THE SEARCH BEGAN with a library call slip and the gracious query of an elegant man.
"I beg your pardon," said the man, bowing ever so slightly. "Might I steal a moment of your time?"
He deposited his slip on the reference desk and turned it so that the lettering would face me. And if this unusual courtesy wasn't enough to attract attention, there was also the matter of his handwriting a gorgeous old-fashioned script executed with confident ascenders and tapering exit strokes as well as the title of the book he requested. Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture played right to my fascination with objects of enclosure.
"Let's see what we can do for you, Mr. " I double-checked the bottom of the slip before uttering his improbably literary name. "Henry James Jesson III."
After I had directed him to the tube clerk, curiosity got the best of me, so I rang the stack supervisor and asked that she expedite retrieval. In a further breach of protocol, I pushed through the swing gate and planted myself near the dumbwaiter in Delivery, where I waited for the book to surface.
"This is terribly kind of you," Jesson said as I slid Secret Compartments under the brass grille.
"Glad to be of service."
I was professional enough not to mention the uncanny overlap of our interests I don't meet many readers keen on lettering technique and enclosures. But that same restraint left me mildly disappointed. The call slip was so enticing, our exchange so stilted and brief.
Jesson settled himself at a table near the municipal tax codes. He quickly supplied further proof of a charmingly outmoded manner by digging deep into his capacious trouser pockets to extract a roll of paper, a tiny ink pot, and a calligraphy pen. Though he seemed to ignore the stares of nearby readers, he occasionally glanced in my direction, as if to confirm that I'd stuck around. Which, of course, I had. In fact, while he took notes on Secret Compartments, I took notes on him, convinced that the consonance of our uncommon pursuits demanded annotation.
He wore billowy trousers of moss-green corduroy that had wale as thick as pencils. These he partnered with a button-down shirt of subtle stripe and a dainty chamois vest tied at the back with a fat purple ribbon. He had an indulgent-looking face and blue-gray eyes that recalled the color of the buckram on my compact OED. Despite a bump at the bridge of his nose and teeth that predated fluoridation, he was undeniably handsome, a scholar who appeared unencumbered by the tattered frugality of most academics I assist. Those, in toto, were my preliminary observations of the elderly man wishing to steal a moment of my time.
When the closing bell sounded, I sifted through the wire basket of call slips kept at Returns. My friend Norton noticed me swapping the calligraphic original for a quickly scribbled substitute.
"A little something for your collection?"
"What is it this time?"
"Just some furniture book," I said, downplaying my interest. Norton and I disagreed about the utility of paper records, and I didn't want to be deflected from inspection by yet another sparring session.
I located Jesson's book without difficulty. Secret Compartments was filled with line drawings of card tables, glass-fronted cabinets, and pedestal globes, each image accompanied by a technical description of the mechanism triggering release.
Norton glanced over my shoulder and chuckled. "Let's see here. A book about false fronts and hidden recesses." He paused. "Seems an awful lot like you."
AFTER MR. SINGH, one of our more vigilant exit guards, doweled through my satchel with his stick of polished pine, I said good night to Norton and started the long walk uptown.
Copyright © 2001 by Allen Kurzweil. Reprinted by permission of Hyperion.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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