A Stitch in Time

A Stitch in Time Book CoverChapter One

John Rettger regarded the bustle and noise in his church hall with pleasure, hope, and concern. He was short, with mild blue eyes and ears that stood out beneath a circle of white, fluffy hair. He sat on a hard wooden chair, his offer to help gently but firmly refused — partly because he was the loved and respected rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, and partly because he was clumsy.

Renovation would begin after the Christmas holidays. A columbarium would be added, something that had been talked about since before he became rector over ten years ago. The library would be expanded, the administrative offices reworked and redecorated, and the long hall between the old chapel and the new church upstairs would have a magnificent hammerbeam roof and a tile floor installed.

But first, the church hall would be gutted and redone. The haphazard collection of small rooms that over the years had halved its size would be removed, and a modern kitchen installed. The antique and dangerous wiring would be replaced, the plumbing updated, the walls and ceiling repaired and repainted, the floor refinished, and new furniture brought in. The only thing unchanged would be the big, functional fireplace.

He turned from the bustling volunteers for a moment to look at the

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fireplace. It had a native pink limestone surround deeply carved with apple trees — the Wealthy apple was first grown in Excelsior. Beside it was a magnificent fir tree eight feet tall, the annual gift of a Christmas tree farmer. Still on it were a few construction-paper ornaments, made by poor families in the area. Parishioners had been selecting one or two during Advent to buy something suitable for the person described on the ornament. They’d wrap their gift and bring it to Trinity by the last Sunday in Advent — which, this being Thursday, was three days off. The gifts would be delivered Christmas Eve.

As Father John watched, three men came to tilt the tree then lift and carry it up to the big hall outside the nave of the church. The instant they touched it, it shed needles like an alarmed cat sheds fur. He smiled to himself: fir tree, furry cat.

Before the renovation began in earnest, all the movables in the church hall had to be taken away. The valuable things had already been removed, and the volunteers who ran the thrift shop had emptied their area. But there were long tables (some with legs that used to fold, the rest with legs missing), a pair of grubby wing chairs, two very shabby couches, an army of bent folding chairs, assorted broken hand tools, old Sunday school texts, a half dozen dim and ugly landscape paintings in cracked frames, an enormous collection of House and Garden magazines, a shoebox full of broken mouse traps, on and on — things needing hauling to recycling centers or a landfill.

As the rooms had taken haphazard bites of the church hall, odd little corners had developed. Some were turned into closets or storerooms that were later closed off. The very farthest had a floor which had never been paved.

Phil Galvin, a retired railroad engineer, came from that newly reopened room. In his arms was what Father John first took to be a rumpled carpet or a small rug. The smell of mildew was very strong.

“What have you got there?” asked Father John, his nose wrinkling.

Phil was short and gray, but his manner was brisk and his voice loud and a little harsh, as if he had spent his life shouting orders in all weather. “I dunno. But it’s probably been back in there a hundred years.”

Phil looked around and saw an elderly card table still standing on its legs. He unrolled his find across it. The rug was about four feet wide and long enough to hang off both sides of the table. It reflected its wadded past in uneven creases. “Well, looky here! It’s a tapestry! And hand stitched, too — betcha it was done by the women of the parish.”

Father John came closer. “Why, it’s the Good Shepherd,” he said. The tapestry depicted a man in a white tunic with a dark-orange mantle draped over it. He was carrying a lamb on one forearm and held a shepherd’s crook in the other hand. A bright metallic double halo surrounded his dark head and beard, and six gray-white sheep huddled close to his knees, their black legs making a complicated crosshatch over the bottom of the tapestry. The design seemed unsophisticated, the figures without shading or perspective, and the background a lightly mottled tan. But every line of it was drawn boldly, by a real artist. Something about the sheep said they felt safe, and by his expression Christ was pleased to have found the lost lamb.

“Nice, ain’t it!” barked Phil. “I was wrong, it’s not old, that design’s too modern.”

It was nice, very nice. But it was also dirty, and odorous with mildew. The stitching appeared to have worn away in several places. A long strand of tan yarn hung off one edge. Phil, his head turned sideways as he studied it, said suddenly, “Say, I bet this is Lucy Abrams’ work!” He explained, “She was Father Keane Abrams’ wife — Father Keane was your predecessor. She liked big needlework projects, and designed some of her own.”

“Ah,” nodded Father John. He had never met his predecessor’s wife. She had died of a heart attack the same day her husband suffered a severe and unexpected stroke. By the time Father John was called to be rector, months later, he had been greeted by an interim priest. Eleven years later Father Keane still lived, but lay helpless in a nursing home, beyond any ability to understand what had happened to him.

“Say, Mrs. Fairland!” yelled Phil suddenly. Father John jumped, then he realized the man was summoning her, and he turned to look.

Patricia Fairland was a member of the vestry, a beautiful, talented, and intelligent person, one of those upper-middle-class women who intimidated Father John effortlessly. But apparently not Phil Galvin, by the way he’d shouted and was now gesturing impatiently at her.

She was in khaki slacks and cotton sweater and had wrapped her hair in a complicated way with a silk headscarf. Though she had been working hard for hours, she looked fresh. She came towards them with an inquiring look, pulling off cotton work gloves.

“What’s up, Phil?” she asked. “Oooh, where did you find this?”

“Back room,” said Phil, pointing. “What do you think?”

“Attractive,” she said. “I don’t remember ever seeing it before. Moths have been at it, though. And uh-oh, it reeks of mildew. If I get a vote, mine is for tossing it.”

“I think this was designed and stitched by Lucy Abrams.”

“You do?” Patricia looked at it with more interest, though she didn’t come any closer. “Why do you think that?”

“Well, I know she was working on a big project just before she died. She and Donna Claypool and Marge — oh, what was her name, I can’t remember — and maybe some other ladies. I never saw it, and I thought she hadn’t finished it. But here this is, and it’s like some other designs she made. I’d look close for her initials, but it stinks pretty bad.”

“Her initials?” said Father John.

“She liked to put her name or her initials or her husband or daughter’s name somewhere in her work. One time she did it by crossing blades of grass so they spelled out ‘LUCY.’ You’d never notice it unless someone told you it was there.”

“That’s right, I’d forgotten about that.” Patricia started to come closer, then waved a hand in front of her nose and sneezed twice before she could step back out of range. “Allergic to mildew,” she said thickly. “Whew!”

Phil asked her, “Still think we should toss it?”

She hesitated, then asked back, “How sure are you this is Lucy Abrams’ work?”

“I’m not sure about anything except death and taxes. We can ask her daughter to confirm it, but I’ll bet you a dollar she’ll say it is. You sound like you’re changin’ your mind.”

“Well, you know the parish thought the world of the Reverend and Mrs. Abrams. And mildew’s not hard to get out. From here it looks like it’s done in continental or basketweave, so it should be easy enough to repair. And it is a very nice piece. So yes, I am changing my vote — on a contingency. If it is her work, we should try to restore it. And if we succeed, I think it should go in the columbarium. Or better, the new library.” She brightened. “Which we should rename in honor of Father Keane.”

“Say, that’s an idea!” said Phil. “I’ll help you with the repairs, if I may.”

“I was counting on you to volunteer.”

Phil saw the look Father John was giving him and said, “I’m a pretty good needleworker, took it up when I retired.”

Patricia said, “He designs and stitches steam engine needlepoint canvases. He has them all over his living room. Extremely nice work.”

“Thank you, Patricia,” said Phil with a little bow. “Coming from you, that’s a real compliment.” Phil had very old-fashioned manners.

“How much will this cost?” asked Father John, which was his real question. He had been increasingly alarmed at the ever-rising estimates of this renovation — the hammerbeam roof being a particularly costly item — and the reluctance of his parishioners to be as generous in donation as they were in ideas.

Patricia gave him a quelling look. “I’m sure this won’t cost Trinity a cent, Father,” she said. “Once people find out what it is and what our plans are for it, they’ll be more than willing to contribute to restoring this marvelous find.”

Father John had heard that tone of voice before. It meant that will he, nil he, this tapestry was going to get cleaned and repaired in time to hang in The Reverend Keane Abrams Memorial Library.

* * * *

When Betsy came down to Crewel World on Friday morning, she saw out the big front window that it was snowing, huge flakes like the ending of a Christmas movie. Betsy sighed. It had seemed so beautiful a few weeks ago — and it was no less beautiful now. But also, she was now resentfully aware, snow had to be shoveled. Shoveling was not pretty.

Even the Christmas lights around the window didn’t jingle her pleasure circuits. White Christmases should be a novelty to Betsy, who had spent many years in California. But they were no novelty in Minnesota, which often saw white Thanksgivings — they had this year. This was the sixth snowfall since mid-November. Hardly any had melted between the last three storms, so it was really piling up. Betsy was already tired of snow.

She went to unlock the front door and let Godwin, her one full-time employee, in. He stood a moment on the plastic mat, dusting his shoulders and stamping his feet. He was young, blond, good-looking, an expert at all kinds of needlework, and Betsy’s most valuable asset. She was ashamed she couldn’t pay him what he was worth.

He hung his beautiful navy-blue wool coat up in back, and they began the opening-up routine, turning on lights and putting the startup cash in the register. Betsy stooped to turn on the radio hidden on a shelf half behind three counted cross stitch books. A local station was playing all Christmas music all the time, and Betsy kept the radio tuned to that — though at this point she was more than weary of singing heraldic angels and Rudolph’s cruel companions.

Godwin got out the feather duster and began dusting. She looked around. “A-rew?” came a cat’s polite inquiry. “I see you, Sophie.” The big white cat with the tan and gray patches had come down with Betsy and made herself comfortable on “her” chair, the one with the blue-gray cushion. The sweet-mannered animal was as much a part of Crewel World as the Madeira silks or the 18-count needlepoint canvases.

“Rrrr?” trilled Sophie hopefully.

“No snacks,” said Betsy, and the cat sighed and put her head down to wait for a more malleable visitor.

Betsy went to the back room to put on the ugly but warm coat she’d found at a second-hand store and went out to clear the sidewalk in front of her shop. When she came back in, breathless, falling snow had already laid a thin white cover upon her work. She went to plug in the tea kettle and put the shovel away. Godwin had finished dusting and was restocking the yarn bins.

The shop door opened — bing! went an electronic bell — and George Hollytree came in, feebly stamping snow off his galoshes. Betsy hurried to take his attache case and help him with his heavy tweed overcoat. “Hello, Betsy,” he piped in an old man’s voice.

Mr. Hollytree was eighty-nine. His small, rheumy eyes were set in a pale face as rumpled and folded as an unmade bed. His hands were roped with blue veins and his fingers were gnarled, the fingernails thick and yellow. He was, God help her, Betsy’s accountant.

But for all his years, he looked Betsy up and down with an appreciative smile. Betsy was plump by today’s standards, but the old man would have described her as voluptuous. More, her complexion was fresh, her clear blue eyes were friendly and intelligent. Her cropped hair had some natural curl to it, and she had recently converted its gray streaks to blond with a home coloring kit. And she was nearly forty years younger than he was, a mere child.

Mr. Hollytree walked stiff-kneed to the library table in the middle of the shop. He sat on the chair at the head of the table and opened his attache case. He brought out a very up-to-date calculator, the kind with several memories and the ability to print a tape.

“You are doing quite well keeping up with transactions,” he piped, speaking slowly around ill-fitting false teeth. From a pocket in the lid of the case he extracted a file folder with “Crewel World” in thick black letters on its tab. Betsy noted two other file folders in the pocket as she walked behind him, and wondered who else was keeping this ancient from a happy retirement in a warm climate. She sat down at his right, prepared to listen.

Mr. Hollytree had turned up a couple of weeks after Margot’s death. He’d explained that Margot kept computer records of sales and purchases related to the shop, and he turned them into tax records and an account of profit and loss. Frail as he appeared, he seemed to know his business. And Betsy, helplessly ignorant, had reached for his expertise like a drowning sailor grabbing at a broken spar. She had followed his instructions, and the second time he appeared she had a computer disc ready for him. He had insisted on explaining the charts he made of her data, and though he’d been as slow and patient as he could, she understood only that, so far, the shop was paying for itself.

Until today. Today his high-pitched sigh was deeper, his shuffling of papers more snippy, his patience with her ignorance more fleeting.

“Now look here, young woman,” he said at last, causing her to blush like a teenager, “what it comes down to is this: you are on the verge of spending more than you are taking in. This cannot continue. Early winter is supposed to be the best time of year for a business that serves the public, but yours is actually doing worse than last month.” His mouth formed a grim line. “Unless you do remarkably well this month, this will be the third or fourth worst Christmas since I have been keeping Crewel World’s books.”

Betsy felt a rush of defiance. “Perhaps if we checked, we’d find the bad Christmas seasons occurred for reasons beyond the owner’s control, such as a bad economy — or,” she rushed to add, since the economy could hardly have been hotter, “bad weather?”

The old man glared at her, then his face wrinkled alarmingly as he began to cackle. “You are Margot’s sister, all right!” he crowed. “I wondered if you would ever show your spunk, or if maybe your sister got it all.”

Betsy smiled. “There’s far too much spunk in our family for just one of us to hold it all, Mr. Hollytree. And I’m sorry we’re not doing so well right now. But I’m doing the best I can, and I don’t know what changes I can make.”

“Since salaries are your biggest expense, you need to cut your employees’ hours. Check what your competition is charging and charge less, even if it’s only a penny less — and make sure your customers know your prices are lower.”

Betsy nodded. “I’ll talk to my employees about working fewer hours. Perhaps, with Christmas so close, they’ve got all their shopping done and won’t be so disappointed in smaller paychecks. And I’ll look into competition prices.”

“Perhaps you should hold your after-holiday sale now. That means a special advertisement, but you’ll more than make it up in extra sales.”

Betsy hadn’t done any advertising at all, and her face must have shown that, because he said, “I thought so, when I saw no expenses for ads. Some people may think Crewel World’s gone out of business because its original owner is dead. I am sorry to add another expense to your burden, but advertising always pays — especially when there’s a change of ownership.”

Betsy hadn’t thought about that. There had been so many people who rallied around her when her sister was murdered that it never occurred to her that there were people out there who didn’t know about her. What a terrible thought — once-loyal customers who had found another source of supply! Customers who might still be loyal, who might keep Crewel World in the black, if only they knew.

Oh, yes, she must advertise, tell these people Crewel World was still here, ready to serve all their needlework needs. But how, with money already in short supply? How much did advertising cost, anyhow? Where was the best place to put it? What should she say in her ad? She didn’t want to make a further display of ignorance by asking her accountant. Maybe Godwin would know.

Mr. Hollytree was making a neat stack of her copies of his report. He paper clipped his calculator printout to it before rising. Godwin brought his coat and helped him back into it. Betsy answered his goodbyes almost absently. Crewel World’s logo, needle and yarn spelling Crewel World in cross stitch, should appear in the ad. And how deeply could she cut the prices of — what? What bargains would be most likely to bring customers in?

Though Godwin must have wondered what she was thinking, for once he didn’t ask. Instead, he went to take inventory of the stitchery books in the box shelves towards the back of the store. Such books were a big favorite as Christmas gifts, and he wanted to make sure they weren’t out of the most popular ones.

When the phone rang half an hour later, he was putting an order of little scissors, thimbles and other items on a spinner rack near the back, so Betsy put down her pencil to answer it. “Crewel World, good morning, how may I help you?”

A mild voice said, “Good morning, Betsy. This is Father John Rettger of Trinity. Are you busy at present? I can call back.”

Betsy said, “Oh, hello, Father. Unfortunately, no, we’re not busy. What can I do for you?”

“I don’t know if you are aware, but we’re about to start a major renovation of the church hall and business offices of our church.”

Betsy had seen the story in the weekly Excelsior Bay Times. (What would it cost for a two-column ad in the Times?) “Yes, I read about it.”

“Well, we’re in a great uproar, moving furniture, cleaning out storage areas, and so forth. Not surprisingly, we are finding things we thought were lost or sold or given away long ago.”

“Mm-hmmm,” Betsy murmured. Her eye fell on the ad she had been designing. Would it cost a great deal more to put the word SALE in red?

“One of the things we’re going to do is expand our library. We have found a tapestry in a basement storage closet that would be very appropriate. Unfortunately, the tapestry has been damaged by moths — not very badly, but noticeably.”

“Mn-hmm.” A tapestry, a huge rug-like thing people hung on castle walls.

“Patricia Fairland, who is a member of our vestry, has kindly volunteered to coordinate the restoration of the tapestry. She said I should tell you that it is not woven but stitched, a distinction I am afraid is lost on me. It is about six feet long and four wide, a beautiful thing, very appropriate for the use we hope to put it to.”

That wasn’t so enormous. But Betsy, mindful of those extra hours she was going to have to work, said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to volunteer right now, this is the busiest part of — “

“Oh, I wouldn’t presume to make demands on your time. I understand that as new and sole proprietor of a business, your time is very limited. No, I was hoping you would be able to make a contribution of materials for the restoration.”

This, on the heels of a warning of imminent failure to break even, should have made Betsy refuse immediately. But wait — surely there would be more stories in the paper as renovation continued, and a big one on completion. If there were a photo that included the tapestry, perhaps Betsy could be mentioned as contributing to its restoration. Free advertising, whispered the merchant in her.

So even as she took a breath to say No, Betsy changed her mind.

But then in the second it took to change gears and say Yes, Betsy had another thought.

“I’d like to see the tapestry, see what materials are required, and how much,” she said, because “not badly damaged” could mean anything. “Would that be possible?”

“Oh, of course. It wouldn’t be fair to ask for a donation of material without an understanding of how much and what kind. Mrs. Fairland has told me that she would be glad to come in at the same time and explain to you what is needed. I understand there is a group of needleworkers who meet at your shop, the, er, Monday Bunch? Mrs. Fairland is going to ask for volunteers from that group to do the work. I’m very pleased she has taken on this added responsibility, as I have no knowledge whatever about the needle arts. Shall I ask her to phone you? Or would you rather contact her yourself?”

“I’ll call her, I have her number.”

“I want you to know that we appreciate your agreeing to do this, especially since you are not a member of Trinity.”

Was there a hint of rebuke in his voice? After all, Betsy had been raised in the Episcopal Church, and her sister had been an important member of Trinity. But perhaps she was being too sensitive. What she said was, “That’s all right, it’s my pleasure to be of service.” Because it was. She enjoyed being generous — when she could afford it. And in this case she might actually injure herself by saying no, giving free advertising to a rival needlework shop.

Betsy worked some more on the ad, called the weekly newspaper and was shocked by their rates, but agreed a salesman might call, then made herself a cup of raspberry tea and dialed Patricia’s number.

Patricia wasn’t available this coming Wednesday, which, Hollytree notwithstanding, Betsy was taking off. Christmas was on the horizon and Betsy had shopping to do. Funny how the less money she had, the longer it took to find gifts. After going through the calendar and failing to find any mutually agreeable time and day between Wednesday and mid-January, Betsy said despairingly, “I don’t suppose you’re free this evening?”

And to her surprise, Patricia was.