Books and Bookmen, by Andrew Lang

A Bookman’s Purgatory

Thomas Blinton was a book-hunter. He had always been a book-hunter, ever since, at an extremely early age, he had awakened to the errors of his ways as a collector of stamps and monograms. In book-hunting he saw no harm; nay, he would contrast its joys, in a rather pharisaical style, with the pleasures of shooting and fishing. He constantly declined to believe that the devil came for that renowned amateur of black letter, G. Steevens. Dibdin himself, who tells the story (with obvious anxiety and alarm), pretends to refuse credit to the ghastly narrative. “His language,” says Dibdin, in his account of the book-hunter’s end, “was, too frequently, the language of imprecation.” This is rather good, as if Dibdin thought a gentleman might swear pretty often, but not “TOO frequently.” “Although I am not disposed to admit,” Dibdin goes on, “the WHOLE of the testimony of the good woman who watched by Steevens’s bedside, although my prejudices (as they may be called) will not allow me to believe that the windows shook, and that strange noises and deep groans were heard at midnight in his room, yet no creature of common sense (and this woman possessed the quality in an eminent degree) could mistake oaths for prayers;” and so forth. In short, Dibdin clearly holds that the windows did shake “without a blast,” like the banners in Branxholme Hall when somebody came for the Goblin Page.

But Thomas Blinton would hear of none of these things. He said that his taste made him take exercise; that he walked from the City to West Kensington every day, to beat the covers of the book-stalls, while other men travelled in the expensive cab or the unwholesome Metropolitan Railway. We are all apt to hold favourable views of our own amusements, and, for my own part, I believe that trout and salmon are incapable of feeling pain. But the flimsiness of Blinton’s theories must be apparent to every unbiassed moralist. His “harmless taste” really involved most of the deadly sins, or at all events a fair working majority of them. He coveted his neighbours’ books. When he got the chance he bought books in a cheap market and sold them in a dear market, thereby degrading literature to the level of trade. He took advantage of the ignorance of uneducated persons who kept book-stalls. He was envious, and grudged the good fortune of others, while he rejoiced in their failures. He turned a deaf ear to the appeals of poverty. He was luxurious, and laid out more money than he should have done on his selfish pleasures, often adorning a volume with a morocco binding when Mrs. Blinton sighed in vain for some old point d’Alencon lace. Greedy, proud, envious, stingy, extravagant, and sharp in his dealings, Blinton was guilty of most of the sins which the Church recognises as “deadly.”

On the very day before that of which the affecting history is now to be told, Blinton had been running the usual round of crime. He had (as far as intentions went) defrauded a bookseller in Holywell Street by purchasing from him, for the sum of two shillings, what he took to be a very rare Elzevir. It is true that when he got home and consulted ‘Willems,’ he found that he had got hold of the wrong copy, in which the figures denoting the numbers of pages are printed right, and which is therefore worth exactly “nuppence” to the collector. But the intention is the thing, and Blinton’s intention was distinctly fraudulent. When he discovered his error, then “his language,” as Dibdin says, “was that of imprecation.” Worse (if possible) than this, Blinton had gone to a sale, begun to bid for ‘Les Essais de Michel, Seigneur de Montaigne’ (Foppens, MDCLIX.), and, carried away by excitement, had “plunged” to the extent of 15 pounds, which was precisely the amount of money he owed his plumber and gasfitter, a worthy man with a large family. Then, meeting a friend (if the book-hunter has friends), or rather an accomplice in lawless enterprise, Blinton had remarked the glee on the other’s face. The poor man had purchased a little old Olaus Magnus, with woodcuts, representing were-wolves, fire-drakes, and other fearful wild-fowl, and was happy in his bargain. But Blinton, with fiendish joy, pointed out to him that the index was imperfect, and left him sorrowing.

Deeds more foul have yet to be told. Thomas Blinton had discovered a new sin, so to speak, in the collecting way. Aristophanes says of one of his favourite blackguards, “Not only is he a villain, but he has invented an original villainy.” Blinton was like this. He maintained that every man who came to notoriety had, at some period, published a volume of poems which he had afterwards repented of and withdrawn. It was Blinton’s hideous pleasure to collect stray copies of these unhappy volumes, these ‘Peches de Jeunesse,’ which, always and invariably, bear a gushing inscription from the author to a friend. He had all Lord John Manners’s poems, and even Mr. Ruskin’s. He had the ‘Ode to Despair’ of Smith (now a comic writer), and the ‘Love Lyrics’ of Brown, who is now a permanent under-secretary, than which nothing can be less gay nor more permanent. He had the amatory songs which a dignitary of the Church published and withdrew from circulation. Blinton was wont to say he expected to come across ‘Triolets of a Tribune,’ by Mr. John Bright, and ‘Original Hymns for Infant Minds,’ by Mr. Henry Labouchere, if he only hunted long enough.

On the day of which I speak he had secured a volume of love-poems which the author had done his best to destroy, and he had gone to his club and read all the funniest passages aloud to friends of the author, who was on the club committee. Ah, was this a kind action? In short, Blinton had filled up the cup of his iniquities, and nobody will be surprised to hear that he met the appropriate punishment of his offence. Blinton had passed, on the whole, a happy day, notwithstanding the error about the Elzevir. He dined well at his club, went home, slept well, and started next morning for his office in the City, walking, as usual, and intending to pursue the pleasures of the chase at all the book-stalls. At the very first, in the Brompton Road, he saw a man turning over the rubbish in the cheap box. Blinton stared at him, fancied he knew him, thought he didn’t, and then became a prey to the glittering eye of the other. The Stranger, who wore the conventional cloak and slouched soft hat of Strangers, was apparently an accomplished mesmerist, or thought-reader, or adept, or esoteric Buddhist. He resembled Mr. Isaacs, Zanoni (in the novel of that name), Mendoza (in ‘Codlingsby’), the soul-less man in ‘A Strange Story,’ Mr. Home, Mr. Irving Bishop, a Buddhist adept in the astral body, and most other mysterious characters of history and fiction. Before his Awful Will, Blinton’s mere modern obstinacy shrank back like a child abashed. The Stranger glided to him and whispered, “Buy these.”

“These” were a complete set of Auerbach’s novels, in English, which, I need not say, Blinton would never have dreamt of purchasing had he been left to his own devices.

“Buy these!” repeated the Adept, or whatever he was, in a cruel whisper. Paying the sum demanded, and trailing his vast load of German romance, poor Blinton followed the fiend.

They reached a stall where, amongst much trash, Glatigny’s ‘Jour de l’An d’un Vagabond’ was exposed.

“Look,” said Blinton, “there is a book I have wanted some time. Glatignys are getting rather scarce, and it is an amusing trifle.”

“ Nay, buy THAT,” said the implacable Stranger, pointing with a hooked forefinger at Alison’s ‘History of Europe’ in an indefinite number of volumes. Blinton shuddered.

“What, buy THAT, and why? In heaven’s name, what could I do with it?”

“Buy it,” repeated the persecutor, “and THAT” (indicating the ‘Ilios’ of Dr. Schliemann, a bulky work), “and THESE” (pointing to all Mr. Theodore Alois Buckley’s translations of the Classics), “and THESE” (glancing at the collected writings of the late Mr. Hain Friswell, and at a ‘Life,’ in more than one volume, of Mr. Gladstone).

The miserable Blinton paid, and trudged along carrying the bargains under his arm. Now one book fell out, now another dropped by the way. Sometimes a portion of Alison came ponderously to earth; sometimes the ‘Gentle Life’ sunk resignedly to the ground. The Adept kept picking them up again, and packing them under the arms of the weary Blinton.

The victim now attempted to put on an air of geniality, and tried to enter into conversation with his tormentor.

“He DOES know about books,” thought Blinton, “and he must have a weak spot somewhere.”

So the wretched amateur made play in his best conversational style. He talked of bindings, of Maioli, of Grolier, of De Thou, of Derome, of Clovis Eve, of Roger Payne, of Trautz, and eke of Bauzonnet. He discoursed of first editions, of black letter, and even of illustrations and vignettes. He approached the topic of Bibles, but here his tyrant, with a fierce yet timid glance, interrupted him.

“Buy those!” he hissed through his teeth.

“Those” were the complete publications of the Folk Lore Society.

Blinton did not care for folk lore (very bad men never do), but he had to act as he was told.

Then, without pause or remorse, he was charged to acquire the ‘Ethics’ of Aristotle, in the agreeable versions of Williams and Chase. Next he secured ‘Strathmore,’ ‘Chandos,’ ‘Under Two Flags,’ and ‘Two Little Wooden Shoes,’ and several dozens more of Ouida’s novels. The next stall was entirely filled with school-books, old geographies, Livys, Delectuses, Arnold’s ‘Greek Exercises,’ Ollendorffs, and what not.

“Buy them all,” hissed the fiend. He seized whole boxes and piled them on Blinton’s head.

He tied up Ouida’s novels, in two parcels, with string, and fastened each to one of the buttons above the tails of Blinton’s coat.

“You are tired?” asked the tormentor. “Never mind, these books will soon be off your hands.”

So speaking, the Stranger, with amazing speed, hurried Blinton back through Holywell Street, along the Strand, and up to Piccadilly, stopping at last at the door of Blinton’s famous and very expensive binder.

The binder opened his eyes, as well he might, at the vision of Blinton’s treasures. Then the miserable Blinton found himself, as it were automatically and without any exercise of his will, speaking thus:—

“Here are some things I have picked up — extremely rare — and you will oblige me by binding them in your best manner, regardless of expense. Morocco, of course; crushed levant morocco, double, every book of them, petits fers, my crest and coat of arms, plenty of gilding. Spare no cost. Don’t keep me waiting, as you generally do;” for indeed book-binders are the most dilatory of the human species.

Before the astonished binder could ask the most necessary questions, Blinton’s tormentor had hurried that amateur out of the room.

“Come on to the sale,” he cried.

“What sale?” said Blinton.

“Why, the Beckford sale; it is the thirteenth day, a lucky day.”

“But I have forgotten my catalogue.”

“Where is it?”

“In the third shelf from the top, on the right-hand side of the ebony book-case at home.”

The stranger stretched out his arm, which swiftly elongated itself till the hand disappeared from view round the corner. In a moment the hand returned with the catalogue. The pair sped on to Messrs. Sotheby’s auction-rooms in Wellington Street. Every one knows the appearance of a great book-sale. The long table, surrounded by eager bidders, resembles from a little distance a roulette table, and communicates the same sort of excitement. The amateur is at a loss to know how to conduct himself. If he bids in his own person some bookseller will outbid him, partly because the bookseller knows, after all, he knows little about books, and suspects that the amateur may, in this case, know more. Besides, professionals always dislike amateurs, and, in this game, they have a very great advantage. Blinton knew all this, and was in the habit of giving his commissions to a broker. But now he felt (and very naturally) as if a demon had entered into him. ‘Tirante il Bianco Valorosissimo Cavaliere’ was being competed for, an excessively rare romance of chivalry, in magnificent red Venetian morocco, from Canevari’s library. The book is one of the rarest of the Venetian Press, and beautifully adorned with Canevari’s device — a simple and elegant affair in gold and colours. “Apollo is driving his chariot across the green waves towards the rock, on which winged Pegasus is pawing the ground,” though why this action of a horse should be called “pawing” (the animal notoriously not possessing paws) it is hard to say. Round this graceful design is the inscription [Greek text] (straight not crooked). In his ordinary mood Blinton could only have admired ‘Tirante il Bianco’ from a distance. But now, the demon inspiring him, he rushed into the lists, and challenged the great Mr. — the Napoleon of bookselling. The price had already reached five hundred pounds.

“Six hundred,” cried Blinton.

“Guineas,” said the great Mr. —.

“Seven hundred,” screamed Blinton.

“Guineas,” replied the other.

This arithmetical dialogue went on till even Mr. — struck his flag, with a sigh, when the maddened Blinton had said “Six thousand.” The cheers of the audience rewarded the largest bid ever made for any book. As if he had not done enough, the Stranger now impelled Blinton to contend with Mr. — for every expensive work that appeared. The audience naturally fancied that Blinton was in the earlier stage of softening of the brain, when a man conceives himself to have inherited boundless wealth, and is determined to live up to it. The hammer fell for the last time. Blinton owed some fifty thousand pounds, and exclaimed audibly, as the influence of the fiend died out, “I am a ruined man.”

“Then your books must be sold,” cried the Stranger, and, leaping on a chair, he addressed the audience:—

“Gentlemen, I invite you to Mr. Blinton’s sale, which will immediately take place. The collection contains some very remarkable early English poets, many first editions of the French classics, most of the rarer Aldines, and a singular assortment of Americana.”

In a moment, as if by magic, the shelves round the room were filled with Blinton’s books, all tied up in big lots of some thirty volumes each. His early Molieres were fastened to old French dictionaries and school-books. His Shakespeare quartos were in the same lot with tattered railway novels. His copy (almost unique) of Richard Barnfield’s much too ‘Affectionate Shepheard’ was coupled with odd volumes of ‘Chips from a German Workshop’ and a cheap, imperfect example of ‘Tom Brown’s School–Days.’ Hookes’s ‘Amanda’ was at the bottom of a lot of American devotional works, where it kept company with an Elzevir Tacitus and the Aldine ‘Hypnerotomachia.’ The auctioneer put up lot after lot, and Blinton plainly saw that the whole affair was a “knock-out.” His most treasured spoils were parted with at the price of waste paper. It is an awful thing to be present at one’s own sale. No man would bid above a few shillings. Well did Blinton know that after the knock-out the plunder would be shared among the grinning bidders. At last his ‘Adonais,’ uncut, bound by Lortic, went, in company with some old ‘Bradshaws,’ the ‘Court Guide’ of 1881, and an odd volume of the ‘Sunday at Home,’ for sixpence. The Stranger smiled a smile of peculiar malignity. Blinton leaped up to protest; the room seemed to shake around him, but words would not come to his lips.

Then he heard a familiar voice observe, as a familiar grasp shook his shoulder —

“Tom, Tom, what a nightmare you are enjoying!”

He was in his own arm-chair, where he had fallen asleep after dinner, and Mrs. Blinton was doing her best to arouse him from his awful vision. Beside him lay ‘L’Enfer du Bibliophile, vu et decrit par Charles Asselineau.’ (Paris: Tardieu, MDCCCLX.)

If this were an ordinary tract, I should have to tell how Blinton’s eyes were opened, how he gave up book-collecting, and took to gardening, or politics, or something of that sort. But truth compels me to admit that Blinton’s repentance had vanished by the end of the week, when he was discovered marking M. Claudin’s catalogue, surreptitiously, before breakfast. Thus, indeed, end all our remorses. “Lancelot falls to his own love again,” as in the romance. Much, and justly, as theologians decry a death-bed repentance, it is, perhaps, the only repentance that we do not repent of. All others leave us ready, when occasion comes, to fall to our old love again; and may that love never be worse than the taste for old books! Once a collector, always a collector. Moi qui parle, I have sinned, and struggled, and fallen. I have thrown catalogues, unopened, into the waste-paper basket. I have withheld my feet from the paths that lead to Sotheby’s and to Puttick’s. I have crossed the street to avoid a book-stall. In fact, like the prophet Nicholas, “I have been known to be steady for weeks at a time.” And then the fatal moment of temptation has arrived, and I have succumbed to the soft seductions of Eisen, or Cochin, or an old book on Angling. Probably Grolier was thinking of such weaknesses when he chose his devices Tanquam Ventus, and quisque suos patimur Manes. Like the wind we are blown about, and, like the people in the AEneid, we are obliged to suffer the consequences of our own extravagance.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03