Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The old man at D. 8


The Old Man at D8.png

It certainly is a very comfortable place. The cushion on my chair is luxuriously padded. The table before me is just the right height for writing. That elaborate and intricate contrivance, all pad and hinge and snap and rest, that comes down with such a startling bang and clatter, is the very thing for fat folios and unwieldy lexicons. I sit in a room of which I am sure Aladdin, had he ever seen it, would have built a duplicate in his mushroom palace, so spacious its area—so vast its cærulean dome. I enjoy all Selkirk’s boundless dominion, with none of that solitary monarch’s boundless discomfort. There is wealth at my command that Crœsus, though he was no fool, could never dream of. I have but to rub my lamp—I beg pardon—to sign a voucher, and one of the patient and courteous Jinns who wait to perform my behests, will deposit before me whatever portion I choose to demand of the glorious treasure that the mind of man has stored in books. This stately hall is built for me. I walk in and take my place like a master in his home. Anyone else must keep silence that I may read in peace. No one can disturb my privacy. It is really very comfortable. Even the temperature is carefully regulated with a view to the warmth of my body. All honour to the man who founded this place for English students, say I. Out of my heart I speak—I who can have elsewhere, I am thankful to say, a quiet room and a store, though a small one, of books. If I am thus grateful, what must be the advantage of this room to the many—too many—poor Helots of the kingdom of literature, whose toil is carried on in poverty and neglect? What an unspeakable boon this room must be to—to this old man who sits on my left?

So I mused, as I sat in the library of the British Museum. It was in the autumn of the year 1861. I was engaged in work which required frequent reference to some rare old MSS., and which would probably make it necessary for me to undertake a pilgrimage to the Palace of Bloomsbury three or four days in every week for about a month. I was struck, as who is not? with the lavish completeness of the great institution, and I could not but imagine the deeper feeling of luxury and comfort which would strike one who like myself had obtained the privilege of a card of admission, but who, unlike myself, had come forth from squalor and scant food in the morning, and would return to squalor and scant food at night. It was very easy to apply all this to my neighbour.

He was an old man, bent with years. Sparse hairs straggled long and unkempt on his head, and low on his breast there wandered, as on that of Merlin:

The lists of such a beard as youth gone out
Had left in ashes.

His face was pinched, and wan, and transparent, but about the haggard features there still lingered the light of a comely youth, and from the half-buried eyes there still flashed sparks of intellectual fire. His dress was worn and mean to the last degree, but there was a certain refinement showing, like the beauty of Cophetua’s queen, through an old coat whose original colour not all Houndsditch could have discovered. No one meeting that shabby figure—no one, that is, with an atom of discrimination, would ever have seen in it the ruins of a rowdy or the clever get-up of a professional impostor. Before him lay a thick MS. book, of which apparently about three-quarters were filled. He was diligently examining one of a pile of dingy folios, yellow MSS., and many books of reference, which covered his portion of table. Ever and anon he added a sentence to his work, and, without attempting to read the words, I could see that they were written in the minutest of all the “types” of chirography. The thin hands shook with a palsy of excitement whenever the searching eyes had discovered a passage which suggested or required an insertion in the progressing page. The old man was evidently an enthusiast in his work.

Not that I noticed even thus much on my first visit to the Museum; but when day after day I saw the same old man seated in the same place, filling the same MS. with extracts from the same pile of books, I could not but observe this and more. As often as the previous occupation of an earlier visitor did not thwart me, I took the same seat. But whether I was or was not in time for mine, no one ever frustrated the old man. Only to those who have never seen the Museum library need I explain that for the convenience of the attendants, as well as that of the readers, the seats are all lettered and numbered. Whenever I could I appropriated D. 7; but whether I or another occupied D. 7, the old man was invariably to be seen in D. 8. I began to look on him as a part of the building. I should have been as much startled at his absence as by that of the statues of the pediment or the squatting lions of the railings. Always the same straggling white hair, and wandering beard; always the same threadbare coat buttoned so closely round the narrow and, I am fearful, shirtless breast; always the same timid glance over the shoulder at every passing footfall—glance eloquent of the sorrowful cowardice that is bred by poverty and debt; always the same ceaseless collation of tawny vellum and venerable folios. I grew strangely interested in my neighbour. I even fear that he interrupted my own work. I watched him furtively as I sat by his side, and I speculated on his past and on his present, and what he had been, and what he was doing. He was always in his place before I came. He never went out at noon as did many of his fellow-students, returning in half-an-hour with crumbs upon their coats. It always happened that when the Museum was closed for the night I lost sight of my old man. So at last matters went on till one day early in the third week of my work. I had formed a resolution almost unaccountably to myself to be beforehand with D. 8, and witness his entry, as well as the direction by which he should come. I was passing through one of the streets which connect New Oxford Street with the Strand, when I saw my old man emerge from a mean street, reeking with filth and resounding with the cries of ragged children, which opened into that along which I was walking. We met suddenly, and involuntarily I bowed. It was impossible to pass without recognition one by whose side I had sat for days, and by whose side I expected to sit for days again. The old man started with surprise. He coloured for an instant, and said:

“We meet sooner than usual, sir, this morning.”

After my bow, I was embarrassed. I was by no means clear that I had not committed an absurdity, in thus thrusting a salutation on a stranger. The old man’s tone was precisely that which is used by one who is perfectly self-possessed, and who, seeing another in embarrassment, and feeling himself master of the occasion, desires to double his victory by showing it. It was the old man who put me at my ease, and yet I should be conveying a false impression if I were to leave the idea that his manner indicated that mysterious acquaintance with the Shibboleths of society which is usually claimed for a hero in rags. My old man was courteous and gentle, but I cannot pretend to say that he was what is conventionally meant by a “gentleman”—that most inexplicable of words! He was possibly not the less a gentleman in one sense for not being a gentleman in another. We walked together to our destination, and exchanged a few common-place sentences by the way. My companion seemed preoccupied and abstracted. He was very cautious in attempting a crossing, but so unhappy in his choice of times and seasons, that more than once he was nearly run over. In a few minutes we were each of us in our place. Our piles of books, reserved for us from the previous day, were brought us from their nightly resting-place, and we began our work as usual.

But not quite as usual. The ice had been broken. I was determined, if I could, to learn more of the character who had so strongly affected me, and, if possible, help him in his apparently cheerless old age. When evening fell again, he evidently tried to avoid me. He succeeded in leaving the building some minutes before me, and as I came to the top of the street which had been the scene of our previous meeting, I just caught a glimpse of the well-known figure as it dived into the squalid street whence I had seen it emerge. Intent on learning something of the life and pursuits of my companion, I strove hard to win a few words of conversation with him on every day of my visits to Bloomsbury. Sometimes I succeeded, but was more often baffled. He was always polite, but always incommunicative ; and from his dreamy gaze and occasional mutterings, I concluded that he was too preoccupied with his work, whatever it might be, to admit of his forming any new acquaintance. To gain access to his lodgings, as much, I hope, with the desire of finding means to help him, as from mere curiosity, I tried several ingenious expedients, and descended to more than one, I hope I may say, pardonable, pretence. I proposed to bring him a book on a subject about which we conversed. I begged to be allowed a sight of a MS., the possession of which he indiscreetly owned. On one occasion I went so far as to feel suddenly faint and indisposed as we approached the turning where he usually bade me farewell. An inopportune Hansom was rolling by unoccupied, and with unusual vigour and decision, the old man called it to my side.

The more convinced I became that all my endeavours would give me little more knowledge of my mysterious acquaintance than the infinitesimal modicums which I possessed when I first observed his outer appearance, the more strangely did he occupy my thoughts. Once I dreamed of him by night. I often dreamed of him by day. Who was he? Whence did he come? What was he doing? Had he no friends—no children to nurse his age as he had nursed their youth? The utmost that I could discover was his name. One day I followed him as he left the library, and stooped, in more senses than one, to pick up the torn fragments of a cancelled voucher for books returned to the librarian which he dropped upon the ground. The voucher was signed “James Smith.” Not a name for a romance. Not a name like that which Mr. Richard Swiveller chose for the Marchioness whom he destined for his bride, as being “indicative of mystery.” “James Smith” indicated just nothing at all. This name I discovered, and also the fact that its owner came out of and returned into the fourth of the dingy houses of the alley whence I had first seen him emerge. With this I was compelled to be content. I noticed moreover that the old man had nearly reached the end of his MS. book, and that, on the leaves of the book, was a label bearing the number xxxvi. The nearer the writer came to the end of his work, the more excited grew his demeanor. His hands shook with a quicker palsy with every page that he turned. His eyes shone with a fiercer fire as he lighted on some apposite quotation.

On the Tuesday of the fourth week of my visits to the site of Montague House, it chanced that I was accompanied on my way by a young surgeon of my acquaintance. He had won already very favourable notice from the chiefs of his profession, and having a happy power of conversing on dry subjects, combined with rare delicacy of manipulation in difficult cases, he was an agreeable companion, as well as a skilful operator. He was beguiling the way with felicitous remarks on the origin of species and the relation of the Simian to the Human families, and for the while I had completely forgotten D. 8, his book and beard, and all belonging to him. Ere long the well-known figure drove Mr. Darwin and the gorillas from my head. I saw him slowly wending his way some two hundred yards in front of us, and I began to describe him and his habits to my friend. Five minutes more and the weak, stooping form was looking eagerly up and down Oxford Street to see if he might venture through the stream of traffic. He waited with his head turned anxiously eastward, till a huge van of Pickford’s, driving rapidly from the west, was within two yards of the place where he stood, and then plunged forward. We were nearly by his side. I shut my eyes for a second in blank horror. Was he crushed and bleeding on the road? The huge waggon was far on its way. Some part of the harness of the vehicle had struck the old man as he met it, and thrown him back upon the pavement. I thrust my way through the crowd that in London rises in an instant, like the men of Pyrrha and Deucalion, from the stones. A pitiful, senseless, huddled heap, lay the poor old man. By his side was the precious MS. that he loved so well, soiled with the filth of the street. I hastily snatched it up, proclaimed that I knew the residence of the fallen man—that my companion was a surgeon—that I would take him home immediately in a cab. A policeman, who, strange to say, was on the spot, mounted the box, and we were suffered to proceed.

In two minutes it was all over. Even then I had a strange feeling that in carrying him home I was unwarrantably intruding on his privacy. He! But was he still alive? Not dead, as yet, said my friend. How he was injured it was impossible to guess without examination. There was no external mark of injury. He was stunned and senseless, and lay all nerveless and death-like in our arms.

It did not occupy a long time for us to reach the street which I had indicated. On the step of the door of the rag-and-bone shop that formed the basement of the house whence I had seen the old man come, two white-faced children sate staring with lack-lustre eyes. Shrilly they shrieked to a slattern in the shop, that ill had befallen the “old second floor,” and that he was being brought home by two gents and a bobby in a cab.

We lifted him gently into the house, and asked to be directed to his room. The slattern sent a child before us, who led us up the dirty stairs. The door of his room was locked, but I felt the key in his pocket as I held him. We committed our charitable trespass, and brought him into his own room.

It was very bare and very desolate. There was a thinly-covered bedstead in a corner, and on this we placed the helpless body. The only furniture, beyond the merest necessities, was a row of some twenty volumes on the floor. And in a corner were piled, in order, five-and-thirty MS. books, matching the one which I had rescued from the gutter, all labelled and numbered from i. to xxxv. The nearest approach to anything edible was a half-burned tallow candle in an old brass stand. I felt a thrill of pity for the misery that I might have alleviated. Did it remind me that I might relieve misery without the passing incentive of a sentimental interest in a stranger? If not, it ought to have done so.

The time that I had taken had sufficed for my friend to pass sentence on the patient. “He has received a violent shock, and probably some internal injury. There are no bones broken, but he has not many minutes to live.” And, in truth, an unpractised eye would have deemed him dead already, so motionless he lay. Awed and silent we waited by the mean pallet. My friend held in his hearty brown hand the shrunken wrist. In another minute he laid it gently on the couch. “The pulse is still,” he said. “His labour here is over.”

And so the old man lay in state on his poor hearse. On his wan pinched face there was

No other thing expressed
Than long disquiet merged in rest.

The worn, frail body had not been strong enough to support the shock that robbed it of its soul. It was only lean and very coarsely clad, but to me it had a certain majesty as it lay palled in its old rags. I knew little of its departed tenant; but thus much I did know, that he had spent much at least of his life, in the earnest prosecution of one allotted work. So much was proved by the toil in the Museum, and the pile of MSS. in the corner. Of how many could the epitaph be said with truth that they had done any one work with all their might? Perseverance always wins respect, even when it is akin to infatuation. I had witnessed the dead man’s perseverance, and had no reason to suspect him of folly. I could not but honour his memory.

And his book? Surely I might take with me that one volume of all the thirty-six—that one which I had saved from ignominy. I would return it to any one having a claim to the effects of the deceased who might be discovered by my inquiries. I longed to learn something of that ponderous monument of patient industry—the fruit of the work of years. Was it likely to benefit mankind?

I placed it in the great pocket of my loose overcoat, determining to examine it at greater leisure. By the help of the policeman who had accompanied us the necessary communications were made to the local authorities. My friend was compelled to leave me to conclude the business by myself, but I did not depart until I had made arrangements for every necessary search to be made for the possible kinsmen of the dead man, and had promised to defray the expenses of a decent funeral in case it should appear that the old man was utterly friendless. His landlady knew nothing about him beyond the fact that he had lodged in her room for about three months, and had spent the whole day abroad. He owed her only for two days’ rent. She had never known of any one having visited her tenant. He was very quiet and very harmless. Quiet and harmless enough now was his corpse, poor old man! I extracted a promise from the slattern that she would allow no one to enter his room with the exception of the servants of the parish and the coroner. She undertook that the door should be kept locked. I could not bear the idea of the inroads of the lazy loungers of the alley in the room which had all the sanctity of the grave.

I arrived late that day at the Museum, and did little when I reached it. D. 7 was vacant for me, but how changed was D. 8! A grave gentleman was studying in the original The Love-Letters of Aristænetus. (It was not always the youths of eighteen who misused their privilege of entry.) I made many a bold effort to fix my attention on my work, but it was no use. The image of the old man was perpetually before me. I read or wrote for some five minutes at a time, and then fidgetted or pondered for twenty. At last I determined to give up work for the day. I called in a cab on my way home at the house where the dead man lay, and learned the hour of the inquest on the morrow. It was to be at three in the afternoon. I had no opportunity that night to study the MS. in my pocket, for I was going out to a dinner-party. The sadness of the morning and the festivity of the evening jarred on my spirit, and the thought of the old man haunted me. I bade my host good night before his other guests, and walked to my chambers in “the dewy freshness” of the “silent air.” I determined to go to my bed without delay, and, having risen, vegetus ad munia in the morning, to get through such a portion of my work as should make up for the deficiency of the previous day, and enable me to attend the inquest with a clear conscience.

My rest in the night was something like my labour in the day. It was disturbed by the recollection of the old man who had been run over. I saw him pause before he left the pavement. I was the driver of the van that killed him. I was eating venison and sipping white port in the room where he lay dead. I was compelled to transcribe six-and-thirty quartos in as many hours. I was romping with squalling children in the library of the Museum. I was anything rather than a quiet sleeper. O, old man! methought, why did I not fix my quarters at K. 16? Perhaps there I might never have encountered you.

Morning dawned—or tried to dawn—through the mist of London, and I was soon on my way to Bloomsbury. I entered the Museum with a strange sense of depression, and set to work. The books I was consulting were spread without delay on the leather of D. 7. D. 8 was empty. It chanced that I had to use a foreign dictionary, whose place was on the other side of the room. I rose, leaving my papers in my place, and was absent perhaps ten minutes. To those of my readers who have never seen the Museum Library I must explain, that the double rows of seats radiate from the centre, where are the catalogues, to the circumference, where are the books of reference. These latter are under a slightly projecting gallery. It will be evident that there is less light, but more quiet, in the seats near the wall. Passers-by are most frequent in the neighbourhood of the catalogues. It will be equally evident that on approaching one’s seat from the opposite side of the room it is never possible to see it from a distance. The raised circle of attendants in the centre of the circles of catalogues prevent a diametrical transit. It is not till one’s own row, and one’s own side of one’s own row is reached, that one can see one’s own seat. D. 7 is remote from the catalogues, and only separated from the wall of circumference by D. 8.

No sooner had I reached the upper end of the row D. than I perceived that D. 8 was occupied. For a moment I merely saw an occupant. A step forward and I saw more. It was occupied by the old man!

At first I was too stupefied to be horrified. Was I still dreaming? It was absurd! A spectre in the heart of Bloomsbury in 1861! The familiar room was round me, with its big dome of blue and warm walls of polychrome bindings. There were the familiar faces of the servants; and ever and anon there sounded the familiar clang of the book-rests. What a singular optical delusion! To be accounted for, no doubt, by the events of the preceding day—not forgetting the venison of the evening. So I walked on to my place, and, though a strange tremor thrilled through my bones, took my seat on my chair.

There was no doubt about the verisimilitude of the appearance. There was the picturesque grey head, tapering down to the longest hair of the long scattered beard. There was the thin, worn face, seeming like the case of some old lantern, through which blazed the two bright eyes. There were the weak, transparent fingers; and there—what new phantasmagoria did I behold?—there on the table lay the four old books that I had last seen under the temporary keeping of the old man. Spell-bound I watched, but did not dare to try to touch. There was no palsy in the hands, but they wandered over the table, uneasy and restless. They seemed to seek something, and to seek in vain. The books were open, but the old man was doing nothing. Doing nothing? How could he? In an instant the MS. in my pocket flashed across my recollection. Was this what the spectre sought? With little reflection on what I was doing, and with my brain in a strange whirl of wonder and doubt, I pulled forth the papers, and placed them on the edge of the table of D. 8. Instantly they were seized. The face seemed to light up with a glance of satisfaction, but the eyes never turned to me. They were fixed intently on the book. Still “in amazement lost,” I looked, and saw the old man rapidly and eagerly begin to write.

Then the first terror that had seized me fled, and I returned with shame to my reason. We had, doubtless, been mistaken. My friend had been too hurried in his verdict of death. The old man was only stunned, and was back again at his work. No doubt he was indignant with me for my intrusion on his privacy, and would not even thank me for the service I had done him. I began to whisper explanation and apology. Not a word did the old man answer. Not for an instant did the eyes turn from the page on which the lines of words were growing. I got up and went to inquire of the porter at the door of the inner passage if he had seen the old man enter, and if so, at what time.

“Old man? Old man in a shabby coat? Run over yesterday? yes, I know him, and I’ve heard of the accident. He has been here regularly for the last six months. He’ll never come again, though, poor old gentleman.”

“Have you seen him come in this morning?”

“Come in this morning? He was killed, sir, yesterday. You must have missed him.”

“He is in the room now.”

The man grinned, and looked at me inquiringly.

“Impossible, sir. There’s many like him. You must be wrong.”

I went straight back to the attendant who gives out the reserved books, and never turned my head in the direction of Row D.

“Have you seen the old man this morning who generally sits at D. 8, Mr. Smith?”

“Yes, sir, he was here about a quarter of an hour ago, asking for his books.”

Then I went back to Row D. There was no one sitting at No. 8. There were the musty folios, and there was the book of MS. lying wide open, and I saw that the ink upon the page was wet; but there was no old man. “Finis” was written at the bottom of the page. His work was done now, wherever he himself had gone.

I hurried back to the porter at the door.

“Be sure you stop that old man if he goes by.’

The man looked at me with a meaning glance. He evidently was sceptical as to my sanity. Was I mad? I replaced the MS. in my pocket, and hurried from the building. My head was burning, my hands were trembling. I was strangely excited, and felt almost inclined to agree with the porter. I must be mad.

I hurried to my friend the surgeon.

“Nonsense, nonsense, my dear fellow; I can explain it in a moment. You are of a nervous temperament. Your mind has been full of this old man for days. You were very much excited by the accident yesterday. You ate much too good a dinner. You go to the Museum, and you have morning-mare instead of night-mare. That’s all the mystery. Sir, have some luncheon before we go to the inquest."

“Yes, that’s all very well; but the books on the table—and the servants—they saw him.”

“You said you had seen him, and they had no reason to suppose that Wednesday was different from Monday and Tuesday. And did you examine the books very carefully? Are there no two books bound alike in your library?”

“But the MS.—the writing—I saw him write—with my own eyes. I saw the ink wet—here, I have it in my pocket. I will swear this last page was not written yesterday. I will swear—”

“Don’t swear till you get to the inquest, and trust anything rather than your own eyes. You think the ink was wet. I daresay it was greasy, and shone in the light. You didn’t turn over the last page yesterday. If you have no better evidence than this for your ghost, I think you had better say nothing about it. Come,—have a sherry and soda, and come off to —— Street. You will find the door of the old fellow’s room has been locked since you left him yesterday.”

The invincible unbelief of my friend did little to satisfy myself, although I felt that in the face of what he said I could adduce little proof to satisfy others. I drove with him to —— Street. It still wanted some time of the hour fixed for the inquest. The slattern was ready to bind herself by any oath to prove that the door of the old man’s room had never been unlocked since I had left him. We went up to see the corpse again. I gazed with strange interest. It seemed to me—though I did not communicate my thought—that the face expressed something more than it did on the previous day. There was content as well as rest. It might have been mere fancy, but I seemed to read in the expression of the face satisfaction at having completed a labour.

There were the preparatory ceremonies of the inquest, and the verdict of “Accidental Death,” and then came the quiet funeral. No one ever answered my advertisements as to the next-of-kin of James Smith. Indeed, they would have heard of little to their advantage. No one had any claim on the little property except the landlady for an infinitesimal amount of rent. I took possession of the books and the great MS. The former were all but worthless. The latter was—shall I say it?—almost worthless too. It was a long, rambling, historical treatise, very diffuse and very unpractical. I never succeeded in reading it through, but I read enough to learn that publishers would have given little to the old man for his labour.

And was it a ghost or an hallucination? I have said what I saw. I have said what the world, through the mouth of my medical friend, said to what I saw. I believe there is one of the attendants of the Museum, who refuses to be persuaded that he was mistaken in thinking that he saw old Mr. Smith on the morning of that particular Wednesday. Is he mad as well as I?

At least I know that since that day I have never sat at D. 7, and I never see, without a strange feeling of uneasiness and a deep sense of mystery and awe, D. 8.