Posts filed under “Short Fiction”

THE CASE OF THE MISSING CASE.

NINTH ANNIVERSARY.

As he has done every year, Dr. Boli celebrates the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form.

A MAN WALKED into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

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THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

Eighth Anniversary

 

As he has done every year, Dr. Boli celebrates the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form.

A man walked into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

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THE ADVENTURE OF THE ARCHBISHOP’S CANE.

An Ozro Reade Mystery.

PART 2.

(Continued from Part 1.)

At once (Reade continued) I attempted to take in all the details of the scene. There were no signs of a struggle; the body had fallen in the middle of the floor, without the usual overturned chairs and broken crockery that accompany a murder in the pantry [see Murder in the Pantry, no. 128 in the Ozro Reade series]. Even the bloody cane was placed neatly parallel to the body.

A few moments later, Dr. Washing-Machine appeared on the scene.

“Let me examine the man,” he said. “I know you are the famous detective, but remember that I was a medical doctor before my useful invention placed me beyond the need of dealing with filthy sick people.”

He stooped beside the body and relayed his findings as he examined.

“It would appear that he has received thirty-one blows to the head from some sort of blunt instrument; his skull is smashed, and, as he has been dead for probably two or three hours, I must inform you that in my professional opinion his chances of recovery are very slim. From the shape and depth of the wounds, I should say that they were inflicted by some object having roughly the form of a cylinder, long in proportion to its width; such as, perhaps, a tenor recorder, or a column from a 1-to-24 scale model of the Parthenon, or an extremely large novelty pencil.”

“Or perhaps that bloody cane beside him,” I suggested.

“By Jove, you really are as sharp as they say. I never should have thought of that myself. Well, from the evidence before us, although I cannot entirely rule out natural causes, or the cane falling accidentally on his head thirty-one times, I should say that Lady Agrippina may possibly be correct in her assumption that this unfortunate man has been murdered.”

I straightened myself up and prepared to get to work. “In that event, Dr. Washing-Machine, week-end etiquette demands that, as the world-famous detective of the party, I should take on the case. Would you be willing to assist me?”

“Oh, I say! Really? I’d be honored, of course. But why me?”

“I need someone of respectable credentials but distinctly limited mental capacity, whose inevitable misinterpretations of the information we discover will serve to set my correct deductions in high relief, as it were.”

“Say no more! I’m in. Just tell me what to do.”

“The first thing to do, then, is to summon the local constabulary. It is essential that they should bumble about for a while and arrest the wrong suspect. In the interim, we must make sure no one leaves this house, not even any of the other servants, though we shall not interview them, and in fact this statement will be our only reminder of their existence for the rest of the night. Once we have made those arrangements, the two of us must interview the other guests one by one, so as to discover the embarrassing but ultimately irrelevant secrets they are hiding from us and from one another. It is an arduous process, but one that is absolutely essential to the conduct of my investigation; for even though I already know what happened and how, the laws of week-end etiquette strictly bind me to conceal that information until we have uncovered a certain number of apparent clues that will prove later on to be ‘red herrings,’ as we say in the detecting trade.”

“Right,” said Dr. Washing-Machine. “I’ll have the butler call for the—— oh, I suppose that won’t work very well, will it? Never mind. I shall attempt it myself. Assuming I do succeed in figuring out that infernal telephone contraption, whom shall we interview first?”

“I think it ought to be the privilege of the hostess to be interviewed first, don’t you?”

“Is that week-end etiquette as well?”

“I believe it can at least be deduced from the principles of week-end etiquette. You ring the constabulary; I shall arrange the library as our interviewing room.”

While Dr. Washing-Machine was gone, I procured a liberal supply of handkerchiefs against the probable outbreak of tears in several of the interviews; then I placed the chairs around the reading table, making sure that my own chair was at precisely the proper distance for leaning in dramatically when such histrionics were called for. In a few minutes, Dr. Washing-Machine returned with the announcement that a constable was on his way; though, as a bicycle was his only transportation, the condition of the roads and the distance from the village would prevent him from arriving earlier than half past one. “The telephone is actually a very simple affair once you figure out that you have to pick up that thing with the wire coming out of it before you start talking to it. I’m surprised they don’t have that printed on it somewhere.”

“I’m glad you succeeded,” I told him. “Now, remember, doctor, that your rôle in these interviews will be to belabor the obvious, to ask disorientingly obtuse questions, and to leap to obviously incorrect conclusions. If you would be so kind, would you ask Lady Agrippina to step in here please?”

“I say, this is terribly exciting! Would you like me to use the telephone again? Oh, but I suppose that’s best left for talking to people who are outside the house. Well, I’ll be right back in half a shake.”

It was closer to three quarters of a shake, but soon Dr. Washing-Machine had returned with our exceptionally lovely hostess, who sat opposite us at the reading table and immediately took advantage of the supply of handkerchiefs I had laid in.

“First of all,” I said with a calculated air of sympathy, “let me express my condolences on your loss. It must be very difficult for you.”

“Yes—yes, it is.” She blew her nose loudly. “Eames was more than a butler to me. He was family. The kind of family you never invite to dinner and never give a birthday present and whose first name you don’t actually know, but certainly family.”

“Like a first cousin twice removed who always shows up Thursday afternoons and sits in the corner of the front parlor reading Upper Middle Class Romance Monthly but never says much of anything,” Dr. Washing-Machine volunteered.

“I shall be brief, then,” I continued. “In order to establish the facts of the case, I should like to have you tell me, in as much detail as you can remember, exactly what you did from the time we dispersed after Sir Sigismond’s outburst in the hall to the time you discovered Eames in the pantry.”

“There’s very little to tell,” Lady Agrippina responded. “I went up to the sewing room to work, and it was—”

“Just a moment,” I interrupted. “Pardon me for inquiring, but exactly what sort of work were you doing?”

“It’s just a little hobby of mine. I’ve been building a model of the Parthenon at 1:24 scale. I’m just working on the columns right now.”

“I see. And how long were you up there in the sewing room?”

“Till just about midnight. I stayed in the sewing room the whole time, and quite definitely did not pay a clandestine visit to Sir Inigo Scotch-Terrier’s room. I was so involved in my work that the time took me by surprise. When I saw that the clock was about to strike twelve, I decided to get myself something to eat before going to bed. And that was when—”

Here she trailed off, dabbing her eye with the handkerchief.

“Yes, of course,” I said sympathetically. “So you had no contact with Eames between the time you sent him to clear the dinner things and the time you discovered his body?”

“None at all.”

“Well,” Dr. Washing-Machine said after Lady Agrippina had left the room, “she was in the sewing-room when the murder occurred. Clearly she had nothing to do with it.”

“Unless she’s lying,” I remarked.

“Good lord! I never thought of that at all! My word, Reade, you do have a steel-trap mind. Well, what shall we do now?”

“Would you mind asking Mr. Ramshackle to step in here, please?”

Elbert Ramshackle entered wearing a mauve silk dressing-gown over bright yellow silk pajamas. “Murder,” he said as he sat in his chair, “is like a violin. It must be tuned regularly, or it—or it— no, hang it, that’s not going anywhere, is it?”

“I shall be brief,” I told him. “I should like a complete account of where you were and what you did from the time we dispersed after Sir Sigismond’s outburst in the hall to the time of the discovery of the body.”

“Well, there is little to tell. Abhorring confrontations, which in mundane life are invariably disappointing from an aesthetic point of view when measured against the French dramas of the confrontationalist school, I retired quickly to my room, where I spent a few hours learning the tenor-recorder part in a motet a few of us will be performing at the annual soirée of the Aesthetic Society.”

“I see. And you did not leave your room during that time?”

“Not for an instant. The music is intricate and difficult, and required my complete attention for several hours. There was no time for me, for example, to tiptoe down the hall to Louise-Claude’s room—I mean Mme de Fronsac’s room. Music is like a—”

“So you saw nothing of Eames after he left us to put away the dinner things?”

“Nothing whatsoever.”

“Well,” Dr. Washing-Machine remarked after Ramshackle had left the room, “he was in his room the whole time. Clearly he had nothing to do with the murder.”

“Unless he’s lying,” I pointed out.

“Good lord! There you go again! My word, Reade, what I’d give to have a mind like yours!”

“Could you ask Sir Sigismond to step in next?”

Sir Sigismond entered reluctantly and refused to sit. “I have no intention of remaining long enough to make sitting worth my while,” he explained.

“I shall be brief, then. After you left us in the hall at about seven this evening, you expressed your intention to repair to the pantry for cold meat. Did you go to the pantry then?”

“I suppose you think I’m the sort of man who would fail to reach his destination if he set out for the pantry. I suppose you think I’m the sort of man who would set out for the pantry and end up in the upstairs maid’s room instead. Well, let me inform you that I am not. I reached the pantry as I intended to do, as I allowed nothing, not even the flashing dark eyes and ruby lips and perfect alabaster skin of Henriette the upstairs maid, to distract me from my intention.”

“And did you notice anything unusual when you were in the pantry?”

“Nothing but the blasted inconvenience of having to step over a corpse.”

Dr. Washing-Machine interrupted. “But I say, Prattle, you mean the dead body was already in there when you went in?”

“Yes, and it was a dashed nuisance. Had to be careful not to get his filthy blood on my shoes.”

“But for heaven’s sake, man, why didn’t you tell someone?”

“Tell someone what? It was just a servant. There’s nothing remarkable about it. Butlers die all the time. More often than not, in my experience. He wasn’t even a particularly good one. Expected me to get my own arms out of the sleeves when my coat was absolutely soaked. Why should I go out of my way to deal with a servant’s personal problems? If he’s been murdered, that’s his funeral, as that detestable music-hall screecher from the States would say. Bad enough that I had to step around the rotter to get my roast beef.”

“Well,” said Dr. Washing-Machine after Sir Sigismond had left the room, “the body was already there when he went into the pantry. Clearly he had nothing to do with it.”

“Unless he’s lying,” I suggested.

“You amaze me, Reade! I really ought to have thought of that.”

We had time for only two more interviews, and they followed a similar pattern. Professor Creak had definitely not left his room to dally with any American singers or anything like that, because he was too busy trying to write a treatise on the construction of glasshouses for tropical fruit with a giant novelty pencil that had been a gift from the Accounting Division of the Associated Fruit Vendors of the United Kingdom. Miss Warble had been alone in her room all evening, with no visitors whatsoever, and had certainly not eaten any mangoes in a lascivious manner. By the time we were finished with her, it was nearly half past one.

“Are all the guests still waiting in the hall?” I asked Dr. Washing-Machine.

“Everyone is accounted for,” he replied.

“Very good. The clock says half-past one,” I continued, “so I expect the constable will be here soon.”

“Unless the clock is lying,” Dr. Washing-Machine offered helpfully.

But at that very moment there was a pounding at the door, which, in the absence of Eames, Lady Agrippina opened herself.

“What’s hall this habout murder?” demanded the soaking wet constable on the other side of the door.

“I’m afraid my butler Eames has been murdered,” Lady Agrippina explained.

“Right,” the constable answered. “Did ’e ’ave hany motive?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, wait—hit’s the murderer what ’as the motive, ham I right? Not the victim. Well, then, Hi shall ’ave to hask heveryone hin the ’ouse to hassemble ’ere hin the ’all.”

“I have taken the liberty of assembling them already,” I explained.

“Right! Your name, sir?”

“Ozro Reade, world-famous detective.”

“Right. Well, Hi ’ave a hespecially ’ard duty to do, but Hi ’ave to do it. Hi must hask the most hattractive hand hinnocent-looking young woman from this party to step forward, please.”

Lady Agrippina, Miss Warble, and Mme de Fronsac all stepped forward.

“Right,” said the constable. “Well, hit’s not standard procedure to harrest three hinnocent suspects hat once, so Hi’ll ’ave to start from the left. Lady Hagrippina Pinchbeck, Hi harrest you for the murder hof Heames, no known Christian name, formerly hin your hemploy has butler.”

“I say, constable, is that really necessary?” Dr. Washing-Machine asked.

“Hit his habsolutely necessary for me to harrest the most hattractive hand hinnocent-looking young woman hin the party, yes, sir.”

“No, I mean that thing with the aitches, where you drop them where they’re wanted and stick them in where they’re not wanted.”

“Hi must do hit, Hi’m hafraid. Section 416, Constabulary Code: ‘Hall constables, hin speaking with the general public, must drop their haitches’; furthermore, Section 417, ‘Hin dropping ’is haitches, heach constable must remember to compensate by hadding haitches hat the fronts hof words what begin with hay, hee, hi, ho (hexcept for one or once), hor yu, when hit his pronounced without the consonantal Y sound.’ Hi’m honly doing my duty, sir.”

“I see,” Dr. Washing-Machine replied. “Well, it seems like a bally load of effort for you, but a chap’s got to do his duty, I suppose. What about Y?”

“Hi beg your pardon?”

“You know, Y, sometimes a vowel, like Ygg­drasil, Ypsilanti, and so on. How do your regu­lations address that issue?”

“Well, hum… herr… That’ll be just habout henough hout hof you! Now then, Lady Hagrippina, you will haccompany me.”

“That will not be necessary, constable,” I assured him. “Since you have seen fit to arrest our beautiful and innocent hostess, week-end etiquette now permits me to solve the mystery forthwith. As the guests are all gathered here together, I shall do it in the style approved by the foremost authorities on etiquette: namely, by means of an elaborate recapitulation of the whereabouts, activities, and motivations of every member of this party. And I shall do it so thoroughly,” I added, “that it will necessitate a third installment of this story.”

Concluded in Part 3.

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THE ADVENTURE OF THE ARCHBISHOP’S CANE.

An Ozro Reade Mystery.

PART 1.

After the ladies had retired, our conversation wandered hither and yon, as it usually does, until old Major D’Autard brought up the affair of the Archbishop’s cane. As I recall, his exact words were, “But I say, Reade, you promised us last time that you’d tell us all about the adventure of the Archbishop’s cane.”

“Ah!” Reade replied. “The Archbishop’s cane! Yes, it was certainly among my more remarkable cases. But I should not like to try the patience of this company with yet another narration from my admittedly thrilling career.”

We all assured him, however, that we should like nothing better than to hear his tale; and so, after a certain show of reluctance, he began his narration thus:

It was, as I believe is usual on these occasions, a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, and buckets, and sheets, and cats and dogs; the lightning flashed and the thunder roared almost continuously. Nevertheless, the inconveniences of the weather did not prevent a glittering assembly from coagulating at the country house of Lady Agrippina Pinchbeck, the ravishing young widow of Sir Humphrey Pinchbeck, who had died in mysterious circumstances two years previously. As you doubtless recall, Sir Humphrey made his fortune in the costume-jewelry trade, so when I say that the assembly was glittering, I should like it to be understood that no one glittered with more determination than Lady Agrippina herself. The other guests, however, if they did not outsparkle their hostess, were certainly among the most sought-after ornaments for any week-end party. Miss Cecily Warble, the Nanticoke Nightingale, was just returned from her enormously successful tour of the Continent, and had been induced to delay her return to America for the sole purpose of enlivening Lady Agrippina’s week-end. Professor Alfred Creak, discoverer of the mango, had promised to bring enough of that delectable fruit to serve every one of the guests. Then, of course, there was the Archbishop of York, who, though getting on in years, could still preach a sermon that had the young girls screaming and swooning in the aisle. We also had Sir Inigo Scotch-Terrier, the famous explorer who had charted the back streets of Croydon; Elbert Ramshackle, the aesthete and wit, fresh from the extraordinarily successful run of his latest epigram in Drury Lane; Dr. Ethelbert Washing-Machine, inventor of the useful appliance that bears his name; Mme Louise-Claude de Fronsac, author of a scandalous treatise on beets; and Sir Sigismond Prattle, Her Majesty’s Minister of Tweed. And I must not neglect myself, of course, since without my presence the mysterious affair of the Archibishop’s cane might yet remain a mystery, instead of merely another thrilling adventure in my long list of thrilling adventures.

I arrived just about half past eight in the evening, having been delayed by patches of mud and nearly impassable puddles on my way from the station. Just as I was handing my dripping coat to Eames, the ever-attentive butler, I heard the familiar voice of the Archbishop behind me.

“What ho, Ozro, old chap!”

“Archie!” I turned around with a warm smile for my old friend. Now, I see a few expressions of surprise that I should address the Archbishop of York in such a familiar way; but you must understand that I had known the man since I was a tiny tot solving my first mystery in knee-pants [see The Adventure of the Pilfered Pudding, No. 1 in the Ozro Reade series]; and that the name he was christened with, by one of those singular coincidences in which our world abounds, was Archibald Bysshop. “Archie” (or “Uncle Archie” when I was younger) is therefore the name by which I have always known him.

“Beastly weather tonight,” I continued. “Did you have any trouble along the way?”

“Not with the weather. Fortunately I came up on the 3:38 train, before the storm came in. But I had a most vexing time at the station. I was positively besieged by a mob of teenage girls demanding autographs. Well, as a minister of the Gospel, one can hardly afford to disappoint one’s fans. I must have signed no fewer than two hundred copies of my Sermon on 1 Chronicles 7:37, which, printed in pamphlet form, has become something of a ‘smash hit single,’ as we call it in ecclesiastical circles. Even then I barely escaped with my dignity. The little trollops started pulling at my clothes, and one of them made off with my collar. Had it not been for the timely arrival and intervention of Lady Agrippina’s chauffeur, I might have resorted to beating them off with my cane—and you know how such things are always misinterpreted in the Mirror.”

“Yes, the Labour press can be shockingly unsympathetic to the clubbing of schoolgirls. Ridiculous, of course. It’s not as though they were baby seals or something.”

At that moment, our pleasant conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Sir Sigismond Prattle. “Blast this weather!” he thundered at Eames. “One would think a man in my position would rate a better grade of weather than this.—Well, confound it, are you going to stand there like the Apollo Belvedere, or are you going to help me out of my coat? I nearly drowned coming up the steps, and now they throw a mental deficient at me. Not like that, you blasted half-wit! Didn’t your mother teach you how to take off a coat in the kennel where you grew up?”

You might suppose that the weather had put Sir Sigismond in an exceptionally foul temper, but in fact he was if anything more cheerful than usual. He was a brute of a man, tolerated in the Government of the day only because he was far more dangerous outside the Government than inside. I never met another cabinet minister who did not sincerely wish him dead, or worse.

Nor was that opinion confined to the Cabinet. “Would it not be an act of Christian charity,” the Archbishop asked when Sir Sigismond had retired upstairs to change, “to remove that man from the earthly domain, and allow the Lord of mercy to exercise whatever judgment upon his soul seemed proper?”

“Your lively sympathy with the serving classes does you credit,” I remarked.

“It is not sympathy with the butler—hang the butler—I have a deeply personal antipathy toward the man. I was up for the Canterbury job, you know. It was a foregone conclusion—a sure thing—except that Prattle, for reasons known only to himself, decided to bring up a silly incident with a young female fan, magnified out of all proportion of course. He is the reason why, instead of standing at the head of the Anglican Communion, I am only Archbishop of filthy rotten stinking York. I tell you, Reade, if I thought I could manage it, I’d murder that man without a second thought, in the absolute certainty that I was conferring a great boon upon the world.”

“The world,” came a voice from the library, “cares nothing for a boon; it cares only for a bang.”

A moment later the fantastical form of Elbert Ramshackle appeared in the library doorway. He was dressed in his usual pre-Raphaelite splendor, looking like something halfway between a court jester and a Portobello Road sausage vendor.

“You will pardon my intrusion, gentlemen,” Ramshackle continued. “I could not help overhearing your conversation. Conversation, I have always believed, is better overheard than underheard.”

“I see,” said the Archbishop, “that your reputation for wit is not a bit exaggerated, Mr. Ramshackle.”

“I am sure you meant to say, ‘not a whit,’” Ramshackle returned, and we all laughed helplessly for quite some time. “But wit,” he continued when we had sufficiently recovered, “is like a plum: it must be exercised daily, or it turns into a prune.”

“How does one exercise a plum?” the Archbishop asked.

“That is immaterial,” Ramshackle replied, “and your lordship knows that what is immaterial is spiritual; we have proved, therefore, that a prune is a spiritual plum.—But what I had meant to say, before I was borne away on the tide of my own cleverness, is that I share with you a personal antipathy toward Sir Sigismond Prattle. Antipathy is a rare tropical flower that must be carefully tended in a glasshouse to bloom, and Sir Sigismond has manured mine diligently. It was through his agency that, at the instigation of the tweed industry, I was prosecuted for gross eccentricity, merely because I choose to dress artistically. By good fortune, and by wearing an Elizabethan collar with a red velvet edge all the way round, I was able to convince the jury that I was not eccentric, but concentric. Sir Sigismond, however, has sworn not to rest until all men of aesthetic sensibilities are required to wear tweed, and has introduced a bill to that effect in the House of Commons. But for his bullying, it would be laughed out of Parliament; but Sir Sigismond is a master of bullying. I concur, therefore, in your judgment that the world would breathe a sigh of relief were he removed from it; and I should hardly hesitate, once granted the opportunity, to strike a blow for Beauty.”

“I say,” came a voice from the stairway, “has anyone seen that blighted devil Sigismond Prattle?”

We turned and beheld the descending figure of Sir Inigo Scotch-Terrier. The man’s brow beetled o’er his eyes with an expression very like wrath.

“Is something wrong, Sir Inigo?” I asked.

“Wrong?” He snorted indignantly as he reached the foot of the stairs. “Blasted fellow’s had something wrong with him ever since we were in school together. ‘Siggy Piggy’ we used to call him—nastiest bully in the history of St. Harry’s. Always up to some filthy prank or other. Bad enough in a schoolboy, but in a minister of Her Majesty’s Government—!”

“Why, what has he done?”

Sir Inigo hesitated a moment before explaining, “Blighter’s tied all my smalls in one big knot.”

I began to ask him, “How did you know it was—”

“Saw the blighter sneaking out of my room! He thinks he’s a man of infinite subtlety, but I didn’t survive the trackless wastes of Croydon without learning to keep both eyes peeled. A man’s got to know how to keep an eye on his undergarments—it’s one of the things that set the men apart from the boys in the exploring trade.”

“Have I heard correctement,” came a female voice from the top of the stairs, “zat Sir Sigismond Prattle makes part of zis—how does it say itself in English? En français, we say ‘week-end.’”

“We have borrowed the term from the French, Mme de Fronsac,” I said. “Yes, it is true that Sir Sigismond has already arrived for the week-end.”

“He is—how does it say itself?—en Français, ze word is ‘jerk.’ It was he who made ze agitation to have my traité banned on ze grounds of ze immoralité. But to speak of ze vegetables tuberous without ze details of ze pollination—parmauve! c’est impossible!”

“Are you talking about that blighter Prattle?” came a voice behind me. It was Dr. Ethelbert Washing-Machine, looking about as irked as irked can be. “He is a fungus under the toenail of British commerce. Do you know he has actually succeeded in requiring ‘hand wash only’ tags on all tweed fabrics? The Ministry of Tweed has some sort of vendetta, as our Italian allies would say, against my firm, and against me personally. The world will not be safe for me and my appliances while he lives. I am not a man of violence, but it is no secret that the man who removed him from the terrestrial sphere would be conferring a great favor upon the firm of Washing-Machine & Company.”

“Gosh darn it,” came a lilting American voice from the back hall, “if I’d known that Prattle guy was going to show up, I’d have given this party a miss, that’s for sure.” The beautiful and fascinating Miss Cecily Warble appeared before us. “He threw a tomato at me when I sang at Covent Garden—said my performance of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder wasn’t funny enough. Land sakes, if there was ever a son-of-a-gun I could just strangle, he’s the guy.”

“I was at that recital, Miss Warble,” said Sir Inigo. “I really did think it was one of your funniest performances ever.”

“Well, golly, mister, you’re real kind to say so,” Miss Warble responded. “But all I can say is, that Prattle guy better keep out of my way if he knows what’s good for him.”

“At least he didn’t throw a papaya at you,” said Professor Alfred Creak, appearing from the back parlor. “Fellow threw one at me when I introduced the mango at the Royal Society. ‘You like orange-fleshed tropical fruits?’ he shouted. ‘Here’s an orange-fleshed tropical fruit for you!’ Dashed impolite of him, if you ask me. Could have murdered the fellow right there.”

At that moment Lady Agrippina made her appearance. “My dear friends,” she said in a conciliatory tone, “please, let there be no unpleasantness to mar our little party. It is true that Sir Sigismond can be difficult at times; and it is true that he would never have been invited to my house if he had not been blackmailing me by threatening to reveal certain information, false of course, implicating me in the death of poor dear Humphrey; and it is true that the thought has occurred to me many times that it might be expedient for him to die some horrible death involving evisceration and dismemberment; but that is no reason why we cannot all be pleasant to one another, is it?”

At this moment Eames the butler appeared in the doorway of the dining-room. “Will you be requiring dinner, madam?” he asked in perfectly modulated tones.

“Oh, no, I suppose not, Eames,” Lady Agrippina replied. “So many of the guests were delayed by the weather and had to eat sausage-rolls at the station, poor dears. Put the dinner things away, and tell the cook to have cold meats ready for anyone who wants something later on.”

“Very good, madam,” Eames said, and he turned back into the dining-room. The short glance I took into that room made me regret that lost dinner exceedingly; for the table was set magnificently, and Lady Agrippina’s dinners were legendary. Eames always took great pride in making sure that everything came out just so. But it couldn’t be helped. As if to remind us how difficult the weather had been, the lightning flashed prodigiously, and a moment later there was a deafening clap of thunder.

“So,” came a voice from the top of the stairs—the abrasive voice of Sir Sigismond Prattle—“So, you all hate me, do you?” As the thunder’s echoes died away, he began to descend the stairs. “Well, I should like it known that the feeling is earnestly reciprocated. I hate all of you, collectively and individually. I hate every member of the human species. I hate horses and dogs as well. And stoats. The world is filled with things I hate; it is nothing more than a pageant of detestable things mounted for my personal annoyance.” By this time he had reached the bottom of the stairs, and somehow contrived to stand uncomfortably close to each one of us at once. “The man, or woman, who murdered me in cold blood would be doing me an inestimable favor by at once removing every source of annoyance from the field of my perception. But not one of you has the spine to do it. My single consolation, therefore, and the only reason I bothered to squeeze this invitation out of Lady Agrippina, is the knowledge that I can inflict a certain amount of misery on my fellow guests. It is the only thing I relish; it is the single ray of sunshine in my grey existence. I bid you all a very good evening, knowing that the mere knowledge of my presence in this house will interfere with your digestions and deprive you of sleep; and with that very satisfactory observation, I shall repair to the pantry for what will doubtless prove to be some unusually dismal cold meats.”

He marched smartly through the parting crowd of guests. We were left in silence for some time, until at last Elbert Ramshackle, long after Sir Sigismond had left the hall, thought of a suitably witty retort. “Same to you,” he said, and we all laughed and wished Sir Sigismond had been there to hear himself put in his place.

After that we all went our separate ways. I retired early, and I remember that the clock in the hall had just struck ten when I heard a knock at my door. I opened it to find the Archbishop, still dressed.

“I say, Ozro,” he said, “you wouldn’t happen to have seen my cane anywhere, would you? The blasted thing’s gone missing, and I can’t walk a step without it.”

“But you walked here,” I pointed out.

“Cor!—I mean, merciful heavens! So I did. Well, perhaps I don’t need it so much after all.”

From that time on I was not interrupted until just a little past midnight, when I suddenly heard a blood-chilling scream echoing through the house. I leaped out of bed and pulled on my robe, then dashed out into the hall, where several of my fellow guests had already assembled.

“He’s been murdered!” came the wailing voice of Lady Agrippina from the bottom of the stairs. “He’s been murdered!”

I dashed down the stairs, arriving at the bottom before anyone else, and found Lady Agrippina running out into the hall.

“He’s been murdered!” she repeated, still wailing.

I grabbed her by the arms. “Where?”

“Back there!—In the pantry!”

Leaving her to faint gracefully on the settle, I dashed back to the pantry, where I found a most appalling sight. There, in the middle of the floor, lay the bleeding corpse of Eames the butler.

At this point old Major D’Autard interrupted the narration. “But, I say, Reade, do you mean to tell us that it wasn’t Sir Sigismond Prattle who was murdered?”

“What—? Oh, good heavens, no. Of course not. Why would you think that? No, it was Eames the butler who had been killed, and in a particularly savage way: his head had been bashed in, and right next to the body, covered with blood, lay the Archbishop’s cane.”

Continues in Part 2.

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THE MONKEYS AND THE BOAT.

From Dr. Boli’s Fables for Children Who Are Too Old to Believe in Fables.

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In honor of the seventh anniversary of his Magazine’s appearance on the World-Wide Web, Dr. Boli is reprinting a few notable items from the past seven years.

monkeys.jpg

Once there was a small island in the middle of a great river, and on this little island lived a tribe of monkeys. At first they lived very happily, for the island produced fruit in abundance. But as time went on, the monkeys multiplied faster than the fruit did, so that the whole tribe was hungry and miserable.

Now, one day it happened that the monkeys saw a boat full of intrepid explorers drifting down the river. They had never seen a boat before, and they were filled with wonder; but they were clever monkeys, and soon grasped the purpose of the thing.

“Behold,” said one especially bright young monkey: “those odd but obviously intelligent bald monkeys have hit on the simple and obvious solution to our food problem. If we were to build such a floating island as they have, we could all float downstream to a place of abundance, where we need never be hungry again.”

All the monkeys agreed that this was a capital idea—all but one, that is. She was an old grump who had never had a good idea in her life, and she never had a kind word for anybody.

“It’ll never work,” she said in a loud and grating screech. “No one can build a floating island.”

Here the chief of the monkeys spoke up. He was a wise and kindly monkey, always ready to acknowledge and reward a good idea when he heard one.

“On the contrary,” said the chief, “we have just seen it done: the bald monkeys have done it, and done it successfully. I decree, therefore, that a floating island shall be built, and that all monkeys of the tribe shall contribute to the building of it.”

All the monkeys cheered—all except the old grump.

“You’re all fools!” she screeched. “You’ll all drown in the river. No one can build a floating island.”

The others ignored her, for they had become accustomed to her outbursts and had learned to ignore them.

Immediately the whole tribe set to work. Some used sharp rocks to cut down small saplings; some cut the saplings into equal lengths; some gathered strong vines to lash them together. Everyone worked merrily—everyone, that is, except the old grump, who refused to have anything to do with the project. “You’ll all drown,” she told anyone who would listen, and anyone who would not listen as well. “No one can build a floating island.” The other monkeys began to find her quite annoying, but the wise and kindly chief advised them merely to ignore her and keep working. Success, he said, would be the best retort.

With all the monkeys working, a large raft quickly took shape; and when they pushed it into the water and saw that it floated, the whole tribe cried out with a triumphant cheer.

“And now,” said the chief when the cheering had died down, “we have but to float to our new home, where there will be fruit in abundance for all.” Then he turned to the old grump. “But you, old one, shall not accompany us. Since you took no part in the effort of the whole tribe, you shall not share in its success.”

The monkeys all nodded and murmured their approval at the chief’s wise and just decision.

“For the rest of us, let us leap to our floating island and float to the land of plenty!”

With a mighty cheer, all the monkeys leapt at once to the raft they had constructed. Immediately it broke apart and sank under their weight, and the monkeys were carried away by the swift current and never heard from again.

The old grump, however, had the island to herself, with all the fruit she could want, and she lived out the rest of her days in peace and plenty.

MORAL: There’s a reason why so many grumps are old.

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THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

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As he has done every year, Dr. Boli celebrates the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form.

A man walked into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

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THE SPEAKING STICKS.

A Tale of the Far Future.

Did I ever tell you about the time Wright almost got us killed? No, not that time, the other time. No, not that time either. All right, so there were a lot of times, but I don’t think I’ve told you about this one. This one was the Speaking Sticks job. Let me start at the beginning.

I was surprised that Wright even bothered with this business of the Speaking Sticks. To me it sounded like a job for a shaman or a priest or something. T. A. Wright is a genius, as he shamelessly reminds all his clients, but I didn’t think even he could fix a broken religion. When the message from the Pevunghians came in, I wasn’t even sure I should give it to him. If we hadn’t both been bored out of our minds, I probably would have sent it back with the standard rejection.

“Why do you want to mess with this stuff?” I demanded when he announced that we were off to Pevunghia in the morning. “When people’s myths don’t live up to their expectations, I think that’s a problem for a psychologist, not a Mister Fix-It like you.”

“Did you see the pictures they sent?” Wright asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“Marvelously detailed, weren’t they?”

“Well, no, I wouldn’t have said so. In fact, I thought they were sort of plain as religious artifacts go. A bit of carving on the ends, but no—”

“I meant the pictures,” Wright interrupted. “I thought the pictures were marvelously detailed.”

For what it was worth, I had to agree with that. The Pevunghians had meticulously documented their Speaking Sticks in three dimensions. It was true that we couldn’t see the part of the sticks that faced the wall where they were kept (on ornamental brackets that, as far as I was concerned, were worth far more as art than the Sticks themselves): apparently the Pevunghians had been reluctant to remove the things from their display. But that could hardly make much of a difference. As far as I could see, the stick parts—the long rods that seemed to be the main body of the Sticks—were the same all the way around, and the ornamental carvings on the ends were, as far as I could tell, entirely symmetrical.

“So did you see something in those pictures that I missed?” I asked. “A hidden switch, maybe, or something marked ‘Press here to hear the Sticks’ greatest hits’?”

“Don’t be silly,” Wright replied. But you’ll notice that he didn’t answer the question. One of the infuriating things about Wright—and believe me, I could fill a book with the infuriating things about Wright—is the way he almost always avoids giving a direct answer to a direct question.

“Well, if you want my opinion, this is exactly the sort of job we should be avoiding. I keep telling you to make your ads more specific.” Wright’s little advertisements, placed only in what he calls “upscale” markets, simply gave his name, his picture, and the slogan “Problems Solved.”

“When have you ever had an opinion that I wanted?” Wright asked in a pleasant tone, as if he had no intention at all of insulting me—which was probably true. Oh, yes, that’s on the infuriating-things list.

So that was it: the matter was settled. We were off to Pevunghia on the first liner the next morning—off to make fools of ourselves, I was sure, but then it wouldn’t be the first time.

Now, I don’t like to complain, but I do sometimes wish Wright would spring for first-class tickets. I suppose a more charitable observer would find something inspiring in the spectacle of mobs of hopeful refugees returning to their homes to begin life anew and all that stuff. What I personally observed was that refugees smell awful, and their children scream a lot.

Wright was oblivious to the whole stinky and inspiring spectacle. He sat almost immobile, drawing plans for some mechanical toy with his finger (he had long ago lost the stylus that went with his sketch pad, and he was too cheap to buy another). A small Pevunghian girl stared at him with big black eyes for almost half the trip, until Wright made one of those horrible faces he sometimes makes when he’s concentrating, and the little girl skittered off to hide behind her mother.

When we finally did reach the port, Wright and I were, as usual, absolutely the last to get off, in spite of my repeated efforts to hurry him up. I was sure the delegation we were supposed to meet would have given up and gone home, but they were still there—waiting outside the first-class exit, of course. We came up on them from behind and scared the daylights out of them.

Once we had all recovered enough of our dignity to carry on, the Pevunghians introduced themselves. There were three of them: a short old man, a tall old woman, and an absolutely stunning young woman with flashing black eyes, a torrent of glossy black hair, and the most beautiful smile I had ever seen in my life.

“Welcome to Pevunghia, Mr. Wright,” said the tall old woman. Then she stared at me as though I required some sort of explanation. I knew Wright would never pick up that cue if she stared for an hour, so I took the matter into my own hands.

“I’m Mr. Wright’s assistant, John Pulaski,” I explained. Her stare relaxed into a formal smile, so I must have satisfied her.

The short old man picked up the conversation from there. “Allow me to introduce the Countess of the Northern Marches,” he said, indicating the tall old woman. “And this,” turning to the stunning beauty, “is our Ad Hoc Minister for Ancient Monuments, Miss Miniu Rolinamuritagu. She has been supervising our cultural-restoration project, so naturally you will be working closely with her.”

I could think of no more delightful news from my point of view. Wright, as far as I can tell, is impervious to female beauty, but I most certainly am not.

Meanwhile the Countess was saying something. I snapped out of my reverie in time to hear her introduce the short old man:

“—is our First Minister, Mr. Torim.”

Wright just stared blankly, so I could see it was once again up to me to carry on the conversation. “We are deeply honored,” I said, hoping that would be what a First Minister would expect to hear.

He said something about being deeply honored himself to meet the famous Thomas Aquinas Wright, but Wright wasn’t paying any attention to him. Wright wasn’t paying any attention to anything anymore: he was bored, and he had retreated into the inner recesses of his own mind. I had to do all the talking all the way down to the surface. Not that I objected. It gave me a chance to get to know Miss Miniu better. By the time we landed, she was calling me Johnpulaski (which she could never manage to separate into two names), and I was trying without much success to call her Rolinamuritagu. Apparently the idea of nicknames has never occurred to the Pevunghians; it’s either the whole name or “hey you.”

We accomplished nothing on our first afternoon and evening there. The hospitable Pevunghians took us through their historical museum, then to the war memorial (which is very moving if you’re the sort who’s moved by a fifty-meter column with a light on top), and finally to a banquet featuring the best of their native cuisine. I think the food was quite palatable, but I don’t really remember. All I remember is that I was seated next to Rolinamuritagu, who I had decided was the love of my life. She kept flashing that smile at me, and I was in heaven.

“I’ve changed my mind about coming here,” I told Wright once we were back in the pleasantly appointed suite the Pevunghians had provided for us. “I think it was a splendid idea. The city is delightful, the people are civilized, and I’ve got a date for tomorrow night.”

“A what?” Wright asked, looking up from his sketch pad for the first time.

“A date. D-A-T-E. It’s where a man and a woman find something amusing to do together as an excuse for getting better acquainted. You should try it some time. You’d be surprised how much fun women can be once you get to know them.”

“Oh,” Wright replied, entirely ignoring my sarcasm and making me feel ashamed of myself.

“Anyway,” I continued, “Rolinamuritagu is a very interesting young woman, with a cheerful disposition, an inquiring mind, and a surprisingly broad knowledge of local history.”

“Great legs, too,” Wright added, which just goes to show that you can never guess what the man is thinking.

It occurred to me as I was drifting off to sleep that we were still going to have to deal with the Speaking Sticks in the morning—a detail I had more or less forgotten while I enjoyed the company of Rolinamuritagu. But it was a minor detail. Wright would think of something—he always does. Except, of course, when he doesn’t. Anyway, I had far more pleasant things to think about, and I drifted off into dreams of those flashing black eyes, that lovely warm smile, and—as long as Wright had brought up the subject—those absolutely perfect legs.

The next morning we had a splendid breakfast, which seems to be the meal into which Pevunghians put the most effort. I was able to enjoy the food because Rolinamuritagu wasn’t with us; she apparently had some other ancient-monuments thing to do that day, and she would be off doing it until late in the afternoon. She left a message for both of us entrusting us to the care of her assistant, and a personal message for me promising to be on time for our appointment. Her image in the message flashed that beautiful smile at me, and I was more than ever convinced that coming to Pevunghia had been a good idea.

What with one thing and another, no one seemed to be ready to show us the Speaking Sticks until it was already past noon local time. I could tell that Wright was getting impatient. I guessed that he already had a theory or two about how the Sticks worked, and nothing annoys Wright more than having a theory and not being able to test it.

But at last the time came. A minor official from the Ministry of Culture—a nervous little man who smiled with obvious effort whenever Wright spoke to him—led us into the museum and showed us the room where the Speaking Sticks were kept.

There were more of them than I had expected—seventy-three all told, according to our guide. They all looked alike to me, except that each one bore a slightly different combination of pictographs—numbers, we were told, in the ancient Pevunghian hieratic script. Few people could read them, the little man said, since all the priests had been rounded up and executed by the wicked Levelers during the late unpleasantness. But Miss Miniu had made a special study and could read them as well as the old priests, he said. No, he could not read them himself, he answered with obvious shock when I asked him. It was not permitted for a man of his class. The old Pevunghian caste system was obviously back in force, and he at least had to pretend to like it.

The Sticks were displayed on brackets attached to one long wall of the gallery. Wright asked if he might take one down to examine it closely. I thought the little man might have a stroke.

“That isn’t normally done,” he wheezed out, quivering all over.

“I don’t think any of what I’m going to do is normally done,” Wright replied, with an unnecessarily sarcastic emphasis on the words “normally done.” “What’s normally done hasn’t been making your Speaking Sticks speak. If you intend to limit me to what’s normally done, just let me know, and I’ll pack my bags and leave.”

Wright always gives some variation of this speech when he isn’t getting his way. The refrain is always the same: I know what I’m doing, and obviously you’re incompetent, or you wouldn’t have hired me. It usually produces the desired effect. In the present instance, it sent the minor official scurrying off in search of a major official, and the major official scurrying off in search of someone further up the hierarchy. When she arrived, the three of them pulled Wright into a corner and conferred with him in hushed, respectful tones. At the end of this conference, they agreed on something, and Wright came back to me to announce the result:

“We can go on with our work.”

So that was that. Wright immediately picked up one of the Sticks and began to examine it. I watched the minor official, the major official, and the super-major official as they watched Wright. Their faces registered mixed awe and apprehension, as if they were watching some famous acrobat perform some exceptionally dangerous feat. Imagine their consternation, then, when Wright handed the Stick to me.

“I need measurements,” he said. “Very exact measurements. No, don’t touch that part.” (I had reached out to grab the Stick by the middle.) “Only by the ends. And use your tape for the measurements, not that contraption. I need total length, length excluding the end pieces, diameter of the central section, and distance between the centers of these two holes and their diameters.”

I glanced at the three official observers. It looked as though their eyes might pop out of their sockets and roll around on the floor. I tried to handle the Stick as delicately as I could to avoid alarming them any more, but I did have to handle it. Wright trusts no one but me to do his measuring for him, and he has an irrational aversion to “that contraption,” as he calls it, which would almost certainly give him more accurate measurements than I could get with the tape.

There’s no need to bore you with the details of all the measurements I took. Wright chose five of the Sticks at random to look at; once I had determined that their basic measurements were all identical to within very close tolerances, Wright declared himself satisfied that all the Sticks were the same. Then he retreated to our suite with my measurements and his sketch pad, telling me I could take the rest of the day off. I spent it napping. I wanted to be fresh for my evening with Rolinamuritagu, and Pevunghian days are somewhat longer than ours.

Rolinamuritagu was precisely on time for our date. In fact, she seemed to be just as eager as I was. Sit-down restaurants do not exist in any numbers anywhere in the city, so instead we had a private dinner at her luxurious apartments overlooking the harbor. Oh, if I could stop time, I’d live in that evening forever! The early part of it, anyway.

It was only after we had spent some very pleasant hours together that I made a simply appalling discovery—and then only accidentally, and only because the evening had gone so well that Rolinamuritagu was telling me how much she liked me.

“One seldom meets a man with any real dash these days,” she was saying. “At least that’s true on this world. I think the war just knocked all the daring out of us. But you—you had the confidence of a real hero. I liked you from the start, Johnpulaski, but when I heard how cool you were at the museum today, I knew you were an extraordinary man.”

“One does one’s best,” I answered with a slight smile, having no idea what she was talking about.

“Yes, but to handle the Speaking Sticks so coolly, knowing that it might mean death—”

“Death?” The conversation had suddenly taken a very alarming turn.

“Oh, of course I know that your master Mr. Wright is thoroughly competent, and I’m sure you have complete trust in him. Still, the law is very clear about it—‘Who touches the Stick, and the Stick speaks not, shall die.’ I understand Mr. Wright had a hard time negotiating three days’ grace with the head of religious affairs. I’ve complete trust in him, of course. Still, the idea that I might be dead in three days would have shaken me up a bit. I heard you were cool as a——”

I didn’t really hear the rest of what she said. You might have supposed that I would say something. Actually, I didn’t. I was too proud to admit that my courage had been ignorance, especially since I had made such a favorable impression on her. Besides, the only thing that popped into my head to say was something unrepeatable directed at the absent Wright, not at Rolinamuritagu.

The next morning I stormed into Wright’s bedroom and started babbling at him before he even noticed I was there. In fact, I think he was still asleep.

“You selfish, arrogant, thoughtless lunatic,” I said. Well, actually, I shouted it. I’d been choosing my words carefully all the way from Rolinamuritagu’s place, but I promptly forgot everything I had rehearsed and simply sputtered. “I mean—who do you think you are? I mean, what makes you think— I mean, what were you—”

Wright was awake now. “You’re back,” he announced.

“Yes, I’m back. Not that it matters to you, since you clearly don’t care whether I live or die. What were you thinking of?”

“Did you have a good time last night?” Wright asked with infuriating irrelevance. (Another one for the list.)

“What difference does it make? If those sticks don’t talk, they’ll kill us both in three days!”

“No one is going to die,” Wright said quite calmly. “We’ve worked on a deadline before.”

“Yes, but the ‘dead’ part was a little more metaphorical.”

“Now, when have I ever let you down?”

I could think of so many answers to that question that I was temporarily struck dumb.

“Anyway,” he continued, “while you were dallying with your latest conquest, I was finishing my sketches. Have a look.”

He handed me his sketch pad. On the first screen I recognized the mechanical toy he had been sketching on the smelly, refugee-ridden liner that brought us to Pevunghia.

“This should do it,” he announced with just a hint of pride.

“It looks like a sewing machine,” I told him.

“Nevertheless, it will make the Speaking Sticks speak.”

“You think they’ll talk to a sewing machine? Wonderful. Three-thousand-year-old technology to the rescue. Oh, I just can’t wait to be drawn and quartered or boiled in oil or whatever it is they do to blasphemers around here. I’ll bet it’s something really unpleasant.”

“Well, first they cut out your—”

“I don’t want to hear it!” And I stuck my fingers in my ears.

Then I remembered something else he’d said. “And she is not my ‘latest conquest’! I’m in love with her!”

Wright shrugged.

“Now get to work!” I snarled. “Your miserable life depends on it, and I frankly don’t care about that right now, but my life depends on it, too, and I care about that quite a bit.”

He yawned broadly. “First things first. We have plenty of time for breakfast, and I want some more of those little square cakes with the berries in them.”

All that day, I worked with a team of Pevunghian mechanics in the gallery to make some sense of Wright’s sketchy drawings. We had abysmal facilities. The only laser they had broke down before noon, and we had to do almost all the work with hand tools. We had to deal with Wright’s quirky choices of materials, too. He had drawn a pedal-operated wheel connected to a rubber belt, but the Pevunghians had never heard of rubber. Wright finally had to replace the belt with a system of wooden gears, which would have been easy to cut (as I pointed out) if we’d had a laser, but would take hours with hand saws and files. “Hard work is good for you,” he said cheerfully. But I didn’t notice him doing any.

At any rate, by the end of the day we were less than half done, but Wright pronounced himself satisfied. We’d finish the main body of the contraption the next day, and then do the gear-and-pedal assembly the day after, and easily meet our deadline, considering that the Pevunghian day was a bit longer than ours. I did not like that word “deadline” in this context, and I told him so. He shrugged. His shrugs are going on the list, too.

I spent the evening with Rolinamuritagu again. She asked me how the project was going; I told her I didn’t want to talk about it.

“Oh, but my whole life has been leading up to this moment,” she responded with no attempt to suppress her excitement. “All my years of labor to preserve and revive the ancient ways—and now, at last, I shall hear the words of the ancients themselves in the voices from the Speaking Sticks!”

“We’ll make the deadline,” I said, and that word had crept out of my mouth before I even knew what I was saying. That was precisely why I didn’t want to talk about it. “But I’d still rather not talk about work.”

“You are wise,” she agreed. “Tonight we talk about love.”

“Love?”

“Yes, love—my love for you, Johnpulaski, my dashing hero of the Restoration.”

Well, that was a subject I could get into. We talked about how much I adored her, and how much she adored me, and how we would make a life together on Pevunghia. I had definitely had enough of Wright, and I assured her I wouldn’t miss him at all. I could hardly wait to see the look on his face when I handed in my resignation and informed him that I would not be leaving Pevunghia. Perhaps I was being a bit hasty, but I’ve fallen in love enough times to recognize the real thing when I see it.

The next morning we got to work bright and early again—or at least all of us but Wright, who lingered shamelessly over breakfast and ate piles of those little berry cakes.

We were right on schedule. We were putting the finishing touches on the main part of Wright’s sewing machine, or whatever it was, just as the sun was setting. It was the oddest-looking contraption I’d ever built for Wright, and that was saying something. It looked a bit like a lathe of some sort, but all sorts of appendages hung out in all directions. The strangest of them was a long tube that led into an absolutely empty wooden box. In spite of all the hours I’d spent putting it together, I had absolutely no idea what the thing was supposed to do.

So we were just about to knock off for the day, with the relatively easy task of making the pedal assembly in the morning, when there was a bustle and commotion and a bunch of people poured in the door. Rolinamuritagu was among them, along with the Countess and Mr. Torim, and what looked like a bunch of dignitaries, and a number of people in some sort of military uniform, and a really big man with a really big ceremonial sword or saber or machete or something. I didn’t like the look of him at all.

“Is this the machine that will make the Sticks speak, Mr. Wright?” the Countess asked, looking it over curiously.

“Yes,” Wright answered. “We’ll have it finished tomorrow.”

A dead hush fell over the whole assembly. Everyone looked absolutely stricken.

At last the Countess spoke again. “My dear Mr. Wright, there is no ‘tomorrow.’ You had three days.”

‘Well, of course,” Wright said, “and it’s been just a little more than two days and a quarter.”

“The day before yesterday, yesterday, and today,” the Countess said rather severely. “Three days.”

“What imbecilic nonsense,” Wright replied, showing his delightful social manner. “A day is a complete revolution of the planet. We started counting late in the afternoon the day before yesterday, so—”

“The day before yesterday, yesterday, and today,” the Countess repeated.

Well, Wright thought that was the most idiotic thing he had ever heard, and he told her so. It was clear that this argument could go nowhere. Wright knew that of course three days meant three revolutions of the planet, whereas the Pevunghians knew that of course you count the first and last of the series, and a day ends at sunset, and no one could possibly be such a fool as to think otherwise. Meanwhile, the very big man was trying out different grips on his machete. I looked over at Rolinamuritagu, and she shrugged just exactly the way Wright always does.

“Well, I very much regret this,” the Countess said at last, “but the law is very clear. We made more of an exception than perhaps we had a right to make for you, but we can do no more. If you will be so good, guards.”

Suddenly I felt my wrists grasped by guards with powerful muscles. I’m absolutely positive that the man with the big machete was smirking.

“Oh, all right,” Wright huffed. “Have it your way. I’ll make the Sticks speak now.”

There was silence again; then the Countess nodded, and my wrists were free.

“You realize this will be very clumsy,” Wright continued, grabbing a dowel from the pile of miscellaneous wood we’d accumulated, “and it will not be at all as accurate as it would have been if I’d finished the job right. I hope you’re happy.” He split one end of the dowel very neatly with a chisel, and quickly screwed a knob into the other end. Then he pushed the split end of the dowel over the carved end of one of the Speaking Sticks, drilling a fastener through the dowel to hold it in place, and at last he set the Stick down in his machine, which very neatly supported it by both ends.

That was when everyone started shouting at once.

I simply had no idea what was going on. The Countess and Mr. Torim were both babbling in Pevunghian. Wright doesn’t speak a word of Pevunghian, but that didn’t stop him from arguing with them. The guards seemed to be bellowing orders at him, or at each other—I couldn’t tell which—and Wright was bellowing at them.

“They’re afraid the machine will damage the Speaking Sticks,” Rolinamuritagu’s voice explained in my ear. Somehow she had made her way through the fray to my side.

Well, I could see why they were afraid. The way Wright had set the Stick in the machine, there was a sort of pin that was in direct contact with the Stick, and the whole point of the machine seemed to be to make the Stick turn against the pin. When I looked at it, I wasn’t sure whether I trusted the machine myself.

Now the Pevunghians themselves were taking sides, some of them arguing for Wright and some of them against. I assume that was what was going on; it was all in Pevunghian, and much too fast for me to follow. I was afraid for a while that Wright might be singlehandedly responsible for reviving the Pevunghian civil war. In the middle of it all was Wright himself, still sputtering, but increasingly irrelevant to the discussion as more and more Pevunghians took up both sides of the question.

Just before they came to blows, Wright managed to make himself heard over the din.

“Are you people all morons?”

Well, that didn’t go over very well. The riot doubled in volume, and Wright seemed momentarily to have lost some of his support. Rolinamuritagu was about to enter the fray again, but I stopped her.

“Don’t go back in there,” I said. “You might get hurt. No need to worry about Mr. Wright. He’ll get his way somehow. It’s what he’s best at.”

She nodded, then stood aside with me to watch the oddly impressive spectacle of Wright getting his own way in spite of long odds. The various dignitaries involved had huddled into a buzzing conclave around him. From the center came an occasional explosion of Wright’s voice, usually followed by exasperated muttering from the officials. Rolinamuritagu pointed out that First Minister Torim himself had been sucked into the maelstrom; he was shaking his head at Wright, apparently refusing some demand about which Wright was absolutely adamant.

At last there was a flinging up of hands all around among the officials, which I took as a sign that Wright had once again got his way. I was correct: the officials began to spread out in a circle around the machine, and Wright came back and announced that the demonstration would proceed.

“Turn that clockwise,” he told me, pointing to the improvised crank he had attached to one end of the Speaking Stick.

“How fast?” I asked.

“I don’t know. About twice a second to start with.”

So I took hold of the knob and started to turn.

The instant result was an irritating scratchy hiss that emanated from the empty box at the end of the tube. It filled the otherwise silent chamber. For what seemed like an eternity there was no other sound. It must have been at least five seconds: enough for my whirling brain to conclude that the demonstration had failed, and that I was headed again for that particularly gruesome death whose details I had refused to listen to.

Then all at once a tinny and wavering but unmistakably clear voice rang out over the hiss. It was a man’s voice, speaking an archaic form of Pevunghian.

I kept turning the crank, and the voice spoke—at a higher pitch if I turned faster, lower if I slowed down. I was almost as amazed as the Pevunghians.

Everyone was silent for the next ten minutes while the pin moved from one end of the Stick to the other, and the voice spoke the words of the ancient priests, whatever they were—the dialect was too archaic for me to make much out of it. I kept turning and turning, ignoring the increasing pain in my arm. Rolinamuritagu stood transfixed, her eyes brimming with tears.

When the pin reached the other end of the Stick, the voice stopped, and Wright signaled me to stop turning. My arm was ready to fall out of its socket.

There was a pregnant moment of silence, and then a tumultuous outbreak of cheering after the Pevunghian manner, with much stamping of feet and a lot of that sort of yodeling thing they do. Rolinamuritagu embraced me, and First Minister Torim embraced Wright.

When the cheering subsided, the Countess was finally able to ask the question that I’m sure was on everyone’s mind.

“How did you do it? What is this marvelous machine of yours that frees the Speaking Sticks from their prison of silence?”

Wright smiled. He was in his element now: the problem had been solved, and all he had to do was collect the accolades. And the fee, of course.

“It’s a phonograph,” he explained. “A primitive one, but adequate. It would have been better with the pedal assembly. Your Speaking Sticks are phonograph cylinders, as I surmised even before I saw your pictures of them.”

Here I was tempted to interrupt, but one of the clot of buzzing dignitaries asked the same question that was on the tip of my tongue:

“You mean you knew how the Speaking Sticks worked without seeing them?”

“Well, as I said, I surmised. To store audio information in a form that will be accessible even centuries later is a difficult problem. As it happens, the most primitive technology is often the most durable. When I saw your admirably detailed pictures, I was able to make out the grooved surface, and my theory was confirmed. After that, it was merely a matter of constructing a suitable…”

And so on. Now that the conversation had turned to Wright’s favorite subject—his own genius—he was quite animated. The same subject always bores me beyond measure, but I noticed that Rolinamuritagu was listening with rapt attention. Heavens, she was beautiful! And that gorgeous creature was mine!

I was paying more attention to her than to what was going on around me, so it took me by surprise when one of the dignitaries took me by the arm and started pulling me toward the front of the room. I was stationed next to Wright. I looked out into the crowd to see Rolinamuritagu beaming that glorious smile at me, so I knew something good was happening.

First Minister Torim addressed the assembly. “My dear fellow citizens of our beloved commonwealth,” he began. He went on at length to relate the history of the Speaking Sticks and their importance in the history of culture, and so on and so on, while I stood there with a frozen smile wondering whether he would ever get to the point. After a more or less complete course in Pevunghian history, he finally made it to the moment when Wright’s machine had made the Speaking Sticks speak again.

“What reward,” he asked rhetorically, “could adequately recompense the genius who, at one stroke, has given us our best hope of reviving the lost glories of Pevunghian culture?” Well, his fee and perhaps a small gratuity is usually enough for Wright, I thought to myself. “No mere material consideration” (the First Minister continued) “can be equal to the benefit conferred on us,” blah blah blah—the man had a politician’s gift for multiplying words beyond measure. “Therefore,” he concluded, finally coming to the point, “it is my great pleasure and honor to announce the elevation of Mr. T. A. Wright and his assistant John Pulaski to senatorial rank, with all the honors and privileges that rank entails, effective immediately upon the conclusion of this announcement.”

Well, that was a pleasant enough surprise, I thought. Especially if I was going to be living among the Pevunghians, it couldn’t hurt to be ranked in the upper strata of society. I looked over to where I had left Rolinamuritagu, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.

I finally found her after the little ceremony. She was in the hall outside the gallery, crying her eyes out.

“What’s wrong, love?” I asked, putting my hand on her shoulder.

“No!” She jerked away. “I’m not—I can’t be—your love, Senator.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m a commoner!” she sobbed, and she dissolved in tears again.

“But surely—”

“All my life—all my life—I’ve worked to bring back the old ways, the law and the customs we trampled on. Do you think I could just selfishly throw that away now? Just because I love you?”

Well, there was more to our conversation than that, but it didn’t go anywhere. Senators marry senators, not commoners: that’s the Pevunghian way.

“You knew,” I fumed as I stomped back into our chambers, where Wright was packing up his few possessions.

“How do you like being a senator?” he asked with no trace of irony in his voice.

“I knew it! You’re responsible for this!”

“Yes, I insisted on that point in my negotiations. If we succeed, I told them, then you must elevate my assistant to senatorial rank as well as me. I was brilliant.”

“You selfish old…selfish person!” I shouted, nearly using some bad language before I brought my temper under control. “You knew I was planning to leave you, so you scuttled my one chance at happiness!”

“Did I?” Wright asked in the infuriatingly pleasant voice he uses when he pretends not to know what I’m talking about. It’s on the list.

“Well, don’t think it’s going to do you any good. I’m still leaving you. I’ll find some other crank to work for, because I can never forgive you for this as long as I live.”

I turned to stomp out of the room dramatically.

“There is,” Wright said just a little louder, “a certain annual income associated with the rank.”

I stopped.

“How much?” I asked.

He told me.

So it turns out I’ve forgiven him after all.

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THE LONG DAY.

anniversary-week-6In celebration of the sixth anniversary of his move to the World-Wide-Web, Dr. Boli is reprinting some of his favorite articles from the past six years.

N.B.—Dr. Boli has designed this story for beginning readers. It uses a limited, but unpredictable, vocabulary, and is well suited to early reading lessons.

A man and a cat sat on the grass.

“It is a hot day,” said the cat.

“No, it is cold,” said the man.

“I say it is hot,” said the cat.

“I say it is cold,” said the man.

“Let us ask the dog,” said the cat.

So they asked the dog, “Is it a hot day or a cold day?”

The dog said, “It is a red day.”

“I say it is hot,” said the cat.

“I say it is cold,” said the man.

“I say it is red,” said the dog.

“Let us ask the cow,” said the cat.

So they asked the cow, “Is it a hot day, or a cold day, or a red day?”

The cow said, “It is a sharp day.”

“I say it is hot,” said the cat.

“I say it is cold,” said the man.

“I say it is red,” said the dog.

“I say it is sharp,” said the cow.

“Let us ask the sheep,” said the cat.

So they asked the sheep, “Is it a hot day, or a cold day, or a red day, or a sharp day?”

The sheep said, “It is a round day.”

“I say it is hot,” said the cat.

“I say it is cold,” said the man.

“I say it is red,” said the dog.

“I say it is sharp,” said the cow.

“I say it is round,” said the sheep.

“Let us ask the goat,” said the cat.

So they asked the goat, “Is it a hot day, or a cold day, or a red day, or a sharp day, or a round day?”

The goat said, “It is a thick day.”

“I say it is hot,” said the cat.

“I say it is cold,” said the man.

“I say it is red,” said the dog.

“I say it is sharp,” said the cow.

“I say it is round,” said the sheep.

“I say it is thick,” said the goat.

“Let us ask the hen,” said the cat.

So they asked the hen, “Is it a hot day, or a cold day, or a red day, or a sharp day, or a round day, or a thick day?”

The hen said, “It is not a hot day, or a cold day, or a red day, or a sharp day, or a round day, or a thick day. It is not a day at all. Now it is night, and it is time to go to sleep.”

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THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

sixth-anniversary

In celebration of his sixth anniversary on the World-Wide Web, Dr. Boli presents (once again) the first story he ever published in electrical form.

A MAN WALKED into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

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THE TIGER IN GRANDMOTHER’S PARLOR.

When Millie went to visit Grandmother Twiddleby the other day, she found a tiger sitting on the couch in the parlor.

“There’s a tiger on your couch,” Millie remarked after she had given Grandmother Twiddleby her usual greeting.

“That’s Montgomery,” said Grandmother Twiddleby. “He likes it there. I don’t mind him getting up on the furniture as long as he doesn’t make a mess.”

“But where did you get a tiger?” Millie asked. “And why?”

“Oh, he just showed up last Saturday. He looked so hungry that I just couldn’t turn him away. And he’s very useful around the house. He helps out with dusting the bric-a-brac.”

“But doesn’t it take a lot to feed a tiger?” Millie asked, while she watched the tiger licking his paws.

“I just feed him a few slices of salami, and a bit of tuna, and some nice cheese, and your Uncle Bartram, and some dry cat food for snacks.”

“Uncle Bartram?” Millie asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Did you say he ate Uncle Bartram?”

“I don’t think so,” Grandmother Twiddleby replied. “You must have misheard me.” But there was something about the way she said it that made Millie suspicious.

“Grandmother,” she said gravely, “has that tiger been taking advantage of your generosity?”

“Well…”

“You know what we’ve told you about letting people take advantage of you.”

“Really, I don’t mind,” Grandmother Twiddleby said, glancing at the tiger.

Millie had heard quite enough. She turned to the tiger with her sternest face on, and told him, “You should be ashamed of yourself, Montgomery, taking advantage of a poor little old lady like that.”

The tiger looked away, but Millie would have none of that.

“You look at me when I’m talking to you,” she told him sharply, and the tiger turned back with his head lowered in shame.

“Now, I want you to let Uncle Bartram out this instant,” Millie said.

So the tiger opened his mouth, and out came Uncle Bartram, and Mrs. McWhirter from down the street, and the postman, and the mayor, and the woman who came to read the gas meter, and a well-known conservationist who had been missing for some time, and the Harrisons’ dog, and a cashier from the IGA store, and two sixth-graders from Mother of Sorrows Elementary School, and a 1996 Plymouth Neon, and Vice-President Biden, and the plumber, and a streetcar motorman, and Wole Soyinka, and the Modernaires, and the paperboy, and King Harald V of Norway, and the girl who was selling band candy, and Manfred Honeck, and Governor Corbett, and the 82nd Airborne Division, and a can of tuna.

“That’s better,” Millie said. “And I don’t want to hear anything more about you taking advantage of my grandmother’s hospitality, or we won’t let you stay here anymore.”

So Grandmother Twiddleby thanked Millie very much, and Millie left for the day, and Montgomery went back to licking his paws. Since then Grandmother Twiddleby and her tiger have been very happy together. Now Montgomery is a reformed character who eats nothing but door-to-door alarm salesmen, and he is very popular around the neighborhood.

Social media for a socialist paradise.
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