There are some mysteries that are very difficult to solve. Problems that drive academics to wear out the leather patches on their elbows and tear out their unkempt hair. There are some questions mankind will never be able to answer—quandaries which elude quantification, puzzles missing vital pieces, inquiries that science is just not able to frame in a way which might yield to investigative protocols.
On the other hand, this particular enigma took about ten minutes to work out.
A heavy, perfect-bound journal lay on one of the workbenches, with the word FINDINGS stamped on its cover in gold leaf. It was quite dusty and one corner of the volume had been dissolved by acid, but it was still quite legible, its contents recorded in sepia ink in a precise, neat hand, no doubt that of Septimus Grimbly himself. Babs flipped through the pages, wondering what secrets it might hold. “You think he might’ve made a philosopher’s stone, and transmuted lead to gold?” she asked out loud.
Neville shrugged. “I have all the gold I’ll ever need upstairs.”
“Maybe he discovered the elixir of eternal life,” she said, in a hushed tone.
“I’ve got that one covered, too,” Neville said. “Mummification. Works a treat.” He bent low to peer into the jar at its occupant. He raised one index finger, as if to tap on the glass. He resisted the urge with visible difficulty. “Skip to the part about this little fellow.”
She hurried through the entries in the journal, most of which ended with the legend NO RESULT, in all exasperated caps. The book was only about half full, and toward the end she found what she was looking for. “It’s an elemental,” she synopsized.
“Really?” Neville asked, awe creeping into his voice. “Like a sylph, or an undine?”
Babs and Neville both were familiar with their Paracelsus, of course, like any educated person would be, and would have at least recognized the name of Cornelius Agrippa. They knew that those luminaries of alchemical, er, science had believed that there were spirits in nature which were composed entirely of one of the four classical elements—earth, air, fire, or water. Such beings, called elementals, occurred naturally, but a sorcerer of attainment could summon them and force them to perform a single service.
Babs was herself a rusalka, which, if not technically a kind of elemental was at least a close cousin to the elementals of the sphere of water. “Don’t get me started on undines. Talk about your barlows—they’re real dumb clucks, though I suppose if you’ve got nothing but water between your ears—”
She stopped because Neville had turned to look at her expectantly.
“Uh, right,” she said, consulting the book of lab notes again. “Anyway, to answer your question—no, not like a sylph, or a salamander either. Grimbly knew enough real science to understand there were more than four elements. That the world is made of ninety-two of them, not four. He wanted to see if maybe you could conjure up an elemental of radium, say, or boron.”
“Did it work?” Neville asked. The creature in the jar was imitating him, now. It had managed to replicate his lapels and was shooting a pair of silvery metallic cuffs.
Babs took a deep breath. “I would say that yes, it probably did,” she answered. She went to the periodic table on the wall and pointed at a particular box there.
“Of course,” Neville said, nearly jumping up and down in excitement. “The label on the jar, Na, isn’t missing any letters, it’s—”
“Sodium,” Babs said, with a shudder. “I’m glad it’s stuck in there.”
“But why? I was thinking we might free it.”
“You don’t know about pure sodium? It doesn’t mix well with water. You drop that thing in a puddle, it’ll explode like dynamite,” she told him. “There’s probably enough there to blow up the whole Hall.”
Neville could not really raise an eyebrow, since both of his were obscured by the bandages that covered his face. He’d learned to find other ways to express incredulity, and Babs had been around him long enough to read his expression.
“When you spend your whole life living in ponds and swimming pools,” she explained, “you know the stuff you want to stay away from. Potassium’s even worse.”
“Hmm,” Neville said. “Well, little friend,” he told the being in the jar, “it looks like you’ll have to stay in there a while longer.”
The elemental placed two rudimentary hands against the glass, then lowered its amorphous head in dejection. It was almost too much to bear.
The next morning, when everyone was awake, Neville had his ushabtis cart the massive bell jar out into the back parlor where it could be more easily examined. “No telling how long it’s been inside that jar. Septimus Grimbly died years ago,” Neville said. “I doubt anyone has been inside that room since.” He called for Mrs. Patavatsky, the housekeeper, who had briefly worked for Grimbly before his death. “Did you ever see Septimus go through a hidden passage in the library?” he asked her. “Maybe smell anything odd coming out of there, or hear any strange noises, or—”
“You mean secret laboratory, yes?” Mrs. P replied. “Yes, he go in there many times. Always thought servants did not see. But we saw.” She shrugged. “He wanted to keep it hidden. One less room to dust, I decide, so let it be hidden.”
Neville was flabbergasted. “You knew this whole time there was a secret room back there? You never thought to mention it to me, not even when I was looking the Hall over and deciding whether or not to buy it?”
Mrs. P gave him a long look.
“Is one less room to dust,” she said. “I decide, let it be hidden.”
Neville chose not to dwell on this. “What about this thing,” he asked, drawing her attention to the bell jar. “Have you ever seen it before?”
Mrs. Patavatsky was a tall woman and she had to bent down to squint into the jar and observe its contents.
“No,” she said.
It was about this time that Reggie, the Hall’s werewolf chauffeur, came in, buttoning up the sleeves of his uniform. He looked up when he saw everyone had gathered in the parlor.
“Um. Babs,” he said, by way of greeting.
“Reggie,” she said, with one raised eyebrow. Which was meant to be as cryptic as it was quizzical, and like most of Babs’s gestures, it succeeded.
He nodded rather stiffly at her. Then he turned and greeted his employer.
“Morning, boss. Another new guest?” he asked, barely glancing at the bell jar.
“It’s a sodium elemental,” Neville said, as puffed up as if he’d conjured the thing himself. “We really have to get Dr. Thurlow over here. He’ll want to see this.” He glanced at the windows. “Once he’s awake, tonight, anyway.”
“Huh. Sure,” Reggie said. “You about ready to get going?”
Neville spun around on his heel, one index finger in the air, as if he were about to ask a question. “Oh, right,” he said, after a moment. He turned back to look at the elemental with a certain longing. “Do we need to leave right now?”
“If we want to get there before lunch time, yeah,” Reggie said.
“Are we going somewhere?” Babs asked. “If so, I need to change.”
“Ah,” Neville said. “Well.”
She went to the door of the parlor, then, because she’d caught a flicker of motion from the corner of her eye. Out in the grand hall the ushabtis were carrying a series of banker’s boxes toward the foyer, eight of them at a time balancing each box on their heads.
“I’d completely forgotten,” Neville said, “that this is the day we go and see to my taxes. Reggie and I are headed upstate to visit my accountant, Alvin Smith. Lovely fellow, quite good at his job. He can work an adding machine, sum up a double-entry ledger, and talk on the telephone all at the same time. He’s a—”
“Giant spider?” Babs asked.
“Actually, yes,” Neville said, just a little deflated. “How did you guess?”
“It was either that or a land-going octopus. Really, Neville, I’ve met my share of monsters. Being one myself and all. You’re not going to wow me with tales of your strange acquaintances. Luckily for you, you don’t need to. Judging by your manner, I assume I’m not going with.”
“Well, being a giant spider and all, he does most of his work over the telephone and by post. I only meet with him in person because my taxes are so complicated—the government keeps trying to assess me for an estate tax every year, because they claim I’m dead. I try to convince them I only died the one time, but you know how bureaucracies are. Alvin’s quite brilliant with the red tape, but he’s not terribly… safe to visit. He likes me because I already look like I’ve been wrapped up in silk, but even Reggie will have to wait out in the car. Anyway, he lives in a rather dusty cave, and I suppose I assumed you’d prefer not to muss your clothes.”
Babs had spent a year riding the rails of Europe as a hobo, once, and had never in her life been afraid of a little dirt. Nor did giant spiders elicit any fear in her adventurous heart. Mostly she was glad she didn’t have to go because she couldn’t imagine anything more boring than listening to the details of someone else’s tax return. “Should I leg it, then? Skidoo?”
“What on Earth for?” Neville asked, as he headed toward the foyer. “Won’t you be more comfortable just staying here?”
She followed him out to the drive. The engine of the Packard Eight thrummed as Reggie got the car revved up and ready to go. “You’re just going to leave me here on my own recognizance?” Babs asked. “You barely know me. I mean, it’s been fun, palling around the last week or so, but—”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Neville said. He climbed into the passenger compartment of the Packard and leaned his head out of the window to speak to her. “If you get bored you can play with our new elemental. Just try not to blow up the house.”
Babs moved to the front of the car. She leaned on the sill of the driver’s window and gave Reggie what is sometimes called a meaningful look. Which is a terribly inefficient term because now we all have to wonder exactly what the look meant. Well, readers of the previous episode of this narrative may be able to guess.
“I’ll be back tonight with Thurlow,” Neville told her, over the roar of the engine. “If you need anything, just ask the servants, that’s what they’re there for.” And with that the car pulled away in a cloud of dust.
Babs was left standing, quite suddenly alone, in the middle of the drive. She watched the car go for a moment, then turned to face the house.
The ushabtis, all forty of them, stood in the doorway. Staring back at her with their painted faces.