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A Little Fable

Daunt Books in London

Following is a short short story from Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), while I am still in the clouds after reading his novel No Name. It is called “A Little Fable”:

The other day, two good friends – a lawyer and a mathematician – happened to meet in a remote part of London, in front of a cheap book-shop. The stall outside the shop presented a row of novels, offered at half price.

Having exchanged the customary expressions of pleasure and surprise, and having made the necessary enquiries on the subject of wives and children, the two gentleman relapsed into a momentary silence. Perceiving in his friend signs of mental pre-occupation, the lawyer asked what he was thinking of. The mathematician answered, “I was looking back along the procession of small circumstances, which has led me from the starting-point of my own door to this unexpected meeting in the street.”

Hearing this, it occurred to the lawyer to look back, on his side. He also discovered that a procession of small circumstances had carried him, by devious ways, to the morsel of pavement on which he then stood. “Well,” he said, “and what do you make of it?”

“I have led a serious life,” the mathematician announced, “for forty years.”

“So have I,” the lawyer said.

“And I have just discovered,” the other continued, “that a man in the midst of reality is also, in this strange life of ours, a man in the midst of romance.”

The lawyer pondered a little on that reply. “And what does your discovery amount to?” he asked.

“Only to this. I have been to school; I have been to college; I am sixty years old – and my education is not complete. Good morning.”

They parted. As soon as the lawyer’s back was turned, the mathematician retraced his steps to the book-shop – and bought a novel.

The lawyer looked round at that moment. A strong impression was produced on him. He walked back to his friend. “When you have done with that book,” he said, lend it to me.”

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