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The Bookman

by Howard Melvin Fast

WE WERE very poor, but we were never so poor as the soldiers. Before the war it had been different, but as the war went on, we got poorer and poorer, yet we were never so poor as the soldiers.

I think it was in the fall of seventeen eighty that the soldiers were all encamped down in the valley beyond our house. It was just at the beginning of the winter, and the day they came, a film of snow covered the whole valley down to the river, which you could see from our house. Our house stood on a hill, commanding the valley and the river and the plain beyond it. Mother always watched the valley. She said that when father came back we should see him rifling up the valley all the way from the river. Father was with the Third Continentals, a captain. But this was before he was killed.

The soldiers came marching down the river-side along the dirt road and they turned up the valley, where they prepared to encamp. They were part of the New Jersey line, all of them very tired-looking men, and very thin. We ran down to meet them, and they all waved to us. I was ashamed of myself, I was so fat and healthy.

An officer on horse was riding in front, an aide a little way behind him. When he saw me he cantered over, drawing up his horse close beside me, and leaning over the pommel.

"Hello there, sonny," he said.

I didn't say anything, because I thought that may be he would be thinking of how fat I was, he being so thin. His uniform was all torn and dirty, and his cocked hat flapped wearily. But I liked his face. It was hard and thin, but it had small dancing blue eyes.

However, I didn't want him to think me entirely a dunce, and I saluted him smartly.

"Well, well," he smiled, "you've the makings, haven't you sir? And how old might you be?"

"I'm ten, sir."

"And what might be your name?"

"Bently Corbatt, sir."

"And I suppose you live in the big house on the hill? Is this your sister ?"

"Yes, sir," I replied, a little ashamed because Ann was so small. "But I've got another, sir."

"Another house?" he questioned, still smiling.

"No sir. Another sister, who's much bigger than Ann here. And won't you come up to the house, sir?"

"Well - you're not Tories, then?"

"Oh, no, sir," I said quickly, and then added: "My father's with the Third Continentals. He's a captain," I finished proudly.

"Well," he said, not smiling now. He stared at me thoughtfully, and then shifted his gaze to our house. "'Well," he said again. Then: "I'm General Wayne. I suppose you'll be very kind and introduce me to your mother ?"

"She's dead. sir."

"I'm sorry. Then your sister, if she's the lady of the house."

I nodded. Bending over, he grasped me about the waist, lifting me to the saddle in front of him. Then he motioned for the aide to do the same with Ann, and we set off for the house.

"When did your mother die, sonny?" he asked me, as we cantered along.

"About three weeks ago - only." I told him about how she used to watch the valley all the time. "You see father doesn't know yet," I said. "Sis thought it would be best not to let him know."

"I see," he nodded gravely, but now his blue eyes were warm and merry; I don't think they ever lost that merry look. I twisted around him, so that I could see the troops marching into the valley. Now they were passing through our orchard, and many stooped to pick up rotten apples from the ground. His eyes followed mine. "It's pretty hard this business of war, isn't it - for soldiers?" He seemed to include me in the last part.

"Not too hard," I answered evenly, "for soldiers."

Jane was waiting for us on the porch, looking very grave, the way she looked since mother had died. We rode up, and the general lifted me down to the porch. Then he dismounted himself, bowing very nicely to Jane, sweeping off his cocked hat with a very graceful gesture, just as if it wasn't so battered and torn.

"Miss Corbatt?" The general said.

Jane nodded.

"I am General Wayne of the Continental Army, New Jersey line. I have two thousand odd troops, which I would like to encamp in that valley, for a few weeks only - I hope - but possibly for a good part of the winter. I presume the property is yours?"

"Yes." Jane curtsied to him. "Yes, the property is my father's. Won't you come inside? We can talk about it there."

General Wayne entered the house after Jane, and his aide followed and I followed his aide. Ann tried to follow me, but I pushed her back. "This is no place for little girls," I warned her.

In the living-room, I wasn't noticed, and I made myself very small in a corner. Jane sat in a chair looking very pretty, I thought, and the two officers stood in front of her.

"You see," General Wayne was saying, "we can't be too far from the British - and we can't be too near. This spot is ideal."

"I think I understand."

"But you know what soldiers are - two thousand half-starved soldiers."

"My father is with the army, sir."

"Thank you, then. You are a very brave girl."

"No, no," Jane said quickly. "I'm doing nothing. Don't you see that it is safer with the troops here?"

General Wayne smiled sadly. "I'm afraid not. It is not very nice to have one's home turned into a battleground. Yet war is a bitter business all around."

"I know," Jane said.

"We should want to use your home as general headquarters. It will mean quartering myself and two or three officers. And a room to undertake business "

Jane bent her head. "I'm sure you will be comfortable," she said.

"You are very kind. And now if you will excuse me. you can make all arrangements with Captain Murry here."

The general left the room, and I followed him. Outside, he looked at me curiously.

"I suppose," he said thoughtfully, "that you will want to be a soldier some day?"

"Yes sir."

His face was very grave, his mouth thin as a thread; with one hand, he shook out my long hair; the other was clasping and unclasping itself nervously. "Suppose," he considered - "suppose I make you a sort of general's special aide, to look after things I miss on?"

I was thrilling with pride, and I could hardly keep from bursting into shouts of pure joy; however, I managed to stand very still, saluting him. "That will he very fine, sir," I said. And I stood looking after him as he rode down into the valley.

I couldn't go in just yet. I had to stand there for a while, and be alone in my glory; so I remained as he left me, very still, looking over the valley to where the sun was setting, making the river a band of gleaming red. Then, after a little while, I went inside.

I heard Jane laughing in the parlor, and it surprised me. It was the first time she had laughed since mother died. I went in, and there she was, standing with the aide laughing at something he had said. When she saw me, she stopped, and Captain Murry came forward, offering me his hand.

"How do you do, sir," I said, with dignity, since I was of the army now.

"How do you do," he answered.

"Captain Murry and General Wayne and some others will live at the house, Bently," Jane told me.

"I know," I replied.

I turned to go, and as I left the room, I heard Captain Murry saying "I must apologize for my regimentals. We're pretty close to being beggars now - all of us."

The next few days were as exciting as any I had known. I had always considered our house a very lonely place, there being nobody I could play with outside of Ann and Jack, the caretaker's boy. And now all of a sudden, there were two thousand men, encamped in a sprawling fashion through the apple orchard, over the hay-fields, and down the long slope to the river. Almost over night, bubbles of tents had sprung up all over the place, and in and around our sheds over a hundred horses were quartered. On the lawn, in front of our house, there were sixteen field pieces, ugly, sinister things, but oh how fascinating!

And the soldiers - I made great friends of many of the soldiers before the bookman came, and I will get to the bookman later. I guess General Wayne spread the word around, about the commission he had given me, because the men took to calling me lieutenant, which I was very proud of, though I tried not to show it. I stole cakes and bread for them from the kitchen - not that we had so much, but they had almost nothing at all; and all the time I had to myself, I spent down in their camp. They were always telling me stories, and some of them knew my father. Sometimes, they would let me handle a musket; but the muskets were taller than I, and so heavy I could hardly lift them. What I saw in the camp used to make me sick sometimes. The men were always cold, because they were short of clothing and blankets; hardly any had shoes, and most were woefully thin. It would make me sick, and then I didn't know whether I wanted to be a soldier or not. But the men were always talking about their pay, which was to come from Philadelphia some day, and how much better all things would be after that.

The winter stole on, and the men remained in the valley. More men came, until there were almost three thousand of them. At night, their fires twinkled like glow-worms, and in the daytime they were always drilling and parading. I didn't know why they drilled so much, but one day Captain Murry told me the reason. He said it was to keep them knowing that they were soldiers, and to make them forget that they were starving. I wondered how men could starve, yet live so long; but war is very strange, and you do not understand all the parts of it.

Our house became a busy place. In the parlor, General Wayne set up his main headquarters, and sometimes he sat there all day writing at his desk, receiving couriers, and dispatching couriers too. I knew that most of his writing was for pay and food for his soldiers, because that was the main topic of talk. All day, men rode up to our house and away from it, and many times in the night I woke to hear a horse champing his hoofs in front of the door.

I guess during that time Jane came to sort of like Captain Murry, and I guess she couldn't help it, he being around the house so much, and being such a handsome young gentleman, not at all thin and worn, like General Wayne.

Then the bookman came, after the troops had been in the valley for almost three weeks. They don't have many bookmen any more, men who wander around the country, stopping at houses to peddle books and give away news. Many of them write their own books, publish them, and peddle them. That is what Parson Weems did with his stories of General Washington.

Well, the bookman came one day toward evening, not from the river-valley, but riding the trail that trickled over the hills. He was dressed in worn homespun, an old broad-brimmed hat on his head, and a great pack of books on either side of his saddle. He didn't come to the house, but stopped at the barn, and I ran over to see what he had to sell. I knew he was a bookman, and I knew how rarely bookmen came now-a-days.

"Hello," I called. - "hello, there you bookman, you!"

He looked at me very gravely, and right there I liked him, from the beginning. He had little blue eyes, like General Wayne's, always sparkling, and long yellow hair that fell to his shoulders. He seemed very old to me then, as most grown-ups did, but he couldn't have been much past thirty.

"Hello, sir " he said. He had a funny accent vaguely familiar, and I took it to be back country talk. "Yes," he went on, "how do you do?"

"Fine," I answered. "And I hope you have English books, though Jane says I shouldn't read them now."

"And why shouldn't you read them now?" he asked.

"You know we're at war."

"Oh, I do know it. I had a devil of a time getting through the sentries." He spoke as if he didn't approve of sentries or war. And then his eyes roved past me, down into the valley. He seemed surprised, when he saw all the tents and soldiers.

"That looks like a big encampment," he said.

"Yes," I nodded proudly, "most all of the New Jersey line."

But he did not seem to wish to speak of the troops or the war. "What kind of books do you like?" he inquired, measuring me with his eyes.

Then I remembered my manners. "Won't you come in," I asked him "and have something hot to drink. I am sure my sister would like your books, too."

Picking up his packs, he followed me into the kitchen, and while Mary, the cook, put up the kettle, I ran to call Jane. Jane liked bookmen, because they made things less lonely. "I'm sorry," she told him, "that you have to eat in the kitchen, but our house has become a regular military depot. I should like to offer you tea, but you know that we have none now."

"You are a very loyal family, aren't you?" the bookman said.

"My father is with the Third Continentals," Jane said quietly.

The bookman looked at her curiously, as though he knew what Jane was probably thinking, how much more likely it would be for a strong man like him to be in the army, rather than wandering around with a pack of books. And then he said, a slow smile coming to his lips: "But somebody has to sell books. They are as necessary as war."

"Perhaps," Jane answered him.

I went out then, because Ann was calling me, and together we walked down into the valley. When I came back, the bookman was showing Jane his books.

HE and Jane were close together, kneeling on the floor, where the books were spread out, and there, in the fading twilight, his yellow head made a very nice contrast with Jane's dark one. When I came in, Jane glanced at me.

"Don't you want to look at the books, Bently?"

"I was down in the valley," I said importantly, "and there's a great bustle there. I think that the troops are going to move soon, maybe at the end of this week or before that."

The bookman was looking at me very curiously, which I thought strange for a person who had so little interest in war. But a moment later I had forgotten that, and I was looking at the books with Jane. He had a great many books for children, fascinating books full of pictures, such books as we saw very little of. And he seemed to have read every book, for he spoke of them in a way that no other person I had known ever had. He spoke of the books Jane wanted, too, and I could see that there was a lot in him that fascinated Jane, the same way it fascinated me.

I had my dinner, and after dinner, Jane was still with the bookman talking about books and other things. Then I went out on the porch, where Captain Murry was smoking his pipe.

"Who is that tattered wreck ?" Captain Murry asked me.

"Oh, he's just a bookman."

"Just a bookman, eh'"

"Yes," I nodded, and then I sat down to keep him company.

THAT evening, I sat in the kitchen, listening to the bookman. His stories weren't like the soldiers', about war, but about strange, distant lands. I could see right away that he liked me, and I was drawn to him more than I had ever been drawn to a stranger before. Later, Jane sat before the fire with us, and most of the talk was between her and the bookman. I remember some of the things he said.

"Egypt - like an old jewel in the sand. There are three of the great pyramids, and they stand all together, and if you watch the sun set behind them-" And that sort of thing, for there seemed to be no land that he had not visited, although how this should be so with a bookman neither of us knew.

"And the war-?" Jane once said to him.

"I sometimes wonder about the war," he answered, "but I don't know whether it is right or wrong. This new land is so big, so wild - why should anyone fight about it?"

"It is a very beautiful land, this America of ours," Jane said.

"Yes, with beautiful women."

I don't know whether Jane resented that or not, but she said nothing.

"Brave men and beautiful women," the bookman went on. "Oh, don't I know - how those men in the valley are so slowly starving. As ugly as war is, it makes more than men of us."

"Yet you do not believe enough to fight?"

"Are there not enough - shedding blood?"

"I suppose so."

"I love books," the bookman said. "I used to dream of a great house, when I could live out my days comfortably and slowly, with many, many books around me - and peace. I used to dream of that."

"I know," Jane nodded.

"Funny, how you dream, isn't it?"

When I went up to bed, Jane was still there with the bookman, talking. Jane said: "Good night, Bently," and the bookman shook hands with me. "Don't love war too much, boy," he said.

THAT night, I dreamt of the things the bookman told me. He was to sleep in the barn, since there was no more room in the house, and I hoped I should see him the next morning.

The following day, there was more bustle than ever in the camp. All morning, it snowed; but the men were out, drilling in the snow and new troops were trickling in ail the time. At the house, General Wayne was in a fury of excitement, and I didn't dare go into the parlor. Once, a tall, tired-looking man rode up with a couple of aides, and he was with General Wayne for more than an hour. I heard the sentries whispering that it was General Washington; but he did not seem to be at all the great man I had heard of, only a tall, tired-looking person in a uniform patched all over.

I went to the kitchen, to examine the books the bookman had left, and while I was there, he came in. I was glad he had not gone. I hoped Jane would like him a great deal perhaps induce him to remain a fortnight. I would have been content to listen forever to his smooth, enchanting voice.

"I want you to read this," he said. It was Malory's book on King Arthur, and I curled up before the fire with it. But I had a twinge of conscience. Arthur was English, out and out.

Two more days went by, while the bookman remained, and I noticed that Jane was spending more and more time with him. Nor did Captain Murry enjoy this. Once, I had seen Captain Murry in the tea-room, with Jane in his arms. and I know that whenever Jane spoke of him, there was a funny, far-off look in her eyes. Even now, with the bookman there, Jane grew more and more downhearted as the time came for the troops to depart.

"But the bookman may remain," I once said to her.

"Yes," Jane answered.

The troops were to depart in the morning. That day they began to break camp and the field pieces were wheeled off our lawn, onto the river road. General Wayne was clearing his affairs in the parlor, and I could see he was more excited than usual.

"The old fox has something up his sleeve," one of the sentries told me.

"It wasn't for nothing he was holdin' that palaver with General Washington," another said.

There was nothing much for me to do, since everyone was so busy, and I went to look for the bookman. I climbed to the little room he had, over the hayloft, and I thought I would surprise him. There was a crack in the door, and I looked through it. There was the bookman, sitting on the floor, writing in a little pad he held on his knee. Then I knocked. He seemed to stiffen suddenly. The paper he was writing on, he folded, thrust into a crack in the floor, covered his writing materials with hay, and then sauntered to the door. When he saw it was only me, he appeared to be relieved.

"Yes," he said when he had opened the door, "I should be settling things with your sister. I'm to leave soon, and I want to find out what books she'll take."

"You're going?" I said.

"You don't want me to, do you, laddie? But we must all go on, a-wandering. Perhaps I'll come back some day "

Walking over to the house with him, I almost forgot about the paper. Then I remembered, and excused myself. Without thinking of what I was doing, I ran back to the barn, to his room. I was all trembling with excitement now, for I had quite decided to find out who our bookman really was. I dug up the paper, and began to read:

"Your Excellency:

"I have done my best, yet discovered precious little. There are all of three thousand troops here now, with twenty-two pieces of ordnance, all told, and they will be moving north the morning you receive this possibly to connect with General Washington...."

I read on, but my eyes blurred. First I was crying, and good and ashamed of myself; then I realized that the bookman must not find me there. I stumbled down from the loft and out into the snow, the cold air stinging me into awareness, the paper clutched in my hand. The whole world was reeling around me.

"Why did it have to be him?" I muttered.

I guess I went over to the kitchen to look at him again, to see whether it had been my own, splendid bookman. I opened the door quietly, and there was the bookman kissing Jane. Then Jane drew back, holding her hand to her mouth.

"Go away from here," she whispered.

"You do love me, don't you," he said.

"I don't know - I don't know."

"Then I'll tell you. You do love me, but you have too much pride in that glorious little head of yours. I'm a tattered wanderer, who has fascinated you with his tales, and you certainly would be a fool to throw away yourself on someone like me. But you do love me."

"Yes."

Jane shook her head, and I remember that even then I thought that Jane was truly splendid.

"No," she said, "I'm not sorry. Why should I be sorry? I love you - that's all there is to it."

"Then you know. In the few days I've been here, you know."

"Yes, I know."

I could see the bookman's face from the side, and I don't think I ever saw a sadder face than that. And beautiful, too, what with all his yellow hair falling to his shoulders. I don't know how, knowing what I knew, I could have stood there watching all this.

"If you knew all - but thank God you don't. Listen, Jane. I kissed you once. I shan't kiss you again unless some day I come back. Would you wait?"

"I love you," Jane said. "I know I'll never love anyone else the way I love you."

"Funny how I could go like this kissing you only once. But then are some things woefully strong, Jane, and war is a curious thing."

"But don't go-"

I couldn't stand any more of that, I went up to my room and cried. Then I remembered that a Continental doesn't cry; I think I remembered my commission.

General Wayne was in the parlor when I came in and I could see that he was annoyed being so busy But he nodded to me.

"And what is your business, sir?" he inquired.

"Could I ask you something!"

The general pushed his papers aside. Now eyes were twinkling, and I knew he would take some time with me. He had always liked me.

"Suppose a soldier runs away?" I said.

"There are times when the best do - have to," the general smiled.

"But suppose he knows his duty is to advance?"

"Then he's a coward - and traitor," the general said slowly, staring at me very curiously.

"He's a coward, sir?"

"Yes."

I gave him the crumpled piece of paper. But I didn't cry then; I looked straight at him.

"What's this?" He read it through, puckered up his lips, and read it through again. "My God," he whispered, "where did you get this, child!"

I told him. I told him where he could find the bookman, and then said:

"Will you excuse me now, sir?' I knew that something would happen inside of me, if I didn't get away very quickly.

They shot the bookman that evening. Captain Murry tried to keep Jane in the house. "You mustn't see it," he pleaded with her. "Jane, why on God's earth should you want to see it?"

"Why?" She looked at him wonderingly, and then she put both her hands up against his face. "You love me, don't you Jack?"

"You know it by now."

"And you know what funny things love does to you. Well, that is why I must see it - must."

But he didn't understand; neither did I just then.

General Wayne came by while they were talking, and he stopped, staring at the group of us. Then he said, brusquely: "Let them see it, Captain, if they want to. I don't think it will hurt Bently. This spy is a brave man."

They stood the bookman up against the side of the barn, up against the stone foundation. He smiled when they offered to blindfold him, and he asked not to have his hands bound.

"Could I talk to him!" I asked.

"Very well, but not for long."

The bookman had a funny, tired look on his face. Until I was close to him, he had been looking at Jane. Then he glanced down at me.

"Hello, laddie," he said.

My eyes were full of tears, so I couldn't see him very well now.

"A good soldier doesn't cry," he smiled.

"Yes, I know."

"You want to tell me that you saw me hide the paper, don't you, laddie?"

"Yes."

"And you're sorry now?"

"I had to do it."

"I understand. Give me your hand, laddie."

I went back to Jane then, and she put her arm around me, holding me so tight that it hurt. I was still watching the bookman.

"Sir," the bookman called out, "you will see that my superiors are informed. My name is Anthony Engel. My rank Brevet Lieutenant Colonel."

General Wayne nodded. Then the rifles blazed out, and then the bookman was dead....

But that night, Jane said to me, just as though I were as old as she, and as understanding:

"You see, Bently darling, he would have never delivered that message. He was going to give it up, all of it, because he loved me...."


[The last two paragraphes (from "But that night...") do not appear in the Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel version.]


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