[Yet another scrap of a chapter from the unfinished novel in progress A Republic of Books]
I wrote that novel just last year. Not so funny the way I always placed my hero’s in their forties. Just a bit of cheap psychology, really. Those were easily my own best years. It was another chance to relive the moments lost and correct the past imperfect.
But that sort of pettiness did not always dictate. I had used the detail about the Hutcheson book before. That kind of continuity is something I want in my work. The details matter.
Without the sun to harden surfaces on that gray day, the heat raised the smell from betwixt the stones of the way. This phenomena was now much complimented by the sudden added gift of the large animal pulling the delivery cart. The boy charged with the task smiled as he handed the bundle of books across and then a bill.
“Sorry ‘bout that. Should have held him at the crossing an’ given him his chance there, but Mr. Lever tolt me ta be returned by nine and the crossing wast very filt with wagons fa’ the market.”
“You should have done. Too late now.”
Holding the parcel beneath one arm, Knox looked only briefly at the accounting. The smell was more than he wished to endure for longer than necessary. The sum, writ large, was sixteen shillings. He took the package and the bill inside and returned with the silver.
The boy nodded and hurried the horse. As the cart wheel cut the pie of offal and spread it further, Knox dipped his head beneath the lintel again and closed his door against the waft. Though the shop desperately needed air now, this was a poor exchange. There was no remedy. The rear window opened on the back of a fish market. And the boy was an indenture and could not be blamed for carelessness. A complaint would only get the kid a whipping. Knox shook his head in resignation to the indignities of life, and went directly to his desk to cut the string of the package.
Missing the grip of his recently lost fingers, the small knife fumbled in his hand and fell. He was not yet used to the mechanics of simple actions since his accident—but held now in the squeeze of his still swollen palm, the knife was steadied and the string broke cleanly at the pull of the blade. The thick waxed paper opened like on oyster shell to reveal the nest of leather-backed volumes. He counted them first and checked the titles against the invoice. The order was short of course, as it always was, but what was there would have to do. At least he had eighteen volumes out of the twenty-two requested.
All of them were used. The embargo as well as the price had dictated that. But the seller, John Paley in Philadelphia, was reliable, if a bit forgiving of condition. Knox paged them looking for the scars of previous ownership. Six of were embellished at the endpaper with the names of previous owners. And prominently, one contained a folded note. This book was a gallimaufry of plays by David Garrick, including The Irish Widow, a recent production at Drury Lane, and would please someone very much. He had included it in his wants with only the faintest hopes of satisfying Lucy’s wish before her birthday. He noted that the volume, nicely trimmed and bound in Philadelphia, bore the fanciful bookplate of a James Wilson. Knox took the note in his good hand and unfolded it with the other.
‘My Dear Mr. Knox. Your request of books lately advertised in the Gazette arrived propitiously just as a regular customer, James Wilson was present. In exasperation, I noted aloud the impossibility of laying hands on anything by David Garrick and he spoke up immediately, saying he had recently had this particular volume bound for his own library. He offers it here to you with a special request for anything you might have or find in your neighborhood that was printed by John Franklin in the period of the 1720 to 1723 and might contain the written work of one ‘Silence Dogood,’ a name adopted as a nom de plume by Franklin’s younger brother, Benjamin. Mr. Wilson is a great friend to our dear philosopher and wished to make him a present of his own work which Mr. Franklin believes now to be lost. I suggested that if there was anyone in Boston who might have the presence to find such treasure, given your associations, it would be you. Thanking you in advance for this favor, your humble servant, John Paley.’
The door opened suddenly and closed as quickly again, the visitor’s brow was well furrowed by the odors, but the face was familiar.
“Good day!” The fellow spoke cheerfully, before Knox could greet him.
“Good day to you, Mr. Swan.”
“Aye. I thought I should stop by to see if you had sold any of my little book.”
Knox lifted his good right hand to the shelf beside the counter.
“Yes. Your ‘Dissuassion’ has stirred some interest. I can only hope it has persuaded some mind concerning the iniquity of slavery. One copy was returned with a comment on your impertinence. But three have happily sold.”
“Very good. . . . Yes. . . . But is there a chance then that you might pay me for those?”
“A chance, yes. But not today. I’ve spent my purse until someone else comes to fill it. . . . So! Would you like to buy a book, sir? I might pay you something then!”
Swan smiled at the wry humor the bookseller was known for.
“In as much as it appears I will never be rich myself, I suppose I should consider that. What have you?”
The man’s eyes surveyed the shelves on the walls.
Knox spread the waxed paper on the desk to better frame the pile of books in front of him.
“You are partial to philosophy, I gather. At least the political aspects. I have here a dozen and a half, mostly in that category, freshly arrived if not fresh from the printer.”
“As fresh, I hope, as the shite at you door!”
It was said with a grin and no offense.
“Indeed. But none of it as offal, I assure you. I even have here some recent work of your fellow countryman, Thomas Reid.”
“An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense.”
“Ah! I have it. Excellent!”
“Well, then . . . . A Treatise of Human Nature—“
“Hume! I find him dense.”
“Do you read French?”
“We can put the Rousseau aside then. . . . But here is one by another you will know. Francis Hutcheson?”
“What of that?”
Opened in his good hand, Knox held the volume up to catch the light. “Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense”
“How much is that?”
“How much do I owe you?”
“About two bits, I think.”
“The Hutcheson in trade, then?”
And as suddenly, the door opened behind Mr. Swan. This was a young woman, and with a look that immediately captured the bookseller’s face. James Swan turned, and then bent his head in acknowledgment. She was fair, indeed. Her name was Lucy Flucker and Swan knew her on sight, though he had never met her before. Her father was a vocal loyalist and some trouble.
But Knox smiled. “Good day, ma’am.”
She looked immediately to his hand.
“I’ve come to check on the patient.”
“I am fine.”
She reached across the desk and took the damaged hand, spreading the remaining fingers against her own. A single eyebrow raised.
“Not so fine as you were, I think.”
This was nearly rude, in public as it were, but Henry knew her method. Her habit was to speak directly and this was one other thing among the many that had already won him.
Swan took a measure of the woman’s obvious interest in the bookseller. It was time for him to leave.
“I’ll take the Hutcheson in trade then. Can you wrap it?”
Knox tore a section of the wax paper from the shipment, fumbled the knife again to cut a segment of the string and began to tie the package clumsily.
Swan stepped closer. “I might do that much.”
The lady appeared distressed at the sight.
Knox waved him off with a hard gesture.
“I will perfect this shortly. It’s just a matter of training. I must adapt.”
The statement was made for Swan, but he knew the pride in it was for the lady.