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- Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood - 20/86 -
I was not satisfied with the countenance; and yet it looked quite good. It was somehow a too well-ordered face. It was quite Greek in its outline; and marvellously well kept and smooth, considering that the beard, to which razors were utterly strange, and which descended half-way down his breast, would have been as white as snow except for a slight yellowish tinge. His eyebrows were still very dark, only just touched with the frost of winter. His hair, too, as I saw when he lifted his hat, was still wonderfully dark for the condition of his beard.--It flashed into my mind, that this must be the organist who played so remarkably. Somehow I had not happened yet to inquire about him. But there was a stateliness in this man amounting almost to consciousness of dignity; and I was a little bewildered. His clothes were all of black, very neat and clean, but old-fashioned and threadbare. They bore signs of use, but more signs of time and careful keeping. I would have spoken to him, but something in the manner in which he bowed to me as he passed, prevented me, and I let him go unaccosted.
The sexton coming out directly after, and proceeding to lock the door, I was struck by the action. "What IS he locking the door for?" I said to myself. But I said nothing to him, because I had not answered the question myself yet.
"Who is that gentleman," I asked, "who came out just now?"
"That is Mr Stoddart, sir," he answered.
I thought I had heard the name in the neighbourhood before.
"Is it he who plays the organ?" I asked.
"That he do, sir. He's played our organ for the last ten year, ever since he come to live at the Hall."
"Why the Hall, to be sure,--Oldcastle Hall, you know."
And then it dawned on my recollection that I had heard Judy mention her uncle Stoddart. But how could he be her uncle?
"Is he a relation of the family?" I asked.
"He's a brother-in-law, I believe, of the old lady, sir, but how ever he come to live there I don't know. It's no such binding connexion, you know, sir. He's been in the milintairy line, I believe, sir, in the Ingies, or somewheres."
I do not think I shall have any more strange parishioners to present to my readers; at least I do not remember any more just at this moment. And this one, as the reader will see, I positively could not keep out.
A military man from India! a brother-in-law of Mrs Oldcastle, choosing to live with her! an entrancing performer upon an old, asthmatic, dry-throated church organ! taking no trouble to make the clergyman's acquaintance, and passing him in the churchyard with a courteous bow, although his face was full of kindliness, if not of kindness! I could not help thinking all this strange. And yet--will the reader cease to accord me credit when I assert it?--although I had quite intended to inquire after him when I left the vicarage to go to the Hall, and had even thought of him when sitting with Mrs Oldcastle, I never thought of him again after going with Judy, and left the house without having made a single inquiry after him. Nor did I think of him again till just as I was passing under the outstretched neck of one of those serpivolants on the gate; and what made me think of him then, I cannot in the least imagine; but I resolved at once that I would call upon him the following week, lest he should think that the fact of his having omitted to call upon me had been the occasion of such an apparently pointed omission on my part. For I had long ago determined to be no further guided by the rules of society than as they might aid in bringing about true neighbourliness, and if possible friendliness and friendship. Wherever they might interfere with these, I would disregard them--as far on the other hand as the disregard of them might tend to bring about the results I desired.
When, carrying out this resolution, I rang the doorbell at the Hall, and inquired whether Mr Stoddart was at home, the butler stared; and, as I simply continued gazing in return, and waiting, he answered at length, with some hesitation, as if he were picking and choosing his words:
"Mr Stoddart never calls upon any one, sir."
"I am not complaining of Mr Stoddart," I answered, wishing to put the man at his ease.
"But nobody calls upon Mr Stoddart," he returned.
"That's very unkind of somebody, surely," I said.
"But he doesn't want anybody to call upon him, sir."
"Ah! that's another matter. I didn't know that. Of course, nobody has a right to intrude upon anybody. However, as I happen to have come without knowing his dislike to being visited, perhaps you will take him my card, and say that if it is not disagreeable to him, I should like exceedingly to thank him in person for his sermon on the organ last Sunday."
He had played an exquisite voluntary in the morning.
"Give my message exactly, if you please," I said, as I followed the man into the hall.
"I will try, sir," he answered. "But won't you come up-stairs to mistress's room, sir, while I take this to Mr Stoddart?"
"No, I thank you," I answered. "I came to call upon Mr Stoddart only, and I will wait the result of you mission here in the hall."
The man withdrew, and I sat down on a bench, and amused myself with looking at the portraits about me. I learned afterwards that they had hung, till some thirty years before, in a long gallery connecting the main part of the house with that portion to which the turret referred to so often in Old Weir's story was attached. One particularly pleased me. It was the portrait of a young woman--very lovely--but with an expression both sad and--scared, I think, would be the readiest word to communicate what I mean. It was indubitably, indeed remarkably, like Miss Oldcastle. And I learned afterwards that it was the portrait of Mrs Oldcastle's grandmother, that very Mrs Crowfoot mentioned in Weir's story. It had been taken about six months after her marriage, and about as many before her death.
The butler returned, with the request that I would follow him. He led me up the grand staircase, through a passage at right angles to that which led to the old lady's room, up a narrow circular staircase at the end of the passage, across a landing, then up a straight steep narrow stair, upon which two people could not pass without turning sideways and then squeezing. At the top of this I found myself in a small cylindrical lobby, papered in blocks of stone. There was no door to be seen. It was lighted by a conical skylight. My conductor gave a push against the wall. Certain blocks yielded, and others came forward. In fact a door revolved on central pivots, and we were admitted to a chamber crowded with books from floor to ceiling, arranged with wonderful neatness and solidity. From the centre of the ceiling, whence hung a globular lamp, radiated what I took to be a number of strong beams supporting a floor above; for our ancestors put the ceiling above the beams, instead of below them, as we do, and gained in space if they lost in quietness. But I soon found out my mistake. Those radiating beams were in reality book-shelves. For on each side of those I passed under I could see the gilded backs of books standing closely ranged together. I had never seen the connivance before, nor, I presume, was it to be seen anywhere else.
"How does Mr Stoddart reach those books?" I asked my conductor.
"I don't exactly know, sir," whispered the butler. "His own man could tell you, I dare say. But he has a holiday to-day; and I do not think he would explain it either; for he says his master allows no interference with his contrivances. I believe, however, he does not use a ladder."
There was no one in the room, and I saw no entrance but that by which we had entered. The next moment, however, a nest of shelves revolved in front of me, and there Mr Stoddart stood with outstretched hand.
"You have found me at last, Mr Walton, and I am glad to see you," he said.
He led me into an inner room, much larger than the one I had passed through.
"I am glad," I replied, "that I did not know, till the butler told me, your unwillingness to be intruded upon; for I fear, had I known it, I should have been yet longer a stranger to you."
"You are no stranger to me. I have heard you read prayers, and I have heard you preach."
"And I have heard you play; so you are no stranger to me either."
"Well, before we say another word," said Mr Stoddart, "I must just say one word about this report of my unsociable disposition.--I encourage it; but am very glad to see you, notwithstanding.--Do sit down."
I obeyed, and waited for the rest of his word.
"I was so bored with visits after I came, visits which were to me utterly uninteresting, that I was only too glad when the unusual nature of some of my pursuits gave rise to the rumour that I was mad. The more people say I am mad, the better pleased I am, so long as they are satisfied with my own mode of shutting myself up, and do not attempt to carry out any fancies of their own in regard to my personal freedom."
Upon this followed some desultory conversation, during which I took some observations of the room. Like the outer room, it was full of books from floor to ceiling. But the ceiling was divided into compartments, harmoniously coloured.
"What a number of books you have!" I observed.
"Not a great many," he answered. "But I think there is hardly one of them with which I have not some kind of personal acquaintance. I think I could almost find you any one you wanted in the dark, or in
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