This is taken from Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop.
A few doors from the bookshop was a small lunchroom named after the great city of Milwaukee, one of those pleasant refectories where the diner buys his food at the counter and eats it sitting in a flat-armed chair. Aubrey got a bowl of soup, a cup of coffee, beef stew, and bran muffins, and took them to an empty seat by the window. He ate with one eye on the street. From his place in the corner he could command the strip of pavement in front of Mifflin’s shop. Halfway through the stew he saw Roger come out onto the pavement and begin to remove the books from the boxes.
After finishing his supper he lit one of his “mild but they satisfy” cigarettes and sat in the comfortable warmth of a near-by radiator. A large black cat lay sprawled on the next chair. Up at the service counter there was a pleasant clank of stout crockery as occasional customers came in and ordered their victuals. Aubrey began to feel a relaxation swim through his veins. Gissing Street was very bright and orderly in its Saturday evening bustle. Certainly it was grotesque to imagine melodrama hanging about a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn. The revolver felt absurdly lumpy and uncomfortable in his hip pocket.
What a different aspect a little hot supper gives to affairs! The most resolute idealist or assassin had better write his poems or plan his atrocities before the evening meal. After the narcosis of that repast the spirit falls into a softer mood, eager only to be amused. Even Milton would hardly have had the inhuman fortitude to sit down to the manuscript of Paradise Lost right after supper. Aubrey began to wonder if his unpleasant suspicions had not been overdrawn. He thought how delightful it would be to stop in at the bookshop and ask Titania to go to the movies with him.
Curious magic of thought! The idea was still sparkling in his mind when he saw Titania and Mrs. Mifflin emerge from the bookshop and pass briskly in front of the lunchroom. They were talking and laughing merrily. Titania’s face, shining with young vitality, seemed to him more “attention-compelling” than any ten-point Caslon type-arrangement he had ever seen. He admired the layout of her face from the standpoint of his cherished technique. “Just enough ‘white space,’” he thought, “to set off her eyes as the ‘centre of interest.’ Her features aren’t this modern bold-face stuff, set solid,” he said to himself, thinking typographically. “They’re rather French old-style italic, slightly leaded. Set on 22-point body, I guess. Old man Chapman’s a pretty good typefounder, you have to hand it to him.”
He smiled at this conceit, seized hat and coat, and dashed out of the lunchroom.
Mrs. Mifflin and Titania had halted a few yards up the street, and were looking at some pert little bonnets in a window. Aubrey hurried across the street, ran up to the next corner, recrossed, and walked down the eastern pavement. In this way he would meet them as though he were coming from the subway. He felt rather more excited than King Albert re-entering Brussels. He saw them coming, chattering together in the delightful fashion of women out on a spree. Helen seemed much younger in the company of her companion. “A lining of pussy-willow taffeta and an embroidered slip-on,” she was saying.
Aubrey steered onto them with an admirable gesture of surprise.
“Well, I never!” said Mrs. Mifflin. “Here’s Mr. Gilbert. Were you coming to see Roger?” she added, rather enjoying the young man’s predicament.
Titania shook hands cordially. Aubrey, searching the old-style italics with the desperate intensity of a proof-reader, saw no evidence of chagrin at seeing him again so soon.
“Why,” he said rather lamely, “I was coming to see you all. I—I wondered how you were getting along.”
Mrs. Mifflin had pity on him. “We’ve left Mr. Mifflin to look after the shop,” she said. “He’s busy with some of his old crony customers. Why don’t you come with us to the movies?”
“Yes, do,” said Titania. “It’s Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, you know how adorable they are!”
No one needs to be told how quickly Aubrey assented. Pleasure coincided with duty in that the outer wing of the party placed him next to Titania.
“Well, how do you like bookselling?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s the greatest fun!” she cried. “But it’ll take me ever and ever so long to learn about all the books. People ask such questions! A woman came in this afternoon looking for a copy of Blase Tales. How was I to know she wanted The Blazed Trail?”
“You’ll get used to that,” said Mrs. Mifflin. “Just a minute, people, I want to stop in at the drug store.”
They went into Weintraub’s pharmacy. Entranced as he was by the proximity of Miss Chapman, Aubrey noticed that the druggist eyed him rather queerly. And being of a noticing habit, he also observed that when Weintraub had occasion to write out a label for a box of powdered alum Mrs. Mifflin was buying, he did so with a pale violet ink.
At the glass sentry-box in front of the theatre Aubrey insisted on buying the tickets.
“We came out right after supper,” said Titania as they entered, “so as to get in before the crowd.”
It is not so easy, however, to get ahead of Brooklyn movie fans. They had to stand for several minutes in a packed lobby while a stern young man held the waiting crowd in check with a velvet rope. Aubrey sustained delightful spasms of the protective instinct in trying to shelter Titania from buffets and pushings. Unknown to her, his arm extended behind her like an iron rod to absorb the onward impulses of the eager throng. A rustling groan ran through these enthusiasts as they saw the preliminary footage of the great Tarzan flash onto the screen, and realized they were missing something. At last, however, the trio got through the barrier and found three seats well in front, at one side. From this angle the flying pictures were strangely distorted, but Aubrey did not mind.
“Isn’t it lucky I got here when I did,” whispered Titania. “Mr. Mifflin has just had a telephone call from Philadelphia asking him to go over on Monday to make an estimate on a library that’s going to be sold so I’ll be able to look after the shop for him while he’s gone.”
“Is that so?” said Aubrey. “Well, now, I’ve got to be in Brooklyn on Monday, on business. Maybe Mrs. Mifflin would let me come in and buy some books from you.”
“Customers always welcome,” said Mrs. Mifflin.
“I’ve taken a fancy to that Cromwell book,” said Aubrey. “What do you suppose Mr. Mifflin would sell it for?”
“I think that book must be valuable,” said Titania. “Somebody came in this afternoon and wanted to buy it, but Mr. Mifflin wouldn’t part with it. He says it’s one of his favourites. Gracious, what a weird film this is!”
The fantastic absurdities of Tarzan proceeded on the screen, tearing celluloid passions to tatters, but Aubrey found the strong man of the jungle coming almost too close to his own imperious instincts. Was not he, too—he thought naively—a poor Tarzan of the advertising jungle, lost among the elephants and alligators of commerce, and sighing for this dainty and unattainable vision of girlhood that had burst upon his burning gaze! He stole a perilous side-glance at her profile, and saw the racing flicker of the screen reflected in tiny spangles of light that danced in her eyes. He was even so unknowing as to imagine that she was not aware of his contemplation. And then the lights went up.
“What nonsense, wasn’t it?” said Titania. “I’m so glad it’s over! I was quite afraid one of those elephants would walk off the screen and tread on us.”
“I never can understand,” said Helen, “why they don’t film some of the really good books—think of Frank Stockton’s stuff, how delightful that would be. Can’t you imagine Mr. and Mrs. Drew playing in Rudder Grange!”
“Thank goodness!” said Titania. “Since I entered the book business, that’s the first time anybody’s mentioned a book that I’ve read. Yes—do you remember when Pomona and Jonas visit an insane asylum on their honeymoon? Do you know, you and Mr. Mifflin remind me a little of Mr. and Mrs. Drew.”
Helen and Aubrey chuckled at this innocent correlation of ideas. Then the organ began to play “O How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” and the ever-delightful Mr. and Mrs. Drew appeared on the screen in one of their domestic comedies. Lovers of the movies may well date a new screen era from the day those whimsical pantomimers set their wholesome and humane talent at the service of the arc light and the lens. Aubrey felt a serene and intimate pleasure in watching them from a seat beside Titania. He knew that the breakfast table scene shadowed before them was only a makeshift section of lath propped up in some barnlike motion picture studio; yet his rocketing fancy imagined it as some arcadian suburb where he and Titania, by a jugglery of benign fate, were bungalowed together. Young men have a pioneering imagination: it is doubtful whether any young Orlando ever found himself side by side with Rosalind without dreaming himself wedded to her. If men die a thousand deaths before this mortal coil is shuffled, even so surely do youths contract a thousand marriages before they go to the City Hall for a license.
Aubrey remembered the opera glasses, which were still in his pocket, and brought them out. The trio amused themselves by watching Sidney Drew’s face through the magnifying lenses. They were disappointed in the result, however, as the pictures, when so enlarged, revealed all the cobweb of fine cracks on the film. Mr. Drew’s nose, the most amusing feature known to the movies, lost its quaintness when so augmented.
“Why,” cried Titania, “it makes his lovely nose look like the map of Florida.”
“How on earth did you happen to have these in your pocket?” asked Mrs. Mifflin, returning the glasses.
Aubrey was hard pressed for a prompt and reasonable fib, but advertising men are resourceful.
“Oh,” he said, “I sometimes carry them with me at night to study the advertising sky-signs. I’m a little short sighted. You see, it’s part of my business to study the technique of the electric signs.”
After some current event pictures the programme prepared to repeat itself, and they went out. “Will you come in and have some cocoa with us?” said Helen as they reached the door of the bookshop. Aubrey was eager enough to accept, but feared to overplay his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I think I’d better not. I’ve got some work to do to-night. Perhaps I can drop in on Monday when Mr. Mifflin’s away, and put coal on the furnace for you, or something of that sort?”
Mrs. Mifflin laughed. “Surely!” she said. “You’re welcome any time.”
The door closed behind them, and Aubrey fell into a profound melancholy. Deprived of the heavenly rhetoric of her eye, Gissing Street seemed flat and dull.
It was still early—not quite ten o’clock—and it occurred to Aubrey that if he was going to patrol the neighbourhood he had better fix its details in his head. Hazlitt, the next street below the bookshop, proved to be a quiet little byway, cheerfully lit with modest dwellings. A few paces down Hazlitt Street a narrow cobbled alley ran through to Wordsworth Avenue, passing between the back yards of Gissing Street and Whittier Street. The alley was totally dark, but by counting off the correct number of houses Aubrey identified the rear entrance of the bookshop. He tried the yard gate cautiously, and found it unlocked. Glancing in he could see a light in the kitchen window and assumed that the cocoa was being brewed. Then a window glowed upstairs, and he was thrilled to see Titania shining in the lamplight. She moved to the window and pulled down the blind. For a moment he saw her head and shoulders silhouetted against the curtain; then the light went out.
Aubrey stood briefly in sentimental thought. If he only had a couple of blankets, he mused, he could camp out here in Roger’s back yard all night. Surely no harm could come to the girl while he kept watch beneath her casement! The idea was just fantastic enough to appeal to him. Then, as he stood in the open gateway, he heard distant footfalls coming down the alley, and a grumble of voices. Perhaps two policemen on their rounds, he thought: it would be awkward to be surprised skulking about back doors at this time of night. He slipped inside the gate and closed it gently behind him, taking the precaution to slip the bolt.
The footsteps came nearer, stumbling down the uneven cobbles in the darkness. He stood still against the back fence. To his amazement the men halted outside Mifflin’s gate, and he heard the latch quietly lifted.
“It’s no use,” said a voice—“the gate is locked. We must find some other way, my friend.”
Aubrey tingled to hear the rolling, throaty “r” in the last word. There was no mistaking—this was the voice of his “friend and well-wisher” over the telephone.
The other said something in German in a hoarse whisper.
Having studied that language in college, Aubrey caught only two words—Thur and Schlussel, which he knew meant door and key.
“Very well,” said the first voice. “That will be all right, but we must act to-night. The damned thing must be finished to-morrow.
Your idiotic stupidity—“
Again followed some gargling in German, in a rapid undertone too fluent for Aubrey’s grasp. The latch of the alley gate clicked once more, and his hand was on his revolver; but in a moment the two had passed on down the alley.
The young advertising agent stood against the fence in silent horror, his heart bumping heavily. His hands were clammy, his feet seemed to have grown larger and taken root. What damnable complot was this? A sultry wave of anger passed over him. This bland, slick, talkative bookseller, was he arranging some blackmailing scheme to kidnap the girl and wring blood-money out of her father? And in league with Germans, too, the scoundrel! What an asinine thing for old Chapman to send an unprotected girl over here into the wilds of Brooklyn . . . and in the meantime, what was he to do? Patrol the back yard all night? No, the friend and well-wisher had said “We must find some other way.” Besides, Aubrey remembered something having been said about the old terrier sleeping in the kitchen. He felt sure Bock would not let any German in at night without raising the roof. Probably the best way would be to watch the front of the shop. In miserable perplexity he waited several minutes until the two Germans would be well out of earshot. Then he unbolted the gate and stole up the alley on tiptoe, in the opposite direction. It led into Wordsworth Avenue just behind Weintraub’s drug store, over the rear of which hung the great girders and trestles of the “L” station, a kind of Swiss chalet straddling the street on stilts. He thought it prudent to make a detour, so he turned east on Wordsworth Avenue until he reached Whittier Street, then sauntered easily down Whittier for a block, spying sharply for evidences of pursuit. Brooklyn was putting out its lights for the night, and all was quiet. He turned into Hazlitt Street and so back onto Gissing, noticing now that the Haunted Bookshop lights were off. It was nearly eleven o’clock: the last audience was filing out of the movie theatre, where two workmen were already perched on ladders taking down the Tarzan electric light sign, to substitute the illuminated lettering for the next feature.
After some debate he decided that the best thing to do was to return to his room at Mrs. Schiller’s, from which he could keep a sharp watch on the front door of the bookshop. By good fortune there was a lamp post almost directly in front of Mifflin’s house, which cast plenty of light on the little sunken area before the door. With his opera glasses he could see from his bedroom whatever went on. As he crossed the street he cast his eyes upward at the facade of Mrs. Schiller’s house. Two windows in the fourth storey were lit, and the gas burned minutely in the downstairs hall, elsewhere all was dark. And then, as he glanced at the window of his own chamber, where the curtain was still tucked back behind the pane, he noticed a curious thing. A small point of rosy light glowed, faded, and glowed again by the window. Someone was smoking a cigar in his room.
Aubrey continued walking in even stride, as though he had seen nothing. Returning down the street, on the opposite side, he verified his first glance. The light was still there, and he judged himself not far out in assuming the smoker to be the friend and well-wisher or one of his gang. He had suspected the other man in the alley of being Weintraub, but he could not be sure. A cautious glance through the window of the drug store revealed Weintraub at his prescription counter. Aubrey determined to get even with the guttural gentleman who was waiting for him, certainly with no affectionate intent. He thanked the good fortune that had led him to stick the book cover in his overcoat pocket when leaving Mrs. Schiller’s. Evidently, for reasons unknown, someone was very anxious to get hold of it.
An idea occurred to him as he passed the little florist’s shop, which was just closing. He entered and bought a dozen white carnations, and then, as if by an afterthought, asked “Have you any wire?”
The florist produced a spool of the slender, tough wire that is sometimes used to nip the buds of expensive roses, to prevent them from blossoming too quickly.
“Let me have about eight feet,” said Aubrey. “I need some to-night and I guess the hardware stores are all closed.”
With this he returned to Mrs. Schiller’s, picking his way carefully and close to the houses so as to be out of sight from the upstairs windows. He climbed the steps and unlatched the door with bated breath. It was half-past eleven, and he wondered how long he would have to wait for the well-wisher to descend.
He could not help chuckling as he made his preparations, remembering an occasion at college somewhat similar in setting though far less serious in purpose. First he took off his shoes, laying them carefully to one side where he could find them again in a hurry. Then, choosing a banister about six feet from the bottom of the stairs he attached one end of the wire tightly to its base and spread the slack in a large loop over two of the stair treads. The remaining end of the wire he passed out through the banisters, twisting it into a small loop so that he could pull it easily. Then he turned out the hall gas and sat down in the dark to wait events.
He sat for a long time, in some nervousness lest the pug dog might come prowling and find him. He was startled by a lady in a dressing gown— perhaps Mrs. J. F. Smith—who emerged from a ground-floor room passed very close to him in the dark, and muttered upstairs. He twitched his noose out of the way just in time. Presently, however, his patience was rewarded. He heard a door squeak above, and then the groaning of the staircase as someone descended slowly. He relaid his trap and waited, smiling to himself. A clock somewhere in the house was chiming twelve as the man came groping down the last flight, feeling his way in the dark. Aubrey heard him swearing under his breath.
At the precise moment, when both his victim’s feet were within the loop, Aubrey gave the wire a gigantic tug. The man fell like a safe, crashing against the banisters and landing in a sprawl on the floor. It was a terrific fall, and shook the house. He lay there groaning and cursing.
Barely retaining his laughter, Aubrey struck a match and held it over the sprawling figure. The man lay with his face twisted against one out-spread arm, but the beard was unmistakable. It was the assistant chef again, and he seemed partly unconscious. “Burnt hair is a grand restorative,” said Aubrey to himself, and applied the match to the bush of beard. He singed off a couple of inches of it with intense delight, and laid his carnations on the head of the stricken one. Then, hearing stirrings in the basement, he gathered up his wire and shoes and fled upstairs. He gained his room roaring with inward mirth, but entered cautiously, fearing some trap. Save for a strong tincture of cigar smoke, everything seemed correct. Listening at his door he heard Mrs. Schiller exclaiming shrilly in the hall, assisted by yappings from the pug. Doors upstairs were opened, and questions were called out. He heard guttural groans from the bearded one, mingled with oaths and some angry remark about having fallen downstairs. The pug, frenzied with excitement, yelled insanely. A female voice— possibly Mrs. J. F. Smith—cried out “What’s that smell of burning?” Someone else said, “They’re burning feathers under his nose to bring him to.”
“Yes, Hun’s feathers,” chuckled Aubrey to himself. He locked his door, and sat down by the window with his opera glasses.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved