A Deal in Ostriches
by H.G. Wells
“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.”