The Lady of the Pillar-Box
THE LADY OF THE PILLAR-BOX.
By BARRY PAIN.
TRAVELLING one day on a Tube railway, I happened to find myself seated opposite to a well-dressed lady of middle age. Her expression was one of timidity and benevolence, and I judged her to be of low mental calibre. The nose was Roman, the forehead receded, and the chin was lamentable. The eyes showed nervousness.
In one hand this lady held a small box wrapped in paper. On one side of the box were the words "DEATH TO ALL," printed in black capitals. I noticed that she was wearing one black shoe and one of bronze green.
These points interested me. I had intended to travel as far as Edgware Road, but when the lady got out at Baker Street, I followed her. On reaching the lift, she increased my interest and my perplexity.
She said plaintively to the lift-man who took her ticket: "Do you still refuse?"
The man looked slightly sheepish. "Yessum," he said. "I shouldn't know what to do with 'em."
"I suppose it hasn't been found?" she said, after a pause.
"Not that I know of," said the man. "But it wouldn't be—that kind of thing never is. Afraid you had your journey for nothing, too."
"Yes," said the lady wearily, "the tree turned out to be a sycamore."
The man smiled and said "Good morning " as he swung the gates open. The lady was too cryptic to be lost sight of, and I followed her down the street.
She went straight to the nearest pillar-box and dropped into it the small box which she was carrying. Then she went off as fast as she could walk. Now, I had observed that box carefully. It bore no stamp and no address—no inscription of any kind except that mysterious "DEATH TO ALL."
Women are universally suspicious of those who ask favours of them. But many of them submit readily to dictation, and it had struck me that this lady was of the number. If I had besought her, with many apologies, to give me the solution of the problem, and spare me nights of sleepless puzzling, she would probably have threatened to appeal to the policeman. So I took the other line.
I overtook her and tapped her on the shoulder. "This kind of thing cannot be allowed," I said sharply.
She was obviously much flustered and confused. "Oh, what do you mean, sir?" she said.
"You know very well what I mean. I have had you under observation for some time—in the train and in the lift."
"Yes—oh, yes. I remember. I didn't know I was doing anything actually wrong."
"Absolutely illegal. I'm afraid I must do my duty."
"Oh, please don't!" she said. "I can explain everything if you'll listen. If you took me to a police-station, you'd only find you'd made a mistake. And the publicity of it would kill me; I've been fighting against publicity all my life."
I saw, of course, that she had mistaken me for a detective acting in the interests of the Post Office. I had thought she might make that mistake. It would have broken my tailor's heart, but for the moment I did not correct it.
"Very well," I said. "We'll step aside into the park. But I must have the whole truth, and the explanation must be satisfactory to me."
"I'm sure you will find it so. And I'm very much obliged to you. I will tell you the whole thing from beginning to end."
As we crossed the grass to the chairs under the trees, she said: "I've only done it twice before, and I didn't know there was any real harm in it, but I'll never, never do it again."
As I was not quite sure what she was talking about, I said that I hoped she wouldn't. We sat down, and I lit a cigarette. She was clearly relieved that I was dealing so leniently with her.
"Now, then, madam," I said. "From the beginning, please."
"I am a widow," she said. "I do not know whether the name will suggest anything to you, but I am Mrs. Sumple."
I had seen the name frequently in shops and in advertisements. "Yes," I said, "it does suggest something to me; it suggests a disinfectant."
"I expected it," she said, with a sigh. "Sumple's Liquid Safety is but too well known. My poor husband invented it."
"Surely," I said, "the more it is known, the better, from a commercial point of view, it must be for you, then."
"That, unfortunately, is not so. When I married Arbuthnot Sumple, he held an honourable salaried post as analyst to an important manufacturing firm—Shadwell and Joy, the soapmakers. The disinfectant was invented by him in his leisure time, and it was he, I regret to say, who thought of the name for it. But he had no means other than his salary, and was in consequence unable to place the thing on the market. Somebody had to be found who, for a small share in the profits, would provide the money for manufacturing the disinfectant and for advertising it and pushing it with the trade. So naturally I thought of Mr. Magwhit."
"Magwhit," I observed, "is a name known and respected in the lesser financial world. But why was it specially natural that you should select him?"
"Simply and solely because he married my cousin Clara. She was a Miss Bone before marriage, and, of course, everybody says that she has a very charming manner. That may be, but she is not always sincere and she can also be very unpleasant. Well, I said to poor dear Arbuthnot: 'There is only one thing to be done—we must get at Percy Magwhit through Clara.' I am sorry to say that my husband took my advice. Arbuthnot was not a business man; Magwhit was. You can imagine the result."
"I can, Mrs. Sumple. The financier swallowed the inventor. That generally happens."
"Precisely. Sumple's Liquid Safety did not do very well the first six months, and not much better the next six. Arbuthnot was weak and got discouraged. Mr. Magwhit made him an offer, and he accepted it. He sold all his rights in Sumple's Liquid Safety for an annuity—four hundred a year for his life and mine. And at the time I really thought Mr. Magwhit was treating him generously. That was only four years ago. Yet last year Mr. Magwhit made no less than thirty thousand pounds out of the disinfectant, and this year, as Clara admits, he will make still more."
"It seems hard," I said.
"It is very hard, sir. My income from my husband's salary vanished, of course, at his death, and he was not insured. I have only the four hundred a year, and I have all the odium from the disinfectant. The Magwhits have thirty thousand a year from it, and no odium at all. I shall never get used to the horrible publicity of the thing. My name stares at me from a hoarding, and it is a shock. A newspaper advertisement tells me to be sure it is Sumple's, and I shudder. I go into a chemist's shop, and some young man enters and demands Sumple in the eighteenpenny size, and I blush to the roots of my hair. My name serves as a mudguard to protect the Magwhits. I doubt if any of the smart people that Clara entertains in Hill Street or at Tufmore know that; the Magwhits have ever dabbled in disinfectants at all."
"Well," I said, "if you don't like it, it is a very simple matter to change your name."
"Never!" she said, and the jet trimming on her frontage trembled with emotion. "That is a piece of treachery to Arbuthnot's memory that I can never commit. I would sooner suffer as I do. The Magwhits might change the name of the disinfectant, but when I suggest it, they smile and change the subject."
"That is quite likely. But, Mrs. Sumple, you promised me an explanation of certain curious facts that I have observed. What bearing has all this on——"
"Everything can be traced to it, as you will see, and you asked me to begin at the beginning. I have this reduced income of four hundred a year. Fortunately, I have no children and nobody dependent on me. Even as it is, I have the greatest difficulty in keeping up the very modest style to which I am accustomed, without getting into debt. My little flat in Upper Gloucester Place is expensive. I think it a fairly good address myself, though Clara lets me see that she considers it contemptible, and pretended, when I took it, that she did not know where it was."
"One moment. You have not quarrelled with Mrs. Magwhit, then? You are still on good terms with her?"
"We are quite intimate, yet we dislike one another. That may surprise you."
"On the contrary, it is one of the commonest combinations."
"We played together as children, and have known each other all our lives. So, though I considered her husband cheated mine, I have not dropped her. To be candid, I have always had hopes that he might, in consequence of the great prosperity of the disinfectant, suggest something in the way of a bonus. I have already given hints in that direction. As Clara always, until her marriage, had to help in the housework in the morning, it was perfectly absurd of her to pretend that she had never heard of Upper Gloucester Place. But she can be kind when she likes. She has occasionally asked me to receptions in Hill Street, and although I never know anybody there, and cannot afford the dress expenditure and the cab fares, I should be sorry to miss them. She has frequently invited me to luncheon, when only she and the governess have been present. And she did once ask me down to Tufmore. I had to be postponed, as my room was wanted for Lady Rochester's maid; but that I quite understood, and no doubt at some other time——"
"Pardon me, Mrs. Sumple, but is this really explanatory?"
"In a way it is. It shows that I have expensive friends, and that explains why I have had to look about me for methods of making money. I had thought about home-made pickles, but people in the other flats would have objected to the smell of vinegar. And Clara refused to push them with her friends, and said that nobody but the servants ever eat pickles. I am earning a commission for recommending Gimlong Tea, or, at any rate, I shall be as soon as I get some orders. I wrote a testimonial for the Bestwear Boot and Shoe Company in Orchard Street the other day, but there was no agreement, and all I received was one complimentary pair of—walking shoes. And then I turned my attention to silkworms."
"Yes, I'll tell you how it happened. My charwoman brought them to me in a little box. She said her son had got them from another boy, and he would sell them for sixpence. She had been told that the silk they made fetched fabulous prices. Naturally, I bought them. There were a hundred and eight of them originally, and it seemed a good bargain. Where I was wrong was in not inquiring about their food."
"You had trouble about it?"
"I did. I tried them with lettuce, which rabbits and almost all animals like. Nineteen of them died that night. Despair drove me to experiment with bread-crumbs, and fifty-three more of the poor creatures perished in the next twenty-four hours. This morning the charwoman came again, and said that I ought to feed them on mulberry leaves. Now, I have no mulberry tree in my flat, and so I thought the best thing I could do was to cut my loss and give the silkworms to one of the lift-men at Baker Street Station. He was a man who had been most civil and obliging, and I had always wanted to make him some little present. I went from Baker Street Station. I was wearing, only for the second time, the complimentary shoes that the Bestwear Company had sent me. There was the lift just on the point of starting, and the particular lift-man I wanted was in it. I made a rush for it, and I suppose I caught the heel of one of my shoes in something. At any rate, the heel came clean off and went spinning across the floor of the booking-office. I did not wait to pick it up, or I should have missed the lift. But I told the lift-man about it, and asked him, if anybody found the heel, to have it reserved for me. I then offered him the silkworms, but he said he did not understand their habits and couldn't take them. I was explaining to him my difficulty, when suddenly something which Clara once said to me flashed across my mind. 'Wait,' I said; 'I know a lady who has a mulberry tree. I will take the silkworms to her.' Do you see?"
"I am beginning to see."
"The hats in the shops were most extraordinary. There was one at Pigwell's which it is no exaggeration to say——"
"Pardon," I said, "you can leave out the part about the hats. If I surmise correctly, you went on to Mrs. Magwhit's, in Hill Street."
"I did. I had to. Silkworms apart, it was quite imperative. The strain on my ankles! You, perhaps, do not know what it is to walk with a high heel on one shoe and none at all on the other. It gives one a curious gait, which is remarked and quite misunderstood by boys in the street, and it is painful as well. Uncertain though I was of the way Clara would take it, I felt I must borrow a pair of shoes from her. Otherwise, I should have been driven to take a cab, and that is an expense which I always try to avoid. I found Clara at home—you can imagine her, perhaps."
"Not in the least."
"No? Then I must tell you. She has a beautiful and graceful figure—I will say that for her—and she dresses like an Egyptian serpent and is rather languid. As a matter of fact, she is quite keen in matters of business. She writes all the advertisements of Sumple's Liquid Safety, and had proofs of some new handbills on the table in her boudoir when I went in. Her manner this morning was what might be called medium. I have known her to be more affectionate, and I have known her to be nastier. She said that of course I could have a pair of her shoes if I could get into them—her foot is a half-size larger than mine, and she is sensitive about it—but she couldn't think why I bought rotten shoes that dropped to pieces in the street. She showed me the new hand-bills. There was a blank space where there was to be a picture, and underneath was printed 'Sumple's Liquid Safety is Death to all Disease Germs.' So I said I had something to show her, too—something that she might like to buy from me—and I handed her the box of silkworms. She opened it, screamed, and lost her temper. She said it was disgusting of me to bring a box of dead maggots and mess into her house. What was I thinking of? Had I gone mad? Well, I did my best to appease her. I told her I was sorry, but they were not maggots; they were silkworms—pretty, playful little things—and some of them were still alive. However, I would take them away as soon as I got my shoes on. She seemed pacified, and said I could have one of the handbills to wrap the box in."
"I see," I said. "You wrapped the box in the handbill. That accounts for the legend on the box. But what about your shoes? They are of different colours."
"Really, you notice everything!"
"Everything which is unusual and nothing which is not."
"Well, I will tell you. All Clara's shoes are bronze green and so are all her stockings, and they have to match exactly; it is one of her fads and affectations. As I was putting on the right-hand shoe, I told Clara that the real reason why I had brought the silkworms to her was because I remembered her saying that there was a mulberry tree on the front lawn at Tufmore, and this would have made it quite easy for her to feed them. Clara sighed and said I had got the most unaccountable delusions. The tree was a sycamore, and she had never told me that it was anything else, if she had ever mentioned it at all, which she did not believe. Of course, that may have been so. All I can say is that, if it was not Clara who said she had a mulberry tree, then it must have been somebody else. However, to change the subject, I asked her what she was going to have for the picture on the new handbill. 'Oh,' she said, 'I don't know. Some funny old face, I think. We might have the widow of the inventor!' Well, that was enough for me. There are things which I permit and things which I do not permit. Clara had passed the limit. I simply got up and walked out. She told me not to be a fool and take offence at a joke, but, as I said to her, there are jokes and jokes. When I got into the street, I remembered that I had changed only one of my shoes, but I would not go back. And now, sir, I have told you everything fully and frankly."
"Pardon me, Mrs. Sumple. I understand now why you are wearing odd shoes. Your curious conversation with the liftman is also explained—by the way, I am sorry that you did not get the heel of your shoe back—but why did you post the silkworms?"
"Well, sir, I had to get rid of them, and what else was I to do? There was nowhere else to put them. If I had dropped them in the street, somebody would have picked them up and brought them back to me, and very likely a reward would have been expected. Seeing all I have gone through, I am sure, sir, you must admit that I have been sufficiently punished."
"But I think you said that on two previous occasions you have used a pillar-box in the same reprehensible way—in fact, as a dust-bin?"
"Yes, but it will never happen again. In one case I had bought something from the fishmonger and was taking it home myself. I had practically told him that it must be fresh, and I never dealt with him again. In the other case it was—well, it was a mistake of my dentist's. I wished to get rid of it, and I was anxious from delicate motives that it should not be traced to me. I could not burn it, but I could and did post it. Of course, I did not know that the Post Office employed detectives to watch the pillar-boxes."
"Nor did I."
"But you are a detective yourself? You said so."
"There, Mrs. Sumple, you are mistaken. I said that I had had you under observation for some time, and it was true. I pointed out that you could not be allowed to throw refuse into pillar-boxes, nor can you. I did say that I must do my duty, and England expects every man to do as much, but I never said I was a detective, and I never should say it. Why, it's illegal!"
"Then, if you are not a detective, what are you?"
"Merely," I said, "an old gentleman who employs an ample leisure in the satisfaction of an inquiring and curious disposition. Thank you very much indeed, Mrs. Sumple, and good morning."
I left her still searching for words to express her feelings. But she quickly recovered herself and came panting after me.
"Gimlong Tea," she said breathlessly. "Splendid tea. Under the circumstances, I think you must give me an order."