Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed,
and some few to be chewed and digested.
No, I suppose you never heard of such a creature.
E. C. Fergins
Back in my salad days laboring for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company, I would always keep an eye out to see if he would enter our car before the hour of departure. “Expecting some pretty lass, are we?” the cook, grumbling with sarcasm, would ask me as I was scrubbing a table or polishing silverware to a blinding shine.
The man I would look for was given no more attention inside the cars than the bootblack or the traveling baker balancing his bread tray over his long arms. I suppose most people probably never looked at him long enough to take in his appearance. Middle-aged, middle-height, shaped like a plum, he had white metal-rim spectacles and a sharp nose and chin. His substantial and intelligent mouth was always busily readying itself for a smile, a song, or a whistle, or a shape of surprise. He would maneuver his bulky cart down the aisle of the train, a striped umbrella and his soft felt hat tucked above the top shelf of books. Reaching our dining car, he would push his bright green cart to me. Both of us had found the only man on the train who appreciated the
“My favorite customer,” he would cheer me on; then, leaning so far over his cart it might tip over: “What catches your fancy today, Mr. Clover?”
My fellow dining car waiters liked to read novels about poor boys who become rich, or rich men who were secretly criminals. They turned the pages so rapidly the words were scenery, like the fields and farms that passed our windows for long stretches at a time. I was looking for something else in books. I could not really say what, but I think I can say why: a notion started in my own brain was probably wrong, but an answer read in a work of literature would be right. That was my conviction at nineteen, and only in later years would I come to trust myself over a book.
Despite Mr. Fergins’s kind words, I did not really qualify as a customer. My pockets were so empty I was the only one living in New York City who did not fear thieves. But the generous old bookseller would leave me a book of my choice before continuing through the cars. If the tables were cleaned and set early, I could read until I felt the floorboards shake underfoot with the rumble of the engine. Then I’d hurry to return the borrowed volume while helping to carry his cart off the train. As he stood on the platform when the train began to run, Mr. Fergins waved his handkerchief as if he were seeing off his son.
In the village where I was born we did not have the variety of books that is only made possible by a bookstore or a circulating library. The local minister would give my mother books for me to read—black, thick, drab volumes meant to educate in menial or spiritual ways. Literature? I hardly even knew the word. My eyes were opened by an old, weathered copy of Milton I found when I was thirteen and the minister invited me to use his library. The poem was religious, but there was something new about it. The stories that I had heard so often in sermons were transformed by the poetry. They were made flesh and bone. It seemed I felt the tingling breath of Lucifer on the back of my neck, the light touch of Eve grazing against my arm, the expulsion not only of our first parents but of all the provincial boredom of my life. I cannot recall what questions I asked about Paradise Lost, but it must have been clear to him I was interested in the poetry over doctrine, because the book disappeared. Five years later, when I accepted the first job that brought me away from country life, I think I knew however much I tried I would never truly feel at home in mammoth, steamfilled Manhattan, with its incessant gallop, but the books consoled me.They were everywhere you looked, in the front of shop windows, displayed on tables along the sidewalks, in brand-new public libraries as big as castles. Even inside train cars.
Mr. Fergins may have been uninteresting to others. A relic of a time much slower than 1891; to them, he was as ordinary as his clothes. But they could not see the real man: amiable and unassuming, humble; there was a meaningful quality to his reticence, something unspoken.
He endured the usual rudeness and impatience faced by salesmen. Perhaps this explained his patience toward me. Just as he would never dismiss the tastes of the waiters who wanted their fill of “sensation books,” he never questioned my worthiness for steeper paths. Books could function in two different ways, he told me one time. “They can lull us as would a dream, or they could change us, atom by atom, until we are closer to God. One way is passive, the other animating—both worthy.”
“I am just a railway waiter,” I said once while lifting his cart down from the train. “No book in the world will change that.”
He gave such a friendly, all-consuming laugh that I found myself laughing without wanting to, my heart sinking to the bottom of my chest as my eyes fell to the tulips painted on the cart. I suppose I’d hoped he’d argue.
“Forgive me, my young Mr. Clover. I laugh only at your formula. Literature will not change our profession or the quality of hats on our heads, heaven forbid—by change, I mean another thing entirely.” He fiddled with his white spectacles. “Another thing . . .”
But he did not finish speaking before the engine began to run and drowned him out.
Being a railway waiter means standing in place while the world moves around you. Because of us, instead of noticing that they had trapped themselves inside the belly of one of the most remarkable mechanical inventions of modern times, moving at speeds never before achieved, travelers could pretend that they were sitting in a dining room similar to their own. One evening around seven o’clock, on a popular route, our dining car teemed with people. There were frequently men and women of distinguished character, wealthy, well known, respected. On this occasion, there was a table on the far end of the car attracting stares that turned into stage whispers. I was too busy with my passengers to pay attention until Rapp, the waiter assigned to the table, grabbed my elbow. His skin was darker than mine, and he had greasy hair and a slight mustache waxed into crude points at each end, in imitation of our head cook.
He said: “You’re a bookworm, Clover.”
“What about it?” I was in no mood for his teasing.
“No offense. Sensitive one, you are. Just that I’ve noticed that grim half-breed face of yours perks up when you’re talking to that queer peddler.”
Rapp was just as much a half-breed as I was, as were all the railway k then, but I was more annoyed by how he spoke about my friend. “Mr. Fergins is no peddler.”
“Rambles through the cars hawking books, don’t he? Ain’t that a peddler? Besides, that ain’t what I wanted to say. Thought you’d fancy a look.”
He gestured with a nod toward the table. There was a passenger, back facing me, his hair worn long with strands of white and silver. He sat at a forward angle over his meal of boiled leg of mutton with Parisienne potatoes as though he were driving a team of horses.
“Mark Twain—Twain, the writer. Don’t you even know about the things you know about?”
I had never seen an author in the f lesh. I had never considered seeing an author in the f lesh long enough to think what I would do. Rapp’s half of the car remained busy, but my tables had begun to clear, and the chief cook called me over to help. After I was charged with a smoking tray of food for one of my tables, the cook opened the ice chest in the floor and pulled out a bottle of wine. It was for table sixteen.
I took a few deep breaths and crossed to Rapp’s side, where I turned to face one of my favorite authors, a half-dozen witty and clever sayings at the tip of my tongue. From under a wig of silver hair, a frightful old woman looked back up at me, f licking her long tongue over the white blur of her false teeth. “Heavens, what are you standing there for?” exclaimed the lady. “You can see I’m thirsty, boy. What kind of waiter are you?”
My hands moist with hot sweat, the bottle slipped through my fingers. Shattered glass and splattered wine: the greatest fear of the railway waiter. All the occupants of the dining car were gaping at me and it seemed every last one joined Rapp’s laughter.
I could not bring myself to tell Mr. Fergins what had happened. A few days later, he was rolling his books through our cars and calling out his newest titles. I still felt the sharp sting of humiliation. Even minor embarrassment lingered a long time with me. I fell off a horse when I was seven years old, and some mornings in New York City, waking on my hard cot in a closet-like room, the shrill laughter of my former playmates rang in my ears.
The bookseller must have heard something of the practical joke, because he spoke to me in such a way that he might have been visiting my sickbed.
“There is no keeping a secret on a train,” I said, my eyes falling to my hands.
He tried an innocent smile, then frowned at himself for giving himself away. “Come. Any man could drop something on a moving train.”
“One of the other waiters played a dirty trick. Said Mark Twain was in the dining car, and I believed it. I stupidly believed it.”
“No, but Twain wouldn’t be traveling that route this time of year,” he began, then stopped himself, excusing the strange digression by clearing his throat. “Mr. Clover, you believed your unworthy associate’s statement because you are an honest man, and you expect honesty reflected back from the world. I have been known to be the same way.”
“The worst part, Mr. Fergins, was not Rapp’s joke. It was how I felt when I saw it was not really him.” As I finished the statement, I realized with shame that there were tears in my eyes.
“You are always better off to read a book, anyway, than to meet the person behind it.”
“Why?” I asked of the peculiar reassurance. By the time he held out his handkerchief I had forgotten my own question.
“Do you know why you are so upset?”
“I don’t, sir,” I admitted.
“Let us think about it. Maybe it will come to you.”
“No. I haven’t a clue why I have turned into such a baby over a silly prank, some broken glass, and an author who was never there to begin with. New York City is too hard, just as Reverend Millens warned.”
“My father,” I explained, telling the bookseller more in two words than I would ever reveal to the other waiters or the fellows in my tenement. “Well, I never knew he was, until I was thirteen. His church helped bring my mother to the village when she was a girl during the war, and then she assisted him in the work of arranging for others to come there. We could not be in his congregation, of course, but he would leave me books when I was a boy and, later, would let me pick them for myself. Sometimes I could hear his sermons from inside the library, which was above the chapel. When I told him I wanted to leave, he warned me the city would be too much for me, that it would be hard enough for a white man.”
“New York is hard for everybody; that is what makes it what it is. You know, Mr. Clover, when most people read a book, they take from its story happiness and strife, good and evil, morality and sin, so on and so on. That is not what is most important. It is always in the parts that we cannot fully understand—the holes in a story, the piece missing—where the real truth of the thing lurks.”
I shrugged, not seeing the point.
“There may come a day when you will understand what you are grieving today. Then the story you just told about Mr. Rapp’s loathsome prank will have another meaning, and be more important to you than an actual encounter with a so-called genius. Then you will think back and say, ‘Mr. Fergins was a true friend.’”
He seemed to guess I was most concerned at the moment about whether he would judge me for crying; he patted my arm reassuringly, which helped, and I sat back and listened to his wonderful descriptions of the latest books, as if he were offering up new and better lives. He even read me part of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with all its stormy rhythms. We were the first that ever burst—as I listened, I felt as though his words were the winds and they were driving us on—into that silent sea. In later years, this would be one of my happiest memories of my time as a railroad man.
New York City was so expensive that on only six or seven dollars a week (depending on gratuities) my chief amusement besides reading had to be to walk the island from end to end and watch. Watch the wealthy families stepping up into extravagant four-horse chariots, watch the vendors in the crowded quarters of hardworking Chinese or Germans. Everyone, the wealthiest or poorest, seemed to be in a hurry, but not I, not when I was away from the railroad. My mother’s cousin had a stable for police horses, so I saw him once every few months, but mostly he would have me help tend to the horses. From time to time I would encounter the bookseller in the city. I was so accustomed to seeing Mr. Fergins on his rounds through our train, I marveled the first time I saw the man with the roar of the city around him—but there he was, bent over his green cart, pushing it through the streets as though he had done so for all eternity. On one particular day, I was passing through the uneven streets of the lower portion of the city, studded with mansions of bygone eras that had turned into warehouses as the wealthy were building estates closer to the park. It was growing late, the brick buildings tinted a peaceful orange by the sun, when he appeared, struggling over the dents and breaks in the sidewalk. I rushed to help.
“My poor legs rejoice for you, young Clover,” he said, his face wet and pink with effort. “I purchased this cart from a florist—that is why there are tulips painted on one side—and sometimes I think of what it would be like filled with bouquets. Nothing in the world—not a ton of bricks—feels as heavy as books being moved.” He pointed our way into a boardinghouse. It was a modest wooden structure near the slow, dark river that separated New York from New Jersey. Well-dressed and well-bred gentlemen boarders occupied the sitting room. Pushing the
cart into Mr. Fergins’s chambers on the ground floor, the umbrella tumbled from the top shelf.
As I retrieved it, I noticed it was misshapen, with the general form of a banana, and there was a stain on the striped fabric of the umbrella, a dark red, perhaps rust. The bookseller seemed embarrassed by its condition and tucked it back into the cart. “Always rolling off . . .” he apologized.
I was amazed by the sheer number of volumes of all kinds of bindings, colors, and sizes wherever my eyes traveled. Every conceivable space on any table or shelf and much of the f loor was claimed by piles about the height of a tall man’s knee, with a wobbly wooden ladder that
could be wheeled around. Mr. Fergins, his energy restored, mounted this with an athletic step that propelled him to the tops of the highest peaks. There were strong fumes of oil, too, though not nearly enough light to read the titles of the books without putting your face against them.
“Now I see how you can boast such a wide selection in your cart.”
“Oh, no. These are not books that I sell on the train cars or in the street, dear boy. I have a pair of storage rooms two streets away for inventory.”
“These are books and folios I collected, starting long before I had my own stall in Hoxton Square in London. Much of it was purchased from the stock of bankrupt publishing firms, private libraries, auctions, sometimes junk dealers who were too ignorant about books to know what they had in front of them. Go on, do look around for yourself. These books have witnessed life and death.”
I laughed at the grave proclamation until I saw he was contemplative and serious. I made my way through the great maze of books, careful not to brush any binding with my coat. Interspersed with the familiar names of literary greats lurked mundane, interchangeable titles such as Manual of Bibliography, Bibliographers’ Manual, and American Bibliography. There was a shelf of humorously titled books such as Drowsy’s Recollections of Nothing and History of the Middling Ages that were not books at all, but rather imitation volumes Mr. Fergins had purchased from a public auction at the country home of the late Charles Dickens, who commissioned the false books to conceal a door in his library. I stopped to examine some books resting above these.
“Have you ever read it?”
I was looking at about half a dozen books with the same title: editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
“Read Frankenstein? No, sir. Reverend Millens would have barred it from coming near his library. I have never seen it with my own eyes, actually. Is it a proper book?”
“After Sir Walter Scott read it, he wept, for he knew that even he, the finest writer in the history of Scotland, could never write a romance as original as a twenty-one-year-old girl had done. Does that answer your question?”
I was not sure it had. “Scott I’d borrow from a friend and smuggle it inside my house. That and Stevenson.”
“There is nothing as lovely as a borrowed book. Those two Scottish geniuses’ books share a particular quality—I mean Scott and Stevenson. When you begin to read them, you feel like a boy again, and when you close the book you’ve turned into a better man.” Mr. Fergins went on, smiling and extending his arms wide, as though to embrace the room: “Now that you have made a closer inspection, what do you think is the single most valuable book in here?”
I told him I could not guess.
“Try.” The warmth of the room made his forehead bead with sweat and his spectacles slip down the bridge to the pointy tip of his nose. He seemed so pleased at the idea of me picking out a book. Not wanting my ignorance to shine through, I took my time to weigh my choices, then selected a large volume bound in heavy black calf leather.
“Excellent. That is one of the first folios of Shakespeare, but it is sadly incomplete. You see?” He brought it to a desk—where there was just enough free space between stacks of books to open the big volume—and showed me that pages were missing before pointing out other imperfections that remained invisible to me after he described them. “I purchased this for just two hundred shillings from the estate of a deceased lawyer in London some four years ago, and it is worth at least three hundred and fifty. Can you believe that? More remarkable than any original edition of Shakespeare is the fact that today for a shilling you can buy a fantastic modern edition of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. No, this is not one of my gems, but it is a clever guess, Mr. Clover. Now, hand me that one, if you please—yes, the second shelf down, two-thirds of the way across, the one that looks like a scared kitten who has been dragged from a river by its scruff.”
It was a small, worm-eaten thing. He waited for my assessment.
“It appears to me to be a collection of poems,” I said. “It is in tatters, I’m sorry to report, Mr. Fergins. It is missing a title page, which I suppose ruins the ability to resell it. And on top of that, it has been defaced—there is writing in pencil on many of the pages.” Words had been circled, underlined, drawn over with arrows into the margins, where there were illegible markings.
“Good, good. That is a volume of John Donne’s poetry. It is not a first edition, nor a rare one, and the thing presents no particular features of bibliographical interest. Yet, in my estimation, that would be worth in today’s market more than a thousand dollars.”
“Because this copy belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Those marks you noticed written in pencil are the notes Coleridge made on Donne’s poems. Imagine! It is the real power of a book—not what is on the page, but what happens when a reader takes the pages in, makes it part of himself. That is the definition of literature. It reminds one of the quote from Francis Bacon about books.”
I did not know the quote, never having read Bacon. But I was too timid to ask that or much else as he paraded me through the rest of his temple of books and excitedly showed me his favorites. He taught me what “signatures” could be used to identify a first edition, and how to most efficiently compare editions of the same books for changes and imperfections. He showed me books that other collectors or sellers had tried to repair only to further injure the edges of the papers, a problem, he explained, that booksellers referred to colorfully by saying the book
had been “bled.” He discussed prices of the books, contrasting what he paid with the actual or current value. I was flattered because his tone suggested I, too, could learn a trade in books if I desired. But it was disorienting to hear these names—Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Scott, my own sacred Milton—coupled with the crude sounds of numbers. “Now, if you remember only two things from my lessons, promise me it will be these: do not follow the latest fashions of Parisian collectors, and never pass up the chance to buy a book of English poetry dated before 1700.”
“I promise, Mr. Fergins.”
Through all of this, a small but persistent clicking sound could be heard, then another simultaneous clicking over the first. The bookseller let out one of his sudden laughs. Imagine an old wolf howling for the last time before lying down to die, and there you have his memorable style of laugh. “You are looking around for a clock, I take it. No, there are many things that have become dearer to me since the day I left London, young Mr. Clover, but time is not among them. In fact, I have no use for it outside the timetable for your railroad. The sound you are hearing comes from inside there.”
He led me to a large glass case and pried open its iron cover. The floor of the case was filled with pine and buttonwood leaves. On top of this soft bedding were elaborately constructed compartments with strips and squares of various materials—leather, cloth, paper. There were two ventilation windows on the sides of the case, and a petroleum lamp burning hot, with a saucer of water over it that created a mist you had to squint through. I stepped back, startled by an unexpected movement. The case was filled with an assortment of translucent worms. He told me a professor of one of the city colleges had loaned him all of it in order to observe the creatures inside. Then he handed me a magnifying glass to look through.
“What are they?”
“Bookworms. Well, that name itself has always been wrong. There is no actual species called a bookworm. We who have an interest in books imagine these pests all fit into one type of category because it grants them unified purpose. We prefer a villain we can’t see to at least have a name. They are not even worms, actually, but the larvae that become certain types of insects. There are types of moth and deathwatch beetle, for instance, that feed in the larval stage on all the materials used to make a book—glue, cloth, paper, leather. Take Anobium bibliothecarum. They produce the clicking you heard. These little creatures range from one twenty-fifth to one quarter of an inch and bore holes from cover to cover. Once they grow into adults, they have
no use for these sorts of food. Think of it. They are raised on our books, then must leave them behind forever. The mouths of these little fellows are the most terrible things you’ve ever seen—all teeth and muscle. Observe for yourself through the lens. But make sure none get out—imagine the Judgment Day that could come of that, in this little room of all places on earth.”
He showed me sketches he had made of each type of larva and indicated which ones the book hunter should most fear.
Rain woke the city after a cool and still night the one other time I chanced to meet the bookseller in the streets. Walking through City Hall Park, I noticed my friend among the sea of faces. I had to look twice, because he was without his book cart, because he held up that poor umbrella of his, and lastly because he was partially blocked from view by a man in a heavy wool coat and a beaver hat. I had previously supposed Mr. Fergins was fifty-odd years old, as a sort of average of his saggy eyelids, his elastic mouth, his delicate porcelain skin, his sturdy head and limp body, each of which, on its own, suggested a slightly different age. This time, his posture seemed more bent than I had noticed before, and as the raindrops rolled off the warped wings of the umbrella, onto his shoulders and hat, and filled his lenses with drops of water, he grew older before my eyes. The two men were standing midway up the white marble steps to the magnificent courthouse.
I hailed my acquaintance once he was alone but he did not hear; as he climbed toward the massive columns I called again. He turned to look for the source. For a moment, an uncharacteristic sternness came over him.
“Mr. Clover,” he said to me, his customary cheer creeping in. The other man had just departed, marching down the steps. I wondered if he could have been a lawyer discussing some sort of trouble. Even with his easy smile in place, the bookseller seemed pensive.
“I could help push your cart today. I needn’t report to the station for hours.”
He tucked the umbrella under his arm and was rubbing his gloved hands together for warmth. “Believe it or not, I’ve left my cart behind in my rooms today. I must look like a mermaid absent her fish tail without it. I fear I must excuse myself, for I need to go in the courthouse. Pray come if you like, Mr. Clover.”
I knew the invitation was probably made out of politeness, but having only ever seen the outside of the building, I accepted anyway.
We walked through the gallery in front and down the corridor, where there was some commotion at the entrance to one of the rooms. A throng of people jostled each other and talked loudly, reminding me of the time I had visited the horse races outside the city between trains. The big double doors to the room had just been opened and the crowd flowed inside.
“What’s going on in there?” I asked.
Mr. Fergins peered up at the clock above the end of the hall. “Ten minutes to spare. Very well. Let us enter the madness.”
The room was filling with men and some brave women, most in fine clothes and holding expensive hats in their hands or under their arms, away from the crush of bodies. The bookseller’s hands and umbrella were more effective tools for clearing a path than I could have guessed. The room suddenly seemed to hold its breath, then exhaled with even greater excitement. I positioned myself at a height to see the source. A prisoner had just been brought in at the front of the chamber. He had irons around his wrists and a bailiff steered him toward the
front table. There was a man near us, evidently a physiognomist, who stood on a bench and dictated observations to an assistant: “Head and brow, showing an excess of animal passions . . . Jaw and high cheeks, a force of nature . . . In profile, a fearful intellectual capacity is revealed in the front lobes—have you gotten that down?”
Turning away, I suddenly felt a hand on my head.
“Nice, quite nice,” I heard.
“Pardon me!” I cried out, brushing the intruding fingers off.
The physiognomist pulled back. “Very sorry there, boy.” Then, to his assistant, he said in a quieter voice, “take this down. As previously observed in my notes of their race, the present mulatto contains features of the Caucasian in the cerebral area, explaining the greater capacity for intellectual growth over the common Negro.”
“See here—” Fergins began, getting between us, but the eager scientist had already pranced away to try to get closer to the prisoner. There were jeers and mutterings, and soon rough epithets tossed from all sides of the crowd. “Scoundrel” and “traitor” could be made out; then, louder, “Pirate!” This last word was taken up by other voices in the room.
The man in question, in the brief intervals in which I had an unobstructed view, appeared unmoved by the near riot. He was tall, a full wave of dark hair on his uncovered head, with handsome features, a grim half smile that never showed his teeth, and a slightly crooked jaw that might have been broken. I could not help but feel a touch of admiration for his imperviousness to the noisy hostility. I moved closer to the front of the room, pulling Mr. Fergins along, even as I began to sense hesitation seize him. Then, as the prisoner passed near us on his way to the dock, his eyes locked on—me.
No, I realized almost at once, he stared over my shoulder at my companion. The prisoner stopped. He opened his mouth to speak and the room fell hush. Then the words pulsed and popped from his mouth like the sounds of a drum. Words I could not understand at all. It was
a language I had not heard even while strolling the docks of New York City—which to me meant it was not a language.
Ooot-malla malla-malla-malla ma!
The articulate gibberish of Babel, as my father used to say in his sermons on the signs of the devil’s language. That was how it sounded to me. As the prisoner spoke, the color of blood filled his face, while all color simultaneously drained from the bookseller’s cheeks. The audience seemed to take the man’s burst of nonsense as taunting toward them. The jeers increased. I wrapped an arm around Mr. Fergins, using my other arm to battle our way back to the gallery and then to the staircase.
He was walking ahead of me as I peppered him with questions about what we had seen and what had happened. “Ah, here we are,” was all Mr. Fergins said. We had climbed one floor up and now reached a door, painted crimson, that ended a long corridor. The bookseller rapped the point of his umbrella high on the door, and when the door was opened, with an abrupt farewell he left me standing alone. I waited as long as I could but he never returned.
The next few occasions Mr. Fergins passed through our cars I was busy, or he was, and there was no time to discuss the strange turn of events at the courthouse. Another week passed. Then there came an occasion when engine problems disabled a train on our track, and the waiters sat around in the fashion of the leisurely class, wrinkling our fine liveries, alongside the darker-skinned dishwashers and porters. The bookseller, whose grin was wider than usual as his books were snatched at a brisk pace by stranded travelers, brought over an armful of volumes he said he had chosen for me, to which I replied, “No time today, Mr. Fergins.”
His mouth formed a long o and his large brown eyes appeared sad beneath the thick lenses I now noticed were etched with elaborate scratches. I asked him to take a table with me in the empty car.
“Excuse my rudeness, Mr. Fergins. But you left me standing there in the courthouse, and you ignored my questions.”
“Quite right!” he said, shaking his head. “You are right about everything. My only excuse is that I was unusually distracted that day. What shall I answer for you?”
“Who was that prisoner we saw being brought into the courtroom?”
He seemed startled by the question. His shoulders relaxed, but he did not speak for another moment until he asked, urgently: “Have you ever heard of a bookaneer?”
I shrugged at the queer word, then shook my head.
“No, I suppose you never heard of such a creature.”
A passenger knocked into the book cart and the slender umbrella tumbled down. Mr. Fergins seemed so proud when he caught it that he might as well have stopped a baby’s fall. As though to explain his pride, he added one of his peculiar asides: “This homely thing saved my life, you know.”
“The umbrella?” I replied with a quizzical stare.
“Did you know, Mr. Clover, that there are more patents filed by people set on improving umbrellas than for any other object? Yet they hardly ever change.”
“What has been pricking my curiosity was that you seemed to understand what the prisoner said—that mixed-up balderdash he called to you.”
“I?” His howl-laugh started and then broke apart into smaller, self-conscious giggles.
“Who am I? Whatever makes you think that? Youthful imagination. I sell books and try to make people happier doing it: that’s my life in a nutshell. Let me show you a new novel from London.”
“I know what I saw,” I insisted, blocking his hand as he reached for the cart. “He was looking right at you when he began to speak in that strange tongue, and whatever he said troubled you. Mr. Fergins, I was there!”
The bookseller sighed, the bottom of his spectacles fogging for a moment, then clearing again to reveal pained eyes. “That was the first day of the man’s trial. I had been asked by the judge, because of long years of examining handwriting and the qualities of paper and ink, and so on, to review some documents related to the case. It is rather a tedious service, but I felt I should agree to the request. I suppose that man you saw is rather cross with anyone who might be asked to assist against him. He is a dangerous sort. I do not know the words he spoke, but I hardly like to think of what he is capable of.”
“Why is he so hated? Did he commit treason? Murder?”
“Something infamous, I’m sure. Why else would all those people come just to leer at him?”\
“No, he is not a murderer, not of men, at least—of books.”
“Books, Mr. Fergins?” I responded, too incredulous to complete my thought. “You don’t mean . . . A book cannot be . . .”
“The details of this narrative, in which I played a small part, will throw sufficient light on the subject, Mr. Clover, and should you suffer me to tell the story, you may well come to see what I think you have suspected these past months, that books are not dead things.”
That was how the last case of the bookaneers, the existence of which is known by so few, the specifics by none who walk the earth, came to be told to me.