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The Tell-Tale Hat

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The members of the Mausoleum Club share two traits, these being the conditions of entry to the club. They are all accomplished storytellers, and must tell a story to the satisfaction of the existing members on entering the club if they are not to be black-balled. They are also all unpunished murderers, and the story that they tell must be an account of how they got away with murder.

They are also united in their understanding that the name of the club is pronounced Mow-zo-lay-um, not More-so-lee-um).

Lieutenant-Commander Aloysius St John Braithwaite was a member of the club in good standing, who rarely returned from a tour of duty aboard his ship, the HMS Jingo, without a new story to thrill those members who were that day assembled in the smoking room. Despite his months at sea in all kinds of weather, he always returned with his uniform impeccably pressed, looking fresh, rested and dapper.

On his last visit to the Mausoleum Club, however – the last that he ever made – Lieutenant-Commander Braithwaite was far from fresh and anything but dapper. He staggered through the door in a frightful flutter, out of breath, sunburned and unshaven, cap askew and his uniform crumpled and salt-stained. And his eyes – the sharp, squinting blue eyes that had spotted a hundred enemy ships on the horizon – were wide with fear and red with lack of sleep. He stared at his friends like a man possessed, with no recognition in his gaze.

“Good evening, Commander Braithwaite,” the steward said. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

“What?” Braithwaite grabbed the front of the steward’s jacket and slammed him against the wall. “What did you say?”

“I asked whether you would like a drink, sir,” the steward repeated.

“Oh. Right. Well, yes. That would…” He coughed and made a half-hearted attempt to straighten his tie. “Brandy, please. My usual seat.”

He staggered to his accustomed place by the fire and slumped down like a man in his death throes.

“I say, Braithwaite, you look a tad peaky,” Dr Godfrey Mumbleton-Smythe noted, coming over to take the seat opposite.

“Yes, old man; what’s the matter?” Major-General Sir Algernon Ponsonby-Laine asked. He leaned on the mantelpiece over the fire and took a long puff on his cigar. “Natives getting a little rough for you, old stick?”

Braithwaite suddenly looked around and cried out in horror. “My God!” he gasped. “Do you hear that?”

The General frowned. “Hear what, old man?”

“The rattle of death.”

“What on Earth is the man blithering about, Mumbles?”

“Blessed if I know, Algy. Man’s off his rocker if you ask me. Probably a little too much fermented coconut milk, drunk from the navels of coffee-skinned native girls.”

“Steady, Mumbles.”

Mumbleton-Smythe coughed awkwardly. “Sorry, old thing.”

Braithwaite settled back in his seat. “I hear it everywhere,” he whispered. “Rattling; rattling.”

The steward brought a brandy and Braithwaite drained his glass. “Another,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

The General scratched his head. “Can you really drink fermented coconut milk from a native girl’s navel?”

“I think you probably have to ask her father first,” Mumbleton-Smythe mused.

“It was in the South China Seas,” Braithwaite whispered, his gaze now fixed on the flames in the fireplace. “There was a missionary, Father Chase; he wore a bowler hat, rimmed with long strings of brightly coloured beads.”

“D’you suppose you’d have to marry the girl afterwards?”

“Prob’ly depends how much you drink.”

“He called himself a Christian,” Braithwaite went on, “but he was more than half a pagan. Yet he and I had much in common.”

"It is good to finally meet a fellow shover,” Chase said. “It has been so long since I had any real challenge.”

I must admit,” I laughed, “I had never expected to find a Dorset long board in the South China Seas.”

“Well, it is my duty to bring civilisation as well as Christianity to these people,” Chase reminded him. “They are a simple folk who want little more than to drink fermented coconut milk from each other’s navels and… engage in the naturally ensuing activities, and of course to appease the volcano god, Haiya-Haiyi.”

“Haiya-Haiyi?”

“The local god who brings fertility to the island, but sometimes destruction as well.” Chase shoved his ha’penny across the board with uncanny precision and then pointed to the large wooden cross that stood outside the church. With a shock, I realised that a strange, sinuous carving wove around the cross. “That is his sign?”

“On the cross?”

“Oh yes; we do what we can to ease them into the true faith,” he replied glibly. “Native totems on the cross, fertility rites with the harvest festival, an orgy on every fourth Sunday.”

“An orgy?”

“Only on every fourth Sunday,” he assured me. “Just to help the natives adjust.”

“But you don’t…”

“Of course, dear chap.” Chase eased another ha’penny into the centre of a bed. “Couldn’t do it any other way, you see. They see such duties as a part of my role as Juju-Speaker of Haiya-Haiyi.”

“The Reverend Chase explained that he had – purely in the name of spreading the gospel – accepted the title of JuJu-Speaker, a sort of heathen priest, in which role he was required to preside over the orgies.”

“Was there… coconut milk at these orgies?” the General asked.

“I don’t know!” Braithwaite snapped. “I didn’t attend any of them.”

“Ah yes,” Mumbleton-Smythe recalled. “Never were a church man, were you.”

“But I did accept the minister’s invitation to dine with him and his wife.”

I arrived at the house at sunset and Mrs Emily Chase let me in.

“Ah; you must be the sea captain who plays shove ha’penny,” she said dryly. “It is pleasant to see another civilised face.” She was at least ten years younger than her husband, an innocent flower; surely she could have no part in his weird rites.

She took me into the lounge and served me a drink.

“Fermented coconut milk?”

“Leave it, Mumbles.”

”How do you find our island, Commander Braithwaite?” she asked.

“It has its attractions.”

“You mean the native girls and the fermented coconut milk?”

“Ah-ha!”

”Your husband…” But I had to break off when I heard the rattle of the beads on the Reverend Chase’s bowler hat approaching.

“That dinner was the most awkward of my life, including the time when I spent an entire evening eating and playing bridge with three admirals, knowing all along that they were all dying from the poison in the aperitif, for which I alone had consumed the antidote. I watched as the Reverend flirted with the servants and his lovely wife suffered in silence. I saw that Reverend Chase, for all his deftness in shoving a ha’penny, was a brute and a heathen, and the more I saw, the more convinced I became that it must be my destiny once more to exercise my particular talents.” For a moment, light flickered in Braithwaite’s eyes at the reminder of his exceptional skill as a murderer, a talent of which he was justly proud.

“I put the matter to Mrs Chase after dinner; I knew that I had to have her agreement. She was resistant at first, but it was clear that she hated her husband. We agreed and so I poisoned him.”

“Good show!” Mumbleton-Smythe declared. “That’ll show the blighter! What for again?”

“I slipped him enough poison to kill a rhinoceros, and yet…” Braithwaite shook his head. “Somehow he survived the dose, and he knew what I’d tried to do. I had no choice; I had to shoot him.”

”You can not kill the JuJu-Speaker!” he cried, waving his head so that his beads rattled crazily.

I put six bullets in him and he seemed to be making good on that promise.

“His hat!” Mrs Chase cried. “He says that his power is in his hat.”

I wrestled with the man, but he seemed to have the strength of ten. He threw me down on the Dorset long board and tried to strangle me; a clear breach of shove ha’penny etiquette.

I would have died, had not Mrs Chase knocked the hat from his head. He dropped dead on the instant.

“Huzzah!” Ponsonby-Laine declared.

Braithwaite’s expression remained grim.

“Not huzzah?”

“As we sailed back aboard the Jingo, the Widow Chase began to be haunted by a strange rattling noise. Five days out of port, she leaped into the sea.

“That was when I started to hear the rattling. The… That rattling!” His eyes widened in horror. “Oh God! Can’t you hear it?”

“Hear what, old stick?”

“It’s the beading of that horrible hat!” he cried and fell down dead.

Mumbleton-Smythe shook his head slowly. “Too much fermented coconut milk, poor devil.”