In Part 28, the bookseller and his uncompensated employee (a cat) had just been led to the owner of the books they had come to buy. They found him to be an imposing figure seated on a throne of books atop a high and large book-shaped dais. He had very long hair and a very long sprawling beard. He wore a vast brocade robe which spread far to his left and right. The negotiations had just begun.
The man rose!
But for all his imposing appearance, he was only 51 inches tall!
The vast spread of his gownish cloak fell closer to his sides as he rose. But even then, it became obvious he was also 51 inches wide!
He was indeed a mound of a man. A round mound.
A small large round mound.
He looked about, and in order to descend, he had to get down on his hands and knees, turn and clamber off the giant book dais. His girth kept him from simply sliding off. His belly was so big that he was like an egg with very short appendages attached.
‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the bookseller thought.
“Nooooo!” Aethelbert hissed. “Don’t even think that! He may hear!”
Short fat stumpy legs wagged up and down as he pushed himself closer and closer to the edge.
Then he dropped! He rolled two and half times—ending up resting on his back.
“Aethelbert! Don’t just stand there like a puppet. Help me up!” he bellowed.
Poor Aethelbert wobbled nervously to him. He stood at his feet and reached upward for his hands. He tugged and pulled and strained.
The bookseller was worried Aethelbert’s arms might come off!
He strained and pulled and tugged, but to no avail. He then circled to the other end. He bent and tried to raise the man by his shoulders. But the big little man could not be budged.
“Maybe if we rocked you, Mas… sir?”
“I will NOT be rocked!”
Mathilda moseyed over and leaned in to sniff his ear.
The man’s eyes rolled in her directions and widened in terror.
“Get that creature away from me!”
“She is just curious,” the bookseller said calmly. “Cats are always curious.”
“She is just a cat.”
Aethelbert inserted himself between Mathilda and the very hairy ear. He addressed the bookseller, “Perhaps if you would assist, we could get him upright.”
The bookseller cocked his head.
‘This is a most unusual house call,’ he thought.
But he was game.
He then walked to the man’s head.
“Mathilda, please step back a bit. You’re upsetting the fellow.”
Mathilda leapt onto the book dais and began chewing on her right hind foot.
“Let’s try again, Aethelbert—from the top!”
They both bent—each getting two hands under a shoulder.
They lifted and strained. The fellow was so girthy he could not bend in his middle.
Lift as they might, he could not be raised.
“Perhaps, sir, if we rolled you over…you could push yourself up using your arms.”
“I will not be rolled!” he bellowed. “I will NOT be rocked and rolled.”
“What should we do, sir?” Aethelbert asked plaintively.
“Get some books!” the man ordered. “Cheap ones!”
They looked around and around. The only loose books were up on the dais.
“How about those?” the bookseller asked.
“They’re his private collection. Personal reading.”
“Are they rare or valuable?”
“They are…ummm…series romances. Barbara Cartland and such. He has them bound up nicely in buckram. Folios and quartos mostly.”
“How does one bind a mass market paperback into a quarto?”
“My Mas…he is a genius with books.”
They both approached the dais and leaned in and slid off a stack of 7 quartos each. Mathilda circled around from behind the book throne the man had been sitting upon. That seat was made of five 3″ thick leather elephant folios. The fore-edges were forward, so there were no titles to read.
The cat had a curious smile and a knowing look. She trotted over to the bookseller and rubbed a cheek against the corner of one of the books the bookseller was sliding off. He stopped to let her finish and asked, “What did you find, Mathilda? You look like you just swallowed the canary.”
She cocked her head at that and gave him a quizzical look.
The bookseller looked down and read the spine of the top book on his pile.
“She Found Love in the Castle Garden.” He chuckled. “It is a pretty binding. Lots of gilt tooling.”
“I AM waiting!” the voice roared from the floor behind him. The man’s arms and legs waved in the air like a bug or turtle stuck on its back.
“Yes, SIR!” Aethelbert replied, turning with his stack of romances and bending to place them behind the hairy man’s head.
The bookseller followed suit. “What’s the plan?”
“Slide one under each shoulder! Be quick!” the man ordered.
The two did as they had been told.
“Now one of you, lift up on one book. The other, slide another volume underneath. I will twist over a little to assist you.”
They performed that action.
“Now the other shoulder!”
They did as instructed.
So the two men moved back and forth from shoulder to shoulder. They slid more books off the dais.
Mathilda sat on the edge of the book dais, watching dispassionately while licking one paw and then the other.
When there were 13 quarto series romances under each shoulder, the ball of a man was considerably propped up.
Considerably, considering his very short length.
“Now each of you, give me a hand!”
The two went round him and each took a hand.
“Now when I say pull, give me a tug. On three!”
“One! Two! …”
On the word “three”, Mathilda leapt off the dais and bounced off the man’s shoulder. That shock and surprise forced him forward, and with Aethelbert and the bookseller tugging, the big round little man was suddenly upright!
Aethelbert was so surprised that he toppled over onto his back. His arms and legs, torso and head wobbling up and down, left and right.
The bookseller bent and helped him wobble upright.
The three stood looking at one another. All were now upright and essentially stable.
Mathilda went to the triangle of men and wove through each of their legs over and over, round and round, in and out, creating a kind of virtual feline Celtic knot.
The big little man cringed and flinched whenever she approached.
‘I hope he doesn’t kick her or something,’ the bookseller thought.
“NO! No…my Mas…he is…ummm…’intimidated’ by the creature. Perhaps you can ask her to keep her distance?”
She pranced to the bookseller and braced herself on two legs against his calf. Then she dug her claws in.
“Owww! What’d I do?!”
“It is time to begin the negotiations on the collection. Let us take them to the culls and duplicates with which I MAY be willing to part.”
The bookseller started to think of how disappointed these situations were, being offered someone’s dupes and culls. But he didn’t do more than start the thought because he knew that Aethelbert, at least, seemed to be able to read his thoughts. Then he wondered if Aethelbert could read the thoughts he was resisting thinking.
“Yes. I can. I wish you would not be so obvious in front of the Mas…well, you might as well know. He is my Master. It was he who put me together when ‘She’ had me in pieces.”
“Yes She. She who must be obeyed.”
“Yeesssss!!!” Aethelbert fairly wailed.
“Yaaaassssss…” he wailed far more vigorously than fairly.
“Is she here?”
“Yes,” the big little man interjected. “And no.”
“What does that mean?”
“That creature accompanying you may have some answers.”
“Aethelbert. Is ‘She’ the one you mentioned as being far off to the left when you were leading us in?”
“Yes. No. I do not know. I do not go too far in either direction. Right or left. The books off to the sides are not very nice ones. I dare not wander too far from the core collection. And there really is no reason to.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the little big man said. “Those books in the wings, right and left, are not available under any terms. Now, do you wish to inspect the treasures with which I may be willing to part?”
“That’s why we were summoned.”
“That creature was NOT invited. Walk this way.”
Mathilda ceased her weaving and leapt upon the book dais.
The man turned and, for lack of a better word, waddled away from the edge of the thing.
The bookseller chose not to “walk this way.” He wouldn’t waddle or wobble.
Looking at his back, he noted the man’s sprawling embroidered brocade robe, the back of which dragged on the floor behind him.
The bookseller pondered, ‘Mathilda must have been pushing through the split in the back when she was weaving between our legs. I wonder why she was doing that? I’ll have to ask her when we are alone and Aethel…’
“She was acting a spell as I live and breathe!” Aethelbert hissed.
‘I wish you would stop that. It is very disconcerting to not have a thought to myself,’ the bookseller thought.
Or did he say it aloud? It was all very confusing.
“Come this way. I have a spot where my culls and rejects are stored. Mind you, no Gutenbergs…this visit.”
The tiny enormous man started walking—if you can call it that—around the dais shaped like a giant book and toward the darkness beyond. The bearded fellow’s steps were so small the bookseller had to slow his pace so as not to get ahead of him.
“Yes, yes, when I ran out of space on the shelves, I began storing them on the ceiling. When the ceiling was filled—front to back and left to right—I began stocking them on the floor. Ho, ho, ho! No book collector has done that before! Has one!?”
This last the man said in a challenging belligerent manner in the direction of the bookseller. Caught off guard, he replied, “No. I’ve never seen the like.”
The light that glowed round the dais was diminishing with every step they took away from it.
“Aethelbert! Did you bring a pencil!?”
“Will we be pricing books, sir?”
“Not a pricing pencil! An illuminating pencil!”
“Indeed, sir! Indeed! I have many supplies in my shoulder bag. I always wish to be prepared for any of your whi…ummm, necessities.”
Aethelbert opened the canvas tote and reached in. He was so stressed his hands rattled the contents, creating an oddment of sounds.
“Here we are Mas…Master! Red or blue?”
“Red is for corrections. Blue is for additions,” the man ruminated. “I think blue. Blue is for something new.”
Aethelbert withdrew a large blue pencil. It was about 5 quarters of an inch thick and 17 half-inches long.
‘About the size of a Churchill cigar. I wonder if I should start smoking again,’ the bookseller thought.
Mathilda leapt at his left hand and gave it a sharp needling swat.
“Oww! Nah…they only make my mouth taste bad,” he whispered sotto voce.
The man reached for the object wavering in Aethelbert’s hand. It was a bit of a challenge, but at last he grasped it and tugged it away. He slapped it on his thigh 3 times. Sharply!
“Smack. Smack! SMACK!!”
It began to emit a soft blue light. The pointy end of the “pencil” was more of a crystal than sharpened gray graphite. He pointed it at the floor before them, and books’ spine lettering appeared.
Looking down, words like Gulliver, Hakluyt, Drake, Magellan’s memoirs… could be discerned.
“Magellan’s memoirs?!” the bookseller sputtered.
“Yes. Yes. Unique manuscript, you know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“The survivors rescued them. Seven volumes.” He cast the blue light right to left. “You see. I, II, III, IV, V, VI VII!”
“Wellll…not for sale at this time, at any rate. They just showed up one day in a box a picker brought me at the End of the Road shop. Swiss.”
“The books? No! HO, HO, HO! The picker! He found them at a yard sale in an ancient chalet. He told me the name of the alpine valley, but check as I might, I could never find it on any maps. And I have all the maps in the world here, you know.”
“No. I don’t.”
“He wanted an arm and a leg for them. I was going to offer him Aethelbert’s! HO, HO, HO! But spare parts are nigh impossible to find nowadays. His model is no longer in production. Not since Geppetto retired.”
“Geppetto the 5th. Or was he the 7th? … Doesn’t matter. We eventually struck a deal. I had some junk gold lying about—Inca statues, I think. No interest to me. They ain’t books!”
“So these are Magellan’s own manuscripts?”
“Yes, yes. Not murdered, you know. An affair of the heart with a Moluccan princess. Spent his latter life as a king in the Philippines. The Swiss picker says he thinks a Dutch trader brought them back in the early 1600s. There are some earthshaking discoveries in those old bindings.”
“Shouldn’t they be published?”
“That would hurt their value! They’re safe here encased in their crystal clamshells and embedded in the floor.”
“Ah, so that is how the books are stocked in the floor. Each is held in glass and embedded in the floor!”
“But how do you get them out?”
“Privileged information. Proprietary and security. I am afraid I cannot share that with you.”
Mathilda had her nose quite near the floor and was gently pawing at a glass box containing a book with the title The Cats of Mao Yi. She stretched her front paws across the top of the glass box and pressed a claw into each corner simultaneously.
The glass box started to slowly rise from the floor with her atop it!
“CREATURE!” the bearded man turned and made for her. The bookseller bent and swept her up into his arms.
The little man stood before him and shook his forefinger—more at the bookseller than Mathilda.
“No one knows how to do that! It is a secret!”
He raised his left foot as high as he could. Then he raised it more, lifting it with his two hands under his thigh. He gently placed it on the spine of the crystal box and slowly pushed the thing down into place. When it was level with the floor, there was the soft sound of two simultaneous platinum “plings.” Apparently there were two nearly invisible catches which locked the crystal book case back into its place.
“No one knows that!”
“True,” said Aethelbert. “Master has never shown me how. And I have been here for ages.”
“Mathilda, how did you do that?” the bookseller asked admiringly.
Cradled in his arms, she stretched and rubbed her cheek against his, by this time, bristly beard.
“Were those originally Mao Yi drawings in that book? 12th century?”
“Yes. Yes. I have hundreds. Found in a tomb. 319 years ago.”
“No, Swiss again. I wish he hadn’t been crushed. Avalanche, you know.”
“In the Alps?”
“Ho! Ho! Ho! No, no, no. Book avalanche. Fellow was a hoarder. One day they all came down. Very sad—because he had a knack. A real discoverer. I was glad to acquire his hoard, however.”
“I…I…don’t know what to say.”
“NOW! About this vandalism and breaking and entering by THAT…I’ve a mind to ask you and that Creature to leave! It, it, it is…vandalism!” the man sputtered. “But I have gone to some effort to put this collection together, and I would like to get it out of the way. Come along, we are almost there.”
The little group moved on, led by the shine of the blue light upon the floor.
The bookseller could not help but look down and read the titles and authors they trod upon. The crystal blocks were like pavers, and they were all different sizes. But they all fit together faultlessly, and the floor was as level as plate glass.
The bookseller began mumbling, “Keats. Yeats. Bronte. Wordsworth. Coleridge. Austen. Woolf. Wolfe. Gatsby’s Youth…GATBY’S YOUTH?! A prequel?!”
“Yes. Yes. Don’t dawdle browsing. We are nearly there.”
Mathilda soon pressed against his chest to free herself and dropped silently to the floor.
Soon the blue light illuminated a huge stack of books just ahead.
“It is a monolith,” the bookseller sputtered. “A wall of books!”
“Incorrect!” the little man pontificated. “It is a rectangular hexahedron of books. 47 by 61 by 119…inches to be clear.”
They were all stacked fore-edge out so no titles could be discerned. The bookseller could tell there were old leather and cloth books by their exposed boards. Some of the fore-edges were gilt. Some deckled. Some…there were some of everything.
“I can’t tell what they are.”
“Well, they are what they are. What’s your offer?! I haven’t a fortnight for a clearance this small!”
Mathilda appeared from behind the little man and ran between his legs from back to front.
The man shrieked in terror, “CREATURE!!”
She ran toward the pile of books and when she was a couple feet away sprang, her body fully extended, up, up, up. Her fore-claws gently clasped the fore-edge of the fifth book from the top. Her hind feet pushed into and up. In a flash, she was atop the pile. She began strolling around as the big little man sputtered and stammered.
She began nosing every 3rd or 7th book. The bookseller approached the pile. Mathilda came toward him, her tail erect, its tip flicking quickly like a metronome. When he got to the edge of the pile, she rose on her hind legs and stretched her full length. She placed her front paws on his chest just below his collarbones. Her eyes were the color of Spanish gold in a treasure chest.
‘They must be wonderful,’ he thought.
He did some quick calculations. He knew books. They ran, in general, 1.25″ thick, 9″ tall, 7″ wide.
‘Hmmm, about 4000,’ he thought.
“4000,” he said aloud and paused. Then, “I brought a check. Do you have a pen on you?”
“Pen? Check? Aethelbert, are there any banks out here?!”
“I may have that much cash back at the shop. Aethelbert could follow us back.”
“Cash? Money? Paper? Aethelbert, is there any place to spend money here?”
“Well, how else can I pay you? I haven’t any gold. I have just a small pile of junk silver coins.”
“You have a manuscript in your office. More of a logbook really. Well, a ledger as much as anything. Well, all those things in one. Aethelbert saw it from the counter.”
“He saw a book in my office from the counter?” the bookseller replied and tried to remember if the wobbly fellow was actually taller than the counter.
“I AM,” Aethelbert said petulantly. “And I have spectacular eyesight…when they settle still a bit.”
“A ledger…in my office…I don’t recall…”
“It is this tall. This thick and has high raised bands on its spine,” the little big and round man stated, indicating dimensions between his pudgy hands. “It is calfskin.”
“I don’t think I have any such thing. That would be a big book.”
“It is on your desk. There is a pile of books stacked on your desk. I saw them. This has EOTRB and VI written in ink on its spine.”
“There is a stack of books on my desk. They were left on the front porch overnight recently. People often leave things at the shop when it is not open. But these were quite unusual. Crumbly old things. I brought them inside, and the phone was ringing in the office—the old hard line—I must have set them there to inspect later.”
“I shouldn’t wonder you’d forgotten,” Aethelbert chastised. “Your office is full of piles of books to be ‘inspected later.'”
“I have eyes.”
“Well, I don’t know. I can’t really commit to trading something I haven’t looked at.”
“It is just a trifle. Of no value to anyone but me.”
Mathilda had silently hopped off the pile. She stretched and sunk her claws into his left thigh.”
“If you must know, it is my father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s great-great-great-grandfather’s notes of acquisitions and sales at the first bookshop. It is volume 6. I don’t know how it escaped. I would like it back—to re-complete the set.”
“Well, if it is yours, I SHOULD return it. Perhaps it was stolen.”
“No, I think it just wandered off some years ago when I wasn’t looking.”
“Well, if it has only personal value, it isn’t worth this hoard. Mathilda indicates there are some wonderful books in here.”
“That CREATURE knows books?”
“Indeed. She is an expert cataloger. My sales have increased exponentially since she has been emp…er…since she came to the shop.”
“Mere trifles. Consider them a reward.”
“Well, if it is that important to you…”
“We have a deal then?”
With that, the little big man turned and strode—well, he couldn’t really stride. It was more like he wadd…
“DON’T THINK THAT!” Aethelbert ejaculated.
“How will we load them, Aethelbert? Do you have a loading dock out back or something?”
“It has been arranged. Follow me.” Aethelbert began wobbling the way they had come. Mathilda and the bookseller began following. The Master’s light shown a dull blue circle up ahead.
As they walked, the bookseller asked, “Aethelbert, how does one stock books in a ceiling?”
“Trade secret. Master’s invention.”
The bookseller sensed movement high over his head. Mathilda cocked her head upward and mewed.
“Do you have bats, Aethelbert?”
“Certainly NOT! No vermin are permitted around this book collection.”
He sensed more movement, but looking upward, all he could see was pitch black.
“Maybe you have a flock of seagulls. I could swear things are flying above us.”
“No birds. Just books.”
They walked and walked, keeping up with the dim light up ahead.
Eventually they got to the dais. The Master was pulling books off it and placing them in stacks. He was making steps out of his folio and quarto leather-bound series romances.
When they got there, the little round big man was seated with a large folio splayed in his lap. He was motionless, and the bookseller could swear there was a layer of dust on him.
“Well, we are off, sir. Thank you for the interesting house call. I suppose Aethelbert will come pick up the ledger.”
The man remained motionless.
Aethelbert continued walking to the entrance, and they followed.
“Master doesn’t like to be interrupted when he is reading. He is the only one in the world with a complete collection of Barbara Cartland.”
“Yes, yes. All signed and inscribed to him as well.”
“He knew her?”
“Never met her.”
They walked and walked.
“Well, here we are.”
Indeed, they were crossing the threshold out onto the pavilion.
When they got to the edge, Aethelbert said, “Well, I must bid adieu. Adieu!”
“But what about the books? When will they be loaded?”
“Done? I didn’t see any workers.”
“They took care of themselves. Perhaps I will come to the shop again some day.”
“What about the ledger? You need to come pick that up.”
“It took care of itself. Adieu again.”
“Wait. How do we get back?”
“Turn around. When you get to the beginning of the road, keep going. Adieu.”
“Well, Mathilda, it is a long way down these steps.”
The old book van looked like a toy far below.
She trotted ahead and leapt off the top step. He followed, got to the edge and turned.
“So long, Aethel…” But the wobbly little man was gone.
The bookseller sat on the edge and turned and clambered off the tall steep top step—much as the big little round man had done off his dais.
They continued down and down. Nimble Mathilda prancing and pouncing ahead.
The bookseller followed gingerly. The steps were steep. He knew one false step, and he would go down the fast way.
Heels over head.
When they got to the bottom and crossed to the van, he turned and looked back up. The doorway was a little black rectangle far, far away.
It was darkening, although for the life of him, he couldn’t see where the sun was. Nor could he tell north from south or east from west.
He went round to the driver’s side. He opened the door. Mathilda dashed between his legs and leapt up and over to the passenger seat. He climbed in and turned.
The van was filled with books. Front to back. Side to side. Top to bottom.
“Well, I…Mathilda, this was an interesting house call. I hope we can come back. I would love to see that unrecorded Milton closer. I wonder if he has a copy of Cardenio*?”
Mathilda had placed her front paws on the dashboard. She turned her head and met his eyes and purred an affirmative.
* A lost play by Shakespeare.
He made a three-point turn to turn around.
“I wonder how long it will take us to get home?”
He put his foot on the gas pedal.
It took no time at all.