Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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THERE'S an ancient adage to the effect that a man with a hobby is a chap you'll never find flirting with trouble. And like all such saws, it is about as accurate as the latest bit of hogwash from the Third Reich.
Any hobby, no matter how harmless it may seem apparently, is a perfect passkey to a closet full of trouble. I ought to know, for my own hobby, although just about as mild and gentle as any collecting mania known to man, turned out to be—
Well, maybe I'd better start at the beginning...
IT was the afternoon the two Roman battle shields had arrived and I'd hung them up in the dining-room and my wife, Gwen, had raised such a hellish stink.
"You can take those monstrosities up in the attic and pile them with the rest of your junk, Tom Hastings!" Gwen exploded when she saw them.
"But they are ancient Roman battle shields," I said with thin patience. "They date back to the days of Julius Caesar and maybe further!"
"I don't care if they're the second-hand fig leaves of Adam and Eve," Gwen shrilled. "Get them out of my dining-room!"
As I grimly began their removal from the dining-room wall, Gwen came up behind me to watch. After a minute, in a small, tight voice, she asked: "And how much did you pay for these ancient Roman thingamajigs?"
"They'd be cheap at twice the price," I answered evasively.
"How much were they?" Gwen asked determinedly.
"Twenty-five dollars," I muttered.
"Twenty-five dollars for those hideous blobs of metal!"
"Twenty-five dollars apiece," I corrected her gently.
"Fifty dollars!" Gwen sounded as if I'd just informed her casually that I'd been living a bigamous existence for the ten years of our marriage. I continued to take down the shields as the silence curled into a nice tense ball of dynamite.
Then at last my spouse said in soft horror: "Do you realize what fifty dollars would buy?"
I leaned the shields against the dining-room table. "Fifty dollars would buy a hundred stingers or five hundred beers," I said, trying to put the light touch into the conversation.
But Gwen wasn't having any of it. She stared at me aghast. Then she glanced in incredulous dismay at the shields. I could see that she was on the verge of the weeps.
"Fifty dollars would buy Mother that new spring coat she's had her heart set on," Gwen said tremulously. The tears were gathering in her lovely gray eyes and I knew that I'd be in for it if I didn't head her off somehow.
"You didn't tell me anything about your mother's wanting a new spring coat," I said swiftly.
"I—I didn't mention it because I didn't think we could afford it," Gwen said, her underlip beginning to tremble. The first tear was starting down her cheek.
"Now listen, honey," I told her. "All you had to do was mention it. Just mention it to me, and I'd have written a check for her coat then and there. You go in and tell your mother she can have the coat."
The tears stopped temporarily at least.
"Mother has gone out to the hairdresser's," Gwen said. "But I'll tell her the moment she comes home."
"That's fine," I said." Now what about these shields? How about that spot over my desk in the study?"
The glint came back to Gwen's eyes. She shook her head firmly.
"Take them up into the attic, Tom. They have no place, around this house. And another thing; I want to talk to you about all this."
"About all what?" I asked suspiciously.
"About your collecting. It's just about time that we settle it once and for all."
"What," I demanded, "is there to settle?"
"It's sending us to the poorhouse, Tom. It will just have to stop. We have an attic cluttered up with antique knickknacks which you've collected over ten years. There's hardly any room for them, and they just lie up there gathering dust. Mother and I decided that it would be a wonderful thing if you'd get rid of them all, sell them to another collector, and stop this nonsense."
At last it was becoming clear. Mother and Gwen. How ducky. How too, too nice. It wasn't enough that my dear sweet uncomplaining mother-in-law had maneuvered me into a new spring coat promise; she had also been at her favorite topic with Gwen again—the extravagance of my hobby. I began to do a slow burn.
"Listen. We've covered this ground before. It is all too familiar. Your mother would please me greatly by minding her own business. I like collecting antiques, even if no one around this damned house has brains enough to understand the value of them. When the day comes that your mother isn't getting enough to eat around here, or can't have two new coats on me each year, she can start worrying about my personal expenditures!"
Gwen gave me a shocked, hurt stare.
"Tom," she gasped, "why, Tom!"
I picked up the shields and started for the stairs. Behind me I could hear Gwen beginning to sob. I knew that she expected me to drop the shields and race madly back to her side to apologize profusely. But I continued toward the attic.
That was perhaps the sixth time in ten years of marriage that I'd ever sounded off to Gwen about her mother. And Gwen's mother had been with us ever since we returned from our honeymoon ten years ago. If I recall correctly, she came to help Gwen get the house in order, "just for the first few weeks." She'd stayed with us ever since.
The common conception of a mother-in-law is a big, ample-bosomed thunder-voiced, dominating woman. At least that's the way they are in movies and comic strips. But Gwen's mother is nothing of the sort. She is by far the most insidious variety of mother-in-law imaginable. She is small, demure, sweet-faced and gray haired. She just wouldn't think of trying to run things. She only suggests, sweetly, and without apparent malice. Give me the movie and comic strip variety any day!
When I came down from the attic I could hear Gwen in our bedroom. She was still sobbing, but I was damned if I'd go in there and recant. I slammed around in the hall looking for my hat, and then I got the car out of the garage and raced the motor defiantly as I drove past beneath her bedroom window.
A long drive in the country usually served as my refuge from mother-in-law trouble, and so I headed out for open highway the minute I reached the outskirts of town. Once on the broad white concrete stretches I didn't pay much attention to where I was going. I just drove, and let the air swoosh in through the side-window vent and cool off my face and my emotions.
THEN I came to the little wayside village that had the big roadhouse with the neon sign advertising a popular brand of beer. I decided to stop for a few drinks.
The bartender in the roadhouse made excellent stingers, and after about six or seven of them I decided to head back home. I was buzzing most pleasantly when I stepped out into the sunlight and noticed for the first time that there was a ramshackle little store across the road that brought all my troubles back to mind.
The sign out in front of the little store read:
ANTIQUES FOR SALE
I put my car keys back into my pocket and crossed the road.
The windows of the little shop were cluttered with the usual array of spinning-wheels and other standard antique items, but that didn't stop me. You can never tell what's inside.
The shop was dark, almost dingy, and had that marvelous musty smell to it that affects a collector the same way smoke does a fireman. A bell jangled as I opened the door and stepped inside, and a prim, long nosed, bald headed little man came out from the back as I stood there looking around.
"How do you do?" he asked.
I told him I did pretty well, considering, and mentioned my curiosity at finding this little shop like I did. He agreed that it wasn't generally well known, but said that he had a pretty steady trade of collectors coming from the city every weekend.
We got to talking, and he showed me some things which had just been shipped to him in a load from New England. Some of them were interesting enough, others run-of-the-mill.
I was beginning to get a little bit disappointed at not finding anything that struck my fancy to the extent of making me want to buy it, when the little shopkeeper said:
"A very interesting thing came in with this last shipment. It wasn't classified, and I've found myself at a loss to figure out exactly what its origin was. Perhaps you might know. Would you like to see it?"
"Yes. Sure. By all means. Where is it?"
"Back this way," the little shopkeeper said, waving his hand toward the rear of the store.
I followed him to a particularly poorly lighted corner in the back, where he pulled something out from an assortment of dusty furniture.
It was a chair.
Specifically, it wasn't quite a chair. It was sort of a stool with arms on it. It had four spindly legs and was about as high as the ordinary straight-backed chair you have in your dining-room. It was well worn, but the wood seemed still tough and undecayed.
It was an ugly piece, but it was fascinating.
I got that love-at-first-sight feeling peculiar to antique collectors and automatically reached for my wallet. I knew I was hooked. The little shopkeeper was bending over it and commenting on design and period and a lot of other technical appraisal, but I was scarcely listening to him. I was staring at the chair, and the chair seemed to be staring at me.
"So you see," said the little shopkeeper, "I am quite at a loss to say exactly where it fits."
"Eh?" I was startled. "How's that? Oh, yes. Sure, I see what you mean. I agree with you. It's a puzzler. I don't quite think I could make any guesses at it myself. But I like it. Have you price-tagged it yet?"
The shopkeeper saw that I'd taken out my wallet. Naturally he was startled. Collectors don't run around picking up pieces about which they know admittedly nothing. He gave me a shrewd glance.
"Are you sure you can't classify it, sir?"
I shook my head. "Positive. Beyond a rough guess at New England, maybe sixteenth century, I couldn't say further."
"But surely, sir," the little man protested, "you don't want to buy a piece that has such an uncertain origin, do you? Wouldn't you care to wait until I write the shipper and find out what he knows about it?"
Again I shook my head. "I just like the damned ugly thing," I said. "I want it. Now. I'll take it along with me. What's your price?"
I hadn't been shrewd. Stupidly, I'd aroused the shopkeeper's suspicions. Perhaps he thought I'd realized something especially significant and valuable about the ugly little chair at first sight. Maybe he figured I was trying to hoodwink him out of a valuable piece. At any rate his answer almost knocked my hat off.
"A hundred and fifty dollars, sir."
"A hundred and fifty dollars," the shopkeeper repeated firmly.
I waved my hand in disgust. "No sale. Why should I pay such a price for an unclassified piece?"
The shopkeeper shrugged. "I am only trying to protect myself against the possibility that it might have great value."
I started toward the door. "Suit yourself. You're only talking yourself out of a sale."
He saw that I wasn't bluffing.
"What price would you think fair, sir?" he said, following quickly after me.
I stopped. "Thirty dollars," I said.
The shopkeeper looked pained. "I will let it go for a hundred," he said.
"Thirty bucks," I repeated, starting toward the door again.
The little shopkeeper took a nimble two-step after me. He plucked at my sleeve and I stopped again.
"Eighty dollars, sir. That should be fair."
"I'm wasting my time," I told him," and my money. But I'll give you forty."
"Fifty," said the little shopkeeper.
Fifty bucks, I thought. Fifty bucks. Five hundred beers. A hundred stingers. A new spring coat for my mother-in-law. The last suggestion did it.
"Okay," I said. "Fifty bucks. Wrap it up. I'll take it along."
The shopkeeper beamed....
WHEN at last I emerged from the tiny antique shop, it was with the chair in my arms—all wrapped and paid for. I had to cross the road again to get to my car. And my car was parked right beside the roadhouse. And this was a little bit of an event, this purchase of a new piece. And the roadhouse had good stingers. And—I went in.
The lights were all on in my house when I got home. A fact I thought damned peculiar, inasmuch as it was almost midnight. Gwen and her mother made a practice of hitting the downy never later than ten p.m. It never occurred to me that I'd been gone more than eight hours, missed dinner, and never even called. It never occurred to me that the lights were so gaily aglow all because of yours truly.
I had fallen halfway up the front porch steps before I remembered that I'd left the chair in the back of the car. It was easier falling down the steps than up, and pretty soon I'd tugged the antique from the back cushions and was well on my way to getting it up the steps.
The front door opened, then, and I looked up to see Gwen standing there, hands on hips. The expression on her face was just about what you'd expect under the circumstances, only worse.
"Well!" Gwen said. She ground the word out between her teeth, then spat it at me.
"What're all the lights doing on, m'love? Having a party?" I asked brightly. At that moment my feet betrayed me and got tangled in the chair. I just made the porch in my sprawling lurch, saving my new possession from what would otherwise have been a splintering crash.
"What do you have there besides an alcoholic fog?" Gwen demanded, voice rising.
"Shhhhh!" I put the chair down, looking carefully around the streets. "The neighbors. Do you want them to hear?"
"I don't care what they hearl" Gwen grated.
"But if they knew how damned good I felt," I giggled, "they might get insanely jealous!"
I picked up the chair in my arms and started through the door. Gwen moved to one side, staring at me as if deciding on which side of my skull she was going to bury the axe.
And then I saw her mother.
Quiet, sweet-faced, sad-eyed and oh-so-glad to have the chance to be shocked, she stood in the living-room staring out at me as if I were Jack the Ripper through special permission of Atilla the Hun.
"Mother-in-law!" I bellowed joyously.
Gwen's mother retreated several steps, looking for all the world as if she expected my next move to be an attempt at murder.
"I brought you a present!" I boomed happily. "The neatest little gift you ever saw. It's an antique. I know how well you love antiques."
Gwen had followed me into the living room, where I'd put down the chair and was starting to remove the wrappings.
"You drunken bum!" she said.
I paused to smile sweetly at her. "But of course." I went back to unwrapping the chair.
No one said a word. I could hear Gwen's incredulous gasp and her mother's shocked but happy squeal of horror. Then I tore the last wrappings from my object d'art. I stepped back from it with a rapturous sigh of admiration and waved my hand in a sweeping gesture.
"Regard," I told them. "My chair!"
There wasn't a word. You could have skated on the silence.
I looked first at Gwen. Her jaw was grim. Her eyes flashed sparks like a welder's torch.
"This is the end!" she said grimly. "This is absolutely the last repulsive bit of furniture you are ever going to drag into this house."
I looked at her mother. Her face was wreathed in Good and Kindliness and firm Disapproval. She wouldn't have missed this scene for all the world. It was her moment. Tomorrow she could tell Gwen sweetly that she had told her so all along.
"Well?" I demanded. "Well, what do you think?"
Gwen's mother shook her head sadly. "I am afraid you have been drinking heavily, Thomas. I have never been so shocked in all my life. But tomorrow, when you are, ah, feeling better, I will accept your apology for this conduct. Although," she added, "you cannot expect me to plead with Gwen for you this time."
That was almost too much. Plead with Gwen. The old hypocrite was insinuating that she'd saved me from many a marital smash-up by her kindly intercession. I just gaped at her with my mouth open.
Gwen spoke up.
"Mother," she said grimly, "would you leave me here with Tom? I don't want you to have to stand this disgraceful scene."
My dear sweet mother-in-law was obviously reluctant to go. She looked from Gwen to me to the chair.
"Don't you need my help, Gwen, dear?" she asked.
"Yes," I piped up. "Be sure to stick around. I might beat your daughter at any moment."
Gwen's mother gave me a sad, disappointed look. She shook her head, sighing.
"Obviously Thomas doesn't know what he's saying," she told Gwen. "But I will be in my room if you need me, dear." She turned and made a lavender-and-old-lace exit.
Gwen turned on me, then, with both barrels.
You've heard the routine. Working fingers to the bone. Slaving and toiling to make ends meet. Best years of life. What she ever saw in me. Drunken cad. Impossible bounder. This is the end. Leaving tomorrow. It took five minutes, and she was breathless when she finished.
"I'll help you pack," I volunteered sweetly.
Gwen glared at me in astonishment and indignation. Then she stamped out of the room.
I turned back to the chair, patting it kindly on the back.
"Only friend left in the world," I mumbled. I pulled it around and sat-down—on the floor.
I remember feeling extremely glad that both Gwen and her mother were no longer in the room. Had they witnessed that chair-missing sequence, they'd have been even more firmly convinced that I was tighter than Göring's girdle.
I scrambled quickly to my feet, looking sheepishly around to make certain I hadn't been seen.
Then I sat down again—on the floor.
I got up more slowly this time. Steady there, I told myself. You aren't that drunk. You couldn't be that drunk. You've just got a little glow on. That's all. Just a little glow. Take your time on this one.
I put one hand on the back of the chair, then eased myself around slowly to a sitting position, suspended several inches above the chair seat. Then I released my grip on the back and sat down—on the floor!
This time I knew why.
The chair had moved!
I sat there on the floor, gaping at it incredulously as I realized what had happened. The chair had moved. The chair had moved each time I'd tried to sit down in it. Moved just enough to plank me on the floor!
Of course, if it hadn't been for that little glow I was feeling, all my common sense would have come to the fore to assure me that the chair couldn't have moved of its own accord. If I'd been completely cold sober, it would have taken me much longer to digest the incredible truth of the matter.
But now, sitting there on the floor and staring up wide-eyed at the chair, I had absolutely no doubt as to what had actually happened. The impossibility of the thing never occurred to me.
I got up slowly now. Cautiously. I stepped back warily keeping my eye on it.
Once, twice, I circled it. Airily, nonchalantly, as if I didn't have the slightest idea in the world of trying to sit down on it. It made me think of that march-around-the-chair game, going to Jerusalem, we used to play when we were kids.
Then I stepped in quickly, grabbed the back of the chair tightly with both hands, swung it around, and planked myself down hard—just as it literally wrenched itself from my grasp and shot away sidewards!
I landed on the floor.
For a moment I was too stunned to comprehend what had happened. Missing a chair which skeeters as you're trying to sit on it is one thing. Feeling it yank itself free of your grasp is quite another.
I must have been making quite a little noise, for now I heard voices, Gwen's and her mother's, coming from upstairs. I put my head in my hands, took a deep breath, and got a grip on my sanity. Then I looked up at the chair again.
There it was, plunked at least four feet away from the spot where I'd held it when trying to sit down.
Maybe it was just my imagination, but I'd swear the damned thing was leering at me!
Very slowly, I got up off the floor. I went over to the divan, found a cigarette on the coffee table and lighted it, then sat down. It felt marvelous to be able to sit down on something that didn't mind.
The voices upstairs had died down, and I heard a door slam hard. I knew that Gwen, by way of going home to mother, was spending the night in her mother's room.
But I wasn't concerned with any of that now. The chair was by far the greatest object of my concern. I got up again and walked casually over to it, half expecting it to shy away at my approach.
It didn't however, and I was able to place my hand gently on its back. Slowly, ever so tenderly, I turned it around so that it faced me. I took my hand from it, then, and turned away—as if to start back to the divan—then wheeled madly and planked my nether extremities frantically on the seat of the chair. Or where the seat of the chair should have been.
Once more I found myself sitting on the floor. I didn't have to look to know that the chair had skipped aside again. I was finally convinced. The chair would not tolerate being sat on.
Enough was enough. I was beginning to ache all over and one place in particular. If the chair didn't want me sitting in it, it didn't want me sitting in it. That was that.
But in spite of my somewhat alcoholic glow, I was very well aware that it was the damnedest impossible situation I had ever encountered. I got up and went over to the divan and sat down again, gratefully. A sort of moody chill was stealing over me.
I SAT there for perhaps half an hour, smoking cigarettes and staring at the chair and wondering what in the hell this was all about and where it was going to end.
My glow was fading fast, now, and I knew that it was the single factor which had kept me from becoming actually afraid of my newly-bought antique. There was a very simple solution to this, however, so I called a nearby liquor store and ordered a fifth of my favorite.
The delivery boy arrived with the stuff inside of ten minutes and I was recapturing my glow inside of another fifteen. Another half hour passed and I was developing a belligerent attitude toward the chair. I was finding that I could look it squarely in the eye—so to speak—without a tremor or chill.
"What makes you think you're better than any other chair?" I would demand loudly at five minute intervals.
"A chair is to sit in. Hasn't anyone ever told you?" I growled between drinks. "If you expect to stay around here you're going to have to learn your playsh."
"Shilly damn attitoosh," I decided still fifteen minutes later. " 'Fraid of a li'l damn chair!"
I remember vaguely that that was about the time that I became physically belligerent. I must have tried to hurl myself into the chair on at least a dozen occasions after that. The thumping and cries and shouting as each succeeding effort failed must have been terrific. I know that the bruises on my body the following morning certainly were.
The rest of the events are too hazy to try to recall precisely. Maudlin emotion took command of me a little later, I know, and I wept bitterly before the chair, demanding to know what it had against me, insisting that I was a good fellow, and trying to buy it a drink. There must have been more efforts on my part to sit in it, and additional loud crashes as I failed.
And then, of course, everything blotted into an indistinguishable pattern... until the following morning. .. .
GWEN'S voice was saying something, and I opened my eyes to see that she was standing over me, and that I was in my own room and in bed. The expression on her face was alarmingly peculiar. She was smiling sweetly, tenderly!
"How do you feel, dear?" Gwen asked.
I looked at her with bloodshot eyes. My head was splitting. And the twin demons of hangovers, Nausea and Remorse, were in complete command of my body and brain.
"Rotten," I groaned.
"Silly boy," Gwen said. "You just had a little too much to drink."
I tried to sit up, but I couldn't raise my head. Gwen handed me a glass of something, and I took it feebly.
"Drink it down, dear," she said.
"What is it?" I groaned.
"Milk and ginger ale. It always picks you up."
With shaking hand, I managed to raise the glass to my lips without spilling too much of it over the covers, and gulped it down. I handed her the glass and stretched back on the pillow again.
"What's up?" I moaned. "Why are you being so sweet to me?"
Gwen's smile was honey. "Mother and I talked everything over and we agreed that one of us must have done something to hurt you terribly to make you act the way you did last night." She paused. "We agreed to let bygones be bygones and start with a clean slate for all of us."
It was beyond my powers of concentration. I was too sick, too weak, to figure it out.
"Do you want me to take your little friend out of bed and downstairs?" Gwen asked with a sweet, understanding smile.
My heart did a terrible flip-flop.
"What?" I choked hoarsely, turning my aching skull far enough to look beside me. And then I saw it, tucked neatly under the covers, its top resting on the pillow next to mine. The chair!
"You must have grown enormously fond of your chair last night," Gwen laughed kindly.
I closed my eyes and shuddered. The memory of my unsuccessful battle to seat myself in the chair returned.
"I'll get up in a little while," I muttered. "I'll be all right. Leave the chair here."
"Are you sure there isn't anything I can do for you, dear?" Gwen asked.
I shook my head, and it almost fell off.
"No. i'll be all right."
"Will you want breakfast?" Gwen asked.
I was smart enough not to try to shake my head. "No," I muttered, chilled by the thought. "No. I'll get along without breakfast."
It was then that my mother-in-law poked her head into my room.
"Well, well," she simpered sweetly. "Are you feeling bad, Thomas?"
I turned red eyes on her, but didn't answer. Gwen moved to the door.
"Whenever you feel like it, dear, get up," she said. "If you want anything, just call."
I groaned an affirmative answer, and she left. I could hear her voice and that of her mother's murmuring conversationally as they went downstairs. Then I turned my head for another look at the chair.
IN the cold light of morning it seemed peaceable enough. Aside from the fact that it looked rather ludicrous tucked neatly under the sheets, there seemed nothing about it which would indicate its peculiar aversion to being sat upon. In fact, it looked like nothing more than an antique chair.
I began to wonder just how drunk I'd really been. I knew that I could recall most of the night's events with fair clarity, but such recollection wasn't any guarantee that I hadn't been boiled enough to have imagined that the chair wouldn't let me sit in it. I could think of at least three or four occasions when I'd been certain that I was fairly sober, only to find out later that my own estimate of my lucid poise was greatly at variance with that of the people who'd been with me.
Somehow I managed to get up. I stood there clutching the bedpost while the inside of my head pounded like kettle-drums and the room seemed to sway madly back and forth. And then a small degree of steadiness returned. The pick-me-up which Gwen had been thoughtful enough to provide was taking hold.
In the bathroom I gargled noisily, eliminating the wads of cotton which had grown beneath my tongue. Then a cold, brisk shower, a vigorous scalp massage which threatened to tear off the top of my head, and a none too steady shave, all did their bit toward returning me to a somewhat remorseful degree of normalcy.
I was able, then, to walk back into the bedroom and remove the chair from the bed. Something prevented my trying to seat myself in it immediately. Perhaps it was merely the thought of the floor jarring I might get and what it would do to my hangover.
I stood there for a little while, staring at the chair and doing a lot of foggy rationalizing. By now I was pretty damned well convinced that whatever had happened concerning the chair the night before was nothing but the result of my terrific binge. My hangover was all the final conviction I needed on this score.
"God," I muttered, "and I thought it moved!"
I shook my aching head slowly, despairingly, pondering on the weird effects of alcohol on the human mind. The impulse to sit in the chair was quickly stifled by a counter-impulse which told me not to make myself ridiculous by dignifying my mad imaginings of the night before.
"Of course it didn't move," I muttered, absolutely convinced that it didn't by now. "And if I plunk myself down in it I'd only be capping last night's damn foolishness with the supreme proof of my mental incompetence. I hope I haven't reached the stage where I have to prove to myself that the impossible never happened."
And having so neatly tied up all the loose ends of some very loose reasoning, I began to get dressed.
Once dressed, I left the chair in the bedroom and went downstairs. Gwen was happily at work in the kitchen, and had left another glass of milk and ginger ale on the dining-room table next to the morning paper. Her mother was evidently in her room, for I didn't see her around.
I downed the second pick-me-up, disregarded the newspaper, and went into the kitchen. There were more things puzzling me around that house than the chair. Gwen smiled brightly at me as I came into the kitchen.
"Feeling better, dear?"
"A little," I said. Then I got immediately to the point. "Look, Gwen. There's something I want to know."
"What's up?" I demanded.
Gwen frowned prettily in bewilderment. "What do you mean, dear?'
"I mean what's up. I got drunk last night. I said a number of things at the time which—incidentally—I still don't regret. You were furious. Your mother was sweetly boiling. I wake up this morning after a furious bender and find you and your mother dripping with kindly solicitude toward me. What's the idea?"
Gwen smiled and came over to me. She put her arm around my waist and her head against my chest.
"I told you, Tom," she said. "We're starting everything with a clean slate. Mother and I both agreed that we should not try to boss you the way we might have done occasionally in the past."
I still didn't get it.
"But you were all set to walk out on me," I protested.
Gwen nodded. "Hasty words, spoken in anger, Tom. I'm sorry. My mother made me realize what a terrible thing that would be."
And then, all of a sudden, it was quite clear. Her mother. Why, it should have been immediately apparent. If Gwen had walked out that would have meant that her mother would be packing, too. And the old girl was far too smart to kick over a nice soft berth in my house just because her daughter had a mad on. Ahhhhh—very clever. Exceedingly clever!
All of a sudden it occurred to me what a sap I'd been these ten years. Here I'd been letting two women dominate my entire existence, my wife and her mother, for all of a decade just be cause I hadn't been smart enough to put my foot down sooner. I'd called the old girl's bluff, and she knew it. And from now on in, things would be decidedly different.
"Mother will leave if you don't go right upstairs and apologize," had been one of Gwen's stock phrases on at least a hundred occasions in our ten years of marriage. And on each occasion, I had gone upstairs to mumble apologies to the old witch.
"Mother is packing. She won't stay another instant, unless you say you're sorry." That had been another of Gwen's favorites. And I had always rushed up to stop the old girl from packing and to tell her I was sorry. But the ironic truth of the matter was actually that Gwen's mother couldn't have been pried loose from my house with a steam-driven block and tackle! Suddenly I grinned. Even my hangover seemed to fade into a role of minor importance.
"That's fine, honey," I said. "That's swell. I think I'll go upstairs and bring down a few of my things from the attic. Incidentally, I think the new antique chair would look swell in the living room corner by the fireplace."
Gwen nodded, and I could see it wasn't easy for her to do.
"Certainly, Tom, but don't try to fit them all into the living room. We just haven't space for everything."
"Just a few odds and ends," I assured her. Gwen looked at me dubiously, but forced a smile of agreement. I walked out of the kitchen on clouds. The enemy was routed and fleeing in all directions. It took ten years before I accidentally stumbled on the formula for victory. But now the battle was mine, and my triumph knew no bounds. Everything was wonderful—I thought....
BY mid-afternoon the house looked just the way I had always wanted it to. At least ten of my favorite antiques had been added to both the dining-room and living-room scene. My recently acquired Roman shields hung proudly over the buffet, and my newly-purchased chair stood in the corner of the living-room by the fireplace.
Gwen had watched my busy rearranging with a tight smile and no comments. And even her mother, who popped out of her room now and then to see what was going on, made sweetly hypocritical comments on how nice everything was looking.
I was oh-so-busy, and oh-so-triumphant. Which was the reason for my not being aware of what was going on in the kitchen until about four o'clock.
Gwen and her mother had been out there for perhaps an hour, fussing around with the dinner, when I happened to wander out in search of a hammer. I walked in to find the kitchen groaning with festive dinner delicacies, and almost all our best dinnerware spread around in preparation for the table.
''Well, well," I observed smugly, "some feast for tonight, eh?"
Gwen nodded, exchanging a conspiratorial glance with her mother.
"Oh, yes, Tom. It will be quite an occasion. Mother hasn't seen Alice in all of ten years."
I was munching an olive, and almost swallowed the pit.
"Alice?" I bleated. "Who's Alice?"
Gwen's mother gave me a sweet smile. "An old school-girl chum of mine, Thomas. We were such great friends for the longest time, and I just got the letter from her yesterday."
"Letter?" I wasn't getting any of this.
Gwen nodded. "Mother's friend is passing through town. We invited her out here."
"Oh," I said, "for dinner, eh?"
Gwen smiled sweetly. "You didn't have anything planned for tonight, did you, Tom?"
Her mother broke in with her act of sweet resignation.
"If you don't want her here, Thomas, I can tell her—"
I cut her off with a triumphant wave of the hand. Hell, I could afford to be magnanimous.
"Not at all," I said. "Glad to have her. When's she arriving? On what train?"
"The five o'clock," Gwen's mother said. "I told her how to reach us by the trolley bus." Her smile was sad. "Even though it will be hard for her to have that walk from the bus, I didn't dare think of asking you to pick her up, Thomas."
This was an old routine. Gwen was looking at me expectantly, and I could have bitten off my tongue for the automatic answer that popped unbidden to my lips.
"Why, how ridiculous," I found my self saying. "Of course I'll pick her up."
Gwen beamed, and her mother joined. Then they both said, as if in once voice, "It's after four now. Don't you think you'd better get ready?"
I nodded, feeling somehow uneasy. This all seemed far too much like the old, old pattern. But then I shrugged away my suspicions. After all, I was still cock of the roost. And it didn't hurt to do an occasional favor....
THIS Alice friend of my mother-in-law's proved to be a spinster of enormous proportions whose full name was Miss Alice Longwood. She was as short as she was fat, which meant plenty of both. It took two porters to cram her through the passageway and off the train. And it wasn't until all her baggage, two trunks and four grips, had been dumped off after her that I saw the lap-dog she had in tow.
It was one of those tiny, fluffy, evil-tempered dogs with a snub nose and a definite superiority complex.
After I had introduced myself, this Alice shrilled:
"So you're Gwen's husband?"
There was something about the way she said that which made it sound unflattering.
I admitted that I was Gwen's husband, and suggested that she could check the bulk of her luggage at the station. She gave me a funny look, and said but of course not. She had to have her luggage with her.
We piled the trunks in the back seat, and the grips in the rear compartment. This Alice creature sat up in front with me, holding the dog in her lap. His name turned out to be—so help me God —"Bity"!
"Bity and I are so glad to have this pleasant interlude on our trip," spinster Alice told me. "Bity and I are just exhausted. I am positively ravenous, and I know Bity is, too. Funny, the way I recognized you right off. Of course Gwen's mother told me what you looked like, so's I'd recognize you when you met me at the station."
My jaw went a trifle grim at this last, and I asked politely: "How long did Gwen's mother expect this pleasure?"
"Oh, weeks," shrilled Alice. "Simply weeks."
Her graying hair had been slightly, though not successfully, bleached. She wore it frizzed up around the back of her red, plump neck.
I remembered the line that had been given me. Directions as to how to get to the house by bus. Letter just came yesterday. I had been taken in as neatly as I'd ever been.
It wasn't necessary to say much on the way to the house. Alice did all the talking. She reminisced shrilly about the fun she and Gwen's mother had had as younger belles, discussed the horrors of her train ride, related in detail the victory she won over the railroad porter when he'd tried to put Bity in the baggage car.
"Can you imagine that?" she demanded. "Wanting Bity to travel as if he were an animal or something?"
I said I couldn't imagine that, and a few minutes later we pulled up in front of the house.
Gwen and her mother met us, or I should say Alice, at the door. I was busy breaking my back with her baggage; and by the time I got into the house they were all in the living-room.
"Where'll I put the bags?" I asked.
Gwen's mother smiled sweetly at me. "Why, in the guest room, Thomas, dear."
I didn't catch on, even then. I carried the works, trunks and bags, up stairs to the guest room.
When dinner was served I had the chance to see the world's greatest appetite at work. Alice's ability to carry on an endless stream of chatter while stuffing her mouth with everything she could get her plump red hands on was strictly phenomenal.
And Bity sat at the table.
I mean it. The damned little monster sat atop telephone books on an extra tall chair, lapping his food from a plate placed conveniently near the edge of the table for him!
Once when I went out into the kitchen to refill the water pitcher, Gwen followed me. Her eyes were smiling in pure girlish delight, and she hugged me warmly.
"Isn't it wonderful?" she whispered.
"Mother," Gwen whispered. "Don't you see how having her old friend here has made her brighten up a hundred percent? She's been so lonesome, Tom!"
I gagged a little on this. The only change I'd noticed in my dear motherin-law had been an interest in someone's business besides Gwen's and mine.
"Oh, Tom," Gwen said, not noticing my lack of reply. "I am so happy when mother is happyl" She sighed. "It's been ages since she's seen any of her old friends."
I started toward the dining-room, and Gwen followed.
BITY had finished his dinner, and with a savage little yelp, leaped from his seat to the floor and trotted for the living-room.
"Isn't Bity cute?" Alice demanded. "He's all through, and now he's going into the living-room for a nap by the fire." And then she went on to repeat her victory over the porter who wanted Bity to ride in the baggage car like a bum.
But some sixth sense made me uneasy. I excused myself, saying I wanted to get a smoke, and went into the living-room.
Dear little Bity wasn't taking a nap for himself. He was doing something far removed from that. He was proving that he hadn't been housebroken any too well. And proving it against the leg of my newly purchased antique chair!
I stood there aghast, my jaw slack, unable to move for fully a minute. And during this time, little Bity went right on with his mission, all the while staring insolently at me as he performed his sacrilegious gesture!
I let out a shrill bleat of anger. But Bity had finished, and after a deft scratch of his hind paws, had leaped atop the chair itself, and sat there triumphantly leering at me.
For some reason I turned back to the dining-room, possibly thinking to summon Alice to remove her indecent little pet from the house that instant.
And then I heard Bity's weird howl.
Alice heard it, too, and so did Gwen and her mother. They all looked bewilderedly at me. The expression on my face didn't clear things up for them.
"Bity!" Alice shrilled. "Where is he? What's going on? What's wrong with him?" And then she was up from the table with incredible speed and dashing past me into the living-room. I wheeled and followed her, almost colliding with her wide back-quarters as she skidded to an abrupt stop.
Bity wasn't in the chair any longer.
"Bity!" Alice shrieked," where are you, darling?"
There was no answering yelp, and that first solitary, weird howl seemed to linger still in the air.
I looked quickly around the room. There was no sign of the small flea-muff. And then something was suddenly tugging at the sleeve of my mind. Bity had jumped up into the chair; jumped up into the chair on which I had found it impossible to sit the night before!
Alice was down on all fours, presenting an extremely large target which would have made excellent kicking practice. Down on all fours, yelling wildly for Bity and seeking him under every conceivable nook and cranny.
But Bity wasn't anywhere in the room. Any fool could see that. Any fool but Alice. And there was absolutely no way he could have made an exit other than right past me. I knew he hadn't done that.
Gwen and her mother were in the living-room now, wondering vocally what was wrong, what had happened. Hysterically, Alice told them, and for a little while they joined in her search.
I lighted a cigarette, watching the frenzied search with a sort of pleased detachment. I had the firm conviction that Bity wouldn't be found, that he had never left the chair after he'd leaped onto it, but had merely—through the strange power of the chair itself—been whipped off info some never-never land!
DON'T ask me how I knew this. I didn't know it. I just felt it. I'd never had such a certainty about anything else in my life before. I decided to prove it to myself. I broke in on the search.
"Now, now," I announced, "he isn't In the room. He didn't run past me. He might have crawled outside through the window. It's partly open, y'know."
The living-room window actually was partly open. But I knew Bity hadn't made his departure through there. It had been in my line of vision all along, and I'd have seen him.
"He might get hit by a truck!" Alice wailed.
I walked over to the fireplace and, ignoring the desecration Bity had performed on its leg, pulled the chair over to Alice.
"Sit down and relax a moment," I suggested. "Nothing has happened to Bity. He's just outside irrigating the landscape. I'll run out and look for him."
Red faced, wild eyed, Alice obeyed my suggestion as if hypnotized. Or at least she tried to.
I had stepped back and was standing a good three feet away from the chair when Alice made her effort to sit down.
She landed on the floor.
It hadn't occurred to Gwen, her mother, or the massive Alice to watch the chair. But I had done so. And now I was positive as to what had happened. So fast as to be scarcely noticeable, the chair had skeetered just out of range of her bulky posterior.
I was certain now that I hadn't been so drunk the night before as to have been unable to sit on that chair. I wouldn't have been able to do so, drunk or sober. The chair wouldn't stand to have anyone sitting on it.
Following the deafening thump of Alice's near-miss, there was, of course, her shrill cry of pain and the startled cries from Gwen and her mother.
I stepped in quickly and helped haul our massive visitor to her feet and then to the couch. She was still whimpering wildly about Bity and insisting that he be found instantly.
"Stay right here, everybody," I said. "I'll run out and find him right now."
I needed to get outside, even though I knew Bity wouldn't be found. I had plenty of thinking to do—plenty. There was no doubt in my mind, now, that the chair was exactly what I had found it to be in my solo drinking bout the night before. My willingness to dismiss the facts as preposterously fantastic on waking with a hangover this morning had been nothing more than a subconscious fear of the incredible truth. My mental refusal to try again to sit on it was also a subconscious expression of fear.
I had heard that the human mind was a strange thing, and now I was quite willing to believe it. For throughout this entire day I had been deliberately closing my mind to the truth of what had happened the night before. I had been telling myself that I'd been so wildly drunk that the events concerning the chair had occurred in my imagination rather than reality. I had forced myself to believe those words, and now I was faced with the problem of eating them.
But this fantastic truth was not so difficult to accept. Subconsciously I had believed it all day, ever since my first experience with the chair the night before. Only in my conscious mind, a mind ridden with the barriers and taboos of the conventional, had I doubted the chair's witchery.
I TOOK my time, smoking and strolling along the street and trying to figure out what it all amounted to.
"All right," I told myself. "The chair moves. It won't let anyone sit on it. It's alive, or possessed, or something."
I turned a corner and lighted another cigarette.
"But Bity sat on it," I told myself. "Bity sat on it without a bit of trouble, and now the fleabag's gone."
This was a little tougher knot to gnaw. But I loosened it in surprisingly short time. The answer came in the middle of my next cigarette.
"Bity acted in a most ungentlemanly manner toward the chair!" I exclaimed. "So the chair let Bity sit on it in order to get even!" I became a little excited as I followed through my premise. "The chair wouldn't let anyone sit on it, more than likely, if it didn't have anything against that person."
There was, of course, the final disturbing enigma to face. Where was Bity? Where did the chair take the mutt? What other world or hidden dimension was the chair the door to?
I had myself there. I'm not a psychic guy. I've never even been able to figure out the theory, let alone the practice, of occult mumbo-jumbo. But I tingled with excitement, nonetheless, at finding out. And my mental debate from then until the time I returned to the house some ten minutes later, was chiefly concerned with how I was going to find out.
A scene of mad hysteria in which Alice was the center greeted me when I returned to the house. I learned that she had telephoned the police stations, the hospitals and the morgue in her frantic search for Bity. Of course none of them had any trace of the mutt.
Alice was weeping with loud enthusiasm and explaining just how and why she would never be the same again without her Bity. I listened to all this for perhaps ten minutes, during which time I couldn't get a word in edgewise. Then it occurred to her to ask me had I seen the mutt.
"Brace yourself," I told her. "The last anyone saw of Bity, he had leaped into a boxcar at the railroad junction, just before the train pulling the boxcar started up and on its way to New York. Bity is heading eastward without benefit of guide or first-class accommodations."
It was a neat little lie, and came to me in a flash. Alice's reactions to this bit of news were just what I had expected them to be.
"My hat, my coat, my grips, my trunks!" she shrilled.
I started up the stairs.
"But Alice!" The piteous cry came from Gwen's mother. "Alice—you promised to stay six months with usl"
The heat of the moment had forced my dear mother-in-law into an unwitting betrayal of her little plans! She caught my eye, and I looked straight into hers, giving her a cold leer.
"So!" I said.
But Alice blubbered on. "I can never stay anywhere until I have my Bity back. I will search the ends of the earth for him if need be!"
I turned my cold leer to Gwen. I made it say, "So you were in on this, too? That's why you were so sweet, eh? Six months' visitor, eh?"
Gwen crimsoned and turned her eyes from mine. I went upstairs and got the trunks and hand-luggage of Bity's distraught mistress and brought them down again as fast as I could. Then I called a taxi.
"There's a New York train leaving in half an hour," I told Alice. "It will beat the slow freight Bity's riding by at least four or five hours. That will give you time to locate him when his train pulls into New York."
Alice gave me a wildly grateful look.
"I'll never forget you," she shrilled.
I bowed from the waist. "Nor I you," I said.
THE taxi came fifteen minutes later, and I bundled Alice and baggage into it. Gwen watched wordlessly from the window as Alice departed, and my dear mother-in-law wept copiously.
I came back into the house.
"Tom!" Gwen said. Her ears were burning, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "Mother didn't even tell me she'd invited Alice for six months."
"No?" I said coldly.
"She only told me Alice would be here a month," Gwen said pleadingly.
I crossed the living room. "That's thirty days," I said grimly. I picked up the chair gently and turned to leave the room, holding it in my hands.
"Tom!" Gwen's voice was pleading for forgiveness. She looked bewilderedly at the chair. "What are you going to do?"
I was at the living-room door. "I don't know yet," I told her.
"Where are you going?" she asked. "And why are you taking the chair?"
"Upstairs. To the attic." I started up the staircase, then paused, remembering that I needed some rope. I left the chair on the first landing and trotted down to the hall closet, where I found a thick length of stout manila. Then I started back of the stairs. Gwen was watching me wide-eyed.
"Tom," she gasped, "what on earth are you going to do?"
"Nothing," I said, "that concerns earth!"
ONCE in the attic I locked the door behind me. I stared around at the friendly array of my antique collection piled high in every corner. There was a single bulb in the center of the attic, and I snapped that on. Then I found my hammer and nails.
I worked quickly and thoroughly. Two nails through the foot of each of the chair's legs, driven straight through into the floor. Then I got to work on my length of rope, looping it loosely under the chair and fixing it into a sort of self-operating noose.
Undoubtedly it didn't occur to the chair what my intentions were until I stepped quickly around to the front of it, slipped down into its seat, and pulled the noose to bind my thighs fast to it. And then hell broke loose!
The chair was trying to rock, to tear itself free of those nails I'd driven into its feet to hold it to the floor. I was hanging on for dear life, my heart pounding in wild excitement as the sound of an eerie whistling began to grow from a faint whine into an angry shrill. Everything was growing black. I felt as if I were in the center of some vast ebon whirlpool.
And still the chair was trying to free itself from the floor, wrenching and straining so that it could hurl me from it before I learned what I would.
Sight, sound, sense of time and space, everything began to pattern into a whirling blot of black confusion. The whistling noise began to dim, and the blackness grew gray and grayer yet until light was almost at hand.
I suddenly felt myself rising in a great arc through the air. I knew I still sat on the chair, and I suddenly realized that my eyes were closed. I opened them to find myself blinking hard in the glare of bright sunlight!
That rising sensation was still in my stomach, and I realized that my arms were tied to the chair and that only my head was free. The shrill, catcalling, derisive voices broke into my consciousness then. A moment later I saw the faces grouped around the pond of water down below me.
They were as mad an assortment of faces as I have ever seen. The faces of men and women and children who wore the costumes of early New England pilgrims! Hard faces, intolerant and fanatical. Brightly gleaming eyes and tightly bared teeth. And then the sense of what they all were shouting came to me.
"Sorcerer! Sorcerer! Devil's advocate!"
My sensation of height suddenly vanished before one of swift, nauseating dropping. The air rushed past my face, and the shrill cries of those around the pond grew louder. The water was rushing up at me, and suddenly I hit it; hit it hard, splashingly, and kept going down.
Even as I started to burble underneath the surface of the pond I knew what this was all about. Ducking stool! The treatment for sorcerers and witches and people with fresh ideas. This was New England, hundreds of years in the past!
I had no time for quiet contemplation of my weird predicament, for I was far too busy keeping my lungs from bursting underneath the surface of that pond. Seconds passed, and I felt sure I would never be brought up again, when suddenly my ducking chair began to rise.
Again I was free of the water and rising upward, drenched, scared half out of my wits, the screams of the witch-hunting spectators strong in my ears. I had a half glimpse, as my feet shot up an instant, of the quaint buckled shoes I wore.
I remember thinking desperately, "What a hell of a way to die!"
Then I was reaching the peak of my upward swing, and I knew that in another instant I'd be plummeting down into that pond again.
"Sorcerer!" The sun became a little less bright.
"Devil-doctor!" But the voices were still shrill in my ears.
"Spell-caster!" The whirlpool of blackness seemed to return.
"Tom!" This voice was growing louder than the others.
"Devil-dealer!" Faintly, very faintly, almost inaudible.
"TOM, Tom, darling!" I was back in the torrent of blackness, and the universe spun madly around inside my skull.
I opened my eyes. Opened my eyes to see Gwen, face white in horror and tears streaming down her cheeks. I was on my back and she was bending over me. The chair lay on its side a few feet away. It had torn itself free from the floor. I was back in the attic.
"Tom—are you all right? Speak to me darling!"
I put a hand tentatively to my shirt. It was dry. I raised my head enough to stare at the tips of my shoes. They were my own, no buckles on them. I looked up at Gwen and sighed.
"Darling, darling," she murmured, holding my head in her lap. "Why didn't you say something if we'd made you that miserable? Why did you ever try to hang yourself?"
"Oh darling, for almost five minutes I didn't realize. The chair, the rope, your hammering. And then it made sense. I rushed up here with the cellar axe and broke the door down. Your rope must have snapped at that moment, for I heard the chair crash and your body hit the floor. I broke the door down an instant later."
I looked over at the door. Gwen hadn't used the axe sparingly. It was in wooden tatters. I looked back at Gwen, debating about telling her the truth. I decided to let her go on believing what she did. It was probably the best way....
You would be astounded at the peace and serenity that reigned over my domicile after that. Gwen was a wife such as you read of only in books. Even my dear sweet mother-in-law knew and kept her place. And for at least eight months I was convinced that this would be the new order in the Hastings household henceforward. For at least eight months.
BUT you can't keep a mother-in-law down. Not my mother-in-law, at any rate. As I said, the first eight months after that were fine. But these last six have become increasingly troublesome. Gwen's mother is returning to the meddlesome state of mind she was born with. And the situation grows steadily worse.
For you see, I still have the chair. It's in the attic, under lock and key. And I have a hunch it wouldn't like Gwen's mother any more than it liked Bity. I have a hunch it would let her sit down, if I arranged it that way. The temptation grows stronger. I wonder how she'd take to old Salem—and a witch's ducking chair!
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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