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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The Agreeable Monk

Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/308 Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/309 Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/310 registers, and nobody knows what. Standing about on the dark oak floor—tall, attenuated, and gaunt, the very ghosts of woe-begone bookcases—are numerous old presses, containing more numerous, and still older, books. The presses are very shabby in their outward seeming; the books still more so. Yet, as in life, those squalid, shabby-looking cases have bright and good contents, that can make sunshine in many a dark spot, and cheer many a sad hour. These gaunt and shabby presses are so many armouries for books; for every book within them has its sides protected by plates of metal—breastplates that have guarded them from the onslaught of damp, and have warded off many a piercing thrust from grub and worm. They are also a very Tyburn for books; for every book is hung in chains, like culprit volumes that have been gibbeted for their evil deeds; and it is far from impossible but what they may, in their time, have murdered many a fact and reputation. These chains are long and rusty, and are made to slide upon iron rods that run the whole length of the presses, and are then fastened with a padlock; and at the end of each press is a book-desk.

Even now, as I gaze upon my friend's Library, I can fancy that I see the old monks taking down their Chrysostom, or Cyprian, or the "Canones Apostolici," or the "Liber Sacerdotalis," or the "Corpus Juris Canonici," or the "Codex Canonum Ecclesiæ Universæ," or the "Hesychii Lexicon Græcè," or the "Summa Summæ" of Thomas Aquinas, or any other book of reference, or history, or devotional exercise, and laying it upon the book-shelf within length of the chain, the while they turned to some passages, and perhaps made a mark for future reference, by picking up one of the reeds from the rush-strewn floor and placing it between the leaves: and lo, to make my fancy more life-like, as I turn over the leaves of the chained books, I come upon many of these monkish markers—dry reeds that, as I touch them, crumble into the dust, to which they who placed them there have long since turned. And I can fancy those old monks, wishful to read further in their own cloistered cell, their "Polycarpi Epistola," or "Bedæ Opera," or "Bibliotheca Patrum," and applying for a loan of the volume to the Librarian, who would slide the chain to the end of the bar, unlock the padlock, lift up the bar, slip the chain from offf it, and deliver over the book to the applicant.

I can fancy all this. In my imagination, I can see those monks of old thus reading, and thus taking down, those gibbeted books. But the Agreeable Monks I see doing it in reality: and, while I look over some rare manuscripts, and marvel at the wonderful labour bestowed upon them, with their brilliant illuminations as clear and vivid as though painted yesterday, and their grotesque biblical illustrations (yet withal so valuable to the archæologist and artist), in which King Pharaoh, in an embroidered surcoat and Milan suit of armour of the time of Richard the Second, is pursuing Israelites, who wear tabards, with hats, and scrips, and staves, like Chaucer's poor ploughman—and who are embossed and touched up with gold, in a manner we wot not of,—while I look at these glorified manuscripts, and speculate against the probabilities of the amateur artists, their authors, producing more than one such work in an average lifetime, the Agreeable Monk, my friend, takes off his coat, and pursues his beloved (and gratuitous) work of arranging, and preserving, and collating, and mending, and patching, and binding, and, in short, rescuing from general oblivion and destruction these marvellous volumes which were once so deservedly prized, and have for so many years been wantonly neglected. Already has he discovered more than one volume that is supposed to be unique; and has brought to light others that the British Museum would willingly purchase for a very large sum.

As we pursue our respective occupations—he, blowing clouds of dust, and rusting his hands, and rattling his chains, like a very Bibliomaniac as he is,—I, poring over a very fleshy Moses being taken out of very verdant bulrushes by a doll-faced lady attired in the horned head-dress of Henry the Fifth,—while we are thus buried in meditation and clouds of dust, the cathedral service is going on down below, and the waves of sound float into our dim old chamber, and waft our thoughts to the haven where they would be.

And thus, amid these sights and sounds, I sit, and gaze, and listen, and dream,—dreams that are only interrupted by the rattling of the old rusty chains, when my companion bestows his duteous care on another gibbeted volume. May that, his labour of love, be his least worthy monument!

But whenever I see his name in print, and, affixed thereto, those mystic letters that signify his University rank, I take those two simple letters, A.M., to stand not for plain "Master of Arts," but for "Agreeable Monk."

Cuthbert Bede.