The Onlooker, September 19, 1903
CRIME BY PROXY.
By P. G. WODEHOUSE.
The conversation had drifted by easy stages from cricket to murder considered as a fine art before Tebbit contributed his quota.
“I committed a murder myself once,” he said. “At least,” he added, “I suppose that if A does a thing, knowing that by doing it he offers to B opportunity and temptation to murder C, and also knowing that B has never resisted temptation in his life, and is never likely to do so, then A—morally if not legally—is the murderer of C. That is the case, I think?”
He turned for an opinion to the legal member, who endorsed his views and asked for details.
“The melancholy event to which I refer,” began Tebbit, lighting a cigar, “took place in the days when the lady who afterwards (at a ceremony to which many of those present were kind enough to lend their moral support) became Mrs. Tebbit was still Miss Reynolds. We had been engaged some three days, and my state of mind was such that I should have been proud to have stood on my head indefinitely at her bidding, or to have danced a hornpipe in Piccadilly for her delectation. As a matter of fact she did not demand these feats. The only request she made was that I would take charge of a ring for her and have a stone which had fallen out replaced by a jeweller. I accepted the commission.
“ ‘You must take great care of it,’ she said. ‘It’s not like an ordinary ring. It’s a sort of heirloom. If you lose the stone it can never be replaced, and I shall die and never forgive you.’ I said I would guard it with my life.
“On my way to the jeweller’s I was unlucky enough to run across my aunt. It is to the sensible and munificent conditions of the will of that lady that I owe the modest competence I now enjoy. At that time her word was law to me. She refused to allow me to go on to the jeweller’s, and insisted on my going back to her house for lunch. I did.
“My aunt kept an excellent table, a green parrot, and a Persian cat. It was one of her idiosyncrasies that all her guests should scratch the left ear of the last, and feed the second with almonds. Now I like cats, and it was a privilege to scratch the ear of such a magnificent animal as my aunt’s Persian. But parrots always have been and always will be my sworn foes. However, I had to do as I was told, so I gave the bird its almonds. But I did it in a cold and distant manner, intended to convey to it the impression that it commanded neither my sympathy nor my respect. My aunt did not notice this, but the parrot did. It eyed me coldly. Also it evidently made a mental note to get even with me later on. I smiled scornfully at it, and in dumb show dared it to do its worst. And it did.
“My aunt was always in the habit of allowing it to leave its cage after lunch and take a constitutional on the table. It cast a furtive glance in my direction as it left its cage, to see if any of my fingers were within reach of its beak, but I had anticipated this move and sat well back from the table with my arms folded. The bird, baffled in its insidious design, made some inane observation about putting on the “ket,” and began to hop up and down the cloth, as disgusting a picture of senile wickedness as I ever wish to see. I watched it in silence.
“My reflections were interrupted by my aunt asking me if I could supply her with a postage stamp. I began to search my pockets. I distinctly remembered having put one somewhere on my person, though where exactly I could not for the moment remember. I tried my watch-pocket first. My watch-pocket is the pocket in which I never keep my watch. I use it as a sort of handy warehouse for any small articles which I may have occasion to carry. In this case it contained a newspaper clipping, Miss Reynolds’ ring, and a solitary stamp. I laid them out on the table in that order. I handed my aunt the stamp, and in doing so took my eye off the parrot. It was a rash thing to do. The bird saw its opportunity, and took it. It made a sudden swoop, and when I looked at the table again all I could see was the newspaper clipping. The priceless ring was inside the parrot.
“My case now became a difficult one. It was impossible to take proceedings against the parrot. My aunt had not seen the incident take place, and I knew her too well to think that she would allow me to dissect her pet in order to recover a ring which, for all she knew, might have no existence. Even if she were in possession of the full facts of the case I felt instinctively that she would side with the bird, and that any high-handed action on my part might have the most disastrous effects for me. My only course was to wait.
“A week passed, and another after that, and still I could hit on no solution of the difficulty. I met Miss Reynolds’ inquiries as well as I could. When she commented on the unusually long time it took her ring to be mended I said it was scandalous, and steered the conversation away to the subject of modern literature. When she threatened to look in at the jeweller’s and complain I felt faint and begged to be allowed to do it for her. But I saw that this could not go on. I was losing flesh and becoming haggard under the strain. And yet I was still completely at a loss how to proceed.” Tebbit paused here to light a fresh cigar.
“It was,” he went on, “exactly a fortnight after the loss of the ring that I called at my aunt’s house again. The hour was early, and my aunt had not risen. I was shown into the drawing-room.
“The first sight that met my eyes was the parrot. It was in its cage on a side-table. It chuckled as it caught sight of me, and invited me ironically to have a cup of tea. I glared at it helplessly through the bars.
“Just as I was wondering how much longer I should be able to put up with its sneer, something rubbed itself against my leg. I looked down. It was Bartholomew, the Persian cat. I stooped and scratched it behind the ear, and as I stooped I met its eye. There was a meaning in its glance which at first I could not understand. Then it looked from me to the cage, and back again, and rubbed itself once more against my leg. It was a cat of suave and insinuating manners. In an instant I saw everything. The solution of the problem gleamed clear as crystal before me. Our eyes met again. We understood one another. He was inviting me to open the cage door.
“I was desperate, but I confess that at first I hesitated. Then the thought of Miss Reynolds made me adamant. Besides, I told myself, I was merely going to open the cage door. Was it my fault if the parrot took advantage of the circumstances to leave his seclusion? I lifted the latch. The door swung open. The parrot after a moment’s meditation, hopped on to the back of a chair, and thence to the floor. There was a rush, a smothered oath (where the bird learned it I do not know; I trust not from my aunt), and it was no more.
“Bartholomew stood over the corpse and licked his lips in an introspective and contented manner.
“I went to the door and opened it. ‘Bartholomew,’ I said, ‘you have done a good work this day. But speaking as a friend, I think if I were you I should go for a walk.’
“He took my advice and vanished.
“Hardly had he gone, when I heard a well-known footstep outside. I sprang to the door and met my aunt on the threshold.
“ ‘Aunt,’ I cried excitedly, ‘an awful, a terrible thing has happened. Your poor, dear, unfortunate parrot is no more.’
“I tried to think of some extract from the poets which might bear on the case, but could remember nothing that would not have sounded frivolous. I contented myself with pointing silently at the corpse.
“My aunt sank into a chair and burst into tears.
“ ‘I found the poor bird lying there when I came in,’ I resumed. ‘Life was already extinct. The cage door must have been insecurely fastened. I can picture to myself the melancholy scene. The hapless bird, finding no bar between itself and freedom, rashly quitted its cage, and hopped to the floor. Little recking of his peril, he paced the carpet. A sudden dart, and death was upon him. Bartholomew had got him.’
“I could not help feeling that the concluding sentence was hardly up to the literary level of the rest of the speech. But my aunt was not in a mood to be captious. She wept silently. I pressed her hand. ‘You will forgive Bartholomew,’ I said, ‘will you not? He acted but as Nature bade him. Cats will be cats.’
She nodded mournfully.
“ ‘And let me take the poor bird and have him stuffed, Aunt. It will be a labour of love. I shall count it a privilege.’
“I gained my point. I took the bird reverently from the house. A friend of mine, a taxidermist, opened it in under a minute, and the ring was mine again. It was as good as new. In fact, I rather think its trip into the interior had given it an extra polish.”
murder considered as a fine art: Cf. Thomas De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” (1827).
cats will be cats: Quoted in, and book title of, a 1932 Mulliner story originally titled “The Bishop’s Folly” in magazines.
Printer’s error corrected above:
Magazine omitted “no” in “I could hit on no solution of the difficulty.”