If you missed it, read Part 8 here.
The day of the house call came.
Althea was just finishing installing a sign on the front of the building when the bookseller pulled up to the front door just before opening.
“You’re early,” he told her as he exited his big old black Suburban.
“I always arrive 11 minutes early,” she replied.
He had backed in. He opened the rear tailgate. The vehicle was already mostly filled with empty Bankers boxes.
“Would you bring out some more empties? You always want to have too many boxes rather than not enough,” he said. “By the way, what did you put onto my building?”
“It is a sign I designed and carved last night,” Althea said.
“What’s it say?” he asked. “The words look Celtic.”
“Why, it is in English, to be sure!” she replied. She had affected a little Irish lilt in her voice.
Indeed, when he looked at it again, he could understand. It read: “All Books Bought and Sold.” The letters were carved and gilded. The sign was in the shape of a book. The letters appeared Irish, though. The fore edge was painted cream. The boards of the book were a royal purple.
“I didn’t ask you to make a sign, did I?”
“No. But that handwritten sheet hanging in the window was water stained and hard to read unless one put one’s nose up against the glass. If you prefer, I can put that back, and you can toss my work in the dustbin.”
“No. No need,” he said drily. “I think we could sell your sign for 5 or 7 dollars. Go ahead and put a price sticker on it.”
He chuckled a bit until he looked up and saw her laser gaze. Her eyes changed into an arctic blue for a moment before returning to their deep brown.
“Ah. That was a quip? Am I correct? You do not often jest before opening,” she spoke evenly. After a few beats pause she added: “Ha ha.”
“No it’s fine. Actually, quite nice. How is it hung? I don’t see any nails or screws.”
“It is hard to explain, but nothing can remove it,” she said. “Well, I could bring it down if you instructed me.”
About that time, Sally arrived in her lime-green Mini Cooper. She pulled in next to the bookseller’s somber Suburban. She got out and stepped on to the front porch of the bookshop.
“Good morning, Miss Sally!” Althea said enthusiastically. “Your sunflower yellow jumper is just brilliant! It compliments your hair.”
“And your eyes. Amber eyes are quite rare you know. I had a wonderful cat with amber eyes long ago. She would curl upon my shoulder when I read books. I really believe she could read. If I turned a page too soon, she would growl until I turned it back.”
“Good Morning Althea,” Sally said evenly. “What’s this?” She pointed at the new sign attached to the wall.
“It’s our new Bought and Sold Sign,” the bookseller said. “Our old paper one was sunned and water stained.”
“A bit pretentious, isn’t it?”
“Ummm…Althea made it on her own.”
“Charming,” Sally said and entered the shop.
“She doesn’t like change,” the bookseller told Althea.
“I am not sure she likes me at all,” Althea replied.
“She doesn’t like change.”
Something fluttered in the window. Sally had retrieved the old paper sign and was taping it back on the window.
“Now we have two signs,” Althea said. “Maybe we will buy more books!”
“I’ll go inside and make sure Sally is all set. Squeeze as many boxes in the SUV as you can. You can never have too many—just not enough.”
“Do you think we can fit 3119 books in this vehicle?”
“It depends how many Webster’s Unabridgeds he has!” the bookseller laughed at his own joke.
Althea didn’t. She turned and headed to the storage shed for more empties.
The bookseller went inside and approached the counter. Sally was slapping paper money onto the counter and counting it aloud.
“She had already put up the sign when I arrived,” he mumbled.
“It’s not that. It’s fine actually. Very professional. It’s just…things are so different here now. You almost never call me in anymore,” her voice caught at the end of the sentence.
“You know you can come in anytime and as much as you want.”
“There’s nothing for me to do. Everything’s up off the floor all the time now.”
“This house call will be good for her. The sooner she’s learned everything, the sooner she will be…” he paused and found himself speechless.
“If she doesn’t leave soon…well, I’ve been working on several bibliomystery plots involving the disappearance of a bookshop apprentice.”
“I’ve always wanted to write a book,” she countered.
“Will it be knife, gun or poison?”
“Yes,” Sally answered.
“Ha! Why don’t you shake things up today and move a category or two. We haven’t shaken the sections up for a long time. My old mentor used to insist that when a book is moved, its aura is changed. It actually used to work. Or, you can catalog. There are always plenty of books to…”
“I hate selling books on a computer. I’ll switch poetry and philosophy. They’re about the same size. They will still relate to the sections bordering them,” she seemed excited at the prospect.
“There you go!”
“See how she likes THAT when you get back!”
“And NO cats.”
“Right. No cats.”
He pushed the door open, and the silver bell above jingled a little dully.
He stuck his head in and uttered a “Mwowr” inside.
He thought he heard something that sounded like “Busted” come from the counter area as the door closed itself behind him.
“Hop in,” he told Althea.
When he got behind the wheel, he noticed some movement in the front window. The paper sign was being pulled down.
“Hm,” he hummed. “Do you have the directions?”
“I have my iPhone,” she replied.
“I like both. I have had phones mislead me too many times.”
“The printed directions are in the pocket in your door.”
“Thank you,” he said.
He thought he heard something like: “A waste of paper,” come from her side of the truck.
As he headed toward the street, Althea said: “I wish I could get her to like me more. Maybe if I brought in a cat, she would help me take care of it.”
“Not a good idea, I think. You know I don’t like unexpected changes. Sally is even worse.”
“I would not do that without your agreement. Do you think moving the poetry and philosophy sections is a good idea?”
“You know I will not be here forever,” she said.
He didn’t say anything but pulled out and headed north—toward the Mason Dixon line some 31 miles away.
“None us will,” he finally said. “But the books, the books will abide.”
They drove north past Camp David—the Presidential Retreat.
Past the Shrine of Mary Elizabeth Seton—the first American Catholic saint. He smiled to think he had saved some books from her library—signed—many years ago. He knew just where they were too.
It is also home to the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
It is a lovely serene mountain forest site. There is a stone grotto and a pool from the Catoctin Mountain spring water that leaks out from the natural stone walls. People trek up there with empty plastic jugs to collect the water. Their site states:
The Grotto Water taps, located around the fountain pool, have been blessed by priests in the past and, most recently, by Most Reverend William E. Lori, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. This water, offered at the National Shrine Grotto, shall remind you of Jesus Himself who is life-giving water.
The Grotto Chaplain is available to bless and sanctify the Grotto Water. Once the Grotto Water becomes holy water, it can be used for blessing of persons, places and objects, or as protection against evil and danger.
Many pilgrims visit just for the Grotto Water (find location on our Interactive Map of the Grotto.) Many believe that it’s cleansing and healthy for the body and soul; others believe it can heal. Although there are no documented miracles, many have reported favors and graces from drinking the Grotto Water.
Past the exit for Taneytown (pronounced TAWNY.) Roger Brooke Taney was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—now judged by his Dred Scott decision. That decision helped cause the Civil War and because of its controversy helped end slavery. He was not from Taneytown—nor Frederick though there is a Taney House in Frederick. His wife was a sister of Francis Scott Key—who was from Frederick.
Past the Mason Dixon Line near which where he had lived so long ago. He thought of those early days. The hard work and the fear of failure. And the joy of small successes. He thought of Priscilla—gone these 7 years now.
Past the exits for all the Gettysburg battlefield sites where tens of thousands of Americans had slaughtered each other 157 less 1 years before—for…what?…made sense to them then, I guess—as they bled out in the Pennsylvania corn fields…
‘What were some of their last thoughts,’ he wondered, ‘as they looked up at the sun and sky one last time—so far from their homes?’
When they came to the first exit north of Gettysburg, they hadn’t spoken the whole trip. The bookseller’s mind was swirling and soaring. His life in the bookstore had always been confusing. When unbelievable things happened, he learned to often just tacitly accept them. What else could he do?
Who was in charge of this situation? Today?
Would he wake and discover this ‘apprentice’ was a dream?
‘You may be just an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’ He thought then chuckled at the idea of Althea being a ghost like Marley in Dickens.
“That is not funny,” she said softly her gaze fixed out the passenger side window.
“How did you know about the Poetry section being…”
“I am thinking. Please. I am trying to see what books will be in this house we are going to. The turn is just ahead. Left!”
He stopped at a mailbox. It was an old metal set atop a faded gray cedar post. The post tilted toward the road about 17 degrees. Red brown rust was creeping from its rounded top over its sides. The rust was just getting to the top of the handprinted white numbers. 711111.
He pulled the printed sheets from the door pocket and looked.
“This is it,” he said.
A tall untrimmed lilac hedge loomed up and over the vehicle. The branches were loaded with green panicles.
“In a couple of weeks this place will be a riot of color…and scent,” he added.
“Poor Syringa. She was so shy,” Althea whispered. “Yes. This place will be magically intoxicating when the flowers open.”
“She was a nymph. She turned herself into a lilac to escape Pan’s attentions. When he came upon the plant, he used some of the hollow branches to make the first flutes—Pan pipes,” she answered dreamily. “It was so long ago.”
He turned onto the dirt lane just after the mailbox. Lilac branches scraped both sides of the vehicle.
“I wonder if they will all be blue?”
“Most of these will be lilac. There will also be some white and violet, magenta and even some blue blossoms as well,” she told him. “This is a very old and unusual stand.”
“Now how do you know what color…”
“We are almost late.”
The lilacs continued along both sides of the lane. Dust rose behind the SUV in a tan-gray plume.
In about 97 yards the hedge ended. The space around the lane opened up onto a sprawling shaggy lawn. Beyond the lawn a 3-story once-white clapboard house rose. It had forest green shutters and trim. Two arching dormers looked out almost as if they were eyes.
The bookseller pulled next to the steps of the front porch and parked. He heard Althea take in a very deep breath and then exhale slowly.
They both climbed out and walked toward the porch. It was completely silent all about them. That was until they both put their left feet down on the third step at the same time. The wood gave an almost human groan as they put their weight on it. Once on the porch, they stepped across it to the front door. The screen door was ornately carved in a Celtic weave. The pattern wove infinitely round the wooden frame.
“Cwlwm Celtaidd,” Althea whispered almost as a chant.
Though he did not understand her words, he understood the meaning.
He reached forward and pushed the ivory button in the center of the old-fashioned round brass doorbell. A chime echoed hollowly from inside. A D. Above it a 4th. Then a 5th. A 7th. And finally a 5th.
They stood and waited. He looked at his watch. It was the right time. He knew it was the right day.
He reached forward and pressed again. They stood silently before the door for some minutes.
The bookseller pulled open the screen door. The 19-inch spring which pulled it closed gave a creak as it stretched.
He made a fist with two knuckles extended and was about to rap upon the front door. Althea placed her left hand upon his right forearm and reached forward with her right. She rapped twice in quick succession and after a pause struck the door again.
They stood and waited.
The knob on the door began to turn and then the door was pulled inward. The old man angled from behind the door into the dark widening crack.
“I’m so very sorry. I must have been somewhere else.” When the door was fully opened he added: “Please come in.”
They stepped into the dark foyer. Old carved bookcases covered the walls. Atop them animal figures looked down upon them. Stuffed creatures of all kinds seemed to stare at them—curious and cautious. A tall stately owl sat upon the newel post of the ornate banister.
“I suppose you will want to see the books. Shall we start at the top and work our way down? Or start here and make our way upstairs?”
“Up…” Althea started as the bookseller said: “Down…” simultaneously.
“I believe we should go to the attic first, then. We can work our way down. You can see the scope of the collection and tell me what you think,” the old man said over his shoulder as he crossed to the steps. “I am so glad to see you brought Althea with you. This will be a good experience for her to build on.”
The bookseller looked over at her. Their eyes met. Hers flashed a lavender-blue for a moment.
“Lilacs,” he uttered.
“Yes. Yes. This place has always been overrun with them. You cannot trim them, you know. If you do, they will not bloom.”
The stairs were carpeted in an oriental flowered pattern. Mostly dark reds. Dull brass stair rods crossed each tread. Each had a small dragon’s head at either end.
Up and around to a half landing where the bookseller was frozen midstride for a moment. And then up to the second floor. Then up and around twice more. They were in the attic. The ceiling was uneven to accommodate the gables. Two eye shaped windows looked out from each of the building’s four sides. It was a very large single room. Support beams rose at angles from the floor to ceiling here and there.
It was filled—FILLED—with 61 inch oak bookcases. All had leaded glass lift doors on each shelf. The patterns of the leaded panes were quite varied. They were arranged in narrow rows from wall to wall.
A gray cat leapt from the top of the nearest case. It landed at Althea’s feet. It slithered a figure eight around and through both her legs. It stepped to the bookseller and looked up. Its eyes were the brilliant color of Baltic amber. Their demeanor conveyed a dubious: “Do you think you know what you are doing?”
“There are more than, what was it, 3119 books in this room alone. I’d say there are close to…”
“7109,” Althea and the old man spoke in unison.
“Ok. Let’s look around up here briefly and then go down. Althea, take the first row. This is a kind of test. If you see something special, slide it out a few inches. I’ll come and see how good your eye is.”
He had to turn sideways to go between the rows of bookcases. It was difficult to read titles through the somewhat wavy glass panes. Trying to look at the lower shelves was nearly impossible. He could not bend that far sideways. There was no room to take the booksellers position of study and adoration—upon his knees.
He lifted one glass door until it was perpendicular to the case and then slid it back. It made a little musical rattle as it settled in. Then he did another and another. The books were wonderful. Old leather and cloth spines read themselves to him. The nearly spoke aloud it seemed.
“Ahhhh…” he breathed. “So beautiful.”
He opened a few more doors.
‘This is impossible. I can’t begin to tally these. I should go check on her,’ he thought.
He sidled down his aisle to its end. There he turned left. He turned left again and nearly bumped into Althea near the end of the next row.
She had nearly every glass door of every barrister bookcase was open. Scores of books protruded a couple inches from their neighbors. Near the center of the row there was a stack of two and a half dozen less one on the floor.
“That good, eh?” he muttered.
“I wondered why I could not see this collection. It is too vast and comprehensive. All I could see was a forest. I could not make out any individual trees.”
She stepped down the aisle. Even her small frame needed to angle a bit to squeeze down it. At halfway, she bent and lifted the small stack.
“I would like to purchase these if I can afford them. I particularly find this one necessary.”
“Necessary?” he asked as she extended an old slightly worn book to him. He opened it to the title page.
“Ahhh, I see,” he said. “We should see the rest. These are too much already.”
He spoke aloud to the end of the row: “I think we should go down and see the rest of the books!”
The old man appeared at the end of the row. “As you wish.”
They followed him down to the second level. The landing was quite large—maybe seven paces across. It was carpeted the same as the steps. It had five sides. Four were doors to each bedroom. The fifth was the staircase they stood upon. The doors were in the center of each wall. On either side of each door was a full bookcase floor to ceiling. The bookseller and Althea walked around the space until they were back at the stairway.
“I’ve been thinking,” the old man said. “Perhaps my count was off. Upon reflection, I believe there are 30,119 books in the house. Each of these four bedrooms has books. Would you care to look?”
The two walked, in through and out of each room. The bookseller noticed the cat was always two paces behind Althea.
When they were done there, they went downstairs. In each room was more of the same.
The bookseller was a little breathless when he met the owner in the foyer.
“I don’t know what to say. The collection is wondrous.”
“I have been guarding it for many years. I need to move, however. I have to move on.”
“It is very valuable. I’m not sure yet what I could offer. I know I couldn’t pay for it all at once. I’d need to send you monthly checks or something.”
“Checks will do me no good where I am going. Gold. Do you have gold?”
“No. I’m afraid not.”
“When I was at your sales counter, I could see into your office. There was a gold ring hanging upon your wall.”
“No! No, that is not available.”
“It probably wouldn’t work for me, anyway. I’ve been there before.”
“Most everywhere,” the old man continued. “I saw a figurine in your office as well. A small statue. It was atop a bookcase along the back wall. Cretan if I’m not mistaken.”
“Oh that. That’s not gold. I’ve meant to get it checked to be sure—but I’ve always presumed it is just a very good forgery. Maybe 18th century from someone’s Grand Tour.”
“Presumptive, isn’t he, Althea?”
“He sometimes does not see the gold placed directly before him,” she answered.
“Are you sure it is not precious? Not gold?”
“It doesn’t feel like metal. Or heft like it. There’s a patina covering it. I’ve never looked closely. Maybe it is an old layer of paint. I got it so long ago. It was about the time Priscilla…got…ill. It was in a box of books from an old bookseller’s collection. He had passed away, and his widow contacted me. She wanted everything removed. Everything. That box was far under his desk. When I finally unpacked it, she had passed away too. There were very old vellum-bound books in it. Greek manuscripts. Beneath them was the statue. It was wrapped in soft leather. There were no relatives. I put the statue atop that bookcase. Then Priscilla became…and I was so preoccupied during those months. I haven’t really thought of it for years. It just stands there—waiting.”
“Well, I’m willing to trade for it. All the books for that. I think I will make out well with that piece where I’m going.”
“I…I… May I think?”
“No. I cannot wait. I must settle everything very soon.”
Althea’s left hand curled round the back of his right upper arm. It gave a gentle squeeze. “That is nothing to you. It would stand there til the end had not this man inquired after it,” she spoke under her breath.
“Alright,” he said. “I hope I’m not taking advantage of you,” he said to the old man.
“I’m quite satisfied with the exchange,” he replied. “On one condition. You must take Mathilda.”
“This beautiful creature,” Althea said looking down at the cat twirling figure eights around and between her legs. “If you two agree, she can adopt me.”
“Yes!” they spoke in unison.
The bookseller reached out and shook the old man’s hand.
“We can’t take them all today. But we can pack as many as will fit.”
So, the two of them began packing boxes. Althea was in the attic. The bookseller started in the parlor downstairs. He took his position upon his knees and began to fill boxes. The old man appeared and sat on the red velvet fainting couch in the parlor. Mathilda lay quietly in his lap. They both studied the bookseller as he filled boxes. The bookseller went into a kind of trance. He was conscious of the books and the packing, but he did not remember the time it took. When he had filled 31, he lifted one to take outside. On the porch Althea had stacks out there already.
“53,” she said.
“How did you…from the attic…Never mind.”
“And there are 3 boxes set aside with an ‘A’ on them. They are books I would like to purchase for my future store. That is, if the price is right.”
The 87 boxes just about filled the old somber Suburban. The old man watched them from the porch with Mathilda observing languidly in his arms.
When they were done, they both stepped up on the porch. The old man handed Mathilda to Althea. The cat made a loud noise somewhere between a purr and a growl of satisfaction. Once in her arms, the cat seemed to nod at the old man.
“When you were last at the store, you said you had lost something. Did you ever find it?” the bookseller asked.
“Why, yes! It is right here!” the old man looked around as if indicating he thought there was something, somewhere. But neither Althea nor the bookseller saw a thing. It was just the three of them. Four if you included the cat.
They headed out the driveway. A plume of dust followed them. Boughs of lilac rattled against the side mirrors.
When they got back and turned into the store’s parking lot, the bookseller hit the brakes. Mathilda growled from Althea’s lap at the disruption.
There were hundreds of boxes on the wraparound porch.
He turned and backed to it. As he got out, Sally came out the front door with the two wheel hand truck.
“I wish you would warn me when you do something this crazy. There’s no place to store these boxes but in the aisles.”
“I didn’t…where did they come from?”
“A curious old man came inside while I was shifting the last of the poetry. He said he had a delivery. When I went out, the porch was loaded with these boxes. He had the strangest eyes. Like there were…”
“Hourglasses in them.”
“That cat is NOT staying, I hope,” Sally said directing her attention toward Althea.
“But Miss Sally, her eyes are nearly the same brilliant amber as yours.”
Mathilda seemed to blink rapidly—kind of batting her eyes at Sally.
“No…” Sally said weakening.
“Did he say anything else?”
“He said I was to retrieve that horrid little statue in exchange for the books. I’ve always found that little geegaw to be annoying. The woman’s proportions are just, well, naughty. He also said the bookcases were included.”
“There was a second truck at the same time. The trailer was dropped in back. 111 barrister bookcases, he said. I’ve been too busy to look. Where will put them?!”
He had not seen Sally this animated for a very long time.
“There’s just so much to do!” she exclaimed. “I’m sure Aurora would come and help all too.” She lifted a long wet lock of blond hair and tucked it behind her ear.
Althea stepped forward. “I have been designing something at home. I will bring in the drawings. It would be quite easy to add on 5113 square feet of space of the west side of the store.”
“I…I…” the bookseller stammered.
“Don’t be so short sighted,” Sally said. “I’ve looked at some of these books. They are wonderful. If all or most are that good, they will more than pay for the expansion. By the way, that old man said: ‘I’ve lost it again,’ before he left. He said if we found it to ‘let it out.'”
“Did he say what it was?”
“No. He said he couldn’t or wouldn’t, I don’t recall. The whole exchange was just bizarre.”
“Bizarre,” the bookseller echoed. “Well, lets get all these inside. It’s 29 minutes til closing.”
“I need to leave 11 minutes early,” Althea added.
The bookseller had taken Althea’s 3 boxes and set them behind her car. He didn’t look inside. He was afraid he might change his mind. Even if you have tons of treasure, a niggle of greed can cause you to balk at parting with a bit of dragon’s hoard.
As they were taking boxes in the front door, Althea said, “I even designed a glassed-in mezzanine.A cat can walk around up there and observe everything. Mathilda would be quite happy. Miss Sally, you would not know she is there.”
Sally’s “Hmmm” was better than her earlier “Hmphhh.”
With the three wheeling boxes in, the porch was soon cleared.
When the women and the cat had departed, the bookseller pushed open the front door. The bell above the door made a tired “end of the day” chime.
There was a sign hanging from the ceiling above the sales counter. It read: “Checkout.” It was swinging wildly to and fro as if something was using it as a kind of trapeze.
‘Just another day,’ he thought. He went in his office and unpinned the ring from the wall.
He rolled it between his thumb and forefinger.
He stared through it and whispered: “Priscilla.”