Tales of the Unexpected
‘Mike!’ his wife said sharply. ‘Stop it now, Mike, please!’
Again he ignored her. ‘If you will take this bet,’ he said to his daughter, ‘in ten minutes you will be the owner of two large houses.’
‘But I don’t want two large houses, Daddy.’
‘Then sell them. Sell them back to him on the spot. I’ll arrange all that for you. And then, just think of it, my dear, you’ll be rich! You’ll be independent for the rest of your life!’
‘Oh, Daddy, I don’t like it. I think it’s silly.’
‘So do I,’ the mother said. She jerked her head briskly up and down as she spoke, like a hen. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Michael, ever suggesting such a thing! Your own daughter, too!’
Mike didn’t even look at her. ‘Take it!’ he said eagerly, staring hard at the girl. ‘Take it, quick! I’ll guarantee you won’t lose.’
‘But I don’t like it, Daddy.’
‘Come on, girl. Take it!’
Mike was pushing her hard. He was leaning towards her, fixing her with two hard bright eyes, and it was not easy for the daughter to resist him.
‘But what if I lose?’
‘I keep telling you, you can’t lose. I’ll guarantee it.’
‘Oh, Daddy, must I?’
‘I’m making you a fortune. So come on now. What do you say, Louise? All right?’
For the last time, she hesitated. Then she gave a helpless little shrug of the shoulders and said, ‘Oh, all right, then. Just so long as you swear there’s no danger of losing.’
‘Good!’ Mike cried. ‘That’s fine! Then it’s a bet!’
‘Yes,’ Richard Pratt said, looking at the girl. ‘It’s a bet.’
Immediately, Mike picked up the wine, tipped the first thimbleful into his own glass, then skipped excitedly around the table filling up the others. Now everyone was watching Richard Pratt, watching his face as he reached slowly for his glass with his right hand and lifted it to his nose. The man was about fifty years old and he did not have a pleasant face. Somehow, it was all mouth – mouth and lips – the full, wet lips of the professional gourmet, the lower lip hanging downward in the centre, a pendulous, permanently open taster’s lip, shaped open to receive the rim of a glass or a morsel of food. Like a keyhole, I thought, watching it; his mouth is like a large wet keyhole.
Slowly he lifted the glass to his nose. The point of the nose entered the glass and moved over the surface of the wine, delicately sniffing. He swirled the wine gently around in the glass to receive the bouquet. His concentration was intense. He had closed his eyes, and now the whole top half of his body, the head and neck and chest, seemed to become a kind of huge sensitive smelling-machine, receiving, filtering, analysing the message from the sniffing nose.
Mike, I noticed, was lounging in his chair, apparently unconcerned, but he was watching every move. Mrs Schofield, the wife, sat prim and upright at the other end of the table, looking straight ahead, her face tight with disapproval. The daughter, Louise, had shifted her chair away a little, and sidewise, facing the gourmet, and she, like her father, was watching closely.
For at least a minute, the smelling process continued; then, without opening his eyes or moving his head, Pratt lowered the glass to his mouth and tipped in almost half the contents. He paused, his mouth full of wine, getting the first taste; then, he permitted some of it to trickle down his throat and I saw his Adam’s apple move as it passed by. But most of it he retained in his mouth. And now, without swallowing again, he drew in through his lips a thin breath of air which mingled with the fumes of the wine in the mouth and passed on down into his lungs. He held the breath, blew it out through his nose, and finally began to roll the wine around under the tongue, and chewed it, actually chewed it with his teeth as though it were bread.
It was a solemn, impassive performance, and I must say he did it well.
‘Um,’ he said, putting down the glass, running a pink tongue over his lips. ‘Um – yes. A very interesting little wine – gentle and gracious, almost feminine in the after-taste.’
There was an excess of saliva in his mouth, and as he spoke he spat an occasional bright speck of it on to the table.
‘Now we can start to eliminate,’ he said. ‘You will pardon me for doing this carefully, but there is much at stake. Normally I would perhaps take a bit of a chance, leaping forward quickly and
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