Read an Excerpt
Demon of the Waters
By Gregory Gibson
Little, Brown Copyright © 2002 Gregory Gibson
All right reserved.
Chapter One Jay Small's Big Hit
Vevay, Indiana, 1978
In 1978, a midwestern book scout made a deal that would see him through the rest of his days.
Jay Small was one of that odd, itinerant breed who made their livings haunting estate sales, thrift shops, and old ladies' attics in hopes of finding rare and valuable texts. These characters flourished in the middle years of the 20th century, when we were becoming "modern" enough, most of us, to see no value in dusty relics, and rich and smart enough, a few of us, to collect these same objects with passion and vigor. In the rare-book hierarchy, Small was the man on the ground.
He specialized in Americana, and he operated out of Indianapolis, Indiana. His beat was the central part of the Midwest - Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky - territory that had been a conduit for American westward expansion. As people had passed through, they'd left books, pamphlets, and documents behind, a record of their activities and aspirations. The choicest of his selections might move along to bigger dealers in New York. These men would peddle their wares, by now substantially marked up and with an ever-increasing accompaniment of research and documentation, to more prestigious collectors and institutions.
Small had a friend and colleague who delighted in collecting and selling the works of the most obscure authors possible for a dealer in Indiana - Russian dissidents and Victorian English poets. He was woefully ignorant of Americana. So, in the somewhat perverse way these matters often proceed, it was he who stumbled onto the richest trove of Americana either man had ever seen.
Down in the southern part of the state, in a small town named Vevay, a mysterious collector had filled two buildings full of books and antiques. When the collector died, his family realized he had left them with a major logistical problem. To solve at least part of it, they were offering to sell all the books in one whack for $15,000. Simply by being in the right place at the right time, Small's friend got an exclusive on the deal, and Small talked himself into the arrangement, fifty-fifty. As was almost inevitable, the friend, lacking his own specialized knowledge, got the worst of the split. Jay Small lived off his share for another fifteen years. If anyone knew the identity of that original genius of a collector in Vevay, the information got lost over time.
Toward the end of his days, Small befriended a younger man named John Mullins. Employed by the sanitation department in Indianapolis, Mullins found the back of a garbage truck to be an ideal perch for an apprentice book scout. He was soon bringing his trash-barrel finds to Small who, in the course of researching and evaluating them, would instruct his pupil. Mullins operated without the benefit of a college degree, but higher education has never been a requisite for good book scouts. Some of the great ones were practically illiterate. What was required - and these were qualities John Mullins possessed in abundance - was a broad view of the world and an imagination for the place of books in it.
In fact, in this capacity, the pupil eventually outstripped his teacher. Small was a knowledgeable man and he possessed an excellent reference library, but in a way he was inhibited by his knowledge. For Jay Small, a book was of no importance if he could not find it in one of his references. John Mullins instinctively knew that a book might be of greater importance if the references had not discovered it. This principle applied even more to manuscript material. Each item was unique and quintessentially of its own time and place. For just this reason, Small didn't trust any of it. For just this reason, all of it fascinated Mullins.
It so happened that one of the items Small passed along to John Mullins at the end of his life was a manuscript book of some sort. Small had never sold it, because he'd never taken the trouble to decipher its contents. It was a notebook, a typical 19th-century product, bound in stiff cardboard covered with marbled paper and a leather spine, measuring perhaps eight inches by six. Inside there were about 150 pages of writing, all in the same hand, more crabbed in some places than others, but capable of being read if you were patient and had a good light.
Mullins discovered that it had been written by a sailor aboard a naval vessel, the Dolphin, in the Pacific in 1825. The author was a midshipman named Augustus Strong. Mullins knew a little about logbooks. They tended for the most part to be perfunctory, dedicated to recording the necessary but tedious evolutions of shipboard life. This manuscript was something else entirely. It teemed with adventure - battles with savages, wrecked boats, and narrow escapes. It doubled back on itself and repeated a section twice in slightly different wording. It ended with a rescue of some sort.
To Mullins, in the Midwest, this manuscript at first seemed preposterous. How could so much have happened in the space of a few months? Was it an attempt at a novel? He went to his reference books. There he learned that Augustus Strong's ship had been sent in search of the survivors of the Globe mutiny. The mutiny and its aftermath were famous in the annals of American maritime history. After murdering the captain, three mates, and a black steward, Samuel Comstock and his three accomplices had forced their shipmates to sail to a remote Pacific island, where they intended to burn the ship and live among the natives in the manner of the Bounty mutineers. Fortunately, six of the honest crewmen, including Comstock's sixteen-year-old brother, were able to sneak back to the ship and sail her to the coast of South America. Eventually, word of the mutiny got back to the United States. Augustus Strong's ship, the Dolphin, was dispatched by the secretary of the navy to apprehend the mutineers and rescue the innocent crew members.
The manuscript Mullins had inherited from Small was a record of the voyage across the Pacific to rescue those survivors, and of the rescue itself. It also contained an account of the mutiny. It wasn't an attempt at a novel.
This was all well and good - in fact it promised to be quite good for Mullins. He realized that he was the owner of a potentially valuable item. But at this point his imagination failed him. Who, exactly, would be interested in such a thing? The question hung fire for a time, as such questions will. Then his instincts took over and served him well. He knew the manuscript would not become any less valuable with age, so he tucked it away until the proper opportunity presented itself.
And, after several years, the opportunity did indeed present itself, in the person of an antiquarian book dealer from Ohio who had known both Small and Mullins. His territory was the same as theirs, and his specialty, military history, overlapped the Americana field. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. This book dealer provided knowledge, contacts, and cash; Mullins and Small provided books to be moved up the food chain. On one of this dealer's visits to Indianapolis, Mullins showed him the journal. The dealer knew exactly what to do with it.
He called me.
He called me because we'd done business before and because he knew my checks didn't bounce and that I generally did what I said I was going to do. He also knew that, for the past twenty-five years, I had specialized in buying and selling rare books and manuscripts relating to America's maritime history. If anyone ought to know what to make of that sailor's journal, it'd be me.
Forty-eight hours later, the book was sitting on my desk, its layers of protective wrapping piled beside it. It was indeed a crew member's account of the Dolphin's rescue voyage, and it contained a narration of what the survivors had told the men aboard the Dolphin about Samuel Comstock's mutiny and about their twenty- two-month stay on Mili Atoll. The manuscript was unknown and unrecorded in the literature of the Globe mutiny - not just rare, unique.
Singularity alone didn't account for the journal's enormous charisma. I can think of no other word for how that book struck me then, sitting there in its own glow, having miraculously surfaced, like some ghost ship, with its own long-forgotten tale to tell. Nor was this merely a bleached-out hulk, worn smooth by the ages. As I leafed through the manuscript I could hear Augustus Strong's voice relating each day's events, and it was apparent that, wherever Strong was from, this was the most exciting adventure he'd ever been on.
Excerpted from Demon of the Waters by Gregory Gibson Copyright ©2002 by Gregory Gibson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.