Promises To Keep : Chapter One

Every antique shop has a personality of its own, a uniqueness comprised mostly of the stock offered for sale and the individuality of the proprietor. Before starting our second careers and opening our own modest place in New Hampshire two years ago, my wife, Connie, and I differed for a while on the type of operation we wanted. Connie envisioned an establishment that would resemble a cozy, small-town museum, where each teacup and platter would be brightly polished and lovingly displayed, as if prepared for a visit from the mayor and his wife. Less disposed to exertion, I proposed something more along the lines of Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop, where wares would be scattered haphazardly on tables and shelves and a cloth or feather duster might be fluttered in their direction when the dust got about an inch thick. In the manner of wives ever since Eve, Connie had her way, and from opening day I've been dusting cookie jars and arranging creamers, which is a far departure from my previous work as a New York City homicide cop.

That afternoon, I had no intimation at all that death was at hand or that, with Connie as my sidekick, I would soon be dusting off my old detection skills too. Holding an ancient T-shirt, with sal soda, sugar, and plaster of Paris modeling paste at the ready for cleaning and repair, I was at my worktable examining the Dedham pottery we'd recently bought at a house auction in Worcester. Mayonnaise bowl, creamer, sauce dish, chocolate pot-all of these high-calorie receptacles had the famous rabbit motif, and I couldn't help wondering what else had been hopping around in the head of Alexander Robertson when he founded his pottery works in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in the late 1860's. I made a mental note to ask Connie the size of Robertson's family. That she wouldn't know the answer was unimaginable to me; after ten years of marriage, I still marveled at the infinity of odd facts packed into her brain, so preciously different from anyone else's I had ever known.

I looked across the store and observed her arranging a display of Roanoke goblets on a shelf near the window. I never tired of watching her. Petite and, from a distance, until you saw her determined chin and keen gaze, as delicate-looking as a Meissen shepherdess, she was even lovelier to me than on our wedding day, for time had honed a youthful prettiness into an enduring, lightly freckled beauty, and the sight of her always twisted my heart and sent the world spinning. As she leaned over to daintily set down a gleaming emerald-green goblet, a shaft of sunlight outlined in gold her slender throat and straight, elegant nose, and caught at the red highlights in her auburn hair, turning it to flame. A meditative finger on her chin, she stepped back like an artist to inspect her handiwork and, satisfied, picked up the next goblet. I thanked God for my blessing and returned to work, hoping to have the Dedham cleaned to Connie's overly exacting standards before we closed shop. I wished that time would stop and it could be like this forever-Connie and I in our store on a serene day in the golden October of 1980. So what if we would probably never be celebrated on the glossy pages of Antiques or The Connoisseur or even be sure of enough sales to cover next month's rent bill? There were other satisfactions in life, ones more important in the long run than prestige and money. We loved our work and, in an increasingly shoddy world where manufactures barely outlived their ninety-day guarantee, were offering objects of lasting beauty and old-time craftsmanship to our customers.

My next piece of Dedham, a heavy turkey platter, felt a little rough in spots, and I held it up to the light for a better look. Luckily, I was holding it with both hands when Connie suddenly cried out:

"Gil! Come quick!"

Up front, Connie was pointing to the window, which in two years had never offered anything more exciting than a vista of Main Street extending from Bill Tyler's hardware store to the post office to the Bijou Theater, closed since before our arrival in Branford, a faded poster in a glass case still advertising Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. Connie's outcries had always lacked a sense of proportion, and she could be seeing anything from one of Hugh Gibson's antique cars to Mrs. Wentworth berating a litterbug to Polygonia comma, the green mountain butterfly that May Turner, our local naturalist, had mentioned on last Sunday's nature hike through Monadnock State Park. I put down the platter and hurried up the aisle past the young couple browsing at our table of cheapies, officially referred to as "tomorrow's treasures." Connie had suggested the term, and she had painted it lovingly on the sign over these modest wares that she insisted were, like modest people, worthy of being admired, treasured, and eventually loved. I had dissuaded her from going to town with her Magic Markers and affixing elaborate signs to the wall system where we kept our better porcelain and glassware, to the cases of antique jewelry and doll furniture, to the shadow boxes of glass and ceramic birds and animals, which she wanted to call The Branford Bestiary.

"It's her!" Connie said, and looked down in dismay at her Robert Frost sweat shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. "How do I look? No, don't tell me." Tidying her short-cropped hair, she rushed to a shelf and snatched up her recorder.

I looked out the window and saw a tall, heavy woman of about sixty-five in a flowing black cape with a red velvet collar. The wind lashing her silver-gray hair, she strode as if she were leading an army, but in fact she was leading only a white miniature poodle.

"I didn't think Mrs. Davenport would want to audition me here in the shop," Connie said. "With all the glassware, the acoustics must be terrible."

Back on July 4 at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts, we had attended a concert of Martha Davenport's ensemble devoted to early American music, the Hampshire Consort. After a big dinner and a few toasts to the Founding Fathers, I slept through most of it, but couldn't help awakening for the drumrolls and fanfares. In Colonial costume, wearing a lawn cap and a dress of apricot-colored dimity, Mrs. Davenport had looked so much like Martha Washington that I'd expected her imminently to put down her viola d'amore and, in the manner of current political wives, appeal to the audience to vote for her husband, George, in the coming Presidential election. At intermission she did speak, inviting the musically inclined to apply for membership in her expanding group, with the assurance that enthusiasm was as important to her as perfect pitch.

Connie was afraid to take Mrs. Davenport at her word, and returning home from the concert, she hunted up the soprano recorder untooted since her teens and began to brush up. Her first attempts to reach the higher notes in "Greensleeves" caused Walter, our cat, to shoot out of the house like a rocket. In time, she improved to the point where Walter would merely place his paws over his ears and curl up tightly into a striped black-and-white ball, probably regretting the winter night six years ago when he darted out of an alley, sniffed the contents of our shopping cart, and decided to favor us with the pleasure of his company. Last Friday, after more than three months of nonstop practice, Connie had written to Mrs. Davenport in care of the New Hampshire Arts Council in Concord that she was ready to do her bit for culture.

I pulled open the door for our distinguished visitor. Before entering, she swooped up her poodle and addressed it sternly: "You've done enough mischief for the day, Clara. I'm terribly disappointed in you, and wouldn't be surprised if the kennel club wanted its gold ribbon back." She stepped across the threshold with a twitch of her aristocratic nose. Pausing, she cast a connoisseur's sharp eye over our shelves and display cases. "So this is your little shop," she said in a booming voice.

I hoped that she hadn't expected to find London's Newhouse or Parker galleries in a New Hampshire village. Actually, our shop was of respectable dimensions, located in a quasi-historic red-brick building built in 1839, which had previously served as a Quaker meeting house, as the "worldwide headquarters" of a Colonel Silas Patterson, who disseminated a patent medicine called Sitting Bull's Own Special Universal Elixir, and until 1975, when its young editor-publisher decided to renounce his journalistic heritage and manage a local rock group called The Hows, as the office of the Branford Gazette.

"Our landlord doesn't think our shop is so little," I said. "Anyhow, we're happy to welcome you here, Mrs. Davenport."

She put a hand to her hip and struck the pose of a grande dame in a portrait by John Singer Sargent. "You know me, do you?"

"I think everyone in New Hampshire knows you, Mrs. Davenport," Connie said. "I'm Constance Ferguson, and this is my husband, Gilbert. We're both great fans of yours."

She graciously touched our hands with her fingertips. "Thank you, my dears. With rock and roll in the ascendancy, it has been an uphill struggle for our music, but I do believe we have finally turned the corner. I have great hopes for our winter season, for which I have composed a fantasia for orchestra based upon hymn tunes by William Billings."

"I don't see how your winter season can miss," Connie said. She twiddled her recorder with finesse. "As you probably know, I applied for membership in the consort last week. I'll audition anytime, anywhere."

"Bless you, my dear, but I'm in too much of a dither to make an appointment right now." Mrs. Davenport took a deep breath, as if bracing herself for an ordeal. "I would like to see your selection of ceramic humidors."

"Ceramic humidors?" Connie and I said in unison. Later on, we would have to link pinkies and make a wish. I had an idea that Connie's wish would be to lose about six pounds on her latest diet. My own wish would be that she stop trying to improve on perfection.

"Yes, ceramic humidors," Mrs. Davenport said, and she glowered at her dog. "Earlier today I had a meeting with Ernest Mifflin, our state coordinator for the National Endowment of the Arts. I made the terrible mistake of bringing Clara along. At one point she jumped upon his desk and knocked over his humidor. I wouldn't have believed that an object could shatter into so many pieces. Obviously it hadn't been made in New England."

"Maybe it was a Rookwood, made in Cincinnati," Connie said.

"I wouldn't be surprised. Despite my strong disapproval of nicotine, I now feel morally obliged to replace the object." Her cape billowing, Mrs. Davenport charged down the middle aisle, snapping her head to the left and right. "I don't see your humidors. Where do you keep them? I see you have a nice selection of glassware, but I can think only of humidors today."

Afraid that her cape would sweep something from a case or stand, Connie and I took up pursuit, and caught up with her at the revolving rack of old-time songbooks.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but we don't have a single ceramic humidor in stock."

"Not one? That's incredible. My first bassoonist once told me that he finds everything here-and so it would seem." She pointed to a porcelain cuspidor, a coal scuttle, an ice bucket with the trylon and perisphere commemorating the World's Fair of 1939.

"But Mr. Forsythe collects only lamps," Connie said. "Too bad Clara didn't break Mr. Mifflin's lamp. We have an excellent selection, including a Millefiori."

"Don't say that!" Mrs. Davenport cried in horror. "One of Ernest's lamps is a Favrile and bronze Tiffany, and cost ten thousand dollars in 1972."

"Maybe he'd like a cigar-store Indian," I said.

"I hardly think so. His taste in sculpture runs more to the Italian Renaissance."

Connie ran off to the table of cheapies and returned wit a bronze paperweight in the shape of a dolphin.

"The original, by Cellini, is in the Louvre," she said in a solemn tone.

"It's lovely, and I'll take it for myself, but I still must have my humidor. Please order one from someone, from somewhere. With my first concert in two weeks, I'm too busy to go traipsing from shop to shop along the highways and byways. My next appointment with Ernest is in a week. Is there any doubt that you will have the humidor by then?" Her eyes blazed a challenge as she stared from Connie to me. "We must have that supplementary grant, and it would be awkward for me to charge into his office without a humidor."

There was a strong doubt in my mind that we could ever find her a ceramic humidor at all. We had never had one in our shop, and I couldn't recall seeing one in recent years in other shops or at auctions or shows. I drew in a breath, wondering how to tell Mrs. Davenport that she was in for a disappointment. I was relieved when I saw Connie open her mouth to impart the bad news.

"You'll have your ceramic humidor by next week," she assured Mrs. Davenport.

Connie knew the market as well as I, and I stared at her in surprise. She looked away from me, and raised her recorder to give emphasis to her next words:

"Fergusons' is more than just another antique shop. We consider ourselves a public service. We succeed where others fail."

Mrs. Davenport thrust Clara at me, and then flung her arms around Connie and pressed her to her vast bosom.

"Public service!" she cried. "That must once again become the great clarion call of our nation. 'The only true gift,' said Emerson, 'is a part of oneself.' Bless you, my dear. I have confidence in you. You have taken a great burden off my mind, and once again my spirit can soar on wings of song."

"Speaking of song, Mrs. Davenport," Connie said, "shall I bring along my recorder for an audition when I deliver your humidor?"

Mrs. Davenport agreed enthusiastically to Connie's suggestion, and up front at the counter, she gave Connie her card when she opened her purse to pay for her paperweight-destined, she said, to hold down the pages of her memoirs, tentatively entitled Grace Notes while her literary agent and her editor searched for something more sensational. Her current chapter related a romance with Arthur Rubinstein in Vienna. Her next one would tell how she inspired Leonard Berstein to continue his music studies at a time when he doubted his talents and threatened to get a haircut.

"And I also knew Bob rather well," she added, pointing to the picture of Robert Frost on Connie's sweat shirt. "'The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep...'"

So do I, I said to myself, thinking of the humidor.

I opened the door for Mrs. Davenport and watched her stride back to her red Chevelle. Then, my heart heavy with misgivings, I turned to Connie, who was staring at her recorder.

"Do you think I did wrong?" she murmured.

I pulled her tight to me and kissed the tip of her nose. "You did absolutely right," I said. "Come on. Let's get started. There's a humidor somewhere. It isn't as if we were looking for the lost chord."

Hand in hand, we walked over to our desk at the side of the store. Connie put on her eyeglasses and reached for the pile of Antique News on a shelf.

"I'll hit the ads in these," she said. "You can start phoning. Try Angela Sossman first. She's just back from a buying trip-with a humidor, I hope."

Angela had picked up a ton of varied items, including a complete set of Gibson Girl plates, but not a single humidor. She hadn't seen a humidor in years, and hoped never to see one again, because her first husband had been a cigar smoker before he became a compulsive pretzel eater.

Next, I phoned Anatole Lester in Providence, who specialized in cigarette and snuff boxes and perhaps might have a few humidors as well. He informed me that his current specialty was weapons-guns, daggers, crossbows, sword canes. He urged me to try to interest my customer in a Turkish yataghan, or an Indian katar with a pair of pistols, or an Australian bullwhip. Hanging up, I suggested that he be careful when he demonstrated his new merchandise.

Connie, looking through an article on cigar bands in a back issue of The Collector, asked me to reach up to a shelf for the wire basket of recent catalogs from dealers. The basket was so full that the top few catalogs fell to the floor. Picking them up, I glanced at one of the covers.

"This one's called the U Name It Shop. I'll bet if I named a humidor, the jokers wouldn't have one."

"Give them a ring and see," said Connie, a believer in serendipity. "Where are they located? In Alaska, I bet."

"They're right here in New Hampshire. In Greenhaven."

"I don't remember ever seeing a shop there."

"Maybe it's new. Or maybe, like the jewels in that fairy tale, it can be seen only by the pure in heart."

"I'll match my purity against that of any other woman of thirty-two."

"It may be hard to arrange such a competition. I think you're the only woman in our circle who admits to being over twenty-nine."

I skimmed through the U Name It catalog before dialing. It didn't list any humidors, but a cuspidor of scroddled ware seemed a sign of hope, and so did a snuff bottle of lapis lazuli.

After ten rings, when I as about to hang up, a man said in a soft, dreamy voice, "Good afternoon. U Name It."

"A Rookwood humidor, or any other ceramic humidor of a decent quality."

There was the sort of chuckle a Dickens character would have made, and then laughter that crescendoed almost to hysteria. My remark hadn't been funny; I was speaking with either a drunkard or a madman.

"I hope I didn't awaken you," I said.

"Not at all. In my grave will be sleeping enough-if I'm lucky. Who is this, please?"

"It's Gilbert Ferguson. My-"

"Are you the Ferguson who used to play shortstop for the Red Sox? I'll never forget...no, that was Johnny Ferguson."

"My wife and I are colleagues of yours."

"Get out of the racket before it's too late."

"We're on Main Street in Branford. You have us on your mailing list."

"Branford is one of my favorite towns. Has the village square survived time's vicissitudes?"

"It's as green and lovely as ever, but the Bijou's gone."

"I fell in love with Kathryn Grayson there. Do the schoolchildren still line up on the lawn while Old Glory is raised?"

"Absolutely."

"Promise me you won't let it change."

"I'm not on the school board, but I'll pass along your request."

"How old are you?"

"Thirty-eight."

"Then you probably don't remember Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy. I'm forty-eight. Jack was on the radio, and also on boxes of Wheaties-or was it Grape-Nuts Flakes? I saved up my three box tops and sent away for the balsa glider. I waited weeks for it to arrive in the mail. The first time I threw it into the air-the very first time-it landed in the middle of the road and a truck ran over it."

"That's a very sad story, Mr...?"

"Eric Meade. Please call me Eric. I like you, Ferguson. By coincidence, that's the name of one of my favorite beverages-Ferguson's Dew. I know your shop. I've passed it a few times, and have been meaning to drop in and welcome you to the club. Always in a hurry somehow, though I can't say for sure where I'm going."

"I'm trying to locate a ceramic humidor for a customer. Do you happen to have one in stock?"

"I have the most beautiful humidor you've ever seen. Winston Churchill would have been proud to own it."

My heart was beating faster. "That's terrific," I said, and I flashed Connie a V-for-victory sign.

Meade continued: "Or at least, I think I still have it."

"Aren't you sure?"

"The truth is that I'm a little disorganized at present."

You can say that again, I said to myself. To Meade I said, "I'll hold on while you look around."

Meade laughed. "That may take quite a while, my friend. I gave up my store years ago, and now do a strictly catalog business from my apartment. Some of my stock is here, the rest I keep in a storeroom in my basement. When do you need your humidor?"

"As soon as possible."

"It's a gift for an old codger-am I right or am I right?"

"You're right."

"I don't want that old duck's disappointment on my conscience. Disappointment withers the spirit and even kills. Do you ever read Poe?"

"Not if I can help it."

"'Ah, dream too bright to last!/Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise/But to be overcast!/A voice from out the Future cries,/"On! on!"-but o're the Past/(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies/Mute, motionless, aghast!' In short, my friend, disappointment is the story of my life. I'm going to drop everything and hunt for that apothecary jar right now, and I'll call you back immediately if not sooner."

I gave him my number after reminding him that I wanted a humidor. About to hang up, I heard a bang that could have been a gunshot.

"Are you okay?" I said.

"I'm fine. I just broke a little something or other. It happens in the best of shops."

I filled Connie in on my conversation. She heaved a deep sigh. "He sounds like a man with a problem. I'll bet he never calls back."

I had to agree with Connie. We began to examine other catalogs. Our two browsers departed after buying a pair of coffee mugs commemorating the Saint Louis Exposition of 1904. Other customers came in: Mrs. Graham, our librarian, who collected souvenir spoons; Mrs. Winniger, the wife of our bank manager, who, after seeing a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie on TV, was looking for something Art Deco; a short, sandy-haired man in a black raincoat and a white scarf whom we had never seen before....

An hour went by without a call from Eric Meade. We decided he had forgotten us, and we resumed calling other dealers, known and unknown, from near and far. Ever helpful, Jack Abbott in Exeter suggested that we contact the Cuban Chamber of Commerce in Havana. A Louise Archer in Vernonville vaguely recalled having seen a ceramic humidor in recent months. She thought it had been in Eric Meade's U Name It Shop in Greenhaven. When she offered to give me his number, I told her I already had it. Janice Beane in Bennington told me that after being burdened for years with a ceramic humidor, she had finally disposed of it-only yesterday. Hearing that, I slammed down the phone and, of course, yelled "Damn" and a few other appropriate words. My voice carried to the shelf of glassware, where our new customer in the black coat turned to look at me. He had removed his scarf, revealing a Roman collar. He was undoubtedly Father Derry, who was taking over Saint Peter's Church in Chatham Corners, two towns away on Highway 34. In our own church last Sunday, the Reverend Saunders had mentioned the advent of his new colleague, and had reminded his flock to make him welcome.

"I'm sorry, Father. The antiques business has its trying moments."

"So does every business. To earn a living can be as hard as to part the Red Sea."

Father Derry was looking for a birthday gift for his sister. As a penance for my blasphemy, I let him have a Duncan creamer for only ten dollars.

"Learn to have patience," he said, his eyes twinkling. "Remember, even the Roman Catholic Church wasn't built in a day."

"But we don't have a millennium to find a ceramic humidor," Connie said.

Father Derry smiled upward, as if he could already see an angel with a humidor. "Have you thought of prayer?"

I hadn't, and I said one before my next call. It didn't help.

Before closing shop at six o'clock, I phoned Meade once more. The phone rang twelve times, and I finally hung up.

"That's that," I said.

But we were to hear from Eric Meade again.



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