This continues the tale of the bloody surprise found in a back room of the shop in Round and Round 14.
Autumn was in full swing at the old bookstore. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 spoke to the bookseller in many ways this time of year, this time of life. He had an old leaf bagged and pinned to the wall behind his desk. He would look at it betimes and resouble his efforts in many areas. It was a cautionary verse. Winter’s dawn was just over a “month” away.
That time of year thou mayst in me beholdBy William Shakespeare
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
“Should we call the police?!” the bookseller asked excitedly.
Althea took a very deep breath and exhaled slowly. The warm air came out of her and turned into a cloud of steam in the frigid room.
“I do not think they would understand what we have just seen and heard,” Althea replied. “Look.”
She pointed at the floor.
The bookseller looked down and saw the stain on the floor. It was visibly shrinking. Its perimeter was moving inward toward its center.
“It’s disappearing!” he said incredulously.
“You said the stain was not here when you tore out the carpet.”
“It wasn’t. It was just concrete floor.”
“Then I believe very soon this will all be gone. The police would think we were fantasizing or being foolish if we contacted them, and they came and found nothing.”
“What should we do then? I don’t want to hear that Banshee screaming in here again.”
They were slowly backing out of the room. The security lights out in the shop flickered and came on.
“I believe we should try covering the floor again. Perhaps uncovering it released…whatever was released. Perhaps the books that are trying to communicate will give us some clues,” Althea spoke softly. “Do you have anything we can use to cover the floor?”
“Tim left some canvas drop cloths in the addition. I’ll go get a couple of those. They should be enough to cover the floor.”
When that was done, he went up the counter. Althea was there leafing through the two editions of Paradise Lost. The Doré and the Blake. It was now pretty late in the evening.
It was then the bookseller remembered what had happened when they’d bent in a panic to unlock the front door.
It was then he began to feel extremely awkward.
“Ummm. Crazy day…huh?” he stammered.
Althea looked up and met his eyes. She smiled, and her eyes briefly flashed a soft green—the green of new clover on an early spring morning. Her smile warmed and comforted him. He smelled autumn in the air suddenly. The earthy scent of crisp sere leaves that he knew were falling outside and scrabbling across the parking lot. The new season seemed to be an aura about her. Gold, red and yellow seemed to envelope her.
“Just another book day in your shop,” she spoke brightly. “I am glad we were able to help Barbara with her book problem. I cannot imagine her distress at all her wonderful books losing their words.”
“How did you know it was her? Barbara. Had you ever met her when she was… It certainly didn’t look like the Barbara I knew for all those years.”
“Her spirit is very old. Ancient in fact. It goes back to the early Egyptian dynasties. She has been here many times and in many forms.”
“How do you know?”
“I…I just knew.”
“You said you knew some of the same ‘folk.’ Will you tell me about that?”
“Perhaps. Some day.”
“Will you ever tell me about you? I think there’s more…”
“Perhaps,” she interrupted. “It is getting late. I need to get home. Mathilda will be distraught.”
“Can we go and talk…maybe over dinner sometime?” that was so difficult for him to ask. He knew he was crossing a boundary. Maybe several boundaries.
She stepped out from behind the counter and pushed open the front door. The bell above chimed a bit nervously.
“Good night,” the bookseller spoke.
Althea turned and faced him from the threshold. She tilted her head back a bit and looked upwards. She gave a brief nod of her head as if confirming a suspicion. Then she lowered her gaze toward the bookseller.
“Good morrow,” she whispered. Her eyes flashed a fresh green again.
Then she pushed open the door and headed into the night.
He shrunk. Weakened. Drained with emotion.
His old friend. Barbara…who was not Barbara. The bizarre events. The terror tonight in his bookstore—his bookstore of so many years.
And his first touch of Althea’s lips which wasn’t really a kiss. Was it? Althea, whom he had known and taught for months. Taught her what? She knew more about some books than he ever would. But perhaps he knew more about how to place them, to help them get where they belong.
Perhaps that was the knowledge she sought from him.
Perhaps she was here for another reason.
The bookseller walked quickly to the front door and watched her figure cross the porch and descend the steps. He watched her enter her ancient Opel Kadett, back up and start to drive toward the street. A large shadow descended from the dark sky. It was illuminated by the now lit parking lot light atop the tall telephone pole.
It was a very large owl. It had a big moon white face. Its wingspan was nearly 3 feet.
“A barn owl,” he said to himself.
He couldn’t tell if it was following her or accompanying her or protecting her on her way home.
Perhaps it was all three.
Perhaps it was more. An acquaintance? Perhaps more.
He turned and went to his office. He sat in his chair and looked up at the wall across the desk. The ring glowed softly from where it hung upon the wall.
He reached up and across to it. He pulled out the pin that held it and took it down. He sat back in his chair and rolled it between his thumb and forefinger. Back and forth. Back and forth.
‘Maybe it’s time I put it on again,’ he thought. ‘I wonder where it would take me? I wonder what I would see?’
He shuddered at the remembrance of his last experience with the ring.
He thought about Althea. He touched the ring to his lips. It was very warm. It was as hot as a leather-bound book resting on a windowsill on a sunny summer day.
‘What made me think of that?!’ he wondered. ‘I would never leave a book out in the sun.’
He touched the ring to his lips again. Warmth spread through him from his face to his toes.
‘Why is she here? She knows so much. Why would she need to know about old books? Especially, the limited knowledge I could give her about them.’
He lifted the ring. He squinted his left eye closed and peered through the ring with his right. The letters he could see on notes and ephemera pinned to the wall were indistinct when he looked at them through the ring.
‘Will she leave like she said she would? When? When she has learned all she needs to know, she will be gone?’ he thought. ‘I will withhold knowledge then! I will dole it out slowly! Slower and slower. Maybe she will stay longer then.’
When he was a child, an aunt and uncle from way down south visited. He had never seen them before. They had a pretty daughter who was the same age he was. He immediately had a crush on her. When they were ready to leave, he had snuck into the guest bedroom. There he had hid her shoes in an attempt to keep them here. When they gave up the shoe hunt and were leaving without them (his cousin wearing her mother’s slippers), he had dashed upstairs and retrieved the shoes.
He had run out to their car and shouted: “I found them!”
His cousin had left, and he never saw her again. Now he couldn’t recall at all what she looked like. He could remember the shoes. They were red leather sandals.
He started to slip his forefinger through the ring. Then stopped.
“Not tonight,” he spoke aloud. “I’m not ready.”
He leaned forward and reached up and pinned the ring upon the wall.
‘It’s been so long,’ he thought about the ring again. A wave of pain and sadness poured over him.
He sat back into his chair. He thought about some more about Althea.
‘It’s been so long,’ he thought. And dizzying confusion poured all over him.
He stood and exited his office. At the counter there was a small mirror. It was positioned so the booksellers could see who was entering the store when the bell above the door rang. That way they could see who was visiting without leaning over the counter and turning their necks toward the bell.
The bookseller looked into the mirror, and a very young man looked back at him. It was the same young man he had seen in mirrors for many years—not that long ago. But the eyes were very old.
‘I wish I’d known all this when I was that man,’ he thought.
He pushed the door open. The bell spoke softly as an old friend would in such a moment.
He took a few steps across the porch. He stopped, turned and looked, and there was still a key in the front door’s lock. He reached and withdrew it.
‘Odd. I’ve never seen this key before. It seems very old and worn,’ he thought as he turned it over. Then he recalled: ‘All these years, and I’ve never changed the lock. I wonder why?’
He backed away, crossed the porch. He heard a soft moan out in the woods.
He stepped down into the parking lot, and a silent shadow coasted above and over him.
It was another owl. A small one. It alighted upon the porch railing, and their eyes met.
It spoke a soft silent cry. A cooing moan. Not of pain or longing but of loss and remembrance.
He knew those eyes.
The bird lifted itself, raised her wings and flew silently to the west.
Somehow he knew he would never see those eyes again.
The next morning, he sprang up the front porch steps and crossed to the front door. He pulled it open with a bit more vigor than usual. The bell above the door rang a bright (and a bit surprised) “Good morning” to him. He stepped inside, and Althea was standing behind the counter with a small stack of books in front of her.
“I didn’t…I didn’t see your car.”
“Oh, I got a ride in,” she replied nonchalantly.
“Oh…” The bookseller, deflated, was speechless. He didn’t know why. He suspected the worst. A boyfriend had driven her in. She had never spoken about friends.
“It requires some repairs. I wanted to get in and see if any books fell during the night. I found three!”
She slid a small stack across the counter toward him.
“All Cats Go to Heaven,” he said.
“Yes! Illustrated by Peggy Bacon. I found that in the pets section.”
“And Paul Gallico’s Thomasina.”
“Yes! The Cat Who Thought She was God.”
“All cats think they are God,” the bookseller mumbled.
She turned and looked daggers at him. Her eyes were steel gray. He felt a chill pierce him.
“Is that humor?” she asked cuttingly. “I found Thomasina in literature on the floor of the G’s. Has Gallico been promoted to lit?” Althea continued.
“Hardly,” the bookseller said. “He wrote a lot of pretty light fluff. I don’t know how many hundreds of copies of The Snow Goose I’ve come across. That tiny book is perhaps the most sentimental story ever seriously published.”
“Well, if you have seen hundreds, it must have sold a lot of copies.”
“Have you ever read it?”
“Perhaps you should. A book beloved by an earlier generation must have something of import in it. People have not changed. Only the times have changed.”
“I’ll put it on my to-be-read list. Next time a copy wanders in, I’ll put it aside.”
“Do. I believe there is a message in it for you.”
“What is the third book cat book you found this morning?”
“I shant tell you. You must guess. What is the best cat book ever?”
“Shan’t?” he asked. “Shan’t? I’ve never heard you speak a contraction before.”
“Shant is not a contraction in my book.”
“I always thought it was archaic—for shall not.” His comment was met with cynical and critical eyes. It was the condescending superior look a wise cat might make. A bit put off guard, he continued: “Can you give me a clue about the third book?”
“Certainly. There is a cat in it,” Althea said, and she laughed. Her laugh was like raindrops on a windowpane after a long dry spell in summer. “There are no ‘Ls’ in shant,” she pouted and stamped her foot with a leathery slap.
Petulance arose within him. He might actually win this grammatical debate. Fortunately for him, his rejoinder was not permitted to escape. He knew that later and thanked…something…maybe his lucky stars…for the rescue. Why? Well…you know…in some relationships, being right is sometimes not worth winning. One can win the point but lose the “battle.”
Why had the proverbial cat got his tongue? Because at that moment, the bell above the front door rung like the sound of money coming into a cash register. A kind of “ca-ching.”
In strode the largest man the bookseller had ever seen. He must have been nearly 7 feet tall because he dipped his head a bit as he crossed the threshold.
‘He is enormous,’ the bookseller thought. ‘He must weigh 25 stone!’
Althea leaned toward him and whispered: “Just a tad over 27 and three quarters.”
“Guid marnin’ tae ye!”
The words burst out of the man much as he had burst through the bookstore’s front doorway!
His hair was a tousled hurricane of red curls. His red beard flowed down his chest to his diaphragm and spread sideways nearly to his arms.
He was wearing a vast Prince Charlie Jacket and vest, neither of which could ever be buttoned up.
His kilt had taken a great deal of woolen acreage to execute.
‘I don’t recognize that tartan,’ the bookseller thought.
Althea leaned over and whispered: “Rabbie Burns,” she rolled her “Rs” and affected a bit of brrrrogue.
“Ummmm…good morning to you!” the bookseller blurted.
The man stepped to the counter. He loomed over the two of them. Indeed, he seemed nearly twice as tall as Althea. He unslung a vast leather shoulder bag and began removing things and placing them on the counter.
A large pewter mug which could easily hold two pints of ale. Several dirks which clattered on to the counter. A large heel of dark brown bread clunked down and crumbs flew from it all about.
“Eet’s in here, Ah’m shoor.”
“Do you have a book in there?” the bookseller asked.
“Nay, jes a sheet from one.”
“I don’t think we…”
Rags and a single ancient worn woman’s shoe appeared.
“She’s quite old tho.” The man held the shoe before his eyes. He seemed a bit confused. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders and then set it down.
An ornate silver flask appeared, and the giant grinned broadly. His teeth were enormous and brilliant white. The flask appeared to be quite old. Woodland scenes of deer and mountains and lakes were depicted in relief upon it. He twisted off the top and lifted it to his lips. He swiftly tiled his head backward and just as quickly straightened it back.
“Och aye the noo. Jest a wee one, for ’tis arly!”
He set the flask upon the counter and then drew his forearm across his face making a show of wiping his lips.
“Ahhh…Aye…a wee dram is a’ways weelcome.”
A large pewter toasting fork and ladle then clattered onto the counter.
He dug deeper and deeper. A large chunk of dried meat appeared.
“Smoked venison?” Althea asked.
“Aye! Here ’tis!”
With that, he withdrew a browned piece of paper with lettering on both sides. He slapped it onto the counter and, unnecessarily, flattened it with his massive paw. He turned it toward the two of them and pressed his finger upon it.
“The Scottish Play!” he exclaimed proudly.
Althea read it aloud:
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.”
“It’s Macbeth!” the bookseller blurted.
The man raised his arms and made a cross with his forearms.
“‘Tis bad luck to speak that name! Have ye any salt?”
“To toss over my shoulder?” the bookseller chuckled.
“Why would ye do sech a thing? Nay, for me haggis!”
He withdrew a cloth-wrapped bundle about the size of a football and set it down.
“This is very old,” Althea spoke softly holding the sheet of paper up to the light.
“Aye, ’tis a first edition.”
“I’m afraid someone has misled you,” the bookseller said authoritatively. “Mac…the Scottish Play first appeared in 1623 in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works. Your leaf is a quarto and must be later but I’ve never heard of a Mac…this play in a quarto this old. The paper appears to be 17th century or even older.”
“1606,” the man spoke confidentially.
“She’ll not part with the rest of it, Ah’m afreed. A’ve tried and tried to pry it loose.”
“You removed this from a book?” Althea asked.
“Aye! The Scottish Play! 1606!”
“Was it complete? Intact?!” the bookseller asked incredulously.
“IN—deed! ‘Tis still! This was a supernumerary! Laid within the book.”
“What are your plans for this leaf?”
“Why, to sell it to you!”
“I…I don’t have any idea…”
“What are ye asking?” Althea spoke liltingly.
“‘Ave ye any gold? “
“No. But I could write you a check. Name your price?”
“Yer note would do me na guid. ‘Tis gold, or Ah must be on me way.”
“I have this,” Althea said. And she withdrew a large gold necklace from beneath her blouse. She grasped her hair in a fist with one hand and then raised the necklace over her head with the other. She held it before her face, blinked at it and then laid it upon the counter. It made the soft dull clatter that only heavy gold can sound like.
“Althea! I don’t want you to…”
“I no longer wish to be bound to it,” she spoke those words to no one in that room. “It makes me sad when I see it every night. It has been ages since it meant anything to me.”
The Scotsman lifted the necklace and hefted it in his great paw.
“‘Tis heavy. It gives guid weight.”
“It is 227 grams.”
“Althea, I don’t want…”
“You do not? It is we. We are acquiring this leaf together.”
“‘Tis a guid down payment which I weel accept. The final tally must be ten fold though.”
“That is acceptable to us,” Althea said. She reached across the counter, and her tiny hand was engulfed when the Scotsman took it to shake and seal the deal. “We can have the rest when you return.”
“Aye, Ah’ll not be round this way for a lang syne. Ah’ll send ye a message when Ah knew just when.”
The bookseller stood there dumbstruck.
The Scotsman picked up a dirk and sliced a chunk of meat off the hunk and stuck it in his mouth. Then he picked up the heel of bread and gnawed a bite off. Crumbs tumbled down into his beard and many sprinkled onto the counter. He chewed thoughtfully while the bookseller lifted the Shakespearean leaf up and studied it.
“How do we know it is…”
“It is,” Althea spoke confidently.
“‘Tis!” the man said and more crumbs tumbled out onto his beard.
While he continued chewing thoughtfully, he began replacing his possessions into the leather satchel.
“What about the book?” the bookseller asked. “The Scottish Play.”
“Ah’ll not pry it loose from her anytime soon. She and her kin have ‘ad it forever. Family lore says Uncle Tam got it at the Auld Brig. Bargained it from a fairy!”
“I’d love to see it. To just touch it,” the bookseller spoke in awe.
“Perhaps one day ye’ll visit the auld land. Weel, Ah must be me way.”
With that, the giant slung the leather strap over his shoulder. He grasped the big necklace and put in somewhere in his vast kilt. Then he turned and strode to the door. When he pushed it open, the bell chimed like a lonely brass chapel bell on a Scottish moor—if a tiny silver bell can do such a thing…
“What just happened?” the bookseller asked when he had caught his breath.
“We have discovered a unique Shakespeare first edition,” Althea whispered. “Unique as far as we know.”
“He has a duplicate within his copy of the book.”
“IF he has a Macbeth quarto. Scotsmen can be prone to exaggeration. But I believe he does have what he says he has. If anyone will ever see it in this world, we may never know.”
“You believe that story about the fairy and, what was it? The ‘odd breeg’?”
“The Brig o’Doon! Indeed, the bridge to Brigadoon. It is a well known fact,” Althea stated with certainty and not a little disbelief that the bookseller was not better read in his history.
“The town that only appears every hundred years?”
“To be shoor.” She nodded and changed the subject. “Well, we must begin the day now. We can begin putting the clues the books are giving us together then. I will put this page in a plastic bag and pin it above your desk by your ring. As Poe related, some things are safest hid in plain sight.”
“I…can’t. I want to study this leaf a…?”
“I am afraid not just now. There are places to go and things to do!”
The bookseller stepped from behind the counter. “Ok then. I’m going to the back room to see if anything is amiss. That’s why I came in early.” He stopped and turned.
“Wait! What was the third book you spoke of? The best cat book?”
“Tobermory, of course!”
“Of course! I love Edward Gorey’s illustrations of the cat!”
“Ahhhh. Do we have a copy? I’ve never read it.”
“Of course. No respectable bookstore should be without some Saki.”
As he headed to the back, he began humming Danny Boy.
He stopped and thought: ‘I never hum.’
Then he started walking again and began to softly sing: “But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow. Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow. ‘Tis I’ll be there in sunshine or in shadow…”