Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him. There was an air of deathly stillness in the place, and a silence broken only by the occasional rustle of pages and the subdued murmur of a borrower discuss- ing books with an official. The British Museum Reading Room is a strange place, and Henry Fairhurst had not been within its privileged precincts for many a long day, but he had now managed to get hold of some literary research on behalf of an enterprising journalist who was contemplating the writing of a life of an obscure French courtesan in the seventeenth century.
Mr. Fairhurst did not see anything strange in the fact that he—the most respectable native of respectable Streatham— should be investigating the scandalous doings of the Paris demi-monde of three hundred years before. If his sister, who kept house for him, had uttered the word “mistress” in his hearing (save, of course, as applied to a lady who makes servants obey her whims) he would have blushed. Yet, without a blush or even a blench, he read the books of old-fashioned French historians in an age when the conventions were not as rigid as now.
It was, he thought, adjusting his gold-rimmed pincenez on his ridiculous little turned-up nose, pleasant to be back in the good old “B.M.” once again. He breathed in the somewhat viscous air with real joy, and made his way to the central tables or desks (he could never quite make up his mind which word was most appropriate) where the catalogues were arranged, and hunted for some of the books he wanted to read for his note-taking purposes. Then, having placed his bowler hat and umbrella on a table to keep his place, he filled out some forms, made his way back to the place which he had reserved, and waited in as good patience as he could command for the books to arrive. (It is, one would like to point out, one of the few drawbacks to work- ing in the British Museum that all the books one wishes to use are always so far away that the willing assistants take a matter of half an hour or so to procure them.)
Henry did not really mind the wait. He had a little game which he used to amuse himself by playing in idle moments. What Sarah, his spinster sister, would have said had she known of this little propensity of his, it is not easy to imagine. But she did not know—so what matter? This little pastime of Henry’s was what he was pleased to call the “Sherlock Holmes” game. He would look earnestly at someone who was sitting opposite him in a bus or train, and would try to decide what that person’s occupation in life was likely to be. He had not the satisfaction of knowing if his diagnosis was ever correct, but he had the mental joy of a secret occupation.
The British Museum Reading Room was an ideal place for such an occupation, as its inhabitants were so pleasantly variegated. Henry adjusted his pincenez again, anticipating some sport. That tough-looking specimen over there, now.
What could he be? “Confidence-man,” Henry murmured to himself, unconsciously libelling a University Professor, who was the world’s greatest expert on lepidoptera.
The grey-haired, elderly negro sitting next to him was not a suitable subject for Henry’s little game, as it did not need the brains of a Sherlock Holmes to deduce his profession from his clerical collar.
On the next chair, however, sitting with his head loll- ing back in an attitude of complete abandonment, was a specimen of the most remarkable interest. (Henry always thought of the subject of his perverted detective genius as a “specimen.”) This man had flaming red hair of the colour known to rude little schoolboys as “carroty.” He wore a pair of enormous horn-rimmed spectacles, and his chin, though technically clean shaven, had not been touched by a razor for several days. Yet his clothes, though stained with egg and with the remnants of other meals, were well cut, and had obviously been purchased from a good tailor in the West End of London. And as he lay back, his enormous cavern of a mouth half open, Henry caught a glimpse of gold teeth. Obviously a man of some money, then, though equally obviously caring but little of his appearance. His collar was dirty and his tie askew—so terrifyingly askew that Henry thought it the first time he had ever seen a tie literally worn under the ear.
And then, in the sacred precincts of the British Museum Reading Room, a strange sound smote Henry’s ear. What could it be? Surely it couldn’t be…surely it couldn’t be…Yes; it was a veritable snore! It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a snore of the most gargantuan proportions, and it was being emitted by the large red-haired gentleman on whose precise position in society Henry had just been speculating. Henry had summed him up as a nouveau-riche—probably a millionaire with a bee in his bonnet, perhaps writing a book to prove that Queen Victoria had written Shakespeare’s plays, or something equally crazy. It seemed impossible to connect such an uncouth individual with any sort of interest in abstract knowledge of something like a rational kind. And now this snore. What could be the meaning of it?
Henry was never one to accept the obvious explanation, and he could not believe that what he found to be the excit- ing atmosphere of the Reading Room could possibly bore anyone so much as to send him to sleep. No. There must be some other, some less obvious explanation.
Suddenly Henry sat bolt upright in his chair. He had always been an assiduous reader of detective stories, and now he thought that he had hit upon the explanation of the snores, which were still ascending in a mighty crescendo, in spite of the titters and scowls with which they were being greeted.
This would never do. Perhaps the man had been drugged by a gang of crooks. Perhaps they were even now robbing his house, knowing that they had rendered him helpless for a period of hours. Perhaps they were kidnapping his beautiful daughter, with a view to holding her to ransom. Perhaps… (It is possibly unnecessary to add that Henry’s detective-story reading was usually to be found in the more bloodthirsty shelves of the local lending library.)
Henry, although he was small, and although his pincenez, his bowler hat, his umbrella, his blue serge suit, and his spats might suggest timid respectability, was no coward. While the rest of the inhabitants of the Reading Room sat around and either smiled or frowned at the snores, according as the work on which they were engaged was interesting or the reverse, Henry made up his mind that something must be done about this man. After all, he might be a lunatic with some crazy hair-brained scheme in his mind, but it would doubtless embarrass him considerably if he were found in such a position, a centre of mingled wrath and amusement in the world’s most famous library.
Rising to his feet slowly, Henry made his way over to the man. The snores had subsided now. They must have lasted some two or three minutes, almost without ceasing, and now the man was merely breathing heavily, and even that seemed to die down as Henry approached him. However, his eyes were still tightly closed and his mouth was wide open.
Henry grasped the man’s shoulder firmly. “Look here, old man, this won’t do,” he said with forced affability.
There was no response. The man was still as a rock. Not a movement could Henry see in his face. It was all very mystifying, very curious. Henry could not understand it at all. He was completely puzzled by it.
Mastering his repugnance, he grasped the man’s shoulder even more firmly and gave him a brisk shake. “Wake up!” he said, quite loudly.
Slowly, like a water-logged boat sinking under the waves, the man’s head rolled round on his shoulders. He lolled forward, his head on the table, and then, his knees sagging and giving way beneath him, he slipped under the table on to the floor.
Henry rapidly knelt beside him, and grasped his wrist. Then he looked around in amazement. The whole room swam before his eyes, because the man who had been snoring so stertorously a few minutes before was now so very quiet, so very still. There was no movement anywhere in his great frame. There was no trace of a pulse. The man was dead!