The earnest critics who accuse science fiction writers of paranoia have this fact on their side: We do seem to agree with the paranoid that there are Conspiracies all about us, lurking behind commonplace facades and shaping our ends by devious and unperceived means. It is this classic theme that Mr. Matheson here explores, pitting his venturesome young hero against a hitherto unsuspected Conspiracy that affects every day of our lives� and proving joyously that a Conspiracy is not necessary malevolent.

 

The Splendid Source

 

by richard matheson

 

�� Then spare me your slanders, and read this rather at night than in the daytime, and give it not to young maidens, if there be any� But I fear nothing for this book, since it is extracted from a high and splendid source, from which all that has issued has had a great success��

 

� Balzac: Contes Drolatiques, Prologue

 

It was the one that Uncle Lyman told in the summer house that did it. Talbert was just coming up the path when he heard the punch line: ��My God!� cried the actress, �I thought you said sarsaparilla!��

 

Guffaws exploded in the little house. Talbert stood motionless, looking through the rose trellis at the laughing guests. Inside his contour sandals his toes flexed ruminatively. He thought.

 

Later he took a walk around Lake Bean and watched the crystal surf fold over and observed the gliding sans and stared at the goldfish and thought.

 

�I�ve been thinking,� he said that night.

 

�No,� said Uncle Lyman, haplessly. He did not commit himself further. He waited for the blow.

 

Which fell. �Dirty jokes,� said Talbert Bean III.

 

�I beg your pardon?�

 

�Endless tides of them covering the nation.�

 

�I fail,� said Uncle Lyman, �to grasp the point.� Apprehension gripped his voice.

 

�I find the subject fraught with witchery,� said Talbert.

 

�With�?�

 

�Consider,� said Talbert. �Ever day, all through our land, men tell off-color jokes; in bars and at ball games; in theatre lobbies and at places of business; on street corners and in locker rooms. At home and away, a veritable deluge of jokes.�

 

Talbert paused meaningfully.

 

Who makes them up?� he asked.

 

Uncle Lyman stared at his nephew with the look of a fishermen who has just hooked a sea serpent�half awe, half revulsion.

 

�I�m afraid�� he began.

 

�I want to know the source of these jokes,� said Talbert. �Their genesis; their fountainhead.�

 

Why?� asked Uncle Lyman. Weakly.

 

�Because it is relevant,� said Talbert. �Because these jokes are a part of a culture heretofore unplumbed. Because they are an anomaly; a phenomenon ubiquitous yet unknown.�

 

Uncle Lyman did not speak. His pallid hands curled limply on his half-read Wall Street Journal. Behind the polished octagons of his glasses his eyes were suspended berries.

 

At last he sighed.

 

�And what part,� he inquired, sadly, �am I to play in this quest?�

 

�We must begin,� said Talbert, �with the joke you told in the summer house this afternoon. Where did you hear it?�

 

�Kulpritt,� Uncle Lyman said. Andrew Kulpritt was one of the battery of lawyers employed by Bean Enterprises.

 

�Capital,� said Talbert. �Call him up and ask him where he heard it.�

 

Uncle Lyman drew a silver watch from his pocket.

 

�It�s nearly midnight, Talbert,� he announced.

 

Talbert waved away chronology.

 

�Now,� he said. �This is important.�

 

Uncle Lyman examined his nephew a moment longer. Then, with a capitulating sigh, he reached for one of Bean Mansion�s thirty-five telephones.

 

Talbert stood toe-flexed on a bearskin rug while Uncle Lyman dialed, waited and spoke.

 

�Kulpritt?� said Uncle Lyman. �Lyman Bean. Sorry to wake you but Talbert wants to know where you heard the joke about the actress who thought the director said sarsaparilla.�

 

Uncle Lyman listened. �I said�� he began again.

 

A minute later he cradled the receiver heavily.

 

�Prentiss,� he said.

 

�Call him up,� said Talbert.

 

�Talbert,� Uncle Lyman asked.

 

�Now,� said Talbert.

 

A long breath exuded between Uncle Lyman�s lips. Carefully, he folded his Wall Street Journal. He reached across the mahogany table and tamped out his ten-inch cigar. Sliding a weary hand beneath his smoking jacket, he withdrew his tooled leather address book.

 

Prentiss heard it from George Sharper, C.P.A. Sharper heard it from Abner Ackerman, M.D. Ackerman heard it from William Cozener, Prune Products. Cozener heard it from Rod Tassel, Mgr., Cyprian Club. Tassel heard it from O. Winterbottom, Winterbottom heard it from H. Alberts. Alberts heard it from D. Silver, Silver from B. Phryne, Phryne from E. Kennelly.

 

By an odd twist Kennelly said he heard it from Uncle Lyman.

 

�There is complicity here,� said Talbert. �These jokes are not self-generative.�

 

It was four a.m. Uncle Lyman slumped, inert and dead-eyed, on his chair.

 

�There has to be a source,�said Talbert.

 

Uncle Lyman remained motionless.

 

�You�re not interested,� said Talbert, incredulously.

 

Uncle Lyman made a noise.

 

�I don�t understand,� said Talbert. �Here is a situation pregnant with divers fascinations. Is there a man or woman who has never heard an off-color joke? I say not. Yet, is there a man or woman who knows where these jokes come from? Again I say not.�

 

Talbert strode forcefully to his place of musing at the twelve-foot fireplace. He poised there, staring in.

 

�I may be a millionaire,� he said, �but I am sensitive.� He turned. �And this phenomenon excites me.�

 

Uncle Lyman attempted to sleep while retaining the face of a man awake.

 

�I have always had more money than I needed,� said Talbert. �Capital investment was unnecessary. Thus I turned to investing the other asset my father left�my brain.�

 

Uncle Lyman Stirred; a thought shook loose.

 

�What ever happened,� he asked, �to that society of yours, the S.P.C.S.P.C.A.?�

 

�Eh? The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? The past.�

 

�And your interest in world problems. What about that sociological treatise you were writing��

 

�Slums: a Positive View, you mean?� Talbert brushed it aside. �Inconsequence.�

 

�And isn�t there anything left of your political party, the pro-anti-disestablishmentarianists?�

 

�Not a shred. Scuttled by reactionaries from within.�

 

�What about Bimetallism?�

 

�Oh, that!� Talbert smiled ruefully. �Pass�, dear Uncle. I had been reading too many Victorian novels.�

 

�Speaking of novels, what about your literary criticisms? Nothing doing with The Use of the Semi-colon in Jane Austen? Or Horatio Alger: The Misunderstood Satirist? To say nothing of Was Queen Elizabeth Shakespeare?�

 

�Was Shakespeare Queen Elizabeth,� corrected Talbert. �No, Uncle, nothing doing with them. They had momentary interest, nothing more��

 

�I suppose the same holds true for The Shoe Horn: Pro and Con, eh? And those scientific articles�Relativity Re-Examined and Is Evolution Enough?�

 

�Dead and gone,� said Talbert, patiently, �dead and gone. These projects needed me once. Now I go on to better things.�

 

�Like who writes dirty jokes,� said Uncle Lyman.

 

Talbert nodded, �Like that.�

 

***

 

When the butler set the breakfast tray on the bed Talbert said, �Redfield, do you know any jokes?�

 

Redfield looked out impassively through the face an improvident nature had neglected to animate.

 

�Jokes, sir?� he inquired.

 

�You know,� said Talbert, �Jollities.�

 

Redfield stood by the bed like a corpse whose casket had been upended and removed.

 

�Well, sir,� he said, a full thirty seconds later, �once, when I was a boy I heard one��

 

�Yes? said Talbert eagerly.

 

�I believe it went somewhat as follows,� Redfield said. �When�uh�When is a portmanteau not a��

 

�No, no,� said Talbert , shaking his head, �I mean dirty jokes.�

 

Redfield�s eyebrows soared. The vernacular was like a fish in his face.�

 

�You don�t know any?� said a disappointed Talbert.

 

�Begging your pardon, sir,� said Redfield. �If I may make a suggestion. May I say that the chauffeur is more likely to��

 

�You know any dirty jokes, Harrison?� Talbert asked through the tube as the Rolls Royce purred along Bean Road toward Highway 27.

 

Harrison looked blank for a moment. He glanced back at Talbert. Then a grin wrinkled his carnal jowls.

 

�Well, sir,� he began, �there�s this guy sittin� by the runway eatin� an onion, see?�

 

Talbert unclipped his four-color pencil.

 

***

 

Talbert stood at an elevator rising to the tenth floor of the Gault Building.

 

The hour ride to New York had been most illuminating. Not only had he transcribed seven of the most horrendously vulgar jokes he had ever heard in his life but had exacted a promise from Harrison to take him to the various establishments where these jokes had been heard.

 

The hunt was on.

 

max axe/detective agency�read the words on the frosty-glassed door. Talbert turned the knob and went in.

 

Announced by the beautiful receptionist, Talbert was ushered into a sparsely furnished office on whose walls were a hunting license, a machine gun, and framed photographs of the Seagram factory, the St. Valentine�s Day Massacre in color and Herbert J. Philbrick who had led three lives.

 

Mr. Axe shook Talbert�s hand.

 

�What could I do for ya? he asked.

 

�First of all,� said Talbert, �do you know any dirty jokes?�

 

Recovering, Mr. Axe told Talbert the one about the monkey and the elephant.

 

Talbert jotted it down. Then he hired the agency to investigate the men Uncle Lyman had phoned and uncover anything that was meaningful.

 

After he left the agency, Talbert began making the rounds with Harrison. He heard a joke the first place they went.

 

�There�s this midget in a frankfurter suit, see? it began.

 

It was a day of buoyant discovery. Talbert heard the joke about the cross-eyed plumber in the harem, the one about the preacher who won an eel at a raffle, the one about the fighter pilot who went down in flames and the one about two Girl Scouts who lost their cookies in the laundromat.

 

Among others.

 

***

 

�I want,� said Talbert, �one round-trip airplane ticket to San Francisco and a reservation at the Hotel Millard Filmore.�

 

�May I ask,� asked Uncle Lyman, �why?�

 

�While making the rounds with Harrison today,� explained Talbert, �salesman of ladies� undergarments told me that a veritable cornucopia of off-color jokes exists in the person of Harry Shuler, bellboy at the Millard Filmore. This salesman said that, during a three-day convention at that hotel, he had heard more new jokes from Shuler than he had heard in the first thirty-nine years of his life.�

 

�And you are going to�?� Uncle Lyman began.

 

�Exactly, said Talbert. �We must follow where the spoor is strongest.�

 

�Talbert,� said Uncle Lyman, �Why do you do these things?�

 

�I am searching,� said Talbert, simply.

 

�For what, dammit!� cried Uncle Lyman.

 

�For meaning,� said Talbert.

 

Uncle Lyman covered his eyes. �You are the image of your mother,� he declared.

 

�Say nothing of her,� charged Talbert. �She was the finest woman who ever trod the earth.�

 

�Then how come she got trampled to death at the funeral of Rudolph Valentino?� Uncle Lyman charged back.

 

�That is a base canard,� said Talbert, �and you know it. Mother just happened to be passing the church on her way to bringing food to the Orphans of the Dissolute Seaman�one of her many charities�when she was accidentally caught up in the waves of hysterical women and swept to her awful end.�

 

A pregnant silence bellied the vast room. Talbert stood at a window looking down the hill at Lake Bean which his father had poured in 1923.

 

�Think of it,� he said after a moment�s reflection. �The nation alive with off-color jokes�the world alive! Ad the same jokes, Uncle, the same jokes. How? How? By what strange means do these jokes o�erleap oceans span continents? By what incredible machinery are these jokes promulgated over mountain and dale?�

 

He turned and met Uncle Lyman�s mesmeric stare.

 

�I mean to know,� he said.

 

At ten minutes before midnight Talbert boarded the plane for San Francisco and took a seat by the window. Fifteen minutes later the plane roared down the runway and nosed up into the black sky.

 

Talbert turned to the man beside him.

 

�Do you know any dirty jokes, sir?� he inquired, pencil poised.

 

The man stared at him. Talbert gulped.

 

�Oh, I am sorry,� he said, �Reverend.�

 

***

 

When they reached the room Talbert gave the bellboy a crisp five-dollar bill and asked to hear a joke.

 

Shuler told him the one about the man sitting on the runway eating an onion, see? Talbert listened, toes kneading inquisitively in his shoes. The joke concluded, he asked Shuler where this and similar jokes might be overheard. Shuler said at a wharf spot known as Davy Jones�s Locker Room.

 

Early that evening after drinking with one of the West Coast representatives of Bean Enterprises, Talbert took a taxi to Davy Jones�s Locker Room. Entering its dim, smoke-fogged interior, he took a place at the bar, ordered a screw-driver, and began to listen.

 

Within anhour�s time he had written down the joke about the old maid who caught her nose in the bathtub faucet, the one about the three traveling salesmen and the farmer�s ambidextrous daughter, the one about the nurse who thought they were Spanish olives and the one about the midget in the frankfurter suit. Talbert wrote this last joke under his original transcription of it, underlining changes in context attributable to regional influence.

 

At 10:16, a man, who had just told Talbert the one about the hillbilly twins and their two-headed sister said that Tony, the bartender, was a virtual faucet of off-color jokes, limericks, anecdotes, epigrams and proverbs.

 

Talbert went over to the bar and asked Tony for the major source of his lewdiana. After reciting the limerick about the sex of the asteroid vermin,[1] the bartender referred Talbert to a Mr. Frank Bruin, salesman, of Oakland, who happened not to be there that night.

 

Talbert, at once, retired to a telephone directory where he discovered five Frank Bruins in Oakland. Entering a booth with a coat pocket sagging change, Talbert began dialing them.

 

Two of the five Frank Bruins were salesmen. One of them, however, was in Alcatraz at the moment. Talbert traced the remaining Frank Bruin to Hogan�s Alleys in Oakland where his wife said that, as usual on Thursday nights, her husband was bowling with the Moonlight Mattress Company All-Stars.

 

Quitting the bar, Talbert chartered a taxi and started across the bay to Oakland, toes in ferment.

 

Veni, vidi, vici?

 

***

 

Bruin was not a needle in a haystack.

 

The moment Talbert entered Hogan�s Alleys his eye was caught by a football huddle of men encircling a portly, rosy-domed speaker. Approaching, Talbert was just in time to hear the punch line followed by an explosion of composite laughter. It was the punch line that intrigued.

 

��My God!� cried the actress,� Mr. Bruin had uttered, ��I thought you said a banana split!��

 

This variation much excited Talbert who saw in it a verification of a new element�the interchangeable kicker.

 

When the group had broken up and drifted, Talbert accosted Mr. Bruin and, introducing himself, asked where Mr. Bruin had heard that joke.

 

�Why d�ya ask, boy?� asked Mr. Bruin.

 

�No reason,� said the crafty Talbert.

 

�I don�t remember where I heard it, boy,� said Mr. Bruin finally. �Excuse me, will ya?�

 

Talbert trailed after him but received no satisfaction�unless it was in the most definite impression that Bruin was concealing something.

 

Later, riding back to the Millard Filmore, Talbert decided to put an Oakland detective agency on Mr Bruin�s trail to see what could be seen.

 

When Talbert reached the hotel there was a telegram waiting for him at the desk.

 

mr. rodney tassel received long distance call from mr. george bullock, carthage hotel, chicago, was told joke about midget in salami suit, meaningful? = axe

 

Talbert�s eyes ignited.

 

�Tally,� he murmured, �ho.�

 

An hour later he had checked out of the Millard Filmore, taxied to the airport and caught a plane for Chicago.

 

Twenty minutes after he had left the hotel, a man in a dark pinstripe approached the desk clerk and asked for the room number of Talbert Bean III. When informed of Talbert�s departure the man grew steely-eyed and immediately retired to a telephone booth. He emerged ashen.

 

***

 

�I�m sorry,� said the desk clerk, �Mister Bullock checked out this morning.�

 

�Oh.� Talbert�s shoulders sagged. All night on the plane he had been checking over his notes, hoping to discern a pattern to the jokes which would encompass type, area of genesis and periodicity. He was weary with fruitless concentration. Now this.

 

�And he left no forwarding address?� he asked.

 

�Only Chicago, sir,� said the clerk.

 

�I see.�

 

Following a bath and luncheon in his room, a slightly refreshed Talbert settled down with the telephone and the directory. There were 47 George Bullocks in Chicago. Talbert checked them off as he phoned.

 

At 3:00 o�clock he slumped over the receiver in a dead slumber. At 4:21, he regained consciousness and completed the remaining eleven calls. The Mr. Bullock in question was not at home, said his housekeeper, but was expected that evening.

 

�Thank you kindly,� said a bleary-eyed Talbert and, hanging up, thereupon collapsed on the bed�only to awake a few minutes past seven and dress quickly. Descending to the street, he gulped down a sandwich and a glass of milk, then hailed a cab and made the hour ride to the home of George Bullock.

 

The man himself answered the bell.

 

�Yes?� he asked.

 

Talbert introduced himself and said he had come to the Hotel Carthage earlier to see him.

 

�Why?� asked Mr. Bullock.

 

�So you could tell me where you heard that joke about the midget in the salami suit,� said Talbert.

 

�Sir?�

 

�I said��

 

�I heard what you said, sir,� said Mr. Bullock, �though I cannot say that your remark makes any noticeable sense.�

 

�I believe, sir,� challenged Talbert, �that you are hiding behind fustian.�

 

�Behind fustian, sir?� retorted Bullock. �I�m afraid��

 

�The game is up, sir!� declared Talbert in a ringing voice. �Why don�t you admit it and tell me where you got that joke from?�

 

�I have not the remotest conception of what you�re talking about, sir!� snapped Bullock, his words belied by the pallor of his face.

 

Talbert flashed a Mona Lisa smile. �Indeed?� he said.

 

And turning lightly on his heel, he left Bullock trembling in the doorway. As he settled back against the taxicab sea again, he saw Bullock still standing there, staring at him. Then Bullock whirled and was gone.

 

�Hotel Carthage,� said Talbert, satisfied with his bluff.

 

Riding back, he thought of Bullock�s agitation and a thin smile tipped up the corners of his mouth. No doubt about it. The prey was being run to earth. Now if his surmise was valid there would likely be�

 

A lean man in a long raincoat was sitting on the bed when Talbert entered his room. The man�s mustache, like a muddy toothbrush, twitched.

 

�Talbert Bean?� he asked.

 

Talbert bowed.

 

The man, a Colonel Bishop, retired, looked at Talbert with metal blue eyes.

 

�What is your game, sir?� he asked tautly.

 

�I don�t understand,� toyed Talbert.

 

�I think you do,� said the Colonel, �and you are to come with me.�

 

�Oh?� said Talbert.

 

He found himself looking down the barrel of a .45 calibre Webley-Fosbery.

 

�Shall we?� said the Colonel.

 

�But of course,� said Talbert coolly. �I have not come all this way to resist now.�

 

***

 

The ride in the private plane was a long one. The windows were blacked-out and Talbert hadn�t the faintest idea in which direction they were flying. Neither the pilot nor the Colonel spoke, and Talbert�s attempts at conversation were discouraged by a chilly silence. The Colonel�s pistol, still leveled at Talbert�s chest, never wavered, but it did not bother Talbert. He was exultant. All he could think was that his search was ending; he was, at last, approaching the headwaters of the dirty joke. After a time, his head nodded and he dozed�to dream of midgets in frankfurter suits and actresses who seemed obsessed by sarsaparilla or banana splits or sometimes both. How long he slept, and what boundaries he may have crossed, Talbert never knew. He was awakened by a swift loss of altitude and the steely voice of Colonel Bishop: �We are landing, Mr. Bean.� The Colonel�s grip tightened on the pistol.

 

Talbert offered no resistance when his eyes were blindfolded. Feeling the Webley-Fosbery in the small of his back, he stumbled out of the plane and crunched over the ground of a well-kept airstrip. There was a nip in the air and he felt a bit lightheaded. Talbert suspected that they had landed in a mountainous region; but what mountains, and on what continent, he could not guess. His ears and nose conveyed nothing of help to his churning mind.

 

He was shoved�none too gently�into an automobile, and then driven swiftly along what felt like a dirt road. The tires crackled over pebbles and twigs.

 

Suddenly the blindfold was removed. Talbert blinked and looked out the windows. It was a black and cloudy night; he could see nothing but the limited vista afforded by the headlights.

 

�You are well isolated,� he said , appreciatively. Colonel Bishop remained tight-lipped and vigilant.

 

After a fifteen-minute ride along the dark road, the car pulled up in front of a tall, unlighted house. As the motor was cut Talbert could hear the pulsing rasp of crickets all around.

 

�Well,� he said.

 

�Emerge,� suggested Colonel Bishop.

 

�Of course,� Talbert bent out of the car and was escorted up the wide porch steps by the Colonel. Behind, the car pulled away.

 

Inside the house, chimes bonged hollowly as the Colonel pushed a button. They waited in the darkness and, in a few moments, approaching footsteps sounded.

 

A tiny aperture opened in the heavy door, disclosing a single bespectacled eye. The eye blinked once and, with a faint accent Talbert could not recognize, whispered furtively, �Why did the widow wear black garters?�

 

�In remembrance,� said Colonel Bishop with great gravity, �of those who had passed beyond.�

 

The door opened.

 

The owner of the eye was tall, gaunt, of indeterminable age and nationality, his hair a dark mass wisped with gray. His face was all angles and facets, his eyes piercing behind large, horn-rimmed glasses He wore flannel trousers and a checked jacket.

 

�This is the Dean,� said Colonel Bishop.

 

�How do you do,� said Talbert.

 

�Come in, come in,� the Dean invited, extending his large hand to Talbert. �Welcome, Mister Bean.� He shafted a scolding look at Bishop�s pistol. �Now, Colonel,� he said, �indulging in melodramatics again? Put it away, dear fellow.�

 

�We can�t be too careful,� grumped the Colonel.

 

Talbert stood in the spacious grace of the entry hall looking around. His gaze settled, presently, on the cryptic smile of the Dean, who said:

 

�So. You have found us out, sir.�

 

Talbert�s toes whipped like pennants in a gale.

 

�Have I?� he covered his excitement with.

 

�Yes,� said the Dean. �You have. And a masterful display of investigative intuition it was.�

 

Talbert looked around.

 

��So,� he said, voice bated, �It is here.�

 

�Yes,� said the Dean, �Would you like to see it?�

 

�More than anything in the world,� said Talbert fervently.

 

�Come then,� said the Dean.

 

�Is this wise?� the Colonel warned.

 

�Come,� repeated the Dean.

 

The three men started down the hallway. For a moment, a shade of premonition darkened Talbert�s mind. It was being made so easy. Was it a trap? In a second the thought had slipped away, washed off by a current of excited curiosity.

 

They started up a winding marble staircase.

 

�How did you suspect?� the Dean inquired. �That is to say�what prompted you to probe the matter?�

 

�I just thought,� said Talbert meaningfully. �Here are all these jokes yet no one seems to know where they come from. Or care.�

 

�Yes,� observed the Dean, �we count upon that lack of interest. What man in ten million ever asks where did you hear that joke? Absorbed in memorizing the joke for future use, he gives no thought to its source. This, of course, is our protection.

 

The Dean smiled at Talbert. �But not,� he amended, �from men such as you.�

 

Talbert�s flush went unnoticed.

 

They reached the landing and began walking along a wide corridor lit on each side by the illumination of candelabra. There was no more talk. At the end of the corridor they turned right and stopped in front of massive, iron-hinged doors.

 

�Is this wise?� the Colonel asked again.

 

�Too late to stop now,� said the Dean and Talbert felt a shiver flutter down his spine. What if it were a trap? He swallowed, then squared his shoulders. The Dean had said it. It was too late to stop.

 

The great doors tracked open.

 

Et voil�,� said the Dean.

 

***

 

The hallway was an avenue. Thick wall-to-wall carpeting sponged beneath Talbert�s feet as he walked between the Colonel and the Dean. At periodic intervals along the ceiling hung music emitting speakers: Talbert recognized the Ga�t� Parisienne. His gaze moved to a petit point tapestry on which Dionysian acts ensued above the stitched motto, �Happy is the Man Who Is Making Something.�

 

�Incredible,� he murmured. �Here; in this house.�

 

�Exactly,� said the Dean.

 

Talbert shook his head wonderingly.

 

�To think,� he said.

 

The Dean paused before a glass wall and, braking, Talbert peered into an office. Among its rich appointments strode a young man in a striped silk weskit with brass buttons, gesturing meaningfully with a long cigar while, cross-legged on a leather couch, sat a happily sweatered blonde of rich dimensions.

 

The man stopped briefly and waved to the Dean, smiled, then returned to his spirited dictating.

 

�One of our best,� the Dean said.

 

�But,� stammered Talbert, �I though that man was on the staff of��

 

�He is,� said the Dean. �And, in his spare time, he is also one of us.�

 

Talbert followed on excitement-numbed legs.

 

�But I had no idea,� he said, �I presumed the organization to be composed of men like Bruin and Bullock.�

 

�They are merely our means of promulgation,� explained the Dean. �Our word-of-mouthers, you might say. Our creators come from more exalted ranks�executives, statesmen, the better professional comics, editors, novelists��

 

The Dean broke off as the door to one of the other offices opened and a barrelly, bearded man in hunting clothes emerged. He shouldered past them muttering true things to himself.

 

�Off again?� the Dean asked pleasantly. The big man grunted. It was a true grunt. He clumped off, lonely for a veldt.

 

�Unbelievable,� said Talbert. �Such men as these?�

 

�Exactly,� said the Dean.

 

They strolled on past the rows of busy offices. Talbert tourist-eyed, the Dean smiling his mandarin smile, the Colonel working his lips as if anticipating the kiss of a toad.

 

�But where did it all begin?� a dazed Talbert asked.

 

�That is history�s secret,� rejoined the Dean, �veiled behind time�s opacity. Our venture does have its honored past, however. Great men have graced its cause�Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Dickens, Swinburne, Rabelais, Balzac, oh, the honor roll is long. Shakespeare, of course, and his friend Ben Jonson. Still further back, Chaucer, Boccaccio. Further yet, Horace and Seneca, Demosthenes and Plautus. Aristophanes, Apuleius. Yes, in the palaces of Tutankhamen was our work done; in the black temples of Ahriman, the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan. Where did it begin? Who knows? Scraped on rock , in many a primordial cave, are certain drawings. And there are among us who believe that these were left by the earliest members of the Brotherhood. But this is only legend��

 

Now they had reached the end of the hallway and were starting down a cushioned ramp.

 

�There must be vast sums of money involved in this,� said Talbert.

 

�Heaven forfend,� declared the Dean stopping short. Do not confuse our work with alley vending. Our workers contribute freely of their time and skill, caring for naught save the Cause.�

 

�Forgive me,� Talbert said. Then, rallying, he asked, �What Cause?�

 

The Dean�s gaze fused on inward things. He ambled on slowly, arms behind his back.

 

�The Cause of Love,� he said, �as opposed to Hate. Of Nature, as opposed tothe Unnatural. Of Humanity, as opposed to Inhumanity. Of Freedom, as opposed to Constraint. Of Health, as opposed to Disease. Yes, Mr. Bean, disease. The disease called bigotry; the frighteningly communicable disease that taints all it touches; turns warmth to chill and joy to guilt and good to bad. What Cause?� He stopped dramatically, �The Cause of Life, Mr. Bean�as opposed to Death!�

 

The Dean lifted a challenging finger. �We see ourselves,� he said, �as an army of dedicated warriors marching on the strongholds of prudery. Knights Templar with a just and joyous mission.�

 

�Amen to that,� a fervent Talbert said.

 

They entered a large, cubicle-bordered room. Talbert saw men; some typing, some writing, some staring, some on telephones, talking in a multitude of tongues. Their expressions were, as one, intently aloft. At the far end of the room, expression unseen, a man stabbed plugs into a many-eyed switchboard.

 

�Our Apprentice Room,� said the Dean, �wherein we groom our future��

 

His voice died off as a young man exited one of the cubicles and approached them, paper in hand, a smile tremulous on his lips.

 

�Oliver,� said the Dean, nodding once.

 

�I�ve done a joke, sir,� said Oliver. �May I�?�

 

�But of course,� said the Dean.

 

Oliver cleared viscid anxiety from his throat, then told a joke about a little boy and girl watching a doubles match on the nudist colony tennis court. The Dean smiled, nodding. Oliver looked up, pained.

 

�No?� he said.

 

�It is not without merit,� encouraged the Dean, �but as it now stands, you see, it smacks rather too reminiscently of the duchess-butler effect, Wife of Bath category. Not to mention the justifiably popular double reverse bishop barmaid gambit.�

 

�Oh, sir,� grieved Oliver, �I�ll never prevail.�

 

�Nonsense,� said the Dean, adding kindly, �son. These shorter jokes are, by all odds, the most difficult to master. They must be cogent, precise; must say something of pith and moment.�

 

�Yes, sir,� murmured Oliver.

 

�Check with Wojciechowski and Sforzini,� said the Dean. �Also Ahmed El-Hakim. They�ll brief you on use of the Master index. Eh?� He patted Oliver�s back.

 

�Yes, sir,� Oliver managed a smile and returned to his cubicle. The Dean sighed.

 

�A somber business,� he declared. �He�ll never be a Class-A. He really shouldn�t be in the composing end of it at all but�� He gestured meaningfully, ��there is sentiment involved.�

 

�Oh?� said Talbert.

 

�Yes,� said the Dean. �It was his great grandfather who, on June 23, 1848, wrote the first Traveling Salesman joke, American strain.�

 

The Dean and the Colonel lowered their heads a moment in reverent commemoration. Talbert did the same.

 

***

 

�And so we have it,� said the Dean. They were back downstairs, sitting in the great living room, sherry having been served.

 

�Perhaps you wish to know more,� said the Dean.

 

�Only one thing,� said Talbert.

 

�And that is, sir?�

 

�Why have you shown it to me?�

 

�Yes,� said the Colonel, fingering at his armpit holster, �why indeed?�

 

The Dean looked at Talbert carefully as if balancing his reply.

 

�You haven�t guessed?� he said, at last. �No, I can see you haven�t. Mr. Bean� you are not unknown to us. Who has not heard of your work, you unflagging devotion to sometimes obscure but always worthy causes? What man can help but admire your selflessness, your dedication, your proud defiance of convention and prejudice?� The Dean paused and leaned forward.

 

�Mr Bean,� he said softly. �Talbert�may I call you that?�we want you on our team.�

 

Talbert gaped. His hands began to tremble. The Colonel, relieved, grunted and sank back into his chair.

 

No reply came from the flustered Talbert, so the Dean continued: �Think it over. Consider the merits of our work. With all due modesty, I think I may say that here is your opportunity to ally yourself with the greatest cause of your life.�

 

�I�m speechless,� said Talbert. �I hardly�that is�how can I��

 

But, already, the light of consecration was stealing into his eyes.

 

 

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Volume 12, No. 3, Whole No. 70, March 1957. From Playboy, 1956

 


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[1] The sex of the asteroid vermin / Is exceedingly hard to determine. / The galactic patrol / Simply fucks any hole / That will possibly let all the sperm in. (1944)