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Some Rare Things For Sale

An American writer has been complaining lately that his countrymen have lost the habit of reading. This is partly the result of that free trade in English books which is the only form of free trade that suits the American Constitution. People do not buy American books any longer, because they can get English works, mere printed rags, but paying nothing to English authors, for a few cents. The rags, of course, fall to pieces, and are tossed into the waste-paper basket, and thus a habit of desultoriness and of abstention from books worth styling books grows and grows, like a noxious and paralysing parasite, over the American intellect. In this way our pleasant vices are made instruments to plague us, and the condition of the law, which leaves the British authors at the mercy of the Aldens and Monros of the States, is beginning to react on the buyers of goods indelicately obtained. Even newspaper articles are becoming, it is said, a heavy and a weary weight on the demoralised attention, and people are ceasing to read anything but brief and probably personal paragraphs, such as "Joaquin Miller has had his hair cut."

This is a deplorable condition of things, and perhaps not quite without example at home, where, however, many people still intend to read books, and order them at the libraries, though they never really carry out intentions which, like those of Wilkins Micawber the younger, are excellent. To persons conscious of mental debility and incapable of grappling even with a short shilling novel, a brief and easy form of reading may be recommended. They may study catalogues; they may peruse the lists of their wares which secondhand booksellers and dealers in all kinds of curiosities circulate gratis. This is the only kind of circular which should not go straight to its long home in the waste-paper basket. A catalogue is full of information. It is so exceedingly inconsecutive that even the most successful barrister, or doctor, or stockbroker (they are the people that read least) need not be fatigued by its contents. The catalogue skips from gay to grave, from Tupper to Aretino, from Dickens to "Drelincourt on Death." You can pick it up where you like, and lay it down when your poor fagged attention is distracted by a cab in the street, or a bird in the branches. Then there is the pleasure of marking with a pencil the articles which you would buy if you could--the Nankin double bottle, the old novel bound in the arms of the Comtesse de Verrue, the picture ascribed to the school of Potto Pottoboileri. Of course, in these bad times, such purchases are out of the question, but the taste and judgment are gratified by "marking them down," like partridges in September.

These contemplative reveries on catalogues have been inspired by a catalogue, not without its merits--a list of relics of Mexican history now to be sold. The curious may find it for themselves, the wealthy may speculate in the treasures which it advertises. Here is a piece of the Emperor Maximilian's waistcoat, "same in which they shot him," to employ an idiom of Captain Rawdon Crawley's. There are many relics of the same recent and troublous times; but the amateur is more strongly attracted by a very singular series of objects of the times of the Spanish Conquest, nearly four hundred years ago. It is not so much the obsidian idols, made of that curious bottle-glass-like mineral so fashionable among the Aztecs, as the authentic remains of Fernando Cortes that the collector will covet. What man had ever such fortune as Cortes--he who discovered a new world as strange as a new planet? He conquered a great civilized race, he overthrew a dynasty, not only of mortals, but of gods. Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl fled from him, and their hideous priests, draped and masked in skins fresh flayed from beasts or men, vanished at his coming, as Isis, Osiris, and the dog Anubis fled from the folding star of Bethlehem. He fought battles like the visions of romance, and he took great and stately cities, with all their temples and towers, which a month before were as unknown to Europeans as the capitals of Mars and Sirius. The wonderful catalogue of which we speak is rich in relics of this hero. We are offered a chance to buy his "trunk," a carved wooden trunk in which Cortes carried his personal property. His army chest, which held the sacred gold of Montesuma and the treasure of the Temple of the Sun, is to be sold for a consideration. His pistols are also on sale, and his "field-glass," which must be an exceedingly early example of that useful invention. Whether the field-glass is binocular or not, the catalogue does not pause to inform us. Corslets worn by his brave Castilians are also to be vended, perhaps the very leather and steel that guarded the honest heart of good Bernal Diaz. But all these treasures, and even the very "scissors" of Fernando Cortes, are less enticingly romantic than the iron head of Alvarado's spear. Surely no spear since that of Peleus' son, not to be wielded by meaner men, has ever been so well worth acquiring as the spear of Alvarado, Tonatrish the sun-god, as he was called by the Mexicans, by reason of his long, bright, golden hair. This may have been, probably was, the spear that Alvarado bore when he charged up the steps of the great Teocalli or God's house, rained upon by Aztec darts, driving before him the hordes of heathendom. With this very spear, when the summit was gained, he may have fought in that strange fight, high in air, beheld by all the people of the city and all the allies of Spain. Here stood the Christian cross; there was planted the war-god, Huitzilopochtli; there the two faiths fought out their battle, and the vanquished were tossed dying down the sides of the Teocalli. Then the Spaniard was victorious; fire was set to the Teocalli, and the cannibal Aztec religion rolled away in the clouds of smoke and vapour of flame. With the self-same spear (no doubt) did Alvarado make his famous leap, using it as a leaping pole to clear the canal during the retreat of the Night of Dread. Assuredly Alvarado's spear, or even the iron head of it alone, is an object worthy of an archaeologist's regard, and scarce less curious than that


   "Broomstick o' the Witch of Endor,
   Weel shod wi' brass,"


which Burns describes in the collection of Captain Grove. But extraordinary as is the charm of these relics of Anahuac and of Castille, perhaps even more engrossing is the last article in this romantic catalogue, namely, "a green portfolio" giving an account of the various articles, and how they came into the hands of their proprietor. Their pedigree, if authentic, must be most important.

Probably the most inattentive mind, even in the holidays, could "tackle" a catalogue like this, or another in which the snuff-box of Xerxes and the boot-jack of Themistocles should be offered for sale. These antiquities seem scarcely less desirable, or less likely to come into the market, than the scissors, pistols, and field-glass of Fernando Cortes. An original portion of the Tables of the Law (broken on a familiar occasion by the prophet), Hannibal's cigarette case, a landing net (at one time in the possession of Alcibiades), a piece of chalk used by Archimedes in his mathematical demonstrations, the bronze shoe of Empedocles, the arrow on which Abaris flew, and the walking-stick, a considerable piece of timber, which Dr. Johnson lost in Mull, may all be reposing in some private collection. Collectors do get very odd things together. Poor M. Soleirol had quite a gallery of portraits and autographs of Moliere, and a French mathematician, about a dozen years ago, possessed an assortment of apocryphal letters from almost every one mentioned in history, sacred or profane. The collection of Mr. Samuel Ireland was like this, and an English student possessed autographs of most of the great reformers, carefully written by an ingenious swindler in contemporary books. The lovers of relics are apt to be thus deluded, and perhaps we should not regret this, as long as they are happy. But they should be very careful indeed when they are asked to buy Alvarado's spear, though probably it is extant somewhere, as it certainly is in the catalogue. It is a question of caution in the purchaser.


Andrew Lang