Night music, p.4
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       Night Music, p.4

           John Connolly
 

  He gestured expansively at the rows of shelves. They stretched into the gloom, for the yellow lights had not come on in the farther reaches of the library. There were also doors leading off to the left and right. They were set into the main walls, but Mr. Berger had seen no doors when he had first examined the building. They could have been bricked up, but he had found no evidence of that, either.

  “Are they all first editions?” he asked.

  “First editions, or manuscript copies. First editions are fine for our purposes, though. Manuscripts are merely a bonus.”

  “I should like to look, if you don’t mind,” said Mr. Berger. “I won’t touch any more of them. I’d just like to see them.”

  “Later, perhaps,” said the gent. “You still haven’t told me why you’re here.”

  Mr. Berger swallowed. He had not spoken aloud of his encounters since the unfortunate conversation with Inspector Carswell on that first night.

  “Well,” he said, “I saw a woman commit suicide in front of a train, and then some time later I saw her try to do the same thing again, but I stopped her. I thought she might have come in here. In fact, I’m almost certain that she did.”

  “That is unusual,” said the gent.

  “That’s what I thought,” said Mr. Berger.

  “And do you have any idea of this woman’s identity?”

  “Not exactly,” said Mr. Berger.

  “Would you care to speculate?”

  “It will seem odd.”

  “No doubt.”

  “You may think me mad.”

  “My dear fellow, we hardly know each other. I wouldn’t dare to make such a judgment until we were better acquainted.”

  Which seemed fair enough to Mr. Berger. He had come this far: he might as well finish the journey.

  “It did strike me that she might be Anna Karenina.” At the last minute, Mr. Berger hedged his bets. “Or a ghost, although she did appear remarkably solid for a spirit.”

  “She wasn’t a ghost,” said the gent.

  “No, I didn’t really believe so. There was the issue of her obvious substantiality. I suppose you’ll tell me now that she wasn’t Anna Karenina, either.”

  The old gent tugged at his mustache again. His face betrayed his thoughts as he carried on an internal debate.

  Finally, he said, “No, in all good conscience I cannot deny that she is Anna Karenina.”

  Mr. Berger leaned in closer and lowered his voice significantly. “Is she a loony? You know, someone who thinks that she’s Anna Karenina?”

  “No. You’re the one who thinks that she’s Anna Karenina, but she knows that she’s Anna Karenina.”

  “What?” said Mr. Berger, somewhat thrown by the reply. “So you mean she is Anna Karenina? But Anna Karenina is simply a character in a book by Tolstoy. She isn’t real.”

  “But you just told me that she was.”

  “No, I told you that the woman I saw seemed real.”

  “And that you thought she might be Anna Karenina.”

  “Yes, but you see, it’s all very well saying that to oneself, or even presenting it as a possibility, but one does so in the hope that a more rational explanation might present itself.”

  “But there isn’t a more rational explanation, is there?”

  “There might be,” said Mr. Berger. “I just can’t think of one at present.”

  Mr. Berger was starting to feel light-headed.

  “Would you like a cup of tea?” said the old gent.

  “Yes,” said Mr. Berger, “I rather think I would.”

  X

  They sat in the gentleman’s living room, drinking tea from china cups and eating some fruitcake that he kept in a tin. A fire had been lit, and a lamp burned in a corner. The walls were decorated with oils and watercolors, all of them very fine and very old. The style of a number of them was familiar to Mr. Berger. He wouldn’t have liked to swear to it, but he was fairly sure that there was at least one Turner, a Constable, and two Romneys, a portrait and a landscape, among their number.

  The old gentleman had introduced himself as Mr. Gedeon, and he had been the librarian at the Caxton for more than forty years. His job, he informed Mr. Berger, was “to maintain and, as required, increase the collection; to perform restorative work on the volumes where necessary; and, of course, to look after the characters.”

  It was this last phrase that made Mr. Berger choke on his tea.

  “The characters?” he said.

  “The characters,” confirmed Mr. Gedeon.

  “What characters?”

  “The characters from the novels.”

  “You mean they’re alive?”

  Mr. Berger was beginning to wonder not only about his own sanity but that of Mr. Gedeon as well. He felt as though he had wandered into some strange bibliophilic nightmare. He kept hoping that he would wake up at home with a headache to find that he had been inhaling gum from one of his own volumes.

  “You saw one of them,” said Mr. Gedeon.

  “Well, I saw someone,” said Mr. Berger. “I mean, I’ve seen chaps dressed up as Napoleon at parties, but I didn’t go home thinking I’d met Napoleon.”

  “We don’t have Napoleon,” said Mr. Gedeon.

  “No?”

  “No. Only fictional characters here. It gets a little complicated with Shakespeare, I must admit. That’s caused us some problems. The rules aren’t hard and fast. If they were, this whole business would run a lot more smoothly. But then, literature isn’t a matter of rules, is it? Think how dull it would be if it was, eh?”

  Mr. Berger peered into his teacup, as though expecting the arrangement of the leaves to reveal the truth of things. When they did not, he put the cup down, clasped his hands, and resigned himself to whatever was to come.

  “All right,” he said. “Tell me about the characters. . . .”

  •  •  •

  It was, said Mr. Gedeon, all to do with the public. At some point, certain characters became so familiar to readers—and, indeed, to many nonreaders—that they reached a state of existence independent of the page.

  “Take Oliver Twist, for example,” said Mr. Gedeon. “More people know of Oliver Twist than have ever read the work to which he gave his name. The same is true for Romeo and Juliet, and Robinson Crusoe, and Don Quixote. Mention their names to even the average educated man or woman on the street, and, regardless of whether they’ve ever encountered a word of the texts in question, they’ll be able to tell you that Romeo and Juliet were doomed lovers, that Robinson Crusoe was marooned on an island, and Don Quixote was involved in some awkwardness with windmills. Similarly, they’ll tell you that Macbeth got above himself, that Ebenezer Scrooge came right in the end, and that D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos were the names of the musketeers.

  “Admittedly, there’s a limit to the number of those who achieve that kind of familiarity. They end up here as a matter of course. But you’d be surprised by how many people can tell you something of Tristram Shandy, or Tom Jones, or Jay Gatsby. I’m not sure where the point of crossover is, to be perfectly honest. All I know is that, at some point, characters become sufficiently famous to pop into existence and, when they do so, they materialize in or near the Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository. They always have, ever since the original Mr. Caxton set up the first depository shortly before his death in 1492. According to the history of the library, he did so when some of Chaucer’s pilgrims turned up on his doorstep in 1477.”

  “Some of them?” said Mr. Berger. “Not all?”

  “Nobody remembers all of them,” said Mr. Gedeon. “Caxton found the Miller, the Reeve, the Knight, the Second Nun, and the Wife of Bath all arguing in his yard. Once he became convinced that they were not actors or lunatics, he realized that he had to find somewhere to keep them. He didn’t want to be accused of sorcery or any other such nonsense, and he had his enemies: where there are books, there will always be haters of books alongside the lovers of them.

  “
So Caxton found a house in the country for them, and this also served as a library for parts of his own collection. He even established a means of continuing to fund the library after he was gone, one that continues to be used to this day. Basically, we mark up what should be marked down, and mark down what should be marked up, and the difference is deposited with the Trust.”

  “I’m not sure that I understand,” said Mr. Berger.

  “It’s simple, really. It’s all to do with ha’pennies, and portions of cents, or lire, or whatever the currency may be. If, say, a writer was due to be paid the sum of nine pounds, ten shillings, and sixpence ha’penny in royalties, the ha’penny would be shaved off and given to us. Similarly, if a company owes a publisher seventeen pounds, eight shillings, and sevenpence ha’penny, they’re charged eightpence instead. This goes on all through the industry, even down to individual books sold. Sometimes we’re dealing in only fractions of a penny, but when you take them from all around the world and add them together, it’s more than enough to fund the Trust, maintain the library, and house the characters here. It’s now so embedded in the system of books and publishing that nobody even notices anymore.”

  Mr. Berger was troubled. He would have had no time for such financial chicanery when it came to the Closed Accounts Register. It did make sense, though.

  “And what is the Trust?”

  “Oh, the Trust is just a name that’s used for convenience. There hasn’t been an actual Trust in years, or not one with a board of Trustees. For all intents and purposes, this is the Trust. I am the Trust. When I pass on, the next librarian will be the Trust. There’s not much work to it. I rarely even have to sign checks.”

  While the financial support structure for the library was all very fascinating, Mr. Berger was more interested in the question of the characters.

  “To get back to these characters, they live here?”

  “Oh, absolutely. As I explained, they just show up outside when the time is right. Some are obviously a little confused, but it all becomes clear to them in the days that follow, and they start settling in. And around the time that they arrive, so too does a first edition of the relevant work, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. We put it on a shelf and keep it nice and safe. It’s their life story, and it has to be preserved. Their history is fixed in those pages.”

  “What happens with series characters?” asked Mr. Berger. “Sherlock Holmes, for example? Er, I’m assuming he’s here somewhere.”

  “Of course,” said Mr. Gedeon. “We numbered his rooms as 221B, just to make him feel at home. Dr. Watson lives next door. In their case, I do believe that the library received an entire collection of first editions of the canonical works.”

  “The Conan Doyle books, you mean?”

  “Yes. Nothing after Conan Doyle’s death in 1930 actually counts. It’s the same for all of the iconic characters here. Once the original creator passes on, then that’s the end of their story as far as we, and they, are concerned. Books by other authors who take up the characters don’t count. It would all be unmanageable otherwise. Needless to say, they don’t show up here until after their creators have died. Until then, they’re still open to change.”

  “I’m finding all of this extremely difficult to take in,” said Mr. Berger.

  “Dear fellow,” said Mr. Gedeon, leaning over and patting Mr. Berger’s arm reassuringly, “don’t imagine for a moment that you’re the first. I felt exactly the same way the first time that I came here.”

  “How did you come here?”

  “I met Hamlet at a number 48B bus stop,” said Mr. Gedeon. “He’d been there for some time, poor chap. At least eight buses had passed, and he hadn’t taken any of them. It’s to be expected, I suppose. It’s in his nature.”

  “So what did you do?”

  “I got talking to him, although he does tend to soliloquize, so one has to be patient. Saying it aloud, I suppose it seems nonsensical in retrospect that I wouldn’t simply have called the police and told them that a disturbed person who was under the impression he was Hamlet was marooned at the 48B bus stop. But I’ve always loved Shakespeare, you see, and I found the man at the bus stop quite fascinating. By the time he’d finished speaking, I was convinced. I brought him back here and restored him to the safe care of the librarian of the day. That was old Headley, my predecessor. I had a cup of tea with him, much as we’re doing now, and that was the start of it. When Headley retired, I took his place. Simple as that.”

  It didn’t strike Mr. Berger as simple at all. It seemed complicated on a quite cosmic scale.

  “Could I—?” Mr. Berger began to say, then stopped. It struck him as a most extraordinary thing to ask, and he wasn’t sure that he should.

  “See them?” said Mr. Gedeon. “By all means! Best bring your coat, though. I find it can get a bit chilly back there.”

  Mr. Berger did as he was told. He put on his coat and followed Mr. Gedeon past the shelves, his eyes taking in the titles as he went. He wanted to touch the books, to take them down and stroke them like cats, but he controlled the urge. After all, if Mr. Gedeon was to be believed, he was about to have a far more extraordinary encounter with the world of books.

  XI

  In the end, it proved to be slightly duller than Mr. Berger had expected. Each of the characters had a small but clean suite of rooms, personalized to suit their time periods and dispositions. Mr. Gedeon explained that they didn’t organize the living areas by authors or periods of history, so there weren’t entire wings devoted to Dickens or Shakespeare.

  “It just didn’t work when it was tried in the past,” said Mr. Gedeon. “Worse, it caused terrible problems, and some awful fights. The characters tend to have a pretty good instinct for these things themselves, and my inclination has always been to let them choose their own space.”

  They passed Room 221B where Sherlock Holmes appeared to be in an entirely drug-induced stupor, while in a nearby suite Tom Jones was doing something unspeakable with Fanny Hill. There was a brooding Heathcliff, and a Fagin with rope burns around his neck, but like animals in a zoo, a lot of the characters were simply napping.

  “They do that a lot,” said Mr. Gedeon. “I’ve seen some of them sleep for years, decades even. They don’t get hungry as such, although they do like to eat to break the monotony. Force of habit, I suppose. We try to keep them away from wine. That makes them rowdy.”

  “But do they realize that they’re fictional characters?” said Mr. Berger.

  “Oh yes. Some of them take it better than others, but they all learn to accept that their lives have been written by someone else, and their memories are a product of literary invention, even if, as I said earlier, it gets a bit more complicated with historical characters.”

  “But you said it was only fictional characters who ended up here,” Mr. Berger protested.

  “That is the case, as a rule, but it’s also true that some historical characters become more real to us in their fictional forms. Take Richard III: much of the public perception of him is a product of Shakespeare’s play and Tudor propaganda, so in a sense that Richard III is a fictional character. Our Richard III is aware that he’s not actually the Richard III but a Richard III. On the other hand, as far as the public is concerned he is the Richard III, and is more real in their minds than any products of later revisionism. But he’s the exception rather than the rule: very few historical characters manage to make that transition. All for the best, really, otherwise this place would be packed to the rafters.”

  Mr. Berger had wanted to raise the issue of space with the librarian, and this seemed like the opportune moment.

  “I did notice that the building seems significantly larger on the inside than on the outside,” he remarked.

  “It’s funny, that,” said Mr. Gedeon. “Doesn’t seem to matter much what the building looks like on the outside: it’s as though, when they all move in, they bring their own space with them. I’ve often wondered why that might be, and I think I’ve come
up with an answer of sorts. It’s a natural consequence of the capacity of a bookstore or library to contain entire worlds, whole universes, and all situated between the covers of books. In that sense, every library or bookstore is practically infinite. The Caxton takes that to its logical conclusion.”

  They passed a pair of overly ornate and decidedly gloomy rooms, in one of which an ashen-faced man sat reading a book, his unusually long fingernails gently testing the pages. He turned to watch them pass, and his lips drew back to reveal a pair of elongated canines.

  “The Count,” said Mr. Gedeon, in a worried manner. “I’d move along if I were you.”

  “You mean Stoker’s Count?” said Mr. Berger. He couldn’t help but gawp. The Count’s eyes were rimmed with red, and there was an undeniable magnetism to him. Mr. Berger found his feet dragging him into the room as the Count set aside his book and prepared to welcome him.

  Mr. Gedeon’s hand grasped his right arm and pulled Mr. Berger back into the corridor.

  “I told you to move along,” he said. “You don’t want to be spending time with the Count. Very unpredictable, the Count. Says he’s over all that vampiric nonsense, but I wouldn’t trust him farther than I could throw him.”

  “He can’t get out, can he?” asked Mr. Berger, who was already rethinking his passion for evening walks.

  “No, he’s one of the special cases. We keep those books behind bars, and that seems to do the trick for the characters as well.”

  “But some of the others wander,” said Mr. Berger. “You met Hamlet, and I met Anna Karenina.”

  “Yes, but that’s really most unusual. For the most part, the characters exist in a kind of stasis. I suspect a lot of them just close their eyes and relive their entire literary lives, over and over. Still, we do have quite a competitive bridge tournament going, and the pantomime at Christmas is always good fun.”

  “How do they get out, the ones who ramble off?”

  Mr. Gedeon shrugged. “I don’t know. I keep the place well locked up, and it’s rare that I’m not here. I just took a few days off to visit my brother in Bootle, but I’ve probably never spent more than a month in total away from the library in all of my years as librarian. Why would I? I’ve got books to read and characters to talk to. I’ve got worlds to explore, all within these walls.”

 

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