Monday, February 13, 2012

The sound of swords crossing

"Make yourself comfortable," Ada says, motioning him toward the sofa before she heads for the kitchen. But Case doesn't sit. He roams about the room, picks up a book lying on the sofa, glances at the spine. Daniel Deronda. He doesn't recognize the title; it must be Eliot's most recent. He replaces the novel and shifts to the bookcase, which hold a surprising amount of philosophy: Bentham, Mills, Burke, Locke, Hobbes. There are numerous abolitionist pamphlets and bound numbers of a journal called The Lily. Several shelves contain the usual English poets, the plays of Shakespeare, novels by Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Thackeray, Trollope, and Defoe. There is much more George Eliot, including the essays.

He startles at the bookcase, embarrassed, when Mrs. Tarr enters the room. Clearing his throat, he says, "Your husband has a fine library."

She carries a lacquer tray holding two glasses of iced tea. Her black eyebrows lift and a mocking smile tucks the corner of her mouth. "My husband's library? It is mine, Mr. Case. Or rather it was my mother's--which I have augmented over the years. Mr. Tarr never puts his nose in a book--except a law book."

. . . . He hears her say, "My mother used to claim that one can learn more about a person by scanning their books than could be learned by years of acquaintance. Do you think that true, Mr. Case?"

. . . . He senses she is trying to conduct him, direct him the way she did the audience the previous night. He is to spring into action at her command. Well, if that's what she wants, he will. Trying to adopt her insouciant manner he says, "If I were a medical man and those books were symptoms, I would diagnose a case of mortal seriousness." Even worse, he thinks. Ponderous, silly.

Case detects a mercurial flash of intelligence in those dark eyes, a slight colouring of her extremely pale skin. But she looks more intrigued than angry. Whatever the woman thinks seems to register itself on her face. "Mortal seriousness? Particularly deadly for a woman, I take it. And what is the cure, Doctor?"

"A dose of Dickens is what I would prescribe, ma'am." He crosses his legs; his foot begins to flick impatiently up and down. He wills it to be still.

"Oh, I don't think Dickens will do," says Mrs. Tarr. "My mother could not abide Dickens. She said his characters resembled no human being she had ever met. She called Dickens false to life. It was the gravest charge she could level." Her eyes fall on Case's shoe, which has resumed a frantic jigging.

He uncrosses his legs and shoves both feet firmly to the floor, grips both knees hard to keep them from bouncing. "I would say that it is all to Mr. Dickens's credit that he gives us the sort of characters he does. I find them entertaining. Who would read a novel just to meet the same bores they encounter on their daily rounds?"

"Click, click, click," says Ada, and sticks her tongue impudently in her cheek.

"Beg pardon?" says Case.

"The sound of swords crossing. I do enjoy a fencing match, a lively discussion about the respective merits of artists. It has been ages."

--Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man

1 comment:

  1. "...a case of mortal seriousness..." I like that. It sounds just like me.


As a reader I cherish the fantasy of one day stopping acquiring books, of subsisting only on what is already stashed away in the crammed lar...