The Sorcerer Of Stockholm (novel excerpt)

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Chapter One

“What are you interested in?” asked Samuel. “Name your subject.”

“Scandal,” replied Tabby immediately. The three women laughed, Angela the loudest, though Tabby’s schoolgirlish giggle lasted longer.

Samuel was undeterred. “Scandal, let me see... Ah, the very thing.” He withdrew a volume from one of the neat stacks of books on the stout whitewood table. “The Comte de Cagliostro’s Affair of the Diamond Necklace. At the court of Louis XVI. Headline news in all the best scandal sheets of the time. Here’s a collection of the choicest items, complete with twenty-one portraits of the noble rogues involved. In splendid aquatint. Cagliostro was one of those put on trial. Remarkable rarity, published in 1785 and 1786. What is more,” Samuel stated with a flourish, it comes from the library of a chap called Hans Axel von Fersen, a Swedish nobleman who was a close chum of Marie Antoinette’s.”

“Does he figure in the scandal?” Dinah asked.

“Not this one,” Samuel said apologetically. “But he was the person mainly responsible for trying to arrange her getaway later on when the chips were down.” He opened the book and showed the girls some of the illustrations.

Meanwhile Jonathan brooded sullenly in the background, fidgeting with the strap of the bag holding his photographic equipment. A folded tripod lay on the floor beside it.

“What did they put them on trial for?” Angela asked.

“They got hold of some enormously expensive diamond necklace, pretending it was for the Queen.”

“And she didn’t know anything about it?” said Dinah.

Samuel smiled. “That’s the question. No one really knows.”

“How much is it?” Tabby asked.

“To you...” said Samuel slowly, “...five thousand.”

“Five thousand what?”

“Crowns. Kronor. That’s not much more than four hundred pounds. A bargain.”

Tabby shook her head. “Didn’t bring any loose change with me. Anyway, it doesn’t sound spicy enough. For that money one’s entitled to a bit more spice.”

“How about food?” Dinah suggested.

“I’ll put the kettle on in just a moment,” said Samuel.

“I didn’t mean that,” Dinah assured him hastily. “I meant books. What have you got in the food line?”

“I’ll get the kettle on anyway, but food... Let me see. Food... What d’you say to fish? Do you like fish?”

The girls all approved and Samuel brought out another old leather-bound book. “Looks a bit stale,” remarked Tabby. “You sure it hasn’t gone off?” And she broke into her giggle. “How old is it?” she managed to say.

“1738. A remarkable copy. First edition. Ichthyologia sive Opera Omnia de Piscibus scilicitet: Bibliotheca Ichthyologica,” Samuel read. “It’s by Peter Artedi, the founder of ichthyology. All about fish.”

“Any good recipes?” asked Tabby, still not properly recovered from her last burst of giggling.

“He didn’t fry ‘em, he classified ‘em,” said Samuel drily. “Was a bit overeager though. Went and got himself drowned in Amsterdam, so he finished up rather like them, only they were better adapted to the environment.”

“He could have popped them in the pan after he’d written down their names,” said Angela. “Must have lacked imagination. What else have you got? How about drink?”

Samuel eyed her thoughtfully. She was a tall, strongly-built young woman, with a ruddy complexion. “I’ve got something that should interest you. The first Swedish treatise on hops.”

“Now you’re talking,” Angela stated.

“Written as a result of the Royal Proclamation on Hop Gardens of July 1687.”

“And what was that?” queried Dinah.

“An attempt to cut down the import of hops by increasing production at home. But it deals not only with how to grow them, but their uses as well.”

“That sounds better,” said Angela. “Put that one aside and when I inherit some wealth I’ll have a closer look at it. What’s the price?”

“You can have it for a mere two thousand.”

“Crowns?”

“Crowns.”

“And how’s your late seventeenth century Swedish?” asked Diana.

“I suppose I’d better learn the fairly late twentieth century variety first,” said Angela. “Perhaps

you’d better not put it aside after all.

“Haven’t you got something more up-to-date?” Tabby enquired.

“Well, if you want to come right up to modern times, I’ve got something almost contemporary inside, Chambers Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts, twenty volumes complete. Full of fascinating material, including on-the-spot reports from trouble centres all over the world. Volume three, I know, has got a series of eye-witness accounts of slavery in the United States.”

“And when was it written?”

“Not so long before the Civil War, in the 1840s.”

“And that’s up-to-date?”

“How more up-to-date do you want to be?”

Jonathan stopped fiddling with his strap, got up from the easy chair where he had been sitting and walked across the room to the others. He tried to catch Samuel’s eye, but Samuel was surrounded by books and women, a combination that left little room for extraneous matters. Or people.

“And what are you interested in?” asked Dinah as Jonathan approached.

“What I need...” he began.

“Now what he needs,” Samuel broke in, “is De Boodt!” He took a tome from one of the stacks, while the girls chuckled.

“What sort of boot?” asked Tabby.

“Well, I could think of several, but the one I’ve got here lived four hundred years ago in Bruges and was called Anselm Boetius. Anselm Boetius De Boodt. Referred to as the précurseur de la minerologie moderne. Gives six-hundred-and-forty-seven different names of jewels, minerals, fossils and stones. First attempt to apply some kind of method to minerals. Essential reading.”

“I can’t help feeling you’re holding back on the juicier stuff,” said Tabby. Angela agreed.

Samuel’s blue eye gleamed brighter as he carefully replaced the books they had been looking at. “Alright,” he said. “How about Descartes? Tractus de Homine et de Formatione Foetus. What every young woman should know. And man,” he added with a glance at Jonathan. “Early embryology. Or if you want to go one better still, well then...” He moved along the table. “...Then you have to turn to Falcutius. Ah Falcutius!” He took the velum-bound volume in both hands. “An illustrated medical incunabulum.” His face shone.

“Sounds indecent,” murmured Angela, while Jonathan fervently wished he had stayed in his seat.

Sermo sextus de Membris Generationis, Venice 1498. A detailed account of the anatomy of the genital organs, with reference to gonorrhoea and related diseases thrown in as a bonus, along with a section on pregnancy and childbirth. No home can be complete without its Falcutius. Now what am I bid? I can offer you a third edition, published only seven years after the work first appeared in 1491. What’s that you say, a mere third edition? BUT... and it’s a very big but indeed... it’s the only edition with an illustration!” He looked sharply at Tabby and shook his head. “No, you can’t see it. That, madame, is exclusively for serious customers!”

 

Jonathan was back in the easy chair, but now separated from the others only by the large, low coffee table around which they were seated in the front room of Samuel’s furnished flat. The room was in the corner of the building and had windows along two adjacent walls. Through the double panes of glass farthest from where they sat, Jonathan could see the billowing spinnaker of a small sailing craft rejoicing in a fresh breeze that tempered the still bright, late August, afternoon sun.

“What’s an incubabula?” Tabby asked quietly, looking first at Dinah.

Dinah shrugged. “No idea. I was afraid to ask,” she confided.

They all turned to Jonathan. Samuel was in the kitchen. “I think it’s an early book,” Jonathan said uncomfortably. “One of the early printed books.” His peevishness had abated with the food Samuel provided, together with the tea. He still looked occasionally at his watch, but more in resignation now than anger.

Samuel returned with another plate of waffles. There was whipped cream and jam on the table. “What book are you talking about?

“We’ve been discussing your bincubobulum,” said Tabby mischievously.

“My what!”

“You know, the one you won’t let me look at.”

“Oh Falcutius. Incunabula are books from the infancy of the printing press, when the art of printing was still in the cradle. Fifteenth century.”

“They must be very rare then,” said Dinah.

Samuel nodded. “There were many thousands of books published in the latter part of the fifteenth century, of course, and more in Venice than anywhere else, but the editions were small and as far as I know there’s only one other illustrated Falcutius in existence.”

“You won’t be giving it to me for my birthday then,” Tabby said.

For want of anything better to do, Jonathan took his camera out of the bag and focussed carefully on her rounded features. He followed her movements through the viewfinder of the single-lense reflex, waiting to catch a characteristic puckering of the brow, or a good display of teeth. She noticed the camera pointing in her direction and opened her mouth wide in a hideous grin. Jonathan clicked.

“Is that the only incu... incu... inky you’ve got?” asked Angela.

“Oh no,” Samuel answered proudly. “I’ve got a Basil as well.”

“That’s nothing, so have I,” said Tabby. “I’ve got a cousin Basil.”

“This one was a saint,” Samuel pointed out. “Basilius Magnus.”

“Oh I expect my Basil will get himself canonised one day,” Tabby said in an offhand way. “Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and if you listen to his mother, my aunt, he’s never done a thing wrong in his life. I must remember to call him Basilius. He is a silly ass really!” she added.

“My Basilius died in the year 379.”

“There weren’t any printing presses then,” Dinah remarked.

“It’s translated and edited from the Greek original. Dated 1460, which is most remarkable.”

“Pre-Caxton at any rate,” stated Dinah, earning the admiration of her two friends.

Samuel smiled. It was printed in Germany. But if you check the editor’s date of birth, you can see he was only ten years old at the time.

Tabby grinned. “Have you got any of your lot translating Basil from the Greek?” she asked Dinah.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve heard I’ve got a Greek kid coming into the class,” Dinah told her. “Only thing is I don’t think he speaks a word of English, or Swedish for that matter, or anything but Greek, so someone’ll have to do some translating. Don’t ask me what I’m going to do with him.”

“Learn Greek,” Angela suggested. She turned to Samuel. “But how can a ten-year-old child have published something like that?”

“He didn’t,” Samuel assured her. “They were a bunch of crooks, even in those days. It must have come out about twenty years later.”

Jonathan concentrated on Dinah’s thin, pale, pointed face in which firm lines had begun to imprint themselves, turning into deep, dark clefts when she smiled. “I shall have to teach the little horrors something about rare books,” she said. “Why don’t you come along and speak to them?”

Samuel promised he would one day, probably when he was in town to take his conversation classes, which he was going to do one evening a week.

“Someone has offered me an evening’s work a week taking conversation courses,” said Angela. “But I don’t know if I dare. I’ve never done that sort of thing before.”

“Neither had I until last term,” Samuel revealed, “but I shouldn’t let that put you off. He got me into it.” Samuel nodded at Jonathan. He actually does it for a living.”

Jonathan kept his eye to the viewfinder.

“I suppose you take your bincuboblia with you,” said Tabby with a guffaw.

“I’ll bink your boblia if you’re not careful!” Samuel threatened. “Have another waffle. No, perhaps not. You’ll choke. Have some more tea instead.” He turned to Angela. “But if you want to take the job seriously,” he said, “let me give you a piece of invaluable advice. There is one gigantic work which really is absolutely indispensable. It towers head, shoulders and membris generationis above and beyond anything ever conceived on the subject. Before or since.”

“Show it to me,” said Angela. “I’ll need to imbibe every word.”

“It’s an English grammar written for Swedes, strangely enough by a Dane. Kraak. Pronounced somewhere between your tonsils.”

“I’ve had mine out,” Tabby stated at once.

“Well try gargling with tea while saying the name, you’ll soon get the hang of it.”

Tabby made a brave attempt, while Dinah shook her head in mock disapproval. “Should have brought your bib with. Your five-year-olds can manage better at the table than you.”

Jonathan wished he had brought fast film instead of the ultra fine grain emulsion he obviously had no real use for.

“Ifvar Kraak,” Samuel continued. “Studied languages in Copenhagen and came to Sweden when he was twenty-four.”

“Is he still here?” Angela asked.

“His bones might be. The book was published in 1748.” Samuel went to get it and came back muttering. “Magnificent! Magnificent! This is something you simply cannot afford to be without.” He sat down again. “Listen to this. He not only reveals the mysteries of English grammar to the desperate Swede suffering from verbal confusion and hunger, but he puts all other phrase books to blushing shame. Here is everything you could wish for. But everything!”

“Well let’s hear something then,” said Angela impatiently.

“‘Master when d’ye sail for England?’ Answer: ‘As soon as the wind serves...’ What more practical start could you have than that? ‘Honest friend, is this the readiest road to London?’”

“No,” answered Tabby. “This one’s not quite ready yet. Try that one over there.”

Samuel ignored her. “Note the combination of practicality and politeness,” he said. “Yet with a pleasing economy of words. Nothing unnecessary.” He turned over a few pages. “Here we get down to even more practical matters. ‘Sweetheart have you put on clean sheets?’” Tabby bellowed. Angela cackled. Dinah’s face creased. Jonathan clicked. Wound on and clicked again.

“I ask you, what stainless, bacteria-free, Swedish traveller contemplating penetration into Anglo-Saxon parts can possibly be without instruction from these pages? ‘Do you dress yourself in bed?’” Samuel read.

“Only when there’s no heating in winter,” Tabby croaked.

“‘Why, that’s the fashion Sir,’” Samuel continued. “Let not your poor linguistically inexperienced protégés be denied the wisdom of this book,” he exhorted. “Let them not be satisfied with a superficial smattering of the latest jargon. This stuff will never die. Listen: ‘If you won’t rise, I’ll pull off your bedcloaths.’”

“That’s all right,” said Tabby. “I’ve finished dressing!” Fortunately for her respiratory and digestive tracts, she had also finished eating and drinking.

“‘Why don’t you button your waistcoat?’” Samuel went on. “‘Answer: I love to go open breast.’”

Tabby was in no condition to comment, but Angela managed to say, “Never wear waistcoats myself.”

Samuel turned the page once more. “Now we get down to real essentials: ‘Where is the wash ball? Where is the house of office, the little house, the chamber pot?’ Now how many of your pupils would be able to handle that situation do you think?”

“With this book around there’s no doubt they’ll very soon run up against it,” Dinah stated. Tabby tried to say something, but couldn’t. Jonathan’s face was still hidden.

“‘Undress me!’” Samuel read out, now having to struggle a little to keep his composure. “‘Undress me!’ Just two words, but what words! What words!”

Tabby was doubled up and even Dinah looked as though she could well lose control. But there was no easing up. Not yet. Samuel looked hard at Tabby. “‘I hope the letting of blood will do you good.’” His eye moved on. “‘I am dying...’” he read, and paused before giving the printed reply. “‘Cheer up, be not downcast for so small a matter...’” He lowered the book and stared as solemnly as he could from one to the other of his helpless guests. “I shall say no more. The name of Kraak should be inscribed for ever in the heart of every lover of the language. A spreader of light and learning.”

But he could not resist a parting prod after another long look at Tabby’s heaving form. He shook his head sadly. “‘If asses’ milk does not cure her, nothing will.’” He closed the book. “A treasure,” he murmured. “Pure treasure. Priceless!” He rose to put it back on its stack.

As he did so, Tabby struggled from her seat. “Where’s the little house?” she gasped. “The house of office.”

“Through there and first on the left,” Samuel informed her, pointing towards the open door. “You’ll find the wash ball on the right.”

 

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