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.”
i had nothing but kind intentions toward the young woman, and had no desire to embarrass her, so i simply said, as gently as possible, “i am sorry, miss, but i do not believe i could sell such an object, at any price.”
she looked at me blankly, as if surprised by my statement, and i explained, perhaps a bit pompously, “this is an object such as people would have on the shelf of a large, comfortable, well-ordered household, in a peaceful countryside with the blasts of war unimaginably far away - not in , to use an inevitably overworked phrase, times like these.”
by the time i completed my pretty little speech, she had recovered her composure. “but, sir, “ she exclaimed. “you would not want to sell this - this wondrous object - to anyone. you would want to use it yourself!”
“a wondrous object, miss? pretty enough, i suppose, if one likes this sort of thing, but - wondrous?”
even as i spoke, i found myself staring more intently into the dark and swirling depths of the globe, which the young lady now pushed forward on the counter of the bistro.
“oh, yes, wondrous, indeed!”
“and what, if i may ask, is wondrous about it?”
“it is the gateway to another world!”
“you do not say so,” i replied politely. “and you, miss, you have been to this other world?”
her face fell. “alas, i have, sir - to my sorrow!” she looked down, and i saw the shadow of tear in one of her eyes.
i was now quite amused. did i mention that we were quote alone in the cafe? albert had gone home, as had the few customers who had come in that evening, and i had been preparing to close up. thus i was quite free to chaff the young woman, or even to attempt to charm her.
“why to your sorrow, miss?” i enquired. “and why should it not be to my sorrow, if i should attempt to enter the wondrous world myself? eh?”
“oh, sir,” she answered earnestly, looking straight at me, “ i failed - failed miserably! but i do not think such a stout looking fellow as yourself would fail!”
“fail at what, miss?” i asked with an encouraging smile, but without laughing outright.
“you see, “ she said, “when you enter the world of the globe, you will find a world with three things not to be found it this one.”
“and those are - “
“first - infinite wealth.”
“ah - everyone can use infinite wealth.”
“second - eternal life.”
“a bit more problematical - and the third thing?
“very nice ! but there must be some - drawback, eh, or obstacles?”
the young woman cast her eyes downward. “yes, one must pass certain tests or perform certain tasks to obtain these things. i was able to pass the first two - for infinite wealth and eternal life - but, alas, at the third gate i faltered.”
she raised her eyes again. “and so i failed - and was banished from the world of the globe. forever! but you, sir , if you would wish to purchase it, i am sure would find greater success.”
at this point i was quite charmed by this quaint tale, so redolent of the hearth and the nursery, and by its dewy-eyed teller. also, the globe itself, which was sitting on the counter directly in front of me, seemed to be exerting some hypnotic spell on me. and, as i said, there was no one else present.to laugh at my gullibility.
and so it was that i offered her the sum of two francs for her magical prize. she did not seen quite as pleased as i thought she would be, but after a moment’s hesitation, thanked me profusely. i gallantly offered her a coffee and a two-day old croissant to seal the deal and she gratefully accepted those too.
now in possession of the magical globe, i humored her by asking how i was supposed to enter it, to take my chance on infinite riches and the rest of it.
“oh, that is easy enough,” she assured me. “when i am gone - because you must be alone when you enter the globe - “
“of course,” i assented.
“you stare into the globe as intently as you can - “
“do i need a magic word?”
“oh no, so long as you concentrate - or even if you do not, for if you are alone the globe will draw you in -“
“i see. that simplifies matters.”
“but once inside the globe, you will need to know the password to enter the kingdom and face your three challenges.”
i nodded helpfully.
“you will be greeted by an elderly man whom you may or may not recognize, and he will say - ‘jean cocteau is no judge of goat cheese- ‘. and you will respond - “and leon bloy is no judge of white wine.’ do you think you can remember that?”
i had been engaged in smuggling since i was old enough to talk, so was an old hand at passwords. i assured her that i could remember.
when the young lady finished her coffee and croissant and left, i felt i had awakened from a dream. had i really been so foolish as to give her two francs for this ridiculous object? my only thought was to hide it - or get rid of it - so as not to face the amusement of albert on the morrow.
i picked the globe up. again, it seemed to have a slight hypnotic power, and i gazed into it.
suddenly i found myself inside it.
i felt no cold. snow was swirling all around me, so that i could only make out the outline of a few tall trees.
suddenly a figure emerged from the snow - a dignified gentleman no longer young, as the young lady had predicted.
he advanced toward me, and in a resonant voice, as if he were signaling the end of the world announced -
“jean cocteau is no judge of goat cheese!”
and i replied - “and leon bloy is no judge of white wine.”
“very good, very good.” the gentleman tramped through the snow toward me. as i came face to face with him i saw that he had a large nose, a neatly trimmed gray beard, and piercing blue eyes.
“do you recognize me, young man?” he asked.
i knew enough not to bluff in such circumstances, and i replied truthfully, “i am afraid i do not, sir.”
“i am anatole france, the greatest writer of my generation. do you not recognize me now?”
“i am only a humble fisherman and smuggler, sir.” i looked around. “at least, that is what i was before i found myself here.”
“indeed! “ he smiled in a friendly enough fashion. “ i should have said, i was the greatest writer of my generation, in the world we have left behind. here, i am only the humble servant and messenger of the king of the snows. ”
“in any case, sir,” i replied, “i am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“and i yours. i see you have learned your manners, at least. well - are you ready to attempt your three tasks? “
a cold, windy january morning. snow was falling and blowing outside the venerable hotel st crispian.
mortimer the elevator operator and jake the bellhop had just come off their shifts and were watching the snow from comfortable chairs in the lobby.
jake was beat from spending most of his shift shoveling the snow and wanted to rest up before heading home to his lonely room.
mortimer was in no hurry to get home and was waiting to see if the snow would stop. as usual he was ready to talk to anybody who would talk to him.
the only other occupants of the lobby were james, the day desk clerk who had just started his shift and already looked sleepy, mr nolan the house detective who was seated in his usual chair in the corner, asleep - or was he? - and pierre, one of the “continental” gentlemen from the curious menage on the eighth floor.
jake had heard it all before and didn’t feel like arguing. he nodded from time to time to let mortimer think he was listening.
pierre, however, had never heard mortimer’s ideas before and seemed quite amused by them.
“no doubt,” he politely enquired of mortimer. “you have found some skepticism from those you have professed these speculations to?”
“i sure have,” mortimer agreed, happy to have someone pay any attention to his theories. “i get them from ordinary folks like you and me, maybe i should say like me, because i don’t know if you think you are ordinary - “
“that is quite all right,” pierre assured him, “i don’t consider myself at all extraordinary.”
“like i was saying, from ordinary people and from college professors and scientists and even from an archbishop who stayed here one night.”
“an archbishop! you do not say so,” pierre replied. “perhaps someday you will have the opportunity to discuss your theories with the holiness the pope. or perhaps with the eminent professor einstein.”
“i would like to,” said mortimer, “if either of those gentlemen ever stay a night here at the st crispian. but you know what i have found out, no matter who i talk to and no matter what they say?”
“what might that be?”
“sometimes what they say seems to make sense and stumps me a little. but after they’ve gone, if i think about it and think real hard, i can always come up with an answer to show i am right.”
“ah. a procedure i am sure that wise men throughout the ages have employed with satisfaction.” pierre paused, took a little flat box from his pocket, extracted a small cigar from it and lit it.
“but do you know,” he commenced after taking a puff. “i have had similar thoughts myself sometimes. not exactly the same as yours, but something along the same lines.”
mortimer had never received such a response before, and was almost too surprised to answer. “oh, yeah?” he finally managed to say.
“indeed. if you don’t mind hearing it, let me tell you a story. about something that happened to me six or seven years ago, back on the continent.”
“six or seven years ago. so you were in the war, huh?” mortimer replied.
pierre smiled. “i notice that when americans say ‘in the war’, they usually mean someone was a uniformed member of some armed force or other. i was never a member of any organized armed force.”
“you didn’t get drafted?” mortimer asked.
“drafted by whom or what? i was what you could call a stateless person. from my first memories, which took place on small fishing vessels in the meditteranean, i had absolutely no knowledge of my antecedents. as you see, i am rather dark-complexioned. i was not a chinaman or an african negro, and probably not a dane or a scotchman, but i could have been french, spanish, a gypsy, a jew, maltese, greek, arab, lebanese, a turk, any combination of those and more.” pierre waved his little cigar. “perhaps i had no ancestry. a circumstance agreeing with your thought that there is no history, eh?”
mortimer just nodded. “yeah. maybe.”
“but to get on with my story. in the early days of the hostilities, i had found myself a snug little berth in a small fishing town on the southern french coast between marseilles and toulon.
i was a waiter and man of all work in a little cafe on a back street behind the waterfront. i slept in a back room, had my meals and the owner gave me a few sous from time to time. i augmented my income in small ways as best i could.
here in america people have a very lackadaisical attitude toward what in europe is often more important than money or food - papers. i had managed to get papers - all sorts of papers, although my faith in their efficacy had yet to be tested.”
“papers - you mean like newspapers?” mortimer asked. “like the daily news or the federal-democrat?”
“you illustrate my point,” pierre smiled. “not newspapers - identification papers, to prove to police and other authorities that you exist and are who you are.”
“i don’t have any papers,” mort replied. “here in new york people just are who they are.”
“you must have a birth certificate, mort,” jake, who had been listening with one ear, put in. “and you had a draft card, right? that is all he means.”
“i had a birth certificate but my mom spilled pancake mix all over it,” said mort. “it’s a long story.”
“let the gentleman tell his story,” jake replied, with his eyes still half shut.
pierre resumed. “i fell in with a little fellow named albert, a creature from nowhere like myself, who was a passable adept at making papers. papers good enough for the authorities in our little backwater, though perhaps not for those in paris or berlin or moscow. at the time i considered albert quite a wizard. i felt though, that he needed a partner, someone to help look after his interests, especially regarding those who might have been tempted to take advantage of his frail person.”
“you were his muscle,” jake observed.
pierre smiled. “exactly.”
“there was money in it?” jake asked.
“some. albert and i traded in other things too. nothing very glamorous or involving large shipments - selling a little of this, buying a little of this. the old story, going back to the first monkey who traded two bananas for a pomegranate. it was mostly done out of the cafe. we had a bit of a regular clientele, and a few people around the town who would direct strangers our way.
so. one dark night a few months before vichy went kaput and the italians moved in, a young woman appeared at the cafe. a very ordinary looking young woman, very shabbily dressed, which was the sort of customer we liked, as not about to attract much attention. she told us she had been recommended by the concierge of the local hotel, an old and reliable ally of ours.
her story was a sad one, no less sad for the fact that we heard it every day. she had fallen in love with a handsome rascal and had followed her love to the end of the earth - probably supporting him in one way or another, though albert and i were always too polite to ask - and either the earth or some army or navy or prison had swallowed the handsome devil. and now she wished to go far away - far, far way to america or at least to morocco.
or failing that, to be provided with the papers that would allow her to seek employment in the town - any kind of employment.
after i expressed the amenities of sympathy - which cost nothing except a few minutes of time - i came to the point. the point of how she wished to pay for albert’s handiwork. often, especially with women, an offer was made to pay in future installments, after the papers were obtained and wages started coming in. would it surprise you gentlemen to learn i was not always averse to accepting such arrangements? within reason, of course. but at that time the political situation was such - with possible invasions and catastrophes of all sort on the horizon, that albert and i very much preferred something more solid - preferably really solid, not some form of paper money.
the young lady had a medium sized purse with her - one that i had noticed seemed to weigh with curious heaviness on her arm. after a slight hesitation, she reached into the purse and took out a curious object - not curious in itself so much as curious under the circumstances.”
pierre paused, and look out his box of small cigars. he offered the box to mortimer and jake, and jake took one.
after lighting jake’s cigar and his own, pierre resumed.
“the object was one of those quaint objects found in almost all bourgeois european homes - a snow globe.
a rather large snow globe, with a heavier amount of snow than usually seen in such objects, so that the most intense attention had to be concentrated on it to discern the intricate scene displayed by the figures within it.”
when vorch saw the woman looking down at him from the third floor window, he waited fifteen seconds and then moved away down madison ave toward 85th st at a normal pace, keeping close to the sides of the buildings.
he had followed pete palomine to the townhouse but who knew when he might be coming out? vorch had the address and he would check up on it tomorrow to see who lived there, see if it might be useful to him in his dealing with palomine.
vorch was patient. he never hurried anything unless it was absolutely necessary.
his caution proved fortuitous. he saw a police car approaching from a block away. just cruising, with no siren or flashing lights. in response to a call from the woman in the window?
there was a narrow alley just ahead, between two townhouses. he decided not to duck into it. the police car might not spot him, but why risk looking suspicious?
he had done nothing wrong. his papers were in order, there was nothing of an incriminating nature on his person.
surely he had nothing to fear from the american police, whose courtesy and docility never ceased to amaze him. sometimes they picked you up, asked some questions, never laid a finger on you!
in any case, the police car passed him by. whether because the lone policeman in it did not see him in the shadows against the wall, or because he excited no suspicion, vorch did not know.
he did not look back. he crossed the street when he reached 85th and headed east toward park avenue.
with spence in the back seat, officer donnelly cruised around the block bounded by 86th st, 5th avenue, 87th st, and madison avenue. then he headed south and circled the next block , going west on 85th.
he didn’t see anybody, suspicious or otherwise. he decided to radio back.
“donnelly here. is that you, connolly?”
“this is connolly. find anything?”
“i got a suspect, of sorts.”
“of sorts? what does that mean? what sort?”
“he’s just a bum - an old friend. he’s harmless.”
“but he was outside the collinson house?”
donnelly glanced back at spence. “he was in the vicinity. but i -“
“i don’t know.”
“i know. just book him. book him for the night for vagrancy. so i can tell the dame we did.”
“all right.” donnelly put the receiver back on the dash. “i did what i could, old pal.” he said over his shoulder to spence.
“you didn’t try very hard. you didn’t sound very convincing,” spence answered.
“convincing! who am i, william j fallon? you wanted a speech about the rights of man? boy! some people will complain if you hang them with a brand new rope.”
spence looked out the window and sighed. “so you are taking me to the station?”
“yeah, but i didn’t say when, did i? i’ll take you down just before closing time, you can hang in the station for about half an hour and then they will let you go, how does that sound?”
“all right, i guess. so what do you want from me?”
“nothing! we’ll just talk about old times. of course anything you might tell me about anything will be appreciated, you know how it is.”
“i know how it is. you gonna buy me a cup of coffee?”
“of course. what are friends for? and a doughnut, too, what do you think of that?”
“i’m hungry, how about two doughnuts?”
“two doughnuts it is,” donnelly laughed. “you drive a hard bargain, my friend. we’ll just drive around a little first, see if we can’t find this bad man you saw.”
meanwhile, at the collinson townhouse, pete palomine resumed his tale:
prince joto was torn between despair at forever losing the love of green star, and a burning determination to somehow escape the mines, no matter what the odds.
sentenced to slavery in the mines, he volunteered to work in the lowest and most dangerous part of the mine being dug to the center of the earth.
there were fewer guards in the lowest depths, because it was thought impossible for anyone to escape anyway, and such guards as there were were often careless and lackadaisical. joto felt that surely this could be turned to his advantage.
so it came about that joto and five of his fellows, accompanied by a single sleepy-eyed guard, were starting to dig a new shaft, straight down into a newly discovered seam of soft rock, when joto’s pick suddenly broke through the rock, leaving a gaping black hole and sending a cascade of rock fragments descending into the depths…
joto almost fell headlong onto the hole, but barely kept his footing and was seized from behind by moro, his stoutest companion, a young man of good family who had been sentenced to the mines after killing a young imperial prince in an affair of honor.
it was long seconds before they heard some of the falling fragments echo back. it was obviously a very deep fissure, but such had been found before, and there was a protocol for dealing with them.
the guard, named buppo, did not like his routine disturbed. but with an ill grace he asked for a volunteer to go back and get a length of rope, with which one if the crew could be lowered into the hole.
perci, a slight and somewhat effeminate young man who was the object of the casual cruelties and occasional kindnesses of the crew, quickly spoke up and was sent back up the shaft to get a rope.
joto volunteered to make the descent when the rope was obtained, but was hotly disputed by moro.
“no, my friend, i insist!” cried joto. “you have done enough for this day, by rescuing me from the depths already. it is my turn now. but,” he added graciously, “on the next such occasion you may do the honors, if it please you.”
moro attempted to argue, and spewed forth a passionate declaration of love and gratitude toward joto, but joto remained smilingly adamant.
kardo, a shaggy-browed villain who was the bully of the group, crowed with laughter. “listen to these two fine specimens! you would think them still strutting around the court, with feathers in their curly hair, instead of groveling in the wormy muck of the world with such scum as us !”
joto and moro ignored him. silence enveloped the little group, undisturbed even by the usual moisture dripping from the walls.
after a while, perci returned with a suspiciously short length of rope.
buppo thrust the rope at joto. “no more talk! go, my fine hero!”
proceeding at his steady pace, and never looking back, vorch reached lexington avenue.
he entered a little all-night coffee shop he had frequented before. it was empty, except for the sleepy, sharp-faced woman behind the counter.
“tea, if you please,” vorch asked the woman with a slightly truculent air. he had found that americans, for some strange reason, regarded tea as somehow womanly compared to coffee - probably because there was no real tea to be found in the country.
“it will take a while,” the woman told him. “i will have to make it.”
“i am in no hurry,” vorch replied.
“want anything with it?” the woman pointed to a case with doughnuts and other pastries.
there was a selection of over a dozen items - a dozen items to choose from, in a place frequented by vagrants and beggars!
vorch pointed to what he knew was called a “danish pastry”.
“you want lemon or cherry?” the woman asked.
lemon or cherry! as if he were the archduchess of austria! “cherry, please.”
vorch was finally seated away from the window with his pitifully weak tea and his cherry pastry, when the door opened.
a young policeman entered. he had one of those smirking new york faces vorch so detested.
he was accompanied by the rabbity little fellow vorch had seen outside the townhouse on 86th street.