The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (2 page)

BOOK: The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn
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For the last two years of his life, Alpheus Winterborn was all wrapped up in the library he was building. Day after day he went down to watch the men who were working on it. He would pace back and forth with a roll of blueprints in his hand, carping and making suggestions till the workmen were sick of the sight of him. Finally, though, it was finished in the late fall of 1929. And then Alpheus Winterborn did the strangest thing. The library was to have opened on the first of November, but Alpheus Winterborn ordered that the opening be delayed for a week. Why? Because he wanted to live in the library. To live, as he put it, “inside my own creation,” for just seven days.

It was certainly a strange request, but since Alpheus Winterborn was putting up the money for the library, everybody had to do what he wanted. So for a solid week, old Alpheus Winterborn lived in the newly finished Hoosac Library. During that time he never went out. The shades and the drapes on all the windows were pulled tight, but people who passed the library that week thought they could catch glimpses of him going to and fro with a lighted candle in his hand. At the end of the week, he came out and told the mayor and the city council that they could have their grand opening at last. Two weeks later, Alpheus Winterborn was dead.

Anthony stood staring at the library and thinking of all the wild stories he had heard about Alpheus T. Winterborn. He wondered if his mysterious treasure really did exist, and if it did—where? Then he snapped out of his trance and started walking again, and as he walked, he whistled a popular tune that was on the radio a lot. He stopped whistling as soon as he opened the front door of the library because, as he very well knew, you were supposed to be quiet in libraries. He looked around for Miss Eells. Where was she? She wasn’t at the main desk, so maybe she was in her office. No, she wasn’t there, either. Finally he found her in the West Reading Room. She was standing at the top of a stepladder with a long-handled feather duster in her hand. As she swept the duster back and forth across the faded spines of books, clouds of dust filled the room. Anthony started to call to her, but before he could get anything out, he began to sneeze. Miss Eells stopped dusting and turned around.

Miss Eells was a small, birdlike woman with a wild nest of white hair on her head. Everything about Miss Eells was birdlike. Her eyes, behind her gold-rimmed glasses, were small and bright, like the eyes of a bird, and the quick, darting, side-to-side motions of her head were birdlike, too. The bones of her hands were small and delicate, like the bones of a bird. Her voice was quiet and precise, but oddly enough she had a large vocabulary of curse words. She used these words only on special occasions. Anthony especially remembered the time an entire box of Ohio kitchen matches burst into flame in her hand when she was lighting a fire in one of the library fireplaces at Christmastime. He had been the only one in the library with her, and he still remembered how strange it had been to hear her pour forth a stream of profanity in that well-modulated, ladylike voice of hers.

“Well, hello, Anthony! What brings you to the... aah... the aaaaaAAAAACHOOOO!” Miss Eells sneezed loudly. Anthony sneezed again, too, and then both of them laughed. “I had better open a few windows,” she said as she climbed down from the step- ladder. “Otherwise we’ll both die of the convulsions.”

Anthony followed Miss Eells around the room as she opened the tall windows with transoms at the top. To open the transoms she used a long pole with a hook on the end. Anthony liked to watch her do this. Then Miss Eells went to her office and started making tea.

It took her some time. As Anthony had noticed before, Miss Eells had trouble doing some things, in spite of her brisk, businesslike air. While he sat waiting patiently, she knocked the hot plate halfway off its little table when she tried to turn it on. Finally she got the switch to obey her, and the coil of wire began to glow red. As soon as she had the hot plate set straight on the table, she took a step backward and knocked the teakettle off the corner of her desk. With a sigh, she stooped, picked up the kettle, and carried it into her private bathroom to fill it. Anthony heard the kettle drop into the sink a couple of times, and he heard Miss Eells saying something under her breath.

Now the kettle was warming up on the hot plate. Miss Eells opened a small built-in cupboard in the wall behind her desk and took out two cups, two saucers, and the sugar bowl. She tried to hold them all at once, and she just barely managed to get them all to the desk without dropping them. Then she knocked over the sugar bowl and spent several minutes carefully sweeping the spilled sugar off the desk blotter into the little bowl. Some eraser dust and pencil shavings got mixed in with the sugar, but Miss Eells didn’t notice.

By now, Miss Eells was looking flustered and a bit disheveled. She sat down and mopped her face with her pocket handkerchief. “Well now, Anthony! And how is the world treating you these days?”

Anthony frowned. “Not so good, Miss Eells. My folks were arguing again last night. It made me feel real bad.”

Miss Eells smiled sympathetically. “Money again?”

“Yeah. My mom thinks that we don’t have enough money to live on and that we’ll all be out in the street if we don’t watch out.”

Miss Eells had to bite her tongue to keep from saying that his mother was a worrywart, but of course she couldn’t say this, not to Anthony, so she just sat and watched the kettle with a discontented look on her face. “Miss Eells?”

“Yes, Anthony? What is it?”

“Do you think the man that built this library really did hide a treasure somewheres?”

“Oh,
that
old story! You mean you’ve heard it, too? Well, who knows if it’s true? But I’m afraid the only treasure you and I will ever see, Anthony, is the money we make by working for it.”

Anthony said nothing. He just looked gloomy. Miss Eells went back to watching the kettle, but then, quite suddenly, she had an idea. Turning to Anthony, she said, “Do you think you’d be happier if you had a job of some kind?”

Anthony brightened up immediately. “Wow! You bet I would! Do you know about a job I could get?”

“No,” said Miss Eells. Anthony’s face fell, but she added quickly, “However, and be that as it may, I am the librarian here, and now and then I have a little extra money to play with. And too much work besides. Most people think all a librarian has to do is check out books. How would you like to be a page at this library?”

Anthony was mystified. The only pages he’d ever heard of, aside from the pages in a book, were the little boys in fairy tales who came in and blew horns and announced things. They wore funny-looking costumes and had shoes with long, pointed toes. Anthony wondered if that was the sort of thing Miss Eells had in mind.

Miss Eells smiled. She could tell that Anthony didn’t have the faintest idea of what a library page was. She had just opened her mouth to tell him when the kettle started making about-to-boil noises. It trembled and rattled and whined, and little wisps of steam came curling out of the spout. Miss Eells got up and opened the cupboard again. She took out a big brown teapot with a gold band around it, and a yellow box of Lapsang Souchong tea. Then she took the kettle off the hot plate and poured a little of the boiling water into the teapot. She swirled it around and dumped it into a potted geranium in the corner. The geranium was dying, and the hot water wasn’t going to help it much. As Miss Eells struggled to get the lid off the tea box, she broke a fingernail, but finally she managed to pry it off. Three spoonfuls went into the pot, and in went the boiling water. They waited for the tea to steep; then Anthony held the strainer as Miss Eells poured it out. It smelled smoky and tasted strange, but Anthony didn’t mind. He just liked the idea of having tea with Miss Eells. It was a warm, friendly thing to do.

“Now, then,” said Miss Eells as she sipped her tea, “where were we? Oh, yes. A library page has all sorts of duties. He has to take books that have been returned to the library and put them back in their proper places. You’ll have to know something about the Dewey decimal system, but that’s easy enough to learn. Then you’ll have to get books for people, and—”

Anthony looked puzzled. “How come they can’t go get them themselves?”

Miss Eells grinned and cocked her head to one side. “Anthony, I know this is hard for you to understand, but most people who come into a library don’t have the faintest idea of how to find a book. They don’t know how to use the card catalog, and they think the Dewey decimal system is something kids learn in arithmetic class. That’s where you come in. You look up the book for them and bring it out to the circulation desk. If you happen to be tending the desk at the time, you stamp the book out for them. Some things, like the back issues of magazines, are kept in a locked room in the basement. If someone wanted one, you would have to go downstairs and get it for them. Then there are all sorts of general tasks, like lighting the fire in the West Reading Room fireplace in the wintertime, and tidying and dusting and things of that sort. Which brings me to something that I feel I have to tell you. If you take the job, you start tomorrow, and tomorrow is the twenty-first of March. Do you know what the twenty-first of March is?”

“Groundhog Day?”

Miss Eells glared at Anthony over the top of her glasses. “Groundhog Day indeed! Go to the foot of the class, as my late father used to say. It’s the vernal equinox, the first day of spring! It is also the day when I start the spring cleaning of the library. Do you think you’re ready for that?”

“Gee, I dunno. What do I have to do?”

“Oh, not much. You just have to help me polish the woodwork and clean the floors and dust the bric-a-brac and clean the windows and...” Miss Eells stopped talking and burst out laughing when she saw the horrified expression on Anthony’s face. “Oh, Anthony, come on! I’m just kidding! I will have a
few
extra chores for you to do, but I’m not Simon Legree. You can do what you feel like doing. How about it? Are you interested in the job?”

Anthony grinned and stuck out his hand. “Put ‘er there, Miss Eells!” he said.

Miss Eells stuck out her hand, too, and as she did so, she knocked over her cup of tea.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

Hoosac, Minnesota, was on the Mississippi River. It was a long, skinny town, shaped like a cigar, with the Mississippi on one side and a long artificial lake called Lake Hoosac on the other. All around the town the land was as flat as a tabletop, but in the distance, on either side, rose tall bluffs. The bluffs were very tall, six or seven hundred feet high, and they were covered with trees. The bluffs on the western side of the town were a long way away, but the ones on the eastern side were quite close. They seemed to tower over the town: Anthony could see them from his bedroom window. Sometimes before he went to bed, he sat in the window and stared at them as they lay shrouded in darkness or glimmering in the moonlight.

It was funny to think that those bluffs were in Wisconsin. Watching them from his window, Anthony was in Minnesota. The river was the boundary, and it was other things, too—a sort of liquid highway for all sorts of barges and boats. The river traffic was not as important to the town as it had been in the steamboat days that Mark Twain wrote about, but it still went on. Often during the night, Anthony could hear the horns of the barges hooting. The sound echoed in the hollow iron holds of the vessels. It was a lonely sound, but somehow nice to listen to as you lay in bed at night. Anthony thought that Hoosac was a nice place to live.

When Anthony sat down at the dinner table with his family that evening, he was bursting with good news. His face showed it, and when his mother passed him the peas, she said suspiciously, “Well! What have you been up to, hmmm?”

“I’ve got a job, Ma!” said Anthony excitedly.

His mother stared at him blankly. “A job? Doing
what?”

“I’m gonna be a page down at the library. Miss Eells got me the job!”

Mrs. Monday’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t like Miss Eells much because she was jealous of her. Mrs. Monday often behaved as if she didn’t like Anthony, either, but in her strange way she was greatly attached to him, and she resented the idea that somebody else might try to be a mother to him.

“She wants you to work for nothing, I’ll bet!” replied Mrs. Monday.

Anthony winced. Then he got angry. “No, she doesn’t, Ma!” he shouted. “She’s gonna give me a dollar an hour! Whaddaya think of
that,
huh?”

“Mom can hear you, Tony,” said Keith, glancing nervously at his mother. “You don’t have to yell.”

“I don’t care! She always thinks that Miss Eells is a kook or a crook, and she isn’t. She isn’t,
she
isn’t!” Anthony screamed these last words at the top of his voice.

Mrs. Monday laid down her knife and fork and glared grimly at Anthony. Her voice trembled as she spoke. “Anthony Monday, if you cannot control yourself any better than that, you had better leave the table. Go up to your room at once!”

Anthony got up, shoved his chair back into its place, and walked out of the room. He went upstairs, sat down at his desk, and cried.

Later, when everybody else had finished eating, Anthony came down and ate his cold food. Then he decided that he would go out to the garage to see what his brother was up to. On his way out, he passed through the kitchen, where his mother was washing dishes.

“I’ll bet she never pays you,” Mrs. Monday said without turning around. Anthony said nothing. He clattered down the back steps and went out to the garage.

BOOK: The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn
8.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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