by H.M. Tomlinson
THE stranger and I had that lofty chamber
of the British Museum to ourselves, as well as I could see. I could
not see far, except upwards to the skylight. The full extent of the
room's spacious pallor was screened by two enormous Assyrian bulls.
That room looked and smelt like antiquity, dead, meaningless, and now
harmless, as well as one knew. There was no sound, except an
occasional sepulchral rumble, which might have been an echo out of
Nineveh. The echo got lost, perhaps, when Sennacherib's army began to
march cheering to another conquest, and those awful bulls hadn't warned
it the cheering was all over, long, long ago.
I stopped at that particular cabinet where the stranger stood, by
chance. My curiosity was not strong. This was only the first case in
the room. That grave echo from the past depressed me more than the
exhibits; though I was amused to see at once a familiar name, quoted as
an authority in the description of a singular object under my nose.
The name was homely, and of London, not of Nineveh, and was the only
thing I recognized under the glass. I used to know a Thomas Tyrrhitt,
but I did not remember that my Tyrrhitt was ever an influential
authority of any sort.
He was but the headmaster of an elementary school, and the boys were
of poor folk. In the years when he was busy, I imagine next week's
bread and rent were of more importance to him than all the myths of
Asia. That schoolmaster's ghost came to my mind, for an instant, as I
contemplated an Assyrian brickbat, and then vanished again. It had no
place there. Since the war, it has had no place anywhere.
The elderly and donnish figure near me remained still, and bent
closely, as if short-sighted, over the cabinet. He did not look the
kind of man who in loneliness would venture an affable approach. He
would not so much as notice you were there. His fixed intent was not
that of a visitor's idle curiosity; therefore, when ignorance casually
intruded, as mine did, among the cryptic exhibits of antiquity, it
would be of less importance, compared to a precious lump of baked clay,
than the chance of wet weather.
I was about to wander on. Nothing could be gained in that room,
except a peep into a vista of old time insignificant to the common eye.
It gave me only a dreary notion of the depth of the ages, and of the
fugitive nature of human achievements. Strange, that those vast
man-headed, winged bulls once caused devotion in a patriotic multitude!
As I moved, so did the stranger, abruptly. He stood up and adjusted
his spectacles. He rubbed his nose with a yellow silk bandanna, as if
he had suddenly and successfully concluded a matter. He also noticed I
was next to him, and with a hand still holding his gaudy handkerchief
indicated one of the exhibits. My existence was admitted; more than
that, I was promoted to share a trifle of knowledge with him.
The object he indicated meant nothing to me. I looked at it, and
then inquiringly up at him. His eyes were still regarding a lump of
inscribed brick in the case. His expression would have been altogether
sad, but for a faint ironic smile.
"Well, that's all that's left of him," he said. "His sole memorial."
I gave the object a closer inspection. There the name of Tyrrhitt
was again. "I'm not an archaeologist," I said. "These things mean
little to me. But are you referring to the authority quoted here and
It was evident that this stranger was really moved by his inspection
of the nondescript fragments; and it is right and proper in ordinary
mortals to respect the emotion of a scholar as he detects the important
meaning of shapeless facts that not only appear to us to be without
relationship, but without value in human affairs. He spoke of this
Tyrrhitt in a way that surprised me. I began to have a suspicion. The
authority quoted among the exhibits seemed on the point of
identification; if that were so, it but added a greater wonder to a
museum full of wonders.
Since I had been reminded of my one-time neighbour, the
schoolmaster, I could recall him with sufficient distinction. He had
been long absent from the daily scene, but I could see him well enough
beyond the debris of the years. The Tyrrhitt I used to see about the
streets of an obscure parish was, indeed, a respectworthy man. His
boys, I remember, called him The Nabob. They did that, I believe, not
only because of his authority, which they could not question, but
because now and then he was requested to reduce a matter to common
sense when an Oriental seaman was at variance with the local
magistrates. I had heard a rumour that in his young days he had lived
in China; or somewhere in the Far East.
It was my turn for a word or two. The stranger, as I related
something of what I remembered of a neighbour, began to regard me
incredulously. "But," he said at last, "that's the man. That's the
very man. What, you knew Tyrrhitt?"
His tone was as if I merited some of the respect due to a fellow I
had had the extraordinary good fortune to know, even if I was unaware,
as it seemed I was, of the nature of my luck. It began to be clear
that scholars once paid homage to Tyrrhitt, if to his neighbours he had
never seemed of much more importance than a likeable oddity. Nobody
that I knew in the past had ever suspected him of a secret passion for
Cathay or Mesopotamia. To this stranger, however, the man I remembered
was an eccentric pundit whose learning had compelled other scholars to
change their minds. I remarked this baffling disparity. "Why," I
exclaimed, "he was so very retiring and reserved!"
"Yes, that was his trouble. He never thought much of himself. He
was as meek as Moses, though I've heard he could be very offensive,
when he felt like it, to the Board of Education, and much good that
ever did him. But I never met him. I wish I had."
So we established the fact, while granitic Assyrian bulls looked
down at us, that there were two Tyrrhitts, perhaps more, but that they
were all one man. "It will hardly bear thinking about," mused the
stranger. "To sink himself as he did, of choice! Teacher in an
elementary school!" His amusement was disconsolate.
I heard more. I was told that my one-time neighbour had been
honoured by universities, but disregarded honours; that he could have
had a professional chair at what would have been, for him, a princely
reward. He could have gone up into the world of the elect. He refused
to go. He preferred his mean streets. When he was wanted for an
opinion, then they knew where to find him.
The question was, did he fear responsibility, and so went into the
background for safety, doing work there that was really proper to
lesser men? "What he understood of the conundrums used to make some of
us look like only good triers. Still, he couldn't be persuaded to
abandon his urchins. And I wonder. Did one of the little devils to
whose slates and pencils this original wit was given, ever guess he had
He remained for a moment in meditation. "It was in my mind for years
to go along to see him, as he would not come to us, but I left it too
late. I never came to the right day for the pilgrimage, and then he
died. I felt that at last out of respect for my own work I should be
present at his passing. Others who knew what he was would certainly be
"They were not. Nobody was there but a group of his assistants and
some boys. And it rained. How it rained! That dark cemetery left you
in no doubt about the end. I have never in my life seen such a picture
of finality. It was enough to take out of a young man all excelsior
"Well," I said, "never mind the wet day. You understood, and you
were there. Can't we call that enough? For my part, I didn't know he
had left that school, and why, till it was very old news."
"Then we'll let it go," said the stranger, pretending to cheer up.
He glanced round at the enigmatic relics of the past. The bulls were
still listening to us. "If we talk any more about him in this place we
shall confuse reason and our wits. It doesn't do to get mesmerized by
the relativity of all things. It is better to say that Tyrrhitt did
leave us something, and call it very good. If it seems a waste of
knowledge because he chose to live and die as he did, let us admit that
is only our silly way of looking at it."
We went out together leisurely down the steps of that severe
storehouse of antiquity's relics, into London's present tumult. We
paused, still talking freely, for I felt as if this chance visit had
set back the horizon. The past had been quickened, and it had been
brightened—anyhow, I had a feeling that it was not altogether as
extinct as its stoniness suggested. Haltingly, for one is shy of an
unasked confession, I said something of this sort to my companion; I
suggested that if the life that has been is now no more than as the
flints in the earth, then how account for the way things turn out as
they do, and for the sort of people we are?
The tall scholarly figure bowed over me politely, patiently
considering this idea, as we were about to part, while I ventured
further the hopeful but fearful notion that the little things each of
us do, that perhaps our very thoughts, have a continuance which the
shadows that pass with daylight have not. We are, I suggested, in both
the past and future, as well as in the present.
He nodded speculatively, without comment, shifting his spectacles as
if to get this idea into better focus, but did not say he had
succeeded. Then he lifted his hand in salute, and in another minute
had turned a corner, still without a name, and was lost as deeply in
the noisy confusion of London as was the man we had been talking about
in the silence of the backward years.
That long pause, while I had turned and peered back to forgotten
occasions, had lifted up again so much that had been sunk out of sight,
that next week I was drawn towards some once familiar streets. I had
not been there for years; and I did not know the place. I found my way
about with difficulty. Nothing was left of the school to which
Tyrrhitt had devoted his life, and not much of its neighbourhood.
Explosions had disposed of all that life and labour. The earth where
a school had been was raising weeds.
So I began, by degrees, as I wandered about, to lose the freshness
of a hope in continuity. I was lost again in time and place. The
promise of a clue had gone. The shocks of these later years, removing
landmarks, and the blustering changes in the winds of doctrine, tend to
weaken faith in everlastingness; it appeared instead that all lights
can be put out.
I did not, in truth, recognize that once friendly and acceptable
parish, and I did not meet a ghost. Less remained there of Tyrrhitt's
endeavours than was in the museum. His name was preserved, and only
for a few specialists, because of his association with an odd
Mesopotamian brick or two.
One old tavern sign that I used to know well enough remained upright
in the desert, and I went in, but did not, of course, see its
remembered host. His son was there instead, who did support me with a
slight hold on once upon a time, that vague and romantic period.
After a little gossip of the recent days and nights of bumps and
flames, I told him I had been looking for St. Bernard's School, but
found only rubbish. He smiled grimly, and said that school was done in
by a fly-bomb, all in a moment. Luckily, nobody was in it at the time.
"And there's nobody there now," I remarked. "Thistles instead!"
"Thistles?" he questioned, a little puzzled. "O, I see," he went
on. "You think that ended it. No, it didn't, The school carries on.
It's in a makeshift place. My kid goes to it. Usually about this
time the headmaster comes in here for lunch. He'd tell you—and here
he comes . . ."
The landlord left me, to conduct his guest to an upper room. I
followed them up, without invitation, and the inn-keeper turned to look
at me in faint disapproval as I arrived.
I explained to the present head of St. Bernard's the innocence of my
intrusion. "Come along," he said. "Let's lunch together. We shall
have this room to ourselves. I come here," he explained, "because my
house went with the school, and home is too far off between business
hours. We're living a provisional sort of existence; but the wheels go
round." He waited while he settled himself, and then added, "and so
I should say he was a man who could be trusted to keep wheels in his
care going as they were meant to go. All the same, he was nothing like
the master of other days. With that firm blue jowl, his alert grey
eyes, and crisp grizzled hair, he could have been an energetic
engineer. Apparatus in his care would move as required. I related, in
the midst of the reminiscences, my recent little adventure in the
museum. He continued in abstraction on his plate, without a remark, as
if not fully attentive. At length he sat up, and glanced through the
window to the ruins beyond, reflectively.
"Yes," he said, "it was a wet day, that day of Tyrrhitt's funeral,
since you've been told so. I know quite well it soaked us, but I don't
remember a stranger there . . . you see, I was only one of the elder
boys. You can call me one of the larger little devils, just as your
friend did. Yet if I ever felt—shall we say respectful?—I did that
afternoon. There was the wind and rain, old Nabob going, and the
quiet." He considered his tankard.
"It would have made anybody glum. Besides, we young devils had been
properly afraid of Mr. Tyrrhitt. Don't mistake me. It was only
because we could never dodge him. He knew what we were going to say
before we said it. Sometimes he said it first. While his eye was on
you you didn't dare change your mind; that wouldn't do. He'd see the
change coming. As you know, when you are the weaker party in a
dispute, it is never easy to keep strictly to the cold truth. Tyrrhitt
made us face it though, like it or lump it. For idiotic blunders we'd
get the stick, but not for lies. You'd hear something then worse than
the swish of a cane. He wouldn't waste a good stick on an imposter.
"The fact is, I suppose, he woke us up to the importance of words,
ordinary words. If words didn't fit the facts then they were bad.
They might lead people astray. I believe what he was after was to
make a fellow choose for himself—he wanted a kid to know that it was
up to him. He kept to that. You were somebody. You had to bear that
in mind. He kept us up to the mark. But he was a jolly old boy in
between whiles. If you came out with it like a man he would only screw
his eyes and wag his finger in your face. You were warned. He had a
laugh quite his own, a rich booming one. It could take the weight off
what appeared to be a task he'd given you too heavy to lift."
We discussed that learning of his which had the approbation of the
dons. "There was that, of course," the new head admitted, "but I only
heard of it after I took charge. Some people did not know he was dead,
and continued to write. I went to a little trouble to find out how much
I did not know of my old chief. He'd been gone some time then, too.
"Naturally, as youngsters we had taken it for granted he knew
everything—Sanskrit, if it came to that, and hieroglyphics. Why not?
Anything. I'd bet, all the same, that the old man never attached all
that importance to it. I remember he boomed out at my form master once
that an overweight of knowledge would be the death of us; and my
teacher, quite surprised, answered him boldly. They argued before us.
Boys will remember a show like that. It was jam. 'Very well, Mr.
Jones,' said old Tyrrhitt, as he stumped out, 'have it your way, but
don't forget Lucifer knew more than you ever will, and remember what
happened to him.'
"He was more concerned with a fellow himself than with his
attainments. If he saw quality in a youngster he'd take care it wasn't
lost in the mangling. Scholars from his school won names for
themselves while he was a nobody, yet he wasn't one to make a fuss over
cleverness. He said to me once, when I was a teacher, that we weren't
"There was Hassell, a boy I remember at the school, and never near
the top, but Tyrrhitt saw in him what we did not. That fellow managed
somehow to reach a medical degree, which is rather beyond the usual
mark with us, and then threw it away, as I thought, to go as a
missionary to Upper Burma. When I regretted this move to Tyrrhitt, as
not unlike waste, he simply sighed, and said he would like to go there
"A year came when the Japanese invaded that land. Hassell, so we
heard, had taken to the hills and forests with his savages, and was
safe. Not till after the end of it did we hear the rest. Hassell, it
seems, when he heard of the miserable state of the prisoners in
Japanese hands, went down to be a prisoner himself, to help the sick.
He had to pay for it, and could have escaped again, but held on.
"A wireless set was discovered, and a crisis blew up. Hassell had
nothing to do with it, though he must have known very well who had. The
Japs picked on him, for no doubt he stood out from the rest, to squeeze
him for what he knew. They wasted their time on him, naturally, but
they squeezed him too hard, and for too long. They killed him, but he
did not break.
"There, I think, you see how it is. Tell me how to get that sort of
thing into a curriculum."