“OH, OPIUM!” (1/3).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents. Ed.]
The road from the station to the Post Office Square was lined with people; the square itself was crowded. There came a faint self-conscious cheer, as the long line of ambulances passed, the first wounded from the last offensive. They had come home, and they had brought the war home with them to the city of ringing forges and ever restless looms.
Mr. Digby, wedged in so tightly that he could not wipe his spectacles, watched the convoy in silence. So tightly indeed was he wedged, that he was wholly unable to turn when he felt a hand surreptitiously inserted into the pocket of his tail-coat.
“Will you kindly remove your hand?” he said; and of necessity his remarks were addressed to the red nape of the gentleman in sporting tweeds who stood immediately in front of him.
Mr. Digby had been cheated; his house had been burgled; he had even been a willing though an unwitting accessory to the escape of a German prisoner. He had spent more hours than he cared to think on the magisterial bench; but never before had his pocket been picked, and knowing that his pocket was empty, his sensation was more of amused curiosity than of annoyance. Elbowing his neighbours, he swung himself round with an effort.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I should advise you all to be careful. There is a pickpocket about.”
“The devil there is!” exclaimed the gentleman in sporting tweeds. “He had better not try any of his tricks on me!” and he glared round suspiciously. “It’s all very well to hold up the traffic like this,” he continued, “but I’ve a train to catch and three minutes to reach the station. Ah! that’s the end of them.”
The last of the cars swung past up the hill to the hospital, and the policeman in the centre of the square made a sign to the special constables.
“Poor lads!” said Mr. Digby, as he made his way to the club. “Poor lads! They’ve come up out of hell, and he grumbles because he may be half an hour late for tea and the muffins will be cold.”
When Mr. Digby undressed that night, he arranged the contents of his eighteen pockets – always a source of joy and envy to the little boys who on occasion were privileged to witness their amazing disclosures – on the top of the chest of drawers. Keys, penknife, silver-bladed fruit knife, paper knife, a pocket-magnifying glass – for he was something of a botanist – a pair of scissors, his watch and seals, a little book containing black adhesive plaster and goldbeaters’ skin, a bundle of letters and circulars, and two pocket-books. That was all as it should be. The strange thing, the unexpected thing, was that there was a third pocket-book in the pocket of his tail-coat, which some thief in the crowd that evening had tried to pick.
“Strange!” said Mr. Digby, as he put on his glasses. “Very strange! This most certainly does not belong to me.”
It was a small, inexpensive, leather pocket-book, such as could be bought at any stationer’s before the war for a couple of shillings; a useful, serviceable pocket-book; the sort of thing a niece might choose as a birthday present to an uncle whom she respected but did not love. It contained two foreign stamps, of China and Costa Rica, and a short slip of paper, on which eight words were written, one below the other, in a beautifully neat handwriting: “Abe Pope my opium cache safe oats mews.” There was nothing by which the owner could be identified.
Mr. Digby brushed his teeth thoughtfully.
“There are two problems,” he said to himself. “How in the world did this pocket-book come into my possession? and what in the world does that slip of paper mean?”
He said his prayers hurriedly and got into bed to think the matter over.
Athelstan Digby had always liked detective stories; a furtive liking, it is true, and one which as a level-headed business man he felt it his duty never to obtrude. The books which he borrowed from the library were not often detective tales; but at railway bookstalls he considered himself at liberty to indulge his tastes. Gaboriau, Conan Doyle, Le Roux, Chesterton – he knew them all.
“This,” he said, as he lay tossing in bed, “is a most extraordinary prelude to adventure.”
The first of the two problems was relatively easy. A pickpocket in the crowd had reason to suspect that he had been observed by a policeman, and, in order to avoid being discovered in possession of stolen goods, he had slipped the pocket-book into the pocket that was nearest him at the time, and which had happened to be Mr. Digby’s, with the intention of calling for it at a more convenient opportunity. His clumsy fingers had aroused Mr. Digby’s attention, whose ejaculation had shown that he suspected a pickpocket, with the result that the thief had not dared to run the risk of recapturing his booty.
“That, at least, is a plausible theory,” thought Mr. Digby.
But he could make nothing of the contents of the pocket-book. The words, written one below the other on a narrow strip of paper, formed no sentence. They hardly made sense. An opium cache, Abe Pope, mews, oats – if it meant anything at all, it would seem as if a store of opium had been concealed among oats at some livery stable and that a person called Abe Pope was interested in the matter.
But Mr. Digby was no fool. If opium smuggling existed, it was none the less extremely improbable that it was conducted in so crude and melodramatic a fashion. It was far more likely that he was the victim of a practical joke. Reluctantly he came to the conclusion that this indeed must be the explanation. If ever he were to fill the role of Sherlock Holmes or Arsène Lupin, it would only be in dreams.
Next morning he took the two stamps from the pocket-book to give to the night-watchman’s little boy, and dismissed the matter from his mind. But, though at the time he did not know it, Athelstan Digby had once again crossed the threshold of adventure.
The invitation to the drawing-room meeting which Mrs. Bulteel had arranged at the vicarage for the consideration of the proposed new university for Central China recalled to Mr. Digby’s mind memories of heavy, somnolent afternoons before the war. He did not really want to go; he supposed no one did; he had been over-persuaded by Canon Everet-Jones, whose importunity he had not the heart to withstand.
“You must represent the business community,” the Canon had said. “This man Dawkins is an excellent speaker; he has come down to unfold his project at great personal inconvenience; and I’m afraid he’ll be disappointed if he sees nothing but a room of old maids and parsons.”
“It’s our money he wants, I suppose,” said Mr. Digby.
“Your interest, Mr. Digby, your interest.”
“And our capital as well. However, I suppose I must accompany you; but, mind, I don’t promise a subscription. His scheme may, as you say, be epoch-making, yet, surely, our first duty is to get on with the war.”
“But think for a moment of all that the evangelization of Central China means” – and Canon Everet-Jones had led him off, refusing to believe Mr. Digby’s assertion that Central China meant nothing to him at all.
Very hot and very uncomfortable, he sat in the large drawing-room at the vicarage, while Mr. Dawkins, speaking with a pronounced American accent, explained the reasons for the failure of the religion of Confucius, and Mrs. Bulteel declaimed in the pantry against the conduct of the second parlour maid, who had unexpectedly left that afternoon to make munitions, taking with her or purposely mislaying, the muffins which had been specially ordered for tea.
Mr. Digby, making no pretence to follow Mr. Dawkins’s graphic description of his journey up the Yangtze, looked round the room to see how many members of his own sex were present. They formed in all a little band of seven, and of these, three were clerics. The only layman whom he recognised was Timothy Saltmarsh, a former mayor of Bradborough, the president or vice-president of half her charitable institutions, whose venerable head was bowed in somnolent acquiescence in the urgency of China’s need. From time to time he jotted something down on a slip of paper. Mr. Digby supposed that he was preparing to propose a vote of thanks. Then, as if his notes were completed, he folded the slip of paper into a cocked hat, unfolded it, and, changing his mind, converted it into a paper boat. When, however, he was called upon by the vicar to say a few words, Mr. Saltmarsh, for so experienced a speaker, seemed to be strangely nonplussed. He fumbled nervously with his glasses, forgot Mr. Dawkins’s name, and was in consequence obliged to refer to him as one whose efforts on behalf of education in the Far East had been gratefully recognized by countless thousands in both the hemispheres; then, after emphasizing the fact that China’s need was England’s opportunity, he sat down; and Mrs. Bulteel poured out the tea.
Mr. Digby enjoyed the tea; it was China tea, and he was very thirsty. Only when he realised that the room was rapidly thinning and that Mr. Dawkins was trying to get an opportunity of speaking to him, did he thank his hostess and withdraw. As he passed out of the door, he stooped to pick up the little piece of folded paper that Timothy Saltmarsh, in his confusion, must have dropped. A folded thing asks to be unfolded. Mr. Digby unfolded it.
“Abe Pope my opium cache,” he read, “safe mews oats.”
“The plot thickens,” said Mr. Digby; and the memory of the many detective stories he had read told him that for once at any rate he had said the right thing.
That night Mr. Digby went to bed with a headache. It was the beginning of a mild attack of influenza. “This,” he told himself, “is what comes of going to drawing-room meetings;” and when the inevitable letter arrived, he politely refused to subscribe to the proposed new University.
The four days of enforced idleness gave him, however, an opportunity for thought. He had no desire to waste time in reading of adventures; an adventure had come to him unasked and unsought. He compared the hand-writings on the two slips of paper to see if they were the same. They were not. Following classical precedent, he examined the paper carefully for watermarks; but of watermarks there was no sign. Timothy Saltmarsh! Was it possible that so eminent a citizen, the time-honoured buttress of church and chapel, could be leading a double life? Reluctantly, yes, reluctantly (for there is a vicarious excitement in the unexpected lapses of our most respectable friends) he admitted that, though possible, it was wildly, grotesquely improbable. The only thing that could be said in favour of Timothy Saltmarsh being an illicit trader in opium was that he was the last person in the world of whom such a suspicion could be entertained.
“I hope I am mistaken,” said Mr. Digby; and he repeated the remark, because he was a little uncertain as to the genuineness of his hope; “but as a mental exercise I shall proceed to investigate this case on the supposition that it may eventually end in criminal proceedings. After all there is money in opium, especially now that the prices of drugs have risen so enormously; and half the fires in which poor Saltmarsh placed his irons went out with the war.”
He consulted the telephone directory. Pope – there were nearly a dozen Popes: John Henry, Physician and Surgeon; Walter, wholesale Tobacconist; William H., Commission Agent (two lines); but he looked in vain for Abraham. Of course the man referred to might not live in Bradborough, or, if he were a citizen of the place, might only be found in the street directory. Again, he might be staying at one of the hotels. He had no means of checking any of his theories; but on running an eye a second time down the list he found that, though there was not an Abraham, there was an Isaac Pope and Son, Parcel Delivery Agents, Fetlock Lane. A man called Isaac might retaliate by calling his son Abraham. He determined that, as soon as he was well, he would pursue his investigations in that quarter.
The net of coincidence had, however, been cast around Athelstan Digby. He was caught in its meshes on the very day that he went back to business.