TAKEN FROM: FLAX-GOLDEN TALES
UNIT ELEVEN: Critical and Creative Thinking
W. Somerset Maugham (England, 1874-1965)
I was prepared to dislike Max Kelada even before I knew him. The war1 had just finished and the passenger traffic in the ocean going liners was heavy. Accommodation was very hard to get and you had to put up with whatever the agents chose to offer you. You could not hope for a cabin to yourself and I was thankful to be given one in which there were only two berths. But when I was told the name of my companion my heart sank. It suggested closed portholes2 and the night air rigidly excluded. It was bad enough to share a cabin for fourteen days with anyone (I was going from San Francisco to Yokohama), but I should have looked upon it with less dismay if my fellow passenger’s name had been Smith or Brown.
When I went on board I found Mr. Kelada’s luggage already below. I did not like the look of it; there were too many labels on the suitcases, and the wardrobe trunk was too big. He had unpacked his toilet things, and I observed that he was a patron of the excellent Monsieur Coty;3 for I saw on the washing-stand his scent, his hairwash and his brilliantine.4 Mr. Kelada’s brushes, ebony with his monogram in gold, would have been all the better for a scrub. I did not at all like Mr. Kelada. I made my way into the smoking-room. I called for a pack of cards and began to play patience.5 I had scarcely started before a man came up to me and asked me if he was right in thinking my name was so and so.
“I am Mr. Kelada,” he added, with a smile that showed a row of flashing teeth, and sat down.
“Oh, yes, we’re sharing a cabin, I think.”
“Bit of luck, I call it. You never know who you’re going to be put in with. I was jolly glad when I heard you were English. I’m all for us English sticking together when we’re abroad, if you understand what I mean.”
“Are you English?” I asked, perhaps tactlessly.
“Rather. You don’t think I look like an American, do you? British to the backbone, that’s what I am.”
To prove it, Mr. Kelada took out of his pocket a passport and airily waved it under my nose.
King George6 has many strange subjects. Mr. Kelada was short and of a sturdy build, clean-shaven and dark skinned, with a fleshy, hooked nose and very large lustrous and liquid eyes. His long black hair was sleek and curly. He spoke with a fluency in which there was nothing English and his gestures were exuberant. I felt pretty sure that a closer inspection of that British passport would have betrayed the fact that Mr. Kelada was born under a bluer sky7 than is generally seen in England.
“What will you have?” he asked me.
I looked at him doubtfully. Prohibition was in force and to all appearances the ship was bone dry. When I am not thirsty I do not know which I dislike more, ginger ale or lemon squash. But Mr. Kelada flashed an oriental smile at me.
“Whisky and soda or a dry martini, you have only to say the word.”
From each of his hip pockets he furnished a flask and laid it on the table before me. I chose the martini, and calling the steward he ordered a tumbler of ice and a couple of glasses.
“A very good cocktail,” I said.
“Well, there are plenty more where that came from, and if you’ve got any friends on board, you tell them you’ve got a pal who’s got all the liquor in the world.”
Mr. Kelada was chatty. He talked of New York and of San Francisco. He discussed plays, pictures, and politics. He was patriotic. The Union Jack is an impressive piece of drapery, but when it is flourished by a gentleman from Alexandria or Beirut, I cannot but feel that it loses somewhat in dignity. Mr. Kelada was familiar. I do not wish to put on airs, but I cannot help feeling that it is seemly in a total stranger to put mister before my name when he addresses me. Mr. Kelada, doubtless to set me at my ease, used no such formality. I did not like Mr. Kelada. I had put aside the cards when he sat down, but now, thinking that for this first occasion our conversation had lasted long enough, I went on with my game.
“The three on the four,” said Mr. Kelada.
There is nothing more exasperating when you are playing patience than to be told where to put the card you have turned up before you have a chance to look for yourself.
“It’s coming out, it’s coming out,” he cried. “The ten on the knave.”
With rage and hatred in my heart I finished.
Then he seized the pack.
“Do you like card tricks?”
“No, I hate card tricks,” I answered.
“Well, I’ll just show you this one.”
He showed me three. Then I said I would go down to the dining-room and get my seat at the table.
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said, “I’ve already taken a seat for you. I thought that as we were in the same stateroom we might just as well sit at the same table.”
I did not like Mr. Kelada.
I not only shared a cabin with him and ate three meals a day at the same table, but I could not walk round the deck without his joining me. It was impossible to snub8 him. It never occurred to him that he was not wanted. He was certain that you were as glad to see him as he was to see you. In your own house you might have kicked him downstairs and slammed the door in his face without the suspicion dawning on him that he was not a welcome visitor. He was a good mixer, and in three days knew everyone on board. He ran everything. He managed the sweeps,9 conducted the auctions, collected money for prizes at the sports, got up quoit and golf matches, organized the concert and arranged the fancy-dress ball. He was everywhere and always. He was certainly the best hated man in the ship. We called him Mr. Know-All, even to his face. He took it as a compliment. But it was at mealtimes that he was most intolerable. For the better part of an hour then he had us at his mercy. He was hearty, jovial, loquacious and argumentative. He knew everything better than anybody else, and it was an affront to his overweening10 vanity that you should disagree with him. He would not drop a subject, however unimportant, till he had brought you round to his way of thinking. The possibility that he could be mistaken never occurred to him. He was the chap who knew. We sat at the doctor’s table. Mr. Kelada would certainly have had it all his own way, for the doctor was lazy and I was frigidly indifferent, except for a man called Ramsay who sat there also. He was as dogmatic as Mr. Kelada and resented bitterly the Levantine’s cocksureness. The discussions they had were acrimonious and interminable.
Ramsay was in the American Consular Service and was stationed at Kobe. He was a great heavy fellow from the Middle West, with loose fat under a tight skin, and he bulged out of his ready-made clothes. He was on his way back to resume his post, having been on a flying visit to New York to fetch his wife who had been spending a year at home. Mrs. Ramsay was a very pretty little thing, with pleasant manners and a sense of humour. The Consular Service is ill paid, and she was dressed always very simply; but she knew how to wear her clothes. She achieved an effect of quiet distinction. I should not have paid any particular attention to her but that she possessed a quality that may be common enough in women, but nowadays is not obvious in their demeanour. It shone in her like a flower on a coat.
One evening at dinner the conversation by chance drifted to the subject of pearls. There had been in the papers a good deal of talk about the cultured pearls which the cunning Japanese were making, and the doctor remarked that they must inevitably diminish the value of real ones. They were very good already; they would soon be perfect. Mr. Kelada, as was his habit, rushed the new topic. He told us all that was to be known about pearls. I do not believe Ramsay knew anything about them at all, but he could not resist the opportunity to have a fling at the Levantine, and in five minutes we were in the middle of a heated argument. I had seen Mr. Kelada vehement and voluble before, but never so voluble and vehement as now. At last something that Ramsay said stung him, for he thumped the table and shouted.
“Well, I ought to know what I am talking about, I’m going to Japan just to look into this Japanese pearl business. I’m in the trade and there’s not a man in it who won’t tell you that what I say about pearls goes. I know all the best pearls in the world, and what I don’t know about pearls isn’t worth knowing.”
Here was news for us, for Mr. Kelada, with all his loquacity, had never told anyone what his business was. We only knew vaguely that he was going to Japan on some commercial errand. He looked around the table triumphantly.
“They’ll never be able to get a cultured pearl that an expert like me can’t tell with half an eye.” He pointed to a chain that Mrs. Ramsay wore. “You take my word for it, Mrs. Ramsay, that chain you’re wearing will never be worth a cent less than it is now.”
Mrs. Ramsay in her modest way flushed a little and slipped the chain inside her dress. Ramsay leaned forward. He gave us all a look and a smile flickered in his eyes.
“That’s a pretty chain of Mrs. Ramsay’s, isn’t it?”
“I noticed it at once,” answered Mr. Kelada. “Gee, I said to myself, those are pearls all right.”
“I didn’t buy it myself, of course. I’d be interested to know how much you think it cost.”
“Oh, in the trade somewhere round fifteen thousand dollars. But if it was bought on Fifth Avenue I shouldn’t be surprised to hear anything up to thirty thousand was paid for it.”
Ramsay smiled grimly.
“You’ll be surprised to hear that Mrs. Ramsay bought that string at a department store the day before we left New York, for eighteen dollars.”
Mr. Kelada flushed.
“Rot. It’s not only real, but it’s as fine a string for its size as I’ve ever seen.”
“Will you bet on it? I’ll bet you a hundred dollars it’s imitation.”
“Oh, Elmer, you can’t bet on a certainty,” said Mrs. Ramsay.
She had a little smile on her lips and her tone was gently deprecating.
“Can’t I? If I get a chance of easy money like that I should be all sorts of a fool not to take it.”
“But how can it be proved?” she continued. “It’s only my word against Mr. Kelada’s.”
“Let me look at the chain, and if it’s imitation I’ll tell you quickly enough. I can afford to lose a hundred dollars,” said Mr. Kelada.
“Take it off, dear. Let the gentleman look at it as much as he wants.”
Mrs. Ramsay hesitated a moment. She put her hands to the clasp.
“I can’t undo it,” she said, “Mr. Kelada will just have to take my word for it.”
I had a sudden suspicion that something unfortunate was about to occur, but I could think of nothing to say.
Ramsay jumped up.
“I’ll undo it.”
He handed the chain to Mr. Kelada. The Levantine took a magnifying glass from his pocket and closely examined it. A smile of triumph spread over his smooth and swarthy face. He handed back the chain. He was about to speak. Suddenly he caught sight of Mrs. Ramsay’s face. It was so white that she looked as though she were about to faint. She was staring at him with wide and terrified eyes. They held a desperate appeal; it was so clear that I wondered why her husband did not see it.
Mr. Kelada stopped with his mouth open. He flushed deeply. You could almost see the effort he was making over himself.
“I was mistaken,” he said. “It’s very good imitation, but of course as soon as I looked through my glass I saw that it wasn’t real. I think eighteen dollars is just about as much as the damned thing’s worth.”
He took out his pocketbook and from it a hundred dollar note. He handed it to Ramsay without a word.
“Perhaps that’ll teach you not to be so cocksure another time, my young friend,” said Ramsay as he took the note.
I noticed that Mr. Kelada’s hands were trembling.
The story spread over the ship as stories do, and he had to put up with a good deal of chaff that evening. It was a fine joke that Mr. Know-All had been caught out. But Mrs. Ramsay retired to her stateroom with a headache.
Next morning I got up and began to shave. Mr. Kelada lay on his bed smoking a cigarette. Suddenly there was a small scraping sound and I saw a letter pushed under the door. I opened the door and looked out. There was nobody there. I picked up the letter and saw it was addressed to Max Kelada. The name was written in block letters. I handed it to him.
“Who’s this from?” He opened it. “Oh!”
He took out of the envelope, not a letter, but a hundred-dollar note. He looked at me and again he reddened. He tore the envelope into little bits and gave them to me.
“Do you mind just throwing them out of the porthole?”
I did as he asked, and then I looked at him with a smile.
“No one likes being made to look a perfect damned fool,” he said.
“Were the pearls real?”
“If I had a pretty little wife I shouldn’t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed at Kobe,” said he.
At that moment I did not entirely dislike Mr. Kelada. He reached out for his pocketbook and carefully put in it the hundred-dollar note.
1. The war: World War I (1914-1918).
2. Porthole: A window in the cabin of a ship.
3. Monsieur Coty: Manufacturer of perfumes.
4. Brilliantine: A cosmetic used to make one’s hair shine.
5. Patience: Solitaire—an often frustrating card game played by one person. The challenge here is in seeing where certain cards can be placed.
6. King George: George V, King of Britain at the time.
7. A bluer sky: In contrast to England’s often foggy and gray sky, the sky in the Eastern Mediterranean is usually sunny and blue.
8. Snub: To contemptuously ignore someone.
9. Sweeps: Sweepstakes, lotteries.
10. Overweening: Arrogant, conceited, presumptuous.