The “Cromwell” Makes its Last Appearance
[Note: This is taken from Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop.]
“You utter idiot,” said Roger, half an hour later. “Why didn’t you tell me all this sooner? Good Lord, man, there’s some devil’s work going on!”
“How the deuce was I to know you knew nothing about it?” said Aubrey impatiently. “You’ll grant everything pointed against you? When I saw that guy go into the shop with his own key, what could I think but that you were in league with him? Gracious, man, are you so befuddled in your old books that you don’t see what’s going on round you?”
“What time did you say that was?” said Roger shortly.
“One o’clock Sunday morning.”
Roger thought a minute. “Yes, I was in the cellar with Bock,” he said. “Bock barked, and I thought it was rats. That fellow must have taken an impression of the lock and made himself a key. He’s been in the shop hundreds of times, and could easily do it. That explains the disappearing Cromwell. But WHY? What’s the idea?”
“For the love of heaven,” said Aubrey. “Let’s get back to Brooklyn as soon as we can. God only knows what may have happened. Fool that I was, to go away and leave those women all alone. Triple-distilled lunacy!”
“My dear fellow,” said Roger, “I was the fool to be lured off by a fake telephone call. Judging by what you say, Weintraub must have worked that also.”
Aubrey looked at his watch. “Just after three,” he said.
“We can’t get a train till four,” said Roger. “That means we can’t get back to Gissing Street until nearly seven.”
“Call them up,” said Aubrey. They were still in the private office at the rear of Leary’s. Roger was well-known in the shop, and had no hesitation in using the telephone. He lifted the receiver.
“Long Distance, please,” he said. “Hullo? I want to get Brooklyn, Wordsworth 1617-W.”
They spent a sour twenty-five minutes waiting for the connection.
Roger went out to talk with Warner, while Aubrey fumed in the back office. He could not sit still, and paced the little room in a fidget of impatience, tearing his watch out of his pocket every few minutes. He felt dull and sick with vague fear. To his mind recurred the spiteful buzz of that voice over the wire—“Gissing Street is not healthy for you.” He remembered the scuffle on the Bridge, the whispering in the alley, and the sinister face of the druggist at his prescription counter. The whole series of events seemed a grossly fantastic nightmare, yet it frightened him. “If only I were in Brooklyn,” he groaned, “it wouldn’t be so bad. But to be over here, a hundred miles away, in another cursed bookshop, while that girl may be in trouble—Gosh!” he muttered. “If I get through this business all right I’ll lay off bookshops for the rest of my life!”
The telephone rang, and Aubrey frantically beckoned to Roger, who was outside, talking.
“Answer it, you chump!” said Roger. “We’ll lose the connection!”
“Nix,” said Aubrey. “If Titania hears my voice she’ll ring off. She’s sore at me.”
Roger ran to the instrument. “Hullo, hullo?” he said, irritably. “Hullo, is that Wordsworth----? Yes, I’m calling Brooklyn—Hullo!”
Aubrey, leaning over Roger’s shoulder, could hear a clucking in the receiver, and then, incredibly clear, a thin, silver, distant voice. How well he knew it! It seemed to vibrate in the air all about him. He could hear every syllable distinctly. A hot perspiration burst out on his forehead and in the palms of his hands.
“Hullo,” said Roger. “Is that Mifflin’s Bookshop?”
“Yes,” said Titania. “Is that you, Mr. Mifflin? Where are you?”
“In Philadelphia,” said Roger. “Tell me, is everything all right?”
“Everything’s dandy,” said Titania. “I’m selling loads of books. Mrs. Mifflin’s gone out to do some shopping.”
Aubrey shook to hear the tiny, airy voice, like a trill of birdsong, like a tinkling from some distant star. He could imagine her standing at the phone in the back of the shadowy bookshop, and seemed to see her as though through an inverted telescope, very minute and very perfect. How brave and exquisite she was!
“When are you coming home?” she was saying.
“About seven o’clock,” said Roger. “Listen, is everything absolutely O. K.?”
“Why, yes,” said Titania. “I’ve been having lots of fun. I went down just now and put some coal on the furnace. Oh, yes. Mr. Weintraub came in a little while ago and left a suitcase of books. He said you wouldn’t mind. A friend of his is going to call for them this afternoon.”
“Hold the wire a moment,” said Roger, and clapped his hand over the mouthpiece. “She says Weintraub left a suitcase of books there to be called for. What do you make of that?”
“For the love of God, tell her not to touch those books.”
“Hullo?” said Roger. Aubrey, leaning over him, noticed that the little bookseller’s naked pate was ringed with crystal beads.
“Hullo?” replied Titania’s elfin voice promptly.
“Did you open the suitcase?”
“No. It’s locked. Mr. Weintraub said there were a lot of old books in it for a friend of his. It’s very heavy.”
“Look here,” said Roger, and his voice rang sharply. “This is important. I don’t want you to touch that suitcase. Leave it wherever it is, and DON’T TOUCH IT. Promise me.”
“Yes, Mr. Mifflin. Had I better put it in a safe place?”
“DON’T TOUCH IT!”
“Bock’s sniffing at it now.”
“Don’t touch it, and don’t let Bock touch it. It—it’s got valuable papers in it.”
“I’ll be careful of it,” said Titania.
“Promise me not to touch it. And another thing—if any one calls for it, don’t let them take it until I get home.”
Aubrey held out his watch in front of Roger. The latter nodded.
“Do you understand?” he said. “Do you hear me all right?”
“Yes, splendidly. I think it’s wonderful! You know I never talked on long distance before----“
“Don’t touch the bag,” repeated Roger doggedly, “and don’t let any one take it until we—until I get back.”
“I promise,” said Titania blithely.
“Good-bye,” said Roger, and set down the receiver. His face looked curiously pinched, and there was perspiration in the hollows under his eyes. Aubrey held out his watch impatiently.
“We’ve just time to make it,” cried Roger, and they rushed from the shop.
It was not a sprightly journey. The train made its accustomed detour through West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia before getting down to business, and the two voyagers felt a personal hatred of the brakemen who permitted passengers from these suburbs to straggle leisurely aboard instead of flogging them in with knotted whips. When the express stopped at Trenton, Aubrey could easily have turned a howitzer upon that innocent city and blasted it into rubble. An unexpected stop at Princeton Junction was the last straw. Aubrey addressed the conductor in terms that were highly treasonable, considering that this official was a government servant.
The winter twilight drew in, gray and dreary, with a threat of snow. For some time they sat in silence, Roger buried in a Philadelphia afternoon paper containing the text of the President’s speech announcing his trip to Europe, and Aubrey gloomily recapitulating the schedule of his past week. His head throbbed, his hands were wet with nervousness so that crumbs of tobacco adhered to them annoyingly.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said at last. “You know I never heard of your shop until a week ago to-day, and now it seems like the most important place on earth. It was only last Tuesday that we had supper together, and since then I’ve had my scalp laid open twice, had a desperado lie in wait for me in my own bedroom, spent two night vigils on Gissing Street, and endangered the biggest advertising account our agency handles. I don’t wonder you call the place haunted!”
“I suppose it would all make good advertising copy?” said Roger peevishly.
“Well, I don’t know” said Aubrey. “It’s a bit too rough, I’m afraid. How do you dope it out?”
“I don’t know what to think. Weintraub has run that drug store for twenty years or more. Years ago, before I ever got into the book business, I used to know his shop. He was always rather interested in books, especially scientific books, and we got quite friendly when I opened up on Gissing Street. I never fell for his face very hard, but he always seemed quiet and well-disposed. It sounds to me like some kind of trade in illicit drugs, or German incendiary bombs. You know what a lot of fires there were during the war—those big grain elevators in Brooklyn, and so on.”
“I thought at first it was a kidnapping stunt,” said Aubrey. “I thought you had got Miss Chapman planted in your shop so that these other guys could smuggle her away.”
“You seem to have done me the honour of thinking me a very complete rascal,” said Roger.
Aubrey’s lips trembled with irritable retort, but he checked himself heroically.
“What was your particular interest in the Cromwell book?” he asked after a pause.
“Oh, I read somewhere—two or three years ago—that it was one of Woodrow Wilson’s favourite books. That interested me, and I looked it up.”
“By the way,” cried Aubrey excitedly, “I forgot to show you those numbers that were written in the cover.” He pulled out his memorandum book, and showed the transcript he had made.
“Well, one of these is perfectly understandable,” said Roger. “Here, where it says 329 ff. cf. W. W. That simply means ‘pages 329 and following, compare Woodrow Wilson.’ I remember jotting that down not long ago, because that passage in the book reminded me of some of Wilson’s ideas. I generally note down in the back of a book the numbers of any pages that interest me specially. These other page numbers convey nothing unless I had the book before me.”
“The first bunch of numbers was in your handwriting, then; but underneath were these others, in Weintraub’s—or at any rate in his ink. When I saw that he was jotting down what I took to be code stuff in the backs of your books I naturally assumed you and he were working together----“
“And you found the cover in his drug store?”
Roger scowled. “I don’t make it out,” he said. “Well, there’s nothing we can do till we get there. Do you want to look at the paper? There’s the text of Wilson’s speech to Congress this morning.”
Aubrey shook his head dismally, and leaned his hot forehead against the pane. Neither of them spoke again until they reached Manhattan Transfer, where they changed for the Hudson Terminal.
It was seven o’clock when they hurried out of the subway terminus at Atlantic Avenue. It was a raw, damp evening, but the streets had already begun to bustle with their nightly exuberance of light and colour. The yellow glitter of a pawnshop window reminded Aubrey of the small revolver in his pocket. As they passed a dark alley, he stepped aside to load the weapon.
“Have you anything of this sort with you?” he said, showing it to Roger.
“Good Lord, no,” said the bookseller. “What do you think I am, a moving-picture hero?”
Down Gissing Street the younger man set so rapid a pace that his companion had to trot to keep abreast. The placid vista of the little street was reassuring. Under the glowing effusion of the shop windows the pavement was a path of checkered brightness. In Weintraub’s pharmacy they could see the pasty-faced assistant in his stained white coat serving a beaker of hot chocolate. In the stationer’s shop people were looking over trays of Christmas cards. In the Milwaukee Lunch Aubrey saw (and envied) a sturdy citizen peacefully dipping a doughnut into a cup of coffee.
“This all seems very unreal,” said Roger.
As they neared the bookshop, Aubrey’s heart gave a jerk of apprehension. The blinds in the front windows had been drawn down. A dull shining came through them, showing that the lights were turned on inside. But why should the shades be lowered with closing time three hours away?
They reached the front door, and Aubrey was about to seize the handle when Roger halted him.
“Wait a moment,” he said. “Let’s go in quietly. There may be something queer going on.”
Aubrey turned the knob gently. The door was locked.
Roger pulled out his latchkey and cautiously released the bolt. Then he opened the door slightly—about an inch. “You’re taller than I am,” he whispered. “Reach up and muffle the bell above the door while I open it.”
Aubrey thrust three fingers through the aperture and blocked the trigger of the gong. Then Roger pushed the door wide, and they tiptoed in.
The shop was empty, and apparently normal. They stood for an instant with pounding pulses.
From the back of the house came a clear voice, a little tremulous: “You can do what you like, I shan’t tell you where it is. Mr. Mifflin said----“
There followed the bang of a falling chair, and a sound of rapid movement.
Aubrey was down the aisle in a flash, followed by Roger, who had delayed just long enough to close the door. He tiptoed up the steps at the back of the shop and looked into the dining room. At the instant his eyes took in the scene it seemed as though the whole room was in motion.
The cloth was spread for supper and shone white under the drop lamp. In the far corner of the room Titania was struggling in the grasp of a bearded man whom Aubrey instantly recognized as the chef. On the near side of the table, holding a revolver levelled at the girl, stood Weintraub. His back was toward the door. Aubrey could see the druggist’s sullen jaw crease and shake with anger.
Two strides took him into the room. He jammed the muzzle of his pistol against the oily cheek. “Drop it!” he said hoarsely. “You Hun!” With his left hand he seized the man’s shirt collar and drew it tight against the throat. In his tremor of rage and excitement his arms felt curiously weak, and his first thought was how impossible it would be to strangle that swinish neck.
For an instant there was a breathless tableau. The bearded man still had his hands on Titania’s shoulders. She, very pale but with brilliant eyes, gazed at Aubrey in unbelieving amazement. Weintraub stood quite motionless with both hands on the dining table, as though thinking. He felt the cold bruise of metal against the hollow of his cheek.
Slowly he opened his right hand and his revolver fell on the linen cloth.
Then Roger burst into the room.
Titania wrenched herself away from the chef. “I wouldn’t give them the suitcase!” she cried.
Aubrey kept his pistol pinned against Weintraub’s face. With his left hand he picked up the druggist’s revolver. Roger was about to seize the chef, who was standing uncertainly on the other side of the table.
“Here,” said Aubrey, “take this gun. Cover this fellow and leave that one to me. I’ve got a score to settle with him.”
The chef made a movement as though to jump through the window behind him, but Aubrey flung himself upon him. He hit the man square on the nose and felt a delicious throb of satisfaction as the rubbery flesh flattened beneath his knuckles. He seized the man’s hairy throat and sank his fingers into it.
The other tried to snatch the bread knife on the table, but was too late. He fell to the floor, and Aubrey throttled him savagely.
“You blasted Hun,” he grunted. “Go wrestling with girls, will you?”
Titania ran from the room, through the pantry.
Roger was holding Weintraub’s revolver in front of the German’s face. “Look here,” he said, “what does this mean?”
“It’s all a mistake,” said the druggist suavely, though his eyes slid uneasily to and fro. “I just came in to get some books I left here earlier in the afternoon.”
“With a revolver, eh?” said Roger. “Speak up, Hindenburg, what’s the big idea?”
“It’s not my revolver,” said Weintraub. “It’s Metzger’s.”
“Where’s this suitcase of yours?” said Roger. “We’re going to have a look at it.”
“It’s all a stupid mistake,” said Weintraub. “I left a suitcase of old books here for Metzger, because I expected to go out of town this afternoon. He called for it, and your young woman wouldn’t give it to him. He came to me, and I came down here to tell her it was all right.”
“Is that Metzger?” said Roger, pointing to the bearded man who was trying to break Aubrey’s grip. “Gilbert, don’t choke that man, we want him to do some explaining.”
Aubrey got up, picked his revolver from the floor where he had dropped it, and prodded the chef to his feet.
“Well, you swine,” he said, “how did you enjoy falling downstairs the other evening? As for you, Herr Weintraub, I’d like to know what kind of prescriptions you make up in that cellar of yours.”
Weintraub’s face shone damply in the lamplight. Perspiration was thick on his forehead.
“My dear Mifflin,” he said, “this is awfully stupid. In my eagerness, I’m afraid----“
Titania ran back into the room, followed by Helen, whose face was crimson.
“Thank God you’re back, Roger,” she said. “These brutes tied me up in the kitchen and gagged me with a roller-towel. They threatened to shoot Titania if she wouldn’t give them the suitcase.”
Weintraub began to say something, but Roger thrust the revolver between his eyes. “Hold your tongue!” he said. “We’re going to have a look at those books of yours.”
“I’ll get the suitcase,” said Titania. “I hid it. When Mr. Weintraub came in and asked for it, at first I was going to give it to him, but he looked so queer I thought something must be wrong.”
“Don’t you get it,” said Aubrey, and their eyes met for the first time. “Show me where it is, and we’ll let friend Hun bring it.”
Titania flushed a little. “It’s in my bedroom cupboard,” she said.
She led the way upstairs, Metzger following, and Aubrey behind Metzger with his pistol ready. Outside the bedroom door Aubrey halted. “Show him the suitcase and let him pick it up,” he said.
“If he makes a wrong movement, call me, and I’ll shoot him.”
Titania pointed out the suitcase, which she had stowed at the back of her cupboard behind some clothes. The chef showed no insubordination, and the three returned downstairs.
“Very well,” said Roger. “We’ll go down in the shop where we can see better. Perhaps he’s got a first folio Shakespeare in here. Helen, you go to the phone and ring up the McFee Street police station. Ask them to send a couple of men round here at once.”
“My dear Mifflin,” said Weintraub, “this is very absurd. Only a few old books that I had collected from time to time.”
“I don’t call it absurd when a man comes into my house and ties my wife up with clothesline and threatens to shoot a young girl,” said Roger. “We’ll see what the police have to say about this, Weintraub. Don’t make any mistake: if you try to bolt I’ll blow your brains out.”
Aubrey led the way down into the shop while Metzger carried the suitcase. Roger and Weintraub followed, and Titania brought up the rear. Under a bright light in the Essay alcove Aubrey made the chef lay the bag on the table.
“Open her up,” he said curtly.
“It’s nothing but some old books,” said Metzger.
“If they’re old enough they may be valuable,” said Roger. “I’m interested in old books. Look sharp!”
Metzger drew a key from his pocket and unlocked the bag. Aubrey held the pistol at his head as he threw back the lid. The suitcase was full of second-hand books closely packed together.
Roger, with great presence of mind, was keeping his eyes on Weintraub.
“Tell me what’s in it,” he said.
“Why, it’s only a lot of books, after all,” cried Titania.
“You see,” said Weintraub surlily, “there’s no mystery about it. I’m sorry I was so----“
“Oh, look!” said Titania; “There’s the Cromwell book!”
For an instant Roger forgot himself. He looked instinctively at the suitcase, and in that moment the druggist broke away, ran down the aisle, and flew out of the door. Roger dashed after him, but was too late. Aubrey was holding Metzger by the collar with the pistol at his head.
“Good God,” he said, “why didn’t you shoot?”
“I don’t know” said Roger in confusion. “I was afraid of hitting him. Never mind, we can fix him later.”
“The police will be here in a minute,” said Helen, calling from the telephone. “I’m going to let Bock in. He’s in the back yard.”
“I think they’re both crazy,” said Titania. “Let’s put the Cromwell back on the shelf and let this creature go.” She put out her hand for the book.
“Stop!” cried Aubrey, and seized her arm. “Don’t touch that book!”
Titania shrank back, frightened by his voice. Had everyone gone insane?
“Here, Mr. Metzger,” said Aubrey, “you put that book back on the shelf where it belongs. Don’t try to get away. I’ve got this revolver pointed at you.”
He and Roger were both startled by the chef’s face. Above the unkempt beard his eyes shone with a half-crazed lustre, and his hands shook.
“Very well,” he said. “Show me where it goes.”
“I’ll show you,” said Titania.
Aubrey put out his arm in front of the girl. “Stay where you are,” he said angrily. “Down in the History alcove,” said Roger. “The front alcove on the other side of the shop. We’ve both got you covered.”
Instead of taking the volume from the suitcase, Metzger picked up the whole bag, holding it flat. He carried it to the alcove they indicated. He placed the case carefully on the floor, and picked the Cromwell volume out of it.
“Where would you want it to go?” he said in an odd voice. “This is a valuable book.”
“On the fifth shelf,” said Roger. “Over there----“
“For God’s sake stand back,” said Aubrey. “Don’t go near him. There’s something damnable about this.”
“You poor fools!” cried Metzger harshly. “To hell with you and your old books.” He drew his hand back as though to throw the volume at them.
There was a quick patter of feet, and Bock, growling, ran down the aisle. In the same instant, Aubrey, obeying some unexplained impulse, gave Roger a violent push back into the Fiction alcove, seized Titania roughly in his arms, and ran with her toward the back of the shop.
Metzger’s arm was raised, about to throw the book, when Bock darted at him and buried his teeth in the man’s leg. The Cromwell fell from his hand.
There was a shattering explosion, a dull roar, and for an instant Aubrey thought the whole bookshop had turned into a vast spinning top. The floor rocked and sagged, shelves of books were hurled in every direction. Carrying Titania, he had just reached the steps leading to the domestic quarters when they were flung sideways into the corner behind Roger’s desk. The air was full of flying books. A row of encyclopedias crashed down upon his shoulders, narrowly missing Titania’s head. The front windows were shivered into flying streamers of broken glass. The table near the door was hurled into the opposite gallery. With a splintering crash the corner of the gallery above the History alcove collapsed, and hundreds of volumes cascaded heavily on to the floor. The lights went out, and for an instant all was silence.
“Are you all right?” said Aubrey hastily. He and Titania had fallen sprawling against the bookseller’s desk.
“I think so,” she said faintly. “Where’s Mr. Mifflin?”
Aubrey put out his hand to help her, and touched something wet on the floor. “Good heavens,” he thought. “She’s dying!” He struggled to his feet in the darkness. “Hullo, Mr. Mifflin,” he called, “where are you?”
There was no answer.
A beam of light gushed out from the passageway behind the shop, and picking his way over fallen litter he found Mrs. Mifflin standing dazed by the dining-room door. In the back of the house the lights were still burning.
“For heaven’s sake, have you a candle?” he said.
“Where’s Roger?” she cried piteously, and stumbled into the kitchen.
With a candle Aubrey found Titania sitting on the floor, very faint, but unhurt. What he had thought was blood proved to be a pool of ink from a quart bottle that had stood over Roger’s desk. He picked her up like a child and carried her into the kitchen. “Stay here and don’t stir,” he said.
By this time a crowd was already gathering on the pavement. Someone came in with a lantern. Three policemen appeared at the door.
“For God’s sake,” cried Aubrey, “get a light in here so we can see what’s happened. Mifflin’s buried in this mess somewhere. Someone ring for an ambulance.”
The whole front of the Haunted Bookshop was a wreck. In the pale glimmer of the lantern it was a disastrous sight. Helen groped her way down the shattered aisle. “Where was he?” she cried wildly.
“Thanks to that set of Trollope,” said a voice in the remains of the Fiction alcove, “I think I’m all right. Books make good shock-absorbers. Is any one hurt?”
It was Roger, half stunned, but undamaged. He crawled out from under a case of shelves that had crumpled down upon him.
“Bring that lantern over here,” said Aubrey, pointing to a dark heap lying on the floor under the broken fragments of Roger’s bulletin board.
It was the chef. He was dead. And clinging to his leg was all that was left of Bock.