by F. Scott Fitzgerald & Mike Koontz
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Long read Book (Weekend)
'Russet Witch' in this alternate take, adapted by Mike Koontz follows the life and choices of Merlin and his wife, their kids and his real love in life, the beautifully alive and open minded 'russet witch'.
Photography, additional writing and web adaptation by Mike Koontz
2017, a Norse View Imaging and Publishing
Music of the day
This Endless war by Serpentine Dominion
To the daisy that is my sun and inspiration
Watch & listen to this book, or continue reading at your own leisure
Merlin Grainger was employed by the Moonlight Quill Bookshop, which you may have visited, just around the corner from the Ritz-Carlton on Forty-seventh Street.
The Moonlight Quill is, or rather was, a very romantic little store, considered radical and admitted dark.
It was spotted interiorly with red and orange posters of breathless exotic intent, and lit no less by the shiny reflecting bindings of special editions than by the great squat lamp of crimson satin that, lighted through all the day, swung overhead. It was truly a mellow bookshop. The words “Moonlight Quill” were worked over the door in a sort of serpentine embroidery like a dormant survivor from long gone Tolkien esque fantasy realms. Or perhaps, more fittingly.
A barber shop in a Penny Dreadful tale, still holding it´s obscure secrets hidden away underneath.
The windows seemed always full of something that had passed the literary censors with little to spare; volumes with covers of deep orange which offer their titles on little white paper squares. And over all, there was the smell of the musk, which the clever, inscrutable Mr. Moonlight Quill ordered to be sprinkled about-the smell half of a curiosity shop in Dickens’ London and half of a coffee-house on the warm shores of the Bosphorus.
of futures past,
all our own reward
misfortunes and crazy people
From nine until five-thirty Merlin Grainger asked bored girls of all ages in black and young men with dark sunken eyes and to much belly and lacking muscles under the cover if they “cared for this fellow” or were interested in first editions.
Did they buy novels with Arabs on the cover, or books which gave Shakespeare’s newest sonnets as dictated psychically to Miss Sutton of South Dakota? he sniffed and bitterly mourned as most only passed some time, reading books and strangers thoughts on their oled screens.
As a matter of fact, his own taste ran to these latter, but as an employee at the Moonlight Quill he assumed for the working day the attitude of a disillusioned connoisseur. Hoping for that one customer that sparingly turned his world upside down.
After he had crawled over the window display to pull down the front shade at five-thirty every afternoon, and said good-bye to the mysterious Mr. Moonlight Quill and the lady clerk, Miss McCracken, and the lady stenographer, Miss Masters, he went home to his book, his dinner, his view, and the girl, Caroline.
He did not ever eat supper with Caroline.
It was for him unbelievable that Caroline would have considered eating off his bureau with the collar buttons dangerously near the cottage cheese, and the ends of Arthurs (his black cat) whipping tail just missing his glass of milk — so he had never asked her to eat with him.
He ate alone and each day, life as he secretly wished it to be, passed him by for nothing but his own doing.
He went into Braegdort’s delicatessen on Sixth Avenue and bought a box of crackers, a tube of anchovy paste, and some oranges, or else a little jar of sausages and some potato salad and a bottled soft drink, and with these in a brown package he went to his room at Fifty-something West Fifty-eighth Street and ate his supper sitting down in front of his one window, looking out at the building on the other side of the street, like he almost always did, and there, right in front of his view, was the life of Caroline, as he knew it, playing out slightly obfuscated behind the sheets of glass that was her window.
Caroline was a petite and vital person who lived with a second girl that he rarely got to see, and if he had ventured a guess, he would say that Caroline was possibly twentynine. But her age did not really matter to him. And in this day and age, she could very well have been a healthy fourtynine as well.
She was a bit like a ghost in that she never existed until evening. She would spring into life with the rising stars, when the lights went on in her apartment at about six, and she disappeared, at the latest, about midnight when the lights would get dimmed and later on, leaving her apartment completely in the dark.
Her apartment was a nice one, in a nice building with a white stone front, opposite the south side of Central Park. The back of her apartment faced the single window of the single room occupied by the single Mr. Grainger.
He of course had no idea what her real name was, but he liked thinking of her as a Caroline because there was a picture that looked just like her on the jacket of a book of that name down at the Moonlight Quill.
Now, Merlin Grainger was himself a healthy thin and decent looking young man of twenty-five, with dark hair and no mustache or beard or anything unkept like that, but Caroline was a dazzling, petite girl, more like a vibrant light buzzing of life, with a shimmering morass of long russet waves to take the place of mortals hair, and the sort of features that remind you of soft kisses — the sort of petite, sultry female limbs and features you instinctively knew belonged, not to one of the many sweet and flawed loves and lovers that we all encounter in life, but to that one girl that would turn out to be by far the biggest love of your life, exactly as she is, without ever having to try, and, decades later, when you happen to come across an old picture of her always will remind you that your heart is still truly alive and forever hungry.
She dressed in black or beige, light colors and tastefully feminine, quite sensous, revealing clothing usually, and of late she had sometimes put on a slender black short gown with a bare back and a sensual deep cleavage that was evidently for the moment her especial pride, and often times when she wore it she would for a short while come to a pause regarding a certain place on the wall, which Merlin thought most be a mirror of sorts.
She sat usually in the profile chair near the window where the moon and lamp outside would illuminate her figure in a way that made his heart almost come to a stop in that rising surge of aching, sexual desire, but sometimes she instead honored the chaise longue by the lamp, and often he witnessed as she would slowly do a routine of yoga with posturings of her arms, leg, back and hands that Merlin considered very graceful and not just a little erotic to watch from a distance.
[through their windows,
they somehow courted, each day growing.]
Another time she had come up to the window and stood in it magnificently for the longest time, and looked out
at the moon that seemed to had lost its way and was dripping the strangest and most transforming brilliance into the areaway between, turning the motif of ash-cans and clothes-lines into a vivid
impressionism of silver casks and gigantic gossamer cobwebs.
Merlin was sitting in plain sight, eating cottage cheese with cinnamon and Yogurt on it; and so quickly did he reach out for the window cord that he tipped the cottage cheese into his lap with his free hand — and the cheese and yogurt made spots on his trousers, and he was sure that she had seen him as a drooling fool after all.
Sometimes there were guests — men and girls, dressed to impress, who stood with gift in hand and coat on arm, as they talked to Caroline; all polite before they followed her out of the light and, sometimes out of sight, encounters bound for a night of play and fun. Other young men and girls, sometimes came by and seemed trying to tell Caroline something.
She would be sitting either in the profile chair and watching them with eager intentness or else in the chaise longue by the lamp, looking very lovely and youthfully sensuous indeed. And sometimes, he had even seen her make love.
To herself, with her fingers and a toy (or two).
And to others, and them making love to her, once she had tied up a girl and then proceeded to pleasure her together with a male acquaintance, and my god, had they pleasured her beyond belief. The mere thoughts of the sights Merlin had seen her do and enjoy turned him on in ways no other girl ever had managed to come close to doing.
Merlin enjoyed these encounters. Of some of the men and girls he approved. In fact, as long as she seemed genuinly happy with them and all they did, he was entirely happy too for her.
A few won only his grudging toleration, one or two he even loathed — especially the most frequent visitor, a man with black hair and a black goatee and a pitch-dark soul, who seemed to Merlin vaguely familiar and even a bit darkly sinister, at least, to Merlin that was the message he could read from Caroline, whenever that man was near.
Now, in truth, Merlin’s whole life was in no way “bound up with this romance he had constructed”; it was not “the happiest hour of his day.” Nor did his day and life ever feel restrained and made less by anything she did or did not do.
He loved her, and as life would have it, he always would, and he enjoyed her presence in his life, just the way she was, but he never offered to rescue Caroline from any kind of “clutches”; nor did he marry her, in truth, he didnt truly give her the option to be his girlfriend, lover, or friend. There where fleeting moments for sure. Chances he could have taken. Moments he should have conquered. But instead, he walked through life, choosing less fulfilling roads.
No, a slightly stranger, yet so common thing happened than any of these, and it is this tale of Merlin and Caroline that will presently be set down here.
It began one October afternoon when the girl in question walked briskly into the mellow interior of the Moonlight Quill.
It was a dark afternoon, threatening rain and the end of the world, and done in that particularly gloomy gray in which only New York afternoons can possibly indulge.
A breeze was crying down the streets, whisking along battered newspapers and pieces of things, and little lights were pricking out all the windows — it was so desolate that one was sorry for the tops of sky-scrapers lost up there in the dark green and gray heaven, and felt that now surely the farce was to close, and presently all the buildings would collapse like card houses, and pile up in a dusty, sardonic heap upon all the millions who presumed to wind in and out of them.
At least these were the sort of musings that lay heavily upon, what we all can agree is the somewhat lost soul of Merlin Grainger, as he stood by the window putting a dozen books back in a row after a cyclonic visit by a lady with ermine trimmings.
He looked out of the window full of thoughts that paraded by in that quite chaotic entwined way that seamlessly mixes and matches all of lifes subjects in to an endless string of thought — while his hands lifted and sorted the early novels of H. G. Wells, there were a split second of the boot of Genesis, and another of how Thomas Edison had said that in thirty years there would be no dwelling-houses upon the island, but only a vast and turbulent bazaar; and then he set the last book right side up, thought of the rising ocean, last nights fuck and the new Avengers (with both Spiderman and Magneto) and turned — and, for a moment, as he thought of how rare book stores like this one now was - the sun came on, a light and warmth splashed against him, like a towering wave rushing against the sandy beach, as Caroline walked coolly into the shop.
She was dressed in a most sensual way — he always remembered this when he thought about it later.
Her skirt was plaid and short, pleated like a concertina; her jacket was a soft but brisk tan;not entirely closed it revealed her bra less, full and perky cleavage and a single long black chain hanging down, from her sculpted, petite neck, like an arrow, the chain guided his eyes to that revealing decollage before it vanished further down where her clothes hid it from his eyes.
Her shoes were high heeled black and her russet hair, let loose and straight, completed her like the top of a very expensive and beautifully filled candy box.
Merlin, breathless and startled, advanced with anticipation toward her.
“Good-afternoon —” he said, and then stopped.
— Why, he did not know, except that it came to him that something very portentous in his life was about to occur, and that it would need no furbishing but silence and the proper amount of expectant attention.
And in that minute before the thing began to happen he had the sense of a breathless second hanging suspended in time: he saw through the glass partition that bounded off the little office the malevolent conical head of his employer, Mr. Moonlight Quill, bent over his correspondence. He saw Miss McCracken and Miss Masters as two patches of hair drooping over piles of paper; he saw the crimson lamp overhead, and noticed with a touch of pleasure how really pleasant and romantic it made the book-store seem. Then the thing happened, or rather it began to happen. Caroline picked up a volume of poems lying loose upon a pile, fingered it absently with her slender white hand, and suddenly, with an easy gesture, tossed it upward toward the ceiling where it disappeared in the crimson lamp and lodged there, seen through the illuminated silk as a dark, bulging rectangle. This pleased her — she broke into a contagious laughter, in which Merlin found himself presently joining.
“It stayed up!” she cried merrily. “It stayed up, didn’t, it?” To both of, them this seemed the height of brilliant absurdity. Their laughter mingled, filled the bookshop, and Merlin was glad to find that her voice was rich and full of sorcery, the kind to which his heart in kind, responded without reservation.
“Try another,” he found himself suggesting —“try this, red one.”
At this their bubble of mutual laughter increased, and she had to rest her hands upon the stack to steady herself.
“Try another,” she managed to articulate between spasms of mirth. “Oh, golly, try another!”
“Try two.” Merlins voice cracked in a burst of uncontrollable laughter before he even finished saying it
“Yes, try two. Oh, I’ll choke if I don’t stop laughing. Here it goes.”
Suiting her action to the word, she picked up a red book and sent it in a gentle hyperbola toward the ceiling, where it sank into the lamp beside the first.
It was a few minutes before either of them could do more than rock back and forth in helpless glee; but then, by mutual agreement they took up the sport anew, this time in unison.
Merlin seized a large, specially bound French classic and whirled it upward. Applauding his own accuracy, he took a best-seller in one hand and a book on barnacles in the other, and waited breathlessly while she made her shot. Then the business waxed fast and furious — sometimes they alternated, and, watching, he found how supple she was in every movement; sometimes one of them made shot after shot, picking up the nearest book, sending it off, merely taking time to follow it with a glance before reaching for another. Within three minutes they had cleared a little place on the table, and the lamp of crimson satin was so bulging with books that it was near breaking.
“Silly game, basket-ball,” she cried scornfully as a book left her hand. “High-school girls play it in hideous fashion.”
“Idiotic,” he agreed.
She paused in the act of tossing a book, and replaced it suddenly in its position on the table.
“I think we’ve got room to sit down now,” she said gravely.
They had; they had cleared an ample space for two.
With a faint touch of sexual arousal and jolted happiness Merlin glanced toward Mr. Moonlight Quill’s glass partition, but the three heads were still bent earnestly over their work, and it was evident that they had not seen what had gone on in the shop. Just as they where so eager to dismiss how responsive web books and apps soon would swallow their printed paper back world all whole. So when Caroline put her hands on the table and hoisted herself up Merlin calmly imitated her, and they sat side by side looking very earnestly at each other.
“I had to see you,” she began, with a rather hungry expression in her brown eyes.
“It was that last time,” she continued, her voice trembling a little, though she tried to keep it steady. “I was so turned on. I love it, when you eat me, sitting on the dresser like that. It makes me all wet thinking of you seeing me.”
“I did — almost,” he confessed reluctantly, “you know. You looked absolutely amazing last night, and i so — In my, mind i tasted your lips and then your mouth and throat.”
He was astonishing himself by the debonnaire appropriateness of his remarks. Words seemed for the first time in his life to ran at him shrieking to be used, gathering themselves into carefully arranged squads and platoons, and being presented to him by punctilious adjutants of paragraphs, aching to be used, enjoyed and pleasured, exactly the right way.
“That’s what floated through my mind,” she said. “My throat and lips, the eagerness of my tongue — tasting you, before you reciprocrate in full, your tongue and fingers, against my wet and I knew, at least I felt sure, that you would love it as much as I.”
He nodded frankly.
“I can come by tonight?.”
He felt no shame in saying this — rather a fulfilling delight in making the admission — he knew that nothing he could say or do would be beyond her comprehension; least of all his sexual appetite for all things "Caroline".
Caroline looked down at her wrist watch, and with a little cry slid from the table to her feet.
“It’s after five,” she cried. “I didn’t realize. I have to be at the Ritz at five-thirty. Let’s hurry and get this done. I’ve got a bet on it.”
With one accord they set to work.
Caroline began the matter by seizing a book on insects and sending it whizzing, and finally crashing through the glass partition that housed Mr. Moonlight Quill.
The proprietor glanced up with a wild look, brushed a few pieces of glass from his desk, and went on with his letters. Miss McCracken gave no sign of having heard — only Miss Masters started and gave a little frightened scream before she bent to her task again. But to Merlin and Caroline, it didn’t matter. In a perfect orgy of energy they were hurling book after book in all directions until sometimes three or four were in the air at once, smashing against shelves, cracking the glass of pictures on the walls, falling in bruised and torn heaps upon the floor. It was fortunate that no customers happened to come in, for it is certain they would never have come in again — the noise was too tremendous, a noise of smashing and ripping and tearing, mixed now and then with the tinkling of glass, the quick breathing of the two throwers, and the intermittent outbursts of laughter to which both of them periodically surrendered.
At five-thirty Caroline tossed a last book at the lamp, and gave the final impetus to the load it carried. The weakened silk tore and dropped its cargo in one vast splattering of white and color to the already littered floor. Then, with a sigh of relief, she turned to Merlin and held out her hand.
“Good-by for now,” she said simply.
a Subtle kiss
[and for the briefest
their ways departed.]
“Are you going?” He knew she was.
His question was simply a lingering wile to detain her and extract for another moment that dazzling essence of light he drew from her presence, to continue his enormous satisfaction in her features, which were like kisses and, he thought, like the features of a girl he had known back in 1910.
For a minute he pressed the softness of her hand, their lips touched and tasted — then she smiled and withdrew and, before he could spring to open the door, she had done it herself and was gone out into the turbid and ominous twilight that brooded narrowly over Forty-seventh Street.
I would like to tell you how Merlin, having seen how true beauty hides in the lushness of life, walked into the little partition of Mr. Moonlight Quill and gave up his job then and there; thence issuing out into the street a much finer and nobler and increasingly ironic man. But the truth is much more commonplace and lackluster. Merlin Grainger stood up and surveyed the wreck of the bookshop, the ruined volumes, the torn silk remnants of the once beautiful crimson lamp, the crystalline sprinkling of broken glass which lay in iridescent dust over the whole interior — and then he went to a corner where a broom was kept and began cleaning up and rearranging and, as far as he was able, restoring the shop to its former condition. He found that, though some few of the books were uninjured, most of them had suffered in varying extents.
The backs were off some, the pages were torn from others, still others were just slightly cracked in the front, which, as all careless book returners know, makes a book unsalable, and therefore second-hand.
Nevertheless by six o’clock he had done much to repair the damage. He had returned the books to their original places, swept the floor, and put new lights in the sockets overhead.
The red shade itself was ruined beyond redemption, and Merlin thought in some trepidation that the money to replace it might have to come out of his salary.
At six, therefore, having done the best he could, he crawled over the front window display to pull down the blind.
As he was treading delicately back, he saw Mr. Moonlight Quill rise from his desk, put on his overcoat and hat, and emerge into the shop.
He nodded mysteriously at Merlin and went toward the door.
With his hand on the knob he paused, turned around, and in a voice curiously compounded of ferocity and uncertainty, he said:
“If that girl comes in here again, you tell her to behave.”
With that he opened the door, drowning Merlin’s meek “Yessir” in its creak, and went out.
Merlin stood there for a moment, deciding wisely not to worry about what was for the present only a possible futurity, and then he went into the back of the shop and invited Miss Masters to have supper with him at Pulpat’s French Restaurant, where one could still obtain red wine at dinner, despite the Great Federal Government. Miss Masters accepted.
“Wine makes me feel all tingly,” she said.
Merlin laughed inwardly as he compared her to Caroline, or rather as he didn’t compare her. There was no real comparison to be made, all people are who they are and some will shine much brighter and fit you perfectly, most will not and they still are perfectly who they are, just not made for you.
Mr. Moonlight Quill, mysterious, exotic, and oriental in temperament was, nevertheless, a man of decision. And it was with decision that he approached the problem of his wrecked shop.
Unless he should make an outlay equal to the original cost of his entire stock — a step which for certain private reasons he did not wish to take — it would be impossible for him to continue in business with the Moonlight Quill as before. There was but one thing to do.
He promptly turned his establishment from an up-to-the-minute book-store into a second-hand bookshop that fully embraced the chic vintage design trends, as well as the exotic coffee trends of up town cafés. They even had their own, freshly baked cinnabon (with a scent and taste to die for).
The damaged books were marked down from twenty-five to fifty per cent, the name over the door whose serpentine embroidery had once shone so insolently bright, was allowed to grow dim and take on the indescribably vague color of old paint, and, having a strong penchant for ceremonial, the proprietor even went so far as to buy two skull-caps of shoddy red felt, one for himself and one for his clerk, Merlin Grainger. Moreover, he let his goatee grow until it resembled the tail-feathers of an ancient sparrow and substituted for a once dapper business suit a reverence-inspiring affair of shiny alpaca. And in an unholy union of old and new, he put cute coffee tables around the premise and water proof UHD tablets on them all and signed up for free wifi and HBO go, a Norse View, and Scribd accounts for all his customers.
In fact, within a year after Caroline’s catastrophic visit to the bookshop the only thing in it that preserved any semblance of before that historic event was Miss Masters.
Miss McCracken had followed in the footsteps of Mr. Moonlight Quill and become an intolerable dowd.
For Merlin too, from a feeling compounded of loyalty and listlessness, had let his exterior take on the semblance of a deserted but strong, wilder garden.
He accepted the red felt skull-cap as a symbol of his growing wilder and more alive. No, Merlin still refused to truly live, but at least he became a little bit more true to himself. Always a young man known, as a “pusher,” he had been, since the day of his graduation from the manual training department of a New York High School, an inveterate brusher of clothes, hair, teeth, and even eyebrows, and had learned the value of laying all his clean socks toe upon toe and heel upon heel in a certain drawer of his bureau, which would be known as the sock drawer.
These things, he felt, had won him his place in the greatest splendor of the Moonlight Quill. It was due to them that he was not still making “chests useful for keeping things,” as he was taught with breathless practicality in High School, and selling them to whoever had use of such chests — possibly undertakers. Nevertheless when the progressive Moonlight Quill became the cyberpunkish vintage dream Moonlight Quill he preferred to go with it, and so took to letting his suits gather undisturbed the wispy burdens of the air and to throwing his socks indiscriminately into the shirt drawer, the underwear drawer, and even into no drawer at all. It was not uncommon in his new carelessness to let many of his clean clothes go directly back to the laundry without having ever been worn, a common eccentricity of bachelors he was told more then once. Merlin, even started to go to the local gym a couple of days per week.
And this in the face of his favorite magazines, which at that time were fairly staggering with articles by successful authors against the frightful impudence of the condemned poor, and the raging cries from the under paid multimillionaire artists like Taylor Swift.
Such as the buying of wearable shirts and nice cuts of meat, their battles with Spotify for their percieved underpaid labour (despite the blame, as always being entirely the various labels) and the fact that they preferred good investments in personal jewelry to respectable ones in four per cent saving-banks.
It was indeed a strange state of affairs and a sorry one for many small minded and God-fearing men.
For the first time in the history of the Republic almost any colored man north of Georgia could not only change a one-dollar bill. But they could both vote, marry and god heavens, people could even marry and love, fuck and kiss people of their own sex.
Imagine the cataclysmic ordeal they all had to live with in this new and much more equal and sane world. People could even call in sick now and not have to worry about starving to death.
But as at that time the cent was rapidly approaching the purchasing power of the Chinese ubu and was only a thing you got back occasionally after paying for a soft drink, and could use merely in getting your correct weight, this was perhaps not so strange a phenomenon as it at first seems. It was too curious a state of things, however, for Merlin Grainger to take the step that he did take, the hazardous, almost involuntary step of proposing to Miss Masters. Stranger still in his own mind at least, that she accepted him.
It was at Pulpat’s on Saturday night and over a $1.75 bottle of water diluted with vin ordinaire that the proposal occurred.
“Wine makes me feel all tingly, doesn’t it you?” chattered Miss Masters gaily.
“Yes,” answered Merlin absently; and then, after a long and pregnant pause: “Miss Masters — Olive — I want to say something to you if you’ll listen to me.”
The tingliness of Miss Masters (who knew what was coming) increased until it seemed that she would shortly be electrocuted by her own nervous reactions. But her “Yes, Merlin,” came without a sign or flicker of interior disturbance. Merlin swallowed a stray bit of air that he found in his mouth.
“I have no fortune,” he said with the manner of making an announcement. “I have no fame at all.”
Their eyes met, locked, became wistful, and dreamy and beautiful.
“Olive,” he told her, “I love you.”. And that too was true, for one person can indeed love more then one for all the same, or plenty of different reasons, love, after all, just happened, all by it´s own truly important ways.
“I love you too, Merlin,” she answered simply. “Shall we have another bottle of wine?”
“Yes,” he cried, his heart beating at a great rate. “Do you mean —”
“To drink to our engagement,” she interrupted bravely. “May it be a short one!”
“No!” he almost shouted, bringing his fist fiercely down upon the table. “May it last forever!”
“I mean — oh, I see what you mean. You’re right. May it be a short one.” He laughed and added, “My error.”
After the wine arrived they discussed the matter thoroughly. Eyes locked and rapid pulse.
“We’ll have to take a small apartment at first,” he said, “and I believe, yes, by golly, I know there’s a small one in the house where I live, a big room and a sort of a dressing-room-kitchenette and the use of a bath on the same floor.”
She clapped her hands happily, and he thought how pretty she was really.
She continued enthusiastically:
“And as soon as we can afford it we’ll take a real swell apartment, with an elevator and a wifi droif and pt girl.”
“And after that a place in the country — and a self driving Tesla.”
“I can’t imagine nothing more fun. Can you?”
Merlin fell silent a moment.
He was thinking that he would have to give up his room, the fourth floor rear. Yet it mattered very little now because it wasnt the room, but her he would forever miss. During the past year and a half — in fact, from the very date of Caroline’s visit to the Moonlight Quill — he had never seen her. For a week after that visit her lights had failed to go on — darkness brooded out into the areaway, seemed to grope blindly in at his expectant, uncurtained window. Then the lights had appeared at last, and instead of Caroline and her various entertainment they stowed a stodgy family — a little man with a bristly mustache and a full-bosomed woman who spent her evenings patting her hips and rearranging bric-à-brac.
After two days of them parading by his view, Merlin had callously pulled down his shade.
No, in the abscense of Caroline, Merlin could think of nothing more fun than exploring the world with Olive.
There would be a cottage in a suburb, a cottage painted blue, just one class below the sort of cottages that are of white stucco with a green roof made up of plants and moss and solar power. In the grass around the cottage would be rusty trowels and a broken green bench and a baby-carriage with a wicker body that sagged to the left and rows of strawberry plants and apple trees. And around the grass and the baby-carriage and the cottage itself, around his whole world there would be the arms of Olive, a little stouter, the arms of her neo-Olivian period, when, as she walked, her cheeks would tremble up and down ever so slightly from too much face-massaging. A self powered, ai droid would entertain and guard their growing army of toddlers, and..
He could hear her voice now, two spoons’ length away:
“I knew you were going to say this to-night, Merlin. I could see —”
She could see.
Ah — suddenly he wondered how much she could see.
Could she see on his face, that the girl who had come in with a party of three men and sat down at the next table was Caroline? Ah, could she see that? Could she see that the men brought with them liquor far more potent than Pulpat’s red ink condensed threefold? Could she see the effect it had on him, her sudden, unexpected presence, the thoughts and emotions bursting up inside of him at the sight of how incredibly well she had aged, the sensual, hot dress she wore . . .
[Like a scent
long lost returned.
There she was, yet again.]
Merlin stared breathlessly, half-hearing through an auditory ether Olive’s low, soft monologue, as like a persistent honey-bee she sucked sweetness from her memorable hour.
Merlin was listening to the clinking of ice and the fine laughter of all four at some pleasantry — and that laughter of Caroline’s that he knew so well stirred him, lifted him, called his heart
imperiously over to her table, whither it obediently went.
He could see her quite plainly, and he fancied that in the last year and a half she had changed, if ever so slightly. Was it the light or werent her cheeks a little morre sculpted and healthy toned and her eyes more fresh and vibrant, more liquid and alive, than of old and stale? Yet her russet hair; shone more pretty then ever, her mouth hinted of the most decadent of kisses, as did the profile that came sometimes between his eyes and a row of books, when it was twilight in the bookshop where the crimson lamp presided no more.
And she had been drinking. The threefold flush in her cheeks was compounded of youth and wine and fine taste and neither to little or to much cosmetic — that he could tell. She was making great amusement for the young man on her left and the portly person on her right, and even for the gentleman opposite her, for the latter from time to time uttered the shocked and mildly reproachful cackles of another generation. Merlin caught the words of a song she was intermittently singing
“Just snap your fingers at care,
Don’t cross the bridge ‘til you’re there —”
The portly person filled her glass with chill amber. A waiter after several trips about the table, and many helpless glances at Caroline, who was maintaining a cheerful, futile questionnaire as to the succulence of this dish or that, managed to obtain the semblance of an order and hurried away. . . .
Olive was speaking to Merlin
“When, then?” she asked, her voice faintly shaded with disappointment. He realized that he had just answered no to some question she had asked him.
“Don’t you — care?”
A rather disappointed poignancy in her question brought his eyes back to her.
“As soon as possible, dear,” he replied with surprising tenderness. “In two months — in June.”
“So soon?” Her delightful excitement quite took her breath away.
“Oh, yes, I think we’d better say June. No use waiting.”
Olive began to pretend that two months was really too short a time for her to make preparations. Wasn’t he a bad boy! Wasn’t he impatient, though! Well, she’d show him he mustn’t be too quick with her. Indeed he was so sudden she didn’t exactly know whether she ought to marry him at all.
“June,” he repeated sternly.
Olive sighed and smiled and drank her coffee, her little finger lifted high above the others in true refined fashion. A stray thought came to Merlin that he would like to buy five rings and throw at it.
“By gosh!” he exclaimed aloud. Soon he would be putting rings on one of her fingers.
His eyes swung sharply to the right. The party of four had become so riotous that the head-waiter had approached and spoken to them. Caroline was arguing with this head-waiter in a raised voice, a voice so clear and young that it seemed as though the whole restaurant would listen — the whole restaurant except Olive Masters, self-absorbed in her new secret.
“How do you do?” Caroline was saying. “Probably the handsomest head-waiter in captivity. Too much noise? Very unfortunate. Something’ll have to be done about it. Gerald”— she addressed the man on her right —“the head-waiter says there’s too much noise. Appeals to us to have it stopped. What’ll I say?”
“Sh!” remonstrated Gerald, with laughter. “Sh!” and Merlin heard him add in an undertone: “All the bourgeoisie will be aroused. This is where the floorwalkers learn French.”
Caroline sat up straight in sudden alertness.
“Where’s a floorwalker?” she cried. “Show me a floorwalker.” This seemed to amuse the party, for they all, including Caroline, burst into renewed laughter. The head-waiter, after a last conscientious but despairing admonition, became Gallic with his shoulders and retired into the background.
Pulpat’s, as every one knows, has the unvarying respectability of the table d’hôte. It is not a gay place in the conventional sense. One comes, drinks the red wine, talks perhaps a little more and a little louder than usual under the low, smoky ceilings, and then goes home. It closes up at nine-thirty, tight as a drum; the policeman is paid off and given an extra bottle of wine for the missis, the coat-room girl hands her tips to the collector, and then darkness crushes the little round tables out of sight and life.
But excitement was prepared for Pulpat’s this evening — excitement of no mean variety. A girl with russet, purple-shadowed hair mounted to her table-top and began to dance thereon.
“Sacré nom de Dieu! Come down off there!” cried the head-waiter. “Stop that music!”
But the musicians were already playing so loud that they could pretend not to hear his order; having once been young, they played louder and wilder than ever,
and Caroline danced with grace and vivacity, her black, filmy short dress swirling about her, her agile arms playing in supple, tenuous gestures along the smoky air as she slowly pulled a fellow up to join her on the table.
A group of Frenchmen at a table near by broke into cries of applause, in which other parties joined — in a moment the room was full of clapping and shouting; half the diners were on their feet, crowding up, and on the outskirts the hastily summoned proprietor was giving indistinct vocal evidences of his desire to put an end to this thing as quickly as possible. “ . . . Merlin!” cried Olive, awake, aroused at last; when she could clearly see Caroline kiss not just one, but two of the men she where now dancing with. Their hands willingly tracing her legs, her perky, deliciously toned, yet curcy body. And as both mens fingers, found their way inside her dress, right there in plain sight, slowly lifting it´s lower part up closer to her hips and (hopefully she wore panties Merlin was thinking)
Olive cried again as she witnessed the girls pantiless shaved privates slowly revealed...
“Oh Merlin, she’s such a wicked girl! Let’s get out — now!”
The fascinated Merlin protested feebly that the check was not paid.
“It’s all right. Lay five dollars on the table. I despise that girl. I can’t bear to look at her.” She was on her feet now, tagging at Merlin’s arm.
Helplessly, listlessly, and then with what amounted to downright unwillingness, Merlin rose, followed Olive dumbly as she picked her way through the delirious clamor, now approaching its height and threatening to become a wild and memorable riot.
Submissively he took his coat and stumbled up half a dozen steps into the moist April air outside, his ears still ringing with the sound of light feet on the table and of laughter all about and over the little world of the cafe. In silence they walked along toward Fifth Avenue and a bus, It was not until next day that she told him about the wedding — how she had moved the date forward: it was much better that they should be married on the first of May.
And married they were, in a somewhat stuffy manner, under the chandelier of the flat where Olive lived with her mother. After marriage came elation, and then, gradually, the growth of weariness.
Responsibility descended upon Merlin, the responsibility of making his thirty dollars a week and her twenty suffice to keep them respectably healthy, fit and toned and to hide with decent garments the evidence that they were.
It was decided after several weeks of disastrous and well-nigh humiliating experiments with restaurants that they would join the great army of the delicatessen-fed, so he took up his old way of life again, in that he stopped every evening at Braegdort’s delicatessen and bought potatoes in salad, ham in slices, and sometimes even stuffed tomatoes, fruits, berries, eggs, Quinoa and chicken in bursts of extravagance.
Then he would trudge homeward, enter the dark hallway, and climb three rickety flights of stairs covered by an ancient carpet of long obliterated design. The hall had an ancient smell — of the vegetables of 1880, of the furniture polish in vogue when “Adam-and Eve” Bryan ran against William McKinley, of portieres an ounce heavier with dust, from worn-out shoes, and lint from dresses turned long since into patch-work quilts.
This smell would pursue him up the stairs, revivified and made poignant at each landing by the aura of contemporary cooking, then, as he began the next flight, diminishing into the odor of the dead routine of dead generations.
Eventually would occur the door of his room, which slipped open with indecent willingness and closed with almost a sniff upon his “Hello, dear! Got a treat for you to-night.”
was denied step by step
Olive, who always rode home on the bus to “get a morsel of air,” would be making the bed and hanging up things.
At his call she would come up to him and give him a quick kiss with wide-open eyes, while be held her upright like a ladder, his hands on her two arms, as though she were a thing without equilibrium, and would, once he relinquished hold, fall stiffly backward to the floor.
This is the kiss that comes in with the second year of a functional yet not really the right kind of relations, it was at it´s best, a cute puppy of politeness, not love and sexual passion and need. Instead of each others needs being met (both ways), they denied each other. Putting up roadblocks instead of allowing. Step by step, loosing their passion, their drive, appetitite and hunger for exploring what life holds.
Then came supper, and after that they went out for a walk, up two blocks and through Central Park, or sometimes to a moving picture, which taught them patiently that they were the sort of people for whom life was ordered, and that something very grand and brave and beautiful would soon happen to them if they were docile and obedient to their rightful superiors and kept away from pleasure. Yes, even the fabled heaven might be theirs if they avoided all aspects of actually living a fulfilling life.
Such was their day for three years. Then change came into their lives: Olive had a baby, and as a result Merlin had a new influx of material resources.
In the third week of Olive’s confinement, after an hour of nervous rehearsing, he went into the office of Mr. Moonlight Quill and demanded an enormous increase in salary.
“I’ve been here ten years,” he said; “since I was nineteen. I’ve always tried to do my best in the interests of the business.”
Mr. Moonlight Quill said that he would think it over. Next morning he announced, to Merlin’s great delight, that he was going to put into effect a project long premeditated — he was going to retire from active work in their hybrid café and bookshop, confining himself to periodic visits and leaving Merlin as manager with a salary of fifty dollars a week and a one-tenth interest in the business.
When the old man finished, Merlin’s cheeks were glowing and his eyes full of tears. He seized his employer’s hand and shook it violently, saying over and over again:
“It’s very nice of you, sir. It’s very white of you. It’s very, very nice of you.”
So after ten years of faithful work in the store he had won out at last.
Looking back, he saw his own progress toward this hill of elation no longer as a sometimes sordid and always gray decade of worry and failing enthusiasm and failing dreams, years when the moonlight had grown duller in the areaway and the youth had faded out of his mind and heart, even tho on the outside, he looked more alive then ever, but as a glorious and triumphant climb over obstacles which he had determinedly surmounted by unconquerable will-power.
The optimistic self-delusion that had kept him from misery was seen now in the golden garments of stern resolution. Half a dozen times he had taken steps to leave the Moonlight Quill and soar upward, but through sheer faintheartedness he had stayed on. Strangely enough he now thought that those were times when he had exerted tremendous persistence and had “determined” to fight it out where he was.
At any rate, let us not for this moment begrudge Merlin his new and magnificent view of himself. He had arrived. At thirty he had reached a post of importance. He left the shop that evening fairly radiant, invested every penny in his pocket in the most tremendous feast that Braegdort’s delicatessen offered, and staggered homeward with the great news and four gigantic paper bags. The fact that Olive was too sick to eat, that he made himself faintly but unmistakably ill by a struggle with four stuffed tomatoes, and that most of the food deteriorated rapidly in an iceless ice-box: all next day did not mar the occasion. For the first time since the week of his marriage Merlin Grainger lived under a sky of unclouded tranquillity and his heart made more then one big jump of joy that night.
The baby boy was christened Arthur, and life became dignified, significant, and, at length, centered.
Merlin and Olive resigned themselves to a somewhat secondary place in their own cosmos; but what they lost in personality they regained in a sort of primordial pride of denial. The country house did not come, but a month in an Asbury Park boarding-house each summer filled the gap; and during Merlin’s two weeks’ holiday this excursion assumed the air of a really merry jaunt — especially when, with the baby asleep in a wide room opening technically on the sea, Merlin strolled with Olive along the thronged board-walk puffing at his cigar and trying to look like twenty thousand a year.
With some alarm at the slowing up of the days and the accelerating of the years, Merlin became thirty-one, thirty-two — then almost with a rush arrived at that age which, with all its washing and panning, can only muster a bare handful of the precious stuff of youth: he became thirty-five and physically it mattered not at all, but the years of not fully living had started to take it´s mental toll on him. He longed for life, yet saw no alternative and hope.
And one day on Fifth Avenue he saw Caroline.
It was Sunday, a radiant, flowerful Easter morning and the avenue was a pageant of lilies and cutaways and happy April-colored bonnets. Twelve o’clock: the great churches were letting out their people — St. Simon’s, St. Hilda’s, the Church of the Epistles, opened their doors like wide mouths until the people pouring forth surely resembled happy laughter as they met and strolled and chattered, or else waved white bouquets at waiting chauffeurs. In front of the Church of the Epistles stood its twelve vestrymen, carrying out the time-honored custom of giving away Easter eggs full of face-powder to the church-going debutantes of the year.
Around them delightedly danced the two thousand miraculously groomed children of the very rich, correctly cute and curled, shining like sparkling little jewels upon their mothers’ fingers. Speaks the sentimentalist for the children of the poor?
Ah, but the children of the rich, laundered, sweet-smelling, complexioned of the country, and, above all, with soft, in-door voices.
Little Arthur was five, child of the middle class. Undistinguished, unnoticed, with a nose that forever marred what Grecian yearnings his features might have had,
he held tightly to his mother’s warm, sticky hand, and, with Merlin on his other side, moved, upon the home-coming throng.
At Fifty-third Street, where there were two churches, the congestion was at its thickest, its richest. Their progress was of necessity retarded to such an extent that even little Arthur had
not the slightest difficulty in keeping up. Then it was that Merlin perceived an open landaulet of deepest crimson, with handsome nickel trimmings, glide slowly up to the curb and come to a stop. In it sat Caroline.
She was dressed in black, a tight-fitting gown trimmed with translucent materials and sultry, evocaring openings, flowered at the waist with a corsage of orchids. Merlin started and then gazed at her with a surge of tremendous sexual hunger and passion that all of sudden swelled up inside of him. For the first time in the eight years since his marriage he was encountering the girl again.
But a girl no longer.
Her figure was slim as ever — or perhaps she looked even better then he remembered her, a sort of insolent adolescence, had gone the way of the butterfly after the first blooming of her cheeks, from a beautifual larva to something even more radiant.
She was so beautiful; dignity was there now, and the charming, sexual good looks and lines of a fortuitous, sensual fourty five; and she sat in the car with such perfect appropriateness and self-possession that it made him breathless to watch her.
Suddenly she smiled — the smile of a goddess made flesh, bright as that very Easter and its flowers, mellower than ever — yet somehow with more radiance and infinite promise then even that first smile back there in the bookshop all those years before. But it was also a steelier smile, just a little more disillusioned and sad. The sort of thing you can only see in another human being if you truly know their soul and mind.
But it was soft and sensous enough and with such sexual femininity behind it for the rest of the world to make a pair of young men in cutaway coats hurry over, to pull their high hats off their wetted, iridescent hair; to bring them, flustered and bowing, to the edge of her landaulet, where her lavender gloves gently touched their gray ones.
And these two were presently joined by another, and then two more, until there was a rapidly swelling crowd around the landaulet. Merlin would hear a young man beside him say to his perhaps well-favored companion:
“If you’ll just pardon me a moment, there’s some one I have to speak to. Walk right ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Within three minutes every inch of the landaulet, front, back, and side, was occupied by a man — a man trying to construct a sentence clever enough to find its way to Caroline through the stream of conversation.
Luckily for Merlin a portion of little Arthur’s clothing had chosen the opportunity to threaten a collapse, and Olive had hurriedly rushed him over against a building for some extemporaneous repair work, so Merlin was able to watch, unhindered, the salon in the street.
The crowd swelled. A row formed in back of the first, two more behind that. In the midst, an orchid rising from a black bouquet, sat Caroline enthroned in her obliterated car, nodding and crying salutations and smiling with such surface true happiness that, of a sudden, a new relay of gentlemen had left their wives and consorts and were striding toward her. The crowd, now phalanx deep, began to be augmented by the merely curious; men of all ages who could not possibly have known Caroline jostled over and melted into the circle of ever-increasing diameter, until the lady in question was the centre of a vast impromptu auditorium.
All about her were faces — clean-shaven, bewhiskered, old, young, ageless, and now, here and there, a woman. Yes, Caroline had always had a great effect on both genders.
The mass was rapidly spreading to the opposite curb, and, as St. Anthony’s around the corner let out its box-holders, it overflowed to the sidewalk and crushed up against the iron picket-fence of a millionaire across the street. The motors speeding along the avenue were compelled to stop, and in a jiffy were piled three, five, and six deep at the edge of the crowd; auto-busses, top-heavy turtles of traffic, plunged into the jam, their passengers crowding to the edges of the roofs in wild excitement and peering down into the centre of the mass, which presently could hardly be seen from the mass’s edge.
The crush had become terrific. No fashionable audience at a Yale-Princeton football game, no damp mob at a world’s series, could be compared with the panoply that talked, stared, laughed, and honked about the lady in black and lavender. It was stupendous; it was fascinating and overwhelming all at the same time.
A quarter mile down the block a half-frantic policeman called his precinct; on the same corner a frightened civilian crashed in the glass of a fire-alarm and sent in a wild paean for all the fire-engines of the city; up in an apartment high in one of the tall buildings a hysterical old maid telephoned in turn for the prohibition enforcement agent; the special deputies on Bolshevism, and the maternity ward of Bellevue Hospital.
The noise increased.
The first fire-engine arrived, filling the Sunday air with smoke, clanging and crying a brazen, metallic message down the high, resounding walls. In the notion that some terrible calamity had overtaken the city, two excited deacons ordered special services immediately and set tolling the great bells of St. Hilda’s and St. Anthony’s, presently joined by the jealous gongs of St. Simon’s and the Church of the Epistles.
Even far off in the Hudson and the East River the sounds of the commotion were heard, and the self driving ferry-boats and tugs and ocean liners that all tugged along on the open seas in infinite rows of wind and solar powered vessels that transported people and goods all at their own whim set up sirens and whistles that sailed in melancholy cadence, now varied, now reiterated, across the whole diagonal width of the city from Riverside Drive to the gray water-fronts of the lower East Side. . . .
In the centre of her landaulet sat the lady in black and lavender, chatting pleasantly first with one, then with another of that fortunate few in cutaways who had found their way to speaking distance in the first rush. After a while she glanced around her and beside her with a look of growing annoyance.
She yawned and asked the man nearest her if he couldn’t run in somewhere and get her a glass of water.
The man apologized in some embarrassment. He could not have moved hand or foot. He could not have scratched his own ear. . . .
As the first blast of the river sirens keened along the air, Olive fastened the last safety-pin in little Arthur’s rompers and looked up. Merlin saw her start, stiffen slowly like hardening stucco, and then give a little gasp of surprise and disapproval.
“That woman,” she cried suddenly. “Oh! She is up to her antics again. Has she no shame”
She flashed a glance at Merlin that mingled reproach and pain, and without another word gathered up little Arthur with one hand, grasped her husband by the other, and darted amazingly in a winding, bumping canter through the crowd. Somehow people gave way before her; somehow she managed to-retain her grasp on her son and husband; somehow she managed to emerge two blocks up, battered and dishevelled, into an open space, and, without slowing up her pace, darted down a side-street. Then at last, when uproar had died away into a dim and distant clamor, did she come to a walk and set little Arthur upon his feet.
“And on Sunday, too! Hasn’t she disgraced herself enough?”
This was her only comment. She said it to Arthur, as she seemed to address her remarks to Arthur throughout the remainder of the day. For some curious and esoteric reason she had never once looked at her husband during the entire retreat.
The years between thirty-five and sixty-five revolve before the passive mind as one unexplained, confusing merry-go-round, or so at least the myth of history and old age would have us believe.
True, they are a merry-go-round of ill-gaited and wind-broken horses, painted first in pastel colors, then in dull grays and browns, but perplexing and intolerably dizzy and chaotic the thing is, as never were the merry-go-rounds of childhood or adolescence; as never, surely, were the certain-coursed, dynamic roller-coasters of youth.
For most men and women these thirty years are taken up with a gradual withdrawal from life, a retreat first from a front with many shelters, those myriad amusements and curiosities of youth, to a line with less, when we peel down our ambitions to one ambition, our recreations to one recreation, our friends to a few to whom we are anaesthetic; ending up at last in a solitary, desolate strong point that is not strong, where the shells now whistle abominably, now are but half-heard as, by turns frightened and tired, we sit waiting for death.
And the funny thing is, it never, truly is about decline, it is more as if peoples hearts and minds, get´s chipped away and slowly turned to stone with each life denying choice they make. Not growing more beautiful and vital like a thousand year old oak tree, but choosing to grow stale and dry like a bush that never get´s water and sun.
At forty, then, Merlin was absolutely no different from himself at thirty-five; a larger range of experience, a miniscule gray twinkling near his ears, a more certain vivacity in his walk. His forty-five differed from his forty by a like positive margin, unless one mention a slight deafness in his left ear. And at fifty-five the process had become not much different either, except for a mental change of immense sadness.
Yearly he was more and more an “old man” to his family — senile almost, so far as his wife was concerned. He was by this time complete owner of the bookshop. Yet, his mind and body as alert as ever. But somehow, he just could not shake himself to actually live.
He still lifted weights, he took daily walks, they ate healthy food. But there where no sex. No real love and passion in their kisses. There where no joy going to bed or waking up. He enjoyed music, yet it seemed so dull. His memory and strength, everything was as wonderful as ever. But his appetite for life, sex, joy, adventure and the color in the sky. It had somehow, all dried up, and that, that was entirely what made him feel old and tired.
Despite this insight. Merlin hadnt the faintest idea what to do about it. So he continued his self choosen emotional decline.
The mysterious Mr. Moonlight Quill, dead some five years and not survived by his wife, had deeded the whole stock and store to him, and there he still spent his days, conversant now by name with almost all that man has recorded for three thousand years, a human catalogue, an digital authority upon tooling and binding, upon folios and first editions all in the cloud and on the book shops local servers (internet did at times go down, and he did not want his customers to loose their vast library of books, magazines, movies and music) an accurate inventory of a million authors whom he could never have understood and had certainly never read.
At sixty-five he distinctly doddered.
He had assumed the melancholy habits of the aged so often portrayed by the second old man in standard Victorian comedies. He consumed vast warehouses of time searching for mislaid spectacles. He “nagged” his wife and was nagged in turn. He told the same jokes three or four times a year at the family table, and gave his son weird, impossible directions as to his conduct in life.
Mentally he was so entirely different from the Merlin Grainger of twenty-five that it seemed incongruous that he should bear the same name. Yet, his body was as young and healthy as it had been more then 30 years ago, in fact, his doctor might argue he was in better health and vigor then ever.
Not a wrinkle cursed his face, thanks to the modern miracles of dna based creams that actually for the first time in history, made our skin as rejuvenated and young as weights and yoga do for our muscles.
He worked still In the bookshop with the assistance of a few youthful boys, whom, of course, he considered very idle, indeed, and a new young woman, Miss Gaffney. Miss McCracken, ancient and unvenerable as himself, still kept the accounts. Young Arthur was gone into Wall Street to create art and culture and conjure up new science and services, as all the young men seemed to be doing in this day of automated work forces.
This, of course, was as it should be.
Let old Merlin get what magic he could from his books — the place of young King Arthur was in the counting-house.
One afternoon at four when he had slipped noiselessly up to the front of the store on his soft-soled slippers, led by a newly formed habit, of which, to be fair, he was rather ashamed, of spying upon the young man clerk, he looked casually out of the front window, straining his faded eyesight to reach the street.
A limousine, large, portentous, impressive, had drawn to the curb, and the chauffeur, after dismounting and holding some sort of conversation with persons in the interior of the car, turned about and advanced in a bewildered fashion toward the entrance of the Moonlight Quill. He opened the door, shuffled in, and, glancing uncertainly at the old man in the skull-cap, addressed him in a thick, murky voice, as though his words came through a fog.
“Do you — do you sell additions?”
“The arithmetic books are in the back of the store.”
The chauffeur took off his cap and scratched a close-cropped, fuzzy head.
“Oh, naw. This I want’s a detecatif story.” He jerked a thumb back toward the limousine. “She seen it in the paper. Firs’ addition.”
Merlin’s interest quickened. Here was possibly a big sale.
“Oh, editions. Yes, we’ve advertised some firsts, but-detective stories, I-don’t-believe-What was the title?”
“I forget. About a crime.”
“About a crime. I have-well, I have ‘The Crimes of the Borgias’-full morocco, London 1769, beautifully —”
“Naw,” interrupted the chauffeur, “this was one fella did this crime. She seen you had it for sale in the paper.” He rejected several possible titles with the air of connoisseur.
“‘Silver Bones,’” he announced suddenly out of a slight pause.
“What?” demanded Merlin, suspecting that the stiffness of his sinews were being commented on.
“Silver Bones. That was the guy that done the crime.”
“Silver Bones. Indian, maybe.”
Merlin, stroked his grizzly cheeks. “Gees, Mister,” went on the prospective purchaser, “if you wanna save me an awful bawln’ out jes’ try an’ think. The old lady goes wile if everything don’t run smooth.”
returned at his Autumn days
But Merlin’s musings on the subject of Silver Bones were as futile as his obliging search through the shelves, and five minutes later a very dejected charioteer wound his way back to his mistress.
Through the glass Merlin could see the visible symbols of a tremendous uproar going on in the interior of the limousine. The chauffeur made wild, appealing gestures of his innocence, evidently to no avail, for when he turned around and climbed back into the driver’s seat his expression was not a little dejected.
Then the door of the limousine opened and gave forth a pale and slender young man of about twenty, dressed in the attenuation of fashion and carrying a wisp of a cane. He entered the shop, walked past Merlin, and proceeded to take out a cigarette and light it. Merlin approached him.
“Anything I can do for you, sir?”
“Old boy,” said the youth coolly, “there are seveereal things; You can first let me smoke my ciggy in here out of sight of the surveillance on the streets, and worse, that old lady in the limousine, who happens to be my grandmother. Her knowledge as to whether I smoke it or not before my majority happens to be a matter of five thousand dollars to me.
The second thing is that you should look up your first edition of the ‘Crime of Sylvester Bonnard’ that you advertised in last Sunday’s Times. My grandmother there happens to want to take it off your hands.”
Detecatif story! Crime of somebody! Silver Bones! All was explained. With a faint deprecatory chuckle, as if to say that he would have enjoyed this had life put him in the habit of enjoying anything, Merlin doddered away to the back of his shop where his treasures were kept, to get this latest investment which he had picked up rather cheaply at the sale of a big collection.
When he returned with it the young man was drawing on his cigarette and blowing out quantities of smoke with immense satisfaction.
“My God!” he said, “She keeps me so close to her the entire day running idiotic errands that this happens to be my first puff in four days.
What’s the world coming to, I ask you, when a feeble old lady in the milk-toast era can dictate to a man as to his personal vices. I happen to be unwilling to be so dictated to. Let’s see the book.”
Merlin passed it to him tenderly and the young man, after opening it with a carelessness that gave a momentary jump to the book-dealer’s heart, ran through the pages with his thumb.
“No illustrations, and no photos and videos eh?” he commented. “Well, old boy, what’s it worth? Speak up! We’re willing to give you a fair price, though why I don’t know.”
“Five thousand dollars,” said Merlin with a frown.
The young man gave a startled whistle.
“Whew! Come on. You’re not dealing with somebody from the cornbelt. I happen to be a city-bred man and my grandmother happens to be a city-bred woman, though I’ll admit it’d take a special tax appropriation to keep her in repair. We’ll give you twenty-five dollars, and let me tell you that’s liberal. We’ve got books in our attic, up in our attic with my old play-things, that were written before the old boy that wrote this was born.”
Merlin stiffened, expressing a rigid and meticulous horror.
“Did your grandmother give you twenty-five dollars to buy this with?”
“She did not. She gave me much, much more, but she expects change. I know that old lady.”
“You tell her,” said Merlin with dignity, “that she has missed a very great bargain.”
“Give you five hundred,” urged the young man.
“Come on now — be reasonable and don’t try to hold us up ——”
Merlin had wheeled around with the precious volume under his arm and was about to return it to its special drawer in his office when there was a sudden interruption. With unheard-of magnificence the front door burst rather than swung open, and admitted in the dark interior a regal apparition in black silk and fur which bore rapidly down upon him.
The cigarette leaped from the fingers of the urban young man and he gave breath to an inadvertent “Damn!”— but it was upon Merlin that the entrance seemed to have the most remarkable and incongruous effect — so strong an effect that the greatest treasure of his shop slipped from his hand and joined the cigarette on the floor.
Before him stood Caroline.
She was of course, just like him, an older woman, however remarkably preserved, unusually handsome, unusually erect, and as sexually appealing as ever.
Her hair was a soft, beautiful red, elaborately dressed and jewelled; her face, faintly rouged with outmost perfection, showed not a single web of wrinkles. Well, two tiny little lines in the form of stanchions connected her nose with the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were alive, bright and clear as day, full of her brilliant mind and life force.
It was Caroline without a doubt: Caroline’s features in full bloom; Caroline’s figure, just a tiny little bit more brittle and stiff in movement; Caroline’s manner, sensual, confident, sexual, unmistakably compounded of a delightful insolence and an enviable self assurance; and, most of all, Caroline’s voice, full of wisdom, strength and life and with a ring in it that still could and did make men and women want to cater to her every needs. Her face, lips, neck, he felt breathless looking at this woman that kept growing more beautiful for each passing decade.
She stood and sniffed. Her eyes found the cigarette upon the floor.
“What’s that?” she cried. The words were not a question — they were an entire litany of suspicion, accusation, confirmation, and decision.
She tarried over them scarcely an instant. “Stand up!” she said to her grandson, “stand up and blow that filthy nicotine out of your lungs!”
The young man looked at her in trepidation.
“Blow!” she commanded.
He pursed his lips feebly and blew into the air.
“Blow!” she repeated, more peremptorily than before.
He blew again, helplessly, ridiculously.
“Do you realize,” she went on briskly, “that you’ve forfeited five thousand dollars in five minutes?”
Merlin momentarily expected the young man to fall pleading upon his knees, but such is the nobility of human nature that he remained standing — even blew again into the air, partly from nervousness, partly, no doubt, with some vague hope of reingratiating himself.
“Young stupid ass!” cried Caroline. “Once more, just once more and you leave college and go to work.”
This threat had such an overwhelming effect upon the young man that he took on an even paler pallor than was natural to him. But Caroline was not through.
“Do you think I don’t know what you and your brothers, yes, and your asinine father too, think of me? Well, I do. You think I’m senile. You think I’m soft. I’m not!” She struck herself with her-fist as though to prove that she was a mass of muscle and sinew.
“And I’ll have more brains left when you’ve got me laid out in the drawing-room some sunny day than you and the rest of them combined were born with.”
“But Grandmother ——”
“Be quiet. You, a thin little stick of a boy, who if it weren’t for my money might have risen to be a journeyman barber out in the Bronx — Let me see your hands. Ugh! The hands of a barber — you presume to be smart with me, who once had three counts and a bona-fide duke, not to mention half a dozen papal titles pursue me from the city of Rome to the city of New York.” She paused, took breath. “Stand up! Blow’!”
The young man obediently blew. Simultaneously the door opened and an excited gentleman of middle age who wore a coat and hat trimmed with fur, and seemed, moreover, to be trimmed with the same sort of fur himself on upper lip and chin, rushed into the store and up to Caroline.
“Found you at last,” he cried. “Been looking for you all over town. Tried your ‘phone and email, and finally your secretary told me he thought you’d gone to a bookshop called the Moonlight —”
Caroline turned to him irritably.
“Do I employ you for your reminiscences?” she snapped. “Are you my tutor or my broker?”
“Your broker,” confessed the fur-trimmed man, taken somewhat aback. “I beg your pardon. I came about that phonograph stock. I can sell for twenty million.”
“Then do it”
“Very well. I thought I’d better —”
“Go sell it. I’m talking to my grandson.”
“Very well. I—”
“Good-by, Madame.” The fur-trimmed man made a slight bow and hurried in some confusion from the shop.
“As for you,” said Caroline, turning to her grandson, “you stay just where you are and be quiet.”
She turned to Merlin and included his entire length in a not unfriendly survey.
Then she smiled and he found himself smiling too. In an instant they had both broken into a cracked but none the less spontaneous, warm chuckle. She seized his arm and hurried him to the other side of the store. There they stopped, faced each other, and gave vent to another long fit of forgotten glee and life that once again jolted through his every vein.
“It’s the only way,” she gasped in a sort of triumphant malignity.
“The only thing that keeps old folks like me happy is the sense that they can make other people step around. To be old and rich and have poor descendants is almost as much fun as to be young and beautiful and have ugly sisters.”
“Oh, yes,” chuckled Merlin. “I know. I envy you.”
She nodded, blinking.
“The last time I was in here, forty years ago,” she said, “you were a young man very anxious to kick up your heels.”
“I was,” he confessed.
“Did my visit meant as much for you as it did for me?.”
“You have all along,” he exclaimed. “I thought — I used to think at first that you werent a real person — human, I mean.”
“Many men have thought me inhuman.”
“But now,” continued Merlin excitedly, “I understand. Understanding is allowed to us old people — after nothing much matters.
I see now that on a certain night when you danced upon a table-top you were not just my romantic yearning for a beautiful and deliciously perverse woman. Now i know that you where that one little girl that was entirely perfect for me, every bit of you”
Her old eyes were far away, her voice no more than the echo of a forgotten dream.
“How I danced that night! I remember.”
“You were making an attempt at me. Olive’s arms were closing about me and you warned me to at least keep my measure of youth and heart, to not loose myself in someones restrictions on who i could be. But it seemed at the time, like an effect gotten up at the last moment. It came too late and to much for my stupid young mind to think of as anything but a distant dream.”
“You are now, perhaps as wise as you are mature,” she said inscrutably. “I did not realize.”
“Also I have not forgotten what you did to me when I was thirty-five. You shook me with that traffic tie-up. It was a magnificent effort. The beauty and power you radiated! You became personified even to my wife, and she feared you. For weeks I wanted to slip out of the house at dark and forget the stuffiness of life with music and cocktails and the girl that was you to allow myself to be me again. But then — I no longer knew how.”
“And now. Are you going to dissapoint me right away by telling me that you are to old in your fragile mind to actually live?.”
With a sort of awe she moved back and away from him.
“Yes, leave me!” he cried. “my spirit withered years ago. Have you come here only to tell me something I had best forget: that to be weak and tired in mind, and poor is perhaps more wretched than to be tired and rich; to remind me that my son hurls my gray failure of never truly living in my face?”
“Give me my book,” she commanded harshly. “Be quick, you fool!”
Merlin looked at her once more and then patiently obeyed. He picked up the book and handed it to her, shaking his head when she offered him a bill.
“No need to pay me. Once you made me wreck these very premises and that was one of my finest moments in all of life. Take it, it is my gift to you, my apology for all my failures”
“I did,” she said in anger, “and I’m glad i did. Even tho i wish i had gone far further then i did. I have loved life to it´s fullest, but like you, i have always missed you”
She gave him a glance, half disdain, half ill-concealed uneasiness, and with a brisk word to her urban grandson moved toward the door.
Then she was gone — out of his shop — out of his life.
The door clicked. With a sigh he turned and walked brokenly back toward the glass partition that enclosed the yellowed accounts of many years as well as the mellowed, wrinkled Miss McCracken.
Merlin regarded her parched, cobwebbed face with an odd sort of pity. She, at any rate, had had less from life than he. No rebellious, romantic spirit popping out unbidden had, in its memorable moments, given her life a zest and a glory.
Then Miss McGracken looked up and spoke to him:
“Still a spunky old piece, isn’t she?”
“Alicia Dare. Mrs. Thomas Allerdyce she is now, of course; has been, these thirty years.”
“What? I don’t understand you.” Merlin sat down suddenly in his swivel chair; his eyes were wide.
“Why, surely, Mr. Grainger, you can’t tell me that you’ve forgotten her, when for ten years she was the most notorious character in New York. Why, one time when she was the correspondent in the Throckmorton divorce case she attracted so much attention on Fifth Avenue that there was a traffic tie-up. Didn’t you read about it in the papers.”
“I never used to read the news.” His ancient brain was whirring.
“Well, you can’t have forgotten the time she came in here and ruined the business. Let me tell you I came near asking Mr. Moonlight Quill for my salary, and clearing out.”
“Do you mean, that — that you saw her?”
“Saw. her! How could I help, it with the racket that went on. Heaven knows Mr. Moonlight Quill didn’t like it either but of course he didn’t say anything.
He was daffy about her and she could twist him around her little finger.
The second he opposed one of her whims she’d threaten to tell his wife on him.
Served him right. The idea of that man falling for a pretty adventuress! Of course he was never rich enough for her even though the shop paid well in those days.”
“But when I saw her.” stammered Merlin, “that is, when I thought saw her, she lived with her female friend.”
“Friend, trash!”. said Miss McCracken indignantly. “She had a woman there she called ‘Aunty’, who was no more related to her than I am. Oh, they where lovers and famous for sharing their bed with others too, she was a vital one — and clever. Right after the Throckmorton divorce case she married Thomas Allerdyce, and made herself secure for life, and she kept her bisexual taste for lovers too.”
“Who was she?” cried Merlin. “For God’s sake what was she — a witch?”
“Why, she was Alicia Dare, the dancer, of course. In those days you couldn’t pick up a paper without finding her picture.”
Merlin sat very quiet, his brain suddenly fatigued and stilled.
He was an old man now indeed, so old in mere seconds, his heart ached, that it was impossible for him to dream of ever having been young, so old that the glamour was gone out of the world, passing not into the faces of children and into the persistent comforts of warmth and life, but passing out of the range of sight and feeling.
He knew that he was never to smile again or to sit in a long reverie when spring evenings wafted the cries of children in at his window until gradually they became the friends of his boyhood out there, urging him to come and play before the last dark came down. He was too old now even for memories.
He missed her, and now he knew she was gone forever. And it was no ones fault but his own.
That night he sat at supper with his wife and son, who had used him for their blind purposes. Olive said:
“Don’t sit there like a death’s-head. Say something.”
“Let him sit quiet,” growled Arthur. “If you encourage him he’ll tell us a story we’ve heard a hundred times before.”
Merlin went up-stairs very quietly at nine o’clock. When he was in his room and had closed the door tight he stood by it for a moment, his muscular, well defined limbs trembling.
He knew now that he had always been a fool.
“O Russet Witch!”
But it was too late. He had angered Providence by resisting too many temptations.
There was nothing left now, not even the imaginary heaven, where he would have met only those who, like him, had wasted earth and unfulfilling life away.
Hours later Merlin died in his sleep, dreaming a dream of Caroline, dancing, kissing, making love, under the moonlit night, with him, her choosen lovers, beneath a tree. On a boat, a train, a beach, they where happy.
And then he was no more.
a Norse View Imaging and Publishing
a Norse View, Mike Koontz
Russet Witch was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and is in this version in minor part rewritten by Nordic writer and photographer Mike Koontz.
Thank you for reading.