(Continuing the narrative which began here.)
Chapter 2: Which Hardly Succeeds in Containing Henricus Albertus Boli, Ll.D.
THE FOYER, OR entry, or train station, or whatever you want to call it, was like some set from a Cecil B. de Mille movie, the kind of set Samson would pull down in the last reel. I was wearing my rubber soles, of course, but the bowler man’s footsteps echoed like fireworks in the huge and otherwise silent space. Everything was marble: marble floors, marble walls, marble ceilings, marble stairs, marble columns, marble furniture, marble light fixtures, marble radiators. Over in one corner a couple of marble people were reading a marble newspaper.
After a long hike, we came to a big marble door on the left.
“This is Dr. Boli’s library, sir. I must ask you to prepare yourself.”
“What does that mean?”
“Most people find their first visit to Dr. Boli’s library—disconcerting.”
So I prepared myself. I didn’t know what that meant, but I did it anyway. The door swung open, and the bowler man led me in.
The room was about as wide as two cathedrals side by side. The light was bright; most of it came from skylights about thirty feet up in the ceiling. Enormous windows lined the walls, and between the windows shelves of books went from the floor to the thirty-foot ceiling. I couldn’t see the other end of the room—as far as I could tell, it just went on forever.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something moving. I looked, and for a while I just couldn’t understand what I was seeing. Finally I managed to process it all. It was a big wooden stairway on wheels, about twenty-five feet high, and it was moving slowly between the shelves, drawn by a team of two mules. Two men sat in a sort of cabin below the stairs, one driving the mules and the other apparently giving directions. A woman was standing about halfway up the steps. As I looked farther down the room, I could see several more of these mule-drawn stairways, some moving and some stopped beside shelves.
“This way, sir.” The voice of the bowler man brought me—well, I almost said back to reality, but that doesn’t sound quite right. He was about ten yards ahead of me, which reminded me that I had stopped walking. I was a little bit embarrassed. Yes, it was true that I didn’t see mule-drawn staircases in a library every day, but there was no reason to let him know that.
After we had walked a mile or so, I noticed in the distance a man sitting in an enormous leather chair. He was probably only five minutes’ walk ahead of us by now, and we seemed to be heading in his direction.
“We shall be approaching Dr. Boli soon,” the bowler man announced, in the same sort of way that a British Airways pilot might announce that we were coming up on Heathrow. “Before we approach him, there are a number of Dr. Boli’s preferences of which you should be made aware. At his age, Dr. Boli receives few visitors, and her prefers that the few whom he chooses to receive not disturb his routine inordinately.”
“How old is the old doc?” I asked.
“Dr. Boli is at present two hundred twenty-three years old, but I should point out that he has the strength and vitality of a man half his age. Nevertheless, abiding by Dr. Boli’s preferences will make your visit much more pleasant, both for him and for you.
“The first is that the name of Polk shall not be mentioned. Dr. Boli had strong opinions on the Mexican War, and he prefers not to be reminded of that melancholy conflict.” The bowler man spoke very gravely. “It is especially important not to speak of Zachary Taylor to Dr. Boli. A few years ago, a visitor made that mistake, and the poor man did not recover for a month.”
“You mean Dr. Boli was out of commission for a month just because some guy said ‘Zachary Taylor’?”
“No, sir. You misunderstand me. It was the visitor who did not recover for a month.”
I raised an eyebrow—a trick I’d been practicing for months. “Guess I’d better watch my step. Does the old boy have any other political opinions I should know about? Don’t want to set him off.”
“Dr. Boli is registered as a Federalist,” the bowler man answered, “but, as his party has recently lost some of its wonted influence, he has not taken a keen interest in politics of late. He stopped reading the newspapers in protest against their support of the Mexican War, and since then has heard little of current affairs. Nevertheless, he does have strong opinions on some matters, and he stands by his pledge to give sanctuary to any fugitive slave who escapes across the Mason-Dixon Line.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” I remarked. “We see eye to eye on that one.”
“There is one other preference of Dr. Boli’s of which you should be aware, sir. Dr. Boli is violently opposed to coconut.”
“I believe that is the appropriate adverb, sir. —Here we are. Dr. Boli, this is the gentleman for whom you sent.”
The man in the huge leather chair stood slowly, though it didn’t seem to cost him much effort. He was very old and very pale, but he gripped my hand firmly when he shook it. Then he stood still for a moment, and then he sat without saying a word. He picked up the book he’d been reading and resumed reading it, leaving me standing in awkward silence. Since he held the book over his face, I had plenty of time to read the title that was stamped in gold on the spine:
Hermanni Venemosi Commentarii ad Primos Quattuor Milia Octoginta Undeviginti Psalmos
At last the bowler man broke the long silence. “Dr. Boli would like to thank you for visiting him on such short notice. When he heard that you had become involved with the Countess Tatiana von Klapphut y Sombrero, he expressed some concern for your well-being.”
“Say,” I said, “I thought you told me her name was—”
“Indeed I did, but you must understand that we were in a public place. The name of Klapphut cannot be spoken in public. The consequences would be most unpleasant.
“I see,” I said. I seemed to be saying that a lot lately.
“Dr. Boli believes that the Countess is a difficult woman, as he expresses it. He believes that caution is in order in any dealings with her.”
At this Dr. Boli looked up for a moment; then he turned a page and continued reading.
“So Dr. Boli—” I paused to see whether Dr. Boli would respond, but he still ignored both of us. “So Dr. Boli” (I began again) “believes that the Countess Crapshoot y Sonora poses some sort of danger to me?”
“The countess is a woman of considerable intellectual force, but Dr. Boli believes that her conscience is less developed than her intellect.”
“I see.” There I went again. “So—if he doesn’t mind my asking—what is Dr. Boli’s relationship with the Countess?”
Suddenly Dr. Boli slammed his book shut, flung it on the floor, and sat with his head resting on his hand like a sulking child.
The bowler man drew himself up to his full dignity. “Sir,” he declared, “the Countess Tatiana von Klapphut y Sombrero was the only woman Dr. Boli has ever loved.”
“Wrong!” announced a high and piercing tenor voice. It was a moment before I realized that the voice came from Dr. Boli himself.
The bowler man cleared his throat. “I meant to say, aside from his mother, of course.”
This answer appeared to satisfy Dr. Boli: his chin fell back into his hand and he resumed his sulking.
“You can see, then, that Dr. Boli has a more than superficial acquaintance with the Countess, and it is from his position of superior knowledge that he issues his warning. The countess is not to be trusted: this is not merely Dr. Boli’s opinion, but a demonstrated fact. She is a breaker of vows and a bearer of false witness. She rarely speaks the truth, and then only when it serves her short-term interests better than a lie would serve. She is cruel, avaricious, intemperate, and ill-natured. In short, she is a dangerous woman, and such a one as you might be better advised to avoid.”
“I see,” I said. “And that’s what Dr. Boli brought me here to tell me?
“No?” I had a pretty speech all ready about how I could take care of myself and didn’t need his help, and it would be a shame not to use it.
“No, sir. Dr. Boli is convinced that you believe you are able to take care of yourself and need no help from him. It would therefore be of no use to attempt to dissuade you from the course of action on which you have doubtless already settled.”
“Yeah, well, you’re probably right about that,” I agreed. “Because I can take care of myself, and I don’t need his help.” There. I got to use the speech.
“Dr. Boli has therefore determined to aid you in a more direct way. He understands that you have been retained to search for a certain missing case containing $35,462,817.98 in cash. Is that correct?”
“Roughly,” I admitted.
“Then Dr. Boli has certain information to impart which may be of material assistance in your search.
“And what’s that?”
“Dr. Boli does not believe the money was lost.” The bowler man glanced left and right as if to make sure no one was listening, but all the mule teams were too far away to hear anything. “Dr. Boli believes it was stolen.”
“And what leads him to that conclusion?” I was trying not to be sarcastic, but I’m not very good at not being sarcastic.
“I am embarrassed to say, sir.”
“Oh, you don’t have to be embarrassed here. We’re all friends, aren’t we?”
“I suppose so. Very true, sir. The Countess Tatiana von Klapphut y Sombrero formerly employed a personal secretary, a Mr. Harding, to attend to her business and her day-to-day affairs, nuch as I do for Dr. Boli; but without, alas, the same devoted integrity. Mr. Harding has been missing since three days ago; and that the case is also missing gives Dr. Boli grounds for the gravest suspicion.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” I admitted.
“For that reason, Dr. Boli has authorized me to conduct you to the last known location of Mr. Harding.”
At this point, Dr. Boli suddenly stood up from his sulking and extended his hand toward me. I glanced over at the bowler man, but his face was the same complete blank it always was. So I shook Dr. Boli’s hand, and he resumed his sulking position.
I stood there for an awkward moment, but nothing seemed to be happening. So I turned back to the bowler man.
“Our interview with Dr. Boli is at an end,” he said. “If you will follow me, sir, I can conduct you to the Amanuenses’ Club.”
He began to lead me back through the library, and I followed. After a while I caught up with him and walked beside him.
“So does the old doc have trouble talking?” I asked.
“No, sir. Dr. Boli is perfectly capable of speaking for himself, but his immense wealth relieves him of that necessity.”
“I see. So where are we going?”
“To a certain modest club of which I am a member. It is known as the Amanuenses’ Club, and membership is restricted to persons who serve as private secretaries. For that reason, sir, it will be necessary to make a few adjustments.”
I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that. “What do you mean by ‘adjustments’?”
“First, sir, you will become—merely on paper—an employee of Dr. Boli. Your name will be Higgins. You must understand that my fidelity to the charter of the club would be irreparably breached if I were to introduce you as a secretary when you did not in fact hold that position.”
“So you’re going to change my name and my occupation. Anything else?”
The bowler man cleared his throat. “One hesitates to mention it, sir, but…your wardrobe.”
“You don’t like my clothes?”
“They are not suitable, sir. That is to say, they do not meet the minimum standards as set forth in the charter.”
“Well, this is the best I’ve got. I don’t have the budget for stuff like that.”
“Certainly not, sir. Dr. Boli understands that perfectly, and he has agreed to provide the requisite vestments at his own expense.”
“I see,” I said. There didn’t seem to be much else to say, so we walked on without saying anuthing, past several mule-drawn staircases, until at last we got back to the main hall.
“This way, sir,” the bowler man said.
“By the way,” I asked, “do you have a name?”
“Yes,” the bowler man said.
Well, that settled that.
Proceed to Chapter 3.