“OH, OPIUM!” (2/3).
[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Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction.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.]
Fernando’s Café, managed by two cheerful sisters who owned to nothing foreign save their name, was a quiet unpretentious tea house, conveniently situated in an unfrequented passage between the two main thoroughfares of Bradborough. Mr. Digby sometimes went in there for a glass of milk and a bun. The place was quiet; the bun was always fresh; and for the first six months of the war there was cream on the milk.
When he called there on the afternoon of his return to work – he had purposely left the mill early – the place was empty, except for two men seated at a table in the corner.
“A glass of milk and a bun, please,” said Mr. Digby, as he sat down. He had forgotten to buy an evening paper, and, having nothing to distract his attention, he turned his chair so that he could observe the other two occupants of the room, whom he judged to be clerks.
Before he realised it, he found himself listening more intently than he had ever listened in his life before.
“Abe Pope,” the shorter of the two men was saying; “but why Abe Pope?”
“Why not? He’s as good as any other to start off with. He gives you your one and eleven straight away.”
“Cache,” said the other, thoughtfully. “That means it’s hidden?”
“Well, wouldn’t you hide the stuff, if you had it? It’s perfectly feasible. If it wasn’t for a scheme like this, it would be impossible to remember how to move it. Now the whole thing’s simple, and can be done in a few minutes.”
“Well,” said the short man, “I’ll try to-night. It’s the sort of thing that gets on your nerves if you put it off for too long.”
“Do it and you’re one of us. I reckon it’s a test. Do I worry? Am I bothered by a hundred and one petty scruples? Of course not! And my income’s more than double what it was. It’s time we were off, though.”
They got up, paid their bill at the counter, and had left the shop, before Mr. Digby had decided what to do. As the swing-door closed behind them, he started to his feet. No! it would be useless to try and follow them. He must think of some other way.
“Do you know the names of those two men who just went out?” he asked the younger Miss Fernando.
“The quiet-spoken gentleman with spectacles and a purple tie is Mr. Sutcliffe, who keeps the chemist’s shop just round the corner. That other young Jew fellow with the squint I’ve never seen before. He looks as if he’d been overworking himself making khaki suits for other lads to wear.”
Mr. Digby thanked her for the information.
“My next move,” he said to himself, “is to Fetlock Lane. I want to know if there is anything to be found out at Isaac Pope & Son’s.”
The central office of the Parcels Delivery Company was a dingy building, wedged in between two warehouses. A horse-drawn delivery van stood outside the door.
Mr. Digby walked up the steps and found himself standing before a desk in a room that resembled a railway company’s left-luggage office.
“I want to speak to Mr. Abraham Pope,” he said, addressing a blond young man, who was making entries with a stump of indelible pencil in an immense day-book.
“Who?” he said.
“Mr. Abraham Pope,” repeated Mr. Digby; and there was a shade less conviction in his voice.
“Don’t know of such a person. He doesn’t live here anyhow.”
“Pardon me,” said Mr. Digby, “but what is the name of the younger Mr. Pope in your firm?”
“Arthur Bevington Exley Pope. I’m the man, and I’m the firm. I suppose you mistook my initials for my Christian name. What is it you want?”
Mr. Digby handed him a card.
“I came,” he said – and the honest old fellow blushed at the lie – “to ask for a subscription towards the Police Orphanage.”
The young man looked at the card and then at Mr. Digby.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “to have spoken so abruptly, but we’re bound to hustle in my business. I am an orphan and a special constable. You can put me down for half a guinea.”
Never had Mr. Digby received so unexpected a subscription. The money burned his pocket.
“It is most generous of you,” he said. “I will send you a copy of the annual report by to-night’s post.”
Once outside the building he breathed more freely. Events were moving quickly. The meshes in the net of coincidence were shrinking.
The driver of the delivery van was wiping his forehead, after lifting a couple of cases from the pavement.
“Thirsty work for man and beast in this weather,” said Mr. Digby.
“It is that,” the driver answered. “They talk of dilution, but if they saw the beer they give me and the oats I give him, they’d keep their mouths shut. And now the boss is all for motors.”
“Where do you stable your horses?” Mr. Digby asked.
“Up the lane. First turn to the left and second to the right. We’ve only three of them left. Tolson’s Mews is what they call it.”
Mr. Digby stepped out briskly. As the field of his search narrowed, his spirits rose. Luck so far had favoured him; but he could afford to throw away no opportunities. He remembered how the man in the tea room had said he would try that night. Somewhere in Tolson’s Mews the opium was hidden. He would see what sort of a place it was and then go home to think over his plans at tea. He would have a couple of boiled eggs for tea. He was hungry; and this, after all, might rightly be described as war work.
In the stable-yard a man was leading a horse out of the shafts of a dilapidated four-wheeler.
“Mr. Tolson?” asked Mr. Digby.
“No, sir,” the man replied. “Mr. Tolson is out of town; but Mrs. Tolson is somewhere about. What was it you wanted?”
“I came to see whether I could buy any oats here. I’m finding them very difficult to obtain, and should be prepared to pay a good price.”
“Sorry, sir,” said the man, “but I’m afraid we can’t. We got our last little lot in ten days ago, and it’s got to last us out the month. If there’s one thing more than another that Mr. Tolson’s particular about, it’s the oats. He’ll be had up for food-hoarding one of these days, if he isn’t careful.”
“I shouldn’t have thought he’d have room to store them on these premises.”
“Oh, hasn’t he? There’s a loose-box over in the corner there that holds a nice tidy lot. Sorry we can’t oblige you, sir, but orders is orders.”
It was after six o’clock when Mr. Digby got back home, feeling a little tired, it is true, but aglow with the fire of adventure. He wondered as he ate his tea – and there was no need for the doctor’s tonic – whether he would not be well-advised to take Charlie Dyson into his confidence. He might find himself in a tight corner, and Charlie knew how to use his fists. The lone hand, however, appealed to him as always; he would go without his Dr. Watson; if there was no chronicler of his success, there would be no witness of his failure. Carefully he laid his plan. He would wait until it was nearly dark, make his way to Tolson’s Mews, conceal himself in the yard, and at the first favourable opportunity he would break into the loose-box. He had already noticed a window that appeared to be insecurely fastened. Once inside the building, he would look round for the oats. He expected to find them in sacks, and the opium would be in the mouths of the sacks, just like the gold in the story of Joseph and his brethren. He rather wished that his mental picture of opium was clearer. He had indeed no idea of what the drug looked like. Would it be in the form of ingots or pills? Would it be an odorous liquid in bottles or a sticky substance put up in boxes? He turned up the year-old Reports of the Anti-Opium Society for information; opium was described as a curse, as China’s ruin and England’s shame, as a blot on the fair escutcheon of civilisation. There were maps of China, graphs, diagrams, and photographs of missionaries; but no one said what opium looked like.
“It seems to be both eaten and smoked,” said Mr. Digby thoughtfully, “to have medicinal properties, to soothe, and to satisfy the craving of hunger. I must be prepared to find something between cough-lozenges and tobacco. Probably it will resemble bad-smelling indiarubber.”
As he passed through the hall, he thought of an idea that would make his task infinitely easier. He wondered that it had not come into his mind before. He had recently enrolled as a special constable; he would wear the simple insignia of his office, and if any questions were asked, they would furnish the necessary reply. After all, he was acting in the interest of the public; and if he really had to break into a house – burgle, in fact – he would be much easier in spirit if his body was clothed as a policeman.
“This is really rather sporting of me,” he said, as he slipped an electric torch into his pocket and put on his galoshes so that his footsteps should be less audible. “I shall be sixty next birthday.”