I found the book in the attic of an elderly relative, the summer I turned 14. It was bound in ancient, dark-red leather; and though the gold lettering stamped upon it had faded, I could still read the title: The Woeful Secrets of Brackenshire Castle. It thrilled my fanciful, romantic imagination, and I carried the book downstairs to a second-floor bedroom. There I sat beside a window and gently opened it. The title page told me that the book had been published in 1878. I had never heard of the author, Mrs. A. L. Smythe-Cartham.
The pages were yellow-brown, and brittle as dry leaves. They threatened to turn to dust under my fingers, but I handled them with great care as I turned to the Table of Contents. I skimmed the chapter titles—A Desperate Flight... A Fearful Refuge... The Passageway Behind the Mirror...The Vermillion Ghost—and so on, each more deliciously lurid than the one before it. With pounding heart, I turned to the beginning of the first chapter and began to read...
Torrents of rain and wind tore at Valencia as she ran madly through the ebony night. The fearful, demonic shrieks of the raging storm mingled with her raking sobs of despair. All nature had become her enemy! But flee she must! For the terror that pursued her was worse—far, far worse!—than the buffeting gales that threatened to overcome her and drive her to earth. And so she ran like a hunted creature, though her waves of chestnut hair fell loose about her lovely tear-streaked face. Her ruined crimson satin gown—so admired by the great throng of merry-makers only hours before!—had become a heavy encumbrance she must drag behind her. Yet still she ran through the night, through the tempest of thunder and lightning and hail...
I don’t know how long I sat beside the window, absorbed in the sensational tale of Valencia’s escape to Brackenshire Castle. But long before the secrets of that fearful refuge were revealed—and even before anyone came upstairs to find me—I turned a page and found... nothing. More than half of the pages at the end of the novel were gone, crumbled away. I went back to the attic, hoping that I might find a few pages that had separated from the book, but only a few illegible fragments remained.
Years passed. Eventually, I forgot the title of the book and the name of the author, but I remembered the look of the red leather binding. And that was how I recognized it, in a bargain box at a antique/junk store. I snatched up the long-lost treasure, and opened it carefully. This copy seemed to be missing even more pages than the one I had begun reading, but... oh, joy! Several pages remained at the very end. I sat down on the dusty floor, amid piles of National Geographic magazines and yellowed paperbacks, and read:
the fallen turret.
But Valencia’s beloved husband held her fast in his strong, manly arms, and she knew that his love would assuage even the memory of the many bizarre terrors through which she had passed.
And that was all. The last two pages were blank flyleaves.
But now I knew the title of the book, and the name of the author. I was almost certain I could find it at a library; but if not, I had the internet.
Unfortunately, neither the book nor the author’s name appeared in the catalog of any library system in the city. I strongly suspected that the works of Mrs. A. L. Smythe-Cartham had been purged to make room for more popular volumes... probably sometime around the 1950s.
So I tried eBay. And there, at last, I found it: one copy on the virtual auction block, in mint condition.
The bidding had started at $50.00, and had reached $75.00 by the time I jumped in. When I finally bowed out (at $250.00), there were 16 other bidders. Most of them, I guessed, had once been fanciful 14-year-old girls who had often visited elderly relatives.
These days, I live frugally and save every extra penny. I haunt eBay, and surf the web sites of every antiquarian book dealer that I can find. Because someday, another opportunity will come, and I’m going to be ready for it. Next time, it will finally be my turn to discover those delightfully woeful secrets of Brackenshire Castle...
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