This was the version of the story that was put forward in the book I read at my friend's home. Later I would read other versions that were neither so tidy nor so apparently conclusive. No matter -- that was later.
The uncanny events of Vettsburg opened up a new dimension of sight for me. That's the best way I can describe it. It's as if I'd been living in a sort of flatland up till then, and this book directed my gaze up into a sky I'd never suspected was there. It was not in any sense a religious experience and confirmed no religious belief on my part, since I had none. In fact, I didn't see religion as having anything to do with it and still don't. If Natalie Prescott was in fact reincarnated as Mary Anne Dorson, then this was surely a wondrous event -- but no more supernatural than a caterpillar being reincarnated as a butterfly. If Natalie Prescott was in fact reincarnated as Mary Anne Dorson, then this was surely just a manifestation of a natural law whose workings are usually not manifest at all. If Natalie Prescott was in fact reincarnated as Mary Anne Dorson, then we're all the reincarnation of someone else -- and destined to be reincarnated as someone else as well.
I slipped the book back to the maid, and that was that. The vacation came to an end, and I went back to school. Life continued as before -- for another seven years, when I graduated from college and told my family I was going to work for We Live Again, a threadbare but earnest little organization devoted to reincarnation research.
They wanted to know what I meant by "work." I explained that the foundation had only two paid full-time employees, the founder, Reginald Hanshaw, and his wife, Marcia, who coordinated and compiled the fieldwork of dozens of enthusiasts working on a volunteer basis around the world. I would in effect become their first full-time fieldworker, bringing to the task not only my time and energy but the financial resources to follow up on reports anywhere in the world.
My mother thought the idea amusing and original, as if it were all an invention. My father thought it would make "an interesting way to spend the summer." In his cunning and tactful way, he was opening an avenue down which I could retreat when the project began to bore me (as he was sure it would, sooner or later). However, he had a request. Before taking up my labors on behalf of We Live Again, he asked me to talk to "Uncle Harry," who was coming to dinner the following evening. Of course I said I would.
Harold Whitaker, Ph.D., was a longtime close friend of the family (and not really any sort of uncle). I'd known him since childhood, when every adult seemed elderly, though in fact he wasn't very old even now, being perhaps in his late thirties. I seemed always to have known the man's legend better than the man himself. He'd studied at that frightfully ancient institution, Heidelberg University, and had a dueling scar on the left side of his face to prove it. He possessed several obscure academic degrees but said he favored the Ph.D. over the others because it didn't need to be explained.
For a decade after leaving school he'd been "something in the military" and wore his beautifully tailored suits as if they were uniforms. Everlastingly slim and fit, he always looked like he could rise from the dinner table and run a mile without getting winded or mussing the careful set of his fine blond hair. Now no longer in the military, he was "something in the government," and I wasn't in the least surprised to learn that recruitment was the object of our conversation.
When we were settled with our brandies in the library after dinner, he said, "I think this venture with the Reincarnation Institute sounds like fun, and I'm sure you'll learn a lot."
The family didn't care for the name of the organization, and it was quite their usual practice to reshape reality to suit themselves. Thus We Live Again had almost immediately become the more dignified Reincarnation Institute.
"But," Uncle Harry went on, "you mustn't get them too accustomed to leaning on you. In a year or two you're going to want to move on to something else."
"Yes, that's only good sense," I agreed blandly.
"I want you to be aware that anytime you want it, there's a place for you in my outfit."
"Doing what I do."
"And what's that, if I may ask?"
He shrugged. "I assumed you'd know by now that I'm in Intelligence. Or guess it."
I suppose I had guessed it, I told him, though I'm not sure I could have put the name Intelligence to it. "I know what you do is . . . mysterious, perhaps sinister."
"Neither one, most of the time. The government -- every government everywhere and in every age -- depends on men like me. On large numbers of men like me, in fact. When a leader stands in front of an audience or answers a question from the press, he almost never speaks from his own knowledge about the issues and problems of the world. For the most part, he's merely voicing our knowledge of those issues and problems. This is no exaggeration, I assure you."
"I believe you, though in my innocence it never occurred to me until now that this might be the case. But why me? I'm no good at languages. I have no very useful specialties."
He shook his head impatiently. "Linguists and specialists we buy in packets of ten. It's the talented generalists who are difficult to find, people with classical educations, people who are intelligent, well-bred, well-connected, and, above all, known."
"Known? My father is known. I hardly consider myself to be known."
"You're known to me, and that's all that matters. I can vouch for you absolutely, which is something I can never do for anyone who just walks in off the street looking for a job. He may have degrees spilling out of his pockets from the world's leading universities and letters of introduction from dozens of national heroes, but to me he's an unknown, and I wouldn't even trust him to empty the wastebaskets."
"I see. To be honest, I was expecting something like this but thought you'd just be doing it as a favor to Dad."
"Not at all. In fact, it's the other way around. I'm the one who asked for the favor, and your father granted it."
I told him I was flattered (and I was) and that I'd certainly keep the offer in mind.
"What you propose to be doing for the Institute," he went on, "could actually turn out to be excellent training for Intelligence work, I think." He paused to ponder that for a moment. "I suppose you could say that, in a sense, what you propose to be doing is Intelligence work."
I didn't particularly care to know what he meant by that, so I thanked him and adjourned the meeting sine die.