Night music, p.3
Night Music, p.3John Connolly
The woman clenched her fists in frustration as the train rushed by. Mr. Berger turned his head to watch it go, some of the passengers staring at him curiously from the window, and when he looked back the woman was gone. It was only as the rattle of the train faded that he heard the sound of bushes rustling and knew that she was making her way back up the hill. He tried to follow, but the same branches that had previously hampered her progress now delayed his. His jacket was torn, he lost his pipe, and he even twisted his left ankle on a root, but he did not give up. He reached the road just in time to see the woman slip into a lane that ran parallel to Glossom’s high street. The back gardens of a row of cottages lay on one side, and on the other the rear wall of what had once been the town’s brewery but was now derelict and unused, although a faint smell of old hops still hung about it.
Eventually the lane diverged, with the path to the left connecting with the main street while the path to the right twisted into darkness. Mr. Berger could see no sign of the woman to his left, for the high street was well lit. He chose instead to go right, and was soon among the relics of Glossom’s industrial past: old warehouses, some still in use but most abandoned; a wall that announced the presence of a combined cooperage and chandlery, while the decay of the building behind it left no doubt that it had been some time since either barrels or candles had emerged from within; and, finally, a two-story redbrick building with barred windows and grass growing by its doorstep. Beyond it was a dead end. As he drew nearer, Mr. Berger could have sworn that he heard a door closing.
Mr. Berger stood before the building and stared up at it. There were no lights burning, and the windows were so encrusted with dirt both inside and out that there was no possibility of catching a glimpse of its interior. A name was carved into the brickwork above the door. Mr. Berger had to strain his eyes to read it, for the moonlight seemed to have no desire to aid him here. At last he made out the words CAXTON PRIVATE LENDING LIBRARY & BOOK DEPOSITORY.
Mr. Berger frowned. He had asked in the town whether there was a library and had been told that there was none, the nearest, as with so much else that Glossom lacked, being in Moreham. There was a newsagent that sold books, but they were mainly detective stories and romances, and there was a limit to how many of either Mr. Berger wished to read. It was, of course, entirely likely that the Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository was no longer in business, but if that was the case then why was the grass growing around its doorstep trampled flat in places? Someone was still entering and leaving it on a semiregular basis, including, if Mr. Berger was not mistaken, a woman, or something phantasmagorical that resembled a woman, with an Anna Karenina fixation.
He took out his matchbook and lit a match. There was a yellowed sign behind a small pane of glass to the right of the door. It read: “For all inquiries, please ring bell.” Mr. Berger used up three matches looking in vain for a bell of any kind. There was none. Neither was there a slot or box for mail.
Mr. Berger worked his way around the corner of the building to the right, for the wall barred any progress to the left. Here was a smaller lane, but it ended in another brick wall, and there were no windows on that side of the building, nor was there a door. Behind the wall was a patch of waste ground.
Mr. Berger returned to the front door. He banged on it once with his fist, more in hope than expectation of an answer. He was unsurprised when none came. He examined the single keyhole. It did not look rusted, and when he put a finger to it, the digit came back moistened with a hint of lock oil. It was all most peculiar, and not a little sinister.
There was nothing else to be done for now, Mr. Berger thought. The night was growing steadily colder, and he had not yet eaten. Although Glossom was a quiet, safe town, he did not fancy spending a long night outside a darkened lending library in the hope that a spectral woman might emerge so he could ask her what she thought she was doing throwing herself repeatedly under trains. There were also some nasty scratches on his hands that could do with a spot of antiseptic.
So, with one final look back at the Caxton Library, and more perturbed than ever, Mr. Berger returned home, and the Spotted Frog was deprived of his custom for that night.
Mr. Berger returned to the Caxton Library shortly after ten the next morning, on the basis that this was a reasonably civilized hour at which to appear, and if the Caxton was still in business then it was likely that someone might be about at this time. The Caxton, though, remained as silent and forbidding as it had the previous evening.
With nothing better to do, Mr. Berger began making inquiries, but to no avail. General expressions of ignorance about the nature of the Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository were his sole reward at the newsagent, the local grocery, and even among the early arrivals at the Spotted Frog. Oh, people seemed to be aware that the Caxton existed, but nobody was able to recall a time when it was actually in business as a lending library, nor could anyone say who owned the building, or if any books remained inside. It was suggested that he might try the town hall in Moreham, where the records for the smaller hamlets in the vicinity were kept.
So Mr. Berger got in his car and headed to Moreham. As he drove, he considered that there seemed to be a remarkable lack of interest in the Caxton Library among the townsfolk of Glossom. It was not merely that those to whom he spoke had forgotten about its existence until Mr. Berger brought it up, at which point some faint atavistic memory of the building was uncovered before promptly being buried again; that, at least, might be understandable if the library had not been in business for many years. What was more curious was that most people seemed to be entirely unaware of its presence and didn’t care very much to investigate further once it was brought to their attention. Glossom was a close-knit community, as Mr. Berger was only too well aware, for comments about hallucinations and train delays still followed him as he asked about the library. There appeared to be only two types of business in the town: everybody’s business, and business that was not yet everybody’s but soon would be once the local gossips had got to work on it. The older residents could provide chapter and verse on the town’s history back to the sixteenth century, and every building, old or recent, had its history.
All, that is, except the Caxton Private Lending Library.
• • •
The town hall in Moreham proved to be a source of little illumination on the matter. The library building was owned by the Caxton Trust, with an address at a P.O. box in London. The Trust paid all bills relating to the property, including rates and electricity, and that was as much as Mr. Berger could find out about it. An inquiry at the library in Moreham was met with blank looks, and although he spent hours searching back issues of the local weekly paper, the Moreham & Glossom Advertiser, from the turn of the century onward, he could find no reference to the Caxton Library.
It was already dark when he returned to his cottage. He cooked himself an omelet and tried to read, but he was distracted by the fact of the library’s apparent simultaneous existence and nonexistence. It was there. It occupied a space in Glossom. It was a considerable building. Why, then, had its presence in a small community passed relatively unnoticed and unremarked for so long?
The next day brought no more satisfaction. Calls to booksellers and libraries, including to the grand old London Library, and the Cranston Library in Reigate, the oldest lending library in the country, confirmed only a general ignorance of the Caxton. Finally, Mr. Berger found himself talking to the British representative of the Special Libraries Association, an organization of whose existence he had previously been unaware. She promised to search their records, but admitted that she had never heard of the Caxton and would be surprised if anyone else had, either, given that her own knowledge of such matters was encyclopedic, a judgment that, after an hour-long history of libraries in England, Mr. Berger was unwilling to doubt.
Mr. Berger did consider that he might be mistaken about the mystery woman’s ultimate destination. There were
He made his decision before he went to bed that night. He would become a detective of sorts and stake out the Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository for as long as it took for it to reveal its secrets to him.
As Mr. Berger soon discovered, it was no easy business being a detective on a stakeout. It was all very well for those chaps in books who could sit in a car or restaurant and make observations about the world in a degree of comfort, especially if they were in Los Angeles or somewhere else with a climate noted for warmth and sunlight. It was quite another thing to hang around among dilapidated buildings in a small English town on a cold, damp February day, hoping that nobody one knew happened by or, worse, some passing busybody didn’t take it upon himself to phone the police and report a loiterer. Mr. Berger could just imagine Inspector Carswell smoking another cigarette and concluding that he now most definitely had some form of lunatic on his hands.
Thankfully, Mr. Berger found a sheltered space in the old cooperage and chandlery that afforded a view of the end of the lane through a collapsed section of wall while allowing him to remain relatively concealed. He had brought a blanket, a cushion, a flask of tea, some sandwiches and chocolate, and two books, one of them a John Dickson Carr novel entitled The Crooked Hinge, just to enter into the spirit of the thing, and the other Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, the only Dickens he had yet to read. The Crooked Hinge turned out to be rather good, if a little fantastical. Then again, Mr. Berger considered, a tale of witchcraft and automatons was hardly more outlandish than apparently witnessing the same woman attempt suicide twice, the first time successfully and the second time less so.
The day passed without incident. There was no activity in the lane, the rustle of the odd rat apart. Mr. Berger finished the Dickson Carr and started the Dickens, which, being the author’s last completed novel, meant that it was mature Dickens, and hence rather difficult by the standards of Oliver Twist or The Pickwick Papers, and requiring considerably more patience and attention. When the light began to fade, Mr. Berger set aside the book, unwilling to risk drawing attention by using a flashlight, and waited another hour in the hope that darkness might bring with it some activity at the Caxton Library. No illumination showed in the old building, and Mr. Berger eventually gave up his watch for the night and took himself to the Spotted Frog for a hot meal and a restorative glass of wine.
His vigil recommenced early the next morning, although he chose to alternate Dickens with Wodehouse. Once again, the day passed with little excitement, the appearance of a small terrier apart. The dog began yapping at Mr. Berger, who shooed it ineffectually until its owner gave a shrill whistle from nearby and the dog departed. Still, the day was warmer than the one before, which was a small blessing: Mr. Berger had woken that morning with stiff limbs and had determined to wear two overcoats if the new day proved as chilly as the last.
Darkness started to descend, and with it doubts on the part of Mr. Berger about the wisdom of his course of action. He couldn’t hang around lanes indefinitely. It was unseemly. He leaned into a corner and found himself starting to doze. He dreamed of lights in the Caxton Library, and a train that rolled down the lane, its complement of passengers consisting entirely of dark-haired ladies carrying small red bags, all of them steeling themselves for self-destruction. Finally he dreamed of footsteps on gravel and grass, but when he woke he could still hear the footsteps. Someone was coming. Tentatively he rose from his resting place and peered at the library. There was a figure on its doorstep carrying what looked like a carpetbag, and he heard the rattle of keys.
Instantly, Mr. Berger was on his feet. He climbed through the gap in the wall and emerged into the lane. An elderly man was standing before the door of the Caxton Library, his key already turning in the lock. He was shorter than average and wore a long gray overcoat and a trilby hat with a white feather in the band. A remarkable silver handlebar mustache adorned his upper lip. He looked at Mr. Berger with some alarm and hurriedly opened the door.
“Wait!” said Mr. Berger. “I have to talk to you.”
The old gent was clearly in no mood to talk. The door was wide open now, and he was already inside when he realized that he had forgotten his carpetbag, which remained on the ground. He reached for it, but Mr. Berger got there at the same time, and an unseemly tug-of-war began, with each man holding on to one of the straps.
“Hand it over!” said the old man.
“No,” said Mr. Berger. “I have some questions for you.”
“You’ll have to make an appointment. You’ll need to telephone in advance.”
“There’s no number. You’re not listed.”
“Then send a letter.”
“You don’t have a mailbox.”
“Look, you must come back tomorrow and ring the bell.”
“There is no bell!” shouted Mr. Berger, his frustration getting the better of him as his voice jumped an octave. He gave a final hard yank on the bag and won the struggle, leaving only a handle in the grip of the old man.
“Oh, bother!” said the old man. He looked wistfully at his bag, which Mr. Berger was clutching to his chest. “I suppose you’d better come in, then, but you can’t stay long. I’m a very busy man.”
He stepped back, inviting Mr. Berger to enter. Now that the opportunity had at last presented itself, Mr. Berger experienced a twinge of concern. The interior of the Caxton Library looked very dark, and who knew what might be waiting inside? He was throwing himself on the mercy of a possible madman, armed only with a hostage carpetbag. But he had come this far in his investigation, and he required an answer of some sort if he was ever to have peace of mind again. Still holding on to the carpetbag as though it were a swaddled infant, he stepped into the library.
Lights came on. They were dim, and the illumination they offered had a touch of jaundice to it, but they revealed lines of shelves stretching off into the distance, and that peculiar musty smell distinctive to rooms in which books are ageing like fine wines. To his left was an oak counter, and behind it cubbyholes filled with paperwork that appeared not to have been touched in many years, for a fine film of dust lay over it all. Beyond the counter was an open door, and through it Mr. Berger could see a small living area with a television, and the edge of a bed in an adjoining room.
The old gent removed his hat, and his coat and scarf, and hung them on a hook by the door. Beneath them he was wearing a dark suit of considerable vintage, a white shirt, and a very wide gray-and-white-striped tie. He looked rather dapper, in a slightly decaying way. He waited patiently for Mr. Berger to begin, which Mr. Berger duly did.
“Look,” said Mr. Berger, “I won’t have it. I simply won’t.”
“Won’t have what?”
“Women throwing themselves under trains, then coming back and trying to do it again. It’s just not on. Am I making myself clear?”
The elderly gentleman frowned. He tugged at one end of his mustache and sighed.
“May I have my bag back, please?” he asked.
Mr. Berger handed it over, and the old man stepped behind the counter and placed the bag in the living room before returning. By this time, though, Mr. Berger, in the manner of bibliophiles everywhere, had begun to examine the contents of the nearest shelf. The shelves were organized alphabetically, and by chance Mr. Berger had started on the letter D. He discovered an incomplete collection of Dickens’s work, seemingly limited to the best known of the writer’s books. Our Mutual Friend was conspicuously absent, but Oliver Twist was present, as were David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, The Pickwick Papers, and a handful of others. All of the editions looked very old. He t
“Please be careful with that,” said the old gent, who was hovering nervously nearby, but Mr. Berger had already replaced Oliver Twist and was now examining A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps his favorite novel by Dickens: Chapman & Hall, 1859, original red cloth. It was another first edition.
But it was the volume marked The Pickwick Papers that constituted the greatest surprise. It was oversized and contained within it not a published copy but a manuscript. Mr. Berger knew that most of Dickens’s manuscripts were held by the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the Forster Collection, for he had seen them when they were last on display. The rest were held by the British Library, the Wisbech Museum, and the Morgan Library in New York. Fragments of The Pickwick Papers formed part of the collection of the New York Public Library, but as far as Mr. Berger was aware, there was no complete manuscript of the book anywhere.
Except, it seemed, in the Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository of Glossom, England.
“Is it—?” said Mr. Berger. “I mean, can it—?”
The old gentleman gently removed the volume from Mr. Berger’s hands and put it back in its place on the shelf.
“Indeed,” said the gentleman.
He was looking at Mr. Berger a little more thoughtfully than before, as though his visitor’s obvious appreciation for the books had prompted a reassessment of his probable character.
“It’s in rather good company as well,” he said.
Night Music by John Connolly / Horror / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes