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‘The Library’, by Jeannie Armstrong

Short stories
Highclere Castle Library with stunning pillars

“Do come in. Won’t you take a chair?

The newcomer looked stunned, but soon collected himself.

Both men sat at opposite ends of the library. The visitor centrally on a chaise by the grand fireplace, the owner of the house with his back to the large bay windows, perching studiously in the Captain’s chair at the magnificent oak desk.

“Now let me get straight to it if I may?”

“Indeed sir, I’m all ears. Do enlighten me.”

The older man frowned, pausing as though attempting to locate the best place to begin his story. With a deep sigh he looked up at his companion, nodded firmly and resolutely began his tale.

“I had this library constructed in 1773. See the bevelled edged shelves inlaid with walnut and mahogany. Beautiful. The books took me a lifetime of gathering. Hundreds of leather-bound editions gifted to me by members of my family, ancestors first editions; gilt pages, hand coloured engraved plates illustrating unique and rare volumes. At the time the county set were purchasing book stacks by the yard. I found this a folly and had little time for that. This library, you understand was my stomping ground, my oasis of calm where reading books and my collections and researching my interests engaged large portions of my time.”

He began to pace up and down the library floor, gesticulating with his arms to emphasise his passion over his books. Occasionally he stopped, reached out and took one book or another, opening it, closing it once more and rubbing his hands over it lovingly before replacing it back in its place.

“Can I offer you refreshment of some kind? Whiskey perhaps?”

He didn’t wait for a reply. Pouring two healthy amounts from the crystal decanter on the armoire into two cut glass tumblers, he forgot to hand one to his guest and took a generous swig of his own before continuing.

“This desk here; I had it made. A chap along in the next village made it for me. I wanted it longer than the norm in order that I could stack books upon it as I worked. You see this ink stain here? That was done by my youngest son, James William the third. He had escaped his nanny and entered the library in search of his dog and, too young to know better, upturned the ink stand! All over paper, books, carpet- look see the faint stain on the floor boards? Died of consumption.”

“Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that, sir.”

“He was only four. Oh Lord, never has a fading ink stain been so loved. Ah well.”

A silence fell upon the room. After some moments passed the gentleman stood up and put his empty glass down hard onto the desk, looked very seriously at the other man and lowered his voice.

“You must be asking yourself why I’m still here? I’m rather pleased you can see me. And hear me. It’s usually only children that can. And with you being a priest. I am surprised.”

Both men chuckled, sharing the miserable truth of the jibe.

“I’m sure you’re thinking that this is all rather unholy, me being a ghost, hanging around after death.”

The priest didn’t attempt to reply, but instead continued to watch and listen to the gentleman’s story.

“Well yes, I suppose it is really, but with very good reason. Two reasons; let me explain?”

The priest nodded gently encouraging him to continue.

“It is beyond painful to conceive of leaving this, my beloved library. There. I’ve said it. I did leave once, of course, upon my death, of old age. Tucked up comfortably upon my bed, upstairs, surrounded by my nieces and old Benedict, my loyal and beloved retainer.”

“Why did you come back?” asked the priest, knowing he was nearing the reason for the man’s presence.

“My books, you see, my library, means so much to me. I failed to ponder it whilst I lived; that my library would go on without me in it. That foreign hands would pour over my books and that it would in time become a soul less museum. Which brings me to my second reason. You see, I left no heir, I’m afraid, and in time my family bequeathed this great house and park to the nation, you understand?

“ Mighty generous of your family. A national treasure in Trust, for all perpetuity.”

“No choice in the end. Had to. These places are money pits! And there’s the rub. For in time it’s all become rather a spectacle; themed weekends and suchlike- which is one thing, but so, now, very recently, with ‘Political Correctness’ being all the rage, have I. It is due to me remaining bachelor. The powers that be have bizarrely taken it upon themselves to begin to take liberties with my good name and character and have invented a whole range of intrigues and attributed debauchery and scandal to me without evidence or fact!”

Now the gentleman outstretched his arms and was pleading with the priest as he came to the heart of his sorry tale.

“They have my home, you see. My lands, my precious library and, not content with this, are now intent on peddling fanciful tales, playing fast and loose with my history and integrity. What is Truth? It appears to be anything one chooses it to be! It’s an outrage!”

The gentleman was by now pink with fury. The priest sank down into the back of the chaise, finally seeing what it was all about.

“I understand. I do. And you don’t feel you can let this go?”

“Not at all. I’d like to rest in peace, but I do feel unable to relinquish my reputation or my library; at least until they would choose to desist and cease.”

He stood close to the priest, towering over him, a desperate expression of embarrassed shame on his face.

“I hope you understand. Can anything be done?

Please, will you help me?”

The priest rose to his feet leaned forward towards the gentleman and nodded seriously.

“I will. Leave it with me. You can go now. Go to your eternal rest in Jesus Christ’s name”

A coolness filled the air as the priest looked around the room, sighed and nodded with satisfaction.

 

First thing in the morning he would set about taking on the national charity as he had promised to. But right now, he needed to get back to his church for the evening service. The priest walked through the great house and back past reception where two middle aged women were sitting.

“Did you enjoy your visit today, Father?” asked one.

“I did indeed.”

“Did you see our resident ghost, Father?”

asked the other.

“I did indeed.”

The two women looked momentarily shocked but the twinkle in the priest’s eyes made them unsure if he was serious or not. And that, thought the priest, as he walked out through the grand front doors, down the steps and off in the direction of the car park, is absolutely for the best.

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