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6

It is mid-afternoon and I am told (you note how it is these daysI am told) that we are setting off for my country seat in the morning; I have little time to continue my narrative. I have already had my head shaved for that damn fool wig, the tailor has been to see me, all is busy with activity. So many things there are to prepare and to get ready, and I care nothing for any of them. These tedious little details are hardly germane to my story, but I notice this tendency in me; it comes more frequently now. My dotage, I suppose it is; I find that I can remember what happened all those years ago more easily than I recall what I was doing the day before yesterday.

To return to my story, I arrived back in Oxford with a deep resentment in my heart and an ever greater determination to defeat my hidden enemies. I had been away more than two weeks, and in that time the town had filled with students and was no longer the quiet, rustic place it is much of the year. Fortunately, this also meant that all those whose help I needed were now in residence. One was Thomas, of course, whose logic-chopping skills, honed in the theological and logical arts which he taught with surprising skill to students, were vitalhe could whip through a pile and tease out a meaning faster than anyone I knew. The other was an odd little fellow he brought to see me one day. His name was Anthony Wood.

Here, Thomas said, presenting Wood to me in his room, is the answer to all of your problems. Mr. Wood is a great scholar and keen to help you in your search.

Cola describes him briefly and it is one of the few occasions when I can find only small fault with his penmanship; I have never met a more ridiculous creature than Anthony Wood. He was a deal older than myself, perhaps thirty or thereabouts, and already had the bowed back and sunken cheeks of the bookworm. His clothes were monstrousso old and patched it was hard to see how out of fashion they werehis stockings were darned, and he had the habit of throwing his head back and whinnying like a horse when he was amused. An unpleasant, grating sound which made all in his company suddenly grave, lest they say something witty and be rewarded with his laughter. This, combined with the general inelegance of his movementsall jerks and twitches, so that he could barely sit still for more than a few secondsbegan to irritate me the moment I set eyes on him, and it was hard indeed for me to keep my patience.

But Thomas said he would be useful, so I forbore to make fun of him. Unfortunately, the connection, once begun, proved hard to break. Like all scholars, Wood is poor and constantly in search of patronagethey all seem to think that others should pay for their diversion. He has never had any from me, but has never despaired either. He still comes to pay court, in the hope that a coin might slip from my pocket into his ink-stained hands, and never ceases to remind me of the services he rendered all those years ago. He was here a few days back, in fact, which is why he is so fresh in my memory, but said nothing of consequence. He is writing a book, but what is there in that? He has been writing the same one since ever I knew him, and it seems no nearer its conclusion. And he is one of those wiry little men who never seem to age at all, beyond stooping a little more, and acquiring a few more lines on his face. When he comes into a room, it is as though half my life has not happened, and is only a dream. It is only my own aches that remind me.

Mr. Wood is a great friend of mine, Thomas explained when he saw the look of disgust on my face as I regarded the fellow. We play music together every week. He is a monstrous student of history and over the last few years has accumulated a great deal of information about the wars.

Fascinating, I said dryly. But I fail to see how he can help.

Wood now spoke, in that high-pitched, fluting voice of hissuch precise, mincing enunciation, as neat as a notebook, and scarcely more interesting.

I have had the honor of encountering many people, he said, distinguished in war and in public affairs. I have a substantial knowledge of this countrys tragic course, which I would be happy to place at your disposal to establish what became of your father.

I swear, he talked like that all the while, all his sentences as perfectly formed as he was grotesque himself. I was not sure what to make of this offer but Thomas told me I must certainly accept, as Mr. Wood was already known for the niceness of his judgment and the voluminous nature of his knowledge. If I needed to know anything about any event or any personality, then I must certainly ask Wood first of allit would save me a great deal of time.

Very well, I said. But I wish to make it clear that you will tell no one of my search. There are many people who would be my enemies if they knew what I am doing. I wish to take them by stealth.

Wood agreed reluctantly, and I told him that I would lay all the facts and information before him in due course, so that he might supplement my findings with information of his own. Then Thomas considerately bundled him out of the room, and I gave my friend a wry and reproachful look.

Thomas, I know I am in need of all the help I can get

You are wrong, my friend. Mr. Woods knowledge may be crucial to you one day. Do not dismiss him because of his appearance. I have also thought of another useful person for you.

I groaned. Who might this be, then?

Dr. John Wallis.

Who?

He is the Savilian Professor of Geometry, and was deep in the confidence of the Commonwealth by virtue of his skill with codes. Many a secret letter ot the Kings did he reveal to Thurloes office, so they say.

Should have been hanged, then

And now he performs the same service for His Majestys government, it is rumored. Lord Mordaunt told you the documents incriminating your father used a cipherif so, then Dr. Wallis might know something of the matter. If you can persuade him to help

I nodded. Perhaps for once one of Thomass ideas was going to be useful.



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







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