BY: TIM HOLLAND
When Sidney Lake learned the author’s copy of Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had been stolen, he firmly believed he would never see it again, much less hold it in his hands. But there it was. In the hands of an appraiser at the National Arts And Crafts Show. Could it be the same three-volume first edition of the book? He had to find out.
Assembling his experienced team of investigators, they begin searching for the appraiser, who is believed to be from Savannah, Georgia, in the hope of being led to the young man who claimed to be the owner of the book. But before they get fully underway, Tillie James, his Gullah companion, and confidant drops out of the group as a ninety-year-old Gullah woman is threatened with losing her home at a delinquent tax sale. The woman had been deceptively tricked by a real estate attorney into not paying the tax claiming he had a way around it.
Could there be a connection between rare book thefts and attempts to steal land from Gullah residents of the Pirate Islands?
Sidney and his associates decide to pursue both the tax fraud deception and the possible Brontë book forgery at the same time and keep running into coincidences. But are they?
The Lowcountry of South Carolina takes center stage as Sidney Lake and Tillie James pursue the answers to questions not everyone wants asked.
Howard Springwood found his garage door open as he pulled into his driveway. At first, he hesitated, but then he began to second guess his caution. It wouldn’t be the first time the automatic door started to close only to reverse itself as it encountered an obstacle in its path. It had happened before. He knew it started to close when he drove off this morning but he didn’t stay around to see if it finished its cycle. Besides, if someone tried to break into his home they wouldn’t leave the garage door wide open, would they?
Springwood sat in his car at the curb across from his home and looked around him. He waved to a neighbor walking down the street with her dog. Coming home from work, another neighbor up ahead turned into his driveway, slowing his car as his garage door opened, Howard continued to wait. A minute passed. He waved to another person on the street. Was he being too cautious? Everything certainly seemed normal. He looked up and down the street, checked his rearview mirror, waited another thirty seconds, and then drove into the garage.
He got out of the car taking his brown leather lawyer’s briefcase with him, which had been sitting in the passenger’s seat, carefully closed the car door behind him, and walked up to the inside door to his home. Seeing the red light on the security system was still showing “ARMED,” he entered the security code and paid close attention to the way he pressed the “ENTER” button to shut off the alarm system. As soon as the system light turned green, he pressed the garage door button and watched the door close to make sure it went all the way down.
He would never do it again.
The bullet entered the back of his head and blew away the front of his skull. He saw no one and had no idea why someone took his life. The killer, his assignment completed, stepped over Springwood’s body, and pushed open the door from the garage to the house with a gloved hand. Entering the laundry room, he went through it to the kitchen. Stopped. Waiting a moment before he continued, he cautiously looked around and then walked over to the patio doors at the back of the room. Stopped again, looked around, opened one of the patio doors, stepped outside, closed the door behind him, and left.
When the phone rang, it startled Sidney Lake. He had been reading quietly in his library at 111 Howard Street and dozed off. That was happening more of late. His life had become too predictable. Retirement had finally caught up with him.
Sidney Lake, the former English professor of Victorian literature, didn’t know what to do with himself. His plan had been to do research and writing, but much of that came to an end when he finished his latest project: a meticulously researched analysis of the exploits of Thomas J. Wise, one of the great literary forgers of all time. The book was now with his publisher and out of his control—for the time being. He foolishly believed he would be content with working with his roses and the local garden society. Travelling had also been high on the agenda but the recent injury to his knee placed that activity on the side for now. The phone continued to ring annoyingly on the small table next to his chair. He reached for it unsuccessfully and fumbled the handset of the landline as he tried to clear his head. His cell phone was nowhere to be seen, but no one ever called him on it anyway, as he made it clear he disliked the intrusiveness of the technology. Mickey, his Labrador retriever, paid no attention to it and never moved from her preferred position next to him.
He finally got hold of it and mumbled almost incoherently, “Hello?”
“Did you see it?” a woman’s voice asked rather excitedly on the other end.
“Did I see what? Who is this?” Sidney struggled to straighten up in his chair as he continued to fumble with his phone. His injured right leg stayed in place on the hassock in front of his chair and inhibited his movement. The problem with his leg had become his favorite excuse for his immobility, notwithstanding his failure to lose any of the 230 pounds he carried around on his five-foot eight-inch frame.
“It’s Hattie, of course. Did you see it?” Hattie Ryan asked again.
“See what? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The National Arts and Crafts Show. You’re watching it, aren’t you? You always do.”
Sidney finally got into a more relaxed position, if you could call it that, as he huffed and puffed his response, “No…unfortunately, I’m…not. I’m afraid…I missed it this evening.”
“Oh, no. You missed it. The books were on it.”
“Well, actually it’s one book in three volumes. The Brontë book you’ve been hoping to find again.”
Now wide awake, Sidney sat up straight, “You’re not serious. But…you are. Aren’t you? This is Hattie, isn’t it? It’s not a joke?”
“No, Sidney, it’s not a joke. Someone had the books at the Crafts Show to find out if they were worth anything.” The phone at Sidney’s end was silent. “Sidney are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m here.” The tone was level now, the initial excitement gone. His mind raced. This can’t be true. The book out in the open. Ridiculous.
“Good. I thought you fainted, or something.”
“I don’t faint.”
“Well, I almost did. I spilled my drink.”
“I hope it wasn’t a good one. Wine or sherry?” Fully awake now, he became his old self: assertive, in control.
“Naturally it was a good one. I wouldn’t drink anything else. Sherry,” Hattie said with a huff.
One of the main attributes of Hattie Ryan that Sidney liked was her no-nonsense approach to just about everything. He couldn’t bully her, as he used to do with his students and former colleagues—although she had been a member of his English Literature Department at Morgan College—she would not permit herself to be bullied, by anyone. He liked that. It’s also why Sidney liked and admired Tillie James, his housekeeper—although she was more friend and confidant than employee. More than once Tillie had chastised him as an older sister would a younger, arrogant brother. They were an interesting threesome and quite formidable when they got together on a project.
Sidney relaxed slightly. At least the initial tension and shock were gone. “You’re positive it’s the same Anne Brontë volumes?”
“I can’t say that. I wasn’t there. But the man who looked at them seemed impressed.” Hattie also calmed down and now spoke in a normal tone.
“What did he say about them?”
“He said they were the real thing. Right look and feel. Right publisher. The only thing he questioned were the notations inside. Seemed to be by Anne Brontë, but he had no way of verifying it.”
“Hah! Yes. I thought that too when I first saw them. The best person’s handwriting to forge is someone who left few examples with which to make a comparison. Wise was good at that. But unless we can get some experts to look at it we’ll never know.” Sidney stopped and checked the time on the large bookcase clock across the room. “The show’s still on.”
“Yes. I immediately started recording when I saw the books.”
“Good. Keep doing it. Record what you can. Especially the credits. We’ll get the book dealer’s name. I’m sure they’ll show the program again at a different time of day and then we’ll get everything. I have a program guide in the living room.”
“It’s probably streamable also.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know about that technical stuff. That’s your department. I want the name of the book dealer who appraised it. Where was the show from this week?”
“Ah, let’s hope he’s local, so we don’t have to chase after someone well out of the area.”
The two friends spoke for another five minutes before ending the call. Sidney Lake, wide awake now and bursting with energy, couldn’t tone down the excitement he felt. After finishing with Hattie Ryan, he had to speak with someone and decided on Ray Morton, a close friend, and retired policeman who served as his intermediary when dealing with Morgan’s police chief.
“Hello, Sidney. What’s keeping you up this late?”
“What time is it?” Sidney Lake, startled by the unexpected question, reached for the location of his pocket watch but he was not wearing his usually ever-present jacket. He again had to look at the clock across the room.
“Just past nine,” Ray answered.
“I’m so sorry.” He was clearly embarrassed. Sidney’s eagerness to communicate the news he had just learned caused him to break one of his cardinal rules—never telephone anyone after nine in the evening. “I had no idea. I didn’t disturb you did I?”
“No, not at all.” Ray, hearing the eager tone in Sidney’s voice, continued with, “What has you all excited?”
“The three volumes.”
“The Loss of Eden Trilogy you loaned me?”
“No, no. Not the John Masters books. The ones that were stolen.”
“The Brontë books. Remember, back when George Reed was murdered?”
“Oh, yes. But that was some time ago. What about them?” Ray sat erect in the chair. The three-volume set of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had been stolen from the back seat of a police car during the Reed murder investigation and continued to be a black mark against the Morgan police department. The volumes were believed to be Anne Brontë’s own author’s copies in which she had made personal notations. There had also been a personal note from Anne to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Brontë’s best friend.
“They were on television tonight.”
“What!” Ray moved to the edge of his chair and shook the table next to him with the sudden movement.
“I just received a call from Doctor Ryan who said that she saw them on the National Arts and Crafts Show this evening.”
“That’s what she said.”
“And they’re definitely the same books?”
“That needs to be verified. We can’t say for sure. Someone would have to look at the volumes themselves, which is why I suggested Doctor Ryan make a copy of the program for me.”
“Where are you?”
“At home but I have to be at Clemson tomorrow and Wednesday.”
“Clemson? Getting some tips for your roses?”
“No. I’m participating in an Elderhostel program. Giving a series of lectures on Victorian gardens in literature. It fits in with the tours of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, which are the main features of the program.”
“How long will you be away?”
“Just the two days.”
“Well, I hope you can stay involved. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have known about the books in the first place. Should I be doing anything?”
“Not at the moment, no, I don’t think so. I’ll have Hattie give you a call.”
“Okay.” He paused momentarily. “Say, Sidney, Hattie Ryan didn’t happen to say what those folks on the Crafts Show thought the books were worth did she? You know we never did get a chance to have them appraised before they were stolen.”
“Hattie said an appraiser at a book dealer’s booth put a price of thirty-five thousand on the books by themselves as a rare first edition but could probably double that, at least, if the writing inside could be confirmed as Anne Brontë’s. However, verification will probably be tough to do given the very few examples of her writing that exist.”
“The accompanying annotations would have to be certified as authentic. Also, there was no mention of the note addressed to Ellen Nussey which had been with the original volumes. Everything would have to be confirmed as being in the handwriting of Anne Brontë. Virtually all of Anne Brontë’s records were destroyed by her sister Charlotte, as a way of protecting her from any further criticism. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was pretty much vilified by the critics for its subject matter. Imagine someone in the 1840s producing a female character that would stand up to her husband and run away with their son to protect him from the male-dominated macho, blood sport culture of the early Victorian age. Outrageous, they said. Ban the book, they said. Don’t let your wives and daughters read it, they said. Today, that would make it an immediate bestseller, but in the 1840s it was a killer. Charlotte even said she thought Anne was misguided to write it and wanted to protect her reputation. It has often been wondered what else Anne wrote that went up in flames in the Brontë Parsonage’s fireplace.”
“Now you’ve even got me interested. I thought she was supposed to be the meek, retiring, unworldly one?”
“Hah, just the opposite. But it’s hard to change the image of someone after a hundred and fifty years.”
“Damn, that would be something to do though. I can see why someone would want to steal them. Want to read, unfiltered, anything she wrote that expressed an opinion.”
“Yes, but keep in mind there are a good many forgeries circulating about. It’s always been a curiosity to me as to why the existence of these volumes was unknown. Brontë material is well cataloged and there appears to be no knowledge of this particular original author’s edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. But then, collectors are unusual people. Some are simply motivated by the desire to have an object once held by a famous person, regardless of value, while others are more interested in what is known as bragging rights, and don’t have a true understanding of what they possess.”
“Yeah, well somebody knew about it..”
“True. Well, I just wanted to keep you abreast of what Hattie and I are up to as I wouldn’t be surprised to be needing your help as we look into all of this.”
“Thanks Sidney. You know I’ll do whatever I can. I’ll wait to hear from Hattie.”