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THE BOOK-BILLS OF NARCISSUS

AN ACCOUNT RENDERED BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE

WITH A FRONTISPIECE BY ROBERT FOWLER

1895




TABLE OF CHAPTERS

I. INTRODUCTORY
II. STILL INTRODUCTORY, BUT THIS TIME
OF A GREATER THAN THE WRITER
III. IN WHICH NARCISSUS OPENS HIS 'GLADSTONE'
IV. ACCOUNTS RENDERED
V. AN IDYLL OF ALICE SUNSHINE, WHICH
REALLY BELONGS TO THE LAST CHAPTER
VI. THE SIBYLLINE BOOKS
VII. THE CHILDREN OF APOLLO
VIII. GEORGE MUNCASTER
IX. THAT THIRTEENTH MAID
X. 'IN VISHNU-LAND WHAT AVATAR?'




TO MILDRED

Always thy book, too late acknowledged thine,
Now when thine eyes no earthly page may read;
Blinded with death, or blinded with the shine
Of love's own lore celestial. Small need,
Forsooth, for thee to read my earthly line,
That on immortal flowers of fancy feed;
What should my angel do to stoop to mine,
Flowers of decay of no immortal seed.

Yet, love, if in thy lofty dwelling-place,
Higher than notes of any soaring bird,
Beyond the beam of any solar light,
A song of earth may scale the awful height,
And at thy heavenly window find thy face -
know my voice shall never fall unheard.

_December 6th,_ 1894.

NOTE. - _This third edition has been revised, and Chapter V. is entirely
new_.




CHAPTER I


INTRODUCTORY - A WORD OF WISDOM, FOUND WRITTEN, LIKE THE MOST ANCIENT, ON
LEATHER

'Ah! old men's boots don't go there, sir!' said the bootmaker to me one
day, as he pointed to the toes of a pair I had just brought him for
mending. It was a significant observation, I thought; and as I went on
my way home, writing another such chronicle with every springing step,
it filled me with much reflection - largely of the nature of platitude, I
have little doubt: such reflection, Reader, as is even already, I doubt
less, rippling the surface of your mind with ever-widening circles. Yes!
you sigh with an air, it is in the unconscious autobiographies we are
every moment writing - not those we publish in two volumes and a
supplement - where the truth about us is hid. Truly it is a thought that
has 'thrilled dead bosoms,' I agree, but why be afraid of it for that,
Reader? Truth is not become a platitude only in our day. 'The Preacher'
knew it for such some considerable time ago, and yet he did not fear to
'write and set in order many proverbs.'

You have kept a diary for how many years? Thirty? dear me! But have you
kept your wine-bills? If you ever engage me to write that life, which,
of course, must some day be written - I wouldn't write it myself - don't
trouble about your diary. Lend me your private ledger. 'There the action
lies in his true nature.'

Yet I should hardly, perhaps, have evoked this particular corollary from
that man of leather's observation, if I had not chanced one evening to
come across those old book-bills of my friend Narcissus, about which I
have undertaken to write here, and been struck - well-nigh awe-struck - by
the wonderful manner in which there lay revealed in them the story of
the years over which they ran. To a stranger, I am sure, they would be
full of meaning; but to me, who lived so near him through so much of the
time, how truly pregnant does each briefest entry seem.

To Messrs. Oldbuck and Sons they, alas! often came to be but so many
accounts rendered; to you, being a philosopher, they would, as I have
said, mean more; but to me they mean all that great sunrise, the youth
of Narcissus.

Many modern poets, still young enough, are fond of telling us where
their youth lies buried. That of Narcissus - would ye know - rests among
these old accounts. Lo! I would perform an incantation. I throw these
old leaves into the _elixir vitae_ of sweet memory, as Dr. Heidegger
that old rose into his wonderful crystal water. Have I power to make
Narcissus' rose to bloom again, so that you may know something of the
beauty it wore for us? I wonder. I would I had. I must try.




CHAPTER II


STILL INTRODUCTORY, BUT THIS TIME OF A GREATER THAN THE WRITER

On the left-hand side of Tithefields, just as one turns out of Prince
Street, in a certain well-known Lancashire town, is the unobtrusive
bookshop of Mr. Samuel Dale. It must, however, be a very superficial
glance which does not discover in it something characteristic,
distinguishing it from other 'second-hand' shops of the same size and
style.

There are, alas! treatises on farriery in the window; geographies,
chemistries, and French grammars, on the trestles outside; for Samuel,
albeit so great a philosopher as indeed to have founded quite a school,
must nevertheless live. Those two cigars and that 'noggin' of whiskey,
which he purchases with such a fine solemnity as he and I go home
together for occasional symposia in his bachelor lodging - those, I say,
come not without sale of such treatises, such geographies, chemistries,
and French grammars.

But I am digressing. There is a distinguishing air, I but meant to say,
about the little shop. Looking closer, one generally finds that it comes
of a choice bit of old binding, or the quaint title-page of some tuneful
Elizabethan. It was an old Crashaw that first drew me inside; and,
though for some reason I did not buy it then, I bought it a year after,
because to it I owed the friendship of Samuel Dale.

And thus for three bright years that little shop came to be, for a daily
hour or so, a blessed palm-tree away from the burden and heat of the
noon, a holy place whither the money-changers and such as sold doves
might never come, let their clamour in the outer courts ring never so
loud. There in Samuel's talk did two weary-hearted bond-servants of
Egypt draw a breath of the Infinite into their lives of the desk; there
could they sit awhile by the eternal springs, and feel the beating of
the central heart.

So it happened one afternoon, about five years ago, that I dropped in
there according to wont. But Samuel was engaged with some one in that
dim corner at the far end of the shop, where his desk and arm-chair,
tripod of that new philosophy, stood: so I turned to a neighbouring
shelf to fill the time. At first I did not notice his visitor; but as,
in taking down this book and that, I had come nearer to the talkers, I
was struck with something familiar in the voice of the stranger. It came
upon me like an old song, and looking up - why, of course, it was
Narcissus!

The letter N does not make one of the initials on the Gladstone bag
which he had with him on that occasion, and which, filled with books,
lay open on the floor close by; nor does it appear on any of those
tobacco-pouches, cigar-cases, or handkerchiefs with which men beloved of
fair women are familiar. And Narcissus might, moreover, truthfully say
that _it_ has never appeared upon any manner of stamped paper coming
under a certain notable Act.

To be less indulgent to a vice from which the Reader will, I fear, have
too frequent occasion to suffer in these pages, and for which he may
have a stronger term than digression, let me at once say that Narcissus
is but the name Love knew him by, Love and the Reader; for that name by
which he was known to the postman - and others - is no necessity here. How
and why he came to be so named will appear soon enough.

Yes! it was the same old Narcissus, and he was wielding just the same
old magic, I could see, as in our class-rooms and playgrounds five years
before. What is it in him that made all men take him so on his own
terms, made his talk hold one so, though it so often stumbled in the
dark, and fell dumb on many a verbal _cul-de-sac_? Whatever it is,
Samuel felt it, and, with that fine worshipful spirit of his - an
attitude which always reminds me of the elders listening to the boy
Jesus - was doing that homage for which no beauty or greatness ever
appeals to him in vain. What an eye for soul has Samuel! How inevitably
it pierces through all husks and excrescences to the central beauty! In
that short talk he knew Narcissus through and through; three years or
thirty years could add but little. But the talk was not ended yet;
indeed, it seemed like so many of those Tithefields talks, as if in the
'eternal fitness of things' it never could, would, or should end. It was
I at last who gave it pause, and - yes! indeed, it was he. We had,
somehow, not met for quite three years, chums as we had been at school.
He had left there for an office some time before I did, and, oddly
enough, this was our first meeting since then. A purchaser for one of
those aforesaid treatises on farriery just then coming in, dislodged us;
so, bidding Samuel good-bye - he and Narcissus already arranging for 'a
night' - we obeyed a mutual instinct, and presently found ourselves in
the snuggery of a quaint tavern, which was often to figure hereafter in
our sentimental history, though probably little in these particular
chapters of it. The things 'seen done at "The Mermaid "' may some day be
written in another place, where the Reader will know from the beginning
what to expect, and not feel that he has been induced to buy a volume
under false pretences.




CHAPTER III


IN WHICH NARCISSUS OPENS HIS 'GLADSTONE'

Though it was so long since we had met - is not three years indeed 'so
long' in youth? - we had hardly to wait for our second glass to be again
_en rapport_. Few men grow so rapidly as Narcissus did in those young
days, but fewer still can look back on old enthusiasms and superannuated
ideals with a tenderness so delicately considerate. Most men hasten to
witness their present altitude by kicking away the old ladders on the
first opportunity; like vulgar lovers, they seek to flatter to-day at
the expense of yesterday. But Narcissus was of another fibre; he could
as soon have insulted the memory of his first love.

So, before long, we had passed together into a sweet necropolis of
dreams, whither, if the Reader care, I will soon take him by the hand.
But just now I would have him concern himself with the afternoon of
which I write, in that sad tense, the past present. Indeed, we did not
ourselves tarry long among the shades, for we were young, and youth has
little use for the preterite; its verbs are wont to have but two tenses.
We soon came up to the surface in one, with eyes turned instinctively on
the other.

Narcissus' bag seemed, somehow, a symbol; and I had caught sight of a
binding or two as it lay open in Tithefields that made me curious to see
it open again. He was only beginning to collect when we had parted at
school, if 'collect' is not too sacred a word: beginning to _buy_ more
truly expresses that first glutting of the bookish hunger, which, like
the natural appetite, never passes in some beyond the primary
utilitarian stage of 'eating to live,' otherwise 'buying to read.' Three
years, however, works miracles of refinement in any hunger that is at
all capable of culture; and it was evident, when Narcissus did open his
'Gladstone,' that it had taken him by no means so long to attain that
sublimation of taste which may be expressed as 'reading to buy.' Each
volume had that air - of breeding, one might almost say - by which one can
always know a genuine _bouquin_ at a glance; an alluvial richness of
bloom, coming upon one like an aromatic fragrance in so many old things,
in old lawns, in old flowers, old wines, and many another delicious
simile. One could not but feel that each had turned its golden brown,
just as an apple reddens - as, indeed, it had.

I do not propose to solemnly enumerate and laboriously describe these
good things, because I hardly think they would serve to distinguish
Narcissus, except in respect of luck, from other bookmen in the first
furor of bookish enthusiasm. They were such volumes as Mr. Pendennis ran
up accounts for at Oxford. Narcissus had many other points in common
with that gentleman. Such volumes as, morning after morning, sadden
one's breakfast-table in that Tantalus _menu_, the catalogue. Black
letter, early printed, first editions Elizabethan and Victorian, every
poor fly ambered in large paper, etc. etc.; in short, he ran through the
gamut of that craze which takes its turn in due time with marbles,
peg-tops, beetles, and foreign stamps - with probably the two exceptions
of Bewick, for whom he could never batter up an enthusiasm, and
'facetiae.' These latter needed too much camphor, he used to say.

His two most cherished possessions were a fine copy of the _Stultitiae
Laus_, printed by Froben, which had once been given by William Burton,
the historian, to his brother Robert, when the latter was a youngster of
twenty; and a first edition of one of Walton's lives, 'a presentation
copy from the author.' The former was rich with the autographs and
marginalia of both brothers, and on the latter a friend of his has
already hung a tale, which may or may not be known to the Reader. In the
reverent handling of these treasures, two questions inevitably forced
themselves upon me: where the d - - l Narcissus, an apprentice, with an
allowance that would hardly keep most of us in tobacco, had found the
money for such indulgences; and how he could find in his heart to sell
them again so soon. A sorrowful interjection, as he closed his bag,
explained all: -

'Yes!' he sighed, 'they have cost me thirty pounds, and guess how much I
have been offered for them?'

I suggested ten.

'Five,' groaned my poor friend. 'I tried several to get that. "H'm,"
says each one, indifferently turning the most precious in his hand,
"this would hardly be any use to me; and this I might have to keep
months before I could sell. That I could make you an offer for; what
have you thought of for it?" With a great tugging at your heart, and
well-nigh in tears, you name the absurdest minimum. You had given five;
you halve it - surely you can get that! But "O no! I can give nothing
like that figure. In that case it is no use to talk of it." In despair
you cry, "Well, what will you offer?" with a choking voice. "Fifteen
shillings would be about my figure for it," answers the fiend,
relentless as a machine - and so on.'

'I tried pawning them at first,' he continued, 'because there was hope
of getting them back some time that way; but, trudging from shop to
shop, with many prayers, "a sovereign for the lot" was all I could get.
Worse than dress-clothes!' concluded the frank creature.

For Narcissus to be in debt was nothing new: he had always been so at
school, and probably always will be. Had you reproached him with it in
those young self-conscious days of glorious absurdity, he would probably
have retorted, with a toss of his vain young head: -

'Well, and so was Shelley!'

I ventured to enquire the present difficulty that compelled him to make
sacrifice of things so dear.

'Why, to pay for them, of course,' was the answer.

And so I first became initiated into the mad method by which Narcissus
had such a library about him at twenty-one. From some unexplained
reason, largely, I have little doubt, on account of the charm of his
manners, he had the easy credit of those respectable booksellers to whom
reference has been made above. No extravagance seemed to shake their
confidence. I remember calling upon them with him one day some months
following that afternoon - for the madness, as usual, would have its
time, and no sufferings seemed to teach him prudence - and he took me up
to a certain 'fine set' that he had actually resisted, he said, for a
fortnight. Alas! I knew what that meant. Yes, he must have it; it was
just the thing to help him with a something he was writing - 'not to
read, you know, but to make an atmosphere,' etc. So he used to talk; and
the odd thing was, that we always took the wildness seriously; he seemed
to make us see just what he wanted. 'I say, John,' was the next I heard,
at the other end of the shop, 'will you kindly send me round that set
of' so-and-so, 'and charge it to my account?' 'John,' the son of old
Oldbuck, and for a short time a sort of friend of Narcissus, would
answer, 'Certainly,' with a voice of the most cheerful trust; and yet,
when we had gone, it was indeed no less a sum than £10, 10s. which he
added to the left-hand side of Mr. N.'s account.

Do not mistake this for a certain vulgar quality, with a vulgar little
name of five letters. No one could have less of that than Narcissus. He
was often, on the contrary, quite painfully diffident. No, it was not
'cheek,' Reader; it was a kind of irrational innocence. I don't think it
ever occurred to him, till the bills came in at the half-years, what
'charge it to my account' really meant. Perhaps it was because, poor
lad, he had so small a practical acquaintance with it, that he knew so
little the value of money. But how he suffered when those accounts did
come in! Of course, there was nothing to be done but to apply to some
long-suffering friend; denials of lunch and threadbare coats but nibbled
at the amount - especially as a fast to-day often found revulsion in a
festival to-morrow. To save was not in Narcissus.

I promised to digress, Reader, and I have kept my word. Now to return to
that afternoon again. It so chanced that on that day in the year I
happened to have in my pocket - what you might meet me every day in five
years without finding there - a ten-pound note. It was for this I felt
after we had been musing awhile - Narcissus, probably, on everything
else in the world except his debts - and it was with this I awoke him
from his reverie. He looked at his hand, and then at me, in
bewilderment. Poor fellow, how he wanted to keep it, yet how he tried to
look as if he couldn't think of doing so. He couldn't help his joy
shining through.

'But I want you to take it,' I said; 'believe me, I have no immediate
need of it, and you can pay me at your leisure.' Ten pounds towards the
keep of a poet once in a lifetime is, after all, but little interest on
the gold he brings us. At last I 'prevailed,' shall I say? but on no
account without the solemnity of an IOU and a fixed date for repayment,
on which matter poor N. was always extremely emphatic. Alas! Mr. George
Meredith has already told us how this passionate anxiety to be bound by
the heaven above, the earth, and the waters under the earth, is the most
fatal symptom by which to know the confirmed in this kind. Captain
Costigan had it, it may be remembered; and the same solicitude, the same
tearful gratitude, I know, accompanied every such transaction of my
poor Narcissus.

Whether it was as apparent on the due date, or whether of that ten
pounds I have ever looked upon the like again, is surely no affair of
the Reader's; but, lest he should do my friend an injustice, I had
better say - I haven't.




CHAPTER IV


ACCOUNTS RENDERED

Nothing strikes one more in looking back, either on our own lives or on
those of others, than how little we assimilate from the greatest
experiences; in nothing is Nature's apparent wastefulness of means more
ironically impressive. A great love comes and sets one's whole being
singing like a harp, fills high heaven with rainbows, and makes our
dingy alleys for awhile bright as the streets of the New Jerusalem; and
yet, if five years after we seek for what its incandescence has left us,
we find, maybe, a newly helpful epithet, maybe a fancy, at most a
sonnet. Nothing strikes one more, unless, perhaps, the obverse, when we
see some trifling pebble-cast ripple into eternity, some fateful second
prolific as the fly aphis. And so I find it all again exampled in these
old accounts. The books that mean most for Narcissus to-day could be
carried in the hand without a strap, and could probably be bought for a
sovereign. The rest have survived as a quaint cadence in his style, have
left clinging about his thought a delicate incense of mysticism, or are
bound up in the retrospective tenderness of boyish loves long since gone
to dream.

Another observation in the same line of reflection also must often
strike one: - for what very different qualities than those for which we
were first passionate do we come afterwards to value our old
enthusiasms. In the day of their bloom it was the thing itself, the
craze, the study, for its own sake; now it is the discipline, or any
broad human culture, in which they may have been influential. The boy
chases the butterfly, and thinks not of the wood and the blue heaven;
but those only does the man remember, for the mark of their beauty upon
him, so unconsciously impressed, for the health of their power and
sweetness still living in his blood - for these does that chase seem
alone of worth, when the dusty entomological relic thereof is in limbo.
And so that long and costly shelf, groaning beneath the weight of Grose
and Dugdale, and many a mighty slab of topographical prose; those
pilgrimages to remote parish churches, with all their attendant ardours
of careful 'rubbings'; those notebooks, filled with patient data; those
long letters to brother antiquaries - of sixteen; even that famous
Exshire Tour itself, which was to have rivalled Pennant's own - what
remains to show where this old passion stood, with all the clustering
foliage of a dream; what but that quaint cadence I spoke of, and an
anecdote or two which seemed but of little import then, with such
breathless business afoot as an old font or a Roman road?

One particular Roman road, I know, is but remembered now, because, in
the rich twilight of an old June evening, it led up the gorsy stretches
of Lancashire 'Heights' to a solemn plateau, wide and solitary as
Salisbury Plain, from the dark border of which, a warm human note
against the lonely infinite of heath and sky, beamed the little
whitewashed 'Traveller's Rest,' its yellow light, growing stronger as
the dusk deepened, meeting the eye with a sense of companionship
becoming a vague need just then.

The seeming spiritual significance of such forlorn wastes of no-man's
land had, I know, a specially strong appeal for Narcissus, and, in some
moods, the challenge which they seem to call from some 'dark tower' of
spiritual adventure would have led him wandering there till star-light;
but a day of rambling alone, in a strange country, among unknown faces,
brings a social hunger by evening, and a craving for some one to speak
to and a voice in return becomes almost a fear. A bright
kitchen-parlour, warm with the health of six workmen, grouped round a
game of dominoes, and one huge quart pot of ale, used among them as
woman in the early world, was a grateful inglenook, indeed, wherein to
close the day. Of course, friend N. joined them, and took his pull and
paid his round, like a Walt Whitman. I like to think of his slight
figure amongst them; his delicate, almost girl-like, profile against
theirs; his dreamy eyes and pale brow, surmounted by one of those dark
clusters of hair in which the fingers of women love to creep - an
incongruity, though of surfaces only, which certain who knew him but 'by
sight,' as the phrase is, might be at a loss to understand. That was one
of the surprises of his constitution. Nature had given him the dainty
and dreamy form of the artist, to which habit had added a bookish touch,
ending in a _tout ensemble_ of gentleness and distinction with little
apparent affinity to a scene like that in the 'Traveller's Rest.' But
there are many whom a suspicion of the dilettante in such an exterior
belies, and Narcissus was one of them. He had very strongly developed
that instinct of manner to which sympathy is a daily courtesy, and he
thus readily, when it suited him, could take the complexion of his
company, and his capacity of 'bend' was well-nigh genius. Of course, all
this is but to say that he was a gentleman; yet is not that in itself a
fine kind of originality? Besides, he had a genuine appetite for the
things of earth, such as many another delicate thing - a damask
rose-bush, for example - must be convicted of too; and often, when some
one has asked him 'what he could have in common with so-and-so,' I have
heard him answer: 'Tobacco and beer.' Samuel Dale once described him as
Shelley with a chin; and perhaps the chin accounted for the absence of
any of those sentimental scruples with regard to beefsteaks and certain
varieties of jokes, for which the saint-like deserter of Harriet
Westbrook was distinguished.

A supremely quaint instance of this gift of accommodation befell during
that same holiday, which should not pass unrecorded, but which I offer
to the Reader with an emphatic _Honi soit qui mal y pense_. Despairing
of reaching a certain large manufacturing town on foot in time to put up


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