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8. THE TOUCH OF NUTMEG MAKES IT


THE TOUCH OF NUTMEG MAKES IT. John Collier.

 

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 cleaver murder?».

«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 us».

«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 for us».

«You’re still acquitted», said Logan. «And the date’s on (15). And we wont 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 movie tonight?».

«It’s O.K. by me», said Logan. «Shall we go to Chancey’s?».

«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) about it.

«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 that? (31)».

«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 glasses.

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 imitations.

«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 real thing».

«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.

 

READING NOTES.

 

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 condition.

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.

7. 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.

10. Georgia: 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 not cancelled.

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.

18. Cleveland: 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 shares.

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.

23. 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 real, imitation.

37. hogwash: feed for pigs, swill.

38. The touch of nutmeg makes it: a little nutmeg does the trick; nutmeg added in small quantity makes all the difference.

 

EXERCISES.

 

(a) Questions:

1. How did J. Chapman Reid appear in the lives of Logan and the narrator?

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 Wilson.

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?

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