The Mad Trist: A Romance of Bibliomania
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by Brian Stableford
Description: The Comte de Saint-Germain has come into possession of a copy of The Mad Trist, the book from which Edgar Allan Poe and Roderick Usher read aloud before the collapse recorded in "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Comte wants to make a present of it to detective Auguste Dupin, but Dupin's faithful companion is en route for England, and cannot deliver the volume immediately.
In any case, he is certain that his friend, Richard Carstairs, will be just as interested in reading the supposedly accursed volume as he is. Despite the warnings issued by a rival bibliophile, Stephen Coningsby, Dupin's friend is unintimidated by the prospect of reading a forbidden book. After all, Dupin has a whole shelf full of them, and has never sustained any harm therefrom...!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2010 USA
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [154 KB]
Reading time: 93-131 min.
An Unexpected Gift
The coachman was struggling to load my trunk on to his cab, in order that I might set off for the Messageries generales, having reserved a seat on the diligence to Boulogne, when I heard a voice behind me, calling my name. Although I was in something of a hurry, fearful of missing the coach if the traffic proved to be bad or there was any dawdling, I could not help looking around.
The man hurrying toward me, twirling his cane as if it were a paddle-wheel assisting his progress, was known to me only by his pseudonym, the Comte de Saint-Germain. He was the President of the Philosophical Harmonic Society of Paris, an organization of esoteric mesmerists. I had only met him on two or three occasions, always in the company of my friend Auguste Dupin--who regarded him as a charlatan and a villain, although I had nothing in particular against him myself. To tell the truth, I had previously found him rather charming and amusing, although that did not make his appearance any the less unwelcome at that particular moment.
I greeted him with a slight bow. "I'm sorry, Saint-Germain," I said, "but I can't stop to chat with you or anyone else. I'm bound for England, and if I miss this morning's diligence, I'll miss my ferry too."
He seemed slightly offended by my abruptness, although my tone had not been surly. "Then I'm very glad to have caught you before you left," he said. "I'd like to ask you a favor, if I may--and to be honest, I feel that you owe me one. Dupin might disagree, I know, but he's an unreasonable chap at the best of times, and he really ought to admit that I helped the two of you out of a bit of a hole back in February."
"How is Mademoiselle Valdemar?" I asked, reflexively.
"On the mend, I think--poor darling. Dupin really gave her a scare, you know. I suppose he couldn't have known how hard she'd be hit by his little charade, but he could have been a little gentler and still won the day. She's only a woman, after all."
"What do you want, Saint-Germain?" I asked him, glancing sideways at the coachman, who seemed to be making heavy weather of his task.
The mesmerist followed my glance, and immediately stepped forward to help. He was a tall man, reasonably well-built, and the two of them had the trunk securely stowed in no time. Oddly enough, I felt slightly annoyed by his intervention, as if it were a criticism aimed at my own reluctance to lend assistance. I was still feeling the twinges in my back that had resulted from dragging the trunk outside, though, and I had every intention of giving the coachman a reasonable pourboire, provided that I got to the Messageries in time.
"I want to repair my relationship with Dupin," Saint-Germain said, a trifle belatedly, in answer to my query. "I see no need at all for the enmity that seems to have grown up between us, and I feel bad about my part in it. It all blew up in the first place, you know, because of a silly quarrel over a book. You're a collector yourself, in a small way, so you know how these things go. We both wanted the volume in question; I procured it. He might imagine that I behaved underhandedly, but the simple fact is that I paid the asking price, and bought it fair and square. Anyhow, I'm willing to make amends. I recently came across a volume that he's been after for years, and I'd like to make him a present of it, as a peace offering. It's not my sort of thing, to be honest--an old romance, printed in English--and I'm not the kind of man to hoard a book in my library simply because it's rare. He wants it far more than I do, so the gentlemanly thing to do is to let him have it."
"Without asking anything in return?" I said, skeptically.
"Not a thing," he replied. "Of course, if this small gesture, coupled with the favor I did him in February, were finally to persuade him that we might be friends, he might feel that it would be a nice gesture to reciprocate in kind--but I wouldn't dream of asking for a formal quid pro quo. This is a gift, and nothing more." He tapped his jacket pocket as he pronounced the last sentence. I had noticed that the garment was not hanging properly, and had wondered what had persuaded him to compromise the dandy's code. The bulge was not very large, and I concluded that the volume was a small octavo, and rather slim.
"I can't deliver it to him," I said. "As I told you, I'm bound for England, and won't be back for a fortnight, at least. You'll have to take it to Dupin's apartment yourself."
"But I've just come from there. That old witch of a concierge has strict orders not to let me in, it seems, or even to convey a message on my behalf. I could have entrusted the book to her, I suppose, but I really couldn't trust her not to throw it on the rubbish-heap, without even letting her master know. You, I can trust. You know what books are worth, to collectors and to scholars. You might even be interested in reading it yourself, given that it's printed in your native tongue. Its prose is turgid, but it has a certain antiquarian interest."
"What is it?" I asked, unable to resist the dire temptation of curiosity.
"Sir Launcelot Canning's The Mad Trist. The one and only printed edition, issued from St. Paul's Churchyard in Tudor times. The manuscript is said to be lost, and rumor has it that less than a dozen copies of the printed version survived the hangman's bonfire--although I can't see any earthly reason why it should have been banned by Whitgift's carrion crows, as there's nothing remotely seditious or irreligious in it"
I had pricked up my ears at the mention of the title, but I had contrived to maintain my attitude without giving any evident sign of my interest. I had heard of The Mad Trist, by virtue of the references made to it in one of my American correspondent's most famous tales. To be sure, the tale had not attributed any significant literary interest to Canning's romance, but the mere fact of the book's mention was significant to me. Poe had read it--or part of it, at least--in the home of his old friend Roderick Usher, who had been tragically killed when his house had collapsed, fatally undermined by the waters of the stagnant tarn on whose shore it stood. Poe had added some fine Gothic flourishes to the tale, as he invariably did when adapting episodes of his quotidian life to his literary purposes.
I had not known that Dupin was eager to find a copy of the book in question. He had never mentioned it to me, even after I had given him a copy of "The Fall of the House of Usher", but he had presumably mentioned the title to Pere France and the other booksellers whose shops he frequented. Booksellers are notoriously garrulous; it was not at all surprising that a rival collector should be better informed than I was on such a score.
I was, in any case, on my way to visit an old friend of my own, who was an aficionado of rare books himself, and whose house likewise stood on the shore of a little lake--although I hoped to find the dwelling in question in far better condition than Poe had found Roderick Usher's house, and I remembered the lake as a bright and charming location. I thought that it might be amusing, if not apposite, were the two of us to sit together one evening and read the text aloud, as Poe and Roderick Usher had...without, of course, finding any echo of the text in the aftermath of a premature burial. So far as I knew, both my friend's sisters were in the best of health, and he certainly had no family vault in his cellar.
"Very well," I said to Saint-Germain, as I prepared to climb into the coach. "I'll take it off your hands--so long as you accept that I won't be able to pass it on to Dupin for at least a fortnight."
I half-expected him to object that it would only take me a few moments to deposit it in my house, but he seemed relieved that I had agreed to take it at all. "That's all right," the mesmerist assured me. "I know that you'll take good care of it in the interim--you're a connoisseur yourself, after all." So saying, he took the little volume out of his pocket, and handed it over to me before I closed the carriage door. It was shabbily bound in the worst black leather I had ever encountered, and had not been a handsome or well-made book when its pages were fresh off the press, but it was intact and seemingly readable.
I put it in my own pocket after the merest glance; I was in a hurry, after all.
"At least my coat hangs properly now," Saint-Germain observed, still peering at me through the portiere. "I hate asymmetry--but it's rumoured that even Lord Byron kept a book in his pocket more often than not, and he was the true father of dandyism, not Brummell. By all accounts, Brummell was a donkey, and no man lacking in intellect could possibly make himself into a true and worthy work of art--don't you agree?"
I might have agreed that, so far as I had heard, Beau Brummell really had been a man of limited intelligence, but it seemed a trifle unfair to slander a dead man, and I was in too much of a hurry to care about the theory and practise of dandyism, even as it was flatteringly reflected in the career of Lord Byron or the works of Honore de Balzac. "Thank you, Saint-Germain," I said, hurriedly, while the coachman was pausing to allow us to complete our conversation. "I'll put in a good word for you when I give it to Dupin, but I can't guarantee that it will alter his opinion."
"We can but try," said Saint-Germain, "and make sure that we have done all that we can to make things right. My conscience is clear now, and I thank you for that."
"You're welcome," I told him--but I must confess that I was rather glad when the coachman responded immediately to the impact of the knob of my stick on the casing of the vehicle, and urged his horse to action. I looked back through the portiere to see Saint-Germain stride away, heading westwards into the district whose name he had appropriated, in imitation of a notorious impostor of the previous century.
As I looked back, however, I also noticed a second man, thinner and shabbier in appearance, who appeared to be watching Saint-Germain as the latter moved off. I saw the thin man turn abruptly as Saint-German drew away, and leap into another fiacre, giving the coachman a hasty instruction as he did so.
It was not at all surprising that the other fiacre should head for the Pont Neuf, as my own vehicle was doing--but I kept glancing back continually, once we had crossed the river, and invariably saw it behind me. I could not shake off the conviction that it was following my own cab, and although I tried to reassure myself that, even if it ended up at the Messageries, there would be no cause for amazement or alarm, I found myself wishing at every crossroads that it would turn aside and head for some other destination.
The further the two fiacres went, however, the more obvious it seemed that the second was deliberately dogging the steps of the first. I considered the possibility of asking my coachman to speed up, or even acquainting him with my anxieties and imploring him to take evasive action, but decided that either request would be futile. His nag was already doing its poor best, and the traffic conditions would not have permitted the animal to go faster, or maneuver more cleverly, even if it had been the finest post-horse in the capital.
Mercifully, the coachman did not have to get my trunk down when we reached the Messageries, or load it on to the waiting diligence; there were eager porters waiting to attend to that, while I paid him off and went into the office to present the receipt for my reservation.
When I came out of the office again, however, intending to take my seat immediately--and, in truth, there was no time to waste before the appointed moment of departure--I found the thin man who had followed me waiting on the forecourt. Unlike Saint-Germain, he was certainly no dandy, being dressed in a conspicuously worn and outdated jacket and riding breeches that seemed to have gone hunting at least once too often. His boots were spattered with dried mud, although the weather was fine and there had been no rain in Paris for three days. I was relieved to observe, now that I could do so at close range, that he was at least ten years older than me, and that his slenderness was more reminiscent of emaciation than a wiry athleticism. His sallow complexion did not advertise a vigorous constitution.
"Whatever you paid Saint-Germain for that book," the stranger said, forthrightly, "I'll double it." He spoke in French but his accent immediately revealed him to be English, so I replied in my native language.
"The calculation would be futile, sir," I said, injecting as much contempt into my tone as I could, "for I did not pay him anything." I moved as if to go around him and head for the diligence, but he moved to block my path, very rudely. I was not quite ready to shove him out of the way, as yet, so I paused again.
"So much the better," he said, gruffly, in English. "Name your price, in francs or guineas, as you please." I took offense at his tone, although I was not so preoccupied with my own frustration to neglect the skills I had learned from Dupin. I noted that the revelation that Saint-Germain had demanded no payment for the book seemed to have surprised him--and perhaps even disturbed him.
"The book is not mine to sell, sir," I told him, intemperately, "but even if it were, I would not sell it to you for all the gold you might have about your person, and twice as much again. Now stand aside, for I have to take my seat in the coach."
He glanced behind, but did not move. "That coach?" he said, as if noticing it for the first time. "But that's not bound for Le Havre--it's the diligence to Boulogne."
"Full marks for observation," I said, sarcastically, wondering why his sallow complexion had turned a little paler. "Now, get out of my way, or I shall be forced to knock you down."
He seemed to pull himself together then, and regret his rudeness. "I'm sorry," he said, "but if you will not let me take the book, you must not take it to England. Even in America, it would not be entirely safe, but you must not take it to England. Do you have the slightest idea what you have in your custody?"
"I have not the slightest idea who you are," I pointed out, "save for the fact that you're an English boor of the worst sort. This is your third warning--next time, I strike."
I am not an unduly athletic man, but I am not small, and can seem intimidating in confrontation with men of his meager sort. Besides, he had no stick and I was equipped with the stoutest one I owned, in anticipation of some serious walking in the wilds of Essex.
The boor did step aside, but as I hurried past him, heading for the diligence like an arrow, he turned and did his level best to keep pace with me. Because I was unwilling to lower myself actually to breaking into a run--a reluctance that he did not share--he was able to keep up, but I only had some thirty meters to cover, and he obviously realized that he only had seconds to make his point. He stammered further apologies and groped in his pocket, eventually fetching out a soiled visiting card, which he thrust at me insistently.
Politeness engraves deep habits, so I took it automatically, but I did not glance at it. As I set my boot-heel on the footplate in order to haul myself up into the coach, my pursuer turned his attention to the postillion, demanding how much a seat would cost. The postillion did not bother to instruct him as to the correct procedure for obtaining a reservation, but simply told him, brutally, that every place was taken, even on the imperiale.
"Saint-Germain has tricked you!" he shouted at me, as I took my seat. The other passengers looked at me curiously, but I simply shrugged my shoulders, as if to say that he was evidently a madman, and that his behaviour was no responsibility of mine.
Mercifully, there was no one else to board the vehicle, and as soon as the coachman and postillion had taken their positions, it moved off. The four horses entrusted with its traction were finer by far than the hack that had bought me across the river. Within two minutes, the Messageries was two hundred meters behind us, and I felt safe--but the last thing that the madman had shouted was still ringing in my ears.
"Whatever occurs, and however fascinated you become," the poor fellow had howled, "don't read the final chapter!"