When Rosey finished reading us the story, he closed the book, leaned back, and removed his pince-nez. "I wonder," he said, "how many Enoch Soameses will show up."
At the time, I thought he was merely musing. Later I understood. He was giving me a homework assignment.
ONE MINUTE PAST TWO P.M. The Reading Room is laid out like a wheel. The hub is the superintendent's round desk in the middle, ringed by low bookcases containing volumes of the catalogue. The spokes are long desks, upholstered in faded blue leather. At these very desks worked Yeats, Shaw, and Karl Marx. I'm sitting at desk M-1 with a good view of the S section of the catalogue. As I watch, a silver-haired scholar in a rumpled suit pulls out the mold-green tome labeled SNOOD to SOBOS and opens it on top of the bookcase. As he turns the pages, a plumpish, pale woman with glasses and a pageboy haircut timidly steps up and peeks over his shoulder. Soon they're joined by a dark-haired, stocky man, who asks the others, with a heavy accent, "Please, do you speak Spanish?"
I leave my spot at desk M-1 to see what they're looking at.
The entries are pasted into the catalogue on individual yellowed slips. There are eight Soameses -- none christened Enoch -- credited with books about fascism, phonetics, Holy Communion, and goat farming. On the facing catalogue page a new, white slip has been stuck on with tape:
see Beerbohm, Max (3.6.1997).
As I return to my seat, I notice other spectators lounging watchfully in the neighborhood of the catalogue: A slim woman in a pale-green suit. An angular man, about fifty, casually holding a tiny camera. A tall, smirking, aesthetic Teddy boy, with a rainbow-hued vest under his Edwardian jacket and a spray of white snowdrops in his buttonhole.
Standing next to my desk is an attractive woman of about fifty in a raincoat. "Where are you from?" I ask in my library whisper.
"Malibu," she says. Her name is Sally, and she writes mystery novels. Is she here just for this event? "Yes. I've thought about it for thirty-five years. And I just felt I should be here to see if he shows up."
The slim woman in the pale-green suit is standing behind me. I ask her where she's from. "Cambridge. We're supposed to be very serious at Cambridge. But don't tell anyone: I taped the slip in the catalogue."
Sally from Malibu touches my arm. "I think he's here. Look." She points to a birdlike dandy with pale-pink windowpane-check trousers, a burgundy vest, and a gold watch fob. His beard is neatly trimmed and his moustache is waxed hard enough to slash a pillow to ribbons.
"That can't be Soames," I say. "He's not 'dim' at all. Look how healthy his beard is. And he's not wearing the black hat and the waterproof cape." I look at the clock. "Besides," I say, "it's only six after two."
"Oh, you're right," Sally says with a sigh.
TEN PAST TWO P.M. About a dozen pilgrims are waiting, loosely encircling the catalogue bookcase on which the SNOOD volume lies open. The librarians at the round desk in the middle look out at the siege uneasily.