dora was filled with an overwhelming foreboding as she walked up the steps of the administration building with adelaide, and they approached the massive doors.
"have you ever been here before?" she asked adelaide.
"yes, i came here to get my servant's papers when i first started to work." dora pushed at the right hand door, and it swung open easily and noiselessly.
they stepped into a surprisingly small foyer. there were no signs or signs of life in it, just another set of doors, made mostly of impenetrably dark glass.
the front door swung closed smoothy behind them, shutting out the morning light and leaving them in shadow, with only a little dust-moted light coming through the glass doors, which adelaide now pushed open. they did not open quite as smoothly as the first set of doors had.
a narrow staircase loomed in front of them. corridors on either side of the staircase faded away into long rows of closed doors with small glass panes and smaller brass name plates. there were no people in sight.
"i seem to remember, " said adelaide, "that it was a little more lively when i was here before. at least there was someone you could ask directions of."
they heard a voice behind them. "looking for directions, missus? i would be happy to assist you."
dora and adelaide turned. a ragged little person with a bat-like face looked up at them, with his thumbs hooked aggressively in his vest. it was not clear to them whether he was a small boy or a midget.
adelaide stared down at him. "are you here in an official capacity? your dress would indicate to me that you are not."
"no, missus, i am not. i am an independent operator."
adelaide looked around and down one of the corridors. "are there no officials here to guide us? when i was last here there seemed to be an abundance of such personages."
"ah, but you must have been here in the old days, missus. things have changed. this is the modern age now, and you have independent operators such as myself to deal with."
"you do not say. tell me, have things changed so much that there is no longer a marriage bureau in the building, where this young lady can obtain a license for her scheduled nuptials?"
"well as to that, missus, i couldn't say. i couldn't rightly say. there may be a marriage bureau and there may not. but i can help you look for it. for a price, of course."
adelaide laughed. "for a price! i think not. come, dora, we will find our own way. who knows, the marriage bureau may be just around the corner."
"it is easy to get lost in here, missus - "
"stop calling me missus. it is fraulein, or mademoiselle , if you please."
"that's as may be, miss - fraulein, but everything has its price. why, i daresay i could get a good price for you, and an even better one for the young lady here, if i were to offer you to the turk - "
"what sort of talk is that!" and adelaide smacked the little person on his ear, causing him to shout in a manner to echo down the corridors.
"here, what is all this? what is going on here?" a tall, gaunt figure emerged from the gloom of the corridor behind the would-be guide. an old man with bags under his eyes and wearing a gray suit that looked even older than himself looked down at the guide and then at adelaide.
"this creature has insulted us, " adelaide replied evenly. "tell me, are you in charge here, sir?"
"i am in charge of what i am in charge of," the old man replied.
"well then, can you direct us to the marriage bureau?"
"i am afraid that is not at all my responsibility or my function. our friend franz here is quite a good guide, you could do worse than retain him, especially as there seem to be no others about."
"i am afraid your franz has insulted us, insulted us most grievously." adelaide glared at franz, who was still rubbing his head with a piteous expression on his face.
"well, his manners might not pass muster at the court of the kaiserin or the empress eugenie, but he can take you where you want to go - or at least make an honest effort."
"an honest effort!"
"who can do ought else?"
"he talked of selling us to the turk! what sort of talk is that?"
"the turk pays in honest coin, mademoiselle, not in this damnable paper money."
"do you know," adelaide replied. "i think we have had quite enough of this place, which is not at all as i remembered it - "
"all things change, mademoiselle," the old man answered. "this is the modern age."
"no doubt. but i think we shall take our leave, and ponder the ramifications of modernity in more congenial surroundings."
at this franz laughed, and the old man shook his head sorrowfully. "i am afraid you have come about your business, mademoiselle, now you must go about your business."
"really? are you saying we may not leave?"
"no, you may not. what sort of business would it be, if people came to do their business, and then did not do their business? i ask you."
"and if i were to push or pull at the doors behind me?"
"they would not open."
"i see. and if we find the marriage bureau and - do our business, as you so forthrightly put it, then the doors will open?"
"they will indeed, though perhaps without the sound of trumpets."
"i see." adelaide looked up the staircase. "well then, i think we will try the upper floors first. perhaps we shall find a little more light up there."
"as you wish, mademoiselle. but i tell you you are making a mistake not hiring a guide."
"we will take our chances. may i ask your name, sir?"
"certainly. it is manfred, herr manfred. my office is first on the right, in the corridor behind me. drop by, if you like, on your way out, and give me an account of your adventures. they might prove amusing."
at this franz gave a surprisingly hearty laugh, which caused dora to shudder.
"so, " said adelaide to herr manfred, "you are in charge after all, sir."
"i am in charge of what i am in charge of. no more and no less."