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By Laura Moncur in The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles

Berenice and Mystery: In which our heroine, Isabella Davenforth, is introduced to the Dowager Moncur and is asked to pass a test of fortitude.

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from FlickrThe Dowager Moncur removed her curious yellow-lensed spectacles on her face. “Bring her to me. I cannot see her.” She had been lying in her bed when Mrs. Danvers brought Isabella into the room. The ancient woman squinted, lifted a different set of spectacles with blue lenses to her eyes and strained to see. The housekeeper escorted Isabella to the woman’s bedside and left the two of them alone.

Isabella stood next to the old woman and drew in a breath of air through her nostrils. She smelled the bath salts on the dowager’s skin and a hint of powder wafting from her hair. She strained to detect the scent of death and disease, but could only smell the familiar fragrance of expensive colognes from the far reaches of the upper classes.

The blue lenses of the spectacles made the woman’s eyes twice their normal size and her elderly face was overpowered by irises and eyelashes. The old woman said to her, “My, what big eyes you have.” Isabella was overcome by laughter at the sight and replied without thinking, “All the better to see you with, my dear.” The dowager removed the lenses from her face. “My son says you were Madame Hurst’s governess.” Isabella recovered herself and put the Brothers Grimm out of her mind. “Yes, Dowager Lady Moncur. Jane Hurst was engaged two months ago and Madame Hurst was gracious enough to recommend me to Lord Moncur.”

The dowager held the blue lenses up to her eyes again, eyeing Isabella. She pointed to the small bookcase in the room. “There is a chapbook in there named ‘Southern Literary Messenger’. A young man recommended this story to me.” Isabella found the periodical in the bookcase and brought it to the old lady. “The story I want you to read to me is called, ‘Berenice.’ Mrs. Danvers won’t read me the ending.” She glared at the door where the housekeeper had last been seen. “You should start at the beginning.”

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from FlickrIsabella turned to the appropriate page and began reading, “Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe.” She paused. This man from the wilds of the Americas could be disturbing. Barely considered an author, most polite society shunned his works. Isabella had never read this particular story, but she was familiar with his style. “This author can be particularly upsetting, Dowager Moncur. Are you absolutely sure you wish me to read this to you?” The dowager nodded eagerly. “Damn Danvers refused to read another word at the most inconvenient moment during the story. My son says that you are a woman of strength and discretion. Please…” The dowager’s eyes were magnified by the lenses that she held to her eyes.

Isabella braved every dastardly word and horrific moment the author had offered up to the literary gods. She read out loud every action that Egaeus committed in that cemetery and held her voice steady during the description of his final acts. A quiet hung in the air after she finished and Isabella wondered if the old woman had fallen asleep during the gory acts she brought to life. “Six months,” Lady Dowager finally spoke. “Six months I have thought about what he could have done to have made Danvers stop mid-sentence and not once did I ever think that he would have done that.”

Isabella drew a breath and steadied her hands on her chest. “I don’t know what is worse. His acts or the fact that she wasn’t dead when he dug her up.” The Lady Dowager held up her blue lensed spectacles to her face and laughed heartily. “I believe you will fit in here beautifully!”

Isabella felt the warmth of acceptance. After so many years in the Hurst home, being considered nearly a member of the family, she had been so fearful of starting fresh in a new household. That brief smile on the dowager’s face made her feel hopeful for the first time since she had made her deal with Lord Moncur, but it was immediately crushed by the old lady’s next words. “Now leave me. He’ll be going to sleep in an hour or so.” She removed her blue lensed spectacles and replaced them with the yellow-lensed spectacles and Isabella was suddenly invisible to her.

The strange closing sentence was enough to unnerve Isabella, but the fact that the dowager was completely impervious to her presence after she held the yellow spectacles to her eyes was so unsettling that Isabella slowly backed out of the room, unwilling to take her eyes off the bed-ridden old woman. When she reached the door of the chamber, she scurried out of the room in fear of the strangeness she had just beheld.

Moncur Castle was larger than the Hurst’s estate in Derbyshire, but it was smaller than Isabella expected. The cold, stone-lined halls were logically situated. She had worried that a labyrinth of rooms would confound her, but she easily found her way to the kitchen, where the servants were congregated. Mrs. Danvers looked up from her conversation with the cook. “Miss Davenforth,” she nodded at Isabella, “Let me show you to your quarters.”

The two of them walked down the east wing of the castle and Isabella commented with a hushed voice, “I don’t blame you for not finishing the ending of Berenice. It was ghastly, but how could you just stop without knowing how it ended? I wouldn’t have slept for a fortnight owing to the suspense of it!” The housekeeper stopped walking and looked at Isabella with a stone face. “Berenice?” Isabella felt as if the stones beneath her feet had shifted a little. “Yes, the story by Edgar Allan Poe. The Lady Dowager asked me to read it to her.” The housekeeper’s face twitched almost imperceptibly. “I never read to the Dowager Moncur. You must be mistaken.”

Mrs. Danvers continued walking and Isabella followed her. Her chambers were amply endowed and Isabella felt the familiar blessing of being considered more than just a servant. “Lord Moncur decorated this room for you in particular. He tells me you are a woman of discretion and intelligence.” Isabella nodded. Whenever anyone in the upper classes used the word discretion around her, they always seemed to ask her the most inappropriate things. Whenever a fellow servant mentioned discretion, however, it was always a test. Isabella waited for her test from Mrs. Danvers.

“Miss Davenforth, you need to know that the Dowager Moncur is not in her right mind. She will say many strange and unfathomable things. I only ask that you remember her words when they are important and forget her words when they are not.” Isabella pondered the housekeeper’s challenge and replied, “The Lady Dowager said that she wanted me to leave her because,” she paused, trying to recall the woman’s exact words. She shook her head and continued, “She said, ‘He’ll be going to sleep in an hour or two.’” She looked to the housekeeper to see if she had passed the test properly.

Mrs. Danver’s stoney face warmth slightly. “That is exactly the kind of thing you need to remember and tell me. She will be wanting tea in an hour or two and we should leave her alone until then.” Isabella questioned further, “But what does it mean? Who is going to sleep? And she acted very strangely. She put on her spectacles and it was as if she couldn’t see me anymore.” The housekeeper held up her hand and stopped Isabella’s questions with a firm and angry look. “What did I tell you about forgetting what isn’t important?”