The spectacular farewell of Wellington Axminster
THIS STORY HAS EVERYTHING ...
Mort M. Horowitz
Wellington Axminster was an investment counselor, but he didn’t like being an investment counselor. He preferred pearl diving off a tramp steamer in South America. He had once done this very thing during a summer vacation thirty years before when he was eighteen, and he still kept the original mementos of that voyage—a pair of slim black pants, black peaked hat, pea jacket, and duffel bag.
He had displayed them on one occasion, under circumstances since forgotten, and everyone remarked, “They still look almost new. don't they, after all this time?”
and a hero that is, well... different
Mr. Axminster never unpacked the pea jacket, pants or hat again, since the fact that they were so obviously inundated with the salt and the sea of his one great adventure was apparent only to himself.
The duffel bag he still sometimes used to store his soiled linen.
Until the morning he awoke with an odd pain in his trapezius muscle, Mr. Axminster had lapsed into a comfortable and creaking ennui.
He lived in a three-room apartment in a large apartment building and he would invite casual acquaintances into his galley for coffee, or into the fo'castle for a few hours of poker or whist.
His only close friend was another widower, a Mr. Quilty, a vague, quiet little man who lived in the apartment next door, and owned an umbrella shop down the street.
Saturday nights the two men usually drank beer together in Mr. Axminster's fo'castle, and discussed Mrs. Lanyard who, with her husband, was another tenant in the building, living on the same floor.
“If I could have the smallest little fire in the store,” Mr. Quilty always started the conversation, "1 could move to Florida and retire on the insurance. Umbrellas burn quite freely, you know.”
"LeRoy,” Mr. Axminster liked to stride up and down, swishing the beer in his glass. “I once saw a newspaper photo of a woman tor whom a man had embezzled fifty thousand dollars. It was many years ago, and 1 remember 1 was disappointed, but I never really knew what I expected such a woman to look like until I saw Mrs. Lanyard.”
"It's the fabric,” Mr. Quilty persisted. “Some careless customer some day might drop one lighted match in one umbrella, and within a week—Coral Gables.”
Mr. Lanyard, who was rarely seen, left his home early in the mornings and returned late in the evenings. F^ach day Joseph, the houseboy, rang the bell to deliver the mail, and Mrs. Lanyard always received him at her door with a warm smile and a clinging negligee.
Neither Mr. Axminster nor Mr. Quilty had ever uttered more than a frightened, “How do you do,” to Mrs. Lanyard in person, but ever since Joseph had informed them of her first name, Mr. Axminster always so referred to her on Saturday nights.
"Genevieve” — he would stand over Mr. Quilty, beer in hand, peering out at the open sea — "don't ever look at me as though you understand. Don't ever make me think you can see a man for what he was meant to be—a stout ship, a strong set of sails, and a fair wand in the harbor.”
“You dream your dreams, Wellington.” Mr. Quilty said, “and 1 11 dream mine. Qne simple little fire—and I live the rest of my life in sunshine.”
“Fifty thousand dollars!” Mr. Axminster snorted. “Why, Genevieve, for you I'd embezzle the world!”
These relaxed Saturday evenings with Mr. Quilty w'ere Mr. Axminster's only concession to his usually impeccable investment counselor’s exterior.
Once Mr. Hooptrotter, the president of the firm, asked him to interview a prospective employee. The crisp young man, wearing eyeglasses and carrying a shiny brief case, sat diffidently in Mr. Axminster's office.
"Do you really want to sign aboard this derelict?” Mr. Axminster accosted him. "We're shipping bilge waiter like a hoorah s nest.'
Mr. Hooptrotter learned of the incident and was appalled. “One does not beset the decorum of a banking house with the language of a shooting gallery.” he put it.
“Mr. Hooptrotter is stout and wears tight vests,” Mr. Axminster explained to Mr. Quilty, “and when he flaps his arms you could never tell him from a penguin.”
"In Florida a man could choose his associates,” Mr. Quilty spoke dreamily. "Once over a very hot summer week end. the sun burned a hole in an umbrella right through the window glass. But not one spark—
All day at work, Mr. Axminster was his artificial self. Somber, inscrutable, never giving away that his heart was aboard a tramp steamer rounding the Horn at Tierra del Fuego in the teeth of a gale.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if Mr. Hooptrotter ever let me speak to any of the accounts,” he told Mr. Quilty.
All Mr. Axminster did was sit alone in his office and prepare prospectus after prospectus for clients of the firm with money to invest, none of whom he ever saw in person.
“Grog and guns—and no questions,” he dreamed
“I ought to get to see the accounts face to face,” he stood before Mr. Hooptrotter one morning. “I ought to at least see them once. I like to know if the ones who invest all their money in blue-chip stocks look any different from the ones who want to buy uranium fields in Baffin Bay.”
Mr. Hooptrotter’s eyes got all round and red and the points of his tight vest curled upward as he rose to his feet. “He wants to meet the accounts,” Mr. Hooptrotter flapped his small arms. “He wants to meet the accounts—”
Mr. Axminster returned to his office, but he could still hear Mr. Hooptrotter pressing buttons on his desk and hooting down the corridor, “He wants to interview the accounts—that little man from the shooting gallery who draws up your prospectuses—he wants to see the accounts in person.”
Mr. Axminster always fancied himself as being immediately discernible in a crowd for what he really was. “That fellow once shipped aboard a tramp steamer to go pearl diving,” people must say of him, he thought. “He pretends to work in an office and he never gets to see anyone, even with the door open, but he's really an old seagoing man, and he’s got the black pants and hat and a pea jacket to prove it.”
Mr. Axminster read the shipping news and the arrivals and departure listings of steamships each week in the Herald Tribune. “But the ones 1 like best”—he poured the beer into Mr. Quilty’s glass— “are the unlisted ones. The tramps that sail with the tide and don’t ask you any questions when they sign you on.
“The whole crew wears black stocking caps and there's lots of grog aboard and guns for every man in the captain’s cabin, even if nobody knows for what they might have to be used.”
TN THE morning when he awakened Xsuddenly, Mr. Axminster felt a pain in his upper chest and it radiated down his whole right side. It did not seem acute at first, but he knew it must have actually started during the night.
He got up slowly and wrote in his log book, where he always put down at least one new thought for each day:
Sometimes when you are bored, a little
pain is interesting.
He then proceeded to dress to go to work. Joseph was climbing slowly up the stairs with the mail as Mr. Axminster opened his door. “Nothing for Mrs. Lanyard today,” Joseph said as he passed, and Mr. Axminster shrugged and walked out into the day. The shrugging appeared io aggravate the pain, which now spread up into his shoulders, so that he had to hold himself erect and walk stiffly in the direction of the subway.
On mornings when he did not buy a newspaper, Mr. Axminster rode the bus to work, but if there was anything in the headlines that particularly interested him, he bought the paper and then rode the Lexington Avenue subway to Bowling Green station.
That day he took the subway, as he had been following the course of a murder investigation involving a man in a beaver hat who had been found slain near the obelisk in Central Park. The police strongly suspected a crime of passion.
There was a photo on page two, in the middle, of a girl who was said to be the last known person to have seen the man in the beaver hat alive.
“They’re only questioning her now, and everyone’s being very careful not to say she did it, but they think she did it, all right.” he thought. When he reached his station, he stood in the dim light on the subway platform a moment and took a long look at the girl's eyes in the newspaper photo.
On an impulse he tore out her picture and placed it in his overcoat pocket for further study, before discarding the rest of the paper.
“She couldn’t have done it.” he decided abruptly. “Not to a man with a beaver hat in a crime of passion.”
i S HE walked upstairs to the street, r\_he realized that his interest in the murder had made him forget the pain.
He was able to work through the morning, and then take his lunch as usual at the drugstore near Trinity Church. The pain had returned, still radiating from his neck, down through the chest to his right side and then up again to both shoulders.
“I haven’t much of an appetite today, Edwin,” he told the boy behind the fountain who always waited on him. “I'll just have a strawberry sundae.”
“A strawberry sundae?” Edwin carefully avoided cleaning the space at the counter in front of Mr. Axminster, so that there was no place for him to rest his elbows.
“It’s quite sticky here, Edwin. Do you think you might—?”
"It's sticky?” Edwin wiped the counter grudgingly, and then proceeded to serve two girls who had been seated after Mr. Axminster.
“Can you take care of me now, do you think, Edwin?”
"That was tuna fish, wasn’t it, Mr. Axminster?” Edwin shouted down the length of the counter to the sandwich man, “Tuna rye, hold the butter!” and at the same time Mr. Axminster tried to attract Edwin’s attention.
"No, no, not tuna fish . . . sundae ... a strawberry sundae.”
“Strawberry sundae?” Edwin stood a moment, looking aggrieved.
By the time Mr. Axminster had completed his lunch, the pain was bothering him considerably. He took a taxi from work, leaving earlier than usual in the afternoon and went to Dr. Wopley’s office, which was in a building occupied exclusively by physicians. There was a receptionist on the ground floor and a girl elevator operator, neither of whom were nurses, but both of whom wore starched white uniforms.
To see Dr. Wopley, you did not make an appointment, so long as you arrived during office hours. When you came inside, another girl in white, who Mr. Axminster was positive was also not a nurse, handed you a card bearing a number and when your number was called you were allowed to enter the innermost office.
"Just like a bakery,” Mr. Axminster thought.
There were nine numbers called before his. “What seems to be the trouble?” Dr. Wopley asked finally.
The doctor always asked that same question, and then after you answered him, he always smiled cheerfully and said, "We'll listen to your machinery a bit, give you some pills, and send you home better than ever.”
“He’s the only one in the building who doesn’t wear white,” Mr. Axminster thought. The doctor had on a plain business suit, a mustache, and what Mr. Axminster suspected were shoes with elevator heels. “He’s too small to be so tall,” he decided.
"I have this pain in my trapezius muscle, radiating down my right side and up into my shouders.”
"We’ll listen to your machinery a bit, give you some pills, and send you home better than ever.”
After a time the doctor stopped whistling through his clenched teeth, a habit he had, and then after he had finished his thumping and tapping, he stood looking down at the floor while Mr. Axminster dressed.
"If you could come in first thing tomorrow morning—I’d like to take an X-ray series.”
When Mr. Axminster returned in the morning, having first stopped off at work to say that he would be late coming in to stay, the doctor greeted him, “What seems to be the trouble?”
“You listened to my machinery a bit and then—”
“Oh yes.” Dr. Wopley pulled down the shades. “We wanted to take a few Xrays this morning, didn’t we?”
After the filming, Mr. Axminster was told to stay in the waiting room. "Back to the reception centre,” he smiled weakly at the girl in white.
"Would you care to sec a magazine?” she gestured to a side table and from the selection of a National Geographic and a Your Doctor and You, with a sterile white cover, he chose the former and leafed through a 1947 pictorial journey to Baluchistan.
When the doctor again called him into the office, Mr. Axminster had already made up his mind. “Neuralgia. 1 have a slight case of neuralgia, and possibly an upset in the flow of pancreatic juices brought on by the strawberry sundae.”
“Please be seated,” Dr. Wopley said, pulling up the shades.
“The pills,” Mr. Axminster thought. “Probably two or even three sets of different colored pills and I have to be lectured on when to take which color.”
“Did you ever stop to think, old fellow,” the doctor held the X-rays high over his head and stared up at them, “that there are really only two kinds of people in the world?” He put the X-rays down on his desk and whistled through his clenched teeth. “There are the ones who will die tomorrow, and there are the ones who will die.”
Dr. Wopley glared out the window, with his back to Mr. Axminster. “They ought to give courses in this kind of thing, but they never do,” the doctor grumbled.
Mr. Axminster lighted a cigarette nervously. "I want you in the hospital no later than tomorrow,” the doctor was droning. "We’ll do our very best to make you comfortable for just as long as we possibly can.”
Mr. Axminster decided that if this was to be the last decisive act of his life, he would make them throw him into a threshing machine before he would ask what was wrong with him. If the doctor did not volunteer the information he would not ask, he promised himself. Not even if they tortured him.
“Tomorrow morning?” Dr. Wopley shook hands with him warmly. "We’ll make arrangements directly from here to have you hospitalized, and”—the doctor coughed—“whatever you must do. do it tonight.”
By the time he left the doctor’s office, the pain had completely disappeared. It did not return at all while he completed his regular work that day, and he left without saying anything about the doctor's diagnosis to Mr. Hooptrotter.
At home, he put several thoughts for the day in his log book, instead of limiting himself to the usual one. Without planning any connection between each of the separate thoughts, he wrote:
When all of the things that you have to do must be done in one night, there is nothing you have to do. When the snake of death is in you, what docs it matter where he leaves his poison?
Gestures are the vanities of little men.
Just before going to bed, he looked again at the picture he had torn from the newspaper and then he wrote in the log book for the last time:
I still don’t think she did it.
TN THE morning, Mr. Axminster felt wonderful. He not only had no pain, he felt young and new and free. “I’m not going to any hospital,” he thought. "Not today I’m not.”
Instead of donning his dark business suit with the white shirt and aged tie. he climbed on a chair and pulled a package from his closet shelf.
The black pants fit perfectly, and when he also tried on the peaked hat and pea jacket, he looked still younger to himself in the mirror. He put the duffel bag with his soiled laundry inside over his shoulder, and then took a taxicab to within a few blocks of the waterfront.
He walked around several of the piers, and after a long time sighted a tramp steamer in the harbor. Her paint was chipped and her lines were tangled, and several of the black-bearded crew were leaning over her side, glaring and smoking pipes. They were all wearing black stocking caps, and reeling from grog.
Wellington stomped up the gangplank, clinging tightly to his soiled linen in the duffel bag. "I did not see your arrival listed on the Herald Tribune shipping news page,” he said to the most sullen of the crew.
“You looking for a berth?”
“What ship is this?”
The man spat mysteriously over the side. “They keep changing her name, but she's out of Rotterdam and we’re shorthanded. We sail at midnight.”
Mr. Axminster’s eyes glinted. “Where to?”
“Africa,” the man’s lips hardly moved in his great black beard and the stocking cap was low over one of his eyes. “We’re onto a diamond mine and it's share and share alike.”
Mr. Axminster was taken to the captain's cabin, where he signed aboard as of eight bells, and then he went back ashore to complete his affairs. The illness would strike, of course, long before it was time for him to return, he thought, but meanwhile he had actually done it. He had found a tramp, unlisted and unknown, shipping for the dark continent at midnight, and the records would show he had been a member of the crew before his unfortunate demise.
Meanwhile he still felt wonderfully welJ.
Mr. Axminster went back to his apartment from the waterfront and changed again into his usual clothes. “If it is the pancreatic juices, perhaps the disorder will come on suddenly a second time,” he reasoned.
He arrived at the drugstore fountain during the height of the noon rush and was lucky to elbow his way onto a seat just as a man was getting up. "Edwin,” Mr. Axminster snapped his fingers. “We’ve lots to do and very little time. Wipe this counter and bring me a strawberry sundae.”
The steely seaman’s tone was still in his voice and Edwin jumped. “Counter okay?” he asked, rubbing hard with a damp cloth.
“Strawberry,” Mr. Axminster said.
After lunch he blustered into Mr. Hooptrotter's office and shook his finger in Mr. Hooptrotter’s astounded face. “If you will bother to check your last several new accounts, you will discover that I have overruled your instructions to purchase blue-chip stocks.”
Mr. Axminster pulled on his gloves haughtily. "Hooptrotter, old man, it may well be that people will feel you’ve overextended on all that acreage around Baffin Bay—”
He next purchased a box of large wooden kitchen matches in a dime store, and repaired to a nearby park to wait for twilight. He bought all the afternoon papers and sat on a bench munching crackerjack. The same picture of the girl with the brown eyes now stared at him from each front page.
“Obelisk Girl Accused of Beaver Hat Murder,” one headline read.
Mr. Axminster clucked his tongue and finished his crackerjack, still feeling wonderful. He decided it was definitely not the pancreatic juices, and then he tore the largest of the Obelisk Girl's photos from the paper and put it in his pocket.
On his way home in the semidarkness, he stopped in a booth and telephoned police headquarters. “My name is Wellington Axminster"—he spelled it out very carefully—"and 1 want to confess to a crime of passion.”
He gave his address and apartment number, and then repeated it to be absolutely certain he was getting through. "The Obelisk Girl is clean." he said in a harsh voice. As an afterthought, he put a handkerchief over the mouthpiece, in the hope it would make him sound sinister.
"1 may not have enough time to give you the details, 1 should be in a hospital right now—” he started to say, but there was a good bit of excitement on the other end and he momentarily lost his poise and hung up.
Walking briskly in a homeward direction. Mr. Axminster approached a street corner as night fell. He took the wooden matches from his pocket and stood with his back to a doorway, and deftly removed one of his shoes.
Whistling a chorus of Jingle Bells through clenched teeth, he smashed at the glass pane in the doorway with the heel of the shoe. It made a fearful clatter. but no one appeared to have heard, and Mr. Axminster donned his shoe, and reached through the break in the glass, and opened the door.
Using the box of wooden matches, he worked quickly for a few seconds and left the store at a half-trot. From a block away, he could see the umbrellas making a cheerful glow in the sky.
WHEN HE returned to his apartment, the telephone was ringing. It was Dr. Wopley and he sounded as though he were speaking with a handkerchief over the mouthpiece. "—calling you for hours—” Mr. Axminster could barely hear his voice.
The doctor seemed to be agitated and he was shouting louder and louder into the phone, but it became increasingly difficult to understand him.
"Speak up. man!” Mr. Axminster shouted.
"CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
"There's evidently a large fire down the street, and the sound of the engines is drowning you out."
Mr. Axminster peered through the window dreamily.
"—mistake in the X-rays!” Dr. Wopley called. “Some sort of spots on the lens of the machine. We became suspicious when everyone who was X-rayed that day had positive findings, and all in the same place.”
"You mean they weren't positive findings at all?” The pain had not returned, but Mr. Axminster felt slightly ill from excitement.
"Spots. Just spots in the machine itself. I think you must have a touch of neuralgia. If you'll stop by tomorrow, we’ll give you some pills and—”
Mr. Axminster didn't hang up the phone, just let it drop from his fingers.
He lit a cigarette and walked to his bureau drawer slowly. It was dark in the room and he did not Hick the switch.
He held the log book in his hands a moment and then wrote on the final
The sweetest day of life is the first
morning after death.
As an afterthought, he picked up the telephone from the floor. “Could a man who isn't used to it suddenly take to drinking grog? I mean, would there be any ill effects on the flow of pancreatic juices and all?”
“—spots on the machine,” Dr. Wopley was still going on. "Apparently the machine hadn't been properly cleaned by the technician and—”
The sound of police sirens in the distance was coming closer and Mr. Axminster slammed down the receiver hastily. "The man in the beaver hat.” he remembered.
He changed into his seamen’s clothes, snatched at the duffel bag, and was out of the apartment, all in a few moments.
He paused at Mrs. Lanyard's door and rang the bell insistently. "Genevieve!” he shouted. It was very close to midnight and he kicked at the door impatiently.
Genevieve stood at last in the doorway, clutching her negligee about her, and Mr. Axminster took her in his arms and kissed her. "I'll write you every week from Africa,” he said tenderly. "We owe it to the neighbors.”
As the police came pouring into the house and up the stairs, a man with the obvious look of the sea about him. youthful and with a spring in his legs, walked blithely down the street, carrying his soiled linen over his shoulders. ★