Great Expectations: The Book's Story

by Cindy Rae

 

Now, it must be said that the book belonged to Vincent. This must be said, or the story has no meaning, really, no conclusion, no great poetry at all. So, the book belonged to Vincent, and that must be established.

It was not Father's, not Mary's, not Peter's. Nor Smythe's. It was Vincent's. And it sat on his shelf as surely as his Shakespeare did, or his Milton. Leather. White leather, to be a tad more precise, with red lettering, on the cover. Engravings and end pages and the usual acknowledgements. Trimmed in gold around the edges, as all higher quality tomes are, and this one was one of those.

But it's fair to say it did not always belong to him....

No, oh no. Once, why it had been part of a set. Indeed, a very expensive set, one that had included  A Tale of Two Cities and Little Dorrit and David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist and even the comparatively tiny A Christmas Carol. All by Mr. Charles Dickens, of course.

Not that they were first editions, mind you. Oh, no, never think that. The rich leather that held the lines 'no shadow of another parting from her' in its well-stitched body never graced Mr. Dickens' hand, or even his time. Dickens was as cold as Marley come 1870 or so. Famous, but famously deceased. The book, at least this copy of it, didn't see light until the 1940's, though many of the illustrations in it were the inimitable John McLenan's, rest his soul. Some forty of them, all told. But I digress.

No, the book sat a long time in Cambridge, don't you know, not so far from Radcliffe, as it happens, though Radcliffe would mean something else to a Miss Catherine Chandler. Who wasn't born quite yet, anyway, and wouldn't be, for quite a few years, when the book was published.

The book, and its fellows, took up residence on the shelf of a professor Sheffield, a nice enough fellow, who, like Dickens himself, rather liked David Copperfield for a story, and A Christmas Carol for the fluff of it. They were a gift from his wife, a present she rather liked, for their style and weight. She knew he would like them. She just did. So she bought them on more than a whim, and less than a plan. Sometimes, great things happen, or begin to happen, just that way.

Dr. Sheffield, (or 'Adam, dear,' as Patience, his wife of many years referred to him) had a tendency to keep his books on the shelf in alphabetical order, meaning Great Expectations sat just after David Copperfield, and before Little Dorrit, the latter of which never did get read by Dr. Sheffield, though one summer, to his credit, he tried to find the time.

It must be said, that A Christmas Carol was his favorite, and it was near his bedside when he passed, at the ripe old age of eighty four. That is something of an important thing, don't you know, because it meant the set was never restored, or entire. Patience Pennywhite Sheffield (a Dickensian name if ever one had the potential to be) kept her late husband's favorite book in his bedside drawer, always. It never did rejoin its fellows on the shelf. Which rather led to their next set of adventures.

As so happens with people of literary note, (Dr. Sheffield taught literature on weekends at the college, and the bible during Sunday school to children) his children had no great love of the classics, minor or major. So it was after the passing of Patience, some time in the 1950's that every book and statue, every stick of furniture and article of merit were packed into boxes, pawed over, auctioned off, donated, and simply, well, heaved into the rubbish.

Now, that's not to say that the books endured that fate, no, no. Even bohemian savages like the Sheffield clan, (a group old Charles himself would likely have loved to write about, and may have, some, in Nicholas Nickleby,) recognized quality when they saw it, and they sold the remaining six, ('Copperfield' through 'Tale of Two Cities'), fobbed off for some twenty dollars or so, a not unhandsome sum, in the fifties.

The buyer, a Miss Marian Haversham, (and yes, Haversham is a name in 'Expectations') was a spinster's spinster, a one who would have done Mary, (whom she never met but could have duplicated) proud. And in this, the books were fortunate. Because while Miss Marian really never was much of a bookworm, she was an immaculate housekeeper and a wonderful collector of 'sets' of things, though she never did realize one volume was missing, having never bothered to open the first one to see the set listed, entirely.

She dusted the books, and kept them in a nice cool room, away from too much dry air or too much sun to crack the leather. She occasionally even opened them to thumb through them a bit when she felt that she was in a 'literary mood.' She'd look at the pictures, though her true taste in novels tended to gothic romances and the occasional bit of Poe. Who, by the way, sat a few shelves below Dickens in her parlor. Miss Mary always referred to the room as 'the Parlor' not much caring for the more mundane sounding 'living room.' So, the Parlor it was, and there Great Expectations sat, not knowing there was a train trip about to bring it to Manhattan.

Now, Miss Marian was one to travel, now and then, short trips, for the sake of adventure, and Miss Marian liked a good show. She might not be the most literate of souls, but she was a good sort, and an afternoon near the Park and a taxi to a Broadway show was as fine a treat as any.

And so it was, one afternoon, that Miss Marian primmed herself up, and took a nice bag that perfectly matched her shoes, and prepared herself for a train trip into that metropolis simply known as 'The City.'

Now, that bag is important to our story. Important, mind you, because it was not Miss Marian's largest bag. Had it been Miss Mary's Largest bag, the one that did not match her brown leather shoes, that might have been bad, you see, because into that bag, Marian Haversham might have put David Copperfield, for her train trip. Miss Marian was always of the opinion that one must have something to read on the train, (of course,) and also be seen reading something of worth. The slightly tawdry but often thrilling romances she favored would not do for this, don't you know, so it was to her well organized and well dusted bookshelf, the one in her parlor, she went.

The 'D' in 'Dickens' meant these books were just about, right at eye level, you see, with Miss Marian. The Louisa May Alcott (No relation to Dr. Peter; he looked it up) set was up high, as were the Anthologies, and bits of Byron, and Samuel Langhorn Clemmens. Poe was much farther down, and the rarely touched Shakepspeare. Well, you actually had to bend for Will and Tennyson and Wordsworth. But the Dickens shelf was right at eye level.

So, Dickens it was, it was either that or Clemmens, and she did not feel like a Southern story. No, she felt like an English Classic story, though she would scarcely get through a few dozen pages before the train stopped, and it was ‘Copperfield' that came off the shelf.

It didn't fit. Plain as that, that with her trim wallet, her theater ticket and train ticket and money for lunch and a treat, the larger volume simply would not fit comfortably, in her brown leather valise that matched her shoes. So, out David Copperfield came and in went Great Expectations: the story of Pip and Estella, and Magwitch, and even a Miss Haversham. And that was that.

Off to New York went Great Expectations. There was no help for it. It was its fate. Had not Miriam Haversham chosen her camel skirt and jacket for that day, things might have been different, and Devin might have stolen David Copperfield, instead. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, of course.

The Park was busy that day, and the weather most clear. Again, this is most fortunate for our book, because had it been raining at any time, it might have been lost forever, to the weather.

But it was sunny, that day, sunny and clear, and Miss Haversham sat on a bench not too far from a certain drainage culvert, as 1959 happened all around her.

Not too terribly far from her, (but far from sight) a seven year old named Vincent was learning to read more fluently, a middle aged man named Jacob was taking him and a boy named Devin through their literary paces. But Marian would never meet Vincent, or Jacob, or even Devin. Oh, no. You mustn't think that. These things are never so easy!

The book was open to the sun, some twenty seven or so pages in, not counting the copyright and acknowledgments, when a little girl dropped her two scoops of ice cream off the cone not more than a dozen paces from where Miss Marian sat. Well, the howling was ferocious from such an indignity, and Marian, having raised no children of her own, thought the child must be seriously injured. Her brown bag still over her arm, she rose to check.

And the book lay face down on the bench.

Now, it takes a bit of doing to sort out a child whose emotional apocalypse is at hand, and Marian Haversham was a sorter outer of the first magnitude. After all, it's what you did when you had small collections of things. You kept things sorted. The little girl, (whose name was Jenny, and who would, coincidentally, become a good friend of Catherine Chandler's, one day) needed sorting, and that's just what Miss Mariam aimed to do. No easy feat, since not only had Jenny lost her two scoops of chocolate, she'd also lost her mother, somewhere between the ice cream vendor and the park bench. It's why she lost the ice cream. She'd been turning around in frantic circles, looking for her mother.

There was no help for it. Miss Marian would just have to sort it all out. A wipe of a napkin, a stroll of a good distance, and a much relieved Debra Aaronson later, Jenny was deposited, and Marian was satisfied that she had done her good deed for the day.

There was even a cab right close, and the matinee now only some twenty minutes away. She would make it, if the cabbie hurried. She would not even remember the book until later that evening, when she returned from seeing 'South Pacific." Content that she was a good person who had done a good thing, Marian Haversham passed a beautiful woman named Margaret Chase, who exited the cab as Marian entered it. Life was funny, that way.

And the book still sat on the bench, the breeze not enough to lift its pages, given the sturdy leather that held it.

Now, here is where Mr. Smythe comes in, gentle reader, and most exceptionally, too, as he would look almost identical to the Mr. Smythe Catherine would meet some twenty five and more years later. Dapper. Middle aged. Refined. Mr. Smythe always looked dapper, middle aged, and refined, even when he was very young. And he was not very young in 1959. Or at least, he didn't look like he was.

Mr. Smythe was opening an antiquarian book store not far from an array of expensive stores in the Village, and though this particular copy of 'Great Expectations' was not exceptionally valuable, it was, at least, a splendid, and undamaged version of, it, minus a bit of wear to the corners where it had obviously been stuffed into a bag.

You see, Devin, who would acquire it, but was by no means about to acquire it yet, had no knowledge of the book, gentle reader. Indeed, he was as clueless as a titwillow to its existence. Devin was a few months away from a date with a carousel, yet. And that indeed has something to do with our story.

Mr. Smythe rescued the book from the elements, and like any good merchant who obtained something for free, set about to sell it. So the book was carried away from the tunnel entrance. But don't you fret, reader. It would soon be back.

Mr. Smythe's shop was one of those that had far too many items and far too few shelves. And while he seemed to know everything he had and where it was, his customers often had few such advantages. And so it was that Mr. Smythe often kept a rolling cart near the street, a common enough practice for merchants, to entice customers to come inside.

It is patently true that Smythe deemed much that was on the cart to be of little worth; the old, the battered; the non-first editions, and the (ahem) free residents of his shop often held court on the cart, trying to woo passersby.

And so it was that Devin Wells, age 10 strolled near number 777, searching for a way to either make a dollar or steal one. He would have done Oliver Twist  proud. But of course, even though Devin had something of an Artful Dodger in him, that was not the book he was about to cross paths with. Or, the book with which he was about to cross paths, as C. Dickens, the 'last great mythologist' would have written it.

It sat far above the others on the rack, standing higher by virtue of it being a rather impressive hardback amongst at least four paperbacks, a termite chewed book of Coleridge's, and a crack binded copy of Dorian Gray. While the picture of Dorian Gray (no pun on the title intended) looked far more interesting than the plain covered 'Expectations,' the Dickens copy had a couple things going for it.

One, by the time Devin spotted it, it was on the second shelf, and outside edge, laying longwise. Someone had picked it out, leafed through it, and set it back. A slender man with a hawkish nose and a taste for fine things, but no desire to spend it on fripperies. But he hadn't shelved it; he'd left it laying across the top of the other volumes on the middle shelf, where it was a bit out of sight of Smythe.

Also, it just plain looked more regal in stature. It was larger than the Wilde work, and the leather looked more impressive. If Devin was about to steal a gift, he at least wanted it to be a nice one. The size of it was no problem. It was going to ride under his jacket, against his abdomen, anyway.

The title. What was that again? Great Expectations. Oh, that was indeed the book for Vincent. Devin had Great Expectations himself, for him and his little brother. Devin hoped it was a bit of a 'how to' book, in that case.

It wasn't, but Devin didn't know that. And after one half-hearted attempt in his teens, he would never actually read the book. That's all right, though. It was destined to change Vincent's life forever, not Devin's.

Devin knew better than to stand there, look at the pictures, then try to palm it. The longer he stood still, the more he would draw Smythe's eye. So it was with a casual saunter and a deft flip of the wrist that Devin committed a bit of petty larceny, and Great Expectations found its way under his patched jacket, the one with a working zipper, but a hole in each pocket. He needed the zipper to work more than the pockets. It's how he planned to conceal the book.

Mr. Smythe, tending a customer with the delightfully Polish last name of Kasmaric, had no idea the book had been taken. Maybe. He looked after the reatreating back of the young boy, tall for his age, and in good need of a beating, if not at least a haircut. His elbows had patches. He would not come around again, Smythe knew. That was enough. He smiled a little as he rang up his purchase for Mr. Kasmaric. Stories of the Brother's Grimm it was. A gift for his son, Stosh. There was no better gift than a good book. For any child. Even one who would one day change his name to Elliot Burch.

'Damn,' Devin thought, looking at the book in his room, later. Too wordy, too long. Only the pictures were worth much, at least some of those were cool.

The book rode under Devin's bed, gathering dust and the sounds and ambience of the tunnels for over a month when the night of the ill-fated carousel ride happened. At this point, the book was mostly forgotten and genuinely fated to go all but unread all its life. But then the carousel ride happened, and the punishments that followed.

The two boys lay in their beds, both exhilarated from the ride, and soundly and roundly reprimanded by Father for their adventure. More consequences would be forthcoming, not to mention one of Father's more famous lectures.

Vincent's night had gone from one of exhilaration to one of despair. He snuffled into his sleeve, trying hard not to cry. Devin had included him. It had felt wonderful, been wonderful. They were both in trouble. Devin more than him. But Devin because of him, that much Vincent knew.

"It's okay, Little Brother." Devin called him one of the names the wolves called Mowgli, in the Jungle Book.

Book. Free association, and there it was. Devin remembered 'the book' beneath his bed.

"I got you something. I was going to save this for Winterfest, but..." he passed the book over to Vincent.

"You can't read it yet. It will be a long time. But you can keep it with the other ones on the shelf. Or give it to Father if you like. Maybe he won't be so mad."

"You should give it to him." Vincent shook his head, wanting Devin to be back in Father's good graces.

"Nah. I got it for you. See the title? Great Expectations. Like us, huh?" Devin smiled, and so did Vincent, for a moment, at least. "It's got some good pictures. You can look at it, if you want."

Vincent took the book. It felt heavy. And it felt good, in his hands. The leather felt smooth, and though the dust was there to be sure, and the corners were showing a bit of wear from having been bumped around, taken on and off the cart, and so forth, the binding was utterly intact, and the pages were nearly pristine. It looked like a good book. He liked the title, liked the gold leaf on the binding. Ran his clawed fingers against the soft, smooth pages. It was pretty.

"Thank you, Devin." Vincent told him solemnly. He flipped though the pictures for the next hour or so, setting it among his things. The things that he would keep with him once Devin left, and the chamber belonged solely to him.

He read it at least once, well before Lisa. Liked it, though he didn't pretend to understand all the words, and could barely keep up with the Dickensian penchant for odd names and mysterious benefactors. He did not quite understand the nuances of the English class structure, but he knew what it was to be excluded because of what he was, so Pip rang at least a bit true, for him.

By age thirteen, he understood pining for a girl, like Pip did for Estella, and by fifteen, that sensation was a spear in his heart. The book was now a bit more than well read, Father having borrowed it twice, each time faithfully returning it, and Mary having taken it in at least once, the echo of Marian Haversham whispering across the pages.

After Lisa, during his time of the first madness, when he mourned and cried, and raged, Father sat as his fever peaked and valleyed, reading to him.

Shakespeare, Byron…Dickens.

By the time Vincent was himself again, he was a scholar. And Father settled the book high on Vincent's shelf, clearly placing it among the things Vincent valued. It would be read, borrowed, and returned, many more times. Always finding its way back to Vincent's chambers, eventually, though he never inscribed his name inside. No one had. In spite of its many owners, it never bore an inscription. Never 'one owner' or 'another.'

But it was surely Vincent's, now. As surely as his vest, his cape, his journal, or his work boots. It was Vincent's. It was his own, and he treasured it, and considered it a thing worth sharing.

Then, Once Upon a Time in New York...


-fin-

 

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