Samuel Butler: The Way of All Flesh

28. CHAPTER XXVIII (continued)

In the meantime Theobald and Ernest were with Dr Skinner in his library--the room where new boys were examined and old ones had up for rebuke or chastisement. If the walls of that room could speak, what an amount of blundering and capricious cruelty would they not bear witness to!

Like all houses, Dr Skinner's had its peculiar smell. In this case the prevailing odour was one of Russia leather, but along with it there was a subordinate savour as of a chemist's shop. This came from a small laboratory in one corner of the room--the possession of which, together with the free chattery and smattery use of such words as "carbonate," "hyposulphite," "phosphate," and "affinity," were enough to convince even the most sceptical that Dr Skinner had a profound knowledge of chemistry.

I may say in passing that Dr Skinner had dabbled in a great many other things as well as chemistry. He was a man of many small knowledges, and each of them dangerous. I remember Alethea Pontifex once said in her wicked way to me, that Dr Skinner put her in mind of the Bourbon princes on their return from exile after the battle of Waterloo, only that he was their exact converse; for whereas they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, Dr Skinner had learned everything and forgotten everything. And this puts me in mind of another of her wicked sayings about Dr Skinner. She told me one day that he had the harmlessness of the serpent and the wisdom of the dove.

But to return to Dr Skinner's library; over the chimney-piece there was a Bishop's half length portrait of Dr Skinner himself, painted by the elder Pickersgill, whose merit Dr Skinner had been among the first to discern and foster. There were no other pictures in the library, but in the dining-room there was a fine collection, which the doctor had got together with his usual consummate taste. He added to it largely in later life, and when it came to the hammer at Christie's, as it did not long since, it was found to comprise many of the latest and most matured works of Solomon Hart, O'Neil, Charles Landseer, and more of our recent Academicians than I can at the moment remember. There were thus brought together and exhibited at one view many works which had attracted attention at the Academy Exhibitions, and as to whose ultimate destiny there had been some curiosity. The prices realised were disappointing to the executors, but, then, these things are so much a matter of chance. An unscrupulous writer in a well-known weekly paper had written the collection down. Moreover there had been one or two large sales a short time before Dr Skinner's, so that at this last there was rather a panic, and a reaction against the high prices that had ruled lately.

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