“This is everything,” said the librarian, gesturing around the dim basement. “I’m terribly sorry about the mess. Pre-1830 is over there, and everything else is that way. It’s loosely organized by date, with newspapers against the wall and periodicals in the middle of the room.”
“Thank you,” Silas muttered, rubbing his chin.
“Can I ask what you’re looking for, professor?”
“To tell the truth… I have no idea.”
“Well, if you have any questions, I’ll be upstairs. Here, take this lamp.” He handed Silas the kerosene lamp and walked back up the creaking stairs.
He left the door open at the top and a pale square of light hit the dirt floor of the basement, illuminating a box of half-used candles and frayed rope. Boxes filled every empty space, some stacked as high as the ceiling, and loose papers had fallen out of some of them, coating the floor in yellowing sheets. Silas set the lamp down on one of the crates and took the book from his satchel. He fumbled for his glasses and put them on as he flipped to the first page and looked at the stamped address in the corner.
“Property of the Boston Fellowship Library, Gore Hall Under,” he mumbled. “Gore Hall Under. This would have to be it.”
He looked up at the rows of dusty boxes, piles of paper, and stored chairs, taking off his glasses and biting the tip. It looked nothing like a library. He cocked his head at the book as he closed it and picked up the lamp again.
“A library?” he murmured to himself as he tucked the book back in the satchel and wandered down the rows of boxes.
Stopping at the far corner, he set the lamp down again and looked through a carton of periodicals. It held nothing but women’s fashion catalogs, so he replaced the papers and looked through the next one. For the next half hour, he rifled through most of the boxes in the basement. There were papers collected from 100 years ago. There were copies of each and every off-shoot newspaper in Boston from the last quarter century, and even further back in some cases. There were papers from New York, Chicago, the capital, and others. There were even self-published newspapers from the Boston Girl’s High School.
But there wasn’t one thing that even resembled a book – not to mention a library.
Silas put his glasses on again and took the book from his satchel, staring at the stamped address as if it held the key to everything, and that if he found it, it would solve the entire mystery.
“Under…” he muttered, snapping the book closed again. “This is ridiculous.”
He looked around the cluttered basement again, wondering if he’d missed something obvious. But everything about the basement of Gore Hall seemed unremarkably ordinary. Silas sighed and sat down on a pile of papers, rubbing his hands through his hair.
“What a waste of time,” he said. “I could have graded fifteen papers by now, and here I am in a dank basement looking for buried treasure.”
He opened the cover one more time and flipped through the pages.
“Gore Hall Under,” he frowned. “Is this someone’s idea of a joke? It’s too convoluted to be funny.”
He cocked his head at a small sound that came from the far side of the basement. There were probably rats here. He hated rats. He turned to the lamp and lengthened the wick as it was dying. It flared and sparked a flash of light.
A movement caught his eye and he froze. There was a shadowy figure staring at him, standing at the back of the basement by the wall. Silas jumped to his feet, stumbling over a tipped chair and sprawling flat on the ground. The wick burned lower and the corner fell into darkness again.
He scrambled back to his feet and flared the wick again, but the man was gone. Silas let out a shaky breath and stared at the wall for several minutes before sitting down. Now he was seeing figments. This book was making him more nervous than it should. What was it about it that put him on edge? It was only a joke. Obviously. Wasn’t it?
“Perhaps…” he said out loud with forceful calm, “by ‘Boston Fellowship Library’, they mean the Gore Hall Library. Perhaps it’s a nickname.” He nodded to himself, glancing back up at the wall then forcing his gaze back down. “I suppose that’s probably it.”
He turned to the title page. It echoed the cover with the words “The Dascyleum Text” in large print in the center. Below was the publisher – Phantom Publishing – and an address – 283 Washington St. Over – written below.
“Over?” Silas muttered, shaking his head. “Over, under, over, under…”
He turned the page to the first chapter, but instead found a blank page with only an insignia of a dove printed on it. The dove was illuminated by a halo and underneath were the words “consortio fidelis”. His eyebrows furrowed and he glanced back up at the empty wall before looking back down at the page.
“This wasn’t there last night,” he muttered. He was sure of it.
At that moment, the top right corner of the page began… moving. A slow trail of black ink was writing on its own accord. Silas’ breath caught in his throat, and he almost dropped the book as the ink scrawled across the paper.
Greetings, Silas Lawrence
Silas sprung to his feet and flung the book away. It tumbled on the ground and landed open on the floor. Silas bit his knuckle and paced several feet away. Then he paced back, grabbed the lantern, and headed for the stairs.
But his foot froze on the first step. He bit his lip and glanced back at the book lying face down on the floor. He glanced at the shadowy wall and took his foot off the step, standing there staring at the discarded book with a deep frown.
“I should leave it,” he told himself.
Instead, he walked to the book and picked it up, stuffing it back in his satchel. He took one last look around the basement. There were no figments in sight. He wondered if he’d imagined everything. It was likely. Phantoms didn’t exist, and books didn’t write themselves. His heart was still racing, though, as he forced himself to walk slowly up the stairs. He put his hand on the doorknob at the top, pausing to take a breath and calm himself, when he noticed a small carving on the side wall. If one hadn’t seen it before, one wouldn’t have even noticed it was there.
It was the symbol of a dove illuminated by a halo. Below were the same words: Consortio Fidelis.
“Silas! There you are!” Faye exclaimed when Silas finally arrived home. “Where were you all day? You’re three hours late! Did something happen at the college?”
Silas barely looked up as he set his satchel on the chair by the door. “Hm?”
“You look exhausted.”
Faye raised an eyebrow. “Silas, are you quite alright?”
Silas looked up. “Hm?”
“Are you alright?” Faye asked again, her voice now concerned.
“I… sure,” he nodded and shook his head at the same time, “yes, quite alright.”
Faye’s brows furrowed. “Are you sure?”
“Of course,” he forced a smile, tossing his overcoat on the couch and collapsing into it, rubbing his forehead. “How was your day?”
“Well…” Faye sat on the couch, swinging her feet into Silas’ lap. “I woke up at ten thirty in the morning feeling incredible, and so I went to see George and woke him up to help me with that problem chapter I was telling you about. The one I was stuck on. And we had a good long chat and solved the mystery.”
“Solved the mystery,” Silas repeated, staring distantly at the potted plant in the corner.
“Like I was telling you, Peter Willoughby…” her voice faded into background noise that he couldn’t quite keep up with. He nodded intermittently while staring at the plant until she went quiet. “Well?” she asked.
He looked up.
“What do you think?”
“That seems fine.”
Faye frowned and put a hand on his shoulder. “Silas, are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine,” he said, pressing her hand. “It’s been an… odd day. That’s all.”
“Are you feeling ill?” she asked, leaning over to put a hand on his forehead.
He pushed her hand away and smiled. “I’m fine.”
“Alright,” Faye said, getting up and taking his coat to hang it on the coat rack. “Mrs. Ansford invited me to bridge tonight. But perhaps I should stay if you not feeling–”
“Faye,” Silas laughed. “I told you. I’m fine. Go play bridge. It’s not like I’ll be doing anything tonight besides grading compositions.”
“Are you sure?”
“For heaven’s sake,” Silas looked at the ceiling. “I’m fine. Completely fine. Would you please stop worrying? I just had an odd day, and my mind is elsewhere. That’s all.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” Silas said, getting up.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m going to get ready for dinner.”
He left Faye on the couch with a deep frown on her face and walked into the water closet. He needed to snap out of this, or Faye would only get more and more worried. And he really was fine. He poured water into the basin and splashed his face. The cold made him shudder. He was fine because there was a rational explanation for the figment he’d seen in the basement, and for the page that had written his name, and for the fact that the book was changing over time. He’d noticed it Saturday night. Every time he’d read the first chapter it had been a different story entirely. Since then, he’d read the book eight times, and he’d read a pirate novel, a country novel, a novel about a lawyer, and countless others. Every one different.
But there was an explanation to everything. He leaned over the table and ran his hands through his hair, letting out a long breath. He was going insane.
He changed his shirt and took off his muddy shoes, putting on clean ones, and walked back to the parlor. Faye was still sitting on the couch, the same worried look on her face and gnawing her lip as she stared at the fire. He forced a smile and leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms.
“Faye?” he asked. “Are you alright?”
She looked back at him and straightened. “I’m fine.”
At dinner, he did his best to put the book out of his mind, as much to soothe Faye’s nervousness as to soothe his. He talked at length with the schoolteacher, Mrs. Banks, about methods of getting students to do their work, and joked with the traveling chemist about lectures. Rather, the chemist joked, and Silas laughed. Silas couldn’t tell a joke to save his life. He’d stopped trying decades ago. Eventually, Faye relaxed, and by the time they were walking to the Ansford’s house, she was talking with animation about some new labor law and seemed to have completely forgotten she’d been worried at all. She swung his hand casually as they walked down the streets, stopping every few minutes to emphasize a point she was making.
The Ansfords lived only a few blocks away. Their house was a freshly painted, charmingly upkept townhome with a small garden in front and lights glistening out of every window. Faye stopped and put the hand that wasn’t holding Silas’ on her hip. She gave him a sideways look.
“Pray that I don’t die of boredom,” she said, her face flat.
“You’ll come get me early?”
“I suppose that’s the earliest polite time to leave, unless you can think up some drastic emergency.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Silas smiled as he pulled her to the door and rang the bell.
A footman answered and Silas left Faye at the foyer then turned back to the street. The snow from the weekend had melted to a slush, which had frozen and re-frozen several times until it was a crusty, muddy mess on the streets. Moonlight glinted pale against the icy shards. He tapped his fingers against his leg as he walked, his thoughts turning back, inevitably, to the Dascyleum Text. A cold north wind howled through the streets. He barely noticed. He almost didn’t notice when Mrs. Finch greeted him in the hall of the boarding house, and he tripped over the last step of the stairs on his way to their rooms.
As soon as he shut the door, he grabbed his satchel and took the book out, taking it to the fire. He crossed his legs, flipped his glasses open and put them on, opening to the first pages. There was his name in the right-hand corner of the page, in a handwriting not his own.
He stared at it a moment, then turned to the first chapter. The new first chapter – this one was written in Latin. It was as if the book was alive in some way. It had to be some sort of trick. Perhaps a chemical reaction that revealed different layers of ink over time… He knew he was stretching the bounds of imagination, but he wasn’t ready to admit he was going mad yet. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the book was trying to tell him something, though what that was, he couldn’t say. Or rather, didn’t want to say. The stories were all drastically different except for one dark theme running through each of them. In each one, the protagonist suffered under horrific pain, with no end in sight or happy conclusion, despite the narrator’s constant promises that there was a purpose in it all. If the book was trying to tell him something through that…
But no. It was a book, and that was all.
He turned the page. The beginning always started out happy, and almost idyllic. By chapter two, however, it took a sudden, dark turn, like all the other stories had done. Silas frowned and skipped ahead until he was close to the end of the book. He couldn’t quite get his bearings on what was happening in the story, but it was just as hopeless as the other stories had been, and with only one chapter to go, he could easily guess that it would end like the others had: the main character’s tragic death.
“What are you trying to tell me?” Silas murmured with a shudder. The fire was blazing but the room felt cold.
His eyes blurred for a moment from fatigue… or was it the page that had blurred? He was too confused to confidently say which it was, only that it seemed like in response to his question, the book had changed the next sentence.
They are coming for the book.
He froze and shot a glance toward the door, holding his breath. He waited, listening for… he didn’t know what. The boarding house was completely silent apart from Mrs. Finch’s help cleaning the kitchen. He looked back at the page and paused, leaning down to look more closely. He’d read the sentence half a second ago.
It wasn’t anywhere on the page, now.
“Faye!” Mrs. Ansford exclaimed. “I’m so glad you were able to come, neighbor!”
She was wearing a stunning, purple evening dress with a bustle and a matching hat and short silk gloves. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes were bright and as much as Faye disliked her for being beautiful and perfect, it was hard to not fall under her spell, even as she tried to pull her unruly hair back self-consciously.
“That you so kindly for inviting me, Mrs. Ansford,” she said with a short curtsy.
“Oh, pish posh, enough of that nonsense,” Mrs. Ansford said. “Call me Lauren, and no curtsying please. We’re a very informal group, you’ll find.”
“As you wish, Lauren.”
“Come in, come in! Do you care for brandy?”
“Now, I don’t know if you’ve met everyone here, so I’ll introduce you. Forgive me if some of you are already acquainted. Ladies, this is Faye Lawrence. I’m sure you’ve heard of her father-in-law, Mr. Gregory Lawrence. Faye, this is Alaina Tudick, whose husband works with mine at the bank, and Sylvie Peterson, who serves on the Boston Orphanage Committee with me.”
“How do you do,” said Sylvie.
“A pleasure to meet you,” said Alaina. “Thank you for joining us so last minute. It’s terribly awkward to play bridge with only three people!”
“Of course,” Faye said, “but what happened to your fourth?”
“Catastrophe,” Alaina raised an eyebrow at Lauren, hiding a smile.
“My mother-in-law, Mrs. Ansford, suffered an emotional blow today when the ashes of her late husband were mistakenly thrown into the streets,” Lauren explained, a hand at her heart. “How someone could mistake an urn of ashes for a dustpan, I have no idea. The help these days, I tell you! In any case, she’s recovering in bed.”
“I see,” Faye said, not sure whether she should be horrified or amused.
“Sylvie, would you be a dear and deal first?”
“How do you know our Lauren?” Sylvie asked Faye as she dealt the cards.
“Me?” Faye started. “Oh, we’re practically neighbors. I live only a block or so that-a-way. But we met…” she racked her brain, trying to remember how they’d met.
“I believe it was at my husband’s open house, which you, your husband, and his father attended last year.”
“I bid six,” said Sylvie, after glancing at her cards.
“Before you arrived, we were talking about the explosives incident in the papers this morning,” Lauren said.
“Explosives incident?” Faye asked, studying the cards she’d been dealt.
“Oh! Didn’t you read the papers?”
“It happened on Saturday night over near Water Town, out in the country,” Sylvie explained. “Something blew a rather big hole in the ground.”
“Saturday?” Faye asked. “Was anyone hurt?”
Lauren shook her head. “Not that the papers reported, at least. It was out in the country and destroyed one barn, but that was all. My husband’s brother – do you know him? He’s the chief of police?” Faye shook her head. “Anyways, he thinks it may have been an asteroid.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have been an asteroid if it hit earth. It would have been a meteor,” Faye said.
“Hm?” Lauren asked.
“It’s only meteors that hit earth. Asteroids…” Faye trailed off, realizing none of them would understand or be interested. “Why does the chief of police think it was a meteor?”
“The eyewitnesses, mainly. A few people said it looked like a bright light shot from the sky to the earth, then there was a loud noise like cannon fire, and it made the ground shake.”
“It’s quite exciting, really,” Sylvie added. “I don’t think anything like this has happened since… well, heavens, I don’t think it’s ever happened. I wish they would let people in to see it.”
“Well, one could always sneak in by night,” Faye joked.
Lauren gave an uncharacteristically wicked smile. “Now, that would be interesting.”
Faye glanced at her and hid a surprised smile. Perhaps Lauren was more interesting than she appeared.
“I bid four,” said Alaina, setting her cards down.
“Mm,” Lauren said. “I bid four. By the way, Faye, your husband avoided the question like a cat avoids a bath, but I won’t settle for a shallow answer now. I want to know how you two met and married.”
Faye smiled and shifted uncomfortably. “It’s a long story.”
“Perfect! It’s a good thing we have all night, then!”
“I just can’t imagine you’d be interested,” Faye said, looking over her cards.
“Don’t be ridiculous, and start talking.”
Faye chewed on her lip. Mr. Lawrence wasn’t keen on the story of their elopement getting out, especially to high society people like Mrs. Ansford. But why did she give a fig about what Mr. Lawrence thought? He was a stuck up, overbearing tyrant. And it wasn’t as if he would disown them because she told one blue blood the story.
“Well,” she started. “The truth is, I wasn’t born in the same circles as Silas. My father studied music and wanted to be a composer, but fate made it quite impossible. He’s a shoemaker. Has been ever since I can remember. I’m the second of six siblings and we grew up quite poor.”
“No!” Lauren said. “Why, that’s terrible!”
“I wondered about your accent,” Sylvie said, then paused and added hurriedly, “but you certainly don’t act it.”
“I had a happy childhood,” Faye shrugged. “We went to school, or father taught us himself. He taught me violin and piano and so many other things, and we learned more than most are privileged to. My brother, Favian, went to school at Harvard on a scholarship from one of my father’s friends. Favian started out in classical studies, and it was there he met Silas. They would study and spend time together often. Our friend George was also going to school nearby and spent time with them, along with another friend, Skander, who couldn’t afford school but managed to gain library access. Since I couldn’t attend college myself, I borrowed Favian’s books to study on my own.”
“Study on your own?” Lauren’s eyes widened.
“And your father allowed you?” Sylvie asked, mouth open.
“Well… yes,” Faye blushed. “You see, I’d always wanted to be a writer, and he thought it would be a good way to broaden my perspectives, and…” she trailed off, regretting she’d spoken in the first place.
“That is…” Lauren leaned back, “brilliant.”
“Of course, it is! You’re the picture of a New Woman! Educated and self-sufficient! Of course, I would have attended the women’s college in Boston, myself, except I met Richard and then… letters and arithmetic are so terribly dull, aren’t they? I couldn’t stand any more of it. Tutoring was bad enough.”
“I can agree to that,” said Sylvie. “But you still haven’t told us how you married.”
“Since Favian was my brother and George one of my best friends, I would go with them when they spent time together. At first, Silas wouldn’t say a word to me, but then… it happened without our even realizing it, in a way. One day we were arguing about what makes a classic a classic, and the next moment we found ourselves at the city hall signing a marriage license. It was completely out of the blue. And then, there we were the next morning. Husband and wife, as if we had been all along.”
Sylvie was leaning on one elbow with a dreamy smile on her face.
“Oh…” Lauren sighed, leaning back in her chair. “I knew you had a better story than the sad thing your husband told at dinner.”
“It’s so sweet,” said Alaina.
“I suppose so,” said Faye. “And of course, we love each other very much, but I wouldn’t recommend elopement. Mr. Lawrence hasn’t quite forgiven me, and I can’t say he ever will.”
“Oh, but he will and I’m sure of it!” Lauren said, taking Faye’s hand urgently and pressing it. “With the beautiful love that you two have, how could he hold it against you for long?”
Faye grimaced and glanced at her cards. “I bid one.”
Silas didn’t come to accompany her back. She hadn’t expected him to. He would have forgotten she was gone by now. When he was working, the world disappeared from view entirely. If there was a fire in the building, he wouldn’t know it until the paper in front of him burnt to ashes.
Lauren Ansford offered her coach. It wasn’t a far walk, but she accepted since the driver was already taking Sylvie to her house in central Boston. The coach stopped at the curb and Faye stepped down. It drove off as she walked up the steps toward the door, wrapping her arms around her chest to block the chill.
At that moment, something else cold and unnamable shuddered down her spine. She turned quickly, looking down the street. There was nothing at all, not even a stray cat. No… there was a man standing by a building a block away, smoking. There was nothing odd about that. She looked down the street again, and when she looked back, the man had gone.
She paused a moment, then shrugged and pushed through the doors into the foyer. It was dark inside.
“Mrs. Finch?” she called.
No one responded and she wondered if the old despot had taken sick and retired early. She fumbled blindly for the candlestick and matches and lit the wick, walking up the stairs slowly. Silas would no doubt ask how the evening had gone, and she hadn’t quite decided if it had been miserable and the company precocious, or if it had been enjoyable and the company refreshingly pleasant. She would have to think of a way to evade the question until morning.
She opened the door to their rooms and set the candle down, pulling off her overcoat. The fire had burned to embers in the grate. She walked across the room to toss a few more logs into it. The dry wood caught fire and lit the parlor dimly. It was small and had come pre-furnished in a markedly outdated fashion, but neither she nor Silas cared enough to make any changes apart from the added bookshelf against the wall.
“Silas?” she called. “I’m home.”
There was no reply, and she wasn’t surprised. He was probably still at work in the study. She picked up the candlestick and opened the study door.
Only darkness greeted her.
“Silas?” she called, shining the light into the study. It was empty. Had he gone to bed already?
She walked to the bedroom and opened the door, holding the light up and searching the room. Silas wasn’t there either. The bed was untouched.
She let out a long, exasperated sigh. Not only had he forgotten to pick her up, but he’d gone out and forgotten to let her know. Though, perhaps he had left a note. She walked around the rooms, looking on every table surface, but there was nothing. How very typical of him.
The first several times this had happened in their marriage, she had worried herself to the point of catching sick. She’d run all over town looking for him, she’d woken the whole household to see if they knew anything, and she’d even once gone to Mr. Lawrence (and found Silas there with him, as Mr. Lawrence had requested a visit and Silas had merely forgotten to let her know where he would be). He was incorrigible, but no matter how many pleading lectures she gave him and despite her begging, he kept doing it. Again, and again.
She flopped onto the couch and let her head fall against the cushions. She would wait up for him. It was Monday and he wouldn’t be gone long, wherever he was. The fire was crackling in the hearth now, casting a sleeping orange glow over the polished furniture. The flickering was mesmerizing, and she felt herself nodding off. She’d close her eyes for a moment. She’d wake when Silas came through the door.
Faye woke with a start, and a cramp in her neck. She sat up, rubbing it in confusion. It took her a moment to realize she was in the living room. She’d slept on the couch all night. Why had she…
The clock’s hands on the mantle said 5:45. Sunlight was just beginning to filter through the grimy windowpane as she remembered. She blinked groggily and got up. Why hadn’t Silas woken her when he returned? Had he really gone to bed without her? She felt a nervous lump forming in her throat as she walked to the bedroom. She looked in and held the doorframe for support.
The bedroom was empty.