Doris Padmore had used the word “dapper” only loosely until Arthur Wyndham first walked into the library. Now, she knew, she was seeing the real thing.
He was slender and stood about 5 feet, 9 inches tall. His hair and moustache, both neatly trimmed, were a rich gray. He wore a brown necktie with his fine three-piece suit of tweed. He removed his coordinating summer fedora upon entering the library. His black wing tips were well, but not slavishly, polished. He wanted only an umbrella or a spaniel to be the very picture of an English gentleman.
Or, Mrs. Padmore thought, a refugee from a time when dressing nicely to go into public view wasn’t considered declasse.
He strode purposefully yet casually toward the periodicals. He found the newspaper he wanted and ensconsed himself in one of the overstuffed chairs to read it.
Mrs. Padmore returned to her work, but found herself occasionally looking up at Mr. Wyndham, whose name she did not yet know. He was about ten years older than the 52-year-old librarian, but his air of gentility caught her attention. She admitted to herself that he was a handsome gentleman.
She, herself, was an attractive woman, she knew. Henry had always said so. She was only beginning to head toward the plump side of life and still dressed fashionably, if conservatively. Today she wore a white blouse with tasteful lace ruffles, a dark skirt, and sensible shoes for a woman who was on her feet helping library patrons all day. Her hair was blonde in the process of becoming a pleasant silver as it framed her face.
Once as she looked in that direction, she saw a newspaper on a table, abandoned next to a little sign that read: Please return the periodicals to their proper shelves. Mrs. Padmore was not one to roll her eyes at the flagrant disregard for this minor request. She simply walked over to the table and picked up the newspaper, smoothed it, and put it back where it belonged. She walked behind the dapper fellow as she did and saw that he was reading the Finch Valley, Illinois, Weekly Gazette.
Strange, she thought. She’d lived in Illinois her whole life and had never heard of Finch Valley.
Presently, the gentleman finished reading the newspaper. He returned it to the shelf and walked toward the exit. He gave Mrs. Padmore a polite little nod and smile as he walked past her desk.
“Cathy,” Doris said to a fellow librarian, “do you know where Finch Valley is?”
“No, I’ve never heard of it. What state?”
“Illinois. The gentleman who just left was reading a newspaper from there.”
Cathy thought a moment then shook her head. “It’s not familiar.” She picked up a handy road atlas, already open to their state. “It’s not listed here.”
“I’m sure the newspaper said Illinois,” Doris said. She got up and went to the periodicals to look for the newspaper. There was no spot on the shelf for a newspaper by that name. Nor was there a Finch Valley, Illinois, Weekly Gazette lying on top of another newspaper. It was puzzling. And she would be even more puzzled when, after hours, she checked the library’s subscription list and found no mention of a Finch Valley Weekly Gazette from any state.
The next Thursday, the gentleman walked in again. He wore a slightly darker tweed suit, but all the rest was the same. He went to the periodicals and straight to a shelf where a lone newspaper rested. Mrs. Padmore walked over, as if she were just making certain everything was as it should be. The little sign taped to the now-bare shelf read: Finch Valley, Illinois, Weekly Gazette.
She did not speak to the man, but went back to her desk and hunted up the subscription list in the computer. There it was: Weekly Gazette, Finch Valley (IL).
For the next half hour, Mrs. Padmore was a bit preoccupied as she attended to the needs of various patrons. Then she saw the man fold his newspaper and replace it on the shelf. Rather than leaving the library, he directed his steps back into the fiction stacks. He was there for only a few minutes before bringing a book with him toward the circulation desk.
Mrs. Padmore left her own desk and positioned herself to help the man.
“Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly.
“Good afternoon,” she repeated.
He handed her both the book he wanted and his library card. She scanned the book and then the card. The computer said the card belonged to an Arthur Wyndham. The printer quickly delivered a due date slip, which Mrs. Padmore placed inside the book. That gave her a better look at the cover.
“Murder and Manners by Jane Austen,” she read aloud. She looked up at Mr. Wyndham, uncomprehending.
He nodded at her. “Not one of her better known, or even better, works,” he allowed. “It predates Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue but lacks some of the crucial elements of the detective fiction genre. Thus Poe is given pride of place, and poor Miss Austen is slighted. Still,” and he smiled knowingly, “it is Jane Austen; how bad can it be? Good afternoon to you…” he read her nametag, “Mrs. Padmore.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wyndham.”
When he had left, Mrs. Padmore returned to her own desk and called up the book catalog. There it was: Austen, Jane. Murder and Manners. F Austen.
All the other Austen books were ones Mrs. Padmore owned. She went online and looked up a Jane Austen bibliography. Then another, and another. Murder and Manners was not listed at any of them. She went back to the library’s catalog and the entries were now only the familiar ones. There was no Murder and Manners showing in the library’s collection.
“What in the world…?” she asked quietly. She accessed the library card listings and wasn’t sure whether to be surprised that no card was issued to an Arthur Wyndham.
A new thought froze her in place momentarily. Then she stood and went to the periodicals. There was no sign taped to a shelf marking a place for the Finch Valley, Illinois, Weekly Gazette, nor was any such newspaper in evidence.
The rest of her workday was spent mechanically. No patron went without needed assistance; no request or comment from a fellow librarian went unanswered. But Doris Padmore was working on autopilot. Newspapers from non-existent towns were not supposed to appear and disappear with the comings and goings of a library patron; neither, for that matter, were new books by long-dead authors.
She decided not to tell the head librarian, Mr. Hullmaier. She could think of no way to describe the day’s odd events without sounding insane. The library was not going to provide a generous pension, but she was too close to retirement to jeopardize what she was due. Her best bet, she decided, was to take a deep breath, finish the day, and wait for Mr. Wyndham to return next week to read his ersatz newspaper and, perhaps, return the faux Austen.
The following Thursday, Doris was delayed in returning from lunch, and she uncustomarily cursed the traffic. She went straight to her desk. There was no dapper Mr. Wyndham in an overstuffed chair, but she could see a single newspaper resting on the shelf where one had not been that morning. She slowly moved toward the circulation desk, to be ready.
Mr. Wyndham soon appeared with another book.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wyndham,” she said pleasantly.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Padmore.”
“Did you enjoy the Austen you checked out last week?”
He smiled. “Oh, yes, indeed. One can clearly see the antecedents of both Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy in that work. It is as though she were taking the characters out for a trial run before putting them in their proper places in Pride and Prejudice. Most interesting.”
She looked to her left and there lay the unknown Austen. It had already been scanned and checked back in; it was merely waiting to be shelved.
Mr. Wyndham presented another book and his library card, which Mrs. Padmore took and began the process.
“A Return Visit to the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” she read.
“Yes,” Mr. Wyndham said. “It seems Stapledon was not as dead as Holmes had assumed at the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles. And so Holmes and Watson must confront him again. It should be quite good.”
Mrs. Padmore smiled tightly. “I’m sure it will be. Good afternoon, Mr. Wyndham.”
He bowed slightly. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Padmore.”
Doris knew from Henry’s collection of Conan Doyle at home that no such book had ever been written. Even he might have questioned the appearance of a new Sherlock Holmes novel. Or not; perhaps he would have simply read and enjoyed it.
Doris was fully expecting to find the newspaper missing and no trace online of the spurious book. The surprise came when she reached for the unknown Austen and it was missing. She looked for it in vain throughout the day.
After washing the few supper dishes, Doris sat on her couch and picked up the TV remote. She aimed it but then simply let her hand fall again. There was nothing on television as interesting as the little mystery going on at the library. She would liked to have known what the security cameras showed, but again, that skirted early retirement.
Henry would have found it so interesting. He enjoyed life’s little mysteries. Indeed, he seemed to collect them. Whenever something peculiar would happen – an odd coincidence, something going missing and turning up months later right where it should be – even though such things puzzled him as much as anyone he accepted them cheerfully and made no effort to understand them. “Does everything in life have to have an explanation?” he would often ask. The answer his question begged, of course, was “no.”
She looked up at The Bookshelf. It was a single shelf proudly showcasing Doris’s and Henry’s favorite books, which were held in place by bird-shaped bookends. At first, Doris had segregated the books: hers and his. But Henry walked through the room one day and interspersed the books: theirs. So select copies of Poe and Austen and Conan Doyle and Alcott and Stevenson and Twain sat together as friends rather than examples of fine literature. It had offended Doris’s sense of library shelving but it charmed her romantic side.
Nearly nine years had gone by since Henry last took a book from the shelf. Since the day the aneurysm had burst before the doctors could do anything about it. They hadn’t had time even to say goodbye, and that which had killed Henry still pained Doris years later.
Mr. Wyndham mentioned Poe, and checked out books purporting to be by Austen and Doyle, Doris thought. Finch Valley, though… “The bookends!” She rushed around the coffee table to The Bookshelf and examined the bookends. They were, indeed, finches, as they had always been.
But what am I to make of this? she wondered. Then she laughed a short bark of a laugh. “‘Does everything in life have to have an explanation?’ That’s what you would say to me, isn’t it, Henry?”
Doris sat down again and contemplated The Bookshelf silently for a while.
The next Thursday found Mr. Wyndham in his accustomed place, in his customary tweed, reading the Finch Valley, Illinois, Weekly Gazette. There was again designated shelf space for it with all the other newspapers. After three weeks, though, the novelty was wearing off, Mrs. Padmore found. She smiled and shook her head and resumed her work.
About half an hour later, Mr. Wyndham headed toward the circulation desk, book in hand. Mrs. Padmore was waiting for him and they exchanged the customary pleasantries.
“The Innocents Adrift by Mark Twain,” she read. Twain had never finished the book, although an abridged version of what existed had been published posthumously under a different title. But this copy was hefty and carried no caveats about being anyone’s work but that of Samuel Clemens. Mrs. Padmore rested her hands on the book and stared at it, not surrendering it immediately to Mr. Wyndham. Then she looked up at him. He seemed expectant.
“Mr. Wyndham,” she began, then faltered. She passed the book to the gentleman. “Mr. Wyndham,” she said more quietly, “there is no such place as Finch Valley, Illinois.”
The old man’s eyes seemed to twinkle, and he responded quietly as well. “That scarcely diminishes my interest, for were it to exist it would be quite an interesting place to live.” He picked up the book and his library card. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Padmore.”
She arched an eyebrow but returned his smile warmly. “Good afternoon, Mr. Wyndham.” He began walking toward the exit and donned his hat as he left the building.
Mrs. Padmore came from behind the circulation desk and followed him quickly. She couldn’t wait another week to learn what she wanted to know. She rushed down the small set of steps. “Mr. Wyndham,” she called.
He stopped and turned toward her, removing his hat.
“Mr. Wyndham … are you … are you familiar with my late husband, Henry?”
His smile beamed at her. “Indeed I am, Mrs. Padmore. He sends his love.”
Her eyes teared up. “Could he not have come himself?”
Mr. Wyndham’s smile faltered slightly. “No, not at present.”
She nodded and smiled. “Please assure him of my love, as well.”
“I shall be delighted to do so, Mrs. Padmore.” He waited. “Have you any other questions, Mrs. Padmore?”
Only a thousand or so. But she answered, “No. Not everything in life requires an explanation. You may tell Mr. Padmore … I finally understand.”
“My friend Henry will be very pleased to hear it.”
“Will you be back, Mr. Wyndham?”
The dapper gentleman looked at the library building. “The Finch Valley Weekly Gazette has so few readers that it would be a shame to reduce their number further.” He turned back to her. “Next Thursday, Mrs. Padmore.”
“Next Thursday, Mr. Wyndham. And … perhaps after I get off work, we could go for a short walk?”
“It would be my pleasure, Mrs. Padmore.” He bowed courteously, put on his hat, and walked down the street. He turned the corner and Doris wondered if he was still there.
“But never mind that, right, Henry?”