Once upon a time, an educated Western man could be counted on to know Latin and quite possibly some Greek ("as much Greek as he could get his hands on" to paraphrase this author). Hebrew, generally reserved for those in theology, was no less valuable in its contributions to our understanding of the world and its reasons. And while the educated Westerner might have told you marvelous things about the etymology of terms in his Old Testament, he would have been blissfully ignorant of the first monotheism's parallel development, its mystics and conundrums now overshadowed by the horizon of the Cross. These times have changed, of course, and now a uniform ignorance of all ancient languages sadly does not seem to trouble most people. So the antiquarians among us rejoice when people occasionally bother to acknowledge the importance of the oldest alphabets, if not exactly conduct a second-hand survey in translation of their riches. What good does a knowledge of these texts entail? Apart from the philosophies of the Greeks, which are as eternal as the earth itself, what wisdom from these occult ages could possibly inform our modern sensibilities? You may be amazed at the answer, which in no small way should influence your appreciation of this famous story.
Our initial character will make only a brief appearance, then resurface at a crucial juncture much later on. That personage is one John Eldred, "an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers" (a term regrettably faded from use) who one autumn afternoon finds his way into a "certain famous library." His aim is the acquisition of an old Hebrew tome; his manners are cordial and almost unctuous; and his disposition in general seems to be that of precisely the person who would want to peruse an early eighteenth-century Talmudic work in the original language. He is helped in his endeavor by young Mr. Garrett, a employee of the library who deems the initial task ("Talmud: Tractate Middoth, with the commentary of Nachmanides, Amsterdam, 1707, 11.3.34") a simple job to round off his day and proceeds to the Hebrew section only to find that the book has just been loaned to a "shortish old gentleman, perhaps a clergyman, in a cloak." And while he is mildly surprised by the speed at which old Eldred accepts this twist of fate and scurries off towards the exit, he is rather shocked to find upon reexamination that the tome in question is in fact quite securely seated in its shelf.
What happens next is a sequence I have to spoil, as good Mr. Garrett ends up quite unconscious in that selfsame section. He relates his excursion to a colleague who helped find and revive him:
'I went into that Hebrew class to get a book for a man that was inquiring for it down below. Now that same book I'd made a mistake about the day before. I'd been for it, for the same man, and made sure that I saw an old parson in a cloak taking it out. I told my man it was out: off he went, to call again next day. I went back to see if I could get it out of the parson: no parson there, and the book on the shelf. Well, yesterday, as I say, I went again. This time, if you please – ten o'clock in the morning, remember, and as much light as ever you get in those classes – and there was my parson again, back to me, looking at the books on the shelf I wanted. His hat was on the table, and he had a bald head. I waited a second or two looking at him rather particularly. I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. Well, I made a bit of a noise on purpose, coughed and moved my feet. He turned round and let me see his face – which I hadn't seen before. I tell you again, I'm not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another I didn't take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs – thick. Now that closed me up, as they say, and I can't tell you anything more.'
Ah, but we can. Garrett takes a well-deserved vacation to the seaside only to faint again in his train compartment upon the sight of "a figure so like one bound with recent unpleasant associations." He is nursed by "the only passenger in the carriage," a certain Mrs. Simpson, and her unmarried daughter. Unlike other good Samaritans these two ladies suppose that Garrett might repay their kindness by solving a long-standing family mystery, one involving an old book and two contradictory testaments authored by an evil uncle whose requested method of burial is the stuff of travel guides. To make Mrs. Simpson's long and wicked story short, this uncle Dr. Rant, somehow also a priest ("I can't imagine how he got to be one"), became by unknown means a wealthy man – ours is not to reason why. On his dying day Rant, a vile old snake if there ever was one, announced to his two remaining relatives that the dueling wills were concealed in different pockets of his vast library, not excluding some works he had already given away to public institutions and suchlike. Thus the only impediment to her inheritance, claims Mrs. Simpson, is her cousin John Eldred – and I think the ends of our circle are close enough for us to stop here.
The only criticism one could ever level at this author – whose style is as impeccable as that of any other twentieth-century writer – is his occasional overreliance on provincial dialects, which for his musical ear seemed to have held a curious fascination. More often than not, the truth about the local circumstances is revealed by the rustic resident and some of the concomitant terror is lost in the decryption of the oddities (on rare occasions, as it were, the weirdness of the language actually heightens our fears). We are mercifully spared too many of these humble clarifications and glide smoothly at James's natural heights. Garrett comes off as a bit callow at times, but that fact aids him in his quest as no one rightly expects a young librarian to match wits with a decrepit and diabolical scholar, dead or alive. And if you think Garrett may be a coincidental passenger on that shorebound train, you may also think our ending is a tad too cheerful. And you also may not be quite as attentive as those old Westerners.