Authors: Lev Grossman
A moist and pungent smell billowed softly out from each volume as he opened it. The catalog in the computer lengthened, entry by entry, and he lost track of time. Most of the books were from England, but there were a fair number from America and the Continent, and a few from even farther away. Some of the German books were printed in spidery Gothic black letter which took him twice as long to decipher; books in Cyrillic or Arabic he just set aside as lost causes. A printed card slipped out of a book of Bengali poetry. He retrieved it from off the floor: It said “With the Compliments of the Author,” above a florid, illegible signature.
When the thin thread of light from the window reached the tabletop, he checked his watch and saw that it was almost six. He stood up and stretched, his spine popping deliciously. The long table was two-thirds covered with even, orderly stacks of old books, and the floor was littered with huge rafts of wrapping paper. He felt gloriously virtuous, like a medieval monk who had finished his daily penance and could retire to the abbey for a beer and some artisanal cheese.
There was still that book that Laura mentioned, by somebody from somewhere. He had it written down: Gervase of Langford. Just for extra credit he ran a search of the entries he'd already created, but it wasn't there. He looked over at the dark shapes of all the other crates still waiting to be opened and wondered if he'd even get that far before he went to England.
There were some reference books in the shelves along the wall, and he walked over for a look. They ranged from xeroxed chapbooks to cheap paperbacks to sturdy volumes to massive ten- and twenty-book catalogs, each volume so fat the binding sagged under its own weight. It was highly technical stuff:
torium Bibliographicum, Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, Incunabula in American Libraries, Eighteenth Century Short-Title Catalogue, English Restoration Bookbindings.
Well, he'd never been scared of a little research. He took down a single large, authoritative-looking book entitled
A Catalogue of English Books Before 1501.
It turned out to be nothing more than a collection of cardcatalog cards from different libraries, all painstakingly photographed in black and white and laid out in alphabetical order, row upon row, page after tissue-thin page, tens of thousands of them. He cleared a space on the table under the lamp and opened it up. It took a minute to find him, but there he was, right in between Gervase of Canterbury (d. 1205) and Gervase of Tilbury (ca. 1160âca. 1211): Gervase of Langford (ca. 1338âca. 1374). There were three cards under his name, two of them for different versions of what looked like the same book,
(London, 1363 and 1366). The third was called
Les contes merveilleux
Down at the bottom of each of the cards was a string of two-and three-letter abbreviations indicating the libraries that held copies of the books. The key to the abbreviations was in a long appendix at the back; a little flipping back and forth told him that the
was in libraries in New York, Texas, and England. The New York copy was in something called the Chenoweth Rare Book and Manuscript Repository. He wrote down the name, shut down the computer, and picked up his things. Checking around to make sure everything looked shipshape, he snapped off the desk lamp on his way to the stairs.
Downstairs, the hallway was flooded with an early evening light that turned the stark white walls a soft candy pink. The windows had all been thrown open, and a delicate, cooling breeze moved through the empty rooms. Earlier on he'd wanted to avoid people, but now, after his long afternoon of silent work, he was in a gregarious mood. He almost hoped he'd run into Laura Crowlyk. He wondered again if she lived here, if she ate her meals here and slept here at night. On his way back to the elevator he glanced through a half-open door and discovered a small, cluttered office. The walls, the floor, the tops of cabinets, even the windowsill were stacked high with manila folders, bundles of paper, black three-ring binders, bursting Redwelds tied shut with string, as if some gigantic paper-loving bird were lining its nest. It was odd to see an office with no computer in it.
Edward hesitated a second, then stepped inside. No time like the present. He picked up the phone and called Information for the number of the Chenoweth Rare Book and Manuscript Repository. Would it still be open? The man who picked up transferred him unceremoniously to another department where he was put on hold. While he waited, Edward browsed the papers spread out on the desk: insurance forms, letters, some kind of legal wrangle about contractors buffing the floors. There were flimsy pink carbon copies of invoices for some computer work, made out to an Alberto Hidalgo.
A woman answered.
Edward explained that he was looking for Gervase of Langford.
“Book or manuscript?” she asked curtly.
“Book.” What else could it be?
“Are you affiliated with an institution?”
“I'm with the Went Collection,” he improvised.
There was a muffled exchange with somebody else in the room, then the woman was back:
“Are you a member of the Went family?” she asked.
“I'm an employee.”
Something in his peripheral vision caught Edward's attention: Laura Crowlyk was standing in the doorway watching him. He did a classic guilty double take. He wrapped things up with the library.
“You'll need to register when you arrive,” the woman warned him, “so bring photo ID and proof of address.”
They hung up. There was a moment of silence while Laura Crowlyk looked him up and down, taking in his baggy, dirty sweater and his stubbly face. Edward felt he had made a faux pas.
“Finished?” she asked.
“I wanted to call them before they closed for the day. Sorry. I couldn't find you.” He'd used that excuse once already, he realized.
“I haven't been hiding.” Laura stepped into the room and began pointedly clearing off the desk, putting the papers away out of sight. Edward picked up his bag to leave.
“Don't forget to record your expenses at the Chenoweth,” she said. “They'll charge a fee when you register. It's quite expensive. And bring pencil and paper, if you plan to take notes. You can't take pens into the Reading Room.”
“You've been there?”
“Oh yes, once or twice. But I can't imagine what they have that would interest you.”
“I thought I'd do some research on Gervase of Langford.”
At this she smiled, showing lots of prominent white teeth.
“Speaking of whom,” he said, “I haven't found anything upstairs yet.”
“I'm sure he'll turn up.”
“What else can you tell me about him? I'm not sure I really know what I'm looking for.”
“I think you'll know him when you see him.”
“I hope so.”
He had the distinct feeling that she was waiting for him to go. Therefore, perversely, he tried to keep the conversation going as long as possible.
“You may be underestimating my ignorance.”
“Yes, well I don't know why she didn't ask for somebody more qualified to take care of this,” she said irritably. “Myself, for example. But that's the Duchess for you all over.”
“Yes, the Duchess.”
She sighed, settling her hair absentmindedly, and bent down to open a desk drawer full of hanging files. Was that the barest trace of whisky on her breath?
“All right. If it's clues you're looking for, look at this.” She lifted out a typewritten letter and copied out something from it onto a yellow sticky.
“Here's the titleâthis is the name of the book they're looking for.”
“Uh-huh.” Her handwriting was neat and refined, no doubt the product of some inconceivably exclusive boarding school. It read:
A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians.
He nodded sagely as he scanned it, as if the words meant something to him.
“Do you mind if I ask you why we're looking for it?”
She regarded him with unnervingly pale, slate-colored eyes.
“Because the Duchess asked for it.”
The molten orange sun was almost down over the edge of New Jersey. He was suddenly very conscious that they were alone together in an empty apartment.
“This project is her idea,” she went on, “in case you hadn't gathered that. You're her idea, tooâyou Esslin & Hart people. Whatever it is you did with her financesâdon't tell me, thanks, not interestedâyou all seem to have made quite an impression on her, you in particular. I sometimes wonder if we aren't all her idea, in some complicated metaphysical way. Her world seems somehow more substantial than ours.
“As for the book, I suppose it would be valuable, though how valuable is beyond me. Apart from that, I couldn't say why we're looking for it, just that she was extremely insistent that we do so. It is a little unusual. It's not often that I hear from her directly. This is a fairly remote outpost of her empireâthe American Embassy, we call it.”
Her irony had a trace of bitterness in it. He wondered if she wasn't a little lonely.
“You do know about the Duchess, don't you?” she went on.
“Well,” said Edward, with calculated vagueness, “I do and I don't.”
“Well, you'd better learn, if you're going to work for her.” She seemed less severe now, more collegial, now that she was talking about the Wents. “Blanche and I were at school together. They advanced us both a year ahead of schedule. I sometimes think it was a mistake for her. She was brilliant, certainly, but she had a difficult time. Hers is a very old familyânobody knows them here in America, but in England everybody wanted to get at her. It had an...effect on her. Made her very shy and untrustful of some people, and maybe too trustful of others.” She glanced at Edward. “It's a clichÃ©, but she really has led a very sheltered life.
“As for Peter, I've only met him a few times, at the wedding and then later. They're very reclusive now. They live on an estate in the north of England, and they hardly ever leave it. It's enormousâthey bought up the land all around it for miles, though it's mostly fairly wild. Deer park.”
Next thing you know she'd be telling him about the ancient family curse that haunted them to this day whenever the moon was full. Edward stifled a smile. It all sounded so unrealâlike the clumsy exposition in a cheap horror movie. Edward remembered a guy he'd known in college who was supposed to be an aristocrat. He was Swedish and very tall, and people said he was a baron. They were in a Chinese history class together, but the baron never said a word the entire semester. He spent all his time in the basement of his dorm playing pinball and piningâEdward supposedâfor his faraway fjords.
“So you've met the Duke?” Edward prompted her.
“Of course I've met him,” she said. “They're both very kind people. Very kind. I understand he isn't well these daysâkeeps to his bed, mostly. It's hard for Blanche. She's a good deal younger than he is, you know.”
“Oh,” Edward said. “Is she?”
“Yes, she is.” All at once she closed up again. She whisked away the paper, shut the desk drawer and stood up. “But don't get any ideas. You'll never even meet her.”
“I can assure you,” he said with complete honesty, “that my brain is completely devoid of any ideas whatsoever.”
“Good.” She continued shuffling her papers. “Let me be frank. I don't like this city, and I don't like this godforsaken country, and I don't like you. But if you are successful, if you find the Gervase, the Duchess might just see fit to bring me back to England, and there is nothing, nothing in this life, that would make me happier. As far as this enterprise goes, I'll help you however I can. Beyond that I wash my hands of you. Is that understood?”
She looked up at Edward, a little flushed. He meditated any number of brusque, sarcastic responses before he replied.
“Yes,” he said. “It's understood. Thanks for being frank.”
It was only a few minutes later, when he was on his way down in the elevator, that he realized that at some point in the afternoon he had decided that he and nobody else was going to organize the Wents' library.
N MONDAY MORNING
at eleven o'clock Edward stepped out of a cab in front of the Chenoweth Rare Book and Manuscript Repository. It was another sunny day, hot and bright, and the street looked like an overexposed photograph. The air was awash with humidity and fumes. A large metal chemical canister belonging to a construction crew stood by itself on the sidewalk, hissing quietly; in places its bright metal surface was covered over with frost. Edward had to resist an overwhelming urge to hug it.
On the outside the Chenoweth Repository was disappointingly plain, a four-story house made of sooty gray stone jammed between two apartment buildings. The first floor was occupied by a clothing boutique called
The door to the library was off to the right, marked by a polished brass plaque; above the plaque, in a glass-and-metal frame, was a card announcing an exhibit entitled “
RARE RENAISSANCE MARGINALIA,
” accessible “
BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
The front door opened onto a dark, narrow hall. At the end of it a cinnamon-skinned woman stood behind a lighted lectern at the head of a flight of stairs, looking like the maitre d' at a restaurant.
“Leave your bag up here, please,” she said, and made him sign a clipboard.
Edward reluctantly parted with his HermÃ¨s briefcase, which she added to a disorderly pile of backpacks in the corner behind her. Instead of leading up, the stairs took him down. He realized that the library's exterior was deceptive: Most of it was underground. When he opened the glass door at the bottom of the stairs it was like passing through an airlock into an alien world, one of cold, scrubbed, triple-distilled air, white walls, plate glass, plush carpeting, and elaborately designed indirect lighting. Banks of computer terminals and blond wooden card catalog cabinets were scattered around an enormous open room populated exclusively by old men and young women, filling out forms or purposefully pushing squeaky-wheeled wooden carts this way and that. Traces of sunlight crept into the room, although Edward couldn't quite figure out from where. The temperature was a blessed twenty degrees cooler than it had been out on the street.