By Arnold Serapilio
Ladies and—now where is that index card with all the notes—aha! Gentlemen. Boys and girls. The Boston Athenæum is pleased to present selected passages from a correspondence between two 10½ stalwarts of yore: Henry Long, Esq., and Dr. Belin Bow. The mysteriously undated letters, having been donated to the library roughly half a century ago only to quickly vanish from their proper place, were assumed to have been lost forever to the winds of time until a reference librarian stumbled upon them nestled within a tattered and tender first edition of Bow’s life’s work, Aphorisms, Maxims, Axioms, and Apothegms: Proverbs and Fables and Dictums Additionally. Wild guess what that one was about, all 1023 pages of it. Without further ado, enjoy a glimpse into the attitudes, gratitudes, and platitudes of these legacy members.
Long, my boy,
You are familiar, I trust, with the old saying, ‘Better a man’s underpants atop his head than no underpants at all?’ I have taken solace in these words on many a dreary and anxious night. I will leave it to you to divine your own meaning, as I have mine.
In his trademark digressive style, Bow then enclosed numerous annotated illustrations of various cutting-edge underpants prototypes, but in the interest of propriety they are not included in this installation. Those curious may view the additional materials in our special collections reading room.
My main aim in writing, other than to keep our lines of communication open, dear friend, is to apprise you of a new idea for our beloved library that is very quickly gathering momentum. You and I have quite often surmised that the place is in need of a jolt of inspiration. Surmise no more, I say!
Picture our elegant reading room, with all its myriad artistic marvels, throughout which weaves a throng of thinkers immersed in sparkling conversation. They discuss Occam’s razor, and Schrödinger's cat, and why anyone would want to shave a cat to begin with. Your nose attunes to something in the air—it’s the heavenly scent of bergamot. You take a bite of melted clotted cream on warm biscuit and a smile betrays your overtures to stoicism.
You have just pictured Wednesday afternoons at the Boston Athenæum. Those folks talking about that shaggy cat are our fellow members. That enchanting aroma is the piping hot earl grey tea we will be serving weekly as a citrusy call for civilized assembly. The cat I cannot account for.
I do hope you will lend me your thoughts on this admittedly provocative concept when you find the time. Would that you could have been here to help shape the vision at yesterday’s meeting! But I know you’ve your hands full with Chumsley these days. Please do fill me in; I eagerly await your feedback. Until then, I leave you to meditate on the case of the man with a speck of dust in his eye, and when he blinked it away the dust saw it was I.
Bow, you incorrigible imp,
I must confess my alarm over the contents of your last letter—an alarm so urgent, in fact, that although I was poised to fulfill my short-term goal of a mid-afternoon repose, I instead took to the study with my man Chumsley and ordered him in no uncertain terms to take dictation or take a hike. (Yes, I want you to write down that aside, Chumsley. Yes, that too.) Let me be certain I understand you thoroughly. You are proposing we transform our peaceful sanctuary into a harbor for socialites and—the horror!—tea-drinkers. I ask of you, sir, why invite undue clamor? In fairness, I inform you (and I do not want to be indelicate here) that tea and I do not agree with each other. We do not seek out each other’s company. We would not rely on each other in a pinch. For instance if I, having been apprehended for committing some (justifiable, indubitably) crime of passion, were allowed one telephone call to someone I trusted deeply, tea would not exactly be at the top of my short list of contacts. I am a scholar, yes, and a barrister, true, and I am an anthropologist, and a low-rent astronomer, but above all? I am a man in pursuit of enlightenment, just like you. I judge not lest I be judged and yet, to put to words my truest feeling? This meet-and-greet notion is most unseemly. For to allow our library—hitherto a place where one ensconces himself in scholarship so that his mind may run free to imagine a more perfect tomorrow—to be so defiled by frivolous congregation is to assail the very mission we hold so dear. Imagine it! The carousing, the flouting of refinement in favor of cheap society. The elaborate hats. The pinkies raised in effete spectacle. The gluttony in the eyes of he who nearly knocks over his fellow man in an effort to be first at the buffet table. And the crumbs, my God, the crumbs. Oh, the injury! And the mind swoons at the caliber conversation one would be forced to endure. No, I dare not dream of such a folly, for I am not without metaphysical plight: my dreams tend to manifest in our fleshbound realm. When I ran this by Chumsley, his only response was a tasteful cock of the eyebrow, nothing more, nothing less, and though I am at a loss as to the specific meaning he wished to convey, I have the sense the gesture was made to speak volumes.
In summation Bow, old thing, mine eyes have yet to see the glory of the coming of the horde. But I do invite you to please edify me, as you are wont to do.
Henry Long, Esq.
‘Fleshbound realm’ is generally understood to be a playful reference to the then-recently-acquired James Allen memoir—a fleshbound ream.
Long, old thing,
I am appalled you outsourced the writing of your letter to your valet. No offense to Chumsley, whom I know to be an industrious if not supercilious young man. My trepidation, understand, stems from your history of nosy valets meddling in your affairs for personal gain—a history that is checkered at best, and at worst, chevroned. However, we have known each other since preparatory school, where our biggest worry was whether we'd wound the bath towel tight enough to achieve an adequate snapping sound against the proud buttocks of an unsuspecting classmate—oh, the blue-blooded hides we tenderized!—which is to say I love and trust you like a brother and I know you feel the same. If Chumsley is Old Kinderhook in your book he is Old Kinderhook in mine. With that settled, let me move on to the matter at hand.
Frankly, your antipathy comes as no surprise. Understand that I myself had reservations at the outset. Were we steering the ship in the right direction? How would our community react to this development? And then, my dear boy, I began to wonder if the distress I was experiencing went a bit deeper than the particulars. That perhaps it is not a change unto itself that upsets us, but rather the incontrovertible stink of inevitability in its wake? That our limitless choice wilts as we look down the road toward that looming final unifying change that nobody wants to think about? But change is natural and necessary—just ask your underpants.
As for Chumsley’s reaction, your guess is as good as m. Believe me when I say I sympathize, for I know firsthand these laconic types can be rather confounding. But never mind Chumsley. Remember, and I think I put this most succinctly in the preface to my book Aphorisms, Maxims, Axioms, and Apothegms: Proverbs and Fables and Dictums Additionally, ‘Blessed is he who, having undergone intense, open-minded, and focused introspection, is able to accurately take inventory of his strengths and weaknesses and, armed with this invaluable knowledge, develop and execute practical and achievable strategies to better not only himself but also, as should always be the ultimate scope of such an exercise, the world around him.’ This a wonderful opportunity to connect with the membership and that should be reason enough. But consider too that through this initiative we stand to gain much-needed funds to further expand and preserve our collections. And that, my schoolyard chum, is a cause in which I am sure even you can derive harmony.
Yabba dabba do,
A hearty good day to you, Belin,
You are rather sententious, aren’t you?
I have re-read my letter and nowhere do I detect the slightest hint of antipathy. I ask, therefore, that you re-evaluate your interpretation. And now, if I may relate to you at this juncture a short story I feel is adequately demonstrative.
En route to our dear library one fine day—a stone’s throw from the red leather doors, in fact—I passed a beggar in the street. He prevailed upon me for loose change, and as I endeavored to indulge him in what I suspect was somewhat of a visibly belabored sense of obligation I detected in his countenance a sudden and severe pallor overwhelming. 'My dear fellow,' I ventured, 'Pardon any impertinence but I do say you've very abruptly adopted a rather ashen hue.' I hastened to reach out my hand with the change, lest he think his facial coloring was cause for me to rescind my offer. To my surprise, he slapped the hard-earned funds from my hands and I watched the precious coins roll down the sidewalk with, I am certain, a chagrined expression. 'Now look what you've done,' I said. 'You've made a mess of my kindness.' The beggar spoke not, simply pointed at my legs in a manner most hurriedly, his eyes seized with fear, his hand trembling. 'Well?' I said. 'What do you have to say for yourself? Don’t you know who I am?' And though perturbed I followed the arc of his steely gaze until my own tired eyes fell upon my legs and I rapidly understood that the source of the beggar's bewilderment was my decided deficiency in pants. 'This is highly irregular—!' I fell silent as a memory quickly accreted.
Earlier that morning, see, Chumsley and I had quarreled over which bowtie would complete my ensemble. Lest the full import of this tale be lost on you, old Bow old chap, understand that when I dress, I dress to kill. Chumsley insisted on a black tie; I, meanwhile, advocated for one I had fancied in our strapping undergraduate years. You may recall the maroon one with custom embroidered banana yellow question marks? Not only visually arresting but powerful, too. How many bowties have you known to elicit such copious laughter? All while telegraphing a measure of intellectual curiosity to boot. Anyway Chumsley was having none of it. Insisted upon the black, extolling its versatility. I reminded him I was bound for a library, not a funeral. Needless to say I stormed off in a huff, Chumsley muttering behind me some nonsense about knickers and laughingstocks. But now it all makes sense. Now I understand why he chased me for blocks waving about my favorite pair of houndstooth trousers. I must admit I've lost my train of thought here—ah yes, it was your mention of Samuel Johnson’s Adage of the Underpants. So true, that.
Sally forth in good will,
Long, you pantsless vagabond,
I am impelled to remind you that, ‘He who asks, "Don't you know who I am?” knows not who he is.' From your droll retelling of ambling about town unknowingly sans pants (an account that filled me with ample reserves of mirth, and alas I am eager to report a cathartic chortle did wrench itself from my diaphragm, issuing forth with a determination and confidence I strive to emulate) I have gleaned it serves no purpose to tangle with Chumsley. If I have missed the mark I beg your forgiveness but that is my takeaway. I concede I see him in a new light, and would be most honored to receive him at the next tea. Might you pass on this most cheerful and benevolent of invitations?
That is all for now,
In response to Bow's pants-poor jaunt, the Athenæum swiftly adopted a strict dress code. From that point forward, you couldn't just waltz into the building without pants, even if it was an honest mistake and even if you had just given money to the disenfranchised. Times were changing.
While I am indeed a noble man—with a noble brow—I am not a perfect man. No, it is true. Much as it may pain you to hear that said about your best friend, by your best friend, please accept, however grimly, that c'est vrai. I must confess I did, not two minutes prior to setting down to compose this message, lose my proverbial cool with dear Chumsley. Out of love for you I have passed on to him your cheerful and benevolent invitation—an invitation for which he is most grateful, and which I can plainly see moved him deeply, as evidenced by the loving manner in which he proceeded to starch my shirts to a resulting effect I can honestly describe as transcendent—but before you encourage his society there is something you should know. He is the perfect valet in almost every way if not for one small and tragic flaw: he calls everybody Bubba. You should know me well enough to know that I do not hyperbolize, that when I say everybody, I do mean everybody. And let me tell you, few things are as disquieting as watching a grown man punctuate an otherwise beautiful moment between he and his aged mother with, 'Now get some rest, and ring this bell if you need anything at all, Bubba sweets.'
Long provided, in lengthy detail, some pretty harrowing examples of Chumsley's unfortunate choice of address, but who has the time for that, we’ve pushed this far enough, eh guvnah? So cut to:
Adrift in a household I once understood but do no longer, I have found myself in thinker’s posture. I no longer fear change because I no longer think I matter more. Do not misunderstand me to be suggesting I do not matter. I matter very much—just as you matter, and the leopard matters, and the daffodil and the june bug—but I do not matter any more than they. In that spirit, I hereby bequeath to this distinguished organization an amount that, while not disclosed here, I am confident will eventually make you proud, if not (and this is my truest hope) get your mustache twitching in competitive fervor.
Now go take care of that fidgety mustache,
Indeed Bow's mustache did palpitate when he discovered how much Long had donated. He had to shave the thing clean off just to put a stop to the madness. Unable to sleep at night, and now without any excitable facial hair to blame, Bow matched Long’s generosity. And thus we have the Henry Long Room and the Belin Bow Room. And now you know...the rest of the story.
(Despite the appearance of overuse, no em dashes were exploited in the formation of this document.)