SAVED BY CERVANTES
Long after midnight, a short-haired man of average height crossed from London’s Kensington Gardens to Mount Street, headed east. Mr. John Francis Berryman had walked silently through the damp, thick grass of the park, but now his oversized heels clacked loudly as he stepped onto the cobblestone street. The noise was unacceptable, even if no other souls were out at that hour. He would have to be more careful. Silent. Ideally he would proceed unnoticed, steal the book, and return to his small flat within the hour.
Steal: such a harsh, stubborn word. Was this truly stealing? He planned to return the book once he and Mr. Rockwell found what they needed. And besides, the book’s owner, Harry Elkins Widener, was so wealthy that he could hardly be stolen from. They had been in school together, at Harvard College, and Harry never once had to worry about money. His family owned streetcar lines, railroads, and office buildings. He lived in a one-hundred-five-room mansion and had begun amassing his noted collection of rare—and, in Berryman’s estimation, largely superficial—books at a mere twenty-one years of age.
Berryman, on the other hand, dragged behind him a heavy chain of debts. He owed money to his grocer, his tailor, numerous professors and colleagues, even one of his students. His shoemaker was holding no less than three pairs of his boots, vowing not to restore them until he was paid in full, and the local baker refused to loan him so much as a roll.
None of this was Mr. Berryman’s fault. The cruel, unbalanced world had thrust him into his present predicament. And this, he believed, granted him the right to borrow from those more fortunate. He walked carefully ahead.
South Audley Street was all shadows. No lights shone through the windows looking over the narrow street. No candles burned, no streetlamps glowed, and Quaritch Booksellers, he noted with pleasure, was particularly lifeless.
A low scuffling sound startled him. He turned, grabbed his knife, saw nothing; a rat, presumably.
At the door to the shop he glanced once more along the length of the dark, wet street, inserted the key he’d lifted off that foolish clerk earlier in the day, and entered. He took a moment to bask: He might not have been the best of thieves, but he doubted that any other scholars possessed such skill.
Inside, he breathed in the musty, aged smell of thousands of books. That book dust was fresh sea air to him. So much weathered leather, so many brittle yellowing pages. All that hardened cloth and browned book-binding glue. He found it completely invigorating.
Yet he had no time to browse the shelves. He had an assignment. He was to procure the rare second edition of Sir Francis Bacon’s Essaies before Quaritch shipped it off to Widener’s Philadelphia mansion.
The door to the old book dealer’s second floor office was open. The electric lights would be too bright, too conspicuous, so he lit a small candle with the deft flick of a match and examined several boxes of books stacked about the room. Widener’s supply was sitting near the door, packaged and ready to sail for America.
The anticipation forced his hands to quiver, but the value of the books demanded that he work with the utmost care. He delicately cut open the box and removed each precious volume. The books were either preserved in hard clothbound cases or wrapped in several layers of soft felt.
The size and thickness of each item varied, but the book he sought would be thin. The Essaies were really little more than an extended pamphlet, so there was no need to inspect the larger volumes. This realization allowed him to arrive sooner at a terribly unfortunate conclusion.
The Essaies were gone.
But how? Berryman knew that Widener had instructed Quaritch to buy the book for him. Quaritch had completed the sale a few days before. All of Widener’s other purchases were there. The old bookseller had to have the Essaies.
He rushed to Quaritch’s desk, sat in the old man’s place, laid his hands on the leather-topped surface. Applying more care than the dealer deserved, Berryman opened Quaritch’s ledger and flipped through the thin, dry pages. His hands and fingers were shaking. His jaw locked shut. On the last page he found it: A note from that very day recording a visit from Harry Elkins Widener. Mr. Berryman held his candle close and read:
Visit from HEW. Nice young man. Paid in full and looked upon the books with angelic devotion. Should be a lucrative customer. Interested in Cruikshank and RLS in particular. Very, very happy to see that the Bacon was his. Ordered the lot to be sent to Philadelphia, except for the Essaies, which he’s taking aboard the new ocean liner, Titanic. If I’m shipwrecked, he said, the Bacon will go with me.
The spoiled, rich fool! Berryman slapped his hand down hard on the desk.
A moment later he heard footsteps. Someone was ascending the stairs: The glow of a candle on the wall outside the door brightened with each step.
Berryman moistened the pads of his forefinger and thumb with his tongue, prepared to extinguish his own candle, then stopped himself. The person would have seen the glow. If he were to extinguish the flame now, they’d know for sure that there was an intruder and call for help. Instead Berryman rushed to the door and waited, standing aside.
The careful footsteps stopped outside the office, and then an old, hunched-over figure walked through. Berryman could assume no risk: He leaped forward and pushed the man to the floor, but the man grasped Berryman’s ankle as he fell. Berryman tumbled as he tried to flee.
The candle still glowed; in the dim light he could see that it was old Quaritch himself.
Berryman tried to shake and kick his way free, but the old bookseller would not let go.
“Thief!” Quaritch yelled. “Help, thief!”
Berryman promptly struck the old man on the head with the heel of his boot. Quaritch released him, whimpering like a pitiful, injured dog. There was little choice now, as the bookseller had surely seen him. Berryman reached inside his coat and removed the knife.
The shouts for help ceased. Quaritch stared at the blade, confused and frightened at once. Berryman always thought that his preferred weapon, a knife typically used to slice free the uncut pages of newly printed books, was uniquely clever, and he was happy to see that the irony was not lost on Quaritch.
The old man crawled away backwards, his knees upturned like a spider’s legs. A rivulet of blood ran down his forehead, spreading in the wrinkles of his brow.
Quaritch stopped at the base of one of the room’s many mountainous bookshelves and began pulling books down from the shelves, surrounding himself with the texts as if he were trying to form an impenetrable, book-built shield. He piled them on his lap, in front of his stomach, and clutched them to his chest.
In the dim candlelight Berryman saw clearly that they were rare, valuable classics. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, even a copy of one of Mr. Berryman’s favorites, Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
He had no choice but to lower the knife; he could not bear the thought of such precious books stained with that old man’s blood. Most of all, he could not hurt the Quijote. He pocketed his weapon and moved toward the door, deeper into the shadows. “You have not seen me,” he said. “I have stolen nothing.”
“Yes, yes,” Mr. Quaritch answered, “I have not seen you.”
Mr. Berryman hurried down the stairs, out to South Audley Street, and back toward the park.
“Thief! Thief!” he heard the old, frightened bookseller shouting weakly in the distance.
But he was not a thief. John Francis Berryman was a scholar. A man of the mind and a lover of books.
Text copyright © 2012 by Gregory Mone