[This is taken from Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop.]
Gissing Street will not soon forget the explosion at the Haunted Bookshop. When it was learned that the cellar of Weintraub’s pharmacy contained just the information for which the Department of Justice had been looking for four years, and that the inoffensive German-American druggist had been the artisan of hundreds of incendiary bombs that had been placed on American and Allied shipping and in ammunition plants— and that this same Weintraub had committed suicide when arrested on Bromfield Street in Boston the next day—Gissing Street hummed with excitement. The Milwaukee Lunch did a roaring business among the sensation seekers who came to view the ruins of the bookshop. When it became known that fragments of a cabin plan of the George Washington had been found in Metzger’s pocket, and the confession of an accomplice on the kitchen staff of the Octagon Hotel showed that the bomb, disguised as a copy of one of Woodrow Wilson’s favorite books, was to have been placed in the Presidential suite of the steamship, indignation knew no bounds. Mrs. J. F. Smith left Mrs. Schiller’s lodgings, declaring that she would stay no longer in a pro-German colony; and Aubrey was able at last to get a much-needed bath.
For the next three days he was too busy with agents of the Department of Justice to be able to carry on an investigation of his own that greatly occupied his mind. But late on Friday afternoon he called at the bookshop to talk things over.
The debris had all been neatly cleared away, and the shattered front of the building boarded up. Inside, Aubrey found Roger seated on the floor, looking over piles of volumes that were heaped pell-mell around him. Through Mr. Chapman’s influence with a well-known firm of builders, the bookseller had been able to get men to work at once in making repairs, but even so it would be at least ten days, he said, before he could reopen for business. “I hate to lose the value of all this advertising,” he lamented. “It isn’t often that a second-hand bookstore gets onto the front pages of the newspapers.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in advertising,” said Aubrey.
“The kind of advertising I believe in,” said Roger, “is the kind that doesn’t cost you anything.”
Aubrey smiled as he looked round at the dismantled shop. “It seems to me that this’ll cost you a tidy bit when the bill comes in.”
“My dear fellow,” said Roger, “This is just what I needed. I was getting into a rut. The explosion has blown out a whole lot of books I had forgotten about and didn’t even know I had. Look, here’s an old copy of How to Be Happy Though Married, which I see the publisher lists as ‘Fiction.’ Here’s Urn Burial, and The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, and Mistletoe’s Book of Deplorable Facts. I’m going to have a thorough house-cleaning. I’m thinking seriously of putting in a vacuum cleaner and a cash register. Titania was quite right, the place was too dirty. That girl has given me a lot of ideas.”
Aubrey wanted to ask where she was, but didn’t like to say so point-blank.
“There’s no question about it,” said Roger, “an explosion now and then does one good. Since the reporters got here and dragged the whole yarn out of us, I’ve had half a dozen offers from publishers for my book, a lyceum bureau wants me to lecture on Bookselling as a Form of Public Service, I’ve had five hundred letters from people asking when the shop will reopen for business, and the American Booksellers’ Association has invited me to give an address at its convention next spring. It’s the first recognition I’ve ever had. If it weren’t for poor dear old Bock---- Come, we’ve buried him in the back yard. I want to show you his grave.”
Over a pathetically small mound near the fence a bunch of big yellow chrysanthemums were standing in a vase.
“Titania put those there,” said Roger. “She says she’s going to plant a dogwood tree there in the spring. We intend to put up a little stone for him, and I’m trying to think of an inscription, I thought of De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum, but that’s a bit too flippant.”
The living quarters of the house had not been damaged by the explosion, and Roger took Aubrey back to the den. “You’ve come just at the right time,” he said. “Mr. Chapman’s coming to dinner this evening, and we’ll all have a good talk. There’s a lot about this business I don’t understand yet.”
Aubrey was still keeping his eye open for a sign of Titania’s presence, and Roger noticed his wandering gaze.
“This is Miss Chapman’s afternoon off,” he said. “She got her first salary to-day, and was so much exhilarated that she went to New York to blow it in. She’s out with her father. Excuse me, please, I’m going to help Helen get dinner ready.”
Aubrey sat down by the fire, and lit his pipe. The burden of his meditation was that it was just a week since he had first met Titania, and in all that week there had been no waking moment when he had not thought of her. He was wondering how long it might take for a girl to fall in love? A man—he knew now— could fall in love in five minutes, but how did it work with girls? He was also thinking what unique Daintybits advertising copy he could build (like all ad men he always spoke of building an ad, never of writing one) out of this affair if he could only use the inside stuff.
He heard a rustle behind him, and there she was. She had on a gray fur coat and a lively little hat. Her cheeks were delicately tinted by the winter air. Aubrey rose.
“Why, Mr. Gilbert!” she said. “Where have you been keeping yourself when I wanted to see you so badly? I haven’t seen you, not to talk to, since last Sunday.”
He found it impossible to say anything intelligible. She threw off her coat, and went on, with a wistful gravity that became her even more than smiles:
“Mr. Mifflin has told me some more about what you did last week—I mean, how you took a room across the street and spied upon that hateful man and saw through the whole thing when we were too blind to know what was going on. And I want to apologize for the silly things I said that Sunday morning. Will you forgive me?”
Aubrey had never felt his self-salesmanship ability at such a low ebb. To his unspeakable horror, he felt his eyes betray him. They grew moist.
“Please don’t talk like that,” he said. “I had no right to do what I did, anyway. And I was wrong in what I said about Mr. Mifflin. I don’t wonder you were angry.”
“Now surely you’re not going to deprive me of the pleasure of thanking you,” she said. “You know as well as I do that you saved my life—all our lives, that night. I guess you’d have saved poor Bock’s, too, if you could.” Her eyes filled with tears.
“If anybody deserves credit, it’s you,” he said. “Why, if it hadn’t been for you they’d have been away with that suitcase and probably Metzger would have got his bomb on board the ship and blown up the President----“
“I’m not arguing with you,” she said. “I’m just thanking you.”
It was a happy little party that sat down in Roger’s dining room that evening. Helen had prepared Eggs Samuel Butler in Aubrey’s honor, and Mr. Chapman had brought two bottles of champagne to pledge the future success of the bookshop. Aubrey was called upon to announce the result of his conferences with the secret service men who had been looking up Weintraub’s record.
“It all seems so simple now,” he said, “that I wonder we didn’t see through it at once. You see, we all made the mistake of assuming that German plotting would stop automatically when the armistice was signed. It seems that this man Weintraub was one of the most dangerous spies Germany had in this country. Thirty or forty fires and explosions on our ships at sea are said to have been due to his work. As he had lived here so long and taken out citizen’s papers, no one suspected him. But after his death, his wife, whom he had treated very brutally, gave way and told a great deal about his activities. According to her, as soon as it was announced that the President would go to the Peace Conference, Weintraub made up his mind to get a bomb into the President’s cabin on board the George Washington. Mrs. Weintraub tried to dissuade him from it, as she was in secret opposed to these murderous plots of his, but he threatened to kill her if she thwarted him. She lived in terror of her life. I can believe it, for I remember her face when her husband looked at her.
“Of course to make the bomb was simple enough for Weintraub. He had an infernally complete laboratory in the cellar of his house, where he had made hundreds. The problem was, how to make a bomb that would not look suspicious, and how to get it into the President’s private cabin. He hit on the idea of binding it into the cover of a book. How he came to choose that particular volume, I don’t know.”
“I think probably I gave him the idea quite innocently,” said Roger. “He used to come in here a good deal and one day he asked me whether Mr. Wilson was a great reader. I said that I believed he was, and then mentioned the Cromwell, which I had heard was one of Wilson’s favorite books. Weintraub was much interested and said he must read the book some day. I remember now that he stood in that alcove for some time, looking over it.”
“Well,” said Aubrey, “it must have seemed to him that luck was playing into his hands. This man Metzger, who had been an assistant chef at the Octagon for years, was slated to go on board the George Washington with the party of cooks from that hotel who were to prepare the President’s meals. Weintraub was informed of all this from someone higher up in the German spy organization. Metzger, who was known as Messier at the hotel, was a very clever chef, and had fake passports as a Swiss citizen. He was another tool of the organization. By the original scheme there would have been no direct communication between Weintraub and Metzger, but the go-between was spotted by the Department of Justice on another count, and is now behind bars at Atlanta.
“It seems that Weintraub had conceived the idea that the least suspicious way of passing his messages to Metzger would be to slip them into a copy of some book—a book little likely to be purchased— in a second-hand bookshop. Metzger had been informed what the book was, but—perhaps owing to the unexpected removal of the go-between— did not know in which shop he was to find it. That explains why so many booksellers had inquiries from him recently for a copy of the Cromwell volume.
“Weintraub, of course, was not at all anxious to have any direct dealings with Metzger, as the druggist had a high regard for his own skin. When the chef was finally informed where the bookshop was in which he was to see the book, he hurried over here. Weintraub had picked out this shop not only because it was as unlikely as any place on earth to be suspected as a channel of spy codes, but also because he had your confidence and could drop in frequently without arousing surprise. The first time Metzger came here happened to be the night I dined with you, as you remember.”
Roger nodded. “He asked for the book, and to my surprise, it wasn’t there.”
“No: for the excellent reason that Weintraub had taken it some days before, to measure it so he could build his infernal machine to fit, and also to have it rebound. He needed the original binding as a case for his bomb. The following night, as you told me, it came back. He brought it himself, having provided himself with a key to your front door.”
“It was gone again on Thursday night, when the Corn Cob Club met here,” said Mr. Chapman.
“Yes, that time Metzger had taken it,” said Aubrey. “He misunderstood his instructions, and thought he was to steal the book. You see, owing to the absence of their third man, they were working at cross purposes. Metzger, I think, was only intended to get his information out of the book, and leave it where it was. At any rate, he was puzzled, and inserted that ad in the Times the next morning—that LOST ad, you remember. By that, I imagine, he intended to convey the idea that he had located the bookshop, but didn’t know what to do next. And the date he mentioned in the ad, midnight on Tuesday, December third, was to inform Weintraub (of whose identity he was still ignorant) when Metzger was to go on board the ship. Weintraub had been instructed by their spy organization to watch the LOST and FOUND ads.”
“Think of it!” cried Titania.
“Well,” continued Aubrey, “all this may not be 100 per cent accurate, but after putting things together this is how it dopes out. Weintraub, who was as canny as they make them, saw he’d have to get into direct touch with Metzger. He sent him word, on the Friday, to come over to see him and bring the book. Metzger, meanwhile, had had a bad fright when I spoke to him in the hotel elevator. He returned the book to the shop that night, as Mrs. Mifflin remembers. Then, when I stopped in at the drug store on my way home, he must have been with Weintraub. I found the Cromwell cover in the drug-store bookcase— why Weintraub was careless enough to leave it there I can’t guess— and they spotted me right away as having some kind of hunch. So they followed me over the Bridge and tried to get rid of me. It was because I got that cover on Friday night that Weintraub broke into the shop again early Sunday morning. He had to have the cover of the book to bind his bomb in.”
Aubrey was agreeably conscious of the close attention of his audience. He caught Titania’s gaze, and flushed a little.
“That’s pretty nearly all there is to it,” he said. “I knew that if those guys were so keen to put me out of the way there must be something rather rotten on foot. I came over to Brooklyn the next afternoon, Saturday, and took a room across the street.”
“And we went to the movies,” chirped Titania.
“The rest of it I think you all know—except Metzger’s visit to my lodgings that night.” He described the incident. “You see they were trailing me pretty close. If I hadn’t happened to notice the cigar at my window I guess he’d have had me on toast. Of course you know how wrongly I doped it out. I thought Mr. Mifflin was running with them, and I owe him my apology for that. He’s laid me out once on that score, over in Philadelphia.”
Humorously, Aubrey narrated how he had sleuthed the bookseller to Ludlow Street, and had been worsted in battle.
“I think they counted on disposing of me sooner or later,” said Aubrey.
“They framed up that telephone call to get Mr. Mifflin out of town. The point in having Metzger come to the bookshop to get the suitcase was to clear Weintraub’s skirts if possible. Apparently it was just a bag of old books. The bombed book, I guess, was perfectly harmless until any one tried to open it.”
“You both got back just in the nick of time,” said Titania admiringly. “You see I was all alone most of the afternoon. Weintraub left the suitcase about two o’clock. Metzger came for it about six. I refused to let him have it. He was very persistent, and I had to threaten to set Bock at him. It was all I could do to hold the dear old dog in, he was so keen to go for Metzger. The chef went away, and I suppose he went up to see Weintraub about it. I hid the suitcase in my room. Mr. Mifflin had forbidden me to touch it, but I thought that the safest thing to do. Then Mrs. Mifflin came in. We let Bock into the yard for a run, and were getting supper. I heard the bell ring, and went into the shop. There were the two Germans, pulling down the shades. I asked what they meant by it, and they grabbed me and told me to shut up. Then Metzger pointed a pistol at me while the other one tied up Mrs. Mifflin.”
“The damned scoundrels!” cried Aubrey. “They got what was coming to them.”
“Well, my friends,” said Mr. Chapman, “Let’s thank heaven that it ended no worse. Mr. Gilbert, I haven’t told you yet how I feel about the whole affair. That’ll come later. I’d like to propose the health of Mr. Aubrey Gilbert, who is certainly the hero of this film!”
They drank the toast with cheers, and Aubrey blushed becomingly.
“Oh, I forgot something!” cried Titania. “When I went shopping this afternoon I stopped in at Brentano’s, and was lucky enough to find just what I wanted. It’s for Mr. Gilbert, as a souvenir of the Haunted Bookshop.”
She ran to the sideboard and brought back a parcel.
Aubrey opened it with delighted agitation. It was a copy of Carlyle’s Cromwell. He tried to stammer his thanks, but what he saw— or thought he saw—in Titania’s sparkling face—unmanned him.
“The same edition!” said Roger. “Now let’s see what those mystic page numbers are! Gilbert, have you got your memorandum?”
Aubrey took out his notebook. “Here we are,” he said. “This is what Weintraub wrote in the back of the cover.”
153 (3) 1, 2.
Roger glanced at the notation.
“That ought to be easy,” he said. “You see in this edition three volumes are bound in one. Let’s look at page 153 in the third volume, the first and second lines.”
Aubrey turned to the place. He read, and smiled. “Right you are,” he said.
“Read it!” they all cried.
“To seduce the Protector’s guard, to blow up the Protector in his bedroom, and do other little fiddling things.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if that’s where he got his idea,” said Roger. “What have I been saying right along—that books aren’t merely dead things!”
“Good gracious,” said Titania. “You told me that books are explosives. You were right, weren’t you! But it’s lucky Mr. Gilbert didn’t hear you say it or he’d certainly have suspected you!”
“The joke is on me,” said Roger.
“Well, I’VE got a toast to propose,” said Titania. “Here’s to the memory of Bock, the dearest, bravest dog I ever met!”
They drank it with due gravity.
“Well, good people,” said Mr. Chapman, “there’s nothing we can do for Bock now. But we can do something for the rest of us. I’ve been talking with Titania, Mr. Mifflin. I’m bound to say that after this disaster my first thought was to get her out of the book business as fast as I could. I thought it was a little too exciting for her. You know I sent her over here to have a quiet time and calm down a bit. But she wouldn’t hear of leaving. And if I’m going to have a family interest in the book business I want to do something to justify it. I know your idea about traveling book-wagons, and taking literature into the countryside. Now if you and Mrs. Mifflin can find the proper people to run them, I’ll finance a fleet of ten of those Parnassuses you’re always talking about, and have them built in time to go on the road next spring. How about it?”
Roger and Helen looked at each other, and at Mr. Chapman.
In a flash Roger saw one of his dearest dreams coming true. Titania, to whom this was a surprise, leaped from her chair and ran to kiss her father, crying, “Oh, Daddy, you ARE a darling!”
Roger rose solemnly and gave Mr. Chapman his hand. “My dear sir,” he said, “Miss Titania has found the right word. You are an honor to human nature, sir, and I hope you’ll never live to regret it. This is the happiest moment of my life.”
“Then that’s settled,” said Mr. Chapman. “We’ll go over the details later. Now there’s another thing on my mind. Perhaps I shouldn’t bring up business matters here, but this is a kind of family party—Mr. Gilbert, it’s my duty to inform you that I intend to take my advertising out of the hands of the Grey-Matter Agency.” Aubrey’s heart sank. He had feared a catastrophe of this kind from the first. Naturally a hard-headed business man would not care to entrust such vast interests to a firm whose young men went careering about like secret service agents, hunting for spies, eavesdropping in alleys, and accusing people of pro-germanism. Business, Aubrey said to himself, is built upon Confidence, and what confidence could Mr. Chapman have in such vagabond and romantic doings? Still, he felt that he had done nothing to be ashamed of.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “We have tried to give you service. I assure you that I’ve spent by far the larger part of my time at the office in working up plans for your campaigns.”
He could not bear to look at Titania, ashamed that she should be the witness of his humiliation.
“That’s exactly it,” said Mr. Chapman. “I don’t want just the larger part of your time. I want all of it. I want you to accept the position of assistant advertising manager of the Daintybits Corporation.”
They all cheered, and for the third time that evening Aubrey felt more overwhelmed than any good advertising man is accustomed to feel.
He tried to express his delight, and then added: “I think it’s my turn to propose a toast. I give you the health of Mr. and Mrs. Mifflin, and their Haunted Bookshop, the place where I first—I first----“
His courage failed him, and he concluded, “First learned the meaning of literature.”
“Suppose we adjourn to the den,” said Helen. “We have so many delightful things to talk over, and I know Roger wants to tell you all about the improvements he is planning for the shop.”
Aubrey lingered to be the last, and it is to be conjectured that Titania did not drop her handkerchief merely by accident. The others had already crossed the hall into the sitting room.
Their eyes met, and Aubrey could feel himself drowned in her steady, honest gaze. He was tortured by the bliss of being so near her, and alone. The rest of the world seemed to shred away and leave them standing in that little island of light where the tablecloth gleamed under the lamp.
In his hand he clutched the precious book. Out of all the thousand things he thought, there was only one he dared to say.
“Will you write my name in it?”
“I’d love to,” she said, a little shakily, for she, too, was strangely alarmed at certain throbbings.
He gave her his pen, and she sat down at the table.
She wrote quickly
For Aubrey Gilbert
From Titania Chapman
With much gr
“Oh,” she said quickly. “Do I have to finish it now?”
She looked up at him, with the lamplight shining on her vivid face. Aubrey felt oddly stupefied, and was thinking only of the little golden sparkle of her eyelashes. This time her eyes were the first to turn away.
“You see,” she said with a funny little quaver, “I might want to change the wording.” And she ran from the room.
As she entered the den, her father was speaking. “You know,” he said, “I’m rather glad she wants to stay in the book business.” Roger looked up at her.
“Well,” he said, “I believe it agrees with her! You know, the beauty of living in a place like this is that you get so absorbed in the books you don’t have any temptation to worry about anything else. The people in books become more real to you than any one in actual life.”
Titania, sitting on the arm of Mrs. Mifflin’s chair, took Helen’s hand, unobserved by the others. They smiled at each other slyly.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved