Finally, after more than 120 years, Paul Smith has recovered something he never knew was missing in the first place.
The headmaster at Hereford Cathedral School, near the boundary between Wales and England, had been looking at his mail earlier this month when he noticed a package wrapped in brown paper addressed to him. Smith guessed immediately that the package contained a thick book — but it wasn't until he read the note that came with it that he realized just how long that very book had been around.
The note, sent by Alice Gillett, opened with an apology:
"I am sorry to inform you that one of your former pupils, Professor A.E. Boycott FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society], appears to have stolen the enclosed — I can't imagine how the school has managed without it!"
Seems like an open-and-shut case, to be sure — except that the professor in question had attended the school from 1886 to 1894. Gillett is his 77-year-old granddaughter. She says she found the book while sorting through her collection after her husband's death earlier this year.
And it bore the faded stamp of the Hereford Cathedral School library.
"So, based on Boycott taking it in 1894, it's actually 122 years overdue," Smith tells NPR.
Lucky for Boycott, the school library does not charge late fees for overdue books, Smith says. But based on the rate at another local library, Boycott would have owed close to $10,000 if he had tried to return the book today.
The book in question was a copy of Walter Benjamin Carpenter's The Microscope and Its Revelations, a Victorian-era tome of more than 700 pages.
Smith presumes it stood Boycott in good stead: After leaving Hereford, Boycott studied natural sciences at Oxford and later had a long career as a professor of pathology.
But Smith notes that passion bloomed early.
"Aside from his professional career, he was also a very enthusiastic natural historian," Smith says. And fittingly enough for a man so slow with his library checkouts, Boycott had a special interest in snails. "In fact, when he was 15 and a pupil at the school, he published a paper on snail species that could be found in Herefordshire."
"My grandmother said he always had snails in his pockets," Boycott's granddaughter Gillett says.
For that reason, Smith isn't quite ready to accept Gillett's presumption of guilt. Perhaps Boycott didn't steal the book at all — according to Smith's line of reasoning — perhaps he was given the book by a mentor instead.
"You know, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a kindly master had seen in the young Arthur Boycott an eminent scientist in the making and had said, 'Here, take this, lad,' " Smith says.
Smith has not yet gotten the opportunity to hash out his theory in person with Gillett, who lives a three-hour journey from the school. But he has extended a standing invitation to her for a visit.
In the meantime, both can rest assured The Microscope and Its Revelations will enjoy a long-overdue retirement. It will take up its rightful place in the school's collection of older books, where it's not likely to be checked out again anytime soon.