“OH, OPIUM!” (3/3).
[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Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction.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.]
There were not many people about. The wind made it too cold for loitering, and the night was overclouded. Mr. Digby walked resolutely to the scene of action. A street lamp’s muffled rays threw a little patch of purple light on to the pavement opposite the mews. The stable yard gate stood open. Happy, though self-conscious, he turned up the collar of his coat, and, stepping inside, took up his stand in a corner behind a heavy dray. Little by little his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. He made a mental note of the yard and its outbuildings, The loose-box in which the oats were stored was opposite him. The window – he noted the fact with satisfaction – was not overlooked from the road. As he tiptoe’d silently towards it, he found the sensation of conscious wrongdoing extraordinarily interesting.
With a hurried glance over his shoulder Mr. Digby began his work. Getting between the shafts of an empty hansom, he pushed it up against the wall, immediately under the window, so that by standing on the wheel, he was able to prise open the fastening with the chisel he had brought with him for the purpose. It was easier than he had dared to hope. The sash opened upwards. Driving his square, hard felt hat firmly over his brows, perspiring profusely, he squeezed through the window and dropped on to a pile of straw. The electric torch showed a long room, the further end of which was filled with trusses of hay, while to the right of the door, leaning against the wall, was a row of sacks, the very sacks that he had in fancy pictured. From his waistcoat pocket he took out a pair of scissors, and cutting the string that tied the neck of the first, he plunged his hand inside. The oats rustled between his fingers.
“You had better not try to escape,” said a voice; “I am covering you with a pistol.” He looked up. There at the window through which he had climbed, Athelstan Digby saw the head and shoulders of the little chemist whom he had met that afternoon in Fernando’s tea shop.
“Put your hands above your head,” he said, “and remember that I’m armed.” As he spoke, he dropped on to the pile of straw; but before he could pick himself up, Mr. Digby’s thirteen stone was squeezing the breath out of his body, Mr. Digby’s ten fingers were at his throat.
“And now,” said Mr. Digby, when he had rendered the little man speechless, “answer my questions. Where is the opium? I am a special constable and a magistrate. You had better make a clean breast of everything. Have I hurt your arm?” he added, as he noticed a look of pain on the little man’s face.
“You have torn my armlet, sir,” he said with dignity. “I too am a special constable. Five minutes ago I saw some one lurking in the yard and when I passed again, the light from your torch showed distinctly through the window. I think there is a mistake somewhere; an explanation should be forthcoming.”
“I quite agree, Mr. Sutcliffe; but this is hardly the place. My name is Digby – I think you will recognize it – and here is my card. I have still only your word for what you say.
“My sergeant can speak for me, or my relief. I am due to meet him at the corner of Fetlock Lane in five minutes.”
“Then let us go,” said Mr. Digby, turning towards the window.
The order of their going was not, however, so simple a matter. The little man pointed out that if Mr. Digby were a burglar – and he had only Mr. Digby’s word to take that he was not – he ought not to go first. Mr. Digby put forward the view that if the little man were a murderer – as he easily might be – it would be the simplest thing in the world for him to attack Mr. Digby in the rear.
“We cannot climb through the window together,” said Mr. Sutcliffe, whose profession had successfully drugged his sense of humour, “it is not large enough.”
“We might at least try the door,” Mr. Digby answered.
The door was bolted on the inside but not locked. Arm in arm they walked out of the yard and into Fetlock Lane. The special constable, waiting at the corner to relieve him, identified Mr. Digby’s companion, and by good fortune he happened too to know Mr. Digby by sight.
“Mr. Sutcliffe,” said the old gentleman, “I feel that I owe you an apology. I think, however, that you may be able to furnish me with the explanation of a series of remarkable coincidences. Come round to my house and share a late supper with me.”
“I should be delighted,” he answered, “but Mrs. Sutcliffe…”
“Tut, tut!” said Athelstan Digby, bachelor. “Mrs. Sutcliffe may be sitting up for you; but there’s a cold boiled chicken waiting for me; and, unlike Mrs. Sutcliffe, it will be gone to-morrow. You wife, I hope, has many years of usefulness before her.”
The inadequacy of the analogy so baffled the little chemist, that he found, almost before he knew it, that he had agreed.
“And now,” said Mr. Digby, as they sat before the grey embers in the dining-room, “this is what I want you to explain.” He handed him the slip of paper which he had found in the pocket-book and the much-folded paper cocked-hat which Timothy Saltmarsh had dropped on Mrs. Bulteel’s drawing-room floor. He told him what he had overheard at Fernando’s tea room, and the deductions he had made.
“It is indeed a most remarkable train of coincidences,” said Mr. Sutcliffe.
“And I,” said Mr. Digby, “have been knocked down by the train!”
“You have heard,” the little chemist continued, without a smile, “of Hugo Hathaway’s System of Self-Expression? You must have seen the advertisements in the papers. He has students enrolled in every city in the kingdom, men and women of every age, of every station in life, from a former mayor of Bradborough, like Mr. Saltmarsh, to my humble self. Briefly, it is an application of the principles of psychology, physiology, and mental hygiene to the problems of everyday life.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Digby, “those phrases certainly seem familiar. Pray continue.”
“One of the early lessons, entitled “Mental Gymnastics the Secret of Success,” contains as an exercise a problem in chess, the knight’s move. If you are a chess player, you will know that the knight can be made to move round the board, covering each square once and once only. It involves sixty-five moves. To remember them the squares are numbered, and a figure alphabet is used, where the consonants stand for numbers. I’ll show you what I mean if you’ll give me a piece of paper. I write down the numbers from 0 to 9, and underneath, the consonants which represent them, thus:
“Words are then made embodying the necessary consonants. “Abe” stands for 1, “Pope” for 11, “my” for 5, and so on. “Cache,” you will observe, is spelt phonetically. The words are so arranged as to form a sequence relatively easy to remember, though personally, not being imaginative, I found it rather difficult. But then my memory has always been a poor one. That was one of the reasons why I took the Hathaway course. It is so awkward in making up prescriptions. When I got home this evening, I spent an hour learning those sixty-five words; and I can translate them into figures without the slightest difficulty. If you have a chess-board handy, I will demonstrate to you the knight’s move.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Digby, relieved that his own egregious folly was being lost to sight in the other’s pride of memory, “it certainly is very wonderful. And Mr. Saltmarsh was, I suppose, learning to perform the same curious feat?”
“Undoubtedly, sir. Hathaway’s students are constantly being urged to occupy every spare moment in practising. It is only by constant practice that we can hope to obtain a perfect memory. A good memory means money. I’m not yet a third of the way through the course, but I calculate that already I am the gainer by nearly ten pounds.”
“And yet,” said Mr. Digby, “there is much to be said for a bad memory.”
“Is there?” the other replied, with a puzzled expression on his face. A bad memory surely is worth very little.”
“About fifteen pounds, Mr. Sutcliffe. Your sense of humour happily is not very strong, what? There’s no need to deny it. The denial of such a charge is only a further confirmation of its truth. Besides, a chemist is safer without a sense of humour. I have been acting in a somewhat ludicrous manner, and incidentally I am afraid I treated you rather roughly. I should be greatly obliged if you will forget the incident and accept these three notes. Provided that no one else reminds me of it in the future, I consider that I have spent a most instructive and entertaining evening.”
“I can forget without that, Mr. Digby,” said the little chemist, “there is really no need.”
“I should, however, feel happier. A bad memory, you know, in one of Hathaway’s students is rare. Come, my dear sir! it means little to me, and we all have our eccentricities. Mrs. Sutcliffe has been sitting up for you these last two hours; it won’t do to keep her waiting any longer.”
Mr. Sutcliffe sighed.
“Yes,” he said, “I must certainly be going. I thank you, Mr. Digby, for your generosity. I take it,” he added, with hesitation, “that you have no objection to my informing Mrs. Sutcliffe where I have been?”
“None whatever, my dear sir; and I shall feel honoured if you will both favour me with your company at tea on Sunday. One other request I have to make. When you come, could you bring with you a small quantity of crude opium? My mental picture of the drug is altogether vague; and it would be to me and to me alone a constant reminder of a most interesting misadventure.”