The Antiquary

Chapter III

Walter Scott

He had a routh o’ auld nick-nackets,
Rusty airn caps, and jinglin-jackets,
Would held the Loudons three in tackets,
                                A towmond gude;
And parritch-pats, and auld sayt-backets,
                                Afore the flude.


AFTER he had settled himself in his new apartments at Fairport, Mr. Lovel bethought him of paying the requested visit to his fellow-traveller. He did not make it earlier, because, with all the old gentleman’s good-humour and information, there had sometimes glanced forth in his language and manner towards him an air of superiority, which his companion considered as being fully beyond what the difference of age warranted. He therefore waited the arrival of his baggage from Edinburgh, that he might arrange his dress according to the fashion of the day, and make his exterior corresponding to the rank in society which he supposed or felt himself entitled to hold.

It was the fifth day after his arrival, that, having made the necessary inquiries concerning the road, he went forth to pay his respects at Monkbarns. A footpath leading over a heathy hill, and through two or three meadows, conducted him to this mansion, which stood on the opposite side of the hill aforesaid, and commanded a fine prospect of the bay and shipping. Secluded from the town by the rising ground, which also screened it from the north-west wind, the house had a solitary, and sheltered appearance. The exterior had little to recommend it. It was an irregular old-fashioned building, some part of which had belonged to a grange, or solitary farm-house, inhabited by the bailiff, or steward, of the monastery, when the place was in possession of the monks. It was here that the community stored up the grain, which they received as ground-rent from their vassals; for, with the prudence belonging to their order, all their conventional revenues were made payable in kind, and hence, as the present proprietor loved to tell, came the name of Monkbarns. To the remains of the bailiff’s house, the succeeding lay inhabitants had made various additions in proportion to the accommodation required by their families; and, as this was done with an equal contempt of convenience within and architectural regularity without, the whole bore the appearance of a hamlet which had suddenly stood still when in the act of leading down one of Amphion’s, or Orpheus’s, country dances. It was surrounded by tall clipped hedges of yew and holly, some of which still exhibited the skill of the topiarian artist,1 and presented curious arm-chairs, towers, and the figures of Saint George and the Dragon.

The taste of Mr. Oldbuck did not disturb these monuments of an art now unknown, and he was the less tempted so to do, as it must necessarily have broken the heart of the old gardener. One tall embowering holly was, however, sacred from the shears; and, on a garden seat beneath its shade, Lovel beheld his old friend with spectacles on nose, and pouch on side, busily employed in perusing the London Chronicle, soothed by the summer breeze through the rustling leaves, and the distant dash of the waves as they rippled upon the sand.

Mr. Oldbuck immediately rose, and advanced to greet his travelling acquaintance with a hearty shake of the hand. “By my faith,” said he, “I began to think you had changed your mind, and found the stupid people of Fairport so tiresome, that you judged them unworthy of your talents, and had taken French leave, as my old friend and brother-antiquary Mac-Cribb did, when he went off with one of my Syrian medals.”

“I hope, my good sir, I should have fallen under no such imputation.”

“Quite as bad, let me tell you, if you had stolen yourself away without giving me the pleasure of seeing you again. I had rather you had taken my copper Otho himself.—But come, let me show you the way into my sanctum sanctorum—my cell I may call it, for, except two idle hussies of womankind,” (by this contemptuous phrase, borrowed from his brother-antiquary, the cynic Anthony a Wood, Mr. Oldbuck was used to denote the fair sex in general, and his sister and niece in particular), “that, on some idle pretext of relationship, have established themselves in my premises, I live here as much a Coenobite as my predecessor, John o’ the Girnell, whose grave I will show you by and by.”

Thus speaking the old gentleman led the way through a low door; but before entrance, suddenly stopped short to point out some vestiges of what he called an inscription, and, shaking his head as he pronounced it totally illegible, “Ah! if you but knew, Mr. Lovel, the time and trouble that these mouldering traces of letters have cost me! No mother ever travailed so for a child—and all to no purpose—although I am almost positive that these two last marks imply the figures, or letters, LV, and may give us a good guess at the real date of the building, since we know, aliunde, that it was founded by Abbot Waldimir about the middle of the fourteenth century—and, I profess, I think that centre ornament might be made out by better eyes than mine.”

“I think,” answered Lovel, willing to humour the old man, “it has something the appearance of a mitre.”

“I protest you are right! you are right! it never struck me before—see what it is to have younger eyes—A mitre—a mitre—it corresponds in every respect.”

The resemblance was not much nearer than that of Polonius’s cloud to a whale, or an owzel; it was sufficient, however, to set the Antiquary’s brains to work. “A mitre, my dear sir,” continued he, as he led the way through a labyrinth of inconvenient and dark passages, and accompanied his disquisition with certain necessary cautions to his guest—“A mitre, my dear sir, will suit our abbot as well as a bishop—he was a mitred abbot, and at the very top of the roll—take care of these three steps—I know Mac-Cribb denies this, but it is as certain as that he took away my Antigonus, no leave asked—you’ll see the name of the Abbot of Trotcosey, Abbas Trottocosiensis, at the head of the rolls of parliament in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—there is very little light here, and these cursed womankind always leave their tubs in the passage—now take, care of the corner—ascend twelve steps, and ye are safe!”

Mr. Oldbuck had by this time attained the top of the winding stair which led to his own apartment, and opening a door, and pushing aside a piece of tapestry with which it was covered, his first exclamation was, “What are you about here, you sluts?” A dirty barefooted chambermaid threw down her duster, detected in the heinous fact of arranging the sanctum sanctorum, and fled out of an opposite door from the face of her incensed master. A genteel-looking young woman, who was superintending the operation, stood her ground, but with some timidity.

“Indeed, uncle, your room was not fit to be seen, and I just came to see that Jenny laid everything down where she took it up.”

“And how dare you, or Jenny either, presume to meddle with my private matters?” (Mr. Oldbuck hated puttting to rights as much as Dr. Orkborne, or any other professed student.) “Go, sew your sampler, you monkey, and do not let me find you here again, as you value your ears.—I assure you, Mr. Lovel, that the last inroad of these pretended friends to cleanliness was almost as fatal to my collection as Hudibras’s visit to that of Sidrophel; and I have ever since missed—

“‘My copperplate, with almanacks
Engraved upon’t and other knacks
My moon-dial, with Napier’s bones,
And several constellation Stones;
My flea, my morpeon, and punaise,
I purchased for my proper ease.’

And so forth, as old Butler has it.”

The young lady, after courtesying to Lovel, had taken the opportunity to make her escape during this enumeration of losses. “You’ll be poisoned here with the volumes of dust they have raised,” continued the Antiquary; “but I assure you the dust was very ancient, peaceful, quiet dust, about an hour ago, and would have remained so for a hundred years, had not these gipsies disturbed it, as they do everything else in the world.”

It was indeed some time before Lovel could, through the thick atmosphere, perceive in what sort of den his friend had constructed his retreat. It was a lofty room of middling size, obscurely lighted by high narrow latticed windows. One end was entirely occupied by book-shelves, greatly too limited in space for the number of volumes placed upon them, which were, therefore, drawn up in ranks of two or three files deep, while numberless others littered the floor and the tables, amid a chaos of maps, engraving, scraps of parchment, bundles of papers, pieces of old armour, swords, dirks, helmets, and Highland targets. Behind Mr. Oldbuck’s seat (which was an ancient leathern-covered easy-chair, worn smooth by constant use) was a huge oaken cabinet, decorated at each corner with Dutch cherubs, having their little duck-wings displayed, and great jolter-headed visages placed between them. The top of this cabinet was covered with busts, and Roman lamps and paterae, intermingled with one or two bronze figures. The walls of the apartment were partly clothed with grim old tapestry, representing the memorable story of Sir Gawaine’s wedding, in which full justice was done to the ugliness of the Lothely Lady; although, to judge from his own looks, the gentle knight had less reason to be disgusted with the match on account of disparity of outward favour, than the romancer has given us to understand. The rest of the room was panelled, or wainscotted, with black oak, against which hung two or three portraits in armour, being characters in Scottish history, favourites of Mr. Oldbuck, and as many in tie-wigs and laced coats, staring representatives of his own ancestors. A large old-fashioned oaken table was covered with a profusion of papers, parchments, books, and nondescript trinkets and gewgaws, which seemed to have little to recommend them, besides rust and the antiquity which it indicates. In the midst of this wreck of ancient books and utensils, with a gravity equal to Marius among the ruins of Carthage, sat a large black cat, which, to a superstitious eye, might have presented the genius loci, the tutelar demon of the apartment. The floor, as well as the table and chairs, was overflowed by the same mare magnum of miscellaneous trumpery, where it would have been as impossible to find any individual article wanted, as to put it to any use when discovered.

Amid this medley, it was no easy matter to find one’s way to a chair, without stumbling over a prostrate folio, or the still more awkward mischance of overturning some piece of Roman or ancient British pottery. And, when the chair was attained, it had to be disencumbered, with a careful hand, of engravings which might have received damage, and of antique spurs and buckles, which would certainly have occasioned it to any sudden occupant. Of this the Antiquary made Lovel particularly aware, adding, that his friend, the Rev. Doctor Heavysterne from the Low Countries, had sustained much injury by sitting down suddenly and incautiously on three ancient calthrops, or craw-taes, which had been lately dug up in the bog near Bannockburn, and which, dispersed by Robert Bruce to lacerate the feet of the English chargers, came thus in process of time to endamage the sitting part of a learned professor of Utrecht.

Having at length fairly settled himself, and being nothing loath to make inquiry concerning the strange objects around him, which his host was equally ready, as far as possible, to explain, Lovel was introduced to a large club, or bludgeon, with an iron spike at the end of it, which, it seems, had been lately found in a field on the Monkbarns property, adjacent to an old burying-ground. It had mightily the air of such a stick as the Highland reapers use to walk with on their annual peregrinations from their mountains; but Mr. Oldbuck was strongly tempted to believe, that, as its shape was singular, it might have been one of the clubs with which the monks armed their peasants in lieu of more martial weapons,—whence, he observed, the villains were called Colve-carles, or Kolb-kerls, that is, Clavigeri, or club-bearers. For the truth of this custom, he quoted the chronicle of Antwerp and that of St. Martin; against which authorities Lovel had nothing to oppose, having never heard of them till that moment.

Mr. Oldbuck next exhibited thumb-screws, which had given the Covenanters of former days the cramp in their joints, and a collar with the name of a fellow convicted of theft, whose services, as the inscription bore, had been adjudged to a neighbouring baron, in lieu of the modern Scottish punishment, which, as Oldbuck said, sends such culprits to enrich England by their labour, and themselves by their dexterity. Many and various were the other curiosities which he showed;—but it was chiefly upon his books that he prided himself, repeating, with a complacent air, as he led the way to the crowded and dusty shelves, the verses of old Chaucer—

“For he would rather have, at his bed-head,
A twenty books, clothed in black or red,
Of Aristotle, or his philosophy,
Than robes rich, rebeck, or saltery.”

This pithy motto he delivered, shaking his head, and giving each guttural the true Anglo-Saxon enunciation, which is now forgotten in the southern parts of this realm.

The collection was indeed a curious one, and might well be envied by an amateur. Yet it was not collected at the enormous prices of modern times, which are sufficient to have appalled the most determined as well as earliest bibliomaniac upon record, whom we take to have been none else than the renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha, as, among other slight indications of an infirm understanding, he is stated, by his veracious historian, Cid Hamet Benengeli, to have exchanged fields and farms for folios and quartos of chivalry. In this species of exploit, the good knight-errant has been imitated by lords, knights, and squires of our own day, though we have not yet heard of any that has mistaken an inn for a castle, or laid his lance in rest against a windmill. Mr. Oldbuck did not follow these collectors in such excess of expenditure; but, taking a pleasure in the personal labour of forming his library, saved his purse at the expense of his time and toil, He was no encourager of that ingenious race of peripatetic middle-men, who, trafficking between the obscure keeper of a stall and the eager amateur, make their profit at once of the ignorance of the former, and the dear-bought skill and taste of the latter. When such were mentioned in his hearing, he seldom failed to point out how necessary it was to arrest the object of your curiosity in its first transit, and to tell his favourite story of Snuffy Davie and Caxton’s Game at Chess.—“Davy Wilson,” he said, “commonly called Snuffy Davy, from his inveterate addiction to black rappee, was the very prince of scouts for searching blind alleys, cellars, and stalls for rare volumes. He had the scent of a slow-hound, sir, and the snap of a bull-dog. He would detect you an old black-letter ballad among the leaves of a law-paper, and find an editio princeps under the mask of a school Corderius. Snuffy Davy bought the Game of Chess, 1474, the first book ever printed in England, from a stall in Holland, for about two groschen, or twopence of our money. He sold it to Osborne for twenty pounds, and as many books as came to twenty pounds more. Osborne resold this inimitable windfall to Dr. Askew for sixty guineas. At Dr. Askew’s sale,” continued the old gentleman, kindling as he spoke, “this inestimable treasure blazed forth in its full value, and was purchased by Royalty itself for one hundred and seventy pounds!—Could a copy now occur, Lord only knows,” he ejaculated, with a deep sigh and lifted-up hands—“Lord only knows what would be its ransom; and yet it was originally secured, by skill and research, for the easy equivalent of two-pence sterling.2 Happy, thrice happy, Snuffy Davie!—and blessed were the times when thy industry could be so rewarded!

“Even I, sir,” he went on, “though far inferior in industry and discernment and presence of mind, to that great man, can show you a few—a very few things, which I have collected, not by force of money, as any wealthy man might,—although, as my friend Lucian says, he might chance to throw away his coin only to illustrate his ignorance,—but gained in a manner that shows I know something of the matter. See this bundle of ballads, not one of them later than 1700, and some of them an hundred years older. I wheedled an old woman out of these, who loved them better than her psalm-book. Tobacco, sir, snuff, and the Complete Syren, were the equivalent! For that, mutilated copy of the Complaynt of Scotland, I sat out the drinking of two dozen bottles of strong ale with the late learned proprietor, who, in gratitude, bequeathed it to me by his last will. These little Elzevirs are the memoranda and trophies of many a walk by night and morning through the Cowgate, the Canongate, the Bow, St. Mary’s Wynd,—wherever, in fine, there were to be found brokers and trokers, those miscellaneous dealers in things rare and curious. How often have I stood haggling on a halfpenny, lest, by a too ready acquiescence in the dealer’s first price, he should be led to suspect the value I set upon the article!—how have I trembled, lest some passing stranger should chop in between me and the prize, and regarded each poor student of divinity that stopped to turn over the books at the stall, as a rival amateur, or prowling bookseller in disguise!—And then, Mr. Lovel, the sly satisfaction with which one pays the consideration, and pockets the article, affecting a cold indifference, while the hand is trembling with pleasure!—Then to dazzle the eyes of our wealthier and emulous rivals by showing them such a treasure as this” (displaying a little black smoked book about the size of a primer); “to enjoy their surprise and envy, shrouding meanwhile, under a veil of mysterious consciousness, our own superior knowledge and dexterity these, my young friend, these are the white moments of life, that repay the toil, and pains, and sedulous attention, which our profession, above all others, so peculiarly demands!”

Lovel was not a little amused at hearing the old gentleman run on in this manner, and, however incapable of entering into the full merits of what he beheld, he admired, as much as could have been expected, the various treasures which Oldbuck exhibited. Here were editions esteemed as being the first, and there stood those scarcely less regarded as being the last and best; here was a book valued because it had the author’s final improvements, and there another which (strange to tell!) was in request because it had them not. One was precious because it was a folio, another because it was a duodecimo; some because they were tall, some because they were short; the merit of this lay in the title-page—of that in the arrangement of the letters in the word “Finis”. There was, it seemed, no peculiar distinction, however trifling or minute, which might not give value to a volume, providing the indispensable quality of scarcity, or rare occurrence, was attached to it.

Not the least fascinating was the original broadside,—the Dying Speech, Bloody Murder, or Wonderful Wonder of Wonders,—in its primary tattered guise, as it was hawked through the streets, and sold for the cheap and easy price of one penny, though now worth the weight of that penny in gold. On these the Antiquary dilated with transport, and read, with a rapturous voice, the elaborate titles, which bore the same proportion to the contents that the painted signs without a showman’s booth do to the animals within. Mr. Oldbuck, for example, piqued himself especially in possessing an unique broadside, entitled and called “Strange and Wonderful News from Chipping-Norton, in the County of Oxon, of certain dreadful Apparitions which were seen in the Air on the 26th of July 1610, at Half an Hour after Nine o’Clock at Noon, and continued till Eleven, in which Time was seen Appearances of several flaming Swords, strange Motions of the superior Orbs; with the unusual Sparkling of the Stars, with their dreadful Continuations; With the Account of the Opening of the Heavens, and strange Appearances therein disclosing themselves, with several other prodigious Circumstances not heard of in any Age, to the great Amazement of the Beholders, as it was communicated in a Letter to one Mr. Colley, living in West Smithfield, and attested by Thomas Brown, Elizabeth Greenaway, and Anne Gutheridge, who were Spectators of the dreadful Apparitions: And if any one would be further satisfied of the Truth of this Relation, let them repair to Mr. Nightingale’s at the Bear Inn, in West Smithfield, and they may be satisfied.”3

“You laugh at this,” said the proprietor of the collection, “and I forgive you. I do acknowledge that the charms on which we doat are not so obvious to the eyes of youth as those of a fair lady; but you will grow wiser, and see more justly, when you come to wear spectacles.—Yet stay, I have one piece of antiquity, which you, perhaps, will prize more highly.”

So saying, Mr. Oldbuck unlocked a drawer, and took out a bundle of keys, then pulled aside a piece of the tapestry which concealed the door of a small closet, into which he descended by four stone steps, and, after some tinkling among bottles and cans, produced two long-stalked wine-glasses with bell mouths, such as are seen in Teniers’ pieces, and a small bottle of what he called rich racy canary, with a little bit of diet cake, on a small silver server of exquisite old workmanship. “I will say nothing of the server,” he remarked, “though it is said to have been wrought by the old mad Florentine, Benvenuto Cellini. But, Mr. Lovel, our ancestors drank sack—you, who admire the drama, know where that’s to be found.—Here’s success to your exertions at Fairport, sir!”

“And to you, sir, and an ample increase to your treasure, with no more trouble on your part than is just necessary to make the acquisitions valuable.”

After a libation so suitable to the amusement in which they had been engaged, Lovel rose to take his leave, and Mr. Oldbuck prepared to give him his company a part of the way, and show him something worthy of his curiosity on his return to Fairport.

1.    Ars Topiaria, the art of clipping yew-hedges into fantastic figures. A Latin poem, entitled Ars Topiaria, contains a curious account of the process.    [back]

2.    This bibliomaniacal anecdote is literally true; and David Wilson, the author need not tell his brethren of the Roxburghe and Bannatyne Clubs, was a real personage.    [back]

3.    Of this thrice and four times rare broadside, the author possesses an exemplar.    [back]

The Antiquary - Contents    |     Chapter IV

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