There were at least a dozen different definitions for “eye.” There was the organ of sight. There was the color of the iris (“blue eyes”). There was the skin around the eye (e.g., “black eye,” “eyes swollen from crying”). And then there were potato buds, centers of hurricanes, the hole in a needle—and those were merely nouns. Never mind the verbs and colloquialisms.
Yes, Thomas realized, at least a dozen, dozens more likely. Writing all the definitions would be a difficult task. Of course, if it’d been easy, there would be no need for the Oxford English Dictionary—and no need for Thomas.
Thomas was the newest subeditor at the great Dictionary. Under the direction of its editor-in-chief, Prof. Murray, the Dictionary had been busy cataloging and defining the English language for over twenty years. They were making good progress now. They had almost reached the F’s.
Thomas liked the work. He liked its methodology, the clockwork process, the sense of purpose behind it all. He liked most of all that there was a lot of it. Without work the thoughts Thomas tried so hard to quash would roll back on him, like a low, persistent melody he was trying to drown out, unchanging, unceasing, and underneath everything. He could not run from or stop them. He had learned to live with them, the same way some live with a constant ringing in their ears.
He liked days when he was buried under quotations and knew his definitions were clear, concise—indeed, definite. On those days he could wake early and sleep without trouble. He could get along almost without thinking at all.
* * *
Every day more than a thousand slips were delivered to the dictionary’s Scriptorium. Four people were employed in sorting them. After the slips were checked for errors, alphabetically arranged, and separated by category (nouns from verbs from adjectives), then the subeditor would examine the words, trace their history over the centuries, and write definitions.
Despite its monkish name, the Scriptorium was essentially a glorified shed in the Murrays’ back garden. Fifty-by-fifteen feet, it was built out of corrugated tin and always cold and drafty, even in the summer.
Today the Scriptorium hummed with activity. Pens scratched paper, bundles were unwrapped, files flew from the shelves, and reference books were hauled from lecterns to tables and back again. Prof. Murray’s daughter, Anna, was wrapping up books from Oxford’s libraries for the dictionary’s volunteers. Thomas noticed she was having trouble holding the box shut while tying the string. It was a tricky task when one had only two hands.
Thomas pretended to be absorbed in his papers. Prof Murray employed all his eleven children to work in the Scriptorium, sixpence for half an hour, but it seemed to Thomas that Anna was spending more and more time at the dictionary. She was always there while he worked. Thomas waited to see if Anna would ask for help, and when she did not, he finally asked, “Would you like a—”
“Yes, please,” she said.
Thomas held the box while she knotted the string.
“Thank you very much. I’ve got to get these in the post before the office closes.”
The day was ending. Could one of the other lexicographers walk her? But surely she’d be safe even alone—even in the dark. Oxford wasn’t Lambeth, everyone knew the Murrays, and hang it all, “I could walk you there, if you like.”
He hoped she would say no. Instead she took a little step back, looked at him, and smiled. “Yes, I’d like that.”
“We had such trouble with these in the beginning,” she said once they were out on the street. “So many volunteers would take our books and never return them. I think there’s a missing copy of Prothalamion my father’s still mourning. How do you like it here?”
“Yes. Here at the dictionary. Or here at Oxford. You only arrived three months ago.”
Thomas was surprised, and embarrassed, as if gathering impressions was an assignment he’d forgotten. He felt himself groping for words. “It’s—interesting. I like words,” he amended. “My uncle used to say he wouldn’t recognize me without a book in my hand.”
“What did your uncle think when you were hired by the dictionary?”
“Nothing. We haven’t spoken in years.”
“Oh,” Anna said, and Thomas suspected he’d said the wrong thing.
They reached the post office. Thomas waited outside while she sent off the packages. He was glad the walk was short and that he’d be alone again soon.
The Murrays’ house was in North Oxford, a few minutes away from most of the colleges, but even from that distance Thomas heard the bells begin to ring: the mellow sound of St. Aloysius, the sprightly ring of college chapels, and far away, the deep resounding tones of Christ Church Cathedral. Six o’clock. Evensong. As the ringing faded, Thomas heard the flutter of birds escaping from a tree. The flock hung suspended in the air, then flew towards the gray spires of Oxford.
“I love the sound of church bells, don’t you?”
He turned. Murray’s daughter was at his side.
“It always sounds like…a mother calling you home. Letting you know you’re safe.”
“Perhaps,” he said, for lack of something more intelligent to say.
They were quiet until they reached her gate. “Good night,” he said.
“Good night,” she said, then suddenly turned. “I think you’ll be happier after you’ve stayed here for a while and met some people, you know. You’ll like it once you’ve made some friends.”
He did not know how to respond. Had he said he was unhappy?
“Thank you for the walk,” she said.
She—no, Anna—went inside and closed the door.
Anna. He was terrible with faces, but names and words he could remember. “Anna” was a word that meant Prof. Murray’s eldest daughter, who felt he needed friends.
* * *
One problem the dictionary faced was that its volunteer readers always ignored the ordinary for the unusual. Hence, the dictionary had fifty-one citations for “extratelluric” but only twelve for its near neighbor “extreme.” Readers were excited by strange words. They tended to forget the great bulk of the dictionary would consist of common, everyday words.
So it was with “eye.” It was a word that, in various forms, had been around since at least the 400s. Yet despite its long history, Thomas had only fourteen quotations for it.
Thomas could think of a dozen meanings for “eye,” but that did him no good if there were no illustrative quotations to back him up. He could not sift through over a thousand years of text just to find quotations for “eye.” That was why they had readers. Without quotations, Thomas sat in a gloomy paralysis, wondering why volunteers from Jamaica to Botany Bay had sent in sixty quotations for “eyas” (a young hawk) and hardly any for the thing above their noses.
Thomas' colleagues were nearly as unhelpful.
“You know what one editor did when he was assigned ‘bedder’?”
“Bedder, the plant?” Thomas asked.
“Yes, but this fellow was sure it meant a kind of farmer too, only he couldn't find a quote for it. So he wrote the Times complaining about ‘farmers who work the soil of bottom land, or bedders,’ which they published, and he used that as his quotation.”
“Yes, he doesn't work here anymore.”
“You could just work with what you have,” said another. “If you miss a meaning, well, that's what the next edition’s for.”
“Or you could write Dr. Minor.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Who's Dr. Minor?” Thomas asked.
“He's gotten us out of so many fixes it’s unbelievable.”
“He's a doctor in Berkshire—fifty miles from here—but he must have a good deal of leisure because he sends us hundreds of slips every month.”
“And he works in tandem with us. You know how some volunteers will send us a capital quotation for, say, ‘thirst,’ which is fine, except we won't reach the T’s for another decade at least? No, Minor's in step with us. He joined us at 'art' and marched with us right through the B’s and C’s.”
“He must have a library full of rare books. He quotes volumes I've never seen outside the Bodleian.”
“And he's a perfect storehouse for quotations. I remember I needed a quote for ‘daisy’—the cut of ham, not the flower—so I wrote Dr. Minor, and he wrote back with three quotations.”
“But ask Murray for permission first. They're chums, you see.”
“I don’t remember Dr. Minor ever visiting,” Thomas said.
The subeditors looked at each other.
“Oh no, he doesn’t travel.”
“Murray says he’s very busy at home and doesn’t like to be away from it.”
“Well,” Thomas said, a little dizzy, “Perhaps I shall.”
* * *
Later that week Thomas went to the post office to see if Minor had responded.
There were no letters from Dr. Minor. Just the Philological Society’s latest journal, a bill from a London bookseller, a fat letter from a colleague in Cambridge, and a thin letter from a Mr. Cheltenham in Blackburn.
This startled Thomas. How had his uncle found his address?
Back in his rooms, he left the letter on his desk. He did not set a candle to it, which had been his first instinct. But neither did he read the letter or even break its seal.
* * *
At the end of the week Thomas was the last to leave the Scriptorium. The others had been eager to leave: it was Boat Race night, which Thomas’ colleagues seemed to consider a national holiday, but Thomas had no use for sports and (as a University of London alumnus) no interest in the Oxbridge rivalry. He told his co-editors he was happy to stay behind.
The neighborhood was quiet that afternoon. Thomas was alone with his books and thousands of slips of paper. It was almost serene. But in the stillness of late afternoon he could hear every creak of the Scriptorium's tin roof, every chirp of a bird in the garden and every rustle of wind, and in time the silence grew oppressive.
“Good afternoon. Are you still here?”
Thomas almost jumped. “Professor—! Yes, I am.”
Prof. Murray stood in the doorway of the Scriptorium, looking very tall and thin in the waning daylight. He squinted. “Oh, I thought Anna said she'd asked you to watch the race with her. But I forget details, perhaps she said something else.”
“No, she did, but there's some work I wish to complete.”
Prof. Murray smiled. “It is important work! But I hope you aren’t trying to do it all alone. Have you asked anyone for help?”
“Oh no, that would be…I mean, I did ask, once. I mean—I don’t want help.”
Prof. Murray stroked his beard. “In fact, you know, I’ve never seen you in town. I see the others cycling or playing croquet, or visiting the theatre or the botanic garden, but I don’t believe I’ve seen you anywhere but here. What do you enjoy?”
Thomas could not answer.
He did not often think past tomorrow. His work was his life; he used the chores of research and writing as stepping stones across dark waters. As long as he could jump from one day to the next, he would not drown. Leaping from stone to stone did not permit him to take his eyes from his feet, or imagine the nearly unfathomable day when he would reach the other shore.
He could imagine himself old and white-bearded, with veins lumping out of his trembling hands. But when he tried to imagine himself at thirty, maybe married, maybe with a house of his own—at forty, the height of his career—at sixty, surrounded by grandchildren—he could not imagine that. He tried to concentrate and make those future images as real as the vision of himself as an old man, but everything became watery and gray. He could not see himself successful, happy, loved. He could not imagine the years in between.
“I don't know,” he admitted.
“You don't know? But there must be something. Aren't you an expert in the authentication of books?”
Thomas conceded he was.
“Then if you have an afternoon to spare, perhaps you could help me. Dr. Minor has found a volume in his collection with an unusual number of words-of-first-use. He suspects the book is a forgery. If it is, the book is of no use to us—but if it is not, having those references would help the Dictionary immensely. Would you be able to accompany me to Crowthorne?”
“Certainly, sir, if I'm needed. But would it not be more efficient for Dr. Minor to send the volume here?”
Prof. Murray hesitated. “Dr. Minor,” he said finally, “is very protective of his collection, and I think he will be more trusting of the authentication if it's done before his eyes.”
“Very well! You may stay here as long as you need, but do finish before the sun sets. It would do you some good to join the others at the river. You’re too young to be so serious.”
* * *
The following Wednesday, Thomas met Prof. Murray at the Up Station outside Oxford. The two men took the 2:15 to Crowthorne.
Thomas wondered why Prof. Murray had chosen him over the other editors. He wondered if Prof. Murray merely trusted his discretion, since Thomas never socialized with his colleagues. In any case, two things became apparent that Wednesday: unus, that Thomas would receive no answer from Prof. Murray, who had brought letters of business to read on the train; and duo, for the first time in months Thomas looked forward to something with pleasure, even excitement. He knew Dr. Minor was a hardworking scholar. He felt that their meeting would be an introduction to Thomas’ own more hopeful future—a glimpse, perhaps, of what he would be.
Thomas was surprised when they were welcomed by a coachman at the Crowthorne station. He and Prof. Murray boarded his carriage and rattled their way through the sleepy village of Crowthorne and away again, a few miles from the village, up a poplar-lined path that wound up a long, low hill.
The carriage arrived at the front gate. Thomas saw two liveried servants unlock the gate to allow them to pass. At last a huge red brick mansion came into view. To the right Thomas saw tennis courts and a cricket ground, beeches in the distance, and cows slowly plodding over flowering meadows.
“Welcome to Broadmoor,” the coachman said.
Thomas turned sharply to look at Prof. Murray. Prof. Murray only nodded and put a finger to his lips.
A footman took their coats at the door and led them to a cavernous reception hall. The closing door behind them made a heavy, echoing thud. Portraits of important-looking men frowned at them from the walls.
After a moment’s nervous silence (the fire crackled loudly in the grate) a middle-aged man entered the hall from another door. He wore a dove gray frock coat and an expression of imperturbable
dignity, like one of the portraits come to life.
He bowed. “Prof. Murray?”
“Yes—and this is one of my assistants.”
Thomas introduced himself.
“It is my pleasure,” said the man. “You have both come to see Dr. Minor? He told me you had an appointment with him. He is very pleased to be of assistance to your dictionary. I shall ask one of the servants to take you to his cell.”
“You know now,” Prof. Murray said as the hospital director went to ring a guard.
“Broadmoor,” Thomas repeated. He had known from the mention of that word.
Prof. Murray nodded. “Broadmoor is a lunatic asylum, and Dr. Minor is their longest resident. I’m afraid he is quite insane.”
* * *
Melancholia was a word Thomas had learned years ago. Its meaning had gathered on him slowly, gently, like tiny flakes of snow, until he was entirely hidden and frozen under the word. Here was the definition of melancholia.
Thomas was orphaned at ten. He was sent to live with an uncle who owned a factory in Blackburn. His uncle had no children, had never married, had no friends that Thomas saw, and was obsessed with his factory. What they manufactured Thomas never knew—something in metal, jewelry clasps or carriage springs or crinoline cages perhaps. Thomas remembered many days rolling marbles on the front steps waiting for his uncle to come home, many nights staying up, listening for a creak on the staircase and then a pause before his door. He remembered many aimless walks. He remembered especially walking up to his own room at night and seeing his uncle still in the drawing room (eating a bowl of porridge alone), and feeling a shiver of recognition as well as pity.
It was not that Thomas' uncle was unkind. On the contrary, he was touchingly considerate. But he did not know how to comfort an orphaned child, or engage a scholarly adolescent, or draw out the dour intellectual Thomas became.
Their best days were just before Thomas traveled to school for another term, and at the platform his uncle would lay a hand on Thomas’ shoulder just as the train came in. The unfamiliar weight and pressure of his uncle’s hand seemed to communicate deeper feelings than they could share, but whatever those feelings were came out as a clearing of the throat and then Here is your train. Mind you behave yourself—which was just the sort of practical admonition his uncle always gave, and all he had to give to a child.
There were moments of relief as well. The headmaster’s garden on a summer day. A boy at school who asked him to join a game of bowling. A foreman who’d stopped by the house to see Thomas’ uncle and, mistaking Thomas for a son, said Aye, you look like your old man—a moment when their relation was recognized and confirmed, and all at once Thomas felt like a blood relative, one who belonged to the house, was part of a family, and looked like others there.
But these moments were fleeting.
Thomas had no reason to complain. He had always been healthy. He had done well at school. Yet when his life was boiled down to its bones, all that remained were the aimless walks he used to take: traveling alone down one path or another, all different, all the same, and now all a blur—never seeing someone he knew, always burdened by a vague unease as if he’d forgotten something or was very late to an appointment—and finally arriving at the same place he'd left: the cawing of crows, the breeze through brittle branches: an abandoned house on a darkening afternoon.
* * *
“So he's completely mad then?”
“Mad enough. He's certainly unwell.”
Thomas was taking his tea in the Murrays’ garden while Anna pruned her hydrangeas. Oddly, though Prof. Murray had trusted Thomas’ silence, upon returning from Broadmoor Thomas’ first thought was that he had to tell Anna.
Thomas told her that Dr. Minor's two cells were furnished as a bedroom and a study. The study in particular was large and comfortable, every wall lined with shelves of books. A welcoming glow from the fire filled the room. As they sat at the table another inmate (whom Dr. Minor apparently employed as a servant) brought them tea and biscuits on a tray. If Thomas ignored the bars on the windows, the doubled-locked doors, and the hoops for shackles by the bed, he could imagine he was in the study of an Oxford don. The resemblance was uncanny.
Dr. Minor himself only confirmed that impression. He looked, in fact, much like Prof. Murray, with a swallowtail beard and blue eyes that brimmed with the same avuncular kindliness. He was well-groomed and tailor-suited. He greeted them with a smile and a handshake. He did not seem insane.
As Thomas had gone to work on the book Dr. Minor suspected, Minor and Murray discussed the progression of the dictionary: the need for a new phonetic symbology, the inadequacy of the Roman alphabet, and the foolishness of the belief that mere orthography could ever represent a language's sounds consistently—before finally moving on to a more jocular conversation on the history of the ‘long s.’
How, Thomas thought, could this be a madman?
Then Thomas slid his magnifying glass back in its case and proclaimed the book authentic. Dr. Minor thanked him and said, “Good, I was afraid the men had replaced it with forgeries.”
“I asked him, ‘What men?’” Thomas told Anna, “and he said, ‘The men who live beneath my floorboards.’ He said they come out at night, mark up his books, and force him to do unspeakable things. He’d asked the staff to install a floor of solid zinc, but they had refused."
“Then Prof. Murray returned the discussion to lexicography, and we finished our appointment and left.”
Anna waited, but Thomas had nothing more to say.
“Even if he wasn't mad,” she said, “I suppose he soon would be, locked up all the time.”
“He has his books and paints and music. His family is quite wealthy, so he's allowed liberties by the staff. I found it...rather soothing. He lives the life of a retired don.”
“Yes, but the dons can leave if they want.” She turned to her flowers and cut a dead stem. “He's locked in a madhouse. Wouldn't you want more?”
Thomas did not say what he was thinking, which was that Dr.
Minor’s madness seemed a tranquil thing, a sort of truce between life and death. To give up the struggle—to realize you were spiritually misshapen, malformed, unfit for the world…and then a lifelong asylum from the cares of existence—all that, he had to admit, sounded rather pleasant.
“What more is there?” he asked.
“Scholars! You can't just read about life. You need to go out and live it.” She said this with affection. Thomas knew she was thinking of her father, who was brilliant and yet couldn't find the train station without his wife's help.
He checked his pocket watch. “Perhaps I should return to work...”
“It’s late,” she said, which was true. The chairs in the garden threw long, skeletal shadows across the lawn. Anna’s voice was strangely high when she asked, “Why don’t you stay for dinner, Mr. Cheltenham?”
Thomas looked at Anna, startled. Without thinking he asked, “Why would you ask me that?”
Anna jolted her basket. The hydrangea heads scattered blue petals on the grass. “I thought—what’s wrong? Why are you so tense?”
“I’m sorry. I’m not… It wouldn’t be a good idea. Good night, Miss Murray.” He rose and left the garden, accidentally knocking over a teacup in his haste.
Why not? He could already imagine how the house would be. Her younger siblings would be in the nursery upstairs. There would be someone’s sewing draped over an armchair, someone’s doll flopped on the floor. The house would be cheerful, lived in, and warm. He had no right to warmth. He knew, if Anna didn’t, how wrong it would be to press a block of ice against the Murrays’ tender hearts.
The evening was cool, and Thomas found himself heading to the banks of the Cherwell. A gray mist was just starting to rise. Somewhere a roost of starlings chirped and sang to each other as they settled in for the night, and away to the west, where the sun would sink beneath the horizon, the clouds glowed a vivid pink. It was enough to warm the heart of a healthy man, but it left Thomas cold. This sunset only reminded him of so many other sunrises—more often than not, after a night without rest—that came without his asking for it, steady and unrelenting: the great clockwork of the universe that would go on ticking without him.
He could not ask Anna for help any more than he could ask Prof. Murray. What would he even say to her? Would he tell her his darkest thoughts, which no decent person would ever dare to think? Would he confess his deepest shame—not even the attempt, but that he had been found, and cut down, and broken the heart of the only person who loved him? Would she care for him after that? Would she still pour tea for him in her back garden? Or would she realize, as Thomas himself had realized, that he was fundamentally unfit for the world?
The sun was near the horizon now. Thomas sat down on the riverbank. He felt calmer. He was in no special hurry anymore.
One life—and a life so little used, and less enjoyed—would make no difference to the world. The sun would rise tomorrow.
“Finally heeded my advice to visit the river! Though I’m afraid you’re a tad late.”
Thomas turned. It was Prof. Murray, with three brass-bound books under one arm—fresh from Thornton’s Bookshop, clearly. Thomas should have stood. He should have bowed slightly, touched his hat, and told the professor “Good evening.” Instead he asked, “I wondered why you asked me to Broadmoor. Was it to frighten me?”
Prof. Murray cocked his head slightly. He considered Thomas curiously, the same way he would a new proof from the university press. Then he looked towards the river, shifted the books in his hand, and said, “One of my favorite authors is Alexander Pope. He’s thoughtful, romantic, witty… Extraordinary. And all his life he struggled against pain, fevers, and consumption that left him a hunchback. His illness was a pity, not a moral failing. In fact I would consider his achievements nothing less than heroic. ‘A brave man struggling in the storms of fate,’ as he would say.” Prof. Murray placed a hand on Thomas’ shoulder, and its unfamiliar weight and pressure went through Thomas like a sip of warm cider. “You first thought of Dr. Minor as a diligent scholar. Tell me—were you wrong?”
The Murrays’ house was in North Oxford, away from most of the colleges, but even there Thomas could hear the ringing of church bells: the mellow sound of St. Aloysius, the sprightly ring of college chapels, and far away, the deep resounding tones of Christ Church Cathedral. Six o’clock. Evensong.
Thomas thought of the unanswered letter on his desk.
“Prof. Murray... There’s something I want to ask you.”
Josefa Corpuz needs to thank her British relatives for that day trip to Oxford. She earned her B.A. in English from UCLA and currently lives in New York City.
© 2020 Josefa Corpuz