Sunday, June 15, 1986

Ode to a Nightingale

My third published short story. Around 1986. In East-West, the monthly in-flight magazine of the airline Northwest Orient. I was then very much under the influence of John Collier (1901 - 1980), the Englishman who wrote at least one masterpiece novel (His Monkey Wife) and dozens of wise, witty short stories. But Collier was inimitable. 


This is the story of a very bad man who came to a very happy end. Perhaps you have heard of him. His name was Henry Thackeray. He was famous, or infamous, for a brief time in those literary circles where reputations are swiftly made or unmade. He was also a distant relative of the other Thackeray, the honest one; and it would not be stretching the truth to say it was his illustrious antecedent who got our Henry into trouble.

You would never have guessed any of this to look at Henry. He was a steamed dumpling of a man, harmless and soft. He had a crop of wispy gray hairs that traversed his head like weeds struggling to gain foothold on bare rock. He had porcelain-blue eyes, ears like saucers, and a secretive smile that hinted at gossip. He was a touch overweight. He had somehow reached the age of forty-seven without ever being married or, it was whispered, having an affair of the other sort either.

He was not, however, entirely unencumbered by romance. There is no one more romantic than the man shielded from it by his work. Henry was the arts editor at one of the more successful Madison Avenue fashion magazines, of the sort that may be seen under the pretty arms of women in Paris and Milan and Hong Kong and Nairobi, and which ages more quickly and pathetically than any flower.

Every month Henry's duties were to review in brief the latest books, films, recordings, and television programs. Though Henry's life may hardly have been called boring, at least by 20th century standards, it did fall into a certain routine that was rather deadly to the spirit.

"Newness, Angela, is a debilitating disease," Henry said more than once to his secretary, a young brunette who was long-legged and sultry, as is the fashion among brunettes. She had flashing eyes and pouting lips, and she looked rather like a glowing creature from the magazine’s pages, suddenly given life.

"No, Henry, you're wrong as usual," she said, glancing at her long fingernails of polished crimson. "New is a wow. Old is a drag.”

Henry felt Angela was really talking about him. "Don't say that, you evil woman," he muttered. "Do you have any idea how many magazines I've worked for in my day? How many alone since you were just another cheerleader with big pom-poms and a short skirt at some awful Connecticut finishing school?” He sighed. "You're right. New is a wow. Old is a drag."

"Of course I'm right," she purred. "But you're not old yet. Jaded, yes. Old, no." And she gave him an affectionate kiss on his cheek, to prove it.

"I've been stung!" cried Henry, throwing up his hands in mock horror. "The kiss of youth!"

He retreated fussily into his office to scribble a review, in his slow and doubtful way, of an art opening he’d attended the week before. And that might have been the end of it had he not stumbled, on a rainy afternoon, into the presence of one J. Caractacus, proprietor and inheritor of Caractacus Books, on lower Broadway. On such small tides of chance are entire navies launched.


It happened on a Wednesday in the middle of October. Rain had pestered the city all week, and Henry went home during his lunch break that day to check on his two black poodles, who were cooped-up and idle.

Castor and Pollux were Henry's liberation. They gave him the freedom of a bachelor along with the companionship, without the sacrifices, of the married man. Castor and Pollux hated walking in the rain, of course, but Henry didn't. It made him feel a little Bogartian.

This particular drizzly afternoon a sudden cloudburst, violent and merciless, sent Henry scurrying into a decrepit and shadowy bookstall down near 9th Street. The place was a low-ceilinged rabbit warren, crammed to the rafters with crowded shelves and stacks of dusty, unorganized volumes.

Now, Henry was rarely seen in bookstores. Their lack of selectivity unnerved him; he felt the same sentiment toward museums. Besides, books were in the habit of coming to him, packed in thick envelopes and delivered by messengers and accompanied by whining, apologetic letters from the publishers.

He had no need of tradesmen.

The proprietor of this particular secondhand bookshop was a little older than Henry, and like most of his breed he was bug-eyed and perturbed, with the exasperated air of a man so unused to customers that he does not even bother to put on a charade of friendliness. As Henry entered, the old man accidentally knocked over a teetering stack.

"Damned books," he muttered, bending to re-stack them. "Old man Caractacus should never have gone into this fool’s racket in the first place. Easier to sell old Franklin stoves, and more value to the pound on top of it. Keep the fire burning with your secondhand literary rubbish, that's what I say.”

"I thought all booksellers liked books,” said Henry mildly. The proprietor's brown jacket sleeves were so dusty, thought Henry, that they would have to be vacuumed.

“Wha? You’re kidding, bub,” said Caractacus. "Think a hog butcher likes hogs? All books are lies, pal, no matter what name they travel under. Fiction, biography, fairy tales—it's all the same fib, for anyone who's got the loose change and gullible enough to swallow it. Still, you've got to hand it to those authors. They grind it out like hamburger, all day, all night. Probably churning it out in their sleep. Stick the stuff between two covers like a sandwich and the public eats it up. Me, I've had it up to here with the stuff. Try selling used hamburger, see how far you get. And lies, every ounce of it. Now, you ask yourself—”

"Excuse me," said Henry, who did not like being pummeled and had noticed that the rain was letting up. "Do you have any Thackeray?”

This was said partly out of sympathy.

“Thackeray?” said Caractacus. He rubbed his face. "William Makepeace?"

And it was then that a lightning flash of genius, closely followed by a loud thunderclap of resolve, sent its voltage down to earth in Henry's mind.

"No, not William Makepeace," said Henry softly. “Uh, Henry Wilder. H.W. Thackeray. Bit harder to locate, I’m afraid.”

"Classic?" said Caractacus, as if he could not believe there were more liars out there than he already knew. "Ancient? Contemporary?”


Caractacus sighed. “Sorry, bub. Never heard of him. Can't help you, or him for that matter. Another dishonest scribbler, eh, scribbling his way into obscurity?"

"Nope," send Henry jauntily, with new confidence. The sun was out. "The greatest liar of them all.”


The book took him a little over two months.

He worked on it every night, while pursuing his duties with a vengeance at the fashion magazine every day. Suddenly all the works he had to review, no matter what the medium, were like daring gauntlets flung down before him, challenges to his honor; he savaged them with a new consistency of purpose. No more could Henry the reviewer be called a meek pussycat. Now he was like a leaping Bengal tiger.

“Something's happened to Henry," went the whisper around the plush magazine offices. “Could he be in love? But with whom?"

Angela, who enjoyed fanning the flames of gossip, said, "Don't ask me, because I've been sworn to secrecy.” Then she would add mysteriously, as if she knew something, "All I can say is everyone's going to get real surprised by Henry one day." And she would examine herself in her pocket mirror.

Henry's boss, Martha Gladhorn—protected from most gossip by her position—noticed the change in Henry's copy. She was a rather severe, abrasive woman with red hair who gave herself orders as if talking to an underling.

"Love, honey," she said to herself. "Must be love. His stuff’s got edge, now. Edge. Never had it before. I don't care how he got it.”

She stuck her bullet head out of her office and bellowed to her startled employees, "Let's see a little more edge around here!”

Henry did not notice all the fuss he was causing. He was supremely, blithely, above it all. He had always considered himself a man with a rich inner life, who permitted himself to pass into the world of dreams without restraint: this allowed him to observe his fellow man with a certain creativity. While walking Castor and Pollux, he made up lives for whomever in the lemming crowd caught his eye. The man who served him coffee in a paper cup on the way to work each morning dreamed of being irresistible to women; it showed in the gallant way he poured. The bedraggled lady pushing all her possessions around the block in a shopping cart dreamed of being a rich contessa, and organizing her treasures in a palace by the water. There were multitudes of dreamers around him, dreaming away.

Unknowingly, Henry had discovered the secret of the truly great writers. He could tap into his fantasies at will. His dreams floated near the surface of his imagination, not buried too deep in the muck to be dived for, as with most people. The rest was merely setting words to paper.

"They want lies," he repeated to himself that afternoon. “So they do. Never thought of it, but that gnome Caractacus is right. Ought to get his jacket cleaned, though. Lies they want? I'll give them the best lies they ever tasted. Hamburger is it? Right. From Henry Wilder Thackeray they'll be served only filet mignon, and so tenderly cooked they shouldn't even be allowed to eat it.”

Henry went on muttering like this as he typed. Most writers are excellent conversationalists with themselves: it keeps the brain percolating while the flavor drips down. On occasion, as he ripped yet another fresh page out of his humming electric typewriter, Henry would exclaim, “They won't know what to do when they read this. They'll have to believe it. Have to!”

Henry's neighbor, a body-building instructor at the health club around the corner, heard the constant clatter of the keys and the litany of Henry's talk, and wondered if Henry had flipped, or taken a lover who enjoyed being dictated to.

Castor and Pollux, astonished by their master’s energy, took to watching television in the bedroom while Henry worked. Now he rarely had time to walk them, and they grew lazy and indifferent to all but the finest British programs.

He finished the great work in a burst of energy, staying up for three nights consecutively. No need had he for the trivial supports of common mankind—fired by his idea, he labored without nourishment or rest. When it was done, on the verge of collapse, he bundled the manuscript into a cardboard carton, bound it with string, and with criminal intent sent it off to a young man at one of the more prestigious publishing houses on Third Avenue, who constantly sent Henry books to review.

Then he took a day off, and waited for the phone call that was sure to come.


He did not have to wait very long. The call came, as requested in Henry's cover letter, not to the magazine’s switchboard but to Henry's apartment early one evening.

“Mr. Thackeray?” said the rather high-pitched, nervous voice at the other end. The voice of a sparrow, hopping from foot to foot, thought Henry. “This is, uh, Phillip Jasper, at—”

“Yes, yes," said Henry pleasantly. Get on with it, you credulous young man, he thought.

"Well, I've read your manuscript, and so have my superiors, and I must say, it is one of the most superb, gripping biographies I've ever read. It was really—I mean, it was like reading a great novel. By Tolstoy or someone.”

"Taut, strong-willed stuff, isn't it," said Henry, quoting from one of last month’s reviews.

“It certainly is,” said Jasper, "and to tell you the truth, we’d like you to come in, as, as, as soon as possible and sign a contract, tomorrow if you'd like but at your convenience of course, since Mr. Cranston thinks we should try to get the book out on the spring list, just in case anyone else is preparing to publish a biography of Dromieux—” 

“I don't think," said Henry with fiendish amusement, “there's much likelihood of that.”

“What a relief!" exclaimed the young man. “Still, you never know. Now, I'm sure you're wondering what terms we’re prepared to offer you. Let me just say, between us, that it's been a long time since a book has aroused this much—”

“Why don't we discuss it when we meet," said Henry, with muscular assurance. “I'm very busy right now. I have to walk my dogs. Three o'clock tomorrow? That will be fine.”

The next afternoon Henry was ushered into a meeting room with young Jasper and the overly friendly Cranston, who did not wait for Henry to sit before saying, "Mr. Thackeray, this is one of the most incredible books I've ever read. I mean, what a life this Dromieux had! It reads like Ian Fleming combined with Nabokov with a dash of Henry Miller thrown in! I mean, it's—”

"Those three are frauds and fabulists," said Henry with aplomb. "I am a truth teller, and that is all. Just a humble biographer. I have been working on the life of Hugo Dromieux since I was in graduate school. There is no one who knows his life the way I do, though I'm sure—”  Henry arched his eyebrows. “— a few of Hugo's mistresses may surface for interviews once the book is out. Let's not forget that every woman wanted to sleep with him, and many will say they did.”

“Great publicity," said Cranston, nodding profusely. "But what incredible energy the man had, eh? Really, an example for us all.”

"More like a dream, I would think," said Henry dryly. He wondered if he could be arrested for what he was doing. The thought made him feel dangerous.

Jasper interrupted. "The part I liked the best," he said excitedly, “was where he lived behind German lines for three years in the first world war, disguised as the postmaster. And even took a local wife! I mean how come she didn't find out? And then he has an affair with her sister—”

"Men like that," said Cranston, shaking his head, “they must know something the rest of us don’t. But really, Mr. Thackeray, you've done an amazing job of evoking that entire era. The whole cafĂ© society business in Paris, with all the heavyweights—I loved, loved the way you dealt with the Proust gossip. Should open a few eyes at the universities. And Paris itself—I spent a couple of years there ages ago, giving it a try—I was a writer myself in those days, trying my hand in the game. Of course, it was a different Paris than the one you're writing about, but Paris will always be Paris—”

"Yes, of course," said Henry impatiently. "Now we must decide on terms."

Cranston named a figure seven times greater than the one Henry had, wildly, dreamed of. "Mr. Thackeray, we have a great deal—a great deal—of confidence in this book. You aren't, by any chance, a relation of—”

"Distant, very distant," Henry murmured. “I'm actually a relation of Dromieux, too, but even more distant, I'm afraid. I assume you're prepared to back up the book with an advertising campaign."

Cranston was effusive. “Of course we are. There are very few men who even dream of living like this—”

"Actually," Jasper began, then looked at Cranston for his approval. "Well, the only thing we are not happy about is the title. I mean, A Forgotten Life is good, but—”  He frowned. "It doesn't hum, do you know what I mean?”

"Doesn't hum?" said Henry. "But I thought it had edge.”

"Edge it has," said Cranston hastily, not wishing to offend. “Edge it certainly does have. But we thought—”  He braced himself. "We were thinking of going all the way, you see? And calling it Emperor of Dreams. What do you think?"

"I like the way it hums," said Henry. "With edge.”

“That's right," agreed Cranston. "And it fits, too, doesn't it? Because of those six months in the Congo with that wild tribe. And his life was so commercial!" Cranston ticked off his pudgy fingers. “Spy in W-W-One. Austro-French-Spanish background. Mother descended from Thomas Jefferson—that'll get us the book clubs. Herculean lover, hundreds of mistresses. Three wives. Painter in Paris. Friend of Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, all the big boys—”

"And then," crowed young Jasper, "the irony of it all! He saves his paintings, he moves into that castle in France, and then during the Second World War all his canvases get slashed or destroyed.”

"Don't forget," Henry interjected sharply, "by the son of a man he killed in the Black Forest in 1915. By suffocating him with postage stamps.”

“Right, Right," said Jasper impatiently. "But what I love is the way he just shrugs his shoulders and walks away from the flaming castle, and settles on his own island in the Mediterranean with all those women!”

"At his age," muttered Cranston.

"And how they floated his body," murmured Jasper, “out to sea in the gondola, till the currents took it….” His voice drifted away.

Cranston said, "I think that Hollywood is going to leap at this. Leap.” He pulled out a contract from his attachĂ© case, and the paper rattled in an unexpected breeze.

"One proviso,” said Henry.

He had, for the last few minutes, enjoyed the sensation of blissfully ice-skating, by night, across a perfectly frozen lake under glittering stars, toward a white mansion that took on extra wings and majestic doorways as he glided closer.

He said, “My book must be published under a pseudonym. Let us say, the name William Paxton. Pax for peace. My real identity must be totally protected. My job, as Mr. Jasper knows, is dear to me, and I would not wish to draw undue attention to the magazine, or myself within the magazine. This means I cannot appear on any talk-shows, alas. No one knows, no one must know. Are we agreed?

"Agreed," said Cranston, shaking his hand vigorously. "Your name, Mr. Thackeray, shall be as unknown as, as—” He searched the attic of his mind for an appropriate simile. “As that of your friend Dromieux. Until the spring.”

"Well," said Henry quizzically, “I don't think anyone will ever want to write a biography of me."

And he waited for Cranston or Jasper, whoever was quicker, to hand him a pen.


It was not, of course, quite so easy as that. Nothing ever is. At the beginning of the next week Jasper called to ask if Henry could help him to locate all the existing photographs of Hugo Dromieux.

This sent Henry into a sleepless panic for two days, until he thought of searching the area where he'd been given the idea in the first place. It took him only a few hours of searching the hodge-podge stores of lower Broadway to find a cache of old photographs, for seventy-five cents, that showed the same ordinary-looking man, from a distance, in the proper European settings. He'd had the sense to describe Dromieux as a man who loathed having his picture taken—what spy didn’t? Dromieux had even called photography “the death-kiss of the modern age,” a phrase that Henry was rather proud of. He had a messenger take the photographs round to Jasper the next day, and that excited young man saw in the blurred and faded face, amid the glare from a beach somewhere along the French Riviera, all that he wished to see.

In the months before the book’s publication Henry was very busy. He opened a Swiss bank account of the anonymous sort. He purchased a beachfront house in a very secluded corner of the Caribbean. He set up a complicated series of mailing addresses, so Cranston could send him money without fear of being traced.

“No nonsense," he told himself. “Think Dromieux.”

Emperor of Dreams was published in April. Everyone wanted it, by the hundreds of thousands. Bored grandparents wanted it, bored husbands, bored wives. The reviewers exhaled relief that at last there was a decent book on this seminal figure, this mystery man. Bored teenagers, whose dreams were no longer nourished by the prospect of becoming world champion at manipulating blips on the electronic screen, wanted not only the book but also the attendant historical circumstances, so they could start living Dromieux for themselves. Bored scholars, individually and in teams, were happy to have a new subject for endless research and disagreement. And Hollywood, pockets bulging, stepped in and assured the public they'd have to wait only a year or two before Dromieux hit the screen.

Only children, it seemed, were protected from Henry's total lack of scruples. Their youth, their inability to read, left them untouched by the long arm of the book. Yet it would linger on their parents’ shelves, growing more powerful and valuable with the passing years, so that in some curious moment an innocent hand would pluck the thick, profusely illustrated volume down, a few cunning pages would be glanced at, and the figure of Hugo Dromieux would enter another consciousness insidiously forever.

Henry stayed at the magazine long enough to compose his own rave review. “At last," he wrote, "we have a great biography of a great man. William Paxton, whoever he is, deserves to be as famous as Hugo Dromieux.”

He saw the review through final galleys. It was a Thursday, the spring sun brilliant on the sidewalks, the city blooming. Henry waved to Martha Gladhorn as he walked past her office. He stepped into the elevator, and in two hours he and his dogs were on a plane south.


As it happened, the hoax was never discovered. But our story does not end here. The disappearance of Henry Wilder Thackeray turned out to be only the beginning for Hugo Dromieux.

A year later, on a fine Caribbean morning, Henry was floating lazily on his inflatable raft, splashing sun-dappled turquoise water across his knees with one hand. The beach before his house was expansive and private. With his other hand he was leafing through the pages of his former employer, whose issues he received two months late via a very expensive air-mail subscription.

By now Henry could easily afford the time and the money, and he read about the fashions of faraway cities with an amused detachment, rather like an anthropologist observing a tribe whose colorful customs are not quite strange enough to bear close investigation.

Henry was scanning his former domain, the reviews column, when something totally unexpected caught his eye. He was so astonished he nearly toppled out of his rubber raft into the shallows.

"Not a moment too soon," the review began, “The Letters of Hugo Dromieux have finally come to light. This first volume, with three more to follow, covers the early years (including the famous escapade with the houri in Istanbul) and leads up to 1919, with a thrilling account of how Dromieux smuggled the St. Petersburg jewels right from under Lenin’s nose.”

The review pronounced the book an instant bestseller.

"Why, they've gone and stolen my man," said Henry, chuckling to himself. “Looted my dreams. Old Caractacus was right. Fibbers all. Well, it'll boost sales on the paperback."

It struck him, then, that he had enough money now to actually become Hugo Dromieux, if he wanted. He could buy a castle; he could learn to paint; he could hobnob with the great, as a man of infinite mystery. Wasn't that what everyone wanted to do, after reading the book?

But people don't have to live out their dreams, he thought. It's enough to copyright them.

He threw back his arm, and in a curiously unrestrained gesture threw the magazine, its pages fluttering, across the shallows and onto the hot sand. He closed his eyes and let himself drift. He did not open his eyes again until he heard Angela calling him for lunch.

No comments:

Post a Comment