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My Christmas Burglary
by [?]

They revealed him a clean-shaven, white-haired man, meticulously dressed in black–black swallowtail coat, open waistcoat, and frilled shirt-front, on which his laundress must have spent hours of labour; closely fitting black knee-breeches, black silk stockings, black polished shoes. They silhouetted, too, in the moment before he swung round on me, an enormous nose, like a punchinello’s, and the outline of a shapely head, sufficiently massive to counterbalance and save it from caricature. The size of the head again would have suggested deformity, but for the broad shoulders that carried it. As he faced me squarely with his back to the hearth, his chest and shoulders narrowing to the hips of a runner, and still narrowing (though he stood astraddle) to ankles and feet that would not have disgraced a lady, he put me in mind of a matador I had seen years before, facing his bull in the ring at Seville. The firelight behind them emphasised the neat outline of his legs. He carried a black cloak on his left arm, and in his left hand an opera-hat, pressed flat against his left side. In closing the window, in finding and producing the pistol, and again in lighting the candles, he had used his right hand only.

‘A gentleman?’ he asked, contracting his brows and eyeing me.

‘Well,’ said I, with an uncomfortable, nervous laugh, that itself accused my breeding, so inferior it was to the situation, ‘possibly you are one of those who mix up the name with moral conduct–‘

‘To some extent,’ he answered, without seeming to interrupt. ‘Every one does, I fancy.’

‘At any rate I won’t challenge it,’ said I. ‘But you may, if you will, call me a man of some education. I was at Magdalen once, but left Oxford without taking my degree.’

‘Ah!’ He inclined his head a little to one side. ‘Cards?’

‘Certainly not,’ I answered with heat. ‘I own that appearances are against me, but I was never that kind of man. As a matter of fact, it happened over a horse.’

He nodded. ‘So you, too, though you won’t challenge the name, have to mix up moral conduct with your disposition. We draw the line variously, but every one draws it somewhere. . . . Magdalen, hey? If I mistake not, the foundationers of Magdalen–including, perhaps, some who were undergraduates with you–are assembled in the college hall at this moment to celebrate Christmas, and hear the choir sing Pergolese’s “Gloria.”‘

‘The reminder hurts me,’ said I–‘if that be any gratification to you.’

‘A sentimentalist?’ Mr Felix’s eyes twinkled.

‘Better and better! I have the very job for you–but we will discuss that by-and-by. Only let me say that you must have dropped on me, just now, from heaven–you really must. But please don’t make a practice of it! I have invested too much in my curios; and others have invested more. . . . That snuff-box, for instance, which you were handling a moment ago . . . at one time in its history it cost– ay, and fetched–close on two hundred millions of money.’

I began to have hopes that I was dealing with a madman.

‘Or rather,’ he corrected himself, ‘the money was paid for a pinch of the snuff it contains. Open it carefully, if you please! and you will behold the genuine rappee, the very particles over which France fought with Austria. What says Virgil? ‘Hi motus animorum atque heac cerlamina tanta Pulveris exigui jactu‘–yes, but in this instance, you see, the pinch of dust was the exciting cause. Sir, the Austrian ambassador, one fatal afternoon, refused to take from the box in your hand that which, three weeks later, and all too late, he would gladly have purchased with many millions. Observe the imperial crown on the lid, with the bees around it, as if to illustrate Virgil’s warning. I bought the thing myself, sir, for six napoleons, off a dealer in the Rue du Fouarre: but the price will rise again. Yes, certainly, I count on its fetching three hundred pounds at least when I have departed this life, and three hundred pounds will go some little way towards my monument.’