anatole france and i trudged through the falling snow, with him leading the way.
he did not vouchsafe any further information and i did not ask him any questions.
i was expecting at any minute to see a golden castle - or at least a castle - appear on the horizon.
instead the snow got heavier, and the trees thicker, as we entered a dense forest.
eventually we saw a few wisps of gray smoke, and then a small windowless hut, from which the smoke was emanating.
i suggested to my guide that we seek shelter in the hut, for a brief rest.
but he laughed and turned to me. “rest? we have reached our destination, young man. this is the king’s castle. from the smoke we can assume that his majesty is at home, no doubt accompanied by his lovely daughter.”
i had no reply to this. we approached the hut, lifting our feet high through some drifts of snow.
m france rapped on the not very stout looking wooden door, and a deep voice cried. “enter!”
we entered, upon a cozy scene.
the hut was largely filled by a black stove, which seemed to be producing more warmth outside the hut than inside it.
two stout figures occupied two chairs, one on either side of the stove. if there were chairs for guests, i did not remark them, and m france and myself remained standing throughout my interview.
the only other items of furniture were a small table in front of the stove, and a couple of barrels under a heavily boarded up window, which, as it was on the other side of the hut from our approach, i had not noticed before.
the gentleman whom i took to be the king glared at me. he was a stout looking fellow of advanced years, with a rough white beard. although i did not note the resemblance at the time, and he was not introduced to me as such, in later years i recognized a strong likeness to photographs of the celebrated author victor hugo.
on the other side of the stove sat a woman of completely indeterminate age, with her hair fastened in a bun and wearing a coarse dress of plainest gray. she was never to speak throughout the proceedings. as i would later recognize - or imagine that i recognized - the king as victor hugo, i would later judge this princess as having been george sand.
such confused thoughts as were going through my head were interrupted by the king addressing me in his loud voice - “are you ready to proceed, young man?”
“i am as ready as i am going to be, sir.”
“no doubt you have been told that you will be taking your chance on infinite wealth, endless life, and endless love, eh?”
“i have, sir.”
“ha, ha! and no doubt you are wondering where these things are, eh, as you see no evidence of them before you.” he took a small clay pipe from his pocket and began lighting it.
“i await your explanation, sir.”
“an excellent response. i see you are a natural born courtier. but look here! “ he pointed to the stove. “there is your infinite wealth!”
“indeed, sir?” i replied.
“every morning without fail we open the stove and there is an omelette. and later in the day, for lunch, a fine vegetable broth, with a baguette. and at night, for dinner, a beef pie. every day, without fail - forever!”
he pointed to the two barrels. “and in those barrels, which never require replenishment, clear cold water - and red wine. and there you have your infinite wealth.”
i nodded to show i understood. “as for endless life, that requires no explanation. we sit here contentedly, forever. and for endless love - “ he waved his hand in the general direction of the silent and expressionless princess - “that too requires no explanation. so are you ready to proceed, young man?”
“i am, sir.”
he took a puff of his pipe and fixed me with his steely gaze. “some of your predecessors i have submitted to rigorous physical tests of endurance - rigorous tests of endurance. but as it is quite a stormy night, i think i shall content myself with asking you three questions. how does that suit you?”
“very well, sir,” i replied.
“good. answer the first question, and you win infinite wealth. the second, eternal life. and the third, eternal love. but fail to answer any of the questions, and you will fail. is that plain enough?”
“may i ask one question, sir?”
he did not look too pleased, but answered, “go ahead.”
“if it is necessary to answer all three questions, in what sense does the first question win one thing, the second another, and so forth? all three questions are required for the three prizes.”
the king glared at me. “because that is the form, young man, that stories have taken from time immemorial, since cain and abel and their wives and children sat around a fire in the desert as the lions howled outside. does that answer your question?”
“it does, sir. thank you.”
“then i will proceed with my questions.” he cleared his throat. “the first question, for infinite wealth. when st louis went on his first crusade, he took with him a piece of the true cross. did he carry it in a ring on his finger, or attached to a scapula over his heart?”
“attached to a scapula.”
“correct! you win infinite wealth. the second question, for eternal life. is heaven round or flat?”
“correct again. and now the third question, a mathematical question, and you are entitled to the endless love of my daughter.” the king cleared his throat again. “five pilgrims are walking along the road to the holy land. they meet thirteen peasants. the peasants have with them four cows and nine hens. how many ducks do they have?”
i hazarded a guess. “twelve.”
“wrong!” bellowed the king. and i found myself back in the empty cafe, outside the snow globe, and looking down into it.
“and that ends my story,” pierre announced. “if truth be told, gentleman, i was not at all sorry to be back in toulon, war or no war.”
jake had dozed off. james, at the front desk, was looking at the morning edition of the federal-democrat. nolan seemed still asleep in his chair on the other side of the lobby.
but mortimer had followed pierre’s story with close attention. “i got a question. actually a few questions.”
“i am happy you found my tale so interesting, mortimer. go right ahead.”
“the young woman you got the globe from. how was she going to get eternal love? if there was nobody in the hut but just the king and the princess?”
pierre laughed. “an excellent question. perhaps a whole different scenario unfolded for her when she entered the globe. perhaps she would have been presented with the prospect of marrying the king. or a younger version of m hugo. or of balzac or alexandre dumas. or roland or amadis of gaul. who can say? your other questions?”
“here is the big question. begging your pardon, sir, but what has all this got to do with my theory that manhattan is the whole universe? it don’t seem to me that it has anything to do with it.”
“oh, your theory reminded me of it, that is all. perhaps each of us lives in our own snow globe, where everything happens over and over again, with the globes only occasionally intersecting, like snowflakes falling together on the ground, or on a windowpane. a theory espoused by many philosophers, most explicitly by the celebrated pierre deleigne.”
that did not sound very convincing to mortimer, but he never pressed his arguments, especially not with guests of the hotel, so he just nodded and said, “one more question.”
“what happened to the snow globe? what did you do with it?”
pierre laughed. “you know, i have completely forgotten.”