THE WRONG BLACK BAG





It was the eve of Good Friday. Within the modest parlour of No. 13

Primrose Terrace a little man, wearing a gray felt hat and a red

neck-tie, stood admiring himself in the looking-glass over the

mantelpiece. Such a state of things anywhere else would have had no

significance whatever; but circumstances proverbially alter cases.

At 13 Primrose Terrace it approached the dimensions of a portent.



Not to keep the reader in suspense, the little man was Benjamin Quelch,

clerk in the office of Messrs. Cobble & Clink, coal merchants, and

he was about to carry out a desperate resolution. Most men have

some secret ambition; Benjamin's was twofold. For years he had

yearned to wear a soft felt hat and to make a trip to Paris, and

for years Fate, in the person of Mrs. Quelch, had stood in the way

and prevented the indulgence of his longing. Quelch being, as we

have hinted, exceptionally small of stature, had, in accordance

with mysterious law of opposites, selected the largest lady of his

acquaintance as the partner of his joys. He himself was of a meek

and retiring disposition. Mrs. Quelch, on the other hand, was

a woman of stern and decided temperament, with strong views upon

most subjects. She administered Benjamin's finances, regulated his

diet, and prescribed for him when his health was out order. Though

fond of him in her own way, she ruled him with a rod of iron, and

on three points she was inflexible. To make up for his insignificance

of stature, she insisted on his wearing the tallest hat that money

could procure, to the exclusion of all other head-gear; secondly,

on the ground that it looked more "professional," she would allow

him none but black silk neckties; and lastly, she would not let him

smoke. She had further an intense repugnance to all things foreign,

holding as an article of faith that no good thing, whether in art,

cookery, or morals, was to be found on other than English soil.

When Benjamin once, in a rash moment, suggested a trip to Boulogne

by way of summer holiday, the suggestion was received in a manner

that took away his appetite for a week afterward.



The prohibition of smoking Quelch did not much mind; for, having

in his salad days made trial of a cheap cigar, the result somehow

satisfies him that tobacco was not in his line, and he ceased to

yearn for it accordingly. But the tall hat and the black necktie

were constant sources of irritation. He had an idea, based on his

having once won a drawing prize at school, that nature had intended

him for an artist, and he secretly lamented the untoward fate which

had thrown him away upon coals. Now the few artists Benjamin had

chanced to meet affected a soft and slouchy style of head-gear,

and a considerable amount of freedom, generally with a touch of

colour, in the region of the neck. Such, therefore, in the fitness

of things, should have been the hat and such the neck-gear of

Benjamin Quelch, and the veto of his wife only made him yearn for

them the more intensely.



In later years he had been seized with a longing to see Paris. It

chanced that a clerk in the same office, one Peter Flipp, had made

one of a personally conducted party on a visit to the gay city.



The cost of the trip had been but five guineas; but never, surely,

were five guineas so magnificently invested. There was a good deal

of romance about Flipp, and it may be that his accounts were not

entirely trustworthy; but they so fired the imagination of our

friend Benjamin that he had at once begun to hoard up surreptitious

sixpences, with the hope that some day he too might, by some

unforeseen combination of circumstances, be enabled to visit the

enchanted city.



And at last that day had come. Mrs. Quelch, her three children

and her one domestic, had gone to Lowestoft for an Easter outing,

Benjamin and a deaf charwoman, Mrs. Widger, being left in charge

of the family belongings. Benjamin's Easter holidays were limited

to Good Friday and Easter Monday, and, as it seemed hardly worth

while that he should travel so far as Lowestoft for such short

periods, Mrs. Quelch had thoughtfully arranged that he should

spend the former day at the British Museum and the latter at the

Zoological Gardens. Two days after her departure, however, Mr.

Cobble called Quelch into his private office and told him that if

he liked he might for once take holiday from the Friday to the

Tuesday inclusive, and join his wife at the seaside.



Quelch accepted the boon with an honest intention of employing

it as suggested. Indeed, he had even begun a letter to his wife

announcing the pleasing intelligence, and had got as far as "My dear

Penelope," when a wild and wicked thought struck him: why should

he not spend his unexpected holiday in Paris?



Laying down his pen, he opened his desk: and counted his secret

hoard. It amounted to five pounds seventeen, twelve shillings more

than Flipp's outlay. There was no difficulty in that direction,

and nobody would be any the wiser. His wife would imagine that

he was in London, while his employers would believe him to be

at Lowestoft. There was a brief struggle in his mind, but the

tempter prevailed, and, with a courage worthy of a better cause,

he determined to risk it and--_go_.



And thus it came to pass that, on the evening of our story, Benjamin

Quelch, having completed his packing,--which merely comprised what

he was accustomed to call his "night things," neatly bestowed in

a small black hand-bag belonging to Mrs. Quelch,--stood before the

looking-glass and contemplated his guilty splendour, the red necktie

and the soft gray felt hat, purchased out of surplus funds. He had

expended a couple of guineas in a second-class return ticket, and

another two pounds in "coupons," entitling him to bed, breakfast,

and dinner for five days at certain specified hotels in Paris.

This outlay, with half a crown for a pair of gloves, and a bribe

of five shillings to secure the silence of Mrs. Widger, left him

with little more than a pound in hand, but this small surplus would

no doubt amply suffice for his modest needs.



His only regret, as he gazed at himself in the glass was that he had

not had time to grow a moustache, the one thing needed to complete

his artistic appearance. But time was fleeting, and he dared not

linger over the enticing picture. He stole along the passage, and

softly opened the street door. As he did so a sudden panic came over

him, and he felt half inclined to abandon his rash design. But as

he wavered he caught sight of the detested tall hat hanging up in

the passage, and he hesitated no longer. He passed out, and, closing

the door behind him, started at a brisk pace for Victoria station.



His plans had been laid with much ingenuity, though at a terrible

sacrifice of his usual straight-forwardness. He had written a

couple of letters to Mrs. Quelch, to be posted by Mrs. Widger on

appropriate days, giving imaginary accounts of his visits to the

British Museum and Zoological Gardens, with pointed allusions to

the behavior of the elephant, and other circumstantial particulars.

To insure the posting of these in proper order, he had marked the

dates in pencil on the envelopes in the corner usually occupied by

the postage-stamp, so that when the latter was affixed the figures

would be concealed. He explained the arrangement to Mrs. Widger,

who promised that his instructions should be faithfully carried

out.



After a sharp walk he reached the railway-station, and in due

course found himself steaming across the Channel to Dieppe. The

passage was not especially rough, but to poor Quelch, unaccustomed

as he was to the sea, it seemed as if the boat must go to the

bottom every moment. To the bodily pains of seasickness were added

the mental pains of remorse, and between the two he reached Dieppe

more dead than alive; indeed, he would almost have welcomed death

as a release from his sufferings.



Even when the boat had arrived at the pier he still remained in the

berth he had occupied all night, and would probably have continued

to lie there had not the steward lifted him by main force to his

feet. He seized his black bag with a groan, and staggered on deck.

Here he felt a little better, but new terrors seized him at the

sight of the gold-laced officials and blue-bloused porters, who

lined each side of the gangway, all talking at the top of their

voices, and in tones which seemed, to his unaccustomed ear, to

convey a thirst for British blood. No sooner had he landed than he

was accosted by a ferocious-looking personage (in truth, a harmless

custom-house officer), who asked him in French whether he had

anything to declare, and made a movement to take his bag in order

to mark it as "passed." Quelch jumped to the conclusion that the

stranger was a brigand bent on depriving him of his property, and

he held on to the bag with such tenacity that the douanier naturally

inferred there was something specially contraband about it. He

proceeded to open it, and produced, among sundry other feminine

belongings, a lady's frilled and furbelowed night-dress, from which,

as he unrolled it, fell a couple of bundles of cigars!



Benjamin's look of astonishment as he saw these unexpected articles

produced from his hand-bag was interpreted by the officials as a

look of guilt. As a matter of fact, half stupefied by the agonies

of the night, he had forgotten the precise spot where he had left

his own bag, and had picked up in its stead one belonging to the

wife of a sporting gentleman on his way to some races at Longchamps.

Desiring to smuggle a few "weeds," and deeming that the presence of

such articles would be less likely to be suspected among a lady's

belongings, the sporting gentleman had committed them to his

companion's keeping. Hand-bags, as a rule, are "passed" unopened,

and such would probably have been the case in the present instance

had not Quelch's look of panic excited suspicion. The real owners

of the bag had picked up Quelch's which it precisely resembled,

and were close behind him on the gangway. The lady uttered an

exclamation of dismay as she saw the contents of her bag spread

abroad by the customs officer, but was promptly silenced by her

husband. "Keep your blessed tongue quiet," he whispered, "If a

bloomin' idiot chooses to sneak our bag, and then to give himself

away to the first man that looks at him, he must stand the racket."

Whereupon the sporting gentleman and lady, first taking a quiet

peep into Benjamin's bag to make sure that it contained nothing

compromising, passed the examiner with a smile of conscious innocence,

and, after an interval for refreshment at the buffet, took their

seats in the train for Paris.



Meanwhile poor Quelch was taken before a pompous individual with

an extra large moustache and a double allowance of gold lace on

his cap and charged not only with defrauding the revenue, but with

forcibly resisting an officer in the execution of his duty. The

accusation being in French, Quelch did not understand a word of

it, and in his ignorance took it for granted that he was accused of

stealing the strange bag and its contents. Visions of imprisonment,

penal servritude nay, even capital punishment, floated before his

bewildered brain. Finally the official with the large moustache

made a speech to him in French, setting forth that for his dishonest

attempt to smuggle he must pay a fine of a hundred francs. With

regard to the assault on the official, as said official was not

much hurt, he graciously agreed to throw that in and make no charge

for it. When he had fully explained matters to his own satisfaction

he waited to receive the answer of the prisoner; but none was

forthcoming, for the best of reasons. It finally dawned on the

official that Quelch might not understand French, and he therefore

proceeded to address him in what he considered to be his native

tongue.



"You smoggle--smoggle seegar. Zen it must zat you pay amende,

hundred francs. You me understand? Hundred francs--pay! pay! pay!"

At each repetition of the last word he brought down a dirty fist

into the palm of the opposite hand immediately under Quelch's nose.

"Hundred francs--Engleesh money, four pound."



Quelch caught the last words, and was relieved to find that it was

merely a money payment that was demanded of him. But he was little

better off, for, having but a few shillings in his pocket, to pay

four pounds was as much out of his power as if it had been four

hundred. He determined to appeal to the mercy of his captors. "Not

got," he said, apologetically, with a vague idea that by speaking

very elementary English he came somehow nearer to French, "That

all," he continued, producing his little store and holding it

out beseechingly to the official. "_Pas assez_, not enouf,"

growled the latter. Quelch tried again in all his pockets, but only

succeeded in finding another threepenny piece. The officer shook

his head, and, after a brief discussion with his fellows, said,

_"Comment-vous appelez-vous, monsieur?_ How do you call

yourself?"



With a vague idea of keeping his disgrace from his friends, Quelch

rashly determined to give a false name. If he had had a few minutes

to think it over he would have invented one for the occasion, but

his imagination was not accustomed to such sudden calls, and, on

the question being repeated, he desperately gave the name of his

next-door neighbour, Mr. Henry Fladgate. "Henri Flodgett," repeated

the officer as he wrote it down.



"_Et vous demeurez?_ You live where?" And Quelch proceeded to

give the address of Mr. Fladgate, 11 Primrose Terrace. "_Tres

bien._ I send teleg-r-r-amme. _Au violon!_" And poor Benjamin

was ignominiously marched to the local police station.



Meanwhile Quelch's arrangements at home were scarcely working as

he had intended. The estimable Mrs. Widger, partly by reason of her

deafness and partly of native stupidity, had only half understood

his instructions about the letters. She knew she was to stamp them

and she knew she was to post them, but the dates in the corners

might have been runic inscriptions for any idea they conveyed to

her obfuscated intellect. Accordingly, the first time she visited

her usual house of call, which was early on the morning of Good

Friday, she proceeded, in her own language, to "get the dratted things

off her mind" by dropping them both into the nearest pillar-box.



On the following day, therefore, Mrs. Quelch at Lawestoft was

surprised to find on the breakfast-table _two_ letters in

her Benjamin's handwriting. Her surprise was still greater when,

on opening them, she found one to be a graphic account of a visit

to the Zoological Gardens on the following Monday. The conclusion

was obvious: either Benjamin had turned prophet, and had somehow

got ahead of the almanac, or he was "carrying on" in some very

underhand manner. Mrs. Quelch decided for the latter alternative,

and determined to get to the bottom of the matter at once. She

cut a sandwich, put on her bonnet, and, grasping her umbrella in

a manner which boded no good to any one who stayed her progress,

started by the next train for Liverpool Street.



On reaching home she extracted from the weeping Widger, who had

just been spending the last of Benjamin's five shillings, and was

far gone in depression and gin and water, that her "good gentleman"

had not been home since Thursday night. This was bad enough, but

there was still more conclusive evidence that he was up to no good,

in the shape of his tall hat, which hung, silent accuser, on the

last peg in the passage.



Having pumped Mrs. Widger till there was no more (save tears)

to be pumped out of her, Mrs. Quelch, still firmly grasping her

umbrella, proceeded next door, on the chance that her neighbour,

Mrs. Fladgate, might be able to give her some information. She found

Mrs. Fladgate weeping in the parlour with an open telegram before

her. Being a woman who did not stand upon ceremony, she read the

telegram, which was dated from Dieppe and ran as follows: "Monsieur

Fladgate here detained for to have smuggle cigars. Fine to pay,

one hundred franc. Send money and he will be release."



"Oh, the men, the men!" ejaculated Mrs. Quelch, as she dropped

into an arm-chair. "They're all alike. First Benjamin, and now

Fladgate! I shouldn't wonder if they had gone off together."



"You don't mean to say Mr. Quelch has gone too?" sobbed Mrs.

Fladgate.



"He has taken a shameful advantage of my absence. He has not been

home since Thursday evening, and his hat is hanging up in the hall."



"You don't think he has been m-m-murdered?"



"I'm not afraid of _that_," replied Mrs. Quelch, "it wouldn't

be worth anybody's while. But what has he got on his head? that's

what I want to know. Of course, if he's with Mr. Fladgate in some

foreign den of iniquity, that accounts for it."



"Don't foreigners wear hats?" inquired Mrs. Fladgate, innocently.



"Not the respectable English sort, I'll bet bound," replied Mrs.

Quelch; "some outlandish rubbish, I dare say. But I thought Mr.

Fladgate on his Scotch journey." (Mr. Fladgate, it should be stated,

was a traveller in the oil and colour line.)



"So he is. I mean, so he ought to be. In fact I expected him home

to-day. But now he's in p-p-prison, and I may never see him any

m-mo-more." And Mrs. Fladgate wept afresh.



"Stuff and nonsense!" retorted Mrs. Quelch.



"You've only to send the money they ask for, and they'll be glad

enough to get rid of him. But I wouldn't hurry; I'd let him wait

a bit--you'll see him soon enough, never fear."



The prophecy was fulfilled sooner than the prophet expected. Scarcely

were the words out of her mouth when a cab was heard to draw up at

the door, and a moment later Fladgate himself, a big, jovial man,

wearing a white hat very much on one side, entered the room and

threw a bundle of rugs on the sofa.



"Home again, old girl, and glad of it! Mornin', Mrs. Quelch," said

the new-comer.



Mrs. Fladgate gazed at him doubtfully for a mooment, and then flung

her arms round his neck, ejaculating, "Saved, saved!"



"Martha," said Mrs. Quelch, reprovingly, "have you no self-respect?

Is _this_ the way you deal to so shameful a deception?" Then,

turning the supposed offender, "So, Mr. Fladgate, you have escaped

from your foreign prison."



"Foreign, how much? Have you both gone dotty, ladies? I've just

escaped from a third-class carriage on the London and Northwestern.

The space is limited, but I never heard it called a foreign prison."



"It is useless to endeavour to deceive us," said Mrs. Quelch,

sternly. "Look at that telegram, Mr. Fladgate, and deny it if you

can. You have been gadding about in some vile foreign place with

my misguided husband."



"Oh, Quelch is in it too, is he? Then it _must_ be a bad case.

But let's see what we have been up to, for, 'pon my word, I'm quite

in the dark at present."



He held out his hand for the telegram, and read it carefully.

"Somebody's been having a lark with you, old lady," he said to his

wife. "You know well enough where I've been--my regular northern

journey, and nowhere else."



"I don't believe a word of it," said Mrs. Quelch, "you men are all

alike--deceivers, every one of you."



"Much obliged for your good opinion, Mrs. Quelch. I had no idea

Quelch was such a bad lot. But, so far as I am concerned, the

thing's easily tested. Here is the bill for my bed last night at

Carlisle. Now if I was in Carlisle and larking about at Dieppe at

the same time, perhaps you'll kindly explain how I managed it."



Mrs. Quelch was staggered, but not convinced. "But if--if you were

at Carlisle, where is Benjamin, and what does this telegram mean?"



"Not being a wizard, I really can't say; but concerning Quelch, we

shall find him, never fear. When did he disappear?"



Mrs. Quelch told her story, not forgetting the mysterious letter.



"I think I see daylight," said Fladgate. "The party who has got

into that mess is Quelch, and, being frightened out of his wits,

he has given my name instead of his own. That's about the size of

it!"



"But Benjamin doesn't smoke; and how should he come to be at Dieppe?"



"Went for a holiday, I suppose. As for smoking, I shouldn't have

thought he was up to it; but with that sat-upon sort of man--begging

your pardon, Mrs. Quelch--you never know where he may break out.

Worms will turn, you know, and sometimes they take a wrong turning."



"But Benjamin would never dare--"



"That's just it. He daren't do anything when you've got your eye on

him. When you haven't perhaps he may, and perhaps he mayn't. The

fact is, you hold up his head too tight, and if he jibs now and

then you can't wonder at it."



"You have a very coarse way of putting things, Mr. Fladgate. Mr.

Quelch is not a horse, that I am aware of."



"We won't quarrel about the animal, my dear madam, but you may depend

upon it, my solution's right. A hardened villain, like myself, say,

would never have got into such a scrape, but Quelch don't know

enough of the world to keep himself out of mischief. They've got

him in quod, that's clear, and the best thing you can do is to send

the coin and get him out again."



"Send money to those swindling Frenchmen? Never! If Benjamin is

in prison I will fetch him out myself."



"You would never risk that dreadful sea passage!" exclaimed Mrs.

Fladgate. "And how will you manage the language? You don't understand

French."



"Oh, I shall do very well," said the heroic woman. "They won't talk

French to _me_!"



That same night a female passenger crossed by the boat from Newhaven

to Dieppe. The passage was rough, and the passenger was very seasick;

but she still sat grimly upright, never for one moment relaxing her

grasp on the handle of her silk umbrella. What she went through on

landing, how she finally obtained her husband's release, and what

explanations passed between the reunited pair, must be left to

the reader's imagination, for Mrs. Quelch never told the story.

Twenty-four hours later a four-wheeled cab drew up at the Quelchs'

door, and from it descended, first a stately female, and then a

woe-begone little man, in a soft felt hat and a red necktie, both

sorely crushed and soiled, with a black bag in his hand. "Is there

a fire in the kitchen?" asked Mrs. Quelch the moment she set foot

in the house. Being assured that there was, she proceeded down

the kitchen stairs, Quelch meekly following her. "Now," she said,

pointing to the black bag, "those--things!" Benjamin opened the bag,

and tremblingly took out the frilled night-dress and the cigars.

His wife pointed to the fire, and he meekly laid them on it. "Now

that necktie." The necktie followed the cigars. "And that thing;"

and the hat crowned the funeral pile.



The smell was peculiar, and to the ordinary nose disagreeable, but

to Mrs. Quelch it was as the odour of burnt incense. She watched

the heap as it smouldered away, and finally dispersed the embers

by a vigorous application of the poker.



"Now, Benjamin," she said to her trembling spouse, "I forgive you.

But if ever again--"



The warning was left unspoken, but it was not needed. Benjamin's

one experience has more than satisfied his yearning for soft raiment

and foreign travel, and his hats are taller than ever.





THE WRECK OF THE HESPERUS THERE IS NO FUN UNTILL I CUM. facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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