Editor-in-Chief & Publisher: MIR JAVED RAHMAN


THE I.O.U.


Issue Date 08 - 14 Apr, 2017 at 2:00 PM

THE I.O.U.

The above is not my real name – the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. My real name I shall not divulge. I am a publisher. I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota, detective stories concerning wealthy clubmen and female apaches with “wide dark eyes”, essays about the menace of this and that and the colour of the moon in Tahiti by college professors and other unemployed. I accept no novels by authors under 15 years old. All the columnists and communists (I can never get these two words straight) abuse me because they say I want money. I do – I want it terribly. My wife needs it. My children use it all the time. If someone offered me all the money in New York I should not refuse it. I would rather bring out a book that had an advance sale of 500,000 copies than have discovered Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell in one year. So would you if you were a publisher.
Six months ago I contracted for a book that was undoubtedly a sure thing. It was by Harden, the psychic-research man – Dr. Harden. His first book – I published it in 1913 – had taken hold like a Long Island sand crab and at that time psychic research had nowhere near the vogue it has at present. We advertised his new one as being a fifty–heart–power document. His nephew had been killed in the war and Dr. Harden had written with distinction and reticence an account of his psychic communion through various mediums with this nephew, Cosgrove Harden.
Dr. Harden was no intellectual upstart. He was a distinguished psychologist, Ph.D. Vienna, LL.D. Oxford, and late visiting professor at the University of Ohio. His book was neither callous nor credulous. There was a fundamental seriousness underlying his attitude. For example, he had mentioned in his book that a young man named Wilkins had come to his door claiming that the deceased had owed him three dollars and eighty cents. He had asked Dr. Harden to find out what the deceased wanted done about it. This Dr. Harden had steadfastly refused to do. He considered that such a request was comparable to praying to the saints about a lost umbrella.
For 90 days we prepared for publication. The first page of the book was set up in three alternative kinds of type and two drawings each were ordered from five sky-priced artists before the jacket par excellence was selected. The final proof was read by no less than seven expert proofreaders, lest the slightest tremble in the tail of a comma or the faintest cast in a capital “I” offend the fastidious eyes of the Great American Public.
Four weeks before the day set for publication, huge crates went out to a thousand points of the literate compass. To Chicago alone went 27,000 copies. To Galveston, Texas, went 7,000. One hundred copies apiece were hurled with sighs into Bisbee, Arizona, Red Wing, Minnesota, and Atlanta, Georgia. The larger cities having been accounted for, stray lots of 20 and 30 and 40 were dropped here and there across the continent as a sand artist fills in his nearly completed picture by fine driftings from his hand.
The actual number of books in the first printing was 300,000.
Meanwhile, the advertising department was busy from nine to five six days of the week, italicising, underlining, capitalising, double-capitalising; preparing slogans, headlines, personal articles, and interviews; selecting photographs showing Dr. Harden thinking, musing, and contemplating; choosing snapshots of him with a tennis racquet, with a golf stick, with a sister-in-law, with an ocean. Literary notes were prepared by the gross. Gift copies were piled in stacks, addressed to the critics of a thousand newspapers and weeklies.
The date set was April 15th. On the 14th, a breathless hush pervaded the offices and below in the retail department the clerks were glancing nervously at the vacant spaces where the stacks were to rest and at the empty front windows, where three expert window dressers were to work all evening arranging the book in squares and mounds and heaps and circles and hearts and stars and parallelograms.
On the morning of April 15th at five minutes to nine, Miss Jordan, the head stenographer, fainted from excitement into the arms of my junior partner. On the stroke of nine, an old gentleman with Dundreary whiskers purchased the first copy of “The Aristocracy of the Spirit World.”

THE I.O.U.
The great book was out.
It was three weeks after this that I decided to run out to Joliet, Ohio, to see Dr. Harden. This was a case of Mohammed (or was it Moses?) and the mountain. He was of a shy and retiring disposition; it was necessary to encourage him, to congratulate him, to forestall the possible advances of rival publishers. I intended to make the necessary arrangements for securing his next book and with this in mind I took along several neatly worded contracts that would take all disagreeable business problems off his shoulders for the next five years.
We left New York at four o’clock. It is my custom when on a trip to put half a dozen copies of my principal book in my bag and lend them casually to the most intelligent-looking of my fellow-passengers in the hope that the book may thereby be brought to the attention of some new group of readers. Before we came to Trenton, a lady with a lorgnette in one of the staterooms was suspiciously turning the pages of hers, the young man who had the upper of my section was deeply engrossed in his, and a girl with reddish hair and peculiarly mellow eyes was playing tic-tac-toe in the back of a third.
For myself, I drowsed. The New Jersey scenery changed unostentatiously to Pennsylvania scenery. We passed many cows and a great number of woods and fields and every 20 minutes or so the same farmer would appear, sitting in his wagon beside the village station, chewing tobacco and gazing thoughtfully at the Pullman windows.
We must have passed this farmer 10 or 15 times when my nap was suddenly terminated by the realisation that the young man who shared my section was moving his foot up and down like a bass drummer in an orchestra and uttering little cries and grunts. I was both startled and pleased for I could see that he was much moved, moved by the book he clutched tightly in his long white fingers – Dr. Harden’s “Aristocracy of the Spirit World.”
“Well,” I remarked jovially, “you seem interested.”
He looked up. In his thin face were the eyes that are seen in only two sorts of men: those who are up on spiritualism and those who are down on spiritualism.
As he seemed still rather dazed I repeated my inquiry.
“Interested!” he cried. “Interested! My God!”
I looked at him carefully. Yes, he was plainly either a medium or else one of the sarcastic young men who write humorous stories about spiritualists for the popular magazines.
“A remarkable piece of work,” he said. “The hero, so to speak, has evidently spent most of his time since his death dictating it to his uncle.”
I agreed that he must have.
“Its value, of course,” he remarked with a sigh, “depends entirely on the young man being where he says he is.”
“Of course.” I was puzzled. “The young man must be in… Paradise and not in…Purgatory.”
“Yes,” he agreed thoughtfully, “it would be embarrassing if he were in Purgatory… and more so if he were in a third place.”
This was rather too much.
“There was nothing in the young man’s life which presupposed that he might be in… be in…”
“Of course not. The region you refer to was not in my thoughts. I merely said it would be embarrassing if he were in Purgatory but even more embarrassing were he somewhere else.”
“Where, sir?”
“In Yonkers, for instance.”
At this I started.
“What?”
“In fact, if he were in Purgatory it would only be a slight error of his own… but if he were in Yonkers…”
“Who’s a good, royal, and most sovereign doggie?”
“My dear sir,” I broke out impatiently, “what possible connection is there between Yonkers and ‘The Aristocracy of the Spirit World’?”
“None. I merely mentioned that if he were in Yonkers…”
“But he’s not in Yonkers.”
“No, he’s not.” He paused and sighed again. “In fact, he has lately crossed from Pennsylvania into Ohio.”
This time I jumped – from sheer nervousness. I had not yet realised at what he was driving, but I felt that his remarks hinted at some significance.
“You mean,” I demanded quickly, “that you feel his astral presence.”
The young man drew himself up fiercely.
“There’s been enough of that,” he said, intensely. “It seems that for the last month I have been the sport of the credulous queens and Basil Kings of the entire United States. My name, sir, happens to be Cosgrove P. Harden. I am not dead; I have never been dead, and after reading that book I will never again feel it quite safe to die!”
The girl across the aisle was so startled at my cry of grief and astonishment that she put down a tic instead of a tac.
I had an immediate vision of a long line of people stretching from Fortieth Street, where my publishing house stands, down to the Bowery – 500,000 people, each one hugging a copy of “The Aristocracy of the Spirit World”, each one demanding the return of his or her two dollars and fifty cents. I considered quickly whether I could change all the names and shift the book from my non-fiction to my fiction. But it was too late even for this. Three hundred thousand copies were in the hands of the American public.
When I was sufficiently recovered, the young man gave me a history of his experiences since he had been reported dead: three months in a German prison; 10 months in a hospital with brain fever; another month before he could remember his own name. Half an hour after his arrival in New York, he had met an old friend who had stared at him, choked, and then fainted dead away. When he revived, they went together to a drugstore to get a cocktail and in an hour Cosgrove Harden had heard the most astonishing story about himself that a man ever listened to.

THE I.O.U.
He took a taxi to a bookstore. The book he sought was sold out. Immediately he had started on the train for Joliet, Ohio, and by a rare stroke of fortune the book had been put in his hands.
My first thought was that he was a blackmailer, but by comparing him with his photograph on page 226 of “The Aristocracy of the Spirit World” I saw that he was indubitably Cosgrove P. Harden. He was thinner and older than in the picture, the mustache was gone, but it was the same man.
I sighed – profoundly and tragically.
“Just when it’s selling better than a book of fiction.”
“Fiction!” he responded angrily. “It is fiction!”
“In a sense…” I admitted.
“In a sense? It is fiction! It fulfils all the requirements of fiction: it is one long sweet lie. Would you call it fact?”
“No,” I replied calmly. “I should call it non-fiction. Non-fiction is a form of literature that lies halfway between fiction and fact.”
He opened the book at random and uttered a short poignant cry of distress that made the red-haired girl pause in what must have been at least the semifinals of her tic-tac-toe tournament.
“Look!” he wailed miserably. “Look! It says ‘Monday’. Consider my existence on this ‘further shore’ on ‘Monday’. I ask you! Look! I smell flowers. I spend the day smelling flowers. You see, don’t you? On page 194, on the top of the page, I smell a rose…”
I lifted the book carefully to my nostrils.
“I don’t notice anything,” I said. “Possibly the ink…”
“Don’t smell!” he cried. “Read! I smell a rose and it gives me two paragraphs of rapture about the instinctive nobility of man. One little smell! Then I devote another hour to daisies. God! I’ll never be able to attend another college reunion.”
He turned a few pages and then groaned again.
“Here I am with the children – dancing with them. I spend all day with them and we dance. We don’t even do a decent shimmy. We do some aesthetic business. I can’t dance. I hate children. But no sooner do I die than I become a cross between a nurse girl and a chorus man.”
“Here, now,” I ventured reproachfully, “that has been considered a very beautiful passage. See, it describes your clothes. You are dressed in – let’s see – well, a sort of filmy garment. It streams out behind you…”
“… a sort of floating undergarment,” he said morosely, “and I’ve got leaves all over my head.”
I had to admit it – leaves were implied.
“Still,” I suggested, “think how much worse it could have been. He could have made you really ridiculous if he’d had you answering questions about the number on your grandfather’s watch or the three dollars and eighty cents you owed as a poker debt.”
There was a pause.
“Funny egg, my uncle,” he said thoughtfully. “I think he’s a little mad.”
“Not at all,” I assured him. “I have dealt with authors all my life and he’s quite the sanest one with whom we’ve ever dealt. He never tried to borrow money from us; he never asked us to fire our advertising department; and he’s never assured us that all his friends were unable to get copies of his book in Boston, Massachusetts.”
“Nevertheless I’m going to take his astral body for an awful beating.”
“Is that all you’re going to do?” I demanded anxiously. “You’re not going to appear under your true name and spoil the sale of his book, are you?”
“What!”
“Surely you wouldn’t do that. Think of the disappointment you’d cause. You’d make 500,000 people miserable.”
“All women,” he said morosely. “They like to be miserable. Think of my girl – the girl I was engaged to. How do you think she felt about my flowery course since I left her? Do you think she’s been approving my dancing around with a lot of children all over – all over page 221. Undraped!”
I was in despair. I must know the worst at once.
“What… what are you going to do?”
“Do?” he exclaimed wildly. “Why, I’m going to have my uncle sent to the penitentiary, along with his publisher and his press agent and the whole crew, down to the merest printer’s devil who carried the blasted type.”
When we reached Joliet, Ohio, at nine o’clock the next morning, I had calmed him into a semblance of reason. His uncle was an old man, I told him, a misled man. He had been fooled himself, there was little doubt of it. His heart might be weak and the sight of his nephew coming suddenly up the path might finish him off.
It was, of course, in the back of my mind that we could make some sort of a compromise. If Cosgrove could be persuaded to keep out of the way for five years or so for a reasonable sum, all might still be well.
So when we left the little station we avoided the village and in a depressing silence traversed the half mile to Dr. Harden’s house. When we were within a 100 yards, I stopped and turned to him.
“You wait here,” I urged him. “I’ve got to prepare him for the shock. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
He demurred at first but finally sat down sullenly in the thick grass by the roadside. Drying my damp brow, I walked up the lane to the house.
The garden of Dr. Harden was full of sunshine and blossomed with Japanese magnolia trees dropping pink tears over the grass. I saw him immediately, sitting by an open window. The sun was pouring in, creeping in stealthily lengthening squares across his desk and the litter of papers that strewed it, then over the lap of Dr. Harden himself and up to his shaggy, white-topped face. Before him on his desk was an empty brown envelope and his lean fingers were moving busily over the sheaf of newspaper clippings he had just extracted.
Source: The New Yorker

to be continued...





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