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Clement's Corner: Family Values

Lawrence Powell has assembled a valuable collection of books - but what of his sense of values?

Owen Clement tells a satisfyingly moral family tale. For more of Owen's stories please click on Clement's Corner in the menu on this page.

To Lawrence Powell, the touch of the crisp pages and the special indefinable smell on opening a new book was not enough. He had to own the book, to make it a part of his library.

Visitors to that library were impressed by its neatness. Books were lined up in military precision on the extensive array of shelves. Each book had been catalogued and arranged in sections. On the left, as you entered the room, were shelves containing books which were, in effect, on trial. If they were deemed to have sufficient merit they would eventually be allocated a place in the permanent collection. Books which were priceless in his eyes, signed first editions of volumes which had shaped his life since boyhood, were lovingly displayed in glass-fronted book cases. At least once a year all the shelves and their contents were thoroughly checked and cleaned, and, if necessary, some of the books were assigned a different place.

Lawrence had two sons, Edward and Heathcliffe. They, and any other members of his family, were not allowed to read one of his books unless they had been given permission to do so. He signed each one of his books out and in, as would a professional librarian. Borrowed books had to be returned on a specific date, and there was trouble if a page had been smudged, or, worse still, torn. Damage to a book, no matter how minimal, was always spotted by Lawrence's diligent checks. Punishment ranged from being denied the use of the library for a certain period to being compelled to replace a damaged item. The boys had to use their meagre pocket money to buy this replacements.

One day, when the boys were in their early teens, Lawrence noticed that his small leather-bound copy of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations was missing from his valued collection. Unable to believe that someone had taken it without his permission, he checked through the whole library in case the book had been inadvertently put on the wrong shelf. He mentioned the missing volume at dinner that evening. Had anyone seen a stranger in the library, he had asked? Nothing suspicious had been seen. Lawrence did not pursue the matter. He could not believe that any member of his family would have taken the book without going through the usual procedure.

Each time he entered the library he checked the place allocated to Great Expectations and found it vacant.

After a week had gone by he interrogated the boys, asking if they had seen the book anywhere. No, they assured him, they had not seen it.

Lawrence dismissed the idea of informing the police of his loss.

Exactly one month after the book had gone missing Lawrence found it back in its accustomed place. Where it had been remained a mystery.

The effect of this disappearance and reappearance on Lawrence was quite unexpected. He became ill. He lost his appetite and barely spoke to the family. Hilary, his wife, alarmed at his depressed state, d called in a doctor, a very rare thing indeed, because Lawrence enjoyed excellent health.

Tests proved negative. The illness, the doctor said, could only be psychosomatic.

Hilary gave this diagnosis to her sons before taking them to see their ailing father.

Heathcliffe, looking guilty, spoke first. “I’m sorry Father.''

Lawrence looked at both boys, seeing guilt and repentance in their faces. “Why?” he asked.

‘Because we were angry,'' said Edward. "You love your books more than you love us.''

“Do you really believe that?” Lawrence asked, bewildered.

The boys nodded. Hilary closed her eyes and shook her head.

“I see,'' said Lawrence with a sigh. “Thank you for telling me.'' He turned and looked away from them.

Lawrence did not come down to dinner that evening. He did not appear on the following day, or the day after that.

The boys, devastated, tip-toed miserably around the house.

One afternoon they came home from school to see a smartly dressed man in the study with their father, studying the bookshelves.

The boys hurried to their mother. “You father has decided to sell his collection,'' she informed them.

The boys, stricken with guilt, hurried to the library to beg their father not to do so. The boys, devastated by guilt and shame, immediately ran to the library to beg their father not to sell his books.

He smiled, taking them into his arms. “Now, now, don’t you worry about it. You made me realize I have been living in a fantasy world. It was time I left it behind. Besides, I still have the books stored away in my head. I’m told the collection is quite valuable. But it's not as valuable as you both are to me. Come on, let's leave the man to his work.''

© Clement 2006

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