The Conundrums by Barry Pain

Story type: Literature

I had bought the little book at the station stall, and it seemed to be very well worth the sixpence which I paid for it. It was entitled “Everybody’s Book of Bright and Original Conundrums.” Of course I had an idea in my head in buying the book; I am not the man to throw away my money to no purpose. I thought that these conundrums would be not only a pleasant amusement, but also a valuable intellectual exercise to Eliza and myself during the winter evenings. Then we could use them for social purposes during the Christmas party season. I do not know how it may be with others, but I have often found, when introduced to a lady, that I have said “Good evening,” and then had absolutely nothing else to say. With the help of the conundrum book I would fill in any awkward pause by asking her who was the most amiable king in history. That would break the ice. Besides, if we kept the book reasonably clean, it might afterward make a very serviceable and acceptable present to Eliza’s mother. I generally know pretty well what I am doing, I think. I looked at two or three of the conundrums on the way home. There was one which I do not remember precisely, but remarkably clever–something about training the shoot and shooting the train. I often wonder who it is who thinks of these things.

* * * * *

I was, perhaps, rather unfortunate in the evening when I brought the book home. Something may have occurred to put Eliza out; she was inclined to be quite sharp with me. I asked her, gaily, in the passage when I came in, “Can you tell me, dearest, the difference between a camel and a corkscrew? If not, here is a little volume which will inform you.”

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“Oh, yes! One’s used for drawing corks, and the other isn’t. You needn’t have wasted sixpence on a rubbishy book to tell me that.”

“But your answer is not the correct one,” I replied. “The correct answer contains a joke. Think again.”

“Well, I can’t, then. I’ve got the wash to count.”

I said that the wash could wait, but she would not appear to hear me, and went off up-stairs.

* * * * *

At supper I took occasion to say:

“You answered me very tartly when I asked you this afternoon for the difference between a camel and a corkscrew. Perhaps you would not have done so had you known that I bought that book with the intention of sending it as a present to your mother.”

“Do you think ma would care about it?”

“I think it would cheer her lonely hours. There are upwards of a thousand conundrums in the book. I have only read twelve, but I found them all exceedingly amusing, and, at the same time, perfectly refined.”

“Well, I don’t see the good of them.”

“They are an intellectual exercise, if you try to guess the right answer.”

“I don’t believe anybody ever did or ever will guess the right answer.”

“If I had time,” I said, “I believe I could generally think out a witty answer myself. I do not want to boast, but I believe so.”

“Very well, then,” said Eliza, snatching up the book and opening it at random, “here’s one for you. ‘If a lady slipped down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, what would she say?’ Give me the answer to that.”

“I will try to,” I replied.

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Now, just at the moment when Eliza put the question I felt that I had really got the answer, and then it seemed to pass away from me. Later in the evening I was certainly on the right track, when Eliza dropped her scissors, and the noise again put me off. I spent a very poor night; the answer kept sort of coming and going. Just as I was dropping off to sleep, I seemed to have thought of the answer, and then I would wake up to be sure of it, and find it had slipped me again.

As I was leaving the office, in the evening, after thinking till my head ached without arriving at any result, I put the question to one of our clerks. I thought he might possibly know.

“No,” he said, “I don’t know what a lady would say if she slipped down those steps. I could make a fair guess at what a man would say, if that’s any good to you.” Of course it was not.

So, on my return home, I told Eliza that I had not had enough time to spare to think of the answer, and I should be glad to know where she had put the book.

“Oh, I sent that to mother!” she said. “I thought you wanted it sent.”

“You might have waited until you knew whether I had finished with it. But, however, what was the answer to that silly riddle?”

“The one about St. Paul’s Cathedral? That wasn’t in the book at all. I made up the question out of my own head for fun.”

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“Then,” I replied, “all I can say is, that your idea of fun is not mine. It seems to me to be acting a lie. It was not a conundrum at all.”

“It would have been if you could have thought of an answer.”

“Say no more,” I replied, coldly. “I prefer to drop the subject.”

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