Last Updated on February 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
The narrator of “The Umbrella Man” is a twelve-year-old girl who opens the tale with the line,
I am going to tell you about a funny thing that happened to my mother and me yesterday evening.
The narrator’s mother takes her to London for a dental visit, and the girl has one cavity filled. The process is not too painful. Afterwards, the narrator and her mother go to a café for a banana split and a cup of coffee. It is nearly six o’clock in the evening when they leave. It has begun to rain heavily, and they are only wearing “ordinary hats and coats.”
The young narrator suggests that she and her mother return to the café and wait for the rain to let up. Her ulterior motive is the opportunity to have another “gorgeous” banana split. The mother, however, feels they must find a taxi cab and get home. But the cabs that come by all have passengers in them. Then, a little man comes up to them. He is “pretty old,” with a “fine white moustache” and a “wrinkly pink face.” The man has an umbrella and asks if he might request a favor. The mother regards him “suspiciously.” (The narrator says that her mother is a naturally “suspicious person” who is “especially suspicious of two things—strange men and boiled eggs.”)
The old gentleman claims that he has gotten himself “into a scrape,” and the mother fixes him with one of her “frosty-nosed stares.” The narrator is embarrassed by her mother’s reaction to this seemingly harmless man. The fellow says that he has forgotten his wallet and will sell his umbrella for a pound, which he needs for the taxi fare home. He claims that though he has walked to the current location, his “old legs” will not allow him to walk back home. He is willing to sell his fine silk umbrella, which cost him twenty pounds, for a mere pound.
The narrator gives her mother one of her own “frosty-nosed looks” because she does not feel that her mother should take advantage of the situation. Her mother silently agrees and offers to give the man the pound he needs for his cab fare without depriving him of the costly umbrella. The old gentleman, however, insists that she take it.
The mother accepts the offer, gives the man a pound note, and receives the much-needed umbrella in return. The old gentleman bows graciously and quickly disappears. The narrator asks,
Why were you so horrid to him in the beginning?
Her mother replies,
I wanted to satisfy myself that he wasn’t a trickster.
The mother explains that the fellow proved himself to be a gentleman, and she is pleased to have been able to help him.
The narrator’s mother goes on to surmise that the old gentleman might have well been a rich, “titled person.” She gloats that this “will be a good lesson” and tells her daughter that if she takes her time when “summing up” someone, she will “never make mistakes.”
Then the daughter sees the elderly man cross the street not like a person on tired legs, but “nimbly.” He is not in search of a taxi cab; instead, he is “bustling along the pavement, sidestepping the other pedestrians and swinging his arms like a soldier on the march.” The mother decides that she and her daughter must follow him to see what kind of mischief he is up to.
Outraged by his deception, the mother says that he is a “barefaced liar” and “a crook.” The young daughter responds,
You mean he’s not a titled gentleman?
The two see the little man enter The Red Lion Pub and watch his activities from the shop window, dry under their umbrella. The man orders a “smallish tumbler filled to the brim with a light brown liquid,” which he pays for with the pound note. The girl asks what is in the tumbler, and her mother explains that it is whiskey—a “treble whiskey,” in fact, as she sees that he receives no change from the pound note.
When he finishes the whiskey, the man puts on his hat and coat, and “in a manner so superbly cool and casual that you hardly noticed anything at all,” he steals an umbrella from the coat rack and takes off. The narrator and her mother follow him and watch as he pulls the same stunt again and sells the umbrella to a fellow standing in the rain.
The trickster does not, however, return to the Red Lion Pub but heads in the opposite direction. The narrator notes,
He could go on doing this all night.
Her mother replies,
Of course. But I’ll bet he prays like mad for rainy days.