At three-thirty, still slightly light-headed from reading a different Amanda's letter, Peter sat at a massive oak table in the center of the Devereaux Room, waiting to meet Dr. Francis Leland. The carved wooden chair in which he sat was a fine antique, underfoot was a huge oriental rug, and facing him, a large glass case displayed several medieval illuminated manuscripts. Above this case hung an imposing portrait of Amanda Devereaux. Around the room were fourteen mahogany cases, each surmounted by a carved bust. From where he sat, Peter could read the names of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Cleopatra, and Caligula. Each of the fourteen cases was filled with ancient-looking books.
In front of him lay a slim volume bound in worn, dark brown leather with no markings on the cover. Next to it lay a pair of white cotton gloves. After a few minutes of waiting in a silence not punctuated even by the ticking of a clock, Peter decided this must be a test. He pulled on the gloves and carefully opened the book. The pages within were worn at the edges and looked as soft as flannel. Peter turned to the title page and read: The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke. At the bottom of the page was the publication date: 1603. Shakespeare had still been alive, Peter thought, and for the second time that day, the simple combination of ink and paper literally took his breath away. He felt thrilled, awed, privileged. How many people ever had the chance to hold a copy of Hamlet printed when Shakespeare was still alive? Fingers trembling he turned to the first page of text.
He had read Hamlet in high school and again in freshman English, but this text was different. He had turned the page and read almost to the arrival of the ghost when he heard a soft voice behind him.
"It's not quite the way I remember it," said Peter, gently closing the book and laying it reverently on the table. He turned to see a short man with curly gray hair and horn- rimmed glasses. He wore not the tweed jacket that Peter had expected, but a pair of blue jeans and a red polo shirt.
"It's called a bad quarto," said the man. "It's the first printing of Hamlet, but the text is inferior to later editions. Some scholars think it was plagiarized from memory by someone who saw a performance."
"Still, it's the first printing of Hamlet," said Peter.
"Yes, quite a find," said the man.
"I didn't mean to touch it, it's just?.?.?."
"Quite all right," said the man. "There is no point in having these things if we don't ever have the pleasure of looking at them. What do you think of it?"
"It's?.?.?.?? it's?.?.?." Peter struggled to find the words to describe the experience of holding that book, turning those pages, reading those words printed while the author still lived and breathed and walked the streets of London. Until recently books had been only something to hide behind, then he had begun to see them as carefully crafted objects, but this was completely different. This was a revelation. This book was filled with history and mystery. Just being near it made Peter flush with emotion. "It's amazing," he said at last. He placed one cotton-gloved hand lightly on the book. He could almost feel its life pouring into his fingertips. "I mean, the person who first owned this book, who first read these pages, might have seen the original production of Hamlet. He might have even known Shakespeare personally."
"It's our latest acquisition," said the man. "A newly discovered copy. Miss Devereaux would have been thrilled."
"Did you know her?" asked Peter, nodding toward Amanda Devereaux's portrait.
"Only briefly," said the man. "She was already quite ill when her husband hired me to oversee Special Collections here at Ridgefield. I'm Francis Leland." He held out his hand and Peter shook it.
Excerpted from The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett. Copyright © 2013 by Charlie Lovett. Excerpted by permission of Viking. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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