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Mary Binny was a very respectable thief.
She waited in a thicket of rhododendrons that graced the equally respectable garden of a house in Lowndes Square, listening for Amelia's signal. The garden was dark, unkempt and quiet, far from the crowds of people and flaring gas-jets of London town's main streets. It smelt of rain and roses.
A soft whistle split the air.
Mary wedged the toe of her right boot against the heel of the left, hopped on one leg as she removed the boot and then reversed the process. She tied the boots together by their laces, looped them around her neck and crossed the lawn barefoot, walking towards the back of the house.
The house was the last in a row of handsome red-brick properties. Like many of the other houses that faced the square, it had five stories. Unlike nearly all of the others, it was uninhabited. A blackened rope trailed from a second-story window, almost invisible in the twilight. Mary tied her carpet-bag to the rope and gave it a tug. The rope twitched as it rose, hoisting the carpet-bag high into the air. The tools inside had been carefully wrapped with cotton list and the bag made no sound as it ascended.
Mary watched it until it reached the window and made its way in a series of quivering jerks over the sill. When it had disappeared she took hold of the water-spout and began to climb. Her hands and bare feet pressed against the cast-iron pipe, hauling her body higher. She could feel sweat building beneath the cap she wore, pooling in the armpits of her grey frock-coat. She reached the second storey without looking down and transferred her grip to the windowsill. Amelia had already opened the sash for the carpet bag and Mary climbed in without a sound.
Amelia Hawkins lounged on a high armchair in the centre of the room. Like all the other furniture, the chair was shrouded in dust-sheets, solid, and ugly. Her head barely reached the chair back. "That went smoothly," she said.
Mary bent to unknot the rope from the handles of the carpet bag. "Hope the rest goes as well." She tucked an errant strand of hair beneath the rim of her cap and coiled the rope neatly into the bag. "Where's Anille?"
Amelia gestured elegantly at the front of the house. "She's in place." She uncrossed her bare feet and stood. "Let's go and have a look. He should be passing by about now."
Mary slid a hand inside her jacket and pulled out her pocket watch. It was an expensive silver model, much nicer than her unprepossessing boy's garb. The time read a quarter to seven. She whistled, stuffed the watch back inside her coat and walked across the bare floorboards to the front windows. Amelia followed her, humming 'The Ballad of Sam Hall' under her breath. They pushed the heavy velvet curtains to one side and looked out onto the square.
The orange glow of gaslights glinted from the cobbles two stories below. A blackbird sang in the tiny garden in the centre of the square. Amelia sang quietly under her breath. Her breath smelt of cloves and cheap bread.
"Oh, the parson he did come, he did come,
And the parson he did come
And he talked of Kingdom-Come
He can kiss my bleedin' bum
Damn his eyes!"
Mary shifted and elbowed the younger girl in the ribs. Amelia smiled, flashing white, undecayed teeth. She leaned against the window and pointed to the corner of Lowndes Square. "Look! Here he comes now!"
Far below a policeman turned the corner. He was an indistinct dark shape against the gleaming cobbles, his face shadowed by a top-hat. A blunt truncheon swung at his side. He walked leisurely along the street. Mary and Amelia looked down at the front of the house as a young woman stepped from the shelter of the overhanging first-floor balcony to join him. She wore a dark paletot trimmed with ribbons and her hair was dressed in the French style.
"Right on time," Amelia said happily.
Mary watched as the young woman swept out from the doorway. She appeared to be heading to the carriage-rank at the corner of the square. As she passed the policeman she swayed and placed one dainty hand on his sleeve for support. The policemen paused. Anille raised her free hand to her forehead and stumbled theatrically on the cobbles in a flurry of silk stockings and gauze. The policeman caught her elbow and Anille rewarded him with a brilliant smile.
"Parlez Francais, m'sieur?"
The policeman shook his head, mesmerized by the abundance of creamy flesh revealed as Anille's paletot slid slowly down towards the pavement, displaying her considerable personal attractions. She followed his gaze and blushed becomingly, hitching up her coat. Mary wiped steam from the windowpanes and watched as Anille stumbled for a second time. She recovered herself gallantly and clutched at the policeman's arm for support.
"I do not talk the English well," she said in a delicate French accent. "Monsieur, I am a maid for Lady Fanshawe for two week now. I apologize, oui. I feel dizzy often. It is malady of the blood. It very bad. I beg your assistance, m'sieur; there is a surgeon in the King's Road. Aidez-moi, monsieur?" She drew her shawl tightly around her shoulders. The sudden veiling of her assets appeared to shake the policeman from his stupor; he shook his head as if awaking from a dream and gallantly offered his arm.
"Of course, Madame."
"Ah, mademoiselle, of course..."
Anille graciously accepted the proffered arm. She trembled in the cool night air and gazed worshipfully at her protector. They promenaded along the street and disappeared around the nearest corner.
"That gives us half an hour." Mary said.
Amelia picked up the carpet-bag. "Just enough time,"
The locked internal doors of the empty building proved no obstacle to Amelia's deft fingers or to Mary's collection of picks. They proceeded up the back-stairs to the servants' quarters in the attics. A small cupboard pulled underneath one of the attic windows acted as staircase, and then they were on the roof. Far away, a set of church bells struck the hour, followed by a veritable cacophony of timepieces and the heavy chime of St Paul's from the east.
They paused when they reached the attic windows of number twelve Lowndes Square. There were three garret windows, set back from the gutter. All were locked. Mary set the carpet bag down quietly on the tiles. She unclasped the bag and took out a knife and a large sheet of Friar's Patent Sticking –plaster. Working quickly, she inserted the point of the knife in the corner of the window-pane and twisted until the glass cracked in a starlike pattern. Amelia held out the moistened sticking-plaster and Mary slapped it onto the glass. A final twist loosened the pane enough to slip it entirely from the frame, providing a convenient access to the window-locks.
Amelia knelt on the tiles and pushed the window open. "Brilliant!"
"We're not in yet." Mary said waspishly.
Amelia lowered herself slowly inside the room. "It's a good start," she whispered from the warm darkness. "Pass me the bag."
Mary handed her the carpet-bag and took hold of the window-sill with both hands. She went down faster than she had expected and hung from the sill by her hands for an agonizing second before her bare toes found the night-stand which Amelia had thoughtfully placed within her reach.
By the time she climbed to the floor, Amelia was already busy with the lock.
"Easy?" Mary whispered.
"Piece of cake. Key's still in. "Amelia said. She drew a long piece of bent wire from the pocket of her moleskin jacket and inserted it into the lock. The lock clicked and opened onto a narrow hallway, which somebody had attempted to brighten with cheap reproductions of religious prints.
"Don't fancy theirs much." Amelia muttered.
Mary regarded the rather lugubrious face of John the Baptist with alarm. "We've stolen uglier."
"Yes, but they were worth a bob or two."
"There'll be better downstairs."
"I hope so." Amelia hissed.
They proceeded to the third floor bedrooms without encountering a single servant, although Mary held a small ball of india-rubber attached to a string around her wrist. It was heavy enough to stun all but the largest assailants.
Amelia sniffed the air. "Gosh," she said, "Catch a sniff of that."
The clink of dinner dishes and the smell of roasting meat drifted up from downstairs. Mary ignored her growling stomach. She checked her watch and gave her partner a gentle shove between the shoulder-blades. "We'd better hurry," she said, "They'll finish dinner soon."
Amelia grimaced. She damped the hinges of the nearest door with an oil-soaked rag and swung it gently open. "Ugh."
The bedroom was opulently decorated in the height of modern fashion. Swags of purple silk hung from the ceiling. Red-and-purple rosettes decorated the silk wallpaper and the enormous mahogany bed. Mary, unimpressed, put the bag on the counterpane and lifted a set of skeleton keys from one pocket. She tried each one in the lock of the massive wardrobe while Amelia rifled the dressing-table.
"With all this money, who'd choose a bedroom like this?"
"Quiet!" Mary hissed as the lock yielded. She ignored the valuable, bulky furs and selected a small jewel-case from the back of the wardrobe. A hurried search revealed a genuine Kashmir shawl and a matching set of diamond studs. She piled them onto the bed. Amelia took a set of mother-of pearl brushes and a silver-mounted scent-bottle from the dressing-table. They wrapped each item carefully in cotton wadding and stowed them in a burlap sack which Amelia pulled from the pocket of her trousers.
"Onto the next," Mary said, impatient. She caught sight of her blacking-smeared face in the Venetian mirror hanging over the dressing-table and smiled. Totally unrecognizable, just as she intended; at least, unrecognizable as anything but a thief.
They emptied each of the third-floor rooms of their trinkets in no more than ten minutes. Mary had spent time studying sketched maps of the house's layout, and she easily located the back-stairs. The second floor stairs opened straight into a handsome drawing-room. A Geneva clock on the mantelpiece chimed half past the hour. Amelia eyed the clock, but Mary shook her head. "Too big." she said. Amelia laughed.
They divided up the labor in their accustomed manner. Amelia concentrated on stripping the room of its plate, while Mary picked the locks on the desk drawers. She helped herself to a brace of double-barreled pistols, a punch ladle, five dessert-spoons and three pounds twelve shillings in cash.
"Mary!" Amelia hissed.
Mary paused in her endeavors long enough to catch the sound of footsteps on the stairs. She flung her plunder in the top of the carpet-bag and dived behind the curtains. Amelia joined her a second later. The cold seeped through the window-glass and Mary's woolen coat to sit heavily against her back. She set one eye against the crack in the curtains.
The door opened and a butler entered the room, carrying a newspaper under his arm. He paused in front of the fire, lifted a poker and stirred the embers vigorously. Once the fire had been stoked to his satisfaction, he placed the newspaper on a low table close to the fire and left, closing the door behind him.
Mary exhaled. She listened as the butler's footsteps faded away and stepped out from behind the curtain. "How many servants?" she asked Amelia.
Her partner ticked them off on her fingers. "Seven, I think. The stable-boy and gardener live out, so we won't have to concern ourselves with them. Maybe a nursemaid."
"They haven't got children." Mary said.
"Not too many," Mary plucked a silver snuff-box from the mantelpiece and handed it to Amelia.
"Enough. What's the time?"
Mary glanced at the Geneva clock. "We've got ten minutes. Time for the masks."
Amelia nodded tensely, her knuckles white on the cloth bag. She reached into her voluminous trouser pockets and withdrew two black cotton masks. Mary tied the mask over her eyes and tugged her cap down. "How'd I look?"
"Like a thief." Amelia said, adjusting her own mask.
They took the back-stairs to the second floor linen closet and hid there, breathing in the fusty scent of starch. Presently they heard the clatter of ladies' heels on the grand staircase that backed onto the closet, followed by the more measured tread of leather-soled shoes as the gentry made their way up to the drawing-room. Mary closed her eyes and counted the steps. Lights flashed and spun on the inside of her eyelids. The rough mask prickled against her face.
"Four people," Amelia whispered. "One butler."
Mary inhaled, noting that her partner's jacket carried the distinct odor of sweat. Neither of them smelt nearly as sweet as the immaculate linens and Manchester cottons in their immediate surroundings.
"They're all upstairs," she said, opening the closet door a tiny crack.
Amelia shoved her sack of loot under a pile of pillow-cases. "All set."
Mary retrieved her tools from the carpet bag and slipped from the door. Methods of neutralizing the rest of the servants had been a topic of endless discussion over a draught of pale at the Company's headquarters in Kingsland Road. The layout of the house had provided a simple solution. She crept down the staircase, enjoying the sensation of the rich carpet on the soles of her feet. The mask puffed out over her mouth with each nervous breath. She reached inside the pocket of her waistcoat and extracted the false key that Amelia had spent so much time and effort on. It was a short and crude affair, manufactured with none of the French girl's usual finesse, and it was made to close a door, not open it.
She passed the exit to the dining-room and continued down the stairs. The servants had already cleared the table and swept the room. A furious clatter of dishes and voices raised in conversation came from behind a white-painted door at the bottom of the stairs. It was an inch or two ajar.
"Why," a refined voice said, "only the other day a lady friend of mine met a gentleman at Sam's, and yesterday morning they were married at St George's."
"That's an unusual case."
"Of course, you're more likely to die of consumption before you snag a handsome fellow."
Mary crept down to the door. She leant her shoulder against it and gently eased it closed. Holding her breath, she inserted Amelia's key into the lock. The key slid in easily and jammed. Mary worked a piece of wax in around the keyhole to make the door even more difficult to open and hastened up the stairs.
She had nearly reached the linen-closet when she turned the corner of the stairs and came face to face with a servant. It was hard to say who was more surprised.
The servant wore the livery of a footman and had the advantages of height and sex. Mary had the india-rubber ball in her pocket. She reached for it at the same instant as the footman took her by the shoulder. The ball thudded into his jaw. It was a poor shot, and the footman looked merely puzzled.
"Ouch." he said, and grabbed for her other shoulder. Mary twisted, and the footman grasped her cap instead of her jacket. He yanked the cap off and watched in amazement as her curly hair fell free of its tortoiseshell pins and flooded down onto her shoulders. He looked even more surprised when Amelia sneaked up behind him a second later and hit him over the head with a spanner.
Mary grabbed her cap from the footman's unresisting hand. "Thanks," she said, retrieving tortoiseshell pins from the carpet and ramming them back into her hair with the speed and accuracy of a royal dragoon.
Amelia reached down and laid two fingers against the pulse in the footman's neck. She straightened up with obvious relief, shaking the feeling back into her hands. "He's alive," she said. "Don't mention it. I told you those rubber things were useless."
Mary had just opened her mouth to reply when the doorbell chimed loudly.
"Anille." Amelia said.
"I'll open it." Mary said. She pulled off her mask and walked down the long hallway, pausing on the way to admire a selection of truly hideous classical paintings featuring rulers of the realm riding obese, beribboned stallions. She lifted the bolt and opened the door.
Anille stood hip-cocked on the doorstep, bright as a bird of paradise against the rainy, windswept streets. "Did you get everything?" she asked, shaking out an umbrella and placing it neatly in a stand made from a hollowed-out elephant's foot. Her French accent had all but disappeared.
Mary nodded. "Did you?"
"Mmm. I think he's sweet on me. He told me to call in at the station any time I liked." She smiled in satisfaction.
"Just as long as it's not in a professional capacity."
Anille placed one hand on her breast in a theatrical gesture. "I am,' she said, "as always, a model of discretion."
Mary grunted. Anille let out a little squeak of satisfaction as she spied Amelia walking carefully down the stairs behind them, balancing the carpet bag and a heavy sack. "Darling!" she squealed. "Did we do that well?"
"It's a pity we can't keep any of it." Amelia groaned.
Anille stripped off her kidskin gloves and took the bag. She smoothed the silken fringe of her paletot and eyed her partners cautiously. "We'll get a cut," she said, "Just don't get any of that blacking on my dress. New clothes'll eat up half our profits."
"They will if we buy them from the swell shops you like." Amelia grumbled as they walked up the stairs to the drawing-room. "Just once, I'd like to be the one wearing the fancy clothes."
"Really," Anille said mock-seriously, "A canary must have class. She sings-" here she gestured at her mouth, "she entices, and she ensnares. The best way to attract a man's attention is to show a little skin, and frankly, my dear, your personal attractions are not particularly ample."
Amelia stuck out her chest. "They're ample enough-"
Mary pressed a finger to her lips as they approached the drawing-room. "Shush!" she said, and pushed the door open.
It was a cozy enough scene. Two gentlemen conversed in low voices before a roaring fire. A pair of elegantly dressed ladies reclined beside the desk that Mary and Amelia had been rifling with such abandon a few scant minutes earlier. They did not appear to notice that anything was missing. All of them looked up as Mary, Amelia and Anille entered the room.
Anille curtseyed deeply. "Greetings, ladies." she said in a low, musical voice. "Sirs."
The tallest gentleman put down the paper he was reading. "What," he asked, "is the meaning of this? Where on earth is Finch? Who are these ruffians?"
Mary stepped forwards. "If Finch is the butler, sir, then he's locked up downstairs with the rest of your staff. Excluding the footman, who is likely waking in the linen closet even as we speak."
"By Jove!" his companion exclaimed. "You're a woman!"
Amelia curtseyed deeply. "A worthy observation, sir; perhaps you would like to know exactly what kind of women we are?"
Anille advanced on the men and pressed a small business card into their unresisting hands. The cards were printed pasteboard, engraved tastefully with the epigram:
Expert Burglars, Magsmen, Mutchers, Area and Lobby-Sneaks. False Keys Our Specialty.
231 Kingsland Terrace
'We Recommend Chubb's Patent Locks'
The older of the two gentlemen turned the card over and over in his hands. "I remember," he said finally. "You're with that security company from Shoreditch. I spoke to you at your offices. I thought you were the secretary!"
Anille curtseyed again. "Secretaries, businessmen and expert burglars." she said, replacing the remainder of the cards in her reticule. "My colleagues entered your premises at precisely seven o'clock this evening through the upper garret window. They removed portable property worth approximately ten guineas from your upper bedrooms without any of your servants noticing. They then proceeded to remove valuables totaling approximately seven pounds, nine shillings from this very room. Your servants are locked in the kitchen with the exception of your footman, who, as we mentioned, is currently incarcerated in the linen closet situated between the first and second floors." She gestured to Amelia, who began to remove the trinkets from her bag. She unrolled them carefully from their nests of cotton and placed them on the rug. "The circumstances will be included in our written report, which will be delivered to your address within three working days. Along with a full list of recommendations and, of course, our bill."
The older gentleman pursed his lips thoughtfully, his eyes glued to the seemingly inexhaustible parade of valuables displayed on his carpet. "I had not fully comprehended the practical implications of your security service," he said finally. "You came highly recommended."
"We've worked for a variety of reputable companies, sir." Mary wiped the blacking from her face with the sleeve of her jacket. And many less reputable, she thought, but that was back in the old days. "Including several of the Threadneedle Street banks."
"Indeed," the gentleman said. He looked as if he was trying to decide whether he should congratulate them or call the police. He glanced at Amelia as she emptied the carpet bag and stuffed it back into her jacket. "What measures would you recommend?"
"That's at your discretion." Amelia said brightly. "Personally, my first step would be to install patent locks on all of the garret windows. A safe wouldn't be a bad idea, either. And, if I were a swell gent like you, I'd consider one of the new-fangled warning systems from Scotland Yard. "
The gentleman rubbed his chin. "Hmm,'" he said, "The expense alone..."
Anille pointed to the plethora of stolen goods. "Is still less than ten guineas. And isn't that plate heirloom quality? It'd be a shame to lose it. We will, of course, be in touch."
"And we'll see ourselves out." Amelia said. "I don't think your footman'll be able. I coshed him pretty hard."
The gentleman's eyes widened. "You..."
"We would hate to impose any further," Anille said hastily. "We do know our way out, after all." She curtseyed deeply, her skirts swishing on the floor. "Sirs." She nodded to the gentlemen, then to the ladies. "Ma'ams."
Amelia curtseyed hastily. Mary bowed.
"We didn't do too badly." Amelia said as they walked down the stairs to the front door.
Anille collected her umbrella from the stand, humming a French song. She paused long enough to say "I don't think so, either. The plate would have been worth a tidy sum, but it's not worth the risk. We're getting older, my friends, and I for one have better places to spend my time than Bridewell or the Colonies."
Amelia slipped her arm in Anille's. "Hear, hear."
"After all," Mary said as they closed the door behind them, "whatever's wrong with being respectable thieves?"
This story was inspired by the song 'One More Score' by Jonathan Coulton and Adam Stein.
'The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes' by Henry Mayhem and others.
'The London Monster: Terror on the Streets in 1790' by Jan Bondesson
'The Victorian Underworld' by Donald Thomas.