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"The Case of Henry Beemis" from Atlantic Monthly

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Atlantic Monthly
The Case of Henry Beemis
by Ellis Parker Butler

The complexities of modern life may well puzzle the ordinary citizen. I, for instance, am a chemist, and I specialize in pulp products. I know all about wood pulp and rag pulp and paper making. One morning Henry S. Gryce, the book publisher, came to me.

"Wippert," he said, "we publishers are not selling one tenth the books we should, and something has to be done about it. My idea is that people don't buy books because so many books are perishable and poorly made and so bound that they do not seem worth the money. Now I want you to get to work and produce a better book paper. I want you to create a paper that will last forever. Then a book will be a good investment. It will be an heirloom, permanent and imperishable, and people will buy ten times as many books."

I told him I would get at the job instantly, and I did, and that afternoon Gerald S. Cutts came to me.

"Wippert," he said, "we publishers are not selling one tenth the books we should, and something has to be done about it. My idea is that books are too durable. They last forever. A man has only so much shelf room for books, and when his shelves are full he has no place to put more books and he stops buying books. Now I want you to get to work and produce a paper that will disintegrate in one year, leaving nothing but a thin film of dust. I want you to create a paper that will perish in twelve months. Then the overloaded bookshelves will clear themselves automatically, making room for new books, and the people will buy ten times as many books."

I told him I would begin my experiments at once, and I did.

When I reached home I looked at my own shelves and I saw at once that what Cutts had said was true. My shelves were full of books except for the width of one volume. Volume VIII of my fine set of Thackeray was missing. I had loaned that book to Henry Beemis two years before and he had never returned it, although I had spoken to him about it several times.

What angered me now was that the set, if complete, was worth a lot of money, but with one volume missing it was merely so much junk. I went to the telephone and called Henry Beemis's number; his mother answered.

"I want to talk to Henry Beemis," I said.

"Who is it?" she asked in a voice that I thought trembled.

"This is George Wippert," I said, "and Henry borrowed a book from me two years ago and never returned it. You tell him that if that book is not back here by six o'clock tomorrow night I am going to take an automatic pistol and shoot him dead."

A man, I felt, is justified in shooting dead any man who borrows a volume out of a set and does not return it.

I spent the evening cleaning my automatic pistol. The next night at six o'clock Henry Beemis had not returned the book. I called up his number again.

"This is George Wippert speaking," I said. "Is Henry Beemis there?"

"No, he is not here," his mother's voice answered, and I thought it trembled even more than before.

"Where is he?" I asked.

"He has gone out to borrow some books," she said.

I hung up the receiver and picked up my automatic. I put on my hat and coat and went down to the street. I walked the eight blocks to where Henry Beemis lived and hid in a dark doorway opposite his dwelling place, releasing the safety catch on my pistol.

I must have waited half an hour before I saw Henry Beemis. He stood a moment in his doorway and then stepped into the street, and I raised my pistol and fired. At the same instant a machine gun up the street chattered its "tut-tut-tut-tut" and a man stepped from a doorway two houses up and fired two barrels of a double-barreled shotgun at Henry Beemis. He fell dead instantly.

I ran across the street just as the man with the shotgun came running to where Henry Beemis lay, and to my surprise I saw that the man with the shotgun was none other than Henry S. Gryce, the book publisher.

"I got him! I got him!" Mr. Gryce cried happily. "I've been laying for him quite a while, but I got him at last."

"What did you kill him for?" I asked, for my curiosity was somewhat aroused.

"I'll tell you why I killed him," said Mr. Gryce. "He deserved to die. Do you know what he is? He is one of the fellows who borrow books. When he borrows books he doesn't have to buy them. When he doesn't buy a book I don't sell it. He's been hurting trade."

Just then the man with the machine gun came to us. He was doubtless delayed by the weight of the machine gun, which was a heavy one. I was surprised to see that he was Gerald S. Cutts, the publisher.

"Good!" he exclaimed. "I got him this time."

"And what did you kill him for?" I asked.

"The rascal got what he deserved," said Mr. Cutts. "He has been employed by our League for two years and paid a good salary to borrow books and not return them. That clears the shelves and people can buy more books. But this wretch double-crossed us. He returned a book."

He looked at me more closely then and recognized me, and he saw the automatic in my hand.

"Did you kill him, too?" he asked.

"Yes, I said I would and I did."

"What did you kill him for?" asked Mr. Gryce.

"I killed him for not returning my book."

"Really?" giggled Mr. Gryce. "I killed him for borrowing that book."

"And he took it back to you tonight," chuckled Mr. Cutts. "I killed him for returning it to you."

It was so funny that we just stood there and laughed and laughed. It was then that Henry Beemis raised his head to utter his last words.

"Gentlemen," he said, "if you will pardon me for a moment, it seems to me that the complexities of modern life may well puzzle the ordinary citizen."

Then he lay down and died completely.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:18:07am USA Central
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