A MYSTERIOUS VISITOR
Lucile Tucker’s slim, tapered fingers trembled slightly as she rested them against a steel-framed bookcase. She had paused to steady her shaken nerves, to collect her wits, to determine what her next move should be.
“Who can it be?” her madly thumping heart kept asking her.
And, indeed, who, besides herself, could be in the book stacks at this hour of the night?
About her, ranging tier on tier, towering from floor to ceiling, were books, thousands on thousands of books. The two floors above were full of books. The two below were the same. This place was a perfect maze of books. It was one of the sections of a great library, the library of one of the finest universities of the United States.
In all this vast “city of books” she had thought herself quite alone.
It was a ghostly hour. Midnight. In the towers the great clock had slowly struck. Besides the striking of the clock there had been but a single sound: the click of an electric light snapped on. There had instantly gleamed at her feet a single ray of light. That light had traveled beneath many tiers of books to reach her. She thought it must be four but was not quite sure.
She had been preparing to leave the “maze,” as she often called the stacks of books which loomed all about her. So familiar was she with the interior of this building that she needed no light to guide her. To her right was a spiral stairway which like an auger bored its way to the ground four stories below. Straight ahead, twenty tiers of books away, was a small electric elevator, used only for lifting or lowering piles of books. Fourteen tiers back was a straight stairway. To a person unfamiliar with it, the stacks presented a bewildering labyrinth, but to Lucile they were an open book.
She had intended making her way back to the straight stairway which led to the door by which she must leave. But now she clutched at her heart as she asked herself once more:
“Who can it be? And what does he want?”
Only one thing stood out clearly in her bewildered brain: Since she was connected with the stacks as one of their keepers, it was plainly her duty to discover who this intruder might be and, if occasion seemed to warrant, to report the case to her superiors.
The university owned many rare and valuable books. She had often wondered that so many of these were kept, not in vaults, but in open shelves.
Her heart gave a new bound of terror as she remembered that some of these, the most valuable of all, were at the very spot from which the light came.
“Oh! Shame! Why be so foolish?” she whispered to herself suddenly. “Probably some professor with a pass-key. Probably—but what’s the use? I’ve got to find out.”
With that she began moving stealthily along the narrow passageway which lay between the stacks. Tiptoeing along, with her heart thumping so loudly she could not help feeling it might be heard, she advanced step by step until she stood beside the end of the stack nearest the strange intruder. There for a few seconds she stuck. The last ounce of courage had oozed out. She must await its return.
Then with a sudden burst of courage she swung round the corner.
The next instant she was obliged to exert all her available energy to suppress a laugh. Standing in the circle of light was not some burly robber, but a child, a very small and innocent looking child.
Yet a second glance told her that the child was older than she looked. Her face showed that. Old as the face was, the body of the child appeared tiny as a sparrow’s. A green velvet blouse of some strangely foreign weave, a coarse skirt, a pair of heavy shoes, unnoticeable stockings and that face—all this flashed into her vision for a second. Then all was darkness; the light had been snapped out.
The action was so sudden and unexpected that for a few seconds the young librarian stood where she was, motionless. Wild questions raced through her mind: Who was the child? What was she doing in the library at this unearthly hour? How had she gotten in? How did she expect to get out?
She had a vaguely uneasy feeling that the child carried a package. What could that be other than books? A second question suddenly disturbed her: Who was this child? Had she seen her before? She felt sure she had. But where? Where?
All this questioning took but seconds. The next turn found her mind focused on the one important question: Which way had the child gone? As if in answer to her question, her alert ears caught the soft pit-pat of footsteps.
“She’s going on to my right,” she whispered to herself. “That’s good. There is no exit in that direction, only windows and an impossible drop of fifty feet. I’ll tiptoe along, throw on the general switch, catch her at that end and find out why she is here. Probably accepting a dare or going through with some childish prank.”
Hastily she tiptoed down the aisle between the stacks. Then, turning to her left, she put out her hand, touched a switch and released a flood of light. At first its brightness blinded her. The next instant she stared about her in astonishment. The place was empty.
“Deserted as a tomb,” she whispered.
And so it was. Not a trace of the child was to be seen.
“As if I hadn’t seen her at all!” she murmured. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but—where have I seen that face before? You’d never forget it, once you’d seen it. And I have seen it. But where?”
Meditatively she walked to the dummy elevator which carried books up and down. She started as her glance fell upon it. The carrier had been on this floor when she left it not fifteen minutes before. Now it was gone. The button that released it was pressed in for the ground floor.
“She couldn’t have,” she murmured. “The compartment isn’t over two feet square.”
She stared again. Then she pressed the button for the return of the elevator. The car moved silently upward to stop at her door. There was nothing about it to show that it had been used for unusual purposes.
“And yet she might have,” she mused. “She was so tiny. She might have pressed herself into it and ridden down.”
Suddenly she switched off the lights and hurried to a window. Did she catch a glimpse of a retreating figure at the far side of the campus? She could not be sure. The lights were flickering, uncertain.
“Well,” she shook herself, then shivered, “I guess that’s about all of that. Ought to report it, but I won’t. They’d only laugh at me.”
Again she shivered, then turning, tiptoed down the narrow passageway to carry out her original intention of going out of the building by way of the back stairs.
Her room was only a half block away in a dormitory on the corner of the campus nearest the library. Having reached the dormitory, she went to her room and began disrobing for the night. In the bed near her own, wrapped in profound sleep, lay her roommate. She wished to waken her, to tell her of the strange event of the night. For a moment she stood with the name “Florence” quivering on her lips.
The word died unspoken. “No use to trouble her,” she decided. “She’s been working hard lately and needs the sleep.”
At last, clad in her dream robes, with her abundant hair streaming down her back and her white arms gleaming in the moonlight, she sat down by the open window to think and dream.
It was a wonderful picture that lay spread out before her, a vista of magnificent Gothic structures of gray sandstone framed in lawns of perfectly kept green. Sidewalks wound here, there, everywhere. Swarming with students during the waking hours, they were silent now. Her bosom swelled with a strange, inexpressible emotion as she realized that she, a mere girl, was a part of it all.
Like her roommate, she was one of the thousands of girls who to-day attend the splendid universities of our land. With little money, of humble parentage, they are yet given an opportunity to make their way toward a higher and broader understanding of the meaning of life through study in the university.
The thought that this university was possessed of fifty millions of dollars’ worth of property, yet had time and patience to make a place for her, both awed and inspired her.
The very thought of her position sobered her. Four hours each week day she worked in the stacks at the library. Books that had been read and returned came down to her and by her hands were placed in their particular niches of the labyrinth of stacks.
The work was not work to her but recreation, play. She was a lover of books. Just to touch them was a delight. To handle them, to work with them, to keep them in their places, accessible to all, this was joy indeed. Yet this work, which was play to her, went far toward paying her way in the university.
And at this thought her brow clouded. She recalled once more the occurrence of a short time before and the strange little face among the stacks. She knew that she ought to tell the head of her section of the library, Mr. Downers, of the incident. Should anything happen, should some book be missing, she would then be free from suspicion. Should suspicion fall upon her, she might be deprived of her position and, from lack of funds, be obliged to give up her cherished dream, a university education.
“But I don’t want to tell,” she whispered to the library tower which, like some kindly, long-bearded old gentleman, seemed to be accusing her. “I don’t want to.”
Hardly had she said this than she realized that there was a stronger reason than her fear of derision that held her back from telling.
“It’s the face,” she told herself. “That poor little kiddie’s face. It wasn’t beautiful, no, not quite that, but appealing, frankly, fearlessly appealing. If I saw her take a book I couldn’t believe that she meant to steal it, or at least that it was she who willed it.
“But fi-fum,” she laughed a low laugh, throwing back her head until her hair danced over her white shoulders like a golden shower, “why borrow trouble? She probably took nothing. It was but a childish prank.”
At that she threw back the covers of her bed, thrust her feet deep down beneath them and lay down to rest. To-morrow was Sunday; no work, no study. There would be plenty of time to think.
She believed that she had dismissed the scene in the library from her mind, yet even as she fell asleep something seemed to tell her that she was mistaken, that the child had really stolen a book, that there were breakers ahead.
And that something whispered truth, for this little incident was but the beginning of a series of adventures such as a college girl seldom is called upon to experience. Being ignorant of all this, she fell asleep to dream sweet dreams while the moon out of a cloudless sky, beaming down upon the faultless campus, seemed at times to take one look in at her open window.
Categories: English Literature