Sir, I rarely, if ever, was known to return a borrowed book. — Confession of DR. JOHNSON.
INDIAN telegraphy was accomplished by stationing a man every eighth of a mile or so, each one in turn shouting the message to the next in line. By this means information was on occasion conveyed considerable distances in what was then an incredibly short time.
John Williams, struggling into an exhumed suit of evening clothes, thought of Indian telegraphy as his wife’s voice floated up to him from the nether regions, in continuance of a conversation begun a bit earlier.
‘What book is it?’
‘My Castiglione — The Courtyer.’
‘Why do you not go straight to him and ask for it?’
‘My dear, you do not understand: the ethics of “borrowed” books are as definitely established as they are deplored, and — ’
‘I can’t hear you.’
‘It would be too embarrassing.’
An exclamation answered this. It was patently one of annoyance.
‘It’s your book, is n’t it?’
‘Yes, my dear, but—'
‘Well! Ask him for it.’
‘ — in his catalogue, which has just been finished, I understand he has it listed as his own.’
‘How can a man be so careless?’ ‘You see, my dear, Mr. Magruder is not a bookman; he is a mere book-collector with plenty of money. Many of his books no doubt, are “museumpieces,” and he does n’t know one of them from another so far as their contents are concerned — leaves everything to that clever secretary of his.
Magruder, of course, has forgotten that I lent him the book two years ago. If he had the slightest idea of the situation, he would undoubtedly return it at once. But, really, in view of the trivial value of the book, and the fact that—’
Mrs. Williams came up the stairs. She was a tall woman, with finely graying hair and a pair of sharp eyes, and now stood regarding the slight, demureappearing bespectacled man tinkering with a lawn tie.
‘ Do you know, John,’ she announced, ‘I haven’t heard a word you said.’
At the moment the door-bell rang and a young girl slipped in. She carried a pair of wooden knitting-needles, each as big as a policeman’s nightstick, and a handful of sleazy, delft-blue yarn that she had just finished unraveling from a sweater she had knitted the week before and worn twice. This individual was to receive the sum of one dollar for remaining in the house with the ’Williams children while their parents went to the Magruder party, and she formulated a new sweater — this one to have short sleeves with a fringe, and, oh, yes! a Tuxedo front.
It was a warm night in September, and the couple left the house presently and started for the street-car. The invitation to the Magruder home, as the Magruders were not familiars, had come somewhat as a surprise; but it had been accepted by the Williamses in the spirit in which they divined that it had been tendered. Magruder, a type of successful business man residing in the most pretentious part of the city, had been attracted some time before to Williams, t he cloistered editorial writer, because of his bookworm knowledge of books and their lore.
During the ride Mr. and Mrs. Williams hung on the same strap, and in low, furtive voices continued to tiff concerning the borrowed book, the while their eyes, fixed on the passing street, noted incidentally that their butcher and baker and candlestick-maker, all driving automobiles, were also on pleasure bent. But Mr. Williams was more than usually perverse; in fact, he was adamant, and it was finally decided not to ask directly for the return of the Castiglione, but to lead the conversation — if conversation about books with a mere lay book-collector who did his work by proxy could be accomplished — around to the subject of borrowing, in the hope that their host might have a good memory.
When they came up the low, broad steps of the Magruder mansion, to their secret dismay the Williamses saw that what they had assumed to be a small affair was in reality a function. There were scores of guests, some on the portico, others sauntering about the grounds, which in the moonlight were very beautiful.
Magruder, followed by his wife, came puffing. He greeted them effusively.
‘Yes, sir,’ he proclaimed, with a wave of the hand as they surveyed the outlook. ‘Cost me forty thousand, that landscape fellow. I thought old books were expensive, Williams, but they are n’t in it, eh? ’
The editor’s wife then and there nudged him.
‘Your chance,’ she murmured.
But Williams shook his head emphatically. They passed inside, and presently found themselves in the group gathered about the lion of the evening, a young English littérateur, who had been neatly netted by the vigorous Magruder some time before. He was high and dry now, flopping for the delectation of the curious.
Twice during the evening Williams’s bookishness drew him irresistibly to the library, and on the second occasion he fancied that he was so fortunate as to have slipped away unobserved. It seemed good to get free of the chitterchatter of the throng, and in the quiet of the great room of bibliography he browsed contentedly.
Here were books and books, a splendid catholic welter of them, such as he had dreamed of owning himself: first editions in ancient calf and vellum; ‘association’ copies; books ‘collected’ because of the work of the illustrator; numbers of those attractive but reprehensible ‘extra-illustrated’ volumes.
He came upon Elia and the Boswells, that foundation-work of many private libraries. He, himself, possessed but a single copy of the Life, and a cheap one at that. Here were several editions, including the six-volume Birkbeck Hill.
Presently his eye was drawn to the mahogany table, strewn with book-sellers’ catalogues and correspondence with the trade. Evidently the secretary had been working there recently. Maggs, Quaritch, George D. Smith. And to his hand finally came the Magruder private list, handsomely prepared and margined and bound. At random he read: —
Jonson (Ben). Fortunate Isles and their union. Celebrated in a Masque designed for the Court, on the Twelfth Night, 1624, including an orig. blank at end; without imprint or date; sm. 4to.
To be sure, he remembered the talk that had followed the sale of that book. It had been purchased of ‘G. D. S.’ for $3000.
And where was his own Castiglione listed? Ah, yes!
Castiglione (B). The Courtyer, done into Englyshe by Sir Thomas Hoby. Introduction by Walter Raleigh. Tudor Translations. Published by David Nutt, in the Strand, 1892, 4to.
He turned to that part of the room where he knew the work of the fifteenthcentury dilettante and honest gossip to repose. It was, after all, not a valuable edition — and yet it was one he loved for itself. Why in the name of common sense had he not inserted his book-plate with its motto, ‘Honour and Obligation demand the prompt return of borrowed Books ’ ? That alone would have prevented the precise thing that had occurred.
He located the volume. It was in good company, standing there next the Epistolarum libri of Cassiodorus, for which he knew Magruder had paid Quaritch a tremendous sum. He took the Castiglione out, thumbing the pages for favorite ‘reflections’ in that wonderful mirror of life during the Renaissance, and presently was reading to himself: —
‘ Beautifulle women cruell. Then spake Unico Aretino: “It is meete to teache women to love bicause I never sawe anye that coulde doe it, for almoste continuallye all of them accompanye their beawtye with crueltye; and yet manye times geve themselves for a prey to most cowardly men and very assheades.”’
He smiled at the exquisite drollery of it. Always he had hesitated to call his wife’s attention to that passage.
‘Hexcellently preserved,’ commented a voice over his shoulder.
Williams turned, feelingguilty in spite of himself. He had supposed himself to be alone in the library, and was startled to see the butler, very British, smiling at him.
‘Some of them very valuable indeed,’ the editor returned.
‘Oh, yes, sir. ’Undreds o’ pounds Mr. Magruder’e paid for some, sir.’
The butler did not move. The thought flashed over Williams: ‘This man is spying on me.’
He returned the Castiglione. It was just then that he heard sounds that led him to the other rooms; the affair was about to break up. Some little time elapsed ere he found his wife. Her eyes were questioning.
‘Did you get it?’
‘No,’ he said, a trifle annoyed at such persistence in the circumstances. ‘The occasion is not at all propitious.’
‘Here he comes now,’ she stated. ‘I will ask him myself.’
‘Don’t!’ he cautioned.
‘ I will,’ she returned.
The Magruders drew near, smiling their guests out.
‘ Well! ’ exclaimed the big man. ‘ Glad you’re here. Want to have you again — not such crowd — some new books just in—’
They were on the portico, Magruder with robustious hospitality gathering about him a few of the guests and holding them perforce. The night had continued beautiful; though the air was balmy, there was just the slightest hint of autumn; the high-riding moon shed a light almost as bright as that of day. It was still comparatively early, and many of the guests, frankly under the spell of the rare combination of artificial and natural beauty, now strolled along the portico, the men smoking. Numbers of these people were known to the Williamses, and in the hit-andmiss formations and groupings they became separated.
Idling along the portico, the editor after a time quite unwittingly found himself in front of the French window facing the library. At that precise moment he saw someone near the shelves at the other end; then, suddenly, the lights in the room were snapped off. He paused; his end of the portico was apparently deserted. The window was open; and before he realized what he had done, he slipped through.
‘Upper case, left hand, fifth from the end,’ he recalled.
Almost without volition he tiptoed to the location.
‘One, two, three, four, five.’
In the semi-darkness he pulled out the book. The feel of it suddenly brought home to him the enormity of his manœuvre. Good Lord! What was he, a man whose life had been dedicated solely to contemplation, doing here in the dark? Suppose he should be detected? He started back in a panic, still carrying the book, however. Midway of the room he stopped abruptly. The figure of a man was silhouetted in the window!
Williams crouched close to the floor, and then, as the figure did not stir, inched his way with his legs doubled under him monkey-wise, until he was behind a Morris chair. Here he stayed quiet, still hoping that, whoever the person was, he would move on.
A long minute passed. The figure, after peering into the room, disappeared. Williams moved cautiously toward the wall and felt his way to the window. He suspected a trap. Sure enough! From his angle of perception he could make out the figure lurking at one side.
He was being watched!
Keeping to the wall, he sidled along until he reached the window that gave on the terraced lawn to the north. The drop he reckoned to be about ten feet. Carefully he let himself through. The turf was moist and soft, but the fall was considerable, and he landed awkwardly. He recovered, and lay listening.
A moment later the library above him was flooded with light. With the idea of skirting the dwelling and thus joining his wife, Williams started up quickly; but he had gone only a short distance when he perceived someone skulking back of the shrubbery in front of the portico. In despair he turned back — and saw a head projecting from the window through which he had just come. This determined him, and boldly leaving the shadows, he struck into a run for the shrubbery to the north.
‘There he goes!’ two voices cried simultaneously.
There was the sound of pursuit. Williams ran the harder. He was plain thief now.
He prayed silently.
He reached a low picket fence and hurdled it with an ease that amazed himself. The adjoining premises were fully as elaborate as the Magruder estate, and although unconscionably broad, afforded many excellent places for concealment. He was gasping a little, and as he skirted a fountain and narrowly missed a bench, had the thought that he had better try that method of escape. But no! They were too close, and anyway, he always could run, had held a championship in college, though only for the quarter — only for the quarter — the quarter — the quarter — the quarter was a difficult distance — called for continuous sprinting —
He saw that he had come to the limits of the neighboring premises. An eight-foot iron fence was between him and the avenue. Desperately he ran toward the east, hoping to find egress.
Some women sitting on the porch cried out at sight of the fugitive; their male companions leaped up.
‘Stop, thief!’cut the air from behind.
But the embattled gate of the premises stood ajar; the powerful lights of an automobile loomed up in it. Williams darted through, just escaping the outstretched hand of the chauffeur, and ran pell-mell into patrolman Cassidy, who long since had been relegated to the ‘silk-stocking’ precincts, because of his age, flat-feet, and puttering good-nature.
Furiously the editor struck out with his fists. He experienced a tremendous hug, one that took what little breath that remained to him.
‘Phwat’s that, me laddie! Yez wud, wud yez! ’
When Williams’s wits and breath returned to him, he was in one of those hexagonal columnar sheet-iron ‘ coolers ’ maintained in outlying districts for the temporary detention of contumacious prisoners. The contrivance was antiquated, and it was dark and the air excessively close. He could hear the excited voices from the adjoining streetcorner and realized that he had not been carried far.
In the not-distant past Williams had contributed a series of editorials on the unwarranted manner in which city patrolmen made their arrests. Not that he had ever witnessed any procedure on the part of the peace-officers which in his judgment impinged on the ‘inalienable rights’ conferred on AngloSaxon peoples by such classic documents as Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights; but he had gleaned his facts rather from the succinct descriptions of police methods by a young reporter. These had made his blood boil.
But when the editorials had set local officials by the ears, and injured the esprit de corps of the force, for a time he had actually questioned the propriety of his course; for, truth to tell, his only personal knowledge of policemen was impressionistic: they seemed to be big, red-jowled, fierce-looking Irishmen, who would die of apoplexy if compelled to run one hundred yards.
Bitterly he thought now of these momentary doubts that had assailed him. This was first-hand stuff. True, the circumstances of his detention had been compromising; yet not a single effort had been made by anyone to straighten out what was, after all, only a hideous tangle. The arresting officer instantly had assumed him to be guilty of some crime, thus exactly reversing the common-law presumption of innocence. That was the difficulty with your policeman, anyway: he was Celtic, not Anglo-Saxon, and that was why the phrase ‘probable cause’ bulked so large in his make-up; it was the very genius of his race that rendered him incap — ’
‘ I say,’ he called, ‘Mister Officer.’
There was a shuffling of feet.
‘You have the book I dropped?’
‘Yez have said one mout’ful.’
‘ You must permit me to explain — the volume belongs to me.'
A Hibernian chuckle greeted this.
‘You’re some little full-dress bookfancier, I’ll tell the world,’ put in another. ‘I suppose them two $3000 books you got last month out of the Brinsmade house belonged to you, too.'
Williams could scarcely credit his senses. Was it possible there was a book thief in the neighborhood?
‘ Wha-what’s that?' he cried.
‘ Why, you poor nut!’ was the answer. ‘ We been on your trail for six months.’
‘But, I repeat, the book I dropped is mine. It is The Courtyer’ — old spelling, you know — C-o-u-r-t-y-e-r — by Castiglione, an Italian; Hoby’s translation. At page 96 you will see some of my own marginalia. I write a very fine hand and use purple ink.’
‘Some of his own marginalia,’ mimicked a falsetto voice. ‘O Percy!’
The sound of a rapidly rung bell interrupted. It belonged to a passing electric and the editor shuddered at the familiar clang — in some such manner the patrol-wagon, for which he knew they were waiting, would announce its arrival.
‘Here, Mike,’ sounded still another voice. ‘Let’s have a look at what you got off him.’ There was further mumbled converse. Then: ‘Hey, you! What book did you say it was?’
‘ The Courtyer, by C-a-s-t-i-g-l-i-o-n-e,’ spelled Williams.
‘Huh! You better guess again. This one is the E—pis—to—lar—larum. The bird writin’ it’s got a name like a cheese: C-a-s-s-i — ’
‘Thot ’s me own name!’ shouted Cassidy.
‘Aw! S-h-u-t up! It’s C-a-s-s-i-od-o-r-u-m.’
‘ I’ve taken the wrong book!' thought the editor. ‘A book worth $1000!’
He became frantic. How could he have made such a mistake! He must have it out with them face to face. Good heavens! Was n’t his appearance enough to vouch for him? His manner? That was it: he would tell them who he was, his name, the newspaper he worked on, and of his acquaintance with Magruder himself.
In stark agony he tried the door.
An incredible thing happened — it gave slightly. At the discovery he stood breathless, unbelieving: the lock was old and had failed to work when the patrolman used his key. He pressed once more; it responded until he was able to peer through the aperture. His captors were gathered at the corner beneath the street light, still puzzling over the book.
It was the work of only a second for him to slip out, close the door and dodge behind his prison; then, keeping it between himself and them, he stole to the nearest shelter, a maple tree standing some fifty yards away. From this point, with pounding heart, he was considering his next step, when the stillness was broken by the clang of a bell. It was the patrol-wagon. The sound energized him. Instinctively he hugged the tree, and almost unconsciously began to climb. The distance to the lowest branch was more than twelve feet, and he was just able to make it and pull himself up into obscurity by the time the patrol drew in to the corner.
The key rattled in the lock.
‘ Come on, ye little divil! ’ he heard the patrolman say. ‘None o’ yer monkeyshines, now!’
The door banged open. A bloodcurdling yell split the air.
‘Howly mither! He’s gone!’
A second later there was the sound of running feet. They were searching for him. A man passed immediately beneath his perch, going full tilt along the high fence to the west.
In an access of apprehension he moved slightly, and nearly lost his grip. There were shouts from various quarters, evidencing the large number of his pursuers. A bit later two of them stopped beneath his tree.
‘Begob! It’s the first toime I iver arrested a ghost.’
‘Yes, an’ it ’ll be the last time, if they get wind of it at headquarters,’ was the angry retort. ‘You bog-trottin’, peat-hunchin’ old son-of-a-gun! Why did n’t you lock that door?’
‘Oi did; sure as me name’s Cassidy. I’m afther tellin’ ye it was a ghost.’
‘A ghost! Oh, me eye!’ wailed the other. ‘Then maybe this book’s a ghost. Eh! What about that ?’
The speaker slapped the Epistolarum forcibly.
The two moved on, still quarreling.
Williams shivered, noticing for the first time that the air was a little cooler; there did not seem to be so much light, and he realized with gratification that the moon had gone under clouds. But there was a shout from the lawn in front of the large dwelling facing the avenue.
‘I see him!’
His heart stopped; his throat constricted. He could hear numbers of men running about swiftly, seemingly engaged in some fiercely silent, interminable game of fox-and-hounds; but no one approached his tree save one man, who shot by with the speed of an arrow. Feet pounded on the ancient graveled way nearby. There were indistinct, muffled oaths, sounds of scufflings, which presently came much nearer. Then, from close at hand, —
‘Ah, not so! Alcibiades! Uses purple ink, eh!’
A hunted figure, running low, sprang into range of the editor’s view. He stopped an instant beneath the very tree. But a huge shape leaped out.
‘Oi got the spalpeen!’
There was a sharp cry. Williams knew that embrace.
‘Lemme go. I ain’t done nothin’.’
Others ran up. There were as many as ten men standing beneath the tree, all breathing heavily and trying to get a look at their captive. High-voiced argument ensued.
‘Aw! You make me sick. That ain’t him. Did n’t I tell you he was in a dress-suit?’
Rain-drops began to fall. The bell of the patrol rang.
‘Come on, you fellows,’ shouted the driver, irritably. ‘I ain’t a-goin’ to stick around here all night,’
The throng moved away with their prisoner; they still argued violently.
In his tree the editor remained for what seemed an eternity, but was in reality only half an hour. A heavy rain was falling when at last he slid cautiously to the ground, with numb hands. Here he lay flat on his stomach, and for some time kept a sharp lookout.
But the neighborhood, dripping from the torrential downpour, was entirely deserted. He raised himself stiffly to his feet, and started off, hugging the stately fence. After traversing six long blocks, he reached the cross-town carline and hesitated a bit, hoping to see a car; then, considering his missing hat, torn overcoat, and saturated clothing, he started on a short cut through the park.
It was one o’clock in the morning when a weary bedraggled figure crept up the steps of the Williams home. Here it paused, and made some peculiarly futile attempts to straighten its apparel. Then it slipped a pass-key into the lock.
The door opened.
Editor Williams entered and took off his overcoat in the hallway. To his dripping consciousness it seemed as if his wife had materialized out of nothing. First he had not seen her; now she stood staring at him.
The editor smiled wanly.
‘My dear,’ he complained, ‘I’m late.’
‘So I observe,’ she smiled back.
She waited in silence. He slumped into a chair. She took one facing him, drawing it slightly nearer.
‘I visited with Magruder,’ he explained. ‘Sorry not to have come home with you, but he said the Sandersons promised to bring you in their car.’
‘Did you get the Castiglione?’
The editor glanced sharply at her.
‘No. I did not.’
‘Well, my dear. You see — er — Magruder was — is — as I have said —’
The two regarded each other. Swift enlightenment mirrored itself in the face of the editor.
‘You don’t mean, my dear, that — ’
Mrs. Williams suddenly reached behind her and produced a book. She handed over the Castiglione. Her husband took it limply.
‘Yes, John,’ she explained, ‘I asked Mr. Magruder for the book right after you and I were separated on the portico. He was most gracious.’ She paused and eyed him with a look at once tender and triumphant. ‘Come now,’ she added, ‘where have you been?’