Chapter XXXVI

By Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
From The Gilded Age (1873).

In due time Laura alighted at the book store, and began to look at the titles of the handsome array of books on the counter. A dapper clerk of perhaps nineteen or twenty years, with hair accurately parted and surprisingly slick, came bustling up and leaned over with a pretty smile and an affable--

"Can I--was there any particular book you wished to see?"

"Have you Taine's England?"

"Beg pardon?"

"Taine's Notes on England."

The young gentleman scratched the side of his nose with a cedar pencil which he took down from its bracket on the side of his head, and reflected a moment:

"Ah--I see," [with a bright smile]--"Train, you mean--not Taine. George Francis Train. No, ma'm we--"

"I mean Taine--if I may take the liberty."

The clerk reflected again--then:

"Taine . . . . Taine . . . . Is it hymns?"

"No, it isn't hymns. It is a volume that is making a deal of talk just now, and is very widely known--except among parties who sell it."

The clerk glanced at her face to see if a sarcasm might not lurk somewhere in that obscure speech, but the gentle simplicity of the beautiful eyes that met his, banished that suspicion. He went away and conferred with the proprietor. Both appeared to be non-plussed. They thought and talked, and talked and thought by turns. Then both came forward and the proprietor said:

"Is it an American book, ma'm?"

"No, it is an American reprint of an English translation."

"Oh! Yes--yes--I remember, now. We are expecting it every day. It isn't out yet."

"I think you must be mistaken, because you advertised it a week ago."

"Why no--can that be so?"

"Yes, I am sure of it. And besides, here is the book itself, on the counter."

She bought it and the proprietor retired from the field. Then she asked the clerk for the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table--and was pained to see the admiration her beauty had inspired in him fade out of his face. He said with cold dignity, that cook books were somewhat out of their line, but be would order it if she desired it. She said, no, never mind. Then she fell to conning the titles again, finding a delight in the inspection of the Hawthornes, the Longfellows, the Tennysons, and other favorites of her idle hours. Meantime the clerk's eyes were busy, and no doubt his admiration was returning again--or may be he was only gauging her probable literary tastes by some sagacious system of admeasurement only known to his guild. Now he began to "assist" her in making a selection; but his efforts met with no success--indeed they only annoyed her and unpleasantly interrupted her meditations. Presently, while she was holding a copy of "Venetian Life" in her hand and running over a familiar passage here and there, the clerk said, briskly, snatching up a paper-covered volume and striking the counter a smart blow with it to dislodge the dust:

"Now here is a work that we've sold a lot of. Everybody that's read it likes it"--and he intruded it under her nose; it's a book that I can recommend--'The Pirate's Doom, or the Last of the Buccaneers.' I think it's one of the best things that's come out this season"

Laura pushed it gently aside her hand and went on and went on filching from "Venetian Life."

"I believe I do not want it," she said.

The clerk hunted around awhile, glancing at one title and then another, but apparently not finding what he wanted.

However, he succeeded at last. Said he:

"Have you ever read this, ma'm? I am sure you'll like it. It's by the author of 'The Hooligans of Hackensack.' It is full of love troubles and mysteries and all sorts of such things. The heroine strangles her own mother. Just glance at the title please,--'Gonderil the Vampire, or The Dance of Death.' And here is 'The Jokist's Own Treasury, or, The Phunny Phellow's Bosom Phriend.' The funniest thing!--I've read it four times, ma'm, and I can laugh at the very sight of it yet. And 'Gonderil,'-- I assure you it is the most splendid book I ever read. I know you will like these books, ma'm, because I've read them myself and I know what they are."

"Oh, I was perplexed--but I see how it is, now. You must have thought I asked you to tell me what sort of books I wanted--for I am apt to say things which I don't really mean, when I am absent minded. I suppose I did ask you, didn't I?"

"No ma'm,--but I--"

"Yes, I must have done it, else you would not have offered your services, for fear it might be rude. But don't be troubled--it was all my fault. I ought not to have been so heedless--I ought not to have asked you."

"But you didn't ask me, ma'm. We always help customers all we can. You see our experience--living right among books all the time--that sort of thing makes us able to help a customer make a selection, you know."

"Now does it, indeed? It is part of your business, then?"

"Yes'm, we always help."

"How good it is of you. Some people would think it rather obtrusive, perhaps, but I don't--I think it is real kindness--even charity. Some people jump to conclusions without any thought--you have noticed that?"

"O yes," said the clerk, a little perplexed as to whether to feel comfortable or the reverse; "Oh yes, indeed, I've often noticed that, ma'm."

"Yes, they jump to conclusions with an absurd heedlessness. Now some people would think it odd that because you, with the budding tastes and the innocent enthusiasms natural to your time of life, enjoyed the Vampires and the volume of nursery jokes, you should imagine that an older person would delight in them too--but I do not think it odd at all. I think it natural--perfectly natural in you. And kind, too. You look like a person who not only finds a deep pleasure in any little thing in the way of literature that strikes you forcibly, but is willing and glad to share that pleasure with others--and that, I think, is noble and admirable--very noble and admirable. I think we ought all--to share our pleasures with others, and do what we can to make each other happy, do not you?"

"Oh, yes. Oh, yes, indeed. Yes, you are quite right, ma'm."

But he was getting unmistakably uncomfortable, now, notwithstanding Laura's confiding sociability and almost affectionate tone.

"Yes, indeed. Many people would think that what a bookseller--or perhaps his clerk--knows about literature as literature, in contradistinction to its character as merchandise, would hardly, be of much assistance to a person--that is, to an adult, of course--in the selection of food for the mind--except of course wrapping paper, or twine, or wafers, or something like that--but I never feel that way. I feel that whatever service you offer me, you offer with a good heart, and I am as grateful for it as if it were the greatest boon to me. And it is useful to me--it is bound to be so. It cannot be otherwise. If you show me a book which you have read--not skimmed over or merely glanced at, but read--and you tell me that you enjoyed it and that you could read it three or four times, then I know what book I want--"

"Thank you!--th--"

--"to avoid. Yes indeed. I think that no information ever comes amiss in this world. Once or twice I have traveled in the cars--and there you know, the peanut boy always measures you with his eye, and hands you out a book of murders if you are fond of theology; or Tupper or a dictionary or T. S. Arthur if you are fond of poetry; or he hands you a volume of distressing jokes or a copy of the American Miscellany if you particularly dislike that sort of literary fatty degeneration of the heart--just for the world like a pleasant spoken well-meaning gentleman in any, bookstore. But here I am running on as if business men had nothing to do but listen to women talk. You must pardon me, for I was not thinking.--And you must let me thank you again for helping me. I read a good deal, and shall be in nearly every day and I would be sorry to have you think me a customer who talks too much and buys too little. Might I ask you to give me the time? Ah-two-twenty-two. Thank you very much. I will set mine while I have the opportunity."

But she could not get her watch open, apparently. She tried, and tried again. Then the clerk, trembling at his own audacity, begged to be allowed to assist. She allowed him. He succeeded, and was radiant under the sweet influences of her pleased face and her seductively worded acknowledgements with gratification. Then he gave her the exact time again, and anxiously watched her turn the hands slowly till they reached the precise spot without accident or loss of life, and then he looked as happy as a man who had helped a fellow being through a momentous undertaking, and was grateful to know that he had not lived in vain. Laura thanked him once more. The words were music to his ear; but what were they compared to the ravishing smile with which she flooded his whole system? When she bowed her adieu and turned away, he was no longer suffering torture in the pillory where she had had him trussed up during so many distressing moments, but he belonged to the list of her conquests and was a flattered and happy thrall, with the dawn-light of love breaking over the eastern elevations of his heart.

It was about the hour, now, for the chairman of the House Committee on Benevolent Appropriations to make his appearance, and Laura stepped to the door to reconnoiter. She glanced up the street, and sure enough--

All contents Copyright The Hannibal Courier-Post and GateHouse Media.