in a Crowded Place
Bartholomew Spire
“Everybody knows it’s haunted,” Sam repeated.
Al wrinkled his nose, and cupped the air with a dismissive wave. “Everybody sees that statue outside and says, ‘Ooooh, the library’s haunted,’” he said. “Hardly nobody knows the real story.”
Sam cocked her head, thinking about this, and then said, “Maybe you’re right. You hear lots of stuff, like the time that Jenny Mayfield said that her book moved all by itself, but I don’t think I’ve ever really heard much more than that. I’ve just heard that Bartholomew Spire spent so much time reading that he didn’t really notice when he died.”
“That’s just part of it,” Al said, grinning mysteriously.
Sam gave him an impatient frown. For a moment she forgot herself enough that she glared right into his eyes.
“So what’s the rest of it? If you know so much about it, tell me.”
Al’s grin faltered. “You don’t really want to hear all that.”
“I think it’s interesting,” Sam said, truthfully. Then she looked away, her cheeks warm, and added quietly, “At least, I’m interested.”
Al seemed to consider this for a long moment. Then he said, “My family was one of the first families that ever lived in Southside. My grandpa told me all about it. I was really young when he died, but I still remember. He worked here when it first became a library, and his dad, my great-grandpa, actually worked for Bartholomew Spire himself.”
It turned out that Al really knew how to tell a story. More importantly, Sam knew how to listen to a story. Her imagination filled in whatever gaps he left, so that before she knew it the past 150 years had never happened and they were back to the very beginnings of Southside. The third floor seemed to fade away around her.
“Andrew Spire was like a Hearst or a Rockefeller or something,” Al said. “He was filthy rich. Stupidly rich. But then, he started out already a little bit rich, and that always helps.”
Andrew Spire started with his father’s business as a ship chandler in East Langford and built an empire. He built a huge store called Spire’s at Porthaven—already the biggest town in Cabot County. His appetite for money knew no bounds, and he had a knack for getting it. It was as if he knew just the thing that would be needed next, in those crazy days when steel and progress chewed their way westward across the continent. He bought steamboats and he built farm machinery. He built factories that made railroad equipment and sold it to the railways he owned himself.
Eventually he bought a vast swath of farmland north of Porthaven, and lined it one after another with ugly factories that belched black smoke over fields of tiny houses for his workers. It was a terrible, filthy place.
“Even the way they named it showed what people thought of Southside,” Al said. “Andrew Spire tried to call it Spireville, but that didn’t last long. It was north of the city, so they named it Southside to say that it was a backward place—just about the opposite of what a town should be—and the name stuck. People always said the name like it was a mouthful of spinach. Like saying the word ‘slug,’ or something.”
This struck Sam as funny, and she burst out laughing before she even knew she would do it. She’d been leaning so far forward on her arms, falling into the story, that she had to sit back and roll her neck to relax it. Seeing his offended look she shook her head. “No, it’s brilliant,” she said. “It’s just, how do you even know all this stuff? I mean, sure, your grandpa told you the story, but you sound like a teacher.”
Al blushed hard, red from the neck up. He looked away. “Sorry. I guess it’s pretty boring.”
“It’s not boring at all,” Sam said. The words burst out of her. “I just don’t understand how you know it all. You just seem to know so much about what it was really like back then.”
Still looking away Al grinned, and his redness faded a bit. “I must’ve read half the books in here. It’s not as if I have anything better to do.”
Sam knew that feeling. She said, “I’m sorry. I’m really interested. Really.”
Al looked back at her, still grinning from the side of his mouth.
“Everybody was scared of him,” Al said, “but Andrew Spire didn’t get much real respect.”
Even the most poorest people—the ones whose lives he held firmly in his grasp—seemed to act as if they were somehow better than him.
So Andrew Spire bought respectability. He married Abagail Appleton, of the Boston Appletons. He hired an architect all the way from Paris to erect a grand house and grounds, on a low hill safely upwind of his precious factories.
“They had two sons,” he said. “There was James, the oldest, who was exactly like his dad, and Bartholomew, who was just about the opposite.”
James could do no wrong. He was born strong and healthy, and walked and talked before other babies. Even as a toddler he came home with bruised knuckles.
Bartholomew could do no right. His mother died in childbirth, the boy was born sickly and weak, and he obstinately refused to speak until he was five years old—and then, almost from the first, slowly, thoughtfully, and with words too big for normal people. He preferred reading to playing, and if he wasn’t with James he came home with a black eye.
“They were closer than brothers,” Al said. “Closer than friends. Each of them knew what the other was going to say before it was said. James was the only person Bartholomew would fight with, and Bartholomew was the only one James didn’t want to fight.”
James was happy to live in the world that his father had created. He was the star of the garden parties, and there he found Maybelle—the daughter of one of his father’s banking friends. Andrew Spire considered her a suitable choice, and James and Maybelle were treated to a lavish wedding reception on the grounds of Spire Hall.
Bartholomew did not live in his father’s world. He haunted the musty Porthaven bookshops and dingy coffeehouses, and he did not find a young lady to suit his father’s taste. Instead he found Jane Stanley—quiet, smart Jane, the daughter of the bookseller William Stanley. Bartholomew knew that he probably shouldn’t even speak of her to his father, though in time he did.
He was told that if he wished to continue to see the bookseller’s daughter there would be nothing standing in his way—though if he didn’t break it off he would be banished from the family forever.
But Bartholomew continued to slink into the city, staying with the Stanleys for longer and longer stretches of time. Finally, reasoning that if his father had been serious about banishment he would simply become a bookseller himself, he secretly married Jane and appeared only once in awhile at Spire Hall. His father barely noticed his absence.
For the first time in his life, Bartholomew learned to be happy. In time Andrew Spire found out about his younger son’s marriage, but now he no longer seemed to even care. James was making his presence felt more and more in Andrew’s business world, and Maybelle Spire was with child.
“See, that made everything perfect for Andrew Spire,” Al said. “It’s like a king once a prince is born. The empire was secure. Bartholomew mattered less than ever.”
Just as Al said this, Miss Blanket again appeared and loudly cleared her throat. Al gave her a defiant look.
Sam dug out her watch, and saw with shock that it was almost six o’clock and the library would be closing.
“Which direction are you going?” Sam asked, standing and gathering her books. “You can finish the story while we walk.”
Al nodded at the rain-soaked window. “I don’t think it’s really a good day for a stroll,” he said, laughing. “Besides, I have to wrap up a couple of things here. You go ahead. I’ll be here next Saturday—see you then?”
So Sam shoved her books into her book bag, promised to see him next Saturday and ran home in the cold, pelting rain. She scarcely noticed how wet she was. Her mind was full of Al Jordan.
That night, for the first time since Heather told her that the bell at Spire Hall could no longer ring, Sam heard the bell.

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