|The Yellow Tome
8 November 1672, Bloomsbury, London
The book dealer puffed on his meerschaum as he and the tall, spare cleric surveyed the heavily laden bookshelves lining the back wall of his shop. "I am pleased to offer this collection at a very reasonable price, sir, provided you purchase the lot. My instructions are that the volumes must not be separated."
"Tell me about the collection, please," the cleric said. "To whom did it belong? And where did it come from?"
"The books come from every corner of Europe, though most will yield their mysteries under your mastery of Latin. The consignor's decedent was a baronet of a very old family in the north."
"The consignor's decedent?"
"The consignor being the late baronet's estate."
"Then there were no heirs to this splendid library?"
"Heirs there certainly are, but none of them . . . possesses a particular taste for learning. I can assure you, however, that they are most anxious to know that the collection has found a home with one capable of appreciating their decedent's achievement. Many years were devoted to the search for, and acquisition of, these books – prayer books, treatises, and . . . other, rarer items."
"Indeed! I confess I’ve always been fascinated by rare books. And which of these might be so categorized?"
"The discovery of just such intelligence is the pleasure that awaits the purchaser of this collection, and I shouldn't deprive him of it for any consideration."
The cleric reflected for a moment. "I am soon to sail for the Massachusetts Bay colony, to found a school, and this collection would . . . well, it would bring a piece of England, of home and civilization to that savage continent. I must have it.”
“Perfect!” The two men shook hands. “I am certain the heirs will be delighted with this outcome and, between us, sir, I am equally certain they will agree to very reasonable terms. With, I repeat, the proviso that the collection is on no account to be separated.”
“Very good. One more question, if it isn’t too indiscreet: how did the baronet meet his end?”
The book dealer puffed for several moments before replying. “I am sorry to report that, while studying in his library one night, the balance of his mind became disturbed, and he took his own life.”
“In his –”
“Yes, regrettably, while one of these books lay open before him. Which one, precisely, his heirs did not disclose.”
14 March 2012, “The Dungeon,” New Walsingham College Library, Massachusetts
The giggling young woman shivered and wrapped her arms more tightly around the young man’s waist as they surveyed the shelves in the gloomy depths of the restricted section of the school library. “What was that sound? Didn’t I tell you it was spooky down here?”
“Yes, you did. And I believed you. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“It’ll be the easiest A ever. All we have to do is catalog these books. Simple! There can’t be more than a few hundred of them, and it’s not as dusty as I thought it would be. How about if you write down the titles and authors as I read them to you. We can trade later, if you get tired. Here, let’s start at this end.”
And so they proceeded through several scores of ancient books. As neither of them could read Latin, their cataloging was mostly a laborious matter of her spelling out the titles, letter by letter, and his trying to take them down as accurately as possible. Their system worked until they reached an oversized vellum tome bound in yellow calfskin.
The volume resisted her intrusive fingers with an odd creak, but finally she was able to pry it open. “Damn! Can you read this?”
He put down his clipboard and looked over her shoulder. The letters on the page, which was washed in places with a reddish brown stain, appeared to be an old German script. “I don’t know German – I think we’re going to have to just copy shapes. This one may take a little while.”
“Well, we can’t do it in this lighting. Let’s take it upstairs. I could use some air, anyway.”
“But – ” He pointed to the wall next to the shelves, on which was hung a handwritten sign that looked as old as the books. “ ‘This collection must not be separated.’ ”
“Oh, come on. You’re not taking that literally, are you?”
He shrugged. “Professor Devlin told us to be careful.”
“Yeah, careful like not spilling a double whip venti all over them. I don’t think he meant we had to sit here in the dark. I’m going up – you can stay down here if you want.”
She led him up the narrow metal steps toward the main library, the book on her hip under her right arm. On the first landing, she stopped and turned toward him.
“Mike, I – my head – ” She began to crumple toward the floor. The old book fell open on the concrete with a loud, echoing report.
He was under her, holding her up, in an instant. “Sara, are you ok? Sara?”
Her eyes had rolled up and her mouth frothed as her body jerked and seized for what seemed like minutes.
“Holy God!” he gasped. “Help!” But the library walls were too solid for anyone upstairs to hear his cry; he knew he could only wait it out, hoping she would be all right.
She continued to seize. The book at her feet exuded a vile odor, which in his desperation he decided couldn’t be good for her. Heedless of its incalculable value, he slammed the volume shut and pushed it away with his foot – too forcefully: it tumbled back down the stairs toward the Dungeon.
Sara regained consciousness, but could only lay weakly in his arms.
“If it weren’t for you,” she whispered, “I would have died.”
“No. It wanted me dead. It’s done this before.”