Houses of Stone

BOOK: Houses of Stone
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Chapter One

Literature is not the business of a woman's life, and it cannot be.

Letter from
Southey

to
Charlotte Bronte,
1837

 

If only Simon
weren't such a practical joker!

The other booksellers with whom she dealt were not given to joking about their profession—as one of them gloomily put it, peddling the printed word to a nation of semiliterates was no laughing matter—and Simon, of all people, ought to have been free of that weakness. He specialized in rare antiquarian books and resembled a romantic novelist's conception of a dignified elderly European count. But the last time he had summoned her to Baltimore with breathless hints of a fantastic discovery, the treasure had turned out to be the complete oeuvre of Barbara Cartland.

"But," said Simon innocently, as Karen sputtered with outrage, "that's your field, isn't it? Women novelists?"

Their friendship was strong enough to survive such episodes; in fact, the ongoing debate between them, marked by withering sarcasm on Simon's part and heated argument on hers, lent an element of charm to a relationship that was inherently improbable. In every way, Simon was Karen's exact opposite. He was in his late sixties or early seventies; she was almost forty years younger. He was tall and lean, she was five-five and—to put it nicely—well-rounded. Simon was a self-proclaimed male chauvinist, her academic specialty was women's literature. She had her doctorate and an assistant professorship at a women's college; Simon had never mentioned attending a college or university. Yet he was one of the best-educated people she had ever met. He had at least a nodding acquaintance with hundreds of subjects, from baseball to Bartok, politics
to Plato, dogs to dendrochronology. He and Karen did not agree on any of the above—except, possibly, dendrochronology. It was hard to start an argument about tree-ring dating.

What was it that had drawn them together and preserved an affection that grew ever stronger, despite infrequent contact and violent differences of opinion? Karen pondered the question as she drove along Route 70 toward the Baltimore Beltway. Traffic was light, and she had been over the route so many times she could have driven it in total darkness.

It was dark enough, though the morning was only half advanced. Clouds blustered across the sky, their swollen surfaces pewter-gray. Karen had already switched on the headlights. It wouldn't dare snow, she thought. Not in April. Not even in Maryland. At least she hoped it wouldn't dare. The distance from Baltimore to her home was almost a hundred miles, some of it over winding mountain roads, and she had a full schedule of classes and conferences the following day. But she could no more have resisted Simon's tempting hints than she could have refused food after a month of fasting. He had been typically, tantalizingly vague. "No, I can't possibly describe it. You'll have to see it for yourself. But if I'm right—and I always am—this is the find of a lifetime for you."

What the devil could it be? A few tentative snowflakes melted against the windshield, and Karen switched on the radio, hoping for a weather forecast—a futile gesture, for there was nothing she could do about the weather anyhow, and she had no intention of turning back. If Simon was pulling another stunt like "the Cartland Collection," she would murder him.

Her finger paused in the process of punching buttons as the strains of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" reached her ears. That was one answer to the question she had asked herself about her friendship with Simon. Music. Before she met him, she had never cared for the classical composers, but if you spent time with Simon, you hadn't much choice. He always had music playing in the background—or, at times, loudly in the foreground, when he raised the volume to hear a favorite passage. Simon considered Mozart the greatest composer who had ever lived, with John Lennon a close second.

What else? Simon's sense of humor, of course. Even at his most outrageous he was funny. His sardonic view of the world as a planet-sized
insane asylum helped steady her whenever some fresh example of stupidity or cruelty sent her adrenaline soaring.

There was another element. She had acknowledged it early in their acquaintance, with some surprise; it had never occurred to her until she met Simon that the attraction between male and female could be an abstract quality, unrelated to age or any other practical factor. He had never done or said anything to make her feel self-conscious or defensive. She knew he never would. It was only a game, a game he played with enormous skill, and one whose archaic rules she had learned to enjoy, though she would never be as good at it as he was.

And, of course, there was their shared passion for books.

Who knows whence such passions derive? Karen sometimes felt she had been born with hers. She had never been more than temporarily distracted by television; she read while she walked to school, while she brushed her teeth, while she dusted and vacuumed. She favored baths over showers, because it was impossible to read under a waterfall. She read the back of the cereal box at breakfast, when her mother refused to let her bring a book to the table. She loved the smell of books, the feel of books, the look of them on a shelf.

Simon felt the same. Unlike some booksellers, he was as interested in the contents of his wares as in the volumes themselves. The Cartland Collection had been an aberration, a joke he could not resist; on several other occasions he had supplied her with books of genuine interest.

What could it be this time? Karen hit the brake as a tractor trailer lunged into her lane. She was nearing the beltway, with its heavier traffic; she had better concentrate on her driving and stop dreaming about fantastic discoveries—the missing, probably apocryphal, chapters of Charlotte Bronte's last novel, or an unknown poem by Emily Dickinson. Such things did turn up, but not often, and she had already had one big find.

Hers hadn't been anything so impressive as a lost manuscript by a recognized author, but it had been her own, stemming from the book-collecting mania that had driven her long-suffering family to threats of violence. They didn't mind (her father explained patiently) having to buy a new bookcase every month. They weren't annoyed (her mother insisted, through clenched teeth) at having to move a pile of books when
they wanted to sit in a chair or use a telephone or set the table. What they objected to were books on the stairs and under her bed and on the piano. The attic was full of books, the basement was full of books, the guest room . . .

By the time she began working on her doctorate, she had little time for outside reading or for browsing, but she celebrated the completion of her dissertation by going on an orgy of book buying—not in expensive antiquarian stores like Simon's, but dark musty cubbyholes where the cheapest book was a quarter. It was in one of these shops that she had found the slim volume of poems by the woman who called herself Ismene. It had been tossed into a carton with a number of other battered volumes. The hand-lettered sign read, "Two bits each, three for fifty cents."

Even Karen was not tempted by a forty-year-old chemistry textbook or a paperback reprint of
Lady Audley's Secret.
(She already had a copy of
Lady Audley's Secret.)
But only Karen would have looked twice at the thin volume whose front cover was missing and whose water-stained pages seemed to be glued into a solid mass. She inserted a fingernail at random. Only the edges were stuck together; the book opened.

Later she wondered what her reaction would have been if she had not happened to read that particular poem first. Faulty and faltering though it was, some of the lines had a haunting quality. "They have shut me in a house of stone . . . There is no victory in death—only the mute darkness ..." Squatting on the dusty pavement, she pried other pages apart, and gradually the importance of what she had found began to dawn on her.

The title page, exposed by the removal of the front cover, was so stained and torn she could only make out two words: "Verses" and what must be the author's name or pseudonym: Ismene. There was no date visible, but she had seen other books like this one. It had probably been printed during the first half of the nineteenth century. That was her field—nineteenth-century women's literature. She had never heard of a writer who called herself Ismene.

She paid her two bits and went home with her discovery. It took her six weeks to search the literature to make certain no such writer was known. It took another six months to prepare her edition of the poems, annotated, footnoted and equipped with all the necessary scholarly apparatus.

Ismene was no Emily Dickinson; her verses were not so sure, and certainly not so enigmatic. In fact, Karen had never been able to determine who she really was. Ismene had to be a pseudonym, derived from the name of the sister of Antigone in the classic Greek drama. Women who aspired to authorship in those early days seldom dared use their own names. If they didn't hide behind the anonymous "By a Lady," they chose masculine or ambiguous names—Currer, Ellis and Acton instead of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. The use of a pseudonym supported the other evidence as to the date of the book—the handmade paper, the printing technique—but it proved impossible to identify even the publisher. The book must have been privately printed, in a very limited edition; the product of a vanity press, paid for by the author herself.

Could Simon's discovery be something as significant? Crawling along the city streets, slowed by construction and thickening traffic, Karen tried to control her expectations. Yet, she argued with herself, they weren't completely unreasonable. Women writers had been ignored, snubbed by the literary establishment, for centuries. There must be more of them out there in limbo, waiting to be found. Simon knew her interests. "Right up your alley," he had said. "You won't believe it. I can hardly believe it myself . . ." He surely couldn't be so cruel as to lure her all the way to Baltimore on a wild-goose chase. Simon was no pathetic old man, hungry for her companionship. He had dozens of friends, and he preferred his own company to that of most people.

The shop was on Charles Street, north of the railroad station, in a neighborhood that clung by its fingernails to the crumbling edge of respectability. She had to park several blocks away. Snow drifted down as she walked, fat, feathery flakes that stuck to her eyelashes. Opening the shop door, she cleared her throat and began to sing: "These are a few of my favorite things ..."

The soft music from the back of the shop soared to ear-aching pitch. It was the coruscating aria of the Queen of the Night, from
Zauberflote,
and the high notes seemed to drill into her head. Karen covered her ears with her hands. In the shadows at the back she saw Simon sitting behind his desk. A lamp cast Satanic shadows across his lean, sculptured face.

"Turn it down!" she yelled.

Simon blinked at her. "Can't hear you," he mouthed. But the volume dropped, and he came to her, taking both her hands in his.

"How dare you warble sentimental popular drivel at me while the Master's work is playing?"

Karen laughed and let him help her off with her coat. Hanging it neatly on a hook, he remarked, "It is damp. Does it snow hard? Perhaps you had better spend the night."

She had done it once or twice before, but she hated putting him out, for he always insisted on giving up his own bed to her and curling his lean length on the living-room couch. She answered, "I can't, I've got too much to do tomorrow. The snow doesn't seem to be sticking. I should make it back all right, if I don't stay too long."

Simon got the hint. His thin lips quirked in a half-smile, but he said nothing as he escorted her toward the back of the shop. Soft, overstuffed chairs slipcovered in faded chintz, reading lamps, an electric teakettle emitting a cloud of steam, and a time-softened Persian rug furnished a cozy alcove walled with books—Simon's sanctum, to which only favored customers were admitted.

Karen let out a sigh as she sank into one of the chairs and allowed Simon to serve her coffee and a plate of flaky pastry. She hadn't realized how tense she was, not only with anticipation over Simon's mysterious find, but with the constant everyday aggravation and bustle. It all seemed to slip away here; muscles relaxed, unfinished tasks became unimportant, worries faded. The friendly, intimate ambience Simon had created was partially responsible, but the books themselves had an almost physical effect upon her. What they represented was little short of a miracle— contact, as direct as any spiritualist medium could claim, with minds long dead.

"Fresh-baked an hour ago," said Simon, proffering the plate. "From that Polish bakery around the corner."

Karen waved the plate away. "I'm trying to lose weight. You're putting me off, Simon. I hate it when you do this! Where is it? What is it?"

"Please." Raising a hand for silence, Simon turned up the volume again. The great basso of Alexander Kipnis filled the room. It was one of Karen's favorite arias too, but she lacked the skill to listen with the intensity that held Simon's face rapt. It was a wonderful face, so thin it had the pure, bare beauty
of
bone. His hair clung to his skull like a cap of polished steel. He was still a handsome man; he must have been knockdown gorgeous when he was young.

The great music faded into silence, and Simon let out his breath. "The only music that might without blasphemy be put in the mouth of God himself," he quoted.

"Mmm." Karen knew the futility of pushing him, but she needed some outlet for her frustration. Wickedly she said, "The music is sublime, but you must admit the words are pretty corny. And chauvinist. 'Keep it up, my boy, and you'll be a man.' What about poor Pamina? She trudged through the seven hells with her boyfriend; how come she doesn't get to be a Mensch too?"

Simon bit into a pastry with a vehemence that sent flakes showering down his shirtfront. He brushed them away and said forcefully, "You don't understand the meaning of the word. The German for man, male person, is 'Mann.' Mensch means—"

"Superman."

"No! A more accurate translation might be 'superior person.' Superior in the sense of courageous, noble, honorable—"

"Never mind. We've discussed this before. You're just trying to prolong the suspense, Simon. How can you be so mean?"

"No."

"What do you mean, no?"

"If I show it to you now, you will snatch it and run away, and then we will not have our nice little visit."

"Simon!"

"And also, I would have to call the police to follow you and arrest you for stealing a valuable object."

"Valuable? In monetary terms or—"

"In all terms." He leaned back in his chair. The lamplight shaded his face, deepening the lines around his smiling mouth and hiding his eyes in pools of shadow. He looked like an elegant Art Nouveau Mephistopheles. "I have made for lunch my famous goulash. But you do not need to lose weight, you are young and should have a healthy appetite. Have a kalashke."

Resignedly Karen took one of the pastries.

"How is Norman?"

BOOK: Houses of Stone
2.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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