A couple of weeks ago we had the last meeting of Ad Alta Voce, our not-quite-book-club, before parting company for the summer. There were some ten of us, including The Librarian.
Now, you see, The Librarian is a rather rotund, more than middle-aged, yellow-haired lady who Is There Because She Is There. Don’t ask – it’s all very Italian.
The Librarian is also a rather peculiar character and used to dislike Ad Alta Voce quite a bit. For the first year and a half or so, she would grumpily let us in and then sit at her desk or prowl the (very tiny) library, making us jump at intervals by muttering to herself behind the shelves. And it was clear all along that what she muttered about was why, oh why couldn’t we read in our sitting rooms instead of forcing her to work night hours…
Then she began to suspect we were having a great time of it, and began to hover nearer and nearer, and even to sit with us… It took some time, patience, and cookies to win her over, but now The Librarian is a constant and jolly presence at our meetings.
Last time, because our theme was Books and the City, we were reading our merry way through Europe and Asia, mostly – from Trieste to Paris, from Mantua to Prague to Constantinople… That is, “merry” until I, in charge of Kipling’s Corner until December, started reading from The City of Dreadful Night, a bleakly atmospheric piece (from Life’s Handicap) about one hot and sleepless night in Lahore. It is not exactly a story, if you like, having no plot to speak of: just a bravura piece of description, vivid enough that you can feel the stifling heat as you read, and the restless press of the crowded city all around you. So, I was reading:
…More tinkling of sluiced water-pots; faint jarring of wooden bedsteads moved into or out of the shadows; uncouth music of stringed instruments softened by distance into a plaintive wail, and one low grumble of far-off thunder. In the courtyard of the mosque the janitor, who lay across the threshold of the Minar when I came up, starts wildly in his sleep, throws his hands above his head, mutters something, and falls back again. Lulled by the snoring of the kites–they snore like over-gorged humans–
…And at this exact point there was a very loud snore. Then another. And another…
I’m rather proud of myself: I didn’t stop reading. Even when a surreptitious glance over the book’s rim showed me The Librarian out for the count and snoring away like a whole bevy of kites, I soldiered on. Even when my friend Fulvia sprang to her feet and fled to the garden to laugh it out, I managed to keep my voice tolerably steady… As I said: I’m proud of myself.
And The Librarian? She snored on, happily oblivious, through the rest of the story. Only when I finished and silence fell, did she blink awake, and smiled, and nodded as though she had listened to every word. If she wondered why Fulvia was in the garden, or why we were all so very merry, or why we had the cookie-break so much earlier than usual, she never made it known – and stayed awake long enough to eat her fair share of cookies.
So, Mr. Kipling, we have found someone – beside the kites – who can sleep through one dreadful night in Lahore, it seems. Or perhaps our Librarian is actually a large, cookie-loving kite in disguise?