Read CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - The bookworm tries to bore. of Blind Policy , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

As it happened, Chester was musing as he went down the steps.

“They treat me as if I were mad.  Have I got some strange notion in my head?  No woman could possibly meet one with such a ­Ah! good-day!” he cried quickly, for, as he was passing the next door, the grey, dreamy-looking old occupant was in the act of inserting the latch-key.

He turned slowly, pushed back his rather broad-brimmed hat, and blinked at the speaker through his spectacles.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, rather wonderingly; “I ­can’t see; yes, to be sure, I remember now;” and the old man’s face lit up.  “I remember now.  My young friend who was making inquiries.  Will you step in, sir?  I do not have many visitors.”

He threw open the door and stood smiling holding it back, giving Chester a smile of invitation which made him enter ­that, in combination with the sudden thought that he might perhaps learn something about the next-door neighbours.

“Really,” he said frankly, “as a perfect stranger, this is somewhat of an intrusion.”

“Not at all, my dear young friend, not at all.  Glad to see you.  I lead such an old-world, lost kind of life.  I am very glad to have a caller.  Come in, my dear young friend, come in.  No, no; don’t set your hat down there; it will be covered with dust.  Let me put it here.  Now, then, come in.”

He led the way into the room on their left, and took a couple of very old folios off a chair.

“A dusty place ­a very dusty place; but I dare not trust servants.  They have no idea of the value of books, my dear sir.  I found one had torn out some pages from a very rare specimen of Wynkyn de Worde to burn under some damp fire-wood.  Can’t trust them ­can’t trust them.  I’ve just had a very serious disappointment.  Been down to an auction.”

“Indeed?” said Chester, looking at the old man curiously and wondering where he had seen a face something like his before.

“Yes.  One of the big sales.  There was a priceless copy of one of Marie de Medici’s books in the list, and I fancy it was with a Grolier binding ­just his style; but two other people wanted it.  I bid up to four hundred and then stopped.  A bit of a bibliomaniac, my dear sir, but not book-mad enough to go higher; couldn’t afford it, even for a unique, tall copy.  Knocked down for se- ven hun-dred and forty-nine pounds, sir.  A fact.  Well, did you find your friends whom you were looking for?”

“Yes ­no,” said Chester.

“Dear me; but is not that rather contradictory, my dear sir?” said the old man, smiling.

“Perhaps so, but there is a little mystery about the matter, sir,” replied Chester.  “By the way, though, can you tell me anything about your next-door neighbours?”

“My next-door neighbours, my dear sir,” said the old man, smiling and rubbing his thin hands together softly; “well, not much, I am so unsociable a body; and here in London one can be so isolated.  Let me see, he is something in the House of Commons ­a clerk, or master-at-arms, or usher, or something.”

“Mr Clareborough is?” cried Chester, sharply.

“No ­no!  That is on the other side.  Quite a large family party.  Very gay people who have plenty of fashionable callers, and carriages, and parties.  I fancy they go a great deal to operas and theatres.  The confectioner’s people come sometimes, and musicians, and rout seats.  Not in my way, my young friend ­not in my way,” continued the old gentleman in his quiet, amiable manner, as he took down the great bulky London Directory.  “Yes, yes, yes; here we are ­Highcombe Street, Clareborough.  There’s the name.  Very wealthy, gay family, I believe.  Clareborough.  That’s it, and I think I’ve heard somehow ­I don’t quite know how it was, unless one of the tradespeople told me ­that they have a fine place somewhere in Kent ­The Towers, I think they call it, and they are often down there, and this place is shut up.  I like it to be, because it is so much more quiet for a man busy with his books.”

“Have you ­have you noticed anything peculiar about the family?” said Chester in a hesitating way.

The old man beamed upon him through his glasses, then took them off deliberately, and wiped each carefully with an old silk handkerchief, gazing at his questioner with his face wrinkled up as if he were puzzled.

“Anything peculiar?” he said at last.  “Well, no, I think not, unless it is that they seem to spend a great deal of money in ephemeral pleasures.  Yes, I remember now thinking that they must waste a great deal, and that with so much at their command they might accumulate a grand collection of books.”

“Anything more?” said Chester.

“N-no, my dear sir.  I think, now you mention it, that I have taken more notice of my neighbour on the other side.  Yes, I am sure I have.  I remember thinking how bad it must be for his health.”

“Indeed?” said Chester, inquiringly, but with the intention of leading the old man back into talking about his other neighbours.

“Oh yes.  You see, I often hear him coming home extremely late in the night.  Twelve, one, and two o’clock, sometimes even by broad daylight.  Not that I was watching him, but I often lie awake for hours, musing about some particular book that I have not obtained.  I’m afraid I shall not sleep to-night for thinking of that book I missed at the sale to-day.  But I put it to you, my dear sir; it was too much to give, was it not?”

“Certainly,” said Chester, smiling, as he seized the opportunity to turn back the conversation to the other side; “but I suppose, according to your showing, the sum named would have been a trifle to your other neighbours.”

“Hah!  Yes, I suppose it would ­yes, I suppose it would.  But are you a collector?”

“I?  Oh no,” said Chester, smiling, “only a very ignorant body.”

“No, no, no, no,” said the old man, smiling pleasantly.  “I know better than that.  One gets to know what a person is more or less by his conversation, my dear sir, and I could vouch for it that you are a student.”

“Well, I must own to that, more or less, as to medicine and surgery.”

“I thought so, I thought so,” said the old man, bending down to clasp his hands about one knee and sit as if thinking deeply over something, while Chester gladly availed himself of the silence to give free rein to his own thoughts.

For an idea had suddenly occurred to him which lit up his troubled brain like a flash of light.

He was in the next house ­the old man leading his solitary life seemed pleased to have found someone ready to converse with him.  Why should he not try and cultivate the old fellow’s acquaintance, and take advantage of the opportunities it would afford him of watching his neighbours?

He had hardly thought this when the old man looked up, smiling at him in a child-like, pleasant way.

“How strange ­how very strange it all is, my dear sir.  Now, you will hardly credit me when I tell you that for some time past I have been suffering from little symptoms which at their frequent and more frequent recurrence suggest to me that I ought to consult a medical man.”

“Indeed?” said Chester.

“Yes, my dear sir, indeed; but you see, I am a very old man now, and I fear that I have grown weak and vacillating; I may add cowardly too.  I have shrunk from going to a doctor for fear that he should tell me that I must give up my studies ­that I am failing and coming very near to the end of my span.”

“Oh, surely not,” said Chester.  “You look a very healthy subject, sir.”

“I ­I don’t know, my dear sir, but I have been afraid to go; and here, all at once, in the most casual way, I suddenly make the acquaintance of a medical man, and find him seated opposite to me, talking in a friendly way which quite invites my confidence.  It is strange, is it not?”

“Very strange, indeed,” said Chester, gazing hard in the pleasant, bland old countenance before him.  “But really, my dear sir, I do not think you require medical advice.”

The old man returned the fixed gaze and then said appealingly ­

“I hope, my dear sir, you are speaking sincerely.”

“Of course,” replied Chester.

“Not as doctors sometimes do, to encourage their patients?”

“Certainly not,” cried Chester.  “There is every sign of a vigorous, green old age about you.”

“That is very pleasant to hear, my dear sir,” said the old man, “very pleasant.  I don’t think I am one ready to repine, or one who would seek to live for selfish considerations ­love of pleasure or the like ­but I have so much to do.  I want years yet to complete my collection, and I may have to go over to Leyden, Leipsic, Nuremberg, Florence, and several of the other Continental towns which were the birthplaces of many of these old tomes which you see upon my shelves.”

“I see no reason why you should not live for years yet, sir,” said Chester, encouragingly.

“But my head ­my brain.  I find I grow forgetful, my dear sir.  I put away books and forget their places.  All little symptoms, are they not, of failing powers?”

“To be perfectly candid, certainly they are,” said Chester; “but in a healthy old age these failings come very, very gradually, and nature suggests so many ways of palliating them.  For instance, a clever young secretary with a methodical turn of mind would relieve you of a trouble like this.  Really I do not think that you have any occasion to trouble yourself about such a symptom as that, any more than you have about the failing powers of sight which compelled you to take to glasses.”

“My dear young friend!” cried the old man, leaning forward to catch at his visitor’s hand, “I cannot find words to express my gratitude.  You do not know what a relief your words have been to me.  It is wonderful, and upon such a casual acquaintanceship.  But I sincerely hope that you will let me see more of you ­er ­that is, if I am not troublesome to you; such a wearisome old bookworm as I fear I must be.  But the mouse helped the lion, you know, and who knows but what I may be able to help you with some information about your friends next door ­let me see, I think you said it was the people next door whom you had been trying to find.”

“I did not say so,” said Chester, quietly.

“I beg your pardon; but you do wish to know something about them.”

“Well, frankly, yes, I do,” said Chester.

“Hah!  And who knows but what I may be able to help you?  I may remember something that does not occur to me now ­a trifle or two perhaps, but which may be of importance from your point of view.  Come and see me sometimes.  Let me show you my library.  I think you might be interested in some of my books.”

“I have no doubt but that I should be.”

“To be sure, yes.  I have an old copy of Hippocrates on surgery and medicine, and I daresay many others which do not occur to me now.  Yes, of course, I have Boerhaave.  You will come?”

“I shall be very glad to,” said Chester, warmly, though his conscience smote him for what he felt to be a false pretence.

“I am very, very glad,” said the old man, rising, going to an old cabinet and pulling out a drawer, from which he took a key and at the same time something short and black which he cleverly thrust into the breast of his loosely-made, old-fashioned tail-coat.  “Now I am about to ask a favour of you, doctor,” he said, turning with a pleasant, genial smile upon his countenance.  “I have other treasures here down below, besides books.  Stored up and rarely brought out, bin after bin of very fine old wine.  I am going to ask you to drink a glass of exceedingly old port with me.”

“No, no,” said Chester, “you must excuse me.  I never drink wine at this time of day.  Let me dine with you some time or other, and then ­”

“Yes, of course, my dear young friend; I hope many times; but just one glass now.  Don’t say no.  I feel to need it a little myself, for ­don’t think me a feeble old dotard ­the fact of telling you of my weakness, of confessing to a doctor my fears of coming to an end, have upset my nerves a little, and I can’t help fancying that a glass of good old wine would do me good.”

“I am sure it would, sir,” said Chester, warmly.  “Well, there!  I will break a rule, and join you in one glass.”

“Hah!” cried the old man, brightening up; “that is very good of you, doctor ­very good.  I feel better already in anticipation.  Now, let me see ­let me see.”

He opened the library table drawer and took out a box of matches and an old-fashioned, curled-up twist of wax taper, such as was the accompaniment of a writing-table in sealing-wax days, fifty years or so ago.  This latter he lit, and then hung a large old key upon his little finger.

“The library next time you come, doctor; the cellar this time.  A very fine cellar of wines, my dear sir, but wasted upon me.  Just a glass now and then as a medicine.  This way.  I hope you will not mind the dust and cobwebs.  An old-fashioned notion, but books seem to need the dust of ages, and it is precious upon them, just as old port ought to have its cobwebs and its crust.  You will come with me to get a bottle?”

“Oh yes,” said Chester, and he followed the old man out of the room into the book-encumbered hall, and along to the back, past chest and shelf, to where there was the glass door opening on the stone flight leading down into the basement.

“This way, my dear sir.  One moment; there should be a basket here.  Yes, here we are; would you mind lighting me?  Thank you.”

Chester took the wax taper and lighted the old man, while he took down from behind the glass door, where it hung upon a hook, one of those cradle-like baskets in which a bottle of rich old wine can recline without destroying its fineness.

“You see,” said the old man, “I am a bit of a connoisseur.  I like to keep my wine as it has lain in the bin.  No decanting for me.  Straight on down, my dear sir.”

Chester did not hesitate, but led on down the stone stairs, holding the light on high, the tiny taper shining back upon a pair of flashing eyes and the wrinkles of a now wonderfully wrinkled face, while in the shadows behind a thin, claw-like hand glided to the breast-pocket of the old-fashioned coat, to draw out one of those misnamed weapons formed of twisted whalebone, ending in a weighty leaden knob.

Chester bore the light; behind him seemed to hover upon the dingy walls the Shadow of Death.