The Lucky Number/"The Liberry"
I first met Mr. Baxter at the fourpenny box outside Mr. Timpenny's second-hand bookshop in High Street, and was attracted at once by the loving care with which he handled its contents. Dirty and dog's-eared as most of them were, he never snatched one up or threw it down, after the common fashion of patrons of inexpensive literature, but would gently extract a more than usually disreputable volume from its heap, blow the dust off, straighten the warped cover, and smooth out the wrinkled pages before dipping into the subject-matter. In fact, the last operation struck me as interesting him least of all.
Becoming aware of my presence, he moved aside with a courtly little bow. He was a dusty old gentleman, in a very shabby frock-coat. He looked as if he lived in the fourpenny box himself.
“Am I preventing you from selecting a volume, sir?” he inquired.
I hastened to reassure him. I had no special designs on the fourpenny box, or indeed on any. I was merely idling.
“I am waiting for the druggist to make up a prescription,” I said.
“Then you don’t do your own dispensing, sir?”
“As a rule, yes. I have run out of this particular drug, though. But you know me?”
“Yes, sir; by sight. We do not take long in Broxborough to get to know every one by sight. You succeeded to Dr. Wiseman's practice, I think?”
“A good old man, sir, and a lover of books, like myself.”
“You’re right about yourself,” I said. “You handle a book as I would a delicate patient.”
“A very apt comparison, sir. To me, in a manner of speaking, a book is a human thing. A dilapidated book is a patient; I like to repair its broken back and gum in its loose pages. In fact, the late Archdeacon used to rally me upon the subject, sir. He insisted that I cared more for a book, as a book, than for what was inside it.”
I ventured, with immediate success, to draw him out upon the subject of the late Archdeacon.
“Archdeacon Belford, sir. He died many years ago, and few remember him now. A great scholar and gentleman. I was associated with him almost continuously in my younger days. It was he who assisted me to found my library.”
“Yes, sir.” The old gentleman's mild blue eyes suddenly glowed with pride. “Nothing very pretentious, of course; but I take my little pleasure in it. And it grows—it grows.” He picked a small tattered volume out of the box—it looked like an ancient school prize—and turned down a few dog's-ears with a distressed expression.
“A sweet little edition,” he said, examining the text, “but small print. I have left my glasses at home. Would you very kindly indicate to me the nature of its contents, sir?”
I read a few lines aloud to him—poetry.
“I don't know it,” I confessed. “Poetry is not much in my line. Let me look at the title-page. Ah—Robert Southey.”
“I rather thought it was Southey,” said Mr. Baxter immediately.
“I fancy you are more widely read than I am,” I remarked.
“I make a point of reading aloud a passage out of one of my books every day, sir. I acquired the habit under the late Archdeacon. We read together constantly. He had very definite views on the value of reading. ‘A man with books about him,’ he used to say, ‘is a man surrounded by friends far more interesting and distinguished than any he is likely to meet when he dines with the Bishop. A man with a library of his own, however small, is at once a capitalist who can never go bankrupt and an aristocrat who moves in circles to which the common herd cannot penetrate. In other words, a man with a library is a man respected!' That was why I founded my own, sir. The Archdeacon himself contributed the first few volumes.”
“Is it a large library?” I asked, glancing furtively at my wrist-watch.
“No, sir; of very modest dimensions. But it is sufficiently large to be utilized by nearly all my friends.
“You lend them books, then?”
“Oh, no, sir. I would not do that. My books are everything to me—and you know what book borrowers are! My friends are welcome to tap my literary resources, but it must be through me as medium.”
“I don’t quite understand,” I said, noting out of the corner of my eye that Mr. Pettigrew, the druggist next door, had emerged from behind the carved wooden screen which masks the mysteries of his dispensing department from the layman's eye, and was now visible through the shop window, busy with white paper and sealing-wax.
“When a seeker after knowledge calls upon me,” explained the indefatigable Mr. Baxter, “I select from my library the appropriate volume and read, or recite, to him such passages as appear to me most applicable to his case. In this way I ensure the safety and cleanliness of my literary property—”
“So here you are! I thought so. Have you been buying another of those dirty things?”
A small, alert, slightly shrewish girl of about fifteen had suddenly appeared from nowhere, and was now transfixing my flinching companion with the eye of the Ancient Mariner.
“Only fourpence, my dear,” replied Mr. Baxter, deferentially.
“That's right. Throw money about!” said the young lady. “Have you got fourpence?” she added, with a slight softening of manner.
“Well, to be exact, I rather think all I have at the moment is threepence.
The Ancient Mariner produced a penny.
“Here you are,” she said, handing him the coin with a not altogether successful attempt at an indulgent smile. “You have n’t bought anything for a fortnight. Go in and pay for it, and then come home to dinner, do!”
“Good morning, Mr. Baxter! How's the library this morning?”
The druggist was standing in his doorway, with a facetious twinkle in his eye. Evidently Mr. Baxter's library was an accepted target for local humour.
Mr. Baxter took no notice, but disappeared into the bookshop. Mr. Pettigrew handed me my bottle.
“One of our characters, that old fellow,” he said, with that little air of civic pride which marks the country-townsman booming local stock. “Quite a poor man, but possesses an extensive library—quite extensive. His learning is at the service of his fellow citizens. He likes to be called The Oracle. Supposing you want to know something about Shakespeare, or Julius Cæsar, or Wireless Telegraphy, or Patagonia, you go to Baxter. You press the button and he does the rest! Lives a bit in the clouds, of course; and I would n’t go so far as to say that his information is always infallible. In fact”—Mr. Pettigrew tapped his forehead significantly—“his upper storey—”
“Who made up a wrong prescription, and poisoned a baby?” demanded an acid voice immediately under the humourist's left elbow. He swung round. The small girl, crimson with wrath, but with her emotions well under control, stood gazing dispassionately before her, apparently talking to herself.
“Whose wife gave a party,” she continued—“and nobody came? Whose daughter wants to marry the curate—and he won’t? Who—”
“That’ll do,” announced Mr. Pettigrew, shortly, and retired in disorder into his shop. Simultaneously The Oracle emerged from the bookshop with Robert Southey under his arm, and with a stately inclination in my direction departed down the street, under the grim and defiant escort of his infant guardian.
One morning about three months later, my butler, footman, valet-de-chambre, chauffeur, and general supervisor, McAndrew, thrust his head round the dining-room door as I sat at breakfast and announced:
“There’s a wee body in the hall.”
I have known McAndrew for seven years now, and I understand his vernacular. We met in that great rendezvous of all time, the Western Front, on a day when I took command of a Field Ambulance in which McAndrew was functioning as a stretcher bearer. When our unit was demobilized in Nineteen Nineteen, McAndrew came before me and announced that he had relinquished all intention of resuming his former profession of “jiner” in his native Dumbarton, and desired henceforth to serve me in the capacity mentioned above for the joint term of our natural lives. I took him on, and he does very well. He has his own ideas about how to wait at table, and his methods with unauthenticated callers are apt to be arbitrary; but he is clean and honest, and—well, he wears a vertical gold stripe on his left sleeve and three ribbons just above his watch-pocket. That is enough for me.
As I say, his vernacular now contains no mysteries for me. So when he made the alarming announcement just mentioned I realized at once that no case of infant mortality had occurred on my premises, but that a person of small stature desired an interview.
“Man or woman?” I asked.
“I couldna say: she wouldna tell me,” replied McAndrew, not without bitterness.
“Bring her in,” I said. Forthwith the Ancient Mariner was ushered into my presence.
“Grampa’s in bed with one of his legs again,” she announced.
I forbore to ask an obvious and fatuous question, and nodded.
“Dr. Wiseman used to attend him,” continued my visitor; “but he did n’t charge him very much–next to nothink, almost,” she added, with a shade of anxiety.
“Is your grandfather insured, or on any club?” I asked. “If so, the panel doctor—”
“No, he is n’t insured, or anything. He's a gentleman. He has a liberry.”
Toujours the Liberry! “Where does he live?” I inquired.
“Twenty-One, The Common. When can you come?”
“All right. Don't be earlier than that: I have the room to straighten.”
The Home of The Oracle proved to be one of a row—something between a villa and a cottage. The door was opened by my sharp-featured little friend.
“Walk in,” she said—“and wipe your boots.”
Mr. Baxter was in bed in the front parlour. As I had suspected, he had both legs with him—but one of these was inflamed and swollen.
“I always bring him in here when he's poorly,” explained the granddaughter (whose name I discovered later to be Ada Weeks), “because he likes to be with his old books.” She favoured her patient with an affectionate glare. “He’s half silly about them.”
I attended to the invalid's immediate wants, and then overhauled him generally. He was not what an insurance agent would have termed “a good life.” After that, I was introduced to the library, which occupied the wall opposite to the bed. It consisted of a couple of mahogany bookcases, of solid Victorian workmanship, with locked glass doors lined with faded green silk. Ada Weeks produced a key from under her grandfather's pillow and unlocked one of the doors, revealing the books. They were all neatly covered in brown paper. There were no titles on the backs, but each book bore a number, in sprawling, irregular figures.
“There, sir!” announced my patient, with simple pride. “There you behold the accumulated wealth of a man who is just as wealthy as he wishes to be!”
“Rats!” remarked a sharp voice from the recesses of the library; but the old gentleman appeared not to hear.
“It dates from the lamented death of the late Archdeacon. There are a hundred and seventy-nine volumes in all. The little Southey is the last arrival. Show it to us, Ada.”
Miss Weeks extracted Volume One Hundred and Seventy-Nine from the lowest shelf, and handed it to the old man. He turned over the pages lovingly.
“Here is the passage which made us acquainted, sir,” he said. “A delightful thing.” He produced spectacles from somewhere in the bed, adjusted them, and read:
“My days among the Dead are passed:
Around me I behold
(Where'er these casual eyes are cast)
The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom—With whom—”
“‘With whom I converse day by day,’” said Ada Weeks in a matter-of-fact voice. “Don’t strain your eyes.”
“You are right, my dear,” admitted Mr. Baxter, laying down the book. “The type is somewhat small. But this little poem is strangely suggestive of my own condition. It is called ‘The Scholar'—just about an old man living in the past among his books. I have read it to myself many a time since last I saw you, sir. Put it back, Ada; and show the Doctor an older friend. Something out of the late Archdeacon's library—say Number Fourteen.”
Miss Ada pulled down the volume indicated, blew viciously upon the top edges, and handed it to me. It proved to be part of an almost obsolete Encyclopaedia.
“A useful little compendium of knowledge,” was Mr. Baxter's comment. “Unfortunately, I have not the set complete—only eight volumes. They go as far as Pocahontas. There are four more, really.”
“Prairie Oyster to Zymotic,” confirmed the ever-ready Miss Weeks.
“Precisely. You would be surprised at the number of my callers who desire information on matters that come between Prairie Oyster and Zymotic!” The old gentleman sighed. “But where their requirements are limited to the earlier letters of the alphabet, I can usually find a passage which both interests and enlightens them.” He glanced at the number on the back of the book. “This is the first volume of the set—A—Byzantium. Many a hungry soul have I fed from it.” He turned over the pages. “Addison—Algebra—Archæology—Adenoids—That reminds me, a neighbour is coming in to consult me about adenoids this afternoon. A mother—a woman in quite humble circumstances. I must look up adenoids.”
“Isn't that rather trespassing on my department?” I asked.
“Oh, dear! no, sir. All I shall do will be to find the passage relating to adenoids, and read it aloud to Mrs. Caddick.”
“Mrs. Caddick? I am treating a child of hers for adenoids at present.”
“Quite so, sir. And Mrs. Caddick naturally wishes to know what they are. I shall read aloud to her the scientific definition of the ailment. It is surprising what a comfort that will be to her. Poor soul, she's almost illiterate; and the printed word is a sacred mystery to such!”
“You are an authority on human nature, Mr. Baxter, I perceive.”
“You are kind to say so, sir. But I was a mere disciple of the late Archdeacon. It’s a strange thing, human nature,” he continued pensively. “I have studied it all my life. My recreation is to help it—and it needs all the help it can get. I am at home every evening, and folk look in quite regularly to ask for my guidance on some literary, historical, or scientific point of interest. ‘Consulting The Oracle,” they are kind enough to call it. Such visits enable me to gratify at once my hobby and my vanity!” He smiled.
“You have one or two bulky-looking volumes up there,” I said, approaching the bookcase and inspecting the top shelf. “Who is this big fellow—Number Eighty-Seven?”
I half raised my hand; but in a flash Ada Weeks was before me.
“It’s Shakespeare,” she announced, snatching the volume down and holding it to her flat little bosom. “Presentation!”
“Ada is always a little jealous about letting the presentation volumes out of her hands,” explained Mr. Baxter, from the bed. “That book was conferred upon me as a small token of esteem by a certain literary circle in London in which I was interested before I came here, many years ago. Bring it to me, my dear.”
Ada Weeks, with a sidelong and defiant glance in my direction, handed the great book to the old man. He opened it at random, and began to read aloud.
“This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,—”
He broke off, and smiled.
“You see I do not need glasses,” he said, “for such a passage as that! I almost know it by heart, although I never possessed the Archdeacon's astonishing facility in that direction. He was accustomed to commit a passage to memory every day. Put it back, Ada, dear.”
Miss Weeks restored the volume to the case, closed the door, turned the key, and faced me with the air of a small but determined hen which has safely shut her chickens into the coop in the very face of an ill-disposed but inexperienced young fox. I took up my hat.
“Good-bye, Mr. Baxter,” I said. “I shall come and see you to-morrow. Don't let your disciples overtire you.”
The old man flushed. “I thank you for that flattering word, sir,” he said.
Halfway down the street I realized that I had forgotten my stethoscope. Accordingly, I retraced my steps.
I found the front door open. I might have walked in without ceremony; but, inspired by a very proper fear of Miss Ada Weeks, I tapped respectfully and waited. There was no response. Presently I became aware of voices proceeding from the front parlour, the door of which stood wide open just inside the passage. This is what I heard.
“Adenitis, and Adenoid Growths—that’s the nearest I can find. Which do you want?”
“I think Adenoid Growths, my dear. Read it through once, as usual; then again line by line.”
“All right. Pay attention, mind!” said Miss Weeks sharply, and began:
“Adenoid Growths of the lym—lymphatic tissues of the upper throat occur chiefly in children from four to fourteen. Yes, that's right: Johnny Caddick is eight. The child breathes through the mouth—Where do they expect him to breathe through? His ear?—suffers from Nasal Cat–cat something; we’ll call it cater—from Nasal Cater. I wonder how people can write such words, let alone read them!”
“To me,” said the gentle voice of the old man, “it seems wonderful that they should be able to do either.”
“Listen again,” commanded Miss Weeks, oblivious of a resounding knock from me.
“—Nasal Cater, and slight deafness; and is stupid and sluggish—This book takes off Johnny Caddick to the life, and no mistake! I wonder what his mother will say—with a cha-rac-ter-is-tic—oh, crumbs!—facial expression. Cure is effected by a simple operation of removal. Does that mean his face? A good job if it does! That's all. Now I’ll learn you it. Adenoid Growths—”
“Adenoid Growths; Adenoid Growths; Adenoid Growths—”
“Of the lymphatic tissues—”
“Of the lymphatic tissues—”
I recollected that I had a spare stethoscope at home, and tiptoed down the steps.
I learned a good deal about the Baxter ménage during the next few weeks, from various sources.
First the Rector, whom I encountered one day paying a parochial call at Twenty-One, The Common. We walked home together.
“He’s a strange old fellow,” said my companion, “and most of his characteristics are derived from imitation, conscious or unconscious, of a stranger old fellow still.”
“The late lamented?”
“Exactly. Old Belford was a bachelor, and lived alone among his books in his house in the Close for nearly forty years. His only companions were an aged cook-housekeeper and Adam Baxter. He died fifteen or twenty years ago, before I came here. He was nearly ninety, I fancy.”
“What was Baxter's exact status in the household?”
“By his own account, he was the old man's confidential secretary, amanuensis, and librarian. My own belief is that he cleaned the Archidiaconal boots. Of course he may have been allowed to dust the books in the library too. Anyhow, during his period of service in that household he contrived to amass an enormous quantity of more or less useless book-learning. He is regarded hereabouts as quite a savant. His erudition makes him respected by those who have none, and his library of miscellaneous rubbish gives him the status of a man of property.”
“It’s not all rubbish. He has a Shakespeare and a . Southey, at least. He has Jowett's Thucydides too, he tells me.”
“You’re right: I retract that part. But his library is rubbish, in the sense that it's an unclassified rag bag of odds and ends. Still, he's an enlightened old chap in his way. When he settled down in that little house after old Belford's death and began to set up as a sort of provincial Socrates, his conversation and library were mainly classical, as you might expect, considering their origin. He would pull down, a Homer, or a Herodotus, or a, and spout to his audience some favourite passage of his late employer.”
“You mean to say he translated from the original Latin and Greek?”
“Ah! That’s what nobody knows. The peculiar thing about Baxter is that, though he will read or quote from any book in his library for your delectation, he practically never permits any one to take the book out of his hands. No human eye, for instance, has ever fallen upon the printed pages of Baxter's Homer. If it did, I suspect it would find that page printed in good plain English. Pope's translation, probably.”
“You think he is a fraud, then?”
“Oh, bless you, no! I think he is a genuine book-lover, and values—in fact lives on—the respect which his literary eminence earns for him in this extremely unliterary township. But candidly I think most of his classical works are common cribs. I have known less pardonable forms of hypocrisy. But I was saying just now he was enlightened. Of late years he has supplemented his Latin and Greek and his Poets and Historians by scientific and technical literature. People go and consult him about all sorts of modern developments and tendencies now.”
“Adenoids, for instance?”
“Precisely. Well, I turn off here. I am going to pay a call upon a gentleman who made a large fortune out of Civilian War Work of National Importance. He has acquired a library, too—quite recently and all at once—beautifully bound in morocco and tree calf. But I doubt if he could quote a single line from a single volume therein. Baxter for me, every time! Good-afternoon.”
Secondly, from McAndrew.
“Yon auld felly, Baxter,” he suddenly remarked to me one day while driving me home from a professional round, and passing the door of Number Twenty-One; “he’s real respeckit in the toon. In Scotland, of course, he would be naebody, for every one's educatit there. But here there's men making as much as seeven pound a week at the Phœnix Linoleum Works, on the south side, that has read naething since they passed through school but the Sabbath newspapers. They look on Baxter as a kin’ o' Cyclopedy. But—I was in there the other nicht for a bit crack, and I asked him what he thought of Rabbie Burns. He’d never heard tell of him! There's your Oracle!”
“Mr. Baxter is a self-made man of letters,” I said. “He got most of his learning second-hand from the Archdeacon. Perhaps the Archdeacon was not a student of Burns, either.”
The enormity of this suggestion quite paralyzed McAndrew for a while. Presently he recovered sufficiently to resume:
“Yon Archdeacon was asort of body. He lived all alone in yon dreich-lookin' house in the Cathedral Close nigh fufty year. He had naething aboot him but books, and naebody aboot him but an auld wife, Mistress Corby, and Baxter. She's deid now, but her dochter married on the ironmonger in High Street. It was her was telling me. Mistress Corby did the beds and the cooking, and Baxter did everything else. He redd up the library, and dusted the books. He carried the coals and sorted the garden as weel. And where do you think the Archdeacon got him?”
“Aye, Baxter. Singin' in the street! There's few fowk in this toon ken that, or mind it. But Baxter just drufted into the place one wet day, with the toes stickin' oot of his boots, and the Archdeacon found him standin’ in the rain and took him intil the hoose and kept him. Twenty-five shillin' a week he got, with two suits of clothes a year and a bit present at Christmas. He bided there thirty years, and the Archdeacon never repented of his bargain. Good servants is scarce.”
McAndrew paused impressively, to allow this last truth to sink in, and continued.
“I jalouse the way Baxter got an so weel with the Archdeacon was the interest he took in the library. He was never oot of it, unless he was pitten oot. It wasna so much that he would read the books as worship them. He would take them oot and hold them in his hands by the hour, or sit back on a chair and glower at their backs on the shelves. So Mistress Corby's dochter that married on the ironmonger tellt me.”
“By the way, when did Mr. Baxter's grand daughter appear on the scene?” I inquired.
“That was long after the old man died. He left Baxter an annuity, with two bookcases and a wheen books to start a library of his ain. Mistress Corby's dochter says he left him fufty, and Baxter pinched other twenty-five. That was the nucleus, you’ll understand. The rest he has been collecting for him self for many a year.”
“And the granddaughter?” I inquired gently.
“Oh, aye; I was coming to her. She came along aboot five years ago, long after the old man had settled into yon wee hoose where he stays now. She just appeared. Naebody could ever find oot where from, although Mistress Corby's dochter asked Baxter to tea in her own hoose twice and called on him herself three times. Baxter is as close as an oyster, and as for the lassie”—McAndrew shuddered slightly—“she has an ill tongue tae provoke.”
Thirdly, chez Baxter.
As already indicated, it was the old gentleman's custom of an evening to receive visitors in the front room and discourse to them on literature, poetry, history, and science. Light refreshments—very light refreshments—were handed round by Miss Weeks; but these were a mere appendage to the literary provender supplied. I formed the habit of joining this symposium upon one evening every week—at first out of idle curiosity (and perhaps with the pardonable desire of indulging in one of the few forms of advertisement open to a struggling physician), but subsequently through sheer interest in the academy itself and the amazingly sure touch with which the master handled his disciples.
They were a motley crew. There were socially ambitious young shop-assistants, anxious to acquire a literary polish likely to impress the opposite sex. There were artisans who wished to advance them selves in the technique of their profession. There were heavy-handed, heavy-shouldered, rather wistful men, with muscles made lusty by hard physical labour, conscious of minds grown puny and attenuated for lack of intellectual nourishment. There were humble folk with genuine literary leanings, who came to consult Mr. Baxter's poems and essays, and sometimes shyly proffered compositions of their own for perusal and comment. There were men—uneducated men—dimly conscious of the fact that they possessed immortal souls, who had waded into the deep waters of theological speculation, and got out of their depth. For each and all Mr. Baxter had a word of welcome and counsel.
“I am very happy to see you, Mr. Wright. And your friend, Mr.—? Mr. Dennis. Thank you. We are going to read and discuss a passage from ‘The Tempest’ presently. Shakespeare, you know. Be seated, and my granddaughter will offer you a little refreshment. … I have been consulting various authorities on statical electricity for you, Mr. Armitage. I have marked a few passages in my Encyclopædia, Volume Twenty in my library, which seem to me to treat the subject most lucidly. You might also derive some information from the life of Mr. Faraday–Volume Eighteen. My grand daughter will look up the passage for you presently. … Ah, Mr. Jobson! How are they down at the factory to-day? You are just in time. We are about to read and discuss a passage from ‘The Tempest.’ Shakespeare, of course. Be seated, pray. … For me to read, Mr. Penton? Thank you: that indeed will be an intellectual treat. I will peruse your manuscript at leisure, and comment upon it at our next meeting. … The Agnostics still bothering you, Mr. Clamworthy? Well, I am no theologian; but for sheer old fashioned common sense I don’t think you can beat Paley's ‘Evidences of Christianity.’ The late Archdeacon used to say that he always came back to Paley in the end. Ada, my dear, that passage I marked in Volume Forty-Seven! Now friends, “The Tempest’”
After that the Presentation Shakespeare would be opened, and Mr. Baxter would declaim selected passages. His voice was mellow, and his manner ecclesiastical; plainly his whole deportment was moulded, to the last gesture and inflexion, on one unvarying model. A discussion would follow—a quite naïve and rather pathetic discussion, sometimes. Ultimately Mr. Baxter would sum up, generally with extracts from other Shakespearian passages, which he turned up with great readiness and dexterity, rolling them from off his tongue with obvious relish. Occasionally he would ask Ada for some other volume, and read from that. There were great moments when he would actually call for Homer or Horace and, with apologies for rusty scholarship, offer to our respectful ears a quite coherent rendering of some famous passage.
Finally, at a moment selected by herself, the vigilant Ada Weeks would terminate the proceedings with the curt announcement that her grandfather was tired. The precious volumes were locked in the library again, and we were bidden, without ceremony, to say good-night to our host and not to bang the street door. Both of which commands we obeyed promptly and reverently, and departed homeward.
Possibly it may have occurred to the reader to wonder whether in a community at once so erudite and progressive as Broxborough—it possesses both a Cathedral Close and a Linoleum Factory, you will remember—there can have been no official alter native to Twenty-One, The Common—no Public Library, no Public Lecture Courses, no Municipal Oracle, as it were.
In truth Broxborough once had all these things. Before the War there existed an institution known as Broxborough Pantheon. Here was an excellent library of reference; lectures and classes, too, were constantly in operation throughout the winter months. In its lighter moments the Pantheon lent itself to whist drives. But the entire building had been destroyed by fire in Nineteen Fifteen, and had never been rebuilt, for the good and sufficient reason that during those days there were other things to do. After the Armistice money was scarce and rates were high. Moreover, that shrinking sensitive-plant, the British bricklayer, had been instructed by his Union to limit his professional activities to a tale of bricks so tenuous that his labours for the day were completed, without undue strain, by the time that he knocked off for breakfast. The months passed; such constructive energy as the district could compass was devoted to Government housing schemes, and still the Pantheon lay in ruins.
But one day a man from Pittsburgh, who had been born in Broxborough nearly forty years previously, and had relinquished his domicile and civil status therein by becoming an American citizen at the age of three, returned, rugged, prosperous, and beneficently sentimental, to revisit the haunts of his youth, and refresh his somewhat imperfect memories of his birthplace.
Naturally he found the place profoundly changed. The Cathedral organ-bellows were now inflated by a gas-engine, and the nine-Seventeen up-train did not start until nine-forty-two. And—where the Broxborough Pantheon had once reared its stucco pseudo-Doric façade upon the market-square, there was nothing but an untidy hoarding masking a heap of charred débris, and labelled, “Site of proposed new premises of the Broxborough Pantheon.” The label appeared to have been there for some years.
John Crake of Pittsburgh made inquiries, and the truth was revealed. The old Pantheon had ceased to exist for nearly five years, and the new Pantheon, in the present condition of the rate-payers' pockets, seemed unlikely ever to exist at all. So John Crake, having pondered the matter in his large and sentimental heart, put his hand into his own capacious pocket, and lo! the new Pantheon arose. The plasterers had wreaked their will upon the donor's bank account, and were making sullen way for the plumbers and electricians, about the time when I first encountered Mr. Baxter outside the second-hand bookshop.
And now the building was ready for occupation, and the exact procedure at the opening ceremony was becoming a matter of acute recrimination at the Council meetings. So that genial gossip the Rector informed me, as we encountered one another one afternoon on our professional rounds.
“Things are more or less arranged,” he said, “so far as our city fathers are capable of arranging anything. The place is to be called Crake Hall, which I think is right, and Crake himself is coming over from America for the opening, which I call sporting of him. Old Broxey” (The Most Noble the Marquis of Broxborough, the Lord Lieutenant of our County) “will perform the opening ceremony. That is to say, he will advance up the steps in the presence of the multitude and knock three times upon the closed doors of the Hall. A Solemn pause will follow, to work up the excitement. Then the donor, who will be standing inside, wearing a top-hat for the first time in his life—”
“Rector, I have frequently warned you that your ribald tongue will some day lose you your job.”
“Never mind that. It’s a poor heart that never rejoices, and I am too fat to be serious all the time, anyhow. Well, after the appointed interval of silence Crake will open a kind of peep-hole in the oaken door, and say: “Who goes there?’ or something of that kind. Broxey, if he is still awake, will reply: ‘The Citizens of this Ancient Borough,” or words to that effect. Then the doors will be thrown open—assuming that they will open; but you know what our local contractors are—and Crake will be revealed in his top-hat, and will say: “Welcome, Stranger!” or, “Walk right in, boys!” or, ‘Watch your step!’ or something like that, and will hand the key of the Institute to Broxey, who will probably lose it.”
“I see. And then to lunch at the Town Hall, I suppose?”
“Not so fast. Remember this is a Cathedral city: the Dean and Chapter must be given an opportunity to put their oar in. The Dean will speak his piece, and then I understand that the Choir, who are to be concealed somewhere behind one of the doors, will create a brief disturbance. After that the Town will assert itself, as against the County and the Close.”
“What is their stunt going to be?”
“An Address of Welcome and Grateful Thanks to Crake.”
“That seems reasonable. But who is going to compose it?”
“I have already done so, by request. It is not half bad,” said the Rector modestly.
“Who is going to read it? The Mayor?”
“The Mayor is an imperfect creature, but he possesses one superlative quality: he harbours no illusions about his own ability to grapple with the letter H. He declines to read the Address. Most of the Corporation are in the same boat—though they don’t all admit it.”
“Why don't you read it yourself?”
“Trades-Union rules forbid. If I read it, it would be regarded as the propaganda of the Established Church. The forces of Town and Chapel would combine to fall upon me and crush me. No, we must have a citizen—a citizen of credit and renown, locally known and esteemed.” The Rector eyed me furtively. “I suppose you, now—”
“Not on your life!” I replied hastily.
“Well, for one thing I am a comparative stranger: I have n’t been here two years yet. Besides, in opening a literary and intellectual emporium of this kind you want—I have it! The very man!”
“Who?” asked the Rector, eagerly.
I told him.
The Rector halted in the middle of the street and shook me by the hand.
“Ideal!” he said. “I’ll fix it with the Council. You go and ask him.”
I repaired to the Home of The Oracle that same evening. It was destined to be a memorable visit. Something unusual in the atmosphere impressed itself on my senses the moment Ada Weeks opened the door to me. Miss Weeks's manner could never at any time be described as genial: at its very best it was suggestive of an indulgent sergeant-major. But this evening Ada resembled a small, lean cat, engaged in a rear-guard action with dogs. Her green eyes blazed: one felt that she would like to arch her back and spit.
“Pettigrew and Mould is here,” she said. “Hang up your own hat: I can't leave them.” And she vanished into the front room.
Messrs. Pettigrew and Mould were a sore trial to Mr. Baxter. They did not consult The Oracle regularly, but when they did they made trouble. Their efforts appeared mainly to be directed towards embarrassing their host by asking frivolous questions, and then humiliating him in the presence of his disciples by the manner in which they received his answers.
The attitude of Mr. Pettigrew, the druggist, was understandable; for he was a mean little man, and jealous. He possessed diplomas and certificates of his own: he was steeped in all the essences of the Pharmacopœia: yet none did him reverence. The towns people purchased cough mixtures and patent pills from him with no more respect than if they had been sausages or yards of tape. Even when he assumed an air of portentous solemnity and retired behind his carved oak screen with a prescription, most of his customers took it for granted that he filled up the bottle from a water-tap and added colouring matter and a dash of something unpleasant to the taste. Probably they were not far wrong. But wrong or right, it never occurred to any of them to treat Mr. Pettigrew as an Oracle, or Savant, or Philosopher; and Mr. Pettigrew undoubtedly felt very badly about it.
Mr. Mould was our local undertaker—which was unfortunate, for nature had intended him for a low comedian. Under a professionally chastened exterior he concealed the sense of humour and powers of repartee of a small boy of ten. To him Mr. Baxter, with his studied little mannerisms and his pedantic little courtesies, was fair game.
When I entered the parlour these two worthies were heavily engaged in their favourite sport of philosopher-baiting. The philosopher himself, I noticed, was looking very old and very tired. I had not seen him for a week, and I was secretly shocked at his appearance.
“You’re not looking well,” I said, as I shook hands. “You ought not to be entertaining your friends to-night.”
“Indeed,” replied my host, with the ghost of a smile, “my friends have been entertaining me. Mr. Mould has been amusing us all. Has he not, Ada?”
“If I was his wife,” replied Miss Weeks, with a glare which would have permanently disheartened any comedian less sure of himself than Mr. Mould, “I should die of laughing—at myself!”
This dark saying was accepted by the undertaker as a compliment.
“I certainly venture to claim,” he observed complacently, “that we pulled our respected friend's leg pretty neatly to-night.” Pettigrew sniggered.
“What was the joke?” I asked, without enthusiasm.
“Well, me and Mr. Pettigrew here,” began the undertaker, “knowing Mr. Baxter's fondness for giving information and advice, brought him a little poser last time we came here. We asked him if he could find anything in his library about an ancient Greek party called Cinchona. He said he would look Mr. Cinchona up. This evening he had his little lecture all ready for us. Highly enjoyable, it was. Cinchona, it seems, was one of the less-known figures in Ancient Greek Mythology—was n’t that it, Pettigrew?”
Pettigrew grinned, and clicked. He was an unpleasant-looking creature, with false teeth which did not fit.
“In fact,” continued Mould, with immense relish, “poor old Cinchona was such a little-known figure that most people—common uneducated druggists, like Mr. Pettigrew—thought Cinchona was the name of the bark they make quinine from. Haw, haw, haw!”
The two humourists roared outright this time. Mr. Baxter, with the unruffled courtesy of perfect breeding, Smiled again, though I could see he was much put out. Jobson, the heavy-shouldered artisan from the factory, sat gazing at him in a puzzled and rather reproachful manner. One could see that he felt his master ought to have known all about Cinchona.
“An interesting coincidence,” commented the old man gently. “The drug cinchona is, of course, well known scientifically, but classically, Cinchona the demi-god is hardly known at all. In fact, he is only mentioned once or twice in the whole of ancient literature. I have been dipping into my Homer.”—he indicated the familiar volume in his hand—“and I find—”
“May I look for myself?” asked Pettigrew suddenly; and before even Ada could spring to the old man's side he had snatched the book and opened it. Baxter put out his hand anxiously.
“Let me find the passage for you, Mr. Pettigrew,” he said. “I do not know whether you are familiar with ancient Greek—”
“No,” said Mr. Pettigrew grimly, looking up from the book, “I am not. But I am familiar with modern German. This book is printed in German!”
“The marginal comments are in German, of course,” said the old man quickly. “The thoroughness of German research is proverbial. Give me back the book, pray!” I noticed he was breathing very shortly.
Ada Weeks settled the question by wrenching the volume out of Pettigrew's hand and locking it into The Liberry.
“You can go!” she announced. “We only entertain gentlemen here.”
Pettigrew took up his hat: Mould rose and did likewise. The rest of the company fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats. It was a particularly unpleasant moment.
“Good-night, Mr. Baxter,” said Pettigrew, moving towards the door, which Miss Weeks was obligingly holding wide open for him. “Sometimes I wonder,” he sniggered, turning again, “whether you are quite as ripe a scholar as you would have some of the less educated people in this town believe.”
“Ripe? He's over-ripe—rotten!” announced Mould confidently.
Mr. Baxter rose suddenly from his armchair.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “you insult me in my own house. It is your privilege to do so. You are my guests—”
I thought it time to interfere. I crossed the room, gently lowered my old friend into his seat again, and turned to the company. They were all on their feet by this time.
“Now look here,” I announced, in what I have always hoped is a breezy voice, “you people really must keep your debates academic. Here you are, all flying straight up in the air over some twopenny ha'penny point of scholarship, and exciting one of my most valued patients”—I patted Baxter solemnly on the shoulder—“to an attack of insomnia! You must n’t do it, you know—especially just now!”
“What do you mean, just now?” asked Ada quickly. She shot an apprehensive glance at her grandfather's drawn features.
“I mean this. You know the opening of Crake Hall takes place on Saturday?”
Every one looked up, surprised at the diversion.
“Yes: what of it?” said Pettigrew.
“You know that an Address of Welcome and Grateful Thanks is to be read to Mr. Crake by a representative citizen of the town?”
“Yes,” said Pettigrew again; and he said it with an intensity which gave him away badly.
“Well, Mr. Baxter here—our very dear and esteemed friend Mr. Baxter”—I spoke the words deliberately, and felt the old shoulder suddenly stiffen under my hand—“has been unanimously selected by the Council”—I breathed a prayer that the Rector might not have failed me–“to read that Address! That is why I am thoroughly angry with you all for tiring him out with your conundrums. He is not a young man, or a strong man; and I want to have him in first-class trim for his appearance on Saturday. Home to bed, all of you!”
“Outside!” commanded Miss Weeks; and shepherded the entire company into the passage, closing the door behind her.
Baxter and I were left alone. I took my stand on the worn hearth-rug, with my back to the fire, lingering over the lighting of my pipe with the uneasy selfconsciousness of the Englishman who has just participated in a scene. My old friend's thin hands were extended upon the arms of his chair; his head was sunk upon his breast. I decided to say something cheerful.
“Well,” I remarked, “I think the Council's invitation came to you at a very appropriate moment.”
Baxter raised his head, and I noticed that he seemed to have grown many years older.
“I fear you have done me an ill service, sir,” he said. “Unintentionally, of course!” he hastened to add.
“In what way?”
“I cannot accept the Council's invitation.”
“Why not? I'll have you fit and well by Saturday.”
“It’s not that, sir. I cannot do it.”
“Because—because I happen to be an impostor!”
“Oh, come! You must not take things too much to heart. A man can be a sound scholar without knowing very much about Greek or German.”
“It’s not that, sir.”
“I can neither read nor write.”
I mixed a glass of weak whiskey and water, and made him drink it. Presently he began to talk—in a low voice, with pauses for breath; but after a while with a flicker of his old graciousness and dignity.
“The late Archdeacon, sir, used to observe that a man should have no secrets from his banker, his lawyer, or his doctor. (He had a great many from all three, but no matter!) I have no banker, and no lawyer; but I have a doctor—a very kind doctor—and I am going to tell him something which it is only fair he should know.
“I was born before the days of Free Education. I was earning my living in the streets of London when Mr. Forster brought in the Bill of Eighteen Seventy. My circumstances were extremely humble. I passed the first years of my life on a canal barge. (My uncle steered the barge. I think he was my uncle.) It is difficult to educate children so reared. They have no permanent place of abode; no particular school district is responsible for such little vagrants. So I grew up illiterate. My uncle died. I earned my living as best I could. I was strong and active: I engaged in tasks which demanded no knowledge of letters. I learned to cipher a little in my head and to read the ordinary numerals: but the alphabet remained a mystery to me.”
“Why did you not learn to read and write?”
“I did try. At the age of twenty I determined to master my ignorance. I purchased a primer, and endeavoured to teach myself. But that task was hopeless. I entered a night-school—and they asked me what I wished to study. Languages–Mathematics—Science—Engineering? How could I, a great grown man, tell them that I wanted to learn to read and write? I hurried out of the building.
“Then I married. I married a woman as unlettered as myself. Whom else could I ask? We were happy together, in our humble way. But we had few associates, and such as we had possessed all our ignorance and none of our aspirations.”
“Had you children?”
“One daughter—Ada's mother. You may depend upon it we sent her to school! And she learnt quickly—far too quickly for me. I had cherished a hope that my child and I might commence our education together. But how could the muscle-bound intellect of an illiterate of thirty keep pace with the nimble wits of a sharp little girl?”
The nimble wits of a sharp little girl! Somehow I seemed to recognise that portrait.
“My daughter had passed the goal almost before her father had started. Once more, discouraged and baffled, I relinquished my ambitions: I was a foolish fellow to have entertained them at all. But my child was good to me–very good. Although she possessed neither the art nor the patience to teach me my letters, she discovered in me my one talent—quite a phenomenal aptitude for memorization. Compensation, probably. If I heard an ordinary newspaper article read over once or twice, I could repeat it word for word without prompting. And so to satisfy my hungry soul I would beg my little daughter to read aloud to me her school tasks, or her evening lessons—elementary history, geography, and the like. I never forgot them: they were the first real learning I ever possessed. I can repeat them still—and I think they kept me sane.
“My daughter grew up; married; had a daughter of her own; died; and I was alone again. Suddenly I perceived that I had passed middle age. I was no longer able-bodied; and I began to realize that when the body begins to fail, it is the brain that must carry on. And I had no brain—nothing but a few instincts and rules of life. They were wholesome instincts and healthy rules of life; but as a means of livelihood they were valueless. I began to slip down. I supported myself by odd and menial tasks: I cleaned knives and boots: I sold newspapers which I could not read: I spent long hours as a night watchman, occupying my mind by repeating to myself passages from my little girl's schoolbooks.
“Then came a hard winter: work was scarce enough for skilled labourers, let alone unskilled. As for the illiterate, there was no market for them at all. I tramped from London to try my fortune elsewhere; and came to Broxborough. I was destitute: I sang in the streets for bread—songs I had learnt by listening in public houses or at popular entertainments in my younger days. And there the late Archdeacon found me. I was a stranger, and he took me in.” He was silent again.
“He was very good to you?” I said presently.
“He was an angel from Heaven, sir!”
“But did n’t he teach you to read?”
The old man looked up at me piteously.
“Sir, I never confessed to him that I could not! And he never found me out! Why should he? I was his servant, engaged on purely domestic duties. Such clerical work as dealing with tradesmen involved was attended to by the housekeeper. One day my master asked me if I had read the Prime Minister's speech, and I replied that I never read the newspapers. I intended the statement to be a confession, leading up to a fuller confession; but instead, the good old man took me to mean that I despised politics and journalism and was interested only in philosophy and literature. From that day he admitted me to all the privileges of his literary companionship. His favourite hobby was reading aloud—preferably passages from the Classics—and he had few to read to. None, in fact. I was appointed his audience. Every evening we sat together and he read aloud to me, with every kind of illuminating comment. My peculiar faculty for memorization, intensified by the absence of any other medium of self-cultivation, enabled me to commit to memory the greater part of what he read and said. At the end of ten years I could quote long passages from most of the standard works of literature. When the dear old man died, I was a human fountain of quotations—poetical, historical, philosophical. Just that, and nothing more. Once more I had to make a niche for myself in the world. My accumulated lore was my sole asset. So I took this little house, and set up my useless—because mainly ornamental—little library, and endeavoured to win the respect of my new neighbours by dispensing an erudition which was in reality second-hand. Second hand, sir!” He looked up wistfully. “Am I an impostor?”
“All learning is second-hand,” I said. “You are not an impostor.”
He rose to his feet, and took my hand.
“You have lifted a load from my mind,” he said. “Confession is good for the soul. But you will understand now why I cannot deliver that Address.”
“Why not?” I repeated. “I will get a copy of it for you, and you can learn it by heart.”
“You can do that?”
The colour came back to his face. .
“The time is short,” he said eagerly—“very short; and my memory is not what it was: but I will try. Ada shall read it to me, and read it to me, and read it to me, until I am word-perfect! I will succeed! It will be wonderful!”
“It will score off Mould and Pettigrew, too,” I added spitefully.
But obviously Mr. Baxter was not thinking of Mould or Pettigrew. He was up again in his rightful place, in the clouds.
“It will be my Apotheosis!” he declared; and brought down his feeble hand with a gentle thump upon the table beside him.
“That's right!” said Miss Weeks, entering. “Break all the cups!”
At the Municipal luncheon which followed the inauguration of Crake Hall, one chair was vacant; the Mayor, in his opening remarks, referring sympathetically to the fact. Mr. Baxter, to whom had fallen the honour of reading the Address of Welcome to their distinguished guest that morning, had found the strain of the proceedings rather too great for his advanced years, and had reluctantly begged to be excused from participating further in the ceremonies of the day. In short, Mr. Baxter, his task completed, had gone home to bed. Later in the proceedings the Lord Lieutenant also alluded to the matter. His Lordship was a statesman of somewhat limited ideas, and it is just possible that he was grateful to have had a topic suggested to him. So he spoke quite feelingly of the empty chair—the chair which was to have been occupied by “our eminent fellow-citizen, Mr.—er—Buxton.” It was a cheering and reassuring sign, he continued, of our national and civic solidity of character and sense of proportion that Broxborough, where to the unseeing eye of the outside world nothing seemed to matter save linoleum, should yet be able, amid its manifold industrial activities, to produce a man—a man in quite humble circumstances—to whom Linoleum was nothing and Letters everything. Napoleon had called us a nation of shopkeepers; but so long as a commercial community like Broxborough could go on breeding homespun scholars like Mr.—ah—Dexter, we as a nation could continue to give the lie to Napoleon. (Loud and prolonged applause.)
Meanwhile the recipient of these testimonials lay a-dying in his own front parlour. Ada Weeks had put him straight to bed there on his return, utterly exhausted, from the Inauguration. All his frail physical powers had been concentrated for three days on making himself word-perfect in the Address—which he had delivered, by the way, flawlessly. Now reaction had come. An hour later, more nearly frightened than I had ever seen her, Ada fetched me.
My patient had just asked me, faintly but fearlessly, one of the last questions that mortal man can ask; and I had given him his answer.
“I am quite ready,” he replied calmly. “I am only seventy-four; but it is well that a man should go at the zenith of his career.”
“Are there any arrangements you would like to make?” I asked. “Anything you would like to say?”
“Yes. Is Ada there?”
“Of course I am there!” The small, stricken figure crouching on the other side of the bed put out a skinny paw and took the old man's hand. She held it steadfastly for the rest of the time he lived.
“Would you like to see the Rector?” I asked.
“No, no. I am at peace with God. It is of my little granddaughter that I would speak.” His voice was stronger now. “My annuity dies with me. I have some small savings, which she will receive. But they will not keep her. I shall be grateful if you will exert your influence, sir, in enabling her to go into service.”
“There is a vacancy in my house, if Ada will come,” I said.
“Thank you. Will you go to the Doctor, Ada?”
Ada, with tears running freely at last, nodded in answer; and the dying man proceeded to the business which was ever uppermost in his thoughts.
“Then, sir, my Library.”
“Yes. What are you going to do with it? Leave it to the town?”
“No, no, no, no!” He was strangely emphatic.
“What, then?” I asked. I had an uneasy feeling that the Library was going to be bequeathed to me, and I did not want it in the least. But my fears were relieved at once.
“I intend to leave it to Ada—temporarily.”
“Yes. But as she will be an inmate of your household, she will probably desire to take you into her confidence, and possibly avail herself of your assistance.” His voice failed again; his grip on life was relaxing rapidly. Then he recovered himself, and almost sat up.
“Will you promise me, sir, to assist Ada to carry out my wishes with regard to the disposal—”
“I promise,” I said. “Don’t exhaust yourself.”
The old man sank back, with a long and gentle sigh.
“Then I die contented, and reassured. Re—” His voice weakened again. Then he rallied, for a final effort:
“I have lived respected, I think!”
That was all.
I looked across to Ada, and nodded. Characteristically, she rose from her knees, crossed to the window, and drew down the blind.
Next morning, Ada Weeks and I sat facing one another in my study, across a newly opened packing case. It contained Mr. Baxter's Library.
“But why must we?” I asked.
“We need n’t worry why. He said every blessed book was to be destroyed, and that's all there is about it. Mr. McAndrew is burning rubbish outside: I’ve told him we’ve got some more for him. Let's get it over, and go back to Grampa—sir,” concluded Ada suddenly, remembering somewhat tardily that she was addressing her employer.
We unpacked the books. First came some musty theological tomes.
“He knew a lot out of them,” remarked Ada. “Used to fire it off at the Rector, and people who did n’t believe in religion, or could n’t. He picked it all up from his old Archdeacon, though, long before I came to him.”
“When did you come, by the way?”
“Nearly six years ago now. I was living with an aunt. She went and died when I was nine, and Grampa sent for me here. It was me that learned him all his new stuff–science, and machinery, and aeroplanes, and things like that. He did n’t know nothink but Latin and Greek and history and things up till then. Here's the Cyclopædia coming out now. He never used it till I come. He never even knew it was four volumes short until I told him. … This next lot is mostly little books he picked up cheap at second-hand places—mouldy little things, most of 'em. Some of them were useful, though. Here's one—‘The Amateur Architect.’ It’s queer how fussy people can be about house-planning, and ventilation, and drainage, and things like that, especially when they know they’ve got to live all their lives in a house where they have no more say in the ventilation and drainage than my aunt's cat! Grampa had to learn nearly the whole of this book, they wanted so many different bits of it. Well, I think we have fuel enough now for a start.”
We staggered into the garden, with arms full, to where McAndrew's bonfire was burning fiercely. McAndrew himself, having regard to his chronic interest in other people's business, I had despatched upon an errand. Soon the Encyclopædia and the theological works were engulfed in flame. Some odd volumes followed. I cremated my old friend Robert Southey with my own hands. This done, we returned to the packing-case and delved again.
“Did Mr. Baxter wish everything to be burned?” I asked. “What about the presentation volumes—the Shakespeare, for instance?”
“They was all to be burned,” announced Ada doggedly, lowering her head into the case and avoiding my glance.
“Very well,” I said.
Suddenly Ada looked up again, fiercely.
“Cross your heart and wish you may die if you look inside one of them!” she commanded.
I meekly took the grisly oath. But chance was too strong for us. Ada, eager to keep me entirely aloof from the mystery, attempted to lift four large volumes out of the case at once. The top volume—the Presentation Shakespeare itself—slipped off the others, fell upon the floor, and lay upon its back wide open. I could not help observing that it was a London Telephone Directory.
For a moment Ada and I regarded one another steadily. She did not wink an eyelash. Indeed, it was I who felt guilty.
“I may as well see them all now,” I said.
“Please yourself,” said Ada coldly.
It was a strange collection. There were three Telephone Directories in all—all old friends of mine, and peculiarly adapted, from their size and dignity, for “Presentation” purposes. (I think they were Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante. The Presentation Tennyson, however, proved to be a Bulb Catalogue.) There was a Hall and Knight's Algebra, from which, in my presence, the old man had frequently and most movingly quoted Keats. Homer, as Pettigrew had correctly indicated, was an elementary German grammar. Plato's Apology was Mr. Chardenal's First French Course.
“He used to get them cheaper than the real ones,” explained Ada. “Besides, what did it matter to him, anyhow?”
What indeed? Poor old boy!
I worked through the whole collection—the miscellaneous flotsam of second-hand bookshops and jumble sales—old novels sold in bundles; old directories sold as waste paper. Every book was neatly covered, and decorated with a sprawling number—the sight of which, although it advertised nothing to the outside world but the position of a book on a shelf, had never failed, for more than thirty years, to switch on the right record in that amazing repertoire.
Idly, I picked out the last book in the box. It was a stumpy little volume, bearing the number Twenty Five.
“That's 'Orace,” said Ada promptly. “It’s a real one—in Latin: only it has the English on the opposite page. We used that a lot.”
I turned over the time-Soiled leaves, and my eye encountered a familiar passage. I looked up.
“I think he would have liked to have a small inscription on the coffin,” I said. “We can arrange it when we go back to the house. There's a line here that seems to me to describe him very accurately.”
“Read it,” said Ada. I did so:
“Of upright life, and stainless purity.”
“Yes; he was all that,” said Ada thoughtfully. “Never done nothink on nobody; and always the gentleman. It will look nice on the plate. How does it go in Latin?”
I read aloud the ancient tag.
“Integer vitæ, scelerisque purus—”
Ada nodded her head vigorously.
“Put it in Latin,” she said. “He’d have liked it that way. Besides, it'll learn Mould and Pettigrew, and that lot!