When Mrs. Eleanor Twitty came to interview for a position as at the library, the Head Librarian, a man by the name of Mr. Arthur Drew, asked her why she wanted the job.
Mrs. Twitty gave this due thought. "Well," she said at last, "my husband passed away last year, God rest his soul, and I need some way to fill my time. As I get on in years, I find that I prefer the company of books to that of people. A job in a library would suit me admirably, I think."
At this point it would have been customary for Mr. Drew to ask whether she was familiar with the Dewey Decimal Classification and, if she said yes, to test her knowledge with a number of cunning questions on the more obscure parts of the system. Instead he considered Mrs. Twitty for a moment, then said, "You say your husband is deceased. Do you have children? Brothers or sisters? Living parents?"
To all these questions Mrs. Twitty shook her head. What family she had was either gone or so distant she no longer spoke to them.
"Then no one would miss you if something were to happen," Mr. Drew said.
Under ordinary circumstances this should have alarmed a woman like Mrs. Twitty. She merely said, "I imagine not."
"In that case, you are hired. I am assigning you to the basement floor."
Mrs. Twitty blinked. Then she said, "I was not aware that the New York Public Library had a basement floor."
Eleanor Twitty had assumed, when she applied for the job, that her duties would consist primarily of tasks such as shelving and answering patron requests.
The list of tasks Mr. Drew gave her was as peculiar as the hidden floor he had assigned her to. Every morning, she went to the third row of shelves and removed the eleventh book from the fourth shelf on the right-hand side. Every night, she put it back. Once a week, she turned all of the books on the left-hand side of the fifth row upside-down. She burned incense at the end of each aisle.
She did not ask Mr. Drew why the eleventh book had to be removed or put back, or how the upside-down books got right-side-up again, or whether the incense might not be damaging to the books. It did not take more than a day working on the basement level to realize that it was better not to ask any questions at all.
But she was not without curiosity. She read the titles of the books on the shelves (all but those in the final row, which Mr. Drew had warned her not to look at too closely, and which seemed, in her peripheral vision, to be written in a script she could not recognize anyway), and looked up the words she did not know. She did research in the other, more public parts of the library. When Mr. Drew asked her to copy out information from a book for a client, she learned a great many things she had not known before. And, over time, she began to understand.
At one task, Mrs. Twitty excelled above all: she made certain the basement floor remained quiet.
But one day, Mrs. Twitty failed in her duty.
She knew, the moment she opened the concealed door that led to the basement, that something had gone wrong. As per Mr. Drew's instructions, the last thing she did before leaving ever night was to place a standing candelabrum just beyond the door, with candles of various colors burning in its holders. Now, however, the candelabrum stood to one side, and one of the candles had been snuffed.
Her instructions said nothing about this eventuality. Mrs. Twitty hovered in the doorway, indecisive. Should she go upstairs? But Mr. Drew never arrived this early in the morning, and if anyone else at the library knew anything about the basement floor, she had not been notified of this fact.
Besides, by then Mrs. Twitty knew enough about the contents of her domain to realize that letting someone else rummage around in them could be exceedingly dangerous.
She ventured in. The first aisle was clear, and the second, and the third, and so on to the very back. But light flickered out of the final aisle: the intruder was there.
But how to dispose of him without making noise?
Mrs. Twitty considered. Then she retreated to the second aisle, and retrieved a book she had copied out of just two weeks before. It had the virtue of requiring no chanting whatsoever.
She recopied the sigil onto a slip of paper and, squaring her shoulders, strode once more (in her soft-soled shoes) toward the back of the basement.
The intruder was coming around the corner as she approached. Mrs. Twitty saw him for a moment: a tall man, and he should have been sinister, but in truth he was utterly ordinary. Brown hair, brown eyes, features that were neither handsome nor strikingly ugly. One would have expected him to be an accountant, or perhaps a librarian. But no librarian would steal books, and this man had three tucked under his arm.
Though her heart was pounding so loud she feared it would disturb the books, Mrs. Twitty did not hesitate. She strode right up to the man and slapped the paper onto his forehead.
She had only read a portion of the book. It was enough to do what she had in mind but, alas, not enough to do it safely. Had Mrs. Twitty read more extensively, she would have known what would happen to her if she was in contact with the sigil when it took effect.
The sigil worked as intended. With no more than a whisper of a scream, the man was instantly sucked into a neighboring dimension -- one where, Mrs. Twitty hoped, the denizens knew what punishments a book thief deserved. His empty clothing fell atop his shoes, and only a quick snatch from Mrs. Twitty kept the books from striking the floor, with a clatter that certainly would have made everything a good deal worse.
But Mrs. Twitty herself felt a shock through her body, as if every drop of blood had momentarily transformed itself to electricity instead. She staggered, almost dropping the books. Only once she was sure of her grip did she return to the final row of shelves and replace the three volumes where they belonged.
On her way back to the entrance, she saw two things on the floor: the pile of clothes where the intruder had been, and her own body.
In later years the library was rearranged. The contents of the basement were quietly and discreetly moved to another location, one specially built for the purpose. The basement floor, now public, was filled with titles on a variety of other subjects.
But Mrs. Twitty remained, and she still carried out her tasks. She removed books and put them back, turned volumes upside-down, and once a year she built a stack from floor to ceiling in the center of one aisle.
And she made certain that the patrons of the library stayed very, very quiet.