Of Silver Stars and a Siren Singing
By: Michael Summerleigh
Thomas Beverley consulted the somewhat mangled remains of the small white business card he held in one gloved hand, checked the address on it and then, with no small amount of disappointment, eyed the corresponding number over the door of a dingy sub-street level storefront. The business card had come into his possession wholly by chance—he had found it in a mound of snow on the Boulevard—and he had spent the better part of two days trying to locate the shop, wandering back and forth among the narrow lanes of the harbour-front until a grizzled old sailor happened to point him in the right direction.
Now he stood before the object of his quest, his bearlike figure muffled in a greatcoat against the light but persistent fall of sleet and snow that had made his search a chilly one—an interminable slog through the coldest, dampest, and generally rottenest March the City had seen in years. He gazed upon the grime-streaked windows below him—filled with tattered books in tattered dust wrappers, and all manner of things that now seemed to pass as collectable—and cast a distrustful eye upon the short flight of icebound steps leading down to the door of the shop. Then he shook himself once, dislodging a mantle of very wet snow from his shoulders, and threw caution to the winds.
“You’ve not played cat and mouse with all sorts of winter plagues and pestilence to funk over a half dozen slippery stairs,” he said to himself, taking a firm hold on the rusty iron rail that hung beside the stairs. “Who knows if what you’re looking for is lurking down there, and the worst can happen is you won’t find anything worth buying.”
He placed one booted foot gingerly down upon the first step and descended into the snow-filled well before the door, turned the knob and entered the shop to the deafening clang of a large bell attached to it and the doorframe. A rush of warmth enveloped him at once, and as he stood on the doormat stamping the snow from his boots, a tall thoroughly bizarre-looking figure strode noiselessly through a curtained archway at the rear of the shop and impaled him with glance from one monocled eye.
“Whattayawant?” barked the proprietor of the shop. “And watch where you kick all that damned white stuff I just had the carpets cleaned!”
Beverley scarce knew what to say or where to direct his attention first. Briefly he entertained the notion of informing the shopkeeper that there were no carpets on his floor, but thought better of that immediately; instead he let his gaze wander over the lunatic clutter of all the things that had ever escaped from the attics of ancient homes—books, faded picture postcards in bulging shoeboxes, gilded scrollwork lamps with no shades, and porcelain figurines long past shiny new and now in danger of becoming splintery 3-D jigsaw puzzles where they perched precariously on their shelves. On the other hand, the rather abrupt gentleman who had greeted him so warmly was every bit as picturesque.
He had come through the archway in what could only be described as an “aged bookseller’s shuffle”, yet now he stood ramrod straight, two inches taller than Thomas’ own six-feet, and glared at him from under a pair of shaggy silvered brows that matched the impeccably barbered crown of hair on his head. A pencil-thin brigadier’s moustache adorned his upper lip, curled slightly in a scornful welcome, and he wore an elegant embroidered dressing gown of Oriental origin over a pair of truly ragged flannel trousers, and house slippers with upward-pointy toes.
“Well…?” he demanded. “Are you going to just stand there all day wasting my time, or do you have a reason for barging in here and mucking up my floors?”
Thomas blinked, unwound the green-and-white scarf about his neck and consulted the business card in his hand a second time.
“Is this the Edmund Chilton Second Hand and Rare Everything Emporium?” he asked slowly, reading from the card.
“What of it?” growled the man, taking a step towards him and again spearing him with his monocled eye. “You don’t like what you see, get out…”
Thomas gave him a wary look and drew a deep breath.
“I need help—“
“I can see that,” interrupted the shopkeeper, “but if you’re here looking for paperbound romances at half price, you can start whistling…and where in Heaven’s name did you get that scarf? The last time I saw anything that awful was…well…never mind when it was…either state your business or be on your way, young fellow. I’m not giving anything away, including the heat…”
Beverley remained rooted on the doormat and stared at the proprietor as if scalded by all the heat not being given away. Most of the booksellers in the City knew him quite well and went out of their way to be helpful, even though they were well aware of his limited means; this fellow, however, seemed intent upon insulting him straight out the door, and while Thomas could live with that as easily as not, it was the uniqueness of his approach to bookselling that left him somewhat at a loss for words.
“I’m looking for a book,” he said finally, enunciating each word with care as he sought to reassemble the shards of his composure.
The man withdrew the painful aspect of his glare and grinned amiably.
“I certainly hope so,” he said cheerily. “Else I can’t imagine why you’d put up with my welcome. In any case, now that you know the proper pronunciation, I’m Edmund Chilton. Come on in, make yourself comfortable and we can talk some turkey…and for God’s sake get your chin off the floor before you pickle it in the road-salt you’ve tromped in.”
Thomas closed his mouth with a snap and tried to visually map a route through the chaos of this and that littering the floor of the shop. It wasn’t a difficult task; one quick survey was enough to reassure him that the place was very much like his own digs in Boar’s Head Lane. Chilton watched him for a moment, shook his head and then flung himself into a leather-backed swivel chair behind a desk hidden at the rear of the shop. He picked up a stinky old brier, fired it into a volcanic gush of aromatic smoke and smiled up at his customer.
“What can I do for you?” he inquired briskly.
Thomas removed his gloves and negotiated the particularly dangerous stretch of floor space that passed between a dilapidated old hobby horse and a stack of old magazines that threatened to pitch itself over, avalanche-wise, onto his head.
“I’m trying to locate a book called—“
Chilton shot a manicured finger up at him and his eyes narrowed dangerously.
“Let’s get one thing straight before we go on,” he said wearily. “Books have titles. Call them what you like on your own time, but here books have proper titles and don’t you forget it.”
Thomas ran a hand through his hair and inspected the cobwebs on the ceiling where it joined the wall at Chilton’s back, thinking to himself, I must be going mad. He’s right, of course, books have titles…one doesn’t call them anything…but that hardly seems a good enough excuse not to strangle the old bastard.
He left off studying the cobwebs and returned his gaze to the bookseller, who grinned at him with an almost devilish glint in his monocled eye before winking with the other.
“Now…what was the title of the book you were looking for?” he said, arching a feathery white eyebrow.
“Of Silver Stars and a Siren Singing,” Thomas replied carefully. “By Jefferson Lancaster Monday. It’s horribly rare—“
“You’re darn tootin’ it’s rare,” interrupted Chilton, levelling a pipe-stem at Beverley. “Which is why I’m going t’soak you for it when it comes time to reckon our account.”
Thomas gawped at him in amazement.
“You’ve got a copy…Of Silver Stars and a Siren Singing…by Jefferson Lancaster Monday…Peacock Press…Bombay and Baltimore…1876…in cornflower cloth with silver stamping…?!?!?!?!”
“Limited to five hundred copies with twelve tipped-in colour plates by the author.”
“That’s the one,” breathed Thomas. “My God. You have one…?
“Have I ever lied to you?” asked the bookseller innocently.
“You really really have a copy?”
“I do…but I’m afraid it’s signed by Monday on the title page,” Chilton smiled benignly.
“Fourth case from the window on the wall to my right, third shelf down, ninth book from the left.”
Beverley stared at him incredulously for an instant, before turning and trying to make his way to the bookcase in question without trampling and tripping over everything else in his path. Once there he did the requisite counting three shelves down, nine books from the left, and found it just where it was supposed to be. He retraced his steps with the book clutched in his trembling hands, and found Chilton puffing serenely on his pipe.
“This is it! Oh my God…it’s…it’s…”
“A mint copy,” finished the bookseller smugly. “Never been read. Some of the pages are still uncut.”
“It’s worth a fortune.”
“It’s worth a couple of thousand easy, Mister…ah…?”
“Beverley. Thomas Beverley. D’you know how long I’ve been looking for this book?”
“Certainly nowhere near as long as I’ve owned it,” grinned Chilton. “Pony up, lad, I’ve got a business to run here.”
“I don’t have anywhere near a couple of thousand to pay you for it,” said Thomas. “I don’t have anywhere near a couple of hundred…”
“How about fifty bucks? If that’s too much you can take a hike.”
“But that’s thievery. You’ll have me arrested the minute I walk out the door! This book–“
”Is gonna cost you fifty big ones, Beverley,” snapped Chilton impatiently. If you don’t like the price—“
“I know. I can take a hike.”
“My but you’re a quick study.”
Thomas did some rapid calculations in his head and came to the unalterable conclusion that if he paid fifty dollars for the book, his next month’s rent payment would leave him within a sneeze of total bankruptcy. He gazed down at the volume still in his hands, marvelled at its newness, the delicious silken feel of the cloth…the untarnished silver stamping. He looked up at the book seller, afraid the old bugger had been leading him on just to amuse himself.
“Will you take a cheque?” he asked.
“With forty-two pieces of identification, your blood type and your mother’s maiden name. Used to ask for firstborn sons, but I noticed business slacked off too much even for my liking.”
“How about my word that the cheque is good?” Thomas snapped, and then cringed inwardly when it came out sounding huffy as hell. Chilton grinned.
“Oh…so there’s some fire in your blood after all, is there? I was beginning to wonder, you know. Not many people would’ve put up with me for as long as you have and—“
“Will you take my cheque or not?”
The monocle dropped from the bookseller’s eye as both went wide with delight; then he picked up a fountain pen and tossed it across his desk.
“Sold,” he said with a smile. “You write while I wrap.”
Thomas allowed the book to be pried from his fingers and watched the man disappear with it into the back room of the shop. He was waving the cheque in the air, waiting for the ink to dry, when Chilton reappeared with the book in a neat parcel of brown paper.
Their hands met in mid-air over the desk, book and cheque changing ownership.
“Thank you…very much,” Thomas said stiffly. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
Chilton laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, “I‘ve been abrupt and unconscionably rude and I really owe you an apology…though if I were you I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.”
“Well thanks anyway,” replied Thomas, figuring the admission was a close as he was going to get. “I’ve got Monday’s other three books, but this one…finally…you have no idea what this means…”
“That’s for sure,” affirmed the bookseller, “though I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that
it means you’re going to have to read it on an empty stomach.”
Thomas shot him an incredulous stare, but Chilton’s face became an inscrutable mask.
“Well…whether you know it or not, you’ve done me an immeasurable service today,” he said, trying for a conciliatory tone. “I shall be forever in your debt.”
“The hell you will!” exploded the bookseller suddenly. “Back here day and night trying to make it up to me? I don’t think so! I’ve got your cheque and you’ve got my book. We’re even. All square. Now shove off and let me get back to whatever it was I was doing when you blew in here.”
Beverley tucked the parcel under his greatcoat and decided to take the man at his word, before he was offered another more irresistible urge to strangle him. He turned on his heels, inched his way back to the door of the shop and slammed it behind him as he left.
When he was gone the bookseller shook his head, resumed his seat behind the desk and re-fired his brier. A moment later the curtain at his back rustled ever so slightly and a huge marmalade cat with huge green eyes vaulted onto his lap, purring to beat the band. Chilton scratched one tufted ear affectionately.
“I must be getting old, Samantha,” he said mock-sorrowfully. “In the old days I never would have given him a chance to catch his breath, much less get in a few words of his own. And the fellow even had me inches from apologising…!
“However…it’s no concern of yours, my little beauty, though I’m grateful for the heads-up. I was fairly certain he was one of that ragtag bunch…
“Come on, then, my girl. We’ve done our deed for the day. Maybe this one will do the trick for him. Meanwhile, let’s get you some dinner and then I think I’d better start practising my snarls again….”
The cat blinked once and headed for the back room. Chilton stood up and followed her, but not before he tore the cheque in his hand into four rectangles and laid them neatly
on his desk.
Thomas stopped at the Dragon’s Jaws on his way home, wedged himself into a corner of the smoke-filled tavern, ordered a rum toddy to drive out the chill of his walk across the City and, at the same time, celebrate the imminence of his insolvency. As he waited for his mug to arrive, he carefully took the brown-papered parcel from beneath his greatcoat and set it on the table before him, not daring to open it though the temptation to do so was overwhelming. He still had a fair bit of trudging to do before he reached his flat, and the weather promised to get worse before it ever began to get better. He contented himself by staring at the featureless paper, imagining what was held therein, and began to run through his prospects for the acquisition of funds in the near future.
I must have been out of my mind to buy that damn thing, he berated himself. But how could I not? He was giving it away…a signed copy! I suppose I can always borrow a few bits from Windy if things get too tight; then again, perhaps the Weekly will take another pair of articles if I plead poverty and promise not to slang the council too hard…
His musings were interrupted by the arrival of his toddy and a cry of greeting from one of the many writers who frequented the Jaws.Thomas looked up, nodded in reply and, with a careless wag of his head, invited the newcomer to join him.
“Beverley you old scoundrel how are you?”
Thomas waited patiently as Philip Johnstone went through the unvarying ritual of divesting himself of his muffler, coat and sweater, a process that never took less than three minutes but no more than four. When all his outerwear was folded neatly over the back of a chair, he signed to the barman for his usual and a second toddy for Thomas.
“They’re on me, old sod,” he said with a grin. “Just got word in today’s post. The Clarendon Press is taking my volume of essays…and paying me in the bargain! Five hundred, can you believe it? If the place wasn’t so crowded with bottomless pits masquerading as writers I’d stand the house.”
Thomas made congratulatory noises, thanked Johnstone for his largesse, and fell to communing silently with the yellow splotch of butter on the surface of the toddy.
“So…how are things going with that novel, Tom? You’re about due for your share of the pie.”
“I certainly hope so,” swore Thomas fervently, edging away from the fact that his novel was moving along at a pace that might have been mistaken for standing still. Instead, he went on to relate the detail of his purchase and cocked his head towards the parcel on the table.
“You paid that much for one book?” said Johnstone incredulously. “You’ve gone crazed
right round the bend…”
“No doubt,” growled Thomas, “but now I’ve got all four of Monday’s books—“
“And will likely starve to death before you get to read this last one!”
Beverley shrugged. “The first one sat for almost three months before I got to it, but once it was gone I went through the next pair as soon as I laid hands on them.”
Johnstone looked impressed.
“This Monday character must be one hell of a writer,” he observed. “You don’t do much more than sneer at most books. What’s he about…?”
“Like nothing you’ve ever read, I’ll wager,” said Thomas. “For that matter, he’s like nothing I’ve ever read either, and the devil knows why I like him. This one’s cal…titled Of Silver Stars & a Siren Singing, and if it’s anything like the others it’s filled with magic, mythical monsters and at least one incomparably beautiful woman.”
“You’ve got t’be joking. You don’t read that sort of tripe.”
“I know,” nodded Thomas,” yet there’s something about Monday that fascinates me…but listen, Johnstone, apart from my penchant for writing and reading the most depressing things imaginable, you know most of the booksellers in the City. What about the fellow who sold me Silver Stars, this Edmund Chilton? He’s got a tatty old shop down by the docks…in Bedford Street…”
Whisky and Thomas’ second toddy arrived. Johnstone’s forehead creased in a frown.
“I don’t believe I know him or his shop,” he said. “Why d’you ask?”
“Because he was the most uncivil wretch I’ve ever run into, but he sold me this book for a fraction of its real worth. I was ready to throttle him half a dozen times in the quarter hour I spent there.”
“Throttle him,” laughed Johnstone. “You? I can’t believe that, old boy. You put on a grim front for the world at large, and tear hell out of it on a regular basis with those articles, but most of us know you a bit better than that…”
“Well it’s true just the same. He left off slanging me after a while, but just as I was beginning to think he wasn’t such a bad old creature after all, he started in on me again and I stormed out of the place.”
“I’ll do some checking for you, if you like,” offered Johnstone. “Did you get a card from him?”
Thomas rummaged in the pockets of his greatcoat. “I did have one,” he said, “but I must have left it behind.”
“No matter then. Chilton…in Bedford Street.”
“That should be enough,” said his friend. “I’ll ask around and get back t’you in a week or so…meanwhile, I think I’ll shove off before the snow buries us here. That storm outside promises t’be a big one.”
He tossed off his glass and began the reverse ritual of bundling himself back into his outer clothing.
“Well I’m off, Tommy old boy,” he said at length, tucking the tails of his scarf into his coat. “Keep at that book of yours…”
Thomas waved him a distracted farewell and nursed his brace of toddies well into the dinner hour.
* * *
By the time he left the Dragon’s Jaws the city was close to knee-deep in snow, the skies an unbroken shroud of grey-white that seemed to sink closer and closer to the earth with each passing hour, dissolving rooftops and devouring streetlamps in its thick haze. As he trudged down the West Abbey Road and turned finally into Boar’s Head Lane, he stopped for a moment to shake a clot of wet snow from his left shoulder and, in the breathy whisper of the storm, realised he was entirely alone.
“I don’t know when the Road was ever as quiet as it is now,” he murmured aloud, looking back the way he had come. The City had been transformed into a place of featureless shadows, broken at whiles by the gleam of light from a second- or third-storey window, the lambent aura of a streetlamp. “I wonder….what would it be like… to live in a world that was always like this…?”
The thought intrigued him, continued to grow in his mind until his speculations became boundless, and he found that with very little effort he could imagine himself in a place of almost ceaseless snows, where the horizon of even the most far-seeing creatures was never an inch farther than a few hundred paces in any direction.
“Incredible…” he whispered into the snow haze, and turned for the last leg of his trek homeward, making sure his parcel was snugly safe inside his coat. When he looked up he found a tall figure barring his way—a woman, swathed in white furs, snow-white hair wafting in the wind, and a pale face of shadows from which gleamed two pale eyes the colour of winter ice in sunset.
“Come with me…please…”she said, and her voice was an echo of bells that thrilled him. “Come with me…”
She seemed to float away into the night, merge with the beckoning light of a corner streetlamp. Thomas reached out a hand to stay her, but she was gone even as he stumbled after her.
“Wait!” he cried. “Who are you? How can I follow if…?”
A window overhead and across the lane came up and an angry voice threatened him with violence if he would not let honest folks sleep peaceful in their beds. Thomas growled a surly reply and, in a confusion of anger and utter bewilderment, stalked to his door, inserted his latchkey and stamped up the two flights to his rooms.
Once inside, he flung his scarf and greatcoat into a corner, kicked off his boots and faced the clutter of books, papers and what-not else that filled the apartment–tumbling across the floors and climbing the very walls to his waist in some places, and all in all covering most of the worn and threadbare wreckage that passed for his furnishings.
“The devil!” he snarled. “Have I gone full circle and come back to that wretched shop? And I know there’s a carpet on the floor somewhere, but I’ll be thrashed if I know where to look for it first…or if I dare look for it at all. Who knows what may have taken root down there under all this mess?”
He stood in the middle of his sitting-cum-workroom with a sudden and very deep discontent rising up inside him as he surveyed what was, at best, the very sordid thing he called home.
“Damn it, Beverley! It’s no wonder you can’t get any work done in this place. It’s wringing you dry with chaos. Where…how…are you going to find any kind of inspiration in a place like this? Monday would have died here…”
A slow fury began to mount in him, an urge to toss everything into the nearest dustbin and draw the cover down over all of it, himself and his might-as-well-be-non-existent novel included as well…and then he looked down at the brown-papered parcel clutched in the fist he’d been brandishing at the walls and his anger slipped away in a foolish smile.
“But not tonight,” he said softly. “Tonight’s for a pot of tea and Silver Stars…”
A few minutes later, with an armchair unearthed, a lamp beside him and a mug of evil-smelling Souchong in his lap, Thomas turned to the first page of his dearly-bought treasure…
* * *
When he awoke, it was morning outside his windows and the rear board of Monday’s book—covered in cornflower blue cloth with a floral-leaf design stamped in silver—winked up at him from his lap. The storm seemingly had continued on through the night, heavy clots of snow still clinging to the glass panes and sill. Thomas stretched lazily, set his book carefully aside and waded through the sea of papers on the floor to look down on a thoroughly unfamiliar Boar’s Head Lane—an ocean of snow that swept, unbroken as far as he could see in either direction—and, directly beneath his window, a fur-swathed figure who smiled up at through the watery half-light of morning.
“Come with me…” she said to him, and the fact that he could hear her voice ever so softly but quite clearly through the glass did not trouble him in the least.
“Who are you?” he asked again in a hoarse whisper. “What do you want with me?”
“You must come with me,” she replied. “I cannot explain, but you must come…. please…”
A gust of wind sent a diaphanous curtain of snow swirling down from the rooftops and when he looked again she was gone. Thomas stared at where she had been, and then thought to see her at the corner where Boar’s Head met with the Abbey Road. Her bell-like voice seemed to float on the wind, a lingering music that whispered to him again and again:
“You must come with me…please…come…with…me…”
* * *
He never stopped to consider what madness drove him out into the streets of the City that day, only that she had begged him to follow her and suddenly he wanted nothing more than just that—to follow her out into the white wastes, to the very ends of the earth if that was where she would lead him. Clothed again in his greatcoat, gloves and scarf, armed against the chill by a flask of wretched brandy in one pocket, he set out into the terra incognita of the City and virtually swam through the storm in her wake.
Each time he thought he had lost her a trill of delighted laughter would waft through the haze to show him the way, or he would catch a glimpse of her on the next street corner… and the sun, hidden though it was by the lowering clouds, rose up one side of the sky and began its downward way upon the other…until Thomas, in mid-afternoon, found himself among the dark facades and stonework of the warehouses that lined the harbour, and realised he had been led back again to Bedford Street, and the tatty old shop of Edmund Chilton was no more than half a block away.
“Why on earth would I come back here?” Thomas puzzled, but his feet already were moving down the steps to the door of the shop, now swept free of snow. He stepped through the clangour of the bell, saw Chilton seated behind his desk with a book on his lap and a massive marmalade tabby perched on the desk beside him.
“Well look what one of your brothers dragged in, Samantha,” boomed the bookseller. “Didn’t think I’d lay eyes on you again, Beverley. I see you’ve been through the book. What’d you think of it?”
“It was the best of them all,” said Thomas. “I was there, standing beside the Princess Eos in the northern waste kingdoms as we fought to save her land from the Ice Giants.”
“Great stuff, eh?”
“It was magic.”
Chilton nodded. “Magic indeed. But why are you back here? You’re not going t’make a habit out of this are you? Samantha hates interruptions when we’re reading.”
“She’s beautiful,” murmured Thomas, reaching out a tentative hand. When the cat darted a raspy pink tongue at his fingers and began to purr, he beamed, scratching gently at the great ruff of fur around her neck. “She just sits and keeps you company while you read?”
Chilton looked puzzled.
“No…she sits here and listens while I read to her,” he said.
“She listens while you read,” said Thomas.
“Well of course she listens while I read,” huffed Chilton. “What else would you expect her t’do? Besides…she hates missing anything…especially the illustrations.”
Thomas did not even try to hide his skepticism.
“D’you mean t’tell me that–?”
“Every word, young feller,” nodded the bookseller. “She’s the toughest literary critic I know…or she would be, if she felt like writing things down. I know when we’ve got ourselves a winner when she brings family to listen as well…especially that big grey lives on the other side of town. I’ll likely be reading this again to a full house tomorrow.”
He offered up the dust-wrappered volume to where Thomas could read the title.
“The Mooncats,” he said aloud. “By Randolph Jordan Sutherland. I’ve never heard of him.”
“Well now you have,’ replied Chilton, and if you like Lanky Jeff Monday you’ll like Randy Jay Sutherland as well.” In answer to Beverley’s unspoken question he said, “We had word-game plays on each other’s names.”
“Really? What’d they call you?”
Chilton grinned an evil grin. “Cranky,” he said with vast pleasure.
Beverley cocked his head to one side. “Wait a minute! Monday wrote his books over a hundred years ago.”
“What’s your point?” said Chilton.
For some reason he could not explain, Thomas realised he had no point, or if he had had one it was gone. Chilton seemed unfazed.
“Anyway, Mooncats is a pretty good piece of work in spite of being much younger than Mondays’s stuff. Tad on the light side, but some o’ the best stuff ever written has been that way. Samantha thinks it’s the whiskers, and not just because of the title.”
Thomas drew his hand back from the cat’s chin as if he’d been stung, his eyes going saucer-size with surprise.
“She…she just nodded!” he exclaimed, staring at her.
“She doesn’t believe in over-reacting, unlike at least one of us in the room,” said Chilton casually. “You must know how cats are about their dignity…but tell me more of your thoughts on Silver Stars…”
Beverley shook his head. “It was just wonderful,” he said. “I can’t say more than that because it was—“
“Magic,” agreed Chilton softly. “Jeff certainly did know his business. He lounged back in his chair, musing aloud: “Who can forget Rinaldo’s harrowing journey to Land’s Edge, to save the stars from annihilation at the hands of the wicked archimage Darkbundle… led ever onward through all the deception by the enchanted crystal given him by the princess Eos herself…or when the Ice Giants besieged the Snow Palace, how Rinaldo’s beloved Desdemona gave her life to help save the kingdom. “ Chilton shook his head in admiration. “Not many people could have written that last scene…”
His trancy mutterings were interrupted by the sound of the bell above the door as a tallish, bespectacled gentleman in a grey overcoat entered the shop. Chilton leaned across his desk, giving Samantha a little boost in the direction of the back room.
“Thomas,” he said,” consulting a gold pocket watch extracted from a pocket in his dressing gown, “why don’t you come back at closing time,” he said gently. “This fellow’s an old friend I’ve not seen in a dog’s age…sorry, Samantha…but if you could come back in an hour or so, I’ll conjure us up something for supper and we can talk some more. Whattayasay?”
Beverley nodded dreamily. “Sounds fair t’me. So I’ll be back before you close up,” he said.
He turned, muttered a polite greeting to the older gentleman in response to the latter’s smile, and walked towards the door of the shop with a puzzled expression on his face. Then he shook himself once, and went out into the street. Chilton rose to greet the newcomer.
“Kip,” he said warmly. “So good t’see you again.
“Good t’see you as well, Cranky. Been all over hell’s half acre trying to find you this time. I see you’re still up to your old tricks.”
Chilton grinned. “You mean Beverley,” he said, nodding towards the door. “True enough. He’s got some promise though, just needs the right kind of inspiration. By the way, Samantha and I went through The Man Who Would Be King just last week…for the umpteenth time. Still your best…”
Thomas came through the door of the shop just as Chilton, who had exchanged his Oriental dressing gown for a maroon velvet smoking jacket and a knotted grey silk ascot, was dousing the lights in the window. He reached under his greatcoat and brought out two paper bags.
“The wine’s for our dinner,” he said quickly. “The other is for Samantha. I managed to find a grocer who was willing to braise some beef for her. I hope she likes that sort of thing…”
Chilton made a great show of adjusting his monocle.
“You bet she does…but come this way, my boy,” he said, leading Beverley towards the rear of the shop. “There’s more to Edmund Chilton’s Second Hand and Rare Everything Emporium than meets the eye. And before I forget…”
He made a quick detour back to his desk and came up with another brown-papered parcel that he handed to Thomas.
“From Samantha,” he explained. “It’s an extra copy of Mooncats. She was quite certain it belonged in your collection. You can leave your coat and things here.”
Thomas divested himself of outerwear and accepted the book wordlessly, followed the bookseller into the back room and thence up a short flight of stairs where a furred silhouette at its head purred with pleasure as he neared the top.
“Thank you, Samantha…” was all he could manage before the softly-lit room that swam into view struck him speechless.
It was like an opulent version of the shop downstairs without the clutter and chaos—warm and close with thick wine-red carpets, the polished sheen of old wood, velvets and brocades, glass-fronted cabinets and bric-a-brac shelves overflowing with feathers, antique glass, books and tiny figurines in bronze and brass that gleamed and glinted in the candlelight from a small table set with silver and spotless white linen. Thomas stood in the doorway, oblivious to the cat curling about his ankles and her vocal demands for a scratch behind the ears.
My God,” he whispered, awe-struck and then some. “I’ve never seen…it’s so…and these tiny sculptures…with every detail perfect. I’ve got a friend who would kill…”
He picked up a two-inch high figure from a shelf by the door—a small mouse in a bandleader’s costume, complete with paper-thin whispers—and looked at Chilton with rapturous eyes.
“They’re marvellous,” he said. “Where did you get them? There’s bloody hundreds of them!”
“You like ‘em, eh?”
“Like them? No I love them they’re incredible.”
Chilton handed him a small cardboard box.
“Good. Here’s a dozen of my best.”
Thomas went speechless a second time as the bookseller grinned and Samantha purred and then Chilton served supper whilst she purred some more and Thomas said a great many things he never remembered having said to anyone…and the next thing he knew dinner was over and they were sunk in fathoms of armchair, with coffee and brandy and Chilton firing up another of his stinky old briers.
“So whattaya do t’keep the wolves away, Thomas?” came the bookseller’s voice from behind a cloud of smoke. Beverley hung his head ruefully.
“Not very much, I’m afraid,” he said quietly. “I’m what most people would call an aspiring writer.”
“Perspiring on the days when you buy books a bit much for your means.”
“That too,” agreed Thomas.
“What sort of stuff d’you write?”
Thomas examined the light in his brandy.
“The usual things, I suppose,” he said almost bitterly. “Articles, stories, anything that’ll bring in a bit of cash while I’m about trying to write something worthwhile…”
He looked up with a strange bewildered look on his face.
“But I’ll tell you something Mister Chilton—“
“Edmund. In the last little while I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what I’ve been doing and…well…I muck about with a perfectly marvellous bunch of people, dear superlatively creative friends, steadfast and true…yet I spend most of my time writing about everything that’s wrong with our lives, dragging my characters through the worst things imaginable, slanging the dickens out of people who can’t appreciate the brightness around them, and generally sounding off like a damn fool because deep down I’m really just like them…”
“And now you’ve had a change of heart?” inquired Chilton quietly, arching one of his feathery eyebrows.
“You’re damned right I have!” Thomas said emphatically, with an image of a strange woman in white furs flitting through a snowscape in his mind. “Just talking about it now made me realise that people like Monday had the right idea of it. I saw all the silver stars and I heard Eos singing…and then after I’d helped to save the world and Darkbundle was dogmeat…she kissed me…said I was a hero…
“I mean, it’s not like my life is one wretched day after another, yet if I ever finish the novel I’ve supposedly been writing for the last year, someone reading it will think… well…I don’t know what they’ll think and suddenly I don’t want t’know…”
He stared down into his brandy again.
“I suppose what I’m trying to say is you can never have enough magic in the world, and I should be trying to add to it, instead of tearing it all down.”
A faint smile lifted the corners of Edmund Chilton’s mouth.
“You could do a lot worse, Thomas,” he murmured, raising his glass in a salutation. “You could do a lot worse…”
* * *
Chilton watched him walk off into the night, and smiled as he relocked the door of the shop. He wandered through the ranks of bookcases for a while; in darkness he reached out to touch the bindings of favoured volumes, as he would have reached out to greet old friends, warming himself with the memories of each one. Then he knocked over the pile of magazines on principle and when he went back to his desk for one last pipe before going to bed, he found Samantha on the blotter, keeping a close eye on her favourite book, and the tattered remnants of a small white business card.
“Well, old girl,” he said softly, a counterpoint to her rumblings of contentment. “What say we add this one to the scrapbook.”
He picked up the business card Beverley had left behind the day before and put it in the pocket of his smoking jacket, shuffled the cheque he had torn up earlier into a waste basket.
“D’you remember that shop we had in London back in ’93, Samantha…or that hole-in-the-wall in Paris where we sold copies of Les Trois Mousquetaires with the ink barely dry on the pages?
“Some things don’t change, me proud beauty, so long as there are people making magic in the world…and it was good t’see old Kip again…”
He put another match to his pipe and briefly considered a second stroll about the shop.
“Ah…come on, Samantha, let’s pack up and be on our way. I’m a bit hurt the kid didn’t recognize me as the model for Rinaldo, but I suppose he had more important things on his mind.”
He reached into a drawer of the desk and drew out a slim volume that he regarded in the soft glow of embers from his pipe, laughing quietly to himself.
“I wonder who we’ll be next time around, Sam,” he whispered. “I wonder what Beverley would have said if I’d shown him this.”
And in the small pool of light, he smiled down at a copy of The Snow King’s Daughter… by Thomas Beverley.