Lars Talc was passing along the Avenue Ack, on his way to a certain scientifico-medical club founded by a philanthropist, which he had succeeded in joining by dint of intrigue. He knew that at noon, at the close of the meeting, each member, after drawing lots, would be given a reconnoitering trail to follow, baited with an interesting prize. He had last taken part in this escapade the previous month – stormy June – and still kept, tucked in his blazer pocket, the prize he had managed to track down over eleven excruciating days.
The philanthropist himself was unable to distribute the prize trails, as he was plagued with whitlows and other complaints. Indeed, he rarely attended the meetings any more, and when he did, he crouched in the darkest corner of the chamber, sucking boiled sweets and tugging at his matted hair.
He had assigned the job of presiding over the meetings, and handing out the reconnoitering trails, to his assistant, Bewg. Bewg was astonishingly tall, almost a freak, and wore a cardboard hat which he covered with cellophane during rainstorms. Ignorant of science and medicine – and of virtually everything else – he was nonetheless masterly as the club’s president, for reasons which will become apparent. What else is there to say about him for the present? His eyes were different colours (violet and puce); he was fond of badgers; he had once pole-vaulted for his country, and won a medal. Bear in mind that this story is set in Finland.
The scientifico-medical club – its exact name is unknown – had been established by the philanthropist twelve years ago. It met on the second Tuesday of every month, in chambers let by a circus impresario. Usually the members would gather in the outer room, cold and pokey and crammed with a bewildering agglomeration of worm-eaten furniture. There were so many tables, chairs, chaises longues, escritoires, tallboys, bureaux, umbrella-stands, reliquaries, trestles, musnuds, pallets, brackets, hammocks, bins, easels, divans, dressers, wardrobes and bunks in the room, all of them ready to crumble to dust, that the eleven members of the club, haplessly wedged between cots and benches as they sipped their tumblers of hooch, let out yelps of glee when, at last, Bewg unlatched the door of the inner chamber and admitted them to the meeting room. This was more spacious, though colder, and virtually empty of furnishings, save for a dozen exquisitely comfortable armchairs, a small side-table, a display cabinet, and a lectern. Finnish timber burned in the grate, but Bewg insisted on throwing all the windows open. The room was cold even at the height of summer, what with certain architectural niceties, air-draughts, and the northern climate. The members sank into their armchairs, Bewg handed out the agenda, and the meeting began.
Last month, Hairgrub had delivered his paper on muskotti (nutmeg). As ever, he was puckish. When his talk was done, his colleagues fired questions at him, raised objections, made sarcastic comments, suggested texts for further reading, and were in the throes of a noisy discussion when Bewg rose from his chair, armed himself with a mallet, banged a tin gong and silenced them at a stroke. Now no one spoke except the president. In rum staccato, Bewg rapped out the club’s business: correspondence sent and received, financial matters, topics for future papers, complaints, bile – the usual concerns of any small private club. The enormous wooden clock nailed askew above the fireplace struck noon. The time had come to hand out the reconnoitering trails.
Before passing on to this most enthralling aspect of Bewg’s office, a few words should be said about the subjects upon which the club members exercised their minds. In its early days, when the founding philanthropist was still active, the club had been entirely scientifico-medical in its concerns. As old members left (through boredom, maladies, death or – in one celebrated case – to join a chain gang) and were replaced with new blood, the club’s character changed, slowly but surely. Topics drawn from a wider trough would engage the members’ attention. Satin, timidity, and dust had each been the subject of a specialist paper, as had concubinage, buttons, croup, oars, and piety. Bewg’s influence should not be underestimated. After all, he alone would suggest topics for investigation, and it is not too much to say that the various subjects to which the club turned its attentions were a map of the president’s mental life. Occasionally, his research-by-proxy had a more practical application. Bewg had long been embroiled in a dispute with his landlord and – far-sighted as ever – decided that a knowledge of firearms would be useful. He suggested the topic to the club on an unexpectedly hot Tuesday in December confident that one of the members would spend months boning up on the subject. And so it was, that at the beginning of our story, as he pranced along the Avenue Ack, Lars Talc’s brain was primed with the paper he planned to deliver upon musketry – ampumakoulutus in Finnish. Luckily, we have his notes, and the talk he never gave can be reconstructed up to a point. Ah, but lost forever the timbre of his voice, the chilling economy of his gestures, the sweep of his ad lib addenda!
I have referred to “reconnoitering trails”; a dry phrase, and one that does not do justice to the fiendishly exquisite (and exquisitely fiendish) pencilled diagrams executed on Waterbath paper and inserted in formidable maroon envelopes upon which Bewg toiled so hard. Let us call them treasure maps, for that is what they were. To each envelope was gummed a label upon which Bewg had written the name of a common farmyard implement – eleven in all, one for each member of the club. The same words were inscribed on folded triangles of custard-paper which Bewg carried in a small gunny sack. At noon, at the close of each meeting, the members would form a line before the president in strict alphabetical order by surname, and, in turn, pluck a triangle from the sack. This done, the envelopes would be distributed. Each member was now in possession of the clues which would lead them to a fascinating prize.
Last month, having picked kirnu (a churn) from the gunny sack, Lars Talc was given his envelope, and immediately scurried home to open it in the privacy of his boudoir. This room, incidentally, is worth describing in some detail, so garish were its accoutrements. But that will have to be the subject of a separate work to do it any justice.
On the afternoon of the second Tuesday in June, Lars Talc opened his envelope and unfolded a huge sheet of Waterbath paper. Its complexities dizzied him. He had to sit down and knock back the best part of a bottle of Ivory Coast penk before he could even begin to examine Bewg’s dastardly handiwork. It was at once a map and a manuscript, a web and a whirligig. Talc gazed at it for hours. Oh, so futile to try to unravel its mysteries while flopped on a Davenport!
Draining the flask, he hurriedly packed a valise, scribbled a note for Minnie, hailed a taxi, barged through the crowds at the railway station, jumped the queue at the ticket office, scrambled at the very last second on to the train leaving from platform eleven, sank panting into a seat in the dining-car, ordered a magnificent (and typically Finnish) concoction of poached egg, mustard, and cauliflower, let out a mighty sigh, and, patting the maroon envelope in his pocket, looked out of the grimy window as rusted machinery, sheds, huts, outbuildings and sad, sad tumbles of brickish ruin gave way to titanic cedars, binsey poplars, and pollarded willows, as the locomotive took him south, out of Finland, through Russia, Belorussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, northern Italy, and on into France, to halt at last at Marseilles, where, stopping only to eat and drink in a sailors’ tavern, he boarded the Pig Battery, a packet steamer, foisted some banknotes into the purser’s filthy hand, found his way to a cabin, tossed his valise into the corner, lay down on his bunk, and, unscrewing the top off another bottle of penk, drank himself into oblivion. It was now late afternoon on Friday, just over seventy-two hours since he had opened Bewg’s churn-envelope.