Having narrowly averted the destruction of the universe as we know it, Arnold and his friend Dick Ridpath are now safely back in the apartment of Mr. Arbuthnot, in the quaint seaside resort and fishing port of Cape May, New Jersey, on a warm August night in 1963…
(Go here for our previous, cataclysmic episode, or here to see where the whole damn thing began.)
Dick and I again exchanged glances. Of course we both needed a drink, but on the other hand I think we had both had had more than enough of Mr. Arbuthnot for one evening.
“I really should be going, Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said, or panted. I was still quite out of breath from our adventure, and the sweat continued to stream from my every pore.
“I hope you gentlemen will not hold this, uh, incident against me,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Oh, no, not at all,” said Dick. His floral-print shirt was drenched, and he was pinching a bit of material in and out at his waist, trying to fan some air onto his torso.
“Please accept my apology,” said the old fellow.
“No apology needed,” said Dick. “It wasn’t your fault -- uh -- that --”
“That my cat Shnooby almost destroyed the universe?”
“Well -- come to think of it, maybe next time you should lock him in another room,” suggested Dick.
“A superb idea,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “And, gentlemen, please come see me again. I have many other wonderful things I can show you.”
“Sure,” said Dick.
Mr. Arbuthnot took his Meerschaum out of one jacket pocket, and his tobacco pouch out of the other. I noticed that unlike Dick and me he wasn’t sweating at all.
“But I must ask you again,” he said, “please do not speak to anyone, not even to each other, of what you have seen here tonight.”
“Okay, sure,” said Dick.
“Mum’s the word?”
“Oh. Sure,” I said.
He filled his pipe.
“We don’t want to -- open a can of worms, do we?” he said.
“No,” I said. “Who would believe us, anyway?”
“A very good point. You wouldn’t want people to question your sanity again, would you?”
“I don’t think they’ve ever stopped questioning my sanity.”
“Heh heh. Yes. Quite."
Dick and I watched as he put away his tobacco, took out his box of matches, lit his pipe.
“Well --” said Dick.
“Oh. Allow me to show you out,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
We followed him to the stairs, and down, into the dark shop. This time he flicked on a light switch, and an overhead electric chandelier came on, casting light on all the various goods in his store.
“Gentlemen, he said, turning to us as we came from the stairs, “I want each of you to choose one item from my shop, as a present from me.”
“Oh, really, we couldn’t,” said Dick.
“Were it not for you two and your strong legs and backs, and might I say your admirable nerve, the world would be in flames right now. The least I can do is give you both some humble item from this hodgepodge.”
“Well --” said Dick.
“I quite insist.’
I just wanted to get out of there, so I didn’t argue. I looked into one of the glass cases. I saw a wide flat box of fountain pens.
“I’ll take a pen, then,” I said.
He hustled around the counter, but instead of taking a pen from one of the ones on display he reached lower down, opened a drawer, and brought out a small reddish-purple leather case. Putting the stem of his little pipe between his teeth, he clicked open the case, and brought out from it a tortoise-shell pen.
“How about this one?”
“Great,” I said. To tell the truth I’d never had a really nice pen.
“Let me show you how to fill it.”
I sighed. Sometimes you wonder if you’re ever going to be allowed to leave a place. And the thing is, once you do finally get to leave, how often do you wind up just going to someplace else you want to leave?
Anyway, he produced a little unlabeled jar of ink from somewhere, unscrewed the lid, and filled the pen. It had one of those little metal levers that pull out from the pen. I thought I could handle it.
“This is a very special ink,” he said, wiping the nib of the pen on some old rag from somewhere. He replaced the cap of the pen, put it back in its case, shut the case and finally handed it over.
“May you write many classic poems with this instrument.”
He puffed away smiling on his pipe.
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Here, take the ink as well.”
He put the bottle of ink into a little black cardboard box, put a lid on the box, and the box into a small black velvet bag with a gold-colored drawstring, which he fastened and tied in what I believe was a sailor’s knot. Thank God, he did not put the bag into something else, but handed it over. I put the pen case in one pocket of my Bermudas and the bag with the ink into another.
“And Mr. Ridpath?”
Dick was gazing at a shelf of old dolls.
“A nice antique doll for your girlfriend? Phoebe?”
“Uh, Daphne, actually. And she’s not really my girlfriend. And she’s a little old for dolls, really.”
Quickly and silently Mr. Arbuthnot scurried from behind the counter and over to Dick, nudging him aside. Putting his pipe between his teeth again, he reached up from his toes and brought down a doll in Victorian dress, with black ringlets and wide dark staring eyes.
“This one is lovely. Take it.”
“Really, Mr. Arbuthnot --”
“Look at this craftsmanship. Almost like real. Better than real. Believe me, your friend Dagmar will be overjoyed. And she can pass it on to your children.”
“I’ll wrap it up for you.”
Dick and I stood there among all of Mr. Arbuthnot’s wares, many of which now seemed to be stirring gently, or restlessly, as Mr. Arbuthnot took the doll behind his counter, rummaged around, found a grey cardboard box for it, stuck it into the box, and brought the box back over to Dick. Dick didn’t get a bag for his present.
“Okay, thanks a lot,” said Dick.
“Remember, not a word.”
“Mum’s the word,” said Dick.
“Splendid. As an officer and a gentleman I’m sure your word is your bond. And Mr. Schnabel --”
“I give you my railroad man’s word,” I said.
“And I shall accept it without further remark.”
Finally Dick and I made it out the door.
Mr. Arbuthnot held the door open for a moment, looking up and down the street.
“Looks like the coast is clear! Good night, gentlemen. I look forward to seeing you both again, soon.”
And with that he shut the door and locked it. We saw him walk to the back of the store and switch off the light.
Dick and I looked at each other.
I wondered, should I bring up all that had just happened? It was true I had given my word to Mr. Arbuthnot that I wouldn’t, my railroad man’s word. But I was no longer a railroad man really. I was a lunatic, my word meant nothing. I decided on the spot that (as with our time-travel trip the previous night) if Dick broached the subject first, well, okay then, all bets were off. But if he chose to honor his promise to Mr. Arbuthnot, then so too would I.
“Well, that was a little weird, wasn’t it?” said Dick.
“Yeah, a little,” I said.
“So, back to the Mug for you, Arnold?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“I’ll walk you over,” he said, and we started off down the block, Dick carrying that somewhat coffin-like cardboard box beneath his arm.
“Why don’t you join us, Dick?” I asked. Although as soon as I said this I remembered that our booth was already full with Larry and Steve and Miss Rathbone as well as Elektra, not to mention St. Thomas Becket and his friend Jack Scratch looming over it.
“Well, actually,” said Dick, “I was hoping to catch up with Daphne tonight. Mrs. Biddle told me you were out with her and Tommy and some other girl earlier?”
“Yes. Sister Mary Elizabeth.”
“Yes. We met a nun earlier today.”
“You and Daphne met a nun?”
“Yes. Daphne and I went swimming together. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. You met a nun when you went swimming?”
“Yes. At the convent, out on the point.”
“You and Daphne were at the convent?”
“Just the beach in back of the convent. And its back porch."
We were outside the Ugly Mug now. All sorts of people were coming and going along the sidewalks and driving their cars up and down the street. Everything looked normal, or as normal as it was ever likely to look.
I think Dick’s politeness kept him from asking more questions at this point. Which was fine for me. I put my hand on the front door handle of the bar. But then I remembered something.
“Oh, by the way, Dick, I think you might be able to find Daphne at Pete’s Tavern.”
His face lit up.
“Seriously?” he asked.
“Yes. I left her there with Tommy and the sister.”
“Pete’s Tavern -- isn’t that a Negro bar?”
“So you think I should I go there?”
“Why not? You can give her the doll.”
“Yes. The doll.” He glanced down at the box under his arm. “Well, I guess I’d better get over there then. You’re sure she won’t think me intrusive.”
“I doubt that.”
“Well, thanks, brother.”
Dick offered his hand, and I took it.
(Go here for our next thrill-packed episode. Kindly refer to the right hand side of this page to find what one hopes is an up-to-date listing of links to all other extant chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the AIG Award for Confessional Literature.)
Chris Farlowe: treat her good --