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Christopherson
by [?]

It was twenty years ago, and on an evening in May. All day long there had been sunshine. Owing, doubtless, to the incident I am about to relate, the light and warmth of that long-vanished day live with me still; I can see the great white clouds that moved across the strip of sky before my window, and feel again the spring languor which troubled my solitary work in the heart of London.

Only at sunset did I leave the house. There was an unwonted sweetness in the air; the long vistas of newly lit lamps made a golden glow under the dusking flush of the sky. With no purpose but to rest and breathe, I wandered for half an hour, and found myself at length where Great Portland Street opens into Marylebone Road. Over the way, in the shadow of Trinity Church, was an old bookshop, well known to me: the gas-jet shining upon the stall with its rows of volumes drew me across. I began turning over pages, and–invariable consequence–fingering what money I had in my pocket. A certain book overcame me; I stepped into the little shop to pay for it.

While standing at the stall, I had been vaguely aware of some one beside me, a man who also was looking over the books; as I came out again with my purchase, this stranger gazed at me intently, with a half-smile of peculiar interest. He seemed about to say something. I walked slowly away; the man moved in the same direction. Just in front of the church he made a quick movement to my side, and spoke.

‘Pray excuse me, sir–don’t misunderstand me–I only wished to ask whether you have noticed the name written on the flyleaf of the book you have just bought?’

The respectful nervousness of his voice naturally made me suppose at first that the man was going to beg; but he seemed no ordinary mendicant. I judged him to be about sixty years of age; his long, thin hair and straggling beard were grizzled, and a somewhat rheumy eye looked out from his bloodless, hollowed countenance; he was very shabbily clad, yet as a fallen gentleman, and indeed his accent made it clear to what class he originally belonged. The expression with which he regarded me had so much intelligence, so much good-nature, and at the same time such a pathetic diffidence, that I could not but answer him in the friendliest way. I had not seen the name on the flyleaf, but at once I opened the book, and by the light of a gas-lamp read, inscribed in a very fine hand, ‘W. R. Christopherson, 1849.’

‘It is my name,’ said the stranger, in a subdued and uncertain voice.

‘Indeed? The book used to belong to you?’

‘It belonged to me.’ He laughed oddly, a tremulous little crow of a laugh, at the same time stroking his head, as if to deprecate disbelief. ‘You never heard of the sale of the Christopherson library? To be sure, you were too young; it was in 1860. I have often come across books with my name in them on the stalls–often. I had happened to notice this just before you came up, and when I saw you look at it, I was curious to see whether you would buy it. Pray excuse the freedom I am taking. Lovers of books–don’t you think–?’

The broken question was completed by his look, and when I said that I quite understood and agreed with him he crowed his little laugh.

‘Have you a large library?’ he inquired, eyeing me wistfully.

‘Oh dear, no. Only a few hundred volumes. Too many for one who has no house of his own.’

He smiled good-naturedly, bent his head, and murmured just audibly:

‘My catalogue numbered 24,718.’

I was growing curious and interested. Venturing no more direct questions, I asked whether, at the time he spoke of, he lived in London.