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By Laura Moncur in Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer

Frank McDonough Jr.’s Personal Journal dated May 24, 1869:

Fig Andrews by LauraMoncur from FlickrTry as I might to suppress it, the anger within me has welled up and is threatening to spill over the brim of my very being. This week, we received a visit from Fig Andrews, head surveyor for the Missouri Bridge. Just the sight of him made me clench my fists in rage. His braggart ways make me wish that I were a different man. One who could cause his head fall in shame and envy.

His visit started innocuous enough. He was checking on our progress, comparing it with the work of previous surveyors of the area. Thanks to my new odometer, I’ve covered many miles of desolate and rocky land with a speed that is hard to believe, though I took the step of every inch of it myself. As I expected, Fig Andrews mocked my work and even conjectured that I had fabricated my numbers and measures. Fortunately, hard work needs no explanation and supports itself without witness. My measures were vindicated on their own merit.

After all that scrutiny, however, Fig let the true reason for his visit be revealed. He wished to revel in the conquest of the Missouri River. His team had been working day and night to get their measures completed so that the bridge over the river would be constructed before we could finish our Denver Line. With his surveying done, the construction could start now and be finished by early 1872. Several months before we could complete our line at our current rate of surveying.

For months, I have worked under the hope that the bridge over the Missouri River would be delayed. I dreamt that their teams would dawdle at their duties. Only now have my hopes been dashed against the rocks of the Colorado landscape. Unless we complete the surveying work within a couple of weeks, there is no way we can beat the northern line team to complete the TRUE transcontinental railway.

By Laura Moncur in Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer

Frank McDonough Jr.’s Personal Journal dated May 17, 1869:

Colorado Stereograph by LauraMoncur from FlickrI have been issued a new odometer for my surveying duties. It is always a joy when I receive new equipment and I felt such an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my position on the Kansas Pacific Line. This odometer looks as fresh and shiny as a locomotive starting its journey across the plains. My sentimental nature lead me to believe that I would come to love this new gadget as much as my other equipment, but it has been a difficult week.

Unlike my perambulator, this odometer is supposed to measure the miles I survey by a measurement of my steps. I was supposed to calibrate it with my perambulator so it would work specifically for my gait, but the odometer seems to have a will of its own, giving me wildly different readings. I understand that the surveyor’s wheel can be inaccurate, but I walked measures of land of which I knew the distance, yet the odometer would obstinately read incorrectly.

It wasn’t until I distanced myself from the perambulator that the readings of the odometer became anywhere near to correct. It’s almost as if the odometer was jealous of my old and beloved tool. The machinist for the railway supposed that I was walking awkwardly with the perambulator and that once I stopped using it, the odometer could do its work as it was supposed to.

Once it had been calibrated, my work became far easier than I had ever imagined it could. I traversed far more miles than my best day surveying the most serene and flat grasslands. The rocks and the hills did not deter me as they would have with my perambulator. I have been able to survey more in the last few days than I would have been able to do in a week, and based on the charts, my accuracy is spot on.

By Laura Moncur in Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer

Frank McDonough Jr.’s Personal Journal dated May 10, 1869:

Golden Spike Ceremony by LauraMoncur from FlickrToday they drove the Golden Spike in the wilds of Utah. Despite their claims of the completion of the first transcontinental railway, Union Pacific passengers are required to dock a boat to cross the Missouri River. I find it maddening that the papers shout the praises of transcontinental travel and refuse to acknowledge this gap. It makes the work I do every day feel like a defeat.

In a country as fresh and young as these United States, it is hard for me to accept that we will not be the first. Once the rails are lain on the ground that I survey, the Kansas Pacific Railway will complete the only TRUE transcontinental railway these states have. I realize that we are all one company and any pride I should feel should be just as strong for the northern line as for the Kansas line, but I did not work on the northern line. The ceremony should have been delayed until our line was completed or until they built their bridge over the Missouri.

By Laura Moncur in Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer

Denver Art Museum by LauraMoncur from FlickrIn the Denver Art Museum, on the Historic Western American Art floor, there is a hands-on display where you can play with actual antiques, maps and books. There is a comfy leather couch and a few desks. You can even play with authentic stereoscopes and view original Ansel Adams stereograms. It’s an area of the art museum meant for children, but most of the time, it is empty and quiet. Even though the relics are lying out in the open, you wonder, “Can I touch this? Am I allowed to play with that?”

Tucked into a glass cabinet in the corner of this area of the museum is Frank McDonough Jr.’s Odometer.

Frank McDonough Jr.'s Odometer by LauraMoncur from Flickr

Frank McDonough Jr. was no famous man. He didn’t accompany Lewis and Clark on their surveying expedition of the Louisiana Purchase. He wasn’t present when Jim Bridger yelled into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the evening and woke up to the sound of his own voice in the morning. He didn’t document the homesteads of the land rush in Oklahoma. Instead, Frank McDonough Jr. was one of hundreds of surveyors for the Kansas Pacific Railway, unknown to the history books. Unknown, even, to his current descendants.

He worked for the railway for merely three short years, but his story is one of mystery and imagination. If the Denver Art Museum knew of the strange and elusive power of Frank McDonough Jr.’s Odometer, it wouldn’t be tucked away behind a glass case in a neglected section of the museum. It would be locked and bound in a strong box where no one could see or touch it for fear of its wrath.

The recent discovery of Frank McDonough Jr.’s personal journal has revealed the true nature of his surveyor tools. Over the next six weeks, the amazing story of his fearful odometer will be revealed for your reading enjoyment.

By Laura Moncur in The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles

Antiques in Pendleton, Oregon by LauraMoncur from FlickrThe story of the Dowager Moncur and her spectacles was born in the town of Pendleton, Oregon. Last August, on our drive home from Mount Hood, Mike and I dawdled. Between Mount Hood and Baker City, we took a walking tour of Pendleton. We were too late for a cookie at The Cookie Tree, but we were able to visit all the antique shops. Right before we headed to our hotel in Baker City, we walked past a store promising homemade fudge. Mike and I looked at each other and entered the store without a word.

Instead of chocolatey goodness, we found the store that time forgot.

The inventory of the store looked as if it had been purchased in 1986. The lip gloss, bumper stickers and plastic toys were all from my teenage years. It was like walking into my past and I had been given a second chance to buy all the crap that I couldn’t buy when I was a kid. Even the fudge looked as if it were handmade in 1986 and I swear I saw a layer of dust on it.

I passed by the fudge and the English Beat bumper stickers, but I couldn’t say no to the granny glasses with multi-colored lenses: yellow, black, and blue. I bought them all without even knowing what they would cost me. The entire rack of sunglasses was unmarked, but I snatched them up, intent on buying them irregardless of the price.

“What are you going to do with that many sunglasses?” Mike asked me. I had no idea. All I knew is that I hadn’t seen sunglasses like this since 1986 and this time I wasn’t going to let them get away. They sat in a pink bag on the floor of the Sunridge Inn and I contemplated them. “Maybe I’ll use them for my Halloween costume. Maybe they’re magic sunglasses.”

That night, I sat down at the tiny table in that Best Western hotel in Baker City, Oregon and wrote the first three entries of The Dowager Moncur’s Spectacles.

What Is Truth?

Moncur Castle DOES exist. It sits in ruin and disrepair in Inchture, Scotland to this day. You can’t see it from the road, but a walk through a cow pasture will lead you to the stones that outline what is left of the once great Moncur Castle. I’ve never been there, but Michael’s parents, Gary and Susan, visited Scotland and walked within its walls (with permission of the current owners, of course). The photograph in the story is an edited version of one that Gary took during their visit. You can see the original here: Moncur Castle by GLM303 on Flickr

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from FlickrBerenice is a little known story by Edgar Allan Poe. The hero of the story, Egaeus, is an obsessive who falls in love with his cousin and her teeth. After her death, he becomes so obsessed with her teeth that he digs up her grave to retrieve them. The fact that he found her alive in her grave was not nearly as important to him as the retrieval of the “thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances” that he pulled from her mouth. I added Isabella’s reading of this story for several reasons. I wanted to let the audience know that the dowager had access to American Literature that she shouldn’t have known about and I also wanted to allude to being buried alive since it was one of the dowager’s options with the black-lensed glasses. Plus, it’s kind of creepy to have an old lady ask Isabella to read a Poe story within minutes of meeting her. You can read Berenice here: Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe – The Literature Page

American Notes is an account of Charles Dickens’ visit to the United States. Laura Bridgman is a real woman who was blind and deaf and learned to communicate. Dickens’ account of her is what gave Helen Keller’s family hope for their little girl. I had Isabella read this to the dowager to allude to the fact that the dowager is planning a visit to the states, one way or another. You can read American Notes here: American Notes by Charles Dickens

What Is Fiction?

I have no idea if there was ever a Lord Moncur or if he was gay. I fashioned that character on the brilliant Oscar Wilde, except Lord Moncur was strong enough not to allow himself to be lured into a marriage of convenience.

Additionally, Dowager Moncur and her inventive Lord Moncur are also entirely fictitious. I wanted to create a couple with a love for each other that matched their love for invention. The Dowager loved her Lord Moncur so much that she never remarried. No man ever lived up to the greatness of her husband. She also loved his devotion to invention and by taking care of the estate in his absence, she gave him the opportunity to be a better inventor than he could have been had she not loved his passion as much as he did.

Jane Fairfax by LauraMoncur from FlickrIsabella Davenforth was based on Jane Austen’s character, Jane Fairfax from the novel Emma. Had Miss Fairfax never met Frank Churchill, she would have been relegated to the life of governess. I wanted to give that character the life of adventure that Jane Austen denied her. You can read Emma here: Emma by Jane Austen – The Literature Page

I love all these characters so much that I’m tempted to write a sequel with Lady Dowager’s adventures in America. We’ll have to see if I am able to wring another story out of them or not.

By Laura Moncur in The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles

What the Dowager Moncur Told Isabella: In which the Dowager Moncur finally reveals to our brave heroine about her curious spectacles.

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from FlickrIsabella spent over a year collecting one hundred pound notes from Lord Moncur and reading tales of unexpected horror to the dowager before she was finally brave enough to ask the old woman about her curious eye wear. The old woman pulled the blue lenses from her eyes, revealing their true size and form. They appeared freakishly small compared to the now familiar visage of her magnified eyes.

“My dear Isabella,” the Lady Dowager spoke tenderly, “You have entertained me with stories of horror and suspense. Tonight, it is my turn to entertain you.” The old woman motioned for Isabella to close the door of her room and sat upright on her regal bed.

“MY Lord Moncur was very different from the current Lord Moncur. I love my son and I am proud of his accomplishments. I am even at rest with his lack of interest in producing an heir and his reasons for it. His father, however, was a VERY different man. He was a true gentleman and an ingenious inventor of the kind that Scotland has never known. Money was never an issue, but my Lord Moncur could never rest when he knew that one of his inventions could help people.”

“Unfortunately, the British Empire is not so quick to recognize the genius of Scotland. For years his patents languished in the patent offices. The Americas, however, were excited to hear of my Lord’s inventions. His patents in the United States were eagerly approved. His work took him across the ocean many times during our marriage and I was left here at Moncur Castle. His first voyage came during my confinement. The second voyage came when I was with child a second time. It always seemed that business in the Americas pulled him away when I was in the least position to join him.”

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from Flickr“Finally, my eyesight became so poor that I knew that I would never be able to accompany him on his journeys. That is when my beloved Lord Moncur made me his greatest invention, my spectacles.” She held the three sets of spectacles up to Isabella gingerly. Dropping the other two and leaving them dangling by their chains, she held the blue lenses up to her eyes. “These spectacles adjust my eyesight. Better than any that an apothecary could create for me, they make my blindness almost bearable. Instead of masses of colors and indistinguishable movement, I am nearly able to make out the world around me. Without them, I would be devastated.”

She lifted the yellow lensed spectacles up and opened their ear pieces. “These however, have given me vision far greater than I ever would have imagined possible. My Lord Moncur created two versions of these spectacles: one for me and one for himself. When both pairs are worn, I can see and hear everything that happens to the wearer of the other lenses. My husband took his pair with him to America on his final visit and wore them during his entire waking hours so that I could share in his escapades. Not only could I see what my husband saw, I saw clearly for the first time in my life. I had no vision impairment whatsoever.”

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from FlickrThe dowager paused to peruse Isabella’s face for understanding. She waited for her young companion to respond and Isabella scoured her mind for what to say. “When you wear your yellow spectacles, you can see what another person sees?” The old lady smiled and nodded. “Not only see, my dear. I can hear them as well, but only if that other person is wearing my husband’s spectacles. I used to wake up long before the dawn to see what my beloved was doing in America. And then,” the woman hesitated and drew in a deep breath. “Then, one day, the spectacles were dark. I put them on and nothing showed on the other side. It was then that I knew My Lord Moncur was dead. He would have never forgotten to include me in his adventures.”

The dowager’s unseeing eyes were small without their blue lenses and they stared into the vast expanse of her memory. “I received the notice several months later. My husband had been killed by a mishap with one of his inventions. A random cog escaped from his machine at such a velocity that it killed him instantly, but I already knew that he must have died suddenly. Otherwise, he would have worn the spectacles on his death bed so that I could have rushed to come to his side immediately.”

Isabella was amused that she had acquired the ability to believe as many impossible things as the dowager was willing to say. Not only did she believe that the yellow-lensed spectacles could allow the woman to see all the way across the world, she also believed that the dowager could travel that distance instantly if she needed. Once one impossible thing becomes true, all impossible things are possible.

“For years, the spectacles were dark. Then they were sold to a woman. I was so grateful to see something on the other end of my spectacles, that I spoke to her through them, just as I had done with my departed husband. Unfortunately, she thought that the spectacles were possessed by a demon and nearly destroyed them in fear.”

“Eleven years ago, Artemus Brown bought my husband’s spectacles from a traveling salesman. This time, I found myself on the American Prairie. Artemus was a young man, married and starting a new life in the West. This time, I have been careful to keep silent every time I observe his life through the lenses. I don’t believe he knows I exist.”

A flash of realization hit Isabella and she couldn’t contain herself. “The ice! When Little David and Artemus were cutting the ice, you called out to Artemus! You told me that you shouldn’t have, but you couldn’t help it because the boy had slipped below the ice.” The old lady nodded. “I was lucky. He thought he had heard the voice of a woman watching somewhere, even though there was no one around.”

Isabella reached out. “May I try?” The dowager lifted the yellow glasses to her eyes. “You won’t see anything because it is night time in America right now.” She took the spectacles off her face and handed them to Isabella. The young companion had to stand close to the dowager to put them on because the chain was still securely pinned to the old woman’s mourning dress. Looking through them was like looking at a mirror. She couldn’t see anything save the reflection of her eyes in the glass.

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from FlickrIsabella asked, “The blue lenses correct your eyesight. The yellow lenses let you see America. What do the black-lensed spectacles do?” The old woman held up the old glasses while Isabella sat down again. “I have never worn these lenses.” The dowager held her blue lenses to her face to look at the black spectacles. “My husband said that if our separation ever became too much for me that I should put these on and I would be transported to him.” She turned the glasses in her hands.

Isabella had finally reached her extent of ability to believe in the spectacular. “Lady Moncur, it is impossible for a pair of spectacles to take you to America. I’m sure Lord Moncur was only trying to give you hope when there was none.” The old woman looked at her with a secure smile.

“Miss Davenforth, I have seen my husband create marvels beyond your comprehension. I have no doubt that these spectacles would transport me if I were to place them on my face. The only question is WHERE they would take me.” She sighed deeply. “My beloved has been buried in a churchyard in a small town called Cambridge in America for these last twenty-five years. He told me that if the distance was ever too much to bear that I should put on the black spectacles and I would be instantly transported to him. Not a day goes by when I don’t contemplate joining him.”

The full realization of Lady Moncur’s horror came to her, “But you would be buried alive! As horrific as it was for Berenice, you would choose that fate for yourself?!” The old woman mumbled in Latin, “Dicebant mihi sodales, si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.” Isabella quickly translated the line from Edgar Allan Poe’s book, “My companion said I might find some alleviation of my misery in visiting the grave of my beloved.”

Isabella stood up and backed toward the door of the dowager’s room. Lady Moncur was mad, it was true. Isabella had never considered her a threat to others or herself before, but now the old woman was most certainly contemplating suicide, as unlikely as the method of it may seem. “Sit down, Miss Davenforth. I cannot abide by such theatrics. I haven’t finished my story. There is one other possibility that I have imagined over the years.” Isabella stopped inching toward the door and listened.

“It may be that the black-lensed spectacles will merely take me to wherever the yellow-lensed spectacles are. In which case, I’ll find myself on the prairie with a wild native and an widowed cowboy.” The supposition that it was impossible for a pair of spectacles to transport a human being was banished from Isabella’s thoughts. Dowager Moncur had filled her mind with so many tales of horror, science and the spectacular that the idea of being moved across the ocean to the Colonies was actually sounding feasible.

“One fate, I should plan for when age and debility has brought me to the point of death, the other should be taken as soon as possible. I have been faced with these two choices for this quarter of a century and I have been paralyzed by fear.” Isabella drew in a deep breath. She thought of the four hundred pounds that she had saved over the last year. If she could last three more weeks, it would be another hundred. Was the offer of independent means worth living in this madness? It was no wonder that the current Lord Moncur had been so willing to pay for her steady and discrete services.


Afterword

The Dowager Moncur was declared dead several months after her declaration to Isabella Davenforth. It is supposed that the old woman in her advancing senility wandered out of Moncur Castle and must have been kidnapped by gypsies or ravaged by wild animals. Several pieces of Lady Moncur’s jewelry were missing and the household fund had been taken from the castle that same evening. After searching the quarters of all the servants, nothing was found, but the crime was blamed on a stable boy, who was whipped soundly that day.

The most notable things left in the dowager’s bedroom when she wandered off were a cache of blueprints and notes from the previous Lord Moncur’s study. They had been found earlier in the week and the dowager had poured over them with her companion in the days that lead to her disappearance.

Miss Isabella Davenforth, now a woman of independent means, was never willing to comment on her time at Moncur Castle. She returned to the polite society of London, but could never be convinced to gossip about the Dowager Moncur or the current Lord Moncur, no matter how much enticement she was given. Within six months of the declaration of the dowager’s death, Miss Davenforth booked passage on the RMS Europa Blue Riband to the Americas. It was rumored that Lord Moncur paid her fare on the ship in order to remove her as a risk to his reputation, but the tongues of his servants were still and could not be made to speak, no matter how many coins were placed in their hands.

By Laura Moncur in The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles

American Notes: In which Isabella Davenforth brings forth two volumes of stories to the Dowager Moncur.

Dowager Moncur's Spectacles by LauraMoncur from Flickr“Would you like to hear about what happened in America today?” After many months, winter melted into spring and spring warmed to summer. Isabella Davenforth and the Dowager Moncur had fallen into a routine of simplicity with a tinge of madness. Each morning, the old woman would nap in her room. After a late tea time, Isabella would read tales of adventure and science to the old woman. Afterward, Lady Moncur would ask the same question and Isabella would always answer, “Of course, my Lady.”

Today, however, Isabella had a surprise for her companion. After listening to the ongoing story of Artemus, Little David and Flying Arrow, she produced two volumes that she had ordered from London. “I have brought you two books that I believe you will enjoy very much. They are written by Charles Dickens.”

The old woman shook her head. “I don’t like serials, I told you. I prefer to wait until they are finished to start reading them.” Isabella smiled to herself. “Then you will be happy to know that this story is complete. It is called ‘American Notes’ and it is about his travels to America. I thought you would like to hear it.” The old woman looked at Isabella through the blue lenses of her spectacles. Her eyes blinked in a huge movement and Isabella was reminded of a butterfly, fluttering its wings. “It isn’t a serial?” Isabella smiled and replied, “I has been in print for over ten years.” The old woman repositioned herself on the bed and motioned for Isabella to read.

American Notes entertained them for many evenings. Many times the dowager would nod in agreement with Dickens’ words, mumbling, “Yes, it is just like that.” When Isabella came to Chapter III, however, both of them were surprised to read his account of a young girl named Laura Bridgman. She was a deaf and blind girl, who was able to conquer both handicaps to communicate with her family. When Isabella finished reading her story, she spoke to the dowager. “Lady Moncur, you love America so much, you should travel there. If a girl who is both deaf and blind can grow and achieve so much, then a woman of middling age such as yourself should be able to thrive as well, despite blindness.”

The old woman held up the blue lenses to her eyes and smiled. “I’ve contemplated the journey endlessly. My Lord Moncur traveled to the Americas many times, but I was never able to accompany him. There are dangers in that land that can snap up a soul within a moment, though. I am tempted to leave here for the Americas almost every day, but it is fear that keeps me a prisoner in this castle.”

Isabella raised the book to continue reading, but noticed that the next passage was Dickens’ visit to the State Hospital for the insane. There were dangers for the Dowager Moncur in the Americas, indeed. Here in the homeland, a mad woman of consequence was merely considered a burden to be managed discretely. In the Americas, they were locking them up in hospitals. No, a visit to the Americas was not something she was ever going to recommend to the Lady Dowager ever again.

Several evenings later, Isabella read the account of Dickens’ visit to the prairie. This seemed to be immensely interesting to the dowager. At one passage, she became increasingly agitated. Isabella read,

“Looking towards the setting sun, there lay, stretched out before my view, a vast expanse of level ground; unbroken, save by one thin line of trees, which scarcely amounted to a scratch upon the great blank; until it met the glowing sky, wherein it seemed to dip: mingling with its rich colours, and mellowing in its distant blue. There it lay, a tranquil sea or lake without water, if such a simile be admissible, with the day going down upon it: a few birds wheeling here and there: and solitude and silence reigning paramount around. But the grass was not yet high; there were bare black patches on the ground; and the few wild flowers that the eye could see, were poor and scanty.”
“Great as the picture was, its very flatness and extent, which left nothing to the imagination, tamed it down and cramped its interest. I felt little of that sense of freedom and exhilaration which a Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs awaken. It was lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony. I felt that in traversing the Prairies, I could never abandon myself to the scene, forgetful of all else; as I should do instinctively, were the heather underneath my feet, or an iron-bound coast beyond; but should often glance towards the distant and frequently-receding line of the horizon, and wish it gained and passed. It is not a scene to be forgotten, but it is scarcely one, I think (at all events, as I saw it), to remember with much pleasure, or to covet the looking-on again, in after-life.”

The dowager was openly weeping and Isabella stopped reading. The old lady responded with invective anger, “Ungrateful and conceited man! How could he talk of the prairie that way?!” The Lady Dowager refused to allow Isabella read one more word. “How could he see what he has seen and not be filled with awe and inspiration?! I’ve never seen a sunset more beautiful than the ones on the prairie after a long day’s work.”

Isabella closed the second volume of American Notes and never opened its cover for the dowager again. It seemed to agitate her madness far more than ease it. In an attempt to appease the old woman, she asked, “Do you wish to tell me what happened in America today, my Lady?” Her companion wiped her eyes and replaced her blue lenses. “It is almost harvest time. Artemus has brought a new thresher from his journey back East and they are going to try it tomorrow, but Flying Arrow believes it will cause more work than save.”

Isabella breathed a sigh of relief at the dowager’s account of Artemus and Flying Arrow. She was uncomfortable to realize that the old woman’s insanity was getting worse as she more willingly shared her stories of these spectres. The stories were harmless enough, but the former reticence of talking about them was gone. It took more effort on Isabella’s part to hide the extent of her lady’s madness from Mrs. Danvers, and she feared what would become of the old woman if the full truth became known.

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.

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?”

By Laura Moncur in The Dowager Moncur's Spectacles

Beyond Gretna Green: In which Miss Isabella Davenforth travels to Moncur Castle and remembers the chiding of the current Lord Moncur about her situation.

Moncur Castle by Gary Moncur from FlickrFor a young lady of meager means to be invited to the Dowager Moncur’s castle is a great honor, indeed. Despite the treacherous passage beyond Gretna Green, the hope of which has bespoiled many a maiden, the journey to Perthshire’s once great pastures and rolling greens is long. Isabella Davenforth was grateful and terrified of the blessing bestowed her by the current Lord of Inchture’s finest jewel, Moncur Castle.

“My mother has gone a bit daft, I’m afraid.” Isabella remembered Lord Moncur’s clean and well-manicured hands flitting lightly around the dinner party. “What she needs is a daughter-in-law to take care of her. A man of my position is usually married by now, but I have been unable to find a woman interesting enough to hold my gaze or witty enough to hold her own against me.” His wandering eyes alighted upon the young butler in attendance. Isabella steadied her mind for the worst that London’s upper class could offer her for employment and tried to think of a proper response, “There is no shame in being a confirmed bachelor, Lord Moncur.”

The two of them exchanged a knowing look. An offer of marriage was out of the question in her mind. No matter how destitute her situation, she would never accept a confirmed bachelor as a husband. She would rather be the governess of a hundred overindulged children than be the Lady to a man of his ilk. She drew in a deep breath to reject him with dignity.

“You wouldn’t be a companion to her so much as a governess.” The word governess bounced in her mind a few times. She let out her breath. This wasn’t an offer of marriage. It was an offer of a household position. The pain of it smarted. Just seconds before, she had been steeling herself to reject him, but now, she ached with the dual blade of rejection. Isabella gleaned the hurt and pain from her voice. “I am not a nurse maid, Lord Moncur. I’ve been educated in the finest schools for women that London has to offer.” The gentleman hurriedly replied, “She doesn’t require…” Lord Moncur hesitated, lowered his voice, and continued, “…intimate care.” He waited to see if she understood.

“Quite frankly, she needs someone to hear her talk. You seem to be…” Lord Moncur once again looked at the young butler. His voice paused and he looked at her again, knowingly. “…a good listener, Miss Davenforth.” Isabella nodded and discreetly checked to see if prying ears were listening. Madame Hurst was across the room playing whist. Their conversation was unheard, but was not going unnoticed. “I believe a man in your position need employ only the deaf and blind if he desires full discretion.”

Lord Moncur laughed. “Oh you will be paid by me, but you will see me but once a year. The Dowager Moncur lives in Moncur Castle in Inchture, Scotland.” Isabella drew in a sharp breath. She would be separated from her beloved London and all reasonable society. She felt her head shake a slow no. “I’m sorry, Lord Moncur. I cannot leave London.”

The Lord leaned back, watching the young butler move about the room. “Three hundred,” he said without taking his eyes off the lean man’s body. Isabella placed her hands in her lap, lifted her fan and stood up. “Thank you for the offer, Lord Moncur, but I cannot leave London.” The Lord was so unaccustomed to rejection that he didn’t notice her turn to leave, but he merely repeated the words with a bit more clarity. “Three hundred pounds a year, Miss Davenforth.”

Isabella stopped with her back to Lord Moncur. She saw the young butler bend over to help Madame Hurst pick up her purposefully dropped cards. Isabella watched the two of them gathering them under the table and saw the butler’s eyes pause on Madame Hurst’s ample bosom. Oh, Lord Moncur would be so disappointed. Isabella turned around and responded to the offer, “No, Lord Moncur, you will pay me one hundred pounds every three months. I may leave your employ at any time I desire and you will compensate me for passage back to London.” Lord Moncur hadn’t taken his eyes off the young butler’s buttocks. “Welcome to the Moncur family, Miss Davenforth. I believe you will fit in beautifully.”

The words rang in Isabella Davenforth’s mind as the lavish carriage turned past the clearing. The sight of Moncur Castle filled her with dread. “I believe you will fit in beautifully,” Lord Moncur had said. The next day, one hundred pounds was delivered to her humble room at Madame Hurst’s home and she was given instructions for travel. Within a week, she was bumping along a Scottish road watching Moncur Castle grow in the distance.

She had fully expected Lord Moncur to reject her demand of one hundred pounds every three months, but he paid it without flinching. Any gentleman willing to employ a woman of good reputation and education for a quarter of that would be considered generous and overindulgent. What sort of horrors lie await for Isabella at Moncur Castle that would be deemed worth four hundred pounds a year in compensation? She shivered as the thick bricks of the building came into focus.