Chapter Ten


America, I recall with fondness my first landing on your shores, despite the atrocious weather and the surly customs official who wanted to search the small velvet purse I had secreted on my person, discovered during a summary patdown after I had been unable to respond satisfactorily to questions simple for a private citizen but pénibles, as the French say, for an exiled king. My attempts to stoop, and to scrape, and my hastily concocted disguise (Zemblan-born French scholar)--tweedy jacket with worn leather patches on the elbows, hand-carved pipe stuffed with lavender-scented tobacco--were apparently unsuccessful in completely masking the sheen of royalty I was accustomed to exuding.

Yes, they found the jewels, but that is a tale for another time. I was met at the station by an envoy, if that's not too grand a word, from the university, whom I did not immediately recognize despite the rectangle of cardstock he held chest-high with my adopted moniker carefully lettered on it. He was so young I looked right past him, toward an elderly gentleman in a dark uniform who corresponded to the mental image of natty chauffeur I had formed during the crossing. When I accosted him with a question and a questioning expression, he shook his head and stared past me, as if I weren't there. I gathered from his stony rebuff that I was only one in a series of persons to have mistaken him for their driver.

Looking around, I spotted the person I had previously missed, and marveled at my having missed not only my new name, prominently displayed, but at my having failed to notice and acknowledge such an attractive youth. The blond lock covering his forehead almost obscured his electric blue eyes. He wore a very long, very shaggy overcoat of sorts, unbuttoned, and a crisp light blue oxford shirt, the tails of which were tucked into incongruously soiled dungarees. Grease from the machine shop? Dirt from a good-natured game of Fuss in the yard? I introduced myself by pointing mutely at the sign, then at my own breast. "Doctor Kinbot?" he asked, uncertain. I smiled. "Kinbote," good sir, "the o is long, like das Boot in German, or, or the French ôter." He apologized as I clasped his hand, which was warm and wet (from holding the sign? from nervousness over the prospect of meeting an arriving dignitary?), and pumped it several times à l'américaine, as my English tutor, publicly contemptuous but secretly envious of everything American, had shown me four decades ago.

In the car, a plumpish but sleek gray thing with lots of chrome and lots of room in the boot for my luggage, young Jack Wilson chatted affably, and now less nervously, about the college and about the town, which was situated at the southern tip of one of the state's deepest and largest lakes and widely regarded as "quaint." The college he spoke glowingly of, interlarding his comments with phrases and words I had never heard before, but whose tenor I took, from context, to be favorable. The streets were curvilinear, snow-covered, and steep.

"I think you'll really like it, professor. The office said you were Scandinavian. Is that right?" (looking askance at me while simultaneously keeping a wary eye on the winding road). "It's very cold here in the winter and there's lots of snow. If you like to ski or skate, this is the spot. The lake doesn't freeze, it's too deep, but there are lots of others nearby that do."

"Zemblan, actually. We are often mistaken for Danes, but the pedigree is quite different. Tell me, Jack, what are you studying?"

"Me, oh, biology."

"Is it true that professor Nabokov is teaching Russian here."

"Professor Book-Off? I don't know. I'm studying German myself. It's more or less required for my major. Russian's a different department. What does he look like? I may have seen him around campus."

"Shorter than I, less stout, no beard, balding."

Hmm was the sole response. Chapped lips slightly parted, he leaned into a turn.

Having negotiated a labyrinth of narrow campus streets, flanked by quickly moving, irregularly spaced, bundled-up denizens of the cold, amongst which I noted an inordinate number of long red scarves, we traveled westward, towards the low sun, like a bulb viewed through cream-colored silk, across a bridge spanning an impressive abyss. The streets became ever more sinuous, then suddenly and inexplicably straightened out.

"Welcome to Cayuga Heights, professor. Dr. Maypole's place, the house you're renting, is just up the street on the left. Great view. You can see the lake, now that the trees are bare. Will you be walking to campus or driving."

"Walking, for the nonce. I have no car, although the good doctor may have left one behind for my use."

We pulled into a down-sloping drive sheltered and shaded by trees ("crabapples," I later learned) whose low overhanging boughs were laden with snow. "On verra, on verra," I mused in French, apropos of the car, I think, or something else that had just crossed my mind, distracted by the newness of the place, by the sting of the cold as I stepped out of the automobile, by the proximity of such a pleasant guide. Strapping Jack deftly hoisted my bag from the boot and transported it gracefully across a treacherously slick walk (recently shoveled but refrozen since) to the front door. A key was produced and inserted.

I was unpleasantly surprised by the coolness of the inside air. "No heat?" I asked, but Jack was already outside, stamping his feet, glancing at his wrist and simultaneously gesturing toward the car. "I have to get back. I've got a class that starts in ten minutes."

"Won't you come in for a hot drink before you go? Cocoa, or sweet tea, or coffee with rum?"

"No thanks Professor, I really do have to get back. Enjoy the house. I think you have the number at the office to call if you run into any problems. See you!" He half-waved (forearm perpendicular to torso) and walked back to the automobile, still puffing white smoke from its gently thrumming tailpipe. The door opened, then slammed shut, and the great gray beast, its black tires spitting chips of ice against the lowered garage door, lumbered backwards up the slope. As the chassis reached the crest of the hill, Jack spun around to face front, smiled, and raised the fingers of his right hand in the sketch of a wave. The engine roared and the automobile moved forward, whence we had come.

I dumbly waved back and watched the car accelerate out of sight.

* * *

Zemblans are known for their imperviousness to cold, and I am a big, well-padded Zemblan, but, as comfortable and at ease as I am in a wintry landscape or brisk ski lodge, I have no tolerance for chilly homes. The fireplace, an impressive stone affair with a marble mantelpiece, was logless, and no logs were to be found either in the garage or the yard, where there was, however, an elaborate residence for the doctor's (absent, on vacation?) dog, which I was tempted (sorely tempted, a novelist would say) to demolish for tinder. Instead I returned inside and, after a prolonged search that included both the freezing attic and the damp freezing basement, discovered beside the pantry door in a secluded corner a small circular plastic dial that apparently controlled the furnace. Its tiny red bar was aligned with 55, the lowest setting, momentarily misinterpreted by European me as signifying fifty-five degrees Centigrade, an impossible inferno. Realizing my error, I rotated the knurled disc and was immediately rewarded with a rumble from below. A cobweb, gauzy with dust, shuddered in the grate above the door and began to flutter in the invisible stream of warm air now softly wafting from the duct. A pleasant mustiness, recalling the smell of subterranean passageways linking the palace I knew in my boyhood to the Royal Theatre five hundred meters away, now pervaded the room.

There may be time later for a fuller description of my plush if somewhat lugubrious lodgings. For now the reader need know only that the house was much too big for a lone professor and that the cat I had been told I would be responsible for was nowhere to be seen, although I did spot several signs of recent feline inhabitation, including a foul-smelling box that I transferred to an unused lumber room off the back porch.

Other tales of settling in must be postponed until a later chapter. For the sake of my impatient and I think overly topical editor we must now turn to another of the Master's creations, a curious bagatelle that eerily embodies a theme that has haunted me nearly since my birth.

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