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Synopsis

As long as she could remember she had been permitted to play with the contents of the late Herr Conrad Wilner’s wonder-box. The programme on such occasions varied little; the child was permitted to rummage among the treasures in the box until she had satisfied her perennial curiosity; conversation with her absent-minded father ensued, which ultimately included a personal narrative, dragged out piecemeal from the reticent, dreamy invalid. Then always a few pages of the diary kept by the late Herr Wilner were read as a bedtime story. And bath and bed and dreamland followed. That was the invariable routine, now once more in full swing. Her father lay on his invalid’s chair, reading; his rubber-shod crutches rested against the wall, within easy reach. By him, beside the kerosene lamp, her mother sat, mending her child’s stockings and underwear. Outside the circle of lamplight the incandescent eyes of the stove glowed steadily through the semi-dusk; and the child, always fascinated by anything that aroused her imagination, lifted her gaze furtively from time to time to convince herself that it really was the big, familiar stove which glared redly back at her, and not a dragon into which her creative fancy had so often transformed it. Reassured, she continued to explore the contents of the wonder-box—a toy she preferred to her doll, but not to her beloved set of water-colours and crayon pencils. Some centuries ago Pandora’s box let loose a world of troubles; Herr Wilner’s box apparently contained only pleasure for a little child whose pleasures were mostly of her own invention. It was a curious old box, made of olive wood and bound with bands of some lacquered silvery metal to make it strong—rupee silver, perhaps—strangely wrought with Arabic characters engraved and in shallow relief. It had handles on either side, like a sea-chest; a silver-lacquered lock and hasp which retained traces of violent usage; and six heavy strap hinges of the same lacquered metal. Within it the little child knew that a most fascinating collection of articles was to be discovered, taken out one by one with greatest care, played with discreetly, and, at her mother’s command, returned to their several places in Herr Wilner’s box. There were, in this box, two rather murderous-looking Kurdish daggers in sheaths of fretted silver—never to be unsheathed, it was solemnly understood, except by the child’s father. There was a pair of German army revolvers of the pattern of 1900, the unexploded cartridges of which had long since been extracted and cautiously thrown into the mill pond by the child’s mother, much to the surprise, no doubt, of the pickerel and sunfish.

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