Read The Song of the Flea Online

Authors: Gerald Kersh

The Song of the Flea (3 page)

BOOK: The Song of the Flea

He is necessary, like hangmen, slaughterers, and dentists. Since people must borrow, the pawnbroker must lend, not without security. Therefore he must learn the ultimate value of an Unredeemed Pledge. He must learn to read and translate all the inscriptions that Want carves on a human face, and translate them into arithmetic. He must lock his heart when he unlocks his shop door and take off compassion with his overcoat. Pym knew that an object valued at nine-and-sixpence by Greenberg would be valued at nine-and-sixpence by the others. In the weird unanimity of pawnbrokers, a superstitious man in need sometimes imagines that he hears the beat of Congo drums.

Pym had often wondered what makes a man decide to be a pawnbroker, a dentist, or a hangman. A medical student, learning a little bit of everything, is sidetracked by successful enquiry into a carneous mole, and finds himself, almost in spite of himself, specialising in obstetrics. He does not, in his formative years, raise a shining boyish face to his father and, in reply to enquiry as to what he hopes to do, say: ‘Father, I want to explore gynæcology.’ Yet many young men, thinking of the future, state quite clearly that they want to go in for dentistry—to probe, drill, and twist out of ulcerated gums the stumps of rotten teeth. There is money in it, yes: we cannot get along without dentists. But what kind of boy makes up his mind to scrape and bore a respectable living out of sepulchral mouths?

Similarly, if you want to be a hangman you must make proper application for the job, and devote yourself to it—you must, literally, get to know the ropes. You must look at necks and consider them in relation to individual weights and muscular peculiarities. You must take an interest in your work, so that you may pride yourself on a workmanlike execution—a nice smooth drop and a good clean snap when your hooded client goes down through the trapdoor and jolts to death in the
dimness below. Such work must be taken seriously: it is highly skilled work, and underpaid, so that hangmen generally run little businesses of their own on the side—cobblers’ shops, barber shops, and the like. Cobblers and barbers all over the world keep themselves and their families by mending shoes and cutting hair: before an ordinary tradesman thought of hanging his neighbour he would hang himself. And still staid, prim men go out of their way to become hangmen.

Perhaps they enjoy the terror they inspire as agents of the Angel of Death.

It is possible, also, that a pawnbroker’s clerk feels twice the man he might have been when he looks into the blinking eyes of some miserable little woman, glances down scornfully at her husband’s best suit—(she must get it out by Saturday, or God help her!)—and, with a weary shrug, says: “What, this one again? Let you have seven-and-six.” No one denies that he is a kind man at heart—kind, at least, to his wife and children, and a good provider who will work his fingers to the bone to send his boys to secondary school. This being the case, why doesn’t he use his wonderful sense of values in another kind of shop? Why does he want to be a pawnbroker? How does he manage to grow indifferent to the misery on which he lives and the fearful hate he inspires? How does he get that way?—that is what you ask yourself.


For two or three speculative minutes Pym played with the idea of an untried pawnbroker near Oxford Street. He turned and began to walk there. Then, remembering that it is better to have dealings with the devil you know than the devil you don’t know, went to McCormick’s. This was an austere
on a corner. Most pawnshops are: the façade on the main street is a shopfront, the window of which is full of
fountain-pens, pitiful little opal engagement rings, musical instruments, and attractively-ticketed silver candlesticks and spoons. You walk into this part of the place like a buyer, with an arrogant lift to your head, slamming down your independent feet, because you have money in your pocket. Round the corner
there is a dark, brown-painted doorway. Customers who go in that way dart rather than walk in. Watching from the other side of the street, between ten in the morning and noon, you will recognise three types. One, shabby-genteel, sidles guiltily along the back street, looking at his feet and carrying a little bundle: he darts in, darts out empty-handed, and creeps away. Another, well-dressed, strolls to the corner and looks around with the air of a man-about-town; examines the doorstep, looks up at the painted inscription on the lintel, swaggers in, and comes out—still swaggering—five minutes later without his overcoat; looks up and down the street, and strolls away humming a gay tune. The third, a woman, just goes straight in with a parcel and walks right out without it, and goes home.


Pym said: “I wonder if you’d care to lend me as much as you can on this till Friday?”

The clerk said nothing: he opened the suitcase.

“There’s a perfectly good suit, a pair of shoes, a valuable glass paper-weight—look, shake it and it makes a snowstorm—and a pair of flannel trousers. There’s a magnifying glass in a real morocco case. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind letting me have a couple of pounds on this till Friday.”

The pawnbroker’s clerk looked at him and spread out the suit. Pym had prepared it carefully, rubbing out spots with an old handkerchief and a pennyworth of petrol But when the clerk laid his hands on the cloth all the old stains came back. A disparaging forefinger brought up something like a fringe under a sleeve. At the touch of an accusing thumb a buttonhole disintegrated. A quick hand stroked from left to right, and the lining of the waistcoat became grey and greasy. With
cunning the clerk turned back the cuffs and uncovered a split lining.

“That’s very extraordinary,” said Pym.

The clerk looked at the shoes and threw them aside; shook the paper-weight and grunted. He looked through the
glass at a thumbnail, sighed, and said: “Let you have ten bob, if you like.”

“You must be crazy,” said Pym, desperately; “that’s an eight-guinea suit.”

“Ten bob.”

“No, but listen——”

“I can’t let you have more than ten bob. And I don’t want the paper-weight.”

“Damn it all, man—till Friday!”

“Say you fell dead on Thursday?”

“I won’t fall dead on Thursday, I give you my——”

“Ten bob.”

Pym hesitated. Then he hitched up his shoulders in what he believed to be a nonchalant shrug and said: “Oh, all right; take it.”

“Have you got twopence for the ticket?”

“Take it out of that. I shall want some small change. Damn it all!” said Pym, “couldn’t you make it a little more than that?”

“Got a cellar full of stuff like this—more than I know what to do with.”

Pym took the money and the ticket and went into the street, too depressed even for resentment. He had nine shillings and elevenpence. No sum of money in the world is more irritatingly useless than nine shillings and elevenpence when you need two pounds. The odd pennies make it loose and untidy. His mind had gone blank again. He put the silver carefully into his
and took the fivepence into a teashop, where he squandered it on weak tea and penny buns. There, again, he chose a corner seat: it was appropriate to his mood of quiet desperation, for he felt now like a boxer fighting for his supper, who has struggled like a madman for nine rounds and sits with a sinking heart in a heaving breast waiting for the gong, the knock-out, and the limping journey home in humiliation through the rainwashed streets.

For want of something better to do, Pym took out the little worn wallet in which he kept his private papers. These were mostly pawn-tickets. Pym put the new one with the old ones, shuffled them, and fanned them open warily like an anxious gambler after a desperate draw in a poker game. He
this melancholy hand and arranged it carefully,
smiling brightly and pretending to be pleasantly surprised—pathetically bluffing, like an unlucky player; deceiving nobody. He put the typewriter next to the cigarette-case, fitted in the winter overcoat and the summer suit, and then started in real astonishment. There was a ticket he had forgotten.

The ticket said
… 7/6. It was a
engraved snuff-box, two hundred years old. Pym had got it from his father, and used to carry it for luck. Sometimes, in order to make an impression, he had put a little snuff in it and offered it with a flourish to startled acquaintances. Now, remembering it, he sat upright and put the other tickets away. In as little time as it took to snap his fingers, Pym became happy. His heart beat harder and faster. Trapped hope had found a hole in the net, a loose bar in the cage. In five seconds he had a plan, complex, bold and exciting.

He would redeem the snuff-box; go to Szisco’s, near Holborn, and sell it. Szisco bought and sold Georgian silver. Pym remembered seeing in Szisco’s window neatly arranged cases of Georgian silver snuff-boxes, the meanest of which was priced at four pounds ten. One of them, much less beautiful than his, was for sale at fifteen pounds. Assuming that old Mr. Pym’s snuff-box was worth no more than ten pounds, could Szisco offer him less than five pounds for it?

It was unreasonable to suppose that Szisco could be such a fool.

He paid the bill and hurried out. The curdled grey sky had cleared. It was going to be a fine day. Everything had cleared. There was a pleasant smell in the air, and the passing girls looked friendly and beautiful. But there was no time to waste. Pym walked as fast as he could, scarcely pausing to look at the faces of the people who were waiting outside the Old Bailey, where someone was being tried on a charge of murder. His swinging right hand struck somebody’s wrist and he apologised gaily and profusely without turning his head. It was as if a window had been thrown open to let out some of the stale smoke in his head. Everything was clear and crisp. He had only to get the snuff-box. After that he could put down his money for the
typewriter, lay in some filling food—tinned herrings and potatoes for example—go home to Busto, slap down a week’s rent, run upstairs, sit down and finish the novel, hurry it to Egan & Dobbs, and collect fifty pounds. He was not a shallow-minded man, a wishful-thinker who lived for the moment: he knew that fifty pounds would not last for ever. Fifty pounds was not a large sum: in fact fifty pounds was nothing. Still, it would tide him over. He could get his best clothes out of pawn, buy more paper and some typewriter ribbons, pay a debt or two, and work comfortably for at least two months. In two months he could write another novel. Well-dressed, with a quarter of an inch of good shoe-leather solidly separating his feet from the floor, he could talk to an editor with confidence and, crossing his legs, feel free of frayed trousers and perforated socks.

Pym danced rather than walked past the post office, and smiled in the musty gloom of the pawnshop as he put down his ticket like an ace of trumps, jingling the money in his pocket.

The clerk, hairless and sickly yellow like the bulb that hung from the ceiling, untied a neat little bow in a piece of thin string and unwrapped the snuff-box. Then he took the money, and looked up grimacing as the door slammed.

Pym was out of the office before the clerk had begun to refold the little piece of paper.

He was prudent enough to walk a few yards to a bus stop from which it would cost him only three-halfpence to ride to Szisco’s. He exchanged badinage with the conductor and whistled a tune between his teeth. But at Szisco’s door he hesitated. The whistle went back into his mouth with a little hiss. He looked into Szisco’s window, which was full of silver. There were chafing-dishes for which he would not have given twopence, priced at scores of guineas; candlesticks which he would not have had as a gift, available for twenty-one pounds apiece; and there were snuff-boxes, the cheapest of which would cost you four pounds ten shillings. But Pym’s box was four inches long, three inches wide, and two inches deep—bigger than the snuff-box in the top left-hand corner which Szisco valued at nineteen guineas, and ever so much better engraved. There, still, hung the card: ‘OLD SILVER BOUGHT’. Pym
drew himself up, smoothed his coat, and walked into the shop.

Until he felt the thudding of his heart he did not know that he was afraid. He had intended to smile, converse offhandedly, and come suavely to the market value of his box. But when he was confronted by an old man with hair that was neither black nor grey, dressed like a Consul-General in heavy cloth that was neither grey nor black, the virtue went out of him.

Pym could only say: “I believe you buy silver?”

The old man almost smiled.

“… Rather valuable old silver snuff-box. My … I … It … Well, this is it, and I wondered …”

A dry, silvery hand came out of a beautifully starched cuff, picked up Pym’s box, and felt it. The old man cocked his head and stooped. He seemed to be smelling the box. At last he said: “I’m sorry.”


“I’m sorry. There really isn’t much I can say about this. It’s no use to me. I have a room full of them up there in the front. I’ve got more of these than I know what to do with.”

“But you’ve got all sorts of things, not half as good as this, that you’re charging ten, fifteen, twenty pounds for! You’ve got them in the window! Come and see!”

“Yes, I know what I’ve got in the window. But stop to consider how long I might have
them in the window. Simply ask yourself what people want with snuff-boxes now, things being as they are.”

“Do you seriously mean to say that you actually don’t
this?” cried Pym.

“I don’t want it.”

“Are you seriously telling me that it isn’t worth, for instance, a fiver?”

The old man smiled and said: “My goodness gracious, no, indeed!”

“What would it be worth to you, then?” asked Pym, in a flat voice, stroking the engraved lid of the box.

“As things are now it’s hardly worth making an offer for. Twenty years ago, yes. In twenty years’ time, perhaps. I’ll give you a pound for it, if you like.”

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