Through A Bookcase Darkly: Part One

 
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This time of year is perfect for rambling old houses and secret passageways and things that go bump in the night. That’s why I’m very excited for this two-part short story I’ve written. Though it does have a level of spookiness to it, Through A Bookcase Darkly is a story about mishaps and unlikely adventures with a heroine who in no way, shape, or form wants to get her hands dirty. Newlywed Elinor MacTavish is having a heap of trouble adjusting to her new life. It’s not her husband, Angus. Rather it’s navigating her new homeland of Scotland and her her new home, the rambling, derelict mansion, Graeg Selix. For a girl from Kentucky, she’s having her Wizard of Oz moment: she’s not in Kansas anymore. But, is she somewhere over the rainbow? Or is her reality comprised of less technicolor dreams? You’ll have to read on to find out. I loved learning who Elinor MacTavish is, and I hope you will enjoy her quirkiness and humor, too.

Through a Bookcase Darkly: Part One

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If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.
— Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

When Elinor’s husband had broached the idea of buying the derelict Graeg Selix in the middle of Nowhere, Scotland as their starter home, she thought he had lost his mind. In Paducah, starter homes meant something wholly different; words like quaint and affordable were thrown around a lot, delightful euphemisms for small and cheap. In Angus MacTavish’s Scottish mind, it meant 150,000 square feet, give or take a 1,000 square feet. In a bid to sway her, he had played to her literary prowess by promising her sole use of the library as her study. Devious bugger, she thought. They had struck a bargain, one she had thought to be all in her favor: the library would be hers if she cleaned it. But the pictures had nicely glossed over the squalor.

Now she took in the shabby, moth eaten draperies, the frightening looking cobwebs crowning the corners, the Holland cloth covered chandelier, the sad looking furniture and last, but not least, the mouldering books that lined the shelves and sat in piles on the tables, the chairs, and the floor.

Books. Elinor MacTavish, only lately having resigned her surname of Carruthers, had always considered herself a reader. Her nightstand was home to a small book pile. But when she married Angus, she knew she was an amateur.

Big, burly Angus MacTavish always had five books going at once, and he was able to lavish his attention equally and generously on all as a father would his children. And they were studious, historical tomes, each and every one of them. None of the Norah Roberts, J.D. Robb, or Lee Child for him. Angus was enamored with 18th Century Land Sales in Derbyshire or The History of Bud Vases circa 1670s Portugal. Just reading the titles made Elinor yawn. To someone whose idea of demanding reading was making it through the technical descriptions of maritime machinery in a Clive Cussler novel, bud vases circa 1670 and land sales of any sort, including Disneyland, were insupportable.

Mercifully, Angus never thrust his literary passions on her; he was content to read his books so long as she was reading beside him. He didn’t even care what she read, except for some firm held prejudices against romance novels, no matter if they were worthy or not. The man had even thrown a mild tizzy when she tried to put her Jane Austen novels besides his James Clavells- the only novels she had found in his otherwise non-fiction library, which was currently stored in boxes in the master bedroom suite in the redone West Wing waiting to be housed in this filthy room.

The library was a shambles. As far as she was able to ascertain, its last cursory dusting- never mind true cleaning- had not occurred for at least two decades. If she were to hazard a more educated guess judging by the detritus that crusted into filth on nearly every surface, she projected at least thirty years.

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How did one begin? She climbed up a wingback chair and tore down the draperies that cloaked the three large windows facing the courtyard. Amidst the cascading ashes of the ages, Elinor sneezed uncontrollably.

The catch on the central window was rusted, but with a little force, Elinor popped it out of its latch, opening the window. Brisk air fluttered the wisps of hair escaping from beneath her kerchief and cleared her nose.

Turning to survey the room once more, she was relieved to see what proper lighting and fresh air could wrought. The light blurred the dirtiness into a more antique patina casting a nostalgic sootiness over the room. Of course, being inclined toward the romantic, Elinor toyed with the idea of calling the cleaning quits. However, her practical other half, Angus, would quash any such notions with a simple swipe of his finger across any surface in the room. It was hard to hold onto romantical notions when faced with black- yes, black- fingers.

It could be worse, Elinor thought, pulling on the ends of the knot in her kerchief. Angus was in the basement contending with a noisome boiler and faulty plumbing. The library was a much more pleasant undertaking. At least the only possibility was a fit of sneezing or battle with an arachnid. The mishaps Angus could encounter were a great deal more disgusting.

With a little exertion and no end of grunting, she pushed two couches, three wingback chairs, two coffee tables, and a behemoth oak table to the windowed side of the room. Then she rolled up the three Oriental carpets that traversed the length of the room. The idea of hanging them outside and beating them entered her mind briefly, but with the furniture removed, she saw what disassemblage they were in. A good professional cleaning and repair was in order.

With the center of the room cleared to the floorboards, her attention fell on the shelves of books that lived on three walls of the room.

If only Mary Poppins would appear with her finger snapping magic, for indeed, Elinor did not find a single element of fun in the job to be done. Turning to her bucket, she retrieved a shot glass and a bottle of Scotch. It may have been a spoonful of sugar that helped a child’s medicine go down, but she was a grown-up now and it was a three finger shot of 12 year old Laphroig that would help her swallow this bitter pill.

Tossing back the amber liquor, she smothered a cough and set the glass down on one of the bookshelves. Her olfactory senses told her that much of the extensive and imposing collection was beyond hope. The thought of throwing any book away upset her. Any book except Eat, Pray, Love. That book could be tossed into the ocean, swallowed by a whale, digested, excreted, and then fed on again by smaller fish, who would hopefully die at some unreachable level of the ocean, thereby making certain that some unassuming pescatarian would not suffer indigestion, for even the twice digested minutia of that novel could cause dyspepsia.

Chuckling aloud at her most unkind, but brutally honest assessment of that propagated drivel her little sister had shoved down her throat, Elinor walked the length of shelves from one corner to the other, running her finger down the spines. The library really did boast a fine collection of philosophical and classical tomes- Ovid, Danté, Hume, Shakespeare, Chaucer, et. al. Surprisingly, the spines were firm and in seemingly good condition. Perhaps a conserver could put things in order if they were not too far gone.

She turned at the far corner and began the walk back, trailing her fingers down the books on the shelf above. She grazed philosophy, epic poetry, literary journals, and other odd assortments of truly antiquated volumes. Three quarters of the way down the wall, deeply entrenched scars marred the dark floorboards. Shaking her head at the recklessness of whomever had caused them, she stepped over them and continued her walk down the wall two more steps before she halted. Along the whole wall, not one book protruded; every spine lined up perfectly as though some obsessively compulsive interior decorator had commissioned it so.

However, two inches out from all the rest stood a book of much contestation in the MacTavish home: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Such a small volume, so unassuming, yet, there it was, defiantly ajar from all the rest.

Elinor pushed on the book to realign it, but it would not budge. Puzzled, she pulled it out to see what was wedged behind. In the recess, she saw a box-like shape. The space was narrow, and Elinor thanked her Great Aunt Grace for passing on her fine-boned, delicate Russian features to her as she slipped her hand in and grasped the box. Her grip faltered, and with the fall of the box, she heard a loud, grinding creak. Frightened by the sudden sound, she stepped back and watched as a mild earthquake shook the shelves. The books jostled in their moorings, dust cascaded down, and once Elinor was able to control her sneezing, she found the casement had swung open along the grooves in the floor.

A malodorous smell suffused the air, the scent of air trapped for centuries, an eau de parfum to be coveted by a mummy or zombie or some such equally horrid embodiment.

Elinor was not an adventurer. She didn’t like dark places; they filled her with dread, especially at the prospect of meeting with creepy, crawly, hairy things. Yet, as she stood on the threshold to the forbidding stairwell, she summoned up every ounce of devil-may-care she could muster and stepped behind the bookcase… and right into the most gruesome cobweb.

Shrieking in terror for her life, for the most appalling deaths were always- ALWAYS- by cobweb, she ran back into the blessed light. Several breaths later, Elinor concluded that it would be wise to retrieve a flashlight, or, at the very least, a candlestick, before off she went into the wild stair yonder.

Down the hall and two flights of stairs, she ran. There should be a flashlight in the hall tree by the front entry. However, rummaging through it, all she could locate was a spare set of keys to Angus’ ancient Land Rover, three peppermints, several bandage plasters- or whatever the Brits called band-aids- and some bobbie pins.

Abandoning the table, she made her way to the kitchen, which was only a six mile hike across the breadth of Scotland. Down two more stony flights of steps, she emerged into a darkened hallway, flanked with windows that looked into the rooms beyond.

Just as Elinor was about to go through the doorjamb, she thought better of it. It had seemed the most natural thing to assume she would find a flashlight, candles, or a box of matches in a junk drawer in the kitchen. However, this was not her parent’s kitchen in Paducah, Kentucky. No. This was Scotland. Nor was she in a typical middle class home. She was in a mansion- an ancient seat for some noble family who had lived on these lands for seven thousand centuries. Everything had its proper place. A junk drawer most likely did not exist; there was probably a candle closet or a torch room or something equally grand where everything pertaining to portable illumination was housed.

“Pardon me, ma’am, but can I help you?”

Slightly startled, Elinor turned to Chandler, the butler who came in like the fog, silently on cats’ feet. He stood at the foot of the stairs, a quizzical expression on his long face. She felt herself blush, but quickly did her best to smother her embarrassment. This was her house, after all; a jaunt to the kitchen need not be a shameful affair.

“Yes,” she quipped, brightly, cringing inwardly at her pathetically obvious attempt to seem confident. Moderating her tone, she continued, “I have come in search of a flash… er, torchlight. Or a candle. Where is the torch room?”

Chandler’s bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows rose. The shift in his stance betrayed complete bewilderment.

“Torch room, ma’am?” he inquired in his perfectly accented English.

“Er… candle closet, then?” she offered, sheepishly. “I just need a flashlight. Do you know where one is?”

With a fleeting glance that said he believed her to be from an alien race spouting gibberish- or perhaps that was how all Brits looked at Americans- Chandler nodded his head and walked past her into the kitchen. Slumping her shoulders, she followed him. From out of a large drawer beside the pantry door, Chandler produced a yellow plastic flashlight.

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She took it, refusing to meet his eye.

“Will there be anything else, ma’am?”

“No, sir,” she croaked. “Thank you.”

With a quick nod that was as courtly and proper as a full bow at Buckingham, Chandler left. Once she was certain he was out of ear shot, she heaved a pathetic, woebegone sigh.

Apparently, junk drawers were not foreign in merry ole Scotland. But of course, she laughed. After all, where else was she to find the odd armored gauntlet, kilt pin, or skeleton key? And one must never forget the always present bobbie pins.

Did they even have bobbie pins prior to the 20th century? Elinor tried to imagine the Bride of Lammermore or the Lady of Shalott with bobbie pins in her hair. Angus would know; she would ask him later over dinner. Just her luck, he’d probably direct her to a 15th century tapestry or a 12th century illuminated manuscript depicting the Holy Mother with her veil pinned about her face.

Laughing at her own absurdity, she raced back to the library. Breathless, she entered the room. Sunlight glinted off the dust particles in the air. She took a moment to marvel at how lovely and serene the room appeared. Then her gaze landed on the open bookcase.

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“Oh, Lord,” she gasped. “I hope this isn’t a oubliette, immured monk and all.”

The prospect of encountering the remains of a man of the cloth, hidden away and forgotten, dead of asphyxiation, was too horrifying. Pushing the frightful image aside, Elinor strode to the dark stairwell and flick on her flashlight with a loud click-click. She flashed it into the opening. A be-webbed candle-less wall sconce stood at the ready four steps below. The stairwell curved, cutting off her line of vision.

Her imagination galloped from one possibility to another, starting with the tame It’s probably just an extension of the library, but containing more personal writings and collectibles to the mildly ridiculous I’m going to find the bones of some Scottish rebel, holed up here after Bonnie Prince Charlie lost his bid for the English throne to the completely deranged Oh My Sainted Aunt, the Phantom of the Opera lives here!

“Of course he doesn’t live here, you ninny,” she mumbled, taking the steps cautiously. Everyone knew the Phantom lived under an opera house. In France. He was French, not Scottish, unless you counted Gerard Butler’s contribution to the legacy. And, if she found Gerard Butler at the bottom of the stairs, she would march right back up them, pull the casement closed, and remain in her hidden little heaven until trumpets sounded and Jesus returned.

The unlikely fantasy put a spring in her step. She even forgot how easily the dark frightened her. And spiders. And the unknown. She simply walked down one step after another until she belatedly remembered to count them. She reached the end on the count of twenty-two and surveyed the small cubicle she found herself in.

Pressed against the far wall was a rickety looking table completely encrusted with the passage of time. A tankard and inkwell, both bone dry, set atop it with a filthy folio in the middle. A black feathered quill lie discarded on the floor beside a stool. The walls were bare except for some faint markings where it appeared someone had written something. Even in the full beam of her light, she couldn’t read it.

To be fair, her sleuthing skills were practically petrified and it had been simply ages since she had picked up a Nancy Drew. To be even more fair, the last time she had to use her detective skills had been when she misplaced her keys, and those skills had been wanting. Although, she defied even the most master sleuth Nancy Drew to figure out how they had come to be in the ice box. Really, even the perfectly coiffed strawberry-blonde had to come up short on that front.

She carefully opened the thick leather folio. It creaked with age, speckling the tabletop with little shavings of brown leather. Chicken scratch crammed the yellow page. Every inch was covered in ink. The aid of a magnifying glass would have to be enlisted in order to make heads or tails of the content. Elinor couldn’t even be sure the writing was English. She’d leave that to Angus. After all, what was the point of being married to a historian with the added bonus of linguistic legerdemain in the Goidelic and Brythonic not to mention his intrinsic understanding of all the directional dialects of the Scots language. He also spoke French, but the writing didn’t look French to her. Then again, what would she know? She was a professional nanny who’d made good by unwittingly falling in love with a single gentle-scotsman in possession of a good fortune. And, as their whirlwind courtship and subsequent marriage after only two months attested, he had been in want of a wife.

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Yet, even a nanny could deduce the numbers 1588. Heck, she went one better and wheedled out Council of Edinburgh, too.

Drat! What had she thought she would find? Not Gerard Butler. That had been a hope- really a castle in the air- and since she currently resided in a castle-ish mansion firmly founded on the ground, she had known she wouldn’t find him there. But she had hoped to discover something more interesting than the minutes of a council meeting in 1588. Not that it wasn’t cool just to have discovered the passageway and even the folio, but she could only imagine what mundane matters it contained. The current count of the goat population, minor complaints of one yoeman against the other, recordings of new manners in which to harvest peat for heat. If 16th century council meetings were anything like those conducted at St. Luke’s Parish hall in Paducah, the minutes would be flat out boring.

Elinor gently closed the folio. One did not slam or handle a 16th century portfolio in a haphazard manner.

Biting her lower lip, she stared down at the dusty leather jacket, now riddled with her fingerprints. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Taking care to keep the inner pages within the folio, she picked it up and ascended the steps, trying to walk sedately as befitted the solemnity of her discovery. But, how could she not allow for an excited skip or two up the steps knowing the glee her discovery would bring her husband? She would present him with the portfolio over cocktails before dinner. Angus loved a frothy concoction before his more serious after dinner digestive. No doubt, he would be thrilled. He might even abandon his studious, British reserve and jump up and down and do a happy dance. Okay. Fine, that would probably be her, in response to his genuine smile and flashing eyes. But, nonetheless, a happy dance needed doing. And, who knew? Perhaps Angus would find something interesting in the chicken scratch.

For the rest of the story, check out Part Two.

Just what will Angus make of this discovery of Elinor’s? Will he be excited? Will it remind him of how unfulfilled his dreams of being a historian really are? You’ll have to wait for Part Two of Through A Bookcase Darkly. It will be up on the blog on Monday. Have a wonderful weekend. And, don’t forget to set your clocks back this Sunday.