture of ! deliverance, inhaling deeply. He let his arms fall and walked briskly back to the station.

“This yours, mate?” said a breathless voice as he boarded a train.

He looked down and found the package in his hand.

“Left it on the seat. Tried to catch you,” cried the fellow, and was whisked away by the receding platform. The train beat a monotonous rhythm as it carried him and the Thing back to Baker Street, and so to Gloucester Road. That night he dreamed of it, grinning at him as if it wanted to make friends.

TAN THE next day he abandoned all thoughts of posting it, burned the parcel with its incriminating address, and carried the jaw about with him in a brown cardboard box done up with an elastic band labelled “Finder please return to British Museum,” for he dared not leave 1 it at the flat, with his Austrian maid admitting inquisitive reporters at all hours. In the course of that day he dropped it under a bench in Kensington Gardens, sauntered away, and had it returned by a small hoy in a blue jersey. Just before lunch, on pretense of waiting for a bus in Kensington High Street, he propped it in the corner of the window of John Barker’s, j and was pursued by a ix>rfect chorus of j “Oi’s” from a group of newspaper sellers,

! all of whom bore placards with different ; variations of the theme “Jaw mystery.

! Man detained.”

That afternoon he whistled upan urchin in Vicarage Gate with the intention of offering him a shilling to take it to the British Museum, suddenly remembered the j accurate powers of description of the adolescent mind, and was forced to say “All right. I don’t want you. Now go away again.” At tea time he attempted to leave it in the cloakroom at Victoria Station, but the man in charge said doubtfully, “Cost you sixpence. . . I wouldn’t if I was you. Little thing like that, you can carry it I about in your pocket.” So he carried it J about in his pocket. On the way out he bought a paper. The man detained was clearly recognizable from his photograph.

It was the man who had cried after him from the platform at Colindale.

That night in his dream the jaw seemed less friendly. It yapped at him.

1 On the following clay the net drew closer. I The man who liad been detained at Col indale was able to give a description which tallied remarkably with that of Julian Playfair. At breakfast time no newspaper was sufficiently careless of the laws of libel to remark this fact, though several went so far as to print the description in sinister juxtaposition to his own photograph. The sporting editions were able to announce that the doctor of anthrojxilogy at Heidelberg now distinctly recollected that the American lady had mentioned the name of Professor Julian Playfair.

That afternoon he took his great decision. He wrapped it up neatly once again, wrote on a piece of pajxr “After all, you pinched the thing, auntie. Now put it back,” and addressed it to Miss Briscoe, Poste Restante, Heidelberg. In the train it jumped out of his pocket in a crush of travellers at Charing Cross so that he had to grovel for it among stampeding feet, and when finally he did obtain a seat next to a very large lady the hard object between them created such noticeable discomfort that the lady suddenly turned and demanded “ ’Ere! What’s bitin’ you?” But he ]x>sted it all right, with lx)th hands, at a place called Hither Green.

He was only just in time. There was a man waiting for him when he got home, with a pointed mustache and strong lxx)ts and a sharp curiosity. He left with his • curiosity unsatisfied.

CO THE months rolled over. Miss Brisks coe, travelling about the world as brightly, as impenitently and as birdlike as ever, alighted here and there to write her nephew a postal card. She also mailed him a twig of the tree under which Buddha sat, a corner of one of the tiles from the summer palace at Peking, and the A.A.A. sign from President Roosevelt’s car.

Her nephew kept all of these things, finding that none of them barked at him in his sleep. The newspajxrs had long since abandoned the Heidelberg Jaw; but since the jaw was still missing and time removes the barriers of diffidence, Professor Julian Playfair found that his associates had not forgotten, and were indeed ' apt to take him aside and say. "1 say. Playfair, what ivas the explanation of that Heidelberg Jaw business?”

He never told them, but one day he received a |X)stal card. It bore the legend, “Plan to hit Heidelberg Friday. The situation in Czechoslovakia has gotten worse.” Once again Miss Briscoe apjxxired. a dot in the Eastern sky, and swooped round to a perfect landing. Once more her glasses sparkled in the sun. her camera dangled, her bright eyes jxiered hither and thither with unquenchable interest.

"Well and say,” said Miss Briscoe, “and how’s old Heidelberg? Still jogging along,

I guess? That’s line. I wonder if you’ll be so good as to have this baggage checked right through to the Schloss Hotel.”

The customs men shrugged their shoulders uncomprehendingly. but they did what she asked of them none the less.

“Yes, sir,” continued Miss Briscoe, "I’m glad to lx1 hack. 1 reckon the city of Heidelberg has come to mean kind of home to me. I don’t often feel that way, but Heidelberg seems to get me down somehow. Say, young man, would you mind directing me to the main postal office?”

The young man in question could not direct her so lie accompanied her, together with several other young men. On whatever part of the world’s surface, Miss Briscoe was accustomed to being so accompanied, vociferously, mult ilingually, herself keeping up a chatter of bright American English.

Miss Briscoe marched straight in and siiici to the first official she saw: "Ilave you any mail for Briscoe?”

It is remarkable how all races and creeds of men, though they could not talk to Miss Briscoe, seemed to understand her wants.

If only the time machine existed, Miss Briscoe would obtain a postal card at the Tower of Babel. They handed her a small , cardboard box.

Miss Briscoe was astonished when she saw the Heidelberg Jaw. “Well!” exclaimed Miss Briscoe, “can you beat that?” and posted it back to her nephew.