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Titania Tries Reading in Bed
He had forced himself awake several times before, to watch the passage of some harmless strollers through the innocent blackness of the Brooklyn night, but this time it was what he sought. The man stepped stealthily, with a certain blend of wariness and assurance. He halted under the lamp by the bookshop door, and the glasses gave him enlarged to Aubrey's eye. It was Weintraub, the druggist.
The front of the bookshop was now entirely dark save for a curious little glimmer down below the pavement level. This puzzled Aubrey, but he focussed his glasses on the door of the shop. He saw Weintraub pull a key out of his pocket, insert it very carefully in the lock, and open the door stealthily. Leaving the door ajar behind him, the druggist slipped into the shop.
"What devil's business is this?" thought Aubrey angrily. "The swine has even got a key of his own. There's no doubt about it. He and Mifflin are working together on this job."
For a moment he was uncertain what to do. Should he run downstairs and across the street? Then, as he hesitated, he saw a pale beam of light over in the front left-hand corner of the shop. Through the glasses he could see the yellow circle of a flashlight splotched upon dim shelves of books. He saw Weintraub pull a volume out of the case, and the light vanished. Another instant and the man reappeared in the doorway, closed the door behind him with a gesture of careful silence, and was off up the street quietly and swiftly. It was all over in a minute. Two yellow oblongs shone for a minute or two down in the area underneath the door. Through the glasses he now made out these patches as the cellar windows. Then they disappeared also, and all was placid gloom. In the quivering light of the street lamps he could see the bookseller's sign gleaming whitely, with its lettering THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED.
Aubrey sat back in his chair. "Well," he said to himself, "that guy certainly gave his shop the right name. This is by me. I do believe it's only some book-stealing game after all. I wonder if he and Weintraub go in for some first-edition faking, or some such stunt as that? I'd give a lot to know what it's all about."
He stayed by the window on the qui vive, but no sound broke the stillness of Gissing Street. In the distance he could hear the occasional rumble of the Elevated trains rasping round the curve on Wordsworth Avenue. He wondered whether he ought to go over and break into the shop to see if all was well. But, like every healthy young man, he had a horror of appearing absurd. Little by little weariness numbed his apprehensions. Two o'clock clanged and echoed from distant steeples. He threw off his clothes and crawled into bed.
It was ten o'clock on Sunday morning when he awoke. A broad swath of sunlight cut the room in half: the white muslin curtain at the window rippled outward like a flag. Aubrey exclaimed when he saw his watch. He had a sudden feeling of having been false to his trust. What had been happening across the way?
He gazed out at the bookshop. Gissing Street was bright and demure in the crisp quietness of the forenoon. Mifflin's house showed no sign of life. It was as he had last seen it, save that broad green shades had been drawn down inside the big front windows, making it impossible to look through into the book-filled alcoves.
Aubrey put on his overcoat in lieu of a dressing gown, and went in search of a bathtub. He found the bathroom on his floor locked, with sounds of leisurely splashing within. "Damn Mrs. J. F. Smith," he said. He was about to descend to the storey below, bashfully conscious of bare feet and pyjamaed shins, but looking over the banisters he saw Mrs. Schiller and the treasure-dog engaged in some household manoeuvres. The pug caught sight of his pyjama legs and began to yap. Aubrey retreated in the irritation of a man baulked of a cold tub. He shaved and dressed rapidly.
On his way downstairs he met Mrs. Schiller. He thought that her gaze was disapproving.
"A gentleman called to see you last night, sir," she said. "He said he was very sorry to miss you."
"I was rather late in getting in," said Aubrey. "Did he leave his name?"
"No, he said he'd see you some other time. He woke the whole house up by falling downstairs," she added sourly.
He left the lodging house swiftly, fearing to be seen from the bookshop. He was very eager to learn if everything was all right, but he did not want the Mifflins to know he was lodging just opposite. Hastening diagonally across the street, he found that the Milwaukee Lunch, where he had eaten the night before, was open. He went in and had breakfast, rejoicing in grapefruit, ham and eggs, coffee, and doughnuts. He lit a pipe and sat by the window wondering what to do next. "It's damned perplexing," he said to himself. "I stand to lose either way. If I don't do anything, something may happen to the girl; if I butt in too soon I'll get in dutch with her. I wish I knew what Weintraub and that chef are up to."
The lunchroom was practically empty, and in two chairs near him the proprietor and his assistant were sitting talking. Aubrey was suddenly struck by what they said.
"Say, this here, now, bookseller guy must have struck it rich."
"Yeh; did ya see that car in front of his place this morning?"
"Believe me, some boat."
"Musta hired it, hey? Where'd he go at?"
"I didn't see. I just saw the bus standing front the door."
"Say, did you see that swell dame he's got clerking for him?"
"I sure did. What's he doing, taking her joy-riding?"
"Shouldn't wonder. I wouldn't blame him — "
Aubrey gave no sign of having heard, but got up and left the lunchroom. Had the girl been kidnapped while he overslept? He burned with shame to think what a pitiful failure his knight-errantry had been. His first idea was to beard Weintraub and compel him to explain his connection with the bookshop. His next thought was to call up Mr. Chapman and warn him of what had been going on. Then he decided it would be futile to do either of these before he really knew what had happened. He determined to get into the bookshop itself, and burst open its sinister secret.
He walked hurriedly round to the rear alley, and surveyed the domestic apartments of the shop. Two windows in the second storey stood slightly open, but he could discern no signs of life. The back gate was still unlocked, and he walked boldly into the yard.
The little enclosure was serene in the pale winter sunlight. Along one fence ran a line of bushes and perennials, their roots wrapped in straw. The grass plot was lumpy, the sod withered to a tawny yellow and granulated with a sprinkle of frost. Below the kitchen door — which stood at the head of a flight of steps — was a little grape arbour with a rustic bench where Roger used to smoke his pipe on summer evenings. At the back of this arbour was the cellar door. Aubrey tried it, and found it locked.
He was in no mood to stick at trifles. He was determined to unriddle the mystery of the bookshop. At the right of the door was a low window, level with the brick pavement. Through the dusty pane he could see it was fastened only by a hook on the inside. He thrust his heel through the pane. As the glass tinkled onto the cellar floor he heard a low growl. He unhooked the catch, lifted the frame of the broken window, and looked in. There was Bock, with head quizzically tilted, uttering a rumbling guttural vibration that seemed to proceed automatically from his interior.
Aubrey was a little dashed, but he said cheerily "Hullo, Bock! Good old man! Well, well, nice old fellow!" To his surprise, Bock recognized him as a friend and wagged his tail slightly, but still continued to growl.
"I wish dogs weren't such sticklers for form," thought Aubrey. "Now if I went in by the front door, Bock wouldn't say anything. It's just because he sees me coming in this way that he's annoyed. Well, I'll have to take a chance."
He thrust his legs in through the window, carefully holding up the sash with its jagged triangles of glass. It will never be known how severely Bock was tempted by the extremities thus exposed to him, but he was an old dog and his martial instincts had been undermined by years of kindness. Moreover, he remembered Aubrey perfectly well, and the smell of his trousers did not seem at all hostile. So he contented himself with a small grumbling of protest. He was an Irish terrier, but there was nothing Sinn Fein about him.
Aubrey dropped to the floor, and patted the dog, thanking his good fortune. He glanced about the cellar as though expecting to find some lurking horror. Nothing more appalling than several cases of beer bottles met his eyes. He started quietly to go up the cellar stairs, and Bock, evidently consumed with legitimate curiosity, kept at his heels.
"Look here," thought Aubrey. "I don't want the dog following me all through the house. If I touch anything he'll probably take a hunk out of my shin."
He unlocked the door into the yard, and Bock obeying the Irish terrier's natural impulse to get into the open air, ran outside. Aubrey quickly closed the door again. Bock's face appeared at the broken window, looking in with so quaint an expression of indignant surprise that Aubrey almost laughed. "There, old man," he said, "it's all right. I'm just going to look around a bit."
He ascended the stairs on tiptoe and found himself in the kitchen. All was quiet. An alarm clock ticked with a stumbling, headlong hurry. Pots of geraniums stood on the window sill. The range, with its lids off and the fire carefully nourished, radiated a mild warmth. Through a dark little pantry he entered the dining room. Still no sign of anything amiss. A pot of white heather stood on the table, and a corncob pipe lay on the sideboard. "This is the most innocent-looking kidnapper's den I ever heard of," he thought. "Any moving-picture director would be ashamed not to provide a better stage-set."
At that instant he heard footsteps overhead. Curiously soft, muffled footsteps. Instantly he was on the alert. Now he would know the worst.
A window upstairs was thrown open. "Bock, what are you doing in the yard?" floated a voice — a very clear, imperious voice that somehow made him think of the thin ringing of a fine glass tumbler. It was Titania.
He stood aghast. Then he heard a door open, and steps on the stair. Merciful heaven, the girl must not find him here. What would she think? He skipped back into the pantry, and shrank into a corner. He heard the footfalls reach the bottom of the stairs. There was a door into the kitchen from the central hall: it was not necessary for her to pass through the pantry, he thought. He heard her enter the kitchen.
In his anxiety he crouched down beneath the sink, and his foot, bent beneath him, touched a large tin tray leaning against the wall. It fell over with a terrible clang.
"Bock!" said Titania sharply, "what are you doing?"
Aubrey was wondering miserably whether he ought to counterfeit a bark, but it was too late to do anything. The pantry door opened, and Titania looked in.
They gazed at each other for several seconds in mutual horror. Even in his abasement, crouching under a shelf in the corner, Aubrey's stricken senses told him that he had never seen so fair a spectacle. Titania wore a blue kimono and a curious fragile lacy bonnet which he did not understand. Her dark, gold-spangled hair came down in two thick braids across her shoulders. Her blue eyes were very much alive with amazement and alarm which rapidly changed into anger.
"Mr. Gilbert!" she cried. For an instant he thought she was going to laugh. Then a new expression came into her face. Without another word she turned and fled. He heard her run upstairs. A door banged, and was locked. A window was hastily closed. Again all was silent.
Stupefied with chagrin, he rose from his cramped position. What on earth was he to do? How could he explain? He stood by the pantry sink in painful indecision. Should he slink out of the house? No, he couldn't do that without attempting to explain. And he was still convinced that some strange peril hung about this place. He must put Titania on her guard, no matter how embarrassing it proved. If only she hadn't been wearing a kimono — how much easier it would have been.
He stepped out into the hall, and stood at the bottom of the stairs in the throes of doubt. After waiting some time in silence he cleared the huskiness from his throat and called out:
There was no answer, but he heard light, rapid movements above.
"Miss Chapman!" he called again.
He heard the door opened, and clear words edged with frost came downward. This time he thought of a thin tumbler with ice in it.
"Yes?" he said miserably.
"Will you please call me a taxi?"
Something in the calm, mandatory tone nettled him. After all, he had acted in pure good faith.
"With pleasure," he said, "but not until I have told you something. It's very important. I beg your pardon most awfully for frightening you, but it's really very urgent."
There was a brief silence. Then she said:
"Brooklyn's a queer place. Wait a few minutes, please."
Aubrey stood absently fingering the pattern on the wallpaper. He suddenly experienced a great craving for a pipe, but felt that the etiquette of the situation hardly permitted him to smoke.
In a few moments Titania appeared at the head of the stairs in her customary garb. She sat down on the landing. Aubrey felt that everything was as bad as it could possibly be. If he could have seen her face his embarrassment would at least have had some compensation. But the light from a stair window shone behind her, and her features were in shadow. She sat clasping her hands round her knees. The light fell crosswise down the stairway, and he could see only a gleam of brightness upon her ankle. His mind unconsciously followed its beaten paths. "What a corking pose for a silk stocking ad!" he thought. "Wouldn't it make a stunning full-page layout. I must suggest it to the Ankleshimmer people."
"Well?" she said. Then she could not refrain from laughter, he looked so hapless. She burst into an engaging trill. "Why don't you light your pipe?" she said. "You look as doleful as the Kaiser."
"Miss Chapman," he said, "I'm afraid you think — I don't know what you must think. But I broke in here this morning because I — well, I don't think this is a safe place for you to be."
"So it seems. That's why I asked you to get me a taxi."
"There's something queer going on round this shop. It's not right for you to be here alone this way. I was afraid something had happened to you. Of course, I didn't know you were — were — "
Faint almond blossoms grew in her cheeks. "I was reading," she said. "Mr. Mifflin talks so much about reading in bed, I thought I'd try it. They wanted me to go with them to-day but I wouldn't. You see, if I'm going to be a bookseller I've got to catch up with some of this literature that's been accumulating. After they left I — I — well, I wanted to see if this reading in bed is what it's cracked up to be."
"Where has Mifflin gone?" asked Aubrey. "What business has he got to leave you here all alone?"
"I had Bock," said Titania. "Gracious, Brooklyn on Sunday morning doesn't seem very perilous to me. If you must know, he and Mrs. Mifflin have gone over to spend the day with father. I was to have gone, too, but I wouldn't. What business is it of yours? You're as bad as Morris Finsbury in The Wrong Box. That's what I was reading when I heard the dog barking."
Aubrey began to grow nettled. "You seem to think this was a mere impertinence on my part," he said. "Let me tell you a thing or two." And he briefly described to her the course of his experiences since leaving the shop on Friday evening, but omitting the fact that he was lodging just across the street.
"There's something mighty unpalatable going on," he said. "At first I thought Mifflin was the goat. I thought it might be some frame-up for swiping valuable books from his shop. But when I saw Weintraub come in here with his own latch-key, I got wise. He and Mifflin are in cahoots, that's what. I don't know what they're pulling off, but I don't like the looks of it. You say Mifflin has gone out to see your father? I bet that's just camouflage, to stall you. I've got a great mind to ring Mr. Chapman up and tell him he ought to get you out of here."
"I won't hear a word said against Mr. Mifflin," said Titania angrily. "He's one of my father's oldest friends. What would Mr. Mifflin say if he knew you had been breaking into his house and frightening me half to death? I'm sorry you got that knock on the head, because it seems that's your weak spot. I'm quite able to take care of myself, thank you. This isn't a movie."
"Well, how do you explain the actions of this man Weintraub?" said Aubrey. "Do you like to have a man popping in and out of the shop at all hours of the night, stealing books?"
"I don't have to explain it at all," said Titania. "I think it's up to you to do the explaining. Weintraub is a harmless old thing and he keeps delicious chocolates that cost only half as much as what you get on Fifth Avenue. Mr. Mifflin told me that he's a very good customer. Perhaps his business won't let him read in the daytime, and he comes in here late at night to borrow books. He probably reads in bed."
"I don't think anybody who talks German round back alleys at night is a harmless old thing," said Aubrey. "I tell you, your Haunted Bookshop is haunted by something worse than the ghost of Thomas Carlyle. Let me show you something." He pulled the book cover out of his pocket, and pointed to the annotations in it.
"That's Mifflin's handwriting," said Titania, pointing to the upper row of figures. "He puts notes like that in all his favourite books. They refer to pages where he has found interesting things."
"Yes, and that's Weintraub's," said Aubrey, indicating the numbers in violet ink. "If that isn't a proof of their complicity, I'd like to know what is. If that Cromwell book is here, I'd like to have a look at it."
They went into the shop. Titania preceded him down the musty aisle, and it made Aubrey angry to see the obstinate assurance of her small shoulders. He was horribly tempted to seize her and shake her. It annoyed him to see her bright, unconscious girlhood in that dingy vault of books. "She's as out of place here as — as a Packard ad in the Liberator" he said to himself.
They stood in the History alcove. "Here it is," she said. "No, it isn't — that's the History of Frederick the Great."
There was a two-inch gap in the shelf. Cromwell was gone.
"Probably Mr. Mifflin has it somewhere around," said Titania. "It was there last night."
"Probably nothing," said Aubrey. "I tell you, Weintraub came in and took it. I saw him. Look here, if you really want to know what I think, I'll tell you. The War's not over by a long sight. Weintraub's a German. Carlyle was pro-German — I remember that much from college. I believe your friend Mifflin is pro-German, too. I've heard some of his talk!"
Titania faced him with cheeks aflame.
"That'll do for you!" she cried. "Next thing I suppose you'll say Daddy's pro-German, and me, too! I'd like to see you say that to Mr. Mifflin himself."
"I will, don't worry," said Aubrey grimly. He knew now that he had put himself hopelessly in the wrong in Titania's mind, but he refused to abate his own convictions. With sinking heart he saw her face relieved against the shelves of faded bindings. Her eyes shone with a deep and sultry blue, her chin quivered with anger.
"Look here," she said furiously. "Either you or I must leave this place. If you intend to stay, please call me a taxi."
Aubrey was as angry as she was.
"I'm going," he said. "But you've got to play fair with me. I tell you on my oath, these two men, Mifflin and Weintraub, are framing something up. I'm going to get the goods on them and show you. But you mustn't put them wise that I'm on their track. If you do, of course, they'll call it off. I don't care what you think of me. You've got to promise me that."
"I won't promise you anything," she said, "except never to speak to you again. I never saw a man like you before — and I've seen a good many."
"I won't leave here until you promise me not to warn them," he retorted. "What I told you, I said in confidence. They've already found out where I'm lodging. Do you think this is a joke? They've tried to put me out of the way twice. If you breathe a word of this to Mifflin he'll warn the other two."
"You're afraid to have Mr. Mifflin know you broke into his shop," she taunted.
"You can think what you like."
"I won't promise you anything!" she burst out. Then her face altered. The defiant little line of her mouth bent and her strength seemed to run out at each end of that pathetic curve. "Yes, I will," she said. "I suppose that's fair. I couldn't tell Mr. Mifflin, anyway. I'd be ashamed to tell him how you frightened me. I think you're hateful. I came over here thinking I was going to have such a good time, and you've spoilt it all!"
For one terrible moment he thought she was going to cry. But he remembered having seen heroines cry in the movies, and knew it was only done when there was a table and chair handy.
"Miss Chapman," he said, "I'm as sorry as a man can be. But I swear I did what I did in all honesty. If I'm wrong in this, you need never speak to me again. If I'm wrong, you — you can tell your father to take his advertising away from the Grey-Matter Company. I can't say more than that."
And, to do him justice, he couldn't. It was the supreme sacrifice.
She let him out of the front door without another word.