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Title: The Worm With the Sting in His Tail
Author: Arthur Gask
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Language: English
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THE WORM WITH THE STING IN HIS TAIL



By Arthur Gask



Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 1954), Thursday 19 September 1940.






The bull-necked man at the desk frowned at the meek-looking, little, elderly one who was standing so obsequiously before him.

"I have sent for you, Binns," he said sharply, "to tell you that as from Saturday next we shall no longer be requiring your services."

The little man's eyes opened very wide and his fingers twitched nervously. "You are going to get rid of me, Mr.Higgins!" he exclaimed, as if he could not believe what he had heard. He swallowed hard. "Then you are displeased with the way I have been carrying out my duties?"

The head of the Bacchus Wine and Spirit Company shook his head. "No, not exactly," he replied. He pursed up his lips. "But you are getting old, Binns, and I prefer to have younger people about me."

Binns spoke tremulously. "I have been a good servant to the firm, sir. I have worked very long hours. I have always been the first to come in the morning and the last to go away at night."

"And that was what you were paid for, wasn't it?" commented Mr. Higgins brusquely. "You got your money every week." He shrugged his shoulders. "No, you needn't grumble. You have had a good innings here."

"But—but Mr. Higgins," protested the little man, "you arranged with Mr. Henry when you took over the cellars to keep me on. You promised him you——"

"That was three years ago," retorted Mr. Higgins testily, "and——"

"No, not quite three years yet, sir," corrected Binns quickly, "not three years until the third of next month." He spoke modestly. "I have a good memory for dates, sir, and it was upon the third of July, the year before last, when the business was sold."

Mr. Higgins waved a big and fat hand. "Well, three years or two years, what does it matter?" He nodded, "At any rate, now Mr. Henry has died I feel absolved from my promise."

"Of course, I know no mention of my being kept on was put down in the deed of sale, sir," went on Binns sadly, "and everything was left to your——." He stopped suddenly and then added chokingly, "I would just tell you, sir, that I have no money saved and an invalid wife to support."

Mr. Higgins was arranging the papers upon his desk. "Your private affairs, Binns," he commented coldly, "your private affairs, and I am not concerned with them."

"I have been here a long time, sir, a very long time," pleaded Binns.

"Exactly," nodded Mr. Higgins, "and for that reason, when you leave us on Saturday you will receive an extra fortnight's salary."

Binns's lips moved rapidly, as if he were making a lightning calculation. "And the fortnight's salary being 5, sir," he said, with his voice now a little more steady, "it will mean that for each of the forty-two years I have been here I shall be receiving about two shillings and eightpence halfpenny." His smile was a sad one. "I am good at figures as well as dates, sir."

"Quite so," agreed Mr. Higgins, "and they are useful gifts to possess." He nodded again. "Well on Saturday you will hand over your keys, and we shall not be seeing you any more."

A short silence followed, and then Binns said meekly, "I shall be missed, sir. I have been useful to you, and always most solicitous for the good reputation of all members of the firm."

"No doubt, no doubt!" commented Mr. Higgins, without taking his eyes from his desk. "But you can go, now, Binns. I have told you all I wanted to."

Binns, however, seemed disinclined to terminate the interview. Instead, he remained twiddling his thumbs and eyeing his employer intently. "And you will give me a good reference, sir?" he asked at length. "Thank you, sir. I think I shall try if Messrs. Taggart & Taggart will take me on."

Mr. Higgins looked up with a jerk. "Why Taggart & Taggart?" he asked with a hard frown. "Why them in particular?"

"We-ell, sir, replied Binns hesitatingly, "With your being so friendly with their Mr. John"—he coughed slightly—"and the members of his family, perhaps they may be more interested in me than if I had been working for a firm they knew nothing about."

A moment's intent scrutiny of Binns's face, and Mr. Higgins remarked carelessly, "Oh, that's it, is it? Well, do as you please," and he resumed his interest in the papers upon his desk.

Binns drew in a deep and resolute breath. "Last Wednesday week, sir," he went on, "it was the 19th—I told you I was good at remembering dates—when I came in here the first thing that morning, I picked up a lady's compact on the carpet."

Mr. Higgins jerked up his head again, this time even more sharply, and for a few seconds glared bewilderingly at Binns. Then his face took on a dusky hue. "It belongs to my wife," he said with a great affectation of carelessness. "She lost one, but didn't remember where. Have you got it here now?"

Bin ignored the question, "But it couldn't have been dropped by Mrs. Higgins, sir. She was away in Scotland at the time. I heard you telling Mr. Bruce so that same morning. Besides, the compact had the initials R.F.T. upon it." He coughed discreetly. "I believe, sir, Mrs. John Taggart's Christian names are Rita Fanny."

A dead silence followed, and then Mr. Higgins said angrily. "You are making it all up. You found no such compact here. It is a damned lie."

"But it is not, sir," said Binns earnestly. "I did find the compact here, and I showed it all round to the young ladies in the office; but, of course, I did not mention how I had come by it. I made out I had picked it up in the park as I was coming to work. I did not let them see the initials, either. I kept my thumb over the corner."

"Give it to me!" ordered Mr. Higgins angrily. "You are a thief."

"Oh, no, sir," said Binns firmly. "If I did not find it here, as you are so certain, then it can have nothing to do with you. If I give it up to anyone it must be to the police. It is a valuable compact, sir, solid silver, and I don't want to get into trouble."

If looks could have killed, Binns would have been a dead man. "What's your game?" snarled Mr. Higgins. "Are you attempting to blackmail me?"

Binns looked horrified. "No, no, sir, I wouldn't think of such a thing." He produced his discreet cough again, "You see, sir, whatever information one may gather, it is not blackmail until one tries to make use of it to extort money from someone. I have a cousin, sir, an inspector at Scotland Yard, and he has told me that."

"Well, what do you want?" asked Mr. Higgins, with his face as black as night. "What are you making out you found that compact here for, if it's not for the purpose of blackmail? What do you want, I say?"

"Nothing, nothing at all, sir," replied Binns, looking as if most hurt. "I only mention the matter to you to let you see, as I say, how zealous I have been for the reputation of the firm."

"Then that compact you are talking about," asked Mr. Higgins, "where is it?"

Binns looked very stupid. He pretended to think. "For the moment, sir," he said hesitatingly, "for the moment I have forgotten where I put it. Indeed, I may have lost it altogether. Sometimes my memory, except for dates and figures, is very bad. I forget things so quickly." His face brightened. "Why I might even forget, sir, you had said you would have to be getting rid of me shortly."

Mr. Higgins made no comment. He stared hard at Binns, but the fury in his face was now replaced by a sullen frown.

Binns went on firmly. "No, sir, I cannot find that compact." He spoke most respectfully. "But for my own sake I shall forget I ever saw it." He nodded solemnly. "I never talk."

Mr. Higgins saw it was no good to press the matter. "You can go," he said quietly, "and about your leaving us on Saturday——" he appeared to hesitate—— "well, as you have been with us so long and have no money saved, I suppose we shall have to keep you on."

"Thank you, sir," said Binns meekly. "I am sure it is very kind of you," and he glided from the room.

Mr. Higgins gritted his teeth in fury. Of a most masterful disposition and successful in all his business affairs, it was gall and wormwood to him to have now to knuckle under to a creature like Binns, whom he had always despised as little better than a worm in intelligence. He was shrewd enough, however, to realise he could not afford to make an enemy of him, at any rate for the time being.

He thought for a long while and then picked up the receiver upon his desk and put through a call.

"Hullo, that you, Fan?" he asked softly, but very distinctly. "You lost that silver compact John gave you, a couple of weeks ago? Well, damn it, that night we came in here after the pictures and split a bottle of Champagne, you dropped it in my room and it was picked up by one of the clerks the next morning. No, no, there's going to be no fuss, but from the initials on it, this clerk guesses whose it is and won't give it up. He pretends he's lost it, which I know is a lie. No, no, it's not going to be awkward for us. He's not going to talk, and it only means I can't give him the sack which I was intending to. That's all. Now you listen. We must look ahead and make things quite safe if he starts blackmailing me. You are coming up to the Lord Mayor's Show tomorrow, aren't you? Well, call in here on your way home and bring John with you. Then, later on, if the compact business should crop up, you can make out you lost it here then. See? No, it's quite all right and you needn't worry in the slightest. Then I'll be seeing you and John tomorrow. Good-bye."

He hung up the receiver and smiled a grim, cunning smile. "That'll settle him," he nodded. "That'll spike his guns. In a couple of weeks or so I'll say Fan thinks she dropped her compact when she came here with her husband, and it'll be deuced awkward then for little Blackmail Binns. If, as he says, he did show it to the others, they'll be remembering his tale about picking it up in the park, but it'll be a thousand to one they, none of them, will recollect the particular date."

The next afternoon Mr. and Mrs. John Taggart dropped in to have a glass of wine with Mr. Higgins, and the lady was greatly admired by the firm's employees as she passed through their room. It was agreed she was a very pretty woman, and Binns, in particular, eyed her with great interest. That night, too, after he had returned home she was very much in his thoughts.

Binns was by no means the creature of poor intelligence his employer imagined and, when he chose to exert himself, was quite shrewd and farseeing. So, thinking over Mrs. Taggart's visit to the office that afternoon, he envisioned possibilities of trouble for himself at some future date. His employer might give him the sack with perfect safety if it could be made out the lady had lost her compact when upon her visit with her husband upon Lord Mayor's Day.

Accordingly, with the purpose of forestalling any action Mr. Higgins might make, the following morning Binns announced to the clerks, generally, and to the five girl ones in particular, that he was intending shortly to present the silver compact he had picked up to one of the latter.

"I have not seen it mentioned in any advertisement for lost articles," he said, "and so I think it will be quite all right my giving it away."

"Oh, you are a dear, Binney," exclaimed the sprightly Mary Weston, "but who's going to be the lucky one?"

"Well, of course, you'll have to draw for it," replied Binns.

"Then when's the drawing going to take place, today?"

Binns shook his head. "No, not today. I think I ought to keep it at least a month or six weeks, in case any advertisement appears." He pretended to think. "Let me see, when did I find it?"

"I know," said Mary Western promptly. "It was a fortnight yesterday, on a Wednesday. Don't you remember I said you ought to give it to me for my birthday, and that was two days afterwards, on the Friday, the 21st."

"Yes, it was on the Wednesday," supplemented another girl. "Silver Box was running in the Bibury Cup that afternoon and we backed it because you had picked up the silver compact." She looked reproachful. "You cost several of us a hard-earned shilling that day."

"Stop talking, you girls," reproved Mr. Eden, the head clerk, sharply. "You'll only be making mistakes if you mag on like a lot of monkeys," and the room subsided into quietness again.

The days sped by and Binns was left in peace. He made no mistake, however, in thinking that his encounter with Mr. Higgins had passed out of the latter's mind. On the contrary, for his employer never came in contact with him without giving him a nasty look. He made his displeasure felt in another way, too. It was Binns's special duty to keep an account of the stock in the cellars, and now, if Mr. Higgins wanted to know anything, instead of sending for Binns himself, he had taken to making his enquiries through Mr. Eden who had in turn, had to come to Binns for the information and pass it on. No, Binns was quite sure Mr. Higgins was not going to take his defeat lying down, but was only waiting his chance to get his revenge.

And things happened exactly as Binns expected.

One morning, about three weeks later Mr. Higgins strode into the clerks' room. "Mrs. Taggart," he announced frowningly, "thinks she lost a silver compact here when she came the other day with Mr. Taggart. It has her initials, R.F.T., in one corner. Have any of you seen anything of it?"

Faces dropped instantly, a dead silence fell over the room and uneasy glances were made in the direction of Binns.

Binns, however, spoke up unhesitatingly. "She lost it that afternoon, sir," he asked, "when she came in after the Lord Mayor's Show? On the fifth, wasn't it?" and Mr. Higgins had to nod a grudging assent.

"Well, sir," went on Bums smilingly, "I've not seen it anywhere, but, strangely enough, I found a silver compact a fortnight before. I picked mine up in the park as I was coming to work on Wednesday, the 19th of last month," his smile was most ingratiating, "but, of course, it couldn't have been the one Mrs. Taggart lost a fortnight later."

Mr. Higgins spoke in a voice of thunder. "And who else besides yourself knows the exact date when you found this compact you say you picked up outside?" he demanded accusingly.

Binns appeared in no way disconcerted. "Oh, everyone here, sir," he replied smilingly. "Directly I showed it to them, Miss Weston wanted me to give it to her for her birthday, which was not until two days later, the 21st."

"Yes, Mr. Higgins," added Mary Weston timidly, "I did ask for it for my birthday, which was coming on the following Friday."

The face of Mr. Higgins was a study. He bit his lip hard and glared so angrily at Mary Weston that it might almost have seemed that she had herself admitted stealing the compact.

The head clerk now added his corroboration. "It is as Miss Weston says, sir," he said. "It was while we were stocktaking that Binns was showing the compact round and I ordered him to put it away, as he was hindering everyone in their work and we shouldn't be finished in time. If you remember, sir, the stocktaking was over in the week ending the 22nd."

Mr. Higgins turned without a word and left the room. He did not dare trust himself to speak. He was too furious.

Binns's feelings were mixed. He was elated that he had been far-seeing enough to guess what his employer would do, but at the same time depressed because the latter was so evidently vengefully disposed towards him. He knew his master's character and that once the latter had decided upon any line of action he would not easily be turned from it. Still, Binns was an obstinate man himself, and now determined he would not leave the firm until he felt inclined to. He liked his work in the cellars, and their smell, even, had become a part of his life. No, he would stick it out until his own good time and then, accepting the inevitable, give notice himself.

While he remained, however, he would be very careful what he did, and give his employer no chance of putting anything up against him. And, as events proved, it was well he kept his eyes open.

A few days later complaints began among the clerks that money was being taken from their coats and handbags whenever they were left in the cloakrooms. Joe Henderson swore that some coppers had gone from the pocket of his overcoat and another clerk missed two shillings in the same way. Then Miss Brown had a pound note taken from her handbag, which she had forgotten to bring in with her and place in her desk.

The head clerk thought it his duty to mention the matter to Mr. Higgins, whereupon the latter looked very grave. "Then we have a thief among us," he nodded ominously, "and we shall have to find out who he is. Don't tell anyone you've told me and in a few days we'll set a trap."

So, one morning the following week, Mr. Higgins called Miss Brown into his room. "See here," he said, "we must find out who's taking this money. So here are two ten-shilling notes and two half-crowns; I have got the numbers of the notes and the half-crowns are marked. Put them in your handbag tomorrow and forget to bring the bag out of the cloakroom when you arrive in the morning. Then if we find any of the money has been taken we'll have detectives in to search everybody in the building."

Miss Brown was staid and elderly and could be trusted to hold her tongue. The next morning she did as she had been bidden and the bait was left for the thief to take. About eleven o'clock she found one of the notes had gone and immediately informed Mr. Higgins.

"Good," nodded her employer, "then I'll slip out and get in the detective at once."

Now it happened that a few minutes later Binns had occasion to go to his overcoat for a pocket handkerchief, and he noted with surprise that the flap of one of his pockets was tucked inside. He was puzzled, for he was very methodical and was certain he had not left the flap like that. Wondering if any joke had been played upon him, he thrust his hand down into the pocket and felt carefully round. Immediately he came upon a hole in the lining and was more puzzled than ever because he knew it had not been there before.

Quickly withdrawing his hand, he felt outside round the edge of the overcoat, in case anything had been pushed through the hole. Then his eyes bulged and he caught his breath as he felt the unmistakable crinkling of a treasury note.

"Gosh," he exclaimed, "it's a plant! Someone's intending to fix me up!" and in a flash he had taken out his pocket-knife and was cutting the lining. With hands which shook he drew out a ten-shilling note.

"Whew!" he whispered breathlessly, "what an escape!"

Barely five minutes later, he was sitting at his desk in the big room among the other fifteen employees of the Bacchus Wine and Spirit Company, when the door opened sharply and Mr. Higgins, followed by two men and a woman, walked in.

The head of the firm looked very stern and grim. "It is a dreadful thing," he announced, "but there is a thief among you. Someone has taken a ten-shilling note from Miss Brown's handbag and it must be one of you in this room. These gentlemen and this lady here are detectives, and I must request all of you to submit to a search. Your overcoats and bags will be brought in, too, and gone through." He glared round. "Now, does anyone decline to be searched."

Binns spoke up excitedly. "But it may not be necessary, sir. It may be all a mistake that anybody's stolen a ten-shilling note, for I picked up one, only two or three minutes ago, in the passage just outside your room. I thought it must be yours and so put it upon your desk. I've just told Mr. Eden about it." He smiled his pleasant smile. "I happened to glance at the number, sir, and I think it included three sevens."

One of the detectives, who seemed to be in charge of the others, looked down at a piece of paper he was holding in his hand. Then he looked up and nodded to Mr. Higgins. "That's probably the one," he said, and he frowned as if in annoyance that they had been brought there upon a fool's errand. He made a move towards the door. "Now where's your room, sir? We'll settle the matter at once."

He left the room with the positively astounded Mr. Higgins and everyone sighed a sigh of great relief. A buzz of subdued conversation followed, but it did hot last long, for the detective returned almost immediately. "It's all O.K., ladies and gentlemen," he announced with a grim smile. "The note was the one Mr. Higgins had thought had been stolen and so there's nothing doing this time."

The staff saw no more of their employer that day, but again Binns's elation was mingled with apprehension. He realised more than ever that he would have to be most wary or his employer would be getting him in the end.

To his great astonishment, however, Mr. Higgins seemed quite all right again the next morning and twice called him into his room to ask him about the stock on hand in the cellar, his manner being so pleasant that Binns began wondering if, after all, he had been the one to plant the note in the overcoat lining.

Another week went by and then, one afternoon, Binns was summoned again to his employer. "About that '67 port, how do we stand?" the latter asked, and he spoke as if Binns were among his greatest friends.

Binns told him and, after a few more questions, was dismissed with the customary curt nod Mr. Higgins always gave to his employees. Then, just as he was leaving the room, Mr. Higgins called out, "Oh, now you're here, go down and fetch up a bottle of the Bollinger. I'm expecting visitors in a few minutes," and he made a motion with his hand in the direction of a small and narrow door in the corner of the room.

The small door opened on to Mr. Higgins's private staircase leading down to the big cellars of the building. The staircase went down about twenty feet and was narrow and very steep. A handrail was provided at one side, without holding on to which the descent was hardly safe.

Binns had often been down to the cellars by that way before and, opening the door, made to switch on the light at the head of the stairs. But the light did not come on and he thought the lamp must have fused. Familiar, however, with the stairs he prepared to go down.

"Be quick," called out Mr. Higgins. "I think I hear my visitors coming now."

Now it happened that that morning Binns had got a touch of rheumatism in one of his knees and was using that leg as tenderly as possible. In consequence, with the first downward step he took, he leaned heavily upon the rail to support himself. Then, to his consternation, the rail came out of its protecting socket with a jerk and it was as much as he could do to prevent himself falling head-long down on to the stone flags of the cellar below.

Realisation of what had happened came to him in a light—and he caught his breath in consternation. Another trap had been set for him and he had escaped only by the merest chance! Turning round, he shakily descended the stairs backwards. Then, when at the bottom, he looked up and would have sworn he saw the shadow of his master's head upon the open door above. Mr. Higgins was waiting—listening to hear him fall.

He returned with the bottle of champagne as if nothing had happened, but, as he was expecting, there were no visitors waiting for it.

"I must tell you, sir," he said, "that the rail has worked loose, and is in an unsafe condition. I had better send James to put it right," and, without lifting his eyes from the figures he was pretending to add up, Mr. Higgins nodded a surly assent.

That night it was a long time before Binns got off to sleep. His thoughts were most uneasy ones, for he was really frightened of to what lengths, even to deliberate murder, his employer was prepared to go to get rid of him. For the moment Binns was inclined to throw up the sponge, and, himself, give notice the next morning, but in the end his obstinacy prevailed over his fears, and he resolved to continue to stay on.

A few days later, however, a dreadful tragedy occurred, and all Binns's fears for his own safety were swept away. Mr. Higgins met with a fatal accident, being killed instantly. It happened in this way.

Binns was alone in the cellars when he inadvertently dropped a match and set alight to a little heap of straw. It was really only a small matter and not much damage could have followed in any case, but Binns lost his head in his fright and shouted, "Fire, fire!" as if the whole building were in imminent danger.

The staff came rushing down pell-mell. Mr. Higgins, up in his room, must have heard the cries, too, for the door opening on the narrow staircase was heard to open violently. Then, it was remembered later, some of them had thought they heard a muffled cry at the far end of the cellar where the staircase was. For the moment, however, everyone had been so occupied with extinguishing the blazing straw that no notice had been taken.

When, however, the fire had been put out, Mr. Eden, the head clerk, exclaimed, "The Gov'nor! Where's he? He must have heard the noise!"

Then someone called but, "Good God, what's that lying on the stones?" and all, rushing up, saw the body of their employer huddled up at the foot of the staircase, with its head turned at a dreadful angle. Mr.Higgins was quite dead. He had broken his neck by falling from high up on the staircase. Later, it was discovered that one of the steps had unaccountably worked loose, and it was realised that must have caused him to fall.

He was buried a few days later, and all the men employees of the firm attended the funeral. By special request of the executors, Binns, as the oldest servant of the firm, was one of the pallbearers, and it was noted by many with what sorrowful dignity he carried himself.

The business was taken over by one of Mr. Higgins's nephews, and when, six months later, Binns handed in his resignation, in recognition of his long services to the firm, he was granted a pension of thirty shillings a week.

Binns did not, however, really need the pension, as he was the owner of the house he lived in, as well as those on either side. From the two latter he drew quite a comfortable little income.

Strangely enough, he had not—as he told Mr. Higgins—an invalid wife. On the contrary, she was in the best of health, and, incidentally, twenty years younger than he was. She was very fond of him. Also, another strange thing, Binns had no cousin an inspector in Scotland Yard. His only blood relation was an uncle, who was a street bookmaker, and the latter often twitted his nephew that he had not courage enough to have a bet with him. He said he was a born coward and would never dare to take any risks. As we have seen, however, he was greatly mistaken.



THE END.