Author of The Magical Mimics of Oz, "Spectral Snow", "The Magic Sled", etc.
Originally published in Dark Music and Other Spectral Tales, 1947.
Johnny slouched in the shadows against the rough brick of a tumbledown building. There was nothing unusual about the building, for all the buildings in this tenement section not far from the Bowery in New York were tumble-down. Nor was there anything unusual about Johnny, unless you took a second look and that led you to his eyes. There was something still left in them. Not all the booze and bumming of five years could crowd out the ghosts that lived in Johnny's eyes. They whispered to you that here was a man who might have been somebody--might have amounted to a great deal instead of just something. But now--well, Johnny had been told many times that. he was "his own worst enemy." In that role he made war on himself with innumerable bottles.
Johnny slouched in shadow against the cold building, listening to the tolling of the midnight hour by a bell in a nearby church. Johnny counted off the strokes. With each one he grew colder, and more miserable--hungrier--but most of all--more and more in need of a drink--many drinks. Sobriety was playing a devil's tune on Johnny's taut nerves. Those nerves might have been manufactured in Switzerland, so tense were they, so finely coiled and ready to unspring and pitch Johnny into an inferno of hallucination. Johnny knew this and he shuddered--not with the cold or the snow that was falling gently, and which he could feel through the holes in his shoes.
At the last toll of the bell, Johnny looked up in surprise. The city block had been almost in darkness, save for two pale street lamps. But now a shop across the street had come alive. Its windows were blazing with light. Johnny stared incredulously and lurched across the street to the shop. It was an antique shop. One glance told him that. Above the door flapped an iron sign with the words THE GATEWAY ANTIQUE SHOP--OPEN FROM MIDNIGHT TO DAWN. Strange business hours, thought Johnny, but then these antique dealers were queer birds. Johnny decided he would go in. Maybe the guy was lonesome and would let him get warm. Maybe--maybe he might even have a bottle.
Johnny lifted the latch and stepped inside. Yes, it was warm. He breathed the musty air gratefully.
"Good evening, Sir," a soft, well modulated voice spoke. Johnny saw a wispish figure of a man not more than 5 feet tall smiling at him from across a counter. The man was bald and had a small moustache that was white, and blue eyes that sparkled with friendliness. Johnny liked him.
"You are just in time," he said, "I wondered who would be my customer tonight. My name's Smith--one of the many Smiths," the little man rattled on, with a humorous twinkle in his eyes.
"Glad to meet you, my name's Johnny Harrison," Johnny said aloud, thinking to himself that Smith--or whatever his name might be--was going to be mighty disappointed if he thought he was a customer. The only antiques Johnny was interested in were in cellars and were covered with cobwebs.
Johnny was aware of the insistent ticking of a hugely towering Grandfather's clock in the rear of the shop. It punctuated their words with its dull thuds, marking the seconds.
Evidently Mr. Smith was aware of it, too, for he said, "The hour is passing swiftly, we had better get on with business."
"Look," said Johnny, stalling for time, "don't you keep very peculiar business hours--opening your shop at midnight and closing it at dawn?"
"Not at all, not at all," replied Mr. Smith. "That gives me exactly six hours and they are by far the best hours--the hours that are most suitable for my business. Now, if you will come with me." Johnny sighed. What was the use? "Mr. Smith," he said, "I'm not a customer. I haven't any money." The old guy must be a little crazy not to see these things, Johnny thought. Anyone could look at him and tell he was just a stumblebum--certainly not a purchaser of expensive antiques. "I'm not interested in money," Mr. Smith replied surprisingly in his soft, impassive voice. "And you are my customer, else you would not have come into my shop."
The little man took Johnny's arm and led him farther into the shop, behind the counter. He touched an electric switch and Johnny could see that the shop was filled with ancient lamps--myriads of them all shedding mellow beautiful lights of rich and lambent hues. In the middle of this array of what even Johnny recognized as priceless antique lamps, stood a huge old fashioned upholstered chair and a table loaded with books.
"You will sit down," Mr. Smith was urging, "and make yourself comfortable in the chair. You will find the books to your taste, I am sure."
Incredulously Johnny slumped into the soft warm depths of the great chair. He gasped, unable to frame a question that would express his bewilderment.
The little man spoke with quiet assurance as though these happenings were the most normal in the world. "The first two hours from midnight until 2 o'clock are the lamp-light hours. They are quite naturally given over to the pleasures of relaxation and reading, by lamplight. You will enjoy yourself for these two hours and then we will pass on to the next hour. Until then I will leave you."
With that Mr. Smith vanished--went out as might the light of one of his lamps.
He must have stepped through a doorway or down a stairway, reasoned Johnny. Oh, well, this certainly was better than being out in the cold. He hoped no one else came in the shop. And then he looked at the books on the table beside his chair. It couldn't be! But they were--all the books that he had read and loved as a child! They were all there--"At the Back of the North Wind," "The Princess and the Goblin," "The Wind Boy," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Wind in the Willows," Poe's Poems and Stories, Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses." Johnny's eyes misted over as he stared at the well-loved volumes. The core of childhood that remains in all humans, no matter how many their years, swelled and throbbed. The years dropped from Johnny like unclean garments. He began reading. He roamed the lonely sea shore with ghostly Annabel Lee. He traveled the night world in the wondrous hair of North Wind. He ventured into goblin haunted mines with little Princess Irene. In the company of the purple-winged Wind Boy, he sprang gladly into that clear land which hovers just over earth. He wandered with Dorothy down the yellow brick road to the marvelous Emerald City of Oz.
And all the time, remote, distant in his thoughts, the clock ticked, dully, relentlessly. It didn't occur to Johnny to wonder that he was no longer hungry--nor thirsty. Mr. Smith was standing beside him. Johnny looked up. "It is two o'clock," the old man announced gently. "I see you have enjoyed the two hours of lamplight."
Johnny started to speak but his jaw fell in amazement. Where were the lamps? Where was the chair and the books? They were gone. In their place was a huge banquet table. Places were set for two. Even Johnny with no knowledge of antiques could see that the table, its china, silver and linen service were worth a King's ransom. But that scarcely impressed him. It was the food that set his mouth watering and his eyes bulging. All at once he was again so hungry and so thirsty that he forgot his wonder at this apparition of the banquet table.
Calmly Mr. Smith was seating himself in one of the high-backed antique chairs, motioning for Johnny to occupy the other.
Beyond astonishment or questions Johnny sat down.
"Two to three--this is the hour of banqueting," stated Mr. Smith, as if speaking by rote, as he filled a bowl with thick green split pea soup from an ancient silver tureen and handed it to Johnny. The soup, indeed all the food that he ate during that enchanted hour, was the most delicious Johnny had ever tasted. There was breast of guinea hen, succulent roast pheasant, oysters that set the ocean rolling in his ears as he ate them, roasts of beef and tender ham, all accompanied by exquisitely prepared vegetables, salads and greens, breads, rolls, ending with marvelous cakes and pies. And with it all, a variety of wines from age-musty bottles, the exact vintage and flavor to complement each service of food. And as the wines were only the complement of the foods, they produced no sense of intoxication, only a warm glow of well being.
Just as Johnny was beginning to feel that he could eat no more, Mr. Smith urged, "We just have time for our coffee and brandy. Only a few more minutes of the hour remain." So the two drank their rich, brown, mellow flavored coffee and sipped their sweet liqueur.
Johnny sighed with contentment. Now it was time to ask questions. He was filled with assurance and well being. The old man was an expert magician--a trickster of the first water and he evidently was amusing himself by displaying his legerdemain to Johnny.
Well, Johnny didn't mind. But he did want some explanations. He was about to speak when the huge old Grandfather's clock struck three. Johnny blinked. Gone was the banquet table, gone its costly burden and gone the two chairs. What had come in their place made Johnny forget his questions. He was in a mellow old Colonial living room. Opposite him a fire blazed in a great hearth. Before the fire were drawn two great old oaken chairs. Their backs were to him, but Johnny could see that one of them was occupied by a woman. Slowly, Johnny crossed the deeply polished old floors to the fireplace. The woman in the chair was--a girl.
"From three to four," Mr. Smith was speaking imperturbably, "is the hour of companionship and memories. I leave you now to your company and memories."
Johnny hesitated, but already Mr. Smith had vanished as incredibly as before. The girl in the chair smiled at Johnny. A basket of embroidery work rested on her lap. In soft accents she invited him to occupy the great chair next hers. Johnny seated himself and stared. Slowly, oh so slowly, he was remembering. This ancient room, this lovely young girl--somehow, someplace he had known them long, long ago. And then suddenly the gates opened and he was carried along on a flood of memory. She had been his High School sweetheart--simple, naive and wholesome. Through many a winter evening she and Johnny had sat just as they were now in this room, reading and helping each other with their home work. Johnny recalled with a pang how he had looked upon her as rather dull and uninteresting. He had left her, looking for gaudier charms. Now he was awestruck by the girlish simplicity and sweetness of her. What they talked about now, he scarcely knew. Their words were muted with memories, echoing from distant years. It wasn't long though until Johnny had clasped her slim hands in his and their eyes were bright with a friendship made of a special kind of understanding and beauty. The girl's eyes were china blue, and wide, her hair the most gossamer of gold and her figure at that lovely state of development that just presages the blossoming into womanhood.
In what seemed far less than an hour, the Grandfather's clock struck 4. Johnny was not surprised now--but he was regretful. The girl and all the room was gone. Now was the time for Johnny to demand an explanation of Mr. Smith. He wanted to know who the girl was and where he might find her.
Mr. Smith was standing at his side. Before Johnny could speak he pointed and said softly, "Four to five is the hour of love." And he was gone.
This couldn't be. The old man was carrying his tricks too far. Where the girl and her divan had been, stood an ancient, antique bed with a canopy and drapes drawn. Beside the bed was a soft night light. Johnny approached the bed quietly and stared through the fine, thin drapes. He could discern the sleeping figure of a woman, beautiful beyond words, with long black hair trailed over her pillow and her round breasts lifting and falling as she breathed. Something seemed to tell Johnny that she was waiting--waiting to be awakened with a kiss--a sleeping beauty--and he was Prince Charming. Johnny's blood raced through his veins. His breathing was deep and fast. He slipped from his clothes and parted the draperies of the bed.
There was a faint music, deep, passionate and soul stirring. It throbbed and thrummed through Johnny's brain and coursed through his body. He moved to its rhythm. The woman heard it too. They were two dancers, superbly skilled and matched.
The music had stopped, Johnny felt that he was rising from the depths of dark, cool waters that laved his flesh and filled his whole body and being with a sense of ecstasy. The waters clung to him, caressed his skin and eddied about him fondly.
And then he was floating on the surface. Somewhere a clock was striking--one--two--three--four--five. Johnny opened his eyes. Gone was the chamber and the secret, canopied bed. He was lying on a narrow cot with a single woolen blanket covering his body. His clothing lay in a heap on the floor beside the cot. All was darkness and gloom about him. Mr. Smith was standing by the cot. He was saying, "And this is the last of my six business hours--the hour before the dawn--the darkest of all hours--the hour of sleep." As the little man pronounced the word sleep, Johnny was filled with an overpowering weariness, it closed down over him like a vast cloud. His eyes were shut and his last conscious thought was that if he could but open them he would not see Mr. Smith. There was no fighting this weariness, it was too overpowering, too all mastering. Johnny didn't want to fight. He was so tired--so desperately tired. He sighed and welcomed the hour of Sleep.
It was shortly after six o'clock and the first dirty grey of dawn was showing reluctantly through the night shadows of the tenement section, when the cop on the beat saw it in the vacant lot. It was the nude body of a man. Beside him was a heap of worn clothing. The cop cursed. The bum must have frozen himself on purpose The snow had stopped just after midnight and the mercury had plummeted to ten below zero. It was that now. The cop shivered in his great coat. The guy must have undressed and lay down on that heap of junk. And just gone off to sleep--death. The cop turned to call an ambulance.
He didn't notice that the pile of junk consisted of a battered old lamp, the skeleton of a cheap upholstered chair, an old table with one leg missing, a few torn and ragged copies of children's books, some broken dishes and bent tinware, a battered part of an ancient sofa, shreds of a woman's dress, a few ice stiff filaments of what had once been a woman's negligee, and the springless frame of an old cot.
Nor did he notice that Johnny slept in deep peace; there was a smile, not frozen in his face, but there of its own right.
THE FORGETFUL POET
By Ruth Plumly Thompson
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, May 13, 1917.
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, May 13, 1917.
Red-Ripe Puzzles -- Nothing a Guess
Mr. G. Ography and the Forgetful Poet have gotten their heads together and these surprising verses are the result. They are very proud of their puzzle and assure me that it is MORE than a masterpiece. Well, well, we shall not differ with them; indeed, we shall say it is two masterpieces in one. Mr. G. Ography says that the blanks are to be filled in with cities, and though he has not put them in order, one is in West Virginia, one in Germany, one in France, one in Alabama, one in Massachusetts, one in Sweden and one in Italy.
A Poem Concerning John
One day while John to Dovertown
Lightheartedly was ____,
An auto _____ ran him down.
Poor John lay dazed, yet feeling
A pain in one arm as they
Picked him up he had to moan,v Whereat the ladies generously
Revived him with ____.
At the hospital they set his arm
And put it in a cast,
A plaster ____ one. I hope
He'll get well very fast,
For he has several new toy boats
And wants to go and ____.
Besides there's none to call the cows,
His poor dad has to trail 'em.
For from the hillside every night
John drives the live ____,
And now they're missing him, I guess,
For far and wide they ____.
The answer to last week's puzzle were cowslip, snowdrops, orchid, crocus, dogwood, four o'clock and daisy. Hamor Michener is again president of the Puzzle Club. Send in your answers to Mr. G. Ography, care of the Boys' and Girls' Department, or in care of Miss R. P. Thompson. There will be two prizes for the two correct and most neatly written lists this week.
[Answers next time.]
Copyright © 2003 Eric Shanower and David Maxine. All rights reserved.