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By Laura Moncur in The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles

A Hard Day in America: In which the Dowager Moncur reveals her true madness to Miss Isabella Davenforth.

The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from FlickrUpon closer inspection, the Dowager Lady Moncur always carried three pairs of spectacles. Each had a long gold chain attached to one end, pinned to her black mourning dress. One pair, she wore whenever she spoke to someone. They had blue lenses and magnified her eyes to a humorous size. When she held them up to her eyes, her face became a caricature of irises and eyelashes.

The second pair had yellow lenses and pieces that wrapped around her ears. She rarely wore them, but when she did, she would stare off into them, silent for hours. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, had warned Isabella not to bother the old woman when she was wearing her yellow spectacles, and suggested that the dowager was actually napping and was too proud to admit that she needed rest during the day.

No one had ever seen her wear the third pair of spectacles. They had black lenses and hung from their gold chain, untouched. Isabella found it strange that none of the servants were even curious about the Dowager Moncur’s spectacles. She had never known a woman to own three pair, much less to be so particular about them to have them pinned to her clothing.

Isabella spent many weeks reading fantastic tales to the old woman in her bed while the autumn turned into a Scottish winter. The dowager preferred the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne, but she was always on the lookout for new stories of the fantastic, like the stories of that young upstart, H. G. Wells. Despite the snow and cold, she received new literature in the post every week and Isabella was pressed into reading them all to the ancient woman.

“Lady Moncur, there is a new installment of Little Dorrit. It is the story that everyone is reading in London. Would you like me to bring my copies and read them to you?” Isabella tried to direct the dowager’s reading to a more fashionable level, but the old woman would have nothing of it. “I don’t like serials. At my age, I might be dead before Dickens ever finishes the story.” Isabella crinkled her nose. “Lady Moncur,” she disparaged, “you are healthy and strong. The only reason you are not up and walking around the castle is because your eyes are weak, not your body. Don’t talk of death like it could take you at any moment.”

The old woman held the blue lenses to her eyes. The huge eyelashes blinked away two globular tears. “Miss Davenforth. Death can come to claim us at any time. When My Lord Moncur died in the Americas, he was a young man. Living without him for all of these years has given me the daily reminder that I could be gone tomorrow, whether at fate’s hand or my own.” Isabella was shocked at her words. Dowager Moncur removed the blue lenses from her eyes and wiped them with a handkerchief. Isabella watched her compose herself, but when the old woman finally spoke, the grief and fear was still in her voice, “I’m sorry. It was a hard day today. We almost lost Little David.” She folded the handkerchief and finished, “We still might.”

This was one of those moments when Isabella knew that Mrs. Danvers would wish her to forget what she just heard, but it was such a strange response that she just had to ask of the Lady of what she spoke. “Who is Little David?” The old woman looked at Isabella, returning the blue spectacles to her eyes. The irises filled the lenses and she could tell that the old woman was trying to make a decision.

“You are a woman of discretion, my son tells me.” Isabella cringed at the word. The dark secret that enticed the current Lord Moncur to pay an ungodly sum every three months was sure to come out. Did she want to hear it? It couldn’t possibly be solely the ravings of a mad mother that made the pounds grow in Isabella’s pocketbook. It must be something far more dangerous than just an addled old woman. What had the Lord told her? She replied, “Lord Moncur says that I am a good listener.”

The old woman took the spectacles from her face and her eyes appeared tiny. “Would you like to know what happened in America today?” Isabella’s forehead became furrowed, but she answered, “Of course, my Lady.” The scent of crumpets came from the kitchen. It was a late tea this afternoon, but the dowager insisted on a longer nap than usual. Isabella’s stomach growled.

The Dowager Moncur eyed the door as if she were worried that Mrs. Danvers might catch her. “Tea is coming soon.” The bedroom remained quiet and uncomfortable as the two of them waited for the footsteps of the housekeeper. When the tray was finally brought in, Isabella tried to keep the guilt from her face. Fortunately, the servant was far too distracted by the maintenance of the estate to notice the quiet discomfort in the room. When she left, the old woman finally spoke.

“Today, in America, Artemus and Little David were cutting the ice.” The old woman groped blindly for the crumpets. Isabella’s growling stomach had calmed down at the sight of food, but immediately started churning for a different reason. She allowed the dowager to continue at her own pace, “Every year they go to the lake to cut blocks of ice. This was the first year Artemus allowed Little David to come. Usually he brings along the dark native, Flying Arrow, but this year, Little David joined them. They usually cut the ice from the lake, load it into a wagon and store it in the icehouse with layers of sawdust between each block. I’ve watched them do it every year for the last five years, but this year they brought Little David.”

The old woman paused and choked back a couple of tears. She wiped her hands and brought the yellow spectacles to her eyes, wrapping the ear pieces around the back of her ears. She sat, immobile, for a full minute before removing them and continuing, “At first, Artemus didn’t notice Little David go under. I saw it out of the corner of my eyes, but he was busy with Flying Arrow, lifting a large block. I couldn’t help it. I called out to him.”

A flash of remembrance hit Isabella. Earlier this morning, Dowager Moncur HAD screamed during her nap. Isabella had rushed to her room, but by the time she opened the door to the chamber, the old woman was back in her trance. Lying on the bed with her yellow spectacles on her face, the dowager seemed quiet, so Isabella left her to rest. The nap had been unusually long today. Was the old woman merely telling her of the nightmare?

“I know I shouldn’t have called out, but it made Artemus look for Little David and rush to where he had last seen the boy. He and Flying Arrow were able to fish him out of the water before he was pulled under the ice, but the child has a chill and he might not make it through the night. He’s sleeping now, but the apothecary is worried that he might loose his toes and fingers.” The old woman weeped openly now and Isabella rose and comforted her. “That boy is all Artemus has of his departed wife. I can’t bear to watch him lose them both.”

After a few moments, the dowager was calmer. “It has been a hard day in America today. I think I will turn in early.” Isabella took the tea service from the old woman’s room and called for her maid to ready her for bed. Surely the Dowager Moncur was mad. It seemed a harmless madness to the young companion, but violent insanity can grown in the dark corners of the disturbed. Was it worth four hundred pounds a year to live, isolated, in a castle on the moors of Scotland with no more than a few doors between her and an insane dowager? Isabella shivered to think of it.