Whom the Gods Destroyed (collection)/A Little Brother of the Books
A LITTLE BROTHER OF THE BOOKS
A LITTLE BROTHER OF THE
THE new librarian entered upon her duties bright and early Monday morning. She closed with a quick snap the little wicket-gate that separated the books from the outer vestibule, briskly arranged her paste-tube, her dated stamp, and her box of slips, and summoned her young assistant sharply. The assistant was reading Molly Bawn and eating caramels, and she shut book and bag quickly, wiping her mouth as she hurried to her superior.
"Now, Miss Mather, I expect to get fifty books properly labelled and shelved before noon," said the new librarian, "and there must be no time wasted. If anyone wants me, I shall be in Section K," and she turned to go.
Section K was only a few feet from the registering-table, but it pleased the new librarian to assume the existence of long corridors of volumes, with dumb-waiters and gongs and bustling, basket-laden attendants. So much majesty did she throw into her sentence, indeed, that the young assistant, who had always, under the old régime, privately referred to Section K as "those old religious books," and advised the few persons interested in them to "go right in behind and see if the book you refer to is there," was staggered for a moment, and involuntarily glanced behind her, to see if there had been a recent addition to the building.
The new librarian strode down between the cases, glancing quickly from side to side to detect mislaid or hastily shoved-in volumes. Suddenly she stopped.
"What are you doing in here, little boy?" she said abruptly.
In the angle of the case marked "Books of Travel, Adventure, etc.," seated upon a pile of encyclopædias, with his head leaning against Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, was a small boy. He was dark of eyes and hair, palely sallow, ten or eleven years old, to appearance. By his side leaned a crutch, and a clumsy wooden boot, built up several inches from the sole, explained the need of this. A heavy, much-worn book was spread across his little knees.
He looked up vaguely, hardly seeming to see the librarian.
"What are you doing here? How did you get in?" she repeated.
"I'm reading, he replied, not offering to rise, "I just came in."
"But this isn't the place to read. You must go in the reading-room," she admonished him.
"I always read here. I'd rather," he said, pleasantly enough, dropping his eyes to his book, as if the matter were closed.
Now the new librarian thoroughly disapproved of the ancient custom that penned the books away from all handling, and fully intended to throw them open to the public in a few months' time, when she should have them properly systematised; but she resented this anticipation of what she intended for a much-appreciated future privilege.
"But why should you read in here, when none of the other children can?" she demanded.
The boy raised his eyes again.
"Mr, Littlejohn lets me—I always do," he repeated.
The new librarian pressed her lips together with an air of highly creditable restraint.
"Mr. Littlejohn allowed a great many irregularities which have been stopped," she announced, "and as there is no reason why you should do what the other children cannot, you will have to go. So hurry up, for I'm very busy this morning."
She did not speak unkindly, but there was an unmistakable decision in her tone, and the boy got up awkwardly, tucked his crutch under his arm, and laying the big book down with care, went out in silence, his heavy boot echoing unevenly on the hardwood floor. The librarian went on to Section K.
Presently the young assistant, who had been accustomed to keep her crocheted lace-work on the Philosophical shelf, directly behind the Critique of Pure Reason, recollected that it would in all human probability be discovered, on the removal of that epoch-making treatise, and came hastily down to get it. Having concealed it safely in her pocket, she paused.
"That was Jimmy Reese you sent out—did you know it?" she asked.
"No, what of it?"
"Why, nothing, only he's always read in here ever since I came. Mr. Little John was very fond of him. He helped pick out some of the books. He——"
"Picked out the books—that child? Great heavens!"
"Well, he's read a good deal, Jimmy has," the assistant contended. "It's all he does. He can't play like the other children, he's so lame. He seems real old, anyhow. And he's always been here. He helps giving out the books, and helps the children pick out. He was very convenient when Mr. Littlejohn didn't like to be waked up."
"Great heavens!" the librarian cried again.
"I think you'll find he'll be missed, you being so new," the assistant persevered.
"I think I can manage to carry on the library, Miss Mather," replied her superior coldly, out any assistance from, the children of the town. Will you begin on that Fiction, please?"
She walked on again, but paused to put away the brown book, which lay where the intruder had left it, a mute witness to the untidiness of the laity. Opening it briskly, she glanced at the title:
AGE OF FABLE
Beauties op Mythology
Below was a verse of poetry in very fine print; she read it mechanically.
O, ye delicious fables! where the wave
And woods were peopled, and the air, with things
So lovely! why, ah ! why has science grave
Scattered afar your sweet imaginings?
It flashed into her mind that an absolutely shameless subscriber had retained Miss Proctor's collected poems for three weeks now, and she made a hasty note of the fact on a small pad that hung from her belt. Then she set the Age of Fable in its place and went on about her work, the incident dismissed.
The next afternoon as she was sorting out from the department labelled, "Poetry, Miscellaneous Matter, etc.," such books as Mr. Littlejohn had found himself unable or unwilling to classify further, shaking down much dust on the further side of the shelves in the process, she was startled by a faint sneeze. Her assistant was compiling a list of fines at the desk, and this sneeze came from her very elbow, it seemed, so she hastily dismounted from her little ladder and peered around the rack. There sat the little boy of yesterday, the same brown book spread across his knees. She looked severe,
"Is this Jimmy Reese?" she inquired stiffly.
"Yes'm," he answered, with a polite smile. He had an air of absolute unconsciousness of any offence.
"Well, don't you remember what I told you yesterday, Jimmy? This is not the reading-room. Why don't you go there?"
"I like it better here."
The librarian sighed despairingly.
"Perhaps you don't know who I am," she explained, not crossly, but with that air of detachment and finality that many people assume in talking with children. "I am Miss Watkins, the new librarian, and when I give an order here it must be obeyed. When I tell any one to do anything, I expect them to do it, because—because they must," she concluded lamely, a little disconcerted by the placid stare of the brown eyes. "You see, if all the little boys came in here, there would be no room for us to work."
"But they don't—nobody comes but me," he reminded her.
"Suppose," she demanded, "that someone should call for that book you are reading. I shouldn't know where to look for it."
"Nobody ever wants it but me," he assured her again.
"I have no time to argue," she said irritably, "you must do as I tell you. Put the book up and run away."
Without another word he laid the book on the broad base-shelf, picked up his crutch, and went out. As she watched his retreating figure, a little uneasy, feeling troubled her usual calm. He seemed so small, so harmless a person.
A little later it occurred to her to see how he had entered the library, and stepping through the two smaller rooms at the back, choked and dusty with neglected piles of old magazines, she noticed a door ajar. Picking her way through the chaos, she pulled the knob, and saw that it gave on a tiny back porch. On the steps sat the janitor, as incompetent, from the librarian's point of view, as his late employer.
"I thought you were sweeping off the walks, Thomas," she suggested, coughing as the wreaths from his pipe reached her.
"Well, yes. Miss Watkins, so I was. I just stopped a minute to rest, you see," he explained, eyeing her distrustfully. Since her advent life had changed greatly for the janitor.
"I see Thomas, does that little lame boy come in this way?"
"Jimmy? Yes, ma'am. 'Most always he does. In fact, that's why I keep the door unlocked."
"Well, after this I prefer that you should keep it locked. There is no reason why he should have a private entrance to the library that I can see; and anyway it's not safe. Some one might——"
"Oh, Lord, Miss Watkins, don't you worry. Nobody ever came in here yet, and I've been here eight years. Jimmy's all right. He's careful and still's a mouse, and he won't do a mite of harm. He comes in regular after school's out, and it's just like a home to him, you may say. He's all right."
Miss Watkins frowned.
"I have no doubt that he is a very estimable little boy," she said; "but you will please see that no one enters the library by this door. I see no reason for favouritism. You understand me, I hope."
And she returned to her work. The assistant, weary of her unprecedented labour, had laid aside the list of fines, and was openly crocheting. No sound of broom or lawn-mower proclaimed Thomas worthy of his hire, and Miss Watkins, vexed beyond the necessity of the case, labelled Fiction angrily, wondering why such a town as this needed a library, anyway.
Two little old ladies, plump and deprecatory, entered in a swish of fresh, cambric morning-dresses. One of them fumbled in her black-silk bag for a book, and leaning on the little gate, coughed lightly to attract the assistant's attention.
"Yes, indeed. Miss Mather, a lovely day. Sister and I enjoyed this very much. I don't know about what we'll take, exactly; it's so hard to tell. I always look and look, and the more I look the more anxious I get. It always seems as if everything was going to be too long, or else we've read it. You see we read a good deal. I wonder—do you know where the little boy is?"
Miss Mather smiled triumphantly. "You'll have to ask Miss Watkins," she said.
"The new librarian, my dear? Oh, I hardly like to disturb her. They say she's very strict. My cousin told me she charged her nine cents for a book that was out too long. You ask her, my dear!"
"Miss Watkins," said the assistant meekly, "there is a lady here would like to see Jimmy. Do you know where he is?"
"I do not," the librarian returned briefly. "Anything I can do——"
"Oh, no, not at all !" cried the flushed old lady, "not for the world! Don't disturb yourself, please—Miss—Miss—I'll just wait till he gets in. He picked this out for me. You see, he knows pretty well what we want. I always like something with a little travel in it, and sister won't hear of a book unless it ends well. And it spoils it so to look ahead. So the little fellow looks at the end, and sees if it's all right for sister, and then he assures me as to the travel—I like European travel best—and then we know it's all right. I'll just wait for him."
"I have no reason to suppose that he will be here," Miss Watkins said crossly.
"Oh, yes, he'll be here," the old lady returned comfortably. "He'll be here soon. We can wait."
The librarian pressed her lips together and retired into her work. The minutes passed. Presently the outer door opened softly, and the irregular tap of a crutch was heard. Jimmy's head peered around the partition into the ante-room. The old ladies uttered a chirp of delight, and slipped out into the hall for a brief, whispered consultation, returning with a modest request for Griffith Gaunt, by ." The elder of the two shut it carefully into her bag, remaking sociably, "I wanted to read the Cloister and the Hearth, by the same author, I'd heard there was so much travel in it, but he said sister never could bear the ending."
Going into the reading-room later, on some errand, the librarian was surprised to find the magazines neatly laid out in piles, the chairs straightened, the shades pulled level, and a fresh bunch of lilacs in the jar under the window. She guessed who had done it, but Jimmy was not to be seen. Once, during the next afternoon, she thought she saw a small, grey jacket disappearing into the waste-room, but much to her own surprise, forbore to make certain of it. During the next few days, when her time was entirely taken up with the catalogue in the front of the library, and the assistant transacted all business among the shelves, she was perfectly convinced that somewhere between sections A and K a little boy with a brown book was concealed, but found herself too busy to rout him out.
Even when a red-faced, liveried coachman presented her with a note, directed in a sprawling, childish hand to "Mr, Jimmy Reese, Esq.," she only coughed and said severely, "There is no such official in the library."
"It's just the little boy, ma'am, that's meant," the man explained deferentially. "Master Clarence is back for the summer—Mrs. Clarence Vanderhoof, ma'am—and he always sends a note to the little fellow. There was some book he mentioned to him last year as likely that he would enjoy, and Master Clarence wants it, if it's in. I was to give him the note."
"I will send a list of our juveniles to Mrs. Vanderhoof," said the librarian, in her most business-like manner, "and I will give you, for Master Clarence, the new Henty book. He will probably like that."
"I beg pardon, ma'am," persisted the coachman, "but Master Clarence says that there was a book that the little boy particularly recommended to him, and I was to be very special about it. He goes a good deal by the little fellow's judgment. I'll call in again when he's here, after my other errands."
Miss Watkins sighed, and gave way, "Will you see, Miss Mather, if Jimmy Reese is in the library?" she inquired, and Miss Mather, smiling, obeyed her.
He was never formally enfranchised, but he took up his place in the department of Travel and Adventure, and held it unchallenged. All the long, spring afternoons he sat there, throned on the books, leaning against them, banked safely in from the tumult of the world outside, a quiet little shadow among the shadowy throngs that filled the covers.
Whatever he might read, for he turned to other books as one travels, for the joy of coming home again, the old brown book lay open on his knees, and he patted the pages with one hand, absently, as his eyes travelled over the print. Sooner or later he came back to the yellowed leaves—perhaps to the story of Dryope.
In fancy he walked by that fatal stream. He saw the plant dripping blood—the flower that was the poor nymph Lotis. The terrible, beautiful revenge, the swift doom of those wonderful Greeks, that delights even while it horrifies, he felt to the fullest measure. He had no more need to read them than a priest his breviary, for he knew them all, but he followed the type in very delight of recognition.
Through the window came the strong scent of the purple lilacs, that grew all over the little New England town. Faint cries of children playing drifted in with the breeze. The organ in the church nearby crooned and droned a continual fugue. Someone was always practising there. The deep, bass notes jarred the air, even the little building trembled to them at times. And since it had been at this season of the year, when he had first found the book, the lovely broken myths, elusive sometimes, and as dim to his understanding as the marble fragments that still bewilder the enchanted artist, he always connected with that throbbing, mournful melody, that haunting lilac odour. Sometimes the organ swelled triumphantly and cried out in a mighty chorus of tone: at those times Ulysses shot down the false suitors, or Perseus, hovering over the shrieking sea-beast, rescued the white Andromeda. Sometimes a minor plaintive strain troubled him vaguely, and then he listened to poor Venus, bending in tears above the slain Adonis.
The peculiar odour of much leather on pine shelves was confused, too, with the darling book. He had never read it elsewhere; he had not money enough for a library-ticket. Old Mr. Littlejohn, quickly recognising the invaluable services that this little acolyte might be counted upon to render, had readily granted him the freedom of the shelves, and smoked his pipe in peace for hours together, thereafter, in the back room, sure of his monitor in front.
Miss Watkins needed no such assistance, but she found herself, to her amazement, not wholly ungrateful for the many steps saved her by Jimmy's tactful service to the children. At first she would have none of it, and groups of shy boys and girls waited awkwardly and in vain before the little gate, hoping for a glimpse of their kindly counsellor. She thrust lists of juveniles into their unwilling hands, led them cautiously into an inspection of Nature Lessons for Little Learners, displayed tempting rows of bound St. Nicholas—but to no purpose.
"Where's Jimmy?" they demanded stubbornly.
"What on earth do they want of him?" she asked of her assistant one day. "That stupid Meadows child—is she going to ask his opinion of the Dotty Dimple Books?"
"Not at all," Miss Mather replied tranquilly. "But he always gets her anovel, and I stamp it and let it go. You always argue with her about it, and ask her if she wouldn't prefer something else—which she never would."
Little by little he grew to wait on the children as a matter of course. He was even allowed to keep the novels desired by the Meadows child in the juvenile shelf, where he insisted they belonged.
"Only the girls in Number Seven want 'em," he explained, when his superior complained of his audacity in removing them from adult fiction.
And so the little girl who had reached that period of little girlhood when every well-regulated young person is compelled by some inward power to ask the librarian, tremblingly, if she has a book in the libr'y called St. Elmo, was spared all embarrassment, for Jimmy handed it out to her almost before she asked.
Not that he lacked the discrimination to exercise a proper authority on occasion. Miss Watkins remembered long a surprising scene which she witnessed from the top of a ladder in the Biography and Letters Section. A shambling, unwholesome boy had asked Miss Mather in a husky voice for the works of Edgar A. Poe, and as she blew off the dust from the top and extended two fat volumes toward him, a rapid tapping heralded the youngest official.
"Don't you give 'em to him, don't you!" he cried, warningly. As she paused instinctively he shook his finger with a quaint, old-fashioned gesture at the boy.
"You ought to be ashamed, Sam Wheeler," he said reprovingly. "You shan't take those books a step. Not a step. If you think you're going to scare Susy to death you're mistaken. If you want to read 'em, come here and do it. But you aren't a-going to read 'em to her nights, again. So you go right off, now!"
Without a word Sam turned and left the library, and Miss Watkins from her ladder remonstrated feebly.
"Why, Jimmy, if that boy has a ticket you haven't any right——"
"Do you know what he does with those books, Miss Watkins?" replied the dauntless squire of dames. "He reads 'em after supper to his little sister Susy. That one where the house all falls down and the one where the lady's teeth come out and she carries 'em in her hand! And she don't dare take her feet off the rungs, she sits so still. And she don't go to sleep hardly ever. Do you s'pose I'd let him take 'em?"
The librarian threshed the matter over, and finally thought to stagger him by the suggestion that it would be difficult for him to ascertain the precise intention of everyone drawing out books. "How do you know," she asked, "that other people may not be frightening each other with various stories?"
"There aren't many fellows as mean as Sam Wheeler," he replied promptly, "and then I was sure that he was going to. I happened to know."
She turned again to her work and he went back to his corner, the brown book under his arm.
The syringa was out now, and the mournful, sweet odour blew in from the bushes around the church. In the still June air he could hear the bees buzzing there. He turned the beloved pages idly. Should it be poor Psyche, so sweet and foolish, or Danaë, the lovely mother, hushing her baby in the sea-tossed chest? He found the place of Proverbial Expressions at the back of the book, and read them with a never-failing interest. Around them he wove long stories to please himself.
"Their faces were not all alike, nor yet unlike but such as those of sisters ought to be."
This one always pleased him—he could not have said why.
The simple grandeur of this one was like the trumpet tone of the organ. He thrilled to it delightedly.
The third he murmured to himself, entranced by the very sound of the words:
"He falls, unhappy, by a wound intended for another; looks up to the skies, and dying remembers sweet Argos."
Ah, why would Thomas never consent to the witchery of these words:
"——and dying remembers sweet Argos."
He sighed delightedly and dreamed into the dusk. Almost he thought he had known that man, almost he remembered sweet Argos.…
In the middle of June the Vanderhoof's coachman brought bad news: Master Clarence was quite ill. No one knew what it was exactly, but if there was any exceptionally fine book that Jimmy could suggest, he'd be glad to be read to from it.
For the first time the little librarian parted from his darling.
"If you'll be especially careful of it, William, and I've put in slips of paper at the best ones. And as soon as he gets better, I'd be glad if he'd send it back—if he's through with it."
The days seemed long without it. The heat was intense, and when Miss Mather stayed at home a day or two, and all the summer people came in for books, he had a great deal to do. Miss Watkins was very glad of his help, now.
One hot Saturday afternoon he did not return to the library, but began a resolute journey to the Vanderhoofs big house on the hill. It was almost two miles, and he went slowly; now and then he stopped to rest on the stone horse-blocks. It took him an hour to get there, and at the door he had to stop to wipe his forehead and get his breath.
"I came to ask how Clarence was," he said to the maid.
"He's better, thank you, but it's dreadful sick he's been. 'Twas scarlet fever, dear," she answered, with a pitying glance at the crutch, "Not that you need be worried, for the half of the house is shut off, and we've not been near it," she added.
"I'm glad he's better, and—and is he through with the book?" he asked eagerly.
"The book? What book is it, my dear? Sure the nurse does be reading a hundred books to him."
"A brown book: Stories of Gods and Heroes. I'd like it, if he's through with it. I stay at the libr'y, and I sent it to him—" he sank on the step, exhausted.
The kind-hearted girl dragged him into the hall. "Come out with me, dear, and get a glass of cold milk," she said. "You've walked too far."
Seated on a chair in the kitchen, his eyes closed, he heard, as in a dream, his friend's voice raised in dispute with some distant person.
"And I say he shall have it, then. Walking all this way! And him lame, too! Tell Emma to put it on the tray, and leave it in the hall. The child's well enough now, anyway. I'll go get it myself—I'm not afraid. The whole of us had the fever, and no such smelling sheets pinned up, and no fuss at all, at all. I'm as good as a paid nurse, any day, if you come to that. A book'll hurt no one."
Later he found himself perched beside the coachman, who was going to meet a train, the beloved book tight in his arms. He fingered it lovingly; he smelled the leaves like a little dog. For the first time in his life he took it to his home, and clasped it in his arms as he lay in bed.
For days he did not appear, and it was Thomas, the janitor, who went finally to look him up, troubled by the children's reports of his illness. He returned grave-faced.
"It's the fever, Miss Watkins, and they say there's little chance for him, the poor little feller! He was worn out with the heat. They don't know how he got it. He's out of his mind. To think of Jimmy like that!"
The librarian's heart sank, and her assistant put her head on her arms and cried. Thomas sat sadly on his little porch, his unlighted pipe in his mouth. The library seemed strangely empty.
The little Meadows girl brought them the news the next morning.
"Jimmy's dead," she said abruptly. "He got it from a book up at the Vanderhoof's. His aunt feels awful bad. It was a libr'y book. They say he held it all the time."
The librarian put away the book in her hand, envying the younger woman her facile tears. She was not imaginative, but she realised dimly for a moment that this little boy had known more of books, had got more from them, than she, with all her catalogues.
They sat together, she, Miss Mather, and Thomas, a strange trio, at the simple funeral service in the church nearby. So far as daily living went, they were as near to him as the aunt who cared for him.
Coming back to the library, they lingered awhile in the reading-room, trying to realise that it was all over, and that that little, quick tapping would never be heard again among the books. At last Thomas spoke:
"It don't seem right," he said thickly, "it don't seem right nor fair. Here he was, doting on that book so, tugging it round, just living on it, you might say, and it turned on him and killed him. Gave it up, and a sacrifice it was, too—I know—and as a reward, it killed him. Went back to get it, brought it home, took it to bed—and it killed him. It's like those things he'd tell me out of it—they all died; seemingly without any reason, the gods would go back on 'em, and they'd die. He's often read it out to me."
"It will be lovely to have that Children's-room memorial," said Miss Mather, softly, "with all the books and pictures and the little chairs. It was beautiful in Mrs. Vanderhoof, I think. It wasn't her fault. I wish—I wish we'd had a little chair in there for Jimmy."
The librarian got up abruptly and moved around among the magazines, a mist before her eyes. Only now did she realise how she had grown to love him.