In the Marmalade
IN THE MARMALADE.
By BARRY PAIN.
I TOOK the eleven o'clock Pullman for Brighton one Sunday morning, and entered the train twenty minutes before it started.
On the opposite side of the car to myself two men were seated. One of them was an elderly gentleman, with a neatly trimmed white beard, and from his face I judged him to be both wise and kind. I gathered that he was not going on in the train, and had merely entered it for a few minutes' chat with his companion. This latter was a much younger man, not more than twenty-five. He was a good-looking boy, and he seemed worried and even slightly excited. It was evident that he employed a first-rate tailor and bootmaker, and I think he gave fifteen shillings for his ordinary straw hat. His taste in clothes was quiet and correct, and I was a little surprised that he spoiled the set of a well-cut coat—he was wearing a dark blue lounge suit—by carrying a heavy pocket-book or something of that kind in the inner side-pocket.
"I've made up my mind," he said, a little irritably, "and it's no good to worry any more about it. I'm going to put it in her marmalade."
"Don't do it," said the older man anxiously. "I beg you not to do it. The consequences——"
"There won't be any consequences—at least, there won't be any of the kind you mean. I tell you, Parton did the same thing, and he swears there's no risk whatever. Discovery is practically impossible."
"I don't like it," said the old gentleman. "And I wish you had never told me about it, for it haunts me. You haven't even got the excuse of poverty."
"Perhaps not; but I'm not going to chuck money away, all the same."
"It might, I believe, lead to your arrest and——"
"Hush!" said the young man in a low voice. He had, I think, noticed that the conversation was being overheard by me.
They talked for a minute or two, and then the old gentleman shook bands and left the train. The only other phrase which I could catch was "probably in the Lusitania."
I have frequently been called a curious and interfering old man. It is certainly true that I take an interest in anything which interests me, and that I have the strongest dislike to being left with only part of a story. I meant, if I could, to get at the rest of the story in this case.
I changed my seat, after complaining of a draught to the attendant, and took the seat opposite the young man. There was a small table in between us, and we were now within conversational range. But I did not hurry matters; for a time I read my paper sedulously, and appeared to take no notice of my young friend.
Presently he told the attendant to bring him a whisky and soda, and, in paying for his drink, he dropped a florin, which finally came to rest under my seat. I rescued it and handed it back to him. He thanked me politely, and said he was sorry to have given me the trouble.
"Oh, it was no trouble," I said. "Beautiful morning, isn't it?"
"Yes, pretty good."
"I wonder if it's impertinent for a stranger to say it—but I'm an old man, and old men notice such things—but I couldn't help being struck just now with the likeness between your father and yourself."
"Really? My father died about sixteen years ago."
"Ah, then it was not your father! My mistake. Stupid of me! I suppose one doesn't observe correctly when one is mentally preoccupied. And all the time I was puzzling over another point connected with you."
"Well?" said the young man grudgingly.
"Speaking frankly," I said, "and with my assurance on my word of honour that it shall go no further, what is it that you intend to put in her marmalade?"
His face showed how angry he was. "I think, sir," he said, "that you would do better to mind your own business!" He snatched up a newspaper from the table and opened it out between us.
"Funny you should tell me to mind my own business," I said placidly. "So many people have told me that And as a matter of fact, I have no business—no profession or occupation of any kind."
He made no answer whatever. Rather rude, I thought, seeing how very much younger he was than myself. I waited a few minutes, and then said—
"I don't want to hurry you, but you'll let me have my newspaper back when you've quite finished with it, won't you?" I had noticed that inadvertently he had picked up my newspaper.
He flung the newspaper down on the table, said a wicked word, finished his whisky and soda hurriedly, and went out. I think he found a seat in the next car; he did not return. I caught a glimpse of him at Brighton station as he drove away in a cab. And then I strolled up to the Metropole to lunch with friends of mine who were stopping there.
For the moment I did not see anything further to be done. I put the problem by for further consideration, with not much hope that I should ever be able to work it out.
Shortly after three that afternoon, it seemed to me wicked to keep my friends awake any longer—they had, I knew, the after-luncheon-snooze habit—and I left the hotel, and started on to the West Pier. And there, seated in a deck-chair, with his back towards me, I found the young man who had been so unpardonably rude to me that morning. As I was looking at his back, he got up and strolled off. Something may be learned by the student of human backs. This young man had a dejected back. I followed him, but without any intention of overtaking him and tackling him again.
As I passed the chair where he had sat, I noticed on the seat of it a green leather case which might very well have caused that bulge in his pocket which I had noticed in the train. I sat down in that chair and opened the case.
The case contained a large diamond star. They were good white diamonds, and the thing would have cost a hundred pounds or very little less. Having satisfied myself as to its contents, I put it in my pocket, and, leaning back in the chair, closed my eyes in thought.
How could I piece the clues together? I went over them in my mind—diamonds, marmalade, a making or saving of money, a possibility of arrest, the Lusitania, And suddenly the whole explanation seemed to flash out at me. I take no credit for any peculiar cleverness about it, for I had heard of a similar fraud on the American Customs before.
All I had to do now was to wait in the neighbourhood of that deck-chair for my man to come back. I imagined—correctly, as the event showed—that he had taken the case from his pocket to look at the diamonds, and in replacing it had missed the pocket, and allowed the case to slip down between his coat and waistcoat. He would probably feel for those diamonds again in a few minutes, would find they were missing, and would return to see if he had dropped the case where he was sitting.
I now stood a few yards away from the deck-chair, with my back to it, looking out over the sea. I heard that the deck-chair was being moved, and steps going to and fro and round and round just behind me, but I did not turn my head until I heard the young man speaking to me. He was very polite this time.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I'm extremely sorry to trouble you, but while I was sitting here a few minutes age I most carelessly allowed a green leather case to slip out of my pocket. The contents were valuable. I suppose you don't happen to have seen it?"
"You were extremely rude to me in the train this morning, sir. I am not disposed to help you in any way."
"Sorry if I seemed rude. I was a bit out of temper at the time. That old bore who came to see me off had been bothering me with a lot of good advice on my private affairs, and I didn't want to discuss them any further. If you have seen my case——"
"But how am I to know that it was your case? The person who took—— But I'd better say nothing about it."
The young man had hurriedly pulled a paper from his pocket. "If you'll just look at that—it is the receipt from the shop where I bought the thing—it proves my ownership."
I glanced over the paper perfunctorily. "This tells me that, if you are the Reginald Wing, Esquire, here mentioned, you bought a diamond star. Nothing is said about the green leather case. And the person who took it did so very deliberately—no sign of nervousness, not the appearance of a thief at all."
"I am Mr. Wing," he said, and he was beautifully patient, "and the case is never mentioned in the bill. It contained the diamond star described there. I've already apologised for my abruptness this morning, and in a business like this every moment is of importance. If you'll give me a description of the man who picked up that case——"
"Pardon me, I never said it was a man. I said a person."
"What? Was it a woman? Young? Red hair? Rather——"
"You are asking me a great many questions. This morning you refused to answer one of mine."
"Well, tell me all you know about my diamonds, and I'll tell you everything about the marmalade."
That was the sentence I had been waiting for. "You are very good," I said, "but I already know about the marmalade."
"That," he said, "is absolutely impossible."
"It may appear so to you."
"If you'll first tell me who took my diamonds, and give me the time to see the police about recovering them, I'll hear your explanation and bet you a sovereign it is wrong. And if it is wrong, I will put you right. Will that suit you?"
"Perfectly. We might sit down, I think. It was I who took your diamonds."
"Great Scot, why didn't you say so?"
"Why didn't you ask me? Delicacy, perhaps. However, here they are, quite safe, as you will see, please."
He was fall of gratitude, and mighty glad to get that diamond star back again.
"And now, Mr. Wing," I said, "I'll proceed to win that sovereign from you. My name's Fish—Horace Fish—and as I have nothing else to do, I devote a good deal of time to solving the Chinese puzzles that the lives and private affairs of other people present to me. And with much practice I have gained a certain facility. That is why I have succeeded in doing what you thought impossible."
"I still think it impossible, Mr. Fish."
"We shall see. The clues in my possession, mostly derived from scraps of conversation overheard, were these—marmalade, in which something was to be put, diamonds, the Lusitania, an attempt to save money, and a possibility of serious consequences, perhaps arrest. Does not the order in which I have put these things already suggest to you that I have hit the right nail on the head?"
"No," said Mr. Wing.
"Well, you shall hear the whole story. You wish to send a diamond star to a lady at present resident in America. You wish to avoid the very high tariff on articles of this kind, and therefore you are going to use a dodge which a friend of yours, Parton by name, has already employed with success. You intend to conceal the star in a tin or jar of marmalade. You may send this in the ordinary way, but it seems to me more probable that you mean to entrust it to a friend who is crossing on the Lusitania. It is quite true that you will save money if your fraud is not detected. But I think the old gentleman who was with you in the train was quite right in warning you. Customs officers occasionally employ an investigatory skewer. If they used it on that marmalade, you would lose a great deal more money than the sum you propose to save."
"That," said Reginald Wing, "is about the most ingenious thing I ever heard. I could never have worked it out like that. I congratulate you, sir."
"And, if I remember correctly, you pay me a sovereign."
"Oh, no, Mr. Fish—not at all! You pay me the sovereign. Your story is most ingenious, and if ever I want to send precious stones to America, I may be able to make some practical use of it. But it's not right—in fact, it's all wrong from beginning to end. Now, the right story——"
"Yes," I said, feeling for my sovereign case, "what is it?"
"Quite simple. Miss Judd, who was housekeeper to my Uncle Ambrose during his lifetime, is, and always has been, one of the kindest and best-natured of women. As a boy of fourteen I owed much to her. Ever since, I have liked her and she has liked me. She is about fifteen years older than myself, and I have always regarded her as a kind of supernumerary aunt. Mark you, even in my boyhood's days she frequently bought sweets with the intention of presenting them to me, but was unable to resist the temptation to eat them herself."
"I don't quite see what this has to do with it."
"It has everything to do with it. When my Uncle Ambrose died—a little more than a year ago—no mention was made of me in his will. We had never quarrelled. He had told me definitely that I should get between seven and eight thousand when he was gone, and that my three cousins would get the same. Only a few days before his death he told Miss Judd that this was what he had done, and spoke of me with affection. The will was not very well drawn, and I am convinced that the omission of my name was either a queer error of memory or a clerical oversight. That also was Miss Judd's view. He provided for my three cousins just as he had told me. To Miss Judd herself he left six hundred pounds a year for life, the money to go to his favourite hospital after her death. You have grasped these points, Mr. Fish? They are important."
"Yes, I understand."
"Very well. As soon as she knew the terms of the will, Miss Judd came to me in the greatest distress. Either I was to take half her income of six hundred pounds, or she would renounce the whole thing. She had no one dependent on her,and her tastes and habits would not require even three hundred pounds a year. She was convinced that my omission had been inadvertent, and that she would be carrying out the real wishes of my uncle. Under the pressure she brought to bear, I consented to receive three hundred pounds a year from her. Now, this income will cease when her life ceases. Also, as she puts by money every year, and will leave the whole of it to me, the longer she lives, the more I shall receive. Quite apart from ordinary humanity and the great affection I have for her, I have the most solid reasons for wishing Miss Judd to live as long as possible. But a most deplorable thing has happened. Good-natured people are generally lazy, and Miss Judd is no exception. Since my uncle's death she has refused to take up with any definite occupation. Her fatal passion for sweets has increased, and she has been mad enough to take a suite of rooms immediately over a high-class confectioner's shop. She never cared about exercise, and never walked a step further than she could help. The change has come with alarming rapidity. I saw her last week for the first time for six months, and she has become enormous. She breathes with difficulty; her heart is giving her trouble. She has consulted a doctor, who allows her to take no specific for obesity, but has put her on a strict diet. I believe she does make some attempt to adhere to that diet, but the attempt is, and will continue to be, a hopeless failure. With the confectioner's shop at hand, what else could you expect? She has faith in her doctor, and, except in the matter of diet, would not dream of disobeying his orders. Am I to let that woman die? Polden's Emaciatory Powders are colourless, harmless, almost tasteless. If I conceal them in the marmalade which she eats to excess every morning for breakfast, she will recover in spite of herself. You see?"
"I do. You risk a great deal."
"No risk at all. Parton and his two sisters have used them without ill effects of any kind—on the contrary, with great benefit to their health."
"That proves nothing. You have, it seems to me, an insurable interest in this lady's life. Why did you not insure it?"
"Do young men ever think of insurance? I did not until it was too late. No insurance company would accept Miss Judd now on any terms."
"And the diamonds—the mention of the Lusitania?"
"Had nothing whatever to do with it. I had intended to present these diamonds to-day to a young lady. For reasons which do not concern you, I have not given them to her."
"But, my dear Mr. Wing, everything concerns me."
"Very well, then. If you were lunching with a girl at a restaurant, and you found a dish so bad that you called up the manager and had it changed, and the girl in the manager's presence called you a silly idiot, and asked for a second helping of the same dish, would you think that she showed the kind of temper that promised happiness in the married life?"
"I should not."
"Nor did I. The reference to the Lusitania was quite accidental—a brother of mine is going out there on business. I think that's all."
I handed him the sovereign. "And," I said, "would you, as a favour, let me have two lines to say the result of your experiment with Miss Judd."
"Certainly. But I have not your address."
I gave him my card, and we parted. I thought that this would be a lesson to me in future not to decide too hurriedly that any particular thing amounted to a clue.
Next day I received the following letter:—
"Dear Sir,—In return for the service you rendered me, I premised to tell you the true explanation of the conversation which you overheard. I did not say when I would do it, but I choose to do it now. Observing in the train that you were making the utmost effort to overhear what my uncle and myself were saying, I thought I would give you something for your trouble. An almost imperceptible wink to my uncle accompanied my remark that I would put it in her marmalade, and my dear old uncle is fairly quick at the up-take. You followed up beautifully.
"Briefly, you have been spoofed. Miss Judd and Uncle Ambrose and the Emaciatory Powder are but parts of a myth. My story about the diamonds and the girl was also spoof. So sorry, but you deserved it.
People seem to think that if you deserve a thing, you must like to get it. This is not invariably the case. I tell the story because it shows that even the cleverest may occasionally fail.