Her husband drew the talisman from his pocket, and all three burst into laughter as the Seargent-Major, with a look of alarm on his face, caught him by the arm.
“If you must wish,” he said gruffly, “Wish for something sensible.”
Mr. White dropped it back in his pocket, and placing chairs, motioned his friend to the table. In the business of supper the talisman was partly forgotten, and afterward the three sat listening in an enthralled fashion to a second installment of the soldier’s adventures in India.
“If the tale about the monkey’s paw is not more truthful than those he has been telling us,” said Herbert, as the door closed behind their guest, just in time to catch the last train, “we shan’t make much out of it.”
“Did you give anything for it, father?” inquired Mrs. White, regarding her husband closely.
“A trifle,” said he, colouring slightly, “He didn’t want it, but I made him take it. And he pressed me again to throw it away.”
“Likely,” said Herbert, with pretended horror. “Why, we’re going to be rich, and famous, and happy. Wish to be an emperor, father, to begin with; then you can’t be henpecked.”
He darted around the table, pursued by the maligned Mrs White armed with an antimacassar.
Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact,” he said slowly. It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”
“If you only cleared the house, you’d be quite happy, wouldn’t you!” said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. “Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that’ll just do it.”
His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face, somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down and struck a few impressive chords.
“I wish for two hundred pounds,” said the old man distinctly.
A fine crash from the piano greeted his words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him.
“It moved,” he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. “As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake.”
“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son, as he picked it up and placed it on the table, “and I bet I never shall.”
“It must have been your fancy, father,” said his wife, regarding him anxiously.
He shook his head. “Never mind, though; there’s no harm done, but it gave me a shock all the same.”
They sat down by the fire again while the two men finished their pipes. Outside, the wind was higher than ever, an the old man started nervously at the sound of a door banging upstairs. A silence unusual and depressing settled on all three, which lasted until the old couple rose to retire for the rest of the night.
“I expect you’ll find the cash tied up in a big bag in the middle of your bed,” said Herbert, as he bade them good night, ” and something horrible squatting on top of your wardrobe watching you as you pocket your ill-gotten gains.”
He sat alone in the darkness, gazing at the dying fire, and seeing faces in it. The last was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement. It got so vivid that, with a little uneasy laugh, he felt on the table for a glass containing a little water to throw over it. His hand grasped the monkey’s paw, and with a little shiver he wiped his hand on his coat and went up to bed.
In the brightness of the wintry sun next morning as it streamed over the breakfast table he laughed at his fears. There was an air of prosaic wholesomeness about the room which it had lacked on the previous night, and the dirty, shriveled little paw was pitched on the side-board with a carelessness which betokened no great belief in its virtues.
“I suppose all old soldiers are the same,” said Mrs White. “The idea of our listening to such nonsense! How could wishes be granted in these days? And if they could, how could two hundred pounds hurt you, father?”
“Might drop on his head from the sky,” said the frivolous Herbert.
“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”
“Well don’t break into the money before I come back,” said Herbert as he rose from the table. “I’m afraid it’ll turn you into a mean, avaricious man, and we shall have to disown you.”
His mother laughed, and following him to the door, watched him down the road; and returning to the breakfast table, was very happy at the expense of her husband’s credulity. All of which did not prevent her from scurrying to the door at the postman’s knock, nor prevent her from referring somewhat shortly to retired Sergeant-Majors of bibulous habits when she found that the post brought a tailor’s bill.
“Herbert will have some more of his funny remarks, I expect, when he comes home,” she said as they sat at dinner.
“I dare say,” said Mr. White, pouring himself out some beer; “but for all that, the thing moved in my hand; that I’ll swear to.”
“You thought it did,” said the old lady soothingly.
“I say it did,” replied the other. “There was no thought about it; I had just – What’s the matter?”
His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connexion with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed, and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.
She brought the stranger, who seemed ill at ease, into the room. He gazed at her furtively, and listened in a preoccupied fashion as the old lady apologized for the appearance of the room, and her husband’s coat, a garment which he usually reserved for the garden. She then waited as patiently as her sex would permit for him to broach his business, but he was at first strangely silent.
“I – was asked to call,” he said at last, and stooped and picked a piece of cotton from his trousers. “I come from ‘Maw and Meggins.’ “
The old lady started. “Is anything the matter?” she asked breathlessly. “Has anything happened to Herbert? What is it? What is it?
Her husband interposed. “There there mother,” he said hastily. “Sit down, and don’t jump to conclusions. You’ve not brought bad news, I’m sure sir,” and eyed the other wistfully.
“I’m sorry – ” began the visitor.
“Is he hurt?” demanded the mother wildly.