The Old Brown Coat, by Lord Dunsany
My friend, Mr. Douglas Ainslie, tells me that Sir James Barrie once
told him this story. The story, or rather the fragment, was as
A man strolling into an auction somewhere abroad, I think it must have
been France, for they bid in francs, found they were selling old
clothes. And following some idle whim he soon found himself bidding
for an old coat. A man bid against him, he bid against the man. Up
and up went the price till the old coat was knocked down to him for
twenty pounds. As he went away with the coat he saw the other bidder
looking at him with an expression of fury.
That's as far as the story goes. But how, Mr. Ainslie asked me, did
the matter develop, and why that furious look? I at once made
enquiries at a reliable source and have ascertained that the man's
name was Peters, who thus oddly purchased a coat, and that he took it
to the Rue de Rivoli, to a hotel where he lodged, from the little low,
dark auction room by the Seine in which he concluded the bargain.
There he examined it, off and on, all day and much of the next
morning, a light brown overcoat with tails, without discovering any
excuse, far less a reason, for having spent twenty pounds on so worn a
thing. And late next morning to his sitting room looking out on the
Gardens of the Tuileries the man with the furious look was ushered in.
Grim he stood, silent and angry, till the guiding waiter went. Not
till then did he speak, and his words came clear and brief, welling up
from deep emotions.
"How did you dare to bid against me?"
His name was Santiago. And for many moments Peters found no excuse to
offer, no apology, nothing in extenuation. Lamely at last, weakly,
knowing his argument to be of no avail, he muttered something to the
intent that Mr. Santiago could have outbid him.
"No," said the stranger. "We don't want all the town in this. This
is a matter between you and me." He paused, then added in his fierce,
curt way: "A thousand pounds, no more."
Almost dumbly Peters accepted the offer and, pocketing the thousand
pounds that was paid him, and apologizing for the inconvenience he had
unwittingly caused, tried to show the stranger out. But Santiago
strode swiftly on before him, taking the coat, and was gone.
There followed between Peters and his second thoughts another long
afternoon of bitter reproaches. Why ever had he let go so
thoughtlessly of a garment that so easily fetched a thousand pounds?
And the more he brooded on this the more clearly did he perceive that
he had lost an unusual opportunity of a first class investment of a
speculative kind. He knew men perhaps better than he knew materials;
and, though he could not see in that old brown coat the value of so
much as a thousand pounds, he saw far more than that in the man's
eager need for it. An afternoon of brooding over lost opportunities
led to a night of remorse, and scarcely had day dawned when he ran to
his sitting-room to see if he still had safe the card of Santiago. And
there was the neat and perfumed carte de visite with Santiago's
Parisian address in the corner.
That morning he sought him out, and found Santiago seated at a table
with chemicals and magnifying glasses beside him examining, as it lay
spread wide before him, the old brown coat. And Peters fancied he
wore a puzzled air.
They came at once to business. Peters was rich and asked Santiago to
name his price, and that small dark man admitted financial straits,
and so was willing to sell for thirty thousand pounds. A little
bargaining followed, the price came down and the old brown coat
changed hands once more, for twenty thousand pounds.
Let any who may be inclined to doubt my story understand that in the
City, as any respectable company promoter will tell them, twenty
thousand pounds is invested almost daily with less return for it than
an old tail coat. And, whatever doubts Mr. Peters felt that day about
the wisdom of his investment, there before him lay that tangible
return, that something that may be actually fingered and seen, which
is so often denied to the investor in gold mines and other Selected
Investments. Yet as the days wore on and the old coat grew no
younger, nor any more wonderful, nor the least useful, but more and
more like an ordinary old coat, Peters began once more to doubt his
astuteness. Before the week was out his doubts had grown acute. And
then one morning, Santiago returned. A man, he said, had just arrived
from Spain, a friend unexpected all of a sudden in Paris, from whom he
might borrow money: and would Peters resell the coat for thirty
It was then that Peters, seeing his opportunity, cast aside the
pretence that he had maintained for so long of knowing something about
the mysterious coat, and demanded to know its properties. Santiago
swore that he knew not, and repeatedly swore the same by many sacred
names; but when Peters as often threatened not to sell, Santiago at
last drew out a thin cigar and, lighting it and settling himself in a
chair, told all he knew of the coat.
He had been on its tracks for weeks with suspicions growing all the
time that it was no ordinary coat, and at last he had run it to earth
in that auction room but would not bid for it more than twenty pounds
for fear of letting every one into the secret. What the secret was he
swore he did not know, but this much he knew all along, that the
weight of the coat was absolutely nothing; and he had discovered by
testing it with acids that the brown stuff of which the coat was made
was neither cloth nor silk nor any known material, and would neither
burn nor tear. He believed it to be some undiscovered element. And
the properties of the coat which he was convinced were marvellous he
felt sure of discovering within another week by means of experiments
with his chemicals. Again he offered thirty thousand pounds, to be
paid within two or three days if all went well. And then they started
haggling together as business men will.
And all the morning went by over the gardens of the Tuileries and the
afternoons came on, and only by two o'clock they arrived at an
understanding, on a basis, as they called it, of thirty thousand
guineas. And the old tail coat was brought out and spread on the
table, and they examined it together and chatted about its properties,
all the more friendly for their strenuous argument. And Santiago was
rising up to go, and Peters pleasantly holding out his hand, when a
step was heard on the stair. It echoed up to the room, the door
opened. And an elderly labouring man came stumping in. He walked
with difficulty, almost like a bather who has been swimming and
floating all morning and misses the buoyancy of the water when he has
come to land. He stumped up to the table without speaking and there at
once caught sight of the old brown coat.
"Why," he said, "that be my old coat."
And without another word he put it on. In the fierce glare of his
eyes as he fitted on that coat, carefully fastening the buttons,
buttoning up the flap of a pocket here, unbuttoning one there, neither
Peters nor Santiago found a word to say. They sat there wondering how
they had dared to bid for that brown tail coat, how they had dared to
buy it, even to touch it, they sat there silent without a single
excuse. And with no word more the old labourer stumped across the
room, opened wide the double window that looked on the Tuileries
gardens and, flashing back over his shoulder one look that was full of
scorn, stumped away up through the air at an angle of forty degrees.
Peters and Santiago saw him bear to his left from the window; passing
diagonally over the Rue de Rivoli and over a corner of the Tuileries
gardens; they saw him clear the Louvre, and thence they dumbly watched
him still slanting upwards, stepping out with a firmer and more
confident stride as he dwindled and dwindled away with his old brown
Neither spoke till he was no more than a speck in the sky far away
over Paris going South Eastwards.
"Well I am blowed," said Peters.
But Santiago sadly shook his head. "I knew it was a good coat," he
said. "I knew it was a good coat."