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Chapter 5

Paul, Gil, and I continue south from Holder into the belly of campus. To the east, the tall, thin windows of Firestone Library streak the snow with fiery light. At dark the building looks like an ancient furnace, stone walls insulating the outside world from the heat and blush of learning. In a dream once, I visited Firestone in the middle of the night and found it full of insects, thousands of bookworms wearing tiny glasses and sleeping caps, magically feeding themselves by reading stories. They wriggled from page to page, journeying through the words, and as tensions grew and lovers kissed and villains met their ends, the bookworms' tails began to glow, until finally the whole library was a church of candles swaying gently from left to right.

Bill's waiting for me in there, Paul says, stopping short.

You want us to come with you? Gil asks.

Paul shakes his head. It's okay.

But I hear the catch in his voice.

I'll come, I say.

I'll meet you guys back at the room, Gil says. You'll be back in time for Taft's lecture at nine?

Yes, Paul says. Of course.

Gil waves and turns. Paul and I continue down the path toward Firestone.

Once we're alone, I realize that neither of us knows what to say. Days have passed since our last real conversation. Like brothers who disapprove of each other's wives, we can't even manage small talk without tripping over our differences: he thinks I gave up on the Hypnerotomachia to be with Katie; I think he's given up more for the Hypnerotomachia than he knows.

What does Bill want? I ask as we approach the main entrance.

I don't know. He wouldn't say.

Where are we meeting him?

In the Rare Books Room.

Where Princeton keeps its copy of the Hypnerotomachia.

I think he found something important.

Like what?

I don't know. Paul hesitates, as if he's looking for the right words. But the book is even more than we thought. I'm sure of it. Bill and I both feel like we're on the cusp of something big.

It's been weeks since I've caught a glimpse of Bill Stein. Wallowing in the sixth year of a seemingly endless graduate program, Stein has slowly been assembling a dissertation on the technology of Renaissance printing. A jangling skeleton of a man, he aimed at being a professional librarian until larger ambitions got in his way: tenure, professorships, advancement-all the fixations that come with wanting to serve books, then gradually wanting books to serve you. Every time I see him outside Firestone he looks like an escaped ghost, a purse of bones drawn up too tight, with the pale eyes and strange curled-red hair of a half Jew, half Irishman. He smells of library mold, of the books everyone else has forgotten, and after talking to him I sometimes have nightmares that the University of Chicago will be inhabited by armies of Bill Steins, grad students who bring to their work a robotic drive I've never had, whose nickel-colored eyes see right through me.

Paul sees it differently. He says that Bill, impressive as he is, has one intellectual flaw: the absence of a living spark. Stein crawls through the library like a spider in an attic, eating up dead books and spinning them into fine thread. What he makes from them is always mechanical and uninspired, driven by a symmetry he can never change.

This way? I ask.

Paul leads me down the corridor. The Rare Books Room stands off in a corner of Firestone, easy to pass without noticing. Inside it, where some of the youngest books are centuries old, the scale of age becomes relative. Upperclassmen in literature seminars are brought here like children on field trips, their pens and pencils confiscated, their dirty fingers monitored. Librarians can be heard scolding tenure-track professors to look without touching. Emeritus faculty come here to feel young again.

It should be closed, Paul says, glancing at his digital watch. Bill must've talked Mrs. Lockhart into keeping it open.

We are in Stein's world now. Mrs. Lockhart, the librarian time forgot, probably darned socks with Gutenberg's wife in her day. She has smooth white skin draped on a wispy frame made for floating through the stacks. Most of the day she can be found muttering in dead languages to the books around her, a taxidermist whispering to her pets. We pass by without making eye contact, signing a clipboard with a pen chained to her desk.

He's in there, she says to Paul, recognizing him. To me she gives only a sniff.

Through a narrow connecting area we arrive before a door I've never opened. Paul approaches, knocks twice, and waits for a sound.

Mrs. Lockhart? comes the reply in a high, shifting voice.

It's me, Paul says.

A lock clicks on the other side, and the door opens slowly. Bill Stein appears before us, a half-foot taller than either Paul or me. The first thing I notice is the gunmetal eyes, how bloodshot they are. The first thing they notice is me.

Tom came with you, he says, scratching at his face. Okay. Good, fine.

Bill speaks in shades of the obvious, some stopgap between his mouth and mind gone missing. The impression is misleading. After a few minutes of the mundane you see flashes of his aptitude.

It was a bad day, he says, guiding us in. A bad week. Not a big deal. I'm fine.

Why couldn't we talk on the phone? Paul asks.

Stein's mouth opens, but he doesn't answer. Now he's scratching at something between his front teeth. He unzips his jacket, then turns back to Paul. Has someone been checking out your books? he asks.

What?

Because someone's been checking out mine.

Bill, it happens.

My William Caxton paper? My Aldus microfilm?

Caxton's a major figure, Paul says.

I've never heard of William Caxton in my life.

The 1877 paper on him? Bill says. It's only at the Forrestal Annex. And Aldus's Letters of Saint CatherineHe turns to me. Not, as generally believed, the first use of italics Then back to Paul. Microfilm last viewed by someone other than you or me in the seventies. Seventy-one, seventy-two. Someone put a hold on it yesterday. This isn't happening to you?

Paul frowns. Have you talked to Circulation?

Circulation? I talked to Rhoda Carter. They know nothing

Rhoda Carter, head librarian of Firestone. Where the book stops.

I don't know, Paul says, trying not to get Bill more excited. It's probably nothing. I wouldn't worry about it.

I don't. I'm not. But here's the thing. Bill works his way around the far edge of the room, where the space between the wall and the table seems too narrow to pass. He slips through without a sound and pats at the pocket of his old leather jacket. I get these phone calls. Pick up click. Pick up click. First at my apartment, now at my office. He shakes his head. Never mind. Down to business. I found something. He glances at Paul nervously. Maybe what you need, maybe not. I don't know. But I think it'll help you finish.

From inside his jacket he pulls out something roughly the size of a brick, wrapped in layers of cloth. Placing it gently on the table, he begins to unwrap it. It's a quirk of Stein's I've noticed before, that his hands twitch until they have a book between them. The same thing happens now: as he unravels the cloth, his movements become more controlled. Inside the swaddling is a worn volume, hardly more than a hundred pages. It smells of something briny.

What collection is it from? I ask, seeing no title on the spine.

No collection, he says. New York. An antiquarian shop. I found it.

Paul is silent. Slowly he extends a hand toward the book. The animal-hide binding is crude and cracked, stitched together with leather twine. The pages are hand-cut. A frontier artifact, maybe. A book kept by a pioneer.

It must be a hundred years old, I say, when Stein doesn't offer any details. A hundred and fifty.

An irritated look crosses Stein's face, as if a dog has just fouled his carpet. Wrong, he says. Wrong. It dawns on me that I'm the dog. Five hundred years.

I focus back on the book.

From Genoa, Bill continues, focusing on Paul. Smell it.

Paul is silent. He pulls an unsharpened pencil from his pocket, turns it backward, and gently opens the cover using the soft nub of the eraser. Bill has bookmarked a page with a silk ribbon.

Careful, Stein says, splaying his hands out above the book. His nails are bitten to the quick. Don't leave marks. I have it on loan. He hesitates. I have to return it when I'm done.

Who had this? Paul asks.

The Argosy Book Store, Bill repeats. In New York. It's what you needed, isn't it? We can finish now.

Paul doesn't seem to notice the pronouns changing in Stein's language.

What is it? I say more assertively.

It's the diary of the portmaster from Genoa, Paul says. His voice is quiet, his eyes circling the script on each page.

I'm stunned. Richard Curry's diary?

Paul nods. Curry was working on an ancient Genoese manuscript thirty years ago, which he claimed would unlock the Hypnerotomachia. Shortly after he told Taft about the book, it was stolen from his apartment. Curry insisted Taft had stolen it. Whatever the truth was, Paul and I had accepted from the beginning that the book was lost to us. We'd gone about our work without it. Now, with Paul pushing to finish his thesis, the diary could be invaluable.

Richard told me there were references to Francesco Colonna in here, Paul says. Francesco was waiting for a ship to come into port. The port-master made daily entries about him and his men. Where they stayed, what they did.

Take it for a day, Bill says, interrupting. He stands up and moves toward the door. Make a copy if you need to. A hand copy. Whatever will help finish the work. But I need it back.

Paul's concentration breaks. You're leaving?

I have to go.

We'll see you at Vincent's lecture?

Lecture? Stein stops. No. I can't.

It's making me nervous, just watching how twitchy he is.

I'll be in my office, he continues, wrapping a red tartan scarf around his neck. Remember, I need it back.

Sure, Paul says, drawing the little bundle closer to him. I'll go through it tonight. I can make notes.

And don't tell Vincent, Stein adds, zipping up his coat. Just between us.

I'll have it back for you tomorrow, Paul tells him. My deadline is midnight.

Tomorrow, then, Stein says, flicking the scarf behind him and slinking off. His exits always seem dramatic, being so abrupt. In a few lanky strides he's crossed the threshold where Mrs. Lockhart presides, and is gone. The ancient librarian places a wilted palm on a frayed copy of Victor Hugo, stroking the neck of an old boyfriend.

Mrs. Lockhart, comes Bill's voice, fading from a place we can't see. Good-bye.

It's really the diary? I ask as soon as he's gone. Just listen, Paul says.

He refocuses on the little book and begins reading out loud. The translation proceeds haltingly at first, Paul struggling with the Ligurian dialect, the language of Columbus's Genoa, fused with stray French-sounding words. But gradually his pace improves.

High seas last night. One ship broken on the shore. Sharks washed up, one very large. French sailors go to the brothels. A Moorish corsair? seen in close waters.

He turns several pages, reading at random.

Fine day. Maria is recovering. Her urine is improving, the doctor says. Expensive quack! The herbalist says he will treat her for half the price. And twice as quickly! Paul pauses, staring at the page. Bat dung, he continues, will cure anything.

I interrupt. What does this have to do with the Hypnerotomachia?''

But he keeps shuttling through the pages.

A Venetian captain drank too much last night and began boasting. Our weakness at Fornovo. The old defeat at Portofino. The men brought him to the shipyard and strung him from a tall mast. He is still hanging there this morning.

Before I can repeat my question, Paul's eyes go wide.

The same man from Rome came again last night, he reads. Dressed more richly than a duke. No one knows his business here. Why has he come? I ask others. Those who know anything will not speak. A. ship of his is coming to port, the rumor goes. He has come to see that it arrives safely.

I sit forward in my chair. Paul flips the page and continues.

What is of such importance that a man like this comes to see it? What cargo? Women, says the drunkard Barbo. Turk slaves, a harem. But I have seen this man, called Master Colonna by his servants, Brother Colonna by his fiends: he is a gentleman. And I have seen what is in his eyes. It is not desire. It is fear. He looks like a wolf that has seen a tiger.

Paul stops, staring at the words. Curry has repeated the last phrase to him many times. Even I recognize it. A wolf that has seen a tiger.

The cover folds shut in Paul's hands, the tough black seed in its husk of cloths. A salty smell has thickened the air.

Boys, comes a voice from nowhere. Your time is up.

Coming, Mrs. Lockhart. Paul starts into motion, pulling the cloths over the book and wrapping it tight.

What now? I ask.

We've got to show this to Richard, he says, putting the little bundle beneath the shirt Katie lent him.

Tonight? I say.

As we find our way out, Mrs. Lockhart mumbles, but doesn't look up.

Richard needs to know Bill found it, Paul says, glancing at his watch.

Where is he?

At the museum. There's an event tonight for museum trustees.

I hesitate. I'd assumed Richard Curry was in town to celebrate the completion of Paul's thesis.

We're celebrating tomorrow, he says, reading my expression.

The diary peeks out from under his shirt, a wink of black leather in bandages. From above us comes an echoing voice, almost the sound of laughter.

Web! Steck ich in dem Kerker noch? Verfluchtes dumpfes Mauerlocb, Wo selbst das Hebe Himmelslicbt Trub durch gemalte Scheiben bricht!

Goethe, Paul says to me. She always closes up with Faust. Holding the door on the way out, he calls back, Good night, Mrs. Lockhart.

Her voice comes curling through the mouth of the library.

Yes, she says. A good night.


Chapter 4 | The Rule of Four | Chapter 6