As the winter sun dipped low on an unseen horizon, the drizzle was replaced by something that might actually be called rain, though it was still so tenuous about it, so hesitant to fall out of the sky, that it hardly seemed like an improvement. It did mean that everything went from being damp to properly sodden. Water dripped from the eaves. It condensed on the windows like fog. It seeped into the basement and through the hatch in the dome of the observatory. Puddles and pools of it appeared on the marble floor of the foyer and spread to the main hall, but Mrs. Patavatsky was too busy cooking to mop them up.
Neville had announced he would take his evening meal in the conservatory with his new guests. Though the hamadryad wouldn’t be eating (they asked, and received a perfunctory shake of the branches to indicate no), he thought she might enjoy the company. Of course, a spirit that lives all its life in a remote and forbidding forest probably learns at some point how to handle solitude, but we tend to expect that other people need the same things we do, and Neville was a real social butterfly.
He ate on a small round table brought in from the back parlor. Qornok Jones came in while the first course was being served. The salesman had changed into one of Neville’s old suits. It was rather tight through the chest and hips—Neville was a slender fellow, to the extent that perhaps the adjective emaciated was not unwarranted. Mummification and burial in a desert clime will take its toll on one’s waistline, of course.
Jones sat down and put a napkin in his breast pocket. “I wonder,” he said, “if you have had time to review my sales literature.”
Neville didn’t possess the ability to blink (lacking, as he did, eyelids) but he was capable of surprise. He set down his wine glass very carefully. “Your literature? I don’t believe you provided me with any,” he said.
Jones set his black leather case in his lap. Opening the flap, he took out a thin brochure and handed it over. It was printed cheaply, on cheap paper, and Neville worried the ink might rub off on his bandaged fingers. He took one look at the title, which was printed at the top in alarmingly large letters:
WELCOME TO YOUR EXCITING
NEW CAREER IN DOOR-TO-DOOR SALES!
“I think,” Neville said, “I might save reading this until later, if that’s alright.”
Jones lifted his hands for a moment in a gesture that lacked clarity but perhaps suggested a measure of frustration. Then he lowered them again to the table.
“I get the impression you’re trying to tell me something,” Neville said. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”
“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how much your new set of encyclopedias will enrich your life,” Jones said. Though his heart didn’t seem in it, this time.
He did not touch his fish. When the soup course arrived, though, the salesman seemed to perk up a little bit. “If sir or madam will excuse me for just a moment,” he announced. Then he took off his hat.
Neville was more intrigued than dismayed by what was revealed. He was expecting green tentacles and in this he was not disappointed. There were rather a lot of them, and a charitable individual might have said they looked like a head of unkempt hair. A more scientifically-minded individual might have suggested they resembled the myriad arms of a sea anemone. As the mummy watched in unabashed curiosity, Jones lifted his soup spoon over his head and, little by little, poured his dinner into an unseen mouth in the midst of that writhing mass.
When he was finished, Jones gave a little sound not unlike a belch but not terribly like one, either. Then he turned to face Neville again. “I wonder,” he said, “if you have considered the effect a set of encyclopedias would have on the children of the house?”
“Children?” Neville asked. “You’re barking up the wrong… er. Tree.” He glanced up at the hamadryad, their third for dinner. She stared down at him with those empty knothole eyes.
“The effect,” Jones said again, very carefully. “On the children.”
“Never had any,” his host replied. “Might be a bit late for it now.”
“The children!” Jones said, so loudly even the ushabtis looked up from their work. Jones tapped the brochure that still lay on the table between them. Hard enough that his plaster finger broke off and went spinning across the table, only to land with a tiny crash on the floor. One of the ushabtis picked it up and carried it off.
Neville looked down at the brochure. How could he not? He found the line that Jones had tapped so vehemently.
Questions for your new clients:
• I wonder if you have considered the effect a set of encyclopedias would have on the children of the house?
Neville read that again. Stared at Jones for a moment, then scanned the brochure in full. One whole column of the text was made up of bulleted entries separated into categories: how to gain access to the house, questions for your new clients, how to handle irate householders. Instructions on how to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, in other words. There was nothing in the slightest interesting or unusual printed there.
Which was exactly the point. “Come with me,” Neville said, rising from his chair and throwing his napkin on the table. He led Jones through and into the Hall’s library. “You learned to speak English by reading that brochure, didn’t you?” he asked. Jones didn’t reply but if jumping to conclusions had been an Olympic sport, Neville would have been down in the metaphorical sand pit, surrounding by reporters and flashing light bulbs as he took the gold. In other words, he was very good at it.
“The only things you know how to say are on that piece of paper. Which is useless since whatever you’re trying to tell me isn’t there. Well, perhaps we can do something about that.” Neville took a book at random off the nearest shelf. It happened to be a volume of Wodehouse stories, something about Jeeves and Wooster. He handed it to Jones. When the salesman didn’t seem to understand how to operate this new piece of technology, Neville flipped it open for him. Ruffled through a few pages.
Jones dropped the book on the floor. Not in disdain. More like it had just transformed into the shape of a snake and bitten his hand. He let out a little sound something like a tea kettle just before it is about to boil, and something like the sound a can of tennis balls makes when you first pop open the lid. Though not terribly like either, to be fair.
Then he looked around at the library, at the thousands of books crammed into its high shelves. At the massive dictionary sitting on a lectern in one corner. At the cases of maps and charts and oversized documents. At the wooden globe that had a complete bar set hiding inside of it, revealed by depressing a tiny catch.
Jones’ mouth could not fall open in awe, because it was made of plaster. He could, and did, sink to his knees. Press his hands together in front of him. Get up and run over to the shelves and read the spine of every book, sounding out the unfamiliar words with a cry of delight.
In short, Jones acted like anyone should the first time they see a library. As if they’ve just been handed the key to every secret of the universe.
Neville watched in amusement that grew into sentiment. The salesman was so clearly overjoyed at discovering this word hoard that his mood seemed to make up for the rainy weather outside. Neville picked up the Wodehouse book and tucked it in Jones’ pocket. He was about to start recommending volumes for the salesman’s perusal, when he was forced to stop by a strangely familiar, yet always exciting, sound.
Someone was knocking on the front door.
“If you’ll beg my pardon, I suppose I’ll leave you to it,” Neville said. Pointlessly yet again. Jones wouldn’t have heard him if he was shouting “stroke, stroke” through a megaphone. The salesman was too buy yanking books out of their shelves and staring at the words within.
The knock on the door came again. A rhythmic, repetitive knock, a short solo tune for percussion he would recognize anywhere.
Or, as it is better know by its popular title: Shave-and-a-hair-cut: two-bits.