Authors: Lev Grossman
A small army of black and midnight blue limousines with smoked windows was parked all along the driveway and on the lawn. Men and women in fancy dress were standing and talking and walking along the gravel paths holding champagne flutes. Waiters wove between them with trays of hors d'oeuvres. Leaning against one of the limousines, gazing pensively down at the cigarette tucked between his knuckles, was a man with an unusually weak chin. Edward recognized him instantly. He'd seen him outside the Wents' apartment the first day he went there. It was the Duke's driver.
Edward froze. What was he doing here? If the driver was here, was the Duke here too? Why wasn't he in London? Was he healthy again? Was he following the same trail of clues they were, looking for the codex? Everything that had seemed clear and fixed and right to him a moment ago reversed itself in a dreamlike rush, like an hourglass being inverted. He backed inside, back over the threshold, and the doors boomed closed behind him like a pair of curtains closing on the final act of a play. He was wrong, his place was here. His leather shoes slipped wildly on the carpet as he ran. The hidden door to the stacks was still ajar, and he clawed it open, ducked inside, and carefully closed it behind him. He waited a few minutes, breathing hard. Then he called Margaret's name as loudly as he dared.
There was no answer. He felt his way further into the safety of the room, using the bookshelves as a guide. In the absolute blackness everythingâthe floor, his feet, the cold metal shelvesâfelt oversized, enormous, half real, as if he were an intruder in a giant's house, like Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” wandering around among titanic chairs and tables. Where was she? His mind, which had locked up when he saw the Duke's driver, began racing again, trying to catch up. He kicked over a plastic footstool, and it clattered away into the darkness. He let his fingers trail along the shelves on either side, his fingers brushing nameless volumes, hanks of dust piling up under his fingertips.
In another minute he reached the far wall and started along it, patting his way past more shelves, a filing cabinet, mop and broom handles, and then a door. Voices were audible behind it.
“Well, I'm sorry, but you should have planned better. Next time leave yourself more time to work.” He recognized the peevish voice of one of the librarians he'd passed earlier. He had a FrenchâBelgian?âaccent.
“But there's far more material here than I could possibly have anticipated.” Margaret sounded as even-keeled as ever. “The catalog is very misleading. I've drafted a replacement entry that's much more comprehensive, butâ”
“The alarms come on at six thirty. I am sorry, but there is no time for this now.”
“Ellen told me she reset them for eight in case the donors want to see the vault.”
She said something else that Edward didn't catch.
“All right,” the librarian said. He sighed heavily. “All right. But do not reshelve anything. You understand? Just leave it all on the cart when you are finished.”
“All right. Come and join us at the party afterwards,” he added grudgingly, “if you have the time.”
Edward waited for the librarian's footsteps to recede, then gingerly opened the door a crack. He was now in the library's inner offices. Margaret was alone. She didn't even seem surprised to see him.
“Come on,” she said.
“What happened?” Edward said angrily, trailing after her toward the back of the office. “Why didn't you wait for me?”
“I watched you out in the lobby. I thought you left.”
Edward blushed. She'd seen him almost abandon her.
“Well, I didn't,” he said defensively. “Listen, there's something I have to tell you. I think the Duke of Bowmry may be here.”
“I thought you said he was in London.”
“I know it doesn't make any sense, but I saw somebody who works for him. I think he saw me, too.”
“He saw you.”
He glanced nervously behind him at the door to the lobby. Her sangfroid was starting to irritate him.
“Look, let's just forget about this for now and get out of here. We'll come back some other time.”
“Edward. We're in a library.” She waved her hand at the room around them. “It's just books. The worst thing that happens here is a strongly worded overdue notice.”
She kept walking.
“Margaret.” Edward didn't move. “I'm seriousâ”
serious,” Margaret said coldly, without looking back. “You're the one who's losing his nerve.”
She led him through a large, unkempt work space crammed with computer terminals and bulky microfilm and microfiche readers. They wove between desks piled high with teetering towers of books, each volume stuffed full of stickies and manila cards and white Xerox paper. On the walls hung bulletin boards shingled with
cartoons as thick as old-growth moss. Edward stopped to examine one. Young man in rowboat passes mermaid on rock. Mermaid is talking on a cell phone. Young man saysâ
“Edward.” Margaret called his name. She was struggling with the top drawer of an unassuming gray metal filing cabinet.
“Turn it over,” she said.
“Turn the whole filing cabinet upside down.”
Edward hesitated, then bent down on one knee and wrestled the filing cabinet over onto its side. It was extremely heavy, and its contents rattled around ominously inside it.
“I place entirely too much faith in you,” he said.
When it was completely upside down, Margaret squatted down and tried the top drawer again. It opened easily, and a jumble of office supplies poured out onto the floor. So did a key chain with a well-worn Pikachu fob on it. Margaret plucked it out of the mess.
Edward watched her, grudgingly impressed.
“How did you know that would work?”
“I read a lot.”
Somewhere down at the other end of the long office a door opened, accompanied by the sound of many voices.
“That's the tour,” said Margaret, checking her watch. “It's starting.”
“The tour for the donors.”
“Do you think the Duke is with them?”
“I really have no idea.”
Keys in hand, they jogged down a hall that ended in a pair of dingy steel elevator doors. Edward ran ahead of her and punched the elevator button.
“They'll be coming this way,” she said calmly. “It's the main entrance to the stacks.”
The doors seemed to open in slow motion. Margaret pressed the button for the sub-basement while Edward frantically mashed the
button. Somebody called for them to wait. The doors shut.
When they opened again it was on a long, low-ceilinged room lit by fluorescent lights and full of endless ranks of metal bookshelves painted battleship gray. Edward propped the elevator doors open with an office chair. They munched on it noisily in the silence like a monstrous baby gumming a chew toy.
Margaret chose an aisle and they set off down it at a fast stiff-legged walk. The first thing Edward noticed was that there were no books on the bookshelves. Instead they were filled with an eclectic, dreamlike collection of objects: a stuffed owl, a narwhal horn, Victorian pocket watches, hairy South Seas fetishes. One long shelf was occupied by an ancient blunderbuss with a flared muzzle like a trombone. A stupendous matched pair of smoky brown globes stood in a corner, one terrestrial and one celestial, each one five feet in diameter. Soon the voices of the tour echoed behind themâthey must have taken the stairsâbut they faded again as Edward and Margaret pressed on deeper into the stacks. The shelves whizzed by on either side of him with exaggerated speed. They were through the looking glass.
The first room opened onto a second crammed with thousands of identical boxes stacked up in perfect rows. Each one had a tiny typewritten label on it held in place by a neat metal clip. Out of curiosity, Edward opened one. It contained nothing but a manila folder, inside of which was a single thin envelope, pressed flat like a dried leaf, brown with age and stamped all over with multicolored postmarks.
“Letters department,” said Margaret. “Come on.”
She took them down an echoing concrete stairway, deeper into the earth, and through a heavy metal door like an airlock into a massive subterranean warehouse. It was like descending into the depths of the ocean in a bathysphere: Everything became quieter, darker, more pressurized, stranger. Racks of bright, buzzing lights lit the space from thirty-foot ceilings. It was more like a bomb shelter than a library. The bookshelves were solid steel and bolted to the floor. They ran the full height of the room, like the pillars of a cathedral, with rolling ladders to reach the upper stories.
Margaret took his arm collegially, like Hansel and Gretel in the dark forest, and led him through a section filled with oversized books: bound volumes of illustrated newspapers, census records with brown and black leather spines stamped in flaking gold, giant atlases of vanished countries. Some were collapsing under their own weight; most were too tall to stand upright and had to be stored on their sides. The cold air was heavy with the rich, dank smell of slowly decomposing leather.
Margaret glanced up at call numbers as they walked.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Uncataloged Materials. It's somewhere near hereâ”
She checked her printout.
“I've pulled books from down here before, but I can't quite rememberâ”
Her voice trailed off.
“Is it on this floor?”
“I said, I can't remember,” she snapped. “When I remember, then I will know, and I will tell you.”
It was more like visiting a morgue than a library. The shelf next to Edward held a long black box like a musical instrument case with the word
written on it in black magic marker. Next to it was a cardboard carton with one corner crushed. A masking-tape label read
AUDEN, W. H.
SEALED UNTIL 1/1/2050.
“All right.” Margaret stopped. “We're on the wrong floor. Come on.”
The long, straight lines of the metal bookshelves flickered past on either side, exaggeratedly perspectival. The industrial lights buzzed in the stillness. Margaret hit a switch when they reached the wall, plunging the room into darkness. Down two more flights to the very bottom of the concrete stairwell, then into another warehouse. The fluorescent lights flickered on, seemingly in random order. In one corner was a cubical shed made out of what looked like aluminum siding.
“That's a blast freezer,” Margaret explained, following his gaze. “Every book that enters the library has to be frozen first to kill any parasites.”
He was being facetious, but she nodded.
“There are a number of maggots that feed on paper or library paste. âBookworms' is the generic term for them. If that doesn't work, they put the books in a partial vacuum until the insects suffocate.”
The stillness was even deeper here, further underground. He looked at his watch: It was past seven.
“What about those alarms?” he said. “Should we be worried?”
“Nothing we can do about them now. We'll be here until seven in the morning.”
“Jesus! I thought you said security around here was a joke.”
Margaret shrugged. She let go of his hand and looked up at the numbers on the nearest bookcase.
“All right,” she said. “We're here. Most uncataloged materials are stored in the quadrant defined by this row and this aisle, as far as that wall.” She pointed.
“Now we start looking for what we came for.”
“Will I know it when I see it?”
“This isn't buried treasure,” said Margaret. “It's not hidden, it's just lost. Look at the call numbers, look for something obvious, like âUncat Went.' If it's here, we'll find it.”
She set off down one aisle and came back dragging a tall aluminum stepladder on wheels. Edward took the next aisle over, where there was another ladder. He climbed up to the top step, where he could look out over the very tops of all the shelves in the room, rank after dim rank, receding into the distance a few feet below the ceiling. Each one was covered in its own drift of silent dust. They looked as if they'd lain untouched for decades, like a silent, sleeping, snowbound city, Pompeii buried under the ashes.
Most of the boxes were clearly labeled and easy enough to eliminate. Every couple of minutes he had to climb down and move the ladder, and the little shopping-cart wheels it ran on shrieked horribly in the silence. He could hear Margaret working directly opposite him, on the other side of the bookcase, just inches away. He caught glimpses of her through the gaps between the books and boxes: the hem of her skirt, a pearly button from her blouse.
“It's like the end of
Raiders of the Lost Ark
in here,” he said after a while.
“With all these boxes,” he added lamely.
His voice rattled dryly and faded away. He didn't really expect her to answer, but after a while she did.
“Did you notice those red metal canisters along the walls?” she said. “They're in case of a fire. If the smoke detectors go off, the doors will seal themselves automatically. All the air in this room will be replaced with an inert gas. We have thirty seconds to get to an exit before it happens.”
The cold was starting to chill him through his clothes, and he sneezed.
“Gesundheit,” said Margaret, with a very correct German accent.
They worked quickly, making their way down each shelf to the wall, then moving on to the next one. Margaret worked faster than he did, and soon she was two shelves ahead of him.
“Edward?” she asked suddenly. “You once asked me how I became an academic. How did you become a private banker?”