The Curmudgeon


Sunday, November 18, 2012

18 November 1477

It was past the hour of closing at the Gallows and Glockenspiel, and once again the card-players were using Limbless Fred to shuffle. The sound was moistly repulsive like idiots giggling, and every now and then the ace of spades would go flying across the room and as often as not land somewhere inconvenient, such as the gin of Granny Forbus or a random eye socket. Just as Hooligan Motts announced, "Eighteenth of November fourteen seventy-seven. Past closing time," a man in monkish apparel entered bearing a large leather case, and marched straight to the bar. The ace of spades hit him twice in the same ear before he got there, but he neither weaved nor wavered.

"Wine," he barked at Hooligan Motts.
"Past closing time," said Hooligan Motts.
"Wine," the man insisted, "and water it not." He slammed the leather case onto the bar and stood watching it for unauthorised activity.
"Nothing watered down here, sir," said Hooligan Motts with dignity; "the water's got fluoride in it or some such, but not chlorine as I understand, which means you can drink it but you can't use it for a swimming pool." As the man boggled, Hooligan Motts produced a bottle of Western Australia Tant Pis Rosé pilfered from one of the drier decades of the twenty-second century, and unscrewed the cap. He filled a glass and set it down on the bar beneath the man's thicketed nose.

The man glared at it. "What French trickery is this? Serve your witches' brew in honest cups, fellow, else be harried by the Guild." Hooligan Motts pointed at the blackboard behind him, where the available fare at the Gallows and Glockenspiel was listed by price and potency, though without the burden of apostrophes. The customer squinted, briefly but beadily, and shrugged. "Your scrawl is French to me," he said. "In these days all is French and devilry. Look here."

He reached for the leather case and fiddled with the clasp. When it was open Hooligan Motts observed that the case was not a case at all, for it was full of stiff pages covered in print.
"Have you ever seen the like?" the man complained. "It is a printed Boke, they say."
"Looks very nice," said Hooligan Motts.
"Bah!" The man glared around the Gallows and Glockenspiel, with such deadly scorn that one of the card-players had to scratch the back of Limbless Fred's neck. "It is a printed Boke," spat the man. "No human hand wrote these letters. 'Twas done with a machine, an engine of Satan, after the manner of the Frenchman Gutenberg."

While speaking, the man had gathered up his courage so far as to touch the glass of wine, prodding and poking it from all sides and smudging it with his fingers. Now he felt able to pick it up, perhaps because the mottled marks imparted a comforting resemblance to his accustomed drinking-vessels.

"What's it about, then?" said Hooligan Motts, turning the pages of the Boke.
His customer scowled. "Philosophers and the like. It hardly signifies. Have you not heard? It is a printed Boke!" The strain of imparting this revelation a third time impelled him to gulp down the contents of the glass. His subsequent grimace was empurpled by a maroon vista of gums. "Think of it," he cried; "a Boke in a script set down without clerks, without quills, without God's sweet cramping of the wrist! A Boke which can be produced in dozens of copies, which would take the most diligent friars a lifetime to complete!"
"Sounds very handy," said Hooligan Motts.
"A Boke," the man continued, "composed by mere artisans, whose errors and ugliness of grammar and syntax must now be reproduced dozens and dozens of times, for anyone to read who can! It will destroy our language, rip the soul from thought itself!"
Hooligan Motts nodded sagely. For a work on philosophy, the Boke did appear to contain very few apostrophes.
"And who is to say," said the man, "when so many copies are about, that they may not fall into the wrong hands? How shall we know that the day may not come, when all may read even the Bible and interpret it as they please? It will mean the dawn of the Antichrist."
"I think that's a bit far-fetched, myself," said Hooligan Motts. "You can have as many of these things floating about as you like, but it won't matter much if nobody can read them. You can't have the Antichrist dawning unless there's schools and things."

The man snorted, and grabbed the Boke from the barman's hands. He set it on the bar and turned a few pages, scowling down at them as though from a pulpit, with the foul philosophers themselves cowering beneath him. Then, with a sigh, he closed the cover, fastened the clasp and replaced the Boke under his arm. "Farewell," he said to Hooligan Motts. "Improve this French fare of yours, lest the wrath of the Almighty fall upon you."
He turned to leave. "French or not," said Hooligan Motts, "you still have to pay."
The man halted in the doorway and turned. "Blessings be upon this house," he said, in a voice so loud and sonorous that Limbless Fred was able to conceal three cards while the others weren't looking; "blessings be upon those within, and may Heaven protect them from the Guild, the French and," his gaze lit upon Granny Forbus, and he shuddered, "the perils of fornication."

He turned on his heel and fled through the doors. Ruefully Hooligan Motts picked up the wine-glass, decided that its days of transparency were at an end, and threw it in the recycling bin.

"Eh?" said Granny Forbus, who had never been much of a reader.


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