Jonathan Bing wasn't the first citizen of Twonbly Town to have a run-in with Selznak the Dwarf.
Meet the young Theophile Escargot, aggrieved former citizen of Twombly Town. Divorced, exiled, and humiliated (all for the crime of eating his own pie), he sets off down the Oriel in search of a fetching barmaid, only to find himself traveling by submarine into fabled Balumnia, where is he is beset on all sides by an evil dwarf, a piratical elf, a stone giant, and an unlucky bag of marbles.
With a little help, Escargot must rescue his true love, save the elves, and—most importantly—redeem his dignity.
Revisit the world of The Elfin Ship and The Disappearing Dwarf, and discover where the adventures began.
I'm a huge, huge Jim Blaylock fan – not only is he one of the original founders of steampunk but the author of many magical fabulist novels that are quirky and unique. He writes like no one else, and here he created an original and magical world. Come in and be charmed! – Lavie Tidhar
River fogs were by no means uncommon along the Oriel. When October came and the nights grew cool and wet, mist would rise along the river and creep ashore, stealing along the edge of the meadow, past the Widow's windmill, seeping between scattered houses at the edge of the village and down Main Street. The Guildhall and the market and Stover's Tavern would disappear behind a gray shroud, and nighttime noises – the footfalls of a late traveler, the hooting of an owl, the slow creak of tree limbs in the breeze – would sound unnaturally loud and ominous.
Anyone who had any sense, of course, would be abed, with their windows closed and curtains drawn, and the embers of the evening fire burning low and cheerful in the grate. There was something heavy and strange about a river fog, something that suggested it was the work of enchantment and not of nature. It was the sort of thing that was awfully fun to read about in books, expecially if you had a glass of something at hand – ginger beer or a spot of good port – and if the fire hadn't burned down yet, and if the clock was ticking away low and comfortable on the mantel, reminding you that it was getting on time for bed.
But almost no one in Twombly Town would give you ten cents actually to be out in the fog – not after dark, anyway. It wasn't so much that there was anything in particular to be afraid of; it was that there was nothing in particular to be afraid of. Nothing but the humped shape of a bent tree with a limb hooked down over the road, looming dimly through the mist as if it were waiting there just for you, as if it were going to clutch at you and snatch off your hat. There were autumn leaves, drifting ground-ward, floating like paper boats on the wet night air and ridden, or so said the old stories, by henny-penny men in beards and hats and with enormous round eyes. There was the occasional traveler, out and about for no good reason at all, who would appear up the road like a ghost, slowly growing more distinct as he drifted toward you, but with his face veiled by mist. And you would wonder if he had any face at all as you listened to his footsteps, clump, clump, clump, echoing off the darkness and the moonlit fog. No, it was best to be indoors, reading in the lantern light, smoking a cheerful pipe.
The rising sun would burn the mists away, and by noon there would be nothing of the fog left but dew on the meadow grasses and scattered leaves. In the distance would loom a pale cloudbank that lay low against the mountains, watching. There would be no enchantment involved anymore, just the solid scrape of your neighbor in a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, hoeing weeds among turnips and string beans. Amos Bing would clatter past in a cart full of cheeses, bound for town, reining up at the crossroads so as not to hit young Beezle, who, on his bicycle, pedaled a carton full of groceries toward the Widow's house on the hill. Twombly Town, like all sensible villages, was mostly a daytime place. At night it slept.
All of that was irksome to Theophile Escargot. He much preferred the nighttime with its mystery and portent, when no one could say what mightn't be lurking just over there, beyond that copse or at the edge of that patch of shadow. If a man slept by day he had little time to work. That was a satisfying notion to Escargot. And he needn't be bothered to make tiresome small talk about the weather or radishes or the lamentable state of the river road between Twombly Town and Monmouth. So, unlike his fellows, he was fond of being abroad by night and abed by day – a fondness which led him into difficulty with his wife.
There were other things that led him into difficulty with his wife, especially his taste for pies. Apple pie was his favorite and lemon meringue next. Then came pumpkin and cherry and peach and blackberry and raspberry and apricot and sweet potato and just about anything at all, although he drew the line at salmonberry, which had an unnatural color and the flavor of thin soap. He could tolerate it with ice cream, but alone it wasn't worth eating. Unlike other foods, there was no right-time-of-the-day for eating pies, according to Escargot. And there is where he got into trouble with his wife. It was the last, in fact, of a long series of gettings-into-trouble.
His wife, a thin woman with elbows like broken sticks, believed in slices of pies, in the evening, and only after dinner had been dutifully consumed. If dinner was made up largely of brussels sprouts and boiled tongue – if it wasn't, in other words, dinner at all, but was a sort of joke dinner mucked up in the interests of health – then the pie would stay in the locked pantry, the key hanging on a piece of heavy thread around his wife's neck while Escargot poked at the sprouts with a fork, imagining the ghastly sour taste of the things, and staring sorrowfully at the pink and horrible tongue which seemed always on the verge of looking up at him and saying tsk, tsk, tsk. If Escargot was absolutely honest, he wouldn't be able to swear that there hadn't been moments when he felt the passing urge to grab that key and give the thread a bit of a twist.
But it had never come to that. His wife, he was certain, baked the pies to torment him, parsing out little slivers now and then to remind him of something. He couldn't, however, figure out what that something was. More often than not her pies were bound for church socials or camp meetings, to be consumed by any number of utter strangers. So and so, she would boast, ate three slices, and Escargot, who had missed out on the meeting because of a stomachache or a twisted shoulder, would miss out on the pie, too. So and so, it would turn out, had eaten the last three slices. Why, wondered Escargot, could another man eat multiple slices of pie with impunity, could turn it into a virtue, in fact, when Escargot's eating a single slice was at best something to be tolerated. It made him dizzy to think about it.
One night, after nearly two years of it, he pried the door off the pantry and ate a whole pie along with a cup of heavy cream. He could imagine his wife squinting at him as he poured the cream over the pie, commenting idly on his waistline, shaking her head sadly but with the air of someone bearing up. Mr Stover, she would say, would find the behavior appalling. Gluttony is what it was, and Mr Stover had told his congregation about gluttony more than once. Mr Stover held meetings in the Guildhall every Tuesday night – more often if there was particular need for it. Escargot had resisted his wife's insistence that he attend in order to be clarified and uplifted. Besides Stover, only one man in the village was known to attend, and there was little doubt that he came only for the sweets. Escargot, despite his perpetual yearning for a slice of pie, had never been desperate enough to attend revival meetings for the sake of it.
It was one o'clock in the morning when he put the fork down. He laid the empty pie pan in the sink and filled it with water. It wouldn't do to let the remains harden on the pan; he was in for a tough enough time in the morning as it was. There was no sense in enduring a lecture on common kitchen courtesy to boot. Then, bucked by the pie and the excitement of having pinched it, he decided to take a stroll along the river. Perhaps he'd get in a couple of hours of night fishing. She'd awaken sometime early in the morning and find him gone, and the business with the key on the thread wouldn't seem half so clever to her. I'll show her, he thought to himself, stuffing two bottles of cold ale into his knapsack and pulling on a coat.
On his way out he poked his head into the baby's room, thinking to himself that if she were five years older he'd take her along, teach her a bit about fishing by lantern light. He saw little enough of her as it was. His wife, it seemed, was worried that he might be an 'influence.' If Annie had been awake, Escargot thought, she'd have helped him eat the pie. She'd have seen the virtue in it. But she wasn't awake, of course; she was asleep and had wiggled half out of the covers. So Escargot tucked her in before he tiptoed out.
By five o'clock in the morning, just before dawn, he had six brace of river squid in his sack and was fairly well satisfied with himself. He strolled along up the river road, past the woods that ran in a dark line along the meadow. The fog hovered dense and cool and with a sharp, metallic, morning smell that was worth having stayed awake for. Water dripped from the limbs of overhanging oaks, a drop now and then plunking down onto his neck. He pulled his coat tighter and quickened his pace, suddenly weary. Bacon and eggs and half a pot of coffee would go a long way toward reviving him. If he was lucky, he realized, his wife wouldn't have awakened in the night at all, wouldn't know he'd been gone, wouldn't yet have discovered the missing pie, the wrecked pantry door. Perhaps he could have a go at fixing the door, claim that he'd risen early and found it hanging, the pie gone, a window pried open. He'd pitch a half dozen jars of canned fruit under the house for good measure, to make it look as if the thief had filled his sack from the larder.
A rustling in the woods hurried him along. Probably just a rabbit, he thought, glancing over his right shoulder. Ten feet into the trees the fog thickened so as to hide everything but a few ghostly trunks, pale and twisted, with now and then a limb thrust out over the road, springing out of the mist, its few remaining leaves heavy with water. The rustling sounded ahead of him, closer to the road. There it was again, behind him now. On his left lay the riverbank; behind him lay deeper woods. All around was the impenetrable murk, masking the night noises. Why he'd gone so far downriver to fish he couldn't at all say – he'd been drunk, to a degree, on pie and cream. Twombly Town was a mile ahead of him, still sleeping in the early morning darkness.
A light glowed ahead, bobbing slowly on the path as if someone carried a lantern toward him. He wasn't certain he wanted to meet anyone, lantern or no lantern. But it wasn't lantern light; it was flames – a halo of weird fire dancing round the head of a waist-high, wizened little man. Beside him stood another, grinning, his hair standing up in a frizzle of thin spikes. Both were thin, almost skeletal, and wore clothes which hung from them like sacks. Both had sharpened teeth – not fangs or canine teeth, but flat, slab-like teeth that had been filed to points.
'Goblins,' Escargot said, half aloud, and knew, as he said it, that more of the little men had stepped out of the woods behind him. The one with the flaming hair stretched his eyes until they seemed to be round as plates. He extended a thin, clawed finger and said, 'Give us.'
Escargot cocked his head. 'Certainly,' he said, supposing they meant the squid. It was better not to argue with goblins, after all, better not to get all clawed up saving a few squid when the river was full of them. Catching them was half the fun anyway. He opened his creel, pulled two of the squid from the bed of wet grass that lay within, and tossed them to the goblins. The creatures watched stupidly as the squid flopped onto the trail and sat there in the dirt.
The goblin with the burning head looked at Escargot in amazement, then leaped on the squid, poking his fellow goblin in the ear with his finger and pushing him against the trunk of an oak. A flurry of steps sounded on the path behind Escargot, and three more goblins, gabbling like raccoons, rushed past, throwing themselves onto the first goblin, who swatted at them defiantly, half a squid protruding from his mouth. He held the other in his hand, and as the quickest of his brethren rushed upon him, he flailed at the creature with the rubbery squid, effecting nothing but the squid's ruination. He champed down on the squid in his mouth, razoring it in half with his filed teeth, the protruding bit falling onto the road and vanishing beneath all five of the shrieking goblins, two more of whom had managed, in the struggle, to catch fire. Escargot tiptoed past. There was no weapon like a squid, apparently, for defeating a party of goblins. For good measure he pitched three more of the leggy beasts in among them, then took to his heels, dodging round bends that appeared suddenly in the fog, leaping over a fallen tree that he'd remembered from the journey out four hours earlier.
The gabbling receded behind him, and he slowed to a walk, gasping in lungfuls of fog, looking over his shoulder and listening between breaths for the sound of pursuit. It wouldn't do to stop. This was no time to rest; he had a quarter mile of woods to get through before he'd be onto the relative safety of the meadow. The meadow was close to the lights of town, and goblins, like wolves or trolls, hadn't any use for towns.
A twig snapped above him. He lurched and sprawled forward, tumbling onto the roadway, yanking at the thing that had landed suddenly on his back. It shrieked inhumanly into his ear, gabbling out a continual stream of gibberish. The goblin's tiny hands were around his throat, scrabbling after something, tugging at the drawstring of Escargot's pouch. The little devils were trying to rob him! It hadn't been squid at all they were after. He rolled toward the river, crushing the little man beneath him, half dislodging the thing as it whooped and gibbered. It peered around into his face, grinning past pointed teeth, eyes whirling like pinwheels. Escargot got a hand round the goblin's neck and jerked the thing loose. He grabbed its skinny leg with his other hand, hefted it over his head, and threw it headlong into the river.
His pouch was safe. His creel, however, was a ruin. The spindly willow basket was crushed almost flat, and the head of one doleful-eyed squid had been forced out through a split in the bottom. Escargot snatched the creel open, yanked out the half dozen flattened squid that remained, and scattered them over the path, leaping away toward the village as the first party of goblins rushed toward him, their flaming heads advertising their appearance like beacons. Escargot pounded along for all he was worth, his creel and fishing pole tossed away into the river grasses. Within five minutes he was clear of the woods and free of goblins. The fog was lightening with the morning, and he could smell on the breeze the smoke of pruning fires and chimneys from the village ahead.
The church bell rang six when he trudged up the path to his house, thinking to slip in at the back door and have a go at falsifying the utterly obvious evidence that his wife would find, at any moment, in the kitchen. He found the back door padlocked. A note On the front door invited him to leave and not to return. There was no use pounding and railing; his wife had gone to Stover, who knew about morality and the law both.
For a week he slept by day in the abandoned Widow's windmill. By night he fished and wandered through the autumn streets, holding imaginary coversations with his wife and developing the suspicion that she was never going to give him the satisfaction of actually carrying on one of those conversations. Protestations through the locked windows effected nothing. His wife was gone far more often than she was in.
On more than one night, very late, when the fog had risen and obscured the oaks and the hemlocks that ran down out of the foothills and lined the road, Escargot slouched along, hands in his pockets, and fancied that he heard in the distance someone coming along toward him, tapping along the road with a stick, feeling his way through the fog. The sound seemed to be carried on a breath of cool air. Always it faded into nothing, as if the stroller were walking away from him, an odd thing altogether. For whoever it was hadn't passed him; the tap, tap, tap of the stick on the road simply started up out of the mists and echoed its way into nothing.
Escargot told himself it was a woodpecker of some nocturnal variety, tapping holes in the bark of trees to hide acorns. But he didn't half believe it. And more than once he heard the titter of laughter somewhere off in the fog. It was as if someone were laughing at him, an unsettling notion altogether, and one which led him to keep an eye out for goblins, although it did seem unlikely that any of the little men would leave the darkness of the woods. There was no good in being careless, though, it had already been made very clear to him that goblins wandered by night farther up the Oriel River valley than most villagers liked to believe.
His thoughts always returned home, however, even though he'd never cared much about such things before. A home had simply been shelter, and one shelter was as good as another. A man ought to have any number of them, he told himself, so that if one wore out he could move on to another. He wouldn't grow too fond of any that way and go moping about through the silent evening streets if his house burned down or was blown away in a hurricane or if he was pitched out of it for eating a pie with cream. Perhaps it was the same way with children. It mightn't have been a bad idea to have a couple in reserve. But he hadn't any except little Annie, had he?
After a week of such nights he found his clothes and books and assorted odds and ends in a heap on his front porch, or on her front porch, such as it was. He left most of them. It was then that he began to feel very sorry for himself. It was all very well to be tramping about in the foggy darkness when one knew that just over the hill lay a bed with a feather comforter, a fireplace loaded with last year's oak logs, and a waiting family. But it was another thing when just over the hill lay nothing at all but more hills.
Perhaps it had been his fault. He'd been hasty, compounding the pie crime by leaving without a word. What had happened, he wondered, to his marriage. He wasn't prime husband material; that was certain. When it came to being husband material, he was pretty much tangled together out of old rags. He liked fishing a little too much, and he believed that work was something a man did when he had to. He had always been able to get along well enough without it, especially for the last couple of years. A little bit of barter at just the right moment would keep things afloat – a squid clock, perhaps, for a pair of boots; the boots for a brass kaleidoscope and a penknife with a bone handle; the knife for a hat and the hat for a coat and the kaleidoscope rented out for a penny a glimpse. A man could keep busy forever, couldn't he?
It made him tired to think about it, but not half as tired, apparently, as it had made his wife, who had pointed out that he was 'too heavy for light work and too light for heavy work.' Escargot's defence – that he had an artistic temperament suited more to philosophy than to work – had rung false even to him. He had no excuse; that was the truth of the thing. But why should a man go about with an apology on his lips? Why, in fact, did a man have to beg to eat his own pie? The thought of pie reminded him somehow that the nights were getting longer and colder, and he slipped once again into remorse. He took to hanging round the old house in the mornings, careful not to be seen but half hoping that he would be, as if by magic something would appear to make everything all right again.
What appeared was Gilroy Bastable, heading along very officiously toward town, happy with himself. Bastable shook his head. Everyone in the village, by that time, was familiar with Escargot's fate, and sympathy, said Bastable, was pretty much on the side of the wife, lamentable as it might seem. Stover had preached an entire sermon on it. It was something in the way of a lesson, wasn't it? And this business about stealing pies ...
Tie,' said Escargot.
"Pardon me?": asked Bastable amiably.
'There was only one pie involved. And stealing doesn't enter into it, does it? A man's own pie, after all, made of peaches from his own well-tended garden.'
Mayor Bastable cast a glance toward Escargot's weedy orchard with its overgrown trees. He widened his eyes and shrugged, as if to say that he'd only been passing on what he knew about the case. 'You shouldn't have walked out on her, old man.'
'I went fishing,' said Escargot, forgetting in a rush everything he'd convinced himself of only moments before. 'She pitched me out without a backward glance. Two years of bliss up the flume. Women are mad is what I think. Chemistry is what it is. I've ...'
Bastable put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head, a set smile on his lips. 'We know just how you feel,' he said, as if such a thing might be vastly calming. 'We all of us hope you'll come to terms with this little sadness.'
'We!' cried Escargot, shrugging off his friend's hand. 'Terms! Damn all terms!' And with that Escargot stormed away toward the village, his teeth set with determination. He'd leave; that's what he'd do. There were grand places in the world. He'd go to the coast, to the Wonderful Isles. Twombly Town could writher in its own slime; that's what. He smiled grimly. He rather liked that last bit. Writher was a good word – if it was a word. If it wasn't, it should be, he decided, slowing down and angling toward Stover's Tavern.
The tavern was almost empty. It was early, after all. Candles burned in wall sconces, throwing cups of sooty yellow light up the plaster walls. A half hour earlier the floor had been covered with sawdust and shavings and littered with nut shells and sausage rinds and greasy newspaper. It was swept clean now, though, and the tavern maid, Leta, was scooping up heaps of debris with a broad, flat shovel and emptying it into a bucket. A lock of dark hair had fallen across her forehead, and she shoved at it, pausing to poke it in under a red bow at the top of a heavy braid. Immediately the lock mutinied and fell back across her forehead. She looked up and frowned at Escargot, who stood in the doorway gaping at her.
He'd seen her for the first time a month earlier at Professor Wurzle's lending library. They'd both been after the same book, or at least books by the same author: G. Smithers of Brompton Village. There was nothing Escargot liked to do more than to lie up with a book and a pipe in the afternoon heat, under an oak if one was handy, or beneath the docks along the River Oriel. He couldn't much read at home. The interruptions set him crazy. There was always something to do – trash to be hauled away, weeds to be pulled, boxes to be got down off closet shelves, a roomful of furniture to be rearranged a dozen ways, only to end up back where it started. His wife would say something to him from another room in a voice calculated to carry about eight feet. What! he'd shout, knowing that he was expected to drop the book, frivolous thing that it was, and trot round to lend a hand – to squish a harmless bug most often, a bug that was minding its own business, looking for a quiet place to read a bug story and put its feet up, but finding instead the business end of a shoe. Escargot had been the unwilling accessory to countless murders. But he was being petty. He had promised to catch himself if he was in danger of becoming petty, especially out loud. That sort of thing made a person tiresome.
He watched Leta shove the bucket out the back door and pick up a fat gunny sack. She dumped shavings from it onto the cleaned floor, kicking them under tables with her feet. At the lending library she'd found a book about the harvest festival at Seaside, and Escargot, catching sight of the title, had said truthfully that he'd always wanted to visit Seaside, days away down the Oriel, for the yearly festivals held at the time of the autumnal equinox. She had been to more than one. She'd been born in the foothills above Seaside, on the eve of the festival, and so was a harvest maid, even though she wasn't a dwarf. She was about five feet ten inches tall, only an inch shorter than Escargot.
He'd made her promise to bring the book back quickly, certain at the time that his interest would appear feigned and that she would think he was being fresh. He wasn't, though. He was married, wasn't he, and had been for two years, and although some might say he was lazy and thought of himself as often as he thought of anyone else, he had his code. He hadn't had his fingers crossed when he'd promised to be true to his wife. But he had found himself worrying that Leta would think his attentions at the library less than sincere, and then he had worried about being worried, because the worry seemed to throw a cloud of doubt over the code he prided himself in having. Fat lot of good all the worrying had done him. He might as well have tossed all codes out the window for good and all. But he knew he couldn't do that, even now. He was still married, even if he was living in an abandoned windmill and eating fish and berries. Who could say, the condition might prove to be temporary.
He sat down at a table against the wall and smiled at Leta when she looked up at him. She pulled a pocket watch out of her leather apron and gave it a look. 'It's an hour before we open,' she said.
'Of course,' said Escargot, taken aback. Did she think he was after a glass of ale at that hour? This is an unfortunate start, he thought, and realizing as he did so that he had been after a glass of ale at that hour and that he hadn't ought to be intending to 'start' anything. He grinned – foolishly, it seemed to him. 'I was just wondering how you liked the book. I was passing by and saw you through the open door, so I thought I'd come in out of the fog and keep you company.'
'Which book was that?'
'Harvest Moon, by G. Smithers. From the Professor's. Remember?'
'I remember having told you I liked it very much, just days ago. Next to the melon bin at Beezle's market.' She looked at him strangely, as if beginning to suspect he was either stupid or up to something.
'Of course,' he said. 'Of course. I've been a bit ... upset, I suppose is the word for it.' He started to go on, to explain things, but he caught himself and stopped. There was no use boring anyone. 'I'm about halfway through it. I always have a hard time with Smithers. I can't tell what's true and what's not. A few years ago, before the Professor took over the library, old Kettering had Smithers filed under history. The Professor says that Kettering was an idiot, that Smithers is full of tall tales. But that wasn't the way Kettering saw it. I figure that half of what anyone says is nonsense, including Professor Wurzle – especially Professor Wurzle. And including G. Smithers, for that matter.'
Leta scattered one last handful of shavings under a corner table, hefted the half-empty sack onto her shoulder, and set out toward the back of the tavern. Through the leaded glass of one of the front windows, Escargot could see that the fog was thinning. Pale sunlight shone through it, turning the mist white, as if the windows were glazed with milk glass. The appearance of the sun, for some reason, made him feel almost contented for the first time in two weeks. He pulled his pipe from his coat pocket and pushed tangled tobacco into it, wondering idly if it wouldn't be a good idea to mix a few shavings of aromatic cedar into the tobacco, just to give it a try. Probably not, he decided. It would likely blaze up like a torch and burn the whole pipe. Leta would be certain he'd gone mad.
She appeared again, rolling up her sleeves. 'So which half is true and which half is made up?' she asked, pulling a handful of pint glasses out of a sink full of clear water.
Escargot shrugged, eyeing the glasses. 'Have you read the Balumnian books?'
'Only one. The Stone Giants. Do you know it?'
'Yes,' said Escargot. 'That's just the one I want to ask you about. I've been having the most amazing dreams. Foolish, of course, like all dreams, but different too. There's this sort of face, you see, watching the dreams.
And it's not my face. That's the peculiar part. Take a look at these.'
Escargot removed his coat. Slung around his left arm and neck hung his pouch on a long leather thong. He yanked his arm through the thong, and without pulling the bag from around his neck, emptied into his hand agate marbles – blood-red and big as cats' eyes.
'Marbles?' asked Leta, raising her eyebrows at Escargot as if she didn't share his peculiar enthusiasm.
'I'm not at all sure. There was a bunjo man through a month or so back. You might have seen him around the village hawking whales' eyes. I bought one of those too. Massive thing in a jar. When I saw it I told myself, this is just the thing you've been waiting for. They weren't cheap, but my wife's got a pile of the gold stuff. She's pretty much swimming in it, though it's precious little of it that she lets me on to.' Escargot caught himself. Here he was speaking in the present tense. As if he had a wife in any real sense. Leta had gone back to washing glasses. 'Anyway,' he said, gazing out the window at the dwindling fog, 'ever since then I've had these dreams, like I said. I don't think the whale's eye had anything to do with it, because I traded it away to Gilroy Bastable a week later for Smithers' White Mountains books. All twenty-five of them. The first volume is signed and there's a page of manuscript laid in.'
'Yes indeed,' said Escargot proudly, noting that mention of the Smithers books had seemed to warm Leta up a bit.
'Would you like a pint?' She asked, raising a glass, it's close enough to eleven to warrant it, I suppose.'
'No he would not like a filthy pint!' shouted a voice from the hack, and Stover, bent and scowling, strode in and slammed his fist onto the first handy tabletop. Stover, who doubled on Sundays as a church parson and tripled on Saturdays as a judge, was taller by a head than anyone else in the village. But he was opposed on moral grounds, in spite of his owning a tavern, to eating and drinking, or at least to eating, and so was astonishingly thin. The weight of his head seemed to have bent him almost double, as if he were always looking along the ground for some lost object – a penny, perhaps. His eyes, to balance things, rolled upward and half disappeared under his eyebrows, which beetled out over his nose like the eaves of a house. He leaned against the table and glowered at Escargot.
'That dear woman ...' said Stover, wrinkling an acre of forehead and scowling slowly and deliberately.
Escargot thought at first that Stover was referring to Leta, who rolled her eyes, set down the glass she was holding, and walked past Stover toward the rear of the tavern. A door slammed shut. Stover heaved with exertion. What in the world, wondered Escargot, did the nitwit suppose was going on?
'The great shame of it,' cried the tavern keeper, raising a finger aloft and twirling it in a tight little circle, 'is that the law hasn't a cage to pitch you into.'
Escargot looked over his shoulder, wondering briefly if there wasn't someone else in the room who had so excited Stover. But there was no one. Escargot raised his eyebrows theatrically and pointed at himself, cocking his head in a questioning way.
'Laugh if you will!' shouted the enraged Stover, squinting and pounding again on the table. 'But let it be known to you, sir, scoundrel that you are, that that dear, poor woman and her precious baby child are a dozen times better off alone than they were two weeks past. It was a charitable thing you did, abandoning them that night. Robbing your own wife blind while she slept. Lying up in a drunken stupor until dawn, then stumbling home, intent, no doubt, on some further mischief. But that sort of charity, sir, will...'
Escargot stood up slowly, interrupting the innkeeper. I'll have to hit him, he thought, taking a step forward. He was struck suddenly by the notion that there might easily be more to the affairs of the previous weeks than he'd known. Stover trod back, gaping at Escargot in fear and surprise, and groped in his own coat pocket, unearthing a silver flask. He unscrewed the lid, tilted the bottle back, and swallowed three times, his Adam's apple bobbing like a fishing float jerked by a trout.
'Medicine,' Stover gasped, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. He stepped back, fumbling at a chair as if to use it as a weapon. Sweat stood out on his forehead.
A door slammed and Leta reappeared, stopping abruptly at the sight of the scowling Escargot, who had slipped the leather thong from around his neck and was slapping the heavy bag full of marbles into the palm of his hand. 'Eleven o'clock,' she said, pulling out her pocket watch and twisting the stem in order to force the issue. Time to open. Put that away,' she said to Escargot. 'Don't turn yourself into more of a fool than you already are.'
'Listen to the little lady,' croaked Stover, pulling at the top button on his shirt.
'Shut up,' said Leta, giving him a look. She stepped across to the keg and drew a pint of ale, knocking off the head with a wooden ruler and sliding the glass across the bar in Escargot's direction.
'I won't serve his kind here!' cried Stover, working himself up again.
'I know,' said Leta, 'that's why I did it. But that's the last pint I draw, old man, so you'll serve everyone else. You paid me yesterday evening. You don't owe me a thing for this morning.'
'You can't!' began Stover, but he found himself storming at nothing. Escargot glanced through the window at Leta disappearing through the thin fog, walking briskly up Main Street in the direction of Beezle's market. 'You'll have to pay for that pint,' said Stover weakly, sliding in behind the bar. He fumbled out his flask one more time and had another go at it. Escargot stared at him, drained the glass, set it on the nearest table, and dropped a coin into the dregs. He turned and walked out without a word – very cool, it seemed to him. Once on the street, though, he set out at a run.
'Wait!' he shouted, catching sight of Leta's red blouse a half block up. She stopped, gazing in through a shop window until he puffed up behind her, 'Perhaps I can buy you lunch.' He took off his hat and gave it a nervous twist, grinning at her. Then it struck him that the grin looked foolish, so he wiped it off and looked serious instead.
'I don't think that would work, would it?'
'Give it a while,' she said, smiling just a bit. 'Maybe I'll see you at Wurzle's.'
'Maybe you will,' said Escargot, watching her fade into the fog for the second time in five minutes, having no idea on earth what to make of her.