Read CHAPTER III of The Book-Bills of Narcissus, free online book, by Le Gallienne‚ Richard, on


Though it was so long since we had met is not three years indeed ’so long’ in youth? we had hardly to wait for our second glass to be again en rapport. Few men grow so rapidly as Narcissus did in those young days, but fewer still can look back on old enthusiasms and superannuated ideals with a tenderness so delicately considerate. Most men hasten to witness their present altitude by kicking away the old ladders on the first opportunity; like vulgar lovers, they seek to flatter to-day at the expense of yesterday. But Narcissus was of another fibre; he could as soon have insulted the memory of his first love.

So, before long, we had passed together into a sweet necropolis of dreams, whither, if the Reader care, I will soon take him by the hand. But just now I would have him concern himself with the afternoon of which I write, in that sad tense, the past present. Indeed, we did not ourselves tarry long among the shades, for we were young, and youth has little use for the preterite; its verbs are wont to have but two tenses. We soon came up to the surface in one, with eyes turned instinctively on the other.

Narcissus’ bag seemed, somehow, a symbol; and I had caught sight of a binding or two as it lay open in Tithefields that made me curious to see it open again. He was only beginning to collect when we had parted at school, if ‘collect’ is not too sacred a word: beginning to buy more truly expresses that first glutting of the bookish hunger, which, like the natural appetite, never passes in some beyond the primary utilitarian stage of ‘eating to live,’ otherwise ‘buying to read.’ Three years, however, works miracles of refinement in any hunger that is at all capable of culture; and it was evident, when Narcissus did open his ‘Gladstone,’ that it had taken him by no means so long to attain that sublimation of taste which may be expressed as ‘reading to buy.’ Each volume had that air of breeding, one might almost say by which one can always know a genuine bouquin at a glance; an alluvial richness of bloom, coming upon one like an aromatic fragrance in so many old things, in old lawns, in old flowers, old wines, and many another delicious simile. One could not but feel that each had turned its golden brown, just as an apple reddens as, indeed, it had.

I do not propose to solemnly enumerate and laboriously describe these good things, because I hardly think they would serve to distinguish Narcissus, except in respect of luck, from other bookmen in the first furor of bookish enthusiasm. They were such volumes as Mr. Pendennis ran up accounts for at Oxford. Narcissus had many other points in common with that gentleman. Such volumes as, morning after morning, sadden one’s breakfast-table in that Tantalus menu, the catalogue. Black letter, early printed, first editions Elizabethan and Victorian, every poor fly ambered in large paper, etc. etc.; in short, he ran through the gamut of that craze which takes its turn in due time with marbles, peg-tops, beetles, and foreign stamps with probably the two exceptions of Bewick, for whom he could never batter up an enthusiasm, and ‘facetiae.’ These latter needed too much camphor, he used to say.

His two most cherished possessions were a fine copy of the Stultitiae Laus, printed by Froben, which had once been given by William Burton, the historian, to his brother Robert, when the latter was a youngster of twenty; and a first edition of one of Walton’s lives, ’a presentation copy from the author.’ The former was rich with the autographs and marginalia of both brothers, and on the latter a friend of his has already hung a tale, which may or may not be known to the Reader. In the reverent handling of these treasures, two questions inevitably forced themselves upon me: where the d l Narcissus, an apprentice, with an allowance that would hardly keep most of us in tobacco, had found the money for such indulgences; and how he could find in his heart to sell them again so soon. A sorrowful interjection, as he closed his bag, explained all:

‘Yes!’ he sighed, ’they have cost me thirty pounds, and guess how much I have been offered for them?’

I suggested ten.

‘Five,’ groaned my poor friend. ’I tried several to get that. “H’m,” says each one, indifferently turning the most precious in his hand, “this would hardly be any use to me; and this I might have to keep months before I could sell. That I could make you an offer for; what have you thought of for it?” With a great tugging at your heart, and well-nigh in tears, you name the absurdest minimum. You had given five; you halve it surely you can get that! But “O no! I can give nothing like that figure. In that case it is no use to talk of it.” In despair you cry, “Well, what will you offer?” with a choking voice. “Fifteen shillings would be about my figure for it,” answers the fiend, relentless as a machine and so on.’

‘I tried pawning them at first,’ he continued, ’because there was hope of getting them back some time that way; but, trudging from shop to shop, with many prayers, “a sovereign for the lot” was all I could get. Worse than dress-clothes!’ concluded the frank creature.

For Narcissus to be in debt was nothing new: he had always been so at school, and probably always will be. Had you reproached him with it in those young self-conscious days of glorious absurdity, he would probably have retorted, with a toss of his vain young head:

‘Well, and so was Shelley!’

I ventured to enquire the present difficulty that compelled him to make sacrifice of things so dear.

‘Why, to pay for them, of course,’ was the answer.

And so I first became initiated into the mad method by which Narcissus had such a library about him at twenty-one. From some unexplained reason, largely, I have little doubt, on account of the charm of his manners, he had the easy credit of those respectable booksellers to whom reference has been made above. No extravagance seemed to shake their confidence. I remember calling upon them with him one day some months following that afternoon for the madness, as usual, would have its time, and no sufferings seemed to teach him prudence and he took me up to a certain ‘fine set’ that he had actually resisted, he said, for a fortnight. Alas! I knew what that meant. Yes, he must have it; it was just the thing to help him with a something he was writing ’not to read, you know, but to make an atmosphere,’ etc. So he used to talk; and the odd thing was, that we always took the wildness seriously; he seemed to make us see just what he wanted. ‘I say, John,’ was the next I heard, at the other end of the shop, ’will you kindly send me round that set of’ so-and-so, ‘and charge it to my account?’ ‘John,’ the son of old Oldbuck, and for a short time a sort of friend of Narcissus, would answer, ‘Certainly,’ with a voice of the most cheerful trust; and yet, when we had gone, it was indeed no less a sum than L10, 10s. which he added to the left-hand side of Mr. N.’s account.

Do not mistake this for a certain vulgar quality, with a vulgar little name of five letters. No one could have less of that than Narcissus. He was often, on the contrary, quite painfully diffident. No, it was not ‘cheek,’ Reader; it was a kind of irrational innocence. I don’t think it ever occurred to him, till the bills came in at the half-years, what ‘charge it to my account’ really meant. Perhaps it was because, poor lad, he had so small a practical acquaintance with it, that he knew so little the value of money. But how he suffered when those accounts did come in! Of course, there was nothing to be done but to apply to some long-suffering friend; denials of lunch and threadbare coats but nibbled at the amount especially as a fast to-day often found revulsion in a festival to-morrow. To save was not in Narcissus.

I promised to digress, Reader, and I have kept my word. Now to return to that afternoon again. It so chanced that on that day in the year I happened to have in my pocket what you might meet me every day in five years without finding there a ten-pound note. It was for this I felt after we had been musing awhile Narcissus, probably, on everything else in the world except his debts and it was with this I awoke him from his reverie. He looked at his hand, and then at me, in bewilderment. Poor fellow, how he wanted to keep it, yet how he tried to look as if he couldn’t think of doing so. He couldn’t help his joy shining through.

‘But I want you to take it,’ I said; ’believe me, I have no immediate need of it, and you can pay me at your leisure.’ Ten pounds towards the keep of a poet once in a lifetime is, after all, but little interest on the gold he brings us. At last I ‘prevailed,’ shall I say? but on no account without the solemnity of an IOU and a fixed date for repayment, on which matter poor N. was always extremely emphatic. Alas! Mr. George Meredith has already told us how this passionate anxiety to be bound by the heaven above, the earth, and the waters under the earth, is the most fatal symptom by which to know the confirmed in this kind. Captain Costigan had it, it may be remembered; and the same solicitude, the same tearful gratitude, I know, accompanied every such transaction of my poor Narcissus.

Whether it was as apparent on the due date, or whether of that ten pounds I have ever looked upon the like again, is surely no affair of the Reader’s; but, lest he should do my friend an injustice, I had better say I haven’t.