Read TOM FOLIO of Ponkapog Papers, free online book, by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, on ReadCentral.com.

IN my early Boston days a gentle soul was often to be met with about town, furtively haunting old book-shops and dusty editorial rooms, a man of ingratiating simplicity of manner, who always spoke in a low, hesitating voice, with a note of refinement in it.  He was a devout worshiper of Elia, and wrote pleasant discursive essays smacking somewhat of his master’s flavor ­suggesting rather than imitating it ­which he signed “Tom Folio.”  I forget how he glided into my acquaintanceship; doubtless in some way too shy and elusive for remembrance.  I never knew him intimately, perhaps no one did, but the intercourse between us was most cordial, and our chance meetings and bookish chats extended over a space of a dozen years.

Tom Folio ­I cling to the winning pseudonym ­was sparely built and under medium height, or maybe a slight droop of the shoulders made it seem so, with a fragile look about him and an aspect of youth that was not his.  Encountering him casually on a street corner, you would, at the first glance, have taken him for a youngish man, but the second glance left you doubtful.  It was a figure that struck a note of singularity and would have attracted your attention even in a crowd.

During the first four or five years of our acquaintance, meeting him only out of doors or in shops, I had never happened to see him with his hat off.  One day he recklessly removed it, and in the twinkling of an eye he became an elderly bald-headed man.  The Tom Folio I once knew had virtually vanished.  An instant earlier he was a familiar shape; an instant later, an almost unrecognizable individual.  A narrow fringe of light-colored hair, extending from ear to ear under the rear brim of his hat, had perpetrated an unintentional deception by leading one to suppose a head profusely covered with curly locks.  “Tom Folio,” I said, “put on your hat and come back!” But after that day he never seemed young to me.

I had few or no inklings of his life disconnected with the streets and the book-stalls, chiefly those on Cornhill or in the vicinity.  It is possible I am wrong in inferring that he occupied a room somewhere at the South End or in South Boston, and lived entirely alone, heating his coffee and boiling his egg over an alcohol lamp.  I got from him one or two fortuitous hints of quaint housekeeping.  Every winter, it appeared, some relative, far or near, sent him a large batch of mince pies, twenty or thirty at least.  He once spoke to me of having laid in his winter pie, just as another might speak of laying in his winter coal.  The only fireside companion Tom Folio ever alluded to in my presence was a Maltese cat, whose poor health seriously disturbed him from time to time.  I suspected those mince pies.  The cat, I recollect, was named Miss Mowcher.

If he had any immediate family ties beyond this I was unaware of them, and not curious to be enlightened on the subject.  He was more picturesque solitary.  I preferred him to remain so.  Other figures introduced into the background of the canvas would have spoiled the artistic effect.

Tom Folio was a cheerful, lonely man ­a recluse even when he allowed himself to be jostled and hurried along on the turbulent stream of humanity sweeping in opposite directions through Washington Street and its busy estuaries.  He was in the crowd, but not of it.  I had so little real knowledge of him that I was obliged to imagine his more intimate environments.  However wide of the mark my conjectures may have fallen, they were as satisfying to me as facts would have been.  His secluded room I could picture to myself with a sense of certainty ­the couch (a sofa by day), the cupboard, the writing-table with its student lamp, the litter of pamphlets and old quartos and octavos in tattered bindings, among which were scarce reprints of his beloved Charles Lamb, and perhaps ­nay, surely ­an editio princeps of the “Essays.”

The gentle Elia never had a gentler follower or a more loving disciple than Tom Folio.  He moved and had much of his being in the early part of the last century.  To him the South-Sea House was the most important edifice on the globe, remaining the same venerable pile it used to be, in spite of all the changes that had befallen it.  It was there Charles Lamb passed the novitiate of his long years of clerkship in the East India Company.  In Tom Folio’s fancy a slender, boyish figure was still seated, quill in hand, behind those stately porticoes looking upon Threadneedle Street and Bishopsgate.  That famous first paper in the “Essays,” describing the South-Sea House and the group of human oddities which occupied desks within its gloomy chambers, had left an indelible impression upon the dreamer.  Every line traced by the “lean annuitant” was as familiar to Tom Folio as if he had written it himself.  Stray scraps, which had escaped the vigilance of able editors, were known to him, and it was his to unearth amid a heap of mouldy, worm-eaten magazines, a handful of leaves hitherto forgotten of all men.  Trifles, yes ­but Charles Lamb’s!  “The king’s chaff is as good as other people’s corn,” says Tom Folio.

Often his talk was sweet and racy with old-fashioned phrases; the talk of a man who loved books and drew habitual breath in an atmosphere of fine thought.  Next to Charles Lamb, but at a convenable distance, Izaak Walton was Tom Folio’s favorite.  His poet was Alexander Pope, though he thought Mr. Addison’s tragedy of “Cato” contained some proper good lines.  Our friend was a wide reader in English classics, greatly preferring the literature of the earlier periods to that of the Victorian age.  His smiling, tenderly expressed disapprobation of various modern authors was enchanting.  John Keats’s verses were monstrous pretty, but over-ornamented.  A little too much lucent syrup tinct with cinnamon, don’t you think?  The poetry of Shelley might have been composed in the moon by a slightly deranged, well-meaning person.  If you wanted a sound mind in a sound metrical body, why there was Mr. Pope’s “Essay on Man.”  There was something winsome and by-gone in the general make-up of Tom Folio.  No man living in the world ever seemed to me to live so much out of it, or to live more comfortably.

At times I half suspected him of a convalescent amatory disappointment.  Perhaps long before I knew him he had taken a little sentimental journey, the unsuccessful end of which had touched him with a gentle sadness.  It was something far off and softened by memory.  If Tom Folio had any love-affair on hand in my day, it must have been of an airy, platonic sort ­a chaste secret passion for Mistress Peg Woffington or Nell Gwyn, or possibly Mr. Waller’s Saccharissa.

Although Tom Folio was not a collector ­that means dividends and bank balances ­he had a passion for the Past and all its belongings, with a virtuoso’s knowledge of them.  A fan painted by Vanloo, a bit of rare Nankin (he had caught from Charles Lamb the love of old china), or an undoctored stipple of Bartolozzi, gave him delight in the handling, though he might not aspire to ownership.  I believe he would willingly have drunk any horrible decoction from a silver teapot of Queen Anne’s time.  These things were not for him in a coarse, materialistic sense; in a spiritual sense he held possession of them in fee-simple.  I learned thus much of his tastes one day during an hour we spent together in the rear showroom of a dealer in antiquities.

I have spoken of Tom Folio as lonely, but I am inclined to think that I mis-stated it.  He had hosts of friends who used to climb the rather steep staircase leading to that modest third-story front room which I have imagined for him ­a room with Turkey-red curtains, I like to believe, and a rare engraving of a scene from Mr. Hogarth’s excellent moral of “The Industrious and Idle Apprentices” pinned against the chimney breast.  Young Chatterton, who was not always the best of company, dropped in at intervals.  There Mr. Samuel Pepys had a special chair reserved for him by the window, where he could catch a glimpse of the pretty housemaid over the way, chatting with the policeman at the area railing.  Dr. Johnson and the unworldly author of “The Deserted Village” were frequent visitors, sometimes appearing together arm-in-arm, with James Boswell, Esq., of Auchinleck, following obsequiously behind.  Not that Tom Folio did not have callers vastly more aristocratic, though he could have had none pleasanter or wholesomer.  Sir Philip Sidney (who must have given Folio that copy of the “Arcadia"), the Viscount St. Albans, and even two or three others before whom either of these might have doffed his bonnet, did not disdain to gather round that hearthstone.  Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Defoe, Dick Steele, Dean Swift ­there was no end to them!  On certain nights, when all the stolid neighborhood was lapped in slumber, the narrow street stretching beneath Tom Folio’s windows must have been blocked with invisible coaches and sedan-chairs, and illuminated by the visionary glare of torches borne by shadowy linkboys hurrying hither and thither.  A man so sought after and companioned cannot be described as lonely.

My memory here recalls the fact that he had a few friends less insubstantial ­that quaint anatomy perched on the top of a hand-organ, to whom Tom Folio was wont to give a bite of his apple; and the brown-legged little Neapolitan who was always nearly certain of a copper when this multi-millionaire strolled through the slums on a Saturday afternoon ­Saturday probably being the essayist’s pay-day.  The withered woman of the peanut-stand on the corner over against Faneuil Hall Market knew him for a friend, as did also the blind lead-pencil merchant, whom Tom Folio, on occasions, safely piloted across the stormy traffic of Dock Square. Noblesse oblige! He was no stranger in those purlieus.  Without designing to confuse small things with great, I may say that a certain strip of pavement in North Street could be pointed out as Tom Folio’s Walk, just as Addison’s Walk is pointed out on the banks of the Cherwell at Oxford.

I used to observe that when Tom Folio was not in quest of a print or a pamphlet or some such urgent thing, but was walking for mere recreation, he instinctively avoided respectable latitudes.  He liked best the squalid, ill-kept thoroughfares shadowed by tall, smudgy tenement-houses and teeming with unprosperous, noisy life.  Perhaps he had, half consciously, a sense of subtle kinship to the unsuccess and cheerful resignation of it all.

Returning home from abroad one October morning several years ago, I was told that that simple spirit had passed on.  His death had been little heeded; but in him had passed away an intangible genuine bit of Old Boston ­as genuine a bit, in its kind, as the Autocrat himself ­a personality not to be restored or replaced.  Tom Folio could never happen again!

Strolling to-day through the streets of the older section of the town, I miss many a venerable landmark submerged in the rising tide of change, but I miss nothing quite so much as I do the sight of Tom Folio entering the doorway of the Old Corner Bookstore, or carefully taking down a musty volume from its shelf at some melancholy old book-stall on Cornhill.