A Deal in Ostriches
|Author||H. G. Wells|
"A Deal in Ostriches" is a short story by the British writer H. G. Wells. It is a cautionary tale about simple human greed. The taxidermist of Wells’ story "Triumphs of a Taxidermist" (1894) makes a return appearance as the narrator of the story. The story was originally published anonymously in the December 20th, 1894 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette and later published in the 1895 short story collection The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents. The story is the tale of a carefully crafted and skillfully executed con that exploited the natural greed the protagonist's fellow passengers.
The taxidermist is talking with an unnamed acquaintance about the price of birds when he tells the story of a bird auction he witnessed years before on an East India Company ship en route from India to London. Sir Mohini Padishah, a wealthy native Indian, is aboard the vessel with an assortment of fellow passengers. One of the passengers, an unnamed caretaker, was on deck with five ostriches in his charge when one of the birds promptly snatched and swallowed the diamond from Padishah’s turban. The bird becomes mixed with the others during the resulting confusion. Word of the incident quickly sweeps the vessel as Padishah demands the return of the diamond. He swore he would retrieve the diamond, but would not buy the birds. He demands his rights as a British Subject and plans to appeal to the British House of Lords.
The passengers debate the legalities of the situation. As no barrister is aboard, much of the discussions are speculation. Padishah demands the ostriches from the caretaker who refuses because he does not own the birds. Following a brief stopover in Aden (the capital of modern day Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula) Padishah offers to buy all five birds from the caretaker. The caretaker refuses but tells Padishah that a fellow passenger, Potter, had made a similar offer. While in Aden, Potter wired the birds owners in London and made an offer to purchase the birds. His answer would be waiting for him in Suez. He announced that he intended to kill each of the birds and find the diamond. Padisha raged over this action and the taxidermist cursed himself for not having thought of it himself.
The birds’ owner accepted Potter’s offer. Padishah publicly wept over the sale. Potter offered to sell the birds to Padishah for more than twice the amount he had paid. When Padishah balked Potter arranged to sell the birds at auction on the ship. Interest in the auction flared when a passenger, a Jewish diamond merchant assessed between three to four thousand British Pounds. After the first bird sold was immediately slaughtered upon the deck, Potter forbid their slaughter until landfall in London. The price for each subsequent bird grew netting Potter more than one thousand Pounds. Padishah provided each new owner with his address and begged the men to mail him the diamond once they found it. They rebuffed him and went their own ways.
The taxidermist completes his narrative by describing a visit to a street in central London a week later. While there, he saw Padishah and Potter arm in arm having a “purple time of it.” The taxidermist assures his associate that Padishah was an eminent Hindu and that the diamond was indeed real. However, he expresses doubt that the bird had ever actually swallowed the diamond.
- Wells, H.G. H.G. Wells: The Complete Short Stories. Ernest Benn Ltd., London. Twenty First Edition. 1970. Page 229.