|The Willie Button Series|
Book of Limbo
Albert J. Manachino
"Books," stressed Professor Maylap, "are the ultimate font of human wisdom. All human experience is recorded in books."
"But Sir", Willie protested, "the knowledge had to be experienced by someone before it could be recorded. The human mind is the ultimate well-spring of all learning." Thus far, he had managed to avoid the word, "wisdom."
His objection was ignored. Professor Maylap continued on what rapidly was becoming a monologue. "To acquire wisdom one has only to delve into books."
Again Willie disagreed. "You mean to acquire knowledge, Sir. There is a vast difference between wisdom and knowledge." And, again he was ignored.
I have read and studied every book worthy of print since the dawn of recorded history. I understand everything I've read. I am the most intelligent being on earth."
Professor Maylap's diffidence impressed Willie favorably. A truly dedicated egotist would have boasted,"I am the most intelligent human being in the universe.
"Perhaps there are too many books," Willie speculated. "So much knowledge is harmful that there is a common-sense case for censorship."
"All knowledge should be published," the professor insisted. "The only exception I would make would be with respect to religious material which I would absolutely prohibit."
The two were seated on opposing sides of a table in Professor's Maylap's apparently inexhaustible library. The remains of a modest lunch waited patiently on the table to be carried away by a servant. The plates had been pushed to one side for the accommodation of after dinner coffee.
"Religions," continued the professor, "are artificial barriers erected and maintained by priests and rabbis to perpetuate their sinecures. I do not consider such mumbo-jumbo to be knowledge. Religious works are collections of superstitions blended with folklore."
Willie thought otherwise. "I prefer to think of religious works as different, but, not always opposing viewpoints."
Professor Maylap scoffed such as only well-read professors can scoff. "You are gullible in the extreme, Mr. Button. What exactly, would you use as a criteria in determining what should be censored, aside from personal prejudice?"
Willie was almost apologetic in the explanation of his statement. Like most lonely people, he felt uncomfortable in the presence of others.
"My standard would be knowledge that in its practical application would cause hardship and suffering or might even endanger the ultimate existence of mankind. I am referring specifically to the publication of researches into poison gases, deadly plague germs, harmful radiations, and the raising of demons - all pursued in the name of academic freedom."
The scoff became a sneer and an overt one, at that. "That last category qualifies you as an unmitigated fool. Who in his right mind, in this day and age, believes in demons?"
Many people do, Sir. All knowledge is not to be found within books. The holders of this knowledge have the integrity and good sense to resist the temptation to publish."
"Then, how do you know it exists?"
"You can find hints in stone carvings or old paintings. A little something that doesn't seem to quite blend with the rest of the portrayal. For instance, you could be casually observing a background crucifix in a religious painting and then, suddenly, you'll become aware that the crucifix is really an ankh or that the spearhead of a Roman soldier is really an ouza. I've uncovered so many anomalies once I knew what to look for. The practitioners of the old religions infiltrated Christianity to no small extent in its early days. And, they left hints of their secrets for the knowing.
"Too, much knowledge has been handed down orally from one generation to the next. All done very privately to leave as little incriminating evidence as possible for the witch burners to seize upon. No, Professor Maylap, I am not the only one to believe unbridled knowledge can be dangerous."
The professor looked his skepticism. "Intelligent men, Mr. Button, never abuse knowledge."
Willie had no quarrel with the basic statement. "Perhaps you are right, Sir. I believe that the ratio of intelligent to emotional or malicious men is about one to a hundred thousand. That such knowledge will pass into the hands of those who will abuse it is more than just a possibility."
Professor Maylap was not entirely successful in hiding his impatience. The argument had gone on much longer than he originally intended that it should. His attitude, since Willie's entry into the room, had been one of a patient but long suffering schoolmaster lecturing a backward pupil.
"You are a bigot, Mr. Button." The accusation was a surprising one. "The embodiment of everything I detest - a narrow-minded, provincial, superstitious, irrational simpleton."
"I am a realist, Professor. But, you did not invite me into your house for the purpose of exchanging compliments. May I ask, Why am I here?"
Willie's phrasing had been delicate in the extreme. The "invitation" had arrived in the form of two husky detectives who had hustled him into their car and into the professor's presence. Upon his delivery, they had been dismissed.
"I think I've mentioned that I have read and absorbed every book that was ever published, worthy of publication. I must qualify that by adding, except one." He paused.
Willie experienced a sinking feeling. His lips felt dry as he asked, "And that is?"
"The bible written by Lucifer in his own hand. Without it, my knowledge would be incomplete."
"I believe that you equated demons, and by implication, Satan also, with superstition."
Professor Maylap showed his impatience. "I did not mean that the devil literally wrote this book. I mean that it has been ascribed to him. An unknown scholar or perhaps, a group of them undoubtedly wrote it."
Willie feigned ignorance. "How can I possibly be of assistance to you in this matter?"
The professor wagged a finger in admonition. "Tut tut, Mr. Button. We are playing games. I have it from unimpeachable sources that this book is in your possession. I'm warning you, Sir, that I can be unpleasant when balked."
"I think you are in even greater danger than I am, Professor."
The professor misunderstood. "I am aware that my approach has been somewhat unorthodox, perhaps even peremptory. The book is undoubtedly valuable but you may set your mind at rest. I have no intention of stealing it from you. All I wish to do is to read it and if it is not a compilation of nonsense, perhaps duplicate it. For which, you will be generously rewarded."
"If I refuse?
"Then, Mr. Button, I will have to use persuasive methods which are not regarded as within the scope of civilized and reasoning men."
The threat evoked no actual trepidation for Willie was in possession of a piece of knowledge not included within any of his host's many books - his own death date. Willie had been killed in an accident many years ago. However, the rules imposed upon him compelled him to act as if he were still living. He felt a great sadness, for the book in question, happened to be in a blue canvas handbag reposing on the floor by his feet. The same rules also compelled him to attempt to discourage the request.
"I'm afraid, Professor, that you are going to prove, to your great regret, my contention some knowledge is not intended for human evaluation. I beg you to reconsider."
"No, Mr. Button. I've spent too many years in the pursuit of this book to be deterred by anything as intangible as the bogeyman you are flaunting before me. If it is merely a collection of obscenities, all good and well. I will return the book and not disturb you further. Believe me, there is very little about human baseness which I have not been exposed to."
"This was not written by a human being nor was it intended for human beings. It is not your sense of nicety that is in jeopardy, but your soul."
Professor Maylap's coffee cup shattered on the floor as he slammed the table in exasperation. "Enough, Sir! The book!" His fingers poised menacingly over a call button. "I have but to press this and my two men will return. You will not have a pleasant experience."
"There is no need to involve them in this. I will give you the book." Reluctantly, he reached down and unzipped the blue canvas bag. His own coffee cup fell to the floor as he placed the book on the table.
Professor Maylap was incredulous. "You mean you've had it with you in that bag all this time - not in a safe?"
"No, Professor. Contrary to any impression I may have created, I am not attempting to prevent its theft - just its use."
His response was unheard. Professor Maylap was staring at the book with a fixed expression - as if hypnotized. The devil's bible was so compelling, its presence so pervasive, that his cynical nature never once questioned its authenticity. His lips moved soundlessly. Finally, "Yes...yes.... Leave it here. Go about your business. Come back tomorrow. I will return it to you then. Tonight I will read and absorb it."
Willie had seen the expression on Professor Maylap's face many times - on others who had been exposed to the devil's bible. He did not attempt further dissuasion, it would have been futile.
The door to Professor Maylap's large, rambling home was open. Left so by the attendants of an ambulance parked directly in front of it. They would need it open when they returned with the stretcher.
Professor Maylap sat in the middle of a group of bewildered doctors. Their bewilderment was no concern of his for he was not aware of it. The only thing Professor Maylap understood was that he was hungry. He opened his mouth and squalled. His arms moved aimlessly in front of him and he had soiled his linen.
"It's as if he has regressed to his infancy," spoke Dr. Graves.
"Impossible!" Dr. Enright disagreed. "Some temporary lapse from overstudy, no doubt. Professor Maylap is one of the most intelligent men in the world."
"No doubt," agreed the person referred to the world over as the third colleague, "He has undoubtedly read too much. A little rest in quiet surroundings..."
They noticed Willie. "Who are you, Sir?" inquired Dr. Enright.
"I am acquaintance of the professor's. I've come to collect a book that I lent him."
"Do you have any ideas as to what might have happened? Professor Maylap appears to have regressed into infancy."
"Perhaps he read one book too many." Willie lifted the dark bible from the table and returned it to his handbag. "Some knowledge was never intended to be acquired. The senses of a human are too delicate to withstand the impact. They can be shocked and numbed. It could be that instead of adding to his total knowledge, the book, in one night, drained away everything the professor learned in a lifetime."
The idea amused the third colleague. "You mean that instead of acquiring further knowledge, he actually became less intelligent as he progressed into this book?"
"A book of limbo?" Dr. Graves also was amused.
"That describes it perfectly - a book of limbo." Willie closed the handbag and departed.
A dignified butler spooned oatmeal into the professor's mouth. The taste appealed to him and a contented smile replaced the petulant expression. He inserted a finger in his mouth and gurgled happily.
Albert J. Manachino
Kevin D. Duncan
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