The Librarian's Story

LIBRARIANS are a singular class of men,—or rather, a class of singular men. I choose the latter phrase, because I think that the singularities do not arise from the employment, but characterize the men who are most likely to gravitate toward it. A great philosopher, whom nobody knows, once stated the Problem of Humanity thus: “There are two kinds of people,—round people, and threecornered people; and two kinds of holes, —round holes, and three-cornered holes. All mysterious providences, misfortunes, dispensations, evils, and wrong things generally, are attributable to this cause, namely, that round people get into threecornered holes, and three-cornered people get into round holes.” The librarian is not only a three-cornered person, but a many-cornered one,—a human polyhedron. And he is in his right place,—a many-cornered man in a many-cornered hole; especially if the hole be like that which I am thinking of,—an Historical Library.

The only bibliothecarian peculiarity in point at present is, a gift to root up, (country boys, speaking of pigs, say rootle; it is more onomatopoeian,) to rootle up the most obscure and useless pieces of information; not, like Mr. Radgett, to work them into a chain of connected evidence for some actual purpose, but merely to know them, to possess a record of them, either as found in some printed or manuscript document, or as recorded by the librarian himself; and to keep the record pickled away in some place where it will be as little likely as possible to be found or read by anybody else.

So much concerning Librarians; a word now about Character.

Bad blood is hereditary. I don’t mean scrofulous, but wicked blood. Vicious tendencies pass down in a family, appearing in the most various manifestations, until at last the evil of the race works its only possible remedy, by resulting in its extinction. There is, in some sense, an absolute unity amongst the successive generations of those of one blood; at least, so much so that our feeling of poctical justice is rather gratified than otherwise when the crimes of one are avenged, it may be a century after, upon the person of another of the name. This was the truth which underlay the vast gloomy fables of the ancient Fates, and the stories of the inevitable destruction of the great ancient houses of Greece. It is the same which the Indian feels when he revenges upon one of the white race the wrongs inflicted by another. Succession in time does not interfere with the stern promise of Jehovah to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.—The reader will see presently how I have been led into this train of reflection.

My predecessor in office had a strong fancy for Numismatology. I have, too ; nobody would more enjoy a vast collection of coins; but, oddly enough, I should prefer contemporary ones. He was simple and almost penurious in personal expenditure; yet, besides a great collection of books, he had, from his scanty income, got together, in the course of a long life, a large and very valuable collection of coins and medals, especially rich in gold. These coins lay—they do not now, for I assure you I keep them pretty carefully out of sight latterly— luxuriously imbedded in a neat case, among the great collection of antique objects, weapons, ornaments, furniture, clothing, etc., which usually accumulate within the precincts of an Historical Society’s Library.

In the one under my charge there is an astonishing number of them; and naturally, where the long series of the ancient Indian wars, and later ones with civilized foes, form together so strong a strand in the thread of our history, there is a very great number proportionally of warlike weapons.

I like to read old books, both ex officio and ex naturâ. But I need not enlarge upon this liking. For my part, however, they please me most when I am wholly alone, in that deep silence which by listening you can seem to hear, and in a place well furnished,—especially in such a place as the Historical Library is, with many full bookshelves, and a great multitude of ancient portraits, grim curiosities, and weapons of war.

It may be unfortunate to be sensitive, but I am. The few things that do excite me excite me easily, and by virtue of the trooping together and thronging on of the procession of my own imaginations, thus awakened, I am prone to reveries of the most various complexion.

In one of the secret repositories where during his latter years my venerable predecessor used with senile cunning to hide, indiscriminately, the coins of the Romans and of the Yankees, rags, bottles of rhubarb and magnesia, books, papers, and buttons, I had found, one night, an ancient MS. I had been all the evening reading a High-German MiddleAge volume, illustrated with wood-cuts, cut as with a hatchet, and being, as per title-page, Julius der erste Römische Kayser, von seinen Kriegen,—“Julius the first Roman Emperor, of his Wars.”

Buried in the extraordinary adventures of the Kayser, not to be found in any Roman historian, and full of quaint and ludicrous jumbles of the ancient and the modern, I was suddenly stopped by finding that the last folios were missing.

After a moment of ineffectual vexation, I bethought me of several repositories in which I had seen portions of débris,—leaves, covers, brazen bosses, and other membra disjecta; in one of these I might very probably find the missing pages.

I fumbled through half a dozen ; did not find what I sought, but did find the aforesaid MS. I was interested at once by the close but clear penmanship, and by the date, February 29, 165½; for this day, by its numeral, would be in leap-year, according to old style, but not according to new. How did they settle it ? I asked ; and what was to determine for lovelorn maidens, whether they might or might not use the privilege of the year ?

I returned to my desk, and sat down to read; and, as I remember, the heavy bell of the First Church, close by, just then struck eleven, and I listened with pleasure to the long, mellow cadence of the reverberations after each deliberate and solid stroke.

Beginning at the beginning, I read until past midnight. The contents, after all, were not remarkable. It was a collection of copies of papers relating to various matters of accounts and law, all pertaining to a certain Beardsley family, of high and ancient fame in the Colony, and afterwards in the State. Somewhat beyond the middle, however, I lighted upon a document which attracted my more particular attention. It was a transcript from the State Records, and, AS the date showed, from a very early volume of them, now missing from the office of the Secretary of State. It immediately occurred to me that this volume was strongly suspected to have been purloined by one Isaac Beardsley, an unscrupulous man, of some influence, who used, for amusement, to potter about in various antiquarian enterprises of no moment, but who had now been dead for some fifteen years. I then also recollected that he had an only child, a graceless gallows-bird of a son, who broke his father’s heart, then wasted his substance in riotous living, and, after being long a disgrace and nuisance at home, had sunk out of sight amid the lowest strata of vice and crime in New York.

The document was a complaint to the “Generall Court” against “Goodman Joab Brice”—the complainant being designated by the honorable prefix of “Mr.”— “for yt hee, the sd Goodman Brice, had sayd in ye hearing of” various persons mentioned, “and to the verry face of ye sd Mr. Isaac Beardslie, yt ye sd Mr. Beardslie did grind yc faces of the poor, and had served him, the sd Brice, worse than anie Turk wd serve his slaves; and this with fearfull and blasphemous curses, and prayres that God would return evill upon the heads of this complaynant and his children after him,” etc.

The transcript was long, alleging various similar offences. Its perusal recalled to my mind several hints and obscure allusions, and one or two brief histories of the proceedings in this case, which may be found in ancient books relating to the Colony. These proceedings between Beardsley and Brice were famous in their day, and were thought little creditable to the head of the Beardsley family. That he himself partook of the general opinion is shown by the circumstance that the matter was diligently hushed up in that day; and those most familiar with the ancient records of the State averred, that upon the pages of the missing volume was spread matter amply sufficient to account for its theft and destruction by the late Col. Isaac Beardsley.

The details of this ancient quarrel have perished out of remembrance. The chief substance of it was, however, a lawsuit which ended in the rich man’s obtaining possession of the poor man’s land. Brice, a yeoman of vindictive, obstinate, and fearless character, had insulted his opponent, who was a magistrate, had threatened his life, and otherwise so bore himself that his oppressor procured him to be whipped at the cart’s tail, and to be held to give large sureties for the peace, with the alternative penalty of banishment. The bitter vehemence of Brice’s curses was remarkable even among the dry phrases of the complaint; and tradition relates that his fearful imprecations even caused his dignified opponent, the magistrate, to turn pale and tremble.

I was sure, too, that among the stores of the Library I had seen some memorial of Brice as well as of Beardsley; but could not at the time call up any remembrance more definite than an impression that this memorial was something which had belonged to a descendant of Juab Brice, who had been in his youth a soldier in the old French War, and later a subaltern in the “State line” during the Revolution.

The Library room, in which I was reading, is a large, lofty hall, fitted with dark bookcases, heavy and huge as if for giants, singularly perfect in point of inconvenience and inaccessibility, and good only in that they bore a certain architectural proportion to the great height and expanse of the dark room. My desk was so placed that my back was toward the entrance, which was the balustraded opening, in the Library floor, of a wide staircase; and close at my side and before me were racks with muskets and spears, cases of curiosities, and other appurtenances of the room. It being now past the middle of the night, when sleep is heaviest, the stillness was perfect. My two shaded lamps made a small sphere of dusky yellow light, which I felt to be surrounded and, as it were, compressed by die thick darkness, which I could easily fancy to be something tangible and heavy, settling noiselessly down from beneath the lofty arches of the roof. The ancient penmanship and curious contents of the faded pages before me carried my thoughts backward into the old Colonial times, with their rigid social distinctions, lofty manners, and ill-concealed superstition ; and I mused upon grim old magistrates, wizened witches, stately dames, rugged Indian-fighters, and all their strange doings and sayings in the ancient days, until, between drowsiness and imagining. I fell into a tangled labyrinth of romance, history, and reverie.

Then all at once I seemed half to awake, and fell into one of those fits of foolish nervous apprehension to which many even of the coolest and bravest are liable in deep solitude and darkness,— and if they, how much more an excitable person like myself! My heart throbbed for no reason, and, sitting with my head bowed down upon my hands, I fancied the most impossible dangers,—of men taking aim. at me with the antique firearms out of the far dark corners, or casting heavy weights upon me through the skylight overhead. How easily, I fancied, could it happen-Did not the cellar-door open just now ?

I half arose, almost frightened. I believe I should have taken an old rapier and a light and gone to look, but for very shame. And besides, there were two thick floors between me and the door, and that itself was set in the heavy wall between the cellar of this wing of the building and that under its main body; so that if it had been opened, I could not have heard it. Accordingly I resumed my posture and my painful intense musing. But now I could have almost sworn that I heard soft steps coming up the staircase, and whispers floating upon the air of the great solitary room: —I did!

But not soon enough. At the sound of a distinct, heavy footstep behind me, I sprang up and turned about, but only to find myself pinioned by one of the arms of a rough-looking, vicious-faced man, who pressed his other hand tightly over my mouth. A confederate was busy at the case of coins.

Although only a librarian, I have in my day been something of an athlete; much more than the person who had rushed into so sudden an intimacy reckoned upon. And I was pretty well strung up, too, with my nonsensical fancies.

Being face to face with me, therefore, my assailant had mastered my right arm, and was clasping my back with his left hand, while his right was over my mouth. So driving back my left elbow, I struck him a sharp and cruel blow in the right side, just above the hip-bone. It is a bad place to strike; I would not hit there, unless unfairly attacked. The sudden pain jerked a groan out of him, and surprised him into slackening his hold; so that I wrenched myself loose, and gave him a straight, heavy, right-hand hit in the nose, sending him reeling against the old chest that came over in the Mayflower, which saved him from a fall.

At one and the same moment, both the thieves drew knives and made at me together, and I, springing backwards, seized from the wooden rack of weapons the first which my hand reached. It was a musket. Instinctively, for there was no time to reason, I cocked, presented in a sort of charge-bayonet attitude, the only one possible, and pulled trigger. The old weapon went off with a deafening report, sending out a blinding sheet of flame in the darkness. One thief fell headlong at my very feet; the other, turning, fled blindly towards the staircase. I ought to have caught him; but, in the unreflecting anger of the moment, coming up with him at the stair-head, I struck at him with such good will and good effect, that he fell down stairs faster than I cared to chase him in the dark. Scrambling up at the bottom, he hurried out by the way he had come, and fled; while I returned to my prisoner.

He was quite dead. The charge, a bullet, had passed in just above the region of the heart, killing him instantly. I searched him, but found only a knife, a little money, and some tobacco ; nothing which could identify him. He was well-made, middle-aged, and of a thoroughly vile and repulsive countenance.

The necessary legal formalities were gone through as quickly and quietly as possible, and the entrances by which the burglars had come in well secured. They had evidently reconnoitred within and without the building during the day, and selected a back way into the cellar, through which they found no trouble in ascending to the Library.

Some days afterwards, I bethought me to examine the old musket. It was a heavy, old-fashioned “queen’s aim,” with no unusual marks, as I thought ; but upon a silver plate, let into the hollow of the butt, I found, coarsely and strongly engraved, “JOAB BRYCE, 1705.”

Upon mentioning this circumstance to our Recording Secretary, and wondering how the gun came to be loaded, he told me that the fault was his. The weapon, he said, had been deposited in the Library by a son of the old revolutionary soldier; and he added, that this son had informed him that the old man, who seems to have inherited something of the peculiar traits of his ancient race, having had this charge in his gun at the conclusion of the siege of Yorktown, where he was present with a New England regiment, had managed afterwards to avoid discharging or drawing it, and had left it by will to his eldest son to be kept loaded as it was; with the strange clause, that the charge “might sarve out a Beardsley, if it couldn’t a Britisher.”

The depositor, the Secretary further told me, had religiously kept the old gun, and, with a curious, simple strictness of adherence to the spirit of his father’s directions, had oiled the lock, picked the flint, wired the touch-hole, and put in fresh priming, when he brought the weapon to the Library.

“I meant to have unloaded it, of course,” pursued the excellent Secretary, “but it passed out of my mind.”

A week or two afterwards, I found in one of those obscure columns of “minion solid,” in which the great New York papers embalm the memory of their current metropolitan crime, the following notice:—

"We are informed that the burglar lately killed in an attempt to rob the -Historical Library has been found to be the notorious cracksman, 'Bill Young’; but that his real name was Isaac Beardsley.”