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I did not know the cloisters. I had never been in them in my life. I had no wish whatever to enter them, least of all on this chill winter's eve, with the thermometer down below zero. The wind, too, was blowing from the east, and there was nothing outside to invite one. I therefore replied that I would now return home, and I made some excuses about 'family.'
He was not to be refused.
'I know all these places by heart,' he objected; I have made them the study of my life. It will not take us five minutes to walk
round. Do come!'
There is a fascination in some men in the inverse proportion of their gifts of attractiveness and merit. You may often be unable to refuse to the disagreeable what, with reluctance, you would refuse to the pleasing. Nor is it possible to account for this anomaly, save on the ground of that secret bewitchment which comes of rank evil to the soul. I think Catullus speaks of fascinating 'malâ linguâ ;' but there are worse fascinations inherent to some men than those which proceed from the tongue. Suadent cadentia sidera somnos,' says Virgil-though I forget with what context-which one might apply, in allegorical sense, to some falling stars that are human. The 'somnos' would take a moral signification; and truly there is more of moralsomnos' in the world than there is of even midnight forgetfulness. However, I was fascinated into saying 'Yes' to my friend, and accordingly to the cloisters we went.
It was the very witching hour of five, which, in winter time, means coming night, and shadows drear and fitful. The Abbey was growing indistinct. As we turned to go, my friend still poured on me the stream of his laborious comments.
This motley crowd of incongruous monuments casts a weird and sepulchral look along those desolate aisles. It is difficult to ascertain whether one is really in a church or in some pagan mausoleum for the dead.'
I answered that I thought so.
'Ah,' he went on, for men who think, this is a very humiliating spot. I always feel inclined, whenever I come here, to take a pickaxe and a broom, and sweep all these monuments into the Thames.'
I objected to this.
'What is more vulgar than marble merit, more unmeaning than stone in-memoriams ?'
I objected again.
'I see,' he retorted, with some little contempt, you are a man of the nineteenth century. I am not. I detest the present, and live altogether in the past.'
It struck me that I also detested the present,' and would have been glad to get on into the future. I cannot tell what it was that
possessed me to accompany this gentleman to the cloisters, save that curious and indefinable fascination to which I have already alluded. The sirens were fabled to attract poor mariners by sweet voices to inevitable shipwreck, but this man had not a sweet voice. There is, too, an allusion in some natural histories to the evil eye' of the snake; though Mr. Waterton says this is all nonsense, and that the eye of the snake cannot move. Yet this man had not an evil eye.' There must, then, be charms of the diabolic kind which admit not of featured expression. You are conscious in such charms of neither pleasure nor harm; you are conscious of nothing but the charm. Ovid calls certain kinds of witchment, which are not of the virtuous kind, jucundum malum;' but then, though the 'jucundum' be present, and the malum' come later, you are conscious of both from the beginning. Yet this man had neither 'jucundum' normalum,' at least in his sensible attractiveness. I give it up. Certain it is that, in our journey through life, more influences for evil are without clear expression than such as bear their meaning on the front.
'Might I venture to inquire,' asked my friend at this moment, when we were just going out of the Abbey, if it is not taking too great a liberty, which University you were at ?'
I conceived the inquiry superfluous; the more so as nothing had been said which brought the subject into parley.
Cambridge,' I replied, rather shortly.
'I thought so,' he answered. 'Some remarks which fell from you in respect of the monuments implied the mathematical mind. I was at Oxford myself, though previously at Dublin. I think Oxford promotes a theological turn, Cambridge rather a rational.'
I did not see the drift of this particular comment, which my friend delivered sententiously; but I was pleased to think that he was theological, and that I was so ostensibly mathematical.
We had now got out into the open. The air was keen and frosty, the wind was blowing from the east, and we both put our handkerchiefs up to our faces as we issued from the great west door. Then, entering the archway which leads to Dean's-yard, we took the turn to the left, and in the course of a few moments we stood on the threshold of the really beautiful cloisters. The porter might possibly be sanctuarised in his own little house hard by; but we saw no sign of life, save the milk-boy and a very old woman.
It was just the interim between the eclipse of day and the lighting the lamps for the night. The lamplighter would be round in few minutes. He had not come yet. I should have hailed his approach with pleasure. My friend was exuberantly talky, and ran over with profound cogitation. He was so glad to have me for a companion. An intelligent acquaintance was such an infinite treat in the world where one met so few.
'You have a mind,' he said warmly. A mind is the luxury of life, to others as well as to yourself. I should prefer your companionship to that of the canons who inhabit this comfortable Close. They read Greek and drink port; but mind, sir, mind is the thing.' Could I doubt him to be a man of observation ?
'How domestic this seems!' continued my friend, as we stood the entrance to the cloisters. 'We can hardly imagine that the home-loving clergy who live in these nests of repose are successors of the men who prayed half the night for the souls of the living and the dead. Times change, like cities. Since the night when, as the legend assures us, the fishermen, fishing in the Thames, caught sight of St. Peter and his companions, and ferried them across the river to consecrate the Abbey-which then was but partially builtLondon is not more changed in character and area than her people in faith and habit.'.
This was really too much for a cold afternoon. But before I had time to suggest our return my friend proceeded to rave.
'Do you know' (he had a constant habit of saying 'Do you know,' as though he would convey real sympathy and an intuitive apprehension of me), whenever I come here I always regret that I did not live and die a monk. My father was a clergyman of the Church of England. He was rector of Broadstone in Suffolk, and he wrote the lives of some saints, which I used to read when a boy. I always believed that to be a monk was the most thoughtful and philosophical life; but I married when I was only nineteen; so, you see, I was born to be Benedict.'
'Like a good many others,' I replied, who are monks in theory or sentiment, you were eminently connubial in fact. Celibacy is a charming abstraction, but it not unfrequently ends in twins.'
'Ah, true!' he continued. 'My brother wrote a book on the blessings of celibacy, but his wife was the prettiest woman to be found in the county of Dorset.'
And then we stood still in the cloister. Nor can I tell why I did not move away.
I scarcely know what it was that aroused my suspicions in this very remarkable man. He was a gentleman, and evidently educated; but there was a something unnatural about him. I defy a man to act for three-quarters of an hour without doing something that is odd. He will stand still, or he will move, when he should do just the contrary, and he will speak his words without soul. A contrast that struck me in this man was the finish and ardour of his language with a coldness of eye and of tone. A man who is an enthusiast will throw about his limbs, and feeling will gleam from his face; but this man spoke always by rote, like an actor who has got up a part.
I was about to insist on departure, when there passed us, very
hastily indeed, a stranger, dressed apparently in black. What struck me about him was the singular fact, that I could see him but could not hear any sound. He must have worn fantastically thin boots; or perhaps he wore slippers-which would be a little unusual on a cold afternoon in December. Any way, he was totally inaudible, and, gliding like a vision, he passed under an archway in the direction of Little Dean's-yard.
'Did you see that man?' I asked my friend.
He looked not a little disturbed; then he said hurriedly, and with obvious effort,
'No-what man? I was thinking at the instant of this interesting passage, which will lead us to Little Dean's-yard. It is one of the oldest bits of the Abbey. It has of course been spoiled by modernism-whitewashed, like the cathedral piety; but you cannot efface the real. Do you know, I believe if you could detach the beauties of London from the mass of modernism and money, and place them in one spot by themselves, you would make a resort compared to which Rome would be a dustbin, and Athens Ramsgate or Margate.'
I thought this absurd, but I did not say so. My friend was obviously mad. But then his white hair-his very white hair— seemed to give him excuse for being exceptional; since age has the right to be dogmatic with youth, and I was but a youth in his presence.
We were now in the passage which my friend had panegyrised as one of the most ancient of the Abbey. Ancient or not, it was certainly very dark, and I could scarcely see where I was going. Hardly conscious of what I was doing, or why I should feel very anxious, I looked over my shoulder behind me. I perceived in the darkness that same strange figure which had passed us three minutes before. Not a sound-not a muffled one; the human being alone -its form-its very dark form.
Now here I might descend from those very lofty flights of æsthetic disquisition and lore, with which my friend had instructed me, and tell plainly exactly what happened. I am not going to do anything of the kind. If the reader wishes to enjoy an account of a robbery, of garrotting with violence in London,' he has only to take in' copies of Reynolds's Sunday newspaper, and he will be able to satisfy his yearnings. I was garrotted; but since the sensation was quite enough for myself, and I have no wish to live it over again, the reader will be so kind as to supply his imagination with whatever particulars he pleases. I lost my bank-notes. I never recovered them. But let that fact suffice as to detail. I hate garrotting, both the reading of it and the suffering it myself; and I shall not allude farther to the subject.
So soon as I recovered I passed through Dean's-yard and made for the cloisters. I hailed a policeman and informed him of my wrongs. He stationed himself just outside the gate, and we two waited future results.
We stood perhaps five minutes; nobody passed. But just as I was despairing of any success, a gentleman, aged perhaps thirty, with very black hair and black whiskers, and a jaunty and juvenile mien, came out of the yard through the archway. He was not my friend. My friend was sixty, was white, was aged; this man was exuberant with youth.
I scarcely bestowed even one glance on this gentleman; but my surprise was intense on seeing the policeman instantly collar and handcuff him. He was the man. By a singular coincidence, he had been watched the night before round the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. He was known to the police.' He had been tracked more than once in these lairs by a detective dressed in plain clothes. He was a frequenter of interesting places, in toilettes more or less grave. He had even been known to be a bishop in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. He was fond of assuming a dignified character, with a leaning towards venerable age. Pity that society misunderstood him! With such versatility of talent he might have risen very high in some of the branches of legitimate felony.'
Briefly, my friend was a first-class thief; he had graduated in the kleptomaniac college. Not precisely at Oxford, nor accurately at Dublin, he had nevertheless taken his degree. M.A. he was, though the 'A' might be equivocal in the moral of its range, while doubtless difficult to master.' He had been at a very good school; and, as it transpired not many days afterwards, when his story was told before a magistrate, he had once gained a prize for Latin composition, and had been second for an Exhibition at Oxford. His boast was therefore well founded. He had merely directed into felonious channels the abilities which were meant for conventional.
A. MARSHALL, M.A.