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Authors: Carola Dunn

Rattle His Bones

BOOK: Rattle His Bones
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My thanks are due to John Thackray, Archivist of the Natural History Museum in London, who patiently answered my many questions and showed me around the private areas of the museum; also to his assistant, Clare Bunkham. Errors, omissions, additions, and alterations are all mine.
Dr. (later Sir) Arthur Smith Woodward is the only genuine museum staff member amongst my cast of characters. I trust I have done him justice. (The Director in 192 3 really was Sir Sidney Harmer, but Daisy—perhaps fortunately—never meets him.) All other employees of the museum, police, et al., except for movie special-effects man O'Brien, are entirely fictional.
The road it is rough, and the hearse has no springs,
And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings—
Rattle his bones over the stones …
—THOMAS NOEL
July 1923
H
e hurried up the stairs from the basement and unlocked the door which kept the public from wandering down into the private areas of the museum. Pushing it open a crack, he heard voices in the North Hall. He froze, still as a rabbit mesmerized by a stoat, nerves aquiver.
“Regular maze down there, Sarge, innit?” The constable must have just come up the stairs on the other side of the hall. “Proper sinister, the pipes gurgling away up by the ceiling, and all them pillars with their shadows moving when you walk past with your torch. And all full of bones and dead things—ugh! Like a cata-thingummy.”
“Catacomb. It's live people you're looking out for, Jones. Anyone in the offices downstairs?”
“Nah, they don't work late, mostly, these light summer evenings.”
“There's a bloke in one of the Bird Rooms, stuffing a bird of Paradise. Lovely thing.”
“One of them taxi-whatsits,” suggested the constable.
“-Dermists. Taxidermists. Couple of chaps in the libraries, too, noses stuck in their dusty old books. Me, I'd rather be outdoors smelling the roses.”
“Wouldn't mind being out on the beat, nice day like this.”
“No kettle on the beat,” observed the sergeant. “Let's go brew up. Twitchell'll be down in a minute.”
Their voices receded, accompanied by the clink of the sergeant's great bunch of keys and the thunk of police boots on the mosaic floor, echoing hollowly in the vast spaces of the museum.
The listener hesitated. The third policeman, Constable Twitchell, would probably descend by the main staircase after completing the night's first patrol of the upper floors. Even if bad luck brought him down these stairs, he would think nothing of meeting another late worker, like the taxidermist in the Bird Room, the readers in the libraries.
Still, better not to be seen unnecessarily. He stayed where he was, ears straining for a third set of footsteps.
Only his own breath soughed in his ears. The massive Victorian building absorbed even the heavy tread of three policemen, relaying no hint of their whereabouts. Two would have reached the police post by the main entrance by now, but had the third come down to join them yet? Vital minutes ticked away while he listened.
Surely Twitchell
must
have gone down the main stairs by now.
Rubber-soled shoes silent on the stone steps, he sped upward again. Now he was committed, at least to the extent that he had no legitimate purpose above the ground floor.
Slightly out of breath, he reached the first floor. Instinct shrieked, “Go with care!” but to be caught peeking around the corner would instantly arouse suspicion. He stepped out boldly. No one in sight in the long gallery ahead.
As he passed the head of the main staircase, keeping well back, he glanced that way. From the corner of his eye, he
caught a glimpse of a still figure standing on the broad half-landing. His heart jumped.
Sir Richard Owen did not stir, being bronze. But footsteps sounded down in the Central Hall.
The tread of heavy boots, not a scholar's shoes—all three coppers accounted for. Tempted nonetheless to look over the balustrade to make sure it was the third policeman, not a stray museum employee, he made himself move on along the window side of the gallery. Between him and temptation marched a silent, motionless parade of giraffes and okapi.
Four steps up, then the stairs to the second floor, bridging the central hall, rose on his right. The heavy black wrought-iron gate to the Mineral Gallery barred the way to his left, and Pettigrew's private office lay straight ahead. The Keeper of Mineralogy had just started his annual fortnight's holiday.
It was a shadowy corner. He had not reckoned on being silhouetted against the frosted glass door-panes, all too visible from the giraffe gallery and the stairs.
Crouching below the level of the glass, he fumbled in his trouser pocket for the key.
His discovery that the key of the Keeper of Geology's office also opened Pettigrew's directly above had been purely fortuitous. He happened to be present that day last year when Dr. Smith Woodward, having—typically—mislaid his own keys, borrowed Pettigrew's. From that chance had developed his present brilliant plan. The old man's forgetfulness of anything not directly concerning his beloved fossils had made it easy to borrow the keys and have the important ones copied.
The door-key copy grated in the lock and his heart stood still. He glanced round, but only
Giraffa camelopardalis
watched him, with a glassy-eyed stare.
The key clicked round. Taking out his handkerchief, he
wiped his suddenly damp forehead, then used the cloth to turn the door-handle. The door swung open. He stepped through and closed it quickly behind him …
… Leaving the blasted key on the outside.
That was the sort of stupid mistake which could get him caught. All the same, he decided to risk leaving it there for a few minutes. He must find Pettigrew's keys very soon, or he might as well give up. Of course, if the Keeper of Mineralogy had taken them home, the whole thing was off.
As he put away the handkerchief and took out his light summer gloves, he scanned the spacious room. The two large windows admitted plenty of light in spite of the trees outside and the late hour.
On a row of pegs behind the door hung a silk scarf in a brown and blue Paisley pattern. The keys were not conveniently hanging next to it, nor under it—he checked.
On a work-bench to his left, under the east window, lay various tools and a dozen or so pieces of rock, of varied size and colour but undifferentiated and uninteresting in his eyes. Pettigrew apparently liked the view of trees and the omnibuses, hansoms, motor taxis, and horse-drawn vans in the Cromwell Road, for the government-issue pedestal desk faced the south window. Against the right-hand wall stood a filing cabinet and a bookcase.
Desk, cabinet, and bookcase, appropriate to the grade of keeper, matched Smith Woodward's in the office below. Whether they were keyed alike he was about to discover.
He crossed to the desk and pulled open the centre drawer to find paper, envelopes, a book of penny-ha'penny stamps, blotting paper to fit the pad on top. The first drawer on the left held an old fountain pen with a cracked cap, a bottle of blue-black ink and another of India ink, a paper knife, and other odds and ends. The second drawer down was locked.
Smith Woodward's desk key turned in the lock. So much for government standardization! The drawer slid open to disclose a plethora of keys.
For a moment he stared, scarcely able to believe his luck. There they lay, the big iron key for the iron gate and three rings of small brass ones for the display cases. The latter even had tags with the numbers of the cases they opened.
He began to feel a sense of inevitability. Everything seemed to conspire to help him: the keys falling into his hands; Pettigrew's absence when short summer nights made a betraying torch unnecessary; one lucky coincidence after another. Dame Fortune favored those with the guts, brains, and patience to take advantage when opportunity offered.
Long patience had made tonight possible, but for the next few hours time was of the essence. He picked up the keys, stuffed all but the large one in his pockets to stop them jangling, and hurried to the door.
Now caution was called for. He had crossed the line; if he was caught coming out of Pettigrew's office laden with Pettigrew's keys no excuse would serve, his goose was well and truly cooked. Opening the door a crack, he peered through the narrow gap.
The view was singularly uninformative. Eyes shut, head cocked, he listened. His heart thundered, but no whisper of external sound reached him.
Pull the door open; step through; close it, gently; lock it and take the key. He tiptoed ten long yards to the iron gate. Set in a grid which filled the archway, it was backed by a wood and glass screen and door which kindly limited the view of the interior, as did the double row of rectangular pillars within.
The clumsy key turned silently. Not a creak escaped the well-oiled hinges. And the door opened with equal ease. He was inside the Mineral Gallery.
He cast a long, yearning look at the Colenso diamond, but a hundred and thirty carats of crystallized carbon was too conspicuous, too recognizable. The rest of the diamonds he passed with a disdainful sneer. They were all paste copies of famous stones, including the uncut Cullinan, a monster at over three thousand carats.
Without a jeweller's lens, the heavy lead glass invented centuries ago by Herr Strasser was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. They were all inanimate objects, unchanging, never alive, their value artificial, one very like another in all but size. Studying them taught nothing. What did it matter whether the public gaped at genuine gems or counterfeits?
Moving on, he opened case after case. His inside breast-pockets filled with amethysts, sapphires, garnets, topazes, aquamarines, rubies, emeralds. Kind of Sir Arthur Church to bequeath his splendid collection to the museum!
He hesitated over the Transcarpathia ruby. It was an uncommonly large stone, famous half a century ago, but few colored jewels achieved the lasting notoriety of the largest diamonds. Weight for weight, though, a large ruby was more valuable than a diamond. He pocketed it.
Under the arch to the meteorite pavilion stood the case of precious stones mentioned in the Bible. Superstitiously, he left it untouched.
The rear exit was close by, with little-used stairs right down to the basement. He had the key to the door. Alas, the innocent wood was backed by another of solid steel, and only the police had the key to that. No choice but to return the way he had come.
He started back along the north aisle, glancing from side to side to check that he had closed all the cases. Had he locked the iron gate behind him? In a sudden flash of panic
he could not remember. The patrolling constable probably tried it every time he passed.
The constable might even now be on his way upstairs after his cup of tea. The gate was two hundred feet away, nearly the whole length of the gallery.
His immediate impulse was to run. Sweating again, he tried to force himself to be calm, to think. The urge for speed won.
Feet thudding dully, he loped towards the entrance. The keys clinked in his bulging pockets. Suspiciously bulging—so many details he had not envisioned! But it would take too long to return Pettigrew's keys to his desk.
As he approached the entrance he slowed, and stopped, panting, to one side of the arch. Craning his neck, he could see through the glass that the gate was still closed. No police countenance frowned back at him. Bent double, below the level of the glass panes, he crept forward and reached for the handle of the inner door.
He had locked it, quite unnecessarily. Dammit, he cursed under his breath, what a waste of time! Fumble for the key, open a crack to listen, reach through to try the gate.
It, too, was locked. All that panic for nothing.
The big key turned easily. A moment later he was out, feverishly locking door and gate behind him while straining for the sound of boots.
The nearest stairs were in a nook just around the corner from Pettigrew's office. He had avoided them before because, on the ground floor, they opened to Smith Woodward's office, right beside the police post. Now, time slipping away, he unlocked the door at the top and tiptoed down the narrow, gloomy stairwell, heart in mouth, clutching his pockets to keep the keys quiet.
On the ground floor, only a wall and a yard or two separated him from the police.
Back in the basement at last, in the dim light beneath grumbling pipes, he leant weakly against the yellow brick wall and blotted his brow. He would not use those nerve-racking stairs again.
Just a little farther, to the staff cloakrooms, and he was safe. He had left his hat and attaché case there. From here on, he was just a late-working employee on his way home.
As on any ordinary day, he left the museum by a door at the rear of the basement. The usual staff entrance, it was secured with a Yale mechanism. Every employee had a key, though he did not need one to exit. He walked along the arcade to Queen's Gate and turned south towards South Ken tube station. There, he showed his season ticket at the barrier, and plunged into the depths, breaking into a trot as a subterranean rumble warned of a train's approach. Emerging onto the platform in its chasm, open to the darkening sky, he automatically turned to the west-bound side.
Then he remembered he was not going home. He had told them he had been invited to give a lecture in Cambridge and it would be easier to stay the night there. Swinging round, he made for the east-bound platform. The first train to come in was on the Inner Circle, but he took it anyway. The sooner he escaped the vicinity of the museum, the happier he would be. He could change at Mark Lane onto a District line train to Whitechapel.
 
A rosy dawn stained London's sooty skies when he returned to Kensington. He was tired and hungry—he had felt conspicuous enough walking down the street among the bustling Hebrew population of Whitechapel without venturing into
one of their cafés to dine. Besides, he had no idea what sort of weird, foreign concoctions they ate.
BOOK: Rattle His Bones
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