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The Pearls and the Swine by Barry Pain


Miss Markham in certain respects was a fortunate lady. She had a flat in town and had recently acquired a little bungalow for week-end purposes on a cliff that overlooked the sea. There are one or two other little bungalows in the vicinity, and the people who own them do not give away the name of the place; they fear the penalties of popularity.

Miss Markham had sufficient means and no worries; she was good-looking enough for all practical purposes. She was forty-five years of age, had never been engaged, had never even come within a mile of being engaged.

In her London flat Miss Markham was quite conventional, and kept the usual servants; in the sacred privacy of her bungalow by the sea, she kept no regular servants at all. An old woman who lived in the village was paid to keep an eye on the place while Miss Markham was away, though no one could have said precisely what good it had done the place to have an eye kept there. The same old woman, when Miss Markham grew tired of town and came down for the week-end, spent the day at the bungalow, and—to use her own expression, which is not to be taken literally—“did for her”.

July in London was very hot that year. Miss Byles said that she would only be too delighted to go down to the bungalow, at the place which may not be mentioned, in company with Miss Markham. At the last moment Miss Byles was compelled, by health, to break her engagement. She did everything at the wrong time; she got hay fever at the wrong time; therefore Miss Markham went down alone, and the old woman made some perfunctory preparations for her, cooked an alleged dinner for her, and made no secret of the fact that she regarded it as a grievance that she should have to do anything whatever in return for the money which she received.

Having done as little as possible, she returned, so to speak, to her nest, and Miss Markham was left absolutely alone in the bungalow.

At ten o'clock that night Miss Markham, who was almost excessively refined, had just put down her copy of Walter Pater's “Imaginary Portraits", and was thinking of crossing the passage to go to bed. At that moment, her attention was attracted by a gentle tap on her front door: it was not the urgent, sharp, business tap of the Post Office; it was the rippling, social tap. Miss Markham was not nervous; she looked out of the window before deciding to open the door. Even with the moon to help her she could see nothing very distinctly, but it was obviously a man who was standing there, and he appeared to be a well-dressed man. She at once decided that he was a guest on his way to one of the other bungalows, and that he had called on her by mistake. Having come to this totally erroneous conclusion, she opened the door.

The visitor stood in the light now, and there was nothing about him to cause her perturbation. He was a tall man, about thirty years of age, with a short yellow beard and trustful, melancholy blue eyes. He wore a grey lounge suit and patent leather shoes, and he carried in his hand a very small brown bag.

“Miss Markham?” he said, raising his hat.

“I am Miss Markham.”

“I really must apologise for disturbing you at this time of night. The fact of the case is that you live in a lonely spot; I wish to inquire if you are insured against burglary.”

Miss Markham was rather amused by the impertinence of him. It was all very well for an insurance-office tout to call upon her to get her to take out a policy, but it did seem a little bit too much that he should call at so late an hour. If Miss Markham had not liked the man's appearance, she would have been even more severe than she was.

“I am afraid,” she said, “that you have troubled yourself, and incidentally have troubled me, to no purpose. I am already insured against burglary, fire, employers' liabilities, and all the rest of it, and I am not proposing to take out any further policy.”

“I am so glad,” said the stranger, and in a flash stepped into the hall, and shut the door behind him.

“What are you doing?” said Miss Markham. “You must not come in here like that. Go away at once!”

“I know, my dear lady, it is quite unconventional and wrong, and I can only assure you if you had not been insured against burglary I should never have come in. You may believe me that in the exercise of my profession, I have always done my best to consult the feelings of others.”

“Your profession! What profession?”

“We won't give it a name. 'What's in a name?' Some of my confrères are rough and violent; I am nothing of the kind. Naturally if you began to make a noise, I should have to take some steps to prevent it. The police in this neighbourhood are few in number and quite inefficient, and I think there is no other bungalow within a quarter of a mile.”

Miss Markham was now alive to the state of the case.

“I think,” she said, “that a police-whistle can be heard at that distance.”

She raised her police-whistle just as he raised his revolver; the two hands went up together.

“Really, Miss Markham, you ought not to force me into such a totally false position. My feelings towards you are those of a chivalrous gentleman; it absolutely repels me to do anything whatever which would appear in the nature of a threat. You have put the police-whistle down? That's right. Now then we can talk about this necklace. It would be pleasanter if we sat down; we will go into the dining-room, shall we? I say the dining-room rather than the drawing-room, because I think you might possibly like to ask me to take a whisky-and-soda, and the decanters are there.”

Miss Markham followed him into the dining-room; she did not ask him to take a whisky-and-soda. Notwithstanding this, he took it.

“Tell me one thing,” she said, “how did you know about this necklace?”

“That is just it; servants will talk. They are an eternal nuisance, aren't they? If their employer has anything which is believed to be valuable, they like to brag about it a little. You know, one can understand it; they enjoy reflected glory. It is exactly twelve months ago since I learned in casual conversation with a lady of inferior station to myself—your housemaid, I believe—that you not only possessed a pearl necklace valued at £500, but that you always wore it.”

“The jeweller told me that pearls should always be worn; they keep their colour better that way.”

“Yes,” said the stranger, “they do give that advice; very useful advice it is too.”

“If there is nothing else that you want to take,” said Miss Markham, “perhaps you would not mind going.”

“Certainly, my dear lady. I understand your point of view exactly. Here we have an abominable intrusion at a late hour; my sex makes the intrusion all the worse. When you are about to summon assistance, I raise my revolver, and if you had not put the police-whistle down, I should have been reluctantly compelled to shoot you dead. I then take away from you, as I shall do presently, a pearl necklace, which you value at £500, though I shall be quite satisfied if I get £120 for it myself. Well, when you come to think of it, you must admit that you have suffered nothing but a little inconvenience. The insurance company will give you £500 to buy another necklace, and the one which I am about to take away with me has no sentimental associations for you.”

“How do you know that?”

“You bought the silly thing yourself; correct me if I am wrong.”

She did not correct him. She said, “I don't see how you know.”

“Ah!” said the burglar, “there we come to another point—my point of view; we have had yours, but you have not had mine. I wonder if it would interest you to hear it? It might possibly, simply on the score of novelty. One hears a very great deal about the feelings of the householder towards the burglar, but precious little of the feelings of the burglar towards the householder; and I am not even a common burglar, as I hope you have recognised. It might interest you to talk the thing over for a few minutes, and it would be a great privilege and pleasure to myself. It might not, and in that case I will leave you at once.”

Miss Markham hesitated. Then she took a chair by the table and sat down.

“Well,” she said, “I will hear what you have to say.”

“I have never seen you before to-night. I opened the door and you stood in the light. In the background were the white walls of the bungalow and on them good mezzotints after the eighteenth-century masters, and on a small rosewood table was your bedroom candlestick—Sheffield, and I should say a very good piece; good Sheffield, as you know, fetches more than silver nowadays. But it was upon you principally that my attention was centred. The rest all came in a flash; your grey quaker dress, the green serge curtains, the copper knocker, everything told the same story of simplicity and taste. But in your face I read very much more, so much that was not simple, so much that still perplexes me.”

Miss Markham was slightly embarrassed. It was not usual for her to hear herself discussed. One part of her said this was monumental impertinence, and she must check it. The other part said that she rather liked it. It was the other part of her that won. If he had not been an unusually handsome man, with melancholy blue eyes and a beautiful respectful manner, perhaps the other part would have won.

She laughed. “I do not see what there is to puzzle you.”

“I saw the face of a saint. You have lived absolutely apart from the world; in a walled-in garden as it were. Now I personally have all the vices.” He took from his pocket a gold cigarette case with another man's monogram on it, took out a cigarette and lit it. “As I was saying, I have all the vices, but that does not mean that I am without a very keen appreciation of the other thing; perhaps the keener, because I have not got it. I have seen faces like yours before, but they have always belonged to someone who wore the garb of a nun. The nuns shut out the world from them; you, on the contrary, have lived in the world, and have still kept apart from it. I cannot make out how you have done it. I cannot make out how you have been allowed to do it. Tell me, has no man ever kissed you?”

“Never,” she said fervently.

“I believe you,” said the burglar. “I think I have never met another woman in whom I would have believed a similar declaration. You will observe that I did not offer you a cigarette, because I knew for a fact that you have never smoked.”

“Never,” she said.

“I knew it; just as I knew that you had bought this pearl necklace yourself; just as I knew that you had never been kissed; just as I knew that you were good enough to compel even the abject reverence of as bad a man as myself.”

Her hand, toying nervously with things on the table, happened to strike the decanter. “But won't you have some more of this?” she said.

He glanced at a gold watch, on the back of which another man's armorial bearings were engraved. “I have only two minutes,” he said, “but I must drink your health at parting. Do you know that it is absolutely right for you to wear pearls? Coloured stones would be quite wrong; diamonds are too hard; pearls give just the right note of purity and softness. I suppose you have realised that with the exception of one ring, you wear no other gems. I noticed that ring as I came in. Those large table-cut emeralds, when they are of that fine quality, fetch a good deal of money. I should sell it if I were you. It is not in keeping. Perhaps it seems to you a trifle not worth mentioning, but you remember what Walter Pater says about some trifling and pretty graces being insignia of the nobler world of aspiration and idea.”

Miss Markham clasped her hands. “How strange,” she said. “I was reading that just as you came in. How strange that you should have known it!”

“My dear lady, you must not imagine that I am a romantic man, for I am not, nor am I a good man. I am not highly connected, and I have not got a better self; the only self I have got is the one before you. But I do claim to be able to appreciate. I have appreciated this evening immensely. Walter Pater is not the last word just now, but I have always appreciated beautiful prose. Far more than beautiful prose I appreciate the pure poetry of your own temperament.” He raised his glass. “To your good health, Miss Markham, and good night.”

As he neared the door, she called him back. “You have forgotten the pearls,” she said.

“No, but I wanted you to remind me.”

She unclasped them, and handed them to him. He held them in his hand for a moment. “They are warm,” he said, “from your soft, round neck.” He raised them to his lips for a moment and then dropped them into a prosaic inside pocket of his coat.

“Yes,” he said, “from time immemorial women have been fond of casting their pearls before swine, haven't they? But you have kept the real pearls.” He bowed low to her, and in a moment was gone.

In a letter which Miss Markham wrote to Miss Ryles appeared the following passage:

“It was such a pity, dear, that you could not come down to the bungalow the other week-end, it was so quiet and peaceful; incidentally, by mere chance, I met quite the most charming man I have ever seen in my life. No more news, except that I got tired of my old pearl necklace and am getting another.

“Oh, and I was quite forgetting; you said that if ever I wanted to part with my emerald ring, I was to give you the first refusal of it. My dear, you can have it. I have decided that pearls are the only things I can wear.”

Naturally Miss Markham had to give notice to the police of the fact that she had lost her pearl necklace.

She had heard something moving in her bedroom, and on entering it a man had jumped out through the window. All she could say for certain was that he was clean-shaven, and had close-cropped black hair.