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Sweet Poison
By Jack Ward

Jimmy White, the millionaire, once held a telephone to his ear, waiting for an answer that might mean for him financial ruin, perhaps even physical death.

John Falvey Fergusson recollected reading the story in a recent Sunday newspaper, just as he locked the tantalus kept in an office cupboard for the occasional "treat" offered to an old friend or important caller. He didn't always lock it. He wasn't a tightwad, and if he missed a finger of whiskey regularly he never mentioned it to Larry -- called "Swaddy" -- Dowd, the bristling ex-soldier who janitored the flat of offices and paid special attention to J.F.F's, for Swaddy had served under J.F.F in the days when all promising young stock-brokers had not stayed home when their country called.

Tonight, however, John Fergusson did not intend that Swaddy should have access to the whiskey. It wasn't the usual brand--or, rather, the usual brand had undergone a slight but peculiarl change by the addition of the contents of a small bottle, which empty bottle John Fergusson had put in an overcoat pocket with a view to crossing Waterloo Bridge, this one time on foot.

Tomorrow at noon, if it came to the worst, he would unlock the tantalus, pour himself a stiff bumper, and -- no heeltaps --pass out. There was no other alternative.

Claire, his young, vibrant wife, had made a confession to him, a confession that rocked his Earth and Heaven, his faith in Man and God.

After three years of almost perfect happiness their intimate friends nicknamed them Abelard and Heloise. Not long ago Claire had quietly told him that she was a little tired of the gay whirl of London's bright young matrons and maids and, if he didn't mind, she thought they might settle down to the serious business of married life.

"And what, Mrs. Fergusson, might that be?"

The fibres of his being thrilled with true Scot patriarchal vision of a son--of sons and daughters--and HOME.

A blush answered him.

Then, then it happened. Into the London ring-o'-roses came Daunt Armour, a brilliant American college athlete, with money and brains, and an enviable capacity for hard work in law studies, and philandering. None seemed immune to his charm and charisma.

Even Claire lost her head and, as she confessed to Fergusson, she wasn't sure about her heart. Nothing more tangible than kisses had happened.

"How many?" Even now he cursed the stupidity of his question.

"Oh! Quite a few."

But she feared-- "Feared what?" That if Armour wanted her she would go to him. He wasn't a cad. It had just happened, and her heart was torn with love for two men. She wanted time to be alone to find out for herself whether it was to be Armour or Fergusson, and so she had gone, a week ago, to a quiet Devon village to "wrestle with the Spirit and the Flesh" as she put it.

At noon tomorrow if she was not in Fergusson's office -- he would know -- and wouldn't he forgive her?

Fergusson had decided that he could not face life without Claire. Selfish, perhaps, but his sensitive soul revolted at the prospect of divorce proceedings that would be necessary to help Claire if that was what she wanted, the "arranged" collusion with a street drab, the pity of friends who knew, the scorn of those who didn't, the emptiness, an Abelard without a grave at which to mourn.

She would be wounded at first, but he had earlier that day written a preciously worded letter--it would be on his desk tomorrow--that would soften the blow. In a little time, in Armour's love and in new surroundings, she would forget his ending and, perhaps, thank him.


Swaddy Dowd cursed as he sprinted down stairs--the lift ceased on the departure of the last office occupant--to answer the door-bell. Opening the door he was confronted by a gaunt figure in weirdly unfashionable European clothes, holding a battered suitcase and proferring a handful of rainbow strips and pennons, reeking of cheap Bazaar perfume.

"You buy nice sil-uk tie? Nice sil-uk scar-if, Mistah?"

"Jao, tum scor ka batcha. (Go, son of a pig!) 'Ne monta. (I don't want.) 'Tis naither scarf nor tie I'm wantin'. Juldi, jao! Mahomet! (Go quickly!)"

"Tumera bat both atcha hai, Sahib. (Your 'bat' (Hindustani) is very good.) You speak the "bat" good." And a grin displayed two rows of shining teeth.

Swaddy swelled his chest. Shure he spoke the "bat" well. Divil's cure to him, hadn't he ivery raison? He had spent more years in Indey than in Ireland, sorra on him. He pulled out a packet of fags and offered one to the seller of sil-uks, who scanned Swaddy's face as the match flared up.

"Dowd Sahib? Swadee Sahib? Hai? (Is it?")

" 'Tis so, chum. And what's your name and poltoon? (regiment)"

"Nint'first Punjabis. Lahore D'veeson. France--Locon, Merville, Estairr, Misp'tamie--Sinn Banks, Baghdad, Fellujah. Me Fazil Dad."

" 'Tis so, ye oul Pathan! Come in from the coul. 'Tis like oul times. Straight up them stairs, Fuzzil."

Swaddy and his old Pathan chum settled down to that wonderful conversation of the uneducated ranks of the Indian Army--bad English, bad Hindustani, in this case flavoured with Irish idiom and obscure French phrases--heritage of the winter of 1914 when the Indian Army, white and brown, was dumped in frozen France, still wearing the summer kit of the torrid Punjab.

In that winter Fazil Dad, and many more of his Muhammedan brothers, perforce acquired a taste for the forbidden vin rouge and rum, and later for McEwan's ale, Asayi beer, and plain Scotch whiskey. He and Swaddy, following bullet wounds in the first exchanges, had been transferred to Corps Signals, Swaddy a signaller and Fazil Dad as office runner.

Swaddy popped out for half a dozen Guinness. Then he brewed "char". Fazil Dad tumbled out the contents of his suitcase and scattered the colourful mass through Swaddy's den.

"Me bloody good Sepoy. No dam good bunyai."

" 'Tis true, Fuzzil. We oul wans arn't anny good robbin' with our tongues. Comprunny? Now, if it was to scrounge a feed, or a case av beer, or a rifle, or anny wee thing likewise, we cu'd do our share, Fuzzil! Indeed we cu'd, boy."

"Yad rako (remember)? We steal case whiskey. Christmas night. Shergat."

"I remember, Fuzzil. Sixty rupees to square the Sargints' Mess, and me not looking an officer in the eye for a month after! Whiskey, me darlin!"

"Whiskey good, Swadee Sahib. More good than beer."

" 'Tis like us Irish, good and bad, the greatest av saints and the blackest av sinners, an' not a common ordinary mortel in ivery thousand av us. Did ye iver hear what a great Irish poet said about whiskey?

I niver knew love till I loved ye, enchantheress.
At first, when I knew ye, 'twas only a flirtation,
The touch av a lip an' the flash av an' eye;
But 'tis different now--'tis desperation.
I worship before ye,
I curse an' adore ye,
An' wi'out ye I'd die.
Them's true words, Fuzzil. True words."

They had released the Genie.

"Listen ye, Fuzzil. D'ye mind Fergusson Sahib that come to us at Sheik Saad? Well, he has an office--duftar--above stairs, an' he keeps a drop for his friends. An' what better friends could he have than our two selves that fetched an' carried for him for many a year. Let ye follow me."

They went up to Fergusson's office.

"Well, sweet bad luck t'him, lockin up that mouthful av bad whiskey. What's come over the man at all? Now if it was free and aisy as it used to be, I'd be content wi' wettin' me lips. But lockin' it in! Fuzzil, we scrounged a case av it from inunder the eyes av the quarter-guard, an' drunk it in the Church tent too!

"Shure 'tis is footry wee lock, an' I misdoubt but the bottom av' that wee case is only screwed on."

It was even so, and in a minute the tantalus was carefully upended on the hearth rug and Swaddy was unscrewing the bottom.


Fergusson entered his office at nine o'clock sharp next morning. A heavy odour of perfume assailed him and, startled, he glanced quickly round the room. But Claire would never have used such a violent perfume. And the office seemed strangely untidy, even dusty, with spent matches lying in the grate. The hearth rug was missing.

He pressed the buzzer that rang a bell for Swaddy. Swaddy did not come.

Sighing, he sat at his desk. He wrote several long letters, a few cheques, made a neat bundle of documents from his safe, and placed the letters, cheques, documents, and his keys in neat order in front of him. All this had taken time, especially the wording of the letters.

Now it was twenty minutes to noon. It was a bright day with a spice of frost in the air, baby clouds in fleecy white chasing each other across a clean sky.

He rang again for Swaddy--he'd like to see Swaddy before noon. Swaddy did not come. Fergusson could not recollect any Irish or Army festival that might account for Swaddy's dereliction. Swaddy, he knew, celebrated in the old style.

He rang the telephone exchange to ensure that his line was in order. It was. There had been no calls for him.

At three minutes to noon he took the tantalus and a goblet from the press, unlocked the tantalus, and poured himself a double of whiskey.

He went out to the lift. It was silent. No one was coming up. He went back to his office and again rang the exchange, to check the time. NOON -- and no call.

Standing, he drained the goblet, and sat down. The liquor tasted rank and fiery. Still it wasn't as bad as he expected.

Five minutes past noon he felt a dull burning ache in his stomach, uncomfortable but not unbearable. It was slow, terribly slow, and he had hoped it would act quickly. Perhaps the stuff had not mixed properly. If he shook the decanter and took another big snifter, things would come right. He did.

The dull ache became definitely painful. He felt sick, and laying his head on his arms slumped over the desk.

He did not hear the door being opened. He was vaguely conscious of a subtle perfume, of soft arms tightly round his shoulders, of eager lips on his brow, his cheek, his mouth. In pain, he half-opened his eyes. A dozen Claires swam and grew monstrous before him. At a great distance he heard her scolding, scolding him, herself, trains, traffic-jams, whiskey. She thought he was drunk -- God help her, he was dying -- dying in vain. A cold deadness seized his limbs and tongue.

Claire released him and rushed for help, down to Swaddy's den and hammered on his door, all the time crying out. After a long moment the door opened and Swaddy, haggard and heavy eyed, dressed only in shirt and trousers, swayed before her. She caught a glimpse of an Indian stretched motionless on the floor, lying in a rainbow of silk garments.

"Swaddy, come quickly! Mr. Fergusson is ill."

Swaddy gazed blankly at her and turned to re-enter his room. She seized his arm and dragged him as quickly as she could to the lift and up to Fergusson's office.

Fergusson was huddled in his chair. His eyes were open, but he was in agony. Swaddy tottered to him, saw the decanter with a good peg of spirits still in it, snatched it to his mouth and drained it. Fergusson made a tremendous effort to move, to speak--

"It's poisoned, Swaddy, it's--"

Claire screamed.

A look of terror came to Swaddy's face. His eyes bulged. He began to tremble. He lifted the decanter, smelled it, his terror faded, to be replaced with wild laughing.

"Poisoned is it? Poisoned?

"Listen and hear what a great Irish poet said about this same poison:

'Then oblivion will cover
The shame that is over,
The brain that was mad,
And the heart that was sore.
Then, beautiful witch,
I'll be found in a ditch,
With ye'r kiss on me lips,
Nivir to rise no more.' "
He shook Fergusson roughly.

"Listen me, Sorr. The only poison in that decanter is what me own cousin put into it on the mountains of Mayo, and the drop of strong tay I meself coloured it wi' last night. Beggin' yer pardon, Captain, but that's not the whiskey ye left in the decanter. What the divil did ye lock it up for anyway?"

Fergusson's eyes closed, he retched, Swaddy grabbed him and rushed him out and along the corridor. Claire sank into a chair, weeping.


A white, weak Fergusson sat in Swaddy's armchair. Fazil Dad, his face clay-coloured, sat on the floor and gathered up his silk ties and scarfs. Swaddy, with the punctiliousness of semi-inebriation, stood stiffly to attention in front of Fergusson.

"An' so, Sorr, I unscrewed the bottom, an' whin we tenderly lifted out the whiskey decanter, there it was stopper an' all complete, but Hell scud the drop o' drink in it. There's yer hearth rug full av it this minit.

Says Fuzzil to me, 'May the Curse av Cromwell light on the war-munishioneer that made that ill-fitting stopper.'

'Amen to that', says I, 'he, she, or it's in Hell be this time annyway.'

So we tuk wan finger each av rum, an' wi' that I remembered a bottle o' poteen me cousin sent me inside a goose last Aister, an' I pledged at the time, and it nivir since touched. 'Tis clear and pure as water, Captain, so I doctors it wi' the seepins av the tay I made for me oul friend Fuzzil -- stand up! Ye back scum ye. Isn't there an officer present. Upar jac! (Get up) -- an' I filled the decanter an' put the bottom on the wee case.

There was a brave taste o' the poteen left, an' as 'tis grand in punch, Fuzzil an' me put on some water t'boil -- an' we overslept.

Ye remember oul Fuzzil Dad, don't ye, Sorr. Salute, dam ye, salute, Fuzzil!"

Fazil Dad struggled to a salute. Fergusson bravely returned the salute.

So, in a sort of general salute, Claire found them when she burst in to announce that a taxi was ticking to take the Captain and her self home. She was a little shocked when the Captain took her in his arms and kissed her, in front of the troops, as it were. He smelled horribly of spirits, but in any case she knew she loved him, drunk or sober, and. of course, she'd see that the latter state became permanent.

Back in his office, Fergusson cleared the top of his desk into a drawer and locked the drawer. Then he took the key of the tantalus and gave it to Swaddy.

"Sergeant Dowd, you will in future see that one bottle of the best Scotch whiskey is placed in the office decanter weekly, any stores of the previous issue being dealt with in accordance with the relevant Army Orders and traditional practice."

Sergeant Dowd saluted.

Fergusson bought a tie -- such a tie -- from Fazil Dad. He apparently thought a lot of it. He paid a fiver for it without complaint.

The constable on duty became suddenly alert as Claire and her husband entered the taxi, not because of either Claire or her husband, but because of a gaunt Indian and an unkempt Irishman standing at a very rigid salute until the taxi moved off.

Swaddy caught the constable's eye.

"Move on ye big waxworks an' luk after the childer."

"Yerra d'ye think ye're the only mad Clareman in London?"

"I'd not be got dead in Clare. Up Mayo!"

"Up Ireland!"

"Beannacht leat, avic."

"Go de tu slan, a chara."

"You buy a nice sil-uk tie, Plees'man Sahib?"

"Move on. G'wan with you, right now. Move on!

The End

Note: The Indian seller of silks and other exotica was a familiar figure travelling the Irish countryside in my childhood years. Lugging a large suitcase, his arrival at a farmhouse was a welcome break in the hard tedium of a farmwife's life. And the wonders he could produce from that suitcase were dazzling! His visits, unannounced, were remembered for weeks, even months afterwards. The "bat" of First World War years was to be heard in many an outlandish place in Ireland for many and many a year. A relict existed in my own household. When all else failed, a strict "Chubba row" could be counted upon to ensure silence in rambunctious offspring.
John Ward

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