THE TOUCH OF NUTMEG MAKES IT. John
A dozen big firms subsidize our mineralogical institute, and most of
them keep at least one man permanently on research there. The library has the
intimate smoky atmosphere of a club. Logan and I had been there longest and had
the two tables in the big window bay (1). Against the wall, just at the
edge of the bay, where the light was bad, was a small table which was left for
newcomers or transients (2).
One morning a new man was sitting at
this table. It was not necessary to look at the books he had taken from the
shelves to know that he was on statistics rather than formulae. He had one of
those skull-like faces on which the skin seems stretched painfully tight. They
are almost the hallmark of the statistician. His mouth was intensely
disciplined (3) but became convulsive at the least relaxation. His hands
were the focal point of a minor morbidity (4). When he had occasion to
stretch them both out together – to shift an open book, for example – he would
stare at them for a full minute at a time. At such times the convulsive action
of his mouth muscles was particularly marked.
The newcomer crouched low over his
table when anyone passed behind his chair, as if trying to decrease the
likelihood of contact. Presently he took out a cigarette, but his eye fell on
the «No smoking» sign, which was universally disregarded, and he returned the
cigarette to its pack. At mid-morning he dissolved a tablet in a glass of
water. I guessed at a long-standing anxiety neurosis (5).
I mentioned this to Logan at lunchtime. He
said, «The poor guy (6) certainly looks as miserable as a wet cat».
I am never repelled or chilled, as
many people are, by the cheerless self-centredness of the nervous or the
unhappy. Logan, who has less curiosity, has a superabundance of good nature. We
watched this man sitting in his solitary cell of depression (7) for days
while the pleasant camaraderie (8) of the library flowed all around him.
Then, without further discussion, we asked him to lunch with us.
He took the invitation in the
typical neurotic fashion, seeming to weigh half-a-dozen shadowy objections
before he accepted it. However, he came along, and before the meal was over he
confirmed my suspicion that he had been starving for company but was too tied-up
(9) to make any move toward it. We had already found out his name, of course –
J. Chapman Reid – and that he worked for the Walls Tyman Corporation. He named
a string of towns he had lived in at one time or another, and told us that he
came originally from Georgia
(10). That was all the information he offered. He opened up very noticeably
when the talk turned on general matters, and occasionally showed signs of
having an intense and painful wit (11), which is the sort I like best.
He was pathetically grateful for the casual invitation. He thanked us when we
got up from the table, again as we emerged from the restaurant, and yet again
on the threshold of the library. This made it all the more natural to suggest a
quiet evening together sometime soon.
During the next few mouths we saw a
good deal of J. Chapman Reid and found him a very agreeable companion. I have a
great weakness for these dry, reserved characters who once or twice an evening
come out with a vivid, penetrating remark that shows there is a volcanic core
smouldering away at high pressure underneath. We might even have become friends
if Reid himself hadn’t prevented this final step, less by his reserve
(12), which I took to be part of his nature, than by his unnecessary gratitude.
He made no effusive speeches – he was not that type – but a lost dog has no
need of words to show his dependence and appreciation. It was clear that our
company was everything to J. Chapman Reid.
One day Nathan Trimble, a friend of Logan’s, looked in at the
library. He was a newspaperman and was killing an hour while waiting for a
train connection. He sat on Logan’s
table facing the window, with his back to the rest of the room. I went round
and talked to him and Logan. It was just about time for Trimble to leave when Reid
came in and sat down at his table. Trimble happened to look around, and he and
Reid saw each other.
I was watching Reid. After the first
startled stare, he did not even glance at the visitor. He sat quite still for a
minute or so, his head dropping lower and lower in little jerks, as if someone
was pushing it down. Then he got up and walked out of the library.
«By God!», said Trimble. «Do you
know who that is? Do you know who you’ve got there?».
«No», said we. «Who?».
«Jason C. Reid».
«Jason C.?», I said. «No, it’s J.
Chapman. Oh, yes, I see. So what?».
«Why, for God’s sake, don’t you read
the news? Don’t you remember the Pittsburgh
«No», said I.
«Wait a minute», said Logan. «About a year or so
ago, was it? I read something».
«Damn it!», said Trimble. «It was a
front-page sensation. This guy was tried for it. They said he hacked a pal
(13) of his pretty nearly to pieces. I saw the body. Never seen such a mess in
my life. Fantastic! Horrible!».
«However», said I, «it would appear
this fellow didn’t do it. Presumably he wasn’t convicted».
«They tried to pin it on him», said
Trimble, «but they couldn’t. It looked hellish bad, I must say. Alone together.
No trace of any outsider. But no motive. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I
covered the trial. I was in court every day, but I couldn’t make up my mind
about the guy. Don’t leave any meat cleavers round this library, that’s all».
With that, he bade us goodbye. I
looked at Logan.
Logan looked at
me. «I don’t believe it», said Logan.
«I don’t believe he did it».
«I don’t wonder his nerves are
eating him», said I.
«No», said Logan. «It must be damnable. And now it’s
followed him here, and he knows it».
«We’ll let him know, somehow», said
I, «that we’re not even interested enough to look up the newspaper files».
«Good idea», said Logan.
A little later Reid came in again,
his movements showing signs of intense control. He came over to where we were
sitting. «Would you prefer to cancel our arrangement for tonight?», said he. «I
think it would be better if we cancelled it. I shall ask my firm to transfer me
again. I –».
«Hold on (14)», said Logan. «Who said so? Not
«Didn’t he tell you?», said Reid.
«Of course he did».
«He said you were tried», said I. «And he said you were acquitted. That’s good enough
«You’re still acquitted», said Logan. «And the date’s
on (15). And we won’t talk».
«Oh!», said Reid. «Oh!».
«Forget it», said Logan, returning to his papers.
I took Reid by the shoulder and gave
him a friendly shove in the direction of his table. We avoided looking at him
for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, when we met for dinner,
we were naturally a little self-conscious. Reid probably felt it. «Look here»,
he said when we had finished eating, «would either of you mind if we skipped the
«It’s O.K. by me», said Logan. «Shall we go to
«No», said Reid, «I want you to come
somewhere where we can talk. Come up to my place».
«Just as you like», said I. «It’s not necessary».
«Yes, it is», said Reid. «We may as
well get it over (16)».
He was in a painfully nervous state,
so we consented and went up to his apartment, where we had never been before.
It was a single room with a pull-down bed (17) and a bathroom and
kitchenette opening off it. Though Reid had now been in town over two months,
there was absolutely no sign that he was living there at all. It might have
been a room hired for the uncomfortable conversation of this one night.
We sat down, but Reid immediately
got up again and stood between us, in front of the imitation fireplace.
«I should like to say nothing about
what happened today», he began. «I should like to ignore it and let it be
forgotten. But it can’t be forgotten.
«It’s no use telling me you won’t
think about it», he said. «Of course you’ll think about it. Everyone did back
there. The firm sent me to Cleveland
(18). It became known there, too. Everyone was thinking about it, whispering
about it, wondering.
«You see, it would be rather more
exciting if the fellow was guilty after all, wouldn’t it?».
«In a way, I’m glad this has come
out. With you two, I mean. Most people – I don’t want them to know anything.
You two – you’ve been decent to me – I want you to know all about it. All.
«I came up from Georgia to Pittsburgh,
was there for ten years with the Walls Tyman people. While there I met – I met
Earle Wilson. He came from Georgia,
too, and we became great friends. I’ve never been one to go about much. Earle
was not only my best friend; he was almost my only friend.
«Very well. Earle’s job with our company
was a better paid one. He was able to afford a small house just beyond the
fringe of the town. I used to drive out there two or three evenings a week. We
spent the evenings very quietly. I want you to understand that I was quite at
home in the house. There was no host-and-guest atmosphere about it. I felt
sleepy. I’d make no bones (19) about going upstairs and stretching out
on a bed and taking a nap for half an hour. There’s nothing so extraordinary
about it, is there?».
«No, nothing extraordinary about
that», said Logan.
«Some people seemed to think there
was», said Reid. «Well, one night I went out there after work. We ate, we sat
about a bit, we played a game of checkers. He mixed a couple of drinks, then I
mixed a couple. Normal
enough, isn’t it?».
«It certainly is», said Logan.
«I was tired», said Reid. «I felt
heavy. I said I’d go upstairs and stretch out for half an hour. That always
puts me right. So I went up.
«I sleep heavily, very heavily, for
half an hour, then I’m all right. This time I seemed to be dreaming, a sort of
nightmare. I thought I was in an air raid somewhere, and heard Earle’s voice
calling me, but I didn’t wake, not until the usual half-hour was up anyway.
«I went downstairs. The room below
was dark. I called out to Earle and started across from the stairs toward the
light switch. Halfway across, I tripped over something – it turned out to be
the floorlamp, which had fallen over, and I went down, and I fell flat on him.
«I knew he was dead. I got up and
found the light. He was lying there. He looked as if he had been attacked by a
madman. He was cut to pieces, almost. God!
«I got hold of the phone at once and
called the police. Naturally. While they were coming, I looked round. But first
of all I just walked about, dazed. It seems I must have gone up into the
bedroom again. I’ve got no recollection of that, but they found a smear of
blood on the pillow. Of course, I was covered with it. Absolutely covered: I’d
fallen on him. You can understand a man being dazed, can’t you? You can
understand him going upstairs, even, and not remembering it? Can’t you?».
«I certainly can», said Logan.
«They thought they had trapped me
over that», said Reid. «They said so to my face. The idiots! Well, I remember
looking around, and I saw what it had been done with. Earle had a great
equipment of cutlery in his kitchen. One of our firm’s subsidiaries (20)
was in that line. One of the things was a meat cleaver, the sort of thing you
see usually in a butcher’s shop. It was there on the carpet.
«Well, the police came. I told them
all I could. Earle was a quiet fellow. He had no enemies. Does anyone
have that sort of enemy? I thought it must be some maniac. Nothing was missing.
It wasn’t robbery, unless some half-crazy tramp had got in and been too scared
in the end to take anything.
«Whoever it was had made a very
clean getaway. Too clean for the police. And too clean for me. They looked for
fingerprints, and they couldn’t find any.
«They have an endless routine
(21) in this sort of thing. I won’t bore you with every single detail. It
seemed their routine wasn’t good enough – the fellow was too clever for them.
But of course they wanted an arrest. So they indicted me.
«Their case was nothing but a
negative one (22). God knows how they thought it could succeed. Perhaps
they didn’t think so. But, you see, if they could build up a strong
presumptive case (23), and I only got off (24) because of a hung
jury (25) – well, that’s different from having to admit they couldn’t
find hair or hide of (26) the real murderer.
«What was the evidence against me?
That they couldn’t find traces of anyone else! That’s evidence of their own
damned inefficiency, that’s all. Does a man murder his best friend for nothing?
Could they find any reason, any motive? They were trying to find some woman
first of all. They have the mentality of a ten-cent magazine. They combed our
money affairs. They even tried to smell out some subversive tieup (27).
God, if you knew what it was to be confronted with faces out of a comic
strip (28) and with minds that match the faces! If you are charged with
murder, hang yourself in your cell the first night.
«In the end they settled on our game
of checkers. Our poor, harmless game of checkers! We talked all the time while
we were playing, you know, and sometimes even forgot whose turn it was to move
next. I suppose there are people who can go berserk (29) in a dispute
over a childish game, but to me that’s something utterly incomprehensible. Can
you understand a man murdering his friend over a game? I can’t. As a matter of
fact, I remember we had to start this game over again, not once but twice –
first when Earle mixed the drinks, and then when I mixed them. Each time we
forgot who was to move. However, they fixed on that. They had to find some
shadow of a motive, and that was the best they could do.
«Of course, my lawyer tore it to
shreds. By the mercy of God there’d been quite a craze at the works for playing
checkers at lunchtime. So he soon found half-a-dozen men to swear that neither
Earle nor I ever played the game seriously enough to get het up (30)
«They had no other motive to put
forward. Absolutely none. Both our lives were simple, ordinary, humdrum, and
open as a book. What was their case? They couldn’t find what they were paid to
find. For that, they proposed to send a man to the death cell. Can you beat
«It sounds pretty damnable», said I.
«Yes», said he passionately.
«Damnable is the word. They got what they were after – the jury voted nine to
three for acquittal, which saved the faces (32) of the police. There was
plenty of room for a hint that they were on the right track all the time. You
can imagine what my life has been since! If you ever get into that sort of
mess, my friends, hang yourselves the first night, in your cell».
«Don’t talk like that», said Logan. «Look here, you’ve
had a bad time. Damned bad. But what the hell? It’s over. You’re here now».
«And we’re here», said I. «If that helps any».
«Helps?», said he. «God, if you
could ever guess how it helped! I’ll never be able to tell you. I’m no good at
that sort of thing. See, I drag you here, the only human beings who’ve treated
me decently, and I pour all this stuff out and don’t offer you a drink, even.
Never mind, I’ll give you one now – a drink you’ll like».
«I could certainly swallow a highball
(33)», said Logan.
«You shall have something better
than that», said Reid, moving toward the kitchenette. «We have a little
specialty down in our corner of Georgia.
Only it’s got to be fixed properly. Wait just a minute».
He disappeared through the door, and
we heard corks being drawn and a great clatter of pouring and mixing. While
this went on, he was still talking through the doorway. «I’m glad I brought you
up here», he said. «I’m glad I put the whole thing to you. You don’t know what
it means – to be believed, understood, by God! I feel I’m alive again».
He emerged with three brimming
glasses on a tray. «Try this», he said proudly.
«To the days ahead!», said Logan, as we raised our
We drank and raised our eyebrows in
appreciation. The drink seemed to be a sort of variant of sherry flip
(34), with a heavy sprinkling of nutmeg (35).
«You like it?», cried Reid eagerly.
«There’s not many people know the recipe for that drink, and fewer still can
make it well. There are one or two bastard (36) versions which some
damned fools mix up – a disgrace to Georgia. I could – I could pour the
mess over their heads. Wait a minute. You’re men of discernment. Yes, by God,
you are! You shall decide for yourselves».
With that, he darted back into the
kitchenette and rattled his bottles more furiously than before, still talking
to us disjointedly, praising the orthodox version of his drink, and damning all
«Now, here you are», said he,
appearing with the tray loaded with drinks very much like the first but rather
differently garnished. «These abortions have mace (35) and ginger
(35) on the top instead of nutmeg. Take them. Drink them. Spit them out on the
carpet if you want to. I’ll mix some more of the real thing to take the taste
out of your mouth. Just try them. Just tell me what you think of a barbarian
who could insist that that was a Georgian flip. Go on. Tell me».
We sipped. There was no considerable
difference. However, we replied as was expected of us.
«What do you think, Logan?»,
said I. «The first has it, beyond doubt».
«Beyond doubt», said Logan. «The first is the
«Yes», said Reid, his face livid and
his eyes blazing like live coals. «And that is hogwash (37). The
man who calls that a Georgian flip is not fit to mix bootblacking. It
hasn’t the nutmeg. The touch of nutmeg makes it (38). A man who’d leave
out the nutmeg –! I could –!».
He put out both his hands to lift
the tray, and his eyes fell on them. He sat very still, staring at them.
John Collier (1901–), born in London,
has lived in the United
States since 1942. The fantasy Full Circle (1933; in England entitled Tom’s A-Cold), concerning the England of 1995 – a wrecked
civilization, reduced to primitive savagery – is considered one of the most interesting
of his works. His other principal works include No Traveler Returns, Green
Thoughts, Presenting Moonshine, A Touch of Nutmeg, and Fancies and Good Nights.
1. window bay: a window,
usually with glass on three sides, built in a recess (the extension of a room
beyond the line of one or two of its walls).
2. transients: here people on temporary jobs, or at the
library for a short while.
3. intensely disciplined:
under rigid control.
4. morbidity: diseased
5. anxiety neurosis: an
illness in which the main symptom (as the name implies) is anxiety. There is
fear which rationally the patient knows to be groundless; there may be anxiety
attacks, in which the heart pounds, the patient feels he is going mad, is
unable to sleep, and worries «for no reason at all».
6. guy (US sl): a fellow.
in his solitary cell of depression: in a state of acute sadness, unhappiness,
avoiding all contact with people.
8. camaraderie: an atmosphere
of friendliness, comradeship.
9. tied-up: tight inside,
unable to overcome the feeling of constraint.
one of the southern states of the USA.
11. wit: mind; intelligence.
12. reserve: a tendency to
keep silent or say little.
13. pal (sl): a friend.
14. Hold on! (coll): Stop! Wait!
15. the date’s on: the date’s
16. get it over: finish with
the matter, get done with it.
17. pull-down bed: a bed
specially constructed to save space, it is pulled down for the night only.
a city in northeastern Ohio, on Lake Erie.
19. make no bones: have no
hesitation; make no fuss.
20. subsidiary: a subsidiary
company, i.e. a company controlled by another company which owns most of its
21. routine: a regular, more
or less unvarying procedure.
22. Their case was nothing but a
negative one: the police had no direct material evidence, the case might be
said to have been built on the absence of proofs.
a strong presumptive case: a case based entirely on presumption, i.e. on something which seems
likely although there is no proof.
24. got off: escaped
punishment, got away with it.
25. hung jury: a jury which
failed to come to a unanimous conclusion as regards the verdict.
26. couldn’t find hair or hide of:
couldn’t find any trace or sign of.
27. tieup (US coll): connection; bond, link.
28. comic strip: a series of
comic drawings which appear in each issue of a publication.
29. go berserk: become
suddenly violent, frenzied.
30. get het up (coll): get agitated, worked up.
31. Can you beat that?: Can
you imagine anything more absurd?
32. saved the faces: saved
the reputation, good name.
33. highball: a cocktail of
liquor, usually whisky or brandy, mixed with soda water, ginger ale, etc. and
served with ice in a tall glass.
34. flip: a drink composed of
hot milk, egg, sugar and wine or spirits.
35. nutmeg: мускатный орех; mace: сушёная шелуха мускатного ореха; ginger: имбирь.
36. bastard: not genuine or
37. hogwash: feed for pigs,
38. The touch of nutmeg makes it:
a little nutmeg does the trick; nutmeg added in small quantity makes all the
1. How did J. Chapman Reid appear in the lives of Logan and the
2. What was the narrator’s impression of the newcomer?
3. Why did the friends invite Reid to lunch with them?
4. What prevented a friendship between the narrator and Reid?
5. What brought Nathan Trimble to the library one day?
6. What did he tell the friends about Reid?
7. What had made the trial a front-page sensation?
8. How did the two friends take the story?
9. Why did Reid invite them to his place?
10. Why did Reid’s apartment seem strange to the two friends?
11. What was Reid’s story?
(b) Read through the
story once again and see if you can find facts to prove that:’
1. The two friends went out of their way to make Reid feel at ease.
2. Reid was extremely grateful to the friends for their company.
3. The narrator was attracted by Reid’s wit.
4. But for Nathan Trimble, the two friends may have never learnt the
truth about Reid.
5. It was Reid who had committed the murder.
(c) Talking points:
1. Character-sketches of: a) the author; b) Logan; c) J. Chapman Reid.
2. Say whether you think Reid ever realised who had murdered Earle
3. How did Reid betray himself to the two friends?
4. Imagine what could have happened hadn’t the two friends praised the
drink with nutmeg to Reid.
5. How close had the police been to identifying the murderer? Why did
they fail to get the murderer indicted?
6. Explain the title of the story.
7. The proverb goes that «Appearances are deceptive», yet the friends
knew at a glance that Reid was a statistician. How would you explain it?