A Deal in Ostriches, by H. G. Wells
Bacillus and Other Incidents
"Talking of the prices of birds, I've seen an ostrich that cost three
hundred pounds," said the Taxidermist, recalling his youth of travel.
"Three hundred pounds!"
He looked at me over his spectacles. "I've seen another that was
refused at four."
"No," he said, "it wasn't any fancy points. They was just plain
ostriches. A little off colour, too—owing to dietary. And there
wasn't any particular restriction of the demand either. You'd have
thought five ostriches would have ruled cheap on an East Indiaman. But
the point was, one of 'em had swallowed a diamond.
"The chap it got it off was Sir Mohini Padishah, a tremendous swell, a
Piccadilly swell you might say up to the neck of him, and then an ugly
black head and a whopping turban, with this diamond in it. The blessed
bird pecked suddenly and had it, and when the chap made a fuss it
realised it had done wrong, I suppose, and went and mixed itself with
the others to preserve its incog. It all happened in a minute. I was
among the first to arrive, and there was this heathen going over his
gods, and two sailors and the man who had charge of the birds laughing
fit to split. It was a rummy way of losing a jewel, come to think of
it. The man in charge hadn't been about just at the moment, so that he
didn't know which bird it was. Clean lost, you see. I didn't feel half
sorry, to tell you the truth. The beggar had been swaggering over his
blessed diamond ever since he came aboard.
"A thing like that goes from stem to stern of a ship in no time. Every
one was talking about it. Padishah went below to hide his feelings.
At dinner—he pigged at a table by himself, him and two other
Hindoos—the captain kind of jeered at him about it, and he got very
excited. He turned round and talked into my ear. He would not buy the
birds; he would have his diamond. He demanded his rights as a British
subject. His diamond must be found. He was firm upon that. He would
appeal to the House of Lords. The man in charge of the birds was one
of those wooden-headed chaps you can't get a new idea into anyhow. He
refused any proposal to interfere with the birds by way of medicine.
His instructions were to feed them so-and-so and treat them so-and-so,
and it was as much as his place was worth not to feed them so-and-so
and treat them so-and-so. Padishah had wanted a stomach-pump—though
you can't do that to a bird, you know. This Padishah was full of bad
law, like most of these blessed Bengalis, and talked of having a lien
on the birds, and so forth. But an old boy, who said his son was a
London barrister, argued that what a bird swallowed became ipso
facto part of the bird, and that Padishah's only remedy lay in
an action for damages, and even then it might be possible to show
contributory negligence. He hadn't any right of way about an ostrich
that didn't belong to him. That upset Padishah extremely, the more so
as most of us expressed an opinion that that was the reasonable view.
There wasn't any lawyer aboard to settle the matter, so we all talked
pretty free. At last, after Aden, it appears that he came round to the
general opinion, and went privately to the man in charge and made an
offer for all five ostriches.
"The next morning there was a fine shindy at breakfast. The man hadn't
any authority to deal with the birds, and nothing on earth would
induce him to sell; but it seems he told Padishah that a Eurasian
named Potter had already made him an offer, and on that Padishah
denounced Potter before us all. But I think the most of us thought it
rather smart of Potter, and I know that when Potter said that he'd
wired at Aden to London to buy the birds, and would have an answer at
Suez, I cursed pretty richly at a lost opportunity.
"At Suez, Padishah gave way to tears—actual wet tears—when Potter
became the owner of the birds, and offered him two hundred and fifty
right off for the five, being more than two hundred per cent. on what
Potter had given. Potter said he'd be hanged if he parted with a
feather of them—that he meant to kill them off one by one and find
the diamond; but afterwards, thinking it over, he relented a little.
He was a gambling hound, was this Potter, a little queer at cards, and
this kind of prize-packet business must have suited him down to the
ground. Anyhow, he offered, for a lark, to sell the birds separately
to separate people by auction at a starting price of £80 for a bird.
But one of them, he said, he meant to keep for luck.
"You must understand this diamond was a valuable one—a little Jew
chap, a diamond merchant, who was with us, had put it at three or
four thousand when Padishah had shown it to him—and this idea of an
ostrich gamble caught on. Now it happened that I'd been having a
few talks on general subjects with the man who looked after these
ostriches, and quite incidentally he'd said one of the birds was
ailing, and he fancied it had indigestion. It had one feather in its
tail almost all white, by which I knew it, and so when, next day, the
auction started with it, I capped Padishah's eighty-five by ninety.
I fancy I was a bit too sure and eager with my bid, and some of the
others spotted the fact that I was in the know. And Padishah went for
that particular bird like an irresponsible lunatic. At last the Jew
diamond merchant got it for £175, and Padishah said £180 just after
the hammer came down—so Potter declared. At any rate the Jew merchant
secured it, and there and then he got a gun and shot it. Potter made a
Hades of a fuss because he said it would injure the sale of the other
three, and Padishah, of course, behaved like an idiot; but all of us
were very much excited. I can tell you I was precious glad when that
dissection was over, and no diamond had turned up—precious glad. I'd
gone to one-forty on that particular bird myself.
"The little Jew was like most Jews—he didn't make any great fuss over
bad luck; but Potter declined to go on with the auction until it was
understood that the goods could not be delivered until the sale was
over. The little Jew wanted to argue that the case was exceptional,
and as the discussion ran pretty even, the thing was postponed until
the next morning. We had a lively dinner-table that evening, I can
tell you, but in the end Potter got his way, since it would stand to
reason he would be safer if he stuck to all the birds, and that we
owed him some consideration for his sportsmanlike behaviour. And the
old gentleman whose son was a lawyer said he'd been thinking the thing
over and that it was very doubtful if, when a bird had been opened and
the diamond recovered, it ought not to be handed back to the
proper owner. I remember I suggested it came under the laws of
treasure-trove—which was really the truth of the matter. There was a
hot argument, and we settled it was certainly foolish to kill the bird
on board the ship. Then the old gentleman, going at large through his
legal talk, tried to make out the sale was a lottery and illegal,
and appealed to the captain; but Potter said he sold the birds as
ostriches. He didn't want to sell any diamonds, he said, and didn't
offer that as an inducement. The three birds he put up, to the best of
his knowledge and belief, did not contain a diamond. It was in the
one he kept—so he hoped.
"Prices ruled high next day all the same. The fact that now there were
four chances instead of five of course caused a rise. The blessed
birds averaged 227, and, oddly enough, this Padishah didn't secure one
of 'em—not one. He made too much shindy, and when he ought to have
been bidding he was talking about liens, and, besides, Potter was a
bit down on him. One fell to a quiet little officer chap, another to
the little Jew, and the third was syndicated by the engineers. And
then Potter seemed suddenly sorry for having sold them, and said he'd
flung away a clear thousand pounds, and that very likely he'd draw a
blank and that he always had been a fool, but when I went and had a
bit of a talk to him, with the idea of getting him to hedge on his
last chance, I found he'd already sold the bird he'd reserved to a
political chap that was on board, a chap who'd been studying Indian
morals and social questions in his vacation. That last was the three
hundred pounds bird. Well, they landed three of the blessed creatures
at Brindisi—though the old gentleman said it was a breach of the
Customs regulations—and Potter and Padishah landed too. The Hindoo
seemed half mad as he saw his blessed diamond going this way and
that, so to speak. He kept on saying he'd get an injunction—he had
injunction on the brain—and giving his name and address to the chaps
who'd bought the birds, so that they'd know where to send the diamond.
None of them wanted his name and address, and none of them would give
their own. It was a fine row I can tell you—on the platform. They all
went off by different trains. I came on to Southampton, and there
I saw the last of the birds, as I came ashore; it was the one the
engineers bought, and it was standing up near the bridge, in a kind of
crate, and looking as leggy and silly a setting for a valuable diamond
as ever you saw—if it was a setting for a valuable diamond.
"How did it end? Oh! like that. Well—perhaps. Yes, there's one more
thing that may throw light on it. A week or so after landing I was
down Regent-street doing a bit of shopping, and who should I see
arm-in-arm and having a purple time of it but Padishah and Potter. If
you come to think of it—
"Yes. I've thought that. Only, you see, there's no doubt the diamond
was real. And Padishah was an eminent Hindoo. I've seen his name
in the papers—often. But whether the bird swallowed the diamond
certainly is another matter, as you say."