BRUEGEL TAROT: II The High Priestess

The Old Library

Joan paced the Old Library, checking everything was in place. This branch housed only the history and genealogy resources of the Main Library two streets away. The building was a Post-Medieval English New England house with a plaque claiming it as the town’s oldest structure. It was at least three hundred years old, and though a private residence for generations, the last descendants had willed it to the town upon their death. 

Joan often pondered about the downfall of the old families as she sat at the circulation desk, sometimes playing solitaire on the computer. Never the busiest of branches, most patrons, except for the members of the local historical society, only stopped to gape at the ancient building.

Evening was falling upon the shelves on her first time closing up since Joan’s recent transfer to this branch. Betty, her boss, went home early with an upset stomach.

The library boasted one central chimney flanked by two rooms, known as the hall and the parlor. Upstairs, in the garret, one of two tiny bedrooms functioned as a study room available to patrons, the other was the staff break room.

A long lane wound around the building and dead-ended at the town’s majestic Georgian style Wells House, now a museum. It and the Old Library had belonged to the Wells, the oldest and wealthiest family in town. They built the mansion as their wealth grew and vacated the much older family home, using it first, as a groundskeeper cottage, then left abandoned with their demise. The Wells died out decades ago, their fortune depleted. 

Joan peeked through the small, diamond-paned casement window. Flurries fluttered about the dusky night. She glanced at her watch, still an hour to go before closing time. She meandered to the old stone fireplace and sat down on one of the cozy high-backed chairs facing it. Poking the dying fire, the embers sparkled and twirled upon the now coal-black log. Joan wondered whether to rekindle it, but, even in its last flickers, the fire emitted enough cozy heat. Dim sconces lit up the rooms, and far from eerie, they produced a special welcoming warmth. 

Above the fireplace hung the portrait of a lady dressed in 18th century garb with her hair teased and curled into the pompadour style the ladies favored then. She wore a red dress with frilled cuffs, low neckline and tight corset. Joan thought her a plain woman of a certain age, dressed in the wealthy finery of a young girl. The portrait needed restoration; the background had darkened to indiscernible murkiness and cracks showed on the woman’s serious face. Her marble chest, devoid of ornaments, the brightest spot on the portrait. 

Joan sat and gazed, and for the first time, noticed the woman’s desolate expression. A lump caught in Joan’s throat as she beheld the saddened eyes, sunken into the pallid face. Her thin lips pulled downward in utter misery. 

On Joan’s first day at the Old Library, Betty had explained the portrait’s history. Joan had only half-listened as she pondered the odd placement of the picture. Shouldn’t it hang in the Wells House Museum instead? The high, elaborate hairdo and elegant clothing contrasted with the low ceilings and barebones style of the Old Library. 

Blue shadows of twilight criss-crossed the walls. The fire sputtered, and the ensuing flicker illuminated the painted lips with a ghostly quiver. 

If only Joan could remember the story.

Was she courted by a prince? No, that was her ancestor. 

Joan’s memory clicked into place.

And the prince had gifted the ancestor a precious diamond necklace, which she’d passed down the line to this woman, who had…

Joan scrunched her face and considered phoning Betty, but thought better of it; she’d gone home green with nausea. 

Let’s see, as a young girl the lady in the portrait had…

Had an affair with a British soldier during the Revolution!

Yes, but first, the necklace had disappeared. Then, someone had betrayed the lovers as they tried to elope and accused the soldier of stealing the necklace. She defended him, but the community shamed and shunned her and… 

What happened? He died in battle?

No, he hanged for theft, though the necklace never appeared. And…
A pariah, she lived in squalor in this building for the rest of her life.

A draft of air blew and sparked the glowing embers of the fireplace. Smoke and ash scattered everywhere, and Joan coughed and wheezed until the ash settled on the wooden floor by the high-backed chair.

As the smoke cleared, Joan glimpsed ash seeping through the cracks, delineating one, and only one wooden plank. She kneeled down and, running her fingers over it, realized she could hook her pinky nail under it and pry it loose.

Cautious and praying no rodent bit her, Joan stuck her hand into the gaping rectangle in the floor. Her fingers clasped around cloth. She pulled out a bundle of worn fabric and unwrapped it.

Her hands shone with bejeweled diamonds woven into a gold chain. She held it to the light, marveling as the stones caught the beams and reflected them back into the dim library. 

“I believe that belongs to me,” the voice of a young woman whispered and Joan turned towards the sound.

The portrait gazed down at her. A painted arm moved and reached through the turbid varnish of the picture and out into the room, so close it almost touched Joan’s face.

The woman held her arm out, palm up, expecting Joan to place the necklace on it. Shuddering, Joan deposited the jewels in the outstretched fingers.

“Thank you,” the woman said, smiling.

Another gust howled through the library. Twinkling embers danced around the portrait of the smiling young girl in wealthy dress and pompadour hairstyle with a shining necklace draped around her neck. A handsome man in a tricorn hat beamed behind her. 


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