[A tasty new collop that speaks for itself, taken from the work in progress, A Republic of Books]
However, my favorite scene in that book is the encounter between Henry Knox, Phillis Wheatley, and John Peters, her future husband. I liked it so much that I have already written a play from it!
Scene: December, 1773. Henry Knox’s London Bookshop. A young black woman, Phillis Wheatley, small in stature and neat in domestic dress, softly enters, and closes the door quietly. She is carrying a package. Henry Knox, behind his counter and doing bookkeeping, pretends not to take notice. A black man, John Peters, as tall as Knox but thin and wearing shabby laborer’s cloths, with a leather apron, is already in the far aisle, stage left, browsing the history books there. The woman slips into the aisle at the far right, and sits on a stool, taking a volume from a lower shelf.
HENRY: [after a moment, and loudly] What minds me is the lack a civility these days. Some people will not greet you on the street. Others even, will come into your shop without a word.
[Phillis Wheatley stands abruptly so that her head can just be seen over the top of the shelf]
PHILLIS: Oh! My apologies, Mr. Knox. You looked busy and I had not wanted to be a bother.
HENRY: [smiling] You are never a bother, lass. Never mind my little joke. And how is your mistress. I hear she ails.
PHILLIS: Mrs. Wheatley is very sick. She stays abed most days now.
HENRY: Give her my regards, please. And tell her I have some of the newest editions of Miss Aphra Behn that she wanted. The diversion may lift her spirits. Oroonoko is the one she mentioned by title.
PHILLIS: Oh, yes. That one was for me, Sir. I had asked to read it.
HENRY: Excellent! [coming from behind the counter, he fetches the book from a shelf].
PHILLIS: But I haven’t the funds at present.
HENRY: On account then!
[John, taking notice of this, is looking on with a book still open in his hands]
PHILLIS: I shouldn’t spend what I have no prospect for.
HENRY: Why not? I do it all the time! [Phillis laughs, nervously. Henry leaves the book on the counter for her and turns] But prospects! What is this I hear about yourself—that you have written a book of poems! Why isn’t that already on my shelf?
PHILLIS: But it has only just arrived, sir. Yesterday. From Mr. Bell, in London. How could you know?
HENRY: Ha! I know much more. Mr. Hancock, who it would appear is acquainted with everything that transpires these days, has told me that your poems are excellent! He has commanded me to carry it in the shop. And I am his servant!
PHILLIS: [Coming toward the counter] He is very kind. He has even written some introductory words for me.
HENRY: I am certain it was his pleasure. He’s not a man to trifle over the value of a book. He owns this very building.
PHILLIS: [looks down at the package in her hand] Perhaps then you would make a trade with me. I have copies of my book here. I was hoping . . . [Standing full figure before the desk now, holding her package up].
HENRY: Fabulous! Excellent! Done! And now that you have already sold one of those copies in your hand, for I will take it home myself, the Oroonoko is paid for! How many more do you have with you? Let me write up the receipt!
PHILLIS: Half a dozen.
HENRY: [Busily writing] Bring me all that you can. I will sell them to my Christmas customers! I can put it right here beside Mr. Swan’s excellent rebuke of the slave trade.
[Phillis has now taken note of John Peters staring at her and looks down again in modesty. Henry sees this and turns toward John Peters.]
HENRY: Mr. Peters! John Peters. Have you met our new poetess, Miss Phillis Wheatley?
JOHN: No, sir.
HENRY: You must. She and her mistress were among my first customers, for they live just around the corner. She is a genius! And much alike the two of us both for being self-instructed. But she has done wonders while we simply toil.
JOHN: [stepping out from the aisle into center stage, book still in hand] Good day, Miss. It is my honor.
PHILLIS: Sir! You embarrass me. I am a mere servant. The poetry is an allowance from God.
HENRY: My apologies. I was rude. It was my enthusiasm that got the better of me. I should not pronounce you a genius until I have had the pleasure of reading your book of poems, but I had read your elegies in the Gazette, so it is fair. You are our Aphra Behn—our own Anne Bradstreet!
PHILLIS: I am but a Phillis—a mere Philistine in such company. But I take your compliment as well meant. I thank you.
JOHN: [concern in his voice] And your Master is Mr. Wheatley?
PHILLIS: Truly, yes. But I am no longer his. Mrs. Wheatley has this very week given my manumission as a gift.
HENRY: Good glory! What a fine Christmas this is for you! A book and your liberty too!
[Phillis and John are staring at one another]
JOHN: I have known such a day myself.
HENRY: Yes! And perhaps the whole of our country should know it one day.
PHILLIS: [suddenly shaking her head as if to gain her senses] But please, do not put my small volume beside that of Mr. Swan’s. It might cause some worry for Mr. Wheatley. He should not regret his decision.
HENRY: Yes? Perhaps that is too bold a move. I should take Mr. Swan’s Dissuasion concerning the slave trade and place it away to the side during this happier season. Your book should have the full light, and pride of place!
JOHN: [eyes wide, still on Phillis, and clearly enamored] But I must wonder, how can you be so bold as your are?
PHILLIS: [looking down] I must apologize then.
JOHN: You should not apologize for a gift from God, but rejoice! It is God makes you bold.
It was noted by a one critic, Ardis herself, that my Mr. Knox was too ready to trade books rather than sell them. How could he have managed to pay his own rent—unless of course his landlord was a heavy reader?