Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page

 

 

THE BOX FROM JAPAN Volume 1

 

Chapter I

 

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING!

 

Carr Halsey, coming up out of the dark subway, this bright morning of Sol 18, 1942, first glimpsed the huge hand-lettered placard in the window of the Associated Express Companies. Indeed, he noticed at once that there were two similar placards, one fronting on Madison Street, and one on State Street, so that the maelstrom of humanity that ever surged about this busiest corner of Chicago, known at times as “the London of the West,” might be properly lured into getting something—for nothing! Its curious proclamation, part lettered in jet black and part in flaming red letters, ran:

 

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING!

This is YOUR Chance.

 

THE annual auction sale, for 1942, of unclaimed express packages from all over the world, held by the Chicago branch of this company, takes place inside on the morning of Sol 18th. A Hyde Park man last year secured a $1,000 diamond sunburst for $1.25. An Evanston woman, for $1.10, secured a sacred mummified toad, with authoritative documents establishing that it came from a secret crypt in the Pyramid of Cheops, and she was enabled to sell it to the Boston Egyptological Museum for $70. Three years ago a young boy from the ghetto secured, for 40 cents, a parchment chart designating the location of the Royal Treasure, hidden in the mountains of Wales by King Edward II when he fled from his triumphant queen and her paramour; he was paid £2000 reward for this chart by England. All parcels purchased are the legal property of the purchasers, as this auction is held by authority of the Circuit Court.

WHAT WILL YOU WIN?

THE AUCTION STARTS AT 9 a.m.

Wednesday, Sol. 18th.

 

Something for nothing!

It wasn’t far from 9 a.m. now, and Carr Halsey flattened his back with great resoluteness against the very show window in which reposed this enticing sign, for his bump of gambling instinct was fully as large as his bump of inquisitiveness. And so that Satan might be kept well behind him, he commenced a meticulous search through all his pockets for the singular and alarming letter which had brought him downtown this early morning. And, searching, he fell into a curious train of reflection.

Something for nothing!

Life did not change, it seemed, any more than did this famous street corner, which looked today about the same as it had looked ten long years ago in 1932, or even twenty longer years, in 1922, when Carr Halsey had been but a small boy towed along with his hand clasped tightly in his mother’s. Apple sellers, last lingering relics of that war, almost mythical now to younger men, that war said to be waged to end all war, still sold apples on the curb. Yellow taxicabs still flashed colorfully back and forth in the streets, except to be sure, that today all taxicabs were yellow, for Yellow, by some curious process of accelerated vehicular birth and rebirth—or perhaps some process analogous to biological cell fissure!—had completely extirpated and exterminated Blue, Green, Super, DeLuxe, Heart, Gold and Checker taxicabs, as even the yellow race itself must someday outgrow white man, with his modest birth rate, and, so it was claimed, would someday swarm over all the territory now held in fanciful security by him. True, Carr Halsey ruminated, as his fingers emerged empty from his breast pocket, the world had a new month, and had had for some three years now, that queer sounding month Sol, intercalated between the old June and July according to the new International Fixed Calendar, so that every one of the present 13 months in the year would have an even 28 days, with the same days of the week falling on the same dates. Convenient, indeed, for business and social matters; even indispensable now, after three years of trial. But that was about all the change there was, wasn’t it? The same street cars moved about the streets—except—yes—their gears were noiseless now, and they moved dignifiedly, silently, like ghosts. The same early morning shoppers shrewdly surveyed articles in department store windows priced at $1.79, with many, many times the interest they would have accorded to the identical articles priced at $1.80! The same honking automobiles and motor trucks made the corner where he stood a din and roar of traffic. The same clerks poured out of subway entrances and off of street cars, scurrying madly, elbowingly, as of old, for offices and stores in Chicago’s Old Loop. The same stenographers, barelegged in high-heeled shoes, and with skirts several inches above knees, with huge flapping picture hats covering bobbed hair that had superseded the back and side biscuits of hair which had marked the past few years, chattered—but wait!—they didn’t dress like that even five years ago—however, they were indubitably the same stenographers doing the same old kind of work and—still no!—they all operated electric typewriters now instead of the old cumbersome mills of 1932. But they chattered along in pairs, or fluttered alone towards offices, in the same old rushed-to-death, early-morning manner. Pickpockets still infested this corner which originally got its fame from that light-fingered talented gentry; and even as their father and mother pickpockets in the fabulous early 1900’s no doubt lived in hopes of the day when they might unexpectedly extract from some victim who appeared only to have a pocketful of silver, a fat roll of bills, so too did the similar pickpockets of today doubtlessly live in identical hopes of an identical killing. And Carr Halsey, fingers emerging empty from the side pockets of his coat, devoutly wished that he might for the second attain the sentience of some psychic pickpocket who knew instinctively where much-wanted articles were kept. Yes, pickpockets picked pockets as of old, and automobiles—yet take automobiles! They weren’t much different, but where was the red-faced traffic policeman with shrill whistle and anathema? Gone! For now the stream of cars in the street was decently and perfectly regulated, a car passed neatly at any moment through any break in the opposing line of cars, by a “robot-policeman,” that simple strip of rubber set across the entire pavement with its sunken row of vehicle-sensitive photo-electric “eyes” coupled through grid-glow tubes to the traffic towers. People still gazed apprehensively aloft for impending rain when they sniffed moisture in the air; but where they once gazed into perhaps an unbroken leaden sky, Carr Halsey’s automatic gaze upward, as he started in with his trousers pockets for that strange and alarming letter, met a pure azure sky, yes, but one literally speckled with moving objects, silhouetted blackly against it, buzzing intently and insistently above the roar of traffic, with a continuous drone of propellers. A huge five-motored metal plane, gleaming silvery white, grimly businesslike, towing three gliders laden obviously with “fast’ freight for points west, plowed in that direction, no doubt for the Mississippi Valley. At least a dozen and a half slow-speed “doodle-bug” safety planes, affected now most widely by cautious business men who disliked climbing unexpectedly into a parachute jacket, with exaggerated wing flaps and equally exaggerated wing slots, buzzed eastward across Old Loop, no doubt from the aristocratic suburbs of the Fox River valley, sixty miles to the west, and heading no doubt for the landing stations on the 55-story Collossus Building on Michigan Avenue, or the 62-story Behemoth Building on the same thoroughfare, or perhaps the plebeian Grant Park landing field on the lake front, to lie parked against tattered and patched airplanes of the vintage of 1935. A single duck plane, with reversed tail, zoomed along among its conservative brothers, a literal clown among aircraft to be sure, yet foolproof to 100 percent, so it was claimed. Two auto-gyros with very short wings but enormous revolving horizontal blades, the blades in each case somewhat longer than the squat machine itself, crept along at a snail-like speed which five years ago would have tumbled plane and all into the center of Madison Street; and an older-fashioned helicopter of 1937, with tub-like fuselage and multiple revolving blades consisting of three parallel planes to each blade, and making it resemble somewhat the old tri-plane of 1912 now on exhibition in the Aeronautical Museum, advanced, lowered itself, advanced again, lowered itself, as it too prepared to land its owner on some precise area somewhere in Chicago’s 525 square miles—and probably on the Lake Front.

Yes, Carr Halsey reflected, as his fingers now explored his hip pockets, his gaze remaining on that humming, live patch of sky, life was changing. Had changed. When one checked up, one found it was so. But it was only mechanical life that had changed, and not humanity. That was all. For one thing, Mr. Carr Halsey was as anxious to step into that auction directly behind him, as he would have been ten long years before. Humanity all, judging from that placard behind him, was interested in diamond necklaces, mummified Egyptian toads worth $70, and charts for Welsh treasure buried by English Kings—if it got them for nothing! Humanity still loved, hated, lied, cheated, chased the dollar, murdered its fellow-man, was captured by shrewder men with shrewder brains, was thrown into sanitary prisons with sunlighted cell-blocks, by a two-thirds vote of juries now, to he sure, according to the revised Criminal statutes code drawn up in 1937 by the American Law Institute, but still served the same old court sentences. Crime, indeed, was still highly organized and the law was even still more organized. Humanity still married humanity of the opposite sex, and had tiny bawling wiggling mites of humanity who in due course, despite the relentless mechanical march of events, would become geniuses or criminals, plodders or highly paid executives, artists or workmen.

And humanity, searching for a lost object in 10 pockets, still found the missing object in the 10th and last pocket!

Carr Halsey unfolded that disturbing letter. Was it 9—or 9:30—when he was to answer the summons contained in it? If it were 9:30, he might yet step in behind him and purchase a mummified toad! And was it the Lindbergh Building where he was to go—the Lindbergh Building, named by public acclaim after some youngster who in the dim past had fluttered across the Atlantic Ocean like Columbus himself—the first building in Chicago to have a landing stage in a day when there was nothing much in the air to land upon it. Or was it the Lundbergh Building, named by its Scandinavian owner after the Swedish marine engineer whose marvelous helical excavating machine and shifting-pivot lock gates had made it possible for Great Britain to dig and complete her canal across the Central American isthmus in three short years? Lindbergh—or Lundbergh? The older building commemorating the almost forgotten trail blazer who had first jumped the great pond without anything whatever for his fragile plane to land upon? Or the more recent building, commemorating the new trail blazer who was now adding to his Central American canal laurels by designing the nine huge floating mechanical islands which next year were to mark the Atlantic Air Lane that was to connect Europe and America for those lucky ones who could afford to pay $500 passage money to step from New York into London in 32 hours instead of 5½ days as at present?

Against the somewhat stiff breeze which swept around the corner, Carr Halsey straightened out the now unfolded letter which he held in his hands.

The embossed heading on the crisp bond paper constituting page one of the missive was something very newly gotten up; to Carr Halsey who had received more than one communication in past years from this same writer, the newness of the very wording was itself confounding, quite aside from the contents of the letter itself. The extensive heading, conveying as it did a curiously composite business announcement dealing with the most ancient, archaic devices known—devices now almost suitable only as exhibits in museums, and the most ultramodern triumphs of mechanical ingenuity, specified the Lindbergh Building, after all, and not the Lundbergh, and it read, in entirety:

 

THE AMERICAN PROJECTISCOPE COMPANY, INC.

(International Monomark K 155682)

Manufacturers, Since 1870, of Magic Lanterns and Projecting  Cameras for Recreational and Educational Purposes, Makers of Photographic Slides of All Sorts for Educational Purposes. Co-Patentees, Co-Owners and Sole Manufacturers of the Cebrey Shutter, Used in Talking-Picture Projectors

 

and

Sole Owners and Patentees of the Zell Process, Usable in Conjunction with the New Ion-Screen Color-Television Process of the Consolidated Projection Corporation, for Wireless Transmission and Reception Across Space of Dramatic Performances and News Events in Actual Color and Correct Perspective, and Perfecting to the Ultimate Degree Actual Transmission of Visible Action of all Sorts.

LINDBERGH BUILDING, CHICAGO

 

Below this elaborate, and perhaps slightly bombastic commercial announcement were the words Roger T. Halsey, President. Carr Halsey bent his attention to the typed words of the missive. They were dated Sol 17th, yesterday, and they ran:

 

MY DEAR NEPHEW:

How would you like to actually view a performance of Hamlet, to be specially played at the Regent Theatre, London, with Sir Alfred Leets, the most noted Shakespearean actor in the world, in the title role, without the irksome necessity of sailing Londonward and using up a couple of weeks? I mean, by this, to see and hear the performance under conditions of a scientific illusion, known as the Zell Process, an illusion so perfect that to all intents and purposes you will be actually sitting in the dress circle of the Regent Theatre, but a few feet from the very footlights themselves.

You undoubtedly have heard that the Consolidated Projection Corporation, of New York City, officially releases, on September 2nd, its new Ion-Screen method of color television; indeed, it is already so adequately developed that the parts themselves have for quite some months now been obtainable by amateur experimenters the world over. In pursuance to your request of two years back that I take your name off our stockholders’ mailing list with respect to all business matters, other than our extremely modest checks for dividends, I have done exactly as you requested, and therefore there are several things that you do not and cannot know. Indeed, in view of the fact that certain publicity anent a secret deal entered into by our company here leaked partially into the newspapers some months ago, a deal which indicated that considerable money would be eventually going into your pockets, but that you never called up, as you most assuredly would have done had you seen it, to ask wherein and how much your financial interests would be bettered, I can only assume that you did not even see the story, and that you don’t know anything at all about what has transpired. Such as, for instance, that we here, who have been in the projecting business ever since the first crude magic lantern, decades and decades ago in your grandfather’s day, threw a blurred image on a sheet, control a trio of extremely simple patents which now combine perfectly with the television plans of the Consolidated Projection Corporation. These three patents, Nos. 2,109,203, 2,109,204 and 2,109,205, carrying International Registration Certificates Nos. 1001, 1002, and 1003 respectively, which complement each other, and which we call, all in conjunction with each other, the “Zell Process,” were developed by us in reality for use with talking pictures only. Insofar, however, as the Consolidated Projection Corporation controls, by its patents, and its stock control in the International Theater and Motion Picture Combine, the entire chain of talking-picture theaters in the world, they become our logical—indeed, our only customer—for our process, regardless of whether it is used in films or used in television, At any rate, to state very roughly what it accomplishes, I may say that what would ordinarily be at best the mere transmission to an audience by radio of a moving, but flat colored scene, life-size, the Zell Process makes it absolutely possible for that audience to receive the depth of that scene, indeed the whole scale of varying and shifting depths which make up the concavities and convexities appearing in any object or participant in it, and the relative shifting positions of all in the perspective. You may imagine for yourself the amazing effect this can produce!

An opportunity of your viewing this accomplishment happens to be at hand, and I want you to have the privilege of being one of fifty fortunate spectators at a special exhibition of it. These fifty spectators will be newspapermen, specially invited, stockholders of the American Projectiscope Company, and a few officials of the Consolidated Projection Corporation, and preceding the exhibition there will be a complete demonstration by our company engineer as to how the Consolidated Projection Corporation has, and will, broadcast and receive life-size colored images, followed by a supplemental demonstration of how this little company here transforms their process into the most important triumph in the field of modern recreation, the theater and the news. The entire demonstration will be elemental enough that any modern high-school boy can understand every word of it.

The demands on these tickets, as you may surmise, are somewhat heavy, but I have retained Ticket No. 50—the last one—for you, and if you will call at my office at 9 o’clock Wednesday morning, Sol 18th, I will present it to you in person. The exhibition demonstration will be produced the evening of the day after you get this letter—Thursday evening, Sol 19th, at 8 o’clock, to he precise—being specially performed for this test-exhibit by Sir Alfred Leets at London at 2 o’clock Friday morning, London time. One might, in a sense, say we will view the performance almost before it is actually produced. Chiefly, Carr, what I am trying to do is to decoy you down here to see me, because, frankly, I need your advice on a serious crisis in the affairs of this company here in which you and I happen to hold shares—quite useless shares, aren’t they, Carr, in these modern days when it is possible to sell our educational magic lanterns only to a few backwoods schools for, chiefly, language studies, and to the trading posts in the Brazilian jungles and Africa; and our one source of income, the Cebrey shutter for motion picture projectors, expires completely this year as a patent, and likewise as our one exclusive manufacturing concession? At any rate this crisis threatens the forthcoming transfer, for one million dollars cold cash, to the Consolidated Projection Corporation, of the patents to our unique Zell Process. And this, too, in spite of the fact that the sale has gone sufficiently far that they hold our option, and their million dollars in turn lies in escrow waiting the transfer! But now there’s a cow on the track—that’s an old expression of early railroad days, Carr, that may not be intelligible to you. It means we are in a predicament. And there is now the possibility that within less than one week you will find yourself the proud owner of some $90,000 which you are to receive as your share of this luscious million-dollar melon, or—and don’t be shocked—the sum of one dime! That is surprising, is it not? But whether or no, you will admit there is a considerable difference between the two sums!

In view of the fact that your slice of this impending melon is the only patrimony you will ever have, since this poor old decrepit company with its magic lanterns and its expiring Cebrey patent will never slice another, it behooves you to see that it is larger than a dime. This Zell Process is our one ace in the hole for a killing, and after that transaction is closed the American Projectiscope Company may either fold up its wings gracefully, or continue on, selling here and there a few magic lanterns and slides to such untutored people as the pigmies of Africa, and thus presenting as it were a gesture connecting the mauve decade with the marvelous ’40’s.

Cancellation of all foreign debts under our President Allan Sayre, coupled with the firm continued 10-percent reduction of the British and German doles scale each year to a point where the dole has practically ceased entirely to exist, has brought both America and its foreign sister countries, by the complicated and not fully understood interaction of such things, a truly great wave of prosperity—the greatest prosperity America, the British Isles, and Europe have ever known, yet unless some quick method can be found to solve a certain ugly puzzle now facing this company, you and I and some others of our stockholders, many of them old-timers and acquaintances of your father before you, lose the one greatest chance in the history of our company to make a killing worth many, many, many times the par value of our stock. I, dear boy, who hold so much more stock than you, will literally lose a young fortune.

Thus far I have not gone to the extent of writing to you and worrying you about it, because I know how you detest business and all that pertains to business, and you once informed me, too, you know, that you religiously threw all bulletins and business communications into your wastebasket unread! Also, as a matter of fact, when it became evident to me a few months ago that you had somehow missed the newspaper story which touched on the prospective sale of the Zell Process, I decided it would be pleasant to surprise you eventually with a check larger than any check you will ever receive in your life. But this check, alas, is now badly threatened. And it occurs to me today that perhaps you, as a young man with certain journalistic experience, might be able to devise or suggest a way out of this puzzle. From my reference to “journalistic experience,” you may gather that I read with interest your daily column in the Morning Sun entitled “Talks on Sports” and signed “Sportfellow,” dealing with the grand old arts of fisticuffs, fly-casting, fencing, golf, etc., which in spite of our rapidly advancing civilization will always be man’s real recreation. Indeed, Carr, I find it more and more difficult to fathom how the Halsey family, business men and manufacturers all, ever produced a combined sportsman and literary man. However, I suggest most emphatically that you come into the office and see me at 9 tomorrow morning, if for no other reason than to get that valuable ticket which will bring you face to face, literally, with a very noted English thespian, and moreover show you exactly how the trick is done. The American Projectiscope Company, by the way, is now situated in the Lindbergh Building, 23rd floor, just three blocks north of the old quarters. Just come directly to my private suite, Room 2323, and tell Babson, if he insists on the customary formalities, that you’re expected.

Your uncle,

ROGER HALSEY.

 

“Well—that’s that,” said Carr Halsey, face serious. “Nine it is—and the Lindbergh Building it is.” He gazed back of him longingly at that placard in the window. “Well, I suppose $90,000 is worth more than a mummified toad from Cheops’ pyramid—yet if it’s to be only a thin dime, hang me if I wouldn’t go inside and try my luck. Maybe I can do both this morning. Who knows? Well, Uncle’s it is first. And we shall hear what we shall hear!”

He signaled a gigantic taxicab that was crawling by, and one minute later was dismounting in front of the Lindbergh Building on Madison and Clark Streets, built in 1935 in commemoration of a pioneer flyer, and even now becoming a bit archaic, rococo in fact. His little 2-block jump, it is true, cost him a red 25-cent coupon out of his book of perforated taximeter “pay” tickets, but saved him perhaps some ten minutes of elbowing his way along a thoroughfare which now, in Chicago, connecting as it did the busiest stations of the venerable old State Street subway and the new Clark Street subway, was hopelessly crowded at this hour of the morning. And still a quarter minute later he was dismounting from a rocket-like express elevator on the cubistically tiled 23rd floor of the Lindbergh Building. He made his way down past the many curiously tinted archways, which, with their double-swinging gray doors, each with a zigzag streak of color across its face, constituted the entrances of the offices in the Lindbergh Building, in turn past the one which carried on it in black porcelain Gothic letters the words AMERICAN PROJECTISCOPE COMPANY, INC., and finally stopped in front of Number 2323, whose similar letters read simply: ROGER T. HALSEY, PRESIDENT. This one he pushed inward, and entered. He was now inside the threshold of a square room with tall windows of slightly tinted glass reaching to the floor, and whose coarse-grained plastered walls, with their huge rugosities, held a dozen hues curiously merging rainbowlike one with the other by some new technical trick of interior decoration developed in the early 1930’s. Near the door however—and Carr Halsey smiled in spite of himself—was a movable polished wooden railing as venerable as those others like it which adorned all offices when he had been but a small boy, and he knew at least that he was in the right place, for this was but one of the many relics which his uncle lovingly transported from office to office as the American Projectiscope Company every few years changed its quarters; in a wall back of the railing was a gray panelless door, with square black porcelain knob, leading evidently to a private interior office.

And guarding the one opening in the antique wooden railing, moreover, sat Babson, more venerable appendage of the American Projectiscope Company than any single piece of office furniture it might own! Elderly, with rapidly thinning gray hair, he was, beyond all doubt, even more like that wooden railing than the railing itself! He was clad, as he always had been, in a rusty black suit of old-fashioned cut of fully three decades back. He wore the same high celluloid collar, which no doubt had been washed these many years with the same sponge, and the cuffs that thrust themselves forth from the short tight sleeves of his shiny coat had been economically trimmed with a scissors where the frayed edges had formed. The sour look on his face and the pad chained to a gold pencil which stood at his elbow, the movable square of onyx at the other elbow with its pair of pushbuttons which obviously threw outside telephone communication from the phone on his desk to a phone in that adjoining room, proclaimed indisputably that he was not only a chief clerk and factotum of some sort, and perhaps even office boy, too, in this private suite, but an official Cerberus; a buffer between the occupant of the inner office adjoining that room, and the ever-intruding public who were wont to stand on the outside of the railing where Carr Halsey now undecidedly paused.

“Good morning, Babson,” said the younger man pleasantly. “I see you don’t remember me.”

The older man squinted at him through short-sighted eyes. “Well,” he ejaculated slowly, “if it isn’t Mr. Halsey’s nephew. You have changed, sir, in the last few years.”

Carr smiled. He glanced at the triangular gunmetal watch affixed to his wrist by a broad tweed strap which exactly matched the goods in his suit, as all style dictates this year demanded. “I’ve an appointment with Uncle for 9 a.m. It’s now ten minutes to 9. Is it all right for me to go right in?”

Babson shook his head. “Sorry, Mr. Halsey, but your uncle just had unexpected visitors. Two stockholders from Detroit, the Popolos brothers, who’ve gotten wind of the queer jam we’re in here. And—” Babson paused apologetically. “I’m talking freely to you, Mr. Halsey, you being a stockholder yourself.” He motioned out of the tall tinted window nearest Carr Halsey to an interior courtway roof of the huge building, whose level was but a half story beneath that of the 23rd floor; covered entirely with flat soft rubber tiles, supplied with a hangar and customary mechanic, its broad intersecting bands of bright color visible from miles in the air and marking its location and identity by the standard aero-chart, and last but not least the single elegantly upholstered white-and-silver autogyro plane with lone pilot tinkering at the engine while he apparently waited for its absent occupants, it marked itself plainly as Lindbergh Landing Station. “They’re in there with him now, and want to be in New Orleans late this afternoon. He told me to tell anyone who called with an appointment—and he specifically mentioned you—that they’d have to wait a half-hour or else come back at 9:30. Will you wait? Are you on foot?”

Halsey wrinkled up his forehead. He looked at the gloomy office—gloomy, indisputably, in spite of its variegated tints, the gloomy Babson, and the forbidding row of hardwood chairs which ran along the outside of the railing. Then he turned to the door.

“Very well, Babson. Uncle must have a special version for me alone, I guess! I’ll come back later. Yes, I’m afoot. I’d prefer to meander around in the sunshine till nine-thirty—perhaps buy a mummified toad!” With which cryptic announcement he left the office.

Outside in front of the Lindbergh Building, he turned back east toward the Associated Express Companies. He had an even half-hour now before his uncle should be at leisure, and the opportunity was at hand to buy—something for nothing—even if it might turn out to be—nothing for something!

“Might as well get a $1,000 diamond sunburst for a dollar and a quarter,” he ruminated to himself. “Might even get a mummified toad, at that, or a chart to King Midas’ fortune at Delhi. Lord knows if there’s anything to Uncle’s alarming words, I’ll need a few charts.”

And thus it came about that Carr Halsey, journalist and sportsman with an even half-hour to spend, came face to face with the “jinx” of the Associated Express Companies, the sealed wooden box which for four years had not tempted a single purchaser to invest even the accrued express charges on it.

A Pandora’s box of the 20th century.

A box of trouble—a box of bewilderment, indeed, for the individual who, on this sunny day of Sol 18th, 1942, was destined to purchase it and raise its lid!

 

Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page