Authors: Matthew Pearl
Published by the Penguin Publishing Group
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First published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015
Copyright Â© 2015 by Matthew Pearl
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my children
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.
ack 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 other.
“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 readâblack, 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
, 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, steam-filled 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 animatingâboth 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 forbidâby change, I mean another thing entirely.” He fiddled with his white spectacles. “Another thingÂ .Â .Â .”
Â â¢Â â¢Â â¢Â
UT HE DID NOT
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 waiters back 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 TwainâTwain, the writer. Don't you even know about the things you know about?”
I had never seen an author in the flesh. I had never
seeing an author in the flesh 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, flicking 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 understandâthe holes in a story, the piece missingâwhere 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, âMr. 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
âas I listened, I felt as though his words were the winds and they were driving us onâ
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 himâbut 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.