The Disappearing Volume
[Note: This is taken from Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop.]
“Well, my dear,” said Roger after supper that evening, “I think perhaps we had better introduce Miss Titania to our custom of reading aloud.”
“Perhaps it would bore her?” said Helen. “You know it isn’t everybody that likes being read to.”
“Oh, I should love it!” exclaimed Titania. “I don’t think anybody ever read to me, that is not since I was a child.”
“Suppose we leave you to look after the shop,” said Helen to Roger, in a teasing mood, “and I’ll take Titania out to the movies. I think Tarzan is still running.”
Whatever private impulses Miss Chapman may have felt, she saw by the bookseller’s downcast face that a visit to Tarzan would break his heart, and she was prompt to disclaim any taste for the screen classic.
“Dear me,” she said; “Tarzan—that’s all that nature stuff by John Burroughs; isn’t it? Oh, Mrs. Mifflin, I think it would be very tedious. Let’s have Mr. Mifflin read to us. I’ll get down my knitting bag.”
“You mustn’t mind being interrupted,” said Helen. “When anybody rings the bell Roger has to run out and tend the shop.”
“You must let me do it,” said Titania. “I want to earn my wages, you know.”
“All right,” said Mrs. Mifflin; “Roger, you settle Miss Chapman in the den and give her something to look at while we do the dishes.”
But Roger was all on fire to begin the reading. “Why don’t we postpone the dishes,” he said, “just to celebrate?”
“Let me help,” insisted Titania. “I should think washing up would be great fun.”
“No, no, not on your first evening,” said Helen. “Mr. Mifflin and I will finish them in a jiffy.”
So Roger poked up the coal fire in the den, disposed the chairs, and gave Titania a copy of Sartor Resartus to look at. He then vanished into the kitchen with his wife, whence Titania heard the cheerful clank of crockery in a dishpan and the splashing of hot water. “The best thing about washing up,” she heard Roger say, “is that it makes one’s hands so clean, a novel sensation for a second-hand bookseller.”
She gave Sartor Resartus what is graphically described as a “once over,” and then seeing the morning Times lying on the table, picked it up, as she had not read it. Her eye fell upon the column headed
and as she had recently lost a little pearl brooch, she ran hastily through it. She chuckled a little over
Then she saw this:
“Why” she exclaimed, “Gissing Street—that’s here! And what a funny kind of book for an assistant chef to read. No wonder their lunches have been so bad lately!”
When Roger and Helen rejoined her in the den a few minutes later she showed the bookseller the advertisement. He was very much excited.
“That’s a funny thing,” he said. “There’s something queer about that book. Did I tell you about it? Last Tuesday—I know it was then because it was the evening young Gilbert was here— a man with a beard came in asking for it, and it wasn’t on the shelf. Then the next night, Wednesday, I was up very late writing, and fell asleep at my desk. I must have left the front door ajar, because I was waked up by the draught, and when I went to close the door I saw the book sticking out a little beyond the others, in its usual place. And last night, when the Corn Cobs were here, I went out to look up a quotation in it, and it was gone again.”
“Perhaps the assistant chef stole it?” said Titania.
“But if so, why the deuce would he advertise having done so?” asked Roger.
“Well, if he did steal it,” said Helen, “I wish him joy of it. I tried to read it once, you talked so much about it, and I found it dreadfully dull.”
“If he did steal it,” cried the bookseller, “I’m perfectly delighted. It shows that my contention is right: people DO really care for good books. If an assistant chef is so fond of good books that he has to steal them, the world is safe for democracy. Usually the only books any one wants to steal are sheer piffle, like Making Life Worth While by Douglas Fairbanks or Mother Shipton’s Book of Oracles. I don’t mind a man stealing books if he steals good ones!”
“You see the remarkable principles that govern this business,” said Helen to Titania. They sat down by the fire and took up their knitting while the bookseller ran out to see if the volume had by any chance returned to his shelves.
“Is it there?” said Helen, when he came back.
“No,” said Roger, and picked up the advertisement again. “I wonder why he wants it returned before midnight on Tuesday?”
“So he can read it in bed, I guess,” said Helen. “Perhaps he suffers from insomnia.”
“It’s a darn shame he lost it before he had a chance to read it. I’d like to have known what he thought of it. I’ve got a great mind to go up and call on him.”
“Charge it off to profit and loss and forget about it,” said Helen. “How about that reading aloud?”
Roger ran his eye along his private shelves, and pulled down a well-worn volume.
“Now that Thanksgiving is past,” he said, “my mind always turns to Christmas, and Christmas means Charles Dickens. My dear, would it bore you if we had a go at the old Christmas Stories?”
Mrs. Mifflin held up her hands in mock dismay. “He reads them to me every year at this time,” she said to Titania. “Still, they’re worth it. I know good old Mrs. Lirriper better than I do most of my friends.”
“What is it, the Christmas Carol?” said Titania. “We had to read that in school.”
“No,” said Roger; “the other stories, infinitely better. Everybody gets the Carol dinned into them until they’re weary of it, but no one nowadays seems to read the others. I tell you, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas to me if I didn’t read these tales over again every year. How homesick they make one for the good old days of real inns and real beefsteak and real ale drawn in pewter.
My dears, sometimes when I am reading Dickens I get a vision of rare sirloin with floury boiled potatoes and plenty of horse-radish, set on a shining cloth not far from a blaze of English coal----“
“He’s an incorrigible visionary,” said Mrs. Mifflin. “To hear him talk you might think no one had had a square meal since Dickens died. You might think that all landladies died with Mrs. Lirriper.”
“Very ungrateful of him,” said Titania. “I’m sure I couldn’t ask for better potatoes, or a nicer hostess, than I’ve found in Brooklyn.”
“Well, well,” said Roger. “You are right, of course. And yet something went out of the world when Victorian England vanished, something that will never come again. Take the stagecoach drivers, for instance. What a racy, human type they were! And what have we now to compare with them? Subway guards? Taxicab drivers? I have hung around many an all-night lunchroom to hear the chauffeurs talk. But they are too much on the move, you can’t get the picture of them the way Dickens could of his types. You can’t catch that sort of thing in a snapshot, you know: you have to have a time exposure. I’ll grant you, though, that lunchroom food is mighty good. The best place to eat is always a counter where the chauffeurs congregate. They get awfully hungry, you see, driving round in the cold, and when they want food they want it hot and tasty. There’s a little hash-alley called Frank’s, up on Broadway near 77th, where I guess the ham and eggs and French fried is as good as any Mr. Pickwick ever ate.”
“I must get Edwards to take me there,” said Titania. “Edwards is our chauffeur. I’ve been to the Ansonia for tea, that’s near there.”
“Better keep away,” said Helen. “When Roger comes home from those places he smells so strong of onions it brings tears to my eyes.”
“We’ve just been talking about an assistant chef,” said Roger; “that suggests that I read you Somebody’s Luggage, which is all about a head waiter. I have often wished I could get a job as a waiter or a bus boy, just to learn if there really are any such head waiters nowadays. You know there are all sorts of jobs I’d like to have, just to fructify my knowledge of human nature and find out whether life is really as good as literature. I’d love to be a waiter, a barber, a floorwalker----“
“Roger, my dear,” said Helen, “why don’t you get on with the reading?”
Roger knocked out his pipe, turned Bock out of his chair, and sat down with infinite relish to read the memorable character sketch of Christopher, the head waiter, which is dear to every lover of taverns. “The writer of these humble lines being a Waiter,” he began. The knitting needles flashed with diligence, and the dog by the fender stretched himself out in the luxuriant vacancy of mind only known to dogs surrounded by a happy group of their friends. And Roger, enjoying himself enormously, and particularly pleased by the chuckles of his audience, was approaching the ever-delightful items of the coffee-room bill which is to be found about ten pages on in the first chapter—how sad it is that hotel bills are not so rendered in these times—when the bell in the shop clanged. Picking up his pipe and matchbox, and grumbling “It’s always the way,” he hurried out of the room.
He was agreeably surprised to find that his caller was the young advertising man, Aubrey Gilbert.
“Hullo!” he said. “I’ve been saving something for you. It’s a quotation from Joseph Conrad about advertising.”
“Good enough,” said Aubrey. “And I’ve got something for you. You were so nice to me the other evening I took the liberty of bringing you round some tobacco. Here’s a tin of Blue-Eyed Mixture, it’s my favourite. I hope you’ll like it.”
“Bully for you. Perhaps I ought to let you off the Conrad quotation since you’re so kind.”
“Not a bit. I suppose it’s a knock. Shoot!” The bookseller led the way back to his desk, where he rummaged among the litter and finally found a scrap of paper on which he had written:
“What do you think of that?” said Roger. “You’ll find that in the story called The Anarchist.”
“I think less than nothing of it,” said Aubrey. “As your friend Don Marquis observed the other evening, an idea isn’t always to be blamed for the people who believe in it. Mr. Conrad has been reading some quack ads, that’s all. Because there are fake ads, that doesn’t condemn the principle of Publicity. But look here, what I really came round to see you for is to show you this. It was in the Times this morning.”
He pulled out of his pocket a clipping of the LOST insertion to which Roger’s attention had already been drawn.
“Yes, I’ve just seen it,” said Roger. “I missed the book from my shelves, and I believe someone must have stolen it.”
“Well, now, I want to tell you something,” said Aubrey. “To-night I had dinner at the Octagon with Mr. Chapman.”
“Is that so?” said Roger. “You know his daughter’s here now.”
“So he told me. It’s rather interesting how it all works out. You see, after you told me the other day that Miss Chapman was coming to work for you, that gave me an idea. I knew her father would be specially interested in Brooklyn, on that account, and it suggested to me an idea for a window-display campaign here in Brooklyn for the Daintybits Products. You know we handle all his sales promotion campaigns. Of course I didn’t let on that I knew about his daughter coming over here, but he told me about it himself in the course of our talk. Well, here’s what I’m getting at. We had dinner in the Czecho-Slovak Grill, up on the fourteenth floor, and going up in the elevator I saw a man in a chef’s uniform carrying a book. I looked over his shoulder to see what it was. I thought of course it would be a cook-book. It was a copy of Oliver Cromwell.”
“So he found it again, eh? I must go and have a talk with that chap. If he’s a Carlyle fan I’d like to know him.”
“Wait a minute. I had seen the LOST ad in the paper this morning, because I always look over that column. Often it gives me ideas for advertising stunts. If you keep an eye on the things people are anxious to get back, you know what they really prize, and if you know what they prize you can get a line on what goods ought to be advertised more extensively. This was the first time I had ever noticed a LOST ad for a book, so I thought to myself “the book business is coming up.” Well, when I saw the chef with the book in his hand, I said to him jokingly, “I see you found it again.” He was a foreign-looking fellow, with a big beard, which is unusual for a chef, because I suppose it’s likely to get in the soup. He looked at me as though I’d run a carving knife into him, almost scared me the way he looked. “Yes, yes,” he said, and shoved the book out of sight under his arm. He seemed half angry and half frightened, so I thought maybe he had no right to be riding in the passenger elevator and was scared someone would report him to the manager. Just as we were getting to the fourteenth floor I said to him in a whisper, “It’s all right, old chap, I’m not going to report you.” I give you my word he looked more scared than before. He went quite white. I got off at the fourteenth, and he followed me out. I thought he was going to speak to me, but Mr. Chapman was there in the lobby, and he didn’t have a chance. But I noticed that he watched me into the grill room as though I was his last chance of salvation.”
“I guess the poor devil was scared you’d report him to the police for stealing the book,” said Roger. “Never mind, let him have it.”
“Did he steal it?”
“I haven’t a notion. But somebody did, because it disappeared from here.”
“Well, now, wait a minute. Here’s the queer part of it. I didn’t think anything more about it, except that it was a funny coincidence my seeing him after having noticed that ad in the paper. I had a long talk with Mr. Chapman, and we discussed some plans for a prune and Saratoga chip campaign, and I showed him some suggested copy I had prepared. Then he told me about his daughter, and I let on that I knew you. I left the Octagon about eight o’clock, and I thought I’d run over here on the subway just to show you the LOST notice and give you this tobacco. And when I got off the subway at Atlantic Avenue, who should I see but friend chef again. He got off the same train I did. He had on civilian clothes then, of course, and when he was out of his white uniform and pancake hat I recognized him right off. Who do you suppose it was?”
“Can’t imagine,” said Roger, highly interested by this time.
“Why, the professor-looking guy who came in to ask for the book the first night I was here.”
“Humph! Well, he must be keen about Carlyle, because he was horribly disappointed that evening when he asked for the book and I couldn’t find it. I remember how he insisted that I MUST have it, and I hunted all through the History shelves to make sure it hadn’t got misplaced. He said that some friend of his had seen it here, and he had come right round to buy it. I told him he could certainly get a copy at the Public Library, and he said that wouldn’t do at all.”
“Well, I think he’s nuts,” said Aubrey, “because I’m damn sure he followed me down the street after I left the subway. I stopped in at the drug store on the corner to get some matches, and when I came out, there he was underneath the lamp-post.”
“If it was a modern author, instead of Carlyle,” said Roger, “I’d say it was some publicity stunt pulled off by the publishers. You know they go to all manner of queer dodges to get an author’s name in print. But Carlyle’s copyrights expired long ago, so I don’t see the game.”
“I guess he’s picketing your place to try and steal the formula for eggs Samuel Butler,” said Aubrey, and they both laughed.
“You’d better come in and meet my wife and Miss Chapman,” said Roger. The young man made some feeble demur, but it was obvious to the bookseller that he was vastly elated at the idea of making Miss Chapman’s acquaintance.
“Here’s a friend of mine,” said Roger, ushering Aubrey into the little room where Helen and Titania were still sitting by the fire. “Mrs. Mifflin, Mr. Aubrey Gilbert, Miss Chapman, Mr. Gilbert.”
Aubrey was vaguely aware of the rows of books, of the shining coals, of the buxom hostess and the friendly terrier; but with the intense focus of an intelligent young male mind these were all merely appurtenances to the congenial spectacle of the employee. How quickly a young man’s senses assemble and assimilate the data that are really relevant! Without seeming even to look in that direction he had performed the most amazing feat of lightning calculation known to the human faculties. He had added up all the young ladies of his acquaintance, and found the sum total less than the girl before him. He had subtracted the new phenomenon from the universe as he knew it, including the solar system and the advertising business, and found the remainder a minus quantity. He had multiplied the contents of his intellect by a factor he had no reason to assume “constant,” and was startled at what teachers call (I believe) the “product.” And he had divided what was in the left-hand armchair into his own career, and found no room for a quotient. All of which transpired in the length of time necessary for Roger to push forward another chair.
With the politeness desirable in a well-bred youth, Aubrey’s first instinct was to make himself square with the hostess. Resolutely he occluded blue eyes, silk shirtwaist, and admirable chin from his mental vision.
“It’s awfully good of you to let me come in,” he said to Mrs. Mifflin. “I was here the other evening and Mr. Mifflin insisted on my staying to supper with him.”
“I’m very glad to see you,” said Helen. “Roger told me about you. I hope he didn’t poison you with any of his outlandish dishes. Wait till he tries you with brandied peaches a la Harold Bell Wright.”
Aubrey uttered some genial reassurance, still making the supreme sacrifice of keeping his eyes away from where (he felt) they belonged. “Mr. Gilbert has just had a queer experience,” said Roger. “Tell them about it.”
In the most reckless way, Aubrey permitted himself to be impaled upon a direct and interested flash of blue lightning. “I was having dinner with your father at the Octagon.”
The high tension voltage of that bright blue current felt like ohm sweet ohm, but Aubrey dared not risk too much of it at once. Fearing to blow out a fuse, he turned in panic to Mrs. Mifflin. “You see,” he explained, “I write a good deal of Mr. Chapman’s advertising for him. We had an appointment to discuss some business matters. We’re planning a big barrage on prunes.”
“Dad works much too hard, don’t you think?” said Titania.
Aubrey welcomed this as a pleasant avenue of discussion leading into the parkland of Miss Chapman’s family affairs; but Roger insisted on his telling the story of the chef and the copy of Cromwell.
“And he followed you here?” exclaimed Titania. “What fun! I had no idea the book business was so exciting.”
“Better lock the door to-night, Roger,” said Mrs. Mifflin, “or he may walk off with a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
“Why, my dear,” said Roger, “I think this is grand news. Here’s a man, in a humble walk of life, so keen about good books that he even pickets a bookstore on the chance of swiping some. It’s the most encouraging thing I’ve ever heard of. I must write to the Publishers’ Weekly about it.”
“Well,” said Aubrey, “you mustn’t let me interrupt your little party.”
“You’re not interrupting,” said Roger. “We were only reading aloud. Do you know Dickens’ Christmas Stories?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Suppose we go on reading, shall we?”
“Yes, do go on,” said Titania. “Mr. Mifflin was just reading about a most adorable head waiter in a London chop house.”
Aubrey begged permission to light his pipe, and Roger picked up the book. “But before we read the items of the coffee-room bill,” he said, “I think it only right that we should have a little refreshment. This passage should never be read without something to accompany it. My dear, what do you say to a glass of sherry all round?"
“It is sad to have to confess it,” said Mrs. Mifflin to Titania, “Mr. Mifflin can never read Dickens without having something to drink. I think the sale of Dickens will fall off terribly when prohibition comes in.”
“I once took the trouble to compile a list of the amount of liquor drunk in Dickens’ works,” said Roger, “and I assure you the total was astounding: 7,000 hogsheads, I believe it was. Calculations of that sort are great fun. I have always intended to write a little essay on the rainstorms in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. You see R. L. S. was a Scot, and well acquainted with wet weather. Excuse me a moment, I’ll just run down cellar and get up a bottle.”
Roger left the room, and they heard his steps passing down into the cellar. Bock, after the manner of dogs, followed him. The smells of cellars are a rare treat to dogs, especially ancient Brooklyn cellars which have a cachet all their own. The cellar of the Haunted Bookshop was, to Bock, a fascinating place, illuminated by a warm glow from the furnace, and piled high with split packing-cases which Roger used as kindling. From below came the rasp of a shovel among coal, and the clear, musical slither as the lumps were thrown from the iron scoop onto the fire. Just then the bell rang in the shop.
“Let me go,” said Titania, jumping up.
“Can’t I?” said Aubrey.
“Nonsense!” said Mrs. Mifflin, laying down her knitting. “Neither of you knows anything about the stock. Sit down and be comfortable. I’ll be right back.”
Aubrey and Titania looked at each other with a touch of embarrassment.
“Your father sent you his—his kind regards,” said Aubrey. That was not what he had intended to say, but somehow he could not utter the word. “He said not to read all the books at once.”
Titania laughed. “How funny that you should run into him just when you were coming here. He’s a duck, isn’t he?”
“Well, you see I only know him in a business way, but he certainly is a corker. He believes in advertising, too.”
“Are you crazy about books?”
“Why, I never really had very much to do with them. I’m afraid you’ll think I’m terribly ignorant----“
“Not at all. I’m awfully glad to meet someone who doesn’t think it’s a crime not to have read all the books there are.”
“This is a queer kind of place, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s a funny idea to call it the Haunted Bookshop. I wonder what it means.”
“Mr. Mifflin told me it meant haunted by the ghosts of great literature. I hope they won’t annoy you. The ghost of Thomas Carlyle seems to be pretty active.”
“I’m not afraid of ghosts,” said Titania.
Aubrey gazed at the fire. He wanted to say that he intended from now on to do a little haunting on his own account but he did not know just how to break it gently. And then Roger returned from the cellar with the bottle of sherry. As he was uncorking it, they heard the shop door close, and Mrs. Mifflin came in.
“Well, Roger,” she said; “if you think so much of your old Cromwell, you’d better keep it in here. Here it is.” She laid the book on the table.
“For the love of Mike!” exclaimed Roger. “Who brought it back?”
“I guess it was your friend the assistant chef,” said Mrs. Mifflin.
“Anyway, he had a beard like a Christmas tree. He was mighty polite. He said he was terribly absent minded, and that the other day he was in here looking at some books and just walked off with it without knowing what he was doing. He offered to pay for the trouble he had caused, but of course I wouldn’t let him. I asked if he wanted to see you, but he said he was in a hurry.”
“I’m almost disappointed,” said Roger. “I thought that I had turned up a real booklover. Here we are, all hands drink the health of Mr. Thomas Carlyle.”
The toast was drunk, and they settled themselves in their chairs.
“And here’s to the new employee,” said Helen. This also was dispatched, Aubrey draining his glass with a zeal which did not escape Miss Chapman’s discerning eye. Roger then put out his hand for the Dickens. But first he picked up his beloved Cromwell. He looked at it carefully, and then held the volume close to the light.
“The mystery’s not over yet,” he said. “It’s been rebound. This isn’t the original binding.”
“Are you sure?” said Helen in surprise. “It looks the same.”
“The binding has been cleverly imitated, but it can’t fool me. In the first place, there was a rubbed corner at the top; and there was an ink stain on one of the end papers.”
“There’s still a stain there,” said Aubrey, looking over his shoulder.
“Yes, but not the same stain. I’ve had that book long enough to know it by heart. Now what the deuce would that lunatic want to have it rebound for?”
“Goodness gracious,” said Helen, “put it away and forget about it. We’ll all be dreaming about Carlyle if you’re not careful.”