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My custom at this time, and for long after I had finally settled down in the country, was to rise early in the morning--often, as I used when a child, before sunrise, in order to see the first burst of the sun upon the new-born world. I believed then, as I believe still, that, lovely as the sunset is, the sunrise is more full of mystery, poetry, and even, I had almost said, pathos. But often ere he was well up I had begun to imagine what the evening would be like, and with what softly mingled, all but imperceptible, gradations it would steal into night. Then, when the night came, I would wander about my little field, vainly endeavouring to picture the glory with which the next day's sun would rise upon me. Hence the morning and evening became well known to me; and yet I shrink from saying it, for each is endless in the variety of its change. And the longer I was alone, I became the more enamoured of solitude, with the labour to which, in my case, it was so helpful; and began, indeed, to be in some danger of losing sight of my relation to 'a world of men,' for with that world my imagination and my love for Charley were now my sole recognizable links.
In the fore-part of the day I read and wrote; and in the after-part found both employment and pleasure in arranging my uncle's books, amongst which I came upon a good many treasures, whereof I was now able in some measure to appreciate the value--thinking often, amidst their ancient dust and odours, with something like indignant pity, of the splendid collection, as I was sure it must be, mouldering away in utter neglect at the neighbouring Hall.
I was on my knees in the midst of a pile which I had drawn from a cupboard under the shelves, when Mrs Herbert showed Mr Coningham in. I was annoyed, for my uncle's room was sacred; but as I was about to take him to my own, I saw such a look of interest upon his face that it turned me aside, and I asked him to take a seat.
'If you do not mind the dust,' I said.
'Mind the dust!' he exclaimed, '--of old books! I count it almost sacred. I am glad you know how to value them.'
What right had he to be glad? How did he know I valued them? How could I but value them? I rebuked my offence, however, and after a little talk about them, in which he revealed much more knowledge than I should have expected, it vanished. He then informed me of an arrangement he and Lord Inglewold's factor had been talking over in respect of the farm; also of an offer he had had for my field. I considered both sufficiently advantageous in my circumstances, and the result was that I closed with both.
A few days after this arrangement I returned to London, intending to remain for some time. I had a warm welcome from Charley, but could not help fancying an unacknowledged something dividing us. He appeared, notwithstanding, less oppressed, and, in a word, more like other people. I proceeded at once to finish two or three papers and stories, which late events had interrupted. But within a week London had grown to me stifling and unendurable, and I longed unspeakably for the free air of my field and the loneliness of my small castle. If my reader regard me as already a hypochondriac, the sole disproof I have to offer is, that I was then diligently writing what some years afterwards obtained a hearty reception from the better class of the reading public. Whether my habits were healthy or not, whether my love of solitude was natural or not, I cannot but hope from this that my modes of thinking were. The end was that, after finishing the work I had on hand, I collected my few belongings, gave up my lodging, bade Charley good-bye, receiving from him a promise to visit me at my own house if possible, and took my farewell of London for a season, determined not to return until I had produced a work which my now more enlarged judgment might consider fit to see the light. I had laid out all my spare money upon books, with which, in a few heavy trunks, I now went back to my solitary dwelling. I had no care upon my mind, for my small fortune, along with the rent of my field, was more than sufficient for my maintenance in the almost anchoretic seclusion in which I intended to live, and hence I had every advantage for the more definite projection and prosecution of a work which had been gradually shaping itself in my mind for months past.
Before leaving for London, I had already spoken to a handy lad employed upon the farm, and he had kept himself free to enter my service when I should require him. He was the more necessary to me that I still had my mare Lilith, from which nothing but fate should ever part me. I had no difficulty in arranging with the new tenant for her continued accommodation at the farm; while, as Herbert still managed its affairs, the services of his wife were available as often as I required them. But my man soon made himself capable of doing everything for me, and proved himself perfectly trustworthy.
I must find a name for my place--for its own I will not write: let me call it The Moat: there were signs, plain enough to me after my return from Oxford, that there had once been a moat about it, of which the hollow I have mentioned as the spot where I used to lie and watch for the sun's first rays, had evidently been a part. But the remains of the moat lay at a considerable distance from the house, suggesting a large area of building at some former period, proof of which, however, had entirely vanished, the house bearing every sign of a narrow completeness.
The work I had undertaken required a constantly recurring reference to books of the sixteenth century; and although I had provided as many as I thought I should need, I soon found them insufficient. My uncle's library was very large for a man in his position, but it was not by any means equally developed; and my necessities made me think often of the old library at the Hall, which might contain somewhere in its ruins every book I wanted. Not only, however, would it have been useless to go searching in the formless mass for this or that volume, but, unable to grant Sir Giles the desire of his heart in respect of my poor field, I did not care to ask of him the comparatively small favour of being allowed to burrow in his dust-heap of literature.
I was sitting, one hot noon, almost in despair over a certain little point concerning which I could find no definite information, when Mr Coningham called. After some business matters had been discussed, I mentioned, merely for the sake of talk, the difficulty I was in--the sole disadvantage of a residence in the country as compared with London, where the British Museum was the unfailing resort of all who required such aid as I was in want of.
'But there is the library at Moldwarp Hall,' he said.
'Yes, there it is; but there is not here.'
'I have no doubt Sir Giles would make you welcome to borrow what books you wanted. He is a good-natured man, Sir Giles.'
I explained my reason for not troubling him.
'Besides,' I added, 'the library is in such absolute chaos, that I might with less loss of time run up to London, and find any volume I happened to want among the old-book-shops. You have no idea what a mess Sir Giles's books are in--scarcely two volumes of the same book to be found even in proximity. It is one of the most painful sights I ever saw.'
He said little more, but from what followed, I suspect either he or his father spoke to Sir Giles on the subject; for, one day, as I was walking past the park-gates, which I had seldom entered since my return, I saw him just within, talking to old Mr Coningham. I saluted him in passing, and he not only returned the salutation in a friendly manner, but made a step towards me as if he wished to speak to me. I turned and approached him. He came out and shook hands with me.
'I know who you are, Mr Cumbermede, although I have never had the pleasure of speaking to you before,' he said frankly.
'There you are mistaken, Sir Giles,' I returned; 'but you could hardly be expected to remember the little boy who, many years ago, having stolen one of your apples, came to you to comfort him.'
He laughed heartily.
'I remember the circumstance well,' he said. 'And you were that unhappy culprit? Ha! ha! ha! To tell the truth, I have thought of it many times. It was a remarkably fine thing to do.'
'What! steal the apple, Sir Giles?'
'Make the instant reparation you did.'
'There was no reparation in asking you to box my ears.'
'It was all you could do, though.'
'To ease my own conscience, it was. There is always a satisfaction, I suppose, in suffering for your sins. But I have thought a thousand times of your kindness in shaking hands with me instead. You treated me as the angels treat the repentant sinner, Sir Giles.'
'Well, I certainly never thought of it in that light,' he said; then, as if wishing to change the subject,--'Don't you find it lonely now your uncle is gone?' he said.
'I miss him more than I can tell.'
'A very worthy man he was--too good for this world, by all accounts.'
'He's not the worse off for that now, Sir Giles, I trust.' 'No; of course not,' he returned quickly, with the usual shrinking from the slightest allusion to what is called the other world.--'Is there anything I can do for you? You are a literary man, they tell me. There are a good many books of one sort and another lying at the Hall. Some of them might be of use to you. They are at your service. I am sure you are to be trusted even with mouldy books, which, from what I hear, must be a greater temptation to you now than red-cheeked apples,' he added with another merry laugh.
'I will tell you what,' Sir Giles, I answered. 'It has often grieved me to think of the state of your library. It would be scarcely possible for me to find a book in it now. But if you would trust me, I should be delighted, in my spare hours, of which I can command a good many, to put the whole in order for you.'
'I should be under the greatest obligation. I have always intended having some capable man down from London to arrange it. I am no great reader myself, but I have the highest respect for a good library. It ought never to have got into the condition in which I found it.'
'The books are fast going to ruin, I fear.'
'Are they indeed?' he exclaimed, with some consternation. 'I was not in the least aware of that. I thought so long as I let no one meddle with them, they were safe enough.'
'The law of the moth and rust holds with books as well as other unused things,' I answered.
'Then, pray, my dear sir, undertake the thing at once,' he said, in a tone to which the uneasiness of self-reproach gave a touch of imperiousness. 'But really,' he added, 'it seems trespassing on your goodness much too far. Your time is valuable. Would it be a long job?'
'It would doubtless take some months; but the pleasure of seeing order dawn from confusion would itself repay me. And I might come upon certain books of which I am greatly in want. You will have to allow me a carpenter though, for the shelves are not half sufficient to hold the books; and I have no doubt those there are stand in need of repair.'
'I have a carpenter amongst my people. Old houses want constant attention. I shall put him under your orders with pleasure. Come and dine with me to-morrow, and we'll talk it all over.'
'You are very kind,' I said. 'Is Mr Brotherton at home?'
'I am sorry to say he is not.'
'I heard the other day that he had sold his commission.'
'Yes--six months ago. His regiment was ordered to India, and--and--his mother----But he does not give us much of his company,' added the old man. 'I am sorry he is not at home, for he would have been glad to meet you.'
Instead of responding, I merely made haste to accept Sir Giles's invitation. I confess I did not altogether relish having anything to do with the future property of Geoffrey Brotherton; but the attraction of the books was great, and in any case I should be under no obligation to him; neither was the nature of the service I was about to render him such as would awaken any sense of obligation in a mind like his.
I could not help recalling the sarcastic criticisms of Clara when I entered the drawing-room of Moldwarp Hall--a long, low-ceiled room, with its walls and stools and chairs covered with tapestry, some of it the work of the needle, other some of the Gobelin loom; but although I found Lady Brotherton a common enough old lady, who showed little of the dignity of which she evidently thought much, and was more condescending to her yeoman neighbour than was agreeable, I did not at once discover ground for the severity of those remarks. Miss Brotherton, the eldest of the family, a long-necked lady, the flower of whose youth was beginning to curl at the edges, I found well-read, but whether in books or the reviews of them, I had to leave an open question as yet. Nor was I sufficiently taken with her not to feel considerably dismayed when she proffered me her assistance in arranging the library. I made no objection at the time, only hinting that the drawing up of a catalogue afterwards might be a fitter employment for her fair fingers; but I resolved to create such a fearful pother at the very beginning, that her first visit should be her last. And so I doubt not it would have fallen out, but for something else. The only other person who dined with us was a Miss Pease--at least so I will call her--who, although the law of her existence appeared to be fetching and carrying for Lady Brotherton, was yet, in virtue of a poor-relationship, allowed an uneasy seat at the table. Her obedience was mechanically perfect. One wondered how the mere nerves of volition could act so instantaneously upon the slightest hint. I saw her more than once or twice withdraw her fork when almost at her lips, and, almost before she had laid it down, rise from her seat to obey some half-whispered, half-nodded behest. But her look was one of injured meekness and self-humbled submission. Sir Giles now and then gave her a kind or merry word, but she would reply to it with almost abject humility. Her face was grey and pinched, her eyes were very cold, and she ate as if she did not know one thing from another.
Over our wine Sir Giles introduced business. I professed myself ready, with a housemaid and carpenter at my orders when I should want them, to commence operations the following afternoon. He begged me to ask for whatever I might want, and after a little friendly chat, I took my leave, elated with the prospect of the work before me. About three o'clock the next afternoon I took my way to the Hall, to assume the temporary office of creative librarian.
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