Friends I Have Made
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“I looked at the books, then at my visitor, then at the books again, and I felt in a manner that I would much rather they had been taken elsewhere. I was not romantic – all the romance was rubbed off my character like so much silver plating sixty years ago, to leave only the copper quite bare; but I knew well enough that my first words would give a lady who was in distress great pain, and, therefore, I dreaded to speak; for it was all plain enough written in that poor girl’s face – beaten-down pride, struggle with poverty, the desire to keep up appearances, and all compelled to give way to the hunger which would take no denial.
“But business was business; she had come in obedience to urgent need, and I knew it was cruelty to keep her in suspense.
“‘How much do you ask for these, ma’am?’ I said.
“‘I would much rather you made me an offer,’ was the timid reply – one that I half dreaded to hear; for I knew that any offer I could make must pain her terribly; so I backed out, telling her it was not the custom, and so on, when, after much hesitation, she asked me to give her a pound for them, which I could have declared was only about half what she hoped to obtain, yet dared not ask. And yet the sum was more than double what I ought to give for such a work, though most likely it was published at seven or eight pounds – seven pounds ten, I am nearly sure, was the published price.”
“He always would give too much for the books,” said the old lady.
“What was I to do? I felt sorry for the poor girl; but then I couldn’t afford to feel sorry, and to sympathise in a solid fashion with everybody who came to me to sell books on account of being in distress; and at last of all I let business win the day, declaring that I could not afford such a price, and telling myself that I was giving half-a-crown too much in offering ten shillings.
“She said nothing, merely passed the books over towards me, and as I took four half-crowns out of my till and placed them on the counter, I saw the little fingers, all sore and worn with needlework, trembled as they picked the money up, and a half-suppressed sigh the poor girl gave seemed to go right to my heart.
“The next moment she had glided from the shop, leaving me fighting with feelings that were rather strange to me, till I was obliged to give in, and confess that I was wanting in sympathy and humanity towards one sore in distress.
“‘You ought to have given what she asked,’ whispered Conscience, ‘and you would not have felt the loss.’
“‘But business – trade – current prices,’ I muttered in defence.
“‘Go and take her the other ten shillings,’ said Conscience; and, without another word of defence, I took the money from the till, locked it, and hurried out of the shop, leaving no one to mind it, for my wife was out, and ran down the street, looked up this turning, along that, in every direction I could think of; but in vain; the poor girl was gone.
“I felt more disappointed than I could have thought possible as I turned back; but I consoled myself with the thought that she would come again; for when people of a decent class once began to sell me books, they came again and again, many times over; and I have remarked that they mostly began with a few shabby old worthless volumes, and gradually got on to those which were more valuable, though this was not the case here.
“I hurried back to the shop, when, as a matter of course, there was some one there; for though you may often wait all day for a customer, most likely if you get out of the way for five minutes, somebody comes.In this case it was an old clergyman, who had taken up one of the four quarto volumes, and just giving me a nod, he stood there reading for, I should think, quite a quarter of an hour, and then asked the price of the books.
“‘Two pounds,’ I said, for I seemed to fancy that he would try to beat me down to half. But no; he pulled out his old net purse, shook out a couple of sovereigns, put two volumes under one arm and two under the other, and marched out of the shop.
“‘This is a curious sort of day,’ I thought to myself; and somehow or other I felt so put out, that when my boy came back from an errand, after being not more than twice as long gone as he should have been, I boxed his ears – both of them – with the first and second volumes of an abridged Froissart, and then threw a pocket Nugent at him for snuffling and muttering in the corner.
“For I was really put out and hurt and annoyed; and I know I once called myself a wretched old miser.
“Well, a week passed, during which I had a fight with myself as to how much of these two pounds I ought to give to that poor girl if she called again. Business said I should be very generous if I gave her ten shillings; but my heart seemed to say, would it not be better to give it all? However, I could not settle it either one way or the other, even though I turned it over and over in bed at night, and let it half rob me of my rest; and when one day I was dipping into an old copy of Chaucer I had just bought, in came my fair young customer to find me as undecided as ever.
“‘Let me see,’ I said, turning red as a found out schoolboy, ‘I don’t think, ma’am, we made a correct settlement over those last books, which I have just sold;’ and in a clumsy, awkward fashion I laid down a sovereign and a half, in a way, in fact, that looked so like offering charity, that my visitor’s pale face became suffused in an instant, and she replied coldly —
“‘You paid me the price you offered for the books, sir, and are evidently labouring under some mistake.’
“I felt more like one found out than ever; and I believe that if my boy had been within reach I should have kicked him severely, as I blundered, and asked, in a confused, stupid way, what were her commands, when she laid half a dozen volumes before me.
“‘If you won’t take it one way, you shall another,’ I muttered, as I seemed to recover myself a bit; for I could see that she looked more pinched and haggard than at the last visit. So I took up the books, turned them over, examined the binding, the title-pages, the finis, put them down and took a pinch of snuff – every moment growing more confident, and chuckling to myself as I thought of what I meant to do. I shook my head at one volume, as I began to go over them again; screwed up my mouth at another; made a wry face at a third; and pitched a fourth contemptuously aside, watching her out of the corner of my eye the while; and I could see her face working, and a tear drop down upon her dress.
“‘Weak, poor soul,’ I muttered; and I went on turning the books over, and keeping her on the rack, expecting every moment that she would speak. Then I muttered something about the date and edition, laid them all together, and held them up to examine the backs; and once more laid them on the counter, and took snuff, with my under lip thrust out, shaking my head the while.
“‘Perhaps I could bring you some other books that would be more saleable,’ she said, at last; and I could hardly keep up my acting as I listened to the poor child’s trembling voice, and watched her quivering lips.
“‘They’re saleable enough,’ I said, ‘at a price, though – at a price;’ and I stared at her very hard.
“‘I only want what you consider to be the value of them,’ she answered sadly, ‘I – ’
“She stopped short, having evidently been about to say something of which she repented.
“‘Well,’ I said coolly, ‘I’m afraid that I can’t give you more than a couple of pounds for them,’ and I pushed them across the counter, as if expecting her to snatch them away and hurry out of the shop.
“‘Two – two pounds,’ she stammered, and then her eyes rested upon me so pitifully, that if I had not had spectacles on, I could not have kept up my character. But I kept on looking her full in the face, seeing her flush a little as if resenting what I said, then turn paler than before, as she seemed to be unable to comprehend whether I was in earnest, or merely seeking an excuse for helping her. In a few moments she appeared to decide that the latter was the case, and drawing herself up proudly, she took the books, but only to clutch the next moment at the counter, as the place swam before her eyes, and I had hardly time to open the flap and catch her in my arms before she had fainted dead away.
“I carried her into my little back room and laid her upon the sofa there, with bookshelves all around, and my wife bathed her poor pale face, and chafed her hands till she gave two or three sighs, and her eyes began slowly to open, and she gazed up at the ceiling in a strange vacant way, till her gaze fell upon our withered old faces, when catching my hands in hers, she kissed them and began to sob bitterly.
“There was no pride now; she had seen plainly enough my motive, and I could keep it up no longer, for being a weak, childish old fellow, whose thoughts would go back to some one who, had she lived, might have been just such a tall, graceful girl, my spectacles got so that I could not see through them, and when I spoke and tried to soothe her, it was in a cracked choking voice that I did not know for mine.
“She left us at last, taking the money I had obtained for the first four volumes, and leaving me the others to sell for her – that was how we settled it was to be; and I’m afraid there was a little deceit about those last books when she came again. And that time I went home with her to the one room she occupied with her mother, and I wanted no telling, it was all plain enough what they had suffered, and that when the poor girl came to me she was weak and faint for want of food.
“Her mother was lying upon a sort of sofa-bed when I went, and it had been arranged that I was to have come about some books; for the old lady, though she lay there in pain, worn to a shadow, and was busily sewing together little scraps of skins for the furriers, was that proud that she would have resented anything she could have called charity; so I was very respectful and quiet, and went away again with a couple of books, after asking leave to call again for more.
“Sometimes I think the poor lady must have seen through it all; but she made no sign, but kept it up till one day, surprised that I had not seen the daughter for a week, I called to find her kneeling by the side of the couch; for the furriers had lost one of their assistants, and the poor lady had gone to a happier home.
“This all seems as if I were talking about how I did this, and how I did that; but being so mixed up with it as I was, I can’t tell it all and leave myself out. The poor lady was laid to her rest, and after a deal of persuasion, her daughter consented to come and stay with us – to help make up a catalogue of my books, for until I thought of that, she would not hear of it. And in the long winter evenings I got to know a good deal about her and her family; for the father had been a pensioned officer of the Indian army, who had died three years before, leaving his widow and child to exist on the sale of their furniture, and such money as they could earn by their needles.
“But I learned, too, that there was some one expected home from somewhere; and he came one day, to be almost angry, at first, to find her in such condition; but only to make us uncomfortable afterwards with his thanks for the little we had done.
“He took her away at last, and she came to see us again and again as his bonny wife – God bless her! and then we went to see them many times, till they went away, over the seas, thousands of miles from here; but I often picture her pale fair face, and her gentle ways, and feel again the kiss she gave me when she left; and those thoughts seem to brighten up the present and make some of our dullest days a bit more cheery. And then we sit and think about the sorrows of this life, and the goodness by which they are assuaged; and wonder whether it may please God that we should see her face again – a face that seems to us like that of a dear child, for we should like to look upon it once again before we die.”
But the old people never set eyes upon her again for at the end of a couple of months the damp place and the cold paving had been too much for the old bookseller, and he had died; while from the wife of a policeman in charge of the next house I learned how prophetic had been my thoughts respecting them at our first meeting. I recalled the simple act that I had seen – how the poor old lady had laid her hand affectionately upon her husband’s arm – just, too, as at our last meeting, when sick herself, she had listened quietly to her old companion’s words, and smilingly upbraided him for being too generous in his trade.
“They found her kneeling down, ma’am,” said the policeman’s wife, “just aside the bed, with her cheek upon his dead hand – she dead and cold too; and no wonder neither – the place was damp enough to kill a horse.”