‘We have a few pomegranates in stock,’ he continued, ‘but there has been no demand for them.’

‘My servant will fetch the coffee as usual,’ said the purchaser, producing a coin from a wonderful metal- work purse. As an apparent afterthought he fired out the question: ‘Have you, perhaps, any quail seed?’

‘No,’ said the grocer, without hesitation, ‘we don’t stock it.’

‘What will he deny next?’ asked Mrs Greyes under her breath. What made it seem so much worse was the fact that Mr Scarrick had quite recently presided at a lecture on Savonarola.

Turning up the deep astrachan collar of his long coat, the stranger swept out of the shop, with the air, as Miss Fritten afterwards described it, of a Satrap proroguing a Sanhedrin. Whether such a pleasant function ever fell to a Satrap’s lot she was not quite certain, but the simile faithfully conveyed her meaning to a large circle of acquaintances.

‘Don’t let’s bother about the 3.12,’ said Mrs Greyes; ‘let’s go and talk this over at Laura Lipping’s. It’s her day.’

When the dark-faced boy arrived at the shop next day with his brass marketing bowl there was quite a fair gathering of customers, most of whom seemed to be spinning out their purchasing operations with the air of people who had very little to do with their time. In a voice that was heard all over the shop, perhaps because everybody was intently listening, he asked for a pound of honey and a packet of quail seed.

‘More quail seed!’ said Miss Fritten. ‘Those quails must be voracious, or else it isn’t quail seed at all.’

‘I believe it’s opium, and the bearded man is a detective,’ said Mrs Greyes brilliantly.

‘I don’t,’ said Laura Lipping; ‘I’m sure it’s something to do with the Portuguese Throne.’

‘More likely to be a Persian intrigue on behalf of the ex-Shah,’ said Miss Fritten; ‘the bearded man belongs to the Government Party. The quail seed is a countersign, of course; Persia is almost next door to Palestine, and quails come into the Old Testament, you know.’

‘Only as a miracle,’ said her well-informed younger sister; ‘I’ve thought all along it was part of a love intrigue.’

The boy who had so much interest and speculation centred on him was on the point of departing with his purchases when he was waylaid by Jimmy, the nephew-apprentice, who, from his post at the cheese and bacon counter, commanded a good view of the street.

‘We have some very fine Jaffa oranges,’ he said hurriedly, pointing to a corner where they were stored, behind a high rampart of biscuit tins. There was evidently more in the remark than met the ear. The boy flew at the oranges with the enthusiasm of a ferret finding a rabbit family at home after a long day of fruitless subterranean research. Almost at the same moment the bearded stranger stalked into the shop, and flung an order for a pound of dates and a tin of the best Smyrna halva across the counter. The most adventurous housewife in the locality had never heard of halva, but Mr Scarrick was apparently able to produce the best Smyrna variety of it without a moment’s hesitation.

‘We might be living in the Arabian Nights,’ said Miss Fritten excitedly.

‘Hush! Listen,’ beseeched Mrs Greyes.

‘Has the dark-faced boy, of whom I spoke yesterday, been here today?’ asked the stranger.

‘We’ve had rather more people than usual in the shop today,’ said Mr Scarrick, ‘but I can’t recall a boy such as you describe.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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