The Rainbow Camellia

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


THE RAINBOW CAMELLIA

By Fergus Hume

COUNTRY solicitors have fewer opportunities than their urban brethren of handling exceptional cases. The friction of metropolitan life develops numerous strange episodes, which are of rarer occurrence in provincial centres. Human nature is no doubt the same in country as in town; but the lack of a concentrated population, by demanding less ingenuity on the part of the criminal, reduces the level of crime. Moreover, bucolic wits are not so keen as those sharpened by the necessities of London life. Agrarian wrong-doers are usually common-place rogues, who sin in a crude fashion unworthy of notice. Crime, which in the capital is a fine art, is in the country commonly the result of a childish outburst of temper. These remarks apply peculiarly to the inhabitants of inland market-towns, and to the rural population of their intervening pasture-lands.

Yet at times a case not easily to be paralleled, even in the metropolis, comes under the notice of a country solicitor. Such a one is that of the Rainbow Camellia, which is, to my mind, unique in the annals of crime. It was simply a case of theft, but sufficiently noticeable for the skillful way in which it was planned and executed. My first intimation of the affair came from my wife, who one morning entered the breakfast-room with a face expressive of consternation.

"Fred," said she, in an awestruck tone, "do you remember Eliza Drupp, the housemaid, who left six months ago?"

"Was that the red-haired minx who smashed our best dinner service, and who carried a bottle of diamond cement in her pocket to mend breakages?"

"Yes; she has been arrested."

"I'm not surprised. Whose dinner service is it this time?"

"Don't jest, Fred. I am very sorry for the poor girl. Cook told me all about it. She is so excited."

"Who is excited, cook or Eliza?"

"Cook, of course."

"Then the dinner won't be fit to eat. I wish cook would gossip less, and attend more to her stewing and frying. Give me my breakfast, Nell; I must be off early this morning. Well," I added, as my wife poured out the coffee, "and what has Eliza Drupp been stealing?"

"The rainbow camellia."

"What, the whole plant?"

"No, only a bud. She went into the Gardens yesterday and picked it."

"Audacious creature, she'll get six months for that. Old Bendel is on the Bench, and as he is a prominent member of the Horticultural Society, Eliza need expect no mercy."

"I don't know what possessed her to do such a thing," said Nell reflectively; "and the worst of it is, that George Beanfield gave information about the theft."

"Who is George Beanfield, and why shouldn't he give information?"

"Because he kept company with her. It is a piece of spite on his part to punish Eliza for taking up with the greengrocer."

"I congratulate you on your knowledge of kitchen gossip, Nell. But you have not answered my question. Who is George Beanfield?"

"A gardener in the service of the Horticultural Society. I suppose he will be the principal witness against poor Eliza. How can a man be so mean?"

"A man scorned is as dangerous as a woman scorned, my dear. Eliza should not have 'walked out' with the greengrocer. By the way, was George the man who used to hide in the coal-cellar?"

"No, that was a soldier."

"Oh, then he was the Gargantua who devoured all the cold meat."

"Don't talk nonsense, Fred. Go to your office, and if you hear anything of the case, tell me when you come home. I am so sorry for poor Eliza."

This was very charitable on the part of Nell. So far as I could remember Eliza Drupp had been a sore trial, and I had frequently heard my wife express a hope that the Drupp sins would come home to the Drupp sinner. Now that they had come in the most satisfactory manner, she regretted the accomplishment of her wishes, and pitied the recreant Eliza. I did not. It was impossible to pity a girl who had cost me over twenty pounds in breakages.

When I reached my office, I received a message from Eliza, requesting me to step round to her cell, and discuss the matter. As fish did not come to my net in sufficient quantities to make me despise even such small fry as Eliza, I accepted the invitation, and speedily found myself in the presence of my former house-maid. She was to be brought before Bendel that very morning, so there was no time to be lost in learning what defense she proposed to make.

To judge of the heinousness of Eliza's offense, it is necessary to state that the Horticultural Society of Foxton is the sole owner of the famous rainbow camellia. The unique plant had been brought from China many years ago by a vagrant Foxtonian, and was the only one in existence on this side of the world. The Foxton Society prided itself on the possession of this rarity, the more so as such possession excited the envy of all rival societies. Of these many had attempted to beg, borrow, buy, or steal slips of the plant in order to raise rainbow camellias on their own account; but hitherto had not secured even a single bud. It was reserved for Eliza to commit that crime.

The blossom was streaked with the seven colors of the rainbow—hence its name—and as a further priceless qualification it emitted a distinct odor. Now as, with this exception, a scented camellia is absolutely unknown, it was only natural that the Foxton horticulturists should set a high value on their ownership. I thought myself that their enthusiasm was exaggerated, as the prosperity of Foxton did not entirely depend on the possession of that striped and scented flower; but then I am not a flower-fancier, and cannot appreciate the passions of horticulturists. Those of Foxton were quite offensive in their pride. If Eliza Drupp had stolen the Crown jewels, the theft would have been a mere venial transgression, but that she should cull a single bud of the rainbow camellia placed her beyond the pale of ordinary sinners.

Eliza was tearful but voluble. She had been born within sound of Bow Bells, and talked with a strong cockney accent, which became more marked with increasing agitation. How this child of the London pavement had drifted to Foxton I do not know, but she had served as housemaid in various houses for the last four years, and was accustomed when out of a situation, which happened frequently on account of her destructive propensities, to visit her parents at Hackney. Her town graces and brazen good looks—our cook said they were brazen—attracted many admiring swains. The vengeful George was one of these, but Eliza had jilted him in favor of the more opulent greengrocer. Nemesis in the person of the deserted gardener was now punishing her for such perfidy.

"’Ow 'e's treated me shaimful," said the tearful Eliza, "jest 'cause I wouldn't taike 'im 'e shows me up loike this."

"If you play with fire, Eliza, you burn your fingers as a natural consequence. But this is not the point. Have you any defense to this charge?

"I should soigh so, sir. 'Tain't trew es I stole thet measly kemmelliar. Whoy, it was my own."

"Come now, that's nonsense. The Foxton rainbow camellia is the only one of its kind in England."

"’Tain't the only one in the world anyhow, sir," retorted Eliza with some heat. "I hev a rinebow kemmelliar et 'Ackney. If you don't bli've me jest send up to my father an' see."

"Do you mean to say that you possess a plant of the same species?" I asked, rather astonished at this information.

"’Course I do, sir. My brother 'e's a steward 'e is, es goes to Chiner on the Three Star Loine, sir. 'E browght it to me fower years ago from furren parts 'e did."

"And the flower you wore was off your own bush?"

"Yuss. I kim 'ere yesterdaiy from 'Ackney, an' 'e browght it with me jest to see if moine was loike this 'un 'ere."

"Did you wear it when you entered the Gardens?"

"No, sir, I 'ed it in a paiper beg, an' when I was in the green'ouse I takes it hout. When I sawr it wure the saime I pins it in moy dress. Then that bloomin' gonoph collared me. D'ye see, sir?"

"I see, but how is it that a blossom is missing from the tree?"

"I don'no, sir. 'Tworn't me as took it, sir. You jist telergrarf to moy father at 'Ackney 'an arsk 'im to bring down my kemmelliar, sir."

"Yes, I'll do that, but as he cannot be down in time for the case to-day, I'll ask for a remand, so that I may ascertain the truth of your story."

"Thenk 'ee, sir. Em I to staiy 'ere, sir?"

"I hope not. I will be security for your bail myself."

"Thet is 'ensome on yer, sir. An' if yer sees that there George Beanfield, sir, jist tell 'im as 'ow I'll scretch 'is eyes out of 'is 'ed."

There was no necessity for me to deliver this agreeable message. She did so herself when brought before the magistrate. Beanfield seemed to appreciate the situation, and to congratulate himself that Eliza was restrained from violence by two stout policemen. As long as possible he remained modestly in the background, and it was with manifest reluctance that he came forward when called upon to enter the witness-box. The lady in the dock glared at him with a mixture of scorn and rage, and again proclaimed her determination to "scretch 'is eyes out." When ordered to be silent she relapsed into tears and said she was being "put upon." I had heard her make this remark before when gently corrected for breaking three plates in succession.

The court was filled with infuriated members of the Horticultural Society who wished Eliza to be forthwith hanged and quartered. It was commonly reported that my client had not only picked the flower but had also stolen a slip of the plant, which she designed to sell to a rival society. Believing that Eliza thus intended to rob Foxton of the glory of solely possessing the rainbow camellia, the horticulturists thought no punishment too severe for so abandoned a creature. I applied for a remand, which old Bendel (who was a rabid member of the society) was disposed to refuse. I pointed out that, in the interests of justice, the prisoner should be granted sufficient time to communicate with her friends, and prove herself innocent of the charge. Bendel did not believe she had a defense, and said as much, but after considerable argument I managed to obtain an adjournment for three days. In the matter of bail I was unsuccessful, as the magistrate declined to allow Eliza to be at large until the matter had been legally threshed out. He was supported in this decision by his angered confrères, who had already judged and condemned the delinquent housemaid. The ultimate outcome of my application was the removal of Eliza to her former captivity.

When instructing the parental Drupp by letter as to the misfortune which had befallen his daughter, I suggested that, to clear her character, he should forthwith bring with him to Foxton the Hackney camellia. As to the existence of this plant I had my doubts, expecting that Eliza had mistaken the variegated scentless camellia for the unique plant of Foxton. But the bush brought by Drupp proved to be of the same genus. It was streaked with seven colors, it was scented, and, as a proof that Eliza was innocent, still bore the stem from whence the bud, alleged to have been stolen from the Foxton greenhouse, had been reft. Her story thus appeared to be true, but I thought it strange that, at such a juncture, a blossom should also be missing from our local plant The coincidence was peculiar, the inference doubtful.

"Moy daughter growed this 'ere," explained Drupp, who was quite as cockney in speech as Eliza; "et was browght from Chiner by moy son Sam, es is a Stewart on the Mendeloy. Ses Lizer t'me t'other doy, 'Oi'll jest tike a flower t' Foxton an' see if thet kemmeliar es th' saime es moine.' Which she did, an' now thi've put 'er in quod. Oi 'opes, sir, es 'ow thi'll let 'er orf."

With so clear a defense I thought it extremely probable that they would let her off; but as old Bendel was on the bench I knew the fight would be a tough one. Had Eliza worn the bud when she entered the Gardens, her innocence would have been proved beyond all doubt Still as the matter stood I had every hope of clearing her character.

When Eliza was again placed in the dock the court was even more crowded than on the former occasion. A rumor had originated—I know not how—that a plant similar to that owned by the society would be put in evidence by the defense. As in duty bound no horticulturist believed this fable. As well say there were two Queens of England, as two rainbow camellias. The Foxton plant was displayed in all its glory, and, lost in admiration, the onlookers exclaimed that there was none like unto it. This biblical exclamation is suitable to the scene, for the plant might have been the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar—so abjectly did its worshipers grovel before it. The mere sight of the missing bud roused them to wrathful denunciations against its ravisher.

When brought before the magistrate, Eliza wept loudly; but on the appearance of George in the witness-box, she recovered her spirits, and called him names. Then she again relapsed into tears, and sniffed provokingly during the subsequent proceedings.

Beanfield deposed that Eliza was not wearing the flower when she entered the Gardens, but he admitted that she carried a paper bag, which he feebly conjectured to contain biscuits. He had exchanged no words with her, as they were not on friendly terms, but declared that she had made a face at him, and had derisively put out her tongue. When he saw her again, the bud—produced in court—was fastened in the bosom of her dress. He at once inspected the rainbow camellia, and found a blossom missing, upon which evidence he had given Eliza in charge for theft.

Another gardener proved that no buds were wanting when he saw the plant half an hour before Eliza's visit. He was followed by the President of the Horticultural Society, who stated that outside China, to which the species was indigenous, there was no rainbow camellia in existence. The bud produced in court could only have been taken from the Foxton greenhouse. His assertion of the uniqueness of the plant was received with great applause by his fellow horticulturists.

Their jaws dropped when old Drupp brought forward Eliza's specimen. At first they insisted that the petals were painted, but when by direction of old Bendel the plant was handed round, and handled, and smelt, and thoroughly examined, they were reluctantly compelled to admit that it was a genuine rainbow camellia. The admission almost drew tears from their eyes, and they mourned Ichabod! Ichabod! The two plants placed on either side of the magistrate appeared to closely resemble one another, save that Eliza's was the smaller of the two. I forgot to mention that the Hackney plant had eight buds, while the Foxton plant showed twelve. As a blossom had been plucked from each, these were respectively reduced to seven and eleven.

Drupp's evidence, in conjunction with the production of the plant, turned the scale in favor of Eliza. It was all plain sailing when he opened his mouth. The plant belonged to his daughter; it had been brought from China by her brother the steward; under her care it had grown and flowered; and she had plucked a bud to compare with the blooms of the Foxton bush. No link was wanting in the chain of evidence to prove the innocence of the prisoner, and Bendel was reluctantly compelled to discharge her without a stain on her character. I say reluctantly, because he could not forgive Eliza for owning a duplicate of the Foxton fetich, and, taking all the advantage he could, delivered a smart lecture to its iniquitous possessor. There was no applause when Eliza left the dock.

Restored to freedom, she sought George Beanfield; but he, mindful of her threat, had long since departed. He left the town, he even left the country, for a letter addressed from the Continent was received by the president of the society, which cleared up the mystery of the missing Foxton bud. George stated that in attending to the plant he had accidentally knocked off a blossom and, fearful of a reprimand, had burnt it in the greenhouse fire. The appearance of Eliza with a similar bud to that destroyed had afforded him an opportunity of hiding his delinquency, by making her the scapegoat. He did not offer any opinion as to how he thought Eliza had become possessed of the blossom when the only one missing from the bush had been destroyed by himself.

Thus was the innocence of Eliza proved beyond all doubt, and, angered by the unjust aspersions cast on her, she forthwith proceeded to turn the tables on her accusers. The morning following her acquittal, she appeared in my office with a wrathful countenance.

"Now, sir," said she, viciously, "I'm a-gowin' to hev a action agin them Gardins fur lockin' me up."

But the action never came off. The society, knowing it had no defense, owned that it was in the wrong, and offered to compromise. Moreover they feared lest Eliza should sell her plant to a rival society, and thus rob Foxton of the glory of solely possessing the rainbow camellia. After some correspondence, they agreed to settle the action for five hundred pounds, provided Eliza gave them her plant This she forthwith did, and, having received her damages, paid my fees, and disappeared from Foxton.

A month afterwards my wife again brought up the subject of Eliza Drupp. As usual, the cook was her informant.

"Fred," said she; "Eliza Drupp——"

"Well, what has she been doing now? Stolen another camellia?"

"No. She has married George Beanfield."

"The fellow who gave evidence against her? Impossible."

"It is true. Cook has this morning received a piece of the wedding-cake."

"Well, all I can say, is, that Eliza is of a most forgiving disposition."

"I have no patience with her," replied my wife. "But I think she is ashamed to return to Foxton. She and George have gone to South America."

"A very sensible step to take," said I, weary of the subject. "They can set up on the proceeds of the trial At all events we have heard the last of Eliza Drupp."

The remark was premature for in less than twelve months I was again discussing Eliza, and learning the reason of her eccentric behavior.

It was on board the Mandelay that I heard the truth concerning the matrimonial alliance of our former housemaid. I was ordered to take a sea voyage for the benefit of my health, and as Nell refused to come on the plea of being a bad sailor, I was obliged to make the journey alone. One place was much the same as another to me, provided the instructions of my physician were carried out; so taking the first chance that presented itself, I embarked for China on a Three Star Liner. The ship was comfortable, the passengers sociable, and the table excellent, so the voyage promised to be very pleasant. As a description thereof is not pertinent to the story, I proceed at once to the episode which brought up again the name of Eliza Drupp.

Among the stewards figured a red-haired creature, freckled and stumpy. He was neither my table nor berth attendant, yet he never failed when by any accident I caught his eye to salute me with a knowing grin. This mark of recognition led me to examine him closely, in the expectation of finding him a former client or servant. I could not recall his features, yet they seemed familiar to me. We were in the Bay of Biscay when I spoke to him. The ship was rolling heavily, and on my way to lie down in my cabin, I met with my red-polled friend. He smiled as usual, whereupon I asked him if he knew me.

"No, sir," said he with a grin, "but 'Lizer knows y' sir."

"’Lizer?"

"M' sister, sir, 'Lizer Drupp es was."

"Ah, that accounts for the familiar look of your face. You are her brother Sam."

"Yessir. Shell I 'elp y' long t' y' bunk, sir?"

"If you please."

By this unexpected meeting the circumstances of the case recurred to my mind, and I was pleased to meet with Sam. It was he who had brought the camellia to Eliza, and I wished to learn where he procured it, and also why his sister had married her enemy. Sam was not unlike my former client, but, owing to his vocation, had a less pronounced cockney accent. At times, however, the Londoner peeped out.

"How is Eliza?" I asked, when safely bestowed in my bunk. "And where is Eliza?"

"In Paraguay with 'er 'usband, sir. They're es 'eppy es th' doy es long."

"That is rather curious, Drupp, considering her husband was a witness in that case of——"

Sam interrupted me at this moment by laughing violently. I checked his untoward mirth with a frown, whereupon he wiped his eyes and apologized.

"’Scuse me, sir, but I ken't 'elp laufin' when I thenk of thet 'ere caise. Y' got 'Lizer foive 'un'red, y' did, sir. She an' George 'ave bowght a ranch in Paraguay an' are gittin' on fine. Don Jorge 'e is now, sir, an' 'Lizer's quite t' laidy."

"Her bad luck was the cause of her good luck," said I epigrammatically; "it was a fortunate thing for Eliza that you brought that rainbow camellia from China."

Sam grinned and again apologized.

"Bless y', sir, I didn't bring no camelliar fro' Chiner, sir."

"Then how did Eliza become possessed of the second plant?"

"George, sir, 'e got 'er slip off t' Foxton plant."

"George!" repeated I in amazement, "but he gave evidence against her. If he got her the slip he must have known——"

"Course 'e did, sir. It was all ploy-actin'. 'Lizer wrot 'ome an' told all about it."

"Then you can tell me all about it, Drupp. As I conducted the case I should hear the sequel. It may explain why Eliza married Beanfield."

"Thet it do, sir," said Sam grinning. "It were this waiy, sir. 'Lizer 'ad no money, an' George 'adn't enough to marry on. Th'y wanted to git spliced, an' so 'it on a plan to git money. 'Lizer she was readin' about a cove es got a thousan' poun's fur bein' put in quod when 'e was innercent, so she ses t' George, 'Cawn't we try the saime gaime on an' git enough t' marry on?' An' George, sir, 'ad an idear—'e's a long-'eaded chap, sir—fur bein' a gardiner to t' Foxton Society, 'e knew whot a lot th'y thought of thet blessed camelliar. So 'e steals a slip an' tells 'Lizer to mek it grow, an' to tell father es I brought it fro' Chiner. She arsked me t' soy so, an' not knowin' 'er gaime I sid so. But I niver knowed anythin' about it, sir. Then 'Lizer meks it grow es George ses, tho' t'was a long toime growin'. When t' flowers come, she taiks one t' Foxton an' walks into th' green'ouse an'——"

"I see it was all arranged between them so as to sue the society and get damages?"

"Yessir. George nipped off a bud an' burnt it, 'e did. Then 'Lizer, wearin' 'er own comes out an' 'e puts 'er in quod."

"And between the two of them they clear £500?"

"Yessir, an' then 'e marries 'er. D'ysee, sir?"

"I see, Drupp, and I must say they are a nice pair."

"Thet th'y are, sir. I'd a split their gaime 'ad I know'd it."

After delivering this opinion Drupp departed and I was left to ruminate over his story. I quite believed that he was ignorant of the plot, but was satisfied that had he known he would only have held his tongue if well paid. It was useless to give the benefit of the doubt to one who was of the same stock as Eliza. That artful girl knew her family too well to intrust them with her secret, and, less legal expenses, she and her fellow-conspirator got the whole of the damages to themselves. Much as I condemned their rascality, I could not but admire the cleverness with which they had planned and carried out their scheme. They had deceived Drupp, they had deceived the society, they had deceived me. Their comedy was extremely well acted, and ended quite to their satisfaction. Therefore I say that country wits are at times equal to those of town-bred folks, for though the idea was Eliza's, the conception and execution of the scheme emanated from the bucolic brain of George.

I told the whole story to my wife when I returned home, and she was very severe on her former housemaid. Naturally enough she could not keep it to herself, and in a short time the history of the deception soon became town-talk. At first the members of the Horticultural Society were angered at being so treated, but as the delinquents were in South America, it was wisely concluded to let the matter drop. They possessed both rainbow camellias, and, warned by the trickery of George and Eliza, watched the plants with renewed vigilance. I do not think that any one else will have the chance of stealing a "lip of the Foxton fetich, but should a third rainbow camellia make its appearance in the market, old Bendel is quite resolved not to be hoodwinked a second time. He often regrets that he did not give Eliza six months, but is now too late, for the conspirators are now engaged in farming at the Antipodes. They ought to rear a rainbow camellia if only to remind them of their iniquity.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.