"But Sir," said the Chief Winder sadly, "there's been a computer on this site since the reign of King Stephen. Baron Henry Longinteger founded an abacus in perpetuity in return for calculations on the progress of his soul through Purgatory."
The Woodgnome sighed. He had heard the visitors' lecture too many times before. He could have given it himself. Actually, he had given it himself, if the visitors were male, and cute enough.
"Yes, yes, I know all that. But we have to move with the times, Henry. The King is anxious that Faery should have access to the latest technology. I mean look at those spiders " he indicated two fat golden bodies basking in the late autumn sunlight, "they just can't spin web connections fast enough, and they keep wanting time off for fly breaks."
"But Arachne and Atropos have worked here since they were hatchlings," protested the old man. "We can't just turn them out into the wood."
"Oh we'll work out a redundancy package," said the Woodgnome airily. "Half a dozen fruit flies apiece or something. Restructuring, that's the thing. Downsizing." A dreamy look crept across his face.
"If you ask me," began the old man.
"I didn't," remarked the Woodgnome with a certain froideur, but the Chief Winder ignored him.
"If you ask me," he continued grimly, "you take a good deal too much notice of that consultant chappy."
"Michael ? Isn't he just gorgeous ? Brad Pitt eat your heart out - this boy can really bend over a bonnet."
"A bonnet ?" said the Chief Winder, raising an eyebrow.
"His car thingy. A Posh ? Or was it a Pushy ? I'm afraid I'm not too good with names on human artefacts. But it goes very very fast. He took me for a ride."
"Of that I'm certain," agreed the Chief Winder.
The Woodgnome had a feeling he'd just been insulted, but as he wasn't quite sure how, he decided to ignore it.
"And Michael assures me that the new computer system will be wonderful. It's going to save us so much time."
"Save time !" exclaimed the old man, horrified. "Computers aren't supposed to save time. Computers are the most glorious waste of time that Mankind has ever invented ! The triumph of Homo Ludens."
"Well I like the sound of the Homo bit," said the Woodgnome uncertainly.
"Look here," said the Chief Winder, grabbing the shoulder of the diminutive sprite in a steely grip and spinning him to face the existing IT facilities. "Look at that craftmanship. That bow frontal with the doric columns is by Harrington, you know, built in 1756: a masterpiece, not another like it nearer than Prague. And that architrave, and the bell metal and enamel mouldings inset above, showing Divine Reason overcoming the Dragon of Ignorance: you don't get that with your Seedy Rams and your lazy printers today."
"Henry . . ."
"How many modern computers have a full peal of chimes that play at the conclusion of every successful calculation and a set of clockwork figurines representing the Nine Muses that emerge to dance to them ? Not many, I'll warrant you."
"Henry . . ."
"Craftsmanship, that's what this old beauty's about. Every digit turner in the data shuffler has a double layer of felt so the numbers aren't damaged. Fine English workmanship, Josiah Throgmorton's workshop made those, none of your continental pigskin suede linings for them. The full 32-bit set, all the lever arms carved in seasoned oak. They'll last, long after your modern computers have given up the ghost. I doubt they use anything stronger than balsawood."
"Henry, enough !" The Woodgnome glared at his elderly employee. "Oberon put me in charge of this modernisation project and modernise we will, like it or not. The old Enumerator and Device has to go."
"It can't, it's listed," said the Chief Winder sulkily. "You can't knock it down without a court order."
The Woodgnome smiled in triumph, and produced from a back pocket a slightly crumpled and coffee stained roll of parchment. "Like this, you mean ?" He passed it over to the other who unrolled it and read the elegant chancery hand with mounting horror.
"But, but . . ." expostulated Henry. "Even the West Wing ? That lovely old tower where we greet the dawn each May Day by singing 'Gaudeamus Digitur' before jumping into the lake ?"
"A practice you might wish to adopt now," breathed the Woodgnome through clenched teeth. "Yes, all of - what was that ?"
A loud crashing and hullabaloo had begun, at first distant but drawing rapidly nearer. It sounded, the Chief Winder reflected, like two rather large humans crashing angrily through the undergrowth in hot pursuit of someone. This was rather perspicacious of him, since this was exactly what it turned out to be. The Woodgnome's complection faded from its usual healthy emerald to a sickly eau-de-nil.
"It can't be ?" he muttered. "Oh Hades, it is. Michael promised me he'd sort them out and instead he's pointed them in my direction, the little rat. Er, look, Henry, gotta go woosh, catch you later, if anyone asks you about me tell them I've gone to the Himalayas or something for the rest of the century."
"Just a moment," said the Chief Winder, catching the fleeing sprite by his collar. "What's all this about ?"
"Er, well, we owe those gentleman rather a large sum of money for computer equipment," explained the gnome, "and I find myself - ah - temporarily embarrassed. After the little trip I took with Michael to the USA to examine the latest technology."
"You blew the budget on junketing ?" said the Chief Winder.
"I wouldn't put it in quite those terms," said the gnome. "And I really have to go !" And with a wriggle he freed himself and made off at great speed just as two very cross-looking and muscular men burst into the clearing. They were armed, the Chief Winder noticed, one with a stout ash rod and the other with an alarming looking paddle, about three feet long. Studded. He weighed the parchment in his hand and looked at the newcomers thoughtfully. Then he smiled.
"He went thataway," he said.