The Fatal Gift by A. A. Milne

People say to me sometimes, “Oh, you know Woolman, don’t you?” I acknowledge that I do, and, after the silence that always ensues, I add, “If you want to say anything against him, please go on.” You can almost hear the sigh of relief that goes up. “I thought he was a friend of yours,” they say cheerfully. “But, of course, if–” and then they begin.

I think it is time I explained my supposed friendship for Ernest Merrowby Woolman–confound him.

The affair began in a taxicab two years ago. Andrew had been dining with me that night; we walked out to the cab-rank together; I told the driver where to go, and Andrew stepped in, waved good-bye to me from the window, and sat down suddenly upon something hard. He drew it from beneath him, and found it was an extremely massive (and quite new) silver cigar-case. He put it in his pocket with the intention of giving it to the driver when he got out, but quite naturally forgot. Next morning he found it on his dressing-table. So he put it in his pocket again, meaning to leave it at Scotland Yard on his way to the City.

Next morning it was on his dressing-table again.

This went on for some days. After a week or so Andrew saw that it was hopeless to try to get a cigar-case back to Scotland Yard in this casual sort of way; it must be taken there deliberately by somebody who had a morning to spare and was willing to devote it to this special purpose. He placed the case, therefore, prominently on a small table in the dining-room to await the occasion; calling also the attention of his family to it, as an excuse for an outing when they were not otherwise engaged.

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At times he used to say, “I must really take that cigar-case to Scotland Yard to-morrow.”

At other times he would say, “Somebody must really take that cigar-case to Scotland Yard to-day.”

And so the weeks rolled on….

It was about a year later that I first got mixed up with the thing. I must have dined with the Andrews several times without noticing the cigar-case, but on this occasion it caught my eye as we wandered out to join the ladies, and I picked it up carelessly. Well, not exactly carelessly; it was too heavy for that.

“Why didn’t you tell me,” I said, “that you had stood for Parliament and that your supporters had consoled you with a large piece of plate? Hallo, they’ve put the wrong initials on it. How unbusiness-like.”

“Oh, that?” said Andrew. “Is it still there?”

“Why not? It’s quite a solid little table. But you haven’t explained why your constituents, who must have seen your name on hundreds of posters, thought your initials were E.M.W.”

Andrew explained.

“Then it isn’t yours at all?” I said in amazement.

“Of course not.”

“But, my dear man, this is theft. Stealing by finding, they call it. You could get”–I looked at him almost with admiration–“you could get two years for this”; and I weighed the cigar-case in my hand. “I believe you’re the only one of my friends who could be certain of two years,” I went on musingly. “Let’s see, there’s–“

“Nonsense,” said Andrew uneasily. “But still, perhaps I’d better take it back to Scotland Yard to-morrow.”

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“And tell them you’ve kept it for a year? They’d run you in at once. No, what you want to do is to get rid of it without their knowledge. But how–that’s the question. You can’t give it away because of the initials.”

“It’s easy enough. I can leave it in another cab, or drop it in the river.”

“Andrew, Andrew,” I cried, “you’re determined to go to prison! Don’t you know from all the humorous articles you’ve ever read that, if you try to lose anything, then you never can? It’s one of the stock remarks one makes to women in the endeavour to keep them amused. No, you must think of some more subtle way of disposing of it.”

“I’ll pretend it’s yours,” said Andrew more subtly, and he placed it in my pocket.

“No, you don’t,” I said. “But I tell you what I will do. I’ll take it for a week and see if I can get rid of it. If I can’t, I shall give it you back and wash my hands of the whole business–except, of course, for the monthly letter or whatever it is they allow you at the Scrubbs. You may still count on me for that.”

And then the extraordinary thing happened. The next morning I received a letter from a stranger, asking for some simple information which I could have given him on a post-card. And so I should have done–or possibly, I am afraid, have forgotten to answer at all–but for the way that the letter ended up.

“Yours very truly,

The magic initials! It was a chance not to be missed. I wrote enthusiastically back and asked him to lunch.

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He came. I gave him all the information he wanted, and more. Whether he was a pleasant sort of person or not I hardly noticed; I was so very pleasant myself.

He returned my enthusiasm. He asked me to dine with him the following week. A little party at the Savoy–his birthday, you know.

I accepted gladly. I rolled up at the party with my little present…a massive silver cigar-case…suitably engraved.

* * * * *

So there you are. He clings to me. He seems to have formed the absurd idea that I am fond of him. A few months after that evening at the Savoy he was married. I was invited to the wedding–confound him. Of course I had to live up to my birthday present; the least I could do was an enormous silver cigar-box (not engraved), which bound me to him still more strongly.

By that time I realized that I hated him. He was pushing, familiar, everything that I disliked. All my friends wondered how I had become so intimate with him….

Well, now they know. And the original E.M.W., if he has the sense to read this, also knows. If he cares to prosecute Ernest Merrowby Woolman for being in possession of stolen goods, I shall be glad to give him any information. Woolman is generally to be found leaving my rooms at about 6.30 in the evening, and a smart detective could easily nab him as he steps out.

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