[This is taken from Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop.]
The first pipe after breakfast is a rite of some importance to seasoned smokers, and Roger applied the flame to the bowl as he stood at the bottom of the stairs. He blew a great gush of strong blue reek that eddied behind him as he ran up the flight, his mind eagerly meditating the congenial task of arranging the little spare room for the coming employee. Then, at the top of the steps, he found that his pipe had already gone out. “What with filling my pipe and emptying it, lighting it and relighting it,” he thought, “I don’t seem to get much time for the serious concerns of life. Come to think of it, smoking, soiling dishes and washing them, talking and listening to other people talk, take up most of life anyway.”
This theory rather pleased him, so he ran downstairs again to tell it to Mrs. Mifflin.
“Go along and get that room fixed up,” she said, “and don’t try to palm off any bogus doctrines on me so early in the morning. Housewives have no time for philosophy after breakfast.”
Roger thoroughly enjoyed himself in the task of preparing the guest-room for the new assistant. It was a small chamber at the back of the second storey, opening on to a narrow passage that connected through a door with the gallery of the bookshop. Two small windows commanded a view of the modest roofs of that quarter of Brooklyn, roofs that conceal so many brave hearts, so many baby carriages, so many cups of bad coffee, and so many cartons of the Chapman prunes.
“By the way,” he called downstairs, “better have some of the prunes for supper tonight, just as a compliment to Miss Chapman.”
Mrs. Mifflin preserved a humorous silence.
Over these noncommittal summits the bright eye of the bookseller, as he tacked up the freshly ironed muslin curtains Mrs. Mifflin had allotted, could discern a glimpse of the bay and the leviathan ferries that link Staten Island with civilization. “Just a touch of romance in the outlook,” he thought to himself. “It will suffice to keep a blasee young girl aware of the excitements of existence.”
The room, as might be expected in a house presided over by Helen Mifflin, was in perfect order to receive any occupant, but Roger had volunteered to psychologize it in such a fashion as (he thought) would convey favourable influences to the misguided young spirit that was to be its tenant. Incurable idealist, he had taken quite gravely his responsibility as landlord and employer of Mr. Chapman’s daughter. No chambered nautilus was to have better opportunity to expand the tender mansions of its soul.
Beside the bed was a bookshelf with a reading lamp. The problem Roger was discussing was what books and pictures might be the best preachers to this congregation of one. To Mrs. Mifflin’s secret amusement he had taken down the picture of Sir Galahad which he had once hung there, because (as he had said) if Sir Galahad were living to-day he would be a bookseller. “We don’t want her feasting her imagination on young Galahads,” he had remarked at breakfast. “That way lies premature matrimony. What I want to do is put up in her room one or two good prints representing actual men who were so delightful in their day that all the young men she is likely to see now will seem tepid and prehensile. Thus she will become disgusted with the present generation of youths and there will be some chance of her really putting her mind on the book business.”
Accordingly he had spent some time in going through a bin where he kept photos and drawings of authors that the publishers’ “publicity men” were always showering upon him. After some thought he discarded promising engravings of Harold Bell Wright and Stephen Leacock, and chose pictures of Shelley, Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns. Then, after further meditation, he decided that neither Shelley nor Burns would quite do for a young girl’s room, and set them aside in favour of a portrait of Samuel Butler. To these he added a framed text that he was very fond of and had hung over his own desk. He had once clipped it from a copy of Life and found much pleasure in it. It runs thus:
ON THE RETURN OF A BOOK
LENT TO A FRIEND
I GIVE humble and hearty thanks for the safe return of this book which having endured the perils of my friend’s bookcase, and the bookcases of my friend’s friends, now returns to me in reasonably good condition.
I GIVE humble and hearty thanks that my friend did not see fit to give this book to his infant as a plaything, nor use it as an ash-tray for his burning cigar, nor as a teething-ring for his mastiff.
WHEN I lent this book I deemed it as lost: I was resigned to the bitterness of the long parting: I never thought to look upon its pages again.
BUT NOW that my book is come back to me, I rejoice and am exceeding glad! Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honour: for this my book was lent, and is returned again.
PRESENTLY, therefore, I may return some of the books that I myself have borrowed.
“There!” he thought. “That will convey to her the first element of book morality.”
These decorations having been displayed on the walls, he bethought himself of the books that should stand on the bedside shelf.
This is a question that admits of the utmost nicety of discussion. Some authorities hold that the proper books for a guest-room are of a soporific quality that will induce swift and painless repose. This school advises The Wealth of Nations, Rome under the Caesars, The Statesman’s Year Book, certain novels of Henry James, and The Letters of Queen Victoria (in three volumes). It is plausibly contended that books of this kind cannot be read (late at night) for more than a few minutes at a time, and that they afford useful scraps of information.
Another branch of opinion recommends for bedtime reading short stories, volumes of pithy anecdote, swift and sparkling stuff that may keep one awake for a space, yet will advantage all the sweeter slumber in the end. Even ghost stories and harrowing matter are maintained seasonable by these pundits. This class of reading comprises O. Henry, Bret Harte, Leonard Merrick, Ambrose Bierce, W. W. Jacobs, Daudet, de Maupassant, and possibly even On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw, that grievous classic of the railway bookstalls whereof its author, Mr. Thomas W. Jackson, has said “It will sell forever, and a thousand years afterward.” To this might be added another of Mr. Jackson’s onslaughts on the human intelligence, I’m From Texas, You Can’t Steer Me, whereof is said (by the author) “It is like a hard-boiled egg, you can’t beat it.” There are other of Mr. Jackson’s books, whose titles escape memory, whereof he has said “They are a dynamite for sorrow.” Nothing used to annoy Mifflin more than to have someone come in and ask for copies of these works. His brother-in-law, Andrew McGill, the writer, once gave him for Christmas (just to annoy him) a copy of On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw sumptuously bound and gilded in what is known to the trade as “dove-coloured ooze.” Roger retorted by sending Andrew (for his next birthday) two volumes of Brann the Iconoclast bound in what Robert Cortes Holliday calls “embossed toadskin.” But that is apart from the story.
To the consideration of what to put on Miss Titania’s bookshelf Roger devoted the delighted hours of the morning. Several times Helen called him to come down and attend to the shop, but he was sitting on the floor, unaware of numbed shins, poring over the volumes he had carted upstairs for a final culling. “It will be a great privilege,” he said to himself, “to have a young mind to experiment with. Now my wife, delightful creature though she is, was—well, distinctly mature when I had the good fortune to meet her;
I have never been able properly to supervise her mental processes. But this Chapman girl will come to us wholly unlettered. Her father said she had been to a fashionable school: that surely is a guarantee that the delicate tendrils of her mind have never begun to sprout. I will test her (without her knowing it) by the books I put here for her.
By noting which of them she responds to, I will know how to proceed. It might be worth while to shut up the shop one day a week in order to give her some brief talks on literature. Delightful! Let me see, a little series of talks on the development of the English novel, beginning with Tom Jones—hum, that would hardly do! Well, I have always longed to be a teacher, this looks like a chance to begin. We might invite some of the neighbours to send in their children once a week, and start a little school. Causeries du lundi, in fact! Who knows I may yet be the Sainte Beuve of Brooklyn.”
Across his mind flashed a vision of newspaper clippings—“This remarkable student of letters, who hides his brilliant parts under the unassuming existence of a second-hand bookseller, is now recognized as the----“
“Roger!” called Mrs. Mifflin from downstairs: “Front! someone wants to know if you keep back numbers of Foamy Stories.”
After he had thrown out the intruder, Roger returned to his meditation.
“This selection,” he mused, “is of course only tentative. It is to act as a preliminary test, to see what sort of thing interests her. First of all, her name naturally suggests Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. It’s a remarkable name, Titania Chapman: there must be great virtue in prunes! Let’s begin with a volume of Christopher Marlowe. Then Keats, I guess: every young person ought to shiver over St. Agnes’ Eve on a bright cold winter evening. Over Bemerton’s, certainly, because it’s a bookshop story.
Eugene Field’s Tribune Primer to try out her sense of humour. And Archy, by all means, for the same reason. I’ll go down and get the Archy scrapbook.”
It should be explained that Roger was a keen admirer of Don Marquis, the humourist of the New York Evening Sun. Mr. Marquis once lived in Brooklyn, and the bookseller was never tired of saying that he was the most eminent author who had graced the borough since the days of Walt Whitman. Archy, the imaginary cockroach whom Mr. Marquis uses as a vehicle for so much excellent fun, was a constant delight to Roger, and he had kept a scrapbook of all Archy’s clippings. This bulky tome he now brought out from the grotto by his desk where his particular treasures were kept. He ran his eye over it, and Mrs. Mifflin heard him utter shrill screams of laughter.
“What on earth is it?” she asked.
“Only Archy,” he said, and began to read aloud—
down in a wine vault underneath the city
two old men were sitting they were drinking booze
torn were their garments hair and beards were gritty
one had an overcoat but hardly any shoes
overhead the street cars through the streets were running
filled with happy people going home to christmas
in the adirondacks the hunters all were gunning
big ships were sailing down by the isthmus
in came a little tot for to kiss her granny
such a little totty she could scarcely tottle
saying kiss me grandpa kiss your little nanny
but the old man beaned her with a whisky bottle.
outside the snowflakes began for to flutter
far at sea the ships were sailing with the seamen
not another word did angel nanny utter
her grandsire chuckled and pledged the whisky demon
up spake the second man he was worn and weary
tears washed his face which otherwise was pasty
she loved her parents who commuted on the erie
brother im afraid you struck a trifle hasty
she came to see you all her pretty duds on
bringing christmas posies from her mothers garden
riding in the tunnel underneath the hudson
brother was it rum caused your heart to harden----
“What on earth is there funny in that?” said Mrs. Mifflin. “Poor little lamb, I think it was terrible.”
“There’s more of it,” cried Roger, and opened his mouth to continue.
“No more, thank you,” said Helen. “There ought to be a fine for using the meter of Love in the Valley that way. I’m going out to market so if the bell rings you’ll have to answer it.”
Roger added the Archy scrapbook to Miss Titania’s shelf, and went on browsing over the volumes he had collected.
Dickens’ Christmas Stories to introduce her to Mrs. Lirriper, the queen of landladies. Publishers tell me that Norfolk Street, Strand, is best known for the famous literary agent that has his office there, but I wonder how many of them know that that was where Mrs. Lirriper had her immortal lodgings? The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, just to give her a little intellectual jazz. The Wrong Box, because it’s the best farce in the language.
Travels with a Donkey, to show her what good writing is like. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to give her a sense of pity for human woes—wait a minute, though: that’s a pretty broad book for young ladies. I guess we’ll put it aside and see what else there is. Some of Mr. Mosher’s catalogues: fine! they’ll show her the true spirit of what one book-lover calls biblio-bliss. Walking-Stick Papers—yes, there are still good essayists running around. A bound file of The Publishers’ Weekly to give her a smack of trade matters. Jo’s Boys in case she needs a little relaxation. The Lays of Ancient Rome and Austin Dobson to show her some good poetry. I wonder if they give them The Lays to read in school nowadays? I have a horrible fear they are brought up on the battle of Salamis and the brutal redcoats of ‘76. And now we’ll be exceptionally subtle: we’ll stick in a Robert Chambers to see if she falls for it.”
He viewed the shelf with pride. “Not bad,” he said to himself.
“I’ll just add this Leonard Merrick, Whispers about Women, to amuse her. I bet that title will start her guessing. Helen will say I ought to have included the Bible, but I’ll omit it on purpose, just to see whether the girl misses it.”
With typical male curiosity he pulled out the bureau drawers to see what disposition his wife had made of them, and was pleased to find a little muslin bag of lavender dispersing a quiet fragrance in each. “Very nice,” he remarked. “Very nice indeed! About the only thing missing is an ashtray. If Miss Titania is as modern as some of them, that’ll be the first thing she’ll call for. And maybe a copy of Ezra Pound’s poems. I do hope she’s not what Helen calls a bolshevixen.”
There was nothing bolshevik about a glittering limousine that drew up at the corner of Gissing and Swinburne streets early that afternoon. A chauffeur in green livery opened the door, lifted out a suitcase of beautiful brown leather, and gave a respectful hand to the vision that emerged from depths of lilac-coloured upholstery.
“Where do you want me to carry the bag, miss?”
“This is the bitter parting,” replied Miss Titania. “I don’t want you to know my address, Edwards. Some of my mad friends might worm it out of you, and I don’t want them coming down and bothering me. I am going to be very busy with literature. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
Edwards saluted with a grin—he worshipped the original young heiress— and returned to his wheel.
“There’s one thing I want you to do for me,” said Titania. “Call up my father and tell him I’m on the job.”
“Yes, miss,” said Edwards, who would have run the limousine into a government motor truck if she had ordered it.
Miss Chapman’s small gloved hand descended into an interesting purse that was cuffed to her wrist with a bright little chain. She drew out a nickel—it was characteristic of her that it was a very bright and engaging looking nickel—and handed it gravely to her charioteer. Equally gravely he saluted, and the car, after moving through certain dignified arcs, swam swiftly away down Thackeray Boulevard.
Titania, after making sure that Edwards was out of sight, turned up Gissing Street with a fluent pace and an observant eye. A small boy cried, “Carry your bag, lady?” and she was about to agree, but then remembered that she was now engaged at ten dollars a week and waved him away. Our readers would feel a justifiable grudge if we did not attempt a description of the young lady, and we will employ the few blocks of her course along Gissing Street for this purpose.
Walking behind her, the observer, by the time she had reached Clemens Place, would have seen that she was faultlessly tailored in genial tweeds; that her small brown boots were sheltered by spats of that pale tan complexion exhibited by Pullman porters on the Pennsylvania Railroad; that her person was both slender and vigorous; that her shoulders were carrying a sumptuous fur of the colour described by the trade as nutria, or possibly opal smoke. The word chinchilla would have occurred irresistibly to this observer from behind; he might also, if he were the father of a family, have had a fleeting vision of many autographed stubs in a check book. The general impression that he would have retained, had he turned aside at Clemens Place, would be “expensive, but worth the expense.”
It is more likely, however, that the student of phenomena would have continued along Gissing Street to the next corner, being that of Hazlitt Street. Taking advantage of opportunity, he would overtake the lady on the pavement, with a secret, sidelong glance. If he were wise, he would pass her on the right side where her tilted bonnet permitted a wider angle of vision. He would catch a glimpse of cheek and chin belonging to the category known (and rightly) as adorable; hair that held sunlight through the dullest day; even a small platinum wrist watch that might pardonably be excused, in its exhilarating career, for beating a trifle fast. Among the greyish furs he would note a bunch of such violets as never bloom in the crude springtime, but reserve themselves for November and the plate glass windows of Fifth Avenue.
It is probable that whatever the errand of this spectator he would have continued along Gissing Street a few paces farther. Then, with calculated innocence, he would have halted halfway up the block that leads to the Wordsworth Avenue “L,” and looked backward with carefully simulated irresolution, as though considering some forgotten matter. With apparently unseeing eyes he would have scanned the bright pedestrian, and caught the full impact of her rich blue gaze. He would have seen a small resolute face rather vivacious in effect, yet with a quaint pathos of youth and eagerness. He would have noted the cheeks lit with excitement and rapid movement in the bracing air. He would certainly have noted the delicate contrast of the fur of the wild nutria with the soft V of her bare throat. Then, to his surprise, he would have seen this attractive person stop, examine her surroundings, and run down some steps into a rather dingy-looking second-hand bookshop. He would have gone about his affairs with a new and surprised conviction that the Almighty had the borough of Brooklyn under His especial care.
Roger, who had conceived a notion of some rather peevish foundling of the Ritz-Carlton lobbies and Central Park riding academies, was agreeably amazed by the sweet simplicity of the young lady.
“Is this Mr. Mifflin?” she said, as he advanced all agog from his smoky corner.
“Miss Chapman?” he replied, taking her bag. “Helen!” he called. “Miss Titania is here.”
She looked about the sombre alcoves of the shop.
“I do think it’s adorable of you to take me in,” she said.
“Dad has told me so much about you. He says I’m impossible. I suppose this is the literature he talks about. I want to know all about it.”
“And here’s Bock!” she cried. “Dad says he’s the greatest dog in the world, named after Botticelli or somebody. I’ve brought him a present. It’s in my bag. Nice old Bocky!”
Bock, who was unaccustomed to spats, was examining them after his own fashion.
“Well, my dear,” said Mrs. Mifflin. “We are delighted to see you. I hope you’ll be happy with us, but I rather doubt it. Mr. Mifflin is a hard man to get along with.”
“Oh, I’m sure of it!” cried Titania. “I mean, I’m sure I shall be happy! You mustn’t believe a word of what Dad says about me. I’m crazy about books. I don’t see how you can bear to sell them.
I brought these violets for you, Mrs. Mifflin.”
“How perfectly sweet of you,” said Helen, captivated already. “Come along, we’ll put them right in water. I’ll show you your room.”
Roger heard them moving about overhead. It suddenly occurred to him that the shop was rather a dingy place for a young girl. “I wish I had thought to get in a cash register,” he mused.
“She’ll think I’m terribly unbusiness-like.”
“Now,” said Mrs. Mifflin, as she and Titania came downstairs again, “I’m making some pastry, so I’m going to turn you over to your employer. He can show you round the shop and tell you where all the books are.”
“Before we begin,” said Titania, “just let me give Bock his present.” She showed a large package of tissue paper and, unwinding innumerable layers, finally disclosed a stalwart bone. “I was lunching at Sherry’s, and I made the head waiter give me this.
He was awfully amused.”
“Come along into the kitchen and give it to him,” said Helen.
“He’ll be your friend for life.”
“What an adorable kennel!” cried Titania, when she saw the remodelled packing-case that served Bock as a retreat. The bookseller’s ingenious carpentry had built it into the similitude of a Carnegie library, with the sign READING-ROOM over the door; and he had painted imitation book-shelves along the interior.
“You’ll get used to Mr. Mifflin after a while,” said Helen amusedly.
“He spent all one winter getting that kennel fixed to his liking.
You might have thought he was going to live in it instead of Bock. All the titles that he painted in there are books that have dogs in them, and a lot of them he made up.”
Titania insisted on getting down to peer inside. Bock was much flattered at this attention from the new planet that had swum into his kennel.
“Gracious!” she said, “here’s ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Canine.’ I do think that’s clever!”
“Oh, there are a lot more,” said Helen. “The works of Bonar Law, and Bohn’s ‘Classics,’ and ‘Catechisms on Dogma’ and goodness knows what. If Roger paid half as much attention to business as he does to jokes of that sort, we’d be rich. Now, you run along and have a look at the shop.”
Titania found the bookseller at his desk. “Here I am, Mr. Mifflin,” she said. “See, I brought a nice sharp pencil along with me to make out sales slips. I’ve been practicing sticking it in my hair. I can do it quite nicely now. I hope you have some of those big red books with all the carbon paper in them and everything. I’ve been watching the girls up at Lord and Taylor’s make them out, and I think they’re fascinating. And you must teach me to run the elevator. I’m awfully keen about elevators.”
“Bless me,” said Roger, “You’ll find this very different from Lord and Taylor’s! We haven’t any elevators, or any sales slips, or even a cash register. We don’t wait on customers unless they ask us to. They come in and browse round, and if they find anything they want they come back here to my desk and ask about it. The price is marked in every book in red pencil. The cash-box is here on this shelf. This is the key hanging on this little hook. I enter each sale in this ledger. When you sell a book you must write it down here, and the price paid for it.”
“But suppose it’s charged?” said Titania.
“No charge accounts. Everything is cash. If someone comes in to sell books, you must refer him to me. You mustn’t be surprised to see people drop in here and spend several hours reading. Lots of them look on this as a kind of club. I hope you don’t mind the smell of tobacco, for almost all the men that come here smoke in the shop. You see, I put ash trays around for them.”
“I love tobacco smell,” said Titania. “Daddy’s library at home smells something like this, but not quite so strong. And I want to see the worms, bookworms you know. Daddy said you had lots of them.”
“You’ll see them, all right,” said Roger, chuckling. “They come in and out. To-morrow I’ll show you how my stock is arranged. It’ll take you quite a while to get familiar with it. Until then I just want you to poke around and see what there is, until you know the shelves so well you could put your hand on any given book in the dark. That’s a game my wife and I used to play. We would turn off all the lights at night, and I would call out the title of a book and see how near she could come to finding it. Then I would take a turn. When we came more than six inches away from it we would have to pay a forfeit. It’s great fun.”
“What larks we’ll have,” cried Titania. “I do think this is a cunning place!”
“This is the bulletin board, where I put up notices about books that interest me. Here’s a card I’ve just been writing.”
Roger drew from his pocket a square of cardboard and affixed it to the board with a thumbtack. Titania read:
THE BOOK THAT SHOULD HAVE PREVENTED THE WAR
Now that the fighting is over is a good time to read Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. I don’t want to sell it, because it is one of the greatest treasures I own. But if any one will guarantee to read all three volumes, and let them sink into his mind, I’m willing to lend them.
If enough thoughtful Germans had read The Dynasts before July, 1914, there would have been no war.
If every delegate to the Peace Conference could be made to read it before the sessions begin, there will be no more wars.
“Dear me,” said Titania, “Is it so good as all that? Perhaps I’d better read it.”
“It is so good that if I knew any way of doing so I’d insist on Mr. Wilson reading it on his voyage to France. I wish I could get it onto his ship. My, what a book! It makes one positively ill with pity and terror. Sometimes I wake up at night and look out of the window and imagine I hear Hardy laughing. I get him a little mixed up with the Deity, I fear. But he’s a bit too hard for you to tackle.”
Titania was puzzled, and said nothing. But her busy mind made a note of its own: Hardy, hard to read, makes one ill, try it.
“What did you think of the books I put in your room?” said Roger. He had vowed to wait until she made some comment unsolicited, but he could not restrain himself.
“In my room?” she said. “Why, I’m sorry, I never noticed them!”
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved