Mr Know-All – Pre-Intermediate Level

I was prepared not to like Max Kelada even before I knew him. The First World War had just finished and many people wanted to travel to different parts of the world. It was very hard to get rooms on ocean-going ships and you had to sleep wherever the agents chose to put you. You could not hope for a cabin to yourself, and I was thankful to be given one in which there were only two beds.

But when I was told the name of the person I would be sharing it with, my heart sank. I was going from San Francisco to Yokohama in Japan. It was bad enough to share a cabin for fourteen days with anyone, but I would have been less worried if the person’s name had been Smith or Brown.

When I got to the cabin I found that Mr Kelada’s bags were already there. I did not like the look of them. There were stickers on them from too many countries, and the wardrobe trunk was too big. He had unpacked his toilet things, and I saw that all the products he used were very expensive. Mr Kelada’s hair brushes, with the letters “M.K.” printed in gold on the back, would have been all the better for a good cleaning. I did not like Mr Kelada at all.

I made my way to the smoking-room and called for a pack of cards. I had just started to play a game of patience when a man came up to me and asked me if he was right in thinking my name was so and so.

“I am Mr Kelada,” he added, with a smile that showed a set of bright white teeth, and sat down.

“Oh, yes, we’re sharing a cabin, I think.”

“Bit of luck, I call it. You never know who you’re going to be put in with. I was very happy when I heard you were from Britain. I’m all for us British sticking together when we’re away from home, if you understand what I mean.”

I stopped what I was doing. “Are you British?” I asked, without thinking.

“Certainly! You don’t think I look like an American, do you? British to the backbone, that’s what I am.”

To show that it was true, Mr Kelada took his passport out of his pocket and happily waved it under my nose.

King George has many strange subjects. Mr Kelada was a short, strongly built man with dark skin. He had a big, bird-like nose and very large, bright, watery eyes. His long black hair was shiny and curly. He moved his hands about excitedly as he talked, and spoke well but in a way in which there was nothing British. I felt pretty sure that a closer look at that passport would have shown that he was born under a bluer sky than is generally seen in England.

“What will you have?” he asked me.

I looked at him as if I did not understand what he meant. We were on an American ship, and this was during the years when it was against the law in the United States to make or sell alcohol. To all appearances there was no alcohol on the ship. When I am not thirsty I do not know which I dislike more, soft drink or fruit juice. But Mr Kelada gave me a quick Levantine smile.

“Whisky and soda or a dry martini, you have only to say the word.”

He took a small metal drink container from each of his back pockets and laid them on the table in front of me. I chose the martini. He called to the waiter and ordered some ice and two glasses.

“A very nice drink,” I said.

“Well, there is a lot more where that came from. If you’ve got any friends on the ship, you tell them you’ve got another friend who’s got all the drink in the world.”

Mr Kelada loved to talk. He talked of New York and of San Francisco. He discussed plays, pictures, and politics. He talked of his love for Britain. Our flag is a grand piece of cloth, but when it is waved about by a man from Alexandria or Beirut, I cannot but feel that it loses a little in its standing.

Mr Kelada was also a little rude. I had always been taught that, when talking to a total stranger, the polite thing to do was to put ‘Mister’ before their name. In trying to appear friendly, he did not do this. I did not like Mr Kelada.

I had put the cards on the table when he sat down. Now, thinking that we had spoken long enough, I went on with my game.

“The three on the four,” said Mr Kelada.

There is nothing I hate more when playing patience than to be told where to put the card you have turned up before you have a chance to look for yourself.

“It’s coming out, it’s coming out,” he cried. “The ten on the jack.”

With anger and hatred in my heart I finished the game.

Then he took the pack.

“Do you like card tricks?”

“No, I hate card tricks,” I answered.

“Well, I’ll just show you this one.”

He showed me three. Then I said I would go down to the dining-room and get my seat at the table.

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said, “I’ve already taken a seat for you. I thought that as we were in the same cabin we might just as well sit at the same table.”

I did not like Mr Kelada.

I not only shared a cabin with him and ate three meals a day at the same table, but I could not walk around outside without his walking with me. It was impossible to get away from him. He never seemed to think that he was not wanted. He was certain that you were as happy to see him as he was to see you. In your own house you might have kicked him downstairs and shut the door loudly in his face, and he still would not have understood that he was not a welcome visitor.

He was a good mixer, and in three days knew everyone on the ship. He ran everything. He managed the games and sports competitions and collected money for prizes. He also organized music nights and dances. He was everywhere and always. He was certainly the best hated man in the ship. We called him Mr Know-All, even to his face. He took this as if we were saying something nice about him.

But it was at meal times that he was most unbearable. For the better part of an hour we could not get away and had to listen to him. He was full of warmth and friendliness, and had a happy, agreeable, talkative character. He would talk about all sorts of things and loved arguing about them. He knew everything better than anybody else, and took it as an insult should someone disagree with him. He would not drop a subject, however unimportant, till he had brought you round to his way of thinking. He would not accept the possibility that he could be wrong. He was the one who knew.

We sat at the doctor’s table. Mr Kelada should have had the table talk all his own way, for the doctor was lazy and I was coldly uninterested. However, there was also a man called Ramsay at the table. He was as fixed in his views as Mr Kelada and grew angry over the Levantine’s certainty that everything he said was right. The discussions they had turned into unpleasant, seemingly endless arguments.

Ramsay was in the American Government’s Foreign Service and was stationed at Kobe in Japan. He was a fat, heavy man from the Middle West whose large body was too big for his cheaply made clothes. He was on his way back to continue in his post, having been on a quick visit to New York to bring back his wife who had been spending a year at home.

Mrs Ramsay was a very pretty little thing, who was pleasant to be with and had a good sense of humor. The Foreign Service is not well paid and she was always dressed very simply. However, she knew how to wear her clothes and looked and acted as if she were married to someone more important. There was something about her that you do not see very often in women these days. You could not look at her without noticing her modesty. It shone in her like a flower on a coat.

One evening at dinner, we started to talk about pearls. There had been a lot written in the newspapers about the cultured pearls which the clever Japanese were making. The doctor thought that these must surely bring down the price of real ones. He said he had read that they were very good already, and would soon be perfect. Mr Kelada, as always, quickly took up the new subject. He told us all that was to be known about pearls. I do not believe Ramsay knew anything about them at all, but he could not miss the chance to disagree with the Levantine. In five minutes they were in the middle of a heated argument. I had seen Mr Kelada say what he thought forcefully and energetically before, but never so strongly as now. At last something that Ramsay said really made him angry, for he hit his hand loudly on the table and shouted.

“Well, I should know what I am talking about, I’m going to Japan just to look into Japanese pearls. I’m in the pearl business, and there’s not a man in it who won’t tell you that what I say about pearls is always correct. I know all the best pearls in the world, and what I don’t know about pearls isn’t worth knowing.”

Here was news for us. Mr Kelada, with all his talking, had never told anyone what his business was. We only knew that he was going to Japan on some kind of business trip. He looked around the table in a way which showed that he thought he had already won the argument.

“They’ll never be able to get a cultured pearl that an expert like me can’t tell with half an eye.” He pointed to a chain of pearls that Mrs Ramsay wore. “You take my word for it, Mrs Ramsay, that chain you’re wearing will never be worth a cent less than it is now.”

Mrs Ramsay’s face reddened a little and in her modest way she quickly moved the chain so that it was hidden inside her dress. Ramsay looked around the table, and a smile shone in his eyes.

“That’s a pretty chain of Mrs Ramsay’s, isn’t it?”

“I noticed it at once,” answered Mr Kelada. “Wow, I said to myself, those are real pearls all right.”

“I didn’t buy it myself, of course. I’d be interested to know how much you think it cost.”

“Oh, in the pearl trade somewhere around fifteen thousand dollars. But if it was bought from a shop, I shouldn’t be surprised to hear anything up to thirty thousand was paid for it.”

Ramsay smiled coldly.

“You’ll be surprised to hear that Mrs Ramsay bought that chain at a department store the day before we left New York. She paid eighteen dollars.”

Mr Kelada’s face suddenly turned red.

“Impossible! It’s not only real, but it’s as fine a set for its size as I’ve ever seen.”

“Will you bet on it? I’ll bet you a hundred dollars they are not real.”

“Done.”

“Oh, Elmer, you can’t bet on a certainty,” said Mrs Ramsay. She had a little smile on her lips, but the way she spoke showed that she was not happy with the bet.

“Can’t I? If I get a chance of easy money like that I should be all sorts of a fool not to take it.”

“But how can we know one way or the other?” she continued. “It’s only my word against Mr Kelada’s.”

“Let me look at the chain,” said Mr Kelada. “If they are not real, I’ll tell you quickly enough. And if I am wrong, I will have no problem losing the hundred dollars,” .

“Take it off, dear. Let Mr Kelada look at it as much as he wants.”

Mrs Ramsay did not move for a moment, but then put her hands to the chain as if to take it off.

“I can’t open it,” she said, “Mr Kelada will just have to take my word for it.”

I had a sudden feeling that something bad was about to happen, but I could think of nothing to say.

Ramsay jumped up.

“I’ll open it.”

He handed the chain to Mr Kelada. The Levantine took a magnifying glass from his pocket and closely examined it. A smile broke out over his smooth, dark-skinned face. He handed back the chain. As he was about to speak, he saw Mrs Ramsay’s face. It was so white that it seemed as if she were about to faint. She was looking at him with wide and frightened eyes. It was the look of someone in great danger, asking for help. It was so clear that I wondered why her husband did not see it.

Mr Kelada stopped with his mouth open. His face became redder than before. You could see that he was trying very hard to control himself.

“I was wrong,” he said. “It’s a very good copy, but of course as soon as I looked through my glass I saw that it wasn’t real. I think eighteen dollars is just about as much as it is worth.”

He took out his wallet and from it a hundred-dollar note. He handed it to Ramsay without a word.

“Perhaps that’ll teach you not to be so sure of yourself another time, my young friend,” said Ramsay as he took the note.

I noticed that Mr Kelada’s hands were shaking.

The story was soon all over the ship, and Mr Kelada had to put up with a lot of people making friendly fun of him that evening. It was a fine joke that Mr Know-All had been caught out. Mrs Ramsay went to her cabin early, saying that she did not feel well.

Next morning I got up and began to shave. Mr Kelada lay on his bed smoking a cigarette. Suddenly there was a sound outside the door as an envelope was pushed under it. I opened the door and looked out. There was nobody there. I picked up the letter and saw that it was addressed to Max Kelada. The name was written in capital letters. I handed it to him.

“Who’s this from?” he said as he opened it. “Oh!”

He took out of the envelope, not a letter, but a hundred-dollar note. He looked at me and again his face turned red. He tore the envelope into little pieces and gave them to me.

“Do you mind just throwing these out of the window?”

I did as he asked, and then I looked at him with a smile.

“No one likes being made to look a fool,” he said.

“Were the pearls real?” I asked.

“If I had a pretty little wife I shouldn’t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed in Japan,” he said.

At that moment I did not completely dislike Mr Kelada. He reached out for his wallet and carefully put the hundred-dollar note in it.