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But I am watching very closely. I can actually see the minute hand creeping toward the Roman numeral X. Above, the vast blue plaster dome with its arched windows and skylight is just as it was a hundred years ago, on that terrible day when It's Soon it will be two o'clock.
Then, at last, , the moment I have been waiting for. To be here, in this spot in London, on this day at ten past two, I have traveled 4, miles and planned for thirty-four and a half years. Thirty-four and a half years ago I was sitting in a nearly empty high school classroom in Philadelphia under the spell of my English teacher and drama coach, D. I idolized Mr. Rosenbaum or "Rosey," as we Drama Society brats called him. He had a dark, resonant voice. He had a widow's peak and a moustache and goatee that made him look like Mephistopheles; he hinted that his ancestors were Scottish warlocks.
He wore trim black suits, blood-red vests, and pince-nez. He smoked black cigarettes with gold tips, and made them vanish by sleight of hand when the principal was nearby. Rosey knew psychoanalysis. He ordered his milkshakes spiked with raw eggs. Soames's poems were equally dim. His most successful book sold only three copies. But his vanity was untarnished.
Soames was certain that future generations would recognize his genius. The stranger introduced himself as the Devil and made an offer. He would transport Soames a hundred years into the future, to visit the Round Reading Room of the British Museum as it would be in Here Soames could consult the library's all-knowing catalogue and at last be sure of his place in literary history.
The price for such a trip: eternity in Hell. Soames accepted. At ten past two on June 3, , Enoch Soames vanished into the future. He looked grim and immediately got drunk. Beerbohm prodded him to recount his trip.
Soames said that his arrival in the Reading Room of had caused a sensation. Soames had gone straight to the catalogue and had taken out the volume he hoped would contain endless editions, critiques, and annotations of his work. He found none. He searched the library all afternoon, until at last he found one lone mention of his name in a book on English literature of the late nineteenth century.
Just as Soames finished telling Beerbohm about his visit to , the Rosey-esque stranger reappeared and dragged the poor poet away, presumably to Hell. He was never seen again. But, Beerbohm wrote,. In other words, anyone in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum at ten past two on June 3, , would be able to verify Beerbohm's memoir, and see an authentic, guaranteed, proven ghost.
When Rosey finished reading us the story, he closed the book, leaned back, and removed his pince-nez. At the time, I thought he was merely musing. Later I understood. He was giving me a homework assignment. The Reading Room is laid out like a wheel. The hub is the superintendent's round desk in the middle, ringed by low bookcases containing volumes of the catalogue.
The spokes are long desks, upholstered in faded blue leather. At these very desks worked Yeats, Shaw, and Karl Marx. I'm sitting at desk M-1 with a good view of the S section of the catalogue. As he turns the pages, a plumpish, pale woman with glasses and a pageboy haircut timidly steps up and peeks over his shoulder.
Soon they're joined by a dark-haired, stocky man, who asks the others, with a heavy accent, "Please, do you speak Spanish?
The entries are pasted into the catalogue on individual yellowed slips. There are eight Soameses -- none christened Enoch -- credited with books about fascism, phonetics, Holy Communion, and goat farming. On the facing catalogue page a new, white slip has been stuck on with tape:. As I return to my seat, I notice other spectators lounging watchfully in the neighborhood of the catalogue: A slim woman in a pale-green suit. An angular man, about fifty, casually holding a tiny camera.
A tall, smirking, aesthetic Teddy boy, with a rainbow-hued vest under his Edwardian jacket and a spray of white snowdrops in his buttonhole. Standing next to my desk is an attractive woman of about fifty in a raincoat. Her name is Sally, and she writes mystery novels.
Is she here just for this event? I've thought about it for thirty-five years. And I just felt I should be here to see if he shows up. The slim woman in the pale-green suit is standing behind me. I ask her where she's from. We're supposed to be very serious at Cambridge. But don't tell anyone: I taped the slip in the catalogue. Sally from Malibu touches my arm. His beard is neatly trimmed and his moustache is waxed hard enough to slash a pillow to ribbons.
Look how healthy his beard is. And he's not wearing the black hat and the waterproof cape. About a dozen pilgrims are waiting, loosely encircling the catalogue bookcase on which the SNOOD volume lies open. The librarians at the round desk in the middle look out at the siege uneasily.
Not thirty feet from the catalogue a man in a gray Inverness cape and a black clerical hat is making his way toward us. And, really, he is. The wide-brimmed beaver hat is threadbare. The cape is mud-stained. The man under the cape appears to be in his late twenties, with a large head, long neck, and sloping shoulders.
He is pale save for scattered inflammations on his skin, and his mouse-brown hair droops down his neck. To his chin and his upper lip clings thin, lusterless fuzz. His eyes are wide-set, hooded, and sad. He goes directly to the catalogue and gazes for a long time at the gap where the SNOOD volume belongs. He pulls out the volume to the left and looks through it, puzzled. We would be impolite to stare at a living person as we gawk right now at this Enoch Soames.
But surely this is not a mere living person. He is either the specter of a nineteenth-century poet on his way to damnation or an actor putting the finishing touches on a great literary magic trick. Not to stare would be rude. The dome echoes with the far-off thud of books mingling with whispers and little bursts of out-of-place laughter: "I want to touch his cape to see if it's waterproof!
He goes to the center desk and inquires. We cannot hear his request, but we all know it. He is asking if there are other catalogues he should look in.
The angular man with the camera leans forward and takes a snapshot. Soames does not flinch. The crowd parts as he moves away from the catalogue. Whether he be actor or specter, to touch him would be sacrilege.
Sally from Malibu edges in close beside me. The curious have joined the faithful, and the crowd has doubled. Soames has just taken out a volume of the Dictionary of and is seated at one of the long desks next to a student who is making notes from some books on Kafka. The student senses a presence and looks up to see an anguished man in s rainwear.
The student looks back at his Kafka, and copies out a few words. Then he glances up toward the catalogue. Fifty people are staring at him. He returns to his books. A minute later he looks up again.
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Reprint: Enoch Soames
W hen a book about the literature of the eighteen-nineties was given by Mr. Holbrook Jackson to the world, I looked eagerly in the index for Soames, Enoch. It was as I feared: he was not there. But everybody else was. Many writers whom I had quite forgotten, or remembered but faintly, lived again for me, they and their work, in Mr. Holbrook Jackson's pages. The book was as thorough as it was brilliantly written.
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But I am watching very closely. I can actually see the minute hand creeping toward the Roman numeral X. Above, the vast blue plaster dome with its arched windows and skylight is just as it was a hundred years ago, on that terrible day when It's Soon it will be two o'clock. Then, at last, , the moment I have been waiting for. To be here, in this spot in London, on this day at ten past two, I have traveled 4, miles and planned for thirty-four and a half years.