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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Mediator, W. Somerset Maugham, and the Pearls

From Washington Lawyer, April 2013

By Jacob A. Stein


We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.

The mediator concluded the mediation with success, as she usually does. I asked her to walk across the street to have a cup of coffee and to discuss her technique.

I told her, first of all, that I am not a successful mediator. I am impatient and I ask the litigants themselves the most important questions, and then an argument follows.

She said a mediator must be patient. Let the lawyers talk, but discourage the litigants from talking to each other. If the litigants ask and answer questions, the central issue gets out of focus, and there may be some acerbity.

She said, as an aside, that some years ago she read a short story, a very short story, by W. Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) titled “Mr. Know–All.” She said there is something about the story that has helped her, and it might help me. “Read it and then give me a call,” she told me. Here is the story.

It opens with Somerset Maugham on a crowded ocean liner. Therefore, the passengers had to double bunk. Maugham’s roommate was to be a man named Max Kelada. Mr. Kelada had arrived before Maugham. Mr. Kelada had placed his own luggage and his other personal things in the bathroom. He had expensive personal effects, each with his initials. Maugham saw right away that Mr. Kelada was a show–off, a vain man, boasting of his success in business and other things. Maugham did not like him.

Nearby where Maugham and Mr. Kelada were bunking were a Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. They had been separated for the past year because Mr. Ramsay had overseas assignments. Mrs. Ramsay had remained at home. Now they were together again, traveling home.

The third evening out, Maugham dined with the Ramsays. Mrs. Ramsay was attractive, well-dressed, and wore a string of pearls. Mr. Ramsay liked to talk.

Mr. Kelada decided that he would like to invite himself to join Maugham and the Ramsays. During the conversation, the subject of Mrs. Ramsay’s pearls came up. Mr. Kelada announced that he knew all about jewelry, especially pearls.

Mrs. Ramsay blushed and slipped the pearls inside her scarf. Mr. Ramsay decided to challenge Mr. Kelada to determine whether the pearls were authentic or fake. Mr. Ramsay bet $100 that the pearls were fake and said he would accept Mr. Kelada’s decision. Mrs. Ramsey was not pleased with the bet.

Mr. Kelada removed his jeweler’s magnifying glass from his vest pocket and examined the pearls. He smiled. Right away he saw that the pearls were authentic and very expensive. Just as he was ready to announce that he had won, he caught sight of Mrs. Ramsay’s face. It had changed color. She stared at Mr. Kelada with an uneasy look of desperation.

Mr. Kelada put his glass back in his vest pocket. He said he lost the bet. “I think $18 is just about as much as the pearls are worth,” he said.

He took a $100 note from his fat roll of bills and handed it to Mr. Ramsay who proudly said to Mr. Kelada, “Perhaps that’ll teach you not to be so cocksure.”

The next morning, Maugham and Mr. Kelada heard a scraping sound outside their bunk. An envelope had been pushed under the door. Maugham picked it up and then looked outside to see if anyone was there—nobody was.

The envelope was addressed to Max Kelada. Maugham handed the envelope to Mr. Kelada who opened it. In it, there was a $100 bill. Mr. Kelada kept the money. Maugham asked Mr. Kelada, “Were the pearls real?”

Mr. Kelada responded that they were real and very expensive, adding that “If I had a pretty little wife, I shouldn’t let her spend a year away from her husband.”

During the rest of the cruise, the rumor was that Mr. Kelada was not so smart after all.

That’s the story. After I read it, I called my friend, the mediator. I asked her what there was about the Maugham story that helped with her mediations. She said, “One of the things I learned is that I watch the facial expressions of the lawyers and the litigants when they speak at critical moments, just like Mr. Kelada did when he saw Mrs. Ramsey’s face. Watch the face. There are even other things to learn.”

Maugham led a troubled personal life. However, he made a fortune as a playwright, a novelist, and an essayist. His book, The Summing Up, is worth reading. In it, he gives his opinions on the way he sees himself and others.

… To take a trivial instance: how scornful we are when we catch someone out telling a lie; but who can say that he had never told not one but a hundred? We are shocked when we discover that great men were weak and petty, dishonest or selfish, sexually vicious, vain or intemperate; and many people think it disgraceful to disclose to the public its heroes’ failings.

Well, I enjoyed meeting Mr. Maugham’s Mr. Kelada, with the assistance of a wise mediator, and I shall watch the faces during mediation.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].