Story type: Literature
There is at Oxford a small college, with a small bursar’s garden that in spring is ablaze with laburnum and scented with lilac; and in the old wall of this garden, just beneath the largest laburnum-tree, you may still find a stone with this inscription: “Jesus have mercy on Miles Tonken, Fellow. Anno 1545.”
This college, in the days when I knew it, had three marks of distinction:–It turned out, on hunting mornings, more “pinks” for its size than any other in Oxford; its boat was head of the river; and its Senior Fellow was the Rev. Theobald Pumfrey, who knew more of Athenaeus than any man in the world. He seldom lectured; but day by day, year after year, sat in the window above this same small garden, and accumulated notes for the great edition of his pet author that some day–nobody quite knew when–was to make him famous. He was the son of a Cumberland farmer; had come up to the University from a local grammar-school; and since then (it was said) had revisited his native village twice only–to bury his father and mother. His mother’s death– and that had happened five-and-twenty years before–left him without a single relative on earth: nor could he be said to have a friend, even among the dons. He rose early, took a solitary walk in the parks, and would spend the rest of the day at his desk by the window. People marvelled sometimes why he had taken Holy Orders. It was hinted that his scout knew, perhaps; but, if so, his scout never divulged the reasons.
The scholar was a man, nevertheless; had a humorously wrinkled mouth, and an eye that twinkled responsive to a jest; and was the best judge of wine in Oxford. On the strength of this undeniable gift the dons had long since elected him steward of Common-room; and he valued the responsibility, abstaining from tobacco–which he loved–to keep pure his taste for vintages, and preserve a discriminating palate among sweets. An utterance of his would hint that even his avoidance of physical exercise was a matter of duty.
“A man,” he said, “may work his body, may work his head, and may enjoy his dinner. Any two of these things he may do, but not all three. For me, I wish to work my head, and must enjoy my dinner.” And once, when I dined with him, it was made clear to me that his life was ordered after a plan. It was a summer evening, and he held a glass of claret against the sunset. “Wife and children!” he cried suddenly, “wife and children!” Then, with a wave of his left hand from the claret to the still lawn below us and the lilacs, “These are my wife and children!”
It was whispered at length that his commentary on the first book of the Deipnosophists was all but ready. All through a golden summer and a quiet Long Vacation it had been maturing, and on the first night of the October term he arranged his piles of notes about him, set a quire of clean manuscript paper on his table, dipped pen in inkpot, and began to muse on the first sentence.
An hour passed, and the page was not soiled. Across the still garden came the sound of cab-wheels rattling over the distant streets. The undergraduates were coming up for a fresh term. He had heard the sound a hundred times, almost; and it did not concern him. He had no lectures to prepare.
Another hour passed, and another. The noise of the cabs had died out, and over him was creeping a sick fear, a certainty, that he could not write a word. The subject was too immense. He had given his life to Athenaeus, and now Athenaeus was a monster that one man’s life and knowledge would not suffice for. Having withheld his pen till he might write adequately, he awoke to find that writing was impossible. A horror took him as he pushed back his chair among the litter of note-books, and, stepping to the window, threw the sash open.
Many stars were shining; and between them and the sleeping garden echoed the clamour of a distant supper-party. He heard no words, only the noise; but it filled his brain with a sense of the many thousand supper-parties that the garden had listened to, of the generations that had come and gone since his own first term, of the boys who had grown into men while he was working at Athenaeus–always Athenaeus. His forehead was burning, and as he pushed his hand across it, he seemed to read in the darkness under the laburnum-tree, “Jesus have mercy on Miles Tonken, Fellow. Anno 1545,” and found a new meaning–an irony–in the words.
Then, because more and more the task of his life became a hopeless weight, he gave a look at his notebooks and escaped out of the room, downstairs into the fresh air of the quad, and across it towards the porter’s lodge. He found the porter napping, and, having a private key, he let himself through the big gate and out into the street. No soul was abroad: only the gas-lamps threw queer shadows of him on the pavement, and the night-breeze struck coldly into him as he hurried along, hating whatever he saw.
Soon, under a window in St. Giles’s, he pulled up. There was a party of young men inside–perhaps the same supper-party whose voices he had heard just now. The light from the room flared across the street; but by keeping close under the sill he stood in darkness, and he paused, listening eagerly. Above, they were singing a chorus, noted in those days–
It was pale dawn, and the sun was touching St. Mary’s spire into flame when the heavy-eyed porter heard a key turn in the wicket. It was the Senior Fellow, and in about half an hour he appeared again at the lodge, carrying a small bag, and handed the porter a letter addressed to the President of the College. He then stepped out into the street, and hurried off towards the railway station.
For a fortnight we heard nothing of him. Then suddenly he appeared again–on an evening when the College, having won the “Fours,” was commemorating its success by a bonfire in the big quad. A certain freshman, stealing down his staircase with a can of colza oil to feed the flames, was confronted by our missing Senior Fellow.
“No,” said the great scholar, “don’t be afraid, and don’t seek to hide that oil-can; but come in here.” And he led the way to his room.
This much is mere rumour; for the freshman was always reticent on the encounter, and what followed. But many who were present that night can bear witness that a big portmanteau appeared suddenly on the summit of the bonfire, and blazed merrily to ashes, having clearly been saturated with oil. Not until long after were its contents divined.
The Senior Fellow went back to his window above the bursar’s garden, though henceforward he dined but rarely in Common-room; and year by year scholars expected his edition of Athenaeus, until he died and left his desk full of notebooks to the youth who had carried the oil-can, and who in course of years had become junior don. Also his will expressed a wish that this, his favourite pupil, might be elected to succeed him as steward of Common-room.
The new steward, eager to fulfil his duties, made it his first business to inspect the college cellars. He found there abundance of old port, much fair claret, a bin of inestimable Madeira, several casks of more curious wines, and among them one labelled “For the Poor.”
It struck him as a pleasant trait in his dead friend, thus to have dispensed in charity that wine which doubtless had gone beyond its age, and become unfit for the Fellows’ palates. He drew a glassful and tasted it.
The first sip was a revelation. He returned to his rooms, wrote a score of letters inviting to dinner all the acknowledged connoisseurs of other colleges. When they had dined with him, and fallen into easy attitudes around the table, he introduced this wine casually among half a dozen others, and watched the result.
Not a man who tasted it would taste any other.
As for the notebooks–those priceless materials for the final edition of Athenaeus–they were empty, mere blank pages! Only in that labelled “No. 1” was there a scrap of the old scholar’s handwriting, and it began–
“Dulce cum sodalibus
Sapit vinum bonum:
Dulcius est donum:
Donum est dulcissimum
Spernit regis thronum!”