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A librarian in a small town is asked to play the part of a medieval king. He not only takes his role seriously by thoroughly researching the Middle Ages, when the play is concluded, he refuses to take off the costume. He remains in character, much to the surprise of the other actors.
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G. K. Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton
The Return Of Don Quixote
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Fractal Press
This Edition first published in 2014
Copyright © 2014 Fractal Press
Design and Artwork © 2014 www.urban-pic.co.uk
Images and Illustrations © 2014 Stocklibrary.org
All Rights Reserved.
I. — A HOLE IN THE CASTE
II. — A DANGEROUS MAN
III. — THE LADDER IN THE LIBRARY
IV. — THE FIRST TRIAL OF JOHN BRAINTREE
V. — THE SECOND TRIAL OF JOHN BRAINTREE
VI. — A COMMISSION AS COLOURMAN
VII. — “BLONDEL THE TROUBADOUR”
VIII. — THE MISADVENTURES OF MONKEY
IX. — THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB
X. — WHEN DOCTORS DISAGREE
XI. — THE LUNACY OF THE LIBRARIAN
XII. — THE STATESMAN AND THE SUMMER-HOUSE
XIII. — THE VICTORIAN AND THE ARROW
XIV. — THE RETURN OF THE KNIGHT-ERRANT
XV. — THE PARTING OF THE WAYS
XVI. — THE JUDGMENT OF THE KING
XVII. — THE DEPARTURE OF DON QUIXOTE
XVIII. — THE SECRET OF SEAWOOD
I. — A HOLE IN THE CASTE
The end of the longest room at Seawood Abbey was full of light; for the walls were almost made of windows and it projected upon a terraced part of the garden above the park on an almost cloudless morning. Murrel, called Monkey for some reason that everybody had forgotten, and Olive Ashley were taking advantage of the light to occupy themselves with painting; though she was painting on a very small scale and he on a very large one. She was laying out peculiar pigments very carefully, in imitation of the flat jewellery of medieval illumination, for which she had a great enthusiasm, as part of a rather vague notion of a historic past. He, on, he other hand, was highly modern, and was occupied with several pails full of very crude colours and with brushes which reached the stature of brooms. With these he was laying about him on large sheets of lath and canvas, which were to act as scenery in some private theatricals then in preparation. They could not paint, either of them; nor did they imagine that they could. But she was in some sense trying to do so; and he was not.
“It’s all very well for you to talk about discords,” he was saying somewhat defensively, for she was a critical lady, “but your style of painting narrows the mind. After all, scene-painting is only illumination seen through a microscope.”
“I hate microscopes,” she observed briefly.
“Well, you look as if you wanted one, poring over that stuff,” replied her companion, “in fact I fancy I have seen people screwing a great thing in their eye while they did it. I hope you won’t go so far as that: it wouldn’t suit your style at all.”
This was true enough, no doubt, for she was a small, slight girl, with dark delicate features of the kind called regular; and her dark green dress, which was aesthetic but the reverse of Bohemian, had something akin to the small severities of her task. There was something a shade old maidish about her gestures, although she was very young. It was noticeable that though the room was strewn with papers and dusters and the flamboyant failures of Mr. Murrel’s art, her own flat colour-box, with its case and minor accessories, were placed about her with protective neatness. She was not one of those for whom is written the paper of warnings sometimes sold with paint-boxes; and it had never been necessary to adjure her not to put the brush in the mouth.
“What I mean,” she said, resuming the subject of microscopes, “is that all your science and modern stuff has only made things ugly, and people ugly as well. I don’t want to look down a microscope any more than down a drain. You only see a lot of horrid little things crawling about. I don’t want to look down at all. That’s why I like all this old Gothic painting and building; in Gothic all the lines go upwards, right up to the very spire that points to heaven.”
“It’s rude to the point,” said Murrel, “and I think they might have given us credit for noticing the sky.”
“You know perfectly well what I mean,” replied the lady, painting placidly, “all the originality of those medieval people was in the way they built their churches. The whole point of them was the pointed arches.”
“And the pointed spears,” he assented. “When you didn’t do what they liked, they just prodded you. Too pointed, I think. Almost amounting to a hint.”
“Anyhow the gentlemen then prodded each other with their spears,” answered Olive, “they didn’t go and sit on plush seats to see an Irishman pummelling a black man. I wouldn’t see a modern prize-fight for the world; but I shouldn’t mind a bit being a lady at one of the old tournaments.”
“You might be a lady, but I shouldn’t be a lord,” said the scene-painter gloomily. “Not my luck. Even if I were a king, I should only be drowned in a butt of sack and never smile again. But it’s more my luck to be born a serf or something. A leper, or some such medieval institution. Yes, that’s how it would be—the minute I’d poked my nose into the thirteenth century I’d be appointed Chief Leper to the king or somebody; and have to squint into church through that little window.”
“You don’t squint into church through any window at present,” observed the lady, “nor has it occurred to you even to do so through the door.”
“Oh, I leave all that to you,” he said, and proceeded to splash away in silence. He was engaged on a modest interior of “The Throne Room of Richard Coeur de Lion,” which he treated in a scheme of scarlet, crimson and purple which Miss Ashley strove in vain to arrest; though she really had some rights of protest in the matter, having both selected the medieval subject and even written the play, so far as her more sportive collaborators would allow her. It was all about Blondel, the Troubadour, who serenaded Coeur de Lion and many other people; including the daughter of the house; who was addicted to theatricals and kept him at it. The Hon. Douglas Murrel, or Monkey, cheerfully confronted his ill-success in scene-painting, having succeeded equally ill in many other things. He was a man of wide culture, and had failed in all subjects. He had especially failed in politics; having once been called the future leader of his party, whichever it was. But he had failed at the supreme moment to seize the logical connection between the principle of taxing deer-forests and that of retaining an old pattern of rifle for the Indian Army: and the nephew of an Alsatian pawn-broker, to whose clear brain the connection was more apparent, had slipped into his place. Since then he had shown that taste for low company which has kept so many aristocrats out of mischief and their country out of peril, and shown it incongruously (as they sometimes do) by having something vaguely slangy and horsey about his very dress and appearance, as of an objectless ostler. His hair was very fair and beginning to blanch quite prematurely; for he also was young, though many years older than his companion. His face, which was plain but not common-place, habitually wore a dolorous expression which was almost comic; especially in connection with the sporting colours of his neckties and waistcoats, which were almost as lively as the colours on his brush.
“I’ve a negro taste,” he explained, laying on a giant streak of sanguine colour, “these mongrel greys of the mystics make me as tired as they are. They talk about a Celtic Renaissance; but I’m for an Ethiopian Renaissance. The banjo to be more truly what’s-its-name than old Dolmetch’s lute. No dances but the deep, heart-weary Break-Down—there’s tears in the very name—no historical characters except Toussaint L’Ouverture and Booker Washington, no fictitious characters except Uncle Remus and Uncle Tom. I bet it wouldn’t take much to make the Smart Set black their faces as they used to whiten their hair. For my part, I begin to feel a meaning in all my mis-spent life. Something tells me I was intended for a Margate nigger. I do think vulgarity is so nice, don’t you?”
She did not reply; indeed she seemed a little absent-minded. Her humour had been faintly shrewdish; but when her face fell into seriousness it was entirely young. Her fine profile with parted lips suddenly suggested not only a child, but a lost child.
“I remember an old illumination that had a negro in it,” she said at last. “It was one of the Three Kings at Bethlehem, with gold crowns. One of them was quite black; but he had a red dress like flames. So you see, even about a nigger and his bright clothes—there is a way of doing it. But we can’t get the exact red they used now; I know people who have really tried. It’s one of the lost arts, like the stained glass.”
“This red will do very well for our modern purpose,” said Murrel equably.
She still looked out abstractedly at the circle of the woods under the morning sky. “I rather wonder sometimes,” she said, “what are our modern purposes.
“Painting the town red, I suppose,” he answered.
“The old gold they used has gone too,” she proceeded. “I was looking at an old missal in the library yesterday. You know they always gilt the name of God? I think if they gilt any word now it would be Gold.”
The industrious silence which ensued was at length broken by a distant voice down the corridors calling out: “Monkey!” in a boisterous and imperative manner. Murrel did not in the least object to being called a monkey, yet he always felt a slight distaste when Julian Archer called him one. It had nothing to do with jealousy; though Archer had the same vague universality of success as Murrel had of failure. It had to do with a fine shade between familiarity and intimacy, which men like Murrel are never ready to disregard, however ready they may be to black their faces. When he was at Oxford he had often carried ragging to something within measurable distance of murder. But he never threw people out of top windows unless they were his personal friends.
Julian Archer was one of those men who seem to be in a great many places at once; and to be very important for some reason which is difficult to specify. He was not a fool or a fraud: he acquitted himself with credit and moderation in the various examinations or responsibilities which appeared to be forced upon him. But spectators of the subtler sort could never quite understand why these things always were forced upon him, and not upon the man next door. Some magazine would have a symposium, let us say, on “Shall We Eat Meat?” in which answers would be obtained from Bernard Shaw, Dr. Saleeby, Lord Dawson of Penn and Mr. Julian Archer. A committee would be formed for a National Theatre or a Shakespeare Memorial: and speeches would be delivered from the platform by Miss Viola Tree, Sir Arthur Pinero, Mr. Comyns Carr and Mr. Julian Archer. A composite book of essays would be published called “The Hope of a Hereafter,” with contributions by Sir Oliver Lodge, Miss Marie Corelli, Mr. Joseph McCabe and Mr. Julian Archer. He was a Member of Parliament and of many other clubs. He had written a historical novel; he was an admirable amateur actor: so that his claims to take the leading part in the play of “Blondel the Troubadour” could not be disputed. In all this there was nothing objectionable or even eccentric. His historical novel about Agincourt was quite good considered as a modern historical novel; that is, considered as the adventures of a modern public schoolboy at a fancy dress ball. He was in favour of moderate indulgence in meat; and moderate indulgence in personal immortality. But his temperate opinions were loudly and positively uttered, as in the deep and resonant voice which was now booming down the passages. He was one of those who can endure that silence which comes after a platitude. His voice went before him everywhere; as did his reputation and his photograph in the society papers; with its dark curls and bold handsome face. Miss Ashley remarked that he looked like a tenor. Mr. Murrel was content to reply that he did not sound like one.
He entered the room in the complete costume of a Troubadour, except for a telegram which he held in his hand. The complete costume of a troubadour compared favourably with that worn by Mr. Snodgrass, in being more becoming and equally historical. He had been rehearsing his part and was flushed with triumph and exertion; but the telegram, apparently, had rather put him out.
“I say,” he said, “Braintree won’t act.”
“Well,” said Murrel, painting stolidly, “I never thought he would.”
“Rather rot, I know, having to ask a fellow like that: but there was simply nobody else. I told Lord Seawood it was rot to have it at this time of the year when all his friends are away. Braintree’s only an acquaintance, of course, and I can’t imagine how he even came to be that.”
“It was a mistake, I believe,” said Murrel, “Seawood called on him because he heard he was standing for Parliament as a Unionist. When he found it meant a Trade Unionist he was a bit put off, of course; but he couldn’t make a scene. I fancy it would puzzle him to say what either of the terms mean.”
“Don’t you know what the term Unionist means?” asked Olive.
“Nobody knows that,” replied the scene-painter, “why, I’ve been one myself.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t cut a fellow just because he was a Socialist,” cried the broad-minded Mr. Archer, “why there was—” and he was silent, lost in social reminiscences.
“He isn’t a Socialist,” observed Murrel impassively, “He breaks things if you call him a Socialist. He is a Syndicalist.”
“But that’s worse, isn’t it?” said the young lady, innocently.
“Of course we’re all for social questions and making things better,” said Archer in a general manner, “but nobody can defend a man who sets one class against another as he does; talking about manual labour and all sorts of impossible Utopias. I’ve always said that Capital has its duties as well as its—.”
“Well,” interposed Murrel hastily, “I’m prejudiced in the present case. Look at me; you couldn’t have anybody more manual than I am.”
“Well, he won’t act, anyhow,” repeated Archer, “and we must find somebody. It’s only the Second Troubadour, of course, and anybody can do it. But it must be somebody fairly young; that’s the only reason I thought of Braintree.”
“Yes, he is quite a young man yet,” assented Murrel, “and no end of the young men seem to be with him.”
“I detest him and his young men,” said Olive, with sudden energy. “In the old days people complained of young people breaking out because they were romantic. But these young men break out because they are sordid; just prosaic and low, and wrangling about machinery and money—materialists. They just want a world of atheists, that would soon be a world of apes.”
After a silence, Murrel crossed to the other end of the long room and could be heard calling a number into the telephone. There ensued one of those half conversations that make the hearer feel as if he were literally half-witted: but in this case the subject matter was fairly clear from the context.
“Is that you, Jack?—Yes, I know you did; but I want to talk to you about it—. At Seawood; but I can’t get away, because I’m painting myself red like an Indian. Nonsense, it can’t matter; you’ll only be coming on business—. Yes, of course it’s quite understood: what a pragmatical beast you are—there’s no question of principle at all, I tell you. I won’t eat you. I won’t even paint you—all right.”
He rang off and returned to his creative labours, whistling.
“Do you know Mr. Braintree?” asked Olive, with some wonder.
“You know I have a taste for low company,” answered Murrel.
“Does it extend to Communists?” asked Archer, with some heat. “Jolly close to thieves.”
“A taste for low company doesn’t make people thieves,” said Murrel, “it’s generally a taste for high company that does that.” And he proceeded to decorate a vivid violet pillar with very large orange stars, in accordance with the well-known style of the ornamentation of throne-rooms in the reign of Richard the First.
II. — A DANGEROUS MAN
John Braintree was a long, lean, alert young man with a black beard and a black frown, which he seemed to some extent to wear on principle, like his red tie. For when he smiled, as he did for an instant at the sight of Murrel’s scenery, he looked pleasant enough. On being introduced to the lady, he bowed with a politeness that was formal and almost stiff; the style once found in aristocrats but now most common in well-educated artisans; for Braintree had begun life as an engineer.
“I came up here because you asked me, Douglas,” he said, “but I tell you it’s no good.”
“Don’t you like my scheme of colour?” asked Murrel. “It is much admired.”
“Well,” replied the other, “I don’t know that I do particularly like your plastering romantic purple over all that old feudal tyranny and superstition; but that isn’t my difficulty. Look here, Douglas; I came here on the strict understanding that I might say what I liked; but for all that I don’t particularly want to talk against the man in his own house if I can help it. So perhaps the shortest way of putting the difficulty will be to say that the Miners’ Union here has declared a strike; and that I am the secretary of the Miners’ Union. And as I’m trying to spoil his work by staying out, I think it would be a little low down to spoil his play by coming in.”
“What are you striking about?” asked Archer.
“Well, we want more money,” replied Braintree coolly. “When two pennies will only buy one penny loaf we want two pennies to buy it with. It is called the complexity of the Industrial System. But what counts for even more with the Union is the demand for recognition.”
“Recognition of what?”
“Well, you see, the Trades Union doesn’t exist. It is a grinding tyranny, and it threatens to destroy all British trade; but it doesn’t exist. The one thing that Lord Seawood and all its most indignant critics are certain about, is that it doesn’t exist. So, by way of suggesting that there might possibly be such an entity, we reserve the right to strike.”
“And leave the whole wretched public without coal, I suppose,” cried Archer heatedly, “if you do, I fancy you’ll find public opinion is a bit too strong for you. If you won’t get the coal and the Government won’t make you, we’ll find people who will get it. I, for one, would answer for a hundred fellows from Oxford and Cambridge or the City, who wouldn’t mind working in the mine to spoil your conspiracy.”
“While you’re about it,” replied Braintree contemptuously, “you might as well get a hundred coal-miners to finish Miss Ashley’s illumination for her. Mining is a very skilled trade, my good sir. A coal-miner isn’t a coal-heaver. You might do very well as a coal-heaver.”
“I suppose you mean that as an insult,” said Archer.
“Oh, no,” answered Braintree, “a compliment.”
Murrel interposed pacifically. “Why you’re all coming round to my idea; first a coal-heaver, I suppose, and then a chimney-sweep and so on to perfect blackness.”
“But aren’t you a Syndicalist?” asked Olive with extreme severity. Then, after a pause, she added, “What is a Syndicalist?”
“The shortest way of putting it, I should say,” said Braintree, with more consideration, “would be to say that, in our view, the mine ought to belong to the miner.”
“Mine’s mine, in fact,” said Murrel, “fine feudal medieval motto.”
“I think that motto is very modern,” observed Olive a little acidly, “but how would you manage with the miner owning the mine?”
“Ridiculous idea, isn’t it?” said the Syndicalist, “One might as well talk about the painter owning the paint-box.”
Olive rose and walked to the French windows that stood open on the garden; and looked out, frowning. The frown was partly at the Syndicalist, but partly also at some thoughts of her own. After a few minutes’ silence, she stepped out on to the gravel path and walked slowly away. There was a certain restrained rebuke about the action; but Braintree was too hot in his intellectualism to heed it.
“I don’t suppose,” he went on, “that anybody has ever realised how wild and Utopian it is for a fiddler to own his fiddle.”
“Oh, fiddlesticks, you and your fiddle,” cried the impetuous Mr. Archer, “how can a lot of low fellows—”
Murrel once more changed the subject to his original frivolities.
“Well, well,” he said, “these social problems will never be settled till we fall back on my expedient. All the nobility and culture of France assembled to see Louis XVI put on the red cap. How impressive it will be when all our artists and leaders of thought assemble to see me reverently blacking Lord Seawood’s face.”
Braintree was still looking at Julian Archer with a darkened face.
“At present,” he said, “our artists and leaders have only got so far as blacking his boots.”
Archer sprang up as if he had been named as well as looked at.
“When a gentleman is accused of blacking boots,” he said, “there is danger of his blacking eyes instead.”
Braintree took one bony fist out of his pocket.
“Oh I told you,” he said, “that we reserve the right to strike.”
“Don’t play the goat, either of you,” insisted the peace-maker, interposing his large red paint-brush, “don’t rampage, Jack. You’ll put your foot in it—in King Richard’s red curtains.”
Archer retired slowly to his seat again; and his antagonist, after an instant’s hesitation, turned to go out through the open windows.
“Don’t worry,” he growled, “I won’t make a hole in your canvas. I’m quite content to have made a hole in your caste. What do you want with me? I know you’re really a gentleman; but I like you for all that. But what good has your being a real gentleman or sham gentleman ever done to us? You know as well as I do that men like me are asked to houses like this, and they go there to say a word for their mates; and you are decent to them, and all sorts of beautiful women are decent to them, and everybody’s decent to them; and the time comes when they become just—well, what do you call a man who has a letter to deliver from his friend and is afraid to deliver it?”
“Yes, but look here,” remonstrated Murrel, “you’ve not only made a hole, but you’ve put me in it. I really can’t get hold of anybody else now. It isn’t to come on for a month; but there’ll be fewer people still then; and we shall probably want that time to rehearse. Why can’t you just do it as a favour? What does it matter what your opinions are? I haven’t got any opinions myself; I used them all up at the Union when I was a boy. But I hate disappointing the ladies; and there really aren’t any other men in the place.”
Braintree looked at him steadily.
“Aren’t any other men,” he repeated.
“Well there’s old Seawood, of course,” said Murrel. “He’s not a bad old chap in his way; and you mustn’t expect me to take as severe a view of him as you do. But I own I can hardly fancy him as a Troubadour. There really and truly aren’t any other men at all.”
Braintree still looked at him.
“There is a man in the next room,” he said, “there is a man in the passage; there is a man in the garden; there is a man at the front door; there is a man in the stables; there is a man in the kitchen; there is a man in the cellar. What sort of palace of lies have you built for yourselves, when you see all these round you every day and do not even know that they are men? Why do we strike? Because you forget our very existence when we do not strike. Tell your servants to serve you; but why should I?”
And he went out into the garden and walked furiously away.
“Well,” said Archer at last, “I must confess I can’t stand your friend at any price.”
Murrel stepped back from his canvas and put his head on one side, contemplating it like a connoisseur.
“I think his idea about the servants is first-rate,” he observed placidly. “Can’t you fancy old Perkins as a Troubadour? You know the butler here, don’t you? Or one of those footmen would Troub like anything.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” said Archer, irritably, “it’s a small part, but he has to do all sorts of things. Why, he has to kiss the princess’s hand.”
“The butler would do it like a Zephyr,” replied Murrel, “but perhaps we ought to look lower in the hierarchy. If he won’t do it I will ask the footmen, and if they won’t I will ask the groom, and if he won’t I will ask the stable-boy, and if he won’t I will ask the knife-boy, and if he won’t I will ask whatever is lower and viler than a knife-boy. And if that fails I will go lower still, and ask the librarian. Why, of course! The very thing! The librarian!”
And with sudden impetuosity he slung his heavy paint-brush to the other side of the room and ran out into the garden, followed by the wondering Mr. Archer.
It was quite early in the morning; for the amateurs had risen some time before breakfast to act or paint; and Braintree always rose early, to write and send off a rigorous, not to say rabid, leading article for a Labour evening paper. The white light still had that pale pink tinge in corners and edges which must have caused the poet, somewhat fantastically, to equip the daybreak with fingers. The house stood high upon a lift of land that sank on two sides towards the Severn. The terraced garden, fringed with knots of tapering trees carrying white clouds of the spring blossom, with large flower-beds flung out in a scheme like heraldry, at once strict and gay, scarcely veiled, and did not confuse, the colossal curve of the landscape. Along its lines the clouds rolled up and lifted like cannon smoke, as if the sun were silently storming the high places of the earth. Wind and sun burnished the slanting grass; and they seemed to stand on the shining shoulder of the world. At a high angle, but as if by accident, stood a pedestal’d grey fragment from the ruins of the old abbey which had once stood on that site. Beyond was the corner of an older wing of the house towards which Murrel was making his way. Archer had the theatrical sort of good looks, as well as the theatrical sort of fine clothes, which is effective in such natural pageantry; and the picturesque illusion was clinched by a figure as quaintly clad which came out into the sunshine a few moments after. It was a young lady with a royal crown and red hair that looked almost as royal, for she habitually carried her head with something of haughtiness as well as health; and seemed to snuff up the breeze like the war-horse in scripture; to rejoice in her robes as they swept with the sweeping wind and land. Julian Archer in his close-fitting suit of three colours made up an excellent picture; beside which the modern colours of Murrel’s tweeds and tie looked as common as those of the stablemen among whom he was in the habit of lounging.
Rosamund Severne, Lord Seawood’s only daughter, was of the type that throws itself into things; and makes a splash. Her great beauty was of the exuberant sort, like her good-nature and good spirits; and she thoroughly enjoyed being a medieval princess—in a play. But she had none of the reactionary dreaminess of her friend and guest Miss Ashley. On the contrary, she was very up-to-date and exceedingly practical. Though finally frustrated by the conservatism of her father, she had early made an attempt to become a lady doctor; but had settled down into being a lady bountiful, of a boisterous kind. She had once also been very prominent on platforms and in political work; but whether to get women votes, or prevent their getting them, her friends could never remember.
Seeing Archer afar off, she called out in her ringing and resolute fashion: “I was looking for you; don’t you think we ought to go through that scene again?”
“And I was looking for you,” interrupted Murrel, “still more dramatic developments in the dramatic world. I say, do you know your own librarian by sight, by any chance?”
“What on earth have librarians got to do with it?” asked Rosamund in her matter-of-fact way. “Yes, of course, I know him. I don’t think anybody knows him very well.”
“Sort of book-worm, I suppose,” observed Archer.
“Well, we’re all worms,” remarked Murrel cheerfully, “I suppose a book-worm shows a rather refined and superior taste in diet. But, look here, I rather want to catch that worm, like the early bird. I say, Rosamund, do be an early bird and catch him for me.”
“Well, I am rather an early bird this morning,” she replied, “quite a skylark.”
“And quite ready for skylarking, I suppose,” said Murrel. “But really, I’m quite serious; I mean dost thou despise the earth where cares abound; that is do you know the library where books abound, and can you bring me a real live librarian?”
“I believe he’s in there now,” said Rosamund with some wonder. “You’ve only got to go in and speak to him; though I can’t imagine what you want.”
“You always go to the point,” said Murrel, “straight from the shoulder; true to the kindred points of heaven and home; you’re the right sort of bird, you are.”
“A bird of paradise,” said Mr. Archer gracefully.
“I’m afraid you’re a mocking bird,” she answered laughing, “and we all know that Monkey is a goose.”
“I am a worm and a goose and a monkey,” assented Murrel. “My evolution never stops; but before I turn into something else let me explain. Archer, with his infernal aristocratic pride, won’t allow the knife-boy to act as Troubadour, so I’m falling back on the librarian. I don’t know his name, but we simply must get somebody.”
“His name is Herne,” answered the young lady a little doubtfully. “Don’t go and—I mean he’s a gentleman and all that; I believe he’s quite a learned man.”
But Murrel had already darted on in his impetuous fashion and disappeared round a corner of the house towards the glass doors leading into the library. But even as he turned the corner he stopped suddenly and stared at something in the middle distance. On the ridge of the high garden, where it fell away into the lower grounds, dark against the morning sky, stood two figures; the very last he would ever have expected to see standing together. One was John Braintree, that deplorable demagogue. The other was Olive Ashley. Even as he looked, it is true, Olive turned away with what looked like a gesture of anger or repudiation. But it seemed to Murrel much more extraordinary that they should have met than that they should have parted. A rather puzzled look appeared on his melancholy monkey face for a moment; then he turned and stepped lightly into the library.
III. — THE LADDER IN THE LIBRARY
The librarian at Seawood had once had his name in the papers; though he was probably unaware of the fact. It was during the great Camel Controversy of 1906, when Professor Otto Elk, that devastating Hebrew scholar, was conducting his great and gallant campaign against the Book of Deuteronomy; and had availed himself of the obscure librarian’s peculiar intimacy with the Palaeo-Hittites. The learned reader is warned that these were no vulgar Hittites; but a yet more remote race covered by the same name. He really knew a prodigious amount about these Hittites, but only, as he would carefully explain, from the unification of the kingdom by Pan-El-Zaga (popularly and foolishly called Pan-Ul-Zaga) to the disastrous battle of Uli-Zamul, after which the true Palaeo-Hittite civilisation, of course, can hardly be said to have continued. In his case it can be said seriously that nobody knew how much he knew. He had never written a book upon his Hittites; if he had it would have been a library. But nobody could have reviewed it but himself.
In the public controversy his appearance and disappearance were equally isolated and odd. It seems that there existed a system or alphabet of Hittite hieroglyphics, which were different from all other hieroglyphics, which, indeed, to the careless eye of the cold world, did not appear to be hieroglyphics at all, but irregular surfaces of partially decayed stone. But as the Bible said somewhere that somebody drove away forty-seven camels, Professor Elk was able to spread the great and glad news that in the Hittite account of what was evidently the same incident, the researches of the learned Herne had already deciphered a distinct allusion to only forty camels; a discovery which gravely affected the foundations of Christian cosmology and seemed to many to open alarming and promising vistas in the matter of the institution of marriage. The librarian’s name became quite current in journalism for a time, and insistence on the persecution or neglect suffered at the hands of the orthodox by Galileo, Bruno, and Herne, became an agreeable variation on the recognised triad of Galileo, Bruno, and Darwin. Neglect, indeed, there may in a manner have been; for the librarian of Seawood continued laboriously to spell out his hieroglyphics without assistance; and had already discovered the words “forty camels” to be followed by the words “and seven.” But there was nothing in such a detail to lead an advancing world to turn aside or meddle with the musty occupations of a solitary student.
The librarian was certainly of the sort that is remote from the daylight, and suited to be a shade among the shades of a great library. His figure was long and lithe, but he held one shoulder habitually a little higher than the other; his hair was of a dusty lightness. His face was lean and his lineaments long and straight; but his wan blue eyes were a shade wider apart than other men’s; increasing an effect of having one eye off. It was indeed rather a weird effect, as if his eye were somewhere else; not in the mere sense of looking elsewhere, but almost as if it were in some other head than his own. And indeed, in a manner, it was; it was in the head of a Hittite ten thousand years ago.
For there was something in Michael Herne which is perhaps in every specialist, buried under his mountains of material and alone enabling him to support them; something of what, when it gains vent in an upper air, is called poetry. He instinctively made pictures of the things he studied. Even discerning men, appreciative of many corners of history, would have seen in him only a dusty antiquarian, fumbling with pre-historic pots and pans or the everlasting stone hatchet; a hatchet that most of us are very willing to bury. But they would have done him an injustice. Shapeless as they were, these things to him were not idols, but instruments. When he looked at the Hittite hatchet he did imagine it as killing something for the Hittite pot; when he looked at the pot he did see it boiling, to cook something killed with the hatchet. He would not have called it “something,” of course; but given the name of some sufficiently edible bird or beast; he was quite capable of making out a Hittite menu. From such faint fragments he had indeed erected a visionary and archaic city and state, eclipsing Assyria in its elephantine and unshapely enormity. His soul was afar off, walking under strange skies of turquoise and gold; amid head-dresses like high sepulchres and sepulchres higher than citadels; and beards braided as if into figured tapestries. When he looked out of the open library window at the gardener sweeping the trim garden walks of Seawood, it was not these things that he saw. He saw those huge enthroned brutes and birds that seemed to be hewn out of mountains. He saw those vast, overpowering faces, that seemed to have been planned like cities. There were even hints that he had allowed the Hittites to prey upon his mind to its slight unsettlement. A story was current of an incautious professor who had repeated idle gossip against the moral character of the Hittite princess, Pal-Ul-Gazil, and whom the librarian had belaboured with the long broom used for dusting the books and driven to take refuge on the top of the library steps. But opinion was divided as to whether this story was founded on fact or on Mr. Douglas Murrel.
Anyhow, the anecdote was at least an allegory. Few realise how much of controversial war and tumult can be covered by an obscure hobby. The fighting spirit has almost taken refuge in hobbies as in holes and corners of the earth; and left the larger public fields singularly dull and flat and free from real debate. It might be imagined that the Daily Wire was a slashing paper and the Review of Assyrian Excavation was a mild and peaceful one. But in truth it is the other way. It is the popular paper that has become cold and conventional, and full of clichés used without any conviction. It is the scholarly paper that is full of fire and fanaticism and rivalry. Mr. Herne could not contain himself when he thought of Professor Poole and his preposterous and monstrous suggestion about the Pre-Hittite sandal. He pursued the Professor, if not with a broom at least with a pen brandished like a weapon; and expended on these unheard-of questions energies of real eloquence, logic and living enthusiasm which the world will never hear of either. And when he discovered fresh facts, exposed accepted fallacies or concentrated on contradictions which he exposed with glaring lucidity, he was not an inch nearer to any public recognition but he was something which public men cannot invariably claim to be. He was happy.
For the rest, he was the son of a poor parson; he was one of the few who have succeeded in being unsociable at Oxford, not from positive dislike of society but from an equally positive love of solitude; and his few but persistent bodily exercises were either solitary like walking and swimming, or rather rare and eccentric, like fencing. He had a very good general knowledge of books and, having to earn his own living, was very glad to earn a salary by looking after the fine old library collected by the previous owners of Seawood Abbey. But the one holiday of his life had been full of hard work, when he went as a minor assistant in the excavations of Hittite cities in Arabia; and all his day-dreams were but repetitions of that holiday.
He was standing at the open French windows by which the library looked on to the lawn, with his hands in his trousers’ pockets, and the rather blind look of introspection in his eyes when the green line of the garden was broken by the apparition of three figures, two of whom at least might have been considered striking, not to say startling. They might have been gaily coloured ghosts, come out of the past. Their costume was far from being Hittite, as even a humbler grade of specialism might well have perceived; but it was almost as outlandish. Only the third figure, in a light tweed jacket and trousers was of a reassuring modernity.
“Oh, Mr. Herne,” a young lady was saying to him in courteous but rather confident tones; a young lady framed in a marvellous horned head-dress and a tight blue robe with hanging pointed sleeves. “We want to ask you a great favour. We are in no end of a difficulty.”
Mr. Herne’s eyes seemed to alter their focus, as if fitted with a new lens, to lose the distance and take in the foreground; a foreground that was filled with the magnificent young lady. It seemed to have a curious effect on him, for he was dumb for a moment, and then said with more warmth than might have been expected from the look of him.
“Anything whatever that I can do...”
“It’s only to take a tiny little part in our play,” she pleaded, “it’s a shame to give you such a small one, but everybody has fallen through and we don’t want to give up the whole thing.”
“What play is it?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s all nonsense, of course,” she said easily, “it’s called ‘Blondel the Troubadour,’ about Richard Coeur de Lion and serenades and princesses and castles and the usual sort of thing. But we want somebody for the Second Troubadour, who has to go about with Blondel and talk to him. Or rather be talked to, for, of course, Blondel does all the talking. It wouldn’t take you long to learn your part.” “Just twanging the light guitar,” said Murrel encouragingly, “sort of medieval variant of playing on the old banjo.”
“What we really want,” said Archer more seriously, “is a rich romantic background, so to speak. That’s what the Second Troubadour stands for; like ‘The Forest Lovers,’ boyhood’s dreams of the past, full of knights errant and hermits and all the rest of it.”
“Rather rough to ask anybody to be a rich romantic background at such short notice,” admitted Murrel, “but you know the sort of thing. Do be a back-ground, Mr. Herne.”
Mr. Herne’s long face had assumed an expression of the greatest grief.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, “I should have loved to help you in any way. But it’s not my period.”
While the others looked at him in a puzzled way he went on like a man thinking aloud.
“Garton Rogers is the man you want. Floyd is very good; but he’s best on the Fourth Crusade. I’m sure the best advice I could give you is to go to Rogers of Balliol.”
“I know him a bit,” said Murrel, looking at the other with a rather twisted smile. “He was my tutor.”
“Excellent!” said the librarian, “You couldn’t do better.”
“Yes, I know him,” said Murrel gravely, “he’s not quite seventy-three and entirely bald; and so fat he can hardly walk.”
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