Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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The Codfish

He was not much to look at, certainly. A tall, thin, gawky, hop-pole sort of creature, with hands two sizes too large even for him, and harsh, gaunt features perpetually twisted into an apologisingly shy grin. He shambled in his gait, and his check suit would have drowned the band, had there been one where I first met him, in an internment camp “somewhere in Germany.” They called him “The Codfish” in his barrack because of his eyes—men who did not know him; he was difficult to know even after a couple of years’ acquaintance.

Came the summer of 1918 and the influenza epidemic. Both of us were struck down; his bed was next to mine in the camp hospital; that is how we became friends. We talked commonplaces at first, common sense afterwards. The situation helped to loosen his tongue, I dare say. Gradually I found out a little more about him.

His father was a well-to-do farmer in the Western Highlands. He had his schooling Scotch fashion, a good education; his parents had intended him for the ministry. The prospect, however, did not appeal to him. He protested, remonstrated, implored—in vain. At seventeen he ran away from home and begged his way to the Continent, there to win his bread by giving instruction in his mother tongue, the last resource so often of the educated who have suffered shipwreck in life. His father, disappointed and indignant, bade him fend for himself and go to the dogs in his own way, refusing all further assistance, even though it should amount to no more than the proverbial shilling. Then his wanderings began.

He became a rolling stone—rolled—rolled—and continued rolling. He traversed Europe from end to end—Spain, France, Poland, Russia, Finland—there was hardly a country where he had not taught English—and starved. With two companions he had crossed the Pyrenees, on foot, in the teeth of a blinding snowstorm. He had spent three years at Lemberg in Galicia and acquired a mastery of Polish—the only Englishman, so he had been assured, able to pronounce the Polish “l” (I think). Languages were his hobby; he collected them as other men collect stamps or blackbeetles. I have seen him busy with Greek, Swahili, Haussa, Finnish—all sorts of out-of-the-way tongues; not that he aimed at being a scientific philologist in the strict sense; a practical knowledge, especially of the pronunciation, satisfied him. Had he entered the republic of learning in the usual way, had he even been able to bring his knowledge and his ability to the notice of those that preside therein, I do not doubt but that he would have won some sort of recognition for himself. He was honest, he was industrious, his conscientiousness almost deserved to be called morbid. He might have been a pedagogue, a scholar; he might even have ended his days with the title of professor. As it was, he shambled through the world dependent on casual pickings for his livelihood, a vagabond with a primer of the Bantu languages in his pocket—the most ridiculously incongruous figure it would be possible to select for a story of adventure. I met him at a street-corner in London the other day, still rolling—

Yes, but  . . . ?

But what?

The point of the story . . . ?

Its point is this—there is none—none, at least, that I could ever discover. ’Tis a pointless tale, like his life—Alexander Todd, my sometime fellow-captive, Berlitz School teacher, rover and pauper—Scotus Viatur—the Wandering Scot.  

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