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8

Although I scarcely ventured out during those days, on the few occasions I left either my house or the library, I encountered the Italian; the first time our meeting was deliberate, for I sought him out in Mother Jeans cookhouse the day I heard of Groves death, the second time it was by accident, after the play. On the first occasion, in particular, the conversation threw my mind into the utmost confusion.

He has recounted this talk between us in his memoir, and it was clear at the time that he believed he had deceived me. I found him to be sober and courteous, with an intelligent air and of moderate conversation. He was clearly gifted in tongues, for although the conversation tended to be in Latin, it seemed to me that he missed very little when we lapsed into English. Despite his skill, however, he gave himself away badly to anyone with the sense to listen; for what doctor (or soldier, for that matter) could talk so knowledgeably about heresies long dead, could refer so learnedly to the works of Hippolytus and Tertullian, or had even heard of Elchesai, Zosimus or Montanus? Papists, I grant, are more interested in such obscurities than Protestants, who have learned to read the Bible for themselves and thus need less knowledge of the opinions of others, but few even of the most devoted Romanists would have such matter readily to hand for use in dispute.

Cola did not act like a physician when he searched the Blundys cottage; now he did not talk like one either; I found my curiosity about him getting ever greater.

Even so, this was a minor matter in comparison to the substance of the conversation, and the direction he gave me so unknowingly. I have often thought about this phenomenon which occurs so frequently in the lives of all men that we almost fail to notice it anymore. How often have I had a question on my mind, and picked a book at random off the shelf, often one I have never heard of before, yet found the answer I seek within its covers? It is well known that men feel impelled to go to that place where they are to encounter, for the first time, that woman who is to be their wife. Similarly, even peasants know that letting the Bible fall open where it will, and putting a finger randomly on the page thus revealed will, more often than not, give the most sound advice that any man could wish to hear.

The thoughtless call this coincidence, and I note amongst philosophers a growing tendency to talk of chance and probability, as though this was some explanation rather than a scholarly disguise for their own ignorance. Simpler people know exactly what it is, for nothing can happen by chance when God sees and knows all; even to suggest anything different is absurd. These coincidences are the visible signs of His manifest providence, from which we can learn well if we will only see His hand, and contemplate the meaning of His actions.

So it was that I was driven against my will to Sarahs house that night Cola searched it, came across her on the Abingdon road and followed her, and so it was also in my conversation with Cola. All those things which the scoffers call chance and accident and coincidence show the direction God takes in mens affairs. Cola could have taken any example at all to illustrate his point, any one of which would have done as well or better than a tale of a long-extinct and forgotten heresy. So through what inspiration did he mention that most obscure branch of the Montanist heresy? What angel whispered in his ear and directed his mind so that, by the time I left the cookhouse, my limbs were trembling and my body sweating? In each generation the Messiah would be reborn, would be betrayed, would die, and be resurrected, until mankind turns away from evil, and sins no more. These were his words, and they frightened me greatly, for Sarah had said precisely the same only the night previously.

For the next few days, it was my greatest obsession, and all thought of Dr. Grove passed from my mind. I read what little I had at home first of all, then went to New College to ransack the small library of Thomas Ken, and scarcely noticed that poor tortured mans look of grief and anxiety. I wish I had, for had I attended more he might have spoken, and Sarah perhaps would have been spared. But I ignored his misery, and later it was not possible to make him shifthe had gone to Grove to beg his forgiveness for the calumny he had spread, but found only that he was trapped in his falsehood, as he discovered Prestcott but did nothing to alert the magistrate or the watch. He could not retract his lie about seeing Sarah going into Groves room without risking also being forced to confess that he aided a felon in his escape. Between facing the wrath of God after death, or the vengeance of Dr. Wallis in this life, he preferred the former, and has paid dearly for it ever since. For he stood by while an innocent was hanged that he might enjoy eighty pounds a year. I cannot condemn too harshly; my own sin was scarcely the less, for when I did speak, it was too late.

He lent me such books as I wanted, and when I had done with them, I went to the Bodleian, where I searched for the tale that Cola had told me. Fragments in Tertullian and in Hippolytus were all as he said, I found references in Eusebius and Irenaeus and Epiphanius as well. And the more I read the more my reason revolted against what I saw; for how was it possible that Sarah, unlettered as she was, could have quoted, almost word for word, a whole series of prophecies made more than a thousand years ago? There was no doubt about it; time and again the words were the same, almost as though it was the same person talking, this long-dead woman prophesying on a hilltop in Asia Minor and the girl who talked so strangely in Abingdon of her death.

It was an effort, but I put it all aside; it was a mad time, and the air was still filled with lunacies of all sorts, even after two decades which had all but exhausted mens appetites for enthusiasm in religion. I told myself that she was deluded, caught up in the corruption of the age, and that in due course, when she was less concerned with her mother and her own future, then she would cast off these foolish notions and endanger herself no more. It is often the case that men succeed in persuading themselves through the exercise of reason that what they know to be true is not so, merely because they cannot understand it.

To recover from this melancholy, I forced myself back into society, and in particular agreed willingly to Lowers suggestion that I accompany him and Cola to the play. I had not seen one for near four years, and much as I love my town, I admit it has few diversions to occupy a brooding mind when it needs distraction. I had a splendid day, I recall, for despite Mr. Colas criticisms, I found the story of Lear and his daughters both entertaining and moving, as well as most excellently acted. And I also enjoyed passing the rest of the evening in good company and again had my interest in the Italian aroused. I spent a considerable time talking to him, and used the opportunity to probe him as much as I dared. Whatever there was to be discovered, however, remained elusive to my intelligence; Cola parried my questions about himself with ease, and forever returned to matters in which his own beliefs and opinions played no part. Indeed, he seemed more than aware of my curiosity, and amused himself in avoiding any answer of substance.

I could not, of course, ask him directly about my interests. Much as I would have liked to know why he had searched Sarah Blundys cottage, it was impossible to put the question in any fashion which would have produced a useful reply. But, by the time he left he was aware of my suspicions about him, and he looked at me more warily, and with greater respect, than before.

Once he and Lower had gone, Locke and I spent another hour in agreeable conversation before we too left the inn and retired. I wished my mother good night and passed some time in my daily reading of the Bible and was on the verge of retiring for my night when a hammering on the door brought me back down the stairs to open up the door I had just laboriously closed up. It was Lower, apologizing greatly for the disturbance but asking for a moment of my time.

I am at a complete loss, he said when I had ushered him into my room and asked him to keep his voice down. My mother detested any sort of disturbance in the evening, and I would have had to endure many ill-humored days thereafter if Lowers conversation or boots had awoken her.

What did you think of Cola? he asked abruptly.

I gave a noncommittal reply, as it was clear to me that it mattered not at all what I thought of him. Why do you ask?

Because I keep on hearing shocking tales about him, he said. I was summoned by Dr. Wallis, as you know. Not only is this Cola a man who habitually steals the ideas of other people, but Wallis now seems to believe he may have had some involvement in the death of Dr. Grove. Did you know that I anatomized the man? The point was to see whether his body accused Cola.

And did it? My heart was beating faster as this subject was raised. My worst nightmares were coming true before my eyes, and I had no idea how I should best react. Until that moment I had no idea that Groves death was under investigation, and had not only persuaded myself that I was safe, but had even reached some conviction in my mind that his death was in no way connected with myself.

No. Of course not. Or maybe it did; by the time Id cut him open it was impossible to say whether he was bleeding in accusation or not. Either way, the test produced nothing.

Why does Wallis think this?

I have no idea. He is a close man, and never says anything unless he has to. But his warnings have alarmed me. And now, it seems, I have to take Cola off on tour with me. I shall lie awake every night, convinced he will slip a stiletto into me.

I wouldnt concern myself too much, I said. He seemed a perfectly ordinary man to me, for a foreigner. And I know from experience that Dr. Wallis gets a strange pleasure in appearing to know more than other people. Often it is not the case, but merely a device to encourage confidences.

Lower grunted. Still, there is something odd about the man. Now it has been pointed out to me, I can feel it. I mean, what is he doing here? Hes meant to be sorting out his family affairs, but he should be in London for that. And I know that he has done nothing whatsoever about them. Instead, he has attached himself to Boyle, and is remarkably obsequious to him, and is taking on patients in the town.

Only one, surely, I pointed out. And that scarcely counts.

But what if he decides to stay? A fashionable doctor from the continent. Bad news for me, and he is remarkably keen to hear all about my patients. I do believe that he may be thinking about trying to steal them from me.

Lower, I said sternly, for a wise man, you are the biggest fool I know sometimes. Why would a man of means, the son of a wealthy Italian merchant, want to set up in Oxford to take your patients? Be reasonable, man.

With great reluctance he conceded the point. And as for having anything to do with the death of Dr. Grove, then I must say I think that total fantasy. Why on earth would he, or anybody else, want to do such a thing? Do you know what I think?

What?

I think Grove killed himself.

Lower shook his head. That is not the point. The point is that I am to spend the next seven days in the company of a man whom I increasingly distrust. What am I to do about it?

Cancel the trip.

I need the money.

Go on your own.

It would be the height of discourtesy to withdraw an invitation once given.

Suffer in silence, condemn not on the word of others, and try to establish for yourself what he is. Meanwhile, I said, as you are here and know him better than anyone, I must ask your advice on something. I do so reluctantly, as I am loath to excite your suspicion still further, but it is a curiosity which I cannot explain.

Go ahead.

So, in as unsensational a way as I could manage, I told of my visit to the Blundy cottage, and how I had seen Cola come in, establish the woman was asleep, then search the entire premises. I decided to leave out what happened thereafter.

Why dont you ask Sarah Blundy if anything is missing?

He is her physician. I do not want to undermine that trust, nor to have him refuse again to treat her mother. What do you think?

I think I will sleep on my money bag when we are in the same bed, he said. It seems odd that you spend considerable effort trying to assuage my suspicions, then reignite them again at the last.

I apologize. His behavior was strange, but I hardly think your own fears have much substance.

The conversation reawoke my own concerns and, I must note, at no point did Lower mention that the magistrate had already begun investigating Sarah as a possible culprit. Had he done so, then I would have behaved differently. Rather, my thoughts as Lower left me to peaceful solitude once more turned more to Colas strange behavior, and I decided to reach the bottom of the matter. Before I did so, however, I decided it would be best to question Sarah on the matter, physician or no.

From that shelf? she said when I had recounted the incident. There is nothing of value there. Only some books which belonged to my father. She examined the books carefully. There is one missing, she said. But I never read it as it was in Latin.

Your father read Latin? I asked in some surprise. He was a man of parts, that I knew, but I had not realized his self-learning had proceeded that far.

No, she said. He thought it a dead language, and of no use to anyone but fools and antiquarians. Begging your pardon, she added with a faint smile. He wanted to create a new world, not revive an old. Besides, he once told me he did not think we had anything to learn from pagan slave-masters.

I let my disapproval pass without comment. So where did all these books come from?

She shrugged. I only ever thought of them when I considered selling them. I asked a bookseller, but he offered me very little. I was going to give them to you as a gift for your kindness, if you would accept them.

You know me better than to think I would easily turn down a gift of books, I said. But I would refuse. You are in no position to be so free with your possessions. I would insist on paying you.

And I would refuse the offer.

So we could fight a good long while over it. And there are more pressing things to accomplish. Not the least of which is that you cannot give, and I cannot buy, what may be in the possession of Mr. Cola. I think I should see if I can get it back first of all.

To start with, I walked all the way down to Christ Church, and made sure that Lower and Cola had indeed set off that morning on their tour. Then I walked over to Mrs. Bulstrode, Colas landlady in St. Giles.

I had known this lady since I was at least five years old; I had played, before I exhausted puerile occupations, with her son who was about my age and is now a corn merchant in Witney. On many occasions she had given me an apple from her garden, or a lick of delicious honey from the hives she kept on a minuscule plot of land she, with great pomp, was always pleased to call her country estate. For she was a woman of pretension, despite the dourness of her religion, and liked to play the lady of quality. Those who knew her enough to see the fraud ridiculed her without mercy; those who knew her better saw the generosity within, and forgave a failing which, though grave, never once stopped her from an act of charity, nor a word of kindness.

I was welcomed into the kitchenI was old enough an acquaintance to knock on the kitchen doorand greeted with great warmth. Half an hours conversation was required before I could bring myself and her round to the matter at hand. I explained that I was a close acquaintance of Mr. Colas.

I am glad to hear it, Anthony, she said gravely. If he is a friend of yours, then he cannot be so bad to know.

Why do you say that? Has he misbehaved?

Not exactly, she conceded. In fact in all respects he is a man of great politeness. But he is a papist, and I have never had such a person in the house before. Nor do I want one again. Although I do believe we may yet win him over. Do you know, he prayed with us the other night? And went to church with Mr. Lower last Sunday, and said he found the experience very uplifting?

I am gratified to hear it. And for my part I can confirm that he is a man of kindness, since he is treating the mother of our servant at moderate cost. I think you can sleep easy in your beds at night. However, what I wish to ask you is thiscould I go to his room, for he borrowed something from me which I need badly in my work. And I hear he has gone off for a week.

It was no sooner asked than agreed and, as I knew where the room was, I was left in peace to mount the two pair of stairs to the little attic which Cola rented out. Inside, all was as spick and span as I would have expected from a room under the tutelage of Mrs. Bulstrode, who regarded dust as the devils seed, and never ceased her campaigns of exorcism. Colas belongings were few and for the most part contained in a great traveling trunk. And that trunk, unfortunately, was securely locked.

Having come so far, I was determined not to go away empty-handed, and I examined that great traveling lock with the most particular attention, in the hope that it would suddenly spring open before my eyes. But it was designed not only to ward off the attentions of thieves, but also of the likes of Mrs. Bulstrode, who was certain to have examined it if an easy opportunity presented itself, for her curiosity about the unknown was as great as that of the most diligent experimentalist. Violence or the key were the only options, and I could employ neither.

My long hard glaring at the chest made little impact in persuading it to open up to me, and eventually I accepted that no amount of wishing would make the slightest difference. With, the greatest reluctance, and no small amount of resentment, I rose from my haunches, and made to leave. But first, out of simple irritation, I gave the chest a powerful kick, to demonstrate that I was not best pleased.

And the lock sprang open with a heavy thud, the clasp being very ingeniously spring-loaded, a device I had never seen before. I was astonished at this, and at a loss to explain how it might be that a man could be so rash as to leave all his possessions unprotected in such a fashionunaware until I read the manuscript that the heavy fall endured on the journey from London had broken the lock in such a way that it could no longer be relied upon.

Gifts from God should never be spurned. It had pleased Him to grant my wishes, and I was sure that it was for a good reason. With a prayer of thanks on my lips, I knelt down in front of the chest as though it were an altar, and began to search in as methodical a fashion as Cola himself had used to search the house of Sarah Blundy.

I will not list his possessions, comment on the quality of the clothing or the bags of money which gave the lie to his stories of poverty. For he had in his possession at least one hundred pounds in gold; far from being reduced to having to take patients to survive, he had enough to live as a gentleman for well over a year. No; I will merely mention that I swiftly discovered three books, wrapped up in a chemise near the bottom of the chest as though they were the most precious objects on earth, and accompanied by a sheet of paper which gave the name of a tavern in Cheapside called the Bells, and several other scribbles which seemed also to be addresses.

The first book was particularly gorgeous, tooled in gold, with a fine metal clasp, intricately carved and chased. It was my passion as a bibliographer which made me pause and examine it, for it was the finest Venetian work, and such splendid workmanship is only rarely seen in this country. I had a pang of the greatest envy when I saw it and I swear that, had I been only a fraction less honest, I would have taken it as well. It is a fine thing, no doubt, that so many books are now printed and that their cost steadily falls, even for the best scholarship. I count myself lucky that I live in this country, where books can be had at moderate expense (though still more than the Netherlands; had I a longing for travel I would go there, for I could buy many books and have the cost of the travel in the money saved). But sometimes it is borne in on me that there are disadvantages to this happy situation.

Of course it is the learning which is important. Of course the quality of scholarship must come first, and it is better that wisdom should reach the most people possible, for sine doc-trina, vita est quasi mortis imago, says Dionysius Cato; without learning life is but the image of death. And of course, were it other, I could afford many fewer books. But sometimes I regret the days when people valued books properly, and spent lavishly on them. Occasionally, in the Bodleian, when my concentration deserts me, and my spirits flag, I order up one of those wonderful codexes that have found their way into the library. Or I go into a college and look through a book of hours, marveling at the love and skill which went into the creation of such glorious works. I imagine the men who made them, the scribes and the paper makers and the illustrators and the binders, and contrast them with the poor sad works I have on my own shelves. It is like the difference between a Quaker meeting house and a Catholic church. One is devoted to the word, and nothing but; it has its virtue, I suppose. But God is more than mere word, although He was that in the beginning. The speech of man alone is all but dumb in the task of expressing His glory, and the meanness of the Protestant constructions is an insult to His name. We now live in an age where the houses of politicians are grander than the houses of God. What does that say about our corruption?

So I sat awhile and feasted my eyes on this little book of Colas, and traced my finger over the complexities of the binding. A roomno, merely a shelfof books like these would give me the greatest possible joy, although I knew I might as well aim to become Chancellor of England as hope to possess such a wonder. It was a Psalter, and a fine example, and I flipped open the little clasp and opened it up to see whether the printing matched the binding, for I knew well that Venetian work was the finest to be had.

And received a tremendous shock; for inside, the book had been hollowed out into two carefully cut cavities. Initially, my distress was for the book, as to butcher such a wonderful object was the nearest thing to sacrilege I could imagine. Then I concentrated on the three little bottles that nestled so carefully in the hollows, each sealed by wax at the top. One contained a dark, thick liquid like oil, one a clear fluid which might as well have been water. The third, however, was the most interesting, for it was the most elaborate bottle of all, covered in gold and jewels and worth, in my inexperienced estimation, many dozens of pounds. This contained nothing except a thick, ill-shaped lump of old wood. What it meant was obvious, even to a dolt like myself.

So I placed the book aside and, consumed by curiosity for the first, examined the others with only a casual eye until I realized what they were. It was several minutes, as I flicked through and considered, before it dawned on me that here was something of great and strange significance. For both volumes were the same, one from Sarahs house and the other, I assumed, Cola had already. Each was a volume from Livys history, in the same edition as the one which Dr. Wal-lis had so urgently entreated me to find for him many months previously.



* * * | An Instance of the Fingerpost | * * *







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