Religious MysteryTo tell the truth, Dr. Johnson and Oscar Wilde had not noticed the disappearance of James Boswell, Ned Nickerson, and Cherry Ames. Johnson was used to Boswell's sudden and prolonged absences on errands of a private nature. Carson Drew whispered to President Carter and they quickly arranged between them that the vacant places at table would be taken by Secret Service agents. So the room looked as full as ever, and the two literary lions rejoiced in their undiminished audience. Their conversation, after a few lulls that provided spells of more concentrated mastication-Hannah Gruen's comestibles were notoriously appetizing-turned to religion.
"To be of no church is dangerous," preached Dr. Johnson, "Religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example."
Bess rather liked Dr. Johnson as an advocate of morals. His physical person nauseated her, but she minimized the difficulty by spraying perfume all around. Mr. Wilde, she was not sure she could bear, even at a distance. Even with her Nobel prize in hand, Bess remained a faithful little church-girl at heart. The playwright's words were very cleverly put together, but they shocked her. When he said "Religion is the fashionable substitute for belief," and "I sometimes think that God, in creating men, somewhat overestimated his ability" she felt that Wilde had passed beyond banter into blasphemy. It was, at the very least, hardly in good taste. Only when he said "where there is sorrow there is holy ground" could she sympathize. That sounded like the sentiment of a genuine person. All the rest, she feared, was a crudely sophomoric act.
Dr. Johnson, on the other hand, was gentlemanly. Bess agreed when he said, "All denominations of Christians have really little difference in point of doctrine, though they may differ widely in external forms." She had long felt that there really wasn't much that was really important that divided the Episcopal church that she and George attended from the Drews' Presbyterian Chapel. She did wonder sometimes, however, if Ned's Unitarian Universalism was quite Christian at all. He said it was, or at least he said for some folks it could be Christian, so she would have to leave it at that. She supposed that anyone who said they were Christian, or that they were sort of Christian, or, as Ned said, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, must be treated as Christians. Jews and Muslims were children of Abraham. Buddhism seemed weird to her, but Ned said they were all right too. And since she liked Gandhi, she allowed that Hindus could be treated like honorary Christians.
When the the lexicographer's latest methanous effusion penetrated Bess's Chanel force-field, it roused her from her ecumenical stupor. The general conversation had moved on from a discussion of religion in general to dissecting one sect in particular.
The subject was an indigenous American sect, the Christines, noted for their blessing and healing services. Their leader, Lady Asta, had in her youth graduated from Harvard Medical School (when her name was Natalie Mellencamp) and had gone on to become a celebrated neurosurgeon. Then one day, in the midst of a particularly delicate surgery, Dr. Mellencamp had a vision and felt God guiding her hands. The patient, whose prognosis had been particularly poor even under the care of the best doctors, recovered completely. During the next surgery the surgeon, who now called herself Asta, did not even pick up a scalpel. She just placed her hands upon the poor woman's shaven skull, pressing her fingers gently in a pattern as God instructed, and all was well thereafter with the patient.
At this point Bess noticed that her friends in the medical profession were inexplicably absent. It seemed odd that they should have left before this. Or at all. There must have been some kind of emergency. She hoped they hadn't been called away by something awful like a train wreck.
Lady Asta, it developed, had abandoned her career as a regular neurosurgeon and set up "practice" as a spiritual healer. She claimed more success than she had ever had with secular methods. Her new technique, she proclaimed, was to mold the aura and shape it in the form of Christ. A number of other doctors, many not properly licenced, flocked to her new "school of medicine" and enthusiatic laypeople quickly organized a church, located in Spring Rock, Connecticut. Since almost all of the leadership was female, they were quickly dubbed the "Christines." Lady Asta, their leader, became a celebrated preacher. A magazine was published to feature her healing techniques and to disseminate her sermons.
"A woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."
This sexist remark caused Bess to wonder if she had overestimated the slovenly, aromatic Doctor Johnson. Perhaps, she wondered, his gallantry stemmed not so much from considerateness but from a mediaeval attitude. Bess wasn't the only one to take offence. Down the table Hilda Bingen appeared to be moaning and writhing in agony.
"The silver castle in the sky with its crenellations of gold!" Bingen shouted.
Then she began to chant:
"You the redeemer's kindly mother,
you who are still the open gate of heaven
and the star of the sea:
help a falling people . . ."
With these last words Miss Bingen rose from the table, stumbled backwards, and fell into Nancy Drew's waiting arms. The resourceful girl, who under Ned's tutelage had read a few books by Oliver Sacks, and had, moreover, several other physician friends whose medical expertise had been by no means kept exclusively to themselves, recognized a migraine attack of the visionary kind. She and a Secret Service agent, between them, carried the prostrate mystic out of the dining room and helped her upstairs to a quiet, dark bedroom to rest and recover.
After the excitement had died down, and Nancy had returned, Dr. Johnson noted that the same thing had happened to Lady Asta, or so he had been informed, that had just now happened to Hilda Bingen. One day while preaching to her faithful, she had been led by some inner compulsion into a frenzy, began to speak of strange unearthly things, and then had conversed slowly and intently to a flying insect that had landed on her lectern. She had then collapsed onto the floor and was borne away by her acolytes. That was over a year ago. She had never been seen in public since. Her family, concerned about her disappearance, tried to get the Spring Rock police to investigate. But the Christines formed a cordon around Lady Asta and refused to let anyone see her. When a legal complaint was issued, the sect claimed the protection of the constitutional separation of church and state. The case was still proceeding through the courts.
When the lawyers had gotten this bit into their mouth the literary giants lost their interest in the story and turned for entertainment to their immediate neigbors. Oscar Wilde set about charming Rosalyn Carter and even engaged in a little bonhommie with the ex-president. Neglected for once, Dr. Johnson turned to Bess.
"They tell me your name is Bessie," he said with what he supposed a look of gentlemanly condescension. To Bess it now appeared a sinister avuncular leer. "I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance," he said with undue relish.
"I like my old friends best," countered Bess. "But it is an experience to meet you," she allowed.
"I hope that I too shall soon be counted among your old friends, young lady," insinuated the aged literateur. "And I shall begin our relationship with a nice present."
Dr. Johnson reached into the distended pocket of his greasy dining jacket and extracted a small book. He opened it to the first page and took out a badly-chewed ballpoint pen.
"It would have given me the most pleasure to leave you one of my own books. But unfortunately I don't travel with those. I'm not like Oscar over there, who likes nothing better than to read his own scandalous memoirs on the train. But I did acquire this useful-looking volume of arithmetic this morning. You look like an intelligent child. Keep it for remembrance of your new friend and, when you read it, I trust it will be a profit to you."
"You bought a book of arithmetic to read while traveling?" asked Bess with amazement.
"Why my dear if you are to have but one book with you upon a journey, let it be a book of science," explained Johnson kindly. "When you have read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you; but a book of science is inexhaustible."
He handed Bess the book with a smile. It had a familiar cover: The Classification of Prime Numbers, by B.S. Marvin. She mechanically lifted the top cover. Inside in a florid but trembling hand it read "to charming Bessie, may she number the days of our friendship with gladness, Sam'l Johnson." He had unwittingly signed over to her her own book!
"Thank you, Dr. Johnson," Bess replied, not knowing what else she could say. "I will treasure this volume always."
"And mind you master the contents, young lady. There will be a quiz when next we meet."
"I look forward to that, Dr. Johnson."
Unable to bear any more of this anomalous situation, Bess got up unsteadily on her hind legs and beat a hasty retreat into the hall. There she saw Nancy wheeling George back towards the front hall.
"Where are you going guys?" Bess called out.
Nancy turned her head and smiled. "I'm taking George out of the heat and noise. Come join us in the front parlor."
Playfully carried away with pushing the old wheelchair, Nancy nearly raced down the marble corridor. Bess ran after her chums, momentarily forgetting her impaired shoe. On her third hasty step she twisted her ankle and came crashing down alongside the second pillar! The inscribed book which she had been clutching went flying and nearly missed toppling a large precious vase perched on a little column in a nearby alcove.
Nancy wheeled about immediately, affording George a view of the disaster scene. The gravid chum immediately stood up.
"It looks like Bess needs this now more than I do."
Carson Drew looked down the hall to see the cause of the fresh commotion. He and Nancy picked up the distressed Bess and arranged her in the bath chair. Nancy watched her friend's mouth shape silent cries of intense pain as her injured foot was jostled about. George meanwhile risked her ever precarious balance in order to pick up the spent scholarly projectile.
"Hey, Bess, this is your book!"
Bess winced again, from a different kind of pain.
As they transported Bess gingerly towards the entrance of the private parlor, Oscar Wilde passed them on his way out to the street.
"I say, great little affair tonight, Drew. I did not know that a legal drudge like you could put on such a splendid bash." Then taking notice of the bedraggled girls, he offered them this parting shot-"Good night shopworn ladies. You women have a much better time than us men in this world. Your clothes are far greater challange to wear."
With that, a smile, and a swish of his ermine-lined, jet-black cape, the effete dandy disappeared into the mists of the night.
"Who was that masked man?" inquired George.
"Batman, I think," quipped Nancy.
Even Bess smiled through her pain.
Carson Drew seated George comfortably in the parlor and wheeled Bess up close to her.
"Nancy, you stay here with your buds," instructed Mr. Drew, who wore current slang like a duchess in a footman's costume. "Lucy and Hannah can handle the cleaning up. I will call the hospital and get them to send back Dr. Ned, if he is available. By the way, what crisis summoned him, and the efficient Miss Ames as well?"
"Boswell has Ebola," said Nancy calmly.
"My God, isn't that contagious?"
"Not by air, only by body fluids," Nancy explained. "Cherry roughly sanitized the area. And if Ned had immediate concerns about the other guests he would have called us back by now. But I will tell Hannah to take great care with the table cloth."
Carson rushed out, closing the door behind him.
"Are you all right Bess?" asked Nancy with great concern in her eyes. "We seem to have had one medical disaster after another."
"I thought my waters had broken," said George with a sly grin. "But it was just Hilda Bingen spilling her tepid tea on me."
"I'm all right," Bess reassured her chums. "At least I'll be okay unless someone touches my leg or this chair."
George, who had been about to lean over to embrace Bess, drew back. Nancy also withdrew and sat down on the facing chesterfield.
"Bess, why did Dr. Johnson inscribe your book to you?" asked George, who was burning with curiosity.
"It's like coals to Newcastle, isn't it," said Bess ruefully. "I have 6,000 of these already in my bedroom. I thought it would be wildly popular, so I ordered an extra 10,000 to be printed."
"Thoreau once said, 'I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?' So I guess you are in good company, Bess," consoled her cousin.
"Thank you, Jorge. But sometimes I just want to chuck them in the river. I see my overwhelming folly each night before I go to bed. And because of the heavy boxes I can't get at my winter wardrobe!"
"But it's spring," said George.
"Next year, those boxes of books will still be there," Bess moaned. "I am doomed!"
"And now you have an extra souvenir copy on top of all those," said Nancy with cheerful foreboding. "The straw that broke the camel's back."
"I'm afraid Bess didn't need that particular straw to bring her to destruction," George said chidingly. "It was Bess's overwheening ambition that done her in, in the shape of those four inch heels."
"But why did he give you your own book?" pursued Nancy. She had no interest in persecuting Bess for her choice of shoes, so she reverted to the earlier subject.
"It was so embarrassing," moaned Bess, who was desperate to think of anything else other than her injured foot. "I was too timid to tell him I wrote the book or to insist that I be called 'Doctor' too. Dr. Johnson called me 'Charming Bessie.' He thought I was simple! I'll bet he thinks the book will help me learn how to do my household accounts!"
"You can pay your bills and be 'all ship-shape' and 'according to Marvin,'" offered George.
"And do you know the worst thing?" lamented Bess.
'What?" chorused Nancy and George.
"I missed dessert!"
Just then Carson Drew returned bearing an alarmingly overburdened plate of petits fours.
"It's all right. I've just cleared out the whole crowd, "he announced. "Ned called up and told me he has picked up Mr. Wilde. His medical minions are in the process of gathering up all the others as they leave. They are all in for some post-party annoyances. I am afraid that we are in for a spot of quarantine as well. Bess and Georgiana, you don't mind staying with us for a few days do you?"
The cousins replied that just that moment neither of them felt like going anywhere.
"Good," said Nancy's father as he handed Bess the tray and plumped himself wearily next to Nancy on the couch. "We can amuse ourselves by getting down to real business. Were you girls paying attention earlier? If so, you must realize that we have an intriguing mystery on our hands."