“Mr. Ledbetter’s Vacation” is a short story by H. G. Wells, first published in the October 1898 edition of the Strand Magazine and subsequently in the collection Twelve Stories and a Dream (1903). It tells of a schoolmaster who, to prove to himself his courage, burgles a house while on holiday, and as a result finds himself kidnapped and dumped on a tiny Caribbean island.
The narrator begins by describing Mr. Ledbetter as a “round-faced little man … whose deep, deliberate voice irritates, irritable people .. suspected by many of the secret practice of the higher mathematics”. He reveals that he first encountered Ledbetter almost twenty years earlier, when he was living in Jamaica and Ledbetter was a schoolmaster in England.
Mr. Ledbetter is on his summer holiday at Hithergate-on-Sea, staying in a boarding house with only one other male resident, with whom he falls into conversation. The pair discuss the “degradation of men by civilisation”, and “the decay of human courage through security”. Ledbetter’s new companion speaks in particular about crime, and expresses his view that “the burglar is the only true adventurer left on earth”. Later that evening, having partaken rather too freely of the excellent whisky on offer, Ledbetter goes out for a walk along the cliff road, regretful of the fate that has led him to his uneventful and prosaic life.
On passing a large villa with an open window, Ledbetter imagines himself climbing in and committing a “burglary in blank”, one in which he simply enters the house but steals nothing. After some hesitation he determines to enter the house through the window, to prove to himself that he has the courage to do so. Once inside, he decides to take “some petty trophy”, and so he goes upstairs and enters an empty bedroom, from which he takes a piece of soap. But before Ledbetter can make his escape he hears footsteps on the gravel outside, and in a panic hides under the bed. Unfortunately for him, the newcomer enters the room in which Ledbetter is hiding, and sits down at a writing desk.
After a while Ledbetter hears a chinking sound, as if someone is counting gold coins. Peeping out from his hiding place, Ledbetter is discovered by the newcomer, Bingham, armed with a revolver. Bingham is manager of the Hithergate bank, and having embezzled his employer he is about to make his escape in a yacht moored off the coast. Unable to call the police, and unwilling to add murder to his list of crimes, Bingham decides to take Ledbetter to the yacht with him.
After about three weeks at sea Ledbetter is put ashore on a rocky little island, one of the Windward Islands, with some provisions and a little money. Three days later he is picked up by a local fisherman and taken to St. Vincent’s, from where with the last of his money he manages to reach Kingston, Jamaica. Down on his luck, he meets the narrator, who listens to his story and, after checking with Ledbetter’s bank, procures for him a new set of clothes and passage back to England. The schoolmaster arrives home in time for the start of the new school term, too embarrassed to reveal the reason for his absence.
The two-world juxtaposition of the “natural Paleolithic savage” within us, which in Ledbetter’s case persuades him to undertake the burglary, and the “moral creature of civilisation”, is one of Wells’s common themes, also seen in stories such as “The Flowering of the Strange OrchidShort story by H. G. Wells first published in 1894. A collector of orchids grows an unknown species which develops aerial rootlets that attach themselves to his skin and suck his blood.“.