Story for #Halloween: The Rumbling Burr
Halloween is upon us, which means NaNoWriMo is around the corner. We'll be ending the writing challenge this year by publishing the third novella in the Marridon series. Everyone who joins out Patreon campaign during the month of November will receive a free copy of the book at the end of the month. To tide everyone over, here is an excerpt from the first part of The Ship's Crew:
Bartleby slipped farther into the seat of the chair. Here was pleasure, here was the blissful pinnacle of his subsistence, and Bartleby could only be made happier by never being expected to leave it. He could have made himself more immediately easy by taking an axe to the stoat and using its hacked carcass for kindling, but Attenburrow’s manuscript was beckoning him, and he would leave all ideas of golden weasels to the captain, who seemed to have a fascination with anything that was deemed valuable regardless of how extraordinary it was. Tea and books must prevail in Bartleby’s mind, and with a glare toward the door, forbidding anyone to knock at it and disturb his reading by way of a firm flout, he put down his teacup, wiped his hands on the captain’s embroidered napkin, and fell to work, taking out his notebook and taking up one of the pens from the captain’s desk. The manuscript in all its literary and historical grandeur was before him, and after a few sniffs and a devoted coo, Bartleby carefully pulled back the fastener and opened the cover, ready to begin his debates with Attenburrow’s written echoes.
“Ah,” was Bartleby’s smiling exclamation, his delectation in the few scribbles of birds and rodents in the corners of the frontspiece. “Is that a three-toed lobmouse?” leaning over and frowning at one particular image. “If it is, you have done a rather poor job of depicting the protecting teeth, Attenburrow. Every naturalist knows the lobmouse has four projecting teeth, not two, and you haven’t drawn any. A man has no business recording wildlife if he isn’t goin to do it properly. Well,” turning the page, “we’ll see how you go on. You might redeem yourself, and I might catch the wind with a trawl net. Ha! Oh, an orange treeswinger.”
Each image summoned an aspirate punctured bellows of a sigh, despite how inaccurately they depicted their given subject; it was something to be allowed to touch even the gaffs of Marridon’s first scientist and harrange his memory with the devoted fervency of an admirer and intellectual adversary. How agreeable it was to be reading a relic under the aegis of everything that bespoke education and elegance: the captain’s book collection circumjascent to the desk and trailing the far wall, each precious volume treated with wax and wrapped in leather binding, complemented by the stack of stately correspondences piled at the edge of the desk, every letter neatly arranged and written in gentleman’s hand, the whole superintended by a glazed tree sculpture occupying a small stand just beyond, its leaves long past any interest in falling, its fired clay foliage painted in amber and blushing in an eternal bloom, the whole recommending the regard for propriety that belonged to the life of a vagant dignitary. Bartleby turned the page, a numinous glow radiated from the paper, and the exhilaration of farther discovery broke upon him, the handwriting of Marridon’s first scientist and his professional rival assailing him in a fulmination of calligraphal splendour, making him smile and clap his hands together in high-wrought glee.
“There you are, Attenburrow, with all your looped Ls and slanted Hs. If you had been my student, I would have had you horsewhipped for making such shocking Es. By my commas, Attenburrow, your punctuation is appalling, even worse than I had imagined. Your copyists did you a service by correcting your mistakes. Being in the wilds is hardly an excuse for a missed semi-colon. And what is this misshapen--? That is far too many Ss for that word. A man has no need of an auxilery S when he uses his apostraphes correctly. And your capitals are a great deal unnecessary. I don’t care if it was the fashion of your generation to make every idea important by capitalizing it. Weeds and Worms in the Bush does not deserve to be capitalized. And you throw your dashes about as though you mean to garrote someone with them. ‘These Strange Creatures seem to thrive in the Dark’. Yes, well,” hemming and pushing his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose, “they might do, but I can hear you without the capitals of Intense Connotation, so you may leave them off and get on with classification.” He scribbled a few lines in his notebook. “Does not know how to leave off capitals…” he tootled to himself. “Better than no capitalization at all, I suppose. The man did go to school in Adieth after all. Now, what have you to say about Marridon’s mountain regions? I’m curious to know whether you were copied perfectly, or whether some wasteful shift of an editor misrepresented you.” He read until the end of the page and paused to write in his book. “The landscape is littered over with spruce and cypress…” writing down the direct quotation. Bartleby seemed confused. “I don’t remember your ever having said that in any one of your works. Your ideas were probably treated with the disease of brevity that all editors seem to catch and give to everybody else. Hang the editors. They think they know what is good for the reader when the reader would be best left to himself. Editors are about as useful as a snowdrift in a furnace. They are nothing more than vainful cacographers who wouldn’t know good writing if it leapt up and clapped them on the ear. Everything they cut is often necessary to determine the true art and style of the writer, and they have no notion of birds or trees or whatever material they’re amending. They are always cutting and putting their opinions in places that are often entirely ruined by unqualified views. Nobody asked them to have opinions on what I like to read. Nobody. Editors should be banned from opinions, if they have no idea how to use them. Their job is to put things together, not to cut them out and rearrange them as they like. If Attenburrow wants to tell me about cedars and cypress for ten pages, then that is exactly what I am going to read about, and no whinging frangipane should be allowed to prohibit me. We must know about the cedars and cypress, you ninnyheaded bungler,” shouting at the editor of the revised editions of Attenburrow’s works, which were sitting on the shelf beside the captain’s desk. “It entirely changes the ecology of primitive Marridon…”
He went on in the same style, reading and murmuring over a paragraph or two and then stopping to write down his commentary, agreeing and disagreeing with his scientific rival nearly at the same time, at one moment professing the genius of his predecessor and lauding all the minutiae of a land well-documented, and at another proclaiming what an ancipitous ass he was, writing of plants and animals without proper categorization and with terrible uncertainty. “Don’t be a foggins, Attenburrow! You know what animal that is!” said Bartleby, nearly slapping the page with the back of his hand. “You know it is related to the fire-frond newt, because you had seen a creature similar to it when you were in Adieth. You even say so in a later volume, so do not pretend ignorance now. Make the classification and change it later if you must and get on with science. Who names a salamander group caudata twice? One caudata is more than enough. Caudata Ihavenoideawhattocallthisone would have been a better name for it.”
He continued his arguments with the manuscript, debating with Attenburrow’s written memory over his classifications and his atrociously written Fs—the man makes his Fs as though he is buttering toast-- and his notations and remonstrances continued until the empty teapot signaled the end of his animated reading. The last drop of tea was drained from his cup, one more chapter was fussed over and got through, and as Bartleby was making his notes on his rival’s mistaken ideas about pine martens, the doattees of prevailing somnolence began. A blink and a shake of the head seemed to drive them off, but his attention was failing, his harangues of Attenburrow’s observations waned, and his writing hand began to stall. “No!” Bartleby demanded, reviving himself with a start. “I am going to finish this. I may never get another moment of peace on this confounded ship, and I am going to reach the very end of this manuscript if I must stay awake until morning.”
He set his pen down on the paper, to continue his notes and work out a better method for gleaning mire frogs from a dampened hedgerow—better than how Attenburrow charmed them out, scandalous to have done it with horsehair loops—and he had not written two words in his book when his head hit the desk. His body went limp, the snores of a scientist defeated by necessity resonated throughout the cabin, and the pen rolled out of his hand. His subconscious mind told him he was asleep, told him that he ought to rouse himself and finish his work—and who ever heard of an old man being to sleep in a gallery? Shocking business, making an old man sleep in a—but the felt lining of the captain’s desk, the velvet fabric of his hat cushioning his head, the ten cups of tea and the echo of Attenburrow’s narrative caroming off the vacancies of his subliminal mind plunged him into a heavy sloom.
Ten minutes later, the door to the captain’s cabin was opened, and Danaco and Rannig appeared on the threshold, the former looking all the satisfaction he felt at seeing the old man slumped and snoozing over his desk, and the latter grimacing and clapping his hands over his ears.
“Can ye pinch his nose, boss?” said Rannig, rapt in an agony. “His snorin’s so loud it’s makin’ my ears ring.”
“I have the crab claw here,” said Danaco, taking a pincer from his pocket. “Should you do it, or should I, Rannig?”
“Can ye do it, boss? My ears might start bleedin’ if I take my hands away.” The snoring grew louder, the panes of the gallery rattled, and Rannig winced and frowned. “And he complains about my whistlin’ and all.”
They entered the cabin and approached the captain’s desk, where Bartleby was splayed over the felt, his mouth ajar, his lips vibrating with the music of his breathing bombilations. The captain lodged the pincers just under Bartleby’s spectacles and closed them, and after a jolt and a few choking rasps, the snoring subdued to a rumbling burr.