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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XXXVI

The Gilded Age

Chapter XXXVI


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--

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