Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ernest Bramah Abracadabra

Here is my favorite short comic tale by Ernest Bramah.  The humorous interplay between the tale's two characters is worthy of comparison to the badinage in the carefully wrought and more elaborate stories of the Kai Lung canon, although the tale sputters out at the conclusion.  

Punch, v143, p. 152
December 25, 1912
(As E. B. Smith)

[Note:  "Roman Fibulae" were brooches or clips to fasten clothing together.  "Assignats" were notes issued as currency during the French Revolution.]


The Old Forces really do not play the game nowadays.

I had spent a long and trying afternoon in a sale-room that is described as historic.  I had not gone with any intention of bidding, merely to look on; and yet at four o-clock I had still bought nothing.

"Lot 321," announced the auctioneer.  "Five Roman fibulae or brooches, a supposed spear-head believed to be from the bed of the Thames, an ancient bronze ring, a plaster cast (Venus Surprised), three seventeenth-century pipe-stoppers, a bundle of French assignats and a galvanic battery — faulty.  A speculative lot."

No one responded.

"Sevenpence," I ventured diffidently.  There were seven items to the lot, you will observe.

"I must remind you, Sir," said the auctioneer severely, "that the rules printed in the catalogue, which you have before you, fix one shilling as the minimum initial bid for any lot."

I corrected myself.  "One-and-two-pence, I mean, of course."

The hammer paused, then fell with the conventional tap.

"What name, please?"

"Cash," I replied largely.

I paid my cash and received the lot.  I had not as yet examined it, but with it now before me I began to fear that I had been beguiled into overbidding myself.

"Oh dear!  Oh dear!" panted a voice at my elbow, "am I too late?  Can you tell me, my dear Sir, if Lot 321 has gone?"

"In a sense, yes," I replied, indicating the miscellaneous flotsam before me.  "In another sense it has come."

"You have bought it!" exclaimed the old gentleman — he was really, now that I came to look at him, a very patriarchal, not to say oriental, personage — "may I ask, what have you bought it for?"

"Well," I admitted, "that's just what I was asking myself when you interposed."

"I mean," he said a little impatiently, "what particular object attracted your fancy.  I can scarcely imagine that if the galvanic battery was what you desired you will have any strong partiality for the Roman fibulae; or if your heart was set on the alleged spear-head that you would not be ready to consider an offer for the French assignats.  But perhaps the shortest way will be for me to explain myself definitely.  I have a partiality for this antique bronze ring; may I acquire it at you own price?"

"Certainly," I replied.  "Or, better still, at yours.  I might, however, point out to you," I added, referring him to the first page of the  catalogue, "that Rule 4 says: 'No bid shall commence at less than a shilling. . . and so on in proportion.'"

"Assuredly," he admitted a little vaguely, but picking up the ring with evident satisfaction.  "You have been markedly generous.  I am not to be outdone.  In return for this ancient bronze ring you shall be granted three wishes — have whatever you like."

"Thank you.  I don't mind a scotch-and-soda," I said, perhaps by mere force of habit.

Immediately at my hand stood a tall crystal glass of the beverage I had specified.  The cut of the vessel was curious and antique, but the contents were above suspicion.

"I only wish," I remarked, as I put the glass down, "that I could always have one from under that label for the asking."

"You can," replied the venerable stranger, "henceforth."

I thought it as well to try the dodge while he was there.

"Then I'll have another," I declared, and the glass was instantly replenished.

"Your demands are satisfied?" suggested the old man.

"Not quite," I replied cunningly.  "I know what I am doing.  That last wasn't a separate wish — it comes under the generous and inexhaustible provision of wish B.  And that being so I don't mind ordering up another for you."

Needless to say, a third miraculous whisky-and-soda was there.

"Have your final wish," said the stranger, pushing aside the glass, a little ungraciously, I thought, after my delicate attention.  "I am anxious to be gone from this place."

I began to think that the old man was rather selfish and had possibly over-reached me in the bargain.

"I can have anything I name for the third wish?" I demanded.

"You have only to mention it."

"Then I'll have the ring back, thank you."

"The ring!" he repeated incredulously.

"Precisely.  The antique bronze ring which you are wearing," I replied.

He seemed a little dazed still, but he pulled it off his finger and it was in my hand.

"Crafty and perfidious one," he began.

"Wait a moment," I replied.  "Now, will you give me three wishes for this ring?"

"Have I not spoken it?  You have only to declare your demands."

"Very well.  Here you are.  Now we begin over again.  And I only hope that there's no catch in it."

I saw a tricky look come into his venerable eyes and I knew in a flash that I had squandered wish A.

"Ah-ha, so that counts, does it?" I remarked.  "Very well.  Now will you knock it off or shall I have the ring back again for wish B and then begin again.  We have the long winter evening before us."

"Proceed, excellency," he entreated, with tears in his eyes; "have it as your enlightened wisdom demands, only proceed."

"All right; now this is really the start," I agreed.  "I wish that I had a purse containing gold and that it would be replenished at once however often I emptied it, and — hold hard!  I'm touching wood still, it all belongs to the same wish — that none else should be any the poorer by it and that I should be unable to lose the purse or to part from it by accident or through misapprehension."

"It is granted."

I felt something heavy come into my right-hand trouser pocket and I knew that a start had been made.

"Secondly, I wish that I may at once become very accomplished, amiable, entertaining, handsome, distinguished, learned, popular, eligible and in every other way desirable, and that none of these attributes may bring in its train the boomerang-like retribution that gentlemen of your craft traditionally keep up your sleeves."

The venerable personage seemed to have several things to say in his own tongue and the incantation was a little lengthy.  But at last he bowed.

"It is assured," he declared.  Strangely enough, I did not feel the slightest change in my personality.

"Finally — wish C — and most important," I continued, "I insist that in common fairness I shall be allowed to have a decent time in possession of my new qualities before I wake up."

This is what I complain of.  It was at that moment that I awoke.

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