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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, May 31, 2004 23:57 EDT



    Alas, as time passed, grace and ease soon departed; to be replaced by the bitter complaints and recriminations of the practiced scholar.

    "There's no rhyme or reason here!" complained Alf the heretic. "These books seem to be just tossed in anywhere or anyplace—all higgledy-piggledy!"

    Uncle Manya snorted. "Quite right! Most advanced case of bibliographic incompetence it has ever been my misfortune to encounter."

    "Nonsense!" spoke the mage. "What we observe is not bibliographic incompetence but bibliophilic incontinence."

    "What's the difference?" grumbled Alf. Somewhat unwisely, perhaps.

    "What's the difference?" demanded the mage. "My dear heretic—surely you jest! The phenomenon of bibliographic incompetence is a thing of the grandest proportions—epic! heroic!—as illustrated in the sad history of the Literatus of the Encyclopedic Dominion. Whereas this—"

    "The who?" queried Uncle Manya. Somewhat unwisely, perhaps.

    The mage goggled. "My dear learned maniac—surely you jest!"

    He waved his arms about.

    "Can there be any person on earth with even the slightest familiarity with the sublime history of libraries who has not heard of the legendary Literatus of the Encyclopedic Dominion?"

    Taking the ensuing (rather shame-faced, one might think) silence as assent, the wizard shook his head forlornly and assumed his practiced pose of lecteur.

    "Know then, heretic and maniac, that in ancient times, amidst the chaos and alarum of war and disaster, there did arise a saintly man who, though himself unlearned and unlettered, saw in the selection, sorting and safe-keeping of all manner of scrolls and tomes the sole salvation for humanity's future. Alas, his own means were modest—on this all legends agree, though there is dispute as to his precise social position. A highwayman, say many; a pirate, say others; a footpad, say some; even, argue a handful, an evangelist—though 'tis exceedingly difficult, in my mind, to reconcile the utter rapacity of this latter profession with the selfless activities of the man as revealed in his later life. I myself favor the theory than he began life as a pimp and a panderer to pedophiles and pederasts.

    "Whatever! Though his origins remain obscure, 'tis agreed by all students of his life that the Literatus devoted the entirety of his ill-gotten gains to the advancement of learning, this, through his fanatic determination to collect in a single place of safe-keeping all extant wisdom and lore. To this end did the Literatus, first, cause a great structure to be built, upon the model of the (alas, then destroyed) Library of [whatever][something like Alexander], the which structure promptly collapsed inasmuch as neither the Literatus nor his criminal minions had the slightest knowledge of architecture or masonry; secondly, from the rubble thereof, did the Literatus force the victims of his manifold crimes (captives, say those who favor his piratical, highwaymanly or footpadish origins; little old senile ladies, argue the few who advance the evangelical theorem; I myself believe the Literatus employed the efforts of dirty old men driven to exertion by enticements too grotesque to specify in polite company) to hedge up vast fields and meadows with a multitude of walls made of that selfsame rubble, the which structures naturally held solid in that even unlettered and unlearned scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells can determine the precise method by which simple stone is to be piled upon simple stone, but which structures, alas, when filled end to end and side to side by all the tomes, scrolls, tablets and codices gathered up by the murderous methods with which the Literatus and his minions plundered and sacked all the libraries (public and private) of the entire land, proved, due to the inevitably unroofed nature of such selfsame simple structures, to provide neither protection from inclement weather nor surcease from the droppings of overflying fowl; thirdly, faced then with the rapid decay and desuetude of the lore and learning which he sought to salvage for mankind's posterity, the Literatus, now, be it said, approaching old age and facing the desperation which oft accompanies that state when gazing upon an unfinished life's work, threw himself and his now-decrepit cohorts (and his now-decrepit captives, say many; his now-deceased following of little old ladies, say some; or—and now you can examine for yourself the cunning of my particular view—the now middle-aged but still vigorous former youths and maidens driven to the utmost efforts by the threat held over them of being afflicted with the necrotic amours of the former clients of the Literatus-qua-panderer) into a last valiant effort to organize and assemble the rotting and festering mass of former bibliophilia into such an order and arrangement as could, by the cunning efforts of the archaeologists which the Literatus foresaw in the future, yield to the scholarly posterity of mankind a vision of the wisdom of the past."

    Zulkeh fell silent. After a moment, Alf asked: "And?"

    "And what?" frowned Zulkeh.

    The heretic snorted. "And what happened—to all that stuff he piled up?"

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "Nothing happened. How could any archaeologist make sense of such a compost heap? The man was an unlettered and unlearned arch-criminal! There was neither order nor rhyme nor reason to any of it—although, 'tis said by farmers of the region that it makes, in their colloquial idiom, 'right good mulch.'"

    Zulkeh gestured to the Stacks. "But you see my point, no doubt? This much may at least be said of the Literatus of the Encyclopedic Dominion—he attempted such a task as he was utterly unsuited to by his life and position, guided by a vision which, needless to say, he could neither see nor envision. Whereas this—what possible excuse could there be for this—mess?"

    The three savants fell again into gloomy silence, gazing with great displeasure upon the endless rows and tiers of books stretching off in all directions.

    "Pity, really," mused Alf the heretic, "all these marvelous books! If they'd only been organized by the simple, sane methods of the great Dewey Laebmaunts—"

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "That picayune pragmatist! That—"

    "Hah!" snorted Uncle Manya. "That artless automaton! That—"

    "To the contrary!" disputed Alf, wagging his finger vigorously. "That paragon of practicality! That—"

    "Bahs!" and "hahs!" now flew about like a veritable cannonade, to be met with the no-less-vigorous volleys fired by the heretic in defense of the eminent Dewey Laebmauntsforscynneweëld. Ere long, however, the two-sided struggle became triangular in its aspect, for it soon became evident that the alliance of mage and maniac was of the most fragile and fleeting sort.

    The wizardrous Zulkeh, as it transpired, was the champion of his own method of organizing and tabulating all manner of bibliographic items, the which method, from its theoretic aspect, partook of the most profound and subtle intricacies of the dialectic twixt the subject matter of a given tome and the material substrate which was the objective tome itself. Alas, the thaumaturge's initially quite impressive depiction of the brilliance of his system began to show large breaches in its barbican under the fusillade directed thereon by heretic and maniac, which assaults soon exposed the unfortunate ugliness that, as a practical approach, the wizard's system seem to rely almost entirely upon the frequent exertions and prodigious memory of that idiot savant known as the dwarf Shelyid, the which now-exposed crumbling rampart did elicit from Uncle Manya the frequent and (to your narrator's mind) rather coarse jest: "A chicken in every pot!—a dwarf in every book!"

    Uncle Manya's jocularity soon wore thin, however—indeed, became positively sclerotic—soon after his own much-cherished system came under the rigors of scholarly examination. For, as it transpired, Uncle Manya's system proved impossible to describe in the light of sober scrutiny, relying, as it did, upon the vagaries of narcoleptic trances induced by the ingestion of unmentionable substances, a system which—as the mage Zulkeh exposed most remorselessly—was not only odious in its ethical aspect but false in its philosophical, inasmuch as such trances could be neither subjected to reason nor reasoned to their subject, the which truth Uncle Manya himself tacitly admitted by his feeble complaint that all weaknesses in his method were the fault of the stranger from [get name][Horrocks?] who had interrupted the initial trance in which the system was revealed to him, a complaint which elicited from the mage Zulkeh the frequent and (to your narrator's mind) rather undignified ditty in which the phrases "caverns measureless to man" and "sunless seas" featured prominently.

    Where this might all have ended up will forever remain unknown, for it was at the very height of the affray that the Tullimonstrum chose to twitter its first twitter in some time.

    "What did it say?" demanded Uncle Manya.

    "It said," replied Alf, "that this is all a lot of foolishness and that if we had the sense of so many cabbages that we'd follow its system of finding books."

    "Indeed!" spoke the mage. He raised his hands to the heavens (actually, to the tier above). "Will wonders never cease? We are to be enlightened by a fossil! And what is this antediluvian system, pray tell?"

    Twitter. Translation:

    "If I want a book, I look for it."

    Silence. A long silence, actually.

    "That's it?" demanded Uncle Manya.

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "We are on a perilous quest to find the Catalogue of Fallen Angels and this unspeakable—"

    Twitter, twitter, accompanied by the pointing of a grotesque limb.

    "It says the Catalogue is that way," translated the heretic --

    -- Twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter --

    "—down eighteen rows, right three rows, up two tiers, across four hundred rows, down twenty-three tiers, up the second spiral staircase, left at the seventh carrel, down thirteen rows, up a tier, across the room. Past the card files, in the third bookcase on the right. Near the corner."

    Twitter, twitter, twitter.

    "It also says beware of the Sphinx. At the end of the thirteenth row, before you go up the last tier."

    Twitter, twitter.

    "A big, mean, ugly bastard if I ever saw one."

    Alf shrugged. "Well, that's what it said."

    For a moment it seemed that the wizard would erupt in a truly stupendous manner, but, by a visible effort, he restrained himself to the simple, if clipped, question:

    "And exactly how does it know this?"

    Twitter, twitter. "I'm not blind as a bat." Twitter, twitter. "Like some people I know."

    Spinning about, Zulkeh stormed off in a fury, following, 'twas plain to see, the pre-historic monster's directions.

    "Eighteen rows down, is it not?" came his strangled cry. "Follow me, then, decrepit creature! An ye have the courage, I shall expose the extinct nature of your boasts!"

    Alf and Uncle Manya stared at each other. After a moment, Uncle Manya shrugged.

    "And why not?" Soon the portly maniac and the slight heretic were scurrying off in pursuit of the wizard, the Tullimonstrum perched on Alf's shoulder. Along the way, Uncle Manya peered sidelong at the living fossil.

    "Does it really have such good eyesight?" he asked in a whisper.

    Alf's face twisted into a grimace. "I'm not sure, actually. Sometimes I think it does, and sometimes I think it's just lived so long that it's been everywhere and remembers where everything is." Another grimace. "And sometimes I wonder how the Tullimonstrae didn't inherit the earth instead of us."

    Twitter, twitter.

    "What'd it say?"

    "Something about a comet."

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