Authors: Herman Wouk
Seven years later, he died. His control of the Bronx River Ice Company passed, with the rest of his large property, to his son Robert, who soon showed himself a different kind of mortgagee. To be brief, Bob Powers was a gambler and a drinker. Sizable inheritances do often go to such young men; the effect is generally the same as placing a snowball for safekeeping on a hot stove. Some say that this is a good thing for society, as it brings about the redistribution of wealth without socialism. In any case, it was not a good thing for the ice company. When young Mr. Powers got into difficulties, he began hounding Jacob Bookbinder for more dividends and higher interest. He hoped for the day when he could find a buyer for the Place and convert his holding into a large lump of cash.
Now, there was a tremendous secret, known only to Mr. and Mrs. Bookbinder.
The mortgagee, a month before his death, had called Jacob Bookbinder to his bedside in a beautiful Catholic hospital overlooking Van Cortlandt Park. There the dying man and Herbie's father had talked heart to heart, and Jacob Bookbinder's eyes had filled with tears as the old rich man praised his faithful toil and honesty.
“You should really be the owner of the Place, Jake,” he said at last, his gray face, sunk among white pillows, lit by a weak smile. “Even if you aren't, the best thing I can do to protect my son from himself is to make sure you are in control. —I wish you better luck with your boy than I had with mine, Jake.” He took out of a folder on his bed a sheet of light blue paper, scribbled on it with a pencil, and gave it to Herbie's father. The puzzled ice man read the few lines written on the paper; then he walked to the window, stared out at the park that glowed with autumn colors, and began to sob. The paper contained these words:
For one dollar and other valuable consideration I hereby sell to Jacob Bookbinder two percent of the total voting stock of the Bronx River Ice Company. My purpose is to restore control of the company to Mr. Bookbinder and his partner.
It was shakily signed, “Robert Powers.”
“Come, Jake,” said the invalid feebly from the bed. “Pay me.” He drew a thin hand out from between the sheets and extended it to Bookbinder. “You owe me a dollar.”
So it was that Jacob Bookbinder came into possession of the memorandum, which Herbie and Felicia had heard their parents refer to once or twice, guardedly, as the “blue paper.” And it was this memorandum which Herbie's father now drew out of the tin box and silently placed in the hand of the son of the dead man who had once written it.
Robert Powers glanced quickly at the paper, and exploded with, “Good God! Where and when did you get this?”
“Could look see, please? When through, please, of course, look?” said Krieger, sitting on the edge of his chair and stretching both hands forward. Powers passed the paper to him, and Bookbinder quickly told the story of it.
“Has Louis Glass seen this—this thing?” said Powers.
“Nobody has seen it until this minute,” said Bookbinder, “except your father, may he rest in peace, and me.”
The paper rustled in Krieger's trembling hand. “Perfect gentleman. Lovely old man. Justice, fair is fair. No more is right. Stand up a court of law? Maybe not regular. Wonderful family. Like father, like son. Honest men. I say this way thousand times, old man Powers do right thing. What afraid? Nothing—”
“May I ask,” said Powers, damming Krieger with a wave of a hand, “why none of us have heard of it until now? I question your good faith, Mr. Bookbinder.”
“Much obliged,” said Bookbinder. “I knew your father when you were in public school, and till the day he passed away he didn't give me such a compliment.”
“You don't answer my question.”
“I'll be happy to. On the other hand, maybe we can take the vote and you can still catch your train.”
“Gentlemen, I say this way, peaceable, all good friends,” began Krieger, but Powers cut him off by walking to the door.
“All things considered,” he said, “I think the vote had better be postponed, and I propose a meeting a week from today, with Louis Glass present.”
The other men assented, and Powers walked out without another word, slamming the street door.
Krieger jumped at his partner and gave him an ungainly hug. “Jake, not for a million dollars. No sale. Why not show me before? Better this way, maybe. Powers first iron, not butter, Nothing doing. I say this way, hundred thousand dollars like dirt. Hooray! Who needs—”
Bookbinder disengaged himself, carefully took the crumpled blue paper out of Krieger's fist, and, locking it in the tin box, prepared to close the safe.
“Don't shout hooray till Glass sees it. Whether it stands up legally, I don't know. I hated to use it. Either way we start a lot of trouble. I wish we could have let it lie.” As he swung the heavy steel door Krieger arrested its motion.
“Jake, I say this way. You do anything. I behind hundred per cent.” He dropped his voice and adopted a tone reminding Herbie of Mr. Gauss in the parlor. “Little short cash. Two hundred. Insurance, auto loan, Bessie sick, it happens. Take petty cash, deduct salary. Up to you. Positive last time—”
“Krieger, you're on the books for a thousand, two hundred now,” protested Bookbinder. But when he saw Krieger take a deep breath and begin, “I say this way—” he said, “Never mind, never mind,” and pulled another tin box out of the safe.
The boys watched with large eyes while Herbie's father counted out of the box and into Krieger's hand the immense treasure of two hundred dollars in cash. Bookbinder then locked the safe and the men began talking about machinery repairs in technical jargon that bewildered the lads. Herbie beckoned to Cliff, and the cousins tiptoed back to the window and climbed out of the Place into the sunshine.
The world looked yellow and green by the river, and the air was sweet and warm outside the gloomy tomb of business. “Come on, we'll go hunt for stuff in the dumps,” said Herbie, and the boys set off to explore the rubbish heaps near the Place. “You know what, Cliff?”
“Yes, what?” said Cliff, in the idiom meaning “No, what?”
“Any time we wanted to, we could climb in the Place and get money out of that safe. All we want. We've got the combination.”
it, would you?” said Cliff, stopping and straining his eyes at his cousin unbelievingly.
“'Course not, fool, come on,” said Herbie. “I'm only saying that's a dangerous way to make a combination. Unless you have honest kids.”
“How much could we get?” queried Cliff. “A thousand dollars?”
“A thousand?” said Herbie scornfully. “Fifty thousand! A hundred thousand, more likely. We could be rich like Monte Cristo—if we weren't honest.”
The boys walked on in silence, each busy with his own picture of himself as Monte Cristo. In Cliff's mind the fabulous count was a young nobleman with an infinitely large array of new bicycles, ice skates, roller skates, hockey sticks, footballs, and the like. Herbie saw him, on the other hand, as a stoutish grandee living on a constant diet of chocolate sundaes and frankfurters, and possessed of a fawning female slave who much resembled Lucille Glass.
erbie stood before a mirror in his room the following Sunday, preening and preening and preening himself for a visit to Lucille Glass' home.
He had been at work on himself for an hour. It was not in the matter of washing that his new zeal had broken forth. No, Mrs. Bookbinder had compelled him to take off his tie after he had retied it ten times, and had gone over his neck and ears with a soapy washcloth. After submitting to this indignity, which he regarded as an adult superstition, Herbert went through all the tie trouble again, and then shifted his efforts to his thick curly black hair. He parted it once, twice, a half-dozen times, and each time rejected the result, because of a stray strand that crossed the white line, or because of a tiny jaggedness here or there, or because the part seemed too low or too high. On an ordinary school day, one swipe with a comb was the rule. Two made him feel noble. Three meant that he was in trouble with his teacher and was making a mighty effort to please.
The cause of all this care, an invitation engraved on thick white paper, was propped before him on the dresser:
Mr. and Mrs. Louis Glass
cordially invite you
at 2645 Mosholu Parkway
1 p.m., Sunday, May 15th
At the bottom of the sheet these words were added by hand: “There will be a children's party in the playroom, and Lucille cordially invites Felicia and Herbie to attend.”
This first visit to an actual Private House, a structure raised by man for only one family to inhabit, would in itself have been a marvel. But happening in this way, it was dwarfed by a vaster event. He was going to spend a whole real-life afternoon with his underground queen.
Herbie reigned each night before falling asleep in a splendid imaginary palace which he had discovered one night by falling through a trapdoor (in imagination) in the floor of the old “haunted house” on Tennyson Avenue—a device borrowed from
Alice in Wonderland
without acknowledgment. The girls with whom he was smitten succeeded one another as queen of this subterranean pleasure dome. Diana Vernon had been dethroned. Lucille's coronation, a spectacle of incredible magnificence, had already taken place, and she now held court nightly beside him.
But it was not only in such fantasies that he had seen her. There had been several meetings on the third-floor landing of the girls' staircase at P.S. 50 since the first one. In the entire maze of the school, that landing was the one space Captain Bookbinder never failed to inspect daily at lunch time, and of all possible posts along six flights of the girls' staircase, it was the one area that Policewoman Glass deemed most likely to be the scene of an outbreak of crime. These two guardians of the law therefore managed to greet each other daily. The conversations were brief and weak. Herbie was rendered speechless by romance—an unlucky foible, since nothing else had the same effect on him except acute tonsillitis.
The strange part was that he found no difficulty at all in having long, tender talks with Lucille when they sat on their golden double throne under the haunted house, eating chocolate frappés on silver salvers and carelessly viewing the gorgeous pageants staged in the great hall for their amusement (the pageants, except for the quantity of gold, diamonds, rubies, and silk in the costumes, were very much like the vaudeville shows at Loew's Boulevard). He not only managed brilliant chatter for himself but also invented the queen's affectionate answers. Something about the light of day, the matter-of-fact iron and concrete of the staircase, and the girl's appearance in street clothes instead of a robe of state, dried up his eloquence.
As he combed and recombed his hair, he pictured himself strolling with Lucille in the gardens of 2645 Mosholu Parkway, an edifice he had never seen. From the grand sound of the words “Mosholu Parkway,” he imagined it to be something like an English castle in the movies. There, under arching old trees, amid the flower beds, deliciously alone, could Herbie and Lucille fail to come at last to the sweet mutual pledges of love?
It suddenly struck Herbert that he would look older if he combed his hair straight back without a part, as Lennie Krieger did. He tried the experiment. The result appeared so strange to him that he hastily erased it with the comb. He next attempted, for the first time in his life, a part on the right side of his face instead of the left. This was hard to do, because the heavy hair, trained in one direction, sprang back from under the comb and stood up defiantly in the middle of his head. By soaking it with water he succeeded in bending it to his will, and surveyed the outcome with satisfaction. It seemed to give his face a new dignity which added years.
In his mother's bedroom he could hear the silk-stocking controversy raging. Since the hour of the arrival of the invitation, Felicia had been waging a campaign for her first pair of ladies' hosiery. The two-year advantage in age she had over Lucille Glass made her feel that she had been insulted by being asked to “a baby's party,” and although she was perishing to go, she felt she could not appear at 2645 Mosholu Parkway without some token of her mature years. With silk stockings on, she reasoned, she could carelessly wander into the playroom and consume all the ice cream, cake, and candy that came to her hand, in the guise of a kindly visitor from the adult world.
Now, this was close logic, but Felicia knew that it was not likely to penetrate the opaque mind of a parent. Her lines of attack on her mother were three:
1. If I can't wear silk stockings, I
to the old party, and you can't
2. Every girl in my class has at least
pairs of silk stockings, and even kids a year
me have them.
3. Herbie gets
in this house, and I get
Mrs. Bookbinder had doggedly held out, because she resisted by instinct every move of the children toward maturity. She knew that in the end Felicia would go to the party, in rubber rompers if necessary. But with all her edge of experience, insight, and authority, she made a slip that cost her the victory.