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A piece of soap (after H. Munro)
1. Norman Gortsby was sitting on a bench hidden behind the bushes in Hyde Park. It was a warm May evening. The sun had already set and it was rather dark, but he could still make out the faces of the people who were walking past him and hear the sound of their voices. He was a philosopher, and liked sitting in the Park watching people whom he didn't know. While he was wondering who they were and where they were going, a young man came up to the bench, gave a quick look at him and threw himself down by his side. The newcomer was well-dressed and looked like a gentleman. His face was sad and he sighed deeply.
"You don't seem to be in a very good mood," said Norman. The young man was silent. He only looked at Norman again and there was an expression in his eyes that Norman didn't like.
"I really don't know how it all happened." he began at last, "but I've done the silliest thing that I've ever done in my life." He spoke in a low voice, almost in a whisper.
"Yes" said Norman coldly.
"I came to London this afternoon," the young man went on. "I had a meal at the hotel, sent a letter to my people, giving them the address and then went out to buy a piece of soap. They are supposed to give you soap at the hotel but it's always so bad that I decided to buy some for myself. I bought it, had a drink at a bar, and looked at the shops. When I wanted to go back to the hotel, I suddenly realized that I didn't remember its name or even what street it was in. Of course I can write to my people for the address, but they won't get my letter till tomorrow. The only shilling I had on me when I came out was spent on the soap and the drink and here I am with two pence in my pocket and nowhere to go for the night."
There was a pause after he told the story.
"I'm afraid you don't believe me," he added.
"Why not?" said Norman. "I did the same thing once in a foreign capital. So I can understand you very well."
"I'm glad you do," the young man said with a pleasant smile. "And now I must go. I hope by the time it gets quite dark I'll have found a man who'll believe me like you did, and will agree to lend me some money."
"Of course," said Norman slowly. "The weak point of your story is that you can't produce the soap."
The young man put his hand into his pocket and suddenly got up.
"I've lost it," he said angrily.
"It's too much to lose a hotel and a piece of soap on the same day," said Norman.
But the young man did not hear him. He was running away.
"It was a good idea to ask him about the soap, and so simple," Norman thought as he rose to go. But at that moment he noticed a small packet lying by the side of the bench. It could be nothing but a piece of soap, and it had evidently fallen out of the young man's coat pocket when he threw himself down on the bench. Turning red, Norman picked it up.
"I just can't allow him to go away like this," he thought, and started running after the young man.
"Stop!" cried Norman when he saw him at the Park gate. The young man obeyed.
"Here's your piece of soap," Norman said. "I found it under the bench. Don't lose it again, it's been a good friend to you. And here's a pound, if it can help you".
"Thanks," said the young man, and quickly put the money into his pocket.
"Here's my card with my address," continued Norman. "You can return the money any day this week."
The young man thanked him again and quickly went away.
"It's a good lesson to me," Norman thought, and went back to the Park. When he was passing the bench where the little drama had taken place, he saw an old gentleman looking for something.
"Have you lost anything, sir?" Norman asked.
"Yes, sir, a piece of soap".
2. He overdid it (From the story "The Rathskeller and the Rose" by O. Henry)
Miss Posie Carrington had begun life in the small village of Cranberry Corners. Then her name had been Posie Boggs. At the age of eighteen she had left the place and become an actress at a small theatre in a large city, and here she took the name of Carrington. Now Miss Carrington was at the height of her fame, the critics praised her, and in the next season she was going to star in a new play about country life. Many young actors were eager to partner Miss Posie Carrington in the play, and among them was a clever young actor called Highsmith.
"My boy", said Mr Goldstein, the manager of the theatre, when the young man went to him for advice, "take the part if you can get it. The trouble is Miss Carrington won't listen to any of my suggestions. As a matter of fact she has turned down a lot of the best imitators of a country fellow already, and she says she won't set foot on the stage unless her partner is the best that can be found. She was brought up in a village, you know, she won't be deceived when a Broadway fellow goes on the stage with a straw in his hair and calls himself a village boy. So, young man, if you want to play the part, you'll hate to convince Miss Carrington. Would you like to try?" "I would with your permission," answered the young man. "But I would prefer to keep my plans secret for a while."
Next day Highsmith took the train for Cranberry Corners. He stayed three days in that small and distant village. Having found out all he could about the Boggs and their neighbours, Highsmith returned to the city...
Miss Posie Carrington used to spend her evenings at a small restaurant where actors gathered after performances.
One night when Miss Posie was enjoying a late supper in the company of her fellow-actors, a shy, awkward young man entered the restaurant. It was clear that the lights and the people made him uncomfortable. He upset one chair, sat in another one, and turned red at the approach of a waiter.
"You may fetch me a glass of beer', he said, in answer to the waiter's question. He looked around the place and then seeing Miss Carrington, rose and went to her table with a shining smile.
"How're you, Miss Posie?" he said. "Don't you remember me — Bill Summers — the Summerses that used to live next door to you? I've grown up since you left Cranberry Corners. They still remember you there. Eliza Perry told me to see you in the city while I was here. You know Eliza married Benny Stanfield, and she says —"
"I say", interrupted Miss Carrington brightly, "Eliza Perry married. She used to be so stout and plain." "Married in June," smiled the gossip. "Old Mrs Blither^ sold her place to Captain Spooner; the youngest Waters girl ran away with a music teacher."
"Oh!" Miss Carrington cried out. "Why, you people, excuse me a while — this is an old friend of mine — Mr — what was it? Yes, Mr Summers — Mr Goldstein, Mr Ric-ketts. Now, Bill, come over here and tell me some more."
She took him to a vacant table in a corner.
"I don't seem to remember any Bill Summers," she said thoughtfully, looking straight into the innocent blue eyes of the young man. "But 1 know the Summerses all right, and your face seems familiar when I come to think of it. There aren't many changes in the old village, are there? Have you seen any of my people?"
And then Highsmith decided to show Miss Posie his abilities as a tragic actor.
"Miss Posie," said Bill Summers, "I was at your people's house just two or three days ago. No, there aren't many changes to speak of. And yet it doesn't look the same place that it used to be."
"How's Ma?" asked Miss Carrington.
"She was sitting by the front door when I saw her last," said Bill. "She's older than she was, Miss Posie. But everything in the house looked just the same. Your Ma asked me to sit down.
"William," said she. "Posie went away down that road and something tells me she'll come back that way again when she gets tired of the world and begins to think about her old mother. She's always been a sensible girl."
Miss Carrington looked uncomfortable.
"Well," she said, "I am really very glad to have seen you, Bill. Come round and see me at the hotel before you leave the city."
After she had left, Highsmith, still in his make-up, went up to Goldstein.
"An excellent idea, wasn't it?" said the smiling actor. "The part is mine, don't you think? The little lady never once guessed."
"I didn't hear your conversation," said Goldstein, "but your make-up and acting were perfect. Here's to your success. You'd better visit Miss Carrington early tomorrow and see how she feels about you."
At 11.45 the next morning Highsmith, handsome and dressed in the latest fashion, sent up his card to Miss Carrington at her hotel.
He was shown up and received by the actress's French maid.
"I am sorry," said the maid, "but I am to say this to everybody. Miss Carrington has cancelled all engagements on the stage and has returned to live in that — what do you call that pace? — Cranberry Corners!"
3. At the restaurant (from "A Thing of Beauty" by A. J. Cronin)
Stephen Desmonde had returned home after several years at Oxford, where he had been taking a course of theology. Stephen himself did not want to be a parson and had only taken up the course because his father wished him to do so. He was fond of painting and wanted to devote his life to art.
Against his father's will he left England to study painting in France. On arriving in Paris he entered Professor Dupret's Art School. The extract given below is an account of his meeting with other students from England.
At one o'clock a bell rang. Immediately a cry went up from everywhere and all around the students began crowding towards the door, pushing Stephen forward against his will. Suddenly he heard a pleasant voice behind him.
"You're English, aren't you? I noticed you come in. My name's Harry Chester."
Stephen turned his head and discovered a good-looking young man of about his own age smiling down at him.
"I'll wait for you downstairs," Chester called out as the crowd carried him away.
Outside Chester offered his hand. "I hope you don't mind my speaking to you." Stephen, who felt lonely in Paris, was glad to find a friend. When Stephen had introduced himself Chester paused for a moment, then exclaimed: "How about lunching with me?" They started off together along the street. The restaurant they went to was quite near, a narrow, low-ceilinged room, opening into a dark little kitchen. Already the place was crowded, mainly by students, but Chester led the way through to a little yard and, calmly removing the card marked 'Reserved' from a table at the far end, invited Stephen to be seated.
Immediately a stout, red-faced woman in black ran out of the kitchen in protest.
"No, no, Harry ... this place is reserved for Monsieur Lambert."
"Do not get excited, Madame Chobert," Chester smiled. "You know Monsieur Lambert is my good friend. Besides, he is always late."
Madame Chobert was not pleased; she tried to argue, but in the end Harry Chester's pleasant manner was too much for her. She stopped arguing and offered the title-card for their inspection.
At Chester's suggestion they ordered tomato soup, steak and cheese. Beer was already on the table.
"Strange, isn't it," Chester said, "how you can always tell a University man. Philip Lambert is one too. After Harrow" — he shot a quick glance at Stephen — "I should have gone to Cambridge myself... if I hadn't given it up for art." He went on to say, with a smile, that his father had been a well-known tea-planter in Ceylon. His mother, now a widow, lived in England and was quite rich. Naturally she spoiled him by giving him too much money. He had been in Paris eighteen) months.
"It's a lot of fun," he said finally.
They had finished their coffee. People were beginning to leave.
"Your friend Lambert doesn't seem to be coming," Stephen said at last, to break the silence.
Chester laughed, "You never quite know when he'll turn up. His habits are quite irregular."
After a few more remarks about Philip Lambert, Harry Chester suddenly sat up.
"Here's Philip now."
Following Chester's look, Stephen saw a slim man of about thirty entering the restaurant.
When he came over, he began taking off a lemon-yellow glove, meanwhile looking at Chester with amusement.
"Thank you for keeping my table, dear boy. But now you must be off. I'm expecting a guest at two o'clock."
"We're just going, Philip," Chester said in reply. "Look here, I'd like you to meet4 Desmonde. He joined us at Dupret's today."
Lambert took a look at Stephen, then he bowed politely as if appreciating the young man's tactful silence.
"Stephen Desmonde only came down from Oxford last term," Chester added quickly.
"Indeed!" exclaimed Lambert.
Holding out a small hand to Stephen, he said, "I am happy to meet you. I myself was at the House. You needn't hurry. I can easily find another table."
"No, no," said Stephen, rising, "we've quite finished."
"Well, then" said Lambert, "come to tea at my house one of these days. We are at home most Wednesdays at five. Harry will bring you along. Then we'll be two men from Oxford and one" — with a smile towards Chester — "who so nearly went to Cambridge."
The bill, quickly produced by Madame Chobert, now lay on the table. Since Chester did not seem to see it, Stephen picked it up and, in spite of Harry's sudden and energetic protests, paid.
4. A future businessman (from "The Financier" by Theodore Dreiser)
Buttonwood Street, Philadelphia, where Frank Cowperwood spent the first ten years of his life, was a lovely place for a boy to live in. There were mainly red brick houses there with small marble steps leading up to the front doors. There were trees in the street — a lot of them. Behind each house there was a garden with trees and grass and sometimes flowers.
The Cowperwoods, father and mother, were happy with their children. Henry Cowperwood, the father of the family, started life as a bank clerk, but when Frank, his elder son, was ten, Henry Cowperwood became a teller at the bank.
As his position grew more responsible, his business connections increased. He already knew a number of rich businessmen who dealt with the bank where he worked. The brokers knew him as representing a well-known film and considered him to be a most reliable person.
Young Cowperwood took an interest in his father's progress. He was quite often allowed to come to the bank on Saturdays, when he would watch with great interest the quick exchange of bills. He wanted to know where all the different kinds of money came from, and what the men did with all the money they received. His father, pleased at his interest, was glad to explain, so that even at this early age — from ten to fifteen — the boy gained a wide knowledge of the condition of the country financially. He was also interested in stocks and bonds, and he learned that some stocks and bonds were not even worth the paper they were written on, and others were worth much more than their face value showed.
At home also he listened to considerable talk of business and financial adventure.
Frank realized that his father was too honest, too careful. He often told himself that when he grew up, he was going to be a broker, or a financier, or a banker, and do some of the risky things he so often used to hear about.
Just at this time there came to the Cowperwoods an uncle, Seneca Davis, who had not appeared in the life of the family before.
Henry Cowperwood was pleased at the arrival of this rather rich relative, for before that Seneca Davis had not taken much notice of Henry Cowperwood and his family.
This time, however, he showed much more interest in the Cowperwoods, particularly in Frank.
"How would you like to come down to Cuba and be a planter, my boy?" he asked him once.
"I am not so sure that I'd like to," replied the boy.
"Well, that's frank enough. What have you against it?"
"Nothing, except that I don't know anything about it."
"What do you know?" The boy smiled, "Not very much, I guess."
"Well, what are you interested in?"
He looked at Frank carefully now. There was something in the boy ... no doubt of it.
"A smart boy!" he said to Henry, his brother-in-law. "You have a good family."
Uncle Seneca became a frequent visitor to the house and took an increasing interest in Frank.
"Keep in touch with me," he said to his sister one day. "When that boy gets old enough to find out what he wants to do, I think I'll help him to do it." She told him she was very grateful. He talked to Frank about his studies, and found that the boy took little interest in books or most of the subjects he had to take at school.
"I like book-keeping and mathematics," he said. "I want to get out and get to work, though. That's what I want to do."
"You're very young, my son," his uncle said. "You're only how old now? Fourteen?"
"Well, you can't leave school much before sixteen. You'll do better if you stay until seventeen or eighteen. It can't do you any harm. You won't be a boy again."
"I don't want to be a boy. I want to get to work."
"Don't go too fast, son. You'll be a man soon enough. You want to be a banker, don't you?"
"Well, when the time comes, if everything is all right and you've behaved well and you still want to, I'll help you get a start in business. If you are going to be a banker, you must work with some good company a year or so. You'll get a good training there. And, meantime, keep your health and learn all you can."
And with these words he gave the boy a ten-dollar gold piece with which to start a bank-account.
5. A Custom House Incident (by Nigel Balchin)
Among the passengers travelling home by train from Florence there was a certain Miss Bradley.
I only noticed her when passing down the corridor, because of her really remarkable plainness. She was rather a large, awkward woman of about thirty-five with a big, red nose, and large spectacles.
Later on, when I went to the dining-car, Miss Bradley was already seated, and the attendant placed me opposite her.
I think we may have exchanged half a dozen words at dinner, when passing one another the sugar or the bread. But they were certainly all we exchanged, and after we left the dining-car, I did not see Miss Bradley again until we reached Calais Maritime.
And then our acquaintance really began, and it began entirely on my initiative. There were plenty of porters, and I called one without difficulty from the window of the train. But as I got off, I saw Miss Bradley standing on the platform with two large very old suit-cases. The porters were passing her by.
I am quite sure that had she been an even slightly attractive woman, I should not have gone up to her, but she was so ugly, and looked so helpless that I approached her, and said: "My porter has a barrow. Would you like him to put your cases on it too?" Miss Bradley turned and looked at me.
"Oh — thank you. It is very kind of you."
My porter, without great enthusiasm, added her luggage to mine; and in a few minutes we found ourselves on board the Channel ferry.
Before the boat had been under way for ten minutes, I realized that Miss Bradley was a remarkable bore. Shyly and hesitantly she kept on talking about nothing, and made no remark worth taking notice of.
I learned that she had been in Italy a fortnight, visiting her sister who was married to an Italian. She had never been out of England before.
I did not look forward to travelling to London with her for another four hours, so excusing myself I went along to the booking-office on board the boat and booked myself a seat on the Golden Arrow.
Miss Bradley was travelling by the ordinary boat train, so this would mean that we should part at Dover.
At Dover I hired one of the crew to carry our luggage.
Normally, passengers for the Golden Arrow are dealt with by the customs first, as the train leaves twenty minutes before the ordinary boat train. When the boy asked if we were going on the Golden Arrow, I hesitated and then said "Yes".
It was too difficult to explain that one of us was and one of us wasn't, and then it would get Miss Bradley through the customs quickly.
As we went towards the Customs Hall, I explained carefully to her that my train left before hers, but that I would see her through the customs; the boy would then take the luggage to our trains, and she could sit comfortably in hers till it left. Miss Bradley said, "Oh, thank you very much."
The boy, of course, had put our suit-cases together on the counter, and Miss Bradley and I went and stood before them. In due course the customs examiner reached us, looked at the four suitcases in that human X-ray manner which customs examiners must practise night and morning, and said, "This is all yours?"
I was not quite sure whether he was speaking to me, or me and Miss Bradley. So I replied, "Well — mine and this lady's".
The examiner said, "But you're together?"
"For the moment," I said rather foolishly, smiling at Miss Bradley.
"Yes," said the customs man patiently. "But are you travelling together? Is this your joint luggage?"
"Well, no. Not exactly. We're just sharing a porter "
I pointed my cases out. I had nothing to declare, and declared it. Without asking me to open them, the examiner chalked the cases and then, instead of moving to my left and dealing with Miss Bradley, moved to the right, and began X-raying somebody else's luggage.
The boy took my cases off the counter. I hesitated for a moment, but then decided it was no use waiting for Miss Bradley since we were about to part, so I said:
"Well, I'll say good-bye now, and go and find my train. I expect the examiner'll come back and do you next. The porter will stay and bring our luggage up to the trains when you're through. Good-bye."
Miss Bradley said, "Oh... good-bye and thank you so much." We shook hands and I left.
I found my seat in the Golden Arrow and began to read.
It must have been about twenty minutes later that I suddenly realized the train was due to leave in five minutes and that the porter had not yet brought my luggage. I was just going to look for him when he appeared, breathing heavily, with my suit-cases. I asked him rather what he had been doing.
"The lady is still there," said the boy, "and will be for some time, I think. They are going through her things properly."
"Well, they'd found forty watches when I came away, and that was only the start, so I thought maybe you wouldn't want me to wait."
I have often wondered whether, when Miss Bradley stood so helplessly on the platform at Calais, she had already chosen me as the person to come to her rescue, or whether she was just sure that somebody would.
Looking back, I think, she must have chosen me. I am fairly sure of that though exactly how, I have never been clear. I am quite sure she never made the slightest effort to make my acquaintance.
6. THE SHIPWRECK
from Kidnapped by R. L. Stevenson
David Bal four, a sixteen-year-old boy, is on board a brig bound for America. The brig meets with a violent storm off the coast of Scotland. During the shipwreck that follows David is cast overboard. He cannot swim and is being carried along by the waves and choked until, fortunately, he manages to get hold of a floating board. After a desperate struggle he is flung upon the shore.
He spends the first night walking to and fro upon the beach for fear he might be frozen. At dawn he finds to his horror that he has been cast on a rocky island, cut off from the mainland by a strait. All his attempts to get across the strait end in failure. Completely exhausted, David gives himself up for lost.
In all the books I have read of people cast away on a desert island, they had either their pockets full of tools or a chest of things would be thrown upon the beach as if on purpose. My case was very different. What with the cold and hunger, I felt more miserable than words can tell. I stood shivering in the rain, wet and bare foot, and wondered what to do till it occurred to me that shellfish, of which there were plenty on the island, might be good to eat. I ate them cold and raw; and they seemed to me delicious. They must have poisoned me, for I had no sooner eaten my first meal, than felt miserably sick and lay for a long time no better than dead.
In fact as long as I was on the island I never could distinguish what particular shellfish it was that hurt me: sometimes the shellfish restored my strength, and sometimes I felt sick for hours.
The second day I explored the entire island and chose a place on a hillside to be my home. I had a good reason for my choice: from there I could distinguish the top of a great ancient church and the roofs of houses on the mainland. Morning and evening I saw smoke go up. I used to watch this smoke when I was wet and cold and lonely. It kept hope alive and saved me from the sense of horror I had when I was alone with the dead rocks and the rain, and the sea.
It seemed impossible that I should die on the shores of my own country and within view of men's houses.
But the second day passed; and though I kept a look out for boats or men, no help came. It had been raining for more than twenty-four hours. My clothes were beginning to rot; my throat was so sore that I could hardly swallow; the very sight of shellfish sickened me. I f elt completely exhausted.
It did not clear until the afternoon of the third day; this was the day of incidents. As soon as the sun came up, I lay down on the top of the rock to dry myself. My mood changed, I was hopeful and searched the sea with a fresh interest. All of a sudden a boat with a pair of fishers came flying round the corner of the isle. I shouted out and ran along the shore from rock to rock.
There was no doubt they had observed me, for they cried out something and laughed. But the boat never turned aside and flew on. It was unbelievable that they should have seen me and left me to die! I could not believe in such wickedness! Even after they were out of reach of my voice, I still cried and waved to them; I thought my heart would burst. But all was in vain. If a wish could kill men, those fishers would have died.
On the fourth day of this horrible life of mine I observed a boat heading for my island. Unable to hold myself back, with my heart beating wildly and my legs shaking under me, I ran to the seaside. It was the same boat with the same men as yesterday. But now there was a third man with them. As soon as they were within hearing, they let down their sail and lay quiet. They drew no nearer and, what increased my fear, the new man roared with laughter as he looked at me. Then he addressed me, speaking fast and waving his hand towards the mainland. Was he suggesting that I should try and make my way across the strait? I picked out the word "tide." I had a flash of hope! "Do you mean when the tide is out..." I cried and could not finish.
"Yes, yes," said he. "Tide."
At that I set off running as I had never run in my life. Before long I came out on the shore of the strait; and sure enough, it had become a little stream of water, through which I dashed, splashing, not above my knees, and landed with a shout on the mainland.
A sea-bred boy would not have stayed a day on the isle which is only a tidal islet, and can be entered and left twice in every twenty-four hours.
Even I, if I had sat down to think, might have guessed the secret. But for the fishers, I might have left my bones there.
I have seen wicked men and fools; and I believe they both get paid in the end; but the fools first.