The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 17

  Ahead of them, Kate turned left. They had used the borrowed map to determine their route and were relying on Sticky’s memory to account for detours. And now that path led them over a canal bridge, out of Naansemegen and into Thernbaakagen. There was no obvious distinction between the two places — Naansemegen being little more than an extension of the larger town — but as the children passed down yet another street of tall, narrow houses, they found that their moods had changed even if the landscape had not.

  In Naansemegen they had been going somewhere that might prove dangerous. In Thernbaakagen, they had arrived.

  The science museum in Thernbaakagen was an old, narrow, elegant brick building, four stories high, and set off the street by a little stone courtyard. On a bench in the courtyard a bald man sat smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. A white bandage covered the crown of the man’s head — it looked as if he were wearing a doll’s cap — and a badge on the breast of his tweed jacket indicated he was a museum employee. When the children pushed their bicycles through the gate, he looked over his paper at them, raised his eyebrows skeptically — no doubt he thought they should be in school — and returned to his reading.

  In the museum lobby, the children passed an anxious-looking security guard on their way to the information desk, which was staffed by a dour woman with a recently stitched cut on her cheek and a cast on her left arm. (Reynie wondered if she and the man outside had been in an accident together.) The woman gave the children a brochure and asked them a question in Dutch. Sticky had prepared for this; he handed the woman a note that said they were American exchange students on a field trip. With a grunt, the woman took the first brochure back and gave them one written in English. The museum was free and open to the public, the brochure said. Its exhibits occupied the first three floors, and its library was on the top floor. The children followed a sign to the elevator.

  Reynie’s heart gave a lurch when he entered the library. He loved it instantly, as he did all libraries, but more than this the room — with its dark wooden tables and creaking floorboards — reminded him of the old public library back home, where he and Miss Perumal had spent many an hour walking the aisles. Until now Reynie had tried hard not to think about Miss Perumal. She must be so worried about him . . .

  Reynie felt Constance squeeze his hand. It was very quick — she let go almost at once — but it was a kind gesture, and one that reminded him that Constance noticed a great deal more than might be supposed. Especially with me, Reynie thought. He must remember to be careful what he said, and even what he allowed himself to think. Constance relied on him. He knew that now.

  The museum library’s collection was entirely for reference — nothing could be checked out — and except for a few dictionaries and encyclopedias, all the books and other materials were stored in back rooms, to be retrieved by librarians upon request. The children approached the librarian’s desk and Sticky handed a note to the librarian, who had been watching them with interest. They were the only people in the library, and no doubt she rarely saw children here, especially on a school day and without a chaperone. A cheerful-looking young woman with lustrous blond hair and hazel eyes, the librarian read Sticky’s note with an expression of growing wonder.

  “Did you write this yourself?” she asked Sticky in English. She looked extraordinarily impressed. “Your Dutch is excellent. But you do not speak it well? You would prefer to speak English?”

  “Yes, please,” Sticky said.

  “Good, then,” said the librarian with a friendly smile. “Most Dutch people speak English, you know.”

  Sticky hastened to say that he certainly did know this and that he had written the note merely as a precaution — after all, recent surveys indicated that around fifteen percent of Dutch citizens did not speak English, and . . .

  Constance rolled her eyes. “Recent surveys,” she muttered, loud enough for Sticky to hear.

  Sticky fell abruptly silent. He shot Constance an angry look.

  The librarian, however, smiled at him again. “My, but you are studious! This must explain why you are here in the library on such a beautiful afternoon. My name is Sophie, children. Now let me see,” she said, returning to the note. “You are requesting some papers, yes? Special holdings?”

  “I explained more on the other side,” Sticky said.

  Sophie flipped the paper over. Her eyebrows drew together into a frown. She looked up at the children, then at the door behind them, then back at the note. Her frown deepened. “I find this very troubling, children. I would like to know what is happening.”

  Sticky looked nervously at Reynie, who said, “What do you mean? What would you like to know?”

  Sophie regarded him with anxious eyes. “Why is there all this interest in these papers?”

  “All this interest?”

  Sophie studied him. “Could it be a coincidence?” She shook her head. “And yet you seem like nice children.”

  “We are nice,” Kate insisted. “We don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s the big deal about the papers?”

  “People are being hurt,” Sophie said gravely, “because of these papers you wish to see.”

  The Duskwort Papers

  Often the best way to avoid answering questions is to ask them yourself, and Reynie was quick to do just that. “We were hoping you could tell us more,” he said to Sophie. “What exactly has been happening?”

  “But I thought you said you knew nothing,” said Sophie, looking confused.

  “We heard there was trouble. We wanted to know what kind of trouble.”

  “I am not sure that I wish to discuss it,” said Sophie, more guarded now. “It is very unpleasant for me.”

  “Please,” said Kate. “Please help us.”

  Sophie gave her a searching look. “Help you? I do not see how . . .” She sighed and ran her fingers distractedly through her hair. “Very well. It is nothing you cannot read in the news-paper. Many people wanted to see these materials last week. Some of them . . . men in suits, with little hard bags . . . What do you call them in English? Shortcases?”

  “Briefcases,” Sticky suggested grimly.

  “Yes. Briefcases. These men did something to the security guard. He is in the hospital now. Some of the museum staff tried to help him. They also are in the hospital now. Everyone is in the hospital except for three of us, who were hurt not as much. We are all afraid now, though. There is a new security guard, but he is afraid, too.”

  “Did the men steal the papers?” Reynie asked, fearing her response.

  “No, because they are fools,” Sophie said bitterly. “They demanded to see the papers, and when I did not answer fast enough — they were very frightening, you see — they hurt me so that I was not awake. What is the word? Unconscious? They made me unconscious, and when I opened my eyes they were still trying to find the papers. They did not understand how we organize the library, you see. They were angry and creating a bad mess. But there were sirens in the street. The police were coming, and the men decided they must leave. I shouted at them as they left: ‘It is a free and public library! All you had to do was ask!’”

  Sophie shuddered. “The men, they . . . they shocked me” — she made motions with her hands, as if to show something flying out of her wrists — “with little wires.” She quickly covered her eyes. It was evident she was trying not to cry.

  Constance stepped close to the desk and said quietly, “I know how that feels, Sophie.” The others looked at her in surprise. They had agreed not to divulge any information about themselves. Reynie in particular had insisted they trust no one and give nothing away. Now Constance had admitted outright that they’d encountered Ten Men before, and therefore must be involved in this unpleasant business. It would be a miracle if they weren’t in police custody within the hour.

  Sophie had lowered her hand to look wonderingly at Constance, who said, “The watches and the wires. I know how it feels. They shocked me, too.”

  Sophie gazed at Constan
ce without speaking. Then she reached across the desk — she had to stretch a good deal — and placed a hand gently against the tiny girl’s cheek. Constance, who usually bristled at so much as a pat on the hand, did not withdraw or even flinch. She returned Sophie’s sympathetic gaze with an expression of gratitude and mutual understanding.

  “I am sorry,” Sophie said. “Please, children, go and sit at a table. I do not understand your true reasons, but I will bring you these papers.”

  They chose a table at the opposite end of the room, away from the librarian’s desk, so that they might speak in low voices and not be overheard. Sophie emerged from a back room carrying a journal and a thin stack of papers in a protective envelope. She placed the journal on the table and carefully removed the papers from the envelope. The top page was covered in handwriting, and not surprisingly it was written in Dutch.

  “We can speak again afterward, if you wish,” Sophie said. “As for these . . .” She laid a finger on the papers. “I must ask you to be careful and to keep everything in sight on the table, where I can see it from my desk. It is the policy now, for the protection of the materials. I hope you understand. It is not that I do not trust you.”

  The children assured Sophie they understood. She returned to her desk, where they could see her taking slow breaths to calm herself, even as she kept a dutiful, watchful eye on them across the room.

  The journal, an old, warped, cheaply constructed book, was held together by a binding that, given its deteriorated state, was rather more of an idea of a binding than an actual one. The other papers were equally decrepit, all quite yellow with age, and some of them as fragile as onion skin. Not without trepidation, Sticky slid the pile closer to him. The others watched with keen attention. Sticky gave his spectacles a once-over with his polishing cloth, and then — carefully, anxiously — he opened the journal.

  It was a strange business watching Sticky read. His eyes hardly seemed to move, for they absorbed great blocks of writing all at once. He would stare at a page for the space of a breath or two, then turn it. Stare, breathe, turn again. At this rate he would finish the journal in minutes, the other papers in just a few minutes more. But Sticky recorded information at a considerably faster pace than he understood it, and once he did understand he sometimes had difficulty summarizing it. He would likely need some time to order his thoughts.

  They needed to be patient, Reynie reminded himself, despite the feeling that a Ten Man might burst through the door any moment. They mustn’t put too much pressure on Sticky. When he was flustered, Sticky was capable of becoming very agitated and confused. He was less susceptible to such states these days, but the possibility still existed. It had long been a source of embarrassment for him.

  Even as he was contemplating this, though, Reynie noticed a subtle shift in Sticky’s demeanor. At first it was difficult to place. Sticky, marking a spot in the journal with his finger, had begun to examine the other papers. “Letters,” he said, glancing up at the others. He studied the topmost letter with great seriousness, then set it aside and returned to the journal, first adjusting his spectacles with a casual, scholarly, almost absent gesture. Almost absent, but not entirely. And now Reynie understood: Sticky was feeling his importance.

  It was clear to Reynie that Sticky had been struggling with his ego ever since they met up again at Kate’s farm, and Reynie was inclined to forgive his fits of vanity. The boys had been through a great deal together, and Reynie thought he knew Sticky’s heart as well as anyone’s — knew, in fact, that it was nobler and braver than most. Sticky was a skittish and fearful child, yet he always ended up doing the right thing, no matter how frightening it was. In Reynie’s opinion, this made Sticky one of the bravest people he’d ever met. If he occasionally acted like a peacock, it was not such a grave offense, and at any rate Sticky could generally count on Kate and Constance to pluck his feathers.

  Sticky soon finished his reading. He pursed his lips and removed his spectacles, evidently deep in thought. Staring into an unseen distance, he polished the spectacles, put them on again, and with a deep, thoughtful breath began rubbing his chin in exactly the same way Reynie often did. Reynie felt suddenly seized with irritation — so much for forgiveness — but he held his tongue, determined not to rattle Sticky out of thinking clearly.

  Constance, however, climbed down out of her chair (her arms were too short to reach Sticky from where she sat), stepped over to him, and swatted his hand with all her might. She struck the hand Sticky was using to rub his chin, and the sting of her blow as well as his startlement caused Sticky to jerk the hand up and away, knocking loose his spectacles. Kate reached out, quick as a wink, and caught them — and with the other hand she caught Constance, who was rearing back for another swat.

  “Get over yourself!” Constance hissed as Sticky blinked at her in blurry-eyed alarm. “Stop looking for glory and give us the story!”

  Sticky’s face turned sullen. “I was trying to think of how to explain it in English,” he said, taking his spectacles from Kate. “You can’t just hit people when you’re dissatisfied, Constance.”

  “Watch me!” Constance said, trying to writhe free of Kate’s grip.

  “Constance,” Reynie said sharply. He jerked his head toward the librarian’s desk, where Sophie had risen from her chair and was staring at the children with concern. He waved at Sophie. “It’s okay. Sorry. We’re fine.” And when Sophie, doubtful, sat down again, he murmured, “You two can fight all you want later. Right now let’s just get through this, okay?”

  Sticky and Constance glared at each other, but eventually they nodded, and Constance climbed back up into her chair. After Sticky had taken a moment to regain his composure (but only a moment this time, and without any puffery), he told them what he’d learned: the journal had belonged to Mr. Benedict’s mother, Anki Benedict, while the letters were from her sister in America — Mr. Benedict’s aunt — and from a fellow scientist, a close friend of Mr. Benedict’s parents named Han de Reizeger.

  “What I’ve read explains a lot,” Sticky said. “For one thing, the Benedicts weren’t expecting twins. Anki makes several references to the ‘baby’ coming — one baby, not two — and that if it was a boy they would name him Nicolaas.” Sticky pointed out the name in the journal. “Obviously the aunt changed the spelling later.”

  “Obviously,” said Constance in a mocking tone.

  Sticky twitched but made no response to this. “There are no entries after the birth,” he said, “which explains why the museum didn’t know about a twin. Only Mr. Benedict was contacted about these papers, though obviously Mr. Curtain has found out about them.” (He stiffened, anticipating another mocking remark, but this time Constance refrained.) “Those Ten Men may not have gotten their hands on the journal, but somehow Mr. Curtain knows what Mr. Benedict discovered in it, which is that their parents may have found a cure for narcolepsy —”

  “Really?” cried Reynie and Kate together.

  “It’s possible,” Sticky said, “but not certain. There’s a rare plant —”

  “A rare plant!” Kate exclaimed.

  “You mean like the ‘rare plant’ Mr. Curtain mentioned in his letter?” asked Constance.

  Sticky pressed his lips together tightly. It is difficult to explain anything when one is constantly interrupted, and yet Sticky felt he couldn’t say so without being accused of haughtiness.

  Reynie came to his rescue. “Sorry, we need to let you finish, don’t we? Go ahead, Sticky.” The girls, following Reynie’s lead, assumed attentive expressions.

  “Okay,” Sticky said. “Let me back up a little. Apparently Mr. Benedict’s parents had narcolepsy. Not just one of them. Both of them.” Sticky turned to a passage in the journal. “Anki writes here that despite having grown up feeling cursed, she and her husband now feel blessed, because it was their shared condition — and their scientific interest in it — that led them to meet.

  “She goes on quite a bit about how well they work together, w
ith each of them always on the alert for the other, since they rarely fall asleep at the same moment. And I have to say, they were both pretty amazingly brilliant. They were planning several impressive research projects — all they lacked was the money to get started — and they’d already published a few papers on narcolepsy. But those papers had nothing to do with this rare plant. The plant doesn’t enter the picture until near the end of the journal — near the end of their lives, I suppose — when they received this letter.”

  Handling them with care, Sticky set aside three sheets of paper from the bundle (the last of which, Reynie had already noticed, had a rectangular space cut out of its middle). “This letter is from their scientist friend, Han de Reizeger. He wrote to tell them that he’d found living specimens of translucidus somniferum — otherwise known as duskwort — previously believed extinct.”

  Sticky hesitated. “I . . . I can tell you a little bit about that plant, if you’re interested. I mean I’ve read about it before.”

  “Of course we’re interested, you lunkhead!” Kate said, laughing. “Are you kidding? That plant’s the key to this whole business!”

  “Well, it’s just that sometimes . . .” Sticky shrugged. “All right. Ahem. Duskwort appears in a few ancient texts, but only a few. It was supposed to be extremely powerful — the slightest taste of it could put people to sleep — and was often considered the stuff of legend. There’s an old Norse tale about a party of Vikings storming into a village on a foggy afternoon, only to discover every single inhabitant asleep. Not in their beds, either, but on the ground, against walls, slumped over worktables — everywhere.

  “The Vikings were so unnerved that they didn’t touch anything. They just walked through the village, staring at all the sleepers. On the far side of the village they found a boy lying next to a smoldering cookfire, clutching a tiny fragment of duskwort. Evidently he’d thrown some into the coals, and the smoke it produced had put everyone in the village to sleep, even though it must have been only the faintest wisp of smoke. Can you imagine?”