Over Bemerton’s: an easy-going chronicle

by E.V. Lucas

Chapter XIII

I Go Into Business Pro Tem, Read a Good Poem Under Difficulty, and Learn Something of What it Means to be a Second-Hand Bookseller

(Pages 127-126 of the 1908 edition of Over Bemerton’s by E.V. Lucas, published by The MacMillan Company, New York.)

I was writing letters at about noon, when Mrs. Duckie entered to see if I would be so good as to speak to Miss Wagstaff for a moment. Down I went, and found that bitter mercantile virgin all tears and trouble. She had a telegram to say that her mother was ill, and would she come at once; but Mr. Bemerton was in the country valuing a library, and who was to mind the shop? Could I make any suggestion?

I made the only natural one: I said I would mind it myself.

This apparently had not occurred to her, and it seemed to strike Mrs. Duckie (who is more jealous of the fair fame of what she calls gentlefolk than they themselves are likely ever to be) as an act of impropriety beyond pardon. But I had my way, and at last got Miss Wagstaff off in a hansom; but not before she had showered instructions upon me.

“The prices,” she said, “are marked just inside. They are all net, but if any one bought several books you might knock something off. Don’t ever knock anything off a cheap book.”

“Be very careful,” she said, “with people who look at the illustrations. Sometimes they pinch the plates.”

“Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t buy any books.”

“Keep an eye,” she said, “on the outside shelves.”

“Don’t let any one,” she said, “stand too long reading.”

“See that they don’t slip one book into their pocket while they buy another,” she said.

“Watch them,” she said, “to see that they don’t rub out our price and put in another themselves.”

That, I think, was her very last counsel. I sank down in a chair in a kind of stupor. I had not been prepared for such revelations of perfidy. I had thought of a second-hand bookshop as being off the main stream of human frailty and temptation; and behold it was the resort of the most abandoned! Is there no natural honesty? I wished that Mr. Bemerton would return and
liberate me to walk upstairs out of life again and get on with my make-believe.

It gave me at the same time a new idea of Miss Wagstaff, and I found myself admiring her. How naturally she took these things; how simple and right it seemed to her that customers should be suspect ; while I I had been sunning myself in a comfortable sense of all-pervading virtue, and was now cowering beneath the discovery of the contrary I, a man of fifty and more, who had some claims to be considered a cosmopolitan and citizen of the world, and she a Cockney spinster with no experience of anything but her home and this shop.

But a customer coming in, I had to suspend my reflections and attend to business, which in this case consisted in replying, with some decision, that we never bought last year’s Whitaker’s Almanack. The adaptability of man how naturally I said “we”!

Apart from the necessity of replenishing his stock by attending sales and buying books; the wearing task of looking narrowly at larcenous fellow-creatures; the pangs that it must cost him to sell the books that he wants to keep; and the attacks made upon his tenderer feelings by unfortunate impoverished creatures with worthless books to sell; apart from these drawbacks, the life of a second-hand bookseller seems to me a happy one. I could myself lead it with considerable contentment. During my four hours of authority I took eleven shillings, met some entertaining people, discovered on the shelves a number of interesting books, and read at intervals a poem I had long known by repute but never had seen before Walter Pope’s “Wish.”

A second-hand bookseller, I found, may read much in his time, but he cannot read continuously. My perusal of Walter Pope’s poem was broken somewhat in the way I have attempted to describe. I got through the Horatian argument all right :

“When I’m at Epsom or on Banstead Down,
Free from the Wine, and Smoke, and Noise o’ th’ Town,
When I those Waters drink and breathe that Air,
What are my Thoughts? What’s my continual Prayer?”

and I was allowed to complete in peace the first stanza and the chorus:

“If I live to be old, for I find I go down,
Let this be my fate in a country town:
May I have a warm house, with a stone at the gate,
And a cleanly young girl to rub my bald pate.


May I govern my passion with an absolute sway,
And grow wiser and better, as my strength wears away,
Without gout or stone, by a gentle decay.”

But here entered a very small dirty boy to know if I could spare his mother a piece of stamp paper.

I said it was the one thing we didn’t keep, and resumed the poem:

“May my little house stand on the side of a hill,
With an easy descent to a mead and a mill,
That when I’ve a mind I may hear my boy read
In the mill if it rains; if it’s dry, in the mead.

Near a shady grove and a murmuring brook,
With the ocean at distance, whereon I may look,
With a spacious plain, without hedge or stile,
And an easy pad-nag to ride out a mile.”

At this point there entered a rusty elderly man with a Cruden’s Concordance, to know if I would buy it. I said we already had several, and I could not as a conscientious business man add to the stock. He sighed, surveyed me attentively, and went away, saying that he would bring something else. I implored him not to, but with an ineffable look of misfortune he shuffled away. I turned again to the page:

“With Horace and Petrarch, and two or three more
Of the best wits that reign’d in the ages before;
With roast mutton, rather than ven’son or teal,
And clean, though coarse linen, at every meal.

With a pudding on Sundays, with stout humming liquor,
And remnants of Latin to welcome the vicar;
With Monte, Fiascone, or Burgundy wine,
To drink the king’s health as oft as I dine.

May my wine be vermilion, may my malt drink be pale,
In neither extreme, or too mild or too stale;
In lieu of desserts, unwholesome and dear,
Let Lodi or Parmesan bring up the rear.

Nor Tory, or Whig, Observator, or Trimmer
May I be, nor against the law’s torrent a swimmer;
May I mind what I speak, what I write, and hear read,
And with matters of State never trouble my head.”

At this point a lady faltered in, saying she felt very fault, and might she sit down a moment. I gave her my chair, and called to Mrs. Duckie for some water. The lady told me her home was in Ashford, and she was only up for the day, having to get some things for her boy who was joining a merchant-ship, and did I know where Heronsgate Mansions were, because she had a cousin living there whom she would like to see, and was there a good dentist in this neighbourhood, and could I tell her if the 4.43 to Ashford was still running.

Having at length resumed my chair, I proceeded with Walter Pope:

“Let the gods, who dispose of every king’s crown,
Whomsoever they please, set up and pull down;
I’ll pay the whole shilling impos’d on my head,
Tho’ I go without claret that night to my bed. . . .

Tho’ I care not for riches, may I not be so poor
That the rich without shame cannot enter my door;
May they court my converse, may they take much delight
My old stories to hear in a winter’s long night.” . . .

The rusty man here came in again, and after spending a moment at the shelves, offered me another book, and pitched such a tale of woe that I bought it for myself. Two days afterwards, I may here remark, Miss Wagstaff came up to ask me if I had sold a copy of Rogers’ Italy with Turner’s plates while I was in charge.

“No,” I said, “but I bought one.”

She examined it swiftly, and informed me that it was their own copy which had been sold to me.

“He spotted you for a greenhorn all right,” she said. “And had a starving family, hadn’t he? And was only just out of the Brompton Hospital?”

I said it was so.

“Oh that Brompton Hospital!” she added. “Life would be quite simple if it had never been built. They’ve all got some one there when they want to sell a book.”

I gave Miss Wagstaff the book again, and said I was very sorry.

“You’ll always be taken in,” she said, as she hurried off. “You go about asking for it.”

Probably; but how can one say no to certain forms of distress, real or so well-managed as to seem real? After my experiences I know that it is not the disposal of books that presents the greatest difficulty to a bookseller, but the acquisition of them. At least I know that that would be the case with me. My difficulty would always be to refuse to buy the books which the unhappy persons brought in. A very little while after the shabby man had departed with his ill-gotten gains, a neat little old woman entered with a brown paper parcel which she undid with excessive deliberation and care, revealing at last a shabby copy of an odd volume of Rowe’s Shakespeare. At the same time she took out of her purse a folded newspaper cutting and placed it in my hands. Then she looked at me with an expression in which excitement, hope, and fear were almost unbearably blended.

The wretched cutting, as I knew by inspired prevision, related to the sale of a first folio, which, after spirited bidding, was knocked down for £987.

The pathetic figure before me had read the paper, had dimly remembered that among her dead husband’s books was an old Shakespeare, and at last, with a beating heart, had found it and seen infinite possibilities of debt-paying and comfort before her.

What was I to do? She was manifestly so truthful, and the hope dying out of her poor eager face left it so wan and wintry.

A second-hand bookseller, I suppose, having chosen to be a second-hand bookseller and to live by his choice, has a short way with such clients. I know he must have. But I wondered what Mr. Bemerton would do, that is, if Miss Wagstaff permitted him to come on in that scene at all. The disparity between anything that I could give her and the sum she was expecting was clearly so immense that I did nothing at all. I merely said I was very sorry, and bowed her out, and returned once more to Walter Pope.

“May none whom I love to so great riches rise
As to slight their acquaintance and their old friends despise;
So low or so high may none of them be
As to move either pity or envy in me. . . .

To outlive my senses may it not be my fate
To be blind, to be deaf, to know nothing at all;
But rather let death come before ’tis so late,
And while there’s some sap in it may my tree fall. . . .”

Here a little girl from a neighbouring shop ran in to ask for two sixpences for a shilling.

“You won’t buy a nice set of Dickens, too?” I asked her, quite in the Wagstaffian manner, I thought.

“Not to-day,” she said gravely, with perfect London readiness; “but mother’ll be wanting the washing-book bound in morocco next week.”

“With a courage undaunted may I face my last day,
And when I am dead may the better sort say:
In the morning when sober, in the evening when mellow,
He’s gone, and not left behind him his fellow. . . .

I care not whether under a turf or a stone,
With any inscription upon it or none,
If a thousand years hence, ‘Here lies W. P.’
Shall be read on my tomb; what is it to me?”

Here entered a studious-looking youth who wished to know if I had a copy of Hoffding’s Psychology. I said no; and almost immediately after came a commanding matron with her daughter for a complete set of Trollope for an invalid son who was going a voyage to the Cape. I said I was sorry, but I could not tell whether I had one or not: I was not the real bookseller, and knew nothing of the stock.

“I call it disgraceful,” said the lady. “Mismanagement on all sides. We’ve only just been to the Stores, and failed to get a pocket sextant. I can’t think what’s coming to London. Where are the standard novels kept in this shop?” she asked sternly.

“I have no idea,” I replied. “Let’s hunt for them together.”

“Certainly not,” she said. “I have no time,” and off she marched; but not before her daughter, who looked as if she wished to sink into the earth for shame, had thrown me a glance of sympathetic compassion which was a perfect balm for any wounds I might have received. And then I finished Walter Pope’s poem:

“Yet one wish I add, for the sake of those few
Who in reading those lines any pleasure shall take,
May I leave a good fame and a sweet-smelling name.
Amen. Here an end of my wishes I make.


May I govern my passion with an absolute sway,
And grow wiser and better, as my strength wears away,
Without gout or stone, by a gentle decay.”

That is the song which Benjamin Franklin sang, as he informed George Whately, a thousand times when he was young; “but now,” he added, at fourscore, “I find that all three of the contraries have befallen me.”

Find more quotes from Over Bemerton’s on Goodreads.

Download a copy of the entire book Over Bemerton’s at eBooks Read or Archive.org.