She was still thinking about her bed the next day when she was once again toiling away at her desk in the library.  She was tired, hung over, though thankfully bearably so this time, and dispirited.  The weather had turned cold and rainy, and the air seemed to suck the warmth from her very bones if she stepped away from the fire for more than a few seconds.  The library was so gloomy, she’d had to switch the lights on, though it didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference.  All the lights seemed to do was chase the shadows into the corners, where they joined their fellows already lurking there and became thicker and darker.  Unfortunately, she was working in one such corner, as she was working her way backwards into the library’s depths and shadowy recesses, forcing them to give up their secrets.  Not that any of the secrets seemed worth the effort of discovering, though.  There were one or two very old books, or very rare books, but none seemed to possess both qualities.  She began to wish for something, anything, unusual to turn up – if only to take her to report it to Lord Harrington-Harrington and break up the stultifying routine of her task.  She knew he’d been at home for the last few days, as she’d glimpsed him in the distance occasionally, walking around, seemingly investigating this or that, or hurrying to distant parts of the house or grounds.  Never close enough to necessitate speaking to him, for which she was grateful.  He was cold, abrupt and seemed to be a terrible snob – just generally someone she’d happily avoid.  Most of the staff seemed to share this view, as they seemed to want to keep out of his way as much as she did.  Indeed, she’d seen, on a couple of occasions from the elevated vantage point of the library window, a couple of people check their course and veer off in another direction when they’d seen him coming.  She’d seen him in the stables a couple of times, too, talking to Rick.  She didn’t know what it was about, perhaps asking or, more  probably, ordering for his horse to be saddled – or whatever it was that lords spoke to their grooms about.  But Rick never looked very happy about it, whatever it was.  He always had a look about him of someone desperate to escape, but with nowhere to escape to.  More closed and withdrawn than she’d seen him at any other time.

She’d actually seen Rick a few times since they’d gone for that ride.  He seemed to have warmed to her considerably, and would now actually talk to her, rather than communicate in monosyllables and grunts like some overgrown adolescent.  They seemed (to Jen, at least) to be getting on fairly well; they even had another ride arranged for the end of next week.  She reflected that she must have been doing something right.  But probably not as far as Lord Harrington-Harrington was concerned, though they’d not actually spoken since the embarrassing incident with the singing and dancing, for which she was grateful.  However, she can’t have been doing anything wrong, either.  Despite his not having made any more unexpected visits to the library, she knew that someone – and Lord Harrington-Harrington was the most likely candidate since it was, after all, his library – had been periodically looking through the catalogue files on the computer.  She didn’t really mind that.  It was, after all, his house, his library, and work at his behest, and he had a perfect right to review the data she’d accumulated at any time the mood took him to do so.  It would just have been more polite and – dammit! – far less insulting if he’d just asked for the information, or a progress report, rather than waiting until she’d sloped off to bed in exhaustion with her eyes crossing before creeping in the middle of the night and rummaging furtively through the catalogue files she’d created.  She knew when he’d been at it, because she’d set up the computer to tell her so the first time she suspected that someone had been rummaging around in the hard disk.  This was right after he’d caught her singing and dancing.  Perhaps he was checking up to see that she was doing the work that she was here to do – rather than just loafing around at his expense.  The cheek of it!  Or perhaps he was looking for something specific that he thought might be in the library, but didn’t have the time or couldn’t be bothered to look for himself.  Perhaps he thought he’d wait for her to find it for him.  Whatever the reason, Jen was satisfied that she was doing a very good and remarkably speedy job, given the resources – i.e. one person and a creaky old computer – that were available.

 

Lost in these thoughts, she was returning a pile of books to one of the more shadowy corners when she tripped on a trailing shoelace and went flying headlong to the floor, banging her elbow hard on the corner of some ornately carved shelving and spilling books everywhere as she went down.  She cursed and exclaimed in pain as she hit the floor, then stared in consternation at the spilled books.  However, as she rubbed at the pain in her elbow and knees, still muttering curses, she saw that fortunately, they were all fairly robustly bound and in any case seemed to have landed flat, for the most part.  Having ascertained that there was no blood anywhere, though she’d probably have some spectacular bruises, she shuffled forwards and, crouching, began to gather up the books and inspect them for damage.  As she did so, her attention was caught by an even deeper shadow at the corner of her eye.  One of the large wooden panels had swung open slightly.  Jen immediately forgot about the spilled books and moved with eager haste towards the panel.  She touched it very gently, and it swung inwards without a sound, revealing a black space behind it.

Jen had been an avid reader of adventure stories as a child, a guilty pleasure she still indulged in from time to time, and still harboured a childlike delight at the thought of finding a secret panel in a big old house, leading to hidden rooms and tunnels, and mysteries to be solved.  And here was one!  Discovered, as all secret rooms worth their salt should be, completely by accident.  Her heart began beating faster as she peered fruitlessly into the dark behind the panel.  A starburst of things the room might possibly contain burst behind her eyes; the tiny part of her that was being a grownup and saying how unlikely the room was to be filled with smuggled gold ingots or sparkling jewels was instantly drowned in a rush of imagination.  She was nine years old again.  With a squeak of barely suppressed excitement, she scrambled to her feet and raced across the library to retrieve Dave’s torch, which she’d neglected to return, from her room, so she could explore behind the panel, almost going headlong again via the still-trailing shoelace.  Once she’d retrieved the torch, she stopped to tie the lace, suddenly realising that no amount of dashing about would help her explore the room any quicker if she fell and banged her head or broke a limb.  Safety having been looked to, she pelted back to the library, burst through the door, and skidded to a halt in shock.  For there was Lord Harrington-Harrington, standing in the middle of the room.  Where the hell had he come from?  And why now?  She couldn’t help the plaintive thought.  Just as she was about to have a very small, cherished childhood dream fulfilled, there he was.  Lord Killjoy.  Jen deflated instantly as she realised that Lord Harrington-Harrington probably knew all about the room already.

“Miss Alexander.  How nice to see you again.”

Jen attempted to regain her composure in the face of the cold, dark gaze.  “Lord Harrington-Harrington, this is a surprise. …uh… What can I do for you?”

“I came to see how your work was progressing.”

“Oh, um… Very well, actually.  I’m getting through it faster than I thought I would to begin with.”

“Excellent.  Do you then have expectation of completing the task soon?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest.  It all depends on what I find.  It will probably take me another few weeks to go through everything properly.  Then another few days collating the data to allow you to see what you have and where you can put your hands on it more easily.  I was planning some discreet labeling for the shelves, and one or two other things to make everything more accessible.”

“Very efficient, I’m sure.  Please tell me, though, why it is that you appear to be carrying a torch and are somewhat out of breath?  Surely the cataloguing of a library is neither strenuous nor crepuscular?”

“Er, well, no – not normally.  But I found something and,” her face flushed, “got rather excited by it.”

One of Lord Harrington-Harrington’s eyebrows rode in query.  “Do go on.”

Jen took a deep breath.  “You appear to have a secret room in your library.  I just found it by accident and it’s very dark in there, so I went to get a torch.”

“Really.  Well well well.  A secret room.  How very exciting” he drawled.  “Whatever will be next?  Foiling an international smuggling ring and lashings of ginger beer, without a doubt,” he continued, with heavy sarcasm.

Jen hadn’t thought it was possible to deflate any more.  Lord Harrington-Harrington proved her wrong.

“I suspect the concealed room in question may be a priest hole, or some forgotten storage room which my ancestors did not wish to sully their interior decoration with.  However, I shall investigate.”  He held out his hand for the torch.

Jen surrendered it in misery and dully pointed towards the back of the library.  “It’s over there,” she mumbled, “Behind that shelf.”

As Lord Harrington-Harrington moved towards the panel, snapped the torch on and leaned in to investigate, Jen slowly brought up the rear, her desire to see what was in the room not at all quelled by Lord Harrington-Harrington’s disparagement of her excitement.

As she reached the shelf she’d banged her elbow on, Lord Harrington-Harrington’s back was blocking her view into the room.  Looking at it, she noticed that it was oddly stiff.

“Can you see anything?” she asked.

He spun to face her, his body still blocking her view.  “Miss Alexander, I wish to examine this room in private, therefore, you may take the rest of the day off.”

“Oh, I see…”  She didn’t.  “I’ll just… I’ll just go then, shall I…?”

“Please do not let me detain you.” he replied, stiffly.

“Uh… Ok, then…” said Jen, backing away.  His eyes had suddenly gone from burning cold to burning heat, and it was worrying her more than a little.  She turned and virtually fled from the library and the intensity of his eyes.  Shutting the door behind her, she leaned against the wall for a moment, trying to get her composure and scattered thoughts in order.  As she stood there, trying to calm down and convince herself that his eyes really hadn’t looked all that intense and… strange… she distinctly heard the lock on the library door click.  Lord Harrington-Harrington had locked her out.

 

Having taken a moment to get herself together, Jen decided that what she really needed was some fresh air – however damp and nasty it might be outside.  Stopping off to collect a thick jumper from her room, she headed towards the kitchen and a small side room she’d seen with waxed jackets and wellies jumbled up together.  Since Mags was nowhere to be seen, she helped herself and headed outside.  She was very relieved to find that the lashing rain of earlier in the day had given way to a soft, foggy mizzle, which settled on her face and felt wonderfully refreshing.  She set off across the grounds in a random direction, marveling that she appeared to be wandering about inside a cloud.  The light was still gloomy and the air still and silent.  Things loomed out at her from the saturated air – eldritch, faintly threatening shapes that resolved into trees, bushes, walls, statues and, eventually, Dave.

“Hello,” he said in surprise.  “What are you doing out of the library?  In the middle of the day, too.”  He grinned.  “Are you playing hooky?  D’you wanna run off into the woods and scrump apples or look for conkers?”

Jen smiled.  “Nah – I was heading off for a smoke behind the sports pavilion.  Like, whatever.”

“Seriously, though – not at work?” he asked.

Jen sighed gloomily “Nah – Lord Harrington-Harrington threw me out for the day.”

Dave’s eyes widened “Seriously?”

Jen nodded.

“How come?”

Jen shrugged.  “Found a secret room.  He came in just as I was about to go in and have a look.  Said he wanted to have a look on his own and told me to get lost – threw me out into the cold and wet and locked the door behind me.”  She shivered, despite the thick jumper and pulled the jacket more closely about her.

“A secret room?  Really?”  Jen nodded.  “Hey, wow!  That’s brilliant!” said Dave, his eyes shining. “What was in it?”

“Dunno – it was too dark in there to see. “

“Weird that he sent you packing, though…”

“You’re telling me!” said Jen, crossly.  “After all, I found the bloody thing, and then not even a peek as a reward.  Selfish git.  There was probably some priceless family treasure in there or something,” she said sulkily, poking a stone on the ground with the toe of her welly.

Dave laughed.  “Maybe there were photos of him in compromising positions in there.”

Jen laughed in return.  “Yeah – or that’s where he keeps his collection of ball gowns.”

Dave suggested a cuppa, and Jen was enthusiastic in her agreement, especially when he hinted that he might also be able to locate a packet of biscuits. Speculating on what embarrassing secret of Lord Harrington-Harrington’s the room might contain, they turned and headed for the warm fug of one of Dave’s well-appointed little sheds, where there was a tiny pot bellied stove roaring away in the corner and a full kettle bubbling away merrily on top of it.

Tea made, biscuits hunted down, they were both seated comfortably on sacks of bone meal near the stove, still speculating on what the room may have been hiding.  Jen suspected family papers or some such, but Dave was still adamant that it had to be something either embarrassing or nefarious.  Or, possibly, both.  However, Jen was prepared to concede that the term “family papers” could easily fit into either category, depending on their contents.  Then Dave had a flash of inspiration.

“We could always ask the old girl what she knows.”

“Eh?” said Jen, nonplussed.  “What old girl?”

“Merry!  You remember – his lordship’s grandma – lives in the attic.”

“Oh yes – I do remember you telling me about her.  Do you think she would know anything?  I mean – he did seem pretty surprised about the room.  Wouldn’t she have told him about it, if she knew?”

Dave let out a short bark of laughter. “Not necessarily.  I get the impression that she’s none too fond of our noble lord and master.”

“It doesn’t sound like you are, either, Dave.”

Dave shrugged.  “Not particularly.  He’s a snob and a bully.  Always upsetting the maids.  I came across him talking to Lucy once – one of the part-time maids.  Couldn’t hear what he was saying to her, but she looked awful.  I hung around where he couldn’t see me, and then went to ask her what was up.  She collapsed in tears, and all I could do was give her a big hug and wait until she’d calmed down enough to make sense.  She wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, but she left not long after that.  Just disappeared one day.  Nice girl, wouldn’t have said boo to a goose.  Never heard from her again.”  he concluded, a bit sadly.  Jen suspected Dave might have been sweet on her, but said nothing, except, “I wonder what he did say to her, then…?”

“Dunno – must have been pretty nasty though, whatever it was.  She was a wreck afterwards.”

“Well, I have to say,” said Jen, “I’m not overly fond of him, either.  He’s always turning up in unexpected places, and he talks to you as if you’re beneath him, somehow.  And I think he’s been looking in my files when I’m not there – as if he’s checking up on me.  Not that I mind – but he could at least ask me, rather than go behind my back.  It’s not like I’ve got anything to hide…” she grumbled.

“Well, never mind all that, now,” said Dave briskly, rising to his feet.  “Let’s go and see the old girl – find out what she knows.”

Jen followed him back out into the mizzle.

 

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