Thursday, August 18, 2016

R.W. Coulter, The Haunting Book

A short story set in a secondhand bookshop by Reginald Walter Coulter, a New Zealand-born, Sydney-based cartoonist, illustrator and author, from Australia's premier literary magazine, The Bulletin.

The Haunting Book

R.W. Coulter (The Bulletin, 22 January 1936)

I had never before seen this bookshop.  It stood in one of that maze of little streets about the Haymarket, that part of Old Sydney which seems to have been subdivided by a small boy with a playing card and a pair of shears.  The shop was extremely old-fashioned, with a narrow front pierced by a small six-panel window and a low door over which a small conservative sign said ‘Pedersen – Second-hand Books.”  The usual emblematic shelf and box of “Thruppennies” stood under the dirty window, and the shop door was two steps down from the doorsill.  It was too inviting.  I went in.

Inside was dark and musty, and no one was there.  It was dead.  No one came to ask my “requirements.”  I thought of The Magic Shop, that this had had been specially created to-day for my benefit and would disappear by tomorrow.  Every eight feet or so shelves jutted out at right angles to those lining the walls, forming little alcoves.  They disappeared away in darkness, the shop was so deep.  In each alcove was a table, and on each table stood a disturbing anachronism: an electric reading lamp flanked by a notice, “Please switch off when finished using.”  In such a place one looked for verdigrised brass candle-sticks and yellow candles.

Some yards down the shop I switched on a lamp and looked over the shelves.  They were a mixed bag. Ben Jonson rubbed cheeks with Swedenborg and Sidonius Apollinarius with Thomas √†Kempis, whilst uncut Brontes and Eliots jutted out everywhere.  I pulled out a book I had heard of but never seen.  It was Holberg’s Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm, and I sat down to browse.

“Ah, sir, you are fond of the classics?” a thin, piping voice gently broke through the phantasm.  It was a little white-haired man, standing gnome-like and smiling behind the lamp.  He was perfect.  The second-hand bookseller one reads about but never meets.

“Ah, sir, there’s not much call for them these days.”  He wagged his head sadly.  “The public wants rubbish, sir, rubbish.  I had thirty-four sales yesterday, and thirty-two averaged under two shillings.  I can tell you, sir, it’s a pleasure to see anyone dipping into these classics – a pleasure even if they don’t buy.”

Here was a bookseller who loved books for their own sake. I had read of them, but – unreal, unreal!  I waited for him and the shop to vanish and find myself in Paddy’s Market.  “Even then I don’t like selling them,” he added.

Was he pulling my leg?  It sounded too much like the books.  But his enthusiasm and his innocent baby-old face impressed me.

“Even the books don’t like being away from their home shelves.  They’re old stick-in-the-muds, like us bookish people.”  He chuckled delightedly and leaned and peered over at Holberg.  “Well, I declare, that’s the very one.”

I let him take it up.  It was a thick, leather-bound quarto volume.  The Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm,” he murmured to himself, stroking the worn leather.  He looked steadily at me and appeared to make up his mind. 

“This book’s haunted,” he said.

“Oh?” I jerked.

“Yes, a spook.  It knocks, knocks to get in.”  He looked hard at me again.  “You like books?  Not afraid of books?”  He wagged a thin white hand deprecatingly.  “But who could be afraid of books?  Come, let me show you something wonderful.”

He darted out of the alcove and down the shop.  I followed, and found him halfway up a library ladder, expectantly waiting for me like an excited puppy on for a game.  High up in the wall was a small, dirty window, one of the up-and-down counterweight type.

The old bookseller went to the top of the ladder, opened the bottom of the window, put the hook on what appeared to be a long ledge outside, shut down the window with a bang, and dashed down again to my side.

“Listen,” he said, holding up a silencing finger.  For a moment nothing happened.  Then the two frames of the window hit together with two sharp double knocks, like hiccups.  Another moment and they started to tremble together as though shaken by a wind.  But there was no wind.  An auctioneer’s flag in the bright light of the street across the rode hung stiffly inert.  By comparison, the musty catacomb of books, with its ghostly percussions, was weird and uncanny.

The little man gave a nervous chuckle.  “Listen, he’s trying to get in!”  I listened.  The rattling became erratic.  Heavy and soft concussions succeeded each other irregularly.  There was something familiar about the variations.  What was it?  My brain chased the rats and mice around and around the cage of my memory till I thought my skull would split.  Suddenly I sensed something behind me, and, with animal fear, wheeled.  A dark and sullen-looking young man was padding slowly down the shop, eyeing us sidelong like a suspicious but watchful dog.

The old man whispered confidentially.  “My nephew.  A clever young electrical engineer.  Quite a genius, but can’t get work.  Like the classics, underappreciated by the mob.”

Electrical!  That was the clue.  The rattling was Morse.  I listened.

“Let me come in,” rapped the window.  “Let me come in. Let me come in,” reiterated over and over again in nervous excitement.  The tone grew into the hysterical pleadings of a frightened child.  “Please, please do let me come in!”

“It’s asking to come in.” Without thinking I also whispered.  “It’s talking in Morse code.  It wants to come in.”

We stared at each other, now marvelling.  The little bookseller’s facial expression changed to pathetic compassion.  He put his head on one side and said, “Now isn’t that sad!”  Let’s let him come in.”  I nodded sympathetically.  He ran up the ladder, and as he opened the window the timorous chattering ceased.

The old book seemed to cuddle into the old man’s breast as he descended.  “Poor old Holberg,” he stroked it soothingly.  “We’ll put you back in your bedroom.”  We returned to the lighted alcove and he laid the book on the table.  I sat under the light feeling rather bewildered and looking up at the thin, eager face swimming between the murk of old bindings and the lamp.

“A customer found a silverfish in him one day, and as I’m very careful about such beasties I sprayed him thoroughly – in case of eggs, you see.  Then I put him out on that ledge to dry and rid him of the smell.  I forgot him when I shut up shop and went upstairs.  But in the night he woke me with that rattling, and, as I’m a light sleeper, I had to come down.  There was no wind, and the window was shut.  I had shut it down on him because of the draught, but now there was no wind.  I took him in and went back to bed.  Soon after a storm burst and the wind blew like fury; but the window did not rattle – it’s too protected by the buildings all round.  See?  It was only him, all right?”

The gnome hugged his logic.

“Next day it was fine and calm, and I lifted him out again.  In five minutes he was rattling away at the window just like he did now.  Wasn’t that prodigious?  I’ve tried him over and over again.  Cruel, cruel, yes; but I wanted to be sure.  And each time the period before he started signalling got shorter and shorter.  And now he rattles Morse, you say?  Fancy an old feller like him knowing Morse.  I know! He must have learned it from a Morse code-book somewhere in the shop.  By Odin and Thor, the books must chat together at night.  It’s extraordinary, don’t you think?”

But I was incapable of thinking.

“You like him, eh?  You’ve got a sympathetic nature and can give him a good home among classics?  Dear, dear, how it must hurt him to be an unread, underappreciated classic – like my nephew,” he whispered as the dark youth passed back along the shop.  “It must be awful not to have work to do or to be unread.” 

I thought so too.

Now I had a window which was loose.  It would be rather intriguing to puzzle the fellows – that gross materialist Smith, for instance.  “How much do you want for it?” I asked.

He glowed.  “Ah, sir, from a man who will read him and give him a good home I only want two pounds ten.”

I looked the book over.  It wasn’t so very old – 1830 – but well bound and in good condition, and I had never seen another copy.  Also there was that supernatural business.  A haunted book!  I pulled out ten schillings.

“I’ll buy it,” I said, “if you’ll take this deposit till I come back later.”

“Certainly, sir, I’ll get you a receipt,” he pattered pleasedly off.

It was almost dark as I came back along that little street.  At the far end a big illuminated sign was saying in words appearing separately, one after another, “Funnell’s for Funerals,” in constant repetition.

“Clever how they do that,” I said to myself – “sort of player-piano cylinder – certain groups of holes make certain words.” I started to laugh; by Odin and Thor, a thought had struck me.

“Here’s the two quid.” I handed over notes to the little innocent old bookseller.

“I’m sure you’ll appreciate him,” he said as he wrapped the book.

“Sure,” I agreed, “and also the genius.  I wonder if he’d come out to my place and do a little electrical job for me?”

“Sure,” replied the gnome, with a bright smile.  “I’m sure he’d do it for a coupla quid.”

How did he know?  His quote was quite pat.

I am told that that gross materialist Smith has a haunted Petronius for which he paid ten guineas.  I can’t say for certain, because he and I don’t speak now.

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