Kempton-Wace arrived exhausted and in ill-temper.
Night had fallen during the wagon ride from Constantinople, and darkness had not added to the charms of the journey. First, there had been weeks of seasickness in the old, leaky clipper he had hired to bring him from Philadelphia. Then there had been the manhandling of the Ottoman customs agents at the dock. And now, this cold carriage ride over terrible roads that threatened to turn his already aching brain into gruel with its constant jolting and jarring.
And why was the convocation located so far from civilization, up in these deserted hills, anyway? Security and privacy! Ha!
After all, Kempton-Wace was quite sure they would be safe from all disturbance, no matter the location. Let the whole world peep in the windows if they wanted! Even if anyone could see and understand what the devil they were up to, the fools that crowded the cities in this first decade of the twentieth century didn’t care a straw for the kind of secrets they plumbed–the secrets of ancient, arcane books and manuscripts. Why, even if they took to the street to recruit passersby, they’d still lose the crowds to the cinemas and saloons.
No wonder then, that Kempton-Wace arrived in ill-temper.
“I suppose dinner is cold as well,” he said irritably as he entered the villa, “but perhaps you can find a hob to heat some brandy on.”
But Dr Abdulhamid was hospitality itself. “Not at all,” he said kindly. “There are a pair of kidney pies, piping hot, and an excellent dish of cold potatoes. Please sit and I’ll bring it.”
As he sat by the fire, Kempton-Wace had the grace at least to be embarrassed at Dr Abdulhamid waiting on him personally. But of course no servants were permitted inside the villa, though a great gaggle of them was messing about with his crates in the wagon yard.
“And have you found any books yet in America?”
Those words were spoken by a middle-aged lady sitting on the other side of the fire. It was Countess Metzgar, who had no doubt swept in serenely from Vienna on the Orient Express, occupying a first class carriage all to herself. Beside her was the pudgy and elderly figure of Professor Wu. The professor had a long journey, it was true, all the way from Shanghai. But the privations of such a journey were reduced somewhat when traveling in one’s own private steamship.
“There are plenty of books in America,” said Kempton-Wace. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and applied it liberally to his nose. “And there are likely to be plenty more in the years to come.”
The Countess simply smiled. “We shall see.”
Kempton-Wace spent the entire following day unpacking and shelving his books. The room that had been assigned to him was large, and Dr Abdulhamid had provided it with long bookshelves along every wall. In fact, Kempton-Wace was almost annoyed at the amount of space–it was far more than he needed, and he couldn’t help wondering if the intention had been to make his collection look paltry by comparison.
But, of course, he had been forced to start practically from scratch when he had inherited his place at the convocation from his deceased uncle in London. The old codger had once had an enormous collection, thousands upon thousands of books, but by the time he had passed away it had been reduced to hardly three dozen volumes–most with many missing pages.
Over the past five years, Kempton-Wace had increased that remnant a hundred-fold, and had shipped it every year between Philadelphia, Vienna, Constantinople, and Shanghai–and all with less funds than any of the others earned in a month of interest. And yet, they continued to treat him with mere amused tolerance. It was no wonder he felt resentment, for no one else seemed to recognize he was playing the game at a substantial handicap.
But then, it wasn’t as though he could complain of any ill-treatment exactly. There was nothing in particular he could take offense to. His room was just as large and just as well-appointed as all the others. Every inch of shelving had been pre-salted with pulverized powder of William Blades’s Enemies of Books as proof against mold and silverfish. And the windows had been carefully plastered with strips torn from Ibn Rushd’s Incoherence of the Incoherence interwoven with similar strips from de la Vega’s Confusion of Confusions–a charm designed, if one were willing to believe it, to make it impossible for anyone peering in from outside to understand what was happening within.
Perhaps amused tolerance was all that Kempton-Wace deserved. He had to admit he had done little to earn praise. As the convocation opened once again, he had another chance to prove himself–though, as the years rolled by, he found himself wondering more and more whether this game really was worth the candle.
The fifth member of the convocation, Marek, would not arrive until the event was nearly over. Such was always his custom. But between the other four–Dr Abdulhamid, Countess Metzgar, Professor Wu, and Kempton-Wace himself–they covered the books of the living world well enough.
Dr Abdulhamid’s possessed the world’s foremost collection of the works of the Greeks and the Byzantines, the ancient Egyptian priests and the medieval Islamic scholars, and the gospels, epistles, and histories of the Israelites, whether canonical, deuterocanonical, or wholly apocryphal.
Meanwhile, the bibliographical territory of Countess Metzgar stretched the length and breadth of Europe, from Cervantes and Meslier in the west to Linneas and Dostoyevsky in the east, and from the Eddas of the north to the ancient works of Rome in the south. Always thorough, she neglected none of it.
Professor Wu bore with him always on his steamship the classics of China, Japan, Korea, India, Siam, and the Mongols–the texts of some of the largest and earliest civilizations, containing all that those great empires had learned, from the details of brewing tea to the direction of great armies to the conduct of a virtuous life to the most delicate of surgeries.
And Kempton-Wace, finally, had inherited the Anglophone territories from his departed uncle, though it had been his own innovation to uproot from London to Philadelphia five years ago, in anticipation of what he expected to be the rise of a great new cultural and literary power. America, he had to admit, had not yet yielded any literature of the first order–but he had acquired this year, at great expense and personal danger, what he hoped might prove to be the first items of real interest from the western hemisphere.
The convocation, as always, was a quiet affair. It had no ceremonial commencement. Instead, there was simply one morning that found each of its participants wandering the rooms belonging to the others, inspecting the shelves with monomaniacal interest, and sometimes questioning the owners about particular books they might want.
“You haven’t been neglecting Mother England, have you?” asked Countess Metzgar as she scanned Kempton-Wace’s shelves critically.
“Of course not,” sniffed Kempton-Wace. Five years earlier, he would have instinctively added an honorific, out of regard for the countess’s title, but already the democratic ways of the Americans had started to infect him.
“Very good,” murmured the countess, seemingly deaf to any possible slight. “Otherwise I might be forced to annex that little island to my own territories…”
Kempton-Wace stiffened. He could see no way to interpret that comment except as a threat. He reached brusquely into his shelves and pressed a volume of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal under Countess Metzgar’s nose. “I expect you’re looking for this, as usual.”
Ignoring the insult again, she merely took the book and slipped it under her arm. “I expect I am.”
After several days of this browsing and bantering, the four of them retreated back to their own rooms with the books they had selected. It was during this phase that Marek inevitably arrived, perfectly timing his entrance to permit him to spend as little time as possible among the others while still being able to experience the full range of their produce.
Nothing about Marek gave much hint about where he came from. His accent, clothes, and manners all seemed foreign to Kempton-Wace, but not recognizable as belonging to any particular nation. Neither did Marek have the appearance of any single type–if pressed, Kempton-Wace would have said that the man had recent ancestors from every corner of the globe.
Marek always carried with him a little battered leather valise which contained the few scraps that comprised his entire library. That library, however, made up in rarity what it lacked in size. The scraps were said to be the only remaining fragments from the great knowledge houses of Atlantis and Lemuria, of Shangri-La and El Dorado–of all the half-mythical, long-vanished, and highly advanced civilizations that had dotted the globe thousands of years ago.
Had more of their contents been saved, the libraries of those civilizations would have put to shame all the collected knowledge of the world–both ancient and modern. There was nothing, it was said, that the scholars of those semi-mythical lands had not known. There was no secret they had not possessed–including the secrets of All Power, All Knowledge, Unflagging Health, and Immeasurable Wealth.
Marek guarded his few tiny fragments jealously. It had been decades, in fact, since anyone had seen that valise opened.
As host of the Constantinople convocation, Dr Abdulhamid was first to present his work for the year. As Marek and the others watched, he placed a great charcoal cake in a brazier and lit it with the careful touch of a long match. No one needed to be told that this charcoal cake was one of a few dozen that Dr Abdulhamid had pressed from the excavated ashes of the great library at Alexandria.
Once the charcoal began to smoke, Dr Abdulhamid ladled a small spoonful of incense into the brazier. The room filled with the delicious aromas of myrrh and cedar. The doctor lifted a beautiful ancient copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War (collected lovingly by Professor Wu during the previous year) then ripped several of its leaves into pieces over the brazier.
Dr Abdulhamid followed with strips shredded from the pages of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittania, then Song Ci’s Collected Cases of Injustices Rectified, the complete works of Machiavelli, Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Hobbes’s Leviathan, and (for the final flourish) a few strips from Cotton Mathers’s Wonders of the Invisible World.
Smoke wafted in fragrant billows from the censor, the odor of incense replaced by the sweet smell of burning paper and ink. Dr Abdulhamid bowed and intoned quietly, “The incense of All Power.” Then he leaned forward over the censor and took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the smoke and exhaling it back out again. All of the others followed suit.
Marek was last to test the incense of All Power. Dr Abdulhamid regarded him hopefully as Marek let the smoke out of his lungs again. But Marek simply smiled, shook his head, and clasped his valise a little tighter to his side.
Professor Wu was next to share. He had brought a pot of water almost to boil over an open flame, which he tested now with the tip of his little finger. Once at the desired temperature, the professor turned to a little bamboo tray. He had inspected and husbanded the tray carefully, forever worrying over its contents and tossing out any that did not meet his expectations of quality.
It contained scores of tiny paper scraps, each one snipped and cut to the size of a thumbnail, and left to dry in the sun until they became crisp and curled. Each little leaf had been cut by hand with a knife from the pages of a very small handful of books–for Professor Wu loved simplicity above all.
The books this year were the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, Les Prophetes of Nostradamus, Emmanuel Swedenbourg’s Heaven and Hell, and the Classic of Tea of Lu Yu. The recipe then had been carefully balanced and blended so that any handful, thrown casually into a pot of near-boiling water, would yield a brew of the same quality and composition.
Professor Wu passed the steaming ceramic cups around, smiling over his own vessel as he said, “The tea of All Knowledge.” Drinking it down, the others soon followed suit, observing the patterns left by the sodden dregs in the bottoms of their cups. Yet still Marek demurred, sipping only slightly at the tea, and keeping his valise firmly shut.
Countess Metzgar, on the other hand, did not value simplicity. Her recipe was a veritable mixing pot of books–it was anyone’s guess exactly how many. Each year, she ripped more strips from more books than she could ever use, and kept the leftovers as the mother for the next batch.
This year alone, as far as was known, she had torn pages from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, from Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delights, from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, and from Harcouet de Longville’s Long Livers. It was anyone’s guess what else was in the mixture, for Countess Metzgar did not keep clear notes. But Kempton-Wace knew that in prior yearshe had donated at least one copy each of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Halley’s Estimate of the Degrees of Mortality. But there were no doubt dozens more volumes mingled in as well.
Countess Metzgar took great handfuls of the torn strips and bathed them in a mixture of water and starch. Coating each strip liberally, she at last produced a great wet plaster, which she laid carefully upon her own face, shaping the soft matter to the contours of her cheeks, nose, eyes, and chin–even inserting straws in her nostrils. Through muffled lips she murmured, “The plaster of Unflagging Health.”
All applied the plaster to themselves, to greater or lesser degrees. Marek simply patted a little of the mixture onto his left forearm and then seemed to regard it with amusement and interest. But the hoped-for result clearly did not obtain, for Marek soon wiped it off again without offering to add any of the contents of his own valise.
Finally, it was Kempton-Wace’s turn. The paucity of his own collection meant that he rarely had as much material to work with as he liked. Every year, he relied on the old stand-bys–a few shavings of The Domesday Book, copious helpings of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and a seasoning of Abrahama de Moivre’s Doctrine of Chance.
But this year, at last, he had something new to add. Somewhat disappointed by the new American books he had tried over the past few years, he had taken a different tack this time. Instead, he had gone south–far south, down to Latin America, where written records of a sort had been kept thousands of years earlier. If age were a prerequisite for power (a hypothesis that Kempton-Wace did not necessarily admit, but was willing enough to test), these “documents” might prove a valuable ingredient.
The documents in question were really quipus or talking knots–knotted lengths of yarn that encoded the records of business transactions and accountings of wealth, used for thousands of years in the Andes. Kempton-Wace could not read the rope records. But neither did he–nor any of the others–read the majority of the books they used in any of their recipes. Their contents might or might not hold the secrets they were looking for–but reading was too slow a method to find out, and so they had adopted these other means as a way to more quickly distill and access the arcana of all the world’s cultures and ages.
For his part, Kempton-Wace dipped his few shredded books and the quipos into suet and spices, and then heaped the results into a waiting pie crust. After covering over with another crust and baking for an hour, he removed the pie from the oven and presented steaming slices to the convocation. “The pie of Immeasurable Wealth.”
Kempton-Wace managed to choke down his own slice somehow–the slimy paper coated his throat unpleasantly while the fibers of the yarn caught in between his teeth. Each of the others nibbled just the tiniest crumbs, and Kempton-Wace watched Marek refuse his slice entirely with a smirk of condescension on his lips.
That evening, Marek prepared to depart. The next morning, the others would pack up. The convocation had ended for another year–and Kempton-Wace felt he had failed more spectacularly than usual. Not only had his counting knots not had the desired effect, but hardly anyone had given his attempt a fair chance. They had all simply assumed he had failed–and they were right.
He was surprised then to see Marek shuffling into his room, already wearing his traveling clothes. The man had never spoken to Kempton-Wace before, and even the others hardly seemed to be on intimate terms with him. He bowed instinctively to his visitor, though he could barely imagine what they would find to say to each other.
Kempton-Wace felt his hand gripped by Marek’s withered fingers. They were dry and cool, but still strong. No one knew how old Marek might be, but no one seemed to remember a convocation without him.
“Are we in Philadelphia next year?” Marek asked, his strange accent drifting to the bare edge of familiarity.
Kempton-Wace flushed. He felt the question must be some reference to whether he was fit to continue among the others. “Surely that is for you to decide,” he murmured.
“On the contrary,” replied Marek with a genuine smile, “it is for you to decide.”
The objective of the yearly meeting was to obtain once and for all the true secrets of unlimited Power, Knowledge, Health, and Wealth. No one had found them yet. No one had even come close. But it was thought that if anyone did come near the mark, the addition of Marek’s precious fragments might turn a promising concoction into an active agent. The bits of lost knowledge he carried with him would act as catalyst for real results.
“We are all very rich and jaded here,” continued Marek. “Our methods are odd–some say misguided.”
“At least you are optimistic.”
“We do not have a monopoly on optimism, my young friend. And often I wonder if a more practical brand of optimism would suit your disposition better.”
Kempton-Wace was taken aback. It did sound as though he was being thrown out of the convocation, which was only what he expected. If he begged, he might be allowed him to stay another year. Perhaps even longer. But would he beg–for this?
Marek gestured to the shelves around them. “Most of the books here were written by practical men and women. Over centuries, mankind has nosed its way slowly up from ignorance one small insight at a time. We here, in this house–we hope to overshoot that slow progress. We hope to bound ahead in a single leap to the ultimate answers. That is why we choose different methods than most.”
Kempton-Wace said nothing as Marek shuffled forward and began to pull books down off the shelves. “Engineering, politics, theology, economics. By simple accident of history, these American books are all new books, or practically so. But new books are not published only in America.” He shot a glance at Kempton-Wace, his bushy eyebrows levitating over piercing eyes. “Our friend the Countess has nothing of Freud or Marx, you know–and nothing of a hundred other scientists and philosophers either. The other two are no better.”
Marek sighed and laid down the books he had looked through. Instead, he patted his valise. “If I were a younger man, I would keep a different library. You may not have much money or much talent at baking,”–here, Marek’s eyes almost twinkled–“but you have time enough to learn the contents of many of these books. Who knows? Perhaps in your lifetime, the incremental progress of the practical school will, tiny step by tiny step, surpass even the ancient knowledge that was lost thousands of years ago.” Marek shrugged. “I am an old fool,” he said abruptly. “Forgive me, and good night.”
Alone again, Kempton-Wace looked over his library once more. It was as if he were seeing his books for the first time. He suddenly had a vision of what would happen to the volumes if he hosted the convocation next year. They would be burned with incense, brewed with tea, formed into plaster, and whatever else those rich and jaded imaginations might come up with. Certainly they would be snipped and ripped and mangled beyond all recognition, their empty leather bindings finally thrown to the trash heap after all the pages had been consumed.
And if he kept them home–back in the more practical world, as Marek had suggested? He wouldn’t make them into pies, that was for certain. But perhaps, thought Kempton-Wace with an ironic smile as he absently pulled Erasmus’s Praise of Folly from the shelf before him, perhaps he might find some better use for these books than that.
“No,” said Kempton-Wace at last and to no one in particular. “After further consideration, I don’t think the convocation will be in Philadelphia next year after all.”
M. Bennardo’s short stories appear in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and others. He is also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies — the second volume This Is How You Die is coming from GCP in July 2013. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people everywhere can find him online at www.mbennardo.com
Photo credit K. Sekelsky.